A subterranean mammal favored by the Dark Elves for transportation. Resembling a horse in size and shape, they deviate with a blue-scaled body and a worm-like tail. This worm-like tail is an extension of their anus. Since they live underground in sometimes tight spaces, and unable to “see”, they don’t want to step on their own feces so they lift their worm-like tail to a rock shelf above the ground and defecate there. There is no known explanation for the black miasma emanating from all four hooves.
- Horiot Edmere, “Eloshonna Fauna”
Cohthel met Markie on the walkway who came to see why Cohthel took so long.
“Undergod’s demons,” Markie said. “Atalixsphere, what are you doing? Evermore, put her back. She can’t come with us.”
“No, Markie.” Cohthel stepped past him. “I won’t leave her behind like this. She matters.” He walked down the walkway without slowing, head bent as he concentrated on bearing Atalixsphere’s weight. She weighed less in common, and thank goodness for her hollow bones accommodating flight, but she still added sixty pounds to his hips. Her added cast made him walk with a lopsided gait.
He’d reason with Kitannia to allow Atalixsphere to stay with the caravan. Kitannia would agree once she saw the injured kindred terrified of being left behind and alone, would agree as the realization that all kindred mattered confronted her with eternal truth.
Markie caught up to him as he reached the top of the main stairs leading down to the water where a boat would ferry them across the shallow pond. “Atalixsphere, please be reasoned with. Bringing you with us will inhibit your healing. Did they send meds with you? Did they send enough? Think about it.”
Atalixsphere snorted at him. “You stay behind if you’re so bothered.”
The flat-bottom glass boat touched on the stone landing afore the last stair where they stood. They boarded.
“Kitannia will not let you stay. You can’t reason sympathies with her. She cares for facts and logistics and not anyone’s feelings behind any of them. She’ll demand you go back.”
A worm of worry niggled in Cohthel’s gut. He hoisted Atalixsphere higher on his hips. Her pegasi knees bending the opposite direction made it more difficult to hold onto her.
The boat crossed the lake and docked. Cohthel trudged off. Markie followed behind. Cohthel went straight to the Caravan Master sitting astride her red horse overseeing the final efforts to disassemble camp.
Cohthel stopped behind Kitannia. “Caravan Master,” he said, panting from the unaccustomed strain.
Kitannia turned her head, looking down, long black braid slipping over her naked shoulder bared because of the sleeveless vest she wore. Her stormy gray eyes widened. “Evermore.” She nodded in greeting. “Atalixsphere. Did the elves turn you away? I wasn’t notified.”
Every word Cohthel had planned in explanation to her vanished out of both trembling knees. “She didn’t want to be left behind.”
Where he hoped Kitannia would explode in fury at him — he’d planned for it — she left him with no knuckling idea how to handle her silent, slow-blinking stare. Finally, she shrugged. “What’s it to me if you carry her the whole way? No matter. I’ll send a falkon to the infirmary and ask for reimbursement because the patient refused care.”
“Carry her? No, Caravan Master.” He’d never countered an adult, never countered anyone, not even Thaen when he pushed Cohthel to do what Cohthel absolutely did not want to do. He roiled sick with fear scrambling to learn how to argue now. “I mean to have her ride in the sick wagon.”
“Ride in the sick wagon?” She looked at Markie still standing behind Cohthel and Atalixsphere. “Markie, you’re this boy’s sponsor. Were you aware of his addled brain?”
Boy. Cohthel flamed with embarrassment. What was he doing acting on emotionally-driven impulse to think he could take Atalixsphere out of the perfect care of the elven infirmary and stand-off against the Caravan Master in some childish move of heroics?
“He surprised me, Caravan Master. Give me a moment to speak with him.”
“Very good. You’ll have to catch up with the caravan once you put Atalixsphere back. Move out!”
Wagon wheels groaned forward.
“Evermore.” Markie touched his arm.
“No!” Face hot with agonizing shame and embarrassment, Cohthel compelled Kitannia’s attention back to him. “Atalixsphere will ride in the sick wagon! She doesn’t want to be left behind.”
“Like I said.” She leaned far down over the saddle horn as if Cohthel were very, very small, tone delivered with acute feral. “What’s it to me if you carry her the whole way?” She straightened and looked at Markie. The last wagon rolled out of the field behind her. “Come, Markie, see to your wagon I’m paying you to attend.” She tapped her horse and turned, galloping out of shouting distance, disappearing into the tree tunnel leading toward the bridge and waterfalls.
Markie stepped toward the vanished caravan, turned back to Cohthel, stepped forward again. He punched the air with both fists. “Dammit, Evermore!”
Cohthel shrunk. Atalixsphere tightened on his back and snorted.
Markie inhaled and thrashed a large hand through his hair. “You’ve got to take her back.” His eyes shot to Atalixsphere. “Atalixsphere, we have to take you back.”
“I’ll break your leg and make you stay in a realm so far from home.”
“Atalixsphere,” Cohthel said with warning.
“Kitannia sent a falkon to the Pegasi Realm to notify your family—”
“Family won’t come,” she said.
