Stone and Fire: Chapter 40

He strode into the room and narrowed his eyes at his brother.  Liam’s face took on a resigned expression, and he sighed.  Jurgen just nodded.

Then he punched his brother in the face.  Liam staggered backward, landing on the rug in front of the fire.  “You fucking promised.”  Jurgen stared down at him.  “You son of …”  He pointed.  “You promised.”

“I did.”  Liam wiped at the blood on his face.

“Then why the fuck did Mother say whoever brought a keystone back to Darodelf first?”  He shook his head.  When Liam didn’t respond, Jurgen reached down, caught him by the front of the tunic, and hauled him back to his feet.  “You had me bring it to Diantha…”  He glared.  “In.  Darodelf.”

“Yes.”  Liam looked down, then wiped at his face again.

“You promised.”  Jurgen shook him.

“Yes, Jurgen, I did.”  Liam’s head came up, and his eyes locked onto Jurgen’s.  Jurgen took a startled step back as he felt a chill go down his spine.  “But nothing in that promise stops me from trying everything I can to save you both.”  His eyes seemed to glow.  “You’re my brothers, Jurgen.”

Jurgen let his hands fall to his sides.  He clenched his fists and took a few deep breaths before looking up at his brother again.  “I don’t intend to stand meekly by while someone kills me.  What happens?”

“Phillip waits in ambush.”  Liam picked up a potion that had been sitting on the mantle and took a drink.  “Rutger has no interest in killing Rien, but Phillip would rather not risk Rien complicating things if he can help it.  If you don’t show for the ambush…”

“He goes after Rien instead.”  Jurgen nodded.  Then he squared his shoulders.  “Only Rien won’t be forewarned and prepared.”  He walked over, grabbed a map off the table, and shoved it into Liam’s chest.  “You know where Phillip will be, so…”  He saw pain in his brother’s eyes, and sighed.  “And you thought of that already.”

“I walked the web a thousand times.  I called upon Wendel and his knights, and Solsthriem broke apart into civil war.  I hired mercenaries.  I tried to handle it myself.”  Liam looked away, resting his head on the mantle.  His voice broke on the words.  “I can’t watch you die again, Jurgen.”

“Hey…”  He caught Liam’s arm, then pulled him into a hug.  “What happens next isn’t your choice, Liam.  Whatever Mikaere believes, you are not a god.”  He felt Liam shake, and tightened his arms.  “For almost thirty years, I’ve had faith in you, my brother.  Have faith in me.”

“I do.”  Liam nodded.

“Look out for Rien.”  He patted Liam’s back, then managed a small smile.  “I hate admitting this, but uh…”  He shrugged.  “He needs all the help he can get.”

“I have…”  Liam drew back, then nodded.  “I’ll make sure Jochem gets him some of the help he needs.”

“If we don’t see each other again, I…”  Jurgen smiled, then patted Liam’s cheek.  “I’ll be down at the water’s edge, with drinks, and we will sail upon the storm.”

(more…)

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Stone and Fire: Chapter 39

“He’s doing fine, Liam.”  Jurgen folded his arms and glared.  “He’s been reading up on irrigation and even talked with her about an aqueduct.”

“On the holding that provides his supply of ale.”  Liam sighed.  “I’d hoped…”

“You’d hoped what, Liam?”  Jurgen exhaled.  “That Rien would snap his fingers and solve all our problems?”  He shook his head.  “You’re not stupid.”

“I could argue that point.”  Liam leaned on the stone wall, staring out the window at where Rien was practicing in the combat circle.  His voice sounded a little grudging when he spoke again.  “He inherited his father’s fighting ability, at least.”

“You think that’s impressive?”  Jurgen laughed.  “A couple days ago he took out three of those guys blindfolded.”

Liam blinked before turning toward him.  “Rien fights blindfolded?”

“Sure does.”  Jurgen grinned.  “I’ve been teaching him.  He’s better than I am now.”

“Since when do you fight blindfolded?”  Liam raised an eyebrow.

“Since I saw you do it.”  Jurgen patted his brother’s shoulder.  “Figured if you could learn to do it, couldn’t be that hard.”

“You learned…”  Liam gave him a strange look.  “You learned how to fight while blindfolded?”

