“Knights of Ennor---the time has come to awake. Rise up to fulfill your secret oath and sacred duty.”
"The second book in The Ancient Earth trilogy begins eight years after the first adventure ends. Freya and Daniel, now grown up, once again find themselves sucked into the underground world of Nioergeard. With the help of ancient knights, immortals, and a well-informed Scotts police officer, they try to save the world from all sorts of fantastical villains. With well over 20 different characters popping in and out of the story, this is a major undertaking for narrator Gary Dikeos. He excels at vocal distinctions and provides accents for Scots, German, and Norwegian knights as well as for characters of all ages and genders who speak dead and modern languages. Listeners are advised to read the series in order."
S.M. © AudioFile Portland, Maine
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A HERO'S THRONE
By ROSS LAWHEAD
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2012 Ross Lawhead
All right reserved.
Chapter One"The Dragon Changed Everything ..."
It is a golf hotel in Galashiels, just over the border. Gentle green slopes of the Scottish lowlands stretched into the distance, the pale, patchy greens only interrupted by an occasional blob of yellow.
They had driven through the day in the police cruiser, arriving at about six in the evening. Alex and Ecgbryt took turns driving. Freya drifted in and out of sleep, still exhausted from her ordeal. Daniel, next to her, gripped the door handle next to him so tightly it was as if he were the only thing holding it in place. Freya would look across to him in the moments when she awoke, and although his eyes were closed, he didn't seem to be sleeping.
They had taken two twin rooms—Daniel and Freya shared one and promptly fell asleep again. And now, on the restaurant's terrace after a hearty meal of meat, potatoes, and gravy, they were listening to Alex talk about dragons.
"It really did. I mean it—the dragon changed everything." Alex paused to let this sink in. "Before then, it was just simple creatures that we were dealing with—the low or single 'elementals' as they're called; trolls, sprites, wisps, that sort of thing. Those sorts wander through our borders all the time, causing trouble, and often wander back out again without anybody taking notice. They're not what you'd call complex creatures, so they can drop through the gates quite easily. When the gates are open, that is—there's sort of a season for it.
"Anyway. We'd noticed an increase in activity lately, but it was very gradual, and nothing we couldn't handle. Ecgbryt and I were monitoring it, and we thought we had more time.
"But dragons are a different kettle of fish all together. Talk about your complex elementals ... They're actually many types of elements all layered together, wrapped up in one. And smart. So smart." He sat back, shaking his head. "Something like that doesn't just drop in from one world to another. It was brought here, possibly pulled here—summoned, maybe—or it was raised here, which is even more upsetting. So this was a new development. Its arrival was no accident or chance circumstance—it was pretty much a declaration of war."
"By who?" Daniel asked.
"That's a good question."
Alex took a long sip of his pint, then cradled it against his chest.
"Was it big?" Freya asked.
"The dragon? Big enough," Alex said, lifting his eyebrows. "I was lucky it was only a hatchling. Ecgbryt said it couldn't have been more than a few weeks old. And it near finished me, even at that."
"How do you know all this?" Daniel asked, leaning forward on the table.
"My family descends from a very small clan in the high-lands—one of the secret clans. We own a distinct tartan, which we never wear. We've been called, through the ages, the 'Nethergrund Cannies,' that is, those that have knowledge of the lands beneath. But really we only use that to refer to ourselves, since we are a very secret clan, and few on this earth have knowledge of the knowledgeable people. It has always been such, and it is best as such.
"Our current appointment goes back through the Forty-Five and the Fifteen, to the fourteenth century. Our purpose was to defend the hidden land in three ways: to protect, to procure, and to uphaud. Protect the portals to the nethergrund, procure provisions for whatever was needful—be it metal or tools for smithing and carving—and to uphaud, to repair whatever tunnels have been felled by time and disuse. When I was a boy, I would be taken underground with my father and my grand-da to walk the tunnels, and I gained the ken. I learned them just as they learnt them, by sight and by memory. We had maps, but they are old and inaccurate. The best way is to walk them yourself. I many times walked the area where you popped up. And killed yfelgópes too."
"Tell them about Ealdstan," Ecgbryt said, placing another empty pint glass in front of him. That made three.
"I met him once, just the once. Grim and uncommon mean, he seemed, although, mind you, I was only eight."
"Why? What'd he do?" Freya asked.
"He argued with my grand-da about something, while my father stood by. None would speak of it to me afterward, but I gathered he wanted me to perform some task—a journey and then a task—but my grand-da refused. Said I was too young and the thing was needless. Aye, I believe it was the same task he sent you both on that he was wishing for me."
"Killing Gád?" Daniel asked.
"Aye, mebbe, mebbe. I don't recall Gád being discussed, but as I said, I was young. My family had many conflicts with Ealdstan over the years."
"They didn't like the direction he was taking. And Ealdstan called them traitors to his cause, although my father attempted to be conciliatory. And for myself? Well, I don't really know what we've found ourselves in the middle of at the moment. If it was just a crazy old wizard, that'd be one thing. But like I said, the dragon changed everything."
