Part Two: Chapter 17
Dragan paused and drew a deep breath as he rested a hand on the iron latch of his chamber’s door. He’d been out of his mother’s presence no longer than it took to climb the winding staircase to his aerial abode, and already a great swell of desire washed over his heart for the thing he’d forsaken. His head nodded slowly until his forehead gently contacted the heavy oaken door, and there he rested. His whole body seemed to slouch in weariness. Shall I go back, like some shameless beggar, and plead for its return? Or have my days of glory come to an end? He pulled the latch downward, pushed the door in, and passed the threshold of the room he’d called home for most of his youth.
The chamber was relatively modest with some ornate trimmings. Beneath a deeply stained cherry wood mantel, a brick fireplace was set in the wall adjacent from the bed, its oversized hearth stretching out to meet an impressive red and black Haxûdī rug that covered most of the oak-paneled floor. The rug was a gift from his aunt Falchī for his eighteenth birthday, and it’d taken a crew of men the better part of a day to maneuver it up the spiraling staircases. The bed itself held two sheep’s wool mattresses and was framed inside four tall yet unadorned posts that nearly kissed the ceiling. There was no plaster on the walls, but an array of plain, monochromatic tapestries covered most of the bare stone and did a fine job holding in the fire’s heat during the winter months. A large oaken chair with an oversized red cushion rested in the corner beside the fireplace. On the adjacent wall, one large window let light into the room and held the passage to a small balcony on which a few vines and plants grew.
Dragan removed his boots and sword and plopped down on his bed. Was he already weaker? More exhausted than he’d been an hour earlier? Less agile? He couldn’t tell…but a growing panic was welling inside him which he tried desperately to suppress. His feats of glory flashed before his mind, jumbled together in a collage of blood, sweat, and steel. Moreover, he recalled the revels that’d always ensued afterwards, of which he was the sole luminary: a demigod, even. He saw the awestruck looks on the faces of common men in his presence and the contrived countenances of nobles and kings putting on their best acts not to grovel before his feet and plead for aid. He minded his independence of state, politics, and allegiances. He remembered the stench of the Beast of Thirannon, the sapphire eyes of the Lion of Agrardob, and the voice of the Giant of Braured. The voice. And with this last thought his eyes turned upon the trophy mounted above the fireplace mantel: the silver war mask of Tiramas Vendhane.
Dragan slid off the bed, made his way to the mantel, and—reaching with two hands—removed the helm from the wall. It reminded him of the death mask the lich wore but was more brilliant and detailed than that. Almost theatrical. Its face was gruesome to behold. Brows furrowed, eyes slanted, and mouth turned down in a huge semicircle. All features were exaggerated beyond proportion.
This was the GrimHelm. Dragan rubbed its right cheek absentmindedly with his thumb, his thoughts running back to a time before his name was synonymous with the thing he held…
There exist in the world some things from which a man can’t easily avert his gaze. Fire is one of these things. Be it a candle’s teardrop flame or the clawing blaze of a funeral pyre, it commands the rapt fascination of its onlookers. It’s comforting as an old friend, deadly as the bitterest of enemies, and necessary as the air we breathe. It’s entwined with the most primordial concerns of man: light and darkness, pleasure and pain, life and death.
It was these things the fire kindling in Dragan Saedus’ eyes represented as he wrested a blade from the chest of Tiramas Vendhane and watched the limp body fall clumsily to the dais floor before the palace throne. The flame in his eyes was not like a roaring blaze nor even a flicker of fire: not superficial and palpable, but rather it glowed deep within him, like smoldering embers set within two pools of blackness. As if a blanket of nothingness had smothered the cool blue-green sea and blotted out the warm azure sky—the landscape of his eyes—and replaced it with things colder and hotter. Nor did the orbs revert as Dragan shifted his grim countenance up and looked from one scene of carnage to another.
The throne room of the White King was large and colonnaded, with massive pillars of fine-grained ivory marble that supported a cavernous vault running the entire length of the chamber. The sidewalls were intermittently recessed, inset with many statues of ancient heroes, beasts of the wild, and other mage-kings of old. Between the recesses there were wonderful prizes: armor displays, racks of polished weaponry, and magnificent paintings brought from faraway lands. The floor was granite tile with many embedded glass mosaics. One of these, a white tiger menacingly portrayed on its hind legs with front claws up, poised to strike, commanded the center of the floor. A chandelier in the likeness of an eagle hung above. Its feathers were crystal shards. Its beak and talons were solid gold.
