Somewhere Else Entirely -113-

Keren sends news that he is planning a side trip, which causes concern at the palace. Robanar, Eriana and Garia travel out to a mansion to welcome the Norsemen who are arriving from Plif. The meeting throws up an unexpected problem that causes Eriana some personal contemplation.

Somewhere Else Entirely

by Penny Lane

113 - Winter Happenings


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.


15th day of Zuberak, Year 1174 since the Great Flood

The State House in Smordan, just after dawn


Father,

I have learned news which means that my return to Palarand will be delayed by two or three days. Having reached Smordan it seems that the situation upstream may permit me to travel further and that is what I intend.

Be assured we will take all possible precautions. I have the advice of the Andrate who has said that the risks are slight. I will write again only when I return here to Smordan.


Keren

Robanar lowered the note and at Garia, his expression one of concern.

"My dear, has he said anything to you? I seek to understand what he intends."

"There was only the merest hint, Sire, in his last letter to me," Garia replied. "Merry and I talked it over and decided we hadn't heard him say anything. He's obviously worried in case that letter fell into the wrong hands, but my guess is he's gone over into Joth." She frowned. "Would it be possible to look at the map again, Sire?"

"Surely, Garia." He flicked a finger and Merek rose to fetch the roll of parchment. "You think this is his own decision, then?"

"Yes, Sire, but based on information he could only get right at the edge of safe territory. He must have decided that it would be safe enough for him to travel further up the Valley, but which route he took and who he expects to meet I have no idea, Sire."

Robanar nodded. "I agree." He glared at nothing in particular. "It means I must needs trust his judgement in this matter." The glare turned into a smile at Garia. "So far it seems his judgement has been sound."

Garia returned the smile. "Thank you, Sire. If I may ask, who or what is the... Andrate, did you say?"

"The ruler of Smordan, Garia. He holds the same rank as a ruling Duke or a Grand Duke, perhaps." He flicked another finger. "It is an old title from centuries ago, I deem. Something to do with the worship of a God or Gods. Since the Great Convocation we no longer bow down to beings we cannot see but very occasionally the titles still remain."

Robanar looked thoughtful, his gaze in the distance as Merek spread the map on the parlor table.

"I think," he continued, "if you are to become Consort to Palarand's next King, that you should be taught some of the history of Palarand and the lands with which we do most business. I know it will be more for you to do in an already busy life but such knowledge will be of great use to you in the future."

"As you wish, Sire."

"I will briefly describe our situation, there is time. Many centuries ago, long after the time of the Chivans and the ages of darkness that followed their collapse, there rose a Kingdom, a small empire, perhaps, along the length of the Great Valley. That Kingdom collapsed in its turn and the countries that exist today were left as a result. That is why many are Dukedoms or lands of similar status, their titles descend from those of vassals of those great Kings of long ago. Palarand is a Kingdom because of the unusual richness of the Palar valley, there are several others of like size and richness. It is also the reason why we all speak the same tongue, excepting local dialect words."

"Ah, I wondered about that, Sire."

"Over the centuries," Robanar continued, "there have been many squabbles among the sibling countries of the Great Valley." He grunted, his expression one of disappointment. "I had hoped that the recent peace and prosperity among us would encourage closer ties but Yod seems determined to stir up trouble. It has made many of us wary of each other when we all share a common past and, likely, a common future."

Garia thought. "If I think about what happened on Earth, Sire, I would be certain that the Industrial Revolution will bring us all closer together. I don't see how it could do any different when you consider that you'd be able to journey from here to Yod inside a day."

Robanar grimaced and then shook his head. "To hear you speak so, Garia, when I know what you have already told us must happen, still shakes me. I trust our people - all the peoples of the Valley - will be able to cope with the changes that must come."

"Aye, Sire." She fixed Robanar's gaze. "But the reverse of what I just said is also true, that Yod would be able to reach Palarand in a day. We - the peoples of the Valley countries, that is - must fix Yod so that this can never happen again. I'm sure I'm not telling you something you haven't already decided, Sire."

"Aye." He nodded heavily. "As any ruler, I dislike meddling in another country's affairs but they have meddled in mine and they must pay the price. This time we shall have the support of our brother countries and that is mostly the result of Keren's efforts." He showed his teeth. "I trust he has not bargained too much of Palarand away."

"The map, Sire." Merek anchored the scroll with their mugs. Robanar and Garia leaned over it.

"Oh, I see," Garia said. "That road is the trade route, I guess?"

"As you say, milady," Merek replied. "As you can see, it runs through every country the length of the Great valley and even beyond."

"So... why isn't Joth on the trade road, then?"

Robanar grunted. "The river shifts, my dear, from time to time. When Joth was founded it was doubtless a crossing point on the river. Did you not know, even Palarand itself was once a port on the river?"

"Really? No, I didn't know that, Sire. But back to Joth. The Yodans have the city and are holed up in there, I guess, using the defenses to keep the locals out, is that right? Then they used that as a jumping-off point to send their expedition down to take Sheldane."

"As you say, my dear."

"So... if Keren were to cross the river, he'd be going here... what's this place?"

"Thorn, milady," Merek supplied. "A smallish fortified town where the ferry now lands."

