Author’s note: Following is the first part of a new story that I started as an experiment and began to enjoy writing so much that I simply forgot to stop. During the most recent unpleasant episode of my life, the same conundrum as in others came to mind. How do we look to those looking at us?
All one needs to bear in mind is that this story is set around the same time as A Dream Linula Had (I really should think up a better title for that one). Probably during one of the holiday breaks in her first year of tertiary schooling.
I was one of the luckier ones in that raid upon the Elves’ city, the one they call Nagëlheim. Years ago now, such a long time it seems to me, one of the Priests from our government, a prissy, crusty-looking little man who looked as if he had never thrown a punch in his life, came to the barracks. Every squad in the army of Chrétienté has a barracks in which it trains, hears the good word from a Priest, and receives orders from the people who give the Priests orders. That was what I was doing before one of the “other” Priests put down some totems, opened a gateway, and ordered ten squads including mine to go through.
When the Captains of our squads ordered us to fire upon what looked like unarmed civilians, I felt the ground fall out from under my feet. Most of the soldiers I was with did not think twice. They complied with their orders, firing shots at civilians in quick, rapid succession.
People always ask soldiers about specific turning points in the mission. How did you know this easy raid upon a mob of unarmed civilians would turn into the slaughter of your squad? (When random members of this group of unarmed civilians began to throw huge bolts of energy at us.) When did your battalion lose the ability to fight effectively? (There are several candidates. The moment when a creature about fourteen feet tall began throwing our own heavy support equipment at us, perhaps. Maybe it was when one of the enemy took the guide we were supposed to be following, expanded to be about a hundred feet high, and squashed them in one hand. For some of us, I do not doubt it was when the bullets that we fired bounced off the shorter, hairier men like they (the bullets, that is) were made of rubber.)
The point at which the mission was a scrub for me was when certain realisations came to me. Before the mission, we were told there were several groups of buildings around this city full of what they called Death-Flingers. But when I realised I was standing outside one such building, and saw several of the Elvish soldiers herding children away, that was when I was quits with Chrétienté’s army. I did not know it yet, but when I asked an interrogator, they told me I was correct when I surmised that the building was a school.
I am not sure why the Mage-General they call Kronisk was keen to talk to me. Maybe it was because when one of my squad-mates ran after a group of these fleeing children, firing shots at them, I shot this squad-mate in the head. As I told this Mage-General, firing upon adults, especially ones that are armed, is quite a different matter from firing upon children. Yes, it became apparent to me after a couple of later events that any of these children could have thrown some form of energy at me and turned me into an interesting smear on the school grounds. But they did not. I had fought enough people prior to this mission to know when a potential target would make me regret leaving them be. It is the targets I know I will regret terminating that always make me think twice. And children, regardless of what they might do, always top that list.
That, I know, is why I have been allowed to live out my days as a guest, to use Kronisk‘s word, of the city called Nagëlheim. Nagëlheim. It is a bewildering city, more forest than pavement. But it is not nearly as bewildering as its inhabitants.
Elves. For years, we had been told stories in school concerning the land that the schoolmasters called “terre sombre”, the dark land. We had been told things about how the people were tiny, lived in ramshackle huts, and sacrificed little animals to profane gods of their own design. Whilst there were relatively small folk in Nagëlheim, they were just one of a variety of peoples who regularly appeared in the city. And through the libraries, or just talking to the people themselves, I managed to learn quite a lot about each of the peoples.
But Nagëlheim, for its part, is ruled and dominated by Elves. Members of other races, especially Halflings, come to the city for educational or work purposes, but in a walk down a quiet street, one may well meet a hundred Elves before catching sight of a Halfling, Human, or Dwarf. And the most powerful Elf in Nagëlheim, even possibly all of the Elvish realms, is its Queen, an amazing woman who calls herself Falathien.
I first met Falathien after I was allowed out of the prison and to partake in some of the things that Nagëlheim as a city had to offer. Oh, I was still technically a prisoner. I had spent roughly nine months after that initial attack upon Nagëlheim sitting in a cell, or at a desk in an otherwise empty room, answering questions from various folk. Then one day, without warning, the Mage-General Kronisk sat in front of me at the desk and told me that since I was being such a good boy and cooperating with my captors, I would be allowed to go around Nagëlheim’s inner city under supervision.
