Part One: Chapter 8
Dragan’s eyes watched rainwater pool in the cup formed by the palms of his hands…but his mind roamed far away, whisked over the leagues separating his warriors from their wives and homesteads by the honeyed tongue of a practiced bard. Lomion was the best Dragan had ever heard, capable of adopting the gruff demeanor of a boasting veteran as easily as the frivolous air of a courtly fool. At the moment—although most of them were soaked through to the bone from the evening’s heavy downpour—the Haxûdī packed around the talented Sinian tagalong appeared to have the same opinion of the man. They laughed, hushed, and chimed in at all the right times, bright eyes and neat grins telling of the true pleasure each found in Lomion’s wit and melodious voice.
“…and that’s when your lovely queen found the bold warrior in her grasp!” finished the bard, his words booming across the sheltered campfire out into the night where Dragan sat alone. On cue, another round of boisterousness ensued.
The liquor was still hot within him. He needed to hear the tale Lomion was leading up to—needed anything to help validate his decision of leaving Bronwyn behind. He let the water slip through his fingers and looked up at the black sky. How many generations of mankind had done the same? How many thousands had pondered the courses of their tiny lives while perusing the vast, unyielding dome of Mother Earth? Can I not foil even the claws of time? he thought, absently cupping his hands again. Will there be others like her to come?
“Why do you stop, whiteface?” someone yelled. It sounded like Jedan. “Tell us of our lord’s great deed!”
Dragan could picture the sly smile on Lomion’s face—and that, coupled with the fickleness caused by his drunken state, made him grin wide in turn. His tired eyes closed…and he drifted…and then he found himself reliving the scene being shaped by the bard’s words…
“Bring it now!” screamed Horga, red blood spurting freely from between the fingers clutched about his neck. The cry reached Dragan’s ears, diluted by wails of the dying and the throbbing of his heart—a rhythm that beat in his mind like hammer on anvil, plaguing him with excruciating pain. Thump! Thump! Thump! The left side of his face was numb save his ear: it burnt with the fiery extremity of a white hot iron. The Beast had struck him there with such force that all who witnessed it thought him immediately dead…and left him so. Yet, prostrated by the wound, his face half-submerged in a pool of blood and bile, he was still alive. Two score bodies, brave Haxûdī all, were piled up in heaps around him. Their entrails stuck in his dark brown hair. Their blood and his own mixed within his mouth. He retched at the taste of it…then lifted his head slightly, slowly turning towards the voice. With his right eye blinded by guts, Dragan struggled to open his left, peeling the lids away from each other. What little of the woods revealed by the lanterns was a portrait of dark red: trunks, bushes, the ground, the Beast’s shaggy coat—all spattered with the color of death. The monster tossed Horga’s limp body aside like a doll, impaling him on the jagged tip of a broken sapling; then, clearly pained, it plucked arrows from its chest and stomach, drowning out the burly warrior’s last feeble wheeze with a deafening roar.
Only one man remained standing: Ûladriss. His shadow danced like a flame to the swaying of the lanterns. In one hand he gripped the leather-bound hilt of his slender cutlass. The other held that which Horga so desperately wanted: the priest’s talisman.
It’d been only two days since their party slipped past the shadowy barrier of Thirannon Forest to hunt the thing that’d plagued their lands for so many years. What few villagers yet daring to reside near the forest edge had come to mourn their departure. Some womenfolk fell at the warriors’ feet, grabbing their ankles, pleading for them to avert doom by returning to King Toldriss’ great hall. Their husbands, mostly farmers, eyed the passersby with foolish expressions. When one crone grabbed at Jesrim Greenboar’s leg, he looked upon her with venomous spite:
“Every village, every face: the same thing. Why do you torture me, woman? Return to your home—and sow for me no more!”
Jesrim’s words, spoken too loudly, did nothing but attenuate the company’s waning moral. Nearly every face drooped with somber trepidation…yet there was one man who wore a tranquil grin that never left his lips. At the rear of the column Dragan Saedus strolled with a nonchalant gait, stopping occasionally to pick a flower for a weeping lady or child. One, a girl of no more than seventeen, stared at him with such perplexity that he burst into a fit of mirthful laughter. The sound was so incongruous with the villagers’ lamentations that it brought the entire procession to a halt. They all looked on Dragan then with contempt, like a father on a child who’d dare make a mockery of his teachings.
“The northerner derides our expedition,” declared Horga, speaking directly at Dragan but loud enough for all to hear. “I can endure his sneer no more!”
“Endure it you shall,” spoke Ûladriss, his left eye still showing the slightest tint of yellow: the last remnants of the bruise he’d taken from Dragan’s pommel. “As the queen wills, he’ll remain in our company.”
“Then we’ll send him first,” continued Horga vehemently, “…so at least I won’t die before that smirk’s been wiped from his lips!”
Toldriss’ striking bride, Falchī of the Haxûdī, was younger sister to Saedus of Ost. Dragan had been sent to his aunt with a message intended for her alone—but the queen’s cool words of welcome and the flowing ale had quickly stirred up one of her estranged nephew’s arrogant bouts. At some point in the ensuing ruckus he’d blabbed the missive’s contents before the entire court: “Though you sit atop a kingdom’s throne, dear aunt, you’re no less slave than I am. Or have you forgotten who lifted you to the dais? My mother demands a gift: a payment for all the troubles she endured for your sake…”
And so on this drear eve he stared at the titanic shell concealing his mother’s would-be prize: the white bones of King Toldriss’ eldest son, the cursed Beast of Thirannon. All mirth indeed, as Horga had willed it, was departed from Dragan now, sent far flying on the instant that grizzly paw had turned his face aside.
