Image by Idella Cutler
MORTAL EARTH TIMELINE
Year one: Mortal Earth’s creation
Year 1,012: War of the Fear — The first Mortal Earth war. Created Dark Elves and droogs.
Year 2,005: Equality War — united the Kingdom
Year 2,862: Present day
Mother purchased an obscure string-based game from the caravan, this one from the Seadweller Realm.
Cohthel waited after dinner and well into their game before mentioning Father again. He needed the mood in the house to feel ordinary in order to judge Mother’s reaction based on his questions alone and not on some obscure abnormality wafting through the house because of earlier.
“Mother,” Cohthel crafted his tone to sound like a sorrowful boy clinging to memories and needing closure, “Will you tell me about the day you found out Father died?”
His tone worked because Mother’s smile dropped when she looked back at the game, not answering right away. “I was at home, knitting in my chair, when one of the torc’s falkons flew over and summoned me to the castle on the torc’s request.” Her face fell. “The torc told me what happened, verified by Caravan Master Kitannia’s report.”
Cohthel sat for a long beat. Be satisfied, he told himself, but when he imagined going back over to Thaen’s and telling him this, Thought-Thaen said, “Brother, did you see Caravan Master Kitannia’s report yourself?”
“Did you see the report?” Cohthel asked.
Not good enough, Thought-Thaen nagged.
“Did the torc give you a copy?”
“Oh…no, he did not. Not that I’d want it, that heart-breaking reminder.”
“Pfft,” Thought-Thaen said in response. “Nice evasion to prevent you from getting the truth. Try again, Evermore.”
Cohthel curled toes inside his socks, his tone reminiscing. “What was his funeral like? I was so young I don’t remember.”
She cast her gaze to the tabletop, wrapping her string for the labyrinth around the peg with abrupt force. “As I told you, Jumpy, there was nothing to bury so we did not have a funeral.”
Not good enough, Thought-Thaen persisted. Keep at it until you get proof of his death. At this point, Cohthel wanted proof Mother had cared about Father’s death at all. “Why didn’t you erect a grave marker sooner?” His reminiscing tone broke into frustrated accusations. “Didn’t you have a ceremony for him, at the very least?”
She stopped tying her string to the pegs, folding both hands on the table. “I didn’t have the money. I became a single mother needing to care for both of us.”
“How was that so different buying one two days ago?”
The conversation tipped beyond righting again. Every inch of her tightened; shoulders shrinking, head lowering. Trapped and on the verge of running away or fighting. Why?
“I’ve been so selfish, Jumpy. I know how badly you want a father. I do miss your father terribly, but I will open myself up to courtship. Then you won’t have to worry and stress anymore about not having one. Wouldn’t you like that?”
“You will…” Confusing static burst in his brain, a cacophony made up of sharp pieces refusing to fit together. “I…I don’t want a new father, I want to know what happened to my father.”
“I’m done talking about your father tonight, Jumpy.”
“You never talk about him.”
“I said I’m done, Cohthel!” she shrilled, shrilled, using his real name for the first time since he could remember. She thrust her arm and pointed a finger down the hallway in the same motion as a sword arching. “Go to your room!”
Cohthel clenched his fists, blood pounding in both temples. Enraged, he stomped down the hallway, expecting to leave char marks where his boots touched wood. He slammed his bedroom door and locked it.
Blood pounded beneath his clenched jaw in his neck, believing, in his excitement, that Mother drowned Father’s portrait on purpose.
He dug nails into his skull. The more he forced his irritation away, the harder the unsolved questions pushed back, a deep disquiet unearthed inside him like an Oath Ghost unable to fulfill his promise to the god he swore.
Vision hazy with delirium, he grabbed items at random and shoved them into his school bag: the too-small clothes Mother bought him, soap. He didn’t know what else. He regretted burning Father’s portrait, for now he would have cut Father’s gold face out of the canvas and taken it with him.
He shut the regret down.
He would take nothing sentimental, using the ache of missing home to drive him onward until he found the flesh-and-blood Father he wanted. Nothing ever again would replace him.
He buttoned the bag, slung the hard leather over his shoulder, and crawled out his window, hunger-driven purpose locked tighter than a dwarven gate to his brain.
He gave Mother a chance and she failed him. Treated him like a child incapable of forming his own opinions or arguments. Sent him to his room. Well, he’d form one right now. He would take control, would dig and dig and dig until he hit an answer-less stone at rock bottom, break through, and dig deeper.
