Somewhere Else Entirely -101-

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The survivors begin the final day of their return to the palace, all deeply affected by the previous day's battle. Garia has some unexpected meetings which result in her discovering certain surprising and shocking facts.

Somewhere Else Entirely

by Penny Lane

101 - Unexpected Meetings


Disclaimer: The original characters and plot of this story are the property of the author. No infringement of pre-existing copyright is intended. This story is copyright (c) 2011-2014 Penny Lane. All rights reserved.



Garia was asleep. She knew this because she could feel the covers against her arms, keeping the chill of the night off her body. She could feel her own body, but she was in a peculiar state of sleep where she was paralyzed but lucid, able to hear but not to do, aware of everything that occurred around her. She could hear Jenet breathing gently nearby and Merizel snoring just as gently in the next bed.

Garia was also somewhere else entirely. She had been here before, in the vast, inscrutable location in the void she had visited in her sleep on several previous occasions. This time, things seemed slightly different, although she could not have said how or why. What she looked at, although looking was a poor description of the process, she now understood was some kind of Hall filled with what must be machinery. What the machinery did she had no idea and no possibility of comprehending. As well an insect might comprehend Mission Control!

In the Hall, such as it was, were two beings she recognized as those she had seen here before, and there was a minor shock as she understood that she did, indeed, recognize them. The Vast, Multidimensional Beings appeared to her limited understanding as giant amoeba-like bubbles that passed around and through each other but she knew that they were way more complex than that. Again, she seemed to have arrived at a point at which they appeared to be discussing herself in detail.

First Being: It is proven, then? The cloning mechanisms are defective?

Second Being: It is proven that the fault is with the cloning mechanisms, yes. I would hesitate to categorize the problem as a defect. The devices work exactly the way they were designed to.

First: Then that means -

Second: - the design is the problem. It does not take sufficient account of quantum effects.

First: ??? Our whole mathematical calculus is designed to take account of quantum effects! Explain yourself!

Before the discussion could move any further, a third being appeared. It did not exactly arrive, to Garia's eyes, neither did it suddenly appear in the Hall as though from another dimension but one moment it was not there and the following moment it was.

First: Integrator! We anticipated your appearance. We have progress to report.

Integ: So I have learned. This had better be good, and it had better be correctable. The entire project is in jeopardy, our projections of the fate of the galaxy result only in chaos.

Garia was stunned. The Galaxy? What was going on here?

Second: ??? We were not aware that the situation had gotten so bad, Integrator. As you might expect, our attentions were focused on this problem. In answer to your question, a single electron caused the anomaly, during the process where the transferee's body was recreated from the DNA blueprint.

Integ: How is this possible? We can track the exact position, motion and speed of every particle in the galaxy, including electrons. Is the mechanism faulty?

Second: No, Integrator. The mechanisms work exactly as designed. However, insufficient account was taken of quantum effects. This resulted in a single molecule being wrongly preferred at a crucial phase in the early development of the new body. These beings are bi-modal; the result is for the body to take the form of the alternate mode when it is grown.

Integ: And this matters how? I am not familiar with these particular life-forms. Should not the results have been broadly the same?

First: Integrator, it is not as simple as that. In the alternate mode, the transferee has limitations and opportunities not available to the original mode. In particular, the positive aspects of the transferee's presence have strongly influenced the forward calculations in unexpected ways.

Integ: How so?

Second: The transferee must still face some difficult decision points, Integrator. If, however, these points are negotiated successfully, then one predicted outcome is a biological union with the being who will become the next leader of these people. No such union would be possible for the transferee in its original mode, not would the transferee's influence be so great.

First: The balance we desired, between this transferee and its complement at the other end of the grouping of tribes on this part of the target world, is already broken. But our predictions hint at a much better outcome than our original forecasts, made before we transferred these two.

Integ: I do not like this. Is the situation still under control? Will it be necessary to take direct action to remedy the situation?

First: Why do we need to remedy anything? The projected outcomes are already far in excess of anything we have ever predicted, Integrator. I could argue a case for more of these anomalies, not less.

Second [moodily]: The outcomes are so favorable, Integrator, that I wonder if we have ever been in control. In fact, I am wondering if there is something special about this particular transferee.

There was a long pause before the Integrator replied.

Integ: You know we prefer not to use the term special. That implies that the fate of the galaxy may rest on the life of a single individual, or perhaps a small number of such individuals. In such cases it becomes almost impossible to predict the future that we desire, since the decision points have such huge side effects.

First: Such individuals occur at all times on all planets, Integrator, whether we transfer them there or not. We have to work with whatever we are given, as always.

