It was in the year of my great pilgrimage that I first met E’Schat of the Peoples of the Forest, later known simply as Skat. It was a great enlightenment to meet one of the People and to learn that they were intelligent and also spoke a common language with us. It was that initial conversation that made me realize this creature was so much more than the limits of his species. I believe it was the eyes that truly made me see that E’Schat knew more than he was letting on when I met him in the pits. And I largely suspect it was his leadership that led to the large escape of slaves from the peat bogs similar to the ultimate emancipation of the People under his leadership as well.
- From the diary of Maeralya “Mari” Mundondil, also known as Oxfriend
E’Schat sat at the banks of the river. The water flowed and flowed before him, whorls and eddies churning the stream into confluxes of causality, rocks and sticks providing the constant fluctuations. He saw his own life in a thread of the water, saw other threads close to him and others that seemed to cross over and continue on their way. He dipped his hand into the stream and collected enough to wash his face, his own hand creating new whorls and new futures.
He could feel the salt crusted on his eyes and fur falling free as he brought the water to his face. He found again the color of his fur against the white of the salt and was reminded of who he was. He was braced by looking into the green eyes set in the deep black fur, those eyes that looked back at him. Through him.
He shook his head free of the trance and sent droplets of time back into the stream from which they came, turning to ripples quickly being washed downstream by the constant flow.
His mind went back to the day’s work and the sounds of the other slaves around him, washing away the memories of their labor and the inequities suffered upon them by the mine and overseers. It was the only place E’Schat could catch the glimpse of a secret smile, a glimpse of the souls that populated the withered husks of his kith.
The stolen moment was over just as quickly as it started, as E’Schat noticed Rodrik watching him from the crest of the bank, a wry smile on his face as his eyes bore into E’Schat. The overseer was staring at him. E’Schat could see vengeful thoughts dancing behind the cruel windows of his soul.
E’Schat nudged his neighbor, Gor’mul, and went back to washing in the ritual fashion. “Are the People ready?”
“The herd is strong, the herd is good.”
“I will see you tonight,” replied E’schat quietly.
E’Schat finished rinsing himself off and moved to the line of similarly wet slaves awaiting the return to the quarters. The slave quarters were the one area free of guards. While it was hard to fight the exhaustion from long hours working the mines, E’Schat had taken to meeting with the different slaves in the late evenings. There was no candle to aid their conversations, just voices in the dark.
They shared their stories. Shared their bread. When he told them of the slaughter of his village and the story of his people, they shared silent weeping.
With Timnuth’s help, he had been able to speak with the Elves of the Scattered Wind, as they had introduced themselves but gaining their trust had been difficult
“Our people have been wandering the eastern lands,” Timnuth translated for the lean Elven woman. “We have made homes as far apart as the frozen mountains and the humid jungles. It was in one such forest that I was taken by human hunters.”
“Then why are they refusing the help us?” E’Schat asked again, growing frustrated.
Timnuth asked the cadre of Elves the question in a birdlike language with lilting consonants and drawn out vowels. The group numbered six, all told, and were a mix of artisans and warriors. When Timnuth and E’Schat approached, the group moved to carefully flank the woman in the middle.
Again the woman answered and Timnuth nodded as he parsed together what she was saying, slowing relaying the message in pieces to E’Schat.
“’We do have similar origins but it is clear our natures are different. The bulls desire hierarchy and push each other around to assert themselves. It draws undesired scrutiny and you cannot say I am speaking falsely. In the short time you have been here, you have already attracted the guards’ ire.’” The leader motioned to a corner where new slaves were pushing hay around into piles to sleep on for the night. “’The last such minotaurs to test the resolve of the guards was sent to fight in the pits. Association with such a primal, self-destructive person such as yourself will threaten what little peace we have managed to secure while we wait.’”
“Wait? Are you sure about that last bit?” E’Schat asked his human translator.
