Narosan 2:The Dragon Ships

General Qusan grumbled for the umpteenth time.
“Why do they not have a simpler language? What’s the need for those “I”, “you”, “yours”, “mine” and what else?”
He had been struggling with the Alymndes common tongue for a whole moon now, and the mere thought of equal time left to do the same threatened the accomplished sailor with seasickness.
Hsu Yia had ordered all to spend as much time as feasibly possible on acquiring the mastery of the barbarian language, and one just did not discuss the Empress’ commands.
Counselor Makan’ laughed at his Lord’s predicament:
“General Qusan, I would consider myself lucky in your place. After all, the Empress did not instruct us to learn all the dialects of Alymndes!”
“What? And how many do they speak?”
“As far as the Empress would condescend to tell me. They use at least five distinct tongues, two of which should always stay out of our grasp. Therefore, I would not complain too loudly, lest Her Majesty feels the sudden need for a multilingual herald!
Lord Qusan shivered at the notion.
He slapped the manual on the small table fixed to the floor of the cabin he shared with his counselor.
“Well, I’ve had enough study for today! I’m going on the upper deck to find some work fit for a mariner!”
He hurried up the ladder.
As he emerged on the upper deck, crew and soldiers stood at attention. He impatiently waved them to continue their tasks and ignore him. Life on a ship was more informal than on ground, although all hands aboard were well versed in any aspect of marine life, as one might have to replace or help someone else in an emergency. Soldiers in particular followed the same training, and the Army and Navy of Narosan were renowned all over the Empire for the thoroughness of their drills that anyone from the lowest fighter to the highest commander had to undergo. Many an enemy back home had found to his lasting chagrin that killing anyone in charge counted for very little indeed, as the next soldier in command, even a mere arms bearer, immediately took over with the same relentless efficiency. All members of the Narosan Army and Navy were professionals on predetermined contracts renewable according to ability. Any fighter found guilty of insufficiency or cowardice was irremediably sent back to civilian life. Both Army and Navy were well paid in comparison to the average earnings of Narosan citizens. Moreover, the Empire awarded comfortable compensations to families in case of death or lasting disability. The same could not be said in many other islands for what passed as an army or navy. All fighters demonstrated a fierce loyalty to Hsu Yia, which could explain the scarcity of men hailing from the eastern shores of Narosan Island that of late, had grown rebellious to the rule of the Empress.
General Qusan walked along the top rail towards the bow to shake the numbness out of his legs.
He found Hsu Yia standing at the very end of the deck, just behind the long sternpost supporting the ferocious figurehead of a roaring dragon.
Looking at her back, he had wondered from the very first day of their voyage how she could stand completely immobile at the head of a ship regularly plunging and rearing across waves and wind. Only her long flowing hair betrayed her human nature, or one could have been mistaken for holding the sight of a statue riveted to the deck.
He came to stand by her side. He did not bow to her as he would have done anywhere in Narosan. She had explicitly ordered everyone not to bother her with decorum as long as land was not sighted from any part of the ship.
Their four vessels were cutting the ocean in a staggered line starboard for more efficient communications. Narosan tradition did not require ships to be blessed with individual names. Hsu Yia’s vessel was addressed as the Empress Ship and the three others as First, Second, and Third Ship. These were massive affairs in both length and height. Each vessel could easily transport three hundred hands, crew and soldiers included. They comprised no less than three lower decks and four main masts, each supporting six to seven topsails or skysails. The long sternpost bearing the dragonhead also served as a bowsprit for the jibs, while a mizzenmast at the stern completed the overall rigging.
The ships would be too big to comfortably enter and anchor inside the Dunlago harbor. Instead, King Marcus Vanenklaar, on Ekan’s request, had commandeered Captain Adir’s Seadragon to be especially fitted for the needs of Hsu Yia and her retinue. The Seadragon would be considered as property of the Empress as long as she would need it and Captain Adir and his crew would leave it in the hands of her mariners as soon as his ship was secured along hers. Other Dunlago ships would do the same with the three other Dragon Ships to help unload cargo and transport the Narosan crews and followers to Dunlago.
General Qusan had had a hard time refraining from questioning his sovereign when she instructed him on the measures to be taken and the alien land they were heading for. He had had an even harder time when relaying her commands to his charges, and had needed to exert all his authority to be fully obeyed in spite of the incredible discipline of the Narosan Navy.
The earlier they reached that land, the better. By then, everybody would be too busy to ask questions.
Hsu Yia’s voice interrupted his thoughts.
“General Qusan, how fare you today?”
For a split second, the grizzled fighter found himself at a loss before he realized that she had spoken in Alymndes common tongue.
“Very … very well, Your Majesty! And how do Her Majesty fare?”
Hsu Yia took him further aback with a light laugh.
“Not “do”, General! You have to say “does”!
The General stared at her uncomprehendingly.
She laughed again.
“You have to say: “how does Her Majesty fare?” But do not worry! Your command of the Alymndes tongue is quite good indeed! I must congratulate you for your efforts! And incidentally, I fare well! May I assume that our ships and crew fare well, too?”
Qusan haltingly replied in common tongue:
“Yes, Your Majesty! As for our soldiers, I ordered them all to relieve the crews in shifts to break the monotony and allow everybody sufficient time to learn and study as you have commanded!”
“Very good, General! It would not do if our mariners could not communicate with those of Dunlago, would it?”
“Dunlago, Your Majesty?”
“Yes, Dunlago. It is the name of one of the five nations of Alymndes and that of its capital, which is also their main port!”
Qusan had to dig deep in his courage and resolve before venturing his next question, one that nobody had ever dared ask as far as he knew. It might cost his life, but he was past caring. If it could be answered, then he would leave this world relieved.
“Your Majesty, how do you know all this?”
Hsu Yia faced the old warrior. But instead of the expected thunderous retort, Hsu Yia only smiled.
“I thought you would never ask! As my most trusted follower, it is your right and privilege to query my decisions and reasons. Now, I shall answer you with a question: how long do you think I have lived among you?”
“I would not presume to even start thinking of it! The only thing I can tell for sure is that Your Majesty has lived in Narosan since the very first record of our very long history!”
Risking another indiscretion, he asked:
“You still look less than thirty years of our age, but actually, how old are you?”
Hsu Yia laughed again.
“Remind me to tell everyone that asking a lady’s age is frowned upon in most cultures we shall meet in Alymndes! As for my age, I have ceased for a long time to tally all the years, but shall we say many hundreds times the span of your own life? I do remember when I was born, but I was unable to memorize my parents! I entertain a strong belief that I was abandoned. Why? I shall never know…”
“Are you a goddess, then?”
Her face grew serious.
“Spare me the thought! You have surely realized that I am not truly human, but I can tell you I am still mortal! I could be killed, although I have not found who or what might become my nemesis yet. As for gods, I entertain serious doubts about their mere existence. Magic does exist, but it is fraught with dangers!”
“Then, why did Your Majesty choose to become the protector of Narosan?”
Hsu Yia mused for a while.
“Love? But that could have been prompted by my own loneliness and need for comfort. Responsibility? Even now, I do not understand for sure what evil and good stand for. Ambition? The higher the rise, the harder the fall! One thing is certain, though: I shall not let our lands and people sink into chaos and misery! This is the sole reason why I have decided to intervene at long last!”
“Then, why not simply order us?”
“And end up as the almighty sovereign of a realm of slaves!? General Qusan, you are a soldier who follows orders. But even you would refuse to obey a command if you were convinced it would result in useless massacres and sufferings! Therefore, the only way to remedy the situation at hand is to create the most propitious conditions for the recovery of peace and prosperity. Only in the most extreme cases, may I interfere and force my will upon our subjects!”
Qusan’s smile creased the corners of his mouth.
“Counselor Makan would be better qualified than me to help Your Majesty resolve our plights!”
“Advisors are vital, I must agree, but the General is the arm, and only he can make the decisions in the end. An Empress might rule, advisors and politicians might counsel, but it still comes to no avail if the soldier cannot instill peace and respect! General Qusan, keep your eyes and ears open in Alymndes! You might discover many hidden qualities and skills in someone else’s country and ways! The purpose of our voyage is not all about trade riches!”
