Image by Angela Cutler
The Dark Elven Goddess grants the Seeing Dark Elves a deadly R’th:
Ibormisivouh - translates into “the blue hand”. The Seeing will press their palm on any surface and leave a blue handprint. The handprint sings out a specific sound the blind Dark Elves can hear. The Dark Elves will respond and capture whatever the ibormisivouh has imprinted.
Ibormisifier - translates into “the red hand”. Same mechanics, but instead of capture, the blind Dark Elves will kill.
A heavy sack of muscle and bone crashed onto a sleeping Cohthel.
Cohthel jerked awake, succumbing to chest-squeezing shock because of the scare.
“You sleep too much,” Thaen — laying on top of Cohthel — said in his ear. “Poor qualities of a ranger.”
“Sleep too much?” The adrenaline dump at waking to violence left Cohthel shaky and furious. He bucked his shoulders. Thaen scrambled off. “School doesn’t start for another hour!”
“That’s my point. Good thing I came, otherwise you’d be late. Again.”
Cohthel flopped back down, pulling the blankets over his head. A solid yank from the end of his bed turned his blanket into a kite.
“I said get dressed.” Thaen snapped his boots into the position of attention and, placing fingers to his mouth, whistled Morning Muster until Cohthel sprung from his mattress and lunged at him. Thaen dodged his grasp and ran out of his room, Morning Muster fading with him down the hall.
Cohthel stomped while he dressed, imagining nasty revenges on Thaen for harassing him earlier than he needed to be.
Cohthel entered the schoolroom and dropped his bag beside his cushioned chair. Thaen had ran ahead of him but wasn’t in the room yet. Cohthel slumped in the chair until both hips crossed the edge of the seat. His next breath fell out in a sigh, gaze roving the room while his classmates arrived and checked in, talking about what they’d done their first and second day at their apprenticeships and what they still planned to do.
Cohthel sat straighter. Does everyone have a beard already but me? He saw hair on every young man’s burnt-gold colored face. A subtle darkening, a discolored patch. All of their fathers introduced them on their first day of school.
He rubbed his chin.
Mianda walked into the schoolroom and saw him. “Hiya, Evermore.” She smiled. Smiled. As if both her guardians didn’t hate the dusutri-half of her forced into their care. Oh, they fed, clothed, and sheltered her because the Human Torc Thoraus conducted monthly checks on her house to make certain her guardians cared for her. Torc Thoraus talked to the Head Mentor and paired an unbiased mentor with Mianda for this school year, making sure her previous year friends — Cohthel, Thaen, Ilthyn — landed in her same class.
Torc Thoraus understood Mianda had no control over the racial pairing of her parents. Maybe hoping she’d become a great asset if the torcs made the effort to talk terms with the dusutri and invite them into the Kingdom.
Dusutri — a splinter race of humans — did not own space in the Kingdom. Nor the Dark Elves or the droogs (often called Dark Dwarves). All three detailed reasons for hating the Kingdom, from equality issues to religious differences to a three millennial-old grudge.
Short, black-haired Burgand entered the classroom, and though Mianda — who stopped to greet Cohthel — did in no way block Burgand’s forward progress to his chair across the room, he stopped behind her and barked out a firm, high-pitched, “Move!”
Mianda turned. A full two heads taller and wider by half, she looked at him with a raised eyebrow. She shrugged, picked him up at both shoulders, and moved him two feet to the right.
Back on his feet, Burgand swung his arms in some animation of his agitation, trying to gurgle out words, then stomped to his chair.
Mianda looked at Cohthel. “He said ‘move’, so I moved him. I don’t know why he’s upset. He was quite demanding.”
Cohthel shook his head at Burgand. “Good thing he’s got friends, otherwise I’d take pity on him and invite him into our group.”
Thaen marched into the classroom, big boots clomping across the floorboards, angling straight at Cohthel. “Brother, you’re apprenticing with me today.”
Cohthel sat straighter. “I don’t want to be a ranger.”
“So what do you want to be?”
“…I’m going to stay here and read some more.”
Thaen’s eyes shot up and left. He called the flicker “eye-spike” which he claimed overpowered an eye-roll. “Pffft. Qualci,” Thaen said to Cohthel’s assigned mentor, “Evermore is coming with me today to Ranger.”
