Rachel’s leg was a clean break. Rien carried her over to a shaded area before giving her one of the potions. Maela was cleaning the dirt from his abrasions before he took a potion for himself. His breastplate was a loss without a blacksmith to repair it, and both he and Rien were covered in dragon blood.
Bastien looked up when Rien walked over. “I’m sorry. I…” He glanced at the blade. It sat on a rock, inert unless he touched the hilt.
“No.” Rien shook his head. “If you hadn’t, Rachel and I would both be dead, and…” He hung his head. “I can’t look at a single portion of any of this without seeing how clearly it is my own fault.” He glanced at the corpse. “The dragon is done. That portent, at least, is…” He exhaled. “That threat is done.”
He drank the potion, and within moments the pain from where he’d hit the rock started to fade. “You hurt?” He raised an eyebrow at Rien.
“A couple bruises. Rachel…” He looked back at the girl. “She’s brave.”
“They both are.” Bastien nodded. He sat there, waiting. Rien was still staring at the dragon’s corpse. Finally, he took a deep breath. “What happens now?”
“I…” Rien rubbed his forehead. “I don’t know. I…”
“The stories didn’t say the sword glowed.” Maela spoke up, her voice nervous.
“Maela’s right, Master Rien.” Rachel nodded.
“If we bring back part of the dragon as a trophy…” Maela gestured. “And you carry the blade, no one has to know.”
“I’ll know.” Rien’s voice was flat. “I’ll not claim glory won by another.”
“Not even to save Lammert’s life?” Bastien raised an eyebrow at him.
“I…” Rien took a deep breath, then turned to look at the blade.
“Whoever wields it.” Rachel’s voice was contemplative.
“Yes, Lovely, we…” Rien turned toward her, then trailed off. He sighed. “Speak your mind, Lovely.”
“The prophecy said whoever wields the blade, not whoever claims it.” Rachel stood, testing her leg. “Bast claimed the blade, Master Rien. But he’s your knight. He owes you fealty.”
“Oh, yes.” Maela clapped her hands together. “Yes, Master Rien. You wield the blade still, because you command Bast.”
“You’re arguing…” Rien glanced at Bastien.
“Semantics.” Bastien rubbed the back of his neck.
“Semantics. That’s not the way…”
“But it is, Master Rien. Prophecies are like that.” Maela folded her arms.
“There are hundreds of stories where prophecies had such twists.” Rachel nodded.
“And if you think about it, it’s better this way, even. Bast can fight and slay dragons, but if someone as mighty as him answers to you…” Maela gestured.
“It could work.” Bastien turned toward Rien. “At least enough to muddy the water and give us a good chance at stopping Rutger and Phillip.”
“But it means…” Rien sighed. “I don’t have a choice here, do I? It’s this or…” He shook his head. “They killed Jurgen. They need to pay for that.”
Phillip had betrayed the duke, arranged for the murder of his own brother. He needed to pay for that. It was bitterly ironic that the best chance he had of seeing that done was serving one of those that had taken part in that very murder. “Yes, Rien.” Bastien nodded. “They need to pay.”
“Then let’s figure out what part of that fucking thing we’re bringing home to show off.”
The head itself was more than they could carry, but using one of the cloaks as a makeshift travois enabled them to bring back the things horn’s and fangs. Rachel had entreated Bast to help her cut out the thing’s heart, and had succeeded in convincing them to eat it. Well, convinced him anyway. He’d had to order Bast. After a moment, he’d had Rachel and Maela take bites as well. If partaking of a dragon’s heart did give strength and blessing, they had more than earned the right to take part.
Washing the blood off themselves was almost an exercise in futility. And it wasn’t as though they had clothes to change into. Slowly, they began making their way down the mountain. He and Bast took turns with the travois. Maela and Rachel were already composing an epic song, lauding the feat of killing the dragon. At Maela’s request, he’d forbidden Bast from offering assistance. Bast had just laughed, and neither of them had explained why such a thing was necessary.
That night they dined on stew made from the meat of both dragon and goat. He couldn’t help but feel somewhat amused by that, though he’d have been hard pressed to explain exactly why. “Bast…”
“Rien?” Bast looked over. He frowned. “Something wrong?”
“I…” Rien sighed. He’d made a decision the night before, and now… “I can’t let you go now, Bast.”
