For Kith Or Kin Prologue

The Clashing Flats, Midsummer

THE LINES ON the old goblin's face were like crevasses, old as the world, secret as stone, carved by primordial rivers now long dry, and forever nameless. His hands were lean and crooked, showing stark ridge-lines of dark veins beneath, jagged nails like flaking stone daggers unearthed in a forgotten village. His old robe - if robe it could be called, for it was merely a blanket transcended to ceremonial import - did nothing to conceal razor-edged shoulders, and the sharp angles of his frailty.
Outside the shallow burrow (for it was not grand or eternal enough to deserve the name cave) the dry, cool breeze of the plains night sang its gentle song, rushing through the grasses, picking up the dander of the cotton, and slyly quaking the apple orchard, punctuated by the dull thud of a fallen overripe apple, coaxed from its bough by the wind's caress. From the cradle of the tree, it would lie in adolescent abandonment on the cold ground, until a slave came for it at first light, and judged whether it was 'fit for the jug' (a term meaning the fruit was of good enough quality to be fermented into the throat-scorching cider the orcs so favoured). And above the vivid, painterly swirls of roses, and golds, and ultramarine, and a dozen nameless hues, cut through by pinpoints of scintillating white, so bright to defy mere whiteness, arced sentinel against the inky, eternal black glimpsed beyond.
The younger goblin had been told by the elder that this night-time miracle was another world. One populated by noble ancestors, who yet protected the living below from whatever lay beyond, in the dark. He described it as a rich, wet land, where the very water shone with colour and health, swirling and mixing and separating like chromatic tides, and when he spoke of it the elder's milky eyes shone with a vigour they must have possessed in youth. But try as he might the student saw only the same sky he saw every night. Undoubtedly beautiful, but familiar.
And within the sacred burrow, a mere tunnel, meticulously hidden from without, the heart of sanctity to the slaves of the plantation, amongst the smell of wet earth, and rot, and the close heat baked into the earth by the erstwhile sun, teacher and student, elder and youth, sat together as they doubtless had for generations in sacred places, and while one talked at length upon the ways of the world the other listened, in silent, reverent scepticism. But today's lesson had not been on the sky, nor the world beneath it, nor the apples of the orchards or the cotton of the fields.
Today the elder spoke of death.
Banrejo held up his gnarled hands before him, palms towards his face, at rest "These, my own hands, can be used to attack a foe, certainly. But young-one, what you must grasp is that to attack is not to kill, and to kill is not to attack. I may attack another, and perhaps if he is harmed this will lead to his death, yes. But Ho'i teaches us, that if I do not attack, but take these same hands, and merely kill him, the result is more certain. You understand? The method is uncertain, but the intention, that is pure." and he nodded his head, like a swan taking water, shaking his lank white locks.
"Now," the elder spoke again in tones parched by age, not thirst "the hour grows late, or perhaps early, and you must away. You have duties to attend, and the day is not a time for such lessons as these." and Chimir knew that that at least was undeniably true.
The painted sky was another world, the elder said. A better world. What would that look like, the younger man wondered.
Was a better world one in which goblins and orcs lived and worked side by side, not as slave and master but as partners - as friends? As family? Or was it one in which the Padishar Empire had never come to the Clash, and the chalna were still safe and free in their marshland villages, the orqs in their vast squalid cities? Could there be peace, be brotherhood between such different peoples, or were they doomed to forever cut each other with secret edges and crush each other with oppressive weight until they were torn apart?
Chimir gave a rueful, conflicted sigh before he realised it, then snapped his thin lips shut quickly, glancing up at Banrejo from under his brows. But if the priest had heard Chimir, he seemed to give no sign. The house-slave was considerably younger than Banrejo, his skin without wrinkles or pocks, a shade of green that could match the apples the orchard outside, but there was scarcely more to him than the emaciated priest. He was not large, even for a goblin, but what there was of him was made of leather and oak. There was a slight crookedness to his limbs that spoke of broken bones healed not quite perfectly, and a fair number of scars both from ill-use and the simple rough-and-tumble of life amongst the Quzmet family. Dark, flitting eyes focused on Banrejo as he spoke, and Chimir listened intently, still hungry for knowledge despite the confusion it often caused him.
It seemed tonight would be little different. To kill, but not to attack… Riddles, sophistry, priestly clap-trap… or a subtle truth? "The difference is… determination," Chimir said cautiously. "If you attack, you have resolved on an action. You attack, and your determination does not go so far as the culmination. If you kill, you have resolved on an objective. Your determination pushes forward through many means to one ends."
Chimir watched the elder, anxious for approval.
Banrejo regarded the smooth-faced Chimir, ancient eyes searching, and again the student felt that the priest looked, not for an answer, but something beyond an answer. Some impossible, ephemeral realization that could only go unspoken.
Eventually he nodded, though his face betrayed nothing of his feelings "Tell me Chimir, if your enemy is mightier than you, far too mighty to defeat, how will you overcome him?"