Julina of Blackstone - 054 - Think, Think Again and Think Ahead

Plans appear and require much consideration, as well as a sudden journey

Julina of Blackstone
Her Chronicles, Book 2

by Julia Phillips

054 – Think, Think Again and Think Ahead


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 © 2013 - 2018 Julia Phillips. All rights reserved.

It uses some of the associated characters and situations that arise from the world called ‘Anmar’ created by Penny Lane, whose stories
are also copyright © 2010 - 2018 Penny Lane. All rights reserved.

Julina of Blackstone
Her Chronicles
054 – Think, Think Again and Think Ahead


“Indeed, 'Lina. But that remark doesn't make clear your decision – decisions really.”

I looked around at the faces gathered there. Pomma, Em and Uncle and of course Epp and Shemel.

And Master Jepp. Who had soon become just Jepp to us all, as most of us were already on an informal basis after our morning rides.

Those extra three had come early on at my request, Master Jepp later at Uncle's suggestion. We all discussed Uncle's idea for this was really what it was all about. About half a bell passed doing all this.

And it was now time for me to make a decision or two.

I would have liked to ask Papa's advice, but suddenly realised that that would just be putting it off even longer.

I gulped. My first seriously adult business decision.

“Very well, we shall do so. But full details will need to be worked out at some future time. However, I acknowledge, that must needs be soon. And we would also need the final approval from the Captain.”

There was an outbreak of smiles from everyone, myself included.

“Julina. I shall gain the Steward's ear as soon as I may. This may well be another of your good ideas, or this time, to state the facts more accurately, your implementation of one of Brydas' ideas. 'Tis a good thought, indeed and makes a lot of sense. We must needs have a report of the condition of them all of course, but I believe that they will prove to be acceptable, knowing the kind of man that Jafferkin was.”

This was coming to the end of a hard afternoon, when Epp and I had discussed many things, Shemel adding some clarifications when asked. Any lingering problems with the Jaffy business were buried and lost now forever.

Pending the Captain's acceptance, I now had a new business!

“Huh?” I can hear in my mind several people asking. Well, remember that Jaffy had left me his wagons – and yes, he had four of them. So I needed to find some use for them, or sell them. Uncle had started his suggestions by persuading me that I would gain more coin if I used them, rather than got rid of them.

Two of them were for the longer hauls he did, the ones he used for coming up to Blackstone, and the other two were smaller and lighter apparently, that he used for shorter deliveries from say the barge points to the distribution points around Tranidor. I had never seen them, but Shemel had some knowledge, and was certain that Jaffy would have kept them well-maintained. Epp agreed with that assessment.

Uncle's big idea was that the three down in Tranidor were brought up here to join the fourth, which was currently parked at the Claw, and then my four wagons could be repainted and offered to the Town as official Blackstone conveyances. The Town could pay me a fee for their use, which would save the Town having to buy conveyances, as it was becoming increasingly clear they would need some. Anytime the town did not require them, then they could be sub-contracted to Master Tanon's organisation, in the same way that Shemel did with his now two wagons. But the Town could use them for everything from moving the equipment and files into the Community Hall's office, to running errands down to Bezlet and Brayview.

Jepp was originally sceptical, but Uncle kept throwing potential uses at him and he was soon won round. He would speak with the Captain later that evening.

He did, however, make another suggestion just before we were all about to break up the meeting.

“You, Shemel, already operate a transport enterprise in exactly the same way as is being suggested that Julina does. Julina herself has much on her plate at the moment, particularly with the plans for setting up this Guild-equivalent they have named the Consociation of Caterers. Why don't the two of you merge your common interests and act as partners in just one business together? Julina would provide this new company with twice as many wagons as you currently have, mayhap she could also provide frayen, or even dranakh too, and you Shemel would use your contacts to gain contracts? You would needs find an agreement to share your profits, but I deem it to be of advantage to you both.”

There was a silence, a very pregnant one.

I, naturally looked at Shemel and he at me. Shemel looked as taken aback as I was, as was Epp.

Uncle was obviously thinking furiously, and Pomma, dear Pomma, just looked a little confused.

Another quarter of a bell passed amidst many more words, ideas and discussions, at the end of which Shemel and I came to an agreement. We shook hands to seal it and Jepp and Pomma 'heard and witnessed' it. Jepp said he would go now to draw up the correct documents for us to sign. He promised to do that by the morrow, for Shemel and family were leaving then for Tranidor on the Shuttle, with Master Mesulkin who was going to Brayview you shall remember. I agreed to meet them all at the Shuttle Shed a quarter bell before their departure.

“Do you tell us?” sighed Pomma, when she heard that the five of them would join Master Mesulkin on his first travel for years. “I wish I could get back down to Tranidor once more!”

That information led me onto another thought, and I swiftly ran through several options. I had also to visit Tranidor, and soon, to settle the Jafferkin affairs, but being female, I could not travel alone, unescorted by a chaperone unless I was with one or more of my family.

I could take Gyth with me, I supposed, or Kords, or Kelly, but that would leave the staff of the Salon considerably weakened. I certainly could not take two of them away with me, that would be three senior members of the team all away at the same time. The new ones were just too new at that juncture.

Molly? She was still weakened by her healing, being up and about now for only two weeks or so, and anyway she would need to concentrate with B and B in the days before the Royals arrive.

Sookie would need to be here in Town for she too was making preparations for the influx of visitors in the Royal Party. Some would needs be accommodated there in the Claw, or so it had been planned, with two or three of the leading families being prepared to accommodate individuals from the Royal Party, should it prove necessary.

Haka had only just given birth.

The women up in the Vale wouldn't have time to prepare.

