“We can always come back later.” Bastien held out a hand to help Maela down the small embankment. With only the four of them and no horses, they couldn’t bring any of the ancient scrolls or tablets with them. Maela’s face suggested she’d been asked to abandon her children. “I mean, if this all works out, Rien’s going to be the king and…” He sighed. “And maybe that won’t end in the world exploding.”
“I heard that.” Rien’s voice came from below. “Hand the girls down.”
He took Rachel’s hands and carefully lowered her down to Rien. “Well?”
“The note was written. And not pidgin.” Rien set Rachel down before reaching back up for Maela. “That narrows it down a lot.”
After lowering Maela, he climbed down himself. “The part that…” He exhaled. “Okay, one of the parts that makes no sense is whoever put that note there had to do it some time ago. So…”
“So how could they know where the dragon is now?” Rien nodded. “Yeah, I’m kind of stuck there too.” He exhaled. “Except they knew enough to know I was going to need two keystones to get out…” He shrugged. “And one to later get back in, so…”
“And their footprints did not leave the main chamber.” Maela spoke up from where she was shading her eyes against the sun.
“How could someone else have retrieved three keystones, when Master Rien only found one?” Rachel wrinkled her nose.
“Well, once I found one, I had no need to go looking for any others.” Rien started down an outcropping of rock, occasionally reaching back to give a hand to the girls.
“How did you find the one?” Bastien brought up the rear. Despite his smaller size, Rien was the better mountaineer. Letting him find the path was their best option. Whoever had drawn the map had given enough detail to give the location, but not enough to give them clear directions.
“As much as I hate to admit it…” Rien exhaled. “Blind luck.” He gave a small laugh. “So much so I thought it was fate.” He tested some handholds, then rejected them before leading them to another path. “Some travelers I met on the road told me there was a manticore in a nearby marsh. I thought it sounded like good sport, so I tracked it and killed it.” He shrugged. “Found the keystone in it’s lair.”
“So you…” Bastrien rubbed his forehead. “Really were wandering about aimlessly and tripped over it?”
“Lovely, by any chance to we happen to have a flogger among our gear?”
“No, Master Rien.” Rachel made a disappointed sound. Then she brightened. “We have a leather belt.”
“If the keystones were scattered about that randomly though…” Maela frowned. “How could anyone acquire three?”
“No idea.” Rien leaped up a small bluff, then offered Rachel a hand after. “But if the man who can do that gives me a map and says there is a dragon at the end of it…” He pulled Rachel up. “I’m going to go take a look.”
Rien used a small crystal to check the water. It glowed just a little white, so he nodded. “Safe enough to drink.” Maela breathed a sigh of relief before she and Rachel began filling the waterskins and canteens. Rien straightened and looked around. With less than an hour of daylight left, he shrugged. “We’ll make camp here. And we should get a fire going. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are both yeti and trolls here.”
“There is water here, so there is probably game around.” Bast started to get out one of the crossbows.
“You stay here, guard the girls.” Rien took it from him. When Bast started to narrow his eyes, Rien glared. “Remind me. Which of us grew up in this section of the world?”
Bast shrugged and handed him the case of bolts. By the time he returned with a rabbit, they had a fire going. Rachel made short work of skinning the thing and spitting it to be roasted, and Rien made a mental note for him and Bast to hunt as they traveled tomorrow. One rabbit wasn’t going to fill four bellies. “The note said do not linger.” Bast leaned back against a rock outcropping. “Rutger and Phillip are hunting the dragon too.”
“Yes, but we…” Rien took the note out again, looking down at it. “Know where it is.” He frowned. “No. Rutger leaving Darodelf would have been remarked. Phillip may be hunting the dragon, but Rutger…”
“Will be framing Lammert for your death.” Bast nodded. “And possibly Jurgen’s. Will your mother believe it?”
“Yes.” Rien sighed. “Yes. Fuck, Drika had me half-convinced he was…” Rien closed his eyes, then nodded. “Rutger has always been Mother’s favorite. And Lammert is…” He opened his eyes again. “Not.” He looked at the fire. “She tortured his father to death over a span of months and…” He leaned forward. “Jurgen once told me that when Lammert went missing, she didn’t send anyone to look for him. Even stopped him from going out to search. Jurgen said it took him almost a year to work up the nerve to ask Lammert to forgive him for that.”
“Rien…” Bast frowned.
“Yes?” Rien looked up at him.
“In the Vale, we met a man. He suggested Rutger might be behind…” Bast shrugged. “Then he said he’d —”
“Sten.” Rien’s eyes widened. He stared at Bast for a moment. “He said he’d meet us in Darodelf.”
“I’m guessing from your expression, he didn’t?” Bast raised an eyebrow. “Who was he?”
“My mother’s left hand. Her spymaster.” Rien laughed bitterly. Sten had brought the warning to him in the Vale. He’d thought it had come from his mother, but it was too clear that Rutger was still her pet. So Sten had been acting on his own accord, which could only mean that he did have something on Rutger and knew Thirza would listen. Dammit, he should have… “No doubt Rutger felt the need to remove him from the field.” It was possible he actually was stupid. Or perhaps just oblivious. It had cost him Jurgen. He was starting to worry it was going to cost him Lammert as well.
“Lammert has an intelligence operation. What are the odds he’s figured any part of this out?”
