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Bronherrn reached the familiar banks of the Cassani River. He ripped off the tattered cloth barely covering his legs and dove into the rippling depths. The cleansing waters embraced him. He sank down under the current for a few moments allowing everything that happened to sink with him.
When he broke the surface again, he laughed. He had reached the border of his homeland, and he grinned at the towering mountains that protected his people, his family. He hated to swim back to Zuthan land, but made his way over to grab his cloth and scrub the blood-encrusted fibers. When the garment suited his tastes, he carried it back into the river and swam across.
Bronherrn crawled out of the water to touch the land he knew so well. Unable to contain his joy, he bent down and kissed the rocky grains beneath him. An overwhelming sense of peace caused him to roll over as the sun bore down on his skin. He lay there reveling in his escape and thought of Prillani. Her persistence reminded him of his mother. Although she came from a disgraceful breed of people, he knew Prillani was better than the Zuthans.
He sat up and splashed some water on his newly soiled body. Unable to rest, he laid his clothes to dry and stood. Taking in the rejuvenated field that had been streaked with blood when he had last seen it, he sighed. The grass was no longer a stage for war, but a green picture of life, the same as it had been when his father had first taken him there to train. He found it curious. What happened here? Where are the other warriors? he asked himself.
An eerie sense of reality haunted him. No Ultainian would have left without victory. His questions ate at him, but his stomach rumbled when he spotted the remaining goats from Wynell’s herd wandering near the foot of the mountains. It offered a welcome distraction. They spread out, eating as naturally as if they had always been there.
Bronherrn got to his feet and scanned the grass, searching for any remaining weapons. He kicked aside a broken staff covered in wildflowers. His patience waned. The goats’ cries taunted him, but he stepped on a dagger and quickly took it in hand.
He wandered about the broad area and found a flint stone. He bent down and collected grasses, sticks-anything that would burn. The fires that blazed before his capture had grown over, but some of the scorch marks remained. He placed his items over the central most spot, and crept toward the herd to stalk one of the goats.
Despite the abuse his body had suffered, he found that his feet were still quick. He cornered one of the animals against a boulder. Taking up the dagger, he scowled in frustration. The pressure in his missing fingertip reminded him of what he had lost. His anger mounted and he used the ire to slit the goat’s neck with some difficulty.
He crouched over the body and thanked the animal. He understood what it meant to be stalked, tortured. He took no pleasure in skinning the goat. Survival was all he cared about.
Settling in, he kindled a fire, and roasted the animal. He waited as long as he could before tearing into the steaming flesh. Unable to control his ravenous appetite, he cleaned each bone and sucked the marrow. He licked his fingers and sighed content for the moment.
He longed to enter the pass and return home, but refused to allude to such dangerous thoughts. If any Zuthans lingered nearby, he would betray everything he had suffered to protect. He knew he needed rest, and did not fear the open field. He lay back and let his heavy eyelids close.
When Bronherrn opened his eyes to a new day, he slaughtered another goat and enjoyed its meat with less ceremony. He smoked some pieces to carry for travel. Where he would go remained unclear. His mind stuck to keeping the Zuthans off his trail.
He went to retrieve his cloth and tied it around his waist. Ready to regain his strength, he lunged into a deep stance. He half smiled wondering if Aethelwyn would appear as she had in times past. Holding a solid stance, he tried to relax and focus his mind. It had never failed him before.
He set his gaze ahead as if to call the priestess from The Otherworld. He refused to break his efforts and concentrated for as long as he could. His thighs burned, and his body shook. A fear that she may have fallen into trouble discouraged him. She is not coming.
“Bronherrn?” Her image materialized from a beam of sunlight.
He staggered toward her.
“You’ve returned.” She gazed upon him with tears rising.
He reached for Aethelwyn and found himself relieved when she touched his hands, his arms, his face. Nothing could have prevented him from pulling her closer. With a swift motion, he forgot everything and kissed her.
She pulled away and gently smoothed her fingers over the scars on his face. She ran her hands over his mangled ears and looked to the missing fingertips on his hands. “What have they done to you?”
“You could not reach me?”
She leaned into him. “Of course not. Do you think I have not tried?”
“I thought you were through with me after the way I treated you.”
Her powerful gaze penetrated his as he held her in his arms. They stood in a comfortable embraced, allowing the sweeping breeze to battle the heat. “What do you know of your absence?” she asked.
“I came back and here I am. Everybody is gone.”
