Part Three: Chapter 29
Light diffused through the dusty atmosphere: a light too feeble to overcome the piercing radiance of the brighter stars yet strong enough to deny the weaker audience. The sun had long been swallowed by the western horizon, and now the hour of twilight was upon Gethod. Darkness would soon engulf all that firelight couldn’t stave off—and all that the uncorrupted heart couldn’t defend against.
The streets were empty. The shops were closed. Whether the citizens had fled to the countryside after the coup or had barricaded themselves within their homes, Dragan knew not. Nor did he care. He was sick at heart; and worst of all, the thing that was gnawing at his soul—the heavy feeling at the end of his throat—was unidentifiable to him. Was it guilt? Remorse? Shame? There’d been a time when infamy and fame were as indistinguishable to the DoomBringer as right and wrong…when all that’d mattered to him was that his name would outlive his mortal self…that his legend would endure the test of time. Whom hadn’t he betrayed, abandoned, or killed in that endeavor? What was different on this occasion?
He contemplated these questions as he stood alone, peering into the failing light atop the guard tower, high above the settlement below. The wind blew strands of dark hair across his chiseled face, and he reached over and pulled his cloak’s cowl closer to his neck. There was something new in the air this night. It had an alien smell. A distinctive taste. He felt it on his skin and within his chest.
Fall was approaching. And soon the winter after, he mused—but that thought went beyond merely the weather.
Two birds were perched atop the palisade beneath him. They sang a sad song—or so Dragan fancied as he strained to hear it over howling winds rushing through the lonesome streets. Streets that will soon be filled again. He recalled the report from this morning. “Tomorrow or the next at latest,” Ashkelī had brought the news to his captain, “…we’ll be under siege. The remnants of the Ithiros in Mardotha have returned, and their ranks are now bolstered by militia from all corners of this land. Yet there’s still time to withdraw, lord. Not all routes are cut off…”
Dragan had known all along this would happen, but the flight that Ashkelī had made no qualms of suggesting wasn’t even an option—not if they were to hold true to his mother’s plans. Indeed, the main purpose of this mission was a distraction. Saedus desired Deserus Oen’s Ithirian allies removed and elsewhere occupied, making it easier to pit her army against the Sinians. At first this aim had been somewhat of a relief to Dragan: at least hiding behind these walls was better than her demanding him to take up arms against his former companions on the battlefield. But was not being there to protect them from her any better than cutting them down himself? And sitting idle for any length of time was certainly not his forte. Already a great restlessness was upon him. His entire being ached to heed Ashkelī’s advice and lead the Haxûdī swiftly away.
Yet he couldn’t do it. Now wasn’t the time to falter. Before he’d led his men into the fortress and accepted the cup of friendship from Garim Irenys…before he’d given the nod that’d ordered old King Mehdurin and his retainers dragged away…that should’ve been the time. He’d almost halted the wheels of motion then, but he’d been too late. What good was it to stop now? Would it erase the image of Garim’s body sprawled before Mehdurin’s chair? Could the winds that bore abroad the word of the DoomBringer’s latest treachery simply fail and turn back without the tidings relayed?
No. I must see this through to the bitter end. Then perhaps I might slip away…to a faraway realm…or to some godforsaken land beneath her desire. Take the armor with me, but leave my name behind. That’s the only way out.
Having forced at least enough resolution to his troubled thoughts to get him through another night in this cursed butcher’s den, Dragan performed a final scan of the streets below then made ready to descend. Hardly had he turned away, though, before he caught a glimpse of motion from the corner of his eye. Riders. Three mounted solo and two mounted as a pair, with a riderless steed led behind. At first sight they were unidentifiable to him: silhouettes in twilight that rounded the wall to come at the fortress gate. Yet before they could reach it he’d made them all out.
Hathrad was at their lead: the only one of the group whom Dragan wasn’t surprised to see. This man had been with the GrimHelm at Gethod’s taking and had been acting as a scout ever since. No doubt he’d come upon the others at some point on the road or in the wilderness and offered to escort them in. But directly behind Hathrad rode Velyn and Woryn Scath, the same brothers who’d been left to watch over Ûladriss back in Ost; and with them, alive and seemingly hale, rode Ûladriss Amaten himself. Still, the surprise didn’t end there. On the same horse as Ûladriss, looking quite the opposite of the marshal—bent over the reins, exhausted or perhaps wounded—sat Gavix. And the unmounted steed behind them was Allethion.
So the boy accomplished his task…but what of his father?
Hathrad would be let in with no order from the tower needed; so rather than hailing the group from above, Dragan turned and hurried down to meet them in the yard. Yet by the time he reached the gate, he found the arrivals already being swarmed over by their Haxûdī cohorts. After the DoomBringer, Ûladriss was the most respected and highest ranked of the entire company, and all were as eager to learn how this man fared as their captain was not to appear so himself. While Dragan had begun the tower’s descent nearly leaping down its stairs to get at the friend he’d come close to losing forever, before touching ground he’d composed himself and decided on the reaction he must show instead. Ûladriss had defied a direct order by coming here unbidden—and everyone present knew it, whether it’d dawned on them yet or not.
