CHAPTER ONE - RULES
“Whatever you do, Adar, remember that you cannot win the race tonight,” Draigh said as he checked the fletchings of each arrow in his quiver.
“You must believe that I have the memory of a goldfish, Draigh, if you think I would forget that!” Adar scoffed.
Yet there was a twist in his stomach at Draigh’s words.
How does he know when I want to break the rules? Adar wondered with a faint scowl. When the strictures we put on ourselves to fit in start to feel like shackles that are too heavy to bear? If it’s some form of telepathy, he’d never tell! That would definitely get us exiled.
“I think,” Draigh said with a cut of incisive blue-gray eyes towards him, “that you would love nothing more than to see Cohnal pitch a fit if he were to come in second in the race.”
I love nothing more than you, Draigh, Adar thought. Not that I wouldn’t want to see that bully Cohnal purple with rage and shame as I leave him in my dust! He more than deserves it. But no. I know the rules. The rules of the race. The rules of you and me. I know it all too well.
He fought the urge to close his eyes and shut everything out, but the soft sound of his brother’s breathing. Night was coming earlier and earlier as the seasons turned. The Festival of Nightfall, which started tonight with the race and culminated at the end of the week with a feast and dance, would mark the end of autumn and beginning of winter and very short days.
Their bedroom was lit only by the low, crackling fire in the fireplace, and the fat, white candles on their matching wooden nightstands. Perfect for drifting to sleep. But he forced himself to stay awake by watching as the golden light from the fire shone in Draigh’s shoulder-length, dark hair and reflected off the near half dozen buckles of his dark blue coat.
Though they were identical twins, Draigh had a slightly heavier, more muscular build than he did. Adar was leaner, more lithe, faster than his brother, too. But Draigh was definitely stronger. Anytime they wrestled, even if Adar wanted to win, Draigh always came out on top.
Not that they wrestled often.
Adar shook that grim thought off. Despite his twin brother’s stern warning and the fact that--as always--he had to hide his greater skills from their fellow villagers, Adar’s good mood was not dampened for long. It rarely ever was. Joy might be something that most people had to consciously choose, but it was Adar’s normal mode. And he was never so happy as he was with Draigh, especially when they were alone, which was terribly rare these days even though they still shared a bedroom.
His brother was often out hunting or patrolling the walls to make sure that the creatures in the woods didn’t get too close. But it was more than that. He knew it was. Draigh was purposefully keeping his distance. Had been since they reached their eighteenth year and, by tradition, were to seek out a life partner. Did Draigh really think that physical distance between them could make Adar turn one of their friends or neighbors into a love match?
The very thought of making a home with someone other than his twin made him physically sick. When poor Fren had dared to kiss him at the festival last year, Adar’s stomach had churned and he’d broken out into a cold sweat before saying something unintelligible and running away. The only lips he wanted on his were ones that were and were not like his own.
But that was what he felt. Maybe Draigh hoped that separating from his “odd” brother would give him distance to find a mate. Adar’s stomach felt like it was filled with ice as he permitted that thought to surface and stay.
Truly, wasn’t that exactly what his brother would want? Even if he shared Adar’s forbidden feelings, Draigh wanted them to fit in. And choosing each other as life partners would get them kicked out of Thistleford--or anywhere really--faster than breathing. His brother would, therefore, never pick this path. Hence the distance growing between them was going to become an uncrossable chasm at some point.
Draigh would choose a life partner that was not him.
Yet despite knowing this, Adar could not help himself from still wanting and wishing. Or, perhaps, he didn’t care to help himself. They had to be in control all the time in the outside world, he wouldn’t chain his mind, too, even if that was the place that could get him into the most amount of trouble. So he sprawled on his bed, watching Draigh closely with hooded eyes while pretending not to watch him at all.
Draigh sat opposite to him on his own bed, meticulously checking his weapons. He would not be in the race that night for he would be patrolling again. The creatures in the woods always drew nearer the village’s walls during the festival. And Draigh would be there with his bow and arrow or longsword to take them down and keep the people of the village safe.
It was the one activity that their fellow villagers admired about his brother’s greater skills. Adar was just as good--in fact, he was better with a bow while Draigh's skill with a sword couldn’t be beaten--but Adar’s instincts were to make friends with the creatures, not kill them. That was not admired.
