Somewhere Else Entirely -114-

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Garia receives an unwelcome addition to her household before going off to visit the Norsemen. It is necessary to convince them of her abilities before they will agree to be trained by the Palace Guard. Then Keren returns from his journey upstream bearing letters from many of the other rulers, and more...

Somewhere Else Entirely

by Penny Lane

114 - News from the West


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.


All the women filed into Garia's sitting room, Jenet closing the door behind them. For once it was Garia who had the stunned look on her face.

"How exactly did that happen?"

"It seemed very reasonable to me, Garia, even logical," Merizel replied. "Geska and Odgarda didn't want to be Eriana's servants any more, they decided to try being palace servants instead. Only problem is, they don't speak our tongue and everyone else who speaks theirs is now out at the estate - excepting for you. It was obvious to me that you would have to take them on."

"But I can't!" Garia was upset. "Together with Jenet and Lanilla that will mean I have four maids and even the Queen only has two! What is she going to say?"

"Her Majesty will understand," Merizel said complacently. "And I don't think you'll have them long. Once we've taught them enough of our tongue to get by, they can join the other palace servants if they wish."

"As you say. But, what do I do with them now? I'll have to find somewhere for them to sleep. There's certainly no room for them in Jenet's cupboard."

"I'll organize that, Garia. You have to get ready to go off to the estate with Master Haflin to teach all those large and rather interesting hairy men how we good Palarandis can fight."

Garia stared at her friend. "You'd stay behind and do that?"

"That's my job, Garia. Now, go and get ready!"

Garia's face cleared. "As you command, slave-driver."

Merizel tutted and shook her head, smiling. "It's a good job I came along when I did, isn't it? You'd be in a complete mess by now if I had not."

"Ain't that the truth! Come on, Jenet, we'll leave Merry to sort out our new staff."

Garia and Jenet went into her dressing room and completed their fitting out of their riding outfits, parts of which they had worn down to breakfast. With helmets, gauntlets, short cloaks and Garia's swords, they returned to find that Merizel had disappeared with her own maid and the two Norse girls, presumably to find them space in one of the servants' dormitories.

With a stop at the kitchens to pick up treats the two entered the stables and found Snep and Brit happy to receive a visit.

"There you go, greedy," Garia said, feeding Snep a tit-bit. "I'm sorry I've been so busy lately but there's so much happening right now."

Snep raised his head to regard his rider. Garia rubbed a hand along his snout.

"Fancy a ride out, then? I know it's winter but sometimes we all have to go out into the cold and wet." She turned to Jenet. "Need help tacking and saddling up, Jenet?"

"Help is coming, milady."

Two of the stable staff appeared and without being asked, began to fit harness and saddles to their two frayen. Garia noticed that a brass ring had been added to the front saddle rail to resolve a small difficulty with earlier models of saddle, that could be inadvertantly mounted back-to-front, with great discomfort to the animal concerned. Waterproof rolls were strapped behind the saddles and Garia's two swords placed in a holder in front of her right leg, where she could reach them easily.

Behind them, other riders were also making their mounts ready. Garia could not now go anywhere without a substantial escort, and roughly half the men now readying their beasts were wearing her colors. The other half were wearing palace colors but almost all the men had served the King in any event and all knew each other.

"Are you ready, young woman?"

That was Haflin, his huge frame blotting out the light where he stood in the stable doorway.

"Just about, Master Haflin," she replied. "Is Captain Merek there with you?"

"Aye, milady. He's just come back from a visit to Forton."

He frowned at the two women.

"I expected Lady Merizel to join you. Is she not well? I know that little may keep her from an opportunity to ride her beast."

Garia made a face. "Eriana's - excuse me, Princess Eriana's two maids decided they didn't want to serve her any more but would rather serve the King instead."

Haflin nodded. "I can see there might be reason for it."

"Unfortunately," Garia explained, "I'm the only person left in the palace who speaks their language, so I've been volunteered to look after them. Merizel is staying behind today to find them dormitory space and so on."

"Ah, I understand." He grinned. "I'm sure there will be little need for her talents today. There will be other opportunities to ride."

"As you say."

Garia pulled down the mounting loop, put her right foot in it, then hoisted herself enough for her left foot to find the stirrup and then swing her right over Snep's back. She tucked the mounting loop away and twitched her riding skirt to completely cover her saddle. Checking the strap of her helmet she turned to find Jenet similarly mounted.

"Ready? Let's go."

In the yard Haflin was climbing into a carriage, there being no frayen large enough to take him. Captain Merek joined them and the men formed up around the carriage and the two women riders before setting off out of the palace grounds. The weather was cold and Garia was glad to be muffled up. However, her ears were exposed and she made a mental note to ask somebody if there were a way to keep them warm while wearing a helmet. The men must have some method, surely?

The procession made good time along the city streets. It was not that early but the weather seemed to have discouraged the locals from coming out into the cold. It did not take long before they turned into the courtyard of the mansion where the Norsemen were temporarily based, and the activity there stopped abruptly as the procession appeared.

