Alymndes 21: Embassies

At last spring had come to Beaucastel with its promises of fair weather and prosperous days. Farmers could be seen out hard at work, pruning fruit trees and vineyards, tilling and sowing. Shepherds and their flocks let their cattle and herds graze the lush green grass in the valleys and on the rolling hills.
Open markets in Beaucastel resonated with the voices of vendors extolling the quality and taste of their produce fresh from the dairies or preserved from their larders.
The Palace had reached a rare pitch of feverish activity.
Marghrete was heavy with her twins. Birth would occur any time. Amrel, taking no risk, spent all her days and nights, when not being absolutely needed elsewhere, keeping company to the Queen inside her private apartments.
Two fierce Tribesmen stood in front of her door, and no one could have passed them without permission. Even King Gerhart had to defer to them before he could be allowed in to offer greetings to his wife. Only Jay and Marghrete had full liberty to enter or exit the Royal Chamber. Gerhart had been told by Amrel to momentarily move to another bedroom. Although he somewhat resented the high-handed decisions of the Blue Dragon, he was thankful for them, inundated as he was with the preparations for the imminent welcoming of embassies and delegations.
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Mareeva was busy choosing herbs with Claudius in the Blue Mermaid’s garden when Wolf’s voice reached her:
“Mareeva, good day to you! Well, well, you have finally developed a healthy taste for all those leaves that you despised not so long ago!”
The little girl smiled, although her face did not give away the mere hint of what was happening inside her head.
She ignored her friend’s taunt:
“Good day to you, too, Wolf! What news brings you?”
“I see that our little girl is asserting herself!”
“Asserting? Since when did wolves use language a small child cannot understand?” an amused reply came from her young friend.
“Sorry! Wrong choice of words! I meant that you have grown stronger. That is all!”
“Well, thanks so much, Wolf! Have you heard anything about Father?
“That is what I wanted to speak about. His ship must have arrived inside the harbor by now. As I told you before, you will leave on a very exciting trip very soon!”
“And I’m going to meet that pink boy, too?”
“You certainly will!”
“Will I see you again at last?”
“I promised you, did I not?”
“Sorry. I’m just worrying. I can’t wait to hold you in my arms again!”
“Just be patient. Before that, make the best of your journey and keep your eyes and ears wide open!”
“I will, I will!”
”Aren’t we travelling by boat, Father?”
Ekan had only stayed two days, barely enough time to check whether the Blue Mermaid was managing well without him, before he was packing again.
“No, Mareeva, our journey will take place on land. A war has been fought on the sea and along the shore and things occurred there that a child should not see.”
The little girl pondered on her Pa’s words.
“I haven’t seen the three pink soldiers with the Tribesmen at the inn. And the warriors have cut their hair. Something has happened, has it not?”
Ekan put down the pile of clothing he had been preparing. He beckoned his daughter to come to him. He lifted her onto the windowsill where they could talk on the same level.
“Mareeva, war is a horrible business and has to be avoided at all costs. But sometimes one has to assist countries and people when bad men attack them. But even so, many have to die to let others live. Frenegond, Tristan and Thibault will not come back. They lost their lives to protect us. The Tribesmen have cut their hair because they are mourning. But life must go on. We will always remember our friends. One day the Tribesmen’s hair will grow back and new life will start. Do you understand?”
The little girl’s eyes went sad. She nodded. Ekan took her in his arms where she docilely took refuge, resting her head on his shoulder. The Black Dragon felt her tears drop on his chest.
He held her close for a long time. But instead of blocking her memories as he had done upon discovering her inside the slavers’ ship, he let her sorrow flow its course. Mareeva had to grow and accept that the real world was not a child’s dream.
It took them almost three weeks to reach Beaucastel.
They had traveled in the company of a few Dunlago traders who had expressed the interest to follow the black giant all the way. Ekan welcomed their company. He might have a use for the services of those same merchants in his future ventures.
The days swiftly passed by for Mareeva. Each day had turned out as a new adventure. Every night, they either camped in the open by a stream, or stayed at an inn if they discovered a suitable one. In the evening she listened to the tales of the traders or drew on the small boards that her father had taken for her. She reproduced landscapes from memory, or sketched the portraits of her companions to everybody’s amusement. She showed a true gift for art and a disconcerting knack for catching people’s characters and features with a few strokes of her chalks that she carried like a treasure in a little pouch.
Ekan reflected that he would do well to ask Amrel to introduce her to a resident artist in Beaucastel as he planned to sojourn there a couple of months at the least, or until he felt he ought to go back “home”.
The main roads between Dunlago and Beaucastel were safe and well maintained. The size of the Dunlago men would have made would-be robbers or hoodlums think twice in any case. Moreover, nobody could have imagined that Ekan’s dragon senses were always awake, even when his human body was asleep.
Soon the nights had become cooler and eventually a little chilly. Mareeva took a childish pleasure trying on new clothes depending on the weather and the regions they were crossing. One day she experienced her first spring shower. She could not figure out how so much water could fall from the sky. Dunlago witnessed the same climate most of the year, hot and dry with breezes to soothe you only at dawn and dusk. Nights were cool enough not to interfere with your sleep. But now she needed the extra blankets after dark. On the other hand, the landscape was a constant marvel compared to the few oasis lost in a sea of sand back home.
One early afternoon, they finally reached Beaucastel.
The capital had suddenly appeared in the distance as they emerged from around a forested hill.
Mareeva could not take her eyes from the imposing sight of the great walls and fortifications of the city. Why did people have to waste so much stone and space whereas a neatly planned city such as Dunlago should suffice? Then she remembered her father’s words. Sometimes war was necessary or could not be avoided. Therefore a lot of fighting was probably happening in this part of the world. The trip had suddenly become a sobering experience for the child.
It took them most of the afternoon to reach the city gate.
Mareeva was sitting in the company of the merchant and her father atop the bench at the front of their cart, when she espied a tall woman with raven hair standing beside a guard under the arch of the entrance to the fortified town. The lady was dressed in a flowing blue robe cinched by a wide sash around the waist. She was not wearing any jewels or baubles. Her beauty did not need any artifice. She seemed to be a very important person indeed as everybody, including the guards, gave her a wide berth with a great show of respect and deference.
A young boy was standing at her side.
Mareeva perceived at that instant that he was the one she was supposed to meet.
“You are right.” came Wolf’s voice in her head. “But he does not know that you are coming. Only the Lady does.”
“Who is she? She looks like a very important person.”
“She is actually. Your father knows her well as you will see.”
“What about the boy? What is his name?”
“It would not be right if I told you now. Be a nice girl and let your father and the Lady take care of introductions! It would not do if you revealed our little secret, would it?”
Mareeva was about to answer, but her friend broke the contact.
The cart reached the entrance.
The guard standing by Amrel came forward to address the merchant driving the cart. He smartly saluted:
“Good man trader, a good day to you! If you and your train would please follow me? I will guide you to an inn Lady Geraldine de Blanchefleur has reserved for you.”
The trader was slightly taken aback by the unusual marks of welcome. He turned to Ekan:
“Jonas, what will I answer? I did not know we were expected.”
“Good man Ashraf, do not be alarmed.” The black giant chortled. “Things have indeed been arranged for our stay. As traders of Dunlago, you have become important guests of the city of Beaucastel. Do not worry. I have taken care of everything!”
Lifting his daughter from the bench, he got off the cart and told the merchant that they would join his party later.
He gently pushed Mareeva forward with his left hand.
“Come daughter. I will introduce you to someone very dear to me!”
Amrel stepped forward, a large smile illuminating her beautiful mien.
Ekan opened his arms to embrace her.
Apparently, her father knew the Lady well, although he had never mentioned her existence or name. Looking at the boy, he too seemed a bit at a loss. In spite of his light skin and hair, she found him sweet.
She shyly smiled at him. He responded the same after some hesitation.
“Matthieu!” Amrel’s voice came from above them. “What about your manners? I would expect better from the page of the Captain of the Royal Guards!” she gently chided.
The boy blushed to the color of a peony before stammering:
“Good day to you lady! My name is Matthieu to serve you!”
The little girl imitated him:
“Good day to you sir! My name is Mareeva and I thank you for your kind welcome!” she answered in her approximate Beaulieu tongue that Ekan had been teaching her on their way.
