Garreth walked into the command tent and immediately dropped his burden on one of the cross-legged tables within. He wore full armor, so every time he moved the sound of metal striking metal was made. It was a sound he had grown to love over his lifetime. The sound of a man ready for whatever battles might come his way. A sound he once thought he would never hear again.
“Well, little brother, how goes things with the troops?”
Garreth turned to face Dethan. “Well, elder brother,” he said with a tight-lipped smile, “they are bored out of their skulls.”
“I thought you were sending out hunting parties.”
“I did. And we’ve game aplenty now. But these men have come for a fight and they are itching to do battle. I cannot say I blame them. The summer wears on, and soon you will be returning to your wife and child, taking half our forces back with you to winter. They want to see at least one more glorious battle before they go.”
“Outside this tent and a few strides away is that glorious battle to come.” Dethan moved to the front of the tent, looking out the opening and toward the city they had chosen to sack in Weysa’s name.
That was their part of the bargain, the deal that had freed the two brothers from their torments after they had drunk from the fountain. Dethan, Garreth had learned, had been thrust down into the darkest, hottest pit of the eight hells, cursed to burn to the bone over and over again, just as Garreth had been cursed to freeze. But almost a full turning of the seasons ago, the goddess had freed Dethan.
Weysa needed warriors to fight in her name. She and the other gods had grown weak as the people turned away from their faith and belief in them, for they needed the love and devotion of the people in order to gain power. And now that the twelve gods were at war, split into two factions of six, they desired power more than ever. Weysa’s faction consisted of Hella, the goddess of fate and fortune; Meru, the goddess of hearth, home, and harvest; her brother Mordu, the god of hope, love, and dreams; Lothas, the god of day and night; and Framun, the god of peace and tranquility. They warred with the opposing faction of Xaxis, the god of the eight hells; Grimu, the god of the eight heavens; Diathus, the goddess of the land and oceans; Kitari, the goddess of life and death; Jikaro, the god of anger, deception, and storms; and Sabo, the god of pain and suffering.
However, Kitari, the queen of the gods, was being held by Xaxis’s faction against her will, a fact they had discovered only last winter, when Dethan had traded away his immortality in order to discover her true intent. It had been a risky proposition, one that could easily have backfired and meant a permanent end to Dethan, but instead it had freed him fully from his curse, made him mortal, and allowed Garreth to be freed from his icy hell as well.
For every night, between dusk and the juquil’s hour, Garreth was cursed to freeze again. A reminder, he thought grimly, of what he had done and of the gods’ discontent with him. Weysa had only freed him to fight; she had not been willing to release him entirely from his curse.
But that did not matter. All that mattered was that they and their army perform well. They had Hexis, the city where Dethan’s wife ruled with Dethan, and they had conquered one other city already, this past spring, erecting temples to Weysa within its walls and filling their army with more soldiers from that city. Now it was coming on the end of summer and out there, only a short distance away, was the next city.
The city they had conquered in the spring had been easy. Almost too easy. Dissatisfyingly easy. Garreth had wanted a pitched battle, a fight to vent his anger and frustrations on.
Both of which were great and many.
But more than that, he wanted to please the goddess. Not from fear of her, although that was most certainly present, but in the hopes that she would see what powerful warriors the brothers were, what great assets they were . . . and maybe it would compel her to find and release the remaining two brothers from their torments.
Garreth and Dethan fought and conquered just the same, in the hopes that one day their brothers would be free. Yes, most of all, that was what they both fervently prayed for.
Just then a courier ran up to the tent. He handed a pair of dispatches to Dethan.
“Ah! A letter from Selinda!” Dethan said eagerly, moving back into the tent and handing the second dispatch to Garreth, unread. Dethan clearly did not care what was in the other message. The letter from his wife meant more to him than anything else.
Rescuing their brothers was a very close second to that.
