By Scott Bury
This excerpt is from Part 2, Tests. The hero, the socially inept Javor, and Photius, the mysterious traveler from Constantinople, have found a village called Bilavod that had been attacked by Avar raiders, and stayed to help them heal and rebuild. On the second night there, the Avars attack again:
Javor swung his sword, but the raider was quick and skilled and engaged him in a terrifying bout. Time after time, Javor barely dodged swipes of the curved blade. He couldn’t connect and was conscious of his own lack of skill and experience.
The other man knew he had the advantage. He hit Javor on the arm, then on the head with the flat of his blade. He drew no blood, but the pain slowed Javor down. He swung his blade again and missed again. His opponent seemed to go for his chest, but suddenly swiped savagely at Javor’s legs, tripping him. Javor went down hard. The amulet fell out of his jerkin then, but its chain was still on his neck, and Javor grabbed it unconsciously. The curved sword struck his back, ringing on the armour, but it didn’t penetrate.
Javor rolled on top of his sword. He tried to get out his dagger, but the raider brought his down on Javor’s chest. The blow winded Javor, but the armour held, ringing.
He sat up and leaped forward at his opponent’s legs, bringing the man down, and drove his dagger into the man’s face and up into his brain. The raider spasmed, then slumped, dead.
Another blow took off his helmet and blinded Javor. He scrambled to his feet, clutching at his amulet. A huge raider, almost a head taller than him, swung a huge sword at his neck, aiming to take his head off, but missed; Javor felt the wind as the blade swept past his face. He lunged forward, using the dagger-to-the-brain strategy again, and it worked again. He picked his broadsword off the ground and ran to a knot of villagers who were trying to fend off ten or more raiders. From the corner of his eye, he saw yet more climbing the walls. It’s hopeless.
Javor reached the knot of fighters and ran his sword into one’s back, pulled it out and slashed at another raider who was about to decapitate Slawko, the refugee from Kletka. Allia was behind him, brandishing a small knife used for filleting fish. She looked terrified and grateful at the same time, but then Javor jumped past her and killed another raider coming up from behind. It’s no good. There are too many of them.
Photius and Mstys were beside him, then, and pulled them toward one of the buildings where a group of people from Bilavod and Kletka had grouped to make a stand. They had bows, long knives, a scythe, axes and a few captured swords. They stood against the low wooden wall of a store-house, facing ten armoured raiders. Most of them were wounded; Mstys was bleeding from his face, another man—Lesek?— from the leg.
Then Javor became aware of something that had been bothering the back of his mind for some time: it was getting darker, but the time couldn’t be past noon. Dark clouds had covered the sky, which had dawned clear and blue. The light grew dimmer and dimmer. It seemed to be bothering the raiders, who hesitated to attack the villagers.
Photius muttered and the end of his staff started to glow again, but before he could do anything, a cry like a huge raven’s came from overhead. There was a rushing sound, and something huge with wings swept above them.
The raiders looked up, yelling in dismay. The raven’s scream came again, and the villagers cowered, looking skyward. Photius and Javor kept their eyes on the raiders. Then came the rushing sound and something big as a large dog with wide feathered wings dove out of the darkening sky and knocked down a raider.
The thing settled on the ground and folded its wings. It looked at first like a monstrous eagle, but it had four legs: the forelegs were like the legs of an eagle, too, but thicker and more powerful than any bird’s, and its body behind was like a huge cat’s. A hooked beak terminated a feathered head on top of the long neck, also covered in golden feathers, but long ears like a horse’s stuck out on the sides. The beak opened and it uttered a loud, harsh scream.
The raiders ran, scrambling over the stockade, leaving behind their fallen fellows. Someone groaned on the ground, but the villagers were frozen with fear.
The creature looked straight at Javor with huge, yellow, intelligent eyes. It took a step toward him and Javor reached his left hand toward the amulet that hung from his neck against his breastplate.
The creature slowly walked to Javor until he could have touched it with an outstretched hand. It reached a front claw out in an oddly human gesture toward Javor’s chest. Javor clutched the amulet in his left hand and drew out his great-grandfather’s dagger with his right.
The creature jumped back, screeched again and launched itself into the air. With two flaps of its wings it disappeared into the lowering clouds. Rain began to fall. Allia, still holding her filleting knife, fainted behind him.
Javor realized his mouth was hanging open. He stared where the creature had disappeared. “What the hell was that?”
“A gryphon!” Photius exclaimed. “I thought they were extinct since the Scythians were conquered.”
Javor turned to him. “What?” he and Mstys said at the same time.
“A mystic creature, guardian of treasure, servant of the sky gods,” said Photius, still gazing at the clouds. “They lived on the broad steppes. I had thought they disappeared centuries ago. And they have never been heard of in these lands.”
“Well, it’s gone now. I suppose we should be thankful that it came at all,” said Mstys. He looked around at the devastation that had been his village.
“They’ve gone!” called a sentry. “The raiders, their horses, all gone! The creature drove them away!”
Javor and Photius slumped down. “Are you hurt, boy?”
Javor checked. “No, other than a few bruises. No cuts, though.”
“I daresay your amulet protected you again. It seems to like you.” He smiled a little.
“That thing—what did you call it?”
“A gryphon. A creature of the sky. A servant of Zeus. Part lion, part eagle …”
“What did it want?”
Photius looked at Javor. “What else? The amulet. But the amulet did not want the gryphon. And your dagger scared it off. Those items have great power, my boy.”
Javor didn’t know what he meant.
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