Chapter 4: Of Myths and Legends
Copyright© 2011 by Celtic Bard
When their little group stopped for the night that first day, Jonar learned that Lord Lailar brought with him the most skilled Gnathar instructors in Port Meikari as an escort. Being instructors with skills so great that they were rarely let out of the city, they were more than happy to leap at a chance to travel to the capital with their commander. All that day as they rode, Jonar was aware of their silent scrutiny, both the men's scrutiny of him and their Gnaths' appraisal of Gnusyl. The anxiety over such examination amplified itself as the two juveniles shared each other's emotions so that when they stopped to set up camp, Jonar was in a state bordering on tears.
Alyssa, a young woman with motives of her own for coming on this trip, watched the young warrior for most of the day without his notice since his attention was on the other Gnathar. When they stopped, she walked over to Lailar and smiled.
"What can I do for you, Highness?" the commander asked politely, his eyes not leaving Jonar.
Alyssa reached one slender hand up to grip his chin and swung it over until he was focusing his surprised eyes on her face. Still smiling, she said, "Send him for wood before he breaks down in front of his superiors, Ulfjansson."
"Don't ask questions, just do it, Commander," she ordered before unslinging her bow and announcing that she was going to see about dinner.
Lailar looked after her for several seconds as she loped down a barely perceptible path in the winter-browned foliage before dropping his gear and sauntering casually over to Jonar. The young Gnathar had just lifted Myka off of Gnusyl and was untying one of the packs from his harness. He heard a twig snap behind him and he whirled, snapping to attention.
Lailar instantly saw what the Princess had seen and smiled at the boy. "Why don't you go see if you can find some firewood, Jonar. I will stay here with Myka until you return," he suggested in a tone that made it more of an order. He nodded politely to Myka, flashing her a silent signal not to interfere with his eyes. Her grass green orbs flared in anger, and then settled down to a smolder, nodding acquiescence. "Lady Alyssa has gone to see if there is any game about, so we may not have to dig too deeply into your generous supplies, Lady."
Jonar looked as if he wanted to argue but Myka laid a kind hand on his and assured him she would be alright. Grabbing a few spare leather ropes from Gnusyl's harness, Jonar walked off into the trees surrounding the small clearing in which they stopped. He stopped periodically to kick a small tree to pieces, tying them up with his leather. When he had four substantial bundles of small logs and large branches, he started back to camp. He was somewhat sullen about being ordered to firewood duty but in such illustrious company, he could expect little else. After all, he was the lone unranked member of their party. He had no status anywhere so he could expect no respect from any quarter. It was he who had to give the respect while trying to earn a little of it himself from those he thought worthy of the effort. He hoped he had begun to see a glimmer of friendship from Myka. And Lord Lailar seemed to like him well enough, at least in the short time the veteran soldier knew him.
But he knew without question that most Gnathar would respond to his ignorance of his own culture the same way Lord Lailar had first reacted. And they would not have the benefit of seeing him perform his duties in the manner he had while under Lord Lailar's watchful eye. He suddenly burst into the clearing of their camp, surprising both himself and his companions. That surprised him even more since the Gnaths should have heard his unmindful wandering.
One of the older Gnathar, Brandar Brandarsson, let out a mighty breath and sheathed his drawn sword. "Sol, son! Call out before ye be burstin in upon us like that! Ye coulda been killed!"
Jonar had frozen in his tracks when he saw ten drawn weapons. He hung his head, continuing on to the firepit ringed in stones at the center of the clearing. "Sorry," he muttered, "not used to camping with others." He went about making a fire and got it blazing in a surprisingly short amount of time. When he stood to go finish unloading Gnusyl, he realized he had an audience.
Seeing the boy turn red from the attention, Brandar laughed and clapped him on the shoulder with a shockingly slender, graceful hand. "Lailar was right, m'boy!" he laughed, his voice harsh and grating from years of yelling at his students. "Ye do need some companionship other than tha giant beast ye be callin a Gnath. No worries. By tha time we be strollin unta Hynost-Qaanzyr, ye'll be a right social butterfly, ye will." This got chuckles from everybody. Myka walked over to him and drew him back over to Gnusyl and they unloaded the huge beast together.
