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Aethelwyn disappeared once again. Bronherrn swallowed the shock of abandonment. He set to moving his family up the pass and back to his mother.
They had no food or water, but the trio of his warriors offered promise. Prillani’s sisters were not trained as she had been, and having given birth weakened her. Bronherrn pulled his wife and baby up through the steep incline while the others walked ahead.
Taking up the rear unsettled him. He could not fathom why his mother always chose to march in back of the line as opposed to the front when everything began. The pace drained his muscles, taxed his mind. He refused to voice his misgivings, but the obstacles in their way led him to believe that they would very likely die before they reached his homeland.
“Halt,” he shouted ahead. He sat down to rest for a moment and looked to the threatening cliffs.
“Allow me pull the Chieftess for a while.” Maurack stepped between Prillani’s sisters.
Before Bronherrn could argue, Prillani stopped him with a wave of her hand. “I am no Chieftess. I am but a simple mother who wishes to rest with her son.” She kissed Brackliem’s head.
“I would be honored to aid any mother.” Maurack leaned over her.
Bronherrn shook his head. “This is all my doing. I must tend my wife.”
Prillani grimaced and Galandra said, “You have always been very good to us.”
Unable to offer any words of encouragement, Bronherrn stared beyond. The new settlement had been a place of peace for many seasons. He hated to think it led to hostility once more.
Even when he battled against the Zuthans in the war, when he held his father’s corpse in his arms, he felt a driving force aiding his actions. There had been plans to carry out. Here, the options were few.
Prillani needed food. Her body would not stand hunger long with the baby suckling, nor could he drink much if she continued to go without. Her sisters were poor travelers, ready to collapse at any moment. The rocky path began to tear into Bronherrn who had not dressed for the cold peaks. Even Maurack and the other warriors were barely equipped.
Onfala shrieked with excitement. She pointed, gaping.
Bronherrn looked to find a cougar moving toward them carrying something on its back. The familiar gait of the golden beast nearly caused him to fall over. The relief was too intense.
“Xanthu,” he called to her as she made her way. He patted her head and unbuckled the harnessed of food and cloth, taking up a jug of water and handing it to Prillani first.
She eyed the animal with caution as she drank. Handing the jug back to him, she carefully stood pressing the baby against her. “What is that beast?”
“Aethelwyn’s friend.” Bronherrn spoke between short gulps and passed the jug on.
Prillani approached Xanthu and held out her hand. Xanthu let out a soft murmur of welcome and pressed her forehead against Prillani’s skin.
Onfala followed her, mimicking Prillani’s movements and received the same kindness from Xanthu. Galandra and Bernisha joined in. Jarvlin held steady and Xanthu padded her way to him next, rubbing the shine of her fur against his sun browned skin. He bent before her as if the touch alone awakened a new world.
“This is the priestess’s great cat?” He scratched her behind the ears and she purred a loud rumble.
Bronherrn breathed in the fresh breeze of cool mountain air. “Well, she’s definitely not a bird of paradise, is she?”
Collective laughter rose up reminding him of better times. It lent Bronherrn strength, softened his thoughts. Have I grown too stern in my time with the Zuthans?
He replayed everything that had happened over the past couple of days in his head. He feared that it all could have been prevented if he had done something differently.
“We must camp here tonight.” Prillani stared at Bronherrn with a finality that offered some comfort. No matter how he doubted himself, she always knew what to do.
He scanned the area for kindling. Herrom and Jarvlin did not wait for Bronherrn to say or do anything. They followed him and gathering what little brush they could find growing in the cracks of mountain rock.
They lit a fire against the cool air. The night sky offered starry lanterns. It allowed the fire its breath.
Bronherrn smoked some meat to perfection. He sat before everyone and broke up a loaf of bread. Passing out the provisions, he tore into a juicy morsel and sucked the juices down.
Maurack eyed Bronherrn over the fire. “Do you believe we can ever return?”
Bronherrn huffed at the question. The forward delivery reminded him of Wynell and her prying ways. He missed her annoyances and sent her brother a kind smile. “Of course. It is our land.”
“Do you believe that wise?” Jarvlin leaned back on his elbow and gazed up at the darkening sky before glancing back at Bronherrn’s face.
