Julina of Blackstone - 060 - Leaving Is Never Easy

A complicated departure

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Julina of Blackstone
Her Chronicles, Book 2

by Julia Phillips

060 – Leaving Is Never Easy


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 © 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
060 – Leaving Is Never Easy

“Maker, Julina, you do seem to get in some scrapes! 'Tis always thus whenever you are down here in Tranidor?” Pomma's note of amazement was amusing, or at least would have been if I had not been feeling somewhat grumpy. For what she said had a large degree of truth in it.

We were at that time talking together in our shared room as we made ready to go to bed. 'Twas quite relatively late because Subrish had amazed us with his story which he had indeed concluded after we had dealt with all the sudden and urgent dealings brought up by the unexpected visitors.

I shook my head with a fair degree of sadness as I was forced to agree with her about the scrapes I seem to get in every time I visited Tranidor. After more than a bell of those dealings with the authorities and sorting out all that had occurred, I was wishing for a day when things went smoothly for a change. Oh wouldn't it be nice?

But I already knew that the morrow would scarce be even near to that ideal; we were to depart in the morning to return home, a departure that would be even more miserable than usual, if Master Voysin's predictions were right about the weather. It had started to rain just about a bell or so before the time when Masters Jalmond and Ruckem had arrived. Not a hard rain, but a miserable, persistent, cold for the time of year, dreary light rain that dampened everything including people's spirits.

And, it appeared, thankfully as it transpired, dampening to any deliberate fire-layer's attempts to burn down a house.

But at least Master Jalmond had parted with a smile on his face, something that was noticeably absent when our discussions had started with him making a statement directly to me: “I deem you make my Watch's duties more onerous each time you arrive in my town, Mistress Julina!” had been his opening remark, and the one that appeared to have stuck most firmly in Pomma's mind. “We had some trouble this evening in Junction Square and we thought that once we had solved that, we would have a quiet evening. Apparently not.

“And I believe I heard the words 'Mistress Julina' mentioned up there too. But before going there, young lady, what is your connection with this Trooger who tried to set a fire and was thwarted only by the weather? It seems he is incensed about something, so much so that he was prepared to risk a hanging offence. How exactly are you involved, Mistress Julina? And I will have just you speaking for now, I would prefer,” he concluded as he glared round at everyone else present.

“There was a wagoneer named Jafferkin who lived in the Lane of the Inner Ramparts ...” I began. He held up his hand to stop me. But this simple gesture was somehow more friendly than it could have appeared, more friendly than his demeanour had so far been.

He nodded as he said: “Alas, poor Jafferkin, I knew him well. I had indeed heard that he went to his pyre. Oh!” he suddenly paused. “I deem that I begin to gain some understanding. Was that up in Blackstone, then? And he was a friend there?”

“Indeed, Master Jalmond. But not quite a friend exactly. Well yes, a friend, but in a different way. You see, Mistress Megrozen employed him whenever possible to convey her guests that she regularly invited, that is the invitations were regular, the guests less so ...”

The entire story came out from my lips and was confirmed by those around when Master Jalmond questioned further. I confess I was a trifle put out when it appeared that Master Ruckem's word was taken to be more valuable than mine, or anyone else's apparently. But, upon reflection, that was a little unreasonable really; after all, I was counted fairly as a stranger in that I didn't permanently live here in Tranidor.

(However, I confess I derived much pleasure when Master Jalmond was so very surprised to find that I actually owned a house here.)

When the others confirmed the activities of the neighbours in the 'showdown' with Trooger, I swear I saw a smile cross his, Jalmond's, face, swiftly smothered.

We later learnt from Master Jalmond that actually Trooger was being quietly investigated by some of his staff, in such a way that no suspicion was aroused. Now that Trooger had been caught trying to set a fire, there was no doubt that the man was to be executed and that the Count would never prove to be merciful. The evidence was not gainsayable, and he had already confessed to the Count's senior official, who was involved immediately there had been a threat to the Town. I venture to suggest that Master Jalmond was finally satisfied with our report and appreciated that I was in many ways an innocent when it came to Trooger and his behaviour; although I did receive a little telling off when it came to the staged meeting we had run in Jaffy's old house.

But then I was shocked, as I believe the others were as well. Master Jalmond introduced a completely unrelated topic, one I had never imagined he would raise after the previous topic had been concluded. He had, to be fair, briefly mentioned it earlier, but we had all forgotten about that after the long Trooger tale.

Master Jalmond turned back to me and addressed me specifically once more: “Pray tell me, Mistress Julina, what you might know about a company called 'Bat Bacs'. Was it indeed your name that I heard earlier in connection with this?”

“I suspect, Master Jalmond, that 'twas indeed my name you heard, for I am in a partnership with Master Tanon's company to run the 'Bacs' – Master Rohid is the director down here in Tranidor and I shall be the equivalent up in Blackstone. It is a company that shall have representation in both towns. The very name of the company reflects the two towns. The 'Bat' part of 'Bat Bacs' is short for 'Blackstone and Tranidor'. But I am at a loss to understand why my name should have been mentioned at all.”

“Do I glean from this that it was another of your ideas, the whole bacs thing, whatever a bac or bacs is?”

