Narosan 5: Treacheries

The city of Narosan was busy preparing for the welcome of Empress Hsu Yia after a long absence.
The Imperial Ships had anchored at a distance from the vast harbor for the last three days, but no one aboard them had come to shore yet. There was nothing particularly exceptional about that delay as such a grand affair as the return of the Empress from her first-ever overseas voyage was not to be taken lightly by the ceremony-conscious citizens of Narosan.
The fourth day witnessed at long last some concrete activity. A number of large flat-bottomed barges were seen being hauled to and from the Imperial Ships all morning carrying heavy loads that were subsequently stored in precise order under large canvas awnings on one side of the wide wharf. A curious crowd steadily increased as the cargo was being unloaded and exhibited in full view, although Imperial Guards kept the bystanders at length. Soon, more canvas had to be provided to protect the wares from the sun. Most of the boxes, casks and bundles either bore the seals of the Empress or those of the merchants who had accompanied her, but more than one onlooker pointed at two large wooden barrels bearing General Qusan’s family crest. Which had them deduce the single and galling fact that not only the Narosan traders who made the trip, but probably all soldiers and mariners from officers down to mere deckhands had seemingly profited from their voyage to that alien land called Alymndes.
Early in the afternoon, a lighter boat solely utilized for the transport of the Empress and her retinue left the wharf in the direction of the Imperial Ship.
Hsu Yia was finally going to grace the citizens of Narosan with her presence.
It looked as if the populace had been waiting for that signal. Any open space in the harbor and its vicinity found itself suddenly crowded with men and women jostling for a better vantage point, resulting into quite a few high-pitched shouts of outrage and angry words, notwithstanding the occasional scuffle.
The crowd turned to a more subdued behavior when a whole regiment of Imperial Guards arrived on the scene to clear a path across the harbor pushing everyone away regardless of gender with little decorum if not straightforward force in the case of some obtuse onlookers.
The Imperial Guards would be needed as it had become evident to all that the Empress intended to walk toward her palace as neither the usual carts, chairs or their handlers, nor even any official welcoming party were anywhere to be seen. The realization of such an unprecedented lack of protocol seemed to send a ripple of excitement through the crowd.
The mob grew restive again when the Empress’s ceremonial vessel neared the wharf. By Dunlago standards it would have been considered in the same class as a very rich merchant ship with the difference that it was solely used for formal pomp and on very rare occasions at that.
Cries of wonder arose among well-wishers and onlookers as they could gradually make out the silhouettes of the many passengers surrounding the tall figure of Hsu Yia standing erect in the middle of the deck.
The Imperial ceremony vessel soon glided to the wharf, and as the sails were expertly trimmed, it smartly veered to rest its flank against the stone quay without much of a sound. Ropes were thrown to be looped around bollards while half a dozen Guards ran to help lowering the wide gangplank from a large opening in the middle of the rail.
A hush of anticipation spread over the waiting crowd.
Instead of the expected vanguard of servants and soldiers, the Empress immediately stepped onto the unadorned wooden ramp. She wore a long ivory robe of diaphanous fabric cinched under her breasts flowing down to her sandaled feet. Her long ebony hair was secured at the back of her nape by a ribbon of the same material. She wore no jewels or finery but three rings of finely wrought gold and silver around each of her wrists, a gift of the Dwarves and Elves of Alymndes who had spent many an hour at nights fashioning them in the privacy of their cabins aboard the Imperial ship. Merchants as they might be, the denizens of the Iron Crags and of the Sacred Forest had been blessed with long existences to learn and master some of the crafts that had quickly grown so much in demand in their vast continent across the seas.
The more impressed the Narosan people felt at the sheer simplicity of their Empress’ attire, the bigger their surprise proved upon sighting her guests’ apparels. The Alymndes delegates had donned their best clothes in accordance with their own particular traditions.
A natural order, except for a single individual, seemed to have taken place, allowing members of the procession to walk along depending on their personal height and size.
For once, the Dwarves had discarded any piece of metal usually apparent on their burly bodies. They sported the clothes worn from time to time by their friends away in Beaucastel: colorful caps over their heads, tunics of various dyes under their carefully braided beards, large hand-carved leather belts and loose pants tucked into heavy boots.
The Beaulieu merchants bore the Arms of their families embroidered across short open-chest doublets hanging over their thighs and secured with narrow bands of cloth around the waists while their legs were hidden inside hoses and soft boots.
The three Warriors of the Steppes had bound their newly grown hair with thin strips of tinted cloth and small beads. Their tunics and leggings were made of the softest skins and suede ornamented with small pieces of carved bone, stone and shell. Probably for the first time in their young lives they carried no weapons, concealed or not.
In comparison the dark giants of Dunlago struck more an image of immense power than of elegance although the open waist coats that allowed all to see their chests and arms rippling with thick muscles were woven with material only wealthy people could afford. Their loose pants secured inside wide cummerbunds around their wide girths tapered off at their ankles to reveal feet encased in sandals or pointed slippers. Onlookers who had thought the Dunlago mariners were the largest beings they ever had the occasion to set their eyes upon had to raise their faces and bend their necks backward until they hurt at the unconceivable height of the three Elves wearing hoses and shirts of muted colors. Each one had tied a precious stone on his forehead with a thin throng of leather leaving his hair to fall free on his shoulders.
But above all, the crowd wondered who might be the woman walking close behind the Empress. Almost equal in height to Hsu Yia, she appeared of the same race as the three tanned men in skins. Like them she had bound her hair with strips of suede and small beads. But how could she have come to possess that tortoise shell comb which held her hair away from her forehead? Narosan citizens knew for a fact that only their ruler donned such an ornament incrusted with mother-of-pearl in the shape of a dragon.
Comments and speculations were already flying high when everyone had to revise his or her thinking once again upon espying the figures of the Dragons informally mingling with the flower of the Imperial Army and Navy. Now some people were caught in some quick calculations. Why did only three representatives of the fabled continent appear to hold a high rank and not five as the last seemed to be the number of races living in the far away land. Unless the woman was the power-that-be among the strange dun-colored ones dressed in skins? And what of those pink-skinned men?
But the greater part of the throng massed on both sides of the parade cared little about such elevated considerations and heartily took this rare opportunity to cheer their Empress and guests.
At one time a child escaped the vigilance of his mother to run through the guards to have a closer look at the procession. Before anyone could react, Maerdhel scooped him in his long arms. Looking at the crowd, he had no difficulty finding his parents gazing at him in sudden fear.
The smiling Elf led the boy by the hand towards the front row of a suddenly subdued assembly. Gently pushing the waif ahead, he told his parents in perfect Narosan tongue:
“Dear people, you ought to keep a sure hand on your lively son!”
He ruffled the boy’s hair with a light hand.
“Have a good day, little hun” he said to the boy, waving a hand at him.
The kid waved back at him, a large grin spread across his face while his parents bowed low to the gentle alien.
Very neat, Dargelblad thought, beholding the looks of wonder along their path. That little show of care should make for a lot of diplomacy between our nations. They certainly would need plenty in the days and years to come if he were right. Not all Narosan happily welcomed them after all.
The walk to the Imperial Palace took the best of the next two hours, but all welcomed the exercise after so many weeks whiled away at sea. The mob followed them along until the gate of the Palace where Hsu Yia halted to salute her well-wishers for one last time before disappearing behind the thick copse of bamboo that surrounded her abode beyond the wide moat.
Nunmir pondered that in the case of a mass assault the tight deep hedge formed by the alien trees (were they really trees?) would make for more efficient defense than any stone rampart. It certainly could not be climbed and no army would manage to force its way through it when he espied sharp-ended shafts protruding at a slant from the soil between cunningly concealed fences all made of bamboo. The whole was indiscernible to the casual eye. It was also too green to burn down. Moreover, defenders might even be able to shelter inside to counter any foe attempting to cross the moat.
Behind the bamboo copse they discovered rows of single-floored houses along a wide alley covered with fine grey gravel crackling under their feet. The Flint Dragon inwardly smiled when he came to realize that an intruder would be sorely tried to move silently at night if he had somehow managed to slip through the gate or the bamboo hedge.
The needs of the Empress and her entourage appeared all to be catered for judging from the many retainers and servants bowing to their suzerain along their way.
They soon reached a large building at the end of the alley. Although single-floored too, its size clearly designated it as the Imperial Palace.
The whole edifice was surrounded by fully-armed guards posted at regular intervals.
Those guards were apparently dispensed of saluting or other niceties as they stood absolutely immobile legs slightly apart, their right hand holding a lance and their left hand resting on the pommel of their sword.
An unusual figure waited for them in front of the main entrance.
In spite of her face hidden by a black veil falling from a black scarf concealing the top of her head, all clearly knew she was a woman even with her black breastplate covering her chest. She bore a dragon in relief on her armor that reminded She-Who-Wanders of the motif on Hsu Yia’s own armor when she had stood erect at the prow of her ship defying her enemies.
