“You need to hurry.” Guard Captain Aurel guided the young duchess toward the passage. The little girl was bravely trying not to cry.
Bastien swallowed past the lump in his own throat. The attack had come suddenly. Most of the guard had been cut down in the initial onslaught. Duke Harald had welcomed his half-brother and retinue with open arms. Now the duke was dead in the great hall, poisoned along with half his men. Phillip’s mercenaries were slaughtering the remaining soldiers.
It had been pure luck they hadn’t been swept up in the initial attack. Little Nadja had crept out of her quarters to visit her pup in the kennels. She was clutching the little dog as if the puppy was all she had left in the world. A glimpse of the carnage around the castle showed she might be right.
They were almost to the secret tunnel when a shout revealed they’d been spotted. Bastien turned to look at his father, then at their position. “I can hold them long enough for you to get her out.”
“Bastien…” Aurel started to shake his head.
He looked from the girl to his father. “The king knows you. You’ve a better chance to get her to safety. She is all that matters now.”
Aurel clearly wanted to argue. Then he gave a furious shake of his head. His voice was thick. “Gods guide you, my son.”
“Safe journey, Father.” His sword hilt felt cold in his hand as he drew the blade, preparing to buy his father time.
Rien just shook his head at the pile of corpses. The knight had chosen his position well. Opponents had to come at him through a low, tight passage, and he had room to maneuver his own blade as well as cover from any arrows or spells. The survivor of the Brant family had been taken this way, and the knight was buying time for her escape. Too much time. They needed to get that girl.
He gave a frustrated growl as the knight gutted the last of the men sent against him. What of Phillip’s men had any skill were with Phillip rather than anywhere near the fighting. The rest of Phillip’s men were idiots, and these were no exception. The money might not be worth the cost. Rien bent and picked up one of the bodies, holding it in front of him like a shield.
The knight was good. He saw the trap and held his blade so as not to get caught up on the corpse. He was not, however, prepared for Rien to simply hurl said corpse at him. The half second it took the man to dodge was enough for Rien to get into position. He swung and the knight parried, dodging what of the swing he wasn’t able to deflect. Rien pressed, and grudgingly had to admit the knight was not without skill. Unfortunately for the knight, he was already tired and wounded while Rien himself was still relatively fresh. And Rien had the benefit of being considerably larger and stronger.
A look at the knight’s eyes revealed he knew it too. “You fought well.” Rien parried the man’s swing. “I’ll accept your surrender.”
“Liar.” The knight aimed a kick at the side of Rien’s knee that Rien only barely managed to avoid. It was clear he wanted to say more, but had to devote his energy to keeping Rien from killing him.
More shouting and footsteps approaching. As soon as the others reached them, the knight was a dead man. And the man knew it. “You’re dead the moment they…” He grunted as the other man’s swing turned out to be a feint. Slowly, he looked down at where the knight’s off hand had driven a dagger into the side of his armor. If the knight had been just a little fresher, it would have been a fatal wound. But the knight was tired and his shoulder had taken damage. The blade caught on the chain mail, lessening the blow. It drove into his side only about half a finger-length. Certainly not enough to kill him.
With a growl, Rien batted the man’s hand away and took advantage of the opening to drive his shoulder into the smaller man. He took the knight off his feet, and came down atop him. He stared down at the man’s eyes before yanking off the helmet, then frowned. The man beneath the helmet was barely more than a boy. A boy had blooded him. He growled again, and instead of ramming his blade into the man’s throat he clubbed him upside the head with the hilt. The knight went limp.
Then Rien stood, downing a healing potion as reinforcements finally arrived. “The girl was taken into the tunnels. Get her back alive. Lord Phillip —”
“Has left already. Along with his guard.” Aart shook his head.
“He…” Rien blinked. “What?”
“Soon as the fires started in the castle, he and his soldiers took off.”
A snarl escaped Rien. “Without paying us.”
“And with none but those loyal to him to say the whole attack wasn’t ours to begin with.” Aart gave a jerky nod.
“That…” Rien laughed. “Well played.” Rien tossed the potion bottle aside, letting the glass shatter. “Remind me to compliment his strategy before I fucking skin him alive.” Hie eyes fell on the unconscious knight, and then he looked down the tunnel. He started laughing again.
“Rien?” Aart raised an eyebrow.
“The girl got away. Who knows how many of the duke’s guard went with her?” He nudged the unconscious knight. “None of the duke’s men got past this guy.”
“Shall we go after her?”
He shook his head. “Phillip didn’t pay up, so she and the king’s justice are his problem.” He looked down again at the knight. The young man was actually rather pretty. Barely old enough to have earned the blade, and had come closer to killing him than any had in a decade.
Aart followed his gaze. “Finish him?”
“No.” Not getting paid didn’t mean he had to leave empty handed. “Bring him.”
