Pauwel was disappointed when Mbali was left behind, but he clearly understood. Given Thirza’s feelings about Liam himself, there was no way to be sure how she’d react to his daughter. Liam only stayed in Darodelf a week himself. The queen was cordial, but didn’t do a good job of hiding the fact she’d prefer Liam to be far away.
Jurgen watched the children playing with the gifts Liam had brought. For Rutger he’d brought an instrument made from the shell of a large turtle and two story-books, as well as the gift the boy was currently guarding like a dragon. The lapdesk was made from olive wood, beautifully patterns and lovingly carved, and the pens inside were made of glass. There were five vials of ink, three of them colored, cakes of paint, sealing wax, and a signet ring carved to look like a winged lion. He wasn’t sure if the boy treasured it because of its own intrinsic value, or for the fact that Liam had told Rutger it had initially been commissioned as a gift for Koert.
Marinus and Petrus had both been given metal tubes that fired darts when they blew on the ends. The people of Ocia apparently used them to hunt rodents and birds. Marinus and Petrus were using them to hunt each other. Fortunately, the darts had blunted tips. Both boys had also been given small boxes that played a brief tune when a handle was turned, before fanciful creatures leapt out of compartments at the top. The infants were both given stuffed versions of creatures Liam swore existed. An elephant and an octopus.
Wharf Tower was functional, and Thirza grudgingly admitted it would increase Draak’s standing. In addition to what the Ilael had brought, goods were starting to come in from Solsthriem traders. Bringing goods by sea was considered less risky than bringing them by land, as the ships didn’t have to worry about being raided by rival clans. King Wendel was keeping tariffs on that trade low in the interest of being a good neighbor.
He started to head for the door, then winced as something hit him in the left buttock. He turned to see Pauwel concealing something behind his back and giving him an innocent look. Jurgen rolled his eyes. “He just had to get you one too, didn’t he?”
“Thatela is moving around on the border again.” Diantha shoved the map toward Jurgen.
“That’s a poor position from which to try tangling with us.” Jurgen frowned at the map. He tilted his head. “What the hell are they doing?”
“I don’t know, but according to the message the queen sent, she wants you to go take a look. She’s sending Pauwel to help.” Diantha shrugged.
“Blood and ashes, should be easy enough.” Jurgen shook his head. “Though admittedly they could be luring us into a trap by presenting such an easy target.” He looked at the map again. “Except we haven’t actually bothered with that bit of land in a while. It’s just rocks. Not even useful…” He examined the map again, tracing it with his finger. “Unless it’s not us they are worried about.”
Diantha leaned forward. “If this information is accurate, it’s Solsthriem they are defending against.”
“Except they don’t even have enough forces for that. This is…” He shook his head. “Yeah. I kind of want to know what they are up to.”
“Marinus is pretty happy to get to spend time with Petrus again.” Pauwel smiled. “Though Rutger’s being nicer now.”
“Good to hear.” Jurgen adjusted the reins of his horse. “How has Marinus been lately?”
“He’s finally starting to get the hang of that ball trick Lammert was teaching him. Last week he kept all three in the air for about a dozen circles.”
Jurgen laughed. “It’s only taken him four years.”
“Well, let’s see you do it.” Pauwel gave him a pointed look.
“I…” Jurgen shrugged. “Alright, fair enough.”
“I think Marinus likes having something he can do that you and Rutger can’t.” Pauwel chuckled. “Next time we see Lammert, I’m going to ask him if he’ll take Marinus on the ship one day. Let him swing on the ropes.” He smirked at Jurgen. “Still can’t believe you fell in the water.”
“I didn’t fall, Diantha pushed me. She…” He trailed off, then rose up in the saddle. “Riders ahead.”
“Right, let’s…” Pauwel nodded. “Knights?”
“Those are Solsthriem colors.” Jurgen frowned. “They are forty miles into our border, and had to come a hundred miles through Thatela’s border to get here.” He started forward. “Let’s go…”
“They are under attack.”
