Chapter 16: The Winding Path to Enlightenment
Copyright© 2011 by Celtic Bard
They had not rejoined the road north when night began to fall. Smelling a stream nearby, Gnusyl led the rest of them to a large meadow bisected by a bubbling brook rushing over bright green and blue rocks indigenous to the region. The meadow was an old burn area, the remains of burnt trees littering the ground here and there where the forest had yet to render them down completely into usable minerals. The lush grasses and vibrantly colored flowers made Alyssa and Kyftassa's horses whicker enthusiastically as they all dismounted to begin setting up camp. As usual, Jonar immediately volunteered to hunt, not waiting to hear an answer.
Kyftassa watched him for a long moment before patting his sister on the back and nodding towards the retreating Gnathar. The princess nodded and Kyftassa hefted his bow, slipped his quiver over his shoulder and mounted his horse, galloping after the Gnath and his companion.
"Jonar, wait!" the Meikari prince yelled.
Either the boy did not hear him or he decided to ignore the prince. Kyftassa touched his heel to the flank of his horse and the sturdy beast stretched into a run, swiftly gaining on the larger creature. When he did catch up to the boy, he was stony-faced and unresponsive, completely ignoring the older man. Unused to people not responding to him immediately, never mind being so insulting as to ignore him, the prince glared up at the young barbarian for several minutes as they rode away from camp and under the flaming canopy of the forest.
"Have I somehow offended you, boy?" Kyftassa finally asked in a blunt, insulting manner in an attempt to get some reaction out of him. When the kid did not even blink, the prince began adjusting his thinking a little. His whole experience with Gnathar was confined to those in the Meikari Army, the well-trained ambassadors and envoys sent to Hynost-Qaanzyr, and raiders he fought while serving in the Army. The Meikari Gnathar had much of the barbarism bred out of them by centuries of contact with the Ce'al. The diplomats were trained to exude a sense of civility to show their nations were not full of howling barbarians. Kyftassa knew Jonar Telansson was neither of those and so he had been using the raiders' archetype as his model for thinking of this young Gnathar. Clearly that had been something of an error. Gnathar raiders had notoriously short tempers and were quick to lash out at any insult. This Jonar seemed to simply brood behind a mask of solid stone, emanating pain and confusion via his Gnath. Even Kyftassa, as limited as his abilities were, could sense it. "Is there something wrong?" he asked in a much softer tone.
"Why did you have to bring her?" Jonar mumbled without looking down at him, his voice so deep Kyftassa almost missed what he said. "I was floundering enough without her adding to it."
Kyftassa sighed bitterly. "I assume you mean my sister?" he asked, nodding when he saw the youth nodding. "They had her chained in her quarters in Hynost-Qaanzyr because she was about to go after you. I never could say 'no' to her, so when she asked me to let her out the night I returned from scout duties with the Army, I did. She immediately began rambling on about you; how she loved you and that she had to go to you, to keep you out of trouble. I knew that I was already in trouble for letting her out and I would be in even more trouble if I let her go off alone. So she used her gift from Nultra to get us to Telanaria in a single week. That was a long week. I got to hear about your trip to the capital in exquisite detail. I seriously began to doubt her sanity, love her though I might. She is my favorite sister, my favorite blood relative period, and she had fallen in love with a Gnathar peasant exile with nothing to his name but a mistress who is most likely either going to get him killed when she is assassinated or turn him into a lover."
"Myka?" Jonar demanded hotly, his face darkening. "I should kill you!"
Kyftassa reined in his horse and raised his hands in a placating gesture. "Calm. I meant no disrespect to Lady Myka. I swear it! But I have seen it happen," the prince told the Gnathar boy, the earnest look in his eyes calming Jonar more than his words. Jonar had Gnusyl stop and the two young men dismounted to walk beside the horse as they spoke. Gnusyl trotted on ahead of them, quickly disappearing. "Where is he going?"
Jonar snorted with amusement. "He said he thinks I need to talk with you more than I need to hunt so he will do the hunting for us," he replied. Then he shrugged. "Besides, Gnaths tend to get a little bloodthirsty from time to time and have to kill something fresh to eat. Gnusyl has gone without since before we arrived at Telanaria."
The Meikari shuddered, closing his eyes. "I really did not need to know that."
Jonar led the prince through the trees to a swath of deadfalls, sitting down to face Kyftassa. "Why did you follow me here?"
