Narosan 6: Wanderings

The drizzle beat a relentless tattoo on the cobbles. The few people walking under the scant protection of the eaves along the streets hastened to shelters and warm fires. The night was about to fall when a figure wearing a long cape ambled across the street towards a large squat house. He stopped at the imposing oaken door standing under a small porch to undo his cloak and shake the rain off before knocking the door ring on the wood panel.
Although he wore no distinctive signs of his rank, he could not have been mistaken for anything else but a soldier with the hair on his pate cropped short to accommodate a helmet. His apparel was made of sturdy leather from boots to gloves and surcoat. Apart of a big hunting knife he apparently carried no weapons. His stocky, almost short body bore little excess fat. Only the craggy weathered face might have betrayed his real age to a keen observer.
Royal Guard Sergeant Norbert de Chalon represented a bit of a puzzle to other soldiers of the elite corps. In spite of his rank dearly earned on battlefields and interminable missions, he had always steadfastly refused to wear any ostentatious mark of his real status. If his men and women could recognize him, that would suffice, he had time and again replied to superiors and subalterns’ pressing questions on his lack of decorum. In any case he was due for retirement within the year at long last after a life of service to the Crown. He counted himself spared by fate to be still alive and in reasonably good health. He could not care less about titles and decorations.
His house was his and he would be able to enjoy its comfort on a more permanent basis soon.
The door was opened by a middle-aged woman.
“Good evening, Master!”
“A good evening to you, too, Serena!”
He had given up a long time ago to have her call him by his name or a simple “Sir”.
He had bought this house with his hard-earned wages when it was put on sale after the untimely death of its owner as his widow and daughter suddenly found themselves in great need of money. Instead of throwing out the former owners after purchasing their abode as most people would have done, he had decided to hire them as permanent house servants. It made common sense if not good charity. As he was away for the greater part of the year, he could not wish for better housekeeping. The widow and her daughter lived upstairs while he had had the ground floor rearranged for his own “quarters” next to the big dining room adjacent to the kitchen. When the Dwarves had revolutionized the sewer system in the Capital, his rank for once had come in play as he was granted separate amenities including privies and a large bathtub. The servants were given the key to a small vault hidden inside one the kitchen walls for everyday errands and whatever payments had to be done while he spent time on the field. In this way he had all the advantages of a married life without the daily hassle of a wife. Snide remarks about the two women residing in his home had been quickly quelled by a few chosen words from his own soldiers who knew when and where he could and would go when in need of those pleasures that any healthy man was entitled to.
He handed his cape to the woman who enquired:
“Will Master have any food and drink or take a bath?”
“The bath can wait. I’m not hungry. I shall fetch some wine myself. Just bring me some bread and cheese.”
He went to the kitchen to draw a jug of wine from the barrel he had ordered some time ago from the vineyards of Villefranche. When he came back to the living room a plate of sliced bread and cheese was already lying on the table with a hot towel and a pewter goblet. He sat with a contented sigh and wiped his tired hands with satisfaction. Nothing could replace that small luxury after a day of riding.
He was about to bring his goblet to his lips when a knock was heard at the door.
Halting Serena with a raised hand as she was moving to the entrance, he stood up and walked to the door and opened it himself. Who could it be at this time of the day?
Two hooded figures were standing outside in the rain. The silhouette of one of them seemed familiar.
“Good evening, good gentlemen. What service may I be to you?” he enquired as his Royal Guard’s manners took over.
The familiar-looking man raised his hood above his face. It was Gerhart de Beaucastel, the King of Beaulieu.
“Sire?” Norbert asked in surprise.
The King smiled
“Good evening, Sergeant. May we come in?”
“Of course, Sire! Serena, take these gentlemen’s cloaks and bring us a couple of goblets. Have you eaten yet?”
“We had something a while ago. But a little food with wine would be welcome indeed!”
Norbert invited his illustrious guest and his companion to his table. As they were sitting, he could not resist breaking protocol.
“Sire, forgive my curiosity, but the last news, official as they might be, said that you were keeping to your chamber as it would take you a long time to recover after that damn assassination attempt!”
Gerhart took his time before answering.
“This is what we want our citizens to believe.”
Norbert glanced in Serena’s direction.
“Do not worry. Alfred de Vigny here will have a word with your servants We expect nothing to come out of here as you will have understood by now!”
The Sergeant belatedly realized that it meant he would have to say good-bye to his retirement for probably a long while.
He patiently waited for the rest of the story about to come.
Gerhart sensed the Royal Guard’s reluctance.
“You’ve probably heard about Alfred here. He is the Crown Internal Affairs Chief, a grand title for Royal Master Spy, or more aptly said, Anti-Spy! He will be better suited to explain the situation!”
Norbert had heard of the powerful officer, but never had the occasion to meet him in person. He nodded in acknowledgment.
Alfred did not waste time on niceties.
“Sergeant, the King has decided that in spite of our ability to serve swift retribution, we would let the perpetrators cook into their own juices for a while until they eventually grow complacent harboring the belief that after all no punishment would come. When they feel at their most confident and start planning their next nefarious plot we will strike hard and make an example of their demise. The Royal Guards, the Golden Dragon Squad and other corps have received their orders to vacate the lands of Marche and Montfaucon and will wait for new directives until we deem the timing right!”
The Sergeant commented:
“I can understand that. But before going any further, may I ask a couple of questions for my own peace of mind?”
“You’re welcome!” Gerhart replied before Alfred could lose his temper at the officer’s apparent impertinence. His knew his Royal Guards better than his invaluable aide, and this was a time when his Royal prerogatives came in useful.
“My thanks, Sire! First, what was the extent of the assassination attempt?”
Gerhart readily answered:
“Quite bad, and we still can deem ourselves lucky. But for Alfred’s quick thinking, we might have been all dead by now! We lost quite a few valuable courtiers. Arnaud de Betancourt, our Judge, was on leave in Montjoie, or it would have been a disaster! Servants and staff were indiscriminately murdered. We lost the whole Royal Guard garrison on duty that night. Had it not been for those two exceptional young members of the Golden Dragon Squad, the assassins would have broken into the Royal Chamber and massacred us all. The Queen and I were saved by Robert de Glacis, the Royal Physician. How? I don’t have a clue. The heirs are safe. But what galls me more is that those bastards killed their own. I can already imagine what kind of stories are circulating in the North!”
Norbert did not reply immediately. He knew it was only part of the story. And one tiny detail was surely a straight lie. But he had already been told more than other people knew. Quite a few days after the partly bungled attempt citizens witnessed many funerals and a lot of cleaning. The official version was that the King and His family had to keep to their own quarters and would not be able to make Royal appearances for some time to come. Royal Guards had been posted at all strategic locations of the Capital when he had himself been recalled from service in the South.
“You are not planning to completely ignore Marche and Montfaucon for some time, are you? Am I right to believe that is where the assassins came from? And pardon me my insolence, but if you are the King and man I believe you are, some preparations on the terrain are required?”
Gerhart and his aide looked at each other. Norbert realized his case had been carefully studied. He mentally kicked himself for being so clever.
Alf replied:
“You are correct on all counts, Sergeant. We have been looking for a capable individual unknown to the Barons in the North. Most of your service was done in the South. Although people here can conceive you are a soldier, your attitude does not make it obvious you are in fact a Royal Guard veteran officer. I understand you have come very near your well-deserved retirement, but I’m afraid the Crown has no alternative but to request you to postpone it until we are finished with the state emergency at hand. It goes without saying that the Crown will be generous and reward you for your services!”
Norbert’s eyes went cold. For once, Gerhart’s most trusted aide belatedly understood he had made a rare gaffe when the Sergeant stared at him straight in his eyes and talked in a dangerously calm tone:
“Crown Internal Affairs Chief Alfred de Vigny, know that I do not need a bribe to comprehend where my loyalty and duty lie. In all the years I have served the Crown, His Majesty Gerhart de Beaucastel, King of Beaulieu here present is the first sovereign that we all presently living Royal Guards respect without question. I have fought on the Wall under His Majesty’s direct orders and I resent your last comment!”
Gerhart contentedly smiled at his subject’s reaction.
“My personal thanks, Sergeant. Alfred here has chosen the right man in spite of his lack of tact. I’m as responsible as he is, and I offer you my sincere apologies. We are going through trying times and we tend to lose our perspectives!”
