Part Four: Chapter 45
A beautiful purple and orange twilight spread the heavens of northern Sinia as if formed by a masterful artist’s strokes, the evening sky capped by a cluster of ominous clouds traversing its expanse. A relentless autumn gale drove this dark army east toward the lonely mountain, biting gusts diving to earth to set banners streaming and the flames of hundreds of fires dancing from close at hand on out to mere pinpricks of light nearing the horizon. Yet, though there was this motion, it might’ve been that time wasn’t actually striding forward, and rather the clouds were a chain encircling the globe, the flickering fires deathless as stars of night, and the banners immortal heralds to forever announce the reign of Mother Earth. Yes, with no eyes to mark its passage, this scene indeed might’ve been an endless cyclical reality, had no men been present to insinuate individualism and constant change into the landscape. As it was, however, between one surge of air and the next the camp’s silence was broken by the snarling and yelping of dogs fighting over a tossed bone and the ringing of a smith striking metal against anvil. Then the wind rushed in, drowning all sound save its near-deafening roar.
The DoomBringer had no cloak nor hood to draw against the gale as it ripped through the unwalled prison cart’s bars and stripped away his body’s warmth. He was dressed only in the light arming clothes he’d been wearing on that fateful day when he’d struck Astelidus Ny down. Not that it mattered. Dragan Saedus no more felt a chill than the iron and wood caging him, for his thoughts were far away, fixed with his black gaze upon the blacker shadow of Gorm Nadur rising like a cruel spearpoint in the distance. Nearby his four guards sat in a semicircle about their cookfire, passing food and drink back and forth, speaking just loudly enough under the buffeting wind for their captive—had he been listening—to hear their voices but not make out the words.
Was his mother out there, even now, her own gaze spanning the divide to return his stare? Was that her evil shadow cast on the mountain?
Barely a week in this jail, yet already Dragan felt a horrible madness creeping over him. Not from isolation. He could handle that. After all, before his return to the poisonous Sinian bosom, he’d been traveling alone in the wilderness for a month, maybe longer. And not from a fear of whatever awaited him when his sentence behind bars was done. There were indeed things the GrimHelm had come to fear since the day he turned his back on these people—but never would he cower at the thought of mere death or inflicted harm. Not even the shame of defeat nor the loss of his legend held top slot in the ranks of his anxiety anymore. Revenge and redemption. The thought that he might perish without accomplishing these things is what terrified him now: the fear that each day he spent cooped in this cell was one day closer to the witch’s imminent victory—or else her defeat at another’s hands than his own—depriving him of his day of reckoning. That this was the spot where Oen planned to engage Saedus, the signs about Dragan were plain enough; but other than this obvious fact, he’d no idea how long they had left to wait. The guards were tight-lipped, and part of the king’s judgment had been no visitors allowed.
Many had come to stare from a distance, true enough—Fedrin most notably among them, nodding his head in sad greeting whenever he caught the captive’s eye—but none had yet dared defy Deserus’ order. And likely none would. For a day or two after his incarceration, Dragan had actually hoped to see Bronwyn at Rae’s side. Hoped and dreaded all at once. But no…it’d been foolish of him to think she’d want to do anything other than spit in his face then run him through: for she above all was the victim of his crimes. He realized now that if anything could stave off his madness, it would be to shut her out his mind completely. So why had his thoughts strayed to her again just now, when he was trying so hard to set fire to that damned mountain with nothing but the fury of his glare? Why couldn’t he stay focused on his mother’s sickening, unnatural beauty instead of imagining his fingers tangled in Bronwyn’s gorgeous golden hair: her head tilted back…those luscious lips eagerly parting…
Yanked from his reverie, Dragan spun his head to the spot from whence the guard’s startled salute had come: and there, across the flames from the semicircle of now risen figures, King Oen’s niece indeed stood in the flesh. Her curves were all but hidden beneath the folds of a voluminous gray robe; but even in the dim light, her stunning face shown clear. In one hand she held a shuttered lantern at her side, and a wrapped bundle of some sort was tucked beneath her other arm.
