Fantasy where heroes don't follow the rules
Image by Angela Cutler
The 5 Sovereign Gods are embodied into Mortal Earth; Weather, Earth, Water, Astral, Life.
Do not sin against them, and offer the appropriate sacrifice or they will revoke their blessings to you.
- On Religion
Cohthel woke to a clamor of knocking sticks, blinking sunlight out of his eyes, catching a flash of white skin as a skinny, naked Ilthyn dashed to his pile of clothes held in the custody of a sleeping Thaen.
“L-light a f-f-fire, s-someone!” Ilthyn struggled into his clothes, the task made harder by his shaking. Hot breath bloomed out of his mouth into the chilly morning.
Cohthel peeled the blanket off, but when the frigid snap of morning shot straight through his linen shirt, he pulled the blanket over his head. Five blankets on his living room floor in front of the fire would still not be enough.
“Aaaaaah!” Ilthyn screamed.
“Run around!” Cohthel barked. “Get the blood moving. That will warm you faster than a fire.”
His pants on — not buttoned — Ilthyn sprinted into the trees, whooping and hollering while punching both arms into his shirt to get the stiff linen on.
“Undergod’s knuckles.” Thaen watched Ilthyn dash into the trees. “I didn’t think he’d complete it.” His tone suggested “complete it” also meant “live.”
Cohthel wanted a fire and no one else volunteered. He peeled the blanket off again and struck flint to steel before the first shivers gnawed on him. The sparks bit into the rusty pine needles, crackling and smoking. Assured the flames would not die, Thaen, Neleci, and Mianda emerged, huddling so close to the fire he feared the flames would lose oxygen and burn out. Neleci looked worse than the Oath Ghost last night. Likely hadn’t slept at all the past six hours. Cohthel felt bad but still did nothing about it.
Ilthyn came back, huffing, his alabaster face splotched with angry purple tones. Elven skin remained white. It did not change with the daylight or seasons like human skin.
“Ilthyn?” Thaen spun on him. “Did you have a pleasant sleep?”
“Absolutely. Can’t wait to do it again.”
“Easy to say when you can’t repeat dares. What kind of dream did you have?”
“Oh…” Ilthyn spun his delicate fingers in the air as if unable to choose his favorite. “It involved Calissa.”
“Liar. You didn’t sleep a wink. I dared you to sleep on hard ground.”
“I did so sleep. I swear on the Undergod’s knuckles. I won’t play your bluff. I slept, and that is that.” The elf sat to breakfast beneath the harsh shine of Thaen’s glaring.
Cohthel avoided making dinner, but Thaen threatened made-up crimes if he did not make them breakfast. Cohthel recruited everyone to cut the vegetables he then softened in hot bacon grease, seasoned with the special blend he foraged in the summer and dried: onion, bergamot, and nettle. His experimental cooking earned another approval from his testing subjects. They packed up camp and trudged toward the caravan road, the rising sun melting morning dew tucked into the shadows between the ruts.
Thaen bumped Cohthel. “Don’t think that she asked to share your blanket because she likes you. She was just cold.”
Cohthel said nothing.
They reached the bridge. Neleci, dirty knees, smelling of smoke, and despite Cohthel snubbing her proposition last night, looked happier than a pegasi foal with a new ball.
“Do you have other plans today?” she asked.
Cohthel resigned himself to the fact everyone in Malandore would now know their game since Thaen invited the torc’s daughter to play with them. “Since Ilthyn completed his dare, it’s now his turn to dare someone.”
“Should I meet you back here at the bridge?” she asked.
Thaen stepped forward. “You can meet me at my house. I live–”
“Thaen, she’d be more lost than the lost god Astorous looking for your house.”
“It’s not that hard, Evermore. From the castle, head Northwest. The road splits at the end and you’ll take the left fork, then the fourth alley down. There will be steps at the end, but don’t go all the way down them. Turn right at the faded wooden sign nailed to the building. From there count six porches—”
“If you actually want to find us again,” Cohthel looked hard at Thaen, “from this bridge take the first road on your right. My house is behind the creek and little bridge.”
