Chapter 23: The Shape of Fear
El Darnen and Edya were the strongest two of the four who had gone to the mountains, but the pace that they were setting was proving too much for even them. El Darnen was the only one of the four who knew what it was that they were running from, but Daliana could see that even his fear of what may have been chasing them was not enough to keep the Serpent going.
“El Darnen, we must stop.”
“No.” He spat the word out, trying not to waste breath he did not have. “Not until we are deeper into the mountains, and preferably somewhere defensible. A cave would do very well, assuming they don’t beat us to any close enough to get to.” “What is chasing us, El Darnen?”
“If they come, and I am sure they will, you may live long enough to find out.”
“I thought you said the Garnothen hunters would not bother us …”
“If we had nothing more dangerous than Garnothrim to worry about, I would still be asleep at our first camp. But I would rather fight a dozen Deshik Death Stalkers with my bare hands than allow what may be behind us the chance to catch up.” Kallin, though, had had enough of the relentless pace. “Then tell us quickly. We all need the break anyway, and none more than me, I can assure you. I promise not to ask questions.”
El Darnen, now that he had stopped long enough to catch his breath realized that no matter how firm his will, his knees would not bend again for some time. “Fine. I’m too tired to argue, and I know you need the rest. There are giant cats behind us.” If she had not seen his deadly serious expression, Daliana would have burst out laughing.
“All this time, we have been running from cats!?”
“Is that a problem?”
Daliana’s amusement got the better of her. “Do you have something against cats, El Darnen? Because I rather like them.”
He growled at her. Daliana was shocked, but El Darnen’s voice was hard, and his stare was relentless as he walked over to her and answered. Daliana had to look up at him, because he was standing so close to her, angry at her amusement. “I don’t mean little house cats that hunt mice and purr and play with yarn. I mean giant cats: lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars; cats that exist to hunt and kill. And these are bigger than even the biggest tigers you have seen in Anaria. They can run on their hind legs and all fours, either way far faster than we can. Small ones are still above eight feet when standing upright. The biggest are nearly twice as tall as me.” Daliana shrank back under El Darnen’s intimidating response. She tried to shake off the effect that he had had on her, but she could not. She quickly tried another question, one that she hoped would make El Darnen believe she was taking the giant cats seriously. “Are they just cats, or are they … intelligent?” “Intelligent? I would say so; primitive certainly, but more dangerous for it. They make spears, but few use them. They mostly rely on their teeth and claws. I’ve seen them before. They can communicate with each other, though I would hardly call it speech. Grunts and growls, and roars, mostly.” Kallin started to ask something else, but El Darnen cut him off before he got out the first word. “No more. You said no questions, and I’ve answered two. I want to be well up this stream and preferably on the other side of it by nightfall.” El Darnen turned eastward and began to follow the stream deeper into the mountains, the three Morschcoda following him at an easier pace than the one he had set before.
High above the four Morschen, two Cartarin scouts watched the conversation. Because of their far better hearing, they made out every word that El Darnen said. One was standing on his hind legs. He was coloured like a panther. “The tall one thinks he knows something about us.” The other was crouched down. With the colouration of a tiger, he would have been more easily spotted against the backdrop of the mountain in the meadow’s short grass. “Yes, he does. But why does he know it? If he had learned it himself, he would be less hasty, and concentrate on where he is going, not how fast he is getting there.” “Hrrtarr will not be pleased that those on the other side of our mountains know that we still exist. If the six arms come looking for us, we have no strength to stop them.”
“We should bring these four to the chief. That way, we can see how many know about us.”
