To purchase the newly revised e-book Tooth and Nail, please click here to visit its Smashwords page! Now available in multiple formats!

After you’re done reading, check out the deleted scenes for this update!  They’re…painful, but sort’ve humorous!

–Illise M.

NYX____________________________

No!” she shouted, scuttling back farther beneath her bed.

“My little night shard, please come out.”

“No!  No, no, no! I don’t want him to see!”

Her mother narrowed her eyes at her. “Nyx, your brother misses you.  I hardly think he’ll care if–”

“No!”

Fotini hissed, a sharp and long sound from the back of her throat.  The young girl squeaked, trying to press harder back into the wall as though it could swallow her into safety.  She bumped her head on the bed in her struggles, and her eyes immediately teared.  Nyx, seven-years-old, covered her head and started to cry, her wails audible even as she tried to smother the sound.  A hand grabbed her by the ankle and she was pulled out from under the bed with one strong tug.

A sigh.  Nyx was gathered up in warmth and soft wool.  She turned her face into her mother’s bosom and clutched at her.  The soothing smell of her filled her lungs.

“My little girl.  My Nyx of the night.  Haven’t you learned yet?  Your struggles hurt you in the end.  Ehna, ehna, shhhh…let A-ma see.”  Fotini took her head and brushed back Nyx’s hair, to see the scratch at the top of her head.

Nyx sniffled.  “Is it gone yet?”

“Yes my darling.”  Fotini kissed her forehead.  “It’s gone.  It was only a scratch after all.”

Just then a small kitten came tumbling through the door way, batting at dust.  At the sight of them, it began to mewl.  Her mother let out a low growl.  “Atalo, you were to wait for us!”  Like lightning, the woman snatched out and caught the kitten by the scruff of the neck.  The kitten went limp as she picked it up and glowered at it.

Nyx snickered even as she wiped away the last of her tears.

Fotini pinched her ear and the girl squealed.  “M’sorry, m’sorry!” she cried, tears cropping up anew.

“Don’t think you’re free, Nyx.  You will run with us tonight.  All of us.  Last month you made me look the fool, disappearing like you did.”  The woman gave Nyx’s ear a tug as she was forced to her feet and led out of the room.

“I don’t know why you’re making such a fuss.” The woman went on to say.  “I, for one, think it looks lovely.”

Nyx whimpered as she was led to the kitchen by the ear.  “I look stupid!

“You do not.  You look beautiful.  There are plenty of other girls that have manes.” The woman paused, releasing the girl after guiding her into a chair. “Oh…well I suppose there aren’t any in Tosmai…” she admitted reluctantly.

“That’s because only boys have manes.  Why do I have to have one?”

Fotini sighed.  “Oh, Sweet Aelurus, this child is so tiresome!  Nyx, leave the matter alone.  At the least, I can assure you, you didn’t get the trait from me.  You must’ve gotten that from your father.”

“I’m going to shave my head,” Nyx mumbled glaring at the table.

“Enough!” The woman snapped. She started to rifle through the cupboards.  “Focus on something else.  Help me decide what’s for dinner tomorrow.”

Nyx sighed and laid her head down, gazing around the kitchen. “Huckleberry bread and white honey,” the girl said.

Fotini smiled patiently.  “That’d be good for dessert…What about dinner?

“Fried vegetables.  And…” Nyx thought for a moment. “Beef,” she said decisively.

The girl hopped up from the chair and stepped over her little brother, who’d taken to rolling on the floor.  She hefted herself up onto the counter with the aid of her mother and pointed at the brown sugar.  “I read somewhere that if you rub the raw beef with brown sugar and let it sit overnight, it tastes good.”

“Where’d you read this?” Fotini asked, frowning.

Nyx blushed.  She’d used her allowance to buy books from an elven merchant that had been coming near the village.  One of the books she’d bought was a cooking book, since her mother was always making her help in the kitchen.  “From one of my classmates,” the girl said hurriedly.

Fotini squinted her eyes in suspicion.  “It’s another one of those elf books, isn’t it?”

Nyx swallowed and bowed her head, instinctually covering her ears.

The woman helped the girl down.  “Nyx, it’s fine that you want to read.  But why can’t it be Ailuran books?  Aren’t they interesting?”

The girl frowned.  “A-pa said they lie.”

Fotini sighed and covered her face with her hand.  “Sweet Aelurus…Alvis…even now your actions haunt us…”

The mother turned and knelt down.  “Nyx, listen to me.  I can understand reading a cooking book.  Your tip was very good.  But please my little nightshard…try and appreciate our culture a bit more.  There’s nothing wrong with reading about your own people.”  The woman stood, her long dark  hair sweeping.  “Now run along and get dressed.  We leave in less than an hour…and no more fussing!

——————————————————-

Nyx carried Atalo in her arms.  He was still in the form of a kitten.  She glowered at him.  “Why don’t you get your ears pinched?  Why is it always me?

As if answering her, her brother pressed his paw against her nose, making her look like a pig.  The girl cuffed him on the head.  “Cajeck!” she snapped.

The cat yowled at her, biting at her purple gambeson with tiny teeth.

“You two behave,” Fotini warned.  Her mother was dressed up in her finest set of clothes–a tanned leather shroud with the hood down, the hide embroidered with black silk thread.  She had on fur boots, and a beaded belt.  Her long dark hair was pulled back with an obsidian clip.

“Aren’t you going to make him shift back?” Nyx asked, still glaring at her little brother, whose drool was soaking the lapel of her gambeson.

Fotini shook her head as she grabbed her large sling bag off the hook.  “It’s far too close to Night.  Remember your lessons?  Shapeshifting too much back and forth can tax your spirit.  It’s safer if he remains as he is.”

“But I read somewhere that if he stays like this too long–”

“Nyx!” Fotini gave her a warning glare.

Nyx sighed as she followed her mother out the front door and down the steps of their daikut.  Outside, there were many people hurrying along the road, anxious and excited.  The evening seemed so electric.  Despite herself, the girl gradually came out of her sullenness.  At the main square, there was much jubilation.  Flag bearers bore the symbol of the nation high over their heads, a full moon and three tear drops falling from it.  She could smell barbecued pork and roasted nuts and felt hungry.

“A-ma, can we get a snack, please?” Nyx asked, tugging on her mother’s sleeve.

“Not now, child.  The procession comes!”  Fotini craned her head, trying to see over the crowd.  The woman gave up, looking frustrated.  “Oooh…I can’t see a thing from here!  But maybe you and Atalo can get up closer.  Just don’t go wandering too far!  I’ll be right here.”  She gave the girl a small push forward at the back.

Nyx slouched, glaring through the forest of bodies down the road leading into the central square.  Sure enough, she could see a large body of people marching toward them in the distance.  The sulk on her face faded a portion as Nyx moved to the front of the crowd.  There, many of her peers from school stood waiting.  They turned and regarded her with varying expressions–most negative.

“What’s Nyx the Nitwit doing up here?”

Nyx turned and glared at a boy nearest her.  He had dark hair flecked with brown and narrowed hazelnut eyes.  Kilen, Leander’s nephew.  He smelled like fresh cotton and dirt.  The two children stared each other down.  Meanwhile, the adults around them remained oblivious of the blossoming exchange.  People cheered as the marchers drew closer.

“Kilen, you’re an ass,” Nyx said, rolling her eyes.

The boy mimicked her voice. Then he pointed at her and jeered, “Go stick your head into a book, weirdo!  This is for true Ailurans only!”

Nyx smiled at him coolly.  “Then I’ll be sure to let your dollies know you’re coming home early!”

