The Eternal Enemy
Dhaun rushed through the wet forest undergrowth chasing a shadow he barely saw. It diverted his attention from his job, and for him as a Seiř kun, Standing soldier, permanent and paid man-at-arms, this could mean death.
But he knew the shadow he was chasing from the day when he lost his parents. Then, in the afternoon heat, he clearly saw its pale folds and dark back skin with a unique pattern. When it got his father, he saw only its flat head sticking out from the water. When it killed his mother, he could see also its streamlined body, crawling on the riverbank.
Running fiercely, Dhaun had a feeling that this dreamy memory blends with reality. The floodplain forest stretched only in a narrow stripe along the river, hemmed in from the other side by limestone cliffs. The creature moved carefuly so as not to run off to the dry land, where he would move with more difficulty. Dhaun, on the other hand, tried to avoid soil that was too wet. He also knew, that the creature is much more dangerous in the water than it would seem.
From time to time, the chased creature looked back, grinning at Dhaun with its wide, round mouth and large eyes that sparked with mischievous yellow glint. Once, it even ruffled its meaty fold around its neck.
Dhaun stopped. The dreamy memory remined him that now he has to be especially careful. He prepared his javelin nair and long shield hreig. Hreig stretched from the ground up to his shoulders.
The chased creature stopped moving for a while, as if it was thinking what to do next. The whole world halted, only its neck fold shivered slightly.
Suddenly a javelin nair arrived through the air and got stuck in Dhaun ́s shield. The scout was not ready for an impact from that angle, and he faltered. When he looked around, he saw five men running towards him along the riverbank. He knew this formation - usually it was used for catching enemy scouts. The five men kept distance from each other, the two on the flanks chased the scout in a certain direction, while the three remaining soldiers progressed slowly with their nairs ready.
Dhaun thought whether running is worth it. He did not want to lose the creature from sight, but did not like the possibility to be caught either. Finally, he chose to sprint from the floodplain forest into a nearby clearing with a steadier ground. He hesitated for too long
however. The two fastest men easily reached and outran him. Now, knowing he cannot escape anymore, he stopped and lay down his arms.
"Seize him," shouted one of the five men. Probably to look more serious he had grown a wide moustache, which contrasted uncannily with his narrow face and blended with his dark skin at the same time. The other four men did not object to his orders and certainly did not grin.
The commander observed Dhaun being handcuffed. He checked whether his soldiers bound the rope tightly enough around his hands.
"Where are you from?" asked the commander while he prompted Dhaun to move back to the river.
"Drain Soóth," answered Dhaun. Inwardly, he only begged the commander not to go off to the wet terrain. When he realized he stepped into the water, his stomach clenched. The chased creature was apparently not near anymore, because Dhaun soon reached the river, where the five men tossed him into a small boat and rowed to the opposite bank.
"That is very far from Pigh Soóth," said the commander breezily. "I would say it is too far for you to be bothered by this region."
"We lost several merchants in these parts," explained Dhaun.
"We too," answered the commander and he smiled subtly.
"Our market governor believed there are bandits and he decided to clean this forest.
The locals will surely be grateful once we are finished," Dhaun continued. Explaining could help him to avoid torture.
"Ours thinks the same thing," said the commander.
Dhaun tried one last way how to be useful without giving away too much about his fellow soldiers: "I think that if I do not investigate the situation here, more of my companions will come."
"Well, I would not be bothered by this if I were you. Our army is on the way. We will scout out every corner of this forest and we will drive out all the bandits - including your companions."
Hjer chewed on a stileaf and looked at the scene in front of him. A ford on the river, devoid of life. No protection from either side. The nearest village, at least according to the report of scouts, lies a mile and a half away, and it is not even on the river. So why do his men keep finding bronze vessels, cloth from the distant Kjé kingdom, blue stones from the tropical islands and cinnamon from the lands over the mountains?
The plant relaxed and calmed his mind. He let the first impressions float through his head, before he starts to put together toughts, gods forbid opinions. The shredded corpse of a horse further downstream sprinkled with cinnamon looked absurd beyond any measure. Other animals, dead and stiff, turned in the stream and were slowly scoured by the current. Human bodies were probably already taken by the water.
Finally Hjer came to a conclusion: "No human could do this." He called two scouts to him and said: "Search the opposite riverbank. We need to know who is there." The task fell to two young brothers, Ďřej and Twun. They had long legs and were used to scout on their own. Hjer also took into account, that they talked a lot together and did not pay too much attention to orders he gave to other scouts. In case they are taken prisoners on the other bank, they will not be able to reveal that much.
Another order was for the rest of the scouts. The four men split - one was to go north, inland and observe the nearest village, another was to do similarly in the opposite direction, and two others were to scout the riverbank. The remaining twenty men started to build a camp and cut branches to construct a temporary stockade.
In the end, Hjer called for his deputy, "the elderly" Traj. Traj ́s hair likely started to go grey even when he was 30 - that is how he earned his nickname - and he was not one of the fastest runners or best nair throwers, but he had sharp mind and knew how to plan ahead. Hjer told him: "It bothers me a lot that Dhaun is gone. After all that he managed in the previous campaign, I started to believe him."
"The young are light-headed," agreed Traj. But he also added: "He is no coward. If he deserted, I believe he pursued something - a track, maybe - rather then just ran away."