Cohthel connected a glance with Qualci, who leveraged her gaze and her tight lips to communicate a silent, “Yes, that is a great idea.”
“I choose to be a general laborer.”
“Not while you’re in my class, you’re not.” Thaen walked to his own assigned chair. He turned his sign hanging off his chair around to say, “out.” He spun around to see Cohthel had not moved. “Get, get, ranger. Move out.”
Cohthel shut his eyes and drove both of them upward in his eye sockets before opening them — grumbling — and stood. He followed Thaen out as if walking behind his executioner. “I don’t want to be a ranger.”
“You would be great at it with your invisibility R’th. No one would see you coming.”
The two Paragons — male and female — who molded Mortal Earth and birthed its life, embedded what Diviners have called R’th (pronounced “rith”) into the world. Loosely translated from the original language of the world, it means “earth blood,” or “blood earth,” or “life earth”.
Regardless of the true meaning, the R’th is the very power that allows the five Sovereign Gods to control the changing weather, for plants to grow, regulate procreation. This ethereal “blood” pulses throughout the world in “earth veins”. Without this earth blood, nothing would grow and nothing would change, the Diviners claim.
Only the gods access this R’th and impose its effects on the mortals. The R’th God Astorous used to manipulate R’th into unique gifts he would grant every newborn.
He used to.
Eight hundred years ago, Astorous stopped granting R’th to newborns. Diviners, who see the gods’ intent, say he’s left Everlasting Earth. Where he went, they cannot see.
Now the gods only gift R’th to the clerics sworn into the service of their chosen god. The Goddess of Fate, however, will grant R’th on a case-by-case basis to newborns only if parents bring the newborn to her temple and only if Fate sees a need and purpose to grant it.
Which is never.
Except for Cohthel, whom she granted the R’th of invisibility.
“Keep nagging me,” Cohthel said, hands deep in both pockets of his too small pants while they walked, “and I’ll stay invisible all the time so you won’t see me coming.”
“I’d hear you coming. You don’t know how to sneak.”
The two of them walked down the street, Cohthel’s stomach rumbling when he caught a breeze filled with bacon grease even though he’d had breakfast twenty minutes ago.
“Has your mother confessed yet?”
“That your father is still alive.”
“Undergod’s Knuckles, Thaen, he is not still alive. My mother said last night a shark ate him when he fell off the cliff.”
A rapture of laughing caused Thaen to hunch over as they walked and spray spittle on his boots.
“Will you stop it? I’m having a hard time over it all right now and you’re making it worse.” To further mock Cohthel, many father-aged men walked down the street, smiling with a curt nod at him as they passed. If Cohthel didn’t like Thaen so much, he wouldn’t keep spending time with him.
“I’d have a hard time too if I discovered my dead father didn’t have a grave when I’ve been under the assumption my whole life that he did. And when I ask my mother she makes up some story to shut me up and hope I forget it.”
“Fine. He’s alive.” Cohthel, long since tired of Thaen’s ridiculous theories, decided the agony hurt less to agree with him than debate. “And he’s chosen not to come home after ten years because he’s afraid of meeting you.”
“That’s not why!”
“I’m still working on the why, but he’s definitely still alive.”
They arrived at the ranger station: barracks for unmarried rangers, stables, armory, and training ground expanding an entire block.
They entered the two-story administrative building, the roof sloping far enough to protect the walls and windows from the hottest apex of the day. The stone construct looked like a secondary command building in case enemies compromised the castle.
Thaen walked toward the clerk’s desk and the man behind it, arms spread. “Good morning Al-fart-in.”
The harsh upward snap of the clerk’s return gaze told Cohthel his name was Alfgardin. “Good morning, PAIN.”
Thaen leaned against the clerk’s desk, tossing a blond head toward Cohthel. “This is Evermore Faunt. He’s here for a trial day.”
The clerk handed Cohthel a paper tacked to a wood board. “Read and sign at the bottom. You can sit in one of the seats behind you.”
Cohthel slumped into the offered chair with even less enthusiasm than he did the chair back at the classroom, gaze slumbering over the waiver and instructions he had to sign.
Though early, the inner chamber buzzed with rangers in uniform and other support personnel.
Thaen folded his arms and looked at all the moving energy. “It’s not normally this excitable.” Coming here often with his ranger older brother over the years, Thaen would know. “Did something happen?” he asked the clerk who’s suffering slow blink warned he knew Thaen better than he otherwise wanted.
