He wanted to smash everything. To race back to the hall and put his axe through Rutger and damn the consequences. The worst part was Lammert hadn’t even been surprised that his own mother was willing to condemn him to death. Once he’d wondered why Lammert had left so often. Now he found himself wondering why the man had ever come back. Rien turned and headed for the stairs.
“You don’t have to watch this, Rien.” Bast’s voice was quiet.
“Yes.” Rien swallowed. “I do. I missed this, Bast. I never wondered why Sten wasn’t here. I nearly got you killed by telling Rutger I needed you. And somehow, in twenty-seven years I never fucking realized my mother hated my brother despite knowing…” He shook his head. “I closed my eyes too long, Bast. Lammert deserves better than for me to turn away now.”
“If there is a way, if…” Rien took a deep breath. “An opportunity presents itself…”
“I owe him, Rien.” Bast nodded. Behind him, the girls also nodded, and he realized they were both still carrying crossbows. “Just give the word.”
They walked through the crowd furious and still wearing clothing stained with the dried blood of the dragon. Even Maela and Rachel were given wide berths. Word, it seemed, had spread. A good portion of Rutger’s influence appeared to be crumbling, just as they’d expected. Whispered voices carried Rien’s accusations. The plan had worked perfectly. They’d just foolishly expected the Dragon Queen to be a reasonable woman.
Jochem was at the top of the stairs. The moment his eyes fell on Rien he broke into a relieved smile. For a moment, Bastien saw the glint of actual tears in his eyes. “Prince Rien.” He started toward them. “You do live. Thank the gods.”
“How long ago did Rutger return?” Rien’s voice sounded empty, even as he gestured for Jochem to join them.
“Seven says.” Jochem swallowed. “They say you claim Lammert didn’t kill Jurgen.” That was spreading fast then. Rutger would not be able to stop word from getting out.
“He didn’t.” Rien glared.
“I…” Jochem actually cringed. “Forgive me, my prince.”
“Jochem?” Rien glanced at him, though he didn’t slow his pace. They arrived at a stone balcony. One of the queen’s heralds was giving a speech. Rien turned to face Jochem. “Forgive you what?”
“I testified against him.” Jochem cowered a little as he answered.
“You…” Rien started to take a step forward, and Bastien put a hand on his arm. Rien took a deep breath. “Why?”
“The day before Rutger returned, Lammert came to me.” Jochem wrung his hands. “He had me draw records, dividing his holdings among Jurgen’s children. All his holdings. When I heard…” Jochem shook his head, his face pale.
“You took it as a sign of guilt.” Bastien turned to look at Rien, who had closed his eyes. Rien nodded before reopening them. “That he knew he was about to get caught and was trying to alleviate his conscience.”
“Yes.” Jochem bowed his head. “He sent his slaves away. Both vanished before Rutger returned. Then the queen ordered him stripped of his guard and servants.”
“So my brother was standing alone these past few days.” Rien folded his arms. “With nothing.”
“I…” Jochem sighed. “Yes.”
“They were supposed to buy time…” Rien’s voice trembled just a little. “I…” He exhaled. “My anger is not at you, Jochem.”
The speech ended. A horn was blown. Rien let his arms fall to his sides, clenched his fists, and turned toward the arena.
A condemned man’s testament was invalid. His holdings reverted to his clan’s leader. That was why Lammert had inherited nothing from his father. Nothing save a reputation, anyway. Lammert must have seen it coming, figured out… Why hadn’t he run? He’d sent his slaves away, but he hadn’t gone himself.
Lammert had brought him a box that played music when a key was turned. It had come all the way across the sea, from Sahit. Jurgen had hung a map on Rien’s wall so Lammert could show him where it was. Almost as far away from Darodelf as one could get on a map, at the bottom of the world. He’d listened to it play every night after Lammert left again, listening as he fell asleep. For months, it’s tune had played as he dreamed of where on the map Lammert might be then. Rutger had knocked it off the shelf, shattering it on the floor. An accident, he’d claimed. Rien found himself humming the tune as he watched the gates open.
Ludo was the queen’s champion. He was slightly shorter than Lammert, but he more than made up for it in mass. The man was a solid wall of muscle, and known to be one of the best fighters in the Wildlands. Rien hadn’t been lying when he’d said he’d hesitate to fight him. And Ludo was known to toy with his opponents, drawing out the kill to put on a better show. He liked making his kills suffer. If he did that to Lammert, Rien wasn’t sure he’d be able to refrain from killing the man.
Rutger sat next to the queen, talking quietly, pouring poison into her ear. The queen herself looked calm and composed, but the faces of some of the guard were dark. They knew what they were witnessing here. Word was spreading. The arena itself was much more hushed than usual.
The gods, the ancient heroes, determined who won in a trial. There were stories of crippled men facing warriors in their prime and winning because they were innocent. He’d never believed in the stories. No one really did. Everyone knew a trial by combat was just an exciting execution of a man everyone knew was guilty. Except this time, it was his innocent brother down there.
Making himself watch was going to be more difficult than he had anticipated.
The man Lammert was facing was a mountain of a man. There was a moment of confusion on his face when few among the crowd cheered at his entrance. However, no one cheered for Lammert, either. Rien kept silent, so Bastien did as well. Maela’s fingers fumbled for his hand, and he caught them in his before squeezing gently.
Rien’s back was straight as he stared down at the scene below. Despite the flashes of temper he’d shown earlier, this rage was eerily calm. Bastien found himself wishing for armor and shield. The queen’s champion charged at Lammert, axe in hand.
