Narosan 7: Reckonings

Casilgar was sitting on his horse atop a plateau overlooking the city and harbor of Morenin. It was still the time at the end of the night when everything stands quiet just before the birds would wake again and announce the coming of another hot day.
He had been waiting that very spot alone with another mount every morning before dawn since Saramin had left alone on this impossible mission of his to the land north of the Fire Mountains It was also the only time of the day (and night) that the chief of the Red Faces would be bound to come back so as to avoid not only Hammer of Fate guards or soldiers but also the harpies and sirens which plagued the sea at day.
He was about to go back to his companions’ hidden lair in the nearby mountains when he espied a small silhouette slowly walking along the narrow goat path bending its way up the steep slope.
At last!
He made to rush down to meet him but reined himself when he saw his chief raise a hand to stall him. Saramin would reach him in his own time. With that single gesture he had intimated patience to his fiery lieutenant who he knew had thousands of queries ready for his coming.
The small outlaw chief finally reached him.
Casilgar offered him the reins of the other mount on which Saramin climbed on first before shaking his lieutenant’s hand.
“Well met! Thanks for the horse! It certainly feels a lot better on one!”
They leisurely walked their horses apace for a while before he took pity of his companion’s febrile impatience.
“Casilgar, that trip of mine proved to be a boon beyond imagination, but it is just too long a story to repeat it. I will relate and explain everything in good time for everyone to hear and ponder on it. Until then let me at least enjoy my homecoming!”

The Red Faces’ lair, one among many others, was located deep in the mountains beyond sight of anyone from the valley below or even from guards atop towers in Morenin.
It took them a good two hours to reach it through cracks in the stone so narrow that they had dismount from time to time and lead their horses through.
When they finally reached the entrance of a large cavern they were greeted by agitated outlaws.
But the belated return of their chiefs was not the cause.
“What the hell is going on here! Is that all you can do when your chief comes back to us at last?” shouted Casilgar.
Saramin intervenes:
“Desist, Casilgar! They must have a good reason!”
Calling to the nearest outlaw: “What’s the matter, man?”
“Chief, you came back just on time! One of our patrols took a small caravan unawares last night and brought us a strange prisoner!”
“A prisoner? The only thing strange I can think of is that he is still alive!”
“It’s not a “he”, it’s a “she”!”
“Are you telling me you are taking women prisoners? Are we falling as low as our enemies?”
For all his fierceness and not allowing prisoners Sarumin had never even been near considering taking women as hostages or as their own in spite of their losses, although he had been considering other alternatives in recent times.
He dismounted.
“Alright, take me to her!”
He was led forthwith into a cave where a large group of outlaws stood around a prone figure covered with a blanket from head to toes. There were very few prisoners taken indeed, but none was allowed to see the way to their lair until they had reached inside one of their caverns.
“Take that blanket away!” ordered Sarumin.
One outlaw pulled it away brusquely.
The Red Faces Chief gasped in surprise.
The woman was none of those living in the South.
Her skin was milk white. For her apparent youth she was strong and tall, even prone as she was, she had blue, almost grey eyes, and her long hair was…as red as a flame!
Recovering his wits he noticed that her wrists were tied together with a leather thong.
“Untie her!” he almost barked.
“But,…” started the outlaw who had guided him.
He turned to the man.
“But what? Are you telling you are afraid of a woman?”
“No, but she is really dangerous! She almost killed one of us when we opened the chair her porters had dropped when we attacked her small caravan last night!”
Saramin looked at the man for a long time until the latter visibly cringed.
The chief spoke again very slowly:
“Tell me if I’m right. Last night you caught a small caravan unawares. Now, its owner did not want to be seen in daytime and was ready to take the stupid risk of using a route away from the more traveled roads. Therefore the caravan carried a price of great value. Am I right?”
The man nodded.
Saramin continued:
“Actually, you did well to take her as a prisoner as obviously she was the valuable goods they were secretly transporting. In any case you couldn’t have released her for the danger she revealed too much about us nor eliminate her as we never kill women in cold blood!”
The man and the other outlaws visibly relaxed. Saramin was fair and far more intelligent than all of them but he could be brutal when needed.
He looked back at the girl who had sat up rubbing her wrists
He had a fair inkling of what she really was.
He crouched in front of her.
“What’s your name?” he gently asked her.
He slowly shook his head.
“Maraat is a Thalami name. What is your real name?”
She defiantly looked straight into his eyes.
“My name is Maraat!” she hissed.
He stared back at her for a while.
He gently asked her in the little Alymndes common tongue he knew:
“You from Beaulieu?”
The other outlaws wondered at his words and were the more baffled when the girl burst into uncontrollable sobs and tears.
He patiently kept looking at the young woman waiting until she took hold of her emotions.
He gently asked her in the Thalami tongue:
“Are you hungry? Are you thirsty?”
She looked at him wondering how such a fierce face could utter caring words.
“May I have some water, please?”
“Of course, and you do need my permission!”
He curtly signed for someone to bring a bowl of water he took from the hands of a fellow outlaw to hand it to her himself.
After she had drunk, he asked her:
“Please tell me your story slowly for all to hear. After that we will eat together because I also have a story to tell and then you will have as long a rest as you wish while we decide how to make your life as good as possible.”
In that single sentence he had proffered for all to hear that she would be under his direct care.
She soon began to relate her story.
“I was captured in my land when I was twelve. The slavers came at night in my village and started to kill and pillage. I still remember the screams outside our house. And then they forced the door open. Father and Mother fought hard but they lost their life trying to defend me. One of the slavers was about to kill me when another man, probably his captain, told him to stop. He wouldn’t obey so the captain killed him. I thought he saved me but actually he took me away. I found later that I was priceless bounty for them.”
Saramin held a hand up to ask her a question:
“You said your Mother fought. Was she a Walkyrie?”
She looked at him in wonder forgetting he had already talked to her in the common tongue of Alymndes.
“How could you know?”
“I’ve just come back from a city called Villefranche. Your village was not far, wasn’t it?”
Tears flowed again for her eyes. But she nonetheless continued.
“Yes, and I left it five years ago. When we reached Morenin, I was directly brought to a very rich man to whom I was sold. He took good enough care of me. At least that is what I thought at first. He had me learn your language and manners. It was just recently that I discovered that I was only prepared for another dire fate. I was to become a great prize as a new addition to King Karlrong’s harem! So last night, my so-called master had me transported in a chair carried by porters and accompanied by his own guards. But I have no idea what way we went as I have never gone out of his household. When we were ambushed by your men, I thought I was not going to survive this time. This is why I fought back!”
“You did well actually. This prevented a mistake as there is little time to judge who you face in a fight in the night. At least our men had to take a good look at you! They understood that you were something very uncommon indeed and decided to neutralize you first. I sincerely hope they were not too rough with you!”
Her lips parted into a thin smile. Saramin understood she was true Walkyrie stock at the sight of resilience from the young woman.
“How did you come to the possession of a sword?”
“It is not much of a sword. More of a dirk. I stole it when I heard of my fate and managed to conceal it under my robes. I was never to become someone’s sex slave! At least a live one!” she fiercely added.
Saramin smiled at her and patted her softly on the shoulder.
“You will never have to worry about such a fate with us, on my life!”
He turned to his companions.
“Where is that dirk of hers?”
An outlaw approached taking a thin bladed poniard off his belt.
“Here it is!” he answered holding the weapon out handle first.
The Red Faces Chief took it from and put it gently into the young woman’s hands,
“This is yours for you to keep and for you only from now on! You are truly a beautiful woman and a strong one at that. It is only natural that you are given the right to defend yourself! May I still ask your true name?”
The flame-haired woman silently stood up. Saramin stood up when he belatedly realized she was one head taller than him.
“Of course you may, and I’m truly grateful for the honor to proffer it!”
