He took Adaeze’s hands, and let her lead him through the steps of the dance. Fortunately, she was aware enough of his movements that she wasn’t thrown by his single misstep. Baako and Tau played drums, the rhythms playfully competing for the attention of Nkruma’s pipes. The first time he’d tried dancing Ilael style, he’d nearly broken his own leg and his partner’s.
Nearly a dozen ships were gathered at the atoll, trading goods and information with each other. Any shipsmeet was cause for celebration, and the fact that it had been a good year for trade just made spirits higher. The Phoenix was one of the wealthiest of the ships, wealthy enough that Uduak was considering taking on a sister-ship. Apparently, word had spread, because many prospective young captains had found excuses to spend time on board.
Though few actually wed that young, Ilael were considered of marriageable age at fifteen. Though he lacked some months yet, Liam found himself gaining no small amount of attention. Ships were often inherited, and it was not uncommon for a wealthy mother to give captaincy of a sister-ship to a daughter or the spouse of a son. And rumors about him and his gifts had spread throughout the Ilael. The exotic and mystic son of Uduak was apparently considered quite a prize.
Adaeze had come to his rescue, and hadn’t left his side after finding him being cornered by a rather persistent woman a few years older. They finished the dance, then joined the onlookers. Less than a dozen heartbeats after they sat, Enu joined them. “Liam, the young pilot from The Ranger just asked me the strangest question.” He leaned forward and smirked at Liam. “She wanted to know if you’re proportional.”
“She wanted to…” Adaeze started to ask, then her eyes widened.
“Another one?” Liam ran a hand down his face.
“Wait…” Adaeze stared at him. “What do you mean another one?”
“I’ve been asked that four times now.” Liam sighed. Then he gave Enu a suspicious look. “What did you tell her?” When Enu just grinned, Liam glared. “Enu, what did you tell her?”
“That you’re still growing…” Enu’s smile was evil. “And if you end up proportional you’re going to be about eight feet tall.” When Liam gave him a look, Enu just laughed. “I think she’s actually scared off now, so you’re welcome.”
“You’re terrible.” Adaeze shook her head fondly, then glanced over her shoulder. “Though that would explain some of the strange looks I’ve been getting.”
“He’s a full foot taller than you already, little sister. They’re probably wondering how you can kiss him without carting a ladder around.” Enu reached out to rub Liam’s hair affectionately before standing. “Pardon, but Lesedi is giving me looks that suggest she’s offering to be far better company than you two.” He left.
They sat in companionable silence for a few minutes. Adaeze leaned into him, and he put an arm around her shoulders. “It’s okay.” She said softly.
Liam blinked. “What’s okay?”
“That we aren’t kissing.” She caught his hand, and twined her fingers around his. He squeezed her hand gently. “This is nice too.”
“I…” He shifted just a little so she could lean on him more comfortably. “Thank you, Adaeze.”
Going into battle alongside Pauwel was an experience. The man might be a poor leader, but as a second he was without equal. Jurgen brought his axe down into a troll, and noted Pauwel moved in at his back to kill the troll’s mate as though they’d practiced the move a thousand times. The big man yanked his axe free, sending a spray of blood across the snow. “Pity there aren’t more.” His laughter held an almost childlike note of glee.
“Most people consider an infestation of thirty trolls to be quite enough.” Though to be fair, the man was only a year older than Jurgen himself.
“Good thing we’re not most people.” Pauwel slapped him on the back.
His smile was fond. As much as he missed going into a fight alongside Diantha, Pauwel was alright. Bright as a wet rag and as powerful as a river, as Koert had so poetically put it. Between the two of them, they’d accounted for twenty-one of the thirty-two trolls.
And that had put looks into the eyes of Clan Vyssen. The small clan lived in the waste in the center of the Wildlands, and their coming under the control of Clan Draak would put three quarters of the Wild’s mineral wealth under his mother’s control. He wouldn’t have been surprised to learn she’d somehow arranged the troll’s invasion herself. The fact that she’d sent her husband and her eldest son to deal with the issue had been taken as a sign of respect by the chief of Vyssen. That he knew had been a calculated move.
