Part Three: Chapter 31
Astelidus drained the gem-encrusted goblet and dashed it to the ground. Laughing heartily, he pulled the Mardothan wench closer. His companions cheered and egged him on.
He was drunk. She, his captive, wasn’t. Yet despite the fear still written on her face—which was certainly lost on her captor—she did nothing to resist him. No, she returned each new kiss with a bit more vigor than the last, and between these less-than-tender moments her eyes began to fall more and more often upon the bounty spread before her. Soon she’d be gorging herself with all the rest of them.
One girl among countless spoils plundered from the broken city of Crûthior. That’s all she was. But the son of Ny was a conquering hero. Now he tore off another leg of roast pheasant and brought it to his mouth for a huge, ripping bite, looking every bit the part of a barbaric chieftain of old.
“Lords of the Plains,” came a sudden, heavily accented voice from across the feasting benches, not more than a half dozen paces off to Astelidus’ right. “May we entertain you?” The speaker was a short, bald-headed male specimen of race unfamiliar to the Sinian. He had yellow-tinted skin and piercing blue eyes and was dressed in a garishly dyed shirt and striped trousers. His face betrayed not the least bit of trepidation as he smiled wide, bowed slightly before his would-be audience, and gestured with a sweep of his left arm towards the small troupe of performers standing at attention behind him. These were slender, comely young women of race and clothing identical to that of their leader—though instead of shaven heads they wore their jet-black hair pinned up in unusual arrangements. Two of them pressed odd wrapped bundles to their bosoms as they smiled shyly before Crûthior’s new masters. The rest were musicians: a flute and various bells and drums were among the instruments in their possession.
The men along the benches turned their eyes on Astelidus, deferring to their inebriated champion for a response to this brazen little foreigner’s request. Yet at first Astelidus merely stared at the stranger. He sucked another ample chunk of meat into his mouth then made a show of slowly chewing it.
Darkness had descended over Mardotha a few hours ago, though gone now for the triumphant Sinians were the evenings spent hunkered around campfires outside the walls. Tonight they dined in luxury within the city proper…and the open courtyard in which they sat at ease was illuminated by a myriad of oil-on-water lamps strung on crisscrossed lines overhead. The night air was cool. The food and drink were in unending supply. Somewhere within the citadel behind them, Deserus Oen no doubt met with his council to plot on days to come—yet down here nothing was left to be done but carouse. Why not let the insects fawn at their feet? Hadn’t Astelidus and his men won this right with superior strength of arms?
Finally he gave the foreigner a nod to proceed, and immediately the troupe’s bundles were set down and unpacked. In the space of a few moments a white cloth screen was erected, lit from behind to reveal the backdrop of a colonnaded throne room. The two girls who’d held the bundles ducked behind this screen while the musicians began to play a regal, introductory tune. Then the opening characters appeared: shadows of flat puppets manipulated by moving thin sticks attached to their joints…
A king and queen sat waiting upon a dais as a man came forth to bow before their thrones. Rising, the arrival then presented a gift directly to the queen, who received it with unchecked elation—even going so far as to rise herself, embrace the bearer, and plant a kiss upon his brow. The king was visibly displeased by this occurrence…yet, nonetheless, he allowed the man to depart unrestrained.
Presently the painted chamber backdrop was replaced with one of a garden, and the music took on a seductive flair. Here the gift-bearer and queen walked alone, and this time their embrace lingered beyond a mere peck on the forehead. So a tryst it was, then—and at this point Astelidus guessed correctly what would happen next. He’d heard this story before. The queen was Nishi, first wife of King Toldriss of Haxûd, and her paramour was said to be a warlock come down from the Wastelands of Callas. Perhaps the queen’s gift had been a love charm of sorts—as one version of the tale suggested—or perhaps the man’s own charms and the queen’s appetite had been enough. Either way, Nishi was soon caught in the forbidden act by her eldest son, Rayas.
The musicians picked up tempo. Drumbeats raced with the prince’s heart as he drew his blade and advanced on the warlock with murderous intent. Yet just before Rayas’ thrust hit home, the queen screamed and threw herself before her unarmed lover—and was herself run through in his place. Seizing advantage of the prince’s shock, the warlock began his escape…but Nishi’s shriek had alerted others, and soon rough hands were laid upon the man. Prince Rayas, however, horrified by what he’d done, had already turned and fled like a madman into the wilds.
Now the backdrop returned to King Toldriss’ hall. The warlock was brought forth in bonds and flung down before the throne, whereupon he was sentenced to death by the enraged monarch. Yet before this judgment could be performed, the doomed prisoner cried out, cursing both king and prince (as the puppeteers played out his words in unfolding images above the man’s head). He warned Toldriss that, even at the moment of his own death, his freed dark spirit would summon a powerful magic and unleash it on the prince, transforming Rayas into a terrible monster that would plague the king’s land. Still, whether disbelieving of the threat or beyond caring in his anger, Toldriss didn’t hesitate in giving the order to proceed—and the warlock was promptly beheaded on the dais steps.
At this point even Astelidus’ sluggish mind was able to pass beyond a mere prediction of the play’s remaining scenes and rather consider the consequences of what they’d likely reveal. Were the performers about to display a puppet of Dragan Saedus as the hunt for the Beast of Thirannon commenced? The same man who’d first deserted the Sinians in an hour of need then—as they’d recently discovered—betrayed and murdered their Ithirian allies in Gethod? Surely only an ignorant fool or a man with a death wish would chance such an act under the present circumstances. Yet, even as Ny was still debating whether or not to stop the play short, up indeed came the exaggeratedly imposing shadow on the white cloth.
