© 2019 by S.J.Rapala
This is Chapter II of the Book II of the Broken Worlds trilogy, By the Rivers Dark. The entire novel will be made available for free, chapter by chapter, as it is written. Book I of the Broken Worlds trilogy, RIse of the Dragon Riders is available here.
II. Caitrin Lightborn
Caitrin Lightborn wiped the sweat from her forehead and straightened her back with a heavy sigh. She looked up at the raging dark sky and furrowed her brow. Lightning flashed beyond the jagged peaks that surrounded Kinsborough and thunder rolled over the slopes, shaking the mountain sides. The town was dark except for candles and lanterns in the windows of the wooden houses. Fires were not lit for fear of attracting marauding parties of orcs and goblins that scoured the Great Eastern Region. Darkness spilled into the hearts of men and women, and spread fear. The truce with Dragon Riders held strong, but now their common enemy grew in strength and probed further than ever before.
The world had changed.
Caitrin watched the lightning flash, beautiful and haunting in the emptiness of the barren mountain ranges. The world had changed after the battle with the Black Army—for better, or worse, she did not know. Her world changed since Dominic was gone.
The young woman raised a pick with frustration and struck the ground hard, leaving behind a long gouge. She struck again and then again, until one of the large rocks loosened and moved. Wearing a dark scowl, the raven beauty put aside the tool and pulled her hair back in a ponytail. She then bent down to free the rock from the ground. Heaving and grunting with effort, she pulled and tugged with her gloved hands, her full lips tight and cheeks flushed. She pulled harder and then her hands slipped, causing her to fall back with a surprised cry.
"Hey, lass, careful!" Winfrid Jernigan promptly appeared next to her to help her up. She slapped his hand away annoyed. The young man stepped back.
Caitrin rose and dusted her pants off.
"This wall isn't going to build itself," she growled and pointed with her chin. Winfrid followed her gaze and looked over the long line of men and women who were hard at work all along the edge of Kinsborough. Though leaderless, the Dragon Slayers came together and made some decisions—one of them was the need to better protect their town against the plague of orcs and goblins. Twice in the past month, small war parties had already stumbled across the hidden town and Slayers were called into action to protect their homestead. Their growing fear was that one day enemies would descend on them in scores before scouts and patrolling guards could detect them. There were only so many Slayers left after the battle.
"I know, Caitrin," the young Rook Captain said and put his hand gently on her shoulder. "We're all working on it."
"Not fast enough," Caitrin fumed. Winfrid looked at her from the side.
"We only have so many hands to go around, lass," he said. "Scouts have to go out, guards need to be at their posts and hunters must look for food."
The young woman sighed and sat on one of the large stones.
"I know," she replied. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to..." She drifted off and looked away into the darkness. Winfrid sat beside her.
"We're doing all we can," he said. "But we need help."
"River said she'll come with Calista," Caitrin remarked absently. "She'll be here today or tomorrow."
"That'll help with the wall," Winfrid agreed. "But we need something else."
She looked at him questioningly.
"We need a leader," he remarked. "Dunstan Yates is doing a fine job filling in but without a Slayer Commander to lead the Council and to unite the Rooks and the Hounds..."
"What Hounds?" she asked grimly. "Adrian and Christian are gone, so are Eadwolf and Cola, and all the other ones are dead, too. There's only us."
"We paid a great price," Winfrid said with a scowl. "We all did," he added and stole another look at the girl who remained silent. Her gaze hardened.
"Dunstan and the Elders can lead. Decisions are being made," she said after a pause.
"We need more," the young man pressed.
"Then you lead," Caitrin exclaimed suddenly. "We talked about this already. You can shoulder the responsibility, you and your brother." She walked away a few paces, shaking her head. She untied her hair and allowed it to fall down on her back, a dark wave that glimmered in the flashes of lightning.
Winfrid looked after her. "You are Eadmund's daughter and Dominic's wife," he said. "People will follow you, not me or Godric."
She turned back abruptly in a swirl of black hair. "Yes, I am," she exclaimed. "The daughter of a traitor and the wife of a dead hero. How does that make me a leader?"
Men and women that were near them stopped working and watched them in the silence that was only interrupted periodically by the roar of thunder that rolled over the hills. Winfrid rose from the rock and approached the young woman. His eyes were stern, but his touch was gentle when he took her chin and lifted her eyes to his.
"You have always been a sister to me," the young man said. "I followed your father because he was brave and because I had no father to follow. Yes, he made a mistake and he—we, we all paid for it dearly. But I know, I know that he did it out of love. He was lost and confused, but he loved you till the end. He suffered and suffers still in the Lands of Shadows. Don't hate him in death or he will never rest."
Tears streaked her face, but she did not move to walk away.
"And Dominic was a brother to me," Winfrid continued, his voice a quiver. "I miss him and I grieve for him. But he saved us and he died a hero. He died so that we could live. So that you could live."