“And it was a pain in the ass.”  Jurgen nodded.  “I went through Wendel’s entire library, couldn’t find a single book on the technique.  Pretty much had to make it up myself.”  He twitched a shoulder.  “Where’d you learn it?”

“Jurgen…”  Liam stared at him for a moment.  “I have Asrael’s Sight.”

“I…”  Jurgen trailed off.  “You weren’t fighting me without being able to see?”  Liam gave a tiny shake of his head.  “You were watching the entire fight in your mind?”  Liam gave a small nod.  “You were cheating?”  Liam’s lips twitched.  Jurgen took a deep breath.  “I’m going to give you a five second head start, and then I’m tossing you in the…”  He didn’t finish getting the words out before Liam turned and broke into a run.

(more…)

Stone and Fire: Chapter 38

He jumped down the last of the stairs, landing with a loud thump.  Just to be sure, he reached up and set the lantern swinging, making it rattle.  He also kicked a barrel and counted to thirty in his head.  Then, and only then, did he open the door to Mikaere’s chamber.  The young man was sitting up in the bed, the blanket mostly to the side covering a lump that was moving slightly with each breath.  “I’m heading ashore to discuss the new sails.”  And Adaeze hadn’t permitted him to go ashore without Mikaere’s blades since Diantha had told her about the assassination attempts.

“Yes, Aihuroa.”  Mikaere slid out of the bed and reached for his leggings.  The lump beneath the blankets moved just a little.

“I’ll meet you on deck.”  He tried not to look at the blanket.  “I’m going to go look for my sister.”  Liam turned and headed back the way he’d come.  He stopped when he got to the deck, then began counting in his head.

A minute later, Ama came up the stairs behind him.  She was dressed, though her hair was still tousled as messy.  “We just going to keep pretending —” He shot her a glare, and she snickered.  “You know, it’s going to be hilarious when Mbali —”

“Stop talking.”  Liam folded his arms but couldn’t quite stop himself from wincing.

Ama just laughed.

(more…)

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.”

(more…)

Stone and Fire: Chapter 36

Adaeze stretched, then glanced at her daughter.  Mbali was giggling.  “What?”

Mbali put a hand to her own forehead, then moved her hand to touch Adaeze’s forehead, then moved it back.  “I’m taller than you.”

“You don’t have to keep reminding me of that.”  Adaeze shook her head as Mbali started dancing her way across the deck.  She sent a mock glare up at her husband, then pointed at Mbali.  “Your fault.”  He was staring off the side of the ship, his gaze distant.  “Liam?”  She walked over and put her hand on his arm, making him jump.  “Liam, what’s wrong?”

“I…”  He gave a small shake of his head as the far away look left his eyes.  “I’m sorry.”

“For what?”  She stared, feeling a chill go down her spin.  “Liam?”

“Your grandmother is dead.”  He met her eyes.  “My queen.”

“Oh.”  She stared at him, taking a few deep breaths.  Then she turned to the helm.  “Set course for the islands.”

(more…)

Stone and Fire: Chapter 35

Petrus gave a gleeful shout before forming himself into a ball and splashing into the water with the other children.  Ama began splashing him as soon as he surfaced, and Petrus laughed as he retaliated.  Jurgen laughed, then glanced at where Adaeze was sitting.  “You know, I thought Liam’s ability to hold his breath was impressive.”  He glanced at the water.  “Aren’t you…”

“Wait.”  Adaeze shook her head.

He was squirming by the time Mbali finally surfaced, shooting out of the water almost the full length of her body and catching hold of one of the ropes to start pulling herself back onto the ship.  He couldn’t quite stop himself from giving a relieved chuckle.  “Aren’t you worried about those shark things?”

Adaeze rolled her eyes at him before giving a pointed look to where Liam was over on one of the small rocky outcroppings with Zuri and Mikaere, collecting something.  “No.”  She smiled at where Petrus and the other kids were moving onto the sandbar, whooping and hollering.  “Most Ilael vessels do not have so many children.  The risk is too great, so they grow up on the islands.”  She smiled.  “But there is no place in the world safer than the vessel upon which my husband sails.”

