The old woman sits at a loom in front of her hut with a light breeze only gently stirring her waist length white hair. Her pale blue eyes stay focused on her weaving with an attention as unwavering as usual until she hears the voices approaching through the village.
“Then you are a liar! You said I could go into the forest and now you say I cannot,” the young girl shouts, causing the long braid of her sandy brown hair to whip a bit as she angrily turns her head to glare at the man behind her. She is not yet fully grown, the top of her head only coming up to just below his chest. His hair is also a sandy brown only a shade or two darker than hers.
“Talari! That is no way to talk to your father!” the man snaps back before collecting himself to continue in a more even-tempered tone, “And I didn’t lie. You can go to the forest, just not by yourself.”
The old woman does her best to suppress the smile which nearly crosses her face upon hearing her son-in-law’s verbal misstep. Talari stops in her tracks only a few feet from the old woman in order to turn and face her father fully while demanding, “Then let me go with you to the forest on today’s hunt.”
“You know that you’re too young and without the proper training to go on a hunt,” he responds, clearly exasperated as he nearly throws his hands in the air.
“There! You are so a liar! Telling me I can go and then that I cannot again!”
“Tali, my dear, why don’t you leave your poor father alone for a bit. I’m feeling quite hungry and would like nothing more than some of your soup. Would you be so kind as to go inside and make me some?” the old woman requests, hoping to put the argument aside temporarily as she rises and walks over to the two of them, lightly brushing the small girl’s hair with the fingers of one hand as she approaches. At the feel of this touch Talari barely represses the smile which threatens to defeat the scowl she is wielding so brutally against her father.
“Yes, Grandmother,” she replies, incapable of arguing with the elder woman at this moment. She hurries inside, but a thought stops her for a moment before she disappears through. Just before storming inside she shoots a glare back over her shoulder and declares, “But he does not get any!”
Her grandmother smiles at this, her bemusement turning to warm reassurance as her gaze drifts from Talari’s disappearing form to the girl’s father. He looks at the door Talari has slammed behind her for a moment before sighing and remaking, “I wish Jalasi was still with us, Mother Halami. She would have known how to deal with out daughter. I fear I’m at a complete loss on just how to make her understand that I’m only trying to do what’s best for her.”
“Come now, Aggrai, you are too hard on yourself. You do just fine yourself, and my dear daughter Jalasi would agree if she were still with us.” Halami fixes her eyes on her son-in-law with a firm grace and understanding in them as she continues, “It is a child’s job to try their parents, just as it is a parent’s job to protect and nurture their children. I certainly remember Jalasi trying us more than a few times. Admittedly my beloved Kilian thankfully did not depart this world until you had wed our daughter, so we perhaps had an easier time of it than you. Don’t worry yourself too much though. I’m still here to help. Go see to the rest of the tribe with your hunt, and I’ll keep our dear Tali safe. Hopefully I can make her see things more clearly as well.”
“Thank you, Mother Halami,” Aggrai says with a forced smile, hesitating a moment more before turning to walk away.
She takes advantage of his hesitation to say, “No need for such formality. I’ve been a grandmother long enough now to have grown quite fond of that title, so call me nothing else.”
“Of course, Grandmother,” Aggrai responds, his smile becoming genuine as he speaks.
Without another word they both turn away to go their own ways, he to the forest and the tribe’s hunt, she into her hut. The interior is cozy is somewhat small, and made primarily of wood and thatch save for a large stone fireplace and chimney set into the far wall. It is not divided into separate rooms, instead being one large chamber which serves the purpose of all – kitchen, bedroom, study, and library. This undivided nature allows the fire to heat all of the interior evenly. Currently a pot hangs suspended over the fire, warming the stock and water within as Talari gathers the other ingredients for her soup. She wears a dour expression as she goes about her task, but her eyes light up despite of herself when she sees her grandmother enter.
“Tali, I’m glad that we’ll have this time together outside of lessons today, but you should not be so hard on your father. He only wants to keep you safe,” she says as she walks up behind the girl. Talari does not respond, instead she only avoids her grandmother’s eyes while tossing ingredients into the soup, her anger subsided slightly with each one.
“I just want to go to the forest,” she grumbles beneath her breath.
