Aurel held the parchment with trembling fingers. The neat, slightly cramped handwriting was recognizably his son’s. Bastien was alive. He read the words again. Bastien was alive, but he wasn’t coming home. His captor had declined the king’s ransom.
Bastien congratulated him on his elevation to the nobility, even suggested he find a woman and remarry. The words were left unwritten, but he knew what his son was saying. Bastien wasn’t coming home, thus Aurel would require another heir. He set the parchment down, and sighed.
“I can pay more ransom.”
He turned at the sound of Nadja’s voice, and saw the girl standing in the door, clutching her pillow to her. “Nadja…”
“If the bad man wants more gold, you can use mine.” Her eyes were wet. “Sir Bastien was always nice to me.” She walked over and sat down next to him.
“He’s alive, poppet.” Aurel put an arm around her. “We’ll get him back.” His eyes flicked again to the second letter. Then he ran a hand down Nadja’s hair. “You should be in bed, poppet.”
“Can’t sleep.” She trembled just a little. “Thought I heard Mama calling me.”
“Come.” He stood, then picked her up. “I’ll read you a story.” He carried her back to her bedchamber.
“Are we there yet?” Rien walked over to where Bast was looking at the map.
“Rachel, tell Rien if he asks me that one more time I’m going to roll up this map and beat him to half to death with it.”
“Master Rien, Bast says —”
He cut Rachel off by putting an arm around her shoulders and pulling her to him for a kiss. Then he turned back to Bast. “Seriously, we should have reached the first marker by now.”
“Here’s the stream.” Bast trailed a finger across the map. “Meets up with the ravine here. Since we are here…” He moved his finger a little north. “The marker is still about a dozen miles west of us.”
Rien slid his hand up under Rachel’s tunic, fondling her breast as he listened to Bast. “That’s putting us two days behind already.”
“It would help if half your army wasn’t hung over every —” Bast glared when Rien made Rachel giggle. “That is incredibly distracting.”
“You’re just jealous I’m not fondling you.” Rien kissed the top of Rachel’s head.
“Gleeking joithead.” Bast looked down at the map again. “If we —
“Do you think those are actual words —” Rien looked down at Rachel. “Or is he making them up as he goes along?”
“I’m a sadistic siren.” She grinned.
“I’m a tyrannical temptress.” Maela spoke up from where she was cooking.
“Oh, I quite agree.” Rien nodded. “You should embroider those on your belts.”
Bastien tried not to smile. Despite his irreverence of the previous evening, Rien had apparently decided to do something about the rather lax discipline of the small army accompanying them. Said something had involved Rachel, the first crack of dawn, and a very loud warhorn. They were moving. Grumbling, cursing, and whining, but they were moving.
A woman named Drika had apparently appointed herself Rien’s second in command. The trouble was she didn’t take things any more seriously than Rien did, and was more used to commanding raiders than an expedition. Though given the fighting skills of the Wilders, it was probably a good thing they lacked military discipline. The idea of them as a cohesive, unified fighting force was frankly terrifying.
And yet, he was currently part of an expedition that could lead to them being exactly that. Fortunately, the expedition was lead by Rien. Who was currently juggling rocks. As threats to the realm went, he’d seen worse.
The keystone would return to Darodelf in the company of one who could claim the DragonLord’s blade. And the one that wielded the DragonLord’s blade could unite the clans. Could, not will. He might owe his fealty to Rien, but that ‘could’ was something of a balm. Even if Rien succeeded and became king, there was no guarantee the man would unite the Wilderfolk. For that matter, he wasn’t actually convinced the man even wanted to. Slay a dragon, yes. Become king? He had a sneaking suspicion that would just end in Jochem ruling the Wildlands.
He heard a commotion, and noted someone arguing with Maela. Immediately, he headed in that direction. The man was apparently demanding Maela cook him more sausages. Bastien shifted to stand in front of her. “The food has been packed away.”
“I didn’t ask you.” The raider sneered.
“That does not change the facts.” Bastien shook his head. “Get to your duties.”
“You need to learn your place…” The raider drew himself up to his full height.
“He has a point, Bast.” Rien’s voice was a lazy drawl. “Everyone here should learn their place.” Rien’s eyes narrowed. “And I stated we were to be underway.”
“If the bint wasn’t argu —”
“Bast, is he referencing Maela?” Rien raised an eyebrow.
“I believe he is.” Bastien nodded.
“I see.” Rien nodded. “Bast…” Rien squared his shoulders. “Show this man his place.”
“My p —” The raider was cut off by Bast grabbing the front of his armor and driving his knee into the man’s groin. Behind him, Maela wisely stepped away from the altercation as two of the raider’s companions moved in, drawing weapons.
There was no need yet to draw a weapon of his own. He spun the first raider into the second, then shifted to avoid the blow of the third before grabbing the man’s wrist. He twisted to disarm the raider, caught the blade in his off hand, then kicked the side of the raider’s knee to bend it in a direction it had never been intended to bend. The man howled. The second raider came at him, and Bastien parried with his off hand, disarming the man of the blade. He caught it, then straightened, a sword in each hand. The first raider started to come up and draw his own weapon, then blinked. Bastien raised an eyebrow, and the raider took a step back.
“Mannes…” Rien gave a small shake of his head. “I believe you stated that you and your men would be an asset to this expedition.”
“Prince Marinus —” The man started shaking his head.
“You disobeyed my orders, attempted to delay our progress, and…” Rien folded his arms. “Just got your ass handed to you by my bed slave.”
“Take your men and leave, Mannes. This expedition is for the worthy.” Rien squared his shoulders. “You do not qualify.”