For the space of a heartbeat the Tribeswoman felt the eyes under the veil gauging her. The enigmatic guard seemed to recognize the denizen of the Steppes for what she was. Hsu Yia’s imperceptible nod did not escape her, either. The masked woman turned heels and opened the doors of the Palace to precede their procession inside without a backward glance.
—–——
The small black wyvern was screaming.
It had screamed for a long time.
A very long time.
Ever since the Dark Dragon had burst into the Central Mountains of Narosan.
He had resided among them for a single day. A tiny span of time in the lives of the wyverns, but long enough to destroy their existence for ever. The Dark Dragon had chosen one of them and pinned it against the cliff facing the evening sun for all to see.
And hear.
That day all the wyverns of Narosan had turned black in colors and souls. The Dark Dragon’s necromantic arts had kept his tortured victim alive all that time as a constant reminder of his orders until his return.
—-
“Sylvana, you wench! Go and fetch more wine!”
Phillipe de la Marche was in a feisty mood that night. His long-suffering wife had had the grace to retire early in the company of Beaumont de Montfaucon’s and Jehan Desmesne’s spouses.
Now he could at last let his true penchants loose.
This suited his servant fine, considering the Baron had purposefully dismissed the other staff with the late hour as a tame excuse.
She took her time to fill the jug from the cask inside the large cellar opening onto the main hall.
-“Sylvana! Hurry up, will you? Your Master is waiting!” she heard Jehan Desmesne’s befuddled voice calling. Who had given the cur the right to order her around?
-“Coming, Sirs! Coming!” she shouted back in a falsely agreeable tone.
Coming she certainly would. But before that, she had a little detail to attend to.
Her hand slipped inside a pocket secreted under her shift to extract a carefully tied pouch. She opened it. It contained a fine whitish powder. Some loose courtesans called it “laughing sister” and used it to raise the spirits of their prey. It could also be used for more practical applications. Like making people blab. She poured it inside the wine. It was tasteless. The three fairly drunk men would never notice. The drug had one more appreciable advantage: it induced its victims into a profound slumber after a short time of uncontrollable excitement. One could reasonably assume to what purposes courtesans would use the welcome respite.
Before reentering the main hall, Sylvana pushed her bodice up under her full bosom to allow a clear view into her cleavage that the lechers could not miss while she poured them wine.
The Barons and their merchant friend had already imbibed a serious amount of wine that evening and it was already taking its toll as she came back to join them.
They had begun boasting about their respective prowess and would be soon shamelessly deluding themselves into grand tales of past and future exploits.
Baron Phillipe de la Marche was practically shouting.
-“And to think that upstart interloper who calls himself King dared to send a bunch of aliens to poke their noses into my private business! I served them right, didn’t I, Beaumont?”
The Baron of Montfaucon readily concurred:
-“That certainly was well executed, my dear friend! A splendid idea to have them all and their escort locked into their own quarters!”
Sylvana kept a smiling face in spite of the alarming piece of information. She poured wine into Phillipe’s glass. The man’s hand grasped her hip and tried to drag her onto his lap.
Sylvana lay a hand on his thigh.
-“My Lord!” she began, laughing. “I have to serve your guests!”
The Baron reluctantly released her but felt gratified when his servant markedly took her time to disengage herself from his insistent hands. He took a long sip of his wine without bothering to wait until his guests’ cups were filled again.
Instead he sunk into more bragging:
-“And now that we have that kingly rabble where they deserve to be, do you know what I’m going to do next?”
-“What, I wonder?” replied Beaumont with a foolish grin.
Phillipe almost cackled, slowly but surely losing the control of his better judgment.
-“What, you wonder? What, did you say? Well, we are going to send a delegation to that excuse we have for a King to explain it was all a mistake, that we offer our most profound apologies, and he will be too stupid to grasp the real purpose of our embassy!”
The Baron slapped his thigh in glee.
-“Embassy? Did I say embassy? Oh, that is too brilliant! Beaumont, do you catch my drift?”
The Baron de Montfaucon who seemed to understand too well in spite of his inebriated state roared back:
-“Oh, Phillipe, you are too grand!”
Sylvana sensed her moment to act had come, lest she would never have the fools blab before they hopelessly fell into the drug-induced lethargy.
She moved closer to the Baron de la Marche under the false pretense of serving him more wine.
The lecher did not miss such a good opportunity to lay his arm around her waist and drag her across his lap.
-“Now, wench! I’ve got you! This time you cannot escape me!”
Sylvana slyly chortled.
-“But my Lord, who said I wanted to escape?” she said, expertly pouring more wine into the noble’s cup.
Phillipe found himself caught into a tantalizing dilemma with his left hand around his servant’s midriff, his right hand encumbered by his wine cup and the sight of bulging breasts under his very eyes.
-“Put those damned jug and cup on the table, will you?” he ordered her.
Sylvana readily complied.
Sliding her arm behind the man’s neck, she innocently queried:
-“My Lord, you seem in good spirits tonight. May I presume I am the reason?”
Phillipe fatuously chuckled, suddenly proud of his charms.
-“You may say that, wench! You may say that!”
His hand snaked under her dress, pawing the soft flesh beneath. Sylvana leaned against his shoulder, her fingers caressing his chest.
-“But my Lord, why do I have the impression I am in the arms of someone with a bright future? If I am not mistaken, am I not serving one of the great Lords of this land?”
Phillipe was past all caution when he blissfully concurred:
-“Ah, wench! You couldn’t be more accurate! Wait until we have cleared our land of upstarts and interlopers!”
Sylvana reflected that the Baron was repeating himself, a sure sign he had reached his limits. She noticed Jehan Desmesne already snoring, his mouth wide open, while Beaumont’s head was alarmingly bobbing up and down.
She had heard enough.
The hand under her dress lay placid on her thigh.
Phillipe was no apparently no longer interested in proving his manhood.
She carefully disentangled herself from his lap.
Next, she had to erase all evidence of foul play.
She knocked all the cups down and spilled their contents. As for the jug, she dropped it on the rush-covered floor where it broke and emptied the rest of the wine at the feet of the three conniving lechers. They would not remember anything of the evening, but she could supplement their discomfiture with a detail or two that would put them to shame for a painfully long time. With a wicked smile she unbuckled their belts and pulled down the breeches to the ankles of each man. The retainers would probably have to wake them up in the morning. She wondered what kind of rumors would circulate later among the populace, particularly in the light that they would be discovered sitting in their own mess after their inordinate bout of drinking.
She had to warn Alfred de Vigny at once that the lives of the Royal Family were very possibly at stake.
——————–
Four days later, a nondescript rider arrived at the gate of Valmoray.
He and his horse looked absolutely exhausted when they were stopped by the two soldiers on duty, a Royal Guard and a Grey Legionnaire. The city was still under martial law and any newcomer had to state his business before being eventually allowed past the ramparts.
-“Halt!” shouted the Royal Guard. “State your name and business!”
The rider, who had momentarily sat, his shoulders slumped under the weight of fatigue straightened up.
-“Guard, I commend your alacrity, but my name is none of your of your concern. As for my business, I have ridden four days and four nights carrying an important message for Crown Internal Affairs Chief Alfred de Vigny. Here is the Royal document vouchsafing my mission!”
The rider produced a small square pouch from under his tunic and handed it to the Royal Guard. It was made of plain unadorned soft leather. The sentinel lifted its lap and extricated a small piece of parchment out. The document bore a waxed seal embossed with the Arms of King Gerhart of Baulieu. The Royal Guard understood whom he was addressing. Royal agents, as were called the various individuals working undercover for Gerhart and Alfred all possessed such a proof of their role, but used them only in emergencies. On the other hand, Royal Guards were briefed to expect such arrivals. The soldier did not bother to open the parchment, but replaced it carefully inside its pouch before handing it back to the rider.
-“My apologies, Sir! I will immediately accompany you to the Crown internal Affairs Chief’s residence! May we provide you with a new mount?”
-“My thanks, Guard! But to tell you the truth, I’m sick and tired of riding. A walk will serve me better!” the messenger replied as he painfully alit from his horse.
Alfred was working in his office with Hildegard when a loud knock on the door had him lift his head from the pile of documents in front of him. Such a din could only mean either Firebrand or the heavily gloved hand of a Royal Guard.
-“Come in!” he shouted as he rose from his seat.
A Royal Guard entered followed by a weary-looking traveler. Alf recognized him immediately as their eyes met though both kept a blank face out of habit. He turned to the soldier:
-“Royal Guard! My personal thanks for bringing us this gentleman to us! Be as kind as to wait for us at the door and do not let anyone in until I come out!”
The well-disciplined soldier saluted and turned on his heels before exiting and closing the door behind him.
The messenger silently handed a folded parchment to the spy-chief. Alf opened it. He recognized Sylvana’s spidery writing in the coded missive.
His face slowly turned livid.
Hildegard knew her lover’s expressions well enough to realize that something was badly amiss.
-“What is it?” she asked.
Alf handed her the parchment without a word.