“I know, dear Tali, but it is a dangerous place where one should never go before being properly prepared. Need I repeat to you the stories of goblins who’ll eat you, and faerie folk who’ll steal you away forever? The mystery of just what horrors the coalekei brings to those who meet her? Then of course there’s the more mundane but no less dangerous wildlife – wolves, bears, panthers, and even the occasional humanoid beast such as bandits or madmen.”
“No, you need not repeat the tales to me,” Talari half mumbles.
Grandmother continues with a more encouraging tone, “You’re still a young child, only nineteen, and have not yet begun to learn just how to properly defend yourself against such threats. You’re a quick study though, and it shouldn’t be long before you’ve learned and become competent the basics of crafts, as well as caring for yourself and others. For that matter I would say that you’re already quite skilled at cooking, not to mention your rope making and wood working.
“As you know, once you have demonstrated competence in all of the tribe’s basic skills, then you can begin your training in the arts of both the hunt and combat. After that will begin your training in earnest with magic, assuming that you show both the talent and discipline for it which I’m sure that you will. Such things run throughout the women in our family after all.”
“But how long exactly until I can go to the forest?” Talari asks, her voice nearly a whine.
“As soon as Aggrai can arrange it, whether its just the two of you, or perhaps with a guardsman or two, or maybe even a larger community outing.”
“No! I mean by myself,” Talari returns with a barely noticeable stamp of her foot.
Grandmother can’t hide the worry in her face as she implores, “Oh no, no dear child. Again I say that you mustn’t do that until you’re properly trained. At least until your training at defense is done by around your thirty-fifth year, and I’d prefer that you wait until you are well into your magical training. Say around your fiftieth year.”
“That’s too long! I have to go to the ruin and help the red-haired woman now!” Talari proclaims in near desperation
“Ruin? Red-haired woman? What are you talking about, dear Tali?” Grandmother asks while quickly moving to wrap one arm around Talari and stroke the girl’s hair with the other hand.
Talari sniffles slightly as she explains, “From my dream. They must be in the forest.”
“Ah, a dream,” Grandmother remarks with a knowing smile while still stroking the girl’s hair.
After one last sniffle Talari’s eye’s alight defiantly and she states, “No! It was not just a dream! It was real!”
Grandmother wraps her arm around the girl a bit more tightly while remarking, “Perhaps it was, or will be. The women of our family have never been known to have the true future sight, but we have been known to have prophetic dreams from time to time. Why, your own mother dreamed of meeting you at least a year before you were even conceived, and looking at you now I must say that her description of you was quite spot on.”
Talari relaxes a bit at this, letting herself be drawn deeper into her grandmother’s arms. “Then you understand why I must go into the forest?”
“I’m still not sure, Tali. Sit and tell me more of your dream.”
Grandmother releases her and sits on a stool near the fire, and Talari does likewise before beginning her description.
“It was me and a few others, the only one I could see clearly was the red-haired woman. And it was red like an apple, not orange like the ginger plant. She was beautiful, so strong and fierce. If I was like her, then no would, could tell me I cannot go to the forest.
“We were traveling through a large building, stone and metal for walls and doors, and there were monsters, big ones with horns. There were a lot of strange symbols too, on walls and door frames and odd looking desks and tables.”
Grandmother looks at her with curiosity piqued enough to interrupt. With a poker she fishes a charred bit of wood out of the fire while saying, “Hold, Tali. Do you think you could draw some of these symbols for me?”
Talari nods, sliding from the chair to the floor so hastily that she nearly fails to take hold of the cloth which her grandmother pushes into her hand. Using this cloth to shield her hand against the heat lingering in the charred wood, Talari sets about sketching. It is not long before she has covered the stone tiles between the fireplace and chairs with strange symbols, all with angles and curves so precise as to make it seem as if they would fall apart should their configuration be altered. Grandmother’s eyes widen at the sight of them and she springs from her seat to retrieve water and a thick, coarse rag, startling Talari a bit as she sets to scrubbing the symbols away.
“You did well, Tali. Very precise, and you should never draw these symbols again.”
“Why?” the girls asks more than a bit confused.
Grandmother pauses just long enough to look up at her with a comforting smile, then returns her gaze downward to continue cleaning as she answers, “Because I believe these to be runes from ancient Thirosia.”
“I forgot that I haven’t gotten to the first mortal civilizations in my teaching of the old legends to you. I suppose now is the perfect time to do so.