Integ: Let me see your workings. I want to view your original proposal for this planet with regard to this transferee and the calculations you made, both before the transfer and afterwards.

The three beings did something to one of the mechanisms while Garia watched. She now knew more about how and why she had been brought to Anmar and she was curious to learn more.

Integ: I understand. This was to have been a balanced conflict which would have raised the development level of the planet to Industrial Phase Two. The anomaly in the transfer process has heavily weighted the result in the transferee's favor, so much so that they will reach Industrial Phase Four within the same time period. Interesting!

A balanced conflict? That means... that means they brought me and poor Yves here purely to start a war, which would trigger off the Industrial Revolution, just the same way it happened on Earth! The bastards!

There was no red mist, not in that place and time, but Garia was enraged.

...But slow down, wait a minute. That's what happened again and again on Earth, didn't it? The Napoleonic War advanced the Industrial Revolution. The Civil War brought mass production to the battlefield, the First World War accelerated airplanes and radio development, the Second gave us radar, transatlantic flight with modern planes, antibiotics, space rockets and electronics.

Whoa! Does that mean they have tinkered with Earth the same way they are tinkering with Anmar?

Integ: It is here! The transferee in question is present in this place! What have you done?

First: As we mentioned, this species is bimodal. The transferee should be addressed as 'she'.

Second: We did not know she was here. How is this possible? A Solid should not be able to comprehend this place.

Garia: Actually, I don't comprehend most of it. I do comprehend some of what you have been talking about, though. Did you really set me up with that other... transferee... to start a war?

First: We make no apologies, child. The world you now reside on has begun to stagnate and it was thought necessary to provide a little... incentive to continue development. No transferee before yourself has ever been aware that there was a larger scheme in motion. You simply lived your lives as circumstances permitted.

Garia: Are you... Gods?

Second: No, we are not gods, at least by your own definition of such beings. A God would be omniscient and omnipotent, that is, knowing all things at all times and able to create or destroy by the use of willpower alone.

First: We can predict the future, that is all. If we need to know something in fine detail, we must expend time and effort learning it. As for omnipotence, we interfere with the worlds in our custody as little as possible and we must use machines to change things just as you must.

Second: Transferring one such as yourself requires significant expenditure of energy and that in itself affects the future of the galaxy. In general, we effect the transfer and then let you live your lives as you will. We merely watch and predict.

Integ: You have been to this place before, child? You seem familiar with some of its aspects.

Garia: I have been here a number of times before. It took several visits before I understood what was going on. The Galaxy?

Integ: You should not have learned anything about such matters, child. By doing so you affect your own timeline, since you will now live with the knowledge you have gained here. [A pause.] Have you told any others of ourselves, of this place?

Garia: I have. A small number of people know what I have learned here. I take your point about it affecting my future actions, though. I think I had better not pass any of this information on.

First: But can you live your future life as though we did not exist? That is what we ask.

Garia: I don't think so, but I can make sure it does not affect my decisions. However, since I can come here I want to learn more. Why should I not actively help you do what you want to do? The fact that I now know about your Great Plan means that I might be able to constructively make things come out the way you want.

Integ [shocked]: I have never considered such a thing! Neither do I think has anyone else. We will discuss the matter at the Grand Council. [Curious.] How did you come here? How did you find this place? I would think that this place could not be discovered by any Solid.

Garia: I have absolutely no idea. I don't even know where 'here' is. I have no control over my movements in this... space, if that is what it is. Solids? Is that what we are?

First: We call you Solids because that is how we think you perceive your world. In reality you all have the same dimensions the rest of us have, you just lack the ability to understand them.

Second: In time your species may develop the ability to detect and make use of further dimensions. It is how we ourselves evolved to be what you see before you.

First: Perhaps you are the first of your species to be able to do this. [Aside to Second] Could this all be the fault of the failure of the transfer mechanism?

Second: I wonder, she spoke of Gods. Perhaps there really are Gods, and we are unaware of them?

Integ: That is not a rational response. However, the mere suggestion makes me nervous, given what I have discovered here. I have made my decision.

First: Integrator?

Integ: Continuing the present course will provide us with the best hope for a favorable future for our galaxy. Therefore we will adopt a wait and observe policy.

Second: There are other transfer projects in progress, both here and on other worlds. Should we also continue those?

Integ: Do so. Use the mechanisms just as you have done before. If there are other anomalies, make note of them but do not interfere.

Second: Integrator, I have been back through the records and discovered a number of previous anomalies on this world. In fact, one in every four transfers over the last two local centuries has produced unusual results for various reasons. Almost all of these transfer problems happened without anyone noticing, which is why we were surprised by the present anomaly.

