| After the arid desert
shore of the far North and exotic but hot Dunlago, the coast of Beaulieu
at Villefranche, the southernmost city of the Realm, captivated the Dwarves
with its wealth of colours and variety of flora. The land reached the sea
in vast gentle slopes covered with vineyards, orchards and rich green pastures.
The harbour architecture appeared also vastly different from that of Ekan’s
adopted hometown. An unbroken twenty-foot high rampart, dotted here and
there with angled towers and barbicans, surrounded the whole city. Two
more imposing square towers allowing just enough space for the Hope to
go through guarded the entry to the deep-water inner harbour. Numnir had
explained that a set of heavy chains adorned with hooks would close the
gap at night, leaving no chance for any kind of vessel to go through. The
fortified city certainly looked formidable. The Dwarves quickly understood
that with all the food available in the surrounding lands it could easily
withstand a long siege. Leaving his charges to their observation, Numnir
joined Petracar on the forecastle where the experienced captain assumed
personal responsibility of the wheel.
-“Skipper, may I have a word with you while all
ears are away from us?”
-“Sure, Ironfoot! Although every time you talk
to me, I end up with more work in the bargain!”
The big dwarf laughed.
-“This is for your own good and you know it!
We must also think about your people up north, mustn’t we?”
A somber Petracar replied:
-“Don’t we know! We still have so much to do
in our village. The slavers did not leave much to salvage and with almost
nothing, we have to look after so many widowed women and orphaned children.
Were it not for your friend Jonas and your very good Dwarves, our village
would be no more. I still have nightmares and seethe every night before
hitting my bunk!”
The pain made the man grimace. Numnir put a comforting
hand on the Captain’s shoulder.
-“Petracar, you know I’m with you on that, and
I promise one day you shall have your true revenge when we eradicate that
scourge once and for all. For now though, we have to think about the present.”
-“Sorry, friend, and my thanks for your care!
Now, what did you wish to talk about?”
-“That’s better. We don’t want you to go back
north on a dry run, do we?”
-“Certainly not! But what kind of cargo could
I bring back with me, not to mention finding the means to pay for it. And
to whom would I sell it?”
-“Now, now, let me explain one thing at a time!”
Taking a purse out of his belt, Nunmir handed
it to the captain.
-“First, this is your due for our trip from your
village to this town. By the way, you shall have to find a name for your
home. We cannot go on calling it ‘your village’!”
-“You’re right. A name would only be proper to
begin our new life!”
-“We shall have plenty of time to think about
it before you depart again. Now, what I want you to do, is to load the
goods I shall acquire in Villefranche and deliver them to our King. Do
not worry; Hammerblow shall be waiting for you to take charge of the cargo.
I shall pay you for the transport a couple of days before you leave so
that you can purchase all that you wish to take to your people!”
-“That’s very kind of you, Ironfoot! My men and
their families shall be in your eternal debt!”
-"Captain, do not thank me, this is only the
start of it. Once you have unloaded all your cargo and organized the re-building
of your town and harbour, you shall have to carry more of our kin, including
the Royal family. I already have arranged the exclusivity of our trade
and transport with your people, so you had better think of recruiting more
men. Choose them strong and single. You have a lot of women to take care
of! The Dwarves will gladly help you make your home safe and strong. After
all, they are protecting their own business! Petracar, you are a good man
and a Dwarf friend. Mark me, it is barely the beginning”
With a last tap on the Captain’s shoulder, Numnir
-“Alright, we have more pressing work to finish.
You take care of this ship of yours. I have to organize my Dwarves! Let’s
meet tonight around a good bottle of local wine to talk business again!”
A large party was waiting
on the wharf of Villefranche harbour when the Hope passed by the two enormous
towers flanking the entrance. For all the activity of one of the most important
trading centers of the Realm, the inhabitants of the fortress city wondered
what kind of guests a royal delegation was waiting for. The ship presently
arriving was of no unusual size. No outlandish pennants were flying on
top of its masts. Moreover, despite the presence of a full squad of Royal
Guards, the tall beautiful dark-haired woman and the high-ranked officers
accompanying her were in a very relaxed mood.
-“So, Jay, at long last we shall be meeting those
creatures of legend! They must be terribly important since you managed
to twist Gerhart’s arm into sending this delegation!”
-“They are truly! “The Blue Dragon answered to
the Royal Guards Captain. “I can tell you, we shall not be able to live
without them before long!”
-Tell me, how come you knew they were coming,
-“My dear Geoffroy, what would you say if I told
you are prying for information that is not for your ears?”
-“I would think you have become our new secret
service chief!” replied a somewhat miffed Captain.
-“Do you know the old one? No, I care very little
for your King’s joke of a secret service! I already know all of them, at
least the ones established in Beaucastel. They are so obvious and incompetent
that I have them report all I need to!”
-“Jay, I’ve been meaning to ask you this question
for a long time now: Who are you? Frankly speaking, it pisses me off no
end to work with somebody of whom I seem to know less and less every day!”
-What language, Geoffroy! How unbecoming to an
officer of His Majesty’s Royal Guards!”
-“It is my belief that Captain Geoffroy
D’Arcourt is falling in love with Geraldine de Blanchefleur. Men, when
in love, tend to make the mistake of asking private questions to women
with whom they are enamored” cut in Birghit.
An angry Captain turned to face his Walkyrie
Sergeant, probably the most feared woman in the whole of Beaucastel after
-“Desist, Sergeant, will you? What do you know
about men’s love anyway? As far as I know, your own few lovers have a sad
propensity to put as much distance as they can between you and themselves
as soon as they leave your quarters!”
-“And what did they tell you? Did they boast
about their virility? Did you compare notes?”
Amrel cut their argument short.
-“Do you mind? The ship is within earshot! Your
Guards might choose to close their ears when they feel the need, but I
doubt our guests will! You ought to give a better impression of His Majesty’s
might than offer them such silly children’s tantrums! Seeing such behaviour
from the two most senior officers of the country will definitely see our
visitors immediately pack up and go in search of better shores!”
Geoffroy and Birghit were about to retaliate,
but a rare icy look from the Blue Dragon stopped them short.
The Hope had thrown its ropes to be tied to the
bollards and a plank was carefully placed between the ship and the wharf.
The first Dwarves were already descending.
-“They look like children! If it wasn’t for their
beards and their girth, I would be fooled!”
-“I doubt children could carry such luggage.
These packs must weigh a good seventy pounds!”
As was their habit, the disciplined Dwarves,
all twenty of them, lined up on the wharf in four neat rows standing behind
their baggage waiting for Numnir and Petracar to come down.
A sizeable crowd was starting to assemble behind
the Royal Guards. It was late afternoon and the harbour vicinity was still
very animated. Quite a few remarks of astonishment and curiosity could
be heard from the crowd. The dwarves stayed imperturbable as if this was
just another day. Just as their leader was putting his feet on the plank,
a group of five large men appeared along the wharf, their demeanour plainly
indicating their level of intoxication. Amrel judged they were more than
likely freshly disembarked sailors who had had a bit too much celebration.
They were completely oblivious to her party and retinue. They were also
clearly a rowdy bunch.
Their group stopped a couple of yards from the
Dwarves and began to proffer rude remarks.
-“Look at that! “ Their leader started, “Children
wearing armour! They even have beards! Has a circus come to town!”
Geoffroy and Birghit were about to jump on the
louts, but Amrel raised her hand and said in a low voice:
-“You two wait! Certain people are in for a memorable
Curiosity took the better of the two officers
who nonetheless made ready to intervene in case the situation got out of
The drunken sailors were standing in front of
the plank, effectively preventing Numnir from reaching the stone wharf.
The bullies were laughing heartily and slapping their thighs, their jokes
and comments becoming more insulting by the second. The Dwarves still did
not move an inch or show any emotion. Petracar was about to face the sailors
when Numnir held his arm.
The Flint Dragon called to his charges:
-“Steelfist! Bronzewrists! Stonefoot! Ironarms!
Strongneck! This bunch of unwashed people’s smell offends my nose! Would
you be as kind as to help them to a bath?”
Evil grins broke on the faces of the five Dwarves
in the front row as they stepped around their luggage and deliberately
walked to the surprised sailors. Each Dwarf grabbed a man in both hands,
lifted him effortlessly over his shoulders and carried him to the edge
of their wharf where they threw their loads unceremoniously into the stinking
brine of the harbour. Without further glances, they resumed their positions
behind their packs; their faces back to a stolid mask of complete unconcern,
although observant onlookers would have noticed amused glints in their
Geoffroy, containing his mirth with great difficulty,
made a discreet sign to his guards to help the culprits out of the water
and hand them to the local authorities.
