Chapter 14: The Huntress and the Lady
Copyright© 2011 by Celtic Bard
Princess Alyssa grunted with exhaustion as she crested a hilltop overlooking the plain upon which stood the town. The plain before her was green with high summer and covered with large clusters of tents and merchants. On the far side of the walled town stood a partially completed fortress situated on a bluff next to the river abuzz with activity. The steep peaks of the slate roofs and the high first floor windows seen from afar suggested that this locale receives great quantities of snow in the winter. Off to the west were a low line of hills and to the east was a great cloud of dust, as if a mighty herd of animals stampeded in the distance. The sun was bright and warm overhead on the summer afternoon, the air sweet with the smell of wild flowers blanketing the hills.
"This is the place?" a light tenor asked quietly from her left.
Alyssa closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. "Yes," she exhaled with a sigh of satisfaction. "He has been through here recently enough to cause trouble."
The young man next to her smiled. "From what you told me, he has a habit of doing that."
Alyssa shrugged with a smile. "It is his innate sense of ... the right. I felt it in him the first moment he laid eyes on me," she replied, her emotions in her voice. "Those vivid blue eyes. So round and big, you want to drown in them. I have never felt like I did when I was near him."
The other snorted. "Obviously not, considering the condition I found you in when I got to the capital. I would never have believed mother would have to resort to such measures, even with you," he said with disgust, shaking his head.
Alyssa turned to look at her half-brother with surprise. "Then why have you agreed to help me, Kyftassa?" she asked warily, her horse snorting with her sudden unease.
The man sitting next to her was a remarkably well-muscled Ce'al warrior, strange for a male of that race until you began looking more closely at his features. His long, pointed ears were a little fleshier than a normal Ce'al's, his eyes a little larger, his jaw a little more firm, and he stood a little taller than the average Ce'al. But none of that made him so different than the norm that he was made a pariah among the haughty and often ethnocentric Ce'al. In fact, the quarter Gnathar blood in his ancestry made him more valuable in a Meikari society that allowed and welcomed Gnathar, but didn't really entrust them with too much power. A Meikari Ce'al male with martial abilities is almost unheard of, hence the necessity of the Gnathar at all. Kyftassa's warrior gifts were welcomed by the Ce'al of Meikar almost as much as by the Gnathar themselves. He was one of them, a trusted military advisor whom the Ce'al nobility could count on implicitly. And his kinship to the Queen and King didn't hurt either.
His large green eyes gazed back at his sister with mild reproof, running a hand through his greenish-brown hair. "I am but saving myself the time and energy of uselessly trying to chase you. You know as well as I do that Aunt Leina would have sent people after you and mother would have nagged her until she allowed me to be the one to lead them," he told her with a bland look. Then his handsome face lit up with a mischievous smile. "Besides, I want to meet the man who finally melted the ice you've had around your heart towards members of the opposite sex since you were ten and Matriarch Iodanna's nephew tried to kiss you."
Alyssa glared at her brother for a long moment before growling, nudging her mount down the hill towards the plain. They rode no more than halfway to the city when two men on horseback and ten Gnaths trotted out of the city, riding straight for them. The Meikari Princess reined in and let the Telanarians come to her.
In the lead was a man dressed in elegant armor and carrying a battle-axe. The other horseman looked like a local nobleman, plain-looking and dressed in fine blue silk trousers and a fustian blouse of the deepest red, his white cap flaring out behind him. The gnath lords, all veterans by their look, stopped a dozen paces behind the two leaders with their hands close to their weapons. The nobleman and his armored companion rode ahead to speak with Alyssa and Kyftassa.
"Good day, my Lord," the nobleman said politely in Common to Alyssa's brother. Despite his pleasant tone, Alyssa saw that all of the Gnathar were eyeing them with dangerous glints to their large, round eyes. "And what business do you have here in Telanaria?"
Kyftassa motioned deferentially to Alyssa. "I am trying to track down a merchant caravan which was rumored to be heading in this direction," she told the Gnathar. "Over the border, they told me the merchant heading the train was one named Axeforger. Could you by chance tell me if he has indeed passed this way and where he might be now?"