“I see it.” Jurgen nodded. He looked over his shoulder at the men with him. “Take as many alive as possible.”
Wendel yanked his blade out of the chest of the Thatelan soldier. “Fuck.” He’d known it was a trap, but Liam had sworn if they came this way… He shot a look at the man fighting next to him. Liam was slightly pale. Wendel was opening his mouth when something hit the enemy from the other side.
The wilders shouted gleefully as they rode into the midst of the battling knights. Wendel’s eyes widened as he recognized the man leading them. “Weapons down.” He immediately shouted to his own soldiers. “Do not raise arms against the Wilders.”
Laughter greeted his shout as Jurgen swung his axe from the back of the horse. The great weapon sent the leader of the Thatelan knights flying to crash back into a tree. It was over moments later. The Thatelan soldiers surrendered as soon as they realized who they were facing. It was a bit irritating to realize they feared the Stone Dragon more than they feared the King of Solsthriem. “Your majesty…” Jurgen swung down off his horse. “Fancy meeting you here where you have no business…” Jurgen trailed off as the man next to Wendel took off the helmet he’d been wearing. “Liam, what the hell?”
“There is an army coming.” Liam’s voice was quiet as he slowly raised his head to meet his brother’s eyes. “I was hoping…” He swallowed. “To avoid a river crossing.”
Jurgen paled as another large man swung down to come toward them. The other man smiled widely. “Lammert. What are you doing dressed like that?”
“Liam’s ship was coming up from the south when it happened. I asked him for help because…” Wendel took a deep breath. “Because if anyone could help me do this, it’s him.”
“They took your son.” Pauwel looked genuinely offended at the notion. “What, they were too cowardly to face you as warriors?”
“It’s more complicated than they, Pauwel.” Liam couldn’t quite bring himself to look at the other man. “They are trying to avoid fighting at all. As long as they have the prince, King Wendel doesn’t dare act against them out of fear they’ll retaliate against the boy.”
“So they smuggled him through Thatela and into the Wildlands. The Thatelan king isn’t obligated to help for diplomatic reasons, because the boy is on our land. But if you sent your army, he could act against you…” Jurgen was nodding.
“Because to get here I’d have to come through their land. That’s why I asked Liam for help. I knew he could get me through Thatelan territory without me being seen.” Wendel nodded. “Prince Jurgen, I know I’ve no right to ask for your help or…”
Jurgen started to nod, then hesitated. He folded his arms, looked up at Liam, then turned his eyes to Pauwel before looking back toward Wendel. “I’m sorry, Wendel, but…”
“What?” Pauwel gave Jurgen a shocked look. “I thought you wanted to be good neighbors with Solsthriem? That Wharf trading thing you and Diantha were talking about.”
“Pauwel—” Jurgen took a deep breath. He glanced up at Liam again, and Liam couldn’t meet his eyes. “This isn’t our fight.”
“Lammert’s part of it.” Pauwel shook his head. “Jurgen, they took a kid. A little boy.” He turned toward Wendel. “Your…” He blinked. “Whatever it is you’re called, my men and I will help.”
“I…” Wendel smiled. “Thank you.”
“We’ll help.” Jurgen nodded. “Pauwel’s right, Wendel. We’ll help.”
“Thank you.” Wendel let out a sigh of relief. “Jurgen, Pauwel, thank you.”
Jurgen saw it. Then he saw Liam see it and turn away. Most of his men had no idea what was going on here. They just saw Thatelan’s encroaching on their lands, and thought it was funny that Solsthriem knights were fighting alongside them. Wendel had only four of his men remaining, and Jurgen only eight. “Is there any way we can take that…” He glanced at Liam.
“It’s no good.” Pauwel growled in frustration. “While we are taking that fort, the rest of them are going to hit us from behind. They’ve got a whole army back there. That hammer will smash us flat against the anvil.”
