The cabins were tight and cozy with low ceilings, which meant Alex had to stoop to enter. Each had a single bed with a grey blanket that looked like it had seen better days. At the foot of the bed, an old chest sat with an iron key in the lock, ready to be turned.
The air smelled of straw that had gotten wet too many times, the leftovers of too many fish dinners, and dried salt.
“Well, home sweet home for a couple of days.” He said, ducking through the door frame.
“It smells funny,” Selina whispered, following after him as he placed his rucksack on the bed. She padded over and pushed the bag aside to flop down on the bed. The straw pallet rustled as she wiggled on it.
“It’s…it’s softer than the ground?” she offered hopefully.
“Stinkier too,” he added.
Across the way, he heard Brutus whining and Theresa’s lowered voice trying to soothe him. Alex winced in empathy: if Selina and he could notice the scent, then what about poor Brutus with three sensitive noses?
“Well, we’ll have to share the bed.” He pointed out. “So we’re going to have to deal with the smell.”
“What? Noooo,” she groaned, and her long, chestnut hair puffed a little as she rolled back her head. “You turn and kick too much when you sleep.”
“I do not-”
“You do.” She frowned at him. “I’ve seen you and I don’t want you to kick me on the floor. And you’re too tall for both of us to fit.”
He waved a hand dismissively. “Oh c’mon, little goblin, you’re the size of a squirrel.
“Yeah, but you’re not!”
We’ll make it work.”
“I’m your big brother, and I say we’re going to make it work.”
She sighed like a prisoner who’d just found out they’d been sentenced to spend the rest of their life in a dungeon. A castle dungeon, not a ‘monster making dungeon’.
Why did those things share the same name anyway? They were completely differe-
“Alex…can I ask you a question?”
Her voice had taken a very serious note, and he pulled himself from his idle thoughts.
“Anything, little goblin, you know that.” He dropped onto the pallet beside her. “What’s on your mind? Is it what happened in the cave?”
“Yeah, in the cave…” Selina pushed on when he paused. Her eyes met his; the Roth siblings’ eyes were an identical shade of green. “…why did you and Theresa keep making jokes?”
“Huh? We did?”
“You were slapping each other’s arms, and you joked when you were about to break the core and…I don’t think it was very funny. It was really, really scary.”
“It’s true, it was scary.”
“Then why were you making jokes?”
He gave her a long look. “It’s…not…it’s not really making jokes.”
“‘Itty bitty pieces’?”
“Okay, to be fair, that actually could have happened, but I know what you mean.” He spread his hands. “I mean, it’s weird, right? We’re in a cave full of monsters and it’s scary and we don’t know where we’re going and me and Theresa are slapping each other.”
“Mhm!” She nodded. “That’s right, why? It doesn’t make sense.”
He sighed. “Well…sometimes…” he scratched the back of his head, trying to find the right words. “Sometimes it helps to have a little bit of normal. Sometimes it helps to laugh when you’re scared or sad.”
He looked away, his eyes falling on the old chest and he let out a bitter chuckle. The one that had sat at the foot of his parents’ bed had looked similar.
“After Mum and Dad were gone…do you remember how I was?”
She went silent and shook her head. “No,” she said in a small voice.
Alex gave a short, self-mocking laugh. “I’m kind of glad you don’t. Do you remember when Thomas Gwent lost his cards last summer? Do you remember how sad he was?”
“Yeah.” She nodded. “He kept crying and crying and crying all the time, and he kept hiding by himself under Mrs. Walder’s apple tree.”
“That was like me, except it went on for a lot longer, and I used to hide in that old house by the wall all alone. Then one day, Theresa and Brutus tracked me and found me there.”
He thought back. It’d rained a lot that day. More than he remembered happening in Alric before or since.
“She brought cookies.” He glanced at his sister, who watched him with full attention. “She and Mrs. Lu had made them from a recipe they had from mum. They thought they’d make me feel better. So, Theresa walked all the way in the rain over to the old house with these cookies, but I didn’t want to talk to her or anybody. But, she wouldn’t leave. She just pushed her way in and sat down beside me dripping wet and took out the soggiest cookie you’ve ever seen.”
“Gross.” Selina made a face.
He laughed. “It was super gross: I didn’t want to eat it but she wouldn’t move until I tasted it. I mean, it tasted alright, but sitting in a wet bag with rain soaking through’ll ruin any cookie. Anyway, I spat it out and told her to leave and she just started yelling at me. So, I get mad and yell back, and we keep screaming at each other so loudly that the watchman came running to see if someone was getting murdered.”
He shook his head, continuing to laugh. “And boy, did he ever scold us. And when he finally let us go, it was just so awkward. We didn’t say a word to each other. Then part way back home I start thinking: ‘Gee, I’m hungry’ and—not even thinking—I asked her for another cookie.”
