Chapter 8: Portents and Missives
Copyright© 2011 by Celtic Bard
Jonar was dying. As the sturdy Dorkan ship rocked and heaved on the storm tossed waves, Jonar lie dying in his bunk in the cramped quarters he shared with Myka. His stomach told him it was time to vomit again, but Jonar knew better. There hadn't been anything in his stomach since the morning they left the city aboard this vessel of death. Since he was unable to keep anything down, the young Gnathar was dehydrated, causing him to shake whenever he tried to use one of his exhausted, water-starved muscles.
The cabin door slammed open, eliciting a groan from the corpse that was Jonar. "So you live, yet!" a cheerful voice exclaimed sardonically. "And here your mistress was sure you were going to be dead by now."
By the dim light from the candle hanging on the wall, Jonar saw the tall but skinny form of the ship's Jotnari cook. The humorous old man was as tall as Jonar and nearly as thick, quite cadaverous for the large boned men of the far south. Surprisingly, the frail old man's remaining muscles were quite strong. He easily hauled Jonar into a sitting position, bringing a mug up to his lips.
"Now, I know you think you are going to just waste this by heaving it back up, but there is a medicine in the water to help you stop vomiting," the Jotnar assured him, tipping back his head. Then he chuckled. "Never have I seen a man get so sea sick from a little squall like that. It's been gone since the night out from port." When Jonar got the whole cup down, the cook laid him back down and told him to rest. There must have been a drug in the cup as well because he was immediately asleep.
The next morning Jonar woke with a start when he heard Myka's feet hit the floor of their cabin. He turned his head slowly to make sure he was not going to retch and quickly closed his eyes. His mistress was in an indecent state of undress, pulling on a green wool houpplande to cover the thin silken vest and a pair of men's short breeches. She slipped her dainty feet into a pair of halfboots and stepped over to lay a warm hand on his forehead.
"How are you feeling this morning?" she asked softly, her eyes filled with concern. "The cook assured me that you would be alright today."
Jonar struggled to get his muscles to work properly, trying to sit up in the cramped bed. "I think I am alright, my lady. I thought for a while there I was going to die."
A gentle smile curled the corners of her mouth as the Ce'al sat on the wooden edge of the bunk. As with all of the furniture on the ship, the bunk was built right into the floor of the cabin and was not nearly as comfortable as she was used to. The Gnathar seemed not to notice the lumpy mattresses or the hard board under the thin pallets.
"How much longer will we be on this damned floating death trap?" he asked as he finally managed to sit up, leaning back against the wall with a groan.
Myka giggled and patted his knee. "Don't worry, Lord Lailar spoke with the captain and he said that we should reach the mouth of the River Xir early this afternoon. Once on the river, the rocking won't be so bad."
"We will be within sight of Zondroland, though," he said with a worried frown.
"Don't worry about it," Myka told him as she rose and went to the door. She watched him rise and grinned. "You should come up and get some fresh air. It will do you wonders. Plus you need to eat something, even if it is just some soup."
Weak as he was, Jonar still managed to belt on his sword and strap on the battle-axe before slowly making his way down the companion way and up the stairs to the deck. Built as it was by Jotnari craftsmen, the Dorkan ship was proportioned just right for Jonar's height. He liked the fact that he didn't have to stoop as he walked or duck under doorframes.
The sky was a clear blue and the sea almost flat when he finally climbed up to the deck of the gently swaying Dorkan vessel. There were burly Jotnari and Gnathar sailors scurrying around at various tasks, dodging the dozen passengers also wandering the decks. Myka, Lailar and Xavear were leaning on the starboard rail, watching the Dorkan coast slide by. Not far on the horizon was a dark smudge of land. Zondroland, he thought grimly to himself.
"Ah! The dead have arisen," Lord Lailar said with a hearty laugh, beckoning him to join them at the rail. The gray haired gnath lord looked up at the young man and smiled kindly. "How are you feeling, boy?"
Jonar shrugged stoically, warmed nonetheless by his concern. "Better. Gods, this is a big boat!"
"Ship," Xavear corrected. "And it would have to be to carry four grown Gnaths comfortably. You should go see Gnusyl, my young friend. He has been worried about you."
"After he eats something," Myka said firmly, pushing past the two muscular warriors and taking Jonar's bony elbow to guide him to the galley.
The young Gnathar was looking at the northern horizon, however. "Is that it?" he asked Lailar.
"Yes," was the simple, grim reply.