“I wish…”  He stopped himself before wishing aloud that he could have brought his other two brothers.  He sighed.  “I wish.”

“I know.”  Adaeze watched Mbali dive back into the water.  “I would like to send Mbali back with you.  To learn horses and mountains.  To learn that even though it is the sea to which we will return, we too take life from the land.”  She exhaled.  “And perhaps to learn from Diantha how to fight.”

Jurgen laughed, then looked out at the sandbar again.  Ama was showing Petrus how to spear fish.  “One day.”

“One day.”  Adaeze nodded.

(more…)

Stone and Fire: Chapter 34

“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.”

(more…)

Stone and Fire: Chapter 33

“Feel the air against your skin.”  Jurgen swung the quarterstaff near Rien.  “Trust your ears.”

Rien stuck his tongue partially out of his mouth as he screwed his face up in concentration behind the blindfold.  When Jurgen aimed the next blow, slowed, at him, Rien suddenly swung his own staff up.  It hit Jurgen’s staff, though the angle wasn’t quite sufficient to completely deflect the blow.  Still, it brought a smile to Jurgen’s face.  “I got it.”  Rien ripped the blindfold off.  “I hit it.”

“Good job.”

The sound of activity from the hall drew his attention, and a moment later Rutger came bursting through the door.  “Rien, Rien.”  Rutger grabbed his little brother’s hand.  “Come see what I got.”

Jurgen watched Rutger drag Rien out of the room, then gave a small shake of his head.  “Hello, little brother.  I missed you too.”  He tossed the quarterstaves into the corner, then followed the boys out.  A whoop of glee from Rien had him quicken his pace, and he emerged into daylight to see two stallions, both nearly golden in color save for their black socks.  “Well now…”  He glanced at where Liam was standing, then frowned at his brother’s expression.  “Liam?”  He put a hand on Liam’s shoulder.  “Everything alright?”

Liam opened his mouth, then closed it again.  “The horses are twins.  Such a birthing is considered sacred.”  He turned back to look at where Rutger was stroking the nose of one of the stallions, while the other butted up against him for a share of the attention.  “A gift for a prince.”  He exhaled.  “I hope he understands the magnitude of what he was given.”

“Things aren’t alright, are they?”  He folded his arms.  “You’re back sooner than I expected.”

“Diantha’s with child.”  Liam looked back at him.

“Yeah, she…”  The smile died on his face.  “Liam.”  He started shaking his head.  “No.”

“They’ll not survive the birthing, Jurgen.  Efua can…”  Liam sighed.  “I’m sorry.”

“Yeah.”  Jurgen looked away.  “Me too.”

(more…)

Tales out of Tallis: Timeline

Includes the ages of the Draak brothers.

