Athera’s Dawn: Chapter 18

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Chapter Eighteen

THE CROSSING

As the sun reached the apex of its climb on the third day, a guard on the northern perimeter of the camp noticed horsemen coming in on the horizon. Luik was summoned and stood beside him, along with Grinddr and a few of the other Dibor.

“Jrio, my Lord,” said the warrior on watch.

“Aye, but with too few men,” Luik noticed. Of the two tens and five horses that drew near, only half of them bore riders.

“Something’s amiss,” Grinddr spoke up. The pack grew larger, a billowing dust cloud behind them. The shapes of the men became more distinct, and soon Luik noticed large packs on the backs of the riderless horses. His stomach churned.

“Bodies?” Cage questioned.

But no one spoke. They just stared and watched. Hoping. Dreading.

Men from all over the camp gathered around the High King. They spoke in hushed tones, but soon said nothing at all. The anticipation was palpable. Only the rhythm of horse hoofs beat through the ground. The dust was thicker and the scene more disheartening with every moment that passed. Soon the herd of horses was upon them, and the awaiting group could clearly make out the sacks slung over the animals. Yellow colored cloths were wrapped around man-sized bundles, each lashed to a board, presumably a litter.

No one dared say a thing.

Luik looked but did not see any sign of Jrio, nor of Fyfler or any of the brothers from Somahguard. He looked to the rider in the lead, moving toward him as he slowed. The man spoke before the King could open his mouth.

“Is all well, my King?”

Luik was a bit taken aback. “Aye, but I would ask the same of you.”

“Forgive me, my Lord, but the whole lot of you looks as though you’d just watched your brothers fall in battle,” the man replied. He then noticed everyone was eyeing the bundles quite hesitantly. “Ah! There is no cause for alarm,” he smiled, quite relieved for them. “This is King Jrio’s doing.”

“He lives?” Cage asked.

“Of course he lives! Did you think us slaughtered in the King’s own realm?”

“Well then, good man, is there a reason he is not among you?” Luik questioned.

The man beamed. “He said he’d prefer to trade the back of a horse for something more—how did he put it?—exhilarating is the word he used.”

Luik looked to Grinddr and was about to speak when the man pointed from atop his horse. “Here he comes now!”

Luik turned to look along the newly carved coastline and walked past the horses. He blinked in eerie disbelief. The rest of the warband began mumbling among themselves, obvious curiosity in their voices.

“I can’t believe it,” Cage said. “I’ve never seen anything like it!”

In the distance were more than ten brightly colored yellow sails, flying like odd swooping gulls that dipped and rose in the wind. Each one was bowed, curved against the air and diving toward the sea as if about to plunge for fish, only to recover and surge skyward at the last moment. Barely visible to the eye were thin lines that led from each sail to a single man on the water, each erect, skimming along the surface and holding to a bar between both hands. Luik walked more quickly, a grin creeping across his face. Among the five men in the water, he noticed Jrio’s form in the lead. His feet were affixed to some sort of board which he rode over the waves, a wake kicking up behind him.

“That’s incredible!” Cage hollered and slapped the High King on the back. Luik glanced to his right and caught Grinddr’s eyes. The Immortal simply shrugged with an awkward smile. Then all three looked back to the horses and everything made sense.

By mid-afternoon Jrio and his team had unraveled the packs on the horses, set up the diji-hi, or water flyers as Jrio called them, and laid out the wooden boards. The finely woven canopies were expertly crafted, the yellow fabric bearing the crest of Trennesol—a gull hovering over a leaping dolphin. This novelty was something Jrio said his clan was known for, though no one outside of Trennesol was familiar with the invention.

“It’s something my father and I were working on,” Jrio said proudly. “Our tribes took to the sport quickly,” as any Trennesolian would with their long heritage in sailing. “I gathered these from a small village just north of us on the coast.”

Thin lines made from terren root fibers were laid out on the ground and affixed to a wooden dowel about the length of a sword’s handle and the width of a man’s arm. Jrio demonstrated to everyone how to hoist the sail into the air and maneuver it by turning the bar. But when he passed the dowel and flying canopy to the others, everyone realized just how much power was at their control, and sometimes not at their control. One man was picked right off his feet, dangling from the bar and hoisted a tree-length into the sky before letting go and slamming into the ground. He was no worse for wear, but his pride was far from intact.

“It’s all right,” Jrio comforted as he raced to help the man up, others fetching the collapsing diji. “It’s not easy. But you’ll adapt sure enough.”

Jrio and his team continued throughout the remainder of the day to give each man a turn with the sail and bar, more than one hundred diji aloft, all swooping like giant yellow birds. And before the sun set and the winds died, most took a turn with the diji in the water.  Jrio demonstrated how to enter the water along the shore, diji aloft, and straddle the wooden board. As he steered the canopy overhead, plunging it toward the horizon, the bar jerked in his hands and he surged forward on the board. Within moments the plank was on plane and he stood, riding it just as many of the ocean-dwelling clansmen did; the only difference was that Jrio didn’t have a wave. With the diji-hi he was the wave.

Jrio rode about, carving water with the board by leaning back against the strong pull of invention. He swerved this way and that, even changing direction numerous times to stay close to shore so everyone could see.

“Now he’s just showing off,” Cage muttered.

“He certainly makes it look easy,” Luik added. “Think everyone can learn?”

“If not, I’m sure Jrio will be glad to carry them across.”

“But that may hinder his style,” Luik mused, winking at Cage. As if on cue, Jrio pulled violently on the bar, whizzing the canopy in a wild change of direction overhead; the diji-hi hoisted him clear off the water’s surface, but not before Jrio grabbed the board and brought it with him, twisting in the air as he went sailing skyward. Everyone held their breath as he continued to climb, suspended in mid-air, before gently landing back in the water and continuing on in his course. The warband let up a mighty whoop, applauding the feat.