“A Dark Elf attacked travelers outside Malandore early this morning.” The clerk displayed his opinion of Dark Elves with a clenched jaw and narrowed eyes. “Falkons witnessed it and alerted the nearest rangers who responded in time to save their lives, but they are both injured.”
“And the Dark Elf?”
“They killed him. They brought his body back. It’s my understanding your apprenticeship today will involve the incident.”
“Undergod’s knuckles! Evermore, good thing you came today. This is going to be great.”
Empty of the same thrill cranking all of Thaen’s gears, Cohthel scrawled nonsense on the bottom of his waiver and handed it back to the clerk.
“Come on!” Thaen sprinted across the chamber and down a hallway. Cohthel, not a runner, only kept pace so he wouldn’t look stupid asking for directions when he got lost.
A few more turns through the stone corridors brought them to a room furnished as if to service both lounging and war planning: comfortable couches and chairs, tables, and maps on the wall next to various arrangements of swords and shields. Cohthel already assuming Thaen was always the first here every morning, he didn’t understand the small crowd gathered in the space until he saw Neleci, Torc Thoraus’ daughter.
In their same class, on day one Neleci contracted with the government apprenticeship to qualify her to work for one of the clerical offices in Malandore. Doing so would also make her eligible to compete for torc of the Human Realm when the Malandore citizens either denied renewing her father’s service contract (because of proven incompetency) or he died. Another apprenticeship Cohthel didn’t like or understand. Who wants the stress of managing the welfare of every human in the Kingdom?
She was a short girl with well-fed hips and bosom and a long nose seated between her wheat-colored eyes, she’d tied her long black hair back into a low ponytail, opting for a long shirt over snug hosiery, and ankle-high boots. She and the other male apprentice listened to instructions from their female Government Hierarch. Cohthel caught complicated words like “appellant” and “sequester” and stopped listening. Opposite Thaen who’d sat with an arm draped over the back of the chair watching Neleci.
Another few moments brought two more ranger apprentices from their class, and then the Ranger Hierarch entered, looking like he’d been on shift for twelve hours already. His uniform a mix of linen and leather, the strategic blend of greens and browns offered a little protection without compromising stealth or speed. His full beard covered the brightness of his burnt-gold face.
His deep baritone filled the room. “Good morning everyone. We have a unique lesson today…” He repeated what the clerk said about the Dark Elf attack on the travelers, finishing with, “his body is in the collection room. I’ll take you there now.”
Cohthel and his classmates followed the Ranger Hierarch down the hallway and into another room with cabinets, shelves, and a dead Dark Elf laying prone on his back on one of two tables.
Having never seen a dead body before, Cohthel swore the chest rose and fell with breathing.
The Dark Elf’s shock-white hair contrasted his sable skin, long, pointed ears still identical to the White Elves, like Ilthyn. Cohthel couldn’t identify his black clothing: some underground plant or animal, unlike the linen-based clothes Cohthel wore from flax grown above ground.
Empathetic conflict battled inside Cohthel. He ruled his morals by a motto: Kindred kindness. Always. But did Dark Elves qualify as “kindred” because they have social coherency? Or did the Kingdom hold that term on reserve? Dark Elves did not own space in the Kingdom. Nor the dusutri or the droogs.
Cohthel had heard the controversial debates. He hadn’t found his own feelings on it, though his inner conflict remained.
An arrow-sized hole above the Dark Elf’s ear explained how this one died.
“Rangers killed this Dark Elf to protect life and limb,” the Ranger Hierarch said. “If you’ve never seen a dead body before, I’m showing you this one so you can get over whatever taboo suspicions you have connected with death and dying since you will one day be in charge of taking a life to save another.
Government Hierarch, what is the Kingdom’s current policy on killing Dark Elves?”
The gently aged Government Hierarch turned to Neleci and nodded.
Neleci cleared her throat and stepped forward. “Dark Elves have no protection from the Kingdom. Due to their known hostilities, there is an open kill order on them. They may be killed with or without provocation. There is no crime killing Dark Elves.” She looked at the Government Hierarch, who nodded her approval.
“She is correct,” the Ranger Hierarch said. “This next part is advanced, but give it a try. Study this hole in the Dark Elf’s head and tell me what arrowhead type and bow poundage killed him, if the shooter was male or female, as well as how far you think the ranger stood when he or she shot.”
