The Oath Undone part 2

Oath Undone... continued from part 1

     Bergren camped near a small tavern, Swamp Light, which lay close to the swamp. He could’ve stayed in the main room overnight for two copper, but he’d rather keep an eye on the place, see who showed up.

     The tavern keeper, a round ruddy man, wiped circle motions along the bar. He looked Bergren up and down. “Afraid it’s early yet, we don’t have food since most customers come in near about dusk. Mead is five copper, and mead is what we’ve got. Ain’t got nothing else.”

     “Mead’s fine.” Bergren sauntered up to the bar and sat heavily on the stool. Leather creaked and metal clanked. He retrieved the copper from a pouch on his belt and tossed them on the bar.

     The tavern keeper picked up the coins, nodding. He plopped a thin, dented pewter mug on the bar, spilling mead in the process.

     “I’m looking for a man, goes by the name of Dag.”

     The barkeep glanced down to where the sword hid out of view, beneath the bar. “Everybody’s looking for somebody, mister.” He ran his rag around an empty mug. “This man in some kind of trouble?”

     “No trouble. I’m looking to employ him. There’s a silver in it for you, if you know where I can find him.”

     The tavern keeper chewed on his lower lip. “I know of him.” He ran the rag around another mug, never taking his eyes off of Bergren.

     Bergren pulled the silver from his pouch and played it over his fingers. 

     The keep’s eye lit up. “Dag, you say. He lives near here, but he ain’t the sort of man you should be employing. He’s a mage. Good or bad, I don’t know, but there’s stories about what he keeps out in the swamp.”

     “What kinds of things?” Bergren pulled out another silver. 

     The tavern keeper nearly drooled as he stared at the coins. “Monster dogs, it’s said. Used to be seen when a kid would go missing, but that was several years ago. People think he fed those kids to the demon dogs.”

     “Have you seen him lately?”

     “He rode through just this last week. A woman was with him.”

     Bergren felt the squeezing in his chest again. “Did you see her?”

     “No, not me. But I heard she was fairly young looking. Oh, no, not a kid, but still. He must mean to feed her to his monsters.” 

     “How do I find him?” He beat the barkeep to it this time, adding a third silver to the bribe.

     “Just go north. You can’t miss the trail. He follows it up into the swamp, and from there I can’t say. Nobody dares go in there.” He leaned in close and Bergren smelled the liquor on his breath. “You won’t either, if you’re smart.”

     Bergren dropped the silver on the bar. He never touched the mead.

#

     He followed the trail as dawn crept over the high branches above the swamp floor. Murky light filtered down onto the muddy terrain and stagnant water. Following the trail, he watched for the demon dogs, wanting to avoid them until he found Galina. His mind reeled with doubts. What if she wasn’t there? Perhaps Dag was raiding another castle, looking for more royal children at this very moment. Bergren backtracked and left most of his armor behind, hidden beneath underbrush. Without the extra weight, his boots didn’t sink as far into the mud.

     Picking his path carefully, he tried to find the driest route. Growling rose on the wind in the distance. A snake slithered over his boot. He remembered old man Yuri’s words, “the darkness.” He was headed in the right direction. 

     Near dusk, he found the hut. Two large demon dogs slept in front of the door. Closing his eyes, he sent a prayer to the God Herodius. Even if he held off the monsters when they surrounded him, how would he counteract the magician’s magic? It didn’t matter. He’d die for his wife, if it’d give him the slightest chance of killing her and saving her from the blood oath.

     Bergren scoured the ground for fist-sized rocks before climbing up a tree. The rough bark tore at his tunic. “Here dogs!” he shouted. “Bring your darkness to my sword!” 

     The monsters lifted their heads, ears flat and teeth exposed in dripping muzzles. They leapt toward Bergren, gaze darting, looking for the prey.

     Bergren threw the rocks, keeping them on track. 

     The first beast circled the tree, sniffing. 

     Bergren took aim and jumped down, sword first. The weapon pierced through the dog’s head, pinning it to the weeds beneath. Black smoke rose from the corpse. He didn’t have time to pull the sword free. A door slammed, but he didn’t look. 

     The other animal bent low before him, ready to pounce.

