He hit the ground hard enough to slide back a couple feet. Blood spurted from his broken nose, and he spat out the remains of a tooth. Fortunately, it was the loose one. His staff lay on the ground several feet away. On the other side of the larger boy.
“Useless.” Jurgen shook his head. “That was pathetic.”
Lammert wiped the blood away and winced. He got up, and started toward the shelf with the healing potions. Jurgen moved to block his path. “Jurgen —”
“A warrior fights through pain.” Jurgen shoved him back. Someone laughed. “Think a raid will take a break while you stop for a drink?” He shoved Lammert toward the staff. “You won’t bleed to death from a broken nose.” He reached out and tweaked the nose back into place, making Lammert yelp. “Even you aren’t that weak.”
The next bout went about as well as the previous. Jurgen casually smacked him around the circle, then got bored and dealt a blow that took him off his feet. This time Lammert felt a rib crack, and cried out in pain. “Blood and ashes.” Jurgen tossed the staff aside, then half dragged him to the table and shoved him into a chair. “If you can’t learn to dodge you have to learn how to block.”
It would do no good to point out that at fifteen, Jurgen had five years and fifty pounds over him. Objecting to anything Jurgen said never ended well. So, he drank a potion, and kept his mouth shut. Jurgen handed him a rag as the potion started its work. “We done ‘training’ for today?” Lammert blinked back tears.
“I’d be better off training the practice dummies.” Jurgen shook his head. “They can take a hit.”
“Fine. Train them.” He wished he meant the words. That storming out of the sparing grounds was a real option.
“Not like anybody else is going to waste their time training you.” Jurgen shrugged.
That much was true. Parents arranged the training of their children. Their mother saw to it the finest warriors in the Wildlands had trained Jurgen, when she didn’t handle the task herself. She had personally spent over an hour a day drilling Jurgen in combat skills as well as the duties expected of him as her firstborn. Now that Jurgen was technically an adult, she occasionally brought him to meetings and even let him sit in judgment now and then.
On a good day, his mother forgot his existence entirely. Queen Thirza had handed him off to a wet nurse the day she’d caught his father trying to poison Jurgen. She’d realized then that Levi had been the one to poison Jurgen’s father. The Dragon Queen had personally overseen Levi’s execution by slow torture. Jurgen had been the only reason he hadn’t been left to the elements, a fact of which his half-brother often reminded him. Gratitude started to chaff after a while. Except the sad truth was, prince or no, if Jurgen stopped training him he’d undoubtedly be ignored entirely. “You could try actually showing me what to do.”
“I did.” Jurgen glared. “Not my fault you’re too stupid to see it.”
“Show me slower.” Lammert stood again.
“Waste of…” Jurgen picked up the staff again. “Watch this time.” He moved through the form, slightly slower than he normally did.
After a deep breath, Lammert tried again.
Jurgen narrowed his eyes at the scene. His brother had foolishly tried to take a shortcut, and was paying for it. One of Mees’s pack had him by the hair, and was shaking him. His fists clenched when he heard Mees demand Lammert kiss his boots. He was across the roof a heartbeat later, and jumped down to land a hand-length from Mees. Mees’s eyes widened. “Jurg—”
His blow sent the other man to the ground with a broken jaw. Then he grabbed the man who had hold of his little brother and brought the top of his head down across the bridge of the other man’s nose. He felt a satisfying crunch as the man’s nose shattered. Jurgen tossed him aside and lunged for the next one. “Nobody…” He hurled the man into side of the bridge before grabbing the forth. “Fucks with my brother…” He brought his knee into the man’s stomach before shoving him to the ground. “But me.” He stomped on the man’s arm, breaking it. “We clear?”
He reached down and grabbed Lammert, hauling the boy to his feet. Then he pulled him out of the alley. “What the hell were you thinking, skulking about down there?”
“The…” Lammert started shaking his head.
“Are you stupid?” He shook Lammert. “You know Clan Eind wants to send a message and Mother won’t go to war over you.”
“You’ve got to be more careful.” Jurgen sighed. Then he brushed some of the dirt off the smaller boy. “Blood and ashes, Lammert.” He took a deep breath. “What were you doing in the alley?”
Lammert glanced back that way, then sighed. “The barn cat had kittens and I…” He swallowed. “I thought maybe…” He looked away. “Mees took my silver piece.”
“You were going to pay a silver for a barn kitten?” Jurgen stared. “You really are stupid.”
“I…” Lammert wiped at his nose. “Yeah.” He took a step toward his quarters, and Jurgen caught his arm. “What…?”
“Come on.” Jurgen pulled him along. “Let’s go get your kitten.”
A gap-toothed grin nearly split Lammert’s face in half.
“It got a name?”
Lammert nearly jumped out of his skin at the sound of the voice, and shoved the kitten behind his back before relaxing. “You scared me.”
Koert chuckled. “Sorry.” He crouched down. “Can I…?” Reluctantly, Lammert took the kitten out from behind him. Koert didn’t take it from him, just extended a hand to rub one finger over the kitten’s head. “So, it got a name?”
“It’s a her, and…” Lammert sighed. “I can’t think of a good name.”
“Well…” Koert shrugged. “It’s black. You could go with the old standby of ‘Midnight?’”
“Jurgen has a horse named Midnight.” Lammert shook his head.
“Yeah, don’t want to get those two mixed up.” Koert smiled before shifting to sit down on the balcony next to him. His collar made a slight clinking sound. “Could be awkward. Jurgen walking around with a saddle saying ‘here kitty kitty’.” Despite himself, Lammert snickered. Koert grinned. “So, you can smile. I was starting to wonder.”
He stroked the kitten, listening as she purred loudly in response. “I’d name her Thunder but Jurgen would poke fun at that.”
“What about a flower?” Koert raised an eyebrow. “Could call her Rose?”
“I…” Lammert smiled as the kitten rubbed her cheek against his hand. “Lily.” He hesitated a moment. “Thanks.”
“Anytime.” Koert rose, then reached out and ruffled Lammert’s hair before heading back to the door that lead into his mother’s rooms.
For a moment, he just sat there, a bit stunned at the gesture. Then he smiled and stood to take his kitten back to his room.
Koert gave him a warm smile as he entered his mother’s quarters. “She has not yet returned.”
“Is she deliberating with Clan Valyk or Clan Rund?” Jurgen rolled his eyes as he walked to the table.
“Rund.” Koert began moving the parchment spread onto the table into a pile. “They think they bargain from a position of strength. She is…” He chuckled. “Educating them.”
He caught one of the pieces of parchment and pulled it back. It was a sketch of his mother on her throne, resplendent in armor. She looked happy. Then again, she did that a lot lately. “Your work?”
“Something to keep the hands busy during the hours of ceremonial speeches.” Koert nodded.
“And negotiations with Clan Vaylk?”
“They actually are negotiating from a position of strength.” Koert touched the collar around his neck. He’d been a member of Clan Arend before they’d tried taking some of Valyk’s territory. Koert had belonged to one of Valyk’s lesser nobles, and had been brought along on to a ceremony the previous year. He’d been playing the lyre to entertain the nobles when Queen Thirza had overheard and come to listen. The noble had ordered Koert to entertain the queen, and he’d quickly composed an ode to her beauty.
She’d promptly traded a dozen of Draak’s finest horses for the man. At first Jurgen had thought it was ridiculous, but as time went by he was beginning to think Koert would have been a bargain at twice the price. “They want an alliance.”
“They do, but they don’t want to kneel to get it.” Koert hesitated a moment. “There is the chief’s daughter to consider…”
“Please tell me no one has reminded Mother of that.” Jurgen’s eyes went wide.
“She’ll come to the notion herself, if Chief Meint doesn’t suggest it first.” Koert shrugged. “Which side of the argument would you like me to take?”
If anyone could convince his mother not to saddle him with a wife he couldn’t stand, it was Koert. And yet Vaylk and Draak would be a powerful alliance. Together, they controlled almost half the Wildlands. “Blood and ashes, I don’t know.” He exhaled. “Let me think about it. Will you tell her I’d like to speak with her in the morning?”