She bowed low, but still looking at his eyes. The outlaws’ women never bowed to anyone.
“My name is Beatrix.”
To his companions’ undisguised surprise, the most feared enemy of King Kalrong bowed as deep:
“My name is Saramin. Welcome to our people, Beatrix!”
He turned to no less than Casilgar, sending a last message to all if indeed there was still a need.
“Casilgar, after we have all eaten see that one of our elder women takes care of her personally until she gets used to our ways. Now, who is the one she almost killed?”
A scarred man stepped forward.
Saramin looked at him with a taunting smile.
“You, Varagen, one of our most feared killers! At least, you had the presence of mind to neutralize her without harming her!”
The man gruffly retorted:
“I don’t know about that, but you are freeing her and giving her a weapon in the bargain! And we don’t even know her…”
“I know what and who she is! Have you listened? Not only she is from the North but she is of noble birth even if she only lived in a small fishing village!”
“How do you know that?”
“Look at her. She is taller than anyone of us, she is white skinned, has grey eyes and have seen such a hair in our lands?”
“No, but…”
“She is of Walkyrie blood!”
“A Walkyrie? What is that?”
Saramin belatedly realized he had made a mistake.
“Alright, as this will take all night to explain, first call for food and drink. Beatrix will stay with us until I have finished. She will need to hear the news I bring as much as you do all! After that, call one of our elder women to look after her. She needs rest and comfort away from us men!”
“With a dirk in her hands?”
“So what? All our women have one! Do I have to tell you why? Who is defending our hovels while we are away?”
Varangen raised his hands in defeat.
But the Red Face Chief wouldn’t let him off that easily.
“Ah, Varagen, know that you will be in charge of her training from now on!”
“Her training?”
“Yes, to make sure she doesn’t miss you next time you fight her for real!”
The last remark was met by general silence until it was broken by a rare smile from Saramin and a sudden burst of laughter from everyone except for the unfortunate future instructor.
“And you start tomorrow to keep her busy in the mornings. As I said before I will ask one of our women to instruct her in our ways but she will not become a cave-dwelling wench!”
Casilgar couldn’t help ask:
“What do you mean? You intend to make a fighter out of her? A woman?”
“More than that! I already told you she is of Walkyrie stock!”
“Yes, but you still haven’t explained us what a Walkyrie is!”
Saramin slapped his forehead:
“That’s right! My apologies!”
Apologies? Casilgar wondered how much this voyage to the north has changed his fiery Chief. A lot, it seemed…
After Saramin had somehow gotten everybody’s attention, he ordered everyone sit down in a semi circle with food and drinks.
He started:
“Now keep your ears well opened as this will be too long to repeat!”
Everyone present kept their mouths tightly shut. After all, a good story was a rare treat and this one promised to be a good one, if only a story to a still unbelieving audience!
“You know that I somehow escaped Karlrong’s men, the harpies and sirens, but I would have never survived without the help of a ship owned by a trader from Marchees, deep in the south, called Zardor who happened to be as crazy as me! Actually, he is the craftiest person I’ve ever met! Mark his name, he could become the most important man in the whole south one day. He took me on his ship after he found me unconscious hopelessly drifting on the sea. After I was revived he told me he was sharing the same attraction to the lands beyond the Fire Mountains if for somewhat different reasons. We safely reached a point near the shore of the northern land when we were intercepted by two patrol ships. One carried tall pink soldiers and the other impossibly big and black giants. I was already starting to understand that Karlrong’s slavers had little chance the moment the men of the north finally decided to fight back!”
He took a break for a long drink, which allowed Casilgar, who had the privilege, to place a question:
“Pink and black soldiers? Black I will accept as most of the slaves from the North were effectively of that color. But pink?”
Saramin couldn’t help chortling. He had got their attention.
“I forgot to mention that the pink fighters on one ship were not all men but also women!”
He held a hand up to stop the next obvious question:
“Yes, women! And big and fierce at that! And some as tall and beautiful but stronger than Beatrix here!”
Everyone belatedly looked at Beatrix.
“Yes, Walkyries! They are women fighters as good and almost as big as men! And do you know what? They are all left-handed when using weapons! Don’t look at me like that! Can you imagine yourselves facing a pair of these soldiers, one right-handed, the other one left-handed? Obviously Beatrix’s Mother was one of them as she told us she fought by the side of her Father! Varagen, you understand you will have to teach her fighting left-handed!”
The outlaw scratched his hair:
“Thinking of it, I seem to remember she was holding that dirk of hers in her left hand!”
Saramin turned to Beatrix.
“Are you left-handed?”
“Not really as I can equally use both hands. But I remember well my Mother insisting on my using my left hand first!”
“Well, here you are if you needed one more proof! We were then secretly brought to Valmoray, a city where a King and many of his friends had been informed of our coming. That is when we were informed of the other Races living in the North!”
Casilgar couldn’t help interrupt again:“ 
“Do you mean they are not all humans?”
“I wouldn’t go as far but they certainly are different although at least three of their races would be compatible with us!”
“Alright, go slowly then!” chortled his Lieutenant.
“First in Alymndes, as they call the whole land north, there is a Kingdom called Beaulieu whose humans are the pink ones. They have some kind of nobility including the Walkyries, but contrarily to ours they think more of protecting their land than enslaving it. Then, you have a forest kingdom led by a Queen and inhabited by very tall and long-living creatures called elves. Incidentally their women are real magicians! Next, there is a very large steppe land inhabited by horse-riding humans who again have a Queen but no King! North of Beaulieu along the sea is a country called Dunlago governed by an elected King and Queen! Yes, you heard me well, elected! Last, in the far north lives a strange race inside mountains called Dwarves. They are small but immensely strong. We wouldn’t stand a chance fighting them, I can assure you! That is the basic picture for the northern continent. But there is also a faraway big island country called Narosan populated by humans smaller than us but definitely fiercer people led by a single Queen! Well, that is the general line and it should suffice for the moment. But know that they have promised to come to our help!”
His audience kept silent for a long time trying hard to digest all the sudden news when Casilgar again emitted the question that all seemed to want and ask:
“Saramin, I do believe you enough, but how can we prove this to all our people?”
The Red Faces Chief did not answer but opened his tunic. A heavy necklace hung over his breast. His hands reached behind his neck to unclasp it. He reverently spread it in front of him on the rug he was sitting on.
It was entirely made of pure gold.
There was a general intake of breath at the sight of such wealth.
Casilgar commented:
“At least we know they also have gold. But this is wealth beyond a king’s means!”
“It is far more than that!” replied Saramin. “It is the symbol of the strength and unity of the North! Look at all the medals carefully. They represent the six great people living there: The tree is for the Realm of the Elves, the horse for the Tribesmen’s steppes, the mountain for the Dwarves, the shore for the big black men of Dunlago and the vineyard for Beaulieu. The sixth race of Narosan is represented by a ship.”
His lieutenant commented:
“Elves, Tribesmen and what else… I’m afraid you will have to explain all over again!”
“Gladly, but a little at a time. The best time would be every evening around the fire, don’t you think?”
“I don’t know about that as we are always away on missions.”
“That is where things will have to change from now on! From today we disappear from the scene!”
“By disappearing I mean we stop any open fighting and husband our forces in preparation for our new allies’ coming!”
“Are you trying to tell me that we refuse to fight?”
“Are you listening to me? I said “preparation”! That is, we are going to create a situation that will help both our fighters and our friends when they finally come!”
Varangen was the quickest to grasp the new strategy:
“If I understand well, you want to lull our enemies into thinking we are not able to fight them any longer? Actually, that will allow us to do a lot of work we didn’t have the time to do. But we might lose our skills and will to fight if our retreat lasts too long!”
Saramin nodded in agreement:
“I understand that well. So to hone our skills further, I was thinking of another type of raid!”
