Part Four: Chapter 43
The chill of a sunless dawn kissed Bronwyn’s cherry lips as she inhaled her first breath of the morning. Yet even so, her naked body was warm as it pressed against her lover beneath the woolen blankets of their cot. She felt the rhythmic rise and fall of Astelidus’ broad chest as he slept beside her. His face appeared peaceful in the dim light. No dreams of your brother this night, my dear? How long must Ban haunt you? She freed a hand from the covers to gently brush a lock of stray red hair from his brow. A grin formed on his lips as he stirred slightly, but his slumber wasn’t broken.
The two had chosen to ride with Fedrin Rae’s host out of Mardotha, leaving behind Crûthior’s dust and grime for the pristine, grassy plains of Sinia. The old warrior’s fatherly relationship with Bronwyn had been mostly what decided this for her, but Astelidus’ reasoning had been that Fedrin was now in command of the army’s vanguard. Sinia’s champion wouldn’t be denied a moment of fighting should they be waylaid before reaching the intended ground. A great battle was soon to be had, for to the west along the river Olendarth, Saedus of Ost marched now with all her strength on their homeland. Astelidus yearned for a chance to prove himself against this new foe—even to face Dragan Saedus himself, should the dog still be nipping at his mother’s heels. In fact, Bronwyn had already heard Astelidus boasting before his men when the latter subject had arisen:
“His defeated foes, you ask? Do you mean the ones we witnessed ourselves in Mardotha? Talmar Rû the Heavy-Handed? The Lion of Agrardob? Worthy, I’ll admit. But only men—and Mardothan men, at that. What if the witch’s son had taken up with the enemy from the start? How would he have faired against you, the stout warriors of Sinia? I say he would’ve been beaten into the dirt by the same mighty shields that were used to protect him!”
“Or do you mean those foes existing only in the glamorized tales of his own bodyguard: a superstitious gang of mercenaries from some remote land? Are we to sup on the food of fables? Trolls and bear-men and the like? Ha! These are nothing more than fodder for the bard’s song. Bedtime stories for children! And the White King? He met his doom, indeed…but does anyone truly know how? Could the witch of Ost not have twisted the minds of common folk to the glory of her ilk?”
“Hear me, men! This dog Dragan feeds on the fear inside men’s hearts. Do not let him consume your courage with his false legend…nor heed his boastful tongue when it vomits treacherous lies upon you. Don’t cower before the same feet that fled our ranks on the eve of victory. Nay, if you see his disgraceful face, stand tall and take heart, for the son of Ny stands beside you!”
At this his men had cheered and beaten fists upon chests; yet many had left the rally doubting Astelidus’ words, for the DoomBringer’s mighty feats lingered in their minds. Bronwyn too had listened to her lover’s boasts with incredulity and feared a confrontation between the two champions. Most of all the Sinians, she knew Dragan was different from other men…although she couldn’t explain how or why. After learning that the GrimHelm and his Haxûdī had abandoned Gethod, she’d outwardly hoped he’d turned rogue: that he’d decided to seek out some new land and its people to torment with his infamy. This sentiment was shared by King Oen and his council, who surmised that a siege of Gethod—no matter how brief—would’ve kept the Ithiros occupied during Saedus’ invasion of Sinia. Yet already some of their Ithirian allies had trickled back into their ranks, no longer needed in defense of their home. And these few claimed others would soon follow. Something had gone awry with the witch’s plans—but to what end exactly, no one knew. And despite what she’d expressed to the council, Bronwyn secretly felt certain she’d not seen the last of Dragan Saedus.
Leaving Astelidus to his sleep, she rose to slip on her undergarments, a ruby tunic, and over that a leather jerkin. Heavy boots were laced from ankle to knee over dark leggings. She pulled her hair into a ponytail, dropped her dagger into its sheath hung about her waist, and exited the tent.