"Right! So, he'd not be anywhere near Joth itself, which is probably why he decided to do this. And from there, he could go... right across Joth and out the other side, if he wanted to."

"As you say, milady."

Robanar asked, "Merek, what about the crossings themselves? Think you those of Yod man river patrols?"

Merek shook his head. "Unknown, Sire. We do not have any reliable information from so far away."

Robanar grunted again. "If my son returns intact that lack will be remedied, I deem. We must needs wait for him to come home again, he will have learned much we will need to know before we may plan against Yod." He turned to Garia. "Say nothing of this to the Queen, Garia. It is enough that one of us worries about the fate of our son."

"As you command, Sire."

~o~O~o~

Merizel was curious. "Why did you decide to dress like that, Garia?"

"The King suggested it. Merry. He wanted to make sure that the Norsemen didn't get the wrong idea about what they were getting themselves into."

"Ah. So, you'll be taking your swords, then?"

"I am, though I'm not sure I want to get them wet if I can avoid it."

"We'll be in the carriages, though, until we arrive. The rain may have eased up by then."

"Yeah, right, it will be snowing instead."

"You're pessimistic all of a sudden, aren't you? Is that because you're missing him?"

"That and other reasons we may have discussed, Merry. Here we are. Let's get into our wet-weather gear."

They had arrived at the Robing Room adjacent to the front porch, where servants helped the travelers into the waxed waterproofs everybody wore in wet weather. Secure from anything the sky could throw at them they went outside to join Robanar, Merek and Eriana, all similarly attired.

"I like these garments, Garia," Eriana said. "They are much more practical than those we use at home."

"Well, they're certainly different," Garia responded. "I don't think you could use them on a boat, though, because the wax coating would wear off too quickly. That rubbery stuff you told us about might work better for that."

Robanar said, "You could ask Terinar about the attire sailors wear, Eriana. He may have a better idea than we do. We are not so familiar with matters of the sea, despite Palarand having a coast."

"Sire, who is Terinar?"

"He is the son of my brother Gilbanar, Eriana. He presently lives in Dekarran and, before you entertain ideas, has already made an arrangement with Lady Merizel."

Eriana turned to Merizel with an upturned eyebrow, receiving a nod in reply.

"If he is in Dekarran, Sire, how then may I consult him?"

"He seeks to learn more of the knowledge Garia brings us, my dear. I expect him to join us at the palace sometime in the spring."

"As you say, Sire. I look forward to his visit."

Now, is Eriana going to try and nudge Merry out of the way? I never thought Terry could end up a target for her.

No, Terry's not stupid. I'm sure he'd realize what was going on and put a stop to it.

"The carriages, Sire."

Eriana shared the first one with Robanar while Garia, Merry, Jenet and Tandra took the second. They had a large escort of guardsmen, an entire quadrant, accompanied by Lars who rode the biggest frayen Garia had ever seen. The whole party headed out from the palace and turned east, threading their way through the city until they went out through the gate to join the trade route to Kandovor and the coast.

This was a new area of the city for Garia and she saw that it was very similar to the other directions she had traversed previously. The city buildings gradually opened out until they were driving between, for the most part, estates owned by rich nobles and prosperous merchants. Occasionally there were farms and small industrial enterprises but the terrain was mainly fields and orchards.

The procession turned into the courtyard of a large mansion and those in the carriages dismounted, heading for the entrance of the main building to get out of the rain. Once emptied the carriages and men drove off out through the back entrance to leave the courtyard clear. The guardsmen dismounted and took up positions around the building complex, their mounts being similarly removed from sight.

The guildsman at the porch bowed deeply.

"Welcome, Your Majesty, to the Kallend estate. I am Guildmaster Stannis, presently overseeing the planning of the future college works. Please enter and take off your wet things."

Once their waterproofs had been removed and hung up to dry, Stannis bowed again to Eriana and Garia.

"Your Highness, it is a pleasure to see you here. Guildmistress, you are also most welcome."

"Thank you, Master Stannis," Garia replied. "Though I'm wearing two hats today. I'll have a look at your plans for the new college but first we have to prepare ourselves for your temporary guests."

"As you say... My Lady. I believe that we have prepared the buildings to accommodate these people as you would desire but you may of course inspect them yourself."

"It's not me you'll have to satisfy but Princess Eriana," Garia said. "It is her people who are coming and I'm not sure they've ever been in a place like this."

"That is not so, Garia," Eriana said. "Though these buildings are not as those we build in Einnland, I have no doubt my men will be satisfied. In any event, if Palarand is to be their new land they must adapt to new circumstances."

"Well said," Robanar agreed. "Their lodgings in Plif will be little different than those we provide here, I deem."

"Not so, Sire. As a member of a royal family my own quarters were of appropriate quality but some of the men were expected to sleep in barns and over stables. Plif is not such a rich land as Palarand."

"As you say. Go, then, with Guildmaster Stannis and make sure all is well."

Eriana curtseyed, Stannis bowed and the two walked off to check the buildings. Garia turned to Robanar.

"I would never have thought of this, Sire. My original thought was that they would all descend on the palace. Captain Merek did say he could put them up but I can see that having that many new faces around the palace would cause talk - and trouble."