Not that I would have anywhere to go if I fled, but I would not have been inclined to try. I learned the hard way during the raid that there is not a Human alive, not even one from these Allied Realms, that could run faster than an Elf can put an arrow through their heel. And at first, I wanted to bide my time in order to find a way to escape. Then the Elf woman guarding me, a blood-haired, demonic-looking woman who introduced herself as Himalataiel, suggested I come and see a picture show with her. After a frank discussion of whether such invitations were compulsory when they came from her, and a declaration that the only compulsion being imposed on me was to remain in the city, I accepted.
Picture shows are, in the technical sense, much the same in the Allied Realms as is the case in Chrétienté. The difference is in the details. Picture shows in Chrétienté are for one purpose only, I realised after viewing the first of what would be many in Nagëlheim. That purpose being propaganda. A typical picture show in Chrétienté will show some heroic, beautiful, amazing Overlander fighting hordes of barbaric, uncivilised denizens of the Allied Realms. Or anywhere that Chrétienté perceives as not properly sucuumbing to its worldview. Always, it is explained to the audience that it is to uphold the ideals of Chrétienté as a civilisation and an order. The manner in which this is explained differs from show to show, but the message and its supplements are always the same.
Picture shows in the Allied Realms are typically more technically proficient and elaborate. They also deal entirely in fiction, using metaphors rather than flat-out messages in order to reinforce the different realms’ ideas about how a society should function. The first picture show of the evening was about groups of people on another world with powerful special abilities fighting one another, and the people of that world who were not quite so… special. The moment I remember most from this show is seeing a spiky-haired man with a shark-like smile activate an explosive device, hold it inches from his person, and suck up the explosion as if it were a big ball of dust. But towards the end of the show, as one of the characters told another that he had been at the mercy of men who were just following orders, and never again, I could hear the man they call Kronisk speak the words in perfect sync with the picture show. Himalataiel told me two things. One, that Kronisk watches this picture show religiously. Two, at this point in it, he always recites along with that speech.
The second picture show was a good deal more light-hearted. Consisting entirely of animated drawings, it featured ridiculous caricatures of Humans, and a dog, flying ridiculous caricatures of aircraft around and trying to stop a messenger bird from completion of its mission. Aircraft, or flying machines as the people of the Allied Realms call them, are something that the military of Chrétienté have been experimenting with for years. Whilst vertical take-offs have been achieved, the necessary mechanics to achieve forward movement continue to elude them. The idiots trying to prevent the bird from achieving its goal, however, needed to invent a weapon they could make use of without destroying their own aircraft.
After the shows’ ultimate conclusion, as audiences gathered in the lobby before departing for other places, Himalataiel introduced me to Queen Falathien. Meeting Queen Falathien is quite an experience in itself. At six foot three, I am considerably taller than this individual called Kronisk, but he frightens me senseless because he seems to be able to sense, simply by looking at me, what I fear the most. Falathien is somewhat like that, but in the opposite manner. She is tall enough that she can tap my nose with hers if she stands at my toes, as all Elves are, but she is so light and wispy that one wonders how she can partake in a physical fight, leave alone finish one. The common language aside, I was unable to speak any of the languages of the Allied Realms at that time, so for all that I know, Falathien told Himalataiel how sad and ugly I looked. But after Himalataiel left us, I took Falathien‘s word for it that she was saying she would take me home as a guest.
My rank in the army of Chrétienté was nowhere near sufficient to be admitted to a ruler’s palace for any reason, especially not a social one. But I have heard many stories concerning the opulence, excess, and sheer poor taste of Chrétienté’s palaces. Falathien‘s palace is somewhat like that, without the excess or poor taste. It has decorations of a strictly ornamental nature, for certain, but I believe her when she assured me that most of them could be made to serve a purpose.
I am not like other Overlanders. I do not like to tell stories of a nature that is personal or best kept between small groups, such as the people who were there. But where Chrétienté teaches its women to be inhibited to the point of making them emotionally, or in same cases physically, ill, inhibition is the last word I would associate with Queen Falathien. At first, the conversation was fairly ordinary. Some of the questions from the Queen’s mouth were ones I had already answered at least twice whilst I was in the actual prison. My name, or at least the one I prefer she call me. My approximate age, the answer to which (twenty-nine full years) produced a wry expression of amusement. (I since learned that Falathien was, at somewhere on either side of ten thousand full years, one of the eldest living things in this world.) Finally, if there was anyone special I longed to return to in Chrétienté.
This last question produced a lot of confusion and stammering from me. I did not understand her full meaning, but the air around her gave me a sense that she had a specific meaning. So I told her the truth. The only person I really wanted to go back to was a sister, a younger sister who I had not seen for months at the time. I did not mean to break down at that point, but I felt overwhelmed. Struggling to control my feelings, I told Queen Falathien the one-sentence story. My younger sister, Rothabas, was alone and vulnerable in a land that had less respect for her than it did for cattle.
