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Grak hates olives. Truly. If there were one point of supreme importance to understand about his habits or character, this would be it.
Admittedly, a detail of this sort appears on the surface to be a mere quirk. Thus, one might feel tempted to dismiss it as an insignificant ingredient in Grak’s nature. But that would be an erroneous assumption.
Only upon closer examination can one discover the trait’s true value. Much like a root, it both feeds the man and reveals a profusion of information about his very essence.
Perhaps greatest among these insights is the rationale behind Grak’s antipathy for the fruit. His chief source of complaint stems from the berry’s abundance. As is often the case with things of plenty, olives have become routine. And Grak does not like routine.
Though, to be fair, he does appreciate certain routines. If circumstance prevents his evening dip in the hot springs, he gets cranky. This is especially true if that day consisted of hunting or some other equally taxing activity. Grak describes his “hot spring dip” routine as “enjoyable.”
But some routines only bring grief for Grak. Whetting his toenails falls into this category. And yet he finds the practice as unavoidable as rising from sleep. And nearly as deplorable, which is saying a lot. He would do away with waking if it were possible, but has yet to find a suitable approach.
Likewise, as much as he disdains crafting his toenails before the day begins, Grak finds the chore inevitable. And not because it reduces the occurrence of torn nails. While a pleasant benefit, that was never his aim.
No, his purpose has always been for the sharpened point itself. By his estimation, it provides a hidden advantage should he find himself in an unfair fight without the upper hand.
Needless to say, the tribe does not ask this of him. In fact, when others noticed the habit, they agreed without dissent that they considered it “rather queer.”
But Grak is not keen on sharing the reasoning for his secrets with the camp. He fears that doing so might rob him of that needed edge. Thus, the tribe has no choice but to assume the practice derives from his “rather queer nature.”
And, of course, comments such as these only serve to renew his determination (and bolster his contempt) for the task. Grak describes his “toenail whetting” routine as “regretfully necessary.”
But olives … now there’s another beast altogether. Grak has never liked olives. Even as a boy, he found them “awfully bitter” and “poorly textured.” And if that weren’t bad enough, they also had a cruel way of leaving his face in an abnormal puckering state.
The other children would, of course, make matters worse by calling him names. “Puck” was their first choice, and perhaps the least derisive. In fact, Grak’s longing to be considered “good natured,” even led him to occasionally admit it carried a ration of humor.
But when they began to address him as “Tum-Tum,” that poured a sadness into his being. It whispered, “Your friends are looking down on you. They think you’re weak,” and Grak considers that to be cruel and unfair. Especially since he finds himself faultless in the circumstances surrounding the name’s origin.
It grew from the handful of incidents where his stomach turned when he spotted the vile berries being served. On the first of these occasions, after a public display of vomiting, Grak became embarrassed. Attempting to redirect blame, he pointed toward a spreading illness as the cause.
And much to his surprise, that approach found success. But only at first. By the third occurrence or so, it had been some time since anyone else was unwell, and his guise crumbled. The name began soon after.
Grak believes this series of events was also responsible for the development of his most hated nickname: Olive. The constant reminder of something so despised was bad enough. But when one mother heard the teasing, she liked the name so much that she bestowed it on her soon-to-be-born daughter.
Within a few snows, the moniker became a trend among girls. Though none call him by the name anymore, he still hears it often, and his heart twinges ever so slightly.
But even a tragedy like that might have been bearable were it not for the fruit’s unrelenting presence. No matter where his people set up camp—olives! Several times he thought he had a run of fortune, but then a foraging party would return days later and suddenly—olives!
And not just a few olives turn up, but an overwhelming supply. “Yay! We have so many olives to eat!” the tribe declares giddily. But this only drives another pin into Grak’s soul.
Even when the days turn cold, he finds no relief. Hysteria drives his clan to gather every olive they can find and submerge them in clay jars filled with brine. “We don’t want to run out of olives!” whimpers the worried bunch. And Grak feels alone in his knowledge that this only makes the things more repulsive.