Actual negotiations he left to the skalds. He sat with Pauwel, enjoying the hero’s feast in their honor. Pauwel drained a mug, then looked over at him. “Think she’ll have a girl?”
“Most men are eager for a son.” Jurgen smiled.
“I want a girl.” Pauwel grinned. “Besides, she’s got boys already. Two. I —”
“Three.” His voice was soft.
“What?” Pauwel blinked at him.
“My mother birthed three boys.”
“I…” Pauwel gave him a surprised look. “I didn’t know that, I…” He frowned. “Where’s the other one? He marry into a clan like you?”
Jurgen gave Pauwel a surprised look, then sighed. From Pauwel, the erasure of Lammert didn’t sting as badly. Pauwel’s ignorance, at least, was honest. “He vanished on his adulthood quest.”
“I…” Pauwel stared at him, then his voice softened. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…” He shook his head. “I’m sorry, Jurgen. Losing a brother is…” He started to reach over and pat Jurgen’s shoulder, then awkwardly aborted the gesture. For a few moments, the man was silent, his mouth occasionally moving as he hunted for something to say. Finally, he met Jurgen’s eyes and nodded. “If you want me to pray for her to have a boy, I will.” Then his voice quickened. “That came out wrong. Not suggesting a brother is something that can be replaced or —”
“It’s alright, Pauwel.” He patted the man’s hand. “I wouldn’t object at all to a sister.”
He remained a pace behind Uduak, listening to the conversation. Trade with Manisar was always risky, even with the Ilael not taking part in the slave trade. The Ilael themselves were prized as exotics, and from time to time hapless crew found they’d driven a bargain they did not intend. Manisar raiders had trouble taking Ilael ships on the open sea, but they sometimes got lucky.
These were speaking their own language, discussing how they intended to force a bargain that would allow them to take a half-dozen younger members of Uduak’s crew as slaves. This was why he’d come. Manisar kept their language secret, but his instinctive understanding of languages applied to their tongue. He could even read their codes with little trouble.
A few whispers to Uduak, and the Manisarian neatly had their trap turned back on them. They soon had the herbs and spices they’d come to purchase for half the cost they’d originally expected to pay. The Manisar seemed to find the matter somewhat amusing. At least they didn’t have to worry about ending up with shoddy goods. For all their excess, however, the Manisar kept their contracts.
Halfway back to the docks, Liam looked out toward the docks. A ship caught his eye, and he froze, staring at it in horror. Enu’s hand came down on his shoulder. “Little brother, you’ve gone paler than usual. What’s…” He turned to follow Liam’s gaze. For a few moments, Enu was silent. “That’s the ship.”
“We need to get you back to The Phoenix.” Liam started shaking his head. He raised his voice a little. “Mother.”
Uduak turned back toward him. She must have caught the look in his eye, because she stepped toward him. “What have you seen?”
“The ship. The one that kills Enu.” He shook his head. “He’ll be safe if he stays aboard The Phoenix.”
“Enu, you’re shipbound until I say otherwise.” Uduak immediately nodded. “I want everyone back on board. Soon as the crates are boarded we’re heading for open water.”
Adaeze moved through the market carefully, making sure to stay near her crewmates. A lone Ilael risked being grabbed by the slavers. Even if her kin could find her for a rescue, it would be risky and expensive. Unfortunately, she noted one of their new crew wasn’t being quite as cautious. Desta was off by herself, looking at jewels. With a sigh, Adaeze went to claim her. “We should be…”
A hand came down on her shoulder, and another went over her mouth before she could cry out. She saw another man grab Desta, and they were both dragged toward an alley. Adaeze twisted in the grip of her captor, managing to drive an elbow into him. He lost part of his grip, and she lunged forward enough to kick out at the man holding Desta. The blow caught the man in the side, and his grip on his own captive loosened. Desta tried to pull away, but her avenue of escape was cut off.
The man holding her said something she didn’t understand, and she was pulled into a building. Darkness closed around her as a bag was put over her head.
Uduak nearly ran into Liam when he came to an abrupt stop on the deck. His eyes were wide, staring off at something only he could see. He woke like this, sometimes, but this was the first time she’d ever seen it happen when he was already conscious. “Liam?”
