Alymndes 15: Joining Forces

“What have you been doing today, Mareeva?” asked the Wolf in mindspeech.
Since their sudden departure from Dunlago, Wise One had made a habit of talking to the little girl at night just before she went to sleep when too few things or people were still awake to distract or disturb them. The Wolf and Mareeva were communicating in such a manner that even Glamrun or Ekan could not detect them.
The little girl was in bed where her father had tucked her in some time ago before returning to the inn. Although she kept her eyes closed and her body still, she was wide awake when the Wolf’s voice resonated inside her head.
“I did a lot of gardening. Dad and the gardeners are planting new things. They call them herbs. They say they make food tasty. But I think food is good enough without all that grass!” replied the child.
“Well, I suppose at your age stuffing yourself is more important than tasting what is on your plate. When you become older, you will understand the difference between good food and bad food! But if your Dad asks you to eat that grass, it is for your own good, I can assure you! What about your lessons, then? What did you study today?”
“Now I can read and I can write. So I started drawing pictures. It’s so much fun!”
“What do you draw, then?”
“Everything! Animals, trees, people! There are so many strange people coming to the tavern and staying at the inn!”
“Who have you seen recently? “
“Well, we have our friends, the Dwarves. Dad said more of them would come soon. He also said that one day we would see those strange pink people from the south. Petren, the Chief Constable is often coming, too. His face is so funny! He always seems so angry!”
“That is very good study, indeed. If you keep your eyes open you will notice many hidden things. You will understand people better and faster! Do you show your pictures to your father?”
“Of course! I think I have made good pictures with my colored chalk because he has promised to send me to painting school!”
“I say, I say! After all, your dad is taking good care of you, isn’t it? Alright, it’s about time for you to sleep now! Wish me a good night!”
“Are we going to talk tomorrow!”
“Of course! Aren’t we doing that every night?”
”Thank you! Good night, Wolf!”
“Good night, little one!”
Mareeva instantly fell into a happy sleep.
Wise One turned to Glamrun:
“Ancient One, does your daughter Amrel have pink skin when she appears in human form?”
“Not really. Something more like between white and ivory. Why do you ask?”
“Never mind, Ancient One, never mind!”
Downstairs, in the kitchen, Ekan and Naeem were experimenting with a new dish. His apprentice’s father had caught another succulent germon fish. Since a lot of people ate shellfish raw, good fish could also be appreciated in its natural taste, he reasoned. But not being able to predict his customers’ reactions with raw fish, he had decided on trying something halfway. He had chosen and cut a fillet of the fish, grilled it lightly first without any seasoning. As soon as the color on the whole surface had changed to a light brown, he plunged the fillet into cold water to stop it cooking. The water came from the deep well in the back of the garden. He had to be careful not to upset his clients’ stomachs. He then proceeded to cut the fish into thin slices. He tried one for taste. He dipped another slice into a bowl containing a mixture of oliva oil, sweet vinegar and spices. The sweet vinegar had been another recent discovery of his. He had found out that by slowly heating normal vinegar mixed with some wine and crushed berries for a long time; he could concentrate it to a syrupy texture like he did when reducing other sauces. He handed the slice to Naeem to try while he repeated the process for himself.
“What do you think?” he asked the young man.
“Very tasty, actually! But you had better go easy with the dressing. A dash should be enough.”
“You’re right! Let’s see if we can dress a salad.”
Master Turgas chose that moment to enter the kitchen.
“Jonas, your good friend Petren is in the common room. He’d like some of your tidbits with his ale. Can you help him?”
“Sure! I just happen to have the right thing for him!”
Taking a plate, he put some fresh leaves of various vegetables the gardener had been growing on Ekan’s orders, placed a few slices of the germon fish on top and seasoned it with the dressing they had just tasted.
Turgas had a dubious look at the food.
“Do you think a man of Petren’s constitution will be satisfied with that lady’s portion?”
“Definitely! Moreover, it is about time that he began eating something good for him. All that drinking will catch up with him someday. Let’s mix it with some proper food, at least!”
Petren was sitting at his usual table tucked away from the main attention. Ekan put the plate with a fork in front of him.
“Constable, good evening to you! Would you be kind enough to try a new dish of ours? It’s on the house!”
Petren, who was obviously expecting more heavy fare, looked down at his plate and then up at the Black Dragon’s face.
“Jonas, what is this? It certainly looks beautiful but do you honestly think a man of my size will be satisfied with a meal more fit for the table of a noble’s daughter?”
Ekan sat down smiling at the irascible guard.
“Knowing your eating habits, it will do you immense good to ingest proper food. Anyway, why don’t you try first? I’m positive this will go down well with your ale. If you are still hungry after that I’ll think of something else.”
Petren grumbled on:
“As if I needed somebody to coddle me!” Holding his fork in front of his eyes: “And why do I have to use these picks when a knife and a spoon should be enough?” He nonetheless stabbed a slice of fish and some leaves together and brought them to his mouth and started chewing.
Ekan saw his expression slowly changing from puzzlement to growing pleasure. The Constable stabbed another piece of fish without forgetting to add some vegetables and engulfed the lot into his maw.
“I’ll be damned!” he growled. “Who could have foretold that one day I would enjoy woman’s food? That stuff is simply great! All my apologies, Jonas! If this is what you meant by good food, I’m ready to change my habits!… Well, some of them…”
Ekan laughed.
“The pleasure is mine and you are forgiven! I’ll tell you what: this could make a good enough reason to come and visit us. Just call me for anything new I might have prepared, and we shall be able to conduct our small private talks without raising any unwelcome curiosity!”
“Well, next time will have to wait. I’m leaving for Villefranche tomorrow at dawn.”
“You are finally going to rid us of all those jailbirds and other more unsavory characters?”
“That’s right, but it is a pain in the arse to take them all the way down to Beaulieu. Well, it’s for the good of the city and the nation, and if the Judge hadn’t ordered me to accompany them in person, I surely would have found somebody to take care of that damn chore!”
“I doubt it. Knowing you too well, I’m sure you would not have left that job in just anybody’s hands!”
“Maybe, I must admit. But that is not the only reason for my coming tonight. You are invited by the Royal Couple to dinner.”
Ekan did not bother to hide his annoyance.
“May I know the justification for such a request?”
“Aren’t we grouchy tonight? I must confess I share your repugnance, but in this particular case, the Judge himself has suggested Their Highnesses should meet you. If that can make you happier, know that since I have to go there with the two of you, we shan’t have to visit them before I have come back and that won’t be before two weeks’ time!”
“I thought the Judge knew better than taking me away from work for the good pleasure of some pampered idle noble people!”
“Jonas, I suspect that he has included you in our very small circle for reasons I can’t start to imagine, but these words of yours are tantamount to high treason!”
“Spare me, Petren! I am aware of what you think of our so-called King and his kin. The Judge would do well to suggest they all go to Beaulieu where they are building an Embassy just for them to make themselves useful. Do you honestly think they will be making the decisions when war comes to us?”
“War? What do you mean?”
“Do you think that slavers’ ship should be the last to appear on our shores? Mark me, they will come back and in larger numbers than you would ever think!”
“How do you know this?”
“Petren, sorry for not telling you now and sorry again for making you angry. Be certain only that I am truly concerned with the welfare of your nation. One day, we shall be together in the fray. By that time, you will come to understand why the Judge asked for my help. In any case do not tarry in Villefranche. We shall have heaps of work to do and you shall be sorely needed!”
Ekan rose up, and amicably squeezing the Constable’s shoulder, he went to the kitchen leaving a confused Petren at his table.
Petren sat silent for a long time in front of his jug and empty plate. Truly, things were beginning to happen. He was far more crafty and devious than he let people guess. Only that black giant could see through him. The Judge was a man whose orders he executed without any discussion or comments. But Jonas was fast becoming a friend, and he did not feel comfortable with that new concern. Or was it the other way round? Could he live with the fact that somebody was caring about his person?
Shaking himself, Petren called in a booming voice:
“Master Turgas, bring me another plate of the same, will you? It’s about time I enjoyed truly good food, too!”
The few late drinkers in the lounge and at the bar looked at each other in wonder. What had the big soldier eaten to bring out such a civilized comment out of him?
The Judge and Ekan were standing among the crowd on the Dunlago pier when a large group of chained men were brought through.
An oppressive silence reigned over the attendance. Many citizens had come to the sudden realization that the order and peace of the city were plainly the priority of their town and nation.
The Chamber had released and published the new law the day before. Many inhabitants had felt it difficult to believe. Authorities, although visible in the guise of the City Guards, did not have the habit to assert themselves. The Judge and his decisions were feared by all, but crime was more the exception than the rule. But whatever crime could be heard of, mainly found its source in the notorious harbor vicinity. But recent events and a newfound prosperity clearly stated things were changing even in that area.
Petren was leading the column of convicts to Adir’s Seadragon.
Ekan had greeted the captain earlier before the crowd had begun to form. Both men had thoroughly enjoyed their reunion in spite of the grim reason for the ship’s presence.
Adir at the moment was standing on the ship’s main deck in front of the gangplank that the Chief Constable proceeded to climb. The two men formally saluted each other before Petren signaled to his Guards to bring the criminals up. The latter were none too gently led below deck where they would stay until their destination. The guards helped the sailors bring in the gangplank.
Adir gave orders to leave immediately. After a last salute to the Judge, he went to take personal charge of the helm.