“Oh, ah, I think I’ll go to Evermore’s house, then.”
Thaen scrunched his nose and mouthed something Cohthel couldn’t make out.
“See you later, Neleci,” Thaen purred.
Her quick expression of disgust vanished beneath a farewell wave. “Thanks again!”
“Do you want an escort home?” Thaen asked
She turned and ran away from the bridge.
“You freaked her out,” Cohthel said. “Your predator vibes worried me.”
“I was not giving off predator vibes.”
“Yes, you were,” Mianda said.
The four of them split. Having slept about as well as Ilthyn on the hard ground, Cohthel pushed aside all shame when he returned home and napped until noon.
He shuffled into the living room and found a wooden grave marker next to the front door.
Unmistakable; a red blood-drop shape the size of a pumpkin — the symbol for Sovereign Life in charge of sorting souls after death into their earned eternity. A long wood stake stuck out from the flat bottom so the marker would stay upright in high winds.
“Oh, Jumpy.” Mother, hands juicy from the apples she mashed, swished out of the kitchen and looked at Father’s grave marker with Cohthel for a good minute, silent, as if finally after ten years giving Father a moment of ceremonial silence symbolic to his death. “I wondered if you would like to take the marker to your bench outside and carve something personal on it, and then we’ll take it to the cemetery.”
A steady throb pounded in Cohthel’s temple. Why didn’t your mother erect a grave marker ten years ago?
“Brother, you don’t even remember having a funeral for him.”
“I was six.”
“You remembered him giving you your Evermore nickname at six.”
Cohthel shuffled to the grave marker and picked it up. A professional hand carved Father’s name, but no other information. Not a date of death or “in memory” of. Not even made of stone.
He shook Thaen’s encroaching voice out of his head and went outside to the workbench, securing the marker in the vice. He fisted his chisel, hand hovering, but unable to touch tip to surface; chiseling up the bits of wood shavings would feel too similar to shoveling dirt for a grave, like burying a body who’d been waiting ten years for interment.
Spite flooded all ten knuckles when he squeezed the chisel handle.
Why didn’t your mother erect a grave marker ten years ago?
Everyone deals with death their own way.
You don’t even remember having a funeral for him.
I was six.
You remembered him giving—
He set the chisel down with unintentional force, unclamped the grave marker, and went back inside. Mother looked over her shoulder from the table where she’d started eating lunch.
“I can’t think of anything to carve.” Cohthel set the marker on the table next to him, unexplainably out of breath. Finally together as a family for the first time in ten years.
“Okay, Jumpy. You can always carve it later if you think of something.”
Mother talked of her work at textile and asked Cohthel if he’d chosen an apprenticeship yet, of the caravan coming to town soon and neighborhood gossip. About anything but the grave marker on the table near her elbow.
“Ready?” Mother asked with a smile at lunch’s conclusion.
Cohthel bore the cheap weight of the wooden marker to the Faunt family plot at the cemetery, staking it into the ground where Mother directed. He stood beside her, her warm arm wrapping him as they stared at Father’s grave marker.
The belated ceremony, like a chore complete instead of a memory remembered. Cohthel shook Mother’s arm off and walked home, around the house, chopped wood over and over and over, ate dinner.
Thaen came around the corner of the house and startled him.
“What’s with the flinch? You okay?”
Cohthel swung the ax down harder. Crack! He didn’t need to lend Thaen’s Father-without-a-grave theory anymore support. “I’m fine.”
Ilthyn and Mianda came around the corner of the house, Ilthyn’s single black braid sweeping past his long, pointed ear. “Hiya, Evermore.”
Too nice to tell his friends he didn’t want to play tonight, that he wanted to be left alone irritated and angry, he forced a grin and faced them. “What’s your dare, Ilthyn?”
