© 2019 by S.J.Rapala
This is Chapter III 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.
River caught up with her friend when she reached the Slayer War House. Caitrin walked briskly wearing a dark scowl. The young Rider stopped her by pulling back on her shoulder.
"What?" Caitrin snapped and turned around. Her breast heaved from both the fast walk and the surge of anger she felt.
"What's wrong?" River asked. Caitrin gazed back at her in silence. Slowly her eyes softened and then she sighed heavily. "How can you ask me that?"
"I'm sorry," the young Rider replied. "But you can't keep doing this. You and Jake, both of you, you treat Dominic's death like some great burden that you have to carry alone."
Caitrin withdrew abruptly, hurt on her face.
"I'm sorry," River reflected and reached out to her friend, but the young woman pulled back. "I'm sorry," she repeated.
"You were here when we married," Caitrin whispered, her eyes moist but her lines hard. "How can you say that to me? His death is not a burden. No, I'm a Slayer and my husband was a Slayer and his death brought honor to me and my people. I'm proud of what he did. I'm proud of his death and I will sing songs about how he defeated the Black Army."
Her cheeks were flushed and her chin raised. "I'm proud of Dominic. He saved us all."
River turned the collar of her fur-trimmed coat against the cold wind. "Then what?"
"I miss him," Caitrin whispered after a short pause. She looked away. "I can't always be a Slayer, River. I'm also a wife who lost her husband..." Tears streaked her cheeks.
River embraced her and the two hugged. Caitrin sobbed, her face hidden.
"Don't you see?" she asked when she pulled back finally. "I can't always be a Slayer and I can't always be this hard. I can't lead these people."
"It's because of your loss that these people need you to lead them," River replied. "They look up to you but not just because of your strength. They look up to you because they see a Slayer, but also a wife who mourns her husband. They all grieve for someone. The fact that you do too, and that you do it with such grace and such strength, it just makes them love you and it makes them want to follow you."
"What strength? Look at me..."
"I am looking at you," River said.
Caitrin wiped the tears away and slowly buttoned up her long-tailed coat. She looked up at the dark mountains that hung over them, flashes of lightning visible from beyond their jagged peaks. She looked around the deserted streets of Kinsborough and then back to the town square where the children still played with the two giant dragons.
"Everyone's working on the wall," she commented suddenly. She shuddered against the hard gust of cold wind and looked around again. "When will this darkness end?"
"When we end it," River said matter-of-factly, then smiled and tugged on her friend's sleeve. "Come on, let's go build that wall."
"Calista, no!" River shriekd but her voice rang with laughter. The great Dragon Queen cocked her head and nudged the giant boulder again, attempting to slide it into its new location. "No, that's not where it goes. Over there, love, over there." River pointed to a different spot, but Calista shook her colorful head and rolled the great rock, again to the wrong side. She crowed gently when she looked back at her Mistress as if demanding approval.
"That's not where it goes, Calista," River repeated while the Slayers gathered around them chuckled lightly. All day the dragons helped them build the wall and the work had gone much faster when they utilized their strength. But the great beasts had a difficult time understanding the purpose of the wall and they treated the task like a game. They rolled giant stones from one place to the next, and then moved them again against the wishes of the people. Still, Calista and Eadin were able to move rocks of such size that could never have been maneuvered by the Slayers. The wall was rising quickly along the edges of the town and by the time the day was done, Kinsborough looked like a mighty fortress. The back end of the town hugged a steep drop off that no orc or goblin could descend down, while a twenty-foot wall now surrounded the dwellings from the other sides. Giants stones were rolled into position and smaller ones were used to fill the gaps. The wall was crescent-shaped and only one opening remained where the gate was meant to be installed eventually. It was where the main road entered the town and for the time being, makeshift guard posts were set up at that location. The top of the wall was kept flat as much as possible to allow sentries to walk on it when patrolling the edges of the town.
River and Julius Laurentius patted their dragons in gratitude and whispered thanks into their ears. Calista and Eadin replied with gentle crows and they rubbed their beaks against the their Riders in a sign of appreciation. River rubbed Calista's scaly belly and then beckoned the Slayer children to come over and say good-bye to the dragons as they were now preparing to leave. Darkness no longer indicated the coming of night, but River knew that the day had been long and that it was well into the evening. Everyone was tired after a long day's work and the dragons, too, needed rest—even though they had treated the day as a playful adventure.
