Freebie Mondays: Che’gar of Chesok

Freebie Mondays: Che’gar of Chesok

It’s been awhile since I wrapped up the Wandering Mountain Saga, so it’s time for a new series!

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.
. . .

Nunal swallowed a fresh wave of fluttering anxiety as she descended the dimly lit staircase. An empty mat waited for her near the center of the bright and crowded chamber, its dull grey fronds soft and inviting despite their obvious age. Yet she inched toward it slowly, perhaps hoping she would draw no notice if her movements remained minimal.

Her first instinct had been to avoid the visiting matriarch. She had spent most of the last three days hiding – no, cowering – in her private chamber, with the stone drawn against entry. Rather than solitude and peace, it had earned her a deep scratch in her throat from the acrid scrape of candle smoke and stray incense. Not to mention a disapproving frown from the clan alpha.

Chesok – the cave clan – had fully accepted her presence over the course of the last ten months. The dark looks and thinly veiled snorts leveled in her direction during the initial days following her adoption faded, until she forgot what it felt like to feel out of place. She tended her duties without complaint, filling most of the day hours with enough toil to avoid thinking too hard about her situation. In the evenings, she attended clan feasts, even lingering for the entertainment portion of the evening – usually filled with storytelling – often considered sacred among the Trolocks.

“If you will not come,” Laif’srar, the clan alpha pronounced when the healer had finished tending her that very morning, “we can only assume you are ashamed of us.” He had paused, his face turned toward the doorway to hide his expression, then demanded, “Are you ashamed of us, Che’gar?”

That was her name now. Nunal reminded herself as she lowered herself onto the waiting rug, her knees shaking so badly she thought she would fall the last few feet. Che’gar was the name they had given her during the adoption ceremony. Rain child. Or so Laif’srar said. Because she had come to them during a storm, as if she had been born from the mist and fog. She had given up trying to correct them after the first week. Nunal meant nothing in their tongue. Nonsense words, they told her, unfit for a full member of the clan.

Nunal – now Che’gar – folded her cloak around her as she settled on the mat, forcing herself to breathe three long, deep breaths before she glanced up. Her fingers still shook as she recalled the answer she had given the clan alpha. Her throat raw, her eyes burning with tears while she shook her head, she cried, “I am honored to be a child of Chesok. But I would not bring shame upon them with my presence.”

She lifted her eyes, tentatively, to find Laif’srar looking at her from across the table, his dark eyes bright beneath the glowmoss. She remembered how he softened when she spoke. How he turned to her, the barest hint of a smile taming the chiseled features of his face. The gentle press of his thick, muscular fingers against the top of her shoulder.

“It does not matter how you were born, Che’gar,” he told her gruffly – because gruff was the only quality such a brutally strong throat could produce. Yet she detected the warmth and tenderness beneath the scratch in his voice, and knew with certainty that it wasn’t imagined. “You are Chesok now. Kin of Sokalla. Bound by Eageu. And even if you were not, you are one of mine. Let that be enough.”

The words echoed in the vaults of her mind while Laif’srar held her gaze. You are a cave child. Kin of the stone goddess. Bound by the promise. A covenant, her mother might have called it. Once a clan alpha made a declaration, no Trolock dared break it, even if they belonged to another clan.

So the Otona matriarch must accept you. The silent reassurance spoke in Laif’srar’s voice, though no Trolock possessed the talent of projecting their thoughts.

Che’gar nodded to indicate she understood and another of those rough smiles split Liaf’srar’s lips before he turned to speak to the woman sitting beside him.

If the visiting matriarch noticed her arrival, she gave no indication of it. Her eyes were half-lidded, her attention on the table in front of her while Liaf’srar spoke. Occasionally, she nodded, perhaps to indicate she understood, though she offered no response.

Keeping one eye on the Otona matriarch, Che’gar reached carefully from beneath her cloak to pull a bread roll from the platter near her place. Most days, it was easy to forget where she had come from, and how little time she had actually spent in the massive and labyrinthine cave where the Chesok clan dwelt. But today, it was strikingly obvious how different she was from the other members of the gathering.

