Chapter 9: Pagans' Delight
Copyright© 2011 by Celtic Bard
Donnar Axeforger led them through the thick woods at an agonizingly slow pace. The Gnaths could move neither very quickly nor very quietly through the willow-oak-pine forest and to prevent the lashing which would occur atop the beasts, Jonar and the others decided to walk back to the Gnomish merchant's camp nearly a mile from their own. They heard the camp long before they saw it. Pots and pans banging, horses and torgs snorting eagerly as they waited to be fed, deep-voiced men calling hoarsely to each other in the early morning hush, and the unmistakable sound of water rushing over stone.
The sun was starting to penetrate the budding tree limbs of spring when they finally broke through into a half-mile wide clearing slashed by a swift running stream. The clearing was filled to the brim with the men and animals and tents of the Axeforger caravan.
Donnar waved them on. "Come on. Breakfast should be ready soon," he told them in Gnomish, strolling into camp and nodding to soldiers dressed in his livery and other, lesser merchants of Gnomish and Gnathar persuasion.
Jonar tugged Myka onward having caught the wiff of frying eggs and blood sausage, two things he had not had since he left the Gnome's service. Her stomach just as eager as her friend's, Myka allowed Jonar to lead her after the diminutive merchant as he weaved his way through the legion of men. The gnath lords quickly shook themselves out of their astonishment and chased after the Gnome. Around them they saw several Gnathar salute them and they dazedly returned the gestures of respect. Their Gnaths sat on the ground near the edge of the trees and watched their companions go with worry, longing to follow despite the fact that there was no way their great bulks could fit through the narrow aisles created by the small tent city.
Donnar Axeforger led them to a large pavilion near the center of the encampment. A delicious, complex aroma wafted over them when the flap of the huge tent was parted. Inside was a camp table covered with food and surrounded by six empty chairs. A shorter Gnome, looking like a younger version of Donnar, appeared the minute the merchant entered the tent and helped him out of the breastplate. He grinned up at Jonar with recognition and scurried out of the pavilion with the armor and the mighty war axe.
Donnar crossed his arms over his chest and glared at the flap. When the gnath lords finally came in, he grunted sourly. "First you all eat, then we discuss what the hell you are doing bringing this colossal clod into the Domain without an invasion army behind you," he said in Gnomish. "Now sit and eat. My cook is very good." They all sat down in the surprisingly comfortable camp chairs and began plowing through all the food.
The Gnomish attendant entered with Gnathar and Meikari servants when they had eaten all they could and began clearing away the dishes. The attendant went to the Axeforger and handed him a bone pipe and leather pouch before patting Jonar on the shoulder and leaving. The gnath lords did not miss the familiarity with which the shorter Gnome treated Jonar. Lailar and Xavear exchanged sober looks.
After putting a pinch of very aromatic shredded leaves and twigs into the bowl of the pipe and tamping it thoroughly, Donnar lit it with a coal from one of the half dozen braziers. With a sigh of contentment, the Gnome sat back down and let his hard gray eyes wander around the table, stopping on Myka with a raised eyebrow.
"So what's the story, kid?"
Lailar sat up straight and glared at the merchant indignantly. "We-
"Are you a kid? No! So shut up until I am ready to speak to you," he roared angrily, a fist slamming onto the table with enough strength to almost collapse the sturdy but transportable furniture. He turned back to Jonar and sighed. "I take it they are always like that. Never mind, I have a few roaming around here like that, too. Now speak up. Start with who the pretty young Ce'al is."
Jonar looked at the clinging Myka, realizing that her eyes were wide with fright and her skin was barely holding its green coloration. "This is my Lady Myka, Matriarch of the House of Junia. She is my mistress. I found her three, almost four, months ago just out of the Ythol Mountains after her village and family were killed by Zondrons," he said, proudly introducing the Ce'al maiden. Ignoring the grimace and groan of the Gnome, he went on to explain their journey to Port Meikari and Hynost-Qaanzyr, finishing by telling him why Lord Lailar was trying to bring him back to Telanaria. "He thinks they did it on purpose, Donnar. I guess he feels he has to do something about it."
The Gnome looked skeptically at Lord Lailar before shaking his head at the Gnathar boy. "You don't sound like this was your idea. Don't you want to go home?"