No. No escape from olives for him. Grak describes the “forced olive consumption” routine as “appalling” and “abominable.” But most often he simply refers to it as “depressing.”
Of course, there’s much more to know about Grak than his contempt for olives. Such as his love of the color blue. Or its connection to his roughly equal feelings of fascination and fear toward the sea.
Or his guilty pleasure of seeing children scolded, embarrassed, or falling down. Though if they’re more than mildly hurt, he does feel concern; he’s not a monster.
Or his love of ponies. Grak does love ponies.
Or his hyper focus on every detail, especially ones he deems unpleasant or disruptive of the few pleasures he does find. Like when someone reprimands a pony for biting a child.
Or the collection of leaves he keeps stashed away in a leather pouch under his pillow. While they tend to get damaged there, it’s the only place he’s found that’s so secret even Doran won’t stumble upon them.
Or his best friend, Doran, who was the only one to resist calling him anything other than “Grak.” Although, the man did privately express a concern for his friend’s “severe and unusual hatred of olives.”
Because that’s what it always comes back to with Grak: olives. Really, that just sums him right up. More than anything else. By far. He hates them. A lot.
* * *
Doran squats down to inspect the chair’s seat. Grak finds his posture quaint, but suppresses a smile so as not to offend the man.
After a long moment of careful examination, Doran stands with a look of wonderment. “I’m impressed, Grak. This is almost up to Groka’s standard.” He furrows his brow in confusion. “But tell me, why do you insist on perfecting your chair crafting? Some say we have too many as it is, moving around as often as we do.”
Grak’s ears are still buzzing with the compliment. “Groka’s standard? You think?”
“Oh yes, I thi—” Doran squints and bends over. “Oh, what’s this gouge here?”
Grak is quicker this time. “And what of this seat? How does it compare to hers?”
Doran tests it. “Hmm. Regretfully, not as good. Perhaps if it didn’t wobble so much. Hers usually have fewer splinters too.” He pulls one out of his thigh.
“Fewer, you say?” Grak wonders if he can pass it off as intentional. “So you believe I should make it like every other chair? You think that would be an improvement?” He’s feeling a little offended now. “Who would want a chair like that?”
Lago looks to Frolan with a final, speechless request.
The brute returns only a cold resolve. “Go,” he says.
The tribe watches in silence as Lago climbs the path leading over the hill and down to the shore beyond. His back is slumped and his step is shaky. As he reaches the top, he stops for a last, remorseful look at his former people. Then, Lago turns and descends.
In this somber moment, a realization hits Grak. Well, three to be exact. Realization of the need to be more precise in his schemes. Realization that the tribe takes some prodding, but quickly becomes unstoppable. And realization that he’s responsible for the tribe’s meals now, but lied about ever having cooked before. This last one consumes his thoughts as he walks to his tent.
How does one turn an animal into food?
Grak never knew he hated cooking until yesterday when he prepared a meal for the first time. His decision was not made in haste, however. Numerous elements contributed to the sentiment.
What he found most annoying was that the choice to cook was not his to make. At least, not in the strictest sense of the word “choice.” Or rather, not according to Grak’s definition of it. He felt the responsibility was forced on him. “No other option” was his analysis of the matter.
And yet, despite this abuse, he approached the duty with a willing mind. After all, the process seemed simple enough at first glance:
- Put food things in the pot
- Start a fire
But step one proved more challenging than it let on. Of course, as is usually the case in situations of this sort, the first two legs weren’t the problem. They folded easily enough into the pot. The last two, however, those were the real challenge.
Grak surveys the nearby tents. No one of any use is about. Loren is there, but Grak doesn’t feel right about placing her in the “useful” category. Though he does find himself curiously drawn to the woman’s vain efforts to feed her angry child.
Angry and homely, if I’m being honest.
