When he was born, they named the boy Daniel. That was before the blight, the famine, the disease. That was before the time in which so many similar infants were put to death to avoid the horrors that their parents withstood: the horrors of a slower and more gruesome fate, each fiercer than the first. The man and wife fled, their precious child wrapped close, from the fading land, the sores open and bleeding, the farmhouses burning and the dying asleep among the dead.

The boy named Daniel suffered the worst of the ailment, despite his parents' efforts. By night they whispered prayers through clasped hands on the shores of their new homely refuge, quiet tears slipping down to meet the sand, hopes rising and falling again with each weakening breath.

But he lived.

In the village, they called the boy Taegan, and the miracle was welcomed in amongst the people. The name meant "strength," they said. The boy was only old enough to smile and lift up his arms to be held.

His father watched him running in the surf, seventeen years later. Memories of those aging days collided in his head, much like the waves that he now saw beating viciously upon the shoreline at his son's feet. And he wondered, yes, he wondered how differently his old life could have unfolded if providence hadn't taken such favor on his small family. If the clouds hadn't recoiled to beaming faces and saving grace, how much he would have lost, and how little would remain!

I am no more than undeserving, he thought. But how thankful he was.

"Are you alive up there?" the brown-haired youth taunted from the waters.

"Only aging years by the minute, watching you."

"Just checking."

The boy had developed a kind of sarcastic charm that the villagers couldn't help but love, coupled with an unfailing smile that made him seem more attractive than he really was. More than anything, it was his prevailing innocence that cast the brazen glow on his character. But to himself he was simply Taegan.

A soaking wet wolf-dog gamboled close behind him, every so often wrestled in jest and excited by mimicked growls. The dog, named Salt, was the boy's prized friend and competitor both at home and in ventures away; one could scarcely be seen without the other following loyally nearby. On the beach the sound of howling barks and laughter resounded together with that of dueling waters and wind.

The pair returned to the little stone house after sunset, sodden and shivering as usual.

"You'll never heed my advice, will you?" Taegan's mother sighed as she took a cloth to her son's hair. "'Come in before it gets too cold,' I say, and what do you do? And now you're going to go wash yourself off, waste time in the village, and miss dinner with your father and I."

"Of course. What did you expect?"

Giving up, his mother shook out the towel in a huff and slapped his arm with it. "Go on, get out of my house."

Taegan grinned dangerously and slipped back out the door.

On moonless nights the stars looked down enviously at the village by the sea, competing for brighter lights and warmer welcomes. There was little grandeur to speak of in that brief winding stretch of houses and shops and a single tavern, but being far from any large town or city it shone like a beacon on the sand-strewn peninsula.

It was every wanderer and miscreant's home, after the sun went down.

"Taegan!"

A little tan-skinned girl had spotted him just as he stepped into the dim light of the tavern windows, and she burst from the door to greet him, followed haltingly by her unwieldy but harmless brother.

Taegan waved. The girl, only half his height and age, nearly toppled him over as she jumped up and threw herself against him in a clumsy hug.

"We haven't seen you in almost a week!" she exclaimed through his laughs. "Where have you been?"

"Same old places as always," said Taegan, setting the girl down on the porch steps. "I've been fishing most nights, so there hasn't been much time to visit. How are things in your old pa's tavern?"

"So very good. A rich man came in yesterday and paid Pa handfuls of money just because he gave him directions or something. I don't know what it was for, but I sure am glad of it. It made Pa happy. He hasn't hit me, and he didn't argue with Ted this morning when-" She stopped. Her brother, sitting quietly a distance away, shook his head slightly to silence her, and the girl's face turned pink for a moment. "It's been better," she whispered.

Taegan ruffled her black hair with a half-smile. "I'm glad of it, too, Freya," he said softly.

He looked at the older boy, who was now staring awkwardly at the ground, and then looked back at Freya. "Why don't you go back inside, I'll meet you in there in a little while."