She bowed her head. The dark ringlets of her hair fell over her face. “You do not know then?”
“Know what?” Bronherrn pulled her chin up to look upon her amethyst eyes.
She shook her head. “I tried to find you, but the Zuthans must have hid you deep underground. Only an ancient spell could have sealed that space from me. I had hoped that their work would be undone when I banished the dark priests.”
“You did what?” He smiled on her with pride.
She leaned against him, and he rested his forehead on hers. “I stopped them. Me. All by myself. Only…” She closed her eyes and shivered mournfully.
He shook her with a playful gesture. “Tell me, you otherworldly being. Now that I am back, nothing could cause me sorrow.”
“Do not say that.” She moaned with agony.
He searched her face. The mournful look in her eyes reminded him of his father’s death. He blinked hard.
“Bronherrn, when you were taken, the Zuthan priests conjured a dark spell that took the life from every Ultainian on the field.”
The words did not seem real to the young warrior. He let her go and stood to eye the former battlefield.
“I did everything I could.” She sobbed.
“Everyone?” He lost himself remembering his comrades. Wynell, Danarrus, Tommerald, the elder warriors. All the men and women he had fought with. Fought for. He dropped to his knees and there beneath them was a blade, a sword leftover and concealed by the meadow flowers, as if waiting for him. He picked it up and stared into his warped reflection. The weight of the weapon shook awkwardly under his missing fingertips, but he stood and started to swing.
Aethelwyn went to him. “It was after the loss that I found the ability to protect the pass and banish the Zuthan priests from our existence.”
Bronherrn paused sword in hand.
“You must know that I would have saved them if I could.”
He swallowed hard.
“Please say something.”
“You did your part, now I must do mine.” He would not repeat the same mistake again. He refused to blame her. She had kept the pass protected.
He turned to the Zuthan lands. With a quick look over his shoulder, he caught her bowing to him before she disappeared. Glad that she was now safe with her kind, he squinted across the river. “Come out, I know you are there!”
Prillani showed herself along with a troop of Zuthan soldiers.
“You need not follow me any further. I will not return home to ruin my people.”
The warriors before him looked to Prillani.
He knew her underneath her masculine armor. “Nothing to say? No fiery replies, whore?”
The Zuthan warriors stared at their chief’s right hand man with confusion.
“You, who helped to slaughter my people with forbidden darkness?” His words finally agitated her.
“I did not know,” she shouted running up to the water’s edge without disguising her voice. “I did not know!”
The river moved between them whispering its secrets.
“Strike me now or leave me be, wench!” Bronherrn turned to address the Zuthan men before him. “Lost are we? You see the man you follow today is your own chief’s daughter. A cowardly girl who fights as a man, but often switches sides.”
She pulled off her bronze mask and glared. “I am no wench.” Looking to her soldiers she commanded them, “Don’t act so surprised. I have bested all of you and will not hesitate to display my force if the time calls.” She then ordered them forward.
They worked to cross the river, but Bronherrn moved fast. He followed the water further and further as the party ran after him. He let the bank take him beyond the land he knew. He came to a forest and hid himself out of sight.
When the first Zuthan entered the space, he leapt upon him. He split the enemy open before a sound could be made. Bronherrn grabbed the man’s dagger and short sword.
He continued deeper into the woodland and met another of Prillani’s trackers. The man spotted him first, and Bronherrn barely rolled under the stroke before finishing the Zuthan. It had been so long since he worked his steel that he knew each man would have to be finished quickly, least his strength should fail him. He pushed on hoping to outrun them.
As he hurried away, he heard a strange growl and looked up to see a mountain lion before him. He stopped and stared up the incline. Cocking his head, he held steady. With a simple nod, he squinted at the creature. “Xanthu?”
She leapt forward and mauled a Zuthan behind Bronherrn’s back. She jogged over to him and rubbed against his legs, knocking him to the soft mossy floor.
He laughed as she licked his chin with her rough tongue.
“Perfect,” a gruff voice cackled.
Bronherrn leapt to his feet at the sight of the Zuthan, sword ready. But Xanthu pounced on the man and tore open his jugular before they met to fight. Even after the blood he had shed, he averted his eyes.
She let go and he gestured onward. “I must keep moving. More time for catching up later.”
She walked alongside him for hours until the forest thinned. They stopped. A small village came into sight. He scratched her behind the ears. “What do you think?”
Xanthu pressed her bulky forehead to his hand and then dashed off.
“Bye old friend. See you again.” He watched her disappear.