Somewhere Else Entirely -131-

The palace has to welcome some unexpected guests! Especially unwelcome when it is Eriana's brother and twenty brawny Einnlanders, intent on returning her to her father. Fortunately Eriana has some ideas about how to fend off the unwanted attention but her brother might not be smart enough to notice them...

Somewhere Else Entirely

by Penny Lane

131 - Torulf


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) 2011-2015 Penny Lane. All rights reserved.


"Where is my sister?"

Robanar's glare at the impatient Prince was dangerous but the visitor didn't seem to care.

Wow. And I thought Eriana was bad when I first met her, Garia thought. I just hope this all works out, this is so not the time to be having a fight!

"She is here."

"I want to see her now! Her father is concerned for her safety, alone in a far-away land. She must be returned home immediately!"

Now it was Garia's turn to stifle a snort. This clown is utterly clueless! To think he might be the next King of Einnland... if he manages to live long enough, and he won't do that if he keeps pissing people off.

Robanar merely raised an eyebrow but Garia knew his patience was being sorely tested. He was being shouted at like he was some underling of Einnland's King and Palarand just a backwoods village... perhaps the idiot hadn't understood what he was seeing when he traveled here from Simbek.

"I would make some things plain to you, Your Highness," Robanar replied, emphasizing Torulf's title. "I am ruler of this land and I would appreciate your use of my title when you address me. I will pardon your insolent behavior so far since it is through ignorance. Further, Her Highness did not come to Palarand alone, she had an escort larger than that you have brought here yourself. I would add that the laws in Palarand are not as those in Einnland, here she would be accounted adult at her sixteenth birthday."

Torulf colored. "Uh, Your Majesty," he stammered, "Forgive me, I am not familiar with the ways of foreign courts. I sought merely to find my sister, and so spoke in haste."

Wait a minute! That means that neither Torulf nor Eriana had ever left Einnland before! Not surprising, perhaps, if they are so isolated. That probably explains why he behaves as he does. They only have their own court to judge things by. My, he is an ignorant clown, isn't he?

Then the second part of Robanar's statement hit Torulf and he began to look confused.

"Sixteen? She would be an adult here? But she is -"

The thought that the ages for obtaining adulthood might be different in different countries had obviously never occurred to Torulf, and he struggled to process the idea. Eriana was an Einnlander, so the rules of that country should apply, but she was presently in Palarand, where there were different rules. So which..?

Robanar casually moved a hand out of sight and touched thumb to forefinger. Merek, standing at the far right of the assembled nobles, in turn gave a hand signal. This caused some of the honor guard standing to the right of the steps to apparently break rank and saunter towards the group of waiting Einnlanders who were standing around the carriage, watching the confrontation at the top of the steps.

Of course, the guardsmen were immediately spotted with alarm by some of the Einnlanders, but as they approached it was realized that they, too, were Einnlanders apparently in the service of the King of this land. One of the guardsmen called out to the Prince's escort and they all switched their attention to the approaching guardsmen.

«Hey, Brinte! How is it you were stupid enough to come all this way with that waste of time?»

«Hey yourself, Ragnar! At least I didn't run away with the Princess! I guess she's here, eh? What's this place like? Plenty of plunder?»

Other voices joined in as the two parties recognized individuals in the other party.

«Is Prince Torulf still an idiot, Inge?»

«What do you think, Markku? There are more profitable ways we could be spending our days, wouldn't you say? What's that fancy uniform, then? You serve this King, now?»

«I do, Inge, and he treats us like real people, not like kitchen grennis back home.»

There was a certain wariness as the two parties coalesced but these men all knew one or more of the other party so it was natural to want to find out about each other's experiences. Soon men were clasping each other's arms and slapping their former friends on the back. Meanwhile, Torulf had begun to turn to look at the merging group in the yard so it was time for the next step.

Keep him off-balance and distracted.

Garia eased herself between Keren and Mariswin and faced Torulf.

«Eriana was right,» she told him. «You are an ignorant little know-nothing.»

«What? Who are you? How dare you!» Then came a realization. «You speak our tongue!»

Garia shrugged. «I guess somebody has to.»

Then Danisa stepped forward. «Your Highness, Princess Eriana has told us all about you.»

Torulf was even more confused. «Woden's teeth, another one! Bearing swords! What is this place? Who are you?»

Heldra moved forward to join in the fun. «We are members of His Majesty's Palace Guard, Highness. Why wouldn't we be wearing swords?»

«But, but... women don't fight! The gods forbid it!» His eyes narrowed as he took in the three women in front of him. «Now you, and maybe you, look as if you could fight, at least you're big enough to hold a sword. This one,» he indicated Garia, «cannot be a warrior, she is too small! Is this some play-acting for Princesses, then?»

Garia smiled. «I am not a Princess - yet, Your Highness. I wouldn't call myself a warrior, no, but these swords are no toys.» Her smile became malicious. «Would you like to test me out? I guarantee you won't like it.»

Below them, in the yard, the conversation between the Einnlanders was about to reach the inevitable conclusion.

«Ale? Well, why didn't you say so straight away? It looks like Torulf has found some women to chase so he won't need our help for a while. Let's go find that ale and you can tell us all the adventures you've been having.»

