Part Four: Chapter 50
“No farewell this time, brother?”
Dragan yanked the leather girth taut then slipped the belt’s prong through a hole in the strap and let it clack against the buckle’s frame. Allethion snorted at the resulting constriction of his ribcage—or perhaps instead from his annoyance at Baeldrin’s unwelcome intrusion. Only the horse knew which it was. Yet there was no such ambiguity in his master’s response: “I’d have avoided one, yes…and had thought the same of you.” Dragan took a step back from the saddle to gain a better view of his approaching half-sibling. “You take a great risk, seeking me here.” Even as he addressed the object of that last statement, however, his gaze shifted from Baeldrin’s tall, regally attired form to the slender, dark-robed figure walking two paces behind the man.
A sand elf maiden with flowing silver hair—and sharp amber eyes that were busily sweeping her surroundings as if in search of a hidden threat.
Who’s this? the Black King pondered. His bodyguard?
Baeldrin didn’t miss Dragan’s scrutiny of his companion. “Intriguing, isn’t she?” he grinned, half-turning to appraise the elf as she came to a halt beside him just inside Allethion’s pen. “This is Fashra, Dragan. I trust you don’t mind her presence?”
“I’ve nothing to hide in my words to you. Nor shall this woman spare you my wrath should you wake it.”
Baeldrin raised his right hand to pat Allethion’s flank. His wounded left arm was in a sling. “Two days ago I might’ve scoffed at that. But not now. Not since I learned the truth.”
“The truth of what?” Dragan frowned.
“That you’ve ascended,” the elf spoke in Baeldrin’s stead. Her voice was like a crisp mountain stream that, for all its gentle ripples, held the power and resolve to carve out a massive canyon over time. “We’d be fools indeed to bait you, my lord.”
For a moment Dragan met and held the exotic woman’s seductive gaze; then, bending to lift a bag near his feet, he returned to packing. “Already handed over your leash to a new mistress, prince? This meeting was her idea, I take it.”
Baeldrin loosed a snort of laughter. “There was a bit of convincing involved, to be sure. On both sides. First I had to steal her away from Berac.” He moved the hand with which he’d been petting Allethion to the elf’s face and ran two fingers softly down her cheek. The action didn’t seem to displease the woman. “Fashra claims to owe you a life debt, DoomBringer. Though I was hoping you’d absolve us both.”
Dragan paused in his work once more to stare at the pair before him. “How do you know of my destiny, elf? And what’s this debt he speaks of?”
“You slew Astelidus Ny in single combat! The very same man who took my brother Ashyd’s life. That kill should’ve been mine in revenge. Yet even so, I place myself in your service as repayment.” She followed her words with a bow, deep and formal.
Dragan’s face revealed nothing of what he thought about having a she-elf at his beck and call—nor how he felt about his killing Astelidus being the deed that had won her allegiance. “And my ascension, as you called it?”
“Your people have all but forgotten the lore of Kings—yet not so with mine. Forgive me…but I visited this animal last night. The magic drew me here, surely as a blazing red beacon against a dark horizon.”
“Is there no possession of mine left unprofaned?” Dragan mused, eyeing his steed anew as if searching for an injury to the horse that he’d thus far failed to detect. “What did you do to him?”
“No harm, I assure you. Yet as soon as I touched the beast, a vision flooded my mind. I saw a white-robed figure sitting on a throne: face hidden in shadow. I believe you know the man. You’ve seen him before, haven’t you?”
Dragan’s frown deepened at this, but he made no other answer.
Thus Fashra went on: “I began to take the steps rising to him, but he lifted a palm to halt me and pointed to a marble statue at my side. I may be a stranger to your eyes, lord—but this isn’t the first time I’ve seen your face. That statue was an exact replica of you, and your name was carved into the pedestal. When at last I turned back to the throne, the man’s robes were no longer white…”
“Black,” Dragan murmured, casting his eyes to the north.
A moment passed between them in silence. Dragan’s thoughts had no doubt drifted back to his own encounter with the steward Erroth at Aldrotherin’s Red Castle. “And you?” he finally asked, turning to Baeldrin once more.
“I’ve come to ask your forgiveness, not to bow and scrape at your feet. Yet I won’t deny this: when we led that final charge side-by-side, after defeating your mother and setting her forces on the run…in that hour I felt a bond form between us. One that might’ve been there all along, had Saedus not cast us as rivals from the start. Tell me you didn’t feel it too.”
“You murdered our father—then stole my armor while I was locked away in a cell! Yet here you stand professing your brotherly love?” Dragan shook his head tiredly. “Did you really think one shared victory could erase all your crimes?”