He shrugged dubiously. "It may have been home nearly four years ago, but after father was killed and mother died of her wounds, I was simply passed around until they decided to get rid of me. Why should I try to go back to a place and a people who felt I wasn't worth their trouble four years ago?" he demanded bitterly. "I would never find an occupation in that place now, since I am well past the age of apprenticeship, and there aren't too many battles to be fought in Telanaria. I would just wind up being sent off to do the village's service to the Emperor, dying thousands of leagues from a place that was supposed to be home for a people who didn't really want me to begin with. Fighting those ill-begotten bastards' battles for them is not my idea of a just cause or a real life. I would rather spend the rest of my life guarding Myka from her enemies."
The Axeforger sat looking at the two youths in silence, puffing on the pipe and blowing out musty-sweet clouds as he thought. He kept shooting glances at the gnath lords. "I thought all of you spoke Gnomish, Lailar?" he grumbled, his eyes on the confused face of Brandar Brandarsson. "If that one understands every third word he is doing good. He looks like he's been pole-axed, he's so confused."
"Brandar never did much campaigning, Lord Axeforger," Lord Xavear replied politely in perfect Gnomish. "The generals preferred to preserve his skill at teaching weapons."
Donnar kept staring at Brandar until he began to blush. "So he's just along for the ride, is that about the size of it? Well, he can go bring your Gnaths to where the others are eating. They will need their strength. Kilthre! Get in here!" he bellowed. The short Gnome attendant scurried into the pavilion. "Tak this un t ther Gnaths. E'll tak em t th thers. Thn bring em back."
Brandar blinked several times as he tried to sort through the Gnome's broken Gnathar before bowing and following the gesturing Gnome.
"Never could get my tongue around Gnathar and I hate Common." Donnar sat back in his chair, puffing on his pipe again, and studied Lord Lailar. "You would have been killed long before you reached Telanaria, Commander Ulfjansson," he stated abruptly in Gnomish, his voice grim, grating.
Lailar sat up straight, eyes wide with shock. "How did you-"
"Know who you were?" he finished with a chilling smile. The smile was quickly gone, to be replaced by a menacing glare. "Merchants are everywhere, Commander. Sooner or later, they hear everything. You were very important in Port Meikari and when you did not return home within two months of leaving, it was noticed. Lord Xavear Losh'Varrii's reputation precedes him. Your friend Brandar is less widely known and the matriarchs of the Junia have ever been reclusive, otherwise I would have known of them as well. But all of that is not important.
"Besides the Zondron warriors and sorcerers at your back, your path would have taken you through the territories of both the Domani and the Zondomi pagans. Jonar is badly wanted by the Domani for killing the chieftain's nephew and several cousins shortly before he and I first met. That alone would be dangerous. This Domani nephew was betrothed to the princess of the Zondomi chieftain, however, making the boy wanted by the bride's tribe as well," the Gnome informed the gnath lord. "Both of those tribes have been searching for and chasing this cordach of yours for three years. They are in league with the Zondrons on that account because the Zondrons have been looking for him for about two years for his part in killing one of their grand inams."
Donnar slid out of his chair and walked over to stand in front of the seated Lailar. "You have just walked the five of you into a roiled mess of eight million people in this part of the world who would just love to get their swords, axes, spears, arrows, or plain old bare hands on this boy. Congratulations, Commander!" the little merchant growled sarcastically, blowing a cloud of smoke at the gnath lord. "You are damned lucky the Domain is as fragmented and unstable as it is right now. None of the six tribes wants a war at this particular time. They are all too afraid of losing. Grand Chancellor Mobbitt Gnathjaw has his fist around both the junta and the Congress and, with help from Dominari Slamfist and the Domani Dominari, he has managed to foment rumors that each of the tribes is being secretly backed by outsiders. They won't risk war for any reason! Not even a chance at long legs."
Lailar cleared his throat apologetically. "I am sorry, but I don't see how this lecture on the internal politics of the Domain and Gnomish society is going to help us, if that is what you have in mind," he said honesty, his face starting to look his age with the strain of being polite to the diminutive tradesman.
Donnar was about to answer when Brandar rushed into the pavilion, ten steps in front of the gasping Kilthre. "Pagans!" the weaponsmaster gasped in Common, his chest heaving. "They are everywhere! Surrounding us in the forest!"