He would not come back until he proved Father was dead.
Caravan Master Kitannia would sleep at White Castle Inn tonight like she always did every three-month cycle. She denied Thoraus as her torc, but she loved the inn sponsored by his realm. Though, knowing her reputation, everyone, even the torc, knew she stayed there to spite him. Would she remember Cohthel’s father, the Bladehand she hired ten years ago to protect her caravan from mercenaries?
The inn pressed against the actual castle’s curtain wall. Cohthel sucked in a breath and stepped inside to a crowded room carousing with food, drink, and music from the caravan attendants digressing after the many days on the road. He fanned a hand in front of his face though the breeze didn’t dispel cigar the smoke clouding every corner. He elbowed his way to the bar, squeezing between a pegasi in common and a dwarf who belched without shame.
Cohthel waved at the innkeeper, who came over.
“Hiya, young son. How can I help you?”
“I need to pass a message to Kitannia.”
The innkeeper shook his head. “Kitannia pays me extra to make sure she’s not bothered.”
“How much extra?” Cohthel squeezed the four links in his pocket, hoping to pay the innkeeper more.
When Cohthel didn’t move, the innkeeper angled his chin and lifted his eyes. Move along.
Cohthel inched away, unsure what to do now. He put his hand on the door. Thought-Thaen sighed in his head, accompanied by twenty Thaenisms. He looked over his shoulder at the occupied innkeeper serving drinks and hollering to his servers.
Cohthel stepped away from the door, merging through the crowd. He reached the stairs and snuck to the second floor, the carousing dining room masking his creaking steps.
Cohthel knocked on the first door, waited, and moved on. The occupant must be downstairs. Cohthel had heard many times about the Caravan Master’s reserved personality. Reserved, yet no one accused her of being an introvert, rather she installed aggressive protections to ward off the feeble minds of others.
His palms sweat. He hoped Kitannia’s strict personality and sharp tongue existed only as tools to command and lead her caravan like a small army. Really, she could be a soft-spoken, smiling woman beneath.
He knocked on the second door, heart pounding when feet shuffled on the other side. A human female, not Kitannia, opened the door. “Yes?”
“Sorry. Wrong room.” He moved on, making sure she closed her door before he knocked on another one. No one answered the next two doors, but swearing to upset a dwarf grumbled through the fifth. Heavy stomping and the door flew open.
Long black hair hung past both breasts barely covered by the loose string closure of her long shirt.
Kitannia’s gray eyes widened, and a hand clamped the closure shut. “Who are you and what in the Undergod’s demons do you want?”
“I’m E-Evermore Faunt and I w-wanted to ask if you remembered my f-father who worked for you ten years ago.” His introduction failed, butchered under the blade of her eyes mincing his words into pieces.
“Faunt?” She looked at the ceiling. “No. I don’t remember anyone by that last name. Now get out of here before I grab hold of your ears and throw you out the window.” She slammed the door.
He should’ve come later, given her time to warm by the fire with a belly full of hot bread and crumbling cherry cobbler, washed down with mulled wine followed by a soak in a hot bath.
He doubted they would’ve made a difference. A refusal to talk was a refusal to talk, even if a hot bath accompanied her meal, foot massage, gilded truffles, and a muscular, half-naked man playing the violin to lull her to sleep on a bed of silk pillows.
He walked away from her door, inclined to believe her lack of memory, except for a conversation he heard earlier between a Dark Elf, dusutri, and droog.
“…’weny years ago. ‘Weny! And she s’ill holds her ax over my head… fly who ‘shit’ on the window wouldn’ escape your grudge or your memory’.”
If the Caravan Master remembered something trivial from twenty years ago, she should remember something significant from ten when a man working under her employ walked off a cliff and died on her watch. She claimed independence apart from the Kingdom, though the Kingdom still bound her employees. She would have sent a report to Torc Thoraus explaining the death from his realm — Mother said she read it. After, Kitannia would have implemented controls to ascertain this death didn’t happen again and assure all nine torcs that kindred were still safe working for her caravan.
Cohthel would have gone to Torc Thoraus himself to ask for Father’s death report written ten years ago, but any Writ of Death — if one existed — would have already included it. Since a report didn’t exist, he left himself no other option. For the first time, he thought he understood why the Goddess of Fate gave him invisibility.
Cohthel wiped gritty sleep-sand out of his eyes, stumbling more often. He’d waited in the park until well after one in the morning. He limped with weariness by the time he reached Malandore’s streets.
