Freebie Mondays: Sacred Bonds

Freebie Mondays: Sacred Bonds

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.
. . .

Looking back on the events that carried her to the Chesok clan cave, Nunal was fairly certain the storm had started long before the first drops of rain fell.

If only she hadn’t floated through life until the day she and her mother departed for the forest. If only she had paid more attention to the men in their iron suits while they stockpiled weapons and built fortifications. If only she had asked more about the barbed iron spears, wicked wooden spikes and multicolored vials that seemed to gather every morning by the gates.

But weapons and protections had always been a part of life in the village. Some weeks more than others, and sometimes not for years at a time. But there always seemed to be danger lurking beyond the walls, threatening the sleepy little life the villagers loved. And after all, if there hadn’t been bad things out in the darkness and the plains, why would they have had walls in the first place?

It had never occurred to her that the dark things, the frightening things, might live on her side of the wall. Or that the weapons they built under the guise of protection might one day tear her quaint little life to shreds.

She did not remember how it started – and if the Otona clan matriarch was to be believed, that was the very heart of the problem. But she had run from the very same men who had smiled at her when she was small and promised never to let bad befall her or her mother. Recalling the way she stumbled through the mud, scraping her arms and ankles against the gruff bark of damp trees, those words seemed like so many silken sweet lies.

She wondered now if her family had ever had a single hume friend. And if they had, why it had been so easy to turn them against their fellows.

But try though she did, tossing and turning each night as memory touched the edges of her dreams, Nunal could not remember why she fled the village guards. She only remembered terror at the idea that she would glance over her shoulder and see the dim light of the moon glint off their polished armor. She had spent her entire flight straining to hear the clank of their armor over the pounding of the rain, or the soft hiss of their swords as they drew them free of sheaths. She was still certain she would never have heard one of the spears until it was mere inches from her flesh, and thanked whatever gods might be – Trolock or human – that not one had ever been thrown.

Can you see no reason for all this discord over your safety? the Otona matriarch had demanded in a moment of anger and weakness. And still, though she grabbled every night with the images in her dream, she could not.

For awhile, she remembered nothing but the fear. It haunted her keenest in the shape of giant men, their torsos thick as the wall gates, their limbs as long as trees. Their grasping fingers reached for her while their glowing red eyes sought her, and she wondered that such wretched creatures could hide behind such kind skins.

After all, she had always believed Trolocks looked like monsters with their rock-scale skin and their meaty limbs, not to mention the sharp teeth that often protruded from the mouths of the eldest warriors. This, she had been taught while she grew, was what terror looked like. It waited for darkness to fall, then grabbed women and children from their beds, dragging them kicking and screaming into the woods to become dinner.

But in the end, it was the Trolocks, those beasts of rock and muscle, who had granted her succor and safety while the soft blue-eyed and stringy brown haired guards had threatened her with blood and pain if she refused to do as they ask.

Maybe the girl will cooperate more easily, she remembered them saying, cruel laughter flowing from the throats of those that did not speak, if the mother refuses to do as she’s asked.

Her mother had not needed to tell her to run. Fear had been enough to drive her into the gathering gloom without care of what might wait there.

But she was certain now that trouble hadn’t begun with a threat, or with the gathering storm clouds, or even her mother’s task in the woods – though she could not, for the life of her, remember what that might be. To gather herbs seemed most likely and, yet, something about the idea struck her as wrong whenever she went back to it.

The trouble started in the village, when the guards started to glare at her, though she hadn’t broken any rules. She knew better than to approach the spears propped against the wall bases, or to approach the warriors while they were sharpening their swords. She knew better than to get under the feet of the merchant’s horses or in the way of their cart wheels. And she knew better than to ask questions the guards didn’t seem interested in answering, though they had been happy enough to talk about their poisons while they dipped spear tips into their vials.

For the most part, she had ignored the stares. Guards were always uptight when they prepared for raids, or to repel them, and she expected their foul moods would pass as soon as their unpleasant work was done.

But now that she thought back on it, the face her mother made when she asked why they were angry with her should have been enough to set her on guard.

After all, her mother had gone into the woods plenty of times without her, leaving her in the care of her father, or in the care of one of the neighbors if he was away. But that night she had insisted, had even dragged Nunal from her bed and forced her to dress while she complained about the cold and the darkness and gathering damp.