I made up my mind then and there.

“Pomma, I must go down to Tranidor again, for at least two full days there. The Salon shall be closed for the evening on the 14th and the girls can cope without me for a week, maybe a day either side. If we were to go with the Captain on the day after the morrow, we could ride down to Brayview in that day, and there catch up with all this rowdy lot,” I waved my hand indicating Epp and Shemel, my eyes twinkling as I teased them and they grinned back, “and be escorted by the Captain at the same time. I daresay he could do with the company. We could then escort the Shuttle down to Tranidor so we all arrive at the same time.”

“Do you tell me?” she answered with a hope in her eyes.

“We would take two days to get there, say two days for my business, but allow three, and say three days for our return. We would be gone eight days that means, mayhap nine. We should be back before the Royal Party gets here. The Captain is sure they shall spend at least a short visit in Tranidor, and if they are still a week or so away from there, we shall have ample time to get back before them. And well before my next call.

“What say you? Shall you join me? Can you leave Master Waldan for so long, and at such short notice? Shall you be able to ride on those days?”

We all laughed when she simply replied: “I shall tell Waldan what to do whilst I am not here!”

I spoke to Epp with my eyes, asking for permission for us to stay at South Point. Her eyes replied that 'twould be fine with her.

Thus it was all agreed, and I could return to the Salon, my mind reeling with the latest developments in my already tumultuous life.

Today, Kords had a rest day, and Paivi was supposed to be having one, but she was there, experimenting some more with peet-zers. That was dedication to duty, even though I suspect she still found her newly-won freedoms things to be savoured.

So it was that I could make an announcement to all of them, except Kords, but I would see her later when I got home.

“I must leave you for a week,” I started bluntly, to a collective gasp. “I must away to Tranidor urgently. It cannot wait until the Royal Party depart, as they are most likely to be here for a four to six week sojourn. Kelly shall be in charge of all Salon matters until my return. I shall be leaving in the morning after the morrow, riding that day with Pomma and the Captain, and any of his colleagues he decides to take with him down to Brayview. I and Pomma shall go on to Tranidor from there, probably accompanying the Shuttle with Epp and her family aboard. I shall require at least two days there, mayhap as many as four, hopefully not five. Then I shall return, but slower, so we needs say three days for that journey. We must consider I shall be away a week, maybe as much as two hands of days.

“So tell me what you all think about where you shall be UNable to cope.”

There was a chorus as they all started to talk at once, so I held up a hand and was pleased to get immediate silence.

“One at a time, starting at my left with Venket.” I paused until I saw Venket take a breath to start talking. “Oh, I forgot to mention it. Ask me your questions by all means. But KELLY shall answer them.”

Kelly started and looked worried, her eyes darting daggers at me. It was time, I felt, to establish a proper hierarchy here, and to let Kelly make some decisions.

(A note from older Julina: I wonder if, even then, my mind was getting me to start preparing for my eventual withdrawal from the Salon team as a permanent member of it. I still pop in occasionally mind you!)

“My first question is not answerable by Kelly,” stated Gyth flatly. “Why? And can I come with you?”

“I would have loved to have you with me, Gyth. I first thought of you, but there are some factors that prevented it. The two major ones though would be that then poor Kelly would be left here with no experienced support other than Kords. Whilst I am certain that the others could all cope, then the stress and worry could be too much, so I need you, just this once, to stay and support her. Also, we shall be leaving on the morning after the morrow, and riding all the way to Brayview – I know we did the Tranidor journey before in one day, but I was sore afterwards and it was no fun – but we ride to Brayview in the company of the Captain. I believe that your Call might prevent such a schedule?”

She reluctantly nodded and looked downcast. I needed something to cheer her up, so I quickly made a 'safe' promise to her.

“But have no fear, I have some plans for you and your travel later in the year! I just need to find out some more information.”

I think she believed me for she managed a smile after that. Which was a relief for me. And who knew, maybe it might even be true.

I explained the difficulties I had in choosing a companion to travel with, and moaned about how unfair it was. Men could just go off alone, but not we women.

“Ah!” exclaimed Paivi. “I just realised something! Now I understand why it is usual for a bride's family to attend the wedding of the bride. That's because the woman is there already! And that's why the man's family are often not there. Because it is usual for the sons to just take off and seek their fortunes elsewhere. So families are used to not being at son's weddings …”

She broke off and blushed before apologising for taking the conversation off onto another thread.

But a little part of my brain was working out the implications of her remark, and I found myself agreeing with her, not having thought about it before.

And so I oversaw the question and answer session; that was a good idea of mine. At the end of it, Kelly was a lot more confident, and the others were confident in HER. I only had to chip in a few times, and made just a few suggestions.

And then it was dining time for our clients. At least there was only one sitting this e'en.

… … …

Rouse the household, breakfast, Tai Chi, clear away, make the beds, clean the floor - and the old feeling seeped back in.

The family feeling, as it had been for those years when I had had to be their mother.

It returned surprisingly strongly. So much so, and felt by everyone I deem, that we all had a gigantic mass hug afterwards, even the boys.

Most of the morning had gone by then, as I knew it would and had therefore declined to go for a ride. But that didn't stop me going to the Claw to make a fuss of dear Trumpa, and to whisper to her that she would have a good long outing on the morrow.

Then 'twas time for me to make my way up to the Shuttle Shed, just by what had now become the Market Place.

To meet Jepp and Shemel and Epp to sign those papers.

And to say goodbye to Epp and her family, albeit briefly.

