The Beinn Draken series, which is supposed to be a mix of South African and Scottish cultures, required the creation of hybrid language.
South Africa has eleven official languages: English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa, Southern Sotho, Tswana, Northern Sotho, Venda, Tsonga, Swati and Ndebele.
Unfortunately, I only speak Afrikaans and English, although I’m currently attempting to learn Tswana from a friend. However, I didn’t want to use a South African language for the Thabulayi. I wanted to create a unique mix of the eleven official languages, and particularly the sounds that are common here.
The languages spoken by the African tribes are visceral, and there is often no direct translation into English. A good example of this is when I asked my friend how to say “You’re full of shit” in Tswana.
In Afrikaans, it’s; “Jy’s vol kak,” which is a literal translation and often a term of exasperated endearment.
In Tswana, however, it’s “uBowa nyoka,” which directly translated is the equivalent of: “you’re vomiting.” I absolutely love this (mostly because it makes me laugh every time I say it), but also because it’s so literal. There’s no room for misunderstanding here as there is in English or Afrikaans.
I really wanted that same effect when I was reading about the Thabulayi, and although the language is still a work in progress, I think the first story in the series, which is told from the Thabulayi perspective, really succeeds at portraying the language.
Here’s the first part of the story, which deals with the escape of Micara from her homeland of Tilawi, and the subsequent arrival of the Thabulayi on the unknown island:
I knew it was a mistake the moment I fitted the final piece into place. I stared at the machine in front of me.
Tilawi had been in the midst of civil war for three generations, neither side close to ending the stalemate which had ravaged our small country for close on four centuries. This machine, this weapon, would ensure a victory for the Thabulayi. It would also leave unthinkable devastation in its wake.
I glanced around the dimly lit laboratory. Though the equipment was state-of-the-art, the lights were kept to a minimum. Lighting drew power, creating a pocket of energy that the enemy, the Shaylawi, would pick up instantaneously despite shielding. It was close to the twelfth cycle, the lab was deserted except for myself. I rubbed tired eyes, wracking my brain for a solution.
Though the Shaylawi were the enemy, they were of Tilawi. Once, we had been one people. The Thabulayi – scientists and academics, and the Shaylawi – noblemen farmers and merchants. Peaceful and fertile, our coastal country had prospered, offering trade and education to all who sought it. Our ports brought wealth and prestige for the Shaylawi, advancements in technology and information for the Thabulayi.
But the Shaylawi grew greedy, seeking to expand our country’s reach. At first, the Thabulayi agreed that we should explore other lands. With the knowledge of the academics behind them, the Shaylawi spread inland, conquering one small piece of land at a time, until a vast empire was under their rule.
I rose, stretching limbs stiffened by hours of sitting on a hard stool. Leaving the weapon on the workbench, I made my way across the room to pour a drink of bitter koffie. Shuddering at the taste, I stared unseeingly at the tactical map pinned to the wall behind the counter.
Four centuries ago, the first of the Thabulayi realised that the Shaylawi had taken things too far. They refused to aid them any further, and when threats of retribution were followed by execution for treason, the Thabulayi had gone into hiding. Not all of them, of course not. Some of them wanted power without thought of the consequences. Those who had, formed a resistance group, made up of Thabulayi, a few rebel Shaylawi, and dissidents from the conquered lands who desired independence once more.
Civil war started in the time of my great-great-grandfather’s life, with strategic strikes against Shaylawi strongholds. They were taken by surprise at first, but surprise quickly turned to rage and they hit back with all the force of their new military might behind them.
They were skilled in warfare, having conquered lands for a few generations before, aided by Thabulayi strategists, and we were outnumbered. Still, what the rebels lacked in numbers, we made up for with determination and a skill that the Shaylawi had never developed. Invention.
Our knowledge and resources were turned towards their most heinous task yet. The creation of weapons.
I blinked, realising I’d finished my drink while reflecting on our history. I placed the empty cup in the sink, turning to stare across the room at the weapon. It appeared so innocuous, the small cylindrical handle sticking out of a black box. It reminded me of a toy my niece would play with, a box with a spring-loaded animal inside that jumped out when the handle was turned.
It was the toy which had given me the idea. Two years ago, I’d returned home after a long shift in the lab, only to find that home was nothing more than a pile of stone and shattered ceramic tiles. My entire family had been buried in the blast which had killed them: my parents, sister and niece. My brother-by-marriage had been killed four years prior to that.
I’d picked my way through the rubble, horror rendering me numb. My foot knocked the toy as I passed it, and the animal inside had sprung free as it fell from the tiny hand which had been clutching it. My niece, five years old, full of life and laughter, would never play with her beloved toy again. Rage had replaced the numbness and I’d welcomed it, embraced the cold determination that obliterated all traces of grief. I’d picked up the toy and left the ruins of my life behind, moving to the lab where I’d previously worked only on medical research.
A meeting with my superiors convinced them to allow me to follow my own path of research. They asked no questions, I offered no answers. Only the toy, placed carefully on the shelf above my workbench, reminded me of the promise I’d made. The promise to avenge the death of an innocent child. A child I’d loved as if she were my own.
A child whose life reminded me that the weapon – a biological plague – would destroy not only those who’d taken her from me, but the innocents as well. Abruptly, I made my decision. I’d just reached the workbench when the door to the lab crashed open and five armed rebels stormed in.
“Thabulayi Micara! You need to come with us!”
“What? What is the meaning of this?” I grabbed the weapon as two of them seized me by my arms. The other three moved from one end of the lab to the other, shoving equipment and carefully sealed chemicals into crates. “Be careful with those! They’re hazardous!”
“Your life is in danger. We have orders to take you to a safe place. To keep you alive at all costs.” I felt the blood drain from my face as I stared at the man who’d spoken. I shook his hand from my arm.