Jurgen Liam Rutger Rien Event
0 Jurgen is born
1 Diantha is born
2 Wendel is born
4 Jurgen’s father, Gerlach, grows ill and dies within a week of the first symptoms
Thirza marries Levi, one of her advisors
5 0 Lammert is born
Jurgen starts to grow ill the same way his father did.  Levi is caught poisoning him and is sentenced to death by torture
6 1 Levi manages to dash his skull against a wall, thus carrying out his death sentence after over a year of torture
11 6 Koert is captured in a raid and taken as a slave by a noble of Clan Valyk
13 8 Koert is ordered to entertain Thirza with a poem.  Thirza appreciates the poem enough that she purchases Koert.
15 10 The opening scene of Stone and Fire
16 11 Koert gives Lammert his first birthday present via Jurgen
Thirza arranges the alliance between Clan Draak and Clan Valyk, thus effectively uniting 2/3rds of the Wildlands
Koert begins training Lammert in staff fighting
Lammert and Jurgen fight back to back for the first time, defeating six other boys in a duel
Koert teaches Lammert how to ride a horse
Jurgen meets Diantha, Diantha breaks Jurgen’s nose, Jurgen falls in love with Diantha
Thirza informs Jurgen he must choose between marrying Diantha and accompanying Lammert on his adulthood quest.  Jurgen choses Diantha.
The Ilael queen dispatches Uduak and a few others on a quest to return a gemstone to a volcano
17 12 0 Rutger is born
Lammert leaves on his adulthood quest
Returning the gemstone causes an earthquake, and the Ilael are captured by the Unitafels
Lammert enters the tomb and discovers the scepter, thus taking on Asrael’s Sight.  Meanwhile the Unitafels slaughter his guard
Lammert is captured by the Unitafels.  Shortly after regaining consciousness, he hears them talking about abusing Efua, and comes to her defense.  He kills one, but then is overpowered and abused instead.
The Unitafels sell the Ilael to Tebotas.  Uduak insists Lammert be purchased as well, offering to pay his ransom personally
Uduak realizes Lammert can speak and understand any language, and starts to get an inkling that his dreams are prophetic
Jurgen marries Diantha
Uduak pays her ship’s bread to ransom Lammert, then adopts him as her son, Liam
18 13 1 Liam is officially adopted by the Ilael
Liam gets a vision of a wrecked ship, and leads his crew to rescue the survivors.  Adaeze is thus rescued.
Jurgen and Diantha meet Pauwel
Adaeze asks to join the crew of the Phoenix to stay close to Liam
19 14 2 Jurgen and Diantha’s son, Petrus, is born
Thirza marries Pauwel to gain control of his clan’s mineral wealth
Adaeze is captured by Manisar slavers.  Wendel is a prisoner at the same time.  Liam gets a vision, and goes to the rescue.  Enu accompanies them despite Liam having a vision that he will die if he does.  Liam choses saving Wendel over saving Enu, and Enu is murdered by the Manisar slavers
Liam helps Wendel on his quest, thus starting Wendel on the road to Solsthriem’s throne and preventing a civil war
20 15 3 Liam gets a vision of Rien’s birth, and realizes he has to return to the Wildlands
0 Rien and Phillip are born during a total eclipse of the sun
Liam arrives in Darodelf during Rien’s naming ceremony, and presents the Scepter of Asrael to Queen Thirza, thus completing the quest he’d set out on three years earlier.
Liam stops Rutger from tossing Rien off the balcony in a jealous tantrum
Thirza gives Wharf Tower to Liam
Liam rescues Wendel from assassins and gives Wendel his horse
Liam returns to the Ilael and Adaeze
21 16 4 1 Ama is born
Adaeze claims Liam, and they are married
22 17 5 2 Liam returns to visit the Wildlands, bringing Sugarplum the stallion as a gift for Jurgen
Liam starts teaching Rien to juggle
Liam introduces Jurgen to Wendel
Uduak tells Jurgen which Unitafels tribe tortured Liam
Wendel and Jurgen have a threesome with Efua, thus beginning the relationship between Wendel and Jurgen
Jurgen and Liam help Wendel pull of the coup that leaves Wendel king of Solsthriem.
Jurgen and Wendel learn of Liam’s gift
Thirza orders Jurgen to carry out the raid on the Unitafels against Liam’s wishs
Wendel cements his position as king by marrying Marina
Marja Valyk is born
23 18 6 3 Mbali is born
Liam gets the vision of the Unitafels retalitory attack on Clan Valyk
Koert is killed saving Liam
Jonas Jaeger is born
24 19 7 4 Adaeze becomes captain of The Bard
Liam’s vision leads the ships to aid Uhses
Liam kills the basilisk and recovers the first keystone
Liam acquires Mikaere
Jurgen brings Pauwel and Diantha to meet Liam’s Ilael family
Bastien is born
Alida and Teuna are born
25 20 8 5 Pauwel is killed rescuing Jonas
26 21 9 6 Adaeze is named the heir to the throne of the Ilael
Paul Jaeger is born
Thirza begins pushing Liam to build a navy for the Wilders
Maikel Valyk is born
27 22 10 7 Efua begins accompanying Liam to the Wildlands
Jurgen makes Liam promise that if he has to choose, he is to save Rien over Jurgen
Liam promises to take Rutger to Petobae
Liam and Efua rescue the grandchildren of Mahdi al Nejem bin Amin of Jolusth
Zuri is born
28 23 11 8 Mikaere joins Liam and Efua in their treks to the Wild
Liam and Jurgen ride out together to save the Akobul villagers from the Unitafels
Liam takes Rutger to Petobae, and Rutger acquires twin gold stallions
Diantha loses her child, but Efua is able to prevent the miscarriage from claiming Diantha as well.  Efua reveals to Diantha that Efua herself is sterile after having miscarried the child of either Jurgen or Wendel
Ama becomes Liam’s apprentice
29 24 12 9 Rutger runs away from Jurgen in an attempt to prove his own worth during his adulthood quest.  Rutger is beaten, robbed, and raped by bandits and is moments away from throwing himself off a ledge in suicidal despair when Liam finds him and pulls him back
Despite knowing what will come of it, Liam purchases Rutger an elephant and magical artifact to take back to the Wildlands in triumph, knowing that if Rutger goes back as a failure Rutger will take his own life.  He promises Rutger that he will never tell anyone the truth
30 25 13 10 Maela and Rachel are born
Petrus comes with Jurgen to the Ilael and meets Liam’s children.
Jonas comes to the Wildlands incognito for six months, living among Jurgen’s children.  He and Petrus become blood-brothers
31 26 14 11 The relationship between Rutger and Liam starts to decay when Liam refuses to take Rutger on a ship with him.  Liam knows both that if Rutger goes with him on an Ilael vessel, Rutger will die, and that if he tells Rutger the truth Rutger will tell Thirza.
Jonas lives with the Ilael for six months, and forms a big brother / little sister bond with Zuri
32 27 15 12 Adaeze becomes Queen of the Ilael, making Liam King of the Ilael
Petrus participates in a tournament in Solsthriem as his adulthood quest.  His victory makes him the first Wilder to own land in Solsthriem and thus have legal rights in that kingdom.
Wolter Valyk is born
Rien goes on his adulthood quest, raiding into Thatela.  Liam declines to accompany him and Jurgen, as he knows if he does Rutger will become even more jealous of Rien and likely retaliate in some fashion
Jurgen talks Wendel into smuggling him into Natiel as part of Wendel’s diplomatic entourage so Jurgen can thwart a minor issue with the Unitafels.  Things go the way they normally do when Wendel and Jurgen team up
33 28 16 13 After another argument about the Liam refusing the build a navy for Thirza, Thirza attempts to kill him for the first time.  Liam spills the poisoned desert to prevent Petrus from eating it, thereby cluing Jurgen in to what just happened.
37 32 20 17 Enu Idowu is born
41 35 24 21 Liam blows up a castle
45 40 28 25 Thirza dispatches her sons to find the keystones, proclaiming whoever brings one back will be her heir
47 42 30 27 Rien joins in a raid on the Duke’s castle and takes Bastien prisoner

