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Every day the ache to fight grew more piercing. Bronherrn’s father defended the Ultainian border along the banks of the Cassani River, while he wasted time training at home. It weighed on his conscience every second. He continued to polish his fighting skills with Danarrus, but once the New Year dawned without word from the warriors, Bronherrn grew restless.
The battlefield lay about a day’s hike from home. Confident he could be of some use, the necessity of making the journey tore into him. I must know how they fare.
He strapped his weapon to his body and slung his iron shield over his shoulder on the darkest night. He donned simple leathern coverings that barely guarded him, along with his animal furs for warmth. He snuck bits of bread and meat into his satchel, and crept away to trek through the mountains on his own.
The way lay etched in his mind. He moved ahead carefully placing each step along the path. The frozen night waxed slick with patches of black ice that froze pools of melted snow at every turn. The rocky terrain taxed his muscles and stretched longer than ever. Danger awaited, gripping his imagination.
Every noise, every jagged outline, played a sinister role in his expanding thoughts.
An unmistakable crunching sounded, and Bronherrn drew his sword. Someone is following me. Muffled footfalls padded upon fresh snow, led Bronherrn to spin around and strike.
A powerful block clanged against his weapon and Danarrus said, “It’s just me.”
“What in The Otherworld are you doing here?” Bronherrn stumbled back. He leaned against a boulder and caught his breath.
“Same as you. You did not truly believe that I would let you go off to fight and leave me behind?” Danarrus held out his blade and Bronherrn walked over to clank his steel to it before sheathing his weapon.
“You are welcome to join me, but I only plan on getting a look. I have no intention of joining the battle unwanted.”
“Still afraid of the old man, eh?”
“No.” Bronherrn scoffed. “You’ve heard the rumors. We are but men and the Zuthans are using dark forces against us.”
“You do not really believe those tales?” Danarrus chuckled.
“I don’t know. I intend to find out what we are up against.”
“Fair enough,” his friend answered and the two continued on their way.
Bronherrn fell silent. He appreciated Danarrus’s companionship, but it unsettled him to make the hazardous journey without his father. His breath materialized in the cold night air as he sighed. The cloud drifted with life, an unleashed breath that stirred within him. Something about it made him shudder.
He and Danarrus moved at a steady pace, but they reached the narrow cliff face, and stopped to wait for daybreak. Bitter cold wind tore through Bronherrn’s furs as they made camp. “We must light a fire or freeze.”
Danarrus blocked the wind with his cloak and added as much kindling as he could. “Here. I am no good with the rocks.”
Bronherrn struck his flint stones together. Not one spark ignited. He growled. His hands shook. His fingers grew raw, numb.
“You almost had it that time.” Dannarus crouched close.
Bronherrn grunted. He scraped the edges together, dug them harder against the surface with more pressure. A spark flashed and his stomach rumbled for the comforts of his mother’s cooking.
Danarrus shook his head.
Bronherrn pushed his hands under the brush and struck with the last of his strength. A small flame grew against the wild grasses and held its own. He leaned close, allowing the smoke to coat his face. Flames scorced his skin, but the heat revived him.
“There she burns.” Danarrus added fuel he could find to feed the hungry fire.
Bronherrn shrugged at him and lay down to rest his limbs. He reached in the satchel at his side and pulled out a piece of dried meat. He lifted his head and threw it to Danarrus. “I do not imagine you thought to bring food.”
Danarrus grabbed the morsel and devoured it. “You didn’t give me much time to prepare. I saw you sneaking away and had to follow.”
Bronherrn smirked and rested his arms behind his head. He lay back and closed his eyes. Images of blades cutting flesh made sleep near impossible, until the sight of Aethelwyn’s shining eyes stared at him from behind closed eyelids. The fresh wildflower scent of her hair surrounded him and he found some peace, if not rest.
A few auburn rays of sunlight brightened the land before Bronherrn could fully fall asleep. He roused himself and tapped Danarrus with his boot. “Better get moving.”
Danarrus grunted and shook his arms. “Already?”
“There is little to pack.” Bronherrn pulled his furs from the ground and wrapped them against his body.
Danarrus stretched and situated his pack. Bronherrn tore a small clump of bread from the loaf in his satchel and divided it in two. He handed a piece to Danarrus. They sat quiet in the dawn breaking their fast.