Unfortunately, he lingers too long, and the woman spots him. She waves. Grak returns the gesture, remembering to add a polite smile. But, in the act, he realizes it might be too much kindness. He reins it in a bit.
Best not to welcome conversation. I’ve already won her husband. No need to waste time with her as well.
But this proves unsuccessful. Loren signals him over. With no other choice springing to mind, Grak obliges.
“Hello, Loren. And Olive … uhh … what are we up to?”
“Yes, of course. Good number.” Not true. Grak finds it distasteful. Though not so bad as twenty-two.
“So, given that,” concludes Wanda, “why would we go?”
Grak fends off drowsiness again. “Good. Thank you, Wanda.”
He checks his shadow. Nearly dusk. “Brak? You’re next. And please keep it brief. We’re running out of time.”
Brak steps forward. “Um, well … if we don’t travel first thing tomorrow morning … there’s a good chance we’ll all die.”
Grak is impressed. “Wonderful! Short and to the point.” His respect for the man just grew slightly. “Olive Thirteen?”
She looks like a lost doe as she attempts to answer. “I … um … wasn’t really paying attention to Tabo’s reasoning earlier. So it’s unclear.”
Grak motions impatiently. “Just do your best.”
She shrugs. “Alright. So … I suppose it could be an omen … because … well, if you see something … then you never know.”
Grak is fine with that response. “Good. Cordo?”
The man rolls his eyes. The exaggerated movement causes his mole to flex in an unnatural way. “I have no idea. Travel can be dangerous … I suppose. But so can not eating. Much more so, really.” Several in the crowd glare at him for deviating from his assigned viewpoint.
But Grak is just happy to have everything moving along. “Excellent points. Tabo?”
The man shrugs. “Well … I suppose if we build a floating cart, we could find Doran’s creature with greater ease. If others can see it, that is.”
He ponders the idea for another moment. “Also, the floating carts might make for faster travel.” Several in the crowd chuckle at this suggestion.
Grak leans closer to Brak. “Travel where? The deer are in the opposite direction.” This garners a suppressed laugh from the man.
“There!” He points. “Get the one on the left!”
Zacha fires. Her shot lands in the hind leg of the trailing creature, causing it to tumble through leaves and dirt. It attempts to get back up, but a second arrow follows fast and pierces its chest from the side. The cat collapses, twitching. Life ebbs out.
“I said, ‘the left’!” Grak shouts. “How are we supposed to accomplish anything if you can’t follow simple directions?”
“Sorry. I was aiming for it, but the other one got in the way.”
While Grak finds her penitence satisfactory, he feels a reminder is important here. “Well, do better next time!”
An ample warning. Short and to the point. Well done, Grak.
Unlike Ruch, Zacha does her best to stay silent, perhaps considering it more dignified. But she doesn’t last long. Her determination is soon overpowered, and she begins to groan in pain.
But these groans are of a different sort than Ruch’s were. And not just because of the amplification that comes with the woman’s abnormally large mouth. No, these are more heart-wrenching. From deeper inside, as though forcing their way through a failed show of courage. These hit closer to the heart for Grak.
They echo of his ninth snow: his mother’s last. He had made the case against disrupting a good thing, but she and Sando wouldn’t listen. Complications had delayed the second child for too long, and they were blinded by their own happiness. A cruel irony that the baby should be so unkind to her.
Grak reels about, prepared for the worst. But the newcomers only appear confused. And none have weapons drawn. Plus, the strangers are outnumbered fourteen to eight. Quickly taking all of that into consideration, Grak opts to restrain himself for the moment.
Still, best to keep a watchful eye. These people are far too silent in their movements. Could be surrounding us as we speak.
“Oh my, there are quite a few of you crouching down there. And you all have pointed hats,” says the voice, now connected to a man with blond hair and a harsh, thick face. Harsh except for the man’s eyelashes, that is. Those are long and delicate, contrasting sharply with his other features.
