Fallen, part 4
"My son! My son! At last you have come home, as I knew you would!"
"It is good to return, Captain. I apologize if my absence has caused you any grief."
"Not at all my boy, not at all! And what's with this Captain nonsense all of a sudden, eh? I'm your father, and that's what you'll call me, dammit. Ha-ha! Damn the gods, boy, it's so good that you're back."
"It's not like he's your only son," Callista griped without bothering to keep her voice down.
"Oh, hush," Tagerus griped back, "Don't spoil it for him. You're acting like everybody else."
The five of them- Constantine, Tagerus, Tyrion, Callista, and Stregobor- sat cross-legged upon the floor of the command tent, newly assembled to celebrate the return of the prodigal Tyrion. Like the rest of the camp, the atmosphere was stiflingly unfestive, though only Constantine seemed to be unaware of it. A short but well muscled man with a small, rough-cut beard and covered in scars, Constantine was the very image of a veteran soldier. What remained of his dark hair was dirty and untamed, and he wore a brigandine cuirass even when at leisure. A thick cloak lined with wolf fur was draped about his broad shoulders, and in his belt were tucked three broad daggers. A longsword and a scimitar sat within easy reach on either side of him, both unsheathed.
It had been the custom of late for the condottiere to be forever scowling- harsh and unforgiving- yet it seemed that the two eldest Senharons had swapped personalities for the night. Constantine, not even in his youth known for his merrymaking, seemed to beam at everything, his cheeks flush with joy and wine. He laughed and slapped his ever-just-so noticeable stomach with every off-handed comment that Tyrion made; while Stregobor sat near to the entry flap with a most sour grimace that no doubt had the dirt cowering in fear, raising his face only now and again to jab at the fire with his sword as if it had spoken ill of his mother. Callista's mood was equally foul and she gazed at Tyrion from the corner with such open hostility that Tagerus was amazed that his brother could not feel it. He kept his eyes trained upon her, in case she should decide to have a go at strangling the elder Senharon.
A mousey haired servant girl brushed aside the flap, bearing an earthen tray with a glass decanter and half a dozen leathern tumblers.
"Um, pardon sirs," Masha, a servant girl from the imperial remnant, squeaked in a timid half-whisper, "but would any of you care for a drink?"
"Of course, of course," Constantine urged, "We're celebratin' aren't we? What's a celebration without something to moisten the throat for songs and stories, eh?"
Masha was clearly not convinced that the mood was a festive one. A clumsy girl by nature, she could scarcely pass out the cups without dropping them, and slopped half of the expensive dwarven whiskey onto the dirt floor in her attempts to pour it. She held off serving Tyrion until last, and when his eyes met hers she dropped the bottle in his lap and bolted out into the night.
"Poor thing," Constantine nodded in sympathy as he took a drought from his cup. "The excitement of having the handsome Tyrion back's too much for her, I fear."
Tagerus snorted at the absurd statement, earning himself a face full of his own drink. Meanwhile, he prayed that in her fury Callista would not remind his father that on any other occasion the girl would have received a severe flogged for spilling a whole bottle of vinland rye. Perhaps Mara or one of the gods had heard him, as his hotheaded fiancé remained silent for the moment.
"And they said that I'd never see this again," Constantine slurped at his drink as he ran a loving hand over the sword that lay between him and his eldest son. It was a massive sword, as tall as Tyrion himself and almost half as wide. The blade was made a weird dark steel, almost black in color, but so well burnished that in a pinch it could serve as a mirror. The guard was nothing but an ugly slab of undecorated steel, while two feet of handle jutted out to end in heavy pommel shaped into a pair of snarling dragon heads. Though impossible for any man to wield, the Gigantes was by far the most prized possession of the Senharon clan. Incredibly ancient, it was supposed to have been forged by titan smiths for a legendary hero and claimed for the family out of the hoard of a powerful dragon by a renowned ancestor.
"It was well cared for, Father," Tyrion answered at once, as unerringly polite and formal as he had always been. "It is, after all, a most precious weapon. I thank you for allowing me to borrow it for my training."
"Anything for you, my boy," said Constantine with bellowing laugh. "Anything at all."
'Of course it was training,' Tagerus thought defiantly to himself, as though addressing the skeptical thoughts that he could almost hear coming from the other two. 'He didn't steal it, and he didn't run away. You heard him yourself, and it's obvious that he's much stronger. Didn't you see him carrying it on his back as if it were no more than a bag of corn?'
The clawing, genderless voice, the corpse eyes and the aroma of death at once came to mind to refute his argument. Tagerus swallowed hard and shook the memories away. It had just been his imagination.