The crowd was keeping silent. Quite a few among those convicts would not come back to Dunlago before a very long time.
Two weeks had passed when a column stopped at the barbican of Beaucastel.
Geoffroy, Birghit and Amrel, for once clad in a horse rider’s garb, were waiting in front of the entrance on their horses.
The grim soldiers had made good way from Villefranche where they had picked up their sinister charges. Unrelentingly pushing the Dunlago convicts across country at almost twenty miles a day, nonetheless making sure that they were well fed with rich if not over pleasant fare and that they had a good sleep every night, The Royal Guards had somehow managed to come on time.
Despite the fact they were mounted on horses, they ended up more tired than their prisoners, as they had had to keep watch on them at night, taking no chance. Not that any convict would have had the opportunity to go very far if he escaped, although they sported various skin colors, their sizes and builds would never have allowed them to hide for long. The Guards also had to tend to their horses, make and break up camp, prepare the meals, and whatever else. They were certainly not sorry to hand them over to Beaucastel’s garrison.
Geoffroy saluted their Corporal, a haughty Walkyrie covered with scars. Her companions had been chosen for their toughness and no nonsense. Many of them had campaigned with Birghit.
“Well done, Corporal! My profound thanks to all your soldiers! Hand your mounts to the pages and as soon as you are refreshed, go to the mess hall where well-deserved food and drink are waiting for you! May I add that our King is offering each of you three full days of rest with double pay from his own coffers!”
Grateful smiles appeared on the Guards’ tired and grimy faces. The chore had been worth the effort after all. Their Captain had never been known for his largesse. The Corporal straightened and returned the salute.
“Our deep thanks, Captain! I sincerely hope we made you proud!”
“You did, Corporal, you did!”
Birghit smiled at the Corporal. They had shared quite a few harrowing adventures bringing unruly barons at heel. They even had shared bed on occasions, too.
Amrel did not miss the smile and raised an inquisitive eyebrow at the Sergeant who replied with a wink.
Geoffroy signaled for a platoon of pikemen to move and stand alongside and behind the chained convicts. Only then did the Royal Guards dismount and handed their horses to pages and stable boys.
The Captain turned to the convicts.
Many curious citizens had been standing along the road heading to the entrance of the city. The Palace had not bothered to deny that a strange cortege had been approaching for the past week. Actually the King, Amrel, the Guards and Alfred had explained the purpose of the whole affair to whoever was interested to hear. On the other hand, the Superintendent’s spies had been conspicuous in their absence and silence.
Geoffroy thought this was a good opportunity to send a message to those citizens of Beaucastel who had not understood yet that things were changing for good.
“Men of Dunlago!” he started. “This is the last time I call you so! Know that you and your kind in Beaulieu are here to serve a sentence handed to you by your own people! You shall be treated fairly, although I personally doubt you deserve it, but such was the agreement between our two nations. Obey orders and you shall not have to face me! Disobey orders or create any nuisance or fight with your fellow convicts, and I shall make sure you regret your doings for the rest of your sorry lives! Now, soldiers, get them moving!”
As if on cue, the pikemen herded the prisoners forward inside the city toward their jails along the main street of Beaucastel where curious inhabitants looked at them with many a comment. Even to the relatively tall denizens of Beaulieu, the Dunlago men appeared more like giants out of a strange land than common humans. Some reflected they would need all the guards the garrison could spare.
A lot of people had gathered in the Main Hall of the Palace to attend the conference held by the Dwarves to explain the work and intricacies involved in the installation of a sewer system in the capital.
Forge Steelneck, their chief engineer, was giving the details.
“You have to start at the top, that is, the most elevated point of the city. Each house shall include a pipe joined to a secondary network of pipes that will lead to the main pipes. The main pipes must be connected to catch basins at street corners and along street gutters to admit surface runoff of rain and storm water to feed sewers.”
Gerhart interrupted:
“What if it does not rain for long periods?”
“In any case, each household has to understand that all waste waters from cleaning or cooking should be thrown down the privies as these will become the openings to the first pipes. If necessary, water will have to be collected from wells and supplementary rainwater tanks.”
“Where do the sewers lead to, then?”
“Before that, mesh screens will have to be installed at regular intervals to remove any large object. These mesh screens will need to be regularly cleaned. Therefore, even after completion, you shall have to use a large labor task force for maintenance. You will also have to sensitize the population to the danger of throwing anything down their privies. Which means you shall have to create a rubbish and trash collecting system. More work for your convicts! Grit also has to be regularly scooped out of the sewers. Next, you shall allow waste to go through filtering tanks full of sand and ash. Only then can you let the water flow into rivers, lakes or in the sea.”
“What shall we do with all that sludge collected from the various filters and tanks?” asked Gerhart who was showing a surprisingly good grasp of the situation.
The Dwarf easily answered:
“Good question, but the answer is actually a bonus. That sludge collected from pipes and various tanks and also public baths should be allowed to dry to be used as fertilizer. If you can have your farmers collect it at set dates and from determined spots, you will transform this excess of waste into a boon of crops and food!”
The last comment drew a laugh from the audience.
“One more reason to encourage public bath houses!” added Amrel.
Forge Steelneck’s eyes went vacant as they always did when his engineer’s mind went into additional gear.
“You know, Your Majesty, in our mountains we always have collected water from wells, underground lakes or falls, but here, since water comes from the sky, we could also have water come directly into all houses, as you call your abodes!”
“How so?” answered a puzzled King.
“Well, we know that water collected at a high point will come out at any lower points on its own. So, if you can build some kind of water tank tower on top of the highest spot in that city, water will come out wherever we want if we can devise a pipe and tap system!”
“I’m afraid you will have to demonstrate your idea. That still can wait though, can’t it? My good Forge Steelneck, be certain we are grateful for your enthusiasm and expertise, but let’s tackle all our problems and projects one by one and in their priority order, shall we? Now, I meant to ask another question: what about the pipes. What are they made of?”
“Your Majesty, I stand corrected, but let me tell you that any Dwarf should love to work for you as you surely have a great grasp of such priorities! As metal rusts, clay is best. We have been devising and manufacturing pipes and tanks made of glazed clay in our kilns as we do at home. Water and sludge flow easily through them. They are easier to replace than any kind of metal devices you could think of, and they are more economical. Even broken, we can find other uses for them. And because they are glazed they shall be far more resistant to shock and erosion. Of course we shall have to step up their production. May I suggest we form apprentices among men of Beaulieu?”
“May I?” interrupted Marghrete, who was not really asking for permission.
She had become more confident and assertive in her opinions, thanks to her new role as an active Royal Spouse and to the many conversations she held with Amrel. The Blue Dragon had quickly realized that good ideas had a better chance of being adopted when properly suggested instead of issuing them through orders or coercion. The Queen, moreover, had shown an inborn sense of organization and political acumen that Amrel was happy to make use of. Someone else might imply in all truth that she was being devious, but if the Royal Couple could show sufficient leadership in state of affairs, she was ready to encourage them by any means available to her.
Marghrete continued:
“I see a way of redemption here.”
Her audience went silent, uncomprehending her words. She raised a placatory hand.
“Sorry, I’m going too fast. Let me explain: the manufacture of pipes, tanks and sewers is a new industry, right? This is also hard work. Why don’t we either designate some convicts or ask for volunteers among them to help the Dwarves? By the time their sentences are finished, and maybe we should choose men among those with medium-range punishments, they will have acquired sufficient knowledge to continue the task when freed. In this way we can reinsert them into our society with an honest and useful occupation, and at the same time lift a burden off our guests the Dwarves who, I’m sure, will appreciate having more time for their personal ventures!”
Forge Steelneck made a deep bow to the Queen.
“Your Majesty should meet Brighteyes, wife of Hammerblow, King Under The Mountain! Our own Queen will find her very match in Beaulieu’s Queen! Although I’m not sure if it is such a good idea after all, as every man in our two nations will find himself suddenly running very fast, lest he is looking for work or trouble!”
Gerhart was the first to laugh at the Dwarf’s comments, although his wife was not too sure whether she should feel pleased or affronted. Amrel’s hand on her arm convinced her she should take the Dwarf’s rough sense of humor as a compliment.
“I can’t wait to meet your Queen, then!” she replied.
“Fine,” commented her husband, “but first, we have to persuade the whole population to leave Beaucastel and spend the next couple of moons in the nature. Lucky this is the good season!”
Amrel commented:
“Your Majesties and the Tribunal had better start working on that immediately!”
Ekan was ambling along the streets of Dunlago in the company of Constable Petren. They had left the Blue Mermaid a while ago when the City Guard had come to fetch Jonas to accompany him to the Royal Palace. It was getting dark, as they had been invited for dinner. This area of town, although very different from that of the harbor, was nonetheless quite animated. Ekan noticed that some shops sold wares not found in his own district. There were indeed many rich stands along the wide avenue leading to the King’s residence. Many wealthy citizens were inspecting expensive silk cloth from the Elves Forest or haggling over tasseled sandals made of soft leather from the Steppes. Ekan had the surprise to discover one Dwarf at his own stand. He had been too busy with the inn recently to keep an eye on the mountain craftsmen’s activities. The two big men stopped at the stand to greet their friend. Petren was not averse to share an ale or two and as well as some lore with the new pensioners of the former Green Anchor presently named Dwarven Crafts, who once they left their smith and kiln, proved a very thirsty and sociable lot always ready for stories and songs. Fortunately it would take a few days of constant drinking to make a Dwarf tipsy. And as nobody dared to think of starting a fight with these small but impossibly wide and rock-solid creatures, Master Turgas considered them as his most reliable customers, although he had to ban arm-wrestling, their most popular past-time, for fear his human guests would all end up in slings.
