Freebie Mondays: For the Good of All

Freebie Mondays: For the Good of All

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. Over Christmas Break, I found my original notes for this, and I’m pretty pleased with how well it’s followed the plan.

The first installment is called Che’gar of Chesok. Che’gar’s story continued in Born from the Storm and Sacred Bonds and The Gods’ Greatest Gift.

Please enjoy the next installment!
. . .

The Chesok clan alpha prodded the dying embers of his dwindling hearth fire. He could call one of the attendants to restore it, but he needed the distraction. Also, he preferred solitude at the moment. The soft scrape of metal against stone reminded him of his youth, of the days he spent lurking in the hallway shadows waiting to tend an elder’s fire or fetch their food.

Simpler days, those had been. When he dreamed of great hunts and grand feats beneath the sun and stars. Never had he allowed himself to imagine he would dream. Clan alpha was an honor well beyond an upstart like him. Yet here he was, in the largest of the cavern quarters, surrounded by glow globes and clan treasures, wishing he were anywhere else.

His eyes inevitably shifted to the figure sleeping on the bed. Not his mate; he had yet to choose one. Didn’t know that ever he would. She wasn’t even Onst’arld. At least, her body wasn’t. Che’gar had the soul of the Onst’arld, though, Liaf’srar was sure of that.

He watched the steady rise and fall of her chest, noting as he had for the past several hours the way an ashen pallor clung to her usually earthen-brown skin. Even  her midnight hair seemed dull, as if it might fade to grey at any moment, drained by the visiting matriarch’s terrible ritual.

More than anything, Liaf wished Che’gar would open her eyes. He had even bent over her head and whispered her hume name several times, hoping that might restore her good health. He had seen all too often the sleep of sickness become the sleep of death, and he did not wish that for her. She deserved none of the misfortune that had fallen on her shoulders, but she deserved this least of all.

A soft knock sounded at the door and Liaf set the hot poker aside. He would be lectured if one of his attendants caught him tending himself, though ancestors knew he was more than capable. He grunted softly and whoever lurked on the other side of the door took it as permission to enter.

“Alpha,” one of his young attendants intoned as he bowed his head. “I have come to ask if you need anything.”

“Nothing,” Liaf insisted, though the young man’s eyes had already noted the fire.

Without asking for permission, the attendant crossed the threshold and knelt before the hearth, feeding fresh logs to the fire. “The Otona matriarch wishes to speak with you,” he said softly as he swept the ashes through a small opening near the back of the fire chamber.

“Uchan’toro can wish as she likes,” Liaf rumbled, not bothering to filter the acid from his voice. “All words have been spoken.”

The attendant bowed his head in silence and rose to his feet. The hearth fire blazed again, happily crackling as it devoured the new fuel, chasing the gloom from the alpha’s quarters with its light and warmth. The attendant made it all the way back to the door before speaking again.

“The matriarch will not stop asking.”

Liaf sighed. There was an obvious suggestion in those words, though no attendant would be bold enough to press if he dismissed them. The trouble wasn’t the youths; they were only doing as they were trained. The trouble was his guest.

As a clan matriarch, she had almost as much power as he did, even outside her clan. While he holed himself in his room, waiting for a change in Che’gar’s condition, she would bark orders to his clan, making every possible abuse to her power until he was forced to confront her personally.

He wanted to lock her in one of the few caverns they used as cells, but he had no authority to give the order. Despite his anger with her, she hadn’t actually done anything wrong. If he were to act against her, the clan council would take her side, and he could not afford to put his position in jeopardy. Much as he longed to go back to the simple days of tending fires and sharpening swords in anticipation of his first hunt, there was too much at stake for him to leave all responsibility behind. Especially the girl sleeping in his bed.

“Bring her,” he said at last, flicking his thick wrist toward the door, a clear and complete dismissal.

The attendant bowed, pulled the heavy stone closed and scampered away.

He had maybe ten minutes before the Otona matriarch appeared. He should have spent that time cooling his temper or considering what he would say when she walked through his door. Instead, he bent again over the bed and trailed one thick finger down the side of Che’gar’s delicate cheek.

Humes were such fragile creatures. Their skin never developed the thick, leathery coating borne by the Onst’arld. Even fully developed, their muscles were weak and their limbs were thin. Che’gar often compared Liaf and his kin to walls or gates. Once she had even related the strength in his arms to that of a mountain. Remembering that made him smile.

But his adopted daughter seemed small in comparison, like a fresh sapling constantly battered by storm winds and rain. Perhaps that made the name he had chosen for her all the more appropriate. He wondered if she yet understood the depth of its meaning, the depth of meaning assigned to all words in the Onst’arld language.

What humes often saw as a simple-minded people with simple speech patterns were far more complex and nuanced than they first appeared. Most humes would probably be surprised that he understood such concepts at all.

But not Che’gar. Che’gar never should have been born among such a close-minded species. She understood the Onst’arld as if she had been born among them, though she had lived within Chesok’s caverns for less than a year. She might one day be the greatest of them too, if she lived.

