A mammal resembling more of a mountain than an animal. A towering arched spine reaches 10 feet at the apex. Brown leather hide. Four hooves. Favored by the dwarves.
- Horiot Edmere, “Eloshonna Fauna”
The caravan rolled into Malandore three days after leaving Forever Ice. Cohthel had been gone three months from home and where the drudgery of travel felt to him closer to a year, now his journey’s close all culminated into a passing whim, as if he’d yesterday walked east out of Malandore only to today enter again from the west. He recognized neighbors in the caravan crowd, even recognized their same clothes, some even standing in their usual spots.
The stagnant site made him question if humans had progressed at all in his absence, if any gains had been made toward science or technology, advances in health care. Dwarves worked constantly to fabricate new machines, the elves experimenting with the tensility of glass, even the ecthore who did not have ten fingers dug around and unearthed new historical discoveries from centuries ago.
The humans? They grew flax turned into linen for clothes sold throughout the Kingdom, but humanity had not yet grasped the inspiration to change its shape, color, or material. What other plants could be made into thread, yarn, massive sheets? What else for dyes but elderberry, dandelion, and tumeric root?
But to what avail? Mortality needed no more than food, water, and shelter. More advancement only brought more troubles. No, Cohthel gladdened in this stagnation, the return to familiar, the safe and predictable.
He had removed his invisibility before they reached Malandore so he wouldn’t alarm anyone with a rare R’th they wouldn’t understand — a lesson Mother had taught him at a young age. Atalixsphere grumbled on his back as her pain returned. Cohthel wasn’t as sore as he used to be. Markie commented that Cohthel looked more muscular, stronger, and that gave Cohthel a confidence boost so he started thinking about many things, like maybe he knew where he wanted to apprentice, and what he wanted in his future.
He found Mother standing in their usual spot, who spotted him as if he glowed with R’th light.
“Jumpy!” Mother threw arms around him without regard to the disgruntled pegasi on his back.
Cohthel squirmed inside her embrace, looking at everyone watching. He didn’t fight out of her arms because he needed Markie to see him as a good son.
“I missed you, son.”
He pulled back.
“And this is Atalixsphere, who you talked about in your letter?” Mother reached out a hand. Atalixsphere returned a limp shake without saying anything. “Have you grown taller?” Mother eyed him. “Or was I just blind to you growing up at all? And…and you have a sword now. It looks like it’s made entirely out of compressed R’th, but that’s impossible. How interesting! Where did you get it?”
He didn’t tell her about his sword in his letters. He could only explain divinity’s intervention to her face if he wanted her to believe him, especially since he’s the one who spoke to Fate and the Dream Woman, and yet he only believed the story himself part of the time. “I’ll tell you about it later. I want to introduce you to Markie.”
“Yes! I want to thank the man who watched after you.”
“Atalixsphere, I’m going to introduce my mother to Markie, and then I’ll get you to the hospital.”
When the last wagon passed, Cohthel pulled on Mother’s sleeve in case she thought she had a choice. The wagons circled in the cleared-out space amid the trees at the opposite end of Malandore.
Does Mother see how different the caravan is this time around? Notice how everyone sees themselves marked, see the strain as they individually come to terms with whatever plague crept upon Eloshonna branding pegasi, caging falkons, kidnapping dragons eggs and wondering if they’re next?
The show ended and the wagon sides dropped down. Markie stood next to his cart, already busy with a customer.
“Is that him?”
“The gray hair is deceiving. He’s thirty-five.”
“Can you believe I’ve seen him every other rotation attending the human cart and yet I don’t recognize him?” She laughed with a nervous quaver. “And I somehow imagined him fat. I don’t know why. His name gave me that impression. But how can someone still be fat after walking around Eloshonna?”
When the customers cleared, Cohthel pulled her forward.
Markie’s gaze shifted to Cohthel, then Mother. He smiled. Cohthel would give up his sword to find out why. “You must be Shiana.” He reached out his hand and Mother shook it. “I am Markie. You have a fine son. I was proud to sponsor him.”