The rest of the morning mixed killing anatomy Cohthel found a trite interesting and how the Kingdom interpreted justifications for taking a life. The rangers moved on to the training ground after lunch.
“Fight me, Evermore.”
“I don’t like fighting.”
“You don’t like anything.”
“I don’t want to fight.”
“You’re always knuckling complaining that you don’t ‘feel strong because you don’t have a daddy’. A father has nothing to do with strength. Desires aren’t like the wind and all you have to do is stand outside waiting for one to blow past. Desires are mountains. You have to climb them.”
“I’m not strong enough to win against you.”
“This will make you strong.”
Cohthel dreaded today’s “Thaenisms.” Refraining from pressing both palms against his ears and screaming, he grumbled instead the entire time he removed his shirt, wishing he knew how to tell Thaen “no”.
Each punch landed with a wet thud on naked skin. Each punch on Cohthel. Not knowing how to fight, Cohthel stayed in the standing fetal position, covering his head and twisting his body so at least Thaen’s knuckles would bruise him all over instead of one spot. Thaen “practice” punched only until Neleci walked onto the training grounds and Cohthel suddenly found himself shoved into the sand fighting for his life as Thaen rolled Cohthel into a rear-naked choke.
Cohthel nearing blackout, Thaen let him go and stood, kicking sand over Cohthel as he did.
“Hiya, Neleci!” Thaen wiped the back of his hand across his high eyebrows. They’d both regained their feet, Cohthel coughing. “What are you doing tonight?”
Neleci stopped. She turned a timid circle, hugging her massive copy of Government Apprentice to her chest. “Nothing. Why?”
“We’re camping tonight. Want to join us?” When she didn’t immediately say “yes”, Thaen drove onward with increasing enthusiasm. “We camp a couple times every month. Others are coming too: Evermore, Ilthyn, and Mianda from class. You know them?”
She studied Cohthel for a long moment. “Aren’t you the one who did backflips on top of the courtyard wall last school year?”
Cohthel, unable to resist showing off a skill Thaen couldn’t do, bowed, and used his upward momentum and swinging arms to bring his feet up, over, and back down into the sand.
Neleci clapped. “The acrobat. I remember!”
“Fffpppttt.” Thaen flapped his hand. “That’s easy.”
“I would love to come camping.”
“Great!” Thaen plumped his voice to sound more masculine. “Meet us at the bridge at the nineteenth hour.”
“I’ll be there. Thank you so much.” She walked from the training yard back into the administrative building.
Cohthel whirled on Thaen. “You invited her to our dare game?”
“So? She’s the torc’s daughter. We don’t invite just anyone into our game…especially not the kindred who will report us to the man who can punish us!”
“Punish us for what? This dare isn’t illegal.”
Cohthel caught sight of the Ranger Hierarch striding across the yard. “Training is finished today,” the Ranger Hierarch said. “Well done everyone. Evermore, will I see you next school day?”
Cohthel grabbed his shirt off the post and slipped into it. “I’m still on trial. I haven’t decided who to apprentice with yet.”
“You’re welcome back here.”
“Thanks.” Cohthel resisted sounding dry.
He returned to his classroom to check out for the day and walked home, finishing his chores he decided were too much for one boy and got dinner ready for Mother when she walked in the door, eager to treat her to one of his edible creations.
He had stocked their reserve with wild edibles he gathered. Mother allowed him this intrinsic hobby because his meals always turned out original and, most of all, delicious. Also free and saving her a trip to the market vendors. She used his cooking as an excuse to nag him over choosing general laborer so he would start his own restaurant.
Tonight his wild edible experiment yielded roasted dandelion roots, a salad with dandelion leaves, and a thickened elderberry jam for the dressing.
A cold nub of sadness gathered in his throat without warning, confused where it came from, then tracked its birth to seeing those men walking the street as he went to apprentice with Thaen. Ridiculous how seeing them bothered him, but his heart felt what his heart felt. Growing up without a father only bothered him intermittently the last ten years since he had Thaen’s father to fill the gap if only partially. But the first day of school when his future forced him around and shoved impossible questions at him brought to the glaring front the realization that Cohthel had no answers. And now he stood on the edge of his future unprepared and anxious because he didn’t know if he should climb, jump, or fly.