Integ: So many? And you are certain that the mechanisms are themselves not faulty?

Second: We are, Integrator.

Integ: Very well. Child, since you have no control over your appearance here we will not deliberately exclude you in future. You must try not to let anything you learn here influence your future life.

Garia: I will. [Surprised] You'll let me come back here? Why?

Integ: A progression like yours beyond the Solid state is so rare I cannot think of another occurrence, at least not for some hundreds of millions of cycles. We would not deny you your new abilities but would teach you what you are capable of learning at your present level. I cannot tell you more at present, since I sense that you will shortly depart.

First: Do not think badly of us, child. In the grand scheme of life we are all related. We seek only to improve conditions for our distant offspring such as yourself.

Garia felt that the Hall was somehow receding away from her, although it didn't appear to become smaller. At some point the three beings became just blobs and then faded from view. Sleep reclaimed her.

~o~O~o~

Garia opened her eyes and for a brief instant saw the world in all its multi-dimensional glory. She gasped. The shimmering effects very rapidly faded to leave her in her accustomed three-dimensional habitat, a sleeping chamber lit by the rays of the early morning sun.

Jenet stirred awake. "Milady?"

"Here, Jenet. Oh, nothing, just an echo from my dream..."

"Those strange beings again, milady?"

Since Jenet already knew about Garia's night-time encounters, she felt it reasonably safe to reply.

"Yes. But," she temporized, "I can't tell you much about this visit, I'm afraid. It's all too strange."

"Will you tell His Highness?"

"There's nothing to tell," Garia lied. "Just more weirdness even I can't make head nor tail of."

"Huh?" Merizel roused. "What heads and tails?"

"The Vast Multidimensional Beings," Garia explained. "I went there again." I wonder what they call themselves? Do they even have names, individually or as a species?

"Oh." Merizel threw back the covers and levered herself upright. "I know it's important to all of us, Garia, but hearing you speak of those creatures gives me a headache. Does anyone know what time it is?"

"I do not know, milady," Jenet replied, "but since the sun is up it must be past dawn and therefore the bathing chamber awaits. Will you bathe? We have a day's travel still ahead before we reach the palace."

"And home," Garia added. "I can't wait to be back in the palace again. I know it sounds disrespectful but traveling all that way with all those carts full of dead and injured isn't going to be much fun."

"And home," Merizel echoed. "I dreamt of the battle last night. I do not think I will easily forget the sounds, the sights, the smells. Garia, do you know if this happens to all who take part in battle?"

"I think it does. I can't see how anyone who has any feeling at all can fail to be affected by a battle. I know we have to talk about it, too. It's the only way to stop it giving us nightmares in the longer term."

"This is wisdom from Earth, milady?"

"It is, Jenet, although I'm not too sure we have it right ourselves yet. Come on, let's go and find some of that lovely hot water."

Garia deliberately dressed in the clothes she had worn the previous day, her torn tabard and stained riding skirt. The rips in the tabard cloth which exposed the underlying steel had been patched by Jenet but the damage was still plain to see. One of Tanon's men had repaired her scabbard straps but she would not wear her swords until the day became warmer and she could remove her pea coat. All of their weapons had been meticulously cleaned after they had arrived at the roadhouse the previous evening.

The mood at the breakfast table was somber. Most talked in monotones and there was almost no conversation. The food was hot and freshly made but it seemed to be uninteresting, merely fuel to be chewed and swallowed. The only spark of interest was when Keren arrived.

"Good Day, Garia, Merizel, Jenet," he greeted them. "Looking forward to getting back?"

"Yes and no," Garia replied. "The sooner our wounded get proper attention the better, but I can't help thinking that rushing home makes it look as if we're trying to forget what happened yesterday."

"Aye, I know what you mean. I'm too young to remember previous battles but I think father holds some kind of parade to honor the men's efforts. Of course, that's usually because we have raised levies and that would be when they are released again." He shook his head. "Apart from Tanon's men this time it's all household troops so I'm not sure what the procedure will be. I'm sure Kendar has a scroll somewhere with instructions."

Garia's heart had done a backflip when Keren arrived but her emotional rush was offset by the after-effects of the battle. He had spoken to her in the heat of battle and offered her a throne. Did he really mean that? Was it just something produced in the after-effects of battle, when they were both dog-tired? The problem was, she would have no opportunity to ask him, to confirm or deny what she thought she remembered him saying. There were just too many people around them now, all with a vested interest in making sure they reached the palace alive.

