Chapter 11: Welcome ... Home?
Copyright© 2011 by Celtic Bard
Telanaria was a fairly small town situated on a tree-dotted plain. It had less than a thousand inhabitants when Jonar left almost four years ago. Due to lack of funds and expertise in military engineering, there was no stone wall surrounding the town despite its proximity to the borders of two hostile nations and a plentiful supply of stone in the form of the Domani Mountains. The Telanaria district was in one of the poorer sections of the Empire of the Gnath and only the short caravan season insured the survival of the municipality at all. For just one month every year, near the beginning of summer, did Telanaria come alive with Gnomish and Gnathar caravans bound south with Gnathar goods or north with southern wares. The town elders kept these interlopers away from the people of the town by the simple expedient of setting up a temporary fairground half a mile away where merchants and their employees were permitted. Any foreigner, or any other outsider without cause to be inside Telanaria proper, caught within the town's boundaries was heavily fined. Criminals were treated more harshly, with death sentences not uncommon for even the simplest of crimes.
It was the beginning of the second week of summer when Donnar Axeforger's caravan wound down out of the hills. Jonar thought the old Gnome had guided them astray at first glance. The town sprawling in the valley beyond the hills was at least three times the size of the Telanaria he had left, the golden banner of the Empire of the Gnath flying from several substantial buildings and towers. Lofty walls now surrounded the small city and large animal pens, huge merchant pavilions, a guard barracks, and a half completed fortress situated on a rocky crag overlooking the sluggish river which ran by the city were all new features which threw Jonar. Telanaria had either come into a lot of money in the four years he had been gone or something odd happened upon his departure.
"I thought you said Telanaria was a small town," Myka whispered in his ear.
"It was," the stunned Gnathar replied, staring at his boyhood home with his mouth agape and his eyes wide.
Even without the two thousand Xiri pagans that left them at the border, the Axeforger caravan was huge. One thousand men and women rode out of the mountains and paused well out from the city, seemingly waiting for something. Wondering at this strange behavior, Jonar urged Gnusyl to find Donnar's wagon.
The Gnome had driven his wagon to the head of the column and was sitting with a strange expression on his face. He grunted when he saw the giant Gnath lumbering towards him. "Welcome home," he said in his rough voice.
"When did all of this happen?" the Gnathar demanded, his sapphire eyes flashing.
"Very shortly after you left, the walls started going up," the Gnome replied. "Trade increased, people started emigrating from further north and west, and the Domani Gnomes were convinced to join certain business ventures. That brought in the Gnomar Gnomes, the An'Garrans, the Ilians, and the northern pagans. Before two years had gone by, Telanaria went from being a backwoods village on an insignificant caravan route to a major stop on the trading network of central Titia-Lohr. Nearly all raiding out of Zondroland has stopped thanks to the Imperial garrison stationed here."
The boy stared at the black Gnath and silver mace-axes adorning the golden banner for a long moment. "And the men who orchestrated all of this are among the people who exiled me and usurped my rights to my father's legacy," Jonar added grimly. He looked down at the diminutive merchant with a deep scowl. "Is that about the sum of it all?" Donnar did not answer.
Lord Xavear, who had hinted throughout the trip that he had been to Telanaria before, rode up with Brandar and Lailar. "I don't believe this! They actually did it!" he exclaimed, gaping at the bustling little city below.
Jonar and Donnar turned around, glaring at the man. "And just what do you know of this?" the young Gnathar demanded.
"Yes, I think it is high time you and the Commander come clean about this trip of yours," the Gnome added dangerously.
Xavear looked around, nervously flushing, and realized that several dozen of the Gnome's gnath lords were within hearing range. They were looking very interested in the conversation, their faces dark. The Losh'Varrii looked over to Lailar and nodded reluctantly.
Lailar sighed. "Being just across the water from two Zondro-Xhan-worshipping nations, Darkan and Zondroland, the Meikari and those ranking Gnathar in whom they confide take great pains to keep tabs on the darklings. We try to counter or defeat all plots and schemes coming out of those two nations," the Commander began wearily.
"A few years ago, we got wind of a fairly long and complicated plot cooked up by the spymasters and sorcerers in Xhan Zak," Xavear continued the story. "Now, this is significant because most machinations come straight from the clerics and inams in Zondro City and are fairly straight forward. This one was complicated, devious, and had a high probability of working before we could do anything about it."