"Take care of yourself," River hugged her friend and then eased into the saddle fixed at the base of Calista's neck. "Remember what we talked about."
"Give our best to Dunstan Yates and the Elders," Julius added. "We will not disturb their rest now. Tell them that we will relay their concerns to Egnatius Drusus and the Rider Council will make their decisions, too. Perhaps it is time to reach out to the dwarves."
"When I'm satisfied that Kinsborough and its people our safe, I will go then," Caitrin stated. "Not before."
"Spoken like a true leader," River said with a smile. "Come on, love," she said to Calista and the giant beast kicked off into the sky with a great flap of massive wings, followed closely by Eadin and Julius. Caitrin shielded her eyes from the cloud of dust and debris the dragons raised and trailed them into the darkness as far as she could see. Soon they were little black specks on the flashing canvas of the dark sky.
She turned to the Jernigan twins who stayed close by the whole day.
"The wall looks good," she remarked. "Make sure you post sentries for the night."
"Eadric Davies and Cerdic Pryce will take the first shift," Godric replied. "We'll take over later."
"Be on the lookout," Caitrin repeated. "The wall looks great, but it is not enough. We can't assume we're safe just yet. It will be a while before the gate is finished and even then, a wall like this will only slow down a party of orcs. It won't stop them."
"Our blades will," Winfrid said with a shrug.
"Not if they come when you're sleeping," Caitrin retorted. She turned and started to leave.
"Where are you off to?" Godric called after her.
"Elifor is raging in his prison," Caitrin said. "Ever since the Black Army was defeated and the Nameless stirred, the dragon is restless. His crows and shrieks can be heard outside of the dale. I need to do something with him before I turn in for the night."
"What are you doing about it?" Winfrid asked suspiciously.
"There are ways to control even the most savage beast," Caitrin replied and walked off without another word of explanation. The twins stared after her and then looked over each other.
"That one, she's crazy," Godric remarked as the young woman disappeared in the darkness. "She'll get herself killed one day."
"She'll be fine," Winfrid said. "Her pain is great and the burden we're asking her to carry is not getting any lighter. But she'll find a way."
"I'll follow her into hell and beyond," Godric asserted. "Just like I would have done for Dominic..."
They fell silent upon the mention of his name.
Caitrin, in the meantime walked briskly along the newly erected wall, choosing to remain hidden in the shadows that were darker than the black Antalean night. She wanted to be alone, but she did indeed have a task that needed to be done. Elifor the Black, an evil dragon who turned a long time ago and whose mind was poisoned by the shapeforming thoughts of the Nameless god, had been held captive by the Slayers for years. They imprisoned him a long time ago after wounding him with the weapons the vampyres had poisoned at the Witch's Peak. Dunstan Yates performed charms on the especially crafted chains and binds that held him, and they became impervious even to the strength of a Child of the Sun. The Slayers had wanted to kill him many times over because he was a nuisance, a constant danger and a drain on their meager resources. Dunstan Yates though, a dæmonic seer whose sight was greater than most and whose blind eyes penetrated the veil of future, insisted that the dragon be kept alive. He did not say why or how, but he insisted that the beast would still have a role to play in the war. The old seer was determined that his capture was no coincidence—there was no such thing in Antalea where everything happened for a reason.
Still, Elifor was a problem that had grown considerably since the defeat of the Black Army. The dragon sensed his master's anger, he sensed the change in the world around him—the darkness and the evil that seeped out of every nook and cranny of the mountain ranges—and caused a tremendous clatter. Dunstan Yates had performed the charms again to bind the dragon's chains and shackles, ensuring they could not be broken either by brute force or by magical means. But that could not keep the dragon quiet and his hateful screams and anguished crows reached far beyond Kinsborough and over the jagged mountain peaks, inviting unwanted guests.
Dunstan's solution to the problem was to stupefy the dragon once every three days with a poisoned blade from the Witch's Peak. The Slayers no longer visited the vampyres, having been enlightened by the Weaver himself that the true price they paid for the weapons' powers was the loss of all their hope—and that the night creatures that dwelt there had been for years draining their hope and feeding on their despair. Despite this, Dunstan Yates had sent Caitrin and the Jernigans to the Peak some time ago to have a few blades poisoned. To this the vampyres happily obliged once they sensed the despair that clouded Caitrin's mind. The young woman left the Peak feeling more hopeless than ever and for days after she endured nightmares in which Dominic's anguished face appeared in a circle of flames, but she did not report it to Dunstan. The twins suspected the price she had paid for the blessing of the weapons, but they also said nothing. Caitrin had hardened over the last several months, having been put through trials a daughter and a wife should never go through.
