Gilroy limped backwards, uncertain of what had just happened. Cullen’s blade had found the exposed flesh just above the chausses of his right leg, but his enemy did not press his advantage. Instead, Cullen of Clan Ultan cautiously backed away. The wound to Gilroy’s inner thigh was not deep, but it bled badly. He knew that it would not be long before he became too weak to stand. Perhaps that is what he waits for, Gilroy grimly mused.
The duel had begun on horseback with lance and shield, but neither man had claimed victory, so they had dismounted while their horses had been led from the field. The two had then begun a dance of swords, one that had lasted for far longer than Gilroy would have liked. He was twice the age of his opponent, but had been thrice as fatigued when his defenses had lowered enough to allow Cullen’s blade inside. Gilroy was not a wealthy man, so the armor he wore was modest. It contained several weak points, and Cullen had deftly found one.
Panting and near to exhaustion, Gilroy spared a brief glance to his left. Brenna, as the accuser, sat in an isolated wooden chair just above the hedge that encircled the field. There was a large crowd gathered in the stands beyond the hedges, but none dared to venture close to Gilroy’s wife. Her stomach was round with child, and no one knew who the father truly was. Young and fair, Brenna was of an age with Cullen, though her emerald eyes, filled with concern, were not for the younger combatant, but for Gilroy. Her face was ashen while her lip trembled with fear, for she saw the stream of blood that continued to spill from her husband’s leg.
Gilroy returned his attention to Cullen. If he lost, if the gods found him to be unworthy, his wife would suffer as well. He could not, would not allow this to happen.
Throwing aside everything he had ever learned of swordplay, Gilroy of Clan Caedmon loosed a scream and rushed forward. This berserker’s charge caught Cullen unaware and allowed Gilroy the chance to wade in close enough to do the unexpected. Instead of using his blade, which could never hope to penetrate the full armor that his opponent wore, Gilroy reached out with his free hand to take hold of the haute-piece at Cullen’s right shoulder. Holding firm to his enemy’s armor, he then quickly backpedaled. Cullen, no doubt stunned by this improvised and unorthodox move, stumbled and fell forward, managing only to swivel his body around as he fell so that he landed on his back instead of his chest.
The armor that had offered Cullen so much protection was now the source of his doom, as its massive weight held him firmly in place on the ground.
Gilroy did not repeat the mistake that Cullen had made only a few moments earlier. Pressing his advantage, he fell atop his downed foe to straddle his chest with a knee to either side. He then used his sword to strike Cullen’s blade from his hand.
Now that his opponent was at his mercy, Gilroy had only to find a way to finish him off for true. Twirling his blade around, he positioned it so that he could drive the tip downward, but his ever-mounting fatigue and the thickness of his enemy’s armor prevented him from striking a killing blow. The best he could manage was a few minor dents, all while Cullen squirmed and rocked in a vain effort to fight his way free.
I will bleed to death before I can strike a killing blow, Gilroy fretted. This thought gave him pause. Perhaps this was to be the judgment of the gods. Perhaps he was meant to meet his end on this field.
He spared another glance towards his wife. It was good that she could not see his face beneath his helm, for his eyes would have betrayed him. If he failed, if his blade was not true this day, it would mean that Brenna’s accusation had been false.
“No,” he said through gritted teeth as he returned his attention to Cullen. “Admit your guilt!” he screamed as he again stabbed at his opponent’s breast plate, this time to place a dent squarely in the eye of the rampant fox of Clan Ultan.
“I have committed no crime!” Cullen shouted in defiance.
“Liar!” Gilroy screamed as he began stabbing at Cullen’s helm. The blows proved to be ineffectual, as they merely slid off to either side as his enemy continued to wiggle and squirm.
A change of tactic was needed, and quickly, so Gilroy focused his attention upon the lock that held Cullen’s visor in place. His first blows bounced harmlessly aside, but Cullen sensed the danger and began to writhe even more beneath the weight upon his chest. Gilroy quickly realized that his blade was not going to work, so he shifted his sword around so that he could use the hilt to land a rapid flurry of hammer blows, all born of desperation and need.
The lock broke free.
A quick flash of Gilroy’s blade flipped the visor up to reveal the handsome, young face beneath. Quivering with battle rage, Gilroy glared downward into the dark eyes that had bewitched his wife. “Admit your guilt,” he growled as he positioned his blade over his enemy’s face.
Cullen took a deep breath and then shouted, “I am innocent! I swear to the gods that I have committed no crime!”
Gilroy froze. Cullen’s demeanor, his defiance in the face of certain death was disconcerting. He again spared a glance to his wife. She nodded, urgently beseeching her husband to prove her accusations true.
“You bewitched my wife,” Gilroy said in a voice so soft that only the two of them could hear. “You stole into her presence while I was away. You violated and defiled her, and now your bastard seed festers within her womb. My blade will now prove her words to be true.”
Oddly, Cullen smiled. “Strike and we shall see.”
