“No.” Adaeze shook her head.
“Adaeze…” Liam gave her a pleading look.
“You’re not going alone.” She folded her arms. “Efua and Mikaere will —”
She cut off as he dropped to his knees in front of her, then bowed forward until his forehead touched the top of her foot. “Please.”
Her eyes closed, and she swallowed. Then she nodded. “Go.”
Jurgen put his hands on the back of his neck and closed his eyes. “You lost the trail.”
“Other horses moved through here…” Teun winced. “There are a couple settlements not far, my lord. Perhaps someone saw him.”
“Find out.” He growled the words, and saw Teun scramble to obey. Then he turned toward Sten. “Elephants.”
“My lord?” Sten blinked.
“He wanted…” Jurgen took a deep breath. “I am not going back to the Wildlands without him. Get the map and help me figure out where the fuck to find an elephant.” He strode toward the tent. Seven days. Seven days and still no sign of Rutger. The boy must have ridden out at a full gallop.
When Sten offered the map, Jurgen all but snatched it out of his hand before unrolling it on the table. He started tracing roads with his finger. Sten leaned over. “My lord…”
“What?” Jurgen glared up at him.
“Your mother —” Sten exhaled. “You should —”
“You want me to send a messenger to the Dragon Queen telling her we’ve lost her son?” He exhaled. “I’d be signing the messenger’s death warrant.” He looked down at the map. “Quite possibly all of our death warrants. Now where do I find elephants?”
Sten put his finger on one edge of the map, in Tebotas. Jurgen started to nod, then stared as Sten began tracing his finger all along the bottom edge of the map, stopping in Manisar. Then Sten pushed his finger further down to where the edges of the other landmass just barely peeked into the map. Jurgen closed his eyes, then reopened them. “He’s been to Petobae, even made a couple friends there.” He took a deep breath. “Keep a few scouts along the other trails, and uh…” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Let’s hope he kept to familiar territory.”
He waited until Sten had left the tent before looking down at the map again. His eyes went to the wide expanses of water. “Liam…” He exhaled. “Please. Gods, he’s just a boy.”
He flung the reins of the horse and a coin at a boy, then continued into the city without a backward glance. Liam shoved his way past two people, knocking one of them to the ground as he continued up the hill. Halfway to his destination he broke into a run, using his power to dodge obstacles as he continued to the alley.
Frantically, he looked around the ledge. His eyes locked on the figure looking down at the river below. The figure started to lean forward.
Liam’s hand closed on Rutger’s arm half a heartbeat before the boy let himself fall. Rutger frantically tried to pull away before turning to see who had hold of him. He stared up at Liam, blinking in disbelief. His left eye was bruised and swollen shut, and there was dried blood all over his face. “Oh, Rutger…” He swallowed.
“Lammert.” Rutger threw himself into his arms, sobbing. “Lammert.”
The Petobae man raised an eyebrow, then nodded. “I remember.” His accent made his words difficult to understand. “He played a harp.”
“Yes.” Jurgen started nodding. “He played a harp.”
“They left months ago, and I haven’t seen either of…” The man gave Jurgen another look, then slowly nodded. “I’ll pass the word.”
“He was looking for elephants.” Jurgen exhaled. “They have them in Manisar.”
The man’s face darkened. “I’ll send ravens to the border.” He started to turn, then gave a small shake of his head. “Lord Draak, none of my people would have let a boy on his own cross into Manisar. If he came through here, the clans would have stopped him and sent word to your people.”
“I left a couple of my men at the border.” Jurgen nodded. “Perhaps…”
“I owe your brother my life, Lord Draak.” The man squared his shoulders. “I’ll send my riders to search.”
He sat, looking down at the sleeping boy. He’d poured a potion down Rutger’s throat, and the physical injuries had healed. Gently, Liam put his hand atop Rutger’s, and waited. A few heartbeats later, Rutger started thrashing and crying out in his sleep. “Rutger.” He reached out to shake his little brother awake.
Rutger’s eyes opened, wide and frantic. “Lammert.” He launched himself out of the bed and into Liam’s arms. “Lammert.”
“I’m here.” He held the small, shaking body close. “I’m here. I won’t let anyone hurt you.”
“I’m sorry.” Rutger sobbed. “I’m sorry.”
“Shh…” He stroked Rutger’s hair. “You’re safe now.” He kissed the top of Rutger’s head. “I’m sorry, Rutger. I should have been there.” He’d been too focused on the ships, and had nearly missed… “I’m sorry.”