Kilen’s face turned pink as the children around them giggled.  He stomped his foot.  “Stop it!  If you laugh with her, then you aren’t coming to my birthday party!”  The laughter stopped.  The boy flashed his eyes at her victoriously.  “Your father was a freak and so are you!  No Ailuran girl is supposed to have a mane!” He turned to those around them.  “Come on, let’s get away from the freak.  Her evil might rub off on us.”

The children migrated, following the boy as he left to stand near his uncle Leander, who was speaking with Orestes.  Nyx sighed and watched them go with a growing sense of defeat, not even caring that Atalo had pulled the top button off her gambeson.

“Kilen’s got fleas in his brain.”

Nyx blinked and turned.  An older girl with two dark pigtails and amethyst eyes grinned at her.  Behind her stood a slouching boy with flushed cheeks, warm-honey eyes, and curly umber hair.  “Don’t listen to him, ‘kay?  Not everybody hates you.  And not everybody’s a’scared of that cajeck.”  She held out her hand.  “My name’s Taila.”

Nyx hesitated.  She’d seen Taila before around the village.  She was a very tomboyish girl and very strong headed.  She was nine?  Maybe ten?  No…twelve.  Rumor had it that she had a crush on Nyx’s older brother, but the girl didn’t trust such talk.  There was also a rumor that Taila had once tamed a wild unicorn, after all.  Nyx had read enough to know that unicorns had gone extinct more than 200 years ago.  That was just one of the many discrepancies in what was locally known as the “Taila Tales”.  But the girl didn’t like the idea of being impolite, so she moved to greet Taila in similar fashion, but then her brother took to wiggling.  She couldn’t get a hand free to shake with.  “Ah, um…”

Taila giggled and reached over to pet Atalo instead.  Nyx inhaled softly.  She picked up the scent of honey.  “This is your brother Atalo, right?  He takes the same lessons with my little sister.”  The girl pointed over her shoulder.  “And this is Ampelos.  He’s shy.”

“Hi,” Ampelos muttered, staring down at his shoes.  His scent was overpowered by Taila and those around them, even as the girl tried to catch a whiff of him.

Nyx nodded, smiling nervously.  “Um, hi!  Nice to meet you.  My name’s Nyx.”

“We know!” Taila took Ampelos’ hand and waved with her other.  “‘Kay!  We gotta go find his mother.  Talk to you later!”

The sudden departure left Nyx anxious and even more uncertain.  “Uh…”  The two children were gone, and the girl bowed her head with a sigh.  “Yeah…bye…”

She turned and was conscious of how isolated she felt.  Even the adults seemed keen on giving her space.  Nyx shifted Atalo in her arms and wiped at her eyes.  She felt her sleeve come away damp, and this detail seemed enough to send her into all out crying once more, but the people around her began to cheer.  She gave a start, damp eyes blinking away the last tears as she looked forward.

There was a great fanfare, and energetic drums.  Cymbals crashed and people clapped as the Ailuran soldiers returned from their second tour.  In this battalion was–

“Thaddeus!”  Nyx whispered, ducking a little.

Her older brother marched at the end of his row.  He had medium long hair, dark like all of her family, and it was tied back in a low ponytail.  The fourteen-year-old marched with eyes forward.

Nyx turned to find her mother approached, gently pushing to the front of the crowd.  When she was close enough to speak and be heard, the woman was out of breath.

“I saw him, A-ma!” Nyx said, pointing.

“I think I did too!” the woman said, face flushed.  She took Nyx’s hand.  “Come on, they’re going to do a speech and then the men will be released to the families!”

Nyx started to fuss with her hair, brushing it back with sweaty fingers.  “He’s going to laugh at me, I just know it!”

“Child you are so odd! Weren’t you just excited to see him?  Can’t you leave your fears and just be happy that our Thad is home?”

“But–”

“Shh!” Fotini held a finger up to her lips and pulled the girl close by the shoulders.  Together, the three ventured into the gathering crowd near the central platform.  They didn’t need to wait long.  Orestes appeared to the cheers of many.  He raised a hand and smiled.

“My dear people of Tosmai.  Long have we awaited the return of our precious sons…Tonight, they come to us in good health, filled with pride for their service to our nation.  I will not keep you long, for the Eye of Aelurus is upon us as Night draws close, but hear me now, my good people.  These men have sacrificed much, and for some that price was great.  These few have returned to our glorious Mother, shrouded in honor and love.  Let us take a moment to pay our thanks to those who gave their lives so that we may stand here whole and happy tonight.”

Nyx covered Atalo’s head as she bowed her own.  Her little brother, though Changed, seemed to understand the situation enough to sit still beneath her hand.

They remained that way for one full minute before Orestes spoke again, bringing everyone out of their silent prayers.

“Thank you, and thank you to the families of those lost braves.” He gestured behind him where the soldiers had stood, waiting quietly.  “Come forward, my sons.  Your families await you!”

There was a cheer as the soldiers moved to find their beloveds.  Fotini gripped onto her daughter tightly, and Nyx couldn’t help but tighten with fear the way the crowd seemed to smother them in their haste to get by.  She turned to look behind her, feet stumbling as her mother dragged her forward.  The girl knew she could find a space free of the mad hustle if only her mother would let her go, but as she gazed past the villagers, she saw a woman staring toward the stage, tears streaming openly down her face.  She stood alone, and her gaze turned to the sky, her dark hair lifting with the breeze.  Nyx blinked and craned her head as more people came, but within the next instant her view of the woman was gone.

“Thaddeus!”

Nyx turned her head forward again.  Fotini hugged the girl around the shoulders, and Atalo fought in her arms to raise himself up higher to see.  The villagers parted and Thaddeus stepped forward, his broad face smiling fully.  He had tawny eyes, like she and Atalo did, but his were muddier.  But the dimples in his cheeks, his round-tipped nose, his expressive eyebrows, the messy black hair…all the same.

“Hello everyone!” was all he said.

Fotini laughed as she snatched the teenager up in a bone-crushing hug.  Atalo mewled loudly, extending a paw and struggling to push out of Nyx’s arms.  The girl just stared at her brother, shoulders hunched, eyes wide with awe.

Thaddeus was home.

——————————————————-

The forest’s belly was full with them, it seemed.  They crossed the earth with steps that the wood and grass seemed to respond to.  As the population passed the limits of the village into the wild, guards stood watch over those passing.  The Cerrite.  They were criminal hunters, domestic guardians, and enforcers.  As it was the middle of autumn, they worse deer skins for camouflage.

Nyx stared as they passed one, and his milky eyes turned her way.  The Cerrite were specially trained both by warriors and priests alike.  This one had a stony face, smeared with charcoal.  Chosen at birth, these men’ spirits were marked with unbreakable magic that gave them unique abilities.  For instance, they could resist the Change when the full moon came.  They protected the village whilst the populace honored the Blessed Mother each month.  It required a unique strength, as the magic that made this possible could kill anyone who was too weak in spirit to bear it.  The Cerrite were both admired and feared among the community.  It was said that their divine sense of justice was so acute, that they could sense their prey even unto the future.

Nyx ducked behind her mother’s legs as they followed the crowd down the familiar path.  The trees cast shadows over them as the suns slowly pulled back the blanket of their warmth from the sky.

The feeling of being watched didn’t leave her.

