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BATTLE ON THE SHORE
The sky was filled with arrows, a sheet of translucent black, teetering and wavering as they came with death marking their end. Time stood still in that moment for Luik, reality slowing to a near standstill…
• • •
Everything seemed pitted against him, and him alone. The fact that his men would pay for what was intended solely for him grieved his heart deeply. Truth be told, he had known it was coming, just not like this. And not so soon. His dream had told him differently.
He felt single drops of rain beat his face. He sensed individual hairs on his head being assaulted by the violent wind. He watched as the enemy li-lis paddled ever closer toward the surf, their archers reaching for yet another shaft to nock. The salty spray of the waves showered his legs and soaked his torso. His body ached, his wounds throbbing with pain.
Luik looked westward to see the dark sky and the funnel-like cloud ripping through the sea toward him. To the north, a wide swath of smoke rose skyward.
And there on the mainland shore, a tiny figure, that of a small girl, hand upraised in greeting.
Reality came racing back to life…
• • •
“Everyone take cover!” Jrio yelled.
But there was nowhere to hide.
While most of the men had made it safely above to Kirstell’s protective highland, a great many still remained on the exposed rocks below. And the barren surface held only a few boulders behind which anyone could take cover. The men simply covered their heads with their hands and awaited the inevitable.
But Luik looked skyward, determined to meet his end head on. The Dibor resisted the urge to shield themselves and followed their High King’s lead. Meanwhile Kinfen and the others up above watched in helpless horror as their kinsmen were about to meet their end below. There was nothing that they could do but look on.
Luik’s eyes followed the track of the cloud of arrows as they reached the highest point of their arch and began their descent.
He wondered how his sword brothers fared in Ligeon, how the rest were doing in Mt. Dakka. And he wondered if Anorra was safe. So many thoughts went through his mind in that moment. But one left all others in the shadows…
The Great God has forsaken me.
He tracked the arrows, now a breath away from riddling his men full of holes, men who had been faithful to him to the last; men who had left their families for a death-errand; men who, too, had pledged their lives in great service of The White Lion but had been forgotten in their hour of need, just as he had.
But his mind was hindered from pursuing the thought further. What his eyes saw was too wondrous to permit it.
As the arrows raced toward them, the air just above became alive, lit up with bursts of fire, intense heat, and dazzling light. Luik winced and raised a hand. He forced himself to look on between the cracks of his fingers.
As each shaft crossed the same invisible line, the arrow met an utter end, burned entirely in the blink of an eye. Not even ash remained, the devouring was so complete. The cloud of arrows was swallowed whole in nearly the same instant, brilliant bursts of glory fire consuming each shaft with the sound of a thousand torch flames rushing through the air.
No one moved.
Luik was the first to say anything. “Did you see what I saw?”
Jrio, now examining a sky devoid of enemy arrows, closed his gaping mouth and faltered, eventually finding his voice.
“Aye—aye, that I did. I think.”
The taken, who had previously readied their next shot, stood abated in their course, those paddling missing a stroke.
“Forgive me, O Most High,” Luik whispered to himself. Then, turning to those around him yelled, “Prepare a defense!”
Those who just moments before cowered in fear of their lives suddenly rose up and drew their swords, some from their belts, others reaching back into the li-lis that Fyfler had stowed among the rocks. The taken prepared for the assault and readied their weapons.
Just then one of the boats pulled away from the larger pack and headed for the mainland.
“Where do they think they’re going?” Jrio piped up.
“Giving up so soon?” Rab taunted.
“Nay,” Luik replied. “They are going after her.” He pointed to the small shape on the far shore, the one he had seen earlier, thinking it but an apparition. It was then Luik realized who she was—
Every muscle in Luik’s body sprang to life. Whatever fatigue and injury his body had accumulated suddenly vanished.
“I’m going ashore. Stay here and defend the men.”
“Are you mad, Luik?” Rab grabbed his arm.
“I’m going! They will kill her. Or worse.” Luik pulled away from his grip and shoved a li-li into the surf.
“Not without me,” Rab insisted and jumped in.
“And me,” said Cage.
“I will not permit it!” Luik ordered.
But there was no convincing them otherwise. Luik looked into their hardened eyes, to the oncoming boats, to the winding funnel cloud to the west, to Fia on the mainland, and then relented.
“Very well. Jrio,” he addressed him, “stay here and order the men. As soon as the taken are dispersed, get the men topside.”
“Aye.” Jrio pounded his chest.
“We’ll help hold the shoals, too,” came Kinfen’s voice from up above. He rode the lift down with ten of the strongest men, swords drawn. “Now go!”
Luik climbed in the boat, and Cage shoved off, hopping in a moment later. The three of them took up paddles and began rowing with all their might.
