December 16, 2012
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The ever-persistent sun rose like a ball of fire over the highest swells of the Northern Hills, radiating a rare warmth that caressed the few patches of snow that lingered on the brown ghosts of grass, coaxing them to melt away and make way for new life. The village below stirred from its brief hibernation. A hundred pairs of cerulean eyes kissed the morning air.

And a pair of green.

Cain awoke to find his upper half hanging precariously over the splintery edge of his cot. He allowed himself to lie there for a few precious moments, frozen in time with his head hovering just above the wooden floor, gazing up at the ceiling that sealed him from the sky. His uncle coughed violently from across the room, breaking the spell. The boy righted himself and yawned generously, running a hand through dark, knotted hair.

As if a step behind the turn of the Earth, the room still bathed in pre-dawn shadows, save for the sliver of light that invaded through the space between the edge of the dusty rag that hung over the window and the rotting pane. Tenderly, he lifted the corner. The townspeople emerged from their homes and greedily absorbed the world that changed constantly without their notice. Or maybe they just didn't care.

Vendors materialized with merchandise nearly spilling over the sides of their wooden carts. Some of them would be arriving from other villages, cities, even entirely other lands, far beyond the soft white tips of the mountains and the shifting patterns of the desert. Cain’s breath caught in his throat as a woman with long, pointed ears led her mule and wooden cart to a store across the dirt road. Her graceful, tantalizing frame and the waterfall of ivory hair that matched her nearly translucent skin enchanted him into pulling the curtain back just enough for both of his bright green eyes. But the alluring elf turned, the golden hoops swinging from her ears, and her eyes gleamed a clear blue. Cain pulled away.

“Don’t go outside,” his uncle Forgo’s gruff voice barked from behind him. He felt his mouth open automatically, but it closed without a sound ever escaping it. This was their ritual. He would view the world through a crack in the wall and his uncle would deliver his reality to him. Cain would keep his lips secured, and that was the least they could do for each other.

“Yes, sir.” His uncle grunted, briefly stroking the canvas of stubble on his chin, and lit a candle. When standing, he was the same height as Cain. The man noted that Cain’s build would have allowed him to be an excellent fighter. He was even the right age to begin intensive training, at fifteen. Glory seemed to be cut out for him.

But he was not cut out for glory.
Forgo looked away.

“Start the fire while I’m gone.”

“Yes, sir.”

Forgo stopped at the table, his hand poised over the threadbare coin pouch. “I’m sorry, Cain.” Cain said nothing in response, only closed the eyes that condemned him, curled the hands that failed him into white-knuckled fists. This was part of their ritual, as well. It was because of this that he could not hate the man whose eyes could never meet his. After a long pause, his hand closed around the pouch, and in three strides, the door flap was shivering behind him. The shadow of light on the floor danced, and then died. “And this is my kingdom,” Cain commanded the darkness and the lone, flickering candle. He threw his arms out wide, claiming the collapsing shack for his own, and felt no pride.

They say the Earth was created over a bright blue flame.
It began as a tiny seed housing the premature planet, planted in the mysterious vacuum of the universe. The warm, gentle fire that kindled beneath it roared in the most enchanting shade of blue, nurturing it, coaxing the shell to expand until it became the size of the world, today. Finally, the fire died—merely dissipating into the unknown folds of space—and the seed split in two. The Earth sprung from its casing and into existence. However, nothing inhabited it yet.

Until one day, a few surviving sparks from the flame of creation found its way to the planet and fell upon the rich soil, which rose and took the shape of a male and a female. They were the Ancients—tall, handsome creatures with hair of the same quality as silk, skin softer than feathers. Their eyes were of the same exquisite hue that drew them from the ground. Their descendants evolved over several millennia, taking on countless forms depending on their region, but still retaining this single, prized characteristic.

But every once in a while, a child will open their eyes for the first time, and their irises will be a deep green, not the common blue. They are cursed, destined to live their lives as outsiders. In some of the more backwards villages, the unfortunate child is burned at the stake for their sin. In others, they are stoned until incapacitated and left for dead in a desert.

Cain could count himself lucky. Countless townspeople have told him this. It was “technically illegal” for him to be killed, as the uncertainty around his racial status still allowed him to be protected by civil laws, and the capital city’s enforcers regularly made their rounds through the village. Thus, he was allowed the privilege of watching time pass by the shack that contained him, unyielding for the unfortunate child sealed inside who had been shunned by the fundamentals of nature itself. He couldn’t even feel longing, for he did not know what freedom was—at least, that’s what they all believed.

But Cain was no mere observer. He was waiting.