The veteran relaxed.
“No need for apologies, Your Majesty. I feel deeply honored to be considered for one of your missions. May I ask Your majesty to brief me immediately on my coming task?”
“Thank you again, Sergeant. We want you to depart a soon as it is practical for you. We shall spread the story that you have been prematurely discharged from the Crown service. You are supposed to have become very disgruntled with the lack of consideration you were entitled to after so many years of faithful service. You have collected whatsoever money you had and set forth to try your chance at trade in the North. A cart, horses and wares for bargaining have been made ready for your use. Your house will still be your property to prove your own business backing. We shall make sure no one uses your absence to lay a claim on it. As soon as you arrive to your destination, work yourself into the good offices of Jehan Desmene, a merchant we banned away from Villefrranche some time ago. The man has been kind enough to openly declare himself as the enemy of the Crown to curry favors from Barons Philippe de la Marche and Beaumont de Montfaucon. We cannot fully substantiate our suspicions that those two are behind the assassination attempt as they went as far as killing some of their own retainers as we already explained. We had already got wind of tales being spread to convince citizens that a coup d’état is being fomented by our very own courtiers trying to put the discredit on Barons in the North.”
Norbert nodded before asking:
“You have your own agents in Marche, have you not? When am I supposed to contact them once inside the place?”
Gerhart turned to Alfred who replied as if on cue:
“We already have sent messages to Sylvana, our main agent inside the Castle of Philippe de la Marche where she poses as a house servant of dubious morals. Actually very few people, even in Beaucastel, know she is of noble birth. She is fiercely loyal to the Crown and nothing will hamper her when it comes to serve it! We have other agents, but as a general rule we do not encourage them to socialize with one another. Even so, be assured they will come out at your call if needed. All have been ordered you take precedence as the Crown Envoy. Your first duty will be to ascertain whether the five tax collectors are still alive. We very much doubt it, but in case we are luckily wrong, help them out even at cost of lives. If they are dead, secure their bodies. We shall have a lot of explaining to do to no less than five nations.
———————————————————
No one wants to face the wrath of a dragon. And certainly not two of them at the same time.
Amrel and Umatar had timed their arrival in Beaucastel to almost coincide. Geraldine had reached the Capital first in the company of Matthieu, the adopted son of her dead lover, Geoffroy d’Arcourt and Mareeva, her brother Ekan’s adopted daughter. To the youngsters’ discomfiture she had ordered them at once to meet their tutors for much needed lessons.
She-Who-Speaks-To-Dragons had come with an official delegation from the Steppes to enquire about the health of the Beaulieu sovereigns. Although their escape from the assassination attempt had been formally announced, they still played along the rumor that they were confined to their apartments for a slow recovery.
A curt nod from Umatar had sent the Heirs’ Guards and their charges out of the Royal Chamber. The two Tribesmen were only too happy to take the infants for some healthy play outside away from the vaunted Queen of the Steppes.
Gerhart and Marghrete were now confronting the two enraged women whose reptilian eyes seemed to burn across the room.
But they did not cower in abject terror.
The Dragons belatedly discovered they had taught those two humans well.
Gerhart stated between gritted teeth:
“No, I am not charging out for an instant retribution if that is what you mean to ask me!”
“But they deserve nothing else!” Amrel almost roared back.
“And earn the reputation of a bloodthirsty king blinded by anger, however justified he might be! No, Amrel! And by citing your Dragon’s name, I call on your understanding for patience and craftiness! Revenge is a dish to be savored cold. I will make an everlasting example of those murderers, but in my own fashion and in my own time for all to witness and approve! Let them in the North make the mistake to assume I’m weak and despondent. Their punishment will feel swifter for it!”
Geraldine held back her ire. The human being had a fair point. She would not concede yet.
“Well, when you are ready, could you be as kind as to notify us?”
“Amrel, this is a matter for the people and denizens of our lands. All races will be represented at the time of reckoning. Therefore make sure no one sees any of you, and do not interfere! This is not Montjoie when you protected Hildegard against that raving brute!”
Umatar inwardly smiled, feeling her anger ebb away. Her sister was discovering that Gerhart was more intelligent than he would let people know.
“Sister, desist! Gerhart is right. This man is about to become a true hero. Whether he lives to relate the tale is a moot point!” she sent her thought to Amrel.
“And if he fails, will you help me sort out the pieces of whatever we will be left with?” the Blue Dragon retorted in mindspeech as she brusquely left the Chamber.
——————————————–
Philippe de la Marche was, for the least, in a foul mood.
Life has certainly been miserable since the morning he had been discovered in the company of his drinking companions their pants down sitting in their own mess. For once, the three of them had found no way out of a good scrub in a tub full of hot water and suds. It had cost the Baron a fortune and a nasty cold to boot, notwithstanding an already tarnished reputation gone to shreds.
Sylvana had a hard time to keep a straight face while she was serving them. That sorry misadventure had not convinced them to mend their ways apparently. She had hoped their hands would have left her alone, but the conspicuous absence of their disgusted spouses meant more time spent in their company and whatever it entailed.
She was reflecting that after all those days of whining she might as well as try and goad them into some action away from the Marche Castle, when a messenger approached Philippe. The irate noble snatched the missive from his retainer’s hand, and summarily dismissing him without a word of thanks or recognition, opened it to read the contents. It took him a while as his education had only included enough to read succinct military or political messages. His wife, who composed lays and music in her spare time never missed an occasion to nag him on his ignorance.
A grin of contentment appeared on his face for the first time since that fateful morning when his image had taken a final turn for the worst.
He handed the missive to Beaumont and Jehan Desmene, the merchant banished from Villefranche.
So that renegade is included in state affairs, Sylvana pondered. We shall see how far we can make use of him as well. Cognizant as she was of the message which only included misinformation planted by Alf’s agents, she waited for her prey’s comments.
Philippe was warming up to the news.
“Well, it seems that the second part of our plan worked to perfection! Gerhart and his whore are still alive, but only barely. We shall have our hands free for a long time to be!”
“Especially in the light he has lost a good half of his followers and that no one is left to blab since they were stupid enough to kill our whole delegation. Thinking of it, we could make use of that little detail if he ever survives!” added Beaumont. “We should have no difficulty to make our good subjects believe it was nothing but some kind of Palace revolution caused by his silly reforms that spilled into a case of mass slaughter!”
Jehan Desmene chose the moment to contribute his own comments.
“I wonder why we haven’t seen these celebrated Royal Guards yet? They don’t seem so full of themselves once away from Beaucastel and Villefranche, now do they?”
“It just shows that all those stories about a place called the Wall and whatever grand fights they had for the so-called protection of our nations were completely blown out of proportion!” Beaumont approved.
“I bet you Gerhart and his Guards will be too worried for a long time to be to venture away from their bases!” Philippe said. “It is about time we thought about our own businesses, do you think not? Since the Dunlago Marble is no longer an option, it might be a good idea to search for other merchants that King in the South has been victimizing like Jehan here! Let’s show everyone we can build our own network without having to go along with that silly system of common measures, currency, and what else!”
————————————————
For once, Norbert de Chalon was actually enjoying traveling through the lands north of Beaucastel for the first time in spite of his long service for the Crown. Leisurely moving along on a cart certainly proved more pleasurable than riding a warhorse in patrol gear. He had crossed the Quatrain River between Nevers and Entrecasteaux where bridges stood in number to allow trade between the rich farmlands along both banks. This was still country loyal to Beaucastel. But he would soon reach the Marche Baronage north of Entrecasteaux. The warmer climate there helped vineyards thrive and yield heady wines Dunlago traders regularly came to purchase in large quantities. Further north Montfaucon also harvested rich crops from its orchards and was renown for its dry fruit that the same traders would also buy or barter for spices.
Products from Marche and Montfaucon would also find their way to the neighboring lands of Tarse, Montauban and Nevers where large herds of cattle, horses and sheep contributed to large amounts of cured meats and high quality leather in particular. In fact, the whole nation of Beaulieu was a rich land replete with food and natural resources. Famines or food shortages were unheard of. All this wealth should have ensured a peaceful life had it not been for the greed nurtured by the laziness of some nobles who had failed to realize that it was the fruit of hard labor and efficient management. This attitude had further encouraged petty theft and even crime, not only among people who preferred to dwell in cities, but also between various landlords. The Royal Guards had been hard put to somewhat control the situation down to a manageable level until Gerhart had initiated reforms under Amrel’s guidance. The single theft or desecration of the smallest plot of land could degenerate into unending feuds. Therefore until all lands and rulers had accepted and enforced common laws decreed in Beaucastel, there was always a real danger of bitter conflicts, not only between Baronages and other provinces, but also between individuals which could wreck the peace already bought dearly in Montjoie and Montreduc.