Tyrion's hair had been pulled back into a long stalliontail that reached his mid-back, the worst of the travel dust rinsed hastily from its length and from his skin. He seemed to have ignored the fresh clothes that Constantine had ordered delivered to him, for he still wore the same ragged attire as when he had arrived. Everything but his mantle- tunic, trousers, boots, gloves, belt, mail, and jerkin- were all a dusty black. His face was pallid and his eyes were deeply sunken in. He looked exhausted and much older than twenty-five.
Constantine chugged down the rest of his whiskey and gave a loud belch.
"So what happened, boy?" he asked, indicating the ragged strips of cloth that bound Tyrion's right arm and held it up in a sling. "What'd you do to that arm o' yours? Musta been one helluva a fight. Or is it from the trainin'?"
"The training," Tyrion answered, golem voiced.
Constantine stared in admiration at the imprisoned arm for a moment before nodding his approval.
"Quite an impressive ka seal," he said. "And you're getting on well with your left hand too, I see. Not a lot go for the two sword style anymore, you know. Course, you always liked to stand out from the crowd."
"About Mother," Tyrion changed the subject, polite yet brusque. "Your letter said that she is ill and to come quickly, but you did not elaborate. Could you please tell me what is wrong? That is, after all, why I came."
Tagerus swallowed and did not hear the utter lack of emotion in his brother's voice. Beside him, he sensed Castilla stiffen and heard the sharp intake of her breath.
Constantine stared up at the orange fabric of the roof and stroked at his beard for a moment, his usual method of hiding emotion.
"Your mother," he said, taking his time to answer. "Well, I'm not sayin' I'm not glad to have you back sooner boy, but there wasn't much call for you to hurry. Valia's gettin' stronger every day, be on her feet in no time. She's been askin' about you, you know."
Callista and Stregobor's derisive snorts were so well coordinated that they could have been the same sound.
"Father, tell him," Tagerus insisted, unable to contain his own feelings of disgust, "Stop pretending."
Constantine seemed not to hear him, and neither did Tyrion.
"I would like to see her," Tyrion insisted, staring into his father's eyes. "Tell me everything."
"Captain," a man's voice issued from beyond the entrance. Tagerus and Callista both jumped. A man with a long gray mustache and a sweeping cloak stepped into the tent, followed closely by three other men and two women.
"'Bout time," Stregobor remarked as he poked at the fire yet again.
The old Constantine returned as he leered up at the intruders and shook his empty cup at them before shooting an ugly look at his brother.
"Grahm, you wretched old dog! Didn't I say I didn't want none disturbin' me and my family? Don't you see we're celebratin' a homecoming?"
"You did," Grahm the Farstrider, the most senior of the clan's officers, answered with measured patience. "But there was an officer's council scheduled for this time before that."
"Then it'll have to wait."
"I'm afraid that is impossible, especially now that…," the old soldier studied Tyrion for a moment with suspicious eyes, shuddering when the prodigal heir's black orbs returned the gaze, "…now that Master Tyrion has returned. In fact, it is crucial that we speak now."
"I will take my leave," Tyrion said, standing up. "I do not wish to antagonize a conflict. Would you mind if I continued to carry the Gigantes for a little longer, Father?"
So much for not wanting to antagonize conflict, Tagerus thought, looking towards the affronted clan elders.
"But of course," Constantine replied at once. Sparring a ferocious glare the elders' way, he added, "Course, that's assumin' that the cap'n hasn't lost all authority in his own tent."
Without waiting for an answer, Tyrion rose to his feet and wrapped his mantle about himself. Tagerus' mouth dropped open when, without even a grunt of effort, Tyrion raised the massive sword with his weak arm and rested it against his shoulder. Save for Constatine's worshipful admiration, the younger Senharon's expression was identical to that of all the others.
"Tagerus, Callista, will you join me please?" he asked. The words were scarcely out of Tyrion's mouth before Tagerus was on his feet, as much to get out as anything. Callista was less enthusiastic to answer the summons but did so without further prompting. None of them wasted any time in vacating the big tent.
"God's blasted vultures," Tagerus said to himself with venomous mutterings as they stepped into the cooling evening air. Lacking in his usual reverence for his weapon, he thrust his sword hard back into his belt. "They won't even give you the chance to explain yourself."
"What is there to explain?" Tyrion replied, all calm matter-of-factness. "I took the Gigantes for myself and disappeared in the night like a thief. That is all."
"But you must have had some reason for it," Tagerus was surprised to hear Callista ask the very thing that had most been on his mind, even more so in that it was without sarcasm or malice.