“Did she smack you?”
“No, but she gave me this look like: ‘you made me go through all that just to ask for a cookie now’. And I saw that look and just started laughing and couldn’t stop, and then she did too. And you know what?”
He looked back to the chest. “That day, it hurt a little less. I spent the rest of that summer baking her family cookies every week. I put some aside just for her out of every batch, and I wouldn’t let anyone touch them but her.”
“I remember that!” Selina perked up. “They were…okay.”
“Hah, I was still learning.” He hadn’t combined his mother’s cooking with all of McHarris’ secrets back then. “But the important thing is that it didn’t make all the bad go away. It didn’t make things better everyday—some were still hard—but it did make things a little easier.”
She frowned. “So…when it gets scary or sad, you laugh?”
“If you can, sometimes, as long as people are laughing with you.” He tapped the side of his head. “When you think about a scary thing and think about how scary it is, sometimes that makes it scarier. If you think different, then maybe it’s a little less scary.”
He shrugged. “It works for Theresa and me. Maybe not for everybody. But sometimes when you’re scared, doing something you normally do makes things seem a little more ‘normal’ and a little less scary.”
“Hrm,” she grunted. “I still don’t get it.”
“That’s okay. Maybe when you’re older, or maybe our way isn’t for you. But, I think you’ll figure out what works for you as you get bigger.”
“Okay,” she paused.
“Do you have another question?”
“Mhm.” She gestured at his shoulder “Can I…can I see it?”
Alex nodded. “Of course you can.”
He glanced to the doorway. He didn’t hear anyone close by, but quickly went to the door and bolted it.
When he carefully pulled the shirt off of his left shoulder, the grinning jester’s face was revealed, seeming to watch Selina. The little girl gasped, her chubby hands going to her cheeks. “Does-” she whispered, looking around as though someone might be listening. She leaned forward. “Does it hurt?”
“It did, but not anymore,” he whispered back, dropping down to one knee so The Mark was eye level with her. “It doesn’t even feel different. You can touch it, if you want.”
She slowly reached out and poked it with one finger, watching the dim glow disappear beneath her finger. “It’s…kind of cool, Alex.”
“Hah, you have funny taste, little goblin.” Frowning, he eyed his skinny arm and when she finished poking The Fool, he pulled the shirt back up and looked at the floor. ‘Time to do something about these skinny arms,’ he thought, and laid down with his palms pressed to the floor.
“Uh, what are you doing?” Selina asked.
“Push-ups.” He squared his shoulders in the way Theresa’s oldest brother had taught him long ago. “We don’t have a lot to do, and I think your big brother could use a little more iron in his arms.”
“Okay.” She gave him a weird look before slipping from the bed and making for the door. “I’m going to see what Theresa’s doing.”
“Alright, have fun. Go straight to her room and nowhere else, okay?”
Selina paused at the door. “Hey, Alex?”
“I love you, okay?”
“…yeah, me too. Selina. I love you too.”
Before he could say anything else, she slipped from the room and shut the door behind her.
Alex Roth watched the door for a long time after she’d left, and when he finally started his push-ups—concentrating on The Mark to guide him to the correct form—tears were in his eyes.
“Ek-u-Dari, we dedicate this clash to you!” Fan-Dor roared.
Thm. Thm. Thm.
He drummed the deck with the butt of his spear.
“Ek-u-Dari, we ask for protection from you!” Gel-Dor roared.
Thm. Thm. Thm.
He drummed the deck with the butt of his oar.
“Just as the rain dances to feed the sea, we dance a dance of arms and oar.”
They drummed the deck once more then raised their spear and oar in perfect unison. The identical twins faced each other across the deck.
They touched the flats of spear and oar, then turned backing each other and faced those watching. The crew and few passengers were seated around them in a circle, eating a late supper of sausages and cabbage: a final hot meal of land-food before the short voyage began.
With a bow, the twins stepped into the dance.
They moved in a complex display of foot work, punctuated by rhythmic stomps and sweeping hand movements, keeping their bodies perfectly balanced. Their feet danced across the ship, in perfect time with a drumbeat kept by three sailors. The spear and oar spun and flashed in their hands, with the hafts spinning in their fingers. They made no strikes but—as the brothers’ feet stomped the deck—their objects of devotion rose in flashy, defensive guards.
The spinning steel caught the moonlight like ocean waves on a windy sea, and the two men leapt like acrobats, jumping and spinning like whirlwinds in harmony. Then they changed: no longer mimicking each other’s movements, instead, they complimented them. The spear would spin high while the oar would spin low, then they would switch. One would guard left and the other right.