Garia blinked and then wondered whether Merizel had missed out or not by staying behind. Half the Norsemen were standing around naked while the other half were pouring buckets of cold water over them! Standing on a crate at one side Eriana was organizing the proceedings, apparently with gusto. All now turned and stared with apparent amazement at Garia and Jenet, seated on their frayen, expressions which turned to envy and calculation when Haflin climbed out of his carriage. Eriana jumped down and strode towards the arrivals, grinning.

"Good morrow, friends! We did not expect you just yet. Some of these apologies-for-trolls refuse to wash the dirt of travel from their bodies so the others are assisting them, as you can see."

"Good day, Highness," Haflin replied with a bow and a smile. "If you would continue, we will not obstruct your household arrangements. We will see to our beasts and my carriage and then join you."

Eriana bowed. "As you desire, Armsmaster."

She turned to the crowd, now beginning to gather round the newcomers. «This man is called Haflin. He is King Robanar's Master at Arms,» she informed them. «He will assess each of you and then we shall determine how best to use your strengths - and find out your weaknesses.» She looked at the expressions on their faces. «You may not believe you have any weaknesses, but I know better, having seen His Majesty's men - and Lady Garia there - at training. Believe me, we all have much to learn from these people.» She clapped her hands. «Now, let's clean ourselves up while these good folk stable their frayen!»

When Garia's party re-emerged from the stables the naked men were nowhere to be seen, presumably having gone somewhere to put some warm - and, hopefully, clean - clothing on. Eriana remained in the courtyard with ten or so men, together with Danisa and Heldra.

"That's better!" Eriana grinned at them. "With women around the men will soon begin to present themselves more tidily, although you cannot expect the neatness of His Majesty's court, I regret."

"That's fine," Garia replied. "We don't want them to become too assimilated anyway, not if they are to be travelers through other countries. There's time enough to do any of that when you return."

Eriana's expression sobered. "You do expect us to return, then? I was not sure the King saw this adventure as a way of getting rid of an unwelcome distraction."

Merek said stiffly, "Highness, His Majesty would never value any man so lightly. Or yourself, for that matter. Part of this preparation period before you leave is to prove to all that you and your men are suitable for the task proposed. His Majesty would never send his men into the field without adequate training and you may be assured he will welcome every one of you back to Palarand with open arms."

Eriana nodded. "Aye, Captain. I have decided to make our training period a competition for places. We have planned but twenty frayen for the adventure and three of those must needs be mine and these two female warriors who have volunteered to assist me. We shall all train, but only seventeen of the best shall be picked to fill the remaining saddles." She switched her gaze to Garia. "First, I regret that the men must be convinced of Milady's abilities, that they will then agree to be trained. Garia, are you ready?"

Garia inclined her head. "I am."

It was inevitable that she would be called to show what she could do. Normally, she would be confident of her own abilities but this was not the Self Defense Training Room or even the Large Training Room. Out here it was cold, the surface would be different and some of those hairy men were big. She hoped they would know how to pull their punches.

"Milady," Merek suggested, "I advise your sword routines first, here in the yard. That will warm you up before we move into the barn for some unarmed combat. By that time there will be better light for all to see what is happening inside the barn. Some of my men are laying a cushion of straw on the floor ready for your bouts."

"Thank you, Captain, that's a good idea."

They made small talk for a while until the rest of the Einnlanders trickled out of the buildings, now wearing the rough clothing and furs they were accustomed to. When all had arrived, Eriana spoke to them.

«Lady Garia will demonstrate that she can defend herself with swords, despite her small size. Who wishes to provide a test? I warn you all, these contests are not intended to provide injury to any, merely prove a point, though if you desire to fall flat on your faces I will not stop you.»

There was a burst of laughter and then the men became quiet. Finally one of about middle size stepped forward.

«Highness, I find this claim hard to believe. I will test her. What blade can I use?»

A short discussion with Merek and a barrel of training swords was carried out of the barn. The man selected a sword and faced Garia, while the rest formed a rough circle around them, interested to see what would happen. Garia had made no move to unsheathe her own blades, so nobody had yet seen the steel.

«My Lady, do you not draw your blades?»

«You haven't attacked me yet,» she replied, to a burst of laughter from the onlookers.

Puzzled, the man pushed his sword point forward, and then, since there was no response, swiftly swung it up and down again as he lunged forward. Garia skipped back out of the way and her hands went to her shoulders. The swords came out but she held the points down in front of her so as not to lose the element of surprise. The man tried another hack but this time the sparks flew from Garia's defensive X. The onlookers gasped.

«Look how thin those blades are!» one said.

«True, but they appear strong enough to withstand Eirik's blow,» another countered.

The contest went to the inevitable conclusion, as Eirik found himself unable to get through Garia's defense but was pinked twice in return. Finally she trapped his blade underneath and pulled it from his grasp to clatter on the flagstones of the yard. She raised her blades together in front of her face in salute before lowering them.

«Anyone else want to try?»

There was a shuffling of feet and then a much larger man came forward.

«Eirik is not so strong among us. I will try. Perhaps you will tire eventually.»