“Look! Look how he’s grown!” Dethan showed a paper to Garreth excitedly. It was a very skillfully rendered and life-like miniature sketch of Dethan’s infant son. The child was nearly five wanings old, and Dethan had been campaigning for three of those wanings. Garreth and the army had conquered their city in the spring alone before Dethan had joined them at the turn of summer, as was agreed by Weysa. Dethan’s summers were hers, when he would fight, and the remaining wanings he belonged to his beloved wife, Selinda.
These wanings had been difficult on Dethan, Garreth knew. He had wanted to be with his wife and child, and the separation had often taken its toll on his mood. But Garreth had easily forgiven Dethan his surly moments. He would have felt the same had he a wife like Selinda and a child like Dethan’s fine son, Xand.
“She writes that they are both healthy and well. That—” Dethan broke off.
“Yes?” Garreth prompted.
“Well, I cannot repeat this part,” Dethan said with a wolfish grin, his eyes bright with delight as he looked up at his brother. “She would never forgive me.”
“Say no more, brother,” Garreth said, amused by the besotted man.
He was amused, but he did not smile.
He had thought he would never live to see the day his brother was in love. Of all of them, Dethan had never professed to love a woman—even in his youth, when boys tend to be reckless with giving away their hearts. But he was completely around the bend over Selinda, his devotion to her intense.
Garreth envied him that. He envied the warm home and squirming child that awaited his brother once the cold of fall came calling. Garreth would continue the campaign against the new city until it was defeated, however long that took, but Dethan would leave him to it the moment the weather turned cold.
Garreth left his brother to his letter and turned his eyes to the missive in his own hands. The paper was folded neatly and sealed with wax, which had been stamped with the intricate image of a dragon of some sort, its wings broad within the circle of the stamp. The letter was addressed:
To the Beasts at the Gate
Intrigued, Garreth broke the seal and opened the letter.
You come upon our small city with aggression and numbers. We do not ask for war, and yet you bring it. We will not stand idly by while you rape our home of its innocence and peace. Consider yourself warned. End your folly against us now and we will let you leave unharmed.
The City of Kith
“Brother, I do believe we have been threatened,” Garreth said with thoughtful amusement.
Again, without a smile.
Dethan looked up questioningly as Garreth handed him the missive. He read it quickly and promptly burst out in a rich, raucous laugh.
“Such posturing. They are weak and they know it. Once we lay siege and they begin to starve for lack of fresh game and supplies, they will be welcoming us with open arms. As it is, their mill and butchery are outside the city walls. We have already seized control of them, as well as the farmland and crops, which right now are ripe with growing grain and thick with orchards. They know they are doomed to fall to us. This is mere posturing.”
“It has spine, you have to admit.”
“It shows fear.” Dethan scoffed.
“I think it’s just the opposite,” Garreth said thoughtfully. “They sound very certain that they are not the ones in danger. Perhaps the more important question is, how did this missive reach us? The city has been locked down against us since we arrived, no one in and no one out.”
“There is always a way in or out, whatever the circumstance. There are always some enterprising sorts willing to risk running a blockade. For profit.”
“Yes, but the Kithians are violet skinned. Surely we would have noticed one of them in our camp who was not under guard.”
There were Kithians in camp, all of them prisoners of the army. Mostly farmers and others who had been caught outside the walls of the city. But as Garreth had said, they were all under guard.
“That is a puzzle, it is true,” Dethan said, a frown marring his features. He walked to the tent opening and yelled out, “You! Page! Where did you get this letter?”
The courier who had dropped off the missives stepped into the opening of the tent, leaving the conversation he’d been having with one of the command tent guards.
“A messenger from Hexis brought it only a short while ago,” the courier said.
“No, not the one from my wife. The other.”
“Other? I handed you only one missive, your most honorable.”
“I’m holding both in my hands, page,” Dethan said, showing the letters to the man.
“I . . . I only . . . But there was only one,” the page insisted, looking flustered and very honestly worried.
