Chapter 5: The Elysium of the Meikari
Copyright© 2011 by Celtic Bard
Doszar was almost exactly halfway between Port Meikari and the capital. As they stopped on their first night out from the dilapidated village, they realized it was going to take them a bit more time to get from Doszar to Hynost-Qaanzyr than it took to get to the tiny village. A warm front was moving in from the south, causing the snow-clogged roads to turn into a river of oozing mud. Gnaths are huge animals with wide, gripping feet that can travel at a shocking rate on almost any terrain. The same could not be said for Princess Alyssa's horse when she was on the animal. The poor beast was covered to the rump in mud and slush and its rider was looking none too pleased as she dismounted. She had been splattered up to her neck, spots of mud dotting her fine leather riding clothes.
"Might I suggest, yer Highness, that ye take Dourden up on his offer ta let Zyrron carry ye 'til we hit tha paved roads closer to tha capital?" Brandar asked sweetly, splashing down from the back of Zarlyth. The beast led his friend through the thick underbrush at the side of the road to a small stream about a hundred yards back from the road. "At least when ye're ridin six feet off tha ground ye aren't likely ta be muddy when ye get ready for bed."
Myka tried hard not to let the princess see her amusement, but she couldn't help it. "Are we going to sleep on the wet ground tonight?" she asked as Jonar and she followed the gnath lords away from the road.
"No," Jonar replied. "Lailar and I picked up some tents from the tailor. They should keep the weather off of us and give us a dry place to sleep ... or change clothes." The princess scowled at him, stomping on to the head of their group just as they came to the small clearing around the stream.
The warm spell, and that term should be used lightly as it still got very cold at night, lasted nearly a week. Princess Alyssa's pride broke and she tied her horse, on a very long lead line, to Dourden's amiable Gnath to ride on Zyrron's back behind the young loremaster. With worries over the princess being able to keep up gone, they made excellent time despite the conditions of the road. They stayed in well-run inns in minor mercantile villages on the fourth and sixth days out from Doszar, much to the delight of the two young women.
The second of the two villages was a fairly sprawling place where they restocked their supplies at fairly steep rates for the rest of their journey. When they stopped the next night, Myka saw an intense look on all of the gnath lords' faces as they went about making camp in a little valley about a mile from the road. Lord Lailar had muttered something about not wanting visitors tonight when he had led them off the paved surface and over several hills shortly before the sun was to set. He immediately sent Jonar to find some firewood, a task which took a long while since that part of Meikar was well settled and trees somewhat scarce.
Jonar immediately felt something was going on when he returned from gathering a few scanty bundles of small bushes and one very young sapling he had found. He started a fire with his usual ease, with Princess Alyssa watching his every move, trying to figure out how he did it. Then they ate toasted bread with slices of a well-cooked ham and a sharp yellow cheese.
When they were all finished, one of the gnath lords who had not spoken more than ten words to Jonar the entire trip rose to go sit in front of the young man. He held out his hands and requested to examine his weapons. The man was immensely built and had hands as big as Jonar's but with more meat on their bones. He had several burn scars on his hands and forearms and a long, painful-looking scar on his neck just below his well-cropped blue-black beard. As Jonar carefully handed him the sword and throwing axe, his moustached mouth turned down in a frown. He shook his head while turning the immense weapon over in his hands, inspecting the blade and hilt closely in the firelight.
"What is it, Caoldir?" Lailar asked.
Caoldir Qolvgjarsson frowned and looked at the commander over his shoulder. "This blade is a piece of trash. I doubt his father used it. It's pretty and it's big and the lad keeps a good edge on it, but I doubt anyone of a normal size could have kept himself alive for four years using this thing. I could shatter it in about five minutes of fighting," the weaponsmaster of Port Meikari replied in a quiet bass, his words flowing out of his mouth smoothly, softly. He put the sword back in its scabbard. He then picked up Jonar's axe. It looked big until either Jonar or the weaponsmith held it, and then it took on proportions suitable for a throwing axe. The old warrior hefted the thing a few times, made a few throwing motions and smiled. "This is a very well-made weapon, but it's not a throwing axe, son."
Jonar looked confused as Lailar came to squat next to the two. "May I?" he asked Jonar. The gnath lord began chuckling the second it was put into his hand. "No, of course it isn't."
"Then what is it?" Jonar asked, frowning.
