Athera’s Dawn: Chapter 8

If you want to read the book faster, consider buying the print version.

– – –

Chapter Eight

ROUTED TO THE WEST

The shaking of the ground beneath Anondo’s back had not been from the spiked demon closing upon him, but from a massive Hewgog even farther off, the likes of which no man had ever seen. In the moments just before the would-be deathblow, the Hewgog closed on Anondo’s position, bloodthirsty for the King he was commanded to vanquish. The spiked demon was poised to strike when suddenly a massive arm threw him aside like a scythe discarding a head of wheat. The Dairneag flew to one side, colliding in a tumult of men and beasts, and there, left towering over Anondo, was a most horrific terror.

Standing nearly six men tall, the Hewgog were a disturbing race of Dairneag who had been bred with select animals and even the taken, a perverted invention of Morgui himself. Grossly obese yet immeasurably strong, their skin was pockmarked and warty, a sort of dim blue hue, and their shoulders were hunched over with long arms that could touch the ground. Their hands and feet were very much like that of a man’s, save that they were proportionally far too large for their body. Both eyes and nose were bulbous and constantly leaked yellow mucus over a ghastly, foul mouth of missing teeth. A shabby tunic covered the ogre’s midsection, and a metal collar bound its neck. Apart from being unpleasant creatures in appearance, Hewgogs were given over to extreme fits of rage that extended well beyond their own reasoning, and were therefore rather difficult to control after their orders were completed.

Anondo gazed up and forgot all about his injuries.

Move!

He rolled to the side just as a hammer-fisted blow shook the ground where he lay. The Hewgog delivered another blow, and he rolled away again. Now infuriated, the giant strode forward and stomped down; still Anondo evaded the crushing step and then gained his feet. He ran between the Hewgog’s legs and turned to face the monster’s backside, hoping to buy some time.

“Think, Anondo!” he cried aloud, feverishly taking stock of his surroundings. One advantage of the beast’s presence was the complete lack of other Dairneags in the direct vicinity; the Hewgog’s completely unpredictable behavior deterred not only men, but also their lesser brothers.

The Hewgog turned and faced Anondo. His time to think was up. All Anondo’s men were otherwise occupied with their own melees. He had to do this himself.

The ogre moved forward again, this time drawing a hand to its opposite shoulder and delivering a backhanded sweep of its arm. Anondo fell to the ground prostrate as the dangerous arc brushed over his back, rolling him over a number of times. But he remained unscathed.

The monster growled in its throat and then let out a gurgled yelp of frustration. It shook its head and then reached out an open hand to grab him. Anondo gained his feet once more and avoided the Hewgog’s clutches with a quick sidestep. But the maddened creature responded by making a fist and knocking Anondo to the ground. The same fist rose high into the air and descended.

In that flash of an instant, Anondo knew he was finished. He closed his eyes.

Then he heard a strange, bloodcurdling howl that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.

Everything around him stopped. The battle clash quickly faded, and all was still.

Anondo opened his eyes to see the Hewgog’s fist an arm’s length above his body, hovering in mid-air. But more fascinating was the look of pure fear that consumed the monster’s odious face. The once menacing and dour expression was all at once turned to a strange, panic-stricken look of great concern.

The Hewgog stood erect and looked around. Anondo propped himself up, surprised at his good fortune, but equally aware of another unknown terror, one that made even his current adversary retreat.

Just then the howl came again, but this time much closer.

Anondo noticed the Dairne-Reih lowering their arms and looking to one another, disengaging from their opponents. The men of Ligeon and Tontha took this as a divine turning point and wasted no time in exploiting the opportunity.

But it was far from divine.

The few warriors that remained turned on their stunned enemies with swift retribution, many slaying their foes right where they stood. The men began shouting as they hacked the limbs from the fearful Dairneags, the monsters stumbling backwards in unrest. A few of the beasts even began fleeing as if looking for a place to hide. Anondo noticed their panic-stricken eyes darting from place to place. Even the Hewgog towering above him looked this way and that, backing away from him.

The next time Anondo heard it, the howl had multiplied tenfold, and then twice as much again, to the point that the air was filled with a constant rant of noise. It was as deafening as it was disorienting, and soon the men were drawn away from their attack, their foes outrunning them. The Hewgog turned and headed toward the mountain pass, looking to climb up the nearest cliff as a child might amble up a small hill. The Dairne-Reih were in full retreat, pushing past one another, completely oblivious of the warband.

In the commotion, Anondo looked for his standard. Fortunately the flag of Ligeon remained standing, despite their overwhelming losses. He ran to where a large band of warriors still defended the colors of his realm and shouted to his herald.