“Are we going to request military help?”
“No. Help will not come in the shape of armies or weapons, but in that of counsel and guidance. A delegation from all Alymndes, including some of their most influential figures, will board our ships on the way back to Narosan. Their mere presence should confer us enough fame and recognition to convince some of our harshest opponents to reconsider their priorities and loyalties!”
Qusan meditated for a while on Hsu Yia’s revelations. Things were starting to fall into place.
A foolish grin broke on his face. He was going to enjoy the faces of bewilderment and green envy back home.
“Your Majesty! I can assure you in all truth that I shall thoroughly relish my learning the common language of Alymndes in the remaining days or our voyage!”
Hsu Yia laughed in sheer merriment.
“General Qusan! Do you not think you ought to share the reasons of your sudden eagerness with every crew member and passenger of our entire fleet?”
“Your servant shall proceed at once, Your Majesty! I cannot wait to see Counselor Makan’s face!”
Hsu Yia chortled again.
“I would no bet too much on that, General Qusan!”
Her faithful retainer took his leave.
She kept her eyes on the ocean ahead but she was not looking. She was lost in her thoughts. A Black dragon was waiting for her across the seas.
———————————————-
The face with disfiguring scars of the Grey Legion courier belonged more to that of a thug of Beaucastel of old times than to that of a soldier of one of the most feared companies operating in the whole of Alymndes.
The Grey Legion was exclusively composed of former convicts, except for its Corporals and Lieutenant who all belonged to the Royal Guards. All had fought and survived the appalling battle at the Wall, which had insured a momentary repulse of any invasion or incursion from the South.
In defending the Wall against overwhelming odds, the Alymndes coalition had been forced to enroll the hard-bitten criminals used as forced laborers in the building of the ramparts. Those hailed either from Dunlago or Beaucastel, as the Free Tribes of the Steppes, the Elves and the Dwarves had more expedient means to punish any would-be felons in their midst.
Their leader was not a man, but a Walkyrie.
The only woman in the whole company, she nonetheless commanded fierce loyalty from the desperate soldiers to whom she had offered a second chance to redeem themselves and live free again. Her Corporals were Royal Guards carefully picked for their allegiance to their Lieutenant and unquestioning obedience to the King’s orders. The seemingly incompatibility between former jailers and prisoners of the same penitentiary, namely the Wall, had been clearly overcome by the terrible ordeals shared in the last defense of their land in the face of grievous danger. The released criminals had readily accepted the military discipline as their new way of life when their Kings had pardoned and offered them the choice of either returning to civilian life or staying at their service under Birghit’s command. Not one of them had opted for their former life.
It had been made clear from the outset that theirs would be dirty work. They would complement the role so far held by Maheut and He-Who-Stands-Upright’s Golden Dragon Squad as a special force at the service of the leaders of all Alymndes.
Apart from their grey uniforms, the former convicts all wore distinctive tattoos on their forehead and did nothing to hide them when allowed leave. Although they were under strict orders to behave when away from duty, no one would have dared provoke the penitent heroes of the Wall.
The Grey Legion was presently stationed outside the port-city of Valmoray, east of Beaucastel. King Gerhart of Beaulieu had requested Birghit to investigate the reasons why the baron of the same name had not sent reinforcements to the Wall in time of dire need. The Barons of de la Marche and de Montfaucon in the far north of the Realm had also been guilty of the same lapse, but this had been more or less expected, knowing the open hostility of Barons Philippe de la Marche and Beaumont de Montfaucon towards their King. Both of them had been kicked out of the Royal Court on Gerhart’s return from the battles of Montreduc and Montjoie where the followers of the Hammer of Fate had been eradicated, thanks to the sons of Earl Charles d’Estrees in particular. Moreover, Philippe had been implicated in a Dunlago marble smuggling case, but nothing could be proven against him. Gerhat’s intelligence chief, Alfred de Vigny, also suspected that Beaumont had aided his neighbor. But Valmoray was a totally different case. The Baronage had been a faithful ally of Beaucastel until the Battle of the Wall. Birghit would have to pay a personal visit to Rodolphe de Valmoray and have him explain his reasons.
She looked up at the courier:
“Yes, soldier?”
“Lieutenant, the Grey Legion has completed its bivouac. All horses are picketed and provided with water and fodder. The latrines are dug and tents erected in the campaign pattern you have ordered. Evening meal is being cooked and a mess tent is ready for use. Water is being boiled, and the bath tent should be ready soon!”
“Good! Tell all Corporals to name shifts for guards and send everyone to bath and evening meal. Make it as visible as possible for all in Valmoray to observe! Stop anyone, regardless of rank or name, who wants to enter the perimeter and call me if deemed necessary. All soldiers are to stay inside the camp until tomorrow morning. Practice for everyone after morning meal and make it as loud as possible! Did you get that, courier?”
“Yes, Lieutenant!”
The man kept a straight face, but his eyes visibly twinkled at the prospect of putting some healthy fear into the hearts of certain citizens in Valmoray.
Their force had been joined upon their arrival by the small garrison of royal Guards stationed in the city. All in all, they amounted to only four score, but the baron would have been hard put to assemble a troop capable to mount a token defense against such accomplished soldiers.
Birghit was glad of the momentary inclusion of a few Walkyries to her corps. It would also be good for the Royal Guards’ morale to work with the Grey Legion and understand the purpose of their existence. She was hoping that one day some of the best Blue Knights and Walkyries would volunteer to join their group. It would certainly add some balance. As a leader Birghit was a tough but fair commander and had many years of service to fall back on. But keeping more than three score of men in check and harmony was no easy task. The trick was to give them as much work as humanly possible and grant them regular leave during their constant moves through country and cities to enjoy their well-earned money. To tell the truth, they were among the best-paid troops in the Realm and owned plenty to spend when off duty. Although none of the former convicts had retained ties with their families or relatives if they ever happened to exist, they were requested to contribute to the Royal Guards pension system. Moreover, they benefited from the military retirement and compensation recently voted by the governments of Beaulieu and Dunlago. But Birghit wondered how long they would be truly needed.
For a seeable future, she ruefully pondered.
——————————–
In spite of their staid pace, crowds hurried to make space to the four figures riding through the streets of the teeming city of Wisan.
The wholly black color of their garments made their identity clear enough. They were Ka-Ti fighters of the dreaded secret society of assassins. For four of them to appear in plain daylight bode ill indeed. Actually the term assassin was a misconception spread by the victims of their wrath. They followed a strict code of loyalty to their order and their employees. That is, as long as they considered the latter worthy of their services.
They approached the castle of Wisan. It was entirely surrounded by a thick stone wall standing behind a wide moat crossed by only a couple of bridges leading to the two main entrances. One was for the sole use of the nobility recognized in the land, the other for commoners. The small procession had deliberately chosen the former. They dismounted from their steeds and tethered them to the rail of the bridge, effectively blocking the whole passage behind them. All the riding gear on their horses bore the uniform black color, making the identity of their owners obvious. The Ka-Ti had come to visit the Lord of the House of Wisan, and it did not concern any outsiders. The steeds would not budge from their spot, unless one was fool enough to kill them.
The four of them walked in single file, their apparent leader at their head. He was a man of small stature. His white hair and short goatee emphasized his suntanned mien. His head, like the two other men following him was covered with a black piece of cloth carefully tied at the back. The woman just behind him sported a black veil hanging from her forehead and hiding her whole visage. They all wore the same light armor made of layers of pressed hard leather covering their chests, shoulders, elbows, wrists, thighs and shins. Although they were proficient at the use of many weapons, they did not carry swords or knives. But one did not need to be told they carried many a deadly device cunningly concealed under their armor or in the folds of their clothes.
Two guards armed with lances stood at the gate. None were seen along the top of the wall. Lord Tanung was either very confident of his authority or had grown complacent. In both cases, he was sorely mistaken.