-“That was a quick lesson,” commented Birghit,
“ and to the point: don’t mess with a Dwarf! I think I’m going to like
the small fighters.”
Numnir was coming to their group.
“Well met, Lady Geraldine de Blanchefleur! I
see my message reached you in time! His Majesty is giving us a great honour
by sending us his personal guard. But was it really needed?”
-“Hail, Ironfoot of the Kingdom Under The Mountain!
I do think the Royal Guards are needed until you reach Beaulieu. We certainly
do not want your good Dwarves to break too many bones to convince our obtuse
subjects you are not to be laughed at!”
Numnir had the grace to show some embarrassment.
-“You worry too much. My Dwarves would not engage
into any fight without my express orders! That small demonstration should
prove enough for the future! I reckon they are very good fighters, but
they are more interested in trade and crafts!”
Geoffroy and Birghit exchanged doubtful glances.
-“That is the foremost reason of your mission,
is it not, Ironfoot?” Amrel genially agreed. “But I’m remiss in my duty.
Let me introduce you to His Majesty’s Royal Guards officers. Captain Geoffroy
d’Arcourt and Sergeant Birghit, may I present Ironfoot, Special Envoy of
His Majesty Hammerblow, King Under The Mountain?”
The two officers answered with a crisp salute
while Numnir offered a slight bow, keeping his eyes onto the soldiers’
gaze. Geoffroy and Birghit recognized in that instant the mind and manners
of a true fighter if need arose. The surprise and amusement they had felt
for the Dwarves rapidly turned into respect.
Numnir answered to his sister:
-“Lady Geraldine de Blanchefleur, I must express
my thanks to His Majesty’s Royal Guards for travelling all the way from
Beaulieu to welcome and escort us! It is plain that we have been granted
the elite army’s service and I sincerely hope we shall be able to justify
the great honour!”
-“Ironfoot, I’ve heard Dwarves are a laconic
lot, but you have certainly proven to the benefit of your whole nation
that no one shall fault you on your manners or eloquence!” replied Amrel.
“Shall we proceed to the inn His Majesty has reserved for you all? You
certainly need some rest and proper food after this long voyage at sea!”
Amrel and her officers
took the lead of the procession with Numnir preceding the Dwarves and with
the Royal Guards marching at the rear. They did not have to walk very long
and soon reached a large two-story edifice where the innkeeper and his
staff were waiting at the large entrance. They saluted Amrel and the Royal
Guards and invited their guests to enter. The Blue Dragon and the Dwarves
immediately complied while Geoffroy and Birghit organized their troops,
stationing two at each entrance to signify the establishment was housing
Royal guests, although customers would be allowed in after inspection.
The rest of the Royal Guards were sent to their temporary quarters with
orders to relieve their comrades at regular intervals.
Amrel had chosen that particular inn because
it was the only one among the numerous available in town to own acceptable
She called the master of the place to introduce
him to Numnir.
-“Innkeeper, let me introduce Ironfoot, Special
Envoy of Hammerblow, King Under The Mountain and his Dwarves. Would you
be kind enough to show everybody to their chambers and clearly indicate
the way to the bathrooms and privies? I shall be waiting in the lounge
with my officers. As soon as our guests are refreshed, take them to the
lounge and get ready to serve dinner. All bills concerning our party and
retinue are to be handed to me. I shall pay them immediately, but make
sure they are written in detail!”
The last was said to the innkeeper’s evident
pleasure and relief. The fact was that some nobles had the sad habit to
leave without assuming their expenses.
Amrel had actually had a small argument with
King Gerhart, back in Beaulieu, who insisted that making use of an inn
by a Royal delegation was payment enough in itself. The spat had turned
short when the Blue Dragon explained that the State would get little support
from its citizens in case of a conflict with such a high-handed attitude.
She had also promised a long talk with the King before leaving for her
present mission, hinting at finances and taxes.
Alf had always prided himself on being the best
and probably the only agent of His Majesty’s secret service worthy of his
function and mission. The Superintendent, whose face he had never seen
but whom he suspected to know, had ordered him to tail the Royal Guards
delegation to Villefranche and report on all their movements and encounters
with a special emphasis on Lady Geraldine de Blanchefleur and the alien
king’s envoy and retinue. He had followed Amrel’s train down to the harbour
city in the guise of an itinerant peddler riding an old mule leaving early
every morning and letting the Guards overtake him during the day. The route
they used borrowed a well-traveled road where quite a few individuals and
caravans would be encountered all day long, thus enticing no suspicions
or queries. Knowing that the inn would be heavily guarded at least outside,
he had simply entered the inn as a late customer, a couple hours after
the delegations, having changed his peddler’s guise to that of a fairly
well-off trader. He had played the part to the innkeeper, citing his own
small caravan camping outside the walls of the city. He had joined the
guests of the house in the common room where everybody was having his or
her meal, drinking ale or wine and socializing. The unusual customers had
attracted a lot of locals providing rare company thanks to the Guards’
no-nonsense scrutiny. The news of the drunkards’ treatment at the harbour
had spread downtown and no thug or unwanted individual dared venture in
the vicinity of the establishment. That perfectly suited Alf whose listening
was not encumbered by some unbridled drinkers’ ruckus. The problem was
that the dignitaries and Dwarves present did not provide him with much
new information. The Superintendent had this peculiar paranoia of plots
and treachery which made him believe that Alf’s targets were in connivance
to pull up some kind of coup under the mantle of diplomatic exchanges.
Since the guests seemed to be enjoying themselves
and did not show any inclination to retire to their rooms, he decided to
withdraw to his chamber early, making a show of reminding the innkeeper
to have somebody wake him up the following morning. He then proceeded to
the stairs leading to the guests’ rooms. His quarters were on the second
floor, but he entered the hall on the first floor instead. It was lined
with doors with keyholes, a prime reason for the Royal delegation’s choice
of inn apart of its amenities. It had been child’s play to know which room
Lady Geraldine de Blanchefleur was staying in. Servants were always willing
to give any information if you knew how to gain their trust, an easy task
to achieve when you considered the generally haughty attitude of most customers
in such an establishment.
Jay’s room was the third on the left. This inn
was of a very high standing indeed. The doors were even fitted with doorknobs.
Only one or two places back in Beaucastel included such luxury.
The door would not open when he tried to turn
Well, keyholes were easy to pick.
Pulling out a thin needle out of the lining of
his sleeve he inserted it inside the orifice and a few seconds later a
metallic click told him he had succeeded.
He opened the door, silently entered the bedroom,
and closed the door behind him. Although there was no light inside the
chamber, the open window let in enough light from the clear night for him
to investigate. Jay’s luggage and trunks had been left in a corner unopened.
Otherwise, he could not see any other articles on the bed, low table or
chair. That was a bit frustrating. Checking the luggage would be too troublesome
and risky and he doubted whether he would find anything of note inside.
Maybe he should visit the officers’ rooms.
He was about to turn back when a cold feminine
voice resounded behind him;
-“Alfred de Vigny, bastard son of Charles de
Vigny and his maid Jasmine! May I ask what you are doing in my chamber
at this time of the night?”
Alf found himself rooted to the floor unable
to move. Cold sweat started flowing down his brow and back. His hands grew
clammy. For the first time in his dangerous life, he felt overwhelmed by
an uncontrollable fear. Who could have come in completely undetected, and
how had she discovered his parentage whose secret only a very few individuals
were privy to?
-“Have I scared you to the point you cannot turn
round and look at me?” continued the implacable voice. “Or is it that your
pride is so wounded you will not accept your defeat by a woman?”
Alf still could not make his limbs work. He knew
that for once he had to confront his better. He could not escape as he
had done so many times. But why the hell wasn’t he able to move and face
The voice behind him turned icy.
-“Alfred de Vigny! Turn round! That is an order!”
Alf suddenly found his body shift around like
one of those dolls with a mechanism hidden inside he had seen at some fairs
and performances. The comparison brought a smile on his lips. Well, if
he could still appreciate the irony of his predicament, he was not dead
He looked up. In front of him stood the tall
dark-haired woman of overwhelming beauty they called Jay. Her expression
was neutral in contrast with her hard voice his ears were still hearing.
This was the first time he met her personally. His mind gradually came
to understand why this single individual could bend King, Queen and the
most feared soldiers of the land to her will. He sensed powers of unimaginable
proportions behind her eyes fixed on his person. Her calm composure made
it the more frightening as he realized she did not need to use those powers.