Onfala whimpered and laid her head in Bronherrn’s lap. He pushed his shoulders back. “We shall protect what is ours.”
“But there will be resistance,” Prillani said.
“Argh!” Bronherrn pushed Onfala up raising himself off the ground. Onfala stared at him with large eyes as dark as the night sky. The fear that rested there pinched at Bronherrn’s heart. He felt trapped.
There had to be a way to resolve this peacefully, but how? He asked himself.
He looked down on the camp. “We should get some rest. This cannot be solved in one night.” Bronherrn lay down beside his wife, tickling his son’s sides before he drifted off to sleep. He did not believe that he would be able to rest with everything that had passed, but he prepared to meet another day with renewed strength and found the dream world quickly.
Images of Saenreth plunged Aethelwyn’s head underwater in his nightmares. The shouts of the Zuthan farmers repeated again and again until Bronherrn jolted awake working to steady his breathing. Prillani rested beside him nursing their son.
Bronherrn reached over and grasped the boy’s shoulder and she brushed her fingers over his hand. “We will make it back.”
Back where? He thought. To my village, or to her lands?
The question drained him before he even began to exert himself. He grabbed what little breakfast he needed and helped everyone ready themselves before he pushed them onward, pulling Prillani behind him on the sled once again. Maurack continued to look over his shoulder as if he would take up Bronherrn’s burden, but he seemed to know better.
Bronherrn could not allow anyone else to carry his load. He strained his shoulders until his neck popped. His elbows swelled under the tension, but he kept stomping forward.
A single grunt escaped his lips and Xanthu leapt before him on the dangerous ledge that allowed no room for argument. “It is time to head on.” He put one foot forward and Xanthu snarled at him batting at the rope over his shoulder.
“You have already done enough for us. Move on.”
She growled with a fierce tone that would have alarmed anyone.
“If I must.” He removed the rope from his body and tied it to Xanthu’s chest like a harness. She licked his hand with the rough surface of her oversized tongue and trilled a purr of content.
Bronherrn looked back. Prillani stared at him with a soft smirk. He believed he could even see a puzzled expression on his newborn son’s face. “What of it?” He stepped back from Xanthu and walked between the ropes to retain some control.
Prillani stifled a laugh but Jarvlin and Herrom bellowed.
Bronherrn chuckled to himself. The good humor offered some relief. With less to worry about Bronherrn grew lighthearted and began to converse with ease. It made the trip seem less lengthy and they reached his mother’s doorstep in a shorter time than he had expected.
When she opened the door to find them before her, she flung it open and ushered everyone in. “What has happened?” The concern seeped from her wide eyes. “Is that?” She stared at the baby.
“Your grandson,” Prillani held Brackliem out and Bronherrn watched his mother with a bittersweet joy.
His mother turned to Bronherrn as she hugged the boy to her.
He had not realized how deep the strain of the trip had taxed him. He sank down and rubbed his back. His mother looked from him to Prillani’s sisters and offered everyone food and drink. The meager one-room house filled with the chatter of women’s voices and Bronherrn heard a summons from outside.
He glanced over to see Druthleer lingering by the doorway. He motioned for him to come with. Bronherrn grabbed a leg of meat and his mug, slipping out unnoticed.
“You might have thought of us.” Druthleer slapped him on the back eyeing his drink as Bronherrn tore into the juicy flesh.
Bronherrn clenched his jaw at the pain and took another long swig before he offered his brother the mug. “This is not a celebratory visit.”
“Clearly. You have the look of battle on you,” Grimhelden said from the shade of the house as he leaned against it.
“Good of you to notice.” Bronherrn bit off another hunk of flesh. “Prillani nearly died in childbirth. I had to call upon Aethelwyn.”
“Did she try to kill you?” Druthleer asked with a chuckle.
“No.” Bronherrn furrowed his brow. He gave them what little details they needed to know and waited.
Both Grimhelden and Druthleer stared at him with astonishment. Druthleer spoke first, “Are you sure that Aethelwyn is all right?”
“I do not know. Do you think I should be concerned for her?” Bronherrn scratched at his growing beard.
Grimhelden cocked his head and met Bronherrn’s eyes with a rebellious look. “You know best of all of us. You still love her.”
Bronherrn drew back. “I love my wife.”
“No one ever said otherwise.” Druthleer shrugged.