Freebie Mondays: Double-Sided Coin

Freebie Mondays: Double-Sided Coin

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, Sacred Bonds, The Gods’ Greatest Gift and For the Good of All. (As you can probably tell, it has pretty much taken on a mind of its own!)

Please enjoy the next installment!
. . .

“My mother never forgot things,” Che’gar said softly. She knelt on one of the soft cushions that adorned Liaf’srar’s lounge. This adjoining section of his private chamber was reserved for elders of high standing within the clan. Most members of Chesok had only one room – though the quarters varied in sizes. It was understood that the clan alpha was likely to host others, however, and so his quarters included the means to do so with honor and privacy.

When Nunal first came to the clan of the cave folk, the custom of sitting on the knees, rather than the rear, troubled her greatly. She had gone to bed every night with terrible bruises on her knee caps. She had longed desperately for a chair. And while the Trolocks did have such things, they usually reserved them for informal meetings, such as the ones she had participated in with the Otona matriarch while they waited for Liaf’srar to return.

Now, though, Che’gar had grown fond of this style of gathering. It put everyone on a more equal footing, with refreshments sitting on a soft cloth between them. The light padding of the cushions was more than enough to protect her from the harshness of the rock beneath the mat. Sitting like this, she truly felt like one of the Chesok, as if she had finally come home.

“Once she learned something, she always remembered it, even years later,” she went on, her eyes on the floor, though she could feel the combined gazes of the clan  leaders heavy on her shoulders. “It never occurred to me when I was younger, but that’s why she didn’t have any recipe books. She brewed all of her potions from memory. I thought it was so the villagers couldn’t steal her secrets, but it was because she never needed to write them down.”

“The humes call it ‘perfect memory,'” the Otona clan matriarch intoned softly, her head bowed. “The Onst’arld call it ‘persistent knowledge.’ I think your blood kin would be quite disgruntled to realize we have a fancier term for it than they do.”

Che’gar couldn’t help but chuckle. The mood was tense, the tone heavy but, for the first time, she felt perfectly at ease talking with these two larger than life figures. The Otona clan matriarch had been harsh with her, but only because she was trying to look out for her in her own way. And while Liaf’srar was fearsome and terrifying when he wanted to be, he had never been anything but kind and gentle with Che’gar.

“Humes seem to worry about a lot of things that don’t really matter,” she admitted, then sighed. “Which is why we’re in this situation in the first place, I imagine.”

Finally, Che’gar lifted her gaze to meet the eyes of each clan leader in turn. There was an understanding, if expectant, look on the Otona clan matriarch’s face. Lif’srar’s expression was much harder to read. He seemed more serious than usual, as if something grave had caught hold of his soul and refused to let it go. But when Che’gar locked eyes with him, he forced his lips into an approximation of a smile, perhaps trying to reassure her it was safe to continue.

Che’gar smoothed her fingers across the fabric of her skirt and shook her head. “The village guard wanted my mother to meet with a man in a place called Monerara. I’m not sure if he would still be there but… Anyway, they called him a ‘warmaster.’ I don’t know exactly what that is, but it’s safe to assume he’s knowledgeable in the ways of waging war.”

“A man like that would probably study most of his lifetime in order to gain the title,” the Otona clan matriarch mused. “He has probably survived several battles as well, otherwise he would be barred from claiming such mastery.”

“Liaf has survived many battles,” the Chesok clan alpha rumbled, clearly unimpressed with the weight of this title. “Liaf know a thing or two about war.”

“I’m sure you do,” Che’gar soothed. “But Che’gar not think Liaf’srar want to compare himself to the man the humes call ‘warmaster.’ This man sounds like a cruel man. A terrible man. Che’gar’s mother…” Her voice caught in her throat for a moment. “Nunal’s mother,” she corrected softly, “didn’t want to meet this war man. She agreed to leave the village to speak with a scholar. A man by the name of Grahstan who is supposed to live in a place called Aleon. I don’t know exactly how to get there, but it’s on the far side of the river, past Monerara. The guards tricked her into diverting during the journey. They wanted her to  learn from this warmaster so that she could become a bastion of his knowledge-“

“Bastion?” Liaf’srar interrupted, narrowing his eyes toward the Otona matriarch, clearly uncertain what this was supposed to mean.