"I think that, too," said Hjer. "And I also think that someone have come before us. The enemy is already there. But we have to find out where and how many of them there are."
"What about the merchant and his cargo? He is freshly killed. He must have arrived a few hours ago. It would be good to find out from what town he came and whether it is worth to collect his wares."
Hjer nodded as the effects of the drug went off slowly. The return to reality was for him like a strong wind, that all of a sudden took him to another place. "The village," he decided. "Before we act in any way, we will ask the locals."
Traj raised his eyebrows.
"Fine, I will ask them. You stay here and take care of the boys," Hjer conceded. Traj held out his hand. The commander begrudgingly gave him the pouch with the
"This could help me with the negotiations," grumbled Hjer.
"One per day is enough. We need to have a commander, not just take care for one," reminended him Traj. "Or learn to use rendleaf as did the others."
To explain that he likes it better this way, that these sounds that a man hears when he uses rendleaf are unbearable, seemed to Hjer as a waste of time. He tried it more than once. Soldiers did not like new things and differences. He put on a determined face and let Traj go. Then he himself started to examine the tracks on the riverbank. On the soaked, muddy ground around the ford he noticed something else beside horses and men. It seemed to him as some kind of a reptile - maybe river monitor or cave theuž.
It was tracking that brought Hjer to warfare, and he really enjoyed this part of his job. In his mind, a picture formed of three horses in a line, with the merchant and his three helpers. The old trader ran to the side, to his stash hidden under a boulder among the washed out roots of an old willow. He reached for the boulder, but did not straighten back up.
The helpers ran each to a different side - one went to calm the horses, the other two wanted to help their goodman. They too arrived to the riverbank, but there their footsteps ended. Then the horses panicked and together they entered the water. The last member of the party tried to wade the river. Maybe he succeeded, but his tracks also did not lead further.
Soon enough, one of the scouts returned. There were no signs of enemies in the nearest village. Hjer decided he will ask around there. He turned the scout around and in his company set off to look for answers.
On the other bank of the river, Dhaun encountered a troop of similar might as had his own. He thought that was to be expected. After all, did not every bigger city in the entire land own its army of standing soldiers? Did they not fight each other in endless wars and skirmishes, until they formulated agreed upon rules of warfare and army composition?
The soldiers brought their prisoner to a clearing less than a hundred paces from the riverbank. On the other side of the clearing lay a prepared camp with tents and a fireplace. Around it stood pales intervowen with sharpened branches and raspberry canes.
The bearded man introduced himself as Kíirš. He brought Dhaun to his subodrinates and said: "Soldiers from Drain Soóth have already come. They want to claim the ford down the river and this whole shire as their own, as we had already heard they would. Before the main host of our army arrives, we have to make sure that the enemy will not have any tactical advantage."
One of the men raised his hand. "Sir, what about Rocklets? It is on the other side of the river and its people have endorsed us."
"You are from there, right?" The commander asked the soldier. The soldier nodded. Kíirš said: "I let Rocklets unguarded because we can use them. The enemy commander will surely want to gather some intelligence from the locals. He assumes, that the river hinders us from getting to the other side. We will wait until the enemy patrol is gone and then a group of five soldiers will cross the river, head to Rocklets and assassinate the enemy commander."
Dhaun thought that Hjer will surely fall for such a scheme. He liked his commander, but he did not think of him as the brightest head under the sun.
The soldier born in Rocklets volunteered to the five-men group as the first. Then there was Kíirš ́s deputy and three others. While the troop got ready, Kíirš led the prisoner aside. He bound him to one especially robust stake in the brightest part of the clearing. He did not give him any food or drink, but instead, told him: "We will leave you here in the sun for a while. We will see whether you will want to tell us something in the evening."
Dhaun answered: "I can tell you something right away. You should not enter the water."
Kíirš said: "You mean the creature that is lurking in the river? We are ready for it. There are too many of us, it will not dare to attack us."
Dhaun decided it will be better not to say anything. The powerful heat of the sun before noon soon pulled all the strength from him. He barely lifted his head to see how the five men entered the water to cross it.
In the deepest part of the river, the unstable boat suddenly turned around and the soldiers fell into the water. Their chain armour, javelins, swords and shields pulled them down to the riverbed. Not one of them emerged back on the surface.
The patrol on the riverbank immediately undressed to the underskirt and ran into the water. He made three long steps before he shrieked and plunged into the river. By that moment, the whole troop gathered near the riverbank with javelins at ready, watching the surface. The creature stuck out its nose only for a short moment and quickly submerged again.
Kíirš watched everything with outrage and surprise. It hit him even harder when dead fish started to drift ashore from the river.
The commander made sure that his men on the bank are all right. They were all shaken. One of them whispered that the monster wields the power of Thúur Tháán. Kiírš ordered to draw water from the river only with flasks or a cauldron and not to touch it with bare hands. He also changed his mind on the tactics: "Now we have a disadvantage. We will
wait at this side of the river and do anything to prevent the enemy from crossing the ford," he mulled.
For the rest of the day Kíirš ́s men were in a bad mood. They sat around the fire looking at the cauldron as if the dinner made of stewed mushrooms could bring them salvation. One of them brought Dhaun water shortly before the sunset. By that time the prisoner ́s head tingled and he was barely conscious.