“The 'Bacs' part stands for 'Beck and Call' as the carts are there at the beck and call of the customers. And 'twas indeed my idea, one that Master Rohid found sufficiently tempting to set up a joint company. Master Ruckem here was with us as we drew up the company documents and formed the operation. But, I repeat, I understand not why you were involved sufficiently for my name to be mentioned to you?”

“There was a series of altercations at Junction Square this evening. Physical altercations. It, they, was/were resolved temporarily, but a solution must be found before tomorrow's evening scurry period. The carters from Master Tanon's took exception to independent carters turning up and taking some of the business away. Blows were exchanged and my men were called. Three carts were destroyed. Healers were called for a few limbs were broken and several other men will have headaches come the morrow. Then the customers started to get angry and there was suddenly a great danger of it all developing into a full-scale riot.”

“But that is surely impossible! We only did a test run with some bacs last night for the first time!”

“There has been talk about nothing else all day, throughout the town. Everyone approves of the idea and seem to be kicking themselves that they have not thought of the idea themselves. I include myself in that category! It's like the very idea caught fire and the town is now in flames – but only verbal ones rather than that which Trooger attempted. An allowable fire, if you wish to term it so. But nevertheless, a fire. One that threatens a potential disaster.”

“But that seems ...”

He held a hand up to interrupt me. “I deem that the Count himself is going to get involved. At least that is how I interpret it. One of his functionaries came trotting down to my office just as I was brought out to deal with Trooger. He was upset I had no time for him.”

“Pah! The Count!” I exclaimed. “He first tried to claim that the wenders were HIS idea. I expect he will try the same thing now with the bacs. Or at least try to make some more coin from them, now he knows that they … HOLD!”

This last had come out far louder than I intended it to. I had suddenly thought of a solution to the problem as Jalmond had described and one that would also most likely bring the Count to approve of the operation. I turned quickly to Ruckem and said: “Can we persuade the Count that bac operations require a licence from him? That way he receives coin from the operation, and only licensed operators would have the right to operate, ending any arguments about who could do so!”

“You never cease to amaze me, Mistress Julina, with your thinking. This is a most excellent idea, I shall get on with it immediately, as long that is as Master Jalmond requires no more from me; or perchance better said that he requires me no more to bear any further witness to the fact that all here present are innocent of any wrongdoing?”

“Go, man, go – it is an elegant solution, and shall allay much trouble. The sooner 'tis done, the better. At least get a message to the Castle before everything shuts for the night. Although she seems to stir up things, I find I am somewhat reluctantly indebted to Mistress Julina for finding such a solution so quickly.”

Ruckem garbled his farewells as quickly as humanly possible, and was almost running as he went out of the door, calling loudly for his private cart and carter. His personal bac, I suppose it might be deemed.

The Watch Captain then began to take his own leave, less hurriedly: “I deem that I understand now all that has passed, and shall take my leave of you all. I gather that you are leaving for Blackstone again, Mistress Julina, on the morrow. Mayhap the Town shall settle down once more into its more normal peaceful ways.”

“Master Jalmond, I shall send a semaphore before I set out for Tranidor in the future – perchance you shall have time to build some more cells before I get here for the journey is usually two or three days in duration.”

At last Master Jalmond laughed for the first time that evening: “So be it, Mistress Julina. I hope you shall never require to rush down here, our cell building expertise could not cope with a rush demand!”

He donned his rain wear in the porch by the front door after calling for his man to bring his cart round to the front. We all waved him off before retreating into the house once more.

We gathered once more in the family room, where the girls furnished us with our beverages before retiring for the night.

I for one was anxious to hear the conclusion of Subrish's tale, if only to be able to listen rather than be interrogated about my activities!

… … …

“... fought hard and indeed bravely, but we were no match for the numbers that Yod threw at us, unprecedentedly focussed just on our littoral, and, as it transpired, upon our stronghold. We fought whilst retreating up the steep road to the Fort, always hoping that reinforcements would appear from across the river. I later discovered that there were no forces there to come to our aid; they had all gone to the standard mass points ready to dash across the river into Ferenis to sustain the Ferens in their own land. The form of this Yodan attack had taken us all by surprise. As had their clothing and weaponry. But in war, you quickly learn to adapt. If you do not, you die.

“By now we had developed a method, admittedly not wonderfully effective, to minimise the effects of those gun things, but that meant we could not form more solid defence lines and were driven ever back, sustaining losses as we went. I was organising my men, using the known cover points and I daresay causing the enemy some great inconvenience, when I was struck on the head by a chip, blasted off the top of my covering rock by one of those wretched guns.”

His tone changed into one of considerably more gravity than he had hitherto shown.

“I am today only here because of one of my lads and his quick thinking; quick thinking even as he was sorely, nay grievously, wounded. He got his colleagues to swap his tunic for mine. He had seen that the Yodans were killing officers, you see, any officers they came across, presumably because they felt the common soldier was less effective without orders from above. Anyway, he knew he would not recover, so he got them to swap the tunics. I was instantly demoted to Guardsman and he was instantly promoted to Quadrant.

“I was taken as a prisoner to the fort when it eventually fell. Several of us were then utilised as the occupying forces' slaves. Which saved our lives, for, as mentioned, the Yodan officers were a hard bunch and forced their men to kill any captured officers and to herd most of the others away, presumably to be used as virtual slaves back in Yod itself.”