«Of course! We have many visitors for the wedding so the palace is crowded right now but I'm sure we can find a few benches where we can provide you fine meat and good ale. Come with us, warriors, and learn what proper cooking is like!»

«Are we allowed to just go off like that? I thought this was some kind of formal welcome.»

Markku turned to look at Merek, who gestured with his arm.

«The Captain says that it is all right for us to go, so let's go!»

The combined group moved off right, to wander out of sight round the side of the palace. Behind them, the older man who had been in the carriage with Torulf looked first at the departing group and then at Torulf, unsure what to do. Finally he turned and began to climb the steps.

Torulf, in turn, looked from the departing escort to the women in front of him, at a loss for words. Events were moving too fast for him to keep up with and he didn't know what to do. Eriana took that moment to step out in front of him.

«I wouldn't take Garia up on that offer, dear brother of mine. She was the one who taught me to fight properly. You would just embarrass everybody.»

Torulf stepped back. «Eriana! So... but...»

However he had expected to meet his sister, he hadn't imagined finding her dressed ready for battle!

«Just the same as ever, aren't you?» Eriana inspected her brother coldly. «There's nothing going on in that tiny brain of yours and you have no idea what is happening, have you? Let me make it plain for you, then. I am not going anywhere with you, not today, not ever. You have two choices, to ride away now and go home or remain here as a guest of the King you just insulted. I know which choice I would prefer you make.»

Torulf stared at his sister, taking in the uniform and the large sword visible over her right shoulder. He realized that, while his journey here had been necessary, he had made some stupid assumptions about what he would find at the end of his travels. He gulped and turned to Robanar, bowing deeply.

"A thousand pardons, Your Majesty. I have been sent here in good faith to find my sister and I realize now that matters are not what I imagined. If you would have me, I would stay here and learn more about your lands and my sister's part in them."

Robanar grunted. The plans that had been hastily made assumed that Torulf would choose to stay so it was easy to handle him - for the moment. Later, perhaps, when the Prince had settled in, there might be further trouble... and they would all be ready and waiting.

"Very well," Robanar replied after a moment's pause to pretend he was thinking about it, "as King I must always be ready to offer my house to visiting royalty. Your Highness, welcome. My house is your house."

This last statement was important, since it had been agreed with Eriana. It was an Einnland custom which among other things meant that the guest could not use weapons in the house to settle a fight, nor could any of his men do so.

"If you will go with Kendar, he will find you a room where you may rest and change before lunch. I regret that it may not be of the standard you are used to, as I mentioned before we are presently crowded with visitors before tomorrow's festival."

"Thank you, Your Majesty. You are gracious, Your Majesty. Might my sister accompany me, that I might question her as we walk? It seems I have much to learn about."

"I regret not, Your Highness. Her Highness has customary duties about the palace this day. We will set aside a room and time for you to ask your questions."

In front of witnesses and well guarded.

Torulf's eyes fell. "As you command, Your Majesty. One last question, if I may. Is my sister to be the bride of your son?"

"That is not her destiny, Your Highness. You may relieve your mind of that worry, at least."

Torulf bowed again and then remembered his companion, who now stood beside him looking with astonishment at the four armed women.

"Ah, Your Majesty, this is Rolf, who is my... manservant." Rolf looked irritated. "If you can find a corner of straw for him, it should be sufficient."

Robanar stared at Rolf. "He is a servant only?"

"Well, he can do other things, but yes."

"As Gullbrand did for Eriana, then?"

"Gullbrand is here? I should have realized that, of course he would be. Rolf is of a lower status than Gullbrand was."

"We will find him suitable lodgings, Torulf. Please, go with Kendar."

As the Chamberlain gestured at the door and Torulf moved off everybody else breathed a sigh of relief.

That was... interesting, and not in a nice way. Give me grakh or Yodans any day! That could have gone so badly wrong but we seem to have it under control.

I'm sure it won't last but it might get us past the festival ...and the weddings.

"Shabreth," Robanar said, putting a hand on the Duke's shoulder. "Come, let us join the others who await us in the Receiving Room."

"There are more? I thought... of course, the wedding. But you did not want them out here when that fool arrived, did you?"

"As you say. It might have gotten somewhat unpleasant, especially for the ladies. Luann, Mariswin, shall you join us? I'm sure you'll find old friends and new waiting inside." He turned. "Garia, Eriana, I suggest you come with us. Until our hothead settles down we must take care of your safety. Danisa, Heldra, we thank you for your duty this day."

As they all moved off into the palace Shabreth asked a question. "How did you manage to be so prepared, Robanar? I grant you could have sent messengers ahead once we crossed into your lands... I should have thought and used the Messenger Service to warn you but there was no time. That Prince consumed all my attention once he appeared on our shores."

Robanar grinned. "Ah, that would be the semaphore, Shabreth. Did you see tall black towers of wood as you rode through our lands? Aye? Well, we can send a message from one end of Palarand to the other, and receive a reply, all within a single day. Once you passed the first one at the border a description of your party was on my table within two bells."

"Do you tell me? Is this something connected with the war, then? I could find use for such a device. Would... you consider extending it to Simbek?"