Jay and Ekan simultaneously laughed in merriment at the seriousness of the children.
The Blue Dragon said:
“Matthieu, Why don’t you take Mareeva around town? I’m sure that she is dying to visit the city!”
Mareeva looked at her father.
Ekan give her a little shove in the back.
“It’s alright, Mareeva. I’m certain Matthieu is the best guide you could find in the whole place!”
Amrel added:
“Ah, Matthieu! Make sure the two of you come on time for dinner. We will eat at the Palace tonight. And do not forget to wash your hands and face before the two of you are introduced to the Royal Couple!”
“Yes, Lady Geraldine!” quickly answered the boy who took the hand of Ekan’s daughter in his own.
“Mareeva, please come!” He was suddenly in a hurry to make himself scarce, lest the dreaded Lady burdened him with a mountain of other recommendations.
“Nice boy, is he not?” Ekan commented to his sister in mindspeech.
“Very, indeed. But he still needs some watching now and then. He used to be an orphan abandoned to himself before I discovered him.”
“Life is a series of coincidences, is it not?” replied her brother with a tinge of sadness that Amrel clearly felt in spite of their mode of communication.
“You ought not to be distressed, Ekan. They will be blessed with a greater destiny than most of the children living in comfort among our two people!”
The Guards standing at a respectful distance had a hard time hiding their thoughts. Everybody by now had heard of the exotic physician the most feared lady in Beaucastel had embraced in public. Now who could that black giant be, to deserve such an accolade? At least, they had easily fathomed where he came from, as Dunlago men could not be confused with citizens of other nations. But that was the first time that they had the occasion to see a child of that faraway country. Some wondered if such a little girl would become someone in the mold of Gladys Vanenklaar. The sister-in-law of the King of the Races of the Desert and the Sea had already left an indelible mark of her own making on the minds of Beaucastel men.
Amrel, suddenly aware of their musings, spoke aloud:
“Good man Jonas, could you be kind as to follow me?”
“It will be my pleasure, Lady Geraldine!”
“I will remember that, dear brother!” she laughed in mindspeech.
The following day, just before noon, Royal Guards were seen taking positions along the road leading to the main gate of Beaucastel and through the city to the Royal Palace. This rare show of decorum could only meant the imminent arrival of important guests. A curious crowd slowly gathered behind the lines of Blue Knights and Walkyries dressed in full regalia that stood barring the way with crossed lances.
But instead of the expected delegation from the Steppes that the Guards had gracefully announced in answer to the pressing questions from onlookers, a procession of mounted soldiers in outlandish garb appeared at a staid pace around the last bend of the road to the city gate.
Bystanders stretched their necks for a better view. Who might be this motley of grim-looking warriors all dressed like the denizens of the Steppes, although nearly half of them bore the unmistakable looks of Walkyries and Blue Knights of Beaulieu?
As the column reached the first Guards along the road, the strong voice of a Corporal resonated over the murmur of the crowd:
“Royal Guards! The Golden Dragon Squad! Salute!”
All the Knights and Walkyries straightened their lances and struck their butts hard on the cobbles paving the surface of the thoroughfare.
The citizens of Beaucastel looked in awe as the unreported arrivals slowly passed by them. So, those were the heroes who had become the talk in all the taverns and inns inside the city, where other Royal Guards and some of the Estrees retinues had returned from the battle for Villefranche. Why had nobody mentioned their coming? Most citizens knew by now that they were an elite corps chosen among the best royal Guards and warriors of the Steppes. Everyone had also heard that they had lost one out of six of their numbers in the defense of the largest Beaulieu harbor.
More than a man or woman of Beaucastel felt the urge to acclaim them but withheld their greetings upon holding the set faces of these fighters who carried no banners nor wore any trappings but a few beads and leather bands in their hair.
What they did not know was that their commanders, Maheut and He-Who-Stands-Upright, had originally declined to come to Beaucastel. But King Gerhart and his counselors had decided that the secret held around their existence was no longer warranted. They had reasoned that the fame surrounding a special corps rated above even the Royal Guards and moreover composed of soldiers from two vastly different nations would serve their political goals better than any kind of public announcement praising the achievements of the rulers of the Realm.
Maheut and He-Who-Stands-Upright would stay at the Palace in daytime but would rejoin their comrades at dusk inside the tent camp prepared for their sole use outside the walls of the capital opposite the main gate entrance.
Amrel and Robert de Glacis, for their part, had left Villefranche as soon as the battle had ended, leaving the care of the field hospital to the local Royal guards.
Matthieu and Mareeva, who were fast becoming inseparable, were looking at the warriors passing under the main gate from atop the barbican wall that they had climbed upon hearing the herald clamoring their arrival.
“Maree, who are these strange brown-skinned fighters?”
“They are warriors from the Free Tribes of the Steppes. I know because three of them stayed with us in Dunlago.”
“Really? Did you speak to them?”
“Sure. Every day. They even braided my hair.”
“Wow! They look very angry, don’t they?”
“I don’t think so. They are only sad and try to hide it.”
“Sad? Why? They should be happy and proud. I’ve heard they won many great battles!”
“No. They won only one great battle. And they lost many of their people.”
“How do you know, Maree?”
The lad saw a wave of sadness clouding her young companion’s face.
“Because I lost three friends among them and my father took part in the fight, too.”
“I’m sorry, Maree. I did not mean to upset you!” the deeply embarrassed page apologized.
“It’s alright, Matt. It was none of your fault. Will we go down?”
That night the Blue and Black Dragons were sharing an informal dinner with Geoffroy, Matthieu and Mareeva at the Seven Dragons tavern. The two youngsters were slightly overwhelmed, as they rarely had had the occasion to eat in adult company inside such an establishment. Although nobody among the other guests would dare stare at the kids in front of Amrel or the forbidding Captain of the Royal Guards, not mentioning that black giant of a stranger, people certainly would have questions made ready for the innkeeper later. But they could have not guessed the reason behind the presence of the two kids in the company of their elders.
At the end of the meal Amrel addressed the children:
“Matthieu, Mareeva, your Captain and father have decided that from tomorrow you will reside in the same room at the Palace because Geoffroy and Jonas will be too busy to look after you all the time. Since it will be a new chamber for both of you, we will help you move there. Matthieu, as far as your duties as a page are concerned, nothing will change. Just make sure you wake up on time every morning to wait on your Captain. Mareeva, you will get out of bed at the same time and report to me directly. As your father thinks it will make for good experience, you will help me attend to the needs of the Queen. Apart of that, you will share your meals as well as your lessons. Matthieu, it is about time that you learn your letters, too. Mareeva, I understand, will be able to help you. When both of you are free to play, we expect you to look after each other. Is that understood?”
Matthieu audibly groaned.
“Yes, Matthieu?” asked the Blue Dragon.
In a rare show of courage, the boy dared face the Blue Dragon:
“Lady Geraldine! Looking after Maree is fine by me. But why do I have to go through those girl’s chores of learning my letters instead of practicing sword and shield as any Royal Guard page does? Ouch!”
Mareeva had just soundly kicked the boy’s shin under the table.
The three adults laughed in concert.
Geoffroy commented:
“Page Matthieu, if you think that practicing sword and shield is enough to become a Royal Guard, you will have to think again! Moreover, you will learn quickly enough that it is not a good idea to go across the path of an angry lady!”
Amrel was about to tell what she thought of such a patronizing remark, when the door of the tavern opened to let a strange pair in.
A tall man of indeterminate age with short gray beard and long flowing hair unbuckled his cape and handed it with his staff to Daville the innkeeper who had hurried to welcome the arrivals.
Looking down at the imposing animal standing high on its four legs at the tall man’s side, the Taverner started:
“Dear Sir, I’m afraid your dog will have to…”
“Dear innkeeper, she is not a dog, and I’m afraid you will have to tell her yourself, since I have very little authority on my companion!”
“Not a dog?” a nonplussed Daville began to reply. Looking at the animal again, he came to a realization and stammered:
“Do you mean she is a … a wolf?”
“Yes, indeed. She is a wolf.” Glamrun equably answered.
The innkeeper took a cautious step back as the conversations in the room hushed down at the mention of a much feared creature in Beaulieu. Whereas most inhabitants in Dunlago were ignorant of wolves and the lore surrounding them, people in this land had heard too many tales, for the most part unfounded though, not to take notice of the very large specimen facing them.
