There was the clatter of two pieces of wood rapidly striking each other, occasionally punctuated by a boy’s voice crying, “Ow!”
It was after another day of hiking, another day in the wilderness, climbing steadily up from the seashore into low hills, heading back toward the Dark Hills which were in fact mountains.
It was after another meal cooked by campfire, and young bellies now accustomed to wild game were satisfied (except for little Zooey who insisted on only fruits and vegetables similar to what a mouse or rabbit might consume). A nearby stream provided fresh water to slake thirst and for much needed, if chilly, bathing.
By the light of the fire and the stars, the Davidson children sat watching the two combatants earnestly plying their trade, or trying anyway.
“You’re getting better, Taylor.” Dani was slightly winded, but her nine-year-old opponent was almost completely out of breath. “I think you’ll make a fine swordsman someday.”
“What do you mean someday?” Suddenly, he raised his practice stick, another gift from the people of Direhaven, and charged the fifteen-year-old girl.
She dodged easily and laughed. “Don’t be so obvious. I saw that one coming a mile aw…”
Before she finished her sentence, the boy swung the stick low, striking Dani in the ankles and nearly sweeping her off her feet. He used her momentary imbalance to gain the advantage, and only her years of training and experience kept her youthful foe from landing a blow.
“Very good. I’ve underestimated you. Now perhaps…”
Taylor had figured out her weakness. She liked to gloat. If these were real swords and he were someone actually trying to kill her, she probably wouldn’t talk so much. But every time she stopped to brag, her guard dropped a little, giving him another chance to strike.
Another clatter of the two practice sticks together, then another, and another. Taylor had managed to regain enough strength to extend the battle.
Mandy shifted back and forth from watching Dani’s and Taylor’s practice fight, to looking at her siblings. Paris was only mildly interested in the mock battle as she sat with her book, the present given to her by Janellize, open in her lap as she read the arcane script her older sister couldn’t even begin to comprehend.
“Come on, Taylor. You can beat her.” Jake cheered on his older brother.
“Oh no, he can’t. Dani’s a lot better. Do it, Dani. Knock him down again.” Zooey had the mouse Sapplehenning in her lap, softly stroking his fur, but most of her attention was on the pair jumping around on the other side of the fire. Taylor had always been a show off and bragged a lot about how tough he was. She was enjoying seeing him up against someone who was better than he was at something.
Taylor fell on his butt again, but got up before Dani could walk over to help him. He was tired, and the extended session was even beginning to wear Dani out a little, especially after a full day of hunting, scouting, and hiking.
Mandy replayed the day in her mind and then the last week or so. They left Direhaven from a completely different place than the one they’d entered. Dani told her that the ocean they saw when they came out of the tunnel from the elven (or demonic) city, was over a hundred miles from where they went in.
There was only one ocean Dani knew of, and it extended north of Vovin and then to the west. If it weren’t for miles of impassable stone cliffs cutting off the beach, they could have followed it all the way to their destination. Instead, they had to go into another tunnel. This one was arched and very dark. There were times when she thought there were eyes staring at her from the darkness. For an instant, she saw a piercing blue pair waiting for her, but when she looked back. They were gone.
When they finally came out the other side, they started to head inland, back into the hills due east. Soon, they would turn back north and follow the ridge line to finally arrive the vast tree city full of children and dragons, but that was still some distance away.
A couple of times, Dani said she thought they were being followed, but when she circled around behind them to check, there wasn’t anybody, not even tracks. But then after all they’d been through, it was easy to get nervous. They knew now that the demons who had destroyed Shay’s world were in this one, and it was only a matter of time until they encountered them.
Danjiel swung Witherbrand with deft and quick movements, for her foe was cunning and would never give an inch. She couldn’t allow herself to be distracted by the taunting, the gleam of her adversary’s armor, or the legendary prowess with the blade.
In truth, Danijel could die this night with these children as her only mourners. No. She couldn’t let that happen. They depended on her. If she perished, they would be defenseless and die in a slaughter that would take only moments. Parry, parry, thrust. The opponent was good, but not nearly as much as she feared. Parry, parry. This was almost child’s play. Dani felt foolish to have been so afraid. This person was no challenge.
She blocked another swing. The other’s sword flew wildly through the air and into the darkness.
“Now, I have you. You’ve terrorized me and my friends long enough. It is time to die!” The armored dragon rider’s foe was on his back defenseless. With both hands on the hilt, she raised the curved steel sword above her and with all her might, plunged it through his heart.
“Dani!” Mandy jumped up and an instant later so did the others as their friend held the practice stick above Taylor, about to ram the end down on his heaving chest. The worst part was the sick and twisted look of hate on her face.
“Don’t hurt me.”
