Chapter 24: Biases
Chapter 24: Biases
“Mahlites!” Hai’asi spat out as the cordon tightened around them.
“What are we going to do?” a frightened Rebekah shouted in order to be heard above the din.
“This isn’t quite the welcome we’d expected,” the captain of Amethyst replied holding his axe high. “It appears we fight or die.”
Belac had been caught off guard, as had the rest. Swiftly regaining his faculties, he adjusted his train of thought in order to understand what their squat confronters were speaking and remember what he had learned about these dwarven creatures. Instead of fighting, he put his sword away then fluidly began to speak in the quick Mahl tongue.
Caught off guard, the fierce-looking Mahlites stopped to listen, halting their menacing advance. Instead they stood and stared at the youth, several stroked their long beards curiously.
The squire dismounted then went forward continuing to hurriedly speak in the strange tongue the others had heard.
Hearing their own language, the aggressor’s progress was momentarily checked. Then, assertively pointing his weapon a Mahlite who appeared to be the leader of the party began to harangue Belac. Waving his arms the conversation rose in intensity, going back and forth, until the leader of the group looked at his followers and nodded his stubby head. The rest of the band subsequently roared in seeming approval. Again brandishing their arms the Mahlites continued tightening the circle around the travelers from Carnelian.
“Put down your weapons,” Belac commanded.
The other’s looked at him, unsure of what to do. Hai’asi glared at the teen especially, defiance on his face.
“Put them down NOW!” Belac ordered authoritatively in a tone the group had never heard from the squire before.
Reluctantly the others followed his instruction with the creatures swarming towards the vulnerable party.
“Don’t resist, they won’t hurt us. It’s the only way that we can keep from being slain,” Belac called out desperately.
The travelers were jostled, poked and prodded by the Mahlites who seemed to be sizing them up. Then, as if satisfied, the body broke into two lines on either side of the people from the Confederation and began to move. They were caught up in the movement, being swept along the road to the capital of the Northern Alliance.
Mitt Cela looked with a mixture of shock and amazement at Belac. “What just happened?” the leader of the group asked the squire.
“We weren’t expected,” Belac replied, his voice somewhat shaky after the intense confrontation. “It appears they’re aware of what’s happening in the Confederation so jumped to conclusions as to what our intentions were. I was able to speak to them and inform them of our desire to talk to their leaders,” the teen breathed heavily, releasing tension. “Fortunately the chief listened, so now we’re being taken to Mahl Jaktan.”
Mitt Cela looked admiringly at the squire for the unassuming way he explained how he’d just saved their lives. The bounty hunter had spent many years in the north so knew how ferocious the Mahlites were. The fact that Belac could so quickly change their minds spoke volumes to his powers of persuasion. Instead of lying dead on the side of the path, they were now being escorted directly to the capital. Finally, they seemed to have had something work in their favor.
The heavily armed company from the Northern Alliance stopped for the night on the side of the trail setting up a bivouac in a long, narrow crevice in one of the mountains framing their route. The sides were sheer but the night sky could still be seen peeking through the heights. Their location protected the encampment from the elements so it was not an unpleasant night. The Mahlites set up in small groups but didn’t mingle with the people from the south. Despite Belac’s efforts, an obvious distinction separated them which would not be bridged in one evening. So after quietly talking amongst themselves the five travelers retired to sleep. None kept vigil since they knew it was unnecessary to keep any watch surrounded by the fierce Mahlites.
As Mitt Cela lay down in his wool blanket he became light-headed. Reaching into his tunic he felt the sticky sensation of blood still flowing from his wound. Adjusting the bandage which had slipped when their escort jostled him earlier in the day he closed his eyes and tried to sleep.
The sound of rhythmic chanting greeted the people from Carnelian the next morning. They all lay still, not moving, until the ritual of the Mahlites was done. With a fearsome shout it ended encouraging the travelers to rise. The chief of the group came over to converse seriously with Belac about their journey. Then after a simple breakfast they headed out on the last part of their trip to the capital.
Moving steadily the travelers from Carnelian and their escort reached the principal city of the Northern Alliance by mid-day.
Mahl Jaktan had been carved out of the side of a mountain, running deep within. This seat of power rose up majestically contrasting the barren plain filled only with coarse grass in all shades of dull brown at this point of the season, it fronted.