"It is not presently of such use for the war, since it only follows the main routes within Palarand, though recently we have begun extending it as far as Brugan itself. I doubt not it will run the length of the Great Valley in time, but we must tread carefully and make sure it will do all we ask of it. Aye, we could extend it to Simbek, your needs are less complicated, I deem."

"If these Einnlanders are going to keep appearing in our waters I need some way of reporting them, Robanar. They seem a warlike people and I would not desire my shores to be plundered. This... semi..? might be the answer we seek."

"Semaphore, Shabreth. Don't worry, you'll soon remember the word."

* * *

Although Torulf was his father's favorite he knew when to keep his mouth shut and his head down. His mouth stayed firmly shut, except for the customary responses, as he was introduced to a whole line of rulers in the largest enclosed space he had ever been in. The unfamiliar names went by in a blur and he knew that he would have to ask Rolf to jog his memory when it came to conversation with these people.

Torulf cursed the unfamiliar language, as well. He had resented being forced to learn it when a child but now saw the necessity. Eriana, of course, had learned it readily, but then Eriana learned almost everything readily. If everyone in this immense stretch of land spoke this tongue he would have to use it and like it. If he needed a quiet word with Rolf or even Eriana, then their own tongue was unlikely to be overheard and understood.

Only, thinking about it, he had just met three women - women! - who could speak his native tongue. Women plainly not Einnlanders but of unknown origins. Perhaps others in this massive building could also speak it? He would have to be very careful what he said and when.

At lunch he and Shabreth sat facing the King, Robanar, at the middle table of three set in the large, richly decorated hall. This confused him, since his father customarily sat at a top table, with honored guests either side of him and the rabble in lengthwise tables lower down. What is more, every place was set with costly glass, china, gold and silver showing a wealth his father could never match. He had been given a fork, which Shabreth had introduced to him when he had first eaten at the Duke's residence in Simbek, but he fumbled with it and felt embarrassed in front of all the other rulers.

Still, he was a Prince and they were but Dukes, did that not count for something?

Shabreth addressed Robanar. "I have read your recent letters, Robanar. Your conclusions and your proposal were startling, but I find myself in agreement. With the proper safeguards I deem this a good time to consider such ideas."

Robanar made a small gesture with his fork. "Aye, Shabreth. If you would, I desire to leave the more detailed discussion until after we have finished Spring Dawning and the wedding which has brought everyone here. But there is no reason you should not speak privately with the others, find out more of that which we may propose. Both Wallesan and Bardanar were privy to my initial suggestion and have thoughts of their own. I would not seek to impose myself on any of my fellow brethren of the Valley but merely to find some way we can each benefit the other."

Shabreth nodded. "As you say. If I may ask, how did you think of such notions? Most valley countries guard their independence jealously."

"The actions of Yod have made us think carefully of all our futures, Shabreth. We sought to find a way to prevent such an outrage ever happening again, but it was Garia here who told us of similar ideas from the lands of her home." Robanar shrugged. "Of course the arrangements she described would not fit our present circumstance but have made us think of ways that would not otherwise have occurred to us. We are greatly indebted to her, for that and for much else."

"Ah? It seems Palarand has much to thank Milady Garia for, I deem."

"Indeed..."

Torulf listened to this crosstalk with increasing incomprehension. It seemed that all these Dukes and other nobles had gathered here for a royal wedding, as Shabreth had told him, but they were using the opportunity to consider other matters of interest to all. There was this "war" which had been spoken of, but it seemed a far away matter of little local interest. There were other strange matters for him to think about, like the tall towers they had passed on their way through Palarand, with arms that clacked and waved. Palarand - what kind of a name was that? - seemed to be an exotic, complicated place.

Then there was "Garia", who appeared to be the short girl with the two swords. Her name was frequently mentioned in respect to various devices or ideas but he didn't understand much of it and how it could possibly concern someone who was female, let alone one so young. She didn't appear to be a Princess but she might be the one Prince Keren was marrying. Nobody had explained the marriage customs of this strange region to him so he didn't know whether that was appropriate or not.

He began to understand just how little he knew about the lands he had now come to, and though he did not consider his life to be in danger, it appeared that he would have to pay attention to much that was happening around him. He scowled.

"Is something the matter, Highness?"

"Your Majesty," Torulf addressed the Queen, who had seen his face change. "I have lately learned the usefulness of this device you name the fork but have not yet learned to master it. You will forgive me my temper, since I struggle to eat my food." He hesitated, then added, "Your food is, of course excellent, if different than the fare we eat at my father's house. I will tame this eating tool in time, I believe."

"As you say, Highness. Since Garia introduced the fork to us we would not be without it, nor would any who try it then be content without."

"There was one, Ma'am," Garia said, "if you remember."

"That was a special case, dear," Terys replied. "I deem the Prince of Einnland to be of different mettle. He does not care to be defeated by something as simple as a fork."

"They are extremely useful, brother," Eriana said from further down the table. "When I took my Einnlanders on our military expedition, forks made eating our food so much easier. Captain Merek says they are now to be made standard military issue throughout Palarand."