There was a designated field, not far from the village.  Here families chose their respective areas for the Change.  Nyx’s family found a place still near the woods, but with a soft patch of ground and high grass.  Fotini dropped her bag with a sigh.  The woman hadn’t always made a habit of bringing a bag with her…but last year, Nyx and Atalo had thought it would be fun to play with the folded clothing whilst in their animal forms.  What resulted was half of their belongings being torn in half from tug of war, the rest being scattered around the forest in a game of chase.  The trouncing that came afterward was forever coined by Thaddeus as, “The Great Kitten Clobber.”  Nyx and Atalo didn’t think it very funny.

Fotini fussed over her eldest son, ruffling his hair in disapproval.  “You need a cut!” she sighed, shaking her head.

Thaddeus ducked away from her, his eyebrow raised.  “A-ma, please!  I’m a soldier, remember?  We don’t have much time to fuss about those sorts of things on the field.”

At the mention of the war, Fotini’s face turned tense.  “Thad, you haven’t been made to fight, have you?  You’re still just scouting, right?”

Thaddeus’ expression turned reserved as he pulled off his shirt.  His limbs were wiry now.  “We’ll talk about it later.  The moon is almost out.” He sat on the grass and proceeded to remove his boots.  As he worked, his eyes flickered to Nyx, who hadn’t budged from her position sitting in a tight ball. “Koah, you okay?”

Nyx shrugged and looked over at Atalo, who was having fun knocking over stalks of grass.  She didn’t want to Change.  She didn’t want her brother to see, and somehow, she had fixed it in her mind that if she refused to prepare for the night, then the transformation simply wouldn’t come.

Atalo came cantering over, his ears perked.  He hid behind a rock, the thing nearly completely concealing him.  He peered at her over it, his ears flattening and his eyes holding a tell-tale shine.  The girl scowled at him.  “Don’t,” she warned.

Her little brother didn’t listen.  He ducked out of sight for a moment before popping over the rock and launching at her, claws extended.  He landed on her shoulder and bit at her ear.  It was quite an impressive jump, for such a little thing, but Nyx wasn’t amused.

She snatched her brother up by the scruff of his neck, and instinctually he went limp.  She hissed at him from the back of her throat, and if she had been in her animal form, her tail would have been lashing angrily.  “I said leave me alone!”  She threw him away, literally.  Her brother skittered along the dirt in a loud yowl.

Fotini’s eyes flashed at her, and Nyx flattened herself on the ground, like a cat who’d heard a loud sound.  “Nyx!” the woman shouted, standing.  She’d already stripped off her shoes and top, leaving her only dressed in her pants.

Thaddeus was already nude.  He didn’t stand, but simply leaned over.  Nyx tried to move out of his reach, but the boy was fast and she was still flat against the ground.  He grabbed her by the back of her neck, pinning her down, and the girl couldn’t resist the relaxation that went through her body, setting her still.  Even in sapien form, the pressure point still worked.

“Koah,” he said over her.  Then he cuffed her hard over the head.  “Be nice!”

Her older brother let her go, and Nyx rolled away from him, baring her teeth.  With each passing second, animal behavior was becoming more and more natural.  Night was turning thick about them, igniting an ancient magic that none present could resist.  Some of the villagers had already shifted.

Nyx let out a spitting sound, her fingers digging into the dirt.  “I just wanna be left alone!”

Fotini went on all fours, glaring at her.  She mirrored Nyx’s bared teeth and her head bowed forward.  The girl recognized the stance.  The woman was going to rush forward and topple her.

“Nyx, if you don’t stop this–”

No!”  but the sound was choked.  Anxiety was bringing about a premature Change.  Nyx let out a cry of pain and curled in on herself.

She heard movement through the grass and lifted her head enough to see Thaddeus and her mother at either side before her.  Their eyes had gone cat, and their teeth were changing to fangs.  Nyx watched, shuddering as she saw their features change smoothly.

“My little nightshard, stop fighting it.  Don’t you see your struggles hurt you in the end?” Fotini breathed gently.

Nyx looked anxiously at Thaddeus.  “B-But I don’t want him to see!”  Her eyes teared up and her face crumpled.  She ducked her head, her body shuddering as she fought to keep her form.  “I look like a freak!” she choked through sobs.

Nyx hugged herself tightly and looked at her brother, pained.  “I missed you!”  she tried to speak, even as the pain grew worse.  “I jes’ wanted–you to–to–think I was–growing into a good girl!” the girl wailed, pressing her forehead to the ground as he hugged herself tighter.  She was trying to keep her ribs from expanding.  “But I’m wrong! And everyone hates me ’cause of it!”

Thaddeus bopped her lightly on the head.  The girl looked up at him in confusion, tears streaming from her eyes.

Her brother smiled at her, just as Atalo came around him, eyes peering curiously.  “Cajeck,” he murmured, ruffling her hair.  “I’m just happy to see you!”

Nyx swallowed hard.  “You…mean it?”

Thaddeus nodded, and together she and Fotini made the girl sit up.  Their faces had gone cat.

“You see, child?” Fotini said gently as she peeled away Nyx’s gambeson.

Thaddeus pulled her legs forward and pulled off her boots.  His fingers had claws.

“Go on, Koah,” Thaddeus said with a smile.  “Stop fighting it, and let the Change happen.  We’ll be with you in a second.”

Nyx didn’t need telling twice.  She relaxed her body, and gasped as she felt the transformation hit her in a rush.  Her mother held her around the torso and guided her back to the ground as the girl’s body seized up, bones and muscles shifting.  The process was faster this time around, as though a great dam had burst.  It felt…euphoric, and the girl sighed as she felt herself fall into a place that was cool and safe…

Then she opened Her eyes.

——————————————————-

[Thaddeus immediately started laughing.  As she kicked away the dead skin of her Other Self–those “pants”.]Wow! Nyx has a mane!  Is that what she was fussing about all this time!?”

“Thad, your sister has been agonizing over this for ages.  Please don’t confirm her fears!”

“Okay…but I mean…” [and here he snickered.]Wow.”

[Funny words.  Sapien words.  Words didn’t mean much to Her like this, though somewhere, far away, she thought she could remember some sort of meaning to them.]

[The cat raised herself up and shook her fur out.  The dark tresses fell into her eyes and she gave her head another shake.  Atalo mewled at her, and she answered him.  She was larger than her brother by at least a few pounds and stood an inch and a half taller than him, but when compared to Thaddeus or her mother, she still looked so small.  The girl’s nose flared, taking in the unique scent of her family.  She felt safe.]

[Without much preamble, she pounced on Atalo.  It was time to get him back for all his pestering.  The two wrestled in the dirt as the rest of their family shapeshifted near them.]

[Then the mother raised her head, and she looked right, and Nyx raised herself from her play long enough to meow at her.  Fotini padded near and with mouth slightly parted so that the tips of her canines showed, let out a huff of breath that caressed the kitten’s face, startling the locks of her mane.  This was the silent way of saying hello.  Nyx butted her head beneath her mother’s chin purring.  Atalo pounced on her from behind, gnawing on her hide.  She turned and batted at him with her paw.]

[A shadow fell over her.  The cat turned to see her eldest brother, nearly as big as her mother and with a mane of his own, gazing down at her.  He gave the customary greeting before he buried his face in her neck.  Her spine curved, but her muscles tensed.  She recalled another group of cats her age attacking her and pulling her by the mane once.  Kilin and his companions.  This memory brought up hazy recollections of embarrassment and fear of judgment.  But this was family–he wouldn’t harm her.  Right?]

[Thaddeus let out a sharp snort, growling as he withdrew.  Then with his great paw, he pushed Nyx down by the back.  The kitten hissed, ears drawing back at this physicality.  But what came next startled her.]

[Her older brother started to groom her.  His tongue swept over her mane, which in truth, was messier than his.]

