“You’re sure?” Uduak held Liam to her.
“If I don’t go…” Liam wiped at his eyes. “My brother will die. And…” He curled in a little on himself. “I…” He took a deep breath. “He’s not born yet. He won’t be able to defend himself at all.”
“Liam…” She rubbed his hair.
“I’ll come back. That’s…” He leaned his head on her. “This is home. I’ll come back.”
She could feel him shaking. Her son, so brave and wise. He’d been given his gifts for a reason. “You must hold your course, my little lamb. The sea will be here when you return.” She put her chin atop his head. “We’ll go up river. Take you as far as we can.”
It was good to be home. Jurgen smiled a little at the thought. Darodelf wasn’t home anymore. Torin met them at the entrance to Valyk’s central fortress. He’d purchased the man to pleasure Diantha, but Torin had proved to have a sharp mind in addition to his clever tongue. Though he often joined them in bed, his primary duty was as the fort’s steward. “How fared things in our absence?”
“Well enough. There were some nibbles on the herds in the valley. The shepherds aren’t yet sure if it’s raiders or predators.” Torin nodded as he fell into step alongside them. “Losses are few for raiders, and clever for animals, but they’ve only just started so it could be a prelude to something worse.”
“I may ride down and have a look. Make sure it’s not just laze shepherds letting the herds wander.” Diantha nodded.
“I did hear the news you’re to have a new sibling soon.” Torin smiled. “I took the liberty of starting arrangements for a tribute. Some of the traders brought back silks.”
“Queen Thirza will like that.” Diantha continued talking to Torin, but he paid scant attention to the conversation. Petrus was asleep, and he carefully laid the infant down under Rozenn’s watchful eyes.
He didn’t even notice when the conversation ceased, at least until Diantha called his name. “Hmmm?”
“Something troubling you, love?” Diantha sat down next to him.
“Just…” Jurgen sighed, and leaned back into the chair. “She’s about to have another child, and…” He exhaled. “She didn’t mention him once.”
“Lammert.” Diantha put her hand on his shoulder.
“Yeah.” Jurgen gave a small shake of his head. “I just…” He took a deep breath. “The new baby will have Koert and Pauwel to look out for her and…” He put his arm around Diantha. “A couple days after he left, I went to his room. Koert caught me there and…” He leaned his head back. “I never realized how much I’d miss him until he was gone. I’m not sure I…” He swallowed. “I was just thinking that uh, I…” He looked at her. “I can’t remember if I ever told my brother I loved him. If anyone ever told Lammert they loved him.”
She didn’t say anything, just pulled him close to her and held him.
She sat in silence next to him as the ship went up river. Liam’s fingers were intertwined with hers. “I could come with you.”
“No.” His voice was soft. “I have to go alone.”
“Liam.” Adaeze rested her head on his shoulder. The final port was in view, and she could barely see it through the tears in her eyes. She took a ragged breath. “You stay safe, you hear?”
“I’ll try.” He put his arm around her shoulders.
“No. You promise me.” Adaeze shook her head. “You promise me you’ll stay safe.”
“I wish I could make you that promise, Adaeze.” He hesitated, and then to her shock she felt his lips press against her forehead. “I promise that I’ll try.”
Jurgen laughed. “They couldn’t invade Solsthriem, so they got the bright idea to go take in a mountain view?”
“Thatela is attempted to claim a ten-mile-wide swath of border in the mountains.” Torin nodded.
“Are they now?” Jurgen smirked.
“Not sure what it gains them. There are no mines there. Just some forests. Maybe they have a sudden need for firewood?” Torin raised an eyebrow.
“Or maybe its just been a few years and they need another thump on the nose.” Jurgen stood.
Leaving was hard. Especially when he was taking so little with him. Enough gold for a horse and some food, and nothing else. “I’ll come back for it, Mother.” Liam tried to smile.
“Just…” She held the seashell necklace tightly. “You’re my son, Liam. You should…”
“I’ll make it there safely. And I’ll be back.” He bent to touch his forehead to hers. “You know I speak truth.” Gently, he touched her belly. “I’ll be back before my sister is born.”
