Part Two: Chapter 26
Dragan held the loaf tightly as he took a bite, squeezing as if it were the arm of a misbehaving child. His other hand slid forth from the table’s edge, pushing the basket on to the guard captain, Garim Irenys, sitting beside him.
This was the bigger of the two feasting halls: large enough to hold all the off-duty soldiers stationed here plus their guests of this evening. All, with room to spare. Twelve long tables there were, with benches instead of chairs, and rows of oaken pillars ran between them and along the strangely bare walls. Lesser doors were spaced at regular intervals to either side, but the main entrance was a huge set of doors in front, and a smaller pair opened directly into a sanctuary behind. As was his long custom, old King Mehdurin had excused himself earlier to that sanctuary after a few opening words to the crowd.
Thus it fell to Gethod’s heir to entertain the DoomBringer’s men. And so far, at least, he was having a merry time of it. Too merry, thought Dragan, clamping down on the bread even tighter for the next bite.
“And this fine fellow, here…” Prince Kalen was saying, his volume steadily rising and speech beginning to slur from the drink as he made a casual round about Dragan’s table with his leeches—every one of them grinning like asses—in tow. Having stopped behind the object of his words, he locked a comradely grip on the Haxûdī’s shoulder.
Dragan couldn’t remember the name of this man of his at the moment—but as he caught the warrior’s eyes, he sensed the tenseness that Kalen no doubt had just felt.
“Daemon!” laughed the prince, patting the Haxûdī’s shoulder once—like he might pet his dog—before removing the hand altogether. Leaving off from what he’d intended to say next, he swept his eyes across the table instead. “If I didn’t know better, Saedus, I’d wonder if you were mistreating these men.” At this he leaned in quickly with smiling face, attempting to catch the Haxûdī’s eyes for a reaction. When none was forthcoming, however, he looked back to the warrior’s captain. “Why so somber, lord? Is there some entertainment lacking? A song, perhaps?” He cut a glance to one of the girls serving ale further down the table. “Or maybe the songstress?”
A burst of laughter issued from the prince’s standing companions, yet it was from them alone. Dragan opened his mouth to respond—but Irenys beat him to it. “It’s the foul weather, prince. You can get under roof quickly enough, but the mood’s harder to shake.” He looked to the GrimHelm beside him. “Especially if you’ve refused dry clothing…”
“You did well to offer us that, Garim,” Dragan jumped in, “…but we’re yet fresh from the wild. Already you spoil us with hot bread and wine.” He made a supreme effort to smile. “Just be glad my men are famous for their honor, else you might find all your girls wooed from their duties before morning.”
Another round of laughter. And, at a barely perceptible nod from Dragan to Kalen’s Haxûdī of interest, the seated warrior looked back over his shoulder and smiled for the prince’s benefit. That should suffice for now, thought Dragan, trying to maintain a sincere grin.
“Well in that case,” spoke Kalen as the laughter died down, “…I’d best be off to get a head start on you!” Another look down the table and a parting grip to the Haxûdī’s arm and—as quickly as he’d come—the prince moved on his way with his entourage chatting and chuckling behind.
The scene about the table that’d been before Kalen’s arrival now resumed, with Dragan and Garim focused on the meal while their men ate silently also or spoke each to his own kind. I’m searching for faults I won’t find, Dragan realized after a few moments staring at his empty cup. Even Kalen…unjustifiably arrogant, but not mean-spirited. There’ve been worse princes. And this man (he glanced over at Irenys) reminds me too much of Camus. There’s nothing here to make the deed easier! Nothing at all…
“More wine, my lords?” came a soft female voice at Dragan’s right shoulder, and both he and the guard captain turned towards it, startled each from his own reverie. Dragan declined after brief consideration, but Garim wouldn’t have it:
“One more, friend.” He gestured for the girl to fill Dragan’s cup first. “The night’s barely begun. We’ve yet to give you a proper welcome!”
Dragan didn’t much like the sound of that, but he let the girl pour for him nonetheless. After Garim’s cup had been filled also, the guard captain rose from the bench, cleared a space of table before him, climbed atop it, and raised his cup and voice high:
“Brothers and guests!” It took two louder repeats of these words to spread silence over all dozen tables, but presently he had the hall’s attention. “I salute you! Will you hear more?”
A rumble of consent followed.
“Then lift your drinks, men of Gethod, and cheer for those with honors due!”