“I will.” Koert nodded. As Jurgen started to leave, Koert called after him. “A moment before you go?”
“Something wrong?” Jurgen frowned.
“That is…” Koert inhaled. “Yes. Very much.”
“Jurgen, your brother turned eleven yesterday.”
“He —” Jurgen blinked. “He did?”
“Tell me it was only the date you forgot.” Koert sighed.
“No but…” Jurgen exhaled. “I’ll tell him it was. I…”
Koert reached under the table and handed him something wrapped in a woven blanket. “He’s your brother, Jurgen.” He put as much disapproval into his voice as a slave dared. “And her son.”
“He’s my brother, anyway.” Jurgen looked down at the bundle. “Thank you for…” He shrugged. “Thank you.”
“Happy name day.”
Lammert looked up at Jurgen laid a wrapped bundle on his bed. “My name day was yesterday.”
“No, it wasn’t.” Jurgen frowned. “It’s today.”
“It was yesterday.”
“How would you know, you were too young to remember when you were named.” Jurgen waved a hand. “You’re lucky we didn’t tell you your name was Assface or something like that.”
He glanced at the package. “What is it?”
“It’s…” Jurgen trailed off as a poleaxed expression came to his face. “Uh…”
“My name day.” Lammert stood up. “Was yesterday.”
“Blood and Ashes.” Jurgen folded his arms. “Just open your damn present already.”
His hand closed around the bundle, then he shoved it back at his brother. “I don’t want it.”
“I don’t…” He glared. “Want it.”
“It’s from Koert.” Jurgen sighed, and shoved it back to him. “Whatever it is, Koert got it for you. He only gave it to me because…” He rubbed his neck. “I forgot.”
“Koert…” His voice shook a little. “Got me a present?”
“Yeah so…” Jurgen shrugged. “Maybe don’t be an ass about it, alright?”
With trembling hands, he untied the rope from around the bundle. He tossed the rope onto the bed, where Lily immediately pounced upon it. He spared her a smile before unwrapping the bundle. Inside was a set of matched daggers, with hilts made of a colorful wood and inlaid with metal to form a swirling pattern. The sheathes were embroidered with a design that looked like feathers. They were beautiful. “Knives.”
“Blood and ashes, Koert thought those were good enough for a prince?” Jurgen rolled his eyes. “I hope you’re not planning on wearing them in public cause —”
Jurgen’s nose made a satisfying crunching sound when his fist connected. The larger boy actually staggered backwards a few steps, though it was more surprise than anything else. “Shut up.”
“You…” Jurgen stared down at the blood on his hands. “Blood and ashes, you…” He started laughing. “See, I told you if you put your shoulder into it you could throw a decent punch.”
He stared at his brother, then started laughing as well.
Jurgen kicked the helmet hard enough to make it ricochet off two walls. Then he kicked it again. This time it went off the balcony. He exhaled. “Jurgen?”
He turned to see Lammert watching him from the door, the cat sitting on his shoulder. Jurgen clenched his fists. “You might want to lay low a while. Mother is…” He shook his head. “In a mood.”
Lammert immediately retreated into his room. Jurgen hesitated, then shrugged and followed. “Clan Valyk isn’t bending on control of the bluffs.”
“It isn’t as though Clan Draak needs the bluffs.” Lammert sat down cross-legged on his bed.
“Neither does Clan Valyk.” Jurgen shook his head and sat down on the fur rug by the fire. Lammert really needed to get some more furniture in his room.
“It’s stupid.” Lammert petted his cat.
“No, it’s symbolic. The bluffs overlook the territory of both Valyk and Draak from on high, thus whoever controls them stands highest.” Jurgen rested his elbows on his legs. “Except the bluffs are made of soft limestone, so you can’t actually build any sort of watchtower on them or even a decent signal fire on account of…” He bent his head. “Yeah. It’s stupid.” He exhaled. “I’m going to have to get married.”
“That’s…” Lammert blinked. “Not sure how one follows the other.”
“Valyk won’t give up the bluffs without some sort of symbolic gesture in return.” He stood and started pacing. “Mother will still want any sort of gesture to benefit her, and the Valyk chief has like a hundred daughters.” He banged his head against the wall.
“Marriage isn’t exactly a fate worse than death.” Lammert stood and walked over to him. “I mean, with a hundred, there might be one that isn’t too warty.”
“Ugh.” He grabbed his little brother in a headlock and ruffled his hair, then grunted when Lammert responded by twisting his head and biting him on the side. “Ow.” He released Lammert, and the smaller boy immediately shifted away. “You’re lucky. Mother’s never going to marry you off to anyone.”
“Unless they really annoy her and she has no other recourse to insult them.” Lammert waved a hand, then went back to sit on the side of his bed. He looked away.
Dammit. He hadn’t meant to… Jurgen sighed, then went to sit next to his brother. He put a hand on Lammert’s shoulder. “She doesn’t hate you, Lammert.” He exhaled at the look his brother gave him. “No, honestly, I…” He heard what he was going to say, and stopped himself. The fact that their mother didn’t care enough to actually hate Lammert probably wasn’t a comfort. “You know, if I do get married, I’m might end up living somewhere else.”
“Yeah.” Lammert’s voice was quiet.
“You, uh…” Jurgen shrugged. “You could come with me.” His brother’s head came up sharply, and he stared at Jurgen. “I mean, if I do end up moving or —” He made an oof sound when Lammert threw his arms around him. A small smile came to his face as he hugged his brother back.
Koert joined him on the balcony, leaning on the railing as he looked out over the view of the practice grounds. Jurgen was down there, using a practice sword to prove the superiority of Clan Draak. “You heard?” He glanced at Lammert.
Lammert nodded. His mother was with child. “Is um…” He wasn’t entirely sure how to ask. Finally, he just exhaled. “The baby is going to be yours?”
“I’m a slave, Lammert, so uh…” He shrugged. “No.” Then he grinned and leaned toward Lammert conspiratorially. “Yes.”
He grinned back up at the man. “She seems happy about it.” Had she been happy, when she learned she was carrying him? She hadn’t learned about Levi until after Lammert’s own birth. There may have been a few precious days where she loved him.
His expression must have changed, because Koert put a hand on his shoulder. “You know this doesn’t mean I’m going to stop caring about you, Lammert.” He rubbed the back of Lammert’s neck.
“Jurgen…” Lammert swallowed. As much as he wanted to get out of these rooms, he’d miss Koert terribly. “Said that if he has to get married he’s going to live somewhere else. He might take me with him.”
“I’d miss you, Lammert.” Koert patted his shoulder. “But that might…” He sighed, and sent a slightly disapproving look toward the door that lead to his mother’s quarters. “You turn twelve this year.”
“Yes.” Lammert nodded.
“You could, once you’ve earned your sigil, leave then.” Koert’s voice was quiet. “You’ll be an adult then. You can make your own way.”
“With whatever little bits I can steal.” Lammert shook his head. “Last time I left the grounds without Jurgen I…” He swallowed. “There are just as many who think they’d earn her favor by killing me as there are those who know they can get away with insulting her by killing me.” He folded his arms and leaned onto the railing. “Not sure which ones are right.”
“It’s not right.” Koert exhaled, then straightened and shook his head. “You’re her son too and she should…” He sighed. “How’s your training coming?”
“Jurgen only knocked me down three times instead of four.” Lammert shrugged.
“I really hope he actually learns how to teach before he has sons.” Koert turned around, leaning back against the railing. He narrowed his eyes at the door. “Everyone’s out.”
“Except us, yeah.” Lammert nodded. He looked up at Koert. “Why?”
“Get your staff.” Koert smiled when Lammert just stared. “I’ll have you know I wasn’t that bad a fighter, once.” He started toward the inner training room.
“I…” Lammert ran after him. “If they catch you with a weapon, you’ll get in trouble.”
“Keep your ears open then.” Koert reached out and ruffled his hair. “I’ll tell them I was helping you clean up or something. Now grab your staff.”
