“It’s dangerous.” Liam shook his head.
“You said I would serve you, Aihuroa.” Mikaere looked up at him. “I cannot serve you if you leave me here.”
“You are serving me. You are watching out for my family.” Liam folded his arms.
“I can understand the trade language now, and I’ve beaten Chidike three times now in duels.” Mikaere lifted his chin stubbornly. “I can help.”
“Mikaere, if you…” Liam leaned on the ship’s railing. “If you come with me to the Wildlands, you’d have to pretend to be my slave.”
“I am your —”
“No.” He raised his voice, then almost regretted it as he saw the wounded look in Mikaere’s eyes. Liam exhaled. “Mikaere, you are not my slave.”
“Aihuroa, my life is —”
“Mikaere, I…” He looked up, and saw Uduak giving him a sympathetic smile. He’d once been convinced he was her slave. Except Uduak had… “You’re not my slave, Mikaere. You are part of my family.” The younger man’s eyes went wide, then started to shine with unshed tears. “And you’re right. You came to the Ilael because of me.” He squared his shoulders. “Next time I go ashore…” He smiled. “You may come with me.”
Mikaere’s face broke into a wide smile. “Don’t worry, Aihuroa. I’m sure Captain Adaeze will let you go ashore again.” He scampered off, pausing to help one of the crew tie down a line.
Liam looked up as Uduak approached. “I have a feeling I just became a grandmother again.”
“He’s too old to be my son.” Liam laughed, then let it die away. “I admit, when I go to the Wildlands and see Jurgen with Rutger and Rien, I…” He shook his head. “Have absolutely no idea how Jurgen manages to put up with little brothers.”
“Little sisters are better.” Ama’s voice came from behind him, and a moment later she was climbing onto his back. He shifted so she could settle herself more comfortably. He felt the slight spark of her power as it brushed up against his, and saw the hint of a smile that revealed she felt it too. “The storm is going to be big.”
“If we alter our heading a few degrees we can ride it out along the edge.” Liam nodded.
“Be more fun to go through.” She smiled at the clouds. “They are singing.” She snuggled into him as he shifted so she was sitting on his hip. “Listen.”
He closed his eyes, tracing his mind along the edge of her fledgling gift. Her head rested on his shoulder, and he knew her eyes were closed as well as she leaned into his focus. “They are.” He nodded. He started to open his mouth, then closed it before tracing the edge again.
In his arms, Ama tensed slightly. With their powers linked, he knew she’d seen the same thing he had. “I could try.” She lifted her head. “I could try.”
“I know.” He drew her further down the line, and heard her let out a small whimper. Then he let the vision fall away. “We can come around the other side. It won’t save the ship, but it will save the crew.”
“I’ll get stronger.” He opened his eyes to meet her darker ones, and saw the determination inside. “I will.”
“I know.” He touched his forehead to hers. “And I will help you.”
Jurgen stared at the golden-skinned young man, then turned to his brother with a slightly amused expression. “I can fit your body-guard in my belt pouch.”
“A bear is approximately twenty times larger than a badger…” Liam met his eyes levelly. “Yet a wise bear gives the badger a wide berth.”
“Yeah…” Jurgen nodded. “Which is why I’m properly terrified.” He pointed at Efua. “Of her.” He shaded his eyes, then shook his head. “You said to meet you here.” He glared. “If you had me gather an army for nothing, I’m going to turn you over my knee, body-guards or no body-guards.”
“There.” Liam pointed.
He stood up in the saddle to see a figure running toward them. Jurgen glanced at Liam again, then lightly kicked his heels to get Sugarplum moving. Liam followed. As they drew closer to the runner, Jurgen realized the man wasn’t a Wilder. The garb, even tattered as it was, marked the man of Akobul. Yet to his surprise, when the man looked up and saw them he gave a shout of joy before falling to his knees and lifting his hands in a gesture of pleading supplication. “The Dragon. Blessed Makers, the Dragon. My lord, please.” The man panted. “Please, we need your help.”
Mikaere moved at his back, twin daggers flying. The young man really had thrown himself into the training. He gave Liam a fierce smile as they moved across the battlefield together.
It was harder than he’d expected, maintaining a calm head against this particular enemy. The Unitafels hadn’t been expecting opposition, let alone an army of Wilders descending on them. He focused his power, then turned to shout an order. Jurgen’s soldiers responded immediately, thundering down to cut the Unitafels off from regrouping.
Liam twirled his spear to block a blow, then opened his opponent’s throat with the blade.
He leaned on his axe, looking out over the aftermath. The Unitafels had taken nearly two full villages of Akobul’s people. They hadn’t moved in such force in living memory. Fortunately, thanks to his brother’s forewarning, his warriors had arrived in time to stop… “What the hell were they doing?”
“A mass sacrifice.” Efua’s voice came from his left. The Ilael woman looked sickened. “They wanted to summon one of their demon gods.”
“Yeah…” Jurgen nodded. “Sounds like exactly the kind of thing we don’t want them to do.” He hesitated a moment, then lowered his voice as he drew a bit closer to her. “We did get here in time, right?”
“Yes.” She smiled up at him. “The portents are passing. The opportunity has fled. It will be decades before they can try again.”
