Stone and Fire: Chapter 37

She stared a moment at the willowy, dark-skinned young woman.  The girl was taller than the Ilael, with long legs that had leaped the gap between the longboat and the dock with ease.  The girl grinned, and Diantha laughed softly.  “Mbali.”

“Chieftess Valyk.’  She turned to catch hold of the rope, so the boat could be tied to the dock.  Her eyes danced as she turned again.  “Mine aunt, we come bringing trade.

“You…”  Diantha gave a small shake of her head.  Mbali was taller than her own daughters.  Tears threatened.  “You grew up.”  She exhaled.  “You weren’t supposed to do that.”  She opened her arms.

Mbali stepped inside to return the hug.  Then she gave Diantha an apologetic look.  “I sail on The Wayward Dolphin.  Mama and Papa —”

“Sailed south for a moot.”  Diantha nodded.  “I got the letter.  We have barrels of ice peppers and a selection of carved rubies.”

“We have salt.”  Mbali jerked her head at the ship.

“Oh, I could kiss your father.”  Diantha laughed softly.  “We sent Clan Gorit running with their tails between their legs, but their little stampede did result in our stores getting swamped.”

“Papa made sure we have enough to resupply you.”  Mbali handed over the manifest.  “We also brought silk, glass from Sahit, and a cage of songbirds for the twins.”

“Is the Wayward Dolphin your ship then?”  Diantha took the manifest from her and handed over the parchment Torin had prepared.  A quick scan of the manifest showed there was once again no need to doubt Liam.  Everything was exactly as she would have requested.

“I’ll not be fifteen for a moon yet.”  Mbali shook her head.  “I sail with Captain Tendai, under the flag of Admiral Uduak.”  Mbali leaned forward.  “But the Captain is letting me handle a lot of the trading so…”  Her smile was eager.

“Soon.”  Diantha offered the manifest back.  “I want everything, but you knew that already.”

“Your offer is fair…”  Mbali handed the list back.  “But you knew that already.”  She tucked the list into her pouch, then took a deep breath and looked up at Diantha with a huge smile.

Diantha blinked, then put her hands over her mouth as her own face broke into a smile.  She’d been waiting for this news every time she heard from Liam or his family.  They knew a son was coming, but Liam had refused to peek ahead to tell them when the boy would arrive.  “When?”

“Papa said if we continue the run as requested, we’ll make it to the islands in time.”  Mbali spread her hands.  “They are going to name him Enu, after Mama’s brother.”

“Enu.”  Diantha had heard the story from Jurgen.  “It’s a good name.”

#

Liam put an arm around Zuri as she stared down at the tiny bundle in her arms.  He reached up to touch the babe’s head and felt a tiny tingle as power brushed against power.  Instinctively he reached to trace the thread before catching himself and taking his hand away.  Whatever little Enu’s gift was, it did not echo the same as Ama’s had.  He looked up to see Adaeze watching them, a small smile on her face.  “My family is whole again.”

“It is.”  He reached for her hand, and then bent to kiss her fingers.  Then he turned to look at where his daughters were gazing at their little brother in wide-eyed wonder.  “It is.”

#

“Just saying…”  Jurgen poked Liam’s shoulder playfully.  “Mine are better riders.”

“Three of yours cannot even swim.”  Liam folded his arms and glared, though he couldn’t quite keep the smile all the way off his face.

“Mine are cuter.”  Jurgen drew himself up to his full height before apparently recalling that Liam was actually a little taller than he was.

“Enu is still an infant in arms, which means —”

“Alright, fine.  Yours is currently cuter but that is going to change because face it, brother…”  Jurgen grinned.  “I’m the better-looking brother.”

“If they are still having this argument by the time we reach the next hill…”  Efua glanced at Mikaere.  “I am killing them both.”

“I think is sweet.”  Mikaere shook his head as he followed them.

#

“Door is locked.”  Jurgen sat down across from his brother.  A mask had descended almost as soon as they’d entered Darodelf, and Liam had been all but curt the few times he’d spoken.  “Talk to me.”  He frowned.  “You’ve been simmering since we met Rien in the stables.”