The sun was straight overhead when the captain ordered the course change. Ahead they all saw the wide mouth of the river and the aft end of another merchantman entering the waterway. Long oars began sprouting from the sides of the ship, making it look like some kind of strange aquatic insect walking over the waters of the River Xir. Jonar, sitting in a sheltered spot near the bow saw this and looked at the activity of the sailors on the Dorkan ship, wondered where they would carry oars and how they would man them.
"Lucky bastards," Brandar said softly in his grating voice, approaching him. The veteran gnath lord squatted down before the seated cordach. "It'll take us twice as long ta be gettin where we're goin without oars on this damned river. How're ye doin, boy?"
"Better, Lord Brandar," Jonar replied, a little timid around the boisterous weaponsmaster. "I've never been on a boat before."
"They be callin them ships, lad," Brandar corrected him, looking about at the Jotnari sailors doing important things with ropes. "They'll get a might testy if they heard ye call it a boat. How're yer arms feeling?"
The Gnathar boy shrugged. "A bit rubbery after ... however long it was I was vomiting up everything I have ever eaten."
The weaponsmaster smiled. "Good! Get up and get yer sword out. I've been wantin' to test yer skill and there's no better time than now. There's a space amidships where we can work on getting you back into shape. Ye were passed into manhood befere ya were kicked outa yer village so ya probably learnt most of the unarmed stuff. Lailar wants ta know how good ye're with that thing and the axe ye wear." Jonar stared up at him for a long minute before nodding, rising to follow the much shorter Gnathar weaponsmaster.
Half of the West River Xir's length to the River of the Pagans forms the border between Zondroland and the Domain of Pagans. The northern bank of the river was Zondroland, a dreary, lifeless plain with only the occasional stand of dead trees or small lake of stagnant water. The southern bank was the Domain of Pagans and a completely different landscape. Winter barren oaks and willows and several different kinds of fruit trees and berry bushes thrust out of the frosted brown earth. Herds of snow deer, bands of torgs under the watchful eyes of tribesmen, and the occasional sight of a Gnath pack were roaming the plains of the south.
Out of fear of reprisals from the full force of the fairly strong Dorkan Navy, the Zondrons have learned over the years to leave ships flying the black and white Gnath banner of the Dorkan Empire to their own devices. The ship carrying Jonar and his companions was no different and the elph-tor-mounted Dei-Xhan they did see along the banks of the wide, lazy flow of the Xir simply watched the ship with bored expressions on their ugly, bone-thin faces.
Myka shuddered and walked to the starboard rail, her eyes tearing up. Jonar followed and put a sympathetic arm around her shoulders. "I know. Don't worry, they can't get to you here," he told her fiercely.
She looked up into his sapphire eyes and swallowed the bitter retort which automatically came to her. At the last minute she remembered that he, indeed, did know. She leaned into his comforting embrace, forgetting her rank and his station, simply reveling in the comfortable knowledge that there was someone there to protect her from those animals. As she stood there, enfolded in the Gnathar boy's arms, she realized that he had put on quite a bit of muscle in the past few days of weapons practice with Lord Brandar. His chest and arms, which were rather scrawny compared to the older gnath lords, were beginning to take on the typical bulky Gnathar build. She looked up into his eyes and was shocked to see that she also had farther up to look than when she first met him on that shocking morning some four months ago.
"You're growing again," she whispered, wiping her eyes and stepping back. "You weren't this tall when we met."
The boy bowed his head to hide the embarrassed flush. "I know. It's a good thing all those clothes I bought were sewn with that in mind. I realized I was sprouting again when I had to take out my shirt sleeves," he told her, holding out his arm to show her where the crease in the nice linen shirt was. Jonar stiffened, his hand falling to his sword hilt, and looked over Myka's head. "Do you need something, friend?"
The Ce'al matriarch gasped and turned, backing up beside her bodyguard. Behind her was the strangest person she had ever met. He was a little taller than she was but not the typical Gnathar height. The man wore a fine pair of white gabressi hide boots, white kidskin pants and a loose, white silk blouse. His skin was a slightly bronzed shade and his long, straight hair was a shiny platinum blonde. Twinkling ice blue eyes watched them take in his odd appearance, with his small, rounded ears and an almost but not quite Ce'alian face. The penetrating stare and grand presence of the person before them began to make the two youths uncomfortable.
The odd being bowed floridly, his silvery hair sweeping over his shoulders. "I am named Wolvero, my Lord Jonar, my Lady Myka," he spoke with an archaic but musical accent. His smile made Myka blush and turn her green eyes downward in confusion while it summoned the raw homicidal essence of the primitive that lurks within every Gnathar. The man, Wolvero, saw this and frowned. "I had completely forgotten I would have such effect on thy person, Lord Jonar, so I shall be brief in my time with thee. I bear thee a message from my uncle. He asks that thou peruse it and ponder his request with great deliberation ere you decide upon the course thou shalt take. Again, I apologize that the form I have taken hast stirred up thy primitive id and it's urges toward violence."
