Fandom: Baldur's Gate
Prompt: #88, Mary McLeod Bethune (not used)
Summary: One who serves warfare must cross the earth to seek it, even after the end. Branwen.
Not yet is the spirit of that pristine valor
extinct in you, when girt with steel and lofty flames
once we fought against the empire of heaven... - La Strage degli Innocenti, Giambattista Marino, trans. RT
They saw the warrior stride into the town. Fair-headed, she was, below a steel helm that left her face part bare, yellow hair halfway down her shoulders; her features planed and long and proud, and her eyes the green of the sky before a livid storm strikes. She was tanned and weathered for travelling below harsh skies, a mole on her cheek and an old silvered scar that began on the bare upper part of her neck, and she was not tall. She bore scalemail and shield with accustomed pace and muscled ease. No weapon she carried in her gauntleted right hand; from her belt hung the green-stained pouches of one who practised a herbalist's methods from time to time. Her nose had been broken at least once, wide at its base and set above thickened, stern lips.
Pinned over her throat at the ending of her mail she wore the symbol of a red-and-gold shield, bisected by sword where the fires flared golden, and where the outer plating of it mimicked bolted iron in the stiff joints of plate armour. The warrior spoke nothing in her approach, and came to lay two pieces of gold on the pinewood table of a farmer's house, waiting for the woman to bring her goat's milk and brown bread. She sat without invitation or manners, and ate and drank as if she had starved for ten days. Then the warrior asked to know the lay of the land; and the farmer sketched a rough map on the table in drying water. In the summer heat it dried quickly.
She slept in straw in the farmer's byre, and arose before dawn. She stretched her limbs, stepped through rehearsals of combat, and replaced her mail to her body. A young daughter of the farmer stole in the morning to milk the cows and perhaps to see the stranger; and the warrior spent an hour aiding the girl with her chores, and another two in holding rope for the child to jump and carrying her on her back in a ride. Perhaps some of the play she taught the child was a first instruction in defending oneself, but girl and woman alike shared laughter and a brief friendship.
The village was poor and cold; beyond it lay murky fen, black mud lining the land and falling into bleak hollows in the earth. Will-o'-the-wisp lights shone by nights, and below old barrows where bones and swords and gold bethought a distant past, a web of deserted caves lay fruitless, barren, and prone to losing people in their labyrinths. On the edge of the village a clay thing slightly taller than a man pulled a plough through the furthest field, uncomplaining despite the thorny ground.
The warrior walked behind the clay creature, which paused not, nor did it turn from its task. She raised her empty right hand. Then without a word a warhammer appeared there, glowing with the fierce blue of fire impossible to touch. She brought it into the head of the golem, over and over; and in five blows the creature was destroyed and lay in shattered pieces of clay. Inert, it could not be rebuilt but by skill that would be better used upon fresh materials. Once more the hammer vanished to thin air. The warrior walked onward.
A barrow grave lay covered by green grass, walled by stone and graven with the symbol of the One-Eyed God, he who sacrificed himself to himself upon a tree to gain wisdom, patron of those who fell in battle. She stepped up to the stone that sealed its door as if she intended to despoil the remains. From a distance she would have seemed to disappear utterly from the earth, as if some vengeful ghost had turned her to dust on the wind in an instant's time; but instead below her feet lay a dark tunnel lightly covered by thin stalks of grass and plain mud. She followed where it led. She chanted for a few moments, and a white film masked her green eyes while the darkness became clear to her sight.
Long dark tunnels were smooth under the earth, and too precise by far to be dug by even the most skilled of human hands. No marks of spade or chisel were left on the polished sides to show the tool used. She passed along the left-hand walls of the tunnels, as though she had never seen this maze before, but with a pace unhurried and unafraid as if she had confidence absolute in her ability to tread it.
When the walls opened wider in her path, the warrior marched through a hall of half-formed golems. Iron head mended by clay and cloth; copper eye set in brass mismatched with wood; stone married to flesh that had once carried fur. One adamantite, though, stood tall and whole; and clay in itself stood in four as whole as the one upon the fields. False eyes took on reddish glares, but did not attack the intruder until she first beat hammer against one. They all walked down, even those who could but hobble or crawl; and surrounded the warrior like misformed giants. One hit the warrior with an iron fist to her back. Where it should have broken bone and placed holes in flesh a merciless white light sprung up from the warrior's back, and white-hot flames consumed the artificial hand. The edge of the warrior's hammer took a flesh eye from a copper head; then on the backswing took the whole head itself. The golem fought as only a body, unbalanced, and only when its torso was collapsed into metallic shards did it fall. The warrior spoke the words of an additional prayer and lightning gathered around the hammer; and when the adamantite creature reached her she let its torso spark with electrical fire. It hit her heavily and flung her into walking flesh and clay.
She touched a hand to her ribs and spoke the words of a call to her god, and like a troll her body regenerated its wounds. She smashed a golem of flesh, and reached a hand over the spiked bones that passed through its insides. The warrior thrust two of those into the copper eye of the next one in her way. A shield in the appearance of white wings sprouted behind her back: it was steel-sharp and sliced a reaching stone hand to shreds, and the shape belonged to no bird born of mortal planes. She cleared the air around herself from reaching golems, and chanted once more at the adamantite's approach. Lightning seared from above its head and rebounded constantly through its metal body. Its movement stopped. She made it fall in four pieces in her final blow.
