Freebie Mondays: A Worthy Cause

Freebie Mondays: A Worthy Cause

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, For the Good of All and Double-Sided Coin. (As you can probably tell, it has pretty much taken on a mind of its own!)

My inspiration has momentarily run dry for this one, so I’m going to take a brief break and wait for the spark to rekindle. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure I come back to Che’gar and finish her tale. For now, enjoy the latest chunk!
. . .

Year of our Lady Thirteen Hundred and Six

When I undertook this, my first mission to the border, I had little idea what to expect. I thought that working with another monarch would be much like working among the court, and I am shocked to report that I couldn’t have been farther from the truth.

Queen Zalia has been shockingly open to my suggestions, both about how to solve the border disputes and how to help her ailing people. I expected much resistance, and hoped for only a little. But it seems as though Zalia has merely been waiting for someone like me to come along.

King Mandis, on the other hand, is furious. He never intended this to be a relief effort. He wants a significant chunk of land from Zalia’s southern border, and he won’t be happy until he gets it. Unfortunately, the suggestion that Zalia trade a small portion of the land he desires in exchange for aid only seems to have sent him into a rage. His last letter ranted about weakness.

It seems our monarch believes that if Zalia is so willing to give up pieces of her territory, we should seize more of it, rather than less. His armies are marching in this direction as we speak, poised to begin an invasion that will only make Zalia’s situation worse.

My lessons teach me that I should execute undying loyalty to my sovereign and his desires, that if my king wishes expansion, it is my duty to provide it to him as his chosen representative. But I cannot stop thinking about how war will affect the people I have already met with. They have already been beset by famine and illness. The death and despair war would visit upon them is beyond imagining.

And the more I think on these matters, the more I wonder what good it would do King Mandis to seize a portion of land that is utterly unequipped to manage itself, let alone provide prosperity to the rest of the kingdom. The drain to the royal coffers alone should make him balk. Yet he sees only a map with expanded borders and more taxes to collect. He thinks nothing of the extra mouths to feed and medical supplies required to ensure those taxes might ever be collected.

I cannot help thinking my well-meaning suggestions have only made Queen Zalia’s position worse. Yet, she is a tenacious woman, unwilling to capitulate to nature and, thus, undaunted by men. Surely there must be a way to make Mandis see the benefit of a peaceful solution. If I can only find the critical component I have overlooked…

— Nokane, Spring 18

*   *   *

Che’gar slid her fingers across the large, looping script, as if it would allow her to reach across time and grasp the hand that formed it. This entire book was written in her mother’s hand. She recognized it, though her mother rarely had reason to write as far as she could remember. All the recipes she used for potions, salves and meals were stored in her memory. She had books, some of which included notes jotted in the margins, but they were rarely referenced.

Che’gar had done a great deal of writing, until her ability to form letters passed her mother’s heavy scrutiny. From the time she could reason, her mother had her forming words and writing letters. It wasn’t until years later, when she moved freely among the other village children, she realized how rare a gift it was to read and write. The merchants could do it; their wealth bought them an easy education. The nobles could do it, or so she heard, but she had never met one in person.

“I don’t understand,” she admitted, mystified by the pages that seemed filled with her mother’s life. “I thought she always lived in the vale. She rarely spoke of anything outside it.”

“She wouldn’t have,” Grahstan admitted, his voice soft. The abbot had been sitting with his head bowed since he passed her the book, but Che’gar often noticed him glancing at her when he thought she wasn’t looking. Measuring her reactions, perhaps.

“Were you her teacher?” Che’gar asked when the man spoke no further, peering at him with unbridled curiosity. “Is that why you have the book?”

“Heavens, no!” Grahstan exclaimed with a hearty chuckle. “By the time I met your mother, she was already an accomplished scholar. Her thirst for knowledge and fearless attitude drove her to experiment with herbs in ways few others could have imagined. She pioneered the treatments for several previously untreatable ailments. It was what first brought her to the king’s attention.”