Alyssa soon came back with several zenar, much to the amazement of Myka and Lailar. She cleaned and seasoned the fair-sized birds before spitting them over the cheery fire. Along with a few root vegetables from Myka's packs and toasted bread, they all ate well that night. After dinner, the youngest of the gnath lords, a thirty-year-old warrior named Dourden Mafealsson, brought out a large, barrel-like object decorated with obscure symbols and icons. He quickly spread a canvas tightly over it, making a drum.
"I am the loremaster of Hynost, ignorant one," the young man intoned formally in a light baritone, staring eerily into the fire with glassy black eyes. Jonar shivered with dread and looked around to see eagerness on all of the faces around him except Myka, who looked puzzled. "For this time I grant Lady Myka of the House of Junia the privilege of hearing our lore, as she is the mistress of one who would learn. None here may ever repeat what is drummed to any other save Gnathar. For these are the stories of our people."
He began slapping the drum and a most beautiful rhythm emerged, causing Jonar's feet to stamp of their own accord. The other Gnathar and Alyssa were doing the same and they all stared into the fire as if in a trance. Myka looked around with alarm, realizing that they were all caught up in the stirring beat of this gnath lord's music. And then the songs came. Songs of valor and duty, ballads of great heroes and tragic outcasts, canticles which explained what it was to be a Gnathar, and the myths of those considered to have achieved the height of true Gnatharhood. By the time the kollonit drum was silent, the moon's pale blue face was well into the sky, turning the world into an ethereal plane of light shadows and dark holes where the monsters and evil ones of Dourden's tales lurked. The Gnathar shook themselves out of the trance and Alyssa sighed, a sensual smile on her face and a longing in her eyes.
But Myka was frowning, appalled. "Why were there no women in those stories?"
Alyssa chuckled as eleven Gnathar giants turned to stare at the diminutive form of the Ce'al noblewoman. "There were, had you listened to the earliest of the canticles," Dourden replied sternly. "Marlinar the Wise was a woman, as was Zyna the Bold."
Brandar cleared his throat, a dark expression of loathing on his face. "As was Byla'Koda Darkblade and Waquirri of Svirth. 'Twas they who doomed tha females of tha ancient tribes of tha Gnath ta wear tha veil. They were tha last known wielders of Zondro-Xhan's Soul-Drinker and Ptavre-Dei's Darkblade. With those great weapons, those two women led tha hordes of Lunland and Outland against tha last of tha Humans and Sol's last champion, Jonas Justinian. Jonas was able ta kill tha two treacherous bitches and send tha evil weapons ta unreachable places, but he lost his life in fleein across tha Netherlands," the old warrior explained somberly.
"And lost Kimber as well," Lailar added, an expression of extreme loss appearing and disappearing on all the older gnath lords' faces.
"Kimber?" Jonar asked dumbly.
Lailar's eyes flashed before he rose and stalked into the woods, spouting curses ranging in flavor from the ancestry of the elders of Telanaria to the stupidity of the ancient codes of the Empire of the Gnath. One of the other Gnathar began chuckling. It was the first sound Jonar had heard from the silver haired warrior. He was the tallest among them except Jonar and carried his mace-axe wherever he went. The ugly weapon was resting across his legs at the moment and his huge hands were caressing the weapon as his black eyes watched the commander stomp away.
His round, open face turned to Jonar with a wide smile. "Your elders should be racked to death over a fortnight for sending you away in your state. Especially if you have been out on your own since you were thirteen. My son could barely get his harness on his Gnath at thirteen, never mind survive the wilds alone," the surprisingly soft and somewhat sibilant voice of Xavear Losh'Varrii mumured. "Vindicor-Kimber was the great war-axe of Sol which the champions of justice wielded against the perfidy of Zondro-Xhan's sorcerors and Ptavre-Dei's assassins. It is perhaps both the least powerful and most powerful of the Divine Weapons. Its loss was a tragedy which the Gnathar mourn during the Ceremony of Weeping each winter's eve."
"Where is this axe?"
Xavear shrugged. "There are rumors that some priests and Illuminants know the location of some or all of the Divine Objects of Power, but I have never been told by my archpriests," the priest of Sol replied diffidently. "The moon is high in the sky, we should get some sleep this night. There will be other nights for the telling of tales."
