In Vartandel there is a saying ‘The first face they see is your servant’s’.
It was easier for me to obtain an audience with a God than it was it for me to find the Sage of the Iron Grove. The first impression I got regarding the Sage was not of him, but his boatman: Lyle. Lyle was a Taalkatsin, a race of reptile men with small dead yellow eyes and wide long jaws that could pop my head like an over ripe plum. Of course the Taalkatsin’s name wasn’t truly Lyle, but the Taalkatsin phonemes are unpronounceable. However, if you ask for Lyle in the floating villages around the Iron Grove they will direct you to the Taalkatsin boatman.
The trip to Lyle’s was no garden stroll either. It was only with much coaxing bribing and a strong suspension of personal pride that I was able to convince an ancient and androgynous local to guide me to Lyle’s home . Lyle’s home is located in the Iron Grove, which is so named because of the steel strong Cyprus trees and Black Bamboo shoots. During the winter months these two species of plant incorporate the black volcanic sand into the lattices of their wood and pulp. In the cases of the Cyprus trees they gain ring after ring of hardened black bark. The Black Bamboo, which is not truly Bamboo and is only black in the winter, hardens into sharp obsidian-like husks. Even a slight glance against one of these natural razors can swamp a boat or part your flesh to the bone.
It was a foggy morning when we set out; the cool air slowing the buzz of swamp vermin to a low tortuous hum. I was helping the almost corpse I had hired to guide his unstable little bark lined boat through a particularly dense patch of these knife plants when I decided that finding the Sage of the Iron Grove, much less the giant man lizard that served as his ‘doorman’, was not worth the trip. I was in the front of the boat and turned round to speak to the old near deaf thing when I saw the house of Lyle the Taalkatsin floating in the tide swollen swamp behind us.
Sitting on the wooden deck of that house tending to a net was a grey and green skinned Taalkatsin. Some how in our focus on the Black Bamboo we had passed his house. I called out awkwardly as we turned our little craft around and started back towards Lyle. It took a moment for him to respond to our presence.
First Impression :
With the single action of standing up Lyle displayed an entire life-time of suffering. His time worn leather skin unfolded like the parchment of my grandfather’s will: cracking and pulling against every effort to extend it. The motion of his joints was halting with Lyle forcing his left knee into extension with a tight fist. When he reached his full height it was as if somebody had loosely hung a weather beaten grey tarp upon on a 7ft brittle wicker frame beneath the head of an alligator.
Despite the ungraceful extension of his reptilian body, the head and hands of this Taalkatsin still held menace. As we gingerly paddled our skiff toward his raft those great claws and his immensely long jaw were enough to make me regret every life choice that put me within a yard of this creature.
Lyle hissed something, and the old thing I had hired responded in a local dialect that sounded as alien as the Taalkatsin. I tried to speak. I was fairly certain I could spit out the phrase “Sage of the Iron Grove” in my unpracticed Voskin. Upon hearing the sounds I made Lyle shuttered in what I first thought was a coughing fit. As the shuttering faded away he made a come hither gesture with a massive claw. I looked to my guide for explanation, but all I got was a toothless grin and a ‘go forth’ gesture. “Wait for me,” I said to my guide and tried to balance my self to step off the boat and onto the raft.
I miss judged the height of Lyle’s raft and lost my balance as I tried to vault myself from the tittering little scull. My effort pushed the boat away from the raft and I fell backwards toward the spike filled water. I surely would have been sliced to chum by the black husks of yester year’s bamboo if Lyle had not grabbed my waist with a massive hand. He pulled me back on to the raft and again took up that shuttering cough, which I realized then was laughter. I tried to thank the Taalkatsin, but his blank face gave no acknowledgement of my gratitude. I learned then the unnerving truth that the Taalkatsin do not have facial expressions.
Lyle gestured for me to enter the wooden cabin on the raft. Inside I was given an immediate reprieve from the miasma of these saltwater swamps. The cabin was neatly kept, warm and smelled of the fragrant sourness of red sumac and pepper. There was a small fire of moss burning on a stone lined pallet in the center of the cabin, and along the walls were neatly hung a variety of tools and totems.