The Steward was there as well, helping Master Mesulkin load the books and official stamps and seals and so on. Jepp naturally was there as well, the three of them doing all sorts of Assembling things, but he broke off as soon as I arrived. He led Shemel and I to a makeshift desk, where he spread out some papers and we all signed. We felt quite honoured to have the Captain be our witness and his signature on the papers seemed to make it more special somehow. Both he and Jepp indicated that Uncle's idea had been a good one. The Captain then suggested we discuss various ways and means as we rode downvalley on the morrow. Thus was it all arranged.

When I got once more to the Salon, I pitched in with some vigour, trying to do as much for them as I could before I left.

Em came in for a special moment that we had agreed beforehand. She and I took Kelly into the Dining Room, telling all the others to remain there in the kitchens. We introduced Kelly to the secrets of the fork identification markings. I then said to her that I would do Dining Room duty tonight, for both sittings, so that I would not interfere with her arrangements in the kitchens, but could still be on hand for 'emergencies'. From that moment on, SHE was the boss and I just another of her workers. She was to make all the decisions, and try her hardest not to call for me.

… … ...

After the very busy evening was over, I asked Kelly to stay behind when all the others had left.

“Very well done indeed, Kelly. A thoroughly competent showing. Not that I expected anything different! I found nothing to criticise, but have two or three suggestions about ways that you might not have considered because they have not been told to you as yet. So first tell me how you thought. From the start ...”

“I have learnt much from you, and from our joint experiences. As you have so often said, the key to it all is to be certain we know what is to be served, and nowadays in which sitting it is to be served. A simple count told me how many of each different dish we were to do, four different ones today. And then I added two or three to those numbers, to be sure we had some spares in case of some unexpected problems.

“So I went over the lists, actually about three or four times, if truth were told, and made some notes. I then checked what we had prepared and gave orders to make up some of the shortfalls, and checked that we had had deliveries of the fresh food required. Meanwhile I got some others to start on the main food as far we could, now we know which dishes can be made in advance and reheated later. I checked that the tables were properly laid up, that a limited number of forks were on display, able to be purchased, and that we had sufficient supplies of ale and wine. By the way, I thought we should make an order for some more ale to be delivered on the morrow, so I arranged that later.

“I then went back into the kitchens and checked on what the others were doing and helping them out by doing some tasks myself. I also got a few things prepared for the morrow. Then I double-checked everything we had done and were doing. Then the service began. And it all worked out very smoothly.”

“As I said – excellent! I particularly liked the way you kept the team occupied and made it as enjoyable as possible. You were good at complimenting them too, I noticed. Mayhap that is something I should do more often, for I feel that mayhap I do it not enough.”

“No! No! You need not worry. We all think you are marvellous and we learn something every day from you. You have no need to change.”

I blushed and changed the subject quickly: “Now - to my suggestions. I actually did one of them while you were busy, in fact I did two of them, but that was only because I am so used to doing them.

“It becomes easier if you remember to put yourself into the way of mind of being a diner here. EVERYTHING we do becomes easier if you develop this habit even more than you all currently do.

“What does that diner want? Have I anticipated his every need and wish? Examples: They come in – are the coat hooks ready if the weather determines that coats might be required? Is there space in the corridors for a bunch of diners all at once? They usually arrive in their parties of four or six or whatever, larger parties always get in each others ways and so on, so how can I gently guide them past, through or over such difficulties?

“Are the bathrooms clean and set up? Usually women wish to pay a visit before they eat. I know Kassama has said she shall do all that, but perchance she is busy elsewhere, or, heaven forfend, she is taken ill or injured. Just get in the habit of checking it for yourself.

“And check the Book often. Maybe something was added while you were distracted. Learn to read it quickly and to memorise the main points. Is the sitting full, or are there perhaps some spare places that could be used for someone who was unable to reserve in advance?

“And, while checking the Book, how busy are we going to be on the morrow? Perchance we might need to order an extra delivery or so, and the earlier our suppliers receive the order, the easier it is for both them and us. Talking of which, perhaps you should check that today's orders have all arrived as early as you can. If not, then you have more time to get the items in.”

“Maker! I see now why you are always flitting about so much. I wondered today that it all seemed so much easier than it seems when you are here. I have only done three-quarters of what you do every day!”

“But you did it so well, m'dear. AND there were no nasty surprises because you were so thoroughly prepared. As I have said a million times: 'The better the preparation, the easier the job.' And it's never too soon to start such preparations.

“You have the talent, you have the abilities and you have the common sense to do this, and to do this well. Remember how we stumbled about and yet still managed back in those early days? You will do well. This I know with certainty. I shall tell Em to increase your pay as you take on more responsibility. Now I must away home to pack a few things. I meet the Captain and Pomma at the Claw at dawn, so I must needs sleep.”

I gave Kelly a huge hug, and a quick kiss on the cheek and then I took my leave of her, smiling to myself as I saw her go straight to the Book …

I had time to welcome Papa and my new Mama back, even though they had returned before the dusk, a long while before I myself returned.

They and Kords were also taken aback a little by my news and would have discussed it all to the most infinitesimal of degrees, but it was not very long at all before I needed to go and pack my travel bag. Not too much to take this time, for it was purely a business trip, no need for fancy clothing.

Very soon after finishing the packing, I left the world to cope without me for a little while. I cannot recall dreaming that night.

… … …

“Good morrow, Goodmen.”

“Good morrow, Mistresses,” they replied, as much in unison as Pomma and I had been with our initiating greeting.

There were three of them, the Captain having introduced them as our riding companions and trainee guardsmen, although he hesitated for some reason before saying 'guardsmen'. Mompik, Qualt and Zarda were their names, to repeat the alphabetical order in which they were introduced; which was slightly confusing since they were not in alphabetical order when we went from left to right.