Instantly the cups of the Ithiros were raised. Some of the Haxûdī raised theirs as well and kept them up; others lifted theirs but then, thinking differently of it, set them back down; yet the most seasoned of Haxûd in such affairs never reached for their vessels, suspecting well what was to come.
“To the dead! To our men who marched on Crûthior, never to return, and to their valiant leaders. To Bastram Narohad! To Camus Robi!” Irenys lowered his cup to his mouth, drank from it, and raised it again.
To Narohad! came the booming reply from a hundred lips and more. To Robi!
“To our guests here tonight: the fierce warriors of Haxûd! Men some say can turn a battle at its bleakest hour. Men some even say are born with blade already in hand, carving themselves free of their mothers’ wombs! To the Haxûdī!”
To the Haxûdī!
“To our king and our prince. To our sons and our women. Let them rule the course of our lives, and let us lay our lives down for them in need. To Mehdurin! To Kalen! To all Ithiria!”
And now Irenys drained his cup and handed it off to a fellow as if the speech were done. But it wasn’t. Instead of retaking his seat, he swooped down upon Dragan and grasped the man’s arm with both his hands—and others came from behind the GrimHelm to prod their guest along.
Before Dragan rightly knew what was happening, he found himself standing atop the table beside the guard captain, his arm held tight in friendship. The hall fell silent once more.
“And finally…to this man here beside me. A man whose deeds would seem myths—tales of fancy to put heart into our little ones—were we not living in the days of his accomplishments. We must praise the man who pulled our brother’s body from the enemy’s clutches…who slew the feared Lion of Agrardob in single combat—and that amongst the lesser of his feats! Mightier than Garlmorgot who toppled the Blue King’s tower, I say this hero must be. GrimHelm! DoomBringer! Champion’s Bane! To Dragan Saedus, peerless as a god amongst men!
Dragan didn’t hear the roar that followed. The sound entered his ears and died there. A sharp pain touched his stomach…made him want to retch…and it worked its way to his chest…found his heart…clamped down tightly. No letting go. They honor me above king and country! I can’t do this! I won’t do this!
Panic overwhelmed him. A vision came, unbidden, of his warriors as mere shadows beneath the thunderstorm sky, lightly scaling the walls and dropping to the grounds below. He saw a guard fall with barely a sound—an arrow taken in the eye. Then lightning flashed, revealing drawn blades…
Is it too late to stop this madness? Trading imagination for his own eyesight, he began then to scan the faces of his warriors…to search beyond those nearby for a check of the side doors. There they were: his men spread out among their hosts, watching the exits as had been planned—but he couldn’t discern whether these were only those warriors who’d entered with him. His mind slipped back into the vision, and he pictured others arriving: wet, cloaked figures stepping silently to the sides of their brethren—extra weapons stealthily passing from one hand to another. Had this already occurred?
“I’m deeply honored, Irenys,” Dragan managed before lifting his own cup to the crowd then stepping quickly down from the table, all but rudely yanking his arm free in the effort to get away. “But you must excuse me…”
The guard captain’s voice pelted him from behind as he hurried between the long tables…and he ignored it. However, just as he was clearing the lane’s end, suddenly there came a call he couldn’t ignore. The king’s herald. Mehdurin had reentered the hall and was preparing to speak. All talk and traffic came almost immediately to a standstill. The nearest exit from Dragan was barely ten strides off—but he dared not run for it…dared not set things in motion that way, while perhaps there was still time. Once he starts speaking, I’ll move slowly…
Yet the news brought by the old king’s hoarse, cracking voice held Dragan in check. It nailed his feet to the floor such that no few men could’ve dragged him away. Baeldrin. Relinydd taken with hardly a fight. Sinians stripped naked and beaten to death in the streets.
His brother had succeeded easily. What would Saedus do if Dragan did not?
Damn her! Damn her to hell! His feet started again for the door…
And faltered. In the corner of his eye came the glimmer of drawn steel.
“No!” he shouted in vain. “NO!” It was too late after all. His visions were materializing. In the next instant he witnessed Prince Kalen’s last smile on earth: an amused, inebriated grin aimed at the sudden outburst. Then that was gone, replaced by a mask of terror as Ashkelī’s sword slid into the heir’s back and out through his gut.
Chaos erupted in the hall, and the Bringer of Doom had no choice.
He played his part.