Part Two: Chapter 19
Beneath the archway a mounted man, crestfallen, walked his new steed. On another day such as this in his past, on the back of another horse, he might’ve been already at a trot or even a canter…or perhaps he would’ve charged ahead in full gallop, only to sweep back through the lines of his brave Haxûdī, goading them on toward great deeds ahead. His mood would’ve been light at the least, if not outright ecstatic or even fey, at the outset of such an expedition. His armor would’ve gleamed all over in the sun as he wore it openly, the merest sight of him enough to instill courage into the most craven of followers.
But not this day. This day the son of Saedus hung his head in shame, hid his armor in shame, rode a horse of which he was secretly ashamed, and headed out on a mission that was sure to make his name—and also the names of those riding out with him—synonymous with shame. His path was the road to betrayal. His price was the retention of vanity.
He’d caved in so easily. There’d never been any real doubt he’d go back for the armor, for he had no identity apart from it. Not anymore. He could barely breathe without it nearby, much less ride to battle without it, naked to the stings of cruel fates that swarm about men of common ilk. No, he must do his mother’s latest bidding, as he’d always done before, regardless of the consequences. That was the man he truly was beneath the juggernaut’s shell. A heartless coward.
On the horse walked, and his men came up behind him, most either infected with their lord’s sullen mood or keenly mindful of it. Dragan paid them little or no heed at all.
“So…this is the Spider’s offspring?” a bestial voice boomed on Dragan’s left, yanking him swiftly from his trance. “He doesn’t look it.”
The gloom about Dragan evaporated, and—snapping his head up and to the side, attacking the scorner with rays of sheer hatred streaming from his eyes—he said: “And you’re my mother’s dung and fodder, looking every bit the part.”
At this the ghoul growled low in his throat, and suddenly Dragan was aware of a circle of goblins closing in around him. Some of the Haxûdī nearby reached for their weapons…but their lord lifted a hand as he saw this, like a dog’s master pulling tighter on the leash. His men relaxed then—if but a little—before hearing the ghoul’s next words:
“Come now.” The bulk that was G’nilbor stepped closer, daring to place his grotesque claw upon the reins of Dragan’s steed. “Step down from this animal, and we’ll see who plays the fodder. My belly grumbles. Perhaps I’ll crack open your skull…make a meal of your brains…”
For the first time since his magical breastplate had fully proved its worth to him, Dragan considered its power and found doubt in his mind. Would it truly never fail to save him, even if his own strength waned? He didn’t feel powerful today. Already some of the gloom that’d surrounded him moments ago was returning. Presently he found the ghoul’s unearthly stare unbearable, so he was forced to break from it and look away.
G’nilbor smiled then, savoring the doubt he’d just tasted in Dragan as much as he’d enjoy gnawing the man’s bones. “I thought not,” was all he said, and he released the reins, stepping out of the GrimHelm’s path.
Although he didn’t feel up to it, Dragan had his reputation to uphold. His men’s eyes were affixed to him, studying his every movement. He couldn’t let this fiend have the last word. For him to actually engage the beast here would be folly for them both, regardless of the outcome, for such a thing wouldn’t sit well with their mistress. But…
“If ever I see you, beast, beyond the hills of Ost, you’ll have your chance at my skull. Yet beware. Some would-be meals are poisonous.” And with these words Dragan kicked his horse and rode swiftly ahead, pushing through the ring of goblins to leave their enraged commander cursing him loudly behind.
He kept up a canter until they reached the wood line—but once the trees had swallowed him and his warriors, the branches hanging low on either side of the road, almost in the men’s faces, he slowed them back to a walk. His head hung low again. The brief spar of words with G’nilbor had reminded him of his battle with the Giant of Braured…and that in turn had brought his thoughts back to the White King. He summons you to him, he heard the toppled giant speak again in a voice unlike the man’s own. Go by the swiftest road. What did it mean? Could the spirit of Tiramas Vendhane actually still inhabit the world above? Where would I find him if it did? In the same spot where I slew him? In Addrindain? That’s much too far. There must be another way…
“My lord?” came a familiar voice. Jedan. The rearguard captain had pulled his steed alongside Dragan’s at some point and was now occupying himself with a worried stare at his master. “You don’t seem well…”
“I’m not,” the GrimHelm frowned.