Barely making out what the puny fool before him was saying, Jonar was about to grab his scrawny neck when he held out an empty hand towards Jonar. Smiling wickedly, Jonar was trying to decide how many times he would break the limb when a scroll appeared in the palm. Wolvero nodded towards the item, urging the Gnathar to take it. Still in his primitive mode of thinking, Jonar didn't recognize it. Myka watched the giant struggling to think and simply snatched the scroll and graciously nodded to the man. He promptly disappeared.
Clumping footsteps rushed toward them, breaking the homicidal lock on Jonar's brain. "Who the hell was that?" he asked of no one in particular.
Myka, her skin a shade of off-white, swallowed heavily. "Wolvero," she whispered, looking at the scroll clenched in her hand as if it were alive and somewhat icky.
She shoved the thing at Jonar and backed away, bumping into Lord Xavear. The clumping had been he and Lord Lailar running across the deck. Like Jonar, they looked dazed and disappointed that the man disappeared.
"I-I think it was a Human," Lord Xavear stuttered. "I read once in the Temple of Sol in Hynost-Qaanzyr that the reason Humans were wiped out was that the very sight of them turned Gnathar into ravening maniacs who would rip anything Human to shreds. There were legends of perfectly sane and saintly Gnathar priests of Sol going completely mad, killing entire villages of Humans. It got so that even the Dei-Xhan allies of the Zondrons, Lunlanders, and Outlanders couldn't control their Gnathar citizens or protect their Human allies."
"Wolvero is not a Human," Lailar said firmly, a frown on his face. "He is the illegitimate son of a seduced Kreu-Garra by Ptavre-Dei. They call him the Trickster. He is often seen as the decent alternative to his father. Thieves who won't follow Ptavre-Dei worship Wolvero the Trickster. The priests of Kreu-Garra name him the messenger of Sol."
Jonar looked down at the scroll. "I think that is what he said this was. He was speaking some kind of old garble but I think he told me to read it carefully and think about what it says before deciding."
"Deciding what?" Xavear demanded.
The boy shrugged and began unrolling the scroll. The words on the page were in the graceful glyphs of the Gnome language. While most non-Gnomes find the language almost impossible to learn to read but easy to speak, thanks to the truthseeker Torrvin Silvereye's spell, Jonar found the words quite easy to read. But as he read, he honestly wished he had not unrolled the missive. His face got whiter and whiter as he neared the end.
Eyes wide, hands shaking, Jonar began shaking his head. With a stubborn, almost defiant look on his face, the Gnathar boy threw the scroll overboard with a roared, "NO!" The sound sent birds on the riverbank into flight and a small heard of snow deer bolting off to the northwest. A group of fur-clad Gnathar pagans started from hiding amongst a stand of stunted willows, gaping at the giant Gnathar on the ship as it passed fully into the Domain of Pagans, leaving behind the dreary landscape of Zondroland.
Myka stared after his broad back with some concern as her friend and protector fled back to their cabin. She was about to go after him when she felt a hand on her arm. "Let him go for now, my Lady," Lord Xavear advised. He, too, stared after the boy with worried eyes. "Whatever it said was meant for him alone and it will be his decision to tell us what is going on. The Gods rarely manifest themselves this directly, my dear, but when they do ... well, it is usually for something very important."
Lord Lailar laid a comforting arm around her shoulders, completely ignoring her usually aloof demeanor around them. "Worry not, Lady Myka," he assured her in a gentle voice. "From what Brandar tells me and from what I have seen over the past few days, he will be ready for anything that might come up. He is a surprisingly competent swordsman and a fierce axe-fighter. You could not have chosen a better bodyguard if you had hired one of Brandar's students."
When the sun had set and they all finished dinner without any further sign of Jonar, Myka's fear resurfaced. She begged off when the gnath lords tried to engage her in a game of crowns and hurried back to her cabin to check on her friend. The young Ce'al breathed a sigh of relief when she saw the giant boy sleeping soundly on his bunk. As she went to her own bed, the light from the candle illuminated his face and she saw that his eyes were rimmed in red and the pillow was still damp. Though Ce'al men, and even male Meikari, are known to cry at the drop of a hat, Myka could not remember ever having seen any of the Gnathar males she knew as a child weep. Even the little boys she ran around with before she knew any better would refuse to cry when they scraped a knee or broke an arm. She sat down heavily on the wooden bed and stared at the handsome face sleeping before her, wishing with all her heart that she could have had a brother such as he. Her eyes roamed down his body and she noticed that despite his emotional distress, he still clutched the huge sword he bought in Hynost-Qaanzyr.
