Rien froze, staring down at the knight. He knew, given time, he would succeed in breaking the young man. The idea of Bast submitting to him willingly, however, was an enticing one. “Explain.”
“The moment the warning drums carry the message, you have my oath of fealty.”
He had no idea what such an oath would entail, but based on how Bast had clearly struggled to make himself say the words it was no small thing. “You will obey my commands?” He frowned. “You will make no attempt to escape?”
“And that’s making no escape starting this very moment?”
“Provided we are going to the closest beacon…” Bast forced his fists to unclench. “Yes.”
“Your fealty, to me, in exchange for letting you warn your people.” He took another look at the young man. Bast was a stubborn warrior, and he’d been unhesitatingly willing to lay down his life to give the Duke’s last surviving blood as great a chance at survival as possible. For fealty. If the man staring up at him gave an oath, it would be kept.
A heartbeat later, he dismounted. Bast didn’t move when Rien walked toward him. “And if I wanted proof of your word?” He narrowed his eyes. “Kneel.” Bast obeyed, sinking to his knees in front of Rien. With the possibility of scouts, he dared not give the order he really wanted. There wasn’t time. He settled for extending one of his legs. “Kiss my boot.” The sight of his prize obeying the order was… Rien slowly smiled. “If the beacon where I think, we’ve got a few miles to travel.” He reached down to grab Bast’s collar. “Address me as master.”
“Yes…” There was still defiance and anger in Bast’s eyes. He found that oddly pleasing. “Master.”
Once again he was tied over the back of a pack horse between rolled tapestries. It said a great deal that this time it was an improvement on the situation. Rien had secured him in place, pointing out he had promised to let Bastien rest. He was under no illusions, however, that the decision was anything other than pragmatic. Rien would need Bastien functional to get to the beacon.
There would be guards, but he’d seen Rien fight. Beacon guards weren’t chosen for skill, but for a desire that they be far away. A warrior such as Rien could probably go through the lot like a hot knife through butter. He dared not act against the man until the message was sent, and after…
Maybe he’d get lucky, and Rien would get struck by lightning upon reaching the beacon. The bastard had to have pissed off at least one god. Bastien exhaled, and closed his eyes before allowing sleep to claim him.
As much as he enjoyed looking at his prize, dragging a naked and chained knight up to a guarded beacon seemed a rather bad idea. He left the manacles around his captive’s ankles in place, but removed the connecting chain between them. His spare breeches were too large for Bast, and he was forced to add a rope belt around Bast’s waist to keep them in place. He didn’t offer a tunic, and he left his prisoner’s hands chained. “If they suspect I am a prisoner…” Bast shook his head.
“You are a prisoner.” He reached up to touch Bast’s cheek. The knight managed to stop himself from jerking away at the touch. “Mine.” Then he shrugged. “You almost sound worried about me.”
“If they draw steel, you’ll kill them all. I do not know enough drum codes to get a clear message through.” Bast spoke through gritted teeth. “And the realm doesn’t have time for the king to send scouts.”
“If I unchain you, what stops you from trying to kill me?” Rien raised an eyebrow.
“I am unarmed.”
Rien snorted. “Being unarmed and chained up hasn’t stopped you once so far from trying to kill me at every possible opportunity.” He shrugged. “Guess you’ll have to talk us through.”
“Churlish pig nut.” Bast took a deep breath. “I gave you my word if you took me to the beacon I would not try to escape you. Killing you would…” He met Rien’s eyes. “Break that.”
“I suppose it would.” Rien shook his head. He caught Bast’s shoulder and spun the man around. Then he unfastened the chain from between the manacles.
Bast went still for a heartbeat, then nodded. “The trail markers say the beacon is this…” He turned toward Rien. “You may remain here if you wish. I will return when the message is delivered.”
“You know…” Rien shrugged. “I think you actually would.” He smirked. “But I’m coming with you anyway.” He fastened the horse’s reins so they could reach the nearby grass and stream, then nodded. “Let’s go.”
The guards stared. That was no surprise. However, for once, luck was with him. “Sir Kaspar.”
The man wearing the rank knot stared at him. “I…” He blinked. “Sir Bastien?” Kaspar’s eyes went to the collar, then to the Wilder behind him. And then Kaspar put a hand on his sword hilt.
“Stand down.” Bastien shook his head. When Kaspar gave him a shocked look, Bastien repeated the order. “Stand down. Sir Kaspar, Duke Harald is dead, murdered by Phillip. Phillip is even now gathering trolls to drive into the valley. He intends to attack the Spire. Get on the drums.”
“Duke Harald is…” Kaspar gaped.
“The drums, Sir Kaspar.”
“Right.” Sir Kaspar turned to an older man, one not wearing a sword. “The drums.”
“Yes, my lord.” Immediately the man rushed inside the building.
Bastien glanced over his shoulder. Rien’s face showed clear amusement at the sight of the beacon’s seven guards. Bastien amended his earlier assessment. Excluding Kaspar himself, Rien could probably go through this lot without bothering to draw a weapon, and Kaspar himself would likely hold no more than a few seconds. Not the realm’s finest by any means. He was pretty sure three of them were drunk. “We can mark location and numbers on the map. Rien?”
“Ugh.” The man rolled his eyes, but nodded. Then he followed Bastien into the building.
The maps had the remains of a bread roll sitting on them. One of the guards hurriedly removed it and acted like nothing had been out of place. Bastien ignored him, rolling out the map. It started to curl back up, and with an irritated shrug he grabbed the sword one of the guards had left leaning on the table and used it to hold the map down. He didn’t miss that Kaspar’s eyes went to the manacles still attached to his wrists. “Here.”
