Julina of Blackstone - 082 - Bunkhouse Blues

A day trip to Bezlet and back should surely be doable for a frayen rider?

Julina of Blackstone
Her Chronicles, Book 2

by Julia Phillips

082 – Bunkhouse Blues


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
082 – Bunkhouse Blues

I do believe that without the very early morning Tai Chi I performed, I would have found difficulties getting through this day. I had planned it all well in advance. ’Twas not that it went very much along the ways I had planned.

I had arranged some very early morning meetings (using the urchins directed by Surtree yesterday) and Epp and I also decided to go down to Bezlet, to bring some order to what was and would be going on down there. Davvy’s parents were prompt (and still noticeably enthusiastic) when they arrived as arranged at the Claw just after dawn. I explained then that Epp and I now had a matter to deal with ‘up here’, a matter that had cropped up after we had laid the plans to travel together beforehand. Before we could descend ourselves, we needed to stop at the ‘Bunkhouse’ but we would ride down soon after and would not require any place on one of the two wagons that we had arranged, one of which was to be filled by Davvy’s parents. Their frayen could happily be led downvalley tied to the wagon’s tailgate.

Davvy herself was torn, for she wanted to be with her parents when they arrived at their new place of home and work, and yet she felt duty-bound to stay with me to continue with that for which she was paid. In the end, I sent her off with her parents, but had her take a pair from the string of pack frayen that I had purchased from Sookie, for use mostly by my wagon company. (It still felt strange to both Sookie and I that no actual coin had exchanged hands, we just had Master Schild’s assurances that the appropriate ledgers would be minussed and plussed.) Anyhow, Epp and I added some stuff to the loads on their backs, stuff we deemed we would not require until we got to Bezlet later that afternoon, possibly even as late as that evening.

Epp would meet Shemel in Bezlet and I could still return to Blackstone, for Davvy would travel with me for that passage so all females were accompanied by either another or by her man.

We waved the family, the drivers, the wagons and the four hired wagon loaders who acted also as guards good-bye and then went into the Claw, where a busy breakfast room greeted us.

And the first of my hastily arranged meetings.

“Good morrow, Mistress Backet. You are alone?”

“Mistress Julina, Mistress Megrozen, Mistress Kellonika.”

We all looked at each other, we three, for Backet was quite short with us. I raised an eyebrow queryingly.

“’Tis too long, Mistresses, since that first interview we had. I have found employment elsewhere, as has my man. I have come today merely out of respect for the fact that you DID say there would a time to wait afore any of your vacancies would be filled. However, we are now settled and have no requirement from you!”

“I see, then I thank you for coming. I believe though that you had two children, if I recall?”

“’Tis so. Our son has upped and joined them ‘Ranger’ people now, so we have far less expenses with him.”

“And your daughter? I regret her name escapes me after these many weeks.”

“Frena? She might still be interested, I grant you.”

I looked at Kelly and eye-spoke with her. We both agreed.

“Would your Frena be interested in a learner’s position with the team who run the Salon?”

Suddenly, Backet’s eyes lost their hardness and came alive to such an extent that I realised her brusqueness had been because she had desperately needed employment far earlier than we could offer, and she was using that to mask her disappointment.

“She speaks of little else, actually Mistresses. She is friends with one the girls there, Brenna, who started the day the Prince arrived. Do you have some influence there too, Mistress Julina?”

“Very well. This is Mistress Kellonika, whom you know as a person, but mayhap not as the person who is in charge nowadays of most of the day-to-day running at the Salon. You should be made aware, Mistress Backet, that yes I do have some influence there. ’Tis MY establishment. I built it up, with help from friends such as Mistress Kellonika.”

Her mouth dropped open for a longish pause before she regained control of it and spoke: “Maker! I thought, I mean, the whole town thinks that ’tis Bailiss Michet’s. How can this be?”

“The house does indeed belong to the Bailiss, and she had the first idea but asked me to start the catering side for her. So all the rest was organised and done by me and my friends.”

“Well I never knew THAT!”

“There we go! Now Mistress Backet, an extra position has come along in our organisation, and I thought that you might fulfil that, along with your family; however, as you have found employment elsewhere, then I fully understand your circumstances. I thank you for coming this morning and am sorry we were unable to help you. However ...” again I glanced at Kelly and eye-spoke with her, “… if Frena wants to turn up at the Salon kitchen door on the morrow, at the ...” another glance to Kelly, “… third bell of the morning, then we will see if she has any aptitude for being trained therein.”

“Oh Mistress, she shall be thrilled when I tell her! Thank ’ee, thank ’ee indeed. I’m sure you shall have no regrets. She is a willing lass, and bright with it.”

“Remember ’tis Mistress Kellonika she has to impress in the first instance. She it is who shall decide if Frena stays or not.”

Bracket’s eyes switched to Kelly, who smiled encouragingly at her. “Thank ’ee then, Mistress Kellonika.”

Kelly’s answer was said with warmth, but was nevertheless a strong warning to the woman: “I hope she can cope with the hard work we shall thrust upon her. It shall be no game.”

Soon after, Backet took her leave and we had some moments, minutes even, to hastily snatch a breakfast before the next appointment arrived.

… … ...

“Good morrow, Mistress Ruet. And this is your man? And your two daughters?”

“Indeed,” she replied, looking nervously from me to Epp and back again. “May I introduce them to your Mistresses?” We hid our smiles at her awkwardness with titles.