Half a moon later, he finally reached the border between Entrecasteaux and Marche. He had never heard of such a tangible division on Royal Guard duty, but what faced him ahead as the road curved around another low hill left him in no doubt. The way had been effectively blocked by some kind of garrison with men-at-arms standing across his path. The landscape in that particular area was a succession of hills with vineyards planted opposite forested slopes as far as the eye could see. Only a few roads snaked their way among them making the whole land effectively easy to control or block at need. He suspected that all the routes were similarly interfered with when he found more unfortunate travelers waiting in single line, apparently waiting for their turn to be allowed through.
Judging from what he could hear things were not going smoothly. He patiently bid his time, his soldier’s eyes and ears memorizing every detail.
His turn finally came. The two men-at-arms barring the way with their crossed lances did not impress him much. They looked little better than rabble armed for the occasion. He reined his horses in.
What might have been considered as a ranked soldier appeared from behind the lancers followed by some kind of clerk carrying quill and parchment.
The official almost barked at him:
“State your name and business!”
Norbert exhaled a slow breath. Losing his temper here would not do. From the smell assailing his nostrils he quickly deducted that this excuse for an officer standing in front of him was not averse to enjoying his wine on duty and probably was using the drink to wash his teeth as well. Had he not been wiser he would have advised the cur to use wine to clean the whole body as well.
He equably answered:
“Norbert de Chalon. I’m a trader.”
The man looked at him and his equipage.
“One trader, one cart full of what I don’t know, two horses. This will be one Marche silver or two Beaulieu silvers for passage toll!”
Norbert almost exploded:
“Since when has toll been imposed for passage between two states of the Kingdom?”
The officer shouted back:
“Why do I have to explain everyone the same and the same all over again? Do you think we can provide protection and service to men like you for free?”
The Royal Guard very much doubted he would benefit from any service worthy of its name from such soldiery, but he continued playing his part. He could always use the occasion to gather useful information.
He grumbled:
“Service I understand, but protection? Protection from what?”
The officer looked at him complacently, his hands in his belt.
“Apparently you haven’t heard about the troubles south! What with a King letting delegations from our lands get assassinated in all impunity?”
The man was obviously repeating rehearsed speech. He could not believe that the idiot would have been able to proffer such a lecture at a pinch. The Baron of Marche was killing two birds with the same stone through that propaganda: controlling his borders and making money out of it. And a significant amount of it considering the discrepancy between the two currencies.
“I see, officer. But I do not comprehend why I should pay two Beaulieu silvers for one Marche silver, which evidently I do not possess since they are not accepted as tender south of your borders!”
The officer went on reciting a well-learnt lesson:
“And what about the loss incurred for exchange duties?”
This was a straight-face lie as all currencies were replaced with the Beaulieu mint weight for weight as long as the quality was the same. The argument reminded him of the appearance of fake Beaulieu silvers mentioned on Alf’s written information that he had all leisure to read along the road. Counterfeiting money with a cast forged from a genuine coin should be pretty easy in Philippe de la Marche’s minting workshops, but the quality would have to be reduced significantly to make it a profitable business. Tolls were a simple enough method to collect bullion of the best quality for melting and re-minting.
Norbert played the offended trader:
“But that is tantamount to theft! I have never heard of two to one rate in my whole life!”
The officer mocked him through a nasty grin missing a couple of teeth:
“Well, you haven’t much of a choice, have you? Either you turn around and try another toll to pay your way through, or you cough your money here right now! If you really want me to do my duty, I will have all of your goods unloaded and checked for taxes! I’m sure you will understand the exchange rate is a bargain!”
Norbert had a long look at the soldier and the clerk. He cared little about the rigmarole, but Gerhart had instructed him to play the part unless the masks fell regardless of humiliation and justified anger.
He deliberately pulled the string of his belt purse open, slowly drew out two silver coins and dropped them inside the open hand proffered by the clerk. He had to repeat and spell his name before the civil servant could write it properly on his parchment. He very much doubted the Baron would read it before tallying the ill-earned money. Phillippe de la Marche knew very well that his wines would still provide for much profit to traders regardless of this sudden toll. But, by the same token he was violating a Royal law prohibiting such unfair practice taking back the land into feuding times when outright civil war was rife in the whole Realm.
Norbert was let through without any further hassle. However, he reflected that might prove piddle compared to what he might face in the fortified city of Marche where the currency delegation were held prisoners.

For the last two days the Royal Guard had traveled at an easy pace through Marche’s hilly country. Not longer after he had left the passage toll behind, he had sensed a growing uneasiness seeping into his bones.
The land showed all the marks of natural wealth: unending vineyards covered sun-baked slopes, alternating with rich forests, which surely must be replete with game and food notwithstanding the many kinds of trees providing for great timber. On the other hand, roads and thoroughfares could have been better cared for. The services provided by the toll money apparently did not include improving traffic through the land in spite of great trade possibilities. He could understand, if not admit, the lack of decent routes that would necessitate a sizeable amount of silver and labor. But what struck him as inappropriate was the general attitude demonstrated by the local landowners and farmers. Everywhere he went he met with hostile glares. People did not answer his queries or greetings. He had made a point to ask for permission to camp along the roads near rivers, but every time peasants and their families had almost fled from him in mute anger.
He was ruminating on these matters when his sharp soldier’s reflexes took over. He was followed.
He halted his cart around the next bend where it would stand concealed by the wooded slope until the very moment whoever tailed him had to appear on this side of the hill. He unlit and untied the horses before drawing them into the shade.
He could not afford to carry any weapons apart of the knife necessary for daily chores, but he was certainly not unprepared. He unfastened a long wooden pole from the side of the cart and hid crouched behind the trees along the road. Whoever was after him did not ride a horse, or he would have heard from a long distance away. The prowler, or prowlers, would have to come on foot, and probably running at that after losing sight of their prey the moment the road had turned at the next bend.
He did not have to wait long.
Two bedraggled youngsters materialized around the bend. They stopped in their tracks as they discovered the unhorsed cart apparently abandoned in the middle of the road.-“Where has the old man gone?” the first one painfully said panting, a hand holding his side.
Still a youth, his lanky body had overgrown his tattered clothes. His companion, a head shorter if not any older, did not look much better. Neither of them seemed to have enjoyed a proper meal for a very long time. What was left of their garments and persons had not been scrubbed for ages. Norbert suspected that apart of the occasional rain or rare dip in a river the two youths were utterly ignorant of such elevated concerns as hygiene or health.
“I can’t see the horses, either. Is that merchant stupid enough to leave his belongings unguarded?” asked the shorter one.
“Well, I don’t care where the old fool went, there must be food inside that cart and I’m starving!”
Without any more ado the two hurried to Norbert’s chariot, not noticing the two horses pitched nearby.
The Sergeant had kept still all the time, blending with the copse of trees he was hiding in.
The prowlers were no real bandits as he had feared first. The kids did not look older than fifteen years of age. Why had they become vagrants when they should have been helping in the fields and farms?
He would have to ask those questions later. If he did not quickly interfere, the would-be thieves would make a mess of his cargo.
The two lads had just turned their backs to him.
He took the opportunity to step out of the trees.
“Care I help you?” a rough voice queried from behind the youths.
The two jumped in alarm and whirled around to face the man they had made the mistake to ignore.
A grizzled merchant leaning on a long pole was facing them.
Then they made their second mistake.
“Old man, get away from us, will you?” shouted the tall youth. “We don’t want to hurt you! We just want some of that food you must be carrying!”
“Why don’t you ask me politely, then?” Norbert retorted in a low voice.
“Listen, we don’t want to hurt you. Just keep clear!” the increasingly nervous youth shouted back.
The two youths never had the intention to cause him any harm, it seemed. They were only desperately hungry.
But Norbert’s soldier ethics impelled him to teach them a lesson.