“They wanted her to serve as a book or scroll,” the matriarch explained. “If the warmaster gives someone with persistent knowledge – or perfect memory – the information they have gathered, the information is stored in a safe fashion. So long as that person lives, it cannot be lost. In this way, it could more easily be passed on to a new warmaster, without loss of fidelity or argument over potential meanings-“

The Otona matriarch’s explanation drifted to silence when Liaf’srar turned his confusion in Che’gar’s direction instead. Again, she couldn’t help but smile. “The humes wanted my mother to learn what the warmaster knew so that she would understand how to make war. And they probably wanted her to pass that knowledge on to their soldiers so that they would be better at making war than you and your clan kin could anticipate.”

“Is that not what I said?” the Otona clan matriarch demanded primly.

“Not what you said,” Liaf’srar replied curtly, “even if it was what you meant.”

The Otona clan matriarch huffed loudly, but said nothing else.

“It’s safe to assume that the warmaster has gone to the tower where the humes are keeping my mother,” Che’gar went on. It hurt to think the same people she grew up with had turned on  her family, but it was a relief to know they wanted to keep her mother alive, even if only so they could use her skills.

“I’m not sure how they intend to educate an unwilling subject,” the Otona matriarch sniffed. “But, I suppose if her memory is perfect, all they need do is force her to listen and she will remember. To think that study could be forced upon someone…” She shook her head vigorously.

Che’gar was still learning the nuanced differences between the Onst’arld clans, including their specializations. While each focused on one particular aspect of their culture, all were capable of providing the other services within their clan. The Chesok were warriors, for example, but they still had healers and scholars among their number.

The Otona, Che’gar had come to understand, were primarily scholars. ‘Otona’ itself meant ‘keeper’ or ‘keeping.’ They were supposed to be the keepers of Onst’arld knowledge, but they also worked to expand it. Che’gar assumed, however, if she were to visit their homestead, she would find plenty of warriors among their number. They would be required to keep the knowledge repositories safe.

But suddenly Che’gar wondered if there was someone like her mother among the Onst’arld, someone who contained in their mind the summation of all the knowledge the Otona had spent the generations gathering.

She also couldn’t help but wonder if that kind of knowledge keeper was a wonderful idea, or a horrible one. It was clear that knowledge could be used to save a great many lives – her mother did that with her potions. And Che’gar herself had done it for Liaf’srar when she brewed the antidote for the hume poison.

But on the other side of the coin, the same knowledge could be used to hurt and kill. Her mother had tried to use her abilities for the good of everyone and now she might be forced to cause unspeakable harm.

Maybe it was better if knowledge had to be worked for. That slow gain was likely to make people treasure it more and, thus, use it to better purpose. But a small voice in the back of her mind warned that evil people would spend just as much time gathering harmful knowledge as good people would devote to helping others. The warmaster was a prime example.

“I think I need to speak with this Grahstan,” Che’gar admitted into the sudden silence. “My mother trusted him. She told me that once we got to his cottage, we’d be safe from the guards. I don’t know how or why. But I think if I tell this scholar about my mother’s fate, he may be willing to help us.

Her eyes fell on Liaf’srar then and there was no small amount of pleading in her gaze. “Not all humes are bad, Liaf’srar. Not all humes want to fight and kill Onst’arld. Some, like Che’gar, just want to understand. If we make Grahstan understand, he might help us stop the humes from making war.” And free her mother – if that was still a possibility.

The Chesok clan alpha considered her words for several long moments before responding. Again, there was something odd on  his face, an emotion that seemed entirely alien to the grizzled warrior, which made it difficult for the young human to place.

At last, he leaned across the space between them and set one of his massive hands on her knee. It was so large compared to her lap, it took up most of both of them.