“Yes. She used a tense that meant ‘temporary staying.’ ‘Wait’ seemed to fit the spirit of the messaged but I confess it has been long since I have spoken Elven,” Timnuth replied, scratching his chin.
“Ask what she means by ‘wait.’”
Timnuth warbled to the Elven woman and she murmured a low response that carried the weight of a curse.
“’I have said too much. I am sorry but I must ask you to leave.’”
The woman nodded to her compatriots and they stood to motion E’Schat and Timnuth out of their circle.
“Very well. I am sorry to have wasted my time here. You can tell them that,” E’Schat directed Timnuth as he walked back to his own bedding. The sound of Timnuth chirping away only helped to frustrate E’Schat further. If only he could get through to them, they would see how they were together in this struggle.
One of the steers who slept near to E’Schat called himself Gor’mul. He was an older, piebald minotaur that wore the adornments of many battles. Teeth and claws hung from a necklace made of thick metal wire. Gor’mul looked up as E’Schat returned to the hay pile.
E’Schat considered the grizzled worker. He had seen Gor’mul at meal times. While the mess hall was crowded and space was fought over like wolves at a bone, other piebald minotaurs always made room for the stocky, old steer.
“Tell me, wise steer, have you been in this camp long?” asked E’Schat.
“Aye, at least a winter has passed since they came to our mountain,” replied the elder.
“And you are comfortable within these walls, wearing these chains?”
“No creature is comfortable wearing chains. I just know that these chains cannot hold what truly makes a person.”
“While that salve is warming to the soul, the reality is that they do hold us and unless you wish your destiny to end with these chains, then surely you have thought about how to break free?” E’Schat was surprised that he was speaking so openly about the concept but he was growing weary of withered spirit he saw around him.
“Aye, and not me alone either. Yet we have seen our number grow thinner as they take the bold among us and throw them into deathmatches for their pleasure. I have watched my sons and daughters get taken away and forced to kill their siblings to the laughter of the guards. It changes a calf, to feel the blood of their kith running down their blade and into their fur to get matted there.” Gor’mul looked down at his bedding and then turned away so E’Schat could not see the tear that had been drawn to the corner of his eye.
“Your tragedy is not lost on me. I too have lost family to these monsters. Gaze upon me and see that I have more story to write and that my destiny is not here among these chains.” E’Schat reached down and put his hand on the old steer’s shoulder. “Should you wish it, you destiny does not have to be here either. All it requires is your faith that together we are stronger and that as one, we can find a way to break these chains.”
Gor’mul smiled sadly at the bull calf. “Aye? That’s all it takes, eh? Your spirit smiles brightly but I have not the capacity to believe in hope right now.” With that, Gor’mul turned to roll over into the hay and sleep.
E’Schat too turned to sleep and pulled the straw close to him. He tried to close his mind to the failures. He would endure them. Even if on the morrow, he charged the humans alone and broke their line to earn his freedom, he would not allow this to slow his plan of retribution.
Neither the scratchiness of the poor cut hay nor the flies that bit at him kept him awake. Instead, it was thoughts of Rodrik and Timnuth, the elves and Gor’mul. How would he, one against the masses, stand a chance if he could not gather others as N’abu had?
As he rolled over again, he caught the light of the moon shining in through cracks of the hastily built walls. He missed his home and thought to the stream of the forest where he would listen to the flowing of the water. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply. It was as if he could hear the song of the forest now and it brought peace to his turbulent mind.
Then he realized that he could hear it. The song of the stones and trees!
He opened his eyes and looked about for the source of the song, one that felt alive and vibrant in this space of darkness. He moved slowly, picking out where to place his hooves among the scattered and snoring bodies about the ground and bunks.
The elves had huddled together and did not hear him approach. They swayed as though in a breeze that only they could feel, yet E’Schat could feel the humid air that flowed about him and breathed the smells of the jungle that were carried on it. Though he had never been there, the elves filled him with the song of their lands.