After eating they toured the wounded, discovering Tedenis and Senidet in a tent feeding Lanilla. She was lying on a pallet, left arm in a sling and unable to rise. Although the color had returned to her face they all knew it would be some time before she would come to terms with the loss of her friend and fellow maid Jasinet during the battle.

"You will be well looked after," Keren assured her. "Even though you are but milady's servant you will receive the same care as any who fought yesterday. We will do all we can for so brave a girl."

"Thank you, Highness," Lanilla replied, trying hard to acknowledge Keren by moving.

He led up a hand. "Stay, I beg you. The wounded need not follow the customs of the fit at any time. Let your friends make sure you have eaten enough for the journey."

As they walked across to the crowded corral Keren asked, "It affects you greatly, does it not? The loss of Jasinet."

"It does, Keren. To have a life ended in so abrupt a fashion... and she wasn't even in the battle, so to speak."

Garia thought how excited Jasinet had been, to visit new lands, to experience things her sheltered upbringing in Blackstone had kept from her. She remembered Jasinet leaning out of the carriage to get a first glimpse of new terrain as their caravan moved along. She recalled the young girl's wonder when they had walked through the corridors of Dekarran, discovering levels of luxury she had never thought possible. She thought of a life abruptly terminated, a life in which she would likely have developed into a solid family retainer like Jenet. The tears trickled down her cheeks.

"Aye," Keren said, putting an arm around her shoulder. "It is hard for us all when we think of faces we know and cherish who will never smile again. Only the Maker knows when we may enter life and when we may leave it again, but for those who are left behind the loss may come hard. This is a different journey we must take, but we will take it together. Agreed?"

"Agreed." The others muttered agreement.

At the corral their mounts came to greet them without prompting. Snep had been attended to by some of Gilbanar's men, three patches pasted over small wounds on his back. Garia had been told that only one of them had been deep enough to bleed freely but they must all have hurt. The practice of leaving saddle, harness and bags on the animals' backs had partly protected them from the discharge of the weapons and there had been relatively few serious injuries. Those frayen who had wandered the battlefield after their riders had been dismounted or killed had suffered worse, several having to be put down with serious injuries from crossbow bolt and spear.

Snep nuzzled her hand and received his customary nibble. Garia eyed his back critically.

"Do you want me to ride you today, boy? We've plenty of spare mounts if you think you can't take a saddle today. What do you say?"

Snep, of course, understood only the tone of the message and not the content but he looked at Garia, at Merizel and Keren, then turned his head to regard his back. His response was clear.

"Okay, boy, we'll kit you up and see how you feel. I don't want anything rubbing those wounds."

It seemed that harness and saddle would not interfere with the dressings but Garia's saddle bags were distributed among the other riders to make sure Snep's back was clear.

"Are you sure you want to ride today, Garia? It would be no disgrace for you to sit a wagon."

"I must ride, Keren. I have to reconnect to Snep and I have to get back in the saddle. If I stay off it, it may get to a point where I never climb back on again." She had a thought. "And I want to honor the men, Keren. They have to ride, I must show them that I value their sacrifices by sharing them."

Keren regarded Garia with new respect. Her concern for the men's welfare was familiar but it showed she did not just think about it when times were good. Some of the men would ride but find the day's travel hard going, bearing wounds that would be painful until they arrived at barracks or lodging.

"Aye," he nodded. "Your thought does you credit, Garia. Let us mount, then. We should leave as soon as we may, since our progress will be slow in any case."

The procession consisted of their six wagons and a large number of two and four wheel carts. Some of these latter carried the wounded of both sides, some carried the dead of the defending troops and wagonmen who would be returned to their families. Those of Yod who had died in the battle had been left behind, laid out in a field at the side of the highway. At dusk tomorrow some of Gilbanar's men who remained near the site would give them a brief and barely respectful funeral burning.

There were two exceptions to this arrangement. One was the young French boy who had been used by Yod to advance their warlike aims and the other was the unknown man who Garia had killed during the fight. Yves Perriard would receive as honorable a funeral as Palarand could manage, even though no-one in the country had even seen him until the previous day, and then only briefly while he was still alive. The other body would be shown to various people in the city to try and find a trail which led back to Yod.

Those of Yod who had survived the battle and whose injuries did not require a cart were made to march in the procession of wagons and carts, closely guarded by those troops who were fit enough to do the duty. The prisoners had their hands tied behind and were linked together with halters. There was no need to force the pace, since the carts could only proceed at a slow walk due to the severity of some of the injuries.

Because of the slow pace Garia found herself talking with the men as they progress southwards. It seemed that they appreciated the few words they could share and so she decided to move up and down the line finding others to encourage. This met with instant disapproval from Feteran, but he could not deny that another attack was now unlikely.

