Belon was still baffled, feeling the last after tremors of shock. The young lady, her soul stolen, the little girl abducted?
How Cael could think so clearly, act as if he was in control, amazed the blue-eyed Greymarsh. When he understood how he did it, the realization was chilling.
The news were like fresh wood to a fire. Cael would not feel sorrow, but self-loathing, hate and wrath. He’d take those emotions and crush them so hard they’d become hard as diamond, and that diamond would become an offering to the demons that haunted him, making them that more powerful.
Belon’s plans for his brother laid in ruins, and the statue of Aurora and Gabriella was the monument to that defeat. He had to think fast, lest he lose all control of his already damaged brother. Before he would be damaged beyond repair and he’d lose his soul for good.
Someone had attacked Aurora to get to Cael – someone from Canorate. The prime suspect was obvious. They were already on their way to strike against House Horryn, but Aurora’s soul and daughter had been stolen when they had still been in Magnimar of Varisia – when their return had not been decided.
Somebody had wanted to expedite that decision, maybe hoping word of Aurora’s fate would goad Cael into action, make him rush to Canorate.
As Belon stood there motionless like a tall statue of black and gold, Cael loomed over Aurora’s mother and whispered an oath to her.
“I will.. see her. They were taken to draw my attention, so I will do whatever is needed to bring her back.. to find and return Aurora’s soul.”
The Countess of Dunbreck tilted her head forward. “I knew back then you were together, but I did not say anything. I never despised you for running when the truth came out. Even when I heard Unia’s story, I did not hate you for it, half-elf. The happiness you brought to Aurora and the birth of little Gaby both outweighed all that.” She set her palm against Cael’s breastplate where his heart was. “But my girls did not deserve what happened to them. You said you came here to be responsible. Then be it.”
Cael nodded in the affirmative and left the sanctum without a word. Belon hurried after him into the empty inner ward.
“Brother, I am so sorry..” He reached to grab Cael’s shoulder, but he evaded it.
“Spare it, brother”, Cael snarled like a wounded wolf. “What has happened has happened, but I’ll fix it. I’ll find them, just like I found you. All who oppose me will die, as will those who took them and had any part in it.”
Belon pulled his hand back. He had to tread carefully. There was still hope for Aurora and Gabriella, and for his brother. Now more than ever, his brother needed him to guide him through the storm, even though he would have never admitted the need.
“How do you intend to start?”
“I’ll hunt down those lurking, cowardly Molthuni beasts.”
Belon wasn’t surprised, but still he sighed.
“Us two alone against a horde, brother..” He quickly realized that argument was moot – they were already planning to defeat a noble House. “How do you intend to find them anyway? You heard the Countess, the Count has been searching for them fruitlessly for weeks, and he and his men are locals, familiar with the forests.”
Cael closed his eyes and stopped to rub them and the bridge of his nose.
“The horde is a distraction, Cael”, Belon went on despite Cael’s impatience. “They are nothing but tools, employed by someone else.”
“They deserve to be butchered”, the dark-eyed Greymarsh spat.
“I agree and they should be stopped so not a single innocent would perish to sate their bloodlust. But think, brother, think clearly. Someone wants you to go to Canorate. So we’ll go, but on our terms.”
Cael looked up to the cloudy sky. His face betrayed little but Belon knew he was considering the options, wrestling his own monsters. He was his twin brother but also still an enigma to Belon. Belon didn’t yet understand fully what the eight years apart had done to him. His brother might’ve broken into tears next, or he might’ve held that icy, aloof demeanour, letting whatever fires raged in his soul to burn him from within.
But they were interrupted. Somebody called at the gate and a bell rang twice from a guard-tower, a signal that someone of importance was arriving. Echoing outside Belon heard horse hooves clopping against masonry, coming closer, and he turned to the gate to see who was arriving.