“Your…” Her eyes widened. “Oh, Liam…” She kissed his cheek. “May the wind guide you to safe harbors.”
He’d said his goodbyes to the others already. He found himself standing in front of Adaeze again. She reached up and caught the back of his neck, pulling his head down. Then she put her shark tooth necklace around his neck. “Come back to me.”
“Always.” He spoke the word into her ear.
“How many?” Jurgen wiped off his axe, then looked up at Pauwel.
“Six.” Pauwel actually looked disappointed. “The rest surrendered.” He sent a frustrated look at the group of prisoners under guard. “Cut one man into five pieces in a swing, and the rest start throwing down their swords.”
“Four pieces?” Jurgen blinked. “How’d you manage that?”
“He was bent over a bit.” Pauwel shrugged. “How’d you do?”
“Eight.” Jurgen shook his head. “Cut a couple limbs off, but don’t think I cut anyone into more than three…” Jurgen tilted his head. “Okay, when you say bent over a bit…”
“You know, kinda reachin for his sword that was near his feet and then down on the collarbone and through.” Pauwel looked confused.
“I really wish I’d seen that.” He chuckled. “Must have been something.”
“Not as good as beating a troll to death with it’s brother’s arm.” Pauwel grinned.
“Pauwel, you were there. You know what happened.” Jurgen punched the other man’s shoulder before walking toward the prisoners. Some of them had finer gear than others. He gestured for those to be separated out, then looked over the others. Then he clapped his hands for their attention. “So, which of you want to be slaves, and which of you want to be stripped naked and chased all the way back to Thatela?” He gave them an expectant look.
There was some shuffling and confused looks before one of them spoke up. “My lord, are you serious?”
“Absolutely.” He pointed. “Slaves there.” He pointed to another area. “Naked target practice over there.” Then he shrugged. “I’ll give you a few minutes to think it over.”
Finding his destination was easy. The location was marked indelibly into his brain. Squeezing through the passage, however, was harder than it had been the first time. Liam scraped half the skin off his chest managing it, but he got inside.
The passageways were still hot, and he knew there were areas of the walls that would burn his hands if he touched them. In a few more years, the lava would break through, and the crypt would be lost forever. Sealed, if not destroyed completely.
In the main chamber, he found the scepter right where he’d left it. Still sticking out of the corpse. Most of the body had rotted or fallen away to dust, but the scepter still pinned the ribcage. He removed it, noting that the stone was still glowing, and wrapped it in the cloth he’d brought for that purpose. Instinct told him the staff needed to be kept safe, and there was one place he knew it would be. For a while, anyway.
He scraped the other half of the skin on his chest off getting back out.
It couldn’t really be called a war, but it was enough to get spirits up. Thatela had poked them, and been soundly smacked. Stories of his and Pauwel’s prowess got wilder every time he heard them, and he caught Koert embellishing on multiple occasions. “Seriously?” He gave an amused look at the skald.
“I’ve discovered just how much it is in my best interest for people to be scared shitless of you two.” Koert grinned, then set Rutger on his knee. “Show your brother what you learned.”
Rutger immediately began playing a lullaby on his flute, then gave Jurgen a gap-toothed grin. “For making sister sleep.”
“So you’re having a sister?” Jurgen raised an eyebrow.
“Got a brudder.” Rutger frowned up at him.
“That’s…” Jurgen smiled. “Sound logic.” He lowered his voice conspiratorily. “Personally, I’m hoping for a puppy.”
Rutger’s eyes immediately widened hopefully. “Puppy?”
“I…” Koert glared up at Jurgen. “Am going to ask Pauwel to beat you.”
“Relax.” Jurgen laughed. “I’ve already got it picked out. It’s a mastiff. The mother weighs in at almost two hundred pounds.” He tapped Rutger’s chin. “You’ll be able to ride him.”
“I’m going to ask Pauwel to beat you with a salmon.” Koert just sighed as Rutger let out an excited squeal.
