The War of Blood and Iron – Chapter 26

Dronkhar carried Nolaara down the stairs as quickly as he dared. With Koltorn dead, the next task pressing on his mind was seeing if any of his other companions still lived. As they descended, he saw the Cealians rushing up to meet them and released a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. They were fewer in number than before, and his stomach tightened when he didn’t see Sendax or Jhellen. Entering the grand chamber below, he spotted them limping across the first floor toward him. The younger soldier leaned heavily against Sendax’s uninjured side.

“Tell me you cut that piece of slag to bits,” Dronkhar rumbled, desperately grappling for anything to keep his worries at bay.

Sendax scowled blackly. “We didn’t get the chance. It teleported away, muttering something about a new task at hand.” His eyes widened a little when he saw the burden that Dronkhar carried. Their gazes locked, and without needing a word of explanation he ordered the knights to head back through the Citadel to find a place for Nolaara to rest. “Let’s get the rest of our men and leave this forsaken place behind us.”

Dronkhar felt a light squeeze at his elbow just before Ilinnia went to help Sendax support Jhellen. Dronkhar was left to bring up the rear this time. He looked down at Nolaara, limp in his arms, and his eyes threatened to flood. “Don’t you worry, love,” he whispered to her gruffly. “You’re going to be just fine. I’ll see to that.”

***


The group located what appeared to be an infirmary of sorts, and Sendax dispatched several soldiers to retrieve the enchanters and their guard. While they waited, they took advantage of their first real rest since entering the wastelands. They attended to wounds, took stock of their weapons, or just paused for a brief rest. Jhellen, though he didn’t appear injured, found a softer pack to lean against and was instantly asleep. Sendax stood over him, watching his young lieutenant’s face with a troubled thoughtfulness. “That Dar’Gol had us on the ropes. It would have killed us all… if not for him. He kept its attention and withstood its assault.”

Dronkhar had nothing to say that would help Sendax find answers. One of the soldiers had given him a blanket to help cover Nolaara, and he kept her cradled in his lap, unwilling to let go of her for even a moment. He watched anxiously for the arrival of the enchanters.

Ilinnia seemed unable to rest. She bustled around their makeshift camp tying bandages or offering water or gentle words and steadfastly ignored the scorch marks on her left hand. Dronkhar spotted the tightness around her eyes and the way her lips occasionally trembled. She was nearing the end of her strength and trying to hold herself together until it was safe to release the emotions tumbling about inside her.

After what seemed an eternity of waiting, the rest of their company arrived. Dronkhar was a little surprised to see Splug among them, until he remembered Ilinnia’s promised reward.

Splug marched up to Dronkhar. “Is it true?” he demanded. “Is his grand high pestilence-ness dead?”

Dronkhar jerked his head back toward the direction of the throne room. “Go on up and see for yourself,” he answered in a dead tone. “You’ll find what’s left of him in a pile up there.”

Splug’s fists trembled at his sides, and a grim smile lit his face. “No need. Let him rot up there until the world breaks.” His gaze flickered once over Nolaara’s unconscious body, but he wisely held his tongue. Instead he looked around the camp and attempted a crude bow. “You people are all right in my book. Now go home! You’ve done your good deed for the decade.” He clapped his hands together and rubbed them gleefully. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some acquisition to do!”

“Splug, wait!”

He halted halfway down the hall as Ilinnia dashed to catch him. “In the dungeons below, the slaves are freeing themselves. They’ll need someone to lead them to safety through the wastelands.”

The pleading in Ilinnia’s eyes was as clear as a bell. Something unreadable flickered in Splug’s face. He made a thoughtful sound in his throat. “I, uh… suppose I could use some laborers to carry all that loot.” He gave her a cheeky grin as he turned away. “Pleasure doing business with ya, sapphire!” he called as he ran back down the passage.

Sendax had taken Eolar aside, and they spoke quietly but with animation. Melekar checked on Jhellen, who roused from his nap to give the old man a bleary-eyed grin. Ilinnia joined them, and Melekar’s eyes widened when he saw her hand, but she kept his concern at bay with vague platitudes. Dronkhar watched it all happen around him like he was in the audience at a play, unable or unwilling to connect himself to anything. It was almost like being trapped in the steel again, his thoughts and feelings swirling inside but unable to breach the surface. His grip on Nolaara kept him anchored in place.

“We passed it on the way here,” Eolar suddenly said, and he and Sendax headed down the same hallway where Splug had left.

Melekar approached and knelt at Dronkhar’s side, placing his aged hand on Nolaara’s forehead. He muttered several strange sounding words under his breath, and Nolaara began to shimmer with a faint white glow. It faded almost as quickly as it appeared, and Melekar turned to Ilinnia. “Whatever her affliction, it is not of the ether.”

Ilinnia nodded and turned a concerned frown on the unconscious sohntar. “Ceanur’s power is holding back whatever attacks her, but I’m afraid without Sorasil or one of the other priests, I can’t identify it to try and treat her.”

Eolar and Sendax returned to the chamber, and the enchanter could barely conceal a look of satisfaction on his face. Sendax barked out, “On your feet, men. We’re returning to Delnoth at once!”

“What about all that interference?” Dronkhar asked, already rising.

“It seems the spirit-binders are no longer a problem,” the young enchanter replied in a grim tone. “They will not threaten anyone ever again.”

It didn’t take long to assemble the group, with Melekar standing at the center. He spoke a word, and Dronkhar held Nolaara tight to his chest as the world bent and stretched. The gloom of the wasteland city vanished, replaced with clear evening air, the flicker of bright torches, and the sight of Ceanur’s temple. Dronkhar let loose a relieved sigh at the sense of clean stone once again.

Human and queferi priests were already approaching them, leading those who could walk toward the entrance, while stretchers were brought for those who could not. Someone tried to take Nolaara from Dronkhar’s arms, but he pulled back. “I will carry her. Now lead on, if you know what’s good for you.”