Part Two: Chapter 16
This would be comical, thought Baeldrin, if everything didn’t depend on it. The subject of his musing, an imp attempting to wield a sword as long as the little blue creature was tall, was obviously having a rough time of it. And, making it worse, the group of goblins nearest the scene—all decked in their new, more-than-slightly oversized gear—actually appeared to be admiring the imp’s folly rather than scolding him (or at the least ridiculing him) for it. If the prince had been closer to these fools just now he’d have issued severe reprimands, perhaps resorting even to violence to get his point across to the whole senseless lot. The armor can’t be helped…all must pick from the same cache…but those blades were set aside for the men of Ost. Why was I praising these creatures before? They’re making it difficult now to remember. From his perch atop the battlements, Baeldrin spied everything that moved through the wild grass below from the castle walls to the forest edge. The light of noonday fell unchecked upon him here, coercing sweat to bead upon his troubled brow—yet all that he felt inside was ice. As usual, the Spider’s welcome on his return had been affected at best, and thus after handing over his haul he’d quickly sought this place of solitude. Am I no different than the talking dead she keeps about her? Has she already laid some spell upon me? One from which there’s no escape?
After a final sigh and disapproving shake of the head, the prince managed to peel his eyes away from the imp’s farce to command a broader view of the field. Scattered amidst the green and blue amalgam that was Saedus’ creatural legion, appearing at a distance like little ant hills about which the insects were crawling, the crude pole tents of the goblins were nearly beyond count. Here and there the smoke from a cook fire plumed lazily into the air; now and again a burst of angry shouting or raucous cackling rose above the drone of barked orders and clanging metal from mass forced drills. Numbering perhaps less than one for every dozen imps and every score of goblins, the human warriors of Ost had wisely been split and relegated to the role of taskmasters rather than being retained as a separate unit: for certainly as combatants in their own right they couldn’t be called elite. By day they mingled with those they’d been entrusted to arm and train, but by night most were allowed inside the walls to sleep or revel or worship in quarters set apart for their own. Yes, worship, Baeldrin recalled with yet another frown. A more fanatical cult I’ve never seen—even amongst the slums of Rardonydd. I’ve seen the carven idols they keep of her…how they kiss the little wooden mouth…how they prick their skin to drizzle blood upon her. Could she have laid a spell on them as well? Each and every man of them? Tonight—after the imps were departed for their dwellings in the black forest and the goblins settled into their gambling and carousing—the human priests would be at it again, leading the most devout in rituals and chants that could stretch on for hours.
But for now the drills carried on; and at their head, walking about like some starving beast pacing the floor of its cage, was the witch’s champion. G’nilbor. Although this was but Baeldrin’s second opportunity to appraise the ghoul since Saedus had dug it up from the Asendath, somehow the prince felt a strong sense of familiarity with the form and nature of his martial replacement. See how they cringe and fall over themselves to get out of his path when he nears? he questioned an anonymous third party in his head. That’s not merely because of his freakish size and mien. Mark my words: already this brute has slain and devoured not a few of those he plans to lead. And look there at Valreecius, even now still by the creature’s side! Surely he must be grinning, like a dog wagging its tail, at his mistress’ handiwork…
At first Baeldrin had been angry with Saedus at what he took for a stripping of his soon-to-come glory on the field of battle—but it hadn’t taken him long to accept the wisdom behind it. Let this daemon do the killing, for all I care. He’s suited well for it. Yet it shall be me who sits the throne…it shall be me who restores the great glory of Domal. Not G’nilbor. Not Dragan. Not Saedus of Ost. Me! I haven’t cringed yet from any means to reach that goal…nor shall I start today. Let them play their parts. They’ll all beg at my feet in the end!
After several moments of observing the ghoul and its keeper, Baeldrin saw a man approach the latter to relay an unheard message. Then, without delay, the moon steward set off, leaving the field to G’nilbor.
Suddenly the ghoul ceased its pacing and stood still, turning its glazed white eyes upon the battlements, searching for something…someone…as if he’d just now read Baeldrin’s earlier thoughts. For an instant the two locked gazes; then came a voice from behind, startling the prince and causing him to spin around:
“Have you not seen enough yet to satisfy?” spoke the sorceress through her sensual, black-painted lips, clearly agitated at Baeldrin’s extended absence (likely more from mistrust in his free roaming than a desire for his company). Dressed in a low cut, embroidered gown of fine emerald-dyed silk, today she’d chosen to wear her hair up, and a single golden torc adorned each lovely white arm.
