Garia experiences life in disguise for another day as her journey takes her back to Dekarran and then beyond. She endures poor planning, sleepless nights and boring hours spent waiting for things to happen. She encounters beer monsters and others with six legs, but the journey is finally under way at last.
by Penny Lane
60 - The Road North
Disclaimer: The original characters and plot of this story are the property of the author. No infringement of pre-existing copyright is intended. This story is copyright (c) 2011-2012 Penny Lane. All rights reserved.
Garia was happy once the wagon reached dry land at Dekarran again. The twin-hull design of the ferries made the crossing relatively stable, but cooped up inside their hideaway with no means of seeing outside meant that she became a little queasy during the trip. Judging by the look on Merizel's face she was suffering too. Once the wagon reached the main road above the ferry slip the noise from the wheels on the road surface meant that they could conduct a conversation in reasonable security.
Garia leaned her head next to Merizel. "I'm glad that's over! If the trip had taken much longer I'd have been using that pan, I think."
"It was a very strange motion, wasn't it? Not at all like the other times we crossed."
"Wonder what happens now? I guess we'll end up in that warehouse Milsy went to yesterday."
"Probably. I wonder how she is managing?"
"It's anybody's guess. I doubt she'd even seen the river before, let alone been the other side of it."
"As you say. Maker! Smell that!"
The outside noise had increased and it was apparent to Garia that they were passing through the town below the castle. She had not had the opportunity to explore the town the whole time she was staying in the castle and she regretted that now. From the amazing mix of smells they must have been passing through or past a market place since the air coming in was rich with the odor of cooking, strange fruits and spices.
"All that is making me hungry," Merizel said.
"By the time we get through the town and to whichever warehouse we're bound for, it will be lunch time, I guess. We'll just have to sit tight until then."
The wagon jolted on and the noise tapered off slightly. After a significant while the wheels screeched as the wagon turned off the highway and down a slope presumably towards the warehouse. There were more turns and then the quality of sound changed, indicating that they were under cover again. The wagon stopped and Garia could hear men moving about. There was a repeated thumping on the drums.
"You all right in there?" came a muffled voice.
"Yes!" they both shouted back.
Enough of the drums were removed to enable the rearmost one to be lifted away. Light appeared in their little hideaway. Jaxen and Sukhana stood outside.
"Can you move? Careful you don't bang your head."
The two climbed stiffly out and Sukhana took charge of them.
In a dirty upstairs room they were seated around a plain table and given mugs of water to drink. Sukhana regarded them both with an expression of distaste.
"Jaxen has told me about you," she told Garia shortly. "Of course, he don't know much about what you got up to inside the palace, but I don't believe half of what he tells me anyhow." She leaned forward, her elbows on the table. "Don't matter to me. You ain't in no palace now, and the wagons ain't taking those along who don't do their part, understand me? I heard you was a noble now, though how that can be I can't figure out. I don't want no muck-a-mucks along for the ride, expecting to be waited on hand and foot like those in the King's party do. If there's chores to do, you'll lend a hand, understand me? Ain't nobody giving no orders except me neither. That means both of you."
Ah. Looks like she resents the nobility. Well, before I came to Anmar I'd probably have resented nobility too, being a good ole' American boy, but... my circumstances have changed slightly since then. The picture doesn't look quite so straightforward as it did in Kansas.
"Uh, Sookie?" Garia said. "I wasn't a noble when they found me on that mountainside. In the country I came from, there are no nobles, none at all. The King only made me a noble in order to give me some protection and an independent income, seeing as how I'm essentially an orphan and all." She shrugged. "I can do chores. So can M-, uh, Karizma here. We don't know anything about the wagon business so we'll have to learn but we're quick learners."
Sukhana looked at them both. "Maybe I assumed some things too quickly," she admitted. "As for the chores, it'll be mostly making chow for the men and cleaning up after. Can you manage that?"
Garia hesitated. "I've never cooked a meal on Anmar before," she said, "and I doubt M-, Karizma has either. You don't do your own cooking when you live in the palace. But, like I said, we'll learn whatever needs doing."
Sukhana seemed satisfied and she leaned back, studying Garia. "You're the hot one everybody wants to keep under cover, aren't you? What's she to you, then? Your maid?"
Garia made a wry smile. "Actually, she's my secretary. My own maid will be joining us today, I guess, from the castle. Her maid has gone to the palace with the King's procession to look after my double." She hesitated. "Oh, and Karizma actually is the daughter of a noble. I have no idea what chores she might be capable of."
Sukhana stared at them. "This has to be the craziest setup I ever heard of. She's a noble's daughter and she's your -" She shook her head. "I should have said no to this job, I really should."
She stood. "You'll have to stay up here for a while. I'll bring you some food once I've found out what's going on. There's a wagon missing - we can't use that one you came over the river on, that's a special. And we can't go anywhere until your... maid appears anyhow." As she opened the door she turned. "Oh, and of course you'll have to stay in here, so none of the men catch sight of you. Some of those about in the warehouse ain't coming with us and I don't want no questions asked."
"Oh. Yeah." She pointed. "Room that way at the end of the corridor."
