I probably shouldn't have done this to chain writing...

Started by indiekid, January 18, 2024, 09:35:13 AM

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After contributing to 2023's chain writing I was itching to write some more. I found myself daydreaming, once again, about an earlier chain writing project. I was second in the chain on that occasion, so at the time I was writing the setting of the story was not fully fleshed out. I knew that the writer after me would need to build upon my last sentence: "I'd rather we die before they take our tongues." But who were "they"? The writer after me came up with something original, exciting and terrifying. Fast-forward to last year, however, and I remembered that I did have a spark of an idea - a different idea - for who "they" might be. In blowing on this spark I created the following story. I don't think this is really in the spirit of chain writing, so my original intention was to keep the first two sections unaltered. As my story ballooned in size, however, I realised I would have to rewrite them to be more consistent with the narration style I had chosen. It's worth noting that I was backpacking at the time, so I think the main character's preoccupation with language and culture may have been a reflection of my own. I hope you enjoy reading and I would be interested to hear your thoughts. 

On Three Kings' Crag

The North Wind raged atop Three Kings' Crag, chilling me to the bone. Having left both clouds and rain behind, my companions and I now battled to keep our footing on the treacherous path. I was close to exhaustion: the thought of being whisked off the face of the crag and hurled to join my ancestors was by now quite appealing. I held on, however, bracing my axe against the rock and putting one foot in front of the other. If my companions and I could not find the strength to throw off the storm how would we throw off our oppressors? I had promised them we would find our answer on this forsaken rock; I hoped I was right.

After what seemed like an age the dark bulk of Kelgar's Rest loomed out of the night above us. My heart leapt to see a faint light glowing from within. Kelgar's rest was the smallest of the Crag's three barrows, long since hollowed out and plundered. It was clearly occupied again. I signalled my companions to leave the path and picked my way over the rocky ground; ordinarily it would have been a simple walk to the barrow but the battle with the wind took us to the limit of our strength. With a sigh I heaved the shaft of my axe against the crude door and knocked.

"Who goes there?" asked a voice, muffled by stone.

"A friend," I replied, "Perhaps we can speak inside? We are freezing to our bones out here."

"Who knocks?"

"I am Ren. With me are Monok, Turin and Pey: three men with only one tongue between them."

The door opened and I ducked inside to find a young Southern woman, weathered beyond her years, standing in the glow of a fire. She was looking past me and I shifted awkwardly along the stone wall to allow Turin and Pey to enter. They greeted their kinswoman in their traditional way – foreheads touching – and I allowed myself a moment of pride. I had promised Turin and Pey – tongueless, scarred and loyal to the last – that we would reach Kelgar's Rest and in this, at least, we had succeeded. The woman was whispering alien words to them and they murmured in response, almost as one. With a start I realised that two small children, a boy and a girl, were staring at me from behind their mother. Caught unawares I struggled to remember my manners, and eventually decided to bow my head to them.

"Isil vai," I stammered, and they responded in kind.

With our formalities complete I looked around the barrow, our promise of shelter. Furs lined a ledge creating a seating area and there was some rudimentary cooking equipment on the floor. A haze of smoke filled the air; the barrow's walls did not allow it to fully escape. One would have to be mad to choose such a place to raise a family; mad or desperate. I was interrupted in my thoughts by Monok heaving himself through the low door and pulling it shut behind him. Turin, Pey and I joined the children on the floor, wriggling our backs to find comfort against the stones.

"I apologise," said the woman, turning to me, "I am Surimay. You are welcome to shelter with us tonight, but you'll find no food here."

"We have plenty for us all," I said.

"How can you bear," growled Monok, "To shelter in a tomb?"

"It will be our tomb before midwinter. We have nowhere else to go."

Monok had the courtesy to look abashed, and the children watched him in confusion.

"I'd rather we die," Surimay continued, "Before they take our tongues."

"What if I told you we come bearing hope?" I said.

Her expression did not change, but she looked to Turin and Pey, who nodded. "Go on," she said.

I hesitated: my plan was too far-fetched, too incredible. I had persuaded Monok, Turin and Pey to follow me but even now they seemed doubtful. If I spoke of my plan now perhaps I too would fall into doubt.

"If you'll permit me, Lima," I began, adopting the formal title for a Southern woman, "I would prefer to show you. The object of our quest lies at the Ruiner, barely an hour's journey from here. I would be grateful if you would accompany us tomorrow."

"Very well," she said, "It will be distracting for the children."

"Wonderful!" I cried, "Now, my friends, I believe we have some salted meat left?"

Our meal that night was a curious one: despite Turin and Pey's muteness they held a conversation of sorts with our hosts. Monok and I were unable to follow and, though he was used to eating in silence, I felt uncomfortable. My thoughts strayed, as they often did, to the children I might have had and the peaceful life I might have lived. I was relieved when the time came to stretch out as best we could on the barrow floor. The little girl took her brother in her arms and sang softly to him. Surimay, however, had rolled away, stiff as a board. Her silence struck me as odd: surely it was she who had taught her daughter to sing, just as her mother would once have taught her?