An officer in a striking blue and white uniform added, "We already issue forks in Joth, Your Highness. Prince Keren was kind enough to offer us the design, though we are happy to pay Lady Garia a token amount for each one made. Trust me, you will find them most useful."

Garia again! And this officer talked of Joth. What and where was Joth? Torulf was getting even more confused. And then Eriana had said -

"Eriana, you said you joined a military expedition? I can barely believe it."

Robanar corrected, "Torulf, she led the expedition. Eighteen of her escort, together with the two women you met at our door, rode into the northern highlands and crossed mountains to attack a fortress from the rear. The attack was successful and the fortress was taken back from our enemy, though with some small loss of life to her men."

Torulf picked out a recognizable word from the King's statement. "Eriana, you rode into the mountains? I did not know you knew how to ride."

Eriana's smile was smug. "I did not, brother. After I arrived here I saw Lady Garia riding and she obtained the permission of the King to teach me to ride myself. All the men who went with me learned to ride." She paused to think. "And to fight, better than we had ever known how to fight before, with weapons much better than any in Einnland."

Torulf's head was spinning. This Eriana was not the one he knew, the spoiled girl-child he had thought capable of running away from an unwelcome betrothal. This Eriana was more mature, more experienced and could apparently really use the sword she had worn earlier. He would have to be cautious to obtain his objective if that were true. It would take time to adjust to all that had happened in this strange land before he could make his move.

"I would learn more, sister, but another time, I believe. I am weary after my several journeys to get to this place. Your Majesty, if you would permit, once we have risen from table I would spend the afternoon quietly in my chamber."

"As you desire, Torulf. If you have need for anything a palace servant is only a bell-rope away."

* * *

"Come!"

The door to the Lilac Chamber opened and Rolf entered, ducking his head in a brief show of respect.

«Ah, Vilken, good. What have you discovered?»

Rolf raised a hand. «Highness, I beg you, do not use that name unless you must. Here I must be Rolf only.» He added, «I regret I have not learned very much so far. The whole palace is filled with people preparing for the Sun Balance celebration -»

«Sun Balance? I believe another name was used.»

Rolf bowed again. «Indeed, Highness. Along the length of the Great Valley they name it 'Spring Dawning'.» He resumed his explanation. «Thus, I was able to use the confusion of numbers to discover certain matters but the same confusion conceals others.»

Torulf was impatient. «Tell me.»

«It would seem that Her Highness - uh, Princess Eriana, that is, the sister of Prince Keren presently resides in the palace as a visitor and is also a Princess - Princess Eriana, then, has left the palace and now resides in a mansion somewhere in the city. This was done to make more room for the higher ranking guests.»

«That's good news, uh, Rolf! It should be easier to snatch her from there than from inside this huge palace and then have to fight our way out.»

Rolf shook his head. «Not so, Highness. The mansion she resides in is the home of this Lady Garia we have been hearing so much about... and also of almost every Einnlander who came with Her Highness. Several of them know me well.»

Torulf frowned. «An obstacle... but she must travel there and back each day? Perhaps then...»

«Perhaps, Highness. But it seems there have been some heavy attacks on Lady Garia in recent weeks and she travels with a large escort.»

Torulf snorted. «Bah! I doubt these people with their toy swords and fancy uniforms can withstand the fury of our Einnlanders, Rolf!»

Rolf looked cautious. «Highness, I do not doubt the abilities of our men but... I saw Her Highness and Lady Garia, together with two women of the King's Guard, standing at the top of the entrance steps and I'm not sure I would care to face any of them. If His Majesty's men are as well prepared as his women then our task will not be easy.»

Torulf looked sulky. «If you say so. It's a lot to take in, isn't it, in a strange land and we've been here less than a day. Perhaps we'll learn something more useful in the days to come. Tell me, what of yourself, what of our men?»

«Highness, I am in a dormitory at the end of the corridor, where the servants for all those with chambers sleep. I can come and go as I please but so far I have needed a guide since this building is so large.»

«So I could summon you when I need to? How do I do that? Can you show me which room it is?»

«There is no need, Highness. See the rope beside the fireplace? Pull that and a bell rings in the dormitory, together with a little disc which tells those within which chamber needs service.» Rolf reddened. «I felt a barbarian, having to have that explained to me. I did not imagine anything like that existed.»

Torulf scowled. «I know what you mean! When the King told me, the rooms might not be to the standard I was used to, I didn't think he meant they might be better! I have never seen a room so richly decorated! And look at the glass in those windows! That mirror, too! It appears to be glass but that's impossible! Isn't it?»

Rolf shrugged. «We always knew things were going to be different here, Highness, we just didn't know how different. We have a lot to learn, it seems.»

«Very well. You were telling me about the men.»

«They are being housed in tents in a huge field behind the palace, Highness, as are many of the warriors and others who escorted some of the other rulers who are here. I have briefly seen their quarters, I would say they are more than adequate.»

«A field! So they can get out into the town, then, when we need them to?»

Rolf shook his head. «Highness, the field is inside the palace walls. The walls are, of course, patrolled by the King's Guard. I'm not sure if anyone is allowed in or out at will.»

Torulf looked petulant. «This is ridiculous! We must find some way since I dare not face father without her. Find me a way!»

