Fantasy where heroes don't follow the rules
Dwarven Apprenticeships and sub-specialties:
Blacksmith / smelter /
Miner / stone / metal / gems
Engineer / steam-power / architect
Link fabricator/specifications / blueing
Cohthel tried impressing Markie by walking as often as him, but Markie caught on to his ruse when Cohthel could no longer keep pace with the wagon because of his hard limp in both feet after six days.
He demanded Cohthel sit in the back of the wagon and removed his boots and bloody socks. Cohthel couldn’t decide if the jarring ride saved him further pain.
“Evermore,” Markie chided while he bandaged Cohthel’s feet. “I don’t want you walking for three days.”
Three days turned into eight, which is when he could finally walk without limping. Rage toward Mother ran in tangent, so his toughening feet queued his rage to simmer until he finally acknowledged guilt for leaving her without saying where he’d gone.
“Markie, can I have paper and charcoal?”
A lockbox hung beneath every wagon where each attendant could secure belongings. Deftly, while walking, Markie ducked under the rolling wagon, emerging with a paper role, wood board, and black stick.
“You can sit on the wagon.” Markie thumped the spot with his fist. “Unless you’ve had reason to master writing while walking.”
He lifted Cohthel and set him on the back.
Cohthel paused. “To my mother.” Markie didn’t know in what manner Cohthel left home. Cohthel didn’t want to give too much of his life away before he built rapport with Markie who would hopefully, by then, talk about Father. He had to talk about Father. Cohthel would be out of time by then.
“I’m in school,” he started his lie. “Or, I was. Last year I looked into every apprenticeship and couldn’t find one I liked. They all felt too binding. I joined the caravan to see if I liked traveling better. My mother wouldn’t approve, so I, well, I ran away.”
“I feel bad about leaving as I did, but I knew she’d forbid me if I told her,” he stressed again. He needed Markie on his side. “I had to go, you know?”
A long pause. “I know. Sometimes we have to do things, the unpleasant, hard, embarrassing, scary, whatever. Perhaps I should write her, so she can see my handwriting. I’ll tell her who I am and say you are in my direct care and I will promise to return you home safe. I’ll even pay a falkon to report to her every six days to tell her how we’re faring. What do you think?”
“That would be great. Her name is Shiana.” Cohthel stared at the paper, knowing deep in his instincts he should to say something to her, though those same instincts would tell him what he should say.
He stared longer. Best keep it short and to the point without apologizing — it wouldn’t be honest because he was glad he left — and without giving anything away to Markie who would be sure to read it.
I am with the caravan. I am safe and happy and will be home in 2 months. I have a sponsor. His name is Markie. He’s also writing you a letter.
He scrawled his signature and handed the board to Markie.
Cohthel now looked at what Markie wrote on a clean sheet of paper. He wrote while he walked, though Cohthel understood if an attendant needed a break from walking every so often, they could sit on the wagons. “Just need good boots,” Markie told him. “Riding the wagon makes the time go by slow.”
He wrote what he said he would then put his board and charcoal away, folding both letters into a small square. “Blur,” he addressed the falkon perched on the edge of their wagon. The falkon turned his head completely around. Kitannia employed falkons to work her caravan, delivering messages up and down the line and flying ahead to alert the next realm of their advance. This falkon, like many others riding on the wagons, were not employed by her.
Understanding a lucrative market for the employees of the caravan who would want to send correspondence home, they traveled with the caravan waiting for just that opportunity.
“I need a letter delivered to Shiana…” Markie looked at Cohthel, fishing for his last name.
“She lives in Malandore.” Cohthel looked back at Markie with an equally intense gaze, unable to tell him yet, and prayed, prayed Mother would not sign her return letter with her last name. That wasn’t her habit when she wrote correspondences, which now added another question for Cohthel to muddle over: why would a widow not sign her last name? This combined with her refusal to talk about father thickened his resolve. “In house twenty-eight on Buckler.”
The falkon bobbed in acceptance, turning his head and eying Markie who slipped the paper and a four-link for payment inside the pouch harnessed on his back between his wings. The falkon sprung into the air, aiming west.
“Halt!” a voice from the front of the caravan train shouted. “Halt!”
That word echoed down the train. Even Markie shouted the word over his shoulder. The two attendants closest to the massive horse pulling the wagon leapt up to it, pulling back on the reins until the beast, and the rumbling cart, stopped.
Cohthel jumped off the wagon, looking ahead. The caravan stopped on a curve. He could not see the front. He rarely saw the front.
