The girls required only a small amount of assistance to climb down from the balcony. The rope harnesses prevented any chance of them falling, even carrying their packs and weaponry. Lammert had brought five sets of climbing harnesses and hidden them in a sack in Rien’s own quarters. He’d planned this ahead of time, somehow. Bastien stared helping Maela out of her harness when they reached safety. Something kept nagging at him. He looked up at Maela. “We are missing something here.”
She nodded. “I think you are right, but…”
“We need to be moving.” Rien’s voice was firm. “This way.” He started moving.
To Bastien’s surprise, Lammert didn’t object. Instead he followed Rien like the rest of them. Unlike Rien and Bastien, he had no armor of any kind, but he was carrying the spear. Rien had said Lammert was a competent fighter, at least. Maela and Rachel weren’t wearing armor either, but both carried their crossbows and fierce expressions. “Keep your heads down.” Bastien nodded to them.
“He’ll try to take us alive, at least.” Rien frowned, then glanced at Lammert. “Well, most of us.” He gave Rachel a worried look before turning back to Bastien. “Rutger isn’t stupid. He’ll target the girls to make you and I stand down.”
“If he tries, Master Rien…” Rachel checked her crossbow. “I will aim for his testicles.”
“That’s my girl.”
Rien yanked his axe out of the wall, sending the head he’d just taken off an attacker bouncing along the ground. “I thought the point of climbing down from the balcony was to sneak out of the city quietly.”
“Rien…” Lammert sighed. “Considering the plan involved you, why in the world would you assume stealth was going to occur?”
“I…” Rien glared. He pointed at the corpses. “That was not my fault.”
“It kinda was.” Bast shrugged. When Rien narrowed his eyes, Bastien sighed. “Rien, you literally ran into him.” Maela and Rachel nodded in agreement.
“Oh for…” Rien shook his head at them. “You three are supposed to be on my side.”
“Perhaps you should try watching where you are going?” Lammert whirled, loosing his spear. It took the man trying to sneak up on Rien square in the throat and pinned him to the wall. “And not stopping to argue in the streets?”
He made a growling sound before grabbing the spear and tossing it back to his brother. “This way.”
Bastien kicked the corpse off the end of his blade, then retrieved a crossbow bolt for Rachel. “I think Rutger figured out we are on the move.”
“He still has to be subtle. Use his own men rather than the queen’s men.” Rien exhaled. “The problem is I can’t call in mine without it turning into a fucking civil war and…” He shook his head. “I don’t want my people caught between two armies.”
“Makes you a better king than some.” Bastien smiled. “What if we swam the river?”
“It’s freezing, fast, and deep.” Rien shook his head. “A few dozen drown every year trying.”
“He’s got lookouts on the bridges. No matter which one we pick, there will be a welcoming party.”
“Head downriver.” Lammert gestured.
“He’s right.” Rien nodded. “We can get horses at the stables there. I’ll tell the owner he can go to Jochem in the morning and get replacements from my herd at Falcon’s Rest.”
Rachel fired her crossbow as men came around the corner. “We should hurry.”
“Blood and ashes.” Rien growled. “Never thought I’d be fighting my way out of my own city.”
They were almost to the edge of the city when more shouts rang out behind them. “Shit.” Rien grabbed his axe. “They are between us and the stables.”
“How many?” Bast shifted his shield.
“More than we can fight through quickly, even with Lammert and the girls helping out.” Rien shook his head. “Alright, we can go on foot through the gorge, then maybe pick up horses in the Vale…” Rien sighed and shook his head as Lammert started to raise an eyebrow. “I know, I know, assuming Rutger hasn’t cut that off as well.”
“Rien, it took you and I almost two weeks to get from the Vale to Darodelf with fast horses.” Bast turned toward him.
“I know.” Rien growled. “Maybe we’ll kill some of Rutger’s men and steal their horses.”
They hit only small pockets of fighting, easy enough for them to deal with, until they reached the last bridge. A couple dozen of Rutger’s men were there, though they wore no sigil. He recognized their leader though. The real problem was the men were carrying bows. “Stand down, Rien.” Hugo shook his head. “I’d rather not have to shoot you down like a dog in the street.”