Never had he felt the need to demonstrate his obedience to any other being
before, even to the Superintendent who possessed the knowledge of his secrets
and accordingly made use of them. But he realized the tall woman in front
of him was above whatever petty concern humans had in this part of the
world. She was one of the very rare individuals that anybody of worth gladly
followed without questions or qualms.
He fell on his knees, head bowed.
-“Alf! Will you stop that! What I want from you
is not subservience but obedience and cooperation! You are too far an intelligent
person to waste! Your choice is simple: follow me and we shall find mutual
benefit for the real good of our country and people. Oppose me and you
shall discover the futility of your existence. I shall not harm you but
I can promise you will feel so useless you shall wish yourself on the other
side of the world every time you cross my path or purpose. A third choice
would be to exile yourself and start a new life somewhere else, but I know
too much of you to realize you are in a constant need of new challenges.
I offer you one. Will you accept it?”
Although still overwhelmed by her presence, the
spy felt his previous fear slowly dissolve. Could she also instill trust?
This had become an entirely new sensation to him. Alfred had lost that
particular quality for his fellow humans a long time ago. But how could
he have come to that attraction in such a short time for a person he almost
ignored everything of?
He made his decision.
-“Mylady, I shall serve you. But pray answer
a single question: how much do you know of me? I shall feel more comfortable
-“I doubt it as I know all of you from beginning
to present, the circumstances of your birth, your unhappy youth, the final
recognition by your heir provided you kept the secret safe and your subsequent
exile. I know how that puny man called the Superintendent came upon the
discovery of your secrets and used them to force you into his service.
I know the names of this man’s web of spies and informers and I have chosen
to ignore them until now like some insignificant nest of ants. But ants
sometimes have their use. And through you, Alf, we are going to make them
useful. How? By spreading the truth under the guise of stolen information.
We are going to give your superior and servants heaps of work to sort out
and check, and since all of it will be true, they will in turn become the
best source of support we shall ever have instead of having to put up with
their inane meddling! Just keep with us in whatever cover you think fit,
observe well and I shall give you information on our projects. In the company
of a very few chosen ones that I shall introduce to you in due course,
you shall be privy to state affairs, I mean the real ones. Do you find
yourself up to the task?”
-“You are doing a great honour to a man whose
mission was to bring discredit to your person only a moment ago. Do you
not run a high risk?”
-“Alf, I take pride in my being a good judge
of people. Moreover, I run little risk in borrowing your services. You
should have understood by now that I can look after myself! Now go back
to your room. You shall receive my instructions soon enough!”
Alf was about to ask more questions, but he checked
himself and with a shrug of his shoulders he greeted Amrel:
-“Good night to you, Lady Geraldine of Blanchefleur!”
-“A good night to you, too, Alfred de Vigny!”
Alf noticed that nobody had touched the door
when he opened it to exit the room. How could she have possibly come in,
Ekan was ambling along
the wharf as had become his new habit almost very morning. He had made
it his task and responsibility to choose all the food served and cooked
at the Blue Mermaid. So his first job was to check on new fish arrivals
before anybody else, as to have first pick of the best choice. He could
have gotten fish more cheaply by visiting the harbour later or sending
somebody in his stead, but his customers had come to expect quality and
were willing to pay the price. The Black Dragon knew only too well that
a great reputation might quickly be lost for good at the slightest neglect
or lack of care to details. He had come to get acquainted to a lot of local
fishermen who vied for his attentions. An easy relation had developed between
the black giant and the folk of the sea. The Blue mermaid had become the
reference in town and any produce bought by its cook was no favour to ignore.
Ekan noticed for the first time a young man sitting
on the wharf helping a sailor unload the fish from his boat onto the stones
by his sides. The wooden boxes containing the fish were not many but unusual
in the fact that the catch was carefully aligned on a bed of clean seaweed.
Ekan sat on his heels by one of the boxes.
-“Morning, good man! When was that fish caught?”
The young man looked at the black man, imposing
even in his reduced posture. A pert smile came on his lips.
-“Good morning to you, Sir! My father caught
it during the night and has just come back. I dare say you will not find
fresher fish in the whole of Dunlago!”
Ekan turned his eyes onto the youngster and grinned
-“I tend to think you are right and I like the
look of your fish!” he gave a few gentle taps with his fingertip on some
long white scabbard-like species. “That fish is very fresh indeed. I’ll
tell you what: I don’t have time to argue or haggle. Here’s some money.
Fill one case with what you think is worth the price. Choose a nice variety
of fish, crabs and the like. Cover the lot with more seaweed and bring
it at once to the Blue Mermaid. Tell the staff there that Jonas has paid
for it. If you satisfy me, tell your father I want first pick every day.
Bring the fish in a similar case as soon as your boat is unloaded. Agreed?”
Ekan handed a few coins to the young man who
looked at his hand.
-“But, but… Sir! This is a lot of money!”
-“Young man, the Blue Mermaid wants only the
best fish and a lot of it! Do you understand?”
The young man jumped on his feet. The Dragon
noted he had a pronounced limp due to a shorter leg probably caused by
an accident at an earlier age.
-“Thank you so much, Sir! This is an honour for
my father and our whole family! The Blue Mermaid! Blessed be this day!”
A worried look came on his face after the sudden
joy caused by this unhoped-for good fortune.
-“Bur Sir, this is a lot of money you entrust
us with, and this is the first time we have met!”
-“What’s your name, young man?”
-“Naeem, Mister Jonas!”
-Well, Naeem, I believe I can trust you. The
Blue Mermaid helps your trade by buying your fish and your father helps
us establish our reputation with the quality of our food. Let’s make sure
we improve on that, shall we?”
-“Yes, Mister Jonas! Thank you so much, Mister
Jonas!” answered Naeem with a big bow.
-“Good!” replied Ekan. “But don’t bend that low
to me. People showing their necks do not call for respect! You and your
father certainly deserve better!”
A confused young man locked his eyes on the back
of the black giant already returning to his work. That trust granted to
him was a rare experience in his young hard life. Prospects certainly seemed
a lot better now. He realized at long last that his father, for all his
grumpiness, had been right all along in his exactitude in choosing and
selling only the best catch of the day in spite of their poverty.
-”Naeem, stop drooling and help me with the rest
of the fish! We don’t want it to go to waste, do we?”
The young man came out of his reverie.
-“Yes, Father! Coming, Father!”
Ekan came back sometime
later after a detour at Shahzad’s shop to refill his stock of spices. The
old man was a light sleeper and his business was always the first to open.
Ekan enjoyed sharing news with the merchant who was helped by one of his
granddaughters in daytime. His wife had departed for another world a few
years ago, but his ample family was always near to help him.
-“Has the fish come?” he inquired to Grazel,
the senior lady working in the kitchen, one of very few people in the whole
establishment not afraid of Jonas. Actually Ekan always politely deferred
to her and constantly sought her advice about cooking and organizing the
kitchen. She was the person in charge when he was away on errands, nor
did he ever discuss her suggestions and advise when he was present.
-“There is a young man just arrived with the
fish. He asked about you and is waiting for you at the back.”
Ekan went out to see Naeem waiting for him with
two cases in front of him.
-“Yes, Naeem? Thank you for bringing the fish
quickly! But you should not be staying here, your father must be in need
of your service!”
-“Thank you for your concern, Mister Jonas! But
my father asked me, and I think he is right, that I thank you in person
for your willingness to buy our catch. But there is another reason!”
Without waiting for any question or comment from
Ekan, Naeem bent down to open the case on top and show its contents.
-“My father believes you gave us too much money
for just one case, even of the best catch we might have, and would like
you to accept this fish he caught last night.”
Ekan peered inside the case. A single big oval-shaped
fish lay there. The scales and eyes were bright and the flesh appeared
abundant and firm. It certainly looked appetizing and Ekan had the satisfaction
to understand he had found a fisherman of rare skills.
-“How do you call that fish, Naeem?”
-“We call it germon, some other people call it
yellowfin. It swims very fast and very long distances far at sea. It’s
definitely not easy to catch and bring aboard. But it is certainly worth
the effort! In all my life I ate some of its flesh only twice, and I still
remember its taste as if it were my last meal!”
-“Naeem, convey my sincere thanks to your father
and tell him that the Blue Mermaid will be proud to recommend him to our
friends and customers. But do not forget we have first pick!”
-“Yes, Mister Jonas! See you tomorrow, Mister
The young man went away running in spite of his
limp. Ekan observed him for a while, an idea forming in his head.
Alf, Alfred de Vigny
of his true name, knocked at the door of the Superintendent’s office. He
had reached Beaucastel ahead of Amrel and her companions on her orders.