It took a few minutes for Rutger to calm down. He stayed where he was, clinging tightly to Liam. “I ran away from Jurgen.” Rutger swallowed. “I just wanted…” He leaned his head on Liam’s shoulder. “He was doing it for me and I just wanted…” He hiccupped. Then he started crying again. “I failed.”
Liam closed his eyes, and held his little brother. “Rutger…”
“I can’t go back, Lammert. I failed.” Rutger’s voice shook. “Even if I go back to Jurgen, his men will all know I failed and he had to do it for me.”
Paths diverged. He knew where the first led. He’d been trying to find a way off that path for years. But the second… Liam tightened his arms around Rutger, and felt tears of his own threatening. The price was simply too high. “Then don’t tell him.”
“They’ll all see…” Rutger started shaking his head.
“They’ll see Rutger Draak, returning in triumph.” Liam swallowed. “Your father was a story-teller, Rutger. A skald. That is the gift he left you.” He kissed the top of Rutger’s head again. “Words.”
“But I don’t get anything.” Rutger pulled away a little, looking up at him. “I didn’t…”
“You leave that part to me.” He smiled, then wiped the tears off Rutger’s cheeks.
A trembling smile came to Rutger’s lips, then faded. He started to shake his head. “But you’ll know…”
A secret, growing cold and festering. He could still stop what… He swallowed, then saw the image again. The small form, face down in the river. Slowly, he leaned forward, and touched his forehead to Rutger’s. “I won’t tell, Rutger.” He stroked his little brother’s hair. “I promise.” He waited for Rutger to finally nod, then swallowed again before standing and reaching for his brother’s hand. “Come, little brother. Let’s go make sure you return in style.”
Rutger took his hand, and smiled up at him adoringly. “Thank you, Lammert.” He stood, and then hugged him tightly.
“I…” Rutger hesitated a moment. “The bandits, they…” He went tense again. “I…”
“Oh, Rutger.” He hugged him tightly.
“Don’t tell Jurgen. Please.” Rutger wiped at his eyes.
“Jurgen will…” Liam started shaking his head.
“He’ll know I’m weak.” Rutger swallowed. “That I couldn’t —” He wiped at his face again. “He’ll blame me for —”
Liam knelt, then looked up at Rutger. “No, he won’t.” He put a hand on Rutger’s shoulder. “Just as he never blamed me.”
“Liam?” Rutger gave him a disbelieving look.
“You’re not weak, Rutger.” He brushed a bit of dirt off Rutger’s tunic. “And I promise, there is nothing in this world that you could do that would make Jurgen and I stop loving you.”
Rutger threw his arms around Liam’s neck. “I love you, Liam.”
“I love you too, Rutger.” He returned the hug, then exhaled softly. “Oh, little brother…” He swallowed. “I fear you’ll be the death of me.” Then he stood, and smiled down at Rutger. “Come, I know just the thing.”
He led his men into Natiel. The Petobae chief had promised to keep looking, and Jurgen had to trust the man would keep his word. Goran called Liam a friend, and that would have to be enough. Though from what he had seen, it did not seem likely that the people of Petobae would allow a child to come to harm, even a foreign one.
“My lord.” Sten brought his horse in next to Jurgen.
“I’m not going back without him.” Jurgen shook his head.
“The Queen —”
“Sten, we don’t know which direction he went after we lost the trail.” Jurgen turned to glare. “Do you really want Mother sending troops in all directions?”
“When the other one went —”
“That was Lammert.” It hurt to say, but that didn’t stop it from being true. “This is Rutger.” Jurgen exhaled.
For a time, Sten simply rode beside him silently. It was all Jurgen could do not to strike the man form his horse when Sten spoke again. “My lord, have you considered what rescuing him would mean?”
“It would mean…” Jurgen growled the words through clenched teeth. “That he is safe.”
“This is his adulthood rite, Jurgen.” Sten gave him a sympathetic look.
Jurgen exhaled. “I know.” He swallowed.
“If he has been taken by band —”
“I know.” Jurgen glared at him. Returning in failure was bad enough for a common boy. For a prince, it was an unimaginable disgrace. Rutger would never get over that kind of humiliation. “But the only thing worse than bringing him back as a failure is not bringing him back at all, so we are going to keep fucking looking for him, alright?”
Sten nodded. “At least he isn’t the heir, so it should —” He was cut off by Jurgen backhanding him off the horse.
His feet hit the ground as he leaped off his horse and strode toward the other man. Sten was still dazed when Jurgen lifted him off the ground by the vest. “He is…” Jurgen put his face only a few inches from Sten’s. “My brother.”