Caitrin freed herself finally from his gentle touch and walked away again, her shoulders shaking under the burden and the memory that returned. Winfrid studied her and when she turned back to him, her eyes red but dry and her face hard, he added:
"I will only follow you, Caitrin." His arms swept the people nearest to them. "They will only follow you."
The young woman looked at the dozens of eyes that tracked her every movement. Her brow furrowed again, she gathered her hair in a pony tail once more and then picked up the tool she abandoned before.
"Come on," she said to Winfrid and the rest. "This wall isn't going to build itself."
The next day brought more of the same in terms of darkness and the sour weather. Men and women of Kinsborough filed out of their houses and again went to work on the wall that was to protect the town from uninvited guests. Guards relieved those that patrolled through the night, scouts returned with news and information but nothing of concern; hunters returned in the morning with a few measly rabbits and a couple of wild turkeys. Today they would go to the streams and check the nets to see if there was any bounty there. With the world changing as it did and the god's mood as foul as it was, food was more difficult than ever to come by
The difference in the work today was that the Slayers were aided by two giant dragons: Calista and Eadin, the Queen Dragon's cousin. River and Julius Laurentius arrived early in the wee hours of the day and their dragons swept aside the morning mists with their massive wings as they landed in the middle of the town square. Their tremendous crows echoed off the jagged mountain peaks that surrounded the Slayer dwelling. Their great talons dug deep into the ground and they beat their wings hard to break their landing. Slayers left their houses to greet them and surrounded the visitors. Whereas adults stayed back from the great beasts, the golden Children of the Sun, their kids ran right up and clustered around them. River and Julius dismounted the majestic beasts and greeted them with smiles. The dragons crowed gently and ushered the children into their massive wings, protecting them against the cold and the wind; boys and girls hugged and patted their scaly bodies, and rubbed their bellies, all of which the dragons greeted with gentle purrs. Calista lowered her colorful head and nudged the children with her beak, sending them scattering with laughter. Her icy eyes seemed to grow softer as if the Dragon Queen remembered something long forgotten.
River and Julius were met with Caitrin and the Jernigan twins in the square. The two young women embraced and hugged tightly without word, their meeting a painful reminder of the loss they shared, but also a silent comfort. In the crowd that surrounded them, they alone shared the pain and the memory. It was a bond sealed with blood and sacrifice.
The Jernigans, Winfrid and Godric, greeted the Riders with friendly smiles and kind words. They fought side by side against the Nameless god and their friendship and mutual respect blossomed.
"We'll take you to see Dunstan Yates," Godric remarked. "He leads the Slayers for the time being, until a new Commander is chosen."
Caitrin looked away under River's hard stare and turned to lead the way. The small group walked through the scattering crowd and approached a longer, wooden house that stood near the household previously occupied by Eadmund Pritchard and which now belonged to Caitrin Lightborn and where she lived alone. River turned her head away so as not to look at the house where not too long ago she witnessed Dominic and Caitrin exchange vows of love and marriage, and which now stood empty, its open windows black holes gaping back at the dismal world, mocking them. Caitrin quickened her step and also looked away. She did not like to stay in her house—it reminded her too much of her father, the traitor, and of her fallen husband. Instead, she spent her nights in the War House, the training base for all the single Slayers, men and women alike. Days she spent outside, helping to secure the town or visiting friends and families who have lost their loved ones to the battle with the Black Army.
Dunstan Yates, a powerful dæmon, seer and fortune teller, was an old man whose blind eyes stared back at them without blinking. Long hair and beard were white and he supported himself with a thick cane. He was seated in a large, scarcely decorated room inside the house he occupied with the other Slayer Elders. Two of them were present in the room and Caitrin made introductions: they were Ealhstan Reese, uncle to the Jernigan twins, and Aelfred Powell, a powerful Slayer in his time, whose fighting days were cut short when he lost his legs in a raid he led against a party of orcs. Julius and River bowed in respect and studied the three men before them, while Caitrin, Winfrid and Godric retreated to the back of the room.
"We welcome you both," Dunstan said, his voice broken and raspy. "Long ago my eyes were taken from me, but in exchange, I received a powerful gift which gave me a much greater sight and allowed me to see things that others do not. I saw you arrive today."
"Gentlemen," Julius greeted the trio. "River and I came with our dragons to help in whatever way we can."
"Strange times, indeed," Aelfred Powell remarked from where he sat. "Dragons come to our aid in a time of need. Not too long ago our people would scatter when they heard their crows. Now our children play with them in the town square." He pointed through the open window. The Riders followed his hand and watched Slayer children laugh and run around the two giant beasts resting in the middle of the square. Children climbed their scaly backs holding on to the sharp spikes, they slid down their long necks, and tried to pry open their long talons to hide behind them in a game of hide and seek.
"Indeed, times change," Julius replied politely. "Wounds heal and allegiances change."
"But an enemy remains the same," Dunstan said. "The Nameless has changed the landscape of our world again and we must again find a way to survive."
"The battle he lost angered him," Ealhstan Reese added. "We may have won that day, but the war is far from over. And it carries a heavy price."