Without thinking, E’Schat began to join into the song and spoke of his forest. The two songs joined and danced with each other, playfully calling to each other before running away laughing as children do. It spoke of happier times. It spoke of possibility. It spoke of Hope.
When they were done sharing the song of their homes with each other, it was E’Schat’s time to turn away and wipe the tears from his eyes. When he opened them again, he looked to see all eyes in the room upon him. The elves had turned and now smiled with warm understanding. Minotaurs that had been creating their own rhythmic cacophonies in the noise of slumber, woken by the mournful lowing of the bull calf, admired E’Schat silently.
E’Schat was still rousing his conscious mind to understand what had transpired when Gor’mul walked up to him and placed his hand upon the young calf’s shoulder.
“Never in my life have I heard such melody. It seems I was wrong before. Apparently I do have the capacity for faith. Tell me, young bull, how do you plan to break our chains?”
E’Schat looked around at eyes that were affixed to him from every corner of the room. A’Lif sat up with the calf, a mixture of pride and fear to be read in her anxious expression.
E’Schat spoke quietly but all hung on his words, “Only by working together. Tell me, Gor’mul, do any of your people have a shift in the mines on the morrow? I need to trade tasks with them.”
The elves had deigned to speak again with E’Schat after his song.
Their faces were strained. He could tell that they did not like his plan. Instead of explaining it again, he looked directly at the leader.
“What is it that is preventing you from supporting this plan?”
<It is you.> Timnuth translated for the Elven leader.
“What about me?” E’Schat asked, worried
<Aside from your stubbornness and patronizing behavior?> came the cutting reply.
E’Schat grimaced because he knew that he had slowed down his speech even though it was being translated. He could feel the blood rush to his face.
“Yes, aside from those qualities,” he pushed on through gritted teeth.
<It is your anger. We can feel it within you. We could feel it in your song too. Near the end, as you spoke to us about your People. There was sadness, yes. But there was something beside it that, like coals, a patient, latent fire.>
Timnuth succeeded at not smiling from his own poetry. It was not easy to capture the meaning of a person while also finding the elegance inherent in their words.
The Elvish woman reached over to E’Schat and touched him on his chest.
<This is a furnace that will consume you,> she finished.
“And what if it would be better to be consumed? I watched as they killed my tribe. After they were done, they cut from the minotaurs their limbs and built spits to roast them above their fires. They cleaned the arms and legs of fur and then cut the muscle into large cuts of meat.”
He pushed his chest into her hand as he talked. Would she pull it away? He bolstered his words steadily, daring her to feel what he felt bubbling under her hand.
“They cooked and ate of my family. Of my sisters. Of my mother. Of my father. They laughed as they took from my family the very matter of their being. My People were unable to fully return to the stones and trees.
“For this, yes. Yes, I burn with something unquenchable. For that I will ask no forgiveness.”
<I worry that when the moment comes, it will cloud your judgment. Perhaps not today. Perhaps not the night we leave this place. But one day, your dam will burst, and your resentment will wash upon your enemies. What then of your wisdom if it is all forgot in a moment?>
“What pause should that give you that you will not aid me now to escape this place together? To free all these people?”
<Because then your freedom is upon our consciousness. The strands of fate you weave will have our threads interwoven.>
E’Schat thought upon this. How could he earn their trust and get them to help free his people? From what he could tell, they already had some sort of plan and were only biding their time.
“What if I came with you to learn your ways of peace?” He meant it sincerely. “I would give up my anger if it meant that you would help the People, if it meant you would help my new herd, here and now.”
Only then did she move her hand and put it to E’Schat’s cheek and look deeply into his eyes.
<I can see that you believe you speak the truth. For this, I too believe you. I know not whether your promise can be kept against yourself but I believe you would do what you must for your herd.>
E’Schat sighed deeply. Had he been holding his breath or was it truly relief he felt now that he could move onto the next stage of his plan?
“Tell me, Elf, what name do you go by?”
“Thank you, Maeralya. You may call me E’Schat.”
“Hey, Skat! Get your ass back in line!” yelled Rodrick.