“It’s hard to believe that my mother served the king,” Che’gar admitted, her breath catching in her throat as she spoke the words.

For a brief period of her youth, she had fantasized about living in the grand castle that occupied the very center of the kingdom. She had only vague descriptions from fae tales to build her image of that castle, but she fancied it quite grand. While she trotted through the drab, grey hallways of her childhood home, she imagined what it might be like if she were a princess wandering the many labyrinthine halls and gardens that must make up a castle. It wasn’t the lack of chores or even the luxurious comfort that drew her to the idea. It was the potential for exploration, the answers to grand mysteries she may have discovered.

Her parents humored her for most of a year while she acted out these fantasies, but her mother soon sat her down and forced her to focus on matters closer to home. Such as letters and numbers and how to ride a horse – should she ever need to make use of the skill. From that day on, there had been enough discover in Che’gar’s life that she never really wondered about the palace again.

“Not only did she serve him, she was one of his most accomplished advisors,” Grahstan replied, his tone humble and soft once again. “Most people are aware of the alliance between Mandis and Zalia, sealed by marriage.”

“The villagers used to say it granted our fine kingdom the most powerful military this portion of the world has ever seen,” Che’gar agreed, her tone a reflection of the scholar’s.

“Indeed,” Grahstan muttered, his tone suggesting he wasn’t entirely pleased by that particular outcome. “What you may not know, Nunal, is that your mother forged that alliance. She couldn’t find a way to get Mandis and Zalia to agree in a way that wouldn’t cause gross harm to the people on both sides of the border, so she suggested a full alliance. She reasoned that if both monarchs had a claim to the land on both sides of the border, both would care about protecting the people who lived there. Thus there would be no war, no bloodshed and no suffering.

“It was no mean feat to convince them, of course. Mandis was stubborn and greedy, Zalia was headstrong and idealistic. But your mother – clever woman that she is – soon discovered that their ideas tended to complement each other. For instance, if Mandis wanted to create a strategic advantage, Zalia knew how to accomplish it better than he did. And when Zalia wanted to better manage her coffers, Mandis had the perfect solution.

“Of course, your mother took a great many risks while she negotiated that alliance. She passed Mandis’s queries onto Zalia and Zalia’s onto Mandis, revealing only after each monarch agreed in the brilliance of the responses where they had come from. Mandis and Zalia might never have been willing to consider joint rule if they hadn’t realized they would make such an effective team.”

“My mother did all that? But she was just a village apothecary!” Che’gar protested, shaking her head in wonder. At one time, Che’gar believed that apothecary was the most important position in the world. Her mother’s potions healed the sick and wounded, eased mothers through childbirth, and even provided other benefits she didn’t understand until she grew older. Outside the king, who ruled everything, and the soldiers, who protected the village, the apothecary seemed most critical to the village’s survival.

It was only now that she had ventured outside that safe little world and lived among the Trolocks that she understood how naive she had been. For all that her mother’s potions helped their neighbors, she had never really been appreciated. There was always an alternative way. The apothecary merely made life easier. There were plenty of ways to get by without them. Which meant her family had always been labeled as a convenience and treated accordingly.

Until a year ago, Che’gar had been willing to make peace with the fact that she would one day face the same whispers and sneers. Now she wondered why her mother put up with it all.

“I think she preferred it that way,” Grahstan said, answering her unspoken question. “You see, your mother grew unhappy with her life in the palace. For all that she tried to advise the king and queen about the plight of the common people, she often found her pleas ignored. She could have accepted the easy, rich life of nobility – King Mandis certainly tried to bribe her often enough. But your mother wanted to help people, improve their lives. If she couldn’t do that, she didn’t want anything else.

“It was around that time she met your father. He was a simple stonemason, sent to help build an expansion of the palace. I’m not sure how deep your parents love for each other was when she took her leave, but I suspect their romance was at least partly an opportunity she seized. The king practically begged her to stay, but she insisted she wanted to raise you in the same kind of village she grew up in, believing it was the only way to train you equal to her level of capability. I suspect the king was at the point of ordering her to stay when she made that argument, and only the idea of a second Nokane convinced him to let her leave.”