The encampment was coming to life, although the drear morning seemed not to reciprocate. A gray blanket hung low across the dome of the sky, making the Sinians look colorless as they moved about tending their various duties. Some attendants disassembled tents and gathered wood while other servants fetched water and began preparing the morning meals. A few sentries still stood their nightly posts as other warriors began donning their armor for the new day. This camp was a watch post, made high atop a plateau above the main host that had bivouacked in the valley below. Bronwyn espied the army from afar, and from her vantage the men looked like ants crawling along the ground. They too were performing their morning rituals, preparing for another day’s march that would lead them inexorably to death or to glory. But before she could contemplate her people’s fates any further, she noticed the brothers Rindus and Garenor—Fedrin Rae’s young bodyguards—chatting to one another on the plateau’s ledge. They rarely left his presence these days.
“Brothers,” she hailed the pair, swiftly closing the distance to them. “Where’s Fedrin? I don’t see him about…”
The elder of the two, Rindus, glanced at his sibling before settling his eyes on Bronwyn. “My lady, the commander yet sleeps.”
“Sleeps?” she questioned incredulously. “Who watches his door?”
“No one…presently.” Rindus seemed content with divulging nothing more, but as Bronwyn opened her mouth to protest, Garenor interrupted her:
“Something strange happened, Bronwyn. Just before dawn, he stepped out of his tent and commanded us to finish our watch elsewhere. When I asked him why, he looked at Rindus and said: ‘Do it—and don’t return until I call for you.’ Brother was already pulling me away before I could object. We decided to take our position here, where at least we could see his tent from afar.”
Bronwyn peered across the camp. Her old mentor’s tent looked quiet. Too quiet. “You fools!” she scolded them. “Must I show you the scar on Astelidus’ chest? Come!” She waved for the brothers to follow her as she turned and made straightway for Fedrin’s tent. “Something’s amiss…”
Garenor began to follow at once—but Rindus grabbed his arm, holding him fast.
“She’s right, Rin,” Garenor responded hastily to the contact. “Remember the sand elf? In the middle of the entire army! Were it not for Ny, Bronwyn would be dead…”
The other paused for a moment then said: “Right. Let’s go.”
When Bronwyn reached the tent she raised her hand, ready to fling aside the leather flap of its entrance…but something stopped her. Voices. Stepping aside, she pressed her ear to the thin canvas of the shelter instead. Seeing Rindus and Garenor approaching, she gestured for them to halt.
“…take more than some dramatic speech of mine to save your hide this time, lad!” came Fedrin’s deliberately hushed words from inside. “Daemon! I ought to be screaming for the guards now…while fending you off with a drawn blade!” A long, audible sigh. “But that wouldn’t be wise, would it? Only a fool would raise his weapon to threaten you: even one you still claim as your friend. Am I wrong, Dragan? Tell me you wouldn’t lay me low then maim half the damned army as you carved your way back out of here…”
Whatever answer Saedus’ son was preparing to give to Rae’s query, it never came—for on hearing the word Dragan leave the old bear’s lips, Bronwyn had set her jaw, raised her chin high, and injected herself into the tent. The heavy flap smacked shut behind her on Fedrin’s last word, whereupon both men turned on the newcomer with wide eyes.
For a lingering moment Bronwyn merely stood with arms folded under her breasts, returning her lost love’s stare with a look that didn’t quite portray its intention. Her frown and posture were all bitter hatred and revulsion, indeed: but try though she might, she couldn’t hide a sparkle of anticipation in her eyes. Finally her mouth opened to break the silence that’d enveloped them all—yet once again words were foiled by an intrusion. First Garenor then Rindus—hot on his sibling’s heels—came barreling through the entrance, nearly knocking the king’s niece to the floor in their rush to be first at her side. Hands were on hilts even as they reined in…but not till they caught sight of the DoomBringer did they consider drawing swords. Garenor pulled his blade out nearly an inch before he thought better of it and slammed it back home. Rindus’ hand never moved at all. Fedrin’s words of a few moments ago, although not heard by the brothers, were no doubt swimming in their minds as well: “…only a fool would raise his weapon to threaten you…"
“Lord Saedus!” said Garenor, rupturing the muteness at last.