“He figured out Phillip had sought refuged in the Wildlands, and clearly knew it wasn’t with me, so…” Rien shrugged. “He suspects Rutger, for all the good it will do him. If we don’t kill that dragon and get back in time, Lammert…” He clenched his fists. “If Rutger convinces Mother that Lammert killed me, I dread to think of what she’ll do.” Especially if Rutger goaded her. He wasn’t sure he’d put it past the man. Jurgen had been well loved. If Lammert were blamed for Jurgen’s death, then… Rien swallowed.
“Our mystery note writer said they’ll try to buy us time.” Bast nodded. “Let’s hope it’s enough.”
Both the women had tried to give him and Rien their shares of the rabbit. They’d both declined. Rachel was laying next to Rien, using his leg as a pillow. Maela was writing in the small bound book she’d brought with her. She set it down after a moment, and looked over at him. “Are the stars the same here, as they are in Solsthriem?”
Bastien looked up at the sky, then nodded. “Yes. The nations aren’t that far apart, and both border the ice.”
“They were different than in Manisar. Not all of them, but some.” She shivered a little, and he picked up one of the cloaks and draped it over her shoulders. She smiled. “What was your mother like?”
“I…” Bastien shook his head. “I don’t know. She died, when I was still very young. She was trying to bring my sister into the world, and they were both lost.” He added a couple branches to the fire. “My father loved her very much. He never could bring himself to take another wife.”
“That’s…” Maela swallowed. “Beautiful.”
“A woman dies in childbirth and that’s beautiful?” Rien raised his head up a little.
“Rien…” Bastien rubbed his forehead and gave Maela an apologetic look. She rolled her eyes, and he smiled. Then he shrugged and looked back at Rien. “How, exactly, are we supposed to kill a dragon with just us?”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out.” Rien sat up, then ran his fingers through Rachel’s hair. “Our plan was to lure it in with the sheep as bait, then have archers target the wings to keep it on the ground.” He took a deep breath. “But we don’t have bait, or archers.”
“Yes you do, Master Rien.” Rachel’s voice murmured sleepily.
“Maela and I can get its attention and use the crossbows, while you and Bast kill it.”
“No.” Rien and Bastien spoke the word in unison.
“But…” Maela started shaking her head.
“Absolutely not.” Bastien narrowed his eyes at her.
“Not a chance.” Rien caught Rachel’s arm and pulled her around so she was facing him. “No.”
“If anyone plays the bait…” Bastien looked over at his shield. “It’s going to be me.”
“No.” Rien lifted his head and glared at Bastien.
“Do you have a better plan?” Bastien lifted his eyebrow. “It’s either kill the dragon or go back to Darodelf with nothing to show for any of this. Even if you can stop your mother from killing Lammert, it’s pretty damn clear Rutger has a hell of a lot more influence than you do. Darodelf will be a deathtrap for all of us.”
Rien went silent, taking deep breaths. “I don’t want you hurt, Bast.”
“Well, it’s a hell of a lot too late for that, Rien.” Bastien rubbed the back of his neck. “So just focus on killing that damn thing before it eats me.”
They spent a few minutes the next morning teaching the girls how to use the crossbows. Fortunately, the girls were fast learners, and the crossbows themselves were simple. He just hoped they were enough to do damage to the wings. Rachel seemed to think they were, talking about main brains or something. But she sounded like she knew what she was doing, and that was enough.
A small bit of luck had been with them, at least. Maela had managed, much to her surprise, to shoot one of the mountain goats. Rachel had found some plants, and it was starting to smell like they were going to have a decent dinner. Part of him had wanted to press on, to travel past the twilight, but without a trail he dare not take the chance.
Tomorrow, they’d reach the dragon. He was supposed to have almost a hundred raiders with him for this part. Instead he had a knight and two bed-slaves. Rien rose, and walked over to where Bast had found a slightly sheltered area and was trying to bath in privacy. The water was far too cold to actually immerse themselves, but he’d managed to use his helmet to heat enough water to wash. “Waiting your turn?” Bast raised an eyebrow. “Might need more —”
Bast cut off when Rien grabbed him and pushed him into the rock wall. He kissed Bast, running a hand to the back of his neck to hold him in place. Bast froze like a startled prey animal, and Rien reluctantly drew away. “You had a chance to kill Phillip.” He brushed his thumb over Bast’s jawline. “You saved me instead.”
“The bolt might have hit Rachel.” Bast shrugged.
“The beacon. The crossbow in the woods. The archers in Darodelf. The knife back when…” Rien took a deep breath. “And every fight, you’ve had my back.” He sighed. “I…” He shook his head. “And the time it was your life on the line, Lammert saved you.”
“It’s sad, isn’t it?” Rien stepped away from him. “I took everything from you, I tortured you, and…” He laughed bitterly. “And you may be the closest thing I actually have to a friend.” He looked down, then sighed before looking back up at Bast. “I’m sorry, Bast, for…” He shook his head. “Being me.”
“I…” Bast closed his eyes, then exhaled before looking at Rien. “You should get some sleep. Tomorrow we have to save the world, or something.”
“Just…” Rien nodded. “Try not to die, alright? I think…” Rien managed a smile. “That I would miss you.”
“You know…” Bast shook his head. “Even if you die killing the dragon, I’ll still have to go back to Darodelf.”
“If I die, you —” Rien blinked.
“Like you said, Rien. Lammert saved me. I owe him my life. You die…” Bast shrugged. “I have no idea how I can help him, but I have to try.”
“Thank you, Bast, for…” Rien put a hand on his shoulder, and squeezed it lightly. “Being you.” He glanced at the helmet. “Mind?”
“Sure, I was done.” Bast nodded before heading back to the camp.