Bonus: The Last of the Dhealg'seala (Part One)

Char has a two-parter for you folks!  This is part one of a short focusing on Camden and Elric Briarseal.  Part two will be posted on Saturday.

This is more backstory, and it's set earlier than any short yet posted, quite a ways in the past.

Also, if you just found The Peacock King Story Archive, please start at Chapter One and read in the order that things have been posted, because that's the way the story (probably) makes the most sense.  Come April 11th I'll start posting Novel II in The Peacock King Trilogy: The Peacock King in Court.  So uh...I guess you've been warned.


I stared out over the battlefield, forcing myself to gaze at the tangled mess of ruined bodies and broken weapons until the pressure in my throat threatened to choke me unconscious.  I almost wished it would.  Unconscious was better than having to look into my brother's eyes and face the reproach in his eyes, the cold condemnation of the coward I was.  

Ach, 'Richt, you know me better than that.

I sighed and looked down at him.  My brother, so fierce and capable and a good head shorter than me, glared up at me with one hard blue eye.  His other was swollen shut, which was probably just fine considering the amount of blood trickling down his face from the larger of his scalp wounds.  Blood in the eyes stings.  

The sheer weight of his regard prompted me to cast my coward's eyes back to the battlefield.  That, too, was intensely uncomfortable, so I looked at my feet.  Surely my feet were safe.

They were scuffed, my sandals scuffed.  Cam's feet were caked with mud and blood where there weren't openly bleeding wounds.  One of his sandals was halfway torn off, hanging on by a few strained leather straps.  He had fought hard, fought proudly as the Crhlaigr... before he left behind his clan and the battle to protect his weak brother.

If I had picked up the sword instead of the quill, would he bear fewer wounds?

"Aye, because I would be lying dead with our father."  

I winced, not from the idea of our father lying still, but from the emotionless tone of Camdhegn's voice.  

He set his shoulders and lifted his chin, for a moment looking much older than his fourteen years.  "Come.  Let us see if more of our clan live."  I understood from the way the words fell from his lips that he didn't expect to find any, but it was his assumed duty as Laigr.  As the head of our people, it was his duty not only to lead our people into battle, but to survive the damned things so that he could personally finish off the mortally wounded before our enemies could do such dishonor.  It was pitiful enough to be so weak as to allow another not of the Clans to take your life; being so weak as to allow the enemy to slack off on their duty of completely killing you was worse than emasculating.  

Warriors of the Clan Dhealg'seala simply did not survive battles in anything less than full health.  If a battle-wound was crippling, the Laigr showed mercy by cutting their lives off and gifting them with a noble death rather than allow them to suffer through life as a drain on the clan.  Their families would celebrate the warrior's brave demise, and only the Laigr would know of the supposed mercy-killing, and even the Laigr would do their best to forget that the duty had ever been performed.  

As my brother walked before me, I found myself looking him over for any sign of permanent, disabling injury and shuddered.  To my relief, all his wounds were relatively superficial.  He'd have an impressive set of new scars, but nothing that would gain him so much as a slight limp.  I nearly stumbled as my unacknowledged worry that my brother would be injured enough to expect me to end his life left me in one hard gasp of relief.

He glanced back, eyebrows raised, and continued walking once he realized I was suffering no harm.  "Take the sunward side, 'Richt.  I'll account the other."

"A'right."  I was grateful that he had apportioned me the section with fewer bodies.

As we slogged through the mud, I did my best to concentrate on accounting for our kin, rather than ponder the conditions that created the field's particular consistency.  I had long since adapted to the particular stench of an ended battle -- my tunic bore witness to the moments earlier in the day when the horrifying tang of blood and death first slapped my senses, and I emptied my stomach in the corner of my favorite bolt-hole.  It seemed strange that I was so relatively at ease; the battle was still fresh enough in history that the spring flies had not yet begun to swarm the bodies.  I had to marvel a moment at my own sense of detachment as I nudged a severed hand to one side with my toes, glancing down and noting the identity of the body nearest to it.

Kaereg dul'Dhealg'seala.  His skull was hollowed in the back, luckily a side that was facing away from me.  He had died with a rather surprised expression on his face.  Rather like how he lived, actually.  I snorted a small laugh, causing Cam to look up my way in worry.