They did not, to my untrained eye, seem quite as comfortable on frayen back and using the modern saddles as we other nine did, but nevertheless they were proving proficient as we passed across the Bridge and headed for the Forest edge.

Zarda, on the left as I looked ahead at them, and Qualt were riding alongside each other in the van of our somewhat large formation, whilst Mompik was bringing up the rear alone. Uncle, Sookie, Em, Gyth, Molly and Bezan had decided to ride with us, just to perhaps the start of the trees, so we were a dozen in all at the start. Kelly, last night, had said she would try to come, but might have to spell one of the Bellringers in the morning, so I was not too upset when she didn't show up in time. I briefly wondered how long she had stayed alone at the Salon last night.

As we progressed, the Captain demanding all the while a brisk pace, both Em and he were surging forward or dropping back, to enable some quiet speaking from time to time with the three men; which discussions I learnt later were some sort of military suggestions, or corrections, or lessons, or training or whatever.

The three men had swords and what I assumed to be long pikes. I was amazed to learn later that these were merely short lances or long spears. Their saddles also carried a shield, a quiver full of quarrels and a crossbow. I saw that their boots had been modified to allow a knife to be sheathed down the side.

They looked like guards, but were somehow lacking the crispness of those guards I had only sometimes before encountered.

Then it hit me.

They're trainees, of course! Julina, you are such a pakh-head sometimes! What we call a 'Ked' amongst ourselves.

That's where I had seen them before!

They were a trio from the dozen or two of men that the Captain and Em had been drilling on the Parade Ground, back when we were at war. I realised that I had become so busy that I had missed noticing those training sessions now for quite a long time.

But we others were chatting nineteen to the dozen for that first stretch down to the trees, so I knew I could wait to find out more about the men as we continued our journey downvalley, when there would be far more peace. We had many varied conversations as we went along, Bezan and the Captain deep into some plan or another, then Uncle and the Captain, or Uncle and Bezan, or all three, or sometimes with Em. Gyth, Molly and I, with Sookie chipping in sometimes, sometimes Em, discussed the Salon, discussed the wagons I was on my way to fetch, discussed clothes, discussed … well, you get the idea.

I suddenly felt elated – the sunshine was in my hair, there was need to neither run nor hide from anything. It's a wonderful life, suddenly. Even though there was a day of journeying ahead of us. My buoyant mood seemed to affect the others in our large group – positively.

The others who were not coming all the way turned back a little distance before the trees got really thick, I suspect to sample the breakfasts at the Bunkhouse that had been offered us as we passed, although I may just be being a tad cynical there.

Or perhaps wishful.

I was already beginning to feel hungry, so sparse had been my nibbles taken to break my fast.

As I twisted round to wave at the departing friends, I could see the first of the day's wagons that were descending the Loop Road nearing the junction with the road we were on, with two or three following close behind. I pointed them out to Pomma who nodded before we turned to face forward once more.

As I expected, 'twas not long before we caught up with the last of the early starting wagons that had set out from the Bunkhouse. We soon overtook him, waving to the driver as we went past. We could already see another not too far up ahead.

In that gap between the wagons we needed to pass, the Captain called Mompik, Qualt and Zarda to him, and gave some lessons as to what to watch out for when overtaking a wagon. Pomma and I were amazed at the thoroughness the old soldier drummed into the new lads. I would never have thought of half of what he explained, and felt that maybe this was why every soldier I had ever met always looked about them all the time, even when talking to you. I also realised that Pomma and I were leading the two supply frayen to enable all the men more freedom of movement. It was the implied forward thinking that impressed me most.

We continued almost contentedly whilst maintaining a brisk pace, and Pomma and I saw the three trainees gather confidence as we passed one wagon and then another.

It must have been shortly before we reached Strettalm, certainly it was just after we crossed the major stream that came in from our left to join the river that was then quite close to our right, that the Captain found time to explain: “There is a difference between Fedren's group and a group of Guardsmen. Fedren's job is to find criminals, arrest rowdy citizens, capture robbers and burglars and so on. To gather evidence for miscreants' trials. However, Guardsmen have other duties. We began raising a... a... a... Militia, if you like but it pleases me not, but nor can I in accuracy describe them as a Guards force! Anyway we started raising this group as part of our duty to the nationwide levy. But this would be from workers who were needed, it was thought, to have as their priority their jobs of mining or road making, or stone quarrying and so on. These tasks were deemed to be of a greater national importance.

“However, now Her Highness' lands are so much larger than originally granted, we must find some guards for ourselves, to man the borders for example, now the 'Garialands' …” he smiled as he glanced sideways at me as he said that, “... reach to the pass on the Chaarn Road. Perhaps just a couple of guards on her southern border, which is but an internal border from one Barony to another, more to act as messengers than as anything else, but a hand or more are needed at the Nation's border to supplement the Duke's men there.

“We shall also need some to guard our official comings and goings, using your wagons, Julina, should they prove suitable. Being at the end of a closed road means that we do not need so very many ... Militiamen ...” he shuddered a little as he said that, “... in the Bray Valley itself, but, as I said, the Chaarn Road is now also within our boundaries and is quite a major trade route. And therefore a possible invasion route! His Grace, the Duke Gilbanar has responsibility for the security of that border and has requested help from his local landowner.

“So we called for volunteers from our trainee squad and received no less than three hands of applications. So many have found the idea to their liking. Mil … Her Highness, has indicated that we should recruit them all to allow some on and off time and so on. She assures me that the Barony can afford them.

“However, I am so very busy that I scarce have time for training, and, despite his ... her ... impressive record, Em is not taken very seriously since she revealed her true self. Most men do find it extremely difficult to talk of military matters with a female, much less receive orders. Let alone obey them!