Rolf bowed. «I will do what I can, Highness, but the task is greater than even I expected.» He shrugged. «If this palace were like your father's house, we could accomplish it easily. Here, we must be much more careful. The place is full of servants and armed men and it is easy to get lost.»

«I don't care! It has to be done so find a way! Don't forget, Eriana may have claimed sanctuary but as I am the heir to the throne I do not have that choice. I have to return and I dare not without my sister beside me!»

* * *

"Highness, Milady? What can I do for you?" Merek gave the women an apologetic smile. "I regret this must be brief, I am needed elsewhere. This is the first Spring Dawning celebration I will have managed without Captain Bleskin's support and there is much to do."

"We won't keep you long," Garia said. "Go on, Eriana, tell him what you told me."

"You need to know about my brother," Eriana explained. "I know that I am not the brightest of those who attend the King but Torulf is not even as smart as I am. His behavior is that of a small child denied the toys he plays with. Since he was sent to find me by my father, his one and only purpose will be to return with me. He dare not fail, Captain Merek."

Merek nodded thoughtfully. "I understand, Highness. Can he not be... educated, as you were? That we might return him satisfied but without you?"

"I'm not sure he is clever enough to absorb what Garia taught me, Captain. I'm not sure either that my father would accept him if he returned without me. The big problem is not my brother, however. He is just an irritant. It is the man he introduced as his manservant Rolf, who is the real danger to us."

"Ah? Merek looked interested.

"Captain, that man is named Vilken. He is a Jarl, an Earl in your tongue," she frowned, "which I think might be the same as a count in the court of Palarand... I must confer with Kendar, I think. He is a nephew of my father and one of those who finds out things for him. He is very dangerous and he is probably controlling my brother, even though Torulf is too stupid to realize it."

Merek gave a silent whistle. "Do you say so? A gatherer of gossip and a listener at doors, you say. We must pay him special attention, then."

"Not just a listener at doors, Captain, but familiar with the assassin's blade as well. As I said, he is dangerous." Eriana grinned crookedly. "Since my training here by Garia and Master Haflin I no longer fear him but others in this palace may be put in danger. Mind him well, Captain."

Merek nodded abruptly. "I will, Highness, and thank you for the warning. We will also, with your permission, keep unobtrusive watch on yourself, I think, in case anything is attempted."

"Of course, Captain. I would appreciate that."

Merek bowed. "Thank you for the warning, Highness, My Lady."

* * *

"Ow."

"Milady?"

"My Call is about to start, Jenet. Parts of me are already feeling very sensitive."

"Of course, Milady. I wonder... perhaps we might discover if Mistress Margra has something that could help? There are potions which, while they will not prevent much of what must occur, will help you stay relaxed in the days to come."

"Potions? There are potions? Why didn't we use them before, Jenet?"

"Ah, they can be dangerous, Milady, from what I recall. But this Call of yours will be different to any other, will it not? A festival, three weddings of members of your House and then your own wedding to His Highness. It would be best if you could avoid some of the worst side effects of your Call, should they occur."

"What, oh, you mean the mood swings and emotional upsets. Oh, yes! I have been wondering what I'm going to be like at my own wedding. I don't want to make a spectacle of myself, do I? Uh, I will make a spectacle of myself, I guess, but I don't want to be all weepy or upset. Yes, let's go and find Margra."

Margra was in the Chamber of the Sick bandaging the leg of a Brugan armsman who had tripped and sliced his calf with the point of his sword. She looked up and made to rise when Garia entered but the latter waved an arm.

"Don't bother, Margra, please. He needs your attention more than I do."

"Thank you, Milady. What can I do for you today? Does one of your staff have a problem?"

"Uh, let's wait until you have finished there, I think. It's a female thing."

The Brugan armsman looked at Garia out of the corner of his eye and gulped.

She smiled back. "I'm not going to upset you," she told him. "We'll wait until you've finished."

"You are very kind, My Lady," he replied.

After a while Margra had finished and rose. "There, that should suffice. Shall you rise? Fortunately the wound is not deep, you should be able to walk. If any blood comes through the bandage, come back and see me immediately, do you hear? It might mean that one or more of the stitches have come loose."

The man stood and tested his bandaged leg before bowing awkwardly to Margra.

"Thank you, Mistress."

He left, limping slowly, and Margra turned her attention to Garia. Jenet explained the problem and Margra nodded.

"I do have such potions, Milady, and, as Jenet has said, they can become dangerous if used too often. I deem that your present circumstance is exceptional and I will make up something that you can take for the next three days before you retire. It will not stop what must happen but you should remain calm through the experience."

"Thank you, Margra. I would never have thought of it myself."

"Your circumstance is unusual, Milady. Are your Calls settling down now? You have been with us almost a year now."

Garia nodded. "That's true. At first they were all over the place but now, although each one is still different, I'm able to handle them reasonably well." She rolled her eyes. "I would never have believed I could have said that right at the beginning. The first time or two were a complete horror story."

"I remember, Milady."

"I get it now, the Calls mean I can have children and it is good that they occur, but I just wish..."

Margra returned a wry smile. "So do we all, Milady. I shall bring your potion to the Receiving Room at the end of the evening meal, Milady, for Jenet to take back to your mansion."