Dani saw the terror in Taylor’s eyes and then realized what she was about to do.
“Are you all right?” Mandy found herself not at her brother’s side, but shielding him with her body as she looked up at Dani.
“I…sorry.” Dani lowered her ersatz weapon. “Guess I got carried away.” She knelt down. “Did I hurt you?”
Mandy helped him to his feet.
“No. More like scared…” He stopped. Taylor didn’t want to admit that Dani had scared him, but for the last few seconds before he’d fallen, it was almost like the fight was real and she was trying to kill him.
“No. I’m fine. Maybe we should quit for the night.”
“I think you’re right. Let’s go look for your practice stick.”
“It’s over there, in those bushes, just to the left of the tall tree.”
“How do you know that, Zooey?” Mandy had turned and was looking incredulously at the youngest Davidson.
“Sapplehenning got scared and hid in the bushes. He saw which way Taylor’s stick went and told me.”
Mandy had forgotten for a moment that Zooey could not only talk to animals but understand them. She watched Dani and Taylor go in the direction the little girl indicated and wondered again about gifts. Taylor was getting better day by day, not only with his practice sword, but with the bow and spear.
Paris was starting to sing some of the songs out of the elf book in half a dozen non-human languages, and even starting to help Dani teach them what they speak at Vovin.
That just left her and Jake, and Jake didn’t want to talk about his gift.
What did that leave for Mandy? Then she thought about how she had protected Taylor. She didn’t even think about it, she just ran and jumped and covered him. Would she have done the same thing if the sword had been real?
The days passed and the hills became warmer. Only in the early morning or after sunset did they need heavy clothing. During the day, they wore only light coverings. It was like late spring approaching summer back home. Mandy kept thinking about Mom and Dad. Had they given them up for lost?
“We’re coming home. Please wait for us.” She was only whispering. Zooey looked up at her for a moment, but didn’t say anything.
Dani was starting to get nervous. She kept having the same dream about Sakhr and it always ended the same way, but it wasn’t just that. The terrain was changing and even though she’d never been this way before, she recognized it. If they kept going up, they’d eventually get to the plateau in her dreams, the place where she always fought Sakhr. The place where Dani always died.
As they climbed, Paris started singing. She always had a good voice but usually was embarrassed to sing in front of other people. It took everyone except Dani a minute to realize they’d never heard the song before. That’s because it was in an unknown language.
“What are you singing, Sis?”
“It’s a battle hymn, I think.” She half turned back as she answered her twin brother.
“What’s it mean?”
Even Dani didn’t understand all of it, but the parts she thought she could caused her face to go pale.
“It doesn’t rhyme in English but it’s something like this:
“The river runs in forest below
The daring pair stand above.
The mist conceal the hills so green.
They draw their sword anew.
The maid so fair, the fiend so cold
They ready to battle again
Only one fears death
For the brute fears not
The swords are raised above
Yes, she lifts Witherbrand…”
“Witherbrand? That’s Dani’s sword. Where did you learn that song?”
“Um…the book. I mean. I hadn’t realized before…”
“That’s crazy, Paris. How could there be a song about Dani’s sword?” Jake kept trying to peek at his sister’s book, even though he couldn’t read a single word in it.
“Maybe it’s a legend about the sword written a long time ago, right?” Mandy was having the same feeling everyone else was, but tried to lighten the mood. She knew about her friend’s dreams and that song was coming too close to them.
“Well, could be. Anyway. I think this is a good place to stop for lunch. Taylor, come with me. We’ll hunt together. The rest of you know what to do.”
Mandy organized the other children, making sure wood was gathered for the fire and that they replenished their water. It occurred to her that it had been a long time since her brothers and sisters called her bossy. She was still the oldest and took on that role with them, but somehow she’d found a way to help everyone pull together rather than just telling them what do to. She wasn’t being “Mom.” She was being herself.
All throughout the afternoon, Paris kept quiet for the most part, but every now and then, Mandy could hear her humming, as if she wanted to break out in song. Each time, the tune was different, never the same as the one she’d used earlier. What else was she learning from the book, and was it something that was bad for her sister or bad for all of them?
The sun was dipping low on the horizon behind them. Dani said it would be only another day, probably less, before they reached the top and would be able to turn north toward Vovin, however she didn’t seem to be looking forward to it.
For Dani, it was only one more day to find out if her fears would be realized, and if indeed she would be on the field of battle where she would have to face Sakhr one last time. If it were and somehow the demon was there to face her, this death would be the last one.
She remembered the battle but not just because of her dreams. The last practice session with the sticks had seemed so real because just for a little bit, it wasn’t Taylor she was fighting but the demon. If Mandy hadn’t yelled her name in time, she could have really hurt him. If it had been a real sword in her hands instead of a practice stick, she could have easily killed him.