As the young girl scampered back through the door, Taegan observed his other friend's shameful face waiting in the shadows. "She says too much, sometimes," the boy murmured.

He was a couple of years older than Taegan and had known him longer than anyone else in the village, but still shied away often from curiosity or concern. Taegan knew, and didn't intrude.

"Who was the rich man she was talking about?" Taegan asked.

"I don't know. Someone from far-off, I reckoned. Nobody around here has money like that, right? At least not for tips."

Taegan nodded. The sound of the sea took over for a few seconds, then music and voices from inside the warmly-lit wooden building. "Taegan," said the boy's voice, nearly inaudible.

"What?"

"Be careful, will you."

A roar of mixed laughter rang out inside the tavern. "Why do you say that, Ted?" Taegan wondered nervously.

"Just be careful, that's all." For the first time that night, the boy's dark eyes met with Taegan's. Then, just as quickly, they dropped back down. "Something was odd about that man in our tavern yesterday. Something's going on. Might be something bad." He paused. "I didn't want to say anything about it to Freya-it would just get her scared. I don't really want to say anything about it to anyone."

"Why are you saying it to me?"

"You're the only person I trust, I guess."

"I-"

But Taegan didn't know what to say. Ted clenched his mouth shut and shook his head, then got up and went inside. Taegan waited a substantial while before following, and saw no sign of the older boy when he entered into the throng of half-drunken villagers. Freya emerged under the yellow lantern light, her face a light in itself.

"There you are! I don't have all night. Are you going to dance with me or not?"

Taegan's smile returned once again. The makeshift orchestra of a violin and flute had struck up a jovial tune, and people were dancing and clapping and breaking things all around. Freya twirled about happily, clinging to Taegan's hand as though it were a life-raft in a stormy ocean, and coaxing him to match her smile at least once a minute. On the last high note she collapsed against his side in an explosion of giggles at her own missteps.

"There, now, was that enough dancing for you?" Taegan asked.

"Never," Freya panted. "But I can't stay up any longer. We have to work early tomorrow, of course. You will come back tomorrow night, won't you?"

"Certainly. And maybe," he lowered his voice confidentially, "if I can convince your pa, I'll bring you and your brother fishing with me."

Freya squealed.

"Shh, no guarantees yet. But I'll try." Taegan winked. Freya tried to copy him, only to find it impossible for one eye to stay open. They both laughed.

"You'll get it eventually," said Taegan. "Say goodnight to your brother for me."

"I will. Goodnight, Taegan."

The boy relaxed into the crowd, voices thrumming in his ears like the ocean waves. Minutes passed without recollection. Taegan stood in a half-asleep mixture of contentment and concern, much as he liked to do, mulling over the day and night and his friends whom he tried so hard to help. Then he heard his dog barking outside, and it was time to go.

Overhead clouds began to cover the stars.

The walk home was always a long one, somehow seeming longer on the way back than on the way to the village. Taegan had never worried about the darkness, though. Even as a young boy he had Salt trotting along beside him, a protector in any danger. And danger was unfamiliar to those dunes and dusty paths. Boy and dog walked to and fro all over the peninsula, ranging through the village and dropping by every abandoned marina, sometimes lingering long hours to explore. That was every day. That was life.

Be careful, Ted had warned. But Taegan had never any need for caution. It was almost foreign to him.

"Time, as sand, drifts slowly and sweet, sinking and shifting through surf at our feet. No, no, that's atrocious. Help me out, Salty, you useless old thing."

The dog, obliviously waving its bushy gray tail, sauntered on ahead of its master. Taegan exhaled deeply and took another stab at his composition.

"My life is a moment and yours but a breath, how much is spent living, and how much in death? This is more a dirge than a song."

A piercing, wolfish cry rent the night air. Salt had stopped moving and was howling in alarm.

"Salt? Salty, come back here."

