Athera’s Dawn: Chapter 12

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Chapter Twelve

EYE OF THE STORM

Dim light hung in the doorway, soaking the Great Hall’s wooden floor with a muted wash of green. The tree limbs outside were swaying well beyond their liking, a sound like sitting inside a waterfall. Though now well within the massive fort, the sense of vulnerability had not diminished. The storm that drew ever nearer would not spare even the strongest of trees. But somehow the stoic leader of the mysterious archers was one step ahead of all this.

“We must go deeper,” he addressed Luik.

“Deeper?”

“Aye. There is a great deal you do not know,” the man swept his hand through the air.

“Clearly. Lead on,” Luik replied.

The warrior turned and walked deeper into the hall, soon swallowed by the darkness. Luik snapped his fingers, and at once Jrio, Cage, and the other Dibor were watching his every action.  “We move at once. Bring the wounded.”

The space was soon a flurry of activity, though the only sounds were the rustling of clothing and the moans of the injured. Luik strode forward after the leader, leaving the light of the doorway behind. He sensed a line forming after him, the mass of men following eagerly, none wishing to take the brunt, or any part, of the storm. A little hand slipped into his. “There is nothing to be scared of, little one,” Luik said.

“I know,” Fia replied, her tone less than convinced.

Just ahead a voice came in the darkness, “Watch your step.”

Luik slowed. He waited for his eyes to adjust to the black around them. Slowly, he made out an even darker space before and below.

“Step down,” said the man.

Luik turned around and spoke to Jrio, “Tell those behind to watch their step. We’re going down.” It obviously would have been easier to have a torch, but urgency did not permit it. Wherever the leader was taking them, Luik trusted that the man knew best. And frankly, he didn’t have time for anything else. It only made sense: the farther away from the storm, the better; and in this case, away meant deeper.

Luik led Fia slowly down the first three steps until they could both be sure of the spacing. After that the going was swifter, albeit consumed in utter blackness. Now, not even a hand on one’s nose was distinguishable. They continued down the subterranean staircase with the sound of numerous pairs of thumping feet behind them. Then the voice again:

“Turn here.”

Luik searched forward with his toes. The last step did not give way to another but went on level. A landing. His left shoulder butted against a wall.

“This way.” Fia pulled him to the right. They turned the corner and started down the next flight of stairs, only these were of a different material than the first. Stone.

By the time they reached yet another turnaround, it was apparent they were well below the island’s surface. The air had cooled significantly and was full of the rich, damp aromas of the ground. All that could be heard was the patting of feet against the cold stone steps and the dripping of water somewhere farther down.

They came upon still another turnaround, continuing their subsurface plunge away from the tempest above. Surely the storm is upon Kirstell by now, Luik thought. Yet they moved in utter stillness.

After the fourth set of stairs, Luik and the others noticed the softest implication of light ahead, though barely a hint. He almost dismissed the notion, thinking his eyes were being too hopeful. But toward the end of the staircase he was sure it was light, albeit remote.

They rounded a final turn and entered into a large hall dimly lit from somewhere in the rear. The space’s height and depth were hard to discern, but from what Luik could tell, the hall was an enormous storage room. It was filled with clay vessels great and small. Wooden crates covered in skins lined the immediate walls, and weaponry of various kinds was stacked in neat piles. The air was still cool, but took on the faint aroma of wine and fermented mead. Large wooden vats stood like bulbous, sleeping animals to one side, containers he was sure held the precious liquids he smelled.

The source of the murky light came from a small doorway halfway down the hall to one side. The low arched passageway was seemingly indistinguishable, save that a faint light emanated from it. Luik felt compelled to explore more, but the voice of the lead archer broke the silence.

“Rest here,” he said loudly. His words bounced around the hall, echoing at length in the abyss. There was a slight pause, and then a percussive blow followed by a bright light bursting forth. Everyone raised a hand to shield their eyes. Squinting hard, they peered at the torch the man now held aloft.