“There must be…” Wendel sounded sick. “Maybe you can trade me for Jonas.” He gave Jurgen a desperate look. “You can get Jonas back to Solsthriem safely, yes?”
He’d thought of Liam’s ability as a blessing. Now he saw the curse. Without Wendel on the throne, war would come between Solsthriem and Thatela. “That’s a slim chance at best, Wendel, and you know it.”
“Jurgen, look.” Pauwel pointed. “That outcropping there. They’ll have to narrow their lines to come through, and they can’t position archers well.” He patted his horse. “Me and a couple others, we can hold that position, keep them off you until you’ve got the fort.”
“You’ll die.” Liam’s voice was flat.
“Yeah, maybe, but unless you’ve got another idea…” Pauwel shrugged. “If’n we don’t come up with something know, we’re all dead for sure.”
Liam sent him a pleading look. Jurgen met his brother’s eyes. Then he nodded to Pauwel. “A river an army cannot cross. Frans, Lieven, stay with Pauwel.”
Pauwel dismounted, and started to hand the reins of his horse to Liam. Liam shook his head. “Pauwel, if you stay here, you will die.”
“Who dies if I don’t?” Pauwel raised an eyebrow at Liam. When Liam just closed his eyes in response, Pauwel patted his leg. “Everything will be fine. If I die, well…” He shrugged. “Take care of my boy, alright?”
“Yes.” Liam’s voice was slightly strangled.
“We will.” Jurgen nodded, swallowing past the lump in his own throat.
“Any boon within my power.” Wendel bowed from the saddle of his own horse. “And always a welcome in Solsthriem.”
The little blond boy was bruised and dirty, but otherwise unharmed. Liam couldn’t help but smile a little as Wendel scooped his son into his arms and held him tightly. The king’s eyes were wet. He took a couple deep breaths.
“If he’d known it all, known this would be the result…” Jurgen’s voice was quiet.
Wendel must have heard them, because he turned. The smile faded from his face when he saw their’s. “He…”
“His son’s name…” Jurgen drew himself up to his full height. “Is Marinus Draak. The River Dragon.”
Almost two hundred men were still in the valley. It took Jurgen a few minutes to see why. Bodies were strewn about the outcropping. At least forty, maybe more. Frans lay outside the cropping, arrows piercing his throat and chest. Lieven had fallen to swords. But Pauwel… The big man’s body hadn’t fallen. He’d caught himself, somehow, on a bit of stone jutting out. From the Thatelan side, they could see him still standing, but not the fact that the big man’s head was down and his body had drawn its last breath.
Pauwel of Clan Roem had died on his feet, and two hundred Thatelan soldiers hung back, terrified to be the first to cross his ghost. Even in death, they wouldn’t cross the river. “A mighty man.” Wendel bowed his head respectfully. His son sat on the horse in front of him.
“They came in small groups at first. A dozen. Frans died in the first rush. Lieven in the second.” Liam stared down at the scene, then he dismounted his horse. “They sent two more squads up, and he killed them all. The fifth time, they sent forty men. All forty expired before he did.” Liam took out his spear. “And so now…” He looked down at the spear. “We have the high ground.”
“We should —” Jurgen cut off as Liam stepped forward and hurled the spear with all his might. It hit a rock on the other side of the ravine. For a moment, nothing happened.
“If they will not respect a river…” Liam stepped back, fury on his face. The rock tumbled free. Then it was followed by another. And another. “Let them fear stone.”
A smile came to his face as he realized what Liam had done. With the army stymied by Pauwel, they’d been able to reach the higher path by going through the fort. And from this angle… He watched with satisfaction as the Thatelan soldiers saw their doom sliding down toward them. Barely a third of the survivors made it out before the avalanche hit. “No, brother.” He slid down the horse to go to his brother, and put a hand on Liam’s shoulder. “Let them fear fire.”
“The wise…” Wendel took a deep breath. “Fear both.”