The tension was suddenly broken by a girl’s happy voice.
Mareeva had jumped off her bench and run to the beast. Quite a few onlookers, including Geoffroy, made to leave their seats and interpose themselves between the little girl and the animal, but stopped in their tracks when they saw her grab the wolf’s neck in both arms and embrace her friend.
Evryone relaxed as Wolf licked Mareeva’s face in greetings.
After all, that wolf might just be a big dog, many guests tried to convince themselves.
Geoffroy belatedly noticed that Amrel and Jonas had stood up to welcome the new guest. If they showed so much respect, he thought he ought to do likewise and rose from his bench.
Geraldine took on her to do the introductions.
“Captain, this is Mentor. Mentor, let me have the pleasure to introduce you to Geoffroy d’Arcourt, Captain of the Royal Guards!”
The old man’s sharp eyes fell on the officer. Geoffroy mentally cringed under his searching look. He suddenly understood that if Amrel and Jonas deferred to that old man, he was probably even more powerful than his lover, and that consequently Jonas was of the same mold. He happened to be the only human in the room to be aware that he was in the company of not one creature of legend, but three. And why did he think that enormous wolf was intently gazing at him?
Glamrun held his hand forward.
“My greetings, Captain Geoffroy d’Arcourt! I have heard a lot about you and it is certainly with a great pleasure that I can at last meet you!”
Geoffroy shook the proffered hand.
“The pleasure is mine, Mentor. If you would be as kind as to join us?” he tentatively replied, making way to the bench.
“I certainly appreciate. To tell the truth, I’m parched and starving!”
Amrel laughed.
“As you should be, Fa… Mentor! Innkeeper! Could you please serve a tanker of your best ale and a plate of your famous stew to our guest?”
The slip of the tongue confirmed Geoffroy’s suspicions, if they had ever been needed to be. He would have to be careful with those three around.
He felt Amrel’s hand squeeze his thigh as she sat back between him and Glamrun.
He ceased to worry and relaxed, as any good soldier would do when knowing he was not facing danger but a higher power on his side.
Mareeva had accompanied Wolf back to their table. The beast elected to lie under it, sensing she had better be ignored for the moment, although the little girl and Matthieu were taking turns in patting her flanks and caressing her smooth fur.
Later in the night, after the children had gone to bed, Glamrun and Wolf given a chamber in the Seven Dragons and Jonas gone to roam the city whose night life he was curious about, Amrel joined Geoffroy in his bedroom.
“Shouldn’t you be with the Queen now? The Captain asked.
“She is in good hands right now. A few hours away from her will not make any difference.”
“I take it you want to talk?”
“Not really? We haven’t been alone together for quite some time with all that work at hand, have we?”
“Coming to think of it, you are right. We surely have been very busy of late!”
“Then, do you not believe it is grand time we should share some fun and forget our worries, even for a tiny little while?” she suggested, wrapping her arm around his neck and pulling his face to hers.
A couple of hours later, they were lying naked on Geoffroy’s bed, savoring a rare moment of joy and satisfaction. Amrel, her head on her lover’s shoulder was playing with the graying hair of his large chest, when the officer cleared his throat.
Changing a sense of mood, the Blue Dragon looked at his face:
“Yes, Geoffroy? You want to say something?”
The grizzled soldier’s right hand squeezed her shoulder.
“Jay, I have a favor to ask you.”
“Do you have to be so glum about it? You ought to know that I will gladly grant you any wish within my abilities!”
“Sorry! Whereas women tend to bask in their pleasure, men have a sorry tendency to fall from passion into depression. Mind you, I’m assuming you have enjoyed yourself!”
Amrel pinched his right nipple hard, eliciting a sharp breath intake from Geoffroy.
“Will we leave it at that? Now, what did you want to ask me?”
The soldier’s face grew serious.
“As you know, I do not have any heir, or any near relatives to speak of for that matter. As for distant cousins or nephews, I have not heard of any. My name will disappear with me. Since it would be unfair and unwise for you to bear me a son, I want to adopt Matthieu. You have chosen well. He is a very good lad and shows a lot of promise. But I need your authority to have him officially recognized as my sole heir. I want him to wear the Blue Dragon on his tabard and have everybody call him by my name.”
“That should not be too difficult. I can ask Gerhart to vouch for Matthieu on the morrow. But why the hurry?”
“Jay, I am a soldier. You surely realize this time of peace will be short-lived. You will not always be able to protect me. Do not say anything, I know you keep a constant eye on my person. But I have too much experience not to understand that I will not be able to cheat death indefinitely, unless you wish to take care of a decrepit old man in his dotage, which I will not allow. Now, I am asking you to help me to have Matthieu become my heir for the simple reason that I also wish you to look after him when I leave this world. May I have your oath?”
Amrel looked at her lover intently. She felt a pang of sadness deep in her chest. Lovable as they were, humans led a short life indeed.
“You have a Dragon’s oath that Matthieu D’Arcourt will keep your name alive and respected by all!”
A grateful smile lit Geoffroy’s face.
“Jay, you have made this man a truly happy one!”
Amrel squeezed his nipple again.
“Geoffroy, you are repeating yourself! I had better leave before you start crying!” she uttered coming down from his bed.
Her lover slapped her firm buttocks.
“That’s one thing that you certainly will not have the pleasure to witness!”
So many foreign delegations arrived in quick succession that the citizens of Beaucastel found themselves at a loss with words to describe all those aliens crowding in their city.
The Free Tribes had appeared first with a woman at their head.
By that time, almost everyone had heard that the legends prophesizing the advent of a Queen to unify all the nomads of the Steppes had finally been proven right. Bystanders along the road to the capital had stood staring in awe at the magnificent figure in full Tribe regalia easily riding her roan. Whereas her subjects struck onlookers with their deference, and even evident fear for some of them, toward her person, she had nonetheless rendered many a soul speechless with her radiant smile and proud beauty.
Gerhart and Marghrete had been waiting for them in full view of their subjects. The looks on the faces of the fierce warriors behind the Queen heavy with her children had quickly discouraged anyone of any rank to come within range, with the exception of the King. Even the Shamen embassy headed by He-Who-Stands-Fast and the Royal Guards were keeping at a respectful distance.
Umatar had halted her horse and gracefully dismounted, prompting an uneasy stir among her retinue, before walking straight to Marghrete. Without any ceremony she had taken the Queen’s hands in hers and kissed her on both cheeks under the eyes of her guards who, for once, showed a rare smile. The two Queens had shared a few words not many people could hear, but everybody saw Marghrete guiding the Golden Dragon’s hands onto her distended belly with an uncharacteristic glow of familiarity from a citizen of such an elevated status.
The Queen of the Steppes had had a quick word with He-Who-Stands-Fast, who immediately walked to the warriors at the head of her waiting escort to guide them to the Tribesmen camp, while the two Queens walked under the gate hand in arm. They soon met Amrel, accompanied by Mareeva and Matthieu, waiting for them in front of the Seven Dragons Inn where Marghrete could enjoy a rest in their company in all informality. Jonas, Glamrun and his fearful companion were already inside. Umatar had astonished Matthieu on the way by greeting Mareeva in name and person. But more people inside the inn were even more intrigued when they witnessed the sight of the Queen of the Steppes bowing to her father in greetings. Who could that old man be, that so many vaunted personalities were deferring to?
The denizens of the Elf Forest had chosen a great moment to make their entrance in the capital. The sun was about to set over the hills when strangely melodious voices resonated in the distance. Citizens wondering who could sing so beautifully soon crowded the ramparts.
A procession of extraordinary creatures appeared far down the road.
Beaucastel people knew of Elves as their embassy was particularly conspicuous in their streets and inns. But Queen Ellana and Dargelblad astride their white palfreys stately walking ahead of a column of male and female Elves on foot was quite a sight to behold. Very tall and thin frames were adorned with flowing robes over tight and silk hoses and coats so thin and sheer that they seemed to float in a kind of haze around their bodies. Pointed ears peeked through long hair of various hues, freely falling from under caps for men or simply tied with circlets of flowers for women. Spring was the most revered season by the Elves and they did nothing to hide their joy and curiosity at the sight of new flowers and trees along their path.
Some Elves were carrying globes of light in the fast approaching dark and onlookers on the ramparts had a fleeting impression of witnessing a twinkling stream of fire flowing up the hill on which the city stood.