“My lady,” the same guard addressed her again, having regained a degree of composure. He bowed low. “Forgive us. We didn’t expect to see you here.”
“Stand firm, Ellerin,” said another of the four, taking a step toward the first as if the closer proximity to his brother-in-arms would add strength to his words. “Remember the king’s command! Not even she’s allowed this near.”
“Easy, soldier,” Bronwyn returned with a charming smile, setting down the lantern to pluck the bundle from her arm. Thus far she hadn’t even glanced at Dragan’s cage. “I’m aware of my uncle’s orders. But look here: I’ve brought you something…”
The guards watched her curiously as she began to unwrap layers of fabric to reveal the prize inside. A bottle. And not just some jug of water, Dragan saw at once. Its characteristic shape showed it to be a container of the most sought-after drink in all the lands: Tholmian liquor. Immediately the eyes of all four men—even those of the stern one at Ellerin’s shoulder—became wide as saucers. It was a wonder foam and drool weren’t pouring from their mouths. Despite his own shock at seeing Bronwyn appear so suddenly among these men, Dragan nearly laughed aloud at their reaction.
Likely struggling to fight back her own amusement, Bronwyn grinned as she held out the gift for Ellerin to take. “Do you boys think Deserus cares who talks to Dragan now, on the very eve of war? Surely you’ve heard the report. Scouts say the witch will move into position under cover of moonlight—and that battle will be had at dawn! This bottle could be your last, friends. Take it, and each of you have a drink for me. I won’t be long with him.”
“But…my lady…” Ellerin started to protest—yet his voice was so devoid of conviction that the trailing end was hardly audible.
“I’ve brought him a blanket, you see? A blanket. And perhaps a few parting words…” This time Bronwyn feigned a pitiful half-smile in place of the alluring one she’d arrived wearing. Or was it feigned? Either way, it had the desired effect.
Ellerin and the man beside him exchanged a quick look before turning their hungry eyes again on the bottle. Finally the dour man shrugged: “A moment or two won’t hurt, I reckon. But we’ll be watching you. Just stay clear of the bars.”
They accepted the bottle then and turned to reseat themselves at the fire, no doubt to begin immediately passing their gift around. To Dragan, however, they might as well have stepped through a portal to the void—for as soon as Bronwyn picked up her lantern and began to walk his way, it was as if no one else but the two of them existed in all the world. She stopped just shy of arm’s length from the cage, unshuttered the lantern, and held it up so she could get a good look at what was inside.
Squinting, Dragan shied away from the sudden light—but Bronwyn merely stood patiently without a word, letting the warrior’s eyes adjust. To say that her face was expressionless wouldn’t have been quite the truth, for there was a hint of some hybrid emotion in the way she set her jaw and brow. Grief? Rage? Pity? How many others fought for supremacy in her mind? One thing was certain, though: there wasn’t a trace of the mirth with which she’d greeted the guards.
“You shouldn’t have come,” said Dragan at last, his sight recovered enough to focus on his visitor. Then, suddenly recalling the soldiers, he nodded toward their cookfire: “That liquor will set at least one tongue wagging, and Deserus will hear about it come dawn—if not before. He’ll not be as indifferent as you made him out.”
Bronwyn had noticed the cart’s external hook and was already in the process of hanging her light there as Dragan finished talking. Then, stepping closer, she shoved one end of her blanket through the bars. “Has fear of my uncle’s wrath ever stopped me before? Well…go on. Take it.”
