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Bronherrn continued to fight as long as his father commanded him. Some days passed with no movement, and hope for the end of their battles only brought another rush of Zuthan warriors. His father shouted at the trespassers, “You have no right to our land!”
Without response, the oncoming army moved across the Cassani River. The drenched footsteps of the Zuthan soldiers weighed on Bronherrn. How could they disgrace something so pure?
Despite the smooth skin on his face, he felt as if he were carrying the burden of the thickest beard. He followed his father and the elder warriors as they rushed upon their enemies. He did it so many times, it came as natural as breathing, but this time lacked something.
One of the elders coughed. A great outbreak of wheezing followed.
Bronherrn slowed his pace and engaged two Zuthans at once. He leveled his shield against one, and cut into the other. All around him gasping and gagging emanated from his companions. Tall gargantuan men who had once been able to cleave skulls as if they were cutting fruit, now struggled to block simple thrusts.
It is the Zuthans. They have done something wicked. Bronherrn stumbled under a blow and a Zuthan blade sliced into his thigh.
He held in a cry and drove his sword harder, made his steel clash louder. Die now or fight.
Bronherrn turned to find Danarrus coughing beneath a Zuthan, sword ready to strike. Shouting with the fiercest whoop he had ever managed, Bronherrn dodged passed swinging swords and pushed his blade through the man’s skull with enough force that his opponent’s warm insides slid onto his hands before he pulled back through the broken bone. Blood gushed, coating his skin. He pulled on his weapon but it remained wedged in the adversary’s flash
“Not now.” He gritted his teeth and quickly reached for the dagger at his boot. He pulled Danarrus to his feet.
Danarrus struggled to breath. A ragged coughing fit overtook his lungs. His face turned blue and his eyes yellowed. “I will get you out of here.”
“No.” Danarrus staggered. His hands twitched on his sword. “I must fight.”
“You will die.” Bronherrn grasped Danarrus’s shoulder, but his friend punched him away.
The air shifted and the dark tones of the Zuthan priests chanted nearby. Their horrific voices rose in clashing tones.
Sweat mixed with the blood and dirt coating Danarrus’s face.
Bronherrn grew eager to reach the Zuthan priests before they could call upon the spirits of the damned. With the spreading sickness, his people would have no chance against the monstrous apparitions.
He kicked a Zuthan away from them. The cold shiver of fear gripped Bronherrn and he coughed. “Forgive me, my friend.” He clobbered Danarrus with strong fist. Danarrus fell back and Bronherrn grasped him tight. He threw him over his shoulders and dodged through the mess of battle.
He peered at axes, swords, and daggers slashing the air before them. He whipped around bloodthirsty Zuthans. He swept past too many Ultainian warriors and recognized the same fits overtaking them.
“What have they done to you?”
Bronherrn had never been so happy to hear Wynell’s voice. She reached Danarrus and placed her back to him with sword ready. Over her shoulder she said, “I may tend him if you can get us away from the fighting.”
“It is worth our lives.” He steadied Danarrus and raced ahead knocking any Zuthan he could out of the way. With swiftness of his feet and the force of his shield, he plowed through the field. He did not stop to see if they succeeded until he ran behind the rock formations and found the last of the goat herd cowering near the pass.
Wynell panted beside him. She supported Danarrus’s stout frame and laid him on the ground.
Bronherrn stooped beside Danarrus. “She is to look after you. I must return to the field.”
Danarrus nodded. His pale skin sickened Bronherrn. He wiped the sweat from his friend’s brow and marveled at Wynell as she ran to the goats. “So much for loyalty.” He darted his gaze frm her to the fighting. His instincts to protect Danarrus battled his duty to save more.
He found a great breath of relief filling his lungs when Wynell return with a goat. She led it to stand beside Danarrus. “Drink.” She knelt between them and held its swollen teat before his lips.