“Signals have been exchanged, and His Grace has asked within his guard forces at his castle for a volunteer to come up to us to take over our men, to train them well and to lead them. I do NOT like that word 'Militia', I really do not. Perchance, as opposed to a 'Personal Guard' like those led by Commander Feteran, they should be referred to as the 'Country Guard', or the 'Land Guard'. I must think on that. A suitable title can be a powerful tool.

“But back to these men.”

He raised his voice so all five of us could distinguish clearly his words.

“Do you hear, you three, for I am talking about you, and not to you, for a change? These three are the best of the men Mistress Michet and I have partially trained. They have all willingly joined the … Country Guard ... and are proving themselves even as we ride. They are our elite, although they, as we, are under no illusions that their new Quadrant Officer will find much more for them to learn.”

We could see the men straighten under the praise. I saw again the value of praising those that worked for you. The Captain kept his voice pitched loud enough for all to hear.

“Now then, time for some military manoeuvres. Mompik is to join the van, and Zarda is to drop back to the rear. Qualt shall move from the right side to the left side of the van, leaving room for Mompik to take up position on the right. We always do it that way. Left van drops back, right van moves over, rearguard joins in at right van. This manoeuvre is named 'Van Change'. It is a different routine if we have two pairs, and different again for other numbers, but the principle remains the same. All clear?”

Everyone nodded, including Pomma and I.

“Blackstone Squad,” he somewhat startlingly announced in his command voice, even louder than his tones before; I suddenly realised that it was so designed as it was to not only get their attention, but to declare for whom the following order would apply. But I understood not quite why it had to be so loud.

“Van change! Execute!”

It was just a little ragged that first time, but still impressive as Mompik came up on our right, Zarda reined in to allow the procession to pass him on his right, and Qualt simply moved into the space where Zarda had been. All with no hindrance to our progress.

(By the time we got to Brayview, they were far more precise and far more impressive! They were doing it far more frequently, to improve because they WANTED to. The Captain's and Em's encouragement before she left us made them try that much harder.)

By now, we had reached the foot of Strettalm and turned the sharp bend that was at the top of the traverse downwards across the otherwise vertical rock face. We could see three more wagons on the slope before us, and the first of the day's wagons climbing up the slope towards us, indeed nearly to the top. Another and, down there, another were climbing up too.

The Captain issued a crisp command: “No overtaking on this traverse.”

He went on to explain: “Yes, the road is wide enough for wagons to pass, and therefore wide enough for us to pass should we choose, but something unexpected may spook the beasts, either ours, or the one or ones we would be overtaking, causing some incident or other. And an accident here cannot be simply driven round. There is no point in taking risks at this most vulnerable of places. We will give ourselves some more room from the wagon before us, and shall proceed at his pace. It is only for a pair of marks or so.”

He then halted us there at the top, to give that wagon in front time to pull away from us a little more. And I suspect to savour the views downvalley, which were truly magnificent that day.

We stayed there until Zarda called: “'Ware wagon, approaching from behind.”

“Blackstone Squad! Continue!”

And off we went again, Pomma and I enjoying the beauty of the views to our left, not minding in the slightest that we seemed to have been co-opted into a military band of men.

But I was not particularly enjoying the increasing pressure inside of me.

I was looking forward to reaching the Roadhouse down there, straight ahead at the foot of the slope. I glanced at Pomma and she told me with her eyes that she felt the same. It sort of made it worse that we could look down on our relief spot for so long, knowing it was there in sight but not within touch.

… … …

We met that morning, you shall remember, at dawn down at the Claw and by the time we had visited the facilities, all loaded up and mounted up, we set out a little before the first Bell. At this time of year there were almost eleven bells in the day, so noon would be shortly after the fifth Bell. Travelling at our brisk pace, which all the animals seemed to enjoy, and even with the slight delays we had had, we arrived at the Forest Roadhouse just after the fourth Bell. Just a tad over three Bells for all that distance, a distance a wagon takes four and more bells to cover. And we all knew we could have done it quicker had we been pressed for time.

Pomma and I accepted with alacrity Mompik's offer, made after a nudge from the Captain, to hold our beasts while we made a scarce disguised dash for the facilities of the roadhouse.

When we came out again, we thanked Mompik, and then tended to our animals more personally. Zarda and Qualt were trying to catch a snatch of sleep, the Captain having told them to learn to do so.

“A tired Guard is an inefficient Guard” was how he had put it apparently. Followed up with “Sleep is a weapon. Grab it whenever you can.”

He had declared we would have a half bell pause, which meant that Uncle Steef produced a lovely mug of pel and a pastry or two for me, which dear Jogantha insisted upon serving. I had time for a short chat with Uncle Steef before he was called away for some duty or other.

The Captain himself was deep in discussions with Master Mesulkin who looked to me as if he were a few years younger, the excitement of travelling, his more gentle responsibilities and the new views were working well on him. Pomma and I had joined Epp at a table, for which Epp said she was grateful – a full day of only male company was a bit much, she claimed. But she didn't let go of her newly married man's hand as her eyes twinkled at us. I swear she also winked at Jogantha when Shemel wasn't watching.

They would be leaving on the Shuttle at noon, of course, so we had already caught them up. Our plan was to push on to Bezlet, another bell and a half, maybe just a little less, and to eat our luncheon there. The Captain explained he had some minor business to act upon when there, and that some of the beasts' burdens could be unloaded when we were there. Perchance the Shuttle would catch us up there once more, but we would still reach Brayview before them.

And so it transpired.

Even though the traffic in both directions was visibly heavier when we set out towards Bezlet shortly afterwards.

… … ...

