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Part One: Chapter 10

The hour wasn’t long past dawn, yet already the day’s heat was building. A feeble wind joined the morning light streaming into King Deserus Oen’s pavilion through many open flaps, providing for the moment a modicum of comfort; but Astelidus knew it wouldn’t last. And though the air was fresh, it was too weak to sweep away the medicinal stench rising up to his nostrils from his bandaged chest.

Bronwyn sat to his left. How splendid it’d been, despite the horrid pain of his wounds, to have her so close over the past week. To Astelidus’ surprise and lasting delight, she’d refused to hand him off to the healers, telling them that he was to remain where she could personally attend him—so thankful was she that he’d saved her life. Since then she’d hardly ceased fawning over him. Touching him. I should strive to become a poorer fighter, he mused, …and be wounded more often. Smiling from this frivolous thought, he turned his head to gaze at her. Dressed in an exquisite gown of yellow-gold and green that mirrored the colors of her hair and eyes, a bejeweled pendant resting between seductive breasts, the king’s niece outstripped in magnificence all the tent’s other treasures combined. And those spoils were neither base nor few—among them ornate coffers, painted vases, silver tripods, and weapons of elaborately etched steel.

Across from Bronwyn, fidgeting in his chair, sat Bastram Narohad: the man chosen just yesterday to succeed Camus Robi as the allied captain. The newness of his rank was evident, but Astelidus knew little, and perceived nothing else, of the man save his obvious warrior stature and frame. Under other circumstances the man might’ve been jesting with Fedrin Rae who held the seat immediately to Bastram’s right; yet today the old man-at-arms seemed equally perturbed. He sat still as stone, frowning and gazing out of the pavilion to the yard—or perhaps to somewhere far beyond. I should’ve known he’d behave like this today. Words shall be spoken he won’t want to hear.

Astelidus’ gaze went next to Torensus Oen, brother to the king and father of the woman beside him…then on to King Deserus himself. Torensus, though in fact the younger of the two siblings, looked quite the elder today with his thin ivory hair and loose, wrinkled skin. In contrast, the king’s face, though lined, was taut, and his eyes seemed yet filled with youthful vigor. Both were dressed in fine dyed tunics, their fingers and thumbs covered in rings and necks draped heavily with gold. Atop Deserus’ thick curls rested Sinia’s crown, and as he too sat quietly in his chair, watching and listening as a servant strummed the harp, one of his hands stroked his bushy gray beard.

Aware of Astelidus’ appraisal, Torensus felt compelled to speak: “Son of Ny, why are you here among us this morning? You’re fortunate to be alive. Surely our blathering won’t speed your recovery…”

“He insisted, Father,” Bronwyn returned, “…against my desire as well. Yet his station allows his presence. Besides…shouldn’t you be praising rather than scolding him?”

To this, Torensus merely frowned and looked away, and the king seemed not to have heard the exchange.

Other captains of high rank, both native and allied, filled the common bench. A few whispered to one another, yet none of these would dare—as Torensus just now had nearly done—disturb the king’s reverie. Astelidus knew them all well: so well that he might venture to predict each one’s very words, or lack thereof, to come. But there was no time for such a game now, for the last council member had finally entered. As Galran of Tholmis took his place, the harp ceased, and all eyes turned to the king.

“What news has reached us since yesterday?” Deserus began, his deep voice cracking slightly from the period of disuse.

A lanky man shot up from the end of the bench and cleared his throat: “My lord, I’m pleased to inform you that, as I promised, my kinsman’s warriors now march to your aid from Relinydd. Though overlong in its marshalling—as you know, and I much regret—the host is quite large: full of able young men eager to test their skills in battle.”

“Eager to wrap their greedy fingers around spoils already won—that’s more like it,” someone announced loudly.

“Silence, Galran!” Deserus roared. “First you keep us waiting, and now you speak out of turn!” The king shook his head in disgust…then he began again in a lowered voice: “Any man willing to slay a Mardothan is a friend of mine, with or without a price.” He looked at the captain from Domal. “Ramesh Anû. Though you’ve vexed me sorely these past months, in the end you proved true to your word. Remain with me this afternoon, and we’ll discuss a suitable reward.”

“My thanks, lord,” said Ramesh with a smile—then seated himself as quickly as he’d stood.

With that over, Torensus leaned in close to his brother as if to confide in him. Yet he spoke so all could hear: “Perhaps these Domalin lads shall fill the void left by our fleeing Haxûdī, you suppose? Though I’m certain no man among them can match the GrimHelm’s might in arms…”

“My brother speaks truly,” said the king. “Though Dragan forsook us in the end, we would not have won through the noon without him among us. No man can deny it. Thanks to his strength and courage, the enemy’s great champions are no more—and only the third wall remains. So, my brethren, I ask now: who among you shall rise in his stead? The war’s not yet won. Reinforcements yet buzz to Crûthior like flies to a rotting carcass. I need a new champion.”

Silence fell within, amplifying the morning bustle of the camp without. Then several men stood all at once, though most appeared reluctant to do so. Bastram, Galran, and even Fedrin Rae were among them.

Astelidus frowned. Can I stand without aid? Frantic, he turned to Bronwyn—only to find her already staring at him. She shook her head no.

“Is this all?” asked Deserus.

“Lord Deserus…half the men present have risen,” said Galran, exasperated. “Would you make heroes of us all?”

“You just received my warning, captain,” the king spoke. “Has the Daemon devoured your wits?” He paused then sighed before adding: “Remove yourself from my sight.”

