The Tales of Verbainia
A Startling Choice
On a grey, cloudy evening in mid-November, a simple figure struggled through a crowd of soldiers. Davanio was his name; a young man whose slight frame and smooth chin did not suggest his seventeen years. Aside from his uniform, he looked displaced among the strong, armored men occupying the dead yard outside the barracks. He had to worm a way through the oblivious soldiers, offering mumbled apologies to the shoulders he bumped.
Davanio—or Davi, as he was called—commonly went unnoticed. Outwardly, an ordinary face accompanied his un-athletic build. A childish hairstyle topped his oval head; dark-brown locks hacked-off at his ears and in sparse, uneven bangs across his forehead. Wide, deep hazel eyes peered out cautiously beneath thick brows. Pallid cheeks, a narrow nose and drooping mouth completed the plain, symmetrical face. His manner of dress was remarkably similar. He preferred darker shades, almost always blue and black, occasionally green or brown. The army jacket he wore happened to be his brightest garment, its vibrant light-blue, midnight accents and silver buttons matching the color of Verbainia’s flag.
Davi struggled after his superior officer, Captain Dusanius, whose wide chest cut a path through the soldiers as the prow of a ship navigated ocean waves. Davi floundered in his wake, bumping against the soldiers as they returned to their positions. Suddenly Captain Dusanius ceased his march and he plowed straight into his mail-clad back. The captain turned, his dark brows furrowed in an ugly frown. Davi recoiled and stammered for pardon, but the officer cut him short.
“Who are you?” Dusanius demanded. “Clumsy fool! Fetch Lieutenant Bryant! I need to speak with him immediately.”
“Lieutenant Bryant sent me here to you,” Davi replied.
He attempted making eye contact. Dusanius’ beady dark eyes sunken beneath massive brows always intimidated him as did his towering mass of muscle and width. Besides, the black beard growing untended over his thick neck and chin and the large nose dwarfing the rest of his face, were unsightly.
The captain grunted again. “Usually Bryant has someone useful.”
He lifted his gaze over Davi’s head toward the rest of the soldiers that filled the yard. A different frown than normal burdened his face this evening; a touch of worry rested in those dominant eyes. Davi recalled his lecture earlier that week to his lieutenants, warning that other soldiers would arrive from various cities throughout Verbainia. Here they all had gathered. Something brought them here.
Dusanius scanned their faces again and then stamped his large boot. “Of all my officers!” he muttered in irritation. “Why does Bryant send me an inept peasant boy? Did I forget to mention the soldier has to be capable?” Then he bent his neck to address Davi, no less agitated. “Find Bryant and tell him I shall inspect his men for myself.”
Davi nodded and hurried to carry out the order. Captain Dusanius’ degrading words did not disturb him; he had heard similar ones since childhood. Constant teasing and ridiculing of his small size and lack of strength had been a favorite pastime of schoolmates. They had either left him out of games or given him the least desirable roles. The barracks were no different. The older soldiers usually assigned him the less favorable duties. He had very few friends.
Davi relayed the message to Lieutenant Bryant, the only soldier who he considered a friend. Bryant was a gangly man in his middle-years with a long face and gloomy expression. His uniform always seemed ill-fit; his thin wrists protruded from the sleeves and the middle sagged. Despite his awkward appearance, the troops held Lieutenant Bryant in high regard. Known for ingenious ideas and a creative outlook on ordinary things, even the higher officers asked his advice. His one fault was absent-mindedness. Davi did not fully understand him. It was as if some dark, mysterious secret lay concealed behind those sagging eyes.
Bryant nodded slowly when Davi reported back as if he had expected this response from the captain. His thin, neglected hair that hung in ragged wisps all about his face, stirred slightly with the movement. He stroked the sparse beard which covered his sharp chin and sighed once in submission. Then he waved a lanky arm in a circle to gather his squad. Davi followed him across the decomposing flora toward the silent, stone-grey building and up the three short steps.