His last comment was met by puzzled faces. He could admit their surprise as he had plenty of time to think while away from the interminable fighting back home. The discovery of Beatrix had only persuaded him he was on the right path.
“You all know we have two pressing problems among ourselves. First we do not have enough women. Second we risk the health of our children if we do not find new blood quickly!”
Casilgar was the first to react:
“I see. We just need more women. But we never took any prisoner!”
“I never meant we were going to take women against their will”!
“I simply don’t catch it!”
“Say, what was Beatrix before we found her?”
“A slave,…”
“Yes, a slave! So?”
Casilgar suddenly realized they were in for an even more hair-raising future:
“Are you trying to tell us that we go into our enemies’ homes, castles, and probably prisons while you are at it, to free enslaved women! And bring them all the way here?”
“Yes. And of course if we can free male slaves, too, so much for the better!”
“But we will have to acquire completely different skills to achieve such a plan!”
“Yes, and that’s why we are going to scheme, train and learn right away!”

Three enormous ships of unequalled size were literally standing inside their dry docks in the harbor of Dunlago. The shipwrights with the invaluable help of their colleagues and instructors form Narosan had done well indeed, and the immensely intricate building of the vessels had been completed ahead of expectations.
Amrel and Umatar were looking at them in the company of Captains Adir, Kamran and Petracan.
The two Dragons had finally come to realize it was best to distance themselves from the troubles of Beaulieu for some time and let Gerhart and his faithful retainers take hold of the country’s affairs on their own. Even in the case of a sudden catastrophe their Sire and Dame would be ready to help as Glamrun and Zamrel were constantly roaming the country in diverse guises. Soon, although the voyage would take a full moon, they would be able to meet their siblings and Hsu Yia again in their human forms.
Although the Captains knew them well by now, the stolid Dunlago mariners were not particularly overawed by the presence of the two most powerful women in the whole of Alymndes. Captain Adir had already taken on him the responsibility of lodging them on his ship, the Seadragon. Kamran, Captain of the Black Adder and Petracan, Captain of the Hope would take more visitors from the whole of Alymndes aboard their ships, tradesmen and craftsmen in particular. The last included many women on the advice of the two Dragons. The Captains had been a bit dubious about the presence of ladies on their ships, but on the other hand they would help break the monotony of a long trip at sea. As was the rule on any ship of Dunlago, the passengers would have to participate to the daily life and labor of a mariner as payment for their lodgings, although life on such big vessels would prove far more comfortable and entertaining. At the same time it would help make the same passengers understand the hard toil involved in transporting or importing their goods in the future.
One day, if Alymndes could solve its problems quickly enough the same ships would take all its Kings and Queens for a belated visit to Narosan, although Hsu Yia’s Empire had to solve their own predicaments first, and there seemed to be quite a few.
At least through the visit of Umatar, the Narosan citizens would have the opportunity to meet at least one Queen of Alymndes in the company of another powerful lady representing the Royal Couple of those strange pink humans.
It would take only a few days to load the ships with food and water and the merchants’ cargoes before leaving for the maiden voyage.
Norbert de Chalon couldn’t say he was enjoying the food or the company, in fact far from it as he felt like strangling the lot with his bare hands, but he had to make a show of gratefulness for having been at last invited to the table of Philippe de La Marche and Beaumont de Montfaucon thanks to the “good services” of Jehan Desmene.
Norbert did ponder on the lack of followers or retainers. Apparently the two renegade barons were not proficient at socializing, although he had the impression that they simply were greedy misers bent on squeezing riches out of everyone by any means down to straightforward theft and coercion. How they had managed to send their delegation to murder King Gerhart was a bit baffling. The only way he could explain it is that they had ruffians in their pay to do the dirty work. Even though, it must have cost more than silver to have the same bandits killing each other during the banquet. The fact that none survived could explain their absence inside Philippe de La Marche’s fortified residence in his city.
The whole city, Baronage and very probably that also of Beaumont de Montfaucon would have to be thoroughly cleaned in many ways but that would have to wait.
He was there to extract information and confirmation of the utmost importance before he could start his move.
Philippe was presently addressing him:
“Norbert, tell me: I still don’t understand how our King could prematurely sack one of his vaunted Royal Guards. Is that the general situation has gone bad in the South?”
The former Sergeant wondered why the baron was using such a difficult word as “prematurely”. Was he trying to impress him with education, or more aptly said, the lack of it?
He tried his best to answer evenly:
“My Lord (he does not deserve the title but let’s make him feel like one for the moment…), I am as baffled as you are, although I must admit the signs for a gradual decadence had been there for all to notice. For example, our famed Royal Guards were definitely falling into lazy habits, but that is not surprising in itself when you know that they have little to do except parades especially in the cities. The problem is deeper than that. You probably heard that the King came with the strange notion of a mercenary corps called the Legion, made of brutes and former convicts. You can’t expect a unity within the forces with such disparity. That’s one way to explain why I was suddenly discharged for no reason. My wages had simply been spared for one of those mercenaries!”
The bigger the lie, the easier to believe, he reflected. That is, if the Baron could understand some difficult wording he had included!
He continued as his audience seemed captivated with his description. They seemed to be the happier for it, so let’s give them more to rejoice about, he thought.
“I don’t want to bore you with crass details, but when the so-called rulers of our lands decided to create a unified system of measures and currencies, they never realized they were saddling us with more problems than benefits, what with the impossible task to convert everything into anything. As if we didn’t have enough headaches already with endless bartering, and I believe that Jehan here will agree with me: they should have left all trade to traders, not to officials!”
Jehan couldn’t help put in his own wise word:
“Especially those so-called currency inspectors who are no less than spies of other lands sent by that King in the south! But our dear Baron Philippe has taken care of that bunch, hasn’t he?”
Philippe and Beaumont did not show any alarm at such information being carelessly revealed. They had definitely grown complacent or too confident that no retribution would come to them. He pondered he would have to act earlier than expected.
Philippe chose that moment to call for more wine.
“Sylvana! Where has the wench gone again!”
The servant immediately appeared at a side door leading to the kitchens.
“I’m here, my Lord! I was just waiting for your call!”
“Then hurry and bring us more wine!”
“Yes, my lord! At once, my Lord!”
The wine cellar or the pantry must have been very near the main room as she came back almost immediately with a pitcher of wine she started pouring to the two barons and their guests.
As she came to serve Norbert, who incidentally had been the only one to hold up his cup for her to pour the red wine in, she managed to show her face to him only for an instant being helped by the fact the other men were too busy guzzling down the contents of their own cups. Looking straight into his eyes she made the slightest nod with a very serious face. Norbert realized at last he had met the person he had been waiting to contact him for some time. He replied in the same manner and brought the wine to his lips as if nothing had happened. He should not have worried as the three other men were too busy leering at the enticing shapes of her body.
The wine seemed to quickly dull the heads of the same men as they were fast losing interest in the supposed purpose of the evening, but Norbert readily understood that Sylvana was doing her best to encourage them to digress from whatever was at hand, and he certainly was not going to interfere. He already had his full of socializing not only with idiots but also criminals. He would have to cut all the planned preparations very short what with the currency inspecting delegation probably beyond help.
He put his half empty cup on the table and rose up to face his hosts.
“My Lords, I am extremely grateful for sparing me your precious time but I would ask permission to leave your company as the day is still far from being finished for me.”
Philippe barely looked at him and waved him good-bye with one hand while the other was entangled in Sylvana’s bodice. Beaumont appeared to hold an unhealthy interest in watching his accomplice’s amorous endeavors to bother answering the former Royal Guard’s request and Jehan was already snoring over his wine.
He succinctly bowed and made to exit when he caught Sylvana signing to him.
Her lips moved in a silent message: “Wait for me!”
He barely nodded back to her in recognition and quickly proceeded to the door.
He would have to tell his aides to make her visit to their lodgings as inconspicuous as possible.