"As I was about to answer before being interrupted," the Gnome began with a grim smile, "I have arranged for an escort for my caravan through the Domanis' territory. The Xiri have been kind enough to lend me a couple thousand warriors as an escort to the border of the Empire of the Gnath. We can cut through open country and not worry about the Dorkan Highway, with its tolls and outrageous prices for supplies. We will be leaving within the hour. See to it, Kilthre."
Myka had never seen so many warriors in one place before. Neither had she ever seen so many armed Gnathar and Gnaths in one place before. As the Axeforger caravan wound out of the forest, Myka realized that the Gnomish merchant had a force of one hundred gnath lords himself, with another nine hundred soldiers besides. A full three centuries of horse cavalry ranged out ahead of and behind the fifty wagons laden with goods and camping supplies. Donnar managed to convince Jonar to allow Myka to sit with him in his wagon in the center of the mass of men and beasts following their noon meal stop.
Besides the silver and red uniformed soldiers of the Axeforger Sept, the Xiri clansmen bunched and flowed around the caravan as it cut straight north across the Domain of Pagans, ignoring the convenience and safety of the Dorkan Imperial Highway. Lailar and Xavear had serious misgivings about their course and their escorts but could not argue with the danger posed by the many people out to kill Jonar for reasons beyond his control. They rode silently behind the Gnome's huge, luxurious wagon as the four torgs easily pulled the house-on-wheels northward, their hands not far from their weapons and their eyes darting around at the boisterous, leather-and-fur clad pagans gleefully leading them towards enemy territory.
Jonar, still somewhat wary of the danger, paced Donnar's wagon on Gnusyl. The huge beast found the sheer numbers of Gnaths around him a great bonus in this adventure that would see him returned to the land of his Pride. The young Gnathar had long since given up trying to explain the dangers of their situation once they reached Telanaria. Gnusyl was still a very young Gnath with several years more to grow and still very prone to Gnathian enthusiasm and hubris when the subject of battle was discussed. Jonar was becoming more grim and apprehensive with each league they passed on their way to the Empire of the Gnath.
"Something's bugging you, kid," Donnar stated bluntly in High Gnomish, a little known language the diminutive merchant had taught him on their travels in order to keep their conversations private. "Spit it out. That look now on your face preceded you leaving me last time. What's got you so uptight this time?"
The young Gnathar looked down at his old master and sighed. "I truly hated to leave you, sir, but after the attack in the Gnomar Mountains, I couldn't expose you to my troubles," the boy explained. "And now, I feel I have just brought them back with me. Only this time, I have dragged my new mistress and people who have befriended me into those old problems. That isn't right! I should be able to take care of things myself or not at all. Running to people who barely know me isn't right."
The Gnome pulled his bone pipe out of a pocket and lit up, puffing thoughtfully. "Did these people know of your trouble beforehand?"
Jonar snorted. "They would probably say they did, but they would be lying," he guessed, glancing back at the three veteran soldiers following the wagon. "I saw Lord Lailar's face when you and I told him what was going on. It was total shock and real fear that showed and I don't blame them."
The shrewd little man looked at Myka sitting between them, listening with frustrated curiosity. "What about this lovely lady? Surely she knows."
Jonar shook his head. "She simply took me on because she saw I was about to be conscripted in Port Meikari and she felt she owed me for getting her to her kin safely. When I saw her situation with her kin, I felt obligated to remain because she would have been killed for reasons I still am not too sure I fully understand properly," he explained, his voice laden with guilt.
"So they leapt without looking? Yet they continue on with you. Why do you suppose that is?"
"They feel obligated," the Gnathar answered simply, as if that was patently obvious.
The Gnomes snorted, smoke shooting out of his nose as he began to laugh heartily. "How little you know Ce'al, my boy," Donnar shouted with amusement. "And Gnathar who live too long in Meikar begin to think as the Ce'al. Imperial Gnathar are a breed apart, dear boy, with codes of honor and ways of thinking which are not seen much anymore outside of the lands of the Jotnar and the outer provinces of the Empire of the Gnath. To a fully mature and well educated Ce'al, as your Lady no doubt is, there is no obligation that cannot be broken without pause if it gets in the way of survival or the glory of the House. The Junia matriarchs lived out in the boondocks to save themselves from being killed by their city kin. The Great Houses of the Ce'al, both in Meikar and in the east, play the Game with ruthless ability. I have seen many a matriarch rise and fall among the Ce'al. Your Lady is here for reasons of her own, believe me. You are her only key to survival, Jonar. She will stick by you for that reason alone."