Dusanius waited impatiently in the dim corridor, his large arms folded with a darker frown. He grunted in answer to Bryant’s salute and brushed by to inspect his men. The soldiers respected Captain Dusanius but they all disliked him as far as Davi knew. He tended to be loud, ornery and terribly stubborn, lacking even the discipline required of a ranking officer. Lieutenant Bryant was better qualified for the position—he possessed a brilliant mind and a much better disposition. However, Commander Sabor, the highest officer in the Verbainian Army, had promoted Dusanius instead.
The ranks stood at attention as their leader marched past. They wore the same blue overcoat as Davi. All had swords strapped onto wide belts but none wore mail or helms. Dusanius’ brow grew lower the further he went down the line. Perhaps he realized, among the crisp uniforms and discipline of the newcomers, that his barracks lacked something. At last reaching the end of the dim corridor, he whirled about in disgust and stomped back toward Lieutenant Bryant. His large figure filled the hallway as he loomed closer. Davi felt his heart-rate increase and was thankful he was not in Bryant’s boots.
“Lieutenant,” Dusanius barked as he neared them. “Commander Sabor ordered me to provide a soldier no older than twenty-five. Who is your youngest recruit?”
“I sent him to you as requested,” Bryant replied. His thin voice starkly contrasted with the captain’s. “Davi is the youngest man in my battalion.”
“Have you anyone else?” Dusanius asked crisply.
Bryant shook his head calmly. “I have six men at the age of five and thirty years; the rest are older. Davi is the only one who fits your need.”
Dusanius whirled about to face his lieutenant again. His face was animated. “You mean—you wanted me to bring him in before Sabor? Do you realize how insulted he would be? I would not dare!”
Davi could almost taste his foul breath as he bore down on Bryant. The lieutenant smiled though, retreating from his intense face by leaning back against the wall. He shrugged with indifference.
“I think Sabor would find it more shameful that his home barracks was unable to produce a candidate for him. I know, in your eyes, that Davi appears to be no more than a backward serving boy, but I don’t think of him in that way. I believe he has the heart of a true soldier.”
Captain Dusanius backed off slightly to ponder that thought. His gaze turned on Davi to look him over. It was the first time he had ever shown interest in the boy. His scrutinizing gaze lasted well over a minute—to Davi’s discomfort—and the frown never left his face. Then he sighed heavily, the only expression of his that seemed halfway human.
“You seriously believe this boy could prove useful for Commander Sabor?”
Bryant simply shrugged and Dusanius crossed his arms and bent his neck to pace the floor. Davi glanced fearfully at Bryant. He was thankful for his consideration but not entirely sure he wanted it in this case. Davi much preferred to watch activity, never that comfortable participating in it. However, the lieutenant was staring emptily at the far wall, a haunted look deep in his grey eyes. Davi had seen that look before and knew his distant thoughts dwelt on something unpleasant.
Presently Dusanius made up his mind. He lifted his head and planted firmly in front of Bryant. “If you insist, Davi may represent our barracks. If Sabor is displeased, know that I shall place full blame upon your shoulders.”
“Fine with me,” the lanky lieutenant replied.
Davi’s heart skipped a beat as Dusanius lowered his beady eyes on him. “Report early tomorrow morning,” he ordered. “You have a meeting with Commander Sabor.”
Therefore, a bewildered and nervous Davi stepped back out into the frigid wind and rain. He yanked a dark hood over his hat and buried his hands in deep pockets. The cobblestone streets glowed with lantern light in the falling dusk; the warm flames painted the dark buildings orange and reflected crookedly in the puddles. Davi usually enjoyed rainy days. In his youth, the dreary atmosphere served as a perfect excuse to remain indoors. Buried in old books of ancient legends and old heroes, he was never happier. Now the rain seemed depressing and he splashed through it without a thought.