The panther nodded. “Run back to the pack and tell them to send hunters to the Chipped Tooth. If these four have made it further than that by the time you arrive, we will track them. The only two who look like they have weapons are the taller male and the shorter female. We should take them easily.” …
Though Daliana was the most aware of dangers posed by large predators in their own territory, she was the one who demanded that they stop. “It will do us no good if we kill ourselves trying to outrun these cats. I would rather die in a battle with them than die of exhaustion.” “Daliana, there will be no battle. If they catch us, which they will …”
“They haven’t yet, and we’re far away from where we started. We have to rest, even if we move on again tonight.” Kallin looked up suddenly, rather dismayed at the thought of moving on again, but he had no breath to complain with. Edya was on Daliana’s side, though.
“El Darnen, if they’re hunting us, they’ll catch us no matter how far we go or how quickly we get there. If we can’t fight when they do catch us, then our mission is guaranteed to fail, if it hasn’t failed already. If we were anywhere near Gelida’s encampments, and we knew how to get to them, I would say go on, but not like this.” El Darnen, though he agreed with Edya, only snorted. He went and climbed a tree that was standing a little away from the group. Edya and Daliana started to make a fire. Kallin fell over and went straight to sleep. He looked thinner than Daliana could ever remember seeing him. To her, he almost looked like a man, and not a ball. She turned towards the fire that Edya was crouched over and preparing to light. “Edya, do you think that El Darnen knows more about these creatures than he’s telling us?” “I think he must.” She balanced on her toes as she looked up at her Queen. “But I also don’t think it would be the safest thing to ask him.”
Daliana accepted that with a small laugh, but grew more serious quickly. “Why do you think El Darnen is pushing us so hard, Edya?”
Edya knew the answer, but she concentrated on lighting the fire first. Once she had it lit and burning to her satisfaction, she stood up and stretched. “Fear does strange things to a person. I’ve watched Mordak Riders charge into battle alone against ten, sometimes twenty, men because it was there duty to protect Taren. And then I have seen those same men and women faint at the sight of some wound like Gelinia’s, even if they would just ignore it if it happened to them. No one is without fear. Not even El Darnen.” “What is your greatest fear?”
“That is somewhat … personal, Daliana.”
“Kallin is asleep.” She pushed Edya off balance, and laughed as the younger woman tripped and fell on her side. Edya threw a piece of firewood at Daliana, which the older Morschcoda caught with incredible ease. “Edya, Taren practically adopted you. In my eyes, that makes you my sister. I promise not to tell anyone.” Edya groaned. “Fear was never something I really gave much thought to. After my brother died, I lost all fear of death for myself. I suppose my greatest fear is never having a family of my own. My brother and I were close, but because I was a member of the Spear, I only left Alquendiro when Taren did, and Erdic was only in the city a few times a year, so we hardly ever saw each other.” Edya stopped talking and tended the fire for a minute. Without prompting though, she began to speak again. “My life has never been my own, Daliana. I grew up an orphan in one of the poorest parts of Alquendiro. Soldiers patrolled every street to make sure that nobody was murdered for whatever he had in his pockets at the time. The only place I could find work was the army, and while women aren’t prevented from becoming soldiers, even in Drogoda we aren’t exactly encouraged to do so. So, a family is, I guess, a means of taking control of a life that I have never been able to do what I wanted with. And now that I am Morschcoda as well as High General?” Edya shook her head. “I don’t think I’ll live to see any children I might have had. Why do you ask?” “I don’t know what my greatest fear is. I suppose that I am afraid that we will never be able to defeat The Kindler, but that seems like such a small thing from this far away. The thought of death used to bother me, but, if we can’t defeat The Kindler, death would be preferable to living in an Anaria under his control.” She paused and looked up at the sky. “I suppose that my greatest fear is not being able to live up to the legacy of the Garrenins that has been placed upon my shoulders. Especially Taren’s legacy. Gelinia said something about my Dothrin feet being too small for his boots.” Daliana let her answer drift off.
Edya shifted uncomfortably. “Is the Garrenin name really something you want to live up to?”
