Choices and Debts

Chapter 1

Consciousness returned slowly, and disorientation forestalled an immediate reaction to the new circumstances. For a moment it seemed as if the struggles of the day before and my strength leaving me for the last time were the remnants of a dream, and soon the unpleasant routine of the existence I had known for years would renew itself once again.

The pain throughout my body was the first thing that didn't seem to fit. Had I been punished last night? Maybe my dream had taken on elements of my actual suffering, particularly if I had passed out before they had finished with me. But I didn't seem to remember....

The place I was in was far too bright, and the surface on which I lay too soft, and I seemed to be covered. My eyes opened briefly, then the pain of exposure forced them closed again. But a few moments of adjustment allowed me to see that while above ground I was not out in the sunlight, but in some kind of enclosed structure.

I started suddenly as my vision focused enough to see someone else nearby, a gnome woman with a stern and somewhat distasteful expression. The pervasive and slightly dull ache gave way to intense agony shooting up my legs as I unsuccessfully tried to scramble from my prone position, managing only to slightly dislodge the sheet that lay atop me. The gnome spoke sharply, warningly, before softening in tone to ask a question, but the unfamiliar words held no meaning for me, and after a moment she called out to somewhere else and left.

I tried to sort through my memories. I'd been on the run for what felt like the length of a season but must not have been more than a few days. I'd even nearly been captured again, but managed barely to escape, albeit wounded. By the time I had found myself at the edge of a drop overlooking a wide, well-worn path, my strength had nearly failed me. By some miracle a large cart happened to pass by whose contents looked like it might safely break my fall, and with no other options seeming to remain, I rolled off the edge at what I hoped to be the right moment.

My memory was hazy enough that I realized I must have passed out upon impact. Somehow, my fall had gone unnoticed and the cart carried my unconscious form ...where? I had a memory of being awakened by a jolt and a fall to the ground... and seeing many faces gathered around, staring fearfully and whispering. There was no way I could escape so many adversaries even if I had my strength, and I could feel my consciousness slipping away, along with the last of my hope that I would somehow survive....

Yet I was alive, in this unfamiliar place. Perhaps when I passed out I had been deemed little enough threat as to be better captured than killed? Yet while I was having trouble moving due to my injuries, I was not otherwise restrained....

My attempts to make sense of the situation were interrupted by the arrival of another gnome, this one appearing noticeably younger, who hurried over to my side carrying a small cup. This gnome spoke with a tone that seemed gentle and even a bit worried, but unlike the previous gnome's words, these I understood perfectly.

"Ah, you're awake! You were asleep for a very long time, I was very worried. I... I don't usually see anyone hurt this badly.... Er, I-I brought some water, I imagine you're very thirsty but it's important you don't drink too much too soon or it might make you sick...." The girl nervously held out the cup, while I stared warily at her, trying to make sense of my situation.

The words spoken had been in Draconic, and had been delivered with a casual fluency that had never been possessed by those of my captors who delivered orders in the language. Learning Goblin had been a necessity, not least because those captors who did not speak a captive's language were not always patient enough to wait for someone to translate before becoming incensed that their orders were not yet being obeyed by those who failed to understand them. And if speaking to other slaves was frowned upon, speaking to other slaves in a language not understood by a captor might be presumed downright subversive by the more paranoid. There was a twinge of pain in my chest entirely unrelated to my injuries as I suddenly remembered the last time I had been spoken to truly conversationally in that language, but I kept such reactions out of my expression and forced myself to remain focused on the situation at hand.

The gnome remained, looking kind and hopeful, cup proffered, for more than a minute as I stared at her and tried to decide if this was genuine kindness or deception, and whether I had any real option in either event, but I was becoming aware of just how great my thirst had become and finally accepted the cup, though as stiff as I was it was necessary for her to keep hold of and help me position the cup. In a moment it was drained, but my thirst had not subsided and it must have shown in my reaction as the gnome shook her head and looked apologetic. "Give it a little more time. I'll bring more when it's safe. How are you feeling? Does your head hurt?"

I didn't respond. I wasn't sure how to. If the tone had been demanding, if the words had been spoken in Goblin, perhaps a response would have come, albeit more likely what seemed expected than the actual truth. What was happening now, though, was just too far outside my experiences for it to be at all clear how to respond.

