Part One: Chapter 4
The finest pinpoint of white on the blackest canvas, and nothing else existed. Yet Astelidus Ny could feel his face parting thin air as his charger propelled him towards it. The steel hoops of Bellaroth’s reins rapped gently against her bronze chanfron, generating a rhythmic knell in the warrior’s ears. He strained to hear something else…anything else…but heard nothing. Not even hoof against earth. There was no earth.
It seemed an eternity before the point became a dot…and the dot a disc…and the disc a glowing sphere of yellowish-green flame. It was still far—too far—like the sun to the earth, yet now it cast the dimmest light on man and steed as they approached. Astelidus noticed something queer about his arms. They appeared sickly and shriveled: not the meaty limbs he’d known his entire life. He loosed the reins, lifted his palms close to his face, and immediately recoiled at what he saw. What skin remained was ghastly pale and splotched with corruption. The muscle underneath was diminished, exposing segments of chalky white bone in places. The putrid stench of death became recognizable.
Astelidus didn’t remain perturbed long, though—for living or dead, his soul flamed with a passionate pride that couldn’t be extinguished. He moved a bony hand to his side and, clasping the hilt of his bastard sword, excitedly drew blade from scabbard. The length of it burst magnificently into cool blue flames that pulsed to the beat of his heart and swayed to the rhythm of his breath. Bellaroth neighed. Two streaming balls of fire issued from her nostrils. Astelidus looked on with wide eyes. The end of time.
The sphere of light dilated until it loomed gigantically before man and beast. The horse slowed to a canter, then to a trot, and finally came to a complete halt. All was still in the void. Silence reigned. The man gazed at the spectacle before him: no longer a flame, but a glassy orb.
“What curse have you put on me, Daemon?” shouted Astelidus, his words whetted by the muteness of oblivion. “Where’s my father, and his father, and my ancestors of old? Where’s my dearest brother, Banlorest, whose death I couldn’t prevent? Where is the river and the mountain?”
The warrior stared intently at the sphere, flame-brand clasped tightly in his right hand, reins held loosely in his other. He became aware of a faint slit in the orb’s center running pole to pole. The breadth of this grew at its equator until a black ellipse developed. The eye of the serpent rotated, its pupil scrutinizing the visitor. A hiss came from somewhere in the nothingness:
“You’re mistaken, Astelidus Ny. Soon you shall travel the river, but that time isn’t now.”
“But I’m dead. Rotting. Can’t you see my flesh?” The warrior held up his forearm for the serpent to behold.
“Not dead, but dying. Poisoned.”
“Poisoned? By what?”
“A snake in the grass.”
The man knitted his brows. “Killed by a snake? Never! It was I who slew...”
“Fool!” spoke the serpent, its voice replete with contempt. “When the rats have been devoured, what then shall I eat?”
“What is this riddle?” replied the man, his agitation boiling over into rage. “I’ve no patience for your noxious words!”
“Indeed. Yet know this, warrior: your lack of patience shall be the death of you, as it was the death of your dearest brother.”
The malignant emphasis placed on those last words sent Astelidus spiraling into a blind fury. Bellaroth reared as he put his feet hard into her sides. Coming down, the warrior thrust his flaming brand deep in the serpent’s eye. The pain-ridden shriek that followed burst his ears, racked his brain, sent blood pouring from his eyes and nose. Small gray tendrils issued from the wound, writhing up blade, hand, arm, shoulder…freezing his flesh and bone, choking his life away. When they reached his heart, he was dead. Blackness triumphed.
Yet there existed a light in the darkness, small and remote, once again before Astelidus’ eyes. The eye of the serpent? he thought, disconcerted. No, just a solitary star on a cloudy night. The man sat up, bending his legs and resting his forearms across his knees. He’d chosen, as was his wont, to make his bed in a long, thin patch of woods on the outskirts of the Sinian encampment. Behind this grove, shear precipices of shale dropped some fifty fathoms down to the valley below.
He wiped the stray red locks from his face and peered into the valley. The air was fresher here, unpolluted by the smoke and dirt constantly circulating in the camp, and the scent of pine was more pleasant than the poignant perfumes his servants used to douse his linens. Although several wells had been tapped by the invading army, water was still a commodity that couldn’t be wasted on washing sheets—even for a warrior as renowned as the son of Ny. There was hardly a trickle of stream between Crûthior and Gethod.
As he began wondering which of his servants was probably sleeping on his bed in the tent, he noticed far below a string of torches winding along the road, heading west. He stood, walked to the cliff’s edge, and grasped a sturdy pine to steady himself. The column of fire coiled around as it followed the twisting road further down into the valley. Too many snakes for one night, he thought. Because of the telltale number and odd spacing of the lights, Astelidus correctly assumed this fiery serpent to be composed of his rival, Dragan Saedus, and the band of skilled Haxûdī that followed the upstart as if he were some god.
“Leaving on the eve of victory,” the Sinian snorted. “Good riddance.”
Astelidus had never liked the son of Saedus. Though he couldn’t deny the foreigner’s prowess on the battlefield, he disdained the man’s lack of loyalty: an attribute that Astelidus himself held in high esteem. He found himself recalling how Dragan had dismissed him as if he were no more than a mere shield-bearer at their first encounter—and how the same man, upon arriving in Mardotha, had refused to kneel before the king of Sinia and pay homage.
If only he’d turned you away then, mused Astelidus, staring into the night, …it would’ve been me today boasting of victory. I would fall upon my own sword at King Oen’s command…but how could Bronwyn, so decent and fair, have taken up with the likes of you?