[Atalo sat before her, a curiously sapien expression of smugness on his furry face as he watched his sister mewl in protest.  This didn’t last.  Within the next instant, the younger kitten was caught by his mother, and both Nyx and Atalo glowered at their paws as their elders groomed them.]

[This done, the family played in the grass.  Fotini played chase with her litter, her graceful form loping through the field.  They greeted other families, reacquainting themselves with their individual scents.  As Fotini became intimate with a young tom, her children drifted a bit in boredom.  Some of the other kittens, playing nearby, started to chase Nyx, hissing and yowling.  Atalo tried to defend her only to find himself easily knocked aside.]

[Nyx found herself buried beneath three others, whose bites and scratches were rougher than necessary.  She hissed and tried to swat them away, but their eyes peered at her like she were a mouse in the corner.  She recognized one by the smell of cotton on his skin, and she locked her tawny eyes onto his hazelnut ones.]

[Then Thaddeus stood before her and roared.]

[The kittens startled back, slinking low to the ground as they scuttled away through the tall grass.]

[Nyx purred her thanks, rubbing her body along the length of his leg.]

[The rest of the evening was spent running in the nearby forest and over the field.  They hunted squirrels and gophers.  Nyx managed to catch one of the latter and she devoured it happily.]

[The night ended with the family sleeping in a close huddle, back where they had originally Changed.]

——————————————————-

The soldiers were to return to war in three weeks time.  Until then, Thaddeus was once more a part of the household.  He told funny war stories that delighted Nyx and Atalo, but made her mother stiff and anxious.  The creaks and squeaks of the house were fixed by the teenager with a new set of tools.  As he was older now, he’d even decided to give his siblings some of his old toys and books (…actually, just the latter to Nyx, who was practically dancing around the house–she wasn’t allowed into Thaddeus’ room while he was away and so receiving his books felt like winning at a raffle).  Nyx wasn’t beat up at all in the week as her brother scared away her tormentors by his presence alone.

…There were not so good times too.  One night, Nyx awoke to Fotini and Thaddeus arguing in the kitchen.  She’d sneaked out into the short hallway and peered with wide eyes as Thad demanded to know who the “lecher” was that her mother had been seeing every other night after “the little ones had fallen asleep.”

“Don’t you care about A-pa at all!?” he’d hissed, his hand a fist on the counter. “What if he comes back?  What if he–”

Fotini’s face was pink and she stood from the chair she’d been sitting on. “Child, you talk of things you don’t understand!”

“I’m a man now.  I provide for this family, I think I have a right to–”

“You are still my son, Thaddeus.  Your father has vanished, and let’s face it, he wasn’t around that much to begin with!  He was too busy chasing his ideals, his dreams–”

“Weren’t you the same way once!?”

“His talk fascinated me, and his passion inspired me–but I never lost sight of what was important.  My family!”  The woman stared down her son, and the boy looked away after a moment.  The animal in them was always present, and to stare too long into the eyes of another was considered a challenge.  Thaddeus may have become a man, but he still relented when it came to his mother.

“I have always cared for my family, Thad,” Fotini said quietly.

The boy laughed harshly.  “Really, A-ma?  If you’re so certain that A-pa is never coming back, then atleast find a partner that provides for you.”  The boy slammed his fist into the counter. “I hate the thought that I risk my life for this nation, for my family, only to find out that some boy pretending to be a man comes and reaps the benefits!  The gold I earn is only for you, Nyx, and Atalo!  Not some lecher that vanishes with the suns rising!”

“You cannot shame me on this, Thad.  I may not be the best mother, but I try.  I’m…I feel so alone.  I miss Alvis, truly.  You’re old enough to understand this, yes?  Can’t you be more compassionate for your A-ma?  Whereas other wives have a husband who supports them, I have no one.  You tell me to find someone who will provide?  With more of our men going to war, none are left to stay with the poor abandoned Fotini and her strange, wild children.  I have no one…”  The woman’s last words became thick, and she turned away, covering her face.

The boy bowed his head and rubbed the back of his neck. “You have me, A-ma…”

Nyx blinked away tears, and trying to keep her sniffles silent, she crept back to her room.

You have me too, A-ma…

——————————————————-

Market day.  Atalo carried the list that Fotini had written up, while Nyx carried the basket.  She didn’t want to carry the basket, but after the full moon, she’d been trying her hardest to behave extra good because she felt bad about how much of a fuss she’d made.  Thaddeus, meanwhile, did the haggling.

“How much for the corn, sir?” he asked a merchant.  He glanced down at Atalo, “Hey, A-ma wanted corn, right?”

“Yes, Koen!” he said, excited that he was in some way a part of the process.

Nyx resisted the urge to yawn.

“One silver each,” the merchant said.

The girl frowned, coming out of her dull stupor.  She knew for a fact that Fotini purchased corn from this man at three copper.

“Okay,” Thaddeus said, picking up the corn off the top.  He didn’t even bother to inspect them closely.

Nyx couldn’t help it.  She tugged on his sleeve.  “Koen…” she breathed, glaring at the merchant, who stared back at her.

“Not now, Nyx,” the boy said, squinting at an ear of corn that was clearly lacking in kernels, but he added it to the basket anyway.

Nyx gazed at him as though he were an idiot.  “Thad.”

“Those don’t look good…” Atalo said, scrunching up his nose.

Thaddeus shrugged.  “What’s the big deal?  You guys are just kids, relax and let me handle things.”

Nyx crossed her arms and pouted.  “I did this by myself for a year and I’ve done better than you have in an hour!

“Yeah!” Atalo cried, crumpling A-ma’s paper by accident.  The boy disliked being left out.

The teenager sighed and glared at his two younger siblings.  “Hey, who’s the oldest here?  Raise your hand.”  Nyx and Atalo exchanged looks as Thaddeus raised his hand, which held another funny-looking ear of corn.  “Okay…who did A-ma ask to get the vegetables?  Raise your hand.”  He lowered his hand only to raise it again.

Nyx sucked at her teeth and looked at Atalo.  “Who’s got half a brain?  Raise your hand,” she said whilst nudging her little brother.  Both children raised their hand and glared at their elder.  Actually, Atalo raised two.

Thaddeus turned red in the face, gripping the ear of corn like it were a rock he was preparing to throw.

“These are no good!  They’re shriveled and stuff.  And you’re paying too much!” Nyx explained fast, her courage failing at her brother’s expression.

“Those are excellent ears of corn.  I don’t sell bad food!” the merchant snapped, rising from his seat.

“Nyx, you’ve insulted the man,” Thaddeus said, narrowing his eyes.  “Apologize.”

Nyx scowled.  “But he’s a liar.  A-ma paid three copper for the corn last time, not a silver piece each!

Thaddeus turned and fixed the man with a stare.  “Is this true?”

The merchant faltered.  It was one thing to shout down a seven-year-old.  Quite a different thing to shout at a recently returned soldier.  He’d be vilified forever, and there were customers watching.

He held up his hands, like a man who’d just been assualted with tears and sob stories.  “Okay!  Okay! I’ll give you these for five copper each.”

Thaddeus grabbed him by the front of his shirt and jabbed the tip of the ear of corn under the merchant’s chin.  “Make it one,” he hissed.

The merchant nodded, though it looked more like he were trembling.  “One copper each is good!  Very good!”

Thaddeus let the man go, glaring for a second more just to drive the point home.  Then he turned to Nyx.  He grinned, the expression a mixture of embarassment, gratitude, and apology.  “Go on, Koah.  Pick the best you see!”