A lone warrior, wearing scale armor, damaged and stained with blood, and a helm, with its visor open, resembling a roaring bear, rode through the open gatehouse. Behind him, across the horse’s back, hung a body. It was another soldier, a hulking creature.
“A healer, now!” The warrior shouted the hoarse command and grunted in agony as he did. People – guards, servants, maids – were streaming into the ward to see who had arrived in such haste. But none was a healer.
Belon glanced at Cael, who was watching the rider. Apparent from his intent frown, he knew the man, but didn’t move an inch to help. Belon produced a small vial, the size of his index finger, from a pocket in his belt, and paced to the rider, who was getting down from his mount with pained effort. Guards busied around him like bees, one taking his reins, two other helping the body off the horse.
“I have a healing potion, sir”, Belon called out as he approached, vial in hand.
“Good man”, the warrior wheezed and groaned, and up close Belon could see he wasn’t young. Grey whiskers decorated a hard, lined and leathery face, but he was still lean and wide-shouldered. He was paying no attention to the half-elf, but shot his finger towards the body the guards had gotten on its back to the ground. “Give it to Tragok, I hope the tough mean bastard still lives.”
Belon kneeled next to Tragok, a bald, tattooed, grey-and-green skinned half-orc, who looked more like a half-eaten piece of meat. He could see scores of bloody grooves around the half-orc’s unprotected torso, between gaps where his skin had been bitten off. Bones and even internal organs were visible. Belon took off his gauntlet and brought his hand over the half-orc’s open mouth, expecting to feel nothing, but was surprised as a faint breeze of breath touched his golden palm.
A tough bastard indeed.
Belon’s potion had liquid imbued with the most potent healing energies, and its dark ruby red content sparkled as it dripped into the half-dead half-orc’s mouth. It did the trick. While not completely healing the warrior, it closed the worst holes and wounds, created new blood, pieced together organs and brought together most of the broken bones. Still in shock from the bloodloss, Tragok remained unconscious, but was breathing steadily and vigorously.
“Gods be damned, that was the stronger stuff, wasn’t it”, the old rider commented from behind, each word laced with effort and pain. Accompanied by her hurried footsteps, Lady Dolivar’s voice cut through before Belon could reply.
“Hestur! Where is my husband”, she demanded in some distress. The old warrior, Hestur, patted Belon’s pauldron in gratitude before turning to face the Countess.
“My lady”, he began, summoning whatever strength he had, “we finally made contact with the host, but the Count was wounded. He is alive, and returning with the remainder of the men, very much thanks to Tragok here.”
Belon remembered the horrible wounds the half-orc had suffered, and imagined the brute diving into fierce melee with werebeasts to help his master. Orcs were notoriously brave and aggressive fighters who could stand staggering amounts of punishment before dying, and their half-kin were not far apart. Any full-blooded human, without divine or magical protection, would not have survived such an assault.
Lady Dolivar let out a breath, but immediately something else shackled her relief. “What about Gabriella-“
“My lady, there was no sign of her.” Hestur had his chin to his chest, the message evidently heavy on his shoulders and even more painful than his considerable wounds. Lady Dolivar made a fist and brought it to her mouth, closing her eyes in sorrow.
It was then when Cael stepped to Hestur’s sight from behind the small Countess, and their eyes locked in mutual recall. Metal sung as the old soldier unsheathed his enchanted longsword, pearls glittering on the hilt.
“It’s you, bastard!”
To Cael’s benefit, he stayed cool-headed and didn’t draw his own gladii or reach over his shoulder to his bow. Belon had to hold himself from reaching for the grip of his greatsword, but acting by instinct, he stepped before Cael. Lord Dolivar’s guards, those who saw Hestur’s reaction, had no inhibitions. Blades and axes were drawn. Yet many hesitated. With their extraordinary suits of armour and enchanted weapons, and the powers they emanated, the brothers stood out from others like diamonds among coals. Few would’ve charged them, even with an advantage in numbers.
