Jurgen’s hug nearly took him off his feet and cracked his ribs. Before he could quite catch his breath, Koert was there, also hugging him. “You’re alive.” Tears were visible on Jurgen’s cheeks. “You’re alive.”
A shadow passed over them, and he looked up to see Thirza on her feet, staring. The scepter was in her hands. She looked down at it, then back at him. Slowly, she descended the couple steps to him. Her hand reached out and touched his cheek lightly before it was pulled away again. Then she gave a small shake of her head and to his surprise, she smiled. An actual warm smile, not the tight-lipped expression she’d always given him before. The scepter gleamed as she held it above her head, the glow visible to all. “My son.” Her voice was loud, echoing through the hall. She lowered the scepter again. “You have returned.”
“I have.” He squared his shoulders, his back straight.
“Lammert Draak.” She inclined her head. It took him a couple heartbeats to recognize the name as his. There was a moment of uncertainty in her expression, then she slid into the ritualistic words. “You left us a boy. Your clan welcomes your return as a man.” She lifted her head, raising her voice as she continued the speech.
No sooner did the speech end than Jurgen was dragging him out of the hall toward the royal quarters. His brother kept a tight grip on his arm. They were halfway down the corridor to the residence when Jurgen finally stopped. He caught Liam’s shoulders, then looked him over, his face incredulous. “You’re alive.”
In his memory, his brother was a giant that towered over him. Now, though, he could nearly look Jurgen in the eye. “I…” Before he could say anything, there were footstep rushing up behind them. Koert was in the lead, a toddler on his hip. A large man he didn’t recognize followed a pace behind, holding an infant. Diantha was a step behind Thirza, and Diantha was also carrying… Liam’s eyes widened as he turned back to his brother. “You’re a father.”
“Yes, I…” Jurgen started laughing, then pulled him into another hug, pounding on his back before turning. “Rutger.” He gestured for Koert to bring the toddler closer. “You remember your brother?”
“Brudder?” Rutger looked confused. Then he turned to look at the baby the other man was holding, then back at Jurgen. He scratched his head. “Brudder?”
“We thought you dead.” Thirza gave a small shake of her head. “We…” She turned toward Jurgen, and her face was slightly pale. “Jurgen, you found his horse.”
“What happened?” Koert stared.
“Where have you been?” Diantha half spoke over Koert.
“Who are you?” The big man gave him a confused look. The others all turned toward the big man. The big man shrugged. “Who is he?”
“Lammert, this is Pauwel.” Jurgen slung an arm around Liam’s shoulders. “Our queen mother’s new husband. And this —” He gestured at the infant Pauwel was holding.
“Marinus Draak.” Liam nodded. “My new brother.” He smiled, then looked over Pauwel. He’d seen the man before, in one of his dreams. It was difficult to keep the smile on his face when he realized which dream.
Pauwel nodded, then grinned. He offered the infant to Thirza, who took the babe. Then to Liam’s surprise, the big man stepped forward and engulfed him in a hug, actually lifting him a couple inches of the ground. “Welcome back. Good to have all our boys home.”
He put a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “You’re hurt.” Some of the abrasions on Lammert’s chest were bleeding again. They may have been a bit too rough with the hugging. Jurgen gestured at the servants. “Fetch my brother a healing potion.” The servant gave a small bow before withdrawing. “Lammert, what…”
“Why didn’t you come back?” Koert sat down next to him.
Lammert exhaled, then took a couple deep breaths. He laughed softly, then shrugged. “There was a volcano.”
“Oh.” Pauwel nodded. “Yeah, those are dangerous.” He looked Lammert over. “You look hungry. You hungry.” He turned toward the servants. “He’s hungry. Get him food.” He glanced at Lammert again, then called back over his shoulder. “And shoes.”
Jurgen’s gaze went to Lammert’s feet. They were bare. He’d noticed that before, but… “Blood and ashes, Lammert. You’re…” He started to straighten, then Diantha tossed him a blanket. He caught it, and wrapped it around his brother’s shoulders. “How bad are you hurt?”
“I’m fine, Jurgen.” Lammert shook his head. “I’m fine.”
“Do you need anything?” Jurgen patted his shoulder. “Do you want anything?”
