Julina of Blackstone - 073 - The Retreat

The Retreat gets underway in a hurry

Julina of Blackstone
Her Chronicles, Book 2

by Julia Phillips

073 – The Retreat


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 - 2017 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 - 2017 Penny Lane. All rights reserved.


Julina of Blackstone
Her Chronicles
073 – The Retreat

“What did you say?” Senidet's face was strangely contorted as she thrust it close to mine. Her extreme agitation making it certain that I could not ignore her and continue with my task of setting out the ingredients I needed for my cooking tasks.

I picked up a scrap of cloth and wiped my face free of her little splashes of spittle. I gazed levelly at her, one eyebrow raised in interrogation.

“When exactly are you talking about, Senidet?” I asked as I used one hand to gesture to Venket to close the door which was standing open after Senidet's abrupt and crashing entrance. An entrance that occurred less than a moment after she had left.

“Just now! Talking about weighing machines. And what happens to the pans.” Her face screwed up again. She spoke so quickly, she scarce paused for breath. “Do you have paper and a reedlet in here? I shall need one.”

“Calm down, m'dear. Don't carry on so. Yes, I have a reedlet or two and a pad or two for making notes of what has to change here. Can you keep your thoughts together while I go and get them? Would you like me to scribe your ideas or would you rather do it yourself?”

“Oh, if you could scribe, that would be wonderful. I need to keep moving about. I will just say key words at first, then I shall probably expand each one later. But I need to get the keywords down quickly, as each idea shoots into my head.”

Venket had by then anticipated and was fetching the implements even as we spoke.

There was a silence for a little moment, maybe two, as I cleaned off my hands and cleared a space upon which I could write. Even though she was watching me settle in, she started speaking almost before I was ready.

“Dam. That's a new Dam. Hissi – that's h-i-s-s-i – for the lookout. Metal wire. Balances. Adjustments. ...”

And so it went on for many more words that I dutifully scrawled on the piece of paper.

Her flow of ideas eventually dried up and she almost snatched the piece of paper from me, before turning smartly on her heel and marching back towards the door. She stopped suddenly, turned back , strode across to me once more and kissed my cheek, saying: “You have, I deem, done Palarand an immense service today.” With that she swept out again.

Venket and I looked at each other and shrugged. We went back to our preparations for the evening meal.

This was the first full day of 'testing' the Retreat.

I had been busy in the extreme the day before, and even more so on the afternoon before that.

After discussions with Kelly, I was able to take Venket downvalley with me, we both judging that the Salon could survive the six or so days without either her or me. I had chosen her specifically, not just for her kitchen skills, but also because I could also take her mother, Darna, to act as housekeeper for our time down there. I strongly suspected, which was borne out by the actual events, that setting up the operation and doing the same in the kitchens as well as supervising there would mean that I would not have time to do the housekeeper duties as well. At least, not do them to the standards I would insist upon.

There were to be quite a few people down there. In all, at the Retreat, which was to be a supposedly quiet place, we were a total of some twenty, sometimes even twenty two, people!

There were the three couples 'enjoying' their delayed Vayterkans – The Count and Countess, the Commander and Jenet and finally Tedenis and Senidet, the Prince having added these last two at the last moment. There were six guards other than Ted, two of them the pair of female guards, Gowdet and Tanita. The four male guards were Brijay, Jorden, Mon and Teol.

Then there were the two maids, Tandra, maid to Countess Merizel, and Maid Molly, Senidet's.

Those were the six 'guests' and their necessary associates, making 14 people in all.

As 'staff'', as mentioned previously, I had, under me, Venket in the kitchen, and Darna as Housekeeper. I also had thirteen-year-old Dilla here, having sent Nutel down to fetch her from Bezlet, with Venket and Darna of course. Nutel and Surtree rounded off the 'team'.

As regards little Dilla, then I had remembered Pachet telling me of the willingness to learn stated by the daughters of her friend and associate in Bezlet, and I therefore sent the wagon off as soon as we had taken stock of the supplies and equipment in the Retreat – this took us no time at all as there was absolutely nothing other than an adequate supply of burnables, but then we hastily unloaded the wagon that it could get to Bezlet as fast as possible. Skanik, Ponstib, Surtree and I worked up quite a sweat I can tell you.

Oh dear, I seem to be reaching a little ahead of myself, so let me skip backwards quickly from here to just after the Prince had given me this assignment, just after I had dashed to Kelly and discussed matters with her.

My mental facilities had been restored by the shock of the Prince himself singling me out, and all that had gone on with his explanation, so I knew I had to rush around that afternoon preparing. I had mentally counted four guests, six guards, two maids and four staff, making 16 plus a driver or two making eighteen, so I decided to allow for twenty, and add even more plates and things to allow for breakages. Had I known then that there would be two more guests and so on, then I would have allowed for a full two dozen. As it happened we just squeezed through.

