Part One: Chapter 2
“The king requires your presence, Lord Dragan,” said the soldier with all the authority he could summon; yet under the stony glare that was returned to him, his bravado withered like a blade of grass before the raging inferno. “That is…if you’d be so kind to oblige…” His voice trailed as he glanced over his shoulder—likely plotting an escape route should he need to turn and run for his life.
But instead of surging forward to throttle the frightened messenger where the man stood, Saedus’ son merely sighed. Rising from the stump where he’d been seated, he wiped the dust from his thighs. “Mûran!” he called, removing the sword from his hip and handing it to that particular one of his red-skinned Haxûdī captains who was standing nearby. “Have your boy clean and oil my sword. And see to the camp. We’ve earned a rest tonight.”
The Haxûdī nodded, and Dragan Saedus turned back to the soldier who’d come for him.
Relief washed over the man’s face. “This way,” he muttered then turned and set out across the camp.
Dragan followed detachedly as the soldier led him through the never ending array of tents that blanketed the field. Passing one, he passed a thousand…their campfires flickering to reveal the war-hardened faces of men: chiseled, sinewy, attenuated, grim as the gaze of the dying. Some tended their wounds, and others tended the dead, but all returned his stare. “That’s him,” they’d whisper. “The one who slew Agriretrim of Agrardob at the third wall.” A handful murmured ”GrimHelm" and ”DoomBringer,” but Dragan continued on behind the soldier and gave no heed to the cognomens.
Turning his gaze to the eastern horizon, he became ensnared by a vision of the Mardothan capital: its great black walls revealed in haunting silhouette by the enemy’s funeral pyres. Crûthior. The focal point of this prolonged contest between the plainsmen of Sinia—his current allies, hailing from the south—and the warlords of this arid northern realm. Spirals of smoke intertwined high above the earth and shrouded the moon in a gray cloak. Horn blasts rang out intermittently, formally consigning the dead to the next life. It was a sound that carried to Dragan’s ears supinely, oppressed in the dank summer air, amplifying his reverie so that much time passed of which he was unaware.
“Dragan!” boomed a voice born to conquer any trance. “Kiss the Daemon, men, your champion’s returned!” This was Fedrin, son of Rae, the stoutest man-at-arms Dragan had ever known: a timeless figure sprung, it seemed, from the very pages of the Book of Kings.
“I might’ve yielded under a Mardothan hand, had I known you’d be the first to greet me,” said Dragan, the slightest of grins battling for ground on his tired face. The bear was upon him now, slapping him on the back and grabbing him firmly by the arm, leading a trail of others who dared not do the same. “Where’s Bronwyn, old man? Hers is the face I would see.”
“I’m sure you would, my lord,” laughed Fedrin, and the crude gesturing that followed found a special home in the minds of his lackeys. Some of them used the chorus of mirth to slip away, back to their own doings, yet most wouldn’t be satisfied until they’d heard the account from Dragan’s own lips. The Lion of Agrardob, after all, had been no craven.
Nevertheless, Dragan chose to courteously sidestep the men’s request. What he wanted now was to forgo the ensuing revelry and instead seek his true spoils: Bronwyn, a meal, and a bed. He was forestalled in this by Fedrin, however, who confided that the woman had already been sent for and was coming to greet him. “Besides,” Rae added less confidentially, “…you might wake a pace taller and a shoulder broader if you don’t clear things up at once—and I don’t believe there’s room enough left in the world for more of you, brother!” Laughter erupted from the expanding throng like a spreading brush fire…and on top of every cry was another call for the tale. Yet just as Dragan was about to give in and relay the story after all, he was suddenly interrupted. A clamor had arisen deep in the crowd, followed by a mass shuffling of bodies.
As he stood watching this scene unfold, Dragan couldn’t help but liken it to that of a growing storm: the ebb and flow of men shifting as if reacting to a great eye forming in their midst. So engrossed was he with this comparison, in fact, that the eye was almost upon him before he realized it…then Fedrin stepped out to clear the path’s last hindrance, revealing two soldiers escorting the fairest being Dragan had ever gazed upon. The long, slender legs and that taut, curvy young body. The sleek blonde hair falling loosely over enticing shoulders. And that flawless face, searching his own with her luscious green eyes…
Yet before Dragan could move to embrace this perfect creature, he was once again checked: a subtle gesture from Bronwyn that told him no. “I too would hear your tale, GrimHelm, if it pleases you,” she spoke with the merest arch of an eyebrow.
Dragan hesitated. Staring deep into her eyes, he read her thoughts—and she his. There’d be much to discuss later, but for now there was no escape. No reason to retire. He adjusted his contemplative gaze towards Crûthior, paused momentarily, then focused on his spectators. Stretching his arms out wide, he began to slowly revolve, exposing his silver breastplate to the crowd. With a mirror-like finish, the armor glowed red and brilliant in the firelight—and etched about its collar was the curse: The head whose body bears this armor shall not be severed, but the bearer shall bring doom upon all his adversaries. Dragan’s long brown hair clung to cheek and neck, and sweat glistened on his shoulders and arms: all of it testament to the murky conditions summer brought to the inhabitants of the Realm of Mardotha…and now to its invaders as well.
