“Adaeze and I really need to —”
“No.” Jurgen shook his head at Diantha. “No, I think it is very much in my best interest that you and Adaeze have a dozen mountains between you at all times.”
Diantha just rolled her eyes before turning to smile at Efua. “Welcome. I hope being away from the sea doesn’t cause you too much hardship.”
“It is…” Efua shrugged. “Strange not smelling salt on the air.”
“The collar was a wise idea.” Diantha touched it. “I know it may be uncomfortable, but it will mean that as long as you don’t actually attack, anyone with a grievance against you has to bring it to Liam, and he can bring it to me or Jurgen.”
Efua turned to give Liam a smug look. He sighed. “Yes, yes, you told me so.”
“Did you see?” Marinus jumped up and down. “Lammert, did you see me?”
“I saw you.” Liam smiled as Marinus ran back into the practice circle where Petrus was waiting. “They’re good.”
Jurgen lifted his head proudly. “Give them a few more years and they’ll be unstoppable. Toma has been teaching Petrus to fight from horseback.” He shrugged a little. “Marinus still has a little trouble keeping his seat.” He put a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “Any chance you could arrange a quiet chat with Wendel?”
“I could smuggle you to him, but not the other way around.” Liam stared to nod, then exhaled. “It would be a bad idea.”
“I haven’t…” Jurgen stared at him. “Okay, first let’s make sure we are talking about the same thing.”
“An alliance sealed by the marriage of two of your children.” Liam raised an eyebrow.
“Yeah, that’s what I was…” He exhaled. “Why?”
“You’ll be a grandfather before Thirza is done with the throne.” Liam tilted his head a little, then slowly nodded. “If you are patient, the alliance could be built in that generation.”
“Patience…” Jurgen chuckled. “Is not one of my virtues.” He frowned when no smart remark from Liam answered him. Liam was watching Marinus. Jurgen turned to follow his gaze. “Talk to me.”
“There is still shadow and fog upon it. Sometimes I see Marinus with a crown. Sometimes the crown is not of the Wildlands. I see wings on the heights, and a glowing blade. I see Marinus’s fate balanced on the honor of another.” Liam shook his head. “I see a storm coming, brother. And Marinus stands at the heart of it.”
His fists clenched, and he forced them to relax. Then he took a couple deep breaths. “Liam, he…”
“Please don’t ask me that.” Liam winced.
“I’m not asking you, Liam.” He put a hand on Liam’s shoulder and waited until his brother was looking back at him. “If you have to choose between me and Marinus, you save him.”
“Liam.” He narrowed his eyes. “If you have to choose between me and Marinus…” He met Liam’s eyes. “You save him.” When Liam didn’t respond, he shook Liam’s shoulder. “Swear it.”
Slowly, Liam nodded. “I swear.” He took a deep breath. “I will save him.”
“Anyone who seeks to harm Petrus will have to come through Diantha.” Liam managed a smile. “And I pity any foolish enough to try.”
“As well you should.” Jurgen looked over at where Diantha and Efua were talking quietly. “My wife is a goddess of war.”
It was tempting to slip out the back way, through the slave quarters. For that matter, it was tempting to simply jump out the window and hope the fall didn’t injure him too badly. Instead, he stayed where he was, staring down at the book open on the table. Her voice reached him before she stepped all the way into view. “You’ve acquired an Ilael slave.” Thirza actually smiled at him. “I’m pleased you have come to your senses.”
Before she could continue, Rutger emerged from behind her. “Lammert, can I have a ship of my own?”
“Let’s start you small.” Liam smiled at Rutger. “Perhaps a raft?”
“I’ll be a man in two years.” Rutger shook his head.
Liam made a show of counting on his fingers and frowning. “Are you sure?” He sighed, then looked up at Thirza, somewhat grateful for the subject change. “You should pass a law. Little brothers shouldn’t be allowed to grow up.”
“You’re Jurgen’s little brother.” Rutger stuck his tongue out at Liam. “Will you bring me back more books?”
“Any books in particular?”
“I saw you reading one in another language.” Rutger sat down across from him and leaned over to look at the book. “Will you teach me?”