Epp and I both nodded while Kelly sat back, keenly observant, but at the same time succeeding in remaining almost unnoticed.

Ruet started the conversation, nervously using her hand as she reached each person’s name: “This is Kallum, my man and father of Serena, my eldest, and of Balma, her sister here. Our son, Bertal, has joined the ‘Rangers’ as they are now called, so we three females are the sum of the burden Kallum here must bear.”

Her eyes twinkled despite her nervousness. We all three smiled back at the gentle joke. We could sense a lessening in her anxiety when we did that.

I did have one slight concern, though. Her man’s slight limp, which was plain as the group approached our table, caused me some problems in that which I was planning. I would have to find out about that.

She focussed her gaze upon Epp, who swiftly halted her before she had even spoken: “Nay I say, Mistress Ruet! ’Tis Julina here who is in charge of these conversations today. I am here merely to answer any questions you might have to confirm what Julina says, and Mistress Kellonika here is present to bear witness should it become necessary.”

The four pairs of eyes of my ‘guests’ along with all those of my companions swung round on me in anticipation.

“I recognise the girls from some of the lessons we have given. Have you, Mistress Ruet and Goodman Kallum also taken up Her Highness’ offer of an education, starting with reading and writing?”

They all looked at me worriedly. The girls nodded their agreement to indicate the positive reply whilst Ruet and Kallum looked troubled as they indicated the negative reply with some head shaking.

“Well it is not an absolute requirement, I just see that it shall be helpful to you. Maybe the girls could begin teaching you, if you feel deeply enough about it to start. But there are lessons available here and I really suggest most strongly that you consider it, and soon.

“Now, to the matter in hand. Some six or seven weeks past, you will remember that we had some interviews for positions in our company. So as to be totally clear, I shall reiterate that Mistress Megrozen here and I run an accommodation company called Meglina. Many of the buildings we own are being worked on at the moment and you will also recall that I said I would call some of the worthy applicants back when we knew more about the opening schedule of those buildings.”

She nodded, as did her man. The daughters kept quiet, though, so I suspected she hadn’t reported everything to her entire family.

“Now please correct me if I am wrong, but ’twas you, was it not, who suggested that she would be happier somewhat away from the increasing bustle up here in town, and yet not too far so as to allow your offspring access to the increasing activities that are going on?”

The daughters heads swivelled as one as they looked surprisedly at their mother. I knew from that that my surmise had been correct. And from the faint increase of colour in Ruet’s cheeks.

“Indeed, Mistress, that was, and remains so.”

The daughters just could not remain quiet. “You considered US even when you needed to earn some coin?”

“Once a mother, children, always a mother. I will always seek to protect you from danger, even when you are rude and surly to me and your father. I laugh at your occasional ways, for I know you shall remember them when you have children of your own. I shall then make sure that I remind you at each and every given opportunity! Now hush! Allow these good Mistresses to tell us what they wish, let us not take over this meeting with family matters.”

They shut their mouths rapidly, looked at each other with a certain amount of surprise and I could see they were rapidly reassessing their perceptions of their mother. I hid a grin as once again I found all four looking at me.

For some reason, it suddenly hit me to take a different approach to that which I had been planning, which had been to start out gently with all the little sweeteners I could think of. “What know you – any of you – of the ‘Bunkhouse’, as it is termed?”

The women in the family all looked blank, but Goodman Kallum reacted noticeably. I cocked an eyebrow at him.

“Mistress, should we be talking of this here?” He had hunched his shoulders, dropped his voice and leant forward as he said that, while his eyes also darted around. “Surely the operators of the Bunkhouse are in direct competition with those whom operate here?”

“Ah! Goodman Kallum, your answer tells me much about you. Before I answer you, may I enquire of you another thing? What do you do?”

“’Tis what I did in the past, Mistress, that is more to the point. I was once a wagon loader/guard, but was laid off after an accident damaged my right knee. The Healers say that now all I require is gradually increasing workloads to bring the leg back to strength, but the wagon companies are fearful to hire me until I can prove ’tis permanently better. How I can get the required workload without a job defeats my imagination at the moment.”

“Thank you,” I said, knowing full well that I could actually find him a job with Blackstone Wagons if it came down to it, “and now I shall answer your question. There appears to be a popular misconception running around that I will now attempt to clear up. THIS establishment, the Ptuvil’s Claw, is a public inn, open to all for food and drink, in exactly the same way as is the Bell across the road – however, the dormitories here are reserved first and foremost for employees of Master Tanon, others may stay the night if there is space. This is also the regional office for Master Tanon’s affairs.

“To explain the other, the Bunkhouse, I must first refer to a valuable food source – the Blackstone Fish Farm. When this was established, the farmhouse was left vacant by the farmers who departed downvalley, not believing that Blackstone would become quite so rich. We needed someone to supervise the Fish Farm and approached some local neighbours. They agreed to watch over the Fish Farm and took over the farmhouse, stating that ’twas more comfortable than their own house. Thus THEIR farmhouse was left empty.

“Then someone ...” (I deliberately didn’t mention any names at this point) “… had the bright idea of using it as a bunkhouse for those wagoneers who were prepared to leave early in order to get a little further down the road before day’s end. This actually saves many of them almost a day’s travel, as it happens.”

“How so, Mistress? A full day, that seems excessive to me, for the Bunkhouse is a mere three or four marks from here.”

“Actually, it is almost exactly three marks from here, if we really want to try to be exact. A little more from the Market Place, of course, and these fine margins make a big difference.”