“Touching, Hugo, really.” Rien shifted his grip on his axe. “If you let us pass, I won’t cut you in half from the groin up.”
“Aim for their —” A shadow moved behind Hugo, and tossed something into their midst. Smoke abruptly exploded among the armed men.
He exchanged a look with Bast and they both immediately charged, taking advantage of their distraction. Lammert’s spear took one of the archers in the throat, and Lammert recovered it as he joined the fray with them. A smaller figure moved alongside Lammert, a dagger in each of its hands. Hugo came at Rien with an axe, only to get two crossbow bolts to the chest. The man’s mouth gaped a moment before he tumbled into the river.
“This way.” The figure gestured.
“Who is that?” Bast frowned.
“That’s…” It took Rien a moment to remember the name. “Mikaere. One of Lammert’s slaves.” He chuckled. “So you sent them away, but not far?” He glanced at Lammert.
“No far at all.” Mikaere glanced at Lammert before starting to walk out of the city. “Last time you make it all the way clear of castle before getting caught. You slowing down.”
“It’s possible I am getting too old for this shit.” Lammert nodded, then gestured for them follow the little man.
“Seriously, what take so long?” Mikaere frowned.
Lammert pointed at Rien and the others. Mikaere nodded. “Right.”
“Hey.” Rien glared. Then he frowned. “Wait, you two have done this before?”
Mikaere and Lammert exchanged an amused look. “Children.” Lammert rolled his eyes.
“They grow up fast.” Mikaere grinned as he led them to a small camp.
Efua was there, with horses. The twins greeted her with smiles, which the dark-skinned woman returned. “What took you so long?” Efua raised an eyebrow.
“He let Marinus lead.” Mikaere shrugged as he went to a horse. “No his best idea.”
“Or perhaps it was.” Efua mounted her own horse. “At least this time the castle did not explode.”
“For the…” Lammert gritted his teeth. “I’m never going to live that down, am I?”
“Wait…” Rien blinked, halfway into the saddle. He looked at his brother. “You blew up a castle? Why did you blow up a castle?”
“Oh, believe me…” Mikaere leaped into the saddle. “That castle had it coming.”
“True enough.” Lammert got on his own horse.
“I…” He exchanged a look with Bast, and was gratified to see the other man looked equally confused. “Lammert, as soon as we aren’t running for our lives you and I are going to have a long talk.”
Bastien looked over the supplies. Lammert’s slaves had prepared well. They could skip the Vale without difficulty, and cut through the forest to hopefully avoid ambushes. “He can’t have planned all this.” Maela’s voice was soft.
“Maela?” Bastien turned toward her.
“Bast…” Maela met his eyes. “He can’t have…” She shook her head. “Bast, he spoke with Jochem a few times, I saw him. He was in Darodelf already when the dragon was first sighted. How could he know where to find something he had no way of knowing existed?”
“But he…” Bast frowned. “Then he…” Even if Lammert had lied about taking the keystones to Darodelf, that crate had still be placed weeks before they’d arrived at the tomb. The dragon’s territory was big, and tracking it down was to have been one of the difficulties of their quest. Yet Lammert had left a map telling them exactly where to find it. Exactly where to find a beast that never stayed in one place for long. “He knew more of the prophecy.”
“Maybe I can get him to tell me more.” Maela frowned. “I will ask Master Rien for permission.”
“Permission?” Bastien blinked.
“You are adorable.” She patted his hand. “Men say many things when their heads are on their pillows.”
“You’re suggesting…” His eyes widened.
“Well, unless you want to do it.” She frowned. “He is unmarried, maybe he…”
“Gods above.” He winced.
“Master Rien wouldn’t let you though. He doesn’t want anyone to have you but him.” She tilted her head thoughtfully. “Though it’s important enough that he —”
“I beg you to stop talking.” Bastien rubbed his forehead.
“Okay.” She shrugged, then shook her head. “Not really convinced your seduction skills would be up to the task anyway.”
“I…” Bastien started to object, then caught himself. “I’m insulted by that. Why the fuck am I insulted by that?”
