Chapter 10: The Game's Unwilling Players
Copyright© 2011 by Celtic Bard
After more than a month of crossing the mostly unsettled prairie of the Domain, the Axeforger caravan caught their first glimpses of the Hills of the Gnath, a triangular arrangement of hills whose southern point was the only division between the Gnomar and Domani Mountains. Although spring was in full bloom, the air was still quite cool in the mornings and evenings as they went further north.
It was more than a week since the failed assassination attempt on Jonar and they had encountered no more trouble. In fact, they had seen no other people the entire time, an unusual occurrence so deep into the heart of Domani territory. The Domani nervously patrol their borders and interior. Not encountering one of their patrols is cause for some concern. The Xiri who escorted the merchants rode with their hands on their weapons and their eyes scanning the tall grass in every direction. The night encampment was set up with defense in mind and a third of the guards were up at all times.
Jonar, another cause for concern, had retreated into a shell. He diligently performed his duties to his Ce'al mistress but ignored all attempts to draw him out of his mental gloom. Not knowing if the beast would understand her, Myka went to Gnusyl the night before they would reach the hills to ask the giant Gnath a favor while Jonar was busy getting their dinner.
All of the Gnaths were bedded down in the same place, a small vale on the northern edge of their encampment. The young Ce'al matriarch picked her way through the rows of tents and wagons and stood on the lip of the depression, scanning the large bulks settling in for the night. There were a hundred of the beasts and nearly all of them were of like size. As she scanned the darkening vale, however, one large head rose and turned in her direction, its eyes glowing in the dim light of the campfires behind her. Hoping it was Gnusyl recognizing her, Myka proceeded down into the Gnaths' hollow, heading for the still-raised head.
As she got closer, the curious Gnath snorted. "You come with worry for Jonar, little one," a voice said, its timbre smooth and deep and perhaps the loveliest voice Myka had ever heard. "I watch him. I will keep him from harm."
"Gnusyl?" she blurted incredulously. She never realized they could actually talk. She thought the contact between Gnathar and their beasts was more telepathic than actual verbal communication.
"It is telepathic," replied the Gnath, indicating that he heard her thoughts. "We also speak, but only those worthy to hear will. It is good for you to care for his well-being. He likes you very much and knows you feel the same. He never had female siblings. He likes the thought of having a younger sister and will make sure you never come to harm, little one."
Myka rocked back on her heels at this. This was not going the way she planned. She came out here in the hopes that she could make the creature understand her and she finds that he is already five steps ahead of her. Just how intelligent were these creatures?
"It depends," he responded to the silent query.
"Will you stop that!" she yelled, causing several Gnath heads to rear up and look down at her. The Ce'al took a moment to compose herself. "I am not used to animals knowing what I am thinking before I say what I have to say, so please stop doing that and let me talk."
Gnusyl lowered his head to Myka's level, his large eyes glowing eerily. "As you wish."
"Now, Jonar needs to pick himself up and get out of this mood he is in. We are quickly coming up on the Imperial border and he needs to be himself. Can you help me with that?"
Myka waited, not expecting such a simple answer. When more was not forthcoming, she growled with frustration. "What do you mean 'no'? Why not?"
A great grumbling sigh washed over her with the scent of raw meat. "Though he may look large and imposing, my friend and companion is still quite young, even by Gnathar standards. Gnathar do not stop growing until they are well into their third decade and they will not be seen as grown until they reach the age of twenty-five. Most young warriors are protected until then so that all of their faults and weaknesses may be explored fully and the boy-man can learn to accept and control them," Gnusyl explained in a voice which seemed wise beyond time. "When the elders expelled us almost four years ago, they broke the training cycle and left his mental development to me, and Jonar himself. It was shortly after we left Telanaria that he went berserk for the first time. It took him months to recover from the slaughter of the Zondron Gnathar he killed. Since then, he has tried to maintain his temper. And he has succeeded, for the most part. Last week was only the sixth time he has ever done that. He needs to take the time between here and Telanaria to regain his center and recage the beast that is his temper. If I or anyone else tampers with this process, it could do him more harm than good. He needs to be the one to decide that he is past the event and back in control of himself.