It was the middle of the night when Sylvana finally arrived at the Two Lances Tavern.
Fromont and Tiercin had been waiting for her outside near the entrance not knowing exactly which way she would come from or how she would enter the Tavern.
They soon understood they needed not have worried as they saw her coming directly to the main entrance in full view, although she was wearing a cape and hood. She took off the latter before greetings Norbert’s charges. The two young men somehow felt discomfited at the total lack of precautions.
“Fromont, Tiercin, well met! And don’t ask me how I know your names! Would you take me to Norbert right away? We are in a hurry!”
Norbert’s aides preceded her through the entrance and across the empty main room to the stairs leading to the Royal Guard’s chamber.
The Sergeant stood up from behind a small desk where he was consulting dome maps of the city he had somehow extracted from various people for a so-called study of the various commerce in town.
Sylvana did not give him the time to go through formal recognition and instead went to embrace him.
“At last, I can meet you Norbert de Chalon, and none too early at that!”
“The pleasure is all mine, dear Sylvana! But if you go on welcoming me like this in front of my men, I will lose their healthy fear of my person!” he jovially answered.
The servant who did not look at all the wench she was supposed to play just laughed the remark away.
“I’m afraid they will have to get used to it, that is, in private of course!”
She continued on a more serious tone:
“I’m afraid things have been progressing too fast for comfort. You probably have already guessed that the currency delegation is beyond our help, but we still have to find and secure their bodies. I think I have a good idea of where they are and how they met their demise. You, I should say “we”, are not going to like it! But first of all, do you agree that we ought to send messages to King Gerhart to call all other parties involved and start moving in the open for all to see?”
A thin smile came across Norbert’s mien.
“Sylvana, although I’m technically in charge of all operations inside this part of Beaulieu on King Gerhart’s behalf I haven’t had time enough to assess the situation completely. You know better and I will be more comfortable following your advice!”
Sylvana looked at him intently.
“I’m grateful for your modesty, a quality men seem to have completely lost in this part of the world, but is it really wise? After all, I’m supposed to report to you and wait for your orders!”
Norbert’s face grew grim.
“Sylvana, for all my personal wish to deal with those murderers in the swiftest manner, I have campaigned too long to ignore good advice. Things are just going too fast and your knowledge of our predicament qualifies you as the real leader of the actions to be taken. I’ll assume responsibilities for the military aspects under your counsel. Actually, I do believe we will perform better as a team! Incidentally, we are only meeting for the second time, but I just can’t believe you are only an agent planted under the cover of a servant of doubtful morals. Your speech and manners have suddenly become too good! Am I right to think you are of higher birth than you want to make people believe?”
Sylvana chortled:
“Will we leave it at that for the moment? But you are certainly very sharp!”
Norbert had the grace to drop the issue.
“Thanks. Are you ready to send messages to King Gerhart?”
“At least one will leave as soon as I depart from this tavern.”
“Good. What kind of forces do these barons can call upon?”
“Not many inside the Cities of Marche and Montfaucon as these were dispatched in Beaulieu. But they do have quite a few men at arms all over their land to collect their unfair taxes and levies.”
“Why don’t we ask Gerhart to make a show by first kicking these ruffians out of their so-called customs houses and entice those two idiots to call upon all their forces in the field when ours enter their baronages?”
“Good and simple. That will allow us to take control of at least the city of Marche!”
“And by the same token that will permit us to recover the bodies of the currency delegation and bring them for all to see!”
“Fine, there is no need for me to tarry! I’ll take care of all the messages right now! But when King Gerhart’s forces and probably delegations from other nations show up I and all our agents will come out in the open and meet with you!”
General Qusan and Ironfoot were conversing aboard the Imperial Ship when they were joined by the whole Dwarven delegation. Hammerhead, Coalfire and Strongarm had come to report on the very special task of devising, building and fitting the four Imperial ships with catapults.
On day all the ships had left to sea away from unwanted eyes. The vessels had been loaded with heaps of wood and metal beforehand. The official reason of the exercise was the study of repairs at sea as part of the Alymndes delegation’s learning of crafts and techniques prevalent in Narosan. No questions were asked although one might have wondered about the presence of the denizens of the Realm Under the Mountain aboard the ships whereas their talents should have had them concerned more with mining and minting underground than venturing on water.
The fact that the people of Narosan had quickly turned to reading Counselor Makan’s compilations of the history and legends of Alymndes had instilled them with a healthy regard to the privacy of the embassy members of a land which had seen fighting battles and horrors beyond their imagination. Narosan may be a land besieged with its own conflicts, but the tale of the universal war waged in that strange continent across the seas by unrelated races united against a common enemy and the help they had contributed in the defense of their very own Empress against the Tong-Hi pirates had struck a wary respect in their hearts and minds for the aliens in their midst in spite of the latter’s evident goodwill and affable manners. A lot of rice wine had certainly been needed to ease the atmosphere after some long trade discussions and persuade all that the Alymndes people were not much different from their hosts after all, especially when it came to everyday life basic concerns.
“How are things going, Hammerhead?” asked Ironfoot.
General Qusan was still struggling with the informality of the Dwarves including Ironfoot whose true nature he knew. But on the other hand it made work so much easier and since his soldiers did not seem to mind a bit, he grew happier with the situation by the day. Moreover, they had so much to teach that it was a pleasure for any military mind to converse and learn with them.
“We did have to change the initial plan completely but all things are progressing pretty well. We had thought of fitting each ship with three catapults each but the total extra weight was just too much even for such big vessels to safely manage. Therefore one big catapult secured in the middle of the upper deck will have to suffice. On the other hand as the catapults, even in the middle, cannot be placed in the real center because of the proximity of the masts and sails, they had to be located near the rails. To compensate the list caused by the weight of the catapult we had to add ballast near the opposite rails. The ammunition or whatever projectiles will have to be kept under deck while sailing and brought on deck only before the actual shooting. We also did have to devise special boxes for the ammunition to keep it from rolling or sliding away.”
This was long talk indeed from a dwarf, but they could prove a very talkative lot when explaining their work and techniques.
Ironfoot smiled in satisfaction:
“Well done, indeed! I knew you would grasp the intricacies involved in building such a weapon in spite of the constant movement of the sea underfoot!”
General Qusan could not help ask a last question though:
“What kind of ammunition are you thinking of?”
Hammerhead readily answered:
“Big round stones of about two-hand span diameter and a lot of small stones!”
“I understand the need for heavy stone balls, but why do you need a lot of small stones?”
Hammerhead’s face turned evil:
“Such small stone balls, if heated properly, will set fire to anything beyond walls! As for heating them we can easily install a covered oven just behind the spoon of the catapult!”
The General shook his head in disbelief at the utter simplicity and terror of the attack the dwarves were helping him devise against the hated pirates.
“Then, just one last question before I leave it completely to you. You said we will have to load all kinds of stones. How can we explain that to inevitable nosy onlookers?”
The dwarf roared in laughter:
“Ballast, of course!”
Someone knocked at the door.
Alfred stretched his arms over his head to unkink his shoulders before answering.
A knock on the door meant it was neither Hildegard, nor Firebrand or any dwarf for that matter. It also meant he wouldn’t have to talk about that troublesome business of counterfeit currency.
“Come in!” he shouted.
The same messenger from the North who had come with the news of an impending assassination attempt on the Royal Couple entered quietly his office closing the door behind him.
Alfred realized he wouldn’t sleep in Valmoray that night and probably for a long time in the near future.
The man did not hand him any message which meant he had an oral message for his ears only. He braced himself for the bad news signing the man to sit down on the couch he kept handy for long sleepless work nights.
“Please, report!”
There was no need for any such niceties as salutations.
“Sylvana and Norbert are asking for our forces and friends to move into Marche and Montfaucon as soon as possible!”
It has finally come to that, the spy chief reflected.
