Arrival in Ctharae
The walls of the cityport towered above him. Jalon looked up at them and for a moment he was impressed. This was the first true stonework he had seen since he had left home, but nothing in his home village was built on this scale.
But Jalon would not be distracted. He had had to leave his village and make a two day hike across the hills because prospects back home were non-existent. If the rumours about Ctharae were true, there were definitely prospects to be found there and that outweighed any danger.
There was a heavy wooden door set into the great wall. Jalon lifted the iron knocker and struck the door, once, twice, three times. No response. After three minutes Jalon knocked again, once, twice, three times.
There was the sound of heavy bolts being drawn aside and a man grumbling. The door swung open and the man was revealed, helmeted and dressed from neck to foot in chain mail.
"What manner of beggar are you?" he complained.
"Not a beggar, I just wanted to come in – I mean, to enter the city," said Jalon, deciding to sound formal.
"And you couldn't afford an iron shim to enter the west gate?" jeered the armoured man, "just my luck that I get stuck guarding the south gate. And facing slack jawed yokels such as yourself."
Well that was a bit much. Jalon couldn't enter the west gate without crossing the great Jabathi river, but he knew he couldn't snap back, so he tried to make himself smile.
"Oh get in, fool," growled the guard, jerking a thumb over the threshold. Jalon hastened to obey, almost tripping as he followed the guard into a wide, stone tiled courtyard.
The guard pointed at a long low stone building. "In!" he snapped, pointing at the door.
"What? I mean, sorry, I just wanted to enter the city," said Jalon.
"Well we hold riff raff like you before letting you into the city. Got to keep up some standards, don't we?" jeered the guard and Jalon thought he could detect a note of relish in the man's voice.
There was a heavy thumping sound of stone on stone. Jalon turned and saw what appeared to be a large, roughly hewn grey statue plodding towards him. A statue of a humanoid of some kind, but of unrecognisable gender and no hair. He was taken aback for a second, but he remembered being told of such creatures as these. So this was a troll. A being made of living rock.
"What have we here?" rumbled the troll. The voice was deep and seemed to rattle like the sound of a bag of pebbles being shaken and yet Jalon thought he recognised a certain feminine quality to it.
"Nothing of note, officer Quartz," said the human guard.
"Don't be rude," said Quartz as she plodded up to them. Her eyes were small and hard and bright, like blue stones… or sapphires. "You new here, young human?"
"Riff raff have to be held overnight in the cell," said the other guard, pointing at the low building.
"Only if they're dangerous," Quartz rumbled.
"I'm just looking for work," protested Jalon.
"Then you want the council office. Just leave the courtyard, turn left and then right again, and you'll come to a main road which leads directly to a white stone building. You can't miss it."
"Hey, what are you saying?" her colleague shook his fist to emphasise his disapproval.
"Oh be quiet," said Quartz, "and dear," she turned her curious, jewel bright eyes on Jalon, "beware of the gnolls."
Jalon nodded and hastened to leave.
Following Quartz's directions, Jalon passed by a high stone cliff atop of which were more stone buildings. He still had to turn a corner to get to the main road when he saw the way blocked by four huge stone shapes. They were not just stone. They were moving, getting nearer and nearer. They approached him, making the ground shake. More trolls it seemed. These ones looked even rougher than Quartz, as if hewn from dark, weathered stone by a sculptor who had wished to carve something ugly and threatening. Their wide mouths hung open revealing flinty teeth. Their eyes were small, hard and blood red, like rubies set into their stone skulls.
One of them spoke, "going somewhere flesh carrier? You will get nowhere at your pace." The awful grinding voice reverberated in Jalon's skull like an avalanche of falling rocks.
"He speaks the truth," boomed another of the creatures, "this is gnoll territory and you creatures have no place here."
"Rotting meat, that's all you are, here today, but soon dust," grated the third.
The fourth made a loud, harsh sound and if there had been words in it, Jalon couldn't decipher them.
"You will be dust sooner," rasped the first gnoll, grinding his massive fists together.