He had no answer to that question. Any fool could see the foreigner was ruggedly handsome, but so was Astelidus Ny—as many a comely maiden had attested. And before the upstart’s inglorious arrival, Astelidus had been on the path to becoming the prime Sinian champion himself, having achieved several spectacular feats of daring and prowess before stubble had ever cropped up on his chin. It may have been Banlorest, his father’s eldest son, who was groomed for greatness, but every courtesy denied the younger brother he made up for in sheer determination. Could he wear the shoes his brother’s feet were meant to fill? It was time for him to find out.
Astelidus broke his gaze away from the night and headed back to the camp. There he found a sentry and pulled the man aside, speaking in a whisper: “Who has departed?”
"DoomBringer, my lord,” was the confirming answer. “He wouldn’t tell us his destination.” The guard looked worried, almost frightened, beneath the pale moonlight. “Could he mean not to return? What will happen to us then?”
“This war won’t be decided by a single man, no matter how skilled others deem him to be,” said Astelidus, somehow keeping his cool.
“As you say, lord…yet some believe he’s invincible…that if not for him, the Mardothans would stream forth like ants from their gates!”
Astelidus frowned deeply. “We shall see. But let them come, I say. There are other heroes among us.”
The sentry nodded, apparently unconvinced.
A queer mood struck Astelidus then, and he almost laughed in the sentry’s face and berated the man as a witless cur. Instead he said simply: “Back to your post.”
The yard rushed past. He could hardly contain himself, for now his time had finally come. Did Bronwyn know of Dragan’s parting? If so, Astelidus would be there to comfort her. If not, Astelidus would be the one to tell her. Either way he must see her face now, no matter the hour. He must know how much this rogue truly affected her, before she had time to compose herself on the morrow. There would be guards about the tent where Bronwyn slept: most likely hers, now that Dragan’s were gone…but Astelidus knew her men well. They might complain a bit at first, but in the end they’d admit him.
Where is the damned place? he silently cursed. He’d visited them before, most times on errand, although a few trips had come from invitation. As much as he secretly loathed the GrimHelm, Astelidus had surprisingly found Dragan to be somewhat fond of him. It seemed the man liked to hear stories of others’ bold deeds nearly as well as boasting of his own. And Bronwyn had always smiled and spoken fair to him…
Cutting behind a makeshift smokehouse and a wagon laden with furs, he got his bearings at last. The entrance to Bronwyn’s tent was straight ahead. Here I am. I was headed right after all.
But it wasn’t right. The destination was correct, but something else was not. There were no guards here. Not at her tent, nor at the next…nor at any within view. Years of scouting had sharpened Astelidus’ instincts, causing him to grasp hold immediately of the slightest thing out of place in a situation—and he did so now, dropping down quickly into the shadows and holding his breath. Ever so slowly he drew his sword, careful to keep steel out of moonlight. Someone else who shouldn’t be here slinked nearby. He heard muffled footfalls. He could feel the tension in the air.
Should he call out? Should he go inside? Either one should suffice to ensure Bronwyn’s safety—but neither would catch the lurker in the act, revealing his or her identity. A good thief, spy, or assassin could disappear in the blink of an eye, running and hiding or blending in with a gathering crowd. No, he’d wait longer and make certain of this person’s intentions before bringing them to naught. My timing must be perfect. Bronwyn must not be harmed.
Agonizing moments passed in near silence. Maybe the supposed intruder’s instincts were as honed as those of Ny’s son—or perhaps even more so—and Astelidus’ presence had been perceived as well. It could also be that something rather harmless was about. A scenario crossed his mind where the guards had been given leave for the night, and it was only some old drunkard wandering about, stumblingly lost—but sober enough not to risk waking anyone of note. No. I know what I heard. I know what I felt. And he still felt it: someone’s presence not far off. Someone more patient than he was.
Still the long moments passed, and no one else came. Only the low drone of insects and distant snores broke the stillness of night. But at last he heard a faint slit of canvas ahead…then a shuffling sound…then he was on his feet, dashing for the entrance, batting the tent flap aside, sweeping his wide eyes about the dimly-lit interior, when…
A blinding cloud of dust struck him square in the face.
A woman’s shriek and a coward’s point pierced him simultaneously, one to announce his death and the other to secure it. Pain exploded in his chest, and a burning fire seared his eyes. He loosed a ragged groan as the murderer pushed him against something hard—a support—and prepared to make an end of him.
But the dirge for Astelidus Ny was not yet to be sung. In the shadows of the tent his attacker saw little more than he did, blinded though he was, and instinct again took over. He caught and slowed the next stab as it connected slightly off the intended spot—his heart—and instantly kicked off the beam to bowl over the assailant, sending both of them sprawling. It was indeed a man with whom he struggled briefly on the ground, Astelidus discerned quickly enough. A man of slight build yet surprisingly wiry strength. But not strong enough, dog! On his side now—behind the assassin—he bent back an arm, wrenched free the dagger, and stabbed again and again and again. Yet still his victim made no sound.
Someone entered the hut, yelling and darting about. Other voices followed, including Bronwyn’s, and light suddenly penetrated the closed lids of Astelidus’ throbbing, blurry eyes. They stood over the scene as he rolled off the dead man and rubbed at his dusty face. Bronwyn spoke his name in surprise; the others he barely heard at all. Concerned with his wound, they tried to pull him away, but he wouldn’t have it. Not yet. He opened his eyes and moved close to the dead man’s face.
But it wasn’t a man, after all, whom Astelidus looked upon with impaired vision in the lamplight. Pointed ears, nose, and chin told the tale clearly enough. A sand elf!