“What do you…” Bast raised an eyebrow.
“Last night, I…” Rien shook his head. “I told myself when this was done, when we’d killed the dragon and gone back to Darodelf, I’d send you home. Back to Solsthriem.” He saw Bast go still. “But I can’t now. I can’t…” He swallowed. “I’m sorry, Bast.”
“Guess that’s what I get…” Bast leaned the back of his head against the tree. “Saving you from a dragon and all.” He hit his head against the tree.
“Once things…” Rien looked away. Then he shook his head again. “Once I’m king, Bast, you can…” Rien sighed. “I don’t know. I never planned any of this. I…” He laughed bitterly. “I never plan anything. I suppose that’s the problem.”
“Why tell me this?” Bast turned and stared at him. “If you weren’t…” He took a deep breath. “Why tell me at all, Rien? Do you just…” He glared. “Enjoy dangling hope in front of me?”
“I thought —” Rien cut himself off. “I didn’t think.” He looked up at the sky. “Rutger is going to have covered his tracks. But Broos and the others may well still be alive. They’ll be there to testify against Lammert, that Drika worked for him.”
It took a few moments for Bast to respond. “Think Drika is still alive?”
“Good question.” Rien frowned. “Depends on what Rutger promised her, and how much he thinks he can trust her loyalty. He could try playing it as her seeking to redeem herself by testifying against Lammert.”
“Rutger might…” Bast slowly nodded. “But Phillip wouldn’t. It depends on which of them is the man in charge.”
“That…” Rien tilted his head. “Is a good point.” He folded his arms, and rested them on his knees.
“Thus far, we’ve been spoiling their plans by accident.” Bast’s laughter was slightly bitter. “I’m interested to see exactly what happens when the River Dragon starts actively trying to fuck things up.”
They were almost to Darodelf before they crossed paths with anyone. Bastien gave them a wary look, but Rien smiled. “Aart.”
“Rien.” The man stared at him. “But…” He blinked. “Lammert had you killed.”
“Where is Lammert now?” Rien shook his head.
“On trial for your murder. We were on our way to…” Aart frowned. “Well, go cheer Ludo on.”
“Wait, what do you mean, cheer Ludo on?” Rien stopped and gave Aart a confused look.
“But if you’re still alive…” Aart scratched his head.
“Aart…” Rien growled. “What do you mean, cheer Ludo on?”
“Well, the queen couldn’t be expected to sit in judgment while grieving, so there was going to be a Moot.” Aart shrugged. “But Rutger was seriously pissed. You should let him know you’re alive, because he’s all but frothing at the mouth over your death.”
“Considering he’s the one that tried to fucking kill me, I’ll just bet.” Rien glared.
“Rutger…” Aart’s eyes widened.
“What did you mean cheer Ludo on?” Rien waved a hand.
“Rutger demanded Lammert be tried by combat. Ludo is serving as the champion.”
“What?” Rien actually went pale. “When?”
“Today.” Aart gestured. “That’s why we…” He stared. “Blood and ashes, Rien, you need to…” He turned and waved a hand. “Get those horses over here, now.”
Bastien stepped to Rien’s side as Aart’s spare horses were being brought over. “Does Lammert stand a chance against Ludo?”
“I’d hesitate to fight the man.” Rien clenched his fists. “If Lammert bests him I’ll get on my knees for you. I doubt Lammert would last a full minute.”
“We’ll make it, Rien.” He nodded.
“I hope you’re right.” Rien swallowed.
He’d have to pay Aart back for the horses later, because they rode them at a hard gallop all the way back to the city. He didn’t know if he could trust Aart, but there was little choice. Aart was fairly beneath the notice of the likes of Rutger and Phillip anyway. The only reason he knew the man was because he’d been pretending to be a mercenary. Aart had been shocked when he’d learned who Rien really was, and even now was grinning like a proud fool at riding in the company of the River Dragon.
There was a small outcry when he didn’t bother to slow the horse while riding into the city. Fortunately, everyone got the hell out of his way as he led his party up to the heights. If it was to be a trial by combat, they would be at the arena. He headed directly there, dismounting almost before the horse had stopped.
Bast stayed at his left, and Aart took up a position as his right as he stormed in. Eyes began to widen as he was recognized, and several guards looked about to panic. He heard his mother’s voice in the arena’s judgment hall, and headed in that direction.
