Stone and Fire : Chapter 23

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Even setting sail immediately, she could tell from the bleakness on Liam’s face that they weren’t going to arrive in time to prevent whatever it was he’d seen.  Uduak put a hand on his arm, and he turned to lay his head on her shoulder.  She held him almost as she had when she’d met him the first time.  Quietly, she sang, then let the words die away.

“You’ll have to make port.”  Liam’s voice was soft.  “Lethiun.  Load wool for Tebota, then —”

“We can go up the coast, my lamb.”

“There will be weather and ice.  If you try, we’ll lose the ship.”  He swallowed.  “Wool for Tebota, then silk for sails and to the islands.  You…”  He swallowed again, then took a deep breath.  “Bear east along the currents instead of straight.  The Silver Trident is listing, but with aid she’ll make it.  The captain is dying.  She’ll want her ship and crew in good hands.”

“Liam…”

“I’ll go overland.  I’ll have to kill the horse but I think I think I can make it.”  He raised his head.

“I can send men with you.”  She frowned.

“They’ll never be able to keep up.  The pace I’ll have to set will kill them as surely as it will kill the horse.”  Liam shook his head.

“And you?”  When she didn’t answer right away, her eyes widened. “Liam.”

“I don’t know.  There are too many choices between now and then.  I can’t trace all the possibilities and…”  He exhaled.  “If…”  He took another deep breath and let it out slowly.  “If I live, I’ll find you.”

“I forbid —” She’d change course.  She wouldn’t risk him.  Even if he couldn’t forgive her for it.

“Please.”  His voice was soft.  “It will be so much worse if I don’t go.  I can’t see it all yet, but Marinus…”  He half-closed his eyes.  “The sun went dark at his birth.  I can hear them in the dark, the beat of wings and…”  He opened his eyes again, and met hers.  “The wind takes me where it will.”

#

Petrus’s quarterstaff clacked against his.  Jurgen smiled down at his son.  At four, he was already showing he was going to be a warrior.  He and the not so heroically named Flower were already riding into battle against imaginary foes.  He could throw a spear from horseback and generally hit the target, even though he still lacked the strength for the spear to stick.

He left the boy to the drill, then went to put an arm around Diantha.  She and Rozenn were both pregnant, and their babes would be born within a couple weeks of each other.  Toma was fussing over them both.  A small smile came to his face.  He was an uncle by now as well.  Diantha caught the smile.  “Do you think they had a boy or a girl?”

“Hoping for a boy.  Boys leave to join their wife’s crew, so if we marry him to your sister’s girl, then —”

“Planning alliances already?”  Diantha laughed, then it trailed off as she nodded thoughtfully.  “With your brother controlling the wharf…”  She shrugged.  “Clan Valyk could be the first in the Wildlands to have a navy.”

Jurgen chuckled.  “It’s a worthwhile alliance either way.  With what Lammert has already gained —” He cut himself off.  That was still a touchy subject.

“I still need to have a word with him about how I didn’t get a royal playmate.”  She stuck out her lower lip.

He bent and kissed it playfully.  “I’m sure he’ll be very apologetic.”

“He’d better.”  She returned the kiss.

“Will we be ready for an invasion of my mother and entourage?”  He raised an eyebrow.

“I’ve arranged a boar hunt for Pauwel.”  Torin spoke up.

“Better make it two.”  Jurgen grinned.

“The harvest will be in by the time they arrive.”  Diantha nodded.  “We’ll be fine, my love.”

#

He rode the horse until it collapsed, then grabbed his pack and started running even as the beast was still taking its last labored breaths.  It would begin before he got there, but perhaps he’d arrived in time to stop the worst.  Liam had barely slept, rising each morning before dawn and riding into the night.  Despite the importance of the cause, he couldn’t help feel a twinge of guilt.  He’d lamed three horses before killing this one.

Liam shifted his grip on his spear and moved as fast as he could.  Almost there.

#

Several of the smaller clans had come to see the queen on her visit.  Seeing a group of unfamiliar people didn’t raise his suspicions at first.  It wasn’t until he got closer and glanced at the vest one wore that he realized something was wrong.  The vest showed an emblem that its wearer had seen fifty summers.  The man wearing the vest could be no older than Jurgen himself.  He frowned, and the man caught the expression.  Then the man smiled, showing teeth that had been sharpened.