"I was…tired," Tyrion's answer was slow to come. "I needed some time to rest, to think."
"And stealing the sword?"
"How's that stealing, Callista?" Tagerus was quick to come to his brother's defense. "It's been passed down through the family since before the last era ended. It's his birthright to begin with."
"It was his birthright," she corrected. "The minute he decided to be a deserter he gave up his rights as heir to you. Which means that he was stealing from you."
Tagerus thrust out his chest and declared in a proud voice, "Then it was a gift. I'd never deny my brother anything."
Callista's blonde mane whipped back and forth like an angry yellow banner.
"I swear, you actually get stupider being around him."
Tyrion's loosed a hollow chuckle.
"Truly, brother?" he asked, glancing over his shoulder "there is nothing that you would deny me?"
An involuntary shudder sprinted up Tagerus' spine under the intensity of his brother's cold, penetrating gaze. He dared not meet his brother's eyes, to acknowledge the emptiness within them or the hunger in his brother's voice. "Of course," he forced himself to say, knowing it was expected.
"Well then," said Tyrion, "speak to me of Valia. What has befallen my mother that Father does not want me to know?"
From the command tent arose a fury of raised voices. Above them all was Constantine's, though Stregobor's made for a close runner up. Though difficult to make out what was being said, he was certain that he heard his brother's name several times, usually accompanied by words like "traitor," and "outcast."
"Preferably someplace farther away from here," Tyrion suggested. Constantine's voice howled clear above everyone else, using copious amounts of colorful language to let the camp officers- and the rest of the camp- know just what he thought of them. "Much farther away."
"I couldn't agree more," Callista nodded, at once shooting her tongue out at Tagerus, no doubt daring him to say something.
The mercenary camp was just as active at night as it was during the day. Men and women from every race either lounged outside their tents or wandered aimlessly through the rows. Singly or in groups, cleaning weapons and armor, strumming on hand-made instruments, telling exaggerated accounts of their exploits, gambling, drinking, laughing, joking, their hearts and minds untroubled by the doubt silently gnawing at Tagerus' own heart. The memory of the cold voice and the lifeless eyes kept returning to his mind. It had to have been some kind of trick, yet whenever he looked to his brother such a thought seemed even more foolish. There was little point in denying that Tyrion had changed, and not for the better.
Tyrion was less warm than he remembered, more distant, and his eyes seemed to avoid making contact for long. Though always more polite and formal than the rest of the family, or indeed any mercenary, he had never referred to his parents by their titles or given names before. Every question about his whereabouts or activities over the past year had been met with evasive answers or flat-out ignored, and the most that either Tagerus, Callista or their father had managed to get out of him was that he had been busy "training." His presence seemed clouded to Tagerus, as if he were not really there. Every now and again the pungent odor of embalming spices reached Tagerus' nostrils.
"It's sad, isn't it?" The cold scorn in Tyrion's voice snapped Tagerus out of his private worries.
"Huh? What is?"
"Just look at them, how petty they're being," answered Tyrion with a sweep of his unbound arm. "Before I left I was a hero. Now I'm less than slime to them. You can see it in their eyes."
He wasn't wrong. Their approach seemed to trigger a wave of contempt; the eyes of every soldier turned upon Tyrion with looks of reproach. All about them the sounds of the camp had gone silent save for the chorus of sharp tongued whispers.
Callista gathered her arms beneath her chest and snorted.
"Were you expecting something else?"
Tyrion's gave a rueful smile.
"Perhaps that my sister be a bit less cruel" he said and ruffled her hair. Callista recoiled at his touch and swatted him away.
"I'm not your sister, traitor," she scowled.
"Really? Still not yet?" Tyrion's look was more curious than surprised. Tagerus felt his ears turn red as his brother's gaze fell upon him. "Well, that's not news, considering the past. Tell me Callista, did you know that you have a rival for-,"
"You wanted to know what happened to mother, right?" Tagerus raised his voice over Tyrion's. He could almost feel himself grow lighter for the amount of sweat he was shedding.
"And to visit her, if that is possible," his brother confirmed, a triumphant smile tugging at his lips.
"Right. Follow me," moving at a stiff gait, Tagerus turned a corner towards the mender's pavilion and pretended that he could not feel Callista's hot gaze on his back.
"It was right after the war," Tagerus began, "a trader from over the sea came looking for rare treasures and had heard about the ancient, wyrms that only live in the Blackpeak Mountains."
"The greedy skriva wanted us to hunt one of the damn things," Callista supplied with a bitter growl, "Wanted its teeth and horns."
