Blood and Ashes: Chapter 1 (Sequel to Dragonlord)

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“I…”  Aurel stared at him.  Then he shook his head.  Then he stared at Bastien some more.  “He what?”

“He did give me permission to tell you, though that’s probably because he figured out I was going to anyway.”  Bastien nodded.

“Alright.”  Aurel slowly nodded.  “I…”  He closed his eyes, then reopened them.  “Gods above, if he…”  He took a deep breath.  “If he knew this, why the hell didn’t he just deal with Rutger years ago?”

“That…”  Bastien blinked.  “Is a very good question.”

#

Rien hesitated.  Then he took a step forward, and hesitated again.  This was stupid, and probably going to end in him being executed.  He took a deep breath, and walked into the room.  “King Wendel.”

The man’s two bodyguards started to move, and Wendel waved them back.  “Prince Marinus.”

“I, uh…”  He rubbed the back of his neck.  “I just…”  He exhaled.  “I just wanted to say I’m sorry.  For…”  He folded his arms.  “I’m sorry.”

“It says something for you…”  King Wendel slowly nodded.  “That you would apologize.”  He glanced at the guards, then shrugged.  “Leave us.”

He blinked as he watched the guards leave.  “You’re uh…”  He frowned.  “Isn’t it risky to be alone in with a Wilder and…”  He shifted.  “I should probably shut up before I talk myself into trouble again.”

“Probably.”  King Wendel chuckled.  “I had hopes, once, for an alliance between your people and mine.”

“It can still happen.  I mean…”  Rien shrugged.  “It’s come to my attention a lot lately that we underestimate the shit out of your people.”  He shifted from foot to foot again.  “I mean, assuming I do manage to pull this off and end up king and then I’ll probably ask Liam to be my ambassador or…”  He blinked when the king made an amused sound.  “What?”

“I’m not sure Liam is suited to be an ambassador between the Wildlands and Solsthriem.”  King Wendel gave Rien an appraising look.  “Should you take the throne, I am certain something can be arranged.  Though quite frankly, Prince Marinus…”  He smiled.  “If you are half the man your father was I dare say I feel sorry for Phillip.”

“I…”  Rien blinked.  “You knew my father?”

“Only briefly.  He…”  King Wendel nodded.  “Made an impression.  You are welcome in Solsthriem, Prince Marinus.  I hope things go more smoothly from now on.”

“That uh…”  Rien started shaking his head.

“No, you’re right.”  King Wendel sighed.  “I forgot I was talking to a Draak.”

#

Bastien frowned as he watched Lam… Liam speaking with the king as the king’s retinue prepared to depart.  Liam said something, and the king laughed warmly in response.  Bastien’s eyes widened a little as the two men gripped each other’s forearms before the king climbed aboard his horse and departed the castle.  “Lord Liam.”  He moved to intercept the man.

“Sir Bastien.”  Liam raised an eyebrow.

“Father has given us additional horses and a wagon.  Rien wants…”  He shook his head.  “How do you keep secrets like this from everyone?”

“By not keeping them from everyone.”  Liam shrugged as he started walking back toward the castle’s main keep.  “King Wendel knows of my gift, as did Jurgen.  And now you, your father, and Rien.”

“Who else knows?”  Mikaere and Efua clearly did.

“Those I trust.”

“I…”  He took a deep breath.  “You and the king are old friends.  You…”  He chuckled.  “Gods above.  It occurs to me I don’t think I ever did thank you for coming to my aid.  What…”  He rubbed the back of his neck.  “Rien went looking for that chief but couldn’t find him.”

“I doubt he looked in the privy sluice.”  Liam shrugged.

“You…”  Bastien blinked.  “You killed him?”

“It seemed the pragmatic and discrete thing to do, given the circumstances.”

“You…”  Bastien turned to watch the king’s retinue disappear over the horizon.  “You’ve been playing this game a long time.”

“Around thirty years.”  Liam nodded.

“How does it end?”  Bastien turned back toward him.

“That has never been my decision to make, Sir Bastien.”  Liam shook his head.  “Make your farewells.  Your journey has only just begun.”  He started walking again.

“Liam.”  Bastien took a deep breath as he waited for the man to turn back around.  Then he gave a confused shake of his head.  “Why didn’t you just kill Rutger?”

Liam gave him an absolutely appalled look.  “Sir Bastien, Rutger is my brother.”  His voice practically dripped with disgust, and he glared before turning and stalking off.

#

Aurel hugged Bastien tightly.  Sending his son away was almost harder than leaving him behind had been.  “Are you sure about this?”  He stared at his son.

“Unfortunately…”  Bastien sighed.  “Yes.  Father, the stakes here are…”  He shook his head.  “I cannot walk away from this battle.  Not and be the man you raised me to be.”

“I should have listened to your mother.”  Aurel smiled sadly.  “She wanted you to be a priest.”

“I love you, Father.”

“I love you too, Bastien.”  He hugged his son again, and said a prayer it would not be the last time.

