Part Four: Chapter 49
The word hardly left one mouth before it was freed from another just ahead, pummeling the hero from either side of the lane down which he strode. At times the acknowledgement was voiced aloud, aimed directly at him and followed by a nod of greeting; but more often it came to his ears as a low, awestruck murmur of reverence—or even fear. I’ve made this walk before, Dragan mused as he passed the huddled groups of soldiers.
He was in a different realm now, but the faces staring up at him looked the same as on the day he’d defeated the Lion of Agrardob. One might’ve assumed the warrior who’d all but single-handedly won yesterday’s battle would receive some fanfare—and Dragan supposed it was better than his head mounted on a stake for his past transgressions. To be honest, though, there was another man who deserved as much credit for the triumph. More, actually. Baeldrin had been the one to orchestrate the alliance between Berac and Oen, after all, thus ensuring enough men were afield to even put up a fight. And if not for his half-brother’s unlooked-for appearance at the crucial moment, Dragan’s struggle with Saedus might’ve gone the other way. Yet he’s as unlikely to receive a victory parade as I am. That’s one thing we have in common.
Although Dragan’s eyes had hardly strayed from his destination since taking the first step toward it, suddenly he found himself standing before the threshold, momentarily pondering where he was and how he’d arrived there. His reverie had been strong, indeed. Or maybe my mind’s still addled from the banshees’ control. He realized one of the two soldiers maintaining vigil at the tent’s entrance had a hand held out. Then the guard’s words of a moment earlier registered as well. He wants my sword.
“You must disarm before you enter…” the man elaborated, though seeming less sure of himself now since Dragan hadn’t immediately complied. His teeth were gritted in a worried frown, and his companion appeared equally distressed. The second guard’s free hand inched slowly to his spear’s shaft, as if readying to lower its tip on the visitor—but a single glance from Dragan stopped this motion midway. The man swallowed hard instead and let the gloved fist fall to his side.
Still Dragan made no move to acquiesce, merely turning his face away from the pair to consider their demand. His eyes lit upon Gorm Nadur in the distance as he did so, and the peak caught and held his gaze, causing him to rudely ignore the guards for a drawn-out moment. The last time he stared at the mountain had been through the bars of a Sinian prison cart. Would they attempt to return him there as soon as he ceded his sword?
“I’m sorry, lord…but I must insist.”
Both guards flinched as Dragan shot a hand to his hilt, the closest man nearly falling into the canvas behind him as he took an involuntary step backwards. Yet instead of finding his head suddenly swept away by the hero’s drawn blade, this one soon felt the visitor’s weapon, still sheathed and held sideways, shoved into his arms and chest. “See that it’s cleaned and oiled before you return it,” Dragan spoke at last then shouldered past the slack-jawed sentries and pushed through the entrance’s flap. The well-lit interior was in sharp contrast to the fading light outside; and in response to this change he paused just inside the portal, allowing his eyes to adjust.
“And here’s our champion, as we speak!” announced Torensus Oen, waving a wrinkled, cup-filled hand in the newcomer’s direction. Apparently there’d been some celebrating going on while the tent’s occupants waited for Dragan to arrive. The old man’s greeting seemed overly enthusiastic, considering the likely nature of this summons…and his words were a bit slurred. “Welcome, Prince of Ost.”
Other figures within turned their heads on the object of Torensus’ attention now, including King Oen himself—seated on a cushioned throne in all his finery, leaning forward slightly with a goblet cupped in both hands—and several of his attendants. The latter began to scurry from the room immediately, not bothering to wait for dismissal. Likely they’d been instructed to make themselves scarce as soon as their lord’s visitor arrived. Dragan hardly noticed them—even as one woman nearly bumped his arm with a tray in her rush to exit behind him. His gaze had just met Bronwyn’s own scrutiny, and for the moment all else was lost.
The king’s niece had been crying earlier, he discerned. Over Fedrin’s death, no doubt—and perhaps some others she’d held close. She must be upset with her father. His drunken joy was dearly bought…
Their mutual stare was short-lived, however. As soon as the king addressed his guest, Bronwyn meekly looked away.
“Come in, Dragan, and put yourself at ease.” Deserus leaned back casually in his seat and took a sip of wine. “This tent is not a cage.”
