Part Two: Chapter 27
Astelidus woke suddenly, legs kicking down linens and right hand searching frantically and futilely for the sword that wasn’t there. He didn’t quite make it to standing, however, before the realization hit him. Another dream is all. It wasn’t real. Yet for more than a fleeting moment thereafter the horrid image still hung in his mind, floating behind his wide-open eyes. His breathing was heavy, and his red hair was nearly soaked through with sweat.
A soft hand touched his arm. “What’s wrong?”
The moon peeked in from an open flap in the tent above, but its light wasn’t enough for the warrior to fully make out Bronwyn’s face—so instead the son of Ny turned his gaze back to the darkness. “I’m fine,” he said. “Go back to sleep.”
She gave no response, yet Astelidus sensed his lover still listened: waiting patiently for him to come clean. If he were to comply with her unspoken urge, though, he must hurry, for already the nightmare’s details were fading fast.
“It was Ban,” he spoke again presently in a near whisper, his face still turned away. “Just as I last saw him—before the pyre. Gods…there was so much blood. The damned cowards slit his belly and left him to rot…” Here he paused a moment for reflection, and a second soothing touch from Bronwyn’s hand confirmed her attentiveness. “His last breath couldn’t have been more than an hour before we arrived. One hour…after nearly a week’s chase…one damned hour!"
“Don’t do this, Astelidus…” Bronwyn sat up and wrapped her slender arms about him. She lay her head against his neck and shoulder. “You know it’s not your fault. You tried to warn him…”
"I tried to go with him!" the warrior lashed out angrily, though he knew it was misplaced. Shrugging off her tender embrace, he turned, planted his feet on the ground, and stood, unwilling to let the woman’s body distract him as her words sought to excuse his blame. “They’d never have taken us then.”
“You don’t know that,” Bronwyn tried again, though her voice held a tinge of anger from the rude break. “Who knows how many Kedran there were?”
“Eight ahorse. Three dozen afoot. I scouted the tracks myself.”
“You’re missing the point…”
“What point?” Astelidus’ voice moved with him away from the bed; he bent after a few paces, feeling on the ground for his clothing. “That he should’ve been more patient? Should’ve awaited all the reports before mounting up? That was never his style—nor is it mine. Rarely does restraint win glory.”
“And rarely does glory come without great price. Your deeds of late have all but won this war, Astelidus. Crûthior’s shell is finally broken—and at daybreak we’ll spoon up the soft meat inside. But still I beg you: have a care! Don’t let your brother’s pride take you as well!”
“What’s this, now?” spoke the warrior in a sarcastic tone. “Another daemon come to foretell my fate? I thought I’d woken from that nightmare…but perhaps I’m yet dreaming after all.” He pulled his shirt over his head. “Or maybe you’ve confused me with Dragan Saedus: a slave to signs and portents.”
Astelidus paused after this last bit, half-expecting to hear Bronwyn rise and storm from the tent at the ill mention of her last lover. But she chose instead to stay and fall silent.
What am I doing? he thought. I should be thankful she’s concerned for my safety. Returning to the bed, he sat down, twisted at the waist, and reached back to touch her reclined form. It was her smooth, bare arm that his hand met, and he began to stroke it lightly. “Forgive me.”
For awhile longer Bronwyn remained quiet, letting her arm be caressed. Not until the warrior removed his hand and, still clothed, lay down once more beside her did she speak again:
“What else did you see? You woke with such a start…”
Astelidus considered that a moment. “I can’t remember it all now…but the dream was different from real life. There were these…things…with Ban when I found him. Their bodies shifted as they danced around his corpse, cackling like madmen. And their eyes! One looked at me…and it felt as if my bones turned to dust…”
“You’re scaring me.” Torensus’ daughter moved closer and lay her head on her lover’s torso, ear over his beating heart.
“You wanted to know.”
“And now I do. But that’s enough. I want no such terrors finding their way into my sleep.”
Bronwyn’s tone revealed she’d said this not quite all in jest—so Astelidus didn’t react to it as such. Instead of a short laugh or added quip, he gave her a light kiss on the shoulder before rising from the bed again. Then, with thoughts turning toward the morrow, he stood and looked up at the moon.
Across the dark plain flowing east from the Sinian encampment, behind the three breached walls of Crûthior—each one black as the death that’d found them all at last—another set of eyes rested on the night’s orb, and another mind deeply contemplated the day to come. Berac, king of Mardotha. He stood alone on the balcony of his bedchamber, high in a tower of the citadel, one hand on the rock before him and the other with its index finger wrapped up in his long, braided goatee (a habit of his while in thought). Tall and slender—hair black and skin reddish-brown as typical of Crûthior’s natives—he was shirtless in the hot, still night air, donning only breeches to cover his nakedness. Asleep atop his feather-stuffed cushions in the room behind, their presence revealed in soft, unwavering candlelight, lay two scantily-clad women. One of his own race, and the other a striking specimen of the sand elves. And seated across the chamber from this pair, at the table where Berac often took his morning meal, was Argen Van.
In contrast to the king (his half-cousin), Argen was beardless and—though hardly shorter—noticeably broader in arm and chest. Fully clothed, he sat with his comely face fixed on a myna bird that was pecking seeds from one upturned, cupped palm. Now and again he’d speak to the bird, and in turn it would mimic parts of his speech before dipping its head back down.
