The night was cold enough they all huddled together under the cloaks. The chill was sufficient Bastien couldn’t bring himself to even half-heartedly object, despite the fact that if Maela were any closer she’d actually be inside his skin. Though asleep, Rien was holding Rachel to him. The gesture seemed more protective than anything else.
From what little he’d seen, back in the tomb, Rien had stood down when Rachel was threatened. That was not something he’d expected from the man. Then there were the events of this evening to consider. When Rien had pushed him against the wall, he’d expected… Had the man actually apologized?
Bastien looked up at the stars. Rien had lost two brothers. One murdered, the other a betrayer. If they were too late, Rien would lose the third as well, and he did owe Lammert. From what he’d managed to understand later, Lammert had taken a not inconsiderable risk by intervening, and perhaps a greater one by stopping Rien from going after Wessel. According to Rachel, Lammert had thrown Rien into a wall. He wished he’d been conscious to see that.
They were taking a risk, and that was taking its toll on Rien. If killing the dragon delayed them too long, Lammert would probably die. If they failed to kill the dragon, Lammert and they would all die. But if they went back without killing the dragon, it would be Rien’s word against Rutger’s. And Rutger was far better with words. The best they could hope for would be Rien’s mother sending them all to their respective rooms. That Rien hadn’t been able to arrange a group of a hundred friends without half of them being willing to kill him didn’t bode well for their odds at that point.
But Wilders were Wilders. If Rien came back as the dragonslayer, Rutger’s political maneuvering would be washed away. However clever Rutger was with words and promises, it was strength and glory the Wilders prized. It could be done. Maela and Rachel had both pointed out all the stories said the Dragonlord had killed the dragon by himself, and there were similar legends.
Whoever had left them the keystones had said they would buy time. Hopefully, they could buy enough. And hopefully their motives were virtuous.
In the air, a dragon was nigh unstoppable. But if they could get it on the ground and keep it there…
He sighed, and let sleep claim him.
“It’s there.” Rien stared. “It’s…” The dragon was perched on a rock outcropping, sunning itself with its wings half-spread. The creature was big, though not quite big enough to swallow him whole. Maybe. Wicked horns curled over its head, and even at this distance he could see spikes on its body. Its claws were likely bigger than his hands, and if Rachel was right the same would be true of its teeth. The tail ended in spikes, and Rachel had stated that the creature would use it as a weapon. Along with wing buffets, an agile neck, and those teeth and claws.
His hand closed around the hilt of the sword. And if he failed, he would die. His brother would die. His brothers’ murderer would claim the throne. He took a deep breath, then to his surprise, he felt Bast’s hand on his shoulder. “Rien?” Bast raised an eyebrow at him.
“I saw you praying, this morning.” Rien glanced at him. “Don’t suppose you put in a good word for me?”
“The Paladin teaches that a true heart is the greatest strength.” Bast shrugged. “I asked him to please help you anyway.”
“Well, I’ve got some frustrations to be taking out on this thing.” Rien tried to keep his voice light. When Bast raised an eyebrow, Rien leered at him. “Proper oil isn’t among our supplies.”
Bast rolled his eyes. “Focus on the dragon.”
“I believe that’s what I said I’m doing.” Rien turned to survey the territory, then pointed. “There. Relatively flat, but there are some boulders and the like to serve as both high ground and cover. It’s probably our best location.”
“I agree.” Bast glanced at the dragon, then nodded at the direction. “If I start at that bluff, I should be able to attract its attention, then run down that way. Assuming it follows, the girls will be able to get a couple shots in at the wings and you’ll have a clear field to work with.”
“This sword is supposed to have magic to help slay a dragon.” Rien exhaled. “Let’s hope that part of the story was right, or this might be a little more fun than I’d like.”
“Alright. Take your position, and signal me when you’re ready.” Bast nodded.
“Master Rien?” Maela’s voice trembled a little.
“Sweetling?” He turned toward her.
“May I kiss Bast?” She glanced at Bast. “For luck?”
“Good idea.” He grabbed Bast, kissed him, then shoved him toward Maela.
This was the stupidest thing he had ever done. He could only pray it was the stupidest thing he ever would do. Bastien lifted the crossbow, took aim at a slumbering dragon, and fired.
Rien glanced again at both his girls. Maela was pale, but Rachel looked almost eager. He’d never asked Jochem what he’d paid for them, but he knew damn well they were both beyond price. He looked up again at the sound of the dragon’s roar, and saw Bast coming toward them.