Hestur pointed his sword at Cael, through Belon. Despite his own wounds and achingly tired arms, the blade was steady. “We hunted you for weeks, you coward!”
“Like so many have, fruitlessly, guard-captain.” Cael didn’t boast. His tone betrayed no emotion, none at all.
“Stand down, Hestur”, the Countess ordered.
“This is.. all your fault”, the captain of the keep’s guard fumed between his teeth. But his anger has lost its edge. Belon saw he was too grief-stricken and tired to be angry.
Cael calmly stepped past his protective sibling. “I know.”
“Why are you here, now?”
“I’m here to make things right.”
After Tragok had been carried away to recover, Cael retreated to a corner of the inner ward with Hestur to have a less-heated, more respectful conversation while the captain’s injuries were tended to by the keep’s healers. Belon chose to stay away and let them have their privacy.
“My husband was very impressed by your brother when he first arrived here”, Lady Dolivar told Belon. She had appeared next to the silver-haired half-elf and was watching the two men.
“Of his skills as a hunter and a fighter. That’s why he wanted him to train our sons. But your brother’s changed, I can tell. A year and he’s grown older. He’s more confident. Even more dangerous.”
Belon’s chest heaved.
“Too dangerous for your daughter?”
“I think that is a moot point, Belon of Greymarsh.”
“There is still hope for your daughter, lady Dolivar. And for my niece. I wouldn’t dismiss my brother’s promise. He’s beaten worse odds.”
Lady Dolivar’s voice trembled, if only a little. Her mind wandered.
“I think what enraged Gregory most was how his high opinion of your brother blinded him to the relationship between Cael and Aurora.”
To that, Belon could say nothing – he hadn’t been there to witness the events. Wind breezed in the courtyard, touching the hem of the Countess’s black skirt. Around them, the Count’s men were loitering and chatting, unwilling to return to their duties. Some were eyeing Cael suspiciously, wondering what he was talking about with Hestur.
“My daughter was.. is smart enough to make her own decisions”, lady Dolivar finally continued. “Some women are drawn to mysterious, dangerous men. I don’t think that was the case with Aurora. She saw something else in your brother.”
“Maybe she wanted to mend a broken soul”, Belon thought aloud, mostly to himself. “Cael’s scars reach his core of being.”
“And yours don´t?”
“I’ve been through the same hell as my brother, true, but my faith in Pharasma fills my soul so that the screams of our past nightmares cannot echo there.”
“So you are a godly man?”
“I am. But Cael walks his paths alone in the dark. I hoped having him return here, meeting Aurora, reconciling with her and you and your husband would’ve shed some light to his path, maybe be a light at the end of the tunnel, but..”
“Now he suffers even more. And if he fails to deliver on his promise..” The Countess left the words hanging.
Belon pursed his lips and nodded. He didn’t want to think about what would happen then.
“Hestur told me the Count’s troops finally caught up with the monsters, and the battle was very bloody, with both sides suffering great casualties. But the monsters got away. Lord Dolivar went to pursue but Hestur believes he has to turn back to regroup and rest at the keep, eventually, if he hasn’t already.”
So Hestur had told a white lie to the Countess, so she wouldn’t worry about her husband, Belon concluded.
“We’ll wait for him?”
Cael stiffly shook his head once, trying to act resolute, but Belon could sense his brother’s disappointment and uncertainty.
“Hestur suggested we continue to Canorate, and not be here when Dolivar returns. He has been.. erratic according to the guard captain. Prone to outbursts, after what happened.”
Belon could sympathize with the Count. But he also knew Cael was burning to get out there and join the hunt. But it seemed the Count would rather fight Cael rather than join forces with him.
“We’ll find Aurora and Gabriella in Canorate, I’m certain”, Belon tried to assure his brother. The scarred half-elf was silent, but wrath hid in his eyes like the shadows of majestic sea-creatures right beneath the waves.