«And what would you prove?» Garia asked. «That a large man has more stamina than a small woman? You don't need swords for that. Besides, by then you would be dead. These swords are my practice pair. If I had been using my battle swords, Eirik would be dead by now, since the tips of those are sharpened and will even go through leather armor. I only have to hit you once.»

Several of the onlookers suddenly realized that hack-and-slash wasn't the only way to kill someone with a sword and expressions became thoughtful. Her new opponent bowed.

«The situation is not what I thought at first, My Lady. I will test you with a sword, nevertheless. I would not be a man if I did not wish to try myself against those blades.»

«As you wish. Find yourself a sword.»

This opponent was much harder to get around, as he had seen what Eirik had done and adjusted tactics accordingly. In the end it made no difference to the result, although Garia touched him only once, on the thigh. The man bowed and lowered his sword.

«My Lady, I am Tor Ander's son. I am honored to have crossed blades with you. If you have need of men to fight at your side, I will answer your call.»

Eriana was amused but decided to make a point. «Hey! What about me? Will you fight by my side?»

Tor waved a free hand dismissively and grinned at the Princess. «Highness, we do that all the time. With respect, this little one is different. She is to be Queen of Palarand? She is worthy of following, as your father was not.»

Eriana cast a glance of approval at Garia. «I cannot disagree, Tor. But she will not be leading this adventure.»

«Do not concern yourself, Highness. When we are needed, there we will be. So. Who else would try their hand against the defense that may not be passed?»

A man as big as Lars but considerably hairier stepped forward.

«I do not care to entertain myself against such a young - and beautiful - woman, Highness. I want to try my steel against him.» The man pointed a chunky finger at Haflin.

Garia turned to see the smile break out on his face.

"I don't know what he said, but I can guess," the Master Armorer said. "I'll go fetch my sword."

Haflin strode into the barn and returned with his own scabbarded sword, which Garia remembered. He pulled it out and handed the scabbard to Merek, who didn't seem offended. Haflin pointed to the barrel.

"We should have something in there, choose one!"

Garia translated and the man selected one of the bigger practice swords, which he swung with ease. The two faced off, while those watching stood further back to give them more room. Garia had never actually seen Haflin fight and she was as interested in the contest as everybody else was.

There was a clash of steel and a spray of sparks as their blades met. The two made several tentative attacks to determine the other's abilities before settling to the hard business of grinding each other down. As the bout proceeded, Garia realized that blades of such size had serious mass, in order to wield one with any speed one had to have superior strength and reflexes. It made her also realize that her own slender blades had given her an unexpected advantage because she could move them about with ease since they were so light compared with the weapons her opponents had used.

There were gasps from the onlookers, and several winces from Garia, as increasingly heavy blows were attempted and parried. Broadsword fighting was not a thing of beauty and the two merely slugged it out, moving swiftly on their feet whenever they had the chance. Eventually Haflin's superior experience began to tell and he landed two touches on the man's torso before the other stood back and lowered his sword.

«Highness, tell him I submit. Had we been fighting for real, I would be bleeding at his feet after that second poke. I am satisfied.»

Eriana clapped her hands. «It is enough. Let us go into the barn out of the wind.»

She turned to the others. "Master Haflin, he has had enough. If the contest had been real, your second touch would have seriously wounded him, as you are no doubt aware." She grinned. "Let us all go into the barn now, out of the wind, and my men can be shown another wonder."

Inside the barn a thin layer of straw had been spread to cover the entire floor. Garia nudged it with her boot and thought it would probably be thick enough to save injuries yet not too thick to cause anyone to trip. She stood in the middle with Jenet, Danisa, Heldra and Eriana while the rest spread themselves around the walls. The big double doors were left wide open to admit as much light as possible.

"How do you plan to handle this, Eriana? I doubt these men have ever really fought a woman, except in sexual encounters."

"Not so, Garia. Did I not tell you about the raids, and the taking of slaves? Most of my men would not care to harm any woman, though, and your abilities will come as much a surprise to them as they did to me."

"Are you saying they wouldn't fight me?"

"Not to begin with, Garia. They have no idea what they face, remember. Perhaps it would be better if you demonstrated first against one of your own men." She turned to Danisa. "I'm sorry, Danisa, if I suggested Garia fight one of you they would get entirely the wrong idea."

Danisa's smile was wry. "Aye, Highness, I know what you mean! I am not offended, we all know what men can be like."

"Okay, then." Garia's eyes went around the barn, picking out the men in palace colors from those in furs.

I wish Keren were here. Or even D'Kenik. Tord is back at the palace looking after Milsy. Who?

"Tallik! Over here, if you would."

The young man trotted forward and thumped his chest. "Milady?"

"I need a volunteer to demonstrate unarmed combat to the Einnlanders," she explained. "I didn't want anybody who has been through the whole training course, because they might not know how to stage a demonstration. Would you do it?"

"Here, Milady? Aye, of course." He looked unhappy. "I have not had any training at all yet, Milady."

"You're worried about getting hurt? I think this straw should be good enough and I'm not about to go injuring His Majesty's guardsmen. I'll just do enough to get one or two of the Einnlanders out on the floor, okay?"