Everyone went silent as he entered, and various faces turned pale. Many started to break out in smiles, and he noted those ones. He was not without some friends, it seemed. And the look of shock on Rutger’s face was something he was going to cherish for all time. It was going to be right up there with the look on the man’s face when Rien put an axe through him.
Lammert stood on a small dais, ringed by their mother’s guards. His hands were bound behind his back, but he looked unharmed. Rien walked toward him. One of the guards started to block his path, and Rien grabbed the man by the front of his leather armor and tossed him aside. Bast stepped over the guard as he followed. “Marinus.” Lammert nodded to him. “Nice entrance.”
“Lammert.” Rien nodded. “I heard a rumor you killed me.” He drew his knife and cut Lammert’s hands free. “Any truth to that?”
“Marinus.” His mother was standing, staring at him with a smile on her face. “Marinus.”
Most of the onlookers were made to clear the hall. Rien gestured for him and the girls to stay where they were. Rutger was still staring at them, and Bastien could almost see wheels turning in the man’s mind. He had no idea how this was going to play out. Lammert gave Bastien an appraising look before nodding, and Bastien returned the nod. He still was unclear on the intricacies of Wilder culture, but none of the guards present seemed to wear the phoenix sigil. Quite a few wore Rien’s sigil, and were even now assembling behind him. Rien stood at Lammert’s side, glaring at anyone who dared to come close.
“Rien.” From the sound of Rutger’s voice, one would think he was overjoyed to see his younger brother. “Blood and ashes, you’re alive. When we found the entrance to the tomb buried in rubble, we thought the worst.”
As Rien started to step forward, Bastien heard Lammert whisper. “Be careful, little brother.”
“You’re the one who buried that tomb in rubble.” Rien clenched his fists as he stared at his brother.
“Marinus.” Queen Thirza. Her voice went from warm to ice. “Explain yourself.”
“Gladly.” Rien stepped to the side, so he was between Lammert and Rutger. “Rutger filled the expedition with his loyal adherents, instructing them to claim they worked for Lammert if any of them got caught. He told them to stop me from reaching the tomb, even if that meant killing me. And when that failed, he and Phillip of Solsthriem tried to take me out themselves.” He glared at Rutger. “You failed. Not only did you fail, we killed the dragon.”
“The dragon is dead?” Queen Thirza drew herself up to her full height.
Rien turned, and Rachel handed him one of the teeth. He tossed it to his mother’s feet.
One of his mother’s attendants handed her the tooth. She turned to look at Rutger. Rutger just gave a sad shake of his head. “I told you, did I not, that Lammert had planned this well?”
“This was you, Rutger.” It was all he could do not to draw his axe and go after the man right then and there.
“Really?” Rutger shook his head. “Think it through, Rien.” The man sounded like he was patiently explaining something to a child. “An alliance with those outside our country? Who among us but Lammert could set up that? You know how little time he spent within our borders, and he has no love for any of us.”
“I’m not dead, Rutger.” Rien glared. “I’m not dead, so how the fuck can you put him on trial for killing me?”
“He is not on trial for killing you, Rien.” His mother’s voice was firm.
“What?” Rien blinked.
“He killed Jurgen.” Her eyes were hot. “Just like his father once tried to do.” She drew herself up once more. “That is what he is here to answer for.”
“Rutger had Phillip kill Jurgen.” Rien waved a hand. “He confessed to it himself.” He glanced over his shoulder. “Rachel here heard him.”
“You’ll make such a claim on the testimony of a bed-slave?” Rutger sounded insulted.
“You confessed it to my face, Rutger, with Phillip by your side.”
“Rien, I couldn’t pick Phillip out of a crowd.” Rutger shook his head. “You’re the one who worked with him before.” Rutger turned to the queen. “He said such upon his return here. How he helped this Phillip murder his own brother.”
“Are you in league with Lammert, Rien?” Her eyes narrowed.
Rien couldn’t help but stare. Hadn’t she heard a word he’d said? “Lammert didn’t kill Jurgen.”
“The evidence against him is damning, Marinus.” Her voice was cold. “If he is innocent, he can prove it in the arena.”
“Mother, you can’t be…” Rien started shaking his head. “You can’t be serious. Rutger confessed.” He stared. “Mother, we killed the dragon. We fulfilled the prophecy, the dream you foretold. I stand here as your son and heir. And I am telling you Lammert did not kill Jurgen.”
