DSD.1: A Private Sanctuary
By: Matthew D. Hammond
Date: 1st of Rubalkun, 351 6gc
At'mavi had been cast into shades of brown and grey by the tide of the seasons. Trade had slowed between the Basai’van estate and the neighboring banners as the year cycled into its coldest months, and the weather became harsh weeks earlier than what had been anticipated. The slaves had been worked with cruel urgency to turn over the soil and replace the crop before the first deep freeze, and fatigue had set in hard over the workforce, but the task had found completion. Until the next harvest, the work would fall into a lax and steady routine.
All alone, at the end of a wharf, sat a solitary troll, holding his tail at a curve over his lap. White, misty vapor rose in calm puffs from his flared nostrils. His chest heaved as he sucked in deep breaths of the morning fog that rose in ghastly wisps from the still pond before him. His amber eyes followed fallen pine needles as they bobbed along gently on the water's surface beneath his feet. Locks of jet hair spiraled in natural messy waves from his mane, veiling his somber face. Callused fingers hugged a small stick that had fallen upon the dock, and with a sigh, he cast it into the water.
Ripples spread across the deep, stagnant waters, lapping against the mound of debris that kept the pond walled away from fresher waters. Once, there had been a creek connecting the small old dock to the river beyond the dense treeline. When a chain of severe weather washed uncountable fallen trees down stream and wedged them tightly in the mouth of the creek, the plantation owners dug a trench at a more favorable point for business, creating a channel to the river. The construction on the southern edge of the field rendered the little wharf obsolete. The churning current of the river could be heard babbling just out of sight.
Alone in the quiet of the morning, the troll pondered the similarities that he shared with the old wharf. He, too, had been busy and useful once: a fine young warrior and scout for his people. His name once carried weight; his actions brought pride to his clan. In one swift falter, he had lost everything. He was captured and stripped of his clothes and his name, forced into servitude some place far from his home woods. His bones, like his sense of self, had been broken by his keepers’ rods and fists over the course of some months―how many he had forgotten. The people that had once loved him now thought of him as long dead. His spirit was as withered as the old boards he sat upon.
Just enough of his heart still stirred within him to inspire small acts of defiance, such as sneaking away from the bedding lodge before dawn. The cramped wooden chamber was little more than a glorified stable with hay and shelves to sleep upon. He and the three other trolls belonging to the workforce were made to sleep on the cold ground by their fellow captives, and they were too vastly outnumbered to stand against the ragged gathering of convicted criminals. After all, this was an At’mavan plantation, and even the slaves had a hierarchy to go by: humans had more authority than trolls, and outlaws serving out their paltry sentences were of higher social standing than those enslaved for life.
At least against the wall, opposite of the bunks, he could sleep without being shoulder to shoulder with the others―when he could find sleep at all. Something in his thoughts or dreams always seemed to roust him from his slumber; he had not felt the benefits of a decent rest throughout most of his captivity. He would rise in the darkness, lost in the same eddy of emotions that haunted him every night, and he would creep out to walk the plantation grounds. If there was one thing he had a talent for, it was remaining unseen, and the night patrol remained none the wiser of his hobby. He could find some peace in exercising his old skills. The severe consequences should he be caught only made each excursion more enjoyable.
He had found the dock months ago, when part of him still sought to make an escape. The small trail leading to it had long ago become overgrown with briers and shrubs, shielding it from the main road. He would come to sit and study after scoping out the roads and the property, and gradually, as his desire to flee the plantation subsided, he found himself getting away from the lodge just to be alone. It was a secret that the guardians of the plantation were not wise enough to uncover, and in that fact, he found a trace of pride reminiscent of his former self.
An uncanny feeling swept the troll that brought his introspection to a halt. Every muscle in his body tensed and his ears flicked alert. A gentle fragrance kissed his senses as he inhaled. It was the smell of a sweet floral tea, faint and alluring, but too distinct to spring from any natural source. He hampered his breathing, turning his full attention to the sounds around him. His lips pursed grim at what he heard: the sweep of a fold of fabric kissing another, as sleeves against a body or folds in a moving dress.
He took a deep inhale and heavily released it, the hairy tuft at the end of his tail markedly churning about in his lap. “You may come to watch me from a more leisurely vantage, o onlooker.”