“So you men would hear of the Lion’s defeat?” the hero began, projecting his voice out over the heads of the audience. “Imagine the frenzy among our ranks, then, when the miners brought down the second wall! We needed to breach that gap to finish our foes—yet my men were engaged in a fierce struggle on the left flank that hindered our advance. Mardothans were pressing in on us from the eastern gate, intent on hurling their deadly missiles. Yet we managed to stunt this onset, and most of our forces passed through the breach unscathed.”
“Yet in that hour a messenger brought to me grave tidings, proclaiming that my friend Camus Robi, fearless leader of our Ithirian allies, had been slain—and that a battle for his spoils had erupted beneath the third wall! Grief took hold of me then…yet I refused to let woe triumph. Instead I gathered my warriors about me and set out to put an end to the abomination. We waded through the masses, pushing and pulling. No man could deny us our path, so fever-pitched was the anger in our gazes!”
“Finally, after much toil, we reached the place where Robi had fallen. Seeing Camus’ mangled corpse lying there, my mind went blank with rage—and I slew anyone my sword could reach. If I killed one, I killed fifty! And so it seemed we would salvage my friend indeed, for a circle opened up around his body to allow us access.”
“Yet the enemy wasn’t done—for in that moment Agriretrim of Agrardob, the one they named the Lion, strode into the circle and challenged me to single combat! You should know this: his golden mask and helmet, bushy blonde hair, and stout frame all resembled his namesake. Towering over the rest, he was the prize of that army, and one could sense the vigor return to those Mardothans who’d been on the verge of despair. The Lion pulled from his back a large mallet stained by the bludgeoning of countless men, put the hammer to the ground, and propped his weight against it. He thought he would kill me. But I knew I’d kill him.”
“Yet before his death he would speak:
’So you’re the Bringer of Doom? The Bastard of Domal? You must forgive me, but I don’t see the first…′
‘I’ve no time for banter,’ I said. ‘We’ve broken the pen, and now we must skewer the pigs before they flee squealing back to the wild! Give me the body, Lion, or you’ll lie beside it!’”
At that, cries of approval engulfed Dragan, and he shouted back: “Enough! Be silent!“…to no effect. Bronwyn touched his arm lightly and held up a hand before the crowd. A hush fell.
“The Lion would’ve said more,” continued Dragan, “…for golden mouths hide silver tongues. But my men were eager to be done. The circle wouldn’t hold long. Enemy spears darted in and out, horns sounded, and a swarm of our own arrows bit through and felled my bearer! I had to be quick.”
“Raising my blade, I charged the man head on—then faked and leapt aside, hoping to force a wide swing. But the Lion wasn’t fooled. His hammer caught my wrist and sent my sword singing to the ground! And he left no time for me to miss it—curse him!—hurling that damned bolt aloft like their God of Gray Sky, raining blows upon me that would’ve broken a lesser man, denting my armor, bursting my lungs, crushing my very thoughts…”
It was Fedrin who’d taught him this next trick: the pause that reins them all in, the moment that raises a common man, lucky to have survived, to a hero of godlike proportions. All were silent, hanging on his every word. Satisfied, he took up a dreadful frown. Anger and pride were summoned forth and welled to overflowing. Then he shouted:
“But I am no lesser man! I am Dragan Saedus, captain of the Haxûdī, slayer of the White King and the Beast of Thirannon! How could this fair-haired kitten think to bleed me? Yet still he would boast, shouting to the sky as one gone mad:
‘See now, Father! See how doom is averted! This man is weak! His race is weak! They’ll all be ground to dust!’”
“Then I found my sword, and my sword split his haft, and my fist swatted his blood-smeared mask aside, cutting off his crazed words. The giant staggered back, stumbled over Camus’ body, and crashed to the ground beside it.”
“And there the great golden pride of Agrardob found the shadows at last, for my blade pierced his eyes on its path to Mother Earth!”
The crowd gave a final cheer that turned swiftly into a clamorous cacophony. The soldiers had been appeased by Dragan’s tale, and—slowly dispersing—some of them began recounting their own feats of bravery while still more boasted of future exploits. One man seemed unmoved, however, remaining at the crowd’s edge to stare at the hero from under his maroon cowl. A peculiar pendant hung loosely about his neck. Long thin forearms protruded from his cloak and rested in the crook of a tyberwood staff. Dragan became aware of him and returned his gaze. He’d seen those eyes before.
“Well done, lad!” said Fedrin as he clasped Dragan’s shoulder, spinning the younger warrior about-face. “I couldn’t have done it better myself.”
“What? The killing or the speech?” asked Dragan, annoyed. He looked back over his shoulder. The cloaked man was gone.
Taken aback, Fedrin gave a reproachful snort. “You’re tired…and rightly so. The day is done.”
“More than the day’s done, my friend. Tell the king I won’t be paying him a visit tonight.”
Fedrin shook his head slowly, as if in fatherly disapproval. “You want me to tell Deserus Oen that you’ve refused his summons yet again? I run dry of excuses for you, son!” He paused here, expecting some sort of rebuttal from his brazen companion: but Dragan merely stared back in silence, gritting his teeth in further agitation.
“We’ll take counsel in the morning, then,” said Fedrin at last, shaking his head once more. “I’ll send for you at daybreak.”
Dragan nodded absently, for his thoughts had strayed inward. Watching Fedrin and the old man’s entourage depart, he felt a hand caress his forearm.
Bronwyn. He turned to her, frowning: “Poltoros has come. He bears the Sun of Domal.”