Freebie Mondays: The Gods’ Greatest Gift

Freebie Mondays: The Gods’ Greatest Gift

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.

The first installment is called Che’gar of Chesok. Che’gar’s story continued in Born from the Storm and Sacred Bonds. Here’s the fourth installment!
. . .

Trolocks didn’t use candles. They tried to avoid anything which would clog their caverns with smoke, though incense wasn’t uncommon when it came to rituals or ceremonies. So Che’gar knew when the Otona acolyte came for her bearing a single tall candle in a wide tray that the matter she was about to participate in was serious.

She followed her guide in silence, watching the flickering shadows cast across the walls by the shifting candle light. She couldn’t help thinking as they descended deeper into the cavernous depths that she was walking backward in time, through her history rather than the earth’s. Though she started tall, an elongated smear against the grey of the rock, she steadily shrunk as she descended the stairs until she was little more than a speck among dancing lights.

Rich, stony scents filled her nostrils, calling to memory the smell of earth after rain, damp moss and fresh fungal growth. The soft sway of the braziers reminded her of the gentle rustle of leaves on tree branches rubbing together in the wake of a wind storm.

Their feet began to scrape and pound against the rocky floor, creating a steady marching drumbeat. Chill air whipped through the tunnels, caressing her skin into a thousand tiny goose bumps.

Che’gar shivered, but it had more to do with the thump of her heart and the flutter in her stomach than the chill of her surroundings. She had never been down this far. These were forbidden tunnels, open only to the clan alpha and the sages. The alpha could not be barred passage anywhere within Trolock territory; that was the law. So the Otona matriarch could come and go as she pleased while she remained within Chesok’s caverns. But Che’gar wouldn’t normally be allowed to come this way.

Voices rose from the distance in rhythmic chant. Che’gar was familiar enough with the language to identify half of it, but most of it lacked context. Since she had never participated in any of the sacred rituals – outside of her adoption – she wasn’t sure what the words were supposed to mean. She thought they invoked gods and goddesses, perhaps awakened ancestors of the past. But without understanding more about the Trolock religion, she couldn’t say what the invocations were supposed to do. The chanters could be asking for protection, for blessings, or even just answers.

Che’gar certainly knew which of the three she wanted.

Her guide turned a sharp corner and they emerged into a dimly lit cavern. It was smaller by far than the main chamber they passed through during their descent, but larger than many of the other offshoots Che’gar spied as they navigated the hallways. The chanters were not present, so they must have been stashed in some of those smaller areas, perhaps strategically placed so that their voices would mingle here.

The moment they entered the door, a sharp, cold breeze snuffed her guide’s candle. Rather than glow moss, this room seemed to be lit by witchlights set into stone sconces. They burned blue at the four cardinal directions and green at the sub cardinals, making the light flicker like the reflection of water against the smooth stone walls.

The Otona clan matriarch stood on the far side of the room on the edge of a basin which dominated most of the floor. The pool was filled with crystal clear water that perfectly reflected the dancing lights on the walls and ceiling, creating the sensation of a deep tunnel that faded into the distance.

The Otona matriarch nodded curtly. Che’gar’s guide bowed, then side-stepped her charge, ghosting past her as she made a quick exit. Then the matriarch lifted one hand and motioned for Che’gar to step forward with one thick finger.

She picked her way carefully across the room. Her legs trembled as she mounted the four stairs that led to the edge of the basin. She gripped her skirts tightly, feeling she might melt into a puddle if she released her grip. Her heart was in her throat now and her temples, adding a dark ring to the swishing lights.

She told herself to breathe, that Liaf’srar would never allow her to undertake a task that could bring her to harm. She saw him out of the corner of her eye, lurking nervously near a secondary exit. The thin press of his lips and the darkness in his eyes told her all she needed to know.

The Trolocks trusted their gods. They trusted the ways of their ancestors that granted them access to knowledge they considered both secret and sacred. But they knew the access and keeping of that knowledge came at a cost. If Che’gar had to pay that price to find her answers, that would simply be the way of it. The gods were the one force even Liaf’srar had to bow to, whether he liked it or not.

She stopped beside the Otona matriarch and lifted her gaze. The woman regarded her coolly, her hands folded together in front of her, her face an unreadable mask of jade and sapphire.

“Are you ready child?” she asked after what seemed like a small eternity.

Che’gar nodded because she couldn’t find her voice. It was enough.

The Otona clan matriarch lifted her skirts and fastened them around her thick, muscular legs. Then she slid down into the basin. The water rippled around her, making it seem as though blue flames leapt from the depths. She extended one clawed hand toward Che’gar.

