I woke several times through the night, finding myself holding my breath, sweating profusely in the sheets of my borrowed bed. Silah lay next to me, running her fingers along my forehead and pressing her hand to the side of my face.
Each bleary time I fluttered to the surface, I could hear Silah's voice shimmer quietly in the distance.
"You are dreaming, my beast. It is only a dream."
I saw a great maul come crashing down on me, threatening to crush every bone and Duncan's voice calling for retreat.
Duncan had never called for retreat. I thought feverishly.
"Never." I could hear the words escape my lips.
I woke wide eyed, feeling parched and coughing from my closed throat. My head ached and blood churned thickly through my veins. Silah was bedside holding a cup and a pitcher of water.
"I thought you would need this when you stopped sweating last night." Worry marred her perfect face as she poured some water into the cup and handed it to me.
"I've not seen as an efficient a poison as your own mind." Silah said quietly.
I closed my eyes at her words as I felt the water begin to soak into me, working toward easing this pounding headache.
"It's still early, you should get some more rest." Silah said as I stood.
"I've got to do something. It's killing me, waiting to act." I said, clenching my teeth against the headache.
I gathered my things and looked on Silah, she was wearing the simple white dress now. She must have retrieved it herself sometime last night. The tussle of sweat soaked sheets on the floor spoke of the fitful night I'd just had.
"We have work to do." I said evenly to Silah as I held the door.
She nodded somberly and moved through the door, picking a path down the stairs.
The windows were dimly lit by the early morning sky. The Tavern was little more than a strumming heartbeat with the nearly empty tables and footsteps in the kitchen. Bromm was there, though, as if he had been there all night. Sitting at a circular table with the coin perfectly at it's center.
I pulled a chair for Silah and waited as she sat herself. Then I pulled a chair for myself, sitting directly across from Bromm.
He answered the question that didn't need answering.
"Couldn't sleep." He said shortly, prying his eyes away from the coin to glance at me.
"Me neither." I said, my eyes now captured by the coin. "Have you had breakfast?"
Bromm shook his head slowly swinging his head wide with each pass.
"I'll get it." Silah said, nodding.
She scooted from the table, wearing a weary expression while she had followed this drawn out conversation.
Silah returned and, shortly after, the meals arrived. I stared at the plate, weighing my appetite until the food had gone cold. Bromm had forked a sausage and gnawed on it absently. Silah's normally precocious behavior had been entirely subdued being highly aware of stewing going on at the table. Normally, there would be ribbing and debate, but now there was only silence and avoidant eyes.
We sat there listless for nearly an hour before the others began to show up. I had only recently started pawing at the dried out bread on my plate feeling that I would start to feel worse if I didn't give my stomach something to grind on besides itself.
Danin and Sig landed at the table first, followed by Tagaern who looked bleary eyed from whatever festivities he participated in last night. My lips raised barely above a grimace as a greeting as others began to settle in and order breakfast.
Surprisingly, Floki came from outside.
"We have some news. You're not going to like it." Floki's face looked ashen, I barely gave a thought to how he was already out and about this morning, but he may have stayed somewhere else, perhaps the temple? The thought was too hard to hold to, and I let the question go.
Sig and Danin had just finished their orders and turned to the weary looking ranger.
"There have been skirmishes all night. As soon as it gets light, they all pull back and disappear. No one has been on the road for some time because of the danger." Floki looked at me and my heart began to sink uncontrollably, "Smoke has been spotted rising from Kellas House."
I closed my eyes and leaned into the words, feeling chaos pressing in on me. I shook my head then looked up at Floki.
"They have a patrol going out there now." Floki said, now turning to Tagaern who's eyes turned down to look at the table, "They expect word from them around noon."
"Let's get our business done." Sig said, "Then we can check in on Duncan."
This elicited a sour look from Tagaern whose jaw was clenched and rippling with a pained grimace.
"How long before all this business is done." He muttered dangerously.
"We just have to bring in the first of the deliveries. This has been the plan for months now. A lot of hard work has gone into this happening and I'm not about to let that slip away." Sig said evenly.
I could tell that Sig knew that he was dealing with raw emotion now from Tagaern, but he looked determined to not let it affect his plans.