Forgo watched bitterly while the frail, elderly woman before him wrapped the steaming loaf of bread in brown paper. Despite her appearance, she was far from innocent. The decision to put Cain under house arrest was a unanimous decision and she was obviously in the crowd. Her casual smile and easy, “twelve copper coins, please,” screamed irony at him. He knew of her hatred towards him. She feared him for having a cursed nephew, and yet Forgo himself had no crime around his neck. She loathed him for her own ambivalence, and returned the sentiment for his own cowardice. The woman kept smiling. “Good day, sir,” she said slowly. The man shivered. He left the coins on the counter and left the store with the bread filled with uncertainty tucked against his chest. It crinkled beneath his fingers.

The thin layer of snow crunched urgently under the thin soles of his shoes. Cold water seeped through into his socks and froze his feet. <i>Cain would not have minded it,</i> he reminded himself. He would have embraced it as a part of the outside world he could never be a part of. He would have loved the inconvenient distance between important stores and the wind howling through the valley of hills more than he loved himself.

<i>But he would be disgusted by the blue, wouldn’t he?</i>

He did not notice the man with the hood pulled far over his head until they collided painfully. Forgo dropped the bread. “Sorry,” he grumbled, gingerly rising to his feet. He swept the snow off his trousers and looked up to identify the other man. “Are you alright?” he inquired. The hooded stranger stiffened and took a quivering step back. And another.

Before Forgo could utter a word of protest, he was already sprinting away. “Bastard didn’t even apologize.” He bent down and retrieved the bread. The paper sagged and tore at his touch. He swore.

Disgruntled, he realized a crowd had formed around the notice board just ahead. He pushed past the mob of people until he caught a glimpse.

<i>“Preliminaries for the Triennial Tournament are to be held on the first day of the sixth month in the Capital Arena to determine the next seven members of the Lord’s elite guard. These individuals will also be rewarded with 30,000 gold coins and a plot of land within the capital, each.”</i>

Forgo allowed himself to be carried away from the announcement by the powerful surge of the crowd. “Another twenty young dreamers from this town will enter this year,” he overheard a man mutter gruffly.

“Perhaps half will return alive, if we’re lucky,” his companion spat back. “They say killing is discouraged, but it’s kill or be killed over there.”

In a way, Forgo was relieved that Cain couldn’t leave his home. There was no doubt in his mind that if he saw the poster he would enlist. Just like his mother. Forgo shoved the thought from his mind and continued on, hoping the one he hid his love and pain for was staying warm.

Eleven years ago, his mother had handed him this single pair of leather boots she had inherited from her father. She had smiled and left him and his father make her fortune at the tournament. It wasn’t common for women to join the competition, though it was allowed. Perhaps that was why she did it—because she was discouraged to do so. As a young girl, it was the one double standard she couldn’t stand. So she trained in secret—every day, even after her parents forced her to marry and bear a child. “She was just that type of person,” Cain’s father often said with pride mixed in with the pain. Even after her death, he was unsure if his love was merely unrequited.
Three months later, a messenger arrived to announce those who had perished in the arena, and her name was among the forty from the village. She only had one match to go—just one. But one of her opponents could not accept the fact that a woman had defeated him, so he snuck into her tent and murdered her. Less than a week later, Cain’s father left him with his brother-in-law, Forgo, and pursued his wife’s assassin. He did not return.

Cain often wondered whether or not he hated his mother. <i>Can you hate someone who’s already gone?</i> he wondered. Where does that hate, all that excess energy, go? Back then, when the sorrow was still fresh in his heart, he considered whether or not that prize was worth the hefty price. Wasn’t being free, enough? Why was it that people constantly chased after something that was out of their reach?

The answer came two years ago, when he turned thirteen and rediscovered the boots in a box beneath Forgo’s cot. They had fitted him perfectly. There was no doubt that not snow, dust, or dirt could break through the thick soles. Cain wondered why Forgo had never used them, himself.

That was the day he left home without permission for the first time; the day he found the clearing in the woods, picked up a stick, and began to train.

<i>It’s because we humans love to move forward. That is our blessing. That is our curse.</i>

Cain ducked into the house for the last time, removing the black hood from over his head. He slipped his feet into the boots, gave each pair of laces a final, satisfying tug, and secured them with double knots. Today is the day. He could hardly contain his excitement. But he paused with his hand on the edge of the door flap as Forgo drifted into his mind. He couldn’t even say goodbye, even though they’d bumped into each other on the street. But certainly, Forgo would be better off without him. "Perhaps we're all trapped in our own kingdoms," he mused, and fingered the strap of his satchel.

He left the shack without ever lighting the fire.

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