"I cannot fault your attention to the men, milady. Remember, though, the entire battle was aimed at you and you make us nervous by exposing yourself this way."

"I know that, Commander. I also know that Duke Gilbanar is behind us and he has more men crossing the Sirrel every bell. If Yod has the men to attack again, this deep into Central Palarand, then they wouldn't have failed yesterday. They wouldn't have needed to mount another attack." She turned to him and raised a hand briefly. "I know what you're saying, though, and a small ambush force could cause problems wherever we are. I'm keeping my eyes and ears open and I'll be listening for the first bugle call, depend on it."

Feteran nodded reluctantly. "As you say, milady. I'll be nearby should you have need."

The procession went through some small towns along the highway and the crowds gathered to watch them pass, mostly in silence. The word of the battle had spread swiftly, as was always the case. There were a few claps of applause when people recognized Keren and, occasionally, Garia, but in the main those who lined the road were silent. Although the defending forces could be said to have won the battle, the cost had obviously been very high and few of the onlookers saw much to celebrate.

Garia found Senidet and Tedenis riding together.

"Senidet. I didn't see you much yesterday during the battle," she began. "I hope you weren't frightened too much by what happened."

"It was a shock, milady," Senidet replied. "I don't think any of us was expecting such a fight. I was frightened, a little, but I would say that I think Trogan's men frightened me more." She gave Tedenis a warm smile. "The men looked after me, milady, as much as they were able. When the first blow came I hid underneath a wagon and then, when a moment came to breathe, the foreign man of Jaxen's came and led me to the front where Lady Merizel and Jenet were waiting."

"Foreign man?"

"Uh, milady," Tedenis explained, "I think she means D'Janik. I watched him fight, milady, after I knew Senidet was safe. He was good, very good."

"Ah, well, D'Janik used to be one of the Palace Guard," Garia said. "He'd know how to fight, all right."

"Used to be a guardsman, milady? How did that happen?"

"Uh, there was a disagreement between him and D'Kenik over teaching me how to use these swords," Garia explained. "It's a long story and involves some secrets, I'm afraid. The two had a brawl over the business and D'Janik was dismissed the guard because of it."

"Dismissed the guard?" Tedenis's eyes were wide. "Over a brawl, milady? Is the discipline so strict within the palace, then?"

Garia gave him a wry look. "They brawled at my coming of age ceremony," she said, "in front of the King. The King was not amused."

"Oh, my," Senidet breathed. "That wouldn't be good, would it?"

"You're right. But the King knew that honor was involved and that D'Janik was basically good so he was just thrown out of the palace. That's how he ended up working for Master Tanon."

"Oh."

The two looked at one another.

"Palace life sounds like it might be interesting," Tedenis remarked.

"Aye," Senidet agreed. "But it will be up to you to uphold the honor of Blackstone, Tedenis. I don't expect to spend all my time in the palace but in the city, convincing guildsmen that I may learn my craft as well as they."

Garia wasn't sure what would happen to Senidet once they reached the palace so kept quiet. The rambling structure was capable of absorbing a huge number of visitors of all ranks and she didn't expect any problems, but she didn't know and since she hadn't thought to ask Keren it would be a question of wait and see. Senidet seemed determined to prove her independence, now that she was away from Blackstone, but she doubted that the guilds had yet thought up any routine for lodging female members within the city. The smith's daughter would likely have to spend some time living in the palace.

"What about you, Ted? Did you get any wounds during the fight?"

"A small cut only, milady, on my arm, here." He tapped his upper left arm with his right hand, guiding his frayen with his knees. "I was taken unawares, milady. It took some short moments before I understood I was required to fight for my life. When the guns came someone, I don't know who, pulled me bodily from the saddle and made me lie down, for which I thank them greatly. I never saw my frayen again, but I now understand the confusion of battle. Is it always thus, milady?"

"Well, I don't rightly know, Ted. I've only taken part in two battles in my entire life and I spent most of the first one running away. I guess you've about described it, though." Garia smiled at him. "That's why we put so much emphasis on training, Tedenis, so that your body responds without you having to think about it. That can save lives."

Tedenis nodded gravely. "As you say, milady. I will attend more closely to my training in future."

The lunch stop came and Garia joined the other women in checking over the wounded and replacing dressings where necessary. This included injured Yodans who appeared astonished that the object of their attack should be attending them like a servant!

"Why do you do this, Lady?" one of them asked, his accent noticeable. "I saw you fight, you should not lower yourself this way."

"What way?" Garia responded. "I know how to do this so it makes sense that I use my expertise where it is needed. What would you have me do? Stand to one side and direct people who don't have a clue?"

