Even if Bast hadn’t identified the man it would have been obvious who he was. The resemblance between his knight and the knight currently hugging him was obvious. Which meant they were once again in Solsthriem, in what had been the duke’s territory. Surrounded by knights loyal to the deceased duke and following Baron Kohler. Who happened to be Bast’s father. This had the potential to be… Rien blinked. “Wait a minute.” He turned toward Lammert. “He’s your contact?”
Baron Kohler turned toward Lammert. “You’re the one, then?” He was smiling, and his hand stayed on Bast’s shoulder. The older knight laughed softly before looking at the prisoners. “The captain of Phillip’s mercenaries.”
“That was our arrangement.” Lammert nodded.
“True, it’s just…” Baron Kohler laughed again, then his voice softened. “Until I saw you riding in I didn’t dare hope…” He turned toward his son again. “Come, we should head back to the castle.” There were actual tears in the man’s eyes. And if he wasn’t mistaken, the same was true of Bast.
Nervous as he was about riding into that castle again, he couldn’t deny this to his knight. If for no reason other than he likely wouldn’t survive doing so. “Thank you, Baron Kohler.”
He didn’t miss that his father’s gaze lingered a little on the collar and manacles. Fortunately, a distraction presented itself rather quickly. The knights caught sight of Maela and Rachel, and eyes nearly fell out of heads. His father started turning red before quickly stripping off his cloak and offering it to Maela. “My lady, if you would be so kind…” Aurel gave a pointed look at one of the other knights, who immediately offered his cloak to Rachel.
Both glanced at Rien, who nodded, before taking the cloaks. His father smiled again, then patted his shoulder before going to the horses. Bastien glanced at Rien before going to his own horse. Rien gave him the barest nod. Hopefully no one realized Rien had been one of the people that had attacked the castle, or that Rien was the one who had taken him prisoner in the first place. From what he’d heard, Solsthriem knew the River Dragon had been involved in the attack, and even credited him with leading it. If they identified Rien as Marinus Draak, they were going to have a problem. And his oath demanded he take Rien’s side.
It was quickly decided formal introductions and stories could wait until they got to the castle. No one wanted to find out the hard way that there were more mercenaries about. Most of the knights were assigned to take the prisoners back, with a small group sent to scout out their camp. Six, however, rode with them and his father. Those six wore the same colors as the other knights, but the heraldry on their badges was different. Not the duke’s lion, but a hound. These were… These were his father’s men. He’d known, but it only now truly struck him. His father was nobility.
“Sir Bastien.” One of the knights glanced at him. It took him a moment to remember the man’s name. Sir Noel. “Good to see you still among the living.”
“It has been…” He blinked. “An interesting five months.”
“I can imagine.” Sir Noel moved his horse aside as Aurel slowed his to ride alongside Bastien.
“You’re alive. You’re…” Aurel took a deep breath. “Even after the letter, I…” He smiled.
“I know the feeling.” Bastien smiled. “I feared you’d run into trouble getting…” He blinked back tears. “Nadja, is she?”
“She’s well. She’s at the castle, and she’ll be glad to see you.” Aurel put a hand on Bastien’s shoulder. “We’ll get the irons off you first.”
That could get awkward. “There’s a lot to…” Bastien shook his head. “I hardly know where to start.”
“I’m Duchess Nadja’s steward, but she’s given me the old fort at Silver Ridge to…” Aurel smiled. “To be the seat of our house, Bastien.” He straightened. “Your warning may have saved the kingdom. The king is going to want to speak with you.”
The king was going to get involved. He glanced at where Rien was furiously whispering to Lammert. There was no way that was going to end well. “So…” He shrugged. “I killed a dragon.”
Aurel nearly fell off his horse. “You what?”
“His father?” Rien made sure no one was in earshot before hissing the words at his brother.
“As I said, I needed someone whose honor I could trust.” Lammert shrugged.
“But the man didn’t even recognize you.” Rien shook his head.
“The one time we met was twenty-two years ago.”
“The…” Rien blinked. “You’re trusting a man you met once, twenty-two years ago?”
“I’m trusting the man who raised Sir Bastien to be the man he is. A man who would repeatedly save the life of a man who should be his mortal enemy for no reason other than he swore an oath.”
“I…” Rien trailed off. Then he took a deep breath. “He’s taking us to the duke’s castle.”
“Then I highly suggest you be on your best behav…” Lammert frowned. “No, that will likely be insufficient. I suggest you do your best to pretend you have both manners and a self-preservation instinct. Alternately, just keep your mouth shut.” He glanced at Rien. “Or better yet, both.”
“You are such a nonpareil.”
He felt lighter than he had in months. Bastien was alive, and he was home. Aurel couldn’t keep himself from smiling. Bastien was safe. He glanced again at his son. The past few months had resulted in some changes. Bastien’s armor was styled differently, and lighter than he’d worn before. He wore Wilder style boots and trousers, and his hair had grown longer.
On his back, he wore two swords in a Wilder-style weapon harness. The first one, Aurel recognized. He’d given it to his son. The other had a black hilt, and the scabbard was made out of some kind of scaly material. There were iron cuffs around Bastien’s wrists, and a collar around his neck. That part made him want to punch someone. But his son was home now.