“Che’gar not like other humes,” he insisted. “Che’gar special, like mother.”

“I’m not-” she started to protest, but stopped when the clan alpha gave her a stern look.

“Che’gar knew the antidote for the poison that nearly killed Liaf from here.” He lifted his massive hand and tapped one of his thick fingers against her forehead ever so gently. “Che’gar knew what herbs she needed and what proportions. Che’gar needed no book or scroll or guidance from a more experienced healer.”

Che’gar’s mouth fell open as she remembered the guards from her vision barking, “Perhaps your daughter will prove better at it anyway.

A shiver ran the length of her spine. She had assumed that abilities like her mother were random, unlike magic or fighting prowess, which seemed to pass through families with shocking regularity. But perhaps she had been wrong. Perhaps she was no different than her mother.

It would explain the ease with which she picked up the Onst’arld language and customs, and why it was so easy for her to remember the lessons her mother taught her. She always assumed it was because they had been presented as games. But now that she was no longer a child, it was the details and not the method that stuck in her head.

“Clan Chesok will assist Che’gar in contacting the humes. Clan Chesok would prefer to avoid war. But, Liaf’srar will not allow humes to abuse Che’gar’s special knowledge. If the humes ask more of Che’gar than she is willing to give, Liaf will do what is necessary.”

Sudden warmth filled Che’gar’s chest. It swelled upward with surprising strength until, suddenly, it stung her eyes. It had been a long time since she felt like this – like she had a choice about her future. Always she had been too young to understand. Always she had been carried by the currents of the storm-tossed ocean. The only time she truly felt like she made her own choice was when she accepted Liaf’srar’s invitation to become a full-fledged member of his clan.

And now, it seemed he intended to make certain she got to make many more such choices. If her mother had such security, the two of them never would have had to run.

She lifted her arm and swiped at the stray moisture spilling from the corners of her eyes, then she caught two of Liaf’srar’s massive fingers in her hand, squeezing as tightly as she could. “Thank you,” she murmured, her voice raw and hoarse. “Che’gar believes there are good humes out there. But it is nice to know that Che’gar always has a family willing to listen.”

Liaf’srar nodded, then turned back to the Otona clan matriarch. “How we approach humes without drawing too much attention?” he demanded, pointing to his stone-crusted, monster-like facade.

It was the first time Che’gar could remember the Otona matriarch laughing.

*   *   *

During the late months of the year, when autumn held the world in its darkening shroud, the sky over Aleon was often a pallid grey, sometimes light with the barest hint of sunshine, but most often heavy with the threat of rain. Despite this, Grahstan and the village’s other inhabitants were fond of the valley because it held warmth much longer than most of its surrounds. It could have had something to do with the mountains blocking the worst of the snow squalls, but it could also have been the lake that sat just to the south, near the valley’s mouth.

Whatever the case, Aleon was a fine little haven. Grahstan had spent most of his adult life there, never quite having been able to leave after he came to study in the abbey on the north edge of town. It was quiet here. That was what he liked most about it. The constant squabbles between kingdoms and cultures tended not to reach this place, which allowed the abbey students – Grahstan’s students now – to focus on their lessons.

In Aleon, the most exciting events were commissions to copy large manuscripts from the central portions of the kingdom. The idea that his work, and the work of his diligent protégés, would one day fall into the hands of a king or queen sent ripples of excitement through the entire town. Those manuscript copies, their careful book binding and the intricate decorations penned by his fabulous assistant were the village’s only claim to fame.

But unlike tourneys and hunts, books endured. The tiny mark that bore the name of Aleon Abbey would stand forever against the curling, yellowing pages of the words they copied and future generations would know from whence the knowledge came.

These were the considerations Grahstan liked to carry with him on his morning walks past the farmer’s market and the local apothecary. It took so long to copy a single manuscript that there was never need of worry between commissions. Someone always saw their latest round of work and clamored eagerly to become next in line.

It helped that the rumblings from the south on the road to Monerara had finally settled down. Whatever was happening outside this quiet little valley village, there was no longer a danger it would spill into their quaint little lives. And Grahstan was perhaps happiest about that because, as a man of learning, he would have felt compelled to get involved had the situation escalated.