Like a woman’s lashes. Still, a striking effect. Almost enviable.
The remainder of the group looks much the same. Minus the luxurious eyelashes, of course. And they’re dirtier than Grak’s people, though he can’t tell if that’s grounds for suspicion. Nonetheless, he feels more comfortable taking his “suspicion is the best policy” approach.
“Dernue insists we take their surplus, which is far more food than we’ve ever been able to catch. Even more than we could catch with your strategies, I imagine. No matter the speed of your kills, these ones are already dead.”
Grak recognizes the need for a heavy tone. “Are the tribe’s difficulties amusing to you? And, you’re wrong about my strategy. It would have done far better.”
In hindsight, Grak sees wisdom in avoiding such boasting from now on, no matter how difficult it is to resist. He just can’t take the risk now that the tribe has demonstrated a persistence in seeing him uphold his claims.
“My strategy favors larger kills, so it’s more efficient,” Grak adds. Just that last one, but now he’s done.
A troubled murmur races through the crowd. This is bad. And it promises to be worse should Grak allow it any longer.
Think quickly, Grak.
He turns and strikes Cordo with the back of his open hand. This stings. Quite a bit, really. And while he does a moderate job of hiding that fact, he’d rather do without another go. Also, he’s fairly certain he touched the man’s mole in the process, and that concerns him to no end.
Can those things spread? Best not to find out.
Grak rubs his hand on his tunic, then turns to Frolan. “Hit him again.”
The unorthodox nature of the order startles the brute, but he quickly gathers himself and obeys. His strike lands hard on Cordo’s cheek, causing the man to reel back and nearly lose consciousness.
Oh, curling the hand into a fist. Of course. Well, I was trying to take it easy, but perhaps I was being too merciful. So, how did he do it exactly?
“Again.” Grak watches closely this time.
Ah, much better. Yes, I could make that work.
With that punch, Cordo’s senses leave him, and he crumples, dangling from his restraints. Frolan looks to Grak for further orders.
Grak nods. “That should do. Wake him up, though, so he feels the whipping.”
Grak sighs. “This again?” He rubs his brow. “Always trying to find a way to wiggle out of blame, Jafra. Can’t you take responsibility for your actions? Just once?”
“That’s just it, Grak. I do take the blame for what I did to you.” She’s on the verge of tears now. “I know her death was my fault. Even after so many snows, I still feel the guilt.” She takes a breath to steady herself. “But I can’t let that force my silence any longer.”
Grak is confused. “So, you’re here to convince me of your guilt? Because you really don’t need to waste my time. You know I’ve always agreed. It’s Sando that needs convincing.”
Something else she said suddenly clicks. “And what silence? What madness are you up to now?”
Jafra picks up his statue. “This. I can’t keep silent about this anymore.”
Grak rolls his eyes. Now it’s clear where she’s headed. “Yes, I know. But it’s not like Frolan has much experience working with wood. And it’s really rather boorish of you to make fun of the fellow over it. Besides, I’d like to see you do better. Might do you some good to thank me for all I’ve done for you. And all I’ve done for the tribe.”
“No, Grak.” Her tone hints of frustration. “The arrow.” She takes a calming breath. “I can’t keep quiet about the arrow. Not with the entire tribe’s well-being at stake.”
The discussion concludes, and Cordo steps forward. “The council would remind you of the ‘definitions’ addendum to the ‘correction and mercy’ policy. It describes ‘immediate’ as ‘happening or existing now.’ Clearly, this danger you speak of does not meet those criteria.” He hands over a clay tablet.
Grak slowly turns his head away, careful to make an obvious show of the slight. Nothing that man has to offer is of interest. Nor is it needed in this case, as Grak has every tribe policy and addendum committed to memory. He simply hoped the council wouldn’t remember such a small detail as that definition.