We all gasped at the inhumanity of it.

“I never did manage to find out the name of the man who saved me, and I must freely confess that weighs heavily upon me. Very heavily indeed.”

We could all see tears in his eyes as he took a deep and shuddering breath, gathering himself together before he continued. He gulped a bit before carrying on; continuing in what started out as a forcing of himself to adopt a more gentle, normal tone.

“The rains came, and we saw little of anything for weeks, months. I will not describe events within the stronghold itself, but I shall just tell you how we were rescued. But 'tis complicated, so please bear with me.

“One day I was doing my chore of emptying the rubbish from the fort onto the great pile on the landward side. The Yodans didn't care too much about maintaining standards and so our back door, if you like, had become a waste dump. By this time, the Yodans had become complacent. They had studied the terrain behind the fort, perched high up atop a jutting promontory that broke into the Great Valley from the shoulder level ...”

“Excuse me for breaking in,” said Pomma at this point, “but I understand not what you mean about shoulder levels and the like.”

Subrish then patiently drew both reedlet pictures on some paper and also word pictures in our heads as he described the Great Valley, its steep sides which then become less steep in the 'Uplands' as he termed them. He was so descriptive that we could almost see a picture of the fort, the jutting promontory, the mighty river, the sprawling town far down there on the valley floor. The winding road that was the only access to the fort, its curves, its hollows as it climbed up the flank of the valley to reach the stronghold itself, which gave, on a clear day, a striking view all along the Great Valley and even across it to the far side, some sixty marks distant!

This break, this change in emphasis, were sufficient to enable Subrish to regain his more normal, more cheerful attitudes.

“The Yodans, as I have previously said, had become complacent and had posted only a hand of sentries on the landward side of the fort, something that I must claim we Forgulanders would never have done. They hadn't even sent out patrols on that side to learn the terrain! And they rotated their troops regularly so that there was no-one who stayed, allowing no possibility of anyone being present with an intimate knowledge of what lay up there, to that side. As far as they were concerned, that side was defended by some straggly trees, some hollows, rocks, scrub and so on. They deemed that to take the fort would require an army, and no army could advance across that terrain in sufficient numbers, without being seen from a distance. Particularly not in the depths of the winter.

“But as I said, I was a slave in the castle. I was forced to do jobs that none of them wished to do themselves. Just like my fellow prisoners. But that allowed us to roam around, observing their habits, their dispositions and the like. We were almost invisible to them, being persons of no real value. If ever challenged, we could claim that someone else, somewhere else, had detailed us to go and do some chore or other. Towards the end, it was almost as if we had free run of the place.

“One of my duties was to empty the 'gash', as we termed it, out onto the pile at the back of the castle. My training over the years had been such that my eyes always went automatically to the places I knew would afford some observers some cover. Remember, we Forgulanders regularly patrolled around that side, so I had a fairly accurate mental picture of the terrain round about.

“That day, the skies were snow-laden, threatening to dump a snowfall on us at any moment, when my breath caught. I have had much time to reflect upon it since, but there were many tiny little indicators to me, all of which added up in my head, without conscious evaluation. Some avian activity, strange for that time of day; a brief flash of light reflecting from something; was that a cloud of breath there on the cold air? And all these indicators were coming from those spots I knew would be used by observers. There were people out there, and they were watching us! Hope surged in my breast and I tried hard to use my walk back to the fort to indicate to those unknown observers the weak points.

“When I got back inside, as soon as I had a chance, I quietly told my two most trusted fellow prisoners what I believed and for them to be prepared to hinder the defenders in any way we could, once any fighting started. I emphasised that I was not absolutely sure, but for them to be prepared.

“Not that night, but the next, the snow let go, almost as if the bottoms of the clouds had been rent asunder! My heart sank, for that meant that anyone approaching the fort from the rear would leave tracks that would be far too visible. They would have no chance of any surprise.

“But I should have reasoned that anyone who was in any position to attack the fort, would have travelled cross-country and be used to snow by then.

“'Twas in the middle of the night that there was a commotion outside; the sentries at the back called down that huge beasts were scavenging round our vast gash pile. They loosed a few bolts and the beasts gave a great cry and moved off back into the gloom from which they had appeared.

“Things settled down again.

“Then came a shock, for we heard women screaming from that direction.

“A small group appeared at the foot of the wall. In accented language, they claimed the beasts had attacked them and injured the lead herdsman who needed urgent attention from a healer. The Captain of the Yodan guard looked over the wall and down to where he saw the four people gathered at the foot of it, the larger figure with blood glistening brightly against the snow. I was standing close behind him, hidden in an alcove, when I heard him say: 'Let them in, kill the herdsman and we shall have three women to play with. I have not seen a woman, other than the cook here, for many a week now. Just the thing to cheer the troops up!' He turned away, fortunately the other way from me and I was able to slip away unnoticed. Well, I was noticed, but each thought someone else had summoned me, had commanded me to do whatever.