He hummed softly to himself as he rounded the final bend in the public square and made his way back toward the abbey. He had never quiet been able to carry a tune, despite his love for music, but that had never stopped him from indulging when there was no one around to hear.

The tenuous notes faltered, however, when he crested the rise of the hill at the top of which the abbey was located and his eyes fell on two odd, unfamiliar figures. Aleon was the kind of town where everyone knew everyone else. And if there were strangers in town, it was odd that  no one had been whispering about it.

Unless they hadn’t yet caught wind of the strangers – which meant they hadn’t come through the village gates. Which also meant it was only a  matter of time before the whispers started.

Grahstan’s heart skipped a beat. Had he miscalculated the situation? Relaxed his guard too soon?

Swallowing hard, he hurried down the hill, urging his aging legs into a jog so that he would reach the two figures before they reached the abbey door.

One was small and slender, a girl of no more than sixteen, judging by her height and build. She still had some of the curves that tended to cling to young faces, before weather and weariness wore it all away. There was something haunting about her eyes when she turned, though, as if she had seen more in her short years than most people did in three times their number.

Her skin was the color of earth after rain, her features so familiar that they struck Grahstan numb and he froze with a greeting on his lips.

The second figure was taller, but squat, so broad of shoulder the scholar wondered if  he could fit through the abbey door at all. He wore a thick, heavy cloak with a voluminous hood so deep, it nearly swallowed his entire head. But it didn’t take a scholar to realize there was no human figure beneath the deep folds of fabric. Even a hunch-back giant wouldn’t be so solid of build.

No, this was a trolock if ever he had seen one. And though he had only seen rough sketches, he had read enough accounts to put the pieces together. Only a few patches of the scale-covered skin were visible at the edges of the creature’s wrists, but the facial features and jagged teeth made the truth abundantly clear.

Grahstan’s jaw snapped shut and he swallowed hard, certain he had just wandered aimlessly to his death. But the girl smiled a sweet smile and shook her head, as if to indicate that his fear was unnecessary.

“My name is Nunal,” she said softly, laying a hand against her chest. “And this is Liaf’srar my…”

She faltered and Grahstan’s heart stuttered within his chest. Not only did she look like her mother, she sounded like her too.

“Liaf is-” the trolock began to growl, but then caught himself. He cleared his throat with shocking gentleness, covering his mouth with one meaty fist while he did so. Then he turned his intense eyes on the scholar and said more carefully, “I am Nunal’s father.”

Grahstan stumbled backward a step, reaching instinctively behind him. What he needed most at the moment was a chair but, here in the yard, there were none to be found.

“N…Nunal?” he managed, finally regaining his grasp of language. “Nokane’s daughter?”

The girl nodded quickly and took a step forward, placing herself between the trolock and the scholar, as if to further reassure him there was nothing to fear. “Yes, that’s right. My mother was intercepted on the road to speak with you. So I’ve come in her stead.” She hesitated, glancing over her shoulder at her guardian – the thing which claimed to be her father.

“Will you speak with us?” she asked softly, her eyes downcast, her tone more than a little desperate. “I know we can’t be what you expected-“

“What I expected? Dear gods, child, that’s putting it lightly.” But if she had come on behalf of Nokane…

No time to think. He waved toward the far side of the abbey. “Let’s get you to a more private place, shall we? Before others take notice of your… friend.”

Nunal glanced over her shoulder, but then nodded. She laid one hand against the tree-trunk arm that protruded from the base of the cloak and the trolock turned when she beckoned it.

Grahstan swallowed the heartbeat that now hammered in his throat. That… thing could easily break him in half if it wanted to.

But the same could be said for the girl and she seemed to trust it – him. Grahstan shook his head. He had been wrong to dismiss the rumblings simply because they grew quiet. Something was afoot in the world beyond his small haven. Something that threatened it greatly if these were the sorts of guests he suddenly hosted.

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