“I’ll get my bags.”
“Be quick.” I didn’t bother to answer him, hurrying into an adjoining office which had been converted to my living quarters. I stared at the weapon in my hands, a frantic war raging in my mind. I could take it with me, risk it falling into the wrong hands, the hands of those who would use it… or I could hide it.
For the second time in as many cycles, I made a difficult decision. When I left the room with a large bag slung over my shoulder, it bulged with the shape of the box.
“I’m ready. Let’s go.”
A frantic chase ensued through the streets of Palabow, the port town where the Thabulayi resistance had its headquarters. I’d known for a while that the Shaylawi knew who I was. I was one of the few female Thabulayi to work in the alchemical laboratories of the resistance, and I would have had to be stupid not to realise they would be watching me.
I’d known for two years, since my family had died because of my work. I wasn’t foolish enough to think it was me they were after. Dead or alive, I wasn’t essential anymore. The weapon was complete.
I checked my bag for the hundredth time as the enclosed vehicle I was hidden in lumbered towards its destination.
“Where are we going?” I spoke to the man who’d led the operation. He was dark-skinned, pleasant to look at perhaps, if I’d been inclined to do so in the midst of the chaos. His eyes chilled me to the core. Icy blue, they were frigid and calculating.
“We have allies who will take you and some of your… colleagues,” he spit the word like it was a curse, “to a safe place.”
“Oh.” I couldn’t think of anything more to say. My whole life, restless though it had always been, had nonetheless been reasonably comfortable. War had seldom affected us first hand, though the rebels were always present and the drills against attack sometimes became reality. Now I was fleeing for my life, reliant on a man whose very presence terrified me into silence. I fingered the cube within my bag again.
Two hours later, I stood on the deck of a ship, clutching my bag and surrounded by a dozen other Thabulayi, some of whom I’d only briefly met at the labs. We watched the land recede, not knowing when we would be able to return, not knowing where we were going. All we knew was that the ship we sought refuge on belonged to Misyers, a merchant race of people who had allied with us against the Shaylawi when their homeland was enslaved.
Short and stocky, the captain was garrulous as he guided us to berths below the deck, showing us where he’d stored our equipment and inviting us to join him for meals in the galley. I sat on my berth, oblivious to the curious gazes my kinsmen shot me, though they were too polite to intrude on my thoughts.
The ship hit a wave as we left the shelter of the harbour, and nausea welled in my stomach. I groaned and lay back on the hard mattress. Another wave and the seasickness washed over me. I knew no more.
Bellowing and shouting brought me out of my semi-comatose state. The sickness had gripped me for days, possibly weeks. I couldn’t tell. On calm days, I was able to sip some of the broth that Vreshni brought me; only to have it rise again when the next swells hit. There were no cures on board the ship, and no way to create any. Vreshni tried to get some ginger from the galley, but there were no fresh supplies of food, only dried staples and tins of fruit.
The yelling grew louder, and I became aware that we were in the midst of an eerie calm. Weak and shaken, I tried to rise, succeeding only in collapsing back into my berth. I couldn’t make out the words that were being blasted across the deck above, but the tone was terrified enough to have me reaching for my bag in a sudden panic. Vreshni, bless her, had kept it next to my bunk, and it was untouched.
The familiar, comforting shape of the cube was still inside it. I clutched it to me as a sudden jerk launched me backward. I hit the wall, the impact knocking the air out of me. A sharp splintering sound caught my attention and I struggled upright again.
Water was gushing through a hole that had been punched in the keel of the ship, a jagged rock spearing through into the cabin. I stumbled out of bed, my legs threatening to collapse under me. I gritted my teeth, forcing myself to stay upright as I made my way to the stairs that led up to the deck. I had to get out.
I’d barely made it across the cabin when Vreshni pelted down the stairs.
“Micara! Quickly! The ship is breached. We must make for the island.”
“Island?” My voice was hoarse. I cleared my throat. “What island?”
“There’s no time to explain! Hurry!” She gripped my arm, hauling me after her as she climbed the stairs again. I pulled back.
“Leave it! We’re in a bay. It will wash up on the shore in the next tide!” I puzzled this over for a few precious moments, brought back to the present by a sickening crunch of wooden planks splitting. The deck tilted ominously and I staggered into Vreshni who caught and held me until I got my legs under me again.
She led the way to the side of the deck.
“You can swim?” I nodded. I wasn’t fond of it, but I could. Baba had insisted I learn. Now I was glad he had.
“Go!” Vreshni shoved my shoulder, and I obeyed as the ship groaned underfoot. The whole crew of Misyers and the other Thabulayi were already swimming, making for the dark mountainous shape of land ahead. Vreshni had come back for me. Buoyed by the thought, I struck out for shore, the wet weight of my bag slowing me down, though I refused to release it.
Vreshni was beside me as we made it to the beach. Crawling up to dry sand, we collapsed next to each other, gasping with hysterical laughter as we realised we’d survived. I smiled at her, turned onto my side and was promptly sick.
By the time the sun rose, the ship had sunk below the waves and the tide had begun to wash our crates of equipment up onto the beach. We didn’t speak as Misyers and Thabulayi alike pulled the crates above the high-tide line, panting at the effort after our ordeal.
Finally, when it seemed they were all accounted for, the captain turned to address us.
“We’ve made it! We lost two crew and one passenger, but we’re here and we’re alive!” Silence greeted his words but he ignored the tension ringing through the remaining survivors. “I suggest we make camp, try to find some fresh water and then we can start to consider options for getting off this hunk of rock. Whaddya say?” He emphasised the question with a stamp of his foot and a deep rumble echoed through the land in response.
I looked up at the mountain that loomed over the beach and swore.
“Fricket! It’s a volcano!”