She had joined him in his room the night before at the inn all of them
stayed before he made ready for bed. She had instructed him on what to
tell his superior, all of it perfect truth. As truth was hard for people
like his chief spy to admit, the latter would be kept busy for a while
trying to fault his most capable servant. Well, servant no more as Alf
had changed his loyalties. He had actually felt relieved of an oppressing
weight for the first time in a long while since he had met Jay. After his
whole life of incertitude, danger and frustration, he knew at last he trundled
the right path and had acquired a far more exciting life in the bargain.
Jay had rewarded him with the name of the Superintendent and sealed their
pact with a kiss that had completely taken him by surprise and left him
panting while the Blue Dragon had exited his room with a small wicked laugh.
-“Come in!” answered a falsetto voice.
Alf entered, carefully closing the door behind
him and went to confront the man sitting behind a grand desk covered with
books, scrolls and piles of parchments. He could not see the visage of
the obviously fat creature as it was kept hidden behind a hood lowered
over the tip of his nose, and also because the candles and glow baskets
had been purposefully moved behind his back, leaving his face in complete
darkness, invisible to anybody facing the desk. Let him believe I don’t
know him. I’ll end this charade in my own time! Alf thought with glee.
-“Alf! The least I might venture to say is that
your report mildly surprises me! Geraldine de Blanchefleur is planning
to enroll the help of dwarves to overhaul, I shall say, create a water
and sewer system! Now, do we need that? Does she have the faintest idea
how much it shall cost the Realm? And what is that talk of an embassy?
Is she trying to invite all our neighbours, foes and enemies included,
to stay among us to spy at leisure in full impunity? Tell me, what is that
damn woman trying to prove? How come our King and Queen are bending at
her knees? What the hell is happening here?”
The fat man was losing control. Good for him!
Alf thought. Abut time the slimy bastard felt his seat slipping from under
his oversized arse!
-“Superintendent, with all due respect, I’m afraid
that all I wrote in my report is just the plain truth! Let me dwell on
each point you have raised:
First, this idea of creating a water and sewer
system is most welcome, considering the state of hygiene prevalent in Beaucastel
in particular, and Beaulieu in general. Even the Races of the Desert and
the Sea have it! And looking at them, they are definitely healthier than
our lot! Moreover, considering our geographical position and terrain, Dwarves
are most qualified to tackle the job. And by the way, Geraldine is also
planning to ask for a hospital and a medical school to be built as well.
Second, the Embassy I do think is a bright idea:
do you realize how much time and money we shall save by having representatives
of all nations come to us and stay in Beaulieu? No need to send delegations
any more! By creating such a facility, Beaulieu shall become the unofficial
center of Alymndes. We do not want to spoil such an opportunity with a
lack of facilities and stinking streets, do we? They might be able to spy
on us, but we certainly can do the same, too!
Third, what the hell is happening here is that
an extremely qualified individual has arrived in our midst to put some
steel in our backbones at the right time. I wish I was wrong, but bad times
are brewing on a larger scale that we dare imagine. We shall need all the
help we can land our hands on to protect our southern frontiers soon. I’ve
been working on a few more reports on that particular issue. You had better
forget your concern about Lady Geraldine de Blanchefleur and concentrate
on bigger and more pressing matters, namely the South!”
The Superintendent was almost sputtering when
he finally managed to answer.
-“Alfred de Vigny! Do not forget your standing!
This is tantamount to high treason! I don’t have any counsel to receive
from you! Do your job and dare not overstep the boundaries of your station!
Do I have to remind you of your origins?”
Alfred suddenly reached the limits of his patience.
-“My dear Superintendent,” he started in a cold
deliberate tone that even surprised him, “you happened to know by pure
chance, as most of your kin do, that my father, Charles de Vigny, a notorious
lecher among the very small nobility of Beaucastel, was fool enough to
jump on one of his servants, Jasmine of name, who proved more clever than
he suspected, and forced him to recognize me as his bastard, although my
mother later lost her life for that deed. But she had already found another
protector who, in spite of the fact he could not save her, lived long enough
to see me reach my adult age before he was himself assassinated by my dear
father! This is when you intervened and arranged with my sire to leave
me alone in exchange for your silence on some of his more unsavoury secrets.
Your price was my unreserved service to your person, which I was glad to
give at the time, foolish young man as I had grown to be! Since then, I
have worked my arse off to become your best and foremost agent. Do not
tell me the contrary! I happen to know all your men and women and they
do not possess half of my skills, experience or knowledge! Now, are you
going to listen to me or lose me?”
Although he could not see him, he sensed the
fat man had turned white with rage at suddenly discovering that somebody
was finally standing up to him, and in the process probably becoming an
enemy who would also know too much for his own personal comfort. The man
tried to bluff his way out of his untenable situation:
-“And you think that after this little display
of insubordination, you will leave this place unscathed?”
Alfred emitted a sarcastic laugh.
-“My dear sir, haven’t you realized that for
all your precautions, there are plenty of ears presently listening to our
little conversation whose owners will be too happy to communicate to powers
out of your reach? Shall I mention your own name in a loud enough
voice for the whole Realm to hear? I can see from your reaction that it
would not please you too much, especially considering the profits you have
undeservedly earned from your elevated position! Are you going to risk
losing everything because you refuse to listen to good sense?”
The fat man’s knuckles turned white as his hands
held the arms of his chair. He was evidently caught in a dire dilemma.
Whatever the Superintendent’s choice, Alfred knew too well he would have
to keep a wearier eye than ever behind his back. His life might become
more fraught with danger than ever, but he benefited from a new source
of protection that nonetheless he still had problems to evaluate. At least
this time he shall not be the loser.
-“Alfred, you do not frighten me the least, but
since I value your services, I shall forget this tantrum of yours. But
you will have to prove me your loyalty all over again! Now leave me! I
shall have you called after I finish reading your reports on the Southern
borders you mentioned! Dismissed!”
Alf left after a minimal bow he thought undeserved,
and was down a way in the corridor leading from the Superintendent’s office
when Amrel appeared.
A surprised Alf said:
-“Jay, would you stop coming the hell out of
nowhere all the time! For all my acting, I don’t have such a strong heart!
Especially after having to deal with the mountain of lard who calls himself
The Blue Dragon showed her white teeth as she
-“Alf! I commiserate with you over that burden,
but it is time you completely forgot worrying about him! He is surely a
man to fear, but not for the reasons you might entertain if some of my
suspicions prove true! Actually, it might be a good idea for you to keep
your eyes and ears open on that particular individual and all his agents
as well. I cannot be in the right places all the time. Something is brewing
inside the Palace. You might have to improvise and take steps in some cases.
Do me another favour: keep your eyes on the backs of our King and Queen!”
Alfred could not hide some shock at the last
-“Jay, come on! You surely do not mean the Royal
Couple is in any kind of danger!”
-“Times are a changing, Alf, rules are being
broken, traditions are no longer respected. It hasn’t become obvious yet,
but sooner or later you will feel the same. I’m asking you this service:
pretend to calm down and obey the Superintendent’s orders, but keep close
to whoever might try to break the peace of the Palace. May I count on you?”
-“Geraldine, you know you may! For all our very
brief acquaintance, I don’t think I have to prove my loyalty, new I must
admit, to you or your cause!”
Amrel kissed the spy on his left ear.
-“I know I may, but I enjoy asking you!”
The Blue Dragon disappeared before Alf had time
to recover from that additional familiarity from one of the most feared
personalities in the capital, and probably in the whole Realm soon, if
his hunch was correct.
Ekan wondered if he
could possibly become busier than he presently was. The Dwarves had quickly
settled in the former Green Anchor Tavern, which they had help clean up
and rebuild. In their typical directness, they had called their shop “Dwarven
Crafts”. To call it a shop was clearly an understatement. Not only they
all lived above their shop, but they had also built in no time an annex
for the staff looking after them as well as a forge. Their constant need
for clear water had forced them to dig a new well, too. Finally, using
the same water, they had conceived a large bathhouse for themselves and
the staff. The building was equipped with a device of their own making
to heat the water. Bathers could make use of three different rooms: a hot
bath, a tepidarium for a steam bath and a cold pool. They had allowed different
bathing times devised to accommodate Dwarves, male and female humans at
various times. As agreed they took all their meals at the Blue Mermaid,
usually inside the common room away from the sunny terrace. They felt more
comfortable between four walls, a floor and a roof. They had proved quite
a lot to feed. A dwarf’s appetite and thirst just did not compare even
with that of the big men generally found among the Races of the Desert
and the Sea. At night, many curious patrons and prospective clients joined
them in their libations to success and health. Master Turgas had to impose
a midnight curfew on all drinking for fear of his staff getting no sleep.