I paused and looked around at those listening – all seemed to be alert to my words. Goodman Kallum though seemed to have already grasped what I was about to say.

“But what was happening was that most wagons were leaving from what is now the Market Place. Even though ’tis downhill all the way until just a few marks before the Chaarn Fork, wagons could not quite achieve Brayview in one day’s journey, so they would stop at the Forest Roadhouse, which was rebuilt last year at the Princess’ orders, in the traditional spot it had always been. But the Forest Roadhouse is again JUST too distant from Tranidor for a comfortable day’s journey. So most wagons – not all, though, by any means – would stop first at the Forest Roadhouse, then at Brayview and then get to Tranidor on their third day.

“By starting from the Bunkhouse, certain of the faster wagons could just make it to Brayview in one go – especially on the longer days like we have now. So you see, a whole day saved!”

“I had not considered that, Mistress,” said Ruet as her daughters nodded their heads too.

Even Epp and Kelly were a little surprised at my explanation. No, not surprised. Made to think, would probably be more accurate.

“And now, we have a burgeoning village at Bezlet, where there was nothing a year or so ago. Many wagons now can depart from Blackstone and make Bezlet as a normal day’s run. From Bezlet, Tranidor is just about in range. Which is why Meglina have been buying and developing establishments in Bezlet. Amongst some other considerations as well.

“Anyway, the upshot of all this is that, for the next few years, I see an increasing trade developing at the Bunkhouse. After all, ’tis not just the wagon drivers that must needs sleep there, more and more often the guards and loaders require a mattress too. The sleeping arrangements must be expanded very soon, which in turn will mean an increased number of breakfasts.

“Now Master Junker and Mistress Palma who currently run the Bunkhouse AND the Fish Farm, have told me they can’t cope with both. So Meglina have offered to buy the Bunkhouse from them ...” (this was not actually true at that point in time – Epp and I were about to go down there and do exactly that!) “… and Goodman Junker and his family shall give us their answer as soon as they may.

“So I would be looking for someone to run the Bunkhouse for Meglina. And I thought of YOU, Mistress Ruet …” (letting her have the impression she had been number one on my list) “… and your family. It seemed to me that it fulfils all your wishes. Regular paid employment for both yourself and your man, and also for your daughters – yes, they would be paid too – away from the immediate bustle of the Town and yet near enough for Serena and Balma to still avail themselves (duties permitting) of the ‘attractions’ of our Town.”

“And what do you deem our duties shall be?” she asked me, all the while eye-speaking with her family; we could all see from the sparkle that she really wanted to grab this chance.

“As I understand it, the wagoneers tend to drive down there in the late afternoon, then take the wender back into town to spend the evening here, then they take a special night-running wender back to the Bunkhouse to sleep. They then rouse themselves, have a light breakfast, and depart.

“Your duties, and I mean this collectively, would be to make sure that they have clean beds to sleep on, that they have adequate washing supplies, and that they have an adequate breakfast, clean latrines and so on. Goodman Kallum here could tell you of what that breakfast should consist. You will have to find your own rhythms as you go along but I should imagine that he would be responsible for the things that require a certain amount of strength, and for general orderliness and quelling rows and the like, leaving you three women being responsible for providing the food, clean bedding, cleaning and so on and so forth.

“Once you are settled, I daresay you might be able to offer a simple supper to those who do not really wish to return to Town. Maybe serve a jug or two of ale. But all that would have to be entirely up to you – I deem there could be another little market opportunity there for you to exploit, but I must confess I have no idea what actually happens down at the Bunkhouse of an evening.”

I decided that I had spoken enough now and awaited their response by sitting back and raising an eyebrow, inviting a reply. I was sure the parents would be all for it, and probably the elder girl, Serena. I suspected that young Balma would be the least enthusiastic. Kelly, Epp and I were all certain that ’twould be Mistress Ruet who decided, or at least spoke. I had a little private bet with myself, though, that she would be cautious.

We were right! And I was right!

“Mistresses, we deem we would like to take this opportunity given how much we now know. However, I should like to know when, and also see the state of the Bunkhouse and so on before saying a definite yes or no.”

“Very well and very wise, Mistress. I commend your caution. Let us say now that this job offer shall not be extended to anyone else until such time as you decline. However, on behalf of Meglina, I must point out that we need to fill this post as soon as we may, and therefore must demand in response that you do not dally with your deliberations. Now Mistress Megrozen and I are riding down to the Bunkhouse very shortly and we could actually meet you there if you like?”

“But how shall we get there and back?”

“I shall arrange a wagon as a sort of private bac. Shall you wish to go down now? Shall it be just you parents, or shall the girls accompany you too?”

They looked taken aback at my lack of dallying and were a little flustered by it. I was surprised, almost shocked actually, when it was young Balma who said: “Let’s do it, Ma and Pa. Let us go down there now.” The slow head nods from the others made their decision plain.

I called the serving girl over: “Marnie, could you please be a dear and send a message to either Mutab or Kulyer, saying I need transport for four people down to the Bunkhouse, bringing them back after a probably short while there?”

“Certainly, Mistress Julina. And Mistress Sukhana would like a word when you have a moment.”

“Thank you.”

I turned back to the family who were sitting there with mouths agape. They seemed not to be able to believe that I could issue such orders as though it was a commonplace thing; which in fact it was for me. Once again I mentally cursed my seeming youthful age.