"How?" Freya asked. "I mean, I understand that dragons might be a big deal, but how exactly does that change things?"
"Dragons cause all manner of mischief."
"That's a truth, and putting it mildly," Ecgbryt said, signalling for another dark ale.
"Aye, putting it mildly," Alex assented. "You see, it's not just the trouble that they cause in themselves—stealing sheep and livestock, people, pets—it's also the effect they have on the area around them, in what you might say a spiritual sense. They literally depress the entire region they inhabit."
"Depress it?" Daniel repeated.
"Aye," he said with a nod. "I've felt it many times; it's a thick, heavy, dark emotion that sticks to you like tar. Makes you tired, makes you sluggish. Not everyone associates moods with places, and so it takes most off guard. You don't wake up when you want to, you don't go out as often, you retreat into your cave. And when you do go out, you're peevish and fashed, as are the people you meet. Everyone is at one another's throats, knives out—suicides, theft ... it brings out all that is worst in human nature."
He shook his head. "It used to be that we were prepared—the whole country was prepared—against these sorts of attacks. I'm talking about the old days—the golden olden times. The old poems talk more about a knight's virtues than his weapons; read Gawain and the Green Knight, see if I'm wrong. Read Pearl. Think about the knights of the round table; leaders with integrity. The common folk were neither here nor there, and there was an extremely high percentage of enchanters and evil princes per capita, it's true, but society was, on the whole, well-provisioned for means of correction against such mystical incursions. That is not true today. Most don't even acknowledge any sort of spiritual threat—any sort of spirit, even—and those that do have been lulled into an opiate daze by cushy lives, quiet cars, easy jobs, fast food ... a hypnotic dance of colours and social interactions on your computer screen. People fight for their lives, but we've forgotten how to fight for our souls."
"Okay, but what does the dragon mean?" Freya asked, trying to get him back to the topic at hand. "You think the mythical world came into our world?"
"The mystical worlds, yes. There are more than one of them, and with Ealdstan missing and Niðergeard destroyed, our world is vulnerable to invasion."
"Niðergeard has fallen?" Daniel said.
Ecgbryt shifted in his seat. "Niðergeard has fallen," he said. "It is overrun. I blundered in unwittingly and was lucky to escape with my skin when I found yfelgópes roaming the streets, pillaging the smiths and stores."
"How did the yfelgópes organise and mobilise without Gád?" Daniel said. "Was it Kelm?"
"We believe so," Ecgbryt said.
"Who is Kelm?" Freya asked.
"Kelm Kafhand," said Ecgbryt. "Your paths have not crossed with his—even I would not know him to see him. He is the general of the yfelgóp army and moves at Gád's will as if he were his master's own hand. Since Ecgbryt came to me, we've been going over the library top to tail and found no mention of anyone by that name. Not in our library, at least. There were other libraries kept by cannies all over the isles, but over the years they have diminished and lost touch with each other. There once were cannies in Wales, Ireland, and all over England—the West Country, Kent, Winchester—but relations between them wore down over the years, and Ealdstan did not keep them up."
"Okay, so he's invaded Niðergeard," Daniel said. "What are you going to do?"
"Do, young Daniel?" Ecgbryt answered. "What do you think we are going to do? We are going to take it back!" He pounded the table with his fist, making their glasses and cutlery jump.
"Yes!" Daniel shouted. He pounded the table too. "Yes, yes! That's exactly what I wanted you to say!"
Freya, unsettled, looked to Alex. He was more subdued but smiling eagerly.
"What do we do? What do we do first?" Daniel asked, leaning in, his voice a harsh, excited whisper.
"It is no easy task planning to retake the underground realm with just a handful of faithfuls," Ecgbryt said, raising his palms. "Even with the stout party that is gathered here. No, we will need to marshal our resources, build an army."
"What about the sleeping knights?" Daniel asked. "Can we use them? Storm the city in force?"
"Patience, young Daniel, patience! First we would have to locate the knights and the tunnels used to access them. It is not a case of just wandering through the many thousands of tunnels—the old and inaccurate maps and texts would have to be studied and compared to modern ones. Then a route would have to be plotted—not as easy as it sounds—in order to pick up as many knights as quickly as possible."
"That couldn't take that long to do, surely?"
Ecgbryt stroked his trimmed beard and eyed him. "Such an undertaking may require years. Several years at least."
"Years? Really?" Daniel asked, shrinking back in disappointment.
"Years, certainly. Which is why you are lucky"—Ecgbryt's eyelids drooped teasingly—"that we have already done all that."
"Really?" Daniel was as giddy as a child at Christmas. "Freya, that's—" He became aware of the volume of his exclamations and lowered his voice. "This is what I've been waiting for ever since I left—the chance to go back and settle things once and for all. I've been seeing yfelgópes, you know, hunting and killing them. I knew this battle wasn't finished, I knew it! When do we start? When do we invade?"
"Calm down, Daniel," Alex said seriously. "It's not as easy as all of that. We need to do more than just round up the knights. That's just one aspect of the plan, and ... actually, maybe this is a good time to introduce the fifth member of our party."
"The fifth?" Daniel asked.