Five days into the trip. So far they’d encountered only one group of Rutger’s men, though the men had clearly not expected to actually encounter them. And he was learning just how much he didn’t know. Mikaere had served Lammert for years. A demure little exotic, a foot and a half shorter than his brother. For the first couple years, Rien hadn’t even known Mikaere could talk, and even after that he’d barely been able to understand a word the man said through his thick accent. The man had been utterly servile to his brother, a meek little mouse of a man.
Or so he’d thought. It was hard to reconcile that impression with the man who wielded a long knife in each hand with speed and precision. In the fighting, Mikaere and Lammert had moved into the fray smoothly, as though they’d fought back to back a thousand times. And Lammert’s own fighting style had shifted dramatically from how he’d fought the few times he and Rien had spared. His brother was a complete stranger to him. Reluctantly, Rien gave Maela permission.
She hadn’t been successful yet, though that had a lot to do with Efua. The older woman had served Lammert a long time, and knew his needs well enough that Maela rarely had a chance to come up with an excuse to get near him. Half the time Lammert and his companions weren’t even conversing in a language the rest of them understood. After another failed attempt, Maela came back over to their side of the camp. “Maybe Bast would have better —”
“Don’t start.” Bast glared at her, and she laughed.
“Don’t feel bad, Sweetling.” Rien patted her back. “For all we know, he’s a eunuch.”
“This is…” Maela exhaled. “Much more frustrating than I imagined.”
“There there.” Rien rubbed her back soothingly. “Would you like to spank Bast until you feel better?”
“Yes, please, Master Rien.” She smiled at him.
Bastien shrugged. Maybe there was more than one way to get information. He went to where Mikaere was getting the horses ready, and picked up one of the saddles. Standing near Mikaere was a bit of a strange experience. The man was a good hand shorter than he was. His hair was thick and deep black, and his eyes were shaped differently, slanting upward. Even his skin looked different, having undertones more gold than pink. “Mind if I ask where you are from?”
“Uhses.” Mikaere shrugged.
He blinked. “Uhses? Across the sea Uhses?”
“Is only Uhses.” Mikaere fastened the girth of the saddle.
Curiously, he glanced at Efua. The woman’s skin was dark enough to be almost black. Rien had said that Lammert had spent most of his life traveling, and if his math was right Lammert was the same age as Bastien’s father. It wasn’t impossible Lammert’s travels had taken him that far. “And Efua?”
“I never…” Bastien exhaled. “I’ve spoken with merchants who traded with the sea-people, but…” He shook his head. “I always thought they never left their boats and…” He turned back to Mikaere. “I’ve never met anyone whose even spoken with someone from Uhses.”
“So, this is part where you ask how we know Lammert, or you going to dance around question more?” Mikaere grinned.
“I uh…” Bastien shrugged. “Well, I was going to try to be subtle about it.” He picked up another saddle. “So how do you know Lammert?”
“I accidentally started worshiping him.”
“How…” Bastien blinked. “Do you accidentally start worshiping someone?”
“Well I thought he was a god. Is long story, many funny bits. Better to tell over drinks. Made game from it.” Mikaere shrugged. “How you know Marinus?”
“He kidnapped me.”
“Oh.” Mikaere raised an eyebrow. “For real?” He frowned. “Thought was metaphor.”
“No.” Bastien nodded. “He really did kidnap me.”
“And you fight for him anyway?” Mikaere gave Bastien a surprised look. “I thought Marinus was the crazy one.”
“It’s contagious.” Bastien sighed.
“True words.” Mikaere laughed. “Is very true words. Efua and Lammert know each other some years before I meet Lammert. She is…” He shrugged. “Don’t know words in your language. His shaman, I think? Healer and things. You know that part, she fix you up.”
“And well. I think I’d have died, or at least been crippled, if she hadn’t.” He scratched his head. “How do you mistake someone for a god?”
“When did say was mistake?” Mikaere grinned, then gestured at where the others had finished breaking the camp. “No more time talk. Time to go.”
Rien came up behind him as he was preparing to climb into the saddle. “Learn anything?”
“Yeah, and it disturbs me more than I can say.” Bastien sighed.
“What’s that?” Rien frowned.
“Based on what I’m concluding about this group so far, I am forced to acknowledge a very real possibility…” Bastien rubbed his forehead. “That you’re the sane one.”
“Blood and ashes.” Rien stared at him. “We are fucked.”