“Now, I must point out that this entire enterprise hangs on the existing family deciding to sell and just concentrating on the Fish Farm. Only then can we set any fixed dates and the like. So ’twill be at least a week or more before you can start. Meglina shall also closely inspect the property and set in train any required improvements.” I held up a hand though to still any immediate retort. “If you accept our offer, then I shall tell you now that Meglina will expect you to do something or things during the waiting period. Meglina will pay for you all to have riding lessons, as we would expect you all to be able to use frayen when you take up this employment. And I would expect you all to improve your reading, writing and numbering skills. I could, if necessary, arrange a private tutor for that.”

My, you should have seen the range of emotions on their faces. Balma had a fierce delight and even uttered a strongly gusted “Yes!” Serena was more restrained, but we could tell she was really quite pleased. Kallum nodded wisely. But Ruet! Well, frankly, poor Ruet looked terrified.

“If you accept the offer, then Meglina shall pay for your frayen lessons, and one set of riding wear for each of you. The other expenses we will discuss as and when they arise.”

“Mama, accept, accept, accept!” blurted Balma. Serena nodded frantically in urgent agreement.

Everyone else had a good laugh then. But Ruet still looked terrified, which I found out later was because she was nervous around larger animals.

“We shall discuss it as we go to observe and inspect. I shall let you know when we all meet down there, if that is acceptable, Mistresses? Now, may we await the bac here? Or should we move out of the way?”

“I do have two more people to see for other positions, so mayhap you could find a table at which to attend your driver - somewhere over there, perchance?” I waved my hand to the far side of the room.

The four of them took their leave of us and went over to where I had pointed. It would be a trifle awkward when they saw the two other candidates I had summoned, but frankly I wasn’t able to think sufficiently quickly to avoid the problem. I cursed myself because I really should have foreseen this possibility.

But, as it happened, it never arose. Rabeez appeared and asked about his task. I directed him to the Kallum family and they went out the back door to the courtyard just as my next candidate came in the front door.

“Good morning, Mistress ...”

… … …

“That was well handled, ’Lina, So we now have definitely someone with a family to run The Stoop when ’tis completed, and we have another family that might do the Bunkhouse if the Kallum family turn it down. But I doubt they will, I’m sure they see all the advantages of taking on that task.”

“Indeed Epp, we have nowhere else in our expanding list of buildings that would grant the parents some quiet and still be close enough to Town to be of attraction to the daughters. But all that business has set us back a good bell now, and we still haven’t actually proposed to Junker that we should buy their house and let them retire from the hospitality business. Let us hope we overhaul the bac before Kallum and company surprise them too much!”

We urged our frayen on ever faster. I had gone this fast before, but Epp hadn’t and was getting increasingly nervous. But ’twas all worth it, for we shot past the bac before it had got much more than halfway, maybe two thirds at the very maximum. Serena and Balma later told us that they had been thrilled to see us catch them up so quickly and just pass them with but a wave and a called greeting.

We pulled up at the Bunkhouse and were met by Palma, her man having just gone off to the Fish Farm for some tending of the crops they had planted there, in the area bisected by the stream that flowed out of the lake.

“Kallisthena!” I exclaimed, showing my frustration.

“What is this all about, Mistresses?”

“Mistress Palma, I thought about the problems you described to me and believe I have a workable solution. However, I deem that your man should be here to help with the decision.”

“Mayhap, mayhap not. Come inside and have some pel while we women discuss it sensibly.”

“Well, if your man is not here, then someone will have to go and fetch him, I deem. Mistress Megrozen and I are already overdue to be on our way to Bezlet and I cannot just ride off alone to fetch Junker back, so Mistress Megrozen would needs accompany me, and then we have some other visitors about to arrive, and all this because we women are deemed to require accompaniment at all times. Gaaaaaaah!” I was also grumpy because I had neither Surtree nor Davvy to send off somewhere or otherwise help. It was then that it really struck home just how much those two had been helping me.

I caught Palma and Epp share an amused but agreeing nod and grin. They followed me as I stomped inside the Bunkhouse having tied Trumpa to the hitching post and having slipped her a nibbly treat. I stomped back out again to give the frayen some water in a bucket I had found, then stomped back in again.

“Feeling better, dear?” said Palma, grinning as she swept a place clear for us on one of her tabletops.

“Hhhmpppfff!” I wisely and meaningfully retorted, as I rolled my eyes and grimaced.

“Now tell me your plan,” she said as she waved us to be seated. We sank down onto her proffered chairs and made ourselves at home. I looked around and realised that this was the room in which they served the breakfasts. It was neat and tidy and mostly clean, but the dark shade of blue in the wall coverings, mostly painted walls it seemed, made it just too dark for my taste. ’Twas four or even five shades too dark, I deemed.

Eventually I felt comfortable enough to begin: “Swiftly speaking, our company ...” I gestured to Epp “… will buy this house from you at a proper price. You and your family can then go over to the Fish Farm and grow crops there as well as fish. That will also be near the new easier-access track they are building to go up to the Vale, so in a year or so, there shall be some more passing traffic. Once you are gone, another family can move in here and operate just this as employees of our company.”

I just laid it out flatly and quickly to her, not trying at first to sweeten the description or anything. That sweetening stuff I was about to launch into when I was interrupted.


“That is it in a … Your pardon? Did you say you would do so?”

“That I did. This was exactly the idea that we came up with when discussing all this, saying I wish we could find someone who would do just that.”