The world around him swayed and shook, occasionally jolting him. At first, Bastien attributed that to the throbbing in his head. It wasn’t until he opened his eyes that he realized it probably also had something to do with the fact he was currently slung over a horse. He tried to rub his face and discovered that his hands were manacled behind his back. His ankles were also bound. He’d been tossed over a pack horse along with a couple rolled up tapestries and several sacks of loot from the duke’s castle. That didn’t seem to bode particularly well for him.
“You’re awake.” A hand caught his hair and yanked his head up. Bastien recognized the big man from the passage. “Was starting to worry I’d given your brains too much of a rattle.”
“If it is ransom you wanted…” Bastien stared at him. “You should have considered that before killing the Duke.”
“Not a concern.” The big man smirked before offering Bastien a canteen. When Bastien gave it a suspicious look, the big man took a drink before offering it again. Reluctantly, Bastien drank the lukewarm water.
“Then why am I tied to your horse?”
“How else am I going to carry my spoils?” The big man shrugged. He let go of Bastien’s hair, then patted his back. “Wagon doesn’t do much good unless you’ve got a road.”
Spoils? A chill went through Bastien. He looked at the ground below. Dirt and undergrowth. No, they were definitely not on any trail. From what he had seen, it looked as though they were in the mountains. “You’re of the Wildling clans. Phillip brought Wildlings in? That’s high treason.”
“Yeah.” The big man laughed. “And since you ensured someone got away to inform the king, I’d say his high and mightiness is going to be in a world of hurt.” He smiled. “Just think, if he’d paid us instead of taking off, he’d have gotten away with it. We’d have made sure whoever it was never made it past the river.”
Then his father had gotten the little duchess to safety. Or at least had a good chance to do so. Despite his current situation, he couldn’t quite stop a smile of his own. His comrades, his friends, would be avenged. Justice would be done. “His plan undone by his own greed.” Bastien exhaled. Then he looked up at his captor. “So you do intend to ransom me. Once the king —”
“No.” The big man gave him an amused look. “You have any idea how few have stood against me? Let alone bloodied me?” He shook his head. “Besides, your king isn’t going to pay a Wildling in good coin.” He shrugged again.
“There are —” He cut off as his hair was grabbed. “What…” A wadded up piece of cloth was forced into his mouth, then secured in place with another strip of cloth.
“Sorry. Can’t risk a patrol hearing you.” The big man patted him again. “We’ve still got ground to cover before dark.”
Rien gave his captive a contemplative look. The young man had lost consciousness again, and he’d removed the gag to pour a healing potion down the knight’s throat. The man’s eyelids were fluttering as he slowly returned to awareness. Almost immediately he started tugging at the manacles.
“Won’t do you much good.” Rien shrugged. “Those are steel. Paid a pretty penny for them.”
“Where am I?” The knight started looking around.
“My tent.” Rien took a drink from the goblet of wine. More steel lay at hand. Manacles for ankles, a collar, chains, and three solid locks. The cuffs had fit snuggly around the young man’s wrists. There was no chance of him slipping out. He’d removed the man’s armor and weaponry before throwing him across the pack horse. The knight’s tunic and breeches were basic; shapeless garments intended to be worn beneath armor. “What’s your name?”
The knight pulled again at the shackles. They were secured to a short chain, and he’d fastened the other end of the chain to the tree serving as one of the tent posts. He’d left the man with a short range of motion, nowhere near enough to get at anything that could be used as a weapon or lockpick. The knight looked over his surroundings before looking up at Rien. “Who are you?”
“I asked you first.” Rien stood, setting the goblet down. “If I rang your wits enough to make you forget your name, I’ll have to give you a new one.” He smirked.
His captive narrowed his eyes. “I am Sir Bastien Kohler.”
“I’ll call you Bast.” He didn’t miss the glare the knight sent at the shortening of his name. Rien picked his goblet back up and drained it. “How long will it take whoever it was to get to the king?” He got no response. He’d have been a little disappointed if he had. It wasn’t like it mattered anyway. “Phillip is already at work. Wildlings come over the mountain to slaughter his poor innocent brother and family. I’d wager he started spreading the word before we even arrived at the castle. Left his part in out, of course.”
“So you are being hunted?” Bast raised an eyebrow. “I’m a hostage, then?”
“We decided to be discrete.” He shrugged. “Merc band grabbed what we could carry, and separated.” He laughed. “Hell, with what the Duke had in his coffers, I’d wager no few of them are retiring.” Phillip likely hadn’t anticipated them having some black powder. Breaking into the vault would have been impossible. Simply blowing a hole in the wall was a different issue. Soldiers had been descending on the castle less than an hour after they were clear, coming to the Duke’s ‘rescue’.
“Where are we?” Bast looked around.
Laughter came from Rien. “Plotting your escape already. You’re in Whitehallow. Wrong side of the mountain for you.”
“I see.” Bast tested his shackles again.
“I’m Rien.” He smiled. “But from this point on…” He looked down at the captive. “You’ll be addressing me as master.”