They faced each other again just has they’d done before. Danjiel and Sakhr at Orholt, for such was the name of the plateau.
Dani was looking over the edge of the cliff into the dense wood and the mist covered valley beyond.
She turned to face her adversary, the hilt of her Kilij in both hands.
She was dressed once more in blue and green, the ceremonial armor of Janellize’s people and silvery chain mail. The demon was in colors were red and black, giving her chain mail a scarlet tinge in the morning, mimicking the sunrise.
This time it was different from all the others. Before, it was just Dani and the demon. Now, this morning, with dawn just half an hour old, the five Davidson children sat as witnesses, and if Dani should fall, they would be the demon’s prey.
“I’ve already escaped you. You are frozen in stone awaiting your final destination at the bottom of some water-filled abyss. I defeated you. Even though you murdered me dream after dream, I am still alive and free.
“No, you’ll never be free, Danijel. I will always be with you.”
“What makes you think you will always defeat me, demon?” She stepped back and took an attack posture, then remembered the words of the sisters and frowned.
“You will never defeat me alone, Danijel.”
She winced at the sound of her name. Sahkr had power over her.
The minion of Asmodeus freed the Kilij from its scabbard so quickly, its movement seemed like a streak of liquid light, and Dani,though prepared, barely had time to block a killing stroke.
“But I am never alone, child,” the demon’s sapphire eyes glowed as she shrieked and continued to strike.
Dani was on the defensive and being maneuvered to the cliff’s edge. No, it couldn’t happen again. She wouldn’t let it. Not with the children here. Not when they needed her the most.
“But for a few small oases such as Direhaven, the Dark Hills are ours. You will never survive to complete your mission, or perhaps you will be the only survivor.”
Dani recovered her footing and pushed back against her foe. “If you mean to threaten the children, I will defend them.”
“Is it I who threatens them, Danijel.” She was taunting her with her name.
“I beat you before. I will again.” She was beginning to tire. How had she beaten the demon before? The Mages. It was their spells. They said she needed to trust someone. She’d never beat Sakhr alone.
“I doubt that, my dear twin. I doubt it very much.”
Suddenly, with a two-handed grip, the demon turned her sword toward Dani’s chest and thrust.
An instant before the blade struck, Dani twisted and raised her shield, deflecting the blade.
“What?” The demon cried out in surprise which mirrored Dani’s own. A shield?
She took advantage, and the battle continued with the dragonrider wielding the full power of Witherbrand, drawing first blood or what passes for such among the demonfolk.
Rage added to Sakhr’s strength but at the cost of cunning and subtly. In a way, it was like fighting Taylor, lots of energy, but oh so obvious.
But a demon’s strength was nothing to ignore, and finally, she got past Dani’s defenses. The edge of her blade sliced across the girl’s chest, but her armor was only scratched.
Her armor was different, too. How did that happen?
While Dani was distracted, Sakhr screamed vile, hateful words and swung her sword meaning to remove her opponent’s head.
“No! Dani!” Jake woke up screaming.
“Jake! What is it? What happened?” Mandy was out of her sleeping bag and next to her terrified brother.
“Dani! The demon was going to kill her. I saw it. I…” He tried to slow his breathing as he looked around. They weren’t on the plateau. Dani was sitting up in her sleeping bag and she was fine. Everyone was okay. It was just as dream. But it had seemed so real.
No one could sleep after that, and the eastern horizon was a hazy blue and pink, so Mandy rekindled the fire and they prepared a small breakfast before collecting their gear and setting out.
Dani was surprised to find her rucksack seemed heavier than yesterday and looked inside. At first, the lightweight chain mail seemed to be what she had always carried but she looked again. The metal was different, light but stronger than before, and a different shade of blue, the colors of Direhaven. Next to it was something she didn’t have before. She pulled it out and held it up to the light.
“The shield!” Jake was astonished for a moment, and then remembered the dream about the clown and the knife. “It was in my dream. You have new armor too, don’t you?”
“How did you…you dreamed about me. What did you dream?”
He told her and Dani felt cold. She had only told Mandy the exact details of her dream, and she knew the oldest Davidson wouldn’t share that with anyone because she promised not to. Somehow Jake had dreamed her dream, but only up to a point. He had changed something in the dream, and it became something changed in the real world.
“We’d better get going.” Dani packed away her new possessions, accepting for now Jake’s explanation that his gift involved at least a few of his dreams actually coming true. Maybe she’d find a way to convince him to dream them living in Vovin so as to spare them the dangers they were likely to face ahead.
Once again they started up, the light still being dim and making footing difficult. Fortunately, the stone seemed smooth as they neared the top.