“I can’t bring him back from the dead, Dragan…no more than you can bring back all those you slew in the witch’s name. You needn’t bother pretending with me. You had no love for Acomalath.” The Domalin paused a moment to reflect. “As for the armor: what use is a magical breastplate—so I thought it—collecting dust in a tent? Would you have lent it to me had I come begging at your cage?” Then, glancing over his shoulder: “Martassin!”
Dragan hadn’t noticed the one newcomer remaining outside of Allethion’s pen until that moment. A spindly servant started forward in answer to his lord’s summons, clearly encumbered by the weight of a cloth-wrapped bundle held in his arms. His robes were so long that he nearly tripped on the hem twice before reaching his master and offering up his burden.
“Not to me, you dolt!” spat Baeldrin, glancing down sharply at his wounded arm to indicate its uselessness. Then, looking to Dragan again: “I had it cleaned and oiled.”
Still frowning from his lord’s chastisement, Martassin raised the bundle now for Dragan to take.
“Do what you will with it,” said the GrimHelm, ignoring the servant in favor of returning to his work. “I never want to see that cursed plate again.”
Baeldrin caught Martassin’s eye and waved the servant aside. Then his gaze returned to Dragan. “As you wish. In that case…perhaps I’ll set it on display in Rardonydd, soon as I regain my throne.”
Dragan presented his brother with a skeptical look before bending to retrieve his final belongings from the ground. This bundle contained a pair of sheathed blades wrapped in the cloth: one his own unornamented bastard sword, and the other the bejeweled weapon he’d reclaimed for Gavix in Braured Forest. As his eyes passed over the latter, his thoughts lingered on his former retainer. Should he head south this very day to deliver the heirloom to its rightful owner? Did he dare hope to win back the oaths of service from Ûladriss and the Haxûdī horde, now that he was free at last from his mother’s spell? To leave all this Black King business behind, returning to his life of glory-seeking wandering instead?
Or should he heed Erroth’s words, riding north to rejoin the steward without delay? ”You can’t give back your power once it’s blossomed,” the man had said to him. “I chose to embrace my calling. Will you?” Even now—mere moments from him swinging into the saddle and setting off—Dragan’s mind was still torn. And now here was his half-brother and an elfin minx standing before him: two more who’d use him to further their own gains, just as the Oen siblings had tried to yoke him the day before. “Why have you really come, Baeldrin? I’m not fool enough to believe you’ve reformed overnight. What is it you want of me?”
“So you doubt my sincerity…as well as my ability to regain power in Domal. I may never grace the pages of the Book of Kings alongside you, Dragan, but that doesn’t make me impotent. You saw me wrench the oath from Sorec at sword’s tip after we routed his forces! I fled Domal with only Martassin here in tow—yet I’ll be returning with an army at my heels.”
Dragan shook his head, unconvinced. “An army of questionable loyalty and crushed morale, stripped of their blades and all but the barest provisions. You’ll have trouble holding them together long enough to reach the Olendarth…much less to mount an assault on Relinydd.” Finished tying down the sword bundle, he stepped away from Allethion and looked his brother in the eye. “And you’re lucky Deserus allowed you even that. Anxious as I am to be away, I’d expected you to march before I took my leave. We’re both heroes of the hour, Baeldrin—and soon as the celebrations die down, you may find your new allies have had a change of heart.”
“All the more reason for me to have come here,” Baeldrin returned without hesitation, his demeanor calm despite Dragan’s harsh rebuff. “Who needs scraps from those old fools’ table when he can have a powerful young mage-king at his side?” Taking a step forward, the prince reached into his clothing and produced the Sun of Domal, holding it out to Dragan in his unbound hand. “You ask what I want of you? Well here you have it.”
Dragan hadn’t beheld the triple-rayed disc since his and Baeldrin’s stances were reversed: on that day in Ost when he’d thrust the thing upon his brother as if it were a poisonous asp to be quickly rid of. “Did I not make it clear before? I’ve no use for that symbol.”
“Can you still be so sure?” Baeldrin countered with a wry smile. “Back then you were a soldier of fortune; but now you’re a rising monarch with claims over several lands. Why sit alone in a deserted keep far to the north—or take up the petty rule of your mother’s savages in Ost—when you could live a life of luxury and worthy challenges in Relinydd? Or Rardonydd itself, for that matter. Take your pick!” He raised the Sun of Domal a bit higher and nodded to it, offering it up again. “This may be mine by rights, but Acomalath wanted you to have it. If he’d had his way, no doubt he’d have set you on the throne in my place. Domal is big enough for both of us, brother. Together we can do more than just retake the twin cities. We can restore our father’s land to its past glory! What do you say?”