"You got it off of a Dei-Xhan riding an elph-tor, didn't you? Well, this is a Dei-Xhan sorcerer's blooding weapon. They use it to kill those with divine gifts so that they may absorb the gift for themselves. This thing is probably more valuable than everything you and your family have owned since the Crossing. A Dei-Xhan sorcerer spends his first ten years creating one of these things and the next five enchanting it. Illuminants pay for their weight in ice diamonds. My friend, you have just become extremely wealthy," Lailar said, chuckling. Then his expression turned serious. "Did you kill everyone in the party of the man who wielded this?"
Jonar shrugged, his wide with fright at the thought of a sorcerer. "I think so. I stumbled into them in the Domain of the Pagans. The sorcerer and its beast were the first to go down. Gnusyl slashed the face off the elph-tor and I slit the throat of the man who held that. His men were all on foot and Gnusyl made quick work of them. I looked around after that for anything useful and saw that. It was my first year away from Telanaria and I was hoping to find some food or money or something," he mumbled. "That and a pouch of gold were the only things worth keeping."
"They didn't have any armor or descent clothing or anything?" Caoldir asked.
Jonar shrugged, again. "It was my first year. I didn't know to take everything."
"He was thirteen, Caoldir," Dourden reminded the weaponsmaster. "Would you have known to take everything left after a battle at thirteen?"
A sick look came over Jonar. "Besides, Gnusyl had been going hungry for a while and decided Dei-Xhan would be good eating. He had never come across an elph-tor and wasn't sure it would be good to eat," he added in a revolted tone. Then he laughed a great booming laugh. "He wound up with indigestion. We had made camp not far away from where the elph-tor was left so after he threw up the Dei-Xhan he went and ate the elph-tor."
Myka rose and ran away from the fire looking even greener than is normal for a Ce'al. Alyssa laughed her silvery laugh before picking up her bow and quiver and following the young matriarch. "I forgot she was there. I suppose she would not like hearing stuff like that," Jonar guessed, red-faced.
"Well, when we get to Hynost-Qaanzyr, I will take you to the Clerics of Light headquarters in Meikar. They will pay you enough for that axe to replace it, buy yourself a better sword, and get you some decent armor," Lailar offered, handing the axe back to the boy.
Jonar took the axe and then hesitated in putting it away. "Could I keep my sword, just for... ?"
Caoldir looked at the boy as if he were crazy. "Why would you want to? It is not a good weapon. I am surprised it hasn't broken on you yet."
"It was my father's. I mean he made it himself when he was very young. It was the only thing left of his after the raiders retreated," the boy replied, his eye watering. "The chief gave me the sword as my inheritance right before they drove me out of Telanaria. They couldn't find my father's real sword."
A very dark look came over Lailar's and Caoldir's faces. "Your father was the weaponsmith of the village?" Caoldir demanded angrily.
"No, he was the smith of everything. He made plows and kettles as much as swords and axes."
"Then he probably had at least three weapons and was a wealthy man," Lailar replied darkly. "When we are done in the capital, I am going to ask for leave. There is a matter I wish to take up with the elders of Telanaria."
Hynost-Qaanzyr. It was not the first city to be built by the citizens of the Kingdom of Meikar. That was the fortress of Port Meikari and it was built under the supervision of the settlers' Gnathar protectors. The capital of Meikar and its second biggest city of Port Meikari accounted for more than two-fifths of the entire population of the kingdom. While the Port city is a giant fortress ready to stand against the incursions of the Zondrons who live across the Dorkan Bay, Hynost-Qaanzyr is very different. The artistry and imagination of the Ce'al settlers came into full play when it came time to build the city.
Hynost-Qaanzyr had two walls, neither of which would keep out an army of cats, never mind ravening hordes of Dei-Xhan or Gnathar pagans. But there had never been an attack on the city in its millennium of existence. The outermost wall was a shimmering curtain of rose quartz and topped by mithral, a metallic substance which glows in the light of the moon or stars. It was only fifteen feel tall and a few feet thick, more for show than anything else. Within that wall was a city unlike most any other city. There were wide, open streets fronted by shimmering marble buildings accented here and there by mithral and other spectacular minerals. This is where the commoner and Gnathar sections were located as well as the common markets and several royal army and city guard barracks.
Halfway to the center of the city was another wall, this one only ten feet tall with an ornate mithral fence atop it. Within that wall were located the public buildings, noble and academic quarters of the city, the headquarters of the truthseekers and various other prestigious groups, and, of course, the royal palace. The royal palace compound was fenced off by a thick, breath-taking marble wall topped by a mithral and steel fence into which were crafted scenes from Meikari history and mythology by the Gnome clerics who aided the Meikari in the building of the entire city. Hynost-Qaanzyr was the pride of all Meikari citizens.