Events that have not been posted or referenced yet in story are left off to prevent spoilers.  A few events (such as various people’s births) are on this list despite having not been explicitly called out in the story, just for clarification purposes.

Stone and Fire: Chapter 32

“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.”

(more…)

The Duchess: Chapter 14 (The End)

“Ruarc.”  Gian rushed up and threw his arms around Ruarc’s neck.  “You’re safe.  You’re safe.”

He held Gian to him tightly.  “I was worried about you.”

“About me?”  Gian shook his head.  “You’re the one who…”  Gian trailed off, then pulled back.  “Why is the Stone Dragon naked?”

“That’s…”  Ruarc started to open his mouth, then sighed.

“Because the more Draaks you involve in a situation…”  Markus went over to one of the horses and started checking the saddle.  “The less sense that situation is going to make.”

“Wait just a damn minute…”  Jurgen turned toward him.  “How is any of this our fault?  I seem to recall the only reason I’m involved at all is you asked for my help.”

“Yes, well…”  Markus took a deep breath, then another one.  “Thank you, Jurgen.”  There was a coughing sound from the direction of Lammert.  Markus took another deep breath.  “He looks smug right now, doesn’t he?”

“Yep.”  Jurgen nodded.

“We’re about to get another told you so, aren’t we?”

“Yep.”  Jurgen nodded again.

“I thought I was very clear in my directions.  They were simple.  There were, in fact, only two of them.”  Lammert stalked toward where an ebony skinned woman and the gold-skinned man from earlier were waiting with horses.  “Cut through the woods, and if you see a Manisarian woman steer clear.”

Jurgen blinked.  “Wait —”

“Two directions.  Two steps.  But did you listen?”  Lammert started shaking his head.

