Part Three: Chapter 37
Three environs flirted with one another at the hinterlands of the Dizron Sea, the spot where the northernmost finger of Braured Forest was separated from the wastelands of Dolras by the murky river Asendath. On its eastern bank was the woodland, with damp topsoil and illimitable spikelets of grass jutting through the leafy decomposition that lay strewn about the earth. The leaflets swayed in unison to the conduct of cool marine winds underneath the thick canopy of the tree vein. But across the river were the barrens, with cracked earth, arid climate, and dust flurries that spawned as sporadically and rapidly as they disseminated. A burnt red sky stretched on infinitely into the northern expanse, and dark gray clouds blandly hung forever there, void of the hope of release. To the north was the sea, sapphire and cold. Vast but passive. Its northern limits were unknown to men.
Thus the great steed displaced leaf, soil, and sand with the stamping of its massive hoofs as its rider drew it up before the river mouth at the inlet of the sea. The man wore a thin, travel-worn cloak that appeared gray as a storm cloud as it flowed carelessly below his bent knees. Its cowl covered his face so that his visage wasn’t betrayed, yet the shadow it made couldn’t lessen the brilliance of the man’s eyes: fugitive red turned a striking blue. His feet were set within two black iron stirrups and sheathed by muddy leather boots that rose nearly to the knees. His hands were exposed. A silver ring encircled his right thumb.
The rider turned his mount towards the setting sun and followed the river for many miles till he came to a narrow bend in the waterway. Telltale signs of crossing were present there: the semblance of an old road through the trees, a truncated bank, and a rotting post that still found its footing midway across the river—an old indication of depth for the wary traveler. The man took note and then guided his horse into the cool water. The gradient of the river bottom was steady but acute, and soon the opaque waters rose up his steed’s flank, causing it to struggle against the current. But the rider maintained control, comforting the animal, and eventually both man and beast reached the river’s far side, drawing themselves from the water and climbing the embankment up to the arid plateau.
The man dug into his saddlebag, withdrew a waterskin, and took a drink—preemptively, so it seemed—as he surveyed the desolate landscape. But the next drink was stopped in mid-motion, vessel halfway to his mouth. Nearly a furlong away was an anomaly. An oak tree, proud but lonely, had grown tall amidst the cracked earth where nothing else would grow at all. It held no shadow, for the entire dome of sky seemed to be the sun: one monochromic blanket of burnt red above the land. Lowering the waterskin, the man steered his charger toward the tree.
As he came beneath the spreading branches of the oak, the rider saw a small barrow and an accompanying inscription carved into the trunk above; yet he’d no need for its words, knowing this to be the epitaph of Jedan Mûran, rearguard captain of the steadfast Haxûdī horde. Dismounting, the man patted his horse’s neck before kneeling over the grave. Dust particles danced before his eyes. He placed one hand atop the mound then, slowly retracting it, reached in his cloak to pull something from its folds: a talisman like the one Ûladriss had clutched as he stood diminished in the flickering firelight before the Beast of Thirannon years ago. Setting this thing on the mound almost ceremoniously, the man drew back his hood. His face was grim, and his eyes were reminiscent as he turned them to the north.
His final destination lay somewhere across that distance: the ruins of the Red Castle and the ancient keep of Ûmrothsul Aldrotherin.
Returning to the folds of his cloak, he retrieved his flask of Tholmian liquor and—thinking of the smile it’d once conjured on Jedan’s face—allowed a grin to show briefly on his own. After taking a swig, he lay the flask beside the talisman and rose to his feet. “Mûran, if your gods will grant me your ear, farewell! And if you sued for vengeance in the halls of the dead, know that your prayer’s been answered. I leave these things here as a token of our brotherhood—and the other shall be an heirloom for your son.” As he spoke the last words, Dragan glanced at the Haxûdī’s sword strapped to his steed’s back. Then, leaping into the saddle, he galloped away.