“Blow the horn! Summon the warband back!”

Anondo addressed one of his Captains, yelling above the howling. “Gather whatever horses remain among us. The mountain pass to Mt. Dakka is blocked and surely flowing with enemy reinforcements. If we are to ever see her ramparts and our people again, we must make for Narin at once.”

“But King, we have them—”

“No contest, Fadlemir. Morgui sets upon us with an evil I do not know. He means to give chase. Now go!”

Anondo then turned to fetch a horse; those that remained alive had scattered and were running in circles. As Fadlemir and the other worked to call them back, the animals darted this way and that, greatly shaken by the ominous noise that permeated the air. They whinnied and shied away from their Lords, resisting capture.

Anondo managed to grab the reins of one passing by, calmed the creature as best he could, and then swung into the saddle. The stallion shivered incessantly and became increasingly restless on his feet, the howling growing by the moment.

“Mount your rides!” Anondo shouted.

The men were not mounting fast enough. He kicked his horse and rode to one side, trying to corral an overly-frightened brood of mares. A number of men raised their hands trying to prevent their escape. With Anondo’s help they were able to secure a good number of seats for the men, but many of the animals shot past their pleadings and deserted the scene.

“We must leave now, Captain!” Anondo finally shouted to Fadlemir, satisfied that all his men had a mount, or at least shared one. He was utterly shocked to see how many under his command had actually fallen. With the Dairne-Reih cleared out, and with the improved observation from his height on horseback, the toll taken on his kinsmen was paralyzing: not more than five ranks of his original ten remained, a loss of over five hundred men.

“To Narin!” shouted Fadlemir.

“Hey’a!” Anondo cried, kicking his horse hard. The animal bolted forward and was away.

 

• • •

 

The mass of cavalry ebbed and flowed like a flock of birds, racing across the valleys of eastern Ligeon with marvelous speed. Moved by the sheer desire to flee, the horses were relentless in their haste, rising over the crests of gentle hills with breakneck speed, only to descend the other side with even greater momentum. They leapt across streams and weaved effortlessly through glades of trees, one moment striding through tall grass, the next ripping through glens adorned with thick ferns.

The howling faded, and then eventually stopped altogether. For a while Anondo and the rest of his warband thought the chase had been abandoned.

But the horses knew better. Despite their riders’ pleas to slow, the horses remained vigilant, pushing themselves relentlessly. Sweat foamed on their flanks, and their breathing was labored.

Anondo knew it took five days to reach Narin from where they were; yet at this rate they would make it in three. But there was no possible way the horses could maintain such a demanding pace; they would be dead from exhaustion by nightfall.

“We must make them slow,” Anondo eventually said to Fadlemir riding beside him. “They cannot endure this forever.”

“Try making them,” replied the Captain. Fadlemir had long been in the service of the Kings of Dionia. Originally from Trennesol, he had spent the last several summers in Casterness, serving King Ragnar in Adriel and tending to his ships. Like most of the sailors of the East, he was lean, yet incredibly strong, a toughness that came from long voyages at sea. His close-cropped black hair and dark-set eyes gave him an air of great authority, and he had proved his skill at arms throughout the battle for Adriel. Fadlemir was solid, faithful to the end, and true as the rising sun.

“Then they know we are still hunted.” Anondo paused. “For their innate perception I am grateful. We must face our foe and be done with this.”

“What are your orders?”

Anondo rode the undulating animal beneath him in earnest, his mind racing nearly as fast. It would have helped to know what was hunting them, its characteristics, and the speed at which it pursued. He knew it was fearsome enough to deter its own kin, and it had to be fast; the lengths to which the Dairne-Reih went to avoid it in the open were swift and unmistakable.

He then began thinking about the realm they traveled through: Ligeon, home to his family for generations. There had to be some asset he could use to their advantage. But what?

Suddenly he had it.

“I have an idea. But it’s a long shot.”

Fadlemir eyed him suspiciously. “If we don’t do something soon, we’ll be walking the rest of the way to Narin.”

“Agreed. But it requires the horses to keep on longer than I’d prefer. There is a tributary of the Hefkiln River, the Goban, which flows from the north about two days’ ride from here. But that’s at a moderate pace at best. At this rate, I shan’t think we’d arrive later than sun-down.”

“That is a great deal to demand of our mounts,” Fadlemir admitted.

“As I said, it’s a long shot.”

“Why the river?”

“There is a large dam which serves a mill, but also makes a shallow ford, the only one in either direction for many lengths.”

“If we can cross to the other side,” Fadlemir jumped in, “we can loose the waters and cut off our enemy.”

“Or at least gain some precious time.”