“Errrr, right then!” I said, feebly. “We shall have to discuss a fair price, of course. For that I would take the advice of Master Schild. And we would also have to agree the timing. Oh, and we have some visitors about to arrive who are a family who would be interested in running this Bunkhouse as part of our company, Meglina Accommodations.”

“What other establishments do you run, then?”

Epp took over from me at this point. “We have a large place in Tranidor that is already beginning to show some small profits, and we have places in Bezlet, in Town here and also over in the Artisan’s Area, but these latter are not yet completed. They will be soon, specifically the Frolicsome Frayen between the Market Square and the Cistern.”

“That place is yours?”

“Oh yes. ’Twill open in a week or two, once we have found a reliable set of managers. We have our eye on a few people, but must definitely attend the completion of the building to see if the soon-to-be workers there will require accommodations as well, or if they can work from home. Ahah! I hear voices and wheels, I deem the visiting family have arrived.”

… … …

“This is plainly stupid, ’Lina,” complained a puffing Epp. “I deem we can no longer hope to catch the others up and reach Bezlet this eve. And we are even now riding fast BACK up to Town. So we have no advantage granted by our start position. Let us just slow down and be just a little calmer, eh?”

I ignored her for a little while, but what she said actually made a certain degree of sense and that sense slowly worked its way deep into my brain, causing me to at last relinquish the frantic pace I had been going at – not just riding the frayen, but also getting my tasks done. I sighed deeply.

“You are correct, dear Epp. I’m sorry. But ...” I sighed again, “… now we have an extra task when we get to Town. We must send a semaphore, which should reach the Roadhouse before the others get there if we are quick enough. Which is why I was rushing. We shall tell them we shall arrive in Bezlet before lunch tomorrow then?”

“You are a hard taskmistress, young lady! Another early start then.” It was now her turn to sigh heavily. Then she brightened up. “But we could overnight tonight at the Bunkhouse and then gain more knowledge of the operation there.”

“I suppose that might be a good idea. But I’m sure the mattresses shall be lumpier than our own.”

“All the more knowledge gained then.”

My turn to sigh, again. “I find I cannot argue successfully against you.”

“So then, what shall we first do? What are our priorities when we get to Town?”

I thought for just a little before answering her: “Find Simman first. We need to persuade him to allocate some men, or to direct us to another supervisor who can allocate us some men. Then get them to go down to the Bunkhouse and dig two more latrine pits, fill in the existing one. Then we get a load of palliasses and tents down there. I know where they are stored in the Miners’ Hall, so we should be able to get some quickly. The evening wender that descends to there is usually empty on its downhill trip, so there is load capacity there as well. Then we need Simman again to go down there and define which pre-built wooden ‘blocks’ are required for walls and rooves. I have an idea to speed up the building of a temporary shelter. Maybe floors as well, but as a temporary measure we just need to keep out the wind and, rarely, rain rather than ensure a flat flooring. We also need Simman to give us as accurate a set of completion dates as is possible.

“On the business side, we must find Master Schild and determine the proper price we should pay for the Bunkhouse and make arrangements that the Junker family then get that amount. And we must needs set up a ledger for that part of our enterprises. We need to get Representative Jepp along if possible and do a big contract signing session with the Kallum family, who have now agreed to do the Bunkhouse controlling, the sale of the Bunkhouse to ourselves, and the contract for the ones who are going to run the Stoop.

“And at some point we require pel for ourselves, a ‘natural break’ or two and later some food and then get back down to the Bunkhouse to overnight there. How on Anmar did I ever believe we could do all this and still get to Bezlet?”

… … ...

“… settled in?”

“Indeed Mistress Julina, Mistress Megrozen. We expected something much cruder, I must confess. But I deem the position of this small house is perfect for what will be our needs. Already we have several questions for yourselves that our Davabet was not able to answer.”

“I’m sorry we were unable to come down to here yesterday as we planned, but I’m sure Davvy managed the introductions smoothly?”

“I doubt that this is actually our child. The real Davabet must be in hiding somewhere, and this is but a super efficient copy.”

The laughter was indeed this time at Davvy, but of such a loving nature that even super-sensitive she could not take offence. She actually preened.

I then turned to our temporary hostess: “Mistress Pachet, have you any concerns? Other than the fact that the Bargemaster isn’t here?”

We all laughed at her blushes. And noted she did not deny my assertion. In fact, she replied: “Yet! I expect him for lunch.”

She gathered her thoughts then, fighting to stop a grin emerging, it seemed to me. “Mistresses, you cannot imagine how wonderful this is. I have been sleeping badly because, with steadily increasing numbers of guests, I cannot properly manage the expansion of this house, let alone the expansion of your interests in this village. Now you have appointed these two people, whom I deem are most likeable, then I know that I can do my tasks here far more readily. And the extra building work here is almost fully completed. I expect to start using the new kitchens in about a week’s time. Thank you for providing the funds to get it all completed so swiftly.

“And you will remember young Dilla? She has been such a support, and taken on far more than I ever expected her to be able to handle. You trained her well up the road there in The Retreat. I deem we can now manage this house and allow Mistress Talbet to look after your other interests here as well as provide some decision-making for me.

“The number of wagoneers overnighting here in the village has more than doubled in the last few weeks. I am struggling to bake sufficient bread for them all, let alone handle the evening meals and the breakfasts. And wagoneers are hardly the most tidy of overnighters. The cleaning up after them takes away a lot of the time I imagined I would have. Dilla is a wonderful helper and her sisters have proven to be valuable too. We shall be able to cope now I have fewer responsibilities.”

