Jurgen stepped out onto the balcony into the morning sun and stretched. His shoulders made a slight popping sound. Then he exhaled, and started to turn back to the door when something caught his eye. Then he led out a whoop and went over the railing. He caught the light pole to break his fall, then swung down and landed a couple feet in front of the tall young man walking up the path. When the young man smiled, Jurgen laughed before stepping forward to hug his brother.
Liam laughed as Jurgen grabbed him by the arm and half dragged him up the path that lead into Darodelf. “You couldn’t have sent word ahead that you were coming?” Jurgen shook his head. “A letter? Anything?”
“A year with only four letters?”
“I brought presents.” Liam shrugged.
“Oh, well, that makes everything fine.” Jurgen rolled his eyes, then pulled him into another hug as they entered the castle. “Blood and ashes, Lammert. I’ve missed you. Where have you been?”
“Petobae, among other places.” Liam followed him down the hall. “Speaking of which, your gifts are at the stables at the entrance to the city.”
“You…” Jurgen stopped in his tracks and stared. “Petobae horses?”
“A stallion and three mares.” Liam nodded.
“You got me Petobae horses!” Jurgen actually bounced a little, like a small boy.
“The stallion is named Sugarplum, and the mares are Lilac, Violet, and Lavender.”
Jurgen started to glare at him, then shrugged. “Eh, I can live with that.”
Rutger strummed the beautifully carved mahogany lap harp Lammert had brought for him. It was pitched an octave higher than the one played by Koert, and the two were playfully dancing melodies around each other. Thirza was leaning against Pauwel, her eyes half-closed as she listened with a smile on her face. Pauwel had an arm draped around her, holding her to him.
Diantha was still sighing over the beautifully beaded brocade cloak. He’d made the mistake of commenting that it was too impractical to wear, and the look she’d given him had scorched a few years off his life. Marinus and Petrus were both sitting by Lammert, staring wide-eyed as he juggled the painted leather balls he’d brought for them. “Where did you learn how to do that?” Jurgen raised an eyebrow.
“From the son of the craftsman who made the harps.” Lammert caught the balls, then offered them back to the toddlers. Marinus tried duplicating the motions, only for the ball he’d tossed in the air to come down and hit him in the head. He glared at it, and Lammert gave a fond shake of his head. “He could keep seven daggers in the air, but five balls is the most I’ve managed.”
Diantha looked up to see Queen Thirza had actually come to see the horses. Not only had she come, she was wearing the cloak Lammert had brought for her. It had been lovely in the castle, but outside the threads of gold and silver caught the sunlight, shimmering to make the embroidered dragons look alive. From the lift of Thirza’s chin, the impressive nature of the effect was not lost on her.
A headbutt from the mare brought her attention back. Petobae horses were renowned. The pure white stallion was drawing envious looks from every noble that laid eyes on him, and Jurgen was already being inundated with questions regarding studding him out. Lammert had clearly selected the mares with great care, as they were wildly different beasts. Lilac was of the same ilk as Sugarplum, a massive but agile destrier, built to go to war. Violet’s lines demonstrated she was built for speed, and Lammert said the Petobae bred her kind to be ridden by messengers. They could keep going miles after other horses had dropped dead from sheer exhaustion. Lavender was a workhorse, strong, smart, and solid, with a sweet temper and affectionate nature.
The second stallion was slightly larger than Sugarplum, but not as agile. His coloration, however, was a breathtaking solid black. It was clear Pauwel already adored the great beast and had every intention of spoiling him. “You chose well.” She put a hand on Lammert’s shoulder.
“To be honest I just took the advice of my Petobae guide.” Lammert chuckled.
“So why is my husband’s stallion named Sugarplum, and Pauwel’s horse named Nightblade?” She glanced up at him.
“Pauwel never poked fun at me for naming my horse Tulip.” Lammert shrugged.
“They are wonderful, Lammert.” She stood up on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. “Thank you.”
“You’re married.” Jurgen’s voice was quiet.
Liam slowly nodded. He could see the hurt in Jurgen’s eyes. “Yes.”
“You got married without…” Jurgen took a deep breath. “You said nothing in your letters.”
“I…” Liam looked down. He started to look up again, then staggered backward as Jurgen’s fist connected with his nose. He put his hands up to try to stem the flow of blood.
“What the hell else haven’t you told me?” Jurgen shook his head, glaring. “Do you have children? Are you…”
“I think you broke my nose.” He winced as he touched the injury. Blood was still pouring.
“I damn well…” Jurgen exhaled. “Fuck.” He walked over to the other wall, opened a chest, and came back with a cloth and a potion. “Fuck.” He offered both to Liam.
He took a sip of the potion, then started wiping away the blood. “Jurgen…”
“I should have gone after you.” Jurgen folded his arms. “When you didn’t come back as expected, I…” He closed his eyes. “I should have gone after you.” He took a deep breath. “I’m sorry, Lammert.”
“I don’t…” Liam wiped the rest of the blood off his face, then set the cloth aside. “I doubt there is anything you could have done, Jurgen.”
“You were sold into slavery and…” Jurgen looked away. “My brother was a slave. I should have gone after you.”
“I’ve never been a slave, Jurgen. Traded by slavers, yes, but…” Liam shook his head.
“What’s she like?” Jurgen stared at the wall.
“Come with me.” Liam put a hand on his brother’s arm. “Meet her.”
“Why not bring her with you?” Jurgen turned toward him.
“It’s…” Liam exhaled. “It’s complicated. You’ll understand when you meet her.” He twitched a shoulder. “Besides, there are some things happening and…” He wasn’t sure how to even start explaining. “I think I might need your help.” To his surprise, Jurgen started laughing. “Jurgen?”