The room was so carefully arranged that I felt uncomfortable and out place in it. But despite that sensation I also began to feel at ease. In a few minutes of knowing him this Taalkatsin he had saved my life and invited me into his home. Aside from my father, I could think of no human that had done as much for me.
There is another saying in Vartandel: 'There is no sense in worry after the King has spoken.'
My guide had left. I was stuck in a deeply dangerous swamp on a small raft with a seven-foot tall man crocodile-man who I could not communicate. Thank Dahkturin I had brought brandy with me.
Getting to know you:
Lyle left me alone in his cabin while he continued doing what ever he was doing. After a few draws from my wine bladder, I became more daring and began to examine the items in the Taalkatsin’s room. I remember reading or being told that the Taalkatsin were a “primitive race that will hunt anything it can catch” and assumed they were little more than beasts that walked on hind legs.
I saw that this Taalkatsin at least was an artisan. Along one wall were fishing nets and hunting nets, and I saw that they were grafted from fine twine and artfully knotted together. It was hard to imagine those colossal hands working on something so fine, yet he had been at that very task when I arrived. My host was a skilled craftsman.
Farther down the wall, carefully hung, were spears tipped with the obsidian-esque shards of black bamboo. And nestled among these weapons was a black enameled wooden bat that had a long handle: a macuahuitl. These long thin clubs are carved from a single piece of hardwood, and resemble a flat nosed sword in that there is wide plane and narrow plane to the club. In that thinner plane rounded sharpened pieces of obsidian (likely the black bamboo) give the club a cutting edge. I had heard that macuahuitls could take the head off a man in a single swipe. My host was a warrior.
I turned to the opposite wall and saw a score of thongs hanging from pegs. I crossed around the small fire pit, feeling a few drops of rain fall on my face through the smoke hole. Each of the thongs was a necklace of sorts with a stone arrowhead hanging in the center and a fang laced to the thong in on either side of the arrowhead. The thongs had been dipped in a dark brown liquid that had dried and cracked about the string and charms. As I leaned in closer to inspect them, my drinker’s wobble synergizing with the rocking of the houseboat, I tittered nose first directly into the cluster of thongs. As I pulled myself carefully back my nostrils were filled an odor I recognized as dried blood. Each of those necklaces had been dipped in blood.
Looking at the arrowheads closely I realized that each of them had a rune engraved into them. While I could not read the rune I identified them as being Kanaarite script. The Kanaarites are the semi-mytical marsh elves of Swynmoor. According to my readings about the Kanaarites, they hunted with enchanted stone tipped arrows capable of piercing steel and each hunter would place a unique mark on their arrowheads so that they could find and identify their kills. I would wager that each of these arrowheads was found in the body of a Taalkatsin and that to the developed sense of smell of Taalkatsin each of odor of the blood would be distinct. My host was originally from Swynmoor and he carried with him memorials of his brothers and sisters slain by the Kanaarites.
After a bit more Brandy, I fell asleep on the floor of the little cabin only to be awakened by a violent handshake. Scrambling up in fear, I saw Lyle standing over me. It was dark except for the orange glow from the coals left by tiny fire. Lyle’s expressionless face leveled its glowing yellow eyes at me. Then Lyle turned with a gesture and led me out the door. At the edge of the raft was a water craft made up of two wicker pontoons, each at least 14 feet long and floating parallel to each other. They were connected at the bow and the stern by wooden planks that rose above the water. Lyle with much effort, and gripping a two headed paddle, also at least 14 feet long, stepped off the raft and onto the pontoons. He stood upon the pontoons with a single enormous foot on each. He gestured at me to climb onto the narrow plank behind him, which I did by crawling from the raft to the boat on all fours. With regard to grace and balance, I was much more an animal than this elder Taalkastin.