I also had to assume the worst, that there would be no equipment down there (and so indeed it proved), so we would have to transport it all ourselves. I immediately sent Surtree to Kulyer, to tell him I would need a wagon and driver for nearly a week from dawn the following day, to be in the courtyard at Em's for then.

And then I began my list:

Faggots
Coke cigars
Coal
A small steam engine, if possible, lest we needed to pump water from the river
Pots
Pans
Knives
Skewers
Spoons and Ladles
Forks if possible
Plates
Bowls
Mugs
Goblets
Herbs
Flour
Foodstuffs
Bedding


It went on and on and on, it seemed.

In fact, so long was my final list that I began to think I would require two wagons to carry it all!

I spent that afternoon begging, borrowing and stealing (some from my own home!) as many of the various items I had identified as I could.

I also persuaded Pomma to be my companion on the ride down. She and another woman who could be her own companion for the ride back on the next day; Pomma would find someone. She would not be able to take the time to stay with us at The Retreat, which was lucky for me I guess, as I had no idea how many beds were going to be available.

I just hoped that there was an adequate supply of mattresses down there, otherwise I would have to try to get Uncle Steef at the Roadhouse to scrounge some up for us. My mind was racing – in such stark contrast to the funk I had been in the previous week or so.

It was welcome.

This is not to say that the funk was permanently banished – I still had occasional flashes and weeping sessions. And I still heard that awful bang and still saw that bone protruding from Jerk's leg. But I had a project now which mostly held the funk at bay.

One of the things I had done whilst totally in my funk was to give Bezan the letter from Bandarabbas, and that had proved to be a sensible move, for the Zeer operation had indeed been described in full and the uses of the various sands had been explained. They proved rapidly to be extremely efficient and we now knew that we could keep things in them for up to at least four days with no loss of quality, so the Salon had built up a goodly supply of sauces. Kelly was therefore happily (well actually NOT happily exactly, more resignedly) prepared to allow Venket to disappear for nearly a week.

I found it was a little more than just annoying that afternoon as I went round all my contacts asking for favours. I was trying to borrow as much stuff as I could. At first there was a hesitancy, but I quickly learnt that by dropping the Prince's name early on, things got noticeably easier. They wouldn't do it readily for me, whom they knew, but yet they would do it for someone they didn't know, who just happened to be a Prince (and who happened to sort of own the town).

It was I supposed quite understandable in its way – but 'twas still that little bit annoying.

Anyway, I managed to do what I could and was thankful that Venket and her mother agreed to join me. Surtree was pleased that he would be spending more time away from routine. But I wondered how long that would actually last, what with that which I foresaw as being enforced idleness in a remote location.

I also sent some semaphores, two of which were in relation to this latest task; and one of those two was to Brayview, asking for one of my company men there to either ride or drive themselves to Bezlet and ask Pachet for a 'volunteer' to come to the Retreat, a wagon would be sent to pick her (or maybe him) up from the inn there in the early afternoon. If no-one was available to take the message from Brayview personally, then the second best option was to send that message with a passing wagon that was going there, or at least going past there.

The second semaphore I sent was to the Roadhouse, alerting them to my foreseen requirements and for them to keep a few loaves to one side for us to pick up as we passed in the morning. Also for them to reserve a few of the slaughtered meat animals they might have, so that I at least had something solid to cook for the lot of us when we reached there. And also to let them know I was probably going to be shopping for supplies from them for those five days or so. Their response was most enthusiastic which pleased me. I shoved down the thought that mayhap Uncle Steef was pulling strings, and warmed myself with the thought they were happy to do business with me for myself and my virtues. This was no time for giving in to negativity (actually, no time is, in my opinion).

I laughed at myself then. For I knew that I would use the Steef connection as soon as it granted me some advantage!

I had been rushing around so much that afternoon, and the Salon evening was also quite busy, that I can scarce remember undressing for bed, certainly I cannot remember crawling between the sheets. I suppose 'twas lucky that I remembered to leave a note asking Swayga to rouse me, which she did with scarce enough time to even brush my hair before I had to dash off.

And so it was that I was at Em's courtyard just as an equally reluctant dawn dragged itself into the following morning. There I met with Surtree, two frayen, a wagon, a dranakh, a driver and two shivering females.

It took us maybe half a bell to load the wagon such that 'twas balanced to Nutel's satisfaction - and well before then any shivering had stopped. Surtree and I waved them off. I reminded them to make a quick call into the Roadhouse to pick up any supplies they may have put aside for us, but that by then, Surtree and I should have caught them up. Nutel knew that he was under a certain time pressure as he would probably have to get to the Retreat and then go to Bezlet and back from there. The advantage we had with that schedule was that it was all downhill to get to the Retreat.