“Nothing, Lammert, it’s just…” Jurgen shook his head and smile. “I thought I’d have to wait another decade before I could ride out with one of my brothers.” He clapped Liam on the shoulder. “Where are we going?”
Wendel stared in shock as the massive Wilder took the Thatelan knight’s arm off at the shoulder before turning to bury it in the chest of the next attacker. He was opening his mouth when a spear caught the knight attacking Reimund. Liam retrieved it smoothly, then moved to help Reimund press the attack.
It was tempting to just stand back and watch the big Wilder at work. His entry in the battle had changed a rout into a victory, and less than a minute later none of the Thatelan forces were standing. “Wendel…” Liam pulled his spear out of a dead man’s throat. “Taking care of my horse and riding her into a pitched battle are not equivalent.”
“I wasn’t expecting the pitched battle.” He nodded to Liam. “I needed a mount that could handle wild terrain and she’s…” He gave an awkward shrug. “Sorry.”
Liam walked over to Tulip and started looking the horse over. “Hello girl.” He petted her, and she nickered in greeting.
“You know, for a moment, I almost thought you’d showed up to rescue me.” Wendel rolled his eyes, then extended his hand, clasping Liam’s arm in greeting.
“You were outnumbered.” Liam nodded, then jerked his head at the big man accompanying him. “So I brought an army.”
“You certainly did.” He gave the other man a small bow.”
“So…” The big man rubbed the back of his head. “We’re capturing these guys?” He gestured at Reimund and the wounded Adalbert.
“We’re rescuing them.” Liam shook his head.
“Okay, yeah, I got that, but now what are we doing with them?” The big man gave Liam a confused look.
“We’re rescuing them, helping them complete their mission, then getting Wendel back to his castle in time to be crowned.”
“Wait…” The big man blinked. “What?”
“Lord Liam…” Wendel glanced at his friend.
“Wendel, this is my brother, Prince Jurgen, the Stone Dragon.” Liam gestured at the big man. “Jurgen, this is my friend, Prince Wendel, the Rock of Ardual.” He took a deep breath. “Try not to kill each other, alright?”
Jurgen gave the pretty blond man a second look. He knew how to use a sword, but that wasn’t entirely surprising. A lot of the softfolk knew how, they simply lacked the heart to take joy in battle. The surprising part was seeing one of the softfolk treating a Wilder with respect. And Wendel clearly held Lammert in high regard. Even deferred to him at times. What the hell did his brother get up to when he left the Wildlands? “Why do you call him Liam?” He raised an eyebrow at Wendel.
“That’s his name.” Wendel gave him a confused look, then stared at him. “Isn’t it?”
“His name is Lammert Draak.” Jurgen narrowed his eyes.
“Not on this side of the mountains.” Lammert spoke up from where he was examining some documents. “Wendel is one of very few that know me for a Draak. It’s better that way.” He frowned down at the documents. “Benoit is intending to cheat you.”
“Tell me something I don’t know.” Wendel sighed.
“He’s committed everything on a gamble, confident you can’t hold up the rider he added to the contract.” Lammert’s smile was a little vicious. “Happens I can ensure you do.”
“And what’s that going to cost me?” Wendel raised an eyebrow.
“Once the crown is on your head, I want the blackrock quarries up on the border.
“The blackrock quarries in exchange for Benoit’s holdings?” Wendel immediately started nodding. “Done.”
“The blackrock…” Jurgen blinked. “The ones we keep having to kick Solsthriem soldiers out of?”
“Yes, Jurgen.” Lammert nodded. “And now you won’t have to and we can get some actual mining done.”
“Those were ours to begin with.”
“They certainly were not.” Wendel glared at him. “They are part of my ancestral —”
“They’re north of gray creek, and that makes them ours.”
“Gray Creek went dry two hundred years ago.” Wendel shook his head. “Maps don’t even mark it anymore.”
“Your maps, maybe.” Jurgen drew himself to his full height.
“Jurgen. Wendel.” Lammert took a deep breath. “It’s irrelevant. In two weeks, they’ll be mine.”
“My lords, are we sure allying with Wilders is a good idea?” The one that called himself Sir Reimund gave Wendel a skeptical look as he approached.
“Reimund, let me be very clear on this matter.” Wendel turned to face Reimund, then gestured at Lammert. “I trust this man with my life, and with the fate of my kingdom. If he says his brother can be trusted, then he can be trusted, and I expect you to treat him with the respect due to a prince. Do you understand?”
“I…” Reimund stared as though his eyes were about to fall out of his head. “Yes, my lord.”
He turned to stare at his brother. Lammert just gave him a shrug.
Liam looked up as Jurgen sat down across from him and gave him a confused look. “The man about to be king of Solsthriem…” He took a deep breath. “Trusts you with his life.” He exhaled. “There’s a lot you haven’t told me, isn’t there?”
“Yes.” Liam nodded.
Jurgen rested his arms atop his knees. “You’re never coming home to stay, are you?”
“I visit the Wildlands, brother.” Liam swallowed. “But they aren’t my home.”
“Is this?” Jurgen gestured. “Solsthriem?”
“No.” He shook his head. “You’ll see soon enough.” He hesitated. “Brother, you…”
“You want me to keep this a secret.” Jurgen slowly nodded.
It was a few minutes before Jurgen spoke again. “Because if our mother learns…” He looked away, then shook his head. “She’ll see you as having turned on her, and…” He slowly nodded. “I won’t lie to Diantha, brother. But…” He looked back at Liam. “I think she’ll understand.”
“Thank you, Jurgen.”
“Liam is a dumb name though. Sounds soft. Like a lamb.” Jurgen made a grumbling sound.
He started laughing. “Yes.” He exhaled and nodded. “Yes, it does.”