Uncertainty knotted Gilroy’s gut, but he had no choice but to strike. To yield now would be to admit that his wife had spoken falsely, so he offered a silent prayer to the gods and then steeled his nerves. “The gods grow tired of your false words,” he snarled as he tightened his two-handed grip upon the hilt. He then drove his blade downward into the source of his enemy’s lies. Cullen convulsed twice, and then he moved no more.
The crowd offered a strident cheer at the killing blow, but suddenly grew deathly silent as Gilroy struggled to his feet. His blade protruded upward from Cullen’s gaping mouth like a macabre flagpole sans its banner, and he considered reclaiming it, but he lacked the strength to pull it free, as his life continued to bleed away from the wound to his leg. It obviously required immediate attention, but there was still a bit of ceremony that remained. Standing to full attention, Gilroy removed his helm as he turned to face the arbitrator of this duel, Morgance, the Beguine of Thislen Province.
“My lady,” he said as he bowed his head. A bout of dizziness overcame him and nearly caused him to topple forward, but he managed to keep his feet. “Is Andarta pleased?”
Attired in an elegant emerald gown ornamented with golden embroidery, the Beguine lifted a dark eyebrow as her ice-blue eyes examined first Gilroy and then Cullen. The gathered crowd began to stir in anticipation of her pronouncement, but she quickly quieted them with a raised hand. She then shut her eyes. It looked as if she was deep in thought, or perhaps in conversation with the gods themselves.
At length the Beguine opened her eyes. Standing, she raised her black scepter for all to see. “Gilroy of Clan Caedmon,” she said in a loud voice as she slammed her scepter downward against the wooden stands at her feet. “I have spoken with Andarta, the goddess of honor and combat.”
Gilroy swallowed as he once again offered a bow of his head. His knees began to wobble a bit as he prepared to speak the final, necessary words of the ceremony. “Have I done my duty?”
Her eyebrow once again lifted. “No,” she simply stated.
“No!” Brenna wailed. “Gilroy!”
In a daze, Gilroy turned towards his wife. Guards had suddenly appeared at her sides, and they now used the tips of lengthy spears to prod her forward, out of her chair and over the hedges. With an anguished wail she toppled the short distance to the dust-covered ground.
Gilroy’s remaining strength deserted him as he watched his wife struggle to regain her feet. He wanted to go to her side, but his body betrayed him and instead sent him to his knees. “What have you done?” he whispered.
His wife’s response was another mournful keen.
“Andarta is not pleased,” the Beguine stated. “And neither is Anann.”
The sound of metal moving and shifting caught Gilroy’s attention, then. It came from behind, so he slowly swiveled his head. Cullen, blade still protruding from his mouth, was sitting upright. He did not use his hands or arms, but instead simply pulled his torso upright in a most frightening manner. He then slowly reached out to grasp the sword by its hilt so that it could be pulled free from his mouth. After he had woodenly tossed the blood-stained sword aside, he removed his helm and then turned his head towards Gilroy. Skin that had been pale was now tinted bluish gray, while eyes that had been as dark as night were now as white as snow.
“Anann protect me,” Gilroy whispered. But the goddess of death had already forsaken him, had she not? Her judgment was made, it seemed.
Around him the gathered crowd slowly began to stomp their feet in unison. A low chant of “draen, draen, draen,” then began.
As the chant grew louder, the wailing of his wife ceased. On her knees, she reached an imploring hand towards her husband as tears streamed down her cheeks. “Please forgive me,” she whispered. “I never meant…I never thought…I did not believe…”
Her words trailed off as her eyes began to lose focus. A violent spasm racked her lithe form as her porcelain skin began to turn a sickly shade of gray. A haze swirled to cover the emerald of her eyes, coating them in deathly white.
“We are all guilty,” Gilroy said as he lowered his head in defeat. From behind, he could hear the Cullen-thing as it slowly staggered across the ground towards him. The undead monstrosity that had been his wife was now on its feet as well. It reached for him with greedy hands as it staggered near, its mouth hinged open in hunger.
He knew the truth, now. Brenna had spoken falsely. She had not been violated, but had willingly lain with Cullen, and now his child grew within her womb. Her accusation of rape had been false, and now she would be made to suffer an eternity of torment at the feet of Anann. For having committed the sin of adultery, Cullen’s soul was forfeit as well. Their unborn child was an innocent, but it was also doomed, as Anann was ravenous and devoured any soul that ventured too close.
Gilroy of Clan Caedmon was guilty as well. He had murdered a man falsely accused, but, and far worse, he was also guilty of stupidity. He had believed his wife when he should have known the truth, should have seen it in her eyes. She was young and fair while he was old and broken down, so of course she had sought out another man’s bed.
He knew not which sin was worse, but there would be ample time to reason out this enigma. Having witnessed Anann’s draen before, he knew that their unnatural hunger was always directed towards the soft flesh of their victim’s stomach. Gilroy’s was covered in armor plating, so it would take the two draens quite a while to rip and tear their way through.
Resigned to his fate, Gilroy offered no resistance as two sets of dead hands bore him to the ground.