Chapter Six: The Gift of the Otherworld

He was born Mélshen, that much I know. His mother, Lílen, raised him herself in the town of Mhuchel, where the icy waters of the coast lap at the foundations of their homes, northeast of Vómakháll. She used to stand, garbed in several layers of cotton cloaks and scarves, and point out to the Isola Lúruen, whose coast appeared as a haze over the waves. The wind would sweep up the bluffs, and she’d clutch him close. And I am told that it is here he first bent the fae powers of the Otherworld to his whim.

He was thirteen then, accompanied by a troop of boys—Mátal, Nátkhet, and another who we’ll call Tám, for I’m forgetting his true name. Nátkhet marched at their head, flinging a hand out towards the Isola, on the horizon, halting their party now and again to pluck up one of the thousands and thousands of sea-tumbled stones that littered the shore so that he could hurl it out over the waves and watch it click and skip across the ocean’s surface.

‘Someday we’ll get out there,’ Nátkhet said. ‘The sultan will sail over to the Isola and we’ll conquer it and I’ll have my own princedom. Maybe you’ll be my viziers, maybe even dukes on your own.’

‘I don’t want to be a nobleman,’ Mátal said, and at this Nátkhet halted again.

‘Why wouldn’t you want to be a noble? Are you an idiot, Mátal?’

‘I don’t think so.’ Mátal snatched up a stone and sent it careening over the waves. ‘I want to join father. He’s off south, fighting on the Hart.’

‘Why would you want to go die in someone else’s war?’ Nátkhet batted Mátal over the head and bid them keep walking down the coast. ‘That’s just stupid. What about you, Mélshen? Are you an idiot as well?’

Mélshen, who would become Khal, kept his hands buried in his pockets.

‘I just want to stay here,’ he said. ‘I actually kind of like fishing.’

‘So you are an idiot then? Is everyone else here an idiot but me?’

‘You’re an idiot to think you’ll get a princedom,’ Mélshen said under his breath.

‘What was that?’ Nátkhet wheeled about, shoving Mélshen back. Mélshen tripped over a stone and crumpled onto his back, cowering as Nátkhet raised a fist. ‘Ha, an idiot and a coward. That’s why you’ll never achieve anything. No wonder you want to die in this shit village. You and your freak mother.’

Mélshen scrambled up. He fixed his footing and gripped Nátkhet’s tunic in both hands, then lurched, throwing the boy down off the rocks and into the shallows. Nátkhet came up sputtering and howling. His hair had wetted to his face, and he clawed back up out of the water, staring daggers at Mélshen. Then, he stooped down, and before Mélshen could put up a hand, hurled a stone. It clipped Mélshen’s head. He skittered back a step. Blood dribbled down his brow. He felt something like lightning crackle in his chest, making the hairs on his arms stand on end, and as Nátkhet reached down for another stone, Mélshen hurtled forward. He leaned in and tackled him.

Both boys hit the stones with a crack, then began grabbing for tufts of hair and kicking out at each others’ legs. Nátkhet sank his teeth into Mélshen’s shoulder. Mélshen dug his nails into Nátkhet’s cheek. And then Nátkhet buried a fist in Mélshen’s stomach, and the air fled his lungs. He reached up to his chest, but Nátkhet was atop him, hands clasped about his throat.

‘Nátkhet! Nátkhet stop!’ Mélshen could hear, as though his ears had filled with water, as Mátal cried out and tugged at Nátkhet’s arm, but the older boy held an iron grip. ‘You’ll kill him, Nátkhet. You have to—’

Shadows grew at the edge of Mélshen’s vision, and his arms grew leaden, falling to his side. As tendrils of black clawed up to devour him, he fumbled for Nátkhet’s hand. He graced the wrist with a finger as cold as death. And then Nátkhet screamed.

Color rushed back into Mélshen’s gaze, and he scrambled back, retching up spittle and rubbing his throat. Glancing up, he saw what had caused Nátkhet to withdraw. The older boy clutched his wrist as his fingers grew pale as bone, and the skin began to wrinkle. Soon, the paleness soured to grey. Nátkhet screamed his throat raw, watching the skin flutter away like ash, leaving nothing but a dead stump at his wrist.

Glancing to his companions, Mélshen did not see hate in Mátal or Tám’s eyes. Not hate, for hate he could recognize, having seen it in the eyes of the other villagers who had always despised the two Travelers who lived at the edge of town. This was not hate. This was terror. Tám snatched up Nátkhet, wrapping his wounded arm over his shoulder, and hurried back up towards the village, leaving Mélshen alone upon the shore.

Within the week, there were whispers of demons and fae. Before the following month, Mélshen and his mother had prepared their things and set out upon the road, west towards the Rivens where none knew their names. And it was as he left Mhuchel that Mélshen took his new name, Khal, to hide from the accusations of devilry and wickedness that would surely follow his birth name till the end of his days. But no new name can hide one from the huntsmen, so he soon would learn.