Sukhana shut the door behind her and Garia and Merizel were left staring at one another.
"Well, I didn't expect a fanfare when we arrived, but..." Garia said.
Merizel giggled. "Abrupt, wasn't she? I think she might have a grudge against the nobility somehow."
"You think?" Garia viewed her friend with concern. "Are you going to manage okay? Have you ever done anything like this before?"
Merizel shrugged. "Not really. It's not the sort of thing any noblewoman would be permitted to do, even if they were very poor. She was talking about cutting meat, peeling vegetables, cooking and washing dishes, wasn't she? I've been in situations where I've seen it done, so it won't be a total surprise." She lifted her hands and examined the palms. "I just hope my hands don't become so rough I can't write any more."
"Oh, I don't think we'll be doing it for very long," Garia reassured her. "Once we meet up with -" It suddenly occurred to her that the walls might be quite thin and that they might be overheard. "- ah, when we meet up with the others, the whole setup will change, won't it? It will have to, because of the others."
"You are probably right, G-, ah, Buffy, but our plan has already changed twice since we came to Dekarran so I would urge caution. We don't really know how long our journey will take or who will be with us."
"You're quite right. Let's not worry until there's need to worry."
Jaxen and Sukhana appeared some time later, Jaxen carrying an iron pot full of stew and Sukhana bearing four turned wooden bowls and four spoons. The table was rapidly set out and they all took their places, Jaxen serving the stew to the women with a ladle.
"You'll have forks before we leave, uh, Buffy. There's a metalsmith in the next road who has a contract with the castle. He says the demand for them has been ridiculous but he'll find a way to produce three or four extra somehow."
"What's a fork, Jaxen?" Sukhana asked her brother.
"A new kind of eating tool, brought to Palarand by," and he gestured to Garia. "Haven't you seen them before?"
Sukhana shook her head. "I've heard the word, but as you know I've only just come back to Palarand from Vardenale. What use are they?"
Jaxen grinned. "You'll see. Once you start using them you'll wonder why nobody ever thought of it before."
The stew tasted good but Garia wondered if she would feel the same way once she had to assemble it from raw ingredients. She knew from Earthly experience that the most delicious meals could be made from the most unappetizing offcuts from the most unlikely animals, vegetables and fruit. Had she at some time actually eaten boiled, roast or stewed frayen? Or even labris? There were certain things it might be better not to know.
Once they had finished eating Jaxen brought them up to date.
"The missing wagon has been found. It's eleven marks from Dekarran with a split axle so I've managed to find another. It should be here and loaded by tonight. Tonight's also when your... other friend will join us, it won't be safe to get her out of the castle until after the sun sets. Assuming that third person makes it out and down here in time, we should be ready to leave first thing tomorrow." He frowned and turned to Garia. "Master Tanon said that we were to join another party of travelers somewhere along the road. Do you know where, by any chance?"
"Not a clue. All I know is they set off... three days ago and at some point one of the wagons will develop a fault so they'll have a reason to stop and wait for us. It seems nobody knew the entire plan except, possibly, Master Tanon."
Jaxen nodded. "That makes sense." He shrugged. "We'll have to take the supplies we would if we were going all the way on our own, so it's not important. I'll check and make sure the right amounts are loaded, but of course there are depots most of the way where we can get more provisions if we need to."
Sukhana regarded her brother. "Most of the way? Do you know where we're going, then? Care to share the secret?"
Jaxen grinned. "Right up the far end of the Palar and turn right."
"How far? Where exactly are we going, Jaxen?"
"The princess, ah, Buffy is going to look over the lands the King gave her, and they're in a part of Palarand Master Tanon has no business interests yet, mainly because there's nothing there. As I understand it, that's about to change completely so we're going with her to investigate the possibilities. The whole round trip will take us, let me see... perhaps five weeks, maybe as many as eight or so."
A furious Sukhana jumped up, glaring at her brother. "You didn't tell me it was going to be that long! It might be acceptable for you men to travel for days and weeks wearing the same clothes but it won't do for us women! All my clothes are the other side of the Sirrel, and you spring this on me! And what are these two expected to wear? If we travel as we are no wild animals will get anywhere near us because of the stink!"
Garia spoke carefully. "Whenever we meet the other party they are carrying chests with our own clothes in," she told Sukhana. "Of course, we don't know how many days it will be before we meet them."
"You mean that these two have only what they wear now?" Sukhana exploded. "Why didn't someone at least ask a woman to take part in the planning of this mad adventure?" She turned to Garia. "Kalikan?"
"Next week sometime."
"You see? Men!"
She stood by the table and collected the bowls and spoons with a very deliberate clatter. Then she turned to Jaxen, still in a fury.
"Very well. It seems I'll be spending this afternoon finding suitable clothing for four women - including certain undergarments - instead of what I was supposed to be doing. I just hope you haven't made as big a balls-up with the wagons and men."
With a toss of the head she stumped through the door and out, leaving a bemused Jaxen.
"This is because the dates were all changed, ladies," Jaxen explained. "Sukhana was never intended to come on this trip. I just hope we all survive, that's all." He lifted the pot. "I'll take this and clear away and then show you your room where you can both lie down. I'm afraid I'll have to leave you to amuse yourselves this afternoon, and you'll have to stay in the room. You really shouldn't show your faces until after we are well away from Dekarran."