He waited. Everything around was unnaturally still, and the birds had silenced in the wake of his voice. As each second passed by, absent of response, his demeanor relaxed and his shoulders lost their tension. A guard would not have spied upon him, he thought, and anyone intending to run for the guards would be gone. Whatever the person was doing, his mind was too tired to unravel the mystery.
“You impress me with your silence in the brush, but your scent betrays you. If it is that you fear for your safety,I feel obligated to remind you that I am the lowest of the lowly here. I am of no authority, of less value than the soil in the fields. Verily, whoever you are, I am at your beck and call.” He turned to sit cross-legged with his back to the water, allowing his tail to drape over the edge of the dock and hang at rest. He scanned the trail head and wood line, the epitome of patience.
At last, the silence broke. There was a crackling of twigs on the carpet of the woods, and a sandaled foot slipped out of the cover of a dense, hardy bush. Carefully minding that no thread of fabric was caught on its thorny leaves, the figure emerged at a slow and docile pace, preserving what silence could be kept.
What appeared from the wood line was a sight he could have only dreamed. He looked on in vested curiosity as a woman in a long, silken dress stood shyly before him, dainty in posture and frame. Her garments were of rich, quality handiwork, from her shoes to the black, sleeveless cloak that fell loosely to her ankles. It was clasped where her hood came together beneath her neck with a large medallion bearing the crest of the Basai’van family smoothly chiseled in jade. The broach alone spoke volumes, and he no longer had reason to ask of her identity. It was the estate owner’s daughter.
She met his eyes in an expressionless manner, but her uncertainty bled through her professional facade. She hesitantly curtsied in the noble At’mavan way, uttering a small greeting as she stood. “Hello.”
The troll tilted his head and slowly nodded once in recognition. His calm presence colored her a deeper shade of puzzled as she studied him, and after a bout of thought and composure, she began a steady approach. “What manner of creature are you?”
“Golboren, as are any other trolls in bondage to your family,” he answered frankly, watching as she came to a stop at the middle point in the wharf, just a few arm's lengths away.
“No,” she replied, “you look as any other troll, but hardly in bondage. You sit alone here, not with the other workers, yet not on the run. Your words are calm and rife with poetry.”
He lowered his gaze in study, folding his palms over his knees to form a triangle with his arms over his lap. “What of you, mistress, coming in regal trappings from your manor to traipse through the woods alone on a plot of land teeming with men? Your vulnerability is surely no mystery to you.”
She pondered for a moment. In a tone that ever grew in intrigue and confidence, she responded, “Mine is a less vulnerable state than that of a delinquent slave, alone in the woods of the very property of the guards he has eluded, weaponless and taxed of energy. I believe yours is the bigger mystery.”
He lifted an eyebrow and raised a palm to the sky, shrugging submissively. “Admittedly, m’lady. You've more than earned my compliance. I’ll not challenge you further.”
“Let me rephrase my inquiry, then. Who are you, and what in the heavens are you doing out here that is worth risking your life over?”
The troll’s shoulders slumped as he pulled his knees up to his chest. He rose briefly to turn around and seat himself as he was prior to his disturbance. He folded his tail into his lap and met her dark brown eyes with a glance over his shoulder. “Should you prefer to sit, m’lady, feel comfortable to do so at my side. I implore you.”
There was enough room to his left, if she chose so, to sit out of his reach, but her feet wouldn't move. Predisposed fears and suspicions kept her on high alert. She breathed deeply and slowly, tossing the notion about in her mind. Once she had calmed herself, she walked to the end of the wharf and leaned on the old post at his far left. Her eyes fell upon him, and he could feel them beckoning him to proceed.
“Firstly, who I am is a slave in bondage to your family. My name was once important, but it has no meaning or purpose here,” he began, but she raised a finger to halt him.
“Humor me,” she said, “if nothing else.”
He nodded and tightened his lips for a moment, preparing to revisit the past. “My name was Dugalan Koldroskaro.”
She studied. “I do not know your language,” she confessed, “but I understand that Koldroskar must be your tribe?”
“It was,” he consented, “though my cousin was its founder, I was permitted to take it as my surname as well.”