“Please wake, Che’gar,” he murmured, his voice a deep rumble even at its softest.

The hume shifted beneath his thick fingers, her head pressing slightly into his caress. But her eyes remained closed and her skin remained sickly and cool to the touch.

Liaf drew back when he heard the scrape of the door stone sliding. Rather than returning to his chair, he stepped forward, meeting the Otona matriarch in the middle of the room. He did not offer her a chair, a failing normally considered rude among clan leaders. But he no longer cared. Whatever good grace Uchan’toro had with him before her visit had long since burned away.

He drew a deep breath and lifted himself to his full height. He was only half a head higher than the Otona matriarch, but he was considerably wider. Formidable, he hoped, though the matriarch seemed less than impressed.

“Stop giving orders to Liaf’s clan,” he commanded, his voice a rough growl.

“Stop acting like a childling,” the matriarch retorted, completely unfazed by his temper.

Liaf inhaled sharply, resisting the urge to punch the visiting matriarch in the face. His temper was quick and hot, boiling from the depths of his gut like a pot left too long over the fire. But hitting her would be crossing too many lines, even if he caused her no real harm. And she probably wanted him angry, wanted him to step out of line, so she could seize control of the situation.

“This situation is too dire,” the matriarch started when Liaf didn’t respond, “too important for-“

“Important for Uchan’toro?” Liaf cut her off, slamming his fist on the nearby table to emphasize his point. The force of the blow knocked a vase from the edge. It shattered on the floor, the only sound in the sudden stillness.

The Otona matriarch swallowed hard before she replied more calmly, “Important for all. For Onst’arld and for humes too.”

“Who say what qualifies as important?” Liaf demanded, emphasizing the question with a snort. “Uchan’toro know all? Uchan’toro dictate direction for all clans?”

Something flashed across the matriarch’s face. It might have been anger or it might have been hurt. Liaf couldn’t tell and, frankly, didn’t care. It was time the old woman start looking at her actions from an outside perspective, without the high horse she tended to parade in front of those she considered of lower station.

“Uchan’toro act for the good of all,” she insisted, lifting her shoulders and letting them fall to give weight to her words. “Uchan’toro consider all possibilities before deciding. Not selfish like Liaf’srar.”

It was the first time since her arrival that the Otona matriarch deigned to use the Onst’arld dialect. Perhaps because Che’gar wasn’t able to participate in the conversation. Or perhaps because Liaf had struck a nerve in her as raw as the one she scraped in him.

“Not selfish,” Liaf’srar snarled. “Liaf not act for Liaf. Liaf act for Che’gar.” He half-turned and motioned to the fragile girl sleeping on his bed. Her hands were folded on her chest above the blanket. Her face was shockingly peaceful considering what she had just endured.

The Otona matriarch glanced at the bed and, for a moment, sorrow filled the whole of her face. That was good; if she couldn’t bring herself to regret her actions, Liaf would have no patience left for her.

Then the old woman lifted her gaze back to Liaf’srar and her expression twisted to one of outrage. “Liaf should not have ruined the ritual.”

“Uchan’toro should not have attempted an Onst’arld ritual on a hume,” he retorted, pleased when she seemed rebuffed by the retort. “Hume not like Onst’arld. Not strong enough to endure the ancestors’ touch.”

“We may never know the truth of it,” the matriarch retorted. “Liaf interrupted the ritual at the critical moment.”

“Liaf upheld Liaf’s oath,” he replied, puffing out his chest, steadfast in his resolve. “Che’gar is Liaf’s Eledu. In Chesok, that means protection. Liaf is responsible for Che’gar’s health and Che’gar’s happiness. Che’gar has neither now.”

“Che’gar agreed to undergo the ritual,” the matriarch insisted, though her voice faltered now.

“Che’gar did not know what the ritual involved. Uchan’toro should have told her. Uchan’toro cares only about the outcome she desires. Not what’s best for Che’gar.”

“What’s best for one is best for all,” the matriarch insisted, but her calm demeanor seemed to be fraying. There was uncertainty in her eyes as they shifted between the sleeping hume and Liaf.

“That something we tell ourselves so we not have to feel guilty,” Liaf replied with shocking calm. “Che’gar special. Not take scholar to see that. Because Che’gar special, everyone expect her to do certain things. Che’gar must act for the good of all even if that action comes at the expense of Che’gar. Liaf not agree. Che’gar not sacrifice herself for all. Liaf not let it happen.”

At last, the Otona matriarch shrunk away from him. Not cowed, as he had hoped, but ashamed. She fumbled with the back of one of the thick wooden chairs and lowered herself into it. She folded her hands on the table and bowed her head, silent while she considered her thoughts.

Liaf watched her from his place near the fire, unwilling to ease enough to sit with her. He would not consider this matter finished until his adopted daughter woke. And if she didn’t…

“Liaf have noble intentions,” Uchan’toro said at last, her voice low and soft. “But Liaf may cause much harm to others if he defends Che’gar.”

With a sigh, Liaf’srar finally lowered himself into the chair across from the Otona matriarch. The shards of the vase he ignored, trusting the attendants would clean  it as soon as his visitor departed.

