By Scott Bury
For hot summer days, here’s an excerpt set in a hot July — 1500 years ago.
The Bones of the Earth, Chapter 11: Into Dacia
Javor felt grateful for the extra weight in his pack as he hoisted it to his shoulders. Photius made a flowery, smiling farewell speech, but Javor couldn’t feel anything but regret and dread. He could not meet Mstys’ eyes, and he did not see Lalya anywhere. Mstys does not want her to come near me.
A few other villagers watched them go from the gate. They were not sad to see the pair leave, but they were mourning their dead—especially the young men who had run to their own slaughter. Javor did not see the woman who had accused him of betraying them, of plotting to lead them to the raiders’ spears. Maybe she’s dead.
The two of them stepped down the slope without looking back. Javor checked the sky as he went: clear and blue, with only a few high wisps in the north. The days are starting to get shorter again.
When they were out of sight of the holody, Photius stopped under an oak tree, took out some of his powders and chanted and cast spells. “To keep us hidden,” he explained. Javor didn’t ask what he wanted to hide from, but feared that he already knew: the thing that had swept down from the sky at him on the climb up Ghastog’s mountain, the thing that had smashed against the stockade around his own village. He climbed a large poplar and scanned the landscape as far as he could, but he could not see very far in these hills. He did not feel any better as he jumped down.
“Your amulet, I believe, hides you from their direct sight,” Photius hypothesized in his elaborate way as they walked south.
Walking across country is a slow process, and a day after leaving Bilavod the ground grew steeper in the south. “The Montes Sarmatici reach out toward the west here,” said Photius, pointing left to a succession of peaks that grew higher as they grew more distant. “But we need to cross the hills here, where they’re still relatively easy.” They bent their course slightly westward.
For days, they saw no one: just slopes that grew steeper each day, stands of trees broken by wide meadows, birds, rabbits and squirrels, and once at sunset, a doe and fawn.
“At one time, this was part of the ancient imperial province of Dacia, conquered by the Emperor Augustus, and then further by the great Trajan,” Photius said one day as they walked through gently undulating forests. Far to their left, they could just see the tops of mountains, usually masked by dark clouds. “But when the barbarians attacked—the Goths and the Gepids and later the Huns—the Empire retreated behind its proper frontier of the River Danuvius. Emperor Diocletian, hated and loved in equal measure, had fortifications built along both sides of the river to preserve the sanctity of the Empire.”
The names of kings, empires, countries and peoples meant nothing to Javor, but he tried to absorb as much as he could.
At other times, Photius would continue to teach Javor Greek. “It is the language of learning and culture today,” he explained. “Its superiority over the Latin language of Rome is being proven by the numbers of educated people who depend on the tongue for its precision and verve.” Javor surprised himself with his ease in learning a new language, especially one so different from his own.
One evening when they had crested the hills and had started descending, the weather changed abruptly. Clouds swept over the sky, faster than Javor had ever seen before, and blotted out the remaining light. A sudden flash and roll of thunder split a tree only paces away. Wind hit them like a fist and drove fat, heavy raindrops into their faces. They couldn’t see more than a few steps ahead.
Javor saw a small bluff where a stand of trees struggled to live. “Let’s take shelter there!” he shouted above the din of the rain on the leaves and the roll of thunder in the mountains, which didn’t seem so distant now. The shelter wasn’t much, but the rain didn’t seem to be getting in.
Photius was not happy with Javor’s choice of shelter, but they scurried over, ducking and crouching below some boughs. They were still cold and wet, but they were not quite so exposed.
The storm grew steadily more intense. Bolt after bolt of lightning flashed behind the hills and the thunder nearly deafened them. “Perun must be angry!” Javor shouted.
“The gods are battling,” Photius agreed. “The sky gods are striving against the earth gods for supremacy in the universe. This storm is just the earthly manifestation of that struggle.”
“What do you mean?” Javor shouted.
“What we humans can see and hear and feel is only a miniscule portion of the titanic energies being expended now. It is a struggle we can only guess at.”
Javor could barely hear him over the noise of the storm, but he had to agree about the enormous energies. Just then, a burst of light combined with a terrific crack as lightning burst a tree into fragments just paces down the slope. They ducked as shards of wood and bark flew into their shelter.
The wind changed direction and the rain came into their shelter almost horizontally. In the flashing lightning, Javor thought he saw a deeper shadow at the bottom of the bluff only a few steps away.
“I think there’s a cave over there!” he said, pointing.
Photius squinted against the rain and shook his head. “Caves are dangerous in these parts, Javor. You never know what else may be living in them already!”
“Staying out here could cost our lives!”
Photius considered that for a moment, then nodded. “All right, let’s have a look.” They edged along the bottom of the bluff until they saw that Javor had been right: the shadow was a low, narrow cave. Photius murmured and the end of his staff began to glow. He poked it inside and saw that the cave led inward and turned. “I daren’t look what’s around that corner, Javor. It could be a bear’s den.” They went inside just far enough to be out of the direct rainfall and wind. Photius doused his light and they stood there, shivering and miserable, to wait out the storm and the night.
Sleep was impossible with rainwater dripping from the cave’s shadowy entrance, lightning flashing and thunder rumbling almost continuously. Must be one terrific fight among the gods, Javor thought idly.
The storm finally moved toward the east, fighting in the higher mountains. Without lightning, the cloudy night was almost totally black; Javor couldn’t even be sure he could see his own hand. He shivered. His wet clothes stuck to his skin and his sword-belt chafed, and the straps of his pack dug into his shoulders.
Photius was uncharacteristically silent. He seemed to be staring out into the inky blackness of the night, but Javor couldn’t even be sure his eyes were open. For that matter, are mine?
Gradually, he became aware of a tickling feeling on the back of his head. At first, he thought it was rainwater dribbling down the cave wall, so he shook his head. That stopped the feeling, but it returned a minute later, moving lower. Then Javor realized that whatever it was, wasn’t wet. It moved lower and reached around his neck.
“Gah!” He reached up and felt something he had never felt before: cold, dry, scaly. His hand closed around something as thick as his arm, and he yanked downward, pulling something unseen off the cave over his head. He threw it to the ground as hard as he could and yanked his dagger out of its sheath.
Photius lit his staff, and in its cold, bluish-white light they glimpsed something long and utterly alien scuttling away down the grassy, wet slope.
“Lizard?” Javor asked, panting.
Photius shook his head. “No natural lizard, Javor. We cannot stay here.” Shrugging to adjust his pack, Photius lifted his staff high to give them some light and led the way down the slope, careful to go in a very different direction from the creature that had just attacked Javor. The wind had died and the rain had turned into a miserable drizzle.
“What was that?”
“I cannot be certain in the dark, Javor. But be assured it was no mere lizard. There are not many lizards in these parts, and certainly none that large.”
“Then what was it?”
“Some minor demon,” he answered, almost casually, stumbling on the wet slope in the dark.
“I thought they couldn’t see me!”
“Your amulet hides you from their searches. But if you walk right into their homes, then the demons of the underworld will of course see you. Or at least, feel you.”
“So that cave was the home of a demon?”
“I don’t know. It was probably the home of a bear. It was big enough. Or at least a wildcat or something equally nasty and dangerous. But that cave must have seemed inviting enough for anything in this weather. These lands have long been haunted, Javor. In these dark times, evil grows.”
Scott Bury is an author, editor and journalist based in Ottawa, Canada. You can find more informationabout him, his work and his humour at writtenwords.ca