Taegan jogged haphazardly up the dune over which Salt had disappeared, his feet sending down sprays of white sand. At the top he looked down to see Salt growling at a man who was towing a rowboat toward the beach. The man looked old and honest, making no move to confront the dog. He glanced up anxiously at Taegan.

"Salt! Get back!" The boy half slid down the dune with angry shouts, and jerked his dog back by the ruff. Salt obeyed and stood behind him, but continued growling softly.

"I'm sorry," Taegan said to the old man. "He doesn't usually act like this."

"Where do you come off running about with a wolf, boy?"

"He's only part wolf. I've had him since I was his size."

"That's not so small." The man hesitated to make any movements, then shifted the weight of the oars that he carried.

"Do you need any help?" asked Taegan.

"Not from some loafer with a rabid wolf. I'm moving cargo, and it takes work, lad. I don't supposed you're accustomed to that around here."

"On the contrary." Taegan looked at the long wooden crate wedged in the rowboat, weighing it in his mind.

"I have plenty more where that came from. Now, if you'll excuse me."

The old man hefted the ropes toting the boat behind him, and started to trudge through the sand.

"I can move it all in half the time it will take you by yourself," Taegan said.

"What? Shove off, lad."

"I can."

The man eyed him. "How much do you want for it?"

"Nothing. I just offered to help."

"No getting rid of these bumbling vagrants, is there," the man muttered. "Fine. There are ten more crates in that old shack up there by the road. Go on, and be quick about it."

Salt let out a ferocious bark.

"And keep your mangy wolf away!"

Taegan tugged Salt alongside him and hurried up the hill towards the house.

The work and the night air felt good, though the crates were heavy and the walk was not a short one. Neither was the passage from the shore to the old man's anchored schooner at all easy. The man rowed the weighted-down boat to his swaying craft for the first few turns, then gave the oars to Taegan and told him to go back for the rest.

Beginning to sweat even in the cold wind, the boy did as he was told with a fondness for service and hopes that maybe the man would reward him if he was fast enough. When he reached the beach and loaded the last of the heavy crates into the rowboat, Salt followed him in and lay down on the bottom.

"Get out of there, Salt, you know that old man doesn't want you in his boat." Taegan tried to lift him up, but Salt only whimpered and dug his claws into the wood.

"You sure are acting odd. Well, you'd better hope it's dark enough to hide you."

As he pulled at the oars through the growing waves, Taegan thought of home and wondered if his mother would be so worried about him being gone most of the night. No, he thought, she would be asleep when he returned, and then a few hours later she would wake up, scold him, and feed him more breakfast than he needed. He smiled tiredly in the darkness as black waters sprayed the boat. His eyes shifted to the crates, holding the boat down almost to the point of filling it with water, and wondered what could be in them, and why the old man was dragging them all to his ship in the middle of the night.

Then he remembered. Be careful, Taegan.

He steadied the oars and stilled the boat, halfway between the schooner and the shore. Should he go back? Could that have been the rich man who had paid the tavern keeper, the one of whom Ted held such suspicion? Of course, he didn't look at all rich, or harmful. And Taegan wasn't helpless.

Salt whined in the bottom of the boat.

"We'll be fine," Taegan whispered, taking oars to the water again. He might have been trying to convince himself as much as Salt.

The waves were picking up daringly as they reached the schooner. Taegan sidled up the little fraying rope ladder with the last heavy crate just as water crashed down into the rowboat, sending up a yelp from Salt. The old man spat out a curse.

"I told you to leave that dog behind!"

Taegan didn't leave time to make an excuse. He jumped down without a second thought and tumbled underwater where Salt was beating his paws desperately. Seawater rushed into Taegan's mouth and nose and he choked as he broke through the surface, grasping Salt's thick fur. A sizeable wave smashed the rowboat in a last death throe against the side of the schooner, sending it under with a split hull. Taegan's eyes burned as he grabbed the ladder on the leaning vessel and hauled Salt up with him, using all his strength to get the dog safely on deck. Salt clambered over the wooden planks with surprising ease, and Taegan followed in exhaustion, coughing up brine and shivering in the wind. "The boat," he gasped.