The nobleman's eyes bulged and his face turned deathly pale. "Uh, c-could you give me a moment to confer with my comrades, Lady?" he asked and turned away without waiting for a reply. He rode back to the gnath lords, kicking his horse viciously to quiet his shying away from the huge beasts. The two Meikari watched as a heated debate ensued between the gnath lords and the nobleman, the armored horseman seemingly staying completely neutral. After several minutes of argument, the nobleman returned alone, a completely phony look of apology on his ordinary face. "I am sorry, my Lord, but I am not sure of the passage of all of the merchants through our town, as this is the high trade season. If you would accompany us into town, the customs chief may know of the man you seek."
Alyssa looked mistrustfully at the Gnathar but nodded. "We will come with you."
A small sigh of relief escaped the nobleman as he led them back towards the walled town. The guards at the gate glared with outrage at Alyssa as she was led into town. Once they emerged from the tunnel-like gate, Alyssa and her brother found themselves amidst more Gnathar than they had ever seen in once place. The city seemed to teem with the large warrior race with no other races to break the ethnic monotony. The deeper they went into the city, the more people stared with open hostility and hatred at Alyssa and her brother. Or more correctly, at Alyssa. Kyftassa closed the gap between them and put his hands on his weapons.
The Telanarian soldiers apparently felt the change in the emotional aura of the city as they rode and nudged their mounts into a quick trot, the Gnaths bellowing a warning to clear the crowded streets. A large, walled mansion appeared ahead of them and the nobleman bellowed for the guards to open the gates. Behind them, the citizens of Telanaria had begun to hurl garbage and offal at them, mostly missing the two Meikari and hitting the angrily roaring Gnaths. As soon as their party was through the mansion gates, they were slammed shut and barred.
"What the hell was that about?" Alyssa demanded hotly.
The nobleman drew himself up in his saddle and looked at Kyftassa. "Please instruct your wench to keep silent in the presence of her betters. I know you are heathenous barbarians who do not know better than to parade your women barefaced in public, but sir, have care to keep her in line!" he said to Kyftassa in an outraged tone, his face red. Before anyone could stop her, Alyssa walked her horse over to the Telanarian and slammed her fist into his face, knocking him to the cobbles.
"What in the name of Sol do you think you are doing, woman?" a thunderous voice demanded. All eyes turned to the portico. A large, imposing man stood there, hand on hips, frowning down upon them all. He was the largest Gnathar Alyssa had ever seen. He was not as tall as Jonar, but he was at least twice as built, bulging with muscle. He was dressed in an inlaid breastplate and a sword and dagger were at his hip. "Well, would someone care to explain why a female is beating her betters in front of ... a dozen men standing there gaping?"
Alyssa turned her horse and nudged him to stand at the base of the stairs leading up to the portico. Still on her horse, she would have been as tall as the hulk before her had he not been six steps up. Looking up at him, she spat. "Betters? Ha! I am Princess Alyssa Waiya of the Royal House of Meikar and I am the better of any man I have yet seen here in this cesspit. I am here to inquire about a merchant by the name of Axeforger. In the Domain, I was told that he would have passed by here. I want to know when he arrived, when he left, and where he was headed. Now," Alyssa said in a dangerous tone, not deigning to look at the fallen man as he regained his feet.
The giant atop the stairs glared down at her for a long minute. "You would do well to remember that you are no longer in Meikar, Princess Alyssa Waiya of the Royal House of Meikar," he replied in a rumbling grumble which held no trace of deference or evidence that her reproach had penetrated him. "And if you are a friend of the Gnome, you would do well not to advertise this fact. He left here under ill-favor and his allies will not find their treatment pleasant."
Alyssa's yellow-green brows rose. "I would not know this Axeforger from the High Cleric of Zondroland," she informed the Telanarian. "I am merely trying to hunt down a member of his party."
The Gnathar's brows rose. "And what is a princess from Meikar doing hunting down a merchant," he asked, his tone implying he no longer believed her claim to royalty.
Kyftassa pulled his horse next to Alyssa's. "Princess Alyssa is far down the line of succession. She was left ... insufficiently guarded and took up the hunt without royal sanction," he answered when his sister floundered.
The Telanarian mulled that over while looking them over. "You are neither one a Ce'al full blood. She has identified herself, who are you?"
"This is Kyftassa Waiya, my half-brother," Alyssa replied, not wanting the Telanarian to allow her brother to usurp her role in the conversation. "Will you tell me what I wish to know?"
"Know that I am Lord Brashklar Xukarsson, Elder of the House of Xukar," he introduced himself, respect creeping into his voice. "Your quarry left early yesterday morning, one thousand strong. For this information I wish a service of you."