We reached Brayview just about eight Bells after leaving the Claw. Although our pace had mostly been brisk, we had had several stops along the way – the one at Strettalm was quite short really but nevertheless 'twas a stop, another we had had at the Forest Roadhouse and a final one at Bezlet, all of which added about a bell and a half to our total journey time.

Upon reaching Brayview, we were able to report that the Shuttle was only a little way behind us, maybe a half a bell away, since we had overtaken them again on the upslope out of the Bray Valley, not too far from the Chaarn Road junction.

Basset greeted both the Captain and myself with wreaths of smiles, before scurrying off towards the kitchens. Shortly after, she reappeared with a dumpy little woman in her trail, a woman I recognised as being one of those I had taught on my first ... or was it the second? ... visit here.

“Mistress Brogla, a pleasure to see you once more,” stated the Captain, I think also to help me remember her name. “And how is your esteemed cousin, Goodman Linan?”

Brogla's face fell slightly. “Your Honour, he is well, but struggling at the moment, for the miller at Tamitil is sorely unwell. His work is being done by several neighbours and his wife, of course, but they are having to learn right quickly. The output was near halved at the worst, but is now back up a bit, maybe two thirds of what it were before. All around here are trying to use less flour than what we're used to.”

“Do you tell me,” said the Captain, with a distracted expression as he thought of something, as all could tell. A swift silence fell, so I jumped in to break it.

“Mistress Brogla, how are you? Are you still practising those numbers I taught you?”

“Mistress Julina. 'Tis surely a great pleasure to see you once more. I hope our meal this e'en is up to your standards. But aye, to answer your question, I practice with those numbers every day, and am pleased to say that I have been able to be of assistance to Mistress Basset here on several occasions. I also use the lettering you showed us, although my reading remains very slow.”

“Well that's good! The more you practice, the better shall you be.”

“Master Loren does what he can to fit us workers in with his busy schedule. He has employed a second teacher now, a Goodman Defan, but between ourselves, he is not as good as yourself. Why I remem ...”

Before we could introduce her to Pomma, she broke off her sentence with a sudden gasp, swirled around and rushed back towards the kitchen with a barely heard “Excuse me” floating in the air behind her, and what I hoped I heard right was “I shall arrange some Pel for you and … oh dear.”

She whirled round once more, but then remembered her urgency, and continued round the complete circle. We all laughed, but kindly, knowing that she had just remembered something in an oven perhaps. We had had no chance to introduce her to Pomma, which she also had suddenly remembered, which was why she had whirled round again.

Even the Captain chuckled, but he was still a little distant.

“Your Honour? Something troubles you?”

“Eh? Oh, no, Mistress Basset. I have just had a thought. I must think it through a little more.”

“May I show you your rooms, the ones we have set aside for you across the yard, for your business, and then that above here for your sleeping? We have just time I deem before I must needs meet the Shuttles from each direction.”

“Aye, Mistress. That would be sensible.” He turned to us, saying “Mistresses” as his way of taking his leave, adding “Gentlefolk” to the rest of the people in the room, once Basset had ushered Pomma and I to a table, declaring loudly that this one was to be ours, effectively informing those other people.

“Men, follow me,” ordered the Captain as he and Basset left through another door. The three scrambled after them.

“Come, Pomma, let me show you where the facilities are, before we seat ourselves.” Then it was my turn to address those others seated there. “Good afternoon all, I'm sorry, our introductions have been a little hurried this day. Pray allow us to return in a few moments. I'm afraid that this table Mistress Basset has indicated shall not be suitable, for we shall sit with our friends on the downvalley Shuttle, who number four and also have a servant girl with them.”

By the time we returned, there was a steaming pot of pel awaiting us on a larger table, with two mugs and just a couple of tiny pastries. Which we attacked with gusto. Riding all day is a sure way to introduce a hunger.

Barely had we had our first nibble, when we heard a commotion outside. Master Kolston soon afterwards ushered in two passengers from the upvalley shuttle. One was travelling on to Bezlet the next day, but the other was leaving the Shuttle here.

This was my introduction to Master Defan.

He was an earnest young man, still somewhat spotty about his face, and there was scarce a shadow of a beard. Like most of our population, he was dark haired, a dark brown. He was very nervous to be introduced to two strangers who were women, and I knew he still had some growing up to do.

“So, Goodman Defan, I gather you teach those who live hereabouts?” I started, trying to put him at his ease a bit.

He puffed up a little bit, and I had to bite back a smile as he tried to impress me. “Oh yes, Mistress Jolin. I have three locations and teach folk at the first one day, at the second the next day, and at the third the third day. I then go back to the first, then the second and then the third. The seventh day I rest, of course.”

“I see. And Master Loren?”

He looked startled that I knew that name. “Er, yes. He too teaches. And, I confess, is my supervisor. I teach mostly the ones that he has introduced to letters and numbers, and he also teaches those more advanced. I prepare the ones I teach for his advanced lessons, having themselves been prepared by him to get into MY classes.”

“I remember Master Loren well, and would have expected him to come up with such an efficient method. He was at the top of our list, he and Master Magser, for the teacher posts.”

“You? You, Mistress? But you are so young! I had heard that there was a Mistress Megrozen and a Mistress Juli … Oh! You are Mistress Julina?” He blushed even a deeper red than that that I usually managed. He went all tongue-tied and struggled a bit, but was rescued by the arrival of the downvalley Shuttle passengers, and the return of the Captain and Basset.

Epp and family of course came to join us, at least the men did, while the women had to make themselves scarce for a hand of moments. But eventually they came back and I introduced Defan to Epp which made him even more tongue-tied.