Despite his answer being decided before Baeldrin’s speech had hardly gotten underway, Dragan didn’t rush to reply. It must’ve been exceedingly difficult for the Domalin prince to concede respect to his formerly-loathed bastard brother, and so Dragan thought at very least he could feign a moment of consideration for the generous offer—however self-serving to Baeldrin it was beneath the surface. “Or I could marry Bronwyn instead,” he finally spoke after a long, audible sigh, “…and take command of the armies of Sinia—according to King Oen’s proposal to me yesterday. No. I’m sorry. I must find my own path.”
Baeldrin didn’t bother trying to hide his scowl at the response. Letting fall the hand holding the Sun of Domal, he looked sharply at Fashra for support. “I told you he wouldn’t be swayed…”
“And I told you what would happen if he wasn’t.”
Although the woman’s face was impassive, Dragan thought he saw the hint of a smile in her eyes. She’d known more so than Baeldrin that this enterprise would fail—yet it seemed she was the one who’d prodded him to it. This elf’s a mystery I might enjoy unraveling, he thought, more subconsciously than not.
“So that’s it, then?” Baeldrin’s voice had risen a notch with his displeasure. “You change masters more often than a starving whore! Wait…that’s just what you are now, isn’t it? How foolish of me to dissemble!”
Dragan expected the woman to at least loose a retort if not slap the prince’s face outright—or worse. But she did nothing of the kind, ignoring the comment completely as Baeldrin pressed on:
“Yet I’ve not heard my brother accept your offer. I’m betting he’s no more interested in it than he is of mine. Isn’t that so, Dragan?”
Indeed that should have been the case, and Dragan almost opened his mouth to voice an agreement. But then, meeting the woman’s intense amber stare once more, he was suddenly unsure. On the one hand, if he were to take another with him—and a female, at that—should it not be Bronwyn, the woman he loved? Or did he love her, truly? At one point he’d thought he did, and he knew his words to her last night had come from the heart. Still…things had changed between them. If he really loved her unconditionally, then wouldn’t he have accepted Deserus’ offer and stayed with her, regardless of what grand destiny lay waiting for him out there in the wilds?
Still holding the she-elf’s gaze, Dragan felt as if time had slowed around him. Vaguely he heard Baeldrin say something else in the background, but the words weren’t strong enough to pull his thoughts away. He saw now that taking this elf-woman with him wouldn’t be the same as dragging Bronwyn along behind. Fashra could take care of herself…and perhaps even take care of him as well, if her oath held true. Sand elves were rumored to be deadly, efficient fighters, after all. Both sexes alike. And this one claimed to know much of the lore of Kings, not to mention her apparent ability to seek out Allethion and tap into the steed’s magic. What better guide could he have on his journey besides Erroth himself? And for the moment his steward was leagues upon leagues away…
Then, just like that, his path was decided: the Red Castle would have to wait.
“Well, brother,” he said at last, breaking free of his reverie to look Baeldrin in the face and smile. “You were right about one thing: I am a king now, and a king needs subjects. I suppose I’ll take Fashra here as the first.” Thrusting a foot into Allethion’s stirrup, he swung himself into the saddle then looked back to the elf, holding out a hand for her to join him.
At last the woman’s flat expression cracked, replaced by a mischievous grin that lit up her face. Baeldrin watched with reddening cheeks and gritted teeth as she strode forth and doffed her black robes to reveal a tight bodice and divided skirts beneath. Then she took Dragan’s hand and let the hero pull her up into the saddle behind him.
“Be warned, Dragan!” Baeldrin blurted suddenly, having held his tongue for long enough. “The elf’s treacherous! You’d best hope she doesn’t stick a blade in you while you sleep…”
“I won’t live out my days seeing daggers in every shadow,” Dragan laughed, taking the reins in hand. “If I’m to share the Red King’s fate, then so be it.” For a moment his eyes found and lingered on the northern horizon; then he began to turn Allethion south instead, causing a startled, encumbered Martassin to trip and nearly fall again as the servant hurried out of the way. “Farewell, brother. I wish you success in the task ahead.”
For an instant Baeldrin looked as if he might let wounded pride seep out into his reply; but then he shook his head slightly, and his expression changed as he bit back whatever spiteful words were in his mind. “You should reconsider my offer. I won’t hold a throne vacant for you if I retake my own without your aid.”
“Domal’s your dream, Baeldrin, not mine. But let’s hope this new sentiment between us holds.”
“Agreed. So what is your plan, then? You turn the horse as if you mean to escape your own holdings as well.”
“There’s something I must see to first.” Breaking his gaze with the prince, Dragan glanced now impatiently toward the south. Toward Haxûd.
“Then farewell, Black King. Until we meet again.”
Finding his brother’s gaze one last time, Dragan nodded then set Allethion in motion, swiftly leaving Baeldrin and the servant far behind. Fashra wrapped her arms tightly around him and leaned in close as the white horse picked up speed, her long silver hair streaming behind them on the wind.