Trolocks tended to bear bright, near-pastel shades of skin, ranging from red to green to purple or blue. Che’gar’s skin was brown, like the color of earth after rain – another reason Liaf’srar had chosen that particular name for her. Likewise, her clan mates sported muted hair colors, most of their locks as near white as they could get, though many had a hint of their skin tone in their long, flowing locks. Che’gar’s hair was dark as midnight. And her eyes were like two hunks of amber.

But it wasn’t her lack of bright pigment that bothered her. There were earth-colored Trolocks, too. Even a few that were pale as the clouds in a stormy sky. What really set her apart was her size and shape. She was small, soft and fragile, while her fellows were tall, muscular and armored. Trolock skin was naturally tough. Rock-skin, her people called it, though she knew now it wasn’t actually that thick or impenetrable. Trolock teeth and claws were certainly long and sharp enough to penetrate their brethren’s hides.

Hume was the word they had for her, and they spoke it with almost as much disdain as her hume family had once spoken of the Trolocks. Brutes, her mother used to say. Wild creatures with no regard for civilized rules.

As Che’gar lifted the bread to her lips and took her first bite of crispy crust, she couldn’t help thinking how wrong her mother had been about everything. Just because Trolocks looked and sounded different didn’t mean they were bad. And it wasn’t that they had no regard for how humes did things. It was that they had their own ways. Old ways, carried with them from the depths of the ages.

Actually, Che’gar was fairly sure that it was the humans who were disrespectful of the Trolocks – or the Onst’arld, as they called themselves. The kin. Though what they were meant to be the kin of, Che’gar wasn’t entirely sure. The Trolock tongue was still strange to her. She could carry on a mundane conversation about weather, food and tasks – especially since many of her new clan were familiar with the common tongue. But she didn’t yet understand the nuance involved with mysticism and tradition. Liaf’srar was still teaching her the core tenants.

Rather than consider the sad and sorry circumstances that brought her to the lip of the Chesok cave, Che’gar focused on the taste of the warm bread she held cradled between both hands. It had obviously been fresh baked for the feast, flavored with herbs the kitchen master kept hanging in dried bundles near the stove. When first she came here, she hadn’t known how she would survive on such simple fare. Now she thought it was the best food she had ever tasted. There was a nuance to it, a layering of tastes and sensations, a care that humes didn’t seem to pay to anything they produced.

She knew when she bit into one of the meat skewers it would be the same. Even the sweet cakes passed around for desert would hold surprises, likely dependent upon which kind of fruit had been mixed into the batter.

Lost as she was in the flavors of her meal and the gentle buzz of conversation surrounding her, Che’gar nearly managed to forget her anxieties. Much of the clan had finished eating and begun to move around, catching up with personal friends before the evening’s entertainment began.

It was in this moment, as Che’gar savored the last bite of her sweet cake, that she turned to see Liaf’srar and the Otona matriarch looming over her. She had grown used to the rough nature of Liaf’srar’s face, not to mention his bulging shoulders and wicked claws. She recognized ease in the slight crinkle of skin beside his eyes and the sharp upturn at the edges of his lips. But the Otona matriarch looked as though she had just swallowed something disgusting. Her lips pursed so severely, they jutted from her face, causing several wrinkles to form across her chin. Her nostrils flared angrily as Che’gar made eye contact, and the hume quickly looked away.

Her first instinct was to look for some place she could escape. But with the two clan leaders standing in front of her, and the table at her back, she was trapped, cornered like an animal about to be skewered by a hunter’s spear.

“This is our Che’gar,” Liaf’srar declared, extending one clawed hand in Nunal’s direction.

Trying to hide the tremble in her limbs, Cheg’ar set her hand atop his and allowed him to draw her to her feet. He was so strong, he could have thrust her into the air with one arm and broken her in half with both when she fell. But there was gentle tenderness in the way he handled her, as if she were a newborn babe.

“This is the one I tell you about,” he went on, heedless of the nasty look the Otona matriarch shot in her direction.

“Scrawny,” the green-skinned woman snarled, jabbing one finger into Che’gar’s stomach. Luckily, she kept her claw pointed downward, making contact with bent knuckles so she didn’t cut Nunal’s abdomen open.