Thaen stepped forward. “I advise, for the good of the group, he forfeits his dare to someone else.”
“Since your dares are always lame and stupid.” Thaen glared at the elf.
“Not every dare has to poke death in the ribs,” Cohthel said. Ilthyn’s dares never hovered over mild, whereas Thaen’s has nearly lost toes, respects, and futures. “Are you suggesting he forfeit it to you?”
“It would be the sensible thing to do since my dares aren’t stupid.”
“No.” Ilthyn narrowed his gold eyes. “Only cause near-death.”
“Oh, pfft.” Thaen waved his hand. “Everyone has the choice to turn them down.”
“Exactly! So my dares…” Ilthyn’s voice faded as Cohthel walked around the side of the house. He should be the one answering the door when Neleci came over.
Mianda caught up to him. “Something’s bothering you.”
Cohthel released his breath. He felt more emotionally at ease around Mianda because she stood outside the constant alpha-male competition Thaen recruited all his male friends to join. “Ya.”
His single admittance signaled her cue that he would tell her about it later.
They came inside and sat at the kitchen table, Thaen and Ilthyn still arguing as they entered.
“How long should we wait for Neleci, if she shows?” Cohthel asked, shuffling to the window.
“I’ll wait all night for her. Ouch! Ilthyn, it’s not like she’ll want a relationship with you. Your parents will want you to marry an elf.”
“My parents can kiss the Undergod’s knuckles.”
Thaen, having reclined on the two back legs of the chair, slammed them forward. “Blessed torcs!” He stood. “I thought of a dare for Neleci. Ilthyn, give me your dare.”
“Not a knuckling chance.”
“You can have two dares and use them both on me.”
“I’ll even do your super lame dare you told me about where I have to wear my underwear on my head while I walk down Main Street.”
“And the next two dares I give you will be so mild even you will get bored.”
Thaen dashed out of the kitchen into Cohthel’s room so fast a breeze ruffled Cohthel’s hair. He returned with paper and a grease pencil. “Yes, yes, yes.” Jittery hands penned each of their names – Evermore, Thaen, Mianda, and Ilthyn – onto the paper in small print, tearing them out into small strips he folded.
He set the strips in front of him, clearing his throat. “I’m going to dare Neleci to draw a name and…” His dark eyes glittered, “kiss whoever’s name she draws.”
Panic lanced through Cohthel. “I’m not kissing anyone,” he and Mianda said in tandem.
Thaen’s high eyebrows shot higher. “No. Perfect. This will work out so well.” Thaen checked the slips of paper, crumpled two of them, wrote another name on the sheet twice — his own — and folded them next to the other two.
“Take my name out.” Mianda reached across the table and snatched one of the Thaen-names.
“At this rate, you might as well take Ilthyn’s name off and leave yours three times,” Cohthel said.
“Daring her to do that is unfair. What if she says no? That’s a super unfair win for you.”
“Phttt.” Thaen swept a hand in front of him. “She’s new to this, so we’ll give her a free decline. If she says no, then Ilthyn can have his dare back. That way she’s not forced to kiss anyone and you’re not forced to kiss her since your name isn’t in the draw pile. Everyone wins!”
Cohthel still shook his head, knowing for sure Neleci would think them all pigs for taking advantage of her gender.
They waited a short while more when Cohthel spied a body jogging down the road toward his house through the window, stopping as she analyzed the bridge and creek, and then crossed. He went outside.
Neleci saw him and stopped, her smile reserved especial for him. “Hiya!”
Afraid Thaen was, at this very moment, tipping his chair over in his scramble to come outside upon hearing her voice, Cohthel rushed, “Thaen has chosen a dare for you, but you don’t have to take it. You can say no and it won’t be a problem.”
What Cohthel hoped pushed against her better judgment, her face brightened. “Oh? What kind of—”
“Hiya, Neleci!” Thaen shouted far louder than he needed across the distance of ten feet.
