Fantasy Friendship

Diego shook his head. “How long are we going to be gone?”

“Just a couple months,” Diego’s father wheezed, red-faced.

His curly black hair shone with sweat. He was wrestling a fur coat onto Diego’s little brother Moses, who was equally red-faced from kicking and punching his father. His small, damp curls were plastered to his face.

“But it’s full of snow in Danyev.”

“I’m aware.”

“We live in the desert.”

“It’s not all that different from Maz’an,” his father said. “It’s a small village just like this one, except there’s no healer. That’s where I come in.”

Diego raised an eyebrow. “Just like this one?”

“Well, not exactly.”

He frowned. “Does it have a school? A temple?”

“Not at the moment, no.”

“So there’s no school? Or rituals?”

“Not until we get back.”

“Hmm.” Diego crossed his arms. It was an acceptable arrangement.

“NO SNOW!” Moses backfisted his father in the nose. “NOOOOOOO!”

Diego’s father reeled back, his black eyes watering.

Diego sat himself on the dark wooden floor. “I hope we get a bigger room.”

The shrine-house had two halves. The lower halve was an apothecary. The top halve was the room where Diego’s family lived. It fit only two beds and one desk, where Diego’s father sat to scratch at his papers. There was another fur coat on Diego’s bed.

Fitted and tailored for the eldest son of Mikha the Shaman, the merchant had announced an hour prior. The merchant had made sure to open his red little mouth wide, so the whole village could hear. Diego wasn’t surprised, but Mikha flinched at the noise. As if the whole village didn’t love him. As if he hadn’t spent the majority of his life healing their children and growing their crops and getting them to love him.

Diego eyed the coat dubiously. “Why can’t we stay with Mother while you go to Danyev?”

“I would like to know that myself,” Mikha said bitterly, yanking a sleeve over Moses’s arm.

Moses lunged at his father’s hand. Mikha flinched back, feeling teeth snap not an inch from his fingers.

“Moses! Only wild animals bite! Do you want me to leave you in the forest with all the wild animals? In this getup, you would fit right in with the wolves!”

Moses’s face crumpled. “You’re not my daddy! My real daddy would never throw me in the forest!”

“Really? Fascinating.” Mikha plopped him on the ground, fumbling with the wooden buttons. “Now that I know this thing fits, tell me more about this ‘real daddy’ of yours while I take it back off.”

“He’s rich and a king. He has a giant house with stairs and it’s made of chocolate.” Moses frowned in thought. “He has pet lions. And horses. And birds. And-”

“Do you have another brother, too?” Diego asked quietly.

The storm in Moses’s face cleared at the new idea. “Yeah, and he’s got no-”

Mikha hugged Moses to his chest, muffling his son’s words. He met Diego’s gaze. His face was pained.

“Why don’t you try on your coat, Diego?” his father asked, trying for a smile. “When you finish up, you can pick out some snacks to pack for the road.”

Diego stared at his fathers face. His chest tightened at the evenness of his father’s skin, the symmetry of his eyes. How complete it was.

“Okay,” he said, turning to the window. The dying daylight made the fur coat shine.

Mikha lifted Moses to his shoulder with a grunt. “Let’s give your brother some space, Mo.”

Moses wrapped his arms around Mikha’s head. “Can you turn the house into chocolate? With your magic?”

Mikha ducked low through the door. “What could you possibly want a melting house for, silly wolf?”

Diego crawled onto the bed, parting the drapes to watch them leave through the glass. The shamanic shrine-house was the only house in Maz’an with such big windows. The shrine-house in Danyev would probably be the same way.

He caught his reflection in the window. He covered the right side of his face with his hand. The scar tissue tingled at his touch.

Ghosts came out of Diego’s mouth whenever he breathed, flattening themselves on the carriage window. In its reflection, Diego could see his father’s snores gusting into the night air in short snorts. The bumping carriage made his father’s head nod, agreeing wholeheartedly with every bray.

His little brother Moses didn’t seem to mind the noise. He too breathed ghosts, his hot breaths lifting his soft black curls.

Diego turned, looking over the top of his seat.

Nothing came out of the corpse’s mouth.

What remained of Iron John was stretched out on a quilt tossed on top of the luggage. The passing trees cast twisting shadows on his wooden mask. He caught Diego’s eye, lifting his head.

“Staring is rude, you know.”

Diego whirled back around, fixing his gaze back through the window. His one good eye stared back at him. He swallowed. The shiny, mangled burn on the side of his young face rolled. His stomach constricted on itself. He hugged his knees to his chest.

There was a sound like a body being dragged across the floor as Iron John sat up.

“You should sleep,” the dead man said.

You’re not,” Diego said, surprised at the evenness of his voice.

Iron John flexed his gloved hand. “Better that I don’t. The dead sleep long. I wouldn’t be much use to you dreaming of my living days. I’d make a fine doorstop, though.”

“Aren’t you tired?”

“All the time. But that’s not something particular to the dead, you know.”

Diego frowned.

“Right. I forget you’re not one of the usual old bones I gripe with. Go to sleep, kid.”

“You’re not breathing.”

“Of course not. I’m dead.”

“Then how are you talking?”

“I remember how.”

“Then why aren’t you breathing?”

“I don’t need to. But I do whistle. Recreationally.” Iron John tilted his head. “Are there any other questions I can answer, to put your lively young mind at rest?”

Diego wondered what shadows the trees cast over his face. “Can I see under your mask?”

“Cripes.” John sat up. “You realize ki can only preserve an einedon’s innards, right?”

“It’s… Sorry. Never mind.” Diego started to turn back around.

“Would you, by any chance,” the corpse interjected, freezing Diego, “like to see me whistle?”

Diego crossed his arms over the back of the seat. “I-”

“On one condition.” Iron John raised his hands to the edge of his mask. “This is a sight no living eye has seen before, and a song no living ear has ere heard since the Red Wastes were green. You’re to learn the tune, and let it live again.”


“Oh, and don’t scream. Wouldn’t want to wake Mikha. Your father is a real grump when he first wakes.”

The einedon whipped off his wooden mask, twirling it on one finger. His skin was wan and pale, his sharp grey eyes lurking deep in their sunken caverns. Rot ate away at the his left cheek, exposing bright white teeth, well-shined and sharpened.

Diego’s hand traveled to the side of his face.

“We’re an ugly pair, aren’t we?” Iron John grinned, running a hand over his scruffy brown hair. His torn skin peeled back, showing the pink muscle tissue of his jaw. “Brothers of repugnance, bound by societal inclinations towards conformity.”

“I don’t know what that means,” said Diego, crawling over the top of the seat and into the back of the carriage. He settled next to the einedon, crossing his legs. “But I’ve always wanted an older brother.”

“Cripes.” Iron John turned away, scratching at the hole in his cheek. “If I could blush, I’d be blushing. Cripes.”

“Are you going to teach me or not?”

“Fine, fine. We’ll take it slow, from the top…” 

June 12, 2021 01:10

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RBE | Illustrated Short Stories | 2024-06

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