Blood was streaming down Sten’s face. “Yes, my lord.”
“Get back on your horse. Do not speak again unless it’s to offer a suggestion on finding him.”
“Yes, my lord.” Sten nodded.
The look of wonder on Rutger’s face brought a smile to his own. Rutger leaned against the half-grown elephant and rested his cheek on the gray hide. His eyes were half closed as he just stood there, moving slightly each time the beast took a breath. Liam watched for a few moments before simply turning and handing the purse to the merchant.
“But she’ll survive, right?” Rutger spoke up without moving. “Jurgen said an elephant can’t survive in the Wild.”
“What does Jurgen know about elephants?” Liam shook his head. “He’ll be an expensive pet for you to keep, but she’ll survive.”
Rutger ran his hand along the ear. “Her name is Daffodil.”
Liam laughed. “You do know he’s going to make fun of the name, right?”
“If he does…” Rutger stood up then. “I’ll put her poop under his bed.”
“Oh, don’t do that…” Liam winced. “You’d make Diantha mad.” He leaned down and whispered to Rutger. “And she even scares him.”
Laughter bubbled up from Rutger. “I’m bringing Mother back the only elephant in the Wild.” He petted the gray hide again, and the elephant reached out with her trunk to pet Rutger’s face.
“The elephant is for you, Rutger.” Liam smiled. Then he offered Rutger the satchel. “You can give her this.”
He set the satchel on the ground to open it, and pulled out the gold idol. It shimmered, though the stone set inside was not glowing. Rutger swallowed. “It’s shrine beacon…” He looked up at Liam, eyes wide and worshipful. “From Natiel. I read all about them. They…” He touched the abstract carving made to resemble a woman transforming into a dragon. “You anoint the stone with a few drops of a person’s blood, and then it will glow for as long as that person lives.” He swallowed.
“Will that —”
“It’s perfect.” Rutger beamed up at him. “Liam, it’s perfect.” He hugged Liam again. “It’s even better than what you brought her, cause she can make this one work.”
“Figured out yet what you are going to tell Jurgen?” He patted Rutger’s back.
“Oh…” Rutger blinked. “Oh yeah, he’s still going to be mad, isn’t he?” He winced. Then he shook his head. “Don’t worry, I won’t tell him you were involved. He won’t be mad at you.”
Jurgen was going to break his nose again. He could already feel it. “He’s scared, Rutger.”
“Jurgen isn’t scared of anything.” Rutger shook his head.
“Rutger, right now, he’s riding through Natiel, absolutely terrified that he’s never going to see his little brother again.” He patted Rutger’s shoulder, then gestured for him to pick up the satchel. “You owe him an apology.”
“I…” Rutger slung the satchel over his shoulder before grabbing the elephant’s lead rope. “Yeah.” He looked up at Liam again. “You really promise not to tell him any of this?” Rutger looked away before he could respond, and petted the elephant’s trunk. “You won’t tell him I failed?”
“I won’t tell anyone, Rutger.” He prayed, knowing it was in vain, that the words would be enough. “I promise.”
“Come on, Daffodil.” Rutger smiled at the elephant. “Let’s go home.”
The shouts drew his attention, and Jurgen rode forward. He went still in the saddle when he saw what the scouts had spotted. Sugarplum continued a few paces before going coming to a stop in confusion at the lack of his rider’s response. Jurgen stared a second longer, then slid off the horse and started walking forward. The other riders behind him also drew up short, staring.
From the back of the solid gray creature, Rutger gave him a smug look. “There you are.” Rutger grinned. “I’ve been looking all over for you.”
“Rutger?” Jurgen stared.
“I was starting to think I was going to have to head back without you.” Rutger shrugged. “You’re lucked Daffodil and I decided to take one more look around before we rode for the border.”
“Daffodil?” Jurgen blinked.
Rutger patted the elephant’s head. “You really should have waited for me like I said.” He made a clucking sound, and the elephant responded by starting to plod north.
Jurgen just stood there, staring. Sugarplum made a nickering sound, then nuzzled him. He caught hold of the horse’s reins, then watched a moment longer. “Daffo…” He let out a small laugh, then leaped back into the saddle. He glanced over his shoulder, and saw the staring faces of his men. “Well?” He pointed after Rutger. “Get moving.”
Relieved laughter answered him as the riders started after boy and beast. Jurgen watched for a moment, then looked back over his shoulder. He couldn’t make out anyone, but knew who had to be nearby. “Liam…” He exhaled. “I’m going to break your fucking nose again.” Then he turned Sugarplum north and started back to the Wild.