Grak addresses Jafra again. “Fine. I won’t whip you. Out of the kindness of my heart. But I will put an end to this meeting. It’s an unauthorized gathering. And let me remind you of the ‘tribe gatherings and meetings’ policy. It strictly bans any grouping of three or more people unless specifically authorized by me. And I hereby remove my authorization from this meeting.”
The council huddles together once more as a murmur of concern ripples through the tribe. Aza and Sabo seem firmly on Grak’s side for this one.
There’s a welcome sight. Maybe something’s starting to turn my way.
The discussion ends quickly, and Cordo steps forward. “Very well. But let us remind you of the ‘planning and scheduling’ policy. It clearly states that the power to organize and schedule camp activities rests with the council. Therefore, we hereby schedule a new meeting, which will commence now.”
“That’s fine,” Grak replies with a smile. “Just get it authorized first.”
Grak cradles Brak’s cheek. “Sweet, simple, Brak. We’ve gone over this before. It’s only because of our people. They just don’t think very highly of bald men. More than bald women, sure, but not by much. I would love to give you greater responsibility, but first we have to get your hair to grow in.”
Brak takes that far worse than expected. “But I can’t do anything about my baldness! And besides, it’s never hindered me. I’m just as capable as anyone else.”
Grak puts on the most empathetic demeanor he can muster. “I know that. Obviously. That’s why I have you at my side, sweet Brak. But it’s hard to change the tribe’s mind. You’ve seen that first hand, haven’t you?”
Brak shrugs. “I suppose.”
“And I aim to prove them wrong, Brak, my friend.” An idea pops to mind. “And that’s why I’m offering you this opportunity. I want to show the tribe that you matter.”
Brak shakes his head in sorrow and disbelief. “But I always mattered before. I had friends. And influence. It’s only when I became cook and your servant that I lost all of that. I didn’t even know what I had until it was gone.”
“And you’ll have it once again, Brak. You will!”
“How? As long as I’m your servant, what respect does it grant me? I need more than that.”
“Absolutely.” Grak thinks quickly. “Actually, I was just thinking the other day that you would do very well in overseeing the tribe’s horses.”
Brak looks offended now. “Wha … why would I want to do that? And how would it improve my respect among our people? No, Grak. I want to be on the council.”
Grak pauses, letting the tribe’s anger grow into a frenzy before continuing. “So I ask you, what mercy remains for such an incorrigible
Numerous derogatory shouts aimed at Cordo make their way through the roar. The tribe is barely contained now. In fact, Grak is fairly certain they’d rip the man apart if allowed. He considers that.
An interesting thought. But no. This honor is mine. And mine alone. I’ve worked too hard to share it now.
The captives increase the fervency of their pleas but are still drowned out. Grak smiles and holds out a hand toward Frolan. The brute passes his knife without hesitation, eliciting a new outburst of cheers from the crowd.
Grak’s thoughts are interrupted by a steadily rising noise coming from somewhere off in the distance behind them. What began several moments ago as a low, indistinct rumbling, now bears an eerie resemblance to the sound of running feet.
A thousand fearful thoughts race through Grak’s head as he turns to identify the source. His eyes widen and his stomach sinks. They must have come from the tree line. And they’re closing in fast. Grak can’t make out any faces, but he has little doubt.
“Cordo!” shouts Frolan, rage burning in his eyes.
Of course the wretch would strike now. While our forces are split. He must have been waiting for this. Probably orchestrated the whole thing with those strangers and their scum-filled smoke!
“Frolan!” Grak’s shout is unnecessary, given the man’s proximity, but urgency takes precedence. “Launch the defense protocol!”
Frolan removes the horn from his belt and gives it a single, powerful blow. The sound carries over the open terrain, likely to meet little resistance before reaching the guards on the trail.
“Fire!” comes the shout from many voices at once.
The alarm sounds again: seven blows to signify “an urgent threat posed by an individual or group.” Grak sighs.