“He…”  Liam set down the book he’d been staring at without reading for the last hour.  “Pauwel Roem was not a brilliant man, but one needed only speak to him for a few minutes to realize that he cared.  That he would put his shoulder to the stone and push for all he was worth.”

“Rien is barely eighteen years old, Liam.”  Jurgen rose.  “He’s not even fully grown yet.”

“You shouldered a man’s responsibilities at twelve, Jurgen.”  Liam shook his head.

“That’s not the way I remember things, brother.”  Jurgen turned to face the window, then took a deep breath.  “I remember Koert all but smacking me in the head to remind me that…”  He shook his head before turning back to Liam.  “I let you get to nearly twelve without teaching you to ride a horse, in case you’ve forgotten.”

Liam sighed, then leaned back in the chair.  “Perhaps I had.”

“We both had to grow up too fast, Liam.”  Jurgen came back to the chair and sat down again.  “I didn’t want that for Rien or Petrus or Marja…”  He exhaled.  “Or Mbali, or Zuri.”  He straightened up, meeting Liam’s eyes.  “Rien’s young, Liam.  But he is Pauwel’s son.  He’s a good man.”  Jurgen smiled.  “You’ll see, I promise.”

“I…”  Liam slowly nodded.  “I hope you are right.”

“I always am.”  Jurgen grinned.

For a heartbeat, Liam just stared at him.  Then his voice deepened to a dead-on impersonation of Jurgen’s own.  “Relax, Wendel.  The roof will hold our —”

“Oh, shut up.”  Jurgen glared at him.  “And I wasn’t wrong, I just…”  He rubbed the back of his neck.  “Wasn’t expecting the dogs to follow us.”

#

He hesitated before entering the stone ringed paddock.  The elephant was a magnificent specimen, clearly well cared for.  There was a woven and embroidered blanket over her back, and her collar was of finely worked leather.  But it was the music, not the elephant, that had drawn his attention.  Rutger set the harp down before going over to pet the beast.

“She’s beautiful.”

Rutger glanced over his shoulder before picking up some sort of ointment and rubbing it into a spot on her ear.  Then he gave a small shrug.  “I’ve been thinking about going back and getting a couple others.  A mate, maybe.”  He examined the other side of her ear and was apparently satisfied with what he saw.  “They live as long as we do, you know.”  Daffodil raised her trunk to stroke Rutger’s cheek.

Liam walked over and put his hand on her shoulder.  “I still remember the first time I saw one.  I thought I was about to become its next meal.”  He smiled at the memory.

“It’s always a little fun, letting some new noble see her.”  Rutger chuckled.  “They never quite believe until they do.”  The smile faded, and his voice became brusque again.  “You need something, Lammert?”

“I hear you will be a father soon.”  He glanced at the box he’d brought with him.  “I brought you a few things.”

“I…”  Rutger hesitated a moment, then his expression hardened a bit.  “I’ve got all I need, thanks anyway.”

“Rutger, I…”  Liam sighed.  “When I heard the harp, I thought for a moment I was hearing your father.”

“Mine uh…”  Rutger glanced at the instrument.  “Mine was a child’s harp, Lammert.  I haven’t played it in years.”

“I’ll…”  Liam stared at his brother for a moment.  Rutger kept his face calm, but he could still see traces of the old hurt in his eyes.  Liam nodded.  “I’ll leave you be.”

“I…”  Rutger swallowed.  “Right, then.”  He turned and went back to examining the elephant’s ear.

#

“Jurgen, I…”  Liam stopped short when the man in front of him gave him an amused look.  “Oh, merciful waters.”

Petrus started laughing.  “You’re not even the first to do that today.”  His voice had deepened in the last couple years, making him even sound like his father.  He gestured for Liam to follow him into the library, then closed the door behind them.  “Can I see it?”  He raised an eyebrow.

