Part One: Chapter 6
“Is this the path we must follow?”
“My lord? Which road shall we take?”
Ûladriss reined his steed closer to Dragan’s courser and laid a hand upon his master’s broad shoulder before repeating the question. Dragan broke his reverie and peered forward. A fork in the road.
“We must take the path south,” he said. “The north road leads to Dolras and the ruins of Ûmrothsul Aldrotherin’s kingdom.”
“We’ll be stretched thin either way,” replied the Haxûdī chieftain, cocking his head to study the road. “One column. Perhaps six men abreast.”
“There’s no other way,” said Dragan, “…unless we hack our way south and follow the Hirath to the mouth of Lake Hudron. But the forest is dense…and the riverbed no wider than this track.”
“Are we in danger?” asked Ûladriss, a sly grin on his lips.
“Always, friend,” Dragan laughed.
“Good. My blade itches to be unsheathed. All the same, I’d advise sending the scouts ahead again.”
“See that it’s done.”
Ûladriss nodded, turned, and trotted back down the column.
Dragan took in a deep breath. This cut of the wood had a curious smell to it, both rotten and fresh at once, as if the earth still bled through wounds taken long years before. He recalled the northern practice of sacrificing elder trees in times of plenty: his mother’s clan, among others, believed the act aided perpetuation of new life. Small, mysterious glades opened suddenly around bends in the path and closed as quickly behind Dragan’s intruding band, their rime-encrusted grasses and clovers now covering ground where elm roots had once taken hold. The Haxûdī stooped or pushed aside branches of surviving specimens as they followed the road, no doubt wishing the ritual culling had included a widening of their present course as well.
Their trek thus far had been as bleak as the name of the forest sounded in Dragan’s ears: Braured. Not a living man, bird, nor beast larger than a rodent had presented itself within his sight thus far, and already three days and nights were behind them. Yet there’d been signs. A boar carcass and a fired clay urn. The first, freshly slain, lay sprawled atop a huge man-worked stone in one of the glades, its throat cleanly slit and tusks removed. In the muck at the base of the altar someone had scrawled the ancient runes of sight and warding. The second message, however, was less clear. Set amidst the roots of a gnarled oak just off the path, the huge clay vessel was impressively ornate—with sculpted deer for handles and satyrs dancing gaily about its girth—yet its contents couldn’t have been fouler. Black blood curdled about a floating half-stripped and shattered human skull. The stench was horrible.
Savages, thought Dragan as he contemplated this last spectacle, though an unbidden image of Ûladriss’ face kept him from repeating it aloud. With that shoulder-length, greasy black hair, knotted beard, and wild look about his sharp brown eyes, the Haxûdī chieftain could’ve played the role of savage himself—as could have all the warriors following them into this cursed place. Yet my men are different, Dragan mused. They could be brutal, surely: a necessary trait that he too possessed and summoned forth at will. But they were also inflicted with the disease called honor. It’d shown its fair-seeming head countless times thus far during the days Dragan had spent among this band, beginning on the night he’d first traipsed into King Toldriss’ hall, mad drunk and loose of tongue. Ûladriss had nearly slain him then, defending the honor of Haxûd’s queen.
“You said to me once,” began Dragan suddenly, breaking the lull of his ride, “…that a man may win glory even in defeat.”
Ûladriss had reined in without a word a few moments before, retaking his customary position on his lord’s right side. “Aye. This was so for me as I lay at your feet, spitting blood upon the king’s paved floor. Don’t you remember? It’s one thing to face a trial with the end unseen—many fools throw the bones, eh? But to know the end before the beginning, and yet submit yourself to it…that’s not the drink of every man, my friend.”
“You speak like a wizened sage,” Dragan laughed. “But tell me true, and it shall stay with me. None other shall hear it spoken.” The mirth faded. “Surely you had a glint of hope? How could you have even lifted your blade if you were certain I’d shame you? I remember it well enough. You nearly took my arm off.”
