Rien stared a moment at the man kneeling in front of him, head bowed. He reached down, and caught Bast by the chin, tilting his head up. There was still anger in the man’s green eyes, but the defiance had been replaced by despair. Rien shook his head, then let go of Bast’s chin. “Stand up and turn around.” The knight gave him a confused look, but obeyed. Rien unfastened the knot binding the man’s wrists together, then gave Bast a small shove toward the log. “You’ve already had your sleep. Your turn for the watch.”
“Of course.” Bast gave a jerky nod, then picked up his sword and shield before seating himself on the log.
He put his back to the fire as he laid down, but sleep eluded him. Jurgen could still return. It would be better for everyone if Jurgen returned. There was also the possibility Sten was right, and dismissing Rutger was a mistake. None had expected him to succeed, either. Even he hadn’t, it was why he’d left Darodelf alone. He’d only tried because to do otherwise would have shamed him.
If Jurgen didn’t return, then there were three contenders for the throne. No one would have questioned Jurgen’s ascendancy, but they would splinter into factions trying to figure out who among those remaining would grant them the most power. Lammert cared only for his ego, and Rutger for his pleasure.
Finally, he turned around and sat up. “It’s a keystone.”
Bast’s head came up, and he gave Rien a confused look. “What?”
“There were four of them, items that could unlock the crypt of the Dragon Lord. An ancestor of mine, the one that united the Wilder clans centuries ago. They were hidden away to stop anyone unworthy from claiming what lay within.” Rien folded his legs up under him. “My mother had a premonition. The keystone would return to Darodelf with one destined unite the clans against the danger that is to come.” He exhaled. “I thought it nonsense, a simple quest by which she would chose her successor but…”
“There are wings on the heights.” Bast slowly nodded.
“And for it to be creating the stir it is it must…” Rien took a deep breath. “Be a true dragon, not one of the wyverns your people oft mistake for dragons.”
“What would have happened if each of you had brought one back?” Bast raised an eyebrow.
“Perhaps she hoped the four of us would stand together, as brothers should.” Rien’s lips twisted into a bitter smile.
“So…” Bast glanced at the bag, then back at Rien. “You get that back to Darodelf, you rule the Wilders?”
“As if you didn’t have enough reason to murder me in my sleep.” Rien nodded. “But if I don’t take it back, then…” He exhaled. “Then if Sten is right, the one who murdered Jurgen will ascend to the throne.”
“Why tell me this?” Bast lifted an eyebrow.
“You’re the only one here, and I dislike talking to myself.”
“If what you are saying is correct, then…” Bast frowned, then met his eyes. “Then you may be walking into a trap.”
“Thought crossed my mind.”
“Then…” Various expressions settled on Bast’s face before he shook his head again. “Then I recommend you stay up all night, fretting about it. That will render you exhausted and undoubtedly get you killed, freeing me to take this keystone and the information you’ve just given me to my king.”
“What’s another word for asshole?”
“You’re a nonpareil.” Rien shook his head before laying back down. This time, sleep claimed him quickly.
He stared across the fire at the man sleeping on the other side. Rien had won the duel, but chosen not to claim his victory. Bastien wasn’t sure what to make of that. Frankly, he wasn’t sure what to make of the man at all. Rien had armed and armored him, left him unbound, and then not hesitated to go to sleep only a few feet from him. Even after beating him and knocking him unconscious.
Letting his mind dwell on what losing that duel was going to mean would not make for a pleasant night. He shifted, turning to face away from the fire, and stared out into the darkness. There were things to concern him other than Rien’s… games. Bastien exhaled.
If what the man was saying was true, then the danger to the realm was far from over. He glanced at the bag. Legends of the Dragon Lord had drifted through tavern talk a few times, some more fanciful than others. One story claimed the man had been the scion of a dragon, born with wings and the ability to breath fire. Another said the man had killed a dragon and eaten its heart, thereby gaining strength and power beyond mortal men. Still another said he’d wielded a sword of dragonbone, a blade that could cut through iron and stone as though they were naught but butter.
Rien being part dragon might explain a few things. Bastien drew his blade, and stared down at the metal before taking a polishing cloth to it. The sword was clean and sharp, but the familiar motions of tending to it had a way of relaxing him.
By the estimate Rien had given, they would be in Darodelf in two more days. Whatever destiny awaited, it would be there.
He couldn’t help but feel just a twinge of satisfaction at hearing Bast’s sharp intake of breath upon seeing Darodelf for the first time. The Daro river split, creating a large island almost three miles long before it reconnected. The city had been built into the cliff of the island and the nearby mainland, cliffs that had been carved over eons by the water. Over the centuries, bridges and staircases had been added to connect the two halves, creating a web of elegant stonework held up by massive carved pillars. Some of the bridges were wide enough to host market stalls. Visible to the north was the Breath of Life, were a waterfall a few hundred feet tall cascaded down, feeding the river that carried water throughout the Wildlands. He glanced at Bast. “Still think your people could march in and lay siege to this city?”
“We would need…” Bast took a long, slow look. “A lot of trebuchets.”
“Ha.” He pounded the knight on the back.
“How the…” Bast tilted his head as he looked up at where the bridges spanned. “How do they stay up?”
“As the story goes…” Rien’s smile widened. “Someone once dared them they couldn’t.”
“Ornery churl.” The corner of Bast’s mouth lifted just a little.
“And don’t you forget it.” Rien gave a low chuckle. “Remember, a pace behind, and to my left.”
“My sword would be more effective if I was at your right.” Bast shook his head even as he shifted to stand where Rien indicated.
