My classic sword and sorcerer adventure is available chapter by chapter every Friday as a free gift to you, my awesome readers!
The trek back through the mountains stretched long and trying. Bronherrn remembered the first time his father took him through the pass to spar in the lower lands beside the Cassani River. The area knew war. Many Ultainians lost their lives on those bordering grounds. He never imagined fighting there so soon.
Kicking a few pebbles up the rocky path, Bronherrn took comfort in the physical exertion. It kept his thoughts from wandering too far, especially when they reached the edge of the highest ledge. He scanned the brush below.
If he fell, would he meet the men he had killed? Would the Gods accept him as a warrior or shun him as a coward?
He spotted a ram climbing up the rocky wall. Without hands to grip, or toes upon his hooves the beast led a family. Their skill aided Bronherrn in focusing on his own balance. He put his gaze on the path and determined to return home for guidance from his mother.
His father held silent. He never spoke much during travel. It was only by a fire or after a memorable moment that the man offered more of himself.
Bronherrn appreciated the quiet, but at times shadows of the deceased enemies continued to break through his concentration and stare at him from the mountain cliffs. The cool winds of the high altitudes swept the sweat from his skin but could not comfort his soul. This is what mother must have felt.
When the path evened out and the road home became more familiar, Bronherrn found the energy to quicken his pace. He passed his father and did not question the need to return. Stepping into the small one-room cabin without a word, he froze.
His mother dropped her weaving at the hearth and went to him as if she knew everything.
“He had his first taste of blood today.” His father pushed him forward.
“He looks it.” She went to Bronherrn and gently touched the bruises that circled the fresh mark on his skin. “Before or after?” She eyed his father.
Bronherrn stood, unsure of what to say.
“He fought with this wound?” Not pausing for a response, his mother rushed out of the house and left Bronherrn to wait until she returned with a fresh bucket of water.
In a daze, he stooped before her. She dabbed a cloth soaked in cool water around the crusted blood on his arm. The sting revived him and he began to feel at home again. He smiled and stopped his mother’s hand. “A warrior need not clean another warrior’s wounds.”
“She does if she’s your mother.” She dabbed harder.
“Mother.” He stared at her light eyes and grabbed the cloth to finish cleaning himself.
“At least sit down.” She pulled a stool toward him.
His father sat next to him and smirked at his mom with a curious expression. He leaned over to Bronherrn. “Shall I tell her, or will you be happy to lend your first tale?”
A fire grew within Bronherrn. He found himself detailing all that had taken place. His mother’s serene features astounded him. She expressed little concern, and held no sympathy for what he had been through
When he finished, his father kissed her and laughed. “I must go out and sing my boy’s praises.”
“Take Grimhelden and Druthleer with you,” she demanded. “They’re out back playing.”
No argument sounded, and Bronherrn found himself glad to be alone with his mother. She did not press him to talk but offered fresh meat and bread. She set a mug of ale before him and he looked at her questioning the offer.
“You’re a man now,” was all she said before stepping out of the house.
He ate while reconciling his actions, trying to make sense of the bloodshed. It did not pain him that he protected himself. The pride of fighting for his land still thumped in his breast, but a new weight sat in his muscles. He feared taking on a responsibility that could never be relinquished.
He turned to meet his mother’s stare as she walked back in with an air of purpose. He did not ask what she meant. He knew where they were going. He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and turned, ready to follow her on a different kind of journey.
Bronherrn had known many who claimed that life was not worth living until experiencing the holy land. It led him to wonder, himself. “Why have you not taken me sooner?”
His mother chatted with the rhythm of her steps, “The Otherworld holds a peace that we warriors don’t often seek to find. It used to be for everyone but during the war, the priests became suspicious of all warriors. Your father was not welcome; therefore I would not bring you.”
“But you were always well received?” Bronherrn noticed her features tense at his question.
“I had to earn my passage through trust and good deeds.”
A cynical laugh escaped Bronherrn before he could contain himself. “I have done enough deeds today.”
She stopped and looked him over. “Yes.” The pressure of her hand on his cheek soothed him. “And the war was a long time ago. You are my son and The Otherworld is once again changing.”
She nodded ahead and led him on. “Your brothers won’t be long behind you.”
He thought back to when he could not imagine besting his father. His brothers were still boys and his mother’s words weighed on him. She spoke the truth, but what would they have to face?
Unable to continue the conversation, Bronherrn remained silent. His mother did not offer any more insight. Each step brought anticipation. Every sound pricked his ears. He handled battle, but to meet the holy beings remained an unknown adventure.