He narrowed his eyes at the man who’d thrown down the challenge. Heino Rund was a brute of a man, two years older and a bit larger than Jurgen himself. The real problem was the man had five brothers to back him up, all seasoned fighters. “The sons of the dragon fear nothing.” Jurgen lifted his chin. He didn’t look at Lammert, but he was fairly confident his little brother was proving him a liar right that second.
“Prove it.” Heino gestured at the practice circle.
“Fine.” Jurgen grabbed Lammert’s arm and dragged the smaller boy to the weapon rack. He shoved a spear into Lammert’s hands, then lowered his voice. “Just keep them off my back, alright?”
“You realize the smallest of them is twice my size, right?” Lammert raised an eyebrow.
“Bright side?” Jurgen smirked. “Maybe if you manage to actually hold up in a fight your balls will finally drop.” When Lammert just glared, Jurgen grinned. He started to reach for a spear, then frowned. Heino hadn’t gone to a practice rack. He’d picked up a real sword. Shit. What the hell had he just gotten himself into? “Just make sure I don’t trip over you, because this could get ugly.” He stepped away from the spear, then took a deep breath before picking up an axe.
Just as he expected, Heino and his brothers moved to surround them. Lammert shifted his own position to stand at Jurgen’s back, and held the spear defensively. Okay. He better make this fast. Jurgen hefted the axe. Heino came charging in, and Jurgen used the axe haft to knock him back. Behind him, Lammert started twirling the spear, deflecting the blows coming in from behind.
The Runds came in, and he sent them back. Heino came again, then another Rund moved at the same time. Jurgen realized a heartbeat too late that he’d over-extended to block them both when a third came in, weapon raised. He laughed when Lammert’s spear caught the man in the leg, sending him stumbling. Then he twisted, switching positions with Lammert as though they’d done it a hundred times. Lammert held off the recovering men while Jurgen gave the others a lesson in why pissing off a dragon was a bad idea.
Heino yelled a war cry, and Jurgen and Lammert spun again. Instead of Heino’s blow coming down on Lammert, it was Jurgen who caught the man’s sword on his axe. Jurgen grinned, and then shifted to disarm the man. And for good measure, Jurgen delivered a headbutt that shattered Heino’s nose and sent blood splattering.
Moments later, it was over. The Runds were either semi-conscious or nursing wounds. A quick glance at his brother showed Lammert had come through unscathed. Six on two, and the dragons were untouched. So much for the Rund’s little attempt to win back some pride. Jurgen grinned. “Crawl away, pig. Before you tempt me to actually try to hurt you.”
Jurgen watched them flee, then leaned his elbow on his little brother’s shoulder. “That was fun.”
“Did it even occur to you that ‘not picking a fight’ is an option?” Lammert glared up at him.
“Well…” Jurgen shrugged, and started going over to put the weapons back. “No.” He hesitated a moment, then smiled. “You uh…” He turned toward Lammert. “You did good.”
Lammert shrugged, but smiled widely. “Saved you from getting your ass kicked.”
“A quick raid into Akobul is probably the safest option.” Koert traced his finger down the map. “Rather than going after one of the other clans.”
“It’s a long trip.” Lammert frowned. “I’ve never even been out of Darodelf before.”
“That’s part of the reason for the tradition, Lammert. You get to travel, see what others are capable of doing.” Koert smiled. “And prove yourself all at the same time.” He rubbed Lammert’s shoulder. “You’ll do great.”
“Yeah.” Lammert exhaled. His cat jumped up on the table and started batting the markers off the map. “Lily and I will conquer the entire kingdom.” When Koert raised an eyebrow, Lammert sighed. “She’s the only friend I have.”
“You’ve got me…” Koert sighed. “And I know that doesn’t help with this situation.” He looked up when the door opened. “There’s Jurgen.”
Jurgen blinked. “Where’s Jurgen?” He looked down. “You’re planning a raid?”
“He turns twelve in two months, Jurgen.” Koert narrowed his eyes. “Most boys his age have been taken along on at least a dozen raids by now.”
“I can’t take him.” Jurgen shook his head. “He can barely heft a spear.”
“Jurgen.” To Lammert’s surprise, Koert’s voice was actually sharp. “You are the elder brother. You have a responsibility.” Slaves didn’t talk like that. They got in trouble if they did. They offered advise it requested, but they didn’t call their masters out. He swallowed, a little afraid for his friend.
Across the table, Jurgen started to draw himself up to his full height. And he was a good couple inches taller than Koert, and probably more muscular despite Jurgen still having some growing left to do. Then Jurgen just sighed, and shook his head. “I know.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “I know.” He looked over at Lammert. “Why don’t you get your horse, and we’ll go ride a patrol right now?”
“I don’t have one.” Lammert shook his head.
“We don’t need a full patrol. This is just so I can —” Jurgen started shaking his head.
“He doesn’t have a horse, Jurgen.” Koert folded his arms.
“What do…” Jurgen blinked. “No, he’s got a horse. The one…” Jurgen frowned.
“Jurgen…” Koert glanced at Lammert, then his eyes widened. “Lammert, do you know how to ride a horse?”
He shook his head. “No.”
Koert glared at Jurgen, who looked away. “Come on, Lammert.” Koert gestured as he started for the door. “That, at least, I’m allowed to teach you.”
They were halfway down the hall when Jurgen caught up with him. He grabbed Koert’s arm. “How dare you?”
“No, Jurgen.” Koert met Jurgen’s eyes. “How dare you?”
“He’s my brother.” Jurgen glared.
“Then act like it.” Koert held his ground. “He’s your brother. He’s her son. He’s a prince of Clan Draak and he’s a boy about to become a man.”
“I don’t need a slave to tell me —” Jurgen clenched his fists.
“Apparently, you did.” Koert stared Jurgen down. “You are the firstborn son of the Dragon Queen, Jurgen. You will one day rule Clan Draak. Your people, all of your people, are your responsibility.” Koert shook his head. “Blood and ashes, Jurgen. How can you expect to guide a clan when you can’t manage to tend to your own brother?”
For a moment, Jurgen just stood there. Lammert shifted his weight from foot to foot uncertainly. Then Jurgen exhaled. “There is a mare in my stables. Black and white, about sixteen hands. Sweet temper. She can…” Jurgen nodded. “She’ll be a good first horse for him.” Then he turned and walked away.
Lammert watched him go, a little dumbstruck. Koert touched his arm. “Come, Lammert.” He exhaled, and Lammert didn’t miss that a slightly relieved expression crossed his face. Koert may have been their mother’s favorite, but if she’d learned he’d talked to her eldest like that she’d have had him beaten. “Let’s go.”
The worst part was that Koert had been absolutely right. How the hell had Lammert gotten to be eleven years old without anyone teaching him how to ride a horse? And why hadn’t Lammert ever said anything? Jurgen made his way toward the practice yard. In a month, he’d have another sibling. Would… Jurgen turned to look up at the balcony of the royal quarters. Koert had fathered the child, but a slave didn’t count as a parent. And his mother seemed to love Koert.
Once Lammert was an adult, getting him out of Darodelf would be easier. If nothing else, he could always make Lammert a steward of one of his holdings or something under the guise of training him. His brother had held his own in the fight against the Runds. Maybe out from under the shadow of his father’s actions, Lammert could find a better place. Jurgen picked up a staff and started to turn toward the practice dummies.
His shoulder collided with someone hard enough they both grunted. A young woman glared at him. “Watch where you are going, oaf.”
“You ran into me, numskull.” He glared right back.
She squared her shoulders. “You got a problem?”
If a handy opportunity to take his temper out on something was going to present itself, he wasn’t exactly inclined to forgo it. “Starting to think I do.” He drew himself up to his full height.
The woman didn’t back down an inch. “Do you know who the hell I am, you bumpkin?”
“You’re someone in need of a lesson in manners.” He shifted his grip on the staff.
“I suppose you think you’re man enough to teach me?” She looked him over skeptically, then smirked before grabbing a staff of her own. “What the hell, I’ve got twenty seconds to spare on kicking your ass.”
Jurgen laughed. “Right then.” He moved to the practice circle, then twirled his staff before taking up position. “Try not to dent the ground when I drop your ass on it.”