Davvy then contributed to our conversation: “I can confirm what Mistress Pachet has said regarding the numbers here. As for her statements about competency, I regret I am neither able to confirm nor deny. I must therefore seize this opportunity to change the subject. And I need to ask, ’Lina, if there was aught that happened yesterday I need to know?”

“So much really, Davvy – and yet we, Epp and I here, excuse me, Mistress Megrozen and I ...”

“Nay! Epp shall be fine I deem.”

After a chorus of thanks from the others I continued: “… Epp and I can scarce credit what happened ...”

“Actually,” interrupted Epp, “we spent the whole day riding back and forth and forth and back between the Bunkhouse and the Town. My bottom only just about managed to last until we got to the Bunkhouse to overnight there, arriving just after dark would you believe?”

“Was it comfortable though, enough to recover from your frayen-back excursions?”

“Hah!” exclaimed Epp, bitterly, “comfort is a word nigh-on completely lost in that place.” Shemel looked at her in pity and hugged her tightly; she nestled contentedly into the crook of his arm.

I tried, really I did, but I couldn’t help it. I started giggling. Everyone else looked at us askance.

The comparative silence was broken by Davvy: “In what way? Does Meglina have to do something, some great change, perchance? Maybe ...”

I held up a hand to stop her concerned flow: “Please remember all of you that Epp and I were probably the first and only women to have overnighted there ever. Our bedding, not of the highest degree of comfort, was curtained off from the men to afford us some privacy.”

She paused: “But ’twas visual privacy alone. I do not know what it is about men, but I doubt there were more than two heartbeats the entire night that were not filled with some sort of noise. Men seem to either belch or snore from their mouths and throats – and the noises that issued from their other ends rivalled an entire pack of pakh suffering from intestinal problems. When one fell blissfully silent, another started up almost immediately.”

The other women commenced giggling too as their brains started to picture our torment. We were beginning to descend into a dangerously uncontrollable giggle fit.

Shemel it was who sensibly returned us to the more serious matters: “But I fail to understand quite why so much riding was involved?”

Epp and I looked at each other. I shrugged and presented a hand towards her, obviously to let her explain; which she did very well, fully and succinctly. I scarce needed to correct her at all. The following is my rendition of her report, told to you from my point of view:-

I had expected to spend maybe a bell down at the Bunkhouse, trying to persuade them to sell the operation to Meglina. I confess that I was taken considerably aback when that objective was so easily met.

But both Epp and I were also taken aback by the dilapidated nature of the building and of what was on offer to the wagoneers. Now neither of us are experts in the matter of latrines, but even we recognised that this one was overused both in age and in quantity. And in stink.

The sleeping area was best described as crude. Only the eating area was in any way acceptable – cleaned and tidy. And their private quarters were obviously well cared for. It was clear that they were just overwhelmed by the increasing traffic and the demands that they were meeting with less than optimal efficiency.

A large black scar marred the ground a few hands of strides distant downwind. We were told that was where they burned the straw mattresses each week. The making of new ones, and the general surface cleaning of the site was taking up nearly all Junker’s time, time that he was supposed to share with tending both the fish in the fish lake and the crops planted thereabouts. And it wasn’t as if the two sites were tightly close together, so he must travel to get from one to the other – on a frayen that was so clearly past it that it was a wonder either of them got from one place to the other.

It was plain to us both that the Bunkhouse required ‘modification’ and swiftly. Very swiftly.

So we rode back to Town, to try to persuade Master Simman to give up some of his valuable time to come with us to observe the pending disaster. It took a full bell before he could leave with us, during which time we sent our semaphore message about our delayed departure. I then went and selected another of our rapidly dwindling stock of frayen housed in the Claw and its paddock. This I would give to Junker in the hope that it would help. I turned to Davvy to ask her to remind me to get some more when I remembered with a shock that Davvy was now quite a long way downvalley. It was funny how swiftly I had become used to her presence.

Back to the Bunkhouse, then, then.

From which we left some quarter of a bell after arriving – this time with an urgency that Simman had insisted upon.

We got once more to Town, whereupon Simman called urgently for Master Bezan to try to explain the situation. Master Bezan was with the Steward when we found them. His Honour then decided that he too required a ride that day, so we departed a half bell later for a return to the Bunkhouse. In company with some of the Rangers, Em (who could come because we were also there – still the same stupidity about women alone), Bezan, Simman and, thankfully as it later turned out, Master Jepp too. Simman had also despatched a wagon of labourers with shovels and rakes and other implements of destruction and construction.

Upon returning to the Bunkhouse, the Steward immediately ordered that all the men there, including himself, were to start to dig another latrine pit having stated that the existing one was beyond dangerous and would have to be filled in “immediately if not before”. He explained to a disbelieving Junker and family of the dangers of disease from the state of things at the present. Kallum and his family had just been about to leave, having had it seemed very productive discussions whilst we were away, but they now stayed and observed the positive way in which we had managed to arrange the short-term improvements. I deemed they were most impressed.

Of course, Junker had only limited quantities of tools available for the job, so it ended with the men taking turn and turn about. Until the arrival of the wagonload of labourers.

“I shall needs now inspect your other house and surrounds, Goodman Junker. We cannot have a valuable food resource tainted by quite such neglect as has been seen here today. I find Mistresses Julina and Megrozen’s suggestion that their company take over from you here both a sensible and a valuable one.”