“I…” Lammert started to stand, and Jurgen pushed him back down into the chair. Lammert gave him an eye roll, but stayed where he was. “I’d like to meet my nephew and my brother.”
“Here.” Diantha stepped forward. She laid Petrus in Lammert’s arms. “His name is Petrus.”
“Hello, Petrus.” Lammert held the infant, smiling down at him.
The scrawny boy who’d left was gone. The young man holding her son was still lean, but muscular, and almost as tall as Jurgen. Diantha frowned when she noticed he had several scars, including a fairly nasty one on his thigh, visible through one of the tears in his pants. Had he possessed them before?
“I think…” Koert took a few breaths, then looked around. “I think we are crowding him. Perhaps give him a few moments to settle in and…” He nodded at where a servant was bringing the potion. “Recover.”
“Right.” Diantha reached out to take Petrus back from Lammert. Lammert returned him with a trace of reluctance, then took the potion and downed it. She glanced over her shoulder. Pauwel was holding Marinus again, and Thirza was pacing. She wasn’t sure what exactly was going through the queen’s mind right now. Lammert had returned. “Blood and ashes, Lammert…” She exhaled. “You…” She shrugged. “You cut your hair.”
He reached up to rub the short haircut. It couldn’t have been longer than the width of her littlest finger. “Yeah. It…” He shrugged. “Yeah.”
“You’ll need clothes.” Thirza’s voice made them jump. “And an apartment made ready for you. Your old room won’t be suitable, as we’ve been preparing it for Rutger. And we’ll need to arrange you some servants for the time being and…” She gave a small shake of her head, then took a deep breath. “The men I sent with you. Were any of them responsible for…”
“They were killed.” Lammert stood then. “We crossed paths with an Unitafel’s warparty. They were slaughtered.”
“I…” Thirza’s voice hardened. “They dared lay hands on a child of mine? They…” Koert put a hand on her arm, and she took a few deep breaths.
“You…” Diantha stared.
“Unitafels…” Jurgen stared. “How’d you escape?”
Lammert gave a small shake of his head. “I didn’t. I was sold down to Tebotas, and…” He focused his gaze on where Rutger was standing behind Koert, starting at him with wide, fearful eyes. Lammert crouched, then seated himself on the floor and smiled at Rutger. “In Tebotas, they have a beast, six times the size of Jurgen’s biggest warhorse. It’s gray, with ears like flags and legs like barrels.” Rutger started moving closer at Lammert spoke. “Tusks jut from it’s mouth the size of swords, and it has a nose like an arm. Fingers even, on the end, delicate enough to pluck a flower.”
“It scary?” Rutger moved closer, his voice eager. “Eat you?”
“No.” Lammert shook his head, smiling. “It sucked up water into it’s nose, then gave me a shower.” He punctuated the words with gestures, then mimed shaking out his hair. Rutger laughed. “A very smelly shower.”
Rutger sat down in Lammert’s lap, gazing up at him. “Not scary.” He shook his head.
“No. They put a box on it’s back, like one of the seats at the arena, and I rode in there. It would lift up it’s nose and make a sound like a war trumpet to announce our coming, and it’s footsteps would shake the ground.” He leaned down toward Rutger. “They called it an elephant.”
“El-fant!” Rutger beamed up at him.
“That…” Koert let out a small laugh. “That sounds amazing.”
“I want one.” Pauwel tilted his head.
“Only six times the size of a warhorse…” Diantha smiled at him fondly. “Not sure it’s big enough to carry you.”
Liam exhaled, somewhat grateful to find himself with a few minutes of time alone. He’d been given clean clothes, and Jurgen had insisted he simply stay at the quarters Jurgen occupied when in Darodelf. Images swirled around in his mind, threatening to overwhelm him. He started to look for Efua before remembering she was a thousand miles away. He inhaled, running through the breathing exercises she’d taught him. Slowly, reality started to right itself once more.
There was a tentative knock on the door. “Come in.”
Pauwel entered hesitantly. He had a bag in one hand, and the infant boy in the other. “I, uh…” He shrugged, then walked over and set the bag on the small table. “When they was clearin the room out for Rutger, there was some things that…” He gestured at the bag. “Well, they seemed like they belonged to somebody, so I saved them. I guess they are yours.”
