DragonLord: Chapter 23

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He’d considered just crushing her throat.  But he needed information from her.  Drika sat, bound tightly.  Rien stared at her.  “You tried to kill me.”

“It was nothing personal, Marinus.”  Drika shook her head.

“Well, that’s too bad.”  Rien straightened.  “Because I’m taking it personally.”

“Lammert said to keep you from the temple, even if we had to kill you.”  Drika exhaled.

“Lammert?”  Rien blinked.

“You can’t actually be surprised, Marinus.”  Drika smirked.  “You think a man like Lammert could stomach having you or Rutger over him as king?”  She shook her head.  “He couldn’t even stomach Jurgen, and Jurgen was twice the man you are.”  She laughed bitterly.  “He’s right, too.  A jumped up hedonist ruling us because of some stupid dream?  You’d lead us to our doom, Marinus.”  She met his eyes.  “And you know it.”

“It was Rutger who told you about the expedition.”  Rien shook his head.  Rutger had fessed up to doing exactly that, right in front of him.

“Gods, you really are that stupid, aren’t you?”  She rolled her eyes.  “You and Rutger are so easy to lead around by the nose.  Wiggle a bit, and neither of you can think straight.”  She glared.  “Lammert is far better suited to be king than any.”

He glared at her before walking out of the tent.  Bast was waiting just outside.  “Well?”  Rien raised an eyebrow at Bast.

“Broos reports there is an additional force on our backtrail.”

“We knew…”

“It’s nearly three hundred raiders.”  Bast folded his arms.  “Broos claims they are from Kruisuk clan.”

“A weak clan.  Clan Draak took most of their best territory fifty years ago, and…”  Rien shook his head.  “And half of my current holdings lay within that land.”  He inhaled.  “She says Lammert is behind this.”

“Do you believe her?”  Bast tilted his head.

“I…”  Rien sighed.  “I don’t know.  Rutger is my brother.”

“So is Lammert.”

“It’s not…”  Rien rubbed his neck.  “Rutger and I are only three years apart.  We grew up together, trained together, fought together, usually under the tutelage of Jurgen.  Lammert was this man who occasionally dropped into our lives for a month or two before vanishing again for another year.  I thought I knew Rutger.  I know I don’t know Lammert.”

“You told me…”  Bast took a deep breath.  “That you’d only taken part in the raid on the castle because you didn’t want Lammert to know you had the keystone.”

“Lammert…”  Rien shook his head.  “Knows things.  You saw.  Knew who you were two days after you arrived in Darodelf.  Which is why I assumed the assassins…”  Be careful what assumptions you make, little brother.  Lammert’s words.

“Lammert knew who I was.  He tried to get me away from you, but…”  Bast looked away a moment before looking back.  “He had the opportunity to remove me from your service and not only didn’t take it, took steps to ensure I was able to carry out my duties as before.”

“My mother married Jurgen’s father to cement ties between the clans.  I don’t know if they loved each other, but they were by all accounts a good match and between them strengthened Darodelf.”  Rien leaned on a rock outcropping, and folded his arms.  “When Jurgen was barely four, Gerlach took sick.  Despite the best efforts of the healers, he wasted away and died.  A year later, Mother wed one of her advisers, Levi.”  He took a deep breath.  “Just after Lammert was born, Jurgen became ill.  Only this time…”  He looked up at Bast.  “Levi was caught with the poison.  When she learned that Levi had poisoned her previous husband, seduced her, then tried to kill her firstborn, Mother…”  Rien showed teeth.  “Showed Levi what it meant to incur the wrath of a dragon.  It took him four months to die.”

“And you think…”

“Children tend to favor their parents.”  Rien exhaled.  “Levi killed so that Lammert could be king.  With ice in his veins, he seduced a widow and lay with her in the bed of a man he’d murdered.  Tell me, Bast, what am I to think of Lammert?”

Bast was silent for a few moments.  “You entered a castle under the cover of darkness, and murdered a good man and his family, along with many of his loyal adherents, for no reason other than you wanted gold and a distraction.  You abducted a knight with the intention of torturing him for your own amusement, then giving him away as a bed slave after you were done breaking and raping him.”  He met Rien’s eyes.  “Tell me, Rien.  What am I to think of you?”

“Bast…”  Rien frowned.

“Of the sons of the dragon queen…”  Bast shook his head.  “The one I respect is not the one I owe fealty to.”

“I…”  Rien clenched his fists, then slowly forced them to relax.  That Bast’s words hurt was something of a surprise.  He took several deep breaths, making himself calm down.  “What did he want, when he spoke to you before we left?”

“He asked why you kept calling him a nonpareil.”

“Well…”  Rien shrugged.  “It just sounds so much classier than calling him an asshole.”

“Yes.”  Bast nodded.  “Yes it does.”

“He is one, though.  Biggest nonpareil I know, other than you.”

“Starting to get that impression, certainly.”

#

Bastien handed the finished rubbing to Maela, who rolled it carefully.  Rachel was hurriedly copying the letters on the marker, though the script itself was difficult to read.  It seemed smart not to take the chance.  Rien had been quiet the last day.  He’d mentioned a prior relationship with Drika, and Bastien couldn’t help but wonder just how strong the man’s feelings toward her actually were.  Rien hadn’t yet demanded her death.

It was hard to not feel sympathy toward him.  Rien was learning some lessons the hard way, and it was clear that deep down he’d not actually believed either of his brothers would try to kill him.  And they still weren’t sure which one had.  For all Bastien knew, it was the missing Jurgen that had masterminded everything.  It wasn’t as though he had a good read on either Rutger or Lammert.  For that matter, he still knew all too little about the Wilders themselves.  “Where were you born?”  He glanced at Maela.

