Athera’s Dawn: Chapter 10

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Chapter Ten

ESCAPE FROM NARIN

The first hound leapt upon Anondo while he was still looking at the breach in the dam. It knocked him to his back with one paw while its jaws spread wide, aiming for his neck. Anondo could not roll free of the beast’s weight, but bent his head to one side, avoiding the razor-sharp teeth. Anondo hacked at the hound with his Vinfae, knocking it off balance and burying its muzzle in the dirt. A severed limb gave way, and the animal toppled over.

The King rolled to his stomach and on his feet a heartbeat later. He turned and looked on as the rest of the red-eyed hounds bounded through the river water, splashing everywhere as they engaged his men.

We will be slain here, he thought. Slain to a man. But his thoughts were interrupted by a deafening sound.

Crrrrrrrrrack! Whoooosh!

In the blink of an eye, the dam gave way, and the entire riverbed was consumed by a deluge of white water. One moment the hounds were rushing toward Anondo, the next they were swept away by a torrent plunging down from above. The roar of the flood took everyone by surprise, even the remaining hounds. They turned around to watch as their brethren disappeared in an instant. It was all the time the warband needed to dispatch the rest and send them either into the raging river or back to Haides itself.

The men gathered around Anondo and looked on. The light continued to fade around them, the night quickly arriving.

“We should be able to make Narin in three days,” Fadlemir said.

Anondo did not reply right away. His eyes were busy searching the far shore. Though the strand and the woods beyond seemed empty, his intuition told him otherwise. The waters rushed by them, churning forcefully.

“My liege?” Fadlemir spoke up after a time.

“Aye,” Anondo said distantly. “Three days.”

“What is it?” Fadlemir asked, hesitating.

Anondo pulled his eyes from the river and looked at his captain, “It is nothing, Fadlemir.” He turned to the woods. “Make camp and let the men rest. They deserve it.”

As Fadlemir turned to give the orders Anondo glanced back over his shoulder. He searched the woods across the river one more time. He thought he saw something move in the shadows, a glimmer of red. He waited a moment longer, but decided it was only his imagination and rejoined his men.

 

• • •

 

When they awoke the next morning, the warband was grateful for the rest, albeit a short one. They retrieved the frightened horses from the wood, and watered them before setting out again, weaving onward through the forest for half the morning before spilling onto a broad plain. The sunlight warmed their bodies, and the horses took to running.

The warriors rode easily, well contented they were not being pursued. In the three days that followed, each man wrestled with the previous days’ events. They had gone from a confident defense in Tontha, with a solid plan in place, to retreating. Their numbers were immensely reduced, those that survived just happy to be alive.

Anondo wrestled not only with the fate of his men, but of his brothers, Thad and Thero. He had sent them on what he was now sure was a fool’s errand. He scolded himself for being so hasty in wanting to spy out the enemy; had they stayed with him, perhaps the warband could have made their stand at the border. Perhaps everything could have been very different. Perhaps…

Regret plagued him night and day. When the warband made camp on the plain for the night, he looked up at the stars and tried to imagine Dionia before all this, before Morgui had attacked and changed everything. Before Adriel had fallen, before he and the others had been sent to Kirstell, what was it like?

Remember.

He searched the stars above and tried to remember a time when he saw these same beautiful lights, from his home, perhaps, or during Jhestafe-Na when he would travel with all his brothers and sisters down into Bensotha for the feasts. Perhaps after a long day of playing rokla he had lain back in the grass and marveled at the luminous sky.

Remember.

But he couldn’t.

The task was too hard. The good memories were too far away. All he saw was a sword, swinging and drawing blood…swinging and drawing blood, the blood of his enemies, and the blood of his brothers. He wondered if he had had any good memories at all. His mind wandered to and fro, but in the end, his extreme fatigue won and he trailed off to sleep.

 

• • •

 

When Anondo woke on the third day, the dawn had come all too soon for him and the others. But the thought of reaching Narin, now so near, urged him onward. They mounted the horses and made for his home with haste.

Fadlemir rode alongside the King, and asked, “What would you have us do upon our arrival?”

“If the Great God smiles on us, my father’s ships should still be moored in the south of the bay. Their rigging was built to hold fast through any storm, even those of the inusslen. Had I only thought to use them when last we fled north together.

“We’ll ride through Narin Haut, cross the Hefkiln, and then make our way along the southern coast. We’ll release the horses and gather the tenders. Once all the men are aboard, we’ll cast off and make for Tontha’s northern shores. Our passage back to Mt. Dakka should be unhindered.”

Fadlemir inclined his head and rode on in silence. By midday the Great Hall of Narin came into view, and with it, Anondo’s memory of the gruesome scene it held within.

“Perhaps we should gather food from the storehouses of the palace?” Fadlemir suggested.