The red glow of dusk got covered by thick clouds moving from the coast towards the mountains. Almost in that same moment one scout emerged from the opposite direction and announced that the reinforcements arrived. Kíirš ordered his men to pack the camp and moved downwards to the ford. They took Dhaun with them. Before they finished their march surrounded by hundreds of standing soldiers from Pigh Soóth, the dark clouds covered the sky entirely and extinguished the last traces of light. A heavy rain started.
Kíirš ́s men cowered around the dying fire and together they sang - loudly, without care if someone will hear them or not - and thus sent off the souls of their dead friends to the god of thunder Thúur Tháán, who gets to decide which of the afterlife realms they will enter. Then they discussed what it is that is lurking in the water. The majority believed it is a huge cave theuž. One soldier recalled his father ́s stories of creatures, that recieved from the gods unique gifts, just like the human heroes did. Some of them then became unbelievably fast, others very big.
All soldiers agreed that what the gods blessed, should be left alone.
Kíirš said nothing and his bullheadedness could be felt even in the complete darkness. At sunrise, Kíirš woke the prisoner. The rain still poured from the grey sky. The
commander cut Dhaun ́s bonds. The shadow of the dying night masked Kíirš ́s face, but Dhaun was sure, that the determined look he saw there yesterday did not disappear.
"What is happening?" asked Dhaun.
"You have met the creature before, right?"
Dhaun nodded. "It killed my parents."
Kíirš explained his plan: "I will let you go, because you cannot return to your party.
Even if you did manage to cross the river, do you think they would believe you? They would think you are a deserter and killed you at once. So your best chance is to stay with us. If you prove competent, I may place you to one of my divisions.
Men under my command will go and try to find and kill the beast. If you want, you can join us. But you have to tell us everything you know."
Dhaun answered: "I want my nair and hreig. I will go with you. You need a good scout and tracker."
Kíirš laughed. "Did Hjer teach you?"
"I learnt everything by myself," answered Dhaun with due pride. He never let Hjer to
teach him anything, which led to conflicts between the two.
Kíirš hesitated. He apparently deemed the training of his rival very important.
"You and Hjer, are you rivals for a very long time?" asked Dhaun.
"We never duelled in person, but we drank together a few times," explained Kíirš.
"Did Hjer told you why he is afraid to use rendleaf? He once took it and it appeared to him that I intend to kill him. Then he ran off to another division."
Dhaun laughed. "Is it a coincidence then that you meet here again?"
Kíirš shaked his head. "Good soldiers join the winning divisions. We both are good soldiers."
Dhaun did not believe Kíirš, but he remembered his words. When his parents died and he had to care about his siblings, before he joined the army, he learnt not to waste good advice.
"Does it have any kind of armour? Scales? Skin?" asked Kíirš, meaning the creature in the river.
"It has thick scales on its back. Take also keizes, they might come handy." Dhaun spoke of short, blade-heavy swords that the soldiers used to cut holes in the shields when fighting in combat one on one.
Rocklets were named after three limestone rocks towering over the forest just behind the village. According to what the scout told Hjer, they were the beginning of a longer belt of rocks that circled around the hill like a diadem. On the other side of the village, its inhabitants had fields of millet and beans on long sticks, which crossed a single access path. The village got its water from a wellspring coming out of the ground near the closest foothill.
Hjer entered the village by the path, both to show respect to the locals and to not come across as an enemy. Such behavior was also desirable because of the gods. Hjer did not believe in them very much, but in his life he witnessed a lot and he preferred not to spite the things he did not understand. So, he went between two trees that marked the entrance to the village, the trunks of which were carved into the likeness of human soldiers with feline heads. Hjer wondered whether already in the times of creation they had the same weapons as the standing soldiers of today.
The scout gave notice to the local patriarch, tall and robust man with hands showing his lumberjack past. Hjer inwardly scolded himself that he focuses too much on the details. The man had a malicious expression on his almost black suntanned face and in his hands he held a huge lumberjack axe.
"Good day to you," said Hjer.
"Good day to you too, bold man. What brings you here?" asked the patriarch and showed that not single word of his speech was meant sincerely.
"The ford, good man. An unfortunate incident happened." "Another trader?"
"Just like that. And one our scout is missing. We would like to search the broader area, but the wisest thing to do is to come to you first. The locals should always know what is happening behind their barns."
Speaking of barns, from behind one emerged a young woman holding hand with well- built young man, barely old enough to bear the first traces of facial hair. The maid had a colourful dress with the traces of wear as numerous as coloured patches. Her hair strands were adorned with small golden rings, certainly too expensive for any ordinary village woman. Hjer raised his eyebrows and hinted in her direction.
"Ignore her. She is, well... really wild," commented the patriarch. "Let us get back to our matters. You have my permission, but keep away from the fields and the village. Can I help you with anything else?"
Hjer stuck to the sarcastic tone: "Of course not. I doubt that you would know anything about a huge lizard that swims in the river and is probably the reason why your village sits in this dry valley instead of the riverbank."
The patriarch wagged his head to show them they should follow him. Hjer entered his house, ten fathoms long and built from timber, wattle and daub. The front trusses were carved with ornaments inspired by the Tree of life and legendary half-cat warriors that chased the people away from it. Not an original topic, but it protected well against all evil powers.