“I can.” Liam nodded, then flipped to a different page of the book to reveal a map. “Which one?”
“I, uh…” Rutger stared at the map. “Huh.” He tilted his head this way and then that, then closed his eyes before letting his finger fall onto a spot on the map. Then he opened his eyes again. “Natiel.” He looked up at Liam. “Do you speak that one?”
“Enough to get by.” Liam nodded before switching to that tongue. “I offer greetings and welcome.”
Rutger repeated the words as though tasting each one individually. Thirza smiled at him proudly, running her fingers through his hair. “What does that mean?” She glanced at Liam.
“I offer greetings and welcome. In Natiel they are not the same thing. Greetings are just that. Offering welcome incurs the obligations of hospitality.” Liam shrugged. “I will bring you some books on Natiel.”
“When I am a man, can I come with you?” Rutger smiled up at him hopefully.
“That will depend entirely upon where I am going.” Liam ruffled his hair as Rutger scooted closer.
“Here.” Rutger pointed at the map. His finger landed on one of the small islands off the coast of Manisar. “Can we go here?”
“That…” Liam chuckled. “Is an island covered in rocks and bird shit.” He shrugged. “I mean, if you really want to —”
“Here.” He pointed at a different spot.
“Petobae’s Silver Hills.” Liam nodded. “Yes.” He smiled at Rutger. “I will take you there, and we will get you a horse.”
“One like Jurgen’s?” Rutger’s eyes went wide.
“Yes.” Rutger threw his arms around Liam. Then he tilted his head as he pulled back, and wrinkled his nose. “Do I have to name it Sugarplum?”
Thirza started laughing. Liam joined her.
“Rutger has already named his horse.” Jurgen chuckled. It faded when he caught something in his brother’s expression. “Liam, nothing’s going to happen to Rutger, right?”
“The future holds too many possibilities sometimes.” Liam sighed. “Yesterday a knight was born in Solsthriem.”
“I’m sure several were.” Jurgen poured ale into a mug, and offered it to Liam. “What makes this one special?”
“Whether Marinus lives or dies will be his decision. I can find no way around that.” Liam accepted the mug, but just turned it around in his hands instead of drinking.
“What if we dealt with him before —” Jurgen frowned.
“Marinus will not survive without him.” Liam exhaled. He looked down at the mug, then took a drink. “Rutger wants to come with me on a ship.”
“In a couple years, he’ll be a man. I know you don’t want Thirza to know about…” Jurgen shook his head. As much as he didn’t like that his brother had to keep so much a secret, he knew there was no other option. “But Rutger loves you. If you —”
“He dies at sea.”
“Liam.” Jurgen closed his eyes. “Shit.” He shook his head. “You can’t take him.” He leaned back in his chair. “He’s going to hate that.”
“Yes.” Liam’s voice shook just a bit. “He’s going to hate me for that.”
“Not forever. Once he’s old enough, you can tell him the truth.” Jurgen put a hand atop Liam’s arm. “He’s our brother, Liam. He’ll understand.” When Liam didn’t respond, Jurgen tightened his grip. “Liam, talk to me, dammit.”
“Duke Harald has a half-brother. A bastard. Phillip.” Liam took a deep breath. “He’s the same age as Marinus. Born the same day. The same moment.”
“The eclipse.” Jurgen nodded. “I imagine that gives him some import.”
“Down one road, he kills Marinus.” Liam took a deep breath, then looked up and met his eyes. “Down another, he kills you.”
“You promised.” Jurgen yanked Liam’s arm. “You promised.”
“Do I kill the child?” Liam’s eyes were wet. “Jurgen, should I…” He swallowed.
“No.” Jurgen shook his head. “No, Liam. He’s…” Jurgen exhaled. “Whatever he may be, he’s just a child. The future…” He shoved the mug to Liam, and waited until Liam had taken a drink. “The future has many paths. Many possibilities. You said it yourself. You say it a lot. This child, Phillip…” He sighed, then downed his own mug. “I’d rather die than have you kill a child to save me. You’re not a monster, Liam. And…” He considered his next words carefully, then patted his brother’s shoulder. “And I promise, if you ever start to become one, I’ll kill you myself.”
