Week 100 was a bit different in that users were allowed to submit stories up to 2500 words to win a $30 credit towards a book of their choice (fitting server rules).
Inhale. Palm open. Exhale. Thrust forward. The faster the punch, the quicker the breath. Steam hissed between his lips and curled into cloud with each jab. Inhale. Exhale. Breathe.
“Swattin’ snow, Garr?”
Garet continued his drills though he kept an eye on the girl perched atop the stone bridge. Marsi’s legs dangled, hands clasped in her lap. Though her silhouette glowed pink from the smudge of pre-dawn, he sensed her mischievous smirk, the tense way she held her upper body. But she hadn’t spent months rehearsing maneuvers and mantras.
The snowball flew with practiced speed. He caught it midair. Snow exploded around his fist and disintegrated into harmless slush.
Marsi let out a low whistle and slid off the bridge. “Look at you.”
He flexed his bicep and grinned. “I’m ready for whatever they throw at me.”
“Are you? Bell’s about to ring and you’re still here swattin’ air.” She looped her arm around his and pulled him towards the bridge. “I’m not gonna get caught kneelin’ in snow ‘cause of you.”
He wrapped his arm around her shoulder, sharing his warmth. He’d always been able to handle the cold better than she, and her smaller figure trembled. “We’ll make it.”
Together they trudged a path beside the half-frozen river bank and through the gates of the Copper District. The coming solstice crept into every crevice of the lower city, dusting the cobblestone walls in white. He kept a firm grip of his sister. Copper’s didn’t waste salt on roads when they needed salt for stew, and the cramped alleys remained treacherous. No souls stirred in the slums. They’d wake with the bell and fumble their prayers. Only the rich could afford to be devout, so they said.
As they turned into the Silver District, city folk tumbled from their homes. It became harder to rise with the dawn bell as snow fell, but only an idiot would get caught outside.
On cue, bells called across the city. Their rhythmic melody welcomed the dawn, carrying with it the blessings of the Keeper of Light. To Copper folk, the bells screeched with the bray of an angry cockerel.
Marsi sighed and shrugged off her cloak, laying it down as a makeshift prayer rug. Exasperated grunts sounded behind them; they weren’t the only ones caught out.
Garet prepared to kneel into hard ice. Marsi pushed him towards her cloak. “Use it,” she whispered. “Gettin’ cold and stiff before the ceremony won’t do you any favors.”
“I’m not lettin’ you kneel in dirt,” he whispered back.
From across the street, a monk frowned at them. The man’s grey robes and greyer skin merged with Harvera’s imposing walls. He stood as still as a ghost. Garet shuddered under his stare. Monks were formidable. Men who didn’t need steel to enforce law because they were steel made flesh.
No one would dare skip prayer when the monks prowled Harvera’s streets. It wasn’t worth the punishments, the fines and floggings.
Marsi nudged him with her elbow. He tucked his chin and muttered a prayer. There were many things to pray for this day, but Garet hummed only two words as tried and true as his drills.
The bells sang a second time, ceasing their commandment. Men lurched to their feet and scrambled uphill towards the tallest tower in Harvera. The city’s lighthouse. Its beacon burned day and night, a constant stream of light that carried the Keeper’s promise for miles. First mass would be held shortly, followed by prayers and then… the ceremony.
All kinds stepped under the glowstone archway into the lighthouse. Copper folk. Golden merchants. Silver nobles in their finery. It was one reason Garet wanted to become a monk. Copper boys didn’t become knights, like the heroes in the stories. Only Silver boys deserved that right. It wasn’t fair. Why did the amount of silver you owned determined whether you had honor?
But the lighthouse and their monks offered an alternative path to godhood. Anyone could enter the monastery and train to become a monk, in theory. It was a different way of fighting, a different code of honor, but the result was the same.
All he needed to do was prove himself worthy. To be chosen.
“This is your day, Garr.” Marsi reached up on tiptoes and brushed a fleck of snow from his brow. “Don’t show off.”
“Who, me?” His grin dropped like snow. Copper boys were allowed in the ceremony, technically, but only Silver born were invited to take part.
He stared up at the lighthouse. The Keeper would forgive him for sneaking in.
Natural sunlight didn’t reach the underground chamber, neither did extravagance. Unlike the upper lighthouse levels, the marbled walls weren’t decorated in glowstone adornments. Instead, traditional lanterns lit the dusty square arena where Garet would make his mark. He waited beside a brazier.