"Thank you, Margra."

* * *

The guests assembled for the evening meal and once again Torulf had trouble adapting. There were just so many faces and so much to think about! He had spent part of the afternoon explaining to some of them where and what Einnland was and he was beginning to feel very much like a barbarian himself. Things his father's people could only dream of were commonplace here, and perhaps his men might not have any advantage over the local warriors at all.

He had been told about the war and discovered that far from being remote, the enemy of every single ruler here had rowed their galleys downstream to Palarand itself to attack a caravan containing Lady Garia. He still didn't understand why she was so important that anyone would want to capture her or kill her but the idea of a raid by river to distant lands was something he could relate to. He was sure that his father would have responded just as King Robanar had.

"Thank you, Rolf."

Rolf pushed in Torulf's chair as he sat and then stood waiting attentively behind it, like all the other servants waiting on the table full of august diners. Unfortunately the movement caught Robanar's eye and he turned to face them. Time to end the farce.

"Jarl Vilken."

Rolf was startled but recovered quickly.

"Your Majesty, I am named Rolf."

Robanar pointed a finger. "You are named Vilken and you hold a noble rank. In this court we consider it unseemly for a noble to wait his betters. Our palace has enough servants to provide our guests, and those guests include you. Find yourself a seat on one of the other tables, My Lord, and enjoy your meal."

"But -" Vilken was not prepared to argue with his host, a King, so was momentarily speechless.

"Did you think we wouldn't notice you, Vilken?" Eriana smiled maliciously at him. "I recognized you at the entrance steps. I suggest you obey the King's command."

Vilken flushed and bowed. "As you command, Your Majesty."

He rose and turned to find a seat at the table behind Torulf as Robanar stared impassively at the Prince.

"Understand, Highness, I will not tolerate intrigue in my palace. Eriana tried it and was found out almost immediately. Take your time, discover the facts, we will hear your petition once the wedding oaths have been sworn. I will not have the coming ceremonies disturbed by troublemakers. If you or any of your entourage cause any incident in the palace there are sufficient cells waiting for you."

"As you command, Your Majesty."

Torulf bent to his meal. With Vilken out of eye contact they could not even exchange signals. The next few days promised to be thoroughly miserable.

* * *

The carriage pulled into the courtyard of the Blackstone Hotel and halted to be immediately surrounded by servants from the stables. Once they discovered that the occupants were in fact the owner and her friend they pulled back and bowed before attending to the animals and opening the carriage doors.

"Thank you," Garia said as she descended. "Has the party from Blackstone arrived yet?"

The chargehand bobbed his head. "Aye, My Lady, they arrived about two bells since and most are presently in their chambers unpacking their bags. Shall I send a runner?"

"No, that's fine, I'll go and welcome them myself, I think. Feteran? How are we doing for time?"

The Commander of her forces stared at the darkened sky. "Milady, since we are but a street from home I will not raise objection, since I know who waits within. If I may..?"

"Of course! I wouldn't want to keep you from your father. Join us."

Feteran dismounted and joined Garia and Eriana as they headed for the courtyard entrance to the building. At the door, Gullbrand stood waiting. He bowed.

"All our guests have now arrived, Milady," he said. "If you would wait in the dining chamber I will get someone to tell them you are here."

"That's probably a good idea, Gullbrand. We're not interrupting anything, are we?"

"Our guests have eaten their evening meal so most have retired to their rooms to finish unpacking, Milady, but some still sup in the dining chamber. You will not disturb our routine by greeting them thus."

In the dining room Garia found Brydas, Sookie and two other women, both of whom looked faintly familiar. All were seated around a table with drinks but rapidly stood when Garia entered the room.

Brydas bowed. "My Lady! It is indeed a pleasure to see you again, especially after we heard the news of your battle. I trust all is well?"

"Everything is going just fine, Master Brydas," she replied, adding with a grin, "but as complicated as ever, just like in Blackstone! Let me introduce a friend and a recent immigrant to Palarand, I suppose you could call her. This is Princess Eriana, formerly of a distant land called Einnland, but now one of His Majesty's fiercest military commanders. Eriana, this is Brydas, Blackstone's smith -"

Brydas grinned back at her. "Blackstone's senior smith, these days."

"- and the lady standing close to him is Mistress Sukhana, his betrothed. She is Jaxen's sister and rode with us when we went to Blackstone."

"I remember," Eriana said, holding out a hand to Brydas. "Garia has told me so much about both of you. I desire that your visit to Palarand shall be filled with joy."

Brydas attempted to bow and shake Eriana's hand at the same time but she pulled him up.

"I do not deserve such honor, Master Smith. My title is a courtesy of the King, in Palarand I am merely an officer of his troops. I beg you, treat me as Garia's friend and of like rank."

Garia, meanwhile, had stepped forward and hugged Sukhana. She looked at the older woman, seeing the contentment and anticipation in her eyes.

"Can't wait, I'm guessing?"

Sukhana smiled. "Aye, Milady, just as yourself, though I have longer to wait, I deem. You do Brydas great honor by permitting Senidet's marriage before your own, but you were ever aware of the needs of others."