“It is risky, my liege. Risky. But plausible.”

“Good, then,” Anondo resolved, urging his horse even faster. “We make for Holden’s Mill by nightfall!”

 

• • •

 

The horses were near exhaustion by the time the sun touched the horizon to their backs. Blood was caked around their nostrils, and their hoofs bled from the extended trauma. Yet it did not take much to prod them onward even after so many hours of riding; they knew that their enemy was close behind, and they’d rather perish than live knowing they’d let their masters down.

Anondo was about to call off the whole idea when suddenly he recognized where they were.

“The Goban is just ahead!” he declared urgently.

The path entered a small wood, meandering through clumps of pines and oaks, before emerging onto a generous riverbank that overlooked an even wider river. The shadows stretched long over the waters; but despite the fading light, Anondo was pleased to see the large dam to his right, five times the height of a man. It was just as he had remembered, though definitely aged. There on the far shore was the old mill, wheels still turning gently in the upper channels. The dam itself was constructed using layers of massive timbers bound together and filled with a combination of dried clay, lime, and sand. But the change in seasons had taken its toll; the structure showed definite signs of fatigue.

“Across with you!” Anondo allowed his men to pass by as he turned and rode up to the wall. All throughout, the King could see small fractures in both wood and bond that inevitably had grown large enough for water to seep through. It was just as he had hoped; for indeed he had not been entirely sure how he’d bring down such a monstrous creation, one designed to last for generations by its makers. “Fadlemir, to me,” Anondo called to his Captain. The man drew near, and Anondo spoke, eyes examining the wall. “A dam does not need to be brought down in whole,” he uttered.

“But only in part,” Fadlemir finished. “Create a small hole, and the water behind will do the rest.”

“I need two tens of men and any polearms you can find,” Anondo turned to his Captain. Fadlemir set to his task while Anondo dismounted and inspected the dam even closer. He let his fingers search the trickling waters until he found a large enough gap and then turned to the men coming toward him.

“Here,” he gestured. “Hand me a spear.”

A warrior passed him a sturdy shaft and the King inserted it into the largest opening he could find, leaving it protruding from the wall on its own. He then looked back. About half the men had successfully forded the river to the other side.

“Another!” Anondo thrust out his hand.

He used the spear point to pick away at the hairline crack. He jammed it into the hole he’d created, but it didn’t hold. Frustrated, he dug more until the stave remained in place. Satisfied the effort was worthwhile, he ordered the other men to follow his lead. They quickly set about gouging holes in the most promising leaks and then jarring the dam with the polearms.

As more of the men forded the riverbed, Anondo prepared to unburden the dam.

“When the men are across, pull down on the shafts like so.” The King demonstrated with the first pole he had set, grabbing it with both hands and hoisting himself up on its end so it levered the timbers in front of him. The result was a muffled groan of the ancient timbers, followed by a crack and a sudden increase in the trickle. It was hardly the dramatic effect Anondo had hoped for, but then again it was only the first spear, and this a mightily imposing dam.

He looked over his shoulder once more.

There remained but another five tens of men yet to cross.

Almost,” Anondo said to Fadlemir. “Men, make you ready.”

And then came the howls.

Anondo watched Fadlemir’s face drain of its color. The other men turned to regard their King. The horses crossing the ford stopped, ears perked.

No one moved.

The methodic sound of flowing water was interrupted by the long, drawn-out howls of their pursuers.

A horse whinnied and took off for the far bank, its weary rider tumbling off its back and splashing into the water. Startled, a good many of the other horses darted for the shore and tore up the bank into the waiting woods. The men tried to control their steeds, to no avail. Men were knocked off, jostled left and right, and tripped up in an attempt to help one another. Those safely on the opposite bank shouted to one another trying to bring order. Within moments the scene in the riverbed was one of total chaos.

“Get out of here!” Anondo screamed, waving his hands. Time was suddenly a precious commodity, one they couldn’t afford to waste.

Fadlemir raised his arms at one riderless stallion and coaxed him toward the far bank. When the beast did not heed him, Fadlemir splashed water at it. “Get! Get!” The horse spun around and charged up the hill.

When the last of the men were up the bank, Anondo turned to those standing with him and indicated the dam. “Now!”

The men grabbed the spear shafts and worked them violently. Pushing, pulling, prodding—the warriors stood against the wall trying desperately to work the timbers loose. They found themselves working in twilight, stars slowly emerging from their late afternoon courses. It hadn’t yet dawned on any of the warriors what might happen should the dam burst with them in front of it; they all just assumed they’d get it started and then run away.

The structure creaked and groaned.

