Chapter 27: In the Lion's Den
The giant panther lead them back along the river, much to Edya’s annoyance. She wondered why the Cartarin had not shown themselves sooner, and saved her and the others a long, pointless walk. Daliana wondered if the Cartarin had really needed to hunt them down, and El Darnen’s long, forced march had challenged the great cats in their own land. El Darnen followed behind the women, at the very back of the group, with a tiger on either side of him padding along on their four paws. Daliana looked back several times, and saw that his hand was never very far from his sword hilt. She thought that the stance looked familiar, but she had known many warriors, even just among her own people. Remembering one specific warrior’s stance out of the thousands that she was sure she had seen would have been impossible, and she knew it. But she also knew that no two people had the same walk, and El Darnen’s was peculiar. His left leg did almost all of the work, and he almost limped along with his right. It never bent more than the smallest amount. It too reminded her of someone else, but she did not know who.
Kallin walked beside the panther the whole time. It was always the short, round Storinean who got up first after a rest and insisted that they keep walking when the others wanted nothing more than to sleep. The Cartarin were happy to agree with him. Daliana gathered that the three who had been tracking them had long been away from their pack’s den, and that they were eager to get back there.
Two days after the hunters had captured the Morschen, the den of Chief Heavy Paw came into sight. Kallin was almost bouncing, and both Edya and Daliana worked hard, and failed, to keep from giggling at the ridiculous sight of the most well educated person either of them knew bouncing around like a child’s favourite ball, which he still resembled, despite the weight he had lost since the beginning of the New Deshik Wars. El Darnen had no trouble keeping the laughter off his face, however. He was feeling far from happy at the sight of the camp, and Kallin’s excitement only increased the Serpent’s frustration. Daliana heard him talking with both of his tiger escorts in their own language. Though they answered, because of the nature of their tongue, all growls made with the throat, she could not tell if they were answering his interested questions, or arguing and forcing him to keep going. She assumed that it was not the former. She whispered this to Daliana.
Daliana gave out a long sigh. “He seems to have no love for the Cartarin, and they seem to share in that opinion about him. But, this is different. He seems to be almost … afraid.”
“Angry and resentful at being caught, maybe, Daliana, but afraid? He knows that they mean us no harm.”
“He said he knew at least one Cartarin. Maybe he is afraid that they will want revenge for something.”
“I don’t know, Daliana. El Darnen is many things, but a coward is not one of them. He detests politicians with passion that surpasses even our hatred of the Deshika, so traveling with three Morschcoda can hardly have been his first choice for a vacation.” “I was hoping you would be serious.”
“What do you want? I just found out that I have an older sister.” Both women smiled. “And I doubt that the Cartarin will break their word and kill us. I don’t know how much power our guide has, but I doubt that even a chieftain would ask him to break his word. This is a people that I think honour must be very important to.” “Even still …” Daliana began, but the panther dropped back to them.
“Your young friend is right. Honour means much around the circle, and if any Cartarin has given their word, not even a great chief like Heavy Paw would ask them to break it. He did not even ask his own sister to stay when she told two tired travellers that she would guide them back over the mountains. That was many Silver Moons ago now, and the chief mourns his sister every day that she does not return to the den.” El Darnen spoke from the rear. “Sometimes, having too much honour is worse than having none at all, Cartarin.”
The panther stopped and clenched his front paws into fists. “If you were not a guest, I would kill you for that.”
El Darnen just laughed. “You just made my point for me, Cartarin. Your honour will not let you challenge me, even though I have just insulted the very thing you hold most precious, which is honour. Not everyone has it. What if you challenge the wrong person, expecting them to fight by your rules? They will stab you in the back and claim victory anyway.” “You should know, long tongue.”
“I didn’t claim to be an honourable man. I never have. Honour doesn’t feed the refugees of one hundred pointless wars who seek shelter with you in the high mountains, Cartarin. You would not have done half as well as I did, were you in my place. When you are a hunted man, honour is nothing but a handicap.” “A person without honour is nothing.”
“Many people on the other side of the mountains say much the same about money, or royal blood, or ancestral treasure. I have known many worth ten times what a person calls nobility.”
“Honour is worth more than a giant’s weight in gold.”
“Then what is blood worth, Cartarin? Your chief regrets keeping his honour intact, even though it cost him his sister.”
“It was not his place to tell her otherwise.”
“She asked him if she should go. He knew that she wanted to, and he also knew that he would never see her again if she did. But she had already given her word, so he could not ask her to break it, for her honour and his.”
This time, the panther actually stopped. “I did not say any of this. I merely said that the chief still mourns for his sister.”