She could read it as they had devised the code together. The message was terse:
“Currency and measure mission under house arrest. Marche and Montfaucon sent delegations to Beaucastel to “apologize” for the mishap. Suspect treachery. Royal Family’s lives in danger.”
The Walkyrie looked back at her lover with an ominously dark expression.
Alf stopped her comments short with a raised hand.
Hildegard relented. The spy-chief was at his best in a tight corner. She waited patiently, well aware she would get involved sooner than she could imagine.
Alf asked her:
-“Where are Maheut, Birghit, Gratien and Firebrand?”
The Walkyrie let out an extremely vulgar epithet that had the stolid messenger raise an eyebrow in surprise.
-“They are all gone to the shore on maneuvers”
This was commendable of them, but terribly impractical at that particular moment.
Alf did not miss a beat, though.
-“Who do we have left in town?”
-“Only that odd couple Maheut and Who-Stands-Upright call their personal aides!”
-“Oh, Gaspard d’Entrecasteaux and She-Who-Walks-Alone? They’ll do perfectly!”
Ignoring her questioning look, Alf went to the door, opened it and addressed the Royal Guard.
-“Guard! Bring the Golden Squad Aides here at once and on the double!”
-“Aye, Crown Internal Affairs Chief!” replied the soldier who was already running before he finished the sentence.
Alf turned to the messenger:
-“There is not much you can do right now. Have a full day and night rest. Here is money for your board and your return to Marche. I shall not be here tomorrow, so go straight back and inform all our agents to stay on alert and help rescue the currency and measure mission if deemed necessary. It will take us some time before we arrive in force. Prepare the terrain and take all initiative according to the situation!”
Nothing else needed to be said. Alf’s agents were the best in the field and were granted full freedom of decisions.
The messenger left after a light bow.
Alf turned to his secretary:
-“Hildegard, you might as well as change to your Walkyrie uniform and armor at once! It will save us time!”
-“Are we leaving?”
-“You bet! And the earlier, the better! And while you are at it, saddle two horses and fetch campaign clothes and food for both of us. I will inform Nepomucene and ask him to take over my duties in Valmoray!”
-“He’s not going to like it!”
-“Judging from your grin, you will be only too happy to tell him! I shall pay him a visit before we leave tonight to rejoinder Maheut and Birghit!” he said with a solid slap on her rump. “Now, soldier, move!”
Hildegard almost ran into the two young Golden Dragon Squad members who barged in without knocking at the door.
Alf inwardly smiled. The two did form an odd couple. And if rumors were true, they actually made a true couple. Both were dressed in the Steppes garb prevalent among the soldiers of their peculiar regiment. But that was as far as how the similitude ran. Gaspard, the son of a northern baron sported unruly blond hair cut short on his pate and braided on his temples. He was small by Royal Guards standards, but his stocky frame emanated barely controlled brutal force, which belied his almost childish face only lightly tanned in spite of constant outdoors exposure. Alf doubted whether he would ever need a shave.
The fierce-looking Tribeswoman at his side towered almost a full head above him. She was as slender as her companion was broad, but she looked more dangerous and certainly faster. He suspected those two made for the perfect lethal combination in any fight. Alf noticed the woman steadfastly stood at the left of her companion.
It was she who addressed him:
-“Crown Internal Affairs Chief, you called us?”
Members of the Golden Dragon Squad were notorious for their conscious lack of decorum and pointed ignorance of court manners.
This made them easier to work with, although he would have to explain clearly the reasons of their mission in spite of his higher hierarchical status.
-“Yes, soldiers! I have an urgent message for the Royal Family and you are the only reliable individuals left as all three corps are on maneuvers! We believe that the King, the Queen and the Heirs are in a particularly great danger from a delegation sent to Beaucastel by the Baronages of Marche and Montfaucon We have just received a message from our agents telling us that this mission is only a convenient cover for a more nefarious purpose. I want you to depart immediately to warn the Royal Couple ahead of us. Hildegard and I are leaving soon to fetch and bring the Royal Guards to the Royal Palace as speedily as possible. Tell the King that the Golden Dragon Squad and the Grey Legion will depart at once to the Marche Baronage. They shall camp along the Southern bank of River Marche, east of the city of the same name until the coming of the King unless they have no recourse left but to engage in battle! Keep in mind that the two of you are directly responsible for the safety of the Royal Couple until we arrive! You have your orders. Now, leave!”
The two young soldiers turned heel without as much as a blink of the eye. Alf knew they could fend for themselves. Their elite corps had organized a horse post of their own and could request anything in need with a single mention of their name. However young they might be, they were superlatively trained and disciplined. They would be the best protection available for King Gerhart until they all reached Beaucastel. As for the two special forces commanded by Maheut and Birghit, he might have opted for a faster, if more complicated, move by sea. But in his own judgment, time had finally come for a show of force and bring to heel the last recalcitrant Barons and whoever dared impede the peace and prosperity of the Realm.
He was too well aware that the future of the whole Continent depended on it.
—–
A light rain was falling outside.
She-Who-Wanders could hear the drops falling gently through the leaves of the bamboo trees to beat the fine gravel on the lane leading to her lodge.
Kaluin had come to join her after dark and was presently occupied with the art of preparing tea. The two women had readily struck an easy friendship, the more for the shared proximity to the Empress and the immediate recognition of their hidden warrior’s skills that needed no explanation or translation to either of them.
As for communication, She-Who-Wanders’ good command of the Narosan dialect had challenged Kaluin into formulating a rare request to Hsu Yia to be taught the common tongue of Alymndes. The Empress had gently advised her to ask the Tribeswoman in person. The latter, having overheard their conversation, had actually offered the former would-be assassin to accept her as a tutor. With an uncharacteristic laugh of gratitude, Kaluin had assented to spend any free moment in her company. A company which soon turned into utterly enjoyable leisure for both of them as any could behave accordingly to their gender away from the male-dominated Palace staff as well as avoid the boring chattering of the female servants.
Kaluin had finished pouring the green liquid into two small exquisite round cups.
-“She-Who-Wanders, the tea are served.” She intimated.
-“Thank you, Kaluin.” The Tribeswoman replied, carefully bringing the cup to her lips. The beverage tasted as delicate as ever. She could never tire of it. She had discovered that the same leaves could give birth to at least five varieties of refreshments depending on the mode of harvest or drying. She had already sampled some back in Dunlago, but she reckoned that all the different types would be easy to sell back home if offered together with such fine cups and pots displayed on lacquered trays or inside those intricate drawer boxes that seemed to lay everywhere. Her language lessons were amply paid back with all the knowledge imparted by her host.
She put her cup back onto the small wooden saucer.
“Kaluin, your tea is beautiful as ever! But you should have said “the tea is served”, not “are served”.”
The Narosan woman looked at her in mild surprise.
“With all the leaves it takes to prepare, tea is only one?”
“Yes, because you cannot count the word tea, unless you say one cup, two cups and so on.”
Kaluin thought for a while.
“So I should say “the forest is large” in spite of all the trees it contains?”
The Tribeswoman kindly chortled.
“You are quick, aren’t you?”
Kaluin made a small bow in thanks, although her face showed no emotion.
The Tribeswoman felt another lesson was needed.
“Kaluin?”
“Yes, She-Who-Wanders?” the Narosan replied with a slight tinge of surprise at the sudden solemnity of the address.
“Smile.”
The eyebrows significantly rose above the slanted eyes.
“Smile? Why?”
She-Who-Wanders could not help chuckling at the seriousness on her friend’s mien.
“Kaluin, I know that you are probably the most dangerous woman in the Empire, but you shall learn that a woman’s smile is her best weapon!”
“You mean that every time you smile at me, you are actually fencing with me?”
The Tribeswoman giggled.
”Kaluin, my dear friend! A smile between friends has an entirely different meaning!”
Recovering some of her seriousness, she pursued:
“You are aware that besides being a Tribeswoman, I am also a trader. And I can guarantee that I use my smile all the time when I have to deal with tight-fisted merchants and burghers!”
The Narosan woman pondered for a few heartbeats.
“You might be right after all. A smile on my face could distract an enemy long enough to allow me to strike through his or her guard!”
Her friend commented in Narosan tongue with a wry face:
“Kill with a smile? That is all you seem to think about? In spite of all the weapons you conceal under your clothes! Kaluin, you can also smile for the sheer pleasure of it!”
A thin grin began to materialize on Hsu Yia’s personal guard, when it suddenly froze. Her body did not move an inch, but the pupils of her eyes slowly moved towards the outside wall of the lodge.
The Tribeswoman’s eyes had also shifted in the same direction.
Why had they both suddenly sensed something wrong? And why were they both aware it lay outside?
The rain.
The rhythm of the drops on the bamboo leaves had changed.
Someone or some people were outside and obviously they had gone to great pains to approach unnoticed, or they would have heard them the very moment they had passed the fence that surrounded the Palace and its annexes.
It also struck She-Who-Wanders’ mind that Hsu Yia and the three personages she suspected to be the equals of the Narosan Empress had been away now for more than three days on a tour of the Central Mountains of the Island, between Narosan in the West, Karamasan and Zor-Ta in the South, and Kar-Ti in the East.