The other looked away. "It is not the way of Yod," he muttered. "You are a strange people."

"Who are a strange people?" she asked. "Who do you mean, those of Palarand or those of Earth?"

He looked at her with apprehension. "It is true, then. You are from the other world. My masters could not believe that a girl could do so much damage but the reports could not be denied. That is why they sent us to find you."

"Did you know that your masters sent your own Earth person along with you?" The man nodded. "Why did they do that?"

"We are not told of such reasons, Lady. I thought it a strange move myself but we do not question our masters' actions. That is the way to earn a flogging."

"There," Garia said, knotting the bandage, "that should see you through until the end of the ride. I don't think you'll face a flogging but invading someone else's country is going to involve some penalty."

"I know it, Lady. Do you know what will happen to us?"

"I don't. I don't know what war in the Valley involves at all. You'll just have to wait until we get to Palarand and find out for yourself."

The man gave her a respectful nod. "Thank you, Lady. I will remember your kindness."

While they were eating a force of about fifty troops arrived from the south. These were composed of a mixture of Palace Guards and City Guards and were led by Marshal Forton, who Garia had met previously. He dismounted and saluted Keren and Garia while they were eating.

"Your Highness, My Lady! Thank the Maker you are both well and uninjured!" His eyes narrowed. "I trust neither of you are injured? I see no bindings."

Keren waved a hand. "Marshal Forton, welcome. Please join us, find a seat. No, we are not injured, at least not bodily."

The two shared a glance which indicated that they recognised the psychological effects every man would face after a battle.

"As you say, Highness. We have come to escort you the rest of the way to the palace." Forton glanced around at the heavily armed and alert company. "Not that I deem you require it, I think. His Majesty was most insistent, though."

"Actually," Keren demurred, "I would be grateful if your men could take over the outrider and escort duties, Marshal. Those of us who have survived without letting blood are few enough, and we are tired. We have prisoners, as you can see," he pointed, "and there are wounded Yodans in some of the carts as well."

Forton nodded. "It shall be as you command, Highness."

"What news from the palace?"

"The King is understandably angry, Highness, as you might expect. A battle so close to the capital! But since the invaders took Joth - you know of that, Highness?"

"Aye, Marshal. The Duke told us when we arrived at Dekarran."

"As you say. Well, the King called for levies at that point and we are well prepared should the command come to take the war to Yod." Forton shook his head. "I like not the idea of fighting in winter, though. 'Tis most unseemly. What do they hope to gain, when the snow, ice and mud come to hamper us all?"

"I don't think you'll have much to worry about, Marshal," Garia said. "What happened was a lightning raid to try and capture me or, if that was not possible, to kill me to prevent me being of use to Palarand. We killed a lot of Yodans back there and they are way overstretched to stay on Palarandi soil for long."

Keren added, "Even now Duke Gilbanar leads a force upriver to Sheldane to attempt to trap their boats there. If he can manage that, the remainder will have no means of getting back to Joth, let alone Yod. The forces of Brikant, warned by semaphore, will destroy those who survive."

Forton breathed a sigh of relief. "That is good news, Highness. It seems the story of invasion has grown with each town it passed through. His Majesty will be relieved."

"To a point, Marshal. Palarand has still suffered an invasion which cannot be left unanswered. Come, take some food and drink with us and we will tell you all that occurred yesterday."

* * *

With the extra men available everyone relaxed slightly. It was warmer, just, and Garia was determined to ride into Palarand with her swords on her back. Her pea coat found a temporary home in one of the wagons and Jenet fitted the scabbards, tutting over the raw cuts in the straps. Marshal Forton was impressed when he saw her ride back onto the highway mounted on Snep.

"My Lady! You look most martial. Those swords are no mere ornaments, then, or so I have heard."

"Marshal, they saved my life a time or two yesterday. They're probably not as useful as a broadsword like you're carrying but they are enough to keep me alive. Few of those who came near me yesterday had any idea how to deal with my style of defense."

"Aye," Keren agreed, "she confounded those who faced her, from what I saw. She did not hesitate to dispatch them, either, given the chance. We were glad to have her with us in the line. I do not know how many she accounted for but it meant that fewer faced the rest of us."

"Would you tell me of the battle as we ride, Highness? I would learn what I could from your words."

Keren grimaced. "No more today, Marshal Forton. It is too near. But we have a new custom, which Lady Garia has introduced to the Palace Guard, that she calls a debriefing. As soon as may be convenient after any battle, fight or incident, those who took part describe their actions while the memory is yet fresh, in front of as many others of their fellows as possible. From this we hope to learn what we did right and what we might have done better. Any knowledge which may keep a man alive we are in favor of."