“They won’t get that chance.” He folded his arms. “After my people are done destroying the temple, the Akobul are going to salt the land. Nothing is going to live here for centuries by the time we are done.”
“Good.” She nodded. “Good.”
Jurgen looked over at where his brother was talking to one of the rescued Akobul. He’d seen Liam direct a few skirmishes, but this was the first time he’d really seen him direct a battle. Even in the fighting alongside Wendel, Liam had just offered some advice and let him and Wendel do the war chief thing. This time, however, it had been Liam giving the orders.
He’d stepped back from the idea of the navy because he hadn’t wanted to go up against his brother. Standing here, he had another thought. One a little bit chilling. If he went up against Liam on the battlefield, he would lose. He took a deep breath before walking over to join the conversation.
The Akobul man looked worried. Jurgen nodded to him. “Are your people able to travel?”
“Yes.” The man bowed low. “Yes, Prince Jurgen.” He straightened. “My people are…” He glanced at where the villagers were gathered. “My people are at your disposal, my lord.”
Liam’s eyes met his, and gave him a small head shake. Jurgen gave him a small nod in return, then clapped his hand on the Akobul man’s shoulder. “Then let’s get you back home.” He smiled. “If your barley crops rot in the field, we’ll have nothing to raid in the spring.”
“You…” The man’s head came up, and his expression looked disbelieving. “My lord…”
“And tell your people to gather up those weapons.” He waved a hand at the haphazard piles of Unitafel spears. “You could at least do us the courtesy of making raiding you a challenge.” He shook his head. “Get your people on their feet. If we’re going to have time to show you how to build a proper defensive barricade before we have to get back, we need to get moving.”
“No, no, you did the right thing.” Thirza was nodding. “Their continued supply of crops is more valuable than an influx of slaves. And the stories springing up are more valuable still.”
Liam hung back, letting Jurgen handle the talking. He felt a tug on his arm, and looked down to see Rutger smiling up at him. He smiled back, and let his little brother drag him away. Rutger led him into the other room. “Did you bring them?” He bounced eagerly.
He slid the rucksack off his shoulder, and offered it to Rutger. Rutger grabbed it, then practically buried himself in it as he began examining the contents. The first book was a collection of maps and sketches of Natiel’s cities and monuments. Rutger began paging through it, eyes wide, before remembering there was more in the bag. His eyes widened at the ocarina.
Before he could hold out his hand to show Rutger how to play it, Rutger put it to his lips and played a couple notes. Then he grinned, showing teeth that were still boyishly crooked. “An ocarina. I read about these. The sheep herders in Natiel like to play them.”
“They do.” Liam nodded.
“Can I come with you, this time?” Rutger danced from foot to foot. “Please?” He went up on his toes. “I read the book on how to translate Natiel five times.”
“Yes.” He reached over to ruffle Rutger’s hair. “You can come —”
Rutger’s hug drove all the air out of his lungs as the boy gave a howl of glee. He hugged his brother back as he tried to keep the tears out of his eyes.
“This is not a good idea.” Efua folded her arms. “It will only serve to whet his appetite.”
“I know.” Liam sat on the balcony, staring up at the stars.
“Then why…” She started shaking her head.
“His father died saving my life, Efua.” Liam tilted his head back to rest it on the wall. “The least I can do to repay that is show Rutger some of the larger world.” He closed his eyes for a moment. “And hope.”
“Least you can…” Efua glared. “I am going to go get Jurgen and tell him to beat sense into you.”
“Believe me.” Jurgen stepped out onto the balcony. “I’ve tried.” He shook his head. “I should go with you.”
“Nothing will happen this trip.” Liam stood. “And you are needed here.” He smiled. “Someone is going to have to keep Rien from sneaking out to follow after us.”
Rutger was practically dancing in the saddle. “I am grateful for your welcome and offer…” He lengthened the vowels a bit too much, but the words in Petobae were understandable. “Ugh.”
“My sword and shield.” Liam repeated the phrase.
“And offer my sword and shield to defend your hall.” He switched back to the trade tongue. “Will we have to?”
“Probably not.” Liam shook his head. “It’s simply been the standard greeting for a few hundred years.” He shrugged. “On the other side of the border, it’s more likely. Manisar raids Petobae sometimes.”
“And don’t talk about having slaves.” Rutger nodded. “Because they don’t like it.” He leaned his head back and looked up at the sky. “It seems bluer than it is in the Wildlands.”
Liam laughed. “Petobae is a flat land of grass, thus clouds form a little bit differently.”
“Listen to it.” Rutger closed his eyes, and let his head sway a little. “It rustles and flows like waves, and dances on the breeze. No trees to stop the light, and so the blades can reach for the sky. You can hear the flowers too, painting along the edges.”
He couldn’t help but hear the words in Koert’s voice. Trust Koert’s son to find poetry in the grass. “Listen now.” He lowered his voice, and tilted his head to the east.
“Thunder on the…” Rutger’s eyes snapped open. “That’s not thunder.”
“No.” Liam drew his horse up and nodded as they crested the small hill. “That’s not thunder.”
His little brother drew up beside him and stared down at the herd of horses running through the valley. “They flock like birds.”
“I’d have gone with a school of fish.” He reached out to ruffle Rutger’s hair. “But that works too.”