"I know you care and I think I vaguely understand how your people's culture works, but among the Gnathar you are a woman. Please try to remember that when you get into the Empire. Gnathar men dominate and to allow you to meddle in something that is strictly the domain of the male would be detrimental to Jonar, and that I cannot allow," the great Gnath told her warningly. Then something that sounded suspiciously like a chuckle bubbled out of the creature's chest. "He will be alright, little one. Do not worry so. That you do makes me relax in his choice of you as his mistress. I was not sure about you for a while there. Now go back to your shelter and eat. He is looking for you."
Not sure exactly how to take the wisdom of the lumbering beast she had viewed as simply another dumb animal, Myka stumbled back up to the camp. She looked back over her shoulder several times before the Gnaths were lost to sight behind the tents and the wagons of the men and women traveling with Donnar Axeforger.
The next morning Myka awoke just as the sun peeked over the horizon. The area they stopped in last night was nearly devoid of trees, so the glaring light of the fiery sun streamed right into her tent the second she parted the flap, blinding her for several seconds. The young woman stumbled around her tent on the prairie, collecting her belongings in preparation for their early departure. Donnar Axeforger had told them as they set up camp last night that he intended to reach the first rank of foothills before stopping this day so they were setting out as soon as possible. The Gnomar Mountains to the northwest and the Domani Mountains to the northeast were already visible, the sun glinting off the higher, snowcapped Gnomars.
Her eyes had shaken off the spots the dawning day gave when she set out to find Jonar. She searched the long line in front of the cook's pavilion and the Gnaths' sleep site and the Gnome merchant's pavilion before returning to her own tent. Her face screwed up in a doubtful grimace, Myka scratched on Jonar's tent before parting the canvas. She immediately fell back into the arms of Lord Xavear, frightening her even more, as she did not hear him approach.
"What is wrong, Lady Myka? Is Jonar alright?" the nobleman asked anxiously.
The Ce'al swallowed deeply, clearing her throat before croaking, "You'd better see for yourself."
Setting the girl on her own feet, Xavear parted the flap and stared incredulously at Jonar. The young man was sitting cross-legged in the center of his tent, stripped to the waist and covered with sweat. His eyes were closed and his face twisted with deep concentration. His long black hair was hanging loose about his deathly pale face as his body rocked slightly back and forth.
"Have you seen Lailar or Brandar this morning?"
Myka hesitated, wanting to know what was going on. "I-I saw Brandar in the breakfast line," the frightened girl replied in a quavering voice. "I have not seen Lord Lailar since last night."
"Go get Brandar! Quickly! I don't know what the boy is doing, but he does not look well."
Myka turned and fled towards the mess tent, pushing bulky warriors out of her way in her haste and fear. When she got to the tent, she was heartened to see Lailar seated with Brandar and the Gnome. Without a word of explanation, she grabbed both Gnathar men by the arm and dragged them out of the mess tent. His steely gray eyes alight with curiosity, Donnar Axeforger followed the trio. Halfway back to the tent, Myka looked over her shoulder to make sure the two men were following her and saw the Gnome merchant and three other Gnathar following as well. One of the other Gnathar was a Xiri pagan, his hair intricately braided with beads of silver and sapphires. He was an older warrior with iron gray locks, a closely cropped beard, and much finer clothing than most of the Xiri. His cobalt blue eyes were intent on Myka's face when she glanced at him and she started when he winked and smiled impishly at her.
She stumbled on a bridle laying on the path and turned her eyes back to the trail through the tents. When she finally got back to her friend's tent, Gnusyl was there, her tent was crushed, and Lord Xavear was sprawled in the dirt several yards away with his hands in the air.
"Will you please explain to this brute that we didn't do this to him," the older gnath lord pleaded with them. He sounded highly offended and his red face clearly showed his anger at the beast, augmented by the bellowing of a Gnath coming from the direction of the Gnaths' sleeping site...
Myka went straight to the Gnath while Lailar and the other Gnathar opened the flap to look inside. Myka grabbed the tusks of Gnusyl, pulling him off her tent. She silently thanked Cealie that she had already gathered her belongings well away from her shelter.
"Wow!" she heard over her shoulder from a voice she didn't recognize. "I haven't seen that in a long time."