Then he leaned over to look behind the huge wagon at the gnath lords of Meikar. "As for them, they truly did not know what they were getting into, that you have right. What their play is, I don't know," he said honestly. Then his face grew grim as he puffed fiercely on his pipe. Then he switched back into Common Gnomish, noticing the highly offended look on Myka's beautiful face. "But we will find out before you pass into the Empire of the Gnath. Of that you can be sure."
"Find out what?" she demanded, looking from Jonar to Donnar.
"Whether you like Gnathar cooking, my dear," the Gnome said smoothly, flashing her a charming smile and winking at Jonar.
Three weeks after joining the Axeforger caravan, they crossed a river known in the Domain as the River of the Pagans. The Zondrons call the same river the River of Zondro-Xhan, but few outside of the dark nation care. A wide stone bridge spanned the lazy flow with a tollbooth and guard station at each end. When they reached the bridge, Donnar climbed down from his wagon and stalked up to the seedy Gnathar who ran the booth and supervised the slovenly guards lounging about the simple pole gate blocking the bridge. On the far side a flag ran up a pole atop the tollbooth on that side of the river. The supervisor broke off discussions with Donnar long enough to order the guards to raise the gate pole.
Coming across the bridge was a band of twenty pagans led by a scar-faced warrior with long black hair. The hair was done up in three braids woven with feathers and golden rings in the manner of a tribal prince, one long, thick braid down the back and two hanging in front of the pointed ears. The pagan prince wore a fine scale mail shirt, steel greaves, and an elph-tor horned helm. When he saw the mass of Xiri and foreigners his thin lips peeled back in a rictus grin and his deeply set, black eyes glinted.
A feral muttering washed back among the escorting pagans and a group of twenty Xiri trotted forward led by a brown haired young man similarly dressed as the newcomer. He was more than a decade younger but looked much more refined in his armor and tribal garb. The Xiri, despite their territory bordering Zondroland, have better ties with the Dorkan Empire than the land of the Dei-Xhan. Their princes and elders' sons are usually educated in the Dorkan military academies and taught the finer points of politics and the military sciences. Despite this, however, the Xiri are every bit as wild as their northern cousins and very much prone to going into a violent frenzy at the sight of an enemy.
It was much to the amazement of Jonar and Donnar that the Xiri prince rode forward to confront the Domani prince in a calm, emotionless manner. "And here I was hoping to get to the Empire of the Gnath and back without having to look upon the scabious, goat-like faces of the Domani," he said in a deep, quiet voice to his escorts to the showdown, just loud enough to be heard by the older prince.
The Domani growled. "I see the Xiri elders still don't teach their whelps to respect their betters," he replied derisively.
The Xiri shrugged. "Of course they do," he retorted casually. "But then they also let us in on the secret that we have no betters, especially among you Dei-Xhan-loving, elph-tor dung-eating degenerates. Now, why don't you take you inamoratos and go on your way before you wind up getting your tribe into trouble it can't handle."
The Domani's eyes narrowed. "Take my what?" he demanded suspiciously.
"Those muscle boys behind you. Run along, little Domani princeling. Go on." The Xiri made insulting flipping gestures as one might to an annoying cur.
Red face and barely containing the rage, the Domani prince led his men around the strung out caravan at a trot, attempting to regain some of his dignity by the show. All he really managed to do was allow the Xiri to taunt him more. He was nearly to Donnar's wagon when his nerve and patience finally broke. As he spurred his horse into a gallop, his eyes widened as they fell on Jonar's face. They then flashed down to the two huge teeth jutting from his Gnath's mouth and his face went white, then red with rage but he did not stop.
"He recognized me," the Gnathar stated emphatically to no one in particular.
Kilthre stuck his head out of the wagon's front window and looked up at him. "Are you positive? Are you sure you aren't just imagining things?"