While the Alliance was made up of Folkor and other mining-oriented creatures, the Mahlites were the dominant group. Tribal in nature, they were extremely aggressive but also known for their fierce loyalty. All the different sects mined the ore-rich mountains of the north and were reputed to have acquired tremendous wealth. Few south of their border though knew much about them. Isolationist and secretive, for years they had kept man at arms length other than to trade.
As the travelers came into view of the capital they were astounded by how impressive the place appeared not only in size but also in appearance. Even from a distance it quickly became evident the city was larger than even Ammon Ramlah. More surprising was it had a beauty rivaling any in the Confederation. Moving closer, the city showed itself to be no mere relic but instead displayed a great deal of vitality as those who lived or worked there went about their daily activities. It was difficult to see more, however, since a formidable stone wall covered the front and two sides of the approach. Tall, multistoried buildings dotted the city, which appeared to be laid out in a practical fashion. The overall architecture had a beauty about it in its ruggedness. What struck the observers the most was the pale yellow hue the whole town exuded, in direct contrast to the darkness of the mountain from which it had been built. Mahl Jaktan showed itself to be a city that had obviously grown through the centuries.
Approaching a huge gate flanked by two massive towers of rock serving as the main entrance, the party seemed to draw the attention of the inhabitants. Small dwarven children ran out to stare while others stopped to look as well. No one said anything to the guests from the south but a pervading sense of curiosity could be felt. Once inside the city the party began to make an unimpeded ascent up a wide, rising avenue towards the most imposing structure in the town. It appeared they were heading to the principle building of these people.
Rebekah and Belac were pleasantly surprised to see how attractive Mahl Jaktan was. Frescoes, intricate designs and lovely statues brought softness and a sense of light to the stark locale the city rose out of. Numerous lush, green parks and gardens added color and light to the altogether enchanting surroundings. Hai’asi, Umim and Mitt Cela missed this though as they glanced nervously about at the increasing crowd. Making their way to where only the squire likely knew, they could see that many of those gathering were armed heightening their already high state of anxiety.
Though smaller in size than man, the Mahlites were imposing in stature possessing thick bodies, thick dark hair and narrow-set beady eyes. Their clothing and gear was warlike yet practical. A grunting dialect also added to the general air of intimidation that prevailed. Yet in the architecture and art design found in the capital there was gentleness and beauty evident. It was a curious contrast.
The group finally stopped at what seemed to be the city common. It framed perfectly the entrance to what likely was the principal building. They were met by a group of Mahlites who appeared from inside the structure. Stone stairs the length of the front façade ascended at a steep angle high above the street and it was here this welcoming party met them.
Armed guards came scurrying out to stand on alternative steps while others took the horses from the travelers. Hai’asi, though, would not let go of his bridle. A look from Mitt Cela encouraged the warrior to give it up while the others reluctantly relinquished theirs.
The chief of their escorting party gestured for them to climb to the top. After a brief conversation with the Mahlite, Belac led them up. Looking around as they climbed the travelers could see the crowd that had followed them growing in numbers curiously looking at those who now were in view before them. Reaching the top they could better assess the three officials who waited silently for them to approach. These Mahlites were dressed in robes of fine silk and linen, colorful in contrast to the dull, nondescript clothing they had seen thus far in Mahl Jaktan.
Belac elegantly bowed low then began to speak in the rapid guttural tone of the land. He went on for several minutes while the officials remained silent. After finishing what appeared to be his introduction, the Mahlite in the center spoke back.
The stocky dwarf’s tone became agitated and as it grew he began gesturing wildly. Belac stood patiently as the Mahlite moved nearer, wagging a stubby finger close to the squire’s face. Hai’asi tensed, gripping his axe tighter but the young man remained still.
Once the official seemed to finish his rant Belac spoke again. He reached into the satchel at his side and pulled out the thin book Elder Samej had put together. Holding it aloft he continued to speak. Now the model of confidence, the squire didn’t flinch when the other two Mahlites errupted in dreadful howls at whatever the youth had been saying. After Belac finished his speech the three wheeled and turned around, marching back inside the building.
The party from Carnelian was left alone with the warriors of Mahl. This lasted but a moment until Belac spoke. “Let’s go inside and meet with the Clan Council,” he instructed.
Mitt Cela felt wobbly and light headed so said nothing. He automatically followed trying to focus on not falling over, happy to not have to make a decision.
Hai’asi, on the other hand had been certain they were going to have to fight. He stared incredulously at the squire. “Go inside?” the edgy warrior queried. “Perhaps you would care to explain what just happened here?”