Jalon felt an icy surge of terror and his heart pounded. What could he do against four of these horrible creatures? They surrounded him. He wasn't even armed, except for a small knife he had used to hack back undergrowth when hiking through the hills. What could it do against their stony hides?
"Time to die, puny little beast. Let the gnolls look to it," said the second gnoll.
A human voice, a woman's voice, loud and clear. Jalon whipped round and there was a lady, tall, beautiful and athletic, with long dark hair, clad in leather armour. She held a club of some shiny, roughly hewn stone in her gloved hands.
"A she-human," said the third gnoll and he gave an unpleasant sniggering sound, "well this almost makes it amusing."
"Amusing? Really?" Said the lady, a small smile playing on her cherry lips.
"They're even more contemptible than the males of their kind," grated the first gnoll, "let's smash the clouds of rotting meat."
Once again, the fourth gnoll gibbered frantically in his inhuman voice and gestured with a huge stone fist at the lady's club.
The lady darted forwards, dark hair streaming out behind her. The first gnoll lunged forwards at her, but she darted to one side with lightning swiftness and brought her crystal club crashing down on his massive stone fist. The gnoll roared and staggered, shaking his fist which now showed a hairline crack.
The lady dashed round the other three brutes and stood in front of Jalon. The three gnolls loomed over them, ugly and menacing.
"Come on," cajoled the dark haired warrior lady, beckoning with her finger, "you can go through me."
Two of the gnolls made grating snarling sounds and lunged forwards. Jalon felt himself frozen in momentary terror, but his rescuer, moving with a fluid grace, struck them both hard on their stone skulls. They roared and stumbled back.
"Leave it," said the first gnoll, "we've been worsted."
They began to shuffle away. "We'll get you yet," one of them boomed as they slunk off.
"Looking forward to it," said the lady.
She turned to Jalon, who was struck anew by her beauty. Long dark hair, fresh richly tanned skin and fine features, large, dark eyes… "are you alright, my lad?" she asked him, peering into his eyes.
"Oh yes, I am now…" he breathed. She smiled, dimpling deliciously and showing perfect, white even teeth.
Realising how odd that must have sounded he hastened to correct himself, "thank you so much for rescuing me. I hate to think what would have happened if you hadn't been there. What were those horrible creatures?"
"Gnolls. They are trolls, but without the good manners and nice ways. Trolls like that are unfit to be called trolls – it would give the others a bad name," she replied, "I'm Karla. A retired warrior, but now full time mother."
"I'm Jalon and I've just arrived in Ctharae looking for work. I'm looking for accommodation too. Retired you say?" That was a surprise. "You have all the moves and reflexes and you must be barely older than I am."
Karla gave a silvery laugh. "I'm thirty-five as it happens, but I did not retire due to my age. No, it is a longer story. But now is neither the time nor the place. I invite you to our home this evening. I would feel better about it as the streets are not particularly safe."
Great idea. Jalon didn't really have a plan anyway. Perhaps this lovely lady could help. "I would be honoured," he said with a little bow.
They proceeded along the rough dirt path and the noise of distant hubbub grew nearer and nearer. Eventually they reached a crossroads. Three cobbled roads that led in different directions past rows of stone buildings. Ctharaen citizens, both human and other hurried past, taking no notice of them. Karla put her fingers to her lips and gave a piercing whistle three times. A horse and carriage clattered over the cobbles towards them. The driver was a stout human man. Karla waved to him.
"Crystal gardens, the Waterfront please."
They clambered into the carriage which sped away down the middle road, past rows of stone houses.
Well this beat walking. Karla wore a sweet delicate perfume. From side on she was also beautiful, the rays of the setting sun lit up her fine profile, her delicate nose and her lustrous skin.
"Has anything actually been done about the gnolls?" he asked, frantically wracking his brain for more interesting small talk. "They're obviously horribly dangerous."