“Hey now…”  Markus turned toward Lammert.

“The two of you can somehow manage to govern, but can either of you follow simple directions?”

“Liam.”  Jurgen folded his arms.

“Did you two even listen?”

“Liam.”  Markus pointed toward Gian.

“What really was so hard about those instructions?”  Lammert glared in their direction.

“Liam.”  Jurgen also started pointing at Gian.

“Did you just see a woman and all sense fly from your heads?”

“Liam.”  Markus kept pointing at Gian.

“Were they too complicated?”

“Liam.”  Jurgen raised his voice and pointed at Gian again.

“Too long?  Too comple— ”

“Liam.”  The ebony skinned woman touched Lammert’s shoulder and he stopped.  She pointed at Gian.

Lammert glanced at her, then turned to look at Gian.  Gian glanced at Ruarc uncertainly before looking back at Lammert.  Lamemrt stared at Gian for a few more seconds, then turned back toward Jurgen and Markus.  “I see how you may have misunderstood.”

“Can I hurt him?”  Markus turned toward Jurgen.

“If anyone hurts him…”  Jurgen ran a hand down his face.  “It’s going to be me.”

(more…)

The Duchess: Chapter 13

“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.

(more…)

The Duchess: Chapter 12

Durante couldn’t help but stare at the man pacing the cell.  He’d heard legends of the Stone Dragon, and had to admit that some of them may well be true.  The man was taller and even more muscular than Ruarc.  The second man was smaller, though of similar age.  He too, was a handsome man, with short blond hair and a warrior’s build.  According to the jailer, Ruarc had kept Jurgen Draak in line by threatening that they’d shoot the other man first.

“You want to play.”  Vitalia’s voice purred in his ear.

“Some games are too dangerous even for me…”  Durante turned to smile at her.  “Though I do admit to a certain temptation.”

“He’s unarmed and unarmored.”  Vitalia shrugged.  “How dangerous could he be?”

“He once torn a troll’s arm off and used said arm to beat another troll to death.”  Durante chuckled.  “Looking at him, I can believe it.”  He hesitated a moment.

“The Dragon Queen may pay well for the return of her heir.”  Madzia’s voice was quiet.

“More likely she’d send a horde down on us.”  Vitalia shook her head.  “We are too near their border.”

“They say she once spent a year torturing one of her husbands to death.”  Durante glanced at Vitalia.

“I like her already.”  Vitalia smiled, then returned her gaze to the pacing man.  “We can always tell the king we were simply interrogating him to learn if there were others near.”  She flicked her eyes to the blond man.  “And tell our draconic guest that any failure on his part to cooperate will result in his friend bearing the brunt of said interrogation.”

“An interesting notion.”  Durante’s smile widened.

“Let us sleep on it.”  She shrugged.  “Ruarc is occupied.  I’ll send for Gian to entertain us.”  She headed up the stairs.

He followed.

(more…)

The Duchess: Chapter 11

Vitalia accepted a glass of wine from a tray brought by a servant, and smiled.  Madzia had found her early in the visit and whispered to her that Lord Liam of Bohm was in attendance.  It seemed as good an opportunity as any to dispense with agents and make the purchase.  Things weren’t going exactly as she planned, but she found herself enjoying the company anyway.  She’d expected Lord Liam to be a Solsthriem lordling, all prim and proper.  The man in front of her was of Jolusth, tall and handsome in a tunic that covered only one shoulder.  His other shoulder was bare, the better to show off the tattoo that decorated it.  The servant who accompanied him was a tiny, golden skinned exotic with unusually shaped eyes.  She’d never quite seen the like before.

“How is it you’ve acquired lands in both Solsthriem and Thatela?”  She raised an eyebrow.

“It behooves one to range far.”  His accent was a soft drawl.  Despite her lands bordering theirs, she’d rarely had the chance to talk with one.  Lord Liam was delightfully tall, though slenderer than her husband.  “I have interests spanning the world.”

“Your people aren’t known to be merchants.”  She sipped at her wine.