Bronherrn spared no crumbs, licking his hands. He belched loud and marveled at the echo that leapt from the cliffs. “We shall make our way before nightfall.” Danarrus walked beside him.
Bronherrn set his gaze ahead. He surveyed the boulders and rock faces surrounding them.
Danarrus stomped along at his pace. They matched footfalls and allowed the morning light to offer the only conversation.
The last leg of the trip taxed Bronherrn’s patience. His ankles shook and the path ascended into a steep slope. His mind filled with thoughts of the Zuthans. They fought as narrow and slippery as the way to the Cassani River.
Caught deep in his eagerness to reach the battle, he lost his footing. His muscles tensed and he teetered near the edge of a great drop-off. For a moment, his eyes moved over the seemingly endless slope beside him, but Danarrus grasped his arms and steadied him. He gripped the side of the mountain and led Bronherrn’s hands to the rocky formation. “No fleeing now.”
Bronherrn punched Danarrus’s shoulder. “I could not flee if I wished it.” He sighed in relief. “Thank you, my friend. I only hope I can return the favor soon enough.” He wiped the sweat from his brow and focused on keeping balanced.
Danarrus curved his lips into a half smile. “You shall have more hope of it if we march into battle today.”
“Do you have a death wish?” Bronherrn asked.
“None comparable to yours. My father only left me at my mother’s request.”
This reminder of what lay ahead brought Bronherrn’s task back into focus. “I merely wish to calculate what we’re up against. Until then I cannot say what I shall do.”
He let the wind offer conversation for a while, glanced to the sun’s rays rolling behind restless clouds that blew past in a hurry. The silence carried him for half the day, eyes fixed, ready. When the ground leveled out, Bronherrn led Danarrus behind the last of the rock formations in the well-camouflaged pass. “This is where I first saw those dogs.”
Shouts of battle sang in his ears, warmed his fighting spirit. He longed to be with the Ultainian warriors defending their way of life.
Danarrus’s eyes filled with a lust for battle.
Bronherrn looked from him to a scene of chaos: metal hitting metal, armor thrashing. For a moment, it was hard to decipher Zuthan from Ultainian, but once he focused on the styles, he could not imagine how he had been unable to determine such obvious differences.
At first all looked natural, men fighting men, but a deathly screech incomprehensible to his ears echoed from above. He covered his ears and stared above. A sight too grotesque for human eyes caused him to lurch.
Danarrus shrank into himself covering his head with his hands. Bronherrn searched the a floating mass of putrid rage spewing forth an acid-like fog. Decay and twisted skin dangled overhead.
The Ultainian warriors fell back. They held their iron shields between themselves and the vapors. One man stumbled with bloods wounds. He grew unable to bear the weight any longer and crashed to the grass staining it a deep crimson. The hideous cloud reach him and ate at the layers of flesh.
“This can’t be real.” Bronherrn forced himself to watch.
His fighter’s instinct struggled to keep from rushing forward. Cries of despair tugged at his heart. He found himself unable to keep still anymore, but before he could rush ahead, a strong guest of wind dipped onto the field and dispelled the evil gas.
Bronherrn froze, transfixed. Aethelwyn, appear near him. She hovered over the ground and she directed her energies with arms outstretched. The wind moved at her request and dispelled the monstrous beings that caused such destruction.
Struck with awe, Bronherrn studied Aethelwyn. His breath grew shallow. He stepped back into a deep lunge holding his weapon in position.
Danarrus kneeled on the grass with his hands still covering his ears. His eyes fixed on the ground. He did not notice the priestess.
Aethelwyn turned toward Bronherrn. He forgot Danarrus and gaped at the fur cloak wrapped around her body. Her dark hair whipped in the wind as if reaching for Bronherrn. She stepped down upon the grass with a look of desperation in her eyes.
Her clothes fell and she slunk forward. Her furs and the soft padded skins at her feet were of no consequence. All that had tempted him in the past rested before him, but he looked upon her with great respect. She was not a fantasy but an ally.
“Why does your kind avoid the fight?” he asked. “With your powers−”
She put a finger to her lips and raised her arms above. The sky opened up and cleansed the land of the Zuthan priests’ demonic cohorts.
Danarrus turned to his friend. “We’re pushing them back.”