Markie looked at Cohthel with conflict flushing both cheeks. “I have to catch the caravan. Kitannia is very good at docking pay for lack of attendance. I’ll send a falkon back to you so I’ll know how you’re faring.” He reached into the leg-long pocket on his pants and withdrew several links. “Take her back and use this to pay a gryphon to fly you to the caravan.” Patting his shoulder, Markie took off at a sprint toward the tree tunnel, then he, too, vanished inside the autumn-naked branches.
Another bug bit Cohthel’s cheek. He slapped it, grumbling at the growing itch now bubbled on his skin now faded sable in the winter nighttime.
“Why was the word ‘animal’ branded on me?” Atalixsphere asked early into the afternoon.
Having spent the entire morning silent, Cohthel feared he’d have to carry Atalixsphere without even the reward of conversation to take his mind off his exhausted legs and aching feet. He had hoped catch the caravan hours ago, but the painful reality that, with the unaccustomed weight, he walked slower than the caravan, he hadn’t even caught the dust trail yet.
“I don’t… know,” Cohthel said, panting. One hot foot in front of the other, bloodless needles pinging with every step.
“Kitannia said humans did it.”
Knuckling animals, Thaen had said.
Cohthel didn’t know how Kitannia knew, but implication of a cross-realm crime still lingered like an Oath Ghost. And why only tell Atalixsphere? Oh. Because Atalixsphere never talked to anyone.
“Must have been… bandits. Every realm has… their rogues.”
She didn’t argue. He relished in that relief. He wanted her to believe that rogue humans were anathema to good humans. A race outside the Kingdom.
The southern end of Eloshonna raised the humidity, encouraging wet jungle growth, intensifying both hot and cold temperatures. Halfway through Month of Gods, the iconic Deep Winter snows would now touch every morning in the north.
Cohthel wished for snow here. Would kill the bugs feasting on him and cool him down, even prevent sweat from soaking through his shirt.
“You made it very clear…” he said, “that you want to…stay away from everyone. So why…did you not…want to be left behind?”
A long pause. When she answered, her tone sounded accusing, as if Cohthel had done her wrong. “I’m terrified of being alone.”
“But you sleep…outside the caravan ring…Alone.”
“Because I don’t like kindred. I sleep close enough to hear other kindred, even if their singing annoys me, but far enough away no one says stupid things to me.”
“What do you consider stupid?”
“Kindred complaining of issues they have complete control to fix but don’t, Kindred who ignore common sense, complaining just to get attention. My cart companion several cycles back complained how she hated transfiguring into common because she thought it made her look ugly, and I politely informed her that we all agreed and she should avoid it if that was her concern, and she got so angry with me. She hasn’t spoken to me since, which I’m very glad. Didn’t want to hear more stupid thing she might say.”
“Do you think I’m stupid?”
“Yes. No sane kindred would carry me like you’re doing. I do thank you for it, though.”
He couldn’t argue. “Your family?” he asked regarding her declaration that family would not come to see her. Pegasi families came in a Mother-child structure only. The males mated freely, but then charged themselves as “protectors” of their entire flock and considered all baby pegasi theirs, and so took care of all of them equally.
“My mother is blind. Hasn’t flown all the time she raised me. My protector taught me how to fly.”
Cohthel wished her opening to him would have made him feel special, privileged, heroic, but he only felt pain in both feet and dislocated hips.
Markie had sent his promised falkon, who would flit back and forth from Cohthel to the caravan throughout the morning, afternoon, and now evening, notifying Cohthel of “drop bags” Markie left on the side of the trail with fresh water and food. Cohthel wished Markie would have just let him dehydrate and starve, because now he had to carry these bags with him, adding to the weight.
Oppressive dark came early to the thick jungle, Cohthel having to look straight at his boots to make certain he stayed on the road.
“Is the caravan far?” he asked the falkon following somewhere above him.
“Another three miles. They’ve been camped for two hours already.”
“I can’t do this anymore!” Cohthel stopped. His back had locked and numbed hours ago. Arches in both feet had surely fallen. His hips had ground into blubber, and legs would be wood come morning. If he lived to morning. He couldn’t even live three more miles.
What was he thinking carrying Atalixsphere? Walking with her on his back for nineteen straight days? “Kitannia will see reason and let Atalixsphere ride in the wagon,” he had lied to himself.
Father, give me strength. He imagined Father’s effortless power and energy filling his bones, concentrating hard, trying to connect with Father on some ethereal plane. He’d never tried spiritual induction before. No surprise when he came out of his meditation and his pain grounded him again.
“Can I have one of your pain killers?” He’d be lucky if he got three hours of sleep when he reached the caravan, to get up and do this again. And again. Nineteen. More times.
“Have as many as you need.”
She shouldn’t have said that. He meant to chew the entire bottle. He pulled the pill bottle out of the sack he’d tied to his belt but stopped when the falkon swooped in front of him.
“Dark Elves on the road behind you!” The falkon declared in panic. “Half a mile back. They are mounted.”