Once the wagon had departed, Surtree and I went to report to the Prince (I confess to being surprised that he was awake and functioning so early) and to get any last moment commands. It was then that I was informed about the Anagrams joining the party too. We thrashed out a rough timetable for the day, culminating with the guests, along with their guards and maids, arriving for a later than normal evening meal. Skanik was with us when we made these plans and I was relieved to know that there were no less than three dozen mattresses in one of the protected storage spaces down there. I was not so relieved to know that there was virtually nothing else at all.

I returned home for a proper wash and a decent breakfast, and to pack a few more things I suddenly deemed necessary to help weigh poor Trumpa down.

And so it was almost in the mid-morning that Bezan, Skanik, Surtree and I eventually mounted our frayen and began the long chase after Nutel and his load. Joining us, for decency's sake, were also Pomma and Em - these social requirements dictated that I could not travel with three men and be unaccompanied; the two women would either spend the night at the Roadhouse, or return to Blackstone if we caught up with the wagon early enough, since there were two women on that wagon, Venket and Darna. All this ridiculous messing about for nothing, as far as I was concerned. As soon as we reached the Retreat, then I would be alone there with Surtree, so why couldn't I just ride down there as a single woman?

We left at the same time as did the pair of supply wagons organised by the Prince for the guests' belongings, all the people themselves choosing to ride frayen down. Their party would leave after us and linger a little during their descent. It had been agreed that the drivers of these supply wagons would also actually be accommodated at the Roadhouse, to ease the strain on the catering facilities (that is Venket and I) at the Retreat.

There were more than just the three men though. Captain Subrish and Quadrant Ponstib were going to use the trip downvalley as a training exercise for some of their men, they would escort the Countess' wagons down and spend the nights 'camping' in the forests down there, also conducting some 'exercises' that were obviously going to be kept secret.

They had the beginnings of a significant force now, some forty men in all and with the three that had accompanied the Captain and I down to Brayview, when I was on my way onwards to Tranidor, being the File Leaders.

You may recall His Honour's distaste of the word 'Militia'; this meant that the current name of this force was the 'Country Guards' but everyone knew that this too was an uncomfortable nomenclature. 'Twas only a while later that they all eventually settled upon 'Rangers' as the name. I will try to remember to change my nomenclature as appropriate, but please forgive me if I forget.

So it was that Subrish and his Quadrant had elected to come with our little party, claiming he needed to get a feel for the land so that he could set appropriate tasks. I was suspicious as to his actual motives, for how could an advantage of mere bells enable him to do all that he should?

So with excitement and just a little dread, I eventually left Town on my latest 'mission'.

… … …

“You WHAT?”

“Relax, dear Julina. It is triple wrapped and the original seal has been carefully inspected.”

“But … but … but ...”

“'Tis indeed perfectly safe!” said Bezan, adding his words to those of Subrish.

All my fears and dread and the funk I had been in and all the rest of my depression hit me hard.

All of a sudden.

Subrish had just told us that he had two barrels of the gun powder straddled across his beast's withers (a word that I had also just learnt in his statement – I had always called that part of the animal the 'neck') just hanging there and swaying in the breeze.

I had to stop, slip off Trumpa, run into the bushes and vomit. I was sweating, shaking, crying – and suddenly needed to empty my bladder and bowels too.

Pomma and Em held themselves back a little as I laboured, strained and voided myself. The men stayed at a distance, but I could still hear that they were talking to each other. Some were anyway, I wasn't sure I could detect four differing voices of the grown men, but frankly my concerns lay elsewhere.

I regret to report that I held up our onward travel by nigh-on half a bell.

'Twas Em who managed to get me going again when she said words to the effect: “Julina, sweetie, you have travelled in close proximity to your hated gunpowder for bells this morning already, and you were perfectly fine with that. It was only when you were told what was draped across his withers that you suddenly had problems. They, and I, have closely inspected the packages and I assure you that they are perfectly safe, that nothing can allow any form of spark or fire to get anywhere near the gunpowder itself. Just concentrate upon your tasks for this day and try to forget what you know. You were happy without such knowledge. All that has changed is your awareness. So it is in YOUR head that we now have this problem.

“Pomma and I would like to return to Blackstone today if we can, and you are keeping us away from our homes. Now buck up, swallow your irrational fears, and let's get on with it. Anyway, the gunpowder is with us only because they are going to test its suitability to help with mining the stone at the quarry, so Subrish was going to turn off our path, as was Bezan, very shortly to take the track to the quarry. I have sent them on ahead of us now and you need not have any fears, for they must be a mark or so away by now.”

I almost hated her then because she was right. I adjusted myself and my clothing and we set out once more, this time at an increased pace, one which the animals seemed to enjoy as well.

I must smile now when I remember that our pace meant that we all but caught up with Subrish and Bezan, and thus the gunpowder, before they turned aside.