It seemed that they would have to fend for themselves.
Kaluin lifted three fingers across her chest. Her friend slowly nodded in agreement. Well, three of them here they could take care of.
Especially in the light that their enemies had no knowledge of the Tribeswoman’s unusual skills. But she also felt deep in her bones that the remainder of the Alymndes delegation might find themselves in the same predicament. They would probably be eating their evening meal together. Although Hsu Yia ordered her retinue to stay in the Capital, as she had strongly intimated she would be gone on a very personal mission, the courtiers must have retired to their quarters on the other side of the Palace by then.
Knowing there would be little chance that their aggressors would speak the Alymndes tongue, she resumed the conversation with her friend as if nothing had gone amiss.
“Kaluin, keep on talking while I go fetch something in my luggage.”
“About what?”
“Tea, of course!”
She made a show of standing up, moving to a large box in the far corner of the room, lifting its lid and rummaging inside. The enemies lurking outside could not see the throwing axe and the lasso she extracted and carried concealed against her side as she walked back and sat by the low table.
She signed Kaluin to keep on talking as her right hand slid under her tunic. It came out holding a strange contraption made of a small wooden slat with a metal tongue affixed to it.
Kaluin raised a querying eyebrow at the sight, but the Tribeswoman kept smiling signed her once more to continue the conversation.
She-Who-Wanders’ fingers moved onto the metal tongue and soon sounds similar to those made by insects at night came out of the strange instrument.
Her companion grinned. She understood that her friend was conducting a communication of some sort. The noise of the rain had not changed outside. Their foes were apparently keeping quiet.
Soon She-Who-Wanders had finished sending her message.
She gestured her friend to wait.
The reply came after a short while. She listened attentively.
As soon as the chipping insect sound ceased, she fiddled again on the metal tongue for a moment.
Instead of waiting for a reply she told Kaluin in the Alymndes common tongue:
-“Our friends have noticed nothing wrong. Therefore these three intruders are the only ones who managed to penetrate inside the perimeter of the Imperial Palace. Mind you, they could have been planted a long time ago so as not to raise any suspicions. Anyway, the Tribesmen and the Elves are going out to insure that we are the only ones being importuned. The rest of the delegation will make a show of joining our hosts for a late celebration but will return with General Qusan and his retinue. The commotion should induce our three friends outside to take quick action!”
-“So, we are supposed to take care of ourselves?” asked the Empress’ personal guard.
-“Can’t we?” replied the Tribeswoman, her teeth bared into a dangerous grin Kaluin had not imagined she could ever see on She-Who-Wanders’ usually affable face.
-“Here’s what we are going to do.” continued the Tribeswoman who was assuming the lead most naturally. “You invite me to share a bath in a clear loud voice in the Narosan tongue. They should know that the tub is located behind this room. There is no way for them but to come inside through the door to try and jump on us while we are bathing. That is when they shall meet a nasty little surprise!”
Kaluin immediately complied and played her part of one of two young women enjoying some innocent fun sharing a bath. They lingered long enough in the main room, taking off their clothes and joking to convince the prowlers outside that they ought to become an easy prey.
Just as they entered the bathroom at the back of the lodge, they heard the din made by their friends moving out of their abode in seemingly cheery disorder.
Hsu Yia’s guard clearly heard the booming voices of the Dunlago and Beaulieu merchants jesting with each other while the Dwarves had thrown themselves into a lusty drinking song. She wondered what that ruckus would add to their reputation inside the Palace. On the other hand she could not catch any sound made by the Elves or the Tribesmen. They must be very clever at moving around in silence because even her trained ear could not detect them. She belatedly realized they would make very potent adversaries indeed, had they not been on their side.
Thanks to the din, they did not have to make a show of their ablutions, but instead they posted themselves in the shadows behind the sliding screens they had kept conveniently ajar.
They did not have to wait long as the Tribeswoman had rightly predicted. They heard the soft swishing sound of the entrance door being carefully slid along its wooden groove.
The imperceptible changes in the air reaching them betrayed the movements of the three intruders as they swiftly penetrated the adjacent room.
She-Who-Wanders caught her friend’s eyes.
A small nod of the head sufficed.
The three assassins crouching on the floor momentarily lost their composure as they saw the two stark naked women unexpectedly materialize and walk towards them as if it were the most natural way to act.
Their moment of hesitation sealed their fate.
Before anyone could react the man on the left clasped his hands around his throat which had been pierced all the way through by Kaluin’s dagger and soon collapsed on his knees blood bubbling out of his mouth. The man on the right reeled back, the Tribeswoman’s throwing axe embedded in his forehead.
This granted enough time to the last intruder in the middle to turn heels in an attempt to escape from a situation suddenly untenable. But his flight was cut short by the lasso whizzing around his neck. His lower body kicked in front of him as She-Who-Wanders pulled hard on the rope. Unfortunately for him, the Tribeswoman had jerked it too hard. The man fell heavily with a sickening crack as the bones of his neck snapped under the strain.
A rare glimpse of frustration appeared on Kaluin’s mien. She would not be able to interrogate any one of them now.
But there were other ways to find clues to their identities.
She calmly set out to search the body of the assassin she had so effectively killed.
Alymndes’ Elves and Tribesmen chose that very moment to rush into the room.
They stopped short at the sight of two naked women bent over the dead bodies of three strangely garbed men.
Kaluin did not even lift her head from the task at hand.
When the Tribesmen looked askance at her companion, the latter merely shrugged her shoulders.
Soon they heard many heavy steps outside.
The sliding doors which served as the entrance to the lodge suddenly imploded to let bristling Hammerhead, one of the three Dwarves who had accompanied She-Who-Wanders.
General Qusan almost bumped into his back when his predecessor stopped dead in his tracks. He stepped around the Dwarf to come close to Kaluin still busy rummaging in the intruders’ clothing.
-“Ka-ti assassins!” he muttered.
Kaluin’s head slowly move to face him. She replied in a cold voice that startled even She-Who-Wanders who thought she knew her friend well enough.
-“They are not Ka-ti. And Ka-ti are not assassins!”
General Qusan barely checked himself in time before he told her what he thought of a woman’s judgment in matters of military affairs. For all his vaunted titles, Hsu Yia’s personal guard was beyond his authority. And looking at She-Who-Wanders, he realized he would have to revise his opinion of women on a larger scale or end up making all kinds of exceptions.
He replied with all the grace he could muster:
-“What makes you certain?”
-“They don’t bear the marks!” she curtly answered, resuming her grisly job.
After a while, she pushed back the last corpse in disgust.
-“They don’t bear much as a matter of fact, but I know who sent them!”
Qusan’s eyes stretched into a thin line.
-“And may I ask you who?” he uttered in a dangerous tone.
An unfazed Kaluin looked back at him squarely.
-“General Qusan, do you not think this is quite a large audience to divulge state secrets to?”
The General impatiently waved away her query.
-“All here present have my and the land’s faith! They have proven their worth more than anyone else would! Now, pray tell me. Who is the whore’s son who sent them?”
The Ka-ti did not bother to comment on the fact that Qusan thought it had been a man’s deed, not a woman’s. She would have to impart him some of her personal knowledge if they were to work efficiently together.
-“Tanang, Lord of the House of Nisan!” she challenged him.
-“How do you know?”
-“I used to serve that excuse of a man!”
The General slowly passed his hand over his grizzled face. Open war was finally at hand!
-“I will have the innards of the bastard!”
A cold smile appeared on Kaluin’s face as she rose up to confront him.
-“General Qusan, I beg to differ. Did I not tell you I used to serve him? Therefore he will be mine to cut into pieces live until he begs me to end his sorry existence. Only then will I have the pleasure to offer you what will be left of him!”
The confrontation threatened to degenerate when what could be interpreted as a polite harrumph from Hammerhead interrupted the exchange.
-“May I suggest we postpone this interesting conversation to a more suitable time and place? For my part I care little to see humans in their birth suit, but I think that by now, all males in this room have had enough time to store all the interesting details of our naked lady friends’ bodies to memory!”
She-Who-Wanders exploded into laughter.
-“My dear Hammerhead, if men cannot bear the sight of a naked woman, they are simply not worth their salt!”
She nevertheless picked up a pair of tunics for both females to cover themselves while all men were suddenly discovering an intense interest in the architecture of the lodge.
Having somewhat recovered his composure, General Qusan addressed the two ladies.
-“You had better move to another lodge right away. I’ll see that your belongings are taken care of immediately while we have this place cleaned!”
-“What are you going to do with the bodies?” Kaluin asked.
-“We shall have them burned, why? They certainly don’t deserve any better treatment!”
-“I tend to agree with you General,” Kaluin replied with the slightest hint of impertinence, “but I would have their heads sent back to their master sealed in jars full of vinegar!”
Counselor Makan intervened before Qusan lost his temper again.