“I’m afraid you will have to earn that food. Either you ask me politely, or you fight for it!” he egged his young adversary of the moment on.
The lad fell for it and tried to rush the Royal Guard.
He was no match to the soldier’s skills and long fighting experience.
The pole twirled in his hands in a blur and hit the boy’ knees with a loud whack. The would-be attacker screamed in pain as he fell down holding his legs. A single turn of the wrist brought the innocuous weapon across his pate where it landed with a crack. The boy collapsed into an unconscious heap.
His shorter companion who had rushed to his help did not last long either as he received the same quick treatment.
The two only came back to their senses when a pail of water splashed over them.
“Now, are we ready to show some good sense?”
The two boys were too groggy to speak. They just nodded I agreement.
“Good. Next if you answer some questions I’ll give you food and I’ll consider the incident closed! Do you hear me well?”
The youngsters nodded again.
Norbert waited a while for the vagrants to fully recover. He felt real pity for them but certainly would not show it. After all, he could turn this little incident to his advantage.
Judging the boys were fit to answer him he began:
“You probably have figured out I’m not of this land, but I don’t understand why young lads like you are not busy working on your farms! First of all, what are your names?”
“Fromont”, replied the lanky boy.
“Tiercin”, answered the short one.
“That’s all? Fromont and Tiercin? Don’t you have any family name?”
“We are not allowed to carry one.”
He found that strange as everyone south of Marche River, nobleman or farmer had a surname.
“Why is that?”
“Only Baron de la Marche and his court may have a title or surname.”
Norbert doubted very much this was a traditional or local rule as that should have been known by Alfred de Vigny and his agents.
“And why are you not working on the farms?”
“We’ve been kicked out after our parents were put in jail!”
“Why were they thrown into prison?”
“Because they couldn’t pay the Baron’s taxes!
Since when did farmers have to pay taxes to Barons? The common law was clear enough about that. While nobles owned lands, they usually hired and paid farmers, not exacting dues on them.
Had the lords of the land fallen so low as to reinstate serfdom, which would have the rest of the Realm up in arms?
He had heard enough for the moment.
He left his pole against the cart and rummaged inside his luggage.
He came up with a loaf of bread. He broke it in two and handed each half to each of the youngsters who first backed away in shock from the proffered food.
“I’m not going to hit you again, so eat! And eat slowly or you’ll get sick! And drink as well!”, he added, handing them a skin of wine.
They did not need any more encouragement. Only the stern eyes fixed on them prevented the lads to wolf down the lot.
Norbert took pity of them again. But his practical mind had seen all the time the opportunity to be taken.
“If I understand well you have nowhere to go, then?”
The two assented in unison.
“No relatives?”
He obtained the same reaction.
“Well, ambushing merchants on the road, especially considering how good you are at it, will lead you nowhere but to jail or even worse. So here’s the plan: you work for me. I’ll feed and clothe you. Once I start business up in Marche City I’ll pay you wages. But you will have to earn your living. Until we reach the Baron’s Capital, you will have to look after the cart and horses, lay and lift camp and what else. When I set shop in town you will run my errands. But first of all, as soon as we reach the next river, you dive into it and won’t come out of it until I’m satisfied you are clean. I’ll show you how to make clothing out of linen and leather I carry with me. Ah, and one more thing: you will begin drills from tomorrow morning!”
“Drills? But you are a merchant!” exclaimed Fromont.
Tiercin elbowed him in his side.
“Fromont, shut up. After that beating, do you still think this is a merchant we are talking to?”
Norbert chuckled.
“At least, for all your clumsiness, you are not stupid. I’m a merchant now, but I wasn’t so long ago. Believe me, if you go along with me, I expect you to fend for yourselves like men when I’m not around to coddle you! Now, is it a deal?”
They half nodded in agreement.
Stand up and make yourselves clear!” Norbert barked at them
The two lads jumped onto their feet and cried in unison:
“Yes, sir!”
“That’s better! And now, get some wood for tonight’s fire! There’s little point traveling any further for today!”
The two boys hesitated.
“On the double!” barked the former Royal Guard.
His new charges reacted faster this time and ran into the woods.
Back in the army, Norbert pondered. Oh well, this was one thing he was good at, marshalling people. He wondered about his merchant’s skills, though.

————————————————–

It had been a long day again. Alfred de Vigny was perusing the last reports from various parts of the land.
Sylvana had confirmed that Norbert was about to reach The Marche Baronage Capital. Montjoie and Montreduc were slowly resuming normal life erasing the last scars left by the Hammer of Fate fanatics. He and Gerhart would have to consult the Estrees brothers about the possibility of lifting martial law earlier than planned. Valmoray would take longer unfortunately. The Golden Dragon Squad and the Grey Legion were discreetly posting themselves within easy distance of Marche and Montfaucon. More false coins had appeared, all seemingly originating from the same mint. Arnaud de Betancourt would soon have to help them write and promulgate an edict making the possession or use of such falsified currency a crime, otherwise all those refunds would quickly deplete the Treasury.
A knock on the door broke into his ruminations.
It could not be Hildegard, his secretary, bodyguard and lover. She never bothered with niceties and just barged in whenever she needed to meet him.
He suddenly felt a premonition of imminent trouble.
“Come in!” he almost shouted in exasperation.
King Gerhart entered closely followed by Geraldine de Blanchefleur.
He conducted talks with the Sovereign of Beaulieu on an almost daily basis, but the visit of the most feared woman in the Realm was definitely out of the ordinary. He could see on the very serious face of the King that he was not about to retire to his quarters early that evening.
Gerhart raised a hand when he made to stand up. His two visitors dragged a chair to seat themselves in front of his desk. Their informal approach did not fool him a bit, And his desk was no protection at all, either.
“Sorry to keep you late,” Gerhart began, “but a major concern has arisen, if I may use such a corny expression.”
The chief-spy patiently waited for the rest to come. It was not Gerhart’s habit to beat around the bush. And why the heck was Geraldine attending this meeting?
“A ship from the South has been intercepted off Villefranche a couple of days ago.” The King continued. “Actually “intercepted” might be the wrong word as they flew a white flag of truce!”
Alf could not contain himself.
“Why the hell wasn’t I informed!” he erupted, jumping on his feet.
Gerhart raised both hands as if to ward off his chief-spy’s righteous ire.
“Please, let me explain, will you? After that, you can scream at me as much as you like!”
Alf sat back reluctantly.
“The ship was found by two of our patrol boats, that is one from Beaulieu and one from Dunlago as they survey the seas in pairs as a rule. They managed through gestures and signs to communicate with the men aboard that strange vessel. And when I say “strange”, it is an understatement. Both captains were sensible enough not to bring that alien ship into full view of our citizens and accompanied it to a hidden cove south of Villefranche near the Fire Mountains. The message relating their encounter and consequent actions just reached me by sealed Royal Mail. They did very well by keeping the whole affair in complete secrecy, otherwise you can imagine the reaction of some of our hot-headed citizens!”
It took Alf some time to digest the news. His mind was furiously working.
“Alright. I agree they did the proper thing when they went through Royal channels only. Now, you said they communicated through gestures and signs, meaning their language is too different from ours to engage into formal parley.”
He added, suddenly suspicious:
“And does that explain why Geraldine de Blanchefleur is here with us?”
He turned to face the Blue Dragon.
“And am I right to suppose you also have the hidden talent to understand all languages?” he proffered with badly concealed asperity.
Amrel responded in a dangerously quiet tone:
“I actually do, but I will not act as an interpreter. We already have one!”
The Blue Dragon secretly enjoyed the sight of a nonplussed Alf struggling with words.
“What, what,…!” he started.
But for all his diminutive height, the Beaulieu Minister of Internal Affairs had a stouter heart than most.
He quickly regained a guarded calm.
“Alright, alright!” he started, thinking that nothing was actually right. “Let me start over again. I have always suspected that Geraldine here is not what she seems to be. And unless I expressly ask for it, nobody is going to tell me. And I do not want to know it, either! Especially considering she is not the only one! Now, who is the individual capable of ensuring we precisely come to know our sudden visitors’ intentions, and this in the best possible confidentiality?”
The last was an evident jibe at the powers-that-be who repeatedly proved themselves out of his reach.
Amrel settled back into her chair.