Still, she jumped, side-stepping the matriarch, pressing herself closer to Liaf’srar.

“What good will this hume do for you?” the matriarch went on, paying no attention to Che’gar’s reaction. “She will never be strong. Or wise. Why you keep her?”

“Che’gar is already wise,” Liaf’srar countered, lifting his chin with pride. “Che’gar knows the Healer’s way. Knows how to make potion and poultice. Already, Che’gar save the lives of several warriors. Including Liaf’srar.” There was a warning edge to this last statement. The Otona matriarch was protected under the clan Eageu. But if Liaf’srar thought one of his clan was being threatened, he would take action to correct it.

That was their way.

The matriarch clicked her tongue. “If Liaf say Che’gar hume is valuable, she must be. Otona would not have her, though.”

The clan alpha opened his mouth to retort, but Nunal jerked her hand free of his, careful of his claws. She was trembling badly now, barely able to contain it. She felt like a leaf in a wind storm, ready to tumble from her precarious branch. “Forgive me,” she managed, forcing the words past the large lump forming in the back of her throat. “Che’gar promised to help with the fires. Almost forgot.”

Liaf’srar held up his hand to stop her, but she spun before he could speak, fleeing back up the darkened stairs and back down the hallway to the seclusion of her room.

It was hard enough to be abandoned by her parents to creatures they regarded as foul beasts. Shocking enough when she thought about the lack of search or attempt at rescue from the villagers. Had it not been for the dire circumstances under which she came to this cave, had Lief’srar not laid close to death when the storm winds blew her here seeking shelter, the Trolocks might have slit her throat within an hour of her arrival.

She could accept the truth about her new family, accept that they were kind and gentle and wise even though they didn’t look like her, or sound like her or act like her. And it had felt good to be accepted among them. To feel like she had a place to belong after several hard years of feeling lost and adrift. Life in the village hadn’t been all her parents promised it would be, after all. And life in the cave was simple and straightforward, if nothing else.

But as much as she wanted to stay here, wanted to make herself a place here, she was an outsider. The members of Chesok might be willing to overlook it, but none of the rest of the Onst’arld would ever let her forget it.

If she couldn’t belong to Chesok, and if the village never really wanted her, where did that leave her? Where could she ever hope to go? What could she ever hope to do?

*   *   *

Nunal – now Che’gar of the Chesok clan – thought she had been crying for close to an hour when she heard the soft knock on the rock that made up her door. She sniffed, rubbing the snot from her nose before she rose and padded dutifully to the entry. If it was Laif’srar, she dared not keep him waiting. A clan member always answered the summons of their alpha. It was the first lesson she had been taught.

But it wasn’t Liaf’srar waiting in the hallway outside. When Che’gar managed to finished rolling the heavy stone blockade into its niche, its absence revealed the Otona matriarch.

Unlike the last time Che’gar had seen her, when her face had been pinched and severe, she looked surprisingly soft in the glowmoss illuminating the hall. Her face was relaxed, her lips forming a neutral line, and her eyes were bright. If Che’gar didn’t know any better, she might have believed she caught a hint of sorrow in them. But it must have been a trick of the light.

“May I come in, child?” the matriarch asked. It wasn’t a demand, but it still startled Che’gar.

Quickly, she stepped aside and bowed her head low. “It would be an honor, Matriarch. To what honor does Che’gar owe such a visit?”

“You speak our language well.” The matriarch sniffed, though Che’gar couldn’t tell if it was meant as approval or disapproval, even if she sounded impressed. “Most humes aren’t fond of our speaking style. It strikes their ears as wrong.”

Che’gar stiffened when the woman referred to humes. There was such acid in her tone whenever she spoke the word. She wished she dared ask the woman not to call her that, but she was of too low a rank to question a matriarch.

“No matter,” the woman said after a moment, flicking her wrist to dismiss the topic and sweeping deeper into the room. “Come, child. I must speak with you. We daren’t close the door, so we shall have to be careful.”

Che’gar eyed the matriarch suspiciously, half tempted to run into the hall instead of following her deeper into the room. But there was nothing in the woman’s posture that indicated threat. And if she were to harm a member of Liaf’srar’s clan, she would never escape the cave alive. Besides, Che’gar was as bound to follow the matriarch’s orders as she was to follow her own alpha. It was the way.