“I.. I will.. they must pay for what they did”, Cael finally managed, in his low, damaged voice. His hands were fists by his sides, strangling something dead. He wanted so much to be part of that hunt.
But Belon could not let him go alone. For all their powers and skills, that way laid a very real possibility of doom, for nothing but blood-vengeance. So he set his hand on Cael’s shoulder and looked deep into his eyes, as if trying to control the wildfires beyond, will them to go out.
“This is that bastard Horryn’s makings. We’ll make him suffer, by Pharasma I vow we will, brother.” For who else would assault those close to Cael than House Horryn? It seemed clear now to Belon. After years of failed man-hunting, what was a better strategy for Horryn than to lure Cael back to Canorate by using Aurora and their daughter as bait?
He knew his brother was a smart man, a deliberate and calculating hunter. He knew he would see reason.
Cael said nothing but nodded, and that was enough.
They said their goodbyes to Lady Dolivar and agreed it would be better if Lord Dolivar wouldn’t know Cael had visited. Cael repeated his solemn promise to the Countess. Belon couldn’t say if she truly believed he could deliver on his words, but she thanked him anyway. Belon was astonished how good-hearted and accommodating Dolivar was. It was either because she, deep within, believed in the father of her grand-daughter, or she had lost hope yet forgiven him. Whatever the reason, Belon knew Cael needed to have no new people who were resentful of him.
After leaving the keep they returned to Dunbreck’s town square. Pavo had parked his wagons to its side and started trading, while Therese and their sons had switched the horses and were maintaining the carriages with the drivers. All the travellers had set out to explore the town, while most of the mercenary guards had taken a well deserved break and headed out to local inns and taverns to cool their nerves.
Everybody had heard the news of Aurora of course, the three months old tragedy still being the most important news and source of gossip in Dunbreck. Belon wanted to share the details of Cael’s intimate connection to the story with Pavo but Cael adamantly refused. It was no-one’s business to know, and sharing the story of Aurora and Cael would attract questions about the brothers’ journey and motivations – issues Cael was absolutely not willing to discuss with outsiders.
The caravan stayed behind the shelter of Dunbreck’s sturdy walls for the night. Pavo, his mood up thanks to the profits he had made earlier that day, wanted to pay for the roof and beds of the brothers, as a sign of gratitude, but the brothers kindly told him no. They had the gold to spare, Belon affirmed, but thanked none the less. Cael knew they’d end up in the same inn with the others should they accept the offer, and preferred a place to stay without familiar faces. So they chose a smaller, secluded inn away from the town center.
The brothers had supper before Cael called it a night, reasonably early in the evening. He told Belon the next night, back in the road, would be demanding – he hadn’t slept one blink during the previous night, and the caravan would again look up to them to provide their keen senses, even if they didn’t have the guts to ask directly. Belon nodded and said goodnight, but he knew his brother wouldn’t sleep. Cael just wanted to be alone with his torrential thoughts.
So Belon sat alone in a dark corner of the little inn, sipped stale water from his cup and poked at something that seemed to be overcooked pork on a wooden plate that looked more tasty than the meat, lost in his own thoughts. The inn was quiet – only a few regular customers were drinking ale and talking. A hearth crackled nearby, providing light and warmth and ambient noise like a poor man’s bard.
“You are a hard man to find”, said someone with a laughably deep voice, like distant thunder, beside him.
“Most people say that about my brother”, Belon replied and raised his head.
Tragok the half-orc loomed over him and grunted. Belon thought it was a snort. Up close he truly was a giant. At six feet and four inches, Belon was tall, but Tragok had six inches more and maybe eighty pounds of more muscle to boot.
“You look better”, he went on, gesturing across the half-orc’s bare, tattooed chest. He looked unharmed, save for old scars that rivaled Cael’s.
“I am well”, Tragok rumbled.
“Shouldn’t you be recuperating?”