"Elricht, are you a'right?"

"Just as a stream, brother," I said, choking back another giggle.  He raised an eyebrow, presumably questioning my sanity, but went back to examining his own section of the field's dead.

Kaereg's sister Thennet was lying several feet away, the end of her long brown braid cut, likely as some manner of trophy.  She had been kind to me, one of the few defenders of Cam's weakling elder brother, and one of the few who had been willing to train with me by moonlight.  My brother had been selective of those he chose to work with me, people he knew would not take the "learn or die trying" approach to mastering the weapons of our clan.  She had been particularly pleased when I finally disarmed her one moonless night, standing over her with the thin blade of my sword at her throat, laughing at the idiotic expression of surprise on my face.

"'Richt, you just might be able to save your own life," she had laughed.  I still had my doubts, but as I clasped her hand and helped pull her to her feet, I couldn't deny the small thrill I felt in my chest at my accomplishment.  Thennet was one of Clan Dhealg'seala's favored warriors, known for her lightning-quick reflexes and deadly aim.  I had truly shown aptitude when I had defeated her; I was not to be faulted any flush of pride.

I knelt down and closed her eyes.  Her forehead was still furrowed in concentration, one hand reaching toward Kaereg.  Her sword and her opponent were nowhere to be seen, but the set of drag-marks in the earth told me all I needed to know about what had happened to her opponent... and likely the person unfortunate enough to have managed to kill Kaereg.

The next few were mercifully easy for me to tally.  I had few friends among our clan.

I found no sign of the Dirybvik raiders amongst the bodies.  As usual, they had carried away every trace of their own, from the smallest scrap of cloth to their weapons and dead.  All that remained was our own, scattered and broken.  Mercifully, it appeared that the Dirybvik had managed to mortally wound every one of our own on their way out, however it was that they managed to disappear so quickly from the battlefield.

A low curse and the sound of my brother's sword piercing flesh corrected my assumption.  I looked towards the river and watched my brother perform the gestures of pardon.  Something about the scene seemed off, until I realized that it was simply because my brother was wearing the wrong badge over his cape.  I was mildly surprised that he hadn't taken the time to find the Laigr-badge before performing this duty. 

I suppose even my brother is susceptible to shock.  It's not something I would naturally accord him, but for all that he was now Laigr, he is human.

Of course that moment of observation would mark the moment I discovered our father's body.  I looked down at him a moment, glanced up at my brother, and moved on.  I would save this moment for last, after we had finished accounting the rest of our clan.

As the sun touched the hills, Cam straightened and marched directly for me.  I nodded, anticipating his question before he was even within earshot, and gestured towards the corpse of the previous Laigr.  He reached it before I did, kneeling by his side and unpinning the badge of the Laigr and clasping it in his hand, deep in thought.  

"How many?" he asked, his voice low. 

"Twenty-three, Laigr."

He nodded.  "Forty-eight by my count as well.  As I feared, brother."  He frowned down at our father's body.  "Elricht, does anything strike you as odd about this body?"

"Er..."  I looked down at it, suppressing a shiver of revulsion.  "I'm sorry, but all things considered, nothing appears out of the ordin..."  I blinked, then looked up at my brother in confusion.  "Cam?  He was running away from the battle."

"Yes.  He was running away from the front.  He was escaping."

"Cam... but... why?"

His lips flattened, letting me come to my own conclusions.

I closed my eyes against the small wave of sorrow.  "Cammie?  What do we do now?"

He stood, wiping sweat and blood from his forehead, squinting into the sunset.  "I don't know."  His eye turned to me, hard and assessing.  "What do you think?"

"May I make a suggestion?"

Camdhegn whirled and struck before I had even finished drawing my sword.  I blinked, startled by the sight of his broadsword captured in the tines of a rather large battle-fork, the great weight of the weapon casually held in the hands of a very tall and well-dressed stranger.  Strange in the fullest sense of the word; his manner of dress was completely alien to us, and the way his tongue formed our language was off in that particular way that said it had never used our speech until that moment.  His red hair was unbound like a woman's, but I was learned enough to realize that didn't automatically mean he wanted to be one.  

