“Ha, give it up, Vaan!” Blaine cackled, reaching his arm out to help his brother back to his feet. The boys were sparring with wooden swords they had built themselves at the edge of the Glade, on top of the remaining giant stump of the sequoia.
Yeah, yeah. Get off your high horse, Vaan thought. “I swear, one day I’m gonna be the one helping you up.” He took his brother’s hand and stood. He ran a hand through his sweat-drenched hair to pull it from his eyes.
“I’d love to see the day.” Blaine smiled.
"Yiah!” Vaan lunged forward and came down with his weapon. It was blocked and parried away by his brother with a loud Clack! Blaine swiftly countered and swung at Vaan’s side. Vaan jolted back, evading the swing, and retaliated with a quick stab. Blaine leaned left; the sword missed him by an inch. He charged forward with a tucked arm, knocking Vaan down with a forceful thrust.
Vaan landed on his back, rolled over his left shoulder, and was instantly back to his feet. He ran forward, back into an onslaught of slashes. The clatter of wood echoed off the wall of trees at The Glade’s edge as the swords exchanged blows. Their swings were quick and merciless while they shifted back and forth, like two dancers, blocking and evading one another in furious show of swordplay.
Blaine sliced downward. Vaan juked left, and staggered Blaine backwards with a swift kick to the side. There was a brief pause as Blaine regained his poise. They exchanged a glance, both breathing heavily. The chilled evening spring air filled their lungs with a mild burning sensation. They loosened and tightened their hands on the hilts of their swords in nervous anticipation; anticipation of who was going to make the next move. Their eyes locked onto one another, keen, sharp, focused.
A line of sweat slowly rolled down Blaine’s forehead right above his left eye.
Vaan watched -- waited. He suspected his brother would wipe it away, and when he did, that’s when he’d make his move. He licked his lips. His heart beat his chest like a war drum, and he felt its every pulse throughout his body. He enjoyed that feeling, they both did. They loved the sheer pump of adrenaline, the absolute sense of consciousness, the state of truly feeling alive. Especially today, the day that they were no longer boys, but the day they walked the Earth as men. Their Day of Becoming.
Vaan’s assumption was correct. He watched the drip of sweat roll over Blaine’s brow and the hand that reached up to wipe it. He sprang into action without hesitation. His swing was lightning quick, but not as quick as Blaine’s parry.
The swords made contact and with a quick backwards fist, Blaine disarmed his brother. He propelled forward and planted an open palm in Vaan’s chest, knocking him down again, breathless.
Vaan struck the base of the tree stump with a heavy thud. Before he could react, Blaine’s blade laid against his throat as his foot pressed firmly into his chest.
Blaine flashed a sarcastic grin down toward his brother, “Finished?”
Vaan clawed for his sword - out of reach - a deep sigh. “Yeah, finished.”
Blaine smiled and took his brother’s sword.
Vaan sat up, pulled off the cloth shirt he wore, and wiped his sweat-stricken face. His body was a canvass to several marks and bruises. The most noticeable mark was a gash in his right side he had gotten sparring with his brother during one of Yeoda’s lessons. Not with wooden swords, however; but with actual blades.
Blaine dropped the sword into Vaan’s lap and sat down beside him, placing his back against his brother’s. “You okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.” Vaan groused, “There’s a reason you’re the best in the region.” He grabbed his sword and ran his hand along its surface, tracing the dots with his fingers, feeling the deep nicks and dents along the blade’s edge. “It’s about time to make some new ones, huh?”
Blaine glanced over his shoulder, then looked back at his own sword. “Yeah, I guess so.”
The swords were sturdy and intricate but worn; sculpted from a young tree they found growing in the Wildwood one day. Vaan had carved his into a double-edged long sword. The blade was about four feet in length, five inches wide, and besides a few nicks, smooth to the touch. The cross-guard was large and elaborate and spanned out, resembling a maple leaf.
Vaan had inscribed nine dots into the sword. Five were in a horizontal zigzag pattern, starting from the hilt and going up the blade. Another dot was placed under the fourth one in that pattern. At the end of the blade, three more dots formed a triangle with its point facing right. A line was carved connecting the dots. Under the pattern Vaan inscribed a name. Draco Maris -- Dragon of the Sea.
Vaan wrapped the hilt in strips of tanned deerskin hide. At the bottom, he burrowed out the middle of the pommel and fitted it with a shiny, smooth, and silky stone he found in a nearby creek. It was his good luck charm. It didn’t do him much good though, because Blaine always seemed to kick his ass at everything except building wooden swords. Vaan thought his was much more superior, and on an artisan level, it was.
Blaine had designed a simpler sword resembling a saber. The cross-guard came out and curved around to connect at the bottom and the hilt was sanded for a smooth grip. Although longer, the blade was not as wide as his brother’s, and came to a sharp point. Along the wooden blade, Blaine had also engraved dots and a name. They were almost identical to Vaan’s, except the dots that formed his dragon started at the end of the blade and ended at the hilt. The words Draco Lunae, or Dragon of the Moon, were inscribed.