The Royal Guards, who had been warned of their coming, filed along the thoroughfare, intently admiring the exquisite beauty of their guests. Most of the Knights and Walkyries openly smiled at the new arrivals, who gracefully reciprocated in the same manner. Gerhart and Amrel had been waiting in front of the gate in the company of the Elf Prince Consort and his followers. As the two palfreys halted a few paces away, the monarch of Beaulieu stepped forward to offer a hand to Queen Ellana and help her dismount. A smile of pleasure and appreciation lit her face to the dismay of some of her retinue. Such attention could be a welcome addition to the manners of her stiff retainers, although she could notice a slightly changed Aerdhel smiling to her. After all, deeper relations with humans could prove a bona fide in the long run.
Dargelblad had jumped off his horse before embracing his sister in full view of the other Elves.
“Dear brother, have you vowed to shock your subjects with that unreserved familiarity with a human?” queried Amrel in mindspeech.
Dargelblad chortled.
“For all I care! And moreover, they are not my subjects. I’m only the Queen’s Marshall!”
“Oh well, if you too have decided to puzzle Gerhart’s people, you could not have done better. I can tell you that Umatar and Ekan have already provoked quite a stir!”
“Is it not about time that some citizens realize there exists a different order behind the established one?”
“Maybe, but do you not think we should go a bit easy on their feelings?”
“Wait until they see the delegations from Dunlago and the Iron Crags!”
Dargelblad could not have made a more ominous assessment of the two faraway embassies, which had reached Villefranche on the same boats where Marcus and Atraxa had had plenty of time to make acquaintance with Hammerblow and his forceful wife. Whereas Marcus did not know what to make of the taciturn Dwarf, their two wives had immediately discovered a mutual liking to the distress of their husbands.
They parted company at the harbor as the Dunlago retinue had hired carts and horses to travel to Beaucastel, escorted by a Knight and Walkyrie of the Royal Guards. Gerhart, on Amrel’s advice, had kept those escorts to a minimum, signifying to his whole realm that all nations of Alymndes had a free pass in Beaulieu. On the other hand, the Dwarves had requested an exemption of any official cortege, as they wished to see the country and stop at inns of their choice. Gerhart had readily agreed, as he knew well that the Dwarves wished to survey his country and discover possibilities for themselves. The longer the Dwarves took to reach Beaucastel, the more Beaulieu would benefit from future relations with the denizens of the Iron crags.
It took the two delegations longer to reach Beaucastel, but they had taken a comfortable head start to make it within a few days of the first arrivals.
Marcus took his time, too. More comfortable in a cart than on a horse, he visited and observed at leisure. Beaulieu having graciously provided him with a list of recommended inns on his way, he and his followers were thoroughly enjoying their trip. Atraxa had developed a particular liking for cooking, and was pestering the cooks at the different inns and taverns they stayed at. All the Dunlago people had shown a great interest for the wines of eastern and southern Beaulieu, as well as for the large quantity of vegetables and dairy products, a luxury in their own land. They could not wait to sit at King Gerhart’s table.
At the very last inn they had halted in, they had had the surprise of Jonas’ visit ahead of their arrival at the end of their journey. A venerable but hale gentleman accompanied him. Taking their cue from the deference bestowed by the innkeeper and his household and the apparent respect accorded by the black giant, Marcus and Atraxa, in spite of their higher status, had risen from the table where they had been waiting for their evening repast. The Judge too had stood up. He had guessed the identity of Ekan’s companion.
“Good evening, everyone!” Ekan informally began. “May I introduce Their Highnesses, King Marcus Vanenklaar and Queen Atraxa Vanenklaar, and the honorable Judge of Dunlago to Arnaud de Betancourt, the Doyen of the Royal Tribunal of Beaulieu!”
The monarchs of Dunlago readily came forward to greet Arnaud under the smiles of Marcus’ people. They had expected to meet the Beaulieu equivalent of their own feared magistrate, but they certainly had not foreseen that he would come in person to salute them, away from the officialdom that would besiege everyone the next day.
But the two judges, for once, dropped their masks of authority to warmly shake each other’s hands, skipping all formalities. The Dunlago Judge took his colleague’s arm and guided him to the table where he made space for him to sit between Marcus and himself, quietly indicating the esteem he held for Arnaud. Some Dunlago retainers could not refrain from thinking that those two would surely combine their efforts and skills in making their lives more dour and productive than ever.
Marcus was quite comfortable with the notion and soon immersed himself in a passionate discussion with the two honorable men, while Atraxa busied herself with sharing news with Ekan and asking for advice concerning protocols and traditions prevalent at the Beaucastel Court. She should not have worried, as Gerhart had opted, on Amrel and Ekan’s advice, for quite an informal approach, putting more importance on warmth and friendship than on decorum. Instead of welcoming them at the gate, they had waited for the Dunlago delegation on the large square in front of the Royal Palace. Many citizens, gently fended off by Knights and Walkyries, had had plenty of opportunities to observe the seemingly gentle giants of the faraway lands north of their own country. They had already met or seen at close range Elves, Tribesmen and Dunlago black people so far. They were cognizant of the Dwarves, but they certainly did not expect the sight of their procession the next morning.
Like they had done for the Dunlago delegation, at around noon, Gerhart, Marghrete and her two guards were waiting for the Kingdom Under the Mountain’s embassy. With the difference that this time all embassies, monarchs and Dragons, including Numnir, of all Alymndes had assembled in no preordained order a good hour before the Dwarves would appear. Gerhart had himself suggested the welcome as a kind of big open-air party. Early in the morning, the Palace staff, helped by the Royal Guards and some citizens of Beaucastel, had brought benches and tables on trestles and installed them around an area reserved for a field kitchen. Guests would have to fetch their own food and drinks before sitting at the tables without any precedence, allowing ladies and gentlemen to meet and converse with whomever they pleased or chanced upon. Umatar had given strict orders to the usually cagey Shamen to socialize as much as possible. A sole exception had been made for the benefit of Marghrete who had the use of a special high back chair filled with cushions and a table by her side, the whole under a small awning. The day witnessing fine weather, tents had been dispensed with, permitting even greater freedom of movement. As the whole population of Beaucastel could not possibly have been accommodated, representatives of all guilds and lay people had been invited to the party. A cordon of Royal Guards in full parade accouterment quietly kept the rest of the citizenry comfortably away from the celebrations, but within sight of all events to take place.
However, the party would not begin until the last but unanimously thought as the most important delegation had entered Beaucastel. All had reached a quiet consensus that the Dwarves would be the keys to the unification of Alymndes. Guests did not mind waiting and were actively taking advantage of this rare occasion to get to know each other in earnest.
The sun had reached its zenith, when a low rumble was heard coming from outside the city.
Numnir smiled.
Knowing Hammerblow, he had expected a grand entrance from the Dwarf king.
Curious monarchs came to the fore, Umatar joining her brothers and sister in a single group, with Kings, Queens and Prince Consort close on their right, while retainers and courtiers respectfully stood behind them.
The low rumble gradually amplified into the sound of many heavy booted feet stumping the earth at the steady cadence held by drums.
A hush came upon the assembly and onlookers.
Everyone knew that the new guests had passed through the main gate when the stentorian voice of a herald was heard.
“Their Majesties King Drumbeat Hammerblow and Queen Brighteyes of the Kingdom Under The Mountain!”
The roll of the drums grew louder. A stir rippled through the crowd assembled along the street leading from the gate to the main square in front of the Palace.
The King and the Queen of the Dwarves appeared out of the crowd.
For all their diminutive stature, the Royal Couple struck a splendid figure. They both wore full battle gear, body-length chain-mail falling to the knees and cinched at the waist by a large buckle belt. Both bore a full helmet with an iron crown for Hammerblow and a golden circlet for Brighteyes. A short sword in its scabbard hung to their belt and their feet were shod with thick heavy war boots containing more metal than leather. No soldier would contemplate falling under them. The citizens of Beaucastel were most disconcerted at their baggage. Each of them carried an enormous backpack topped with an evil-looking double-blade axe for the King while his wife sported a heavy mace. King or not, no Dwarf would ask or let another Dwarf carry his or her load.
They were immediately followed by five scores of their people in two neat lines led by two heralds pounding in cadence the drums hung to their waists.
