Freebie Mondays: Born from the Storm

Freebie Mondays: Born from the Storm

This is another one of those random ideas that came to me in a dream that I decided to write down. The details of this first installment are pretty true to the visions that visited me in the night. Subsequent installments endeavor to make sense of the events I saw.

I’ve really enjoyed playing with this one so far. In part because it’s given me a chance to test out a particular element of story telling – that of sprinkling elements of culture and language into the narrative in a meaningful way. Creating speech patterns and common terms is a relatively easy way to make a fantasy race or culture leap off the page. Of course, you need to balance that against explaining every other word that appears in the story, so I’m certainly keeping that in mind as I go.

I will admit, I did almost no planning for this. It has been easier than I thought to come up with culture and language conventions on the fly, though if I ever used them in a novel, I’d be sure to write them down first.

Check out the first installment here!
. . .

It rained the night Nunal came to the Chesok clan cave. Not the gentle spring squalls she remembered from her youth. This had been a summer storm composed of driving sheets of rain that pounded the sodden ground so hard, each drop rebounded several inches into the air before coming to rest. If there had been a steady cadence to the rainfall, she hadn’t been able to hear it above the sound of her own heart drumming in her ears.

In the distance, thunder rumbled, the first soft growls of a beast awakening from slumber. But to Nunal, it had sounded like tromping boots and thundering hooves – the exact sounds she was attempting to outrun.

Her muscles ached and her chest burned from the effort of fleeing across the drowned terrain. In the depths of the forest, there were places where the mud had come up to her thighs, and it was only the knowledge that the driving rain would wash away all trace of her passage that had kept her moving forward. It never occurred to her that it might be dangerous to approach the light spilling from the curves just beyond the cave entrance; Trolocks kept their sentries hidden, to lure unwary travelers into their territory.

She knew far less of the world back then than she had learned over the course of the last ten months. The only thoughts in her head as she stumbled, breathless, toward the cave’s shadowed maw were of warmth, food, and a place to hide from the men who hunted her. She must have looked half dead when she stumbled from the mist and fog. Her long, dark hair had been plastered to the sides of her face, neck and back. Her skirts had been saturated with mud and rain, torn from thorns and roots, and spattered with blood that hadn’t completely washed away. Her skin had been so pale it must have turned grey and was so cold to the touch the Trolock guards must have believed her a ghost when they revealed themselves to the lone intruder.

She knew now that humes often used women and children to spring traps on the Trolocks, making it seem like an innocent, vulnerable traveler was in trouble so that the Trolocks would reveal their positions and make themselves open to ambush. So she was lucky the guards hadn’t merely stabbed her through with their spears, ending both her misery and her life before she had a chance to utter a word.

Nunal hadn’t spoken a word of the Trolock language when she stumbled into the cavern entrance to the clan’s primary dwelling and tumbled from her numb feet. It may have been the desperation in her eyes that stopped the hands of the warriors on duty that day. It may have been the tears that cut trails across the dirt on her face despite the dampness that still clung to her. Or it might have simply been dumb luck that the woman in charge of that particular shift had recently given birth to a child of her own.

Whatever the case, Nunal had been able to force only one word past her numb, trembling lips: help. And though the Trolocks hadn’t understood, they had never-the-less provided exactly that.

One of the guards bundled her into a blanket where she trembled like a leaf in a windstorm, a condition born of chill, fatigue and sheer terror. She was fairly certain she blacked out the moment they stepped into the bright, welcoming warmth of the first descent passage. Here, thick rock muted the sounds of the storm outside, from the howling wind to the rumbling thunder to the steady beat of the rain against the stone. Here, the men who harried her would be forced to turn aside, because of the spears carried by the guards if not because her trail ran cold. And though it was both foolish and childish, something about that knowledge allowed Nunal to succumb to the call of slumber.

She still had no idea how long it had been before she shook awake. She knew that she had been taken to the Healer, one of the warmest and well-protected places within the clan cave. She knew that the old crone had poked and prodded her, checking her chills and noting her malnourished state. She knew that water and broth had been forced – gently – down her throat and that she had been wrapped in several layers before she had been left to sleep near the fire. She knew most of this because the kindly old woman had told her when she asked, repeating the story in greater detail every time Nunal pressed.

But the next thing of which she had been personally aware was a muted cry of pain and outrage. A cry that had not only jolted her fully alert, but driven her into a state of panic. The bad men must surely have found her, though she couldn’t contemplate how. Even struggling free of the many warm blankets that held her hadn’t changed her mind about the situation.

