Bastien shaded his eyes with his hand as he looked over the terrain. He and Maela had been right. They could cut through to another marker. In the time of the Dragonlord, the nearby volcano had been active. For the past century, however, it had laid near dormant. With a few precautions, they could traverse the region safely enough. And bypass whatever trap awaited them on the path.
Rien’s hand caught the back of his neck and squeezed gently. “Drika’s wearing more armor.”
“I noticed.” Bastien nodded.
“They know you’re dangerous, now.” Rien frowned. “Good chance they’ll try to take you out before they come for me.”
“I’m more concerned about Maela and Rachel.” Bastien shook his head. “Can’t put them in armor without giving the game away.” He glanced at Rien. “Figured out yet who is loyal to you?”
“Broos.” Rien sighed. “And his men. Joeri and Machteld are here because I wanted them. Sjaak has no love for Drika since she bested his brother. He’ll side against her if for no reason other than to deny her whatever reward Rutger promised.”
“You’ve decided it was Rutger behind this?” Bastien surveyed the terrain again. Privately, he agreed. It had been Rutger who’d arranged Drika, and she was definitely up to something. “Tell me more of your brothers.”
“I’ve spoken of Jurgen already.” Rien leaned his elbow on Bastien’s head, causing Bastien to move away and glare at him. “He made me look almost as small as you.” He sighed. “A warrior, an example of all Wilders aspire to be.”
“A true nonpareil.” Bastien shrugged.
“You’d probably think so.” Rien exhaled. “He was to be king, knew it, and embraced it. Led his men from the front, sought to inspire them. Wanted to unite our people, lead us to glory once more.” He gave a small shake of his head. “The Stone Dragon.”
“You loved him.” Bastien turned to look at Rien.
“Nearly twenty years’ time between our births.” Rien looked down at his hands before looking back up at Bastien. “I’ve heard you speak of your father. That’s who Jurgen wa—” He exhaled. “Is to me. I won’t believe him dead until I know more.”
“Then we…” Bastien nodded. “Hopefully we will learn his fate when we get to the bottom of what is happening here.”
“I hope you are right.” Rien exhaled. “Rutger and I have only three years between us. I had thought we were close. His father was a skald. Decent enough in a fight, but a man of words and poetry. My mother purchased him after he composed a poem to her beauty with only a few moments of preparation. I think…” He sighed. “She grieved his death more than she did the deaths of any of her husbands, and I think she indulged Rutger because of their resemblance.”
“You said he should have been Jurgen’s herald?” Bastien started back toward the camp.
“I did. Rutger talks better than he fights, by far. He’s not a pacifist, by any means, but he’s the one that can talk his way out of situations. The one who makes promises.” Rien frowned as he apparently considered what those words meant for their current situation. After a few moments, he added, “and he’s not a bad musician.”
“You two were the youngest. You were never really in the running to rule.” Bastien nodded. Both Rutger and Rien enjoyed their pleasures, indulged in base hedonism. Though Rien did seem to care something for his responsibilities, at least enough to put someone as competent as Jochem in charge of handling them.
“We were to lead men under the command of Jurgen. Raid for glory.” Rien nodded. “We used to talk about it, when we were younger. I was going to take boats through, raid up and down the waterways, while Rutger plundered the fertile fields of Akobul.”
“The River Dragon.” Bastien chuckled.
“Yes.” Rien clapped his shoulder. “And Rien the Grass Dragon.” He shrugged. “Not quite as inspiring.”
“And Lammert?” Bastien raised an eyebrow. “The Forest Dragon?”
“No…” Rien frowned again. “No, Lammert…” He folded his arms and looked down, his face contemplative. “Lammert isn’t a dragon.”
“The sons of the Dragon Queen. I thought…” Bastien tilted his head.
“Lammert’s sigil is a phoenix, not a dragon.” Rien exhaled. “He’s five years younger than Jurgen. Each of us went on our first raids at twelve. It’s a rite of passage, earning our sigils. Jurgen, Rutger, and I, we were out for a month, brought back some lovely spoils for our mother to fawn over.” He met Bastien’s eyes. “Lammert was gone for three years.”
“Three…” Bastien blinked. “Years?”
“He and those sent with him vanished after crossing into the Unitafels. I think half the reason my mother chose to have another child was she thought he was lost. A king needs right and left hands. He returned only a few days after I was born. As the story goes, he arrived during the ceremony in which my mother announced my name. He arrived alone, then walked across the courtyard barefoot and in rags…” Rien gave a small shake of his head. “And laid the Scepter of Asael at her feet.”
He felt his mouth drop open. “The Scepter of Asael?”
“The very one.”
“The Wilderfolk have the Scepter of Asael?” He stared at Rien.
“What?” Rien grinned. “You didn’t know that?”
“There were rumors, but…” Bastien exhaled, then gave a small shake of his head. So that is why their queen was having prophetic dreams. She was the holder of the scepter. “You do realize if you get yourself killed walking into this disaster, I’m taking all this information back to my king and the Magi?”