Garia grinned. "You did realize that she'll be married in the palace, in front of the King?"

Sukhana looked shocked. "Maker! I did not think - I thought she would be married in your House, as is the custom." She looked worried. "What will the King think? I do not have a gown fit to wear before the King! Brydas, what shall we do?"

Brydas turned. "Did I not explain it?" There was a twinkle in his eye as he added, "Perhaps not. You know what guildsmen are like, we forget such details sometimes."

"Brydas, you beast! Just wait until I..." Sukhana spun to Garia. "You joke, Milady, do you not?"

Garia grinned. "It is the truth, Sookie. Don't worry, we'll have everything ready and fit for the royal court. You'll see."

Brydas said, "But I am forgetting myself, Milady. Permit me to introduce two of our traveling companions. This is Mistress Megrozen, one of the leading ladies of Blackstone."

Megrozen curtseyed and Garia remembered where she had seen her before.

"I remember. You were one of those who came to see my gowns, weren't you?"

"As you say, Milady, though perhaps I was more interested in seeing you than your gowns." She inspected Garia and nodded thoughtfully. "If I may offer an observation, Milady? You arrived at Blackstone a girl and departed a woman, as all know, but I see your further adventures have seasoned you yet again. I thought then you would make us a good Queen and I see nothing to change that impression."

"Well... I'll do my best, Mistress Megrozen, you know that, and that is all anyone can ask of me."

"If everything I have seen as we rode to the capital is any guide, Milady, you are already doing your best."

Brydas turned. "And this is... Mistress Michet." His mouth twitched. "You have already ridden together, I deem."

Garia turned to look at the woman. She looked somehow familiar but no immediate spark of recognition came. Ridden with her? Then how..? Sukhana's face bore a smirk which deepened the mystery.

The woman curtseyed and then spoke, a secretive smile on her face. "Milady, we rode together, indeed, though I was not as you see me now. We fought together at the Ptuvil Stones."

Garia gaped. This was not possible! The only woman who had accompanied her there was Jenet, the rest were men, so what was going on? One of the women from the farms, perhaps? No, she said they had fought -

Then the voice registered.

"My God! Michen? Is that you? But what..?"

"My Lady, Michen was but a seeming forced upon me by my father, who had always desired a son but never obtained one. I was oath-bound to remain disguised until his recent death. Some few in Blackstone knew of my real self but now, with my father's passing, it is time for me to be my true self to all at last. My Lady, I am now known as Michet."

"Oh, wow! This is a surprise. Well, welcome to the hotel, Michet... I must remember that! I'm sorry, even when you're dressed like that I'll keep thinking of the man who rode with us along Blackstone Vale. Oh! I'm forgetting. Your wounds, have they healed?"

"Aye, Milady. My arm will never be as strong as it once was, but then perhaps I no longer have the need to lift such heavy items as before."

Sukhana gave a short laugh. "Hah! You know better than that, Michet, what burdens women have to carry. Best you find a man to help you with them." She turned to gaze at Brydas with a satisfied smile.

Michet snorted. "I've been a woman barely four weeks and already I'm being married off! A man wouldn't be treated the same way, Sookie."

"I know, Em. Lady Garia is doing her best to change things for us but it will take time, I deem. Steam engines are one thing, people's minds a different matter."

Brydas growled an agreement. "Milady, I agree. When I see the women of -"

Brydas's statement was cut short by the appearance of more guests from upstairs. Garia turned as the newcomers approached.

"Captain!" she said with delight, immediately walking over to Bleskin and giving him a hug. "It's so good to see you again!"

"Hrmm, as you say, Milady."

As on previous occasions, he didn't know what to do with his hands, so just beamed down fondly at Garia. She released him and stood back to take stock of the three who had come with him.

"Captain Bleskin, Master Yarling, Mistress Yanda, welcome to the Blackstone Hotel. I'm sorry," she said to the fourth person, "I know your face but I don't think I know your name."

The woman curtseyed low. "I am Mistress Terpet, My Lady. My husband is a carpenter."

"Ah, I see. I assume he is busy?"

The woman smiled, but there was an edge to it. "Aye, Milady, but this coal is filthy stuff. Him and his clothes need washing all the time. He will learn the truth while I am away, I deem."

Yarling chuckled and Garia turned to him to shake his hand.

"Master Yarling, it is good to see you, but we won't have time to sit together much before the weddings are done. A Count Haldren has arrived with the delegation from Vardenale. He wishes to talk to you about the lands between their country and Blackstone Vale, so tomorrow I'll try and arrange a meeting between you if I can." Her brow furrowed and she turned to Bleskin. "Captain, how long are you all staying?"

Bleskin spread his hands. "After your wedding day, Milady, two days only, to explore the city. All of us have responsibilities in Blackstone that we dare not neglect too long. When you count up the days we spend traveling, we will all have been away three weeks from our homes and offices by the time we return."

Garia nodded. "I understand, Captain. I wish there were more time but it is something none of us have to spare right now." She yawned. "The days are quite long, too."

"Then we must not keep you, Milady," Bleskin said. "You must return to your House, I deem, before you slumber on the floor in front of us."

