Cradle of the Gods, Book One of the Soulstone Prophecy
Magister Obudar hurried through the arched hallway. He closed his eyes and exhaled trying to regain control of his emotions. He had lived among these humans too long. Adjusting his shoulder plates over his robe, he continued up the stairs to the Bastion’s roof.
The rest of his clansmen were already there.
“The culler has not yet arrived, Magister Obudar,” Getchkin said, inclining his head and stepping slowly backwards as Obudar swept past.
Obudar looked to the skies, squinting out the light his bushy eyebrows didn’t already block.
“Do not use that word, Getchkin son of Glern. Knight justices do not appreciate the title humans give them.”
Getchkin bowed again, this time lower.
Obudar looked out over the stone battlements at the surrounding human settlement of Lakeside. Fishing boats plied Crystal Lake beyond the uniform rows of wooden longhouses. A cacophony of noise pushed up from below, the humans preparing for their summer festival.
Obudar, like most dwarves, did not understand the pleasure humans drew from their incessant celebrations. Though, if he had to make a comparison, he felt it was equivalent to the pleasure he received from a season’s trade fairly concluded where all parties were content. He had to admit, their festivals were good for business.
He thought about his past two decades as magister of the human containment here in the Cradle. He was proud of his record. Under his guidance, and Daomur’s justice, they had produced a steady supply of goods for the empire. Cradle wool was of the finest quality and even the humans’ ales and beers were beginning to demand a price comparable to their own dwarven spirits.
He had faith in Daomur and rarely questioned the laws passed down from the Judges Council in far off Daomount. He understood the dangers they felt the humans posed and the need for the Order of Knight Justices. Yet, he still did not look forward to these annual visits.
Well, the knight justice would arrive, endure the humans’ manhood tests and celebrations and then perform the ritual of attrition on the supplicants. Hopefully none of his charges would be selected for removal. Humans were such emotional creatures and never understood the need for it, even when you explained it to them. It was bad for business.
A loud screech alerted Obudar to the knight justice’s arrival. The gathered dwarves watched as a large griffin and its rider came into view. The two circled over the town, taking a wide route before gliding down onto the Bastion’s flat tiled roof.
The griffin’s talons clicked loudly on the smooth granite in sharp contrast to the muffled thuds of its rear padded leonine paws. White tipped wings flexed convulsively before tucking themselves neatly against its body. Reaching down from his saddle the knight justice patted the griffin behind the wing where her golden tinged feathers gave way to the sleek hair covering the rest of her. The muscles controlling her wings went taut beneath his riding glove, the only part of him not covered in metal.
Obudar was ever impressed by these creatures. Why Daomur bestowed these magnificent beasts upon these knight justices was beyond him. Perhaps it was in compensation for their hard role in life. He did not look on the life of hunting down the progeny of the Hungering God with any semblance of fondness.
“His word is law,” the knight justice called in greeting. He disengaged the riding harness with a practiced slam of his leather covered fist. The griffin lowered her head at the action and in one swift movement the dwarf swung his leg over and slid down.
“His word is law,” the other dwarves responded.
“Thank you, Safu,” the knight justice said. He stroked the griffon’s muscled neck. “You have brought me to my destination in safety and comfort. I thank you. ”
The knight justice unstrapped a large intricately detailed hammer and pack from the griffin’s riding saddle.
“Go now and hunt. Return at my call.”
With that the griffin took to the sky, its muscled wings lifting it in powerful sweeps.
The armored dwarf turned to address them. “I am Knight Justice Finngyr,” he said.
Obudar stepped forward before him and bowed his head. The others followed his example, but bent at the waist as was required by their lower station. Keeping his eyes on the intricate bas relief carved in the knight justice’s greaves, Obudar responded.
“I am Magister Obudar and these are my clansmen and council. We welcome you, Knight Justice.”
The knight justice harrumphed and walked past the bowing dwarves. “I’m sure you do. Show me to your shrine. I must give thanks for my safe arrival.”
He stopped at the doorway and grimaced. “This place stinks of humans. How do you stand it?”
Obudar glanced at his clansmen and read the trepidation on their bearded faces. The knight justice, having not waited for an answer, was already disappearing down the stairway.
Obudar rose to follow, the furrows on his face deepening.
Bad for business.
“Enter,” Finngyr said.
The stout reinforced door creaked open and a young dwarf with a beard that barely cleared his chin stepped in and bent almost completely over.
“His word is law. I am here to serve, Knight Justice.”
Finngyr eyed this new arrival. He was probably one of the merchant’s apprentices, an accountant if the ink smudges on his thick fingers were any indicator.
“Shut the door and help me out of my armor,” Finngyr said.
