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Journey of Necessity
The townspeople delivered all they could spare to Bronherrn and his brother. He called upon Wynell and they burdened her beasts with new shields, weaponry, baskets of food, clothes, and last, Danarrus’s armor. The sight of the load filled Bronherrn with a burning sense of importance. His mother brushed his shoulder as they stood before a crowd gathering to see them off. “Your brother has had no training. It is your duty to protect him.”
He nodded under her piercing gaze. She offered a half smile and stepped aside to speak with Grimhelden. Druthleer stood behind, pouting. Bronherrn turned and crouched before him. “I know how you feel. Maybe we shall find you something from the battlefield.”
“A skull?” Druthleer’s eyes widened like the night sky.
“I am not sure if I can do as much as that,” Bronherrn bellowed, he stopped when the echo of his voice returned with the same ring of his father’s baritone. “But some weaponry may be possible.”
Druthleer gawked at him.
Bronherrn scuffed his brother’s hair. “Get into some trouble while we’re gone. Mom needs a good battle.”
He stood and fell back into command. The goats crowded around his brother and Wynell. Despite her obnoxious look of triumph, he grew distracted by the scant villagers. They stood gaunt, tired. Bags hung under the eyes of mothers, children stared at him as if he held all the answers. Most of their men and fighting women had been absent for months.
He raised an arm and waved. “Thank you for your troubles. The Zuthans have never penetrated these mountains, and they never will.” His simple promise tasted bitter on his tongue.
They bowed to him but he feared the worst. These goats will not last forever and the Zuthans have left behind all honor.
Wynell met his side and a shaggy mutt stayed at her heels. It nuzzled his hand and he pat its head.
“The dog alone would aid me.” Bronherrn smirked.
“His name is Sheppard.” Wynell tugged at her skirt. “He is the best trained and the most loyal.”
Grimhelden stood on Bronherrn’s other side and they followed him parading to the edge of town. Their people trailed behind singing and calling out encouragement.
Wynell tried to match their notes, but her tone-deaf voice cracked in his ears.
Bronherrn stared up at the clouds. “You should stick to herding.”
She opened her mouth wide and sang louder, pushed out the words like swords grating.
“How fitting.” Bronherrn blinked through his agony.
Grimhelden cocked his head at them. “Are you two going to act like this the entire way?”
“You are welcome to join the others and remain,” Wynell said.
“He has more right to come than you, girl.” Bronherrn quickened his pace.
She laughed. “I have more training than him.”
Bronherrn bit his tongue. He knew she was right. It pained him to let her win the argument, but the path grew rockier. Uncertainty and duty swirled within his breast. He looked back to his mother.
She hollered, “Grimhelden, remember what I said. And when you return, we must begin your training.”
Grimhelden perked up and smiled over his shoulder at her.
Bronherrn hoped he could keep his brother safe. Father should be the one leading him on his first trek to the border, not me. He relished the memory of his father’s guidance. Without him, the responsibility became burdensome.
Bronherrn and Grimhelden walked in silence for the first leg of the journey as Wynell spouted on about her excitement. Even without response from either of them, she rambled incessantly. “How long does this journey take again?” Wynell eventually asked.
“With the goats?” Bronherrn gazed at the mountain peeks standing between them and the battlefield. “Two days’ time. Three if your chatter slows your feet.”
His answer did not quiet her. “My feet are as fit as ever.” She sneered. “What does the battlefield look like?”
“It is a field. Flat land with grass.”
“That does not offer me much.”
“He does not wish to speak to you,” Grimhelden said.
“Then why does he not say that?”
Grinding his teeth, Bronherrn thought it better to keep his agitation hidden. He sucked in a large breath of air. “It would be nice to have some quiet.”
Wynell shut her mouth and stomped ahead.
Bronherrn shrugged at his brother and outpaced her.
They did not enjoy a great span of silence before Wynell asked, “How far is it exactly?”
Bronherrn’s patience fled. “What does it matter? You can ask questions all day, but it shall not bring us there any sooner.”
Instead of arguing with him as he expected, she lowered her voice, “I do not mean to be bothersome. I am worried about mountain lions.”
Her confession unleashed unlimited concerns. Descending the rough terrain with numerous goats was difficult enough. We may as well have ensnared ourselves. He surveyed the boulders above the rocky ledges. Why didn’t mother warn me?
They made progress but Bronherrn eyed every crevice, each cave on either side of him. The rocks and shelfs lay fit for climbing creatures. “We won’t have to fear mountain lions if we keep a watchful eye.” His hand dangled over the hilt of his sword.
The sun moved across the sky with watchful rays. The day’s sweeping breeze transformed into a chill of night and bore down on them. “We will rest here.” Bronherrn stopped at an even stretch of the path.
Wynell cut a tuft of fur from one of the goat’s backs and unpacked some firewood without pausing.
Bronherrn watched her with wonder. “That should aid us well.”
“I am more useful than you know.” She bent down to arrange her kindling.
Grimhelden pulled out his flint rock, and Bronherrn gathered what stones he could.
“Let me light it, brother.” Grimhelden crouched beside him.