Paris began to sing again, and it was a different song than the others. Mandy looked at Dani as she turned back, but she shook her head telling her that the dragonrider had no clue what the song meant.
Then the girl started singing in English.
Claws gleefully clattering, jaws eagerly chattering
The victors win the day.
Their flesh has been drawn, Sinews tasting like fawn
We demons win the fray.
The dragon’s have perished, betrayed by their kin
The eggs of the hatchlings, are covered in…”
Dani came to a sudden standstill and wheeled on Paris. “Don’t you know what song that is?”
The girl was shocked. Dani had never yelled at her, and the expression on her face was of pain and fury.
“That’s the victory song the demons sang when they murdered the tribal leaders of the dragonfolk, smashing their unhatched eggs, carving up the dead and dying warrior clans, and then…” She was trembling. Tears streaking her face, picking up the first rays of a rising sun.
“I’m sorry. I…I didn’t…” Paris turned and ran back the way they came.
“Paris. Wait.” Taylor chased after her and stopped her. Then for the first time in a long time, they held each other and she sobbed into his chest.
Dani walked to the far edge of the plateau and looked into the distance. There was a thick and lush forest hundreds of feet below the sheer cliff, and in the distance, the valley was covered with fog.
Taylor brought Paris over to Mandy and she held onto her little sister. “I know you didn’t mean it. There’s something about that book. You have to be careful.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
Zooey was holding onto both of her sisters so only Jake noticed.
“It’s her!” He was pointing toward the rising sun and the silhouette that could have been Dani but wasn’t.
Dani turned away from the edge of the cliff and looked into the eyes of the inevitable. She let her cloak fall to the ground revealing the armor she wore and the shield on her left arm. Witherbrand was in her sheath at the girl’s left side.
“I see you came prepared.”
“Yes, Sakhr, and I am not alone.”
“These children fight with you?”
“No, I fight for them.”
“Then you will lose your own life and then theirs as well, Danijel.”
“You may call me by my name as you will. But only I can give you the power to kill me.”
“Shall we test your pet theory?” The demon in the scarlet armor, whose face was a reflection of Dani’s drew her sword. Her opponent in blue did likewise.
“I can’t believe this is happening.” Jake looked up at Mandy.
“We’ve got to do something.” Taylor’s hand was on Celeste’s hilt.
“Stop it, Taylor. You can’t help her now. None of us can. We have to let Dani handle this.”
“You heard her, Mandy.” Paris’s voice was a study of desperation. “If she can’t stop the demon, we’ll be killed, too.”
“What do you want? Should we run away? I’m not leaving her.”
“No one said we should run, Taylor. Besides, how far could we get?” Mandy looked up half wishing, half hoping that she’d see Shay, but the azure sky was clear.
The five of them huddled together and watched, and waited, and prayed.
“This is the final battle, Danijel. How does it feel to know that you’ve already failed?”
“What makes you think you will win, Sakhr? This isn’t the same as before.
They both were in attack posture, slowly circling each other, testing their footwork, eyes locked on one another.
“You will never defeat me alone, Danijel. You lack conviction and the will to do what is necessary, even with the stakes being their lives as well as yours.”
The minion of Asmodeus, her blue eyes bright and eager, wielded her sword as if it were a streak of light, and Danijel raised her shield to block a killing stroke, knowing there were five other lives hanging in precarious balance against eternity, and that she was only thing between them and death.
I wrote this for the #writephoto challenge hosted at Sue Vincent’s Daily Echo. Each Thursday, Sue posts one of her original photos and challenges anyone who wants to participate to use it as the inspiration for crafting a poem, short story, or other creative work. In my case, week by week, I use her prompts to advance the writing of my novel, one chapter at a time. Here’s the latest.
The dream Dani has dreaded for so long has finally come real and she now faces Sakhr in a battle not just to save herself, but the five Davidsons. But how is Sakhr there on the plateau of Orholt when she was supposed to be trapped in stone, a helpless and powerless prisoner of granite?
Jake’s gift has changed things but will new armor and a shield as well as the unknown power of Witherbrand be enough to protect her and defeat the demon?
The next chapter will hopefully have a happy ending or at least not too sad a one as the saga continues.
In the meantime, here’s a partial list of what I’ve written about the Davidson children’s adventures with Dani and Shay so far:
- Mr. Covingham’s Secret
- Wilderness Pilgrims
- The God of the Dark Hills
- Hall of the Mountain Kings
- Sojourn in Direhaven
- Trial at Sakhr
- What Secrets We Keep
- The Uneasy Pact
- The Tracker
I’ll flesh it out as time allows.
Let me know what you think of this story and the very uncertain future of the five Davidson kids. Thanks.
The next chapter is Valley of Blood.