They all rose and began setting out their bedrolls. Lailar returned as they were all settling down and he and Xavear went to opposite ends of camp to sit watch for the night. On his way to the tree line, Xavear knelt down beside Jonar where he was about to lay. The older Gnathar saw that Myka was only inches away from the young man, as were his weapons, and nodded approvingly. Gnusyl craned his big head up from where he rested at Jonar's head to look at the gnath lord.
"You are a fine young cordach, Jonar. I should have been proud to have sponsored you were you in my village. But things are done differently in Meikar than in the Empire," he muttered to the young man, shrugging. "Should you wish to learn more about Vindicor-Kimber, you might seek out the Order of the Ever Present Truth when we reach Hynost-Qaanzyr. The truthseeker library there is voluminous and will contain much information on the subject." With those words, the gnath lord rose and walked to his post.
Jonar watched him go and settle himself for the night's watch. "I have to learn to read first," he muttered before laying his head on a rolled up tunic, instantly falling into the restless doze he had learned to sleep in in his years of exile in the wilds of Titia-Lohr.
The journey turned sour on their tenth day out of Port Meikari when a black curtain crept in from the southwest to blanket the sky, turning the chill winter noon almost as dark as midnight. They all dug out their thickest cloaks to guard against the rising gusts and prepared for the worst. Jonar looked up at the scudding blackness and shuddered. He had no thick sheepskin coat or thick woolen cape as the others did. The thickest garment he owned, his self-sewn fur jacket, had been taken from him and burned by Myka. He had no illusions about how bad this storm would be or whether or not he was dressed for it.
Alyssa had been looking up at him from her horse and thinking the same thing. She kicked her horse into a gallop, riding up to speak with Lailar and his men. "I think you should seriously think about finding some place to ride out this storm, Commander," she yelled over the howling wind. "Young Jonar is poor and without suitable clothing to continue should it get much colder."
Lailar looked back down the tree-lined trail at the shivering cordach hugging the warm arms of his Ce'al charge and sighed. "We probably would not have gotten much further today, anyway. This is going to be a blizzard and will descend on us soon."
Alyssa nodded and smiled secretive smile. "If I am not mistaken, there are several caves in a line of hills about a half mile that way," the princess shouted, pointing north. She spurred her horse and looked back over her shoulder. "Follow me!"
It started snowing just as the caves came into their sight. Large, fluffy flakes of white being driven down on them by the gale. The Gnaths, too large to fit into any of the caves, did not even seem to notice, their thick black fur insulated them against the elements. Jonar, however, was turning blue and could barely dismount. Alyssa leapt to catch him, half-dragging him into the cave while Lailar and his men helped Myka down and gathered their bags. Myka rushed into the cave and stripped off her fur cape, wrapping it around the frozen boy. Alyssa had already piled together the last of the wood from the night before and was attempting to get it lit. The gnath lords entered, dropping their belongings in a pile before hauling out Jonar's bedroll and wrapping him in it.
"How did you manage to survive for four years like this, young Telansson?" one of the men asked with amazement.
"I-I d-didn't hav-ve to w-w-worry about how I l-looked," he stuttered, his eyes slowly closing. "D-dead an-nimals are very-y warm."
Myka's hands flew to her mouth as she stared down at her unconscious bodyguard. "Oh, Cealie! Forgive me, Jonar!" She knelt beside him, shaking his arm, tears trailing down her face.
Alyssa looked up from the stubborn fire which refused to grow as it had for Jonar. "What did you do?" she growled, coming over to pull him away from her and dragging him over beside the fire with Dourden's help.
"I had his animal skin coat burned because it was dirty and full of bugs," she sobbed. "I did not realize that was what had kept him alive."
Lailar put an arm around her shoulder and frowned at Alyssa. "It is alright. You have never had to worry about living off of the land in the winter. You did not know. I will give him my spare cloak until we reach the village of Doszar." He looked down on the shivering, slumbering youth and promised himself a trip up to a small village in the southern reaches of the Empire at his earliest convenience.
The blizzard lasted two days and for his daftness Jonar caught a chill. When they got back on the snow-choked road he kept Lord Lailar's spare cloak. It did little to still the shivers he got from the chills or stop the sniffles which came with the head cold that followed. By the time they clattered onto the cobblestones of Doszar, Jonar was quite ill and not even the clasping warmth of Myka's arms could still his shivering body. Alyssa, who rode at Gnusyl's side the entire way, kept an anxious eye on the giant boy and prayed to her Goddess that he would be alright.