"As you command, Milady. What must I do?"

"You'll need to take your sword and knife off, oh, and the one on your boot." Every guardsman now had a knife attached to their right boot as part of their uniform. "Hand them to Danisa to look after. Jenet?"

Garia lifted her left hand to her chest and with a simple upward movement released the latch holding her new harness, as it fell away she collected it in her left hand and gave it to Heldra to hold. Her boot knife joined the swords. When Jenet stripped Garia's skirt off there was a momentary stunned silence and then a murmur of appreciation that began to rise. The other women walked to the side and she was left facing Tallik.

"Whenever you're ready, Tallik."

It really wasn't fair to the young guardsman but he knew the honor of the guard was at stake and he took his impromptu task seriously. He rushed Garia, hands ready to grasp but she sent him sailing smoothly overhead to land on his back behind her. There were 'oohs' from the crowd. Tallik got up and tried again, so Garia chose a slightly different action and sent him sprawling in another direction. After some further throws Garia stood and put her hands on her hips, addressing the crowd.

«That's what I can do,» she said. «Anyone fancy their chances?»

«He's only a boy,» someone objected. «How does that fancy wrestling work against a real man?»

«Come out here and find out,» Garia challenged.

Eriana added, «Don't make the mistake that this is just for fun, men. Lady Garia has, so I am told, destroyed the knee joint of a man as large as Captain Merek while defeating him in a bout of honor and she has killed at least two others using this combat method. You must take this as seriously as you do your sword work.»

The objector stood forward, a hand removing his belt and the knife on it.

«I am Fritjof,» he said. «I will try this new way of fighting, though I am not happy to be doing it with a woman. I will not harm you, My Lady?»

«It's possible you could do so by accident,» Garia conceded. «Don't make the mistake of thinking I fight like a woman, though. I don't. Neither do the men or women of the Palace Guard who I have trained.» She smiled at him. «Just think of me as small and dangerous.»

Fritjof discovered that even getting a good grip on Garia was almost impossible. Time and again he found himself on the floor of the barn with her boot against his throat or some other vulnerable place. The Einnlander was bewildered.

«My Lady, I did not believe that such combat was possible,» he said as he stood yet again. «You would teach us this magic?»

«I can't, unfortunately. There just won't be enough time before you have to leave. This match was really just to prove a point, and that is that although you all consider yourself seasoned warriors, which you are, there are other ways of fighting you people don't know about yet. The job of Master Haflin and Captain Merek is to prepare you so that you can face Valley men-at-arms who do know some of this stuff. Presently only the men of Palarand know about unarmed combat, and when you all get back from wherever you're going I'll be delighted to teach you what I know.»

«I will be sure to return, My Lady. Any warrior would want to know more, having tasted these new things.»

Eriana clapped her hands. «Any more foolishness? Good. You all know the task which is ahead of us. Let me not hear any grumbling when these fine men ask us to do things we will find strange.»

There was a muttering of agreement and Garia let out a breath of relief. The first hurdle had been passed, and the men would now accept instruction from, to them, soft foreigners. She didn't want the men to forget their native talents but they had to be able to withstand the more structured warfare of the nations in the Great valley.

"Eriana? Is there any chance of some pel?"

The Princess grinned. "Aye, Garia. That was an impressive demonstration. Come over to the house, I think the kitchen staff should have something ready for us all."

"Your skirt, Milady."

"Thank you, Jenet."

~o~O~o~

The next morning everyone went to the Kallend estate. Since neither Tandra nor the two Norse maids could ride they were in a carriage, which embarrassed them all greatly. Garia privately thought that the embarrassment would prove an incentive for the women to learn to ride, or at least to try.

When she arrived, she had found the Norse in a rear field throwing axes at a longbow target which had been left out the previous day. Needless to say there was not much left of it but nobody seemed to mind. Eriana came to her with a different concern.

"Garia, I'm finding it difficult to handle my long hair in the mock fighting we practise. I am considering cutting it to be like your own. What do you think?"

"What's wrong with the braid you usually wear?"

"It gets in the way when I move my head. If I have it down my back or over one shoulder, it's the same thing."

"Then... perhaps you might try your braid from a different place," Garia suggested with a smile. "On Earth there's a fashion where women - and some men, occasionally - wear their hair in what's called a ponytail. Do your sagas mention horses at all?"

"They do, though of course we have little idea what they look like these days."

"Okay. Imagine something like a frayen only bigger. The head looks somewhat different, the eyes are much higher up nearer the ears, and they have a line of upright hair running down the back of the neck. You know like pakh have two toes on each foot?"

"Aye."

"Now, imagine that the nails are underneath the foot, so that the animal walks on the nails. We call that a hoof. So, horses have one nail, a single hoof that goes right round, like this." Garia gesticulated in the air. "To save the hoofs from wearing down so quickly, blacksmiths put special iron shoes on them, also shaped like that."

Eriana was skeptical. "A horse walks on but a single nail on each foot?"