The Dwarf at the stand was named Quartz Bronzeglaive. He was offering magnificently wrought metal utensils and exquisite glassware, which seemed to be highly popular with the local gentry. Ekan and his companion soon had to leave so as to allow passersby to stop at the Dwarf’s shop.
The King’s Palace stood on a small hill at the end of the avenue in the shape of a large square building all covered with white and pink marble reflecting the setting sun. Ekan found the sight grandiose, yet a trifle too extravagant for his own liking. Being a dragon had not clouded his judgment on some humans’ profligate tastes, although he could not blame the present rulers for some of their ancestors’ wasteful ways. He appreciated art and crafts. Architecture was a particular new experience. One of these days he would have to fly and explore the cities of the Land of the Desert and the Sea as well as Beaulieu. The two Guards at the colonnaded entrance saluted Petren and let them enter without any hindrance.
They entered into a kind of lobby where a servant had been apparently waiting for them. He beckoned them to follow him with a minimum of fuss. As they walked in the halls of the Palace, Ekan admired the statues, vases and other objects along the walls.
“Constable, where does all this marble come from? I thought there was only sand west of Dunlago,” he innocently asked a very taciturn Constable.
“From quarries about two hundred miles south west of our capital.”
“Do you mean those stones were brought all the way up north here?”
“No. Most were shipped along the coast. Although, if you ask me, I must tell you it cost too much money and too many lives at the time.”
“You do not seem to appreciate this place much, do you?”
“Not in the least! A despot king three generations ago decided to have this palace built to his glory despite the fact he never saw its completion. By the time our people got sick of him and were rid of that clown, the building had almost been finished. So it was agreed that it ought to be completed and made use of after all. Do you realize that each stone you walk on in this hall would pay one year of my wages?”
“Pity such art had to be achieved at such expense. Well, I suppose you did well to make use of it. Apart of the King’s lodgings, what other purpose does it serve?”
“Actually the King and his family live in a nearby mansion. So it serves as a banquet hall, an abode for important foreign visitors, as well as the seat of our government. Ah, here we are at last!”
They had arrived at a large wooden door probably made of material imported from the south or the Forest of the Elves. Two servants opened it for them as their guide invited them to enter. Only a few people stood conversing inside. Apart from the ever-present staff, Ekan noticed the Judge in deep conversation with a tall imposing man loosely dressed in a full body toga. His attire was the fashion known to be worn by some of the gentry who were averse to showing too much body skin as most commoners did when they went at their usual occupations bare-chested with a simple waist jacket and loose pants. He bore a strong resemblance to Anthony Vanenklaar who stood at the notable’s side and assumed he was Marcus Vanenklaar, the present ruler of Dunlago and its Realm. Anthony’s wife, Gladys was chatting with another lady who had adopted a kind of white sheath enhanced with a gold wrap as her dress. Gladys, on the other hand, was practically dressed in the same manner as she had been during their first meeting at the Blue Mermaid, showing more than she was concealing in marked contrast with the sober appearance of her interlocutor. The King’s sister-in-law was the first to react at their entry and leaving her companion, almost jumped onto Ekan, ignoring the Constable and other people present in the hall.
-“Jonas, here you are at last!” she started, familiarly taking his arm and dragging him towards the small assembly. The Judge rolled his eyes at this undeserved intimacy while the black giant stolidly refrained from matching the courtesan’s pace in spite of her pulling him as if she possessed him. Petren chose to ignore the scene and kept a few steps behind him.
Ignoring order of precedence and court manners, although Ekan doubted there had ever been any, Gladys proceeded to introduce him to the Royal Couple.
“Marcus, let me introduce good man Jonas, the new marvel of our city! Would you believe that we here have the sole reason for the sudden change in our harbor? Can you imagine he has already invented a totally new way of cooking and at the same time contributed an unprecedented order in that rough neighborhood? And I still did not mention the upsurge in trade and…”
“I’m sure that good man Jonas will have all the time he wants to explain what he has achieved around dinner!” smoothly interrupted the King with a frank open look at Ekan. Holding his hand forward, “Well met, new citizen of Dunlago. The Judge here has been so full of praise I could not resist to invite you in person and acquaint myself with the latest talk in town. I sincerely hope I did not bring too much bother to your life and business?”
The Dragon took Marcus’ hand in his own. The King’s grip was crisp and firm. He could count on some restraint and good sense from that corner. Marcus was certainly proving himself a more staid and genial character than his younger brother Anthony.
“Sire, I am honored, but I doubt I deserve all that praise. I merely suggested a few ideas and things developed from there!”
“You are too modest, Jonas!” Turning to the lady wearing the white and gold dress, “May I have the pleasure to introduce you to Atraxa, my wife?”
Ekan bowed to the Queen, keeping his eyes on her face. Their eyes locked for a short while. Here was a strong but quiet woman. He would have to think of making better acquaintance with her in the near future, but he decided not to probe for the moment. In fact, the Black Dragon very rarely intruded into other people’s minds, and only when absolutely necessary. He greeted Atraxa:
“Your Majesty, I am honored.”
“Good man Jonas, I am in turn honored and thankful for your sparing us your valuable time!” she kindly replied.
“Your Majesty is most gracious, and I sincerely hope she will bear with my uncouth manners for a while!”
“I would not worry too much about that! In truth you strike me as a remarkably gentle-mannered man!”
Turning to Gladys:
“Dear friend, would you allow me the company of the object of your attentions for a while?”
Not waiting for an answer, the Queen took Jonas’ arm away from Gladys’ clutches and steered him to the table where dinner was waiting for the guests who took Ataraxa’s hint that they all shall sit down. Ekan felt thankful as it conveniently allowed him to avoid any further niceties standing in the middle of too large a room with too few people. Sitting at a table had its advantages as you could choose your interlocutors.
Marcus settled himself at the end of the table with his wife sitting on his right facing the Judge. Ekan found himself at Atraxa’s right shoulder, which was fine but he had to face Gladys whose feet were already searching for his. A glum Petren occupied the seat next to him while Anthony kept company to his wife.
Soon enough, servants brought pitchers of red and white wines from Beaucastel’s southern vineyards, reputedly the best in all Alymndes. The occasion might be private, but they were treated as very special guests indeed. The crafts of the denizens of the Iron Crags had quickly become the criteria for any host proud of his or her table in Dunlago.
Ekan had no problem handling the various utensils in front of him but the same could not be said of the Constable who was having a terrible time in such an elevated company.
The first courses were being served. Ekan forgot his companions to concentrate on the food in front of him. It was served in elaborate silver dishes and servants were busy cutting the meat. It might look traditional and grand but the Black Dragon harbored doubts as to whether customers at his inn would appreciate whole animals being carved onto their plates, although they were absolutely delicious. He was greatly intrigued by the sauces. There lay a mystery. He did not have a clue how they could have been conceived. He kept on tasting them until Gladys could not resist from venting out her comments.
“Dear Jonas, you seem to be so interested in the sauces and juices that we are being imposed upon with those mountains of flesh! May I ask you why?”
Turning to the King, she continued in a patronizing tone, not even waiting for Ekan’s answer:
“Marcus, how many times did I tell you that serving food in such a way is revolting! When are you going to accompany me to the Blue Mermaid? There we shall show you real refinement!”
A slightly miffed Marcus retorted:
“Do you, by any chance, mean I should change my cooks? Do you realize how difficult it is to find one?”
“Why do you think I suggested you invited dear good man Jonas? Why don’t you ask him?”
The King turned to Ekan:
“Well, since Gladys has decided to pester me on the quality of my dinner and servants, I suppose we had better ask the most interested person in our party! Only then, might we be allowed to continue our dinner in peace!”
Turning to Ekan:
“My dear good man Jonas, may I impress on you the urgent need for your advice? Would you be kind enough as to partake us of your honest opinion?”
The Black Dragon, to say the least, was starting to feel like Petren who had become very quiet. A smiling Gladys was hopefully staring at him. He could feel her insistent naked feet on his shins. Anthony was bored with the whole affair, but he could guess a glint of amusement in the Judge’s eyes. The Queen was obviously expecting an answer. Which one he did not care to know.
Sitting back and facing Marcus squarely, he started:
“I do not understand why you should be faulted on the quality of your dinner. The food is succulent. The sauces are sublime! The presentation is breathtaking. The problem is not there. A change of attitude might be welcome.”
A puzzled King replied:
“A change of attitude? You have me lost there, Jonas!”
“Sorry. I did not choose the proper words. Meaning no disrespect, but I would love to meet your Master Cook as soon as possible. What is his name?”
“Mumtaz. Why?”
Ekan rose up and took a pitcher of wine and two glasses.
Turning to the Queen, he bowed and uttered:
“If Your Majesty would allow me?”
Not waiting for an answer, he left the table and directly went to the door through which the servants were bringing the food.
Uneasiness was equally shared with surprise and outrage by some of the guests and servants present in the suddenly icy quiet dinner hall.