“I’ve wanted to see Cohnal taken down for 18-years--practically since the moment we were born--but have I ever not allowed that cock-of-the-walk to win the race or sparring or whatever else he puts his mind to?” Adar reminded his brother. “Never! I even came in fourth last year in the race. Fourth! Not even placing, but you’re still worried that I’ll suddenly do something stupid this year?”
Draigh sighed as he finished smoothing out the fletching on the arrows. “Yes, you did, but that was a bit too much. No one believed that you were fairly beaten by Kerym. You had to pretend to nurse that ankle injury for nearly five minutes for him to pass you.”
“With all that huffing and puffing he was doing I thought he was right behind me not blocks away!” Adar thumped his head back on the pillows and scowled up at the shadowed ceiling.
“The idea is for them not to guess how much--”
“Better we are than them?” Adar offered.
“No, well… okay, yes. But I was going to say skilled. We want them to think that we land in the middle of the pack, not the front of it,” Draigh reminded him. “No one believes we would ever be fourth.”
Adar flopped over onto his side again. “They don’t believe we would ever come in second either, Draigh! And if they all know that we should have been coming in first all these years then why don’t we? Why are we hiding what they already know?”
Draigh’s head shot up. “Because they don’t know for sure. And what they don’t know, can’t hurt us.”
Adar opened his mouth to object that the people they’d known all their lives would suddenly turn on them because Adar happened to win one race. Yes, the people in Thistleford were narrow-minded and suspicious of anything new, but they weren’t new!
Aunt Cathe and Uncle Thom had taken them in when they were babies after their mother passed. They’d lived here, grown up here, been members of the community forever. But Draigh still seemed to think that they were held apart, because no one knew who their father was and oh, they were really skilled and loved the woods and… So what? But, if he were being fair, Draigh wasn’t the only one that urged such caution. Their aunt and uncle did, too.
“So I can’t win the race, but I shouldn’t lose too badly?” Adar clarified.
“Yes, exactly. Be in the middle.” Draigh nodded.
“The boring middle.”
“The safe middle.”
Adar shifted onto his side on the bed. Mox, the sleeping felinees, made a discontented sound at being disturbed. He mouthed “sorry” at her, not that she saw, because her green eyes stayed shut with her paws tucked underneath her, tail wrapped around her body, and her wings pulled flat against her back.
He was tempted to poke her just to hear that sweet “miao” of dismay at being woken. But she’d forgive him, lick his fingers with her rough tongue, and then cuddle back down to sleep. That was the benefit of having saved her as a kit from death. But he decided to leave her alone. She needed her sleep now so she could be with him all night at the festival.
“You know…” Draigh began then stopped.
“You don’t have to be in the race tonight.”
Draigh paused as he ran a clean cloth over his sword’s blade before sheathing it. Draigh was always so careful in everything he did whether it be with his weapons or people. He acted as if everything he touched was precious… or could break under his hands.
In contrast, Adar was often careless and forgetful, especially if he were absorbed in something. How many times had he come home with charcoal smeared over his face after sketching the plants he’d discovered and not noticed? He often was covered in dirt and muck as he waded off into areas he shouldn’t go, entranced by a butterfly with glass-like wings.
“What else would I be doing if I’m not in the race?” Adar asked with a lifted eyebrow.
Without meeting his eyes, Draigh said, “Donal needs another bow on the north side of the village. No one shoots better than you.”
Adar brightened. Though he was no fan of killing creatures that strayed too close to the walls, spending a night with Draigh would be awesome. “We haven’t stayed up all night together in forever--”
“Well, it wouldn’t be together, Adar,” Draigh interrupted, his full lips compressing in consternation momentarily.
“Ah, well, what do you mean?” Adar’s heart fell further than it had lifted.
“Like I said, Donal needs someone at the north wall. I’m guarding the south,” Draigh explained.
Adar stared at his brother in silence for so long that Draigh was forced to look up at him. His eyes actually stung with tears.
“I see,” Adar said tightly. “We’d be at opposite sides of the village all night. That’s what you want?”
Draigh blinked and looked down. “I always keep an eye on you, no matter where I am or you are. And if you were in the race, it’s not as if we would be together either.”
