Bearers of Bronze is a Fidelyon short story introducing Ethaniel, Keros, Drexin, and their world of messenger lines, prejudice, and medellions. Check out the first two parts below.
The last section left Ethaniel and Drexin heading back to the outpost. Today… they arrive.
*rolling of drums*
Bearers of Bronze – Part 4: General and Noble
Never had each step taken so long. Never had each quarter league dragged on for such length or passed by in such a flash. Ethaniel’s arm tightened around Drexin as the messenger stumbled. Not long now. At least Drexin would be able to rest. Ethaniel gritted his teeth. Idiots, and he was the largest of them all. He pushed off the path.
Drexin blinked, straightening with a wince. “Where…?”
“We’ll go around back,” Ethaniel said grimly. “At least check positions before give ourselves in. Five extra minutes hardly matters now.”
Drexin shook his head with a faint chuckle. “You think about this too naturally. You realize that, right?”
Ethaniel scowled. “One of us has to. Unless you’d prefer to march up in the open and speak to Zevlin at once?”
The messenger closed his eyes. “Behind the Outpost will do very well.”
Late afternoon sunlight lanced through the small wood as Ethaniel guided Drexin along the smoothest tracks. How was it only a few hours since he, Drexin, and Keros had been laughing over their meal? A faint murmur spun on a light breeze; easy, comfortable—laughter even. How was anyone laughing?
Ethaniel released Drexin and crept to the edge of the wood. The Outpost rested a mere score of paces away. Movement flickered as several men relaxed on the turf. Another young man moved among several horses, crimson and blue outlining the sharp cut of his uniform and cloak. Ethaniel grimaced.
No alarm. No shouts or undercurrent of tension.
“Do you see them?” Drexin limped to his side.
Ethaniel shook his head. “Zevlin will be with Ard if he’s back. And Kavon won’t linger in the sun.”
Drexin shivered slightly. “Do you think…?”
Ethaniel’s lips pressed tight. “Not sure how they couldn’t know. Time to see.”
The messenger pulled back from his support. “I’ll walk.”
Ethaniel’s jaw tightened. “If you’re trying to spare the general—is a wound during a rescue such a dishonorable thing?”
The messenger glanced away with a faint flush.
Ethaniel sighed, then pushed beneath the branches into the meadow. Only a few steps; so very few in the end. The voices and merry chatter from the other side of the Outpost throbbed in his ears he sank into the narrow shadow of the eaves. For a moment he closed his eyes, tilted his head against the stones. Each beat of his heart echoed like the boots of a runner, heading straight for terror and destruction. His lips pressed tight and he shoved straight, slipping to the window of his own room.
Drexin slumped against the wall, his breath shallow. Ethaniel reached toward the half-parted shutters and pulled one open. Movement flashed inside, soft as a whisper, and iron fingers clamped over Ethaniel’s wrist.
“Not complete cowards then, are you?” A voice demanded, low and reverberating with a barely contained storm. The hand twisted Ethaniel’s arm. “Oh, no. Just going to creep in through the shadows, were you? And pretend what? That you’d been hiding?”
The fingers constricted and another hand splayed against the windowsill. A tall, broad figure sprang over the ledge. Eyes of steel snapped with pale blue flames beneath thick brows and hints of gray fell over weather-beaten brows.
Drexin flinched, then straightened with only the hint of a grimace. “H-hello, father.”
The General’s teeth clenched. “The Yathome I’d expect treason and idiocy from. But you!” He almost hurled Ethaniel against the side of the Outpost and gripped Drexin’s arm, shaking him violently.
Ethaniel staggered, his knuckles scraping against the wall. He shoved himself around, every muscle tensed.
Drexin’s fingers closed around his father’s forearm for support. “We were—”
“No excuses.” Zevlin’s knuckles whitened until they were almost as pale as Drexin’s face. “Idiot! And on the day I arrive with the Councilman Kavon!” Drexin’s knee buckled, but Zevlin dragged him close. “I may be your father. I’m also your General. And if you had anything to do with the harm that befell Kavon’s son—”
“He didn’t!” Ethaniel shoved himself upright. “General, you can’t—”
“No!” Zevlin spun, his knuckles smashing against Ethaniel’s face. “You don’t get to speak. Neither of you.” He half-dragged Drexin forward and his other hand seized Ethaniel. “Give your excuses to your lord himself if they can shield you from punishment.”
The General jerked both of them, twisting their arms and propelling them toward the corner of the Outpost. Drexin tripped.
Ethaniel’s breath tore at his throat. “G-general, you don’t…” The words broke off in a strangled cry as the fingers around his arm tightened and shards of pain shot from his wrist to elbow.