She slunk away from the doorway and toward the bed, where the matriarch perched.

“Come now, none of this foolishness,” her visitor chided. “Though I suppose I must first beg forgiveness for my behavior.”

“Forgiveness?” Che’gar repeated, the word feeling alien to her tongue.

“For the way I spoke,” the matriarch agreed. “I didn’t mean it. But I needed to  speak with you alone and I could think of no other way to drive you from the gathering. Liaf is terribly protective of you. I shouldn’t expect less if you saved his life, but I have never seen him bond so quickly with anyone else.”

With a start, Che’gar – once called Nunal before a storm blew her to the lip of the Chesok clan’s cave – realized that the matriarch didn’t talk like the other Trolocks. She sounded almost human.

“Why are you here?” Che’gar rasped, half-terrified of the matriarch’s answer.

Understanding flickered in the matriarch’s eyes and she laid one hand on Che’gar’s knee, careful not to catch her with her claws. “I know this cannot be easy for you, child. You have come to a strange place, quite different from the world you grew up in. And spirits know, I have not made it any easier.” The matriarch sighed, shook her head and cast Che’gar a shrewd look.

“I have news of your mother. You must listen and listen well. Bad things happened the night the storm blew you here. Terrible things. Some you are not yet ready to hear. Some – spirits bless – I hope you never hear. But to be alone, to feel abandoned, when there is yet one in the world that wants you… That is not something I can leave unspoken.”

The matriarch took both o f Che’gar’s hands in hers, cradling them with the same tender care Liaf’srar had used to lift her from her mat.

“Why your father did not try to come for you, I cannot say. But I can speak to your mother. She tried to find you, so it seems. Her desperation must have been great. But there were those who would not let her work her will. They took her to a dark place, an evil place. And there they hold her still.”

Nunal’s breath caught in her throat. She leapt to her feet, both hands pressed over her lips. For a moment, she forgot the name Liaf’srar and his kin had given to her. She forgot the way of the clans and the lessons they had taught her about the workings of the world.

For a moment, she could think only of an earthen face and emerald eyes. The way her mother smiled whenever she was proud of her daughter’s achievements. And the terror that flashed in her eyes when the rain first began to fall.

Fresh tears stung Nunal’s eyes and she drew several deep, ragged breaths, trying to hold them at bay.

“When darkness falls,” she whispered to herself, unaware she spoke the words out loud, “I must be ready to run.” It was the only time she would be allowed to escape the clan’s watchful guards. During the shift change. When the day guards marched down to their rest but the night guards had yet to take up their positions. She must be within cover by the time they reached those posts, for Trolock eyes were far better than those of humans, especially in darkness.

“You seek to leave us?” The words were a harsh growl, accompanied by sharp pressure against her right shoulder.

With a soft squeal, Nunal turned. She took one look at the snarl on Liaf’srar’s face and cringed, stumbling backward until she tripped over the bed and fell in a heap. There, she curled into a ball, hiding her head in her hands, unable to master the fear that tore through her limbs.

Several seconds passed before she realized that nothing had happened. There was no more pressure on her shoulder. The clan’s alpha had not spoken again, though she could hear his soft, steady breath hovering somewhere behind her.

Once again Che’gar of the Cheosk, she uncurled from her ball.

What she expected to find, she couldn’t say. She only knew the scene that awaited her did not match her expectations. Liaf’srar did not loom over her. He didn’t growl or pace. Instead he knelt beside her, one hand extended, as if he wished to comfort her but didn’t dare. There was no sign of anger on his face. Instead his eyes were wide with concern, and perhaps a hint of fear.

Che’gar blinked, uncertain how to process this. Liaf’srar was the most fierce warrior she had ever encountered. Why did he look as though someone had just thrown a spear at his chest?

“Forgiveness, Che’gar,” he said, breathless. “Liaf forget Che’gar is soft. Not mean to hurt. Does Che’gar need Healer?”

From the sound of it, he would have gone on like that for some time if Che’gar hadn’t interrupted by pushing herself up and shaking her head.