Drawing a deep breath, Che’gar also lifted her skirts. But rather than fasten them, she released them after she stepped into the pool, letting them fan out around her as she had been instructed. The green light seemed to surround her, sticking to her limbs, making it seem as if the light came from within her.

She took the Otona matriarch’s hand and allowed the woman to guide her to the center of the pool. There they stood, Che’gar’s back to the matriarch, each of her hands raised to the level of her head and clutching one of the matriarch’s clawed hands. The matriarch held her gently, but firmly.

“Are you certain you wish to seek answers today?” she asked and Che’gar knew this was her last chance to back out.

“I am certain,” she replied, though her voice trembled. “I come seeking truth.”

The Otona matriarch replied with several lines from the chant surrounding them, but Che’gar could no more place its meaning in this context than she had during their approach. Her heart hammered and her limbs trembled. She had no idea what awaited her in the water’s inky darkness, but she feared it more than anything. More than the storm that brought her here and the men who chased her through it.

But if she wanted to see her mother again, she had to know the truth.

“Remember, child,” the Otona matriarch warned softly, “when you feel air surround you, breathe.”

Again, Che’gar nodded. She barely had a chance to finish the motion before the Otona matriarch dropped her hands and seized hold of her hair. She recognized this as her only warning and did as she had been instructed.

She inhaled as deeply as she could, trapping the air within her lungs.

It took barely any downward pressure for the Otona matriarch to dunk her beneath the water’s surface, and it would take barely any strength to hold her there until she went limp, if that was what the old sage wanted to do.

Somehow, impossible though it seemed, the voices were louder down here. She wasn’t sure if the words had changed, or if she simply understood them better now that they were stronger, but she was better able to translate their meaning.

Grant her your truth. Grant her your light.

The water closed around her, burbling and bubbling as she resisted the urge to fight. Her lungs burned to release their burden but she clamped her throat closed tight, forcing the air to remain within her lungs.

She had never held her breath this long, had never mastered swimming, and had never been submerged for longer than a few seconds. Her pulse doubled as panic shot through her limbs. The fire in her chest turned from urgency to fear.

All around her the blue and green lights swirled. Their glow seemed to crawl over her skin and seep into her eyes where it clouded her vision.

Just when she thought she was about to pass out, a white light flared and the basin fell away, replaced by old images she instantly recognized.

“Do you know the most powerful gift the gods ever gave humanity?”

The voice belonged to a mother, a voice Nunal hadn’t heard in nearly a year. Not since the night she ran to the cave, a night that wouldn’t occur for another several years after this memory took place.

She had been young then, just barely above her mother’s knees when she sat in the big chair in the study. Whenever her mother asked questions in this particular tone, she recognized them as important – even at such a young age – and paused to consider her answer.

“Fire?” she suggested hopefully. “Fire gives us the ability to see at night, to read and write at all hours and cook the food that sustains us.”

“A good answer,” her mother replied, impressed. “And logical reasoning. But we have something even more powerful than that.”

Nunal scrunched her face with disappointment, but she knew how this game worked. She could try again. Sometimes her mother let her guess until she struggled to think before revealing the answer. Sometimes she had a limited number of attempts, and she never knew which until the game finished.

Sometimes she remembered the answers to her mother’s questions from books that had been read to her, but she didn’t think that would work this time.

“Rain?” she said after an extended period of consideration. “The rain makes plants grow, which is how we harvest our crops. It also fills the rivers with water we need to drink. All life comes from water.”

This last had come from a book and seemed so important to Nunal she hadn’t been able to stop thinking about it since her mother confirmed it as truth. But now the woman shook her head, sending her dark hair dancing across her shoulders.

“Another good try, my love. But humans have something even more powerful than that.”

“The land we live on?” Nunal suggested, quicker this time. She was running out of ideas and thought this might be a riddle, one that played on words. “Without the land we wouldn’t be able to grow food at all. It sustains us even as we sustain it.” That she had learned from her father when he explained the cycle of the harvest as well as the fact that they must never take more than they need or risk damaging the lands that sustained them.

“All these things are important,” her mother replied, her tone kind, perhaps to reassure Nunal she had done a good job, despite her failure. “But they are not the most powerful gifts at our disposal. Because all of these things – fire, water, earth – can be misused if they are not properly understood.”

Her mother leaned forward then, gently setting three fingers beneath her chin and tilting her head upwards so their eyes locked. “No, darling, the most powerful gift the gods gave humanity is knowledge. The ability to understand the world we live in, so that we might make better use of what we find in it.”

Nunal considered this. It was not an answer she would have chosen, but it made a great deal of sense. Thinking and understanding were often said to be the things which separated them from the beasts they raised for food and burden, though she hadn’t realized it came from the gods in the way fire and writing had.