“Don’t,” Drexin choked in a whisper. His eyes glittered with unshed tears. “Let them. Just…”
Zevlin pushed them into the full glare of the sun.
A heartbeat of silence. The rapid scramble of men to their feet and his own stumbling steps. Drexin’s panting breath rasped in Ethaniel’s ears and the front of the Outpost blurred in a haze of heat and fragmented pieces. Ard’s involuntary step forward. Bryce’s wide, muddied eyes. Rance clutching his arm to his chest in the shadow of the steps.
A youth in blue and scarlet strode from the side, polished bronze-gold locks framing a faint sneer. Another figure, with flaxen hair sweeping back from a high brow and narrow eyes as dark as the pits of Solbane, stepped between the soldiers gathering around him. His dark crimson cloak that seemed to flutter in a wind of its own.
“…decided to return.” Zevlin’s voice was distant, as if from the end of a long tunnel.
The world snapped back to focus with a lurch as the General hurled Ethaniel to the ground in the center of gathering. Drexin landed at his side, his whole body trembling, his face pressed against the turf in a silent scream. Overhead, shouts and muffled confusion battered down and pulsed between Ethaniel’s temples. Dagger points pricked his eyes.
“D-drexin?” He reached out one hand.
A boot slammed into his chest, pinning him to the ground.
“Well now,” the voice was low, laced with poison. The councilman’s gaze was granite, his lips tight. “And what did you desert for, I wonder?”
The heel of the boot dug against his sternum, cutting the words into a painful gasp.
“You didn’t what?” The councilman leaned close. “Yathome.” His fingers snagged the medallion that slipped from beneath Ethaniel’s tunic. “You’re well on your way to making a name if you live long enough to claim it.” He released the chain and retreated half a step with a jerk, then slammed his foot into Ethaniel’s stomach.
Ethaniel gagged, doubling over against the ground and struggling for breath. Throwing up his arm, he deflected a second kick from his face, curling tighter as the blows battered down. Shouts echoed overhead and a shadow fell over him.
“…call this justice?” Ard’s voice rose.
Ethaniel grimaced, lowering his arm as Ard shoved the Councilman back a step. The man’s face flushed, and he struck at the Captain. Ard caught Kavon’s wrist. His fingers whitened, his gaze locking on the Councilman.
“How dare you.” Kavon wrenched away. “General—” his voice died as he spun to meet Zevlin who’d strode up behind him.
Zevlin’s teeth clenched. “Leave the messengers be, Councilman. They will be punished.”
“Punished?” Kavon hissed and retreated a step, rubbing his wrist. “They will be punished, and at once. I believe a flogging is the merciful price of assaulting a messenger, though death might—”
“There is no assaulting of messengers.” Ard’s fingers clenched.
Ethaniel winced, shoving himself into a sitting position. Drexin still lay a pace away, his face a twisted mask as he tried to rise then collapsed again. Ethaniel pushed himself toward his friend.
“…actually think they happened to be out?” Kavon demanded, striding toward the Outpost steps. “That my son just fell?”
Ethaniel sucked in a breath.
Rance cringed, but Zevlin followed with a quick step, gripping the Councilman’s shoulder and pulling him around. “If your son fell, then he fell. It’s not unheard in Erathrane.”
Ethaniel searched out Rance’s eyes, but the messenger’s gaze was locked on the ground, his cheeks and neck flushed.
“Desertion of duty is serious enough,” Zevlin’s voice was terse, the words clipped. Drexin forced himself up again and this time Ethaniel gripped his shoulder, steadying him. “Abandoning one’s post. But it is still an internal matter that will be dealt with—”
“At once.” Kavon broke in. “I will witness justice done.”
“Lord Kavon…” Ard interjected.
Zevlin merely raised an eyebrow. “You know me so little you think I’d spare my own son?” He advanced a step on the Councilman. “At once then. I’m sure your men will oblige.”
Drexin stiffened and Ethaniel grew rigid.
“Don’t…” Drexin squeezed his eyes shut “It will… it will be better, getting it over.”
“Please.” He flung his head his head up, desperate eyes staring through unshed tears and tangled strands of flaxen hair. “Let them… He might forgive me quicker if—”
“You care?” Ethaniel choked. “You know what they’ll do. What…”
“Twenty strokes.” Zevlin’s voice rumbled overhead like thunder.
Ethaniel didn’t lift his gaze, his own eyes locked on Drexin’s tense frame. No. No, they’d not. Even the general would see sense if he knew. What were a few extra blows for insubordination if it spared Drexin twice the pain he ought to endure? Drexin’s gaze hardened, his lips pressing tight as he glared back.