Business was flourishing but there were limits to what a man or a woman
could do. As soon as they could get enough hands, Ekan had suggested a
compulsory holiday rotation so as to keep all working personnel refreshed
and willing. This innovation would probably raise a few hiccups among the
Guild. The concept of a Guild had been quite easily accepted in the end.
Holidays could prove a totally different matter. The traditional calendar
worked along the moons and the seasons. There was one festival holiday
for each new season and another one at the end of each full moon cycle.
The Black Dragon had rapidly calculated that an extra holiday for each
quarter of the moon would be proper enough as a regular day-off pattern.
Moreover, the Guild did not stipulate anything on holidays. If a successful
business institutionalized such a professional practice, other businesses
would see the advantages easily enough after they had noticed the greater
readiness to work. Ekan would need little persuasion to exert on Turgas
to get his idea adopted; as such a new holiday tradition would engender
more leisure and business.
But for the moment, dragon or not, he had more
work than he cared for.
He was interrupted in his ruminations by a young
man’s voice from the kitchen door.
-“Jonas! Greetings! Look at what I’m bringing!”
shouted a genial Naeem carrying a large wooden box. Jonas hurried to see
the contents. The young man was such a great source of information on what
dwelt in the sea. Ekan had never lost his passion for those great expanses
of water and the mysterious teeming lives below the surface.
There were no different fish from the day before
and their quality was irreproachable as ever. But in a corner he found
half a dozen large slightly round dark shells dotted with small holes.
He took one of them, turned it over and saw a kind of large foot under
it. He scratched his shaved head in wonder.
-“What are these?”
-Abalones. We also call them “sea ears”. Divers
have to go down quite deep to collect them. But I can tell you they are
worth the effort!”
-I believe you, but how do you cook them?”
-“Shall I show you?”
-“Sure! All of you, make some room! Time for
some learning!” laughed the black giant, quite happy to discover another
Demonstrating at the same time, Naeem, thoroughly
enjoying himself, explained:
-“First, you clean the shell and the shellfish
by rubbing the whole with salt and then rinse it with water. Sponge the
water off with a clean cloth. Next, heat some oil in a frying pan until
very hot. Put the abalone shell up onto the frying pan. Let it cook for
a while, then cover it and let it steam inside its own juices for about
the same time again. Take out the abalone and put it shell down onto a
wooden cutting board. Insert a spatula between the shell and the meat.
It should come off easily. Now turn the shellfish over, innards on top.
Take off the innards. Throw them away or use them to make broth. Cut out
the top of the shellfish, as the meat there is a bit tough to eat. Last,
cut it in very thin slices from top to bottom and at a slant. You can eat
the slices hot or cold as they are, with spices or sauce.”
He proceeded to cut the cooked abalone as indicated
and offered a slice to everyone present. Ekan brought the slice to his
mouth. The meat was very tender and succulent, as the shellfish was very
fresh. A look at his staff was sufficient to convince him they had found
a new choice food.
-“Tell me, Naeem, do you usually cook your shellfish
in oil or butter?”
-“Well, either would do. Butter would be best,
but it darkens quickly. Oil is a bit heavy. Mixing the two might be a better
idea. But butter does not come cheap”
-“I see. I’d like to show you something. Come
outside with me!”
The young fisherman and the kitchen staff looked
askance at Jonas. The Black Dragon beckoned them all to follow him outside.
He guided them through the back garden to the very edge of the property.
Quite a few trees with a height varying between that of one and two adult
men stood there laden with small oval fruits. He pointed at the trees.
-“Naeem, what do you call those trees? I’ve seen
many of them around. I’ve been meaning to ask somebody for a while.”
-“They are called oliva trees. They’ve been there
for as long as I remember. I’m sure those trees have been growing here
for generations. As far as I know, apart from their shade, they are pretty
-“Really?” answered Jonas.
He picked a handful of the small fruits.
-“People have never used them for food or else?”
he continued looking at everybody. Negative nods were the only reply.
Holding the berries in his right hand over his
open left hand, he proceeded to squeeze and crush them in his enormous
grip. A yellow green liquid started sipping out of his clenched fist into
his left palm. Throwing away the crushed fruit, he dipped a finger into
the oily substance and tasted it.
-“Well, well. I’ll be damned! And thinking that
all the time we had the solution for something better than that terrible
bean oil of yours next to our door! Taste it and tell me what you think!”
Each member of the kitchen staff and Naeem dipped
a finger into Ekan’s palm and tasted the oil. Some came a second time for
a bigger dip. All showed surprised faces, eyes round and lips smacking.
-“What do you think, Grazel? Would your people
and our customers appreciate such a taste?”
-“I’ll be damned, too!” exclaimed the senior
kitchen maid. “So that’s what those trees have been there for all the time!
Why did our ancestors forget such a treasure?”
-“We’ll probably never know.” Answered a pensive
Jonas. “Alright ladies, back to work! I’m going to ask the Dwarves if they
can come up with some kind of press. Naeem, come with me!”
-“But, I have to…” started the young man.
-“Don’t worry! I’ll talk to your father. But
before that, I’d like to have a word with you. Let’s pick up a couple of
They went back to the kitchen to take the baskets
and back again to the oliva trees where they proceeded to harvest the berries.
While they were doing that, Ekan addressed Naeem.
-“We shall have to find a more efficient way
to harvest those fruit. Picking them up one by one will be too much time
consuming and backbreaking!”
-“Why don’t we do like for chestnuts? Just put
a cloth under the tree and beat the branches with long sticks.”
Ekan stopped his work to look at the young man’s
-”Naeem, for all your knowledge of the sea and
the fish, you ought to use your brains and skills for a land job. I understand
your father needs you. But that is only in the mornings. Meaning no disrespect,
but that leg of yours will never allow you to follow your sire’s steps.”
Seeing the young man’s face darken, the Black
Dragon raised a hand in appeasement.
“What I mean is that I see a better alternative
for you that won’t prevent you from helping your father and provide you
with a decent respected life.”
-“What kind of alternative could it be, then?”
asked a still miffed Naeem.
-“Naeem, you have an inborn sense for cooking
and choosing the best quality ingredients. Why don’t you become a cook?
How about starting as my apprentice?”
-“At my age? And what about the kitchen maids?
Won’t they think I’m intruding?”
Ekan laughed Naeem’s reservations away.
-“There is no age for becoming a cook! Good food
is good food. That is all! As far as Grazel and her maids are concerned,
they are overloaded with work, what with serving the guests and all that
cleaning. If you show them respect, they will be only too happy to share
all their little secrets! A kitchen is all teamwork, nothing else! You
can help your father in the mornings. Work in the kitchen will become a
natural continuation of your everyday life. I’m pretty sure I can convince
your father! So, what do you say?”
Ekan held out his hand. Naeem hesitated a moment
but finally shook it.
-“As long as my father agrees, I shall be honoured
to serve you!”
-“You are a good son and I’m sure your father
will be proud of you! But know you are not serving me, you are helping
me! Now let’s take those oliva to the Dwarves, shall we?”
The Chamber of Honour
in Beaucastel Castle was crowded to the limits. Every courtier and individual
of note in the city, lords, barons and minor nobility of the Realm had
come in their finest garments and attire, some in the company of their
wives, lovers, sons and followers. Everybody had joined the ceremony to
welcome the delegation from the Kingdom under The Mountain.
Gerhart, the King of Beaulieu and his wife, Marghrete
de Pontaven, were regally sitting on their thrones. Gerhart rested his
left hand on his wife’s right wrist in a show of unity, a novel fact duly
noticed by the whole court. The King had lost lots of weight as daily exercise
started to show. Geoffroy d’Arcourt had taken personal charge of his training
under Amrel’s unerring eye. Obeying her instructions, Marghrete made sure
that her husband’s hygiene came par to the exacting standards set by the
Blue Dragon. Gerhart, to the chagrin of his former drinking companions,
had drastically cut on his food and spirits consumption. The Royal Couple
had even begun to share their meals and occasional nightcaps. Jay, whenever
she could, visited their apartments to share a last drink in front of the
fireplace, swapping tales and lore and sometimes indulging in state affairs.
A sober and fitter Gerhart was a good enough
person to socialize with, and Marghrete had significantly mellowed towards
her husband. Jay wondered whether they should find their bed too large
someday. Well, as long as they made any show of unity as the Royal Couple,
the rest was of little consequence, but it would come as a bonus if those
two could start to need each other as well.