A thin smile crept on the Judge’s face while Petren kept his eyes averted from the Royal Couple and their kin.
The King turned to the Judge.
“Judge, may I ask you the reason of your hilarity?”
The Judge looked at him without a trace of fear.
“Sire, I’m not laughing. I’m merely smiling. You and your sister-in-law had insisted to invite him in spite of my misgivings. Obviously Gladys had already impressed on your Majesty her desire to promote Jonas to Master Cook of the Palace. I’m afraid that Jonas is not the type of citizen you can lead by the nose at your will. Moreover, he has little to do with court manners and intrigues. He is certainly not a man for compromises. Ask our Chief Constable here if you do not believe me!”
“Why then does he choose to offend us by leaving the table without being invited to?”
“Actually he is not meaning to offend you the least. On the contrary, I believe he is on his way to solve a couple of your problems. Mark me, this man is far more than he looks. You are only starting to deal with him. And if you think you can twirl him around your finger, you are gravely mistaken!”
The last was said with an emphatic look at Gladys.
Marcus had enough experience to know that the Judge never gave his advice gratuitously and decided to consider the funny side of the situation.
“Well, if one man can stall Gladys, I’ll be damned if I don’t try at least to make him my friend!” he burst out in laughter.
Ekan passed through the door leading to the kitchen. It was not so busy now that most of the courses had been served. There were too few guests after all to justify any waste of energy. The Black Dragon guessed this must be a very well organized work place as servants were already starting cleaning and scrubbing. He saw a huge black man with a glistening shaved pate like his, sitting at the main table with a mug in his hand keeping an attentive eye on his staff.
Ekan saluted the man:
“Greetings! Do I have the honor to speak to Master Cook Mumtaz?”
The man looked at him with a wary eye.
“Himself. May I know what you are doing here? I doubt you are a servant as I know them all.”
“My apologies. I am Jonas and I work at the Blue Mermaid. I happen to be one of today’s guests.”
The Master Cook’s face grew cold.
“I see. You are the cook Gladys Vanenklaar has been battering our ears with for the last two weeks. Have you come for an inspection of the place maybe?”
Ekan contained himself. One of these days he will have to think of a way or two to neutralize Gladys. He gently put the wine and the glasses on the table. Adopting a conciliatory tone, he answered the angry cook.
“Master Cook, I have come here to pay my respects. I have not come to steal your rightful position. I have too much admiration for your work to even dare think of supplanting you. Now, what Gladys might have said about me is simply wishful thinking. If need be, I shall formally request the King to leave me alone. May I ask you to believe me?”
The Master Cook’s eyes considered Ekan’s face for a while. What he saw there must have convinced him of the dragon’s intentions as he released a deep sigh and relaxed on his seat.
“I’m sorry! Please sit down and forgive my bad temper!”
Ekan sat and poured wine in both glasses before handing one to Mumtaz across the table. The Master Cook’s nostrils twitched.
“But this is the King’s best wine and his personal glassware!”
“You deserve it!”
“And how are you going to get away with stealing the King’s property?”
“He actually offered me that wine at his table. So I don’t see why he could or should accuse me of theft!” replied the dragon with a laugh.
Mumtaz was not really convinced but nonetheless relished the wine. He had had occasions to taste it before choosing it for the Royal Table, but surely never had the opportunity to enjoy for its full worth.
Taking a break from his pleasure, he asked Ekan:
“Tell me, Jonas, what is wrong with my cooking? If somebody like Gladys complains about it all the time, she certainly must have a good reason, in spite of her propensity for tantrums!”
Ekan thought for a while before answering.
“There’s nothing wrong about your food, believe me. The problem is that, however sublime a dish might be, if you keep on serving it time and again, people will tire of it and even grow to hate it. Either you have to go along new trends, or try to improve on the variety of your dishes by innovating. Instead of serving a whole animal on the table and cut it in front of the guests, you could carve it here in the kitchen, and arrange it on individual plates with a more personal decoration. In this way, you will stimulate the diners’ appetites”
“But surely the meat will arrive cold on the table!”
“Not if you serve it on hot plates. Keep them in hot water, take them out and wipe them before arranging the food on them. All it involves is good timing. Make sure your staff understands this particular part. As soon as the plates are ready to be transported by the servants, cover them with individual silver lids. In this manner you shall keep the guests guessing, which in turn will entice them to try and taste your food. Try to get the King and his wife involved with the devising of their own meals and have them share the pleasure of a secret surprise for their clients!”
Mumtaz had a long slow slip at his wine. Ekan could detect some hard thinking in his eyes.
Putting his glass back onto the table, the Master Cook ventured:
“I shall need silver or pewter trays large enough to hold at least four plates and lids for each plate. Who could possibly make them at such a short notice?”
“What about our friends the Dwarves? I’m pretty sure they shall have them ready in a day if you ask them nicely!” replied Ekan with a knowing smile. “While we are at it”, he continued, “I can also introduce you to the best fishermen, spice sellers and gardeners if you are interested.”
“You would?”
“Sure! Actually I can assure you they would be very happy to come all the way to your kitchen to show you what they have to offer! I know you have to keep the Royal Providers happy, but if they understand that their products will be associated to others for newer and better results, they should be grateful for the competition!”
Mumtaz’s face was beaming.
“I see your point. A lot of people would profit from such a way of doing things. Moreover, I feel thankful for a new challenge. This certainly will require some study and experiments!”
“This is something we could do together. I have a suggestion. Would you care listening to it?”
The Royal Couple and their guests were well into after-dinner coffee and liqueurs when Ekan made his entrance back into the banquet hall.
Ignoring the stares riveted onto his person, he calmly put down the now empty wine pitcher and the two glasses on the main table and took the seat apparently set for him in the circle of easy chairs devised for the occasion. Stretching his arms over his head in the human manner to show satisfaction after some good work done, he settled himself with a cup of coffee in one hand and a little smile on his face.
Marcus could not wait any longer.
Ekan was starting to enjoy the situation. Let these people fret a bit… Thinking about his brothers and sisters, he wondered how they were dealing with such people. At least, he had learnt from his encounters at the inn and talks with the Judge that calmness and guile very often worked wonders. Maybe one day he would be able to keep his dragon instincts in check…
“Well, Sire, I think I may tell you that Mumtaz and I have solved your problem. Gladys might still give you an earful, though.”
Atraxa seemed to appreciate her husband’s predicament, at least the funny side of it.
“In that case, you have overlooked a second problem!” she snidely remarked with a significant look at her sister-in-law.
Not much love lost there, Ekan mused. I could use her influence…
Gladys could not help taking on the bait.
“Good man Jonas, what would make me a nuisance to our beloved King? Or may I say all that drinking in the kitchen has made your mind a bit fuzzy?”
Ekan looked at her mockingly.
“Gladys, I happen to be blessed with a particular physical constitution that all the wine in the palace wouldn’t be able to disturb. For all my love for wine, alcohol does not in any way affect me. A useful asset, don’t you think?”
The last remark stopped Gladys in her tracks. She had come to realize that Jonas was subtly telling her to take a care or else.
Marcus sensed it too and understood it was time for him to assert his authority.
“When the two of you will have finished bickering like love-struck kids, maybe Jonas would be kind enough to explain what has been arranged in my kitchen!”
Ekan did not apologize.
“Sire, Mumtaz and I have come to the conclusion that mutual help would be far more beneficial than antagonizing each other. Since we follow two vastly different concepts in cooking, we thought we ought to pool our knowledge and skills together. Once every two weeks one of us will come spend a day to work and study at the other cook’s kitchen. We shall also introduce our sources for products and ingredients. If your Majesty agrees, I shall introduce you to good fishermen, spice dealers as well as the Dwarves who could provide you with a whole array of new utensils and tools. On the other hand, I shall help the Royal Providers make their wares known in the harbor where they could establish their own guild. What do you say?”
Marcus sipped at his coffee his eyes locked on Ekan’s impassive face.
“I’m starting to understand why our good Judge insisted that I make your acquaintance, notwithstanding Gladys’ reasons. For all your directness, you strike me as a remarkable diplomat. You seem to have the knack of persuading people to join forces instead of fighting each other. I must confess it is hard to believe after your exploits on that slavers’ ship.”
Ekan’s face went dark.
“Sire, I hope we shall not have to speak about that scum again.”
“We?” retorted the King surprised by Ekan’s audacity. “Do you by any chance mean to advise me on state affairs as well?”
“Sire, do not misinterpret Jonas’ meaning.” The Judge smoothly cut in. “The fact is that he knows more about that scourge than we do. May I remind you he was the man who incited Captain Adir to board and attack the slavers. We shall need his knowledge when it comes to obliterating those monsters once and for all.”
Marcus’ eyes went from Judge to Jonas a couple of times.
“It seems to me, or I’m not fit to sit here, that this might become the real reason behind your bi-monthly visit to the Palace kitchen, Jonas. Am I right?”
Interestingly enough, Ekan had not thought of the idea. Well, Marcus could certainly join the team. But before that, he would have to take care of Gladys and her husband who seemed more and more detrimental to their cause as time went by.
Spring had come to its end with a warming of the air, shorter nights and a blooming flora. It also witnessed one of the most extraordinary exoduses to have taken place in the history of Beaulieu, or Beaucastel for that matter.
In spite of ample preparations and warnings, more than a few citizens had refused to cooperate. Considering the scale of the whole operation, the State in the person of the Royal Guards had not been willing to use gloves, well soft ones, to insure its good running.