“And here and here.” Rien tapped the other locations. “They’ll have had to come through here. Otherwise my people would have dumped rocks on the bastard on principle.” When Bastien raised an eyebrow, Rien shrugged. “He doesn’t pay his mercenaries, I doubt he paid for safe passage.”
Hurriedly, Bastien summed up what had happened at the castle. That resulted in Rien getting several angry looks, which the man ignored. He found himself a chair before casually helping himself to a flagon of wine, leaving Bastien to talk to the others.
Most of the ire was reserved for the traitorous Phillip. That Wilders were savages available for hire was well known. The idea after all Duke Harald had done for his brother Phillip would turn on him was disgusting. And Duke Harald had been well-loved by his men. The guard may have died at the castle, but little Nadja would still have an army of faithful knights at her call, eager to see justice done for her father. “He can’t be fool enough to think he can take the crown.” Kaspar shook his head. “He’s a bastard.”
“He’s of royal blood through his mother.” One of the other knights shrugged. “He may think that gives him a right to it.”
“I doubt at this point he cares about rights.” Bastien leaned on the table. “He’ll take it at sword point, and —” He heard the drums begin, sounding the warning. He took a deep breath before glancing at Rien. Rien gave him the barest nod. “And we’ve just taken that opportunity from him. Congratulations, Sir Kaspar.” Bastien smiled. “You and your men just saved the realm.” He frowned. “Why are you even out here?”
Kaspar gave him an awkward look. “You remember Lord Ludger?”
The knight shuffled his feet a little. “You remember Lord Ludger’s pretty new wife?”
“You…” Bastien stared at him. “Idiot.”
“Wait a minute…” Rien looked up at him. “Even I’ve heard of Lord Ludger…” He waved a hand at Kaspar. “And the best you can come up with for him is ‘idiot’?”
He knew the rhythm of the drum’s beats signified words, but that didn’t mean the sounds made sense to him. Rien hadn’t missed the look Bast gave him though. Fealty. He let his knight keep talking to the lesser knights while the drum played. No use leaving early and risking falling afoul of some loophole in their bargain. Solsthriem did love throwing clauses into treaties.
“Over…” Bast said, tilted his head. The drum paused for a few moments before starting up again. “Message repeats.” His voice was quiet. “It’s done.”
Rien started to rise, but apparently the other knight thought Bast’s words were meant for him. A blade flashed out of its sheath and came for Rien. He was off balance, and started to dodge, trying to at least avoid a fatal blow. His hand went for his axe.
There was a ring of metal on metal. Bast stood between him and the other knight, a blade in his own hand, blocking Kaspar’s sword. “Sir Bastien?” Kaspar gave Bast a confused look.
Bast took a deep breath, then glanced at Rien. “Master, these men are simply doing their duty. They will permit us to depart.”
It took a moment for the meaning of Bast’s words to sink in fully. Fealty. The message was delivered, which meant he had Bast’s oath of fealty. He straightened. And his knight was asking not to be ordered to kill the man who had just attacked him. Which meant… Which meant if he gave the order, Bast would. Fealty. “Then come, Bast.” He slowly nodded. “We still have a long way to travel.”
With his hand on the haft of his axe and an armed Bast following him, the other knights got out of their way.
Rien took the sword away from him and tossed it aside as soon as they were away from the beacon. They walked back to where the horses had been left. His captor unfastened the reins from where they’d been tied, then picked up the chain. He stared at it a moment before shrugging and affixing it to Bastien’s collar. “That isn’t necessary,” Bastien said quietly.
“I know.” Rien shrugged, then tapped his chin. “I just like the way it looks on you.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be all fealty now?” Rien tilted his head.
Bastien rolled his eyes. “There is nothing in an oath of fealty that prevents me from stating my opinions.”
“Good.” Rien laughed. “Cause it’s actually starting to grow on me a little.”
Aurel sat, watching Nadja play with her pup. By the king’s command, he was still her guardian. The child had clung to him, sobbing, at the suggestion of parting from him. And the king was a wise man. Considering the price that had been paid for her safety, there was no way in any of the nine hells he would permit harm to befall the girl. He turned at the sound of the door opening, then immediately bowed. “My lord Isidor.”
“Captain Aurel.” The king’s right hand nodded, then took a deep breath. “Please, sit. I…” He took a deep breath. “I have something to tell you.”
He sat. “Did Phillip escape?” The drums had sounded over the entire realm. Prepared Magi with an army to back them had made short work of the trolls. It was nothing short of a miracle the warning had arrived in time.
“Unfortunately, yes, but that is not what I came to tell you. The commander of the Fifth Beacon arrived this morning to give his report. It was…” Isidor smiled. “It seems it was one of Duke Harald’s knights that brought them word of the trolls.”
“Another knight survived?” Aurel couldn’t help but smile. “He got rather lost, it seems. Fortunately.”
Isidor’s smile faded. “He was not lost. He was taken prisoner by a Wilder. Somehow he convinced his captor to let him deliver the warning before…” Isidor hesitated. “Captain Aurel, the beacon’s commander stated that the knight who brought the warning was Sir Bastien Kohler.”
“Bastien…” Aurel nearly knocked his water goblet from the table. “My son is alive? My son is…” The rest of the man’s words sank in. “A Wilder?”
“The King has ordered a message sent, Captain. He will ransom your son.” Isidor put a hand on Aurel’s shoulder. “The realm owes him a debt.”
“He lives.” Aurel nodded. “Bastien lives.” He swallowed. “Thank you, my lord.”