Falathien‘s response was to prompt me, so I elaborated. Every so often, girls above a certain age (or in some cases, under) go missing in Chrétienté. Sometimes they come back alive, upset, battered, bruised, and shying away from the touch of their brothers. Sometimes, they come back dead. Sometimes, they are never seen again. As I told all of this to Falathien, I knelt on her floor and shivered all over, trying to hold in the feelings I had.
Falathien‘s whispered in my ear. I felt some sort of odd surge inside my skull, as if an invisible finger was stroking part of my brain. As she told me to wait for a second, she went to the doors of the room we were in, opened them, and called to a guard I had not previously noticed. The guard left, and Falathien sat beside me for several minutes whilst telling me that what she could see of my sister from my mind was beautiful, amongst other things. Then, unceremoniously, the doors opened, and in walked Kronisk with a Halfling woman I had previously not seen.
In nature, I heard Kronisk tell students, everything has an opposite. Elves have the Dwarrow, and Humans have the Halflings. The Halfling who approached Falathien and I, Kronisk addressed as Linula. As Linula held my hand, and Falathien‘s, images appeared before her face, images of Rothabas. The images were very precise and detailed, leaving me struggling to keep my distress to myself.
“Linula, I want you to find as many sight Aves as you can,” Kronisk said to Linula. “Find a transport Ave, too. Ask them to bring you to a place where you can find and extract this woman. I have a feeling we might want to talk to her.”
I could not keep silent. “You sound as if you expect to find her just fishing, unaware she has been thought missing for months.”
“Not quite,” Kronisk said without so much as a hint of feeling. “But I know when I am looking for something that has died. Leave this with me and my agents.”
Then, as abruptly as they came, Kronisk and his Halfling agent, as he called her, were gone. Falathien, patting my arms, asked me quietly if I felt any better right now. She responded to my subsequent query by telling me that whilst Chrétienté was unknown, hostile territory, Kronisk and his people generally loved fact-finding missions. Hence, Rothabas was as good as found and safely within one of the Allied Realms. It was merely a matter of time.
I did not really plan to kiss Queen Falathien at that point, but it was an impulse action akin to letting out a sigh when your baby sister narrowly avoids getting hit with an arrow that you have been practise-firing. Not that Falathien seemed to mind. In fact, she kissed me back, and the sensation, I cannot begin to tell you. When I was younger, I managed to break a leg in two places whilst trying to complete a training exercise. In order to set the bone back into a shape I could stand on, surgeons had to open my leg up and physically push the pieces of bone back into place. In the aftermath, morphine was used a number of times. If one can imagine a certain sample of the high, ecstatic sensation that morphine brings, but without the loss of physical awareness that usually accompanies it, that is the additional feeling one gets whilst kissing an Elf. And that is just kissing an Elf, mind you.
The rest of that eve is something I will leave you to wonder about. It is not germane to the story.
At the small house that I have been allowed to stay in whilst people come and answer questions, I sat with Himalataiel whilst Kronisk showed me a collection of still images. Most of these images shown to me showed Rothabas from a distance. She was alive and, after a fashion, well. They teach survival skills in the army of Chrétienté. They have to, because a soldier without basic survival skills is never going to be very good at his job. But almost the entire female population of Chrétienté is kept out of its armed forces, on some occasions even told point blank that their place is at home keeping the place liveable for the boys in the armed forces. Rothabas, born nearly eight years after me, is now old enough to have heard this at least once.
But survival in extreme circumstances is as much a matter of being stubborn as a matter of knowledge. People joke that such would be an old Dwarvish saying, except that the Dwarrow refuse to admit that they are any more stubborn than the other peoples. In fact, so far as they are concerned, the other peoples are just not stubborn enough. I think my sister could even impress a Dwarf.
“She has been at one of our hospitals since about zero five hundred hours,” Kronisk told me flatly. “Linula found her sitting outside of a small wooden cabin maybe a hundred metres from the coast. How she got to our shores from there is classified, but once the Healers say she is well enough, you can go and see her.”
“Healers,” I said slowly, wondering at the exact meaning of this word. Kronisk was the kind of person who could count to ten and leave a person wondering at the exact meaning of his words. “She has been harmed?”
“Not recently,” Kronisk said, making me nearly leap out of my seat. “She is borderline malnourished, and suffering from the effects of exposure.”