As Lyle paddle us through the Iron Grove, I heard the black stalks rip against the whicker floats, but the buoyant bundles did not sink. It was dark, and though the moons were nearly full; they were only white blurs behind night’s charcoal clouds. The Taalkastin had no trouble navigating the near dark, his bright yellow eyes saw everything. At one point, after struggling up to my knees in order to reveal myself, I looked up Lyle instinctiivly to see if I was going to receive a disapproving glance. At that point the clouds parted and the moonlight shone directly onto the Taalkastin’s back. The silverly light illuminated a pair of runes burned into the Taalkastin’s back. Kaanarite moon runes. While recognizable Kaanarite these were different in script and form from the symbols upon the arrowheads. These runes were marks of enchantment. I realized then that stories of Kaanarite capturing and mystically enslaving the Taalkastin must be true. I also recognized that my guide here was an escaped slave. Lyle was a refugee evading his oppressors by hiding in the Iron Grove.
Yet despite his harsh past with other races he still took me to the Sage of the Iron Grove, and returned me to land once my meeting was over. I tried to offer to him gold or brandy as way of payment, but he just nodded his massive head no. This giant beast, who was capable, at least in terms of form, of horrific violence had treated me with more generosity and selfless kindness than any human stranger I had ever met.
Vartandel saying: 'A slave without a master is like a fire without a hearth: dangerous.'
Getting to know all about you:
It was six months later and my quest had taken me to Swynmoor. There I encountered a Kaanairte exile living among the Dukes. I was lucky that this exile was as fond of drink and conversation as myself. We were well into our second cask of brandy-wine when conversation turned to the Taalkastin, and I was able to inquire specifically about the two runes I had seen upon Lyle’s back. The elf explained to me that the one of the runes I had drawn from memory (people of my breeding and education never forget a point of importance) was a House Rune or Family Rune.
He recognized the Rune as being from family that had been involved in a blood feud with another house. The King of the Moor had come down against the family represented by Lyle's Rune and they had been reduced*. This meant that they would have been stripped of all their slaves, many of which were Taalkastin raised up from hatchlings in the service of the Family. The second Rune he indicated that Lyle had been a member of the house guard. House guards were the personal servants of the Kaanairte nobility or chieftains, often never leaving the side of their masters. He explained that a good Taalkstin house guard is as much man-servant as warrior, sometimes serving drinks or mending garments.
With one of the puddles of spilled brandy on the table between us I drew a perfect representation of the Runes I had seen on the arrowheads. He explained that those were from other Houses, most likely the House, tasked with carrying out the reduction. During such times it is customary to slaughter all of the marked servants belonging to the punished house.
It all became clear to me then. Lyle, had survived the attack, perhaps he had fled or hidden. Perhaps, he had been left for dead. But he had survived the attack and gone back to harvest the murderous arrowheads from all his dead Taalkastin brood mates. But Lyle could not return to the swamps of his people. I was certain of that. Lyle had been raised in a civilized society, walking a careful balance between man and animals. But in the end he had found a home in neither and had been forced to live on the edge of society in a foreign country.
On my last day a group of hunters came into the trading post pulling by man harness a wagon with a huge wooden cage atop it. Inside the cage was an enormous Taalkastin. The Taalkatsin in the cage looked so different than Lyle, its scales were brightly green it was broadchested and its tail was longer and twice as thick as Lyles had been. I asked my local companion about if such differences in size were normal among Taalkastin
What its got in its closets:
My elven companion informed me that Lyle was most likely a female. The female Taalkastin’s tended to be thinner and were the favored choice of the Kaanairte’s for house servants. It all made sense, Lyle was indeed a Lila. Those memorials she kept in her house likely contained remains of her children as well as broodmates.
Vartandel saying: The King loves his subjects like a Shepard loves his sheep. He will care for them when they are sick, protect them when they are threatened, shears them when he is cold and slaughters them when he is hungry.
A year after Swynmoor I had eloped from Saulkement with my new bride. We knew that every noble was but a day's sail behind us, and I once again sought the council of the Sage of the Iron Grove. As difficult as that druid maybe, he would know where to hide us. At the very least I was sure that the effete Vartandel exiles on Saulkement and their mercenaries would never venture into the Iron Grove.