Amrel was standing dressed in her court blue
robe slightly behind the Queen with Birghit in full Walkyrie regalia. Geoffroy
d’Arcout stood behind the King in his parade accouterment, his right arm
holding his helmet and his left hand on the pommel of his sword. He was
the only present individual allowed to carry any weapons apart of the Royal
Guards keeping the crowd out of the large alley reserved to the day’s visitors,
although he knew that Birghit had a few knives hidden in her boots and
garments. Both were keeping a weary watch on the assembly. Although they
thought to know all the faces inside the hall, some retinues might always
include some unwanted intruders. They certainly were not aware that Alfred
de Vigny was unobtrusively helping them from within the assembly. Had they
all known Amrel’s real powers, they would not have bothered, but the latter
was definitely not prepared to make their job easier. Let them keep alert,
good training for them all, she reflected.
The booming voice of a herald interrupted her
-“His Majesty the King, Her majesty the Queen,
my Lords and ladies, the Delegation of the Kingdom Under The Mountain!”
The large doors of the Chamber of Honor slowly
opened. A hush came over the crowd, which soon turned to murmurs of surprise.
The Dwarves had only arrived the day before and had moved in the best inn
of Beaucastel, that is, the Seven dragons where Jay actually stayed. To
tell the truth, the Seven Dragons was still the only establishment up to
her liking and satisfaction in the whole city. She could not wait to start
her little revolution and the Dwarves were going to become major actors
in her play.
Numnir and his full retinue of twenty Dwarves
entered the hall. They had discarded their usual drab garments, armour
and weapons. Instead, they sported outlandish clothes of bright colours
with knee-high boots, breeches and open shirts of seemingly mismatched
hues, large waistbands and even more colourful flat soft hats. Their newly
braided beards hid most of their chests, but anybody who might have entertained
the notion they were some kind of stunted children or midgets had to revise
their opinions when they caught a glimpse of rock-hard bodies and muscles.
Numnir had kept to his favourite grey colour but his clothes were of the
finest quality. His height, short-cropped beard, and a golden ring on his
left ear made a lot of onlookers doubt whether he belonged to the same
The King and the Queen stood up in unison at
their arrival, an act that provoked another ripple of surprise in the audience.
Nobody had imagined those little people commanded so much attention. Some
faces turned speculative at the notion.
Numnir and his companions suddenly stopped as
one and took a deep bow. The king and the Queen reciprocated in the same
Numnir addressed the monarchs:
-“Hail Your Majesties! These humble servants
of the Kingdom Under The Mountain have come to your famed realm and its
gentle people to convey their King’s wish to open official relations between
our nations and be granted the authorization to conduct trades and crafts
in your capital and kingdom!”
Alfred de Vigny heard one baron snidely whisper
to his neighbour:
-“Don’t you think that our King should be affronted
by the small beggars who have the nerve to ask for favours empty-handed?”
As on cue, Numnir continued:
-“As a token of our true wish for friendship
and fruitful exchanges, our King beg Your Majesties to accept this small
present from our craftsmen!”
As the Dwarves had evidently brought nothing
on their own persons, many men and women looked at each other with questions
about to pop out of their mouths, when Amrel, who of course knew all about
the intent of the Dwarves, made a discreet sign to a servant who was standing
by the left wall slightly in front of the monarchs. The man pulled on a
thin rope, and a curtain, in front of a high window that nobody had bothered
to notice, dramatically fell to the ground, revealing a magnificent stained
glass representing the Arms of Gerhart King of Beaulieu.
The location had been well chosen, as the sun
outside hit the wall full at that time of the day. The night before, the
Dwarves had soldered all the pieces into place. The glass had been manufactured
before the delegation left the Iron Drags, and Amrel and Numnir for once
had used some of their magical powers to insure that nobody heard or saw
the Dwarves at work. Only Gerhart, Marghrete, Geoffroy, Birghit and Alfred
had been party to the little deception. The five of them were thoroughly
enjoying the sight of the courtiers across the hall gasping at the sight,
while the other half of the audience were craning their necks into impossible
angles to have a look at the source of their fellows’ surprise.
The stained glass window was a true marvel in
its simplicity and quality. Very little could be distinguished between
the various pieces of glass depicting a large tree with a green bough and
red fruit on top of a strong brown trunk finishing in extended roots, on
a silver field. The Arms were bordered in the shape of an escutcheon topped
with a golden crown, the whole in the middle of a bright blue background
filling the rest of the window.
Alf heard the same baron remark:
-“I’ll be damned! To think of the amount of money
we would have to pay for that!”
-“Especially considering that all of us, including
you, shall not be able to wait until we have the same in our castles or
mansions!” answered his neighbour.
Well, Gerhart would have to think very hard to
find a way to refuse the authorization for trade and crafts to the Dwarves
after that small demonstration, the Blue Dragon’s spy gleefully thought.
At a sign from Gerhart, the herald struck his
staff hard on the floor to make himself heard:
-“Respected guests, Lords and Ladies, hearken
to our King’s words!”
At this rare show of authority from their monarch,
the crowd came to a quick silence. Good start, Amrel reflected.
-“Dear Sirs! Please forgive me my clumsiness
in addressing you as such as I must confess my ignorance of your titles
and customs! At least, looking at your magnificent beards, I’m safe in
thinking that I make only half a mistake!” This brought a wide grin on
his interlocutors’ faces. Dwarves were extremely proud of their beards
and always felt deeply flattered by compliments on that particular facet
of their anatomy. Knowing it or not, Gerhart had already endeared himself
to the denizens of the Iron Crags with this sole comment. The monarch continued:
-“I in turn wish to convey my deep sincere thanks
to your King for your nation’s offer to establish diplomatic ties and trade
relations! I take it on my authority as the King of Beaucastel that all
citizens from the Kingdom Under The Mountain are welcome to stay and prosper
in our country for the mutual benefit of our nations!”
Well said, approved Amrel, and let’s see who
shall try and dare disagree with that! That unusual display of strength
from their King will certainly make quite a few lords and barons think
again. To what effect, she was surely impatient to discover.
The herald, who had been well schooled on what
cues to react, banged his staff again.
-“Your Majesties, respected guests, Lords and
Ladies, the banquet offered by the Realm of Beaulieu in honour of the Kingdom
Under The Mountain has been made ready! Would everybody please retire to
the Hall of Feasts!”
At these words, the Royal Guards banged the butt
of their lances on the stone floor. Then each Knight and Walkyrie crossed
his or her pike along the gap separating the two crowds of the audience,
effectively preventing the courtiers to interfere with the proper exit
of their king, Queen, most trusted servants and guests. This last show
of decorum proved to be a slightly unnerving discovery that times were
changing for most of the nobility present on that day who were left to
follow in a sorry disorder once the Royal Guards had departed from the
A similar scene was repeated inside the Hall
of Feasts where the Royal Couple and their companions seated themselves
at the large central table. Numnir had taken the seat at the right of Gerhart
who waited until Marghrete had taken her place on his left. Amrel chose
a location next to her brother while Birghit and Geoffroy sat down in that
order, left of their Queen. The Dwarves who planned to stay in Beaucastel
were lined on the right while their kin bound for the Forest of the Elves
sat in front of them. As soon as everybody was comfortable, the Royal Guards
let in the Court who were left with tables placed parallel or at the bottom
end of the Royal Table. Lords and Ladies unashamedly vied with each other
for the seats nearest to the main table, in some cases leading to some
undignified scuffles. Such behaviour reassured Amrel of the King’s newly
acquired stature. People started openly fighting for his favours, and so
her projects would consequently be more easily adopted.
Gerhart rose from his seat and waited for the
room to grow quiet, which came quickly enough.
-“Dear guests, Lords and Ladies! As is the fashion
in our lands, I would like to propose a toast to the King Under The Mountain
who, I certainly hope, will grace these halls with his august presence
as soon as our beloved city of Beaucastel will be fit to welcome His Majesty!”
Servants who had waited on the sidelines for
the order brought large ewers of wine to fill every cup in the Hall. When
everyone had been served, Gerhart rose his cup.
-“To His majesty the King Under The Mountain
and all the Dwarven families of the Realm under the Iron Crags!”
All people present repeated the toast, some hesitatingly,
as they wondered why they had not been informed of the future visit of
a monarch from a distant nation. Others with sharper minds were trying
to find an answer to the question why their city was not fit yet to welcome
such a guest.
More toasts followed, including Numnir’s on behalf
of his King and people until at last the King ordered the banquet to be
served, allowing a welcome informality to the event.
While everybody else was clearly enjoying himself
or herself with some great game and the best wines produced on the southern
slopes of Beaulieu, Gerhart found a frown on his wife’s brow and her reluctance
to partake of the succulent meat in front of her.