Luik’s boat had a clear advantage over the other boat in that they had a much shorter and more direct route to cover in order to get to shore. The enemy boat needed to cover a longer, diagonal course. And though Luik’s crew was outnumbered two to one, he figured his vessel would be lighter and make the distance more speedily.
“Pull!” Rab yelled. “Pull!”
But the enemy boat made good time, the extra men pulling more than their weight. In the time it took Luik’s boat to halve the distance to the mainland, the enemy boat had turned slightly away from the mainland and veered toward them.
“They are going to ram us!” Cage hollered. They paddled despite the oncoming collision, hoping it was simply a vain attempt to get them to divert.
• • •
Kinfen and Jrio ordered the strongest men to the front line and the rest to a second and third line among the rocks. The footing was wet and slippery, but they knew their only hope of staving off the invaders was to prevent them from landing their boats. Striking them while they waded through the waters would be their best bet.
They had correctly figured that whatever protective covering had shielded them from the arrows would not necessarily shield them from bodily forms approaching Kirstell. But saving them from the archers was blessing enough; the Dibor knew they could match the taken in hand-to-hand combat.
The enemy li-lis were nearly upon them now. Everything had happened so quickly. Jrio felt as if he hadn’t even gotten all his men situated before the first boat emptied of its men, who then plunged their way toward the rocks. Kinfen could sense the men growing anxious.
“Hold the line!” Kinfen ordered. “Don’t leave the rocks!”
Two men on either side of him couldn’t restrain themselves and jumped into the shoals, wading out to meet the enemy, swords whirling.
“Noooo!” Jrio hollered, trying to grab for them, beckoning them to come back. But it was no use.
“Hold the line!” Kinfen restated.
The two wayward men strode out to their waists in water, screaming with all their might. They engaged the first wave of the enemy, one man’s blade hacking into the shoulder of a taken. The second man blocked two slashes from another of the taken and then delivered a lethal blow on the head of his attacker. Many men on the rocks felt their hope soar and were almost compelled to join their brothers, but Kinfen held them back with a threat.
“Leave the line and I will slay you myself!”
Whether he meant it or not, it had the desired effect. Men who moments before were itching to leap into the waves suddenly thought better of it. The taken they could quite possibly handle; a Dibor they could not. That, and they saw the fate of their brothers unfolded before them…
The one man deflected a solid blow from an onrushing attacker but failed to see the second foe to his left. A blade bit deeply into his back, dropping him beneath the water before he could even take a breath. The two taken then plunged their swords repeatedly into the waves until a foamy red froth bid them stop. The second man also was soon overwhelmed and met a bitter end beneath the sea. What was moments before a seemingly valiant, albeit hasty, effort suddenly left an ominous sense of dread among those on shore.
“Hold the line!” Kinfen demanded once more.
The taken waded through the red cloud in the sea and headed for Kirstell as more of the men jumped from the boats. They came with swords forward and eyes fixed. They made no noise, at least none that could be heard over the raging wind and pelting rain. One step after the other, the taken surged forward, all now in the water, heading straight for the island.
“Hold the line!”
• • •
When Luik realized the wreck was imminent, he ordered Rab and Cage to drop their paddles and take up their weapons. The enemy boat careened toward them at amazing speed, so much so that Luik barely had time to grab his Vinfae before the two boats collided.
The taken fell forward on one another while Luik and the others were nearly knocked sideways out of their craft, swords and paddles flying. No sooner did Cage get his bearings than one of the taken had jumped on him and started hammering him with his fists, obviously having lost his sword in the collision. Cage grabbed his Vinfae with both hands and thrust it up under his arm to one side, sticking the man in the gut. The victim let out a gasp of air and groaned. Cage stood up and sent the man tumbling into sea.
A second and third man leapt into their boat, but Luik and Rab both anticipated the move. Rab grabbed one man by the wrists and used his momentum to throw the man right off the other side of the li-li. Then Rab shoved the li-li away with two taken remaining at the oars.
Luik was not so fortunate, and his attacker came at him down the length of the boat and pinned him at the bow. The man swung once with his sword, and then a second and third time. Luik jumped back until he had nowhere left to go. The man knew Luik was trapped and charged at him.
But he should have known: a Dibor is never trapped.
Luik knocked the man’s sword skyward and then jabbed him in the stomach with his elbow. He doubled over, at which Luik lowered the hilt of his Vinfae on the back of the man’s neck. He dropped to his knees, and Luik pushed him over the side.
Cage finished off one last attacker and then hollered out, “They are making for the shore!” The remaining two of the taken seemed bent on getting to shore and retrieving the girl.
“Row!” Luik yelled, searching in the bloody hull for a paddle. The three of them quickly began rowing again. Cage in the rear felt their progress being impeded and then noticed a hand clinging to the gunwale. One of the assailants still held on, trying desperately to get in. He lowered the paddle quickly, breaking the man’s fingers, lost a moment later in a sea swell.
