Somewhere Else Entirely -110-

Garia finds a way to get Eriana, Gullbrand and Lars to the Armory, where Haflin sizes up their abilities with swords. There is also a need for somewhere larger for the group of women to perform their Tai Chi, and the search raises some questions about important matters Garia had overlooked. Finally, Garia's plan is aired and a decision reached.

Somewhere Else Entirely

by Penny Lane

110 - The Norse Irregulars


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.


Author's Note: Di Wonder has provided this map you may wish to have handy later in the chapter.

Garia moved her feet at the end of the last form and reflected, at the same time looking at those around her. Her sitting room was packed, it contained herself, Jenet, Merizel, Tandra, Milsy, Bursila, Senidet, Molleena, Eriana and her own two maids, the names of whom Garia still didn't know. All had spent the last half-bell performing the Tai Chi, the newcomers' efforts being helped along by the presence of those who already knew the forms.

Wow. I didn't think I would end up doing any of this when I first came to the palace. There's not many who get to teach a whole civilization about the future. And the friends I've made! Okay, I had friends before, but this is way different. I'm respected, trusted and loved, what more could any girl want?

Okay, the girl thing was maybe a bit left field but despite being so small I can still make myself felt when it matters. Hey, the Queen is only a couple thumbs taller than me! It's not what you got it's the way that you use it, I guess. Now I've been there and done that I don't mind being a girl at all. I can get stuff done either way but I'm beginning to appreciate the benefits of my position. The Beings made it plain things wouldn't have worked out so well had I been a boy but I'm not using that as an excuse. It all seemed a lot of fuss and flummery to start with but I understand things a lot better now.

Mind you, I'm not so keen on that whole monthly thing...

"Garia?"

"Hmm? Oh, sorry, Eriana, I was day-dreaming."

She smiled at the women who surrounded her and made a brief gesture.

"We'd better put the furniture back then get down to breakfast, I think. Hmm. Perhaps it's time I asked Terevor if there's a larger room we can use for this, don't you agree?"

"Indeed, Garia," Eriana replied. "There is barely enough room for us all to exercise in here, but I know not of any larger rooms nearby."

"Highness, Milady," Jenet paused from pushing an armchair back. "There may be two or three rooms in nearby corridors which could serve. If you would permit, I will investigate and find out if any may be made available to us."

"Of course, Jenet," Garia said. "You know the layout of the palace and what most of the rooms are used for, don't you? We'll leave that in your capable hands, then."

"As you wish, Milady."

As they walked through the corridors Garia asked, "Eriana, what happened to your boat and crew? Are they still in Plif?"

"Aye, they are, in a small fishing village that happened to be nearby when we made landfall. We had beached our ship and wondered what land we were in when some fishermen approached telling us of the small harbor not a mark further. We managed to row there and gratefully accepted the help of the people."

"The ship... did you say it had to be repaired or something?"

Eriana nodded. "Aye. Several seams were sprung by the storms and those who did not row had to bail. Most of the leaks need but fresh caulking but there are some timbers which need replacing. Why? Did you have need of a ship, Garia?"

"Me? No, I'm more interested in the crew, actually. I'm assuming that most of them stayed around the ship, then, to help make the repairs?"

"As you say, though the village is too small to support them all. Some came with me to Simbek when I received an offer of an audience with the Duke, others remain in the village to make repairs once the worst of the winter has passed."

"Oh... so, if I were to suggest that Robanar might offer them all sanctuary, do you think they would come here to Palarand? With or without your ship, I mean."

Eriana fixed Garia with a stare. "You ask many questions... I take it you have some scheme for my men, is it not so?"

Garia grinned. "Yes and no, Eriana. I'm genuinely interested in what happened to those who came with you, but it so happens I might be able to offer them work if they wanted it."

"I don't know, Garia. The men of Einnland do not dig in the ground except to grow crops. We have our smiths, it is true, but none have the art I see here in Palarand and none sailed with us. Those on the ship are mostly retainers, sailors and warriors. I know the King desires warriors to help in his war with Yod but I do not know if my men can fight as the men of Palarand do. What is it you offer them?"

"It started with a conversation I had with Gullbrand recently. That gave me an idea to solve a problem Palarand has upriver. I'm not proposing to sail your ship up the Sirrel since that's not what we need right now. Do your men fight on land as well as at sea? How about in the mountains?"

"Of course. Einnland, while all bowing to the authority of my father, has ever been a land of petty strife. We are gathered in a number of towns and villages, most along the coast but some in the southern reaches of the great mountains to the north. Each town or village guards its territories and fishing rights jealously but there are ever disputes. Some towns will raid one upon another, sometimes taking booty and slaves from the defeated. We have personal disagreements also, some passing down through the generations of families. This means that almost all men are practised with sword, bow or spear. A very few women, like myself, can also use the tools of war."

"Sounds better and better. There's a job needs doing that Palarand's normal men-at-arms can't do very well. It involves crossing some mountains during the present winter and attacking a fortress from behind, when they least expect it. The mountains won't be anything like those in the Palumaks, though, but those along the northern edge of the Great Valley. What do you think?"