Invisible. He couldn’t stop eye-watering yawns.
He stopped in the tree line surrounding the caravan still circled from when they parked. The vendors had closed, the troupe long since in bed. The colorful, R’th-powered dome separated back into individual canvases and again covered each wagon. The floating light orbs gone.
Gold-glowing R’th stones caged in thin wire affixed the top of scepters outside the wagon ring. A few attendants walked the circumference, others sleeping beneath the wagons on bedrolls. There were fewer attendants than earlier, the rest likely enjoying the inns.
Astounding the difference ten fingers made changing culture because warm beds, soft blankets, steaming baths, and sizzling food were only found in the Human, Dwarven, and Elven Realms. The caravan attendants would never forgo the chance to indulge these comforts, short of death.
An ecthore walked by Cohthel’s hiding spot, massive, wolf-like haunches rolling as he sniffed. Cohthel approached the caravan from the south since the wind blew in from the north. A dragon in common patrolled the wagons, too.
The dragon in common did not wear clothes, all parts of him covered in glossy black scales. His head, though much smaller than his original, still maintained horns, bone ridges, and fangs. Claws on hands and toes. A tail and small pair of wings. Using a “pre-installed” command granted by the Paragons, he could re-form back into his born-body in an instant which would be much larger, large enough Cohthel could walk under his belly if the dragon stood erect on his four legs.
The elf, also on patrol, would see him despite his invisibility. To the elf, he would shed the same R’th glow coming off the R’th stones. For now, he stayed visible for that reason, using the darkness and cover of trees to hide him until he ran into the open.
Cohthel watched for half an hour, picking his targeted wagon. The walking attendants didn’t follow a pattern. They watched the tree line, sometimes stopping to chat, sometimes sitting to rest their feet.
Unconcerned with all, he just needed to make sure the elf did not look his direction.
Though carried by a foreign sense of ambition, the romance of this strange new adventure dimmed.
Acute sensory opened Cohthel’s awareness of the dark, the forest, his aching knees where he crouched, the rough bark of the pine tree against his palm where he braced.
What am I doing? Running away? This isn’t me; defying kindred, defying Kitannia who already gave me her answer.
How spontaneous and wild, running away. Never in his life had he done anything without regard to consequences. He’d even planned out and analyzed possible consequences before he performed that backflip on the school courtyard wall Neleci bragged about.
That answered it, then. He wouldn’t do it.
He walked away toward home, hot with embarrassment. Where else could he go? He’d face Mother in the morning as if her outburst never happened.
Cohthel stopped walking. Did this conclude his life, then? Go home, scrub clean today until sterile enough to preserve in history with no coppery aftertaste of regrets? School, work, home. Again. No apprenticeship, still, by year’s end.
The conflict of two choices battling in his heart migrated to his head, pulse pounding. Making his own choice for the first time in his life filled him with fresh energy. No adult here telling him what he should do, nor Mother spoon-feeding him until he lost the desire to investigate on his own.
If Mother’s temper had never flared, he would have discarded this interest, and that carried its own testimony to his deep desire that now unearthed, he could not re-bury. Returning home would not make him forget it, but burn the constant reminder forever on his conscience. Every time he’d look at Father’s ruined portrait, look at Mother, he’d remembered the choice he didn’t make.
He walked back toward the caravan and crouched again beside his tree. It took three more rotations of the caravan guard for Cohthel to feel comfortable owning this choice. The elf walked by. Cohthel pulled his invisible veil over him and dashed to his targeted wagon, across the path of the dragon in common following twenty paces behind the elf.
Cohthel stopped behind the wagon, heart beating so loud the Dark Elf — as rumors said Dark Elves could do — would hear the vibration if he had not gone into town.
The dragon passed by him. With as little movement as possible, Cohthel lifted the canvas. The seadweller wagon. That awful, seaweed food smell belched out on him.
He gagged, hoisting himself over the back, unable to prevent the canvas from moving too much. The canvas dropped as he sunk between jars of colored sand and boards puckering with glued-on seashells: a wall hanging, he supposed.
He ceased to move, listening to the cruuunch cruuunch of boots approaching, then moved on without a stutter. Cohthel trusted he’d gotten beyond the point of discovery and nudged merchandise aside to stretched out both legs. He nudged them more and laid down, boots and half his legs shoved under a stack of seaweed-weaved rugs.
Too tired to consider the fallout of this idea, he removed his bag and laid on it like a pillow. Asleep.
He didn’t notice the rumble of the wagon moving out in the morning.