”I introduced us and spoke to them generally about our mission,” Belac began. “They inquired about the details but I replied that was for the leaders of the Alliance to hear first. They didn’t like that,” the young man admitted. Running a shaky hand through his close-cropped hair he gave the first sign that he had been nervous. “I then spoke of the bond between our peoples showing them the book I’ve brought for presentation. They didn’t like that either. I finally told them it wasn’t their decision and to announce us. So now we’re to have an audience with the eminence of this land.”
Hai’asi laughed aloud. “Just like that? So we’re now to meet with the leaders of this land?” The powerful warrior shook his head in amazement. “You are a remarkable young man Squire Belac.”
“They were merely administrators, gatekeepers really,” Belac mumbled, slightly embarrassed by the declaration. “It was nothing that any other who possessed the language would not have been able to accomplish.”
“I see. And yesterday saving us from the mob, which brought us here with your words alone, that was a mere trifling as well?” Hai’asi prodded, enjoying the levity of the moment now that the tension had dissipated.
Belac found himself at a loss for words to respond. He attempted a reply but couldn’t.
The warrior captain, roaring with laughter, threw his arm around the shoulder of the youth giving him a crushing hug. The two then led the others through the now open doors.
A Mahlite who appeared to be a doorman met them at the entrance silently bidding them to follow him. Down a long corridor spanned by impressive granite arches they went, their awe growing with each step at the grandeur of the building. While constructed of stone like the others, this one was filled with delicate tapestries and wall hangings throughout. Their fragility contrasted the solid columns and arches of stone framing the whole avenue. Torches burnt in wall sconces while fires crackled in grates along the side. It was an altogether warm, dry environment that the travelers enjoyed considering the damp cold they had been in almost constantly for nearly two weeks now.
Finally arriving at the end of the hall two thick wooden doors with intricate gilded carvings opened from within. The travelers finally entered into the Chamber of the Chieftains of the Northern Alliance.
A few low words to Belac from the gatekeeper and those from the Confederation were left alone standing in the center of the circular room. The officious looking chamber was entirely paneled in dark wood, had a row of benches against the wall and then a short wainscoted wall around it.
The party from Carnelian waited alone for several hours. While food and drink was brought in to refresh them frustration at the delay began to build. Finally, the doors they had come through along with another set at the opposite end of the room silently opened. In began to walk over a dozen dignified looking Mahlites wearing robes of deep purple with silver thread stitching. They proceeded to sit silently on the benches around the travelers.
For several minutes no one spoke. The delegation from Carnelian realized that no one from the Clan Council intended to speak. It was up to them to initiate the dialogue.
Mitt Cela looked over at Rebekah. With a nod he encouraged her to address the assembly.
Taking a deep breath, the petite young lady looked around the chamber and began to speak. “I am the Princess Rebekah, daughter of King Criosd Pherein, daughter of Carnelian. I am here to speak to you on an important matter of mutual interest.”
Belac began to translate but the leader of the Council cut him off by raising his hand. Then he began to speak in the common language of man. “You have no need to take up our time in translation squire. We can speak your tongue and will from here on address you in such a way. Princess Rebekah, your name is known to us and we recognize you. Continue on.”
Surprise was evident on the faces of those from the south at this turn of events. More than one wondered how many others could speak their language but had chosen not to until this moment.
Knowing that discussion on the point held no profit, the princess continued to speak, showing growing comfort with her role. She spoke first in general of what was happening then in the specific, chronicling what had transpired. Eloquently tying it all together, she concluded with a plea for armed assistance to stem the tide consuming the land. All the while the audience sat expressionless and silent. Finishing her presentation, Rebekah waited for a response with a look of hope on her face.
The one who had spoken to her initially stood up. “Why is this a concern of ours?” he replied gruffly in a thick brogue. “We are aware of what’s happening in your shires from our posts on the border but there’ve been no incursion into our lands. Ours is a relationship of trade, not brotherhood. We have no stake in your future. To us this is a conflict between man and those from the west. It’s of little matter to us.”
Rebekah’s mouth opened in shock, stunned by the callousness of the response. The princess had no idea what to say.
Instead Belac took over the conversation, first in the Mahl tongue then switching to that of man. He talked about the threat to the north if the lands of the Confederation should fall. Then pulling the book from his satchel once more, he spoke of the history of the lands to the north in the days before the Alliance was formed. The squire then spoke pointedly about the service man had performed.
