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Back to the Battlefield
Bronherrn opened his eyes when first light dusted the mountaintops with a shimmer of glowing sunbeams. “Time to get moving, girl.” He nudged Xanthu. “Grimhelden, Wynell,” he shouted, “we cannot lose daylight.”
Wynell quickly sat forward. “The goats.”
Grimhelden groaned and rolled over.
Wynell went to Sheppard and counted the herd. Bronherrn scowled at her, but Xanthu stretched and followed, rubbing against Wynell’s leg. Sheppard bounded toward the cougar and licked her playfully.
“Do you intend to gawk all day?”
He whipped around to find his brother scratching himself. He chuckled and bent down to roll up their furs. “Better make us a hearty breakfast, I do not intend to rest much today.”
Grimhelden glared back, but he set to rekindling the fire without another word.
Something in his shaky hands stopped Bronherrn. He moved closer to his brother. “It is expected that you should be nervous.”
“Who says I am?” Grimhelden stared at the ground.
“You cannot hide from me, brother. What you are doing is a great service.”
“Then why do I feel so ill?”
Bronherrn studied Grimhelden’s pinched face. He sat down beside him and patted his shoulder.
“I need no coddling.” Grimhelden jerked away. He grabbed a pot to set over over rekindled flames.
“You have not been here before. I forget that.”
“Yes, you have had time to train with father, to travel with him.”
“Not far.” Bronherrn chuckled.
Bronherrn scratched his head. “What is it that troubles you so?”
“I am not certain of any one thing. It is everything.”
Bronherrn laughed. “Me too.”
“You do not look it.”
“It is buried beneath all my training.”
“I do not care for training or any of this. But I long to help. It doesn’t make any sense.” Grimhelden sighed.
“You must refuse to let fear control you.”
“What if it is not only fear; what if this life is not meant for me?”
“You ask too many questions, like Wynell over there.” Bronherrn gestured to her as she sat talking to Xanthu. Grimhelden prodded the contents in the pot with a grimace.
“We are nearly ready, Wynell.” Bronherrn motioned for her to join them.
Xanthu bounded onto his lap. He struggled to position himself under her great bulk and Grimhelden laughed. He handed Bronherrn the first bowl, and Bronherrn downed the entire contents in one huge slurp.
He reached into his satchel and slipped a few pieces of meat to Xanthu. He smirked at Wynell when he noticed her doing the same for Sheppard. She could be annoying, but she had her ways.
They emptied the pot and Bronherrn packed away the rest of their belongings. “The path stays narrow. It will not allow for many missteps.” He nodded to the patches of ice clinging to the mountain wall beside them. “We must keep alert. You two stay behind the herd to keep them going. If there’s any danger, I shall warn you.”
No one argued with him. Bronherrn stamped his boot eagerly and marched with revived energy. The anticipation of reaching the warriors offered him strength.
Xanthu crept behind him with the goats trailing after her. The party sounded strange enough, the stealthy stalk of the cougar combined with the clumsy stamp of the goats mingled with the click of Sheppard’s toenails between patches of snow and the muffled rhythm of Wynell leading Grimhelden.
Bronherrn glanced over his shoulder and grinned. The comical line formed well. He kept his pace steady and stuck his chest out at the hopes that everyone would gain confidence from his example. The sun rose higher in the sky, and Bronherrn’s feet began to throb. By the time the sunlight passed on to the other side of the horizon, he could see level ground.
He rubbed his eyes. Grass sprouted in patches and the path widened. Guttural shouts echoed in the distance. We have arrived.
“We are near.” He looked back to his brother, trying to avoid Wynell’s eager expression. If he had been suspicious of her motives before, they were clear now. She had the look of bloodlust about her.
It’s not my concern, he consoled himself. Once we reach our camp, I have fulfilled my obligation. He trekked on.
Wild grasses pronounced the end of the path and welcomed him. Familiar rock formations surrounded the last of the thinning mountains. The goats had enough room to feed, and they spilled out around Bronherrn, gnawing the vegetation. Sheppard circled them, keeping the herd contained well away from the fighting.
Bronherrn stopped and breathed in the stench of sweat and blood. It warmed his senses. “The two of you rest and get something to eat, then head back with Xanthu and Sheppard. I have no doubt that you’ll return safely.”
Before he could leave them to find his father, a wild cry went up beyond them and the horns of war sounded. His heart leapt at the tone.
