Three days after his arrival, he slipped out of his room under the cover of darkness. Climbing over onto the other balcony was easy enough. He sat down against the wall, and waited. It didn’t take long. “Rutger.”
The toddler looked shocked that he found someone waiting for him on the balcony. The boy had emerged quietly from the other room. “Lam’rt.” Rutger looked down at the sleeping infant in his arms.
“He’s quieter when he’s asleep.” Liam patted his knee. “Sit with me?”
Rutger came over and sat down. “He loud.”
“Very.” Liam put an arm around Rutger’s shoulders, pulling the toddler close. “The stars are different here, then they are in the south. They make different pictures in the sky.”
“Pictures?” Rutger looked up at him.
He pointed, sketching the shapes as he drew. “That’s the great wolf, who prowled these lands a thousand years ago. He preyed on people until one day, the hero Rutger…” He ruffled Rutger’s hair. “The one you were named for, discovered if you drop flint it breaks into sharp blades. He cut strands from his hair and braided them into rope to tie one of the blades to a stick, creating the first spear. The first weapon of man.”
“He kill wolf?” Rutger’s eyes widened.
“He wounded it, and it fled into the sky.” He moved his finger down to chase the next image. “Rutger followed, with his spear. He chases it still, keeping it from turning its fangs against his people.” He looked down at Rutger again. “The first hero of all the Wildlands.”
“Named for me!” Rutger grinned up at him, showing crooked baby teeth.
Liam laughed. “You want to be a hero, Rutger?” When Rutger nodded eagerly, Liam glanced down at the slumbering Marinus. “Heroes look out for people who can’t look out for themselves. Like their little brothers.” He touched the infant. “They don’t dump them off the balcony.”
“He loud.” Rutger looked down at the infant, then shook his head. “He in my bed.”
“I know.” He brushed his fingers through Rutger’s hair. “Because you are a big boy now. That’s why you have my old room.”
“Which means I have to sleep in Jurgen’s quarters.” He lowered his head and whispered conspiratorially. “He snores like a rampaging boar.”
A giggle escaped Rutger, and he imitated the sound. Liam imitated it was well, making a more grandiose production. Then, from Rutger’s arms, came a similar sound from the still sleeping Marinus. They both stared at the infant for a moment. Then Rutger exhaled. “I wanted sister.” He looked back up at Liam. “Or a puppy.”
“It may take a while…” He bumped his forehead against Rutger’s. “But you’ll find brothers are almost as good as puppies.”
They looked up as Thirza stepped onto the balcony. “What’s going on?” She glanced at them.
“Chasin wolves!” Rutger pointed up at the stars. “There’s me!”
Thirza turned her eyes to him, giving him a confused look. It was strange, having her eyes looking at him and not feeling… small. It wasn’t her eyes that had changed. “Rutger was feeling a little left out with Marinus around.” He looked back at Rutger. “Why don’t you give Marinus to your mother? He’s little and not as brave yet as you are, and I won’t want to scare him when I tell you about the giant sea turtles.”
To his surprise, he heard Thirza laugh as Rutger scrambled to his feet to shove Marinus at her. She took the infant, then nodded. “Don’t keep your brother up too late, Rutger. He’s had a long journey.” She smiled before carrying the infant in.
“Turtles.” Rutger plunked himself back down next to Liam and looked up at him eagerly.
He laughed a little at Lammert’s expression. “We told you we found your horse.”
“I know. I just…” Lammert laughed as the horse headbutted him in the chest. “Didn’t expect to see her here.” He stroked the mare’s neck.
Jurgen put a hand on Lammert’s shoulder. “Join me for a ride?”
“That…” Lammert nodded. “I’d love to.”
His stallion was faster than the mare, and it was clear his brother wasn’t practiced at riding at a gallop. Jurgen drew up a bit sooner than he’d intended. Atop the rise, the river and Darodelf spread out below them. He waited for Lammert to catch up with him. “Strange.” He glanced at Lammert. “I used to ride up here and look out and think, that’s the whole world, right there.” He shook his head. “I just realized…” He shrugged. “I’ve never seen the ocean.”
“It’s a world on its own.” Lammert touched the strange object that hung around his neck, then he lifted it so Jurgen could see. “This tooth belonged to a fish thirty feet long.”
“Thirty…” Jurgen shook his head. “No. No such thing…”
“They call it a shark.” Lammert let the tooth fall again.
“You’re speaking of dragons, little brother. Dragons of the ocean.”
“The dragons of the ocean are serpents, large enough to crush a ship in their coils.”
“They…” His eyes widened. “You’ve seen these beasts?”
“I have.” Lammert nodded. “On the whole though, I liked the elephants better.”
“Those don’t sound real either.” He patted his horse. “Mother wants to have a welcome feast for you.”
“Speaking of things that don’t seem real…” Lammert gave a sad smile.
“I…” Jurgen sighed, then nodded. “I know things weren’t right when you left, Lammert. But you’re back now. Things will be different.” He leaned over to pat his brother’s shoulder. “You’re home.”
He’d done what he’d come to do, but leaving again was harder than he’d expected. A dozen times he’d started to tell Jurgen or Koert that he was going away again, but each time he’d come face to face with them he couldn’t find the words. Pauwel seemed oblivious to the fact he wasn’t actually Liam’s father, casually admonishing him to eat more and urging him to practice his combat skills.
And Rutger… Liam looked down. Rutger was currently attached to him. The toddler was sitting on Liam’s with his arms and legs both wrapped around Liam’s legs, keeping Liam from going anywhere. He looked up at Liam. “Story.”
“Story?” Pauwel’s head came up.
