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Part One: Chapter 3

An hour passed…then half of another…and still Bronwyn paced about the tent or else sat nervously wringing her hands, unable to shake the image of the strange foreign messenger—nor the look on her lover’s face as he’d announced the man’s arrival. If only Dragan had never warned her this day might come. If only she’d remained ignorant of the sun pendant’s meaning, then she might be relaxed enough to proceed with her nightly rituals. Brushing her hair, cleansing her skin with oil, applying perfume, and slipping into her silken nightclothes: everything wanted for presenting herself to Dragan when he finally retired to her from war’s exertions. But as it stood now, she’d begun none of these things. All her thoughts hinged on what she’d see next in Dragan’s eyes…and what the look would reveal of his plans before he even spoke.

At last the tent’s flap parted, and in strode the hero of the day. A lesser man might’ve come shambling forth with shoulders hunched and head bowed after enduring Dragan’s colossal labors, but not the mighty DoomBringer himself. He entered with a swagger, chin held high, seemingly reinvigorated.

Immediately Bronwyn moved to stand before him, locking her eyes with his. ”No…” she began, grasping the man’s thickly muscled arms as if she might try to shake some sense into him. “Please tell me its not true!”

Dragan placed his own hands on the woman in return, drawing her into an embrace. His hold on her was firm but not rough, and at first she made no effort to separate from him. Yet when it seemed this contact might be the only answer forthcoming, Bronwyn pushed off Dragan’s armored chest to inspect his face once more. Even in her exasperated state she was magnificently gorgeous, green eyes glowing like emeralds against flustered cheeks.

“You can’t leave us now!” she pressed, voice rising with her agitation. “How could you even consider such a thing?”

Dragan broke free of Bronwyn’s glare and brushed past her to create space between them. He began to pour himself a cup of watered wine from a nearby pitcher, then spoke over his shoulder:

“There’s nothing to consider—just as I told you before. My men break camp as we speak.”

Dragan’s paramour was none other than the niece of Deserus Oen himself: king of Sinia and leader over all the allied forces encamped here on Crûthior’s doorstep. Her royal father Torensus hadn’t raised his daughter to be meek and mild, and Bronwyn always spoke her mind without fear of reprisal. Closing the distance to Dragan yet again, now she let her emotions fly. “You coward!” Her hands balled into fists and rose partway before she overrode the instinct to lash out with them. Tears were forming in the corners of her eyes. “Here we stand on the brink of triumph, and our greatest champion would desert us in the night? Can you not delay this madness till morning, at least? We can discuss it with the council. Surely they’ll make you see reason, even if you won’t hear it from me!”

“Is that really why you’re so upset?” said Dragan after taking a drink from his cup and meeting Bronwyn’s eyes again. “Or is it because of us?”

“It’s both!” She shook her head as if disgusted by the question. “Did I really have to say it? They all told me not to fall for you, Dragan, but I wouldn’t listen. Even your friend Camus, slain this very day—whose memory you’d dishonor by not attending his funeral pyre! He warned me that battle was your only bride. But now you shrink even from that, like some whipped dog slinking back to its master with tail between legs? What hold does your cursed mother have over you, that the mightiest warrior in all the realms is cowed by her mere words?”

Dragan frowned deeply at this. He was used to his lover speaking her true thoughts; but if any besides her had uttered those words just now, that person would likely be vomiting blood. “You don’t understand our arrangement…”

“Then by all means, enlighten me!”

The DoomBringer considered this a moment then shook his head no. “It’s enough for you to know I’m bound to her service. The Sun of Domal is a token of that bond—and I will honor it, whether I like it or not. She bids me return to Ost with haste, and that’s exactly what I mean to do.” These words had been stated firmly to convey the surety of Dragan’s intent, but now that they were out in the air, the warrior’s expression and tone softened. “You must know I’ll come back to you, Bronwyn—soon as whatever task mother’s set for me is done. She’s never held me long. It’ll be no different this time.” At this he set down his cup and reached to stroke her cheek with one hand, but she flinched from the touch:

"Whatever task? You mean that…creature…of hers didn’t tell you what she wants of you? And still you go blindly to her summons?”