Evidently their party had come unannounced as the two guardsmen looked at each other, wondering what had brought those dispensers of death to their castle.
The older one tried to bark his orders at the newcomers, but his quavering voice ruined the intended effect.
“Halt! Who comes to the Castle of His Lordship Tanung, lord of the House of Wisan without being properly announced?”
The four forbidding personages stopped under the noses of the two sentries. Their leader replied in a cold tone:
“We do not need to be announced! Lord Tanung knows too well who we are!”
And the guard, too, although he made one more feeble attempt at stamping his fast dwindling authority:
“Lord Tanung is entertaining guests of honor and has decreed strict orders not to be interrupted!”
“The more reason for us to join the party!” the white-bearded Ka-Ti fighter evenly retorted.
Seeing that the two guards still hesitated between blocking the gate and letting them inside, he continued:
“Now, are you going to stand aside, or are we going to push you out of our way?”
The younger guard did not possess the experience of his elder and could not check his temper in spite of the reputation of the visitors.
He started:
“Here, old man …”
He never finished his sentence.
The smaller man grabbed the guard’s lance with both hands and, pivoting on his heels, he brought his body under his opponent’s midriff before he threw him over his shoulders and the rail to send him splashing into the moat.
The Ka-Ti leader turned to the other guard.
“Do you want to follow him?”
The sentinel mutely shook his head and retreated, studiously avoiding the eyes of the assassin.
The three other Ka-Ti had impassively observed the whole altercation. They followed their leader without a look at the two unfortunate guards.
They passed through the gardens surrounding the Palace.
Here and there they encountered soldiers and servants bearing different liveries. They all left a wide berth to their group.
The Ka-Ti did not need a guide. They happened to be the best-informed society in the whole Narosan Empire, despite the fact that their intelligence was not for sale. Their survival actually depended on its secrecy.
They entered the Palace. The building was not built of stones, but of intricate walls made of wooden panels, bamboo screens and latticed paper sliding doors. They had not bothered to take off their footwear, a supreme insult to a household floor covered with waxed wooden planks and finely woven rice stalk mats.
They could hear the sound of revelry distinctly through the flimsy partitions. Frightened servants stopped in their tracks at their apparition. They ignored them.
Finally they arrived at a closed pair of sliding doors fashioned of thin cedar tree veneer of great value painted with exquisite figures of dragons flying through clouds.
They had reached the Dragon Room, Lord Tanung’s palace main hall.
They paused for an instant while their leader gently inserted his fingers into the spaces carved in the wood to help the doors slide along the grooves in the floor.
He silently pulled them open and they swiftly entered the room without a sound.
For the few seconds that their arrival had not been noticed, they had enough time to survey the scene.
The party was in full swing.
Highly ranked courtiers accompanied by their concubines or entertainers were sitting or lying at tables assembled in two parallel lines extending until the tables of Tanung and Pha-Lin, Lord and Lady of the House of Wisan. Large amounts of rice wine had already been imbibed judging from the state of the revelers. The day was hot and muggy, and in spite of servants swinging large fans, men and women could be seen in various stages of undress. A couple of women were unashamedly leaning on the shoulder of their companion, their breast bare for all to see. Three men, arms around shoulders to support each other, were loudly singing bawdy songs to the general encouragement of the other merrymakers.
The Ka-Ti leader noted the presence of Ayang, Lord of the House of Kar-Ti, Pirit, Lord of the House of Busan and Malamut, Lord of the House of Quang-Din. They just missed the petty lords of Kaisai island and he would have been facing the whole “Eastern Conspiration”, as the avowed opponents of Hsu Yia’s rule had began to be known. The party and the behavior of the guests was not much to be surprised at, but Lord Tanung and his wife were a different matter.
The Ka-Ti leader had heard of the couple’s depraved tastes, but he could not have imagined in all honesty the picture in front of his eyes.
Lord Tanung was sitting on a large cushion, his legs crossed in front of him, with a young boy and girl, barely past puberty, on each of his thighs. They were both outrageously made-up and leaning their heads on their sovereign’s shoulders, while the man was openly pawing and fondling them, totally oblivious to his surroundings. Lady Pha-Lin, for her part, was drinking rice wine from a cup held to by a young male servant only wearing a loincloth for all dress, while another in the same state of near nudity was kneeling behind her back, gently massaging her shoulders and talking into her ear.
They had seen enough.
The last two Ka-Ti violently closed the doors together with a loud clang, which startled all the revelers present.
The room fell deadly silent at the intrusion. All faces turned to stare at the figure of the old Ka-Ti with his arms crossed over his chest and his three companions standing in a row behind him, their hands clasped together on their stomachs.
Lord Tanung was the first to react:
“What is this violation?” he shouted, his arms still around the two children. “Why are you standing in front of your Lord? I shall have your heads …”
“Tanung, shut your mouth and open your eyes!” the Ka-Ti leader’s cold voice cut in.
The words seemed to wake Lord Tanung up. He suddenly realized he was not confronting one, but four of the most dreaded killers in the land.
He pushed the boy and girl aside. No one in the whole of Narosan had ever boasted meeting more than one of these professional murderers at the same time. But four? Had they come to claim his life, in full view of his guests? Cold sweat ran down his spine. Except for Pha-Lin who was gone past concern, everyone in the hall realized the predicament of their situation. Whatever their number, they stood no chance against four Ka-Ti in their inebriated state.
“What do you want?” croaked the Lord of the House of Wisan.
The old Ka-Ti did not immediately answer. He looked behind him at the woman wearing the facial veil.
She came to stand at his side.
“Tanung, do you recognize my charge?” he said as his female companion lifted the cloth covering her visage.
Tanung’s eyes bulged out of his sockets in recognition.
“Kaluin!”
He was not allowed to recover from his surprise.
The Ka-Ti leader said:
“Yes, Kaluin! Kaluin that you sent to her sure death when you ordered her to assassinate the Empress of Narosan! What did you hope to prove? One cannot kill Hsu Yia, our eternal sovereign! My charge was foolish enough to believe that she was serving her home and people when she accepted her mission. Well, the Empress spared her life and took her into her service! What do you say to that, Tanung?”
The object of his wrath could not find words. He would not have bothered to listen to his reasons anyway.
“Tanung, you shall see the next morning, unless someone else would do this world a great service by erasing your sorry sight from our eyes. But know one thing: by daring to desecrate the name of our order in commanding the death of our Empress, the Ka-Ti will retire from Wisan and the lands of your sycophants here present! Do not ever cross our path again, or that of our Empress for that matter, or I will call all of us and pay you a visit that no one will be able to relate!”
The old man’s hand disappeared behind his chest armor.
Lord Tanung and his court recoiled in fear. His wife Pha-Lin, heedless of the mortal danger, kept giggling, half sprawled over her cushions.
But no weapon came out with the Ka-Ti fighter’s hand. He held a pouch. He threw it on the low table in front of the Lord of Wisan. As it crashed on the lacquered wood, it spilled its contents.
“This is your gold, Tanung! No one will say that the Ka-Ti accepted your soiled wages!”
He turned his back without a further word exited the hall through the same sliding doors that his men had opened.
The entrance clanged shut behind them.
A drunk Pha-Lin broke the eerie silence left in their wake:
“Gold! Gold!” she screamed as she fell across the low table, grabbing for the spilled reward.
———————————
“The black wyverns! The black wyverns!”
Women and children ran for the safety of their huts, as half a dozen dark flying creatures appeared in the sky above the hamlet surrounded by rice paddies, a score of miles north of the port-city, which lay south of Narosan Island and facing the “Three Sisters” islands of Kong-I, Tsutana and Kai. The wyverns had become an almost daily nuisance. Most farmers had built shelters for their animals and armed themselves with javelins, bows and arrows. The small distant cousins of dragons of old did not appreciate their sting, although they were nigh impossible to kill, except for a lucky shot through an eye or down the throat. They hunted small prey only, but their maws could inflict lasting injuries on humans and large animals.