From that point on, every three days the young woman visited Elifor the Black and, alone in the dark, she approached the hateful beast with a long sword in hand that dripped with poison. She cut him until he bled and left him sleeping in chains on the bottom of the gorge where he was imprisoned. There he lay, numb, poisoned by the wicked blade and lulled into a deep slumber, unable to utter angry crows and shrieks to lure the Nameless' minions. Here he slept, his sleep uneasy, and here he dreamt of the Land of Shadows where the souls anguished and where fires spewed poison into the air—it was where his brethren were and where his master resided.
Caitrin stole along the wall and then past the War House. She glanced at the rackety fence surrounding the open space where she first saw Dominic battle and use his dæmonic powers to defeat Godric Jernigan. She scowled and quickened her pace, and soon entered the narrow pass that led into a small well-shaped hollow, a prison where Elifor the Black slumbered.
She paused because she heard a noise and a whisper. A loose pebble rolled off the cliff above her and hit the floor of the rocky pass. Her brow furrowed, Caitrin hugged the cold wall and gripped tighter the hilt of her long broadsword sheathed at her side. She held her breath and listened. She heard Elifor's labored breath as he slept and dreamt of the Land of Shadows down in the rocky pass, beyond the next turn. She heard the distant thunder roll over the mountain peaks. She heard the crow of an eagle circling the town and hoot of an owl that answered it. Her brows pinched, she cocked her head and listened harder. An eagle and an owl sounding into the night at the same time while all other life had disappeared from the vicinity of Kinsborough? Caitrin had not heard those sounds since the dark lord stirred.
She closed her eyes and heard a whisper and a clank of armor above her. There was movement and then a heavy rope fell on her face and she had to stop herself from gasping. The rope was thick and the stench of orc was on it. It bounced off her face and swung to the side. Above her, Caitrin heard quiet panting and snorting, the rope tensed and she knew that someone or something started the climb down to the narrow pass.
Caitrin slowly crept away from the rope and the orc making his way down. She could not see him in the dark and he was still high up on the cliff, but she heard his heavy breath and the ring of sword as it hit the rocky outcrops. She furrowed her brow and weighed her options. Kinsborough was readying to sleep, sentries were posted by now, but they had been lulled into a false sense of security by the tall wall they raised today, and they lingered around the opening where the gate was supposed to be placed. Too far for Caitrin to reach them in time. She could scream and start running, but then everything would be thrown into chaos while the orcs descended down to gain advantage.
She opted to stay put and quietly, she unsheathed her sword and waited. It took some time, but eventually the orc made his way down to the floor of the pass and crouched a mere length of a sword away from her. He did not see Caitrin who hugged the wall in the darkest of shadows, just beyond his reach. She studied him, her heart fearless—he was a giant Man-Eat with a dark animal face, muscular body and long dread-locked hair that fell on his back. His twisted features were painted white. Jaundiced eyes looked around and he bared his long fangs in a savage, triumphant snarl. Leather armor covered his body and a crude battle-axe hung at his side. A long poniard stuck out of his boot.
He tugged on the rope twice to signal his comrades that they could begin their descent. This was the moment Caitrin chose to attack. She moved swiftly, like her father had taught her, and stepped out of the shadows with a sword in hand. Quickly, she reached the orc whose back was turned, and stuck the long blade into his back, her arm grabbing his neck from behind and stifling his grunts. He was a head taller than her, but her sword reached his heart and killed him instantly—she only had to ensure his body did not clatter to the ground to alert the others above him, so she lowered him gently.
With no time to waste, Caitrin sprang for the opening in the city wall where she knew the Jernigan twins lingered with Cerdic Pryce and Eadric Davies. The scout was dead, but she was not sure how much time that bought her and the town, so she ran with the wind and in moments, she reached the open space where the four Rooks had gathered around a small fire. Caitrin burst into the circle of light, panting and out of breath, and they jumped to their feet, swords in hand.
"What's wrong, love?" Godric grabbed her.
"Orcs," she breathed. "In the pass behind the War House," she added when they looked at her in stunned silence. "I killed the scout, but more are climbing down the cliff."
"How many?" Winfrid asked.