“This man’s no lord!” Bronwyn snapped, never taking her gaze off Dragan. “He’s a snake in the grass, waiting to sink his fangs into whatever unsuspecting creature crosses his path! How dare you show your face here, you monster—with the blood of betrayal still wet on your hands? And you!” It took an effort to peel her eyes away from Dragan and fix them on Rae instead. “You’re damned right, you should’ve called for the guards! But instead I find you closeted in here with the bastard, plotting who knows what heinous scheme with him…”
“That’s enough!” roared Fedrin, conjuring a visible flinch from his chastiser. Bronwyn hadn’t been expecting such an outburst from her old friend, and he used the moment to his advantage. “Get away from the entrance, all of you, and keep your voices down! There’s no need to be rash. He’s threatened no one here, at least—and I say he deserves a chance to be heard. There’s hardly a man in this camp that doesn’t owe the GrimHelm a life debt—including myself at least thrice over! And you, girl, of all people…” He shook his head to finish.
In answer to their lord’s command, the brothers eased around Bronwyn and strode further inside. Garenor took a seat at Fedrin’s table, but Rindus opted to lean against a post at the rear of the shelter—his arms crossed, and shadows all but hiding a scowl on his face. Bronwyn still hadn’t moved, other than to resume her glare at Dragan:
“Well? Spit it out then, hero. I can’t wait to laugh at the lies you’ve prepared to spare you from the headsman. Or have you merely come cowering beneath a white flag, playing errand boy for your infernal mother?”
At this point Dragan—who’d been barely able to hold Bronwyn’s gaze out of shame—gave up the ordeal entirely, taking a seat opposite Garenor then resting his skull in the palms of his propped arms. His eyelids closed as if a sudden weariness had taken him, and another moment passed before he could speak:
“If it’s my head you want, Bronwyn, then do what you must.” Slowly he opened his eyes and cocked his head in her direction. “I can’t blame you for it, and I won’t resist when they come to lay hands on me. Still, I never swore an oath of service to your king, so there’s no treason to be judged. At worst I’m an enemy who’d turn friend against our common foe: no different than Berac and the horde of Mardothans that’ve joined you. War is all I know. I’m drawn to it like a fly to dung. Perhaps Deserus will choose again to have me with him, just as he did before. In any case, I’m done with Saedus. Soon I’ll slay her—or she me—and it seems either outcome will please you.”
Perhaps if Bronwyn could yet see the proud, fearless warrior she’d known before in Dragan, she would’ve indeed raised an alarm by now; but neither his words nor the look of him were the same as they’d once been. The longer she stood staring and listening, the more her emotions became jumbled. On the one hand, she was furious—for the obvious reasons given. But on the other, she could barely control an impulse to throw her arms about her former lover’s neck in her excitement to see the man again, old feelings swiftly rekindling against her will. And even as her conflicting thoughts battled with one another, Dragan was continuing to address her with talk of his regret and shame…and of wanting to redeem himself after finally breaking free of the chains that’d so long bound him. Could she really condemn him to execution, if the decision were hers to make? Or would she fall wailing at her uncle’s feet to prevent it instead?
“Rin’s gone!” said Garenor suddenly, cutting Dragan off in mid-sentence and snapping Bronwyn from her trance. All eyes darted to the support against which the elder sibling had been propped just moments ago. “He must’ve ducked out back! Shall I go after him, Lord Rae?”
“Well, Dragan,” Fedrin sighed again. “It looks like you’ll get your audience with the king, whether we like it or not. No, Garenor…let him go. We might as well sit tight.”