Their depredations had spread of late all along the south shores of Narosan Island from Karamasan to Tursan, a long way from their original eyries seep inside the mountains and crags found between the southern shores and the eastern coast of Kar-T and Wisan.
Local farmers and lords were becoming increasingly vocal for demands of protection by the Empire. But, short of an expedition of unseen proportions to destroy their nests in impossibly high crevices and caves, there was precious little that the Imperial Army could do.
Once again the villagers defended their livelihood.
Once again the wyverns left with more bounty.
How long could Hsu Yia ignore their plight?
————————–
Never in its long history, had Dunlago and the races of the Desert and the Sea had the occasion to witness and admire such pageantry.
The three Kings and five Queens of Alymndes were all standing together along the wharf of the harbor: King Marcus Vanenklaar of Dunlago and his wife Atraxa’s dark skins contrasted with the immaculate white color of their toga and stole. Neither bore any ornament but for a few rings, and their feet were secured in simple soft leather sandals. King Drumbeat Hammerblow and his dangerous wife Brighteyes Silverblade appeared like children dressed as soldiers beside the Dunlago rulers. Although garbed in full battle dress despite the late afternoon heat, they had donned basic helmets instead of their more usual full-face masks. An iron crown was precariously sitting on the Dwarf King’s steel cap, while his spouse sported a thick gold band around her brow below her headgear. No other Dwarf was to be seen, as the denizens of the Iron Crags cared little for ceremonies. They would have plenty of time after a good workday to socialize with everyone else around a large tanker of dark ale.
On the other side of the Dunlago Royal Couple stood King Gerhart of Beaucastel and his wife Marghrete de Pontaven. Gerhart had gladly discarded his crown and more showy trappings in favor of a straight surcoat bearing his Arms over a light shirt and thin hose, the latter stuck inside short boots of soft suede. His Walkyrie wife was resplendent in her full-length robe of sky blue drape secured at the waist by a waist band woven with gold and silk. A bandeau of interlaced bright-colored threads held her luxuriant raven hair waving in the breeze. Her Tribesmen guards, for once, were conspicuous for their absence, looking after the Royal heirs inside the cool Dunlago Palace.
The two women by her side, for all their bearing, could not have been more mismatched. No one could have guessed they were two sisters, and even less two creatures of legend in human disguise. She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons, more aptly called the Queen of the Steppes by her subjects, was adorned in the finest deer and lambskins. Her dark hair was braided on her temples, while a leather throng fastened her long ponytail. The afternoon sun reflected on the many stones, pearls and precious metals found in her necklaces, bracelets and braids. Whereas a constant smile brightened her perfect visage, Lady Geraldine de Blanchefleur’s mien was a show of impervious haughtiness. She wore a deep cobalt robe, very similar to Marghrete’s, tied at the waist by a band of black silk. She wore no ornament, and her hair flew freely along her temples. Her hands rested on the shoulders of two youngsters, one a dark girl of the Races of the Desert and the Sea in a small white stole leaving her arms and lower legs bare, and a blond boy wearing a costume of the same design as King Gerhart’s. His tabard showed the Arms of a blue dragon surmounted with a black label signifying him as the future heir of deceased Captain Geoffroy d’Arcourt of the Beaucastel Royal Guards.
Finally, beside the Dwarven rulers, stood ethereal Queen Ellana and Prince Consort Allaert from the Elf forest in the company of the two venerable Judges of Dunlago and Beaucastel.
Ekan, Dargelblad and Numnir were absent as they had boarded Captain Adir’s Seadragon ship in the morning.
Behind the Royalty of Alymndes, in no apparent order or precedence, all that counted as important figures in the five nations of the continent mingled in outlandish motley of colors, features and statures. Short Alfred de Vigny and statuesque Hildegard could be seen in busy conversation with King Marcus’ brother Anthony and his ever-provocative wife, Gladys. Shy Nepomucene de Beauvoir was quietly conferring with captain Sieghel, the Captain of the Elf Army of the West who had come all the way from the Western Shores on a rare leave from duty. Royal Guard Gratien de Salles-Lavauguyon and his female Dwarf companion, Firebrand, were sharing a joke with Chief Constable Petren and three singular-looking tribesmen.
Dunlago Constables, Beaulieu Royal Guards and Tribesmen surveyed the outskirts of the enormous crowd, keeping a low profile but an attentive eye for would-be cutpurses or potential troublemakers. They knew they ought not worry too much, but a calm show of authority was not superfluous.
Everyone was waiting for the pending arrival of very important but mysterious guests from a land that until the day before no one had known for certain existed. The coming of the whole Royalty of Alymndes had already provoked quite a revolution in Dunlago’s citizens’ life. But the sighting of four ships of untold proportions the precedent morning had threatened chaos in the city all the way from the harbor to the high hills of the Royal palace, in spite of ample warnings by the Constabulary and heralds from the Palace.
The four ships had appeared over the horizon with the morning sun. The port of Dunlago had entered a sudden period of frenzy as crews were seen running up the gangplanks of the Seadragon, the Hope and the Black Adder. As soon as the three Dragons had boarded them, they had raised anchor and left to meet the vessels of Narosan. The dragon ships had for their part dropped anchor a couple of miles away from the shore as their deep draught and size did not allow them to comfortably penetrate the harbor and moor at its wharfs.
The Seadragon had approached within shouting distance of the Empress Ship and lowered a large rowing boat that Captain Adir boarded in the company of the three Dragons while four mates manned the oars. Captains Petracan and Kamran had embarked in similar vessels to join them along the dragon ship.
Ropes were thrown to tie the boats along the flank of the immense ship. Ladders followed soon and the Captains and Dragons began climbing towards the rails, which had been opened for their convenience.
Narosan shipmates were waiting to help them aboard, but as the three burly Captains appeared, they stepped aside in awe at the sight of their sheer size. The Dunlago men were towering over the Narosan mariners by almost two heads. No one in their lands bore that dark color, even in the hot archipelago of Shi-En in the Deep South. And the white teeth of their smiles on their dark faces inspired more fear than welcome. As for the three Dragons who shortly followed, the alien combination of their vastly dissimilar features seemed to strike the Empress crew dumb with something more akin to alarm.
General Qusan, who had been gearing himself to greet them aboard in the company of Counselor Makan and his eight allies of the Western Alliance, could not help gaping at them in mute amazement. In a surreal moment of lucidity, he remembered his ruler mention a number of five Races in Alymndes. As far as he could see, there were still two missing. What did they look like?
Makan’s discreet cough behind him recalled him to his duties.
Mentally kicking himself for his lapse, the General, imitated by his retainers and the whole crew standing behind them in neat rows along the deck, deeply bowed with his right hand on his heart and eyes level with the chests of their visitors.
“Dear Gentlemen of Alymndes, it is my profound honor and true pleasure to welcome you aboard in the name of Our Empress Hsu Yia, Ruler of Narosan and all the islands within the five seas and her humble servants!” He impeccably repeated the welcome he had so painstakingly rehearsed.
The six visitors bowed back in similar fashion.
Captain Adir took it upon himself to reply:
“Dear Friends from a faraway land, in the name of King Marcus Vanenklaar, King of Dunlago, and of all the rulers of Alymndes and their subjects, we wish to express our deepest thanks and joy for crossing the seas between our nations, a feat that our humble vessels will never dream to accomplish! We nonetheless offer you the free use of our ships, their captains and crews for as long as Empress Hsu Yia will grace our land with her august presence!”
General Qusan had expected benevolence and greetings, but putting ships and entire crews to their sole service was an unheard-of offer back in their lands. As the Commander of the Narosan Army and Navy, he could appreciate the unreserved friendship and welcome bestowed on his Empress. Had he truly understood the extent of such a reception beforehand, never would he have needed Hsu Yia’s orders to cross the seas.
“Dear Friends, we shall never be able to express our thanks or gratitude! May I at least introduce you to the most trusted aides of Her Majesty?”
He then proceeded to carefully tell the names and titles of Karma, Lanin, Nali, Appati, Kanung, Wan-Si, Mo-To, Unna and Makan.