“Adaeze.” His voice was eerily calm. “Adaeze. They’ll kill her. She’ll fight them and they’ll kill her.”
“Adaeze?” Her hand touched his shoulder.
His body jolted out of the trance. He stared at her for a heartbeat, and then before she could stop him he’d turned and started running. “Liam!”
Baako immediately followed, and to her horror, so did Enu. She started to go after them, and Dumisani caught her arm. “Captain.”
“Let me…” She glared at her shaman.
“Captain.” Dumisani’s eyes were understanding. “You are needed on deck.”
Baako followed, barely managing to keep pace with Liam’s longer legs. He caught up to the boy in an alley. “Liam what —” His eyes widened when Enu entered the alley a few paces behind. “Enu.”
“Liam, where is Adaeze?” Enu’s voice sounded terrified.
“Enu, get back to —” Baako started shaking his head.
“She’s my sister, Baako.” Enu glared. “Liam —”
“Enu if you come with us you’ll die.” A tear fell from Liam’s eye.
“If I don’t come, can you get Adaeze out safely?” Enu caught hold of Liam’s shoulder.
“I…” Liam half closed his eyes, his face clearly in pain. “I don’t know.”
“I…” Enu exhaled, then gave Liam a calm look. “If I do come, will Adaeze be safe?” When Liam didn’t answer right away. “Liam. Liam, I know you can’t lie to me. Answer the —”
“Yes.” Liam’s voice broke on the word. “If you come we can rescue them all. And that…” He swallowed. “Enu…”
“Liam…” Enu put a hand on his shoulder. “Would I consider it worth it?”
“Yes.” Liam exhaled. “Yes.”
“Right.” Enu squared his shoulders, then met Baako’s eyes. “Let’s go get my sister.”
“We should get —” Baako shook his head.
“There isn’t time.” Liam wiped the tears out of his eyes and started moving. Enu followed.
He prayed that the seas be calm and the sky merciful, then went after them.
“There.” Liam pointed.
“I don’t…” Baako started shaking his head.
“That’s controlling the cages.” Enu nodded. “Right, I think I can climb…”
“Enu…” Liam reached for his friend’s hand.
Enu squeezed his hand, then pulled him into a hug. “I don’t plan on dying today, Liam. Get my sister. Get her safe. If there’s a way, I’ll find it.”
He felt slightly off, dizzy but not. Then he moved. His hand caught the crossbow bolt before it hit Baako and Liam continued the spin to ram the bolt into the slaver’s eye before the man could shout an alarm. He saw both Baako and Enu staring at him, then looked at the body laying at his feet. “Time to move.”
Adaeze stared as a spear came through the back of the slaver’s neck and jutted out of his mouth. A heartbeat later, the second slaver went down with a spear through the eye. She rose, and then smiled. “Liam. Baako.”
“Hurry.” Liam turned toward her. “More are coming.”
“We need to get the cage —” There was a clicking sound, and then suddenly all the cages fell open. Desta emerged from the cage next to her, as did the three dozen other slaves. Adaeze bent to grab the short sword from the slaver. Two more ran in, and she moved in beside Liam to down them before they could do any harm. “Move.” Adaeze pointed to the door.
At her command, they followed. A young man grabbed the other short sword, then moved in at Baako’s back even as Adaeze moved in at Liam’s. “Grab their weapons.” He pointed his sword at the weapons of the half dozen slavers, and some of the men immediately obeyed. Then he looked at Baako before hesitating a moment. Then he nodded and looked to Adaeze. “By your order.”
“Get to the door. Have your men form a circle around the non-combatants.” She made a vexed noise. “We need to get that door —”
“Got it.” Enu yelled from above them as he moved to the other lever. “Go.”
For a moment, just a moment, he thought Enu was going to make it. That the vision had been wrong and… A crossbow bolt caught Enu in the back of the leg, and he fell. “Enu!” Adaeze screamed. She started to turn back and he was following her.