-“Marghrete, what brings that worry on your beautiful
visage? I hope you are not disapproving of my eating and drinking?”
-“Gerhart, flattering me will not bring about
a softening of my resolve.” Answered the Queen. Seeing the chagrined mien
of her husband, a small smile lit her face. “Do not worry, my dear husband,
you can eat and drink your fill today! No, I am preoccupied for another
reason. Have you noticed the absence of one of your subjects today?”
Gerhart looked around him.
-“Marghrete, I’m sorry. I have been too busy
to make a tally of all our guests. But you are right, I do not see our
twice-removed cousin, Simon de Montjoie. Why hasn’t he come to join the
nobility to our reception?”
-“Come to think of it, we have not heard of him
for quite a while. We have not received much news from Montjoie or Montreduc,
Amrel pricked her ears at this new source of
-“Marghrete, who is Simon de Montjoie, and where
are Montjoie and Montreduc located, if I may ask?”
-“You may, Jay, you may.” Answered the Queen
with some asperity. “Although I doubt you will enjoy meeting that member
of our kin. Simon is Duke and Lord of Montjoie, a fairly large and rich
land bordering the Fire Mountains, half way between the sea and the Elf
forest, with Montjoie as its capital and Montreduc as its second main city.
To tell you the truth, we never have entertained the best of relations
with him or his subjects. But for the last few months it seems that he
has completed removed himself from the rest of the Realm. We duly sent
an official invitation to today’s party. We never received any reply. I
suppose we shall have to check with our messenger.”
Gerhart interrupted her:
-“That can be taken care of tomorrow, if you
do not mind. I would rather talk about more important matters than a rude-mannered
cousin of mine!”
Turning to Numnir:
-“Tell me, Ironfoot: Geraldine has been pestering
me for ages about a sewer system and other devices that she is convinced
our city is in dire need of. Could you be kind enough to enlighten me?”
-“Your Majesty, I doubt this is the proper time
to talk about it since we are offered such a great feast. But we Dwarves
are above all a very practical race, and I shall give you a few lines to
help you grasp the utility of such a project. You will recall that our
own kind has lived inside rock for as far as we can remember. Therefore,
proper hygiene has always been of the utmost importance. I do not want
to go into technical details right now as we can do this in the following
days, but let me point out that any time water or refuse becomes stagnant,
that is, does not move away rapidly, there is an acute danger of disease
and epidemics. Moreover, the proximity of such waste waters with drinking
water is fraught with dire consequences. I’m afraid you shall have to dig
new wells, too. As for drinking water, in addition to wells, it should
be gathered whenever possible from mountain streams or rainwater tanks
in cities located on an elevated position like Beaucastel. For cities and
communities dwelling in the plains of flat terrain, I’m afraid that wells
will all have to be dug again and protected. You will also have to re-educate
your subjects on that problem. Am I boring you, Your Majesty?”
-“ No, you are not, but you surely have frightened
me! Have you already assessed the situation here?”
-“No real need for us to conduct any survey,
as Geraldine has amply briefed us on the need to rehaul, or if I may quote
her, create a whole new system of sewers, water pipes and supply. I may
also add that a bath tradition like that in Dunlago and the Land of the
Free Races of the Desert and the Sea would do you a lot of good. Dwarves
too are very fond of their baths as underground work can be a pretty dirty
one, if you allow me the expression! And one more thing I would like to
suggest, if Your Majesty deigns to listen, is to create a hospital and
a medical school!”
-“Is that all?” asked an overawed monarch.
-“Well, for a start, if Your Majesty allows me
to proffer!” answered a poker-faced Ironfoot.
Gerhart suddenly could not bring himself to cast
his eyes on all the scrumptious victuals and nectars in front of the table
he had been looking forward to with so much relish only a few moments ago.
Closing his eyes, he took his head between his
two hands, supporting himself with his elbows on the wooden surface.
-“Do you have any inkling of how much money and
labour such a task would require?” he almost whispered.
-“Well, as for designing and coordinating the
building, we shall be glad to offer our expertise for free as a favour
for a favour, as you have been so generous in granting us the right to
stay and conduct trade in your country and Beaucastel in particular. If
we make a success of that enterprise in your capital, the rest of the country,
I’m sure, will see the benefits and the need for such changes. As for labour…”
-“Gerhart, Ironfoot, please allow me!” interrupted
Amrel. “I think I have an idea for cheap labour. Gerhart, how many people
are locked in you dungeon and jails?”
-“More than I care, as you probably know. But
what do they have to do with our present discussion?”
-“My dear Gerhart, is the drink already clouding
-“Jay, do you mind? You are addressing me in
front of the court! Could you please spare me sometimes? I’ve been doing
my best, have I not?”
Marghrete urgently elbowed her husband.
-“Stop whining, Gerhart, will you? This is very
important talk! In any case, nobody’s listening to us. They are too busy
The King of Beaulieu looked at Numnir.
-“My dear Ironfoot, what can a man do against
two women? Please tell me!” he sighed.
-“I do not know, Sire, I do not know! Although
our King has his hands full with his own wife, I can tell you! Queen Marghrete
is a model of gentility in comparison!” Numnir answered with a wink, trying
to reassure his Royal interlocutor.
-“I saw that, Ironfoot!” laughed Amrel. “Anyway,
why don’t you get all those villains, thieves and beggars to work and make
themselves useful. I’m not talking of forced labour. Have them work in
shifts, say eight hours a day, feed them properly and order them to clean
their own cells morning and evenings. They will think twice before coming
back to their old ways, and at the same time learn the value of hygiene.
Once they have finished their sentence, you could even recruit them with
lodging, feeding and payment if you treat them well enough!”
-“But what about those hard-bitten thugs and
criminals and those sentenced to the gibbet? I certainly cannot include
them all in the same lot, can I?”
-“See, you are getting more clever!” commented
Marghrete. “Of course you cannot mix real criminals with petty rabble who
got caught because they were hungry or destitute! You should have them
separated into different workgangs with different tasks. Amrel and I actually
had a long talk about it, and do not accuse us of fomenting behind your
back! You are busy enough becoming a King and building respect for your
position! Some of us have to share the tasks since you are saddled with
a bunch of useless sycophants as councilors, and a conniving Superintendent
who is the last to wish for any changes with the present situation!”
-“Talking of that Superintendent, are any of
his agents listening?” asked Gerhart, peering around himself.
Both women exchanged a knowing smile. Amrel took
over from where the Queen had left:
-“Gerhart, what use do you have of dead criminals
or murderers? A death sentence will not deter them from committing their
deeds, far from it. However, if they find some of their own kind put to
work for all to see and mark them, they certainly will think twice next
time. You end up with less crime and free labour.”
-“But that still does not solve the whole problem
of keeping them apart from their own kind!”
-“Well, why don’t you have a law devised to determine
punishments according to crimes in varying degrees of severity and length?”
-“Fine, but who is going to devise that law?
I definitely cannot afford to promulgate it myself, lest I’m accused of
despotism! You remember what happened to the last one who tried that!”
-“We certainly will have to work on that. First
thing tomorrow, shall we? Until then, why don’t we join the fun, Gerhart?”
Marghrete planted a sudden kiss on her husband’s cheek as she had noticed
Amrel sometimes do with her own people. This simple gesture seemed to bring
so much out of men. Birghit looked away in disgust, apparently shocked
by such a public display of royal familiarity, but just managed to prevent
wine from spilling from her cup when a laughing Amrel heartily slapped
her back. Geoffroy was keeping his counsel and maintaining an alert eye
on all inside the Hall. He noticed that quite a few noblemen and their
wives had already succeeded in enticing some of the Dwarves to join them
at their tables. Obviously, Ironfoot’s charges and their craft had struck
a chord. All these vain lords and barons were about to provide plenty of
work for their new guests.
Ekan had almost finished
supervising lunch on that day, when Turgas entered the kitchen.
-“Jonas, would you mind leaving your work for
a while? Some guests want to talk to you.”
-“What kind of guests are there to interfere
with the good running of your inn?” a lightly disgruntled Black dragon
-“Don’t take it too badly. These are very important
patrons actually. No less than Anthony, our King’s brother, and his wife
Gladys. Grant them their wish, would you?”
Ekan took his apron off. He put on a small vest
over his bare chest for the sake of good manners, although he usually wore
nothing above his wide sash. Signaling to the kitchen staff to continue
their work, he asked Turgas:
-“Where are those important guests?”
-“Outside under the verandah!”