Jaxen returned and showed them a room at the end of the corridor opposite the bathroom facilities. There were double bunks either side with a dirty window at the end. As Garia moved to the window to see outside there was a warning from Jaxen.
"I would drop the bolt after I go, ladies. Some of the men aren't so familiar with which room is which and you're opposite the toilet. You won't want any unexpected visitors."
The 'bolt' was a wooden plank fixed by a pin to the door frame which could be dropped into an iron keeper on the other side. Merizel secured the door while Garia rubbed at the window to discover most of the dirt was on the outside. There was no view in any case as the room faced the blank side of another warehouse with just a narrow road between. They each took a bunk and sat down facing each other on the bottom mattress.
"I imagined places like this existed," Merizel said, "but I never thought I'd be experiencing them for myself."
Garia pressed a hand against her mattress. "These ought to be good enough to sleep on, at least. These feel like the beds we had over the Sirrel. Cheer up, Merry. It will only be for one night at the most."
"You're right." Merizel yawned. "Perhaps I can try this out for my nap."
"Actually, that stew was quite filling, wasn't it? A lie down sounds like a good idea."
Garia's last thought before she drifted off was, I wonder if there's any life in these beds? Fleas or lice or bedbugs? There's almost certain to be something similar here on Anmar.
Garia was awoken by hammering on the door, which turned out to be Sukhana. Garia let her in and she entered carrying two full rough-woven sacks.
"Did I wake you? Sorry." Sukhana gave Garia a rueful smile. "Seems Master Tanon didn't make quite such an error of judgment when he made Jaxen his Senior Road Foreman. It appears that there is clothing and other personal gear already packed for the three of you downstairs. I don't know if there's enough to last five weeks but it should certainly do for one, and that's long enough to find your friends, isn't it?" She hefted one of the sacks. "I couldn't get any of my gear over the Sirrel in time so I've spent the afternoon in the market in Dekarran."
Sukhana dumped the two bags at the end of one of the bunks. Merizel had now woken completely and was sitting on the mattress looking at the others.
"I guess you'll want to wash up before we eat, won't you?" Sukhana asked. "The bathing room is next to the toilet, I haven't had a look at it yet but from personal experience of these depots it likely won't be much better than jumping in a cesspit. Buffy, you say you'll do any chores needed, you want to give me a hand?"
"Don't see why not," Garia said.
The bathing room was so filthy they cleaned the whole thing twice before Sukhana pronounced that it was good enough for a woman to use. Garia wasn't surprised at the condition, she knew what facilities could end up like when they were used by men only, and transient men at that with no reason to care about the state they left them in. By the end of it Sukhana was furious again.
"I'm going to find that misbegotten factor and give him a piece of my mind," she fumed. "There's no telling when you might have normal folk bunking down in places like these so the rooms ought to be kept in better condition. While I'm downstairs I'll get the hot water started, there will be men bringing it up to fill the tub but it will take some time." She nodded thanks to Garia. "Thank you for helping, you're a good worker whatever else is said about you. Now, this tub is only big enough for two like us, so we'll have to take turns. Do you mind bathing with someone you don't know? I don't know how they do things when you're a noble. Or, do you want to share with your friend or wait till the third person comes?"
"When we were in the castle," Garia replied, "the tub was big enough we could all get in it together. So, including my double, there were five of us. I've no problem bathing with you, Sookie. And there's no point waiting since we don't know what time the other person is coming."
"That's the truth. Right, it will be you and me, then, and Karizma can go afterward. Now, you'd better hide out in the bedroom until I knock again."
Garia dropped the bolt and sat on the bed beside Merizel.
"That made my arms ache," she remarked. "I don't think I've scrubbed anything so hard for years."
"I saw what it looked like before you started," Merizel said. "Why do they let it get so bad?"
"Men passing through. They turn up one day, use the tub then disappear the following morning. They won't care how they leave the room, that's somebody else's problem. There's no servants here to clean up after them like there would be at the palace. Or the castle." Garia turned to face Merizel. "So, tell me about Terinar, then."
"Terinar? What about him?"
"It seems you two have spent some time together lately. Is there anything going on I should know about?"
"What do you mean? We've just had conversations now and then about subjects we both found interesting. Like that dajan. Terry doesn't play the dajan, of course, but he's learned to play other instruments so he has some musical knowledge." Merizel frowned. "Do you think we've become more than friends, Garia? That our relationship has become... romantic? That never occurred to me."
"It didn't occur to me either until I saw you two together on the wharf. Are you telling me you hadn't realized? What do you think? Would you wish to take it further?"
"I don't know... I never expected..." Merizel blushed. "It's an interesting thought, isn't it? There's only one catch better than Terry and he's already spoken for."
"What, you mean Keren? I can't and you know that. The rules forbid it."
"Rules, bah. You two only have eyes for each other and that's been plain for all to see since long before we arrived at the castle. We're all wondering how the King is going to get round the rules when the time comes. Just you see."