Bronherrn nodded at her. He blinked hard and a glow pulled his attention back to the fighting. He turned and found Aethelwyn suspended in the sky. The long twining curls of her night black hair haloed her godlike features. They whipped about her fur cloak, wrapped around with a force of pure wind. The sight of her pulled everyone’s attention from the fighting.
She stood alone against the opposing priests grouped together for strength. They were the only ones who dared taunt her. They taunted her. Their mangled bodies convulsed with laughter under mail of bone. Hundreds of decrepit fingers were sewn into their skin giving more offense than ever.
Bronherrn’s gut retched. They desecrate our bodies.
The Zuthan priests broke their circle and split up. They always slipped through the fighting together. This battle held a different meaning. Change lingered around them.
Bronherrn clutched his dagger and marched back to the chaos. A gangly Zuthan turned to him and cackled. Bronherrn rolled forward and sliced into his shins. The heat in his veins bubbled. He cut into every Zuthan that stood in his way. He tore into each foe, eyes ablaze.
He reached Aethelwyn and she grabbed his hand. “It is them, the disease. They intend to infect everyone. I cannot stop it. I do not have the power to protect them all.” Her violet eyes bore into him with a fear he did not believed her capable of.
“I know.” He squeezed her fingers to reassure her. “But I do.”
He turned and sought out the Zuthan’s high priest. Easy to spot, the gnarly figure stood laughing nearby. His festering tattooed head held images of blood and bones on his bare skin. The pictures offended Bronherrn, gave him more reason to kill.
He narrowed his eyes and moved forward. “Why have you come here? What is so important about our land?”
The old priest licked his crusted lips. “It is not the land. It is you. All of you.”
Aethelwyn shouted, “Brackliem!”
Why would she call for his father?
The sting of betrayal filled him. Did she not trust that he could defeat this abomination with his own skills?
He rushed forward and shoved his blade into the laughing priest’s heart, but the laughter did not cease. The rhythmic noise of battle raged on. The body he abhorred melted away to reveal his father before him.
Bronherrn’s eyes went wide and his breath stopped. He looked down, stared at the cold metal of his dagger lodged into his father’s chest. “No!” he cried.
The warrior stumbled.
“It was the priest, not you…” He caught his father before he fell. Bronherrn crashed to the ground with him.
“It is fate, boy. I have met her at last.” His father patted the fighting mark on Bronherrn’s arm and lifted a shaking hand to the dagger.
“No.” Bronherrn stopped him.
“It is up to you now, Bronherrn.” He placed his hand over Bronherrn’s and pulled the dagger from his heart with a gasp.
Bronherrn’s nostrils flared. His lips shut tight over clenched teeth. No tears welled in his eyes. He placed his hand over his father’s wound and watched as the great warrior slipped away.
He grabbed his father’s hand, still clasping his own blade and screamed until his throat gave way. The tones gained everyone’s attention, the sound reverberated off the walls of the nearby mountains. Putrid acid climbed his throat and he stood panting with ire.
He grasped his dagger and ran to the first Zuthan he could find. The blood of the great Brackliem, his father, dripped off the point as he plunged the blade into the man’s neck and moved on viciously chasing another Zuthan. He stabbed into his flesh and moved onto another, then another.
Aethelwyn shouted for him, but he ignored her. She had called upon his father. She had brought him to his blade’s edge.
“Bronherrn, you cannot win this way.”
Her pleas meant nothing to him.
“I beg of you!”
He continued to chase down every foe.
Before he caught another, a flash of light waves blasted bright. He dropped his dagger and held his hands in front of his eyes. He reached out grabbing at the air but no one molested him.
“Your father was ready to die fighting, Bronherrn.” Tommerald’s voice sent him searching in the direction it came from. “It was his wish.”
“By my blade?” Bronherrn blinked. Faded shadows came into focus. They burned his eyes. He closed them tight. “That Zuthan devil tricked me. I shall him, I shall kill them all,” his voice echoed throughout the meadows, it bounced off the mountains, and sounded down the valley on the other side of the river.
