Another new character, but this one serves a purpose. My wife quite rightly pointed out that I've introduced a lot of new characters recently; some of them are important. Some serve a purpose. Others will be discarded. I think it's important to have a healthy cast, but some of these will eventually be cut, either in editing or through the process of moving on from their part of the story and forgetting about them.
I like Matron Yohloh though.
Also: DUN DUN DUUUUUUUUUN...
The cave complex didn’t take long for Trip to explore. The chamber where they’d appeared was a small nook, clear of any clutter, with its own small metal box; apparently these were connected to each other, some sort of machinery controlling the direction of travel, but though he stared at it for long minutes it gave up none of its secrets.
Ahnia had gone off into the cave, telling him that he had the freedom to move around; from the single look he had taken of the outside world so far, it was certain that he couldn’t try to run away. The desert seemed to be endless.
The Nodal Chamber, as Ahnia had called it, was connected to a supply area filled with crates and sacks. Most of them were labelled in a language that Trip didn’t recognise; the few people he could see around him were likewise speaking in the fast-flowing, slightly guttural, language that his rescuer had used in the palace.
There was a woman over to one side, like all of them completely shrouded in cloth, labouring over a cookpot. Wandering closer, Trip breathed in; it was curried animal of some sort, and though his stomach churned at the idea of eating meat he found his mouth watering. When the woman turned to look at him, he fled.
He quickly found that his other options were limited. A few people were squatting around a brazier over to the left; there were some men who gave the impression of being guards blocking the way to the right; behind him, the path lead back up to the view over the desert and, without anything else to do, he slowly walked back up and out.
Trip looked out at the bleak wasteland, alone with his thoughts for the first time in what seemed like forever. He flashed back over the images of the cave; tall men, slightly shorter women, all with sun-darkened skin and all-encompassing robes. Shrugging, he filed the images away for later study and began to think about how he could get away.
Where would I go? Trip wondered. The desert wind seemed to blow unceasingly, dark storm clouds gathering in the air. Rather than the sensation that it might rain, there was a feeling of gathering tension in the air and Trip could see the beginnings of a ferocious lightning storm crackling in the distance.
I miss Victor.
No, he thought. How could I be missing Victor? The man had made it clear that he was in it for the money. He’d gone off with an old crony rather than try and help the situation; he hadn’t listened to Trip any more than anyone had.
He sat by you in the boat, the little voice inside him said. It was insistent.
“Shush,” Trip said.
“I didn’t say anything,” came a voice from behind him. He turned round; the woman who had been with them at the nodal chamber was standing very close to him. She had a piece of her head covering over her nose and mouth, apparently to keep the sand out.
“Oh. Hello,” Trip said. “I’m Trip.” He gave her a short bow.
“Yes, we know who you are,” she said, suddenly looking down and breaking her stare. “My name is Inzana. I have been sent to see if you are well. Is there anything I can get for you?”
“I… some water would be great,” Trip said, starting to walk back inside the cave. She walked beside him, still directing her brown eyes to the ground. “And some… food. Do you have any vegetables?”
“As you can imagine, we do not have a great amount of vegetation here in Gargoria. I am sure I can find something though. Please, sit, relax.”
She gestured to a circle of cushions set up around a brass brazier which was sending curls of pungent smoke into the air. His eyes watering slightly at the smell, Trip sat on a vacant cushion. He looked round the circle; three other cushions had people sat on them, two young men and one incredibly old woman. His eyes were drawn to her; she was wearing small amounts of what appeared to be bone jewellery, quite unlike anything any of the others were wearing, and the embroidery on her clothing was certainly the finest. He studied her for a moment; she seemed to be constantly chewing on toothless gums and, with a start, he realised that her eyes were white. She was completely blind.
Then she turned her head and looked at him.
“Eh? Is someone there?”
“Yes,” Trip said, then, as he suddenly remembered his manners, “ma’am. My name is Trip.”
“Ah. That accent. You are the Lyrian boy my son went to retrieve, yes?”
“Ahnia is your son? I mean, yes. He rescued me from the palace.”
“He’s a good boy. So, what do you think of Gargoria?” she said, a sly smile spreading across her wrinkled face.
“It’s very… um,” Trip said, then his mind went blank. “Nice,” he finished.
“Pah. Why is Gargoria the rat-infested sand-hole you see, eh, boy?” She seemed to rise slightly from her cushion, leaning heavily on a stick which appeared from the voluminous robe she wore; she shuffled closer to him and it took all of Trip’s bravery not to shuffle an equal distance away from this unsettling old woman.
“In the days of King Jurgen of Lyria, the land of Gargoria was a paradise, though one barely enjoyed by the savages who called it home,” Trip began, then suddenly realised what he’d said. “I… read it in a book.”
“Of course you did. Go on, my dear,” the old woman said quietly.
“…Then came the Great War, as the five countries of Ehrian sought dominance over each other. They agreed to meet on the fields of Gargoria, widely believed to have started the war, aiming to settle it once and for all. The battle raged for a month or more with thousands of deaths on all sides. By the time peace had been brokered by envoys from the other four nations, Gargoria was a wasteland. The Grand Accord was written to prevent any one nation attempting to begin such an all-consuming war again, and each signatory nation has upheld the agreement until this day. Thomas Harbuck, A Historie of the Grande Accorde.”