After a moment, the girl began peering intently and moving her head, looking at me from various angles. I kept my attention mostly focused on her, though I did glance about to confirm that we were still, in fact, alone. When she reached for the sheet covering my body, I hissed and grabbed her hand, albeit weakly. She froze, looking startled for a moment, but it gave way to her previous kind-but-worried expression and she added, "I promise, I'm not going to hurt you. I just need to continue treating your injuries. You're still badly hurt, you might get worse if it's left alone...." I searched her expression, but while there did seem to be some kind of uneasiness, she didn't seem to be frightened of me. In the end, I realized there really wasn't anything I could do at this point, so I let go.

The removal of the sheet led to another unpleasant surprise. "Badly hurt" didn't seem sufficient to cover the situation; my wounds had been bandaged, but there were many, and injuries serious enough that I wondered why the pain wasn't overwhelming me even now. I was not merely too stiff to move; one leg was damaged so badly I doubted I would ever walk again. As the gnome worked to clean and rebandage injuries I lowered my head back to the cushion it had laid upon before I awoke and closed my eyes. I hadn't escaped, and now I would never escape again. Would I even be any use, broken like this? What was the point in anyone trying to help me now?

I must have drifted back to sleep as the next thing I remembered was the gnome speaking softly and being offered another cup of water, and finding that I was again covered. Once more, my thirst was too great to do anything but accept the offered water, but this time I felt noticeably better by the time I finished, even if it still didn't seem like quite enough. When the water was finished, the gnome simply remained by the side of the bed I occupied. At length, she spoke again.

"What happened to you? Can you say? It's obvious you didn't get hurt that badly just by falling."

I didn't respond. I didn't know why she wanted to know. I didn't know what it would mean to her that I had been trying to escape. I had no idea if I could trust her, for all that I needed to accept her care to have any chance of surviving....

"Can you tell me your name? Where are you from?"

I remained silent, and she rambled on.

"Ah, I should introduce myself. I'm Illyvalen Mirilas Forlin, everyone just calls me Illyvalen though. I'm studying as a healer, though I can't do any magical healing....

"Oh, and I also study language, which is kind of fortunate I guess because no one else around when you were found spoke Draconic....

"Ah, and this is my family's place; they kind of had an area set up like this already because of me, so they let me turn it into a small clinic. They were pretty surprised when I brought you back here, though. We don't usually see kobolds within the city and all....

"Um, so anyway, what do you do? You didn't get injured like that working or in a battle, did you?

"I, um, I mean, you don't really need to tell me anything I guess, but, um... you can speak, can't you?"

Her expression had grown fairly concerned, and it didn't seem like my own silence was doing anything to dissuade her, so with some effort, I managed to rasp out quietly, "I can speak."

She smiled and looked relieved. "I was a little worried for a bit. It's okay, you don't have to say anything if you don't want to. But if you need anything, don't hesitate to ask."

Over the next few days I saw a few other gnomes and even once a stern-looking halfling as they performed various tasks or simply observed, but only the young gnome from before interacted with me directly. The girl tended my injuries, brought food and water, and spent many of the hours I was awake chatting continuously on various topics while keeping a close eye on me. I started to realize eventually that this wasn't just a nervous habit; she was trying to keep my mind occupied, and often acted relieved the more clear it became that despite my silence I was following her.

Another realization that took longer to form was that this girl was not simply dancing around the subject of my fugitive status; she honestly had no clue where I'd come from or that I might have been fleeing from anyone. From the information she volunteered I gathered that I was in a place called Korranberg within a much larger area called Zilargo. The mountains I had left behind were to the east, but stretched so far north that I had no idea how far I had come from where I started.

While I could not be certain just how far I'd come in distance, I had apparently crossed a great cultural divide. There seemed little chance I was to face immediate physical threat; aside from a war whose ravages were mostly being felt well away to the north, violence was largely unheard of here. An organization called the Trust put any such conflict down decisively, usually before it could come to blows. It was simply an accepted truth that Korranberg was safe. Undeniably, unquestionably safe.