Kyftassa sighed, sitting down beside him and stretching out his legs. "I believe that things happen for a reason. I can't help it. It comes with being a theologian and deacon for Nultra. As soon as I heard Lyss say your name, I knew I had to help her find you. There is a reason, only Nultra knows why, you and she were meant to be together," he explained, his eyes mysterious and distant. He focused on the Gnathar and smiled. "Did you know that every princess in the history of the Meikari Royal Family was married by the age of sixteen except my sister? It's true. Alyssa killed her first suitor because he decided that the way to handle her was to show her who was the boss. My aunt had to apologize to the Emperor of Dorkan and sent the most docile of her nieces to marry the idiot's second eldest nephew to make up for it.
"But she gets one whiff of your presence and lays one eye on you and volunteers to go back to Hynost-Qaanzyr after four years of the Great Houses trying to get her to leave Port Meikari. That I find strange. While you are a very handsome kid, you are not the wealthiest, nor the most intelligent, nor the most powerful, nor the greatest warrior to ever try to court Alyssa. So why would she chose you? And not only choose you, but come to an understanding with a rival to share you when she finds you married?"
Jonar stared at the ground for a long moment before shivering. "I dunno. I spent more than three years either alone in the wilds or with a Gnome caravan before meeting Myka. I thought she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Of course, that was before she led me to Port Meikari and I saw a whole city full of Ce'al, who I never even knew existed," the mumbled in explanation. Then his face took on an awed expression full of joy and adoration, as if he were seeing a God. "Then your sister rode into the Junia compound and I could barely remember the manners my father managed beat into me as a child before he died. I mainly tried to stay away from her, but I got sick and she was the one who nursed me to health. From then on, I could tell she felt what I felt."
Jonar looked up at the Meikari with shining eyes and a slightly bitter smile. "Illyana knows that I feel for Alyssa something that I could not ever feel for her. Unfortunately, she feels something for me which I cannot even come close to returning. Yes, I love Illyana, but not with the intensity that I love your sister. I know who she is and the customs of Meikar. Why has she done what she has done where I am concerned? That is what has made me miserable from the night she showed up. That was the last night I slept at all and it is killing me."
Kyftassa was shocked to see two tears roll down the kid's pale face as he closed his eyes, drawing his feet up onto the log to rest his forehead on his knees. Theatrically, the light of day faded just then as the sun set. Kyftassa looked skyward, his mind reaching out to touch the worldforce, trying to feel for divine explanations but coming up empty.
"Come now, your Highness," a singsong voice chided in the darkness. "Surely you can believe in coincidence more than you can believe in divine theatrics."
A green ball of light flared up, dancing in mid-air, illuminating a face that had not been seen in the world in more than three millennia. The face was long and narrow, heart-shaped with extremely slanted eyes of a metallic green that seemed to shine with a light of their own and framed by long, silver braided hair at his temples. Small, narrow, pointed ears shivered with the mirth plainly shown by the huge grin on the face of the very short, very thin Elf standing between Kyftassa and the growling young Gnathar. The Elf turned his sparkling eyes on Jonar and a slim, silver brow rose, despite the grin still plastered across the mischievous little man's light brown face.
"Come now, Jonar. I know that this form does not have any physiological effects on Gnathar because the Elves were long dead when your people were created," Wolvero reproached the young man. "Or is it that you just don't like me?"
The towering Gnathar slowly rose to his feet, fists clenched. "What do you think?"
Wolvero swallowed heavily, backing up and climbing atop a log to bring himself to Jonar's stomach level. "I think I am glad your hunting friend has your weapons," he replied with a wan smile.
"Who is this thing?" Kyftassa demanded, half drawing the arrow he had taut against his bow.
Jonar spat and plopped back onto the log. "That is my personal devil, Wolvero. He seems to pop up now and again, never with the same face or body twice."
The Meikari prince's mouth kept opening and shutting without emitting any sound. "You have struck him speechless, my boy!" the Elf chortled, slapping a hand over his mouth and pointing at the prince with the other. "How about we send him away so we can talk?"
With a wave of his very slender hand, Prince Kyftassa and his horse disappeared. "I hope you didn't do anything permanent to him?" Jonar said in a subdued voice, his face dropping into his hands.