     Bergren rolled into the water, and the demon dog jumped in after. He held his breath and sank lower, watching the heinous feet make bubbles in the stagnant pool as the beast splashed about the surface. It wasn’t easy to see in the murky water. Pulling loose his dagger, he swam to the side, looking for a way past the sharp claws. 

     A shrill voice called and the beast, now across the pool, climbed out. 

     Bergren surfaced among wild green and yellow stalks near the edge. He crawled to his sword, fighting the mud pulling at his arm and legs. Grabbing a tree root, he extracted himself from the mud. It made a sucking sound as his leg came out, its last attempt to claim him, bury him. With his free hand, Bergren yanked his sword out of the dead demon dog’s skull. 

     The dog from the water jumped him from behind, tearing a gash in his back. 

     Bergren fell, dropping his knife and holding the sword’s hilt in both hands. 

     The dog turned and leapt, head down, looking for the kill. The animal came down fast, mouth swallowing the ready sword. Whimpering, it tried to pull back, too late. It fell in a heap on top of Bergren, blood pouring from its mouth drenched him. Smoke rose once more. Without the blackness, the animal looked drawn and pale.

     He rolled the demon dog off of him, freed his sword and sat. His back ached and threatened to lock. Drawing in a deep breath, he steadied himself.

     “Who are you, and why are you killing my pets?” Dag stood before him, hands on hips, Galina behind him. She held her head down, keeping her gaze lowered. Her hair hung loose about her shoulders, hiding her face.

     He wanted to tell her everything would be okay, that he forgave her, that he could save her from this nightmare. “I’m here for my wife.”

     “Oh, you must be Lord Bergren. You can’t have her back.” His lips curved in a wicked smile. “She’s mine now. I could have been happy to have your daughter instead, but Lady Bergren sweetened the deal. Revenge on your grandfather who slew my uncle, sending my family into despair, and a blood oath slave to serve me. It didn’t even cost me the dog. I got that from the other baby.” The grin fell as he touched what was left of his pet. “Perhaps it did cost me the dog. I was hoping you’d come. Your daughter, as my pet, would have sought you out and killed you easily as my pet. I have longed for your death for many years.” He sighed while glancing at the remains of his dogs. “You have caused me much trouble. I shall return the favor.” He whistled loudly. Crashes sounded in the distance. “Galina, my dear, please kill this man.”

     Bergren rose to his feet.

     Dag raised a hand, and Bergren doubled over in pain. “Not yet. There, you see? My pets.” Four more demon dogs burst through the brush. Dag spoke in an archaic language, and the dogs ran off into the undergrowth, southbound. “I’ve sent them to lay siege to your castle. Which will you save, your daughter and reputation, or your cursed wife? I don’t really care either way, as long as you’re dead.” He tilted his head to the side, chuckling. “Goodbye.” He returned to the shack leaving Galina.

     “Galina.”

     She looked up for the first time, a tear sliding down her cheek. Her eyes burned red like fire for a moment, then were hazy green. “You shouldn’t have come.”

     “Nothing would have stopped me.”

     She stepped forward, her body wrapped in a dark blue cloak. “I’m not Galina anymore. I’m a killer.”

     “I know.”

     “Do you not care what I’ll do now, Lord Bergren?” She sighed. “Latham, my love.” Her hand flashed out, dagger thrusting toward his chest.

     He grabbed her wrist, wishing to prolog his time with her, even for just a moment.

     She struggled and shook her head. “I don’t eat. I don’t sleep. I’m the demon he would have made of Tafiana, just like those dogs.”

     “I won’t leave you.” His heart ached with the task he had to do.

     “You’re the gallant knight of my youth’s heart, wielding Dark Slayer.” She looked at the sword in his hand. “Don’t believe in me. I’m the darkness, his evil.” She kicked at his shins.

     Lifting the newly titled Dark Slayer, he brought the hilt down on her forehead. Dark Slayer contained magic of old, but he’d never needed it before. It was untested in his hands until he faced the demon dogs.

     Galina screamed, dropping the dagger. He hit her again. She fell to the ground and was still. 

     Bergren knelt, checking for her breath. Reassured, he rose and faced the hut. Dag must not see tomorrow’s light. Bergren burst through the door, knocking it off its hinges. He rolled and came up on one knee, sword before him.

