Echoes of Invasion: Downtime in Dan’Tonk | Scene 10

Dune School the next morning is held in a large open room. Adults linger in the back, exchanging gossip while they drink some acrid-smelling beverage strange to the elves. About thirty children attend the lesson, and as each one enters the room, they grab a small rug, a slate tablet, and a piece of chalk. They are a mix of complexions and hair colors, and many are dressed in standard Wesnoth peasant attire. A few have tidied up a bit, wearing nicer clothes or accent pieces like the scarf Heppa bought yesterday. Tric and Heppa each take a rug to sit on. They already know how to write so they leave those materials for the young ones. The elves settle down cross-legged back behind all the children to not be a distraction. Heppa pulls out her own writing equipment, updating some sections of her overflowing maps and jotting down new things that occur to her as the presenters speak.

First up is the writing lesson, the source of Dunefolk descendants being more literate than the general population of Wesnoth. Each letter is presented with an accompanying story, and the instructor has a large slate on which to draw scenes to help the children remember. Tric appreciates the storytelling aspect, but the very first letter causes some apprehension for the elves. “A is for athvari.” The teacher draws the scariest-looking A that Tric and Heppa have ever seen. More details are added, resulting in what looks like an epic battle between big scary A’s and tiny little A’s shooting A-tipped arrows. “Can anybody tell me who the athvari were?” the teacher asks.

An eager young child raises a hand but calls out the answer before even being picked. “Those are the evil magic users!”

“I wonder if they’re elves,” Heppa whispers to Tric.

The big scary A does not have small A’s for pointy ears attached to it. “No, no. I’m sure that’s just their word for necromancer,” Tric whispers back.

Heppa wonders if that is related. “Well, Mal-Ravanal’s the biggest, evilest—”

“Magic user that we’ve heard of,” Tric cuts in. “It’s not like we know him personally.”

“Well, there might be another one. This is all so interesting!”

“Can anybody tell me what the athvari did?” the teacher asks while walking around and checking the students’ copying. Various children supply answers, though none seem particularly scared or scandalized by the subject matter, which must feel more like myth than history to them. As the alphabet and the lesson progress, Tric and Heppa miss most of the details, distracted as they are by their own whispered commentary and the socializing of the adults behind them. The main details the elves manage to pick up is that there was some war, though how long ago or even exactly where, they cannot tell. Whoever these athvari were, they were human and they wielded crystals of power. In light of that, Tric advises Heppa to keep her ring well hidden.

“But everybody uses crystals,” Heppa counters. “Dwarves do, humans do…”

“Maybe it was the dwarves’ fault. Yes, blame it on them!” Tric jokes. Something about the new word is niggling at him, though. “Athvari, athvari…” Tric murmurs. “That sounds a bit like aetherium, the… place? plane? Where Kachen said human magic comes from.”

Heppa catches a bit of what the teacher is saying at this point, gathering that the Dunefolk seem to have some sort of federation, rather than a kingdom like Wesnoth has. She makes sure to label the space across the Sandy Wastes accordingly. Tric is unimpressed; it is just another government label that he can trot out as being an oppressive force in some future tale.

“Oh! They’re talking about the four elements now,” Heppa comments. “Damal covered that in one of my alchemy lessons. It’s interesting that it’s so embedded in the culture and not just something alchemists and apothecaries need to know.” She flips through her map packet to where she had scribbled some notes on the topic.

The teacher reviews the four elemental forces: the sun, the seas, the winds, and the deeps. Each of these bleeds into the material plane that the Dunefolk occupy. “The sun creates the heat of the desert. The winds, you can see their effects in the wind-swept highlands. The seas, the fertile coasts and the river valleys. And the deeps bleed through into the mineral-rich underground.”

“Hunh. Their cosmology includes that there’s deep water somewhere. Maybe there really is an ocean on the other side of the Sandy Wastes,” Tric murmurs.

“Maybe there are fertile coasts and wind-swept highlands on that side, and they’re not just talking about ones somewhere around here,” Heppa suggests.

“The Manu might just be some country bumpkins on the edge of some great civilization with vast cities!” Tric jokes.

“Or adventurous types, pushing the frontiers,” Heppa offers more favorably.

They joke back and forth about finding a sea-oriented culture on the other side of the desert, perhaps one where humans and merfolk raise families together. It is this sort of playful give-and-take that prevents them from learning much more about actual Dunefolk culture from the writing lesson.

Most of the people in the room have Dunefolk ancestry of one form or another, but only the elders who lived in Hisanham were actually born on the other side of the Sandy Wastes. In addition to the Manu and the Kahlé, there are a few other clans represented here. Most attendees are second, third, or fourth generation descendants of traders who ended up on the Wesnoth side for one reason or another. It is not unheard of to encounter Dunefolk goods in southern Wesnoth, but there are no formalized trade arrangements. There are many reasons traders coming across might not wish to share knowledge of their route. Everyone here identifies to a certain degree with Dunefolk culture, but for the most part, Dune School is about keeping alive traditions that were passed down to them, embracing something many of them have never experienced firsthand.