There was a murmur of agreement from the crowd, and he saw his mother’s guards start to move to side with his. Rutger shifted his weight just slightly. “Perhaps he did not kill Jurgen with his own hands, Rien, but who else among us would have had enough resources outside the Wildlands to kill the Stone Dragon?”
“You did.” Rien raised his voice. “I should —”
“Enough.” His mother spoke with the voice of the queen, sending the room silent. “His fate was already decided, Marinus. It cannot be forestalled. He will stand in the arena before the gods.”
“Then I will stand as his champion.” Rien drew himself to his full height.
“He’s the condemned, Rien.” Rutger shook his head. “He doesn’t get a champion.”
“You can’t…” Rien stared. This couldn’t be… He shot a look over his shoulder at those behind him. Both Rachel and Maela looked horrified. Bast was clearly waiting for orders, and Lammert… Lammert’s face was calm and composed. Dammit, the person who’d written the note said he’d buy time. They hadn’t lingered, and still they were too late. He turned back. “You’re the queen, Mother. The decision is yours. Lammert didn’t…” He could see her eyes starting to harden.
A hand touched his shoulder. “Enough.” Lammert’s voice was quiet. “Do not turn her upon you, little brother.”
A chill went through him as he saw her turn to look at Rutger. Rutger smiled at her, and then Rien knew. Jurgen had told him years ago. Lammert had gone missing, and she had sent no one to look for him. And the simple truth of the matter was his mother would rather condemn Lammert to death than believe Rutger was in any way responsible for the death of Jurgen. If he pushed… If he pushed then all he’d accomplish was getting himself, Bast, the girls, and probably most of his guard killed, and Lammert’s situation would not improve. Rien sighed, and bowed his head.
“Rien?” Bastien wasn’t sure exactly what was happening here. He’d thought they’d arrived in time, but the look of slowly dawning horror on Rien’s face was making it clear that wasn’t true. And then Rien had bowed his head. Bastien swallowed.
Several of the queen’s guards started toward Lammert, and Rien’s head came up again. “Get.” Rien’s eyes narrowed. “Back.”
“He needs to be taken to the —” One of the guards started shaking his head.
“I know the way.” Rien growled. “Get back.”
The man bowed, and retreated with the others. Rien shot another glare at Rutger, then turned to Lammert. “He won’t outlive you long.”
“I have no doubt of that, little brother.” Lammert nodded. He glanced at Bastien, his eyes going to the sword that was slung across Bastien’s back, then went back to Rien. “I must admit I’m somewhat relieved I won’t have to live under your rule.”
Rien actually laughed a little, then started walking down a corridor, gesturing for them to follow. “You are such a nonpareil.” Rien’s voice was thick. “Ludo likes the axe, and he lunges. If you…”
“You can’t actually imagine I stand a chance of beating Ludo in a fair fight, do you?” Lammert raised an eyebrow.
“Shut up and listen. When he lunges, he leaves himself open on the right. If you…” Rien growled and kicked a door open, revealing a small armory. Then he kicked the door again.
Lammert sighed, and turned to Bastien. “Rutger has to kill Marinus now, but he will need to make it look like an accident. By now too many know the dragon is dead, and that Marinus returned with the blade. Until he is back in his quarters, do not get more than five feet from his side and keep watch for arrows.”
“I will.” Bastien nodded.
“If you can get him to open up his stance, you could get at his legs, maybe. Slow him down. He’s too good for a definitive blow, but you might be able to wear him down and…” Rien kept talking as he began looking over weaponry and armor. He picked up chainmail tunic and started to bring it over.
With a sigh, Lammert took it from him. Rather than put it on, he tossed it aside. “Marinus…”
“Try.” Rien swallowed. “Please.”
“Marinus…” Lammert stepped over to a weapon rack, and selected a spear. “Rutger is going to try to kill you before you get out of this arena, so you had best pay attention.” He tested the balance of the spear, then shrugged. “If you get yourself killed because you are distracted, I am going to be very annoyed.”
A portcullis on the other side of the armory opened. Rien sighed. “I’m sorry, Lammert.”
“Everything will be fine, Rien.” Lammert nodded. “Go take your seats. Lingering in a dark corridor is not your wisest course of action at this point.” He turned, and headed through the opening.