“This is a long story. Gerhart did not know anything until today. I’m happy to repeat the whole of it, but promise me you will not interrupt me until I’m finished!”
Alf contented himself with a slight nod.
“Fine, but hold yourself tight. You know my assistant at our hospital, Robert de Glacis?”
Alf had a rough time not to jump again at the new revelation.
Amrel’s tight smile expressed recognition to placate him.
“Yes, Robert de Glacis is not what he seems at all. She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons first met him in the Steppes. He had come to her of his own volition to become her apprentice because he had heard of her as a great healer when he rode across the land. She found out later when an invasion from the South was thwarted on the West Coast that he originally came from beyond the Fire Mountains, from Andragon Realm to be more precise, and why and how he intruded into Alymndes. The Andragon King and his minions had taken his whole family hostage in exchange for an impossible mission to collect information north of the fire Mountains range. Bear in mind that this occurred long before the Battle of the Wall when our defenses along the uninhabited Western Shores were inexistent. As he voyaged alone on a small sailboat, none witnessed his arrival. He had brought enough to barter his way across the Steppes. His healing skills earned him the respect and hospitality of the tribesmen who believed his story of an errant shaman from the east learning his trade in their lands. Robert, that is not his real name, has a gift for languages and mastered our common tongue quickly enough to dissipate any suspicions that casual meetings might entertain. He and She-Who-Speaks-To-Dragons happened to be there when the invasion from the South and the ensuing battle occurred. The leader of the raiding army was known to him. She-Who-Speaks-To-Dragons discovered his true identity when Robert tried to get news of his family back in Andragon from the dying Commander who barely had the time to reveal that his whole family had been executed shortly after his departure.”
She paused waiting for Alf to register the information.
The little man did not disappoint her.
“So I presume that it was She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons, intriguing name incidentally, who talked him into joining you as a much-needed aide in your hospital. Clever, I must admit. Very clever. But I hope you will understand I need to debrief him. There is too much information he has hidden from us. This in turn will become invaluable intelligence the day we decide to teach the Southerners a lasting lesson in their own lairs!”
“I’m sure he’ll be glad to oblige. But before that, you had better think of what kind of intelligence you seek from those sailors that obligingly surrendered into our hands. They certainly haven’t come to start a fight!”
“Which also means that they have ventured here for a very precise reason!” added Gerhart, warming up to the conversation. “And why would they come of their own volition if not to parley or ask for help?”
“Ah, ah! The two of you might still surprise us with sharper wits than your dull citizens!” Amrel could not help comment.
Alf was quicker than his King:
“Spare me, will you? I’ve enough of a woman’s snide remarks, especially considering you saddled me with her care!”
For once, the Blue Dragon kept her peace. Tossing men around was one thing, but raising them strong enough to bark back at you was a totally different proposition.
“Well, that is settled, then!” Gerhart concluded. “The finer details can be taken care of later. First things first, Let’s have a talk with our unforeseen ambassadors from the South!”
“Raise your arms higher!” Norbert yelled.
Since the very day the Royal Guard had hired the two youngsters he had not given them a moment of peace. Their equipage had become nothing less than a traveling boot camp.
The sunrise saw them already up and scrubbed clean. Norbert never seemed satisfied with their hygiene, a totally new experience for the two teenagers who had rarely ventured stark naked into cold rivers. And since the land was replete with them, there was no escape from that chore together with washing their own clothes. The latter had to be hung above the fire they had to light in any circumstances, a skill they were made to master quickly. The next chore was cooking breakfast, which their Sergeant made as big as possible as there would be no time to eat again until evening meal. Then it was cleaning the pots, and while the clothes dried they were run through the basic fighting drills wearing only their underclothes and boots. After that it was again into a river or a pond and finally getting things ready for the trip ahead.
Come evening they also had to dig latrines, to refill before leaving the next day, grooming and brushing the horses, setting up camp for the night and drawing lots for guard duties before at last eating cold dinner and hitting the sack.
It was not all chores and drills as Norbert, who assumed his own equal share of work, imparted them with a wealth of practical knowledge such as measuring time at night by just looking at the path of the stars and moon in the sky, concealing their camp, cart and horses from unknown eyes, and even more basic skills such as fishing, setting traps and picking edible vegetables and fruit in the wild.
The drill they were presently going through had been devised for them to assimilate the handling of sticks of varying lengths. Since the Royal Guard could not carry weapons along, he kept these batons concealed in his baggage for immediate usage if ever needed.. He had quickly convinced his charges that a solid stick properly used was a good as any sword or lance, and faster at that. The youngsters’ bruises had taught them within a very short time that brutal force would never suffice. They were taught that the hands holding swords or pikes were actually the weakest and least protected parts of a soldier’s anatomy, gloves or not.
Seemingly inoffensive ropes and cooking utensils could be wielded with ghastly consequences if forced to.
But the most important lesson he offered them was to never reveal one’s strength or skills while staying vigilant, even at the cost of one’s pride.
“Avoiding a fight is as good as winning one, but if you are left with no other alternative, make sure you hit first and last!” he unendingly hammered into their heads.
The moment they came within view of Marche’s capital, people back in their village would have had to look more than twice to recognize the two clean youngsters sporting trim hair and sprouting beard, wearing modest but spotless and efficient clothing, and obeying an irascible merchant with tranquil strength and unassuming alacrity.
The last evening they would camp before reaching the destination of their mission, Norbert walked to his cart while his charges were still eating their cold meal.
He extracted a skin of wine and three goblets he had kept hidden in the box under the driver’s seat.
“Tomorrow we will enter a city,” he started, “and I need to tell you quite a few things before we can venture together there.”
He served them and himself a goblet of wine.
“Drink slowly and learn to appreciate the wine. This particular beverage will be miles better than anything you will be served at taverns and inns in Marche. Continue eating and drinking as quietly as you can. I will not repeat what I’m about to tell you now for your own good and mine. You are still young studs, but you have proven yourselves dependable within the short time we have shared. I’m taking a risk but you have as many reasons as I to seal your fates to mine. I’m on a mission for your King, Gerhart of Beaulieu, and your Kingdom. Some people in Marche are responsible for unsavory crimes against our country and citizens. From now on you are part and parcel of my mission. Unless told the contrary, you are my two servants and nothing else to whoever asks you. On the other hand, you will be my eyes and ears. I can assume that you will be offered coins and easy women countless times to make you stray away to the other side. You will soon realize that life on the road was a holiday compared to the conditions you will have to put up with once inside Marche. That is one reason why I taught you the benefits of cleanliness. Country boys would easily fall sick if not warned. I will do my best to obtain acceptable inns or houses we will stay in but don’t expect too much”!
Norbert finally paused to observe his new charges.
Fromont and Tiercin, for all the warming colors brought up by the wine to their cheeks, were looking back at him in earnest and awe.
Well, if they are listening so nervously, I suppose I can trust my overblown instinct for once, the veteran Guard pondered. I only have to keep them alive, he ruefully added to himself.
His attention went back to the youngsters.
“What say you? Are you ready to follow me or else?”
For a short instant the two lads appeared nonplussed.
Tiercin at last replied with a thin smile:
“Sir, this is not much of a decision for us to take. I cannot assume for Fromont here, but I will follow you!”
His companion quickly added:
“The same for me Sir, and I don’t need Tiercin’s approval! Not accounting all the good you did for us in such a short time, and I’m not including all the bruises, you have given us a true purpose to our lives. I’ll serve gladly and truly!”
Tiercin elbowed him in the ribs.
“Why didn’t you just say “yes” instead of going through useless explanations!”
Norbert chuckled:
“I can see the two of you are going to make a fine team sooner than I thought! Let’s drink to that while we can!”
———————
The newly-built baronage mansion in Valmoray where Baron Nepomucene de Beauvoir-Valmoray had just moved with his staff was witnessing its first meeting of note.
The large building, which had just been completed with the help of the denizens of the Realm Under the Mountain under the supervision of Firebrand, included enough living quarters for a full Royal visit. And the rooms were certainly not too many, what with so many people in attendance to welcome their unannounced visitors from the South.
A long table had been set in the center of the reunion chamber with three seats along each side. Gerhart, Geraldine and Nepomucene were seated on one side while their main retinue stood behind them at ease: Walkyries Hildegard, Maheut and Birghit as well as Umatar in the company of He-Who-Stands-Upright. Alf had placed himself further away together with Gratien and his dwarf companion, Firebrand, who for once had left her armor in favor of a bright tunic and loose pants. In fact all were dressed casually and had it not been for their attentive faces, one might have been mistaken in believing that this meeting was just another informal gathering.