And we caught up with our wagon as it was leaving the Roadhouse. We later learnt that they had observed us descending the track across the rock face and pulled out as we neared. Our party split up at that juncture. Pomma and Em popping into the Roadhouse for a comfort break before deciding whether or not to return to Blackstone (which is what they did, arriving just after dark!) Ponstib graciously agreed to accompany Surtree into the Roadhouse and then down to the Retreat, so Surtree could reassure them there that I was here and about and would want to come on the morrow to finalise the business trading. This informal arrangement was eased, perhaps, by my having Uncle Steef as my contact there.

I had to accompany the wagon of course, hampered as I was by the need to have a chaperone. And Skanik stayed with us to show us the way.

“See there. The two white-painted rocks to the left of the road! Across the road from them, you can see a pair of trees with the lower limbs trimmed on the sides that face each other. Drive between those trees and you shall see, after two casts, a track angling off to the left slightly. The track is made in the Michen mode.”

Nutel pulled the wagon off the road and between the trees. As Skanik had said, two casts further along the track became apparent.

“Master Skanik,” asked Nutel, “I were 'specting a rough ride there, from road to track, but 'tis solid and smooth. How comes that about?”

“We wish to not draw too much attention to a property that is effectively more empty than occupied. So we dug up the soil here and laid a solid bed of stone. We replaced some of the soil atop the bed, and planted some grasses there, thus creating a solid road which looks like untouched earth. When this venue gets busier, then ruts shall show the presence of traffic, so we have something that is easy to maintain the appearance of innocence, something we can rake over the tracks on, with nothing too much to draw the attention of most passers-by. Of course, by that time most shall know about it anyway, but for now we wish to keep it … quiet. It shall be different if we ever have some permanent residents there.”

Thus it was that we arrived at what was to be my home for the better part of the next week.

Ponstib and Surtree arrived soon after us, being able to travel so much faster than a wagon, and we all unloaded the wagon onto the ground outside the building. Nutel then mounted the box once more, Darna and Venket scrambling up onto the bench in the belly. They left then to go to Bezlet and to pick up whoever was waiting there. I hoped 'twould be someone we could train, but was prepared to accept anyone that could listen, take orders and work hard, male or female. As it happened, we were joined by a young female, Dilla.

But in the meantime, Skanik showed us round the collection of buildings, explaining the original Chivan design and what he had done to make the place habitable but along the guidelines of our Princess' wishes. I think we were all impressed and the vision that the Princess had had began to sink into our understanding.

As soon as Nutel had returned with the women, we began the organised chaos. I started it when I called everyone to me, Skanik and Ponstib included.

“And so our little adventure starts. Our guests shall be here in mere bells and we must get everything underway. There is much to do and I have no shame in pleading for assistance from everyone here present.

“Quadrant Ponstib, have you time to stay and help or must you be away? I deem that Mistress Darna here can make use of your muscles as well as your intelligence, as she allocates rooms to our guests and the guards and maids and so on. She may require advice from you specifically about the guards. Master Skanik must take her now and introduce her to this complicated set of buildings that she may understand what we have here. I must take Venket and Dilla immediately to the kitchens and get started there. Venket and Dilla, we will show you around at some other time, but we are under pressure right now.

“Surtree, once you have helped us take the supplies to the kitchens, then allow Darna to use you as she sees fit. By that time she should have learnt where everything is. If you have any spare moments, then find us in the kitchens in case WE have need of you.

“Darna, your first task is to learn where everything is, rooms, storage, everything - and then get started on warming the rooms should they be cold, and arranging for mattresses and bedding and the like, starting with the guests of course. If you do not have time to set ourselves up, then that is our bad luck. The guests MUST and DO come first in everything.

“Skanik, please show Mistress Darna as much as you can, as quickly as you can. I am hoping that you and Quadrant Ponstib can help Nutel here carry the awkward stuff that we women will find difficult. But I also know you have to return to the Roadhouse to guide the guests and their guards here. Please help as much as you can until you must away.”

Skanik replied swiftly: “Mistress Julina, Mistress Darna, I anticipated much of this, and you shall find supplies of burnables already in the kitchens and in the main rooms. I understand the need to show Mistress Darna everywhere first and will do so, but will say that there is a fairly obvious differentiation of staff rooms and guest rooms. I confess I had not considered the requirements for guards and their accommodation. Perchance Quadrant, you shall accompany us and then make your recommendations?

“But before I, we, go, I must issue one word of warning. By specific design, there is a bathing area for the women up amongst the waterfalls of the river. That water is cold. The force of the falls is fierce. Let no woman go bathing alone, make sure there is always someone available to sound the alarm should anything untoward occur. Her Highness specifically requested that this place be kept as near to nature as is possible, so there are no hot water facilities for bathing. There are no water pipes built in to transport any hot water. There is a small bathing tub that COULD be made ready for a warm bath, but that requires filling with hot water from the kitchens and carrying buckets and buckets and buckets, therefore should be used only in emergencies.