The warband looked around and at once made themselves comfortable amidst the items. Furs and skins were collected to make litters for those wounded. Others propped the weary on the crates and examined wounds by firelight as more torches were gathered and lit. Others found buckets and jars, filling them with wine and mead from the massive vats. The drink was happily passed among the men, and soon the mood had become immeasurably more tolerable. Those who moments before were considering their imminent doom were now caught up in the unexpected boon all about them.

Discussion commenced, and nothing seemed so profound as what good fortune had brought them to find such a trove of respite and retreat. Each man agreed with the others; some even let out a chuckle or grunt of laughter, but nothing too genial, as that would have been inappropriate given their losses. A merry sobriety was the best way to put it, the necessity of recognizing grievous circumstances while savoring the good fortune of the present, trusting it would give way to an even better end.

Would a better end be found? No one could be sure. But without hope, a man is simply a dried leaf; he retains the shape and form of what he once was, but one gust of wind—one ill-cast strike—and he is shattered into oblivion, the brittle fragments of his soul impossible to piece back together.

Luik helped a few men around him get more comfortable, and then offered them some drink. He situated Fia in amongst a stack of furs in a crate, kissing her lightly on the head. He marveled at her resourcefulness. At her dedication to him. At how this little one had traversed a dangerous land that had consumed far stronger men just to make sure “he was safe and sound.”

“I followed you for a long time,” she offered up, fighting the pull to sleep. “All the way down the coast. I know I wasn’t supposed to. Please don’t tell.” She yawned. “But I asked the Most High to be with me. And He was. Even gave me that horse to follow you along to Kirstell.” Drawn in by the warmth of the hides, she made herself comfortable and soon was fast sleep. Content to see her drawn helplessly into her dreams, Luik pulled himself together and made to slip away, the curious doorway beckoning him mercilessly. He glanced around and, seeing he wasn’t drawing any attention, made for the doorway.

“Come. Sit beside me,” the lead archer said just to his left. Luik turned toward the voice. It was more than a simple suggestion. Luik stared back down at the doorway, and then at the warrior again. The man sat on a large fur, the torch propped up beside him against a wooden shelf. Luik looked once more at the doorway. “It can wait,” the warrior said to Luik.

Luik was slightly embarrassed that his intentions were so obvious, as if his mother were chiding him for misbehavior, albeit innocent. The warrior patted the fur beside him. Luik walked over and sat down.

“I can’t thank you enough for your help, Sir—” Luik cut off, hoping the man would fill in the blank of his name.

“It is my duty, my King,” he replied, placing his fist against his chest and inclining his head.

Luik felt outmatched, but couldn’t tell if it was purposeful, or a product of genuine humility. This man was respectful, even honoring, yet gave nothing more than he was directly asked for. A true servant.

“Where do you come from, my friend?” Luik inquired, not wanting to rush the conversation, nor solicit information in undue time; this man was surely aged enough to expect such behavior as inappropriate. The true art of conversation is not in what is accomplished, but in how it is said.

“I believe it is the same as you, my Lord,” he said with the faintest hint of a grin. “The greatest realm of Dionia.”

“Bensotha then, is it?”

“Aye, my Lord.”

“The greatest of the realms,” Luik bowed his head slightly. Even the mention of her name took him somewhere else, back to the land of his youth, back to the memories that he dared not invite into this present world lest they too be trampled.

“Pardon me for asking,” Luik said, “but I feel as I know you, Sir—”

“To my knowledge we have never met,” replied the warrior. “Although I have been waiting for this day for some time.” He reached up and took his helmet off, placing it beside him on the fur.

Luik looked on in wonder, though still not able to place a name with this face.

So long ago, Luik thought. I’ve seen you before, as if in a dream.

The man’s weathered face was tan and healthy. Though his dark hair was showing signs of grey, his green eyes were still those of a young man, full of life and zeal for the days to come. He was not overly tall, but certainly bore the build of an ox, broad and heavy. And when he smiled, it was as if all those in his presence were taken back in time, to a world far removed from evil, a place that knew not the name Morgui.

“Perhaps you were a friend of my father’s then?”

But if we’ve never met, why would that matter? Luik was striving for anything. He was getting closer. He could feel it.