“I scurried down a second set of stairs, going as fast as I could, for I was certain I knew where the Captain would go now. I deemed I could be faster than he, with a bit of luck and no delays, if I hurried. And indeed I was. I managed, just, to intercept that Captain in a remote passage. I called out to him as I approached, my breathlessness seeming to be panic, asking some inane question about did he need bandages or whatever. He knew me as a bumbling slave so he had no fear of me. As I scurried towards him, I managed to trip over my own feet and went sprawling across the floor, managing further to take out his legs from under him. I was apologising loudly of course even as I staged the 'accident'. It worked out even better than I hoped, for his head struck the wall and knocked him silly. A quick look round told me that no-one was in sight, a swift blow, and the man was dead.

“So I called out loudly, in a really panicked voice, calling for soldiers to come and help. I explained that I had just come along this passage and found him. It looked like he had slipped in his hurry. And so on. My timing was right, for there then erupted a commotion from the lower levels. I realised that somehow the attackers had managed to persuade the women to help them, and that their attempt had been launched.

“And half the Yodans were up here, gathered around me! I needed to keep them here if possible, or away from the fuss downstairs so I told them I would go and get some bandages, that three of them should carry the Captain to his room, that two others should go with me and so on, all the while keeping up a panicked voice and so on. Fortunately, it never occurred to them that a bumbling slave was actually giving them orders for I had managed to unbalance them sufficiently. I knew the rank and file members of the troops were ordinary men like you and me, quite decent in their way, but their officers were hard and humourless, given to issuing peremptory demands and so on.

“They believed me. They were just doing what I had 'suggested' when I almost casually added that mayhap some two more should rush up to find the now senior man to allow him to take over command.

“Thus I managed to divert seven of the soldiers from facing whatever was going on down below, and managed to scramble their chain of command and delay any orders that might make things more difficult for the attackers.

“I shall not give details of the fighting, for it was hard and bloody. And I saw sights that will remain forever in my head. We started as absolute beginners, under pressure, afraid and where are we now? Having been so low, I can confirm I'd rather be high. We saw and heard things that I would rather unremember; sounds and visions that I would rather would simply slip away. In one way we felt we were just dirty boys, but on the next day another word could be used: Heroes. We had sorrow and fame. It was a little wonder, really, from which we can fashion a better future. Soon we shall all be swallowed up by the heat of the changes. That seems to be the plan. I shall not look back in anger.

“There are things that it is better not to know, you know! But now I do have to say something that will shock you all. Several somethings actually.

“Those women? The ones I thought the attackers would have persuaded to help them? Not at all. All three were actually soldiers! And the leader of all the attackers, their Captain, was a woman!

“Not only that, the other two women, not the leader, they were Palarandi soldiers! Palarandis there in the Feren uplands, in a Forguland fort.

“The rest of the party were all also Palarandi, technically, but were actually of other origins. The Captain was in fact Princess Eriana of Einnland, and the rest were her men, men who had travelled with her from their original homeland when the Princess ran away from her overbearing father, the King down there. Because they would be put to death if they returned, then they had all given their oaths to your King Robanar. Their land is one of snow and ice so they were most suited to a cross-country travel from inland to attack the fort from the rear.

“They had trained with Palarandi support, had learnt a new style of fighting from no less than your Royal Princess Garia, something they called martial arts, or unarmed combat, and they used those arts and surprise, and the tactic of splitting up the enemy into 'manageable' groups.

“Once one of the Yodans insulted one of the Einnlanders in an attempt to make him lose his temper. From that moment on, the Yodan was a dead man walking. They were ferocious. When that Einnlander met with the Yodan who had insulted him, he simply said, with a cheerful grin: 'I've been waiting for you!'

“The fort fell to them that very day, and their objective was achieved. I needed to signal to Forguland forces that the threat to our capital was removed, but Captain Eriana (she told me forcibly not to do any of this 'Highness' nor 'Princess' bit) asked me to hold off from doing so for a little while as she had had an idea.

“Over the next few days, she and I became very close and we used our great height to stare down into the valley floor, specifically into our Forguland littoral, plotting the downfall of the Yodan forces there. It would be a dangerous and very risky enterprise, but she persuaded me that she and her men and women could manage it, if I was to stay behind to signal Forguland and to hold the fort for them to retreat to if required. Without my guarding their back, they would not be able to do anything. She asked me for the support of myself and my men.

“I hesitated not at all. She explained that she wanted no contact with Forguland or Feren forces lest the Yodans were informed accidentally that the fort had fallen. If they knew that, then the new task Captain Eriana had determined would be rendered impossible.

“In those preparatory days I learned much from these soldiers, the Einnland Regiment they were called, and I believe I taught them much as well. 'Twas there that I first learnt the Tai Chi.

“And I don't mean I learnt just that and the languages, which incidentally I did for now I speak a little more than a smattering of Einnlander, but I learnt some soldiery things, taught them some too, as well as practices and habits in the Great Valley. Their country, and therefore their habits were, how shall I put it?; a little cruder than ours. They were in many ways quite child-like in their enthusiasms. But I learnt most of this after the fighting was all over. They have a great capacity for beers and ales, but once in their cups then they tend to feel things differently to us. For example, they deem that women are there just for them and so on. Keep clear of drunken Einnlanders is my very strong suggestion to you females.

“But their fighting! Maker, are they fierce!?

“Such a small band of them descended into the Valley, two, nay three, of them women – and yet they managed in the end to hold off hundreds of the Yodans and do great damage to their forces. Their exploits were entirely responsible for breaking Yod.