Alyssa glared at him warily. "What service? I am no menial hireling to be ordered about," she retorted, her vibrant voice colored with umbrage.
Brashklar smiled. "It is a simple thing, since you will have to come this way again on your way home," he said, his tone assuasive. "There is a girl among the caravan, my daughter. Her name is Illyana. She is about your height, thin, with long blonde hair. She may or may not be with a Gnathar youth. I wish you to bring her back to me should you cross her path. For that, you may ask any boon of me within my power to grant."
Alyssa squinted up him for a long moment before nodding. "Should our paths cross, and should she be amenable to returning, I will return her," the Meikari woman replied. "Which way did they go and when?"
"West, your Highness," he said with a bow before turning. "They went west, midmorning yesterday."
Another five leagues away from Telanaria and the Axeforger train was grinding to a halt as the sun touched the Hills of the Gnaths to the west. They had passed through the first low ridges of the Hills that morning and the second range stood before them as Donnar called the halt for the evening encampment. His drawn gray face turned eastward, he gave his orders to Kilthre before retreating into his wagon until his pavilion was erected. Kilthre watched his great uncle with concern. The old man was not a young Gnome and the recent trials and tribulations seemed to pierce the stoic mind of the Axeforger grand genro far more than anything Kilthre had ever seen. The Gnathar boy's fate seemed to concern him more than was usual for a Gnome, to whom fate is something to be surrendered to, not worried over.
Kilthre shook his head and turned to supervise the servants only to jump backwards, his hand flashing to the shortsword at his waist, as two Ce'al seemed to appear out of nowhere. No, the Gnome merchant corrected himself, not Ce'al, but Ce'al half-bloods. A striking female who looked more Gnatharish than the slight male riding behind and to her left.
"Wh-who are you and how did you get by the perimeter?" he demanded in a loud voice. His tone caught the attention of shocked guards and his sulking uncle, who stumped out of his wagon to stand on the seat glaring down at them with meaty fists on hips.
The female looked up at Donnar and nodded. "You must be Donnar Axeforger," she said in the Gnome language, her voice soft, musical, and without accent.
The Axeforger's gray brows rose. "And you must Princess Alyssa Waiya," he replied with a polite nod of his head, which was the closest he would ever come to a bow to a non-Gnome noble. "I assume you are looking for Jonar."
It was the Waiya siblings' turn to raise eyebrows. "Yes. I was told he was with you when you left Telanaria two days ago," the princess answered. Her head tilted slightly, her eyes darting around at the gathering crowd. "And I promised a Lord Brashklar Xukarsson to see whether or not his daughter wished to return home."
Donnar and Kilthre chuckled, their eyes twinkling with heartfelt mirth. "I hate to be the one to tell you this, your Highness," he said with a certain amount of pity, "but Illyana Brashklarsdaughter married Jonar to get out of Telanaria. There is-"
"Married!" Princess Alyssa shrieked with outrage, interrupting the Gnome. She nudged her horse to bring him closer to the wagon, coming face to face with Donnar Axeforger. "Where are they, Gnome?"
Donnar frowned at her, noticing a dangerous glint in her eyes. "I am not sure I want to tell you, girl. That look on your face is a tad homicidal."
Alyssa reached out and grabbed the front of the Gnome's mail shirt, yanking him off his feet and bringing him to her face. "Where is that juvenile delinquent? I let him out of my sight for a few months and he winds up in this mess! I am going to kill him!" she said in a dangerously quiet voice. "Now where is that Gnathar child?"
Donnar looked at her for a long time before laughing, hard. This reaction so stunned the Meikari Princess that she dropped him back to the wagon seat where he collapsed in hysterical laughter. It was several minutes, during which time most of the Gnathar guards and Kilthre joined him in his hilarity, before they got themselves back together. "I don't know how you caught up with me, but you will have a much more difficult time tracking him down as he is currently somewhere on the western shores of Lake Ilia with his new bride, Myka, and four gnath lords."
"Four?" Alyssa snapped, disliking the sudden turn of frivolity. "He left Meikar with only three gnath lords: Lailar, Xavear, and Brandar."
"He picked up Lord General Sancyr Yothorinsson in Telanaria, your Highness," Kilthre supplied diffidently, his eyes dancing with suppressed laughter.