Jonar and his traveling companions sat atop a small hill which overlooked the capital from the northeastern side in awe near noon of the fortieth day from Port Meikari. Even those who had been here before were struck by the sight. All of them except Princess Alyssa, now seated irritably on her horse dressed in a finely made silk blouse of light blue and a pair of royal blue velvet pants tucked into a pair of half-boots of the finest blue leather. On her head was a diamond and sapphire tiara and an emerald and diamond necklace hung at her throat. Emeralds also hung from her ears and clasped the fur cloak she wore against the returned chill of winter.
"Can we please get on with our grand entrance into the city," the beautiful young woman griped, her face dark.
Lailar bowed floridly from atop Fharthyl and nodded towards the city. The big Gnath lumbered into motion. They were stopped only briefly at the gorgeous bronze and mithral gates by fancily dressed Gnathar pikemen wearing the insignia of Meikar on their sleeves. They immediately passed them on into the city when they saw Princess Alyssa. As Jonar, bringing up the rear with Myka, passed them, he thought he saw the guard captain rolled his eyes and smile at his men. A smile the other guards did not share as he distinctly heard one of them groan.
"She seems to have something of a reputation here," he whispered to Myka. His mistress had also dressed in her best clothing that morning, a long flowing gown of grass green silk that quite took his breath away with emerald green slippers. She sat behind him sidesaddle, looking very imperious. She also wore a few jewels here and there that she had requisitioned from her cousin before leaving.
"Speak when you are spoken to," Lady Myka retorted with a sniff. "Remember your place here. I do not want to be embarrassed in front of the Queen."
More than a little hurt, Jonar turned his attention to the amazing sights around him, ignoring the prodding in the ribs he was getting from Myka as he gazed about like a yokel. He thought the city of Port Meikari was big and the most marvelous thing he had ever seen, but the capital was even more spectacular and he did not get to see nearly as much of it as he would have liked. Lord Lailar kept them on an arrow straight course right to the palace. Jonar gawked while he had the opportunity and he was seeing things he never saw before hawked by merchants of every race, including ones he did not even know existed. There were fine cloths and sparkling jewels being sold next to simple pots of copper and casks of sour wine. And everywhere he looked he saw scores of Gnathar smaller than he had ever seen them with ears longer and thinner than the stubby, pointed affairs regular Gnathar have.
And as much as he was staring at the wondrous sights of Hynost-Qaanzyr, the inhabitants of the magical capital were gaping at him as he went by. He was far and away the largest Gnathar they had ever seen. Even full-blooded Gnathar stared at the young cordach. But it wasn't just his sized or the fine blue and green clothing or the clearly massive size of his Gnath. As he rode and gaped about him, the young Gnathar could hear the occasional hissing whisper of "Ce'al matriarch," clearly referring to Myka. The tone of those mutterings was not kindly nor were the looks he was getting from the Ce'al and Meikari he passed.
Nevertheless, he continued to enjoy the ride through the city. What amazed him more than the sights was the constant strain of music wafting on the air. Though they never passed more than the occasional street piper or begging lutist, complex and heartbreakingly beautiful harmonies came to his sharp ears. Some of the pieces he heard reminded him of his childhood. A sad smile tugged at his lips and his eyes grew misty, especially when one of the ballads of the Gnathar was loud enough for him to hum along with.
Myka heard him and a surprised look crossed her face before she corrected herself. "I forget that your people are so musical, Jonar," she whispered softly, her arm squeezing his waist where she held on for balance. "That is probably the Conservatory. A surprising number of Gnathar earn places there."
"Not surprising," Dourden Mafealsson said over his shoulder from his place a few yards in front of them. "The Gnathar who helped the Ce'al settle Meikar were all troubadour warriors. They were teaching the Ce'al they lived with the arts when the wars came to the eastern parts of Titia-Lohr. The troubadour talent runs true with the Gnathar bloodlines. That is why all Meikari usually have at least some musical skills. Her Highness there is a most skilled player of the balalaika, though she does not play much publicly anymore."
Myka stared at Princess Alyssa's back doubtfully for the rest of the trip to the gate of the inner city. There were three score of armored Gnathar waiting for them when they got to the low wall topped by its fanciful mithral fence. They all carried the gruesome mace-axe as well as enameled shields bearing the crests of the most prominent Lords of Meikar. Surprisingly, Xavear slid off of Loshnovy's broad back and embraced one of the members of this force while their commander spoke with the princess and Lord Lailar.