Her staff came at him, and he blocked. They moved, matching each other blow for blow. Grudgingly he had to admit the woman wasn’t bad. He was stronger and had reach, but she had speed and made for a smaller target. The fight continued, neither of them willing to give an inch.
“Now we…” Koert trailed off from where he’d been explaining the reins. He shaded his eyes as he looked up at something on the practice grounds, then he chuckled. “Well now, look at that.”
Lammert turned. From the vantage point of the back of the horse, he could make out Jurgen dueling a woman in a one on one match. And to his surprise… “Blood and ashes. She’s matching him.”
They both stared in shock as the woman feinted, then twisted and caught Jurgen across the face with the butt of her staff. The big man staggered, then fell on his ass. Lammert could make out a dumbfounded expression on Jurgen’s face before his brother started to smile. “Lammert…” Koert started laughing. “Don’t look now but…” He shook his head. “I think your brother just fell in love.”
“I’m a little scared.” Lammert nodded.
He stared up at the woman before he started to laugh, then he wiped the blood off his nose. She laid her staff across her shoulders, then smirked before offering him a hand back to his feet. He accepted it. “Who the hell are you?” He raised an eyebrow.
“Who the hell are you?” She shrugged.
“I asked first.” He shook his head.
“I just kicked your ass.” She gave him a pointed look.
“Right.” He laughed again. “Jurgen Draak.”
“You’re…” She stared. “Blood and ashes. Blood and fucking ashes.” She shook her head. Then she took a deep breath. “Diantha Valyk.”
“You’re…” He felt his jaw drop a little. “Pretty sure you just broke my nose.”
“Yeah.” She nodded. “I did.” She glared. “That a problem for you, big guy?” She put her hands on her hips.
Slowly, he bent and picked his staff back up before grinning at her. “Best two out of three buys the drinks?”
Diantha glanced at her own staff, then met his grin with a challenging smile of her own. “After I lay you out again…” She readied the staff. “I’m gonna drink you under the table.”
He smiled at the infant in Koert’s arms. “He’s so tiny.” Lammert stretched out a finger to caress his baby brother’s cheek.
Koert’s smile was proud. “He’ll get big entirely too fast.”
“He’s…” Lammert cringed as his mother stepped onto the balcony. She narrowed her eyes when she saw him sitting cross-legged by Koert, but her face softened when her eyes turned to Koert and little Rutger.
“Is he hungry?” His mother walked over and put a hand on Koert’s shoulder as she looked down at the infant.
“Not yet. Just wanted to be held and I think some fresh air will do him good.” Koert smiled up at her.
She bent, and kissed Koert. Koert raised his hand to brush his fingers through her hair. Lammert couldn’t help but smile just a little. The three of them made a beautiful little family. Thirza straightened back up, her smile still warm and loving. Then her eyes narrowed. “What is that doing here?”
Lammert turned to see Lily. She meowed, and he smiled before pulling her into his lap. Then he cried out as his mother picked her up by the scruff of the neck. “Don’t hurt her.”
“How dare you bring some filthy beast around my child?” Thirza glared at him.
“She’s not…” He reached for Lily, then started scrambling to his feet when she started walking toward the edge of the balcony. “Don’t, don’t.”
“Thirza, wait a moment.” Koert was standing. “She’s —”
“No —” He tried to catch her as Thirza tossed Lily off the balcony. “You bitch, you killed —”
The back of Thirza’s hand struck him across the face, sending him to the ground. “How dare you speak to me like that?” She glared at him before striding back toward her quarters. “Koert, bring Rutger in.”
Tears fell as he stared down. He couldn’t even see her body anywhere. Maybe she’d survived the fall, maybe she’d gotten away and… He looked up to see Koert staring at him with sympathetic eyes. The man gave him a pained look before following Thirza in.
Jurgen found Lammert sitting in a corner of his room, staring at the wall. “Koert said…” He walked over, then slid down the wall to sit next to his brother. “I found her, Lammert. She, uh…” He put an arm around his brother’s shoulders, and pulled him close. “We can bury her in the garden, if you…”
“I hate her.” Lammert kept staring at the wall.
“You don’t —”
“Yes, I do.” Lammert shook his head. “I hate her. I hope she dies.”
“Lammert, it was just a cat, you can’t…”
Lammert jerked away from him. “Go away.”
“Lammert…” Jurgen sighed. “Lammert, look at me.”
“Go.” Lammert kept staring at the wall. “Away.”
“I’ll get you another cat.” He reached for his brother.
“I don’t want another cat.” Lammert stood and walked away to go sit in a different corner.
He exhaled, then stood. “I’m sorry, Lammert.” He took a deep breath, and left the room.
Koert was standing on the balcony. “How is he?”
“I don’t know. He won’t talk to me.” Jurgen sighed. “It was just a cat.”
“To you, it was a cat.” Koert hung his head and exhaled. “To your brother, it was the only being in the world that loved him.”
“I love Lammert.” Jurgen glared.
“Then I suggest you do a better job of letting him know that.” Koert glared at him before shaking his head. “I’ll to talk to him.” He walked past Jurgen to enter Lammert’s room.
For a moment, he just stood there. Then he clenched his fists and took a deep breath. Jurgen lifted his head and strode into his mother’s room. She was sitting near the fire, a cup in her hand. He was grateful that the baby was in another room. “That was cruel.”
She blinked and looked up at him, startled. “What?”
“It was cruel, heartless, and uncalled for.” Jurgen shook his head. “Lammert is your son, and —”
“We’ve had this conversation before.” She waved a hand.
“If you want your fucking dynasty to endure, we are having it again.” Jurgen stared at her. “Lammert is your son. You will ensure he has forces to accompany him on his raid and you will do right by him when he succeeds.”
“Jurgen…” She started to rise to her feet.
“Or the next army that comes against you will be led by me.” He met her eyes.
“How dare —”
“How dare you.” Jurgen shook his head. “Levi was a monster. Lammert is a child. Do you remember what you said when you told me what it means to rule? If you won’t protect the children of your clan you don’t deserve to hold the throne.” He squared his shoulders. “Those are your words, Mother. Or don’t you recognize them?”
“You would defy me?” Thirza drew herself up, every inch the queen.
“For my brothers?” Jurgen stood his ground. “I’ll defy the fucking gods.”
“Over a cat.” She narrowed her eyes.
“Over Lammert.” He took a step toward her. “No fewer than twenty will ride with him, Mother.” He shook his head and started to walk away. A thought came to him, and he turned back. “And if they return without him I will kill them myself.”
She saw him walk out of the castle. From his stride, he was angry. That could be fun. Diantha started toward Jurgen, then saw his face. On second thought, that was not the fun kind of angry. “Jurgen?”
“Marry me.” He met her eyes.
“Uh…” Diantha blinked. “Jurgen, in case you failed to notice, my father is negotiating with your mother to —”
“To arrange a match between me and your sister.” Jurgen shook his head, then grabbed her and pulled her to him. She resisted, fighting him until he pinned her against the wall. Then she surrendered to his kiss, wrapping her arms around his neck as she returned the kiss with a frenzy of her own. The moment he relaxed, she kicked off the wall, knocking him back to the ground. Then she straddled him before bending to kiss him again. He caught her and yanked her beneath him, overpowering her again. “I don’t…” He kissed her. “Want your sister.”
She sank her teeth into his shoulder, smiling as she heard him hiss in response. “You sure?” She brushed her lips against his ear.
“Yes.” He drew back, smiling at her. “I’m sure.” His smile was wicked. “Marry me.”
Diantha shrugged. “Practice ring. Now.” She reached her hand down to fondle him. “You win, I’ll marry you.” She started to shrug. “You lose —”
“I…” Jurgen stood, then to her delight he picked her up and threw her over his shoulder. She grunted. “Won’t lose.” He started for the practice ring.
He gave Koert a confused look. “She’s giving me soldiers for my raid?” Lammert shook his head. “But…”
“Your brother…” Koert put a hand on Lammert’s shoulder. “Had some words with her.” He shrugged. “Not very polite ones.”
Lammert smiled. It faded a moment later, and he looked up at Koert. “Do you love her?”