She smiled at him. "I'm not that far gone, Captain, not yet. There's some things I have to tell you about first. Oh, may I introduce Princess Eriana of Einnland."

Bleskin bowed and held out his hand. "Delighted to meet you, Your Highness. I see you attired in military style, I doubt not My Lady's customs have rubbed off on you. She has told me of you and your exploits in a number of her letters to me."

Eriana smiled back as she took his hand. "And she has told me about you, Captain, as has your son Feteran. But you should know that I was a warrior before I met Garia, that is the way of my people." She scowled. "I mean, the people of the land of my birth. I am a Palarandi now and proud to be so."

"Aye, and I hear you have carried Palarand's colors into battle, Highness." He eyed her speculatively. "I have seen the ramparts of Boldan's Rock with my own eyes and I would hear how you managed to conquer it - but at another time, I deem. It is too late for reminiscences tonight."

Eriana let out a breath. "Aye, Captain, and my brother among the number arrived today, intending to return me to my father. That will not happen, of course, but the confrontation was tiring. I will tell you of Boldan's Rock, when we may have a chance." She turned with a thought. "Garia, do your people know of the new weapons?"

"Yes and no, Eriana, as always. Some of those in Blackstone were the first in Palarand to have guns fired at them. In fact, Michen - I mean, Michet, had... her arm injured somewhat badly in that first battle. They don't know, of course, about any of the later developments. Hmm, I don't think there will be any problem, not now, but I think I had better take advice before either of us says too much more, I think."

Bleskin asked, "My Lady?"

Garia shrugged. "New weapons, Captain, and secrets, perhaps. With all the eyes and ears around the palace we have to be careful."

"Ah, I understand. As you desire, Milady. I can contain my patience."

"Thank you, Captain." Garia turned to face the whole group. "I'd better tell you what's happening tomorrow, then. Sometime during the morning, your party, together with a number of the staff here, will walk around the corner to Blackstone House where we'll gather together. Then we'll walk as a group through the city to the Shevesty Field where the Spring Dawning celebration will take place. I am told that this year it will be slightly different, both on account of the war and because we have so many heads of state attending. As usual, we'll have a celebration lunch at the field and then disperse, but you," she indicated the party with a waved finger, "will join us at the palace, where you will probably be introduced to some of the other guests. After that you'll have to return here for your evening meal."

She was apologetic. "I'm sorry, we can't give you a meal at the palace as I would have wished because there are just so many people there! Captain, you can remember what the field was like, when just the three Dukes came! It is far worse this time, so much so that Eriana and I had to move out to make room."

Megrozen bobbed and then spoke. "Milady, are we to walk everywhere? I am fit, I know, but..."

"Don't worry, Mistress Megrozen. It is customary for each House to walk, I have been told, but there will be carriages for those who aren't quite so fit. Don't think you'll embarrass anyone by riding, if you think that walking would be too much."

"Thank you, Milady. You are gracious, always thinking of others."

"Riding won't be a problem, I assure you. Captain, that goes for you too. You're retired, make use of the perks if you want to. Oh, there is one thing. It seems that I've become..." Garia reddened and looked at the floor. "...rather popular, so I'm told."

Eriana laughed. "So you're told? Garia, whenever you set foot outside the House or the palace the streets are filled with citizens waiting to cheer you!"

Garia gave Eriana a look. "You're no help, are you? As I was saying, there will be crowds, so we'll have to have an escort all the way. Captain, you'll know a lot of our men so it shouldn't be a problem."

He nodded. "As you say, Milady."

Michet asked, "Milady, how shall we be attired? I know the customs of Blackstone, of course, but I do not know what those in the city do."

"A good question. We don't have special clothing like we do for Harvest Festival, since nobody knows what the weather will be like, so Jenet tells me that just a good day dress will be sufficient. For the men just tidy tunic and hose, I guess. There will be a wagon following the carriages so if you want to take a coat or something to keep the rain off you can put them in there if it gets too warm. Captain, I don't think you'll be expected to wear your uniform but if you wished to then I don't think anyone would object."

"I did not bring one, Milady, but thank you for the thought."

Feteran spoke for the first time. "Sashes and badges of rank, Milady?"

"Yes, of course, Fet. We'll all be in Blackstone colors, of course, apart from Eriana and her maid."

Eriana grinned. "I will wear my sash for the first time and the Einnland Regiment will wear the colors of His Majesty. We will make a fine sight!"

"The Einnland Regiment, Highness?" Bleskin was curious.

"His Majesty has decided to make it official, although of course others will be permitted to join as time passes." Eriana smirked. "I doubt not that many of Torulf's escort will find the life of a guardsman too tempting to choose to return with him to my father."

"Right." Garia rubbed her hands. "It is getting late and tomorrow will be another busy day. Feteran? We'd better get moving."

"Milady." Feteran turned to Bleskin. "We'll meet tomorrow, father, and exchange news. For now I must take Milady safely home."

Bleskin bowed and the others followed suit. "Until tomorrow then, Milady."



If you liked this post, you can leave a comment and/or a kudos!
Click the Thumbs Up! button below to leave the author a kudos:
up
272 users have voted.

And please, remember to comment, too! Thanks. 
This story is 8848 words long.