“My lord’s missing the point again,” the warrior smiled, showing off a bit of the gap Dragan had given him on that day, years in the past. “Shame would’ve wed me had I not lifted the blade. It was the other chiefs who found disgrace: Horga, Jesrim Greenboar, and the like. They saw only their deaths in your eyes. I looked beyond.”
Dragan paused and shifted uncomfortably in his saddle. “What if I’d killed you? If I’d spat on your dead body and dragged it from Toldriss’ hall, denying your gods their due? What then of disgrace?”
Ûladriss didn’t hesitate: “Still, none would’ve named me craven.” He held his head high, staring at nothing in particular. “What matters such things to you, DoomBringer? You’re a man of no fear.” He turned to his lord.
Dragan remained expressionless—yet these last words had cut to the quick. She’d never name me craven…would she? he thought, averting his gaze from the Haxûdī. Not my own mother… The warrior’s stare fixed him. Replication was expected. Unsure how to respond, he simply gave a curt nod.
The two didn’t speak again until the sun had fallen well beneath the forest’s canopy. With the band stretched thin, it took quite some time for Jedan Mûran to bring up the rear in preparation to camp—and the creeping pace of the baggage train only increased the duration further. Their cart mules were particularly and deliberately (so it seemed) laggardly: a hindrance ever since the departure from Mardotha. Spoils of war must be protected, though, so they’d been strategically placed in the middle of the column.
The GrimHelm ordained that camp would be made at the next large clearing, stating “…one’s as good as the next.” He sent Mûran’s boy, Gavix, back down the path to relay the message. The lad turned his steed swiftly to canter off—but not before Dragan noticed the bloody bandage on the boy’s left hand. Gavix had cut himself on Dragan’s blade the night they’d broken camp in Mardotha, no doubt in a jittery attempt to clean and oil the blade as quickly as possible to avoid his father’s heavy-handed wrath. Jedan had been all the more displeased to learn his son had been careless with the steel, and the boy would’ve been beaten if Dragan hadn’t allayed the father’s anger by offering him a swig of Tholmian liquor: most exquisite and rarest in the realm. The warrior had looked on the flask first with incredulity but then with a hearty laugh before taking a healthy swallow. And so the boy had been spared.
Eventually the woods opened into an oblong glade hugging the north side of a swooping bend. The men started pouring into the clearing like river into lake. Attendants immediately began erecting tents, tending horses, preparing meals. They ran this way and that, bumping into each other and shouting curses: a frantic race to accomplish their masters’ commands before nightfall. Warriors unlucky enough not to have captured, purchased, or brought along a servant were left to do their work themselves. The rest congregated in circles to speak idly, awaiting supper. When Jedan finally brought up the rear, dusk lay heavy on the earth. His son strode beside him. Both were lanky yet becoming. Jedan wore a thick pointed goatee; his son sported the beginnings of one. Dragan and Ûladriss, still on horseback, greeted them:
“Hail, Jedan Mûran,” said Ûladriss.
The man gave a courteous nod then looked aside to his son. “What’re you doing, boy? See to your chores. The DoomBringer doesn’t wait for food and comfort while we’re bound to his service.” Dejected, Gavix trotted off to do his father’s biddings. Jedan addressed the two men:
“What news from the tongue of our snake?”
“No news,” replied Dragan. “We sent four: two ahead, one north, one south. None have returned.”
“One returned,” Mûran corrected. “From the south. He claimed he lost his bearings and got turned around. He was in full gallop when he came upon me. I should’ve gutted the fool! He was off hunting pig, I’d guess. Haxûdī don’t get lost in the woods.”
“Hunting. Scouting. Not much difference,” Dragan mused.
Jedan gave him a reproachful look. Since Dragan laughed at death, he was often bored with strategy. The Haxûdī took matters more seriously.
“It’s we who are hunted, Mûran,” said Ûladriss. “Were the signs not enough for you?”
“Enough,” said Dragan, stifling whatever response Jedan was about to make. “Hand me that flask.”