At least I thought that at first until Pomma pointed out to me, in a whisper of course, the glances that Defan and Jogantha were giving one another.

Ooooh! That might be worth keeping an eye on, methinks.

Eye-speak informed Epp of it, and she raised an eyebrow in acknowledgement.

But just then, the Captain and Master Mesulkin came over to us.

“Mistresses Megrozen, Pomma and Julina, might Master Mesulkin and myself join you at table for our evening meal?”

Epp replied for us all: “Why certainly, Your Honour. Jogantha, find someone to pull that table up to ours, that there shall be place for us all.”

Defan leapt to his feet to do the task, and I believe to recover some of his poise, for he suddenly realised just who had asked our permission to join us.

I believe most of the other folk in the room were also surprised to see the most powerful man in their lands seated at a table in the middle of the dining floor, and not at the table specially positioned on an obviously temporarily constructed dais. A low buzz of conjecture ran round the room.

Defan tried to remove himself from the group, but the Captain aided Epp in persuading him to stay.

We tried to place His Honour in the middle of the table, as we felt befitted his status, but he was having none of it.

“Mistresses, Masters, Goodmen all, I have much urgent work to do this e'en already and shall need to rise from table earlier than most, I deem. Sadly, I must sit in judgement on three cases already this day lest I overrun my allocation of time on the morrow. There are, I understand a hand of marriages for the morning, and one or two other cases to be tried, and I must away to Bezlet promptly, to do my duties there as well in the afternoon. 'Twill be far less fuss this e'en when I can just slide away from one side, but I thank you all for attempting to honour me so.”

We all saw the sense of that and murmured an agreement.

There was a short silence broken by Epp: “Jogantha, you are off duty for now, so you will eat with us this evening.”

“Mistress, I couldn't possibly. Why it would...”

“Nonsense girl. We have plenty of staff to look after us and you might enjoy being waited upon yourself, for a change. And you shall even out the numbers for us as well. Now sit over there, between Goodman Defan and Master Shemel, opposite Mistress Pomma. I won't hear another word.”

She made another quick change of places for her sons and then sighed in satisfaction: “That's better, now we have men and women alternating along both sides, and His Honour and Master Mesulkin may take their leaves later without disturbing our arrangements.”

Just then, Brogla and Basset came bustling out with more pel for everyone and briefly stopped when they saw the arrangements. I swear I heard Brogla say softly to Basset: “See! I told you he wasn't like that.”

They served our refreshments and then listed what was available to eat. We all placed our orders, even a very diffident and embarrassed Jogantha.

It soon became obvious that conversations were going to be in deference to the Captain, so he sighed loudly and said: “Again, I must thank you for your consideration, but there are a number of people here at table, no less than two hands of us indeed, there is no need to wait for me to start a topic of conversation. Feel free to talk amongst yourselves.”

But no-one did, so he sighed once more and tried again: “Very well, then I shall commence by asking the full length of the table for Master Defan's views, as I understand he has travelled this part of Her Highness' lands quite extensively, and I would wish to know more of the village of Tamitil. Describe it please to me as if I was from somewhere else entirely and had never seen a village before. How many inhabitants, how many houses, are there flooding problems and so on. I deem that many here will be interested in learning more about it.”

Defan looked startled to be singled out to commence the dinner table tellings, but swallowed and started slowly, hesitantly. As he got into it, his voice became stronger and his inhibitions slowly fled.

“Why … Your Honour … that village … 'tis a beautiful spot really. Errrm … there is a landing stage for river access of course … a few small fishing boats use it … and the village is surrounded by rich farming lands. It has a small … er … very small … market once a week, and has become the central point for several marks all around. The market place is two casts or so towards the south-east from the cluster of houses that nestle together and form a sort of guard above the mill. The houses are well above to keep out of the wet in the rains. The abandoned works for what was to have been the new, larger mill can be found a quarter of a mark upriver from the other.

“I was told that the community sprang up when that mill was placed there, many generations ago, so it became a local focal point for trade to occur. So many bags of flour for so many animals, or baskets of fruit and so on.”

We did all actually find it fascinating to hear about the development of a rural community, so we were hanging on his words, a fact that he did not at first realise.

“There is one small lane in from each direction; obviously one of these leads up to the Trade Road, a lane that leads off to the south-east from the far side of the Market. Meanwhile the other mostly follows the river bank upriver. I myself have travelled now only as far as the first large bend in the river, where I understand Her Highness' lands start on the west bank. However, locals have told me that this lane continues all the way upriver to near where the cross-river that flows down from the Chaarn Pass joins the Bray. It peters out maybe half a mark or so from that cross-river, when it meets one of the many forester tracks there, tracks that form a puzzling maze I am told in which 'tis easy to get lost. There are several other villages and hamlets up along that way, but Tamitil is the largest such community.”

“Yes,” breathed the Captain, “your word picture is bringing back some descriptions of the place given me by Goodman Linan on our recent trip to the capital, and indeed enhances my vision of it. Pray continue.”

“Recently, with increased demand from an increased population, someone, the previous landowner before Her Highness, decided to build a further, larger mill there, and construction actually started, made easier by employing barge traffic on the river. Suddenly though, there came a problem of some sort with the use of the barges, and the project was put on hold. They tell me ...”

He stopped talking as the Captain's head jerked up. “Do you tell me?” he exclaimed thoughtfully. “Do you tell me indeed?” He waved a hand for Defan to continue, while we could see his brain working feverishly.

The young teacher struggled to remember his point, so continued on a slightly different tack: “I have heard that a recent illness to the Miller there, who is naturally also the village headman, has meant some difficulties in supplying the quantities of flour required. Mistress Nanog, the healer, says that 'twill not be a rapid recovery either. She says that he would be better off brought up here to her, but no-one has a spare cart to convey him, and he says he needs to be there to supervise his mostly untrained workers. The best man he has there, Goodman Pilling, is a strong man, one who used to work with the barg … AH!