But there would be a good reason we wouldn’t be together. You’re guarding the village and I’m in the race. But no, you’d blame Donal for keeping me at the opposite side of the village from you all night!
Adar got up from the bed. He felt brittle as if he moved too swiftly he might shatter. His throat was tight. He knew that Draigh’s suggestion shouldn’t--on its face--be hitting him so hard, but it was. Because it felt like it meant more.
“Let’s see,” Adar’s voice was falsely light and jovial, “where would I rather spend the first night of the festival: on a cold and lonely wall, looking out into the dark or with friends, drinking too much cider and eating sugary fried dough? Tough call that.”
“Adar, I just thought that you would like to use your skills tonight without having to hold back!” Draigh stood up, too, and awkwardly reached towards him before dropping his arm before making contact.
“No, no, Draigh, that’s not really what you were thinking when you made that offer,” Adar answered him in that tight, brittle voice that he hardly recognized.
“What do you believe I was thinking?” Draigh asked, brows contracting.
Adar picked up Mox, who woke with a sleepy chirp, and urged her up around his neck. She curled her warm, light weight across his shoulders.
That you don’t want me near you. That you want me on the opposite side of wherever you are, he thought, but said, “Guess it’s just my turn to read minds.”
“Adar, what are you--Adar! Come back!” Draigh called.
But Adar had already turned and left their bedroom. He clattered down the curving steps to the first floor. Mox was making a curious sound in his ear and looking back over her shoulder towards where they had left Draigh.
“He doesn’t want to be with us, Mox,” he told the felinees.
She made another plaintive sound.
“No, he doesn’t. He wants to be alone so he’ll fit in. So let him be alone,” Adar growled, even though he knew that wasn’t true or quite fair.
The stairs curled around the very center of the house where the kitchen was situated with its large, cookfire, hefty wooden table and chairs, as well as countless jars and bottles full of herbs, most of which he had collected for his aunt.
Aunt Cathe was standing before the cookfire, sliding a plucked and seasoned chicken on the spit. She smiled and wiped a trail of perspiration from her brow. Her red-brown hair was drawn up in a messy bun, but a few tendrils had pulled free and were plastered to her face by sweat due to the heat.
“Let me get that, Aunt Cathe!” Adar offered.
“Don’t be silly, Adar! I’ve already got my hands all oily and covered with salt, pepper and rosemary! You don’t need to get all messy, too, especially as you look to be leaving the house with speed!” his aunt chuckled as she reset the spit on the metal stakes above the fire. “I figure you’ll be hungry after the race. And you can take some of this up to your brother between two slices of my good granny’s bread.”
She tipped her head to two round loaves of the seed and caraway-filled bread that was a staple with any meal. His stomach--which had been grumbling in appreciation--suddenly soured at the mention of the race.
He found himself looking back up the stairs. Draigh wasn’t following him. Yes, he had to get on his sword belt and quiver and throw his bow over his shoulders, but if he’d really wanted to catch Adar and talk to him, he would have already been down here. But he wasn’t. And there was no sound of footsteps coming down the stairs after him either. He met Mox’s wide-eyed, green gaze.
“See, I told you,” he muttered.
“What did you tell me?” his aunt asked.
She wiped her hands on a towel at her waist before setting the chains on the spit. Adar had designed it to turn any hunk of meat by itself. No longer did someone have to stand by the fire and crank. Already the chicken smelled fragrant as the skin heated and fat began to melt and fall into the fire with a hiss.
“Sorry, Auntie, just talking to Mox.”
“I see,” she sighed and gave a mock-evil look at the felinees. “So, you’ve managed to steal him from me altogether, have you, Mox? What shall I do in revenge?”
“Auntie!” Adar laughed.
“Oh, I know! I shall have to… give you a treat! And a head scratch!” His aunt was as good as her word. She fished out a bit of dried meat from her pocket that Mox devoured and licked her furry lips with abandon. She also enjoyed the vigorous head scratch, too. “I can’t believe that Mox is the same species as those nasty felinees outside the walls.”
“They aren’t nasty,” Adar heard the tint of exasperation in his voice. “They’re just wild. And we’re in direct competition with them for eggs and other small game animals. Not to mention that we have encroached--”
“Yes, yes, I know, I know! Your mother said much the same thing to me many times about the monsters.” His aunt held up her hands in surrender. “But Mox is nothing like them.”
