Chapter Thirty-six – A Significant Birthday

28 June

“Nihilan, wake up.”

Naelen opened his eyes and found Lanara smiling at him, holding a plate of freshly baked muffins. “Those are all for me?” he asked, wiping his sleepiness away.

“Picked the huckleberries myself this morning.” After handing him the plate she kissed the top of his head and sifted her fingers through his golden blond hair. “Happy birthday, my darling! Come downstairs whenever you are ready.”

Naelen found himself smacking his lips before taking a bite from the first muffin. Lanara left the room a few seconds later, closing the door behind her. As he ate, Naelen pictured all the activities he had on his agenda for the day. It was a special day, and not just because he was turning sixteen. Today he would attend his first brewing festival, an occasion that happened every summer toward the end of June. The festival itself traditionally lasted several days on end, and tonight was merely the first. The initial shindig, as many locals called it. Naelen felt the excitement in his belly knowing it was so close. Once the sun set, he would step into a new chapter of life.

Unable to pace himself, he scarfed down his muffins and pulled on a suitable outfit for the day. Downstairs he found the usual: his family sitting together at breakfast. His father at the left-most head, his mother on his right. And Damien sitting close to the middle of the table. “Good morning,” Naelen greeted as he sat down with them and drew his empty plate closer. “Thanks for the muffins, Mom. Still hungry, but thanks.”

Lanara smiled. “I’ve long-since learned it takes a lot to feed you boys. Never satisfied.”

“That’s not true,” Damien came in, chewing his eggs. Then he nodded over at his adopted brother. “Happy birthday, Naelen. It’s lucky you know when your birthday even is.”

Naelen smirked. “You say that every year. Like you’re jealous or something.”

“Well, if I knew when my birthday was, I’m sure we would all celebrate it.”

“True, it’s not exactly fair,” Lanara agreed. “All we can do is celebrate the day we adopted you, Damien. And you’ve never complained before.”

Damien stabbed his sliced meat before eating it. “I’m not jealous,” he said, his molars mashing on the meat. “More like envious.”

Kallus put down his utensils and folded his hands under his chin. “I assume you’ll be taking the day off, Damien? We could always use some extra hands setting up for the shindig.”

“Sure,” Damien shrugged after a long while. “I’ll help.”

“I’m so excited,” Naelen said giddily. “Dad, you know that ale you keep down in your cellar? I saw them rolling barrels of it the other day. They even gave out samples. Very tasty.”

“Yes, Boggart and Moons is a fine brand,” Kallus said. “Tonight you should try many brews though, not just the ones I enjoy. Find your own taste.”

“Oh, I plan to.”

Lanara rolled her eyes at the thought. “Don’t be careless tonight, Nihilan. Pace yourself. Know your limits.”

“Good advice,” Kallus agreed. “You should understand that your mother and I learned these techniques the hard way, if you catch my drift.”

“You, careless?” Naelen snorted. “Right.”

“Sadly, it’s true,” Lanara said. “Kallus and I had every reason to drink our troubles away when we first met.”

Naelen lifted his brow. “Do tell.”

“There is not much to tell. Kallus practically lost his whole family, and I…I was not fond of the idea of an arranged marriage. Not at first.”

“Arranged marriage? You two?”

“Yes,” Lanara nodded. “Did we never tell you this?”

“I don’t remember.” Naelen shook his head. “Anyway, you both seem pretty happy to me.”

Lanara nodded subtly. “Oh yes, quite happy. I came to love your father, and marriage changed both our lives for the better.”

“Yes, thank you,” Naelen grimaced. “Thank you for that story. Just what I need on my birthday. Can we talk about something else now?”

“Hehe,” Kallus chuckled. “Speaking of arranged marriage, it’s about time we started looking at a match for you Nihilan. You’re about that age.”

“Oh, shards,” Naelen cursed. “The minute I turn sixteen you want to match me up with someone? I just want to get out there, to meet people. Find my taste.”

“I suppose that’s all well and good, as long as you start looking.”