“There is something you are not telling me,” I said to Kronisk. I did not desire to make him believe I was going to be confrontational with him. But this is my baby sister we are talking about here.
“When Agent Linula landed with her at the city’s air terminal, she asked in her own language to be taken to a Healer immediately,” Kronisk continued. “At least, that was how the linguistic bridging powers Linula used interpreted her words. Linula was going to take her to the military district hospital anyway, but she told Linula that she had been… assaulted.”
I knew at once what the Mage-General was getting at. Sexual assault might be a rare, nearly unheard of thing in the Allied Realms, but it was very common in Chrétienté. Too common, and given that nobody in Chrétienté kept statistics about it, I could not say how common. But what I knew at that point was that I wanted to go and see her. Immediately. And I told this Kronisk as much.
Kronisk responded by turning to Himalataiel and saying something to her that I will never understand, more than likely. But judging from the manner in which the Elf left the room, I am guessing it had something to do with the collection and relaying of information.
“We probably have at least half an hour before the message gets through,” said Kronisk. “But when Himalataiel returns, you should be able to go and see her. Thus far, she has only spoken to Linula, and through Linula a few healers.”
The rest of the conversation flowed along more standard, normal lines for the conversations I had in this place. Falathien was mentioned once, more as a sort of curious inquiry concerning whether the Queen still had that ghastly statue of him (that is, Kronisk) in one part of her palace. I responded by stating that the only statue I saw was about eight feet tall, and depicted a Human-like shape that somewhat resembled a Human who was still alive in spite of having been in decay for thousands of years. This prompted Kronisk to chuckle and affirm that yes, the statue was still there.
We were talking about the pistols the army of Chrétienté had been circulating to its soldiers when Himalataiel returned to the house. The Healers treating Rothabas, she told us, had given the okay for me to visit her for a short time. Ten minutes at most. That set off alarm bells for me. Ether Rothabas was very ill, or the Healers were doing something to her that they did not want me to see.
Hospitals in the Allied Realms, it seemed, only differed from those in Chrétienté by being more sterile and better-organised in layout. The Healers had put Rothabas in a room by herself. I could only guess at what she had been eating during her time in the wilderness, but it was clearly not enough, in quantity, quality, or variety.
In the Halfling speech, Linula told Rothabas she would wait outside whilst we spoke. Surprise hit me like a train when Rothabas responded in the same language that she did not want Linula to be too far away. But as Linula waited in the hall just outside of the door, Rothabas and I spoke in the language of Chrétienté. Since coming to this land, I had heard at least four different languages, not counting the common speech that Kronisk‘s agents had taught me in order to better facilitate communication. The Halfling language is a bold, beautiful, and at the same time very aggressive-sounding one. Or perhaps it just seems that way because the one person I have heard using it for more than a few words, Linula, can be described in similar terms. But Chrétienté’s language, by comparison, sounds awful. I have heard Mage-General Kronisk say to his people that he prefers Dwarvish because one could describe ticking a really fluffy rabbit with a feather in the language, and it will sound from a purely cosmetic point of view like a declaration of intent to rip the subject’s head off. The exact opposite is true of Chrétienté’s language. A declaration of the most hostile intent sounds so mincing and passive that it is no surprise to me that Dwarrow laugh every time they hear me speak in it.
Rothabas, or Roth as she insisted I call her for now, told me how she had spent the time since I was called away to perform this ridiculous raid upon Nagëlheim. For the first nine months after I was declared to be missing in action, things were acceptable for Roth. Since she was old enough to start taking the shape that adult males so desire, I had watched her as closely as I could, keeping the majority of potential “suitors” away from her. The rest, I would tell flat out. Roth has a big brother who is training, or has been trained, for overseas missions. So unless she says an enthusiastic yes, assuming the answer is no, respecting that, and breathing tend to go together.
Other… males, I will say, for men does not really fit, would give me all kinds of shit about this. Telling me I wanted Roth for myself, or the kind. Whilst she is a very beautiful woman, her being my sister (and resembling a younger version of our mother in the bargain) made her firmly off-limits to me. And to be truthful, being called out to perform a mission in which the most likely outcomes were death or disappearance brought one thought to mind. Who is going to take care of Roth whilst I am gone?
My mistake was in assuming that the same soldier who kept me from failing in fatal ways during one stage of my training would honour my request that he keep my sister safe. It is not that he had no sense of honour. He had plenty of honour when it came to working with his fellow soldiers. Soldiers of whom this cannot be said often get listed as missing in action, but what really happens is they get killed by squad mates. But what years of keeping my eye out for Roth, and working with soldiers, blinded me to was that soldiers, excuse me, Overlander soldiers, might have a sense of honour but it sure as hell does not extend to sisters.