As the dance continued, they seemed to transform from two warriors mirroring each other, to a single warrior inhabiting two bodies.
Alex couldn’t look away, while Selina gaped beside him. Theresa was half-raised from her seat, her eyes sparking in the moonlight. All the sailors watched with a deep respect, while the Selachar had dipped their heads in prayer.
Two of the other passengers—a couple that looked only a little older than Theresa’s parents—smiled and clapped along with the drumbeat. The last passenger—a man even skinnier than Alex—only paid attention to his meal, eating as though he’d never seen food before. Already, three empty plates were piled beside him.
With a final flourish, the captain and first mate softly landed on the deck in unison with the spear and oar pointed toward the sky. “And so we have become the storm in place of any storms Ek-u-Dari might send to us! Goddess, we hope we have pleased you and ask for your kindness!”
The ship fell silent.
Theresa was suddenly on her feet, clapping as hard as she could. Alex joined her right after and a startled Selina followed.
“And thanks to all of you for attending our ceremony.” Captain Fan-dor held his spear up. “And by ‘all of you’ I mean our guests. My crew had better be here if they want their pay.”
The crew gave the laugh of folk who had heard the same joke a thousand times.
“Storms are always witnessed, and the more eyes to witness the sacred dance, the more Ek-u-Dari will show us her kindness.” He approached the passengers. “You enjoy yourselves?”
He glanced at the skinny man, who scraped the last scraps of food from his fourth plate. “Well look at you, been stuffing yourself like you’ve got hollow legs.”
The passenger looked up and asked something in Rhinean, to which the captain responded. With a weak smile, the man said something to the captain.
Fan-Dor chuckled. “‘Just a hollow belly,’ he says.”
“Captain, that was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.” Theresa had a dreamy look on her face.
“Then you should see someone who’s actually good at it.” Gel-Dor said dryly. “You’ve been getting lax on your practice, brother.”
“Only so you can keep pace with me.” Fan-Dor shot back.
“Does it take a lot of practice to learn?” Alex asked.
The captain frowned. “Any dance does, boy, and the Spear-and-Oar Dance is more complex than most. Why?”
“Well, I was just thinking I’d, well I wouldn’t mind learning something like that.”
Theresa shot him a surprised look.
Fan-Dor’s frown deepened. “Listen, if you’re asking so you can get free passage like your sister-”
“No, no!” Alex raised his hands. “I was just thinking that it’d be just…just…”
A way to learn how to dodge horrible death-beasts in a way that wouldn’t make an ancient magical Fool brand have a tantrum? How the hell was he supposed to put this?
Then Gel-Dor elbowed his brother, and threw a meaningful look between Alex and Theresa.
The captain froze. A massive grin spread over his face. “Huh. What was your name?”
“Right, then. Alex. Come here and I’ll tell you all about it.”
The captain dragged Alex to the side then put an arm around his skinny shoulders. “I see what’s happening here.”
“Huh?” Alex cocked his head, trying not to pull away. Fan-Dor’s breath stank. It smelled like a mix of smoked sardines and rotten eggs, and it was slamming right into his face.
“You’re trying to swim up the river, aren’t you?” The Captain’s grin widened.
“Y’know? Swim up the river? Burrow in the seabed? Slither under the corral?”
“You’re trying to spawn, aren’t you? With your friend there?” he glanced over his shoulder. “Nice choice by the way. A little short, but you humans tend to be, and she’s broad-shouldered for a human female. You’d spawn strong hatchlings together…or at least she’d make up for uh…”
He looked over Alex’s skinny frame. “Well at least you got height.”
All the colour drained from Alex’s face as he glanced back to Theresa, noticing Gel-Dor had taken her aside and was whispering something to her as well. Even worse, the older couple were giggling to each other while the skinny man’s eyes were darting between Theresa and Alex.
For a wild moment, he strongly considered breaking out of the captain’s grip and throwing himself into the sea.
“Well, don’t you worry.” Fan-Dor laughed. “I had a good captain to teach me the basics and strut myself properly in front of my wife at the Tide Festival, and I’m not one to not pay it forward.”
He looked him up and down.
“You ever dance, boy?”
With The Mark’s help, the answer to that was a very strong maybe.
“Probably.” Alex half-lied.
“...Right, well we’ll know what that ‘probably’ means soon enough.” The captain looked to the cathedral’s tower in the city. “Meet me up here when the last bell chimes. Least I can do is teach you the first three steps. We won’t have time for more than that, but it should give you a head start. …you’ll need to think about your own marriage-pearl, though.”
While Alex Roth was glad he’d gotten this opportunity, a part of him just wished the Hive-Queen had killed him.