“And I said that I knew a Cartarin, once. I never said which one.” El Darnen pushed past the panther and walked until he had caught up with Kallin, who was so intent on getting to the camp that he did not hear a word that was said behind him.
The panther led the four Morschen to a central fire in the camp. Around the fire sat what was obviously their equivalent to a ruling council. Four were spotted like cheetahs and leopards, but there were two jaguars, another panther, and a lone tiger. The last, obviously Chief Heavy Paw, was a lion with an immense mane of tangled golden hair. When he spoke, his voice was deep and rich, powerful. Daliana thought his voice sounded like Norrin’s.
“Four Morschen, wandering in Cartarin lands without clear purpose or direction. Such a thing has only happened twice in my time. One of those times was when a ragged group of tired and hungry men and women stumbled up to this very camp, fifty-two Silver Moons ago. But the first time, that was stranger. Two men came over the mountains. They were looking for us, but they were farther from the mountains than they wanted to be, and did not know how to get back through. But that takes us even deeper into the past.” The light of years long past shone in the Chief’s eyes. With a low growl, he returned to the present. “Why have you come here?” Daliana answered. “We were traveling through the mountains, looking for another of our kind. Gelida Mectar is Morschcoda of the land of Noldoron, and she should have been somewhere close to where we first appeared in your lands, but now we are outside of Anaria, and we are not sure if we can find our own people, much less how we will do it.” Heavy Paw simply looked at Daliana. He made no indication that he had even heard her speak. Then he changed the subject quite abruptly. “You are the Garrenin, yes?” Daliana nodded. “Come here.” She walked over to the Chief. “Yes, Garrenin blood courses through your veins. The Cartarin never forget a scent. Even the children of our children’s children will remember your smell from today. But some go back even longer. The smell of a true Garrenin stretches back in our memories to the dawn of time. That is what I smell in you.” “Thank you.”
Heavy Paw, growled. “That was not a compliment. I have little love for Garrenins. Not since my sister chose to lead those two Morschen back across the mountains.”
It was then that he saw El Darnen. He growled. Even though El Darnen was the only one of the four who understood the exact wording, the other three understood the message well enough. “Why have you come back here?”
“Believe me, Heavy Paw, I did everything I could to avoid this.”
“Clearly you did not do enough.”
“If I had been alone, I wouldn’t have been caught in your lands in the first place. The only reason I’m here is because I was with these three when your hunters captured them.”
“Give me one good reason why I should not kill you now.”
El Darnen was about to speak, but Daliana broke in. “El Darnen, what’s going on?”
“I was one of those first two Morschen that stumbled upon the Cartarin, over ninety years ago now. I came over the mountains with Taren. He needed a guide, and I needed his good will more than I should have. We were half dead, but we got here. The Chief’s sister, Grrwa, promised to lead us back over the mountains. It took a long time for us even to understand them saying that. Once we got back, Taren started planning an expedition to learn more about the lands on this side of the mountains. Garneth volunteered, and took half of the smartest Demosira with him.” “You told me that the Dragon Riders never saw a living being.”
“Only Galeth went out, and Galeth didn’t see any Morschen. He saw the Cartarin, but he had no idea what they were.”
“Enough. Answer my question, Morschen.”
“Your hunter promised that no harm would come to any of us.”
“He did not know what he promised when he made it. I strip his protection from you. Leave my lands before tomorrow’s sun sets, and you may still escape with your life. Even if you do not escape, you will find me generous.”
El Darnen turned to the panther who had led the hunting party. “Not even a great chief like Heavy Paw will ask the lowest of his hunters to break their word. That is what you said. I see now how much honour means to the Cartarin.”
The panther’s response was half hearted. “You deserve no honourable treatment.”
El Darnen turned back to the Chief. “I will not leave. My duty is to my Queen. Even though she would not listen to me and run like she should have, I will not abandon her here. Kill me if you wish, but understand that the blood of every one of your hunters that dies tonight is on your paws.” The various cats in the circle started to growl and hiss at El Darnen. He simply stood there, understanding but ignoring every word. Finally, to Daliana’s satisfaction, he spoke again. “If those aren’t good enough reasons, I have a third, and though you don’t deserve this final peace of mind that I can offer, I will give it to you.
The hunters, which had been preparing to attack El Darnen if Heavy Paw told them to, crouched and prepared to pounce, in case El Darnen attacked first. “Grrwa is still alive.”