Fire soothed him. The way it flickered and burned. Sometimes he swore he saw things within it. Faces. He kept such visions to himself, lest the monks thought him blasphemous. Perhaps it was the Sight, or the Keeper communicating through his light. Once he became a monk, he’d find the answer.
The monks shrugged off their robes to reveal their true form; barefoot, bare chested, and not a single hair on their chin or head. They didn’t utter a word. Instead, they paired each candidate with non-verbal commands.
Twelve young boys, all Silver born, judging from their clean attire. The hopefuls muttered in hushed anticipation. Garet shuffled among them. The odd one out. No partner. What if they noticed he was Copper born? What if they never gave him a chance? He licked his hand and smoothed down his hair.
Inhale. Exhale. Breathe.
A golden-haired boy tapped his shoulder. “Do you need a partner?” The boy dressed in intricate silver robes. His eyes matched; a ghostly pale. “I’m Leon. And you are?”
He shook the boy’s hand. “Garet.”
“Have you lived in Harvera all your life, Garet?”
“Since I were a babe.”
Leon moved into a fighting stance. “That’s Odd. You’re different.”
Garet mirrored the stance. “Different?”
“Your aura. It flickers. I’ve never seen an aura like that.”
“You’ve got the Sight?”
Leon nodded. “But your colors are wrong. Everyone here is blue. But you, you’re… purple.”
“What’s that mean?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never met a purple. It’s like you have a red… taint.”
The candidates stretched. Leon shook his limbs, hopping from foot to foot. This was it. Only four would be chosen to become apprentice monks in service to the Keeper. The only honorable future a Copper boy could ask for. His ma would never struggle for food again.
Garet positioned his feet into the correct stance. Leon swung.
Inhale. Palm open. Exhale. Thrust forward.
Leon staggered back and smeared red across his lip.
Gasps echoed in the chamber. The candidates stopped their movements and stared at Garet. At the bleeding boy.
Monks descended on Garet in a swarm. They grabbed his collar bone and wrenched him onto his knees. He swallowed a yelp. Their grip pinched, holding him in place.
“It’s all right,” Leon said. “He didn’t mean—”
Furious tapping sounded in the chamber. The monks bowed as a cane lifted Garet’s chin. He traced its ornate silver to an older man; his greying hair matched his robes. The lighthouse Priest.
“Who let this boy in? Don’t you see his taint?” The Priest spat the words. Taint. He glanced over his shoulder to Leon. “Your highness, are you hurt?”
“I’m fine, your grace, truly.”
Blessed Keeper. Leon. Leonhart. Not some plumped up noble boy, but a Hartsire, Harvera’s royal blood. And he’d only gone and spilled it. He tried to stand, to beg forgiveness, but the monks held him firm.
The Priest regarded Garet as the Copper he was. “Take him for questioning.”
The monks dragged him out of the chamber and down a darkened spiral staircase into a small office. Inhale. Exhale. Breathe.
Tapping followed in a hurried staccato. The monks shoved Garet onto a stool, and the Priest’s cane thrust into his ribs, keeping him at a distance.
“Who are you?” the Priest demanded. He attacked with a barrage of questions. Where were you born? Who are your parents? Why are you here? Can you summon fire?
“Summon fire?” Garet blurted out.
“What is the first sin, boy?”
Garet scowled. “The sin of falsehood, but I ain’t lied about anythin’, Copper boys are allowed to become monks—”
The office door burst open. Ma rushed inside, barging past the monks. She smacked the Priest’s cane aside and pulled Garet to her hip.
“Ma, I don’t understand what’s goin’ on—”
Ma glowered fierce as any knight. “What are you doin’ to my boy?”
To Garet’s surprise, the Priest laughed. “The plot thickens. Are you victim of a changeling, or are you aware that your boy possesses the taint of a Sandarian?”
Ma stiffened. “I don’t see how that’s any business of yours.”
“Your boy has committed the sin of falsehood. I see the Sandarian within him. He masqueraded as a pure blooded Hartnord and entered a sacred ceremony. Now, I will ask you once, since this boy seems utterly oblivious, and don’t pander to me woman; where does the sin lie? With the mother or the child?”
Ma ground her teeth. “He’s my boy—”
“With the mother, then. Raising this boy on lies is no kindness and is an affront to the Keeper. We fine you one gold—”
“One gold?” Ma spluttered.
“—of which you have until sundown to pay.”
“And if I can’t?”
“Then I believe ten lashes for the boy would be sufficient.”
Ma’s grip tightened around his shoulder. “He’s fourteen!”