"Aye, Garia. Best to keep them out of the way until they are ready to set off. When they return from their adventure, then we may find them more suitable accommodation."

"And this place just happened to be there at the right time, didn't it? They won't be able to break ground for the new colleges until spring, so why not use the vacant buildings while they are here?"

"As you say, Garia." The King turned. "Merek, what bell did you say they were expected?"

"At about the fifth bell, Sire. I regret we are so far from the center of the city I have no idea what the time is."

Robanar glanced at Garia. "Then Lady Garia's electric clocks may have some application here, do you not agree?"

"Aye, Sire." Merek considered. "All the way out here, Sire? I did not think -" He shook his head. "I find some of these new ideas disturbing, Sire."

"As you say, Merek. We have grasped the harness of a runaway dranakh, I deem."

"It's not my electric clock," Garia objected. "That is all Guildswoman Milsy's idea."

"Do not quibble, my dear," Robanar said. "It was you who introduced us to electricity, was it not? Without that there would be no clock. I am right, though, am I not? The wires for an electric clock could be brought as far as this?"

"Aye, Sire. In theory, as far as you like but there are probably better ways of keeping clocks in step."

Robanar nodded. "Agreed."

A servant appeared with pel and pastries and the party took an afternoon break. The mansion was deserted, the owner having died some months before without any descendants who wanted to run the place. The Questors and Guilds had jointly acquired the lands and buildings as a site for the new college. However, all the original furniture had been sold off so the facilities which had been left were rather basic. Some replacement, temporary furniture had been hastily found when the buildings had been suggested as a base for the Norsemen while they prepared for their assault on Boldan's Rock.

After some time spent in discussion of other matters Eriana and Stannis returned. The Princess looked satisfied.

"Sire, this is a good place. There are sufficient rooms for my men to eat and sleep, there are three barns, one of which is full of feed for the animals, the other two are empty. One we shall use for training and the other to store and prepare the wagons. Of course there will not be enough room in the stables for all our beasts, but Master Stannis has suggested erecting an awning to shelter them. He also provides a small staff to cook and clean for us, that is all we should require." Eriana blushed, an unusual sight. "There is another matter, Sire. The men will desire... partners for their periods of relaxation. I do not know how such things are managed in Palarand."

Robanar looked at Merek, who rolled his eyes.

"Aye, Sire, I will make some arrangements. I do not know if the girls will require contracts but they must needs be paid."

Robanar nodded. "Aye, Merek. Take some care, if you would. We desire to be discreet about the presence of these men in our city. Prostitutes in taverns are not known for keeping their mouths shut."

"As you say, Sire."

Eriana looked out the door. "They have not yet arrived, Sire?"

Robanar joined her in the doorway, to gaze at the rain falling in the courtyard.

"As you see, Eriana." He looked at the sky. "It is almost dark, I pray they have not been delayed too much by the weather."

On cue the first of the wagons pulled into the yard to be followed by three others. The wagoneers were dressed in the customary yellow outfits, as were the riders of the ten frayen that accompanied the wagons. As soon as the wagons stopped, faces looked out of the canvas covers to see where they were.

"In here!" Eriana called. "This way!"

This was the signal for an explosion of men from the wagons. They all ran through the rain to the door and ducked inside, barely taking notice of those who stood waiting. In a very short period of time Garia found herself surrounded by a large group of very hairy men, most with long, damp, straggly locks.

At the tail end came the wagon guards accompanied by Gullbrand, all wearing yellow outfits and thus unrecognizable while they rode. Gullbrand bowed.

"Greetings, Your Majesty, Your Highness, My Lady. I have brought you twenty-six men from Plif. What is your pleasure?"

"This place is too small," Robanar muttered. "Where may we address these fellows?"

"Sire," Merek replied, "Her Highness should have directed the men to one of the barns. If you would all follow me."

Eriana bellowed instructions to the mob and they followed Robanar and Merek through the building. Garia and Merizel watched with interest as the group walked past them, receiving looks of appraisal in return.

"You're going to have to stop that before it begins," Merizel warned. "If they get the wrong idea about us, I dare not think of the consequences!"

"Aye, Milady," Gullbrand agreed, "the men have been idle too long and their thoughts have strayed, as those of men often do."

The women followed the men through mostly empty rooms and corridors before making a final dash through the rain to one of the barns. Inside they found that lamps had been lit, but the doors remained open to provide what additional light there was.

And to let the smell out, Garia thought. These guys don't believe in bathing, do they? How long have they been traveling from Plif? They could halt a Yodan assault in its tracks just by taking their coats off.

At the far end a row of crates had been placed and the welcoming committee climbed on these so that the new arrivals could see them all. There was a muttering of appreciation as Garia joined the group, swords plainly visible on her back. She looked down on a group of rough bodies, all clothed in what seemed to be shaggy furs, some sewn into rough coats and others seeming to be the same shape as when they were removed from their original owners. Underneath the coats she could just make out what appeared to be leather vests or shirts and heavy canvas trousers tucked into well-worn calf boots. None of the men seemed to be wearing swords or carrying other weapons, although that wouldn't have been comfortable inside the wagons anyway. She had no doubt these men owned plenty of ironmongery.

Since almost nobody spoke the Valley tongue, it was Eriana who spoke first.