“General Qusan, you are too gracious and your mastery of our tongue puts us to shame! I sincerely hope that we may one day equal your proficiency! In turn, may I introduce Petracan, Captain of the “Hope” and Kamran, Captain of the “Black Adder”. I am Captain Adir, captain of the “Seadragon”. As for those gentlemen accompanying us, they have come to provide help and answer all the questions you may have on all aspects of our lands. They are Wilfred, Marshal of Queen Ellana’s Elf Forest, Flint Ironfoot, Counselor of Drumbeat Hammerblow, King Under the Mountain and good man Jonas, counselor of King Marcus Vanenklaar of Dunlago. King Gerhart of Beaulieu and She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons, Queen of the Steppes have deemed the three of them to be sufficient for the moment being. But we shall be glad to provide as many advisors you will feel the need for, whatever their field and skills!”
The smiles of his companions’ faces were not for the sole benefit of their guests. This would surely go down as the longest ever speech by Captain Adir and become the source of many a joke in Dunlago taverns.
General Qusan must have sensed the exertion behind Captain Adir’s performance. Decorum could wait until they put foot on the soil of Alymndes.
“I do not want to sound curt or ill-mannered, but Our Empress has been looking forward to meeting you for so long! May I ask you to follow me to her quarters?” he asked, gesturing them to come after him.
The six “men” of Alymndes walked behind the General, the other Lords of Narosan close behind.
They moved between the crews who experienced some difficulties averting their curious eyes from the persons of their outlandish visitors. They reached a large opening in the middle of the top deck surmounted by a kind of elevated porch. They went through and walked down a wide flight of stairs leading below deck.
Each of the Narosan ships used the two bottom decks for cargo and the lower or second deck for quarters. Hsu Yia’s had been devised in the centre of the vessel to minimize the roll and pull of the large ship. The Empress was sitting on a large chair in a room wide enough to hold a council.
She rose as General Qusan entered with his guests.
The Narosan lords bent a knee to the ground and as one bowed low.
Adir and his companions put their right hand on their heart and bowed.
But none of them lowered his eyes.
Hsu Yia responded with a radiant smile.
The three Captains of Dunlago could not help gaze at her person.
Almost as tall as the denizens of the Races of the Desert and the Sea, she wore an unadorned ivory robe with wide sleeves and an ample purple sash. No ribbon or clasp held her hair falling along her perfect visage and nape down to her waist. She bore no jewels or any artifacts. She did not need them.
She broke the awed silence.
“Dear guests! Beloved subjects! Pray forego the ceremonies! This is a private meeting. I would be grateful if we all sat down and enjoyed an informal conversation!”
She clapped her hands.
Crewmembers brought many large cushions for all of them to comfortably sit on, and a low lacquered table they installed in front of each guests once seated.
Pots, cups and small trays of food, evidently some kind of small sweet cakes, were served. The servants poured a hot green liquid inside each cup and then retired.
“Please! Make yourselves at ease and enjoy the tea and the food!” The Empress said, sitting gracefully on cushions to bring herself at their level.
Jonas brought his cup to his lips. The drink was hot but refreshing and tasty with a slight tang.
“Empress, what is this beverage you call tea?”
“Ah, good man Jonas! I knew you would appreciate it! But shall we leave the explanation till later? We have more pressing matters to discuss, have we not?”
Ekan smiled and went on sipping his tea.
Captain Adir’s face creased. For all his rugged appearance, he was blessed with a quick mind. Something bothered him. The occasion would not probably repeat itself. Once, he had faced the Black Dragon and knew the existence of others. He was also aware that two more of them were presently among his company.
He raised his right hand.
“Yes, Captain Adir?” Hsu Yia encouraged him.
The Dunlago man possessed a strong will and needed all of it, but he did not flinch.
“Empress, please forgive my uncouth manners, but for my peace of mind, may I ask you why you know the name of Jonas and now mine, although we have not been formally introduced yet?”
The question drew an audible gasp of indignation from the Narosan Lords.
Hsu Yia laughed.
“Captain Adir! Praise your mettle and perspicacity!”
She turned to her retainers:
“Lords of Narosan! What would you say of that? How refreshing to discover someone who is not ready to grovel at my mere sight! Behold Captains Adir, Petracan and Kamran! These are the men who kept the seas of Alymndes free and safe for us to sail across!”
No one answered.
The three Dragons waited. They knew the true purpose of their meeting.
Hsu Yia started:
“Captain Adir already knows more than many of us here, but still less than some people in Alymndes. We also owe his companions some explanations. The time has come for some harsh revelations. Now, what is to be said shall not leave this hall! You shall certainly come to understand the reasons for secrecy!”
“But Empress …” stammered Qusan.
“Be at peace, General! Nobody but we can hear!”
She raised a placating hand to fend off Qusan’s protests.
“As difficult as it is to keep any talk private aboard a ship,“ she continued, “I have raised wards that have effectively shut us up to any unconcerned ears. Call it magic if you wish. Some carefully chosen individuals in Alymndes already know of our uncommon powers. By “our”, I mean mine and those of Jonas, Wilfred and Ironfoot here present. There are four more, namely She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons, Queen of the Steppes, and Lady Geraldine de Blanchefleur, the most trusted Counselor of King Gerhart of Beaulieu. You might in good time guess the identities of the last two, but you do not need to know for the moment being. As for the individuals already aware of our existence, time only will tell when you shall discover them. I was brought to Narosan at the very moment its people had started to organize themselves into distinctive societies and nations. My friends in Alymndes were conceived there less than eight years ago. You heard me well; Jonas, Wilfred and Ironfoot have lived for only eight years of your reckoning! Only the women elves in Alymndes possess true magic, although to a lesser degree than ours. Captain Adir had to go through a harrowing trial to be convinced in time of dire need, and I do not plan to distress you unnecessarily. Just to demonstrate the truth of my words, look at my face while I am speaking at you! Do you notice anything uncommon?”
The Lords of Narosan and the Dunlago Captains stared at the Empress with uncomprehending eyes.
Then it brutally downed on them:
Hsu Yia had not as much as moved her lips all the time she had been talking to them!
General Qusan falteringly questioned:
“Her Majesty has been speaking in our minds all the time?”
Hsu Yia replied with a smile.
The Lords of Narosan glanced at each other. Their dismay was almost palpable.
Petracan and Kamran kept their faces set in front of overwhelming odds. The mariners of Narosan had nothing to fear from the sea inside their gigantic ships, but the Dunlago Captains lived with the fear of the oceans and their capricious whims all their lives.
Counselor Makan bent his body deeply from his sitting position.
“Your Majesty, this subject of yours has lived long years and known more adventures and people than his due. Therefore, however dire the consequences might turn out to be, I shall ask this question, even if it proves the last one: who or what are you?”
An oppressive silence welcomed his words.
Neither Hsu Yia, nor her kin condescended to reply.
It was Adir’s voice, which broke the stillness of the moment:
“Dragons.”
Every Lord of Narosan turned his eyes on the stolid form of the Dunlago Captain who impassively repeated:
“Dragons they are! Or I should say: “Hsu han ee kan!” in your language”
His hand halted the words from his interlocutors.
“Do not ask me how I know your language. I don’t! Jonas has just put the words into my head!”
For once, Counselor Makan forgot all tradition and etiquette when he directly addressed the quiet black man towering over him:
“Captain Adir! Dragons are legends! They are mere figures of speech! They are just symbols!”
Adir’s lips stretched into a thin smile.
“Counselor Makan, I do not see the point to prove the matter. Petracan and Kamran here, I am sure, are convinced as they have heard of good man Jonas’ past exploits. Believe me, you do not want to go through the demonstration I had to when I refused to believe my dear friend. Do not be angered at the apparent lack of deference in my words. They are truly our friends. Now that it is settled, it would be an unforgivable breach of protocol not to savor the delicious drink and food that Empress Hsu Yia was so kind to offer us, would you not think?”
The Dragon of Narosan laughed in true merriment.
“Praised be this day again! I knew that the vaunted Lords of Narosan would learn much from the people of Alymndes! But who could have foretold it would be unreserved humility and solid practicality?