Lailar took one look at the miserable and delirious kid and made straight for the only inn. Two of his men dragged the huge child up to one of the rooms while Lailar argued prices with the innkeeper, a fat Meikari with a bushy green beard that seemed to animate itself when the man spoke. When the price was settled, he inqured about a physician.
"You're kidding, right my Lord?" he asked incredulously. "This is Doszar, not Hynost-Qaanzyr. We haven't even had an herb witch through here since the Zondrans raided and killed her fifty-odd years ago. The best I can do for you is to send my wife up to your friend. She knows some herb lore. Unless-"
Lailar saw the uncomfortable look on the man's face and wondered what the discomfiture was for. "Unless what?"
The fat man grimaced. "There is a nasty old crone who comes in here every other night or so for a cup or two," he replied with loathing. "If she comes in tonight, I will tell her you are looking for her. She is a sorceress of some kind or other, I think."
Lailar handed the man a coin and thanked him before heading up to check on Jonar. The kid is pretty bad to judge by his Gnath's reactions, the gnath lord thought with self-recrimination. I should have thought to get him a cloak or something before we left.
Myka was standing outside one of the rooms with a look of murderous rage on her beautiful, bright green face. "That harlot threw me out!" she screamed at him when she saw him coming up the stairs.
Lailar was shocked by the young matriarch's insult to her superior. Most Ce'al hold a reverence to those with higher station and Alyssa was not only older than Myka, she held a much higher position in the hierarchy of Meikari society.
"Please lower your voice, Lady Myka," he whispered. "Princess Alyssa has very good hearing and she is also your superior."
Myka turned her deadly green eyes on the Gnathar and growled, a sound the gnath lord had never heard come from a Ce'al. "That mongrel is not my superior. She had your men drag me away from my retainer and locked the door behind them. Those thugs dared put their hands on me! Me! Matrairch of the House of Junia!" Her face graduated to a very interesting shade of deep red with streaks of bright yellow.
Lailar grabbed the girl by the arm and opened the nearest door. The room beyond was small with a comfortable-looking bed and a dresser for furniture. He closed the door and lit the lamp while Myka stared at him open-mouthed, her skin returning to its normal olive green. Lailar gestured for her to sit in the chair beside the door and then sat himself on the bed with a weary sigh.
"I am too old for this," he muttered, scrubbing his face with his calloused hand. "Lady Myka, why are you so upset?"
"Lower your voice, Lady!" he hissed, cutting her off in mid-rant. His gray eyes bore into her with an intensity which made the young Ce'al maiden cringe. "Princess Alyssa may seem to be an amiable, relaxed, if somewhat cynical, young woman with no real interest in the social conventions of Meikar but she is more than that. Far more. There was a reason your cousin and every matriarch in Port Meikari wanted her out of the city. She is a political and economic genius of nearly unparalleled ability with a wide streak of ruthlessness to her. She grew up in the savagely cultured court of Hynost-Qaanzyr and even spent two years with her late father as ambassador to the Empire of the Gnath. She can and will disembowel you if you insult her. Now, and be very quiet, tell me what your problem is."
Myka was somewhat taken aback. She tried very hard to reconcile her impression of the Meikari princess with Lord Lailar's description. She shook her head, not being able to bring herself to see the disdainfully uncivilized woman in that light.
"She has been fawning all over my bodyguard since she laid eyes on him, not that he has done anything to put her off. Now she has taken him into that room intent on stripping him out of his wet clothes and getting him into bed," she said in a hoarse whisper, her tone sounding like one who has been deeply offended.
Lailar could not help it, the chuckle bubbled up and out of his mouth before he could stop it. Myka stared at him incredulously as he rolled around on the bed laughing until his face turned red. The door suddenly burst open and Brandar charge in, hand on sword.
Myka rose and closed the door before standing beside Brandar gazing down at the helplessly giggling commander. "What's this?" Brandar asked, gazing down at the angry eyes of Myka.
"He finds me amusing," she said haughtily before going to the door. "I am glad I am along on this trip for something." She slammed the door on her way out.