Nyx smiled, thrusting the basket into his hands.  “Hold this!” she giggled.

——————————————————-

Night time.  New moon.

Thaddeus peeked his head into Nyx’s bedroom.

“Koah,” he breathed.  “Are you ready?”

Nyx sprang upright in her bed, fully dressed.  “Yes!” she whispered as she slid to the floor.

Her brother pressed a finger to her lips and gestured for the girl to follow him.  As she went into the hallway, she saw Atalo leaning against the wall, his eyes slipping shut.  The boy wasn’t used to staying up this late.  Quite frankly, neither was she, but she’d been so excited she could hardly wait.  She went to her little brother and took him gently by the shoulders.

“C’mon, Atalo!” she said quietly.

Together the three siblings backpedaled, eyes on their mother’s doorway at the end of the hall.  Thaddeus took exaggerated steps, as though he were tiptoeing over giant barrels.  Nyx and Atalo tried to keep from giggling too loud as they mimicked him.  Within a few seconds, they were in the cool night air and dashing through the sleeping village, laughter still caught in their throats like a bird in a net.

They entered the forest.

There, Thaddeus led them at a carefuller pace, his eyes scanning the trees for dangers.  An owl hooted not far away.  The teenager stopped, holding out a hand to his siblings.  Then he cupped his hands and returned the call.

Then another teenage boy appeared, out from behind a poplar.  Nyx couldn’t make out his features.  With the new moon upon them, even their therian eyes struggled in the dark of the forest.  What the girl could make out was that he had puffy, dark hair and was dressed much lighter than any of them.

“Myrk!” Thaddeus cried jubilantly, holding out a hand.  The boy approached and shook it, then he looked at Nyx and Atalo, who huddled together at his attention.

The boy crouched down slowly and held out a hand to Nyx.  “Hello, Nyx.  Thaddeus has told me alot about you!  My name’s Myrk.”

Nyx blinked and took the teenager’s hand.  Her hand was swallowed in his rough grip, but he shook her arm gently.  “Nice to meet you.”

The teenager nodded, then turned to Atalo next.  He thumped his chest and he gave a shadowy smile.  “And the mighty Atalo, we meet at last!” He put out his hand and the boy shook it eagerly.

As Myrk straightened, Thaddeus clapped him on the shoulder.  “Myrk comes from the capital!  We met when our battalions unified in a charge against the Fiamman army!”

Nyx looked at her brother, the shy smile on her face falling away.  “Wait!  You said you didn’t fight while you were away!”

Thaddeus faltered, looking at the ground.  Myrk glanced at him with a somber face.

“Thad?  You…lied to A-ma?”  Nyx bunched the end of her smock, her eyes turning wide.

The older brother shook his head.  “I never said I didn’t fight.” Then he turned and stalked forward, leaving Myrk with the two children.

The teenager cleared his throat.  “Ah…” he jerked his head.  “Come on, you two, let’s get going!”

Together the four traveled until they came to Ebon Lake.

Nyx exhaled softly, feeling her breath like it were an extension of herself in the night.  But it would be a while longer before the true cold descended, and all warmth turned to chill in the world.  She rubbed at her arms, shivering in the wind, but smiled as she saw Atalo run forward, yelling after Thaddeus, who had proceeded to take off his clothes.

When her older brother had invited her along on the night time adventure, she’d turn down the opportunity for a swim, preferring simply to be in the company of her siblings.  Myrk, she was happy to find, was rather amiable and easy to be around.  He laughed and talked casually, like he’d been acquainted with them all since birth.  The girl looked skyward, and her smile waned as she took note of the starry sky.

“Nyx!”

The girl’s eyes snapped forward, and she saw that Thaddeus was calling her over.  He was down to just his underpants, his wrists pinned beneath his underarms as he hunched in the face of the cold.  Atalo had stripped down too and was hopping up and down, beating his bare chest like an ape.

“Koah, come on!  Swim!”

She shook her head mutely, sitting on the ground as if to illustrate that she could not be persuaded.

Thaddeus gave her an exasperated smile, then turned to Myrk.  “She gets like this sometimes, especially around new people,” he explained in a low voice.

“She doesn’t like the water?” Myrk asked.  Then without waiting for an answer, he turned and shouted the question to her.  “You don’t like the water?”

“Nyx loves the water,” Thaddeus said, smirking.

“Once our A-ma thought that Nyx had died!” Atalo chirped, leaping in front of Myrk.

“She had swum to the bottom of the lake and decided to see how long she could hold her breath,” Thaddeus elaborated with a laugh.

“How long was she under for?” Myrk asked.

“Two minutes!” Nyx called, unable to contain her pride.

The teenager laughed and clapped.  “By the gods, that’s pretty good!”

The girl drew up her legs and smiled into her knees.

Thaddeus smacked Myrk’s arm.  “Hey, let’s hurry up and jump in, before it gets any colder.”

“Okay.”

The boys counted to three, then sprinted into the water, screaming.  Atalo made it as far as his ankles before he turned around and sprinted back the way he’d come, shivering.  He crashed down next to Nyx, or rather into her, his teeth chattering loudly.

“It’s too cold!” he whined.

Nyx hugged him around the shoulders with a lopsided smile.  “Cajeck…you don’t need to pretend to be a tough guy just because Thaddeus is here.  You’ll be big and strong someday too!”

The girl helped her little brother back into his clothes.  Then the two entertained themselves by making grass boats and seeing which sailed out the farthest.  Nyx’s beat Atalo’s two times in a row, and the boy was frustrated to tears.  Feeling bad for him, the girl secretly punched a hole in her leaf, and when they raced again, hers sank after floating out no more than an inch on the water.  Atalo screamed and jumped wildly at his “victory”.

Finally, after the siblings cheered their brother on in a water wrestling match against Myrk (their brother won) the four decided it was time to head home.  Nyx and Atalo sat together while the teenagers dressed, and the girl could hardly keep her eyes open.  When she decided she’d just close them for “a second”, Thaddeus was already shaking her awake, fully clothed and his hair dripping.

“Come on Koah, I’ll carry you home.”  Then Thaddeus gathered her up in his arms, and this was the last thing the girl remembered before she awoke in her bed the next morning.

——————————————————-

Nyx ran as fast as she could.  It was the last day of the month, and Marq, the elf merchant, was sure to be at the outskirts of town.

She’d saved and saved since his last visit, and now had a hundred copper, worth exactly one silver coin.  It wasn’t enough for a large book, but a slim volume perhaps.  Or maybe a strange trinket, like the ball and chain that whistled through the air when she spun it.  (Her mother had asked what she was doing with that “tea strainer”–but the girl was certain it was far more special than that.  It looked too interesting.)

Out of breath and pink-faced, the girl came to a slow stop just past the border flags that marked the village’s perimeter.  She looked right, then left.

“Marq?” she said.

“Over here!” A voice said in Common.

The girl turned and her face split into a grin as she saw an elf emerge from the shade of the local grain shed.  He was a tall elven man with short, pale lilac hair, dressed in a worn out poncho, beige canvas pants, and leather shoes.  His ears were two inches long at the tips and pointy.  He had a soft cleft chin, short slashes for eyebrows, and a pinched nose.  He grinned lopsidedly.

“Hullo there, kitten!” he chirped.  He gestured for her to come near, and the girl did so with a skip.

“Why are you hiding?” she asked, her words stiff and over-enunciated as she struggled with the sounds.  She was still working on getting rid of her accent.

“Oh, uh…” the man grinned, looking embarrassed.  “There’s some people…who really want what I have.”  He turned to pick up his large bag, and the girl thought she heard the man mutter something about “thugs” and “gold”.