Davi lived in the Rising Star Inn with his bachelor uncle, Bromodo. Fifteen years before, a plague crept through the countryside, claiming the lives of both his parents. New Verano became his home. The city was perched on the seaside cliffs, far above the crashing waves below. Its name had formerly been Shorerock until the southern capital of Verano fell to an enemy. Strong walls and towers fortified the east and north sides; impassible cliffs to the west and south served just as well as fabricated defenses. It was an impenetrable fortress, standing proudly through the wars, a strategic outpost to guard the trading city of Leafhaven further up the river. Now it was dying, just like its country of Verbainia. Everything slid into slow decay. Its people had little hope left for the future. They remained within the walls as if time itself besieged them.
Davi buried his chin deep in his collar, his thoughts drifting back to the civil war which tore his country apart. The pair kingdoms of Verbainia, whose royal families reigned dually since the foundation of their country, turned against each other. The two kings forced a vicious split and half the country took up arms. It began in Davi’s eighth year and he watched his countrymen battled one another for four long years. It stirred a desire deep inside him to save his dear country. As soon as he reached his sixteenth year, he had enlisted. If only he wasn’t too late to help Verbainia! Could this summons be the chance to rise in the ranks he dreamed of?
An icy breath of wind crept through his thin jacket. Davi lifted his head briefly before returning to the road. He recalled his earliest memories of Commander Sabor, Verbainia’s military genius. Seated behind the counter in his uncle’s inn, his little head had been filled with picturesque tales of valor which the mighty warrior had achieved. The inn chatter was full of praise for him. He alone had saved King Frederick’s life when the capital fell, holding back the enemy long enough for the monarch to retreat safely. During the civil war, he had fought alongside Frederick’s youthful son, Prince Inverell. Together, their military expertise led the southern kingdom to victory over King Kerbasi in the north.
However, disaster soon struck the southern kingdom when Prince Inverell fell in a battle with Akordatainia. King Frederick died not long after. Thaymes, the late king’s brother-in-law, held seat upon the throne currently. He relied heavily on Commander Sabor.
However, rumor of his rapidly failing health created a frenzy over the next heir. Davi overheard much talk in the barracks concerning the relatives qualified for appointment. Recently several had met mysterious deaths. First the Count of Tierplane fell dead in his halls. Then his son met with a freakish accident with a carriage and another distant cousin perished during a hunting trip. It became so strange that Commander Sabor issued a guard for the last relative. He even acted as a personal escort, but to no avail. Reportedly, he had dropped dead without warning right in front of Sabor. Were they being murdered by an unseen hand? Most of the soldiers thought it was a curse.
Davi supposed that it was all the sinister work of Verbainia’s ancient enemy, their eastern neighbor Akordatainia. That country was responsible for much of the evil wrought on the dying nation. Their armies had assailed the old capital of Verano. Prince Inverell perished fighting them. Surely these strange deaths were by their hands! Commander Sabor was rumored to be the next choice for Thaymes to appoint as heir. Would he fall victim to assassination?
Davi arrived home at last. He looked up with fondness at the sign of the Rising Star Inn. It dangled above the doorway, weather-beaten and grey. The paint had long since chipped off; now even the raised letters were fading. It was home though; a place where Davi could disappear to escape the noise and bustle of the harsh world. His spirits always rose when he passed under the low doorway and entered as a traveler might do. The warm wave of air which touched his face, laced with a delicious aroma of stewing meat, prompted a faint smile to his weary face. He was home.
The layout of the room into which he entered was simple, if not bare. Circular wooden tables stood on the right side with many chairs around them and a few customers. Along the left side a long counter ran at which to stand or pull up a high stool. A large chimney and stove rose behind the counter. That is where Davi usually found his uncle cooking something over the fire. He wasn’t there tonight; only Janitta minded the stove, an elderly woman who practically lived in the inn. Her figure was shrunken and her hair without a trace of color left. She wore it back in a soft bun, wings of pure white gracing the side of her cheeks. She had outlived her family and since Bromodo had no wife, he employed her to give the place a woman’s touch. She was the closest thing to a mother that Davi had. In his youth he called her Aunty.