“I am a friend to all Dionians, my King, your father one of them.”

“Ah, I see,” Luik said grandly. But it helped him not in the least; he was no closer than he was before.

“Allow me to help you,” said the man, sensing Luik’s mounting frustration.

Luik replied with a courteous smile. Truth be told, he was dying to know.

“Perhaps it feels like you know me because you have been told about me.”

“About you?” Luik was puzzled. “A story then?”

“More than a story, I would imagine. More like a glimpse of history.”

The man then removed his cloak and pulled off his mantle. Beneath that, he grasped the bottom of his chain maille shirt and that of the hauberk, and lifted them up to reveal his chest. His muscles were still full and strong despite his obvious age.

But that is not what caught Luik’s eye.

There in the center of his ribcage, just between his pectorals, was a pattern of emaciated scars, eight holes to be exact. Eight finger-sized wounds, four each side of center, forming two vertical lines. They had healed over with the typical rankled flesh of a scar and had become a symbol, one Luik was supposed to know.

Gorn. Smoke. The fire.

The memories came flooding back.

The circle of boralees. The story…

…remember the story.

He saw images, the images he had seen in the flames. They raced toward him, passing through his mind’s eye as fresh as they were the night he had first experienced them.

Friends on the hilltop. The starlit sky. A voice in the woods.

He could feel the tension in his chest.

Velon. And then Grinddr. Velon pierced him in the chest with his fingertips.

Grinddr?

“But I thought—”

“Thought I was dead, did you? You mean to tell me old Gorn never told you my story?”

“I—”

“Well then, I’ll have to make up for his inabilities. You know how he can be,” nudging Luik in the side.

Grinddr, who just moments before appeared to be the epitome of a close-lipped, hard-line soldier, was suddenly beaming and ready for a good yarn. Luik was still having trouble piecing it all together, while Grinddr was already bounding headlong down the trail of retelling his past. This was Grinddr…the Grinddr in the flesh!

“Of course he wouldn’t have said anything to you, now would he,” Grinddr concluded for himself, “as that would have jeopardized everything. Ah, Gorn, you’re a smart one. But seriously, knowledge must be certain to keep its companions close, and those numbered small. Who knows who could be listening? Even now! I risk it just retelling it to you, but to you I must. If I cannot disclose these things in the presence of the High King, whom can I trust? Surely that would be a dark day when not even Dionia’s King can be sought out to bear a secret.”

“Surely,” Luik agreed, trying to keep up.

“Ah, but look at us, talking in the open.”

“But we are among—”

“Among friends?” Grinddr drew close and lowered his voice. “Are you sure?” He drew out the last word. Luik regarded him with a blank stare. “Come then. You want to know where the doorway leads, so I will show you.”

“Am I that obvious?”

“In a word? Aye.”

Luik forced his aching body to stand. “You sound just like a friend of mine, a certain dwarf. And if I didn’t know better—”

“You’d say I was friends with him, too?” Grinddr stood and began walking. “I am.”

“But—”

“Come, my King. There is much to discuss.”

Resigned to the fact that he wasn’t going to get anywhere with this fellow until the man thought it was time, Luik fell into step beside Grinddr as they walked inconspicuously toward the doorway. And that not as reluctantly as his outward manner showed, for inwardly Luik was as eager as a little boy to know what lay beyond.

Grinddr paused here and there, examining the contents of a crate, or sampling the mixtures of one of the capped jars. He’d cast a quick glance behind them. Satisfied no one was taking any notice of their advance, he moved on, Luik following.

Soon they were adjacent to the doorway, a pale, blue-green glow spilling from the archway. Grinddr looked behind them and then banked through the opening and into a long, low-ceilinged tunnel.

All at once Luik felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up. He knew this place, bathed in a cool, shimmering hue. All along the walls were markings, scripted in the dwarfish tongue.

The Tribes of Ot.

The further along they went, the more the light began to dance along the floor and ceiling until finally they emerged into a room. And there, just as Luik suspected, was a standing pool of water, glowing like all the others before.

“The Sea Cave,” Luik murmured to himself.