“I don’t understand,” Che’gar admitted, scrunching her face with the effort of tracing these long ago events. “If the king treasured her advice so much, why didn’t he listen to her?”

Grahstan pursed his lips, perhaps trying to think of the best words to answer the question to her satisfaction. At last, he tapped the yellowing pages of the old journal and said, “Perhaps you should read on.”

*   *   *

Year of our Lady Thirteen Hundred and Fourteen

I have lived among the Onst’arld for one entire season and I continue to be amazed by their level of intelligence. Growing up on the outskirts of civilization, I heard the stories just like any other child. Don’t go outside the walls after dark, our parents whispered urgently. That’s when they’ll snatch you and drag you away to their deep caverns or stinking swamps. Trolocks eat children – that’s what they said!

But those stories couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Not only do the Onst’arld – for that is what they call themselves (it means ‘the kin’) – have a complex civilization not unlike our own, but they have been collecting knowledge almost as long as we have. Their stores are vast and carefully stored. They have a written history, which they teach orally to the children of every clan. They have their own methods of medicine. Their own religion – not entirely unlike our traditions. They even celebrate many of the same holidays!

I am unsurprised to learn that the Onst’arld have tales of humans – humes, as they call us – that sound similar to the ones we tell about them. Except they do not describe us as monstrous creatures with stone-like skin and dripping fangs. They speak of us as devils who use foul trickery and dark magic to ensnare and mislead the honorable warriors sent to defend against them. They teach their young recruits to fortify and protect in much the same way we instruct the newly recruited village guard.

I am so fascinated by what I have learned during my stay here, I feel I could write an entire manuscript detailing the similarities between our civilizations. Given the gentle, curious nature of the Onst’arld, not to mention their capacity to learn, there seems no question we should work with them instead of continuing to face off against each other.

But how to convince the king? He still believes the Trolocks are barbarian brutes with no ability to think let alone learn. He see them only as the monsters described in the tales. Bringing one of the scholars back with me seems out of the question. Queen Zalia might be able to entertain the notion that I ‘trained’ or ‘domesticated’ one of the brutes, but Mandis will see only tricks and mockery. On this matter, I fear he cannot be moved.

And that presents a growing problem for me. I have been content to assist the guard in eradicating the threat posed by the Onst’arld because I believed that we were dealing with a mindless and violent species no different from wolves or coyotes. Now that I see the gravity of my mistake, I cannot simply ignore the results of my actions. Like so many of the missions I have performed for my monarchs, I cannot help wondering if there is some solution that will benefit both of our peoples.

And if there may be other species we have grossly misjudged.

— Nokane, Winter 41

*   *   *

Che’gar finished the last several entries in her mother’s journal and closed the book carefully, bearing the weight of the pages until the top cover had nearly reached its resting point. Her own experience with the Onst’arld provided the rest of the details Grahstan had been so hesitant to voice.

“I had no idea my mother visited one of the clans,” she murmured, not realizing she had spoken aloud until Liaf’srar set one of his massive hands against her elbow.

The clan alpha had been silent thus far, allowing Che’gar to learn the details of her family’s history on her own terms and at her own pace. She found sympathy in his eyes when she glanced up at him, and it made her heart ache.

“Uchan’toro say-” Liaf’srar pursed his lips, obviously frustrated with his tendency to switch between speech patterns, and started over. “Uchan’toro said Che’gar… Nunal’s mother visited often with the Otona clan.”

Which was why the Otona clan matriarch had first come bearing news about her dilemma. And why she had been so invested in Che’gar’s troubles since news of her predicament came to light. It certainly painted her initial test in new light. Perhaps the matriarch had even been displeased that Liaf’srar claimed her for Chesok before she had a chance to offer her a position among the Otona. She certainly would have fit better among a clan of scholars than a clan of warriors.