«Men! Welcome to your new home of Palarand. You are all well after your journey?»

This produced expressions of disbelief. Eriana had not been noted for any previous concern for the welfare of her retinue. There were some mutterings which could have indicated relief that the journey was finished.

«I'm pleased to hear that. Now, listen! This man, as you might guess,» she gestured, «is King Robanar of Palarand. It is he who has graciously consented to provide you a new home. No, wait! In Palarand they do not do things the way we were accustomed to do them in Einnland. For now, a simple bow will suffice, as you are yet only guests in his realm.»

There was a shuffling of feet and then the mob made a ragged bow to Robanar.

«Gullbrand has told you,» Eriana continued, «of the bargain I made with His Majesty. This does not commit any one of you to follow me but I know that many of you have a desire for further adventure. There will be a chance for fighting and glory and we are promised spoils if we are successful. It will mean a long trek through mountains and an attack on a fortress in winter. All weapons, clothing, food and transport will be provided by His Majesty. In return you will become freemen of Palarand with honor to your names.

«The King fights a war against another country far away, we may choose to take further part in that but there will be no command from him or from me to do so. Those who do not think they can join us on our adventure may remain here with no stain on their character. I know some of you are seamen and not of a kind to walk mountains, no one will blame you should you choose another path. In Palarand, I have learned, there is work waiting for as many men who can be found to do it. What say you?»

The roar which answered her made Garia fear for the safety of the roof. Even though these men were tired, they wanted to demonstrate to their leader their willingness to follow her.

«So. Before the King will chance you with weapons in his realm you must make an oath to him. Once that is done I will introduce the others here to you and tell you what you may expect in the weeks to come.»

"What does she say, Garia?" Robanar asked.

"She's just welcoming them here and telling them what's going to happen, Sire. Eriana has just asked them to give an oath to you."

"Ah. You will translate for me?"

"As you desire, Sire."

"Sire," Eriana broke in. "There is a slight complication. They must see me take my own oath first, if that is acceptable."

"In their language?"

"To be safe, Sire, in both languages. Garia can translate." Eriana paused. "Once I take my oath, I shall no longer be their liege. In theory they could then refuse you but I do not expect that to happen. You heard them roar when I told them what task you had for them."

"I understand, Eriana. I do not think you have cause for concern but thank you for advising me. Continue, if you would."

Eriana turned to the men. «To show that I trust King Robanar, and that he has trust in me, I shall give my own oath to him so that you may witness. After that, he will take your oaths, this girl with the swords will translate for the King.»

That caused renewed interest in Garia as she apparently spoke their tongue but was obviously not an Einnlander. Eriana hopped off the crates and lowered one knee to the floor. Robanar led her through the oath, in the Valley tongue, and then did so again in Norse with Garia's help. There was a muttering from the men during this procedure as they listened to Garia's voice. Then it was their turn. They all got down on one knee and repeated the words that Garia spoke, binding them to Robanar as their new liege. She finished with the King's command for the men to rise.

«I won't keep you long,» Eriana said. «I know you are all tired, wet, hungry... and most of you definitely need to wash! This man,» she indicated Merek, «is the Captain of His Majesty's Palace Guard. Both the King and the City have armsmen and there are other bodies of men-at-arms in Palarand too. He will be in charge of any training you might need before we set off.»

A big, red-haired man said, «We don't need training!»

Eriana grinned. «Oh, yes you do! I would not believe it myself without seeing it, but the ways of war in Palarand are very different than the kind of brawl we are used to in Einnland. You must also learn some of the local tongue, that you may obtain food and drink in the future, at the very least. Besides, you will all need to learn how to ride and I am told that will take most of the time before we can leave.»

«So what?» another man said, contemptuously. «I don't need to be shown how to swing a sword or an axe. What can these soft people teach us? That little girl, she can't possibly be of any use with those silly swords she bears. If all the King's men are like her, we will be a laughing stock.»

Lars stepped in front of the crates. «Torvin, you are a bigger fool than I remembered you to be. This little girl, as you call her, is a killer. She does not even need to use those swords on her back but when she tested me with them, I could not even touch her.»

That statement produced a dead silence in the barn. The attention of every man was focused on Garia.

«I must introduce you to Lady Garia, Baroness Blackstone,» Eriana told them, trying to hide a smirk. «Lars is right, you do not want to make her your enemy, Torvin, but if you become her friend, she will teach you things you have never imagined possible. She is to be married to the King's son Prince Keren, who is presently on a diplomatic mission for his father. See that you mind your manners around his betrothed. Oh, and she can speak our tongue fluently, so mind your words.»

What? Did I suddenly grow two heads again?

Eriana changed subjects. «Naturally, when I arrived in Palarand, I was taken immediately to the palace and I have resided there ever since.»

This didn't seem to be a popular statement, although it seemed that the men accepted that a princess ought to be housed appropriately. Her next statement changed the mood considerably for the better.

«Now that I have my countrymen around me, however, I intend to move to this mansion to be among you. I will share your food, your drink, your exercises and your lessons, my people.» She grinned at the upturned faces, most now showing approval. «I regret that I shall not be sharing your beds, but I can assure you that the King intends to provide you company of the kind you desire.» That produced another roar.