Baako caught her arm, and someone else caught hold of his. He turned to see the young man who’d been the first to pick up the sword. Saw the man and knew. If they went back, they could save Enu, but this man would die instead. And if this man died… He felt sick as he caught Adaeze’s other arm. “Adaeze. We have to go.”
She made a sobbing noise, but let him and Baako pull her away.
In addition to Adaeze and Desta, they’d rescued four other Ilael prisoners from another ship. The rest of the freed slaves followed them aboard, clearly terrified by their close call. Uduak ordered the lines cast off. They needed to be out of the harbor before the Manisarians realized what had happened. A ship started to come after them, but there was no way it would catch them. Her heart sank as she realized that wasn’t the ships intent.
They dragged Enu to the prow of the ship, and threw him over. The rope around his throat wasn’t enough to snap his neck, and he dangled there above the waterline, kicking and choking. “Don’t look.” She put a hand on Adaeze’s shoulder, and the girl turned to sob into her chest. “Liam…” She reached out to him.
“I’ve seen it already.” Liam’s voice was quiet. “There is…” He put his hand atop hers. “Wait.”
Enu had stopped struggling. His body hung limp. The other ship started to fall back, and she saw them start to haul his body in. They knew Ilael beliefs, and wanted them to know Enu wouldn’t be… The rope caught. They pulled, and then it broke. Enu’s body fell into the water. “The sea took him back.” She said the words softly to Adaeze. “The sea took him back.”
Jurgen couldn’t help but chuckle. Rutger held Petrus in his lap as he urged his steed to go faster. Pauwel obliged, making growling noises as he chased after a giggling Diantha on his hands and knees. Koert was laughing nearby. “You two getting along?” Jurgen raised an eyebrow.
“He’s starting to grow on me a little.” Koert smiled. “I think your mother has actually become a bit fond of him herself. He’s like…” Koert shrugged. “A really big puppy. Not much on dignity or brains but…” He leaned back. “Yeah. I like him. He can be surprisingly gentle. Rutger uses him as a climbing tree and he doesn’t mind at all.” He looked over at Jurgen. “How’d the hunt go?”
“Handled things with a simple tactic.” Jurgen smirked. “Point Pauwel in the right direction, and watch.”
“Did you really cut off a troll’s arm and use it to beat another troll to death?” Koert raised an eyebrow.
“Things may have gotten a little bit exaggerated…” Jurgen started shaking his head, then sighed when Koert just looked at him. “I didn’t beat the other troll to death with it. I just…” He picked up his drink and muttered into the cup before taking a gulp. “Used it to knock the other troll off a cliff.” When Koert just started grinning, he sighed. “Just tell me there is no tavern song.”
“It’s quite catchy, but I think I can improve on it a bit.” Koert shrugged.
Adaeze sat down on the small bench in the captain’s room. The young man who’d been quick to fight was there, along with Baako and Captain Uduak. Liam sat next to her, his fingers twined around hers. She knew he blamed himself. She also knew Enu hadn’t given him a choice. “Payment upon passage.” The young man kept his shoulders square.
“You’re asking us to change course. Throw plans into the rapids.” Uduak shook her head.
“I’ll ensure your cargo is purchased at a fair price, Captain.” The young man exhaled. “There is a business matter of vital importance.”
“Who are you?” Uduak folded her arms.
“I’m Lord Markus Haupt. I can purchase your cargo if —”
“He’s lying.” Adaeze jumped a little at the sound of Liam’s voice.
The young man turned toward Liam. “I…”
Liam stood, releasing her hand and going to Uduak’s side. “You’re lying.” He turned to Uduak, switching effortlessly to the Ilael tongue. “We need to take him and his men to their destination.”
“If he’s lying to us, then why should we?” Uduak didn’t ask the question argumentatively.
“Because he gets back to Solsthriem before the Midsummer festival, he can stop a war.” He switched back to the trade tongue as he turned back to the young man. “Tell them who you are.”
“I did. I’m Lord Markus — ”
“Your highness…” Liam cut him off, and Adaeze saw the young man pale a little. “Tell them who you are.”
“How did you…” The young man stared at Liam.
Liam turned back to Uduak. “His name is Wendel Jaeger. He is the future king of Solsthriem.”