She was certain now that the Otona matriarch was right; something had happened during the rain storm, something that had forever transformed Nunal’s life away from all her expectations.

But try though she did, she still could not see it.

*   *   *

“Che’gar, quickly! You must come!”

The hiss stirred her from a troubled sleep and, for a moment, she wasn’t certain if she was still dreaming. It had been a long time since she rested. Dark circles and deep creases now inhabited the places beneath her eyes. No one commented on this, but she had seen both the healer and the Otona matriarch casting her grim looks, as if they intended to shove a sleeping draught down her throat at any moment.

During that moment she was only half Che’gar of Chesok. The other half of her was still Nunal, the girl before the storm, not the child of the rain but the child of confusion and of a world that clashed heavily with the one she lived in now.

Then a light hand grasped her shoulder and squeezed gently, dragging her across the precipice that lays between the sleeping world and that of the waking. She blinked, rubbed her aching eyes and sat up, her heart suddenly racing.

“Liaf’srar?” she breathed, for there could be no other reason the Otona matriarch stood over her bed in the middle of the night.

The older woman nodded curtly, and shooed the servants who had accompanied her from the room. “If you dress quickly, we can meet the warriors when they return to the cave.”

She did not say that they would be able to receive news of Liaf’srar’s success straight from his lips, but she did not need to. Che’gar rolled from her bed, forcing herself to abandon the warmth beneath her covers by spilling herself onto the cold stone floor. Then she shuffled to her small closet, drew the appropriate robe from the pile and changed. She didn’t worry about the gaze of the Otona matriarch. Women of the clans tended not to worry about modesty when they were alone and, besides, she could tell the woman had turned her back to afford her privacy.

She did not have time to fix her hair, but it hardly seemed to matter. Even the Otona matriarch was in a somewhat disheveled state as they made their way out into the hallways, lit by the dim light of the half-dead glow globes. The cavern folk never allowed their homes to plunge into total darkness – for darkness could be dangerous in a cave – but they did switch the globes so that night was dimmer, allowing the body to maintain its natural rhythms. These globes were only slightly more concentrated than moonlight, and brighter only because their source was closer and unobscured.

When they reached the main cavern, where warriors kept watch over the world outside, the globes were at full strength. They would be at full strength in the common rooms as well, so that those who kept night shift would have less trouble getting around, and to remind the clan folk that the common spaces were open to the family and to guests at any time of day. Hospitality was not optional among the clans. If one was Onst’arld, one was welcome, and that was that.

True to the matriarch’s promise, the warriors had only just reached the entrance cavern when they jogged down the stairs. This vast space served as a sort of greeting hall. It was a vast space and voices tended to echo within it, even when it was packed full of warriors shrugging off armor. It was tucked around several turnings, so the bright light of its interior would not spill into the darkness, leaving the Chesok clan cave to appear as nothing more than an uninviting hill at most hours.

Che’gar frantically scanned the crowed, searching for the clan’s alpha. She did not doubt his skill, nor his battle prowess, but she had seen him laid low by a hume spear once before. She did not want to find out that he had perished on the journey home from the bite of another. Yet, the warriors seemed to be in a jovial mood. Many even nodded a greeting to her and the Otona matriarch as they passed. And near the center of the knot, she found him at last.

A bright purple slash adorned the front of Liaf’srar’s left shoulder. A brighter crimson chip glistened on his right cheek. But he grinned when she reached him and even bent one of his knees so that he could bow his head in the traditional greeting.

“Liaf returns, as Che’gar can see.”

Words froze in Che’gar’s throat, so she threw herself at the large Trolock instead. Hugging was not unknown to the cave folk, but it wasn’t used the same way as it was between humans. Yet, Che’gar had spent so much of her life as Nunal greeting her father in this fashion that it was hard to break herself of the habit.

Though the clan alpha stared at her for one stunned moment, he never-the-less folded his tree-trunk arms around her and cradled  her close against him. Though he smelled of sweat and blood, he also smelled of spice and smoke, the smells she had come to associate with home. These reassured Che’gar better than anything else that she was not dreaming, that Liaf’srar had truly returned in one piece.”