The Seadragon had entered the harbor of Dunlago. As it approached the wharf, onlookers massed on the quay could espy the shapes of black giants and diminutive men with yellow-brown skins busy on its deck. In spite of the great difference in height and stature, the Narosan crew showed equal expertise and efficiency. Ropes flew to handlers on the ground to be tied around the bollards. A large gangplank was lowered onto the stones of the wharf. Two Narosan sailors were seen running down the ramp to help stabilize it with both hands, a knee on the ground and their heads bowed.
The talks among the waiting crowd soon abated to an insignificant murmur when a majestic figure appeared above the deck and began slowly walking down the gangplank.
Hsu Yia was towering head and shoulders above the two servants who held her trailing robes while she gracefully moved on the stones towards the Dunlago royal Couple. Her hair was artfully bundled on top and around her head held by long tortoise shell pins leaving a long tail secured by ribbons tumble down all the way to her waist.
Apart from her long eyebrows delicately stretched above her above her elongated eyes, she had discarded all artifice for all to see her unflawed olive skin. The setting sun lent her a surreal aura as she easily ambled in her long-sleeved robe woven in diaphanous ivory cloth cinched under her breast by a wide purple waistband. Back at home she would have worn many dresses on top of each other in an intricate combination of colors and her servants would have spent much time and efforts on an elaborate make-up on any part of her skin on display. Instead she had chosen some simple attire more in the line of clothing prevalent in Dunlago on Ekan’s advice. Apart from a necklace of intertwined filaments of silver and gold enhanced with some precious stones that shone between her breasts only half concealed by the fabric of her dress, she wore no other embellishment but the pins and ribbons holding her lustrous black hair.
On the other hand, the nine retainers following close on her steps had donned the full parade gear of high-ranked fighters in their own world. Except for their heads, their bodies were completely covered from their necks down to their nails and toes with armor made of dark lacquered plates made from hard sea tortoise shell, a material lighter and better suited than cumbersome metal. Save for Counselor Makan, all sported the rearing figure of an eastern dragon on their breastplate and a long sword inside a sturdy leather scabbard fastened to the left of a belt concealed by their overlapping armor. Each of them held his helmet under his right arm, while his left hand easily rested on the pommel of his sword, or his belt in the case of General Qusan’s trusted aide. For all their diminutive height, they struck their audience as accomplished fighters; such was the martial ease of their bearing. They certainly intrigued Hammerblow who was wondering what their armor might be made of.
Hsu Yia halted a few steps away from the Dunlago Royal Couple. As soon as her retainers had imitated her in a single row with General Qusan in their middle, she deeply bowed to King Marcus Vanenklaar and the crowd surrounding him.
Ekan, watching from the ship, sensed a moment of shock rippling through her retainers. They had never witnessed her bow in public, or in any other place for that matter. Knowing who she truly was at last, how could she possibly defer to mere humans?
But their discipline quickly took over and they all bent their left knee to the ground, bowed and let out a deep cry of salute in unison.
Marcus and Atraxa, imitated by all present, even guards and lay people, bowed in greeting.
As everyone raised their heads again, the Dunlago King saluted the Dragon of the East:
“Empress Hsu Yia, Ruler of Narosan and all the isles between the five seas, in the name of all people and nations of Alymndes, I wish to offer our humble thanks for condescending to cross the oceans and grade our lands with your person!”
His welcome, for all its simplicity, struck a chord with her followers, who could have not imagined Marcus so knowledgeable of their Empress’ titles. But all belatedly realized that he must have been taught before by one of the creatures of legend in their midst.
A genuine smile shone on Hsu Yia’s beautiful visage when she replied:
“King Marcus Vanenklaar, it is we who shall be eternally indebted to you all for welcoming us to your lands that we had ignored in our pride and conceit! In turn may I express my personal thanks to everyone in Alymndes through your rulers who honor us with their attendance to this fated meeting: King Marcus and Queen Atraxa Vanenklaar of the Races of the Desert and the Sea, may your ships soon grace our shores! King Drumbeat Hammerblow and Queen Brighteyes Silverblade, may the denizens under the Iron Crags tremble at the mention of your names! Queen Ellana and Prince Consort Allaert, may the trees of Elf Forest always grant their shade upon your persons! King Gerhart de Beaucastel and Queen Marghrete de Pontaven, may we be granted anon the pleasures of Beaulieu! She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons, Queen of the Steppes, may the unending grass plains bring endless bounty to the Free tribes!”
The crowd, the time of a few heartbeats, stood silent in awe at the solemnity of the occasion. The Empress of a fabled land had arrived among them, greeting their Kings and Queens by name in the common language of Alymndes. The Ruler of an immense Realm had readily bowed and spoken to them in thanks.
A cry came out of the enraptured crowd:
“Hail the Empress of Narosan!”
The cry was soon repeated by the whole crowd standing behind the Sovereigns of Alymndes to the sound of hands clapping in a spontaneous display of friendship and welcome.
The slightly embarrassed smiles on the faces of the Kings and Queeens of Alymndes were sufficient to convince the Lords of Narosan of the genuineness of the welcome offered by representatives of the five different people of such a vast land.
General Qusan reflected that, whereas they would have to go through interminable ceremonies to the blaring sound of thousands of wind instruments and the deafening pounding of an even larger number of drums from subjects among which lurked constant danger, here they were greeted in maddening simplicity by people who had just fought harrowing battles to protect their lands from an alien invasion. For the whole day and night that Ekan and his brothers stayed aboard the Imperial ship, they had assailed the three Dragons with questions on the war just concluded. How could these people go back to their everyday cares so easily? It was quite a sobering thought for the veteran campaigner to realize that so many men and women had united to erect a common front against adversity in spite of their immense differences. Hsu Yia had predicted they would learn from Alymndes and its inhabitants, and it could turn out that acquiring the mastery of their language was only a small feat compared to the mass of knowledge and experience they could obtain in the future.
King Marcus made up his mind that it was about time to conclude the greetings for the time being. He called Chief Constable Petren who was waiting for his signal, and soon a procession of horse-drawn ceremonial carts reached the wharf.
Marcus and Atraxa invited Hsu Yia to climb in the first one, while the other rulers of Alymndes readily boarded the following carts in no preordained precedence. The Judges, Anthony and Gladys Vanenklaar joined them. After a moment of hesitation quickly overcome by the Empress, the Lords of Narosan sat inside the vehicles according to their preference or the unceremonious invitations of their passengers. Once again, General Qusan reflected on his lack of preparation. They would have to quickly get rid of their uncomfortable armors and encumbering swords if they wished to freely mingle with their new friends.
For their part, Amrel and most of the representatives of the five nations of Alymndes repaired to the Blue Mermaid and the other inns found in the vicinity of the harbor. They would meet the Narosan Empress and her subjects again in a grand banquet held the next day inside the Royal Palace where the merchants and other lay people of both lands would be provided with ample opportunity to engage in matters of mutual interest.
All along the way up to the Dunlago Palace, local citizens and visitors greeted the ceremonial cortege. Petren and his Constables insured a token show of security. The welcome for the ruler of a distant land had been well prepared. The citizens of the Capital were truly enjoying the occasion. Everyone was looking forward to the next day’s celebrations.
But all was not well under the skies of Alymndes.
———————————-
They had been bivouacking in front of Valmoray for three days.
If Rodolphe de Valmoray would not come to them, Birghit would go to him.
She had debriefed the Royal Guards garrisoned in the city. They had told her disturbing news: the Baron had not been seen in public since a moon before the battle of the Wall. Neither had his family nor near kin. His personal guard had refused entry to anyone to the large city dungeon where he and his household resided, and only accepted to take messages and letters inside. Even the Royal Guards had been denied access.
A show of force had become unavoidable.
On the morning of the fourth day, Birghit and her whole troop had ridden to the gates of the city and dismounted their horses in front of the walls, thus effectively blocking any rider wishing to come out. No one had opposed their entry. The city militia consciously ignored them, evidently not overanxious to start a confrontation.