"Yes, it's true! It is quite large so it can bear the horse's weight easy enough. Eriana, it's really no stranger than some of the odd creatures I've seen here on Anmar."

"As you say, Garia. I think I see. I know there are references in the sagas to blacksmiths and horse-shoes, but of course nobody knew what they meant. But what does this have to do with... whatever you said?"

"Ponytails. A pony is simply the name for a small horse, but the same thing applies to both. At the rear end, instead of the tail a frayen would have, a horse's tail is made almost entirely of hair, which comes out in a bunch and then hangs down about so far. The horse can swish it about to keep the flies off."

"Strange. But..."

"So, that's the reason we call that hairstyle a ponytail. It starts up the back of your head about here." Garia placed a finger at the appropriate spot on Eriana's head. "Then, you can either let the hair hang loose, like a real horse's would, or you can plait it up as you do now. Then you can either let the plait dangle or wrap it round the base to keep it out of the way."

"I see! Thank you, Garia, I might just try that. As much as I would one day like to attempt a style like yours, I am used to having long hair and would prefer to keep it for now if I can."

"Not to mention, if you go wandering around Alaesia with short hair people are going to talk," Garia pointed out. "A ponytail ought to do what you need, although you'll have to rethink your helmet if you decide to travel that way."

Eriana nodded. "Of course. I can arrange something, I'm sure."

"Do you think I can try that style, Garia?" Merizel asked. "It sounds interesting."

"Of course, Merry! I'm amazed I didn't think of suggesting it to you before. I'll show you when we get back to the palace."

"You realize that if I did try that, half the palace women will be wearing one before the week is ended?"

Garia rolled her eyes. "Oh, yes. I've become used to being a leader of fashion now. You remember some of the gowns at that ball the night before last? I don't think I've ever seen so many pleats."

"Aye, Garia. Like much of what you tell us, you have to be careful what you reveal, I deem."

Garia shrugged. "Fads come and go. I hope. You're right, though. I remember far too much and it all has to be let out very carefully."

* * *

Over lunch, Garia asked, "Who is coming this evening, Merry? I thought it was just going to be Milsy and Tarvan."

"There are some of the clockmakers, Garia, and two men from the copper production department. Milsy tells me there is a whole list of questions about electrical matters. For example, the clockmakers have noticed some strange happenings with some of the slave clocks they have made."

"Oh?"

Merry furrowed her brow. "I don't recall all of it. Something about double clicks?"

Garia waved a hand. "We'll see. I might be able to sort them out. If I can't, Milsy might have some idea."

The first of the frayen destined for the adventure arrived after lunch and were stabled in the covered awning behind the stables proper. Garia spent much of her time that afternoon attempting to convince a skeptical audience that with a little kind treatment they could have their mounts literally eating out of their hands. It was necessary for her to demonstrate with Snep just what could be achieved and the men bent to work with a new will.

Garia's evening meeting had to be postponed, however, when a breathless rider arrived at the Kallend estate looking for her.

"Milady!" The man banged his chest, breathing heavily.

"Take it easy, there. In your own time. What is it?" But there was a pang of fear inside her. Could it be bad news?

"The palace has had warning that His Highness will arrive this evening, and you are requested to return early by the Queen to prepare." The man managed a small smile. "I deem you would in any case, Milady."

Garia let out a big sigh of relief. "At last! Thank you for telling me that, you are right. Tell the Queen we will return as soon as we can pack ourselves up. Go and find yourself a drink before you return."

"Thank you, Milady." The man saluted and left.

Merizel remarked, "This changes a few things, doesn't it?"

Garia closed her eyes. The feelings which the message had triggered were much larger than she had expected.

"Oh, yes," she breathed. "Oh, yes."

Merizel gave her a sharp glance and then began issuing orders. A guardsman was sent off to inform Haflin and Merek, who were talking to some of the Einnlanders at the other end of the yard, using Eriana as an interpreter. A boy was sent off to the stables to get their carriage ready. Soon everything had been organized and the party was on its way back to the palace.

Garia discovered Terys was dictating letters in the downstairs parlor.

"Ma'am? I hope I'm not interrupting anything."

"Come in, my dear, and sit down a moment while I finish this letter. Where was I? Oh, yes... 'so we agree that such a public service would be useful and we commend you for thinking of it. We desire that you shall send us a full description of the service, that we might consider if a similar service may be set up in Palarand or the other cities or towns of our realm.' That's it, sign and date it as usual and bring it back for my signature."

The Quick Scribe rose and bowed. "As you command, Ma'am."

As the man let himself out Terys turned to Garia and explained, "I had a note from Trosanar, my dear. He has had an idea for a regular service of... wagons, he said, but I'm sure he has a kind of carriage with many seats in mind, which would travel through Tranidor at regular times and allow the people to take their heavy goods and purchases with them. Tranidor, as you well know, is hilly and the people spend all day walking up and down the slopes with their goods. Is this kind of regular service one that you have on Earth? I would think, with your great cities, that you must have something similar."

"Oh, yes, Ma'am! Of course we do. There are several kinds depending on the way the city or town is laid out." Garia's eyes narrowed. "You say that Trosanar had this idea?"