“Slaves stand to the left. And I think it may be your shield that is of the most use.” Rien shrugged. “This way.” He led Bast into the city proper. At first, it was Bast that drew the most notice. An armored knight was not something seen often this far into the Wildlands. As they drew nearer the city though, more and more began to recognize him, and he heard the word being passed. The River Dragon had returned.
“There is a lizard in Solsthriem.” Bast’s voice was low, pitched not to carry far. “It’s about a foot long, not counting the tail. Frills about its head. One of the common names for it is a river dragon.”
“Oh?” Rien glanced over his shoulder, raising an eyebrow.
“Our rivers are…” Bast shrugged. “A bit smaller than yours.”
“Bah. I can practically step over most of your rivers.” Rien kept his eyes sharp, and didn’t miss that despite Bast’s comments the man was doing the same. None would try to rob him here, it was too late for that. That didn’t mean no one would try killing him.
They were almost to the hall when he heard a thud, and looked behind him to see Bast’s shield raised. A second arrow thudded into it half a heartbeat later, then he heard shouting. His mother’s soldiers, rushing in the direction of the shooter. “Angles were slightly different.” Bast’s voice was low. “Two shooters, loosing near simultaneously.”
“Did you see them?” He kept his own voice low.
“Motion of the draw, not enough to make out a face.” Bast shook his head. “Good archers, whoever they were.”
“Not comforting.” Rien growled, and tightened his grip on the reins as he led the horses and Bast to a place both more and less safe.
It was somewhat difficult to watch for threats rather than gawk at the city. Wilders were considered a primitive, savage people, and the Vale had given him no reason to reconsider that opinion. This city, however… There was nothing in Solsthriem to rival it, not even the marvel that was the High Cathedral. And yet it was old, clearly. Parts had been repaired, but he doubted anything new had been built in over a century. They’d crossed the river on one of the stone bridges, then began heading up to the higher levels. People stopped what they were doing to stare.
Just outside a carved archway Rien handed over the reins of the horses before taking the bag. Slaves quickly emerged to help unload and carry. Rien handed him the bag before indicating what other parcels should be brought with and what should be taken to his quarters. Then Rien took a deep breath, glanced at him, and headed inside.
The inside was almost as impressive as the city itself had been. Murals had been laid into the walls and ceiling, depicting scenes of battle and glory in minute detail. Though they were faded, they were also well polished and tended. The floor itself was made of carved and cut stone, carefully inlaid in a geometric pattern. Every few steps, one of the white stones inlaid in the murals was glowing, illuminating the hallway. He decided to give up trying to pretend he was anything other than impressed.
For a moment, he thought they’d stepped outside again. Then he realized the entire ceiling above them was seemed to be made from glass, letting the sun illuminate the hall. Most of the other servants stopped at the entrance, but Rien gave him a signal to follow. A pace behind, and to Rien’s left, he approached the dais.
Two men stood on the dais, some distance from the throne. He noted a resemblance between them and Rien himself. The shorter of the two was smiling, and looked almost as though he wanted to come over and throw his arms around Rien. The other wore a glower, and stood with his arms folded. On the throne itself sat a woman, gray haired but still both lovely and regal. She too, was smiling as Rien approached. Her gown shimmered in the light, and with some surprise Bast noted it was made of scales. Dragons forged from gold encircled her upper arms, and her crown seemed to bear a half-dozen jeweled dragon’s teeth. A Dragon Queen. The Wilders were not a subtle people.
“My son.” She inclined her head. “You have returned.”
“I have.” Rien bowed from the waist, though he did not lower his eyes to the woman on the throne.
“What have you brought for me?” She straightened.
Rien turned toward him. Bastien opened the bag, offering it so that Rien could reach his hand inside. He withdrew the silver case from inside, then gestured for Bastien to stay where he was before turning to approach the throne. A pace from the woman, he opened it. The gold of the keystone caught the light, making the contents of the case appear to glow. All around them came murmurs from the onlookers. The Dragon Queen rose, and reached into the case to remove the keystone. The murmurs grew louder, then ceased as she raised it above her head. “The gods have spoken true.”
The presentation of his other gifts, spoils laid at her feet, drew a few murmurs, but by and large it was the keystone that had everyone talking. As well it should be. Still, there were protocols to follow. Rien gave a few other gifts, favors promised before he left. Bast drew a few stares, including one from his mother.
Once the ceremony was concluded, his mother ordered the grand hall cleared before suggesting they move to the little hall. Rien signaled Bast to follow, and noted with some pleasure that the man obeyed silently and without hesitation. As soon as they were beyond the eyes of the others, Thirza’s smile changed. It was not the smile of the queen, but the smile of his mother. “Marinus.” She leaned forward to kiss his forehead.
Rutger stepped forward to pound his back. “You did it.” His laughter was hearty. “You actually did it.”
“Congratulations, brother.” Lammert’s smile was one of forced cheer. From the look Thirza sent him, she caught it too, and her gaze was disapproving. Lammert flicked his gaze to where Bast stood. “You’ve taken to arming slaves?”
“Indeed.” Thirza slid her gaze back to Rien. “An explanation is required.”
The moment her gaze went to Bast, the knight dropped to one knee with his shield in front of him and his head bowed. “This is Bast.” Rien smiled. “A knight, oathsworn to me.”
Lammert’s face started to turn red, while Rutger made a sound of disbelief. His mother, however, gave Bast a strange look. Then she looked back up at Rien and smiled. “You’ve journeyed far, my son. Rest. We will speak of this in the morning.”