“I…” Koert slowly nodded. “Will you be angry with me if I tell you that I do?”
“No.” Lammert sighed. “You’re her slave. If you didn’t love her, your life would…” He shook his head.
Koert put his hand on the back of Lammert’s neck, then pulled him forward to kiss his forehead. “You’re going to do great. You’re going to bring back something amazing. Something no one in all the Wildlands has ever seen before.” He chuckled. “There are going to be rainbows, and beams of sunlight, and unicorns, and…” He raised his hands dramatically. “I’ll compose some epic suitable for the occasion. The ballad of Lammert and…” He shrugged, then lowered his hands. “Do me a favor, and bring back something that rhymes with ‘ass’.” Laughter bubbled up from Lammert. Koert smiled. “You should do that more often.”
“Raid?” Lammert raised an eyebrow.
“Laugh.” Koert ruffled his hair. “Be careful, alright?”
As expected, his mother was furious. “Weeks of negotiations…”
“You wanted me to marry a daughter of Clan Valyk.” Jurgen shrugged. “I’m marrying a daughter of Clan Valyk.”
“The second daughter.” Thirza narrowed her eyes. “Not the heir.”
“Let’s face facts, Mother.” Jurgen shook his head. “Meino is never going to leave care of his clan to Adelheid. She can’t lift a sword and she can barely read.” He shrugged. “You and he both want grandchildren that can rule the entire Wildlands. So, I’m marrying Diantha.” He straightened. “As soon as I get back from taking Lammert on his raid, we’ll…”
“You’re not going.” She looked down at her desk.
His eyes narrowed. “Yes, I am. He’s my brother.”
“You want to marry Diantha…” She looked up at him. “I’m going to have to start a dozen negotiations over from scratch. There will be ceremonies that will require your presence.”
“They can —” Jurgen frowned.
“Compromise is also a skill a leader must learn.” She gazed up at him. “I acceded to your previous request and arranged a guard for him. Now you must choose. You may join them and marry Adelheid, or you can remain here for your duties and marry Diantha.”
“I have spoken.” Her voice was firm.
“You’re not going with me.” Lammert stared up at his brother. “You said —”
“You’ve got a guard, Lammert.” Jurgen patted his arm. “Look, if I went with, everyone would just say that I lead the raid to make you look good.” He smiled. “You’re going to do this on your own, and show them all that you’re a dragon.”
“She told you that if you went with me she wouldn’t let you marry Diantha.” He folded his arms.
Jurgen sighed. “I liked you better when you were still stupid.”
“Have you seen my guard?” Lammert rolled his eyes. “The youngest of them is sixty.” His mother had apparently arranged them by simply sending a servant into the shelter for the old and asking if any felt they still had strength enough for a raid. He was pretty sure Agnes was full on senile, but at least she could lift a sword. Marcel could barely do that. He looked away, then shrugged. “I like Diantha.”
“You’re only saying that because she hit me in the face with a staff.” Jurgen glared at him.
“Yeah.” Lammert nodded. “But the part where you landed on your ass was the best part.”
“You’re going to do great, Lammert.” Jurgen smiled. “I mean, you’re not going to do as good as me, but…” Lammert aimed a punch at him, and Jurgen dodged it easily. “Especially if you keep hitting like that. Arm straight, put your hips into it and uh…” He shrugged. “Eh, you’ll be fine. The horse at least has some brains.”
“I named her Tulip.” Lammert nodded. The mare Jurgen had given him was a sweet thing. She nuzzled him when he fed her apples. He still missed Lily.
“That…” Jurgen sighed. “I’d named her Razor.”
“That’s a stupid name.” Lammert shook his head.
“Not as stupid as Tulip.”
“Tulip is a good name.”
Jurgen smiled a little when Diantha joined him in seeing Lammert off. His smile widened a little when she presented his brother with a pair of leather vambraces, then faded when he realized they were the nicest part of Lammert’s armor. The chainmail and leather he wore was utilitarian and basic. She leaned forward and kissed Lammert’s cheek. “For luck.”
“You’re the one who needs luck.” Lammert smiled at her. “You’re marrying him.” He nodded at Jurgen.
“I heard that.” Jurgen rolled his eyes. “See you in a few weeks, little brother.” He looked at the guard. Exactly twenty. He squared his shoulders, then narrowed his eyes. “Not sure if my mother made this clear to you, but…” He looked them over. “If he doesn’t come home safe, I’ll castrate you before I kill you.”
“And we won’t use knives.” Diantha stepped to his shoulder. “We’ll use hot coals.”
“Understood, my lord.” The one who looked to be in the lead nodded.
He put his arm around Diantha’s waist as he watched his brother ride away. “Hot coals?”
“Yes.” She nodded.
“I love you.” He kissed her cheek.
The good news was his guard was clearly afraid of his brother. Lammert sighed. The bad news was that his guard was clearly afraid of his brother. He wasn’t permitted to walk more than four feet from the camp by himself, and Marcel had tossed aside his plans for a raid into Akobul. That had been deemed too dangerous.
They were on their way to some ruins Marcel remembered from his youth, with a plan to grab some random artifact or another and return with a tale of triumph. All without ever actually encountering any danger. Or any glory. It was becoming increasingly difficult not to sulk.
Technically, they were in the territory of the Unitafels, though those tribes rarely came this far north. Or so Marcel claimed. Personally, he hoped Marcel was right. Those clans were known to be vicious. He was fetching another stick of firewood when the ground suddenly shook violently enough to knock him off his feet. The pile of firewood collapsed, and he noted he was not the only one that had been thrown to the ground. “What —”
“Blood and ashes!” Agnes pointed. He turned in that direction to see the top of a mountain on fire not far from them. Red, molten stone poured from the top.
“Wasn’t an eruption…” Marcel got back to his feet. “Not enough smoke in the sky.”
“Earthquake then?” Lex frowned.
“Must have —” Marcel cut off when the earth beneath their feet trembled again. They all let out breaths when it stopped. “Must have been.” He exhaled. “The ruins were over that way.”
“No, no…” Lex smiled. “No, this works. A battle so fierce the mountains bled.” He slapped Lammert on the back. “Right?”
It took considerable effort not to roll his eyes. “Right. I suppose.” He shrugged. That might satisfy Koert’s bardic inclinations. “Let’s go.”
He tried not to smile as the healer finished her work. Three broken ribs. Diantha had a broken arm and a sprained ankle. They couldn’t meet each other’s eyes without one or the other starting to laugh. “We were sparing.” He managed not to snicker.
“Yeah.” Diantha nodded. “Sparing.”
Chief Meino gave him a look that made it clear the man did not believe them even for a moment. Then he rolled his eyes. “Would you two please do your best not to kill each other before the wedding?” He sighed. “Maybe we should move it up.”
“Waiting until Lammert gets back.” Diantha shook her head.
“Fine. Just…” Chief Meino glared. “Get some rugs.” He turned and walked away.
They looked at each other and started laughing. “You know, that’s…” Jurgen chuckled. “That’s not a bad idea.”
“Couple bear hides would provide some padding.” Diantha nodded. “Or, you know, we could try to stay on the bed.”
“I could try tying you to it.” Jurgen raised an eyebrow at her.
“You and what army?” She punched his side, connecting with the still bruised flesh.
Jurgen grunted and stood. “How about a set of manacles and may the best…” He lowered his head and gave her a challenging look. “Man win.”
“Oh.” She stood, and stared up at him in answering challenge. “You’re going down.”
He smiled as he kissed her. “That’s for after I’ve got you at my mercy.”
There was a set of ruins, though not the ones Marcel remembered. It looked as though there had once been a tomb of some kind. Lava moved not far from the location, close enough they could feel the heat. Two of his guard were daring each other trying to see who could get closest to the molten stone, while Agnes berated both for acting like children.
“Look here…” Marcel pointed. “The earthquake broke part of the stone here.” Marcel tried squeezing through, then growled. “Can’t fit.”
“I bet I can.” Lammert shifted his gear around a little, then exhaled. For a moment, he feared he’d been wrong, then he slipped through the gap. “Hand me a torch?”
