Chapter 21: Of Battles and Stalemates
Copyright© 2011 by Celtic Bard
Maseryk looked through narrowed eyes at the sorcerors, holding the spell he had just muttered in his hands. The intense heat of the ball of pure energy was almost enough to burn through the protection spells woven into his gauntlets. The Dei-Xhan were all panting heavily, two of Lord Dzar's votaries had collapsed, exhausted. Lord Bzas had incapacitated the warriors and was now free to concentrate on the Dei-Xhan lord, giving the dark sorceror pause.
"You fight well for a mongrel abomination, Lord Maseryk," Dzar grudgingly acknowledged, his black eyes glittering in the green flames dancing on the tip of his staff.
Maseryk snorted, not winded in the least. "I have you panting like a whipped dog and your votaries on the verge of collapse without any help. Now that the Cleric is done taking care of your troops, who do you think will triumph here?" he asked disdainfully. "You would do well to leave and cease your attempts at foiling our quest."
Growling irritably, the Dei-Xhan lord could think of no other path to the young Gnathar now amazingly awake and groggily regaining his feet behind the two followers of Genifer-Elia. Looking down at his men, he accepted the battle as a draw. For now.
"I will see you again, Lord Maseryk," Dzar spat angrily. "We will see who controls the Axe of Justice when events have played themselves out. Know this, however: Jonar Telansson, Lord Telanar, will never be allowed to wield Vindicor-Kimber. The Dark Lords will not allow such an abomination to pass. We will all meet again." The light in the tunnel was suddenly extinguished, leaving only the flickering glow from the energy ball Maseryk held to illuminate the almost palpable darkness.
"Could you give us some light, Lord Bzas? I doubt we will have to worry about any more Dei-Xhan until we actually reach the surface, now."
As the Illuminant relaxed his control over his body's luminescence, Maseryk hurled his spell down the tunnel and turned to check on the young Gnathar. He both expected and was surprised by the youth's slow steps toward him, his two women clinging to his arms. The battle-axe, which had taken the brunt of the spell hurled at him, was undamaged, still gleaming in the light of the Illuminant behind the ranger.
"How did he know me? How did he know my name?" Jonar demanded of the sorceror.
"I imagine, if he was not lying through his rotted teeth, that the Dark Gods have warned their minions about you," Prince Sharn answered for Maseryk. The Ce'al ranger tugged his horse and they started up the tunnel. "The rest of this trip will be most unpleasant if every Dei-Xhan in the Netherlands knows of you. I will take the Gnomes up ahead and scout. I doubt they will try to attack us again in such confined space, but you never know the depths of Dei-Xhan stupidity when it comes to their Gods."
"Beware, young ranger," one of the Gnomes warned with a scowl. "There are more dangerous things in these tunnels and caves than Dei-Xhan sorcerors."
As the tiny warriors led the Ce'al down the darkened tunnel, Maseryk turned back to Jonar. His two women were clutching him as if afraid he would suddenly crumble before their very eyes. The Jotnari Dei-Xhan was more interested in the axe, however. He looked at the weapon hanging in the young man's grip, sparkling as if new, with fascination. Most steel weapons would have shown some melting of the surface contacted with the spell that hurled the Gnathar back into the crystal cavern. This axe, however, was not even scarred. It still gleamed with an almost unnatural shine, as if not truly made of steel.
"Lord Telanar," Maseryk said, a new tone of grudging respect in his voice and a look of puzzlement in his eyes. "Where did you buy that axe?"
This answer elicited a look of shocked amazement. "Who forged it for you?"
Jonar shrugged, putting the weapon in question back in its place on his back. "I bought it from a Gnome. I didn't ask who made the thing." Jonar led the others past the sorceror, following the grumblings of the Gnomes with Prince Sharn.
The next day, as they reckoned time in the oppressive dark of the tunnels and caverns, they awoke to the sound of Illyana vomiting. The retching sound echoed loudly in the cavern they had stopped to sleep in, so all in their party were surrounding Illyana, Jonar, and Alyssa when the young Gnathar woman ceased.
"What is wrong with her?" one of the Gnomes demanded grumpily. The little scout had been sleeping when the commotion started.
Lord Bzas drifted forward and placed its hand over the girl's head, its luminescence lighting the cavern as its control waned with concentration on Illyana. Its glowing face suddenly registered shock and its eyes widened. "Uh, I don't quite know how to say this," it muttered uncertainly, looking at Jonar askance.
"Then just say it, glowfly, and cut the suspense," Donnar growled irritably, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
"She is with child."
"What?" several voices said with disbelief.
Jonar's stunned face turned towards the Illuminant, missing the radiant look of joy on Illyana's face and the look of both jealousy and confusion on Alyssa's. "How could that be? She is still very young and..." They young Gnathar did not quite know how to give voice to his own confusion. He heard a giggle behind him and turned sharply to see Myka and Kyftassa cover their mouths with their hands. "This is not funny!"