“Hello Janitta, I’m home,” he greeted her.
The old woman pivoted from the fire and her shriveled face stretched in a warm smile. “Hello, Davi my boy,” she said. Her voice was rather frail now. “Home early, are you?”
“A bit,” Davi replied. “Where’s my uncle?”
Janitta motioned with her wooden spoon toward the back room. Davi nodded a brief farewell and continued on past the counter. A low doorway led into a cozy sitting area framed by the hearth. Two worn, high-back chairs flanked the mantle with a lower footrest between them. Another door led outside into a back alley with a stack of firewood resting next to it. Davi would replenish it when it grew low, as he had ever since he grew big enough to handle the rough material. Now he paused. Uncle Bromodo sat in the further chair by the fire, his grey head bent over a book. One could easily recognize the family resemblance he shared with his nephew. His facial structure was the same oval shape and his eyes the same color. Even his hair possessed the drooping quality of hanging down over the ears. The only difference was a well-trimmed beard which covered his lower jaw—and the gap in age. The ever-changing firelight exaggerated the lines in his forehead. He looked years older, burdened down by the always occupying nature of his business. Davi had noticed his face growing more serious as of late, especially when pondering over his papers.
Bromodo was by habit a reserved man. He had acquired the nickname of Broody at a young age and only those who knew him well used his full name. One would find conversing with him difficult unless the topic discussed was of interest to him. It was an admirable trait to have for an innkeeper, for Broody gained the trust of many loyal customers. They knew whatever they discussed with him would not reach unfriendly ears. Davi had developed a similar habit of always listening instead of talking.
Broody glanced up when Davi entered and offered the usual brief greeting. Davi returned a simple word and sat down opposite him by the fire. He spread his hands out toward the blaze, working his bottom lip with his teeth. How was he to broach the subject of his appointment tomorrow? Nothing like this had ever happened before. He did not even know what it was about!
After a brief silence, Broody finished reading and shut his book of records with a sigh. “Business is growing worse,” he announced. “At this rate, next year I shall certainly be finished. Heath keeps trying to fill my head with his optimism but I just cannot grasp why he believes such faulty logic. Surely it shall only grow worse over the winter?”
Heath was Broody’s oldest and closest friend, someone he did not avoid openly expressing himself with. Heath owned an alehouse across the street from the Rising Star Inn. The two business men met regularly to discuss the latest news when their duties were less. Often their clashing opinions had roused Davi from sleep when he was younger. Now they generally agreed on most political issues.
“So how were the barracks today?” Broody asked next. “Same as usual?”
Davi usually just nodded and the subject was not broached again. It was a bit of a testy topic, for Broody had not approved of Davi’s decision to join the army. Too many good men were lost in that fruitless profession, he had said. Let other men deal with the selfishness of kings. He had wanted Davi to continue his inn when he grew too old to run it, for he had no children of his own. However, Davi had been more interested in becoming a soldier for Verbainia and so his uncle let him chose his own path.
Now, when Davi remained silent, Broody threw a keen glance his way. He could easily interpret the uneasiness in his eyes.
“Davi, is something wrong?” he asked. There was a touch of sharp concern in his tone. “Nothing bad happened I hope?”
“I—I don’t really know,” Davi said slowly. “I was chosen out of all the soldiers in Bryant’s battalion to appear before Commander Sabor tomorrow.”
“Before Sabor?” Broody exclaimed. “What on earth for? You have been minding your superiors, have you not? Did you do something wrong?”
“Oh no, it isn’t because of that,” Davi assured him. “There are other soldiers going too. I was the only one young enough so they chose me out of necessity. I just have no idea what it is about. Would you?”