They walked through the square until their monarchs suddenly halted a few paces from the assembly. Their retainers then smartly parted to form five straight rows behind them with the two drummers at the center of the front line.
At the very moment the Dwarves had completed their maneuver, the two drummers struck a last loud thump on their drums before coming to a standstill.
Hammerblow and Brighteyes bowed, their eyes locked onto the faces of the welcoming party, imitated as one by their followers.
An awed silence filled the square until a lone onlooker in the surrounding crowd broke it by clapping his hands. Neighbors immediately joined in and in an instant the whole crowd was vigorously clapping their approval. Every one of them knew how much the city and its inhabitants owed to the Dwarves for their recent comfort and wellbeing. This was the least they could do to contribute to a spontaneous show of gratitude and thanks.
A large smile broke on Gerhart’s face. He raised his hands and clapped them, too. Soon the whole welcoming party, the embassies and present suzerains were willingly participating in the rousing reception.
The long-forgotten Dwarves had become the most popular race of the Continent.
“You certainly wouldn’t get such a welcome back home, would you?” remarked Brighteyes between clenched teeth.
Hammerblow harrumphed noncommitingly.
Looking at Numnir, his spouse continued:
“And seeing who is surrounding our dear Flint Ironfoot, the true powers-that-be are also on show!”
“Close your mouth shut, woman! Don’t tempt your fate, or for once, you won’t be able to fence off all the trouble you have raised!”
Brighteyes judged she had better keep her peace. In any case, Gerhart was already advancing to greet them personally and introduce them around.
The other Dwarves were already turning back. They would not be needed in the square any longer, as their embassy was already there to attend their King. Some of them started moving to their new quarters while the majority marched to join the Golden Dragon Squad on the other side of the city, as they were to march to the Pass the very next day. Alf who had maintained an interested eye on all of them thought he could see a lone red-haired female among them. At least he thought so, as she happened to be the only one not sporting a beard.
Only the drummers stayed to look after the packs of their King and Queen that they had added to their own near the field kitchen where they would be able to refresh themselves while waiting for their monarchs.
The banquet had finally started in earnest. Every one was jostling all in good humor for a tankard of ale or a flagon of wine and a plate of food before joining other guests around the tables.
The ladies had naturally sat around Marghrete and were busy with greeting each other, enquiring about health and indulging in small talk like women were supposed to, while men boasted about their prowess in other groups. For once, every one could forget daily worries and duties and behave as foolishly as they felt to. After all, that was what banquets and parties were for, was it not?
For their part, Maheut and He-Who-Stands-Upright were very serious about their present business. They had to recruit new members for the depleted Golden Dragon Squad. They had spent the whole three last days interviewing volunteers from among the Royal Guards and the Tribesmen, and were about to call it a day since they were missing only a couple of their original number, when voices were heard from outside the door of the garrison headquarters.
Maheut thought of sending one of her Squad members to investigate the source of the disturbance, when He-Who-Stands-Upright’s hand lightly tapped her shoulder.
“Maheut, wait and listen!” the warrior told her with an enigmatic smile.
The Walkyrie had made her habit to take heed of her lover’s premonitions and better hearing. She relented and opened her ears.
Soon the argument outside became loud enough for all to hear.
“But lady! I am only offering you the way ahead of me as good manners require me to do!” a young man’s voice almost shouted.
“I’m no lady! I’m a warrior! Who comes first, enters first!” answered an equally young woman with a heavy accent.
“That matters not! I do not know where you come from and would not assume on the manners and traditions prevalent in your country, but in Beaulieu a gentleman leads the way to a lady!”
“How many times must I tell you I’m a warrior, man?”
“Now, you need not be rude. One does not call a Blue Knight of the Royal Guards “man”!”
“Then, do not call me “lady”!”
Maheut had had enough. After an icy look at He-Who-Stands-Upright who could barely contain his mirth, she impatiently signed to the Guard at the door to command the two individuals waiting outside to enter.
The couple that penetrated the room could not have been worst matched.
The Royal Guard appeared as a burly young man barely of age of medium height with a slightly childish face topped with an unruly mop of straw-colored hair.
The woman by his side was a tall and slender Tribeswoman. Her long black hair was braided in the fashion seen in the Steppes, but she wore no beads or feathers. He garb belonged to a hunter and Maheut knew she had many a weapon concealed on her. The two were still exchanging furious side glances.
Although she was laughing inside, Maheut kept a stern mien and addressed them:
“Attention, guard and warrior!” she tersely ordered.
Looking at the young Knight, she queried:
“Knight, what is your name and who recommended you?”
“Gaspard d’Entrecastaux, Sergeant!” he replied.
Another impossible name to memorize, the Walkyrie ruefully thought.
“I’m recommended by Captain Geoffroy d’Arcourt of the Royal Guards! Here is his letter of introduction!” Gaspard continued, taking a folded parchment out of his jerkin.
Maheut raised her hand.
“Gaspard d’Entrecastaux, if Captain Geoffroy d’Arcourt has recommended you, I will not need to read his letter as I know that a Royal Guard would not lie. If your Captain deems you fit for the Golden Dragon Squad, I will do, too!”
She made a slight turn to her warrior companion.
He-Who-Stands-Upright took his cue and spoke to the woman:
”Warrior, do you have a name?”
“Yes. They call me She-Who-Walks-Alone in the Steppes.”
“How did you get that name?”
“My whole tribe was murdered when I was twelve springs old. Ours was a small tribe. Therefore we had many enemies. One morning, I was on water duty and had to go a long way to the nearest source. When I came back, I found all my people dead, our camp burned and our herd and horses gone. So I buried them all. And I survived.”
He-Who-Stands-Upright sighed. He knew too well of the bloody feuds and outright banditry prevalent in the Steppes before Umatar had put a stop to that state of affairs.
“Have you avenged the murder of your tribe?”
“Partly, but I have met She-Who-Smiles-At-Danger. She told me that I should cease retribution because our Queen had forbidden all the Tribes to fight. She sent me here to make myself useful as fighting is the only thing I can do.”
The Tribesman had met the fearless woman warrior and respected her advice like many of his warriors did since Umatar had chosen her as a member of the Council of all Tribes. The power of the Queen of the Steppes had truly grown beyond his expectations if a woman with such a grudge could be convinced to relent and change her ways.
“She-Who-Smiles-At-Danger did well and you are welcome to the Golden Dragon Squad! But you must understand that your new life means new rules and strict obedience to orders. Will you accept?”
“I will!” fiercely replied the woman warrior.
Gaspard was still looking at her from the corner of his eye, but anger had left his face to be replaced by concern.
She-Who-Walks-Alone must have felt it because she shot him a murderous look.
A notion came to Maheut. She could make use of that enmity in a positive way.
“Guard, warrior, stay at attention!” she almost barked. “As we have basically filled the empty spots left in our ranks thanks to that battle in Villefranche, you will be assigned as personal aides to me and He-Who-Stands-Upright. You, Knight, will have to either cut that hair very short or hide it. I don’t need that kind of beacon in battle. As for you, warrior, you will have to surrender all your weapons immediately. They will be returned to you when He-Who-Stands-Upright sees it fit. And do not forget that pin concealed in your hair!”
The woman warrior was about to retort, but her face meekly turned obedient when she saw the fierce warrior standing beside the big red-haired soldier woman frowning his eyebrows into a forbidding scowl. Getting her revenge for her family was one thing but facing the most powerful Tribesman of the Steppes was an entirely different proposition. As for Gaspard, he would learn soon enough that you do not treat Sergeant Maheut as any docile lady of the gentry, or any Walkyrie for that matter.
“Dismissed!” the Sergeant tersely ordered.
Once the two young soldiers had left the room, Maheut turned to her lover:
“What do you think?”
A thin smile stretched on the warrior’s face.
“I must say I like the idea of having two aides around. Teaching them may take some time, but we will need them. It is about time we assign some minor responsibilities. We cannot afford wasting our energies running after everybody. Moreover, I have a hunch that we have been blessed with the arrival of those two!”
“You certainly have some strange ideas. One is a prissy nobleman’s son, and the other a born killer. And you call that a blessing!”
“Perfect balance as you would say, would you not? I am sure they will become useful one day!”
“They had better make it quick, then!”