Cohthel panicked too, fumbling to get the pill bottle back in the sack. Pains forgotten, he gripped Atalixsphere’s legs and ran forward, adrenaline masking some of the pain thundering with every stomp stomp stomp of his hot boots. He trusted the Undergod more than he trusted this knuckling armistice paid for by Neleci.
Cohthel pulled his invisible layer over himself. Anything he picked off the ground went invisible too. Dark Elves did not see invisibility, unlike White Elves. Instead, they saw in the dark and heard heartbeats. He would not outrun the mounted Dark Elves. He turned a hard left into the trees, weaving around and under jungle growth. Far enough away he trusted they wouldn’t hear his heartbeat, he stopped and listened for their approach.
They came. Three of them, talking in that language which never caused their tongues to touch the roof of their mouths, making them always sound out of breath. They continued down the road not aware Cohthel and Atalixsphere hid inside its shadows. Cohthel waited another minute, then maneuvered back onto the road.
He hoisted Atalixsphere higher on his hips, noticing instantly the pain had vanished: hips, feet, and back.
“Your medication is amazing,” he told Atalixsphere. “It’s helping a lot. Thank you. I feel so good, I could run the rest of the way.”
“Mine kicked in full force, too.”
“Thank goodness for medication!” he declared in delirious relief. He ran forward. Since the pain didn’t come back, he didn’t stop, enjoying himself now. In under an hour, they reached the caravan. A seadweller and dragon in common still circled their fire talking in low voices.
Cohthel approached the wagon circle. Several armed attendants stood outside the circle, parallel to the road. Falkons must have alerted them to the approaching Dark Elves who must have either passed by or taken a different trail into the trees. They nodded to him as he entered the circle behind them. He found Markie leaning against the wagon wheel writing a letter. Probably to mother. How Cohthel wished he could read it. He removed his invisible layer.
The instant he did so, the pain returned with such power, shock, and fatigue Cohthel gasped and buckled.
“You okay?” Atalixsphere asked.
“Your pain medication just wore off all at once. The pain came back full force.” Limping over to Markie, Cohthel knelt and helped Atalixsphere maneuver off his back onto the dirt. The load removed, he swore he was floating away.
“Whoa!” shouted someone from the caravan circle. “Atalixsphere, you’re finally joining us? But I don’t know if there’s room for you. You might be in everyone’s way.”
“Fat kindred should not tell other kindred they are the ones in the way,” she snapped back.
The unnamed man retreated from the dialogue with a grumble.
“Evermore!” Markie beamed. “If carrying her all that way isn’t the mark of a true man, I don’t know what is.”
Man? Cohthel didn’t feel like a man back in Yl Elyuon, not while facing Kitannia’s disdain and Markie’s frustrations. “Markie, how can you say I’m a man when you displayed your frustrations with me earlier for having taken her?”
He turned his eyes down and frowned. “You put me in a difficult position. Kitannia owns me and yet you made me choose between earning my pay and defending a young man I consider my son.”
What? Cohthel stared at him, slack jaw. Son?
Markie lifted a can of ointment. “I have hot stones and muscle rub ready for you.”
Unable to wade through the thick cotton of fatigue to analyze Markie’s reference to ‘son’, Cohthel bowed his head in gratitude. “Markie…” He barely formed the words through his fatigue. “…I made a mistake.”
He leaned forward on his knees and thanked all the gods for keeping him alive. He sat down and removed his boots, blood soaked through his socks. The cotton stuck to his feet as he peeled them off.
“There’s no such thing as mistakes. Only choices. You chose to carry her.”
I sure did.
Sacrificing his sleep, Markie attended to Atalixsphere’s bed. She let him — if soundless and didn’t so much as mutter a “thank you” — and soon Atalixsphere slept, long black ears twitching.
He next made Cohthel comfortable on the bedroll and set fire-warmed stones down his naked back and both legs. Muscles warmed, Markie kneaded the tight muscles with his palm then slathered a generous amount of peppermint ointment into Cohthel’s skin, the cooling burn forcing muscles to un-seize.
Cohthel didn’t see, but Markie told him Kitannia walked by and looked…impressed. Though with Kitannia, it could either be an impression of Cohthel’s determination or his deep stupidity.
Earlier, Cohthel feared he wouldn’t be able to sleep that night, but he birthed into a second life by the time Markie finished. He thought about the oddity of the pain medication having dropped off suddenly like it did, especially in perfect timing with him removing his invisibility. Odder still, he remembered pulling the pill bottle out but didn’t remember opening the lid and taking one because the falkon warned of the Dark Elves approach.
He must have taken one because the pain vanished instantly. Completely pain-free while he ran invisible with Atalixsphere on his back.
Only, he still never remembered opening the bottle. Or swallowing one whole.
Sycain sauntered over to their wagon from one of the fires reserved for drying clothes, shirtless, belt sagging over one hip.
“There’s no help.” Sycain dropped an unidentified charred mess to the dirt. “That was my one and only shirt. Slipped off the line straight into the fire.”
“Oh, Sycain, I’m so sorry,” Markie said. “I have a spare—”
“No help. I mean the cold doesn’t bother me so I’ll be fine. I am worried about the Caravan Master, though, having to stare at this muscled body all day.”