“We both know that’s a lie,” said Dragan—yet he came forward all the same, halting within a few paces of Oen’s throne. “It’s just a different sort of cage. One with invisible bars.”
A bark of laughter escaped Torensus’ lips. “I doubt our entire army could subdue you by force, man! It’s we who should be wary, don’t you think?”
“My brother exaggerates, of course,” said Deserus, turning a slight grin from Torensus to Dragan. “Still I trust you see his point. Have a seat…and let’s start again. More civil this time, perhaps?”
The king motioned to a nearby couch, but Dragan declined by not moving a muscle. “I’m listening,” was all he said.
Deserus sighed and ran a hand down his gray beard. “Very well. I owe you an apology for not summoning you yesterday. There was much that needed my immediate attention, as you can imagine. But Torensus reminded me that you’re not one to keep waiting—and so we made a point to discuss you this morning at length. First we must offer you our sincere thanks for coming to our aid, despite the circumstances behind…”
“So it’s all decided, then?” Dragan rudely cut in, frowning. “My fate’s been tossed and pulled between the pair of you—like two old crows squabbling over a worm? Why bother to soften the blow?”
“Dragan, please…” Bronwyn chimed in from her uncle’s right side, her voice visibly startling the champion as if he’d forgotten she was present. Yet she got nothing else out beyond this brief plea. Once more she was cowed by the king’s words.
This isn’t like you, Bronwyn, Dragan considered. Were you let in on their plans and coached to keep quiet—or are you nervous because they left you in the dark? These thoughts flashed through Dragan’s mind even as Deserus spoke:
“Fine, DoomBringer.” His eyes narrowed as he fought to maintain patience. “I don’t know why I ever allowed such insolence from you…but I might as well save my breath. You tell me, then: what should I make of you? Savior? Traitor? Heartbreaker or friend? You think your fame sets you above my judgment—and you’re wrong. State your case, if you wish. But you’re not absolved. Not yet.”
“Gods!” cried Torensus, nearly choking on his wine. All this harsh and stern talk was apparently starting to sober him—but not fast enough for him to bother hiding his annoyance at the discoursers. “What happened to ′more civil this time?′ Just let me tell him our proposal, brother, and we can avoid all this.”
Deserus sighed again. His cheeks were flushed now; yet after a moment he relented, nodding for his sibling to continue. As he did so, a jewel on the crown of Sinia sparkled in the lamplight.
“Excellent,” Torensus grinned, giving Dragan a once-over. “Ah! You must forgive our poor manners! Anden! Some wine for our guest!”
A young man entered with a cup for Dragan, averting his eyes as he held it forth. The Bastard of Domal didn’t hesitate to accept; yet he made no move to drink from the vessel, merely standing with it held loosely in hand, still frowning as he waited for Bronwyn’s father to get to the point.
“Surely you know how much we’re indebted to you,” Torensus began. “For all of your heroics in Mardotha—and for your great victory here just yesterday. But you must also acknowledge our grievances. Strictly speaking, you’ve broken none of our laws: for you never swore an oath to Deserus that would keep you from abandoning us…nor does an assault on our Ithirian allies dictate that we must turn you over to them. And your duel with brave Astelidus was begun by him, after all. None of these things demanded your imprisonment.” Here he paused, glancing at his brother before taking another drink of wine. “However,” he began again with an apologetic note to his voice, “…there’s still the matter of you escaping the king’s sentence—regardless of how it was my wicked daughter here who aided you.” He grinned again as he said the last. “And despite the boon we received as a result. Yet we’re willing to forgive you all these slights, Dragan—even to the point of risking our alliance with the Ithiros in harboring you—if you’ll but agree to one thing. And there’s no need to frown, hero, for we believe you’ll find it to your liking! It’s a thing all eligible Sinian men, young or old, would crawl over themselves like insects to be the first to get at. A thing you yourself nearly died fighting for. What we’re offering is my daughter’s hand in marriage.”
"What?" Bronwyn blurted out, her cheeks reddening. Whether it was from anger or embarrassment or both wasn’t immediately obvious. She returned her gaze to Dragan, choosing to address him before her father: “You have to believe me! I’d no idea…”
“Come now, daughter,” Torensus chided amusedly. “Why play coy with us? You can deny it all you like—but I’m no fool. We all know what you want.”