An hour earlier this chamber would’ve been a spectacle of admiration for even the wealthiest king, but as Dragan’s dark eyes surveyed it now he saw only decimation. Here were the charred bodies of the myrmidons, the elite cohort and guard of the White King, strewn about like leaves on a forest floor. He’d become trapped between them and their master—like an unrefined billet caught between hammer and anvil—and here he would’ve perished had Poltoros not come to his aid. Unlooked for, the steward had returned to save the bastard child whom he had helped raise from birth. Those guards closest to the sorcerer as he unleashed his wrath had been instantly vanquished, blown away in great clouds of ash by a jet of blindingly hot fire issuing from his staff; and the few surviving this attack had quickly found the tip of Dragan’s sword as an alternate doom. Yet even as Dragan laid the last myrmidon low, so had the fate of enfeebled Poltoros been wrought.
The lore of the lands west of Agrardob holds that from mankind’s beginning there has always walked a mage-king among them: a man possessed of an arcane power beyond his superlative wisdom and knowledge of the world. The Golden King, Nal’tanos Crimlore, for instance, if the need was dire, could call upon the heavens to rain down thunderbolts on his adversaries; and Tethramel Davin, the Green King, at the kiss of his staff could summon forth roots from the ground to drag his foes down into the bowels of the earth. Ûmrothsul Aldrotherin, the Red King—much like his descendent who lay now spent on the palace floor—could manipulate fire, setting his enemies ablaze at the wink of an eye.
Now the power of the White King was control over bird and beast: no animal was strong enough to resist his call. No sooner than the myrmidons’ failure was secured did Tiramas Vendhane evoke his pet, a great white tiger, from its lurking place and, usurping its mind and body, set himself upon Poltoros. The steward gave no fight when the beast ripped into his flesh, tearing life away, for he was utterly exhausted from spell weaving. Yet, before darkness took him, he beheld Dragan charging headlong in his direction with sword aloft—a cry of anguish escaping the warrior’s twisted lips.
What ensued afterwards is not accounted least amongst the deeds of Dragan Saedus. The slaying of Tiramas Vendhane lay in the slaying of his pet—for, like Poltoros, the White King had expended much energy in working his magic, and his life and the tiger’s were bound so long as he stared through those yellow eyes but perceived with his own mind. The great beast, outweighing his opponent by threefold, at first gave ground to Dragan’s reckless onslaught, warily backing off and leaping aside, forcing the man to waste his blows on the rending of marble columns and granite tile beneath paws and feet. Vendhane was biding his time, waiting for the warrior to tire, waiting for the opportune moment to strike; yet the flurry of his assailant’s sword was relentless.
Dragan was fueled by pain and pride. The only person he perhaps had ever truly cared for had just fallen at his expense, and it was impossible to his mind that the steward’s sacrifice might be in vain…that his own legend would be over before it even began…that the doom scrawled about his neck wasn’t true…
Thus the frenzy of Dragan’s blade so plagued the cat that it was backed into a corner. And there the son of Saedus hacked down his foe into a mire of blood.
Dragan turned the helmet over in his hands. He’d paid little attention to its construction in the past, but now he inspected every curve and buffed every imperfection like he was some damned tinker, all in a desperate attempt to distract himself from thinking about the thing he desired or the ramifications of what he must do to repossess it. He fought to keep his thoughts fallow, like an animal that has no capability for rumination, yet still the inevitability of the choices that lay before him was too great to suppress. His mind was ablaze with torturous deliberation. The great dichotomy of his life was coming to a head, like a stream set out from high atop a mountainside but destined only to become engulfed by some lowly river. Little regard is given to the stream, pure as it might be, for it’s just part of the whole: part of the murky waters into which it spills. So too would the legacy of Dragan Saedus be formed in the coming days, as what honor he still possessed would be lost in his life’s river: that inexorable course wrought when he first placed his mother’s gift upon his chest.
When Dragan, standing on the dais over Vendhane’s lifeless body, had first seen his adversary’s silver war mask hanging on the adjacent wall, his desire had been to don it: for its countenance reflected his mood, and he also desired to hide his face. To let the mask project outwardly what welled deep within. As it was now…standing on the hearth in his childhood abode…he found himself inclined to place the helm on his head once more; and, doing so, he sat down on the chair in the room’s corner. For hours he remained there, motionless as a statue: even after his mother’s servants entered the room, dismayed that he wouldn’t answer their calls.
Still he wouldn’t be stirred…and the servants grew horrified, much like the retinue of the White King had become when they found Dragan on their master’s throne long ago. Those servants, knowing no other name to give him, had called him by that which he wore. GrimHelm.