The scout stayed outside and guarded the entrance.
"I cannot tell you much about the creature," started the patriarch, "but if you are
missing a man, he is probably dead."
"Dhaun is stubborn and inventive. That might be the reason why we cannot find him,"
opposed Hjer. He could feel tension behind patriarch ́s peaceful expression. From the outside, he could hear voices and noises.
"The great theuž comes here once in a century," the patriarch continued. "It is an honour if it feeds on you. Its presence blesses the whole shire with bountiful rains."
Hjer wanted to object that he really has no intention to be eaten, but he noticed that the patriarch planned to use the blade of his axe as a next argument. He drew his sword keiz from the scabbard on his belt and defended himself. At the same time, screaming was heard from the outside.
The patriarch waved his axe wildly and denied Hjer any chance of counterattack. In the cramped space, Hjer moved backwards to a corner, where he stepped on a hoe which popped him to the back of his head. From the front, the patriarch added another strike with a side of the axe and prepared to deliver a final blow.
Suddenly the longhouse shook to its foundations. Surprised patriarch looked behind him and thus gave Hjer an opportunity to a deadly counterattack. His Keiz sank deep into the intestines and Hjer easily evaded the axe that was falling from the dying man ́s hand.
The commander dusted himself off and walked out. At the door he found the scout, frightened and hugging one of the large pillars of the house. In front of him, a cloud of smoke was coming from the ground. The gathered vilagers looked with a mixture of terror, hate and astonishment. The young woman in colourful dress dominated the scene. She was pacing there and back again and shouting: "Anyone else wants to attack him so treacherously? He is only one!"
"Hey!" Hjer shouted.
The girl turned at him and after a quick moment of surprise she smiled at the
commander. "I thought you a gonner, so I wanted to save your poor scout." The commander nodded.
"You are after the blessed Theuž I believe."
Hjer revealed nothing. For a while he looked at her and sorted his thoughts. According to her accent, she surely was not local. Her behaviour, dress and the way she chased away the villagers indicated that she is an alchemist. "It is not very common," he said finally, "for a woman to take up such vocation."
The alchemist grinned at Hjer and answered: "Don ́t you have anything more unique to say, please? Everybody tells me that." And before the commaned could ask another question, she added: "My dad and mum worked together, they knew how to move warmth. Some people call it magic. I was born with it and i do it naturally, so I take it as my trait. Does that suffice as an explanation?"
Hjer tried to back away from his rude words and said: "I was just thinking, where you are from."
"From the coast. That is where the theuž came from as well. I follow it and wait if it will shed its skin. I hope that it might have some special properties. And you? I think you are the other commander, the one who came from far away. Don ́t stare at me like that. You do not have even half the charm of the other one."
Hjer sighed deeply. He felt an urge to take the drug. When he reached for it, he realized he left it in the camp with Traj.
The alchemist noticed the move and with her innherent loudness she almost shouted: "You miss rendleaf? So strong is your addiction?"
Hjer put back his hand and said nothing. Something in his face must have had given him away, because she added: "Ahh, it ́s stileaf.. Really, stileaf? Are you a man ot a five year old?"
"I am Hjer," announced the commander.
"Finally a good answer. I am Péarn," the alchemist introduced herself. "But you should not use stileaf. Your weenie will not stand properly."
Hjer ́s face turned red and he defended himself: "You will not believe me, but I have no problem with that."
"I really will not," said Péarn with her armes crossed.
Meanwhile, the scout got to his senses, he took back his nair and hreig and patrolled around. The villagers disbanded and the patriarch ́s family ran into the house to care for their old man. Hjer came to the conclusion that he will not learn anything more there and he offered Péarn to join him on his way back to the camp.
"Thank you, but no. I would feel uncomfortable with so many men around me. I prefer to take them when I have the appetite, and not the other way around," the scientist defended herself. "If you want to know anything, ask here and now."
And so Hjer asked. He learned that the blessed theuž lives in the large bay down at the coast from the beginnig of time. Occasionally it hunts down a fisherman or attacks a pod of dolphins. No one knows why once in a long while it travels from the open waters upstream. The last time it happened, Péarn ́s grandfather was still alive.
For the previous half a year the girl was tracking the creature and searching for its dens to find at least a fragment of its skin. She managed to discover several of his lairs, but they were always empty. When it ventured into the river, the girl noticed it as the first one and followed it at once.
"Maybe it does not shed," said Hjer.
"Maybe not. In that case I have to wait for you or the other one to kill it."
"The other one is called Kíirš?"
"Yes, and he keeps grinning," confirmed Péarn.
Hjer nodded. He wanted to continue in the talk and convince Péarn to go with him, but
he could not think of any good reasons. The alchemist pointed out that she is impartial and so the villagers have no reason to harm her. She did not mean to waste any more time with the soldier and without any more words she entered the building to help the partiarch ́s family take care of the dead.
Hjer and the scout did not give up easily. For most of the day they went around the village and waited for the right moment. When Péarn saw them, she threw at them a pouch with some powder. At first, nothing happened, but after a while the pouch caught fire and exploded, at the exact moment when a fire that some village clan used to cook lunch went off.
At dusk, heavy clouds came from the sea and the air felt noticeably more wet. Hjer returned back to the camp. To his unpleasant surprise he saw many fires being lit on the other bank in vain attempt to overcome the starting rain.