“In day’s past man came to your aid freeing you from a bitter tyranny,” Belac concluded his appeal. “The ancestors of those same men now ask you to repay that service in kind. I present this book to you. Read for yourselves what has happened then determine what is equitable.”
“Lies!” another of the Council exploded jumping to his feet in a high state of agitation. “There’s never been any great service done by man to our people. It’s been the opposite!”
Belac remained the essence of diplomacy as he listened, allowing the angry Mahlite to vent. “With all due respect sir, you are misinformed on these matters,” he responded calmly. “If you would only read and listen. That which we propose is for the common good, not just ours. Do you think Mephistopheles will stop at your border once he has disposed of us? No, you will see him within one season if man falls. Then his full weight will be brought to bear on you. The destruction wrought would be complete and there would be nothing left but subjugation and slavery. Read the history yourself,” he waved the book for emphasis, “then join us.”
Several of the council members looked at the leader who, rising again, shook his head angrily. “We won’t read your tale of fiction nor will we join you.” This totality of the declaration staggered the delegation. Then taking on an imperious tone he finished his verdict, wagging his stubby finger, “Ye are the despoilers and exploiters of our lands. Ye’re reaping what you’ve sown from your greed. Leave, we will listen no further to your entreaty.”
Guards entered the room aggressively surrounding the party. A visibly shaken Princess Rebekah was moved to tears, the thoughts of what lay ahead already on her mind. Belac pleaded for an opportunity to continue to speak but with a dismissive wave of the hand the leader of the Mahlites had the guards begin to move the delegation from Carnelian out of the chamber. Then a soft but strong voice came out of the shadows causing the Alliance members to freeze.
“One moment, if ye please.”
Into the light came a frail, withered Mahlite bent over and leaning on a cane. The warriors in the room stood to attention while the council members deferentially stopped speaking. Deep lines creased his face and expressive eyes looked out from the simple homespun robe he wore. Despite the humble attire, he had captured the attention of everyone in the room. Coming right up to the desperate group from the south he looked straight at their leader with a look of affection. “Mitt Cela, it is an honor to see ye again,” he softly said.
The declaration shocked Mitt Cela but then he looked more carefully at the small dwarf. Though dressed differently from what he had remembered, the bounty hunter recognized the kind face.
“Deuel?” he said in surprise, remembering the solitary and anonymous Mahlite he had assisted shortly before the troubles had begun. “Deuel of Kohath! I can’t believe it’s you.”
The leader of the Clan Council of the Northern Alliance could not mask his disbelief at the scene unfolding before him. “High Chieftain Deuel, ye know this man?”
“Aye, he saved me considerable discomfort and harm when I was on pilgrimage. Without his assistance, given freely to a stranger in need, I might not be here.”
The surprised Clan Council leader’s look changed from hostility to curiosity. Gazing at the travelers in a different light he spoke anew. “Perhaps we were hasty in our assessment. Guards, leave us. We will listen to what else ye have to say.”
The leader bid them continue but instead of Belac speaking this time Mitt Cela spoke in an unsteady voice.
“You’ve heard what the Confederation of the Shires faces, our plea for help and the reasons behind it. I won’t take your time to repeat it. Instead I appeal to your sense of honor and adventure. We humbly propose you marshal what forces you’re able so we might march to the south defeating whatever of the enemy are met. We then would link up with the forces in Carnelian as a common front defeating Ahriman and his horde.”
It was Deuel who replied, curiosity in his voice. “But if we agreed to this destiny, how will our forces be able to fight in such a fashion if we were to join with you? That style is not our norm and is in fact quite foreign to us.”
Mitt Cela confidently pointed toward his friend. “This is Hai’asi, Captain of Amethyst and defender of the South. He is skilled not only in individual combat but tactics and the organization of armed troops as well. If you’ll commit to this, honoring us as such, he will lead your forces out of these lands and into battle.”
“And you will accompany them?” Deuel asked.
“I will accompany them.”
“This we shall ponder. I would also like to examine that document ye brought with you.”
Turning from Mitt Cela towards Belac, Deuel and the others began to take a cursory look at the chronicle of their past.
A dull thud followed by the sharp scream of Princess Rebekah caused the others to turn quickly towards the sounds. Mitt Cela had collapsed and lay motionless on the floor.