«Residing with me will be two women from the Palace Guard, who will join us on our adventure. These are volunteers who will help us on our journey through countries beyond Palarand. They are not to be considered as your playthings! They are both trained swordswomen who I have sparred with myself. Leave them alone or you will feel the edge of their blades.»

Eriana turned and beckoned up onto the crates two of the guards, who the men now saw to be female.

«This one is named Danisa and this is Heldra. They are not to be considered as my maids, but naturally we will help each other as women must do from time to time. They are not to be treated as servants of the party either but as comrades in arms, since that is what they will be. Do not expect them to do your cooking or washing for you! Give them an Einnlander's welcome, boys!»

There was another immense roar, with the men raising their sword fists into the air, since they did not have their weapons with them. The men looking speculatively at Danisa and Heldra but with respect. Garia knew that they would have a difficult period of adjustment ahead but both understood the risks and both were committed to the venture.

She had another thought then and wondered if Eriana had realized the full significance of her oath.

She's been a busy girl, setting all this up, so I'm not surprised she has overlooked it. After we're finished here I'd better tell her the bad news.

«I cannot join you today,» Eriana was saying, «Since I have a duty in the palace tonight. Both Gullbrand and Lars will remain to see you all settled in and I will join you tomorrow morning. With me then will be Captain Merek and Master Haflin, the King's Master-at-Arms. There is hot water waiting for any who must bathe... and I expect you all to have bathed by the time I return!» Her gaze was stern, her hands on her hips. «I know you have been lazing around, drinking beer and chasing women while I have been away but it is now time for us to work, to earn our place in our new country. Am I understood?»

There was another roar. They were rough men and she reassumed leadership over them easily. They understood one another and Garia could see already that they would make a good fighting unit.

«Done. Salute your new King and then you may go and find yourself places to make your beds.»

There was another fist-raised roar and the men turned to follow Gullbrand and Lars, who ushered them out through the barn doors. Robanar turned to Eriana.

"I trust you didn't give away my entire kingdom, young lady?"

Eriana grinned. "As you say, Sire. Garia will vouch that I said nothing that would embarrass you."

"That is so, Sire," Garia confirmed. "She introduced them to Danisa and Heldra but gave them such fierce warnings you need have no fear for their safety."

"Indeed," Robanar agreed. "I would have preferred to have sent men instead, but..."

"Eriana's maids couldn't have gone," Garia reminded him, "not over that terrain. She needs at least another woman on the journey and they have to be able to take care of themselves. They may even be needed to get into the fortress."

Robanar nodded. "Aye, Garia, we discussed all this before. But I would not be a decent King if I did not worry about my people, especially as they are women."

"Thank you, Sire. We appreciate it."

Garia looked around, seeing that they were alone. They all jumped off the line of crates and then she stopped them from leaving.

"There is one small matter, Sire, which will affect Eriana."

"Oh?"

They all turned to face Garia.

"If I may ask her directly? Eriana, I have to talk to your maids. Do you understand why?"

Eriana's brow furrowed. "No, I do not, Garia." She gestured. "Please do."

«I'm sorry,» Garia began, «I don't even know your names. You two have been in the palace for weeks and you haven't said a word to anybody. Do you speak?»

The taller of the two looked at Eriana, who nodded.

«If it please you, My Lady, I am named Geska and she is Odgarda.»

«Well then, Geska and Odgarda, I must tell you that from the moment Eriana made her oath to the King you were no longer her maids. Slavery and bonded labor are illegal in Palarand. You are free women.»

The two looked confused. The idea that they might one day be something other than virtual slaves had never occurred to either of them. They cast frightened glances at Eriana, who had known that this would happen one day but had not really thought through what it might mean for any of them.

She sighed. «Girls, it is true. While we were yet guests of His Majesty he permitted you as my bondservants but now I am his vassal you are free.» She turned to Garia. «What might free mean to them, Garia? Though I assumed I knew what the status of a man or woman was in Palarand, I do not know your customs. What will happen to them now?»

«Eriana, I don't know half of this stuff either. Don't forget I've only been in Palarand some eight months or so and only really lived in the palace. The King would know or, better, you could ask Kendar. Let's wait until we get back to the palace and we can ask him.» Garia turned her attention back to the maids. «Roughly speaking, I'm guessing that being free will mean this. If Princess Eriana asks you to do something, you now have the right to say 'no'. She is no longer your... mistress, or owner, or whichever way you think of her. Do you want to stay with her? You have a choice now, you can stay with her - on your terms - or you could choose to do something else if you wanted to. You could leave the palace to find other work or even marry one of those men who were in here before, if there was one who took your fancy. It is up to you now, not her.»

The two looked at Eriana, who nodded reluctantly, then at each other before turning to Garia again.

Odgarda spoke. «My Lady. We did not expect this. If you will permit, we will serve Her Highness until we return to the palace and then we will try and understand what has happened to us.» She looked at her feet and then back at Garia. «We would ask you questions, My Lady, as you understand our problem, you are a woman and you speak our tongue. If you would permit?»

«Of course. It is a lot for you to take in all at once. I'll be happy to help however I can.»

The two turned to Eriana and curtseyed.

Odgarda said, «Mistress, if what we have been told is true, then we c- ca-» she stumbled over the unaccustomed word, «cannot serve you as we did before.»