“Yes it took more work, in other places, and some new weapons to achieve the final solution, but the loss of the fort at Boldan's Rock swept the Yodan's base from under them, and hit their self-confidence hard.

“Hard fighting, hard fighting indeed. I wanted to contribute more than just watching from above, but they could only do what they were doing if they had the knowledge that they had a safe position to fall back upon. My duty was to provide them with that. It became a little easier as we gained more men, others the Yodans had used as slaves down in their docks and wharves.

“It was a close-run thing, that battle. Very close-run, I can tell you, but in the end she and they prevailed. They were very nearly overwhelmed by the Yodans; very, very nearly indeed. But then suddenly those Yodans could take no more, as Feren and Forguland forces finally got it together enough to take a hand and the Yodans were thrown back, all the way back to their own borders.

“As for me, Captain Eriana kindly made a complimentary report to my superiors and I was granted a temporary advancement to Acting Captain.

“After weeks of something they all now call debriefing, and dealing with the Einnlanders as we had become close, I was granted a four-month leave of absence and I determined to come here to see my dear sister for the first time in far too long.

“I strove to get here for the wedding, but delays held me back. Broken wagon wheels, loading and unloading of wagons taking longer than scheduled, sudden changes of route making us go a longer way round, not finding easy onward connections, and the like.

“And so am I here.”

There was a deep silence for two or three moments, maybe even more. 'Twas my sigh that seemed to break the mood.

Subrish was buried shortly thereafter.

I believe he enjoyed so many females all hugging him. Many a tear had to fall before we released him.

Not long after, we made our ways to our beds. Pomma was asleep a good while before myself; my mind was churning with thoughts of female soldiers, runaway princesses, great hairy men dressed in furs, and a town burning to the ground.

… … ...

The morning came far too soon for me – a morning after a night of disturbed dreams and much deep thought. I was thinking about Blackstone Wagons mostly, but also my other interests. I found myself concerned for some reason about the Salon. I was surprised to find that I missed the girls, all of them, new ones included. I had drifted off to sleep eventually, my next thoughts being that I wished the men of this household would be quieter when they got up and going in the mornings.

It was Pomma's giggle that eventually woke me; she and Karmanya were packing Pomma's stuff and trying to be quiet about it. I swung my legs out of bed and grumped my way to the toilet. The cool of the floors despatched any lingering sleep-tendrils and by the time I returned to the room to get dressed, I was ready to face this day.

When we all gathered to break our fasts, the others had been kind enough to wait for me, Epp whispered to me that she thought Subrish looked better today, as if his telling his tale last night had released some weight from his shoulders. I observed him as best I could without making it obvious and I concurred with her. There was some indefinable improvement.

But soon, all too soon, we had to organise our day, a day which was to end up in Brayview for Pomma and I, along with several others from elsewhere. I had just started thinking about it all when there was a small commotion - at the back door this time.

Jogantha came in and announced: “An urchin had arrived with a message from a wagoneer named Kulyer. He has found a contract for carrying something off a barge that has to be delivered to Bezlet as soon as possible. He has to go to South Tranidor to pick it up. He will do this and then set out to Brayview to meet you all there this evening.”

“Thank you, Jogantha,” I said, for Shemel, as mentioned, had shot off somewhere earlier and therefore the message must be for me.

Shemel had left a message for me too. He was going to meet us at Pyor's.

I ran through a list, aloud so Epp and Pomma (and Subrish) could confirm that I had forgotten nothing of all the little tasks still to do here in the South Point Mansion before we could leave. No-one added anything, so I deem I managed to remember everything relevant.

We got on with those tasks then, Epp and Subrish helping where they could.

Pomma and I had just brought all our stuff down to the entrance hall and were busy making our farewells to the residents and staff still there, when Plostrum arrived with his cart to take us up to Pyor's. He was slightly put out when I laughed before thanking him: “Oh good morrow, Plostrum, I apologise for laughing, but I assure you I was not doing so AT you, just at the situation we find ourselves in.

“I am grateful to you indeed, for we may send our baggages with you, which will keep them dryer from this dreadful drizzle that we would have otherwise managed. But Mistress Pomma and myself shall ride our frayen up to Master Rader's empire and meet you at Pyor's shed. We have one call to make on our way there, so if you go directly, you shall have less time in the wet!”

His face was a picture, as much of it as we could see through the wet-weather clothing. His tones said plenty to us though. “Ride! Yes. If you say so, Mistresses.” Those tones told us he was fundamentally shocked, and also disapproving. I don't think it was because of us going out in the rain!

Once he had gone off again with our meagre belongings, we women all burst out laughing. He was obviously shocked that we would choose to do so, perchance even shocked that we knew how to and indeed that we were allowed to. We could picture him shaking his head and muttering: 'Women riding! Whatever next?'

It took us both a short while to don our protective wear and then we left, walking down the side alley to the stabling, where our mounts were waiting expectantly, the stable lad having saddled them before we got there. The lad was experienced enough now with the 'new' saddles to have put them on the right way round, and to adjust the stirrups to their proper lengths.

Trumpa snort-snickered into my hand when I got there. I didn't see, but the noises suggested to me that Wiget had done the same to Pomma. A few nibbles were given to the animals, at which I could swear they almost chuckled, and then we rode out, heading first for Tapio's. Both the animals and we shuddered a little as we went out into that most uncomfortable weather.