“And your task?” the Otona matriarch demanded when the two of them parted, clearly impatient to hear news of the matter which had brought her to the Chesok cave in the first place.

Now Liaf’srar’s smile disappeared, though he did not shake his head. “That, Liaf cannot say here. Go to my quarters. I will join you within the hour.”

The Otona matriarch didn’t need to be told twice. She gently grasped Che’gar’s arm and led her back through the crowd, which had become loud and boisterous. Soon, the warriors would make their way to the bathing pools off the side of the common kitchen. Then they would return to the grand hall and feast, where they would no doubt still be when the sun rose and the rest of the clan roused. If their triumph was great enough, it might even be a day of celebration in honor of their deeds.

But Che’gar had no time to worry about that now. She sat at the small table in Liaf’srar’s main room, across from the Otona matriarch who tapped her claws restlessly on the table while they waited. Servants serving the night shift soon brought them tea and a plate of sweat bread. Che’gar poured tea for both of them, but let hers sit before touching it, forcing herself to nibble on one of the small loafs while she searched for words.

At last she said, “I have tried to remember, Matriarch. But… I cannot.”

The Otona matriarch ceased her tapping and fixed Che’gar with a shrewd look. “I appreciate your honesty, child, and your efforts. But do not worry about that now. Let us hear what Liaf has to say. Then we will know how to proceed.”

Che’gar bowed her head, but she couldn’t manage to be satisfied with this response. A few days ago, the woman had been so annoyed about the fact that Che’gar could not remember her past that she had nearly bitten her head off. She couldn’t simply dismiss her failures as nothing.

“Every time I try to trace my memories to that moment, my mind seems to flee,” she admitted softly, not looking at the matriarch, for fear she wouldn’t be able to finish. “My heart pounds. My chest tightens. I feel as if I have run again through the forest and simply cannot breathe any longer. Sweat covers my brow and my memory seems to skip, backward or forward, so long as it can escape.”

The Otona matriarch pressed her lips into a thin line. Che’gar thought she might receive a lecture about listening to her elders, but instead the older woman reached across the table and set a rough hand against her arm.

“I appreciate your candor, child. I can see you understand how serious a matter you are mixed up in. But there is nothing we can do right now. If it should become necessary,” she stressed the if, “there are ways that we might help you remember. But let us see what Liaf has to say. Let us hope such lengths will be unnecessary.”

This, Che’gar found a great deal easier to swallow. She went back to nibbling on her bread and sipped from her tea when it became cool enough. Her stomach was full long before she reached the end of the small loaf, but she continued to work her way through the cup of tea. By the time she finished that, Liaf’srar had arrived, his hair still glistening wet from his bath.

It was clear he hadn’t eaten because he was followed by a trio of servants who set plates in front of him, followed by a brimming mug of wine. He poured himself some tea, shooed them away and settled in for the telling of his tale.

Never had Che’gar seen the clan alpha allow food to rest in front of him without making it disappear rapidly down his gullet. But today he ate at a stately pace, pausing often to speak.

“Liaf located Che’gar’s mother,” he said softly, though the hint of regret in his tone made Che’gar’s stomach drop.

“But you did not recover her?” the Otona clan matriarch demanded, clearly displeased.

The clan alpha shook his head. “Humes take her to a large village some journey away. High walls the humes have there. More men.”

“To a city,” Che’gar murmured softly, though the word meant gathering place in the Onst’arld language.

“To a stronghold,” the Otona matriarch said instead, though again Che’gar thought the translation between hume words and Onst’arld concepts was not quite the same.

“Matter not what you call it,” Liaf’srar grunted. “Humes put Che’gar’s mother in high stone tower. Hard to reach. Not near walls and heavily guarded. Liaf not have enough warriors with him to complete the task, and not take useless risk either.”

Though Che’gar was disappointed to hear that her mother was still a prisoner, she was relieved to know she was still alive. And she was even more relieved to know that no one in the clan had taken undue risks on her account. Had Liaf’srar pressed the attack and lost his best, she would never have been able to forgive herself.

She was also keenly aware that, had Liaf’srar not stopped her, she would have run right into the middle of an obvious trap. And then there might not have been anyone to rescue her mother, let alone her.

“How you know Che’gar’s mother inside tower?” Che’gar asked into the sudden silence. “How you know she alive? Did you… Did you see her?”