#

“A Wilder prince is friends with the king of Solsthriem.  How did that happen?”  Bast glanced at Liam as they started southeast.

“We met the first time nearly thirty years ago.  In Manisar, of all places.”

“You know him well then?”  Rien brought his horse up to ride beside his brother.  Jurgen had known King Wendel as well.  And Wendel had said…

“Well, not quite as well as —”

“Kera ladin seladai, non verala mir.”

“Dosemi.”  Liam smirked at whatever it was Efua had said.

“Liam…”  Rien hesitated.  They’d gone nearly another half mile before Rien spoke again.  “Liam, King Wendel indicated that…”  He took a deep breath.  “That he’d known my father.”

“He did.  I…”  Liam glanced back at him.  “Sir Bastien, would you be so kind as to tell Rien the names of the king’s children?”

“Yes…”  Bast gave Liam an odd look, then turned to Rien.  “The crown prince is Jonas.  His second son is Paul, and his daughter…”  Bastien trailed off when he saw Rien go still.  “Rien.”

“Paul.”  Rien swallowed.  “He named his…”  Rien reached over and caught the reins of Liam’s horse, bringing his mount and Liam’s to a dead stop.  “He named one of his sons after my father.”

“There are secrets I deeply regret that I have had to keep.  That has been one of them.”  Liam nodded, his voice thick.  He wiped at his eyes, then smiled at Rien.  “You should know the man your father was.”

#

Bastien occasionally glanced at Rien.  The big man had been quiet the last few miles.  The story Liam had told them of Rien’s father had defied belief.  He hesitated, then dropped his horse back to ride beside Rien.  “Rien…”

“I would have bragged.”  Rien swallowed.  “I should be mad that was kept from me but…”  He smiled, though his eyes shone with unshed tears.  “Oh Bast, I’d have made sure that song was sung in every tavern in the world.  An army wouldn’t dare cross my father’s ghost.”  He turned his head to look at Bastien.  “Your father is proud of you.”

“I think…”  Bastien smiled.  “That your father would be proud of you as well.”

“You think so?”  Rien gave him a hopeful look.

“Well, sometimes.”  He reached over to pat Rien’s shoulder.  “On rare occasions, you do have your moments.”

Rien snorted.  “That reminds me…”  He shrugged.  “I need to get a new flogger.”

#

Rien let out a low whistle.  Liam had claimed he had holdings, but he hadn’t expected…  The oceanside keep was more estate than castle, with elegant gardens.  It sat among vineyards and orchards.  “Playing the softfolk lordling has some benefits.”  He glanced over at his brother.

“The docks are in the village down a mile that way.”  Liam gestured.  “We —”

“Yeah, this taking ship idea.”  Rien started nodding.  “I was thinking we might do better to get a ship of our own and hire a crew rather than book passage.”

“There —” Liam blinked.

“Most of the merchant vessels will be Thatelan, and we don’t know who might be in the pockets of Phillip or his supporters.  I mean, we could try the Ilael, but they drive hard bargains and I’m not sure it’s a good idea.”

Liam raised an eyebrow.  “You claim some expertise on the Ilael?”

“Rachel’s read about them.”  He gave her a proud smile, and she blushed a little.  Then he glared when Liam rolled his eyes.  “Hey, we do actually spend some of our time together talking.  Anyway, Ilael drive really hard bargains and can be tricky when it comes to passage, plus they won’t like that you have one of them as a slave.”  He waved his hand at Efua.

“The Ilael do not appreciate those that take one of their number as slaves.”  Efua nodded.

“I had heard that.”  Liam shrugged.

“Which means the Ilael really aren’t going to like you.”  Rien shook his head.  “Rachel says Ilael pirates deliberately seek out Manisar vessels and attack them because the Manisar take them as slaves when the Ilael try cheating them.”

“Is that how it works?”  Liam glanced at Rachel.

“Oh, yes.”  Rachel nodded.  “Ilael are very dangerous pirates.  And tricky.”  She glanced at Efua.  “I mean no offense.”

“Not offended.”  Efua smiled at Rachel.  “Ilael are dangerous.  And tricky.”

“Yeah, and a poisoned spear won’t save you from…”  He glanced at Rachel.  “What was it?  Kill-hauling?”

“Keel-haul.”  Rachel went wide-eyed, then nodded at Liam.  “That’s when they drag you beneath a ship so the sharp shells they stick there tear your to peaces.  It’s one of the ways they sacrifice people to the sea-monsters they worship.”

“They worship sea monsters?”  Liam leaned forward in the saddle as he listened to Rachel.

“Efua was telling me all about it.”  Rachel paled a little.  “Sometimes, they dip people in the pitch they use to patch ships, then light them on fire on one of their islands to see if they can make it to the water before they burn up.”  She shuddered.

“Oh yes.”  Efua started nodding.  “Those that survive are thought blessed, so we take them and hang them over the bow of the ship so their entrails fall into the sea.”