The young dwarf hastened to comply.
“What is your name, citizen?” Finngyr raised his arms to allow access to the strap’s buckles.
“Bjurst, Knight Justice.”
“Start with the pauldron straps, Bjurst,” Finngyr said.
“You will also tell Magister Obudar I will not be waited on by humans.”
Finngyr had wasted no time upon finding the old human servant in his quarters. Without saying a word, he grabbed him by the back of his servant’s tunic and threw him out into the hallway.
“Of course, Knight Justice. Um, the pauldron is?” Bjurst said, fumbling with the many buckles and straps.
“My shoulders, beardling.”
“That includes my meals,” Finngyr went on, “I doubt they could make a poison strong enough to effect me, but I am not fond of indigestion. ”
Bjurst eyes widened. “None of the cradlers would poison us. They…”
“Cradlers? You mean humans, beardling, humans,” Finngyr interrupted.
“Er, yes, Knight Justice.” Bjurst removed his pauldrons and placed them on the display stand near the bed.
“You have lived too long on the edges of the empire, Bjurst. Never trust a human. No better than goblins. Any of them could be the instrument of the Hungerer’s return.”
Finngyr smirked. Bjurst, swallowing hard, removed the chest plate with some difficulty. The young dwarf carried it to the display stand near the bed, but was obviously struggling with how to hang it. Finngyr let him squirm for a moment.
“Well?” Finngyr said.
“Oh, I’m sorry Knight Justice, I was having difficulty hanging your armor.” He said, obviously not paying attention to what he was doing.
Finngyr scowled. “Place it on the bed. I’ll hang it later. As I was saying, never trust a human. At least the humans of the Nordlah Plains present themselves as they are. Proper savages. One can at least respect their honesty.” He waved his arms around him. “These humans, these cradlers, as you put it, pretend at being subservient. I don’t know how I got assigned here for their culling.”
Bjurst looked down and cleared his throat. “You mean the Ritual of Attrition, Knight Justice?”
“I mean what I said, beardling. Do not presume to correct me. Their culling. Call it what you will, but I do not shy away from the word or the title. I am a culler of these humans.”
Finngyr flexed his thick fists, each one as large as a smith’s hammer and as solid. “I understand these humans here accept Daomur’s law without argument?”
Bjurst nodded. “Oh, yes, Knight Justice. They know and follow the laws.”
“Too bad,” the culler responded, removing a vambrace. He strode over to the arched doorway leading onto the room’s small balcony.
Finngyr felt his jaw instinctively tighten as he stared out over the humans’ sharp angled longhouses. He still did not understand why he had been assigned here. This was his first assignment anywhere but the plains. This place was so docile only one culler was needed to carry out the Lawgiver’s justice. He had prayed on this, but Daomur deigned not to share his reasons.
He removed another vambrace, handing it to Bjurst. Finngyr noted it still held the sheen the initiates of his order had brought out of it back in the capital city of Daomount only a few days prior.
He recalled how the plates of his armor had reflected the light shining through the white arches. The temple’s main chamber sat on the summit of the mountain city, allowing an unobstructed view of sun as it hovered over the ocean. Sweet smelling winds, tinged with sea salt, ruffled the many banners bearing the hammer and balanced scales of their deity.
Finngyr used his peripheral vision to glance at the rows of his fellow knight justices. He could sense the presence of the hundreds he couldn’t see lined up behind him. Never was he more filled with the honor of his sect than during the Blessings.
Every knight justice stood rigid and straight. Before them they held their war hammers, each a relic passed down through generations of warrior priests. Much like themselves, relics from an earlier time. Once they had numbered in the thousands. Those gathered here were all that remained. Those priests chosen by Daomur to seek out and cull those cursed by Haurtu, the Hungerer, the Fallen One.
The temple was silent, except the creaking of leather and rustle of well oiled chainmail. All could hear the shuffle of the high priest’s robes as he ascended the marble steps of the central altar. The ancient dwarf turned and faced them.
“Daomur is the truth and his word justice!”
Their reply shook the very stones. “Let our hammers deliver his truth!”
“It is time to deliver his judgement. Go forth! Find the Fallen One’s chosen and destroy them else their powers grow. Haurtu must not be freed. Daomur’s word is truth!” the ancient dwarf intoned.
“His word is truth,” they shouted in unison.
The sound of armor clanging off the floor jarred Finngyr out of his reverie. He turned to see Bjurst hastily retrieving the piece which had slipped from the bed.
“It seems you are going to learn the art of polishing armor, beardling,” Finngyr said.