With a borrowed scull we made our way to Lila’s house on our own this time. As we paddled through the parts of the grove I had passed through in the daylight I regaled my young wife with stories of this sad and gentle Taalkastin. This time I did not pass the house boat, but carried us directly to it.
There was smoke coming from the small cabin, but Lila was not on the deck as she had been when I had first arrived. I helped my bride up on to the raft and, doubly cautious without Lila there to catch me, I climbed hand and foot on the Houseboat. My wife shouted in alarm when the small boat we had acquired drifted away from the raft, but I assured her that Lila would take care of us. “It is what Lila was bred to do,” I told her.
Secrets and Surprises:
I pushed aside the heavy leathery curtain to the cabin and entered just ahead of my new wife. Lila was curled up by the fire like a cat with her tail wrapped around her body. I said in much improved Voskin, “Hello my friend, it is good to see you. Would you please take us to Sage.”
The Taalkastin stretched out her ancient body and gestured to the other side of the fire. My young wife and I us sat on the bare wooden floor in front of the small fire that rested on mud brick pallet. Lila stared at us across the fire with her expressionless yellow eyes. My love was nervous. I assured her that this Taalkastin woman was kinder than any cousin of mine.
I offered my Lady some brandy in order to calm her nerves. As the brandy worked and the fire lowered we became more comfortable in this wide warm cabin. My darling wife stood up to stretch her legs and I encouraged her to examine the items on the walls. Lila did not seem to respond. The Taalkastin held perfectly still as my wife stepped around the fire pit.
My darling love was intently examining the thongs holding arrowheads and teeth that I had told her about when she turned to me to ask a question. As our eyes locked she lifted one of the arrowheads away from the wall with the palm of her hand.
Lila severed my wife’s arm at the elbow before I could speak. The Taalkastin had lifted the macuahuitl off the wall in a fast fluid movement. Then with just as much animal speed and ferocity Lila lunged forward in a crouch. There wasn’t even time for my lover to scream before the alligator woman clamped her teeth across my beautiful bride’s face. Lila yanked back against my wife's tall thin body. There was at last a muffled cry and spray of warm blood across my face. Lila stood to her full height banging her knee straight with the blood covered hilt of her macuahuitl.
I sat still and wondered what I was to this creature. What was I to this creature that had been raised by elves and chased from her homeland? Why did I think that we had some bond of trust with this creature to which I had never spoken? Did she know me as a fellow exile? Did she know me as a witted being ?
I thought of the hens we raised in our small yard back in Vartandel. Despite being members of the court we were poor, servants truly, and in the winter we brought the hens inside to live like family. My mother had brushed the hens and cleaned them. One day a hen escaped from its tiny pin. Father found it corned by feral dog and received a nasty bite rescuing it.
Then we ate them. What were those things to us but animals?
I watched Lila consume the belly of my wife, eating the liver intestines and heart, but never taking her yellow eyes off me. I thought of my father. He was a jester or fool at the King’s court. When my mother was executed, he did not protest or show the King one drop of grief. He preformed each day as if my mother had never been beheaded. Because my father had stayed calm my brothers and I were able to grow up educated and fed. If my father could watch a laughing King execute the mother his children, than I could watch this soulless monster eat my new bride.
Lila didn’t finish. After she ate the middle part of my wife’s body she gestured me out the door. I watched numbly as she pulled her long pontoon boat down from a stand behind the raft. She stepped on to the boat as before, and I obediently followed her. Then she paddled me to the den of the Sage. All the while I stared at her rune marked back, my hand on the hilt of my sword, and I thought of my father and the hens.
Additional Ideas (1)
*Reduction: The event described here as reduction is approximate translation from the Kaanarite language. If translated directly the elven term means either to shrink or to reduce, but contextually it refers to censure or punishment of certain families buy other families. The exact details of these punishments was not clear to the author at the time of this writing.