(When I explained this part to Mage-General Kronisk, he had a group of Dwarrow with him. This statement, that soldiers in the Chrétienté army do not consider it a matter of honour to protect one another’s sisters, had all of them in an uproar that Kronisk had to yell at them in their own language to make stop.)
So I might have abandoned the mission when I realised that my commanding officer expected me to fire upon children, or adolescents. But I was not fully “off the range”, as Kronisk euphimised, until Roth told me that the soldier I entrusted to keep the circling dogs away from her had instead beat her and used her like a toy for several days. And in response to that, she did what she thought would be the right thing. She went to our ageing parents, and told them what had happened, punctuating it with a request to help her involve the part of Chrétienté’s armed forces that acted as a domestic police force.
Father’s reaction was indifferent. He had been in the army at both Roth‘s and my age, so it was possible, even probable, that he thought it was perfectly okay to trap a woman in her home and take turns between holding her down and violating her. But what convinced Roth there was no place for her in a place like Chrétienté was our mother’s reaction. That if she had been more permissive in the past, and I had not enforced this impermssiveness myself, it would not have happened.
The trouble for Roth, as she explained to me, was the same question I had when I was around her age and contemplated escaping Chrétienté. Escape to what? We had no idea that there was anything else. It was not until I had been held in the Allied Realms for long enough to start to understand its peoples and their cultures that I knew there was anything else. So, in a vain and lengthening search for an answer, Roth made herself a crude campsite on the coast, and waited.
Oh, she did not just wait. As Linula would later tell me, Roth had also spent much of the three months between then and now practicing her woodcutting and woodworking skills. The problem was that it could have taken months, even years, for her to construct a raft seaworthy to sail this far. And that was making the bold assumption of calm seas, minimal drift, and Roth being strong enough to row that far.
The first thing I told Roth, when she finished her story with a brief recount of how Linula‘s smaller birds spotted her before Linula took her here on the back of an extremely large one, was how sorry I am. Sorry that I trusted her life and wellbeing with the wrong person, sorry that I had left her, sorry that I had not fled the mission right away and come to find her. All of it was to no avail. None of what I was sorry for could be changed, and if I had to repeat these decisions under the same information as when I had made them, I would have made them exactly the same.
That was when Linula peered around the door and told me, in the common speech, that she had just received a message from Kronisk. He wanted me to meet him and a small group of Dwarrow in a briefing room. After telling Roth I would come back to see her, I went with Linula to what looked like a small auditorium. There, with Kronisk, were twenty-four Dwarrow.
Most of the Dwarrow sat at the back of the room, watching the screen on one wall, and Kronisk. As I have pointed out before, Kronisk tells the students he lectures from time to time, among other things, that everything has an opposite. Elves have the Dwarrow. Whilst sometimes one has to really look at Elvish men to tell them from Elf women, no such androgyny exists with Dwarrow, men or women. Of the Dwarrow I saw at the back of the room whilst telling a modified version of Roth‘s story, I counted two women by their soft, slightly plump faces and their generously curved bodies. The rest were built like military storage containers, had more hair coming out of their jaws than their heads, and had harsh eyes that could cut through stone.
I left out all of the parts of Roth‘s story concerning why she had fled to the coast that the Aves had made a map of. That map, with highlights to show where Roth had been found, was being shown behind me as I explained that she had been lifted from there by what Kronisk called a great Eagle. These Dwarrow were going to go back there, by less natural means, and do a survey of the site. They were to recover anything that might have been left at the site, and bring it back.
When these Dwarrow asked what kind of opposition they could expect, there were two answers. The most likely event was that the site was still abandoned, and there would not be anyone around for at least half a mile. The worst case scenario was that Overlanders were patrolling the area, in which case the mission was to be aborted. In either case, since an extra flying machine was being prepped to carry its own gross weight, the Dwarrow were to pick up all items that were likely to have been touched by Roth at the defined site, and put it on that machine.
Following Kronisk as he followed the Dwarrow out to a flight point, I watched a group of four flying machines ascend into the sky and fly in the general direction of Chrétienté. Three of these machines were enormous, with the Dwarrow splitting into two groups that sat within a machine each. The fourth was some form of reconnaissance or assault machine, likely meant to protect the other three. Watching these machines fly away, I turned to Kronisk and politely asked if I could go back to seeing my baby sister now.
Thus ends the first part of the story. Comments, requests, and other such nonsense can be placed in the comments box below.