“Does this mean our currency delegation is beyond our help?
“I’m afraid so. We still have to find their bodies, but Sylvana has a good idea of where they have been disposed of and is taking steps to retrieve them with the help of Norbert. All our agents have been requested to lend a hand!”
“So this is open warfare, then! What is our enemies’ strength?”
“Their hired mercenaries who accompanied the last delegation to Beaucastel are no more, but they can call on the militias they use to enforce their customs taxes and what else. All in all Marche and Montfaucon could lead only a few hundred men at arms but if they are ready to call on everyone they might be able to gather a thousand. On the other hand, if it comes to a real fight they would stand little chance even against a limited Legion or Dragon Squad!”
“But we still need to make a show of a united front. Alright, I will send messages for delegations from the five nations to join us at the western border of Marche. I’m certain that their petty toll officers will decamp as soon as they see our first mounted soldiers arrive! When we have all gathered we will move in until we are under the walls of Marche!”
“What are your orders, then?
“Simple enough: first secure the bodies of the delegation as we will have to show them to all before proper funerals. Second, tell all our agents to get ready for our arrival. This means the cities and baronages of Marche and Montfaucon will empty to meet our forces that we will keep to a minimum to tempt them out quickly. Find a way to join us before hostilities come to the crunch as we will set an example!!”
The messenger was about to take his leave without further ado when he asked him a last request:
“On your way out could please find Hildegard and Firebrand to come here to my office! You know them, don’t you?”
“Of course, I do!” the man grinned back in obvious satisfaction.
If his agents were that keen on taking open action, he very much doubted the Barons would live much longer in this world.
It seemed that all Beaulieu’s agents were present in the unused underground vault the lady spy had guided Norbert and his two charges to through hidden passageways that Philippe de Marche had never known existed under the western wall surrounding his city. Tell the truth, Alf’s informants had had plenty of time to discover and explore them as they had gathered most of the needed information a long time ago and had plenty of time on their hands for further investigation. There was very little danger to be discovered in any case, what with Philippe’s diminishing forces. The vault moreover communicated directly with the outside world through a long tunnel that would become very handy indeed when King Gerhart’s hidden little army would make its move.
There were more than a score of people waiting for them, men and women of various ages but all appearing fit and eager.
They all stood up and bowed formally when Sylvana entered with her companions.
Sylvana made the introductions, although they were little needed as the Royal Guard was sure that all the agents present already knew well who he and his companions were. But at the same it showed welcome discipline that he could only appreciate.
“Let me introduce you all to Norbert de Chalon, Sergeant of the Royal Guards representing the authority of our King and his two companions, Tiercin and Fromont!”
She was about to introduce all her companions in arms in turn when Norbert interrupted her with a raised hand.
“Dear Sylvana, I’m very grateful for your civility, but the for everybody’s sake you do not need to divulge our good people’s real identities. The less I know, the safer they will stay. I will be more exposed than anybody else and I do not want to tempt fate!”
The look of recognition in his interlocutors’ eyes told he was right and that they would follow him the more eagerly for it.
He signed for all to sit down or stay at ease before continuing:
“What news have we since our last meeting, then?”
Sylvana’s face hardened.
“Bad news and good news. The bad news are bad indeed. We did discover the currency delegation. They were locked inside a cell of obvious purpose under the very hall of the castle. They didn’t even bother to guard it. The door was heavily barred and even the brute strength of a Dwarf or of a citizen of Dunlago could not have broken it. Moreover, the room is dead dry and devoid of any access to water. Humans, elves or dwarves could survive from food deprivation for weeks but no one could have survived from total lack of water, barred drinking somebody’s blood or else for more than a few days. They didn’t stand a chance! I can’t start to imagine the agony of their deaths!”
Norbert did not utter a word for a long time.
The hardened soldier in him came out when he finally answered in a barely controlled voice:
“They must have been locked in at sword point before the Barons sent their delegation of murderers reached Beaucastel! I just can’t believe that any them did not resist! At the same time Marche and Montfaucon realized that their counterfeiting was about to be unveiled!”
He paused looking at her intently.
“Now, am I right to think that the good news is that you found out where this counterfeiting was conducted?”
“Yes, but it did take place in Montfaucon. The Baronage lies north of the Anse River, their common border. The smith was located away from any population inside the forest growing on the slopes of the chain of mountains between the Anse and Main Rivers south of Dunlago. Have you heard about that illegal marble smuggling scheme that was broken up not so long ago? They were using the same hideout of all places!”
“Idiots! They are only giving more reasons for retaliation from Dunlago too!”
“What do you propose us to do, then?”
Norbert thought for a while.
“What about that: I’m afraid we have to leave the delegation in its grave until King Gerhart arrives. Since the cell is dead dry the bodies will probably mummify. As for the hidden counterfeit mint, we ought to send an urgent message to Dwarves wherever they are. At least they deserve the first reckoning! Stay low for the moment. All of you prepare yourselves for a real fight just in case. This means getting weaponry and armor of your convenience at the ready. Can you get us horses, or at least do you know if and where we can get hold of them when we have to move fast into a solid bunch? I’m certain that all the bravos the Barons posted at their toll posts will be the first to rejoin the city. They are not much of a force but they will have horses and carts. We will need them to carry the bodies of the Delegation for all to see!”
Sylvana answered readily enough:
“I’m confident that we can take care of all that!”
“In this case, there is no need for us to tarry! My personal thanks and that of our King! Let’s show these Barons the extent of their idiocy!”
The last comment was greeted with guffaws and smirks.
Soon the cell was empty.
Norbert already had a good idea of how such faithful servants could be organized into an efficient bureaucracy once the land would be rid of its criminals.
But they would have to fight before reorganizing the country into a peaceful and prosperous nation!
A war council of unknown proportions was being held inside one of the bigger halls of the Imperial Palace.
The Western Alliance were all present in the informally seated persons of General Qusan, Counsellor Makan, General Karna, General Lamin, Lord Nali, Lord Appati, Lord Kanung, Lord Wan-Si, Lord Mo-To, and Lord Unna.
I front of them the delegates of Alymndes sat atop thick cushions: dwarves Hammerhead, Coalfire and Strongarm, elves Sarnedin, Glimloel, Maerdhel, denizens of the Steppes, He-Who-Flies-The-Wind, He-Who-Laughs-At-Storms and He-Who-Runs-like-A-Deer, the seemingly gentle giants of Dunlago, Qaisar, Artemius and Ashraf, the Beaulieu envoys, Paul d’Avray, Guillaume Leschene and Raoul de la Tour. The Dragons in human guise, Numnir, Ekan and Dargelblad easily sat behind them while Hsu Yia also sat on cushions at the head of the two rows flanked on both sides by an unveiled Kaluin and She-Who-Wanders.
Hsu Yia had insisted that all the Alymndes envoys, in spite of the latter’s reservations, participated to this council even if they would be only observers during the inevitable conflicts to come. General Qusan reflected that the word “observer” was completely inappropriate in the light of past, present and future involvement in Narosan affairs. Interestingly enough, reservations had been formulated by their friends but no one in the Narosan Imperial Army had ever objected. Not only had they contributed inestimable help with new war strategies but also a decisive advantage over their foes with such equipment as telescopes and catapults. The former was not a secret any longer as General Qusan always kept his within reach, although he was the sole owner of one for the moment. And those ordered to the Dwarves would not arrive to Narosan before many moons. As for the catapults, they were a secret of state hidden aboard the Imperial ships.
“I requested for your presence at this council to impart some general information first.” Hsu Yia began in an easy tone.
“The black wyvern problem has been taken care of. They have been changed back to their original shape, color and benign character and each of them has elected a village to protect instead of plaguing it. We are left, if I may say, with two major issues, namely the Eastern Alliance and the Tong Hi pirates. General Qusan, which of the two should we tackle first?”