-“General Qusan, Kaluin has a point there. A frightened enemy is a weakened enemy. Just do as she suggests with a message clearly telling Tanang that we are coming. But we can wait and tend to the matter of the Tong-Hi pirates first and let the Lord of Nisan and his sycophants simmer in their juices. Only when they will be convinced we are not coming after all that we will crash their gates open!”
The Imperial Commander in chief looked at his trusted Counselor and Hsu Yia’s guard in turns a couple of times.
An amused grin lit his mien. Looking at Kaluin straight in the face, he made a light bow. Kaluin readily did the same. Their relation would be based on trust and respect from that very moment.
—–
The four Dragons were flying over the mountains north of Karamasan, high enough to stay invisible in the sun from the land below.
For days they had been hovering in concert in search of the creatures that Sacrach by all appearances corrupted a long time ago.
It was Numnir who at last sensed the presence of the object of their quest. But what he had felt so far as some hunt driven by curiosity and a desire to help their friend abruptly turned into a nightmarish horror.
Where they had expected eyries sheltering frightened and secretive creatures, they instead came upon a roughly circular depression surrounded by inaccessible crags, rending it invisible unless you happened to fly directly above it. Even so, had it not been for the combined efforts of four Dragons, its secret would have never been unveiled.
Not that the Dragons felt much satisfaction with their discovery when they espied the swarming mass of black wyverns assembled in front of a lone shrieking figure of their own kin cruelly pinned to the cliff above their heads. Closer inspection revealed that the distant relative of the Dragons had its wings partly embedded into the rock while ichor seeped out of its two legs impaled on rock shards emerging from the stone, making any escape utterly impossible.
Only black arts could have kept the wyvern alive under such torture.
Ekan abruptly sided along the Dragon of Narosan.
-“Hsu Yia! Steady!”
The Alymndes Dragons reeled under the unbearable pain and anguish assailing their Eastern companion.
The Black Dragon appealed to his brothers:
-“Dargelblad, Numnir! Help me!”
The three Dragons flew close by an increasingly agitated Hsu yia.
-“The pain! The terror!” she screamed in their heads.
Her companions were suddenly reminded of their sister Umatar’s distress upon witnessing the destruction of the Steppes and her people back in Alymndes.
Long it took to assuage her immense suffering back to a manageable level of indomitable wrath. Anger was a sentiment that Dragons could comfortably deal with after all, especially when it happened to be equally shared. Even so, the cold rage emanating from their friend had them wonder why she had kept aloof of events in her own land for so long.
Hsu Yia perceived their feelings clearly, so much they were sharing their love and care with her.
-“I have been selfish and stupid too long! Too long have I cosseted myself into a comfortable sense of secure detachment! Now time is for retribution!”
-“Hsu Yia, I’m afraid we have more pressing matters at hand.” The ever-practical Numnir commented. “Sacrach can wait. He will be in hiding for still a long while. We ought to start and bring his victims back to their normal selves in earnest first!”
-“Which means we should begin with that wretched wyvern nailed against the cliff!” Ekan said.
-“What form should we take when we appear to them? I believe that we will create panic if we come down as Dragons! Dargelblad queried.
-“Why not address them in our human bodies?” the Flint Dragon proposed.
-“Why not? Yes. It should attract their immediate attention without causing any undue fear. That is, until they realize who or what we really stand for!”
For all Dargelblad’s assurances, the wyverns’ reaction proved disconcerting. Whereas the Dragons had expected either alarm or aggressiveness, they found the entire throng of wyverns groveling at their feet.
What they perceived through their minds left them aghast.
The black wyverns were practically chanting in unison:
-“She has come back! The Dark Queen has come back to free us! Praise the Dark Queen! She has come back at long last!”
Numnir was the first to recover from the shock of their grim discovery
-“We should have guessed that Sacrach would not have revealed his true form, but instead had come upon them stealing Hsu Yia’s appearance! It seems that his banishment did not come too late! I dare not imagine what would have happened to us all had he subjugated Narosan before turning upon us! Had he not been so arrogant, I very much doubt we could have repelled him and his dark forces!”
-“And to think I never suspected such an intrusion!” Hsu Yia growled inside their heads.
-“Well, there is no point to linger on what has been and what could have been! I say we stop dallying and began acting on the spot!” Ekan interrupted.
-“And there is little justification left to keep ourselves hidden inside our human bodies, either!” Dargelblad concurred.
With one accord, they immediately reverted to their true shapes.
The sudden materialization of four full-size Dragons in front of their eyes set the wyverns into new frenzy. But a Dragon’s patience can run very short in uncontrollable situations. Hsu Yia’s booming voice froze her distant cousins in a terrified standstill.
-“Silence! Hearken to me! I am not the Dark Queen! I am not the Dark Dragon who stole my name! I am Hsu Yia! I am the Empress of Narosan! I am the Dragon of the East! I am come here to put an end to your misery! And here is the proof!”
She called into her companions’ heads:
-“Help me!”
The four Dragons turned towards the pitiable wyvern impaled against the cliff and ignoring its kin behind them, they brought their heads together, their long snouts barely inches from the screaming winged creature.
The Dragons closed their eyes.
Soon their charge’s shrieks subsided to moans and pain. As its plaints finally came to a halt, a pall of silence fell over the whole assembly. A halo of light slowly enshrouded Sacrach’s victim to completely mask it from the view of its companions in misery. When it started to ebb away, no black wyvern was impaled into the cliff any more. Instead, at the foot of the mountains lay a beautiful being. The black color had disappeared. No wounds or flowing ichors could be seen. Its scales reflected the sunlight with ever-changing metallic hues. Its skin was rippling with shining tinges of blue and silver
It opened its eyes which fell on the four Dragons towering above its prone form.
-Who am I?” it croaked at a loss.
Sacrach had wreaked havoc not only with their appearance and sanity, but it seemed that he had made them forget their very names as well.
Hsu Yia replied in her booming voice for all to hear:
-“You are Karsui, Wyvern of the Karamasan and you have been returned to your true self! The dark power that came to subdue you will never come again to this land upon my oath! Soon enough with the help of the Dragons of the West it will be eradicated from the surface of this world forever!”
Turning to the silent crowd listening to her words, she declared:
-“Come to us, my brethren! We shall restore you back to your bodies, minds and names! When we are finished with the chore, I shall have a mission for you! Each of you will elect a village of humans, bring it a gift and offer it your everlasting protection!”
Without further ado, the four Dragons set to work.
—–
For five days they had ridden, changing horses three times a day every twenty leagues, only allowing rest for meals and brief overnight stays at garrison posts.
Gaspard d’Entrecasteaux and She-Who-Walks-Alone reached the gates of Beaucastel just after sunset on the fifth day.
The Royal Guards on duty saluted them. For all the grime and dust covering their peculiar accoutrement, the soldiers in the service of the King needed not be taught what they stood for lest they mistook them for casual men at arms despite their apparent young age. Furthermore, members of the Golden Dragon Squad held seniority over all Royal Guards, whatever their rank. Gaspard saluted back and asked:
-“We have brought an urgent message for the King. Where is he presently?”
-“His Majesty is holding court with a delegation of the Baronages of Marche and Montfaucon. We have just been informed that he and his guests are to repair to the Banquet Hall anon. You ought to go directly there, Sir!”
With a sigh of relief Gaspard dismounted, imitated by his Tribeswoman companion.
-“We seem to have come in good time, then! Officer, could you be kind enough to see that our horses are properly looked after? They are property of the Crown. Could you also see that our gear is carried to our garrison?”
-“Right away, Sir! Be assured they will be all as well taken care of as ours!” the senior Guard replied. “Shall I dispatch a Guard to accompany you?”
-“Our thanks, Officer! We shall walk to the Place on our own. We need to unwind our legs at our own pace!”
Looking at the odd pair of soldiers going to their errand, a junior Guard discreetly asked his officer:
-“Sir, aren’t these two from the Golden Dragon Squad?”
-“They are indeed.”
-“Forgive my ignorance, but why are they allowed inside town with their weapons?”
-“You never ask a Golden Dragon Squad Member for his weapons!”
-“Even from two so young? I must be at least a couple of years older myself!”
-“Yes, but you are not a Member of the Golden Dragon Squad. And if you want to know more, I was at the Wall when I saw these two fight like possessed demons!”
The junior Guard’s face brightened.
-“I know who they are! Gaspard d’Entrecasteaux and She-Who-Walks-Alone! They are already a living legend! “The Odd Pair”, the soldiers call them!”
-“Yes, and if I were you, I would not tell that in their faces. I would care little for an argument between one of my charges and Members of the Golden Dragon Squad!”
The abashed Guard mumbled an apology under the amused eyes of his officer who actually believed no one would ever witness such an occurrence.
As they were walking to the Palace, She-Who-Walks-Alone remarked:
-“Shouldn’t we clean a bit before meeting the King and the Queen?”
-“Little need for that, I believe. Don’t forget these two are warriors, too. But we could do with a little drink. Let’s go through the kitchens first!”
-“Wouldn’t that be a breach of protocol?”