“Why are we stopped?” he asked Markie. Up until that point the caravan only ever stopped once a day, and only to camp.
“Likely an obstruction in the road. Branches and genbae leaves fall across sometimes. We drive around them or run them over if we can, but—”
The wagons ahead of them lurched forward, horses tossing their harnesses with a jingle as they readjusted into the weight.
“Strange,” Markie mused, walking to match the speed of the wagon. “If it were an obstruction in the road, we would’ve been stopped for longer. I’ll talk to Exxlaraa tonight. His wagon’s third from the front.”
The wagons circled for the night, always by water in a previous camp, the vegetation long gone, old fire pits flaring to life again. Cards, board games, flutes and fiddles enlivened the night, another group taking their turn to hunt and gather to supplement their food stores until the caravan reached Fire Forge.
Cohthel slurped his dinner, bobbing his head to the fiddle and accompanying vocals to an outrageous song:
Your nostrils may be stuffy,
And your stomach may be growling,
Your fingers may be twitching,
To do a little prowling.
If everyone would just turn away,
For a short moment at least,
I would enjoy myself to the fullest,
Just to eat a little piece.
My mother tells me not to,
My sister thinks me a pest,
But I sit here and say,
“The crusty ones are best.”
No one is looking,
As I peer around the room,
And I hunch down in my seat,
To give my nose a prune.
Many get offended,
Others just gross out,
That’s why I eat in private,
So no one knows what I’m about.
They always say to share,
And I try to do my part,
But many just don’t accept,
My kind and loving heart.
“Yum yum!” Cohthel cheered in chorus with everyone, and laughed, enjoying it all the more because Mother would hate it.
Markie strode over, sitting beside him and dishing up a bowl for himself.
“An injured man,” Markie said.
“Lying about the middle of the road. Face beaten purple, two broken ribs, and a knife wound in his side.”
Oh. Right. The caravan stoppage earlier. “Dead?”
Markie swallowed his broth. “No. Just in a lot of pain. Being kept in the sick wagon for now. Kitannia charged the caravan doctor to care for him. Says the man’s name is Sycain Eywood. Human, despite the y’s in his name, and he was attacked and robbed by the Entangling Crow. Took everything but the clothes on his back and his sword. Good thing we came along. We’re nowhere near an infirmary, so he’d have a rough time if any other traveler found him.”
Twenty-one days out from Malandore, the caravan circled in Vallen, a flat spread of land beneath the Autumn Mountains. Flat plain forever and ever extended to the east. Cohthel imagined their realm reached as far as a pegasi could run before he hit a tree which, according to Markie, they would run off a cliff into the Sea of Istali before that happened.
While Cohthel took borrowed needle and thread to repair new tears on the bottom of his pants, Markie’s shadow fell over him. He looked up, going cross-eyed to stare at the point of a sword nearly switching the tip of his nose.
Markie, Cohthel found out today — more certain than ever Kitannia picked him out for Cohthel’s sake — earned his Bladehand. Kitannia is trying to get me off my biological father, a Bladehand, by giving me Markie — a Bladehand. Well, Kitannia, your subterfuge won’t work. Now that I know my father is alive, nothing can win over blood.
Nothing can replace—no, nothing can match Father’s strong heart, his resilient mind; would have been placed on a pinnacle to godhood if the gods hadn’t been so jealous of him.
Markie didn’t mention his Bladehand in his initial introduction to Cohthel. He later admitted he had been a Bladehand once, but you never stop being a Bladehand; impossible to lose the skill learned and nightmares of that final test forgotten. Markie must have meant he stopped carrying a sword in the service of his primary duty as a caravan attendant.
Bladehands are specialized swordsmen, but they take great offense when called a swordsman. Every Bladehand must go through a final test to indoctrinate them into their specialty. The test is unusual, in that the Bladehand must fail the final test in order to pass, because only by failing will they find the motivation to pass all other tests in life. They leave the harrowing training with a physical scar and a bladed soul.
The Warrior God pays them for their service to his name in blessings, imbuing their sword arm with R’th, unmatched by all except another Bladehand. Bladehands cannot be stabbed in the back or attacked while asleep. They react faster than other kindred by using increased sensory to avoid danger, catch arrows out of the air, and are otherwise extremely hard to kill.
Unless, of course, you walk off a cliff and get eaten by sharks. Like Father.