The hairless brute grimaced. “Yes”, he admitted, but he was clearly a man who would rather dip and freeze his manhood in an icy lake rather than lie in a bed doing nothing.
“How can I help, Tragok”, Belon asked, letting the matter be. Tragok pursed his lips, a feat given three pointy and long fangs in his mouth.
“You’ve helped enough already, Belon of Greymarsh”, the massive warrior replied and straightened his back. “I came to offer you my thanks. For saving my life so I can fight another day and bring honor to my family and House Dolivar.”
“You’re welcome”, Belon smiled his easy smile and gestured him to sit. The half-orc disregarded the gesture.
“I am in your debt”, he told instead, and Belon could see he liked to be indebted as much as one would like to scratch their ass and eat whatever was stuck under their nails.
“Well, it was Captain Hestur who dragged your near-dead corpse out of the forest.”
Tragok grunted, in some displeasure.
That didn’t help, Belon realized.
“Then again, he is your battle-brother, so it’s kind of expected of him.”
The half-orc clasped his hands behind his back and nodded. It was as if he was standing in attention.
“I would die for him, and for Lord Dolivar, Master Greymarsh”, he said, after considering his words.
That much is evident, Belon sighed inside. The situation was becoming very awkward, very fast.
“Tragok, I don’t know what to say. How could you repay any debt you think you have, I have no clue.”
The massive warrior begun to growl deeply, and Belon thought he was angry but quickly noted it was a murmur. He was thinking.
“For Pharasma’s sake, have a seat”, Belon exclaimed and pointed at the empty stool across the sturdy wooden table. Tragok finally did as told.
“You can start by offering me an ale.”
The half-orc warrior slammed his fist into the table, making Belon’s water cup fall, his plate of tasteless pork flip around and the half-elf wince, before roaring at the innkeep. “Westin, two beers! The dark and foamy one, not the piss you serve everyone else!”
He takes paying debts very seriously, Belon took note.
He put his hands on the table. “Tragok, if you’re thinking about joining me and my brother as some sort of honor guard-“
Tragok shook his head firmly. “I am bound to the service of Lord Dolivar, I would never leave him.”
Belon felt like letting out a long breath, but resisted the urge. “Good”, he said instead.
The half-orc went silent and watched Belon closely. It was the first time he really had the chance to lay eyes upon the silver-haired, gold-skinned half-elf.
“You look familiar, Master Greymarsh”, he rumbled.
“We are very alike with my brother.”
“I wouldn’t know, as I wasn’t serving Lord Dolivar when your brother was here previously.”
“Ah, good point.” Of course Tragok was new, Belon realized. No doubt Lord Dolivar emphasised unwavering loyalty even more in the recruitment of new soldiers after Cael’s antics.
“There is a group of elves, led by a nobleman, all from the elven land of Kyonin, fighting for Nirmathi against Molthune. They’ve raided Molthuni forces for years, decades even, and I saw their leader often in passing when I fought in the war.” Tragok leaned over the table. “Are you from that group? Family, perhaps?”
This made Belon raise his brow.
“I am a bastard, born of a human mother, in the borderlands of Molthune and Nirmathi. I didn’t know my father, as he left my mother soon after they had met. All I know he was an elven warrior named Karandil.”
What the half-orc said next, off-hand, dried Belon’s mouth.
“I think the leader’s name is Karandil, but I can’t be certain.”
Westin, a mousy man, arrived, placed two tankards of foaming, murky beer before the two warriors and retreated without a word. Tragok grabbed one and had a drink. Belon was left speechless and couldn’t move, hardly form a coherent thought.
“He is still fighting, out there?” He finally managed to say, in barely more than a whisper.
Tragok nodded and brushed away foam from his upper lip. “That I know of, yes. It has been a few years since I’ve seen him. Last I heard, he was planning to strike back at the Molthuni. To take the fight to them.”
Belon’s mouth widened to a grin. “Tragok my friend, I think you just paid your debt.”