He leaped from the rocks just as the dragon’s tail struck where he’d been standing. Jagged bits of stone flew everywhere. Bastien didn’t stop to look, but headed in for cover. He heard the twang of a crossbow, and the dragon’s snarl. From the shadow, the creature was starting to turn in the direction of one of the girls. He grabbed his shield and sword and came out from behind cover again. “Hey, goat breath.”
The dragon turned toward him.
Rachel fired her crossbow just as the dragon started for Bast again. Rien dove from cover and brought the blade across the back of the thing’s leg. It didn’t go deep enough to hamstring it, but the dragon gave a roar of fury before turning toward him. Its wings unfurled as it spun, and both girls took the opportunity to fire again.
The thing was bigger than he’d thought. When it spun back toward Rien, Bastien closed. Rien had opened a gash. Bastien drove his own blade into the same wound, narrowly managing to keep hold as the dragon spun back toward him. But this time, the leg faltered. There was blood on the thing’s wings. The girls were doing their part. He rolled to the side and slashed at the thing’s belly, though his sword barely pierced the scales.
The dragon flapped its wings, creating a gust that threw Bast backward. Rien growled. The crossbows weren’t doing enough. He lunged forward and used the sword to rip open a section of the thin part of the wing. Blood splattered, and the dragon roared before turning to focus on him. He dove behind a rock, only to have the force of the dragon’s blow turn the rock to rubble. Shit.
Bastien regained his feet and charged in before the dragon could take advantage of Rien’s poor position. He drove his sword directly upward, driving it into the dragon’s side. The dragon roared and jerked away, taking his sword with it. He cursed and retreated.
“Bast.” Maela tossed him another sword, and the dragon’s head whipped in her direct. It snarled.
He came up again as the dragon started for Maela, and sliced a gash into its other wing. The dragon spun faster than he’d have thought possible for a creature its size, and used its long neck to sweep him off his feet. Rien flew backward, hitting a rock. The sword was knocked out of his hand.
Rien wasn’t moving, and the dragon had started toward him. Dammit, not even ten minutes and he was about to top the stupidest thing he’d ever done. He switched his grip on the sword and leaped, landing on the dragon’s tail. Before it could raise the tail enough to throw him off he’d run up it’s back. He drove the sword down into its shoulder, then held on for dear life as the dragon began trying to shake him off.
Rachel was already moving toward Rien, a potion in her hand.
He coughed as the potion did its work, then gestured for Rachel to get to cover again. She was already moving. Rien looked around for the sword, and realized it was beneath the dragon’s feet. The dragon was jerking its body around, and he realized that was because Bast was desperately clinging to its back. He was positioned just at where the dragon couldn’t get its head at him, so it was trying to claw him free.
Just as Rien started for it again, the dragon switched tactics. It threw itself at a rock. He lost sight of Bast, and felt a sickening dread. Had the man been crushed? The dragon caught sight of Rachel diving behind a rock, and started toward her. He couldn’t get to the sword, so he drew his axe instead.
He cut the strap from his crushed breastplate, and flung the armor off him. Bastien took a deep breath. At least one broken rib, but he could move again. Maela was desperately shouting, trying to draw the dragon away from her sister and Rien. Rien had his axe, and was doing his best to keep the dragon at bay as Rachel reloaded her crossbow. He realized Rachel’s leg was twisted. If Rien tried to move to get to a better position, the dragon would be able to get to Rachel easily.
And his sword was still stuck in the thing’s shoulder.
Rien stood over Rachel as she fired again. The crossbow bolt bounced harmlessly off the thing’s scales. He saw a darker section of scale on the thing’s neck, and tried to hit it with the axe, but the thing dodged. It roared at him again, then came to try and bite him. He managed to hit its jaw with the axe, and got splattered with blood again. It drew its head back, then unfurled its wings. The gust of air knocked him back, and then a swipe from its foreleg took him off his feet. His axe clattered to ground several feet away.
“Master Rien!” Rachel yelled. She rolled toward him, dodging the dragon’s claws.
He grabbed her and pulled her to him, trying to shield her with his body as the dragon came again.
It extended its neck to go after Rien and Rachel, and Bastien rolled beneath it. He drove the sword straight up, putting all his strength behind it. As the blade pierced its flesh, it began to glow. Blood sprayed over him, and the blade suddenly seemed to leap in his hands as it found the beast’s heart.
He looked up as the dragon roared. Instead of biting them, it threw its head back, jerking from side to side. It took him a moment to realize he was witnessing the creature’s death throes. Bast stood beneath it, his hands on the hilt of the dragonblade. Then the knight yanked the blade free. Heart’s blood poured, coating the blade and Bast himself as he narrowly escaped having the creature collapse atop him.
The dragon jerked one last time, and went still.
And in Bast’s hand, the blade was glowing.