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Disinherited: punishment for committing a major Kingdom crime. All 9 torcs must be present to deliberate in trial. The suspect is branded and disowned from the Kingdom. An invitational kill order remains on their head at all times.
-Kingdom Crime and Punishment
Thaen cracked open the leather and fur sleeping bag. The autumn chill rushed in, but he didn’t react to it, withholding his shivers so as not to wake Neleci as he slid out of the bag. He counted his ability not to wake her toward his score, expanding that score as he walked the dawn-touched camp building a fire, still not waking either Ilthyn or Mianda.
Neleci woke first when the fire popped, reluctantly crawling out of the leather and fur. Thaen didn’t understand why this bothered her more than reading her table-sized government apprentice. Thaen agreed with Evermore on this one. Out of all the apprenticeships, he despised government the most, the mind-numbing effort to learn law and spend every waking moment pleasing everyone. He much preferred working with his hands instead of his brain.
Thaen had woken six days ago to find a note Evermore pasted outside his window. Evermore explained he planned to sneak into the caravan to demand answers about his father from the Caravan Master.
Thaen prided in his friend-brother with conflicting frustrations that Evermore would be so far behind on school that they would recycle him into next year’s class.
Neleci brought the leather and fur bag to the fire with her, so thickly cocooned she looked like a chef baked her into the middle of a bread loaf. Her hair mussed from sleep wrapped her neck and stuck out at weird angles. “Aren’t you cold?”
“Cold doesn’t bother me.”
“Cold doesn’t bother any of you men.” She sat next to him, scooting so close to the fire he smelled singeing fur. “Thank you for keeping me warm.”
Duty-bound first, Thaen had offered Neleci to share his bag when it became obvious she would not survive the frosty night. She resisted, but Thaen knew she wouldn’t have hesitated had Evermore offered. What did she see in Evermore? Did she like that he never engineered his own opinions, couldn’t choose a future, followed the rules, obeyed everyone, finished his chores, wore clothes too small for him, shuffled with head down and hands always in his pockets? He imagined Evermore on hands and knees, Neleci patting his head like a dog. Good boy, Evermore.
Two hours into the night Neleci woke Thaen, shivering so violently Thaen feared she had contracted hypothermia. He helped her inside his bag, skin so cold he pushed all feelings aside and focused on warming her back to life.
Neleci never questioned why Thaen’s friends camped outside of summer’s heat. She, like himself, instinctively understood surviving in cold weather tested their mettle, something Thaen’s age group felt society lacked. “Just take it easy,” parents had advised. “Don’t build a wall for a flood that won’t come.”
But Thaen’s age group wouldn’t stand for their complacent softness. In Thaen’s Father’s day, most students didn’t choose an apprenticeship but just let their whims float them around as general laborers. Not so now; young men and women wanted control of their futures and to affect meaningful change.
Evermore, of course, defined the exception.
Thaen, Neleci’s proximity now separated by a safe distance, did not resist the hopes flooding his imagination. Lulled by the snapping fire, the hush of the surrounding forest, the serenity of their company while Mianda and Ilthyn slept on, Neleci leaned her black hair against Thaen’s shoulder.
Modest and sexually smothered Evermore would have pushed Neleci away with some knuckling claim that he couldn’t have a relationship until someone taught him how to button his pants. Thaen accepted this moment as payment for the debt of his masculinity. This wasn’t an invitation for more. It was acknowledgment and a question, a test for discoveries, a receiving to see how the new handler would handle.
There’s deeper sincerity just letting the moment unfold without obligation and expectation. Allowing Mortal Earth to respond without demands. To float; the thrill of discovery awaiting the suspense of where and when they would land without turning sails to direct your descent.
From behind — approached without sound or notice — arms wrapped around Thaen’s head. Neleci screamed at the same time and was ripped away from his shoulder. Confusion wrapped inside panic, Thaen rose to his feet and wriggled and kicked and fought.
“Stop fighting, young son,” the man, a human, barked in his ear. “We’re not here for you.”