“Refresh my memory…” Koert grinned. “Which of you two is the adult?”
Pauwel just grinned back at him shamelessly. “Did he tell you about the guys that dive off the cliffs into the water?” Pauwel whistled. “I want to try that.”
“Don’t let him try that.” Koert immediately shook his head at Liam. “He’d dive the wrong way and we’d have to bring him home in four buckets.”
“I think you’re underestimating the number of buckets.” Thirza entered the room, her gown flowing around her ankles. She kissed Koert, then kissed Pauwel before turning her attention to him. “Rutger, mind letting Lammert go?”
“Mine.” Rutger shook his head. “Mine brudder.”
“Hang on.” Jurgen stood. Then he simply scooped Liam and Rutger both up. Rutger let out a happy squeal, while Liam grunted and muttered a curse. “Where do you need them?”
“Over there will be fine.” Thirza pointed at the table.
Liam was sat down in the chair, and he glared at Jurgen, who just grinned. Rutger shifted to ensure he had a firm grip. “Mind fetching me a pry bar?”
“He’ll let go when he gets hungry.” Jurgen shook his head.
Thirza sat down across from him, and set parchment on the table. “I…” She hesitated. “Some of the original holdings I intended for you have been otherwise disposed, but I believe I found suitable replacements.”
“My…” Liam blinked. “Holdings?”
“Koert suggested that you take the Wharf Tower. It’s the only one of Draak’s holdings on the coast.” She looked up at him. “Admittedly, it’s in disrepair, but given your experiences I think you’d have the best chance at restoring it.”
Holdings meant staying, but the coast meant… He smiled. “I’d love to try, certainly. Perhaps make an attempt at establishing a trade post.”
“We’ll still need to do the formal presentation.” She shuffled the parchment into a pile. “You’ve given thought to your sigil?” She looked at him expectantly.
No. He hadn’t. He’d thought to come and leave when he was done. Liam swallowed. The sigil of Draak was a dragon. It was expected. And yet, home wasn’t here. Home was a ship and… “The Phoenix.”
“The…” Thirza blinked. “The Phoenix?”
“Yes.” Liam nodded. “The Phoenix.”
“A phoenix?” Jurgen stared at his little brother. “Lammert, you’re a dragon. Just like me, and…” He rubbed his neck. “Pauwel’s been introducing the baby to everyone as his little river dragon. Said it was your idea.”
“It…” Lammert shrugged a little. “It was.” He smiled. “Fits. Pauwel is the river, a force to be reckoned with that can wash away all in its path if needed. Marinus is…” He gave a smile that was just slightly sad. “The River’s Dragon.”
“Wash away all in…” Jurgen nodded. “Yeah, that’s Pauwel. But Lammert, you’re a dragon. You’re…” He trailed off.
“I’m not. The Phoenix is kin to the dragon, but a different manner of beast, with a different purpose. The dragon…” Lammert gave a small shake of his head. “It’s part of you. Written in your soul like words carved in stone.” He touched Jurgen’s chest, just above his heart. “An unyielding foundation. A…” A shadow passed across Lammert’s eyes, and he frowned slightly before looking up to meet Jurgen’s gaze. “A stone dragon.”
“And what’s Rutger then?” Jurgen tried to keep his voice light. There was something strange in his brother’s gaze, something that made him more than a little uncomfortable. “A wood dragon?”
“The grass hides lion and serpent alike.” Lammert lowered his hand, then shook his head as though shaking away cobwebs. “Rutger is Rutger. There are years yet before he picks a road to walk.”
“You leave for a little bit…” Jurgen punched him lightly in the side. “And you come back more poetic than Koert.”
“Who is being poetic?” Diantha came toward them, holding Petrus. She raised an eyebrow at him, then shrugged. “Clearly not yo —. Whoa…” She shifted as Petrus lunged for him.
He caught his son, then put the boy on his hip. “Conquered anything new?” He looked down at the boy and tapped his chin with a finger. Petrus promptly bit him.
“He’s teething.” Diantha smirked.
“Yeah…” Jurgen winced. “Noticed.”
“That is…” Lammert laughed softly. “Definitely your child.”
“You’re not staying, are you?” Koert’s voice made him turn.
Liam let the shark tooth fall down onto his chest again, and rose. The vest hung uncomfortably around his shoulders. He swallowed, then met Koert’s eyes. “No.”
Koert sat on the foot of the bed. “Will you come back?” His smile was sad. “Rutger will want to hear more stories.”
“I…” Liam nodded. “Yes. I’ll be back.” For a moment, he thought about inviting Koert and Jurgen and Pauwel to come with him. To meet his family and… The dream threatened to rise again. Had he not taken the precaution of gag and tether last night, he’d have woken all of Darodelf screaming. Ships aflame, and wings on the heights. Until he knew what it meant, it was a chance he dare not take. “I don’t know when, but I’ll come back.”
“Good.” Koert glanced down at the shark tooth, then back up at him. “Is she kind?”
“I…” He blinked. Then he smiled, ducking his head a little. “She’s wonderful.”
“I’m glad.” Koert put his hand on Liam’s foot. Then he took a small wrapped package from his pocket, and set it next to Liam’s leg. “Give this to her when you find her again. It’s…” Koert swallowed. He took a couple deep breaths. “A gift for the woman my son loves.”
“I…” His voice broke a little. “Rutger is —”
“Rutger is of my blood.” Koert met his eyes. “But you were my first child, Lammert. You can’t imagine how much I regretted not telling you that before. You’re my son, Lammert, and I love you. That will stay true no matter how far you wander.”
Tears fell down his cheeks. “I love you too, Koert. And any man would be proud to have you as a father.”