Broody leaned back in his chair. His brow furrowed deeply over his round eyes and they withdrew to summon his wisdom. Davi wondered what it was like to have such deep stores of experience and knowledge buried in such a way. He was certain, if he possessed even half the wisdom, that he would be more willing to offer people advice. He watched as Broody folded his hands and drew them over his chest and under his chin. His mouth twitched several times in thought as he mustered his memory to the surface. Apparently, he was unsuccessful in finding any reason, for he had to shake his head.
“I can’t recall anything of this sort happening before,” he admitted. “It may be an army tradition to gather the youngest soldiers, I don’t know.”
“I don’t think this is traditional,” Davi said. “Dusanius had an order to fill and was considerably upset that he did not have anyone better qualified. I just can’t understand why the age matters. What can a younger man do that one twenty-six cannot? It makes little sense.”
Broody nodded solemnly, for he could not argue Davi’s reasoning. “You shall have to find out for yourself what this is about. You report tomorrow already?”
Davi nodded, dropping his eyes quickly. He pretended to study the callus on his hand from practicing archery. He did not want his uncle to see the deep fear on his face that he felt inside. That was a familiar feeling which had been plaguing him since childhood; afraid of not being wanted. He was never fast or strong enough to prove useful to anyone. What would Sabor think of him? He did not want to appear before him all alone in such a way. Well, there would be others there, but he would still be alone.
Broody stirred from his silence then, straightening with a jerk. “It is past the dinner hour.”
Davi rose from his seat and accompanied his uncle into the main room of the inn.
Davi and Broody sat for dinner on the opposite side of the counter that the guests would. Davi was quite hungry and dived into his bowl of the delicious stew which continued to bubble over the fire. He had scarcely taken three mouthfuls when the inn’s door opened. In hurried an older man, around his uncle’s age, lacking both jacket and hat. His silver-grey hair blew in all directions around his animated face. His grey eyes practically bulged with excitement. He breathed quickly, both from the cold and his obvious hurry. He scrambled onto a stool opposite Davi and his uncle, brushing a hand across his nose and scruffy growth on his chin.
“Can I interrupt your dinner with some new news?” he panted.
Broody hardly gave him a second glance. “You have already interrupted us, Heath. Go right ahead; spill it out.”
Heath sniffed loudly and wiped his red nose again. “A man just left my place, not a minute ago, who shared a marvelous tale! He just came in from Fairfax, that eastern lumbering town by the Everlasting Woods! It was such a thrilling adventure that I rushed over here before you smelled of it through someone else.”
“Get along and share it with us, then,” Broody said, still chewing slowly. His face remained disinterested, never as excited or thrilled with tales as Heath. However, Davi leaned forward, always curious to hear anything Heath had to say.
“Well, I sat myself down to give this man my ear,” Heath began, “and what a tale he related! He said he had been up in the woods to deliver some message to the woodchoppers in that area. On his return trip to Fairfax, he encountered a Thunderbird! You have heard, I’m sure, about the frequent attacks that region has experienced of late? Well, I’m sure I would have been terrified, but this man says he didn’t panic. He had seen enough of those fiendish fowls to acquire some tricks to avoiding injury. However, this time, he said, he was right proper overwhelmed. Three of them, there were, and big ones too! He lost his seat on his mount and was very certain he’d lose his life next. Then what does he say? He said a strange figure came bursting through the trees on a glowing horse and fended off the Thunderbirds. It resembled a man of sorts, he said, very tall and wild-looking, and even seemed non-existent, if you take his meaning right. It vanished from his sight as soon as the birds flew off, as quickly and completely as it had appeared.
“What’s more, that is, this man says the lumbermen have seen the strange apparition a few times before. They even had a name for it! The Lerqualto, they’ve dubbed it—and that means bird-slayer in the ancient dialect, Davi. It has protected some of them from Thunderbirds in the same way, appearing when needed and vanishing into thin air afterward. It’s even killed a few of them birds, they said.”