Markie laughed and flipped the sword so now instead the wood grip pointed at Cohthel. When Cohthel didn’t lift his hand, Markie bounced the grip up and down. “You won’t convince me a young man like you has no interest in learning to sword fight?”
Cohthel’s hopes and dreams ached when he imagined a father teaching him how to hold a sword, step, and swing. Bohrim had instructed Cohthel in the basics with a training wood sword alongside lessons he gave Thaen, but the training Cohthel required could not compete with Bohrim’s work schedule and raising his own family. But to have a father of his own to teach him, he’d finally be able to spare with Thaen. The burn inside him flared hotter than the nearby campfire, filling the inside of his clothes with heat.
I’m going to find you, Father, he swore. Until I have proof you are dead, I’ll search and search until I walk trenches into the ground. His hope soared when he imagined finding him, the instant reunion, and Father not wasting any time teaching him how to fight with a sword, how to be a proper man, mentoring him on the apprenticeship he should choose.
But for the moment, Markie stood there; the cruel reminder that he didn’t have a father.
“No thanks.” Cohthel bowed back over his pants and needle and thread.
“Oh, why not?” Markie pouted. “Girls can’t resist a man who can fight. And…” His voice dropped, getting conspiratorial, “they adore the scars.”
Cohthel didn’t lift his head, wishing Markie would get off somewhere. Markie laid the sword in the dirt beside where Cohthel sat. Cohthel ignored it.
A startling whack stung Cohthel’s right arm with enough force to push him over. He caught his fall with his left hand and looked at Markie, now dancing backward, another sword swooping from his grip.
“No.” Cohthel straightened with a scowl.
Markie lunged in and slapped the broadside of his sword against Cohthel’s thigh.
“Fight me!” Slap!
“Get up and make me stop.” Slap!
Cohthel snatched the wooden sword handle and stormed toward Markie, swinging it high above his head. He brought it down on Markie with all his strength. Markie's hardened, lean body swept away, looking like a ribbon in the wind and ten years younger despite his gray hair, parrying Cohthel’s sword at the same time so Cohthel not only lost his sword but landed on his butt.
“You left yourself wide open,” Markie said.
Cohthel stomped through the dirt, dust rising like mini dwarf explosions. He swept up the sword.
And turned invisible.
“Oh!” Markie laughed. “That’s cheating!”
Everything Cohthel picked off the ground turned invisible with him, and he swung the invisible sword at Markie, intending to slap him — hard — with the broadside.
Invisibility didn’t change his luck.
The R’th powering a Bladehand’s arm and trained sensory notifying Markie, and though Cohthel had run behind him, Markie turned and batted Cohthel’s sword away with wrenching force. Cohthel lost his grip and the blade shot back into the visual and clattered to the dirt next to a wagon wheel.
“Oh, that’s where I put the darn thing. Now…where did I put that…young man?”
At “young man”, he turned and slapped the broadside of his sword into Cohthel’s invisible hip.
“Hey!” Cohthel leaped backward, rubbing the sore spot which wasn’t as sore as he had expected from the blow. “How did you know I was there? You can’t see me.”
“You breathe loud.”
“Well, I can’t not breathe loud when I’m running around and swinging a heavy sword.”
“You are right. But see me? I’m not breathing heavily. I am also not running around or swinging anything. I’ve bested you every time and, at the same time, tired you out. Sword fighting isn’t about who’s stronger, taller, or has the better sword. After all, all things are eighty percent skill, twenty percent equipment. I could have fought you with a wooden sword and still won. No, sword fighting is about who’s more handsome. Which is why you lost to me.”
Cohthel pulled his invisible veil off and popped into the visual. “Handsome looks have nothing to do with sword fighting.”
“No? Then why did I win standing still even though you swung your sword, ran around, and turned invisible? I don’t see any other reason.”
Cohthel fought a smile, still not happy getting bullied and coerced. He’d left the needle dangling from the bottom of his pants he’d been sewing. Snapped off or bent now. “You keep winning because you’re a Bladehand.”
“True. I’ve never lost a fight. But then I’ve also never faced a sword-wielding, invisible man, either, and yet I still won. You don’t have to be a Bladehand or handsome to win. But, they help. There are some things you can still do to win, even if you’re ugly. Step over here. Lift your arms like you did when you first rushed me. This leaves you wide open.” He drew a finger across Cohthel’s stomach. “If my sword is already here,” he demonstrated, “I can cut you open far faster than you can bring your sword back down. The tip of your sword should never reach above your head or below your knees.”