What if they refused him?
His body ached from the strain of the day. The journey wore him down. He grew unsure if he obtained enough strength to make it when they took a turn around a large pass, and the mountains opened up. Not fifty steps ahead lay a deep chasm.
A stone staircase led to its depths. It reached a perfect paradise of architectural beauty. Bronherrn ran ahead and squinted below. He gaped at animals of all varieties, existing freely with a group of the most beautiful unearthly people. Even from a distance, they were more than living. Bronherrn found himself rejuvenated from the sight alone.
A bright bird of paradise flew up to greet him, but he paid it little mind as he looked down with wonder. He blinked and rubbed his eyes, then blinked again. Unsure of what he saw, he thought he spied the girl from his previous vision sitting comfortable in deep meditation. The grey fur of her cape rubbed soft against the curves of her youthful body.
All his cares dissolved. He did not know what to do. She didn’t vanish, nor acknowledge his gaze from afar. Life regained some of its innocent charm and he reached for his mother. “Who is that girl?” He pointed down upon the spot where she rested.
His mother gazed at the lovely being and smiled. “That is Aethelwyn.”
Bronherrn pressed forward to descend the rocky stairs and make his way to flat land. His legs burned, but he found strength as he neared the entrance to The Otherworld. Once through the archway of the holy grounds, his body instantly grew light. A number of devotees surrounded him. His mother followed, and joined him as they circled around with a welcoming chant.
The sweep of their cloaks draped around him, tickled his arms and cleared his thoughts. He felt safer than he had since taking the Zuthan lives. Something in the repetitious words of the ancient tongue unknown to him pushed away his doubts.
The priests and priestesses greeted him in his own language and he searched each pair of eyes hoping to find the girl, but Aethelwyn was nowhere to be seen.
His mother nudged him, and he did his best to adhere to the courtesies bestowed upon them. He set his mind to forget the girl and follow his mother’s lead, but it proved difficult. He worked to find some enjoyment when led to a calming fire. “Come sit with us.”
Bronherrn nodded. Not knowing their manner of introductions he glanced at the nearest priest and said, “I’m Bronherrn.”
“I am called Hefeydd. I have heard of you.”
Stunned, Bronherrn didn’t know what to say. He grunted a reply and took up a seat on the bench beside Hefeydd. The calm atmosphere mingled with Bronherrn’s soul and lift his spirits, but there was no tearing Aethelwyn’s penetrating gaze from his thoughts.
He found relief when an array of food and drink were passed around. He tasted fruits with a juicy sweetness that opened his senses. He munched nuts that held all the healing spices of the soil.
“Now you are ready to accept the ways here.” His mother smiled as she joined them. She lifted a wooden chalice to her lips and drank a long slow sip.
With his stomach filled and his mind revived, Bronherrn found the words that had stuck before. “It is so very different from home. Now I know why we call it The Otherworld.”
“And you have yet to immerse yourself in the full experience.” His mother stood and motioned for him to follow. He swallowed the last of his food and took one large gulp of his mead, then followed her closer to the fire.
She stood before the dancing light and breathed deep. “Kneel before the flames. Let their heat breathe on your face. They will aid you in accepting your fate.”
Unsure if he cared to concern himself with anyone’s fate, he sat and stared around at the numerous animals mingling with the holy ones. He had often been drawn to the simple beauty of wild creatures, but never yearned for such a companion. A great golden cougar slinked over to him and cozied her bulky body against his leg.
He sat erect, every muscle tense.
The only cougars he had heard of were ones that attacked herds of goats in his village, but this giant feline pawed her way into his lap and draped her lengthy body over him. Her whiskers spiked out of her muzzle with curved, almost a smile. He patted her head and she purred with a force that made his body vibrate.
His mother smirked and backed away. “I’ll leave you with your new friend.”
“Do I have a choice?” He half laughed.
Bronherrn cocked his head at his mother. “And where will you be off to?”
“I have my own business to tend.” She turned on her heel and left him. He knew better than to question her when she went on an errand.
Even if he had wanted to move the lounging beast, it would have been more work than he was willing to put forth after hiking miles with his father toward the unseen battle and more with his mother to reach this holy place. He took comfort in the warm cougar’s friendship. “You’re soft at the very least. He rubbed the hide on her back and scratched at her ear.
“I see you’ve found Xanthu,” a silvery voice broke the silence.
