Part One: Chapter 12
Later in the day, after hours of uneventful trudging, a second report came as expected: another scout down. This one’s ears were missing, and the ear canals had been filled with molten copper. Ûladriss, as he came upon the corpse, was clearly appalled. The first scout’s body had been removed from the road before the company reached its spot, but Dragan had afterwards ordered anything else found to be left as it lay. “Every man of us shall look upon the work of our foe,” he’d said. So it was done. And now a gap opened in the passing column about the second fallen scout as if the body were an area of impassable terrain, with only Dragan and his marshal lingering about it. They scanned their men’s faces as each one surveyed the grisly scene and moved on.
“They’re not afraid, lord,” Ûladriss ensured, “…only shocked, as I am—and anxious to engage this pitiful enemy.”
“I know, friend,” Dragan replied. ”The Haxûdī laugh at fear. And yet…” He paused, reached into his clothing, and brought out the Sun of Domal. “You see this? I wonder just how pitiful these woodsmen are…”
Ûladriss’ expression showed he didn’t understand.
Dragan smiled at the look then returned to serious thoughts. “It was once a thing I prized. A gift from my mother to her little boy.” He ran his finger along one of the rays. “But it’s since become a bane. A summons to her side. A token of my bondage. You say I’m a man without fear, Ûladriss, but it’s not true. I’m afraid of her. Of what she might do. And I fear I may have led you into a trap.”
“Let it come. Death has hung about us since the day we spoke our vows to you. The witch won’t find us easy prey. But why, lord? Why would she turn on you?”
“Because she never gave me leave to depart? Because all my life I’ve handed over the spoils of my victories, but this time I wandered too far and long? Who knows her mind? The uncertainty is what scares me.”
Ûladriss nodded. “No man may truly laugh at fear without ever having felt its grip—yet I’ve not seen you like this before. What’s to stop us simply turning around? Don’t misunderstand me: I ache to battle these vermin, trap or not. But for your sake…” He turned from Dragan and knelt over the dead scout. “I knew this man well. Corun, son of Vagris. He worshipped you and I as gods. If only he’d fallen before the black walls, slain by some valiant Mardothan.”
“You don’t understand,” Dragan sighed. “No one regrets leaving more than I do, but there are things about me—things you must never know—that tie me to her. We must press on.”
The end of the column drew near. Ûladriss stood, waved a retainer over to see to the corpse, mounted his steed, and rode angrily away.
Frowning, Dragan watched him go. It saddens me to shut you out, friend. But would you still follow me if you knew? If you could read what’s written on my collar?
Rising slowly from bent knee, he extended his neck to peer over the trailing men. The vanguard was where he needed to be, but first he’d speak with Jedan. He tugged at the armhole of his breastplate as the rear guard approached: the hot air trapped inside was released, but only to be displaced by the tepid air of the atmosphere. The recurring downpours that were plagues to their travels seemed to have amplified the heat instead of stifling it, and the humidity was oppressive. Dragan wondered when the weather would give way.
It wasn’t long before Mûran approached. He looked grave, as always, and that was well indeed—for this was no time for merriment. “Hail, DoomBringer."
“So…what do the woodsmen mean to do now?” asked the Haxûdī abruptly, looking askance at the mutilated body being carried from the road.
Dragan lowered his gaze to Gavix, who’d just come to his father’s side. The boy’s lower lip was busted, and one ear was as red as a beet—no doubt from the blows of a disappointed father. He stared at the dead man as well. Though it seemed to turn the lad’s stomach, the sight must’ve been more inviting to him than the GrimHelm’s eyes. “I’m told the intent is extermination,” replied Dragan, looking back at Mûran.
Jedan’s countenance didn’t change. “Told by whom?”
He was about to answer ’a deceiver’ when another thought came to him. ’Did you see the warnings?′ Dragan’s eyes were two pools of thought. If this clan was under Saedus’ orders to assault his men, why were they waiting so long? Why all the warding signs? He saw now the folly in his last impulse of fear…
“Lord?” said Jedan, irritated by Dragan’s pause.
“An old friend,” his captain finally answered. The Haxûdī’s frown curved even lower. Dragan set a hand on the man’s shoulder: “Not all things can be explained now, for time is short. The wood’s coming to its end—and if we’re to be attacked, it’ll come soon. Be ready. They may think to surround us.”
Jedan nodded and turned to rally his troops.
The son of Saedus spoke again: “Another thing. Leave the boy with me.”