Jurgen dodged the first attack and reached for his axe before remembering it wasn’t there.  He was outnumbered, unarmed, and unarmored.  Instead of retreating from the next attack, he ducked beneath it and kicked the attacker’s legs out from under him.  Before he could follow up on the advantage, more were coming, and he was cut off from his lines of escape.  This was not…

A spear caught one of the men in the back, sending him to the ground.  A thrown dagger caught one another in the chest when he turned to look, and then Liam was there.  He tossed a sword to Jurgen, then retrieved his spear with a smooth movement and used it to take another man off his feet before moving in at Jurgen’s back.

He spun, trusting his brother to protect his flanks, and began the work of battle.  A dozen men had come at him.  Once he had a weapon and a brother, they didn’t stand a chance.  “It’s done.”  Jurgen panted.  Then he moved to catch Liam’s shoulder as the man stumbled a little.  “Are you wounded?”

His eyes widened when he saw his brother’s face.  Dark circles surrounded red-rimmed eyes, as though Liam hadn’t slept in a week.  “No.”  Liam shook his head.  “It’s only begun.  There are more.”

“How —” Before he could finish the question, Liam was moving again.  Jurgen grabbed an axe off a dead man and followed, shouting the alarm as he ran.

#

Liam slid to a halt outside the quarters clan Valyk had provided to the queen and her entourage.  A breath of relief escaped him when he saw Koert.  Koert’s eyes widened.  “Lammert, what are…?”  He shook his head.  “What’s going on?  It sounds like we are under attack.”

“We are.”  Jurgen came up behind him.  “Liam, where are the children?”

“With Diantha and the queen.”  Koert looked confused as to why Jurgen had asked Liam.  He frowned.  “I was going to get —”

“No.”  Liam put up a hand to bar the way.

“Lamme —”

“Koert, if you go to the queen you will die.”  Liam shook his head again, then turned toward Jurgen.  He took a deep breath, letting images play in his head as he tried to focus.  It was harder without Efua to guide him.  “You destroyed the shrine.  Their gods demand vengeance.  They’ve come to —”

“Unitafels?”  Jurgen’s eyes widened.  “The children —”

“Gods.”  Koert started through the door again.

“I’ll get the children.”  Liam blocked him.  He met Jurgen’s eyes.  “Spear at her back.  She won’t see it but he does.  If he goes to her he dies.  I won’t let her or the children die.”

“Koert, do not leave this room.”  Jurgen nodded.  “Secure it and wait for Li… Lammert to bring the children to you.  They’ll be scared and need you.”

“Yes, Jurgen.”  Koert nodded, his face pale as he stared at Liam.

“Liam, what do I do?”  Jurgen put a hand on his shoulders.  When Liam shook his head, Jurgen took a deep breath.  “I’m sorry.”  Then he lightly backhanded Liam across the face.

He blinked a couple times, then nodded.  “Right.  Thanks.  Pauwel is on the heights.  Send the men with you to him and he can push them off the walls.  You need to rally the others, direct them.  The Unitafels wear the wrong colors and the guards are confused.  They can’t tell friend from foe and aren’t pressing.  They need their warlord.”  He hefted his spear.  “When you are finished in the courtyard, rejoin Pauwel and go to the garden for the second wave.”

“Get my kids.”  Jurgen squeezed his shoulder and started moving.

“I will.”  Liam turned.  He looked at Koert.  “I’ll get Rutger.  Stay safe.”  He started moving.

#

From the walls above, he heard Pauwel’s war cry.  Jurgen answered it with one of his own.  No longer taken by surprise, his men were making short work of the Unitafels.  There was no honor in the way the savages fought.  No, they weren’t fighting.  They were slaughtering.  Attacking unarmed craftsmen, old women, even children.  There were bodies in the courtyard.  He couldn’t bear to think of how many more there would have been if Liam hadn’t arrived in time to sound the alarm.  His brother had called the guards to arms even before rescuing Jurgen himself.

He brought his axe down, and looked around the area.  There was a scream, and he looked over to see Pauwel had flung one of the Unitafels from the wall a rather impressive distance.  “Jurgen!”  Pauwel shouted down.  “I think we got them all.”

“Meet me in the garden.”  Jurgen yelled back.  “There are more.”

#

He saw the spear aimed at Thirza’s back, and moved in to knock it away with his own spear.  Thirza’s eyes widened in momentary surprise, then she shouted a battle cry.  Immediately her guards began rising to meet the attackers.  Instead of falling back, Thirza picked up the thrown spear and shifted to hurl it at the man now charging at Liam.  Liam blinked as the spear took the man in the throat, stopping him in his tracks.  “Sword.”  The Dragon Queen held out her hand.