We met the wagon carrying the good and crossed over to Cennet. The princess' castle consumed a large part, while high end establishments rounded out the rest of the island. I'd been here maybe twice, but I didn't know if this latest trip would count; I was barely here. Silah stood close, but avoided contact; her concern apparent in her quiet temperament.
I stayed outside of the proceedings, just as I had when we approached for court so very long ago. This time, however, I didn't wander from the exit. I could see inside of the building where the exchange took place. Tagaern was pacing dramatically, his patience waning with each breath.
This is what we had been waiting for. I thought miserably. What we had been waiting to do for months now. And, right now, it has never meant so little to me.
Once the deal was done and we started toward the ferry.
"It'll be faster to take a water taxi." Sig said, the wagon and those men driving it were already on their way.
We moved to the edge of Cennet where the path led down to the docks. A small boat, powered by one of the same alchemical engines that the powered those beetle shaped coaches sat burbling in it's slip. The man looked at us with a little disdain. Sig approached the man, showing his refinement. It struck me that he was dressed in something new. He had taken some time to find new clothes in the last week.
He put coins in the man's hand and the man stepped aside, letting us aboard. For as small as it was it was a great round bottomed boat that sat heavily in the water. We chugged across toward the warehouses at Widdowborn, opposite of Cutridge Road, the exit of Dowry. This prompted some protest from Tagaern.
"I have one more thing to do." Sig said, putting aside his protest which set Tagaern fuming.
I should be angry, too. I thought, but all I felt was numb, being dragged along by another's whims. It seemed to be my way, lately. I looked on Silah, sitting close to me and slipped even further away.
We exited the water taxi and moved down Resistance Road. I had been told that this was named by the Widdowborn when they repelled an attack that threatened to consume the city. This road ran parallel to the wall, docks, and warehouses ending close to Hammer Gate. The pace was quick, but it didn't feel nearly quick enough. We turned down Hawthorne Street seeing the familiar faces, but not being in a mood to engage. We went to the far end of the street to a place I hadn't been before. We were tucked into the shadows of the tall buildings clustered against the bluff. Sig stopped and moved toward a door.
"Wait here a moment. This won't take long." He said tersely, moving under a signboard through a squat door. There was a pause after he disappeared and I looked around incredulous.
"Volker's Pub?" I read the signboard aloud, "What is this place?"
My own indignation started to rise at the delay. I glanced around at the nearly empty streets. The terror that had sent a large part of the populace packing and that had a clear effect on business in the area. It was certain that Làn-Mara would be a strangled cry that had gotten caught in the throat of a besieged Dowry.
As Sig pushed out, all eyes were on him.
"Are you done? Can we leave?" Tagaern's stance was rigid with anger.
"Unless you want to drop this off at the temple." Sig patted the haversack on his back.
I couldn't tell if Sig was posturing or if he intended to follow through with yet another stop.
"It can wait." Sig moved through the group, "Let's be on our way."
We'll be on the road soon. I should carry you. I thought as I put my hand on Silah's shoulder.
She looked up at nodded at me. She'd been respectfully silent. I took her arm and she diminished into her greatsword shape. I sheathed her then twisted the blade so the hilt pressed against my neck.I had kept her at arm's length, feeling ashamed at what darkness stirred inside of me. Afraid that my wrath would leak out and hurt her.
I can't do this alone. Whatever comes next, I need you with me. My heart heavy with the thought..
I felt her invisible embrace wrap around my shoulders and abdomen. I leaned into it, letting some of that ache through.
We moved to the base of Cutridge Road where we stopped at the horse ranch. High up the road we could see the banners flapping above a tent city that had absorbed the shanty's that had sprung up on the outskirts of Dowry.
"Horses'll be fifty, bring ‘em back and you'll get twenty back." The man said gruffly. "But only if you bring ‘em back in one piece."
There was a smirk with the horse rancher's words, but the look of worry shadowed his eyes like those waving banners that tried to blot out the sun.
These were riding horses akin to the horse that Silah pulled from thin air a week ago. Thankfully this horse was considerably more sturdy so I didn't feel like my weight could easily break the creature.
We were called to a halt as we moved to exit the tent city to the open plains.
"We haven't seen activity on the plains during the day, but they appear from nowhere at night." One of the knights said as we explained our plans. "You sure you want to go out there?"
"Any word from Kellas House?" Tagaern asked gruffly, ignoring the question.
The plate armored knight shook his head with a grim expression.