"The enemy has come in full strength," announced Traj.
Hjer asked about the reports of other scouts. One of the men patroling the bank did not return. Scouts from the inland had no news about reinforcements.
"We can hold off a few hundreds for a while," said Traj too optimistically for anyone to believe him. The vanguard waited nervously until the night fell completely. However, no attack came from the enemy.
Darkness brought a strong, persisting rain. The shields, mails, tents and other equipment, everything got soaked. Hjer inwardly scolded himself for how badly he handled the encounter in the village. He would get a much better sleep in a guest bed of one of the houses. He knew, however, that the opinion of the villagers, decided to stand with the local soldiers, could not be changed. Wars took place everywhere in the world and the villagers bent like blades of grass in the powerful wind.
Not long before the morning, Traj woke up and took a watch. Hjer, who could not sleep the whole night, sat near him. The Elder returned the poach with stileaf to him.
"It should help the nerves," said Traj.
"Some say it is harmful," Hjer replied and did not take it.
"You would not have known they will be here," Traj soothed him. "We did not know
what we will find here."
"But did they know?" replied Hjer. "Did they send the army to defeat theuž, or us?"
Traj shrugged his shoulders. "As long as the creature is in the river, they will not cross it. That is what I think. So we basically need to keep it alive for more-less one day. Then, our reinforcements should arrive as well."
Hjer nodded. He hurried more than it was usual for the vanguard of the army. He thought he will investigate a crime, not fight both a monster and an army at once.
Whether it was the cold air that ushered new thoughts into the mind or simply despair, an idea was born in Hjer ́s head. He stood up. He ordered Traj to prepare the defences of the camp and ran on his own into the forest.
Hjer blazed accross the damp forest as a monitor through shallows. He was driven not only by the saving idea, but also the fear of the ghostlike forest, where behind each tree he saw an enormous attacking theuž. Finally he arrived to Rocklets and brazenly knocked on the door of the patriarch ́s house.
As he expected, Péarn opened.
"You have arrived here some days ago, right? Theuž found a new hideaway in the vicinity and you surely know where it is."
Péarn had dark circles under the eyes sparkling with murderous anger. "Yes, I know where it is hiding."
"Great. Lead me there. Right now."
Péarn slammed the door in front of his nose. Hjer knocked again. She opened again. "Do you want to see a miracle of healing? The commander said.
"How big?" asked Péarn.
"You will not believe it," answered Hjer.
"I certainly will not." The girl closed the door again, but soon she came out in her colourful dress. "This one is my favourite," she added.
The alchemist led Hjer into the mountains over the village. They passed around the three rocky outcrops and by the cow path to a clearing situated above. That brought them to another group of rocks, which fell in a long cascading row to the stream down under. From there, the couple continued crossways down the slope, until they arrived to the largest rock in the area. One its side was a steep cliff rising from the water and down it was divided by a narrow crack. The other side was smoothed by ages and the growing forest and a man could climb it to the very edge of the cliff.
"And this is my favourite place," said the alchemist. She stopped and started to undress.
Mesmerized Hjer looked in turns at her and at the water disappearing in the depth of the rock. From the crack, a half-arched flat head with a malicious yellow eyes surfaced and croaked.
"Well, are you in for it or shall I toss you from the rock?" said Péarn. Hjer started to undress and he wished that his racing heart would pump his blood enough.
Traj, afraid, looked for the commander. The dawn welcomed the world in the midst of a persistent rain. The soil under the whole camp and its surroundings was damp and from the river and the forest, a thick mist was rising.
Hjer came as a wind from the meadows, gasping, with his chain armour uneven and badly fastened. "We do not have much time. Pick five men and go to Rocklets. Go around it. Follow the path and behind the clearing continue straight into the slope. There is an underground river that springs from the rock, which then discharges into this one. That is where theuž has its lair."
Traj remarked, that the commander should tidy up and look more commanding, but he promptly executed the order nonetheless. "You do not want to see it?" he asked Hjer.
"My place is in the fiercest fight," said the commander. "Kíirš will be here."
When the chosen group of five left, Hjer ordered his men to start a fire. He managed to find a patch of relatively dry land under one of the tents. The men disassembled the rest of the tents and the tent pegs turned into kindling. After a long effort, they managed to lit the fire.
The soldiers were surprised by this exhausting task, but Hjer explained: "Let this fire blaze with vigor in your hearts. Think of warmth and dry. That is the biggest reward that the victors will get today." He did not share with them his secret, desperate hope.
Dhaun led a good-sized group of fifty volunteers along the riverbank. The night rain did not make the tracking easier and in places where the soaked ground was covered by a higher growth, they left the bank a chose to go much further from the water. However, in these cases he always threw a rock or a piece of branch to make sure he will not overlook the creature.
From the ford, it was not far to a wide, open clearing, made in the riverbend by frequent quick floods. It was a good place to take a good look at the wider surroundings. On
the other side, a smaller stream coming from the hills flew into the river. On the upper end of a mile long treeless area, a limestone outcrop towered above the stream like a silent guard.
"We shall stop here." Dhaun decided. He didn ́t know for sure that the creature really lives in the limestone cave, but it seemed to him as a convenient place for a lair. Furthermore, if theuž kept coming back to the same ford to feed, he would not live very far from it.