Aurel glanced at the others. His contact was man his own age, almost unnaturally tall. He and one of the others wore Wilder style vests, and there was a resemblance between them. Father and son? A woman who looked Ilael, and an unusual looking man whose origins he couldn’t place at all. The man drew almost as many stares as did the barely clothed twins. Aside from the Wilders, all of them wore slave collars. Though aside from Bastien’s, the other collars were leather.
“I’d heard there was a dragon but…” Aurel shook his head. “It almost defies belief.”
“I’m still having a bit of trouble with it myself.” Bastien ducked his head before smiling. “It’s almost as unbelievable as you being a baron.”
“Hasn’t changed much. I’m still protecting our liege.” He chuckled. “When I told Duchess Nadja what I was doing, she wanted to come. To welcome her favorite knight home.”
“Probably best she didn’t.” Bastien straightened in the saddle as they crested a rise and the castle came into view. “Though I imagine she doesn’t feel safe in the castle anymore.” He sighed.
She wasn’t going to be comfortable with a couple Wilders around, but at least he could tell her that Phillip’s right-hand man was no longer a threat. And if his contact had been truthful, the Wilder threat was greatly lessened as well. “We will make it safe.”
Servants took the horses, and Aurel led them into the castle’s foyer. He’d all but grown up in this castle, walked its floors a thousand times. It felt different, being back here. Bastien shook his head, then shrugged and decided to start with the safest introductions first. “Father, these are Maela and Rachel.” He gestured to the twins. “Maela, Rachel, this is my father, Si…” He caught himself, and saw the small smile on his father’s face. “Baron Aurel Kohler.”
Maela curtsied. “Baron Kohler. We have heard the most wonderful stories about you.”
Rachel copied the gesture. “The way he speaks of you, we expected someone ten feet tall and armored in gold.”
His father coughed and blushed a little. “Well, I…” He coughed again. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance, ladies.”
And that pretty much ended the part of the introductions that weren’t going to end in bloodshed. He turned to look at Lammert. This situation was his idea, surely he must have planned for what happened now. Aurel turned toward Lammert as well. “Lord Liam, your message said you had someone that was going to require protection.” He took a deep breath. “You certainly held up your end.” He glanced at Bastien again, and smiled. “Who are we protecting and from whom?”
A chill went down Bastien’s spine, and he took a step toward Lammert before he caught himself. “You son of a bitch.”
“Well…” Lammert nodded. “Yes.”
“Uh…” Rien glanced from Lammert to Bastien and back again. “I’m missing…” His eyes widened. “You son of a bitch.”
“Yes.” Lammert shrugged.
“Bastien.” Aurel’s voice was sharp. “This man has…”
“Has just put you in a position where you may be guilty of treason.” Bastien glared at Lammert. “If you get my father —”
“Explain.” Aurel folded his arms.
“Certainly.” Lammert nodded. “Baron Kohler, the man you are protecting is my brother. Prince Marinus Draak.”
“You…” Aurel stared. “Son of a bitch.”
“Oh…” Lammert clasped his hands behind his back. “You really have no idea.”
“You had no right to…” Rien glared at Lammert. Bast was standing by his father, or rather somewhat protectively in front of him. Aurel looked like he’d been kicked by a mule. Maela and Rachel were looking about uncertainly, and Efua and Mikaere had both taken positions behind Lammert. He took a deep breath. “What was this arrangement?” He turned toward Baron Kohler.
“His letter said…” Baron Kohler gave a small shake of his head. “That I was to meet his party at a certain location, and that in return for protecting…” The man’s fists clenched. “You, he would deliver to me the captain of Phillip’s mercenaries and ensure I saw my son again.” He glared. “Your brother will be perfectly safe in the castle dungeon.”
“That is an option.” Lammert nodded. “He’s somewhat less likely to get himself in trouble from in there.”
“You…” Rien shook his head. After everything, Lammert would betray him this casually? It made no sense at all. None of this did. How the hell could Lammert have arranged this in the first place?
“Whose fucking side are you even on?” Bast stared at Lammert.
“And you can join him there.” Baron Kohler narrowed his eyes as he turned his own gaze toward Lammert.
“On the contrary, you’ll find you have no cause to place me under arrest, Baron Kohler. I have committed no crime in your land, and I have raised no arms against your citizenry.”
“I…” Baron Kohler glared before turning to Bast. “If he’s that one’s brother, does that make him —”
“I am not a prince. I have, by order of Queen Thirza, been stripped of all rights, titles, and holdings in the Wildlands. I am not…” Lammert shrugged. “A Wilder.”
“Is that true?” Baron Kohler raised an eyebrow.
“Yes. He’s the one they call the Phoenix, but…” Bast’s face was clearly reluctant. “You have no cause to imprison him.”
“Master Rien?” Rachel shifted her weight from foot to foot.
“Stay with Bast, Lovely.” Rien nodded to her. He glanced at Bast, who nodded. “He’ll keep you and your sister safe.”
Baron Kohler signaled the knights. Four of them. Under other circumstances, he’d consider that a compliment. “Take this man to the tower cell and make him comfortable inside. He is not to be harmed.”
“Yes, my lord.”
Rien glared at his brother again before following the knights. Hopefully, Bast could — and would — find a way to get him out of this.