"That's ridiculous." But her heart soared up and down at the mere idea that she might be able to land her Prince. "We both know it's impossible so we're not even trying. And stop changing the subject."
"As you wish, Garia. It had never occurred to me that there might be some romantic connection between myself and Terinar, since you ask." A speculative look came into her eyes. "But now you've given me the idea, of course, I'll have to think about it. Of course, I'm not going to see him again for months, am I? Oh! And If you're concerned I might want to leave you and run off to live in some drafty old castle, the answer is that I am your liege woman and I take my oaths seriously."
Merizel grinned impishly as she pointed out, "You'll just have to wait until Terinar asks you for my hand in marriage! Until that point, which I suspect may not come for some time if ever, I'll be by your side, making sure you do what you are supposed to when you're supposed to, like a good secretary should."
Garia put a hand on one of Merizel's. "You have no idea how relieved that makes me feel."
Men came staggering up the stairs and along the corridor with large buckets of steaming hot water. Once Sukhana judged that the tub had enough in she knocked on the bedroom door and collected Garia. In her arms she had a pile of towels, half of which she gave to Merizel, and some bars of hard soap. Garia and Sukhana then locked themselves into the bathing chamber and eased themselves into the water.
"Ah! That's better," Sukhana said. "Some of the men think that just standing out in the rain is a good enough substitute for a proper bath. Any woman knows better. Do you soap yourselves or each other, Buffy?"
"Whatever works, Sookie. It's not how we do things where I come from, but it's what they do in the palace so I've gotten comfortable with it. How often will we get a chance to bathe along the road, do you think?"
"Well, in theory each depot has an inn with a bath for the men to use so along the main routes you could bathe every night. In practice, and once we get off the normal route, it will be a case of washing whenever the chance presents. I have bathed in rivers from time to time, although it's hard to keep the men away when you do that."
"Why am I not surprised? When we catch up with the other traveling party you should find wild bathing to be easier, because I can set guards so we won't be disturbed."
"Wild bathing? That's a good name for it. And you have guards? That you trust to follow your orders?"
Garia grinned. "You'll see. All I can tell you is that they won't be like Tanon's guards, however good they are."
They soaped their own fronts and each other's backs. While they cleaned themselves they both took casual note of the other's body, in a way that Garia would never have believed possible a year before. Sukhana was about the same age, height and build as Jenet but other than that the two could not be more different. Sukhana's arms and legs were tanned from life on the road, her hair was sun-bleached, and her skin had begun to suffer from the constant exposure to the sun. But the muscles underneath that skin were visible and firm from the manual work she must have done on the wagons, without being overdeveloped like those of a body-builder.
Sukhana for her part found Garia to be a puzzle. Her original idea, that she had to transport two pampered noblewomen and their maid, was obviously not correct, but even Tanon's insistent explanation of Garia's peculiar origins failed to satisfy her confusion at the young female, not much more than a girl, in front of her. She didn't act like any young girl she was familiar with and her movements and speech were not like anyone she had come across in years of travel. Her body had most of the softness one expected for that age, but Garia moved in a smooth, graceful way that implied hidden strength. Never mind. The journey north must inevitably reveal some of these mysteries.
There were no fluffy robes so they wrapped the towels round themselves under their arms to preserve their modesty. Merizel let them into the bedroom and took her turn in the bathing chamber.
"That's better," Sukhana said as she made sure she was completely dry, "let's have a look through these bags and see if I can find something suitable to wear."
There were gowns, bodices, leggings, panties, larger underwear for when Kalikan called, a leather traveling woman's vest, a short pea coat, scarves, waterproofs of the standard pattern, slippers, boots made from the customary knitted string, a sewing kit, comb, steel mirror, a mug, plate, two spoons and three knives.
"Balth! I forgot a hat," she muttered. "No real problem, I can always find one along the way." She grinned at Garia. "Master Tanon has agreed to pay for this lot seeing as how the dates got changed, so I decided to get everything I might need. And I can always sell what I don't need when I get back to South Slip. I suppose your clothing what's up the road is much better quality than this?"
"Yes," Garia admitted. "I haven't seen the other traveling clothes so I don't know what those are like yet. Don't worry, Sookie. I don't think you're going to lose out by this journey."
"So you say, kid. Let's get wherever we're going first, shall we?"
Merizel returned, clean, and the three women made themselves ready for the evening meal. This was eaten in the same room as before, with Jaxen joining them.
"A replacement wagon has been found," he confirmed as their meal was being served out. "We should be able to load it this evening ready to leave at first light. Sookie, I'll send up a chest so that you can pack your new possessions. Did you find enough in the market?"
"Yes, I did," she replied quietly. "And I discovered that our guests' needs had already been provided for." Jaxen looked smug. "Perhaps I jumped a bit soon, brother. You must have some redeeming qualities, mustn't you?"
"That was because of the original plan, Sookie. Their chests were already made up long before you became involved." He tapped a finger along the side of his nose. "Good planning, sister, and attention to detail."
"Unlike that bloated ne'er-do-well downstairs who calls himself a factor," Sukhana said with venom. "If you won't report him to Master Tanon, I will."