The sky darkened with a new layer of clouds and the rain started again.
Dhaun hinted to his men to take cover under the trees. Kíirš was impatient and he split off a patrol of five men to continue bit more upstream. Dhaun reminded the men that they should stay further from the water, especially when they see something there.
As soon as the patrol left, another five men appeared, on the other side of the river, right above the rock. Dhaun knew these very well. One of them, adorned with silver in his hair, called him by his name.
"What?" answered the captive.
"You did not desert, did you?" asked Traj.
"No. But would you believe me? Would Hjer?"
"I cannot speak for Hjer," Traj agreed, but he added: "But you know that he thinks
things through. Most of the time."
"Think he might, but would he understand? Besides, Elderly, I know how to take care
of myself." Dhaun tried not to sound too hostile. He was a prisoner, even without bonds, as there were too many armed men around him to run away. As Kíirš said, it was important to choose the winning contingent.
"It does not seem like that so far," said Traj. "You venture into the forest and immediately fall into an enemy trap."
"If... If they did not catch me, I would surely kill the beast! I almost had it!
"Well, but you did not manage, you see."
"This time I will!" cried Dhaun.
"And that, sadly, we cannot let happen." answered Traj. "As long as the creature is in
the water, Kíirš is not going to attack us."
Dhaun looked at the commander that captured him. Kíirš ́s face was like a mask
without expression. He could think anything and everything at once.
Traj continued: "Think of your siblings. Would they want you to betray our city?"
"I fight for money! To survive!" The conversation brought Dhaun to the edge of despair. For years he tried to protect his younger siblings. In the army he had fellow soldiers that he had to cope with and orders that he had to execute. Now he was so close to his desired
moment, the one thing left for him in this world, that he could truly do of his own will. "This theuž murdered my parents. I have a right for revenge."
"How do you know it is this one?" asked Traj.
"It is this one! It must be! Only one like this exists!" Dhaun could not be put off.
"At least wait with it until tomorrow, when our reinforcements arrive," shouted Traj. Dhaun heard as Kíirš unsheathed the short sword keiz. He was thinking about what to
say, when his thoughts were interrupted by splashing near the bank. All the soldiers focused their attention on the sound. Traj and his companions started to carefully descend down the steep and slippery soil to the entrance of the cave.
Theuž surfaced on the bank where Kíirš and his party had waited. Coming out of the water, it shook its head. Its strong forelegs with webbing between prominent curved claws carried the most of the weight of its long, eel-like body, and allowed the creature to stand up to the height of the shoulders of a shorter person. The hind legs, more adjusted to swimming, pushed against the soaked soil and slid the body forward. The back was covered with an irregular layer of scales of various sizes, looking as if some giant hand grabbed the creature and twisted it.
One of the soldiers threw his javelin. Theuž evaded it in a flash and the weapon fell harmlessly next to him.
Five more nairs flew through the air, but all of them miraculously missed their mark. Theuž was truly blessed with extraordinary luck. In its eyes, the yellow malicious fire sparked again. The desperate soldiers moved forwards, some drawing their keizes, others defending with shields and holding nair javelins. The creature jumped towards them.
Dhaun had a bad feeling about all of that and he held back. In his mind the creature was evil and knew well what it was doing. When it crawled out of the water, it had to be sure about its advantage.
The scout ́s feeling was quickly proven right. While jumping, theuž ruffled its neck fold. The muscles started to contract and relax rapidly. Before it landed, the air cracked and all the soldiers around the creature fell on the ground.
It seemed to Dhaun that he saw several small lightnings appear between the neck fold and the ground. Kíirš, bewildered, saw as two thirds of his men fell dead in a blink of an eye. Theuž jumped for the second time and again it attacked with the pulsating fold of muscle. More soldiers were now lying on the ground without a trace of life.
Kíirš started to run away, while Dhaun quickly undressed from the chain mail. He knew that iron attracts lightnings and so he wanted to lower the risks. He stood the furthest from all the soldiers and he prepared his nair for the best moment.
From the other side of the river, he could hear Traj ́s voice: "We must stop him! Once Kíirš will make it to the camp, he will start the attack! While we are holding the beast up here, they can cross the ford with no harm!"
Hjer felt like time stood still. In his mind he likened the feeling to using rendleaf. But instead of his soul it was his nerve that was being rent in the incessant rain.
At dawn he issued an order for the remaining twenty-two members of the vanguard to narrow the access through the ford as much as possible. On both sides, they placed a thick array of stakes and brought raspberry canes from the forest. It will not stop the enemy, but at least it will slow them down.
In his mind, Hjer counted how long it will take Traj and his companions to reach the rock and the cave. During the biggest downpour he came to a conclusion that they should have reached it already.
The attack started soon afterwards.
Kíirš stood in front of his army, now outnumbering Hjer ́s division several ten times. For a while he untied his helmet, so the soldiers could see his face.
"Hjer! A boggler that keeps hiding in the camps and then hurries to complain to his commanders! It is time when I will finally show you how a brave man should fight!"
Hjer had no idea of what could happen further from the ford. He presumed the worst, but he could not let sadness blind his reasoning. He also did not accept an obvious challenge from his rival to make a similar act. On the other side of the ford there were too many nairs pointed in his direction, to make any proclamation safe. He only answered from behind the makeshift barricade: "If you are really that brave, be the first to cross the ford!"