Crickets were starting to chirp their timeless songs. Vaan slipped his shirt back on, turned, and laid down across the massive stump. He gazed up into the heavens, and watched the sun kiss the world goodnight, peering its plasma-orange and red across the evening sky “Blaine?”
“Yeah?” Blaine answered, laying back himself.
“Do you ever wonder about our father?”
There was a brief moment of silence and Blaine glanced at his brother, “What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. . . I mean, do you ever wonder what he was like?”
Blaine chuckled, “I sometimes like to believe that--”
The voice of their mother interrupted him, “Vaan! Blaine!” Luma called, “Come on, it’s time for sup.”
“Coming, Ma!” they called back in unison.
“Come on,” Blaine said, “I’m hungry and it’s pretty chilly out.”
“Yeah, let’s go. Hey-have you noticed how strange Ma’s been acting lately?”
“No, not really. Why?”
“I don’t know. She’s been really quiet, and distant.”
“I guess I haven’t paid it much attention.”
The boys took their swords and sheathed them into the back of their shirts. “Race me back,” Blaine said, smirking.
Vaan knew he wouldn’t beat his brother but agreed anyway. The boys took off on the two hundred-yard sprint toward the small cottage, and sure enough, his brother beat him by at least five seconds. Vaan breathed loudly as he propped up against the archway of the front door.
“What’s wrong, slowpoke?” Blaine gloated. He gave his brother a light slap on the back.
Vaan flashed a half smile, and the boys walked on into the cottage. Instantly, an aroma filling the small kitchen bombarded their senses. On the rack in front of the fireplace was a massive cast iron pot. Deer stew with carrots, wild onions, and mushrooms had been slow cooking for several hours. As they walked in, their mother was sitting their piping hot bowls down on the table.
“Sit down,” Luma said softly. Her unique crystal-grey eyes shimmered from the flame in the fireplace. “It’s a special day for two special boys -- excuse me, men, rather. You didn’t think I wasn’t going to cook your favorite meal on your birthdays, did you?”
Her men smiled.
“How did your training go today?”
“It went well,” Vaan said, pulling a chair from under the table and sitting.
“Very well, in fact,” Blaine added, doing the same as his brother.
“Eoda told us there’s really nothing more he can teach.”
Blaine nodded. “Yeah, he said he would spar with us, but we’ve reached the peak of our training.”
“Really? Wow, that’s amazing, boys! Proud of you, both” Luma beamed. “Did you pay him?”
“Yes ma’am, two loaves,” Vaan said.
“Good, and how’s the cut?”
Vaan lifted his shirt revealing the thin gash in his side. “Better.”
Luma acknowledged the cut. “Quite.” She handed them both spoons, and cloths. “Well, eat up, and enjoy.”
The twins looked at the meal with wide eyes and hungry bellies. Steam rolled from the bowls, warming their faces chilled from the cool autumn evening.
“Thanks Ma, this looks delicious!”
“Well, save room, because that’s not all, boys.” Luma walked over to the fireplace and grabbed a towel-covered dish from the mantle. She returned and uncovered the steaming-hot, gopper berry pie hidden beneath. The warm, tart-sweet smell of the berries filled their noses. A crust of a perfect golden brown encased the gooey, molten filling. On top, several small berries were arranged to read “sixteen.” Blaine reached for one, and quickly stopped when Luma popped his hand. “Not yet,” she snapped, “You’ll spoil sup.”
Blaine gave his mother a sarcastic smile, as if to say, Yeah right, one berry wouldn’t spoil anything, but stayed quiet. He knew better, for Luma, as gentle as she was, didn’t raise boys to talk back to their elders, especially her. If he would have said such, he would have needed all of the five second lead that he had racing Vaan, because a smack in the mouth was much faster.
They ate like two young princes at a royal banquet. The stew was slow cooked to perfection. The hearty chunks of venison were so tender, they seemed to just melt in their mouths. The delectable mushrooms, onions, and sweet carrots were a perfect blend of enriched flavors, and all tied together with the many herbal spices in the warm, savory broth of the stew. After that, they indulged in the pie. Relishing that flavorful taste of the perfectly baked berries in their delicious pie-crusted home. It didn’t get much better than this.
The sun had finally set, and a full orange new moon had risen. With their bowls emptied and half of the pie gone, Blaine and Vaan sat back in their chairs rubbing their full bellies. They could eat no more. Blaine sat looking out the window into the night, listening to the churn of crickets. Vaan covered his mouth with his fist and gave a slight burp before laying back in his chair and closing his eyes. In the silence of the room, the only sound was the steady crackle of the burning logs in the fireplace. Between that and his full stomach, it was almost enough to send him away on a train with the next stop being the land of dreams. All aboard, Vaan thought.
“Have you boys had enough?”