The crowd made way for their captain, and Ûladriss, now dismounted, was first of his band to meet Dragan’s glare. A wicked scar ran across the marshal’s brow, courtesy of the Giant of Braured. “Stay your anger, lord.” He raised a warding palm with his words, perhaps fearing the GrimHelm might actually lay rough hands on him. “I’ve disobeyed you…but don’t be wroth with the sons of Scath. I gave them little choice: kill me or let me go.”
Dragan cut his eyes to the brothers. Velyn was down on one knee before a seated Gavix, coaxing the weary youth to drink something from a proffered bowl. He didn’t even look up at the mention of his name. Woryn, on the other hand, suddenly felt the need to go relieve himself.
“Where’s Jedan Mûran?” Dragan demanded.
Ûladriss glanced back at Gavix to find the lad’s attention turned on him—then quickly closed the distance to his captain, even daring to take Dragan by the arm as if he’d lead the hero away. “Jedan’s dead, lord…but we shouldn’t speak of it here…”
Ripping his arm from the marshal’s light grip, Dragan shoved past Ûladriss to approach his retainer; and Velyn—acknowledging the captain’s presence at last—stepped aside, leaving a void through which Gavix could see his master. Looming over the boy, the DoomBringer said nothing at first. Instead he crossed his arms and, frowning deeply, met the lad’s stare.
Gavix was somehow altered since Dragan had last beheld him. Up close he didn’t seem to be wounded, after all—yet he appeared now more as a haggard veteran than a fledgling recruit. A wiry beard covered his cheeks, and he was even thinner than usual: stick-thin, nearly. His face sagged, and his eyes were beyond tired. Yet these changes were both temporary and superficial. The real difference, Dragan sensed, was inside him. Not wounded in body but in heart and mind. Wounds that won’t easily mend…
“There’s the horse,” Gavix spoke in a soft but angry voice. A raised finger indicated the spot where Hathrad was waiting to hand Allethion over to his captain. Ûladriss remained standing where Dragan had left him, but most of the crowd, including Velyn, were starting to wander off now. It was clear from the GrimHelm’s foul mood that there’d be no call to celebration resounding through the yard at present. “My father’s dead because of that cursed animal,” Gavix went on, his volume rising. “Take him—then release me from your service.”
For an instant Dragan’s composure nearly slipped. Perhaps with so few left to observe the scene, it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Yet, steeling himself against the urge to lift up the young man into a comforting embrace, the captain instead issued frank words of his own. “Jedan’s fall is regrettable, boy—but he knew the risk well, even pressing the task against my initial dismissal. I’m not inclined to lose another man under present circumstances—whether to death or desertion—and certainly not at the insolent command of an inferior.” At this Gavix’ face became a mask of shock mixed with fury, and Dragan noticed that the youth’s hands were now balled into white-knuckled fists. “Furthermore, you misspoke concerning Allethion. It’s not the beast’s fault…but your own…that he was lost at the start. And tell me this: how is it you still live when your father doesn’t? Were you not with him when the fighting commenced—or did you flee from it, deserting him? We’ll have no words of praise for you till the story’s full told. Rise now and…”
“Gods, Dragan!” Ûladriss stepped forward once more, coming swiftly to Gavix’ side. “Slay me where I stand if you must, but I can’t let you go on like this. Can’t you see the boy’s fey? Do you want him to take a knife to your guts while you sleep?”
“My thanks for providing him with such a foolish idea.” After turning stern eyes on Gavix again for a moment—perhaps to impress upon him the futility of Ûladriss’ suggestion—Dragan finally gave in to the marshal and walked away. Taking the reins of Allethion from Hathrad, he began to calmly stroke the horse’s mane while the stares of the other two drilled holes in his back. But no sooner than he’d begun to do so, the steed’s eye opened wide to catch his attention; and as Dragan fixated on it, a series of visions flashed through his mind. These came and went with such a rapid ferocity that their parting left him disoriented and weak in the knees; yet thereafter he found he could recall each one to mind in vivid detail.
First came the child queen of Braured. Seated with her back to a tree in her native forest, she was engaged in questioning one of her people concerning the whereabouts of a magnificent white horse. Her rehearsed speech came out in an easy voice…yet all the while she was busily giving away the concealed position and number of her nearby captors—and indicating her true identity and plight—with mouthed words, hand gestures, and crude pictures sketched in the dirt.
The next vision jumped forward in time and space…and there was Allethion, rearing before a circle of ambushers. Jedan was mounted on the horse, his blade drawn and raised threateningly overhead. The child queen cackled with delight as she dismounted and ran to her compatriots; yet the slack-jawed Gavix froze atop his steed, unable to come to terms with the girl’s betrayal. Then someone put a spear in Mûran’s back as he swung his sword down upon another foe’s skull—and Allethion bolted as the stricken rearguard captain keeled over in the saddle.
Another shift—and a now riderless, bloodstained Allethion sauntered into a wooded grove and up to a white-robed figure awaiting him there. The person’s back was turned on Dragan’s mind’s eye. Clearly the horse knew this man and was glad for the reunion, for right away he began to nuzzle the figure’s shoulder and neck. In the backdrop could be seen Gavix’ ashen face poking from behind a tree. The robed man’s arm reached to stroke Allethion’s mane, and…
Dragan jerked his hand away from it. Ûladriss had spoken to him just now, but the words hadn’t registered. Still half in a daze, the son of Saedus looked to his marshal. “What did you say?”
“I said let’s go inside, lord. Please…there’s much to discuss.”