So beautiful, thought Baeldrin instantly, as he did each and every time he laid eyes on her in a new setting, the effect always difficult to shake regardless of her too-often spiteful words. She must be older than my own mother, yet it doesn’t show. Witchery it is! And that word broke the spell. “I suppose it suffices for now,” he replied at last. “This rabble has but one challenge to outlive. Yet the rest can’t be achieved without initial success. Are there no more beasties you can conjure for us?”
“Your brother’s arrived…” This change of subject—if indeed it was—came out casually as Saedus strode to the crenel adjacent Baeldrin’s and rested hands aside the merlons to take in his previous view. “Are you not aching to see him?”
“Don’t taunt me, woman! That man’s no brother of mine!” Baeldrin had known a reunion with Dragan was soon to come, yet no amount of forewarning could subdue his expressions of hatred for the Bastard of Domal. Unconsciously he clenched his teeth and balled his hands into fists.
“That’s odd. The two of you so favor one another.” Her voice was flat and calm. “Look upon him and tell me he’s not of your father’s seed. You can not.”
“I don’t care what blood’s in him. Acomalath’s likely sired droves of bastards on the palace wenches over the years. Scores of them could be playing about his very feet without him even knowing it. What is it that makes Dragan so different from them? Why did my father not simply deny his claim? Tell me again, witch, if it pleases you…yet I’ll never understand!”
“We’ve no time now for reminiscing. There are matters we must all discuss. Bore holes through Dragan with your eyes if you wish—but know when to hold your tongue! There’ll be no cock waving in my presence, understand?” She was looking straight at him now, wild gray eyes begging him to object so she could stomp him even further into the ground.
“Oh, there’s no need to worry about me. I wouldn’t think of missing a single word from his mouth. Such proud boasts he always spews, yet one of them shall surely damn him before long—and I want to remember exactly which it was.”
Despite the sweltering heat outside, Baeldrin felt the chamber uncomfortably cool and damp, and—although tallow candles sat the table and torches lined the walls— his eyes hadn’t yet fully recovered from the absence of blazing sunlight. He wasn’t so blind, however, as to fail in identifying the pair seated across from him as Dragan and the lich Poltoros…nor so naive as to assume either would rise to welcome him before he took his own seat. Thus, without a word spoken, he plopped down in the nearest chair, waiting for his senses to adjust. Saedus was but a few steps behind him, and now she seated herself at the table’s head.
“Come now, Dragan…have you no greeting for your brother? Has it been so long you don’t recognize him?”
“Longer still it should’ve been, had you not summoned me against my will. Baeldrin loves me no more than I do him…so let’s get on with this, Mother. Tell me why I’m here.” Indeed, it wasn’t these words alone that revealed Dragan’s urgency, for the man appeared as if he’d only just now leaped from horseback. His long brown hair a bit disheveled, and his precious silver breastplate covered in dust from the road, he’d either not had or cared not take the opportunity to wash and groom…or even merely to don a clean robe. A nasty bruise on his left cheek added to the effect.
“Patience…we’ll come to it soon. You’ve traveled many days without that knowledge. A few moments more won’t break you.”
Baeldrin could see plainly the struggle on Dragan’s face. He wants to draw his blade and run you through, witch…right here and now. Yet he dares not. In that one thing we’re alike, half-brother. Perhaps you may yet get the chance, though—if you survive long enough. Perhaps you’ll destroy each other without my lifting a finger. How fitting that would be!
Grinning at her control of Dragan, who’d not uttered any protest, Saedus now moved her attention to Poltoros. “Tell us, counselor, what you perceive to be our tasks at hand.”
Rid now of the death mask with which he’d charged into Braured, the lich sat with cowl pulled back, revealing his grim countenance to those gathered in the chamber. Dry lips parted, and a raspy voice began:
“My mistress, long have you made your goal plain: to win the devotion of all men west of the desert, even as the men of Ost adore you now. It seems to me the most part of this is already achieved. Far to the south, in the land of Haxûd, your sister Falchī has been planted on the throne. She’ll not hesitate to obey you. To the northeast, the Mardothan king Berac has found himself in league with us: not merely through necessity, as it shall first seem to our foes once revealed, but rather through years of your secret efforts toward that end. And—although it may appear the most recent accomplishment, but actually it being the longest in bringing to fruition—your assured alliance with Domal is of greatest importance. What kingdoms then remain, for now, outside your grasp? Dolras? Callas? They are ruins. Ûnath? Braured? Hardly worth mentioning as well, and you need but state your claim to make them ours. The isle of Tholmis will lie defenseless once its Sinian shield is removed, and lawless Addrindain must also yield or else be swiftly overrun by the neighboring Haxûdī. No, it is only Sinia and Ithiria that stand in our way.”