«I understand, girls. I apologize, I should have told you what was to happen but I have been busy and forgot. If you still wish to serve me, then I will have to treat you differently. If you want to do something else, then I may not prevent you.»

They both curtseyed again and then stood, waiting, as they had done previously, just part of the background as any servant did. Robanar turned to Garia.

"Anything I should know about?"

"I've just reminded Eriana that the moment she made her vow to you, Sire, she set her maids free. They are at a loss to understand what their status is now so I told them the best person to talk to would probably be Kendar. I'll have to translate, of course."

Robanar's eyebrows went up and down and then he nodded.

"Of course, Garia. I had overlooked that that would happen. Eriana, are you content? These two must decide their own fates now."

"So I believe, Sire. I have no official status myself now so I understand their position."

"Not, so, Highness! As this evening's audience shall make clear, your status will be confirmed and you shall remain a Princess, though not of the royal blood. You will also hold military rank when you lead your men forth, of course. For servants, matters are not so clear. Garia is right, their best course is to consult Kendar. You realize you may lose one or both of them?"

"Aye, Sire."

"Perhaps a talk with the Queen is indicated. She can smooth most complications of the like nature."

"As you say, Sire."

The group hurried through the rain to the main building to find Stannis waiting. He bowed again.

"Sire, was everything satisfactory?"

"Indeed, Master Stannis. I am told there are twenty-six men come from Plif but not all will remain here, I deem. Master Gullbrand presently tends to their needs."

"As you say, Sire. If I may consult with Guildmistress Garia?"

"Of course, Stannis. Garia, I'll leave you in his capable hands with a file for an escort. I must needs return to the palace. Do not delay your own return since we are to conduct an evening audience for your benefit."

"I'll try not to stay too late, Sire."

Everybody bowed as Robanar, Eriana and Merek took their leave.

"If you would follow me, Guildmistress."

Garia and Merizel followed the guildsman to a lower-floor room that had been set up as an office. On the table were spread a number of charts, plans and maps.

"Guildmistress, what do you wish to see first?"

"Um, I think we'd better look at the overall plan first, Master Stannis. That will give me an idea of how you plan to lay the buildings out and then we can look at the buildings themselves."

"As you say, Guildmistress. As you know, there have been many changes since we first discussed this project, many more since we acquired this estate. Here we are."

Garia leaned over the map, which was a copy of the grant of land for the estate. At the lower edge the trade road could be seen and then the plot was outlined in red ink with more lines to show fields and other plots.

"So, how big is this? Roughly, I mean."

"It is one hundred thirty dranatilis, Guildmistress. These thin lines divide the land up so, that we may readily visualize the space we have."

A dranatil is a square a hundred strides on a side. A hundred of them would make up a square mark.

Garia tilted her head, estimating.

"That doesn't seem like anywhere near enough, Master Stannis."

"My Lady? I thought we had plenty of room."

"Hmm. Perhaps we ought to look at this from the other end, Master Stannis. Let's see what designs you have for buildings and then we can figure out what kind of space they'll take up."

"As you say, Guildmistress. Here are plans for lecture halls, dormitories and workshops."

Garia frowned at the building plans. She didn't know a lot about the subject but the buildings just didn't look big enough.

"How many students are you planning for? These dormitories, how many will sleep in each chamber?"

"Each chamber is for four students, Guildmistress, and there are ten on each floor, making eighty students altogether."

"Eighty? I grant you there may be that many the first year but that's nowhere enough. Suppose you build this and then double the number turn up the next year?"

"But... we sized the accommodation around the numbers who would fit in the lecture hall, Guildmistress, and we took the Questors' lecture hall as a pattern." He looked at Garia anxiously. "Surely there can be no need for more students, Guildmistress? There are not so many Questors, after all."

Garia shook her head sadly. "Master Stannis, by the time this project is fully functional each Questor may need his own lecture hall, and there will be more of them as knowledge expands. There could be many thousands of students here, all wanting accommodation and workshop space and everything else that goes with it. You're not planning just for next year, you're planning for the next one hundred years, with provision for more expansion at every turn."

Stannis looked as if Garia had hit him over the head with a lump of wood.

"To begin with," she continued, "we just want to build a single college that can take everybody but we expect to outgrow that almost immediately. Once we get a design that works we can duplicate it across the lands surrounding the first one. We have, what, some seventy or so Questors right now, don't we? If each of those has, say, ten or fifteen students, how are you going to fit them in? We can probably save on the lecture halls for now but we'll need maybe four or five at least."

The guildsman was dazed. "As you desire, Guildmistress."

"What were you planning to do with the mansion, once the Norsemen moved out?"

"Since the buildings would not be suitable for any of the required functions, Guildmistress, we planned to demolish them."

"I'd keep them if I were you. Along with those blocks you mentioned you'll also need some kind of administration block from which the whole site can be managed. I think this building would do just fine for that, and you'll need the kitchens and stable blocks as well, for those who will end up living here."

"Guildmistress, I beg you, reconsider. Do you really think that this place of learning would grow so large?"