Trays laden with light food, pitchers and goblets had been placed on the main table and shelves along the wall behind them.
Most of the debriefing had been already done with the previous day by Alf with the aid of Robert de Glacis, the physician from Andragon. All had read the reports and had grasped a sufficient image of the situation prevailing in the Southern Continent.
Queen Marghrete had chosen to stay with the young heirs of Beaulieu and keep an eye on Matthieu and Mareeva who had once again miscalculated that Geraldine’s momentary absence would have seen them free to resume long-planned pranks.
Confidential reports would be later sent to King Marcus Vanenklaar through Captain Aamir and Queen Elhana in Elf Wood by sealed Royal mail.
A side entrance finally opened to let in Robert in the company of Zardor and Saramin.
Except for Alf all had some difficulty concealing their surprise and curiosity at the sight of the two men who could not have made more of a striking contrast.
The trader moved with the ease of an accomplished diplomat. He was all elegance with his tall and trim body in spite of a certain maturity betrayed by a few white strands shining through sleek black hair oiled and combed back over his nape. He sported a neatly trimmed moustache and a pointed goatee. His dark olive skin was enhanced by a loose shirt and pants of blue-dyed linen tied with a narrow purple silk band. His feet wore some kind of leather slippers reminiscent of the ones in fashion in Dunlago.
The diminutive Morenin outlaw, on the other hand, was all leather, tunic, pants and boots. His painted face surrounded with matted locks of jet black hair betrayed a fierce and uncompromising temperament. For all his companion’s smooth appearance, this man seems permanently seized with a barely contained anger. Alf had asked him if for once he could discard the red color painted all over his face so as not to attract the undue attention of casual onlookers, but the pigment was so ingrained in his skin that it proved impossible to get rid of. The Royal Guards had to accompany them at night concealed inside a roofed cart in secrecy from the cove where their ship had been kept hidden.
They had been staying in a comfortable room beside the meeting chamber.
Their quarters being equipped with all facilities thanks to the Dwarves’ work, no one but the Royal Guards or the Legionaries could have espied them until then.
As Robert de Glacis and his two guests reached the other side of the table Gerhart and his companions stood up, and together with their entire retinue he bowed welcome to the Southern men. Their two guests were caught off balance not at all used as they were to have royalty or any authority salute them in sincere deference.
Zardor replied by placing his right hand over his heart and bowing low, although he kept his eyes on his interlocutors while Saramin bent his upper body more stiffly but markedly less deeply.
Gerhart then gestured them to take a seat with the Royal Physician between them for easier communication.
The South also practiced a common language but it was profoundly different from that of Alymndes at all levels, be they intonation, syntax or grammar. Alf idly considered that some people could make a fortune in a foreseeable future through becoming conversant in both languages.
Gerhart made a point to introduce every single person present in the room. He then took a pitcher of wine to fill his guests’ goblets while his retainers and even Robert served themselves without decorum.

Zardor spent some time savoring the wine with half-closed eyes obviously enjoying the heady nectar from south Beaulieu. He made a comment in his own language to Robert who easily translated:
“Zardor wants to know how much of this wine is made in our lands.”
Gerhart who sensed the interest of a trader behind the question replied:
“Plenty enough to trade anywhere! Do you have wine in the South?”
“Yes, we do, Zardor continued through Robert’s interpretation, but solely red and only of a passable quality compared to this wine. Our climate is propitious to making wine but we do not seem to have your variety or quality judging from what I have had the pleasure to drink so far in your country. I wonder whether this is caused through lack of skills or poor grape varieties.”
“Well, this could become one of the topics to help you learn our common language since you may not go back for a foreseeable future to the South. But before we discuss how you could spend your time in our lands prior to your eventual return may I ask you what incited you to take the dire risks in venturing in the unknown north?”
The southern merchant smiled. The positive attitude of the northern King was already payment enough for the risks mentioned.
“Instinct backed up with some analysis of recent events, shall we say, Your Majesty? The fact I spend most of my life travelling along the shores of the whole south enables me to garner more information than many people, and by correlating this same information on the aforementioned events I came to believe that an opportunity was there in the making for the first man to catch and develop into unimaginable possibilities.”
Noticing that no one was in the mood to interrupt him he easily continued:
“People in harbor taverns have a tendency to speak too much. It was no great task to learn that a fleet never came back to Andragon, the land of our friend Robert. Saramin here will concur that all came to know about that the last expedition beyond the Fire Mountains had turned into a bloody rout when everyone witnessed the defeated captains and crew being quartered alive on Thalamus main square. Finally we heard that an army of impossible proportions never made it back through the only pass crossing the northern mountains. This last piece of information was picked through the few traders allowed through Drastan who told me that the land must have lost more than half its population all of a sudden.
But now, why wasn’t there any justifiable retribution coming right away from the north?
That is when I realized that, although they might be a terrible force to contend with, people living on the other side of the mountains must be more pacific than our own denizens or more careful. Only people who have a lot to defend could act so. That is when my trader’s instincts took over. Without trade peace is impossible. On the other hand, trade is the first step toward friendly relations between countries, although I must admit this is fraught with danger in our own lands. Another reason to keep to the seas!” The merchant added with a chuckle.
He paused to leave Robert enough time to translate at ease.
He was gratified to see agreeing nods all around him.
“That is indeed more or less what we had surmised after reading your debriefing, commented Gerhart, and I must say it will be a pleasure and a honor to help you in your future ventures! I can’t tell when you will be able to travel back home and how we can make up a believable story for your people unless we have to wait until we pay a long due visit to your oppressors. Even so, we might need to prepare our venue long beforehand. In the latter case, we shall have to help Saramin sail back to Morenin to organize his forces as soon as possible, although if your friend agrees we shall have Robert teach him as much of our language as possible to ensure better communications between our various forces and s intelligence sharing.
On the other hand how shall we proceed to help Saramin back to Morenin? As his boat was sunk what kind of vessel would he need?”
The outlaw thought for a short moment.
“I only need an efficient and small enough sailboat looking obviously designed for fishing. I can help you devise one that will look very similar to the ones used on our shores. This way I will not attract too much undue attention.”
Alf intervened:
“But what about those beasts you mentioned, harpies and sirens?”
“They do not appear at night, so I will time my arrival at night. I know enough of sailing to do it. After all I managed to get away from them once. I don’t see why I shouldn’t be able to do it again!”
“What else would you need? Just name it and we will give it if we have it.”
“There is no much I need as far as material things are concerned. My gamble proved to be a success beyond hope. The news I will bring to my people will give us so much hope! We will be only too glad to resume our fight!”
Gerhart raised a hand.
“Saramin, we do not wish to insult you, but we think this is the time for patience. Instead of resuming your fight right away it would be better to nurture your resources and build for the future!”
“But do you think we have a future with those bloodthirsty monsters? Almost shouted the outlaw.”
Zardor felt he had to intervene, testing Robert’s speed in his translation.
“Saramin! These people have already proved us they know how to deal with our enemies, which are also theirs. Why don’t you listen to their advice first? I’m sure they still have a lot to explain!”
The calm demeanor of the Alymndes denizens seemed to appease the fiery rebel for the time being although he was visibly seething.
Gerhart who had a long experience dealing with such characters resumed without much of a change on his face.
“Saramin, I praise the concern for your people but continuing fighting the way you have done so far seems hopeless at best. But hope you have now, and you must convince your followers to take a back stand until we come. Avoid the fights as much as you can. Lull your enemies into a false sense of security. Build your forces until the moment we will crush them back and front! Your fighters will be of invaluable help, not only for blocking your foes’ rear but also for guiding us once we have disembarked. It is of the utmost importance that the greatest number of your people survives the ordeal as we are not invaders but fighting for the same values. Once the enemy is obliterated you will have to take the reins of your country! Only merchants and would-be settlers will stay to help with the prosperity of both the south and the north.”
As Saramin intently listened to Robert’s translation his features slowly relaxed as he pondered on the advice. For all his desire for revenge he was showing the cold acumen that earned him the respect of his people back home.
