Authors: Jerry Autieri
THE CHILDREN OF URDIS
Copyright © 2016 Jerry Autieri
All rights reserved.
Lethos knew trouble had come to Valahur, but did not know its shape. His feet had led him to the shore, insistent and impatient for him to witness something. The sandy beaches south of Reifell were just awakening to a colorless dawn. The waves beat their rhythms over rocks that guarded the strand, smooth gray sentinels ceaselessly monitoring the horizon for enemies. Many of the rocks were taller than him. Grimwold had once joked that everything in Valahur was taller than him, even the mice. The memory brought a smile to his lips.
Wind blowing off the water cut through his plain white shirt, forcing him to tighten the wool cloak at his neck. If his old spy masters could see him, would they even recognize him? He had adopted the aspect of the barbarians, from letting his hair grow to his shoulders to wearing their clothes. Only his dusky skin and black hair gave him away. He put one hand on a chilled rock and squinted at the horizon. Nothing more than haze and an endless stretch of flat water showed in the morning light. Wasting time again, he thought, patting the rock with his dark hand. But this barbarian land held its secrets tight! Fortunately, he was alone in his failure, with no young maiden to laugh at him this time.
Yet his feet would not move, sunk into the sands as the waves grumbled in front of him. The scent of seaweed filled his nostrils. He could not turn aside now. The people of Reifell faced danger, and it would arrive here. Of course, if he was staring at the water, then he expected to see ships dotting the horizon. Nothing. He licked his lips, the tip of his tongue running over the whiskers he had let grow into a trimmed beard and tasting the salt left behind from the breakfast of dried fish. He had at least a moment to enjoy it before the urge to rush to the beach had overtaken him. Now he shook his head in frustration.
I'll never master this power, he thought. I must have been dreaming the whole thing and now I want it to come true so I don't feel bad. Such rationalizing was a stretch even for him, but the beach was empty of enemies. Not even the noisome sunbirds or seagulls were out.
And that was when he realized the trouble was real.
He began scanning for black dots high in the air, finding nothing but strings of clouds and an ever-lightening blue. The birds were gone from their rock perches, leaving telltale streaks of white where they had once rested. But for the purr of the water, the beach was free of all noise. No gull screeches or sunbirds dueling over a caught fish. That never happens unless the birds cleared out expecting trouble.
Then a vast ship appeared out of nowhere.
This was not dots of raiding ships following the current to whatever fortune delivered them. This was a massive ship, a city of shining white wood, as tall as a castle and as wide. Three levels of oars protruded from the hull, rowing the massive vessel crosswise over the waves. Five masts held up flagging sails barely filled with the wind. Along the deck, small shapes hurried to their duties and in the rigging men swung from mast to mast. The entire ship plowed through the water like a silent ghost, ethereal and bled of color, making no sound despite its size.
Lethos blinked as it cruised past, bearing northwest. The back of his neck tingled and the pit of his stomach burned. That ship was what his power had driven him to witness. He also knew the ship was not stopping here, but continuing north to Norddalr where High King Eldegris ruled. That was all his power revealed. He was but an echo of a true Prime who could predict anything with frightening accuracy. He was more attuned to intuition, knowing where to step or when to hide or who was beyond a closed door. It was more than he ever expected to be able to do, but the nebulousness of it frustrated him.
The ship flew no flags or colors, and was sailing so fast that it had already started to fade into the western mist now being set afire from the rising sun. The tingling crawled over Lethos's neck even as he watched the ship fade and vanish. The threat lingered and his power was not finished with him.
Now the small dots appeared on the horizon. Compared to the hulking ship that had crossed the same stretch of sea, these approaching ships seemed as solid as stone. They were low to the water, single square sails driving them along with oars that rose and fell in a steady beat. Here were the raiders after all.
Lethos stepped back, his feet free at last. He focused his thoughts as he had been taught and reached out across the fields to Reifell where his Prime and best friend, Grimwold, ruled as war chief. They had not begun as friends, and Lethos had once thought Grimwold a monster. Yet since they had bonded and tapped into a mutual power that granted them insights into each other's hearts, Lethos had grown to appreciate the man. He was stubborn, proud, and barbaric, but also loyal, honorable, and earnest. Right now he was asleep with a woman in his bed.
Grimwold, Lethos thought with as much force as he could muster. He still had not figured out how to mentally shout. Get up. Raiders are coming. Four ships. Forget about the girl, man! You've got to get the men ready and the people to shelter. They'll make landfall soon.
Lethos backed up to the ankle-high grass that fluttered in the lazy wind. The ships slipped out of the mist like a pack of hungry wolves scenting the water for their prey. He got a wave of irritation back from Grimwold.