Kíirš went. He put on his helmet and started to wade. In the middle of the ford, one of Hjer ́s soldiers threw a javelin on him. He hit the shield and his nair stuck in it. Kíirš did not throw away the shield and slowly waded onwards.
The bravery of their commander gave courage to his army. They all hastily rushed forth, into the foamy water of the river. Soon they were on the other side. Although twenty of their number did not make it and fell struck by javelins, the balance of force stayed the same.
On the bank, Kíirš ́s men slowly progressed through the prepared obstacles. Hjer ordered his men tu use rendleaf. He did not eat it himself, but he knew from experience, that in this moment he as a commander can no longer help his subordinates much.
The defenders occupied their positions, protecting the entrances to the camp. Five reservists watched whether the enemy is crawling over the hastily built palisade wall. The rendleaf accelerated their perception and boosted the blood flow to all their limbs. Under most circumstances, the soldiers under the influence would have rushed immediately into the fiercest battle, but Hjer ́s men were experienced and could resist the temptation of the drug.
The enemy crashed into their shields hreig and was driven back. The second, stronger attack was launched also against the palisade. Hjer himself participated in the fight and defended one section of the wooden wall.
The first turning point in the fight came when Kíirš joined it. The commander attacked with unseen verve the men directly in front of him. One of them he managed to strike with his keiz in the helmet with such force, that the man fell on the ground.
Hjer immediately stepped in and started to fight with his rival. The two men clashed with their shields and thus broke the remaining part of the javelin stuck in Kíirš ́s hreig. With their short swords they tried to hit each other into the head or shield to make a hole in it.
The strength of his enemy ́s hits told Hjer that Kíirš also used rendleaf. The enemy commander kept hammering his former brother-in-arms. Inch after inch, Hjer had to fall back.
The pressure on Kíirš from behind was too big. In one moment, Kíirš was pushed on Hjer ́s shield and knocked his rival over. Behind them, five more attackers fell as well. Not one of them expected it to happen, which provided Hjer with enough time to recover. He kicked Kíirš away from himself and with his keiz hit him to the jaw. The bone broke.
Kíirš immediately got up. The effects of the drug overwhelmed any pain. With his face deformed, he continued in the merciless attack.
Meanwhile came Hjer ́s reservists, who filled in the created hole in the defence and killed the few attackers that managed to break through. They did not, however, intend to interfere in the duel of the two commanders.
Hjer retreated to the tent with the fire. He tried to walk around it, which divided his attention. Finally Kíirš completely destroyed his shield and hit him in his left arm. The pauldron stopped the blow, but Hjer was almost paralyzed by the pain.
The commander of the defenders jumped on his rival. He managed to get him out of balance. Kíirš squeezed Hjer ́s healthy arm and neck. Hjer caught his pouch with rendleaf.
It cannot be worse than death, thought Hjer. He took a leaf of the plant from the pouch and put it in his mouth. For a short moment, nothing happened. Then he stopped to feel anything, most importantly, pain.
The rendleaf spread in Hjer ́s veins warmth and an urge to fight. A howling, clangorous tones entered his ears, seemingly coming from another world. His eyes saw blood red smudges that flickered in neverending, varying patterns. The spirals became Kíirš ́s eyes and his eyes became the spirals. His dark moustache became bloody demons trying to scramble up to the world from an endless abyss.
Then everything turned into peace. A mad echo of tens of thousands tortured bells did not cease, but it became an endless background for limitless time, in which a blink of an eye lasted an age.
Hjer caught his rival ́s hand and put it away from his neck. It was easier than he thought. Then Kíirš had to let go Hjer ́s right hand. Then, systematically and slowly, the commander of the defenders kicked his opponent several times. In the end, he caught his broken jaw and disjointed it upwards. Kíirš let go and fell to the grass.
Hjer got up slowly. He looked around and found his keiz. He took it. Kíirš also got up, but he had no weapon. Instead of the victory in a duel he got a hit precisely to the center of his forehead and fell back to the ground.
Theuž bit into another of Kíirš ́s men and now only one soldier and Dhaun remained. The last soldier threw his javelin, but it seemed as if the creature expected it and turned around in that moment. The nair fell into the grass.
In the meantime, Traj and his companions swam to the other side of the river. They knew that they have no other choice. When they reached the bank, theuž spotted them. It left the two surviving men and ran to the water. It ruffled its fold and plunged his head and neck into the water.
Traj ́s face stiffened in a sad agony and disappeared under the surface with the others.
Dhaun used that very moment for his attack. The moment theuž pulled out his head out of the water, a nair hit his neck fold and flew through. The creature made a painful croak and turned.
Kíirš ́s last man ran away. Dhaun held his ground. He unsheathed his keiz and at the same time rushed forward, pulling someone else ́s javelin from the ground. Theuž got frightened and backed into the river.
Dhaun did not have his heavy armour and he could swim. He ran into the water. The monster tried to ruffle its fold, but could not due to pain. In the muddy water, a bloody trace was visible, leading to the mouth of the cave.