“Let me go!” Fear addling his brain, Thaen couldn’t remember a single fighting move the rangers taught him. His ineptitude tore into him deeper, and he compensated by biting, ramming his heels into the man’s knee caps, and twisting his shoulders hard enough to leave bruises in the man’s chest.
As the man’s arms loosened, a second man jumped into the brawl and swept Thaen’s legs out from under him, both of them forcing Thaen to the ground on his chest.
One man controlled Thaen’s arms behind his back while the other sat on his legs. Thaen dragged his nose in the dirt turning his head to look at Mianda giving the two men one knuckling good fight. The dusutri in her bones, even at sixteen, could outfight a single human male, even if Mianda smothered and denied this ability.
“Subdue her before she activates Dusutri Rage!” shouted a third man jumping to their rescue.
Dusutri Rage? Thaen’s stressed brain wouldn’t remember if he knew what that was. Or what happened to Ilthyn. He didn’t see the elf anywhere. But he saw Neleci, ankles and wrists bound, carried away.
Fear for her blackened Thaen’s eyesight, nausea bubbling in his gut. “Let her go!” Though outside the official river boundary of the Human Realm, rangers patrolled the outskirts. Attacks never happened this close to the realm.
Another man stepped from the trees, panting.
“Did you lose him?”
“Elves.” The newcomer wrinkled his nose in derision. “Can’t catch them. Can’t find them.”
“He’s gone for help. Head to the castle now. Mount up!”
“What should we do with him?” said the man controlling Thaen’s aching arms. “He’ll fight if we let him go.”
“Tie him to a tree. The elf or the help he brings will come back.”
Thaen twisted his head and caught sight of an adult male with sandy, curly hair and a distinct brand burned into the left side of his neck.
The open eye brand marring his skin marked him as Disinherited, an ex-member of the Kingdom banned and disowned who committed an offense greater than five months in the ranger bastille but less than the death penalty. Banned from every realm, that brand stamped on them an open kill order.
Killing the Branded did not carry punishment or report to the torc. Most Disinherits turned to banditry if sickness, starvation, or wild beasts didn’t kill them sooner.
Thaen assumed kidnapping was their branded crime — based on them taking Neleci — until a beautiful, tall Dark Elf stood beside the human male with arms folded.
Long, shock-white hair contrasted against black skin and equally black clothes. “Muh simi o ibormisifier me,” the Dark Elf said.
The human man somehow appeared to understand her, though he responded in Eloshian. “The point is to elevate the humans, Hiara. Not kill them.” He looked around him at the forest. “I saw this young man, the girl, the half-dusutri, and the elf. Are you sure there wasn’t another another young male human?
Would have been sixteen years with curly hair.”
“If me oubu iemiou me bip bheam I pvueba f sih meiemiou.”
The man sneered and looked at Thaen. “You know him. He camped with you about eight days ago. Where is he?”
Thaen ignored him, fighting the two men who still controlled his arms and legs and dragged him to the nearest tree. Thaen watched in agony as the rest of the bandit party joined with a second male Dark Elf and his horse. Well, a horrifying version of an animal that wasn’t a horse at all.
Dark blue scales spread the “horse’s” body like on a dragon. Its front knees bent backward like a cat’s, and thorny spines bristled down a short neck to match the thorny teeth in its mouth. A black miasma curled up from each hoof wispy as smoke and thick as oil. Bringing the underground darkness with them.
The tail functioned like an animal itself: a worm-like protrusion undulating in the air as fluid as a snake. The tip of it opened and closed like a fish out of water.
The two Dark Elves mounted their monsters, slinging Neleci over the horse-thing in front of the female Dark Elf’s saddle. Settled, the Dark Elves kicked their monsters into a sprint.
“Fight them, Neleci!” Thaen shouted.
But she didn’t hear. Not over her screaming.
Mianda lay motionless on the ground. Unconscious or dead, he couldn’t tell.
Thaen fought, but the two men didn’t appear to notice. They bound him to the tree with a cord of rope digging into his skin the more he squirmed. Efficiently tied, the two men left him and sprinted away after their companions.