“The Keeper cares not for taint. Take your boy and go. His kind are not welcome here.”
Marsi took one look at Garet’s expression and rushed to boil tea. Both Ma and Marsi avoided making eye contact as he slumped against their shack wall.
“You’re not my mother?”
Marsi froze. An empty teacup rattled in her hand. “Mama?”
Ma sighed and dug into a sack, pulling out a small wrapped package the size of her fist. “Sit. Both of you. This is my fault. I should ‘ave told you. I should ‘ave done a great many things. I wanted to wait until you were both old enough, I…” She rubbed her forehead. “Suppose that time’s now.”
Marsi sank onto a chair. “What are you sayin’, Mama?”
“You’re my girl by blood. And Garet… you’re my boy by spirit.”
Garet slid down the wall into a crouch. “Then what am I?”
Ma turned the package in her hands. “I stumbled upon your ma in Redtail forest. She was like me… lost, scared, heavy with a babe and in need of a friend. She spoke good Hartnord for a Sandarian.”
Inhale. Exhale. Breathe. “Who was she?”
“Never told me her name, but I figured her for a noble, the way she carried herself. She begged me to keep her hidden, keep her safe. I didn’t know who she feared, but soldiers were searchin’ for someone of her like. She wanted to return to the border but birthed you before she made it. She told me to take you, hide you, and name you for your da. Garet. A Hartnord, she said.” Ma smiled. “You’re born of two worlds.”
Two worlds, but Garet only knew one.
“Your ma gave me foreign gold and gems to provide for you and then ran into the forest before I could stop her. War broke out, so I hid in the last place soldiers would expect; Harvera. I birthed Marsi and fed you both from the same breast. Kept a low profile until war ended a year later.
“I sold the gems to keep us sheltered and fed. Soon as it were safe, we took a trip to the border. I couldn’t find your ma, but I arranged for a Sandarian couple to take you. Give you a home. But then… you cried.” Ma’s voice broke. “You screamed for me. You wouldn’t let go. And Marsi screamed for you. Her first words. Garr.”
Marsi’s lip wobbled.
Ma cleared her throat. “The Sandarian’s wouldn’t take you. We had no choice but to return to Harvera. I told everyone you were twins. Marsi had hair to match yours, and you hadn’t grown into your Sandarian eyes. It fooled most folk.”
It had, even Garet. Though as he grew taller than his twin, he’d wondered about their differences. Marsi’s hair and eyes remained chestnut. Garet’s hair darkened into night. And his eyes… they’d brightened into flame itself.
Ma unwrapped the package in her lap and held up a ring. A golden band coiled around the oddest gemstone Garet had ever seen. Blood red swirls in a forest of green.
“This was the last treasure your ma gave me. She said it was a family heirloom. I couldn’t bring myself to sell it. We’ve scraped over the years, but we’ve managed. This… this is the only proof of who you are. That your ma existed at all. It’s yours.” She curled his fingers around the ring. “We can’t pay the fine, but it’s my fault… I’ll take the floggin’. I’m not lettin’ them touch you, not after protectin’ you all these years.”
Garet stood and turned from his home. “I need air.”
Neither Ma nor Marsi stopped him. He stepped out into a flurry of snow. He didn’t bother to take a cloak. Cold meant nothing to him. To a Sandarian.
He trudged along the river bank and stared south towards the continent he knew nothing about. Sandair. Was this why he felt drawn to flame? The stories warned of savage southerners who summoned light into terrifying power. Is this why he couldn’t see like others his age?
The golden ring burned in his fist. He wanted to throw it into the river. It belonged to a Sandarian. A woman who likely dallied with the wrong Hartnord noble. He’d heard similar stories of depravity from the local tavern. Which meant his real da wasn’t someone he’d want to meet either.
Inhale. Exhale. Breathe.
Snow crunched behind him. Marsi approached with tentative steps that had nothing to do with ice. Her eyes were as red as his. “Garr?”
Garet cursed and snatched her into a hug.
Marsi buried her head into his shoulder. “You’re still my brother.”
He squeezed her waist. “And you’ll always be my sister.”
She withdrew and wiped her eyes dry. “What will you do?”
His fist uncurled to reveal the golden ring. “Pawn it.” The band itself would fetch a pretty price, but a foreign gemstone could bring enough to cover the Priest’s fine.
“You’re not goin’ to find your family?”
“You’re my family. Besides, I got us into this mess. It’s time I started actin’ like a man.”