"I once kissed a maid under moon,” began Van poetically, his lowered voice yet traveling clearly to Berac’s ears, “…hidden by the tall grass from all eyes…”
“Hidden eyes,” croaked the bird.
"And such tears she did shed at my parting…”
“And such trouble’s since come from her lies.”
"If ever chance brings me to meet her, once more beneath starry black sky…”
“I’ll make certain this time not to leave her…”
“Till carrion birds circle nigh.”
Silence filled the room after this, during which even the faint night sounds of the city seemed momentarily hushed. One of the females rolled over on her side, her cheek coming to rest against the bare arm of the other, and the myna turned its bill on one wing to preen.
“Do you suppose I should find that clever?” spoke Berac presently. Turning away from the balcony, he strode to the table where Argen sat and pulled up a chair. “Should inspiration strike you again tonight, it best be a dirge oozing from your mouth.”
Van merely snorted at this threat and turned his eyes back on the bird. But that was a mistake. A sudden loud noise—a balled fist striking the table hard—startled Argen such that he spilled most of the handful of seeds.
Leaning in, lowering the volume if not the intensity of his voice, Mardotha’s ruler then added menacingly: “You weary me beyond weariness, fool. All these years of your pompous prating. All the days I’ve nearly wretched at the sight of your face. Curse Garmorin the Slaver!—and my grandfather for not keeping his prick out of the merchandise.” Here he paused for a moment of contemplation, then began again: “Oh, the vultures come indeed, Argen, but not for Oen’s bitch daughter. Without my protection, it’s your eyes that may soon be plucked out. Your hide they’ll hang first from the wall!”
If Berac’s outburst had disturbed the slumbering women, they wisely didn’t complain of it; and the little myna remained at hand, also seemingly unaffected. But Argen didn’t take it so well:
“I don’t have to be here,” he threw back. “Even now I could slip away…run back to Agrardob—like the coward you think I am.”
“Coward,” said the bird.
“But ask me why I won’t, Berac. Ask me why I choose to endure your face.”
There came no response from opposite the table—other than a deepening of the ruler’s scowl. Thus Van went on:
“A thousand times would I accept death most horrible—even stripped alive of my flesh by Erdramon’s red glare!—if it would secure me a seat at your fall.” Now it was Argen’s turn to lean in, boldly looking his fuming king in the eyes as if Berac were the Flame God himself, about to deliver said torture. “To see you bow down before Sinia. To bask in your groveling at Deserus’ feet…”
This time Berac’s fist found his abuser’s face—and instantly he sprang to his feet, ready should Van dare retaliate in kind. But instead came only a guffaw…
“Yes, lord!” exclaimed Argen with the laughter still in his eyes. He wiped a hand across his bruised jaw and went on: “Strike me down! Kick in my ribs and skull and leave me a bloody sack of bones on your floor!” He stood now himself and leaned in even further over the table, arms spread wide and chin held high, begging to be struck again. The myna flittered up to his shoulder and started to chuckle: a sickly musical pattern, repeated over and over and over…
“You’re insane…” muttered Berac as he took a single step back, mouth open and brows raised high in disbelief. Suddenly he didn’t feel safe occupying the same room as this madman, though he’d never felt threatened by Argen before. “Leena!” he snapped at one of the women—no doubt to send her for the nearest guard—but as he turned to the cushions, the command died in his throat. The elf-woman held Leena tight against her own body: a dagger pressed against the human girl’s throat.
“Insane?” repeated Argen, a knife much larger than the elf’s now appearing in his hand. “Perhaps I am. For not acting till now.” Warily he began to round the table. “My little bird told me your secret, Berac. It told me you plan to flee.” He paused to let the accusation settle between them. “After you berated me as a cringing dog—then swore you’d strike a deal with Oen on my behalf?”
The Lord of Mardotha raised both arms in a warding gesture, took two more steps backwards, and darted a glance behind, having no doubt just considered a plummet from the wall as a very real alternative to the danger before him. “You won’t make it out of here alive if you harm me! Put down that blade, cousin. I’ll take you with me…”
But Van had already pounced. Berac managed to lunge aside, avoiding the brunt of the assault—yet the maneuver cost him his balance. He landed flat on his back.
Instantly Argen was atop the fallen king, threatening Berac’s jugular with a prick of his weapon’s tip. “Didn’t you hear me? I don’t want to kill you—but I’ll be damned if I let you slip away in the dead of night. You’ll stand before Oen, bastard!” Argen dug in his shirt with his left hand and produced a short coil of rope—presumably with which to bind Berac’s wrists. “You’ll…”
A fluttering of wings interrupted Van’s words, and as he screamed and flung the hand with the rope before his face, frantically trying to shield his eyes, he left Berac free to reach for the knife. Swiftly grabbing Argen’s wrist with both hands, the king twisted the offending blade to aim at his attacker’s chest—then pushed with all his strength.
Blood gushed out and washed over Berac’s face. Letting the corpse pitch to one side, he rose at once with Argen’s knife in hand, ready to defend against the elf. But the elf wasn’t there…only Leena, with one hand to her neck and her face a picture of bewilderment.
Realms away, the Spider spoke her thought aloud: “Tomorrow you lose your city, Berac…but it shall be yours again, soon enough.”
And, back in Crûthior, the myna repeated her.