Part One: Chapter 14
Dragan knelt beside Lomion. The bard was on his back, broken arrow shaft protruding from his stomach. The light in his eyes was fading as he repeatedly choked back the blood welling in his throat.
“A teller of good tales,” said Dragan softly. His tone, however, was less than empathetic.
“And none greater than your own,” the dying man responded, struggling to annunciate his words. “Yet here I am, laid waste…while you endure. It’s not…” The bard coughed, spraying blood in the air. It rained back down on his face—then he was gone.
The stench of Lomion’s loosed bowels hit Dragan’s nose as he reached over to close the man’s eyelids, and for a brief moment thereafter he contemplated his own demise. Will it be as inglorious as this? Did Ûmrothsul Aldrotherin soil his pants when nevermore took him? A part that doesn’t enter the poet’s verse. Who would seek glory if it did? His reverie was broken by footsteps drawing near. He looked up, the light of his torch revealing his caller. Jedan Mûran.
“Where is he?” spoke the DoomBringer.
“We’ve made a tent.”
The two men headed down the line toward the tent that his men had erected hurriedly to care for Ûladriss and other wounded Haxûdī. Hundreds of bodies lay strewn about the ground. Blood ran in a steady stream down gutters on both sides of the road. Dragan observed that most of the bodies belonged to the men of Braured and the imps of Ûnath; and this pleased him immensely, for although he knew it to be unwise, he’d grown to care for the warriors of Haxûd. He took great pride in their prowess and the renown they’d won together.
“How did your son fare?” asked Dragan as he stepped over the Giant of Braured’s corpse, remembering with reservation the alien voice that’d usurped his enemy’s tongue. Whose eyes? Whose voice?
Jedan looked at his captain with his usual stoic expression, then the corners of his lips slowly turned up in a grin. Dragan could remember seeing Mûran smile only once before—when he’d offered the man a swig of prized Tholmian liquor. “He took a captive,” the Haxûdī finally spoke, obviously holding back the details to his pleasure.
Dragan’s eyes widened in amazement. “You never told me you had an older son riding with you,” he mused, playing along.
“Joke all you like, but you’ll not be disappointed.”
Seeing he’d extract no more information from Jedan at present, Dragan didn’t press the warrior. Instead he turned his gaze back to the battleground. The imps were tending to their own dead and injured amidst the wood line. Many were scouring the deceased for spoils: a meager heap. The Haxûdī kept their distance from the imps. Some wore expressions of blatant repugnance…others of genuine amazement…but all let the creatures go about their own business, knowing it was they who’d turned the tide of the battle. Dragan observed one imp hacking feverishly at a woodsmen’s finger that wouldn’t relinquish its thin gold ring; and he noticed another dragging away a horse’s hindquarter: no doubt to feast upon it days later in some lowly den. He felt his upper lip start to curl in disgust and was quickly aware that his men shared his distaste. He needed to locate the lich, who apparently controlled the vile lot, and send them away. Only to be seen again at the gates of Ost.
But Poltoros and his horde of imps would have to wait.
Dragan found Ûladriss unconscious on a cot in the muggy makeshift tent. A handful of wounded or dying warriors surrounded him. Some damned Haxûdī shaman who’d traveled with the band was dangling a talisman—much like the rat stick that’d been brought against the Beast of Thirannon—over his friend’s swollen, bandaged brow, chanting an incantation that was lost to Dragan’s ears.
“Take your trinket and be gone, soothsayer,” spoke Saedus’ son, never taking his eyes off Ûladriss.
"Lord of Doom…please…our brother here must be properly consigned to the afterlife. It’s the way of our people.”
“You’ll be there to greet him if you don’t leave my sight!” Dragan growled, shifting his icy cold gaze from his companion to the shaman.
The shaman grew pale, turning frightened eyes on Jedan, and the rearguard captain gave him a nod of dismissal. The man lowered his talisman and speedily exited the tent without another word.
After a moment, Mûran set one hand upon Ûladriss’ cheek and neck. “A fire grows hot within him. I fear the shaman’s right.”
The GrimHelm opened his mouth to respond but was interrupted. A man had entered the opposite side of the tent, the maroon of his cloak barely visible in the dim light.
“Why is it when tribesmen speak figuratively we think it wise? Our love of poetry, perhaps?” said Poltoros—patronizingly as was his wont. “The man has a fever. His brain swells from the blow he received. He’ll be dead by morning.”
Jedan eyed his captain now, looking as if he expected the man to rip this stranger’s heart from his chest. But to his surprise, the DoomBringer brooked no aggression. Instead, as if to a disaffected family member, Dragan spoke:
“Why must you plague me, sorcerer? Do you take me for a fool? I saw the blade lick his scalp.”
