“I won’t be part of this.” Ruarc glared at the duchess.
“You’ll do as I tell you.” She narrowed her eyes at him.
“I’ll not help you torture a man.” He shook his head, noting that Jurgen was watching him. With the guard present, there was little he could do to help the man at the moment. And with the man’s companion still threatened, Jurgen wouldn’t come to his own defense. He’d let Durante push him toward the pillory. The man was willing to be tortured to save his friend. That alone told him which side he should be on. He turned, and walked away.
“Ruarc.” Her voice came after him. “There will be consequences for this.”
He ignored her, and continued up the stairs. Ignoring her felt… Freeing. Ruarc took a deep breath, and headed back toward the dungeon. The blond man was pacing his cell, his expression furious. He glared when he saw Ruarc. “If that man is harmed, I will see this castle and all its inhabitants wiped from the face of the world.”
“He’s feisty.” One of the two crossbowmen chuckled.
The man in the cell also wasn’t afraid. At least, not for himself. Ruarc took a deep breath as he walked toward the nearest of the crossbow men. Then he grabbed the man by the throat, spun him to catch the crossbow, and fired it into the second man. The second man fell back, the bolt sticking out of his chest. He screamed. The first man tried to strike at Ruarc, and Ruarc shoved him into the wall and brought his other hand in to gain leverage. Then he snapped the man’s neck. He turned toward the screaming man, and finished him off with a sword thrust before bending down to retrieve the keys.
“You…” Markus was staring at him.
Ruarc turned the key in the lock. “They’ll have heard that. Grab a weapon.”
Immediately, Markus obeyed. Ruarc picked up a shield and tossed it to Markus before picking up another and strapping it to his own arm. He exchanged a brief nod with the other man as a group of guards came to investigate, then moved in alongside Markus to attack.
Durante had just finished securing the Wilder into the pillory when he heard shouting. Jurgen Draak responded to the noise by struggling, and for a moment Durante was afraid the big man was actually going to break free. He smirked when the restraints held. “You’re not going anywhere.” He patted the captive’s head.
“Not until I kill you, no.” Jurgen chuckled. He yanked again, trying to free himself. The pillory forced him to bend, and they’d used shackles on his ankles to spread his legs. As much as seeing Ruarc in the pillory had amused him, this was even better. Ruarc was barely anything. Jurgen Draak was a legend.
“The crown prince of the wilders.” Vitalia’s voice sounded amused. “Bowing to me.” She glanced at Durante. “Why is he still wearing clothes?”
He pulled out his knife and moved in, sliding the blade between fabric and flesh. Jurgen made a growling sound as he sliced through the wilder’s vest. Durante started to laugh, then more shouting came from above. He frowned, then met Vitalia’s eyes. “Duchess…”
“Finish.” She nodded to him, then gestured for a couple of the guards to go investigate.
“Of course.” He continued cutting the wilder’s clothing away, letting it simply fall to the ground. He nicked Jurgen deliberately when cutting free the breeches, and frowned when the man didn’t flinch. Vitalia made an admiring sound when Jurgen was fully stripped, and Durante couldn’t quite blame her. He was already hard enough to be a little uncomfortable. There was another shout, and he paused.
Vitalia gave an impatient sigh, then shook her head. “He’s not going anywhere. Let’s go.”
Jurgen yanked at the restraints again as they left. Durante frowned, then gestured toward a couple of the guards. “Stay here.” He ran a hand over Jurgen. “We’ll be back for you soon.”
“Pretty sure you won’t.” Jurgen shrugged.
To his surprise, several of the guard rallied to him when they realized he was fighting. Not many, but a few. With Markus added to the ranks, they were holding. The problem was they couldn’t press forward. If the duchess realized what was happening, Jurgen would become a hostage. Jurgen had stood down to save Markus. It was likely Markus would do the same for Jurgen, and with Lammert holding Gian, he didn’t dare risk harm to the man’s brother.
He saw another group coming, these armed with crossbows. “Ready shie—” He cut off as a tapestry fell from the wall, falling atop the men. The first to crawl free got a spear through his throat for the trouble.
“You.” Markus sighed.