“Ah yes, I remember now where I was earlier. Goodman Pilling, he told me that the barge problem was somehow connected with Count Trosanar down to ... er, sorry ... down IN Tranidor, but I confess the tale was too complicated for me to follow with any degree of accuracy, and I cannot believe that a noble in another demesne could affect barges many marks upriver and on the opposite bank.

“As for residents, then there are I believe a hand and three families living down there, in the village itself, and mayhap two hands more on the farms around. The houses, maybe not the best around, are nevertheless well-maintained and all are situated at a safe height, as I mentioned, above the highest river level. All look most pretty in the evening sun which floods into them over their right shoulders if you like, for they all face the river and the south-west, allowing some shade during the day which is necessary in the heights of summer, but will probably be a little dim in the depths of the winter. Most all of the peoples have become interested in learning lettering and numbering. My lessons are quite filled when I go down there every third day.”

He stopped then, and suddenly got all shy and tongue-tied when he came back to awareness of his surroundings and his audience.

Particularly so when he saw Jogantha so close to him with an admiring look on her face.

“I thank you, Goodman, for a job well done. I deem that to be a very good report, very good indeed.” The Captain paused. Almost musingly, he continued: “'Twould seem that there is a problem descended upon millers at the moment. We have one also beset, but in a differing fashion, up in Blackstone.”

He paused thoughtfully, before continuing: “I doubt there are many millers around, although I thought that mayhap I should find one to talk to that I might ...”

“Excuse me sor! Fergive me fer buttin' in, Yer 'Onour, but my uncle, 'e's recent retired like, used to be Miller down 'Aligo way. I c'ld mebbe fetch 'im 'ere?” explained a very hesitant man who had been sitting with his cronies in one corner with a jug of ale on their table, but who had now plucked up the courage to approach his Steward.

“Thank you Goodman... ???”

“Dartrook, Yer 'Onour. Excuse me, Yer 'Onour.”

“Dartrook. I thank you for your information. I confess I spoke half in jest when I made that remark, but perchance your suggestion has indeed some merit. How long ago did your Uncle retire?”

“Why, 'twere at last Year's End, Yer 'Onour. Told me, some young 'un was ripe for takin' 'is mill over, and 'e 'imself like, found 'e missed is 'ome village. 'E 'ad enuff coin like fer 'is last years, so 'e came 'ome sudden like, wiv a pocketful of extra coin like, from the sale of 'is business to that youngster. 'E's a bit lost, troof ter tell, and would welcome like a small change in 'is routines.”

“And what do you do, Goodman Dartrook?”

“I'm a local woodman like Yer 'Onour. Gotta recent contrack ter build houses and rooms around 'ere like. Me an' this lot 'ere. I fells the trees, these two trim and plane 'em, 'e builds wiv 'em, although we all do a bit of everyfink like.”

“Ah! Very good. I thank you all. Goodman Dartrook, if it wouldn't be too much trouble, I should be delighted to talk with your uncle. If he is unable to come tonight, perchance he could come on the morrow. But it would have to be early, for I am very busy. Would the first bell be too soon?”

Goodman Dartrook laughed.

“Maker, Yer 'Onour, 'e's bin getting up before dawn for 'is last thirty odd years like. I dare say that the first bell would give 'im a lie-in like.”

“And what might I call him, if I meet with him?”

“Oh! Sorry like, Yer 'Onour. Tolltak is 'is name, And he done 'is Mastership like, always were the brainy one in famly.”

“I thank you Goodman Dartrook. Mayhap you might go and enquire of Master Tolltak if he could spare the time to visit me? And let me buy a round for you and your friends there when you get back.”

“Most generous, Yer 'Onour. Most generous 'deed. I shall return as soon as I can, eiver wiv 'im or wiv a message, like.”

His companions all thanked the Captain as Dartrook took off as if he was in a race.

“Would any of you around happen to know where to find Master Leofer, or perchance Goodman Drom?” then asked the Captain of the room in general. My interest was piqued, for I knew these names - these men worked for Papa.

Possibly motivated by the thought of a free drink, no less than three of the locals leapt to their feet. The Captain selected the nearest one and said: “Would you mind fetching one or the other, saying that I send my compliments and would be grateful for a word or two at their earliest convenience?”

The man saluted, much to the approval of our Steward. He executed a precise about turn and marched, for that is the only word appropriate, out of the door to fulfil his errand. We could see that the Captain was interested in knowing more of the man's background. No doubt he would enquire upon the man's return.

The food arrived then, and not much conversation took place amidst the minor chaos of receiving the plates and so on. We, all those who had them, fetched out our forks from where they were rolled in the cloth napkins in our pockets. Epp slipped one across to Jogantha without too many people seeing.

And so we sat and ate, during which we had those separate conversations that the Captain had requested at the outset. Shemel was the middle one of the hand of people on our side of the table, and I was between him and Master Mesulkin to my right. Mohini was opposite his stepfather between his mother and Pomma, who was keeping Term to her right occupied.

Shemel and I and Epp spent a little while talking with the Captain mostly about 'Blackstone Wagons', our newly formed company. I made a suggestion based on something that Defan had said and they all thought it to be a good idea. We now would have a wagon based here at Brayview for local community use, like fetching that Miller up to better health care. The Captain strongly hinted that we have an office and depot here in the Brayview area sooner rather than later, but that message at that heartbeat got a little lost in the midst of our elation.

We had our first commission!

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