The meeting room was filled with deep murmuring. Magister Obudar sat at the head of the stone table, having barely touched his dinner and ignoring the mug of spiced ale the human servant brought right before the room had been sealed and locked.
All the merchant clan’s elders sat around the table. They now complained to one another having tired of complaining to him. At least they all seem to be able to agree on one thing, the most recent knight justice was going to be bad for business.
Elder Fjorn, the head accountant, was still complaining about losing Bjurst, one of his apprentices, to the knight justice as a personal servant.
“Apprentice Bjurst is my most talented pupil and his skills are sorely needed to enter the tithing. If he thinks I am going sit out there and do the job of an apprentice, he has another think coming!”
Obudar did not remember the last time he had seen the business end of Old Fjorn’s wagging finger or those wiggling eyebrows. At one point Obudar thought they had come to life and were trying to escape off the old dwarf’s face, having tired of his complaining as much as Obudar.
He would let them complain for a little longer and get it out of their systems. He considered the ale again and finally decided it couldn’t hurt. Maybe it would settle his stomach. He swallowed a few deep gulps. No need to drink it too fast. A Whispering Rock brew. Good head on this one. He had to hand it to the Brewstons, they were getting better with every season.
He had given them enough time.
“The law is with him,” Obudar said, causing the deep murmuring to slowly trail off like gravel coming to rest at the bottom of a gully. “We cannot interfere with the Rites.”
Old Fjorn raised his finger and shook it at him yet again. “And what will the magister do when he culls half of the Cradle in his religious fervor?” The statement was greeted with many nods.
That was the meat of it. They could deal with all the other issues easily enough. The knight justice had no interest in leaving the bastion before the Rite, so they didn’t need to worry about him causing trouble in the streets. They had already instructed the Bastion’s Overseer to keep the human servants away from his rooms and that food would be seen to. The real question was the Rite itself.
Obudar tugged at the edges of his beard as he considered his options.
“Why did the Guardians send a knight justice who has been assigned to the Nordlah Plains?” Elder Rawson said. “Do they want an uprising? We are not properly manned for that. All of the outlying settlements will be here and the auguries are foretelling record attendance.”
“We will need the druids help,” Obudar said. If they could convince the druids to help keep the peace, they might be able to avoid a disaster. The humans respected the druids and followed their teachings. He knew the druids would want to keep the peace as much as they did.
“Mother Brambles has not been seen for some time,” Elder Pricedar said, adjusting his spectacles as he always did when stating the obvious.
Obudar nodded. They would need the old druid leader. Her towering cave bear alone would be enough. But, there was no telling if she would be there for the ceremony. She did not always attend.
“Have a watch set. I want the first druid to arrive brought before me,” Obudar said. That would have to do if Mother Brambles herself didn’t show. The Elders nodded and a number of smaller discussions on the many other matters of the day’s business ensued. Obudar stared into his cup.
Would the druids help?
Would it be enough?
We are going to cause an uprising.
Gaidel followed closely behind her shieldwarden. She had to return to the Cradle as she had been told, but she didn’t believe Mother Brambles understood what she was asking.
They made their way through a portion of the Redwood her people simply called the Drops. Heavily forested and plagued with dank ravines and tiny rivers that snaked down from the mountains that held the Cradle above them like a small prize. It was the lowest part of the forest that bordered the Nordlah Plains and thus the most dangerous.
The two travelers worked their way along one of those ravines. She paused on a patch of level ground to catch her breath and wipe bits of mud and moss from her thin hands. The sun didn’t reach into the deep ravines and the spring thaw still fed the icy waters that trickled through them.
Two Elks seem to sense she was no longer behind him and stopped. The large kite shield, the mark of a shieldwarden, looked so small on his back.
“The daughter is tired,” Two Elks stated more than asked.
“I am not tired,” Gaidel said, trying to get her breathing under control. True he was setting a grueling pace, but she was not going to give him the satisfaction of admitting it.
She looked around. “I was just wondering if this was the best way.”
It had been over two years since she left the Cradle, but she recalled being escorted down a proper trail. She was only ten and four years when she was selected to become a sister of the order, but she didn’t remember having to climb down sodden ravines.
“I recall a trail that leads through this portion of the Drops. Why are we not on it?” she asked.
Two Elks stared for a few moments and then climbed down next to her. “Trail dangerous. Watched. This way is safe.”
Gaidel considered what she knew about the Drops. It was not uncommon for Two Elks’ people to test their young braves by sending them into the Drops in small raiding parties. The very practice that lead to the hostile relationship between their two peoples and why she knew it was not a good idea for her to be going there now with her new shieldwarden.