Terys's look was amused. "He says it is his, but I do not think so! It would not be in his nature, do you not agree? Doubtless the real inventor of such an idea will come to our attention in time and receive a just reward when they do so." Terys frowned at a thought. "It wasn't your idea, was it?"

"No, Ma'am, though it would probably have come up during one of our council meetings."

"As you say. You have returned early because of the messenger, I suppose? You have heard that Keren returns this evening?"

"Yes, Ma'am."

"It shows on your face, my dear. Go and get yourself cleaned up, then, and be ready for his arrival. We do not know yet whether he will arrive before the evening meal or afterward, so be prepared for a long wait."

Garia rose and curtseyed. "As you command, Ma'am."

"Oh, and one last thing."

Garia turned as she headed for the door.

"Ma'am?"

"Wear something soft, my dear. If you do not, you will surely be bruised."

It was only when she was out in the corridor again that she realized what the Queen was implying and she blushed deeply.

* * *

It was cold, waiting at the porch. During the ride home from the estate Garia had seen snowflakes in the air, though nowhere enough to even consider making a thin layer on the ground. In the winter twilight the flakes seemed more dense, but that was maybe because of the bad light, or...

She shook herself, trying to focus her mind, but it persisted in wandering. Even her usual mental exercises failed to give her the clarity she needed, and she knew exactly why that was. She kept poking her nose out of the porch, hoping to see the train of frayen plodding in through the gates and across the front yard. Instead, all the traffic there was consisted of yellow-clad messengers who arrived and departed with alarming frequency.

A large, gloved hand came around her shoulder.

"Easy, Garia. He may not arrive until we have finished eating."

"I know, Sire. I can do nothing else though."

"You appear calmer than the Queen, when she must needs wait for me," Robanar said. "My mother had to forbid her the porch on several occasions. We understand your anxiety, my dear. Our own is little better."

He's still very young, as such things go, and this is the first time he's been away from home entirely on his own. They have a right to be concerned.

On the other hand, he has already fought two battles and stared a ptuvil in the face. What could possibly be worse?

"Sire! They come."

A hand pointed, and out of the gloom came a line of frayen, some bearing riders. They were all wearing traveling clothes, so it wasn't possible to distinguish anyone at this range. The lead rider pulled up once he had entered the front yard and waited for three more riders to pull abreast. A conversation was dimly heard, and then one rider headed for the front steps while the rest carried on round the corner to the stables.

He dismounted at the foot of the steps and a servant hurried down to take charge of the animals. Certain packs were removed and the rider climbed the steps while the servant took the beasts off after the others. Keren reached the top step and halted, uncertain of his reception.

"Father -"

"Come here, boy, and take your welcome like a man!"

Robanar strode forward and grabbed his son in a bear-hug.

"It's good to see you back, son. Your mother has been worried."

"As you say, father. I took risks -"

"Later, Keren. Go greet your mother, she has waited in the cold these several bells."

Keren walked into the porch and gave his mother a gentler hug, but just as heartfelt. Then he turned to Garia, and there was no way she could remain still. She launched herself at him and wrapped herself around his waist. His arms enveloped her in a firm embrace.

"Garia. Did you miss me?"

He smelt of dust and mud, frayen and old leather, sweat and roadhouse food and it was all good. She tilted her mouth up and his came down for a kiss. Her heart exploded inside her. If a simple meeting was this good, what would marriage be like? Behind, as the two embraced, Terys looked on fondly, remembering her own romance with the King.

Eventually the two came up for air and parted slightly. Keren noticed for the first time that he was surrounded by servants and courtiers and flushed after making a public spectacle of himself. He grinned, thinking that at least this time it was all legitimate. He turned and gestured with a free hand at the saddlebags.

"Some important dispatches, mother. Make sure they don't get lost."

He turned to Garia and asked, "What time is it? Have you all delayed your meal on my account?"

"No, son," Robanar came in from behind. "There is almost half a bell, if you wish to go and change we will await you. We dine tonight in the Receiving Room to welcome you back."

"I will, thank you, father. If I may walk with Garia?"

"Of course, son, but don't forget us, will you?" Robanar had an indulgent look on his face, which slowly faded. "After we have eaten we will gather in the parlor to hear your report."

"Aye, father. There is a great deal to tell, much of it entirely unexpected. Garia? Shall you walk with me?"

He held her hand tightly as they walked through the palace. Any servants they happened to pass stopped and applauded until they were out of sight. At the top of the stairs, before they reached Keren's door, he gathered Garia and kissed her again. He bore a day's growth of stubble but Garia didn't care at all.

"Maker! I never knew I could miss something so much. I am glad to be back by your side, Garia."

"I'm so glad you're back as well, but you didn't have to sit around waiting for you to return," she replied. "Now, if you want to eat, I suggest you go and get those things off. You've time for a wash as well. I don't think your parents will want to see you in full uniform but I'm sure you can find something more comfortable to wear."

Keren rolled his eyes. "Oh, how I've missed you! Already ordering me about again! As you command, My Lady." With a grin he bowed deeply and then entered his suite.