“What do you mean? House Garrenin has always been one of the most powerful Great Houses in all of Anaria. They have influence, they have money, most Drog Morschcoda, and so far all but two Anarian High Queens have held the name Garrenin: Guinira ... and me. Why should I not want to live up to that legacy?” “Because what that very biased and much-shortened telling of the Garrenin legacy leaves out is a history of bloodthirsty warfare and family hatred. When El Darnen told you that no Garrenin has ever lived to be one thousand, it’s because their siblings or their children have the House Master assassinated. The greater ones, like Taren, die in battle. There have been five civil wars in Drogoda just fought between the Garrenins. Younger siblings who wanted to be first in line. Heirs who ignored their parents and tried to start other wars, so the Morschcoda stepped in. All they wanted was sole power over the Flowing Throne and so be regent and heir to the Throne of Lasheed. The Garrenins have started more wars than any other country in Anaria has been a part of, and I don’t mean petty border disputes that go on for years between skirmishes that are only fought by one or two companies of soldiers. I mean wars, with multiple battles of armies comparable in size to any of the Morschen armies at Emin-Tal. The longest period of peace in all of Anaria was after Garisha was removed from her throne, because then Garrenins held neither the Flowing Throne of Alquendiro nor Eliish Del Lasheed.” “But the Garrenins …” Daliana had meant to say more, but three ear-splitting roars tore through the night that was closing in around them. Kallin jerked awake. Large shapes loomed in the shadows just outside of the circle of firelight. Two tigers padded up to the fire on all fours, and a panther, walking on his hind legs went up to Daliana. All three were surprised when the panther spoke in Morschen Basic.
“You speak of upholding the Garrenin name. That name is known on this side of the mountains. It is you who will speak for your people before our chief.”
“I will do nothing under threat.”
“You are far from your own lands, Morschen. We know every rock of every mountain, every tree. Every blade of grass has its own place in our memories. There is nowhere you can run on this side of the mountains that we cannot hunt you.” “We did not come here to be hunted.”
“We do not care why you are here. We will not kill you, but you will come with us, willingly or by force.”
El Darnen came up behind the panther and drew his sword. “A fight may be necessary, Cartarin. This is the Queen of Anaria, and she goes where she will.”
The panther did not answer, except with a growl that clearly had some meaning. The two tigers growled in answer, but El Darnen also made a noise in his throat. The panther’s hair stood on end in his fury, but he did not dare do or say anything. But Kallin did. “Cartarin? Is that your name, or the name of your species?” The panther growled at El Darnen, but did not turn towards him while the Serpent’s sword was at his throat. “My people are the Cartarin, the Great Cats, in your Morschen tongue. Why does the name of my people mean anything to you?” Kallin could barely keep the excitement out of his voice. “My father took many of the most learned people in my country and left Anaria to find other peoples to make alliances with. One of his messages back to me was that he had met a cat-like people known as the Cartarin. That was the last message that came back to Anaria.” “Your father led this expedition?”
“Garneth Revdark. Do you know him?”
“His teachings are why some of us can speak with your Morschen tongue. It was easier than for us to teach your people our language.”
“El Darnen, lower your sword. I will go with you, at least.”
“We will all go with you.”
“No, El Darnen. If these people know Garneth, then I am sure we are safe with them. And, whether you will admit it or not, we are lost. The Cartarin can help us.”
El Darnen growled, sounding very much like one of the Cartarin, but he moved his sword away from the panther’s throat. The panther turned around. “I am not sure whether you speak our tongue, or if what you did, either time, was some sign of frustration, but I would advise you not to say either thing again. They are not the most … polite phrases.” “I know. Even as you seem to have learned our speech, I once knew a Cartarin, and she taught me some of your tongue.” El Darnen sheathed his sword. “Fine. I will go with you. But if I feel threatened, I will leave.” “That you tried to outrun our hunters means you already do feel a threat from us, but if you wish to leave, after you have seen Chief Hrrtarr, you would say Heavy Paw, we will not track you.” The panther turned and addressed all four of the Morschen. “Come. Our chief is waiting.”