He was not the only collared individual in the tavern. Others served their masters or knelt quietly until signaled. Some of the slaves were themselves Wilders. Bastien and Rien did draw some looks though. Rien gave a slight tug of the chain as he led Bastien to a table. He expected to be made to kneel near the wall, like the others who wore collars, but Rien indicated the chair to his left. Bastien sat.
Someone took the chair across from Rien before the tavern maid could bring their food. “Marinus.” A dark-haired woman smiled across the table. “Heard you were dead.”
“Don’t tell me you were fool enough to believe that, Annika.” Despite his words, the nod Rien gave the woman seemed a gesture of respect.
“That someone killed you?” She laughed. “Who’d be fool enough to try?”
Bastien snorted. Rien shot him an amused look. “And how’d that work out for you?”
“Before or after the army of trolls?” Bastien raised an eyebrow.
The woman, Annika, gave him a confused look. Rien waved a hand. “My knight. I call him Bast. He calls me all kinds of things.” He tilted his head at the woman. “What’s a fustilarian?”
“A low sort of man. A scoundrel.” She shrugged. “Word reached you quickly.”
“Ran into Broos this morning.” Rien nodded. “And already spoke with Meine.” He leaned forward. “What news of my brothers?”
“Lammert returned a month previous, and Rutger is said to be on his way.” Annika hesitated a moment. “Jurgen has not returned, nor has there been any word.”
“Lammert was first, then?” Rien wrinkled his nose as though he’d tasted something unpleasant.
“He returned in a rage, with only four of the fifty that accompanied him.” Annika shook her head. “Word is he’s trying to gather another force.”
Rien shrugged. “I’ll be taking a room for the night.”
“I’ll get you the key.” Annika rose as the maid brought their meals.
The stew smelled different than any he’d ever eaten before. He found himself a bit relieved that he was being allowed to feed himself. The meat was heavily spiced, enough to make him reach for the water. Rien seemed to be savoring the stuff, a small smile on his face.
All around them, the talk seemed to be of the dragon sighting. It wasn’t just that it was a dragon. He heard the words omen and portent spoken multiple times. The dragon clearly signified something to the Wilders. And Rien’s mark was a stylized dragon.
Little was known of the Wilders. Those who came over the border were raiders, not travelers or traders. Actually, the Wilders did little trading at all with the people they considered ‘soft folk’, preferring instead to simply take what they wanted. He knew they traded with Thatela to the north, but Thatela and Solsthriem were not on the best of terms most decades. It didn’t help that Bastien himself had preferred different areas of study to reading about the Wilders. In retrospect, he should have probably read at least a couple treatises about something other than their fighting styles.
After the meal, he led Bast up to the room. He set the single bag he’d taken from the packhorse down in the corner, then caught Bast by the back of the neck and shoved the man toward the bed. Bast arrested his forward momentum before falling onto it. For a moment, he considered distracting himself by putting Bast on his knees again.
Lammert it seemed had failed, and he couldn’t help but feel a small twinge of satisfaction. If there really was a dragon, then Lammert was too late. Rutger was still an unknown, but no one had ever expected Rutger to succeed. Least of all Rutger himself. Privately Rien thought Rutger had likely spent more time on his quest to try every ale ever brewed than he had the mission they’d been given.
Jurgen hadn’t returned. The idea that he’d succeeded where his eldest brother had failed was almost frightening. If he knew where Jurgen was, he’d consider intercepting him, gifting it to the better man. He’d have happily remained at his brother’s right hand, a sword for Jurgen to wield. Perhaps this was a ploy of Jurgen’s, some strategy he couldn’t see. Rien could hope.
One of them had succeeded. In the end, that was what truly mattered. He nodded to himself, then caught Bast watching him. “You’re being quiet.” He narrowed his eyes. “That concerns me.”
“You didn’t go over the mountains to raid. You were on a quest.” Bast’s eyes flicked to the bag. “And you succeeded.”
“What makes you say that?” Rien folded his arms and raised an eyebrow.
“You wouldn’t have been returning if you hadn’t.” Bast shrugged.
“True.” He glanced at the bag. There were additional supplies he needed, and this close there was a chance people knew. Lammert would not hesitate to stoop to treachery, and… And he was being stupid. He went to the bag and drew Bast’s sword from it, offering it to the man hilt first. Bast gave him an odd look, but took the sword from him. “Do not leave this room. Do not let that bag out of your sight. Kill any save me that lays a hand on it unless I instruct you otherwise.”
“It will be done.” Bast nodded.
“I’ll get the rest of our supplies.” He headed to the door. “Lock it behind me. Open it for none but me. Let no one in but me.” He waited for Bast to nod, then exited the room.
He almost pitied any enemy that tried entering that room.
The man chained him up, dragged him across the mountains, tortured him, raped him, enslaved him… He looked at the weapon in his hand. Then armed him and trusted him to guard something of unknown but likely not inconsiderable value. It made Rien an odd puzzle. Men who broke oaths rarely trusted the oaths of others.
Bastien locked the door, then for good measure moved one of the chairs to block it as well. It was tempting to search the bag, but that warred with the notion that he might not actually want to know what was inside. He sat down on the edge of the bed, then rubbed at his neck. The new collar fit snuggly, but wasn’t as heavy as the previous one. It wasn’t as wide or thick. His fingers found where Rien’s sigil had been stamped and he took his hand away.