“Never mind. Go and get yourself a meal,” Dethan said. Then, once the young man had left, he turned back toward Garreth. “What do we make of this?”
“Altered perception? It must be some kind of magery.”
“So it seems. If they have a mage with that kind of power, we will have to be more alert. It was foolish of them to tip their hand though. We will now be on guard against it.”
“But what can we do against a mage? Especially one who can alter the mind. Your wife is the only mage we know and she is two weeks’ journey away from here.”
“My wife will remain home with my son,” Dethan said darkly. “We will not even entertain the idea of her coming on a campaign.”
“Dethan, she is a magess of fire, one of the most powerful of the mage schools—”
“Enough! We will not discuss it!”
Garreth knew by his brother’s terrible tone that it was indeed the end of the conversation. Garreth’s sister by marriage, however powerful she might be, would never be allowed from behind the safety of Hexis’s walls. Not for anything, and certainly not for war.
“Then how are we to prepare for whatever tricks they have planned? This is clearly a mage of some kind of mindcraft.”
“Perhaps. The best way to battle this is by using deception and great numbers. No mage is strong enough to fool an entire army, but they can do damage in small increments. It is most important that they don’t know where you and I are. As leaders, we are the ones giving commands and we cannot allow ourselves to be tricked into giving false commands.”
“Not an easy ploy considering your armor is black. It rather stands out.”
“As does yours with its golden hue. We will have to wear other armor.”
“But both of our armors are god made. And you are no longer immortal, brother. I do not wish to see you—”
“I was fighting wars without immortality for a very long time. Do you not trust that I can come away from this alive and well again?”
“Of course I do. I only meant . . . I would not wish to take unnecessary chances. Not when such a valuable tool such as our armor is available to us.”
“It is not ideal of course, but it will have to be. I will call a page to find us suits of common armor. You cannot be killed except with a god-made weapon, and since I am the only one with a god-made sword, you have little to worry about.”
“I would not say that,” Garreth said with a grimace. He moved toward the opening of the tent. “Dusk comes.”
Dethan frowned, his clover-green eyes expressing his deep regret, his awareness of what his brother was suffering, and the guilt of knowing it was his folly that had led Garreth to it.
But Garreth had willingly followed Dethan. He had made the choice of his own free will to go on their quest for the fountain. He had been weak and was now paying the price for not being strong against his brothers’ cajoling coercions.
“Brother . . .” Dethan began.
“Dusk comes every night,” Garreth said quietly. “Will you flagellate yourself every time?”
“Yes,” Dethan said simply.
“I wish you would not” was all Garreth could say. Then he left the tent and began to head toward the orchards that stood a little ways away from the encampment. He headed for the section of marjan trees that had turned from a healthy white to a sickly brown, the only trees in the orchards not bearing leaves or fruit. Both had fallen to the ground the day after they had first come to Kith. The day after his first dusk in the orchard.
He stood among those barren trees and slowly removed his armor. Piece by piece, he set it down onto the ground a few feet away from where he eventually stood waiting.
The moment the first touch of darkness bled into the sky, the grasses beneath his feet began to turn white with frost. The frost crept outward in an ever-widening circle, overtaking the dead trees, climbing up the bark and into the branches. Had there been leaves left, they too would have frosted over.
He began to feel the cold seeping into his bones and he could not help but shudder. He tried not to brace against it, tried in vain to just let it come without his body resisting it and causing him even more pain in the long run. But he tensed just the same, his heartbeat racing as his breath began to cloud upon the air.
He dropped to his knees, falling forward onto his hands, as pain screamed through his freezing muscles. His body shuddered again and again in a futile effort to try to warm itself. He felt everything within him turning to solid ice, from bones to sinew to flesh. The insides of his ears, his eyes in his sockets, his scrotum and his penis. Eventually his lungs and heart froze solid and he could no longer breathe. When that happened he fell, a solid block of iced flesh, to the ground.
And after an hour he began to thaw . . .
. . . only to freeze again.