“I didn’t touch Mehdurin or Kalen…or even Irenys,” mused Dragan, picking up his monologue right where he’d left it off: as if his impending seizure were of no concern. “But I allowed all but the old man and his servants to perish, so I’m guilty all the same. I’m not here for your forgiveness. I don’t deserve it. Just let me take the field against my mother! Only then can we hope to defeat her…”
“We?” posed Bronwyn incredulously. “There’s no we! Our men won’t trust this traitor, Fedrin—especially not the Ithiros! They’ll likely attempt to slay him on sight, should even the most cowardly among them lay eyes on him!”
“I’m not sure I agree,” said Rae, taking a seat himself at last. “If we can keep our own boys off the Mardothans, then surely we can keep our Ithirian friends off of Dragan. It will take more than a speech from the likes of me, as I said. But a command from your uncle—well, that’s another thing altogether. Besides, sins of the past will be all but forgotten once the killing starts. As long as his blade’s pointed in the right direction, they’ll follow the DoomBringer through hell if need be. He’s turned the tide of battle for them time and time before—and they know he can do it again.”
“Follow him through hell, you say?” Bronwyn stepped to the table to loom over her subject. “Then on into betrayal? Rally them against the witch first, only to turn them against our new allies in the hour of need—or lead them straight into the jaws of a trap? Who’s to say he’ll even make it to the battle? Suppose he’s begged this audience just to put his sword through the king’s belly?” Her eyes flicked back to Fedrin. “We have a new champion. Or have you forgotten? A man loyal as he is strong. Astelidus shall lead us where this vagabond failed!”
Even as his name was spoken, the son of Ny appeared unexpectedly before them, pushing his way inside with naked steel in hand; and instantly on seeing her lover standing there with a look of pure hatred aimed at his sworn nemesis, Bronwyn recalled that Rindus was one of those toadies who’d listened to all of Astelidus’ vaunts concerning Dragan. The man must’ve run straight to his idol after slipping from the tent. Still…not enough time had passed for Rin to have stirred the hero and waited for him to dress and arm himself. Astelidus must’ve already been up and about…likely searching for her.
Panic struck her like a mallet. Astelidus had boasted too loudly and publicly to simply step aside now and let Dragan be on his way—whether to the king for judgment or otherwise. One of these two men she had feelings for would likely die today. All because of her.
“No!” she cried out, rushing at Astelidus to get her face in his line of sight—even daring to grasp and turn his jaw to force his gaze on her instead of Dragan. “Look at me! Calm yourself, my love! Please…listen…”
Quick as a cobra’s strike, Astelidus’ hand darted up and grabbed Bronwyn’s wrist, yanking it so forcefully from his face that she gasped in pain as he released it. Immediately both Fedrin and Dragan were on their feet, leaving Garenor the only person still seated in the dwelling. The young man was apparently torn as to which side to take in this blossoming altercation, and both his mouth and eyes were open wide in surprise and confusion.
"My love…" muttered Dragan, moving his eyes from Ny’s face to Bronwyn’s. “I should’ve guessed.”
Bronwyn winced visibly at these words, and Fedrin turned on Dragan to say: “Now hold on, lad…” Clearly these two were expecting a rage of jealousy from the GrimHelm. But instead, keeping his gaze on the woman, Dragan answered:
“It’s alright, Fedrin. I abandoned her—and so beautiful a flower mustn’t be left to wither from neglect.” Then, glancing at Astelidus: “I’ve no grievance with you, son of Ny. She’s all yours. Make her happy, and you have my blessing…”
At this point Astelidus had held his tongue for as long as he possibly could: a near-superhuman effort indeed. The compliment his rival had given Bronwyn—after he himself had just handled her roughly—only served to enrage him more than if Dragan had verbally lashed out at him directly. “She was never yours to give, coward! Nor will she ever return to you now she’s known the love of a real man. We spit on your worthless blessing! You claim no grievance with me out of fear alone—but it matters not, for I’ve a grievance with you. One so hot it sets my blood to boiling. Draw your sword, betrayer, and let’s settle the matter outside!”
“Careful, Ny,” warned Dragan slowly, his volume not rising to the challenge put before him. “My newfound humility isn’t without limits.”