Leather whispered as Zevlin unfastened his sword belt. He thrust his sheathed blade into Bryce’s arms and coiled the belt around his hand. “Get them up.” He jerked his head toward the watching soldiers then pivoted toward Ard. “I believe it’s the duty of the Outpost Captain to deal out punishment.”
Ethaniel’s stomach twisted as Ard froze, a faint pallor creeping over his cheeks. Rough hands seized Ethaniel’s shoulders, wrenching him to his feet. Beside him, Drexin muffled a faint cry.
Ard hesitated, his eyes searching out Zevlin’s. “General, are you sure now is the—”
“I will lend a hand if the Captain is disinclined to.” Zavon stepped forward. He inclined his head slightly. “Every lord ought to stomach dealing out the punishment he orders.”
Zevlin lifted his shoulder in a half-shrug, then slapped the belt into the Councilman’s hand. “If you so desire.”
“General!” Ard protested.
Zevlin ignored him, his hands clasped behind his back. The Captain wavered. Bryce stood just behind them, frozen. Rance’s shoulders were hunched, his face buried in his hand. Beyond them, another figure lingered in the shadows of the Outpost, eyes bright and alert—the young nobleman Ethaniel had noticed earlier. He’d the same sharp cheeks and angular nose as Kavon. His son?
Ethaniel choked, squeezing his eyes shut. Prince have mercy.
Cloth rustled and a breath fell hot on his cheek. “You first, Yathome. Maybe a taste of leather will sharpen your senses. A few words of truth might make it easier for your friend, pale as he is.”
Ethaniel’s head jerked up, his eyes opening wide.
The Councilman’s lips smiled, though the expression didn’t reach his eyes. He retreated a step, letting the coiled belt spill from his hand. Two men holding Ethaniel gripped his arms, twisting him around, holding him tightly between them.
A figure shifted and Ethaniel lifted his chin. Zevlin studied him, the pale eyes lit with blue sparks. Ethaniel’s jaw tightened, meeting the eyes defiantly.
Zevlin gave a single nod.
Leather hissed through the air. Metal from the buckle slammed against one shoulder-blade, slicing pain through Ethaniel’s thin tunic, followed by the fiery sting of the leather itself. Ethaniel staggered against the soldiers’ hold, barely keeping his head up. His teeth clamped over his bottom lip, stifling a ragged gasp.
The belt slashed against his ribs; his lower back. His teeth ground tighter and blood seeped across Ethaniel’s tongue. Ethaniel’s gaze didn’t flinch from Zevlin. The man’s face was a marble mask.
Another blow almost pitched Ethaniel forward. He strangled a scream. He’d not give Kavon that satisfaction, or Zevlin either. The sunlit sky blurred, mixing with the shadows and turf behind a gray haze. Only those iron eyes pierced it, still watching. Ethaniel gritted his teeth, locking on to them through the blaze of pain that layered agony on agony with every blow. Each beat of his heart pounded between his temples. An ache wrapped around each breath and heat burned his cheeks.
Tears blurred his gaze. Hold on. A minute more. One blow at a time. One—
Metal clipped his forehead and heat streamed down the side of his face. The anchoring eyes vanished in a blur of crimson and shadows. Ethaniel’s knees buckled and a hoarse cry escaped his lips. The world spun. A shout echoed in his ears and another blow burned across the rest, searing, clawing, dragging him down.
Each muscle ached and strained as he sagged between the iron grips of his captors. The ground was tumbling away from his feet, the world drowning in a fog of agony that was also somehow a wall, cutting him away from blistering light and broken weeping. Why were his cheeks wet, salty liquid mingling with the iron taste of blood?
A word snapped in that other world; a command of some kind.
He was falling, shadows creeping around the edges of his thoughts, calling him down. He crumpled to the ground in a white blaze of pain, but the shadows swept it away. The grass was damp beneath his face. Weathered hands brushed his hair from his face and gently gripped one shoulder.
The darkness beckoned, whispering of escape. Fractured lights blinked out, one by one. Ethaniel shuddered, slowly letting the tension loosen as Ard’s fingers traveled over his back, the familiar voice drifting in indistinct words.
Leather hissed and struck something solid.
Ethaniel stiffened with a gasp. His eyes snapped open.
Shards of light pounded through his senses as the world rushed back with a crash of pain.
He seized it, clung to it, and forced it to the side. The path glittered several paces to the side, between firmly planted boots. Ethaniel shoved himself on one elbow, almost screaming against the burning aches across his back.
“Ethaniel!” Ard steadied him, but his voice was lost in a noiseless void.