“My people are often underestimated.”  He took a sip from his own glass.  “But pray tell, what interest do you hold…”  He frowned as his servant stumbled a little, spilling from the tray he carried.  Liam barked something in another language.  The servant bowed his head low and hurried off to replace the spilled items.  “Manisar’s training routines seem problematic.”  He glanced at her, then inclined his head.  “Forgive me, duchess.  I know the purchase of slaves is not legal in your lands.”

“Tis a shame.  Servants are well and good but so difficult to train properly.”  She raised her glass in his direction before sending another look in the direction of the servant.  She’d really never seen anything quite like him before.  “I admire your taste.”

“Is that why you wish to acquire my property?”  He smiled at her.

“I think…”  She gave Lord Liam a contemplative smile.  He was a handsome man, and clearly someone not adverse to more unconventional pursuits.  “I have acquired a member of the family that used to hold it.  I wish to acquire the property as well, to ensure there are no…”  She shrugged.  “Behavioral issues.”

Lord Liam laughed.  “Duchess, you have expensive tastes.  I am curious if this acquisition of yours is worth such a grand price?”

“To be fair, there are also the vineyards.”  She took a sip of the wine, peering at him from the rim of the glass.  “Wine and sex do seem natural bedfellows.”

“Perhaps you intend to arouse my curiosity?”  He raised an eyebrow.  “I would be interested in seeing this…”  He chuckled.  “Acquisition of yours.  Perhaps an arrangement can be made?”

She smiled, imagining the look on Ruarc’s face when she ordered him to service a barbarian lord.  “You could accompany me back to my estate, judge for yourself?”  She allowed his servant to refill her glass.  “Then we could come to our bargain.  I’m sure, after experiencing my hospitality, you’d be willing to bargain.”

“You offer an interesting enticement.”  Lord Liam nodded.  “I think there may be business at your estate that could draw my interest.”  He rolled his eyes.  “And one is often led to wonder why one leaves important work to their agents.  Especially when it seems they oft have trouble listening to the simplest of instructions.”

“It does give one an excuse to use a flogger.”  She batted her eyes at him.

“You require an excuse?”  His grin became mischievous.

“Lord Liam, I think you and I could become friends.”  Vitalia laughed.

“The future does tend to play out in the oddest of ways.”

(more…)

The Duchess: Chapter 10

She ran her hand down Ruarc’s cheek, and was pleased to feel no stubble.  The fact that he kept himself well-groomed pleased her.  Gian had taken to tying Ruarc’s hair back for him, and she found she liked the way it looked.  He knelt before her obediently, awaiting her command.  She’d ridden him for nearly an hour that morning, and his body showed some of the effects.  The saddle tended to leave abrasions, and there were light scratches along his legs and torso from stray branches.  “When I return, I am going to have the craftsman rethink some of the straps.”  She frowned as she examined the small blisters that had formed were the straps went over his shoulders.

“Thank you, my lady.”  Ruarc hesitated a moment, then gave a small twitch of his shoulder.  “It would help my balance, I think, if the saddle sat either a little higher or a little lower.  It tends to slide a bit where it is.”

“I see.”  She smiled.  “I would prefer a steady, longer ride.”  She caressed his face with the back of her knuckles.  “Something to consider when I return.”

A shadow crossed his face, gone almost before she noticed it.  “Will I be accompanying you?”

Vitalia narrowed her eyes.  He’d been complicit in Gian’s recent poor behavior.  She was reasonably confident that Gian hadn’t smuggled any letters out for him, but the fact that he had accessed information without her permission made her wary of taking him anywhere he may be able to make contact.  “I think not.”  She tilted her head at him, then caught his chin.  “You’ll not be permitted to write this month.”  His face darkened slightly.  “Nor will you be permitted to write again until I say otherwise.  You attempted to subvert my authority, husband.  That is not acceptable.”

“I apologize, Mistress.”

Mistress.  He’d never called her that before.  For that matter, Gian had stopped using the term as well, adopting Ruarc’s habitual address of calling her ‘my lady’.  When had that occurred?  “You’ve been a good boy for me, Ruarc.  I am willing to be merciful over this lapse.  But my forgiveness goes only so far.”

“I understand, Mistress.”  He lowered his eyes submissively.

“Good boy.”  She leaned forward to kiss his forehead.

(more…)