Part One: Chapter 15
Astelidus returned the brush to the crude wooden table and took up the hoof pick again, this time talking to Bellaroth in a soothing voice before attempting to lift her foot. Under other circumstances he likely would’ve been successful in his first attempt, using a bit of gentle force if needed to get the task accomplished faster, but the son of Ny had not yet recovered his health. Of the pair of wounds he’d taken to the chest nearly two weeks past, only the deeper one still ached when he moved about—yet it wasn’t this pain that vexed him so but rather the weakness from an extended time off his feet and away from drills and revelry and glorious battle. Luckily, however, his new calming approach with the horse was starting to have the desired effect, and therefore Astelidus kept up the soft praise as he set about the business of cleaning her hooves. It’s wicked enough that such a fine steed must endure this cramped, makeshift stable for so long, thought the mare’s master. I must slack no more on your grooming.
Horses of any breed or quality were no commodity in Mardotha—nor even in the flowing plains of Sinia, nor in any neighboring land besides—and as such the Sinians made little use of them in pitched battle. Thus, following from this fact, there’d been no erection of an organized, fully staffed and stocked stable complex in the camp. Each warrior in possession of a mount was responsible for tending to it on his own. To be certain, a good horse wasn’t without its uses, outweighing in most cases the troubles in caring for one in this inhospitable realm; but typically those uses were limited to scouting and couriering and the occasional raid or skirmish. Bellaroth had seen her share of action in all of these areas since first arriving at the black walls of Crûthior, and now it occurred to Astelidus that she must be as anxious to return to the field as was he. Oh, and how badly they need us, girl. How badly indeed…
Since the departure of the so-called DoomBringer, the war effort hadn’t been going well for the besieging army, and as Astelidus dwelt on this he remembered a sentry’s words concerning Dragan: “…if not for him, the Mardothans would stream forth like ants from their gates!" The son of Ny frowned deeply. How prophetic were that man’s words! We should set him up as an oracle in one of King Oen’s tents…then everyone’s fortune might be known! This sarcasm was not in the least aimed at self-amusement, for Astelidus knew the situation in the field to be grave. Frustration ruled his mind instead, for he knew himself to be the next true allied champion; and every day he strode not to battle another hero fell—or more ground they’d taken was reclaimed by the enemy. Yesterday’s report had told that the second wall’s breach was now well under repair, the enemy’s workers protected behind the shields of their new reinforcements: a fierce, heavily armed and armored war band said to be under the command of one Birakith the Baneful, close kinsman of the fallen Lion of Agrardob. A few days earlier Fedrin Rae had taken a wound to the thigh and was out of action as well; and still before that the Ithirian captain replacing the late Camus Robi—Bastram Narohad—had been slain during the very first sortie under his command. And whom did they since name in place of him? I forget. Ah…what does it matter?…the poor man will likely join his predecessors within the week…
Footsteps at the door turned his head.
“There you are!” came the voice that had grown sweetest of all in Astelidus’ ears. “What in Daemon’s name are you doing? Don’t you have servants to tend your horse?”
“To keep her fed and watered…yes,” replied Astelidus, unable to keep from smiling giddily at his unexpected visitor—although she, out of genuine concern for his well-being, wore an agitated scowl. “Yet I trust her grooming to none but myself. It can be a delicate business.”
“I hadn’t thought you the delicate sort,” said Bronwyn, her frown lessening a bit as she entered in and moved to Astelidus, watching closely as he went back to work on Bellaroth’s hoof. Today Oen’s niece was dressed in a tight-fitting bodice and breeches that would’ve suited a day of riding quite well, had that been her purpose in coming, and Ny’s son could detect a hint of her fresh smell above the stable’s mustiness. Her long, golden hair was pulled back in a single braid. “But there are many things about you I don’t yet know.” A moment later she placed a light hand on the warrior’s shoulder. “Come…let’s leave this work for another, and we can sit and talk awhile. Surely your retainer can handle this?”
“Retainer?” the red-haired man laughed…although he did lower the horse’s foot and make to rise. “Lady…you’re mistaking me again for another. There’s a crone and a few silly little girls under her…you’ve seen them…who keep my tent clean and my belly full, but I’m not the GrimHelm with his pampering lackeys.” Turning to meet her eyes again—and seeing her scowl return—Astelidus quickly added: “Forgive me…that was a poor jest. On the battlefield I may have a bearer assigned to me, indeed, but none dwell in my lodgings. That’s not the way of…”
“No…you’re right,” said Bronwyn, cutting in to wave away his apology. “It was a slip. I do know some things about you and your clan.” Then suddenly it was there: the smile Astelidus had been awaiting from her.
Saying goodbye to Bellaroth, the warrior took his guest by the hand and led her out into the sun. “One or another of my kin comes each day to exercise her,” said Astelidus of the horse as they headed towards his tent. “She mustn’t wither away as I have. You’re welcome to ride her as well…whenever the mood strikes you.”