The enemy boat was two lengths in front of them now, enough of a lead that Luik feared for Fia. She remained on the strand, but was clearly shaken and was beginning to retreat.
“Aye, run, Fia!” Luik shouted, waving his hand between strokes. “Run!”
Whether she just understood the simple command, or she feared for her life, she turned and ran back along the dunes, and then up toward the grassy plains of Jerovah. This seemed to infuriate the taken, and they dug harder into the water with their paddles. Moments later they were in the surf and jumped out of their boat: their first mistake.
Because of their shallow draw, li-lis were able to be paddled right up onto the shore so no time was wasted meddling in the surf. It was just what Luik was hoping for. They closed to within one boat length.
When Luik’s boat came ashore they were well onto the sand, the two taken men running just a few spans in front of them. The Dibor leapt out of their slowing vessel and gave chase.
The taken’s second mistake was that they thought they could outrun Cage, a son of the mighty Horse King, a title he now wore himself. He had grown up riding and running alongside the horses of Jerovah, his legs as sure and as swift as any in Dionia. And the taken were no match for his effortless speed.
A moment later he was upon them both. The first he jabbed right through the back with his sword, the point coming clean out the other side of his stomach. He released his Vinfae and went for the other. The man looked over his shoulder with dread. Cage dove forward and knocked the man into the sand with a shoulder to his back. The man lost his sword and landed face first into a dune. He tried to rise, sputtering and coughing, but Cage quickly grabbed the man’s head and ended his plight with a sharp twist to the side.
It was all over.
Luik and Rab ran up over the dune.
• • •
The taken leapt upon Jrio and his men with staggering speed, colliding against the defenders like waves crashing on the rocks, catching them on their heels. Jrio knocked a taken man in the head with his hilt, causing him to tumble unconscious into the waves, and then slashed at a second attacker who was aiming for his knees. The blow severed the man’s forearm and he, too, fell into the shallows, screaming as he went. But before he had time to reset himself, a third man, holding a spear, jabbed at Jrio’s head. The Dibor was forced to step backward, the man stepping up onto the stone. The man jabbed again and Jrio avoided the blow a second time, and then a third.
Then the assailant paused.
Jrio’s heart sank.
Seeing an unsuspecting warrior in the line to Jrio’s left, the spearman jabbed and withdrew a lethal blow to the man’s neck. He looked back at Jrio and smiled as the victim fell dead.
It was a thoughtless act.
Now Jrio was furious and lunged forward, stepping in aggressively. The taken man parried Jrio’s thrust easily enough, and Jrio passed behind him.
It was a trick.
As soon as Jrio was past him, he flipped his grip on his sword, pulled his arm sharply downward past his hip, driving his Vinfae deep into the man’s back. The spearman fell forward off the blade into a heap on the stone.
But the spearman was quickly replaced by another foe, this one even fiercer than the previous. Jrio took another step back. And then looked around.
The line was collapsing; he was being forced to retreat.
But he was not the only one.
Kinfen labored with a monstrous man, a full two heads taller than himself; the man carried a massive war hammer with a long shaft, swinging it deftly. Kinfen ducked the first dangerous arc, a move that meant the death of a warrior to his right, the hammer pummeling the man’s head in an instant. The heavy weapon continued in its arc and then suddenly came back around for another blow, but Kinfen stepped away.
He saw an opportunity as the hammer flew past him, exposing the taken man’s side. He jabbed hard. But the enormous brute didn’t even seem to feel the point of Kinfen’s Vinfae slip between his ribs. The hammer came around again, but this time Kinfen couldn’t move away in time.
It felt like a boulder coming down on his shoulder, knocking him to the ground, bone splintering in his arm. He gasped for air. The man above him gave a laugh. As if bouncing off of Kinfen’s body, the massive hammer went around the other way and circled in for a final blow. Kinfen propped himself up with his good arm and realized his sword was gone. The hammer came at his head.
The hammer’s shaft was hacked in two, the head skimming off over the rocks and into the water. The weapon’s sudden loss of weight caused the man to lurch sideways and lose his footing. His hands went up and he fell, tumbling off the rock ledge, and slipped beneath the waves. Kinfen looked up and saw Fyfler.
“Get up, sword brother!” Fyfler yelled, pulling Kinfen to his feet, his arm blue and already dangerously swollen.
“My sword!” Kinfen glanced around.
“We’ll find it later,” said Fyfler as he turned to dispose of a frenzied attacker. He parried two swings, and then plunged his sword straight through the man’s stomach and out the back.
Kinfen saw his Vinfae among the wet rocks and reached for it, now cradling his wounded arm. By the time he stood upright he noticed that the line had broken and the rocky scene was a tumult of violent clashing and blood. The taken were upon them in force.