Feeling warm in the secure knowledge that he was here, Myka pulled back the blanket, slipped out of her boots, and went to bed. In the slowly dimming light of the candle, the Ce'al girl smiled fondly at her slumbering giant and silently thanked him for his presence in her life.
A reciprocating smile greeted her the following morning when she was jolted out of sleep by the shuddering halt to the ship. She could hear the frantic steps of the sailors overhead and the bellowing of both the captain and the mate as they rushed about. Steps in the companionway told her that someone was coming to get them and she quickly sat up and slipped into her boots. Carefully and with one hand on Jonar's sword, Myka woke the Gnathar.
"I think there is trouble topside," she said just as the cabin door slammed open
Standing on the threshold was Lord Lailar. "Time to get up, children!" he told them urgently. "We need to get off this boat. Lords Xavear and Brandar are getting the Gnaths ashore as we speak. You need to get your things together and get on deck. We are leaving."
After throwing their meager possessions into their traveling bags, Myka and Jonar rushed up to the deck to find most of the passengers huddling fearfully by the companionway door. A huge, thick gangplank was passed over the port side of the ship and onto the northern bank of the Xir. Three Gnaths stood on the bank with a fourth resisting the manhandling the sailors and Lord Lailar was trying to exert. Off to the west could be seen three deep-hulled, black ships flying the solid black banner of Zondroland looking like menacing shadows on the river in the midmorning sun.
Xavear saw the two youths standing stock-still, taking the commotion in and motioned to them. "Jonar, tell that brute of yours to cross the damned bridge! We don't have much time before those ships catch up and we don't want to be on this ship when they do."
"Another ship passed us in the night. As it passed, it tossed a message tube to the captain warning us that we are targets of a group of Zondrons sailing up the river. Now, there is no reason to get the rest of these people involved in something which is wholly our fight and none of their business," the nobleman explained. "Getting these people killed just because they were with us when our enemies caught up with us would be a great dishonor. Once on dry land we can outrun them on our companions."
Jonar walked over to the dozen men pushing on Gnusyl's broad posterior. "Gnusyl? Gnusyl! Go ashore. I will be right there," he yelled over the grunting and cursing of the sailors. Gnusyl's great head swing up and back and the Gnath's big eyes looked down on Jonar before the neck swung forward again. The sailors were all sprawling on the deck a second later when Gnusyl quickly lumbered over the thick wooden plank to shore. He waved Myka ashore as well before going over to Lord Lailar. "What is going on? How far are we from where we were going to be getting off anyway?"
The Meikar commander shrugged. "The village is about three or four more leagues upriver, at the junction of the West Xir and the Xir," he replied. Then he scowled and looked at the advancing black ships. "As to what is going on, I can only guess. Are you known to the Zondrons?"
The Gnathar nodded grimly. "They chased me all over the Domani and Gnomar Mountains my first winter away from Telanaria and caught up with me again a year later."
The gnath lord swore. "There is probably little doubt someone has let them know you are on this ship. We have to get up into the Domain and onto the Dorkan Imperial Highway. If we can reach the highway, we should be safe all the way up to the Empire of the Gnath."
As soon as Lailar, the last of them off the ship, touched the grassy earth of the riverbank, the stout wooden board was hauled back to the ship and the sailors began pushing away with long poles. Before Jonar and his friends were even mounted on their Gnaths, the Dorkan merchantman was sailing away. Lord Lailar did not waste any time. He and Fharthyl set a grueling pace, quickly leaving the river behind.
They did not stop until the sun was touching the tips of the forest they were skirting near dusk. Myka had long ago drooped against Jonar's broad back, asleep despite the fact that both she and Jonar got a few extra hours of sleep the night before. Lord Lailar and the other gnath lords looked oddly exhilarated as they led Jonar and Gnusyl into the trees to look for a campsite.
"I hate to do this to her ladyship, but we can't start a fire tonight, Jonar," Lailar said over his shoulder. "We can't risk it being seen by anybody who might be following us, Zondron or pagan."
"That reminds me, young Jonar," Lord Xavear said, turning on Loshnovy to look at the boy in the dim light. "Are you known by the pagans?"
Jonar flushed and nodded. "Gnusyl broke his tooth on a Domani shield and the kin of the band we killed days into the Domain chased us all the way to the Zondroland border. If it wasn't for a Gnome I met up with, I would have had to chance crossing it."