“Hiya,” she said with far less enthusiasm.
“I have a dare for you. Come inside.”
Despite the declaration coming from Thaen who’d probably ask for her promise to marry him when he turned eighteen in two years, she cheered and followed.
Inside the house, Thaen led the five into Cohthel’s room, Cohthel unable to protest before they stepped inside, Cohthel dashing past them all to kick dirty underwear under his bed.
“Is this your room?” Neleci asked Cohthel, a curious blush warming her cheeks.
“Yes. Sorry about the mess.”
Her eyes scanned the ceiling and all four walls. “This is delightful. My room is so big a pegasi could fly around inside. I was so young when Malandore elected my father torc I don’t remember our house before we moved into the castle.”
Thaen swept in front of them all, demanding they return the attention to him. “Okay, Neleci, here on the bed are three slips of paper. Each of them has one name: Thaen, Cohthel, and Ilthyn. Your dare is to draw one and, whoever’s name you draw, you will…” he paused for a horrible attempt at dramatic effect, “kiss them.”
Her black eyebrows shot up.
“But you can say, no,” Cohthel reminded with distinct clarity. “Since it’s your first dare we will—“
“I’ll do it.”
Thaen pumped his arm and mouthed “Yesss.”
Her small feet shuffled on his wood floor, a nervous gesture, but a stretched grin overruled perhaps her better instincts. Mianda stayed near the door, leaning against the wall.
“Alright.” Thaen clapped his hands together. “Let’s stand in a line.”
Knowing Thaen removed his name, Cohthel still cringed standing next to Ilthyn at his right shoulder, Thaen on the end.
Neleci put a finger to her chin as she analyzed the three slips of paper on Cohthel’s bed. She grabbed one and approached the line of three boys, Cohthel’s eyes locked on the ceiling.
“Close your eyes.” Her eyes brightened with a little Undergod in her smile.
They did so, the tiny crackle of paper she unfolded loud in the otherwise silent room.
For Neleci’s sake, Cohthel hoped she beat the odds and drew Ilthyn’s name. If she kissed Thaen, he’d stake some permanent claim on her, and Cohthel foresaw himself the rest of the year as a buffer between Thaen’s grabby hands and Neleci’s widening apprehension. But after this game, she wasn’t going to return anyway—
Hands grabbed the back of his head. Under attack, his hands instinctively clenched and his eyes shot open — too late — as Neleci’s lips pressed against his.
All breath shot straight out through Cohthel’s boots. He wished someone had attacked him because his scrambled brain abandoned him with no knuckling idea what to do. So he leaned into the kiss, luxurious silk spinning through his blood making him feel melty and drunk and thought maybe he did know where he wanted to apprentice, after all.
A tumultuous laugh burst out of Ilthyn and Mianda. Ilthyn looked from Thaen to Cohthel, bending over, falling to the floor, and rolling.
Neleci disconnected with a backward skip, her short body riddled with shaking, nervous, laughter.
Thaen shot Cohthel a glare as tangible as an arrow, but for the drug in his brain he didn’t hear what Thaen said, only that his words made Neleci clap her hands and dash out of the room.
Ilthyn stood from the floor, wiping snot on his sleeve, walking past Thaen. Stopped. “Haha.” Walked out of the room with Mianda.
“What happened?” Cohthel asked.
“Nothing,” Thaen said, and walked to the door.
A snippet of clarity returned to Cohthel. “I thought you removed my name.”
Thaen stopped in the doorway. “I did.” He walked out.
Still skimming over the top of dreams, Cohthel floated out of his bedroom and out the front door with everyone else.
Neleci stopped in the grass and looked around her. “Is there anything I can’t use as a dare?”
Hearing her speak, watching her move, realization threaded back into Cohthel’s skull until a deep seething highlighted that he didn’t want his first kiss to come from a cheap dare at sixteen while standing in his room where he’d stuffed dirty underwear under his bed with a girl he didn’t like in that way.