Maybe we should change the alarm system. Far too complicated as it stands.
He sighs even deeper.
Oh, but what does it matter? I’ve lost control, Lago. Eighth fire in five days. And how many unauthorized killings in that time? I’ve lost count. Perhaps you were right. But I was so certain Escha’s announcement would calm things.
Grak peers outside. He’s learned it’s best to stay in his tent when danger abounds in camp. Too many people running around. Too much violence. He closes the flap.
“Kunthar!” shouts Grak. “I suggest you come alone and unarmed to a meeting on our side of the river.”
The stranger quickly discusses the idea, then shouts back, “I don’t know if I can trust you. Why don’t you come over here?”
Grak didn’t expect that reply. “Well, I don’t know if I can trust you either!”
Kunthar’s response is quicker this time. “Well sure, but realistically, only one of us here has held the other one captive.”
Grak opens his mouth to deny that, but stops short, unable to think of a way to deflect the point. He turns to Frolan for more ideas.
The brute simply blinks. “By neutral, I meant somewhere in between.”
Grak laughs derisively. “In the water? Get realistic! That’s the worst idea you’ve had yet.”
Frolan’s expression remains unchanged. “Actually, I was thinking of the ford just upstream. It seems far enough away from both tribes for everyone to feel comfortable there.”
Grak stops laughing. “Yes, that was my idea. Just wanted to see if you could think on your feet. Chances are, you’ll have to put up with
Kunthar’s mocking during the meeting, so I wanted to prepare you in advance.”
Frolan nods. “Yes sir.”
Grak breathes a quiet sigh of relief and turns back to Kunthar. “Let’s meet in the middle!”
The stranger lets out a hearty and exaggerated laugh. “In the water? Tha—” He stops abruptly as Dernue whispers in his ear.
Grak rubs his brow and yawns. “I don’t understand how there’s any disagreement on this one.” He signals, and the guards stop beating Loren.
Not such commanding ears after all, eh Loren?
Brak rushes over to cradle her head. “Sir, she meant no dissension. Please. It’s just that we’ve all seen so much bloodshed lately. Everyone’s on edge. It really doesn’t seem like anyone would want another battle. Especially when the fight has such a potential for loss.”
Kando nods. “He’s right, Grak. There’s no way around Frolan’s report. We’re outnumbered two to one. The odds just aren’t in our favor.”
Grak describes hotheads as both “irrational” and “infuriating.” And they’re consistent classifications too. So regular, in fact, that he
once considered creating a new category combining the two. Fortunately, prudence triumphed in the end, and he decided that would be far too brash a move. The kind only a hothead would make.
A hothead like Brak. That vile, stinking rat, Brak!
Grak once again attempts to banish that line of thinking and concentrate instead on the task at hand. After all, conventional wisdom would suggest that one focus on avoiding drowning in a situation like this. And yet, as reasonable as that sounds, plans of vengeance continue to force their way back in.
Grak looks around at the gathered crowd. It’s a measly showing. And fairly discouraging as well. Though he does take heart that two tribe members just arrived.
Perhaps more will come. Perhaps.
But reality doesn’t bode well for Grak. Around half of those present are soldiers, and it’s unclear whether they’re here to protect him or the tribe. The rest are mostly strangers, clearly here out of curiosity alone.
Grak scratches his chin with the stylus. “Maybe if I write it as though in the present. And from someone else’s perspective. Would look more prestigious that way. Like someone else is recording my history for me. The reader might even assume I’ve never seen it.”
Olive taps her lips thoughtfully. “So how would that sound?”
Grak shrugs. “Well, it would just say, ‘Grak hates olives.’”
She nods. “I see. Interesting. Has a nice ring to it. Though maybe it needs something more.”
Grak ponders it for a moment. “‘Truly.’ I kind of like that. ‘Grak hates olives. Truly.’ Makes it more definite. Makes it clear where I stood on the issue.”