Chapter 2: The House of Junia
Copyright© 2011 by Celtic Bard
Myka, being the second eldest daughter of the matriarch of the House which owned Mynar, had been schooled since the day she was old enough to walk. She could read and understand the most complicated epics and teaching ballads, do complex arithmetic, recite her family's genealogy back to the time of the Crossing, and perform any task which was her mother's responsibility in the off chance that she were to assume the matriarchy of the House of Junia. Using her teaching skills and the natural ability she had to bring out the young Gnathar's story was not hard.
Over the week it took them to ride from Mynar in the foothills of the Ythol Mountains to the coastal stronghold of Port Meikari, Myka drew Jonar's story out of him. She learned that he was a seventeen-year-old Gnathar from the small town of Telanaria in the southern foothills of the Empire of the Gnath. He had never before seen any other race besides his own, Dei-Xhan raiders, and Gnome merchants. When he was thirteen, his parents were killed by Dei-Xhan raiders. With no parents and no ranking gnath lord to speak for him, Jonar was cast out of his village, unable to return to Gnathar society until he either proved himself worthy or married. And since no sensible Gnathar man would allow his daughter to marry an exile, Jonar's sentence was banishment from the Empire altogether.
Myka thought about that for a couple of days after he told her, the question of what task would prove his worthiness continued to crop up. Jonar continued to evade an outright answer to that query, though always politely. He then told her about his bond with Gnusyl and the Darwyth Pride from which the Gnath came. Young Gnathar boys, usually sons of gnath lords themselves, were chosen to earn the right to approach the pride leaders of the huge beasts to be paired with young Gnaths. By age twelve, Gnathar are already quite strong and have been taught the martial arts. At that age, the candidates are given their own weapons and sent out to hunt down one of the three danger beasts of Titia-Lohr: the elph-tor, the gabressi, or the rock wolf.
Since Jonar came from the central part of Titia-Lohr, only the elph-tor was a realistic target and he set out to kill an elph-tor. That was when the young man proudly showed her the jagged scar that puckered his skin from his left shoulder to his breastbone. He had killed one of the beasts, and the Dei-Xhan riding it, but not before being severely wounded.
"The weeks after that were a blur," Jonar said with a wince of remembered pain. "I only remember a short, gray-skinned man tending my injuries and cursing the idiocy of 'parents who let children play with men's toys.' I later met another Gnome and realized who had cared for me after the battle."
When Jonar returned to his village, he was taken before the pride leader of the Darwyth and introduced to Gnusyl, and recently tested young Gnath. And then Jonar's parents were killed and the young boy exiled.
"I traveled first south, entering the Domain of the Pagans," he told his Ce'al companion with a grimace and a shake of his head, staring into the fire of their camp on the last night of their journey. "That proved to be a mistake. We ran into a large party of Domani Pagans on their way to raid the border country of the Empire. I barely escaped with my life and Gnusyl gained his nickname."
The Gnath rubbed his massive head against Jonar's side affectionately and the young man smiled lovingly up at the beast, caressing the chipped fang. Myka still could not get used to the idea that these creatures were sentient. Before a few days ago, she had only heard tales of them. Wild, crazy, highly unbelievable tales of these legendary creatures and their mortal companions who battled fiercely against their enemies as companions. Now she was traveling with one who had chosen this giant of a boy and lay with him before the fire like a scent dog or something. Watching the two, she was reminded of her brother and his canines resting on the hearth after a day of hunting.
Myka started when she realized she had been caught staring. "How much further is it to this town of yours?" he asked softly, his voice coming out in a quiet, rumbling boom.
The Ce'al shrugged. "We should reach it before noon tomorrow. It always took my mother three weeks to get there and back, counting the week she took to complete her business."
"And she rode horses there? With our pace, we have been traveling about as fast a group of horse could so you are probably right," the young man replied before gulping down the last of his soup and walking over to his blankets. "If you should get cold in the night, feel free to curl up on the other side of Gnusyl. He could keep a legion warm with his body heat."