“So I’ve heard it called,” Grinddr added. “A childish name, I must admit, but one that has stuck ever since they said you four termed it such.”

“We four?” Luik was surprised.

“Aye. There are no secrets among those who live in secret.”

“So I’m discovering,” Luik said.

“Ah, come now. I see I am flustering the High King, something for which I would not like to be remembered.” He moved along the perimeter of the room and glanced at the ancient runes carved along the ceiling and walls.

“I indeed suffered a mortal wound when Velon struck me. But had he not first been my nearest friend, kinsman of my kinsmen, I would not have endured such a blow to begin with. For I knew in him was good. I knew, as he knew, that only good was in the land, just as the Most High had fashioned it. And I could not believe, nor would have ever figured, that such a deception had entered our midst, let alone entered him.

“But I was wrong. For when he confronted me, Velon was far from himself. He was in fact another. He was Valdenil. He had given in. Granted, he was not born evil. The Great God makes no mistakes. But he chose evil. There is a difference, you know. Never confuse them, my Liege.”

Luik nodded.

“But if there was one thing lacking in that time, it was evil, believe it or not. As Valdenil fled that day, apparently terrified of the rising sun in the West, my remaining friends set upon me with their love, willing that I should not die, but live. The presence of the Most High was soon upon me once more, and I was whole. But I was left with the scars, I think as a reminder more than anything else.” He paused and walked to another part of the room.

“I was soon taken into the High King’s service, not because of any great merit, but because I had been there, from the beginning. I had seen evil with my own two eyes, staring it in the face. It had come against me, and I had won. The Most High had won in me, is how I like to put it.

“So advisor I became, serving in the court of the King. During the First Battle, I was appointed a captain in the newly formed Lion Vrie, leading many men into battle. And they followed me without question. Any success I have is because of them, though they always said it was because of me.” Grinddr stopped for a brief moment, and Luik watched as his eyes grew distant. “People often think scars give us power that we ourselves know is not there. Scars merely remind us of where we’ve come from; that really, had it not been for the healing power of the One, we would be nothing. They thought I was something because I had seen the enemy; evil had breathed on me. But I was only something because the Most High had touched me.

“In any case, we won, and drove Morgui out of our midst. At least for a time.”

“You have seen Morgui then?” Luik asked.

“Aye, my King. That I have.”

“And what does—”

“What he looks like you will discover soon enough,” Grinddr trailed off. “Soon enough, I fear.” His words took on a melancholy air. “Soon enough.”

Luik picked up the conversation, asking, “So if you are in service to the Kings, how come I have never met you before?”

“Ah, a worthy question indeed. After the First Battle, I found myself in the court of the Kings for summer after summer, granted lands in Bensotha, and any other of the realms I wanted for that matter. I took no other, of course, for what was the need?” Luik smiled in affirmation. “Bensotha alone held my love. I never married, and thus had no children. But I was married to the land, you might say, bound to her success and freedom as if bound to my own body.”

“You sound like a King,” Luik smiled.

“Oh, I might say I do. Now look at me, babbling on here. Forgive me, Sire.”

Luik waved his hand dismissively. He found himself growing very fond of Grinddr and could see why he had been in the service of each of Dionia’s Lords. While he retained all the qualities of a warrior, both physical and mental, qualities that he had displayed just moments before on the shore above, Grinddr also revealed a childlike glee, a wonder for life and a love for living it. He was a simple man, really, yet one who had surely seen much conflict and endured many a loss. How he was able to maintain such a jovial demeanor, thinking of himself no more than he ought while amidst such hardship, gave Luik great confidence. “Please, do go on, Grinddr.”

“Where was I, then?”

“In service of the Kings.”

“Ah, yes. Your father, King Ragnar, called me aside one day. He said he had a special errand for me of the utmost importance…that the future of all Dionia rested upon what he was about to do. He knew something was coming. He could feel it.” Grinddr moved along the pool’s edge, looking deep into the waters. “He said that I was to be entrusted with an island, and that I was to guard it with my life. Upon it the last hope of Dionia would be trained, taken as youths and released as the most elite warriors Dionia had ever seen.” Grinddr looked up into Luik’s face. “And one of those warriors would be his son.”