Suddenly the entire screen imploded under the weight of some object hurled from the benches, and the music ceased in mid-note. “How dare you glorify that traitor?” Astelidus was standing now with a hand on his blade. “Get out of my sight—lest I slay you all!”
The startled troupe leader opened his mouth to question Astelidus…but, seeing the fury in the warrior’s eyes, he promptly clamped his jaw shut and started helping the performers quickly gather up their belongings. Some of the girls began to cry as they scurried off, but Astelidus was unfazed. He glared at the troupe until the last of them was out of sight then spat on the ground—as if expelling the entire matter as a poison from his body—before returning to the feast. Just before retaking his seat, however, he caught a glimpse of someone unexpected. She stood facing him at the edge of a nearby congregation…and was staring at him with a scowl no less brutal than the one he’d presented to the foreigners. He wondered how long she’d been watching him; and, in hopes it’d been only briefly, he remained standing aloof from the wench at his side.
“Greetings,” hailed Bronwyn as she approached the benches. This night her dress was an uncharacteristic crimson, and her hair was done up in a loose bun. As the lustful eyes of Ny’s companions began to lock on her, she forced a smile for their benefit…yet her own eyes remained fixed on their champion. “Will you walk with me, my love?”
Astelidus wasn’t fooled. On a different occasion he might’ve jumped at that offer; but right now he could still read the anger in her gaze, and it was sobering him fast. “What are you doing out here? I thought you were up there with your father and uncle…”
“I was,” she said simply, holding out a hand for him to take. “Shall we?”
For Astelidus to decline her invitation now would be a clear slight witnessed by the many onlookers. Bronwyn was the king’s niece, after all—not some tramp Ny could publicly ignore or verbally smack around. Defeated, he begrudgingly shuffled around the bench…and the pair set out at once, hand-in-hand, headed for the bright yard’s exit into Crûthior’s dimly lit streets.
“The courtyard’s one thing, Bronwyn,” spoke Astelidus as soon as it became plain where she was leading him. “But I don’t think Torensus would be pleased to hear about you roaming the alleys. We’ve not rounded up all the natives and put each and every one of them to the sword, now have we? There could still be hostile gangs about…”
“And what manner of fools would dare assault me with the famed Sinian champion by my side?” Again, under other circumstances, this might’ve been taken as a compliment. But just now Bronwyn had made no effort to disguise the sarcasm in her tone.
“You saw me with the girl—is that why you’re angry?” Astelidus needed to get to the bottom of Bronwyn’s dark mood fast…whether he dug himself deeper into the hole by doing so or not. This little interlude was raining hard on what’d started out to be a fine evening for him, so it was time to get everything out in the open and settled. Perhaps if he worked it right, events might even turn in his favor—with Bronwyn ending up in his bed in place of the Mardothan whore. “She means nothing. An amusement at the table only…to uphold my reputation among the men. I’d no mind at all to…”
“Oh, please spare me!” Bronwyn interrupted, scornful laughter mixed in with her words. She yanked her hand from his grip and turned to face him, bringing their stroll to a halt in the middle of the street. Astelidus noticed a few passersby glance their way at the developing scene, but Bronwyn paid them no mind. “Do you really think I give a damn about your hussy? You flatter yourself, indeed! I came down here looking for a warrior’s advice—but instead I found a whining brat slinging dishes at innocent girls!” Astelidus would get a word in at this, but she quickly raised a palm and shook her head to deny him. “No, I don’t care how drunk you are. That’s no excuse. You just preached to me on what’s proper and not, so I’ll return the favor. A celebration is one thing, Astelidus…but that was hardly above an orgy!”
Now Astelidus’ anger returned in full force, and his voice rose with it. “So you’d have me cheer at the sight of my enemy? Bang a cup on the table and call for more tales of his heroic deeds? Pray tell me this, woman: what is it that so binds you to Dragan Saedus, that even were he to murder your own kin you’d still cling to his knee? No matter how many champions I lay low nor how gallantly I woo you, will I never live up to that knave in your eyes? You’re sick to love such a man, Bronwyn. Sick!”
Barely had the hateful word left his mouth when she slapped him hard in the face—and just as swiftly did he grab her by the arms, practically carry her across the street, and pin her to a wall. To her credit, Bronwyn didn’t scream; but her eyes did go wide at this unexpected reaction…and even more so when Astelidus raised his own hand above her in a fist, readying to strike her down.
Luckily for them both, however, the return blow never came. A small crowd had gathered in the area—and, now with witnesses involved, Astelidus realized he might very well pay the ultimate price for letting such impulse go unchecked. Letting his hands fall, he took a few steps back and glanced over his shoulder at the onlookers. His scowl bid them to disperse—and they did, albeit some slower about it than others.
“You’re right…” said Bronwyn presently in a soft voice, taking Ny off guard. Tears welled in her eyes and were beginning to trickle down both cheeks. “I am sick…of a great many things. And you were right about the Mardothan girl, too. It did hurt me to see you kissing and fondling her—though I tried to tell myself otherwise.” Here she sniffled and wiped a sleeve across her eyes; and Astelidus, terribly regretting how he’d just behaved, stepped forward as if to pull her into a tender embrace. But she wouldn’t have it. She showed no further aggression but simply held the warrior off with a light push away.
“Don’t you dare speak to me! And don’t follow me when I leave. Go back to your revel, Astelidus. But when you wake tomorrow, think on this: Dragan is a deserter and a traitor and a slave to his own vanity; but of the last of these, so are you.”