“My mother wanted to use her knowledge and skill to help everyone,” Che’gar said softly, pinning Grahstan with her gaze. “That was why she abandoned the king.”

The abbot bowed his head. “Mandis grew increasingly alarmed at your mother’s willingness to interact with other species. But it wasn’t until she started pressing him to change his policies that tension arose between them. Mandis respected your mother enough that he never ordered her to cease her studies. But as soon as they stopped being studies, her position became precarious.

“Ultimately, your mother decided that if she couldn’t benefit the other people she met – for she regarded all races equally – she didn’t want to risk being used against them. She fled with your father into a life of obscurity and hoped that would be the end of it. Those of us influenced by her research took similar steps to remove ourselves from court. Which is how I ended up here.”

Grahstan waved at the small library they occupied, lit by a series of lanterns set at regular intervals between bookshelves. “Your mother began her education here. She spoke of it so fondly, I decided to see it for myself. I have been content to spend my old age here, educating bright young pupils in hopes one might one day follow your mother’s footsteps.”

Che’gar took a last, long look around the library. She could imagine how exciting it must have been to study here, among the smell of aging parchment and leather. There must be great secrets lurking within the church above. Had Che’gar walked in the wake of her mother, she might have very much enjoyed uncovering them.

But it all seemed hollow if the lessons learned from those dusty old tomes was forced to go to waste.

“I’m afraid it isn’t over.”

“Pardon?” Grahstan blinked, surprised.

“My mother’s story,” Che’gar clarified. “King Mandis ordered his men to detain my mother. He’s putting together a campaign against the Onst’arld – the Trolocks – and he wants to make use of her incredible knowledge to succeed. Whether she likes it or not.”

Grahstan closed his eyes for several long moments, giving Che’gar the impression that he had been aware of some trouble, but hoped he could ignore it. There must be more details about her mother’s relationship with this man than she was yet aware of, but now didn’t seem like the time to probe further.

“I assume this is why you have brought this…” Grahstan hesitated, eyeing Liaf’srar uncertainly, “your, er… father to this particular meeting?”

Che’gar smiled patiently. “Liaf’srar adopted me into his clan. In Onst’arld society, that makes him something akin to my father, though there are more nuanced words for it in their language. He has come with me to make sure I don’t suffer my mother’s fate.”

The scholar seemed to accept this explanation. He relaxed slightly into his chair and nodded. “And what is her fate, child?”

“Humes have locked her in an iron tower,” Liaf’srar declared, ignoring his slip into the more familiar dialect. The statement was more like a growl and Grahstan winced.

“So the rumors are true,” he muttered.  “I wanted to believe Mandis would never stoop this low but… Well the signs have been there for some time, haven’t they?” He shook his head, his expression sad.

“I am more than happy to help Nokane’s daughter, especially if Nokane herself is in danger. But-” he faltered, casting a somewhat helpless look in Liaf’sar’s direction. “I am not sure what I can do.”

Liaf’srar smiled; it was a fearsome expression, terrifying for those unfamiliar with it. It made the scholar shrink into his chair but, to his credit, he managed not to cringe.

“We already have muscle to deal with guards,” the clan alpha declared.

“Yes,” Che’gar interrupted, before he could scare the abbot more than he already had. “But in order to reach a peaceful solution, we need humans willing to help us prove that the Trolocks aren’t what people think. Perhaps if a small group of us work together to accomplish something, people will have to listen the next time someone like my mother speaks.”

Grahstan relaxed, no small amount of relief washing across his face. Perhaps he had been afraid that Liaf’srar’s true intention was to crush him into paste to make an example of him, though Che’gar couldn’t fathom how that might help.

“You are so like your mother,” he murmured, a sad smile parting his lips. “As I said, I am more than happy to help. I do not think the outcome you desire will be easy. But I do believe it is a worthy cause.”

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