“I know.” Liam smiled. “Thank you.” He looked down at his mug, then took another long drink. “Marinus is going to need allies. The next time I come to the Wildlands, Jurgen…” He shrugged. “You and I will be riding to war.”
“Now that…” Jurgen grinned. “Sounds fun. Who are we fighting?”
Liam finished the drink. “Unitafels.”
Efua looked around. She’d seen big trees before. These were… Some of them were as wide as the ship. Riding into a strange forest with just the two of them was making her nervous. “We should have brought Jurgen.”
“Efua.” Liam groaned.
“I meant because he has a big axe.” Efua grinned. “Not because he is big in other ways.”
“Efua.” Liam glared at her.
“Diantha, now she is —”
“Efua!” Liam started shaking his head.
“You have a daughter. I know you are not a virgin.” Efua frowned. “If we do not get back soon, Adaeze is going to give birth without you.”
“We are taking the fastest…” Liam brought the horse to a stop. He frowned, then tilted his head before turning the horse in a different direction. “Hurry.”
“Merciful waters.” Efua quickly brought her horse around to go after him. They hadn’t gone far when she saw him grab his spear. He used it as a lance, not slowing the horse at all as he thrust the spear into the massive bear. “Liam.”
Liam dismounted without stopping the horse, rolling clear as the bear turned. His spear was still stuck in its chest as it started for him. “Efua, the children.”
She blinked, then turned. Cowering behind a rock were three children. A young girl was standing protectively in front of two others. Quickly, she dismounted. Liam was keeping the bear busy. “Come, now.” She gestured for the children to come with her.
The girl started shaking her head, frantically saying something in another language. She pointed, and Efua turned to look. A woman lay on the ground, her chest torn apart. She was making gurgling sounds, her breath rattling in her chest. And she was pregnant. Very, very pregnant. Her belly was moving. “Storm’s mercy.” Efua rushed to her side. “Liam, get rid of the bear.” She put her hands on the belly, and met the woman’s eyes. The woman gave her a desperate look, and nodded.
Liam winced as the Jolusth healer tended to his wounds. The scratches weren’t too deep. He’d killed the bear, but it had taken it a good couple minutes before the bear had realized that. It’s final retaliatory strike had taken Liam off his feet. The healer had set the broken leg, but it would be a couple days before they could travel again even using potions.
Efua was sitting with an older woman, who was holding the child Efua had cut from the dead woman’s belly. The other children were being comforted by their father, aunts, and uncles. “Thank you.” He looked up to see the older man. The chief, a man who had just lost a daughter.
“I am sorry we did not arrive sooner.” Liam sighed.
The man sat down near him. “You saved my grandchildren. It nearly cost you your own life.” He exhaled. “That is not a debt easily repaid.”
“I have children.” Liam managed a smile. He would miss the birth of his second child. He knew Adaeze would understand why. “A girl, Mbali. And another I have yet to meet. I…” He took a deep breath. “I hope that if they were ever in danger, someone would aid rather than ride by. You owe us nothing. We did what our consciences demanded of us.”
“Mahdi al Nejem bin Amin.” The man held out his hand. “Mahdi.”
“Liam Arendse si Idowu.” He gripped the man’s wrist and felt the grip returned. “Liam.”
“Liam.” Mahdi nodded. “You and your companion.” He stood. “Here, you always have welcome.”
“I’m not angry.” Adaeze brushed her fingers down his cheek, smiling at him as he sat next to her.
“You are certain?” Liam raised an eyebrow at her.
She looked down at the tiny infant in her arms, then offered the girl to Liam. “And neither is Zuri.”
His eyes went wide as he took the girl and held her close. The infant raised a shaky hand up, and Liam ran his finger over it gently. “Hello, Zuri.”
Ama leaned over his shoulder to peer down at the infant. They’d rendezvoused with the Pheonix, and Uduak had been thrilled to be there for the birth of her granddaughter. “She’s so tiny.”
“You were this small once.” Liam fondly touched his head to his sister’s. “I remember it.”
“Me too?” Mbali looked up.
“No.” Liam shook his head. “You were a very big baby.”
“Oh yes.” Adaeze winced and lay back on the bed. “Do not remind me.”