"Patience, Astelidus…” Bronwyn urged again, reinforcing the DoomBringer’s words. “Deserus will judge Dragan’s fate. There’s no need to risk your life over this…this scoundrel…”
While the king’s niece was speaking thus, Rindus and another of Astelidus’ sycophants entered the tent to check on their leader; and upon seeing his brother reappear, Garenor finally stood as well. Then it was Fedrin’s turn to chime in: “I suggest you listen to her, son. Everyone knows your worth. You’ve nothing to prove to us by this except your childishness if you press on. Have you lost all your wits, man?” The old bear released a chuckle despite himself. “Challenging the GrimHelm to a duel?”
Seemingly ignoring Rae’s comments, Ny chose to address Bronwyn instead: “You call him scoundrel—but once more I see through your words. Don’t try to deny it! Your sickness for the man still festers…” Here he spat forcefully on the ground at Dragan’s feet, whereupon Bronwyn swiftly backed away from him in horror. “At least Fedrin speaks plain. Neither of you gives me a chance—but I tell you: I don’t care if this bastard’s indeed the greatest warrior in all the world. That means nothing to me, and it’ll mean even less when we step toward each other out there. Neither his fame nor his lackeys will come to his aid then. It’ll be just him against me—and may the best man win!”
A ripe pause followed during which all stood as statues save Dragan alone. Putting one foot forward, he made a display of rubbing Ny’s spittle into the dirt with the toe of his boot. “Did you actually believe such bravado would set my knees to shaking, Astelidus? I didn’t come here to trade blows with every single man who holds a grudge against me. Your king needs soldiers—not corpses. It would be a shame to snuff the life of one with such confidence in his prowess as you…whether you’ve truly the skills to back it up or not. No. I won’t fight you today. Go now, and leave me to the wisdom of your betters.”
To all present except Ny himself, this reply from Dragan was accepted as the final say on the matter: a speech filled with nothing but common sense and cold, hard fact. Rindus even reached out to touch Astelidus gently on the arm as if he were about to escort some elderly woman back to her bedchamber. Ny shrugged the hand off violently but without a verbal rebuke: for his mind was desperately hunting the words that would break the GrimHelm’s calm—lest he must resort to charging his enemy here and now where they stood. Then suddenly they came to him like a bolt of lightning illuminating the night sky:
“So that’s it, then? You mean to give up the sword in favor of wagging your lying tongue in a circle of old men? Whether we fight and I defeat you, or you slink away, you give all the glory to me. Astelidus Ny: the man the DoomBringer fled from! I’ll see those words spread from the Great Ocean to the wastes—and your name will live on only as a footnote in my legend. I’ve already taken your woman…and soon your fame will be mine too. So why don’t you go ahead and hand over that fine breastplate you’re wearing as well, since you’d deny me the pleasure of stripping it from your mangled hide!”
And with that, Astelidus had at last hit the mark: not with the intended barb concerning stealing Dragan’s woman and fame, but rather with the spontaneous afterthought regarding the breastplate. Just as Erroth had lost Dragan’s trust in Dolras by urging the champion to give up the armor, just so now the son of Ny had won his argument by evoking that same emotion in his would-be opponent. Suddenly Dragan’s sword was in his hand, pointing past Astelidus to the tent’s opening. “No man shall ever don this plate but me, wretched cur! You’ve just spoken your dying words!”
“Dragan, no!” cried Bronwyn. “How could you give in to such foolishness?” She took a step forward as if to fling herself upon him—but Fedrin caught her by the arm and reeled her in, squeezing her contorting body against his heavy chest.
Astelidus merely smiled and spun on his heel, leaving the dwelling with Rin and the other warrior in tow—and Dragan followed them immediately as a man possessed, not taking his eyes from the exit for an instant, even with Bronwyn’s earsplitting curses flying directly at his skull.
Then lastly Garenor shuffled toward the portal as well, offering an unheard condolence to Torensus’ daughter as she collapsed sobbing in Fedrin’s arms.