Why Mother Brambles had taken her out of the Cradle for her training was still a mystery to her. Why she had been bonded to a Nordlah Plains Barbarian an even greater one. She was the only Redwood Druid she had ever heard of to be bonded to a plainsmen.
She motioned for him to continue. What was done was done. She was a Daughter of the All Mother and Two Elks was bonded to her. Those who did not accept that would find out soon enough how little she cared what they thought. Two Elks continued to stare. She glared at him until he turned back around and continued climbing. With his long reach and honed muscles, he made short work of the remaining climb.
When Gaidel reached the top of the ravine Two Elks was moving towards her with shield and axe in hand, his face hard. “Come Daughter, I have found something.”
“Call me Gaidel,” she said. There was something about the way he said her honorific that irritated her.
She followed behind him for only a short distance. She smelled his find before she saw it. The grizzled remains of two bodies, cradlers by the looks of their clothes, lay mangled on the forest floor.
Gaidel swallowed down bile and brought her staff before her defensively, studying the woods.
“Day only. Less maybe. They are gone now,” Two Elks said.
Gaidel lowered her staff and studied the faces of the two men, hoping she didn’t know them. They had not been fed upon, she noted. Though, they had been savaged well beyond what it would have taken to kill them. She didn’t recognize them, but if they were in the Drops then they were most likely from Redwood village and her father surely would. Gaidel had to know what happened.
Closing her eyes, she breathed in deeply, clearing her mind of thought. She opened her senses. She willed herself to become one with the song and felt the essence of herself spread out and meld with everything around her.
At once the song of the All Mother poured in, filling her like an empty vessel. A song only a daughter could hear, feel, and taste. She sensed more than saw Two Elks protecting her as she swayed with the rhythm. She could feel the song flowing through her. Somewhere in the distance, she could hear herself singing.
Now she could feel the tiny feet of the ants as they thundered across her flesh, carrying their recently found boon down their tunnels deep within her. She was becoming lost within the song, forgetting who she was. She had to concentrate. Remember why she was here. She could feel her roots and the bark on her flesh. She listened to the song as it flowed past her and resisted the urge to be swept up in it.
If she was going to see what happened, she was going to have to sing against the flow of time. It felt like fighting upstream against a raging current. A current that pulled at her inner being. It would be so natural to give in and flow away with it.
She had to concentrate. She knew she was only strong enough to sing against the song for a short time, but if the attack had happened today, she would not have to go far to see what happened.
After a few moments Gaidel opened her eyes and leaned against the staff to keep her balance. She was always disoriented after leaving the song. When she regained her senses she motioned to Two Elks.
“Come, we need to bury them and sing their death. Then we hunt,” she said.
The Cost of Discordance
It did not take them long to catch up with the vargan. Gaidel could hear the growls and grunts that made up their language before she saw them. She slid forward across the ground next to Two Elks. The sun warmed her shoulders as they crawled the last few feet, entering one of the many patches of sunlight filtering through the leafy canopy above.
The strong musty scent of the creatures irritated Gaidel’s sense of smell, but Two Elks had taught her if the wind brought the smell of your prey to you then it hid yours from them.
Peering over the lip of the ravine, the two watched as the vargan fought amongst themselves over their find. The half-eaten carcass of the elk might have been left behind by some other predator that was either sated from the kill or that the vargan had driven off.
The largest of them crouched over the carcass, baring jagged teeth in its wolf-like muzzle, daring the others to challenge its right to feed first. The others stalked around their leader, growling their displeasure.
There were only five of them, a small number, considering the vargan usually traveled in larger packs. Gaidel wondered why this group held so few and why it had risked raiding so close to the Cradle. Vargan were cunning, intelligent hunters and not known to take risks. The Cradle was home to humans and protected by the Redwood Druids. This small pack had chosen to hunt within the Cradle’s boundaries and killed two of its people. Gaidel could still hear the discordant song the trees had sung where she and Two Elks found the bodies. From the trees she had learned the foresters had not provoked the vargan and confirmed the bodies had not been fed upon. To kill for food or in self defense would have at least meant the vargan were living by the All Mother’s laws, but this pack had done neither. They had killed the two men for the pleasure of it. She could not let that stand.
Gaidel and Two Elks rose up from the foliage as one, the bond they shared as druid and shieldwarden communicating intentions quicker than words. The vargan fell silent below them, ears twitching to locate the sound. Two Elks pulled the shield from his back in a practiced movement and slammed his stone axe against it, roaring a challenge.
Closing her eyes, Gaidel breathed in deeply and cleared her mind of all thought. She began to sing. Reality faded from view as she entered the song, flowing along with it. She could feel the Sun’s warmth on the tops of her many leaves, feeding her.