Further, when I finally mustered the courage to ask how much contact Zilargo had with those living in and across the mountains to the east, I was informed that there was almost no contact at all; the territory from whose outskirts I had apparently fled belonged to a place called Cyre, but had been conquered by hobgoblins and declared the "nation of Darguun". This nation was apparently barely tolerated by its neighbors, derided as lawless for its flouting of something called the "Code of Galifar" and its overall propensity toward violence. While I avoided inquiries that might read too directly on my own status, it at least seemed unlikely that I was at great risk of being returned to my captors for now.

As my recovery progressed to the point where I was spending more of my time awake, the girl began to tutor me in the common language spoken throughout the continent. Knowing well how important it could be to understand the speech of those around me, I applied every bit of focus I could muster to memorizing this, which seemed to greatly encourage her; before long she was speaking to me as much in "Common" as Draconic, and she even started in on how the language was written before long. By then I had reached the point where I could sit up without difficulty, and it seemed that writing material was plentiful in this place; a table set by the side of my bed was well-stocked, and I practiced writing various words and phrases during much of the time I was alone. As my understanding improved, the girl began to bring books as well, which provided further opportunity to improve my understanding of where I was and the overall situation.

As the speech of the others who were periodically present became understandable, I had the opportunity to pick up on the occasional conversation. It seemed that I was a common topic of discussion; there was speculation about how I came to be here, how I had been injured, whether it had something to do with some kind of "mining conflict" or even possibly the war.... Apparently someone had noticed the brand on my back, but no one seemed to have any idea of its meaning. Eventually my progress in reading caused them to realize that I understood their language now; rather than restrain their open speculation, however, this simply served to make me a target of their questions. I did not respond to most inquiries, but even my reactions sometimes seemed to give them more to speculate on, despite my best efforts.

Meanwhile, as my strength increased, there was more attention and concern over my damaged leg. Initially, when I was first allowed to attempt to move on my own power, I was provided with a pair of oddly-shaped sticks whose purpose I was told was to allow me to support my weight with my arms. Maneuvering this way seemed incredibly awkward, but it was clear I was still in no condition to stand normally, and I had no desire to spend the rest of my life lying in one place. Those days were some of the most frustrating, as it often seemed like I had only just begun my efforts when exhaustion overtook me and I was being helped back into bed. Yet my endurance did improve, and I eventually moved from needing both sticks to one stick and eventually a simpler cane.

Despite my progress, it was quite clear that my damaged leg was not healing sufficiently on its own and could not take my weight. Illyvalen eventually confirmed that it was going to require magical healing, which was beyond what her clinic could perform. While some of the other gnomes argued with her over whether my case was serious enough, it was eventually decided that the "emergency fund" would be covering my "referral" to another healer.

It was the first woman I had seen here, an apparent relative of Illyvalen by the name of Jeslaryun Mirilas Forlin, who explained the details: The halfling I'd occasionally seen observing the clinic was named Selbrech Kaman d'Jorasco, and his family clinic had taken an interest in Illyvalen's efforts to create a charity clinic out of the very rooms she herself had been cared for in her early years, when it was feared she would not live for very long. While his own oath prevented him from participating in any direct way, he had made a point of both providing advice to Illyvalen in her efforts, and of monitoring those efforts. House Jorasco would not officially endorse a third-party clinic, but word was spread unofficially that he considered Illyvalen's clinic a reputable operation and worthy charity. In return for this consideration, those patients who need urgent magical healing would be referred to his clinic; an "emergency fund" of donated coin was maintained to cover the costs.

The concept of "coin" was in some ways familiar and in some ways new. Wealth was something my tribe had understood well, and while I vaguely recalled the way some of the members treasured personal trinkets that they had acquired, my own understanding of wealth had always been more on the order of what resources a tribe possessed. My recent reading had made it clear, however, that in most places it was up to individuals to find their own wealth and exchange it to meet their personal needs. In Zil society family members looked after each other, but no one seemed to look out for the tribe as a whole, at least in terms of seeing people fed, clothed, and otherwise cared for. It seemed almost like each family was a tiny tribe living together with hundreds of other tribes, tolerating them but not seeming to really care that much about their welfare.