Myka watched this with shock. "He must be a Lord of Meikar!"
"The twenty-ninth. Xavear is Lord of the House Losh'Varri, my Lady," Dourden replied in a hushed tone. "That is his son."
"What is a Lord doing in the Royal Army?"
"He isn't. He came as a favor to Lord Lailar," the loremaster replied, a smile lighting his face. "Lord Xavear is a priest of Sol and Lailar wished for him to be along to evaluate the misdeed done to Jonar by the elders of Telanaria. Lord Lailar has taken your young bodyguard's expatriation as a personal dishonor done by all Gnathar. He truly means to rectify the situation in person when we are finished here in Hynost-Qaanzyr. It should be very interesting to see both his meeting with the Queen and his confrontation with the elders. Queen Leina greatly respects Sol and she dislikes miscarriages of justice."
"What about the King?" Jonar asked, irked for some reason.
The young gnath lord looked at Jonar strangely before grinning. "I keep forgetting you grew up in the Empire," Dourden said, rubbing his chin and grimacing. "In Meikar, as with all Ce'al-based societies, the females are more important and usually control things. Males are seen as almost useless unless they possess some stellar quality their House can use. The Queen has total power here in Meikar because the King is ... well, let's just say his only real concerns lie in the field of epic sagas. Queen Leina Waiya is a master player of the Game and her favorite hobby is outmaneuvering other sovereigns. You will see, shortly." Just then, Princess Alyssa nudged her horse and the armored men formed up around them.
As they marched through the inner sections of the city, a growing crowd of onlookers formed along their route to the palace. Most of them were gaudily dressed Ce'al and Meikari, but there were a few Gnomes and Gnathar along with one or two very tall, very pale, very muscular men carrying massive axes and swords. These were standing guard out front of one of the larger mansions a block or two from the palace. Their menacing ice blue eyes following Jonar with looks of interest on their faces.
"Jotnar," Dourden muttered to the young man. "They must think you a half-breed, as tall as you are. You're about as tall as the shortest of their warriors I have ever seen and you still have a few more years to grow. The Jotnar can reach heights of eight feet and more."
Jonar simply kept his eyes forward, which wasn't hard now that he was getting a good look at the soaring spires and lace-like arches of flying buttresses made of marble and onyx, quartz and alabaster. Sparkling windows tinted dozens of colors that had been created to tell the stories of the Meikar settlement were everywhere the eye turned. Topping each spire or peak or gable was a sculpture of some warrior or monster, poet or gowned woman.
Surrounding the palace was the first wall Jonar had seen since Port Meikari which would be useful in a defensive situation. The wall surrounding the palace was fifteen feet tall and nearly as thick. Despite this, the builders still managed to make it beautiful by incorporating various colored marble stones in its construction to create mosaic murals out of Titia-Lohr's great myths and legends.
It wasn't until the escorted group reached the wide boulevard that Jonar saw the archers atop the parapet. The sight of the half drawn bows made him squirm in his place, which immediately translated itself to aggressive snorting and grunting by Gnusyl. The heavily armed Gnathar surrounding their party began nervously eyeing him as they backed slowly away.
"Calm him down before they try to arrest you," Myka hissed urgently, a distracted smile plastered on her face as she stared straight ahead.
Jonar was using nearly all of his will to keep his hand from flying to his weapons as it was. Gnusyl sensed this and began lowering his shaking head. Just as the palace guards opened the gate, the giant Gnath gave vent to a shattering roar, a clear challenge to all around him. The other gnath lords turned in their seats atop their smaller beasts to stare at a sweating Jonar, jaws clenched and fists grasping at the air very near his weapons.
Princess Alyssa sat staring at the young man and then followed his gaze upward and saw what was distressing him and his beast. "Commander! Calm him down! I am going to get the archers away from the wall," she yelled at a dumbfounded Lord Lailar in a frightened voice. Alyssa spurred her horse through the gate, galloping for the guardhouse at the end of the tunnel through the palace wall. At the far end were a dozen men angling halberds at her backed by a score of Gnathar wielding mace-axes. "Captain! Back those archers away from the wall! They are making one of the Gnaths very nervous. It's about to start charging!"
One of the Gnathar squinted at her, then his eyes widened. "Princess Alyssa! At once your Highness!" he said, bolting for the stairs to the wall bellowing orders at the top of his voice.