How many ship? Grimwold's question echoed in his head. Mental conversations were one of the many strange powers that evolved after their bonding. With guidance from their mentors, Kafara and Turo, they learned how to communicate even when on opposite ends of the island. Grimwold's voice did not sound the same in Lethos's head. It was more like Lethos remembering something Grimwold had said rather than hearing it directly.
I already told you there are four ships, Lethos repeated. But you're thinking of two breasts. Get the girl back in her clothes and put on your mail.
You don't talk to a war chief like this, said Grimwold.
This is thinking, not talking. Lethos experienced a fleeting warmth of what he recognized as Grimwold's laughter.
Watch the ships, my friend. If they land before I arrive, hold them up for me. Lethos felt Grimwold withdraw, like the chill on a warm hand suddenly pulled from a glove.
A year ago such a request would have been ludicrous if not fatal. However, now that he had joined the ranks of the Manifested, he was all but immune to the threat of normal weapons. Kafara had warned him that getting his head cut off, drowned, or set afire would be highly painful, but otherwise nothing of the normal world would kill him. Eventually any wound would regenerate. Yet she had not promised complete invulnerability. She had in fact promised to discuss a rare threat to all their lives, but she seemed reluctant to say more. Lethos's understanding was drunk barbarians would never be able to gut him for insulting one of their incomprehensible traditions. That was good enough for now.
While his gut burned and neck tingled at the approaching ships, he did not believe they were anything more than raiders. Valahur and Avadur were filled with desperate, masterless men after a war had nearly destroyed both countries. They gathered together to raid both for wealth and for survival. Their purposes mattered little to Lethos, who expected the same outcome regardless.
Now that the ships had drawn closer, he realized they sailed at tremendous speed. They were going to make landfall long before Grimwold got the men into their mail and lined up on the shore. The tall square sails revealed a mix of color schemes: red and gold, green, blue and white, one plain sail yellowed with grime. This was all supposed to represent something, but Lethos had not cared enough to learn. Grimwold had blathered on about the various clans and fractured histories of Valahur, but Lethos merely smiled and used the time to rest his mind. Besides, it's not like these raiders were coming to quiz him on history. He saw the first glint of iron from the lead ship and he knew all required of these men.
The first ship was less grand up close than it had been in Lethos's imagination. He watched it drive onto the beach, oars withdrawing into the hull like a turtle pulling in its limbs. It seemed a reckless way to land given all the rocks dotting the shore, but Lethos just raised his brow to it. The ship's wood was gray and stained black. The sparse rigging was slack in places, making the ship seem as if it were out of breath for having sped to the landing. Warriors spilled over the sides, a mix of squinting men in mail coats, heavy furs, or leather hauberks. Nothing unified them but for dirt and desperation. They were thin men, bodies twisted with cord-like muscles, and they hollered as they waded through the surf with weapons held away from the water.
The other three ships beached themselves the same way, disgorging equally frantic crews bearing an array of round shields, swords, spears, and axes. He spotted several bows held high overhead as if being surrendered, but their owners were merely keeping them dry. As the first group mounted the slope, Lethos decided he had to act. Grimwold was not going to arrive soon enough.
He was searching for his power to guide him, giving him the right words or the right place to stand. Yet as was typical of his nascent power, he hardly controlled its manifestation. When it visited him he could use it more effectively than before, but he could not summon it. Turo had told him he might get to that level after a hundred or more years of work. Turo was discouraging in that way.
"Stop where you are," Lethos said, trying to make his voice boom but only succeeding in sounding small amid the shouts of the approaching enemy. He estimated a force of sixty to seventy men, all like black beetles swarming together before moving uphill. He was also vaguely aware that though his skin would be as iron to normal weapons, he was still a slight man compared to these tall barbarians.
Yet the audacity of his gesture halted the first group. Their leader was a man with rat eyes, a huge beard, and a round face. A dull iron helmet sat low over his brow, locking him into a permanent frown. He had not drawn his sword, but he raised his battered green shield at Lethos's sudden appearance. The other ten or so men with him piled up behind. A smile flickered on Lethos's face, satisfied to see even the men still at the beach had paused to watch him.
"You come with evil intentions," Lethos said, puffing up his chest to create a bit more presence. "But you will find nothing but defeat here. Return to your ships and flee before the war chief and his warriors arrive."
The round-faced man stared at him in awe, though for what Lethos did not know. He blinked. Lethos blinked. Every man seemed to hold his breath.
"You," said the round-faced man, pointing at him with a trembling hand. "You're one of those Manifested monsters?"
Lethos was about to contend the use of the word monster, then realized he had been named as a Manifested. No normal person knew that name.