Among the recalcitrant citizens, some of the most visible riffraff had been forcibly rounded up and made to join the teams helping the Dwarves. They would prove themselves useful and at the same time would not importune the rest of the population, either inside or outside the walls. The indigent, the sick, the homeless and the orphans had been more problematic. Amrel had decided she could not wait any longer and had Gerhart face the realities a few days before the exodus.
Their inner circle had started one of their regular meetings when Amrel directly addressed the King of Beaucastel.
“Gerhart, we shall leave the city for quite a while and we have basically solved the problems caused by our petty criminals by giving them the choice between going straight or being pressed into the work-gangs. I must say we should have not much trouble with labor for quite a while. But we are still forgetting two more kinds of citizens we have always looked over until now!”
Gerhart knew too well he was on the verge of a long hard day when Amrel became so direct in her remonstrance.
He wearily replied:
“What on earth do you think we have missed, then? If you don’t mind my saying, it is also a bit late for last arrangements!”
“Don’t pull that one on me, will you? You might be blessed with a good health, well, recently at least, and all the best health care you might wish for, but have you spared a thought on less fortunate citizens lying in bed sick or handicapped? We shall have to build a kind of field hospital for them like the one you provide for your soldiers on campaign. That should be quite some work already, but what shall we do with them when we come back? Put them back in their houses and wash our hands of them!”
“I see. Your old idea of a hospital is coming up again! A hospital is fine with me but what of the physicians? You’ve seen for yourself the state of medicine in our country!”
“Well, what better place than a hospital for teaching your future physicians? You have a Royal Guard. Why not a Royal Physician School and a Royal Hospital? I shall be glad to organize the school myself as it seems that nobody is really qualified down here!”
“Alright. A hospital in Beaucastel is fine, but what of the rest of the country?” retorted the King who suddenly wished he could kick himself for falling into Amrel’s trap.
The latter was not about to throw away her advantage.
“See! You just came naturally to my way of thinking! Why don’t you call for a special meeting of the recently elected Council? Have them edict a law which states that each city and community in the Realm should choose a number of promising young men according to their population each year to come to Beaucastel and study at the Royal Hospital to later go back to their people and open subsidiary hospitals. You entertain good enough relations with the Doyen of the Tribunal for the two of you to know how to persuade the Council of the need for such a worthy project! Actually it is about time we include Arnaud de Betancourt in our small discussions. That would speed things up to start with!”
“And are you going to ask me to suggest a new tax to the Council for financing that hospital, the Physician School and the other hospitals and dispensaries in the rest of the Realm?”
“Unless you tell the patients they have to assume their expenses, regardless of their means! But before we delve a bit more into that, we ought to address an even more pressing problem!”
“Now, why do I have the impression I am getting saddled not with one wife but two of them?” petulantly retorted Gerhart who was seriously thinking of going back to his old ways.
“Do you mind?” icily countered Marghrete to her husband.
Amrel cut in:
“Don’t the two of you start one of your arguments! We don’t have the time, and this is certainly not the place!”
Geoffroy, Birghit and Alfred diplomatically kept out of the fray, finding a sudden common interest in the beam architecture of the ceiling above them.
The Blue Dragon relentlessly continued:
“Gerhart, this might not concern you directly as you don’t have any children to look after…”
“Another thing we ought to talk about!” rudely interrupted the Queen. Gerhart swiveled in his chair to face her:
“Marghrete! What on earth makes you say that in public! This is our private life you are flaunting! Moreover, what are you complaining about? And if I may add…”
“You certainly may not!” shouted Amrel who nonetheless found herself happy to learn that relations between the official rulers of the Realm were becoming more beneficial to the state by the day.
Turning to Geoffroy, Birghit and Alfred who were beginning to rise from their chairs, obviously not too anxious to witness any Royal spat: “And the three of you, sit back down! It concerns all of you!” The three officers did not know how Jay could order their King and Queen around, but they certainly were not fool enough to find out, and docilely resumed their place.
“Now, maybe you would let me go back to what I was saying?” asked Amrel.
Gerhart rose both hands in defeat, while Marghrete could not hide some typically haughty satisfaction at having made her point. My, we still have a long way to go before those two grow up, Amrel ruefully thought.
“Gerhart, thanks to your predecessors who never cared about their citizens’ welfare, you are left with hordes of orphans on the streets swelling the ranks of the destitute and the local thugs!”
“We’ve always had beggars, orphans and thieves! Are you proposing to change the whole society?”
“I understand petty crime will never be completely eradicated, but at least you can start to significantly reduce it to manageable proportions!”
“So, what do you suggest?” a sorely vanquished King answered. Why could Kings command whole countries and at the same time being bullied by a woman? Mind you, Jay was certainly not your run-of-the-mill female. And the fewer people knew her true identity, the better. Although his male pride did not appreciate it, he also had to admit that so far she had proved more than useful to him and his subjects.
“These orphans, if you look after them, educate them and give them a chance to have a decent life, would become your most loyal citizens. In turn, they shall form the core of a bureaucracy you can trust. They shall become overseers and teachers of new generations of civil servants taken under the King’s protection. What’s more, you and your descendants will always be in dire need of subjects who have known what it is to be poor and destitute. They certainly will fight the hardest to preserve their newly found prosperity. Give them a chance, I can assure you that you will come and thank me, however it costs you!” the last words were uttered in a challenging tone.
Gerhart decided not to answer Jay’s taunt.
“Fine! My Royal Person agrees with the necessity of a hospital and a school of physicians, and also thanks you for the suggestion of a dependable civil service through an orphans’ reinsertion program! But where the hell, note I don’t say how and when yet, are we going to find the money to fund all that?”
“Ah! We mentioned that tax! You could call it “welfare tax”. If your citizens or Council members disagree, you can always mention they get their water and sewer system basically for free. And since that particular money will provide them with better health care and security, they ought to realize the general benefit. Now, if the Order of the Physicians happens to complain, send the fools to school or they shall not get official recognition. You could always make unauthorized medical practice a punishable offense! But I have an even better idea for raising money!”
“Good news at last!” retorted Gerhart with a smirk. “And may we have all the pleasure to share it with you?”
Amrel rolled her eyes. Her patience was being sorely tried.
“Yes, Your Majesty! At once, Your Majesty! I suppose you’ve heard of the Royal Post since you own it?”
“Yes, but do you have to be sarcastic about it?”
Amrel waved away Gerhart’s comment.
“Since you only can provide an efficient and reliable delivery service all over the Realm, why don’t you offer it to everybody for a nominal fee? Can you imagine the number of traders in particular who would welcome a safe and swift transport of their news, orders and goods?”
There was a pause when all the interlocutors looked at each other as if in a sudden realization they had been sitting on a treasure all their life without knowing it.
Alfred ventured:
“Jay, that’s an incredibly good idea! But how can we insure the safety and reliability of the delivery?”
“Good question. I doubt we can look after a whole bunch of staff to personally hand over mail to their recipients. But what we can do is open a kind of office adjacent to each stable or at each post in each town of the Realm. Now, if a customer wants a personal delivery we can always ask for an additional fee. Otherwise, we can have the man or woman in charge of the Royal Post announce through a notice for all to read as soon as mail has reached its destination. As for security, all mail and packages should be sealed with a wax embossed with a special stamp. A broken seal would mean that the recipient would be entitled to compensation in case of stolen or damaged property. As for the seal itself, you should have a new one made with words such as “Royal Mail Services” and your Arms clearly visible. You could also accompany it with a second wax seal stating the fee. Of course, only entrusted people can use those seals and collect the dues. That is why the faster you form a dependable body of civil servants, the better you can concretize those ideas!”
Gerhart took his head in his hands.
“And to think we have only a few days to begin organizing all this!”
But he resolutely stood up and briskly went to the entrance of the room, opened the door and called:
“Scribes, come at once with ink, quills and parchment! Guards, send for Arnaud de Betancourt, too, and I don’t care if he is busy!”
Looking at the officers making ready to leave:
“And the three of you stay here! We have to do the writing ourselves! We don’t want anybody to hear about all that before it has become law or fact!”
The three officers sat down with a groan. Paper work certainly did not agree with these people of action.
“Moreover, Marghrete, since you are my wife, and Jay, since you came with all those bright ideas, I’m sure you will be more than happy to help us!”
Umatar was flying high above the eastern reaches of the Steppes bordering the Realm of Beaulieu and the southern part of the Realm of the Desert and the Sea. Even in full daytime she could not be seen from below as clouds of dust rose above the low treeless hills covered with high grass undulating under the strong breeze.
What had brought her here away from Trade Fair City? A sense of foreboding? She could not say. She had left the new and only town of the Free Tribes of the Steppes that morning before dawn, when no one could espy her shape-changing into a great beautiful golden dragon hovering over what her subjects called a city, a grand word for the few scores of tents assembled on the spot she had chosen for her people. Her people… She had started to call the Free Tribes her own. Why had she come to care so much about those backward narrow-minded superstitious creatures? Perhaps their freedom appealed to her. Her father Glamrun had never mentioned those feelings they call care, love and responsibility. Her dragon mind rebelled on the notion that one could be tied by such intangible but forceful feelings.
Maybe Apprentice could help her unravel that mystery. But that surely could wait. She had enough concerns of her own to take care of before she had the leisure to check into her changes of mood.