"Soon enough, caste leaders all across the Telanaria and Grondaschi districts were being killed," Lailar added grimly. "By the time our people reached the Empire, Telanaria was raided by the Zondrons and the last of the caste leaders was reported dead. Our point man on this reached Telanaria about a week after Jonar was exiled. He snooped around as long as he could and then had to leave because the elders were getting suspicious. He tried to follow Jonar but he was killed by some very angry Zondrons."
"His attendant managed to escape and report back to the Queen and the Lords of Meikar," Xavear picked up the story. "We began sending agents to Telanaria, Grondaschi, and several other small towns in the area. They reported on the plans of the elders in the region before going silent, one by one."
"And when Jonar showed up in Port Meikari, announcing to the world that he was from Telanaria, that got you excited, thinking you might be able to use him to your own ends," Myka guessed angrily, glaring at the two gnath lords. "Despite his desire never to go back to his home."
"I don't think you understand, Lady Myka," Lailar started.
Myka made an indelicate noise. "Oh, I understand alright! I may not have the skill my mother had or my cousin has at the Game, but I recognize players when I see them," she retorted bitingly. Her almond-shaped eyes narrowed dangerously, shrugging off Jonar's hand as she turned her body to face the Gnathar lords. "And I also recognize self-serving schemes with serious lack of regard for who will wind up being hurt in the end when I see them. You don't care in the least that that city probably houses at least a hundred people who would kill Jonar just to keep what they have."
"Several thousand," a rough voice interjected
Myka swung her gaze over to look at a diffident Brandar. "What did you say?" she asked in a dangerous tone.
"Several thousand, at least," the weaponsmaster repeated, only this time in perfect, uninflected Common, his voice smooth and rich. He winked at the Ce'al girl, a keen intelligence behind his eyes instead of the relaxed, indifferent calm which always went with the weaponsmaster's character. "I have been in Telanaria within the last year and the last census taken by the Empire has their population at thirty-five thousand four hundred and seven. At least three thousand of them are the original adult inhabitants, their grown children, or their kin."
Before any of them could say anything more, either about the topic of discussion or Brandar's sudden change in mannerisms, the heavy rattling of an enormous chain echoed across the landscape as the heavy portcullis of the main gate rose. A score of horse cavalrymen rode out behind a Gnath-mounted warrior visibly armed and armored. They rode straight for the Axeforger caravan.
"You'd better hide Jonar back among the other Gnathar," Donnar warned urgently, his gray eyes not leaving the approaching riders. "These are the customs and trade inspectors. They go through the motions of looking over my credentials and ask about my goods before I bribe them to go away. If they see him, and they know who he is, they will kill him outright. There are another five hundred guardsmen on duty right now and the captains of the four towers facing us are watching the inspector. If the gnath lord approaching does not signal back within a couple of minutes of being out here, all five hundred men will come riding out of those gates armed to the teeth."
Jonar watched the approaching force for another second before nudging Gnusyl to follow Brandar and the other two men to the middle of the caravan where the Gnome's gnath lords sat calmly. They were just close enough to the front to hear bits and pieces of the conversation between the officials and the merchant.
" ... a long time ... Lord Donnar. What are you ... your way back home? Well, no need to insp ... Have a safe trip, my L-"
The gnath lord shook the Gnome's hand after a couple of minutes of broken conversation, hardly looking at the caravan's other members or their wagons. A large purse was passed to the man and he promptly turned his Gnath around and rode back to the city, his men trailing.
Donnar waved a few incomprehensible signals to the Gnome merchant standing up on the wagon in the center of the caravan who turned and repeated them to the rear. The merchants began climbing down from their wagons and the soldiers started getting out their camping gear and tents.
"He signaled the all clear," Jonar murmured, sliding off of Gnusyl. He reached up to help Myka down. "They have given permission for us to camp."
Myka looked up at him, then over her shoulder at the Gnome who was still standing up on his wagon. He seemed to be staring out at the city with a dejected manner about his posture.
"What is wrong with him?" she asked rhetorically.
Jonar shrugged, untying his gear from Gnusyl's harness quickly followed by Myka's pack. He motioned for the girl to remain with Gnusyl as he went forward to get their tents from Donnar's wagon. The Gnome had a morose look on his face and started when the tall Gnathar touched his arm.
