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.
And… the story goes downhill from there.
Bearers of Bronze – Part 3: Promise of Pain
Behind him, Drexin’s feet fell in a steady cadence that matched his own. The sun beat furiously, reflecting back into his eyes. Half a league. A full league, now. The staff chaffed his shoulder and back. Sweat dripped down the corner of his eyes and his tunic clung to his skin.
Shadows closed overhead as ancient trees loomed on either side. Drexin’s breath behind him was ragged, but there was no time to slow. Rance wouldn’t dare abandon his own post to harm Keros, would he? They could warn the messenger before he reached there; maybe give him Bryce’s message and return before their absence was discovered.
The path curved, twisting around gnarled roots. A faint sound thrummed through the beats of their feet and panting breaths. Another set of steps. A shadow vanished around a bend just as they turned. Finally. Ethaniel’s lips parted, but he’d not breath to shout. Instead he pushed himself forward. Only a few more steps. A few—
A sudden dull thud and startled scream sliced the shadows.
Ethaniel stumbled, then lurched forward as a familiar voice was muted by gloom. Prince have mercy, the cowardly—
A hand grabbed his arm, jerking him back. Ethaniel whirled, yanking free his staff.
Drexin glared at him. “Go round,” he panted. “Let me talk if I can.” He pushed Ethaniel a step off the path and sprang past.
Let him… the silver-bearing fool. Ethaniel’s fingers squeezed around the staff, then he plunged to the other side of the tree as a strangled gasp was cut short by Drexin’s raised voice. Keeping low, he shoved through the underbrush, slipping from shadow to shadow. No time to move silently. The shouts covered any noise he made as it was.
“…out of this, General’s son,” Rance spat.
Ethaniel peered through the green-tinted gloom. In a hollow formed between several twisted trees, Rance stood over a crumpled figure, his fingers clenched around a branch. A rope of some kind stretched across the path and Keros lay trembling, one arm flung over his head. Drexin stood several paces away, his eyes locked on Rance, his chest heaving.
His fingers curled and uncurled at his sides. “If you think for one minute wearing silver will excuse you from beating a king’s messenger.”
“He’ll not be a king’s messenger after this.” Rance advanced a step. “And there are enough who will thank me they’ll not stop to question why. What do you think? One who barely made it to the last Outpost finding trouble on his first run through Erathrane. Hardly unknown for a half-blood.”
Ethaniel gritted his teeth, pushing from the trees. Keros dragged himself an arm’s length from Rance and shoved up on one elbow. His eyes widened as they met Ethaniel.
Ethaniel placed a finger to his lip, gripping his staff tighter as he dropped to a crouch and glared at the back of Rance’s head. Talk indeed, though if anyone could reason with the messenger…
Drexin’s jaw clenched. “So you take it on yourself to lay in wait like a base-born coward?”
“How dare…” Rance choked and lurched forward, the branch in his hand slamming against Drexin’s side. It splintered and Drexin stumbled with a gasp, tripping and sprawling on the ground. He strangled a cry.
“Why, you wolf-bitten—” Ethaniel hissed, lurching forward, catching the back of Rance’s tunic and belt with both hands even as the messenger dropped the stick, staring at Drexin. Ethaniel twisted, almost hurling the messenger to the side. Rance struck the path with a sickening thud and screamed.
“Ethaniel!” Drexin lurched to his knees, then doubled over with a groan.
“Careful.” Ethaniel sprang to his friend’s side. He dropped his staff and caught Drexin’s shoulders. “Let you talk indeed; stupid, idiotic fool.” He felt along Drexin’s ribs.
The messenger winced, his breath hitching. “I’m fine, I think. Just give me a moment.”
Ethaniel gritted his teeth. “It will be more than a moment. You’ve fractured ribs. Maybe a broken one or two.”
“I can walk.” Drexin tried to push to his feet.
Ethaniel steadied him. “You really shouldn’t—”
“Shouldn’t nothing,” Drexin’s tone was sharper than normal. He winced, catching himself against a tree. “You… you shouldn’t have done that.” He glanced toward the path where Ethaniel caught a quick glimpse of Rance pushing himself to a sitting position.
Ethaniel’s jaw tightened and he looked solidly toward Keros as he stumbled to his feet, his arms wrapped tightly around himself. “Are you all right?”
The messenger nodded, his gaze flicking between Ethaniel and Drexin. A red scrape cut across one cheek and dirt and twigs stuck to his tunic and hair. “How… what did you…”
“Your friend was so kind to leave a message behind with his intentions,” Ethaniel said. He jerked his head toward Drexin. “Help him, would you? Something tight around the ribs, though it won’t do much good.” He pivoted toward Rance.
The messenger’s shoulder bowed forward, his left arm tucked awkwardly against his chest. Ethaniel’s stomach twisted. He pressed his lips tight, then stepped over and crouched at Rance’s side.
The lad flinched as Ethaniel touched his shoulder and flung his head up. Tears glinted from an ashen face, but the eyes stabbed Ethaniel. “Touch me again and—”
“Oh, shut up.” Ethaniel gripped his shoulder, gently but firmly. “I didn’t mean… Let me see.”
“So you can try to undo the damage you’ve done?” Rance spat. But he didn’t resist as Ethaniel felt down his shoulder.