"No one thought it was a good idea, but the whole clan was hurting for money after fighting for so long with almost no pay, and the offer was too good to pass up." Tagerus' voice softened as he went on. "I think mother and father also wanted to get everyone's minds off of the war. And you.
"It was about six months ago when we finally found one. I wasn't there, but we could hear the fight from miles off. Half the squad that was there got fried trying to bring the thing down, but they did it." Beside him Callista shivered and pulled her thin cloak tighter.
"Mother led that squad, I presume?"
"Mm-hmm. But she made it right up to the end of the battle. She was supposed to have delivered the killing blow."
"Dragon curse, then?"
Tagerus slowed to glance backwards at Callista, remembering that she had been there, had fought the monster. Even now she refused to give the full account. As she always did when the story was told she had grown sullen, seeming to withdraw into her memories. Not for the first time he wondered if she secretly blamed herself for the outcome.
"Yeah. She accidently looked into its eyes before it was died and it cast a death curse on her with its dying breath. She's been- well, it's amazing that she's held out as long as she has."
"I see," was all that Tyrion said.
The large tent that housed the wounded rose before them, set apart in the middle of an otherwise empty ring, colored a dark blue that would have made it difficult to distinguish from the night were it not for the ring of post-mounted covered lanterns. A pair of guards sat huddled in their cloaks beside the entrance flap. They did not even bother to stand to attention as Tagerus and Callista passed through the entry, though they did stare in open amazement at Tyrion.
The story was that many years ago, a clansman had stolen the massive tent from a circus and Tagerus had never had much reason to doubt the claim. With a roof held high above the ground by great oaken posts, the pavilion covered nearly an acre of ground and could easily fit most of the clan inside and still have room for the mender and her novices to move about and administer care. In times of peace such as this, when injuries and maladies were in far fewer supply, the monstrous tent seemed even bigger. A cleared space for surgeries was spread out to their right: a ring of high, bare tables with chests and cabinets of herbs, potions and less pleasant things looming over them. To the left, a candle still burned at the menders' station. Five of the six cots were occupied, though a slender, bespectacled boy remained awake at the desk, his eyes plastered to a thick volume.
Tagerus made as if to close the book for the boy, failing to garner a reaction until he read the title aloud.
"'A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Roots, Flowers, and the other Regenerative Herbs of the Known World.' Wow, that's a thick book, Arnol. How can you make it all the way through something like that?"
"Ah! Tagerus, C-Callista!" the head novice jumped, knocking his glasses askew. "I'm sorry, I didn't see you there, m'lord."
"No, no, stop that," Tagerus said, trying in vain to stop the mender from bowing. A loud snort from the pudgy head mender from her cot caused them all to lower their voices. "How many times do I have to tell you to stop that?"
Callista leaned down to rest her arms on the desk. She seemed not to notice how the young man's face reddened in proportion to her proximity, or that Arnol's quivering eyes debated whether to study her eyes or the bottom of her low neckline. Tagerus tried and failed to hold in his smile.
"How's Mother?" Callista asked.
"Fine, fine," came the answer Arnol had been trained to give about Valia's condition. "Been sleeping a lot."
Callista's face softened and Tagerus's ears caught the faint sigh.
"Well, we should probably leave her be, then," she said, straightening up. "She needs all the rest she can get."
"Well, actually, she might still be awake," Arnol corrected, then retreated further into his seat in scared confusion at the withering glare that Callista directed at him. "T-that is, she might, but maybe she hasn't. You see, I went in to check on her maybe an hour ago and she was reading, b-but she may be asleep by now, I don't know."
"Thanks," Tagerus said at once, brushing past the novice with Tyrion at his shoulder. Arnol started as the unmoving shadow became a man and his small eyes bulged at the giant sword.
"Is…is that…is that really…?"
"'Fraid so," Callista answered, hanging back a moment longer before hurrying after them.
Tagerus moved at an unerring pace down the endless rows of darkened cots, his eyes focused upon the muted point of light gleaming from within a canvas screen. The silhouette of a slight human figure could be seen within.
Tagerus had to struggle to keep his face strong as he pulled aside the curtains. Valia Senharon had once been a magnificent woman: Slender yet strong of muscle, with brown waves flowing like a banner and blue eyes that shone with an overwhelming confidence and strength. The woman that lay before him now was a pale and wasted creature. Thin as a straw, sallow skinned and with graying hair that hung limp and string-like, the great warrior queen of the Senharons had been replaced by an unrecognizable crone three times her age. Even her eyes, so bright and full of optimism and hope were as dull as stones now, empty with acceptance for her fate. Some of her old strength seemed to return at the sight of her son though, her face becoming bright again with her smile.