The message Jeslaryun was trying to get across was clear: My further care required a scarce resource, and it was Illyvalen who had pushed to see that that was going to happen. It was also clear from my understanding of Zil society that its members rarely did anything without expecting to see some kind of return on that investment. This was a warning that I was going to owe her, and significantly at that. I found myself returning to some of the books I had read before on the nature of Zil society as I awaited the appointment, now with a new puzzle in mind: trying to imagine what this Illyvalen truly wanted from me.

In the end, imagination proved insufficient to the task. The books I read told me about what tended to drive Zil gnomes generally: an insatiable desire for knowledge and understanding. Perhaps I would be required to sacrifice my silence on the details of my life? Yet of all the gnomes I had encountered, Illyvalen seemed least inclined to pester me for answers to the questions circling around my presence. She could just be biding her time, but that didn't quite seem right. The most consistent traits I observed in her were kindness and consideration for others; if that was a mask for her true intentions, it was one she never let slip for a moment.

So it was on a cold winter morning as I hobbled along behind her down the streets of Korranberg, dressed in somewhat poorly-fitting clothing that she had lent me for the occasion, that I finally chose to be blunt on the matter. "What do you want of me, Illyvalen Mirilas Forlin?"

The young gnome looked back in surprise at my unexpected question. "Huh?"

"You have cared for me for the passing of a season, though I had nothing to offer in explanation or trade. You now offer up your treasures to another to see me made whole. If I am to be in such debt, I would know what price you would ask of me."

Illyvalen stopped walking and turned to stare at me for a moment, surprise shortly giving way to sadness as she broke eye contact and looked to the ground. After a moment, she began to speak much more softly than usual. "When I was a child... I was not in good health. My earliest memories are of being in the very bed you've been resting in, seeing the worry on the faces of family... seeing the pain in the eyes of my parents as I struggled to breathe....

"I... was not expected to survive. My parents did everything they could. Selbrech did everything in his power, but he couldn't offer much hope. When my condition finally started to seriously improve, it was seen as a miracle. The terrible burden I could see in everyone's eyes, the burden of expecting to lose me, disappeared.

"I... don't like thinking about debts. I know how things work here, I know how to keep track of what's owed, but... life... people... are too precious to be reduced to that." Her head lifted at this declaration, and her eyes met mine again as she continued. "I helped you because I want you to live... because it would be too sad if you died and I could have stopped it.... Does that... is that... enough of an answer...?"

I watched her for some minutes as I considered what she had said. I did not know much of gnomes beyond what I had read, but I knew how to read the intentions of those around me, and my instincts told me what I was hearing was a genuine outpouring of how she felt rather than a rehearsed speech intended to elicit sympathy. Eventually, I nodded, then responded more formally. "You have not named a payment as I would consider such things, but I accept your words and will remember what you have asked of me."

Illyvalen blinked in brief confusion, considering my words, then laughed and seemed to brighten. "Heh, I guess I did ask for something there after all. Anyway, we should— huh... that's odd...."

I turned to follow her gaze northward, using my free arm to block out the sun as I focused my vision on the sky; above the distant mountains, a tiny point of light was just barely visible. I had no idea what might cause such a phenomenon, and when I glanced back at Illyvalen she just shrugged and started off in the direction of Selbrech's clinic.

The building marked with the griffon crest was not all that much larger than the wing of Illyvalen's residence that had been converted into a clinic, but the bustle of halflings and gnomes within spoke to a thriving practice. I waited in the lobby with Illyvalen for about half an hour before Selbrech met us, his face showing an unexpected warmth as he greeted the girl. "You've done quite well for yourself. I've been quite impressed with what you've managed to achieve. It does my heart good to know that those who cannot afford our help have somewhere to go. Ah, and this is the mysterious kobold patient everyone's been wondering about. Tikra, was it? I'm Selbrech Kaman d'Jorasco. I understand you need us to take a look at your leg today?"

The brief silence that followed was broken by Illyvalen. "Ah, she doesn't talk much, though she understands Common very well now. But yeah, the leg isn't going to heal on its own. I think a 'Cure light wounds' effect should help, and that isn't too great a strain on the fund under the circumstances."