A couple of days later, judging that by then their guests should have more or less settled down, Gerhart invited all Kings, Queens and heads of state and their inner circles into the Embassy Hall.
As providing seating for so many would not be feasible, he had ordered for a couple of large tables to be installed end to end in the middle of the vast room where most could stand around in relative ease.
It took some time to get everybody’s attention, but once that was achieved, Gerhart briskly went down to business.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, as this is going to become a very technical meeting, I will be grateful if you would allow me to be informal for the sake of expediency. We have already been introduced to each other a countless number of times, so may I ask you all to abstain from mentioning our titles, ranks, and other grand status for the time being?”
Nods, grunts and short words of approval readily came in answer from his audience. To tell the truth, most guests were grateful for the respite. Two days of banquets, ceremonies and endless state receptions had stretched patience and goodwill thin.
“My most sincere thanks to all!” commented the suzerain of Beaucastel. “First, know that I am only reporting the great work achieved by our embassies during the past weeks, or moons for some. They have all agreed that the key to peace and good relations between our respective nations is a free exchange of goods unimpeded by toll and tax barriers but those included in freight for the use of harbor facilities and normal fees requested by ship and caravan owners.”
Marcus Vanenklaar raised his hand.
“May I”
“ Of course, Marcus, you may! This is also a discussion, after all!”
“Thanks, Gerhart. In the case of Dunlago, a lot of state taxes are made off a percentage taken on every business transaction. How do you propose to replace these state earnings?”
Gerhart easily answered:
“This was the system in force not so long ago in Beaulieu. The main problem was the collectors. Not enough of them as they cost money, too. Inefficient methods of taxation too easy to evade. Endemic corruption, and so on. So, we came up with the idea of the State and crown running their own transport and communications system for a fee. We developed the Royal Mail to include all transport and delivery, not only of mail, but also goods sent by all citizens. As the network existed thanks to our military structure, we just expanded. We ask for different fees for different modes of carriage, from fast horse courier to slow caravans we hire and escort. All mail and goods are sealed with the Royal Seal to prevent any tampering or stealing. We assume any damage or loss and refund without discussion. We are hiring tribesmen for the speediest deliveries, and I will not hide the fact that we have contracts with your own ships! I can see Dunlago develop a lucrative sea transport route and the Elves and Tribesmen devise their own routes of fast dispatch. As for the Dwarves, although it might not prove feasible for them to provide such amenities, they also stand to profit a lot from a better, speedier and safer transport of their goods!”
Silence reigned over the assembly.
A lot of people were exchanging querying looks, wondering why no one else had come up with such a practical and simple arrangement.
Hammerblow was the first to react:
“Good planning, I must admit! Let’s assume that we possess safe routes and freedom of trade. But what of the modes of payment or barter? We dwarves, I must confess, are somewhat picky when it comes to matters of money. Some people use barter only, while others pay with precious metals, stones or even pearls, making financial settlements a perennial source of dispute and ill feeling!”
In truth, Gerhart had spent laborious days preparing himself for such an eventuality, and came up with an immediate answer:
“I must say that your subjects have proved of great help on that thorny subject. Our embassies have reached the conclusion that we need a common currency system.”
Ignoring his audience’s perplexity, he briskly carried on:
“Now, that is not as difficult as it might sound at first. Bear with me for a little more time, and I am sure you will understand the scheme that our people have devised. As you know, precious metal is one of the generally recognized modes of payment. As far as we could determine, only the dwarves have the skills and endurance to produce a constant quality in the smelting of gold, silver and copper. When I talk of quality, I could also mention purity. We found so many discrepancies that we did not even argue about the need of a total reform! Not only we need a new currency, but also a new system of measuring lengths, weights and volumes! You can imagine the very interesting times we have shared in that room!”
Gerhart’s guests did not seem too inclined to imagine all the bickering that must have assailed the King of Beaulieu. More than one of them was coming to realize how skilful a diplomat he must have been to keep all those different people working together.
The Elf Prince Consort had the grace to publicly accord his admiration:
“Gerhart, I dare say that I must ask in all humility for your forgiveness in doubting your abilities. We Elves tend to be haughty about financial matters and leave them to citizens of so-called lower rank. You have just showed me that I have shirked from my responsibilities! Would you be kind enough to demonstrate what kind of method our embassies have contrived to my, or may I say our embarrassment?”
“Well, I ought to congratulate you all for choosing the most capable men and women for that hard work. But they will show you themselves!”
As on cue, five cases were brought onto the large tables for all to see. The cases were large and shallow and lined with velvet. In each a set of fifteen different coins were laid.
Gerhart explained:
“In these boxes lay the first mint proofs that the Dwarves have manufactured according to agreed requirements. Before I explain the value of each coin, I must tell you that their weight scrupulously obey to the standards of the Kingdom Under The Mountain. Hammerblow’s craftsmen have also manufactured scales and vile metal weight units , and will continue to do so until all our needs are covered. Let me say first that one weight of gold is equivalent to fifty weights of silver, while one weight of silver amounts to one hundred weights of copper. Metal for minting will be produced by the Dwarves in bars or ingots of one thousand weights exactly for gold, silver and copper. Each bar and ingot must bear the seal of the Dwarves‘ Kingdom Under The Mountain with a clearly embossed mention of origin and weight. Such metal for minting can be either bought from the Dwarves with necessities, or by providing your own metal to be smelted to dwarf standards for a nominal fee. Do you still follow me?”
An enraptured audience quickly acquiesced.
“Each set of fifteen coins includes the following: one Sovereign of ten gold weights, a Ducat of five gold weights and one Mark of one gold weight. The silver coins consist of a Crown of twenty silver weights, a Half Crown of ten silver weights, a Duke of five silver weights and a Silver of one silver weight. Business and purchases by all would not be possible without small denominations. Therefore you also have a Half of fifty copper weights, a Score of twenty copper weights, a Tenner of ten copper weights, a Fiver of five copper weights and a Penny of one copper weight. The two smallest coins are a Halfpenny and a Farthing. That final tiny coin is worth a quarter Penny. Believe me, we did have some fun coming up with names with each coin! All five sets have the same numerals on the front. But if you turn the coins over, you will notice that they bear five different designs: a Tribesman riding a horse for the Free Tribes of the Steppes, three trees for the Elf Forest Realm, a ship floating across waves for Dunlago, an anvil and a hammer for the Dwarves, and vineyards for Beaulieu. We understand the Free Tribes prefer barter, and respect their preference. But coins were minted for them as they will need them in Fair Trade City.”
Marcus was turning a Sovereign in his fingers:
“That is certainly going to require a lot of adjustments and organization!”
“The more the need for better communication and common work!”
The Dunlago Judge asked the next question:
“What of the measures you have mentioned?”
“They have been made ready, too. Since a uniform measuring system is vital to good trade, the embassies have come with a set of sample units.”
He made a sign for the next displays to be brought.
A Dwarf put five sets of three different objects each on the tables.
Gerhart continued. He first took a long metal bar in his hands:
“This is the adopted unit of length. We agreed to call it a “yard”, although some among us have nicknamed it a “long step”. I will have a captivating story to tell you later about how we reached a consensus on its length. One thousand yards will make for a mile. As for depth measurement, the same unit will be called a “fathom”.”
He caught a weight in his right hand:
“This is one copper weight which the agreed unit of weight. We call it a “cop”. One thousand cops make for a “stone”, and one thousand stones make for a “ton”.”
He put the weight back in front of him to grasp the next object. It was a cylindrical metal cup with no handles.
“The last sample is a volume unit. It is called a “pint”, which can be divided into ten “measures”, or multiplied by ten to become a “gallon”, or by one hundred to become a “barrel”.”
The Judge commented:
“That seems to cover everything. How do you plan to make it known to everyone?”
“I would not assume or patronize, but in Beaucastel we have set a public room for display and information. All coins and measures will be a constant exhibition. Anyone wishing to, will be provided with faithful copies of the measures for a fee that will pay the Dwarves for their manufacture. We also have a set of smaller weights ready down to a hundredth part. As for the length unit, the Dwarves have etched marks along each bar to a hundredth part, too. Our scribes have prepared copies of instructions for usage in common language, which will be delivered with each mint set to our five nations as well as for sale.”
The Judge nodded in approval.
“We ought to emulate you as fast as possible, then. That is, if everybody in this room agree?”