After several moments, however, a thought wormed its way into her mind and she spoke it, as her parents had encouraged her to do.

“You said that knowledge is more powerful than the gods’ other gifts because each of those gifts can be misused without understanding. But isn’t the same true of knowledge.”

Her mother’s face folded with sorrow, but she nodded, happy that her daughter saw the truth of the matter, though she seemed sad to admit it. “You are right, Nunal. And never allow yourself to forget it. For knowledge can be misused even by those with understanding, which makes it one of the most dangerous weapons of all.”

Her lungs burned. Without air, she would falter, but if she tried to breathe now, it would be water that filled her lungs.

Motion interrupted the memory and she was dimly aware of blue and green. Something cold licked her cheeks and she gasped.

Old air rushed free of her chest and she quickly replaced it with a fresh breath, just enough to satisfy her screaming lungs.

Then downward motion claimed her and the water closed back around her. Voices rose and fell, light flared and blurred and the visions returned, though different.

“Do you have it ready?” a gruff voice demanded. Nunal couldn’t see the man it belonged to. Whenever the soldiers came, she hid. She knew most of them by name and often chatted with them in the market. But she disliked the way they looked in their armor, the way it clattered and clanged whenever they walked. They seemed to change when they donned it, as if it turned them into monsters.

“It’s here,” her mother replied warily as she lifted a stoppered bottle from a nearby table. The liquid within was an eerie green-yellow, like the skin of an apple just starting to turn bad.

“Took you long enough,” the guard muttered, though his voice sounded oddly pleased. “We’ll be back next week for the next batch.”

“It will be ready,” was all her mother said and shoved the door closed as soon as he left.

When the clanging footsteps disappeared up the path, Nunal slid free of her hiding space and instantly moved to her mother’s side, wrapping her arms tightly around her waist. They stood like that for several long moments before her mother sighed and drew away, reaching for one of the rolls of parchment she kept on the nearby shelves.

“We will need to gather some supplies,” she said through tight lips, her eyes dark, her fingers trembling slightly as she tucked the rolled strip of parchment into a pocket.

Nunal glanced from the door to the table. A second bottle still rested there. Nunal remembered that her mother brewed it at the same time as the green one she handed off to the soldier. This one held a deep purple liquid that reminded her of the night sky when the moon was new.

Suddenly worried, she tugged her mother’s skirt, drawing her attention before she pointed to the stoppered bottle. “Mommy, the man forgot the other half of his order,” she said in a rush, worried the clanging man would return.

Her mother blinked in surprise, then smiled and shook her head. She took hold of Nunal’s hand and gently peeled it away from her skirt. “He didn’t forget it,” she reassured. “He didn’t want it.”

“But we brewed them both at the same time,” Nunal insisted. “They go together.”

“They do,” her mother agreed. “But they also oppose each other. Each potion has a counter potion, just as each action has its reaction. In this case, the guards don’t want to counter the effects of the poison. At least, not yet.”

Nunal still stared at the potion, dismayed, but she had no choice but to accept her mother’s explanation. She lacked context for the situation or its coming circumstances. She only knew that, sooner or later, the clanging men would return for the bottle.

Her strength was failing. Her legs had already given out beneath her. She floated in the water, anchored by the Otona matriarch’s massive hands.

She knew exactly what potion had been in the green bottle. She knew it’s counter potion too; or rather, it’s antidote. It was the same concoction she used to cure Liaf’srar shortly after the clan took her into their caves. That poison might well have been crafted by her mother’s hands, though it hadn’t been the batch from her memory, which had been brewed long ago.

These thoughts were frighteningly easy to summon. Why, then, would the gods give them to her at a time when she needed hidden answers to obscured truths? What was the point of the ritual if she came out the other side with no more knowledge than she started with?

The upward motion was more dramatic this time and air almost seemed to explode around her. She exhaled, coughing as water stung the back of her throat. She gasped, fighting to force fresh air into her lungs, knowing she had only to the count of three before it vanished again.

This time her head plunged back beneath the water almost before she closed her mouth. The liquid rushed around her and her eyes bulged. Already her lungs burned and her throat quivered.

Survival instinct kicked in. Her legs thrashed, sending bands of bubbles across her vision. She felt the air beyond her hands and feet, but she couldn’t lift her head high enough to breathe.

The chanting still filled the depths, slow and steady, but muffled shouts now reached her ears as well. She thought she heard Liaf’srar’s voice and that it was answered by the deep rumble of the Otona matriarch, but she couldn’t be sure.

The downward pressure against her body increased. Her arms and legs no longer reached the surface when she thrashed. The urgency bursting within her chest grew hotter, stronger, even as the edges of her vision dimmed and darkened.