He fell to the ground, feeling for his dagger, ready to attack the retreating Zuthans. Tommerald handed the blade to him.
Bronherrn tightened his grip on the weapon. He cut into his hand. The warm crimson spilled out and stained his palm. He walked back to his father’s body and pressed the fresh wound on his parent’s heart allowing the blood to mix.
“It will be done,” he swore an oath. “We will finish this.”
Aethelwyn’s ghostly hair dragged on the blood-soaked grass, drawing closer.
His body shook as she neared. He held up his hand. “How is it that you had so much power and kept it until now?”
“I have never found such a force within me, Bronherrn. Your pain gave me the strength to do it.” The softness of her words wounded him deeper than any cut. He longed to feel her, to touch her, and he knew that she would let him now, but the thought also sickened him. His father lay dead, and he held half the blame.
“Leave.” He growled.
“Leave?” she asked. “The camp is protected for a time. The sick will heal. Whatever power I found today may have come at the loss of your father, but it gave me the ability to save the rest.”
“Do not speak of my father.” He panted.
“I see you are grieving. It is best I leave.”
Bronherrn looked over his shoulder, but she had already vanished. For a moment, he stared at the empty space where her voice carried from, but then he remembered the wounded, the dead.
He stalked to his father’s body. His limbs went numb. The cool air did not revive his skin. The grasses beneath his feet did not ground him.
A craving for battle thumped in his breast. The need to finish what his father started ached within him. He slowed his steps and returned to the patch of land that held his father’s cold frame.
Tommerald and some of the other elder warriors stood by watching. Bronherrn paid them no mind. He crouched down and positioned his father’s body. He dragged the massive frame to the banks of the Cassani River. He stopped just before the water to lay his parent along the pebbles on the shore.
He gripped the blood-drenched hole of his father’s tunic where his dagger had torn the fabric. With one forceful motion, he ripped it open and stripped the cloth. Tearing off a small section, he dipped it into the rushing river, and then applied the dripping fragment to the fatal wound.
He focused on cleansing the skin of his dead father and did not stop when Wynell approached him. She bowed her head and stepped lightly. Without a word, she knelt beside him and took up a strip of cloth.
Having her nearby made Bronherrn more aware of everyone else, it pulled him from his pain. He looked up and found Danarrus hobbling toward him. The sight of his friend’s weakened frame made his chest ache. He longed to be happy for the company, but held no capacity for warm feelings.
Danarrus and Wynell said nothing when Tommerald joined them. One by one, every Ultainian warrior came to river, each making room to allow another to touch the droplets on the fallen man. When the ceremony ended, Bronherrn looked before him. He wished he could appreciate being surrounded by his people and their support, but he could find no words.
Standing up, he nodded to them all. Tommerald stood with him and bent down to help lift his father’s body. Together they walked through the field to prepare the funeral fires.
Wynell and Danarrus ran ahead and rekindled the coals that burned out during battle. A spark of flame flashed before him and Bronherrn thought of his mother. What will she think of me?
Tommerald aided him in laying his father out.
The elder warriors set to work, gathering up the rest of the fallen. They prepared the bodies and left Bronherrn to himself. He wished to be of more aid, but could not mourn any other than the man who had raised him. He slumped with grief until the flames were ready. Each body went into the fire, but his father had the honor of being placed atop the mound last.
Bronherrn’s entire body burned hot as the fire lapped around his father’s face. He stared at the heart of the source and dreaded returning home. He fixated on the embers floating into the darkening sky and wished it were him instead.
The ashen smell of flesh disintegrating tormented him. He replayed the moment when he felt the dagger break into his father’s body and shook with anger as the night matured. Bile coated the back of his throat, but Aethelwyn’s light appeared on the other side of the flames.
The glow of her presence dimmed and he studied her face. She stood more real than ever. Tears dripped down her perfect cheeks.
He wished to go to her, but had no strength left.
She lingered just long enough to mouth the words, “I am sorry,” and then vanish.