A river an army could not cross. Liam nodded to Pauwel, then turned his eyes to the infant. “Can I hold him?”
“Yeah.” Pauwel offered the infant to him.
Unfocused brown eyes looked up at Liam as the infant raised a tiny fist. “He’s…” Liam smiled down at him. Marinus blinked twice, looked at Lammert, blinked again, and apparently did not find Liam to his approval. He let out a yell that could likely be heard in Ocia. Liam laughed. “Loud.” He offered the infant back to Pauwel.
In Pauwel’s arms, the infant quieted again almost immediately. “Yeah. He knows his father though. Doesn’t much like anybody else yet.” He held the infant up. “Look. He’s got a tooth already.” Pauwel smiled at his son as though no infant in all of history had ever before accomplished such a feat.
“Marinus Draak.” Liam touched a finger to his brother’s cheek. “The River’s Dragon.”
“The…” Pauwel blinked, then gave Liam a surprised smile. “The River Dragon.” He grinned down at the infant again. “I like that. The River Dragon.”
He just chuckled before looking inside the bag, then caught his breath. His hands shook a little as he removed the daggers, and he swallowed past the lump that had risen in his throat. “I thought about giving them to Rutger…” Liam turned to see Koert in the door. “But whenever I saw them, it…” Koert sighed. “It hurt, seeing them and believing you were gone.”
“I…” Liam swallowed. He walked over to Koert, then stared for a moment. “I’m taller than you.”
“You are.” Koert’s voice trembled a little. “You went and grew up while I wasn’t looking.” He wiped at his eyes. “I, uh…” He took a ragged breath. “The ceremony was rushed. We’ll need to do it properly. Pick you a sigil and…” Koert blinked a couple times, then looked away, his shoulders shaking.
“It’s alright, luv.” Pauwel patted Koert on the back, then rubbed his shoulder gently. “Your boy’s home safe now.”
“Yes.” Koert nodded. “Yes, he is.”
“It’s good, seeing you, Koert.” Liam caught the back of Koert’s neck, then touched his forehead to Koert’s for a moment. It took him a moment to remember it was how Ilael showed affection, not Wilders. It didn’t matter. From Koert’s smile, he understood.
“Then Jurgen…” Pauwel gesticulated wildly as he told the story. “Brings his axe down, takes the thing’s arm off at the shoulder. But it twists, right, and he’s off-balance. Has to drop his axe to avoid the troll’s mate.”
“Oh for…” Jurgen started shaking his head.
“Hey, Lammert hasn’t heard the story yet.” Pauwel grinned. “So anyway, there’s Jurgen, with his axe under a dead troll. What’s he do?” Pauwel spread his hands. “He picks up the arm, and starts smacking away —”
“That’s not what happened.” Jurgen glared.
“ — away with it, driving the troll back, right. One last mighty swing, and he smacks the troll dead in the face with the severed shoulder. It goes flying into the air —”
“It did not.”
“— like it had been launched out of one of them punt-a-cats, and —”
“A what?” Koert stared at Pauwel.
“Catapult.” Diantha supplied quietly.
“Yeah, them things.” Pauwel nodded to her. “Right off the cliff, and slides down. Bounces off a —”
“Pauwel.” Jurgen ran a hand down his face.
“ — rock and goes into the air again and comes down splat, right at the feet of the last group of trolls. They take one look up at Jurgen, standing there with the arm over his shoulder just waitin for them, and they take off running.” Pauwel waved a hand. When Jurgen just glared at him some more, Pauwel shrugged. “Least that’s the way I remember it.” He turned to look at Lammert. “So what all did you get up to?”
Lammert was quiet for a moment, then he twitched a shoulder. “There is an island, off the coast of Tebotas. The water there is bluer than the sky, and from the shores you can see no other land. There are spirits in the water there, and at night when the waves crash upon the shore, you can see them, glowing as the waves crash down. If you walk in the surf, they come to you, shimmering as your feet move in the water. The people there believe those are the souls of their ancestors, all given to the sea when they die, returning to where they began.”
“And you…” Koert starred. “You’ve been there?”
Jurgen patted his brother’s shoulder. “You’ve been to the edges of the map, little brother.” Then he smiled, and hugged Lammert to him again. “It’s good to have you home.”