Eriana thought. "My men can do nothing to our ship until the winter weather eases so a chance to use their experience would be welcomed. I would know more, Garia."

"Naturally. If you want to take this further, we can set up a meeting with the King and Captain Merek to work out the details."

"Then we shall do so."

There was a stir in the dining room when they arrived, as they were last and the group of eleven women were noticeable as they made an entrance, particularly as they were surrounded by as many guardsmen. Terys came over to them and they all curtseyed.

"Such a formidable party! Good morning to you all." Terys regarded Garia with something between amusement, fondness and apprehension. "I trust you do not plan an attempt upon the King?" Her eyes twinkled. "I would be in two minds which side to join."

Garia giggled. "Your Majesty, we could never do such a thing! We've all been doing the Tai Chi in my sitting room," she explained, "though really there are too many of us. I have asked Jenet to see if there might be some room larger where we could do it."

"Ah, as you say." Terys switched her attention to Jenet.

"Ma'am, there is the school-room, or perhaps the nursery, though," the maid blushed, "that room may be required by next winter."

When Garia figured out what Jenet was saying, she reddened to the roots.

"Hey! Wait a minute! I -"

Duh! If things go to plan then the nursery could very well be in use by then. I completely forgot about that consequence of marrying Keren.

"- I'm sorry, ma'am, I'm not thinking, am I? Perhaps we could take a look at the school room later?"

"My dear," Terys lowered her voice, "We know your special circumstances and we understand that you may not have considered such a possibility. Perhaps we shall talk, one day soon?"

"As you wish, ma'am."

"If you and Jenet inspect the school-room and find it suitable, I will instruct Terevor to make the arrangements."

Eriana listened to this conversation and was intrigued. Palarand was mysterious enough as it was, what was going on here?

Robanar joined the group. Everybody curtseyed again.

"Milady, I have received a request from Eriana's man Gullbrand to take his... servant to see Master Armorer Haflin. Is this of your doing?"

"Your Majesty, it is. Lord Gullbrand and Lars are trying to find something useful to do in Palarand and it seemed to me that Lars is an experienced warrior so I thought to have him assessed by Master Haflin. I must apologize if I've done something wrong."

"No, no, my dear! It is a sensible idea but I wondered who had thought of it. I have told Haflin to expect them this morning." The King added, "Haflin informs me that your swords are ready, should you wish to collect them today."

There was a clear implication that Garia would therefore be present when Gullbrand and Lars were with the Master Armorer.

Garia curtseyed. "As you say, Sire."

Eriana looked at the two, then asked, "Sire, might I be permitted to accompany Garia to see the Master Armorer? You know I have some small experience in arms. I would only seek to try them under supervision but it may be to Your Majesty's advantage for me to have knowledge of the equipment your guardsmen use."

And Robanar thinks Earth people are warlike! Hmm. Perhaps I can use this to my advantage.

"Don't forget, Sire," Garia added, "that you already have women among the Palace Guard."

Robanar had been ready to refuse Eriana but Garia's last comment, and a remembrance of her remarks the previous evening, caused him to nod abruptly.

"As you say, Garia. Your Highness, you may accompany Baroness Garia to visit the Master Armorer to try yourself against the weapons and armor he provides my men. Garia, I shall expect a report on your visit later today."

Both women curtseyed.

"Now," he resumed, "Let us break our fast. I am hungry."

* * *

When everybody dispersed after breakfast Garia and Eriana found an anxious-looking Gullbrand waiting outside the dining room along with Lars, who appeared not to have any opinion at all. Gullbrand bowed.

"Your Highness," he began, "I was bid wait for you here. Is there something you wish of me?"

"Gullbrand, good morrow. The King permits that I join you on your visit to see the Master Armorer today. Lady Garia also attends, as she receives back her swords after Master Haflin has examined them."

Gullbrand bowed again. "As you command, Your Highness."

Eriana turned to Garia. "Shall you lead us, Garia?"

"I will, Eriana."

"Garia?" Merizel asked, "If you don't need me this morning I'll go and see Rosilda. I want to find out how our latest garments are progressing."

Garia waved a hand. "That's fine, Merry. Okay, Eriana, Lord Gullbrand, follow me."

With some assistance from Jenet, Garia led the way through the ground-level corridors towards the smithy, which was where she knew Haflin would be waiting for them. On entering his domain their senses were assaulted by the heat, the clangor of hammering and the smells of raw iron being quenched, the smoke of charcoal and the sweat of the men busy about their work. Most stopped briefly on noticing the visitors but a wave from Haflin made them resume their tasks.

Haflin bowed toward the group. Garia curtseyed but Eriana did not, while both Gullbrand and Lars bowed. Lars studied the Master Armorer speculatively. He had met few who were as large as himself until today, but Haflin was almost double his weight and none of it was fat.

"Your Highness, Milady, My Lord, welcome to my humble workshop. If you would follow me."