Arnaud came to the help of his Dunlago colleague:
“Ladies and Gentlemen, to make things easier, why do we not hear who does not agree with such a system and explains why?”
People around the tables looked at each other. Gehart’s demonstration must have been convincing, because everyone started to support and approve the project instead of trying to pick a bone of contention.
Arnaud decided to help Gerhart who seemed to be content, if not exhausted, with the meeting and visibly appeared willing to hand over the responsibilities of the day.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, since we have agreed to adopt a common system of currency and measures, may I impress on you all the immediate need for information and enforcement, although I do not like that word, of those on our citizens. As much as I know my fellow humans, we are bound to encounter resistance and outright opposition from some quarters.”
Queen Ellana uncharacteristically intervened:
“There will not be any complaints or opposition within the Elves!” she said with finality.
“Nor the Dwarves!” Hammerblow forcefully backed up.
“There should not be any either from the Tribesmen, as everything decided in Fair Trade City is strictly obeyed!” commented He-Who-Stands-Fast, the recognized head of the Shamen.
The two Judges looked at each other. Smiles and smirks appeared on the faces of Dunlago and Beaulieu citizens.
Marcus burst into laughter:
“I can see that our judges will have plenty of work for a while to come!”
Men and women around joined him in his mirth. But the object of their amusement shook their heads, understanding too well what was in store them: a hard time as usual!
That evening, Ekan felt for a need to escape from the ceremonies and banquets at the Palace.
As he did not have to worry about Mareeva who shared a room with Matthieu after a very busy day of learning and schooling, he decided to spend the evening away from the Seven Dragons. Some members of the embassies had mentioned the advent of a new tavern called The Tipsy Dragon, which brewed and served excellent red ale and dark beer, as well as some tasty morsels combining the cuisines of all nations of Alymndes. Beaucastel was fast becoming a remarkable cosmopolitan city with intriguing discoveries to make. He had already garnered some new ideas for the Blue Mermaid and was always on the lookout to improve on his knowledge.
As he arrived at the tavern, he noticed that the building had been recently renovated and looked clean and inviting indeed. He pushed the door open. No stale beer smell assailed him. The floor was tiled and obviously scrubbed clean every day. The place was already quite full. He was about to carefully make his way to the counter, when a familiar feminine voice called him from one corner of the large taproom:
”Jonas! What a surprise! Come and join us!”
Ekan belatedly reflected that for once he should have exercised his dragon senses. He discovered Gladys in the company of three young strapping noblemen. Knowing the particular appetites of Marcus’ sister-in-law, he was not overly disconcerted by their apparent devotion to the former Dunlago spy.
Carefully hiding his distaste, he moved to their table with the intention of a quick greeting before making himself scarce.
Gladys, an arm negligently wrapped around the waist of one of her companions mockingly addressed him:
“I see you have finally escaped from those boring get-togethers that they call banquets and ceremonies at the Palace, while this city is replete with far more exciting places!”
“Good evening, Lady Gladys, good evening, Gentlemen. I must admit that I agree with you on the point of breaking free of those tedious affairs of state. But I doubt that we share the same reasons. Anyway, I see that you are all having a nice time, so if you would allow me, I will not interrupt your revelry any longer!”
“But I have just invited to join us!”
“Sorry, but I believe I ought not intrude on your Ladyship and Her guests more than good manners would dictate me.” He replied, firmly taking his leave. “Lady Gladys, Gentlemen, a good evening to you.” After a light bow of his head, he turned and walked away.
Gladys’ object of attention turned to her:
“Who might be this lumbering mountain you are calling Jonas? He does not strike me as a person of good birth or manners!”
Gladys burst into laughter.
“Ah, young man, you wouldn’t know! Believe me, the less you know of our dear good man Jonas, the better for you!”
The nobleman made to retort, when she put a finger on his lips.
“What are we wasting our time on? I’m asking you. Aren’t we the four of us enough? Or will I remind you why we happen to share company?”
Her three companions chortled, having already forgotten the black giant.
Jonas had heard the exchange. He reflected with some perverse amusement that the three pampered men had better deliver and satisfy Gladys’ urges lest they suffered the ignominy of past suitors who had been pitilessly discarded like old clothes the next morning.
Ekan espied Umatar’s lover in the company of a Royal Guard he had noticed before. He walked to their table.
“Good evening Master Robert de Glacis. Do you mind if I join you?”
“Good man Jonas, you know that you are always more than welcome! Please sit down! May I introduce you to Corporal Pierre d’Agincourt?”
“Thank you. Good evening Corporal Pierre d’Agincourt! I’m new here. Tell me, what beer and food would you recommend? “
“You will not find a tastier red ale in town. They also serve good red wine from the slopes south of Villefranche. As for the food, you must try their venison stew!”
Ekan followed Robert’s advice and ordered. They soon engaged into small talk. Apart of the presence of Gladys, he appreciated the place. The atmosphere was convivial without becoming raucous. The inn smelled nice and he soon agreed that their fare was above average. He would definitely come again as he could pick up some interesting ideas, especially stews that they were rarely serving back in Dunlago.
Pierre had to excuse himself early as he was on guard duty early the next morning.
Once the Corporal had gone, Robert asked Ekan:
“Jonas, I could not ask in front of Pierre, but would you be kind to answer a couple of questions. I will not be offended if you choose not to, though.”
Ekan had a good idea of what was coming, but he could not help liking his sister’s lover. The man was supremely intelligent and always ready to learn, but was most remarkable for his modesty.
“As you know, I have ridden She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons and I believe I have discovered who her sister and three brothers are. Moreover, you are surely aware of the reasons behind my queries. Now, when do you think the South will assail the Pass?”
“Well, you ought to be more discreet. But since you have guessed who I truly am, you probably assume that I will ensure that no unwanted ears catch a single word of our exchange. To tell you the truth, I cannot give you an exact date, but it should come soon.”
“When you know, will you be kind to tell me?”
“Only if She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons and my kin agree. Now, you should realize that we are not going to risk you come within the vicinity of any conflict or war that we expect from the south. You are too important for the future of Alymndes, and that of the South too, if I may add. But I have the feeling that Jay will have you stay near her to keep an eye on you, so in fact, you may find yourself not that far from the fighting after all!”
Robert looked dejectedly at his beer.
“Well, I had to ask. Will the five of you go the Pass?”
“You can bet your life on that! Actually we should be more than five!”
The physician raised his head in askance. But that was all he would get from the Black Dragon.
Before parting, Ekan rested a hand on his shoulder.
”Do not be too impatient, William. I promise you will have your revenge one day, and I will be there, too, I guarantee!”
William Clonderbie was convinced when he discovered how hard the Black Dragon’s face had suddenly become.
——————————–
The Guards at the main gate of Villefranche stiffened when they saw the merchant riding the richly decorated horse-drawn cart at the head of his small caravan. The man raised his arm to halt his train when he realized that the Guards were actually barring the way.
“Guards! What is going on here? May I ask you why you are blocking the way to a man on his business?” the irate merchant yelled at the Royal guards.
A corporal came out of a side postern to walk directly to the angry caravan owner.
“Good day, Sir.” He started, “May I have your name, please?”
The merchant roared:
“Since when and why the hell do I have to give my name to a bunch of Royal Guards in our good city of Villefranche? Wait until I meet my Guild and report to your King!”
The corporal stoutly repeated:
“Sir, may I have your name, please? May I also point out that this is the second and last time I will ask you?”
Their eyes locked onto each other. True concern began to show on the merchant’s face when he saw that the Corporal did not as much as bat an eyelash.
“Alright, alright! I’m fed up with wasting my time! Jehan Desmesne is my name! And now ask those guards of yours to open the way to a honest trader!”
The Corporal did not bother to reply. He took a rolled parchment from under his tunic, unrolled it, and seemed to check a list. His finger suddenly stopped down the scroll. The same finger left the parchment to raise above his shoulder in an obvious signal. Royal Guards suddenly materialized around the merchant’s cart.
The Corporal faced the latter squarely to address him in a grimly determined voice:
“Jehan Desmesne, you were found guilty of non-assistance to Villefranche and its citizens in time of danger and war and chose to leave the town when help was most needed. Your Guild has revoked your membership indefinitely. Moreover, the Crown has banned you and your business to enter an area one hundred miles around Villefranche for the next twenty years, as well as conducting any transactions through proxy or family ties. Royal guards will immediately escort you to a point exactly one hundred miles away from this city in the fastest possible fashion. If you are caught breaking the ban in any manner, you will be arrested and punished! Guards, proceed!”