“Your Honour, ‘tis only the amount of work here that has caused the problems. When we agreed to do this all those months ago, there were but a handful, maximum two hands, of wagoneers who stayed. Now we have more than doubled, if not tripled, that. All of which eats up my available time. And so we have been making do rather than having any time for changes, improvements and the like. I haven’t been able to get to Town myself for over a month. I see now that I should have sent for assistance.”

“Indeed, Goodman. That you should have done.” The Steward was really quite curt with him.

We then signed various contracts produced by Master Jepp - we being Epp and I, along with Junker and Palma, as well as the incoming family of Kallum and Ruet. It was agreed that the Kallums would take over in one week’s time, for they needed time to sort their affairs out in Town and so on. Once again I found myself gritting my teeth at all the “Heard and Witnessed” statements. Junker promised he would look after the frayen, for which animal he was tearfully grateful – Palma said the cost of the animal should be a part of the price we paid for their house. I just waved that suggestion away; I didn’t want to gain a reputation for being overly careful with my coin.

The Steward promised that two Rangers would be despatched down to the Bunkhouse to help maintain matters each day in that week and that two of those with us would stay right now to do what they could, returning with the evening wender.

I mentioned how the ‘Tree’ had been built, which was what had been my original thought when I considered the expansion of the Bunkhouse, and the others agreed that that would be a good and sensible way to improve this site, particularly due to the summery weather. Bezan approved Simman’s request to divert the materials from other building ‘priorities’.

Then Epp and I had to ride back to the Fish Farm with the Steward and his entourage for his inspection there. This was a far better kept place than the Bunkhouse had deteriorated into.

Then another ride was necessary, this time into Town yet again to arrange with Master Schild and others that all the ledgers would be appropriately added to and minussed from.

Even though we had detoured to the Fish Farm, we then awaited the return of the Kallums on their relatively slow bac so we could arrange what we could for them in the meanwhile, knowing that coin was scarce for them at the moment.

By the time that we, that is Epp and I, had got everything arranged, then had eaten and had bathed some more of the day away, the dusk was almost ready to begin gathering. A few more chats here and there, a few more explanations to various people about why we were still here, a final toilet visit (neither of us fancied using the facilities down at the Bunkhouse too well – although, when we got there there was brand new latrine dug and we could be the first to utilise it) and a quick visit to Mousa to get some of her carry-outs, we were once again ready to set out on our downvalley journeyings.

Until another thought hit me. We had sent some of our night things down to Bezlet with Davvy on one of the pack frayen! So we had a mad scramble around finding replacements for those.

So it was that we finally managed to mount again and we headed down to the Bunkhouse so we could gain a head start on the morrow. We greeted the dismissed Rangers and the town-bound wenders, for there were two of them such were the numbers of bodies to be conveyed, as we neared our destination. This you will remember was an early night for me, and we ate our half-warm dinner before retiring. We actually managed to sleep quite well – and deeply – before the midnight wenders noisily returned full of wagoneers in varying states of sobriety.

However, as already mentioned, after that we slept but little.

… … …

Epp had relayed all this with an understated dry wit and with appropriate emphases and so on. Our, her, audience were all wreathed in smiles and laughter by the time she had finished.

“Not that I am in any way a frequent traveller through the forest above here, nevertheless I have passed through it a good thirty or more times in my life. We saw a sight that I had never seen before in any of those passages, and we saw it not once but twice!”

I nodded in agreement with Epp’s statement as the rest of the people looked at her.

“I have seen wagons pulled fast, at medium pace and slowly. But I had never until this morning seen a wagon stationary on the edge of the road, with no sign of the driver, apparently abandoned. And we saw two of them, marks apart. I daresay the drivers were busy regretting their overindulgences last night, for surely they needed to relieve themselves in the privacy of the trees.”

They all shook their heads as she closed out her tale.

Matters were broken up slightly by the arrival of Uncle Steef and all of us women observed Pachet’s body language change when he came. We smiled knowingly.

Greetings, introductions, quick trips to the facilities, saddling frayen, these were our next tasks.

And then we had our tour round Bezlet, both the road and the river ‘ends’.

Pachet stayed behind to clear up the Inn and set it up ready for the next influx of people; she and her two helpers. I had been pleased to renew my acquaintance with Dilla, who had apparently become by then a regular employee of ours, she and her elder sisters, one of whom was the other helper that day, and who was introduced to us as Netha.

“Mistress Pachet has filled me in on what you both had originally planned,” started Talbet, as we rode through the trees to the riverside. “I have had a look around and confess that this chance to develop a township almost from new is something that excites me. We agree that we should have an eatery and a bunkhouse at the wharfside, maybe we would suggest also that there be a storage barn there too, operated by yourselves?”

Shemel and Epp looked at each other, spoke silently and then turned to look at me.

“Wagons?” I simply inquired. They both nodded.

“So be it!”

Epp then turned back to Talbet and said: “Storage facility or facilities shall be built then, but not for Meglina. Instead they shall be under the heading of Blackstone Wagons. The owners of that company both give you permission to act upon their behalves.”

Talbet looked a little confused.

I laughed: “That is the company that I have a half share in along with Mistress Megrozen’s man there. I have a half share with her in Meglina, and a half share with him in the Blackstone Wagons.”

Talbet and Dilligas looked at the three of us in turn and shook their heads as they grinned.

“And I also have interest in a company that works with the railroad, Blackstone Rail. We finance that, and Master Pyor runs it. No doubt he shall be here at some time. There shall be a railroad running through here, alongside the wharf there. And round the nose of Kord’s Peak over there. So I have no doubt that actually I have even more interest here than you at first imagined.”