He led the way to the far end, where the end wall had been raised as usual to allow fresh, cool air to enter. On a bench lay all six of Garia's swords, now cleaned, straightened and resharpened as necessary.

"Highness, if I may consider Milady Garia first, hers is the simplest business to deal with."

Eriana inclined her head and Haflin turned to Garia.

"Your swords, Milady. I was pleased that there was so little damage from the battle. It seems that the tempering is about right, and I may consider this method for some of our more usual blades." He gave Garia a disapproving glance. "I cannot say the same for the harness, though I now appreciate your reasons for cutting yourself free. I have devised, with Danisa's help, a quick-release buckle for you to try, which should prevent any further damage."

He glowered at her, daring her to object. She smiled impishly back at him.

"It was," he continued, "an interesting project, as our guardsmen do not have the same soft body parts as the guardswomen do. I believe we have come up with a suitable solution but as Danisa is taller than you the fit may need to be adjusted. If you would..."

The design was necessarily tricky. The straps would pull her tabard between her breasts and any buckle had to take account of that. Haflin had designed a thin brass bar which went down between her breasts and was connected by links to the straps on the left side only. Those on the right clicked in separately and could be released by lifting a lever which overlaid the bar.

"As you are right-handed," Haflin explained while holding up one of the harnesses, "I left connected the left-hand straps, as you can see. That means that you can release the straps with your left hand while still holding a sword, spear, knife or reins in your right hand. The harness can then be removed with your left hand and placed away from your feet."

"Ingenious, Master Haflin."

"Of course, Jenet will require some minor tuition to fit your new harness properly. Here. Put your left arm through here, then I suggest the top strap first, like so - then the lower strap. Ah, it needs some adjustment. Of course we had to move the adjusting buckles -"

The final arrangement seemed different than the original harness. Where the diagonal straps fixed to the waist belt, the fixings had to be replaced as well, to allow the top parts to be detached easily. Garia wriggled her shoulders and bent from side to side, testing the fit for comfort.

"Seems good to me, Master Haflin," she finally reported. "Of course, as you well know, I'm not going to know whether this works properly without testing it."

"As you say, Milady. You will doubtless tell me if there should be any problems?"

"Yes..."

Garia's attention was taken by the look of pure contempt on the face of Lars. Eriana spoke sharply to him.

«Stop it, Lars! She is a trained warrior!»

Lars sneered. «Toys in the hands of a child. What can she know of fighting? A pampered girl who knows only the soft life these people lead.»

Eriana retorted, «You know nothing of her! The day before she arrived at the palace, she fought a battle against the enemies of Palarand. She has fought other battles too, and killed a number of men.»

Garia intervened. «She is right, Lars. In that battle I killed five, standing beside Prince Keren on the road from the north. We lost many but they lost twice as many.»

Lars was shocked that Garia could understand his tongue but persisted.

«Lady, I do not doubt your courage but you are too small. You would be blown away by the wind.»

Haflin asked, "What's going on here?"

"Master Haflin," Garia replied, "Lars can't believe that I can fight. He thinks I am too small and these weapons only toys fit for a palace princess."

Lars was shocked again, then, by the expression which came over Haflin's face.

"Oh, he does, does he? My Lady, if you have the time, we can settle this matter immediately."

"He's not going to like it." Garia measured Lars up, seeing the brute strength that doubtless let him bulldoze his way through his enemies. "I suspect, neither am I." She nodded. "So be it. He won't be any use to us until he knows the truth."

"Garia?" Eriana was astonished. "You plan to fight Lars? Are you crazy?" She turned to Haflin. "My Lord Haflin, should you not intervene? Perhaps, you may try yourself against Garia, show Lars what she can do."

Haflin backed away. "Me? Your Highness, I would not. If I were to fight Lady Garia I know the result would only be bruises for myself." He gestured at the furnaces and anvils behind them. "I prefer a much safer pastime."

Eriana stared at Haflin. The smith must have out-massed Garia by at least five times, if not many more. If even he refused to match swords with Garia, then... The more she learned about these people, the less she understood.

Haflin addressed her. "Highness, your man may choose a sword from those in my armory. This is to be a practice match, I do not want blood to be spilled or bones broken. The match will end when I command. I will send to the Large Training Room, so that the men may clear a circle for the fight. Tell him this."

While Eriana relayed the instructions to Lars, Haflin sent a boy round to warn the men training in the big room that something special was afoot. That done they followed the smith into a long narrow room which backed the smithy where rack upon rack of gleaming weapons and armor stood ready for use. Haflin went to a wall where a number of large swords were racked, lifting down the largest and tossing it casually at Lars. The Norseman caught it with a thump and staggered under the weight.

"Tell him that is my own sword," he instructed. "There are lesser swords for such as himself. He may choose from any on this wall, they are all blunted for practice."

Lars respectfully returned the sword to Haflin, hilt first, and then turned to the walls with his compatriots. Eriana, Gullbrand and Lars were like kids in a candy store, examining all the weapons and making comments about them to each other in their own language. All took and examined swords, spears, bows, battleaxes and maces, hefting them expertly and discussing their merits.