Bronherrn started and gaped at Aethelwyn. Stunned, he sat staring. The grace of her posture left him searching to find the words to convey his utmost regard for her, without giving away all that passed within him.
She held a mysterious air. Her maturing frame showed no signs of fear or shame. Her wild hair fell in dark unruly ringlets over her naked breasts, all the way down to her feet. The padding of thin animal hide that caressed her toes and laced around her ankles were all that she wore besides the fur cloak.
He attempted to control his roving gaze, but her curves stuck out from the covering at certain angles and taunted his inward cravings. She stood tall without reserve. Doing his best not to offend the beautiful being, his face flushed involuntarily. “She’s a magnificent animal,” he finally managed to respond.
Aethelwyn sat down next to Bronherrn and patted Xanthu’s head. After a moment’s silence, she looked up at him through long eyelashes. “So you’re a man now?” Something in her tone wavered beyond the question, almost beseeching. She spoke as if they had known each other forever.
“What did it feel like?”
He furrowed his brow and leaned in. “It?”
“Taking a life? She pushed a long coil off her shoulder. “As a priestess, I am not allowed to learn the deadly arts, nor fight.”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. Not how I thought it would feel.”
She leaned in and kissed his cheek. “That’s why I’ve been watching you. You have a warrior’s instinct.”
He froze at this reveal, the touch of her lips still fresh upon his face.
“Did you think me a dream?” she teased.
“Honestly…yes,” he answered.
She giggled, handed him her hairbrush, and turned her back to him.
He sat in confusion still vibrating under her pet’s contented purring. He stared at the cascade of strands before him. Some of the others snickered from afar and he looked around hoping to find guidance. Past the blooming bushes and beside a great fountain, his mother gestured at him to brush her hair.
He stared at the brush in his hand and raised it up. Holding it just before the locks, he felt all eyes upon him. Before he could do anything, Aethelwyn whipped back around in a crouching position and snatched the brush out of his hand. She stood up balancing her weight perfectly, walked over to Hefeydd, and sat before him. He nodded at Bronherrn and caressed her locks with pleasure as if demonstrating.
Bronherrn enviously watched Hefeydd’s sculpted arms as he touched her and conversed with the incomparable priestess. They laughed and she pressed her back against the opening of the priest’s cloak. Bronherrn became a mass of envy and jealousy all at once. Hefeydd had been kind to him but he could have been the one playing with his priestess. She was becoming what Bronherrn wished to have as his own and he began to think that she could be.
His mother approached and blocked his view. “I’m sorry I didn’t prepare you properly. We didn’t think you would have to come here so soon.”
He stared at the ground.
“Dear boy, to touch a priestess’s hair is a great honor. And to be allowed the trust of brushing it means that she favors you.”
He longed to go to Aethelwyn and explain his misunderstanding, but could not stoop to expose his feelings. Instead, he remained with the girl’s beloved pet. Xanthu drooped asleep in his lap. He did not wish to disturb his new companion, but shifted beneath the cougar. “I think I’m ready to return home.”
His mother nodded. She patted Xanthu and pushed her off him.
Bronherrn found no farewell from Aethelwyn, but Xanthu grumbled, grieved to give up her new friend. He bent before the great feline and pressed his forehead to hers. “You make sure she remembers me.”
Many of the holy body circled them to chant for a safe return. The energy they offered renewed his strength and made him glad to have come but he did not wish to remain for much longer. He and his mother began to climb the long chiseled stairway back up and out of the comfort of the chasm walls.
The return walk proved less perilous for Bronherrn. His body may have been overexerted from the day’s events, but he had enough sustenance to feed his strength of mind. The romance and mystery of the sacred place held him in a trance. He enjoyed the stillness of the maturing night as they returned home before he could fully grasp what had taken place.
His father rested his bulk before a mug of ale and a leg of meat at their wooden table when Bronherrn entered with his mother. The rustic sight proved enough to drive the most romantic elements of fantasy from anyone’s mind, but if that was not enough, the booming voice of his father did. “Ah, back from the otherworld. Tell me, did you like what you saw?” His tone insinuated the features Bronherrn had desired in Aethelwyn.
His mother hit his father on his head in a playful manner and went to check on his brothers as they slept in a nearby corner.
Bronherrn grinned. “There was a priestess. A young one. My age.”
“There always is, boy.”
“She wanted me to brush her hair.” Saying it aloud made him feel better and he laughed.
His father laughed with him and shook the walls of their little house with the joyous sound. “They always do.”