"Already done, Sookie. No bathroom should be left in that state."
"Good. I'll be glad to get out of here tomorrow."
It was much later in the evening. Garia and Merizel were talking quietly in the bedroom and Sukhana had gone elsewhere for reasons unknown. A knock came at the door and they heard her voice. Garia opened the door to let in Sukhana and Jenet.
"Milady! Thank the Maker -"
"Stop! There are no ladies here. I am Buffy for now and my big sister is called Karizma. You had no trouble getting out of the castle?"
"It was a secret route, uh -"
"As you say. We didn't use either of the main gates but another way that came out part way down the mountainside. I couldn't see much because it was so dark and I was concentrating on not tripping over as we came down to the road."
"It's probably best if we don't know too much about the way you came. Are you ready for the adventure? Have you eaten?"
"Yes, ah, Buffy. I ate before we left. The Lord Terinar - Is it alright if I use his name?"
"Don't see why not. Carry on."
"Yes, well, Lord Terinar made sure I was well fed and rested before we left. And he came down almost to the road with me. He sends his best wishes for the days to come."
"Have a seat, I'm afraid it will have to be one of the beds. Here, sit by me. Sookie, what do we do now?"
"Best be thinking about bed, I would say. We've an early start in the morning. You've noticed there are four bunks, we'll all be staying in here until the morning. Jaxen will knock on the door a short while before breakfast is ready. Then we wait until the two other crews have left before we go down and climb in the wagons. That's about it, really. Then we get on the road." Sukhana started. "Balth! You've no nightwear! I'll go and fetch some."
She came back with four loose nightdresses which were all far too large for Garia but more or less fitted the others. In addition she brought several side-tying bikini-style bottoms.
"You'll need fresh underwear tomorrow morning, won't you? This is the best I can do, girls. When we reach Teldor tomorrow night we can sort ourselves out properly."
Despite the qualities of the bedding none of them managed to get a good night's sleep. This was because many of the men had spent the evenings in inns and taverns and returned at odd times in various stages of drunkenness. A number couldn't tell their right from their other right, trying their bedroom door before eventually finding the toilet, usually noisily. One collapsed outside the door, giving it an almighty thump as he slid to the floor. He had to be hauled to his feet by some of his less inebriated fellows and helped away to wherever he was supposed to be sleeping. All through the night there were men wandering about intent on letting out beer that they had taken in earlier that evening.
An insistent knocking at the door brought them all blearily awake. They had decided that the two of lightest weight would sleep on the upper bunks - Garia and Merizel - so Jenet began to get up to open the door.
"No! You don't open a door without knowing who it is." Sukhana said, propping herself on an elbow. She called out, "Who's there? What time is it?"
"It's Jaxen," came the muffled reply. "About a half bell before dawn."
"Oh, Maker, no! We've overslept."
"Don't worry," he called. "We'll have to wait until the other two trains leave before we can get going. You can get ready in your own time, there's no-one left up here. Breakfast will be ready by the dawn bell."
"As you say." Sukhana turned to the others. "Who needs the toilet first, or is that a stupid question?" Realization dawned. "Oh, no! You can guess what state it will be in after last night."
By the time the faintly-heard dawn bell went they were dressed and assembled in the room where they had previously eaten. Sukhana went off to find the food while the other took chairs to wait. Presently she came back with Jaxen carrying between them bowls, spoons, a pot of some kind of grain porridge and loaves of fresh bread. These were rapidly distributed and consumed before Sukhana left again to return with mugs and a pot of pel.
"Couldn't you have found us a better room?" Sukhana demanded once they had drinks. "We had drunk men coming to the toilet all night."
"It never occurred to me," Jaxen cheerfully admitted. "I picked the room with the cleanest beds and bedding in it, and I thought you'd want to be close to the bathing room as well, knowing what women are like."
"As you say, brother. Unfortunately, you forgot what men are like, didn't you? Did you even look at the bathing room then?"
"No, I didn't. Consider me chastised, sister. It's not normally my job to inspect such things but I'll know better next time." He shook his head. "Mardek's really let this place go. He'll claim it's because of the amount of work he has to do and that's partially true, but if he couldn't cope he should have told Master Tanon."
"How long do we wait? Half a bell?"
"Aye, about that. The north train will be well on its way by then and we'll have about half a bell before the first wagons come up from the wharves. You'll be safe in here, I don't expect anybody to come upstairs again until this evening."
"Mistress Sukhana," ventured Jenet.
Sukhana scowled. "Call me Sookie, like I told you when I fetched you in yesterday. And what are we to call you, eh?" She turned. "Buffy? Got a name ready for your maid?"
"I do, as it happens," Garia said. "Call her Sara for now. And it might not be clever to mention that she's a maid, while we're on the subject."
"As you say. Not clever of me, is it? Now, Sara, you wanted something?"
"Only to point out that my... friends and I are not correctly dressed to be what we seem, Sookie. Only a noblewoman would be dressed without a waist pouch and I believe we should also be wearing scarves as you do. Is that not so?"
Sukhana started. "You're right! I forgot. You have a pouch, though."