The laborers from the mine were marched single file back toward the barracks. The guards harried them to make them move at a clip. Rodrick took a specific pleasure correcting the smallest of E’Schat’s mistakes. To avoid Sten’s retribution, he had not scheduled the creature for the mines but even so, the beast kept showing up at the elevator to descend into the darkness.
The path to the creek and back was the time when Rodrick and his friends in the barracks had the most liberties. The watchful eyes of their commander were focused on the main camp.
Rodrick had been thinking about what Sten had said. What he needed to happen was some sort of accident. That way Sten would have no reason to suspect that it was his hand that had led to the creature’s death. Perhaps in the mines tomorrow, the poor minotaur would wander into the elevator shaft as it was lowering a load of empty carts? Rodrick was not yet sure how he would get the timing right, but he fantasized about the bull’s head slowly being crushed, a turgid red pool spreading over the salt rock floor.
“Hey, Skat! Eyes down! Nose to cloves!” he shouted, with his whip providing a small, bloody punctuation as a reminder.
Rodrick could not stand the beast. How dare this creature even think it was above him? Rodrick had read contempt in its eyes that day in the quarry when the creature rose up to stop him.
It thought that Rodrick was less than. The creature had disdain, for him. He would show this creature its place, whether at the bottom of the shaft or under his boot in the mud.
It was salary day tomorrow. He looked over to his friends, Ashur and Ruben, as they harried one of the slaves for losing the pace. He knew he could count on them. Rodrick could give them some of his monthly salt allotment. They would help him with the beast. He would water his wine on the morrow to help offset his costs. Tightening his salt purse for the month would be hard, but sometimes, sacrifices had to be made.
They gathered in the dark. Not even wisps of the slivered moon interrupted their veil of secrecy. Quietly, each of them sat up from their bedding and moved toward the circle that was forming around E’Schat. He was crouched with Gor’mul and some of the other leaders of the slaves.
“While my time in bondage has been but brief, I will not suffer any of us to stay here any longer. Tomorrow, it has been spoken to me that the guards receive their pay: salt from the earth that we have delivered unto them. That they use to get into the cups and spend the night there. Tomorrow, my Lady Moon will be born again. When she is gone from the sky, the night is darkest. She has bestowed this blessing upon us that we may find in the shade a fortuitous path and be born again ourselves into freedom.
“Our plan is threefold. Wait for the work of our mining friends, make contact with the Elven saboteurs, and move our party under the cover of darkness into the safety of the night. Each will flow into the other.
“I have been working with the miners to dig strategically beneath the camp. My work is fast and theirs remarkably faster. They will pull the support beams at an appropriate time and chaos will ensue as portions of the camp are swallowed whole by the earth we have so diligently stripped bare for them.
“Timnuth and I will go with the Elves to make contact with their people. Any that are silent or fleet of foot may accompany us but the rest should stay here with Gormul to protect the herd.”
In this word, he had started to encapsulate all the slaves that shared the barracks and hay bedding. They were all his herd now. And the herd was strong. The herd was good.
“Those who are able should be prepared to defend this place should any misfortune fall upon our other plans and we are discovered.”
One of the voices in the dark, E’Schat thought it was one of the green skinned orcs, whispered out, “You trust those kobolds and gnomes to not mess this up?”
“I am assured in my working with them that they are competent miners and cunning thinkers that no more enjoy the yoke of forced labor as you do. Of all the pieces of this plan, I trust them and their convictions to die as I would for the herd in the pursuit of freedom. Even in the event of failure, we will have delayed these humans’ operations for the foreseeable future. That alone would bring us honor.”
“And what if honor ain’t enough for some of us?” came again the voice.
“Then I hope the promise of your freedom will be enough to tempt you into helping. If not that, then the riches of the camp can be yours to plunder but only after the herd has escaped the camp. By that time, any alert will be too late and we will be as the breeze through the forest. Unbound, and at our leisure to move as we will through the many mazes our paths will walk,” replied E’Schat.