General Qusan stood up and walked to the other side of the room where a giant map had been hung. It represented the whole of Narosan.
He took a long thin bamboo stick standing beside the map.
Pointing at the various locations on the map, he started his lecture:
“We have to eradicate the threat of the Tong-Hi pirates first and once for all. Their position in the far north allows them too much leeway. We cannot patrol or secure the Tong-Hi Straits between Tong-Hi Island and by the same token the Shuhan Straits between Shuhan and Narosan Islands or the Lifu Straits between Shuhan and Daikai Islands. Once we have eradicated the threat of the Tong-Hi we can force Shuhan and its Lords to submit themselves to Empress Hsu Yia’s rule. Only then shall we be able to move into the Daikai Straits between Eastern Narosan and Daikai Island and beat the Eastern Alliance into their own ground!”
Hsu Yia commented:
“The situation is clear-cut enough. How do we proceed with the Tong-Hi?”
“Assaulting their island from the Tong-Hi Straits is out of consideration as the whole southern coast is all steep cliffs and high mountains. We will have to mount our operations directly in front of their capital, Tong-Hi. The north coast is mainly beaches but the shallow sea means we cannot get near enough and we don’t have the means to bring a whole flotilla along to attack from the beaches. Even if we could we would have to besiege a city wholly surrounded with high stone walls. The Tong-Hi exclusively build with stone, the main reason they can operate from their bases in all impunity.”
“I see. So we bring our four ships right in front of the ramparts of Tong-Hi City. How near can we get?”
“The sea there goes deep very quickly and they need a deep enough passage through the walls for their ships to take refuge inside the harbor behind. According to my information we can get as near as three hundred paces, a distance that will render whatever weapons they have useless. But the same does not apply to us any longer!”
The last comment brought hard smiles on most faces as everyone knew of their newly acquired advantages.
“Indeed! When can we set sails, then?”
“Whenever Our Empress Hsu Yia wishes to!”
She turned to the guests from Alymndes:
“And would you all be ready to join us!”
Guillaume Leschene was the quickest to reply:
“Does your Highness really need to ask us?”
If the Tong-Hi had heard the laughs and seen the grinning faces on the denizens of that continent beyond their seas they would thought that fire was not the only magic wielded by Empress Hsu Yia. She was bringing alien monsters with her, too!
Zardor was drinking coffee.
Arnaud de Betancourt and Marsalis, the top magistrates of Beauleu and Dunlago were visiting Valmoray at the suggestion of King Gerhart to meet the merchant from the South Continent who was presently sharing the drink with them in the company of Robert de Glacis. The latter would soon be able to return to his physician work as Zardor was proving fast his ability for learning languages.
The latter asked:
“This drink is beautiful indeed. I can already see a great opportunity for trade here. How do you make it?”
Marsalis readily answered:
“They are made with the beans, that is, the seeds of the fruit growing on coffee trees. We harvest them ripe, then dry them in the sun before separating the seeds from the outer skin. We then roast them to various degrees according to taste and store them in wooden boxes in dry places away from the sun. When we want to prepare a drink we grind some beans to the fineness wanted and boil it in water. We drink as it is, light or strong, or with sugar, mint leaves, dried powder ginger and even milk!”
“Most interesting! Could we grow such trees in the South?”
“Probably, but it would take quite a few years before you could harvest enough beans!”
“That is what I thought, and this would make an excellent product to import in great quantities! Actually, we do have something similar, at least in its process.”
An interested Arnaud asked:
“What would it be? Our people are looking for new foods and drinks now that peace is steadily expanding through our lands!”
“We call it cocoa. It grows on tall trees in the form of large nuts full of seeds. The seeds are also taken out, dried and then roasted before being ground into very fine powder. We generally drink it hot. Some like it thin, some very thick. Many people drink it with sugar and milk.”
“Remarkable, indeed! If you add tea from Narosan, we have three different drinks that can attract people of all ages. We must have you taste this tea as soon as possible!”
Marsalis couldn’t help chuckle:
“I totally agree with Arnaud, but that will mean more desk work for both of us! We are already thinking of rules and laws concerning trade between Alymndes and Narosan. Now we will have to take the South into account. I can already imagine someone screaming and pulling his hair in Narosan!”
Arnaud guffawed:
“Marsalis, I can’t imagine you screaming and since your pate is as hairless as an egg, you will have to find another comparison!”
More seriously, he continued:
“Actually, we might have to ask Empress Hsu Yia to send us the Narosan version of a Judge or at least a set of proposals!”
Zardor pondered on the need of such a magistrate in the South. It would have to be unified in the love of peace first and he just couldn’t see that happen in the near future.
Turning to Zardor he inquired:
“Apart of cocoa, what could be readily imported from the South?
“Quite a lot, actually. Foodstuffs could include dried nuts and fruit you do not grow here. Perfumes and scented oils should also be appealing. Carpets, cloth, jewelry and a lot more. All could be bartered, although some would have to be sold for solid money to establish fund to pay inevitable taxes. The money would have to stay here, though, and that might cause some unwanted temptations!”
Marsalis readily commented:
“Not really. There are two ways available for taking care of such solid currency. First we could emulate Kings Gerhart and Marcus and set up a trading market in Valmoray which is the first harbor of note north of the Fire Mountains. Second, you could become a member of one of a Guilds we already have in Dunlago.”
“What is a Guild?”
“An association of traders, shops, inns, and so on. Usually they group the same kind of businesses which help each other instead of competing against each other. They can help you secure your hard currency into their own safe vault.”
Zardor thought about this new concept for a while before commenting:
“This is certainly an entirely new concept for me for the simple reason it is impossible in the South! Mind you, I wouldn’t mind being the first one to initiate such a new concept!”
It was Arnaud’s turn to comment:
“If you were the first one to introduce such an idea it certainly would help you establish an unequalled position in the South!”
Zardor couldn’t help laughing.
“This from a Judge! Are you thinking of a new career?”
It took some time for Robert to translate properly, but Arnaud’s glee became evident:
“Spare me from the thought! I’m only trying to help!”
Philippe de la Marche and Beaumont de Montfaucon had little appetite that night.
More and more of their customs officers and guards had entered the Marche Castle with disturbing news.
For once, Jehan Desmesne was not present at their nightly libations.
Legion and Golden Dragon Squad members comprising representatives of Beaulieu, the Steppes and Dunlago had established camp right across from their toll gate west of Marche Baronage south of the Anse River on the Montauban Baronage side. Montauban was a loyal ally to the Crown and would provide for all the needs of that army for as long as needed.
Quatrain and Entrecasteaux Baronages blocked the southern borders of Marche while the latter was isolated from the west by Nevers, Montauban and Anse Baronages effectively completely surrounding Marche and Montfaucon as mountains and Dunlago occupied the north and east. The only indirect access to the sea was through the Anse River.
There would be no escape in case of a massive assault.
To make things worse, Dwarves had been spotted marching in broad daylight along the Maine and Anse River across Tarse and Montauban obviously aiming at penetrating into Marche along the Anse River in the general direction of March City.
But the crunching blow occurred when another customs officer had arrived with the news that elves had appeared on horseback across along the western border in Montauban. It seemed that all their enemies were converging at a point along the Anse River where the borders of Montfaucon, Marche and Montauban merged.
“Where is that damned merchant when he is most needed! He is the only reliable source of information on that army coming to assault us”! an agitated Philippe shouted.
For once Beaumont forcefully retorted:
“But we have this Norbert de Chalon, the Guard that idiot King in the South sacked without warning!”
A somber Philippe looked at him:
“But how far can we trust him? He hasn’t been here long enough for us to verify all his boasts!”
“Well, I’m afraid he is the only one!”
“Let’s call him then!”
The Marche Baron pulled on a rope beside the chair that served him as a throne.
Soon one his freshly returned customs officer appeared.