Halfin remarked, "It seems our foreign friends know their weapons."

Garia turned to Haflin. "The whole idea of bringing them here was so you could gauge their abilities," she explained. "Do you want them each to try out a variety of weapons today?"

Haflin raised an eyebrow. "Her Highness as well?"

"She tells me she has some familiarity with... what was it now? 'Sword, short bow and short spear'."

"Short spear? What might that be, do you know, Milady?"

"I think it is what we would call a Javelin, I guess."

The word translated, so she knew that there was an equivalent weapon somewhere that Haflin would have heard of.

He nodded. "Ah." His grin broadened. "Then we must find out what manner of warfare these strange people practise." Haflin turned to the three, now involved in some kind of discussion about a blade that Gullbrand was holding.

"Highness, Lord Gullbrand, I invite you each to select a training sword, if you would. I would learn how you fight among your own people."

Eriana's eyes lit up. "Even me? You want me to pick a sword? I would do so but I am not attired for the exercise."

Haflin spread his hands. "Practice only, Highness. Mayhap when you are attacked you may not be attired how you might wish to be."

Eriana saw the sense of the smith's remark and nodded. "As you wish, Master Haflin."

The Large Training Hall was abuzz with excitement when the party arrived. All the men who had been in there now occupied a large circle, leaving the center free. It was noticeable that a number of those who should probably have been in the stables had crept in through the doors onto the field. Merek met the party at that doorway.

"Highness, My Lord, Milady, Master. I understand there to be a demonstration this morning?"

"Aye, Captain," Haflin said. "There was the usual," he grinned, "disbelief about Milady's abilities. I deemed it necessary to resolve the matter. She will face Lord Gullbrand's man here, Lars, in a test of skill only. After, if you permit, I desire to see Her Highness and Lord Gullbrand work with swords and discover their abilities."

"As you wish, Master Haflin. But, neither are attired for the ring."

"Nor may they be should their party be ambushed, Captain. It matters not. I just need to know how the Einnlanders may fight, should that prove necessary."

"As you wish, Master Haflin."

Jenet nudged Garia. "Your training swords, Milady."

"Thank you, Jenet."

As Jenet secured the unfamiliar fastenings Haflin said to Garia, "Milady, I have redone the bindings on the hilts of all your swords. I deemed that in winter, wearing gloves, you would need a bulkier, rougher grip. I expected you to find this out during your usual exercises so beware of the difference when first you draw them today."

"Thank you, Master Haflin."

Garia stepped into the open space and the surrounding murmur suddenly ceased. Lars followed her and walked to the far side, turning to face her with a huge broadsword in his hand. The two stared at each other.

«This is an ill meeting, Lady. I wish I had not agreed to it. Your King will have me killed if harm comes to you.»

«Nobody's going to kill anyone today, Lars. This is just to show you that I know what I'm doing. Let's take it easy to start with, until we know each other's strength. We're not on the battlefield, after all.»

«Lady, I agree. I still do not like this, though.»

Lars raised the blade over his right shoulder and walked rapidly towards Garia. Before he had taken three steps she had drawn her own blades and held them ready, not wishing to give the game away by showing the X too early. As he swung the sword down she crossed her own blades to meet his with a crack and a spray of sparks.

Confused by the unconventional defense Lars stepped back and raised his sword, Garia bringing hers apart as he did so. Lars swung again, only to be met by the same defense.

«Ah! Is that your only trick?»

He suddenly swung hard, from his right, to meet Garia's X at her left side. Again there were sparks and the force of the blow jarred her wrists. This time, however, she was ready for him and swung her blades down and to the left, forcing his to the floor and releasing her right blade. She pivoted on her left foot, reached forward and jabbed Lars' thigh with her sword tip before dancing back out of his reach.

«Ouch! The maiden has a sharp sting!»

He suddenly switched his sword to his left hand and attempted a cut from Garia's right. All this achieved was a poke at his other thigh and a look of admiration from Lars. He stepped back and then came at a rush, hacking furiously in a whirl of steel, seeking to overpower Garia's defense by sheer speed and strength. Garia initially gave way under the onslaught but found it possible to counter every move the other made, though her wrists were beginning to throb from the continual hammering on her sword blades.

His final attempt was an undercut, but he could not get enough swing to force apart Garia's blades. Once she had them where she wanted, she slid his blade down to her hilts, trapped the sword in them and yanked it out of his hands to clatter on the flagstones. Lars bowed to Garia while the audience applauded.

«I apologize, Lady, for doubting your word. You have a skill unknown in Einnland.» He grimaced. «I doubt such blades would be of use to such as me.»

«You're right,» she agreed. «These were made for women to defend their homelands when attacked by pirates. They are not intended for use in open battle, though I did all right with mine when I had to.»

Lars got down on one knee.

«If the Gods permit, I would be honored to fight by your side, My Lady.»

«Rise, Lars, please. That's what today is all about, to see if you can fight beside me and the brave men of Palarand. If you are willing?»

«My Lady, I am. I see we of Einnland have much to learn when it comes to the use of cold steel.»