She suddenly came to realize why premonition had called her to that particular area: the atmosphere felt all wrong. Her dragon senses perceived an unusual variation in the air currents and the temperature. A storm was brewing. Or something worse. Why was the sky so dark under her? A mass of black clouds began swirling in widening circles between her elevated location and the earth down below.
Sensing something terrible about to unfold, she plunged through the swiveling masses of darkness.
As soon as she had penetrated the sinister gloom she tumbled into a maelstrom of horrendous proportions. Her dragon reflexes saved her when she brutally translocated away from the mortal danger.
She had to exert all her strength to avoid slamming into the dangerously close ground. It took her some time before she could recover from her shock. When she did, she discovered with horror the cause of her predicament.
Although her peculiar abilities had brought her miles away from the danger, she could clearly see the dark column of a tornado descending from the dark mass of clouds rushing through the sky.
She knew of great sandstorms and twisters occurring in the far north over the deserted reaches of the Steppes, but such a catastrophic phenomenon so far in the south was completely unheard of. Moreover, how could it have happened so suddenly? Why had her dragon senses brought her to that particular place?
Unfortunately, now was not the time to ponder on that particular question. If she had guessed well, the tornado would soon strike the inhabited parts of the southern steppes.
How could she manage the task of making her people move as fast as was humanly possible to any natural shelter, provided she could find some of the latter? How could she do it by herself?
She came to a decision. Her father and mother would be very angry if she chose to reveal herself but she had no choice.
The desperate call simultaneously exploded inside her siblings’ heads.
Dargelblad was standing on a rocky promontory looking over the distant western shore with Queen Ellana when he she noticed a sudden change in her lover’s face.
“What’s happening to you, Wilfred? You are frightening me!”
The Silver dragon’s face had grown livid as if all his blood had suddenly been drained out of his face.
“Ellana, I have no time to explain. I’m needed in a faraway place right now! Try to contact your people or any of our kin near the eastern steppes. Their help will be sorely needed very soon! Our friends, the Tribesmen are about to be beset by a mortal danger!”
“Ellana, I shall tell what you have always sought about me when I come back, so do as I say!”
Ellana’s body stiffened in rebellion at being ordered about for the first time in her life. Dargelblad’s face grew hard.
“Ellana, my Queen, do not force me to command you!”
At that moment the elf woman came to understand that her choices would never be hers any more.
She kissed her lover’ cheek.
“Take care, Wilfred!” she whispered.
“I will. But send help on its way as soon as you can!”
He disappeared, leaving a shocked Ellana to fend for herself.
At the same instant he was hovering over the eastern reaches of the Steppes in the company of his brothers and sisters.
Numnir had had an easier time to make himself scarce when he mentioned his unquestioning Dwarven companions he had to leave them for a while on a pressing errand. They did not even raise their eyes from their tasks at hand as he exited from their workroom.
On the other hand, Ekan had to plead leave from Naeem in their kitchen as he vaguely mentioned an upset stomach, a reason his apprentice would be put hard to believe. Well, he could always explain him later that for once his constitution had run afoul due his various experiments with herbs and spices.
Amrel had had to come with an even lamer excuse. The call had reached her as she was riding along a road in the company of the Royal retinue. She had called Birghit, pointing at a farmstead, half a mile away from the road:
“Sergeant Birghit! I’m off to that house right now! I want to make better acquaintance with some of our subjects!”
“But Jay, you should take a couple of Guards with you!”
“Birghit, when have I ever needed chaperones around me? Look after our Royal Couple. They shall need you! Tell them I’ll be back in the evening!”
“Do not patronize me, my dear Sergeant!”
Birghit shrugged her shoulders. She had enough work like that, without having to worry about the whims of another lady. Come to think of it, she ruefully realized she was one, too.
Amrel galloped towards the farm, but instead of stopping there, she went on to a small grove of trees her dragon sight had noticed. She left her mount inside and translocated.
The five dragons were facing the dire danger approaching.
“What shall we do?” queried an increasingly agitated Umatar.
The stolid voice of Numnir answered her.
“That monster is still quite a distance from here. At the speed it is presently moving, it will take an hour to reach that particular point. How far are we from any of your people, Umatar?”
“If your calculations are right, at least one half hour before that tornado reaches them from that particular spot.”
“That gives us two and a half hours. How can we hope to have your people move away to a safe place in such a short time?”
“The problem is that we have at least three Tribes dispersed over miles of pastures and hills!”
An oppressive silence fell on them. The enormity of the task ahead momentarily struck them dumb.
Ekan was the first to shake off the gloom of their thoughts.
Dragons do not worry much and react quickly. In what manner, depended on their experience and wisdom. But Glamrun had taught them well.
“There is no help to it,” started the Black Dragon, “we ought to concentrate on saving lives. Properties and livelihoods are secondary. We can assist Umatar’s people later! Now, what we need to do is to have everybody move fast to the hills in the south where they should find some kind of shelter and wait out that catastrophe!”
“How do you propose to do that?” cut in Dargelblad.
“Frighten them into the fastest run of their lives!”
His kin looked at him in horror.
“You mean to reveal ourselves in plain daylight!” Amrel exclaimed.
Numnir replied in Ekan’s stead:
“And don’t you think that who has created that monster isn’t aware of our presence yet? You know very well this is no natural phenomenon in this part of the land! I very much doubt we should worry about our true identities being discovered by that unseen foe of ours! Shall we act now and talk about it later?”
“Shouldn’t we call Father first?” asked Amrel.
“No, I wouldn’t!” retorted Ekan. “This could be the very purpose of that provocation! I’m pretty certain that our Sire and Dame haven’t been detected yet. Their hour hasn’t come yet!” We shall have to fend for ourselves!”
Not a moment later, the nearest Tribesmen were startled out of their daily cares by a piercing cry from above them. As their eyes gazed at the sky they caught the terrible sight of long-forgotten creatures of legend pouncing on them at unbelievable speed. Their awful roars filled their hearts with appalling horror. Screaming women and children poured out of the tents and yurts to join their frightened husbands, fathers and brothers. But as they saw the cause of the Tribesmen’s dire fear they, too, found themselves agape, transfixed by the incomprehensible dreadful sight. The dragons had finally come only a few lengths away from the camp when they halted and kept hovering in mid-air.
The Tribespeople were still paralyzed speechless, hypnotized by the awful apparition.
The dragons had to break their immobility quickly into flight, however disorganized or panicky it would become.
“Fire!” ordered Ekan.
The five dragons’ immense maws suddenly belched out torrents of fire to strike and ignite the pastures between them and the humans in a thunderous explosion of heat.
The coming of dragons might have momentarily struck the Free Tribespeople of the Steppes, but the more pressing danger of grass fire rapidly gaining on them certainly shocked them awake. Seeing there was little time left for them to organize their flight, they all ran as one to their most cherished belongings, namely their horses and herds, which served the purpose of the dragons perfectly. As a general rule, the Tribesmen each owned at least three mounts for the purpose of sustained speed during their still numerous skirmishes and fights. What they did not realize was that the dragons were controlling the minds of their horses and beasts, carefully husbanding them near their masters and sparing them the fear of their riders by sending soothing thoughts and making them face away from the flames. The Tribesmen never felt the need to dwell on the relative calm disposition of their steeds as they helped their children, women and older folks to climb on the horses to leave the area as fast as they possibly could. Their instinct for survival forced them to abandon most of their other possessions.
The dragons kept fanning the breadth of the land rousing any unwilling Tribe or humans into flight, searching for anybody they might have overlooked.
Nevertheless, for all their frantic efforts, they knew too well that they could not save every soul. In spite of all their care, casualties mounted when people fell from their horses in panic and were trampled by the stampede, however they tried to control it. More than a few old people were left behind out of choice or through neglect. Some children and women were forgotten. Although they made sure the flames would spare these, the dragons simply did not have the time to linger. The tornado was advancing fast.
Little more than two hours later, the greater part of the Tribespeople was within reach of the hills and higher grounds where they would find shelter when the tornado crashed into their camps leaving large swathes of utter destruction in its wake. In some places the soil was gouged out down to the bedrock. Debris was thrown miles around. The land disappeared under clouds of dust. The dragons were flying toward the foot of the hills herding the last remnants of the Tribespeople to safety. Soon there was nothing else they could do, but wait for the onslaught of the unbound destructive elements. They were bracing themselves to vacate the spot at the very last second when in a terrifying clap the whirling cyclone suddenly passed out of existence, leaving the dragons dumb in bewildered confusion.
The pall of dust gradually settled down on the land in front of them revealing an unending expanse of desolation. Wherever the eye roved, it met with a despairing sight of torn land, huts and yurts wrecked into pieces, bodies of humans and animals broken beyond recognition. Not a soul seemed to have escaped. No bird’s cry could be heard. Life had apparently left this part of the world.
Umatar’s terrible scream of anger and sorrow tore the silence asunder.
A terrible thirst for destructive revenge slowly threatened to take over her mind. She started to rise in the air, her head wildly moving in every direction in apparent search for the cause of her wrath.
“Stop her!” roared Ekan. “Take her down, or we are going to lose her!”
Umatar’s brothers and sister came to recognize the danger of allowing their sister to be dominated by her dragon’s instincts. They realized that the hidden purpose of whatever or whoever had unleashed the catastrophe was to discover them and provoke them into rash reactions. And Umatar was just falling into the trap. Her four kin united their minds into one single shaft of power to crash inside the Golden Dragon’s brain to coerce her back into sanity.