Opening the flap, he knelt down and pulled out some books.  “Yer lookin’ for more books, eh?  Here I have some new ones that should be easy for ya to read!  By the by, did I tell ya your Common has improved a bunch since we last saw each other?  Yer gettin’ better every time I see you, kitten!”

Nyx beamed and leaned over to examine the titles.

The Life and Times of Edmund the Eerie; Alchemy in Daily Life; So You Want To Be A Demon Hunter?; Bauble Art and You; Arcane Couture – Magical Fashion for Magical People; Penelope’s Guide to Cherry Popping, etc….

The girl reached for Penelope’s Guide to Cherry Popping, her thought being, “I like cherries!”

When Marq saw what she was going for however, he let out a sound akin to a dog being turned inside out.  “Aaaa-ah’m sorry little one!” he smoothly swiped the book away, tucking it deep within his bag.  His face had gotten sweaty and he tugged at his ear hard.  “That…that book isn’t quite for you.”

“Is hard read?” Nyx said, frowning in disappointment.

“Let’s jes’ say…that it’d be hard for me, for you, for ever’one with half a’ ounce of moral grain ta read…” Marq said, his voice cracking a little.

The girl gave him a weird look.

Aware that the man was just trying to change the subject, the youth was a hard sell on Marq’s suggestion in place of Penelope’s Guide.  With long slim fingers, he picked up Alchemy in Daily Life and handed it to her.  It was a small book with barely over a hundred pages.  Each page seemed to consist of a short recipe for various potions.  It would be easy to hide, as she didn’t have a bag to put the book in–and she was certain her mother wouldn’t approve of her having it.  Thaddeus even less.

“This is a good book!” Then Marq seemed to think about it.  Then he added, “Good so long as you’re good.  Yer good, right kitten?  You won’t use it fer anything bad will ya?”  His brows crashed together.  “Please tell me ya won’t.  I don’t need anyone else trying ta kill me!”

The girl glanced off to the side.  Then she looked back at the elf.  “Ah…No?”

The man seemed to think about it.  Then he shrugged.  “Alright!  That’s fifty copper!”

Nyx frowned shrewdly at him.  “Thirtyfive!  Three-Five!”

Marq tutted.  “Come now, you just got a good deal!”

“Fine.” The girl stood up and made as if to go.

“Hold on, lil’ one!”

Nyx smiled slowly and turned around.  “Yes, Marq?” she asked, voice full of honey.

The elf glowered at her as he held out the book and an open hand.  “Yer gettin’ far too crafty for your own good, kid.  I’ll sell it to ya for forty, and not a coin less!”

The girl thought about it a moment, then nodded.  “M’kay!”

She fished the coin bag out and counted forty copper pieces into the elf’s narrow palm.  He handed her the book and gestured at the rest.

“No more for this month?” he asked.

She shook her head, then gave the man a wave.  “Bye, Marq!”

The man chuckled.  “Yeah…bye kitten!”

Nyx walked back the way she’d come, calmer now.  She flipped through the pages as she walked.  Not all the words she understood, but her father had left her a large tome which he’d once used to translate Common into Ailuran.  She read from it every day.

One recipe caught her eye.

“One batreng tooth, pinch of floor dust, one therian nail, pinch of sea salt…”  The girl’s eyes brightened.  “I have all these!” she held up her hand and giggled.  “I even have five of one of them!”

“Oh really?  I have five of those too.”  Kilen’s voice.

Nyx looked up just in time to see his fist fly into her face.  The girl fell onto her rear, blood splattering the page of her book.  Leander’s nephew stood over her, smirking.  Behind him were two other boys, nameless in Nyx’s mind, but whom she recognized as members of Kilen’s gang of friends.  They were in a less traveled part of the village, where spare parts for building repairs were kept.  Nyx liked to cut through here, to save time and avoid trouble.  But it seemed her secrete route was finally discovered.

The boy snatched the book from her hands, smacking her hard in the forehead with its spine.  “Nyx the Nitwit, at it again!”  the children laughed.

Nyx glared up at him, even as tears clouded her eyes.  “Kilen that’s mine, I paid for it!”

“From that shady elf that gets chased away every month?  You’re pathetic!”  He kicked her in the leg, hard.

The girl cried, eyes closing in pain.  She heard ripping.  Then through her tears and the glare of the suns, she saw Kilen tearing out page after page…

“No!” she screamed, her heart wrenching as she launched at the boy.  His cronies intercepted her, both tall for their age, and shoved her back down.  But the girl saw movement in the corner of her eye.

In the next instant, a piece of lumber sailed over Nyx and hit both boys in the chest.  Both stumbled back, knocking into Kilen.  The assailant…?

Nyx stared agape as Taila, holding the wood like it were a sports bat, hissed at the three younger children.  Kilen glared at her, daring to take one step forward.  “Taila, go away!  This is none of your business!”

“Shut up, runt, or I’ll knock your face in!  Both my mother and my father fought for the army, so don’t think I can’t kick your ass!” the girl snarled.

Kilen didn’t need much more than that.  He was one of the many believers of the Taila Tales.  Dropping the book, he turned and ran, his friends quickly following him.

Nyx flinched as Taila turned her fierce gaze on the girl.  She decided the girl was scary…and sort’ve…

Awesome.

“Cajeck,” the older girl said.  She held out a hand.  “Have you got fleas in your brain?”

Nyx took Taila’s hand, and with more pull than was necessary, Nyx was on her feet.  She turned her head and saw that Ampelos was nearby, trembling, draped in towels as though he’d used them for hiding.

“Don’t come this way anymore,” Taila said, jabbing a finger into Nyx’s shoulder.  “Your brother can’t keep you safe all the time!  It was just luck that we ran into you at all!”

Nyx bowed her head.  “Sorry,” she mumbled.  Blood still dripped from her mouth.  She glanced at her shirt, then groaned.  Some of her blood had stained the fabric, and she was certain to be quizzed about it once she returned home.

“Here.”

The girl blinked as a short-sleeved shirt, a little sweaty, but still smelling of honey, was thrust under nose.  She looked up and her face flared to see that Taila was shirtless.  Ampelos quickly threw a towel at her, making a dry, panicked sound, but Taila didn’t even look at him.  As she wrapped herself with the towel, she nodded at Nyx’s shirt.  “Go on!  You’ve got blood all over that one.”

Nyx blushed.  “But…”

Taila raised an eyebrow at her.

Mutely, the girl did as she was told.  When she was done, Ampelos was holding her book out to her, the torn pages stacked ontop.

“H-Here,” he said, head ducked.  “I think I got all of ’em…”

Nyx’s face crumpled as she saw the book.  She hid her face behind it to try and hide the tears that fell.

Then without warning, she felt someone hug her.  The girl looked up with a start to see Taila looking down at her sadly, her breath a warm flutter over her forehead.  “Don’t worry, Nyx.  We’ll get back at them.  I promise!” the girl said.

Nyx seized up, feeling her skin grow hot. “But I…I don’t–”

“You have to fight back!” the girl said, giving Nyx a shake.  “You can’t let them just get away with this.  It isn’t fair!

Nyx sniffled, her brows pressing together.  Taila was something of an outsider herself.  Her family was poor, and scraped by through honey farming.  It was true that both parents had served in the Ailuran military, and she seemed to recall Thaddeus mentioning that it was Taila’s parents that had backed up their father when speaking at the village council meetings.