Lammert sidestepped it, bringing his spear up and twirling it as he backed away from Ludo. Bastien felt a little relieved. It appeared Lammert was going to fight, despite rejecting Rien’s attempts to help down below. Or at least, Lammert had no intention of simply standing there while Ludo killed him.
A moment later, it seemed perhaps Lammert may have actually listened to Rien. He moved back again when Ludo started for him, making the bigger man open his stance. Then Lammert came in from the right, his spear drawing a small amount of blood from Ludo’s leg. A scratch, but it was first blood.
Ludo, however, didn’t seem at all concerned. Lammert began backing away as Ludo began twirling the axe. Ludo took a couple steps toward him, then stopped. The axe wavered a little in Ludo’s hands. Lammert set the butt of his spear on the ground, and stood calmly.
A strange sound came from the champion. He started toward Lammert in what at first looked like a charge, then fell to the ground after only a few steps. He lay, face down in the sand, unmoving. Blood was pooling under his head.
Silence descended on the crowd. Lammert tilted his head as he looked at the man, then went to the head of his spear. With a shrug, he shifted this spear, then used the head to cut a gash on his own arm. “It appears…” He held the bleeding limb up. “The gods have spoken.”
Rien stared. What the hell had just… He’d started to assume a poisoned blade, but clearly Lammert had drawn the same conclusion. And the fact that he was still standing there proved it wrong. His eyes went to the queen’s box. Both the queen and Rutger were staring. “Bast, come.” Rutger wouldn’t let this stand. He needed to get to his brother.
Bast and the girls followed. By the time he got to the arena gate, Rutger’s guard was already moving. Fortunately, by the time he got to the arena gate, he’d been joined by not only many of his own, but dozens of others. And they had Rutger and his men outnumbered. If not for the presence of the queen’s guard, he’d have gone after Rutger right then.
Instead, he moved to stand between Rutger’s men and Lammert as his brother exited the arena. “That was a trick.” Rutger was nearly red-faced with fury. “The spear is poisoned.” He sneered. “Blood tells.”
The wound on Lammert’s arm was still bleeding. Lammert shrugged, and with all of them watching, cut his arm a second time before setting the spear upright again, the butt on the ground. Rien smirked as he turned toward Rutger. “Then how come Lammert is still standing?”
“I…” Rutger started shaking his head. “It was poison.”
“I was searched, thoroughly, before being brought for trial.” Lammert drew himself up. “By your men. And I have been under observation ever since. By your men. Pray tell us…” He held up his bleeding arm. “When had I the opportunity to poison Ludo?”
“You…” Rutger glared.
“This spear came from the weapons the queen provided. Ludo was clear across the arena, surrounded by your guards, and the queen’s guards.” Lammert set the spear on his shoulder. “I was stripped of my own guard, and as you reminded me just this morning I have no loyal men to my name, nor any wealth left to me to buy loyalty. I have been your prisoner since you returned with your false accusations, Rutger. So, explain how…” He held up his bleeding arm. “Exactly I poisoned Ludo?”
“The gods have spoken, Rutger.” Rien’s smile widened. “Lammert didn’t murder Jurgen.” His smile vanished as his voice went cold. “You did.”
“Enough.” The queen’s voice rang through the chamber, and Rien saw a trace of relief on Rutger’s face. Her eyes went over the crowd, but he noted they never once rested on Lammert. “The trial is concluded. We will discuss all other issues on the morrow.” She turned to her guard. “Clear the hall.”
He glared at Rutger one more time before turning and catching Lammert’s arm. “Come on.” Rien gestured at his followers to accompany him. “Let’s get where a quick knife can’t reach our backs.” He began pulling his brother through the crowd.
He was relieved, and just a little surprised, when they made it back to Rien’s quarters safely. From the look on Rien’s face, he felt the same way. He instructed his guard to keep watch, then locked the door. Then Rien frowned, stared at the lock, and set a chair beneath it. “Maela, would you tend to my brother?”
“Yes, Master Rien.” Maela set the crossbow down and immediately went to get a healing potion.
“What…” Bastien glanced at the door. “If the spear wasn’t poisoned, then…” The spear couldn’t have been poisoned. That much had been made clear. Bastien rubbed the back of his neck. He still had no idea what it was he’d just witnessed. One moment the queen’s champion had been hale and hearty, and the next he’d been dead on the ground, bleeding from his eyes, nose, and mouth. He’d heard of poisons like that, but any use of poison was chance at best. To time something that precisely, so it didn’t kill Ludo before the fight was impossible. And entirely too risky, since there was no way to know exactly when the fight would start.
Rien exhaled. “We should probably get cleaned up. Blood and ashes, we’ve been wearing the same bloodstained clothes for the better part of two weeks.” He shook his head and took two steps toward his chamber before turning back. “Lammert, are you…” He sighed. “Alright?”
“As well as can be expected, I suppose.” Lammert nodded.
“Have you eaten?” Rien gave him a worried look.
“Marinus, you are covered in bloodstained clothes that you’ve been wearing for the better part of two weeks.” Lammert gave a small shake of his head. “I would appreciate it greatly if that were remedied before we discussed the option of food.”
“Right.” Rien laughed. “Right. Alright, everybody…” He shrugged. “Everybody relax, we’re safe enough for the moment.” He glanced at the door. “Rutger is going to try to regroup, and he might…” He exhaled. “Clean up. We’ll deal with it after we’ve bathed.”
Rachel went to take the spear from where Lammert had leaned it against the wall, and Lammert held out a hand to stop her. “Be careful with that, my dear.” He picked it up again.
“Why?” Rien blinked.
Lammert walked over to the fire and stuck the head of the spear into the flames. He gave them a look that suggested they were all idiots. “Because it’s poisoned.”
“It’s…” Bastien shook his head. “What?”