I was glad I was still capable of surprising people.

Then Dilligas asked a simple question, which caused me a lot of doubt and decision. Almost as much as the one the Prince had asked me.

“Shall the storage here then be under the ‘Wagons’ or under the ‘Rail’? Or shall you require storage for each? Or shall it be shared ’twixt the two?”

I stopped then, and found no ready answer.

Epp mischievously added: “And mayhap a storage facility for Meglina too?”

“Aaaaaaagh!” I loudly exclaimed. “Can we start by saying there shall definitely be one and then ...”

My further remarks were interrupted by a distant, but determinedly heartfelt, cry of: “DaVIKto!”

Our heads whipped around. We all looked over the water to one of the farther rocks in the chain upon which the series of bridges were being built.

A few moments of observation, accompanied by hearing some jeering laughter at the “Stupid ked!”, told us that a worker had rowed across to the rock in a small boat but had failed to secure it properly, leaving himself stranded on the rock and the boat freely speeding away downvalley on the current. And leaving himself open to the jeers of his co-workers.

And then something even more remarkable occurred.

The speeding boat suddenly stopped.

Seriously. I joke you not.

It just stopped in mid-stream. Impossibly in the middle of a teeming river current.

I caught sight of the tie-up rope over the front of the boat and it took just a little while before I realised it was taut.

I drew the others’ attention to it: “Aha! The boat’s rope has got caught on some… Maker!” I exclaimed loudly a heartbeat before the others did too.

A dranakh’s head appeared above the water level with a great snorting and spraying. The dangling rope was trapped in its mouth and it began to move upstream, towing the boat behind it. We watched amazed, and in total silence, even the jeering workmates were shocked into stillness, as the animal made its way to the stranded man. Almost as soon as the man had grasped the rope, the dranakh seemed to look at him for a heartbeat or so and then simply ducked once more beneath the water, never to be identified again.

Davvy released the tension we all found ourselves under, when she said: “Now THAT’S not something you see every day!”

As you can well imagine, that was a major topic of conversation for the next few moments, any town and company planning being relegated from our thoughts. But we did eventually manage to return to the subject for which Epp and I had paid a visit to this township.

We looked around again at the riverside end before making our way across to the road end. We pointed out this, that and the next thing, made a few suggestions and then returned to the Clay Pot to sample one of Pachet’s midday meals.

And to finalise our plans for the village.

We sat around a number of tables that had been pushed together to make one big surface. I looked around more closely this time at the room, which compared very favourably to the one upvalley at the Bunkhouse. This room too was painted blue, but this was a light blue that added cheer to the atmosphere herein. I was pleased that our house – yes, Meglina had paid for it, you will recall – was being so well cared for, even in the middle of expansion building works.

“Right then, so there shall be another bunkhouse-type place nearer the road, keeping this Inn for the more … discerning … customers?”

“Indeed Talbet, that is how I see it and I deem Epp does as well.” Her nod confirmed my words.

“And we, Meglina, shall run both places? Shall you expect Pachet here to staff the Bunkhouse arrangement as well?”

“No, I deem she is happiest with just this place to manage.” I looked over at Pachet who in turn nodded her agreement with me. “However, I recommend you take her advice as to the available workers around here.”

“We seem to be getting some more volunteers appearing nowadays,” added in Pachet. “Mayhap its because of the monthly visit of the playactors, and the visit of the Steward every second week, and the increased requirements for labourers. We are becoming a known location nowadays, rather than an obscure hamlet. Whatever the reasons, they really turn up to make some coin, when it all boils down to it.”

“Indeed. Now the house that Talbet and Dilligas here shall use as their residence ...”

“Yes, Julina?” asked both Pachet and Talbet at the same time.

“We originally had earmarked that building as a stop-over house for Epp and I to use when we travel ...”

“Oh, then we shall not move in ...” the two of them chorussed.

“Dilligas, Talbet, don’t be so silly! Epp and I discussed this on the way down, and we don’t travel THAT often. No, you keep it for yourselves, you are now permanent residents here. We do not NEED such a house - but perhaps you could identify an easily accessible spot, not too far away, but nevertheless quiet – and don’t forget that this railroad shall not be a silent thing! - for Epp and I to use as we go one way or the other, with rooms also for companions and fellow-travellers, like Davvy and so. We would want this to remain private, NOT as a rentable something that Meglina might offer out. But we wouldn’t want it to be too far away from the road, making it a chore to get to and from.”

“Very well. That makes sense, I suppose. We shall do that. How shall we stake any claims to building plots and suchlike?”

“Speak with the Steward when he comes down here. I will have already told him about our plans, for I expect to see him tomorrow when we return to Blackstone. So we shall have the permissions I expect very shortly ...”

Our discussions then turned to the developments to be implemented at the riverside end of the village.

A full bell or more later, Davvy and I took our farewells of them all to travel with Bargemaster Steef to the Forest Roadhouse. We had done so much that ’twas almost too late to set out for Blackstone, and I also still needed to speak with Uncle Steef on a variety of things that had occurred to me. So we would be out for yet another night.

We popped into the Retreat as we were just passing by, and I showed the others this and that. I was pleased to see that there were no signs of disturbances; however, I also noted that someone was needed to tidy the edges of the gardens before it got too far out of hand.

We regained the main road and headed once more towards the Roadhouse.

“Uncle? Do you know much about this railway, railroad, rail whatever? I have been thinking ...”

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