Galran of Tholmis bowed then stormed from the tent, leaving the eyes of his peers wide.

“What arrogance!” Torensus snapped, his words followed immediately by a loud crash. A chair had overturned nearby, bringing a shattering end to one of King Oen’s fine ceramics. Above the mess wobbled Astelidus—with Bronwyn’s hug about his waist the only thing keeping him from tumbling as well.

Astelidus opened his mouth to beg pardon, but the king cut him off: “What have we here? See now, men? I asked for a hero…and here one stands. With no enemy within his grasp, he’s settled for throttling my vase!”

Great laughter ensued from the men, for a jest had been sorely needed. Even Bronwyn chuckled as she fought to steady her ward. Realizing the king’s call for a new champion had been contrived solely for such a display from Astelidus, the sniggling volunteers soon withdrew themselves. Even Fedrin sat down, though his broad, silver-bearded face had never moved from its awful scowl.

Despite the pain ripping at his chest, Astelidus managed a grin himself. “My lord, you’re too cruel.”

“Seriously, Ny,” said Torensus, “…you shouldn’t be here at all—much less showing off your balls.” He saw Bronwyn’s smile fade. “Forgive my vulgarity, daughter…but we all know it. Astelidus is a brave warrior, but his wounds are grievous. This war shall be long done before he retakes the field.”

“He’s right,” spoke Bronwyn to her patient. “No one doubts your courage, Astelidus…but you’ve done enough. You need only rest now. Let’s go…”

“In a moment, Bronwyn,” said the king, catching her words. “First you must speak to us of the attack that left him in this state.”

And so she did, relaying both what she herself had seen and what Astelidus had afterwards told her from his perspective. It didn’t take long, and when she finished, Deserus spoke again:

“I’m eternally thankful that no harm befell you, niece—and thus to Astelidus, we’re forever in debt. Yet I’m afraid we must hear more from you both: namely, what brought him to your tent in the dead of night?”

Neither Astelidus nor Bronwyn rushed to answer; but, surprisingly, Fedrin Rae stood then unbidden and addressed the king in their stead. His voice was uncharacteristically soft and meek:

“My lord…perhaps these things would be best discussed in private…”

“They have been, of course,” Torensus cut in. “…but not to our satisfaction. These matters are of great importance—thus it’s the king’s wish that his council be informed as well. Bronwyn, you’ll tell us what was last said between you and Dragan before his departure.”

His daughter looked warmly upon Fedrin: “My thanks, friend, but I believe I can manage this.” With a slight nod, the bear retook his seat. Then, after helping Astelidus back into his own, Bronwyn began:

“The answer to your question, Uncle, is easy enough. Astelidus says he saw the Haxûdī torches departing camp—and that he came to my tent seeking the reason behind it. Where does one find such a man as Dragan Saedus? A man of such unfathomable strength and skill, yet utterly devoid of both love and honor? He claimed that his love was true, oh yes—but how could it be? He deserted not only me, who cared for him deeply, but every one of us! And for what? Nothing more than his mother’s whim. Can you believe that? And he claimed he had no choice in the matter. This from the man who refused to bow before the King of Sinia!”

As she paused to catch her breath, murmurs of agreement filled the void left by her voice. Yet her tirade wasn’t done: “Curse Dragan Saedus! If ever he did love another besides himself, it must’ve been the witch who spit him from her thighs! He wouldn’t even delay his retreat one day for the dirge of Camas Robi, a man whom he swore was his dear friend. I say this: let us speak the evil man’s name no more among us. It’ll bring nothing now save ill fortune.” A loud round of approval ensued, but she waved it down then started over in a lowered tone. “You did well to cheer those words…yet you’ll have no praise for what I say next. I’m no warrior. My presence here turns no tides. So perhaps you can forgive my weakness—for in the end, I begged the man to take me with him.”

There was no initial response. Perhaps some of the men were too appalled to speak, yet those who had ever truly loved and lost were hushed not by shock but rather by their own bittersweet memories. Somehow Astelidus too understood, though the empathy did little to quench his anger. You’re mine now, Bronwyn, he reassured himself, …not his! Soon you’ll beg only for me!

After a moment Fedrin spoke again, still wearing his melancholy demeanor. “Long have I watched over you, girl. You’re like my own daughter—if Torensus doesn’t mind me saying it. So if you’d listen to me now, I swear to speak a truth: though I fear you’ll not like my advice well, however much you need to hear it.”

“Go on, Fedrin,” spoke Bronwyn, her temper cooling. “I’ve never dismissed your guidance lightly.”

The big man nodded, this time out of thanks instead of the earlier dismissal. “Nearly all you said of Dragan is true. As his friend, I’d deny it…but alas, I can not. Yet one thing I know to be certain: he loves you still. When your grief is no longer fresh, you’ll see it too. Till then, to shun his name will only cause your thoughts to burn with him the more. Maybe a day will come when he’ll return to us…and maybe not. But if ever it does, trust me—he’ll not need our contempt to awaken his shame. He lives with it now.”

“That’s enough, Fedrin,” Deserus interrupted. “Next you’d have us singing the man’s praises again, and that I won’t allow. Your point’s taken, so let’s move on. It seems more likely the assassin’s blade was meant for Dragan than for my niece, but either way I fear many of us will sleep less soundly in the nights to come.”

In the pause after these words, both Fedrin and Bronwyn retook their seats, and the king clapped for his servants.

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