"I brought my own when I changed before I left the castle last night. It was natural to tie it to my sash, I didn't think anything of it. But these two -" Jenet indicated Garia and Merizel, "- have never worn pouches so might not have realized the significance."
Sukhana's eyes narrowed and then she nodded. "You're right. I'll see what I can do. And you're right about the scarves, too. I don't know what's in the chests -"
She turned an inquiring gaze on her brother, who replied, "No idea. You won't be able to fetch anything out of the chests until the first time we stop, so you'll have to make do with what you can find around the depot."
Sukhana threw up her arms. "Bah! Men again! I told you, a woman ought to have been in charge of planning this!" She lowered her arms and stood. "I'll work something out. Come on, we have work to do."
Jaxen and Sukhana left the others in the room, taking all the breakfast paraphernalia with them. A little while later Sukhana came back with a handful of cloth.
"Here, this is the best I could do," she said. "I had to sacrifice a -"
She stared open mouthed as Garia, Merizel and Jenet took from the pile of colored squares and expertly folded them before tying them around their heads then taking more and securing them around their necks.
"Well! It seems you know more than I thought you might," she said when the others had finished. "One thing, the neck scarves should have the knots at the front, not the back. Where did you learn to do that?"
"We, uh, had a specialist cleaning job," Garia explained. "One that only we could do."
"What could possibly -" Sukhana shook her head. "Never mind, we'll be here all day. Come on, time to get going."
"What about the pouches?" Jenet asked.
"Couldn't do anything about it," Sukhana replied shortly. "Anyhow, you'll be out of sight most of the day. We'll solve that problem when it arises. Mind your feet on the stairs."
Sukhana led them back to the loading bay where they had arrived the previous day. In it were now two wagons, one of which Garia now recognized as a 'chuck wagon' of a type she had seen on her original journey into Palarand. The other, although covered in the same way with canvas stretched over a wooden frame, was laden with bulging sacks. Jaxen came forward as they appeared.
"To begin with," he told them, "we'll have to keep you out of sight, so I'm going to ask you to climb up on top of those sacks. Once we get far enough away from Dekarran you'll be able to ride wherever you want, but we'd best be safe so close to the castle."
Garia noticed that there was a ladder leaning against the rear of the wagon and that some of the topmost sacks had been removed. She walked over and looked up.
"We've taken some sacks out of the middle so you can all sit in privacy," Jaxen continued. "If you keep your voices down nobody will know you're there at all."
"What's in those sacks, Jaxen?" Sukhana asked. "Got a bit of an odor to them, haven't they?"
"Only irris beans, Sookie. They are a little fragrant but they won't do anyone any harm." Jaxen turned to Garia. "The beans are dried and then ground to powder to make a valuable spice. Once prepared each of these sacks is worth about a year's wages for a guard. As it happens we had an order along our route so it makes sense to make use of the wagon. It also makes a perfect way of getting you three out of Dekarran without anyone noticing."
"As you say, Jaxen."
Garia began climbing the ladder, noting that it wasn't easy in the peasant gown she was wearing. At the top the center sacks had been removed and she scrambled forward to find a well in the middle where the three of them could sit comfortably below the level of the topmost sacks. If she knelt, she could just see out of the front of the wagon under the canvas roof. Merizel and then Jenet followed her and they found places to sit. Behind them, some of the sacks were replaced, blocking the entry channel, and then a tarpaulin was lashed down, protecting the rear of the load from any rain.
Jaxen climbed up onto the wagoneer's seat and stood on it, looking in. "Comfortable?"
"We're fine, Jaxen," Garia replied.
"Then we're off. First stop will be a resting place along the road at about the third bell."
He climbed down and then gave surprisingly few orders. Garia realized that these people had been doing this for years and undoubtedly knew what needed doing without too much instruction. The wagoneer clapped his hands and the vehicle jolted into motion.
To begin with the two wagons turned between the warehouses and along dirty streets but eventually they reached the main road and turned west out of town. The road was wide but extremely busy. Several times they were forced to stop to allow other wagons to turn off or on to their route. Soon they were in a stream of wagons, carriages and mounted riders leaving Dekarran.
Eventually the buildings fell away and Garia had her first close look at the countryside of North Palarand. The experience was frustrating as her view was limited both by the canvas roof and by the proximity of the wagon in front of them. To the right the river could be glimpsed below the road, the waterway transporting many barges and other craft in both directions. At the nearer bank some of the heavier vessels were being hauled by dranakh on a tow-path, towards the center of the flow barges made their own way by means of tall lateen sails.
The land between the tow-path and the road was filled with numerous small farms and other dwellings. Once again Garia was surprised by the sheer numbers of people she could see out in the fields. In most cases they seemed to be plowing or tidying the ground ready for next year's crops - if that was how it worked here.
When mechanization comes almost all these folks will be out of a job, she thought. I know the life of a farmer is hard, but am I right to do that to them? The alternative, of work in one of the new towns and cities which are sure to spring up everywhere, might actually be worse, at least to begin with. I know conditions in Victorian cities both in the US and in the old world were pretty squalid right up until the twentieth century and beyond.
Can I find some way to stop that craziness happening? Is it inevitable, or is there some other solution? If I tell the council about what will happen, is there anything anybody can do?