Selbrech escorted the two of us to a room with a counter, two chairs and a bed that seemed to fold in the middle, raising one end a bit higher than the other. After asking me to sit on the edge of the bed, he proceeded to examine the damaged leg, carefully feeling the bones and muscles, before nodding briefly. "I agree that 'Cure light wounds' should help, but the damage is fairly extensive. There's no guarantee that just one treatment will fix everything. It should do enough to allow you to walk, though." He turned to Illyvalen. "Are you sure that's worth it given the limitations?"

Illyvalen already had a pouch out and was removing shining gold coins from it, handing a total of eight over to the halfling. "Of course it is. We have to try, and to hope."

Selbrech nodded, pocketing the coins and turning his attention back to me. "You should be aware that when an injury has gone this long without magical treatment, the process can be... rather uncomfortable. You may want to brace yourself." I simply nodded; there had been plenty of opportunity in the past for me to become accustomed to enduring pain.

Despite my preparedness, as he touched my leg again with the mark on his arm glowing, the shock of feeling the magic enter me caused me to gasp. A sensation that was not pain and yet was as intense as agony filled my leg as its contents were reshaped.... A few moments later the sensation subsided, and as I stared at my leg I was struck by a sense of dissonance at how rapid and simple an affair this healing had been. Serious injury was rarely visited deliberately onto captives, as rendering one unfit to work was seen as wasteful; yet injuries did sometimes occur due to accident or a captor's inexperience. Injury could be inflicted in a moment, but healing, if it ever came, took time. For someone to be able to take away injury as swiftly as it was inflicted seemed altogether strange, and it was difficult to accept the idea that my leg could be so suddenly rendered intact.

Feeling some trepidation given the incongruity of the situation, I slowly began to lower myself to the floor, keeping my weight supported between my good leg and the bed, then gingerly started to put weight on the newly-healed leg. There was pain, but not of the usual intensity warning that such an act was dangerous. As I shifted, I found my injured leg holding my weight... for all of a few seconds before I collapsed, Illyvalen rushing to my side to catch and steady me.

"Whoa, there. Your leg might be healed, but you still haven't used it in a while. It's going to take time before you can walk normally." She helped me back up to a standing position. "Can you move it all right?"

I experimentally moved the leg, testing its flexibility. There was a bit of pain and a lot of stiffness, but I could tell that it had regained a lot of mobility.... Not all, however; there was a clear difference between what I could do now with that leg and what I had been able to do with my good leg when I was first becoming accustomed to moving on my own. Suppressing a grimace, I responded, "I will manage."

Selbrech nodded. "If you have lingering difficulties, you may want to try the same treatment again in the future... if you find the means to afford it. I need to see to other duties, but I wish you the best of luck with your recovery."

As we made our way back through the city, it was Illyvalen who broke the silence with a question. "So, it seems like you're recovering pretty well now. Do you know where you plan to go or what you plan to do? I know you don't like to talk about what's happened.... I'd be worried, though, if you just left and didn't say anything...."

We continued on for several minutes as I considered this, and I suspect she thought I wasn't going to answer as she seemed surprised when I spoke. "I do not know. I would not choose to return whence I came. If there would be any place for me here, that too I do not know."

"Oh. Well, I don't know for sure either, but, um... you've basically read just about every Common language book I own or could manage to borrow on short notice. I was actually figuring I'd have to teach you Gnomish soon just so you could keep going.... You read faster than most people I know, and you obviously seem to understand what you're reading pretty well. Maybe you'd be good at research?"

This suggestion surprised me, and I thought back over the several stacks of books that had been accumulating on the bedside table. Illyvalen had taken some of them back when I'd finished; perhaps those were borrowed. I realized I had lost track of how many books I had read in total, but there were probably over forty still stacked up right now. There had been a lot of time where I had nothing to do but read....

"Anyway, if you're staying in Korranberg, there are some details to be worked out, but it shouldn't be too big of a deal. You should stay at the clinic until we can be sure your leg is okay, but I can start looking into other options."

There didn't seem to be much else that needed to be said, so we continued back to the clinic in silence.

It was later that afternoon that we learned that the nation of Cyre was no more.