“And Dugalan? I understand that your names mean specific things, while ours do not.”
“I cannot describe it directly in your tongue,” he explained, “as the way our words form differs from yours. To define it would be akin to ‘born with the spirit of honor,’ if you would.”
“I see,” came her soft response. She leaned her cheek and chin into her hand as she maintained the conversation, seemingly mesmerized by the strange creature before her, but ever ready to take flight. “I've never heard of a Golboren able to speak our language with such grace and understanding. Your dialect is more sophisticated than most of our hired men. Some of your words come from the old tongue, and that died over a millennia ago.”
“I must inquire, m’lady, if you've heard another Golboren speak at all.”
She withdrew into thought and revealed a hint of a smile from the corner of her mouth. “I suppose not, if you must know. To be more concise, what I meant was that you've undone every predisposed expectation I've ever had towards the Golboren people. Tell me, honestly, are you all so educated and savvy with our language?”
Dugalan cast a deep stare into the heart of the pond. “No,” he grunted, “There are those such as I and then there are those such as Brenugan Kuto, who cannot read a word and whose ethics in war and governance are boorish and uncivil. There may be more ignorance abound than education in Koldrogan, but we have resources and many yet show promise.
“What you expected to meet, I suppose, was a feral soul, eager to shed At’mavan blood. That is the picture At’mavan texts from every age prefer to depict, regardless of their basis in embellishment. I direct no judgement towards you, m’lady. Your people have every right to hold disdain and contempt toward my people. The influence of politics in this war was boiled away long before our time. What we’re left with is nothing more than a hate war, your people and mine.”
She nodded respectfully. “Your logic is sound, Dugalan. I cannot disagree with you.“
He subtly raised his eyes to her. "May I ask your name, m'lady?"
"Erdinai. Erdinai Basai’van.”
“You’re an interesting person, Erdinai. I've never known an At’mavan to so openly agree with a troll of any sort.”
She smiled shyly, looking toward the forest across the pond. “I assume you know already that I am the estate owner's daughter."
"It was my suspicion, yes."
A spell of pensive silence fell between them that was cut short by a bugle that sounded thrice to the south of the treeline. Dugalan’s ears perked attentively and his expression lost its depth. It was replaced with a look of hollow resignation. “...Mistress, that is the waking call. I must return before the second horn sounds.”
She studied him and nodded knowingly. “Alright. Be safe.”
He passed her without acknowledgement, his tail nearly dragging the ground as he strode by. She looked on, a detached and studious air coming over her. “Sir Koldroskaro!”
He slowed and engaged her with a look over his shoulder, stopping completely as she voiced her quandary. “Are you willing to meet with me again?”
He wanted apathy to govern his response, but he couldn't force it. The situation stirred a latent curiosity within him, one that he had thought was dead, and he couldn't place why. They both knew the consequences of such a meeting. An accidental encounter in the woods would have been understandable. An arrangement by both parties would merit a more severe punishment. If they were found together, no matter the circumstances, he would be beaten within an inch of his life or killed entirely, and she would be punished in other ways of which he was uncertain. He had nothing to lose, but she had everything―including an astute rationality that he could read from the look in her eyes. She was willing to risk her well being to meet with him; he could not turn her down without knowing why.
With a heavy sigh, he gave a respectful bow. “I would verily receive you, mistress, should you desire to speak with me again. Be discretionary.”
She breathed a quiet “of course” as she leaned against the old corner post. She was quickly abandoned, left to solemn contemplation, as the troll disappeared into the undergrowth of the treeline. New feelings swelled inside of her that she could not put words to, but the message was undeniable: she needed to know his full story. She had to meet him again.
Matthew D. Hammond
~ 2014 ~
Author's Notes: This is the story of Dugalan, cousin and confidante of Antegga, the war lord of the east, and how an unlikely encounter slowly leads to his escape. I will be covering this side-plot as a series of installments, and in each one, Dugalan will confide in Erdinai a secret or a story. This plot will be linked into one of Antegga's books, happening parallel with it, and eventually tying into it, but not all of the stories featured in this series will make it to the book. I hope you will follow this journey as it advances forward, watching as this unlikely friendship unfolds and hearing some great stories in the process.