“Gods yes, Ma.” Blaine muttered.
Vaan, with his hands behind his head and eyes closed, could muster only a dazed grin and a nod.
“Very well.” Luma smiled. “There’s one other thing I have for you.”
Vaan lifted his head, looking at her with half open, sleepy, but curious eyes. Surely it wasn’t more food, he thought. Luma brought her hands from behind her back, and held up an intricate, silver key. It shimmered in the dancing flame of the fireplace.
“I want you both to get up from the table, and move it,” she said.
Vaan and Blaine both gave their mother a puzzled look.
“Ma’am? Move the table where? Now?” Vaan asked.
“Yes, just move it off the rug.”
They gave each other a questioning glance. Under the table laid a thick, ornate rug, deep red with gold-colored frilly binding. Vaan gave a long drowsy stretch as he and his brother stood up and started moving the table and chairs to the other side of the room.
When they were finished, Luma walked over to the edge of the rug, lifted a corner, and started rolling it up. “Vaan, would you please fetch that crowbar you purchased?”
Vaan did as he was told. Luma finished rolling up the large rug, set it aside, and held out a hand for the tool.
Vaan handed her the crowbar and watched as she wedged it into one of the dusty wooden boards of the cottage floor.
“What are you doing, Ma?” Blaine asked.
Luma didn’t respond. She pried one of the boards loose from the floor. “Blaine, be a dear, and just stand these up outside, will you?”
“Okay, but what’s going on?”
“I’ll explain in a bit,” she said, as she pried at the wooden boards.
Vaan noticed something beneath the floorboards as Luma popped the nails of the second board loose. He proceeded to help Blaine stack the boards outside until he saw in the hole Luma had made, a square metal hatch that laid where the rug and floor once were. On the hatch was a wide rectangular indent. Right above it, dead center, was a small keyhole.
Luma stood and dusted off the front of her apron with her hand. She proceeded to take it off, fold it, and lay it across the back of a chair. She turned and held the key out to the boys. “Take it.”
“What is that?!” Blaine asked pointing at the strange hatch. “How long has that been there?”
“A long time,” Luma said. “I’ll explain when we get down there.”
“Down there?” Vaan asked, raising a thin, dark-blonde brow.
“Yes sir, down there.”
“Where exactly is there?”
“I guess you two will just have to find out, won’t you?” Luma laughed. “Go ahead then, open it up.”
Vaan took the key, bent down, and inserted the key into its lock. As he turned it he could hear the little mechanisms of the lock working until it clicked. The indented rectangle slid open and a large handle protruded out of it. Vaan looked up and saw his mother spinning her hand in a go-ahead gesture. Vaan gripped the handle and heaved at the weighty door.
“Little help, Blaine?” Vaan grunted.
Blaine smirked, shook his head, reached down, and grabbed hold of the handle. Blaine counted it off.
On “Three” they pulled up the heavy steel hatch. It squealed with age.
Blaine stood up and rolled his shoulders twice, letting out a deep breath. It was heavier than he thought.
“I wish we would have done this before I stuffed myself like I did,” Vaan said.
Blaine smiled and gave a nod. He looked at what lay hidden beyond that massive piece of metal. A large wooden support beam descended into the pitch-black darkness; connected and following along against it, a ladder. “We’re not really going down that, right?” he muttered.
“What’s wrong, you scared?” Vaan mocked.
“Well, hell no! It’s just that the ladder doesn’t look very sturdy, that’s all.”
Vaan curled his hands under his arms and started flapping them imitating a chicken.
“It doesn’t! Who knows how far it goes down, and it’s dark at that.”
"Bawk! Bawk! Bawk! Blaine is chick-en, Blaine is a chick-en.”
Vaan pranced around mocking his brother. It wasn’t often he got to do that. Most of the time it was the other way around, so he enjoyed every second of it.
Blaine face flushed red with a mixture of anger and embarrassment, but a truth be told, Vaan was just as nervous.
“Cut it out, boys,” Luma said, walking back into the room.
The twins hadn’t even noticed she had left. In her hands, she held three unlit torches. She gave one each to her sons and kept one for herself. She walked over and lit the end of her torch with the fireplace.
“Go on, light then up. Oh, and put on your boots. We’re burning moonlight,” she said.
They did as they were told. They strapped on their boots, lit their torches, walked back, and stood staring into the abyssal square hole that lay in the middle of the kitchen floor of the small cottage.
“Ma, are you sure that ladder is going to hold up?” Blaine asked.
Vaan snickered a “bawk” under his breath.
“Yes, son, I believe it’s fine,” Luma said. “Would you like to lead?”
Blaine glanced at his brother and read his brother’s lips as Vaan mouthed the word “chick-en.”
“I’ll lead!” Blaine said abruptly, dropping down and mounting the ladder.
Vaan followed Blaine, and Luma followed Vaan. They all descended carefully down the ladder, and into the darkness.