"You must be getting taller by the day, longshanks. I am standing four feet off the ground and you are only a couple of hands shorter than me," the diminutive merchant grumbled in Gnomish. His eyes gazed down at Jonar fondly. "So, what are you going to do, lad?"
"What did they say when they spoke to you? We only heard a few words here and there," he asked.
The Gnome snorted. "The usual reminder about not going into town with mischief in mind and keep our Gnaths away from the locals," he replied sourly. Then he snorted with amusement. "Appears that they are in rut around here. He said the packs have all sorted themselves out but that the Darwyth Pride as a whole still has not settled down. Apparently the dominant bull has gotten a bit old and a couple of rivals feel he's slipped enough to challenge. They are all off in the hills to the west of here sorting things out."
Jonar's eyes sparkled as an idea hit him. A wicked smile curved his thin lips. "Perhaps that is where we should start then."
"What do you mean? Hey! Where are you going, boy?"
Jonar ran back to Gnusyl and began unbuckling his harness. Myka simply stood there staring, uncomprehending. "You have come up with an idea, Jonar," Gnusyl stated, allowing Myka to hear him.
Jonar threw the last buckle and flung the harness away before coming around to the front of his friend to smile into his eyes. "You are going to become the new leader of the Darwyth, Gnusyl!" he exclaimed. "They are in rut right now and the old bull has been challenged by a couple of the younger males."
The Gnath's eyes glazed over and he snorted. "Rut?" he asked, dazed. He shook his massive head and vented a huge bellow, drawing confused responses from some of the other Gnaths. "Where?"
Lailar and Xavear came running up just then. "He's in rut! How?" Lailar demanded.
"There aren't any females in heat around here," Xavear added, equally confused.
Jonar grinned. "The Darwyth are in rut and the bull is being challenged."
"And you plan to take Gnusyl to challenge as well," Brandar guessed, walking up behind Myka.
Jonar glared fiercely at the three gnath lords. "You three will watch Myka while we are gone," he ordered firmly. "If anything should happen to her, your Gnaths will not be able to save you." With that, the young Gnathar pulled himself up onto his friend's back and the two of them thundered out of camp, bellowing challenges as they went.
Donnar came scurrying up, breathless. "Subteo cursed short legs! What the hell has that idiot thought up now?"
Myka, still dazed and not quite understanding what just happened, muttered, "He just went to challenge a bull?" Her voice was subdued, confused, and hesitant. She turned to Lailar. "I don't understand. Are Gnaths like argyr? Sexually, I mean."
"Sort of," Brandar answered. "Only, Gnaths can go into rut without feminine pheromones to stir their hormones. Jonar just did it by telling Gnusyl that his Pride was in rut. The Gnaths are highly evolved, intelligent creatures with an amazing control over their own physiology. Jonar's companion simply willed his body to begin producing the hormones Gnaths naturally make when they come into rut."
Lailar stared at his friend in amazement. "Do you spend your free time in the truthseekers' library?"
Brandar shrugged. "Dourden and I spend a lot of time together and he spouts lore when he gets bored," the mysterious weaponsmaster explained. "I have an eidetic memory. You kind of have to in this line of work."
"You are a spy," Myka declared, pointing an accusatory finger at him.
Donnar nodded in agreement, his hands going to his sword. "There is only one question now: For whom do you spy?"
Brandar smiled, raising his hands. "Calm yourselves. If I meant any of you any harm, I would have moved long before now," he said reasonably. He looked around at the four of them as Xavear, Lailar, and Myka backed away from him. Sighing dramatically, he told them, "I don't suppose my word promising that you have nothing to fear would make you feel any more relaxed would it? No, I did not think so. Emperor Delnar-Kan likes to keep abreast of things, especially when they happen within nations bordering his Dorkan Empire." He smiled at them mischievously.
For most men, even to the Gnathar, the mating rituals of Gnaths were a mystery. Very few people have ever gotten close enough to Gnaths in rut to witness the event and lived long enough to describe it. The males in that state become highly aggressive and it is one of only two times in the life of wild Gnaths when they will attack non-darkling Gnathar.
The challenges the males make to each other for supremacy are for control of the various packs as well as for the entire Pride. These challenges eventually work their way towards combat, where fatalities are not uncommon. Male Gnaths in rut will use both claws and tusks on their rivals until one is either dead or retreats from the field upon which the challenge was made. Size and strength are usually the determining factors in these contests, but intelligence also has a part.