Wolvero hopped down from the log opposite Jonar and sat down next to the Gnathar boy. "You are perhaps the most atypical Gnathar I have come across in a millennium, my boy. Most Gnathar are incapable of hopeless melancholy or compassionate mercy or painful romance. Maybe that is why my Lord chose you to find his beloved Vindicor-Kimber. And maybe that is why I can't resist visiting you so often," the immortal mused aloud. He patted Jonar kindly and sighed. "I actually came to let you know that you need those two girls."
Hope flared and died in an instant in the Gnathar's eyes as his head shot up. "What are you talking about?"
"Lady Illyana, your wife, and Princess Alyssa," the Elf replied slowly. "You need them both. You need to stop tearing yourself apart over what to do and just let them sort their problems amongst themselves. Sooner or later they will tell you the same thing in a manner which even a blind, mute, homosexual eunuch would understand, but you could save yourself some trouble and just take their first hint."
Wolvero hopped down from the log as Gnusyl could be heard returning from his hunt. "And you might as well ignore all that caste politics stuff. Your part in that is done. What will happen from here on out will happen whether you brood about it or not," he added casually, glancing back over his shoulder. "It's just a suggestion, but it could save you some sleepless nights in the future and help you to concentrate on the important stuff."
Jonar sneered. "You mean you and your poxy Gods' stuff."
"Of course! I will see you later, my boy!"
With that the ball of light vanished and Gnusyl came to a skidding stop and spat out the portion of something he had brought back for his friends for dinner. The Gnath sniffed the air and snorted. "Was that the faerie we saw at home?"
"One in the same, my friend," Jonar said sourly as he pulled himself up onto the broad back of his companion. He accepted the hindquarter of barca Gnusyl passed him with his jaws before they started back to camp. "He was one in the same."
They were another week on the road, making excellent time despite having to huddle in the ruins of an abandoned farmstead the day after they rejoined the north road out of Gnathar. A massive autumn thunderstorm crashed through the region, sending all creatures searching for shelter.
It was a little past noon on a windy autumn day when Lord General Yothorinsson, his eyes roaming the countryside for the last day or so, called a halt roughly a league south of the border crossing into the Kingdom of the Illuminants. With a sigh, he looked around the deserted road. "We have company ahead," Sancyr stated, his Gnath companion Nothriseiryl snorting and grunting belligerently. "This road should be overflowing with wagons going north to trade in the Kingdom and eastern and western Port of Ilia. Someone has been deliberately turning aside a massive amount of traffic."
Lord Xavear rode forward to look at the Gnathar general with unease. "You know this area well?"
Sancyr nodded. "I was fostered to one of my father's sisters on a farm nearby. They used to ship nearly all of their sap tubers and rum wine along this road to their distributors in Gen-Vir and West Ilia. We are going to have trouble ahead and there are only two ways I can think of to handle it, both with drawbacks.
"First, we could continue on until we see them and then try to charge on through. However, if they have as many men as I would have were I them, we would never make it. Second, we could wait until nightfall and try to sneak across the border further west of here, where the land is a little more broken up. The downsides to that plan are that the Illuminants guard the border closely to prevent smuggling and if the ambushers know the region as well as I do, they will have people out there looking for us to do just that," he said glumly, looking at each of them. "I leave it up to you, though I reluctantly recommend plan number two."
Xavear looked at Lailar and Brandar with an uneasy expression. "We don't know this land. If he thinks there is trouble up ahead, we should listen to him," the Meikari Lord suggested glumly.
The other two nodded and led the way off the road and headed for a stand of trees a half-mile to the northwest. Once under the massive, but widely spaced, fyr gaur trees they ate a cold meal from the stores they picked up in South Ilia and waited for nightfall. Jonar was only able to sit still for five minutes before he rose and took all of his belongings off Gnusyl. He returned to the small stump he had chosen and began inspecting all of his weapons and armor. A whetstone was fished out of his belt and he started the tedious process of polishing the nicks out of his sword and battle-axe. Gnusyl, ever fond of the sound of Jonar taking care of his weapons, settled down practically on top of his feet to doze off until nightfall. The others watched the two loners for a few minutes before following suit. The small wood was soon filled with the sounds of steel scraping over stone and sleeping Gnaths.
Jonar nudged Gnusyl awake just as the sun's last rays were extinguished by the western horizon, the night bringing with it a chill that suggested the northern winter was not far away. The Gnath snorted and slowly rose, shaking his head and blinking his large eyes to accustom them to the creeping night as Jonar helped Illyana and Myka mount before climbing up himself.