“Oh Pomma! I just realised! With these low clouds then the semaphore won't be able to work. It has probably been unusable for the past few days too, since we have had cloud cover for a while now. I hope that it shall not be like this all the way, for it is most miserable, most miserable indeed.”

“I agree, Julina. This is not the most comfortable I have ever been. Indeed I would say that I have never been so uncomfortable whilst riding.” She leaned forward and stroked Wiget's neck, but I wondered if the animal could even feel her hand as she was so gentle, and frayen have a thick and tough hide. “Poor Wiget, this is not nice is it?”

A jerk of Wiget's head just at that moment made me wonder yet again if our animals could actually understand us.

I must say that the four of us seemed to settle into a shared huddle of misery as we progressed. We wound our way in silence from then on, noticing that the streets were just about deserted, up to Tapio's, where I'm sure I could feel the relief of Trumpa and Wiget as we drew to a halt under the generous overhang Tapio had outside his front door.

I had intended to just spend a few heartbeats there, to let Tapio know that Nayet had agreed to the change of location, but in the end we dismounted, removed our wet weather protection and spent about half a bell in there, clarifying and confirming many different points. Tapio gave me another letter for Papa and Pocular.

And Bormio made a special point of presenting me with an extra Beam Lantern, saying that Tapio had told him that I had done him another huge favour, but he knew not what. He also presented both Pomma and I with a hand mirror each, stating that these were the first two that he himself had made. He had a wry grin as he said that, and we were almost embarrassed by this little episode. I would actually have wanted to stay a little longer, but the two men both said they understood that we had to dash away. It would not do for me to keep everyone at Pyor's waiting any longer.

We struggled back into the wet weather clothing and mounted our beasts once more. They had been kept under that sloping roof outside, loosely tied to a railing there for just that purpose, so they weren't waiting for us out in the miserable weather.

It didn't take us more than a hand of moments to wend our way across to Master Rader's; once there, we halted briefly under the arch of the portal which guarded his little Empire, where we could identify ourselves and gain an access permission. The gateman recognised us swiftly, once we pushed back the hoods of our cloaks, but he too was surprised to see that we were mounted. He said nothing though, he waved us simply on our way.

“Oh when shall these men accept that women can ride?” I grumped to Pomma as we crossed the vast courtyard. It seemed so much bigger today, now we were being rained upon.

“Megrozen mentioned that it was not uncommon now in Palarand itself, that people there didn't seem to notice so much, so maybe 'tis but a question of time. I like to think that each time someone sees us doing so, then that is one more little tick towards getting them accustomed to it.”

“A good point, Pomma, we can but hope.”

With our protective clothing, there was little to suggest to anyone we passed, not that many were outside in that weather, that we were in any way unusual, but once we had ridden into Pyor's workshop, yes, that's right, into the workshop – for protection from the rain of course – then we caused a considerable consternation.

Again.

All of which, of course, wasted yet more time; time that was beginning to run out, I felt. We both sighed at the males being shocked, or at least surprised at us as we dismounted there inside the workshop in the dry. Then it was the shaking of the cloaks and hanging them up on pegs to one side, and twitching our skirts into place and all that, studiously ignoring the somewhat rude reaction of the men – Pyor, Quizzen and the apprentices were the most controlled, but Rabeez' eyes were almost on stalks.

But at least he didn't say anything, probably brought about when he realised that the others were accepting of it. I'm sure I heard a noise as his mouth snapped shut, but I was deliberately not looking at him any more, right then, at that very heartbeat.

I heard a bell announcement somewhere off in the near distance which made me realise that we had actually arrived at the shed a quarter of a bell before the time I had mentally scheduled. That pleased me somehow. Probably because I felt that my authority would have been undermined had I been late for this first company excursion, the moment the company first got under way, so as to speak.

I looked around, and the three beautifully painted wagons were ready to be hitched to our load-pulling beasts, whenever they might appear. Plostrum had been and gone it seemed for Pomma's and my few bags were already lashed to one of the smaller wagons, and several sacks had been loaded into the belly of the larger wagon.

However, our entrance, with the surprise of us riding on frayen, now gave rise to further speculation and debate; and possible slight changes to our immediate plans.

Our problem, the largest one that is, was the logistics of getting men and wagons to where they were needed. We had three wagons, one large and two small, that needed to travel today, and the three designated drivers were all here – Quizzen, Pyor and Rebeez.

But to pull the wagons, we had one dranakh, expected to be delivered any heartbeat now, and one pair of frayen.

Quizzen had determined that the dranakh would pull the larger wagon, with a small one attached behind it. The pair of frayen would then pull the final smaller wagon, but it would have to be a pair as one alone would tire too rapidly. And Quizzen had found a load for it as well.

Once we got to Brayview, then we might have to rearrange slightly, depending upon several factors that could come up when we get there. The large painted wagon and one of the small wagons were to go all the way upvalley, while the other of the smaller wagons could be left, loads permitting, at Brayview. You may remember that they had been painted slightly differently to reflect their 'home base', so the loads could be settled as required.