Drika brought her horse up to match pace with his, then glanced over her shoulder to where Bast rode at his left. “I’ll trade you the twenty acres on Vestin’s Bluff for him.”
Rien laughed. “Broos offered me a dozen horses, Luuk offered me six kegs of prime whiskey, Jantje offered a bluesteel axe, and Rutger offered me four Manisarian dancing girls.”
“You turned down four Manisarian dancing girls?” Drika turned and stared at Bast again before looking back at Rien. “Does he have siblings?”
“My Bast is one of a kind.” Rien smiled. Then he glanced back at the raiders following them. Rabble, Bast had called them. The irritating part was the man was right. For all they looked down on the soft folk, if he was leading knights he’d have the blade in his hand by now. “Tomorrow morning, if camp is not broken in under an hour, then in the evening they can all sleep on the ground.”
“You heard me, Drika.” He narrowed his eyes. “This isn’t a game. This isn’t a raid. At the end of this journey there lies a dragon, and such a creature is owed a greater respect than…” He waved a hand at the rabble behind them. “This.” He met her eyes. “See it done.”
“Yes, Prince Marinus.” She nodded before moving her horse away to go berate stragglers.
He blinked at the sound of Bast’s voice, then exhaled. “Should have let you beat up Mannes three days ago.” He sighed. “It should be Jurgen riding lead. He was born to rule.”
“And what were you born for, Rien?” Bast raised an eyebrow.
“To be his sword, in his right hand.” Rien smiled. “That was the way it was supposed to be. Jurgen on the throne, Lammert on his left and me on his right, with Rutger as his herald. Brothers.” And now Jurgen was lost, his fate unknown.
“Duke Harald embraced his father’s bastard son, saw him educated and trained. He thought Phillip would make a fine general.” Bast’s smile was bitter. “Some men are not satisfied with what they have, and seek more regardless of the cost.”
“I never wanted this.” Rien shook his head. “To kill a dragon, yes, but what boy doesn’t dream of such things?” He turned to look at Bast. “Speak truth. Can you actually see me on a throne?”
“Upside down and passed out drunk upon it, perhaps.”
“I haven’t flogged you in a while.” Rien exhaled. “I should remedy that.”
“You asked for the truth.”
“So I…” He pulled his horse up. “There. The marker. I…” He trailed off, staring.
“Rien…” Bast’s voice was soft.
Rien stared at the smashed edifice. Chips of white stone lay around it where all the carvings had been demolished. White dust lay, not yet washed away by… “When did it rain last.”
“Six days ago.” Bast dismounted. He examined the ground before turning to look back up at him. “There are tracks, Rien.”
Without the marker, the only information they had on their next destination was what Bast, Rachel, and Maela had gleaned from the books, couched in often poetic terms. “Tell Drika to send scouts to follow the trail. No more than six. They are to report, not engage. We…” He met Bast’s eyes. “The map you, Rachel, and Maela crafted…” He slowly nodded. “Let’s hope you three are as smart as I think you are.”
He’d expected Rien to fly off in a rage at the marker’s destruction, and go after those responsible. No doubt that was what whoever had destroyed the marker expected as well. Bastien walked over to where Maela and Rachel were going over their map with Rien. “Drika’s scouts lost the trail at the stream.” Personally, he had his doubts, but he wasn’t skilled enough at tracking to actually prove them wrong.
“Then they’ve enough of a lead to…” Rien leaned on the table, then looked down at the map. “The girls are in agreement with the map. Are you?”
“For this leg, yes. If the next marker is…” Bastien moved to the table. “The further along the trail, the less information there was. The first few markers served as pilgrimage points for the first century or so after the Dragon Lord’s death, but the rest were harder and more dangerous to reach.”
“But if they are continuing along the trail, then they are also leaving tracks.” Rien nodded.
“Rien, as soon as I was certain you were following me I would prepare an ambush. And with a few days lead, against an undisciplined force and a green commander —”
“I’m not green.” Rien glared. “I’ve lead hundreds of raids.”
“This isn’t a raid, Rien. In a raid, you have the element of surprise, you know what you’re facing, and you have avenues of retreat.” Bastien shook his head. “Give me…” He smirked. “Give me ten men and I could take out this entire company of yours.”
“I believe that of you, Bast, but we have no idea who we are actually facing here.” Rien straightened.
“Who does Master Rien failing this quest benefit?” Rachel frowned as she looked up.
“My brothers.” Rien sighed.
“Everyone.” Bastien shrugged.
“Bast…” Rien turned toward him.
“Rien, if I wasn’t oathsworn to you I would be doing everything I could to see to it this expedition failed.” Bastien squared his shoulders. “Because if your mother’s prophecy is true, it makes the Wilderfolk the single greatest threat any other nation could face. Your people, united, once rolled over the entire rest of the world. The rest of the world has a vested interest in ensuring such a thing never happens again.”
“And the River Dragon is a known raider…” Rien slowly nodded. He looked down at the map again. “This wasn’t outside forces. Not this far into the Wildlands.” He took a deep breath. “This was one of my brothers.”
“Rutger.” Bastien nodded.
Rien blinked as he looked up. “You sound certain of that. Explain.”
“He’s right, Master Rien.” Maela’s voice sounded just a little nervous. “Efua was in your quarters for three days. She saw the map.”
“So Lammert would know smashing a marker wouldn’t delay you.” Bastien shrugged. “And frankly with two months lead time to plan, Lammert would have come up with something a lot better than smash a marker a couple days before you got to it.” He looked over his shoulder at the tent flap. “And Rien…”
“If the people who smashed the marker weren’t part of the rabble…” He shook his head. “I’ll get on my knees for you.”