Bronwyn’s blush deepened. “Apparently it doesn’t matter what I want! You couldn’t have talked to me about this first?”
“And let you sabotage our plan before we could get it out on the table? Ha! Not a chance. Don’t you even want to hear what Dragan thinks about the offer before you try to talk him out of it—just because it came from me first rather than him? Honestly, I’m merely doing him a favor. Isn’t that right, son?” Torensus’ eyes found Dragan’s again, and in that moment the cheer in them was gone. The look said: Don’t you dare disagree with me, boy. Only a fool would insult the king’s brother. You’ve no choice but to accept our proposal. Then the mirth returned. “I’d hurry and say yes before the silly girl runs off pouting!”
Yet Dragan said nothing of the sort. Instead he continued to stand in silence, wine unsipped, frowning even deeper than before.
Bronwyn had clearly been expecting such a reaction—or lack thereof—from him. She was so pleased by her correct guess, in fact, that for a moment the urge to say ’I told you so’ won out over anger and embarrassment…and even squashed a growing tingle of excitement at the prospect of her and Dragan sharing a future together. “See, Father?” she smirked. “What did you expect? For him to drop to his knees, praising your generosity? What did you think was different now than in Mardotha—other than all your warnings about him having proved true? You didn’t want me with him then. So why now? Not just because you want to see me happy, that’s for certain! It’s all about you and Uncle instead. A contract to legitimize Dragan, bringing him back into the fold. Some fine plan—if only you had willing participants!”
“Hush, girl!” Torensus hissed, appearing stone sober now in his anger. “Let the man speak for himself! You’re willing enough, as I said.” Then he turned to Dragan: “Perhaps you’d like the evening to think on the matter? Marriage isn’t a thing to be taken lightly, I know—even considering who we’re offering. What say you, Deserus?” He cut his eyes to his brother. “Shall we meet again in the morning? Give them some time to warm to the idea?”
“Agreed. It seems we all need a recess to simmer down.” The king looked then to his niece. “Your father and I will retire to his tent now—and give you two a night alone.”
Bronwyn held his gaze defiantly for a moment…yet nodded her acceptance just before he turned away.
“But consider this, Dragan, before I depart. A union with Bronwyn needn’t leave you idle. With the grievous loss of Fedrin and others of our captains, we’re in need of heroes to replenish the ranks. In Mardotha you led a modest band of warriors into battle…yet your prowess and reputation should afford you a loftier position than that. Take my niece’s hand and swear fealty to me, and I’ll place you in command over all the legions of Sinia, answerable to no man but myself. As Torensus said, you won a great victory yesterday—but our safety’s not yet secured. Who knows what will happen in the aftermath? Domal lies in chaos, and the need for our alliance with Berac is done. No…war is still on the horizon, I fear: and there’s no man better at waging war than the Bringer of Doom.”
“No matter how much I’ve longed for it these past months,” said Dragan, finally moving to set down his cup, “…an evening in your niece’s arms will do nothing to sway my answer. Nor will any other bribe or threat the pair of you can devise. Something happened to me after I left Mardotha. Something I can’t explain to myself, much less make you understand. You think I fear idleness? Perhaps that’s so. There are still trials awaiting me on the horizon: but I don’t think they involve your politics or wars.” His eyes shifted to Bronwyn as he spoke this last: “I’m leaving tomorrow.”
“Bah!” spat Torensus, flinging his not-quite empty cup to the ground in a fit of anger. The boy Anden was there in an instant to grab up the vessel—but only found himself an indiscriminate target of his lord’s rage. “Get out!” the elderly man shouted, looking around for something else to throw. But before Torensus could vent any further, the king lashed out with a sharp command, ordering him to compose himself.
Deserus’ own scowl was as deep as his brother’s, however: and not just from the outburst. The indignation in his eyes was palpable. “Where will you run to now, drifter? You had your pleasure with my niece…and slew an irreplaceable champion over her. And now you expect me to simply bid you farewell—while watching you toss her aside again like some common whore?”
“Our relations aren’t your business, Uncle!” Bronwyn countered, her earlier meekness gone. “You act as if he forced me into his bed!”