“Thus we must focus now on the Ithiros, for they lie at our doorstep—yet not at the expense of procuring Domal. This is why Dragan and Baeldrin have been jointly summoned. To fulfill our plans, mistress, we must succeed on two fronts before Deserus Oen can react to either one.”
“So you’d have me turn against those I’ve just bled for…is that it?” Dragan was clearly incensed. “To storm the walls of Gethod with your damned fiends at my back?”
“Why storm walls when you can walk right through the gate?” the sorceress posed, her face betraying self-satisfaction with her cunning.
Look at him, Baeldrin sneered inside. It hasn’t even sunk in yet. So preposterous it must seem to his mind.
“No,” Dragan answered. “Your plans can rot in hell! Is no treachery beyond you, Mother? You want me to grasp a man’s arm in friendship with one hand while slipping a knife in his guts with the other? I’ve slain beast and mage-king and hordes of men for you, but this thing I won’t do!”
“Please spare us, Dragan,” Baeldrin chimed in with a snort of laughter. Then he turned his face aside: “Your son’s spent too much time among the Haxûdī, Saedus. Now he fancies he’s possessed of honor.”
Dragan stood so forcefully that his chair toppled and crashed heavily to the floor. Absolute silence ensued. Leaning forward, he placed both palms flat on the table to loom menacingly over his antagonist. A gaze hotter than the outdoor sun fell upon Domal’s prince—and in a voice calm but drenched with threat, the DoomBringer spoke: “As long as I writhe about in the company of such snakes as you, then honor indeed shall ever escape me. Be that as it may. But listen to me well, my brother: if you wish to remain with us in the world above, don’t ever suppose to make jest of me again.”
Baeldrin’s mouth opened immediately to lash out in response, but Saedus stopped him in mid-word: “Enough! I warned you both against such foolishness as this—yet I knew neither would obey. Baeldrin, you’ll remain silent for now. We’ll discuss your part at length, but for the moment it appears Dragan needs further convincing.”
“What else would you say to me?” her son’s face swung angrily to meet hers. “You plucked me from the very eve of glory in Mardotha—and in coming I bore casualties upon the road. Even now my marshal lies on the fence between life and death. All for what? You knew I’d refuse the deed, else why order Poltoros to keep the details from me? Why bring me all the way back here from Crûthior, with Gethod but a stone’s throw from its walls?” For a moment he paused, as if actually expecting his mother to answer. But she merely stared at him with a deepening frown, and thus he continued: “So…now that I’ve come all this way, is there not some other task I might perform for you instead? Perhaps there’s a rogue wizard about? Or a vicious dragon? Do the floors of your rooms need scrubbing?”
He’s pushing it too far, even to be her son, thought Baeldrin, who actually would not have been surprised to see the Bastard suddenly catch fire and burn swiftly to ash—for such a blaze could now be seen in the sorceress’ eyes. Yet Dragan didn’t stop there:
“Answer me this: what’s to stop me dispatching messengers this very hour to Gethod, warning my friends of your intentions?”
“What’s to stop me clawing that breastplate from your chest? What would you be, O mighty DoomBringer, without that rhyme about your neck? What silly names could we devise then to replace your magnificent titles? Shall I give one a try? My son, we waste precious time. Accept it: you’ve no choice! For what I’ve given you, I demand the strictest obedience. You’ve known this from the start.”
In what must’ve been among the greatest feats ever of self-control, Dragan quietly turned and strode to his toppled chair, set it upright, and pushed it back in place. A visibly trembling hand fumbled for something at his side, brought it forth, and set it gently down on the table. No one said a word. One by one he reached for and released the clasps of his breastplate; then he let the whole thing drop to crash mere inches from the sorceress’ feet. Still no one spoke. After one final defiant stare into his mother’s eyes, Saedus’ son exited the chamber.
No sooner than Dragan was gone did Baeldrin reach for the object left on the table. The Sun of Domal. Then, after admiring this a moment, with a covetous eye he gazed upon the armor at Saedus’ feet. Ah, Dragan! Your secret’s no more! Long have I wondered how the craven child became a warrior without peer. It’s more sorcery after all. And now, weakling fool, you’ve left the power within my grasp!
The sorceress guessed his thoughts and spoke quickly: “You’ve discovered a thing you weren’t meant to learn, Baeldrin—and if you’d know more, you must ask Dragan himself. I give you only this warning: don’t ever suppose to don the armor in his stead. It’s not for you. To defy me on this shall bring a punishment most severe.”
“I’ve no need of your baubles, whatever they are,” the prince lied, laying the Sun down before meeting Saedus’ stare.
“Good. For this I’m certain: Dragan will soon come back for it.”