“Then why do you linger? Your mother waits impatiently.”
Dragan’s brow furrowed. “Use your power, steward. Heal this man for me, and I’ll tarry no more. We’ll leave as soon as the dead have departed with escort to Haxûd—well before dawn, if that’s your price.”
“And if not?”
“Then we’ll not leave this spot till all our wounded are dead or recovered. And after that…perhaps I’ll find the need to wander the earth for a year or two, seeking absolution for the men I’ve laid low. Or maybe I’ll find some wench in Hiseod, settle down, and become a goat farmer. I’m beginning to feel domestic.”
“You wouldn’t dare,” spat the lich, but in his mind he was surely weighing the sincerity of the threat. He knew spite was a powerful form of pride and that some men would trade all they had for a taste of recompense against those who had wronged them. “I can’t heal the savage,” he continued, “…yet perhaps I can keep him alive until we reach Ost. Valreecius has tools to relieve the pressure in his skull.”
Dragan nodded acceptance, seemingly lost in thought, before turning again to Jedan Mûran. “See that your fallen brothers are prepared for return to Haxûd according to your custom, but don’t let the shaman protract the ceremony. The men are already exhausted, and we leave before daylight. The sylvans and imps can rot.” He started then for the tent’s exit, parting the leather strapping before looking back at the Haxûdī. “But first…let’s see this captive."
Jedan followed Dragan outside, and the two began another walk. Both were silent now. The sight of their wounded companion had stanched any notion of idle conversation between them—and Dragan’s bruised face had begun to throb with pain besides. It wasn’t long, however, before they found Gavix sitting atop a fallen tree trunk on the side of the road. The boy was oiling his father’s blade. When he saw his master approaching, an expression of unease settled on his countenance. He looked around nervously. The two men loomed over him like towers.
“I was told you fared well this battle,” said Dragan. “Not many men your age could claim such. Tell me whom you’ve captured.”
The boy looked confusedly at Jedan, surprised his lord didn’t already know.
“Your father wished to keep me in suspense.”
Jedan frowned—for it must’ve seemed silly to him now to have played such a game—while Gavix fidgeted. “Your horse is…lost…my lord,” the boy said at last with an effort.
It was Dragan’s turn to frown at this, but he gave no other response. Jedan, on the other hand, snatched his son up by the throat as if the youth were a twig. “You shame me! Why didn’t you tell me this?”
“I…” the boy was choking, “…you were…called away…before…”
Dragan laid a firm hand on the rearguard captain’s shoulder: “Punish him as you see fit later. Time presses me.”
Jedan loosed his grip. The boy slumped back onto the tree trunk, holding his neck and coughing. When he regained his voice, he continued:
“I was taking my lord’s and the marshal’s horses to the rear as bid…but as I rounded the first bend, fighting broke out all around. Chimaron took an arrow in the thigh and went mad! I loosed my grip on Allethion’s reins to control him but was overpowered. He ripped his own reins from my hand and bolted for the woods…and Allethion followed. I ran after them—fast as I could!—until I could run no more.”
“The woods were beginning to get thick, and I was about to turn back when I heard crying in the distance. I made my way to the sound and found an old man lying on the ground. Blood was running from his nose. A girl knelt beside him, weeping like a baby. When she saw me, she tried to run—but I caught her easily enough. She began struggling and shouting that she was the Queen of the Forest and would have me killed…so I pinned her down until she fell quiet. Later, after I’d brought her back to the column, I asked her how the old man had perished. She said a horse had trampled him.”
"Took a captive…” mused Dragan with an affected grin, looking askance at Jedan.
The frown on Mûran’s handsome red face grew deeper as he reprimanded himself internally.
The GrimHelm turned his gaze back on Gavix, who immediately broke the stare in favor of examining the ground. Yet before Dragan could speak, the lad suddenly looked up again and blurted: “I’m sorry about the horses—but I did bring you the Queen of Braured!”
“Have you forgotten who saddled Allethion before me, boy?”
“Tiramas Vendhane. The White King. That horse is worth more to me than a hundred queens of this damned forest! You’ve made a great error in judgment. You’re my retainer, not Ûladriss’. You’re to serve me above all others. So why did you loose Allethion’s reins to corral another’s steed?”
The young man was speechless at first, then finally he mumbled: “I don’t know. I wasn’t thinking. It was instinct, I guess.”
“Exactly. It was instinct for you to aid your own kind over another. Your sense of worth comes from your feelings, not your reason. And that’s why you failed at your duty.”