“Silence!” cried Torensus, pushing himself up to stand—and nearly falling in the process. The wine may’ve loosened its hold on his thoughts somewhat, yet it still loitered unabashedly in his body. Steadying himself, he pointed a gnarled finger at Dragan: “Set this bastard in chains, brother! A year in the dungeon will clear the fool’s mind!”
“Sit down, Torensus,” the king spoke softly but sternly, suddenly relenting. It was as if his sibling’s words had reminded him to clear his own mind. To let go of his emotion and focus instead on the logic of the matter at hand. Had they gone entirely mad? Two old goats threatening the deadliest warrior alive—and only a handful of guards within earshot? This man could break both their necks before Deserus even got out an alarm. “We shouldn’t be so surprised. It’s in his nature to move on after he’s left his mark.” He shook his head at Dragan then, disapprovingly. “So be it, Prince of Ost. You’ve made your decision. We’ll give you until noon tomorrow to clear out.”
“What?” Torensus’ jaw dropped in shock. “You mean to let him walk out of here—after we’ve just threatened him with our wrath?”
“I’m not finished!” Deserus snapped. “Unless you’d like to put the shackles on him yourself?”
Torensus frowned but said nothing.
“I didn’t think so. Your earlier jest wasn’t far from the truth. Who among our men would dare lift a finger against this hero, whether out of praise or fear? How many of our lives would be spent to subdue him—and to what end? If he’ll not join us willingly, what use is he languishing in prison?” He turned again to Dragan. “But know this, GrimHelm. After midday tomorrow, you’re no longer welcome in my presence or my lands. If you’re found lingering in the camp after noon, I will set the entire army against you, no matter the cost. You can’t refuse me and still roam among us at your leisure—and you’ll never toy with Bronwyn again!"
“This is a mistake, Deserus!” Torensus cut in once more before Dragan or his daughter could respond. “Leave him alive and free after this, and you’ll find him set against you next time on the battlefield. Or worse: you could end up like poor Mehdurin, waking one day to find his blade at your neck!”
“That was the witch’s doing—not his!” said Bronwyn at last, no longer able to contain herself. “He’s free of her now…”
“No, Bronwyn,” Dragan spoke, drawing all eyes to him. “Your father’s right to distrust me. What have I ever done to prove otherwise?”
"Give them your word, then,” she urged, almost a pleading whisper. “Or say anything else but that! Daemon! Why can’t you just tell them what they want to hear?”
“My word means nothing.”
“Enough of this,” said the king, rising from his seat and stepping toward his niece to look her square in the face. “My order’s been given, Bronwyn. You’ll abide by it this time or be held in treason.” Still meeting her gaze, he placed one hand lightly on her shoulder, and his lips curled up into an apologetic half-smile. He drew in a breath as if he’d say more but sighed and turned instead, motioning for his brother to follow him out of the tent.
Torensus also sucked in air as if he’d continue complaining…but just then servants began to reenter the room, gathering up such goods as would need be moved with Deserus to the adjacent pavilion. He followed their motions for a few blinks of his glazed eyes then shook his head briskly as if to sling all of the nonsense away. Anden finally returned his wine cup—now refilled—without incident, and another lad draped a coat about his shoulders, waiting for him to grasp it before stepping aside.
Then, without further delay, the brothers and their retainers headed out into the night, leaving the would-be couple behind.
Neither of the pair rushed to speak. Instead, as if really seeing Bronwyn for the first time that evening, Dragan took a moment to examine her gorgeous coral gown—with its string laces that crisscrossed over her enticing cleavage—before staring again into her luring eyes. In contrast to his relaxed stance, however, she stood with arms folded tightly beneath her breasts, biting her lip as she struggled to fight off her emotion, waiting to see if he’d answer for his foolishness without further scolding to prompt him.
Finally he did so, although his words weren’t at all like the ones she’d been expecting. “I should be drowning in torment over this. Over you. You’ve never looked more beautiful than you do tonight. Yet all I feel is numb.”
She almost ran to him then, longing to forget everything save the touch of his lips as she melted away in his arms. But the last part held her back. Numb. Did the bastard really just say that? ‘Oh Bronwyn…you’re the most ravishing creature in all the world—yet still less than dirt to a pompous ass like me?’ Had he gone insane? She blinked at the sudden jolt of pain from her bottom lip. Her teeth had nearly drawn blood. “You said you’d find no peace until your mother was slain…” she managed at last, voice quavering. “Well, she’s gone! So what’s wrong with you now?”