She made it all the way to the door where the sound had come from before she realized that she had run in the wrong direction. And that the cry hadn’t come from the bad men at all.

It had torn from the lips of Liaf’srar, the clan’s alpha, the moment the Healer told him there was no antidote for the poison nettle that had buried itself in the back of his shoulder during his confrontation with the same men Nunal had fled. He did not yet feel the effects of the drain but, within hours, it would sink its claws into his core and drag him from the world. No amount of cursing or screaming, the Healer chided, would allow him to survive.

“How could it be,” the alpha retorted, “that you, the most knowledgeable among us, does not know the secret of reversing poison?”

Calm in the face of this particular storm, the Healer folded her hands in front of her and said, “The poison that ails you is not natural, Liaf’srar, champion of the clan. It is a hume concoction, designed to foil the learned such as myself. And though I have worked long and hard to find the right set of ingredients that will turn it aside, none of my attempts have been successful. I suggest you name your favored heir before we make any attempt to reverse the damage, lest the antidote prove as deadly as the poison.”

Nunal hadn’t understood a single word of the exchange, of course. It had all been gruff grunting and rapid gibberish as far as her ears were concerned. But she did recognize the barb the Healer pulled from Liaf’srar’s shoulder even as she finished speaking. A perfectly shaped arrowhead, stained crimson with the blood of its mark over the eerie purple stain of the poison in which it had been dipped. A color she recognized from the preparations made by the village guards not three days before she fled into the storm.

When she asked the men in their steel suits what the arrows were for, she would gladly have seen one strike the thick, armored skin of the beasts they described. But now that it had actually happened, now that she was within a Trolock cave instead  of behind the village’s stout walls, she ached to see the arrow had hit its mark.

She should have been terrified. Trolocks were half again the height of humans and nearly twice as wide. Their bodies were thick with muscle and protected by bark or scale-like skin that reduced the need to wear armor for protection. They were meaty creatures, their voices deep and gruff, their hands tipped with sharp claws, their teeth as sharp as fangs. And Liaf’srar was one of the largest Nunal had seen before or since.

But a fresh memory drowned her fear, allowing her to swallow it as she surged forward. She remembered her mother lifting a barb just like this one from a man’s leg. She couldn’t recall exactly what her mother told the man about his potential fate, but she did remember how she had counteracted it.

“Aphianna,” she cried as she cried as she bolted into the room, pointing at the bright red blossoms where they hung above the hearth.

Both the Healer and the clan alpha stared at her in blank shock until she opened her hand in the direction of the bundle. “I need Aphianna to help you!” she insisted, not sure how else she could convey her meaning.

This time, it worked. The Healer plucked two of the blossoms from the hanging stems and set them into her hand. Relieved, Nunal sank to her knees. “Thrudsoil,” she barked, pointing to the familiar root near the shadowed corner of the room. “Choor Root,” she said next, followed by, “Drarilin.” She pointed to the name of each herb as she called it out, gathering them in her lap as the Healer passed them over.

“I need to crush them,” she said when she had the right amount of each ingredient. But she wasn’t sure how to convey this. She lifted both hands and squashed them together. She repeated the motion three times, but the Healer only blinked.

Then Nunal closed her hands into a fist and made a stirring motion. This summoned understanding to the crone’s eyes and she thrust a mortar and pestle into the girl’s hands.

Diligently, Nunal worked to mix her antidote, binding the herbal paste with honey and bloodmoss. The first had been easy enough to find by sniffing some of the jars and barrels the Healer kept on the shelves. The latter, it turned out, was named the same in both languages.

When she had finished preparing the paste, Nunal helped the Healer apply it before fixing Liaf’srar’s bandages in place. She needed to replace them three times on the first night, twice the second day and once more late the third afternoon. Each time she applied a small amount of the mixture. By the time it was gone, so was the poison.

Liaf’srar was so surprised – and gratified – to survive the first night, that he summoned a translator who could speak the hume language to his sick bed so he could learn Nunal’s story.

On the fourth day, he offered to adopt her. A week later, the deed was done.

It was the storm that had inspired her new name – Che’gar, which meant child of the rain. But in some contexts, now that Nunal had learned the nuance of the Trolock language, it could also mean born from the storm.

