Part Three: Chapter 30
Dragan led Ûladriss down the central aisle of the larger hall then on into the sanctuary. Not a word was spoken during the walk, for Dragan was far away, contemplating the visions that’d entered his mind as he’d peered into Allethion’s black eye. And there was also the voice of the Giant of Braured: the voice that’d come from that grisly man’s mouth but wasn’t his own. He summons me, Dragan thought. Why? Is a trap being set? He needed his companion to shed light on the subject by recounting Jedan Mûran’s fate.
The pair took seats across from one another at the long rectangular table that was the room’s centerpiece. Thick slabs of oak formed the top on which Dragan propped his meaty forearms. A candle burned between the men, the shadows it cast under the Haxûdī’s cheekbones making his gaunt countenance appear even more pronounced—almost skeletal. Dragan was reminded of Poltoros…and his heart nearly failed him. Had Ûladriss, in his absence, succumbed to the lich’s fate? He struggled to recall what the marshal had looked like outside moments before, but he couldn’t conjure the image.
“Are you recovered?” the GrimHelm spoke at last.
Ûladriss took in a deep breath. “In body, yes. But…” His eyes flicked away from Dragan to the table. “There’s another wound that festers in me now, lord. A thought that was before unthinkable.”
“And what is this thought, marshal?”
“To break the oath I swore to you.”
Dragan didn’t respond. The sick feeling had returned, stronger and clearer than before. It was all shame now. He felt as if he no longer knew what it was to be the DoomBringer.
“It seems there are titles worse yet than craven,” continued Ûladriss. “Oath breaker…and…” The marshal’s eyes returned to Dragan as his mouth struggled to form the epithet that would defame his lord.
“I won’t hear it!” snapped Dragan, suppressing a sudden rage within. “You won’t name me thus.”
“No, I won’t. Yet the Ithiros return, and by tomorrow’s eve I’ll have named myself either one or the other. I know this is why you ordered my stay in Ost—and why you sent Jedan to tarry in the woods. But what of my other kinsmen? I’ve come here to share their fate, at least…if not to decide it for them.”
“By tomorrow’s eve,” echoed Dragan slowly. “But not at this moment.” A long pause. The wind had died with the sunlight, and an eerie quiet prevailed. “About Jedan…” he continued. “Tell me what you know.”
“Perhaps the boy should speak it,” responded Ûladriss, visibly uneasy.
“No. I won’t see him again just yet.”
“As you wish, then. Yet I hardly believe all he said.”
“He claims they devised a ploy to discover Allethion’s whereabouts from the locals—but the girl betrayed them. They were waylaid as they recovered your steed, and Jedan was speared in the back. Gavix managed to escape but was pursued to the point of certain capture or death…when he claims a great fog materialized and disoriented the sylvans. They lost his trail, but he became lost as well and—in shock, no doubt—allowed his horse to take him where it would. When the fog lifted, he found himself on the outskirts of a small grove. Within were Allethion and a man draped in white robes.” Here Ûladriss hesitated.
“And?” urged Dragan again, his expression curious and attentive.
“The boy said the man wore a dark mask beneath his hood, making it appear as if he’d no face at all…and that he never removed it.”
“No face…” repeated Dragan, dreamily now.
Ûladriss was clearly finding it more and more difficult to relay the account—and he must’ve been taken even further aback by Dragan showing no sign yet of incredulity. “This man bid Gavix come forth from the wood, assuring the boy that he was friend not foe. But the lad was too frightened to enter or flee and so remained frozen where he stood. Then a great black cat appeared in the grove, dragging Jedan’s corpse with it. It handled the body gently, like it would a cub, and set it down at the robed man’s feet before returning from whence it’d come. Seeing his father’s body, Gavix was overcome. He forgot his fears and raced into the grove.”
“He doesn’t remember how long he wept over his father, but eventually the man in white prodded him to action. They traveled north with Jedan’s body in tow, crossed the river into the wastes, and buried him there. Then the stranger handed Allethion over to Gavix and told the boy to return to you.”
“What exactly did he say?” asked Dragan, his brow furrowing.
“He said, ‘Tell your master to seek the Red King’s keep. There he’ll learn the truth of himself.’”