Sancyr climbed up on Nothriseiryl as they all mounted. "I would suggest going slightly northwest from here. The western sky would still outline us to any waiting for us to show."
So they went northwest. It was still a little less than a league from the border, a short distance for Gnaths at full run but not for the lumbering creatures' slow walk, which is what Sancyr kept them at to avoid too much noise. That, however, was not to be.
Almost an hour after they left their shelter among the fyr gaur trees, Myka suddenly yelped and shimmered, practically disappearing in her place behind Jonar. They found themselves surrounded by halberd-armed Gnomes, their lanterns' suddenly blossoming light illuminating the crossed scimitar insignia of the Kingdom of Illuminants. With gloating grins and stern warnings against attempting to escape, the tiny warriors escorted their still-mounted prisoners to the border-crossing station almost directly east. Shouts of chagrin and anger erupted on the other side of the border from the nearly five dozen Gnathar soldiers manning the post, also armed with halberds.
"We kinda figurd that lot was there fer sumthin," the guard nearest Jonar chuckled. They stopped next to a large, well-built stone building with the Kingdom of the Illuminants' banner flying over a banner with a map of the Kingdom done in glimmering silver on a pristine white field and "Custom Service" on a golden scroll. "Welcome to the Kingdom of the Illuminants, Lord Telansson. Do you ur yur friends have anything to declare?"
"Huh?" Jonar gaped at the little man ten feet below him, his arms spasming around Illyana.
"Captain Markcutter would like to know if you are smuggling anything into the country, Lord Telansson," a light, lyric voice answered from the darkened corner of the building. Suddenly they were all blinded by a flash of light blue light in the rough shape of a man. "My apologies but the effort to maintain a 'low profile' was beginning to strain me. I am not used to concealing myself. I am Zizziriz Yzzonizzar, scholar and theologian of the Order of the Ever Present Truth. I believe you were going to see me in Gnathar, Lord General Yothorinsson?"
Sancyr, still at the head of their little column, nodded. "We have need of your expertise," he replied, his eyes darting around the little customs station and then over his shoulder at the quiet and very curious Imperial Gnathar soldiers on the other side of the border. "However, I believe our business should be conducted in more secure surroundings."
The glowing apparition turned to the Gnathar standing only about fifty paces away and nodded. "Come, I will take you to Gen-Vir. We may talk along the way, Lord General, of many things."
The glowing apparition began to float away, lighting the road so that the Gnathar and their charges could follow. No matter how fast the Gnaths seemed to be going, the luminescent Zizziriz paced them, talking in low tones with Sancyr and Xavear and Lailar, with the rest of their group strung out behind him. Tired and not really paying attention, Jonar found himself dozing between the warm and comforting bodies of Illyana and Myka. Just before he totally fell asleep, he felt Illyana's head come to rest against his chest and Myka's thump lightly against his back. His chin rested comfortably atop his wife's head and the swaying of Gnusyl's stride did the rest.
He suddenly jolted awake at a spasming touch to his leg and a very bright light hovering inches from his face. The gripping hand belonged to Illyana, who was fighting fear and a deep desire to run in the face of the glowing hand that was mere inches from Jonar's face. In a quite amazing move that drew shocked and awed gasps from all around, Jonar dove off the left side of a trembling Gnusyl, rolling to his feet and turning just in time to catch Illyana in his arms. He put the terrified girl down and ripped his battle-axe from its sling, standing at guard as the glowing, floating being came around his Gnath companion.
It was only then that he noticed everyone else was standing stock still, stopped in the middle of setting up camp for the night in a pleasant little dale centered around a small lake and ringed by bare berry bushes. The Illuminant froze when he saw the large weapon in the towering Gnathar's hand, an aura of impressed surprise emanating from it despite the lack of facial features to observe.
The luminescence began to decrease to the point where they could all make out a face, one that looked different to each of them. The only commonality to what each saw was the neuter appearance and a very amazed look on the face.
Zizziriz turned towards Brandar, who was setting up his tent just beyond and to the left of Jonar. "Does this young one of yours not know of us?" its melodious voice inquired with almost amused interest in such a phenomenon.
The weaponsmaster shrugged, going back to what he was doing. "He has led a deprived and, until recently, a very uneducated life," came the Dorkan's reply. "And I take it your people do not visit Telanaria very often."