“Now, Quadrant, Mistress, let us be on our hurried way.”

I took Surtree, Venket and Dilla out to the wagon where Nutel was making himself useful by separating items into several piles, one of which I recognised as being destined for the kitchens. We loaded ourselves up with a first armful and/or handfuls and I led the way to where we would be working for most of our time down here. The ovens were already alight, I had done that while Nutel was away to Bezlet, and so we unloaded our arms onto one of the many excellent working surfaces that Skanik had supplied. I made a mental note to thank him for the inspiration. It took a few trips but soon all that was there was brought in.

Then came the sorting and storing, crockery here, cutlery there, bowls over there and so on.

Then we started cooking. I was proud that I had foreseen nearly everything. There were a small number of small things had slipped from my forethoughts, and one slightly larger.

It was this slightly larger thing that was to have such a dramatic effect.

… … …

“Welcome, Milord, Milady, Commander, Master, Mistresses. My name is Darna and I shall be your housekeeper during your stay here at the Retreat. If you have any questions, or require any help at all, then don't hesitate to ask. This lad is Surtree, he is our general help and I then present Nutel who is our wagoneer and animal man. He too is available for helping when his other duties permit. Mistress Julina I deem you all know. She is basically in charge of us all, but will have little time to spare from her speciality which is in the kitchens. Finally we have Mistress Julina's helpers there, my daughter Venket and young Dilla who is from the village of Bezlet which lies a few marks downvalley. She is here to both help and learn.”

Count Terinar bowed his head slightly, saying: “We are delighted to meet you Mistress Darna, and the rest of you. And thank you for your most friendly of welcomes. How do you suggest we proceed?”

“I deem you should all gather in the sitting room, Milord, ...”

I quickly and quietly said to the girls: “Pel and pastries! In the sitting room, please. And make enough for twenty, but serve for eight there! The guards will soon be round at the kitchen door for a mug or two, if I know anything about soldiers! And we ourselves could do with some fresh.”

“... where we may serve you some pel and pastries. From there, I deem 'twould be most sensible if I showed each individual couple to their room, thus avoiding a great group following me along the corridors. 'Twill also give the Commander a little time to dispose of his men for the moment. And Nutel, Surtree and your two drivers may unload the wagons and carry the items to where they are going.”

“A most excellent suggestion, Mistress.”

… … …

“I deem you have done an excellent job, Mistress Darna. Mayhap I would have had the maidservants share a room, but I'm sure both Molleena and Tandra shall enjoy having such a large room each.”

“I thank you for your praise, Mistress Jenet. If I may say so, I was surprised that you yourself have no maid. Had that been the case, then yes, Tandra and Molleena would have shared and yours would have had the other room.”

There was a brief silence as the Commander, the Count and their wives all looked at each other with raised eyebrows.

The Countess spoke: “Why 'tis true, Jenet! You too should have a maid. Why had that never occurred to us?”

The mistress in question blushed gently: “A maid having a maid? Whoever heard of such a thing?”

“You are a maid no longer, dearest! You are a freewoman who happens to be in charge of all the Princess' staff. Mistress Darna is right, you know,” the Commander said gently to his wife as he took her hand tenderly.

“We shall find you one when we return to Blackstone,” declared the Countess before turning to me. “Julina, that meal was far beyond anything we expected this eve. How on Anmar did you manage to produce such a fine dinner so soon after arriving here?”

And so we sat and chatted, the six guests, Darna and I. The two maids were in the background. At first, the Anagrams had continued to look uncomfortable and added little to the conversation with those they obviously considered were too far above them in rank. And Darna and I were also a little overawed to have been included. It made for a somewhat stilted conversation.

The Count eventually declared: “Look, all of us. We are here for four full days after this, five nights in all, and we shall all be in each others' pockets. Either we maintain a stiff and formal attitude, which won't help all of us to achieve the desired objective of actually taking a few days and relaxing, or we start with the relaxing now. I therefore suggest that we drop titles and so on for whilst we are here?”

There was almost a moment of further silence as each considered the matter. It started with a few shocked looks on some faces, but these cleared slowly. There came a few nods.

“I am Terinar. But this week please name me simply Terry.”

“And I am Merry, short for Merizel.”

“My name is Feteran.”

“Jenet.”

The four looked at the young couple, who answered with faint blushes, at the same time: “Tedenis”, “Senidet”.

Then they all looked at us.

“Julina.”

and finally, reluctantly, “Darna.”

Thus was established our relationship almost from the outset.

… … …

“Senidet? Have you a few moments spare for me? I have a small problem in the kitchen.”