Mûran waited a moment to see if anything more would be forthcoming; but as soon as it became obvious he’d have to pry, he wasted no more time. “Where are we headed now, lord? My men would like to know. And…” He hesitated.
“Is it Ûladriss that’s troubling you? The albino told us not to worry…that he would recover in time. Did you leave instructions for him?”
“Valreecius is no more an albino than he’s a healer, Jedan. He looks and acts the parts, but he’s…something else.”
At this Mûran only frowned a moment before nodding. There were already unanswered questions on the table, and he chose to add no more.
This wasn’t lost on the DoomBringer, and thus he came to the point: “Tell the men we’re headed for long-earned leisure in the halls of our Ithirian friends. In Gethod we’ll grow fat, drunk, and weak to their women’s wiles!”
Jedan was clearly taken aback. This wasn’t like his master at all. Yet still he waited patiently for the next answer.
“As for Ûladriss…” Dragan sighed. Thank the gods he’s not coming with us. I wouldn’t share my shame with any of you, brave warriors, if it could be done otherwise. But Ûladriss, most of all, I’d spare from disgrace. “He’ll stay put until we return or I send for him. Those are his orders. Do you disagree?”
“No, my lord,” Jedan responded immediately, but then a long silence passed between them. The sun broke through the branches above, bringing a fresh burst of heat to the already sweltering day. Below was the sound of hooves crunching dry earth. At last Mûran spoke again. “I’ll repay you for the horse. The price may be steep, but I’ll find a way. Apologies don’t suffice. That damned boy…”
“Speaking of the boy,” said Dragan, ignoring the comment on his lost steed, “…how’s he enjoying his captive?”
Mûran looked as if he’d roll his eyes but thought better of it. “It’s fitting we should keep the girl as our hostage, but…forgive me…wouldn’t it be wiser for a veteran to guard her? Dealing with her may seem punishment for Gavix at first—she is quite feisty—but you know how such things tend to go. He needs no distractions of that sort. He should be…” Jedan tugged at his black goatee as he considered something. “He should be out scouring the countryside for your steed…that’s what he should be about! And I should go with him. Leisure isn’t for those who’ve failed in their duties.”
“Nonsense!” Dragan waved this offer away, knowing success to be unlikely after the amount of time Allethion had been lost to them. But just then a thought struck him like a bolt of lightning. Allethion! If the White King’s spirit haunts those woods, wouldn’t Allethion be drawn to it? That horse wasn’t bred for mortals. It held a bond with Vendhane!
The rearguard captain, ever observant, caught the quick change of Dragan’s expression, and—anxious for a chance to regain his perceived loss of honor—he then pressed on: “The animal may’ve returned to linger near the site of battle, for all we know. It may not be too late…”
“Are you certain you want to do this?” asked Dragan, turning at last to look the man straight in the eye. “The girl could be useful as a guide, but even with your knife pressed to their little queen’s neck…if they come upon you in numbers…”
“I accept the risk,” Jedan sat up proudly in his saddle. “Either Gavix and I shall learn the fate of Allethion and return to you—or in Braured we’ll meet our end. This I promise.”
“Very well. You have my leave. But, Jedan…”
“I have a request concerning the horse. It may seem strange to you.”
“Name it, and it shall be done.”
“If you do happen to find Allethion alive, I wouldn’t have you retake him at once. I’d have you observe his movements instead—at least for a day or so. If he’s alone and shows no sign of deliberate travel after that, then you may bring him back to me. Otherwise I’d have you follow him for as long as you dare…or until he finds the thing he seems to be searching for. You must do this without knowing the reason behind it. Is this clear?”
“Yes, my lord. We’ll depart within the hour.” If Jedan indeed thought his master’s request strange, he didn’t show it. Pulling the reins of his mount, he made to turn away.
Looking over his shoulder at Mûran as the man fell behind, Dragan nodded along with his parting words. “Captain. Good fortune to you.”