Cohthel slipped out of the conversation like a greased pig in a wrestling match, walking around the caravan as if he’d never seen the wagons or their contents before. This is it. Markie worked with me every day for the last three months and only wrote letters to Mother. He’ll choose me over her and tell me about Father. Please, he prayed to all the Sovereign Gods. Sway Markie to my favor.
He looked into the future and witnessed his efforts to have finally paid off: Markie pulling him aside and detailing Father’s absence and where he might be now. Cohthel felt it in his bones. Cohthel would then turn his journey to where Father would be and rejoin with him, no matter what, no matter where.
He walked to the hospital with Atalixsphere. Between Forever Ice and Malandore, they discussed her welfare after Cohthel made his last stop in Malandore. Markie spoke with Kitannia on Cohthel’s — and Atalixsphere’s — behalf, asking Kitannia that since the elves returned her money she had spent on Atalixsphere’s stay in Yl Elyuon if she would use that money to hospitalize Atalixsphere in Malandore.
Surprisingly, Kitannia agreed, but then Cohthel reasoned Atalixsphere was nearly healed, so her stay would be shorter — thus cheaper — in Malandore.
He checked her into the hospital and helped her into her room, making sure she was settled and comfortable.
“I’ve never prayed before,” Atalixsphere said, nestling into her bed, “but I’m saying a prayer right now in gratitude that I never have to hear anymore idiocies from Sycain.”
“He’s fond of you.”
“I wish he’d be fonder with the bottom of the ocean.”
“Will you be okay here? I’ll visit.”
“I will be fine here. It was still incredibly stupid, but thanks for carrying me all that way.”
“Of course, Atalixsphere. I was happy to serve you.”
Her long ears flicked anxiously. “I want to return the favor. Since you carried me on your back all that distance, I am offering you mine.”
Cohthel stared…exactly like a stupid kindred…a long moment. “Carry me…on yours?”
“Yes. Have me exclusively, if you’ll accept.”
Even before the formation of the Kingdom, the realms of gryphon, pegasi, falkon, dragon, ecthore, human, seadwellers, elves, and dwarves coexisted without animosity. Historians, however, uncovered a strange phenomenon: every realm paid special service to the humans….specifically the humans. History admitted the reason for the Equality War’s conception was not clear, but the result birthed violent methods toward correcting a gross imbalance of equality. At the time of the war, this special service to the humans ceased. But around four hundred years ago, this special service commenced again.
Cohthel didn’t know why humans received this special attention, nor did anyone else, not even the kindred offering their exclusive service. “Instinctive” was their answer when asked where this bond toward humans came from. Stranger still, none of the other non-human kindred considered this exclusive service racist. The elves and dwarves gave Malandore technology, the flying races worked en mass for the humans, and all races contributed to building Malandore Castle, exclusive for human use.
Kindredpologists have yet to come up with an explanation to this instinctive service, and Cohthel never thought this service would be offered him directly.
“I would like that,” he said, swamped with shy awkwardness. “Thank you.”
He walked home, drained as if all the walking he’d done the past three months squeezed into that last twenty minutes.
He walked up to the house with simmering anticipation. He’d open the door and find himself standing in the living room — tall, arms folded, full beard, grinning at life’s accomplishments, his future course sharp and ascending.
The door swung open and he jerked to a halt as the overwhelming raw and naked energy battered into his gut and revealed the stinging truth that his home life remained still unchanged. As if he’d only left yesterday. As if expecting him to return to school tomorrow. He found immense comfort with this. He didn’t want to leave a boy and come back a man. He wanted to leave as he was and be accepted as he was upon his return. For that, he got it, and by affect he now felt more a man than he did the moment before.
His bedroom did change, however. The wood floor glistened with lemon oil polish with so much concentration the chink of sun through his window reflected off the wood and blinded him. He marveled at Mother’s boredom if she reveled in the chance to deep-clean his room.