“Ted? You were going with Terry and Feteran to walk the boundary of this Estate, as we termed it last night. I assume that that is still happening? And is still considered a 'men only' thing? I deem I might help Julina and then work on my diagrams and so on in your absence?”

“Indeed, my dear. We shall leave in half a bell.”

“Then I shall take my leave of you now and go with Julina.” They kissed and parted.

We entered the kitchen where Venket and Dilla were busy making the rich soup I had promised us all for our lunch. I had some bread in the oven and we had been laying out the start of our preparations for the dinner that night. Nutel and Surtree had gone off, Nutel riding Trumpa for the first time, to the Roadhouse for some extra supplies and to place an order for what we would need for the rest of our stay.

“Good morning, girls,” said Senidet as we went into the warm kitchen.

“Good morning, Mistress,” they chorused back.

Senidet turned to me.

“Right then. This is my problem. I forgot to add a set of kitchen scales to my list of equipment to bring down. The men have already gone off to the Roadhouse, so I can't get them to ask there if there is a spare. I made a crude thing here, with two leathern pouches at either end of a length of twine dangling over a sort of beam, but it is too cumbersome and I fear it might break. And the twine gets in the way of easily loading the pouches. Are you able to think of something a little more robust and generally better?”

“Hmmm. I see what you mean. Though 'twill be difficult without tools and materials. I shall have to scrounge about to see what I might use. How sturdy does it have to be? What sort of weights are we talking about? I like the idea of dangling over a beam … hmmm, now that is interesting, I had always considered scales to balance on a point. I had never considered dangling. But actually, now I think on't, 'tis the same principle as up at the Dam, one wagon descends and pulls another up as it does so. Now that could be imp...”

She broke off as Darna came in.

“Julina, may I borrow Dilla for half a bell? She and I and the maids can then swiftly make the beds and tidy up upstairs. Now that everyone is back from that rather cool um …. invigorating bath and are dressed, we have a short while in which to do the rooms.”

I checked by looking over to Venket and Dilla. With eye-speak they agreed and nodded to me. I turned to Darna: “Certainly. But I need her back as we have much to do here, and she is learning. So don't go keeping her for the whole morning!”

Darna laughed, waited whilst Dilla washed her hands and dried them, then the pair scurried off.

I turned back to Senidet whose brain was racing I could tell.

“We would need a matching pair of pans ...” she started “... and then sort out ...”

“Well no, actually. We just need one pan for the goods. The other side of the balance can be anything. I have sent Nutel and Surtree to the roadhouse with several leather pouches that they are going to fill with pebbles and get weighed. Then I have those known weights for the comparisons. Those leather pouches can be added to one end of the twine with hooks. It doesn't actually matter how heavy the carrying things are on either side as long as they balance each other. Then it just requires a small weight, small force if you like, to make one side dip or the other. So I can dangle something, anything on one side and have a pan or bucket or whatever the other side. As long as they balance. Then I add the leather pouch weights to one side and the goods I require, flour say, onto the carrier the other side. The two carriers on each side do not HAVE to be identical in looks, just in weight.”

“Let me go and have a look around to see what I might be able to use.”

“Thank you,” I said.

… … …

“What did you say?” Senidet's face was strangely contorted as she thrust it close to mine. Her extreme agitation making it certain that I could not ignore her and continue with my task of setting out the ingredients I needed for my cooking tasks.

I picked up a scrap of cloth and wiped my face free of her little splashes of spittle. I gazed levelly at her, one eyebrow raised in interrogation.

“When exactly are you talking about, Senidet?” I asked as I used one hand to gesture to Venket to close the door which was standing open after Senidet's abrupt and crashing entrance. An entrance that occurred less than a moment after she had left.

“Just now! Talking about weighing machines. And what happens to the pans.” Her face screwed up again. She spoke so quickly, she scarce paused for breath. “Do you have paper and a reedlet in here? I shall need one.”

“Calm down, m'dear. Don't carry on so. Yes, I have a reedlet or two and a pad or two for making notes of what has to change here. Can you keep your thoughts together while I go and get them? Would you like me to scribe your ideas or would you rather do it yourself?”

“Oh, if you could scribe, that would be wonderful. I need to keep moving about. I will just say key words at first, then I shall probably expand each one later. But I need to get the keywords down quickly, as each idea shoots into my head.”

Venket had by then anticipated and was fetching the implements as we spoke.

There was a silence for a little moment, maybe two, as I cleaned off my hands and cleared a space upon which I could write. Even though she was watching me settle in, she started speaking almost before I was ready.

“Dam. That's a new Dam. Hissi – that's h-i-s-s-i – for the lookout. Metal wire. Balances. Adjustments. ...”

And so it went on for many more words that I dutifully scrawled on the piece of paper.