"You're quiet," Merizel muttered in her ear. "Watching the countryside then? See anything interesting?"
"Hm? Oh, just thinking, Merry. If my ideas get taken up here, most of these people won't be able to make a living any more. A steam plow can do the work of ten men, say. What do the others live on if we do that to them?"
The two slid down to sit. It was a little quieter that way.
"Didn't you say that those people who couldn't work on the land would be needed to make all the new devices you're telling us about?"
"I did, but for a great while - a hundred years and more - the living conditions in the towns were really bad for most people, Merry. I was wondering if we could avoid that happening here."
"Ah. I can't answer that, Garia. Perhaps the King or someone else on the council will have ideas. At least with you here we'll know that can happen before it actually does."
"That's what I'm banking on, Merry."
Garia knelt again and looked out the other side. The ground sloped up on the left towards a line of forest. There were farms here, too, but they seemed to be larger. Some of the lower fields had been plowed for crops but others, where the slope was greater, had animals in them. Above the forest the rock-strewn slopes of the mountainside reared up.
"What's that forest?"
"I think that's reserved for hunting," Merizel said, kneeling beside Garia. It will be owned by Duke Gilbanar this close to Dekarran. Further up the valley there will be other areas reserved for hunting by the lesser lords who bend the knee to Gilbanar."
"Like myself," Garia said. "I wonder if there's anything like that on my lands?"
"From the way it was described, I don't think so. I think your lands are mostly unsettled. Perhaps the wild beasts wander all over." Merizel raised an eyebrow at Garia. "Would you hunt, in your own domain?"
"Never thought of the possibility. I don't think so, not just for sport, anyway. If there's something dangerous up there, that might be causing problems round where people live, that's different." Garia shrugged. "We'll find out the lay of the land soon enough anyway."
She started and pointed. "What are those?"
Along the road, being herded by ten or more men, was a group of the strangest animals Garia had ever seen. They had odd-shaped heads with two eyes, holes for ears, a rudimentary nose and a wide mouth full of square teeth, a long, angular body about the same size as a cow, and six legs. They were of a species that had obviously never evolved anywhere near Earth and their presence gave Garia a sense of wrongness she couldn't explain.
"Those? They're gavakhan," Merizel told her. "We used to keep a small herd at home. The meat is delicious and the hides fetch a good price."
With those few words Garia was forcefully reminded yet again that this world was not Earth and that making assumptions about any part of what she saw could be dangerous.
"Oh. Are there more animals on Anmar that have six legs?"
"A few different kinds. Why?"
"Unlike some of the animals I've seen so far, those gavakhan could never have come from Earth. On my world all animals have only four legs or other limbs. Therefore, those must have come from other worlds." She hesitated. "Or... it's possible that the six-legged kinds are native to this world, and that the four-legged kinds came the same way I did." She slid down again. "Oh, this world is so frustrating. So many puzzles and we're not likely to find the answers to half of them!"
Some time later the wagons pulled off the road into a well-prepared rest area. There were brick-built washrooms and open-fronted stalls selling drinks and food to the many wagons, carriages and riders who had chosen to stop there. With some non-obvious movement of sacks a way was made for the women to climb down and they hastened to the washroom block, accompanied by two of the guards. When they emerged they were led to a picnic table where mugs of pel were waiting. Jaxen was there and he bade them sit down.
"Any problems, ladies?"
They each replied that there was not, and Garia added, "It's a pity we have to hide away like this because I can't see much of the countryside as we go along. Up until now I've been stuck either in the palace or that castle and I don't really know much about the country I live in."
"That's true of most people, lass," Jaxen said. "Only regular travelers like myself see most of the lands we pass through. But, you came from the palace to Dekarran, didn't you? Did you not see the countryside then?"
"That's true, but it's not the same when you're part of a huge procession with the King at the front. Besides, that was the Valley. Up here in North Palarand the landscape is completely different and I wanted to get an idea of it, because that's where most of Palarand's wealth is going to come from in the future. It's also where my own lands are. I want to be familiar with the route there and back."
Jaxen nodded. "As you say, lass. I think you'll have to put up with it today and tomorrow morning, though. We'd like to get you and your companions beyond Teldor before you sit on the wagon seats. After that we should be in country where you're less likely to be noticed."
"But... we're out in the open now."
"That can't be helped, can it? Or did you think you could keep your legs crossed until we reached Teldor tonight?"
A red-faced Garia shook her head.
"So we take the chance and act normally. There are too many wagons and other traffic coming into and going out of this stop for anyone to pick us out. We're just folks on the road having a mid-morning break."
"As you say."
Jaxen leaned forward. "There is a matter I would talk to you about, milady, while we are seated here in relative privacy."
"You shouldn't call me that!"
"I won't do it again. I just wanted to make clear that what I am about to ask is a serious question."
"Ask away, then."
"Can you tell me, in simple terms, what the problem is between you and D'Janik? I know that something happened before he joined our crew, but his reaction yesterday was not what I might have expected. Your words about your 'sister' were obviously for the ears of others, so can you tell me the real reason, lass?"