If Mother even suspected his internal grief, she’d try curing him with a hug like he was still six. He carried this new irritation into his room, eyebrows hunched deep over his eyes like storm clouds as he gathered his camping gear after dinner. He hollered to Mother a general description of where he would be the rest of the night and headed to the door, reaching his hand up to the wall beside the door on instinct. Fingers touched wood instead of Father’s canvas. He paused, sucked in a stinging breath, and left, dragging both heels toward the bridge.
He arrived just in time. Neleci leaned against the bridge’s balustrade, clutching a blanket and bag to her chest in front of Thaen who looked like he’d been encroaching her space over the past few minutes. She still wore her ankle boots and tight leggings, a long belted shirt reaching both knees. A silk head-wrap concealed the top of her head and throat but black hair slipped in front of her eyes.
Neleci turned her ivory, autumn duskskin face toward Cohthel. Human skin changed color with the season and the sun. Burnt-gold skin during the day softened into a cool white at night.
“Evermore!” Neleci smiled, a warm gesture quite different from Mianda’s whose smiles looked like she was preparing to wrestle with you.
“Hey, Neleci. You made it.”
“Thanks for the invite again.”
“Absolutely. And look, there’s Ilthyn and Mianda.”
The pair came up the road together, Mianda laughing at something the elf said.
When they joined the group, Thaen took command and introduced everyone to Neleci and then the five of them crossed over the bridge out of the Human Realm onto the caravan road.
“This way!” Thaen walked off the road and down into the brush, everyone following. Tripping over rocks, batting away ferns and willow branches, Cohthel concluded Thaen had no idea where he was going.
“Thaen!” he called to the young man leading the group. “Where are we—”
“Shhh! We’re almost there.”
Cohthel didn’t believe in a there. Only what Thaen decided on a whim.
After ten more minutes, Thaen thrust his fist into the sky, the hand signal rangers used for “halt”. After bumbling into each other, everyone stopped as well.
He turned. “This is it. Unpack and then Evermore will do his dare first.”
“Dare?” Neleci asked Cohthel.
“We dare each other to do things.” Cohthel shrugged.
“What kind of things?”
“Lots of things.”
She seemed to pick up on that he wasn’t willing to elaborate, because she withdrew and stopped asking.
They set down their bags and blankets and followed Cohthel through the trees. The cemetery the night before gave him an idea for his dare. He perfected the idea while he patched the roof in preparation for winter.
He reached his preplanned spot with still some daylight to spare. He crouched down, everyone following, and shifted aside the orange leaves, opening a clear view of the weathered nub of lichen-spotted stone better resembling rock than an ancient grave marker emplaced inside the tight ring of pine trees.
Thaen bumped against his shoulder as he nestled on his stomach next to Cohthel on the cold ground. “The Oath Ghost? Really?” he asked in a tone paired with boredom.
Cohthel pulled an apple from the sack he’d tied to his belt and took a bite. “Drop the act. You sound bored no matter what dare you’re given.”
“I am bored. No one dares as good as me.” Thaen raised himself on his elbows. “What do I need to do?” he said in that you’re-wasting-my-time tone.
Cohthel looked out across the ground twenty yards toward the nub of stone and the Oath Ghost sitting in front of it.
Despite being dead for over three hundred years, the Oath Ghost — nothing but skeleton now — still packed murder somewhere between his bones naked to the wind whistling through them with a disturbing eeeee sort of noise, attacking anyone who got too close to the grave. To get here, Cohthel had to duck under the chain marking off this area holding signs every ten feet saying “Keep out. Danger.”
Cohthel took one more bite out of his apple and handed the core to Thaen. “I dare you to shove this in his eye socket.”
Thaen rolled his eyes. “Lame.” Took the apple core, and rose to both knees. “Hey, maybe they never found your father’s body because he turned into an Oath Ghost and he’s scrambling across Eloshonna fulfilling his oath.”
“Ya. Maybe. Now stop delaying, otherwise, I’ll think you’re scared.”
Thaen grinned and crawled out of their cover.
Cohthel told the rest of them the final demise of his father’s body, a reason no one accepted. Instead, they took turns fabricating more ridiculous reasons why no one recovered his body that had nothing to do with sharks: he fell off a cliff into the sea and some cannibalistic seadweller ate him. He learned how to turn invisible and he’s unable to make himself reappear again. He rode a pegasi who’s terrified of the ground and hasn’t landed because of it for ten years. The Dark Elves kidnapped him and are holding him underground, forced to trim their toenails and put their long white hair in top knots.
