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A plan devised in Bronherrn’s mind. He went to his mother as she sat sewing by a swelling fire on the hearth. “I visited Raeimo and Cerlias.”
“And how are the old fighters?” She smirked.
“You know how they can be.”
A light laugh passed through her lips while she continued to stitch.
Bronherrn stopped her hands and knelt by her side. “They were somewhat helpful, but we lack leadership. The Zuthans─”
“The Zuthans have never breeched the pass.” She locked eyes with him.
“But they are closer than ever. The Chief’s daughter, Prillani, has more brains than any of their former rulers.”
His mother pursed her lips.
He found himself, unable to challenge her knowing gaze.
“This, Prillani, is a fighter?”
“Then she may be more of an ally than an enemy. Her people are pig-headed and oppressive. She may be what we need.”
“No!” Bronherrn had never raised his voice to his mother so, but the anger of her attempted reasoning made bile boil in his throat. He refused to think of Prillani as anything but the executor of devious actions. Before his mother could reprimand him for his outburst, he softened his voice. “Ineed you. We need you. Your fighting skills are unmatched. Without your teachings, I would have perished by now.”
“Absolutely not.” She closed her eyes and looked down to resume her sewing.
“You have not even considered my plans.” Bronherrn stooped low to study her face.
“I do not intend to. They are your plans. I am not an elder warrior.”
“It is your right.” Bronherrn laid his hand on her arm. “You are more than equipped. You are highly regarded and beyond capable. You were once a warrior. Why can’t you take up your weapons once more? You can─”
“Bronherrn.” She threw down her work and stood with her back to him. She smoothed out her skirt and fixed her hair. “I may be skilled, but I do not wish to spend the rest of my life avenging my husband’s death. It has taken a great deal of strength to wait here when I felt something was amiss. Returning to that life…it, it is not for me. I shall fight under you if I must, but I cannot lead. I cannot allow it to consume me.”
He squeezed her arm. “But you are our true leader. My leader.”
“No.” She turned to him and pressed her hand to his cheek. “I am your mother. I made my decision years ago.”
Bronherrn stared into the depths of her gaze. She held so much knowledge. “Then you must direct me.”
“As always.” She leaned back lightening her features.
“Having your advice somehow does not seem enough.”
“I do not wish to burden myself with leadership.”
“But you are my mother.”
She nodded. “And I shall guide you until my last breath.”
He rose and bowed to her. “You are an elder warrior. Leader or no.”
“You sound like your father.” She patted his head and went back to the hearth to pick up her sewing.
When Bronherrn pieced together his strategy and finally felt ready, he went to the market to speak to his people. A shuffling of feet brushed around him. Chatter filled the air. The dust swirled between vendors and their customers.
He stepped onto a box in the center of the great rectangular space. He tried to imagine his father doing such a thing and chuckled to himself. Bronherrn swallowed hard and sucked in a great breath of air. “I’m here to offer my services in my father’s place.”
The wave of voices died down and Bronherrn found most of his people gawking with hope. The light of it gave him strength.
He held his shoulders steady. “In my absence, most of you have trained. The fighting spirit of we Ultainians has carried us through many battles. The Zuthans took lives that were not theirs to claim, but our own are not forfeit. The pass remains untouched. I need every one of us from twelve full seasons turned and beyond to unite. Any young mothers who can care for a neighbor’s children to let your sisters claim victory will be honored. It is time for us to answer the Zuthan’s actions.”
A stream of murmurs grew into a river of voices trickling around him. He put his hands on his hips and waited. Then, a small boy drew his hands together and clapped. His mother joined in, and soon the entire crowd cheered.
Their enthusiasm revived his spirit. Bronherrn loved his people. He desired to be everything they wished of him. The task dawned impossible, but he scanned each gaunt face hoping to find one manly fighter among them. The fruitless search left him doubtful. Remember the cunning of your mother, he reminded himself.
“Meet me in the field behind my house tomorrow at dawn. I shall train anyone who has a Ultainian heart.”
He stepped off wishing to be alone with his thoughts, but Danarrus’s mother came forward to thank him. “I must apologize for my sorrows when you returned. You mean so much to us all.” She grasped his hand. “Losing my son… my husband… is not truly a loss as long as what they fought for lives on. I just needed some time to see that. Thank you for coming home to help us.”
Wynell’s mother brought her eldest brother forward. “My sister couldn’t stand you, you know.”
His mother gasped and knocked the back of his head.
Bronherrn grinned at the memory of their quarrels. “I felt the same for a time.”
“But she trusted you. She knew you’d be like this someday and wished to be a helpful hand in your battles.” The boy looked to his mom and her eyes shined.
Thinking of their battles, Bronherrn leaned down before Wynnell’s brother. “You’re sister was an annoying stubborn, smelly girl who fit in more with her sheep than with people.” He stopped and bowed to her mom. “But, she saved my life out there. My best friend loved her and they both fought better than I did.”
Bronherrn’s chest grew tight and he moved on. He found himself shuffling through the remnants of his people. He nodded at their comments, accepted their praise, but none of it consoled him. There was no triumph.
He quickened his pace the moment he was free. He jogged home and ignored his brothers as they leapt from the house. “Leave me be.” He pushed them away.
The quiet shaded his burden with temporary relief. He wished to lie on his sleeping furs, to forget. He kicked off his boots, but his mother stepped in.
She gently closed the door behind her. “You did it.”
He groaned. “I have done nothing.”
She went to the jug sitting on the table and poured him a mug of ale. “Drink. This may not be as you had fantasized, but nothing ever is. What you are starting is still something. You cannot fathom where it will lead.”
“I know where it leads.” He growled. “To death. We have no real men left. Those children will die!”
“Everyone dies someday, boy. They wish to meet the call and risk everything to protect our people.”
“They do not know.”
“And what of me?” She stomped. “I have felt the weight you carry. I know your burden, my son.” She reached out, gripped the carved mark on his arm, and rolled up her sleeve to show him hers.
Bronherrn stared at the braids interwoven on his mother’s flesh. She had never revealed it. He realized why she had kept it hidden─finally understood her struggle. “Please, mother. I cannot do this. You are our true leader.”
“No.” She shook her head. “It was always meant for you. Now rest. There is much to come.”