But the girl saw a vast difference in herself and Taila.  While the older girl had managed a level of respect through her extraordinary reputation as a strong and capable person; Nyx, on the other hand, was considered a freak and a subverter waiting to happen.

Taila stepped back and grabbed Ampelos, who turned redder by the second.  “Look, why don’t you come with us for a swim at Ebon Lake?  Maybe you’ll feel better then?”

“I have to get home.  My mother’s waiting for me.”  Nyx found herself sorry to say this.

Taila shrugged one shoulder.  “Then next week!”  This was a statement, not a question.

Nyx scratched her head and smiled.  “Um…okay!”

“‘Kay, bye!” and the older girl strode away, Ampelos close behind.

“Bye,” Nyx breathed, waving.  She glanced at her bloody shirt, then tossed it away.  If she were lucky, her mother wouldn’t notice she was wearing a shirt two sizes too big…

——————————————————-

“Why are you wearing a shirt two sizes too big?” Fotini demanded, her body blocking the hallway leading to Nyx’s room like she were some sort of gate keeper.  Atalo peered at his sister from between her legs, eyes curious.

Nyx slouched before her mother, feeling on the verge of tears again.  “I…was attacked…again…” the girl bowed her head.  “Kilen.  It was Kilen.”

Fotini growled, her fingers curling like claws.  “That’s it, I’m speaking to his parents now!”

When Nyx had come home, Fotini had been handling a situation with Atalo, who seemed to think butter was excellent lubricant to make his toy carts go faster.  Thaddeus had followed the girl in after fixing a squeaky window in Fotini’s room from outside.  Now everyone gathered in the kitchen for what seemed to be yet another episode of family drama.

Fotini grabbed her cloak from the hook on the far wall.  “That boy is always picking on you!  I’ve spoken to Leander, but it seems these people need someone to make them care–”

Wait A-ma.”  Thaddeus blocked her way.  He gestured at Nyx, “She has to learn how to defend herself.  You can speak to Kilen’s parents all you want–but Nyx needs to face this head on.  I mean, you said it yourself, talking it out before didn’t work.”

Fotini scowled.  “This is just a squabble between children!  It hardly requires us to draw arms!”

“Even children need to know what it means to fight.”  Thaddeus drew himself up, and he swallowed audibly.  “I did.”

The silence that fell over the room was like a hammer.  Atalo hugged Nyx around the waist, trembling a little.  Nyx hugged him back, her body tense as she waited for her mother’s reaction.

“You’ve killed…?”

“You can’t say you didn’t expect this…” the teenager said slowly to his mother.  “It’s war.  I’m old enough now, and we’re losing men.  I was much more useful in battle than I ever was as a scout!”

“You’re far too young…to take lives…to risk your own…” Fotini’s voice was a shaky whisper.  From where they stood, Nyx and Atalo could see that their mother was fighting to contain her tears.  “You’re a boy.  You’re my son!”

“Who happens to be a soldier!”  Thaddeus thumped his chest with one fist.  “I’m proud to serve my nation!  I don’t want any of you falling into danger!  I’ll fight to see this won’t happen!”

This proud exclamation seemed enough to make Fotini verklempt.  Her son guided her into a chair, where the girl could now see silent tears falling.

Thaddeus pointed at Nyx, fire in his eyes.  “And I won’t let my little sister get beaten by thugs!  Koah, I’m going to teach you what I know!”

Nyx’s face tensed with apprehension.  She didn’t know if she liked this idea…

Atalo raised his hand, jumping.  “And me too!?”

Thaddeus laughed. “And you too, Koen.”

——————————————————-

Her mother was making cake from scratch for the first time using a recipe Janus, their neighbor, had given her.  There was a taut feeling of peppiness as everyone seemed determined not to think of the coming days.  Soon Thaddeus was to return to the battlefield.  When Nyx had asked where he was going, the teenager just chuckled and said, “Far, far away, Koah.  But you don’t have to worry about that.”

Nyx chewed off her thumbnail.  She was in her room, feeling the need to be alone, and decided she felt like giving the recipe from the alchemy book a try.  She’d already raided the cupboard for the other ingredients.  The sea salt was easy.  What took more time was the tooth.  She finally found a small bag of them at the bottom shelf, behind the large jars of herbs.  She knew her brother Thaddeus had bought them a year ago because of a rumor he’d heard which said that if you snorted ground up batreng teeth and red peppers on a crescent moon, it’d make you stronger.  What’d happened instead was the boy was sent straight to the village healer.  Somehow, the bag of teeth hadn’t been tossed away.  At her mother’s inquiry, the girl had explained that she was looking for sweets, then fled.  The floor dust was easy.  She had plenty in her room alone.

Using a mortar and pestle, the girl ground up her ingredients into a fine powder.  It was harder than it looked.

“Stupid tooth…” the girl grunted, smashing the pestle into the mortar.

“Hey, Nyx,”

The girl turned to see Thaddeus in the doorway.  “Yes?” she asked nervously.

“Let that alone for a minute.  Come outside with me, I wanna show you how to throw a punch.”

“I thought A-ma said she didn’t want us doing that!?” the girl stood, gripping the pestle in both hands anxiously.

Thaddeus sighed and marched into the room.  He stooped down and grabbed the mortar.  “What is this?” he asked.

Nyx swallowed.  “Um…”

The boy held up a hand.  “Wait, if it’s something weird from those elven books, like cleaning powder or something, then I don’t want to know.”  He started to pull his sister along.  “Let’s go.”

Nyx tried to grab the mortar.  “Koen, wait!”

The teenager held it over her head.  “Forget it, Nyx!  You aren’t getting out of this!” he shoved her toward the door and set the mortar onto the table.  “Look, it’s safe here.  A-ma,” he said, turning next to their mother.  “Don’t touch this thing here, alright?”

Fotini didn’t turn around as she was busy trying to figure out the measurement for sugar from the messily scrawled recipe.  “Uhn….” she said, holding up a hand.

Nyx, surprisingly, wasn’t reassured.  “A-ma, don’t–” but she was out the door at her brother’s insistence.  Or rather, his manhandling.

The seven-year-old wondered if she could use his training to knock him in his thick head, atleast once.

“Why doesn’t anyone listen to me when they need to…?” she thought.

Two hours later, they were back inside.  Nyx sat at the kitchen table, her face sullen.  Thaddeus looked far more pleased however.  “She can punch straight now!” he announced.

Fotini pursed her lips.  “Wonderful.”

“Yeah, wonderful,” Nyx muttered.

Thaddeus thumped her on the back.  “Cheer up, Koah, you’ll get it.”

The girl glared at him, wiping sweaty bangs from her forehead.

“Cake!” Atalo came running down the hallway, barefoot.  He pulled at his mother’s dress.  “Cake, A-ma!  You said the cake’d be ready!”

Fotini sighed.  “Sweet Aelurus…” gently, she displaced her son.  “Atalo, just give me a moment will you?  A-ma is tired from stirring and figuring out Janus’ terrible handwriting.”

“Stepping over him must be pretty tiring too,” Thaddeus added with a smirk at the boy.

Nyx allowed a small grin to spread her face–but this small look of ease vanished when she saw that her mortar was empty.  She grabbed it and tipped it over, sending over a small speck of powder to the table.  “A-ma, where’s my–”

There was a muted ‘crack’.  Nyx squealed as something gunky and soft hit her in the ear and side of the face.  Thaddeus cursed, knocking his chair over.  Atalo screamed and fell to the floor, covering his head.  Fotini stared blankly at the pan she gripped with her mitts, the oven open behind her.  Her eyes slowly rolled to Nyx, and the girl slunk out of her chair to duck behind the table.  She covered her ears with her hands.