Dragan hesitated a moment more then gave in and pulled the blanket into his cell. “Why are you doing this now, Bronwyn? Surely you don’t expect me to swallow what you told them about parting words? No matter what happens here tomorrow, I’m to be dragged to Chalemos and put to trial. Both you and I’d be whisked away from any real danger like infants snatched up in their mothers’ arms! This isn’t our last goodbye…”
“Tell me why you did it!” Bronwyn started suddenly, her pent anger boiling to the surface at last. “That’s the reason I’ve come. I want to hear you admit the truth. Tell me how you’re a heartless bastard who’d murder his own child to retain his vanity! Tell me why you couldn’t have just forced the fool to yield!” Here she paused for breath, tears welling in her eyes; but—as Dragan’s jaw was clenched tight, teeth grinding in an effort to control his unjustified anger at these well-founded accusations—she immediately carried on. “Everyone knows it was Astelidus who started it. In his mind he’d already fought you and won before you ever set foot in Fedrin’s tent. You’re a lot of things, Dragan—most of them stomach-turning to dwell on!—but you’re no half-wit. Why in Daemon’s name did you let him goad you on like that? They all warned me about you from the start, and thus I’m the fool for not listening. Now look what’s become of me! A sniveling trollop who can’t stay away from the poison that’s killing her…”
Another gust of air swept down on them, causing Bronwyn’s hair—and her trickling tears—to stream across her face. She waited for the wind to subside, then wiped her cheeks with the back of her hand, pushing the loose, wet strands back in the process.
“Do you really think I could’ve made him yield?” said Dragan at last, staring at her as he draped the blanket about his shoulders. “He’d have struggled to the bitter end. Gods! If it wasn’t for that cursed armor of mine, it would’ve been my pyre you watched burning afterwards in place of his. Or he’d have stripped my corpse—just as he threatened—and fed it to the dogs!”
“You’re right. He’d never have yielded to you willingly,” admitted Bronwyn after considering his words. “But if you’d given us a blasted moment before you struck him down, perhaps we could’ve stepped in…dragged him off and bound him till his wits returned!”
“And he’d have laid low the first man—or woman!—to lay a hand on him!” Dragan spat back, his composure slipping again. “He was fey. Both of us were. Don’t you see? To have gone on living after being beaten by me…wouldn’t that have been a fate worse than death for him?”
As these words sank into her skull—and she realized that the truth of them had been lurking in her mind as well, hiding just behind the grief of loss—Oen’s daughter jerked a hand up over her face and turned her gaze aside.
Instantly Dragan felt remorseful, wishing he could recall his words…or do or say anything to ease the woman’s pain. She was within his reach, but the hateful bars of his cell prevented him from gathering her into a comforting embrace, and speech utterly failed him. He could do no more than stand there, staring at her with his knuckles turning white from a terrible grip on the metal. Could he rip the bars out or bend them—with nothing but bare hands and brute strength—to get to her? Was this iron tougher than the rippling limbs and thick neck of the Beast of Thirannon? But no…he’d thrown the source of that strength aside when he forsook his armor. And despite what Erroth and the Kings would have him believe, he knew now for certain: without the breastplate he was just a common man. A man of great skill, perhaps, but no demigod. It wasn’t his skin that had shattered Ny’s blade, after all…
“I was so angry when you left me,” said Bronwyn, still looking away; but she was noticeably calmer now, the volume of her voice having dropped nearly too low to be heard above the wind. “I didn’t know when—or if—you’d ever come back. I felt like a used doll that’d been thrown away. He was there for me when I needed to feel desired again. Important.” Now her face returned to the captive. “Yet he never took your place. I still love you, Dragan. I won’t deny it. With my mouth I condemn you even now—but my heart’s not deceived.” Ignoring the guard’s warning, she stepped closer and placed both hands atop his on the bars. “I meant most of what I said to you in Fedrin’s tent, but I couldn’t bear to leave things like that between us—whether this is our final hour together or not. I’m no stranger to being manipulated by family. I’m sure you did what you felt you must do for her, without gaining pleasure from the wicked deeds. Please tell me that’s so! Give me something—anything—to lift you from the rank of devil in my mind…”
As much as he hated to do it, Dragan forced himself to pull his hands away from her touch. “What else is there for me to say? I’m Mother’s puppet no more, but that’s not enough to earn your forgiveness…much less your love. Yet if your feelings for me truly remain, as you claim—even against all reason—then will you not go to your uncle now and plead for my release? Or should he deny you that, then please!—beg him to kill me this very night! I can stand this cage no longer. I’d rather die than face the morning locked behind bars, while Saedus struts the field like she owns the damned world! I’ll even humble myself and swear fealty to Deserus at last, if that’s what it takes! All I need is my armor returned—and a blade with which to cut her down!” His hands returned to their grip on the iron, and he moved his face closer to the bars. “I’ve not forgotten my feelings for you either, Bronwyn. If only you knew how I yearned for you, hoping against hope that one day you’d be mine again. But there can be no love, no peace, no life for me until the witch is slain. Can’t you see what must be done?”