“Nay, there is nothing for us there,” Anondo replied.

“But, sire—”

“Fadlemir, it is not for you to ask again.”

“My apologies, my Lord.”

The warband entered the upper city through the main gate on a broad lane that eventually wove its way to the lower city below. But they soon turned south onto another wide avenue that arrived at a massive bridge.

As the horse hoofs clopped onto the thick wooden planks of the structure, Fadlemir peered over the side rail. To his left he surveyed a waterfall that plunged far below them into a wide pool of boulders and blue-green water. To his right, the river slowly crept into the waiting bay, and from there, the Faladrial Ocean glimmered under the high sun like a blue field littered with diamonds.

They reached the other side and continued south along the edge of the bay as the trail sloped down to the water. The men all saw the royal ships of Ligeon moored in a shallow creek, and just along the shore, ten or more small tenders, boats built to carry men and supplies to the larger vessels.

The flagships of Ligeon were themselves quite a sight to behold. The three masts of each stretched high into the sky, sails furled. The sleek lines of their bows rose from the water, graceful as a swan’s chest, giving way to the elegant prow that arched in and then out, like a neck, and terminated in a carved bird’s head. Giant wings on the port and starboard sides, made of wooden frames covered with canvas, spread out over the glistening waters as if ready to take flight. The stern tapered off, mounted with a span of canvas that looked like tail feathers.

Anondo’s many fond memories aboard these ships pushed aside his depression, remembering travels along the coast both north and south with his father and brothers. Whether traveling with royal delegations on the King’s business, or simply for a pleasure cruise, the sea was always a welcome place to Anondo, and the ships his home. They took him to distant lands by day, and then flew him home to his mother’s arms by night.

And it was at the helm with his father that Anondo had learned to command the magnificent vessels, discovering the ways of the sea, and the orders that made the ship adhere to them. A seaman did not rule the sea; far from it. But rather he was carried by it, going wherever she desired. Surely she could be ruled for brief seasons and times, coaxed into the brilliant dance of a voyage by the sailors who manned the lines and tiller. But in the end it was she that decided the course. And if all listened to the masterful voice of the Mighty Creator, the dance was harmonious and rewarding. Anondo had never known a day at sea that was not a jewel, a very gift from the Father of Lights.

The warband neared the tenders and dismounted. Anondo was in the midst of ordering his men into the boats when a long, woeful howl cut through the air.

Everyone froze.

Anondo muttered to himself, “For all the riches in Athera—there were more.” He looked to Fadlemir. “The hounds have followed us.”

“But I thought—”

“Aye, so did we all,” Anondo said. “They needn’t find a way across the Hefkiln; they simply waited for us to cross. Quickly now, to the tenders. We’ll need at least five trips the way I count it. We’ll take the three fastest ships in the fleet.” He indicated the three and then assigned his most sea-savvy captains to each.

“You heard him!” Fadlemir burst out. “Start rowing, and make haste! The last of you will have the flesh of your backsides bleeding by nightfall.” The men leapt to work, needing little encouragement, shoving the boats off the quay and taking up the oars. When the first tenders reached the ships, the men ascended the mooring lines and dropped the ladders. As soon as the tenders were emptied, save for two men, they returned to the shore for the next load.

“Fadlemir, assign two scouts to the ridgeline there and there,” the King pointed. “I figure we have three trips before they are on us.”

“Hey’a,” said the Captain, and was off.

Anondo turned and helped the tenders come ashore. The next round of men leapt into the shallow wooden boats, and again the King helped shove them off.

He looked out at the ships. The captains were already making ready to sail. Men were scaling the ratlines, unlashing the sails as fast as they could. When the tenders arrived, lifts were lowered to speed the hauling of supplies, what few they had left. When the last man was on the ladder climbing upward, the tenders shoved off and returned.

Another howl filled the air, this time closer.

“Row faster!” Fadlemir ordered from the strand. “Come on men, faster! Biea varos!

Anondo turned to see the scouts finally reach their positions. He looked back to the men on the shore. By the time the third wave was off to the ships, Anondo looked back to the scouts. No longer in their positions, the two men were running down the slope, hands waving.

“Great God—” Anondo whispered, Fadlemir noticing the King’s consternation. A hound appeared over the headland and raced down the hill after the scouts. Anondo urged them on under his breath. “Come on.

“They’re not going to make it,” Fadlemir admitted.

“Do we have a bow?”

“Nay, my liege.”

The first hound was joined by a second, both but ten strides behind the fleeing men. Turning to address those behind him, Anondo gave the order to draw swords and form lines. “Rid yourself of all armor as well.”

One man broke the line and ran forward.

“We must help them!” he yelled wildly.

“You will get back in line,” Fadlemir ordered.

But the man ran forward past his Captain and his King.