"I know it, Master Stannis. In the country of my birth there are many universities and colleges larger than what I have described to you today. Count on it, whatever you think of, it won't be big enough in future. Remember, this is going to be a major seat of learning in the capital of one of the richest countries in Alaesia. People are going to want to come here from all over to learn the new stuff."

"Guildmistress, I am overwhelmed. I did not think so many would attend such a place despite what we were told. I find it difficult to envisage a Palarand of so many people."

"No, and that is half the problem, Master Stannis. Unless everyone is prepared to think big we will end up with small projects that have to be hastily expanded and expanded and the end result is a mess. What we're trying to do is to think far enough ahead that expanding the college in future will be that much easier."

Stannis bowed his head. "I understand, Guildmistress. I will redesign the buildings with your words in mind. Should I bring my new designs to the palace?"

"No, in here will be fine. I'll be coming here from time to time while the Norsemen are here, so I can look in and check progress."

"Thank you, Guildmistress. With that in mind, I suggest we look at the plan of the estate again. It seems to me -"

~o~O~o~

The temperature in the Receiving Room had gotten to the point where Garia would be too cold if she took her Cruella de Vil housecoat off and too warm if she kept it on. She sighed.

"What ails you, Garia?"

"It's this coat, Eriana," she replied in a low voice. "If I keep it on much longer I'll start to cook and if I take it off I'll freeze from all the sweating I've already done."

"As you say. I am in a similar peril, though if I had been dressed for my father's court I would be worse off, I deem. At least the great fire of logs burning in the middle of his hall kept us warm while business was done."

"Well, you and I have other ideas about how people should dress for such occasions. Perhaps we can introduce some of them here, don't you think?"

"Baroness Blackstone, I deem you are a bad influence in this court, but your words are wise. Mayhap we shall plot to bring comfort to this backward land."

That sounds really strange coming from Eriana! It looks like she may have a sense of humor after all.

"What are you two muttering about?" Terys leaned over toward the pair. "Pay attention, girls, here come some more people to be introduced."

Garia listened carefully to the introductions, knowing she had little chance of remembering everyone despite her improved memory. There were just too many people and the contact was so brief. The care was necessary since she had to decide who to curtsey to and when somebody should curtsey or bow to her instead. The difference was sometimes subtle, especially if the other was also a baron or baroness.

Those who had already approached were of wildly varying ages from teenagers like herself to some who looked as if they had already been embalmed. She considered the younger ones to be the more dangerous. Some of them looked extremely eligible and if she had not already been betrothed she would have had a fight on her hands from a mob of admirers.

The young man in front of her bowed. "Septrin, My Lady. I am a guildsman presently working on the new blast furnaces. I am delighted to meet you at last."

"I'm pleased to meet you, Guildsman Septrin. I'd like to talk shop with you but I don't think the Queen would approve, not tonight anyway."

He grinned. "As you say, My Lady. Perhaps if I may claim a dance from you later?"

"Perhaps. Thank you for coming."

An older couple followed, the woman leaning heavily on her husband's arm. Instead of bowing he held out his hand.

"I'm Baron Kentof, My Lady, of West Bridge. This is my wife Baroness Melinet."

Garia took the hand and shook it. She thought the name sounded familiar and then it came to her.

"I'm pleased to meet you, My Lord. Are you the parents of Countess Lasalenne, by any chance?"

"Yes, of course!" The baron peered at her, his eyes obviously not as good as they once had been. "You have met our daughter?"

"Indeed, My Lord. We stayed at Lord Trosanar's castle on our way back from Blackstone." Her gaze unfocused as she remembered what had happened. "That was an interesting stay, I recall. Your daughter was a gracious host to the Prince and myself."

"And that... I must be polite, My Lady... person she married? What of him?"

Garia smirked. "Let me just say that he has been firmly shown the error of his ways, My Lord."

"We have not received so many letters from our daughter of late," Countess Melinet added. "Is there some problem, do you know? Should we worry for her?"

"I don't think so, My Lady. When Trosanar traveled to Dekarran with the Prince he left his wife in sole charge of his affairs." Well, actually, Keren did that, but who's telling tales? "I imagine she has been busy, especially with the recent winter's feast and all."

Melinet smiled. "As you say, My Lady. It is refreshing to see a woman making use of her talents so."

"I agree, My Lady. I should write to Lasalenne myself soon, I think. Merry?"

"Aye, Milady. I shall make a note."

"If you will excuse us," Kentof said, "Lady Melinet must needs find a seat. Her legs are not as good as they once were."

"Of course. It's been nice meeting you."

After almost everybody had been introduced Robanar called a halt to the proceedings.

"My people. Before we begin the second part of the evening I have an oath to take and a presentation to make. Many of you know of the recent arrival of Princess Eriana of Einnland to Palarand, seeking a marriage with our son Prince Keren. That was not to be, but the Princess finds that she and the folk who came with her may not return to Einnland, for reasons too complicated to explain this evening. She has sought shelter in Palarand for herself and her people and we have agreed. She has already made oath to me but I deem it well that she should repeat it in front of the people of Palarand, that you may witness her allegiance for yourselves. Eriana, stand forth!"

Eriana stood from her seat beside the thrones and faced the King. He nodded and she lowered one knee to the floor.

Robanar said, "I ask you formally, are you prepared to renounce completely your present allegiance to Einnland, its King, its people and its lands?"

