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Part Two: Chapter 24

It was raining again. Otherwise Dragan would’ve beheld the grassy knoll, distant as he remembered it being from forest’s edge. And the farmlands, rolling to the horizon, far as one’s eyes could see.

All summer long, this rain’s hounded me. Like a shadow constantly threatening, growing closer each day, until it settles in and becomes your world. A world you can’t escape.

Dragan’s hands rose to brush back his long brown hair. Soaked and under failing light, it was black. That suited his mood. A space of calm arrived where only the steady downpour could be heard about them. Then…

Thunder roared, announcing doom at Ithiria’s door. But for now that doom merely lingered, not a single foot having stepped from this bit of shelter beneath the eaves. Here they were to stop and wait their contact’s return. The youngest and eldest of their band had been left at the camp of three days ago; and another group, carrying both their own blades and the blades of those lingering behind, had split off early yesterday, heading silently north through the trees.

Haxûdī emotions on the venture were mixed. This act of few against many, of stealth, of cunning, of blindingly quick sweeps and thrusts of blades—would it win them great honor above all their peers? Those who believed that smiled, even now, despite the miserable weather. Or would this become what the others believed? What gut reaction made it seem?

“Disgrace,” came a voice on Dragan’s right. This was Ashkelī, a man seeking to fill the void left by his betters. “Forgive me, lord…but there’s still time…”

“Don’t presume to advise me, Ashkelī, as I might’ve allowed of Mûran or Ûladriss. You haven’t earned that right.”

“As you wish…” The Haxûdī frowned—yet only for a moment, as if he’d known such an answer was forthcoming. After pausing briefly to stroke the side of Dragan’s horse (this likely being nothing more than a show to hide his prompt dismissal from watchful brothers-in-arms), the man was gone, leaving the son of Saedus with his thoughts.

How long has it been since I was last here? he pondered, reaching for his steed’s mane, taking up the attentions Ashkelī had begun and abruptly left wanting. It was before the Haxûdī. Four years? Five? Old Mehdurin will likely be the same. The man has nothing left to fail him save more of his mind—hoary, bent, and stick-thin as he was already when I met him. His grandson will be a man now, though—and that needs considering. I need no bristling young prince asking too many questions. I need the old dotard and the men I befriended. I need the name of Camus Robi to pass my lips…soon and often. At the remembrance of that name he shook his head. Ah, Camus…it’s good you don’t live to witness this day!

Drenched to the bone, Dragan recalled then an afternoon of fairer weather: a walk up the paved road from Gethod’s civilian settlement ringing the hill below to its ancient fortress situated a hundred fathoms or so above. The conversation between him and Robi that day…he could no longer recall…but the sights they’d passed along the path were returning to his mind. The last few houses of bricks, logs, and straw giving way to nature for a stretch. Azalea shrubs in full bloom of spring on either side of the road, welcoming the pair at the onset of their climb. The way wide to their going, even as the sentinel trees grew thick about them, its air heavy with the scents of flowers and rich soil and pine. Then suddenly came the wall, rising twice a man’s height before them as the wood failed: at least four cubits thick and so old that grass had long taken root along the top. And here was the gate beneath the bulwark. The single entrance to the fortress at ground level.

Wide open.

Why storm walls when you can walk right through the gate? he heard his mother say…and with an effort pushed her words aside, refocusing on the images of his reverie.

Inside the fortress now, his mind’s eye scanned left to right, pausing on each structure a moment before moving on to the next: a tall watch tower (indeed, the only tower besides the central keep); a huge tank for holding rainwater; the huts and pavilions of the soldiers, storehouses, an octagonal, thatch-roofed corral, two feasting halls…

And the sanctuary. That’s where Mehdurin had greeted him. Where his reign must end. I’ve no other choice. Again Dragan recalled his friend Camus and saw the soldier’s grinning face as they jested over something in the past. Then it was gone, replaced by a different smiling visage: the perfect features of another who would be disgusted by his present course. Bronwyn. Now all other thoughts and visions gave way to his lost love. He’d left her, disgraced himself; and if he ever saw her again, would he even have enough courage to meet her eyes? GrimHelm, DoomBringer, greatest of men…brought low by shame? Rendered impotent by that piercing emerald gaze?

Someone had spoken just now. Ashkelī again. Still half in a dream, Dragan asked the warrior to repeat.

“A rider, my lord. See there? And another besides.”

The dream ended. Riders there were indeed: two silhouettes emerging from thick sheets of rain, growing and taking firmer shape as they approached. In but a few moments more their steeds’ splashing hoofbeats could be heard…then they were coming to a halt before Dragan and his men. The one on the left—the same who’d ridden ahead to announce their presence—remained ahorse, his face all but lost behind the water streaming from his leather cowl; and he sat there still, having no further words for the foreigners.

The other man, however, dismounted quickly, pushing his steed’s reins into the hand of the nearest Haxûdī. With a fist resting on his sword’s pommel, his hood thrown back, Gethod’s guard captain strode forth—almost threateningly—until Dragan was well within blade’s reach. Then he stopped.

And knelt.

“Rise,” spoke the GrimHelm simply…but what he thought was different. On your feet, fool! You show me honor undeserved!

The captain rose immediately and thrust out his hand.

Dragan took it. “I remember you, Captain. Irenys…is that it?”

“Indeed,” the man nodded and, visibly troubled by the rain, put one hand to his brow, looking beyond Dragan to the trees.

Dragan placed a hand on the man’s shoulder, and the Haxûdī made way as he led Garim Irenys beneath the branches to a spot of decent cover.

“Welcome back, Prince of Ost,” said the man after wiping at his face. “I’d hoped we’d see you again sooner.”

“A shortage of feasts of late, then, eh?” Dragan tested the waters with this jest. A man who falls honestly and eagerly into mirth is a man without suspicion.

A booming smile appeared at this, followed by a snort of laughter. “My men would say so…but come, I must ask you a thing now—then we need speak no more till we’ve left this foul weather for the comforts of hall. Forgive me, but these are Prince Kalen’s own words. Will your men disarm before the gate?”

“They’ll do as I bid…each and every one of them. But no man but me may touch my own blade.” Dragan kept his gaze stern for this last statement, letting the Ithirian captain know a rebuttal wouldn’t be allowed.

“I see. Will you ride ahead with me, then? Or wait here with the rest till the rain slackens?”

“No. We’ll move now.”

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