Cohthel laughed at the absurdity. But no matter how much he laughed, he could not scrub off his mind Mother’s fearful face when he had first asked his question.
As soon as Thaen vacated his spot under the bush, Ilthyn shuffled into it on his elbows.
Ilthyn was more Thaen’s friend than Cohthel’s, though Cohthel didn’t understand why because the two couldn’t be more opposite. Cohthel concluded the friendship withstood solely because of the benefits Thaen surrounded himself with: sixteen-year-old Dusutri-Mianda rivaled a full-grown male in strength, Ilthyn’s elven eyes saw in the dark, and Cohthel could turn invisible — Thaen’s most prized possession.
“What did you dare him to do?” Neleci asked.
“Shove my apple core in the Oath Ghost’s eye socket.”
“But that’s mean!” Ilthyn said. “You’ll hurt his feelings.”
“Hurt Thaen’s feelings?”
“No. The Oath Ghost’s.”
“The Oath Ghost? Ilthyn…” Cohthel pointed at the Oath Ghost and Thaen approaching from behind with some weird sneaking tactic he must have learned from his older brother because it looked too knuckling odd to be anything taught at school. “The Oath Ghost is dead. The dead don’t have feelings.”
Because of the tight space beneath the bush also crowded with a moss-crusted log, Mianda grabbed, elbowed, and kneed her way on top of both of them, lowering her head between their ears.
Cohthel grunted against the extra weight pressing his chest into the hard dirt. Dusutri bones were twice as dense — twice as heavy — as humans’. Rumor held they could jump off a two-story building and not break any bones. Mianda had never tried, would never try even though Thaen dared her often.
The quiet manner she spoke, the small clothes she wore, her black-dyed hair even though dusutri genes gave her a corn-yellow color all attempted to fool everyone she was human. Her desperate craving to fit into the human race she half belonged equaled Cohthel’s need to have a father. This is why they bonded so well, spending nights expressing their wants no other ear would hear. They understood each other on a level no one else did. Though a friend, Thaen represented the enemy of both their wants: born full human and raised by a father.
“Your elven eyes can see from here, dummy.” Mianda pointed as well. “You can see the Oath Ghost doesn’t have a heart or brain, so it’s incapable of feelings.”
“Something is alive in there. What else makes the Oath Ghost walk? This is sacrilege.” Ilthyn’s elven heritage drove him to treat death with reverence and ceremony.
Thaen reached the Oath Ghost without drawing its attention. He had removed his boots somewhere and walked heel-to-toe in his socks to the skeleton’s back who sat hunched over, staring at the nub of stone melted down by rain, wind, and snow. Thaen now hovered over the Oath Ghost, working out the best angle to deposit the core and dash. Cohthel imagined he only got that close because the Oath Ghost lacked ears to hear his approach.
As if he’d practiced many times for this same thing, Thaen popped the apple core through the Oath Ghost’s right eye socket and sprinted away faster than a spooked falkon.
The Oath Ghost, motionless until this point and lacking organs, muscle, and blood, stood, turned, and screamed as if he had muscles, lungs, and revenge.
Cold worry for Thaen chilled Cohthel, watching the skeleton’s long legs eat the distance behind Thaen, bones rattling and knocking.
Thaen jumped through a bush, and the skeleton stopped and screamed — jaw clapping in aggravation until a tooth popped out — in sickening animation of what happens when you fail the oath to the god you swore.
The skeleton wheeled and tromped back toward the grave marker, trying to shake the core out of his eye by clack-clacking his bony hand against his skull. At some point his bones would fade, break, and disintegrate to dust, setting his listless, invisible soul wandering until the end of the world if he still did not fulfill his oath before then. No one knew what oath he swore, but everyone agreed it had something to do with the grave he guarded. At least everyone assumed the skeleton was male because of broad shoulders and no hips.
Cohthel bucked his shoulders to get Mianda off him, then he and Ilthyn shuffled backward out of view.
Thaen came running at them from the left, holding his boots, a massive grin splitting his ivory face and lifting his high eyebrows higher. “Yeah? Yeah?”