Thaen picked up and dropped girls with careless abandon, but Cohthel didn’t want to do that. When he loved, if he ever loved, it would be the first and the last time.
“…be ‘within reason’,” Ilthyn was saying through the clouded humming in Cohthel’s brain. “But we stretch that guideline pretty badly. Basically make sure it’s not dangerous, illegal, or downright impossible, like lifting a horse off the ground or running from here to Deep Winter. Also, don’t dare someone something if you are unwilling or unable to try it yourself.”
“Hmmm.” Tapping her chin, she spun toward Thaen. “I dare you.”
Thaen, treating dares like honorary badges toward his worth as a growing man, folded both arms like an affronted dwarf who thought he found a diamond mine only to realize he’d cracked open a crystal one.
“I dare you…” Her smile uncurled. “…to hold your breath longer than me.”
“Pfft. Easy.” No more the charismatic flatterer, Thaen’s tone meant he would push her far beneath his praise.
Neleci walked to the stream and laid on her chest, elbows bent, fingering the edge of the water, looking at Thaen with expectancy. The young man laid several feet from her and mirrored her posture.
“On the count of three,” Ilthyn said. “One, two, three!”
Both of them inhaled and plunged their faces into the stream up to their ears, flinching in sync against the shock of cold water flooding over warm skin. The stress of not breathing affected Thaen’s body first.
His oversized boots quivered side-to-side, and his leg muscles spasmed as he clenched them over and over. Neleci hunched her shoulders, the back of her head shaking side to side.
Neleci would fail. Thaen’s body mass over-shadowed her and her smaller lung capacity. Cohthel hoped Thaen wouldn’t gloat since this was Neleci’s first dare, hoped he would overlook what he thought an earned kiss going to his best friend—
Thaen yanked his head out of the stream with a gasp, water sluicing off his face and soaking the front of his shirt. Cohthel, stunned, looked at Neleci’s head still underwater.
Taking another lung-full of air, Thaen shot Neleci a look.
The following dead silence would cut everyone once it broke.
Thaen thrust a finger at her. “She cheated!”
Ilthyn and Mianda burst out laughing — again. Mianda bent at the waist and slapped both knees as Neleci burst out of the water with a strangled inhale.
Thaen punched the ground. “She came up for air!”
Cohthel had to raise his voice over Mianda’s belly-aching laughter. “No, Thaen. She didn’t.” A fierce smile cracked through his face made hard over Neleci’s unwanted kiss. “You lost.”
“Did I win?” Neleci rose to both knees, water soaking the front of her shirt and outlining the tops of both heavy breasts.
“Not only did you win, Neleci,” Ilthyn said, “but Thaen lost.”
Thaen leapt to his feet with more fury than a crazed dragon. “You cheated! You cheated! You—”
With the power of Neleci’s voice cutting Thaen off, Cohthel understood how she held her breath for as long as she did. “Is that the quality of your life, Thaen? When someone outdoes you, you undercut them by claiming they cheated because you’re too lazy to work harder to beat them?” she projected with a fist pressed into her popped hip-bone, a visual display of why she chose her government apprenticeship. “I don’t cheat because I don’t need to. I don’t make deals I can’t fulfill.” She leaned forward. “And I don’t make gambles I can’t win.”
Flabbergasted, Cohthel watched in mute wonder as Thaen stormed across the bridge and down the road, swallowed by the dark.
Mianda continued laughing.
Neleci turned to Cohthel, dropping her command posture, eyes rounding in worry. “I didn’t mean to chase him off. He accused me of cheating and I got so angry. I didn’t ruin your friendship with him, did I?”
“Come inside and dry off. Don’t worry about Thaen. He’ll be bitter for a while because he lost, but he’ll live.”
Neleci, Cohthel, Ilthyn, and Mianda came into the house for about an hour, Neleci drying off in front of the fire, then they all left. Exhausted for unfounded reasons, Cohthel wanted to go to bed, but Mother coerced him into playing another caravan-special game for an hour before she released him.