For a long time they fought to overwhelm her rage and helpless thirst for vengeance for all the harm that her people were suffering. Through their sister’s pain they finally understood their own love for the people whose charge their father had entrusted them with. Because of the experience undertaken with Mareeva’s folk, Ekan particularly felt a keen resolve to soothe Umatar back to her normal self.
At last his sister’s despair started to recede as she slowly sank to the ground. As she came to lie on the earth they all landed around her keeping their minds linked with hers until they felt sure she was safe from her understandable but irrational urge to wreck havoc in retaliation on an enemy she did not even know.
Ever-practical Numnir was the first break the silence:
“Now that our sister has come back to us, we had better separate, unless humans see us and begin making the wrong conclusions. What’s more, we’d better gather all the help we can, and the sooner the better. Amrel, you are the nearest to this area. Could you arrange shelter, medical help and food?”
“I’ll do my best. I hope the first aid will reach the Tribes within a day. But Umatar will have to organize her own people until then.” answered his sister. “I don’t know about the Dwarves or Dunlago, but can the Elves help soon, too?”
“I have already asked Queen Ellana to send help as soon as she can possibly manage. But the denizens of the Forest are quick in need, so I expect to see the first of them within two days.”
“Well, that’s all we can do for the moment and that should be enough in the long run. Dwarves are too few and too slow to travel. Ekan’s people are too far anyway. Umatar, will you be alright?”
The Golden dragon shook herself. She had recovered, helped by a new focus on scouring the Steppes.
“Numnir is right. You had better leave at once. I shall resume my human form at once. I only hope you understand how grateful I am for your help!”
“Sister, we are dragons. There’s no need to thank. Take a care. You are becoming too human for your own comfort. Who knows? One of us will need your help soon or later. Fare thee well!” replied Dargelblad before he disappeared.
Nothing was left to say and Umatar soon found herself alone.
“We have to help them!” shouted Amrel to Gerhart.
She was presently facing the King at a distance from the rest of his retinue. Marghrete was looking at them, wondering what was the cause of the spat. The Blue Dragon had decided to deal with the King alone for the sake of expediency, but he was proving his usual obdurate.
“Gerhart, listen carefully! The fate of your own people, the Tribes of the Steppes and of all the inhabitants of Alymndes is at stake! If we do not start helping each other at the first opportunity, we shall never be able to raise a common front against adversity! What happened in the Steppes west of Beaulieu is a secret of state that I wouldn’t share even with your wife! Something or somebody created a tornado in the midst of the Tribes that destroyed the whole place. Most humans living there have had the time to take shelter, but for their horses, herds and weapons, they have lost everything! And this is only a start! Horrors have already occurred in the Forest of the Elves and in Dunlago! Who could be next? If you do not believe me, shall I take you there at once?”
Gerhart felt a chill in his spine at the mere thought of suddenly finding himself leagues away at the next moment. Although he had seen a proof of her magic only once when she appeared in part as a dragon, he did not care to find out how far her powers extended.
He frantically waved the notion away.
“Alright, alright, I believe you! But how am I going to explain that I know of events which took place miles from here just a few moments ago?”
“You don’t have to! There are times when in emergencies you must resume your King’s prerogatives and order without suffering any discussion! Your subjects will come to respect and trust your judgment, however extraordinary it might seem at first!”
“And at the first mistake, I shall be lucky to survive a general uprising from my beloved citizens!”
“That shall not happen.” replied Amrel in a definite tone.
Her hard face sufficiently convinced Gerhart this would in fact never happen as long as Jay had decided so. But he was having strong reservations about such an unethical way of conducting affairs of state.
“Now, are we going to act?” continued the Dragon in an icy voice.
The King threw his hands in the air to show that it was not his responsibility any more. He went back to his horse. As he mounted it, he called a page:
“Page, bring the Royal Attendant here at once!”
“Yes, Sire!”
A short while later, a rotund, red-faced man came puffing in exertion, obviously exhausted by all the unusual physical exercise required by the chore of conducting business outside the comfortable walls of the Palace.
“You called me, Sire?” he said in a lightly veiled annoyed tone.
Jay was right after all, ruefully thought the King. It is time I assert my authority.
“Yes, I did call you as it is not my habit to send pages on useless errands!” he replied with a cold smile. “I’m afraid I have to request your services for the next few days as some friends of ours need urgent help.”
“But Sire, I have already more work than I can properly deal with!” protested the Attendant.
And plenty of time to eat and drink, Gerhart decided. If I have managed to lose all that weight, I do not see why some of my beloved retainers should not do so, too, he reflected.
“Attendant, if I recall well, you have enough servants and aides to take over your present duties! Now, a catastrophe has befallen the Free Tribes of the Steppes, just west of our Realm, about a day ride from here, a couple more for carts and luggage. I need all the tents, food and medical supplies we can spare to be carried there as soon as possible!”
“But you mean to give away Royal possessions to mere savages, Sire!”
Gerhart stared hard at the cur.
“Attendant, if I hear that word only once more, I shall have you hung by the feet from the nearest tree for a whole day! Look at yourself! Where do you think all that leather and suede on your boots and breeches come from? Who breeds half of our horses? Even some of the food of which you so dearly partake come from their herds!”
The man still dared to try and answer. Gerhart roared at him for all to hear:
“Keep that overfed mouth of yours shut, will you? Now, start going! If you do not work to my satisfaction, you will still find yourself hung at the nearest tree as I told you, and I shall have the pleasure to do it with my own hands!”
Turning to Birghit, he added:
“Sergeant, would you be kind enough to have your Corporal and that squad of hers accompany the Attendant in his mission right away?”
Birghit was only glad to obey. Not only had she little liking for that sort of official, but she also understood the King needed all the support his Royal Guards could give at the moment, privy as she was to the larger picture of events to come. She briskly gave her orders to the Corporal who had been in charge of escorting the exiled criminals from Dunlago. The poor Attendant found himself herded by nothing but the toughest of all the Royal Guards. The next days were without a doubt going to be hard on his mental and physical constitution.
Geoffroy brought his horse beside Gerhart’s mount.
“Well done, sire!” he confided in a low voice. The King knew his Captain was not being pert, but sincerely meant his full support.
“Ah, Geoffroy! If I had known what a King’s work entailed, I would have found a more gentle occupation a long time ago! Giving orders and shouting at people all day is going to drive me crazy!”
“Well, we are all into it. No escape for us now, especially with that friend of ours!” he added with a meaningful glance at Jay. “If it can make you feel any better, I myself have been doing that for years and years, and am I crazy?”
They stopped their horses, looked at each other and burst out in laughter.
Seeing that sudden hilarity coming on the heels of Gerhart’s forceful show of authority, Marghrete turned away from the scene in disgust.
“Men!” she exclaimed in her most haughty righteous voice.
Jay could not hide her smile. She had guessed that the Queen was actually hiding pride for her Royal husband. That open show of confidentiality between the King and his Captain would be good on their soldiers’ and subjects’ morale. Well, most of them, she hoped.
Umatar was standing at the entrance of the cave where a very large number of Tribespeople kept huddled in fright at her appearance. Her name was by now known of all the Free Tribes of the Steppes. A feared and respected name it had become. But her presence after the cataclysm they had just suffered and the sighting of fire-belching dragons chasing them across the land had the nomadic people entertaining very strong doubts about the wisdom of their choice of leader.
Facing their mute terror, she began to grow impatient. She had to get these folks out of their temporary shelters and take on the task of starting their lives again. Their survival depended on their speed and resolve. Resolve and haste she could frighten them into, but she was getting utterly sick of scaring humans into obedience.
“Free Tribes of the Steppes, have you lost your pride? Warriors of the unending plains, have you become as helpless as babies? Or are you going to let your women take over?” she started with all the scorn and despise she was able.
One young man at least was not ready yet to accept the taunts of the Golden Dragon and stood up in a fury.
“What on earth can we do? Tell me! Why could She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons not spare us from those monsters? Who burned the land behind us? Who destroyed our camps? I remember when a gold dragon appeared behind you when you requested twenty-one representatives from the Tribes of the Desert to become the Council of the Sages. I have been chosen as one of the seven warriors and was preparing to leave for Trade Fair City. Well, I’m not! At least not until I’m sure my people will be safe and prosper again!”
Umatar looked at the young warrior who must have proved exceptional courage and leadership for having been elected at such a young age. Numerous scars on his lithe body bore witnesses of the many fights he had to endure during his short life. She certainly would need more men of his temperament.
“Well spoken, He-Who-Stands-Upright! You surely deserve your name! But there are many things you have not noticed while you were helping your people! Did you see the tornado coming behind the Dragons?”
“Of course, I did! Do not insult me! Tornadoes never happen in this part of the land! How could I have missed it? Didn’t the dragons bring it with them?”
“That is where you are wrong! The Dragons came because they knew the tornado would destroy everything! There was no time to explain. You had to save your lives and the only way to help you was to frighten you into flight!”
“They certainly succeeded, didn’t they? But why did they have to burn the land?”