She knew that she dared not breathe again until she broke the water’s surface, but her body no longer believed her desperate mind. She lost the fight and inhaled.

Water streamed into her mouth and lungs, burning, boiling, and her vision shifted.

“This is not the route we agreed to take.” Her mother’s voice was stiff and prim. Nunal glanced at her and saw her hands clenched into fists, her knuckles turning ashen around the edges.

“You’ll reach your destination safely,” one of the guards spat. “That should be enough.”

“We have a right to know where you’re taking us,” her mother insisted, defiantly. “We are free folk. Not prisoners.”

Not prisoners? They may as well have been. Nunal glanced between the guards and her mother, but she knew better than to speak. Her mother had given her strict instructions about the journey. She was to watch carefully the directions that they traveled and note the posts at every turning. If they took a path through the deep wilderness, she was to mark that to the best of her ability.

But she was not to go back to the village alone, under any circumstances. And she was not to speak unless directly spoken to.

She felt like a child again, huddling beneath the table whenever one of the guards came to fetch a potion they had ordered. She kept staring at the swords that sprouted from their hips, expecting the sharp blades to slide free any moment.

“We’re stopping in Monerara,” one of the men said at last, exasperated, perhaps hoping the truth would make her mother more reasonable. “The warmaster is there. He wants to speak with you.”

Her mother stiffened. Her knuckles grew paler. “I have already told you that I will not speak with him.”

One of the guards leaned forward, laying his palm against her mother’s back and shoving her forward. She stumbled and almost fell into the mud.

Nunal’s breath hitched in her throat but she held herself still.

“Whatever happened to the importance of preserving knowledge, knowledge keeper?” the pusher sneered. “This knowledge isn’t good enough for you?”

“It is not receiving the knowledge that troubles me,” her mother replied through clenched teeth. “It is how you wish me to use it.”

The sickening scrape of metal rang through the air and the blade of a sword glinted in the starlight, Nunal’s worst fear made reality. “If you don’t wish to speak with the warmaster, have it your way,” the head guard growled, death in his eyes. “Perhaps your daughter will prove better at it anyway.”

Breath froze in Nunal’s lungs even as her mother lunged. Strong hands connected with her back, pushing her toward a gap in the soldiers.

“Run!” her mother commanded. “Keep running. Don’t stop.”

Nunal wanted to protest, wanted to wrap her arms around her mother and drag her along into the darkness. But her feet were already moving carrying her away from the shouts, and she knew without looking the guards had already closed their circle around her mother.

This had been her plan all along. This was why she kept Nunal always closest to the edge of the road, why she focused the guards’ attention on her.

All Nunal could do was run. There was no one on the road to help her, nor could she return to the safety of the home she had always known. All she could do was run into the darkness, through the pelting rain, ignoring the burning sensation in her lungs and the numbing sensation of the cold as the darkness closed around her.

Something warm touched her cheek. Solid ground lay beneath her and no liquid touched her limbs, though she was as wet and cold as the day she ran through the storm.

“Breathe, Che’gar!” a tight voice commanded and something impacted her chest.

“You cannot interfere with the ritual!” a higher voice protested, words strained as they struggled against something Che’gar could neither see nor fathom.

“Enough from you,” the clan alpha snarled, and Che’gar felt a second, less distant impact.

For a moment, she seemed frozen in time, suspended halfway between the memory and the current moment, understanding flickering dimly in the exhausted depths of her mind.

Then her heart slammed against her ribcage several times in quick succession. Pain blossomed through her chest. Her throat twisted and she shot upward, gasping and coughing.

Warm liquid spurted from her lips, coating her chin and chest, mixing with the cool damp that already clung to her. She felt herself propelled onto her side and warm, strong hands wrapped around her.

“Yes, that’s it, Che’gar,” Liaf’srar’s voice rumbled next to her ear, his breath hot on her neck. “Breathe. Stay.”

It took a moment to realize that the gentle forward and backward motion of her body did not come from the coughs wracking her chest and throat, but from the man curled behind her, cradling her in his arms.

She became aware of other people surrounding them, standing in a rough half circle around the spectacle. She caught a brief glimpse of the Otona matriarch rising to her feet, pushing two smaller Trolocks away from her. The chanting had stopped, though the blue and green lights still swirled around the room.

The Otona matriarch took two steps forward, pausing with one leg just on the edge of Che’gar’s vision. “If you have ruined the ritual,” she began, but Liaf’srar cut her off with a snarl.

“Speak no curse over Liaf’s head,” the clan alpha snarled, causing the Otona matriarch to rock back on her heels. “If ancestors offer no answers, fuck ancestors. Liaf fix Liaf’s way.”

It was all Che’gar managed to hear before calm settled over her chest and soft darkness swept her away.

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