Naelen took a sip of his orange juice. “Will do.”

Across from him, Damien scooted out from the table, wearing a sour look on his face. Naelen allowed him to pass out of sight without saying anything. That look usually meant one thing: Damien was thinking about Ashlyn again, and rather than talking about his damaged feelings, he was prone to suffering in silence.

Naelen turned back to his meal, now sitting alone with his parents. It took him a moment to find his light-hearted joy again, but when he did he lifted his glass and smiled. “Here’s to turning sixteen.” He toasted and took a long gulp, swishing the juice down.

The evening was young, still casting the remnants of dusk upon the village. The air was warm, and not just from the gathering of people from near and far. Colorful life had blanketed the area with a thrill that stirred in Naelen’s chest. As he paced about the party grounds, more and more chatter filled his ears.

This was it.

The shindig was a lovely sight to behold: elves talking kindly with each other, eating delicious food and drinking their choice in fine ales. Uplifting music echoed on in the background, making it hard for Naelen to resist taking center on the floor where people were inclined to dance. He wanted to dance, but the timing was not right. He first needed to mingle, to exchange pleasantries…to drink…

“Aahhh!” Naelen heard a peer of his screaming before a young elf like himself came clambering from the side. A pair of sturdy arms picked him up and shook him about, which was not a difficult task as Naelen was rather thin and light. “It’s Nihilan, the one and only!”

“Eh heh, hey Deklin.” Naelen pulled out from his friend’s grip and forced a happy laugh. He hadn’t seen Deklin in several months. The young elf’s hair had grown out, a striking yellow against the rougher tones of his skin. His lean muscles had also filled in, making him seem more healthy and grown-up. He was on the cusp of maturity, a state of adulthood that many male elves achieved around the age of sixteen. Naelen himself was not quite at that point. Not yet, anyway. “Your parents let you come, too?”

“Of course,” Deklin said proudly. “It’s a rite of passage. This year is my year! Happy birthday by the way.”

“Thank you. Oh, and uh…I don’t really go by Nihilan anymore. Call me Naelen. If you want.”

“Naelen?” Deklin squinted. “Doesn’t that mean–“

“Yes, it does.”

“Suit yourself,” Deklin shrugged. “But why Naelen of all things?”

“Long story.” After fixing his gaze on the barrels of ale that lined the entire area, Naelen pointed and grinned. “You want to get a drink with me?”

“Of course.”

Deklin followed him over to one of the many barrels stacked upon a wooden table. It was filled with perhaps Naelen’s most favorite ale to date. Of course, he planned to have more tastings but he wanted to start with the familiar. Once his and Deklin’s hands were filled with wooden mugs of ale, they bumped theirs against each other, lifted them to their mouths, and drank.

“Ah, so good!” Naelen exclaimed, emptying his pint in a heartbeat. “I want another.” Within moments, his mug was filled again, with the same familiar brew. He became lost in it, savoring the crisp, bitter taste on his tongue. But Deklin did not seem akin to the silence as he sipped his drink a bit more slowly.

“So, what have you been up to these days?” he asked, his hazel eyes scanning his friend over.

“Training mostly.”

“You’re still training? For what?”

“I need to get into the Fighters Academy. By the beginning of August no less.”

“Wow, your Dad really expects a lot from you.”

“I expect a lot from me too,” Naelen said, sipping his drink. “My brother– Damien, he…he’s got everything going for him. He gets the forge, he gets the bloodright…what does that leave me exactly? So, I figure the Fighters Academy is my best shot.”

“Wait, wait.” Deklin paused. “Damien gets the bloodright?”

“Yeah.”

“Why?”

Naelen shrugged. “Because my parents don’t want that for me. They…want me to be free and live my life. Make a name for myself on my own terms. And yet, they also want me to be married– for whatever reason.”

“My parents want me to be married too,” Deklin confessed. “I mean, I know I just matured but they suddenly won’t stop talking about it. It makes me uncomfortable. You know what happened the last time I talked to a girl?”