Gor’mul added, “But now we are as the gentle breeze upon the mountain, ready to turn into the sudden storm. If those that would hold us here thought they could keep us, they will find out tomorrow what happens when one tries to hold onto the wind.”
E’Schat nodded in the darkness. “Then as the wind, be silent. Be patient. Rest well and gather your strength. For on the morrow, we shall find our salvation.”
One way or another, we will free ourselves of this place, he thought to himself.
The various slaves began to return to their bedding as too did E’Schat when he felt a tug upon the fur of his elbow.
“Can I speak with you a moment, my calf.”
E’Schat was surprised to hear the voice of A’lif at his side. For all their time at the camp, they hardly spoke and had barely enough time for each other beyond the quiet eye contact and concerned glances that they cast each other’s way.
“Of course, Sculptor.” He immediately felt it was too formal when it left his mouth. “Sorry, Sister A’lif.”
“No need to apologize, my calf. It has been a trying time for you. Come, let us move to my bedding where we can have some privacy amidst the other Mooncalves.”
“You include me among that number?” E’Schat was confused by her wording.
“I have noticed something within you. I thought perhaps it was just how you were processing the death of the herd. The atrocities that had been visited upon our tribe. But I had seen something in your eye, something deeper. It was not until the night of your song, that I knew. You ate of the agaric and now see as the Mooncalves do. It is taboo for one as yourself and there are some that it does not sit well with, but our order protects our sisters and our calves. And now it will protect you.”
They sat close to the wall and E’Schat could see the small calf had started to take on weight and, even in the darkness, looked healthier than when it had been cut free from the Mother.
“What would you have of me in this moment? To you I owe my first allegiance but I am bound to many now so I can make no promises,” asked E’Schat. He was growing tired and knew he sounded irritated, but he had one last day in the mines to prepare and while he had given his assurances up here, below the surface it had been difficult to draw support. He knew that he still had to push them to get just a little bit further and would need as much rest as he could muster.
“Very well. In this moment, all I ask of you is for you to speak your truth to me,” replied A’Lif. “You talked earlier of the yoke we all are here trying to cast off but I wonder if you see the yoke which you have taken upon yourself. Why do you do this work E’Schat?”
“How can you ask me that? You saw what they did to our People. My truth? I am starting to see that I have taken responsibility for something much greater than myself. I am starting to see that this work may never be finished and should I die tomorrow, then I hope at least some small portion of it was done in my lifetime, by me.”
“And do you have fears of the World Beyond?” she asked, as she had once before. E’Schat could hear the sad irony and he softened. He actually thought to himself and contemplated as she was asking him to do. As she was asking him to speak his truth.
“Sometimes, when I am afraid and keep moving forward, I know I am not a coward. But most of the time, that isn’t true. I worry that I am so afraid that when the time comes, I will be unable to truly lead. I feel as though I am in the shadows of life and I am simply waiting for the sweet release of death that I may join my ancestors.
“When I am in the mines, chiseling away the blocks of salt. I have time to think. Too much time. My life under the ground has been lost in reflection. Have I been trapped thinking about my life to the point that I am not living it well enough? Was this all punishment for betraying my promise to the Mother?”
“Oh, E’Schat… none of this was your fault,” A’lif moved to comfort the bull and touch horns but he pulled away.
“I know. I know it is not all my fault, but I could have fought harder. I could have died there. Instead, I live and carry their story until I can find my honor again. Maybe tomorrow, I will find it in death. Maybe I will find it in freedom. Either way, I will find it. You were my first, and truest, teacher. I hope that you will forgive me this sin, but I must go prepare my mind for death, and right now, hope and love have no place there. This is my truth as I have spoken it.”
E’Schat got up and left to move to his own bedding and while he willed sleep to come quickly, he was again lost in reflect as he listened to the sobs of the Sculptor of the Dead and wondered who, if anyone, would carve his statue when he was gone.