“All they set fire to was high grass! You should know well that it will be the first thing to grow back after the desolation wrecked by the cyclone! You managed to save your people. Well, most of them. I shall ask later why some were left behind, by the way. Your horses and herds were sheltered in time. What you have lost were your tents, yurts and possessions. They can be replaced. But if you do not go out at once to start your funerals and cleanse all the land of your dead kin and animals through fire again, you should know well that you will fall prey to disease and pestilence! Then you can be assured you will lose everything! That will be the last thing I shall allow! So, if you do not want to get out and start rebuilding your lives at once, I shall force you into it, even if I have to bully you for the whole of your sorry lives!”
“How can you be sure of all that, then?”
“Because I am the one who found the Cyclone! I am the one who appealed to the Dragons! And I am the one who called for help that will come soon enough! But you will have to help yourselves and show the steel and pride of your race before you can accept aid from other races with dignity!”
Umatar knew she had struck the right chord when she read defiance and will to survive slowly coming back into the eyes of the refugees. Some Tribesmen and Tribeswomen started to stand up and encourage others to do so. These people could have lost a lot, but their natural dignity, strength and resilience just needed to be prodded out of their shells.
He-Who-Stands-Upright looked at her squarely for a while. He then bowed to her, chastised by her words, but then walked with a firm step to the entrance of the cave. Once outside, he briefly surveyed the land, sighted the torn body of an old Tribesman and proceeded directly to it. He kneeled by the fallen, drew his arms around across his chest and moved the corpse so the head lay in the direction of the setting sun. While his people slowly trickling out of their sanctuary stopped to look at him, he gathered wood and combustible material out of the wrecks around him to build a pyre beside the dead man. He then picked the dead old man, keeping his head always pointing to the west, and put him gently onto the top of the pile of wood. Taking out a couple of flint stones out of a pouch hanging from his belt, he deftly ignited the fire. Next, he stood up and began a dirge facing the setting sun, his arms stretched above his head. The funeral song proved to be short. There was no time to lose. The warrior soon left in search of another victim. Upon seeing this, all the refugees moved as one to join him in his mournful task.
That should keep their minds away from their predicament for some time to come, Umatar thought. She went to give them a hand and also make sure the survivors, especially the old and the very young, were properly looked after.
At the end of the day, Umatar took He-Who-Stands-Upright aside.
“You’ve done a good work.” she started. “Now that our people know what to do, we had better organize a party to meet the help which is already on its way. The least they see of that disaster, the best. It won’t do to welcome them as mere beggars. Any aid will be welcome for a long time to be, but it will be easier to accept if our friends know we’ll do our best to solve our problems ourselves.”
The young warrior looked at her in awe and respect.
“No wonder you have been able to lead all the Free Tribes of the Steppes into one people for the first time in our long history! Our old women tell us of stories about a single people a long time ago, which separated into many Tribes to spread on the land. They also relate that a Queen who was always known under the same name led our kind, before the sundering. Until now, I had put little credence into these tales. But it seems that legends have come true. She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons might have to think about changing her name!”
“He-Who-Stands-Upright talks too much!” retorted the Golden Dragon. “In any case I see very little need for such a pompous title since we will have a Council of Sages. Twenty-one persons’ advice and leadership should surely count more than those of one single woman!”
“Time will tell.” The warrior insisted.
“And you would accept a woman as your overlord! Very unseemly from a male of the Free Tribes of the Steppes!” Umatar laughed the notion away.
She continued, more seriously:
“Tomorrow, at dawn, round up all the adult males who can ride. Leave the injured ones here. The women will look after them while the old and the young take care of the herds and the remaining horses. We shall go and meet our friends from Beaucastel. And I expect all to look proud and strong!”
“This will be done, She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons”!” the young warrior answered solemnly before bowing away.
Late in the following afternoon, the Walkyrie Corporal leading the relief column espied a large group, almost an army, of mounted Tribesmen coming over the hill ahead of them. Although in full array and armed, their steady demeanor and pace did not indicate any aggressive intentions. Moreover, the horse trotting at their head bore a personage the Corporal had longed to meet. Not a few people already knew in Beaucastel that an extraordinary individual had come in the midst of the Free Tribes of the Steppes to overturn their ways and customs. Although to what extent, very few could tell.
Beaucastel had never considered the residents of the vast plains west of their Realm as enemies. Actually quite a sizeable amount of trade and barter was conducted with them. But the aloofness of the self-reliant Tribespeople and their internal strife made the Corporal wary.
She raised her right hand to stop the column. The same hand signed her squad to fan out in a line behind her.
She waited.
The Tribesmen finally halted a hundred paces away to sit at ease, their eyes fixed on the caravan. They did not look menacing, but the Corporal, although she had never fought them, knew too well they did not stand much of a chance against their fleet-footed light horses and would eradicate her Guards in a short moment without even engaging in close combat.
The woman leading them pushed her horse forward, followed by a young warrior. She found her striking beyond the few tales related to her over the tables of the garrison tavern. A very tall and lithe body she possessed, with free-flowing raven black hair around a visage, which could be described only as perfect. Her skin was light brown as most of the denizens of the harsh Steppes. She doubted she hailed from that land. But where did she come from? Her eyes wandered to her companion. A good judge of men and women alike, she found him handsome in a rugged way in spite of his apparent youth. His body was marked with as many scars as hers, but he bore them with pride. Their eyes met. She read surprise on his face. He probably had never conceived that a woman could have a troop of men directly under her orders, even though his own leader was such a one.
Umatar interrupted her thoughts:
“Well met, Corporal Maheut of the Royal Guards. You did make good time and we shall never be able to thank you enough! My name is She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons, as the Free Tribes of the Steppes call me and this is He-Who-Stands-Upright, presently the chief of the Tribes of the Eastern Steppes, although he shall lose that title when he joins the Council of the Sages!”
What kind of answer could be given to somebody who seemed to know so much about you? Thought the Corporal.
She took her helmet off with her left hand to hold it in the crook of her arm and brought her right hand to rest on her heart in the fashion of the Royal Guards’ show of utmost respect.
“Milady, you are most welcome! The people of Beaucastel are honored to bring whatever little help they can manage!” She wondered whether the uncomfortable Attendant following in one of the carts agreed with her.
“Our squad is at your command. Milady, if you would care to give us your orders?”
“You do not need my orders, Corporal. You know your job well enough, I’m sure. He-Who-Stands-Upright will stay with you to organize the help for his people while I move on to pay my respects to the Royal Couple of Beaucastel with a suitable delegation of the Free Tribes of the Steppes. It is high time we establish formal ties between our two nations, although this is a term Tribesmen will never think of using!”
Turning to her companion:
“He-Who-Stands-Upright, I leave you here with Corporal Maheut as I see no reason to linger. I hope to be back soon enough. Until then, take good care of your people!”
She left them escorted by a little more than two scores of warriors who changed to a canter and soon enough went over the next hill.
He-Who-Stands-Upright brought his horse forward by Maheut’s. He held his arm out. Not knowing what was the proper manner to greet a warrior she took his forearm in her hand while the young man reciprocated. To tell the truth, Umatar had taught the formal salute used in Beaucastel before setting off that morning. Both were ingratiated to find equal true strength in their arm-shake.
The eyes of the Tribesman lingered on the Walkyrie’s flame-colored hair. She had knotted it into a loose ponytail, as to allow her helmet to fit on her head. Walkyries were extremely proud of their hair and wore it long and free of any adornments for informal occasions. The young man had never seen such color, or such a tall powerful woman for that matter, although there was no doubt as to which gender she belonged. It was a baffling experience to meet a female evidently his equal in all aspects.
He could not help asking in the direct manner of his people:
“Tell me, Corporal Maheut, are all your women built like you with such incredible hair?”
Maheut stared back at him. She found herself at a loss once again. No man among the Royal Guards would have dared formulate such a question for fear of retribution for their impertinence.
“Do you always ask questions like that to your women?” she testily replied.
The young warrior’s face broke into a wide grin.
“No, we don’t, simply because there are no women as strong and as desirable as you among our own!”
This was becoming embarrassing. She could imagine the thoughts inside the heads of her impassible Guards. Why couldn’t she put that impertinent Tribesman into his right place on the spot?
Getting into a brawl not being the best of ideas, she patiently replied:
“If you saw more of my kind, you wouldn’t bother looking at me twice!”
“Why should I see more of you? Why shall I throw away a treasure for another one I haven’t found yet?”
Just what she needed! A love-struck savage!
Not a savage, she corrected herself, remembering Gerhart’s fit at the mention of the word. This was definitely turning into a ridiculous and unmanageable situation.
“He-Who-Stands-Upright! We are wasting time! Now, when you are ready to guide us, maybe we shall be able to depart!”
The warrior looked at her with laughing eyes.
“Well said, Corporal Maheut! Let’s start right away! We shall have plenty of time to talk later!”
The Walkyrie slapped her helmet back onto her head and began barking orders at her soldiers and caravan handlers.
Everybody moved with alacrity, sensing the time for going across their leader was not the right one.


2 Responses to “Alymndes 15: Joining Forces”

  1. dragonmommie Says:

    ROBERT… I only read the few sentences of chapter 16… where did THAT come from? Like out of nowhere!

  2. Elizabeth Says:

    I wonder . . . disaster is one way to bring a people together, or even several different races of them, and the tornado seemed the perfect way to do it. And its primary purpose of causing one of the dragons to go just absolutely crazy was well hidden until the end. Very well done.

    Chapter 16 awaits! Happy writing!

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