-“Not really. Our message is personal. Therefore, we don’t need to meet any chamberlain or other lackey. Actually we would be hard put to find one. King Gerhart is not known for emptying the Royal coffers on useless staff or ceremony!”
-“That’s a drink first, and the King next, then!” his companion agreed.
They had little difficulty locating the entrance to the kitchens as any member of their Squad was cognizant of the outlay of the Palace as it was part of their training to memorize the maps of all the cities they might have to protect.
They found the kitchen staff with their hands full preparing the banquet that would be called any time.
Gaspard noticed a couple of servants hurriedly filling large flagons with wine from the spigot of a large barrel and running back through the main door of the kitchen.
His attention was called by an irate woman cook.
-“What are soldiers doing in here! As if we needed more interference!”
Gaspard made a slight bow.
-“My apologies, lady! Gaspard d’Entrecasteaux and She-Who-Walks-Alone of the Golden Dragon Squad. We are just arrived from a long journey to meet our King. We were wondering if you could spare a drink for our parched throats?” he said to the somewhat mollified servant who certainly was not used to be called “lady”, and what is, by a Member of the famous Royal corps. Gaspard could read in her eyes that their meeting would provide the servants and their families enough gossip material for the next whole week.
-“All right! All right! Serve yourselves and make yourselves scarce, then! And it’s ale for you! Don’t you dare touch the King’s wine!” she gruffly allowed.
Gaspard smiled inwardly. He could guess that she would later boast how well she had put such vaunted warriors into their right place, she, only a kitchen maid. A side glance at his companion’s face demonstrated she thought the same.
They walked to the broached ale barrel sitting next to a large wine cask. They were about to take a pitcher to scoop themselves a large drink when the Tribeswoman stopped in her tracks.
-“What is it?” Gaspard asked her, suddenly feeling apprehensive. She-Who-Walks-Alone possessed instincts he had learned to value the hard way.
-“The wine!”
Without explaining, she turned to the servant who had just scolded them.
-“Woman!”
The kitchen maid realized the niceties had come to an abrupt end. The Tribeswoman’s cold voice meant she had better take their rank into consideration after all.
-“Yes, soldier?” she hesitantly queried.
-“Who is that wine for?
-“The King and His Court, of course!”
-“Who brought it here?”
-“It was delivered to us this morning by the Palace staff. It is a personal gift from the Marche delegation.”
The northern baronages were celebrated for their wine, a strong heady vintage, mainly red, much in favor at any house or palace worth its name. Consequently, it could be considered as the main source of income for the Barons holding land there.
-“And did you insert the spigot yourself?”
-“No, the Palace staff did!”
-“Has anybody lifted the stopper since this cask arrived here?”
-“No. Why, may I ask?”
She-Who-Walks-Alone pointed to the stopper on top of the reclined cask. A piece of cloth had been pushed through the aperture with the large cork to prevent any leakage.
-“Look at the cloth around the cork. Why is it still wet with wine?”
The servant spread her arms in puzzlement.
She-Who-Walks-Alone unsheathed a short sword she always carried in a scabbard locked on her belt. With a knock of the pommel she struck the cork and the cloth out of the aperture.
She bent down to sniff at the inside.
The color suddenly drained from her face.
-“What’s the matter?” asked a worried Gaspard.
-“Dreadbane.”
-“Dreadbane?”
-“It’s a deadly poison! The more for it that it gives away almost no smell!”
-“Are you sure?”
The Tribeswoman’ eyes turned to the blond soldier for a short instant. The rage spread all over her face swept away whatever doubts he had harbored to be replaced by a terrible certainty.
-“The King and the Queen!” they simultaneously shouted.
She-Who-Walks-Alone thumped the cork back into place.
-“No one touches that wine if you want to stay alive!” she ordered to the gathering kitchen staff.
Just as they were trying to rush out of the kitchen, a panicked retainer barged inside, screaming:
-“The King! The Queen!”
The two soldiers did not waste any more time, bowling the man out of the way, they ran out of the room.
Pandemonium welcomed them when they finally shoved their way inside the Banquet Hall. Guests along the large ceremonial table had slumped back into their seats moaning, their hands holding their throats. Others sat unmoving mouths agape and eyes vacant.
Gerhart and Marghrete were still conscious but in evident pain. They had probably drunk their wine more slowly and sparingly as was their habit in public.
Gaspard screamed at his companion:
-“Make the Queen spit out her wine at once!”
Not waiting if he was heeded, he rushed to the King. He roughly opened his mouth, and inserting fingers deep inside, he slapped him hard on the back.
Dark vomit gushed out his suzerain’s mouth. Sound emanating from the other seat indicated that the Tribeswoman had succeeded likewise with Marghrete.
Gaspard shouted at the servants rushing inside the hall:
-“Make them all puke! Hurry!”
Grasping the nearest one, he shouted:
-“Go and find the Royal Physician at once!”
The panicked man took too much time to react. The blond soldier slapped him across the face:
-“Move, or the King’s death will be on your head!”
The servant finally decamped in a hurry.
Gaspard looked around him. For all their efforts, not a single guest around the table had been successfully made to throw the contents out of their stomachs. He understood with horror that they were all as good as dead. And that included the Marche delegation.
Well, some of them…
He felt his body grow cold as a terrible suspicion came upon him.
Grabbing a servant, he urgently asked:
-“How many of the King’s foreign guests are there around the table?”
The retainer readily answered:
-“Only half a dozen of them! Only the guests of note, I think!”
-“And how many more were there in the whole delegation?”
-“I don’t know for sure. But I’ve heard that about two scores of servants and soldiers were escorting the delegation.”
-“And where are they all?”
-“Inside the commons reserved for guests’ retainers, I suppose.”
-“You suppose?”
-“I’m sorry, Sir! I’m not in charge of such duties, Sir!”
Gaspard looked at the servant. Now the time had come when he would have to take the most important decision in his young life.
-“That’s good enough of you. Now, listen to me carefully: there is nothing you can do for those poor souls. Go out immediately and tell any Royal Guards you can find to leave their duty, whatever it might be, and rush to the Royal Palace!”
-“Begging your pardon, Sir. But whom am I talking to?”
-“A member of the Golden Dragon Squad! Is that enough for you? Now move, or you’ll be sorry!”
As more servants ran past him, he grabbed a young maid.
-“You! Stay here and wait for the Royal Physician! We are going to take Their Majesties to the Royal Chamber. When he arrives, tell him to hurry and join us!”
-“No need for that! I’m already here!” a strong voice replied almost at once.
Gaspard turned to look at the new arrival. Robert de Glacis, the Royal Physician had apparently close at hand. He was contemplating the bedlam scene.
-“What the hell has happened here?”
-“Poison, Physician!”
Umatar’s lover turned his attention to Gaspard:
-“What poison?”
-“Dreadbane.”
The physician’s mien visibly paled in distress. He knew of the poison. It was extracted from a toxic plant commonly found all over the Steppes. Taken in very minute proportions, and very diluted at that, it could be administered as a strong painkiller for terminal cases. But more than that and you were bound for the afterworld or whatever existed beyond death.
-“Are Their Majesties still alive?”
-“Yes, but barely. We managed to make them throw up.”
-“You did well. Let’s take them to the Royal Chamber at once, then! I’ll lead the way!”
The two soldiers lifted the unconscious couple one each across the shoulder, their arms wrapped around the legs of their burden. In spite of their strength and stamina, they found the bodies heavy and cumbersome to carry along. Fortunately, the Royal Chamber was only a corridor away from the Banquet Hall. Heaving and puffing along, they somehow reached it soon enough to find it locked.
Robert de Glacis banged his fist on the large door.
-“He-Who-Leads-The-Son, He-Who-Leads-The-Daughter! This is He-Who-Heals! Open the door at once!”
Two tall Tribesmen appeared in the gap between the portals being slowly opened.
Robert had expected them to unlock the entrance to the Chamber quickly enough as he knew they were always stationed behind it when guarding the Royal Couple’s heirs. Their usually impassible faces were creased in concern at the sight of the Royal Couple being carried unconscious on the shoulders of two members of the Golden Dragon Squad. They rushed to help them carry their charges inside the room.
As soon as Gerhart and Marghrete were laid down carefully side by side on their large bed, Robert turned to his helpers:
-“Lock the door and guard it with your lives while I try what I may for Our Majesties!”
The Physician had no doubts that when they discovered that the King and the Queen had been whisked out of the Banquet Hall, the would-be murderers would launch a second assault on their lives.
Gaspard raised his hand.
-“Wait! It would do little for all of us to stay inside and wait until someone breaks in! He-Who-Leads-The-Son, He-Who-Leads-The-Daughter, you stay inside, lock and bar the door with whatever you can put your hands on! She-Who-Walks-Alone and I will stay outside the door and defend it until help comes!”
-“And when would that be?” asked Robert de Glacis.
-“The first emergency detachments from Valmoray should reach the city gates at first light if I know my Captains well! They will make all haste. We were less than half a day ahead when we left in any case! If only a few Royal Guards can join us, I’m confident we can hold our aggressors at bay long enough!”