Garia turned to Haflin. "There! That didn't take long, did it? I suggest you try him with all the other weapons you want but with opponents more his size." The two grinned at each other. "He understands his mistake and is willing to learn that brute force isn't everything."

Haflin bowed. "As you say, Milady. Shall you stay and watch?"

"I have to, the King wants me to report back to him this afternoon about what happens this morning."

Eriana fairly bounced with excitement. "Garia, that was amazing!" She looked askance at the longsword in her own hand. "Should I perhaps be using blades like your own?"

"I don't think so, Eriana. You have the height, the reach and the strength to handle one of those and you'll be more likely to find a spare one of those lying about a fight than you would mine. You'll be fine. Just go out and show them what you can do. And... remember what I told you, keep calm, keep cool and keep your temper."

"As you say, Garia... Ah, I see now how your meditation and Tai Chi help you to fight. To clear the mind, to have such command over your body, that is a powerful thing. I am pleased that you have shown me these things."

Garia grinned as she took a goblet of water from Jenet. "Unexpected benefits. Go on, give them a show."

Eriana stepped into the ring and faced a volunteer guardsman. She looked odd, dressed as she was in a fetching winter gown and soft winter boots intended only for the court, but she held her practice sword with assurance. Hers was shorter than that Lars had picked, and the hilt was too big for her hand, but she held it in a way which showed that she knew what to do with it.

"Begin."

Haflin's single word began the contest and everybody watched with interest as Eriana did the only thing she knew how to do - attack. Merek had a thoughtful expression as he watched the clash of steel.

"She holds nothing back, Haflin."

"Aye, it is the way of her people, I deem. Hammer your opponent, hold nothing back, never give in. Sometimes that is the right way, especially if it is a single contest."

"Not so good in a battle, then."

"No, since you must reserve something for the next man, when one is beaten. And one must ware those either side of he who attacks you, else they come to his aid." The smith examined Eriana's technique carefully. "The clay is good enough, provided we are careful in the molding. She has potential. Would you take her, Merek?"

"Aye, provided she gives the King her oath. That blade is as long as my own."

Haflin grinned. "Beware that one, Merek. She is used to command and she will have your sash if you are not careful."

A startled Merek returned his gaze to Eriana, thinking carefully about Haflin's remarks. Well, why not? There were already women guards, why not officers? In time, perhaps... he shook his head. A woman as Captain of the Palace Guard, it was unthinkable. There again, until the Baroness appeared many things had been unthinkable...

"Enough." Haflin clapped his hands. "Highness, that was an impressive display. You have shown us all that you can look after yourself at need."

Eriana bowed to her opponent and then to Haflin. "Thank you, Master Smith. I enjoyed that - and I look forward to doing it again, though perhaps more appropriately attired next time."

"As you say. I regret that before you may do that you must have a conversation with the King." Haflin turned. "Master Gullbrand? Shall we see your sword-work?"

Gullbrand fought competently but there was an obvious difference in his method compared to that of Eriana and Lars.

"Meaning no disrespect, Milady, Lord Gullbrand fights like yourself," Merek said to Garia.

"Oh?" She raised her eyebrows.

"What I mean is that he only fights defensively, the way you do with swords. He is economical with his thrusts and only strikes when he is sure of a hit. In short, he fights as a noble would. He has not the fire that the Princess and her man have, to advance fearlessly against their foe."

"I see what you mean. Well, I'm hoping that the rest of her crew are more like her than him, because if they are we might be able to use them against that fortress."

"Ah!" Merek saw the connection. "A clever idea, Milady. I wondered why you wished to test all three."

"Eriana tells me that's the sort of warfare they practise in Einnland, sneak raids and local brawls, rather than the sort of battle I got myself mixed up in. I think we'll be meeting the King this evening to put the plan to Her Highness."

"I will be there, Milady. I will be interested to see what you have in mind."

~o~O~o~

The nursery, which was the first room they investigated, was an odd place. It didn't fit what Garia thought a nursery should be at all. Against the corridor wall were a number of wide cubicles, each containing a baby's cot, a small wardrobe, a chair and a table. Underneath the tall windows facing the cubicles were more tables and cabinets interspersed with sinks with hot and cold running water. At one end was a larger space, which was more to Garia's liking. Here there were tiny chairs, low tables and the sort of equipment one saw in drawings of Victorian nurseries, rocking horses, wooden dolls, building blocks and toy soldiers.

"Wait a moment," she said, walking back along the array of cubicles. "Six? They expect me to have six children?"

"Of course not, Milady," Terevor soothed. "If the Maker deems you favored enough to provide the succession with six children, we would not complain. It would be good for the palace to have the sound of tiny feet running through its chambers again, I must admit. But this nursery is intended for any and all children of royal descent, not only those of the Queen."

"Oh, right! So, as well as Keren and his two sisters, Duke Gilbanar's children might have been brought up in here?"

"My Lord Terinar certainly was, Milady, before his father assumed the Dukedom of North Palarand. Countess Korizet was born and raised in Dekarran, for the most part. But yes, that was my meaning."