     Dag was gone.

     He checked for a back door, but found nothing. Bergren tossed tables, knocked over a bookshelf, and made a mess of the place. He noticed the edge of a rug upturned. Pushing it aside with a mud dried boot, he saw the trap door. It opened to an earthen passageway. A tunnel underground in a swamp? Impossible. But Dag was a magician. 

     Something hit Bergren from behind, fiery hot. Losing control of his spasming muscles, he fell twisting his back toward the wall in the process. Dag stood behind him shooting blazing white light from his fingers. Where had he been hiding?

     The light splinters stopped, and Dag called out for Galina.

     Bergren shook, but he was able to lift the sword with both hands. His heart beat fast and sweat soaked his body. Dag was doing something else, preparing more burning magic to come, but he stepped back, hands empty. Bergren lunged. The sword ripped into the man’s middle. Dag screamed, grabbing at the blade. The sword slipped out of Bergren’s sweaty hands. Dag fell to his knees and jerked the weapon out of his stomach, screaming again, clutching at the growing splotch of blood coursing down his robe. He almost fell when he stood. Leaning against the wall, Dag limped down the passageway under the swamp. 

     If he were a regular man, he’d die from that wound, but Bergren wasn’t taking chances with the magician. He searched the room for a torch, but before he found one, Galina ran in, stabbing him in the shoulder. He turned and slapped her face, hard enough to send her flying backward into the wooden wall. 

     She screamed like an animal. He pulled the dagger free, his shoulder burning and back aching. Springing forward, He pinned her to the wall with a hand around her neck.

     “End this, I beg you.” She beat on him with fists and feet. Tears streamed down her face. “Don’t leave me in this cursed life.”

     “Were there another way, my love. My heart aches with my need for you.”

     “While I try to kill you every chance I get?”

     His eyes burned and his throat closed, every muscle tight with strain. The time had come. He drew Dark Slayer, pausing only a moment to kiss her soft lips. She was hot to the touch. Bergren slid Dark Slayer through her gut. Galina gasped, gripped the blade with both hands, looked up and smiled. Black smoke rose from her hair and face.

     His body was frozen. The bittersweet task of saving her through her own death left him empty, hollow.

     “I’m free.” Reaching out a bloody hand, she brushed it lightly on his wet cheek before crumpling around the sword. He let her slide to the floor.

     Pulling at his hair, he turned his head upward and screamed. The pain and sorrow overwhelmed him. He picked his wife up and held her tight to his chest, crying. His swollen throat ached with sobs. “My love, oh my love.” He moaned.

     She was gone.

     Sometime later, he found a torch and followed after Dag. The magician lay prone on the dusty stone floor, blood pooling around his unmoving body. Bergren cut his throat, just to be certain. Black smoke hissed as it rose from the body, just like with the dogs. Bergren cut off Dag’s hands. If the black smoke wasn’t enough for the death of this fiend, now he wouldn’t be able to heal himself with his hands if he knew how. Dag was dead. It didn’t seem enough after the pain, the torture he’d brought into Bergren’s life. 

     Bergren cleaned the blood from Dark Slayer, and replaced it on his hip. He carried the body of his wife out of the swamp and back home. His castle was ablaze when he arrived. He’d lost half of the guards and dozens of peasants to the dark monsters. After the clean up, he summoned Linnea and Tafiana home. The funeral drained him, leaving his spirit hollow like an empty tome, full of haunting echoes.

     He often visited the family vault, and sat beside Galina on the cold stone. Her face was thin, pale against the white dress under the cotton shroud. “I loved you more than anything, and I still do.” He released his breath in a gush, and rubbed at the dark circles under his eyes. “Let Herodius guide you home.”

     He climbed the long stairs, crossed the halls and stepped out into the fresh air. 

     Little Tafiana ran over and gave him a handful of wildflowers, while Linnea watched from a blanket in the shade. The sun beamed down warming the day. Linnea smiled, waving. Tafiana skipped in circles, laughing. Her small arms bounced in the rhythm. She was all that was left of Galina. 

     Bergren wondered what lengths he would go to, to protect his sweet girl. Galina knew.
  

 
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