When he emerged he was wearing a winter-weight tunic and thick tights. His hair, which had grown while he was away, was still damp but he had put the gold circlet over his brow. Garia still thought he looked amazing. He offered his arm and they walked together down to the Receiving Room.

"What have you been doing while I've been away? Lots of new inventions?"

Garia smirked "Yes and no, as always. I think we'll leave that discussion for another day, don't you? Recently, most of Eriana's people have come up from Plif and we're training them to make a raid on that fortress. Oh. We still need to do that raid, don't we?"

"Aye, we do, Garia. I'll tell all afterward but it is confirmed that Yod have taken it by stealth. I have plans of the fortress with me and maps of the surrounding area, courtesy of the Duke of Forguland."

"You went to Forguland?"

"Aye. Later, I think. Everything in its place, Garia."

At the door of the Receiving Room they met D'Kenik.

"My Lady, it is good to be back. Captain Merek is offering all who went two days at ease. I trust this does not conflict with your desires?"

"It's good to have you back, D'Kenik! Yes, of course, get yourselves all sorted out and have two days to relax. I doubt His Highness will be relaxing, though. Any problems we should know about?"

"Nothing major, Milady. Some harness issues, a split pack saddle, a lame frayen, that's all. We can handle all that." He bowed again. "Highness, Milady, I'll leave you to your meal."

Although this was a meal in the larger hall it was an expanded family meal, welcoming back a traveling son. The food was good but the atmosphere was relaxed. Keren, after all, had just ridden all the way from Brikant and was tired and saddle-sore. The table talk was mostly of conditions on the journey, the state of the roads and river, what accommodation was available in the dead of winter and the foods that had been eaten along the way. By unspoken agreement word of where he had been, who he had seen and what he had done was left until later.

Once in the parlor the atmosphere turned more serious. Terys, Garia and Merizel were joined by Kendar and Captain Merek. Keren knelt on the floor in front of his father and bowed his head.

"Father, I beg your forgiveness. I have disobeyed your instructions, placed myself and my party at risk. It seemed to me that the gains outweighed the risks and so it proved. But I may not have been right."

"Rise, my son. You are a man now, you must needs learn how to gauge risk and when to take advantage. I doubt not you had good reason for your actions. Now, let us hear them. Tell us your story."

Keren stood, bowed to his father and regained his seat.

"Brikant is first, of course. Since Yod raided Sheldane the whole countryside has been alert and Uncle Visselen has been busy raising levies. That has been our biggest problem and the reason why, I deem, Valley countries don't make war this time of year. Most of the levies remain at home and just turn out for training sessions. We dare not make camps or collect the men for more advanced activity, the weather and the state of the ground is just too bad."

Robanar nodded. "As you say. What of Visselen's own men?"

"He has an enlarged force of three hundred or so ready at their castle, father. Another hundred and fifty are now lodged at Sheldane, with Marlin in command."

"Marlin? Surely he is not experienced enough."

Keren shrugged. "Perhaps, but he did take part in the assault which recaptured the town, father. I deem he has now had some experience. I did not meet him either time I passed through, I have only Uncle Visselen's report on his actions and abilities."

Robanar grunted, so Keren continued.

"The next stop was Brugan and to my surprise Uncle Visselen wanted to join me for that part of my route. We all journeyed, as I wrote in my letters, as plain travelers so no one would take notice. It seems that Uncle Visselen has been corresponding with Duke Bardanar about many matters, it makes sense as they are neighbors after all, and certain proposals required a personal meeting. From what I learned, Brugan has been taking note of recent developments in Palarand and wishes to seek an association with us, perhaps in the same manner as Brikant."

"Aye. That was a surprise, Keren. Since that letter I have had many thoughts and discussions, including some with Garia here." Keren looked at her with an eyebrow raised. Robanar explained, "If I were to take Bardanar at his word, Palarand would become even bigger and seem to threaten the other states, much as Yod does today. We must needs find another solution, which is why I have asked Garia about various arrangements that exist on Earth. You remember that her own country, the United States of America, is just such a collection of states."

"Ah! Of course, father. As Garia would say, you are thinking big, I deem."

"As you say, son."

Keren resumed. "Virgulend came next and, if I am honest, I thought my task would be easier. It would appear that Duke Jarwin, though seemingly exiled to a hunting lodge to the south of their lands, has been making mischief and attempting to rewrite history. In fact he was at the Castle when I arrived and our first meeting was very tense. It appears that Jarwin, despite the letters you sent, father, and the testimony of Marshal Dalbinar, had twisted the story and made it as though he had been beaten up by several with clubs. When I protested he tried to have me removed but I told him that if he accused me of lying, I would be delighted to meet him in the ring of honor - unarmed.

"That stopped him immediately and his brother asked him why he did not accept. To shorten the telling of a long and heated argument, I had proved that Dalbinar had been right and Jarwin wrong, so Mariswin ordered him out of the castle there and then. It still took some while and patient talk before I was able to get what you wanted, father, an alliance against Yod. Presently I do not think that much more is possible but I obtained a promise that he would attend our wedding. If he does so I'm sure we can show him the truth of what happened that day."