“Ûladriss! Fling down that damned trinket and come to me!” shouted Dragan frantically, spitting out more blood than words. He was sure that the creature’s wounds were what warded it off for the moment—not some ugly rodent’s skull wrapped in a crazed old man’s chants and leather thong—and that the moment would soon be gone.
The warrior’s head turned, and Dragan confirmed the fear he’d imagined would be swimming in the man’s eyes. But then came a surprise. It wasn’t the Beast causing Ûladriss’ fear, Dragan discerned, but rather himself—the fact that he still lived after absorbing such a punishing blow.
The son of Saedus staggered to his feet and lurched forward, snatching up a spear and a wicked single-edged battleaxe in the process. There was no path for the fiend to avoid him now—had it the slightest notion to do so—for the Haxûdī had located the cave and fortified the area about its mouth while daylight yet lingered: aware the creature must show itself either upon a departure or return. None but Dragan had even considered venturing inside.
Their wait hadn’t been long.
Surpassing in height some seven cubits above ground, the fallen prince stood before his attackers covered in thick black fur. His body was shaped as a man’s, though the muscles of arm, chest, and leg were so heavily rippled that one might expect their mass to burst free at any moment from the sheathing skin. Dripping fangs curved down and back a hand’s length from a skull that sang of both bear and wolf, and tufted ears twitched with every wild dart of two voracious glazed yellow eyes. Cruel talons writhed where once had been delicate hands, the nails sharp and strong as whetted steel.
With spear poised in hand, Dragan placed himself between the Beast and the Haxûdī. The usual keenness of Ûladriss had become dismantled by an extreme consternation. He eyed his future master obtusely, unable to comprehend what had just occurred—yet his feet began to move him forward, his prowess almost instinctual.
“Fool!” cried Dragan, quickly glancing over his shoulder. “Have your turn when I’m dead—but take one more step, and I’ll kill you myself!"
The sincerity of the threat was conveyed by Dragan’s eyes: two orbs of fiery passion that burned like the sun, as if a fire had consumed his skull. The word doom glowed about his neck, made prominent by the blood filling the shallow etching of his metal collar. Ûladriss was stayed. He’d known fear—but never cowardice. Yet whom here was his enemy? He was certain intervention would spell death. A death with no honor. So he backed away slowly and crouched behind an uprooted stump. Realizing his hand still clutched the priest’s charm, he cast it down as if it were a venomous snake. His true talisman, he now knew, was standing before him.
Toldriss’ lost heir plucked a final arrow from his thigh before turning an icy gaze on his opponent. He started…and hesitated, his visage betraying a glint of the same quandary that had afflicted Ûladriss. Though some thirty men lay as fallen leaves about him—each one alike, all nameless and faceless in defeat—the Beast seemed to recall the man now approaching as the first to have challenged him while the rest yet shrank in terror. Then the glint was gone. The creature arched its back and, in one violent motion, bent its torso groundward, flinging muscular arms outward to bellow an earsplitting roar. Protuberant teeth framed the black hole from which the sound radiated: a void so large it seemed likely to consume the world.
An instant later the Beast was airborne, leaping forward with cat-like agility. Dragan let fly his spear. The monster swatted at the missile but misjudged, and the dart’s tip pierced through his claw. Folding in pain, his mass crashed down upon the enemy, sending Dragan tumbling through the nearby bushes. The son of Saedus scrambled to regain his footing—but the Beast was already upon him, mounting his back, a claw locked around his neck. The hero’s outstretched arm reached desperately for the axe that lay just beyond his fingertips. Too far. The creature opened its pestilent mouth and thrust its head down, intent on ripping the foe to shreds.
To Ûladriss, lone observer and chronicler of the deed, the dire struggle that ensued was a rolling blur of bloody metal and fur. Yet even as he looked upon the chaotic scene, he still pictured the red gleam he’d found in Dragan’s eyes. Had the glow been merely a trick of reflected lantern light, or was it a glimpse of a supernatural inner flame, yearning for release? Was it that flame fueling the hero’s limbs as they suddenly exploded from writhing tangles to thickly muscled staves, propelling both man and monster erect? Could it be a thing greater than human strength that now lifted the behemoth in midair and slammed it heavily to the ground?
Dragan himself didn’t ponder these things. He was acting on impulse—no thoughts, only action and reaction. From the dirt the Beast clamped its foaming jaws into its adversary’s partially-armored calf, summoning forth a jet of crimson blood; in turn, Dragan dropped to one knee and dug fingers into his foe’s oozing wounds, ripping two of the arrow-sized holes into gaping slits. Both opponents bellowed from their anguish and deadly rage. Then came another exchange, the creature rising once more to rake at the man or crush him beneath his besmeared silver breastplate—and the man attempting to get behind the creature, out of the reach of those deadly claws. But after one final, tumultuous slam to the ground, Dragan succeeded. The Beast of Thirannon loosed death throes that battered the man to the brink of his own demise, savagely parting stone from earth, bark from trunk, and flesh from body with every impact; but the hero’s strangling right arm only sunk in tighter, choking and snapping and stealing life away. The roars and shouts ceased, replaced by sounds of carnage to both nature and combatants that intensified, reaching a nightmarish plateau…
Then it was done.
The victor rose slowly, favoring his bitten leg and undoubtedly broken ribs. He peered down at his work. Ûladriss joined him.
"DoomBringer," uttered the Haxûdī.
Dragan looked at his companion and grinned. “Give me your knife.”