"We all lost something in the battle," River remarked. "The people of Turan are grieving their lost ones as well."
"Yes," Aelfred Powell said. "And to what end? The Nameless is more powerful than before. The balance is upset. The world is more dangerous than ever before. Our children play in the dark and we are constantly watching for enemies that prowl the mountains. We're building a wall to protect us, something we never needed before. Where does it end?"
"The Nameless is a plague, a disease," River stated sternly because she did not like where the conversation was heading. "And Antalea must be cured of it. Like with any other disease, things will get worse before they get better. We must suffer through it."
"Who are you, young one, to speak to us in such manner?" Aelfred Powell asked, his voice hard. "You were but a child in world far away when we battled the dragons that brought death and destruction into our homesteads."
"I was a child then, that's true. And now I am a Mistress to the Dragon Queen," the girl said curtly. "What you speak of is in the past. This is the world now. Egnatius Drusus asked me and Jake Starwanderer to partake in the fight because he is wise and he sees more than others, too. The world will be cured."
"The Bringer of Chaos," Aelfred Powell scoffed. "We heard stories about your friend, Jacob. He runs with the wind and in the darkness he stalks his foes. He will die one day when he comes across an army of orcs that he will not be able to defeat."
"His power grows and he is now stronger than his mentors," Julius Laurentius said calmly. "He is our weapon against the Nameless and so is River without whom Calista would not be as obliging, nor would any of the other dragons. I am the Dragon Link and I know what they say. I know what is coming, too, without being a seer."
"Aye," Dunstan Yates said, waving away Aelfred Powell who was about to deliver an angry retort. "We know this, friends. We all know it, but the dark of night poisons the soul and brings out fear and despair. It is easy to lose hope when everything around you is plunged into darkness."
"Then listen to them," Julius Laurentius said and pointed out the window at the children playing with Calista and Eadin. "Did you hear such joy before? That is freedom. Not skulking in the darkness, hoping to avoid the Cursed for another day and then another."
"War is coming," Ealhstan Reese said. "It is too late to turn back now, even if we wanted to. We do not. Our weapons are yours and we will aid you."
"And we thank you for your help," Dunstan Yates added. "But I do see darkness gathering over our heads. And the darkness is not of the Nameless origins. It comes from within."
Julius and River looked over each other.
"Who do you see, friend?" the Younger Scholar asked.
"The Bringer of Chaos is at a cross-roads," Dunstan replied grimly. "The scales can tip either way. You must help him," he turned to River.
"He's safe with Egnatius Drusus in Turan," the girl answered, though somewhat uneasily.
"No," Dunstan said shaking his head. "It does not matter where he is, there is nowhere that is safe for him. The battle rages in his mind and Darkness is winning, taking over his soul. This cannot be allowed. His power, as you said yourself, is too great to lose or, worse, to have turned against us."
"Jake?" River laughed. "Jake would never..."
"The same was said about the dragons, young lady," Aelfred Powell interrupted with a dark scowl. She quieted and pinched her brows in worry.
"I will watch over him," she said finally.
"Good," Dunstan nodded. "He will need a friend."
"And we will need more help, all of us," Ealhstan Reese stated. "Elves have long gone from our shores, but the dwarves remain. Should we parley with them?"
"We talked of reaching out to King Muirchertach Maoilrain," Julius said. "Forming an alliance with him would be difficult, though. The dwarves have dug deep into the earth and that is where they wish to remain."
"We must try," Dunstan Yates asserted. "River and Caitrin should visit him soon. He will not turn them away."
"When things are done here and when I am sure our town is safe," Caitrin said quickly, her face dark. "Kinsborough is our priority now, Dunstan."
The Elders looked over each other and then at the raven-haired girl who spoke harshly and out of turn. Even Dunstan Yates seemed to gaze at her though his eyes were blind and unblinking.
"What of you, my friends?" Julius Laurentius quickly changed the subject. "As wise as your Elder Council is, Slayer custom demands that you elect a Commander. Is there someone particular you have in mind?"
All eyes again turned to Caitrin Lightborn, whose face hardened. She turned and abruptly left the house. The Jernigans looked over each other and then followed her. River also left the house quickly, and followed her friend.
"You cannot force this upon her," Julius said after a moment of silence.
"She needs time," Dunstan Yates stated. "She is the one that needs to lead our people."
"Her father was a traitor," Aelfred Powell grumbled. "And she is quarrelsome, stubborn, and short-tempered."
"The people will follow her," Ealhstan Reese said. "If she accepts the responsibility, the people will follow her. Her father is paying for his treason in the Land of Shadows. But her husband, young Dominic Lightborn, has grown into a legend. She is his legacy."
"You cannot force this responsibility on her shoulders," Julius Laurentius repeated.
"Leadership is a burden," Dunstan Yates remarked. "And the choice must be hers."
"Will she choose it, then?" Julius asked.
Dunstan looked at him with his unseeing eyes. "There will come a time, soon, when she will have to. Or we will all die."