Her flow of ideas eventually dried up and she almost snatched the piece of paper from me, before turning smartly on her heel and marching back towards the door. She stopped suddenly, turned back , strode across to me once more and kissed my cheek, saying: “You have, I deem, done Palarand an immense service today.” With that she swept out again.

Venket and I looked at each other and shrugged. We went back to our preparations for the evening meal.

… … …

And so the days passed.

Venket and I went once to the Roadhouse so I could make the arrangements properly in person. Venket accompanied me of course as I, annoyingly, could not go alone. I discussed many things, many aspects of the use of the Retreat with the managers at the Roadhouse and we came to what I considered to be several good deals.

The six guests learnt how to relax. Each evening we would gather together and discuss things that should be done to improve the Retreat, and then discuss our days, our lives, our hopes. I learnt much in those evenings, not the least of which was to develop a taste for a glass of good wine.

I learnt more of the Princess and her life. Some of her adventures since coming to Palarand.

I learned more of this new country to be formed called Ptuvilend, over which Terry was to rule on behalf of Palarand and alongside someone from Vardenale.

I learned more of the development of the 'Country Guards' (that is what they were being called then, you may recall).

I learned more of growing up in the Palace and of growing up in a small, relatively remote, barony.

They learned of life in a small community, high in the mountains, at the end of a road.

I had managed to give Senidet another idea to go and experiment with, and this was entirely by accident. I had some necklaces of wooden beads, and I was restringing them one afternoon when it occurred to me that maybe this could be a useful technique for her electrics isolation. I noticed that the fat beads prevented one strand from touching the other. Certainly, if she used beads, then feeding them into those pipes that went underground would be much easier than the cumbersomely long stick-things that she had used when I first had a demonstration from her.

Darna learnt much from Jenet with regard to arranging things for guests and so on.

Dilla, Venket and I were thanked by the guards for the quality of the meals they had been served, for which I was again thanked by the others in an evening session, by Feteran specifically on behalf of his men and women.

However, I must report that our informality was stopped during the last night for we had then two visitors, two extra guests who came to dinner and stayed the night. Fortunately, we had had advanced warning of this so it was no great hardship for us all.

These two were Skanik and Bezan and we gained much more knowledge that night, mostly from Master B.

“Mistress Julina, I must first bring up a subject about which I know you have no love. Gunpowder!”

Despite a grimace, I still managed to stick out my tongue at him, which in turn raised smiles all about. Yes, I realised at that moment, I had become more sensible about it. It was just the shock of having it so near and not knowing what it was that had set me off. Generally, I had come out of my funk as I had worked through the week, a result I now realised that everyone involved, from the Prince down, had been pushing me to achieve.

“So we have experimented with using the gunpowder to help with mining stone at the Strettalm quarry. There were mixed results really. Our first ...”

“May I interrupt, Master Bezan?” enquired Terry.

“Indeed, Milord.”

“I have heard of this other stone quarry, but am uncertain as to its exact location.”

“Milord, you will remember, when travelling upvalley, the diagonal climb across what we call the Rock Face? From the Forest Roadhouse at the bottom, going up diagonally across it, effectively from bottom left up to top right?”

“Aye, I deem I can just about recall that!”

Bezan suddenly rummaged through his carry bag, saying: “Hold!”

He then produced a painting he had done of the rock face.

Bray Valley Rock Face.jpg

I was intrigued as this was done from a different angle to the view with which I was familiar. In fact all of us was puzzling over it a little, so Bezan helped us out by marking on it roughly where the road ran.

Bray Valley Rock Face with route tracking.jpg

He used a red coloured reedlet-type thing which also intrigued me. I knew not that writing implements could come in colour. I started thinking of the use I could make of them in my lessons and …

“To the right is the mountain we call Strettalm. The road heaves itself up to the shoulder of the rock face just as it meets the flank of Strettalm. The road abruptly turns to the left there and runs straight as an arrow all the way to the Cistern at the top of Blackstone Town.”

“Well, that Strettalm we consider to be perched atop a column of rock that also plunges down to the main valley floor. A stream that comes down the mountain flows across a flattish plateau atop that rock column which is why we think of Strettalm as being up there, but really that rock column is also a part of it. We call the flattish area up there the foot of Strettalm, which really is wrong. But the stream emerges at that wrongly-called foot, diagonally across the mountain from where the road reaches it. It winds a little before it plunges over the other lip a little further down.”

We all looked intelligent but I'm sure I was not the only one whose eyes were glazing over.

“So when I call things as being at the foot of Strettalm, I am talking of the level that is also the top of the rock face. I am quite deliberately not talking about the level down at the Valley Floor, the level at which the Roadhouse has been built.”

Ah! Now, I understand. And I could see some of those others also understood.

“So, at the foot of Strettalm, we have the road on one side of the mountain, and the stream on the opposite side of it. Road on the west, stream on the east. The quarry is up against the valley wall to the north-east of Strettalm. Actually, I have a painting of that too. It's in here somewhere.”