It was more than a year since Jonar had seen more than twenty people in one place. The last time was when he stumbled upon a group of Dei-Xhan warriors near the Domain of Pagans' border with Zondroland. He spent the next month running from the ten that survived the first few seconds of that chaotic encounter. Now, the young Gnathar sat atop Gnusyl and looked down upon a large seaport which teemed with people. It was only the second time he had ever seen the ocean. He and Gnusyl sat on the crest of a hill that overlooked the city of Port Meikari with amazement.
"We can go down anytime now," Myka said waspishly from behind him. "I need a bath and some decent clothing and my mother's relatives in the city will provide them."
Jonar tore his gaze away from the city to look back at her. "First we need to talk with the magistrate. He needs to know about-"
"The evil ones," Myka said irritably. "I know that! But I will not go before a rival of my House looking like I have been living in the wild for a month. My cousins will provide us with suitable clothing to see the magistrate and feed us before we go. As it is, I am just glad that mother had the foresight to tell me where our kin lived with such detail. I can see the house from here."
Myka nudged Gnusyl's flanks with her heels as she would a horse. The great beast sorted and reared his massive head up and around to look at her balefully. "He says if you treat him like a horse again, you may walk to the city," Jonar chuckled. "Come, my friend. Her ladyship is getting impatient."
The city of Port Meikari was a fortified city. More a giant fortress than a town, Port Meikari was the main commercial center on the northern stretches of the Ocean of Light. An outer curtain wall encircled the entire city, including the entire harbor. Giant sea gates allowed access to the port's facilities. Fifty yards inside the curtain wall began a series of towers that surrounded the city and were connected to each other by thick, crenellated, parapet-topped walls. Within those walls came an orderly procession of rings between which were built the beautiful but defensive-minded houses of Port Meikari. Within the outer wall were at least seven other walls leading up to the central compound where the Royal Governor and the Council of Houses resided. Piercing the curtain wall and the formidable outer wall would gain a foe nothing, Jonar saw as they continued down the road to the southern gate.
The Gnathar warriors standing guard at the huge gate which bore through the curtain took a hard look at him before allowing them to enter. Jonar could not believe the beautiful finery they wore as uniforms and could not help staring. They were swallowed by the tunnel beyond the gate. It was long, dark, and echoed hauntingly, startling both Jonar and Gnusyl. When they emerged from the tunnel, they crossed the fifty feet of paved road between the two walls before coming to two squat towers flanking another gate guarded by more finely-garbed warriors. They too glared at him before allowing them to pass into their fine city.
Myka immediately told Jonar to bear left when they emerged from the gate tunnel. Jonar was stunned by the cacophony raised by the boisterous city-dwellers. Gnusyl's ears flattened and the war-beast's two passengers could feel the low rumbling issuing from his throat. The young Gnathar bent forward and stroked his friend's neck, murmuring soothing words while asking the beast to go left. They plodded slowly along a street which followed the curving wall. The pedestrians, mostly green-hued Ce'al, hurried out of their way, gazing up at the huge Gnath with surprise. Or maybe it was the two very young riders that garnered the gawks.
Low, two- and three-story buildings lined the street with signs written in fine script hanging above the doors. Illiterate, Jonar tried to guess what each sign said by the wares seen through clear glass windows. He was thoroughly enjoying his tour through the city, gaping about like the mesmerized, backwoods yokel he was, when he felt a sharp poke in his ribs.
"Stop that!" hissed Myka. "You are embarrassing me! Thank Cealie we are almost there! It's that house surrounded by the high iron fence."