Quizzen was wondering if our two frayen, dear Trumpa and Wiget, could be used in harness for the other small wagon, since our way was mostly uphill and 'twould be better if the load could be spread out. Or we could earn some more coin with a larger load, if one could be found at such short notice. Actually Quizzen said he knew of one that was waiting, but it would be too much if the one wagon was needed to be towed by the other.

“I'm not at all sure that I would want poor Trumpa used as a load-pulling beast, she has been a ride-only animal ever since we have had her. And would that not be a little dangerous, does she not require some training or some knowledge of some commands or something? Do the animals have to walk in unison?”

“Well yes, I confess that most pulling frayen have had a little training, but if we put Trumpa with one of the trained ones, and Wiget with the other then we should be alright. At some point we shall have to carry in the timber with which to build our buildings at Brayview, and if we can transport some with us now, after all we ARE going there, then it makes sense to me, rather than travel with empty wagons. And look there, in that corner, there are some building timbers that are just awaiting.”

“I understand what you are saying,” I began, but feeling a little lost since I wanted my business partner to be there as well. I needed to make a decision in his absence though. “However, I don't think it wise to use two untrained does to pull a wagon, even if it is a small one. At some point, Master Shemel shall bring his wagon here to this shed to be painted. Once that has been done, then the wood can be shipped with that wagon up to Brayview. With better weather and longer bells of light, then he could probably do that all in one day, and get home for the evening.”

I confess I felt most gratified when they all nodded slowly. It appeared they thought I had just said something wise. Inwardly, I had been trembling but my reply appeared to have engendered some respect even.

I was about to continue, and very probably say something that was UNwise, when there was another interruption as the door opened to admit another newcomer – or newcomers, to be more exact.

Hedda, Saras and Booch were brought in. Hedda was the dranakh, Saras and Booch the two frayen.

“Beasts for Blackstone Wagons? Care of Pyor? We was directed 'ere, like,” said the leader of the trio of men, shaking rain off his clothing as he came into the shelter of the workshop. The animals came in and blinked as they too looked around. I smiled as each in turn, from left to right, shook themselves; the raindrops sparkled in the torchlight as they flew about.

Quizzen went over to the dranakh, gesturing to Pyor to check the frayen over whilst he did just that with the dranakh, and with Rabeez as well, for they two would be the regular drivers.

I was impressed with the seriousness and solemnity almost with which Quizzen went about this task. He stood fore square in front of the huge animal, staring rigidly at her, as she stared round at the others.

“Honourable Hedda,” he called - and the beast swung her head to look at him equally as directly, “I welcome you to your new team.” Rabeez then joined in; he also peered intently into her eyes. She appeared to do the same thing to them. Maybe even to both of them at the same time.

Quizzen spoke to her as if she were human, directly and without any fawning, but respectfully. Pomma and I were fascinated by the interchange, neither of us ever before having witnessed such a meeting.

“This is just the start place, your normal home shall be more upvalley, with wide open spaces for you to roam when not required, and many companions. Now, would you permit me to examine your legs that we may be certain you are sound, or discover anything that might require healing? This is my colleague Rabeez, who shall also from time to time be your companion. My name is Quizzen and the lad over there,” there was no mistaking the pride in his voice as he said the following, “is my son Pyor.”

Did I really see Hedda's eyes shift quickly in Pyor's direction? Surely not. I must ask Hedda ...

I gasped as I realised that he had been talking to a dranakh as though they were both equals, and I too had been treating her likewise.

Then I had reason to gasp again as he continued: “And this young lady is also important in our company. Her name is Julina. Now may I see your hind legs, starting with the off?”

He went round behind the huge animal and Pomma and I were amazed when Hedda raised her leg just as he and Rabeez got there. The action was repeated with the other hind leg, and again and again as the other legs were examined. The front near side leg showed a minor cut and Quizzen tenderly examined it.

“This will heal of itself, it is just a scratch and seems not to be inflamed. May I next examine your mouth?”

The beast opened her mouth and the two men examined her teeth and tongue. Quizzen bared his forearm and placed it into Hedda's mouth, even as Rabeez himself prepared his arm. I found myself drawn down there to also present my arm once Rabeez had done. Hedda's eyes widened slightly as she accepted mine and somehow I got the feeling that she now knew of my connection with Josten, but that must be impossible, so I shrugged it off. The whole thing was seeming more and more surreal to me.

Then the shed doors banged open once more. We all whirled round, watching Shemel as he entered; he was leading Deel, who was pulling a large empty wagon, but which itself was pulling a laden small wagon.

Protective cloak off, greetings all round, comments about the weather, saying farewells to the men who had brought the animals, all this took a good hand of moments before we could get back to making our decisions.

But this time, it started with Shemel making a brief explanation of the composition of his arrival.

“I have brought my large wagon for painting so it shall stay here. It occurred to me that we might have a pulling beast problem, so I thought that I could use Deel to pull two smaller wagons up to Brayview in tandem. One of the smaller wagons is scheduled to remain there, so I can simply leave it there, whilst the rest of you continue upvalley. I can then return with Deel and this smaller wagon I have hired for today and the morrow. We shall require some building timbers at Brayview so I have taken the chance presented to load the smaller wagon with wood we can use there. Deel can ...”

He broke off, making us all look at his dranakh. We all fell silent as Hedda and Deel snickered briefly at each other. I had the impression that Deel had recommended Shemel to Hedda, and by extension had recommended us as well. Certainly Hedda seemed a little less tense afterwards.