Dhaun swam that way. When he reached the crack in the rock, he could feel that the beast caught him by his ankle and was pulling him down to the depths. Dhaun let himself be pulled. Although he could barely see, in the monotone water the pattern on the theuž ́s back stood out. Dhaun stabbed with his nair, but missed. Then he hacked along his ankle with his keiz. He landed a blow and the monster released him.
Dhaun reached the bottom. He quickly orientated and came up to the surface. He had to parry one more attack, but he was succesful and managed to take a breath.
Dhaun had no doubt that injured theuž retreated to the cave and he entered it too. Above the water level, the rocky crack did not lead anywhere, but under water a sizeable waterway ran under the rock. The underwater river continued through the mountain and on the left side one part of the bank sloped slightly upwards. Dhaun surfaced there. But just as he put his head out of the water, the theuž caught it in his jaws.
Dhaun hit him again with his keiz and theuž let him go. The creature retreated again, but not for long. Dhaun was ready for its next attack. The beast jumped at him, but the scout bounced from the bank and he pointed his nair upwards.
Theuž ́s body fell straight on the javelin. The creature, wriggling in a death agony, splashed the water to all directions and snapped with its teeth in the air. Finally it stopped moving.
Out of the original twenty-two defenders, only seventeen remained. The riverbank was swarming with enemies who, in frenzy, tried to kill anyone who opposed them. In the chaos, some of them even attacked their own companions.
Hjer bled from his lip, leg and a shoulder. If the drug let him think, he would consider himself very lucky. He would probably also think that he should not overestimate the powers it gave him. All the other participants in the fight had the same chances.
Three men attacked him at the same time. During the unmeasured time that the fight lasted, he already used and discarded five shields, if his counting was right. Every usable shield that he could wrestle from the enemy meant a slightly higher chances that he will live for the next short while.
Someone died on his left. It was a defender. The palisade started to fall apart.
In that moment, the fire in the tent flickered - and some noise was coming from the left. Very slowly, a cloud of smoke with pieces of soil rose from there. The attackers reacted with a somewhat more natural speed. Some of them got surprised, others angry, but many of them turned their heads to the north, towards the forest.
The fire flickered again and more clods flew into the air. It happened a few more times.
Hjer would love to laugh out of happiness, but he saw that a large part of the enemy host broke away and headed north. He wanted to cry at Péarn, to run away, but from his mouth only some wierd, undecipherable sounds came out.
Another defender died, this time to the south. There was no-one left to fill in the two gaps. In the brighter moment of his drugged mind Hjer decided to abandon his post. He rushed north, decided firmly to buy as much time for Péarn as possible. He found out that four of his companions had the same intentions and they joined him. He could not determine the fate of the others.
A sudden attack confused the raging enemy once more. Many of them still ran towards the trees, but some stopped and looked around, which brought them quick death in the form of keiz.
Hjer hurried forward. He could already see the fluff of colourful clothes that ran away through the accursed damp forest and kept shouting insults.
And then, nairs started to fly through the air. Interestingly, however, they came from the west and fell into the ranks of the attackers. Soon after, shields and keizes followed. The reinforcements were finally there.
In a short moment, Hjer found himself in the midst od his fellow warriors. He stopped and waited until the first lines passed him. When the enemy, now in an unfavourable position, was pushed back to the ford, the commander started to go towards the village. When he got there, he found Péarn, who breathed heavily in front of the patriarch ́s house.
"Why did you save us?" he asked.
"I am such a good soul," she answered. "You were weaker. And we should always help the weak." She breathed and added: "Now you have many men in the forest. I think I will be on my way. Single women are not very safe when the army is near."
"Just wait one or two days. You surely deserve theuž ́s skin, now that you saved mine. As soon as we find it and kill it, if it is not dead already."
Péarn smiled and said: "Your thank you is enough for me." "I like to stick to my word," added Hjer.
"Here we go again. Be quiet, don ́t be a dryasdust. I just can ́t with men like that."
Hjer said nothing. He was thinking about his enormous luck that enabled him to survive until the end of another day. He thought of offering cooperation to the alchemist, but he knew she would not accept. Well, it is a shame. He will probably have to try not to be a dryasdust on his own.
Dhaun crawled out of the water. In the cave, there was a smell so foul it would taint any name given to it in this world or any of the afterlife realms. All around lied half-eaten bodies of soldiers, merchants and horses. Some were already putrifying, other looked fresh and some, so far unscathed, lay in the wide low recess in the back.
The scout sat down and took a breath. He managed to kill the beast. He always knew he will do so once, yet he could not describe his feelings right now. He laughed at the thought, that in the beast ́s cave he is for the first time in the whole day drying up.
Then he heard a noise. It sounded like cheeping of some bird and it came from the recess. Dhaun looked closer and noticed that under the pile of bodies lay eggs. They have started to crack and freshly born younglings were entering the world.
They were the younglings of a theuž, not very different from ordinary animals, that Dhaun had already seen - lizards with strong limbs, tailored to climbing and swimming, and a flap of skin around their necks that they spread when they felt threatened. However, one of the younglings was different - twisted, long and pale, with an asymmetric pattern on the back and a meaty fold instead of a simple skin sheet.
Dhaun tried to catch this whelp, but it easily slipped through his fingers and escaped to the muddy water near the entrance to the cave. At that moment Dhaun understood that his effort was useless. The monster was eternal.