“Selaglade, in Lethiun.”  Maela turned toward him.  Then she tilted her head.  “You are from Solsthriem?”

“Lyralind, yes.”  He nodded.

“This is very different from Lethiun.”  Maela turned to look over the view.  They were nearly into the icy reaches, and the mountains were tall and jagged.  A bit further, and he doubted they even could be traversed save by skilled climbers.  “I remember when I thought the hills of Thatela were mountains.”  She shook her head.  “The world up here is so…”  She took a deep breath.  “Big.”  She glanced up at him.  “Do you miss Solsthriem?”

“Every day.”  The Wilders were different enough from his own people that at times he found it hard to believe they were all the same species.

“In Thatela, they said the people of Solsthriem would faint if they caught a glimpse of a naked ankle.”  She shifted her skirt to reveal her calf.

“That’s not…”  He laughed softly.  “Entirely true.”

“Really?”  She lifted the skirt up a little more.  He looked away.  “Ah.  So it’s knees.”

“Illicit imp.”  He shook his head as a smile played around the edges of his mouth.

Maela’s laughter was silvery.  “Prudish prig.”

“Wanton wildcat.”

“Frigid fumbler.”

“Scandalous swain.”

“Dolorous dunce.”

#

His options were annoyingly limited.  After dealing with Drika, he had less than fifty men.  And there was still the possibility there were men among them he couldn’t trust.  Rien sighed.  Lammert had spent most of his life outside the Wildlands.  How could he have won the loyalty of someone like Drika?  Could…  Rien frowned.  Could he have offered to make her his queen?  That Lammert was still unwed and childless at his age was something of an oddity.  Jurgen’s wife, a chief in her own right, had four children, and he had three more by various bed-slaves.  Rutger had two children by bed slaves.  Rien himself had at least one son, though he’d allowed the boy to be adopted by the husband of the child’s mother.  A king would need an heir, and Drika might have been tempted by the idea of her child ruling the Wildlands.

Three hundred raiders.  What was it Bast had said?  Any force that could hold against raiders for five minutes would break them.  Bast had proved that back at the castle.  He’d chosen a defensible position, then held it against everything they’d thrown at him until Rien himself had come along.  And even then, he’d nearly won.  Rien turned and surveyed the terrain around them.  The path took them through cliffs and ravines, and narrowed just before the marker.  Joeri and Machteld weren’t quite as hard-headed as Bast, but they both had a reputation as stubborn men.

He headed over to find Bast.  “We are leaving the army here.”

Bast blinked at him.  “Rien?”

“This position is the best available.”  Rien shook his head, and pointed at the map.  “This is a chokepoint.  Doesn’t matter that they have three hundred, because they can only send a few at a time.  My men can pick them off, easily.”

“As long as your men hold, certainly.”  Bast slowly nodded.

“At this point, it’s a matter of pride.”  Rien grinned.  “But they don’t need to hold long.  Just enough for you and I to get to that blade.  You know the way, yes?”

“No.”  Bast shook his head.

“Bast…”

“While I appreciate how high your opinion of me is, Rien, two months is not long enough to become fluent in the script.”  Bast nodded toward the tent.  “Maela and Rachel are translating the marker now.”

“Fine.  Then we’ll bring them.”

“Rien…”  Bast glared.

“Not into the dangerous part.  Just into the first bit, so they can help us figure out what exactly we are getting ourselves into.”  Rien glared back.  Maela might be able to play at dueling, but he wasn’t going to put his girls into any more danger than absolutely necessary.

“We brought an army for a reason, Rien.”  Bast folded his arms.

“To fight the dragon.”  Rien smirked.  “Getting the blade is the easy part.”

“Once again, I am filled with an ominous sense of foreboding.”

“You know, you can just say you’re scared.”  Rien patted Bast’s head.  “You don’t need to hide it with fancy words.”

“Banal ignoramus.”

#

After pointing out that any force that managed to skirt the defenders in the pass would be able to come up upon them unawares, Bastien had managed to convince Rien to bring along another half dozen raiders.  It still wasn’t a good situation, but it was likely the best they could do.  Sjaak had balked a little at following Bastien’s instructions, but Rien had backed him up.  They took their positions as ordered.

The entrance to the tomb was…  “Admit it.”  Rien’s hand came down on his shoulder.  “You’re impressed again.”

“Your people were once…”  He stared at the magnificent edifice set into the mountain.  “This.”  He glanced at Rien.  “Doesn’t it bother you?”

“Huh?”  Rien blinked.  “What do you mean?”

“I mean, the Wilders once ruled the world, built marvels.  Now you just…”  He shook his head.  “Scavenge and live amongst past glory.”

“So what…”  Rien snorted.  “We should wall ourselves away, wrapped in lace, and live soft lives?”  He glared at Bastien.  “Go twenty-three years without ever touching naked flesh?”  He waved a hand.  “Get the keystone.”

He obeyed, retrieving the thing from the box Maela carried.  It took them a few minutes to figure out where to put it into the mural to open the tomb.  “Bast…”  Maela’s voice was soft.

“Hmmm?”

“Look.”  She used her finger to remove a build up of dirt from a crevice in the mural, then pointed again at the keystone opening.

His eyes narrowed.  “Rien.”

“What is it?”  Rien walked over.

Bastien pointed at the opening.  “Look at this.  There is sand and dirt in it, enough that we need to clean it a bit to get the stone in, but compared to…”  He pointed at the rest of the mural.

Rien’s eyes narrowed, and his face paled just a little.  “Someone else has been here.”

“Not recently.  I mean, not in weeks at least, but yes.”  Bastien exhaled.  “Someone else has been here.”

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