Prepared to join the ranks he jogged off, but the swish of another set of legs startled him. “Where are you going?” His eyes went wide as Wynell kept pace with him.
“To see the fight.” She raced ahead.
“The hell you are.” He slowed to pull her back, but she leapt forward. “Damn it, not again!” He chased after her.
The moment he caught up to her, a broad chested Zuthan swung his sword. Bronherrn slipped out of the way and lifted his shield to protect them but Wynell drew her longsword without recourse.
“You have no shield,” Bronherrn reminded her.
“I shall borrow yours if I must.” Her smirk caused his grip to tighten and he unleashed his sword with all his angst.
Wynell cut into the Zuthan who engaged her, but Bronherrn’s head began to ache between clashing with the beast of an opponent who engaged him and the gnarly brute who taunted Wynell. “You need not rely on my protection when you are fully trained.” He grunted and sliced through the man before him. This is why father left me behind.
Wynell cried out and he rushed to her side. Blood trickled from her arms and legs. The corpulent shadow of another Zuthan bastard darkened his view and Bronherrn took on the adversary, while keeping watch over another. He moved swiftly around the warrior and thanked the Gods for his mother’s training.
Wynell laughed. She kicked a Zuthan to the ground, but another grasped her throat and lifted her up. She slashed as best she could. Slight cuts met their mark, but the man’s muscles might as well have been made of stone. Barely a drop of blood leaked from his wounds.
Bronherrn leapt past his opponent and jumped off a body lying before them. He slashed the Zuthan’s neck and drove his blade clear across, separating head from body. Never had his arms moved so quickly or so precise. He pulled Wynell up before he could comprehend what he had done.
“Let me help you with this one.” She pull her dagger from her boot and threw it into the eye of a Zuthan lurking behind him.
Stunned, Bronherrn turned to engage himself with another. “You have some skills,” he called over his shoulder.
She cackled at the battle as it began to shift in their favor.
A strange cry pierced his ears and he shielded his head while keeping his sword steady. Time stopped. His blood slowed. Bronherrn looked to where the noise emanated from.
A cluster of Zuthan priests stood chanting words that made his ears wish to fall off. He knew what they were doing; he had seen it once before. Engaging in battle, he was now vulnerable to the ghostly apparitions that would rain down fire-like acid.
They would destroy everyone. It enraged Bronherrn to the point that he pushed through the pain and began to force his sword into any Zuthan he could find. A light graced him and he was compelled to look at its center. Inside the brilliant beam, Aethelwyn appeared, suspended before him. She floated in a divine light. She whispered on the wind and rushed upon the Zuthan priests with ease.
“What is that?” Wynell wiped her blood-stained cheek.
“Not what, who?” Bronherrn’s mind soared at the sound of Danarrus’s voice.
“Danarrus?” He rushed to look upon his friend. “Battle serves you well.”
“Not as well as you. It is good to have you back.” Danarrus pressed his blade to Bronherrn’s.
As the Zuthans retreated, Bronherrn remembered Aethelwyn. He wished to speak with her but search as he would, she had vanished. Again.
“You seem a bit young to fight so well.” Danarrus pressed his steel to Wynell’s.
Bronherrn scoffed at him. “Well? I had to save her hide.”
“I returned the favor.” She nodded to the lifeless body of the man with her dagger still in his eye. She whipped her braids with a turn of her head and jogged off to retrieve the blade.
“She has yet to earn her warrior’s mark,” Bronherrn said.
Danarrus’s eyes remained fixed on her. “And still she stands after cutting down a least one Zuthan. Looks like she just earned it.”
Bronherrn shook his head and marched back to check on his brother. At least he listened. Grimhelden walked up to meet him, but his gaze was set on the scene of Wynell as she went to Danarrus and conversing with him grinning.
“You cannot be jealous?” Bronherrn asked.
“No. No, of course not.” Grimhelden blinked rapidly.
Before Bronherrn could say any more, their father walked between them catching each in one arm. “Ah my boys. Tell me you brought us some meat.”
“Yes father.” Bronherrn smiled. He led his father to the foot of the pass. The goats grazed behind the last of the rock formations guarded by Sheppard and Xanthu.
“It looks like you have brought more than meat.”
“That we have.” Grimhelden met his father’s gaze with pride.