Robanar grunted. "Virgulend is one of those states which have always attempted to preserve their independence. A temporary alliance against a common threat is one thing, but to obtain more will be a difficult task, should we even desire that. No, let them lie for now and we will see if their temper has changed when spring arrives. You had no difficulty with Marshal Dalbinar, I take it?"

"None, father. I think we have a friend there, in Mariswin's court, should we desire it."

"As I expected. Dalbinar proved very co-operative when they came to Palarand. So, then you moved on to Smordan."

"Aye, father. I was well received, to my surprise, but as the Andrate explained, when a city the other side of the river is taken by force it tends to focus your thoughts. He had heard about the taking of Sheldane and knew that we sought allies, so he had a treaty drawn up before I had been in the State House for three bells! He has raised some levies but, as with Brugan, it is difficult to do much at this season. He is willing to let forces from downstream stage through Smordan should we decide to attack before spring, though.

"Since I thought that Smordan was the end of my journey, I spent some time talking with the Andrate and with travelers from upstream about the situation in Joth and beyond. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the Yodans generally left the river traffic alone and held only the city of Joth. It seemed to me that I could travel at least as far as Forguland without much fear of capture or discovery. I spent some time discussing the risks with my hosts and then set off across the Sirrel again with a smaller party to avoid drawing attention. I am really glad that I decided to do that."

Garia said, "We worked out that you could get into Joth, Keren. Looking at the map it was apparent that, if the Yodans didn't intercept the river traffic, you could go right across without going anywhere near the city."

Keren nodded. "Aye, Garia, and that is just what we did. Duke Wallesan, having been ejected from his own home, had set up his court in Thorn, where the ferry crosses. I had a long and productive conversation with His Grace and his aides and there is a firm treaty with Joth in my bag, father. They will render all possible assistance against Yod assuming they can retake their city. The whole country is now under arms and I do not expect them to have much trouble defeating Yod, even when they are faced by guns."

There was a curious expression on Keren's face as he said this, but Garia couldn't decide what it was.

"Then," Keren continued, "I moved on to Forguland. The Forgulanders had realized that Yod had taken their fortress but both sides kept up the pretense that nothing had happened. The only thing they stopped doing was sending relief troops and supplies as they would normally have done. Because an act of war had been committed by Yod against Forguland, they too have readily agreed to an alliance against Yod, with the proviso that once we have defeated them something must be done to prevent them doing it again in the future.

"I thought I might find one or two from Ferenis in Forguland, but in fact since Ferenis itself had not been taken by Yod there was a regular stream of contacts between the two cities. I was able to speak with several of their military aides including, by fortune, Captain Forbarin, who we rescued during the rains. Do you remember him, father?"

"Oh, yes, Keren. Is he well?"

"Aye, father, and now an aide to Marshal Zetan of the Ferenis Defense Council." Keren looked at all of his listeners. "Now, you must recall, we rescued him and several others from the Sirrel during the rains and they spent some time here in Palarand. He has met Garia and they understand where she comes from and what she may be capable of." He took a deep breath. "Learning from myself that we are to be wed, and thus Garia will one day be Queen of Palarand, caused decisions to be made in both Ferenis and Forguland. They both offer firm alliances against Yod and, further, Ferenis desires to explore closer ties in the manner of Brugan. Of course, as a traveler through those countries I naturally passed on what news I thought fit for such friends and I doubt not Ferenis sees us as the means of a defense against Yod."

"Oh, wow." Garia had expected offers of alliance but the thought of closer ties hadn't really occurred to her, despite the King's thoughts on the subject. "Sire, how does this affect your ideas?"

"I am surprised, Garia, though perhaps I ought not to be," Robanar replied. "Naturally, if they are a weak country, with a difficult neighbor, they will seek someone strong to help keep that neighbor at bay. It seems they also understand what the future - your future, my dear - will do to the Valley countries and they desire to be part of it." He grunted. "Keren, I must needs consider all that you have told me. I trust you have letters from all those you have met?"

"Aye, father, two bags full." His face twitched. "There was one further item which may be of interest. When I returned to Thorn to report my findings to Duke Wallesan I was given a letter to bring for Garia, father."

Garia blurted, "Me? How does the Duke of Joth know me?"

Keren stood and wriggled as he sought to remove a letter hidden underneath his tunic.

"The letter isn't from him, Garia, but from one of the Quadrants in a regiment from their southern town of Galdarin." Keren frowned. "They use different names for the ranks in Joth, it seems." Garia looked even more confused. "Ah! here it is."

Keren leaned forward and handed the letter to Garia before sitting down again. Garia looked at the neat script on the cover and wondered what was going on. Now apprehensive, she cracked the seals to reveal the paper inside.

"But, but..." Her heart began to pound and her sight blurred as she made out the writing on the letter. "But this is in English!"


Author's note: At this point, the dedicated reader might wish to investigate the side-tale Armsman of Joth which describes how the letter came to be written.



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