But this must all be fanciful imaginings, surely. How on Anmar can anyone know what is in a dranakh's brain?

“So we have the ladies' baggages to go all the way up to Blackstone. They can be on either the large wagon or a small wagon since both shall be based up there. The two small wagons that Deel shall pull can be loaded with wood and building supplies, certainly with the two large tarpaulins I have packed, to protect our wood from the elements, and maybe even to protect the small wagon.”

“And I have, as mentioned, sourced a load for Brayview,” interjected Quizzen. “I am told that it is a full wagon's load, so 'twould be best the ladies' baggages are on the small wagon. Indeed let's make one of the smaller wagons the baggage wagon for the entire party. The two frayen can pull that, and maybe three or four passengers … oh, no, that would be wrong – I suppose you ladies shall be riding all the way, then?” We nodded a confirmation, allowing him to continue, “so Pyor will drive the baggage wagon, Rabeez can take Hedda here with that large wagon, to be loaded up at the Shuttle Shed, I can travel with Shemel up to Brayview. Or I can drive the baggages, and Pyor can sit with Shemel. Kulyer will make his own way to Brayview. Any objections, anyone?”

Thus it was agreed, arranged and actioned; we set off accordingly.

… … …

We reached Junction Square and headed, in convoy, across to the Shuttle Shed where we had agreed to meet not only Master Rohid, for the load to be taken upvalley, but also Subrish that we might make our farewell to him too. It was difficult to maintain position in the convoy but we managed to push our way through. As we approached, I saw Master Ruckem there as well, and was that ..? Yes, Master Mallam. So I had some little expectation of what was about to occur, and indeed knew even then that the Bat Bacs agreements must needs amending.

Lest rain spoil the inkwork, I had to disrobe the protective cloak, and dry my hands, face and hair ends before signing a new agreement, with Pomma, still wearing her cloak, standing within earshot and able to say 'heard and witnessed' at the appropriate junctures. The good news though was that Bat Bacs had an exclusive licence to run bacs services in Tranidor, and we could determine who was hired to do so. I could have bought another house with the amount the Count had charged, but we both, Master Rohid and I, felt 'twould be worth it. And my contribution was only half that after all.

“Make sure that Master Jalmond knows about this, please, to prevent any repeats of last evening's embarrassments at the scurry time.”

“I shall do so immediately,” promised Rohid. “Now, let us get on with loading the wagon.”

Eventually, we were ready to leave. We all made sure we and the loads were protected with waxed cloaks or tarpaulins, as appropriate. Pomma was mounted and leading Trumpa as I sat next to Subrish, who wished me to point out various things to him, that he might add places to his knowledge of Tranidor.

“I also need to visit the Semaphore Station. I know that the weather has closed the system down for now, but I must needs send a message and desire that I leave it with them to be sent as soon as is possible. I shall accompany you as far as there, where I can hop off and you can remount. These new saddles are so much better do you not think? I find them ...”

We travelled companionably, chatting of this, that and the next thing as the little convoy formed up, forced its way through the surprisingly large crowds out in the dismal weather, and turned left towards the Bray Bridge.

“... and that there is the old Bormio establishment, into which Mistress Nayet shall move in a few ...”

“Hold Wagonmaster! Make way for your Prince and his party!”

I looked ahead and saw a soldier had halted Rabeez who was leading our procession. Other soldiers in the Count's colours were clearing a passage as a large procession was crossing the bridge, coming towards us. We jerked to a halt, whereupon Subrish got to his feet, standing on the wagon seat to gain some visual advantage. I myself was just a little slower, but was soon imitating him.

Subrish peered through the drizzle and suddenly said “I don't believe it.” He hesitated for a heartbeat or two and then dashed the hood from his head, standing bareheaded in that nasty rain. I definitely would not be imitating THAT behaviour.

I looked at the oncoming mass of people, finding it difficult to discern any particular person, covered as they all were with wet weather cloaks and deeply drawn down hoods. The first men passed us, obviously soldiers judging by their weapons and shields, and their constantly observing eyes looking everywhere at once. The very bearing of what was obviously a man in the third or fourth rank made me believe that this was the Prince himself. I had of course seen him up in Blackstone on his last visit. I deemed the man riding next to him I recognised as being the Commander of the Princess' guard, but again the outer coverings prevented a positive identification.

Wagons passed, more men, and then two covered carriages, covered because weather protection was lowered over most of the windows. I got the merest glimpse of female shapes through the narrow gaps round the blinders so I assumed I was disappointed in seeing the Princess. The next men were also mounted, but looked somehow larger than most of the others. Some of them had their hoods less lowered than the others, allowing more of their faces to show. The faces were fascinatingly framed by heavy beards and moustaches, and their eyes glistened in a very strange way, different somehow to any I had before seen.

One man seemed to have his eyes fixed on Subrish. I could tell that those eyes were not looking at me, but just to my right, where Epp's brother had drawn himself upright and rigid.

The man approached, still part of the cavalcade, without relinquishing his eye contact of my neighbour.

And then I was shocked down to my very core as Subrish used his Command Voice and issued a challenge, and an insult to one of the Prince's entourage: “Who do you think you're looking at, Jerk?”




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