“Correction,” Cage added, “now he’s showing off.”

 

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Just after dawn the next morning, Jrio and Luik had the men packed and ready. The winds were strong out of the northeast, making it an easy reach to the far shore. The horses were loosed of their burdens and tack, and then sent on their way back to their homeland in Jerovah; once on the other side of the new channel, the warband would have to make it on foot.

Based on everyone’s performance the evening before, Jrio selected those who most easily took to the diji-hi and instructed them on the procedure for the crossing. Luik, despite his wounds, was one of them, and he listened eagerly. Because there were more men than there were diji-hi, each crossing would need half of the men to return, each bearing the burden of an extra board and rolled-up canopy. It was not impossible, but they would need the most agile and proficient riders to execute the plan. Those that simply couldn’t manage the crossing were given the task of finding timber to construct rafts. But with scant few trees at their disposal, and Grandath still too far away to be of use, the rafts would be few in number.

By mid morning the first group was wading into the surf. The winds were picking up which, while making it easier to keep the sails aloft, also meant rougher seas. A number of the men were tossed about, falling off their boards, their sails tumbling into the sea. Jrio strode through the waist-high water, helping steady as many of the warriors as he could. With a little guidance and encouragement, the first wave was off, sailing across the channel on a single tack. Most stood on their boards, but more than a few remained seated, content to be dragged through the sea and not risk losing their balance.

In all, the first trip across was a success. Half the men stayed while the others returned with board and bundle tightly wound and carried under their arm. Maneuvering the bar with only one hand was much more challenging, many of the men choosing to sit down as standing was simply too awkward.

Upon their return, the bound diji-hi were rolled out, their sails hoisted skyward, ready for the next man. Luik steadied the sail and prepared to hand it off to a man just beside him. When only one hand reached for the bar, Luik instructed him.

“You’ll need both hands,” he said. Luik looked from the beautiful canopy soaring above to the man next to him. It was Sheffy, son of Wildaburn. He was suddenly embarrassed, but equally delighted to see him again, having not even noticed his whereabouts over the last few days. “I—I didn’t mean—”

“No harm done,” Sheffy said with a smile. “It’s good to see you too, my King. I think I can manage just fine,” he said, nodding at the sail above.

“Aye, that you will, Sheffy. Of that I have full confidence.” Luik felt forever bonded to the little man, his conversion back to the land of the living a momentous miracle for all those who lived to remembered it. Luik knew this man had much to be grateful for and would never again begrudge an indecency against him. His was the joy of knowing his life was afforded him, and no more. Whether one less hand, or one less leg, it did not matter so much as long as he awoke another day to see the light of the sun. Luik studied him as he edged to the shore and, with no little effort, sat atop his board and set off across the channel, smiling as he went.

A gentle tug on his tunic startled Luik. He turned to see Fia behind him.

“My dear friend,” he smiled and knelt down to her level. “How do you fare?”

“When do I get my turn?” she asked without room for argument.

“Fia, the task is one not even every full-grown man has the strength for, let alone a fair lady like yourself.”

“You are calling me weak?” She balled her fists and locked her arms.

“Easy there, child,” he said, resting a hand on her shoulder. “You are certainly far from weak. Still, I would have you ride with Jrio.” Fia looked over at the King of Trennesol as he helped a sea-swollen man back onto his board. Jrio’s handsome look brought the color to the little girl’s fair face. “Will you mind the company?” Luik asked. She bashfully looked down between her feet. “As I said,” he concluded, “you’ll make the trip with Jrio. See you on the other side.” He tousled her sandy hair with his hand and sent her running to the shore.

The air was hot; the sun soared high by the time the last trip was made. Luik and the remaining Dibor, along with the Immortals, who seemed equally suited for the diji-hi, raced along in the strength of the strong winds. Luik’s board skimmed across the waters, cresting waves and ripping across the swells. He found himself quite enjoying the sport and wondered why Jrio hadn’t shown him sooner. He raced west but found himself gazing to the southern horizon. Facing the Great Forest, Luik couldn’t help but notice that the intense black that hung over the region was growing. Ever darker, ever wider. He knew Grandath was being consumed, and he could only assume that Morgui was on the hunt. The traitor wanted Ot. He knew it.

And yet the ground had torn, and the sea had divided the land. Was this rift in Trennesol simply a diversion? Was this Morgui’s means of delaying Luik’s warband? If so, his powers were far greater than Luik had imagined, possibly growing stronger. Or was Creation purging itself of disease, to extinguish the flames that burned her from within? If so the timing was far from optimal with regard to their journey home. Or perhaps, was this the Swift Sure Hand of the Most High, trying to keep Luik from returning to Mt. Dakka? And why would He do so? Was the city compromised and the greater need now in Ot? What did this mean for his companions?

Luik wrestled all of these thoughts in the span of a breath. Doubt filled his spirit, stirring up endless conflict. He was eager to get on with things, to know the answers. Now. He had never tasted the bitterness of anxiety as he had over these last few days. It was something he despised, like a rotting corpse inside his flesh. But even with the disgust, he could not shake it off. He could not stop being anxious. The more he entertained it, the stronger the grasp became. He hated it! But he could not resist it. It tightened around his throat, squeezing his chest. Even as the High King savored the sea air and the priceless moment of ease, riding across the waves, he knew his integrity as a leader was being assaulted once again.

Luik shook his head but could not pull his attention from the scene in the south, where black smoke blotted out the sky. Morgui would destroy the Scriptorium if he could. Even the Great Libraries, too. But Luik knew there was something more that Morgui wanted, something he wished to uncover; this, the means to an easy victory. And there would be no stopping him then.

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