“Your armor’s been stolen,” said the woman, making another effort to wipe tears from her puffy, red eyes. “It was found missing the same day your brother disappeared. We assume he took it for himself.”
What? the DoomBringer bellowed in his mind—yet the rage was too pure and deep within him to find its way out through his mouth. So instead he just stood there, staring into Bronwyn’s eyes but looking through her, his mind frantically searching the plains, the mountain, and the entire known world beyond—as if he could locate and summon his half-brother back to the camp through nothing but sheer force of will. Then all would see whether it was Dragan or the armor that truly held the power…when he latched onto Baeldrin to rip his prize loose from the man’s thieving hide! Keep my secret, keep your head. That was the threat he’d uttered. And no matter whether Baeldrin had since turned ally against the witch or not, there were now two grievances for which the man would have to answer: the cold-blooded murder of their father being the first…
“Dragan?” said Bronwyn, disturbed by what she found now in the prisoner’s face—and at that same moment, a creaking noise issued from above their heads, pulling her eyes to where the bars he gripped were set in the roof of his cage. A trickle of dust shown faintly in the lamplight, and she thought she saw the metal turning…
Another sound. This time a louder crack…and Bronwyn took an involuntary step away.
The noise must’ve broken Dragan’s trance as well, for he jerked his hands from the bars and turned his palms up, looking down on them in clear disbelief.
“What’s going on over there?” came Ellerin’s voice, then all four guards were on their feet with hands on weapons, awaiting only a reply—or recurrence of the noise that’d disturbed them—to set them racing to the cart.
Quick as an adder, Bronwyn shot a hand inside the bars, placed an object in one of Dragan’s upturned palms, and—folding his fingers down over it—pushed the fist further into the cage. Then she grabbed her light from the hook and spun away from the cell with it, letting shadows consume the prisoner. “It’s nothing,” she answered the guards at last. “Snagged my lamp on the hook.”
“She hadn’t touched it yet!” exclaimed the gruff man to his companions; and just as Bronwyn strode forward he came running up to her with the others on his heels, his suspicious eyes scanning her person and the cage behind. Apparently satisfied that his king’s niece was unharmed, this one rudely snatched the lantern from her grasp and held it up to the cart to have a look at his charge.
Two steps closer, then he stopped dead in his tracks with his mouth and eyes wide open. The three men coming up behind were similarly affected when they reached his spot…and there all four stood as if suddenly struck dumb…
Not long after this, the scene’s former peace was restored. Two guards were now absent from it, having left to escort Bronwyn back from whence she’d come: but the sounds of the wind and camp had settled back in, and Dragan was left alone in the dark. Moving closer to the front of his cage, he ran a finger down one of the two noticeably curved bars that’d so amazed himself and his captors; then, raising his other hand, he opened it to reveal in faint moonlight the object he’d been gifted by his lost love.
A key to his cell.
He didn’t care to guess how she’d come by the thing. All that mattered to him beyond its imminent use was this: she’d planned to give it to him all along.
Grinning to himself, the DoomBringer sat down to wait.