He heard the old man groan. "You've caused me more than enough trouble. And now I suppose you expect free passage back to land, with my cargo schedule thrown off and my rowboat a shambles."

"I hauled all those crates-"

"I didn't ask you to!"

Taegan rubbed a wet sleeve across his face, feeling the burn of salt against his skin, and leaned hopelessly against his rescued dog. He saw the old man go below decks for a moment, and wondered what he was supposed to do now. What had begun as a simple charitable act was ending in what felt like disaster.

The ocean was on the verge of a storm, he knew. His eyes fell again to the stacks of crates, some small and some large and oblong. Slowly he made his way toward them. One of the lids was loose and clapping against its wooden shell in the tumultuous wind. Curiosity got the best of him at last and taking one last glance around, Taegan eased the lid ajar and peered inside.

Then something came down heavily on his head and he saw no more.

Birds were wheeling through a blood-colored sky in the first hour of dawn. A girl sat weeping at the back door of her father's ale house as a man came walking down the same road that his son had traveled the previous night. The man, his bearded face half hidden in the early shadows, regarded the little girl sadly before swinging open the door and stepping inside. He felt little need for words out there.

"The tavern's closed," a voice grunted from behind the bar table.

"I know that. I'm looking for Taegan."

A bark of humorless laughter. "You know you won't find him here, Killian." The barkeeper emerged and looked over the man as though he were sizing up a fighting opponent. "That rascal of yours never touches my ale."

"I thought you might tell me if he came in last night."

"I get a lot of customers. You think I'd notice your scrawny boy among them?"

"He hasn't come home."

"He was here," said a small voice from the door. Killian turned to see the little girl, her face red but dry. "Taegan was here," she said.

"Thought I told you to get back to work, Freya," the barkeeper grumbled.

"Yes, Pa," Freya said bleakly, and she stepped back outside.

There was a cold pause left in her wake.

"Your daughter was crying when I came in," said Killian. "I asked you once to stop hitting her."

"Stay out of my family's business," the barkeeper roared, throwing down the cloth in his hand. "And mind that that son of yours does the same. You have no right. You don't know what it's like to be. . ." He dragged a hand through his tangle of hair. "Leave us alone. I can care for my own children."

"I apologize, Jon. But don't blame any of this on Taegan. He never had anything but love for your family."

The man left the barkeeper to burn his distress in the morning's first sunrays.

"'The world outside your doorstep is full of people good and bad.' I always told him that, but he never believed me. He thought they were all good, no matter what." As Killian stared out at the calming sea, his wife gently clasped his arm and matched his gaze.

"Perhaps Taegan knows better than we do."

"How could he possibly know anything beyond the village and the sea?"

"Does he have to know?" The woman pulled her shawl more snugly about her as the wind whipped at her loose hair. "Time simply ages children and ruins innocence."

"You can't protect Taegan from time."

"I thought I could. I tried." She shut her eyes and sank into her husband's shoulder. "Oh, Killian. And it's all my fault that he's too trusting for his own good. I'm afraid it will be the death of him."

"Elsie."

"I'm afraid."

His arms moved to accommodate her as she weakened at the slightest breeze. Somehow sturdy, if only at heart, her blue eyes stared resolutely into his-so much like Taegan's, he thought.

"You cried on this beach because you thought our son was dying," said Killian. "But wasn't he so much more than we thought him to be? Wasn't he a bit like a miracle?"

The faintest smile. "He was more than a miracle. He was Taegan."

"He still is. Don't be afraid, Elsie-Taegan can look after himself."

They looked out at the ocean as though the sun had long ago sunk into its depths, passed over the edge of the earth and left them to stand alone on the shores of a terrible mystery. The sky was brilliant with blue daylight, but they could scarcely see more than a dark mist. It was something like intuition. This they did not know.

On a ship far away, Taegan slowly opened his eyes.