Marcel made one up quickly, then handed it to him. “What’s in there?”
“There is a passage.” Lammert looked around. The stone was strangely unadorned, but the passage went deep. He wouldn’t be surprised if it went under the volcano. “I’m going to go down a little, see what’s there.”
“Careful of traps or lava or…” Marcel exhaled. “Don’t give your brother an excuse to kill us.”
“I’ll try.” Lammert rolled his eyes and started down the passage. It made a sharp turn, and he shrugged before continuing down. His hand touched the wall, and he pulled it away. It was warm to the touch, bordering on hot. Maybe he was under the volcano, or at least close to it. He swallowed before continuing. The chamber must have been well sealed, because he saw few signs of vermin. Or maybe the volcano’s heat and a lack of water kept them away. The stonework was excellent, but remained unadorned. Like whoever was buried here was respected, but no one wanted them remembered.
There was a half dozen passages, and he marked the turns he took. It was some time before he found the chamber. There was a sarcophagus on a dais, but no treasures to be found in the room. Just a few broken pieces of pottery and a stone knife. There was a low, flat chest on some kind of altar. After his first two tries failed, he used one of his knives to pry it open.
Then his eyes widened, and he smiled. Inside the chest was a short spear. It was silver, inlaid with gems, and looked like a work of art. The best part was it was faintly glowing. Nobody had brought back something like this in a century. Not even Jurgen. He closed his hand over it.
A scraping sound behind him made him freeze in his tracks. There was another scraping sound, then a crash of stone against stone. He whirled to see the sarcophagus open, then started backing away as the thing inside began moving.
“Look, just…” Jurgen sighed. “The key is on the wardrobe.” One of the manacles was closed around his wrist. The other was closed around Diantha’s. That would have been fun, except the chain was threaded through part of the bed frame. Fortunately, Koert had walked by the door before they’d had to resort to taking the bed apart to escape. He met Diantha’s eyes. “We’re going to have to call this one a tie.”
“And we should probably use some sort of…” She sighed. “Maybe substitute some rope for the chain and make sure there is a knife in reach?”
“That’s good. We should do that.” Jurgen nodded. He glanced at Koert who was staring at them and shaking his head. “Koert?”
“You two did this…” Koert rubbed his eyes. “To yourselves?”
“Uh…” Jurgen looked down at the manacles. “Yes?”
“No invader or…” Koert exhaled. “Never mind. I don’t think I want to know.” He headed over to the wardrobe and grabbed the key. “Ever.”
Lammert dodged, swiping his knife blade across the thing’s midsection. It stumbled before coming toward him again, it’s hands ending in jagged bones that served it as claws. Lammert rolled, grabbing his spear. When it came for him again, he jammed the spear into its chest. It fell. He breathed a sigh of relief, then picked up his guttering torch.
It’s claw-like fingers raked across his back. He cried out in pain before whirling and dancing away. To his horror, it yanked his spear out of its chest and came at him with it. He would have fled, but it was between him and the passage he’d come through. Lammert swallowed, holding the torch like a sword. The next time it charged, he tried hitting it with the lit end.
For a moment, it looked as though it was going to catch fire. Then it turned and used the spear to knock the torch out of his hand. Lammert narrowly ducked the spear’s point slashing open his face. With his daggers, he couldn’t get close enough. He grabbed a piece of broken stone and flung it, then another and another. It leaped on him, clawing and trying to bite him, and he smashed its head with yet another piece of jagged stone. It went limp, and he rolled out from under it.
He was bleeding, badly. He could see torn muscle in his leg, and walking was painful. He picked up the torch, then went still as he heard a scraping sound. Lammert let out a soft moan of fear as he turned to see the corpse getting up again. He backed away, limping. “No.”
A low, guttural roar came from the creature as it started toward him. He stumbled back, and came up against the altar. The altar. He reached behind him, and his hand closed around the silver spear as the creature leaped. The spear impaled the creature, but it’s momentum took it into Lammert. It hit, knocking him backward across the altar.
Images flooded into his mind. Volcanoes and fire and dragons and fire and flooding and fire and castles falling and so many he couldn’t make them out. Voices shouted inside his head, drowning out his own scream of pain and fear.
Then everything went black.
His mother having returned meant they had to sneak out of the royal quarters entirely. They sat on the top of the cliff, looking down over the view and passing a bottle back and forth. Diantha looked at it, then took a long drink before handing it back to him. “Alright. Best two out of three.” She shrugged. “I win, you come to Valyk with me.”
“So, let me get this straight…” Jurgen finished the bottle. “You win, we go to Valyk…” He looked at her. “Fine. But when I win…” He smiled. “We go to Valyk. And —”
“And we bring your brother with us.” Diantha nodded. “Lammert, I mean. Your mother actually seems to like the other one, and he has Koert to look after him.”
“You’re okay with…” He met her eyes.
“Let’s be clear —” Diantha narrowed her eyes. “Under no circumstances does your mother get any say in my children.”
“You know…” Jurgen looked back over the view. “I actually was worried for a minute or two you’d want them to learn from —”
“I have clearly got to stop hitting you in the head.” She leaned her head on his shoulder. Then she frowned. “You did want children, right?”
“Were you actually planning on giving me a choice?” He chuckled as he put his arm around her.
“Not really.” She shrugged. “I want a girl first.”
“I was hoping for a son.”
“Then you carry it for nine months.”
Uduak sat, trying not to vomit at the scene they were witnessing. Their captors had come upon a small group of elderly men and women. They must have been refugees from somewhere, though they were heavily armed and had put up a fight before most had been slaughtered. The two healthiest of them had been taken alive. At first Uduak had thought that meant they’d be put in with her and the other prisoners.
Her stomach rolled as she watched their captors devouring the old man and woman alive. The scene looked vaguely ritualistic, with rhythmic chanting occasionally heard over the screams. “Wilderfolk?” Efua asked, look up at her.
“I think so.” Wilderfolk spoke the same tongue as those of Thatela, though with a different accent. That was the language they’d cursed their captors in before being dragged to the rocks that served as tables. And they wore colorful vests. Wilderfolk wore such vests, didn’t they?
One of their captors growled something at them, and they went silent. She was a bit ashamed of herself for feeling some measure of relief. If the Wilderfolk filled the role of sacrifice, it was likely her own people would remain unharmed. Once they were sold to the people of Tebotas, they would be safe enough. The Tebotas knew they could fetch a fair ransom selling them back to their own people.
The screaming stopped. She prayed to the sea that they wouldn’t be expected to partake of any of the ‘meat’. Quest or no quest, she should never have brought her friends so far from the sea. Baako and Enu were her cousins, and Efua was practically a sister to her. The amount of danger she’d put them in just to return some stolen gemstone was absurd. To think she’d been relieved and thought it was over when she’d dropped that stupid gemstone into the mouth of the volcano.
She hadn’t believed. Not really. Not until the ground shook. It had been sheer luck they’d managed to escape the flow of lava. They’d run right into the Unitafels war party. Returning the gemstone was supposed to have ended the curse, not made it worse. Uduak was sighing again when Efua elbowed her. She looked up to see two of the war party returning to the camp. They were dragging something between them. Her eyes narrowed. Efua tilted her head. “What is that?”
Horror filled her when she realized what it was she was seeing. “Storms be merciful.” She took a deep breath and started shaking her head. “It’s a child.”
They dragged the child toward the prisoners and tossed the limp form down by where Uduak and Efua sat. One of them barked something in their strange language before heading over to join the others at the ‘meal’. Uduak shifted to the side of the boy, then gestured to Efua as she took in the boy’s state. His leg was cut deep enough she could see torn muscle, and he was covered in abrasions and what looked like shallow claw marks. His hands were damaged, as though he’d been crawling over sharp rocks, and there were traces of dirt and rock in some of the abrasions. Efua put her fingers against the boy’s neck. “He lives.”
She glanced over her shoulder at the Unitafels. “Let’s hope that continues. Can you do anything for him?”