She lilted along the song, searching. There! She could sense them. The vargan’s discordant beat fought against the surrounding rhythm. They were all young males. She growled with the rage she felt within them.
Concentrating, she beseeched the song to follow her rhythms and bring the powers of nature against those who would cause such discordance. The song ignored her as it thundered along. The winds continued to dance, laughing at her attempt to tame them. She was so young and her voice so small. She lowered her pitch and began singing to the trees in their own slow cadence.
At the sound of her song, the vargan attacked. They howled and barked as they fell from two legs to all four to climb out of the ravine.
Two Elks voiced his fury as they came, moving to keep himself between Gaidel and their attackers. Through the bond he sensed the song thundering deep within Gaidel and knew she was unable to defend herself when lost in the song.
The vargan leader reached Two Elks first and sprang out of the ravine, bringing its fangs and claws to bear. It never reached him. Its growl cut off as a large branch swung down with bone crushing speed.
Two Elks raised his voice in thanks to the trees for answering Gaidel’s call. Another branch swung through the charging pack forcing them to leap and dive to avoid the fate of their leader.
The vargan leader shook its head, trying to clear it. Bone jutted through torn flesh at its shoulder. Snarling through the pain it rose only to meet the sharp head of a stone axe.
Two Elks felt the satisfying crunch as he brought the axe down. The vargan would not rise again. He immediately looked for another target. Of the remaining four, two lay on the ground unmoving. The other two jumped and tried to stay away from the swinging trees, leaves and debris swirling around them.
In unison, Gaidel’s song and the trees’ attack ceased. Gaidel opened her eyes and pulled her wooden staff from its leather bonds. She breathed deeply and concentrated to clear her mind and vision. She could still feel the vargan’s pawed feet as they ran across her skin, felt their furred flesh give beneath her wooden limbs.
She could not ride the flows of the All Mother’s song any longer without losing herself in them. She was only just raised as a druid. Though they had never truly fought together before she somehow knew Two Elks was there protecting her until her senses returned.
The remaining two vargan snarled and focused their anger on Two Elks, glancing nervously at the now motionless trees. They slowly stalked towards him, fanning out to present separate targets.
Two Elks seemed to wait as they flanked him. He must have sensed Gaidel had not quite freed herself of the song. He shook his axe to keep his enemies’ attention. He did not have long to wait. They sprang towards him, one coming in low, the other high.
Two Elks raised his shield and pivoted, turning his shoulder to help absorb the impact. Letting the force of the vargan slamming into the shield spin him, he rolled his shield over his head and down towards the ground. The rotation brought his axe up in a low sweeping arc. The axe bit deep into the neck and shoulder of the low charging vargan, throwing it back in a spray of blood. Continuing the motion, Two Elks drove the other vargan, still against his shield, hard into the ground, allowing the momentum to carry him over, slamming his full weight into the now pinned creature.
Gaidel stepped forward and brought her staff down one, two, three times on the creature’s muzzle before it stopped struggling.
Two Elks rose, unsheathing his deer-bone knife, and went to be sure the others would not rise again.
Her first real battle and against five vargan no less. It had all happened so fast. Her hands were visibly shaking. Gaidel took a deep breath and suddenly felt like crying. It felt like she was just now remembering to breathe.
Two Elks returned carrying a number of furred ears still dripping blood. Gaidel drew back in revulsion as he made to hand her two.
“What are you doing?” she said.
He motioned the grisly prize towards her again. “Good kills. These are yours.”
“I don’t want those!” she said.
Two Elks shrugged and started sorting through his pack for something to hold his new trophies.
“Young males forced to leave pack,” Two Elks said as he set about his task. “Leader killed men to show strength.” He glanced up at her. “You fought good.” He seemed to think for a moment before adding, “Gaidel.”
Gaidel started to reply that of course she did and the word he should use is well, but found herself just nodding.
“Hurry,” Two Elks said as he stood and took off in a slow run. “Drops too dangerous come dark.”
Gaidel took one last look at the scene and then hurried to catch up. If they could at least sight the South Falls before it was too dark to travel, they should be safe. In the morning, they would make their way up the cliffs into the Redwood proper. Redwood village was only a short distance from the falls. She would be home.
I found “Canyon Echoes” to be an exciting and suspenseful page turner that I strongly recommend. What stood out most for me was the vivid setting of Yellowstone. There was no question Miranda Nading has an intimate knowledge of the park and its inner workings. I found the detailed descriptions of the park as interesting as the sinister events that befall the characters who call it home. I also really enjoyed the “voice” of each of those characters. There was never any doubt whose head I was in and why, which really brought the characters to life. All in all, a great read!
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