The house his companion pointed to was a substantial mansion girded by a low wall at the beginning of what looked like a district for nobles. Atop the stone wall was a thick, eight foot tall iron fence. Beautiful thornflower bushes, rose vines, blood blossoms, and spike roots could be seen growing under the care of several Ce'al horticulturalists. All plants with lovely flowers and a heady perfume which live off of the blood of animals. Beyond the deadly garden was a broad marble court where several carriages and horses could be seen before the open doors of the gorgeous mansion. Standing guard before the gates of the manor were a dozen liveried Gnathar wielding mace-axes. A grizzled veteran shouted a warning to his men when he saw Gnusyl bearing down on the gate.
"Halt! Stop where ya er in til us yar bisniss!" he shouted in a thick northlander accent. Jonar was about to do as he was told when Myka jabbed him in the ribs again and whispered for him to continue on. "I said halt, ya impadint cub. Don't make us call out tha gerd."
"You will do no such thing," Myka said from behind Jonar, completely obscured by the giant youth's body. "You will stand down and fetch Lady Alphi of Junia."
The guards' eyes went wide with shock and they all peered up at the diminutive person riding behind the young gnath-rider. Their eyes went wider when they saw how beautiful the olive skinned young woman was. "Ind who wuld ya be, m'lady?"
Myka drew herself up haughtily and again did her best impression of her mother. "That is none of your business. If you wish to still have a job at the end of the day, you will do as you are told," she threatened, making Jonar wonder exactly who he had fallen in with. To him she whispered, "Continue on, Jonar."
Gnusyl bore down on the Gnathar and they scrambled out of the huge beast's way. The veteran guard muttered something to one of his men, sending the warrior trotting toward the house. Just as Gnusyl was bending to his knees to allow the already dismounted Jonar to lift Myka off his back, a striking woman garbed in an emerald green silk dress stepped out onto the portico. She took one look at the young Ce'al maiden and whispered something to the guard who had summoned her before walking forward, her face a mask. The older woman stopped a dozen paces from Gnusyl, giving Jonar a chance to look her over carefully. She looked to be old enough to be Myka's mother and had a similar bearing as the young woman. She had slightly lighter skin with white-flecked, sea green hair and wrinkles at the eyes and mouth but was otherwise still very beautiful.
"Myka, my kinswoman, what are you doing here?" she asked in a very neutral tone, making the hair on the back of Jonar's neck rise.
Myka walked up to her and the tears started. "Mynar is no more, cousin! Dei-Xhan and Zondroland Gnathar razed it after killing father, mother, and the rest of the villagers," the maiden wept.
Her cousin enfolded her in long, delicate arms. "There, there, Myka. You may stay with us until you decide what you wish to do," she assured the weeping girl.
It was then that two other people emerged from the house. A young girl who looked like a doppelganger of her mother strode out with a man of an age with Lady Alphi. He was surprisingly scrawny and almost beautiful for a man, with all of the racial characteristics of the Ce'al.
That was all Jonar got to see of the two newcomers because at that precise moment a half dozen Gnaths thundered through the gate. Their riders were all much older than Jonar and, remembering the manners his mother and father drummed into him before their deaths, he bowed deeply to them all. Although they were all full grown, none of the Gnaths stood nearly as tall as Gnusyl and they eyed the young Gnath much as their riders were eyeing the much taller Jonar. The greedy-eyed leader of this squad of gnath lords strode forward. He was dressed in a much more sober uniform than the liveried guards of Lady Alphi's household and he had a blue harp and quill insignia sewn on his tunic arm.
"My, young one, from whence have you come? I've not seen a Gnathar with such a long frame in quite some time," he said genially in Common with a cultured accent. This put Jonar on the guard, knowing what the gnath lord wanted from him.
"I come from Telanaria," he replied curtly, his expression guarded.
A twinkled sprung up in the older man's eyes. "Ah, the Empire! They breed them up good there. And your friend here? Pride Darwyth, correct? A fine Pride, but he must be the largest Gnath I have ever seen. And the beast isn't finish growing, eh? So what brings you to my city?"
"I came to bring the maiden over there to her kin and to inform the magistrate of a Dei-Xhan-Gnathar Zondron raid some days ride south of here," Jonar replied direly.