“I did not know Ilael did that.”  Liam turned his gaze to Efua.

“It’s a sacrifice to their shark gods.  Whenever the Ilael pirates capture a ship, they sacrifice some of its crew to the shark gods in gratitude for the loot.”  Rachel gave Rien a worried look.

“It’s alright, Sweetling.  I won’t let anything happen to you.”

“Usually though, they just throw people off the ship into the sea to drown.  That’s bad enough.”  Maela moved closer to Bast.

“Right.  So, we’ll get a ship of our own, and you can use your seeing things thing to make sure the crew is okay.”  Rien nodded.  “Cause except maybe for Efua, none of us knows anything about sailing.”

“What you really have to be careful of…”  Efua leaned in toward Maela.  “Is if you cheat Ilael, we skin you, coat your body in salt taken from the sea, and sew the skin back on.”

“That’s horrible.”  Maela covered her mouth with her hands, and Bast put a hand on her shoulder.

“That does sound like the kind of fate we want to avoid.”  Liam was staring at Efua.  He ran a hand down his face, then sighed.  “Let me introduce you to my staff here, so they know you aren’t invading.”

#

They were most of the way up the path when a tall, dark haired man nearly the size of Rien came out to greet them.  Bastien frowned a little when he heard the man call out a greeting in a Thatelan accent.  “Lord Liam, you made good time.”  He caught the reins of Efua’s horse as they rode up.  “Mikaere arrived two days ago.  We are nearly done putting together the supplies requested.”

“Good to hear.”  Liam nodded.  “Guard Captain Ruarc, this is my brother, Prince Marinus Draak.  His companions are Sir Bastien Kohler, Lady Maela, and Lady Rachel.”  Liam dismounted.  “Unless the orders countermand my own, do as Lady Maela and Lady Rachel tell you.”

“Wait…”  Rien shook his head.  “You’re putting Maela and Rachel in charge of me and Bast?”  He frowned.

“Yes.”  Liam shrugged.  “They are the smart ones.”  Both Maela and Rachel giggled.

“Yeah, but I’m still the one in charge.”  Rien glared.  Bastien must not have hidden his snicker well enough, because Rien glared at him too.  “He thinks you’re dumb too.”

“I swore fealty to you.”  Bastien dismounted, then took the reins of Maela and Rachel’s horses.  “He’s right.”

“Anyway…”  Liam sighed before going to help Efua off her horse.  “This is Ruarc, my guard captain.  Gian is the steward here, let her know if you need anything.”  He started up the stairs, then stopped and looked back at Rien.  “Do keep your hands off Gian so Ruarc doesn’t feel the need to kill you.  It would be inconvenient.”

“Sure, I…”  Rien trailed off, then took another look at Ruarc.  Ruarc just gave Rien an appraising look.  “Wait, are you implying he’d win?”  When Liam just kept walking toward the house instead of answering, Rien followed.  “Liam, who’d win?  I’d win, right?  Liam?”

Bastien ran a hand down his face.  He went to help Maela off her horse as Ruarc went to assist Rachel.  “I’m so sorry.”

Ruarc shrugged.  “You learn to accept a certain level of insanity around Draaks.”

“Yeah.”  Bastien nodded.  “You do.”  He frowned.  “You know Liam is a Draak?”

“Yes.”  Ruarc glanced back up at the house.  Maela and Rachel were heading inside.

“You sound Thatelan.  How did you end up working for Liam?”

“Well, it’s kind of a long story but…”  Ruarc started for the stables.  “He sort of blew up my wife’s castle.”

“I’m not…”  Bastien followed with the other horses.  “Really sure I want to know.”

#

Liam had given one of the estates towers over to him and his bed-slaves.  Rien couldn’t help but feel just a little impressed as he looked around.  The king had implied Liam was paying for the repairs to the Duke’s castle, but he hadn’t taken that seriously until now.  Looking around this place, perhaps Liam actually could.  He blinked, then went to the satchel and took out the papers Liam had given him earlier.  There was the document, signed and sealed, giving him the right to draw upon the resources of this estate if he needed.

“Master Rien?”  Maela put a hand on his shoulder, and he realized he’d sat down.

Carefully, he tucked the document back into the satchel, and closed the satchel back up.  “Maela, I’m placing you in charge of what’s in here.  I need you…”  He took a deep breath.  “And believe me I understand just what I burden I am placing you under…”  He put the satchel into her hands.  “I need you to keep me from being stupid with these papers.”

“Yes, Master Rien.”  She nodded gravely.

“Alright.  That will have to do.”  He shrugged and stood again.  The bed was huge, with four solid posts.  Rather than risk irritating their host, he’d left Bast alone while they were at the other castle.  “Now, put that away somewhere safe…”  He waved a hand at the bed.  “Then get your sister and tie Bast across that.”

“Face up or face down?”  Rachel raised an eyebrow.

“Oh, ladies’ choice.”  Rien grinned.

“I hate you all.”  Bast sighed.

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