“Bronwyn, I…” Dragan held up his hand in a gesture to soothe her—yet she just barreled on:
“But that was a lie, wasn’t it? You’d have told me anything to get you out of that cage! All you wanted was to…”
"Calm yourself!" he suddenly flung back at her, causing her jaw to clamp shut instantly and her eyes to widen in shock. The words hadn’t been shouted, yet they carried all the weight of a bellowed command. “It was no lie. You came to me with the key in hand, remember? Can you honestly tell me you needed to be persuaded?”
It took her a few breaths to recover from the unexpected retort; but when she did speak again, she was admirably composed. “No. You’re right. The thought of you in there was slowly killing me.” She sighed. “I didn’t fall in love with a knee-bender, Dragan. Like my father said, there were plenty of strong, handsome warriors in this army that I could’ve chosen. Men—like Astelidus—who’d slaver at the very thought of swearing oaths to fulfill my uncle’s every whim. Yet I saw in you the rebel I longed to be. You weren’t meant to be tied down.”
"Weren’t?" said Dragan, raising an eyebrow. “But now…”
“Maybe now things have changed…” She risked a half-smile. “Just look at us! We should be joining those two in celebration.” She jerked her head in the direction her father and uncle had departed. “Yet here we stand arguing instead, you numb and me on the verge of tears!”
“I can’t stay…”
“Then take me with you! Return the favor, and set me free of this cell!” She waved an arm around her as she said the last, obviously in reference to Dragan’s earlier talk of invisible bars. Her face had lit up with eagerness as she voiced her true heart’s desire—but quickly the expression fell. A hand shot involuntarily to her mouth as if she’d spoken an unladylike curse. “Oh gods! I’ve done it again. But I don’t care!” In an instant she closed the distance between them, throwing herself onto the hero, reaching behind his neck to pull his face down to hers.
Dragan flinched as if to deny the embrace. Yet he gave in as soon as her lips brushed his own, pulling the woman’s body tightly against him as he returned the kiss with abandon. It’d been too long since he last held her. He could fend off uncounted hordes of men and beasts, dealing death without rest throughout night and day—but this threefold assault of Bronwyn’s touch, scent, and passion dropped him like a heart-shot stag. It took all his strength of will to rise from the killing ground, gripping her by the arms and lightly pushing her away.
She frowned at the break: but only as if it were a mild annoyance. This new surge of excitement and enthusiasm in her was not to be so easily quelled: “We could slip away tonight! Allethion and Bellaroth are in the pens nearby, barely guarded! I’d need only gather a few supplies…”
“No!” he cut her off, taking a step away. “I’m sorry.”
Bronwyn opened her mouth to object but stopped short. At that moment she found the truth in his eyes: nothing she could say or do would persuade him. It was as if in an instant they’d transformed from star-crossed lovers to strangers separated by an impassable gulf. Then the tears came. They streamed down her cheeks as she blinked her lids against them. “What happened to you out there? What happened to us?”
The Black King approached Oen’s niece as she spoke her words of loss, and once more the young woman found herself wrapped in his arms. Yet this second embrace lacked the passion of the first. This was the hug of a father consoling a crestfallen child. “I did find peace in my mother’s death, Bronwyn. At least for today. But there’s a hollow in me now where her barbs were before. I feel like a smashed lump of clay, waiting to be remolded: but I can’t yet see the new person I’m to become. Peace isn’t enough. I won’t truly live again until I’ve discovered this new man’s desires and purpose for being. And I must do that alone, without any distractions…”
Sniffling, Bronwyn turned her face to the side, snuggling deeper against him. “I wouldn’t hinder your quest,” she spoke, almost in a whisper.
“Not of your own will, perhaps. But who knows what dangers await? The need to protect you from them might lead me astray.” Unfolding one arm from around her, Dragan moved a hand to Bronwyn’s chin, prompting her to look up and meet his gaze. “When I’ve found my answers, our paths may cross again.” He tried to present her with a hopeful smile. “And if we’re meant to be together then, I swear that no decree from your uncle will keep us apart.”
She tried to return his smile but failed at the last, unable to summon enough courage. So instead she buried her face into his chest again and wept.