“Do us the honors.” Bronherrn stepped back once he had everything in place. He grabbed some food from one of the packs strapped onto a nearby sheep and returned to offer his brother a sack of dried meats and nuts.
Wynell filled her mouth when he handed her one. “I feared you would expect me to cook,” she sprayed crumbs talking and eating at once.
“Would that be such a terrible task?”
“Only for you. I do not have much of a hand for cooking.”
“But you are a goat herder,” Grimhelden mocked her.
“I tend them while they live. There is no connection between preparing meat and caring for animals.”
“Some would say different.” Bronherrn found himself in much better spirits warming himself before the fire.
“Some say many things.” She smirked as she chewed. The smacking of her jaws ceased to grate on Bronherrn’s nevers when Sheppard jumped up and raced to a small section of their herd.
“Stupid creatures.” Bronherrn studied Wynell’s calm approach.
She rose and nickered at them. The hairy beasts toed at the cliff wall rising beside them.
Tiny cuts in the rock offered them more climbing opportunity than Bronherrn believed possible. Sheppard whimpered and shifted on his paws.
Bronherrn nudged Grimhelden. “Here you are, goat herder.” He laughed at Wynell’s shadow. It mingled with her stock and she commanded Sheppard. He barked with a light growl. Wynnell continued her animal coo. Three of the four worked their way back down.
She glanced at Bronherrn and offered a slight laugh. She reached into her dress pocket and produced a handful of wheatgrass. “There you are. Don’t leave us, it’s not safe.”
Grimhelden stood as if to help, but Bronherrn held him back. “Let her do her work.”
One of the goats climbed too high. Its great bearded face gazed at the world above.
“That one’s lost to us.” Bronherrn ground his teeth together.
Wynell smiled at the three she recovered. “It is only one.”
“One too many!” Bronherrn turned his back on the scene and peered at the dropoff ahead of them. “One goat could feed four starving soldiers, if not more. We shall have to make haste.”
The late snows of winter still haunted the mountain corners. Their frosty omens kept sleep from him. He took the loss as a sign of failure on his part and stood watch until his brother and Wynell nodded off.
The long night tormented him with visions of lost battles, battles to come. His only comfort came in the shape of warm memories of Aethelwyn’s fiery gaze, the glow of her skin. He reveled in these fancies, but dawn intruded. The brightening sky set him to his task.
“We have much ground before us.” He roused his charges. “Grimhelden, Wynell and I will break camp while you rekindle the fire and cook up some food. We will not be able to keep our strength without filling our bellies properly.”
“Why must I cook?” Grimhelden asked.
Bronherrn breathed in the morning air. “Because, Wynell, has already stated that her abilities to feed others leaves people disappointed. You on the other hand have our mother’s touch.”
Wynell snickered and Grimhelden turned a ragged glared on her.
She shot him a crooked grin. “Do not fret dear. I assure you that you shall make a fine mother someday.”
He jumped forward to stand face to face with his fists balled. “Do not question my manhood!”
“Enough.” Bronherrn pulled his brother back.
Grimhelden growled and stamped away to rekindle the fire. Bronherrn rolled up his furs, refusing to give Wynell his attention. She kicked some pebbles and checked on the herd.
Once their belongings were secured, Bronherrn took a seat by the fire. The blaze of heat rushed over his skin with a cleansing touch. Grimhelden handed him a bowl of his steaming concoction and Bronherrn breathed in the tantalizing aroma.
“You are gifted.” He took a sip and eagerly downed three more. “Your ability to transform simple beans, roots, and seeds into a meal is unmatched.”
“I wish to be known for more.”
“Why?” Wynell sat beside Grimhelden and he grudgingly gave her a bowl. She winced at the drops that spilled onto her hands.
“I do not enjoy being laughed at.”
“It was a jest.” She sipped from the bowl and her whole face lit into surprised delight. “I’ll never laugh at your skills again. This is superb. Does that offer any consolation?”
“Might,” he grumbled.
Bronherrn did not concern himself with his brother’s feelings. His body creaked stiff from his overnight vigil. His muscles pulsed tense and swollen. He took a second helping and ate it faster. “We’ve got ground to cover.” He handed the bowl to his brother and stretched his arms to the sky.
Grimhelden wiped their dishes with a torn cloth and packed them away. Bronherrn kicked the outer laying ashes over the fire to quell the flames. Wynell commanded Sheppard to ready the herd and looked to Bronherrn.
He stepped off with a steady pace. No words escaped his grim lips. The lagging journey aggravated his nerves, but he knew he must be careful with his party. They progressed onward and Bronherrn was forced to exercise his patience beyond all tests. Wynell’s chattering and his brother’s silence lent a contrast fit to attack his sanity.
By nightfall, they reached the portion of the trail that narrowed to a drop off at the mountain’s side. Bronherrn stopped them and pointed to the ground far beneath. “I nearly fell over this ledge further down the path. We will rest here for now.”
Grimhelden gaped over the drop. His eyes watered with fear.
Bronherrn drew closer to him and whispered in his ear, “I shall build us a fire tonight. You need only concern yourself with cooking.
“I had not imagined this.” Grimhelden said.