“I warned you.” Lammert Draak rolled his eyes before finishing off another guard. He’d changed his garb, enough that if Ruarc hadn’t known who he was earlier he’d never have realized he was looking at the man who’d recently been the duchess’s guest. Lammert looked like a wilder, though he wore a sort of hooded tunic beneath his vest that hid the tattoos and obscured his short hair. The spear was also different from the one he’d had earlier. A wilder weapon.
Ruarc finished dealing with the man in front of him, then brought his small group toward Lammert. “My lord…” Lammert picked up one of the crossbows, frowned at it, then fired a bolt through the open window at something. He reloaded, fired a second bolt, then tossed the crossbow aside. Ruarc blinked. “What are you…” He shook his head. “Wait, how’d you get back in here? And how…” He glanced at the tapestry.
“Don’t ask him questions like that.” Markus snorted. “You’ll just get a headache. We need…”
“Guards are coming up the main stairs, but another group is circling to come at you from behind.” Lammert set his spear on his shoulder. He pointed at one of the men. “Go low through the doors.” He pointed at another. “Stop lowering your shield to look whenever you hit something.” He turned and started walking away.
“Where are you going?” Ruarc blinked.
Lammert used his spear to cut a corner of another tapestry. “You’re going to need a distraction.” He moved a stand a couple feet from its previous position. “I suggest you hurry.”
“But…” Ruarc started shaking his head.
“We need to move.” Markus put a hand on his shoulder.
“Ruarc…” Markus met his eyes. “I’ve seen that man bury armies with a single throw of a spear. When he tells you to hurry, you need to run.”
Vitalia started up the stairs, accompanied by her guards. She was halfway down the hall when she saw the group coming toward her. The blond man was leading some of her own guards, as well as Ruarc. “You…” She glared at Ruarc. “How dare you!”
“I’m just not sure this marriage is working out.” Ruarc drew his sword.
“Does Thatela allow divorce?” The blond man glanced at Ruarc.
“No.” Ruarc shrugged.
“Huh.” The blond man drew his own sword. “Well, this seems a little awkward.”
“You…” She narrowed her eyes, then turned toward her guard. “Take my husband alive. Kill the others.” She raised her chin. “You do understand the stakes here, Ruarc. You take one step forward, and your brother —”
Ruarc shifted position and spun. His sword flew out of his hand and took Durante in the gut, driving the groom back and pinning him into the wall. Durante made a choking sound. “One problem solved.” He reached back, and one of the other guards handed him another sword before drawing a crossbow.
She stared at Durante. Blood was starting to trickle from the edges of his mouth. “Kill them all,” she shouted. Then she turned and ran.
He yanked the borrowed sword out of the dead guard, then turned. His men, the ones that had trained hardest with him, had made short work of the others. Ruarc looked at where Durante was pinned to the wall. “Ruarc…” The groom had gone pale.
“You…” Ruarc leveled the blade at Durante’s throat. “Had no cause to hurt Gian.”
“Gian…” Durante blinked. “Why do you care about Gian?”
“Why do I…” Ruarc glared. Then he laughed bitterly. “The fact that you have to ask means you’ll never understand the answer.” He turned, and started walking.
“Um…” Markus glanced at him. “You’re just going to…”
“If he can work up the nerve to pull himself free, he might get to a potion before he bleeds out. If he can’t, well…” Ruarc shrugged. Though it was unlikely a potion would do him any good without a trained healer helping. “Gut wounds kill slow.”
Behind him, one of his men spat on Durante. “For my sister, you bastard.” Then the man turned and followed Ruarc. The others did as well. Markus took one more look at the now pleading Durante, then joined them.
Vitalia froze at the door to her bedchamber. Another wilder was there. He opened a window, then tossed a torch into a brazier to light it. “Who…”
“If you want to live, you should probably run.” The man took a marble out of his pocket, then tossed it up the stairs. He shrugged. “Now.” Then he went out the window.
She stared for a moment. There was a clinking sound as the marble started to come back down the stairs. It rolled to hit a pole someone had left carelessly leaning against the wall. The pole fell, catching on the curtains. The curtains swayed, and then her eyes widened as the curtain cord hit the lit brazier. It immediately ignited. She started to rush forward, but the curtains blazed up quickly. “No,” she screamed. “No.” She turned and started running. The marble continued rolling down the hallway.