-“That if there are any left!” Umatar’s lover retorted. They were only a few to start, and if those killers were ever so organized, they will make sure to dispatch them first before coming here!”
Gaspard clenched his fists in frustration.
-“Damn! You might be right!”
His companion said:
-“Well, that can’t be helped! We still have to stand outside and defend the door! Let’s stop that talk and go out!”
-“You’re right! Let’s meet the scum!”
The two Tribesmen locked the portals behind them and secured them with whatever pieces of furniture they could put their hands on and waited weapons in hands as they could do little to help He-Who-Heals.
The latter stood by the bed.
Gerhart and his wife were still breathing, but only faintly. Their wan faces were perspiring profusely as their bodies were still fighting the poison. But he had little hope they would survive. There was nothing he could do as he had no antidote on hand. He doubted there existed any if he remembered the lore he had gathered during his time spent in the Steppes under the tutelage of the Golden Dragon.
His shoulders slumped in desperation. If the Royal Couple died, all the hard work done to unite Alymndes would soon be swept away, leaving the land at the mercy of the dark powers they had repulsed at a horrible price not so long ago. The Dragons would have to start all over again with even less chance to succeed this time.
The Dragons…
Umatar! She was their only chance left!
He closed his eyes and concentrated, focusing all his senses on appealing to his lover.
Their bond was profound indeed. The voice of the Golden Dragon immediately resonated inside his head:
-“William?”
-Umatar!” he called. Only the Dragons and a very few humans could call her by her real name.
He opened his eyes. “Look!”
His lover understood everything within a heartbeat.
The sudden wrath of an outraged Dragon, soon to be joined by that of another, threatened to overwhelm him.
He fell on his knees, his whole body shaking uncontrollably.
Luckily for his body and soul, the dreadful ire soon ceased to be replaced by a cold resolve.
Amrel, the Blue Dragon, was the first to react:
-“Umatar, we have to help William, or all will be lost!”
-“Why don’t we call our kin, first?”
-“We have no time. Numnir, Ekan and Dargelblad are too far. We cannot link with our parents, either. We would be exposed naked to Sacrach!
-“But he is asleep!”
-“Do we know for sure? We have no idea where he is hiding! He could be anywhere! I don’t have to tell you that a Dragon never sleeps completely. As soon as he senses all of us wielding our powers away, he will wake up and fall on us unawares!”
-“Then, the two of us had better translocate by William’s side at once!”
-“Would that be wise? Do we want everyone to know who we really are?”
-“But all the Tribespeople already know that the Golden Dragon and She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons are one!”
-“Yes, but they don’t know that the Blue Dragon walks on earth in the disguise of Geraldine de Blanchefleur, do they? We cannot afford everyone to find out how many of us we are!”
Robert felt fear creeping into his body. He guessed what would happen next.
-“There is only one way left to us.” started Amrel.
-“Bond with William?” cried Umatar. “But that is utter folly! He might die in the process!”
-“I’m fully aware of that!”
Amrel did not need spell out the choice they were facing.
-“Bond we must, bond we shall.” came the terse answer from the Physician.
Dragons are pragmatic creatures. They do not discus people’s decisions as long as they serve their purpose, regardless of personal consequences.
Nevertheless, Umatar’s voice inside Robert de Glacis’ head was not that of a Dragon, but the voice of a woman torn between love and duty.
-“William, lie between Gerhart and Marghrete and take their nearest hand in each one of yours. Empty your mind. Please, do not fight us.”
The Physician complied. He carefully lay down between the King and the Queen, took their hand and waited, trying hard to relax in spite of a gnawing fear deep inside his guts.
The two Tribesmen guarding the door saw He-Who-Heals’ body suddenly arch upward, his head thrown back, his mouth wide open in a silent scream.
They looked at each other nervously. Magic they did not understand and did not wish to. The fear of the Shaman’s arts still burnt deep inside their minds regardless of all the Golden Dragon’s teachings. So they helplessly watched the Royal Physician sinking in the throes of pain inflicted by forces unknown to them.
—–
Gaspard was grumbling.
-“I wish I had a shield at the very least. If they come with bows or crossbows, we’re dead meat!”
His companion coldly snorted:
-“I doubt the Royal Guards would have let in anyone with such weapons! Talking of the Royal Guards, I hope they take as many as possible with them! The fewer for us to deal with! In any case you shoulder consider this absence of a shield as a boon. Your hands will be free to use all those throwing weapons you have. Now is the time to show you learned well how to use them!”
-“You do think they will try to breach the door to the Royal Chamber?”
-“You can count on that! They will come. But they had better be as many as they can manage!”
-“You are enjoying this, aren’t you?”
She-Who-Walks-Alone looked at the first and only man she allowed to treat her as a woman.
-“And you had better stay alive, or I shall be very angry with you!”
Gaspard smiled:
-“Well, if I don’t, I shan’t see it!”
They did come.
In the last hours of the night.
—–
The sun had not appeared over the horizon yet when Maheut and He-Who-Stands-Upright reached the gates of Beaucastel in the company of half a dozen members of their corps.
The Golden Dragon Squad Captains had decided to accompany Alfred and Hildegard ahead to the Capital of Beaulieu. The rest of their company were competent enough to operate without their constant supervision. On the other hand, they were not ready to let their own squires carry the burden of protecting the Royal Couple on their own. As soon as Alfred had informed them of the present danger, they had chosen the most seasoned soldiers and told the Crown Internal Affairs Chief and his aide to follow them ahead of the small mounted army Alfred had initially intended to take with him.
They had run at a punishing pace, allowing little for rest. Hildegard took it in her stride easily enough, but Alfred was beginning to harbor serious doubts as his body was screaming with pain after all the reckless riding. Only their horses had been accorded the minimum of care whereas humans had not been granted any time even to wash themselves. The guards on duty must have had no sense of smell or were too conscious of their rank to dare show any disapproval.
Talking of guards, he noticed they were no Royal Guards as should have been, notwithstanding they had left only a handful in the Capital before leaving for their last campaign.
He became fully awake in spite of his great fatigue. Something very fishy was occurring here.
Not bothering to alight from his horse, he asked the nearest soldier:
-“Guard! How come no Royal Guard is on duty at the gates?”
The man did not recognize Alfred under the grime accumulated along the forced ride, but the voice of the mounted nobleman did not brook any questions.
-“Sir, they are all inside the Place. We relieved them when they received an urgent call from Golden Dragon Squad soldiers!”
-“When was that?”
-An hour after sunset!”
-“And they haven’t sent word since then?”
Maheut’s voice cut Alfred’s next question short:
-“Damn! That’s not like them! Something very wrong has happened! Guards, open the door at once! We are going to ride through!”
The soldiers at the gate scrambled to obey her orders.
As they charged through, Maheut shouted:
-“Weapons out! Everyone, rush to the Palace!”
The steel-shod feet of the horses clanged loudly on the cobbles of the empty dark streets as their rider kicked them towards the Palace.
The main entrance was locked.
-“To the kitchens!” Maheut shouted. She knew this was an exit always kept open.
At first they thought they had found them deserted when they penetrated the gloom. A fire, even covered, should have been smoldering inside the great hearth and at least a couple of lanterns kept burning.
Maheut’s boot hit something lying on the floor.
It was the body of a maidservant. She let out a muffled obscenity when she bent down to try and recognize the woman. Her throat had been slit. Her nostrils belatedly recognized the stink of old spilled blood.
They soon discovered why as they found more bodies along the way to the corridor leading to the Banquet hall. The staff, for all they knew, had been mercilessly massacred. That is, whoever had been unfortunate enough to find themselves across the assassins’ path at the time.
The scene markedly changed, if not for the worse, when they walked inside the Banquet Hall.
Apparently some Royal Guards had made their first stand there. Two of them lay dead in front of the long table. They had sold their lives at a high cost as shown by the half dozen strangers slain around them.
But Maheut thought differently. Only three for each Guard was a cheap price. How many of them had assailed them? What had happened to all those guests slumped in their chairs, obviously past any help? She saw He-Who-Stands-Upright stop to pick up a goblet from the table. The Tribesman brought it to his nose and threw it away almost immediately.
He looked at the Walkyrie lover and hissed:
-“Dreadbane!”
Maheut’s heart almost failed her.
Some of the dead guests along the banquet table certainly did not belong to Gerhart’s Court. If her memory served her well, some of them definitely hailed from the north of the Realm.
Why the indiscriminate killing? She could almost read the answer on Alfred’s face in spite of the gloom. The man was seething with rage.
They hurried to the door opening onto the passage way leading to the Royal Chamber. They were hampered all the way through as it was literally littered with battered corpses. They discovered many Royal Guards among them. The whole garrison, minimal as they had left it, had been utterly decimated.
They finally burst out of the passageway.
A grim spectacle welcomed them before the closed portals of the Royal Chamber.
A horrid pitched battle had taken place there. Dead mangled bodies were lying pell-mell on the floor forcing the rescue team to step on them to progress forward.
But the assailants had not breached the door.