“You could have died.” Ilthyn’s elven culture held his emotions in check so he could have said anything else in the same tone and sounded as indifferent. “This dare game is bound to kill us.”
Cohthel agreed, but one fact would hold: whoever died would not be the loser.
“We should make a rule,” the elf said, “against certain dares we absolutely cannot do.”
A good idea, except they’d already violated this rule three times.
Thaen pulled his boots on and the five of them walked back under the chain to the “safe side” near the dirt road, the dancing shadows of honey sunbeams reaching through the trees overhead dark with birds preparing for flight.
Their stupid dare game fingered danger. There wasn’t even going to be a reward for the winner. Cohthel supposed the motivation wasn’t so much who would win but who would lose because, for sure, the loser would hear of their failure the rest of their life. The loss might impinge any chance they had finding a girl: “You lost the game of dare? No. I won’t court you.” Likely not, but…better not lose. Just in case.
They walked back to camp, a unanimous vote nominating Cohthel to make dinner since he cooked the best out of all of them, but he declined. A heated debate followed and Thaen lost, who grumbled as he sat down for the task while everyone else spread throughout the campsite, snapping off branches and gathering clumps of weeds.
“Are you making a bonfire?” Neleci asked, her wheat-colored gaze bouncing from kindred to kindred.
“No. It’s for my dare.” Ilthyn rose from his crouch, holding branches. “Thaen dared me to sleep naked on bare ground from sunset to sunrise. So we’re making me a lean-to to block the wind.”
“He’s cheating!” Thaen hollered from the camp fire.
“Shut up and finish my food.” Mianda threw a stick in his direction.
“Sleep naked?” Neleci gasped. “It’s autumn. You’ll freeze!”
Ilthyn shrugged with indifference and picked up another stick. Elves were born with a metallic-like sheen to their gold or silver-colored hair. Atypical of elven culture, Ilthyn dyed his hair black and cut his as short as Thaen’s but for a single rebellious braid hanging down the left side of his head. Cohthel wondered if Ilthyn would rather be human.
“Do you like living in the castle?” Cohthel asked Neleci, unearthing more weed clumps.
“I would much rather live in a small house.”
“You kidding?” Cohthel reached the spot they would build Ilthyn’s lean-to and dropped his gathered branches at his boots. “And give up all the finery in the castle? I mean, everyone else does your chores, cleans, and cooks.”
Mianda joined their circle and dropped her sticks, pushing poorly dyed black hair out of her eyes. “That should be enough.”
“Until it takes me five minutes to reach the kitchen from my room,” Neleci argued. “I know my father did it to deter me from snacking between meals.”
“Hey! What are you talking about over there?” Thaen stood next to the fire cutting harsh shadows across his ivory face, frowning like a despondent dog locked outside and watching the warmth and festivities going on through the window without him.
“Your bad haircut.” Mianda made hand gestures above her head.
Thaen self-consciously flattened his spiked blond hair while he scowled. “Dinner’s ready.”
Dinner wasn’t ready when the five of them sat down at the fire, the potatoes still raw, but Thaen achieved his goal for attention nonetheless and claimed a seat next to Neleci.
“The color of your eyes look elven.” Thaen smiled at Neleci. “Are you part elven?”
Her eyes looked identical to Ilthyn’s. Human eye color varied but all elves were born with wheat-colored eyes.
“No. I’m fully human.”
“Your eyes are beautiful.”
With pleasure, Cohthel watched her eye roll nearly fall out of her head, indicating Thaen’s compliment betrayed she often received compliments and thought them as useless as three separate forks for one meal.
“They’re unveiling eyes.” She removed her headscarf with a sharp jerk of her wrist, her building irritation clear. “Which means I can see the unseen. All elves have the same eyes,” she nodded Ilthyn’s direction. “A genetic defect in all other races get them too sometimes.” Her face scrunched. “I haven’t figured out an actual use for it yet.”
“Cohthel can turn invisible!” Thaen blurted in excitement, but realizing that took the attention off himself, he repaired with, “but it’s not that interesting.”
Cohthel looked at Thaen, displeased. No other kindred outside his family and immediate friends knew he could turn invisible. Mother engrained into his youth to never turn invisible in front of others.
“Will you show me?”
Cohthel pursed his lips. “No.” He consented to talk about it, not prove it. He didn’t want Torc Thoraus bringing him to court for accusations that he stole from so-and-so’s house while invisible.