“It’s still your turn.” Jurgen spoke as soon as they entered the room.
“How can it still be my turn?” Markus immediately started shaking his head as he looked for a way to free Jurgen from the pillory.
“Are you leading this rescue?” Jurgen managed to turn his head enough to look at him.
“Well…” Markus winced.
“Blood and ashes, he’s here, isn’t he?” Jurgen let out a long-suffering sigh.
“Yeah.” Markus nodded, then glanced at Ruarc.
Ruarc stared at them a moment, then shook his head and went to where the key for the pillory hung. He came over to start freeing Jurgen. “Your brother made a deal to rescue you.”
“He…” Jurgen stood as soon as the pillory was open, then rubbed his neck. “Was he smug about it?”
“Uh…” Ruarc blinked. “Not really, no.”
“That…” Markus frowned. “You know, that worries me a little.”
“Shit. He’s up to something.” Jurgen looked around. “Anybody got an axe?”
“Um…” One of the guardsman spoke up. “Wouldn’t you like clothes?”
“Right.” Jurgen bent and picked up the remains of a vest, then slung it over his shoulder. “Okay, now. Does anybody have an axe?”
“Are they mad?” The guardsman glanced at Ruarc.
“I’m a little concerned as to what that makes us.” Ruarc glanced at his men. The six of them would be in as much trouble as he was. “I do what I can to make sure you all come out of this alright.”
“Yes, my lord.” They saluted him.
“You get us over the border into the Wildlands or Solsthriem…” Markus shrugged. “And everyone will be fine.”
“You sound pretty sure of that.” Ruarc shook his head. “Solsthriem doesn’t have any particular love for Thatelans or Wilders.”
“Now that just hurts my feelings.” Jurgen picked up a pole, then twirled it before shrugging and laying it on my shoulder.
“Oh, shut up.” Markus glared at him. “I swear, this is the last time I’m going into a fight with you while you’re naked.”
“You said that last time.” Jurgen started for the door.
“Maybe someone wearing armor should take the lead.” Ruarc hurried to get ahead of him. “And someone who knows how to actually get out of the castle.”
“Good point. After you.” Jurgen nodded.
Lammert was waiting for them at the portcullis. Ruarc made a frustrated sound. It was shut. “Right, we need —”
“Why are you naked?” Lammert tilted his head at Jurgen.
“I think the real question here…” Jurgen set his reclaimed axe on his shoulders. “Is why isn’t everyone naked?”
“No.” Lammert shook his head. “No, it really isn’t.”
“The portcullis is closed.” Markus glanced at it. “Is there another means of escape?”
“No, but I can get it open if we can get to the guard tower there.” Ruarc pointed.
“You don’t want to get to that guard tower there.” Lammert shook his head.
“Why not?” Ruarc stared at him.
“Because it’s about to explode.” Lammert shrugged.
“It’s about to —” There was a loud rumbling sound as the top tower suddenly exploded, sending fire and bits of stone everywhere. Ruarc stared. “What the…”
“Liam…” Jurgen took a deep breath. “That was the wrong —” There was another rumbling noise, then another, then another as flames began bursting out of other sections of the tower. “Liam, what did you do?”
“Arranged a distraction.” Lammert caught Ruarc’s arm as he started to step forward, then pulled him back. “I got the horses already. Durante didn’t put a guard on the stables.”
“You got the…” A large chunk of rock hit the ground. If he’d kept moving, he’d have been crushed. The rock hit the side of the guard tower, and he heard something inside fall over. There was a wooshing sound as flames started to rise, then the tower exploded. Massive chunks of stone broke off the front of the castle, splashing into the moat. Lammert waited a few moments, then reached over and pushed on the portcullis. It fell, crashing to the ground and creating a walkway over the moat. Ruarc stared at Lammert.
“Is it fun to be you?” Markus glanced at Lammert.
“It does have its moments.” Lammert shrugged before turning to walk over the portcullis.
Silently, Ruarc and his men followed.