The reason why the assassins had not succeeded stood in the shape of Gaspard d’Entrecasteaux and She-Who-Walks-Alone, the two youngest members of the Golden Dragon Squad. They were supporting each other against the wooden panels at their back, the taller Tribeswoman’s head leaning over her companion’s.
For a moment Maheut thought they had died too as they made no movement or sound or showed any sign of recognition as help had finally reached them.
The two Captains gently took one Aide in their arms to drag them away from the entrance to the King’s apartments and lay them down. They were covered with blood, a lot of it their own. Their wan skin shone pale even through the shadows.
He-Who-Stands-Upright quietly said:
-“They will survive if given the proper care. Just let’s make sure they get it! No one will deserve it more!”
Maheut nodded her agreement. She stood up and stepped toward the door.
She banged her gloved fist on the wood:
-“He-Who-Leads-The-Son! He-Who-Leads-The-Daughter! Are you there? Open the door!”
She had to shout her orders twice again before they heard the noise made by furniture or whatever blocked the door being removed on the other side.
Soon the two wary Tribesmen, axe in hand, ventured through the opening. They relaxed upon sighting He-Who-Stands-Upright at the head of the coming party.
Alfred entered the room followed by the two Captains while their Aides were administered urgent treatment.
Alf surveyed the Royal Chamber.
On the Royal bed the King and the Queen lay on both sides of the Royal Physician, all three apparently sound asleep. The Heirs to the Throne peacefully dozed in their cots.
This struck him as absolutely weird considering the fracas outside.
He signed to the two Captains and Hildegard who had accompanied him inside to close the doors. He had questions that needed not to be overheard by everyone.
He turned to the Royal bodyguards:
-“What the hell happened here?”
The two Tribesmen glanced at each other. They looked very uncomfortable.
He-Who-Leads-The-Son finally said:
-“Last night He-Who-Heals came in with She-Who-Walks-Alone and her man carrying He-Who-Speaks-Fair and his heirs’ mother. Both were very ill. We thought they were going to die. She-Who-Walks-Alone and her man ordered us to barricade the door and guard it from inside. Then He-Who-Heals lay between He-Who-Speaks-Fair and his woman and took their hands. Then,…” the Tribesman hesitated.
-“Yes. Then?” Alfred pressed on.
With obvious reluctance, He-Who-Leads-The-Son resumed:
-“Magic! It was magic! On my ancestors’ heads, it was magic!” the agitated Tribesman shouted.
Alfred raised his hands in appeasement.
-“Magic? It happens all the time! Does it worry me? Leave your ancestors in peace and tell me!”
The words seemed to reassure the warrior enough for him to talk again:
-“He-Who-Heals took their hands, and then! He seemed to go up in the air and his body went hard like, like…”
-“Like a bow?” Alfred helped him along.
-“Yes, like a bow! And then, his mouth opened wide and he…”
-“He screamed?”
-“No. Not at once. But later he screamed and screamed and screamed. We could not believe our ears, but…”
-“But…”
-“The Son and the Daughter never woke up! They could not hear! Why?”
-“Magic? And what about the King and the Queen?”
-“He-Who-Speaks-Fair and his woman? Well, when we put them on their bed, their skin was white. They were sweating a lot and they did not breathe well. And then, slowly, very slowly, they changed. And now they look better, so much better!”
Alfred exchanged a look with his companions. He had a good idea of what happened. But he doubted his friends would.
He turned to the Tribesman Captain:
-“He-Who-Stands-Upright, you said they drank dreadbane. Would they have a chance to survive normally?”
-“No.” was the curt reply
The Royal Spy contemplated the bed.
-“Then Robert de Glacis is indeed a great healer!” he lied.
His companions would know, but the show was for the two guards. He turned to face them.
-“He-Who-Leads-The-Son, He-Who-Leads-The-Daughter! For the sake of the Royal Couple and that of your charges, promise me on your ancestors’ heads that you will not tell anyone what happened here! Actually, if anyone but us here asks you any question, you do not answer! Promise!”
The two warriors looked askance at He-Who-Stands-Upright.
The latter only nodded.
-“We promise!”
Alfred walked to the bed. He observed Gerhart for a while. The King seemed fast asleep. Marghrete also appeared to have recovered. The Physician’s face was deadly pale and his chest rose irregularly in shallow fits of painful breath.
He asked the Tribesman Captain:
-“He-Who-Stands-Upright, you know better. Can you ascertain that the Royal Couple will survive?”
-“They will for all I know. But don’t ask me why!”
-“Fine. We stay here until Gerhart wakes up. Then we shall have to discuss what the hell the plans for the future will be! Maheut, could you be kind enough to organize the clean-up? We shall have to think of a proper funeral for our dead courtiers, Royal guards and servants. As for the dead guests, see that they are lain in coffins and sent back to the North. Frisk all those assassins for clues and have them entered under three feet of earth in a discreet spot away from the city. He-Who-Stands-Upright, organize a guard outside the Royal Chamber. No one but we inside this room will be allowed in. Hildegard, organize care and treatment for whoever is left to need them! And find the Judge and tell him to join us here!”
Some people in the North were expecting news.
They were going to oblige them.
But nobody had to tell them that the news they would receive were the truth, or partly the truth for that matter.
—–
Amrel and Umatar were hovering high in the morning sky above Beaucastel.
-“We could have killed him, you know.” The Blue dragon tartly said.
-“I doubt it! I had too many reasons to insure he would live through the ordeal!”
-“Would my sister be kind enough to confide me with those reasons?”
-“What kind of language is that, Amrel? Your human side is on the brink of taking over your Dragon’s senses! And no, I will not indulge you with an answer to your nosy, or should I say snouty, questions!”
-“A cheap joke, if I may say, especially in the light of the harrowing times we have just been through!”
-“Wait until we report to Father and Mother!”
-“True to tell, we might be in for a real hiding!”
-“With all those deaths to account for and the inevitable retaliations to follow, we can’t say we are making a good job of our mission!”
—–
-“Vessel leeward!” the lookout shouted.
Zardor walked to the railing to get a better view. His merchant ship, called after his own name like the rest of his whole fleet, was sailing a good distance from the shore of northern Thalamus, well past Morenin at a point where lava from the Fire Mountains poured directly into the sea.
He doubted any trading ship had ever ventured so far north and that near the unknown world beyond the noxious gas belching volcanoes. The simple reason was that no slaver ship or war galley from Thalamus would have allowed any other ship to do so, that is, until they had met their demise in that ill-fated tentative of invasion.
The vessel, a small sailboat seemingly from Morenin from its particular shape, appeared abandoned. What was it doing there?
Turning to his bosun who had come to join him, he said:
-“Change course and bring us aside that boat! I want to know what it’s doing in such a forsaken place!”
-“Aye, aye, Zardor! Although I may ask the same question about our own ship!”
The merchant laughed at his employee’s impertinence and playfully smacked him on the back.
-“Well, you never know. It might get worse soon!”
As their ship swiftly ran to the side of the sailboat, they discovered a man lying on the bottom. He was unconscious but apparently alive. His face was painted red.
Zardor immediately understood that fate had brought him at the right time to the right place.
He had heard of that color on some Thalami people’s faces. And those so-called faces belong to outlaws most hated and mercilessly hunted by the Inquisitors of the land and their minions. They certainly deserved that kind of attention from King Karlrong as shown by the heads of would-be bounty hunters regularly displayed on red stakes along the main thoroughfares of Thalamus.
Now, what would an outlaw in such a frail boat so far away from his land?
Zardor shouted orders:
-“Haul the man aboard and bring him to my cabin! Call the physician and have him take good care of him at once! Bring up any belongings aboard and sink the boat!”
His surprised bosun turned to the merchant.
-“Zardor, why are wasting that boat? We could make good use of it!”
-“I do not want to leave any trace of this man’s errand, whatever it was!”
-“You are not thinking of taking him back to Marchees, are you?”
-“Certainly not!”
-“Then, where are heading for?”
-“Beyond those damned Fire mountains!”
The bosun stared at Zardor in sheer disbelief.
-“But we are going to certain death!”
-“I very much doubt it! Wasn’t that man sailing exactly in the same direction? I’m sure he will tell us why when he has recovered!”
-“But we don’t know what lies beyond!”
-“At least we know there are many humans on the other side, as proven by the pitiful slaves those accursed Thalami raiders brought on the markets!”
The bosun rolled his eyes in dismay.
-“There we go again! Where will we end up this time?”
-“Adventures? Or just plain fun?”
The bosun turned away, shaking his head in disgust. He started to vent his frustration by shouting orders:
-“Move your dull arses, all of you! North we sail!”

3 Responses to “Narosan 5: Treacheries”

  1. simaldeff Says:

    Awesome … as was every chapter of this story.
    I can’t wait to read more.

    bye.

  2. dragonlife Says:

    Cheers, but you’ll have to be patient from now on! LOL

  3. Gary Says:

    I Love your Tales!!

    Patient – I have been!

    How Much Longer????

    Thank You.

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