Either way, the name was appropriate. Nunal still wasn’t sure who, or what, she had been before she came to the Chesok clan cave. But she was certain that her experience in the forest – blurry and half-remembered though it was – had forever altered her. The driving raindrops had cleansed her of her old life and carried it to some distant place, leaving her fresh and new, ready to be molded for the future.

She may not have been born in the heart of that storm, but it had transformed her. She had been reborn the moment she stumbled through the entrance to the Chesok cavern, and she could find no reason to regret it.

*   *   *

Three times Che’gar knocked on the entry stone that lead to the visiting matriarch’s room. Three times and no more.

“Who calls?” even muffled by thick stone, the Otona clan matriarch’s words were strong and clear.

“Che’gar, with tea,” the girl who had once been named Nunal barked in response. She had to strain to be heard, but she had long since learned the trick. The power to make her voice carry came from her gut, rather than her throat.

A moment later, the entry stone blocking the doorway slid aside and the stern face of the visiting matriarch appeared. Even knowing her disapproval of the Chesok clan’s hume was an act didn’t prevent a foreboding chill from climbing Che’gar’s spine. But she forced a deep breath down her throat and shot to her feet, carrying the tray with her in one fluid motion.

“Have you word of Liaf’srar?” she demanded breathlessly before the matriarch had a chance to speak.

The woman’s lips pressed into a thin line and her eyes narrowed as her gaze shot up and down the hallway. Then she clicked her tongue and stepped aside, motioning Che’gar into the room.

“Come in quickly, child,” she chided. “Some things must not be spoken of in the hallway.”

Che’gar caught her meaning. She could have been flogged for speaking out of turn to one with as much power and influence as the Otona clan matriarch, so she counted herself lucky that she received an invitation rather than a dismissal. Then again, considering how fond the Chesok clan alpha was of her, maybe the visitor simply didn’t want to press her luck.

Forcing all further thought to the back of her mind, Che’gar carried her tray to the small stone table set in the center of the room and hurried to pour the matriarch a small cup of hot liquid. Then she stepped back, folded her arms and bowed her head, awaiting further instructions.

With a single curt and graceful motion, the matriarch settled onto her plush rug and scooped the cup into her hands. She sipped once, then sighed and motioned for Che’gar to sit across from her.

“Go on, girl,” she commanded, “pour yourself a cup. I didn’t invite you in here to have a one-sided conversation.”

Che’gar nearly tripped in her haste to comply, just barley managing to keep her hand steady when she poured the second cup. She would have to wait for some of the heat to bleed from the ceramic since she didn’t have the armored skin of a Trolock, but she assumed the matriarch would understand her hesitation.

The woman drew a deep breath, sipped again from her cup, then set it aside with a sigh. “There has been no word of Liaf’srar, no. But I am certain he will return when his task is finished.”

Che’gar opened her mouth to demand why the matriarch had invited her inside when there was no news to speak of and quickly shut it again without speaking. Clan matriarchs were tricksy. They won their positions through wisdom and cunning in the same way clan alphas won their positions through strength and superior tactics. She must have some purpose for wanting to speak with Che’gar that had driven her to take advantage of the girl’s eagerness to seek an update. Not only could she not risk angering the woman, she had best find out what that purpose was.

“Are you not worried?” she said instead, forcing herself to remain calm. “The longest raid or hunt Liaf’srar has attended since my arrival lasted only four days. This is the longest I have ever seen him stay away.”

The matriarch’s answering smile was cold. “Sometimes the alpha will stay away for several months, if their task requires it of them. Liaf is strong. It will take more than a small band of humes to end him.”

“They nearly killed him once already,” Che’gar protested, swallowing a sudden wave of bile that rose in her throat.

“Their poison nearly killed him,” the matriarch corrected primly. “And thanks to you, he survived it.”

Che’gar shook her head. It was difficult to stay calm and collected when all she wanted to do was scream and cry. “Many humes survive their concoctions. They are good at killing, but also good at staying alive.”

Now the Otona matriarch seemed amused. “Perhaps. But I have heard stories of the humes who survive that poison. Many go blind or lose the use of their legs as a result. Liaf is stronger than you think.”

This, at least, Che’gar could accept. She bowed her head and tested her fingers against the cup sitting in front of her. It was still too hot. She bounced her fingers away quickly and shook her hand before setting it back on her lap.

“You are worried, child.” It wasn’t a question, so Che’gar didn’t offer an answer. “This worry goes beyond mere concern for your clan alpha. Is that not so?”