When the golems were destroyed, the warrior rearranged and brought a cloth over her armour, and walked onward. Another set of intricate passages took her through their depths as if she continued to follow a maze. Her pace was still unhurried, though strange bursts of fog and mageflare hissed from the walls as she drove deeper. She ignored these. The tunnels became bricked by stone and reinforced by arched metal supports. She strove toward its central hall.
And waiting by a pair of thick stone doors stood a human man, some of the patches of skin visible below his armour a shiny pink as if he had been burned in the past. He carried a long spear, its deadly point as those crafted for northlander warriors, a rounded shield behind his back. He gripped the spear with both hands, as if his only concern was as swift an attack as possible. Below his helm his hair was a dark yellow. His gaze was the same green as the warrior who invaded.
They said words in a northern tongue; they called each other by name. They spoke, until the powers the warrior had called to herself vanished with their duration done.
"You should never," said her brother, "have turned to warfare."
"We share nithingen," the warrior replied. "You slew women out of battle."
"I slew for joy of it; I slew for revenge for casting me out. You will not be the one to live past this battle, Gwen."
He had used a girl's nickname for his sister, and the spear point rushed at her. Branwen of Tempus, her grown name, caught the weapon on her shield. Bare-handed, she stepped back. Her brother attacked.
The spear point went high and then low to sweep across the ground. The warrior jumped above it; the point of it glistened green with some poisoned substance. He drove it toward her armour, but the first time it hit only a glancing blow that her mail fended off. Still she raised only shield against him. He moved with the viciousness of a wolf and the quick flow of waves over the sea.
There are drills taught to men in training for warriors on Seawolf-isle; these are barred to women on pain of outcast forever. The fighter in exile had a style built upon these, a foundation honed by years as an outlaw. His sister turned his blows aside on her shield and darted aside, quick-moving herself. She still did not take up a weapon. The spearpoint lunged ever closer to her in her brother's attacks, growing finer with each moment he saw her defend. He learned quickly.
Then at last when the pointed blade flew not a half-inch from her cheek, the warrior stepped inward and grasped her foe's neck with a mailed hand. She threw him head over heels in his own motion. He rolled across the ground, undignified, losing his helm to show his face and hair; but he stood, cursing her for mocking him, and raised the spear in still more fierceness.
The spear point found its way into the warrior's mail on her shield arm. It pierced and left a bloody stain; and the fighter knew it for a deathwound even glancing. He drove the point through and out her arm; and when he fell close to her a fist was still strong enough to punch him back. They stood close to the wall and he was turned by the blow. He hit the stone face-first, and then a steel gauntlet smashed into the back of his skull.
Bone shattered; and the body lay still.
The warrior lay down her shield and sat against the wall. Her right hand shook as she raised it; she chanted quietly to herself for several long moments, trying more than once. At last it seemed the poison was drawn from her veins. Rather than heal the wound she bandaged it with a strip of her tunic soaked by herbs from her pouches. Then she stood without looking back, and her step was only slightly less steady than before.
The last set of doors that guarded the underground sanctuary were wood, though sealed with mage's power. The warrior chanted a priest's call to break them down, her face pale below her open helm. And inside the mage waited: not upon some remote high throne or dais, but behind a long table covered with books and scrolls and heads halfway carved in clay and stone. He wore a bandage wrapped around his chest above his robes, and his hair was lank and his skin grimed as if he had not had the time to wash in months.
He looked up at the warrior, and exhaustion on his face was written more strongly than the same in hers. He laid down an ink-dipped stylus halfway through a written word, spoiling his scroll with a rough mark. He knew she had defeated the one protector who had chosen to remain by his side; and knew that exile of Seawolf had done so for reasons of his own.
"I wanted war to stop," the mage said, facing the warrior bloodied and pale below her snow-browned skin. "I wanted clay to fight instead. I knew when you killed my farming golem."
"I saw what such a golem did to another farming family," the warrior said, and walked carefully forward. The floor was enlaid in patterns of wood. She pointed a finger to it and spoke a word of power before she dared walk onward, and even so that panel shifted and moved below her as if to swallow her even underneath the cave's depths.
"One of...my enemies changed it," the mage said.
The warrior shook her head. "War is a human force," she said. She stood over the table and above the bare-headed wizard.
Branwen of Tempus brought her hammer down. And then she departed for her next battle, shaking the dust of broken golems from her boots.
In the years following the Bhaalspawn saga, Branwen found it difficult to know inner peace once more. Her faith was challenged by the sights she had seen in her journey with the Bhaalchild, and for many years Branwen roamed Faerun alone. One of the strongest priests of Tempus to ever cross below its sky, she found warfare drawn to her like fire to kindling. Branwen defended the city of Phlan from an invasion of white dragons single-handedly, and she fought on the side of the Zhentarim to invade the city of Suldanessellar after she swore a contract without knowing the party behind it. She never returned to her birthplace of Seawolf, but in foreign climes she met the brother who had helped to throw her out for daring to name herself a priestess. Their meeting was not peaceful, and following it Branwen departed once again for her battles. Of the ultimate fate of the fair warrior maiden of Tempus, nothing is known; but some say that upon a small northern isle shrouded by mist only women are permitted to step foot, and there they are taught that fighting is not for males alone.