The War of Blood and Iron – Chapter 28

Dronkhar sat in a corner of the carriage and glowered at the green fields rolling by. He had not been in the best of moods when they began their journey, but two days in a cramped, overly brocaded carriage interior grated on his nerves. A human diplomatic mission would not normally include a sohntar, a queferi and a pair of enchanters, so they’d been forced to stay within the carriage at all times. Dronkhar’s frown deepened.

The first day Ilinnia had tried to engage him in conversation to “keep his spirits up”, but his responses had grown sharp enough that she decided to spend her time speaking to the enchanters instead. The only one who would tolerate Dronkhar’s temper now was Jhellen. Despite being allowed to join the mission, he bristled in the puffed-up livery of an embassy attaché. The two found camaraderie in taking offense at everything, from the tone of someone’s voice to the color of the sky.

Nursing the anger also helped stem the worry that gnawed at Dronkhar. Having Nolaara back in her current state had left him worse than before. The memory of her chained to Koltorn’s pillar haunted his dreams, so he slept as little as possible, instead devising deeper torments to inflict on the person responsible for her condition.

“We’ll be passing into Piraeus today,” Melekar said, “if the border guards permit us entry.”

“They will,” Dronkhar growled, still staring out the carriage window. “Whole or in pieces.”

“I wish you wouldn’t do that,” Ilinnia said reproachfully.

“Do what?”

“Hold that… horrid thing when you talk like that. Do you actually intend to use it?”

Dronkhar looked down and saw that his fingers had closed around Life-Taker’s grip without his notice. With a snort, he let go and ignored Ilinnia’s question.

Melekar leaned out the window. “I see the border gate up ahead. Time to get into costume, I suppose.” He stood up and moved carefully toward the front of the carriage where a curtain created a private area.

“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?” Dronkhar accused.

Melekar scowled at him. “His majesty commanded that I play this part, so I obey. Do not bait me with your foul temper, sohntar. My own is more than a match.”

Dronkhar snarled and half rose from his seat, but Ilinnia was faster. She stepped in his way and held her ground. “Enough,” she hissed at him.

For one terrible moment, Dronkhar wanted to hit her. The temptation was so strong that his hand curled into a fist, but he forced himself to sit back down, and a wave of nausea flowed over him. Melekar frowned and stepped behind the curtain.

Ilinnia sat down beside Dronkhar. Wordlessly she put an arm around his shoulder, and the black fire dwindled to an ember. He took solace in the quiet within, realizing that this was the first peaceful silence he’d felt since this journey began.

The carriage pulled to a slow halt. Melekar emerged, his plain robes replaced with a tunic and breeches of blue velvet. He cleared his throat and squared his shoulders. “Now to pass myself off as a diplomat.”

“Avoid using words like simpleton and fool,” Eolar suggested innocently. “Imbecile probably won’t help either.”

Melekar narrowed his eyes as he departed the carriage.

“Adarion should’ve had you play ambassador,” Dronkhar remarked to Eolar, watching a couple of soldiers follow in Melekar’s wake. “You’re far more agreeable.”

“I’m also too young for the post. Have faith, Dronkhar. Melekar knows what he is doing.”

Dronkhar grunted in reply.

Shortly afterwards, Melekar returned to the carriage with a bemused expression. “Eolar, come with me. You two, stay out of sight.”

“What’s the matter?” Ilinnia asked.

“The border gate is empty.”

The two enchanters were gone for several minutes, and Dronkhar fought the urge to charge out after them. Ilinnia kept her arm around his shoulder, but he suspected this time it was for her own comfort.

Melekar and Eolar returned and climbed back into the carriage, sharing looks of misgiving as the company started forward again. “Well?” Dronkhar demanded.

“The gate was indeed empty,” Eolar said, as though he still couldn’t bring himself to believe it, “and looked as if it had been for some time.”

***


They entered the country of Piraeus and rolled toward Lathos at a faster clip. Dronkhar continued to stare out the window, though with a more observant eye. Villages dotted the landscape, but small ones that looked like they’d been abandoned weeks prior. Unkempt fields of corn and barley stretched back from the road, and then abruptly ended. No livestock grazed on the hillsides, and the air had gone eerily silent.

“The birds,” Ilinnia murmured. “I don’t hear any birds.”

Days stretched on, and they passed larger farmsteads and villages. Nothing stirred as far as the eye could see, and the sounds of their horses’ hooves on the rough road began to seem unnaturally loud.

Jhellen steered his horse closer to the carriage, his gaze fixed on the field they’d just passed.

“Could you hear anything, lad?” Dronkhar asked in almost a whisper.

“No. Even the insects have grown silent.”

Sendax called a halt near the largest village they had yet seen. He gave strict orders to the carriage occupants to stay inside, then took half his guards with him to search the area. Overhead the clouds had thickened, and all the world seemed gray and lifeless.

“Empty,” Sendax reported when he returned. “Completely. No man or beast of any kind to be found anywhere.”

“Could it have been a plague?” Ilinnia asked fearfully.

“We would have seen bodies if that was the case,” he replied, “or graves at the least. No, it is simply… empty.”

“We shouldn’t linger,” Melekar said. “Let’s continue on and find a place to camp once evening falls.”

***


Evening descended as the clouds overhead grew thick and murky. The world bled from gray to a smoky black, and the company turned off the road near yet another abandoned field. There seemed little point in keeping up pretenses, so Dronkhar and Ilinnia left the carriage for the first time in nearly two weeks.

A large tree stood near the road, its limbs as bare of leaves as if it were the dead of winter. Ilinnia walked up to it and pressed her hand against the bark. “It’s dead.”

“So is the grass,” Dronkhar said, sweeping his arm to encompass the whole field. “Everything here feels dead.”

With a frown, Ilinnia knelt and held both hands against the gray ground. “Something’s… wrong.”

Everything’s wrong here!”

“No… there’s…”

Dronkhar knew that tone. She was getting one of her strange feelings, which usually heralded a unique kind of trouble. He loosened his axes and waited for her to finish.

She rose quickly. “Dar’Gol are coming this way.”

“Good. I needed a warm-up.”

The soldiers quickly exchanged their garb for their armaments and formed a battle line in the direction Ilinnia indicated. Within a minute, three Dar’Gol crashed through the brittle field to the north. Though similar to most of the other Dar’Gol they’d seen, their metal skin was black and their movements more agile.

With a shout, Dronkhar charged in, his foul temper reveling in thoughts of battle. His imbued axes glittered like crescent moons in the gray evening, and he quickly drove one apart from its fellows. “Time to die,” he snarled.

The Dar’Gol hopped away from his first strikes and gave a pair of feints before launching a leaping attack. Dronkhar rolled to the side and chopped viciously at the creature’s ankle, savoring the sudden spurt of ichor and the way his enemy stumbled afterwards. With a guttural roar, Dronkhar hurled himself into the Dar’Gol’s side. He used the burning pain from its touch to fuel his rage further.

Pinning it to the ground with his knees, he hacked wildly at its arms and face. His vision faded into blackness tinged with red spots, until only the sound of tearing metal and flesh filled him. His axes finally struck something strange, and Dronkhar shook his head clear to see that he’d severed its arms and buried his axes in the ground formerly occupied by the Dar’Gol’s face.

As the rage finally bled out, Dronkhar looked about to see that the other two Dar’Gol were also dead, and everyone else was staring at him in horror.