“I can guess,” Naelen laughed.

Deklin shook his head, taking a long gulp from his pint. “I’ll tell you this: I’m in no rush.”

“Same.”

Eventually, the smell of food drew them over to the roasting spit where Kallus was preparing a stag to feed all the guests lingering on his property. Naelen leaned over to relish in the smells. By tradition, his father cooked this meal every year, but it never grew tired on Naelen. Warm, roasted meat seasoned to perfection, accompanied by a spiced, gingery sauce that brought out the majestic flavors of the stag.

Somewhat near the spit, Damien sat alone on a stump that furnished the front yard of the manor. It was probably his favorite spot in the whole area, being right next to a tree that provided nice shade and seclusion from people. It also didn’t help that Damien’s clothes were black, making him blend into the shaded area all the more.

Upon seeing him, Naelen gurgled out a curse. “Shards. He’s been like this for months,” he murmured to no one in particular, though Deklin still happened to be standing nearby.

It took a moment for Deklin to catch on. He glanced over to where Naelen was staring and saw a human teenager brooding to himself. “Your brother, I’m guessing?”

“The last thing I need is him mucking up my birthday with his…I don’t know, broodiness?” Naelen squeezed his mug handle and came stumbling up to Damien. A pair of blackish eyes met his gaze. “What is your problem?” Naelen complained. “This is a party, go and spend it with people, don’t just sit here being all dumb.”

“I’m fine right here, Naelen,” Damien said, shrugging. “What is your problem? Coming over here just to yell at me.”

“I’m not yelling. Am I yelling? No…you have to stop being like this. The past is in the past, get over it. Have some fun.”

“Fun? You call this pit of debauchery and body-odor fun? I just want this night to be over. I won’t get in your way.”

Naelen rolled his eyes. “You’re always in my way, Damien. Ever since Ash left you’ve been in this horrible mood. It’s like you’ve stopped feeling altogether. No girl is worth that, you understand?”

“No, I don’t understand,” Damien said with a tight jawline. “You’ve never felt like I do. Or did. Your parents are going to pick out the perfect match for you. You’ll get to grow old with her by your side, you’ll have children and legacy and all those good things. And I will be here, living as a hermit. Unable to love who I want.”

“Eh…it’s not so bad,” Naelen said. “There are plenty of choices out there, Damien, you’re just being stubborn. As usual. You need to stop moping. There’s a good selection of young women here tonight.”

“That’s true!” Deklin laughed from behind as he came over and joined them. His mug was empty. “There’s also plenty of ale to go around. What do you say we all get drunk and meet as many women as possible, huh?”

“See?” Naelen put his arm around Deklin, grinning with a bright gleam in his eye. “My friend here knows how it’s done.”

“Ugh.” Damien groaned while getting to his feet. “I don’t think ale nor meeting women is going to solve anything this night. I’m going back inside.”

But before he could, Deklin posed himself in Damien’s path. He was taller than Damien by a good inch, heavier too. But it was his unforgiving eyes that held the dark human, eyes that hinted at mischief and malice. “It’s your brother’s birthday,” Deklin said, “the least you can do is celebrate with him.”

The human lifted his mouth to reveal a straight yet beastly row of teeth. “He’s not a brother to me. He’s just an ass.” With that, Damien walked away.

Naelen said nothing as he watched Damien pass out of the party grounds and into the manor, only stared with a bit of shock. Did those words really just pass through his lips? Naelen peered down into the bottom of his mug, seeing a twisted form of his reflection. There was a memory striking at him now, a memory so long ago it seemed like a different era. A river in Spring, running its course. An argument between two unlikely and opposite lives…a promise that Naelen had not known was a promise at all.

He’s not a brother to me, Dad.”

The words echoed in his mind like a daunting oracle. The boy who had once said that…where was he now? Sipping his ale, Naelen pushed down that long-lost memory. If he ever was that sour and insecure boy, he felt a great distance away from him now.