Cohthel slipped into sword-fighting instruction at first unaware, then grudgingly allowed himself to tolerate Markie’s teachings since the man would nag until Cohthel conceded anyway.
The tang tang tang of their swords filled the silence.
“Ever thought about becoming a Bladehand?” Markie examined his fingernails while he struck Cohthel’s slow blade with the other. Cohthel did not practice a technique. Only to strengthen his arm, Markie said.
Cohthel laughed. “Why would anyone want to be a Bladehand?”
“You have an affinity for it. And you said you much prefer traveling over locking down into an apprenticeship. Torcs and travelers often hire Bladehands as security and escorts. Keep your elbow high.”
Bladehands fall under the purview of the Warrior God. They are the only ones sworn to the god’s service without taking on the title of a cleric. Cohthel had never considered it, but now approached with the question, it surprised him to feel no aversion. Since working the caravan, he realized he wanted a traveling job, one that took him place to place, constantly on the move. No apprenticeship gave him that.
His arm ached from swinging the weapon over and over. “I thought all Bladehands had a scar.” Cohthel lifted his sword for another parry. He was too young to remember Father’s Bladehand scar. “But I don’t see yours.”
“I said I never fathered children, now, didn’t I?”
Cohthel blanched. “S–sorry. I didn’t mean–”
“No offense taken. Take a break. I think you’d practice until your arm fell off.”
The tip sunk into the dirt, Cohthel panting, old calluses torn and bloody. Father would be so proud of him when Cohthel found him.
Father…Cohthel stared at Markie a beat too long, failed to disable the brief leap in his heart. Though it took less than a second, a vision of Markie replacing Father seared white-hot through Cohthel’s mind; Cohthel standing next to him, joined in masculine camaraderie.
Cohthel killed the thought, accepting the sickness that followed as just punishment for his betraying vision.
“That’s enough training for tonight. Stretch before you sleep.”
Cohthel looked over Markie’s shoulder. Kitannia approached, stepping into the firelight of the nearest campfire. Everyone nearby turned their backs to her. Cohthel recognized the motion. Kitannia could be as lovely as a spring morning, and dangerous as an ocean gale, nearly in the same instant.
A beautiful woman, in a wild way with how she stood erect with shoulders pulled back and chin up, no man appeared to fancy her. They took their orders from her, and bowed away to fulfill it with a quick, “yes, caravan master.”
Cohthel got the impression she didn’t want a lover, but then he couldn’t think of what kind of man would want a woman who overpowered him.
“Caravan master.” Markie sheathed his sword with a wet, slithered hiss.
She stopped three feet from him, folding both arms. “Markie, Sycain is recovered enough to walk. I can’t have him living in the sick wagon all the way to Malandore. I’ve assigned him to your wagon in the meantime. He’s human. He’s expressed his deep appreciation for my helping him, and being so willing to pay me back, he said he’d earn his keep in whatever way I see fitting.
“Put a hiatus on the rotation for caring for your horse and put him on it. He seems apt enough, he likely knows how to undress and dress a horse, but I want you to show him how I want it done. If he does this to your satisfaction after a quarter of a month, I’ll consider moving him up in ranks. This is Cloud-Ascend’s last run so I’ll be losing him once we reach the Malbeane Forest. Sycain expressed his desire for employment, but I want to study him longer before I make any promises. Since you’ll be training two attendants, I’ll provide a nice bonus for you once we reach Malandore.”
“It shall be done, caravan master.” Markie delivered a curt nod. “The bonus is much appreciated.”
“I’ll send him your way. His work starts in the morning.”
Kitannia stalked off, each step carefully placed so she mimicked a cat on the prowl.
They waited, watching the direction she left. A moment lapsed, and a man stepped between two wagons, looking around. Spotting Markie, he grinned and walked toward them, one hand on the hilt of his sword so it would not interfere with his stride.
The only people Cohthel knew of who actively walked around with a sword were mercenaries, Knightlords, rangers, Bladehands, and travelers who’d seen many dangers on the road. The man’s clothing fit with a traveler’s: greens and browns to blend in when desired, layered with a coat, long sleeve, and vest to adjust to the temperature of both day and night, and many pockets in both pants and shirt to hold innumerable finds.
He looked to be in his early thirties. A soft down of straight brown hair, parted down the middle, fell to the tops of both ears. A short, brown goatee complimented bright blue eyes.
The man stopped in front of Markie, grunting as he reached out his hand. Cohthel remembered his two broken ribs and the knife wound. Standing so close, Cohthel heard his labored breathing. Purple skin rimmed each eye, and a healing break across the bridge of his nose.