"Oh, but it is, Jonar," Kyftassa said, his green eyes dancing with merriment. "You three haven't been able to keep your hands off each other. I am surprised it hasn't happened sooner."
"But she isn't even of age!"
"What do you mean? She is nearly as tall as I am," the Meikari prince asked.
"Ah, but in Gnathar society, your Highness, children are not considered of age until they reach ... what age was it, Jonar?" Myka asked the stunned father-to-be.
"Twenty-five," he replied automatically before going back to his astonishment. "We both have several more years left until we are matured. How has this happened?"
Prince Sharn frowned. "Didn't your parents have a talk with you when you were younger about where babies come from?"
Jonar irritably waved that away. "That is not what I mean. I mean how can she have a baby if she isn't old enough?"
Donnar chuckled and slapped the young man on his backside. "Gnathar women, sort of like Gnaths themselves, can make themselves fertile if and when the circumstances are warranted. Marriage has always been an aphrodisiac to your people. That is why there are so many of you long-limbed behemoths running around the place. Congratulations, kid!"
The shocked look on the Gnathar's face was slowly turning into a stupidly proud smile that he turned on his wives as they hugged each other. The rest of the party began packing up in preparation to leave, giving them their privacy, such as it was.
Later that day, as they were beginning to think about stopping for the night, Gnusyl's head rose from the dejected slouch he had been in for most of the trip through the darkness. The great beast inhaled deeply and grunted happily.
"There is fresh air ahead, Jonar! I can smell the foulness of the outside again!" he roared happily, bunching himself to run.
Jonar reached around Illyanna to grab one of the beast's ears. "Hold it, my friend," he said before thumping the broad back comfortingly. "I am going to ask how far that smell could travel in these caves. For all you know it could be miles. Hang on."
The young man strode towards the front of their group where Donnar and Juni Netharguard were walking together. The two seemed to get along as long as they forgot to whom their allegiances were owed. Both broke off their low murmurs when he approached.
"Hello, longshanks," Donnar said congenially, taking a swig from a wineskin and passing it to the Nethar Gnome.
"What can we do for you, my Lord?" the other Gnome asked grandiosely.
Jonar eyed the wineskin with a frown. "Uh, should you be drinking so close to the surface? Shouldn't you be on guard against another attack?"
"We're not close to the surface, young Gnathar," the Nethar replied.
Jonar grunted. "So the foul surface scents Gnusyl is picking up can travel long distances in these tunnels?"
Netharguard paused with the wineskin halfway to his mouth. "Surface smells? Now? Damn them all to hell! On guard, gentlemen! The Dei-Xhan have opened a new shaft within a league from here," the Gnome swore as he shoved the wineskin back at Donnar and ran back along their group rousing the attention of his men.
"So smells don't travel so far," Jonar said blandly as Gnusyl came lumbering forward with a reproachful look on his face. He reached up to caress the Gnath's cheek in apology. "Sorry. Still, it would not have been a good idea to go charging out into the open until we know what is out there, my friend."
Several Gnomes began disappearing up the tunnel, moving silently, not even their armor giving their movements away. The group continued on slowly, their weapons out and scouts out to the fore and rear. After about two hours, Gnusyl grunted again, telling Jonar that the Gnome scouts were returning.
The Gnomes sent ahead to see where the opening to the surface was returned. As they approached they shrugged to their commander. "There is a gradual incline about a league and a half ahead. We couldn't see much because it is night up there, but we didn't see anything untoward. The opening looks like it is natural," the lead scout reported.
"Natural? But there shouldn't be another tunnel upwards for another twenty leagues."
"There seems to have been a rock slide, maybe caused by a localized tremor, which opened up a tunnel on the north side of what looks suspiciously like Grumbar's Peak."
Juni Netharguard frowned. "But that would mean we are a day's walk further north than we thought and that's... ," The Gnome shook his head and stared at the ceiling of the tunnel in thought.
Donnar and his companions ambled forward. "What's going on? Did I hear one of you say Grumbar's Peak?" he asked with some of his typical irritation. When he saw the looks on the scouts' faces he swore. "What is going on, Netharguard?"
"I don't know, damn it!" came the angry growl. "We are under the north face of Grumbar's Peak somehow. It looks like a localized tremor opened up a tunnel. It is currently night up there. I suggest we back up to that grotto we just passed and wait for morning so we don't stumble into something. From everything we have heard over the last few months, the darklings have been moving a lot of people into the area around here."
They stayed the rest of the night in the grotto. Two scouts came and woke them all when the sun started to come up above ground. It took them a couple of hours to walk the distance to the cave mouth. It did indeed look like a natural tunnel when they approached it. There was no vegetation hiding the opening and there was a large scree leading down from the cave, suggesting that there was not mortal (read sorcerous) aid in the opening.
Gnusyl pushed to the front of their group with Jonar right behind him. The giant Gnath scented the wind and grunted. "If there is anybody out there, they have been smart enough to stay downwind of this hole. I smell nothing but the foulness of the land," the creature commented to Jonar before continuing out of the cave. Jonar passed on the comment and followed his friend into the gloomy light of a Netherland winter day. The Nethar Gnomes bade them a curt farewell and retreated back down the tunnel.