“Creatures, Auntie, not monsters,” he corrected gently.
“Perhaps they are creatures for you, because you’re so good with them. But they’re monsters to us, because we aren’t.”
She regarded him kindly out of dark brown eyes. They were nothing like his or Draigh’s, but that was because she wasn’t his aunt by blood, but by choice. She had been his mother’s best friend.
“Monsters are things to be feared no matter what. Creatures aren’t. If you understand them then you might have to respect them, be wary of them, but not fear them,” he knew she had heard this before too. Despite never even hearing his mother’s voice in living memory, his aunt told him just how much of the same ideas they shared.
“People react with fear towards things they don’t understand,” his aunt reminded him.
“Then we should make an effort to understand things,” he said a little mulishly.
She mussed his hair. “Aye, we should, my little scholar.”
“Auntie,” he protested weakly, even as he smiled.
“So, are you going to race again tonight? What place are you aiming to come in?” she asked as she went over to a covered bowl where more bread dough rose.
“According to Draigh, I can’t come in first or fourth, but the other places are up for grabs,” he said with a roll of his eyes.
She nodded. “Poor Kerym! Beating you last year has been his main bragging point the whole twelve months!”
He scuffed his boot on the ground. “Yeah, well, he’s had his bragging rights. This year I’ll come in… third!”
“What about second?” His aunt had taken the dough from its resting place and had begun punching it down.
His brow furrowed. “Why second?”
She gave him a small smile. “Adar, since you know all the mating habits of the creatures around us, I’m sure you know that us pitiful humans pair off starting at around your age. You need to show off a little of your skills to attract someone. The race would be a good start.”
Ice filled his stomach once more. He resisted the urge to squirm. Mox fluffed her tail against his throat as if to comfort him. He caught it and held onto it.
“Yeah, well, you trying to get rid of me, Auntie?” he asked, mouth dry.
“No, never.” She smiled so affectionately at him that he almost had to look away. “I was always so happy to take in you boys after Mariah’s passing, but when Thom and I realized that we couldn’t have any children of our own, I felt doubly blessed to have you.”
He smiled at her. “And we’re so lucky to have you both, which is why I have no intention of leaving anytime soon!”
She turned the dough over and punched the other side. “I’m not unhappy about that at all. I’d not like to lose you and Draigh both at once.”
Adar froze. Time seemed to go still as well. He couldn’t have heard right what she’d just said. His tongue felt like sandpaper in his mouth, it was so dry, but he forced himself to swallow and find some strength to move his numb lips.
“Both of us?” His voice sounded almost normal. Just a hint of crack in it.
She looked up from the dough. Her lips parted in an “O” of surprise and then she winced. “Draigh hasn’t told you yet?”
“Hasn’t told me what?” Was that his voice? It sounded so dark and dull at the same time.
“Well, he hasn’t officially told Thom or I yet either, but…” Her eyes flickered to the stairs, but no Draigh was on them. She lowered her voice and said, “It’s my understanding that Donal is going to ask Draigh to join his household this festival! It’s not a path that will lead to children, of course, but it's a family with a long, noble history guarding the walls.”
“Donal?” Adar’s voice was arctic.
His aunt blinked, finally realizing that he wasn’t overjoyed to hear this news. “Oh, Adar, even when Draigh goes with Donal that doesn’t mean--”
He didn’t hear the rest of what she said. He’d turned on his heels and was practically flying back up the stairs to his bedroom. Mox’s nails dug into his green jacket in order to hang on and not fall off him.
He reached the doorway to his bedroom and flung himself inside. He wasn’t sure what he intended to say to Draigh. The utter betrayal of it all felt like daggers in his throat. But it didn’t matter that he didn’t know what to say.
He was alone in the room.
Draigh wasn’t there.
His twin brother had left without saying a word to him even though he must have known what their aunt would say about Donal.
For long moments, Adar stared at the empty room. His eyes filled with tears. He was blinded by them. They were hot and searing.
Draigh fits in now. He’ll be with Donal. They’ll guard the walls. He’s got what he wants. But what about what I want? He wiped a hand angrily across his face. I don’t want to fit in. I don’t want to play by others’ rules. I only stayed in this box for him. Well, not anymore.