“I am Sycain Eywood.” He shook Markie’s hand.
“Markielson Esterwae.” Markie nodded down to Cohthel. “This is Evermore…” Markie stared at Cohthel, trying again to wrangle out the secret of his last name.
“Pleased to meet you both.” Sycain lowered his head, doing everything he could not to twist his torso to shake Cohthel’s hand. Cohthel could tell the motion still caused him great pain.
“You can rest in the wagon as often as you need,” Cohthel offered.
“You’ve heard about my injuries, eh?” Sycain laughed, cut short with a wince. “Wish I could tell you it was from defending the honor of a beautiful maiden, or even fighting off a horde of those arm-less dragons the dusutri keep.”
“Not dying by the Entangling Crow is just as honorable,” Markie replied. “I hear they kill everyone they rob so the victim can’t identify them. Which is why we still don’t have a description of them.”
“Are those the rumors? I was lucky enough not to have heard them, otherwise I wouldn’t have challenged them to stop charging a toll for the bridge they commandeered. Someone needs to stand up to them, right? I’m more embarrassed than hurt, to tell you the truth. But, eh, I’ll be with you a long while still. Tomorrow I’ll tell you a story glorifying my honor so you can reassess your shameful opinion of me. Right now, I’m going to drink this horrid pain killer and die until the sun rises.” He nodded in parting and stalked off to the closest fire where he sat down and slumped in front of it.
“Good character.” Markie folded both arms. “We’ll do alright with him.”
Cohthel walked with Markie to their wagon. Markie crouched down to unlock the lockbox and pulled out a folded square of paper, still sealed.
“Falkon delivered this message after dinner.” He handed it to Cohthel, who snatched it out of his hands. The unbroken seal to the letter kept his secrets safe from Markie. Expecting Mother to shout at him, he unfolded it with held breath. Falkons can only carry a certain paper size. She’d written small to fit as much as possible, front and back.
I’m relieved you’re safe. You probably think I’m mad at you, but when morning came and you didn’t leave your room or answer when I knocked both on the door and your window, I knew you’d left and my heart broke.
I realize, with a deep pang in my heart, you’re no longer a child. You have questions about your father, and my method to steer you away from them drove you to this point. I accept the blame. I also accept the anger you will keep against me for my unwillingness to talk about your father. Some day I will. But not now. Trust I have my reasons and trust that, yes, I will someday tell you.
Fresh anger bloomed on his face. Mother still treated him like a child incapable of knowing the truth, not trusting him with the truth. More than ever he thanked himself for leaving, remembering that awful void of indecision he balanced for a moment before he gambled and hid in the wagon.
His hot hands would burn the paper between his fingers.
“Bad news from home?” Markie heaved his bed roll out of the wagon.
Cohthel crinkled the paper. “She’s treating me like a child and keeping secrets. She did something unforgiving to me and even though I have approached her about it, refuses to change her mind. I’m not ready to forgive her.”
“Painful.” Markie, holding his bedroll and listening, nodded with somber understanding.
“Understandable, your feelings. But yet, it is a high mark to manhood when he forgives, and a man should since everyone keeps secrets and reasons, even you. Have you withheld secrets from your mother?”
His direct question blasted Cohthel open so he feared Markie would see all his dares that, if discovered, would land him in trouble with the rangers.
“And,” Markie continued, “would they upset your mother if she found out?”
Cohthel reached into the wagon for his bedroll so he wouldn’t have to answer his questions.
“Can I challenge you to forgive her, whatever she did to offend you?”
Cohthel pulled out his bedroll, scraping the underside of his arms along the wood sides.
“I’m done talking about your father tonight, Jumpy.”
“You never talk about him.”
“I said I’m done, Cohthel! Go to your room!”
He needed Markie’s praise so Markie would not brush Cohthel off when in two more months Cohthel would approach him about Father. “A high mark of a man? I certainly want to hit all the marks. Yes, I think I can find it in me to forgive her.”
Markie patted his shoulder. “I’m proud of you.” He stepped away to set up his bed.
Cohthel shut is eyes, lowering so he pressed his palm into the dirt. Kindred believed the deep earth R’th veins could send neurone-electric messages to any named kindred. It was the only way to explain the “sense” kindred got when they distinctly felt impressed by an emotion that opened them up briefly to someone else.
Mother, he communicated to the R’th, I can’t forgive you yet, but know I want to.
I want to.