"We've been kept from the road for days. Only now have we been allowed to send scouts on ahead." The man said quietly. "I'm not sure what I expect."
I swallowed hard at the thought.
"We'll meet the scouts on the road." Tagaern said. "We should be on our way."
"Just don't be out there when it gets dark." The knight called out as he pressed on.
Our pace was quick as we moved overland. There were many pyres on the horizon, grease trails of smoke touching the sky where clean-up crews had dealt with the aftermath. There were many standing rock piles with weapons, clothes, and other descriptive symbols of the men buried under them. Unarmored men worked with a detail to dispose of the enemy and bury the deal. The looks of horror on the men made me realize that I recognized many of them as men who had looked for jobs in Hlofreden with Richter Holdings.
We were stopped again by another knight who was overseeing another detail. She looked nervous being this far away from the safety of Dowry.
"What's your purpose out here?" She said, her voice steely even with the anxiousness of her gaze.
"We're on our way to Kellas House." Floki said, he'd taken the lead and was able to show off his allegiance to Yollari to gain passage without many questions.
She nodded and looked on as the rest of us filed in to listen.
"The patrol hasn't returned and I and my men are the furthest detail out of Dowry." She looked at the men she was overseeing, some blood splattered from disposing bodies of both enemy and friend.
They looked haunted and her eyes painfully reflected that.
"Just tell them to get a move on. My men and I have had enough of this." She said quietly, her voice rasping with the words.
Floki nodded and we made our way past them.
It was some time longer when we saw a small column of dust forming ahead of us.
"Armored on horseback." Floki announced, "These men will probably have our answers."
The men slowed and approached cautiously. They were lightly armored and seemed more geared toward observation than engagement. Each ashen face wore a dismal expression, that made my very soul ache.
"What of Kellas House?" Tagaern had pushed ahead.
"Sir. Kellas House has fallen. We did not find survivors." The man speaking gulped with the admission, his eyes red.
Tagaern nodded. I couldn't see his expression, but I could feel the waves of anguish rushing over me.
Perhaps he's wrong? They could have made it out? Duncan's a tough bastard. I thought feverishly.
"Night will be falling soon." The scout said, "It's not safe out here at night."
"We're aware, son." Tagaern said, leaning forward rubbing at his face with both hands. "They're waiting for your word. Don't mind us."
There was a curt nod as the man took his reigns and clicked his tongue, setting his horse in motion.
In the distance, the thin trails of smoke rising from the direction Kellas House were barely visible.
We moved down the road to the front gates. The still smoldering barn had nearly burned to the ground. It was clear that the fire had been set from outside the walls. The front gate, itself, was smashed then trampled into fragments and slivers.
"I'm going to look around the outside." Floki said, dropping off his horse and moving quickly with his wolf around the perimeter.
I dismounted as well, removing Silah from her sheath and willing her to stand with us. I moved to the front gates and looked at the carnage beyond. Bodies, both human and orc were strewn over the courtyard. The first casualty I recognized was the form Harney laying just inside the gate. His head had been taken, but his pale and thin body with his gaudy clothing remained.
Danja was the next body I recognized. The dancing feline woman with her sinuous form. She lay stiffly near the tables in the courtyard. Her head had been removed like the others. I looked briefly for Leonid, her brother, expecting him to have been close, but I didn't see him.
Arrows filled the bodies on the balcony that lined the courtyard. I moved deeper in to see the a line of fallen guards. Opposite of them dozens of orc bodies lie at their feet along with a single giant. They had scaled the short wall that was shared with the training yard beyond. The short height of the walls had made this the weakest point of defense. Though, the guards had held their ground.
"Duncan. Please be alive." I whispered to myself.
Each human body's head had been removed, making the task of identifying more difficult. Duncan's darker skin in contrast to the others here would make him easy to recognize. So far, there was no sign of him or Amalia and her brothers.
Floki returned from his perimeter check.
"I can see where they got in." He nodded to the short wall and back at the gate. "There must have been survivors, though. There is a set of knotted sheets hanging out the back window. There's blood, but it wasn't enough to be mortal."
"They weren't followed?" Bromm asked.
"Not that I could see." Floki said with a shrug and looking over the scene, "And, with these sort, it'd be obvious."
My heart was beating out of my chest with the news.