Alex made a vigorous waving motion into the dark bar area of the hotel. A woman emerged from the shadows; she looked to be about fifty, sturdily built, but trim and fit. She wore pea green slacks, walking boots, a wide tartan scarf, and a beige travelling jacket that appeared as old, hard-worn, and tough as she. Her hair, silver-grey, was pulled back in a short ponytail.
"Daniel, Freya, this is my Aunt Vivienne," Alex said, introducing them.
"'Aunt Vivienne?'" Daniel said, echoing him. "Seriously?" He made an unattractive sideways smirk at Alex.
"Vivienne Simpson—my dad's sister," he explained.
"His baby sister. Call me Viv," Alex's aunt added emphatically. "I'll be joining you"—she lowered her voice—"down under."
"I don't think we can be bringing people's aunts to Niðergeard," Daniel scoffed. "I've been there. Not everyone makes it out alive. I can't be responsible for dragging peoples' aunts through one of the most dangerous places in the country." Vivienne's eyes sparkled as she leaned forward, placing her knuckles on the picnic table.
"Young man," she said in a very lightly accented yet musical voice—was it an Edinburgh accent? "I'll have you know that I can walk thirty miles a day for weeks, if need be. I've hiked up K2 and over twenty Alpine peaks."
"When? Thirty years ago?" Daniel asked.
She didn't bat an eye. "I have made countless trips underground; not just in this country, but all over the world. Have you traversed"—Freya loved the way Viv rolled out the word tra-ver-r-rsed—"the hidden tunnels of the Tibetan mountains? Have you mapped the London subterranean passageways, the forgotten undergrounds, the Fleet River? Do you know where the seventeen sunken churches of Britain are located? Have you taken dives to Llyonesse?"
"Well, no, but—"
"Can you not only read but speak seven dead languages? Young man, if you are to have a hope of returning from the underground realms in one piece, then you will do best to heed my experienced voice." She now straightened to her full height. "And not scoff at assistance freely given. I have already visited the Langtorr, I'll have you know."
"Really?" Daniel asked. "How did you get in and out when Ecgbryt only barely escaped from it?"
"How indeed?" Vivienne said coyly.
"Okay, okay, I'm sold," Daniel said, grinning and holding up his hands.
Vivienne pursed her lips and glared at Daniel, getting the measure of him.
"So that's settled, then. Aunt Viv, please, take a seat. The plan is this: Daniel, you and Freya will accompany Aunt Viv down to Niðergeard—as a special task force."
"A task force to accomplish what, exactly?" Freya asked.
"Fact finding, primarily," Vivienne said. "But we shall also function as agents of opportunity."
"What does that mean?"
"Thereareadditionaltasks—missions,ifyoulike—thatweshall endeavour to complete, should circumstances present themselves."
"Such as?" Freya asked.
"Such as the Great Carnyx," Vivienne said. "It is a large horn—"
"They remember," Ecgbryt said. "They were there; they have seen it.'"
"I do remember," Daniel said. "The horn. It's a bronze sort of thing, long, curved at the top and bottom—made to look like some sort of an animal shouting. You mean that?"
"That's the one," Alex said.
"Hey, I remember—if you blow it, then it wakes up all the knights in the country. Why don't we just get that instead of rounding them up individually?"
"We could if we knew where it was, which is the point of going to look for it. In any case," Vivienne continued, "we're not exactly certain what it does. Do either of you know what the inscription says on it?" They shook their heads. "It's printed up one side and it reads: 'Bláwst þes horn and se æftera here laðiast.'"
The enchantment that Daniel and Freya received on passing through the first arch to Niðergeard still worked, for their minds already understood the words and their meaning.
"'Blow you this horn and summon the next army?'" Freya said. "Is that right?"
"Yes, you have it," Ecgbryt said.
"Why wouldn't that inscription refer to the sleeping knights?" Freya asked.
"It may," Alex allowed, "but it doesn't expressly refer to them. It could be talking about something else. And without Ealdstan to confirm, we just don't know."
"So how do you find out for sure?" Daniel asked. "I mean, if it could be anything ..." Visions of otherworldly armies crossing through fields of mist at the horn's call flooded his imagination.
"It's going to be your job to find out," Alex said.
"You mean find the horn and blow it? Sounds simple enough—if it's there to blow."
"A war is not fought with just might of arms," Ecgbryt said. "It is also won by wit and cunning. Especially when numbers are few or uncertain, a small amount of knowledge can be key. Why, I remember—" He caught himself and frowned, his gaze seeming to turn inward for a moment and then back to them. "I remember times when just a little information has turned the tide of an entire war. That is the sort of information we will need. We not only need to know if this horn can be found and made use of, we need to know what happened to Ealdstan, Modwyn, Godmund, Frithfroth—anything you can find."
"Mostly we want information," Alex continued. "If the worst has come to the worst—and we now have every reason to suspect that it has—then Ealdstan has been imprisoned, incapacitated, or even killed. He would not have allowed Niðergeard to fall otherwise."
Excerpted from A HERO'S THRONE by ROSS LAWHEAD Copyright © 2012 by Ross Lawhead. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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