Donnar grumbled about the incivilities of children and left the cave at the rear of their group, his pony reluctantly following Prince Sharn's smoky stallion. It was midmorning and the temperature had dropped significantly as they had traveled northward underground. The sun was barely above the horizon and it would set within a few hours. The days were growing shorter and shorter with the passing of the seasons.
While there was snow on the ground, it was only a span deep, easily passable for even the horses. Maseryk summoned his gabressi mount and they were quickly trotting towards the peak towering over the valley through which they rode.
"Grumbar's Peak was named after the first Nethar Grand Genro to see it," Donnar told them in a hushed voice. "He brought his people here from the Gnomar Dominari to establish his own little kingdom. The Nethar like to say they were escaping oppression, but they were simply leaving Gnomar because they were the youngest and least affluent of the Gnomar septs. The peak in front of us is Mount Gyru. The Humans named it that after the first dynasty of the Human nation called the Kingom of Ice. It used to cover what is now Lunland and Outland, as well as roughly two-thirds of the Netherlands. They looked a lot like smaller versions of the Jotnar of the Empire of the Sail; all blonde hair and blue eyes. It took the Dei-Xhan and their Gnathar slaves three centuries to conquer and kill the last member of the Gyru Dynasty."
Maseryk snorted with a sour smile on his face. "Oddly enough, Prince Quanar Gyru died on the slopes of Mount Gyru. The Humans who were enslaved erected a shrine in secret over his grave. The Gnathar slaves of Lunland who are permitted to hunt in the Netherlands still make pilgrimages to it," the sorceror added, his voice as sour as his smile. He took an axe from the harness on his lizard and removed the sheathes from the blades of the double-bladed weapon. "We need to be more alert. The Lunlanders always have people around here and the Outlanders will have sent them reinforcements if their priests know their prophecies like they should. We could run into problems at any moment."
His warning turned out to be prophetic an hour later when a scouting company in the uniforms of the Lunland Army came jogging around a bend in the trail they were following. Prince Sharn, scouting ahead for trouble came trotting back, his face screwed up in a frown of equal parts worry and irritation.
"It's a reinforced company," he said when they had taken cover behind a clump of thorny bushes and dwarfed trees hiding the mouth of a dry wash branching from their path. "At least two hundred fifty, maybe three hundred. Most are afoot, but there is a platoon of forty cavalry in the vanguard and bringing up the rear."
"What kind of cavalry?" Kyftassa asked gravely.
"Elph-tor mounted Dei-Xhan," he responded, his own tone bleak. "The majority of the infantry coming this way are Gnathar, but there are several Dei-Xhan officers. And there is one sorceror riding a massive elph-tor with the rear unit. The beast looks large enough and vicious enough to give the Gnathar's friend a fight."
"What're we lookin' fer agin, Captain?" echoed a rough Gnathar voice down the trail. A platoon of the scouts had wandered into sight, an ugly looking man in a silver washed breast plate mounted on an animal roughly four and a half feet tall in the shoulder. It was hairless with leathery looking black skin and a massively ridged skull and spine. The rider was seated regally on an elaborate harness and watched as his men fanned out across the trail.
"Lord Marzhin failed to elaborate in his orders beyond 'scout.' I imagine we are looking for the same things as the rest of the brigade: large mixed parties of rangers or any Illuminants," the bored sounding voice of the Dei-Xhan grated as he rode idly up the trail with the hulking form of the Gnathar sergeant walking next to him.
The Gnathar walked along the trail in staggered lines, letting their eyes lazily sweep the valley as they marched through. As each line passed the hidden wash, Jonar's comapnions tensed and relaxed. Jonar himself was busy holding Gnusyl at the back of the wash, explaining why now was not the time to attack the elph-tor and its allies. Trying to get past the Gnath's visions of glory for himself and his companion was proving difficult.
Prince Sharn glanced over his shoulder and shuddered. "How likely is it that the youngster will have problems convincing that overgrown beast to stay hidden?" he asked Maseryk and Donnar, who were crouched next to him peering through the foliage.
"That probably depends entirely upon how long it takes those morons to get through this part of the valley," Donnar replied acerbically in a whisper, glaring at the Lunlanders.
"If either the elph-tor or the Gnath get the other's scent, this will turn ugly. The spell I released should dull our scents, but I cannot erase them completely," Maseryk warned direly, sweat beading on his upper lip and at his temples. "The elph-tor will immediately start keening defensively if it smells the Gnath, alerting the Dei-Xhan. If the Gnath scents the elph-tor, the boy's urgings will go out the window and it will charge straight into those Lunlanders and begin killing as many as it can. This will bring the sorceror and the rest of the company down on us. As things stand now, it looks as if they split up into five sixty man platoons and took various trails leading off from the intersection around that bend. If we can remain quiet for a couple more minutes, they will pass us by and we can slip past them."