Cohthel escaped without delay. He entered his room, the chunk of R’th quartz sitting on his bedside table blossomed his room in a golden glow, including Mianda’s black-dyed hair who sat in the chair in the corner next to it.
She had climbed in through his window. Sometimes his friends used it more than his front door.
“Mianda,” Cohthel noted her crinkled forehead. “Are you okay?”
At sixteen Mianda looked awkward for her bones she hadn’t yet grown into. And though the dusutri race were giant, honor-bound, fight-to-the-death, rise-to-your-greatest-potential warriors, Mianda’s smile couldn’t have been timider. Her small clothes hugged skin over unattractive curves — an illusion she thought would convince humans she was smaller than the dense frame of her bones, hoping to achieve a single hesitation from humans to believe that maybe she was human like them, after all.
Travelers found two-year-old Mianda wandering the land between Malandore and Forever Ice with nothing but tattered, home-spun clothes, half-starved, half-frozen, only still alive because of her dusutri resiliency, healers said. They found the human man assumed to be her father dead near the area, cause of death unknown. His body collected, a man and wife in Malandore begrudgingly identified him as a relative, throwing down accusations that he copulated with a dusutri woman, and this must be their mutant offspring.
Shocked them when Torc Thoraus labeled them new guardians of the child. They took Mianda only to prevent damnation by the Paragons who, Diviners claim, have broken worlds over the innocence of a child. Any child. Any race.
“My guardians had already locked the door when I got home. Can I stay here tonight?”
Her guardians warned Mianda if she did not come home on time — would never give her a consistent time — they’d lock the door on her. Oh they fed, clothed, and sheltered her, and had never hit her — the dusutri would have hit them back if Mianda would ever allow herself self-defense — but there’s something to be said when food, clothes, and shelter fall far below the deep need to be loved.
Mianda split these times between Cohthel’s and Ilthyn’s house. She slept on Thaen’s bedroom floor once but said he does weird things in his sleep and she never asked again.
And though Mother treated everyone with kindness, racial opinions swept her into neighborhood gossip about the three Outside Realms. Mother tolerated Mianda when she came over because Mother had this bad habit of pretending generosity to someone’s face but disqualifying them behind their backs. Cohthel knew Mother would reserve issue if Mianda stayed the night. “She’s a girl. She can’t be sleeping in a boy’s room!” But Cohthel knew the real reason.
He didn’t want her staying the night after the emotionally disrupting day at the cemetery. He wanted to be alone. “Absolutely.” He used to offer his bed, but she insisted on sleeping on the floor. He opened his closet door and pulled out all the blankets he kept in reserve for her, as well as a small sack of hygiene items. “My mother’s gone to bed if you need to use the toilet.”
She nodded and walked to his door, listening as she opened it. “Evermore, I want to thank you for your kindness.” She looked at Cohthel who shrunk back because he felt a serious moment coming. “I wish away my dusutri half every night, but I wish more to belong. If it wasn’t for my friends, I would have defected to the dusutri years ago and tried my luck with them.” She padded into the hallway.
When a quiet, shy kindred tells you something, listen, because they will only say it once and to them they are expressing it with every intensity within them.
You matter, he responded in thought. Everyone matters. Kindred kindness. Always.
Cohthel plopped the pile of blankets on his bed. The three slips of paper Thaen had folded and set there for Neleci’s kissing dare spun onto the floor.
With how his day broke after the weird, chore-like memorial for Father and still undecided on his apprenticeship, he didn’t need his evening fracturing further with the truth that Neleci kissed him because she worked a crush on him when he did not have the emotional stability to return it.
He picked up the closest slip and opened it. Thaen. He picked up the second. Thaen.
So of course Thaen accidentally removed Ilthyn’s name instead and left “Evermore” in the draw pile. He unrolled the last one.