"Aye, Highness, I cannot disagree."

"Until we meet Captain Merek we will not know, but it is possible you and a few of your subordinates may be invited to our debriefing. You agree, Garia?"

She nodded. "Of course. We'll have to tell them all about the guns before much longer in any event. We forgot when we left Dekarran and it cost the lives of some of Gilbanar's men, I'm afraid."

"Guns, milady? I do not know this word."

Keren sighed. "You'll know all too much shortly, Marshal. Guns are going to change the face of warfare, so Garia tells us, and from my own experience it isn't going to be for the better."

"I'll await your instruction, Highness, Milady."

As before the people in the towns and villages that they passed through lined the highway in silence to watch the caravan pass through. There was both more and less to see since Forton's force nearly doubled the number of riders and most were dressed in palace colors. It was less possible to determine who had fought and who had not, except where some bore bandages. It was possible to see the prisoners trudging along and to see the more seriously wounded lying in the motley collection of carts.

Keren and Garia, followed by Merizel, Senidet and Jenet, were plain to see near the front of the procession and the realization that women had taken part in the battle shocked some of the bystanders. There were some cheers, a few claps but mostly bows and curtseys of respect, conducted in silence.

They were joined by Jaxen.

"What are your plans, Jaxen? Shall all arrive at the palace?"

"Normally I would have said that the wagons should head for our warehouses, Highness," Jaxen replied. "Since they mostly hold your own baggage it would seem best for all to go to the palace this time."

"Aye. I imagine that the city's healers will all converge on the palace, too, so you can be sure your own men will be well attended."

"Thank you, Highness, for your consideration. I'll go and tell the wagoneers what is happening."

Forton's men peeled off once they reached the gate in the old city walls. The palace men he had brought with him formed an advance party, making sure the road ahead was cleared. Crowds lined the sidewalks to watch their Prince return home, again mostly in silence.

The biggest surprise for Garia was the female population. There were many with short haircuts, some similar to her own and others in differing styles and lengths. Unlike the first time that she had arrived in the city everyone was bundled up against the cold, but it was clear that many were wearing styles unknown to Palarand before her arrival. She could see pleats of differing arrangements, circle skirts and tabards like her own. The hem lengths were more varied, although none exposed the knee. There were even women mounted on frayen, waiting in a side street for the procession to pass, although those Garia saw still used the old style of saddle.

Just before they reached the palace grounds Verne rode out to greet them, respectfully saluting Keren. The two conversed briefly, then the Quadrant rode back ahead of the procession to adjust the homecoming arrangements. Keren turned to Garia.

"We'll go ahead when we reach the palace and let everyone else parade past us, Garia. They deserve that much, do you not think? Commander, I trust you'll make proper use of that standard?"

Garia saw the palace for the first time in months and was disappointed. It didn't feel like coming home again, as she had expected, but slightly different. She had been away for too long. Physically nothing had changed but it was perhaps because she herself had changed. She looked at the palace and saw a large, rambling building from where a country was ruled, and wondered if this would truly be her home in the future.

On the steps of the palace porch Robanar stood waiting, fully attired for war and wearing half-armor. On his left stood Merek while Haflin stood on his right, both similarly armed and armored. Terys stood behind them, in the doorway, surrounded by a gaggle of servants and functionaries. The procession halted as the first men entered the courtyard and Keren, Garia and Feteran moved forward. With Feteran between them, Keren and Garia formed a line against the fence facing the King. Feteran still carried the spear with the ptuvil pennant on it, this he lowered to salute the King and then kept it lowered as the procession passed between themselves and the King's party.

As soon as the last men were through the gates and past them Keren, Garia and Feteran rode across to the steps and dismounted. Keren and Feteran saluted while Garia curtseyed. Robanar returned the salute but before he could do anything else Terys sped round the line of men and grabbed her son in a hug.

"You're safe, thank the Maker! Welcome home, my son."

Then she turned to Garia and hugged her.

"When we heard news of the battle we did not know what to expect, but I ought to have known that you would meet this challenge as you have met earlier ones. Welcome home, daughter."

Robanar half-smiled at his wife's actions before descending and enveloping Keren in a hug.

"Father! That armor's hard! Watch my bruises!"

"Son, forgive your father this once. I have not seen you for so long. Let me look at you."

Robanar put his hands on Keren's shoulders and stared at the young man, searching for the son who had ridden away all those months ago. Finally he nodded.