Ethaniel’s gaze locked on a bowed figure, held by the elbows between two uniformed men. Kavon brought the belt down on Drexin’s back. The messenger gasped, his head already sagged forward, his eyes half-closed. Behind him, Bryce stood rigidly, his face almost as pale as Drexin’s. Rance sobbed quietly into the crook of his arm.
Kavon struck again and Drexin’s frame trembled. Zevlin stood watching, face tight.
Another blow. A faint groan escaped Drexin’s lips.
“No.” Ethaniel drew a panting breath. “No, no, no…” He struggled to his knees. “They can’t. They—”
“Ethaniel.” Ard gripped his arm. “You’ll only make it worse. Just let…”
“No!” Ethaniel wrenched away and lurched to his feet, almost crying against the pain. Zevlin’s gaze snapped toward him. Ethaniel swayed, then staggered forward. “Stop. You can’t… He—”
“No.” Zevlin jerked toward him. His fingers closed around Ethaniel’s shoulders like talons. “You don’t get to speak. Let my son bear his punishment like a man without a Yathome begging for mercy.”
Ethaniel winced, trying to yank away, his gaze still fastened on Drexin. Heaven and earth, why didn’t they stop? “You don’t understand. He’s hurt. He—”
“I said no!” Zevlin hurled Ethaniel backward, into the grips of his former captors. “Another word and I’ll give you a half-dozen strokes for insubordination, and my son a full dozen for following such a one as yourself.” He pivoted on his heel.
Ethaniel choked back a sob, trying to yank from the hands of those holding him. Ard was there, saying… saying something. He barely noticed him. Barely saw the others. For a moment, Drexin’s eyes flickered, his gaze searching until it rested on Ethaniel. Their eyes locked.
Drexin gave the faintest nod.
Kavon’s next blow slammed against Drexin’s ribs. The messenger’s knees buckled as he screamed, only the grips of the soldiers keeping him from pitching to the ground.
“Drexin!” Ethaniel yanked against the hold of his own captors. Their grips tightened, firm, but not harsh. Unbreakable. Blow after blow… Drexin’s cries twisted through Ethaniel’s chest, each one tearing a new wound more painful than the lacerations across his back. Then they cut short. Ethaniel’s trembled, tears burning against his cheeks. Prince have mercy.
The final blow fell, then the soldiers released Drexin. He crumpled limply to the grass without a sound, his face twisted, his eyes closed.
Zevlin took half a step forward, then jerked himself to a stop. A muscle twitched in his cheek. “Drexin?”
Ethaniel screamed, tearing with sudden strength from the loosened grips of his captors. “Don’t… don’t you dare touch him.” He staggered, tripping a stride away from Drexin. He dragged himself the last yard and wrapped one arm around his friend’s chest. Drexin lay curled on his side, his breath shallow. Ethaniel glared at Zevlin. “Don’t you dare.”
Zevlin blinked once. “Punishment is punishment, but do you think I’d harm my own son without reason?”
Ethaniel glared at him. “Yet you punish him more severely than any law would allow. You could at least have let him heal!”
“Insolent messenger!” Kavon raised the belt but Ard slammed the Councilman back a step with his forearm.
Ethaniel stumbled to his feet and dashed the tears and blood from his eyes with a fist. “He had at least two broken ribs, maybe another fracture.” He choked. “He could barely breathe without pain. And you beat him!”
“He…” Zevlin faltered. “He didn’t…”
“He thought you’d think less of him, if he told you,” Ethaniel spat. “He was wrong though, wasn’t he? You don’t think anything of him at all.”
Zevlin’s fingers tightened into fists as he retreated a step. “I…”
Ethaniel spun deliberately away and sank back to his knees at Drexin’s side. Another figure crouched on the other side. Bryce met Ethaniel’s eyes, then swallowed hard and glanced back at Drexin. “What… what can I do?”
Ethaniel drew a soft breath. “Help me.” He rubbed his sleeve across his eyes again. Vaguely he heard Kavon declaring his disgust with the messenger line and intentions to return to Almathea. The man paused in the shadows to speak to the young soldier who still lingered, then Kavon turned to Rance.
The messenger shrank back, but Kavon dragged him to his feet. Something about carrying his son back to Outpost Eight. Then they were gone in a flurry of horse’s hooves.
The sun still beat down. Ard knelt at his side. Drexin lay pale beneath his hands, faint traces of blood seeping through his tunic. Dark bruises formed beneath his skin. Ethaniel squeezed his eyes shut for a long moment, then stiffly drew new bandages from the pouch at his side.
Prince have mercy.
It was over.
Except… it isn’t really. Because there’s another section with the worst to come. Two more weeks, peoples.