"I hope," Lailar gasped, sitting up. "I hope there was someone out there with you who will escort her about."
Brandar shrugged, sitting down in the chair vacated by Myka. "Xavear and Dourden were with me when I heard ye. What caused that anyway?"
"I think our lady is jealous of Jonar catching the princess' attention," he replied with a wheezing chuckle.
"Their relationship in't like that, Commander."
Lailar's eyebrow rose. "You're sure?"
The older man nodded with a knowing smile. "Dourden noticed tha way our young lady interacts with her new warrior. He tells me 'tis more brother-sister than lovers."
Lailar stood, sighing. "I guess that could be. My sisters were somewhat proprietary when I started noticing the girls in our village," the gnath lord acknowledged. He motioned the older warrior out of the room. "What about the princess? Dourden see anything there?"
Brandar shook his head as they walked to the stairs and down to the large hall. "I don't think so, but then he wan't looking," he replied apologetically, his voice lowering as they passed other guests of the inn. They saw the other men and Myka eating at a long table on the left side of the room and headed over to them. "The boy's a fine example of Imperial breeding, but he in't even an adult yet. Not even in Meikar would he be considered so. Princess Alyssa's a little loose with tha laws and morays, but I don't think she would embarrass her aunt by taking up with tha boy."
"Perhaps," Lailar said dubiously as they sat down.
When Jonar Telansson woke, the first thing he noticed was that his clothes were not on his sweat-covered body. This worried him a lot and even made him blush uncontrollably as he rose to find something to put on. It was dark in the room with only the dull embers of a banked fire giving any light at all. As he tried to walk over to the fireplace with a candle his weak legs gave way and he collapsed in a heap on the hearth. He heard light footsteps hurrying to the door. Trying to save a little of his dignity, Jonar grabbed at the blanket on his bed and clutched it over his nakedness.
The door swung open and Alyssa looked down at him with a twinkle in her eyes. "You should have called out for someone, even if it is the middle of the night. You are too weak to be getting out of bed by yourself," she scolded, entering the room and lighting the two candles on his bedside table. She then squatted down next to him and stirred the fire to life while watching him try to cover himself with the blanket. His huge feet and calves had stuck off the end of the bed so the blanket was not much better a fit for his oversized body. Jonar noticed her amusement at his predicament and blushed. "You should know that I was the one who put you to bed so I have seen it all."
Jonar's jaw dropped open and he tried to say something but he was beyond mortified. He then felt another set of footsteps through the floor. Lord Lailar walked in and saw them by the fireplace. The older man smiled and stepped to help the princess get her young ward back in bed, the blanket draped about his waist for modesty's sake.
"Just so you know, it has been four days since you took ill," the gnath lord informed him. "This is the first time since your fever and delirium broke hours ago that you have been conscious. When you are up to it, Myka wants to see you. She has been very anxious. I think she blames herself for you getting sick."
"But she wasn't-"
"Oh yes she was!" Alyssa contradicted vehemently, her brows drawn together over dark eyes. "If she hadn't been so damned Ce'al about appearances, she wouldn't have taken your perfectly suitable coat from you. Then you would not have frozen yourself in that blizzard. Don't let that little priss off that easily just because she is your mistress. Being one's superior does not make one infallible."
Lailar cleared his throat. "Um, your Fallibleness? Could we speak in the hall before you give our young patient his medicine so he can get some more sleep?" he asked politely with a hint of steel in his voice. He turned a grin on Jonar as he rose. "You can visit the baths and get a bowl of broth when you awaken again."
Lailar allowed the princess to precede him into the halls and closed the door firmly. "I want you to go easy on that young lady, your Highness. I don't know what your game is with young Jonar but I do want to remind you that he has taken Lady Myka as his mistress. If you wind up going too far with her you may find yourself at the end of those very long, very powerful arms. Those two have bonded in a very strange way for a Ce'al and a Gnathar who aren't sexually attracted to each other and it could be very dangerous for any who tries to harm one of them. It's just a friendly warning, of course, but keep it in mind, your Highness," he warned her ominously. He looked at the plain tunic and trousers she wore and suddenly realized how form fitting they were. "I am going to go wake Lady Myka. Please make sure you are finished with your ministrations when she comes in."