Early in the predawn before the next morning, the Pride’s Circle had not finished their debates. Some of what they planned to do was clear, at least, as far as the three Morschcoda were concerned. The same panther who had led the Cartarin hunters was willing to lead them back at least to the mountains, and possibly further. But Daliana had asked several questions when members of the Circle had left the fire for one reason or another. One of the males with spots like a cheetah was willing to tell her anything she wanted to know that he knew for certain, which was almost nothing. The other panther barely acknowledged Daliana’s presence when she asked her for anything.
Finally, as the sun cast the long, toothy shadow of the Garuthen Mountains, the Circle made their decision about El Darnen. The three Morschcoda were summoned to the central fire. El Darnen was sitting there already, guarded by two tigers. Daliana took it as a good sign that they had not taken his sword.
Chief Heavy Paw still had more questions for El Darnen though. The Serpent’s fate had been debated, but it would be the chief who made the decision. “I want proof.”
El Darnen tried to get comfortable on the ground, but one of the tigers guarding him growled. El Darnen growled back, but stopped shifting. “My answer won’t be the most satisfying, Heavy Paw. The Serpents of old had a much nobler calling, but one of my predecessors died without passing on that legacy. We searched for clues to that information everywhere, eventually turning to crime in our effort to find and restore the lofty title of El Darnen to what it truly was.” The giant lion leapt up and jumped over the fire pit. He grabbed El Darnen’s throat and slammed him to the ground. “Your past means nothing to me. Tell me about Grrwa.”
El Darnen’s words were strained and slow, trying to talk with a lion’s paw on his throat. “My past is the only reason I know anything about Grrwa, and that she is still alive.” Heavy Paw released him and sat back down. “Because the Serpents turned to crime, I know Anaria’s networks of spies better than the fallen Morschcoda Council does. I know every assassin, every mercenary, every rogue, and every Hunter. Very few Morschen know about the existence of the Cartarin, because only one Cartarin has crossed the mountains in the last Morschen lifetime. But some Hunters have been hired to capture, alive, an exceptionally large white leopard. A female, some of them said. I know that none of those Hunters succeeded, because barely ten years ago, Grrwa came to my camp in the Garuthen Mountains. She asked me if she should leave Anaria and go back to the Prides and the wide, empty fields of the Cartarin. I gave her no advice, as I had none to give, so she stayed. She carved a spear and asked me to train her to become a Hunter herself. I have not seen her since, but I know she still lives.” “But the Deshika will notice her, and their masters will remember our kind. That world is not safe for her.”
“I doubt that the Deshika would notice her. As for the Seven, they hold themselves above everybody. It would be beneath them to notice any cat. Besides, Anaria is now littered with Hunters of obscure races. One of the best is a half-human lizard from the southern lava fields named Gorshcki Coptulo. But there are others, stranger even than him. A Cartarin would not attract much notice even from the Morschen these days.” Heavy Paw sat for several long minutes, just staring at El Darnen. Daliana began to get impatient, and shifted nervously, not expecting that the Chief’s decision would rest in the Serpent’s favour. But instead of passing judgement, he asked one more question. “Is my sister a skilled Hunter?” “She is one of the best.” This did not seem to please Heavy Paw the way Daliana thought it should. Edya understood his apprehension.
“That makes you worried. If she wasn’t a noticeable Hunter, she would be safe, but because of her skill, one of the Seven may hire her, and because they will know from her that the Cartarin still live, you will have a war that you are not prepared for against armies that you know you can’t defeat.” She paused, not noticing Kallin walking up to the circle behind her. “Grrwa being a Hunter in Anaria may not be a bad thing. I have now seen the Cartarin. You’re as large as the greatest of the Deshika, and you are far better fighters. You have a natural ferocity that no other race has. If you joined us, then maybe together, we could fight back, possibly even carving out a territory for ourselves, where even the Seven will not come.” The giant lion turned towards Edya. “You are young, but I smell much blood in your past. You are a great warrior among your kind. The way you walk betrays your balance, your skill, your strength. And yet, even if Anaria were full of such warriors as you, and they all possessed the untamed ferocity that you say we Cartarin alone are born with, we could not drive Deshika or the Seven out of any part of Anaria for good.” “I made much the same speech half a century ago that this young woman did today, Heavy Paw. You gave me less of an answer then than you gave this woman today. Are you thinking that maybe, the purpose of the Morschen might just hold them together after all?” The three Morschen turned around. Beside Kallin stood a man that El Darnen and Daliana both recognized, though they had not seen him for fifty years. But Edya, far younger than the Queen or the Serpent, had to ask who it was.
“That, Edya, is Kallin’s father, Garneth Revdark.”