He felt a peculiar feeling in his spirit, much like what he had felt in Ki-Dorne. All around him, men were fighting their kinsmen, running each other through with their blades, driving their spears into their stomachs while looking full into one another’s eyes. It was gruesome.
Aren’t these brothers? he thought. Are these not of the same blood line as I?
Kinfen was deeply grieved, a profound troubling that went far deeper than anything he could explain. But as much as these thoughts brewed within him, he found himself a part of it once again, not as a bystander who could judge and pass judgment upon, but as a player, a man who had no choice but to engage in combat, the very thing that he wished not to do. But it was that or lose his own life.
Strong hands wrapped around his neck. He strained to see who it was but could not get a glimpse, the hands squeezing sharply. He couldn’t breathe. Suddenly, one of the hands came off his neck, only to pound his swollen shoulder. The sheer pain brought tears to his eyes. He thought he heard himself moan out loud but couldn’t be sure. The hand rejoined the other around his neck and squeezed once more, this time even harder. Kinfen saw stars and knew he was only moments from losing consciousness.
But he still had his Vinfae.
In one fluid motion, Kinfen reached up and around and drew the blade across the back of the man’s neck behind him. His aggressor screamed in his ear and released his grip. The Dibor gasped for air and then spun around.
It was the taken man with the war hammer! The man brought his hand down from his neck and stared at the blood in his hand. Then he looked up at Kinfen again, and then at Kinfen’s wounded shoulder. He smiled.
The brute swung at Kinfen once, missed, but then landed a second blow on his shoulder. Kinfen felt his knees give out from the pain. He stumbled. He backed into a large boulder that kept him from going all the way down. He couldn’t take another hit like that, at least not and stay afoot. The brute drew back his fist once more and let it fly.
But the blow missed and glanced off Kinfen’s head. The giant held a look of great surprise and then fell right into Kinfen, sliding down his body in a heap.
Luik stood motionless behind the man, bloodied sword in hand.
“Not to my brother, he doesn’t,” Luik yelled above the battle clash.
“C’symia,” Kinfen said weakly.
“Come, we need to get you out of here.”
“Nay, I stay and fight,” Kinfen resisted.
“Aye, I know you can, but not against that.” Luik pointed west. The storm with the swerving cloud-tail was closer than it ever had been. “We need to get everyone up,” he pointed to the lift. “Now!” Luik addressed his men. “To the lift! We’re going up!”
The battle line, fragile as it was, soon began retreating, the men drawing back toward the lift. Fia already stood in the wooden apparatus with five men to defend her, although no enemy was near. A few more of the wounded men climbed aboard, and the thing lumbered up into the air, pulled from above. But the wind was strong and jounced the lift into the rock wall. The first time it hit, everyone was startled, but unaffected. The second time, however, a man fell and landed on the rocks below. Two men ran to him, but he was dead.
Kinfen put a hand to his mouth and yelled skyward, “Pull faster!”
Luik looked up toward Fia for some reassurance that she was all right. She looked down and held up her hand, waving timidly. He nodded and then turned back toward the battle.
The taken surrounded them, backing Luik and his men up to the lift area. But this was advantageous; the warband was now more compact and much easier to defend. For the first time, the wearied Dibor and their men held a slight advantage. Because the attacking taken had to spread out around the radius of the warband, their line was thin. An attacking foe would be met with a line three deep and had little chance of getting more than one chance to strike before he himself was struck down.
This, of course, caused the attack to slow until an amazing thing happened: a standoff was reached. Both lines stood still, the taken about three strides away. At first no one knew quite what to do. Both lines just stood there examining one another.
The Dibor and their warband were bloodied, soaking wet, and exhausted. It seemed like an eternity since they had last seen Mt. Dakka, and no one knew how long it would be until they saw it again. The wind whipped at them relentlessly, a cool chill now felt in the air. Kinfen ordered more men into the lift when it returned, and then sent it on its way.
The taken seemed unaffected by the wind and the rain. And none of them seemed to pay any notice to the encroaching storm. They stood there silently, steadily staring at the warband with hollow, eerie eyes. Their clothes were familiar, those of anyone in Dionia, and yet their expressions were sad, almost distraught.
Suddenly it dawned on Luik what they were doing.
“They are waiting us out,” he said to Kinfen and Fyfler. “Once we send up enough men, they’ll outnumber us.”
“And slaughter us,” Fyfler added.
“Aye,” said Kinfen. “And I’m in no mood for that.”
It was then Quoin ran back to Luik and said, “They’re retrieving the bows from the boats!” Luik turned to regard Kinfen.
“Or they’ll just slaughter us now while we stand here,” Kinfen amended to Luik.
No one moved.
“We need help,” Luik finally said. “But there seems to be a shortage of that lately.” He looked around in thought. “Kinfen, keep the men moving up. Quoin, Fyfler, tell the line to rush the archers when they’re ready to shoot. It’s our only option.”
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