He lay on his bed — Mother had washed the sheets and tightened the corners — anxious over Markie and Mother until he exhausted himself. Sleepless, he outlined his to-do list: three months in the caravan proved he didn’t want an apprenticeship; he wanted to travel and not stay rutted in rigid monotony. Kitannia had already offered him work when she came back in three months. She liked his invisibility and the things he could be useful for. No use going back to school now. He’d fallen behind and the school board would recycle him to next year, a year behind the rest of his peers and still lacking interest in any apprenticeship.
The front door opened. Mother’s light footsteps entered. He was halfway out of his room before his feet caught up with him, swinging around his doorway and surprising Mother with his abrupt entry.
He stopped, quelling shaking hands. He didn’t want to appear too eager but failed. “How did it go?”
“Oh…” She looked at the ceiling, lips melting into a smile. “He’s very nice. Had a lot to say about you. I invited him to dinner. It’s the least I could do to pay him back for caring for you.”
Cohthel grumbled. He hoped Markie would reject her and come straight over and tell him about Father. Hopefully, Mother would make a fool of herself over dinner. And after? He’d finally know about Father.
He set the table while Mother cooked, suddenly noticing thousands of things around the house that needed his immediate attention: the gummy spot on the floor he took a spoon to, dust and crumbs on the window sill he wiped with a cloth, the crate by the front door he’d left there for so long that weeds crew through the slates. Removing it didn’t help. The grass had died and betrayed the crate’s existence.
Markie arrived as Mother set the softened butter on the table. She’d found time to dress herself while Cohthel worried that Markie wouldn’t talk because the wood pile wasn’t in a neat enough pile. Cohthel noticed she’d taken a little more care with her hair. Washed her face and hands. Wore a dress reserved for special occasions. Perfume. His hopes sunk.
Cohthel rushed the door when Markie knocked and opened it like he imagined the doorman did for Torc Thoraus. “Markie, welcome.” Markie stepped in and Cohthel embraced him like Cohthel was six and not sixteen. “So glad you could make it!” Cohthel beamed, outshining Mother with every fiber in him.
Mother swooshed by, pale red skirt sweeping over the braided rug on her way to the hearth to light more candles. Red looked good with her blond hair. Too good. “Feel honored. I only get hugs when I demand them.”
Markie tousled Cohthel’s curls. “You keep a fine house, Shiana.”
No! No she doesn’t!
“Thank you. Dinner is ready.”
Long strides took Markie into the kitchen dueling as the dining room. Cohthel had pulled the table, normally pressed against the wall under the window, out to seat an extra kindred. Cohthel sat next to Markie, washed, and wearing his best. Even his curly hair always obeying a different torc than what Cohthel demanded listened to him for once and complimented his looks instead of standing in opposition. Tonight he would represent the most flawless young man on Mortal Earth, no matter Markie had already seen him pick his nose, spit, pass gas, belch, whine, slurp, drool, and pee on the wagon wheel in the middle of the night because he was too tired to walk downstream.
Dinner commenced, Mother sliding easily into dialogue with Markie as if she’d had dinner with him every night for the past three months. She sat without fidgeting, meeting his eyes, even spilled a drop of gravy on her sleeve she wiped off without care.
Cohthel kicked himself for not snooping in Markie’s letters in the lockbox and reading their back-and-forth correspondences. Now he felt like a ranger heading to fight the Dark Elves with a stick instead of a sword — ill-prepared and a step behind.
Markie and Mother laughed at shared jokes, Mother more beautiful in her make-up and dress than Cohthel could remember. He slumped further and further in his seat, shoulders drooping, smile crumbling. Too disheartened to eat the dessert Mother served which was, apparently, Markie’s favorite he told her about in one of his letters.
And Markie’s smile? Cohthel had never seen him so happy, so hopeful, so certain. Markie would not betray Mother by going against her wishes and telling Cohthel about Father.
No. Markie would betray him. The last kindred willing to talk about Father was not willing anymore.