“There is a lot of waiting in a warrior’s life. It is not all force.”
“You sound like the old man.” Grimhelden chuckled.
“I’m not that wise.” Bronherrn kneeled on the ground and set up a fire.
“What is it like to be the sons of Brackliem?” Wynell munched on some dried fruit.
Grimhelden glared at her, but Bronherrn met her curious gaze. “It is all we know.”
“What is it like to be raised like a goat?” Grimhelden sneered.
Bronherrn shook his head.
Wynell’s expression shifted. A smile spread over her chapped lips and she gazed at the herd with soft affection shimmering in her eyes. “I love it.”
Bronherrn cleared his throat, glad to be clear of another argument. “We cannot lose any more goats. We shall watch the herd in shifts.”
“But Sheppard can guard them.”
“As he did so last night?” Bronherrn asked.
She looked away.
Grimhelden stare up at the cliffs surrounding the area.
“I’ll take the first watch.” Bronherrn held his stance. “Rest while you can.”
No one challenged him. Sheppard sat beside him and he rubbed the dog’s ears between his fingers. The soft fur was nothing like the thick pelt of Aethelwyn’s cougar, but offered comfort. Bronherrn stood and stared up at what few stars dared to brighten the night through the heavy cloud cover. I know what we face. He glanced over at his brother, scanned the still figure of Wynell. They need the rest more than I.
The tap of feed padding nearby caught Bronherrn’s attention. He sensed something creeping near and sniffed the air. His nose twitched at the scent of musty fur. Sheppard’s ears perked and he growled, planting himself before Bronherrn. The dog stared into the darkness behind the camp.
A shadowed pounce flashed over the dim light of the dying campfire.
Sheppard rushed ahead, but high pitched cries of a frightened goat echoed off the rocky walls. The rest of the herd awoke in a panic.
Wynell jumped up. She called out a guttural baa, but the herd continued to push and shove on the narrow walkway. Sheppard nosed Bronherrn’s hand. He grasped the hilt of his sword, unsure of how best to handle the situation.
“Damn monstrous beast, I shall have your hide.” Bronherrn chased in the direction of the predator, but Wynell caught his arm.
“The night has gotten away from you.” She tugged with a grip like his mother’s. “You must sleep and allow me my post.”
The herd moved as one.
“Then we butcher them now. I can save some of the meat.” Bronherrn panted.
Sheppard barked louder than he knew possible and the herd stopped. As if giving orders in an unknown language, the dog let out a series of bellowing woofs. By the last, every remaining goat had quieted, and pressed closer to the wall.
“Save your sword, oh conqueror.” Wynell stifled a giggle.
Bronherrn glared at her, but he breathed deep.
Another growl sounded. Closer.
Bronherrn dropped low and pulled his dagger from his boot. The image nearing them grew, golden even in the shadows. “How many of these beasts taunt us?” he cried aloud.
Instead of waiting for another goat to be carried away, Bronherrn leapt toward the creature. He jumped atop its pelt and steadied his dagger at its jugular, but the great cat rolled onto the stone path.
A familiar purr drifted on the air.
Bronherrn froze. He wrinkled his brow. “Xanthu?”
The cougar moved off his leg and licked his palm. He patted her hide and sheathed his dagger.
“Is that…” Grimhelden cocked his head in disbelief.
“Go back to sleep.” Bronherrn knelt and pressed his forehead to Xanthu’s. “Xanthu will look out for us. She comes from a friend of mine.”
Wynell put her arms out attempting to block the cougar from the goats behind her. “She will eat them!”
Bronherrn lifted his head to the sky with a bellow of laughter. “She is from The Otherworld. Her tastes are much more refined.”
Wynell lowered her arms with a slow unease. Bending down, she crept forward.
Xanthu yawned and pawed at Wynell.
Wynell scrunched up her nose and laughed when Xanthu flopped onto the ground and rolled onto her back.
“She is most affectionate.” Bronherrn scratched Xanthu’s belly.
Wynell stooped over the big cat and smiled. “I’m so glad you have joined us.” She reached out and gently patted Xanthu’s belly.
Xanthu sat up and nuzzled Wynell’s hand. Leaning over to kiss the cougar’s head, Wynell glanced at Bronherrn. “You must get some rest too.” She nodded at his brother as Grimhelden’s snoring began to sound.
Sheppard sniffed around Xanthu and Bronherrn stood ready to deflect any aggression.
The dog sat and cocked his head at her and she licked her paws.
“If he trusts her, I do,” Wynell said. “Now allow me to fulfil my duty.”
“You need sleep like the rest of us.
Bronherrn chewed the inside of his cheek.
“I shall wake you the moment I hear anything unnatural.”
“Predators are natural.” He squinted scanning the landscape.
“Xanthu?” Wynell looked at the cougar.
Xanthu sneezed as in agreement and nudged Bronherrn toward his sleeping furs. She knocked him back until he stumbled over his feet.
“Maybe just a short rest.” He laid down, burrowing down. A rush of fresh mountain air chilled his skin, but Xanthu crawled over to him. Her rhythmic pulse and soft purring calmed his frayed nerves.