Garia thought. "It's like this. I've been trained, in a previous life, to make use of swords and I wondered if I could do so now."
"Swords?" Sukhana exclaimed. "What nonsense is this?"
"Hush, woman," Jaxen said. He knew about Garia's transformation so understood her meaning. "Go on."
"I went to the Royal Armorer and asked him but all his stock was too big or too heavy or both. Not surprising, given my size."
Jaxen smiled at the small figure facing him.
Garia continued, "While we were talking over the matter one of the guards I had been training said he knew a technique used by women in his homeland and offered to teach me, but there were oaths involved. He and the Armorer worked out a way to get round the oaths - mostly - and I had swords made for me and was trained with them. The first time I wore them in public was at my coming of age ceremony, when I was also confirmed Baroness. D'Janik was in the hall as well as the man who um, didn't quite train me and he guessed the truth. He attacked the other guard and they fought... in the hall... in front of the King, Prince Keren, and all the assembled nobles."
Jaxen grinned. "Oh, Maker! I wish I had seen that! So D'Janik was banished for that?"
"Not banished, no, just dismissed the guard. The King himself said that he understood the problem with the oaths but thought brawling in front of him and his nobles wasn't perhaps the best way to resolve the matter. D'Janik was permitted to remain in Palarand and find other employment."
"Ah! I see." He nodded. "So you consider that the problem is now in the past, so far as this present journey is concerned?"
"Um, actually, no, Jaxen, it isn't, now I think of it. You see, the other guardsman couldn't stay in the palace guard either, for his own safety... so he has become one of my men-at-arms." Garia took a deep breath. "He's up the road with the Prince's party, waiting for us, and I doubt any of them know D'Janik is here with me."
Jaxen winced. "Ouch! You do like to make things difficult for everyone, don't you, lass? Have you a plan?"
"No, since I've only just realized what is going to happen. I think between us we ought to be able to find a way to defuse the situation."
"Defuse? What does that mean, lass?"
Damn, these people don't have gunpowder! Of course he wouldn't know what the word meant.
"You know, find a way to stop a fight before it gets started, that kind of thing."
"Very well. I suggest we keep our knowledge to ourselves until we do find a way to solve this. No sense in complicating the situation." He stood. "Are we ready to continue on the road?"
"We are, wagon-master," Sukhana said, standing. "Come on, you three, we have a long way to go and a ferry crossing to make before we can find our beds tonight. Let's get rolling again."
They were soon on the road again and made the slow, steady progress of two heavy wagons pulled by dranakh. Stops were made at lunch and mid-afternoon, the women spending some time dozing off the effects of an interrupted night. As the sun began to lower behind the mountains to the west they reached a river crossing in front of them.
"Where are we?" Garia asked.
"I imagine that's Teldor over there," Merizel guessed, pointing at the town on the other bank. "Looks like the river divides here and we have to cross this part. Do we get out?"
The valley of the Palar divided in front of them. A leg went west, the other north-west, with the town on the fork. A ferry like a smaller version of those which had carried them across the Sirrel connected the road to the south with the town. Their two wagons joined the line to be carried across. Since the ferries were so much smaller they had to climb down to spread the load and they joined the others at the slip as their wagons were winched on board.
"Where are we, Jaxen?"
"That way," he pointed west, towards the lowering sun, "is the valley of the River Telar. If you go up that valley you'll come to a region where most of Palarand's copper is dug out, along with some other metals. The other way is the Palar as it comes from the north. Up there is where iron ores are found. That's the road we shall take tomorrow. Tonight, we shall stay in another of Master Tanon's inns, but this time I shall make sure that the facilities are both clean and quiet."
"We'll be suitably grateful if you do, brother," said Sukhana. "After all, it couldn't be much worse than last night, could it?"
Jaxen grinned at his sister. "You'd be surprised, Sookie, you really would."
The two wagons eventually reached the other bank and made for the local depot. Instead of staying in the bunkhouse, as they had the previous night, Jaxen found them a small, quiet inn nearby where the standard of accommodation was better. Their chests were taken up to their rooms and the four refreshed themselves before their evening meal. Jaxen, having made his own arrangements, joined them at the table. He held up a leather bundle.
"See? I promised. There was plenty of time to pick these up as we made our way out of Dekarran."
He unrolled the bundle to reveal four forks, of a plain design, made in steel. He handed these round to the women, producing his own from his pouch. Sukhana looked at hers curiously.
"A strange device," she remarked, nodding. "I see what you mean, brother. You can use these to hold food steady as you cut."
"And then," Merizel added, "since the food is already on the fork, you can bring it to your mouth. No need for juggling spoons and knives any more."
"As you say," Sukhana said with wonder. "And this comes from your... world, Buffy?"
"Yes, Sookie. This and much, much more. Watch us and see how we use the forks. You'll soon find you won't want to eat without one."
"Except for soups and stews," Jaxen said with a grin.
"Trust a man to find some problem," Sookie said with a smile as she watched the others begin their meals. She studied Garia thoughtfully. "This is turning out to be a more interesting trip than I first thought."
The others all grinned at her. Garia said, "You have no idea, Sookie. No idea at all!"
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