"My Son, it seems you are now a man in substance as well as the telling in years. Every father wishes to keep his children safe but he knows a time must come when they must learn the hard lessons of life on their own." Robanar turned and beamed at Garia. "But it seems to me that you were not alone in your journey. Welcome, daughter. I see that you, too, have survived the trial without injury. I doubt not there will be many evenings when you will both have stories to tell us."

He gave Garia a hug, but it seemed it was not so enthusiastic as that given Keren. Perhaps he was more considerate of his armor and Garia's softer curves. Then he turned to Feteran, standing behind them and still holding the spear.

"Commander, I see that you have acquitted yourself well during your time away. You and your men are worthy of the standard you bear. From what I have learned, your actions honor your father's memory."

Feteran saluted.

"Thank you, Sire. My father sends his best wishes to you. Though the blow that befell us in Dekarran was hard to bear, he has found unexpected contentment as Steward of milady's lands at Blackstone. You need have no cause to fear for his future."

"I am pleased to hear that." Robanar nodded and then turned to Keren and Garia. "Let us go in and rest ourselves, you and your men must needs change from your traveling clothes. I doubt not the ladies will desire a bath. This evening there will be a banquet of homecoming."

"Father," Keren said, "we must go and settle our frayen first, if you would. You saw that some of our men are injured, some of our mounts are also and we would see them properly rested in the stables."

"Aye, of course. Ask, whatever you need, it shall be given you this day. You have performed a great service for Palarand."

Before Garia could mount Snep again Terys grabbed her arm and pulled her close, speaking in her ear.

"My dear, be careful. Much has changed in the palace since you departed. Do not be surprised at what you may see or hear."

With that puzzling warning in her ears Garia remounted and followed Keren and Feteran around the side of the palace to the stables. The other women were already there and between them they made sure that their beasts were cleaned and had a supply of fresh fodder. Keren found the Stable Keeper and discussed the various wounds their animals had received, almost all during the battle. With those details settled, they began to walk through the well-remembered corridors back to their suites.

"Keren, we need to find a room for Senidet, at least for tonight."

"Of course. Terevor might be in his office, do you remember the way? This place seems both strange and familiar to my eyes."

"I know what you mean. There are changes. Look! Are those wires strung along the walls, just above the doorways?"

"It would seem so. It looks like your shadow has started something here." Keren thought. "About Senidet, perhaps if I took her to find Terevor it would allow the rest of you to get yourselves cleaned up quicker." He grinned. "I'm a man, we don't need to bathe so often, remember? I'll get Senidet settled, she'll need a maid assigned as well. We'll see you at the evening meal, which I guess will be in the Receiving Room tonight. Until then."

He tucked Senidet's arm in his own and turned along a different corridor at the next intersection. Garia gazed after them thoughtfully.

"Well, I had thought to do that myself," she said. "But Keren still knows his way around here better than I do." She smiled at Merizel and Jenet. "He's right, of course. I can't wait to get these grimy things off, can you? Jenet, what's the quickest way back to the Cerise Chamber? We'll go there first to sort out Merry and then off to our own chambers."

"This way, milady."

It wasn't long before they reached Merizel's room and she and Garia instantly collapsed onto the bed.

"Maker! To be in my own chamber, with a soft bed again!"

"I thought you preferred the Dekarran beds."

"You know what I mean. Dekarran is different. Mmmm! If I stay here very much longer I'm going to fall asleep."

"Then I'm off. They'll hear your snoring across the courtyard."

"I do not snore!"

"So you claim. Look, Merry, why don't you come with us? Find what you need to wear tonight and we'll all jump in my bath together. There's no reason you have to be on your own, especially since we haven't seen Bursila yet."

"Thank you, Garia, that's a nice idea. Jenet, if you'll help me sort out what to wear -"

It was no time at all before Merizel selected an evening gown to wear with the appropriate underpinnings. Jenet carried them over her arm as they left the room, and Garia led the well-remembered way back to the Royal corridor. They had almost reached the door to Garia's suite when a voice made them turn.

"Milsy?"

They turned to find a tall, athletic-looking blonde girl behind them who had obviously just come up the staircase and spotted them. The girl frowned.

"No... you're not Milsy, are you? Your hair, from the back..."

Garia smiled a greeting. "No, I'm not Milsy, although people say we do look alike. I'm Garia, Baroness Blackstone."

"Ah. I've heard people in the palace speak of you, My Lady." She looked puzzled. "I understood you to be much older."

Garia smiled again. "I hear that a lot, um..?" She raised her eyebrows.

"As for me," the girl's face took on a self-satisfied expression, "I am Princess Eriana, daughter of King Embrikt of Einnland, and I am here to be betrothed to His Highness Prince Keren."



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