Alyssa looked around at the grinning Gnathar faces, then over to her frowning brother before turning back to the Gnome merchants. "If you have played me false, Gnomes, I will find you," she warned them direly before turning her horse around, motioning to her brother, and disappearing as easily as she appeared.
Kilthre whistled, his gray eyes wide. "How did she do that?"
Donnar, his eyes also wide, shook his head. "I don't know," he replied, frowning in thought. "From what I have heard of the Waiya Family, they are all members of the Church of Nultra or the Temple of Cealie. I can't think of any gift those two Goddesses could give their worshippers which could allow them to disappear like that."
The most senior of the gnath lords in the Axeforger employ sauntered over, having overheard the conversation. He shook his head, looking over at Donnar. "I don't know what power she has, but she has undoubtedly alerted every Dei-Xhan sorcerer in the region to her presence. Fools like that should not be allowed out of protective confines."
A shadow of the elder Gnome's usual smile twitched at his lips as he gazed eastward at the starry horizon. "As the poets say, 'love entwines the contrary/makes heroes of the cravenly/and grants nobility to the ordin'ry.'"
The Empire of the Gnath is a nation of few very large cities. Most of the population of the Empire resides in medium-sized towns or small cities that are unremarkable in many ways.
One of the exceptions to this is the city of South Ilia, home to more than three hundred thousand people of all races and religions. South Ilia is the second largest city in the Empire and unlike its larger rival, Gnathar, South Ilia a strategically important location for political, cultural, economic, and military reasons. The region surrounding the city is home to most of the important noble families of the Empire. Nearly all castes have at least a token presence in the city, unlike the capital at Gnathar, where the Imperial authorities tend to crack down on caste activities. All trade from the Nethar Dominari, western Port of Ilia, and the Kingdom of the Illuminants goes through South Ilia on its way out of the Empire, raising duty revenues unparalleled by any other city. More troops, including the Imperial War College and the Imperial Gnath Cavalry Headquarters, are located in the Southern Ilia Nomarse than in any other area.
There is, of course, a down side to such prosperity. The largest temple outside of Dei-Xhan territory dedicated to Ptavre-Dei, the Patron God of Thieves and Outcasts, is located in South Ilia. The Guild of Thieves has a powerful presence in the city as does Zondro's Cadre, an international brotherhood of assassins. And although slavery is punishable by death, there are highly organized syndicates who deal in the smuggling of slaves and other contraband. To walk the streets of certain quarters South Ilia, especially after dark, is to take your life into your own hands. Every year hopeful peasants come to the city looking for a way to better their lives and are never heard from again.
It was well after dark when Princess Alyssa and her brother appeared at the closed western gate of South Ilia's imposing walls, requesting entrance. After intense questioning, and a fair amount of coinage changing hands, the slovenly guards allowed her and her brother to enter. As they rode through the tunnel-like gate, Alyssa glanced nervously at the visible murder holes behind which she could hear whispered conversation and see the occasional glint off some sharp, metallic missile.
When the two Meikari finally emerged into the still-crowded streets of South Ilia, she was not any more relaxed by the sight of the type of people they crossed. Most were Gnathar, naturally. But mixed in with the muscular natives were stony-faced Gnomes, towering Jotnar, ethereal Illuminants, furry and timid Nultrites, and the occasional furtive Ce'al. All looked Alyssa and her brother over thoroughly, furtive eyes noting the quality of their horses, clothing, weapons, and even the cleanliness of their appearance.
"I think we need to find a better part of the city to start inquiring about your friend before we are attacked," Kyftassa suggested, his hand going to his sword.
Alyssa nodded, her eyes scanning the crowds. "There! At the mouth of that alley," she said, nodding towards a cluster of finely armored Jotnar lounging around the side of an inn's walled yard. "If anyone has noticed Jonar since he arrived this evening, it will be the Jotnar. If they haven't seen him, we can try around the south gate. Someone had to have seen a seven foot tall Gnathar."
The two Ce'al rode up to the Jotnar, Alyssa having to look up at the tallest from her seat on the horse. He nudged the light featured warriors next to him with a leering grin. The other four men turned to gaze down at her, their appreciative blue and gray eyes roaming her body.
"And what can we do for you, leina?" the tallest asked in Jotnari, his grin suggestive.
It had been a long time since Alyssa had to speak the harsh language of the sea people. In her hesitation, Kyftassa nodded his head to the men. "We seek some friends of ours and it occurs to us that you might be able to point us in the right direction," he replied smoothly.