"Thank goodness for that! Uh, I mean, providing heirs is part of the job description, so to speak, but the actual production method can be a bit... hard on the mother, you know? I can probably manage the first one but we'll have to wait and see what happens after that. My own mother could only have me, there were complications."

"I'm sorry to hear that, Milady. Would this chamber be of use to you? Perhaps the toys and furniture could be cleared from the end area."

"If we have to, I guess. Why don't we have a look at the other room first? I'd rather not use this one if I don't have to."

Garia, Merizel, Terevor and a nosy Eriana trooped through the connecting door to the next chamber, which was a single large space with windows that looked south-west, over the courtyard onto which Garia's, Eriana's and the Royal suites also faced. Here there were chairs and tables of the sort familiar to any country school, but they had been stacked against one end wall. There were also cupboards and a blackboard. One wall had faded rectangular markings which suggested charts and drawings had once been pinned there. In short, a fairly conventional classroom.

"This is good," Merizel remarked. "The light is from the south, which means no direct sun to harm young eyes, yet bright enough to allow reading and lettering. Will this be good enough, Garia?"

"I think so, Merry. It would take all us women comfortably, it's close to our chambers and we're out of everybody's way in here. What do you think, Eriana?"

"As you say, Garia. There is room to move, and... could we also do our meditation in here, perhaps?"

Garia thought. "I don't see why not. Yes, that's a very good idea, actually. Terevor, we'll use this one. You don't need to move any of the furniture out, just make sure it's stacked up safely, but if you could find us a large rug or a bit of carpet to put on the floor that would help a little. Some of what we do involves sitting down on the floor. I bet that wood's cold this time of year."

"As you desire, Milady." The Master of the Household looked around, considering. "I will have some women in tomorrow to make certain the room is properly cleaned, Milady, and I think I can find a piece of carpet for the floor. Do you have any particular preference as to color or design?"

"Me? Heavens, no, Terevor! It just has to be good enough for a number of us to sit on, that's all. We won't be admiring the carpet-maker's art, if that's what you're thinking."

Terevor bowed. "Then it shall be done, Milady. I regret that there is not enough time to prepare the room today, so you will not be able to use it tomorrow, but I have no doubt the work will be completed tomorrow."

"That's great. Thank you, Terevor."

Terevor bowed again and withdrew, leaving the women alone in the old school-room.

"I know that it a woman's purpose, to bear children," Eriana said, "but I am daunted by the prospect. I do not think I am one of those who thinks only of babies. It will be hard to narrow my life to one tiny bundle of flesh."

"I think I'm the same," Garia agreed, "because there's just so much going on in my life right now! It is said that becoming a mother changes you, so that you naturally think of your child first and everything else comes second. It is nature's way, of course." She added, "Of course, there's also your husband to consider. Once you get married, he has to come first in your life, at least until children come along. Oh! I get it, now. Eriana, I think your problem is that you've always been able to do what you want, when you want to, right?"

"Aye, Garia. I am a Princess, after all."

"Well getting married will change that, and having children will change that again. But I don't see the Queen being unhappy because she has a husband and children, do you?"

"Well... no, now you say it like that, Garia. But having a husband and children is yet strange to me, and I fear that I may lose who I am. I do not know if I want to change so much."

Garia shrugged. "Who can tell what the future holds, Eriana? Six months ago you were in your father's hall and I was -" a boy, "- minding my own business in my father's bookshop on Earth. I doubt either of us could ever have imagined we would end up living next door to each other in Palarand's palace."

"Aye. You have taught me I must not worry over that which might be or that which might not be. We must wait and see what the Gods decide."

~o~O~o~

Terys had decided to sit this meeting out, so it was Robanar, Merek, Forton, Haflin, Garia and Merizel who met in the parlor, and this time they were joined by Eriana, Gullbrand and Lars. As before, all servants except Jenet had been released, a procedure which confused Eriana at first.

"If I should have any need, Sire, what must I do?"

"Ask Jenet, Highness, and she will either carry out your wishes or communicate them to your own maids."

"But... they do not speak the Valley tongue, as Gullbrand and I do, and Jenet does not speak that of Einnland."

"Then we shall find another way, my dear. Be at ease. Jenet is very capable, you know. She has been with the Royal family since her own birth and knows the palace and its routines well. There is always a way, if you know how."

"As you say, Sire."

Eriana subsided, but she was unsettled to be separated from her maids. Unlike the palace practice, which Garia had stretched beyond all recognition, Eriana expected her personal staff to be within shouting distance at any time of day or night.

"Now, let us begin. Haflin, perhaps you should describe what you saw this morning."

"Aye, Sire. Lady Garia brought these three to me, suggesting that I should test their fighting abilities. While they were gathered in my workshop I returned Milady's swords to her, having checked them over, repaired and cleaned the scabbards. Our bearded friend there could not believe that Milady's swords were effective weapons and I saw an opportunity to arrange a contest. I took them all to the armory to choose weapons and it was apparent that they were all familiar with most of what we have available. I bid them select a sword each and then we went to the Large Training Room. Merek was present and he arranged a circle."