“Put your backs into it, men!” ordered Fadlemir. While a certain amount of success was achieved, increasing the water flow through the cracks, their efforts seemed far from producing the desired effect.

“Harder!” urged Anondo.

Just then another howl went up as before. Much nearer.

“They’re coming,” Anondo said.

“Who is?” asked one of the warriors.

“Shut up and work!” Fadlemir ordered him.

Anondo pried with all his might, forcing his weakened and battle-beaten body to work beyond its means. But in the end their efforts were unproductive, save for a few more trickles developing.

“It is no use,” said Anondo at last.

More howls joined the first, growing louder by the moment. The men glanced to the eastern sky.

“You are giving up, my King?” Fadlemir inquired, still working a polearm.

“It is a faulty idea,” the King admitted.

“Nay!” came a voice from the far bank. Anondo and the others turned to see a large retinue of their men wading into the waters with polearms. “It is a sound idea, just undermanned,” called one of Anondo’s horse herders named Colvin.

“Make room, make room!” ordered Fadlemir. The new workers lined up against the dam on either side of Anondo’s position and proceeded to jam their weapons into the wall.

Now the howling came from the wooded glades the warband had passed through just before the river.

“Heave!” shouted Fadlemir.

“As one,” cried Anondo. “Heave!” The shafts strained against the massive timbers, and then…

Pop!

The loud burst echoed down the riverbed.

“It’s working!” exclaimed one of the men.

“Again,” Anondo ordered, “heave!” The throng of brothers worked their polearms as one, a single unit of brute force against the massive wall.

Pop-craaaack!

This time the damage was evident: a small fissure about the breadth of a man’s hand opened near the middle of the dam. Water shot out so forcefully it knocked three men off their feet.

One more time!” Anondo hollered. He knew they had to make this one count. The dam creaked even as the men readied for the final jounce. Anondo grasped two spears and was about to give the command when he heard a low growl from behind him.

He held his breath and slowly looked over his shoulder.

There, standing in the middle of the river, was a single massive hound, about four times the size of a normal dog. Its snarling mouth was dripping with foam, its fur matted with sweat. And with one look in the creature’s demonic red eyes, Anondo knew what had been chasing them: the feared KiJinNard Hounds. Hounds of the dead.

Bring it down!” Anondo cried. He grasped two spears and pulled with all his might, so hard in fact, that the shaft in his right hand split in two. “Pull!” The timbers groaned ominously…

…and at last, the dam began to break apart.

The fissure split wide and spewed debris everywhere. Half the men were washed downstream in a heap. Anondo stood aside and watched helplessly as one of the men was tossed about and collided with the hound’s legs. The beast had been watching; it opened its jaws and closed them around the man’s torso, nearly splitting his body in two. The warrior screamed out in terror. But his cry was cut short, never to be heard again.

“To the forest!” Anondo commanded.

He drew his Vinfae, ducked under the focused torrent of water, and then charged for the wood, his men following behind him. The hound watched this curiously.

Anondo stopped on the bank and let his men pass by, and then he turned to look downstream where those caught in the current now gained their feet. Likewise, the hound followed the King’s gaze and spotted the warriors splashing through the shallows.

“Get up! Get to the wood!” he waved his arm, looking from beast to warriors in a frantic rhythm. “Move!” But the floundering men must have proven to be more appealing prey than Anondo’s men upriver, for in a moment the hound turned and bounded toward the men, jaws gaping.

Anondo made to cry out but noticed a new presence in the flooding river. There on the bank was a host of glowing red eyes peering across at him. And in the darkness he could hear growling. He instinctively counted the sets of eyes, but more pairs filled in from behind, making it impossible to number. It was an entire pack.

He felt a hand grab his arm.

“My King! Make haste!” Fadlemir yelled, yanking him up the far bank.

Anondo looked despondently downstream; the men were gone and the hound thrashed in the blood-red waters. He glanced up at Fadlemir and then noticed his ranks of men and horses filling the wood beyond, all of them ready with swords drawn and faces like flint.

From somewhere among the hounds amassing behind him, Anondo heard a deep, dark groan from the dam. The hounds noticed it, too, their eyes shifting from Anondo to the structure and back again.

“The dam is about to give way,” Fadlemir uttered quietly, as if the sound of his words would somehow prevent the fortunate event from happening.

The hounds knew it, too.

“They’re going to cross,” Anondo stated flatly.

As if they heard him, the entire pack leapt from the riverbank and plunged into the deepening water.

Anondo looked to the dam, hand squeezing his sword handle. “It didn’t work.”

– – –

Read the blog? Like getting stuff for free? Consider a $0.99 donation to help me continue to create great content.