“After the Progenitors’ War, there arose two primary factions among the humans – the Melexi and the Thirosians. As quickly as the humans breed, these two factions become nations and quickly came to outnumber any faction of our fellow dwarves or those of the elves. Thankfully they were both inclusive societies unlike our old enemies – the Zaltruscan empire. It was more like here in Hanaen with the various human, elven, and dwarvish races living peacefully together. According to the legends, Melexi and Thirosia went well beyond this even, including races now savage such as orcs and goblins, as well as more monstrous types such as giants, trolls, and dragons not to mention the highly reclusive beast-men such as centaurs and satyrs.”
Talari’s curiosity drives her to interrupt, “If we use to be able to live in peace with them, then why can’t we still? How did they become so savage, Grandmother?”
“No one knows, Tali. Of course there are exceptions such as those rare dragons loyal to some of the Zaltruscan nobility, or, if the tales are to be believed, those dragons who choose to walk among us in the guise of mere mortal men and women. Unfortunately the legends fail to discuss just why there was a division between the races, or why some took to preying upon others after the Last Fall of Melexi and Thirosia.”
“The Last Fall?”
“Yes, the legends all agree that both Melexi and Thirosia rose and fell twice, the last fall being around ten millenia ago. It was out of their ashes that rose the Zaltruscan empire as well as the thirty-three counties which banded together to form our free kingdom of Hanaen. The only one of today’s three great nations which existed alongside of Melexi and Thirosia is that of the elves of Lanadalaria to our east. Their policy of keeping their borders almost entirely closed to non-elfs has prevented them from ever growing to the size of either Melexi or Thirosia at their heights.”
“Did either of them ever try to conquer Lanadalaria? How did the three get along?”
“Lanadalarian records are impossible to access due to their absolute refusal to allow any foreigner access to their libraries, or even their oral histories. As a result we know nothing of their history concerning Melexi and Thirosia. The legends I know are also silent concerning Lanadalaria until the Demon Gods’ War. During it the three nations joined forces to stand against the invasion. I suspect that Lanadalari’s growth was so slowed by their reclusiveness that they had not grown to a size worthy of attention from Melexi or Thirosia as distracted as they tended to keep themselves with their near perpetual warring against one another.”
“Why did they fight each other so much when they seemed so accepting of everyone else?” Talari asks.
“They were of fundamentally different philosophies when it came to certain ideas such as governance and the role of society. Thirosia was a magocracy with a highly rigid set of laws and social structure based on what the legends say about them. At first this is as the epitome of order and justice, and then after their first fall and second rise as the height of tyranny and domination.
“Melexi was far different from this. In many ways it could be thought of as a meritocracy. The legends speak of it having no laws, and no set social structure. Instead those with the most strength were followed, though their definition of strength seemed to vary greatly depending over time.
“In some of the earliest legends it was almost always sheer might which made rulers, whether purely physical, magical, or a mixture of the two. This actually led the human kingdom to have non-human rulers such as ogres, giants, and even beast-men on occasion. Oddly enough no legend exists of them ever having a dragon as ruler.
“These early tales of the Melexi tend to paint them a very anarchic and savage folk, but they do not remain that way. Later stories tell of their throne being won by wisdom, courage, guile, and eventually kindness. Over time the Melexi grew into a people embodying liberty, doing as they pleased when they pleased, bound together by a mutual desire to uplift themselves. They were more than happy to unite under a Lord willing to do likewise and only command when the need was dire. Indeed I would go so far as to put forth that they were closer to the Hanaenian ideal than we Hanaenians have ever been.”
“So then the war between them, that was Melexi defending their liberty against the tyranny of Thirosia.” Talari offers her supposition.
With the floor finally scrubbed fully clean again, Grandmother rises and returns to her chair beside the girl, smiling at her as she responds, “I’m sure that was true in those final days before the Last Fall, but you must remember how both empires started according to the legends, Tali. Thirosia as the pinnacle of order and justice. Melexi as a land of anarchy and savagery. It would not be surprising if the original aggressor in the time following the First Rise was Melexi. Of course it seems likely that the legends exaggerate the nature of each to serve as symbols for the heights of goodness and depths of evil which can be found in both order and chaos. I suppose it doesn’t matter though, figurative or not they still destroyed one another.”