Two Guards forcefully dragged the horses around while others appeared on horse to lead the trader away.
The enraged man would not leave without a final burst:
“You Royal Guards are just bastards from the bitches of that clown who call himself King Gerhart! I have very powerful friends! Wait until I return and give your due back!”
———————————-
Someone knocked at the door.
Alfred de Vigny lifted his face from the parchment he was reading in his office inside the Royal Palace of Beaucastel. He could count on one such office in any other town he wished to stay at, although he had limited such prerequisites to Montjoie and Villefranche on top of the capital for the moment being.
“Come in!” he ordered.
A Walkyrie dressed in every day clothes opened the door.
“Ah, Hildegard! What is it?” Alf asked his “secretary”.
Hildegard had become integral part of his office. He had come to praise Amrel for ordering him to look after the distressed Walkyrie following the harrowing events at Montreduc. Ironically, he was persuaded that she was actually taking care of him these days. Many a solicitor had found to his lasting discomfort that no one could go past her without a very good reason and an elaborate explanation.
That sense of shared work and a more profound tie had recently cemented responsibility.
One night, Hildegard had simply entered his chamber. She had just washed and covered her body with a light nightgown. The large candle she had carried revealed her ample figure under the garment. Alfred had known he was lost when his eyes could not leave the lines of her heavy breasts and voluptuous hips, although he had still harbored some reservations about all the muscles rippling in her arms and thighs.
The Walkyrie had halted at his bed.
“Alf, do you like me?” she had bluntly asked.
The man had felt at a loss with words.
Hildegard’eyes had wandered on the sheet covering his body.
“I shouldn’t have asked after all, because I can see you do! Would you mind moving over?”
Alf had finally found his voice.
“I do not mind, but could you put this candle on the bed table first? I would care little for a fire in my chamber!”
The Walkyrie had laughed.
“Will I put out all the candles then?
“Certainly not!”
“Now, this was the best compliment you could have offered me!” she had replied sitting astride his body.
Since then she had come every night to share his bed, but he had always found an empty space by his side every morning. The Walkyrie’s military training was coming handy. Not that either cared about rumors, but the time had not come yet to make their relation official. They had a business to tend first.
Hildegard handed him a parchment roll.
“Do you remember that merchant who left Villefranche before the fight began?”
“I sure do. Not my type of fellow actually. Has he shown up?”
“He has indeed, and was turned back from Villefranche and escorted until a point a hundred miles away after being ordered not to show up for the next twenty years under pain of arrest.”
“Quite a few people have been dealt with likewise. Any particular problems with that one?”
“The Corporal who turned him away reported threats. I ordered an investigation just in case. This man Jehan Desmesne seems to have the ear of one of the barons in the north, namely Baron Philippe de la Marche of the baronage of the same name.”
Alf thought for a while.
“Isn’t he the noble implicated in that case of marble smuggling from Dunlago? Although the perpetrators were arrested, nothing substantial could be proved against his person.”
“And he is also one of the nobles Gerhart kicked out of the Palace.”
“I don’t want to reach hasty conclusions, but I smell a rat there. What do you think?”
“We could always investigate further under the guise of a change of Royal guards garrison. They will be only too happy to report. We could also plant an informer among their servants.”
“Good thinking. Do you realize you have quite a devious mind for a Walkyrie?”
“And whose fault is that?” she teased him.
———————————
The day had turned to be a very busy one for Gratien at the Pass.
Nearly a hundred Dwarven warriors had arrived, and the task to quarter them in a hurry had fallen onto him. The new bunch of “critters”, as he called them more out of affection than anything else, were of a different kind. Whereas he had had to deal mainly with engineers so far, these newcomers were highly specialized soldiers. He had given up on tallying their weapons and armors. Rockgrinder could take care of that and send him a report later.
A thump shook his door.
Must be Rockgrinder, he thought. When will the Dwarf learn to knock on a door instead of knocking it down?
“Please, come in!” he called.
The door opened to let a Dwarf in. But instead of his chief engineer, he understood it was one of those new arrivals as he was wearing a full-face helmet with only slits for the eyes and small holes at mouth level for breathing. He was bristling with weapons.
Gratien could not place it, but he thought that he was facing an unusual specimen of the denizens from the Iron Crags.
Before he could elucidate, the Dwarf took his helmet off.
Gratien’s jaw almost fell to the floor in surprise.
She was a female Dwarf!
A mass of flame-red hair had fallen onto her shoulders. How she had managed to keep it tucked inside her helmet, he had no idea. Her face, although a little reddish, was far from plain. Gratien did not care much about an eventual beautiful mien among female soldiers, but was it her pride, her haughtiness or her sheer impertinence that made him check his scolding the Dwarf for her somewhat up-handed attitude?
He asked in a neutral tone:
“Good afternoon, soldier! May I have your name and reason for entering my office without going through the proper channels?”
The unsmiling female Dwarf answered in a surprisingly melodious voice:
“The name is Firebrand. I have come for a private matter, which requires no special introduction from my superiors!”
Gratien kept a lid on his temper. Let us hear her out, he decided. We cannot risk a silly argument with our Dwarves.
“Then, would you mind stating that private matter of yours? I hope I can solve it!”
“You certainly can, Corporal! I happen to be the only female Dwarf warrior in my company, and I have reservations about sharing the same facilities with male Dwarven warriors!”
“I see. You mean sharing a bath, for example?”
The female (could he call her a woman?) smiled. A crooked kind of smile, he thought. In spite of her short height, he found her attractive. She had strong limbs, although thinner that the tree trunks male Dwarves had for arms and legs. She was very well endowed at chest level, too.
Gratien suddenly realized he was being rude.
Firebrand must have noticed his inspection as she had waited all the time before his eyes came back to face hers.
“Do not worry about that! Male Dwarves are more interested in stones than in the anatomy of a female!”
“That surprises me!” He decided that two could play this game. “Rockgrinder told me your females were as ugly, in his own words, as the males. I must say that I dare disagree with him!”
The woman (he was going to call her that after all) beamed at the unexpected compliment. But a frown immediately creased her brow.
“Rockgrinder said that? Wait until I find him!”
“Firebrand, what is said here is private. Do you not remember? So, do not go bashing a fellow Dwarf, or you will have to answer me!”
“To you, a human?”
“Yes! Know that there are only three people in charge here at the Pass, and although our duties are separate, everyone obeys to Flint Ironfoot, Rockgrinder and myself!”
Firebrand had the grace to laugh:
“You are quite direct for a human, aren’t you, Corporal?”
“In private, people call me Gratien.”
She looked at him with shrewd eyes.
“I see. I asked for a private audience, did I not?”
“Yes. Do you not think it is about time we could address that small problem of yours?”
Firebrand seemed to face a sudden embarrassment.
“I do not know how to say it. I requested a private audience, and I want to ask for my own privies. Do you understand me?”
Gratien could not hold himself any more. He had not had the occasion to have such a laugh for a long time.
It was Firebrand’s turn to hold her peace.
Her icy stare brought the Corporal back to earth.
He raised a hand in apology:
“Sorry, Firebrand! I did not mean to make fun of you, and humbly ask you to forgive me! I will immediately ask Rockgrinder to build a privy for your sole use! Knowing him, it should be made ready within today. Can you hold it until then?”
“Hold what?”
They looked at each other for a split second. This time, both of them burst into laughter.
Since things had come to an agreement, Firebrand, in the typical Dwarven manner, made to put her helmet on and leave without further ado, when Gratien told her:
“Firebrand, I expect you to keep this private, so just let me say I like you. If you have any private requests, I will be glad to help you!”
The woman looked at the big Knight.
A mocking smile formed on her face:
“I like you, too, Corporal. That is, for a human!”
She put on her helmet, turned around, opened the door, and went through it without a backward glance as she almost gently closed it.
Gratien suddenly worried that he had overdone it. Only one woman at the Pass, and a Dwarf to boot, and he had managed to fall prey to her wiles!
He shook his head and was about to go out and fetch Rockgrinder, when another thump rattled his door.
He sincerely hoped it was his Dwarf chief engineer this time!

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