“He must have been wearing armor…” Efua continued her examination. “They dislocated his shoulder getting it off him. From these bruises, he fought them before they knocked him unconscious.” She brushed some of the boy’s hair back to reveal drying blood on the side of his head. “I should set his shoulder before he wakes. Hold him.”
Uduak gestured at Baako and Enu, and the two young men came over to help. With Enu’s assistance, Efua put the child’s shoulder back into place. The boy made a pained sound and Uduak quickly put her hand over his mouth. The last thing she wanted was for the attention of the Unitafels to fall back on the child. “A wilderfolk?”
“Some of the clothing looks the same, and who else could he be?” Efua nodded.
“He must have escaped the initial attack.” Baako looked at the boy’s hands. “My guess is he found a place to crawl in and hide.”
“We need to clean the wounds before I can treat them.”
Fortunately, they weren’t bound tightly. Each of them had a shackle attached to an ankle, and all four had been secured to a nearby tree. Were it not for the fact the Unitafels would have little difficulty chasing them down again, she’d have considered escape. Enu and Baako wet clothes and began cleaning the dirt and grime from the boy. He stirred a little, and she shifted so his head was in her lap. “Shhh…”
His eyes suddenly snapped open, and she had to put her hand over his mouth as he started screaming. His small body thrashed, and she pulled him into her arms, holding him tightly. “Shhh, shhh little one.” She kept a hand over his mouth to muffle the sounds. It took a few moments before his movements slowed. Uduak took her hand away from his mouth when he stopped crying out. His eyes were dazed and he gave her a confused look. “Your name?”
He just blinked at her. She tried again, this time in the trade tongue. “What is your name?” She smiled. “I am Uduak.” He mumbled something, the words slurred and barely coherent. “Lamb?” She raised an eyebrow. Instead of responding, his eyes closed again as he slid back into unconsciousness. “Rest, little lamb.” She looked up at the war party. “Sleep.”
Dragons in the sky, swirling, blotting out the sun and leaving the land dark. People were screaming and dying. Darodelf cracked in half, the people within shrieking as lava flowed through the hallways and corridors. Those that escaped the molten stone tried to flee. They were struck down, then rose to strike down others. He saw Diantha fall, only to be trampled into the dirt as people fled. Jurgen fighting armored men, only to be torn apart. His brother’s guts were thrown over the balcony even while he still writhed and screamed. Diantha’s face covered in blood as she devoured her children.
He screamed, then struggled as he felt a hand over his mouth. Someone was holding him. “Shhh, little lamb. Shhh, it’s alright.” Whoever was holding him started rocking him gently. The unfamiliar voice began singing softly, a song about being carried home by the sea. Lammert let the words wash over him, drawing comfort from the sound. Arms held him close as the voice offered the soothing melody. Slowly, he opened his eyes.
Then he stared. In the darkness, he almost couldn’t make out the woman holding him. Her skin was the color of the night sky. She smiled at him. “You are back with us, little lamb?”
There had been a cave and… “Where…” He blinked as he looked around. There were three others, all dark as the woman. Two men and another woman.
The other woman moved a little closer. “Explain to him I need to change his bandages.” She looked up at the woman still holding him.
“My bandages?” He looked down at himself. His gear was missing, but his wounds had been dressed.
She gave him a surprised look. “You speak Ilael?” They all were looking at him now.
“No.” He shook his head. “You’re…” He stared at them. “You’re seafolk?”
Now they were looking at him with confused expressions. The woman holding him slowly nodded. “Little lamb, I am Uduak. You…” She trailed off and swallowed as she looked at something on the other side of the camp.
Lammert turned to see a group of armed men. He glanced again at the woman, and realized that she and the others wore shackles. Prisoners. His eyes widened as he looked back at the camp. Unitafels. Marcel had told him how dangerous the Unitafels were. They… He stared as he saw the severed heads atop a rock. Marcel. “Blood and ashes.”
Two of the Unitafels were coming toward them. He shrank back a little, and Uduak’s arm went around his shoulders. The two men were talking. “There are two. The older one leads. They’ll still pay if she is unharmed.”
“You best be right. I’ll not answer to the priest just because you wanted to wet your cock.”
The woman, Uduak, let out a cry of protest as the two men grabbed the other woman by the arms. One of them started unfastening her shackle as she struggled. The men made crude jests to each other, and Lammert realized what was about to happen. Almost by reflex he launched himself up to drive his shoulder into the closest of the two men. The man fell back, and Lammert drove his fist into the man’s throat. He felt something crunch, and the man started choking and thrashing. The other man grabbed him and yanked him back as others started coming over. He heard Uduak shouting, “Lamb, Lamb!” as he was dragged toward the campfire.
Efua let out a cry and tried to scramble after the boy, but Enu caught her leg and pulled her back. “No.” Efua shook her head. “No, no, they’ll kill him.” She started sobbing as she saw the boy thrown roughly across one of the logs. The Unitafels yanked off the remains of his clothing, and she realized he was about to suffer the fate they’d intended for her. “No.” She struggled against Enu’s grip until Baako too had to hang onto her.
She turned away as the boy screamed in pain. Uduak’s arms went around her as she cried. One of the Unitafels dragged away the corpse of the one the boy had killed, making a comment in their language as he did. The man almost sounded amused by the death of his comrade. Efua turned and vomited as she saw one of the men finish with the boy and shove him toward another of them. “Monsters.” Uduak shook her head as she rubbed Efua’s back. “Monsters.”
“Storms have mercy…” Baako looked about to vomit himself. The man had hung up the corpse of their comrade and slit his throat open, catching the blood in a bowl. “They even eat their own.”
The boy had stopped screaming. She prayed to the waters that he had lost consciousness. She couldn’t bear to turn and look. She just crawled back into Uduak’s arms and wept.
He entered Lammert’s room to find Koert already there, apparently hanging a tapestry. Jurgen walked over to hold it steady while Koert finished securing it. Koert shrugged. “Thought your brother might appreciate a welcome home gift.”
“Yeah, I…” Jurgen sighed, and nodded. “He would. I uh…” He shook his head. “I picked him out some horses. A half dozen mares and a good stallion. Fast and sure-footed.” He hesitated. “Is she going to do right by him?”
“That’s…” Koert exhaled. “A matter of opinion. She selected some holdings for him. I can’t call them generous for his station, but…” He shrugged. “He’s clever. I think he can turn them into something worthwhile.” He raised an eyebrow. “Did you need something?”
“No, just…” Jurgen shook his head. “No. Just kind of didn’t realize I’d miss him until he wasn’t here.” When Koert started to leave, Jurgen glanced up at the tapestry before turning toward him. “Koert?”
“Yes?” Koert turned back.
“I just…” He chuckled a little. “I just wanted to say thank you. For looking out for him and being there and…” He smiled. “Rutger’s a lucky kid. He’s got a good father.”
“I…” Koert looked startled. “Thank you, Jurgen.”
The boy started screaming again when he regained consciousness, just as he had the first time. Uduak quickly put a hand over his mouth again. Considering what he’d just been through, she was reluctant to try holding him down in any way, but the last thing she wanted was him to regain the attention of their captors. She sang softly as he slowly stopped thrashing, rocking him gently. Slowly, his body relaxed against her, and she cradled his head on her shoulder. In addition to the damage he’d suffered earlier, the boy was a mess of bruises. She could make out handprints on his arms and legs.
They’d brought him back to them a limp, unconscious wreck. For a moment, she’d thought he was dead. Efua had wept again as they cleaned the dried blood from his form. His eyes flickered as he looked up at her. She smiled. “Are you hungry, little lamb?” They’d been given food. Thankfully, no meat. Just some roasted tubers.
She realized she’d asked the question in her own language, and was about to ask again in his when he responded. “Water. Please.” In her language, no less. So, she hadn’t imagined it. He spoke Ilael. She accepted the waterskin Enu handed her, and held it to his lips. He drank, and she had to adjust it to keep him from drinking too quickly.
“I am Uduak.” She glanced at the others. “This is Efua, Enu, and Baako.” She hesitated. “I think…” She gave him a sympathetic look. “The others you were with. They are dead.”
He shook his head, his eyes still somewhat dazed. “Everyone is dead.”