“Perhaps I shall,” his companion replied, “…but it won’t be long before you mount her again, I think. You don’t look so withered to me.” Again the smile.
She’s happy to have her hand in mine, thought Astelidus excitedly, his heartbeat quickening a step. It’d been a gamble to boldly grasp that soft, delicate hand, yet apparently the gesture had felt no more uncomfortable to her than it had to him. Will this be the day for us?
Upon entering the tent the pair were offered honeyed wine and a tray of nuts and dried fruits to take with them into the private sitting area; yet as soon as they were alone behind the drawn curtain, Astelidus quickly set all of this aside. His anticipation of greater affection was getting the better of him, and as Bronwyn politely asked her host for permission to sit, he dared reach for her again, hoping to lead her over to his feather-stuffed couch…
This time, however, the warrior had gone too far. Pulling her hand from his, she visibly blushed and said: “Over there will be fine.”
Astelidus—although as disappointed by his presumption as her refusal—tried not to let that disappointment show. Recovering fast, he launched a new topic to dispel the awkwardness. “I hear our new allies from Domal will arrive soon.”
“I’m not sure about that,” said Bronwyn, retrieving her wine then taking a seat across from her guest, “…yet they’re sorely wanted. Let’s hope the rumor’s true.”
“Aren’t you skeptical of these Domalins? If this day was in my grandsire’s time, it would be their spears aimed at us—not them marching to our aid. I’m inclined to agree with Galran, myself.”
“Galran lives to stir up trouble, and this day is our time. Domal’s ruler may yet style himself king…but in truth the twin cities have long been severed at the hip. Have you forgotten how Relinydd’s governor invited a contingent of our veterans into his city to aid in protecting our trade interests there? No, we shan’t have trouble from the Domalins, I think—at least not while Acomalath draws breath. Uncle Oen knows this well, or else he’d not chance an alliance. But don’t think he means to treat them as saviors, regardless of what aid they bring. Like you and Galran, part of him holds to old hates as well. The Domalins are to be seen as mercenaries. Nothing more. And I doubt their battle prowess will rise above that brand.”
Astelidus smiled. “Once again I marvel at your insight, my lady…and that reminds me of something I’ve been meaning to ask you.”
After taking a sip of her wine, Bronwyn returned the grin. “Go on then…ask me…but then you’ll owe me an answer in return.”
“As you wish. Tell me…why is it you left the comforts of Chalemos for this retched place? From how you cared for my wounds I might’ve mistaken you for a healer…but you’re certainly too pretty for a warrior…”
Now her grin gave way to a cute little laugh at the flattery. “I didn’t want to leave—if you can believe that—but father was afraid of what I’d do while he was away. Mother’s been dead for years now…and he trusts his servants better than me to care for the household. Yet now that I’m here, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Satisfied?”
Astelidus nodded and reached for his cup. “Now it’s your turn, then. What do you want to know?”
“Well…to begin with…I’d like to know why you came to my tent the night you took those wounds. Not just what we told the council, but the truth. I didn’t press when you first explained yourself, for your health was my only care…yet I could tell you were hiding something by the look on your face. Am I wrong?”
The son of Ny sighed. “No…you’re right. I didn’t lie to you, for I was indeed curious about Dragan’s departure—just not enough so to risk rousing you in the dead of night. Don’t you know by now how I feel about you, Bronwyn? Daemon strike me, but I wanted to know right then and there how much he’d hurt you by leaving…and I wanted to comfort you if he had…to let you know there’s a better man waiting for you…one who could never abandon you as he did…”
“I don’t wish to speak of him,” she hissed, cutting her admirer’s confession short. “And I’m not blind to your affection, Astelidus, but you’d do better not to be so forward with me. If your coming that night wouldn’t have saved my life, I’d say you were foolish to dare such a thing. What makes you so confident?”
“A man without confidence lives a lonely life,” said her host after a pause to recover from the harshness thrown at him. “As they say: better to have tried and failed than never to have attempted. It’s your smile that makes me confident, my lady—and the gentle touch of your hand. Are my feelings not returned at all?”
“I’d best be going,” said Bronwyn, flustered as she stood hurriedly to depart; but, before she reached the curtain, the warrior grabbed her wrist and pulled her into his arms. For an instant it seemed she might push off his chest and slap him, yet as his lips met hers he felt the struggle melt away. The kiss was passionate—yet for Astelidus over too soon. She peeled herself from him and turned again for the curtain, apparently wanting to leave their parting at that—and he knew this time he must let her go.
Yet even as the curtain still swayed from her passing, she paused at the tent’s front opening to call back to him: “Rest and get well soon, warrior, for more than the thrill of battle awaits you now.”
Leaning back against his couch, Astelidus Ny smiled at his good fortune. If ever we see you again, DoomBringer, I’ll be sure to thank you. Soon I’ll have both your fame and your woman.