“See…”  Liam blinked, then laughed.  “Mbali wrote you?”  He turned to check that the door was locked, then stripped off the vest and tunic to reveal the Jolusth tattoo.  The ink marked him as an honorary member of Nejem tribe.  Adaeze had fought hard for that particular alliance.  Jolusth shore huggers could meet them in Lethiun for trade, thus giving the Ilael access to goods from Natiel, Akobul, and Jolusth itself with much less risk of Manisar raiders.  Already both the Ilael and Nejem tribe were reaping the benefits.

Few outside Jolusth could read the tattoos.  Petrus, however… He was grinning.  “So, you are the bird on fire?”

“They don’t have a pictogram for a phoenix.”  Liam rolled his eyes before pulling the tunic back on and replacing the vest over it.

“I found the thing you were asking about.”  Petrus went over to a bookcase, then pushed it aside to get at a box.  He lifted it up and set it on the table before replacing the bookcase.  “You going to tell me why you need a manticore fang?”

“I need something to focus on in order to find a manticore.”  Liam picked up the fang, feeling out with his power.  Then he frowned and examined the fang again.  He made a frustrated sound.  “Petrus this is made from ivory.”

“No way.”  Petrus shook his head.  “I raided it out of a noble’s trophy room.  It’s been…”  He exhaled.  “It’s a forgery.”

“It is.”  He ran a finger over the item, then set it back in the box.  “A couple hundred years old.”  He traced a thread, then caught himself before laughing.  “You should return it.”

“I should…”  Petrus blinked.  “You want me to…”  His eyes narrowed with suspicion.  “What did you see?”

This time, the smile did find him.  “Trust me, Petrus.”  He patted the younger man on the shoulder.  “You should return it.”

#

Jurgen glared at Liam as Liam tried to stem the flow of blood from his nose with a cloth.  A cloth he’d brought with him, obviously expecting to get punched in the face.  As he well should.  “Forty fucking acres, Liam.”  Jurgen folded his arms.  “Forty acres of fertile river bank.  My favorite fishing spot.”  He pointed at Liam.  “And Petrus said returning it was your idea.”  He glared again.  “Want to explain why I had to ransom my son?”

Instead of answering, Liam pointed at the door leading out to the balcony.  Jurgen glared at him again, then strode out.  It took him only a few moments to see what Liam wanted him to see.  Petrus stood near a fruit tree, smiling at where the woman who’d recently managed to take him prisoner was fletching some arrows.  The woman was smiling back, laughing at something Petrus had said.  “Forty acres, Liam.”

“Relax, Jurgen.”  Liam’s hand came down on his shoulder.  “Your grandson will let you take him fishing there.”

#

Adaeze stood, watching her husband sleep.  Enu lay on Liam’s chest, snoring peacefully with his hand wrapped around one of his father’s fingers.  She was looking for a blanket before joining them on the bed when she heard Liam start muttering in his sleep.  She managed to snatch Enu up a heartbeat before Liam awoke in wide-eyed terror.  “Liam.”  She sat down next to him, shifting her grip on Enu so she could put a hand on Liam’s shoulder.  “Liam.”  Enu started to wail.

Efua entered a moment later, just as Liam started shaking her head.  “Are…”

“I’m fine.”  Liam panted.  “I’m fine, see to Enu.”  He took a deep breath.  “See to Enu, please.”

She nodded, then stood to let Efua sit next to Liam while she began rocking Enu.  The baby’s cries had faded by the time Efua took her hands off Liam’s head.  “Liam, what happened?”

“It was…”  Liam leaned back again.  “An old terror.  One I’ve not had in a few years.”  He exhaled.

“What caused it?”  Efua raised an eyebrow.

“Rutger rode into Ipruci.”  Liam sat up again, putting both feet onto the deck.  He hung his head, staring down at his hands.

“Rutger —”  Adaeze frowned.  “Is he…?”

Liam didn’t look up when he spoke.  “It’s raining there, so rather than camp he decided to go to a tavern.  There was a chair available at a table, so he asked the man if he could sit down.”  Liam swallowed, then looked up and met her eyes.  “And Phillip smiled when he said yes.”

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