“He refused to say.”

Bronwyn snorted at that. ”Refused? What man would dare refuse you? You’re not yourself, Dragan. I don’t understand this at all.” One eye’s pool of tears broke and trickled down her cheek, and she jerked a hand up to wipe it clean. “You share a bed with me—but not your secrets? Not your heart. I see now what I am to you!”

This time when Dragan reached out and pulled Bronwyn close, he pressed her body tightly against his own. She pushed back at him feebly and bade him let her go, but he refused to relent before she herself did—and when she finally ceased squirming, the tears were flowing freely down both cheeks as she fought to control her sobs.

“My feelings for you are true,” said Dragan, lifting her chin so he could meet her eyes. “I came here seeking only the glory of battle…just as Camus said…but I found something else in the bargain. Not a day shall pass that I won’t see your face in my thoughts. Not a night that I won’t long for your embrace. I’ll find you again—even if I have to scrape like a beggar at your father’s door, once this war is won and he’s seen you safely home!” He showed her a smile then, hoping it to be reciprocated.

But it wasn’t. The anger had drained from her with the tears, yet still she remained unappeased. “That day might not dawn at all, now that you forsake us.”

A valid point. King Oen’s war effort in Mardotha hadn’t been going in his favor when the DoomBringer had first arrived in the camp, many months past. The enemy warlords had the advantage of Crûthior’s walls and a near-constant influx of reinforcements and provisions from their allies in Agrardob further east: a desert land that spawned hard men who were eager to test their might against all comers. Without aid from their own allies in neighboring Ithiria and the isle of Tholmis, the Sinians might’ve been expelled before Dragan had ever laid eyes on the black walls.

Yet all that had changed soon after he’d entered the campaign. He’d swiftly proven not only his individual superiority on the battlefield but also his ability to inspire others to great deeds of their own. And his Haxûdī followers were also masterful in the fray: many of whom might’ve been heroes in their own right, absent the star of Dragan Saedus burning brightest of all in their midst. Yet now, with those lights soon to be extinguished, could the Sinian alliance still maintain its forward momentum—or might the banished shadows of fear and doubt begin to creep back among their ranks?

“There are other champions at your uncle’s disposal,” Dragan replied at last.

“Yet none that could take your place.” Bronwyn turned her cheek and laid her head against his chest, releasing a long sigh as she did so. “I can’t stay here without you, Dragan. If you must go, then you’ll have to take me with you.”

“You know I can’t do that…”

She peered up at him sharply. “Why not? You take the Haxûdī. Were they summoned as well?”

“Not directly. But I have a feeling they’ll be of service. They’ve all sworn to protect me—Ûladriss, especially. I’d be hard pressed to keep them from trailing me without absolving them of their oaths. Oaths that were blessed by their own king as reward for my victory over the Beast of Thirannon. Besides, your father and uncle will be angry enough without my stealing you to boot. I’d likely find an army at my heels before I ever reached mother’s gates.”

Just as Bronwyn’s lips parted to offer a rebuttal, another voice sounded over her, slightly muffled behind the tent’s flap. “My lord. All is ready.”

"Speak of the wolf, and he stands outside the door,” murmured Dragan. Then, with volume raised: “A moment, Ûladriss.”

“He’s been out there the whole time, hasn’t he?” said Oen’s niece, once more attempting to push away.

Dragan frowned at her guess but ignored the question, pulling her back to him instead. Holding her eyes, he leaned in to give her a parting kiss.

“No!” she cried—and her hand flew up to slap the warrior’s face.

He caught her wrist before impact and eased it back down; but then finally he let her separate.

“So you’re really going to do this? Right now?” she said, anger flaring again. An anger mixed now with both sadness and shame. “Without giving anyone but me your farewell?”

Perhaps the attempted slap at his face had turned him suddenly cold to her, or maybe for the moment he could no longer deal with his own rising shame. In either case, Dragan turned from his lover then without further word, parting the tent flap to join his Haxûdī marshal without.

As he started off from the tent, Dragan expected to be pummeled by a steady stream of Bronwyn’s curses aimed at his back. Yet the only parting gift from the woman, it seemed, would be a reflection of his own silence.

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