“Bast…” Rien put a hand on his shoulder. “You do realize you’re walking into this disaster with me?”
“And you wonder why so many people want to kill you.”
Rien jumped down from the rock, then offered a hand to Rachel. He and Bast were keeping the girls close. Frankly, though, he wasn’t sure it would have been smarter to leave them. Rutger had made the fact he wanted them clear, and if Rutger did think he was out of the way… He tried not to worry about Jochem.
They were nearly to the second to last marker, and had cut days off their trip. Whatever force waited in ambush was behind them now, and would have no luck getting ahead. He’d spoken to Broos, and his men were watching their backtrail. In theory, they were watching it against those who had destroyed the markers. He dared not hint about the ambush. Broos was many things, but he made even Rien look subtle.
It had been Rachel who’d raised the point that really had him worried. How had the man who had recovered the Scepter of Asael at barely fifteen failed to acquire a keystone with almost two years to search? Lammert had traveled, often being gone for more than a year at a time. Most of his life, the man had been a stranger that entered his world for only brief periods before vanishing again. It had only been the past couple years before the dream that Lammert had stayed in Darodelf. His second eldest brother had a prickly and aggressive nature that made him difficult to like, but how much did he actually know the man?
Drika appeared confident. He’d acted like he hadn’t noticed the missing men. It was frankly just a bit insulting that she bought the act. Maybe he shouldn’t be. While he did have a reputation as a raider, it was galling to realize he didn’t exactly have one as a leader. It was too late with this bunch, but… “Master Rien?” Rachel was giving him a concerned look.
“Do not fret, Lovely.” He kissed her cheek. “It’s a most unbecoming expression on your pretty face.” He paused. “If things do go wrong, Lovely, you and your sister go to Solsthriem with Bast. I am certain he will take care of you.”
“But he will not let us take care of him.” She sent a small pout in Bast’s direction, which the man apparently didn’t notice. He was busy scanning the horizon again.
“He can be rather a stick in the mud, true.” Rien chuckled before sending her to join her sister. Then he walked over to Bast. “Drika will act soon.”
“My guess is tonight. She’ll wait until you’re asleep.” He nodded. “She’ll assume you’re occupied and distracted.”
“With you.” Rien frowned. “Making us easy marks.” He turned to look down at Bast. “If you were me, what would you do?”
“So many ways I could answer that…” Bast exhaled before his face became serious. “What’s your goal here, Rien?”
“My…” Rien blinked. “To win.”
“Is winning defeating Drika and Rutger…” Bast turned to look at him. “Or getting the blade and killing the dragon.”
“And if you couldn’t have both?” Bast raised an eyebrow.
“I…” Drika was betraying him. Rutger was betraying him. He wanted to best them, to show them why the River Dragon was a being to be feared. And… “What I want is irrelevant. It is my duty to get the blade, and slay the dragon before the portent turns dark.”
“That’s the part that makes little sense to me.” Bast frowned. “The dragon exists, but if Rutger eliminates you before you kill it, then he has to deal with it, and…”
“And he can’t.” Rien growled. “We are missing something.”
“Which means…” Bast met his eyes. “We may need to let Drika attack. There is a place the girls can hide, where they will be safe.”
The attack came almost exactly when they’d predicted. Drika and her men expected to find Rien and Bastien asleep or occupied when they rushed into the tent. Instead, they found an empty tent. Bastien brought his sword down on the rope, collapsing the tent with her and some of her men inside.
And for the first time, he saw Rien in his true element of war. Rien brought his axe into play with enough force to kill two men in a single blow. Then he roared before spinning and slicing open three more before they could respond. The sound of Rien’s battle cry brought the rest of the camp to arms.
Bastien moved in, covering Rien’s flanks to ensure no one could get behind him. He used his shield to parry a blow, then hamstrung the attacker. He spun, moving back to back with Rien, providing defense to Rien’s offense. They moved through the small battleground almost as a single unit. Rien’s lighter armor kept him mobile, and Bastien simply ensured any blow that would have hit the man landed on his heavier armor instead.
Five minutes. He’d told Rien that any force that could hold against the Wilders for five minutes would break them. The force arrayed against them lasted less than one. When Rien lowered his axe, nearly twenty men were dead or dying, and the rest of their force was staring in shock.
Rien snarled as he went to the tent, yanking the materiel away to reveal Drika and the four survivors of what had turned from ambush to massacre. Drika’s face was white. “When exactly…” Rien drew himself to his full height. “Did you forget who I was, Drika? What I was?”
He caught movement from the corner of his eye. The knife thrown at Rien’s back from the crowd clanged harmlessly off Bastien’s raised shield. He glanced at the direction it had come from. It was Broos who turned on the thrower, and took the man’s arm off with a single blow from his massive blade.
“Did you really think you were enough?” Rien ignored it entirely. He took a step toward Drika, and she stepped back. “That this rabble was enough? I am Marinus Draak.” He caught her by the throat. “I…” He lifted her nearly a foot off the ground with one hand. “Am the River Dragon.”