“Which one ruled here? It must have been the Thirosians if it was their runes in the forest ruins from my dream.”
Grandmother fixes her with a stare while inquiring, “In your dream did you feel the same as you do now, and did you see any signs of the forest?”
Talari considers for a moment before looking downcast and answering, “No, I did not see the forest. It was all inside. And I felt taller than I do now.”
“Then you were likely an adult and that dream could have taken place at any place and any time in the future, so there’s no point in you poking about the forest looking for ruins, so don’t go about disobeying your father or myself by going out there alone.
“As for your question, its near impossible to say whether Melexi or Thirosia ruled here. Most likely both did at different times. Their wars were many and fierce over the millenia of their paired existences, with both sides taking and losing territory from one another countless times. It has not been uncommon in those ruins which have been discovered to dig a bit deeper only to find that the structure was built atop or onto the ruins of a structure from the opposing empire. In all of those cases the previous structure has been found horribly defaced, with its true origin only barely recognizable if at all. That level of hatred makes it no wonder that the truce brought on by the near destruction of all people during the Demon Gods’ War fell apart within a few short years, even before either empire had a chance to fully rebuild.
“Their armies flailed at each other, winning and losing ground at great costs, losing entire cities and their populations at a time. Finally their most powerful magi and lords were left with no choice but to take the field themselves for a final showdown in the west. During this confrontation both sides released their most powerful magics, destroying one another. When the dust settled the land had been reshaped, the magical explosion having created the great plain in what is now northwestern Zaltruscas, and also having sunk the westernmost third of our continent beneath the ocean. It is said that the capital cities of both empires were in the sunken region: Melexi’s far to the south and just north of the peninsula now known as the Blade; Thirosia’s just west of the peninsula now known as the Dragon’s Tail in northwestern Zaltruscas. And so it was that not even a quarter century after prevailing in their fight for survival during the Demon Gods’ War that both superpowers died.
“I believe your soup may be done, Tali,” Grandmother remarks as way of letting it be known that her telling is done.
Talari had forgotten entirely about the soup, and leaps up at its mention. After a quick taste she ladles it into bowls for Grandmother and herself before giving voice to her various wonderings. “Is it possible that the races now savage only became so as a result of the hatred between Melexi and Thirosia? Do we still have knowledge of the magical formulas that they used? If they are both dead, then why does it matter if I were to draw their symbols again?”
Grandmother chuckles then sips the soup before speaking. “Delicious as always, and you my dear are as inquisitive as always. Give me time without further questions, and I’ll do my best to answer those you’ve posed.”
She pauses for a moment to be sure of Talari’s silence before continuing, “It certainly is possible that the old hatred could explain why certain races turned to savagery, but there’s no way we can be sure of that.
“Some formulas have survived, but none of the most powerful ones described in the tales have been found. A small number of magically imbued artifacts have also been found, but those we know of are relatively minor and mostly can be thought of as conveniences.
“As to why one should never draw the symbols, that is two-fold. Firstly, if those symbols play a part in Thirosian magic, and if that magic does not require active empowerment from one’s soul in the same way our magic does, then one could accidentally activate a Thirosian formula, perhaps catastrophically so. The second reason lies n the post script to most of the legends: ‘these great empires have risen twice and fallen twice already, and one day they shall rise again, but with their third and final fall they will drag the whole world with them into their deaths.’ I personally feel that both of these reasons have very little chance of being true, but with such potential for a disastrous outcome it is not really worth taking any chances. Is it, Tali?”
For a few moments Talari considers the floor where she had so recently drawn the symbols before she finally relents with a sigh. “I suppose not, Grandmother. I still really want to find out for sure though.”
Grandmother smiles at this as she rises and moves toward the door. “Of course you do, Tali. You’ll have to be patient in your research though. After all, you’re not a human with but a few decades on this world, you’re an Ansvari dwarf with four or five centuries left in your life. You have time to learn all that you want while using proper caution in the pursuit.”
She continues speaking even as she pauses at the door long enough to make sure that Talari is still following her. “For now though, I believe it is time for your next weaving lesson.”
Talari’s scrunched up brow foretells objections which fail to find a voice when met by the older woman’s short-lived glower, and the pair move outside to the loom with momentary silence.