“We have much to speak of, boy, but first, build me a fire. We have been without much to eat for some time.”
“Yes father.” Bronherrn began to walk away with Grimhelden.
“Where are you going?” He looked at Bronherrn and laughed. “Let your brother tend the meat. You help me spill the blood.”
Bronherrn shrugged at Grimhelden’s scowl and followed their father toward the goats where they selected which to butcher. “I did not expect so many.”
“Wynell brought a fair-sized herd.” Bronherrn smirked at his father.
“That girl, Wynell?”
Bronherrn hated the insinuation in his father’s tone. “Yes, she is a pain in the ass, but good with the animals.”
“Not good with you?”
“I aim for another.” Bronherrn thought of Aethelwyn.
His father pulled at his beard. After a moment, he examined the baskets saddled onto the goats. “It is more than we could have asked. You are coming into your own, Bronherrn.”
“Thank you, Father. And after having to babysit my brother and that girl, I am sorry for burdening you with my presence.”
Instead of correcting him, his father patted the fresh scar on Bronherrn’s arm. “I have been famished for days, let’s eat.”
They selected the first goat and Bronherrn separated the animal from the heard with Sheppard and Xanthu’s aid. “A cougar?” His father watched as if amused.
“From the Otherworld.” Bronherrn tried to hide the smile that formed whenever he thought of the holy place and Aethelwyn.
He dragged the first goat away from the others. Clenching the dagger tight he whispered, “Sorry my friend. Thank you for giving your life so that we can live.” He sucked in a great breath and slit its throat. Xanthu exercised complete restraint. Despite hungry eyes, she waited for him to direct her.
“Here girl.” He held out a hand.
She licked the blood from his palm. It was a fitting sacrifice.
He did the same with ten more, each goat inspired his warrior’s heart. He pondered all the sacrifices that make up a life. And what shall I be forced to sacrifice in my time?
Once they had enough meat, his father helped him to skin their hides. “You have done more for us than you know,” he praised Bronherrn as they cut into the carcasses.
“Thank you, Father. I hope to get in my share of the fighting now.”
“I was not just speaking of the food boy.”
Bronherrn cocked his head at his father.
“I doubt your priestess would give much thought to our protection if it were not for you. How long were you going to keep it from me?”
“Keep what from you?”
Bronherrn shrugged with a sigh of relief. “She is risking her neck. It is not allowed by her kind.”
“That never seems to stop some.” His father’s eyes widened with approval.
Bronherrn scratched his head. “Grimhelden is to begin training as soon as he returns home.”
“And then I shall have two of you to fight me once this war is over.”
Bronherrn snickered, but then remembered his brother’s concern. “What if Grimhelden wishes for a different life?”
“A different life?”
“He is not a fighter. He has told me so.”
“My sons are all fighters.”
Bronherrn swallowed hard. “Some fight in different ways.”
“What nonsense are you speaking now, boy?” His father tossed a chunk of raw flesh at Xanthu. “For her services,” he said.
“And one for Sheppard.” Bronherrn threw a piece for the dog.
Once they had enough cutlets they went to sit with Grimhelden as he cooked. The hearty aroma of smoking flesh wafted around them. The other warriors crowded closer. Bronherrn’s mouth watered, but his hunger quelled slightly as the bitter flash of envy rattled like venom in his brother’s eyes.
He spotted Wynell and Danarrus whispering to each other nearby. Bronherrn did not understand his brother’s strange fixation, but he felt the need to distract Grimhelden from his pangs. “Will you be leaving us tomorrow then, brother?”
“Yes, as soon as possible.”
“Eager to start your training?” Their father asked.
Grimhelden hesitated. He looked to Bronherrn.
“Probably not so eager to make the journey again.” Bronherrn forced out a laugh.
“From my sights, I think that’s his aim.” Their father nodded at Wynell.
“She does not wish to return.” Bronherrn imagined attempting to force her to go back. The thought of knocking her out slightly appealed, but carrying such a load made him shake his head.
“She is sworn to,” The disappointment in Grimhelden’s voice struck Bronherrn.
“We are at war. Her hand is as good as any. If you were trained enough, I would force you to fulfill your duty.” Both Bronherrn and Grimhelden fell silent at their father’s words.
I wondered what mother would do? Bronherrn thought, but Grimhelden served him a cut of the inviting meat. It tickled his senses and he forgot his troubles.