“Uchan spend too many years with books and proverbs. Uchan know about how the world works in theory, but not in practice. Uchan not fight or hunt. Uchan not forced to look warrior in eyes when sending into danger.

“Liaf know how world works. Liaf experience world. Always, there are hard decisions. Never easy for a leader. Never peaceful. But Liaf try always remember why he make hard decisions. If Liaf not protect each part of his Eledu, they not answer when Liaf have need. No one happy. No one survive. If Liaf respect each clan member, they do what need done without needing to be asked.

“What we do if not let people live happy life? What matter if no one ever satisfied at end of path? Maybe, Che’gar do something, help all Onst’arld and hume too. Maybe she happy with that choice. But what if Che’gar want something else? No one ask Che’gar what she want. Not hume. Not Onst’arld either.

“Liaf want let Che’gar decide. If Che’gar choose Uchan’s way, so be it. But if Che’gar want other path, Liaf make sure she get to walk it. All other Eledu get this choice. Che’gar deserve it too.”

The Otona clan matriarch didn’t look up. In fact, she bowed her head further, resting her broad forehead on her upturned thumb knuckles. Recognizing a contemplative stance, Liaf remained silent. Inevitably, the girl in the bed drew his gaze and he shifted his chair so he could watch her steady breathing.

“Liaf’srar humbles me,” the Otona matriarch announced some time later, causing Liaf to jump slightly. When he turned back to her, he found her eyes and cheeks wet with tears. “Liaf speak true; Uchan spend much time with books and scholars, learning the secrets of the world. But Uchan forget that the world is more than rules and processes. The world is people and their lives. In Uchan’s desire to ensure the best path for the most people, Uchan forget that every person should be equally important.”

She glanced at the girl on the bed and sighed, finally unfolding her hands and lowering them from the table. “Uchan not mean to harm Che’gar. When Che’gar said she would try the ritual…” The Otona matriarch shook her head.

The rest need not be spoken. In her haste and her confidence, the Otona clan matriarch had been thrilled by Che’gar’s willingness to undertake a task she couldn’t possibly understand without guidance. Rather than enlighten the child, she had simply forged ahead, seeing the answer she needed dancing before her eyes. She had never considered failure an option, had never stopped to think what might happen to her plans if the girl didn’t survive the ritual. A ritual designed for the constitution of the Onst’arld.

According to the clan healer, Che’gar had inhaled enough water to damage her lungs even though they managed to expel it. The proper potions had already been administered but, if her fragile body had endured too much exposure, no amount of remedies would cure her. And the Onst’arld did not have the kind of magic humes used.

Her fate was in the hands of the ancestors now. And since she did not belong to the blood of the clan, Liaf had no idea if they would honor her.

He had never believed in this form of magic anyway. He honored it because it was tradition and he believed in the culture of his people. But he would much rather deal with tangible forces, forces which could be bent by will, muscle or steel.

A soft sound drew his attention. Liaf leapt to his feet and barreled toward the bed, knocking over the chair he had used for his vigil on the way. Had the Otona matriarch been sitting closer, she might have shoved him out of the way so that she could look over the girl, but now that he knelt beside her, he couldn’t be moved.

Che’gar lifted her head and coughed. The sound was light at first, but soon became violent.

Liaf lifted her gently and turned her onto her side, brushing the dark hair from her face while she struggled to breathe. He was about to call for a healer when the horrible wracking sound ceased.

Che’gar’s eyes fluttered open. She blinked rapidly several times, then turned her warm, amber eyes in his direction. Her confusion was obvious, but he didn’t want her to speak, lest she descend into another coughing fit.

“Che’gar is safe,” he said quickly. “In Liaf’s quarters.”

“Here,” the Otona matriarch said, finally shouldering her way to the side of the bed. “Drink this.”

Liaf checked the mug, but it was only water drawn from the cool cistern outside his room. He resisted the urge to take hold of it, letting Che’gar grasp it for herself. He supported her head while she took slow, halting sips. A few times she paused to cough, but each fit seemed to pass more quickly than the last.

When the cup was empty, she handed it back to the matriarch and Liaf tucked her back into the bed, fussing the way a mother might.

“Che’gar well?” he asked anxiously. Some of the color had come back to her cheeks and she looked less likely to snap in half than she had an hour ago, but Liaf wasn’t familiar enough with humes to know how good a sign this was.

A smile lit the girl’s face. It was strained enough that he suspected it was forced, but it reassured him none-the-less.

“I will be,” she rasped, resorting to her old, hume way of speech for the time being. Her eyes drifted away from Liaf’s, flickering toward the Otona matriarch who still hovered behind them.

Liaf wanted to shove her out the door all together. The last thing Che’gar needed right now was the scholar’s poison trying to convince her of a path she must walk. But before either clan leader could speak, Che’gar whispered softly.

“I remember what happened in the woods. I know what I am and what I must do.”

In that moment, Liaf wished he believed in the gods and magic of his clan, so that he could have properly cursed them.

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