Liam shrugged, bent to pick up the dead man’s sword, and put it in her hand.  She gave him the barest of nods, then shifted her grip on it and proceeded to take the head off the first attacker who got into range.  Liam twirled his spear, knocking a thrown dagger out of the air, then focused on keeping the Unitafels from surrounding her.  Behind Thirza, Diantha had shoved her newborn daughter at a red-haired slave and had a sword of her own.

Despite everything, he couldn’t help but feel just a twinge of pity for the Unitafels who found themselves facing two pissed off and armed mothers of the Wild.  He fell back, letting Diantha move with Thirza as he turned to deal with the Unitafels trying to sneak around the sides.  “Rutger, get your brother.”  The boy immediately obeyed, grabbing Marinus’s.  Jurgen’s red-haired slave grabbed the two infants, while Rozenn grabbed Petrus.  “Let’s get you to safety.”  He glanced over his shoulder.  “Thirza, Diantha, fall back.”

“Diantha, go.”  Thirza gestured.  “Lammert, stay with them.”  She gestured at her guards, calling them to her side.  “Let us show these fools who they dare challenge.”

#

Pauwel kicked a corpse to free his axe.  “Well, that was fun.”

Jurgen nodded.  He could hear more fighting, and Thirza’s voice rallying the guard.  As near as he could tell, it was just some mopping up the few stragglers.

“Who…”  Pauwel turned over one body with his foot, then looked at another.  “They ain’t the same clan.”

“They aren’t Wilders, Pauwel.  Look at the teeth.”

“I…”  Pauwel’s eyes widened.  “These are like those kid eating—”  He paled a little.  “Marinus.”

“He’s with Lammert.”  Jurgen held up a hand.

“Lammert…”  Pauwel started to nod, then changed it to a head shake.  “I —”

“Right.”  Jurgen nodded.  “Let’s go save him from our kids.”  He started moving.

“Heh.”  Pauwel followed.

#

He leaned against the wall, panting.  Koert walked over and gave him a worried look.  “Lammert, are you alright?”

“Little tired.”

“Lammert.”  Rutger noticed him for the first time, and ran over to hug him.

Liam hugged the boy back.  “Rutger, go stay with the children.  They need you to protect them.”

“Yes.”  Rutger grabbed his little quarterstaff and rushed back over, taking up a guard position near the bed-slaves.

As tired as he was, focusing was difficult.  He half closed his eyes, and felt Koert’s hand on his shoulder.  “Lammert…”

His focus kept being drawn by Marinus.  Liam shook his head and turned away from the boy, searching for…  Wings on the heights and hair of fire with a glowing…  He shook his head again, then stepped out of the room.  He took a deep breath, and focused on Jurgen.  On his way.  He traced the thread forward, and it unraveled again.  He couldn’t…  He was missing something.  “I…”  He was missing…

“No—” His eyes snapped open just as Koert pulled him to the side.

#

Jurgen heard Pauwel’s howl of fury just as the crossbow bolt caught Koert in the chest.  The man had pulled Liam behind him, taking the shot meant for his brother and…  He saw Liam catch Koert as he fell.  The Unitafel was yanking the wench back again when Pauwel caught the man’s head in one hand and drove it into the stone wall.  He heard the crack of bone as the man’s skull broke, then heard it again as Pauwel pulled back and slammed his head into the stone wall again and again, shattering the bone and leaving a smear of brains on the wall before dropping him.

“No, no, no…”  Liam craddled Koert, going to the ground to lay the man down gently.  “No.”

“Father!”  Rutger’s voice was shouting as he rushed toward Koert.  He reached them the same time Jurgen did.

Koert’s hand caught his son’s.  Blood was speckling his lips.  Jurgen turned.  “Get a healer.  Now.”  He waved at one of the slaves.  “You, get a potion.  You, get a healer.”  He looked down at the man who…  He looked down at his father, and felt tears threatening.

“Father…”  Rutger’s eyes were wet.

“Rut…”  Koert coughed.  “Rutger.”

“I’m sorry…”  Liam choked on the words.  “I’m sorry.”

“Little prince…”  Koert smiled at his son.  “My little…”  His eyes closed as his hand went limp.

“Father.”  Rutger screamed.  “FATHER!”

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