He grinned. "Milady's bout went as expected, Sire. At first the man treated her with caution, not wishing to injure her by accident. When he found he could not, he used all his strength and guile but could not break through, though Milady was unable to give him further touches. Eventually she snagged his sword and disarmed him.

"Her Highness chose a longsword and was matched against one of the Guard, Sire. She fights with energy and enthusiasm, as is her nature. I deem she is reckless at times and exposes herself to injury too often but with careful training may make a fine swordswoman, Sire."

Eriana fixed Haflin with a stare but the smith ignored it.

"Lord Gullbrand fights as a noble does, Sire. He desires to remain among the living and thus picks his attacks with great care. If he has any fault it is that he is not adventurous enough, but I cannot blame him for that. The style of swordplay of all three differs from that of the Valley, as might be expected, but there is little to say that one style is better than the other. From what I understand the others who came with Her Highness, that remain in Plif, are as familiar with the use of weapons as she is. Perhaps Milady's idea should be explained to them, I deem they may be capable of success where the men of Palarand might not."

"Do you consider that the Einnlanders may be permitted the use of weapons?"

"Aye, Sire, and all would benefit from a little additional instruction in our ways. Of course, they must give you an oath before I would issue them blades."

"As you say. That may depend on Garia's idea." Robanar turned to Garia. "This is your project, my dear, shall you explain it to us?"

"As you wish, Sire, but first, I will need to explain the problem to the Einnlanders in their own language. I'll need to use that map again to show them where everything is. If you will permit?"

"As you wish. Merek, fetch down that map that we used last time."

With the map spread out on the table in front of everyone, Garia began.

«Highness, My Lord, Lars, this is a map of the Great Valley.»

The three leaned forward to get a better look in the flickering lamplight. Garia first enumerated the countries of the Valley, so far as they were shown by the map, and then explained the northward extension of Palarand.

Eriana asked, «Garia, where is Einnland on this map?»

«I'm sorry, I'm not sure. I think it's way down here off the edge of the map. See, this is the top - um, northern edge of the Palumaks over here. Einnland must be some way down the coast below here.»

«I understand. I had not realized we had made so distant a voyage. Please continue.»

«So, as I understand it, Yod - which is this area here - has invaded Ferenis and appears to have constructed its own jetties here for reasons we don't know. They have many troops over this part of Ferenis but a lot of the people have escaped to other countries. They have also taken this city, Joth, though it's not sure how much else of Joth they have bothered with. Duke Gilbanar - the King's brother - told us they just turned out everyone who lived in the city and took over the walls for themselves. Then along here, they landed a force at Sheldane, which is in the part of Palarand called Brikant. That was so they could march to this highway here and attack our caravan.»

«This was where you fought your battle?» Gullbrand asked, tapping the map.

«Somewhere along there, yes. Now, look over here, there's this bit of rock sticking out here where the river divides to flow around Joth. There's a fortress on top of the rock and it overlooks the river. It was constructed by Forguland, which is this city here, and normally they would hold it. I'm guessing that there are siege weapons up there, such that they can control the entire river, though I am told those probably couldn't reach as far as the city itself. There are strong reasons to believe that those of Yod have taken the fort.»

They leaned over to examine the lie of the land, as much as they could from such a large-scale map.

«The problem is,» Garia explained, «The armies of the Valley countries tend to stay inside the Valley, from what I understand. With mountains either side it is mainly river warfare, which means attempting to attack the fortress from the front, the river side. I wondered whether it would be possible to get in round the back, by attacking across the mountains. Captain Merek tells me that they could maybe do it in summer but not in winter. Nobody expects an attack in winter, even though Yod did just that to us.»

«How is it you thought we could help, then?» Eriana asked. «We have great skill in boats, it is true, but against a fortress like that... and the guns which those of Yod must have, we would be no better than Palarand's own men of war.»

Garia grinned. «I saw Lars, and that reminded me of the reputation your people still have on Earth. We call you all Vikings, and you used to make fearsome raids against defenses just like this. I wondered whether your people could go over the mountains to get to the fortress by the back route. See! If you look at Brugan, this is a trade road which goes west through the mountains to the north. Just here it dips down, see? I'm not sure how far it would be from there to the fortress, but I thought I'd let you tell us what you thought.»

«Vikings,» Lars muttered. «I have not heard that name for many a year.»

The three squinted at the map, holding it several ways round to try and work out if the idea held good or not.

«How far might this be?» Gullbrand asked.

«The Valley is about sixty marks wide, so I am told. You can estimate from that.»

«And how many men did you think to send?»

Garia shrugged. «I'm no expert, but a smallish party. Anything too big and you have supply problems. Say no more than twenty, but you know your own ways of fighting, you may have other ideas.»

Lars asked, «These mountains are not like the Palumaks, then? They are lesser slopes?»

Garia nodded. «From what little I saw of the Palumaks, certainly. I'd crawl over those hills myself, but not in the middle of winter.»