Ethaniel’s fingers paused, testing, then he closed his eyes with a muffled groan. “Fractured, at least. You’ll not be hiding this.”
“Why would I want to do that?” Rance glared at him. “Stopping a messenger with a message? You could be hung.”
Ethaniel froze. “You’re carrying a message?”
“Did you think I deserted my Outpost like you two seem to have?”
Ethaniel swallowed hard and pulled a bandage from his pouch. “And you stopped to attack a fellow messenger? You think that is going to be an acceptable excuse for your presence?” He stared at the messenger, pausing. “You’re bluffing. Even you wouldn’t wouldn’t play at treason while carrying a message.”
Rance glanced away and red tinged his cheeks. “It’s only for my father,” he mumbled. “The Captain remembered something after they left for Seven.”
Ethaniel blinked once, a chill settling in his veins. “Y-your father. Councilman Kavon?”
“He’s traveling with General Zevlin,” Rance managed. “Least this sector. They’re here early—left right before me; might be there by now.”
Drexin’s breath hitched and a tremor swept Ethaniel’s hands. He gave his head a small shake. “I knew the risk when I came.” He forced his hands to remain steady as he bound Rance’s arm into a makeshift sling.
Rance’s face twisted. “You’re an idiot.”
“Probably,” Ethaniel agreed. He rose to his feet, then hesitated and held out one arm. “Can… will you be able to…?”
“I can make my way to Seven.” Rance stumbled up, ignoring Ethaniel’s hand. He took a step then paled, swaying slightly. “I’ll make it. I’ll—”
Ethaniel sighed and pulled a small packet from his pouch. “Calendula. No time to make it into tea. Wash it down with water; it might help.”
Rance scowled but accepted the packet. For a moment he hesitated.
Ethaniel jerked his head. “Well, get on. There’s nothing you can do here.”
Rance’s lips pressed tight. “I’ll see you at the end, Yathome.” He pivoted away.
Ethaniel glared after the messenger until he vanished around the shallow bend, then exhaled and let his shoulders slump. He turned to the others.
Drexin’s eyes squeezed shut, his chin slumped to his chest as he leaned back against a tree. Keros stared at Ethaniel, wide-eyed.
“What?” Ethaniel snapped.
“What?” One of Keros’s eyebrows shot up. “Am I permitted to agree with the coward and say you’re an idiot?”
Ethaniel scowled. “Say what you want.” He stalked forward and tested the wrappings Keros had fastened around Drexin’s chest. They were surprisingly well done. “You’re welcome, by the way.”
A muscle twitched in Keros’s cheek. “You… they wouldn’t really hang you?”
“Of course not!” Ethaniel choked out a laugh. “Too wasteful, least when there are two messengers to deal with.” He bit his lip, examining Drexin’s face. His friend’s teeth were gritted, his breaths shallow. Exhaling softly, Ethaniel glanced back at Keros. “You should probably go.”
The messenger didn’t move.
Ethaniel’s eyes narrowed. “Whatever happens won’t involve you. It’s not your fault he—” he jerked the words short and turned away. “Just go. Forget about it all.” His lip flickered. “Be thankful you missed Kavon this time around.”
“You… you’ll be all right?”
Ethaniel dragged his gaze back up. The pale eyes locked on his own, clear as a spring rain beneath the tiny wrinkles creasing his brow.
“I’ll come back if it will help,” Keros said.
A faint smile flitted across Ethaniel’s lips. “It won’t. But… thanks all the same.” He raised an eyebrow. “Go. You still have a message to deliver. Prince have mercy if you get yourself in trouble and make this worthless.”
Keros’s fingers tightened for a moment, then he retreated a step. For a moment his lips parted, then clamped shut. He whirled and fled.
Drexin’s breath hissed and Ethaniel’s gaze snapped back as his friend tilted his head back against the bark and forced his eyes open. “I hope you left some of that Calendula for me.”
Ethaniel steadied Drexin’s shoulder and pulled out another packet. “Would you imagine it? I do believe I have some.” He gripped his arm and forced Drexin down on a broken stump. “Just… rest. We’ll not get there in time anyway.” His voice faltered.
Drexin bowed forward and buried his face in one hand. “It’s… what. A league and a little more? It will only take an hour.”
Ethaniel propped one foot on the rotting log and mixed the powder with a small amount of water. “Drink.”
The messenger straightened and took the small mug. “Aren’t you glad I came now?”
Ethaniel glared at him. “No.”
“You should be.” He tossed his head back and drained the cup, then wiped his sleeve across his mouth with a grimace. “Someday you need to find better-tasting herbs.”
“Dreamroot perhaps.” Ethaniel frowned, studying his friend. “I could—”
“Don’t you dare!” Drexin jerked to his feet then gasped, gripping Ethaniel’s arm, his forehead drooping to rest on his shoulder. “I’ll walk back. You’ll not face them alone.”
Ethaniel steadied him. “I’m serious. You’re in no condition to travel that far. They’ll come back for you. Zevlin will let you heal before… before…” he shivered.
Drexin pulled straight. “I’m walking back with you, Ethaniel Yathome. We might as well get it over with.”
For a moment Ethaniel wavered, meeting the fractured gaze, then shoved the cup into his pouch with a sigh. Clutching his staff with one hand, he wrapped the other beneath Drexin’s shoulders. “Then I suppose we should get going.”