“I-” She stopped, swallowed and tried again. “Che’gar is not hurt, Liaf’srar. Just…” She licked her lips which had suddenly gone dry. “Scared,” she admitted.

She might have stabbed him in the leg. The alpha’s face twisted with concern and regret and he lowered his hand. “Liaf not mean to scare Che’gar,” he insisted, setting his horned head in one of his clawed hands. Then he shook it, like a child trying to forget about a monster. “Stupid, Liaf. Forget Che’gar’s body is not strong like his.” He lifted his head and cast her an imploring look.

“But Che’gar is strong of heart,” he declared, thumping a fist against his own chest so hard the sound echoed through the small room. “Like Onst’arld. Make Liaf forget Che’gar have no teeth and claws.”

“Che’gar is not angry,” she managed at last, worried the apology would go on for some time if she didn’t speak. “Che’gar is worried Liaf’srar is angry with her.”

She noticed the way he had been leaving the honorific off the end of his name, the way the matriarch had when the two of them spoke. It indicated a kind of familiarity she wasn’t sure she deserved to share with the clan alpha. Not when she had been here for less than a year, and hadn’t been born of their blood.

But Liaf’srar seemed relieved by her statement. He drew a deep breath and tension seemed to leak from his shoulders. He reached down gently to pull her onto the bed, then sat beside her. The Otona matriarch shuffled aside, granting them space.

“Liaf is not angry. Liaf is concerned.” The clan alpha kept one hand on her shoulder when he spoke, but his grip was gentle this time. “Che’gar say she will leave. Does Che’gar forget how dangerous it is outside Chesok? Che’gar is not warrior. She cannot defend herself from bad men. If Che’gar leave, Che’gar get hurt. Liaf not want Che’gar to get hurt. Liaf protect Che’gar. That is the way of Eageu.”

It took several long seconds before Che’gar could find her voice. She reached up to brush a stray tear forming at the corner of her eye, and couldn’t resist the urge to sniffle. “Che’gar not want to leave,” she admitted. “Che’gar have no choice.”

“Always a choice!” Liaf’srar rumbled. This time Che’gar realized that what she had taken as anger was simply an intensity of emotion, probably common to full-grown Trolock men, but outside of her experience until now. “Che’gar is Chesok now. Che’gar is Onst’arld. Che’gar is one of Liaf’srar’s Eledu.”

Che’gar’s breath caught in her throat. Eledu was not a word she had heard since the night of her initiation, though she knew what it meant. There was no direct human translation, but the closest she could think of was family. Liaf’srar was trying to tell her that she was one of his bonded. Not as a servant or prisoner, but as an equal to every one of the other residents of his cave, one he regarded with both love and respect.

Had there ever been such an exchange between a hume and a Trolock before, she wondered? Surely there couldn’t have been.

But then Liaf’srar had certainly meant it when he said he adopted her into his clan. His words tonight proved that.

The clan alpha sat up straight. He looked down at her a little sternly, but his hand on her shoulder was still gentle. “If Che’gar has a need, she tell Liaf,” he insisted. “Liaf take care of it. That is the way of Eageu.”

“But I-” Che’gar bit her tongue against the words am not one of you. Liaf’srar clearly regarded her as one of his, and it would be insulting to make him repeat himself. Again, she drew a deep breath.

“It’s my mother,” she admitted, unable to hold back the tears that threatened to overwhelm her. “My real mother.”

When Liaf’srar saw the moisture on her cheeks, he slid his arm across her shoulders and pressed her against his chest. The soft sound that he made was almost a hiss, but she could tell it was meant to comfort her.

“Che’gar’s mother has been taken.” The Otona matriarch declared, and then said a word that Che’gar had never heard before. A word that made her clan alpha growl deep in his chest.

“We go to Liaf’s chamber,” he declared, though he didn’t yet stand, cradling Che’gar a little longer in his embrace. “Liaf call for tea and food. We eat. We drink. And you tell Liaf how to help Che’gar’s mother.” His eyes must have been on the matriarch when he said it.

Che’gar glanced up, saw the Otona matriarch nod. Then the Chesok clan alpha’s face filled her vision.

“Liaf take care of Che’gar. Come now. Liaf make certain Che’gar need cry no more.”

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