He lost a shoe fording the small river, then ditched the other one because walking in just one made his gate lopsided. It was strange that even after three years away and most of that spent in the south, the cooler air didn’t seem to bother him. The air, however, didn’t smell right. Not bad, just… Not right. It didn’t taste right either.
It took Liam another mile to realize it was because he couldn’t detect the tang of salt. He searched, trying to find some part of himself that felt like it was going home. “I’ll see Darodelf.” Nothing. “The Breath of Life.” Nothing. He hesitated. “I’ll see Jurgen and Koert.” There. And yet, when he reached for the memory, it wasn’t their faces he saw. It was Enu, laughing as he taught Liam how to haul a fish in. He had to take a deep breath before he could keep walking.
There was a small change. Not to the air, to something else. He stopped and looked up, waiting. Darkness began to creep across the land as something moved in front of the sun. He drew a breath as the sun was blotted away completely, and he knew. “I have a brother.”
Word spread like a lightning fire. The gods had darkened the sun, and in that moment… Jurgen caught Koert’s eye, and saw the man was slightly pale. In that moment, the Dragon Queen had given birth to a son. A thousand rumors would be spread from this moment, if not more. “Koert…” He stared at the smaller man.
“A portent, but…” Koert exhaled. “I know no more than you do, Jurgen.”
“We should —”
He was cut off by the door opening. Pauwel stepped out, holding the newborn to him. The infant was crying loudly, his lungs clearly strong. “I’ve got a son.” He smiled proudly. “Listen to him. Listen to that war cry.”
Jurgen smiled at the small form, then looked up at Pauwel. “Born during an eclipse.”
“Born during a what?” Pauwel blinked.
“An ecl —” Koert sighed, then laughed softly. “Born when something blocked the light coming from the sun.”
“When did that happen?” Pauwel stared.
Koert exchanged a look with Jurgen. Jurgen just gave a small shake of his head. “While the boy was being born, Pauwel. You didn’t notice?”
“I was kinda focused on the important stuff, Jurgen.” Pauwel rolled his eyes, then looked down at the child in his arms and smiled.
“But…” Jurgen laughed, then touched his little brother’s hand. “Maybe you’ve got a point there.”
No one looked twice at him in the city. No one recognized him. It was something of a relief. The city hadn’t changed. Then again, Darodelf was a city of stone. He followed the winding path up to the great hall.
They’d stop him if he tried to go in the door. They’d see an urchin, not a prince. So Liam took a different route. Up over the rooftops, through the back corridor, and into the passage. A few minutes later he was in his old room. Nothing of his remained within. That too, was something of a relief.
Once in the royal dwelling, getting to the great hall was easy.
Jurgen stood, watching the ceremony. Pauwel was grinning like a proud fool, and Koert was grinning every time he saw the expression on Pauwel’s face. So were plenty of others. Jurgen couldn’t exactly blame them. Pauwel may have wanted a daughter, but he was clearly thrilled about his son.
The speeches were boringly grandiose. No one knew what the eclipse meant, but they clearly knew this child was special. And each of the nobles was trying to outdo each other. More than once he exchanged eye rolls with Diantha or Koert as they babbled on.
At least the gifts were impressive. They were coming to the end of the ceremony when a hush suddenly started falling. Jurgen blinked when he saw someone emerging into the hall. A tall, thin young man in little more than rags. He was barefoot, and there were scratches and abrasions all over his chest. He carried something wrapped in a blanket. And he’d come from the royal quarters.
He started to turn, to wave to his guards, then he realized what he was seeing. Shock kept him in place. His eyes were wide as he watched Lammert walk across the hall. The crowd was silent as his brother knelt in front of the throne. Queen Thirza was staring, her face pale with shock. Lammert set his burden at her feet, then pulled the blanket away to reveal a glowing scepter. Exclamations came from all over the chamber as they realized they were looking at magic.
Only then did Lammert look up. “My queen, I bring you the scepter of Asrael.”
His voice broke the spell Jurgen was under. He strode across the hall and grabbed his little brother into a hug.