“I must admit to my chagrin that you may be right, but how can I prove I was granted your support and power back in the South?”
This was a very thorny question indeed and a suddenly oppressive silence fell on the assembly.
It was Amrel who broke it.
“Saramin, I knew this issue was about to happen, so I came prepared for it!”
The outlaw had not realized the esteem the Blue Dragon was held by all Alymndes citizens present and the puzzlement at her intervention was apparent on his cragged features. He noticed that even Gerhart and Alf were consciously avoiding his querying stare. He belatedly understood that women in the North numbered not only fighters among them but leaders as well, an occurrence unheard of in the South.
Everyone in the assembly except for the obviously unaware Zardor visibly cringed at his next question:
“Not meaning disrespect to your person, but how can a woman help us in our present dire situation? We have lost too many of ours to the enemy and we are constantly in fear of losing the few left. I haven’t asked the question yet, but how can women become the evidently feared fighters and leaders you seem to have among you?”
Jay benignly smiled at the question. Saramin also noticed that all women present were smiling or even smirking while the men kept straight faces. He suddenly felt an added urge to sail back home.
The Blue Dragon calmly spoke as if to an uncomprehending child.
“Saramin, shall we leave it at that? That is unless you want to discuss with all the women here who will be only too glad to oblige?”
She paused, waiting for a reaction, but the outlaw was too clever to understand when a head-on clash was not on the cards. He kept a straight face and intently looked at the Blue Dragon’s face.
Some men began to revise their opinion when they witnessed his unflinching stare. The man must have gone through a lot to be able to withstand a woman no one of them would ever dare to cross.
Amrel also seemed to respect him for that and continued in a quiet voice:
“Take this with you. No one in your land would be able to replicate it because it is beyond the means of even the richest king or tyrant tormenting your people!
As she said that she opened a pouch attached to her waist and took out a kind of heavy necklace.”
It was made of pure gold. It consisted of a chain passing through the top of six rectangular medals all adorned with a different intricate design.
“This will prove to all your followers and friends you have the unreserved support and friendship of the six races who will come to your help in times of need.”
Saramin missed a beat at Robert’s translation.
“But, but… I was told that there were only five races in Alymndes!”
“This is right. But know that there exists another land far away on the east of our land which is as much concerned with our common plight that we are.
Look at the medals. They represent a tree for the Realm of the Elves, a horse for the Tribesmen’s steppes, a mountain for the Dwarves, a shore for our friends in Dunlago and a vineyard for Beaulieu. The sixth race is represented by a ship. When the tyrant that calls himself your king sees their ships sail past the Fire Mountains I can predict right now he will flee Morenin to ride all the way to Andragon in a futile quest for help!
These new friends of ours come from a land called Narosan and they have vowed to help us root out the evil that besets us all! These are people none of us would care to be pitted against as war is their profession for all their love of peace!”
She handed out the necklace to the rebel with both hands.
Saramin carefully took it in his proffered hands as he bowed markedly deeper to the Blue Dragon.
Long his eyes tarried on the jewel. Opening the collar of his tunic he placed it around his neck and clasped it securely. He had a last long look at it before he closed his tunic over it.
“I will cherish it more than a crown and will make sure that the protectors of our lands carry it with pride and honor as soon as our oppressors are eradicated! He finally commented with another deep bow.”
With these simple words, everyone present was convinced that the fierce outlaw would not become a tyrant when his enemies had been obliterated.

————————————

The atmosphere inside the Two Lances Tavern had nothing remotely martial. Patrons belonged to the more affluent merchants and their clients inside the city of Marche, but for all the supposedly elevated status of its clientele the establishment did not amount to much to one used to the comforts and pleasures of Beaucastel. The ale was barely passable and definitely watered down. The food only deserved the title of grub. Royal Guards south could cook better. Norbert had to pay extra coins to ensure that his room where he stayed with his servants was cleaned every day under the eyes of Fromont and Tiercin making certain that nothing was stolen.
But he was not here to complain. He actually made a point of telling anywhere willing to hear that the City was a great place to live in and establish oneself. For the two days they had stayed so far in the tavern he and his companions had played the role of an exiled soldier turned merchant and his two servants looking for business opportunities in the northern lands.
The Royal Guard had already enquired about Jehan Desmene who he had rapidly discovered as an evidently new but increasingly influential citizen of Marche who seemed to have the ear of the powers-that-be not only in the city and land of Marche but also in those of Montfaucon, giving the confirmation, not that it had been needed, that King Gerhart and his Crown Internal Affairs Chief Alfred de Vigny had very efficient spies inside the place. .
Talking of spies, Sylvana had not contacted him yet. One more reason to meet Jehan Desmene as soon as possible.
As for business he had already kept busy visiting Marche and make himself known to the local merchants and burghers and enquiring on their needs. Although, trading was an entirely new experience to him he had quickly understood there were many possibilities for a hard-working individual in this City full of sloths. He had also discovered a seamy side to the place that offended his Royal Guard’s senses. There was certainly no dearth of information to send back to Beaucastel. A lot of work was waiting for the Royal Guards and even the Grey Legion’s attention.
The Royal Guard had been ruminating on all this for some time sitting alone at a table in front of a half empty jug of ale when a stir occurred at the entrance of the tavern.
A new group of customers had just arrived led by a man of indeterminate age but obviously a wealthy merchant judging from the ostentatiously rich clothes and the four men evidently guarding him. A quick glance at the bravos did not impress Norbert much. If that was all money could buy as protection the local men at arms would not be much to deal with.
The notable, if he could call him as such, made a show of inspecting the clientele present before venturing further inside when his eyes fell on King Gerhart’s secret envoy.
A grin broke across the fat face of the man.
He almost ran to Norbert’s table, his hand held forward.
“Have I the honor of meeting Norbert de Chalon, just recently come to our good city of Marche? My name is Jehan Desmene, and I believe we hail from almost the same place!”
Norbert stood up and took the proffered hand, carefully checking himself not to grasp it too hard. Two could play at the rigmarole. So the man called Jehan Desmene had not taken long to take the bait. He had plenty more for the slimy fish.
“Himself, but the honor is mine! I would not have expected such a citizen of importance to personally look for me!”
The merchant held up a deprecating hand.
“That was the least I could do when I was duly informed of your arrival!” Norbert wondered what the word “duly” really meant. Or was the man intimating he had his own network of informants? Amusing…
“But I’m remiss with my manners! Let’s celebrate this event! It’s not often we have the pleasure to greet a citizen of similar dispositions from the South!”
And what did he mean by “similar dispositions”? Well, he surmised that Sylvana had a hand into this beautiful intoxication. Jehan Desmene had not only fallen for it, but was obviously feeling great pangs of homesickness. Norbert would gladly make him feel even more conscious of his banishment then!
The merchant called the taverner behind his bar:
“Taverner, bring us red wine! And from my own personal cask, will you?”
Not bothering to wait for the reply, he turned to Norbert.
“Now, good man Norbert, I heard you have come to our good city of Marche to ply the business of a merchant, Apart from the fact we share the same interests, I still wonder why you have come all the way here when there are plenty of opportunities in neighboring Baronages?”
Prying for more information? I will oblige you, and more, thought Norbert. For all his wealth the man was not very clever when it came to gathering knowledge, notwithstanding that everyone could hear them.
He replied easily enough:
“Many simple reasons to that, but I won’t bother you with them all. Let me just say that first I have been relieved from my service to the Crown for no apparent reason and that I was left to fend for myself. Trade was the only interesting solution left to me as I had gathered enough to barter or sell during my years of wandering all over the South of Beaulieu for my former employer.”
The wine had come and Jehan served his guest himself.
“To your health and success in business, then! But please tell me: what was your employment for the Crown? After all, even if you got thanked with nothing in spite of your years of service, you were still wise enough to prepare yourself to such an eventuality. Mind you, it does not surprise me as I have myself been the butt to very unfair treatment from some so-called officials back in the South!”
“I was a Royall Guard!” Norbert answered with a straight face.
Jehan almost choked on his wine in sheer surprise. He does not know much about me after all despite some information we had sown beforehand he mused, wondering how much of an idiot the banned merchant was.
“ A Royal Guard? But I thought your lot had all the benefits of the Crown?”
“Apparently not, or times have changed. The fact is that I was fired to tell the bare truth, and that without any explanations or advance warning whatsoever!”