The woman, Annika. She’d called Rien ‘Marinus’. He knew all too little about the man who had taken him captive. Something about the name Marinus tickled his memory. Bastien ran his fingers along the blade of the sword, then touched the hilt. His own family crest was marked upon the blade. A hound rampant. Centuries ago, his family had been little more than poachers and bandits. Then the Duke’s ancestor had come to their camp with an offer. Fight for him, as scouts and spies, and their crimes would be expunged. And with that, the forest wolves had become the Duke’s hounds. Going from serving an honorable man to serving a man partially responsible for the Duke’s death made him feel just slightly ill.
He wasn’t sure how long he’d been sitting there when someone tried the door. Certainly not more than an hour. He heard a scratching sound, and realized someone was picking the lock. They made fairly short work of it, as it clicked open within a few seconds. Either that, or the locks at the inn were really bad. Bastien rose, and readied the sword.
Getting supplies didn’t take long. Rien did get some clothes for Bast, and brought them with after arranging to have the rest delivered in the morning. A frown came to his face as he looked down the hallway. There were two picks sticking out of the lock on his door. Rien set his parcel aside, then drew his axe before heading down the corridor.
He kicked open the door only to have the door hit a corpse on the floor before it was half open. Rien blinked, then pushed the door open. Bast was sitting on the edge of the bed, the sword laid across his knees. There were two dead men in the middle of the room. A third man was slumped against the wall, bleeding out from where his arm had been cut off just above the elbow. A quick look revealed the arm was laying not far from Bast’s feet. “So…”
“Those two touched the bag.” Bast nodded at the corpses on the floor.
“And that one?” He jerked his head at the soon to be corpse.
“Ah.” He frowned. “Why didn’t you summon the maids?”
“You told me not to leave the room, not to let the bag out of my sight, and not to let —”
“Yes, yes…” Rien shook his head. Annika was going to be seriously annoyed at the amount of blood drying on her floor. The man against the wall fell to the side. “You know, if you’d bound that wound, I could have questioned him.”
“You didn’t say anything about wanting to ask questions.” Bast shrugged.
Rien narrowed his eyes. “I’m going to have to phrase my orders to you more carefully, aren’t I?”
Bast just smiled.
Annika was annoyed at the ruined carpet, and insisted Rien pay for it. Rien was currently arguing the point. Annika’s husband, Ruud, had dragged the corpses out with the aid of two of the inn’s guards. Then Ruud had offered to purchase him. Rien had declined the offer. It was a little disturbing hearing people offer to purchase him. Still, it would have been amusing had Rien taken them up on the offer. His oath of fealty was not something that could be given away, thus the moment Rien turned him over he’d be free to kill his new ‘master’ and go home.
Eventually, Annika and Rien split the difference on the carpet. Rien narrowed his eyes at Bastien when the woman left the room. “You know, she wouldn’t have been so upset if you hadn’t let them bleed out entirely all over her floor.”
That thought had definitely crossed his mind. Which was precisely why he hadn’t bothered to alert anyone. “You didn’t —”
“Were you wounded in the fighting?” Rien raised an eyebrow, then caught Bastien’s shoulder and spun him a little to look him over.
“Some bruises.” Bastien gestured at his left side. There was a red mark where the man whose arm he’d cut off had tried punching him in the side. It had been a glancing blow only. The thieves hadn’t been prepared for anyone to be in the room, let alone a swordsman. They’d been armed with nothing more than daggers themselves.
“Take a sip of potion.” Rien waved a hand at the bag. “I’ll give you a fresh set of welts later.”
“Pig-hearted stinkard.” If he was going to get welts anyway, might as well earn them. “What is in the bag?”
“A prize. Perhaps the only one among my spoils more valuable than you.” Rien exhaled, then punched his fist into the wall. “I only took part in that raid on the castle to keep Lammert from realizing I had it. Hoped he’d assume I was just trying to gain enough spoils so as to have some glory upon my return.” He made a growling sound.
“You killed the castle to…” Bastien stared at him, then waved a hand at the bag. “To draw attention away from that?” His fists clenched. People he’d known his entire life, friends, had died there. The Duke had died there. “And what, pray tell, were they murdered for?”
“For Phillip’s greed. I didn’t decide the mission.” Rien shook his head. “He was hiring and I was pretending to be a mercenary.”
“Pretending to…” Bastien snarled. “You soulless bear-whelp. Craven wrin—”
He was abruptly cut off by Rien grabbing him by the neck. His eyes widened when the man actually lifted him off his feet by the throat with one hand. He gripped the man’s forearm with his own hands in an attempt to avoid being choked. “I am many things, Bast. Craven is not one of them.” He tossed Bastien backward onto the bed.
Bastien rubbed his neck where the collar had bitten into him. He’d known his captor was stronger than he was, he just hadn’t realized how much stronger. “What is in the bag?”
“You don’t need to know.” Rien met his eyes. “Just know that until I get it to where it is needed, you will kill anyone save me who touches that bag unless I instruct otherwise. And that, Bast, is an order.”
“Understood.” Bastien gave a sharp nod of his head.