As a matter of fact, I was willing to bet that even if that was the case in his culture, he would be able to leave his hair unbound, and none would dare say anything about it.  Ever.

My brother bared his teeth and flexed, but his sword remained locked in the battle-fork's grip.  Belatedly, I realized I should have drawn and attacked as well, but something about the situation told me that not only would the gesture have been useless, but Cam's attack had been unnecessary as well.

"Laigr," I said as softly as I could and still be heard by my brother, "I do not think this man means us harm."

"He appears out of nowhere like the Dirybvik, and you just assume everything is a'right?" he grumbled, even as his arms began to relax.

I smiled meekly, glancing at the stranger.  "I beg your forgiveness, brother, but I have the distinct impression that should he have intended our demise, it would have been accomplished without us managing to learn of his presence beforehand."

"Quite," the red-haired man said, cracking a small grin.

Cam blinked at me, then dropped his right hand from the hilt of his sword.  "As you say, brother."  Without even one whisper of motion from the stranger, his sword fell free of the battle-fork.  Camdhegn sheathed it and crossed his arms, granting the stranger a respectful nod.  The stranger nodded in return, the battle-fork glowing briefly as it somehow melted into a light sword, which he then sheathed.

Camdhegn drew a deep breath.  "As Laigr Dhealg'seala, I greet you upon the lands of the Clan Dhealg'seala.  Forgive my abrupt response.  As you can see, we have suffered a harsh blow this day, and..."  he paused, his expression cracking a little.

"A warm welcome to you," I broke in, moving to stand next to my brother, my eyes flitting briefly to the hilt of the sword at the stranger's side.  Cam nodded to me, his lips tight as he fought back the emotions threatening to catch him.  "We cannot accommodate you with all hospitality due a visitor to our holds, but while you are amongst us, our weapons guard you and our bread feed you."  I hoped it was a fair enough greeting to meet the Laigr's standards.  My brother's one blue eye was almost warm with gratitude as he gave me the barest nod of thanks.

The stranger looked past us, his forehead furrowing as he examined the ruined fields of our clan's land and our dead.  "None would fault your hospitality, especially given the present situation," he said quietly.  He glanced at Cam for one long moment, his gold eyes respectfully assessing, then turned his attention to me.  "On behalf of the Empire of Crux Radia, we offer refuge to the survivors of Clan Dhealg'seala of Rhivend..."  He paused, his jaw working a moment.  "Should the Laigr wish it, the Emperor of Crux Radia has offered a private audience to the Laigr Dhealg'seala to discuss the latest hostilities provoked by the nation of Dirybvik."

Some light went off in my head, and I gave my brother the tiniest of mental nudges.  Accept.

Why?  Since when does the Clan Dhealg'seala kneel so low as to accept the charity of strangers like the lowest of beggars?

Since we...  I paused, then swallowed.  Brother.  I see that this is the correct course of action.  

Camdhegn's blue eye snapped up, piercing me with the force of his gaze.  "You have seen it, Elricht?"

My eyes flicked nervously to the stranger's, then back to my brother.  "Aye, Laigr."

He sighed and straightened, rolling his shoulders back.  "Then that is what we shall do."  He nodded to the emissary.  "We accept the Emperor Crux Radia's offer, and are deeply grateful to him for his show of... mercy."  Personally, I think the phrasing could have used a little less bitterness than the edge my brother put into it, but the emissary merely nodded, taking no offense.

"If there is no further business here?"  

I shook my head, and Camdhegn looked down at our father's remains.  "No.  This is finished."

The emissary nodded, his eyes warm as he canted his head towards Camdhegn.  "Let us be on our way, then.  Jhe o'Radia is expecting us."  I tucked away that small bit of titular information as I watched him draw his sword once more, holding it point-down, perpendicular to the ground.  Camdhegn straightened, standing as tall as he physically could, and pinned the Laigr's badge so that it overlapped the Crhlaigr badge holding his cape in place over his shoulders.

The sword dropped to the ground, and the lands of the Clan Dhealg'seala of the Rhivend vanished from my eyes.

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