"Tagerus, Callista," she said, her voice a hoarse croak. "A little late for a visit, isn't it?"
"Never," Tagerus assured her, taking a thin, fragile hand between his own. Callista joined him at Valia's side, sliding her arms around the dying woman's shoulders in a loose embrace and anointing her aunt's forehead with a kiss.
Tyrion held back beyond the barrier. Tagerus could sense his brother's hovering, and for the first time in almost a year he felt himself become angry at his brother. Didn't he realize the weight he had placed upon her by leaving, what good the return of her lost son would do for her condition? He had already proven himself without fear of public scorn, so why hold back now, when his presence might actually do some good?
Valia's frail body shivered as she produced a series of harsh coughs, all that remained of her old laughter.
"But maybe this is better," she said with a lipless smile, "I was just thinking it might be better to give it up and pass on quietly. But that wouldn't do at all. It'd be a crime against Mara to leave without letting my family say a proper goodbye. Where's Constantine, and old Stregobor? Off somewhere quarreling about something, I'd imagine."
"You're not far off," said Callista, a weak, heartbreaking smile on her face. "But don't you dare give up voluntarily, mother. I won't allow it."
"You're right, of course dearest. It's not a soldier's place to give up, now is it?"
Tagerus tightened his grip as much as he dared to in his excitement at her words.
"You don't have to worry, mother," he said, smothering his anger and doubts beneath the mask of jubilation. "You really will be able to see your whole family again and tell us all goodbye. Look! Brother, get in here."
As Tyrion stepped over the threshold the things which Tagerus had most been hoping to see at last came true. Instead of scorn or disbelief, Valia just smiled, a look of warmest content; and for just a moment time ran in reverse and she was again the vibrant woman that he had always known. Tyrion, too, seemed caught in the spell. Some of the coldness of his face seemed to melt and even the deep, haunted eyes seemed to glimmer with liquid emotion.
"Mother," he whispered, reaching out for her.
"It's alright Tyrion," she answered, and took his hand.
A hundred thousand things seemed to happen in the single moment that their hands touched. Tyrion's sunken eyes grew wide with shock, his body shook with a hundred simultaneous convulsions. His mother's eyes were no less wide, her chest heaving as though she had run a league. Both Tagerus and Callista staggered backwards as a wave of sensations slammed into them, almost sending Callista sprawling out of the enclosure. Scattered images and emotions flashed through Tagerus' mind in a mad sprint; feelings of horror, despair and intense rage alongside the memories of bloodied corpses and ebony mountains and the secrets that they hid. In the very instant that he felt and saw these things they were gone from his memory, replaced by thoughts of the cold androgynous voice and the scent of blood and decay hidden beneath the sweet fragrance of cinnamon and myrrh.
Tagerus put a trembling hand to his brow and forced his eyes apart, his fingers slick with sweat. Trying in vain to steady his thundering heart, he looked back to his mother and brother; the three feet between them like a canyon, their eyes locked together in terror and disbelief. Tyrion stared at his left hand as though it had betrayed him in some way, his eyes screwed shut in a pained grimace.
"I must…go," said Tyrion, slipping further through the slit into the night. "Tagerus, I would meet you in the sparring ring tomorrow. Good night, Callista. Good night, mother."
"Tyrion, what're you-," Tagerus began to give chase but stopped short at feeling the pressure of Callista's hand upon his shoulder.
"Mother?" He saw that she was clutching at something beneath her bedclothes, her breathing heavy and visibly shaken.
"N-nothing," she said, seeming to change her mind about something. Her brows were furrowed with worry. "I- I have some things to think about. Please leave me."
Tagerus' face fell at the request, and from the corner of his eye he saw that Callista was just as upset as he.
"Yes, ma'am," he said.
"Tagerus," her voice froze them just as they turned to leave. "Please, take care of everyone when I'm gone. You and Callista both, I want you to protect this clan the way that I tried to."
"I will," was all he could say.
Arnol did not look up from his book as they passed him by, and Tyrion seemed to have melted into the night. The night had grown more chill since they had first entered the tent, and Tagerus did not object as Callista put her arm around his and snuggled up close to him.
"Let's go," she said, at once forceful and comforting.
"Right," he answered, allowing her to steer his movements. All the way back to the tent that they shared, Tagerus' thoughts remained fixated upon the strange meeting at the menders' tent. Strangely, his thoughts did not dwell upon the nightmare visions or even the momentary return of his brother, but upon the object hidden beneath his mother's shift.
'Why,' he wondered, 'would a holy pendant respond so violently to Tyrion?'
To Be Continued…
Author's Note: Next time: The tale of the war and a most strange proposal.