Part Three: Chapter 35
A star-filled sky was somewhere overhead, yet it made no difference under the canopy of Braured Forest. An occasional lightning flash was the only beacon for the blackness within—save for a small, glowing hemisphere produced by the party’s campfire. The two light sources were in sharp contrast: one silhouetting a thousand trees in the briefest spectacle of achromatic luminosity, and the other saturating the bark of a few of them with a red-orange luster painted on in many coats throughout the evening. Rain hung heavy in the air, yearning for release from its gassy prison. The cold winds that’d blown down from the Dizron Sea would likely play redeemer, for already a few drops had escaped to guide the way for their ensnared companions.
Ten Braured warriors, one wench, and a boy of twelve hunkered around the fire in silence, yet silence didn’t prevail in their world. Already heavy raindrops made pitter-patter on leaf and earth, and thunder boomed and rolled with every successive bolt. The wind howled as it broke about mighty tree trunks. The fire crackled in delight whenever it received another dead limb or was stoked by a sword. And there were other sounds too. Sounds that wreak disquiet on the mind and strain in the muscles. Sounds almost imperceptible but unable to be ignored: the snapping of a twig, the distant baying of wild dogs, the rustling of leaves…
Even a fool could’ve discerned the heavens would release their lot tonight, thus long before twilight’s creeping tendrils had overtaken the sun’s last rays, the company had prepared cots by hanging thick hides from tree to tree above. All that remained was to wait the onslaught of weariness following their meal of hog liver before most of them would be crawling into their makeshift beds. A few drooping eyelids indicated this time was fast approaching; and perceiving it so, Darak—the man who fancied himself the group’s leader—broke the muteness:
“If our travel goes well, by tomorrow evening we’ll be back in the Queen’s presence. And what will she say when we arrive without beast or boy?”
“You mean the bones of beast and boy…” said another. He was a stout man with a scar running from forehead to cheek through his left eye. “They jumped into the river and drowned. Or worse—they crossed into the wastes where only spirits dwell. No track evades the eyes of Betha’ta. You know this.” He looked askance at the woman. Her eyes were closed in sleep or deep meditation.
“Will that be enough to satisfy her?” asked Darak, noticeably agitated.
“Afraid she’ll strip you of your prize?” the scar-faced man laughed. “Any of our spears could’ve felled the red man just the same.”
At this, Darak looked down in admiration on a finely-crafted sword lying sheathed at his feet. Its hilt was simply but adeptly wrapped in stained leather with a solitary emerald inset at its base, and the pommel was a two-pronged fork of polished steel. By comparison it made the other nine warriors’ blades seem but machetes stamped from a single plate of rusty iron. If only the sylvan knew how many greater men than himself this sword had so easily been run through. The blade of Jedan Mûran.
“You’re an idiot,” Darak replied. “Who can make sense of Betha’ta and her ramblings? They fled north. We saw that much with our own eyes, didn’t we? The boy atop the animal. What did she call it? A horse? But to return and claim the man’s body, only to head north again? Why back north?” Then he lowered his voice and spoke solemnly: “The Queen wanted the red man left to rot like our kin did alongside the muddy road. She’ll not be pleased to hear it otherwise…”
“Makes sense to me,” spoke a different warrior. “North then follow the river south to the witch’s lair. That’s what I’d have done. That’s where Cataya said the one called Bringer of Doom led those men—where she was held prisoner. Only I think the boy grew weary of the southern side of the river and crossed…or else drowned trying. Either way, he’s dead now.”
“She’ll still be angry,” spoke Darak after a crack of thunder initially cut him short. “Seems she fancied the lad. Bleh! Why else would she scream so awfully when your spear went for the boy’s belly? We’ve not been out here for this long because she wanted a head—but because she wanted a toy!"
Most of the men chuckled at Darak’s words, but the boy of twelve looked up with a scowl. He’d become obsessed with the Queen of Braured since meeting her in the forest. It was his ears that’d heard Gavix’ fabricated tale—and his eyes that’d seen Cataya’s desperate cry for help scrawled in the dirt. He was her true avenger. Why hadn’t she given him the man’s sword? For now, he must be satisfied with his new post in this rugged cohort, although it seemed more of a punishment than a reward. It didn’t disappoint him that they’d failed in their mission: for he saw the truth behind Darak’s not-so-deftly executed allusion.