“And that is what you believe, is it?” the old woman said, her voice almost a whisper.
“I don’t know… is it true? Were the Gargorians savages then?”
“Boy, all men are savages, and all nations rose from savagery. It’s no different here than it was in Lyria, in Zar, in Koru or Dorth. But history is written by the winners, and we were most certainly the losers.”
She poked the spices gently charring on the top of the brazier. “I am Matron Yohloh of the del Firezno tribe, at one time chief among the artificers of the Decatheon.” She closed her eyes and seemed to fall in to her own memories.
“Ten tribes made the great nation of Gargoria. They worked together in peace that all may prosper. Some worked on ways of travelling; others toiled in heat to create wonders of metal and stone. Yet others focused their energies towards the fragile bodies of man, that they might be improved. The del Firezno tribe was one of the latter; we sought to extend the span of man’s life.” Her eyes snapped open, somehow staring straight into his. She gave a toothless grin. “Tell me, boy, how old do you think I am?”
Trip cocked his head to one side. “It depends. Were you able to extend human life?”
“Ha!” Matron Yohloh spat into the brazier’s fire and poked at it again. “Even at my age, I can be surprised. Or at least intrigued.” She settled down again. “I am over three hundred years old. My head is so full of memories that sometimes I sleep for days just sorting them, filing them. Perhaps, one day, you will find this is your only recourse. But I digress.”
She closed her eyes again. “One of the tribes - to this day we are not sure which - developed a problem. It was a problem which spread. They lived in the south-east of the country, nearest what you call the Arbour. It was a madness, of sorts; they began to attack the countries to either side.”
“The ‘savages’,” Trip said. “I understand.”
“The war was swift and slow at the same time. It was like a dagger to the side going in, but then the dagger was twisted on the way out,” she said. “We bled for months. Much was lost. Research, development, all burned under the fire of war. Had the final battle been fought anywhere else, we could have probably won peace for all much earlier. But it was not to be.” She shook her head sadly. “After the dust had settled, those of us that were left retreated underground.”
“Why have you come out now? And why do you want me?”
“You and I are most alike that you might think, boy.” Matron Yohloh tapped the side of her head with one gnarled finger. “In here I carry a legacy. My tribe’s history, told to me by the ones who came before me.” She shuffled even closer to Trip, close enough that he could smell something sickly-sweet on her breath. He squirmed on the cushion, suddenly incredibly uncomfortable in her presence.
“You carry that too,” she said. “Your religion values wood above all, yes? And your holy book, your Tree’s Word, there were only two copies from which all your teaching stems.”
“I was always told that books are a sacred thing to be revered, and that as few as possible should exist while still keeping all human knowledge in them,” Trip said.
“Whatever the case, both of your Tree’s Words have been destroyed.”
Trip nodded. “The Library was attacked by some sort of plant-men. Like spindly people made of plants.” His eyes widened and he sat bolt upright. “Rootholme must have been attacked by them as well! It’s the only thing that makes sense, if you’re not really-“
“Oh no, boy, we attacked Rootholme,” the Matron said matter-of-factly. “It was unfortunate that the Tree’s Word was destroyed; it was never our aim to destroy anything, but he forced our hand.”
Trip leapt up, anger bursting into him. “You destroyed Rootholme! And you can just sit there and say it as if it doesn’t matter at all? That’s… that’s…”
“Unfortunate. Trip, in any war there will be casualties. What important now is you, and what you carry in your head. Help me stand.”
Trip didn’t move. Her eyes seemed to find his again and she raised one eyebrow.
“If you help me stand, I will help you understand, boy.”
Still fuming, he went round and, slightly roughly, pulled her to her feet. She began to walk, her stick tapping the ground rhythmically as she guided herself between obstacles without fault.
“Some time ago we captured someone trying to enter our borders. We had been aware for some time that everything was not as it should be, and when our agents in Fennica reported in we knew that it was time to move. You see, a great evil is growing in this country, on this continent as a whole, Trip.”
He followed her, intrigued despite himself. She lead him past crates and several workbenches, each containing incomprehensible liquids bubbling in class containers or complicated mechanical parts ticking and whirring away. They were heading towards a well-lit area with what looked like a person knelt in the centre.
“This someone has some unusual characteristics, you see. For a start, he isn’t human.”
“What is he?”
“Some sort of plant-based construct. We haven’t been able to work out how it all works yet, but we have time. Lots of time.” She made a dry wheezing sound that may have been a laugh. It quickly became a cough. “See for yourself,” she choked out, pointing with her stick towards the man.
As Trip approached, he became aware of several men stood guard around the circle of lanterns that lit the area. Each was armed with a large sword and each had it unsheathed, ready to use at a moment’s notice.
Then the man at the centre raised his head. His face was stern, everything seeming to come to a point; he was naked to the waste and the muscled body shone in a slightly odd way under the bright light. There was no mistaking who it was though, and Trip took an involuntary step back as the man smiled horribly.
It was High Father Hork.