Caitrin shook her head. "I don't know." She looked around and suddenly, her heart steady, she took charge. "Eadric and Cerdic, stay here to ward off anyone that come this way. Winfrid and I will go to the pass. Godric will alert the town."
"When they find the scout dead, they will charge," Eadric Davies interjected. "How will you stop them from spilling into the town before help arrives?"
"I need my bow," Caitrin decided and looked around helplessly.
"Take mine," Cerdic offered and handed her the weapon. "Don't miss."
Godric Jernigan had already taken off and he was quietly alerting men and women he met along the way. They, in turn, ran to grab their weapons and alert others while Godric continued into the town, knocking on doors and whispering feverishly into dark openings.
Cerdic Pryce and Eadric Davies remained behind on alert, while Winfrid Jernigan and Caitrin Lightborn raced back toward the War House. They said nothing along the way, saving their breath for the battle that lay ahead. They slowed when they reached the Slayer training ground, then skulked along the edge of the cliff until they saw the open mouth of the rocky pass leading into the hollow where Elifor the Black was caged.
"Slayers are resting in the War House," Winfrid whispered into Caitrin's ear. "I can alert them and be back in a moment."
She nodded in silence and readied her bow while he disappeared into the darkness. The young woman emptied the quiver Eadric Davies handed her and stuck the dozen arrows into the ground. Then she looked over the bow and pulled on the string to check the tension. Satisfied, she settled her eyes on the dark opening of the pass and waited for the enemy; a deadly, black fletched arrow ready to fly.
Caitrin did not have to wait long. A great howl came suddenly from the darkness of the narrow pass and a savage smile of satisfaction surfaced on her full lips. The first of the orcs had reached the floor of the pass and found their dead companion. The question was, what would they do next—charge the town or sit back and regroup? Her eyes pierced the darkness ahead, but there was nothing there for the moment. After the howl died down, there was no sound and deadened silence befell the space. Behind her, Caitrin heard men and women gathering, weapons in hand, and readying for battle—but she did not look back. She knew that Godric Jernigan would do everything in his power to put together a stout defense.
She caught movement out of the corner of her eye and for a split moment, when the lightning flashed over the mountain range, Caitrin saw an orc skulking along the edge of the rocky wall. She pulled back an arrow without thinking, aimed—correcting for time and distance, and the gust of wind that blew through her dark hair—and let the missile fly into the darkness. She heard nothing, but a moment later another flash of lightning illuminated the dark sky and she spotted a dark figure lying motionless in the grass at the foot of the rock—she did not miss.
Another movement, and another arrow sent into the darkness. Caitrin was sure of the hit this time too; she was an experienced bowman and her missiles rained death on her enemies. She saw more orcs move out of the shadows; two, three, ten, twenty—her brow furrowed, she grabbed the arrows and sent them forth two at a time and each time, she was sure of the hit. Orcs grunted and tumbled in the darkness, felled by a deadly marksman and, finally, they had enough of skulking in the night. Man-Eats sensed human blood and they could no longer control the hunger and the thirst; with a tremendous holler, they raised their weapons and charged out of the dark narrow pass.
Caitrin Lightborn, no more arrows left, threw the bow to the side, unsheathed her sword and faced the onslaught of enemies—their animal features twisted, fangs protruding from their savage, beastly faces. She stood alone, unafraid, and waited for them to come, a bitter-sweet smile on her lips. She welcomed death because it would free her from the pain.
She would soon be with Dominic.
Just then, Winfrid Jernigan appeared and along with him, a long line of Slayers who took the orcs head-on, swords and axes in hand. The wave of beasts stopped short of the town, broken like a tidal wave against a rocky shore. The Slayers raced forward, weapons drawn and they hacked and fought the enemy. Orcs were felled by the dozens, swords and axes cleaved their heads, long knives pierced through the leather armors, and heavy clubs smashed their heads.
Caitrin stood alone, sword in hand, and looked on.
Godric Jernigan appeared beside her, leading more Slayers into battle.
"Charge!" he yelled and motioned for the warriors to engage. He ran past her and touched her shoulder. "Come on!"
Caitrin did not move. She watched the men and women engage in battle and overwhelm the assailants. The orcs stood no chance against the well-organized, determined ranks of Slayers. The threat was gone and all that remained was ensuring that all enemies were dead.
Caitrin Lightborn turned and walked away, her head low.
Dominic was gone.