We woke to find the storm had passed and a fresh, cool wind had taken its place. The sun hung in a brilliant blue sky as we traversed the crag. Below us, mountains rolled into hills as far as the eye could see. I laughed at the sight: how smooth and inviting the landscape looked, yet how steep and difficult had our journey been! Most of my attention, however, was directed towards the children (the boy's name, I had found out, was Vin and the girl another Surimay). They ran ahead of us as we approached Ulrich's Rest, the largest of the crag's barrows, and returned, laughing, to take our hands and show it to us. Though built in the same way as Kelgar's Rest it was now only ruins: the remains of the circular wall gave the children something to climb on and hid tiny flowers among its stones. I let myself be taken in by their games; they taught me their names for the flowers and laughed again as I tried to repeat them. Eventually, with a big sigh, Monok looked at the children and pointed along the crag, towards the cliffs. Seeming to understand his meaning they agreed to continue the journey – provided Monok carried them. We set off again in high spirits.

With a start I realised Surimay was missing. Looking over my shoulder I found her trailing the party, her face hidden by a long scarf. I hung back to speak with her.

"The children have taken to the mountain," I began, "In a way I could not. Too cold and lonely for me!"

"They are happy to see our cousins," she replied, thoughtfully, "As am I. Thank you for bringing them with you."

"They were only too eager to come. It was they who guessed who you might be, when we heard rumours you were here."

"You have not come to take us to safety." It was a statement, not a question.

"Perhaps," I hesitated, "Perhaps if the children – "

"And who are you, Ren?" she interrupted, "Who are you to play games with children? To speak of hope but refuse to share it?"

"I am sorry. My father is the Lord of Komorr. I have helped him to shelter some of your people in our home." She said nothing, "We do not agree with what is being done, Surimay. You must believe me. I do not agree. My father is likely dead by now. As the four of us left Komorr it was surrounded, besieged."

"You chose not to fight?"

"It was hopeless," I sighed, "Monok would have stayed, I know he would. But we still held some hope. Here, on this crag."

The path had narrowed to a ravine, and Surimay went ahead of me. She climbed swiftly.

"Surimay?" I said, "I do not know what I will do, or think, if we find nothing at the top."

"We are close," she replied.

We emerged from the ravine in a hollow near the summit of the mountain, where sheer walls sheltered us from the wind. In the centre was the barrow of the Ruiner, a king so ancient and terrible his true name had been forgotten. The walls of the tomb were long, sharp rocks, stacked together like spearheads in a smithy; each would have required a score or more to lift. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rising against my will. This was a good place to hide.

I stepped towards the barrow, hoping that my companions had not noticed my hesitation. I walked into the shadows between it and the rock wall, my heart hammering in my chest. I was looking for the entrance to a cave – it was likely to be hidden, but would its resident have viewed the barrow as deterrent enough? It was dark on the far side of the hollow and thick moss grew on the wall. Too thick. I reached out and it yielded to my touch like a curtain.

"Here!" I cried.

My voice echoed around the hollow and I thought, at first, that it was growing louder. I was wrong: as the last trace of my voice faded away another replaced it, ancient and terrible.

"Who," boomed the voice, "Who disturbs me in my home?"

My fear turned to excitement: we were the first people to hear the voice of a Scribe in generations! I looked to my companions, faltering between rock and barrow, and smiled.

"I am Ren Komorr," I said to the wall. There was no response, so I turned again to the others, "Monok, your name. Your full name."

Monok gave it, then Surimay gave hers. She also spoke for the children, Turin and Pey. We held our breath, and eventually the Scribe spoke again.


As I hesitated once again, Monok strode forward and clapped a big hand on my shoulder.

"A Scribe on a mountain of dead tyrants," he said, "I'll admit I thought you mad."

"Mad we are indeed," I laughed, "To consider going into this cave. I can go alone."

A quick glance showed me this would not be the case: the children, clasping their mother's hands, did not seem frightened, and Turin and Pey were already preparing torches from their supplies of firewood. Monok peeled back some of the moss as we waited.

"It is narrow," he said, "Single file."

"Take the rear. We'll keep the children in the middle."

Turin pressed a lighted torch into my hand and nodded. I led the way through the moss and into the cave.

My torch seemed to throw more shadows than light as we twisted and turned through the cave. The sound of running water grew louder as we descended, and the air grew warmer until it felt almost humid. After a short distance we entered a low cavern with a pool of water on one side. At our feet and above our heads strange plants forced their way through cracks in the rock. They grew almost straight up or down, with leathery leaves clinging tightly to a thick stem. On each stem was a fruit, like a small red apple. Behind me, I heard Surimay scold one of the children for reaching out to pick one. Her voice seemed muffled by the damp air. Against one wall we found a clue to the Scribe's way of living: a small wooden box, which contained a number of harvested fruit.

With our curiosity sated we continued into the passageway at the far end of the cavern. After a short descent it opened again into an antechamber with a heavy wooden door against the far wall. The Scribe's unearthly voice came again.

"We shall speak alone. Leave your weapon outside."