"Your Majesty, I am."

"Are you prepared to serve me as your King, forsaking all others, while you yet remain alive?"

"Your Majesty, I am."

"Do you swear to honor the laws of Palarand, follow its customs and traditions and obey the orders of your superiors and betters?"

"Your Majesty, I do."

"Are you prepared to defend Palarand in whatever ways you may be able, against all its enemies, now and in the future, even at the cost of your own life?"

"Your Majesty, I am."

"Heard and witnessed!" said Kendar in a loud voice.

"Then rise, Eriana, and join your fellows as a true Palarandi from this moment forward."

Eriana rose and Robanar indicated that she should stand by him, facing the crowd.

"This is Eriana," he told them, placing a hand on her shoulder. "She is the daughter of a King and I would not degrade her because by circumstance she must needs make her home among us. Therefore, she shall continue to be known by the style and title of Princess, though that shall not indicate any entitlement to the crown of Palarand. She shall continue to reside with us in this palace, though she will be at liberty to choose some other residence should she so desire.

"In addition her people have renown as warriors and she is of like kind. Some of you may have already noticed that our adopted daughter Garia on occasion wears swords especially designed for her size. Eriana is of a size to wield a normal sword and thus I present her one tonight. Haflin, if you would."

There was a stir as the huge form of the Royal Master-at-Arms came forward bearing a sheathed sword. He pulled the blade out and presented it, hilt first, to Robanar before arranging the scabbard and baldric across Eriana's back.

Robanar held out the sword and Eriana took it across her outstretched hands.

"Receive this sword from the hands of your Sovereign. Use it with care, in the defense of your lands, your people, your peers and your King and Queen. Do not draw it in anger but only when it is needful. You cannot befriend a man who is at the point of your sword."

Eriana bowed her head and said, "I accept this sword. I will use it only as you instruct, Sire."

She flipped the sword in her wrist and expertly slid it over her right shoulder into the scabbard, an action that drew some applause from the crowd. It seemed apparent that she was familiar with weapons of war.

"We are done," Robanar said to the crowd. "Let the music begin."

There was an immediate hum of conversation and some of the crowd pushed forward, curious to see the new object of interest. Garia relaxed, thankful for the distraction.

"Garia, would you help me get this thing off?"

"What? Oh, of course, Eriana."

It seemed slightly disrespectful to Garia that Eriana should immediately take off the sword she had just been ceremonially presented with, but it wasn't a practical item to wear with an evening gown and housecoat, especially if she wanted to dance. As Eriana bent forward Garia lifted the baldric, complete with sword, from her shoulder and handed it back to Haflin, who had remained behind the thrones. He took it with a smile.

"I take it this is not just a ceremonial sword, then?" she asked.

"As you say, Milady. This blade had been given a battlefield temper and it should serve Her Highness well during her adventure. For training she may use any of the blades the men do."

The music started up then and Garia cringed as usual. Haflin looked concerned.

"You do not like our music, Milady?"

"Not in the slightest, Master Haflin. I don't mind the rest of you liking it, I just put up with it during these gatherings."

"I have heard that Lady Merizel may play music of a different temper."

"That's true, Master Haflin. It's a long story. Why do you ask? Do you have some musical talents?"

"Me? No, indeed! Not with these hands." He held out his dinner-plate sized hands. "I would crush any instrument given me. It is true I may play a pretty tune on occasion with hammer and anvil, though." He explained, "I have recently spoken with the King's Master of Music, who sometimes needs my talents in repairing the tools of his trade. He mentioned your interest."

"Oh, I see. Perhaps we should have a word with him sometime."

Merizel rolled her eyes. "I'll make a note, Garia."

* * *

Eriana stopped Garia between their suites. "Garia?"

"Yes, Eriana?"

"I deem that neither of my maids desires to serve me further. Am I that bad a mistress?"

A difficult question to answer truthfully.

"Um, Eriana, you were not a pleasant person at all when we first met. Do you remember?"

Eriana's eyes lowered to the floor. "Aye, Garia. But I am not that person any more. Shall not they notice the change in me? What must I do to convince them to stay? This is strange, pleading with servants to remain."

"I had the opposite problem, Eriana. Before I came to Anmar I didn't have servants at all and I've found it strange to have people running round after me. But perhaps you should see it from their point of view. They have been stuck with you for years and now they can suddenly do anything at all. I can't blame them for wanting to see what's on the other side of the hill, so to speak." Garia paused, unsure of why Eriana had spoken. "Why did you ask? Do you want me to give you some advice?"

Eriana looked different, more uncertain of herself. "I am not sure, Garia, not any more. I seek to understand myself and yes, I should also seek to understand how others see me. Was I such an ogre to you all?"

Garia looked at Odgarda and Geska, standing quietly waiting and not understanding a word that Eriana or Garia were saying.

"They are staying with you until somebody else is appointed?"

Eriana gave a single nod.

"Okay, I would say, sleep on it, we'll do our meditation tomorrow and then go and speak to Kendar after breakfast. That should give everyone some time to think about the situation and what they might want to do about it. Will you explain that to them?"

"I will, Garia."

"Then I'll see you in the morning. Good night, Eriana."

"Good night, Garia."



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