He rummaged again in his carry bag, whistling softly to himself until suddenly he clicked his tongue and pulled out another sheet, which he placed on the table with a flourish.

Srettalm Stone Quarry.jpg

Yes, I thought, that is a stone quarry – but it is … messier somehow than I expected.

“Thank you Master Bezan. A great help to aid my comprehension.”

“Milord!”

There was a pause as he gathered his thoughts once more.

“Ah yes! The mixed success of using the gunpowder. The first attempt was spectacular. We produced a great pile of rubble. Several of the partially prepared slabs were destroyed and the channelling gone, much to the consternation of the workers who had spent time doing those tasks. Now they would have to start again. They would have to go all the way back to scratching the outline markings once more.

“The second attempt was a failure because we used too little gunpowder, or bored the hole for it too deep, or too far back from the face, or whatever.

“The third actually worked as we had hoped, but we found that the explosion weakened the edges of the slab too much and thus it had to be rejected, but could be used to make smaller slabs.

“We have proved however that this would be ideal for mining coal, and we next intend to try using it to blast clear a few restrictive passages; so we will widen the side canyon just above the Fish Farm and try to make a road up into the Vale from there which will relieve some of the traffic using the dam area.

“If that is successful, then I expect we could use it to make a way down from the Vale and into Ptuvilend itself, which would put Ptuvilend in far closer touch with Blackstone. But we need to determine if that is going to be a requirement.”

It was only then that I began to understand the benefits of this gunpowder stuff.

There were many other subjects covered during that talking session before bed and some of them shall appear in later ones of my reporting threads, but this one is really about the Retreat, the testing of which was at that time nearly over.

In the morning, our guests' transports arrived to pick up the baggages and so on, and I sent some of 'our' stuff back to the Roadhouse with those wagons. During the time there, I had arranged with the Roadhouse to have a permanent use of a storage cupboard and used bedding and household items would be sent to the Roadhouse for washing, drying and pressing before being stored in that cupboard which was dedicated to us. Someone at the Roadhouse would check regularly that all was in order in there. I had negotiated a price that was very fair, and I was sure that the Prince would agree with me.

Dilla's journey back to Bezlet was unexpectedly easily arranged. When the wagon pulled out onto the main road, there was another heading downvalley with some of the women from the Roadhouse going down to gawp at the developments there. So Dilla simply hopped up amongst them and joined them, her delightedly received coin buried deep in her carry bag. There were a few tears as she and Venket hugged, and some sniffles as she said goodbye to Darna and myself.

This meant that Nutel could leave in convoy with the guests wagons, carrying Darna and Venket of course, and all the rest of us could ride back in a large group.

We left Bezan and Skanik behind to secure everything and set out for home once more.

It was a most enjoyable ride, and we all must have looked extremely funny as we peered down the track to the Stone Quarry by Strettalm, down which there was nothing to see but trees, rocks and wagon ruts.

I confess I was glad to be back home, back to my comfortable room – and a warm bath!

… … …

To properly finish this thread, I should really report on the debriefing we had with the Prince. It took place in the Salon on the following day, after he had been delighted to observe the last of the lesson with the children and Countess Merizel and Master Horbelan.

Everyone came, including Darna and Venket, and we discussed the whole thing inside out and upside down. There were several suggestions for improvements and how to arrange things better next time. My renting of a storage cupboard at the Roadhouse was met with approval. Darna was complemented as was Venket and myself. And Dilla, even though she was many marks distant.

I think the thing that came out of it most was that there could only be either an informal atmosphere or a formal one. There could be no middle ground there. And it was pointed out that visitors should choose to mix with the staff or not. When they chose not, then there had to be a housekeeper or a butler as the interface between the two parties.

The arrangements we had come to with regard to the guards were thoroughly approved of, but with the note added that it was not expected that too many visitors would bring guards with them!

I felt I should openly praise Skanik for his work and did so, which made him pinken when he was applauded by all.

“And I must say I was surprised and delighted with the kitchen arrangements,” I continued. “Having so large an array of work surface was surely a stroke of genius.”

He burst out in loud laughter.

We all looked at him somewhat quizzically.

“Julina. That idea was your own. I took it from the designs YOU made for your Consociation!”

'Twas my turn to feel my cheeks redden again.

Thus we all agreed that the Retreat was a good idea and, as of now, a bookable venue, such bookings being handled by myself – as if I didn't have enough to do already. But we all knew that 'twould take time for the news of it to spread, and even longer to find persons wanting to use such facilities.

Once the meeting broke up, I wanted to go and have a look round town to see what had changed in the near-week I had been away, so I stepped out onto Main Street and headed uphill.

I met, almost immediately, yet another surprise.




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