Heath paused a moment to adjust his position and then leaned toward Broody. “What’d you make of it, huh? Pretty amazing, isn’t it?”
Broody continued to eat his dinner through the entire tale, apparently not at all intrigued. “I’m not sure what to think. Was this traveler man of yours sober when he related it?”
“He’d have to have been!” Heath exclaimed. “He’d only just got started on his mug! Don’t you believe it? I saw nothing but truth in the man’s eyes. Of course, I realize the specter aspect of it is a bit wild. He was convinced that it’s a ghost of some warrior who met his untimely death by a Thunderbird and so returned to extract his revenge. I don’t know about that. It seems to me, if there was a restless spirit roaming about this earth, it would choose a worthier adversary to combat with than birds—although if they were the cause of this death…”
“Heath, please!” Broody interrupted him. “There is no ghost wandering about. I’d believe everything that man told you except that this Lerqualto-thing is a specter. If the lumbermen said he dispatched a few birds already, that proves to me that he is quite living. Frankly, I’m more curious as to why this Lerqualto is acting in such mysterious fashion. It seems to me that he is insane. Perhaps he has lost someone dear to those birds and has momentarily lost his sense of reason in his grief.”
Heath’s face visibly fell. Davi could see his disappointment with Broody’s realistic opinion. “Oh, I suppose you’re right, as you usually are,” he muttered. Then he cocked a twinkling eye over at Davi. “What do you think of it, young man?”
Davi straightened his back and his eyes quickly fell back on his bowl. He attempted to conceal a smile. He knew Heath wanted him to back his theory, and although he enjoyed imagining the mysterious aspect of the tale, he knew his uncle was right.
“I’ve never seen a Thunderbird,” he said. “What do they look like?”
The change of subject prompted Heath to lean forward eagerly again. “You’ll rarely catch sight of one this far west, especially by the ocean. I’ve seen a few in my day, and believe me, you don’t easily forget them. They resemble an ordinary vulture in appearance; bald, grey head, sharp beak, dark feathers. The difference is in size—and that’s no slight difference either. Thunderbirds are huge, massive! They are capable of carrying off a man if they’ve a mind to.”
Davi shuddered inside with the thought. Being assaulted by a bird was not very appealing. He could imagine the darting eyes and narrow beak pecking at his head, the piercing talons snatching at his stomach—he quickly shoved the image away.
“I’m surprised they are still around,” he said. “I thought they were all extinct when I was little.”
Heath cocked his head to the side and stretched his eyebrows up with a slight shrug. “Men hunted them almost to death around a hundred years ago, or so. They lost interest then, for they were so few and far between. I think most of them retreated into the deep mountains and left men alone a while. It was only a few decades ago that they began to resurge and in alarming numbers.”
Broody nodded grimly. “There are some things which Man was never meant to dwell alongside,” he said. “I think those fiendish monsters were meant to disappear. Somehow this peninsula was never rid of them. I have heard rumor of greater-sized ones being spotted.”
Heath bobbed his head. “I heard the same thing,” he said. “The descendants of the mighty Rawra are growing more vicious and tenacious in these later years. Fairfax hasn’t seen these many attacks in decades.”
“They’ll never come this far as New Verano, will they?” Davi asked.
Heath laughed. “We can hope not,” he said. “You can never say never though, especially with those things.”
“After what we have been through these last twenty years, I won’t be surprised anymore,” Broody said gloomily.
There was a silence. Then Heath hopped down from his perch and clapped his hands together. “I should be getting back to my own business,” he said. “Let me know if you learn anything more tonight regarding this Lerqualto fellow.”
Broody nodded and wished him farewell. Heath waved to Davi and then hurried outside to race back to the warmth of his own building. Davi returned to his dinner, his thoughts now miles away. He had always lived near the sea and had never seen the vast woods and mountains which were thick in the eastern part of Verbainia. As his mind meandered, he momentarily forgot what the next morning would bring.