“Kirstell,” Luik whispered.

“Aye. The Dibor. Though this was long before you were born, good King. Your father had much foresight given him by the Most High. He shall be forever remembered for it.”

“So Kirstell’s protection was—was you then?”

“I was given one hundred warriors, each trained as a Lion Vrie, but given a new title. We were named The Immortals and granted abilities far beyond our understanding. The men you see with me have been truer than any other, each taking a vow of secrecy, never to be seen again in the light of day by anyone other than their own warband. They have devoted the last four tens of summers to Kirstell’s defense, waiting for the Dibor to come. And even after your departure, we were ordered to stay. I can’t say it has been an easy task; things were certainly more exciting when you all were around.” A smile crept onto Grinddr’s face. “At least you gave us something to watch—and something to fight for.”

“Fight for?” Luik interrupted.

“You mean to say, you really think your time passed without incident from the enemy? That the conflict on the beach when you first arrived was the only attempt on your lives during those four summers? Who do you think kept you from drowning beneath the waves?”

Luik did not dare to reply.

“O no, my King. If you only knew. We were kept quite busy. And happy for it, too. It was the most activity we had seen since, well, since the First Battle. As much as Ragnar could sense what was to come from the enemy, Morgui also sensed something forming against him. And try to stop it he most certainly did!”

“So you and your men were our covering of protection, as Gorn told us.”

“Aye, that we were. Able to move in and out of light and darkness, and even time to a degree. Not a single Dairneag touched Kirstell’s shore for four summers.” He bowed slightly.

“C’symia,” Luik offered, though he knew he would never know the full extent of The Immortals’ works. “What about how the arrows burned up on the shore back there?”

“Simply part of our new abilities I mentioned before, nothing more.”

“Ah, I see,” Luik said for effect, though he hadn’t the faintest idea.

“So, my King, as you can see, I have been in the service of every King of Dionia, and now to you, my Lord.”

“I still don’t understand. Why did you remain on the island even after we had departed?”

“Those were my orders. Though, in truth, we all suspected that you would one day return and would have need of us again.”

“As you can see,” Luik said, “I am forever indebted to you for saving us earlier.”

“There is no debt owed, King Luik. It was demanded of us.”

“And so you are still bound to remain here?”

“Unless the High King orders us otherwise,” Grinddr offered up hopefully.

“I can think of a few orders of my own,” Luik smiled. “Now, assuming the storm above passes over, if it has not already done so, we must get back to Mt. Dakka at once.”

“Agreed.”

“It would appear to me that the easiest way would be to take our men back though this portal into Ot, and then on into—”

“I’m afraid that’s impossible, my King,” Grinddr put in.

“How so?”

“Li-Saide—you know him well—has broken all the links.”

“Links? What do you mean?”

“If you were to jump into this pool, seawater is all you would find.”

“I don’t understand,” Luik said.

“The dwarves have much reason to believe that there is a traitor in our midst. They believe someone has compromised the knowledge of the portals, your Sea Caves, if you will.”

“They fear for Ot’s safety,” Luik surmised.

“And for the scrolls of our people,” Grinddr added.

“So Li-Saide has rendered the portals useless from Ot’s side?”

“Precisely.”

“I assume you have seen the fire burning in Grandath then?” Luik asked.

“Aye. Morgui is searching for the doorway into the Secret City.”

“Then we’ve got to stop them. We need to get to Mt. Dakka right away. From there, we’ll rally our forces and request Li-Saide to re-open the portal connecting Mt. Dakka to Ot. It would allow us to defend Ot from the inside out. Tactically, Morgui can only enter from one small entrance. As long as we can hold out, we can defend Ot to the last Dairneag.”

“Agreed. Just give me the order, High King,” Grinddr bowed low.

“Servant of the Most High, you are hereby freed from the Isle of Kirstell. See to the men; make sure they rest. We leave for Mt. Dakka at dawn.”

Grinddr looked up into his new King’s eyes, hope burning afresh. “So it is ordered, so it will be done.”

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