“I’m sorry, little lamb.” She hugged him to her. The Unitafels were rising, breaking camp. “Can you walk?”
“I…” He swallowed. “Yes?”
Baako had to offer him a hand, but he was able to get to his feet. He flinched when one of the Unitafels put a shackle around his ankle, and Uduak kept a hand on his shoulder to steady him. “The shackle is good.” She spoke the words into his ear. “It means they intend to sell you, not kill you.” She rubbed his shoulder. “You killed one of them.”
“Only one?” He swayed a little. “There was fire.” Enu caught his arm to stead him. “The lake boiled.”
“It was just a nightmare, little lamb.” She petted his hair. A nightmare sufficient to make him wake up screaming. “We have to walk now.” Their captors were already moving, and she knew if he slowed them down they’d probably kill him. Or worse. “Little lamb, you…” She smiled as he started moving with them.
Lammert staggered, but whenever he started to fall one of the others would catch him with a steadying hand. When they stopped briefly for a meal, the younger of the two women tended to the wound on his leg. He felt dizzy still.
Despite the protests of the other prisoners, a few of their captors took him to the campfire again. He stayed silent and limp, hoping they’d get bored faster. Fighting back had just egged them on. They were traveling south. Away. He couldn’t make his mind focus. One moment slid into the next as he fought against sleep and a return to the dreams. That night he saw his mother, fighting, sword in her hand. Every inch the dragon queen. An enemy came at her back, and he screamed out a protest as Koert took the blow instead of letting it fall. Then the woman was rocking him again, singing softly as she muffled his screams.
She tried to talk to him, but he drifted in silence, unable to focus on her words. In the dreams, she died too, as monsters rose from the sea. Her ship split in half and was dragged under by tentacles thicker than a human body. The lucky ones drowned. The young man who brought the waterskin was hanged from the front of a ship, kicking and thrashing as he slowly strangled. As bad as the campfire was, the dreams were worse. One of the Unitafels broke the other young man’s arm when he tried to defend him.
Uduak held him, singing softly. He rested his head on her breast, and focused on the melody even when he couldn’t wrap his mind around her words. She kissed his forehead, and held him close.
He shielded his eyes as he looked south. “He likely won’t be back for a couple more days, Jurgen.” Koert smiled up at him.
“I know.” Jurgen sighed, then shrugged. “Diantha and I promised we wouldn’t have the wedding until he got back and Clan Staal is making noises about an alliance.”
“Your mother is many things…” Koert looked down at the infant in his arms, bouncing the child a little. “Stupid is not one of them. An alliance between Valyk and Draak makes for an unstoppable force. Your heir could rule all the Wildlands in truth.”
Jurgen reached down to pet his little brother’s head. “Clan Arend has joined the alliance.” He hesitated. “You could purchase your freedom.”
“Freedom isn’t worth what it would cost.” Koert smiled down at the baby. The baby made a cooing sound back up at him, gurgling happily.
“Can I hold him?” Jurgen raised an eyebrow. Koert very reluctantly passed the infant over. Jurgen smiled. “Hey, Rutger.” He touched the infant’s nose. “So, there are some things you’re going to have to learn.” He walked over to the weapon rack. “This is called an axe. You use it to cut off the legs of your enemies.”
“Blood and ashes, Jurgen.” Koert laughed as he stood up. “He barely has his first tooth.”
“This is a hammer. You use it to smash open the skulls of your enemies.” He indicated the next weapon. “This is a shield. It’s supposedly for defense but it’s also useful for knocking your enemies on their asses.” Rutger made another gurgling noise. “Now, sometimes your enemies are cowards and won’t come within range. That’s where this comes in. It’s called a longbow.”
The slave traders handed over coin. Uduak kept her arm around the boy. Her heart sank when she realized that the traders were only buying them, and turned to Baako. “Tell them to buy the boy.”
Baako immediately spoke up, translating her words to the Tebota. She looked down at the catatonic boy. He’d saved Efua from the fate he’d been forced to endure. She couldn’t leave him behind. The Tebota replied to Baako, and he frowned. “They say he is damaged. Worthless goods.”
She narrowed her eyes. “I will pay his ransom myself. After they’ve sold us back, I will buy him.”
He spoke, then argued. The Tebota shook his head, and Baako squared his shoulders, his voice clearly insulted. Finally, the Tebota turned to the Unitafels. The leader of the war party shrugged and replied. More gold was handed over, and she breathed a sigh of relief. “You’re safe now, little lamb.” He didn’t reply, but when she squeezed his hand he squeezed back. “You’re safe now.” She prayed to the waters that she was telling the truth.
They were taken into the slaves’ quarters. Efua breathed a sigh of relief when she saw the bath. She expected to have to coax the boy into it, but he simply followed her instructions dully. He let her wash him, sitting in the water placidly as she tended to his wounds. “You saved me.” She swallowed. “I won’t forget that.” He didn’t respond, and she blinked back tears. If he hadn’t killed that man, she’d have been the one suffering their abuses. “Lamb?” That couldn’t be his real name. Unless it meant something else in his dialect. Her command of the trade tongue was not the best, but he seemed to understand Ilael. “Lamb, look at me?”
It took a few moments before he looked up at her. She smiled at him. “How did you come to speak Ilael?”
Confusion flickered across his face. She sighed. “Can you sit up on the edge so I can look at your leg?” He obeyed, and she looked over the wound. It was going to scar, there was no longer anything she could do about that, but she thought she’d repaired it well enough he wouldn’t end up with a limp. “Does it hurt?” This time she got a head shake in response to the question.
“Is he talking yet?” Uduak came in, carrying a tray of food.
“No, but he’s giving the correct responses.” She helped him back to his feet, then helped him dress in the simple breeches their new captors had provided. “This is my fault.”
“No.” It took her a moment to realize that the boy had spoken.
“Lamb?” Uduak immediately set the tray down and came over. “Little lamb, are you hungry?”
He nodded. He joined them at the table, then stared at the food as though he’d not seen anything like it before. Then she realized he probably hadn’t. Baako smiled, then used his fingers to scoop up a bit of rice. He ate it, then nodded to the boy. “See, it’s good.” Baako pointed. “This is a pea pod. Have you ever tried one before?” When the boy shook his head, Baako picked it up and bit into it, smiling. “Now you try.”
The boy picked up one and took a bite. His eyes widened a little. “See, good, right?” Enu smiled. “Try this.” He offered the boy a mushroom, then praised him for eating it.
Uduak apologized as she used a strip of cloth to gag him, explaining that she was concerned what might happen if he woke screaming in their current prison. When he did, a couple hours later, she held him tightly and sang to him again until he’d calmed. The aftermath of a battle, with bodies on spikes. He’d recognized some of them. The men dancing joyously around the scene of slaughter had been Unitafels. She pulled him to her, then removed the gag from between his teeth. “Lamb?” She brushed his hair from his face. “How did you learn to speak Ilael?”
The question made no sense to him, but all of them had asked it of him now. He swallowed, then shook his head. “I don’t speak Ilael.”
Her face became confused. “Lamb?” She hesitated. “How were you captured?”
“There was…” Calling up the memory was difficult, like trying to scoop gravy with a fork. “A crypt. I was the only one that fit and…” He swallowed. “The dead man kept getting back up.” He frowned. “I killed it and then…” He started shivering, and she hugged him to her.
“It’s alright, little lamb. Shhh…” She rocked him gently. “You’re safe now.”
“They sold me to you…” He frowned as he recalled what Baako had said to the slave traders. “The Unitafels sold me to them for three gold, and Baako promised you’d pay five times what they did.”
“You…” She sat up, looking down at him. “You speak Tebota?”
“No.” He shook his head.
She gave him an odd look, but nodded. “Yes. They will sell us back to our ship. Then, I will pay your ransom.”
All of them had been kind to him. Being her slave did not seem a bad thing. “Thank you.”
“Sleep, little lamb. Dream of something better.”
“I…” Lammert shook his head. “I can’t.”
Slowly, she nodded. Then she fixed the gag back into place before pulling him down and holding him gently. Her soft lullaby send him back into sleep once more.