“Get back in line, warrior!” Fadlemir commanded.

Anondo put a hand on his shoulder.

“Fall back, Fadlemir,” he spoke softly. “We join the line and wait for the tenders to arrive. When they shove off, we swim for it.”

“My Lord?”

“We don’t have time for another load after this. We’ll have to swim, or die trying.”

“But there may be only three or four more. We can take them.”

“Nay, Fadlemir. We can’t.”

As if prompted by his words, over two tens of hounds appeared over the horizon and eyed their prey on the quay far below.

“Great God of Athera,” Fadlemir muttered.

The leading two hounds caught up with and devoured the scouts, followed by the single warrior who ran headlong to his death.

“Fool,” said Fadlemir.

“A valiant fool,” added the King.

Fadlemir marveled at Anondo’s ease under pressure. The King turned this way and that, taking in each element of their surroundings, making decisions and then revising them all in a matter of moments. Upon joining the line himself, Anondo ordered the ranks to fall back, standing in water up to their knees. He addressed his men. “For those that can, get in the tenders when they return. They rest of us will swim for it.”

The hounds were racing toward the shore with immense speed. They pounded the ground, clumps of dirt and grass flung high into the air. The hackles on their backs were raised and drool swung from their chops. They snarled, chomping at the air. Anondo thought they could take a good number of them out before turning to swim.

But then another host of KiJinNard Hounds emerged over the headland, more than Anondo or Fadlemir could count. There was an audible gasp among the men, a sound drowned out by the pack’s doleful wail as they crested the hill.

“Swim for it!” Anondo ordered.

The remaining three hundred warriors turned and sheathed their swords. They high-stepped through the deepening water before plunging in headfirst, reaching long for each stroke. A few of the men had tragically forgotten to discard their breastplates or hauberks, the heavy plate and chain mail armor dragging them under.

Anondo rolled over for a glance at their enemy.

The first wave of hounds was on the shore; two more strides and they’d be in the water. Anondo gained another stroke before he heard splashing behind him, and then the snapping of bones.

He looked again to see one of his men dangling by the leg from the mouth of an infuriated hound. The man screamed as the beast shook him wildly and then tossed him.

Two other hounds busied themselves with a cluster of men, pounding them into the water. The massive dogs’ heads plunged below the surface, churning up red foam in the surf.

Unable to reach any more of the fleeing warriors on the strand, the hounds waded out and began swimming toward the ships.

Anondo yelled between breaths, encouraging his men not to lessen their pace. They had to reach the ships.

Suddenly Anondo caught site of the tenders up ahead. They were returning! But instead of two men, there were at least four in each, two to row and the others carrying long spears and curved polearms. They went to the rear, to those having the most trouble, and picked them up. The closing hounds saw this and became even more aggravated.

But the spearmen were ready.

An oarsman reached out for a struggling warrior. The two clasped hands. Just as the warrior was climbing aboard, he heard the snarl of an enemy dog. He pulled his legs up and jumped into the boat, slamming his head on the opposite gunwale. But the action saved his life, as well as his legs. Instead, the hound received a mouthful of iron as the blade of a spear shot to the back of its throat. It yelped and thrashed about, eventually sinking below the surface with the spear lodged in its neck.

The tenders went about saving all they could, and successfully fending off the hounds, as the dogs were no match for the spears, given their disadvantage in the impeding water.

By the time the tenders were returning to the ships, the next wave of the KiJinNard was entering the waves.

Halfway there, Anondo encouraged himself. His arms and legs were growing tired. The fatigue of the last five days had taken its toll. He rolled onto his back, hoping for an easier swim. He watched as the hounds filled the shore, wading into the surf, line upon line. There are so many.

He rolled back onto his chest. The tenders had given up their cargo and were coming back for another load. The advantage this time was that they need not travel out so far; the men were in deeper water.

Behind him, the snarling heads of the hounds bobbed above the surface, the rest of their ugly forms hidden by the water. It looked so strange to him, almost humorous, seeing all these heads making for him and his men. But the death in their eyes reminded him this was no game. And the hounds were good swimmers, too. They were closing the gap more quickly than Anondo had hoped.

The tenders went through the bulk of the men and began picking up those in the rear again. There was enough distance between them that the spearmen laid down their weapons to help load the boats. Anondo looked on.

He noticed that many of the heads had disappeared.

Strange…

More and more men were hauled in. No one seemed to notice the hounds disappearing.

Then it happened.

Two men were lifting a warrior out of the water, each grabbing a hand. Anondo could see the warrior’s face. His eyes widened in terror as a massive mouth came up from underneath him, consuming his legs, foot to knee. The massive jaws closed on him and then retreated into the water, man in tow.

The action was so fast that the two rescuers didn’t have time to let go and were likewise pulled overboard. The boat rocked wildly and the remaining men shouted orders, some reaching for those now in the waves, while others picked up weapons to fend off any more hounds.