Gullbrand turned to Robanar and switched languages. "Sire, we have seen Milady's idea. What will you offer us?"

"Permanent sanctuary in Palarand, and you would be given the rights of any man of Palarand. Whether you succeed in this unlikely plan or no, I would not require any further service of any of you unless you so desired. Of course, you must make your allegiance to me as your new King before I may trust you with Palarandi steel. You may all live out your days as my sworn subjects."

"As you say, Sire. A generous offer."

The three huddled together and discussed the proposition in low tones. When they separated Eriana was their spokesperson.

"Sire, those who survived the storms and landed on Plif numbered thirty-seven. We would leave some few behind to look after the ship, but propose to bring some twenty-five or twenty-six here to Palarand, to make ourselves your vassals. Of those who come, some are sailors, others too old to scramble over mountains, however small they might be. Would you offer those the same sanctuary, if they cannot try the fortress?"

"Aye, I am prepared to do that, Eriana."

"Then we will accept your challenge, Sire, with one condition. I must lead my men into battle."

Merek jumped to his feet. "Sire! I cannot -"

Robanar merely looked at him, then let his glance slide to Garia.

"Aye, Sire," Merek said, defeated. "Where Milady shows the way, others must needs follow."

"Captain," Eriana said, "It is not merely pride that makes me desire to go. When we reach this fortress, how did you think they would let so small a party enter? A group of heavily armed men, they would not open their gates. But a shepherd woman in distress, perhaps..."

"Subterfuge, eh?" Robanar smiled at Eriana. "You have considered well, I deem. Very well, I agree, but with a condition of my own. You shall not be the only woman who goes."

"Sire! I cannot take my maids!"

"I would not expect them to go on so perilous an adventure. If you become a vassal of mine then your relationship with your bondswomen must needs change, Eriana. But I spoke not of servants. I would not dare risk Garia, either, but there are other women in the palace who can wield a sword. I will ask for volunteers among the guardswomen. It is not seemly for you to travel alone with such a party of men, even though you be their Princess."

Eriana considered this, then nodded. "Done, Sire. It is a sensible precaution. I will summon those who wish to be part of this adventure to join us from Plif immediately. We will make our oaths to you and then," she smiled, "we will go a-viking."

"In addition, I will also find one or two who may be familiar with those regions. You may have to journey part of the way disguised as travelers so knowledge of local customs will be important."

Eriana nodded. "I agree, Sire. We find many aspects of these lands to be puzzling so a guide will be essential."

Merek asked, "How do you wish me to handle this, Sire?"

Robanar considered. "They would not become part of the Palace Guard, I think. Have we room to quarter them here? I would rather keep them close and prevent loose tongues spreading word of what they might be about."

"There is room, Sire, though we are nearly full. We can manage twenty-five or thirty, I deem. You will make them a separate unit?"

Garia said, "Sire, I don't think you have any choice. I don't think many of them speak the Valley tongue. Not yet, anyhow. They'll have to bunk together and train together."

Robanar nodded. "Aye, true enough, Garia. Merek, make it so. Eriana, with your permission I will make Lord Gullbrand head of this expedition."

"But, Sire, he is not really a warrior. I should lead it."

"Aye, and so you shall. But in the palace, your men will need the skill of an administrator, which is what Lord Gullbrand is. Let him order all while you concentrate on weapons and tactics."

Eriana looked at Robanar for a long moment and then grinned.

"Sire, I wish that my own father had been as smart as you. You have considered much that I had overlooked. We thank you for letting us have this adventure."

Robanar held up a finger. "Thank you, my dear, but remember, I am still using you. Yod's argument is with Palarand, not Einnland. If you and your men should take this fortress then those of Yod who are further downstream will be cut off from their own country. If you are successful then you will have done Palarand, and all the countries of the Valley, a great service."

Eriana was suddenly sober. "And if we fail?"

"Then Yod must give some more of its attention to the fortress, which means less somewhere else. Any of you that survive, I have given my word to them and I will keep it."

* * *

"There was no letter from Keren today, Merry."

"Did you expect one? Don't forget, every day he travels away from us is an extra day any letter from him must take to reach here. Don't forget also that when he arrives anywhere new he'll have to speak to the ruler, whoever he is, and there will be receptions and banquets and so on. He may not have time to write regular letters, especially when he is also reporting back to his father." Merizel screwed her face up. "Turning the important news into code isn't quick, either. I know he can probably do that easier than I can decode them when they arrive, but still, his time may be limited."

Garia sighed. "Oh, I know, Merry. I'm just... The palace seems different when he's not around."

"Better get used to it, girl. When you're his bride he'll take you on some visits but there will be others when you'll have to stay behind. And once those first children come..." Merizel's eyes became dreamy. "I wonder," she said absently, "if the Queen would permit me to share the Royal nursery with you? Inspecting it today with you has made me think of my own children. How many do you think Terry would like?"

"What? Don't tell me you're going all broody on me, now. I have enough problems of my own without arranging childcare for all my staff."

"As you say, Garia. Still, cannot a girl dream?"



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