I followed the scene into the dining area. Two hulking giant bodies obscured the room, legs of crushed orcs stuck from under them and caked dried blood ran in great pools over the entire the entire floor.
Duncan's form lay just beyond, partially obscured by a giant's toppled form. His head had been removed like the others, but his sword, shield and breastplate still shone bright on him.
"Tagaern!" I called out, but my voice caught and it came out as a raspy whisper. "Tagaern… He's..."
I clench my hands in front of me and roared at the ceiling. I looked down at his headless form and tears dropped from my eyes.
The others closed in and were looking on me. Silah moved up behind and rested her hand on my back.
I lifted a hand and waved her off angrily; she retreated. I couldn't bear to be comforted.
This man had saved me. From war. From myself. I owed beyond a life debt to him and here he sat in his own blood.
"I knew what was out here. I knew the old fool wouldn't back down, regardless of what he faced." I dragged my fist across my cheek. "Why did I leave? I should have stood by him. I should have been here, standing by him."
I looked around at the faces on me, suddenly angry at the petty tasks that I had filled my life with.
Oh, how we couldn't bear to let those things go and failed protect those we care about. I thought as I looked each one of them in the eye and spat on the ground. And I'm just as much at fault.
I kicked the head of the giant that lolled over on top of him. Then again, and again, until the metal shin guards split the dead skin and it began to crack the skull with the force of it. I yanked my campaigner blade from over my left shoulder and hacked it off with great angry strokes. Then began to dismember the giant so I could free my friend.
No. My father. I thought, correcting myself and clenching my jaw to hold back the torrent that lay just underneath.
Tagaern stood close watching quietly.
"Son." He said as I slowed my wrath, "Save your strength. We're going after them, we're getting his head back, and I need you to be your best with me."
I reached down and pulled Duncan's body free.
"Help me?" I looked at Tagaern, my face twisted with anguish, as my world slowly crumbled away, "Help me bury him?"
We carried Duncan's body to the training area just outside the walls of Kellas House next to the standing wooden log that I had been chopping at just a week earlier. I gathered rocks while Tagaern dug a shallow grave. After a complete sweep, Floki said that Leonid, Danja's brother, Amalia, and her brothers were not among the dead.
He saved his family. He sacrificed himself for his family. The thought burned in me.
"He'd want you to have it." Tagaern said as he handed me Duncan's breastplate.
I traced the Grasslion's symbol with my finger as a tear rolled down my face. I nodded at Tagaern.
"Just as he'd want you to have that sword and that shield." I shook my head.
"He'd never want to be buried with his things. He knew…" I stopped short of the thought, "He'd rather it found a purpose."
"Vengeance. That'll be a proper use." Tagaern said quietly.
It took a while to prepare the grave. The sun was reddening in its descent as we put the last rocks in place.
"I'm … no good at this." I looked down at my bloodied hands. "Could you speak for him?"
Tagaern nodded slowly, sweat rolled down his grizzled, crestfallen face.
"Duncan. You were a friend in life and a brother in battle. You stood your ground and fought for the safety of your family. Let the shield maidens bear you up, brother. Don't curse at them away like you'd want to. Let them take you to the halls of the other great warriors, so you can take your place among them."
Tagaern stood, tossing a handful of dirt that sifted through the rocks of the grave down to Duncan's remains.
"Farewell. Until we meet again." Tagaern whispered.
He turned towards me.
"Son, I'll let you have a moment for yourself." He patted me on the shoulder and began to walk away, "You don't need fancy words for something like this. It comes from the heart."
Silah had been at a distance this whole time, standing absolutely still just within the range of our bond. Her face wore a pained expression that I wasn't sure how to read. And, still, I couldn't bear to look her in the eye.
"What can I say?" I looked down at the grave, shaking with the weight of it, "What can I say that will bring you back? It's selfish, just as you said it was. I don't care. I need you here."
I bent down and took a handful of dirt.
"I don't see the point in all this talk of gods when they can't save someone as good as you?" I shook the dirt from my fist over the stones. "I'll watch after Amalia, Keval, and Falk. If I couldn't do right by you, at least I can do right by them."
I bent my head, tears rolled to the stones below.
"You find your way, Duncan. And I'll come find you again. Just like I did last time." I paused, gritting my teeth, "Keep a spot warm for me, because it might be soon. But not before I set things right."
(Get to know Akeron.)