The biggest man of the company—a brute of nearly twenty stones—let out a massive yawn and struggled to his feet. Gripping his bulbous head as if it were in a vise, he spun his jaw upward in one swift motion, releasing a cracking sound to rival the thunder above. Taking two steps forward and holding his hands to the fire, he began: “That little…” But his voice suddenly died—as an arrow sang from somewhere in the darkness, piercing the back of his neck. The broadhead exited just below the warrior’s chin and stopped, protruding enough for him to see it. Blood spewed from his mouth as he choked to find his last breath, and his hands clawed at the shaft as he fell prostrate onto the fire. His bulk extinguished the flames as he crashed down upon them, sending embers of all sizes flying in every direction. These rained down until thousands lay strewn about the camp, each one pulsing to the rhythm of the harsh wind…and with their rapid fading departed both warmth and light.
The nine other men, the boy, and the woman Betha’ta leapt to their feet and scrambled to grab whatever weapon they could find; then they huddled together with their backs to an uprooted tree trunk, facing the direction from which the arrow had issued. Tense moments passed as they strained to see into the gloom without. Finally someone yelled: “Look!”
Beyond the camp’s circle, two eyes stared back at them through the darkness. Eyes glowing like a wolf’s—but not yellow. Red. Unblinking.
“You’ll pay for that, coward!” screamed Darak, but his voice was as hollow as his threat. “Show yourself!” He perceived that—despite all those clutched about him—the eyes in the woods seemed to peer at him alone, and he wondered if he were indeed the sole object of the glare’s malice. He was frightened but wouldn’t name it to himself. Couldn’t name it. He was the leader of this band. Mustering his courage, he took one small step forward and halted. The eyes vanished.
For what seemed like an eternity, the warriors, wench, and boy stood frozen like statues. Their weapons were poised to strike, and their gazes were fixed on the point in space where they’d last seen those eyes. Rooted in place…unable to think…unable to speak…unable to act. The winds howled, and thunder rolled as rain finally began coming down in thick sheets upon their heads. The sound was deafening, and its onslaught stirred Darak from his trance. He took another step forward…then a few more. The sylvan stopped at the invisible barrier where he imagined their camp ended and, craning his neck, broke its plane. He clutched Jedan Mûran’s sword tightly in his left hand.
He retracted his head and, with a side step to ensure his back was to a tree, turned to his companions. Now he was regaining sense. He must prod them to action. He must lead them either against or away from this foe. He opened his mouth to speak—but his voice and heart failed him. In that moment, a bolt of lightning illuminated the forest, and for an instant he beheld an intruder perched atop the woody tendrils of the uprooted tree trunk above his men.
Darak clutched his mangled, half-severed left hand as he stumbled and fell just outside the campsite: now a death ground filled with the maimed bodies of his companions. Enfeebled by his wound and the terror that seized his mind, he made no attempt to regain his footing…but began crawling frantically, elbow to knee, further into the woods. Leaves and muck clung to his bloody appendage, briars lacerated his face, and bent limbs and twigs sprang back to batter his body in recompense as he rooted through the compost and underbrush. Close behind was his assailant, pursuing Darak at a leisurely gait. The sylvan couldn’t see it, but the man held the spear of a Braured warrior in one hand and the reclaimed sword of Jedan Mûran in the other. Crisscrossed on his back were his own blade and bow.
It wasn’t long before Darak had utterly exhausted himself in navigating the forest floor; and thus, rolling over, he conceded to the stalker…waiting, his face smeared with blood, rainwater, and tears. Then a heavy boot came down on his heaving chest, confounding his breathing. He gripped its toe with his right hand and stared at the indistinct figure looming above. Fear swam in his lonely eyes, but he knew his eyes couldn’t be seen in the dark—and this vexed him, for pity was his last and only hope.
Little did he know that pity was a concept foreign to the DoomBringer.
“So, dog, you think yourself worthy to wield the blade of Jedan Mûran, most valiant of Haxûdī?”
“I…please…” groaned Darak, squirming under the pressure of Dragan’s heel.
“And did you think it wise to hunt the retainer of Dragan Saedus, as a fawn without its mother?”
“No!” huffed the warrior.
“You don’t now,” continued the GrimHelm. “Mûran was worth a hundred of you lice. But eleven will have to do…for today.”
Uneducated as the sylvan was, he could count past ten—and no sooner had the connection been made did he feel the spear bite through his belly. Screaming in bitter agony, he groped at the shaft that’d skewered him.
How long it took Darak to die, only he knew…for Dragan was off, the howls of death trailing him ever more faintly through the darkness.