Again, Liaf’srar shook his head. But he also paused, setting aside the remains of his dinner and wiping his meaty hands on a large cloth set beside one of the plates. “Liaf not see Che’gar’s mother. Wish it were so. But Liaf able to send message to Che’gar’s mother and Che’gar’s mother send answer.”

“How was this accomplished?” the Otona matriarch demanded – again – before Che’gar could offer a response. She seemed half-angry and half-hopeful, as if she weren’t sure whether to scream in outrage or cry for joy.

“With birds,” Liaf’srar replied, seeming quite pleased with himself. “Humes pay no attention to birds in their city-hold. Warriors use old Chesok trick to lure them into helping. Che’gar’s mother seem to know same trick.”

“And her message?” the Otona matriarch prompted. “What did it say?”

Liaf’srar shrugged. “No know. Liaf not read hume language.”

The matriarch rolled her eyes. “Then how do you know it came from the woman you were searching for.”

“Because Che’gar’s mother send second, smaller message written in words of Onst’arld. Message say: I am the mother of the one you call Che’gar, daughter of rain, born from the storm, Eledu of your heart as she is Eledok of my blood. Please carry this message with you.”

Che’gar gasped. Eledok was not a word the Chesok used often, though perhaps it was more common in other clans. Just as Eledu meant family, or bonded, Eledok represented an unbreakable bond. But it wasn’t necessarily a parental bond, and blood wasn’t necessarily required to invoke it. She still wasn’t entirely sure how to translate the word in hume terms, in part because she heard it so rarely. But she thought it had to do with a sacred bond, a bond between two souls.

The Chesok considered any kind of oath-bond to be unbreakable. Hence the declaration of Eledu – adoption into the clan or into a family unit – was considered binding to every member of the clan. But Eledok seemed to go even beyond that, as if the spirits themselves had named the bond. To break it, or dishonor it, would be akin to defying the Chesok religion and sullying both one’s soul and one’s honor. Unthinkable, as far as she knew.

But how did her mother know how to speak the Onst’arld language at all? Let alone to invoke one of their most sacred concepts?

While Che’gar’s heart was still pounding in her ears, the Otona matriarch extended her hand, palm upward. “May I see this message?”

Liaf’srar retrieved it from his pocket and handed it over without hesitation. Che’gar wondered if the message had actually been meant for her, but thought there had been more than enough in what the clan alpha had already conveyed to satisfy her both that her mother was still alive and that she still regarded Che’gar – or Nunal, whatever she decided to call herself – her daughter.

The Otona matriarch unrolled the small scroll on which the message had been scrolled and scanned it eagerly. Her eyes widened halfway through and her face fell at the end. She let the scroll snap closed and then crumpled it in one of her massive hands, shaking her head as she did so.

“This is worse than I feared. Worse than we ever could have imagined.”

Che’gar’s throat turned to sandpaper. She would have liked to take a sip of tea to renew it, but if she poured the hot liquid now, it would still be several minutes before she could drink it. Instead, she forced her voice to scratch its way out of her mouth.

“What does it say?”

Her eyes were wide. Liaf’srar must have noticed the fear swirling inside them because he reached beneath the table and set one large hand on her leg, though it was the Otona matriarch that answered her question.

“That what we feared will come to pass. That if we are not quick, and clever, the humes will soon make war, not just on Chesok, and not just on the other clans, but on all they consider to be inferior.”

Che’gar had only a small idea of the concept of war, but it was born from the nightmare images that drove her through the rain on the night she came to the Chesok clan cave. And that was enough to make her shiver.

Liaf’srar, however, was undaunted by this news, though his expression remained grim. “What Liaf has seen indicates this is so. We must call a meeting of the clans. We must unite before the humes strike.”

“Indeed,” the Otona clan matriarch replied, though her eyes fell now on Che’gar. “And I’m afraid we may just have to resort to measures better left unexplored.”

Che’gar wanted to shrink into her chair and disappear when the woman looked at her like that. But she did not. Instead she lifted her chin, squared her shoulders and straightened her back.

“Che’gar is willing to do whatever is required,” she pledged, hoping her tone indicated her sincerity. One way or another, she would find a way to be equal to whatever was asked of her. It was the least she could do for her adoptive family.

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