Spying while invisible.
Vandalizing while invisible.
Assaulting someone while invisible.
The list of endless accusations went on. Can’t find something you misplaced? Blame the invisible boy for taking it. Dog got sick? Blame the invisible boy for poisoning him. Child walked off and no one can find him? Blame the invisible boy for kidnapping him. So long as he never showed anyone, rumors of his ability would remain hearsay only, and not admissible in court.
Neleci dropped her eyebrows and slumped both shoulders. “Will you tell me how you turn invisible? No one has been born with R’th since the R’th God Astorous disappeared.”
“My parents took me to Fate’s Shrine after I was born.” Cohthel chewed on his half-cooked potatoes.
“The Goddess of Fate will grant R’th abilities to babies if she sees reason in that baby’s future for them to have it.” He rubbed his chin only because Thaen scratched his. “My parents claim I’m the first human in two hundred years to get one. If there are more, they’re keeping it quiet like me. Mine was invisibility, but I have not yet figured out what Fate ever intended I use it for.”
“Wow.” Neleci watched Cohthel, unnerving him. “How lucky is it I, who can see invisibility, meet you who can turn invisible?”
“Coincidence,” Cohthel said before she shot toward a tangent on destiny. Many kindred believed some eternal being had mapped out their individual existence and they just had to follow along and count every happenstance as another part of this obscure destiny they chased. Even lazy, unmotivated Cohthel knew destiny theories came from Mother’s generation to give them an excuse for not choosing an apprenticeship.
“But we want to hear more about you, Neleci.” Thaen set down his untouched food and leaned back on his elbow. “Tell us what it’s like living in the castle with your father being the current torc.”
Neleci’s sigh betrayed she didn’t want to talk about her life in the castle anymore than Cohthel wanted to prove he could turn invisible. But she talked while they finished dinner, Cohthel throwing his last bundle of pine boughs against the questionable stability of sticks they christened as a lean-to, and Ilthyn hustled beneath it as if already enjoying this.
“Hand them out!” Thaen stood with a ready hand as Ilthyn passed each item of clothing out. “See you in twenty minutes.”
“I’ll see your girlfriend in twenty minutes!”
Thaen shot the lean-to a dark glance, looking at Neleci with a grin. “He’s joking. I don’t have a girlfriend.”
“He’s going to freeze.” Concern wrinkled Neleci’s forehead.
“Only if he lets himself,” Thaen shouted so Ilthyn would hear. “But if he doesn’t he’d lose the dare, and I’ll win.”
Ilthyn did not emerge after Thaen’s guess of twenty minutes. From beneath the lean-to, the elf exaggerated his comfort and warmth. Cohthel doubted his claims because even clothed in front of the fire and wrapped in a blanket, he wanted to scoot closer to Mianda to share their blankets and retain body heat. Ilthyn didn’t bring a blanket. Said he didn’t want the temptation.
So Ilthyn would be dead come morning. But at least he would’ve completed the dare. And he wouldn’t be the loser.
Cohthel noticed Neleci intentionally bedding down next to him and how put-out Thaen appeared when he looked over.
Cohthel laid on his back under the blanket, staring up at the Golden Spoor. The pathway of copper stars clustered together so one might trust themselves to walk across them if only they could fly that high. Many believed the spread bridged Everlasting Earth where the gods lived.
Neleci peeped little noises from under her blanket. She’d cocooned herself, even her head. Cohthel didn’t understand why her blanket vibrated until he heard ffft fft ftt beneath the wool.
“Neleci, you okay?”
“I’m c-cold,” came her muffled response from under the blanket.
Cohthel felt the instant Thaen’s instincts switched from cold to hot, and like an ecthore primed for hunting, Thaen threw back his blanket. “Neleci, you can share mine.”
Neleci’s black hair popped out from under her blanket, gold eyes blinking at Cohthel. She looked at Thaen who grinned, then back at Cohthel. “Can I share yours?”
Panic turned Cohthel’s skin brittle and for some reason he felt hot and swamped under his blankets. Locked up, he didn’t know what to do, so he did nothing. And she, taking his silence as a no, did not ask again.
Cohthel found justifications for his inability to break his silence: he needed to figure out an apprenticeship before he figured out females.
He still spent the night listening to her shiver.