Three more beasts burst from the depths and chomped at the men in the water. A spear flew, teeth gleamed, shouting, and then the unthinkable…

Two hounds appeared on the opposite side of the tender, paws reaching overboard, and then flipped the craft. About eight men in all went tumbling into the waves.

There was nothing that could be done.

The boat was ripped apart in a matter of moments, and all that remained were bits and pieces of men and wood littering the sea.

Some of the tenders watched what happened and backed off from their objective, while others were not so lucky and succumbed to the same grievous fate.

All along the rear of the pack Anondo heard short cries for help—and then nothing. The pleas disappeared almost as fast as they had been issued.

He looked back once more.

His men were being plucked from the surface like mayflies sucked down by trout. One moment they were swimming strong, the next, pulled under in a short but violent burst of carnage.

They are faster beneath the waves, Anondo concluded.

But they could not hold their breath forever. A part of them was still mortal, as they were once Dionian flesh and blood.

“Wait for them to surface!” Anondo ordered those in the tenders. “You’ll get your chance!”

All around the men heard the order. They stood poised and ready, spears aloft. For a moment, nothing was heard but the men swimming desperately through the water. Anondo could tell they were slowing, fatigue setting in.

“Wait for it!” Anondo bolstered their faith.

The spearmen searched the waves, eyes moving to and fro.

“Wait for it!”

And then a head popped up from the surface, no man in sight. The hound took a deep breath. But that’s all it took.

A sharp polearm blade drove down into its muzzle, pinning its mouth shut. The beast thrashed, the shaft snapping in two against the side of the boat. But the blade remained fixed. The next breath was all water for the hound, and it drowned almost at once.

The spearmen had their choice as a great many surfaced all about the same time. Many of the hounds had fixed on a warrior in mid-stroke, but many had not and were simply in need of air.

This round certainly belonged to the warband as they slew over five tens of the hounds in the waters. When the slaughter was finished, the tenders plucked up the survivors.

Anondo reached hard for each stroke. The ships were very close. But so was the enemy.

Just then he felt something clip his foot.

His heart stopped.

He glanced over his shoulder to see a large hound matching him stroke for stroke. Its head ducked beneath the water and tried to bite his foot, barely missing.

Every muscle in Anondo sprung to life, and he made a mad dash for the rope ladder, not more than ten and five strokes away. The hound chomped again, this time managing to clamp onto the King’s ankle.

Anondo yelled out in agony, writhing in pain, losing momentum. His leg burned.

The weight of the clinging beast began pulling him under. He splashed, just trying to keep his head above water.

Kerrrfloooom!

All at once there was a massive explosion of water behind him.

The force threw him forward, his body tumbling about under the surface. Bubbles everywhere, the first thing he noticed was that his foot was free. He looked for daylight, the surface. Getting his bearings, he shot upward and then burst into the air. He gasped for breath. Someone was shouting.

“My King, over here!”

He looked about. Fadlemir clung to the ladder, hand outstretched.

“You can make it!”

Anondo shook his head and began swimming the final few lengths. He reached out a hand, and Fadlemir grabbed his forearm.

“C’symia,” Anondo said, out of breath. Fadlemir clung to the side of the ladder and allowed the King to pass before him. They both climbed up quickly. Anondo landed on the deck and looked around, spying the source of his aggressor’s defeat; temporarily mounted to the gunwales were massive crossbows, smaller versions of the ones Luik had ordered for Mt. Dakka. Simpler, and older in design, Anondo realized they must have been constructed by his father, long ago. But he had never seen them.

Three men worked each of them, two operating the double action winch that pulled the line back, while a third loaded the large bolt.

They aimed, and then let the bolt fly.

The result was a huge plume of water that shot into the air.

“I didn’t think you would object,” said one of the captains, coming to the King’s side. “We found them below decks while loading the supplies.”

“Object? Nay,” he said in a half smile, “be about your work.” Anondo slumped forward and reached for his ankle. He groaned, falling into Fadlemir’s arms. The others noticed the open wound and the blood pooling on the planks.

“Let’s get you below,” said Fadlemir.

“But the men—”

“Are fine now, thanks to your father’s invention.”

The crossbows continued to pick off the hounds until the bloodthirsty creatures realized it meant death to advance any farther than they had. They eventually relented and paddled back to the shore. The warband cheered and hauled the rest of the warriors up into the ships.

Fadlemir gave the order to release the mooring lines and set sail.

“At the mouth of the bay, we head north,” he continued.

“But Captain, sir,” said the helmsman. “What about that?” He pointed cautiously to the sky ahead.

Fadlemir followed his finger.

Rolling in from the northwest were black clouds that flashed with spectacular light.

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