Aethelwyn vanished and Bronherrn darted his eyes around the empty grasses. Not a single leaf was out of place.
Without a word of warning, Danarrus rushed in to join the battle.
“Damn it!” Bronherrn watched him for a moment before following close behind.
He clashed against the enemy with a single stroke of his sword. His father’s quickness aided him with this new opponent, but his mother’s cunning gave him the speed to strike fast and hard. Blood warmed his face, the weight of his blade possessed him. He cut down one, then another and more, moving naturally.
“Bronherrn,” his father’s angry voice rang in his ears.
“Busy father,” he growled with the rhythm of his weapon.
“The Gods you are. I thought I told you to stay home,” his father shouted over the crescendo of cries sounding about them.
Bronherrn spun around and stabbed his sword into his opponent with vigor. He used the move to impress his father and hoped it would lessen his punishment. It worked well enough, as the man laughed.
“You’ve made your point.” Bronherrn’s father backed up to him and pressed in close. Back-to-back, they fought until the remaining Zuthans retreated.
Once all was still, Bronherrn’s mind filled with questions. “Danarrus?” He scanned the field and rushed about looking at the bodies of the fallen.
“I am here. Do not worry about me.” Danarrus chuckled.
Bronherrn knock his friend across the face with the hilt of his sword. He moved to kick him, but his father pulled him back. The blood on his arms did not slow his racing heart. He straightened up and struggled out of the grip. “I did not intend any of this.”
“Surely.” His father nodded and led Bronherrn over to the river.
He knelt and splashed water on Bronherrn’s face. “You’re not hurt are you, boy?”
Bronherrn shook his head. “What is this we are facing?”
His father drenched his head in the cleansing river. “Ah Bronherrn, it is by the Gods that the Ultain pass lies hidden still. It is as we feared. We are not fighting mere Zuthans, but their priests, who use powers to raise those monstrous souls you saw dispelled only by chance.”
Aethelwyn’s image held steady in Bronherrn’s mind.
“How have we lasted so long against such apparitions?” Danarrus stalked behind them.
“That’s a question I ask myself.”
Bronherrn studied the grim shadows clouding his father’s eyes. He had never seen the man so tired, beaten down. Even his father’s beard hung dull and withered.
He knew the answer. Despite their holy people’s refusal to fight, Bronherrn witnessed Aethelwyn’s powers. Those great forces could not be wasted. He determined to pay her a visit as soon as he was able.
His father stood and towered over him. “I wish for you to return to your mother as soon as possible.”
“Of course.” Bronherrn got to his feet and pushed his chest out.
A strange curiosity shined out of his father’s eyes. “You made the journey here to turn back now? I thought there would be some kind of fight.”
“I will remain if you ask it, father, but I have my own matters to attend.”
“You are too young to have matters.”
“Not I, father.” He moved toward the center of the field where the elders were building a fire. Bronherrn earned his passage. He could challenge his father and stay, but found himself eager to return to the holy land and discuss all that had taken place with Aethelwyn.
He looked to Danarrus who now sat beside his father, Tommerald. He nodded to the man and cocked his head at his friend. “You would leave me to journey alone?”
“You began the trek on your own. I trust that you can find your way.” Dannarus smirked.
Bronherrn swallowed the lump that formed in his throat. “I’ll return with more food as soon as I can.” If I don’t fall to my death, he thought.
His father cuffed his head and pulled him on the ground to sit by the fire. They passed around the scarce food and drink while speaking of lighter subjects. Bronherrn enjoyed his stay even if it brought only more questions. He stretched out on the grass to rest before returning to the mountains alone, but his thoughts centered on Aethelwyn. Could her people have decided to aid us?
His musing were interrupted by his father, “Tell your mother you are to return, once you educate our people on what has taken place.”
Bronherrn squirmed under the weight of his tasks. He knew any messages from the battlefield would be greatly received, but the responsibility made him feel older than his seasons.
“Oh, and tell you mom it’s time you got your first plate of real armor. We cannot have you getting cut up like you did today.” His father poked at the blood trickling from Bronherrn’s side.
“They are but scratches.” They trickled, miniscule in comparison to what the Zuthan priests had unleashed.
“Yes boy, but a single cut can turn you green in a matter of days. I’ve seen it. Take care and heed your lessons.”