Karla nodded. "They renounced the Earth Mother, the trolls' goddess and instead formed a sect to the cruel god of the Savage Earth. They caused great upheaval in the troll mountains to the north and were exiled to the darker and colder mountains further north. But lately a few have started coming to Ctharae. The ideal of this cityport is tolerance for all. And that is a great ideal," she added firmly.
Jalon wasn't about to argue with that, much as he disagreed. If the gnolls were menaces, they should all be dealt with accordingly, never mind any strange dogma. But Karla's approval mattered more to him than a horde of gnolls.
"That is indeed a fine ideal," he said with little sincerity. Then he added,"your husband is a lucky man to have you to protect him from the gnolls." Certainly her husband must be an exceptionally lucky man.
"I have no husband," said Karla with a small smile. Was that a wistful look he saw in her eye? How come she wasn't married? To Jalon that was difficult to comprehend. She was so gorgeous and obviously had many talents… a sophisticated older woman. Very far above his league.
"But you do have suitors queuing up down the street," he said confidently. How could it be otherwise?
"You're sweet." she said, smiling and patting his arm.
They started small talk about the city port for a while, Jalon intent on making a good impression. It seemed that the cityport was ruled by a self-appointing oligarchy of leading citizens and that different guilds all competed to influence them. The carriage hurtled onwards, jolting and rocking as they crossed a great stone bridge. Soon they slowed to a halt.
"Your destination, Madame," said the driver.
Karla thanked the driver and handed him a silver piece. "Keep the change over and above the fare," she said and the driver bowed.
They stepped out of the carriage. They were beside a high, solid iron gate set into a towering, stone wall.
Karla took out a large, cast iron key and turned it in the heavy lock. They stepped through the gate and Jalon raised his eyebrows. There was a second gate before them in another high wall, this gate made from wrought iron in a criss-crossing pattern. Karla opened this one too and they proceeded down a straight stone path flanked by small trees with diamond shaped white leaves that gave off a sweet fragrance. For the first time since entering the cityport, Jalon heard birds twittering. Expansive lawns surrounded them decorated with vibrant flowerbeds.
A grand house stood in the center of the lawns, carved in white stone. Karla opened the heavy, oaken front door and they entered a hallway with a marble floor, lit up by the rays of the setting sun shining through the high windows. An oaken staircase led to the floors above.
"Dearest, I'm home and I've brought a guest," called Karla.
Footfalls on the oaken staircase and a tall girl entered the hall. At first glance the most striking thing about her was her bright green skin. Jalon's immediate thought was that she must have been sired by a magical humanoid of some sort. But then she turned round and he saw that she had a heavy veil covering her entire face below her large, dark eyes.
As she faced them her dark eyes widened. "Oh!" she exclaimed, "sorry, I - I must go upstairs." Her voice sounded strangely muffled. It wasn't just the veil. Jalon couldn't quite place what it was. She turned and ran up the stairs, her long black hair streaming behind her.
"Oh dear," muttered Karla, "I had hoped we were over this."
"What's the matter?" asked Jalon.
Karla sighed. "My daughter is sensitive. Come…"
She led Jalon into a side room where they sat at an ornate wooden table with carved clawed feet.
There was a puff of glittering green smoke. Jalon gave a little start. A strange, indistinct apparition had formed, like a weird face formed from the smoke – sea green and translucent, with large, cat like eyes.
"Refreshments Tess, please," said Karla.
"At once, Mistress," said the creature in a high reedy voice and vanished. A moment later, a wooden bowl of chopped salad appeared between them along with two china bowls of cool sherbert.
Karla smiled on him as he sucked up the sherbert a little too greedily... it was so sweet. "I should tell you, dear Jalon, a little more about myself about Kora, my poor daughter and Tess, my faithful servant. I owe you some explanation and we can make this night one where we learn more about each other."
"I should be delighted," said Jalon solemnly. The choice of words sounded very agreeable indeed.
She pushed her long, shining dark hair away from her face. "I will begin with my first great adventure and then you can tell me about yourself. My first adventure was my most important and I will now relate it to you."