My hands shook as I leant my axe against the wall. I felt I couldn't stop, couldn't slow down. I could only nod to Monok as he took the big iron latch in his hands. He swung the door towards us and I stepped through.

The cave beyond the door was very different to the one I had left behind. Flames burnt in braziers in the walls and lit up a red-tiled floor. Scrolls were stacked against both walls: some old and crumbling, some much newer. The corridor curved sharply to the left so I could not tell how far this trove of knowledge stretched. As I was wondering if I should walk further the Scribe spoke to me.

"Ren Komorr," it said, and then appeared to wait for me to respond.

"Yes, my lord Scribe," I said, "Please accept my apologies for this intrusion. Long ago you told my ancestor of this cave. We have believed – hoped – that you did so in case we needed to find you, needed your help."

"You are mistaken."

"Without the Scribes we are desperate," I said, a lump forming in my throat, "The land knows only war; there is no justice or peace anywhere. I come on behalf – mainly on behalf – of the Southerners, who have been crushed and oppressed all this time. It started with tongues –"

"Enough," interrupted the Scribe, "The ones you call Southerners: they are the practitioners of the Aural Histories?"

"Yes, my people fear this skill may be comparable to your own." I winced at my foolishness: surely it was a mistake to compare the power of humans, any humans, to that of a Scribe. The Scribe, however, did not show any sign of offence.

"You have come to ask my help, forgetting that my people have tried to placate humanity a number of times over the centuries. You revert to violence without fail. I will not leave this place; your concerns are not mine."

"My lord –"

"My answer is no, Ren Komorr. I would, however, take the two children as my apprentices."

My head was spinning with rage and disappointment: had the creature no compassion? Why ask for the children? I had not heard of the Scribes sharing their knowledge before. A more immediate issue, however, weighed on my mind.

"What of their mother?" I stammered.

"I have no use for her."

"It is not for me to –"

"Then bring her to me!"

With the Scribe showing impatience at last I turned and pushed open the door through which I had entered. I had not thought to compose myself and as my companions rose from the ground they saw the disappointment on my face.

"It wants to speak with you," I said to Surimay.

Monok, stoic in his new role, opened the door for Surimay and she stepped quietly through. I sunk to the floor of the cave and closed my eyes. I don't know how long I sat there for, but Surimay's audience with the Scribe was certainly longer than mine. At one point, I thought I heard her singing. Monok, stronger than I, would later relate how the children sat hand in hand, impassive, as they waited for their mother to return.

Surimay opened the door with a quiet dignity and beckoned the children to their feet. I marvelled at her steadiness, her lack of emotion, as she whispered to them. Finally, after kissing each on the forehead, she stood with the children and gently pushed them towards the door. Monok frowned, disbelieving, and Surimay had to ask him twice to close the door behind the children. It was too late: silhouetted in the corridor, the children had begun to turn and saw us standing, unmoved, in the chamber, closing the door between them and their mother.


I remember little of the return journey. We must have passed through the cave and ravine in silence. By some instinct we paused at Ulrich's Rest and I told my friends of my conversation with the Scribe. Monok said something encouraging. As we set off again I remembered my axe, standing forgotten in the cave. Useless now. As evening drew towards us we settled down once again amongst the stones of Kelgar's Rest; Surimay did not join us. Monok was restless, and after a few minutes he made for the door.

"Monok..." I began.

"It is too easy, Ren," He said, without turning, "Too easy to be alone at times like these."

With that, he disappeared through the door of the barrow and left us in darkness. We lit the fire and waited. When Monok and Surimay returned, her eyes were red.

"Now," She said, "I hope you will forgive my poor hospitality yesterday. Tonight it is my turn to cook us a meal."


Finally got round to reading this - I enjoyed it, and I'd be interested to read more, there's some interesting initial worldbuilding and it sets up a good central "why" question around the events that take place. I think the tongues/oral history bit of it is very cool as well.

A couple of thoughts:

  • You usually intro a scene with description and then almost stop describing anything. More physicality in the rest of the scene would often help, both small things the character notices and a bit more body language.
  • It felt weird that we get zero physical description of the scribe - or if it's still ethereal, that's also not quite clear.
  • I really like ending with food, and the presence of food throughout the story: bringing this sort of travel tale back to its basics is good.
  • Adding a bit more landscape knowledge either from the main character or a travel companion might be nice: the other mountains they can see presumably also have names, stories, etc, and travelling in a land you somewhat know often brings that sort of thing to mind.
The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...


Thanks Jubal I'm glad you liked it. Thanks for pointing out my front-loading of descriptions, I hadn't really thought of that. I suppose I was aiming to write a standalone short story which morphed into clearly a small part of something much larger. This happens to me a lot, so you're probably right I can afford to put more meat on the bones. Keeping the Scribe's physical appearance a mystery was a deliberate decision.


That's fair: I think re the Scribe's appearance you probably need to explicitly address in some way that the character isn't mentioning it or isn't perceiving it (in a longer story you might be able to make the omission clear over time and multiple scenes just with its absence, but a short story needs a bit more clarity).

Anyway, yes, do write more (whether this or anything else), this was good :)
The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...