“Yes, my Lord?”
“Go to the Three Lances and bring me back forthwith Norbert de Chalon!”
The man looked askance.
“On what business may I invoke him!”
The Baron shouted in exasperation:
“I don’t care! Just bring him here on my orders!”
The lackey departed with a dubitative look on his face.
The Baron grabbed a wine pitcher and drank directly from it.
Wiping his mouth with his sleeve he addressed his fellow criminal:
“How many men can we count on between the two of us?
Beaumont hesitantly replied:
“If we call back all our customs officers, guards, and militia, around fifty scores, but we will have to call on absolutely everybody, with no backup whatsoever!”
“One thousand? From what I have heard, our enemies will not reach half of that figure!”
“Yes, but most of them are campaigned soldiers and they count dwarves and elves among them!”
“So what, they need more, even with dwarves and elves to mount a siege! We have enough food provisions and water is no problem, what with the River Anse at our back!”
They were still ruminating on their predicament when Norbert finally entered the main hall.
”Ah, Norbert!” he greeted him in a falsely jovial tone. “It seems we need your services!”
The former Royal Guard played on his role of an exiled Beaucastel citizen.
“Yes, my Lord, may I enquire why my humble person could make itself useful to you?”
The Baron, desperate as he was fell into the trap.
“We seem to be bothered by the small invasion of a ragtag bunch sent by I don’t know who. We would very much appreciate our military expertise as a former Royal Guard!”
Norbert who had a full grasp of the situation feigned surprise.
“What could besiege our good city of Marche, my Lord?”
“Who else but this idiot of a King who hasn’t the guts to show himself!”
Norbert begged to differ as he knew that King Gerhart and his followers would show up in good time. His so-called “army” was only preparing the ground.
“But I very much doubt we will see him in person as he was still keeping to his chamber when I left Beaucastel as far as I know!”
“So who might have sent this army?”
“What do you know so far about our foes?”
“It was reported they counted some members of I don’t know what Legion, a Golden Squad and some dwarves and elves!”
“I see, and how many of them are they?”
“My sources told of twenty scores.”
The Sergeant wondered what kind of “sources” he had. This was becoming laughable, indeed.
“And how many do we have?”
“Fifty scores if everyone turns up!”
Norbert reflected it was turning into sickening nonsense. No such force would ever turn up.
“If you locked yourself into your castle they would require ten times as many to have a chance to break in. Even if they were led by superlative commanders, they would still need half of that force to overwhelm us! So first of all, try and get as many men and provisions inside the City before they start moving, if ever they do!”
“That is what we thought, but who will take care of the land?”
You mean who could collect your unfair taxes and tolls, you vermin, Norbert thought.
He made a show of thinking carefully, taking all his time. The barons were openly fretting.
“My Lord, if King Gerhart is really behind this invasion, you can invoke for an embassy to state their grievances in person first. Now, if these are unfounded you can always invoke for a judgment of arms as a last resort!”
“A judgment of arms? What is that rigmarole?”
“King Gerhart being himself a noble has to accept a judgment through personal battle even if he can prove his right. If he does not turn up his claims will be considered as invalid by all the nobility of Beaulieu, an inestimable member of which you are. If he did turn up I don’t think he is in a condition to fight you!”
The Baron visibly felt relieved at the prospect.
“I see. Let’s play along with him, then, and I will prove him a lasting lesson! He is welcome, isn’t he? Ah!”
As if to prove his manhood he guzzled down the remaining wine from the pitcher.
“Let him come, let him come!” he shouted again. “Let’s celebrate the coming of that idiot calling himself a King! A King, indeed! Sylvana! Where is that wench when we need her! Sylvana!”
The servant soon appeared from the commons.
“Yes, my Lord?”
“Wine! And move your backside or I shall take care of it!”
“But my Lord, you are always welcome to it!” she replied impudently. “Right away, my Lord! Right away!”
Philippe turned to Beaumont and Norbert:
“See, gentlemen? That is the kind of obedience I command!”
We shall see what kind of obedience will be granted to you when you face your doom! The Sergeant pondered. He was also reflecting that the Barons had not asked how the castle could be defended. These daily drinking bouts were decidedly clouding their minds.

The armies of Alymndes had camped for three full days along the Anse River at the border of Marche when King Gerhart finally joined their party. He had come accompanied by Arnaud de Betancourt and Marsalis who had not much appreciated to be so brusquely needed from their work. The two Judges for all their sprightly condition had certainly not enjoyed the forced riding. But a tent had been made ready for them with even a tub full of hot water to help them soak out their fatigue as soon as possible.
Gerhart could wait for such a luxury and immediately called for a council with the heads of the different races represented. Some had come with him like Firebrand who had ridden in a cart for more speed as horse-riding simply does not agree with dwarves. Gratien de Salles-Lavauguyon, the de facto leader of the Royal Guards, had ridden besides her cart until he decided to take the place of the carter and invited his lover to sit beside him all the time. The fiery dwarf had very much appreciated his attention and almost enjoyed the trip but now that she had reached their goal she had reverted to her nastiest of moods and except for the tall Royal Guard everyone was giving her a cautiously wide berth. Maheut and He-Who-Stands-Upright had come with their aides Gaspard d’Entrecastaux and She-Who-Walks-Alone with the Golden Dragon Squad. The last two had recovered from their harrowing battle defending the King and Queen’s chamber door thanks to the untiring care of Geraldine and Robert in their hospital. They sported quite a few new scars that were emphasized by their somber mood. The “odd pair”, as many called them away from their ears, were now sharing the same tent or lodgings leaving no doubt on their mutual feelings. Alfred de Vigny was part of Gerhart and Marghrete ‘s retinue with Hildegard who had taken some pleasure in meeting Maheut and Birghit again in spite of the dark motives. Aerdhel and his elves for all their intricately beautiful armor looked dangerously impassive and eager for a conflict that all expected.
They were waiting for King Marcus of Dunlago before they would begin marching and riding into Marche. As Umatar was away on one of the new Dunlago ships, everyone had agreed that He-Who-Stands-Upright would represent the denizens of the Steppes, whereas Dwarves readily followed Firebrand as the Realm Under The Mountain was simply too far for King Drumbeat Hammerblow and Queen Brighteyes to arrive in time. But all the Dwarves present would have to bring back the bodies of their countrymen who had been part of the currency delegation in Marche and Montfaucon for a formal funeral in the Kingdom under the Mountain. The party had become for the more imposing and solemn when the Barons from Nevers, Quatrain, Entrecastaux, Montauban, Tarse and even Nepomucene of Valmoray had insisted to participate. King Gerhart had never requested the presence of all the Barons of Beaulieu but actually they were all there as they readily joined his retinue along his travel through the land.

The next day, King Marcus had not arrived yet but Maheut had sent one messenger asking for the presence of Gerhart.
A puzzled King went out of his tent guided along by the messenger. It was not a habit of a member Golden Dragon Squad to ask him for a private interview, whatever his or her rank.
He was taken away from the camp until they reached a kind of large farm shed that his officers had requested from an agreeing local farmer. There were guards outside who saluted formally. Absently nodding in answer he realized that the shed was momentarily used as a kind of prison. Who could be kept inside?
When he entered he found Maheut and Alfred already inside with a couple of Tribesmen belonging to the Golden Dragon Squad standing around a prone figure.
Skipping the niceties he asked:
“Greetings all, what do we have here?”
Alfred replied:
“This is Jehan Desmesne, a merchant banned from most of Beaulieu. He was apprehended trying to cross the border to either side of the Anse River on a boat. There was only the boat owner with him. We let go the latter but told him to go back immediately to where he came from. We are effectively screening anyone navigating the Anse and Maine Rivers along Montauban and Tarse.”
Facing the merchant in nondescript clothes, Gerhart asked in a neutral voice:
“Is it true you are banned from the South?”
