The War of Blood and Iron – Chapter 10

Human priests and healers quickly spread over the quiet battlefield, but Dronkhar reached Ilinnia before they were even close. Her breathing was steady, but she had fallen unconscious. Dronkhar was surprised when two robed figures approached and drew back their hoods to reveal that they were queferi. They had been instructed by the king to tend to their mysterious savior. Dronkhar picked Ilinnia up and followed them to a sizeable temple that anchored one of the outer castle walls, where the wounded, soldier and civilian alike, were being tended. Dronkhar turned aside several offers of aid and set Ilinnia down on a clean cot, directing their efforts toward her.

Whatever she had done to bless their weapons had completely exhausted her. Dronkhar watched as a fresh dressing was applied to her injured leg and soft prayers were whispered over her. A surge of energy filled the room and her face relaxed, though it remained pale in the candlelight. When the priests were done, Dronkhar smoothed her hair back and prepared to wait in vigil, but an insistent healer finally convinced him to have his own wounds tended.

As he was being bandaged and blessed, his gaze caught Jhellen. The young soldier had his arm in a sling, and he tried to gesture Dronkhar over with it, eliciting a grimace of pain. Dronkhar slipped through the mass of moving bodies and sat down on the cot across from him. “I heard the priests muttering about having to cut the shield from your arm.”

Jhellen nodded. “My father had it fashioned for me the day I enlisted. He said that one day it would save my life.”

“Well, he was close. It saved mine. That Dar’Gol’s fist would likely have done my skull in like your shield.” Dronkhar gave him a respectful nod. “I’m in debt, to you and your father.”

“He would have appreciated that. Besides, I still owed you for my rescue at the quarry.”

“It looks like we’re both squared with the fates then.”

Jhellen laughed at that. “Well, fates or no, I’d be honored to stand guard for you again.” He extended his good hand to Dronkhar. “Friends?”

Dronkhar accepted the offered hand with a hearty shake. “I’ve done far worse.”

There was a quiet yet sudden commotion near the entrance of the temple. The man with the emerald circlet was moving among the wounded, sharing whispered words with the senior healers and laying a hand on the foreheads of the seriously injured. Any soldier able-bodied enough to bow did so as soon as they saw him. Jhellen nearly fell off the cot in his haste to sink to one knee. Dronkhar watched the proceedings with an expression of purposeful indifference.

Their eyes met, and the man smiled. He quickly closed the distance between them, and Dronkhar stood to meet him.

“So you are the sohntar warrior I have heard so much of.” Dronkhar immediately thought that if a mountain could speak, its voice would sound much like this. “Captain Sendax has already briefed me on what transpired during his patrol.”

“Nice of him to mention me. I’d wager you’re the king he’s been fussing over tonight.”

From his place near the floor, Jhellen made a very odd sound, somewhere between a gasp and a croak. The king, however, loosed a chuckle like a falling avalanche. “I always enjoy speaking to your kind. There’s not an ounce of pretense to be found in any of you.” He fixed Dronkhar with an appraising gaze. “Yes, warrior, I am Adarion, descendant of Inuriel, servant of Ceanur.”

The sohntar ritual greeting caught Dronkhar by surprise, and he quickly altered his assessment of Adarion. “I am Dronkhar, descendant of Rolkanon, servant of the mother’s fire.”

“A good lineage. Earth’s mercy upon the remnant of your clan.”

A surge of buried emotion bubbled toward the surface, but Dronkhar suppressed it with practiced ease. “You seem quite calm for someone who was just battling the Dar’Gol in his own home.”

“The attack was thwarted, and the city is safe. I see no reason at present to be agitated. Indeed, thanks to you and your queferi companion, we gained an advantage against one of Cealia’s deadliest enemies.” The smile on Adarion’s face lapsed. “I heard that she performed powerful magic at great cost to herself.”

Dronkhar tried to wave off Adarion’s concern, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to meet the king’s gaze. “They say she’s just exhausted. A few days of bed rest and she’ll talk your ear off about spirits and oak things and teas made with flowers.” Dronkhar racked his brain for a change of subject and he noticed Jhellen still on his knee, staring pointedly at the floor. “Ilinnia wasn’t the only one to show a spot of valor.” He nudged Jhellen with his boot.

Adarion’s gaze turned to follow. “You may rise.”

The soldier’s face bleached of color as he stood, then just as quickly turned a shade of crimson when Adarion’s hand settled on his shoulder. “I need no introduction to know Cerryl’s son. Your face reflects the strength of your father.”

“Your majesty is too kind,” Jhellen managed to whisper.

“It is a fortunate thing when the truth is kind. Your father was one of my best officers, and it was a great loss to our kingdom when the Dar’Gol ambushed his patrol.”

Jhellen opened his mouth, but whatever words he intended to say were too strangled to be audible.

“How long have you been fighting against these things?” Dronkhar asked with a penetrating gaze.

All traces of levity left the king’s face, and his grey-blue eyes turned frosty. “They’ve been skirmishing at our borders and testing our defenses for almost three months now. Until today, we’d not managed to win a single engagement with them.”

“How did they go from testing your defenses to assaulting your capitol? Does a greater force lie in wait outside your walls?”

“They never touched the walls. My scouts have already confirmed that every watchtower is secure—every guard accounted for.”

“How did they get in then?” Dronkhar asked.

“They charged into the council chamber at the conclusion of the grand assembly. The leaders of every village, township and city from the sea to the wastes was there. We had no warning. Thankfully, the creatures seemed fixated on me, and I was able to draw them out of the keep. They killed four council members and dozens of my personal guard in pursuit before you and Captain Sendax’s forces came to our aid.”

Dronkhar drew one of his axes and frowned at a nick on the blade. “That doesn’t fit with what I’ve experienced of them. I’ve not seen them display anything approaching stealth before.”

Jhellen turned to Dronkhar and found his voice. “What about the spiritbinders the Dar’Gol are allied with? Could they have transported those monsters here?”

Dronkhar shook his head. “Baelrock magic doesn’t work that way. Their power lies in the corruption of the elements.”

“Our enchanters have that power,” Adarion said, “but I have already spoken with them. They are at a loss. The keep is layered with wards, and they are all intact.”

“In other words,” Dronkhar said slowly, “we’ve no clue how they got here, and they could return at any time.”

A door to an antechamber burst open. A young woman in an amethyst gown dashed into the room and gave a low cry when she caught sight of Adarion. A tall boy approached at her side, a worried look plain on his face.

The hardness melted from the king’s eyes. “Alyan, Nathias, you are safe.”

“Father,” the lady sobbed. The boy said nothing, but profound relief flooded across his features. Both of them broke into a run toward the king.

Adarion caught them up in a strong embrace, murmuring gentle reassurances as they buried their faces against his hauberk. His voice was soft, but Dronkhar could see his expression was tight with worry. Feeling a little awkward, Dronkhar cleared his throat. “We can continue this discussion later, Adarion.”

The king nodded, and gave him a grateful smile.

“C’mon, Jhellen.” He started to walk away but realized the young soldier wasn’t with him. He turned to find Jhellen staring at the crying princess. Dronkhar aimed a short kick at his shin to catch his attention, then gestured towards the front of the temple. Blushing, Jhellen followed.

“This isn’t good,” Dronkhar muttered when they were outside under the night sky. “We were lucky to have Ilinnia before, but if those infernal creatures return—”

“Agreed. Something about these, these…” Jhellen trailed off before giving Dronkhar a conspiratorial glare, “sneaky Dar’Gol doesn’t sit right with me. We have to find out how they got in.”

Dronkhar nodded. “Then we’d best get to it before they drop in again for a visit.”