“Well, the least that I can say is that you did well to come here in Marche as not only there is plenty of good trade to do but you will find people who will be glad to hear your tale and lend you a hand! You will find soon enough that I have the ears of the real powers both in Marche and Montfaucon and it will be a pleasure for me to introduce you to them! The earlier, the better! After all, we are on the same boat, aren’t we?”
Norbert pondered that the man was painstakingly hiding the fact that he was himself thirsty for news from the South notwithstanding that bringing the former Royal Guard to the court of the Northern Barons would greatly add to his personal prestige.
It was becoming almost too easy.
But that did not reassure him a iota as he knew too well that he was about to discover some very unsavory and dangerous secrets very soon.
He had to get in touch with Sylvana as soon as possible.
———————————-
The Alymndes delegation and their hosts were enjoying a rare moment of unrestrained leisure in a large room where they sat informally on cushions in front of small tables laden with drinks and light fare.
She-Who-Wanders was indulging in rice wine with Kaluin who for once had discarded her black attire for a more comfortable combination of loose pants and tunic made of woven flax linen that her friend had also adopted for the day. One could have commented that they were ladies after all and at last behaving as such.
Which suited Counsellor Makan fine. Actually, he had organized this informal gathering because he wanted to know more on Alymndes’ heroes and lore. His new vocation that he had struck upon during the voyage back to Narosan was quickly proving an occupation not only profitable but was also greatly helping with a better understanding between the people of the two vast lands separated by an ocean that was about to see some markedly increased traffic. Some of his writings had already been printed and people were ardently claiming for more stories from this strange land and its quaint people.
They were all drinking either rice wine or a very lightly colored beer that the denizens of Beaucastel and Dunlago in particular were discovering. The dwarves for their part did not find the rice wine or the beer strong enough for their satisfaction but one day General Qusan had brought them a fiery drink made with the distilled white lees of the rice wine and they just couldn’t keep their hands off it to the great delight of the Narosan soldiers who were very careful when imbibing it.
He was presently talking with Hammerhead who was only too glad to oblige.
“I’ve heard but never met of this lady dwarf who fought at the Wall by the side of a Royal Guard. From the sight of you and your friends I would easily understand her fiery reputation, but I never saw one of your ladies apart of Queen Brighteyes back in Dunlago!”
Hammerhead chortled:
“And you will not see another one for all I know. And I doubt you could call Firebrand a lady. Her companion, Gratien de Salles-Lavauguyon might consider her so in private, although I wouldn’t presume, but she is a soldier among our lot and the only female one. We can all fight in need but this female dwarf has made it her specialty! I fought at the Wall, and even as a dwarf I’m not too comfortable at relating the horrendous fate of the foes who were unlucky to face her!”
“How did Firebrand and Gratien meet then?”
“It was actually a slightly amusing story but I don’t know if you can have it spread all over Narosan! And the ladies here might object!”
“It will stay here for the moment, so do please relate for our benefit!” almost implored a piqued Makan.
The dwarf took his time and slowly drank a cup of the fiery rice spirits before resuming his story.
“Well, she had decided to meet Gratien who happened to be one of the three persons in charge at the Wall and the only one who could hear her request.”
“A request? What kind of a request?” asked the Counsellor whose confusion even surprised Qusan who could not remember the sight of a nonplussed Counselor of his.
“Privies!”
“Sorry?”
She-Who-Wanders burst in laughter.
“Hammerhead means private toilets, although we don’t need them in the desert. But remember she was the only female at the Wall until our Queen, Geraldine, the Walkyries and the Golden Dragon Squad joined the battle!”
“I see. But how did you happen to know about this very private matter?”
Hammerhead guffawed:
“We had to build those privies!”
“I understand. They had to meet to solve this particular matter, but why did they become the inseparable couple who brought havoc on their enemies?”
This time Hammerhead felt embarrassed.
“How do I know what happens between a male and a female of two different races?”
But the dwarf had been chosen for his unusual love of talk among a race notorious for their few words in public.
“I might add that it baffles me. Firebrand must be at least twice her companion’s age and will live at least four times as long!”
“That might be truly become a problem someday. Do dwarves betroth again if they lose their companion?”
“I’ve never heard of such an occurrence. Not many dwarves do engage in a love relation, but they are fiercely possessive and will not suffer any rival or unfaithful partner! I heard that Firebrand would not even allow anyone but herself to wake up Gratien during the few hours of rest he could catch while fighting at the Wall! Dwarves are very protective of their own!”
Makan pondered for a while. He turned to She-Who-Wanders’ companion:
“Kaluin, do you think I still might write such a story?”
The Kar-Ti fighter was slightly taken aback but she quickly realized that General Qusan’s aide had referred to her because she was a lady, too.
“I would still have it written and told in spite of the unusual reasons. But our people are very practical when it comes to hygiene. It also proves that Firebrand was for all her gory exploits at the Wall very conscious of the vital importance of a clean environment even in the middle of war. I’m certain that if she had the chance to grace us with her presence here in Narosan she would be very interested in our hot spring baths. Knowing that most Dwarves live underground she would be the first to bring up the concept to the ears of authority in the Realm Under the Mountains!”
Hammerhead suddenly felt he had to interfere:
“Truth to tell, you can’t imagine what you are dealing with if you are looking for a future visit of our dear Firebrand in Narosan. But I will be glad to report this concept of an underground hot spring bath to her ears. I can already imagine the report she will send to Brighteyes our Queen who never goes out of our Mountains without the full gear of a soldier that she wouldn’t let anyone carry for her!”
This time it was Kaluin who asked the next question ahead of Makan:
“It seems to me that your women are very dangerous and little different from your males. Tell me, are there any great differences between male and female Dwarves apart of their obvious genders?”
Hammerhead chuckled.
“Well, they do not sport beards and do have breasts. Apart of that they are as ugly as we male Dwarves. Mind you, I wouldn’t tell that into their faces! But I must admit that Firebrand is a bit of an exception. Gratien was indeed lucky to meet maybe the only female that could be described as attractive in our race! To think that she is also our fiercest soldier, it must be baffling to other races!”
She-Who-Wanders commented turning to her friend:
“See, Kaluin! Didn’t I tell you that beauty could be used even in a fight!”
The two young women started giggling that had all the men present scratching their heads wondering what had made the two very dangerous ladies suddenly behave like court members.
Makan was visibly embarrassed when he proffered the next question:
“Could a dwarf and a human conceive a child, then?”
The dwarf readily answered though, as blunt as any dwarf is wont to be:
“No. In any case humans and non-humans can use medicinal plants known to all to avoid such an occurrence. Children between the denizens of the steppes, Dunlago and Beaulieu are nothing out of the ordinary but elves and dwarves can only procreate within their races.”
“If I understand well children could be born out of unions between Narosan people and other humans from Alymndes?”
“Of course, and if I may add, although as a dwarf I may not assume too far, that such unions and their children would only strengthen future relations between our two lands!”
It was Qusan who commented next:
“I do think so, too. One more reason for our dear Counselor to write and relate as much on Alymndes and its people as possible!”
Kaluin interrupted their conversation:
“You might have to be careful about that particular point, though. Our enemies might use such unions negatively. I can already hear them spreading the notion we are invaded by uncouth aliens who will endanger the purity of our race!”
Qusan almost snarled at the idea:
“It is about time that I got myself a spouse and I wouldn’t mind a life companion from the other side of the ocean. Let them come then and tell me in my face about the purity of our race!”
Raoul de La Tour, one of the Beaulieu merchants, could not help comment on Qusan’s angry declaration:
“Genaral Qusan, you might have to be careful there: wherever she comes from, a woman is a woman, and we men know too well the very few pleasures and many inconveniences of marriage, to put it mildly!”
“Not mentioning that she might well be a head or two taller than you!” Kaluin irreverently teased him.
“Do you mind?” tartly replied the offended General.
A small smile appeared on She-Who-Wanders‘ face:
“Uh, uh, I know a lot of relationships which started with that kind of banter!”
She could not help giggling at the look on her Narosan friends’ nonplussed expressions.

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One Response to “Narosan 6: Wanderings”

  1. Gary Says:

    Not to complain but this was a Long time coming.
    It was worth it!!
    I Love this tale!
    It is also Very Well written.

    Thank you.

    Gary

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