Inside they met citizens going about their business, showing no particular concern for the unannounced small army. Birghit ordered three scores of her forces to be posted at all entries to the city. She sent ten more to the harbor to survey its vicinity. She reached the large dungeon in the company of four Royal Guards, five soldiers of the Grey Legion and their Corporal. The tall tower used to be part of a fortress with a large bailey and commons. As the city spread both towards the port and outwards into the neighboring land, only the dungeon had escaped demolition. It had been transformed into a great mansion as it provided ample personal living space for the entire household of the baron of Valmoray, and still could house his staff, servants, halls and kitchen. At the same time, the thick walls ensured total privacy from the outside world. It could also serve its original purpose as a castle since it should be easy to shut and defend, Birghit pondered.
The citizens of the small but affluent harbor city had other cares than to delve into their liege’s personal affairs, which could explain their general apathy as the small army entered Valmoray. The main doors were closed like all other exits at ground level as far as she could make out.
There was little need to tarry.
She signaled to Gardan, the former convict of Dunlago to knock at the door while she waited with her squad at her back.
No answer came.
They waited for some time, until she directed Gardan to knock again.
This time, they heard the muffled sounds of feet running down some stairs. Apparently their coming had been observed from a higher vantage point. The Lieutenant did not mind since no one could have seen her hand behind her back warning her retinue. The well trained Royal Guards and Grey Legionaries knew they had to keep ready for any occurrence and still affect the nonchalant attitude of soldiers on a routine mission.
The door slowly opened to the sight of three fully armed soldiers wearing the livery of Baron Rodolphe de Valmoray. The Walkyrie was cognizant of the Baron’s Arms of three silver ships on a blue background that the men sported on their tabards. Three argent nefs on an azure field, she remembered from her studies as the page of a punctilious Royal Guard officer with a peculiar liking for lore and tradition.
Since when did Rodolphe de Valmoray possess his own liveried men-at-arms? As far as she could remember, they never had been mentioned in any report she had read or listened to. The Royal Guards garrisoned in the city had not mentioned the Arms being worn by any guard at the tower.
The three men did not bear any particular trait that could have made them appear as strangers. Their beards did not mean much as half of the men, especially civilians, in Beaulieu, sported some. Why did she feel that itch at the back of her neck that came every time she sensed something fishy?
The man-at-arms asked haughtily:
“Who is knocking at the door of our liege, Baron Rodolphe de Valmoray?”
The Walkyrie kept a rein on her temper.
“Lieutenant Birghit of the Royal Guards of His Majesty King Gerhart of Beaulieu! And who may you be since you do not seem to hold a healthy grasp of basic manners to introduce yourself to your superior?”
The man did not flinch at the Lieutenant’s cold voice.
“As the private guard of Baron de Valmoray, I do not have to answer to anyone, whatever or whoever he or she happens to represent! Now, could you state your reason for calling on our liege?”
Birghit was seething inside. The fact was that she could not really exert her authority without a proper warrant signed and sealed by her King. Even so, she still required a formal acknowledgement from Rodolphe de Valmoray as a subject of Gerhart, which she did not know whether it had been received in Beaucastel.
Short of creating a diplomatic incident, there was little she could do, though it would not be the first time that she provoked a scandal.
“We have come to inquire about Baron Rodolphe de Valmoray on orders of King Gerhart. His majesty has not received any reply to the messages that he has kept sending for the last six moons, and why no troops were sent to the Wall when requested to help with the defense of the nation!”
The man-at-arms passed a finger between his neck and the black cloth, which appeared from under his tabard. The day was becoming hot, and he must have begun to sweat from the sudden exposure to daylight.
“Is that all?” he mockingly retorted. “Know that our liege is no longer of fighting age and could not have raised an army among the small militia barely sufficient to look after the needs of our citizens. If you want to know why the Baron has chosen not to reply to the messages you mentioned, you will have to make a formal request to our liege for an interview. Moreover, you are well aware that such a meeting requires the coming of His Majesty’s ascertained envoys, and not a mere bunch of soldiers! Now, if you do not mind, we have work to attend to. Good day, Lieutenant!”
He turned heels.
A fuming Birghit was about to give up against her best judgment when that inkling of imminent trouble came back to assail her.
She suddenly had it: the black cloth!
The door was already starting to close.
“Gardan!” she screamed, “keep that door open!”
Shouting to all her soldiers to rush the entrance, she bounded after the big black Dunlago man who had shouldered the door open again and was already on the back of the last man-at-arms.
They all knew that they were taking a risk, but their Lieutenant had ordered in no uncertain manner. The questions could wait until later.
The two other men-at-arms were already turning back, sword in hand to help their comrade. But they stood little chance against ten trained soldiers slamming into them en masse.
They nonetheless had a hard time immobilizing them once they had been rid of their weapons. They had no alternative but to knock them out one by one until they lay prone unconscious on the floor.
Birghit kneeled by the side of their leader. Taking a knife out her boot, she cut the tabard at the shoulders and pulled it down.
A gasp of disgust escaped from every soldier’s mouth.
The man-at-arms wore a black doublet with a gold hammer across it.
The Walkyrie went to the two other guards and cut the tabards.
She uncovered the same.
All by now, even the former convicts enrolled in the Grey Legion, knew of the Hammer of Fate and the raving fanatics who had to be eradicated to the last one from Montjoie and its neighborhood after a horrendous war. They had also been told of the fate of Montreduc, which had been utterly desecrated and its whole population, including women and children, massacred in unbelievably atrocious manner.
Apparently these three – were there any others? – had arrived before the Battle of the Wall. The scourge was more widespread than they had believed.
Birghit pointed to two of her Legionaries.
“The two of you, close the door, tie them securely and stand guard while we investigate the place! If they so much as shout, scream or insult you when they wake up, knock them out again! The rest of you, follow me!
They first proceeded carefully up the first floor, as they were pretty sure no one else was to be found at ground level.
When they reached upstairs, they were greeted by an eerie silence.
All the rooms were empty, although in varied states of disorder. Tables and stools in the kitchen stood where they ought to. The larders were carefully closed and the access to the well all the way down to the ground floor was clear of any encumbrance. But the rest was an indescribable mess as if the place had been ransacked and fouled on purpose.
They climbed to the next floors where the general state was even worse. But they still found nobody.
They finally reached the last floor. It seemed to have been used by the men-at-arms, judging from its comparatively clean condition and the three cots and many chests against the wall supporting racks and hooks for clothing and weapons.
Where could the whole household gone to?
Birghit and any Royal Guard garrisoned in the city would have known if Baron Valmoray had left. Moreover, nearly fourteen moons had passed since the rape of Montreduc and Baron Rodolphe had stopped sending messages for the last five moons. Had the Hammer of Fate spread over the whole Realm, or was Valmoray only the next attempt to bring the nation in subservience? The mere thought sent a chill down Birghit’s spine.
But first, she had to find the Valmoray household.
They had checked the whole tower, a fairly easy task in itself. She doubted the building concealed any secret space inside the walls in spite of their sturdy thickness. The tower had been at the core of a vast fortified castle, which had been dismantled to provide building material for the growing harbor city. Birghit had once seen a painting of the place in the old times inside the vast hall back in Beaucastel used for military instruction. She still could memorize it with is curtain walls, barbican, commons, bailey, dungeon, angle towers … dungeons!
“All of you! Come down with me!” she shouted, already rushing down the stairs.
They soon arrived on the ground floor. The three men-at-arms were still out cold. She signed the two Legionaries on guard to help them.
“We must find the entrance of the dungeons! Hurry!”
The last word was said without much conviction. What she had seen in Montreduc and Montjoie filled her with foreboding …
“Lieutenant! Come here!” called one of the Royal Guards who knew more where to look than the others.
They gathered around him. He was pointing at a large metal ring fixed to what looked like a wide hatch inserted in the slab stone floor.
“Pull it open!” she ordered.
This was easily done, proof that it had been used recently.