Che’gar hesitated. Was this some trick meant to make her give up secrets? Even with a friendly clan, there were things the Trolocks would not share. And they would not be pleased if she broke a rule she was ignorant of. She had learned that early on.

But whatever the Otona clan matriarch wanted to gain from this visit, Che’gar could not deny that the woman had helped her. She had brought news of her mother’s plight, at great personal risk, and had given Liaf’srar all the information he needed to potentially rescue her without asking for anything in return. Che’gar could hardly deny the woman an honest answer to an innocent query.

“Che’gar worries she brings dishonor and misfortune to her clan. An outcome she would avoid at all costs.”

Silence stretched between the two of them. Che’gar’s heart began to pound in her chest, so hard and loud it echoed in her ears, filling her cheeks with heat. She felt no real shame over her admission, but she wished the visiting matriarch would answer and tell her the point of this illicit meeting.

Suddenly, she wished she hadn’t come. Laying awake in bed each night wondering what was happening beyond the safe confines of the clan cave might almost be preferable to trying to guess what this strange woman was about to say.

After at least a full minute of silent contemplation, the matriarch clicked her tongue. “You speak using the clan conventions instead of those of your birth. Why?”

The question caused Che’gar to jump. “Why would Che’gar speak otherwise? Chesok is Che’gar’s home now.”

“That may be so. But you were not born here, and you would do as well to remember your origins as you do to honor your adoptive clan.”

Now Che’gar’s cheeks burned with anger instead of anxiety. “Just because I want to see my mother again-“

“Of course you want to see your mother again,” the matriarch interrupted, emphasizing her words with a sharp hiss. “Do not speak as though I meant to insult you.”

The harshness of her tone drove Che’gar to lift her cup despite the persistent heat clinging to the ceramic. Luckily the liquid had cooled enough not to burn her tongue and the herbal concoction carried some of her anger away when she swallowed, allowing confusion to take its place.

“I cannot forget my origins,” she managed after a moment. “No matter how gracious my new family is, I am reminded of my differences every day.”

“And is that the only reason you recall where you came from?” The matriarch didn’t exactly sound annoyed. Perhaps it was more like impatience?

Che’gar stopped to consider what the matriarch might be getting at. She was missing something; that she could tell. But what was it? Something to do with her mother? With the healing skills her mother had managed to pass down to them before they were separated? What?

Perhaps reading the confusion from her face, the matriarch sighed, apparently deciding to take pity on her. “Can you see no reason for all this discord over your safety?”

The word discord was not spoken in the Trolock language. It was so distinctly human, it sounded odd when the matriarch spoke it, as if she had to force her tongue into some alien formation to get it out.

Che’gar blinked, still not quite caught up with the question. Then new flames burned her cheeks and she bowed her head. “I certainly do not understand it,” she admitted. “I see no reason why two clans of Onst’arld and a small army of humes would be so concerned over the fate of one small girl.”

Perhaps she was not as small as she now felt living among Trolocks, but she was still sufficiently young enough that she could claim no worthwhile expertise. Many Healers possessed the same knowledge as her mother, and she couldn’t recall her mother ever having been anyone special.

She expected the matriarch to lecture her about her lapse in wisdom. Instead, the woman leaned across the table, encompassing Che’gar’s hand with her much larger one. She squeezed with shocking gentleness, causing Che’gar’s gaze to fly upwards. What she found on the elder’s face was compassion, not an expression the Trolocks wore well – or often.

“Perhaps I have pushed too soon. Forgive me, child. I am as eager to see this matter laid to rest as you. I must remember that all things happen in their own time. We cannot rush them, and must resist the urge.” The Otona matriarch drew a deep breath and released it slowly.

“For now, I ask that you trust in your clan alpha. Liaf is as reliable as warriors come. And let us hope, by the time he returns, you will be ready to see the truth.”

Che’gar blinked stupidly and clamped her mouth closed so that it couldn’t fall open. She had no idea what the visiting matriarch was hinting at and couldn’t begin to grasp how it related to her. Yet deep in her chest, somewhere beyond the realm of physical sensation, something stirred within her. She got the distinct sensation that everything the Matriarch had been asking about, everything she wanted to know, was related to something that happened in the storm. Something so obscured by rain and fog, that Che’gar’s mind could no longer focus on it.

She wasn’t even sure she wanted to try.

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