“Vendhane,” muttered the DoomBringer. “How can it be?”
“You believe this tale?”
“I do…yet…” Dragan shook his head. “The White King of Addrindain could indeed command bird and beast…and Allethion was once his own. But he died years ago…”
“Yes,” said Ûladriss simply. The story was well known to him.
Dragan leaned back and, removing his arms from the table, ran both hands through his hair. Then he froze, staring at Ûladriss. He could see his marshal was dying on the inside. He’d put the man in an impossible situation: having to ask Dragan to release him from the oath was the same, if not worse, than him breaking it outright.
“Ease yourself, old friend,” he spoke at last, following the words with a tired but reassuring smile. “And forget my poor welcome in the yard. I’m not wroth with you…nor am I a stranger to your burden. Your choice between undesirable paths. Not a morning passes that my eyes don’t open to such a choice: my mind already churning it over, trailing from the night’s dreams. I’ve but to turn my head to gaze upon it—because it’s always with me, never far from my side.” A pause…then Dragan leaned over the table to lay a firm grip on Ûladriss’ resting, extended forearm. “It’s time for me to come clean with you, marshal. Look here at my neck.” Dragan gestured with his other hand to the ancient writing etched around his collar. ”The head whose body bears this armor shall not be severed, but the bearer shall bring doom upon all his adversaries. That’s what it says. Now do you understand, Ûladriss? That it was no man who bested you in Toldriss’ hall? No godlike hero to which you all swore allegiance—but an ordinary bastard hiding beneath some magic relic dug up from the past? And you and your warriors are the armor’s slaves as well, by proxy. Slaves to the witch who thrust this cursed thing upon me!” Releasing the marshal’s arm, he brought both hands up to the breastplate, tensing as if he’d latch on to the hateful object and strip it away. But no sooner had his clawing fingers touched the shining metal did they relax to smoothing palms, then—with a heavy sigh—the GrimHelm melted back into his chair.
For a few moments the Haxûdī merely sat in silence, staring back at his lord with sunken, weary eyes.
Dragan wasn’t certain how he wanted Ûladriss to react. If the DoomBringer had been the one to receive this revelation instead, he likely would’ve jumped up and angrily challenged the charlatan to a rematch of their original duel. Even just a bit of color returning to the marshal’s face at the news would’ve been an improvement, he thought. But this was Ûladriss. If he were preparing to slit your throat, he’d either matter-of-factly tell you so—or just do it. “Well? Say something, damn it!”
“So you’d have me believe you’re some weakling dog? That without this plate strapped on, you’d have neither the strength nor cunning to even lift your blade? Is that what you’re telling me?”
Dragan frowned deeply but held his tongue.
“If the armor’s truly magical, as you say, then yes…it was trickery. And yes, you might not have defeated me without its aid. I see that its hold on you is real enough, in any event, and that it’s led us to this impasse. But Dragan, you must understand me: ever before today, wither we went—no matter what was before us—you always led us well! That breastplate didn’t inspire us to great deeds. You did. It was wrong to keep the secret from me…yet still you remain leagues above the common man…”
“No,” said the DoomBringer, shaking his head. “It’s not enough. Until I can prove I’m my own master, I’ll play no more at master over you nor anyone else. You’re the better man, Ûladriss. We both know it. I’ll give the Haxûdī one final command, after which you’re absolved of your oaths. Depart this place at once, while there’s still time. Return to Haxûd.”
Again Ûladriss’ mouth opened but had trouble forming the words. Finally he gave up, simply nodding in reply. Then another thought occurred to him: “And what will you do, lord? Surely you don’t mean to ride north—straight into the snare that’s been laid for you?”
The GrimHelm rose from the table in a way that indicated the marshal should follow suit—and that their brief reunion was at its end. Dragan stuck out an arm to the Haxûdī in friendship, and each man gripped the other firmly behind the wrist. Neither seemed eager to let go.
“Tell the boy…” said Dragan at last, reluctantly withdrawing his hand, “…to hold his chin high. His father was a valiant man who died an honorable death. Tell him he has the freedom he asked for—but that it’s for him to make the most of it. He did well in returning the horse. Jedan would be proud. Tell him…I’m proud.”