An unbearable stench assailed their noses as they tried to peer down the hole. Nothing could be seen inside the dark maw of the deep cavity.
Looking up, Birghit saw torches in their sconces against a wall.
“Light one of these torches and give us some light!” she commanded.
Soon the crackle of a burning torch was heard in the oppressive silence reigning in the room.
The Walkyrie brought the torch above the opening.
She gasped in horror.
The hole was half filled with decaying bodies, some still wearing their clothes, others stark naked. On top lay the battered corpse of an old man, probably the Baron. The Hammer of Fate followers had probably thrown the whole household down into the dungeons, one at a time after submitting them to abominations she dared not imagine, to convince Rodolphe de Valmoray to embrace their foul beliefs.
“Close that thing!” she groaned between gritted teeth.
As she stood up, she read abhorrence and despair on her soldiers’ faces. Even the hard-bitten Legionaries were shaking their heads in disbelief and disgust.
She turned to the Royal Guards among her troop.
“Royal Guards, find your fellow soldiers and tell them to gather all men and women of note in this city outside within the following hour! Also direct the Legionaries to block all exits from the city! And I don’t care if you have to bully the people of Valmoray into obedience!” The icy tone of the Walkyrie had the soldiers scramble out of the tower in no time.
Birghit addressed her Grey Legionaries:
“Take that vermin outside!”
The five soldiers and their Corporal dragged the still comatose former men-at-arms through the open door and had them sit beside the entrance, two men standing behind each, a hand grasping a shoulder to prevent the murderers from toppling over. Birghit stood waiting in front of them, legs slightly apart and arms crossed over her chest.
Passers-by began to assemble, curious of what the commotion was all about.
The first Royal Guards were soon coming back in the company of notables, some having to be pushed among indignant cries and shouts of protest.
Birghit ignored their questions or objections. In the case of some particularly recalcitrant individuals, she curtly ordered the Guards to forcibly make them shut up.
It soon became apparent that someone was very angry with the populace of Valmoray in general, and that wrathful personage was a Walkyrie, Lieutenant of the Royal Guards, and the highest rank since the death of their Captain, Geoffroy d’Arcourt, at the Battle of the Wall.
The veteran woman soldier had witnessed the doom handed onto the Montjoie population by King Gerhart, but she did not intend to be as lenient as her sovereign.
The last notables, men and women alike, were finally assembled inside a tight cordon of soldiers to fend them off the crowd, which had grown to an unseen size in the history of the city.
Birhgit called the nearest four Royal Guards:
“The two of you, open the trap and light torches to show what’s inside!” she ordered the first two.
Turning to the other pair, she commanded:
“Take each man and woman, one at a time, to the dungeon and have him or her take a good look at what we found inside and bring him or her back here!”
The two Guards were past bothering about manners or other niceties. They grabbed the first man by his arms and marched him inside the tower.
The crowd had turned to silence. What were the Royal Guards trying to prove?
A short moment later, the hush was broken by a muffled shout of anguish.
The two guards emerged again from the dungeon supporting a livid citizen of Valmoray whose legs barely upheld. They left him apart of his fellow townspeople. The next resident they took inside was a richly dressed woman of middle age. The cry of horror that everyone heard was suddenly cut. The soldiers appeared carrying the lady who had fainted and left her in the care of the first citizen. The soldiers moved to the next member of the gathered senior members of the city. Their Lieutenant curtly signed for the Guards to be regularly relieved off their grisly task, but all notables to the last one, had to go inside the dungeon.
When the whole had finally been concluded, Birghit stepped forward.
A fearful silence reigned over the large city square in front of the tower, broken only by the stifled moans and sobs of its unfortunate visitors.
Birghit’s barely contained anger could be heard and felt in her voice by all present.
“Men and women of Valmoray!” She shouted in the commanding tone that many soldiers had learned to heed, “you do not deserve the title of citizens! For the last fourteen moons, you have ignored your own neighbors to the point of abetting their wanton slaughter! The three murderers here could have committed their crimes only because you have consciously turned your eyes away! The family and Baronage of Valmoray is no more! Neither are the families of their servants! I hereby, in the name of the Crown of Beaulieu, decree that your city and country to fall under the sole authority of King Gerhart and His Majesty’s martial law until judgment has been passed! All male notables gathered here will immediately exhume the bodies of the victims with their own hands! Female notables are requested to fetch wood and fuel at once to build pyres! Once these tasks have been completed, the entire population, old and young, men, women and children will pay homage to the departed until their ashes are scattered by the winds! Only then, will you be allowed to go back to your daily chores, but no one will be authorized to leave the city or harbor until King Gerhart has come and made his will known upon you!”
Turning a deaf ear to the laments to the burghers of Valmoray, she gave orders to the Royal Guards and legionaries pertaining to the organization and enforcement of martial law. She had a messenger depart at once to fetch Lieutenant Maheut and the Golden Dragon Squad to help with the supervision of the city.
As soon as these were done with, she called Gardan to her side.
“Is there a Dunlago ship presently mooring in the harbor?” she asked the big, scarred former convict who at times shared her bed.
“There is one actually! You shall recognize it easily enough!”
“Good! I have to go to Dunlago immediately to notify King Gerhart! You are coming with me!”
“But, …” the black giant started.
“There’s no but, Gardan! Whatever you did back in your land has been cleared off your slate at the Battle of the Wall! And if anyone is stupid enough to point out the contrary, he will have to face me! Now, let’s go!”
Shrugging his shoulders, Gardan went ahead as she gave her last orders on the way.
They soon reached the harbor where a fairly large ship was tied to the wharf. They boarded without further ado under the questioning eyes of the crew. They found the Captain behind the wheel, an eyebrow raised in askance at the intrusion.
Birghit formally saluted him:
“Lieutenant Birghit of His Majesty King Gerhart’s Royal Guards and Grey legion!”
The man equably replied:
“Captain Aamir of the Seafangs! Greetings! I have heard of your exploits at the Wall, Lieutenant! What may bring you to my humble ship?”
“I’m afraid a most importune contingency forces me to travel to Dunlago at once, and the trip by sea will be the fastest! I do not have any authority to requisition your ship, but you will do a most welcome service to both our nations and Kings if you would take me to your Capital at once!”
The Captain began to protest, but Birghit interrupted him:
“Captain Aamir, I know you must have more than one valid reason to disagree! Just let me tell you that not only you will be fully compensated for whatever loss in trade and opportunities, but King Gerhart will also make the return trip in your ship! Consider yourself in the employment of the Crown, for which you will be paid in full!”
The captain still hesitated.
Gardan decided that his own word might help.
“Captain Aamir, Lieutenant Birghit always keeps her word! I am the living proof of her promises!”
Aamir had a closer look at the Legionary:
“Are you not named Gardan?”
“Yes, I am.”
“If I remember well, you were sent to forced labor for past crimes?” the captain quietly added.
“Yes, I was.” Gardan equally replied.
“Are you one of the convicts who were given a second chance for defending our lands in the battle of the wall?”
“Yes, I am.”
Captain Aamir did not comment.
He turned to the Walkyrie:
“Lieutenant Birghit, the high tide will reach us in about three hours. My crew only has to load fresh water and fresh food before this ship can leave port. Will you be ready by then?”
The big woman held her hand forward:
“Captain Aamir, my profound thanks! You will not regret it!”
The Dunlago man shook her hand.
Just as they were about to turn back, Aamir called:
“Gardan!”
Birghit sensed her big soldier tense.
“Yes, Captain Aamir?”
“That trip of ours shall take the best of a full week. That should leave you plenty of time to relate us all what happened at the Wall!”
A sheepish grin appeared on the Legionary’s cragged face:
“Count on me, Captain Aamir!”
Back on the wharf, Birghit addressed her companion:
“See, Gardan! This is why I need you by my side in Dunlago!”
“I do not know about that. Captain Aamir, I am pretty sure, took part in the battle of Villefranche and has a different understanding of life. I doubt the people of Dunlago will accept me that easily!”
“We shall see! Let’s hurry. I have a few things to pick up and more instructions to give before we can leave!”

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