The agitated man looked at him:
“And who are you? And why am I arrested? I might be banned, but I never came back to Valmoray or whatever place in the South!”
Gerhart raised his hand to stop a seething Alfred.
“I will answer your questions in order: My name is Gerahrt of Beaucastel and the people of Beaulieu chose me as their King. You are not arrested yet but merely apprehended. That is why you are not shackled, but that could be changed very quickly. As for your banishment you did not break any rule imposed on your person. Now, do you know this man standing by you? His name is Alfred de Vigny and he is in charge of gathering all information needed to protect our land and people. Are you ready to listen to his report?”
A heavily sweating Jehan suddenly realized he had better keep silent for the rest of the interview.
Gerhart nodded to his aide.
“Jehan Desmesne, according to our informants is or was living in the City of Marche where he has established a trading business. He was found to spend almost every evening in the company of Barons Philippe de la Marche and Beaumont de Montfaucon. Nothing reprehensible about that. One keeps company with whom he likes.”
Facing the merchant:
“You know a servant woman working at the Marche Castle named Sylvana and a newly arrived citizen of Beaulieu called Norbert de Chalon? I’m sure you’ll be gratified to learn they are our agents and that I have just received their latest report!”
The eyes of the man went round in fear but still kept silent.
Alfred inexorably continued:
“Sylvana reported that you knew about the fate of the currency delegation and Norbert concurred the information. The members have been discovered dead in a barred cell without any food or water and left to die in utter agony!”
This time the merchant shouted back:
“So what? I may know, but I had nothing to do with it! You can’t even accuse me of complicity!”
“Why then were you leaving Marche suddenly in a hurry and that alone, abandoning your wife and family?”
“I wasn’t fleeing, I was only trying to disassociate myself from the Baronages when I saw the conflict coming!”
“Fine, but what about this enormous purse of coins we found on your person!” Alfred countered pointing at a large sack sitting next to a big purse on a small table by one wall.
“I’m a merchant, and I needed to take my money out to establish a new business!”
“Fair enough, although I still don’t understand why you didn’t take your wife and people with you. But that’s a moot point. Now, we opened your sack in front of you but did not open your purse. Do you agree these are yours and do you concur that we did not open your purse?”
“Of course I do! What else am I supposed to tell you!”
“That is all I needed from you.” Was the terse reply.
Alfred walked to the entrance of the shed, opened the door and went outside.
It took him a while to come back in the company of a dwarf. The King and the Golden Dragon Squad had kept silent all the time their eyes hard on the merchant.
She was a female Dwarf with flame hair.
He introduced her:
“Jehan Desmesne of name and merchant of profession, this is Firebrand, the representative of all Dwarves living or working away from the Realm Under The Mountain!”
Turning to the female Dwarf:
“Firebrand, this purse on the table contains the coins belonging to this Jehan Desmesne. May I invite you to verify its contents?”
His interlocutor did not utter a word. She had bought a wooden box with her.
She laid it on the table and opened it. She took out its content. It was a scale.
She opened the merchant’s purse, opened it and took out the coins inside she carefully placed on the table in piles. They were silver coins.
Alfred took out a silver coin out of his own purse.
Facing Jehan he explained:
“This is a silver coined minted by the Dwarves for use in Alymndes under written contract with the five nations of the land. Now, what are your coins?”
The merchant did not respond.
Firebrand answered for him, proving at last to Jehan she perfectly understood the common tongue of Alymndes.
“Apparently they are all silver coins minted in our kilns. Could you pass me your coin, Alfred?”
The Chief Spy readily obeyed.
Firebrand placed it on one the plates of the scales. She took the coin at the top of the nearest pile and put it carefully on the other plate. The plates did not move with the one containing Alfred’s coin not moving up at all. Firebrand repeated the operation with all the coins for a long and tedious moment. The plates did not raise or dip down a single time.
Firebrand did not bother looking at the merchant.
She faced Gerhart instead:
“All these coins, for all their perfect resemblance are fakes and not containing the same amount of silver that we Dwarves introduced in each coin!”
The King nodded:
“My personal thanks, Firebrand! May I ask you to keep this confidential for the moment?”
The female dwarf did not bat an eyelash.
“I will but only for the sake of peace in our lands. But you must understand the Dwarves will ask for a reckoning when this is revealed to all!”
Gerhart bowed:
“After we have taken care of that sorry business in Marche and Montfaucon I promise that all Dwarves will be invited to the Court held by Arnaud de Betancourt and Marsalis of Dunlago in front of all the representatives of Alymndes and their grievances will be considered in all fairness and justice!”
Firebrand bowed back:
“Fair by me, but keep this scum away from my person until then!”
She stomped out without a further word.
Gerhart turned back to Jehan Desmesne:
“A few false coins would not have been held against you, but all of them and a disgusting amount at that? Even a rich merchant like you would have problems to explain such an amount of wealth on his person! But for all King I am, this is not for me to judge! Therefore, you will stay under house arrest inside this farm shed I will have to pay the rent for you! You will not be shackled. You will be fed, but don’t expect wine! You will be allowed out to use privies and baths whenever needed, but that is how far it will go until you appear in Court! That is unless you want me to hand you to the Dwarves!”
A trembling merchant did not reply.
“Good! Ah, and another thing: Sylvana never reported anything untoward your wife, or the Barons’ wives for that matter! They certainly stand a better chance to escape unscathed! Think on that!”
Turning to Maheut:
“Lieutenant, could you be kind enough to keep your guards outside and not let anyone inside, except to bring him food or water or when needs arise. He does not deserve any company!”
The wind was blowing in the hair of Umatar and Amrel standing by a rail aboard the Seadragon.
For all their smiling faces they were deep in mindspeech conversation.
“It seems that Gerhart is finally making his move!” thought Umatar.
“I thought we were not going to talk about it!” tartly replied her sister. “And it is still not a good idea to “look at them” from so afar. I can already hear our Sire and Dame!”
“Aye, aye, dear Geraldine de Blanchefleur! By the way have you ever wondered what your Alymndes name meant?”
“I actually did! I found it in an old heraldry archive in Beaucastel” All the names and heraldry terms seem to come from an extinct language preserved only by historians. It means “White Flower”!”
She-Who-Speaks-To-Dragons could not help giggle.
“It does suit you, doesn’t it? I can imagine the faces of some if they found out that the most feared lady in Beaucastel had such a sweet name!”
“Do you mind? “
They themselves lost in their own private thoughts for a while before Amrel finally broke their mind silence:
“I wonder what Matthieu and Mareeva are up to, now that almost everyone in charge has left the castle?”
“Oh, leave them alone for once! They have been studying like no one for long enough. They will need the break or they’ll forget to grow up!”
“I tend to agree. We are doing the same, aren’t we? But talking of growing up, we will have to think of a different bedroom arrangement soon or later!”
Umatar laughed for real.
“I shouldn’t worry too much! It will come very naturally when Matthieu will start growing hair in strange places and Mirvana will notice her own changes! They will ask to move out themselves. Then we will probably witness some hot arguments and long silences. After that they will become adults and then everyone will be able to enjoy each other’s company! Wait until they become of drinking age! But it is still a very long time off. Even Boy is not an adult yet for all his sudden growing upwards!”
Amrel’s human face grew pensive.
“It is a fact we never went through what humans call “youth”. At least not in our original form. I wonder if we should consider as a loss or as a gain.”
“Probably both, but we can’t do anything about it. At least observing our charges should become a good study in itself, don’t you think?”
Amrel smiled.
“I’m actually looking forward to it! Alright, let’s talk about something else. I can’t wait to reach Narosan! So many new things to discover there!”
Carefree Umatar was not so sure about that, though. She knew that Hsu Yia had her own problems although her land seemed to be in good hands now. She fervently hoped they wouldn’t have to interfere.


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