The entire kitchen was covered in…cake.

“A-ma!” she said weakly.  “I tried to tell you!  I tried to tell you and Thad both, but no one ever listens to me!”

“What was it?” her mother hissed.  She stood frozen, but her face tightened and grew pink at the cheeks.  “What book did you read this time?”

Thaddeus turned slowly and stared at her.  “Nyx…!” he seethed.  He scooped a glob of frosting from his nose.

Nyx’s voice trembled. “A-Alchemy!  Easy stuff!  It was just a powder mix to make pellets you could step on and hear them snap and crack!  For fun.  That’s it!

“Snap and crack!?” Fotini threw the pan down, where it hit the floor with a loud ‘clang’.  The woman thrust her arms out at either side of her.  “The cake exploded Nyx!”

“It…it must’ve been a’cause you b-baked it!” Nyx ducked down so that only her eyes could be seen over the table.  “Please don’t pinch my ears!

“I think you earned a little more than that…” Thaddeus growled, moving to grab her.  Nyx screamed and tried to get away.  Their struggles shoved the table over to the far wall, and there was much kicking and grabbing.

“Atalo!” Fotini cried.

Brother and sister froze–Thaddeus trying to grab a hold of Nyx around the back of the neck, and the girl on her back with her foot against his face.

Both turned to see Atalo had climbed onto the cabinet and was now reaching for the cake on the ceiling with a long wooden spoon.  He stopped and blinked at them all, his head covered with bits of frosting.

“But it’s cake,” he said with an unconcerned smile.

——————————————————-

Luckily, Fotini had set aside a small batch of cupcakes with the extra batter she had.

At her two eldest children’s skeptic looks, the mother explained (for Atalo didn’t care either way,) “I just thought the powder was extra flour, so I dumped it into the main bowl.  I didn’t put it in this one.  It’s safe to eat, I assure you.”

She also assured Nyx and Thaddeus that if the kitchen wasn’t cleaned by morning, she’d show them both why she still wasn’t an old woman.

“Why am I doing this with you?” Thaddeus grumbled as he reached with a rag around the cabinet.  The cake had gotten everywhere.  They’d been scrubbing and wiping surfaces for the past hour while their mother and Atalo washed up.

“Because!” Nyx snapped. “Aelurus felt sorry for me.  I’m always taking the blame!”

“Why would she feel sorry for you!?” The teenager returned.

“I’m the middle child,” Nyx said simply, sweeping cake crumbs from around the stove.  “No one ever listens to me!  No one ever takes me seriously!”

Her brother stopped to give her a look.

“What?” she said crossly.  “It’s true!”

“…You really think that, Koah?”

Nyx hunched her shoulders as she swept the last of the crumbs onto the dust pan.  “Yes.  Sometimes,” she mumbled.

Thaddeus paused and looked at her.  “You’re…right, aren’t you?”

The girl did a double take as she threw the crumbs into the mop bucket near her.  “What’d you say?” she asked.

Her older brother swiped at his nose and leaned against the cabinet.  “I said you’re right.  You help alot.  You do…more than I did when I was your age.”

Nyx glanced down at the dust pan in her hand.

“I cause trouble, though,” she said sadly.  “I don’t know how not to.”  She rubbed her eye and felt her palm come away moist.  “I just want to be good.”

“Koah, you are good.”

“Then why am I so different from everyone else?” Nyx bit out.  She threw the dust pan to the floor.  “You tell me to fight, Taila tells me to fight…but what if I want to do what A-ma says?  What if I don’t want to fight back?  It always hurts worse when I do!”

“Don’t you love A-ma?” Thaddeus asked quietly.

Nyx blinked at him, startled by the question.  “Course I do!”

“And Atalo?”

“Yes!”

“What about me?

Nyx stomped her foot. “Cajeck!  Yes, I love you all!”

“Then you don’t really want to be left alone.  But you can’t run Koah.  So fight for the things you love!”  Thaddeus touched a hand to his chest.  “I love you all, so I fight to protect us.  But while I’m away, you have to keep supporting A-ma everyday.  Help her with Atalo and the house.  It’s up to you and me, understand?”

Nyx nodded, wiping her nose on her sleeve.

Thaddeus jerked his head.  “Alright, come on.  Let’s get this done before A-ma rips off our ears.”

The girl paused, her brush hovering over the crumb covered floor.  “She’d do that?”

“Oh sure, didn’t I tell you about that time my ear grew back over a week?”

Her gut did a somersault.  “…Koen, stop it!  S’not funny!” she snapped.

He looked at her, perfectly blank faced. “Who’s laughing…?”

That night, Fotini set on her son with a wooden spoon after she found out the reason why Nyx wouldn’t stop covering her ears around her.

——————————————————-

The final day came.

He hugged and kissed each of them, his bag of things slung over his back as all around them families said goodbye to their loved ones. He smiled, his muddy eyes winking in the sunlight.

“Bye, then,” was all he said.

And then…

Thaddeus was gone.

His room was shut up and dark.  The house seemed larger somehow, but not in the good way.  In the way that one felt as though they had too little for something that was meant to have more.  Atalo didn’t laugh, run, or scream.  Fotini didn’t care much for scolding them or taking care of the kitchen.  Nyx stared at her books but opened none of them.

The first night, both children slept with their mother.  Nyx traced circles into her mother’s stomach as she listened to her heartbeat and the grumbles of her digestive tract.  Atalo curled into a fetal position and didn’t move.

By the end of the first week, Nyx wiped her tears, rolled up her sleeves and did the dishes.  As the months passed, she did more and more.  She swept the floors and made the beds.  She helped Atalo with his lessons, and started dinner for her mother.

“Sometimes,” she said to Taila, one day at the lake. “I’m not sure if I’m good…But if I’m not good enough, I can fight for everyone else instead.  It’s easier.”

The older girl blinked her amethyst eyes at her.  Then she punched Nyx in the arm.  “I think you’ve got fleas in your brain.”  But she smiled.  “They’re good fleas.”

Nyx scrunched up her nose as Ampelos snickered on her other side. “Um.  Thanks.”

She waited for Thaddeus to come every year, and when he did, he made a point of thanking her.  “Thanks Koah, you did good while I was away.  You really helped out, A-ma says…but…” he sometimes got on her case, though.  “You saw the gods damned elf again!?  What did I say about him?  He’s no good!”

…Then one year, Thaddeus didn’t come back at all.

His room was shut up and dark.  The house seemed larger somehow, but not in the good way.  In the way that one felt as though they had too little for something that was meant to have more.  Atalo didn’t laugh, run, or scream.  Fotini didn’t care much for…anything it seemed.  Nyx stared at her books but opened none of them.

The first night, both children slept with their mother.  Nyx, fourteen years old, stared at the ceiling as her mother laid her head on her chest and traced circles into her stomach.  The girl felt her tears, cool and damp on her skin.  Atalo curled into a fetal position and didn’t move.

By the end of the first month, Nyx wiped her tears.  She rolled up her sleeves and did the dishes, swept the floors, made the beds, helped Atalo with his lessons, and made dinner for her family.  She fixed the creaks and squeaks of the house with the old tools they had.  She made trips to the market, sometimes with Atalo, but never with her mother.  She turned down the opportunity to join a traveling scholar’s company, and instead tried to find work in the village.

She kissed her mother’s forehead one night when the woman had awoken in hysterics.

“A-ma,” she whispered to a sleeping Fotini. “Sometimes, I’m not sure if I’m good…but I can fight for you.  You have me…”


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