Important guests and customers of some notoriety
had recently taken to the habit of patronizing the verandah at all hours
of the day mostly to be seen by all passers-by, but also to enjoy the food,
drinks and other dainties served at the Blue Mermaid. The establishment
had rapidly gained a well-deserved fame through the whole town. A lot of
people vied for a seat at Turgas’ inn, although the innkeeper had the good
sense to serve the same fare at the same price, wherever his clients chose
to eat or drink, indoors or outdoors. Some food or drinks would come more
expensive for the sole reason of a superior quality, and Turgas as a good
restaurateur, took pains to explain and counsel his customers, regardless
of class or means. Nobody could complain, as he strictly kept to a policy
of first-come, first-seated, first-served, whatever the location available
or the guest. The general informality of the citizens of Dunlago did help,
although some customers evidently kept to themselves or their own class.
The staff had express orders to serve everybody equally and well.
Ekan saw a tall man, thinner than most denizens
of the tavern with light-brown coloured skin, sitting in the middle of
the verandah in the company of a striking dark-skinned woman whose well-endowed
figure was barely hidden by almost transparent tunic and pantaloons made
of loose linen-like fabric. They had finished their meal and were enjoying
a last drink of fine Beaulieu red wine when the man made a sign to the
Black Dragon who approached their table and stopped a couple of steps away
from the couple.
The man haughtily addressed him without bothering
himself with any kind of greetings:
-“Aren’t you Jonas, the man who helped the Captain
of the Seadragon capture the slavers’ ship?”
-“I am Jonas indeed, Mylord. I did not actually
help capture the ship. I only participated in the fight. I’m not proud
of it, truth be told, but I do not regret it, either.”
-“Jonas, I am not questioning your acts, I was
merely trying to know you better!”
-“Your fame happened to have reached as far as
the Palace. Here we have a man coming out of absolutely nowhere, helping
to overcome a slavers’ ship, knowing his letters and apparently cooking
the best food in town…”
-“Pardon my impertinence, Mylord, but this sounds
more like an interrogation than a simple inquiry. Moreover, you already
seem to be well informed. May I presume to ask whom I have the honour to
The noble was about to retort angrily when his
companion put a restraining hand on his forearm.
-“Desist, Anthony! I’m afraid you have met more
then your match this time, if I’m a good judge of men! Dear man Jonas,
please accept our apologies for bullying you into conversation. This is
Anthony Vanenklaar, younger brother of our King, Marcus Vanenklaar and
I’m his wife Gladys.”
-“No need to apologize, Mylady! And no offense
taken, whatsoever. I am just a plain speaking man just arrived from the
uncouth north. I shall have to learn more of the ways of your good city,
I reckon. I am the one who ought to offer his apologies!”
-“See, Anthony? This good man Jonas has more
diplomatic sense and savvy than you might have given him credit for at
-“Who are you to say, my dear half?” replied
the mollified royal brother. “As a woman of your charms and wiles, it is
just too easy, and unfair I must add. Men keep falling at your knees at
the mere first glance or word from your part!”
-“Come, come my dear husband! Look at Jonas.
Do you think he is ready to bend his big body for my sole pleasure?”
-“Knowing your tastes, that might just be what
you are waiting for!”
-“Ah, how shocking! How dare you? Now, what kind
of impression do you think we are making?”
Seeing that the black giant’s face did not change
a bit at her banter, she changed the topic:
-“Tell me, my dear man Jonas. We have come to
notice a sudden change in the food served at your inn. We certainly appreciated
it before. But how could it have still improved in such a way and so rapidly?
What is your secret, if I may ask?”
-“Master Turgas’ inn, Mylady, not mine. As for
the food, there is no secret. We are simply using a different kind of oil
made from pressed oliva tree fruit. We also have access to the best ingredients.
We experiment with spices, and our staff enjoys the work. That is all,
-“I see. Now, my dear husband and I thought you
might help us change the dreary food we have to swallow at the Palace.
Frankly speaking, we were seriously thinking of asking Master Turgas to
release you into our service. At a good price, of course. What would you
say to that offer?”
-“Mylady, you are making me a great honour and
I sincerely thank you for thinking I am up to such a position. But I’m
afraid I have to turn down your kind offer. Too many reasons for that:
we are understaffed. We have only started making a name for ourselves.
I have to teach apprentices for the future of the whole establishment.
I could add a dozen more, but I will bore you. I’m sorry, Mylady.”
A moue of disappointment came to the Gladys’
beautiful face, but the crafty lady had already realized she was the second
person to lose to that strange man that day; after her husband. She took
her momentary defeat with grace.
-“Oh well, I did try, didn’t I? But I shall meet
you again, my dear man Jonas! Until then, I sincerely wish you all the
best of luck!”
Understanding he was being dismissed, Ekan made
a slight bow to each of his interlocutors and departed.
-“Anthony, what do you think? Very mysterious
man we have here, don’t we?”
-“To repeat your words, you have met your match,
too, and probably more than that! First time I see somebody answer you
so directly! I don’t know why, but I have this unnerving feeling we’ll
hear more from that man soon or later. My impression is that he is a cook
only because he chose to be. I will have to talk to this Mentor of his,
too! He seems to know those Dwarves quite well. And what of this Guild?”
-“Very sharp of you, Anthony. I’m sure your dear
brother will be glad to hear your report! I surely would like to meet that
man again personally. I have some questions of mine for him, too!”
-“Already thinking of more intimate relations,
my dear wife?”
-“Who are you to say, my dear husband? Are we
going to forget that our marriage is a convenient façade for our
-“You say, Gladys, you say!” laughed her partner
in life and work.
-“Is everybody here?” asked Umatar when Boy entered
her tent, though both of them knew too well what was happening outside.
While keeping watch on the Western Shores with
Dargelblad’s Elves the Golden Dragon had sent messages for all the chiefs
of every Free Tribe of the Steppes to meet at a point halfway between both
coasts of Alymndes just north of the Forest of the Elves. She had chosen
the spot for its relatively mild climate as opposed to the harsh conditions
met in some parts of the Steppes. Here the land had plenty of grass and
wells. Moreover, the proximity of the Elves would help in the future relations
between the two fiercely independent people. Choosing such a meeting place
in the middle of the continent would instill a new sense of belonging to
her fractious Tribes as well as a stable location for trade and diplomatic
ties to come.
But it would probably be a long time before any
Tribesman or Tribeswoman would come to this meeting place of his or her
free will. Therefore, she had to find or create enough reasons to incite
them to accept this new tradition. Political justification will never prove
sufficient, whereas creating a trade center would become a common ground
for any gathering.
Boy broke into her musings:
-“Everybody should be here, although we might
be in for a couple of surprises, good or bad!” he cryptically added.
-“What do you mean, a couple of surprises?”
-“Well, you’re a dragon. You should know better
than I, shouldn’t you?” the youngster irreverently replied.
Umatar smiled at her protégé’s
impertinence. He would become a man more quickly than she had expected
and she welcomed the notion.
-“Alright, let’s see what we have outside!”
Apprentice was already standing outside at the
right of the entrance of her tent when she came out. Boy followed her to
place himself at her left.
Umatar knew many Tribes lived in the Steppes
and she was pretty sure they all had sent their leaders when she contemplated
the great crowd who stood up as one when she appeared.
All had left their horses in the background and
waited in apparent obedience for her to speak. The shamen were keeping
apart from the warriors as little love seems to be lost between the two
groups. Her coming had brought about second thoughts to many Tribesmen
concerning their traditions and hierarchy.
But in the middle, given a wide berth by both
groups, an unusual couple stood erect with a proud and disdainful countenance
in seeming defiance of their kin. She recognized the young warrior as He-Who-Speaks-His-Heart
she had met during her first confrontation with her charges. The reason
why their fellow Tribesmen kept at a distance stood at his side, completely
oblivious of her kin’s distaste, a hand on her companion’s shoulder. The
young woman was dressed as a warrior in attire very similar to her own.
Her long raven-black hair was braided at her temples while the rest was
tied in a high ponytail. Rare white feathers dangled at the top of her
braids. Her visage could not have been called beautiful, but striking and
fierce. She carried a short bow and arrows and the Golden Dragon knew she
had all kinds of weapons concealed on her body. She was the first of her
kind she had ever met, but she was convinced there must be more of them.
Where, she would have to find out quickly, as they were just the individuals
she needed to operate some changes in a hurry. She caught the woman’s eyes
in her own. The female warrior did not flinch or shift from her stance.
Nonetheless, He-Who-Speaks-His-Heart threw a slightly worried glance at
his companion that changed into puzzlement when he saw a smile of recognition
spread on both women’s faces. The smiles did not go unnoticed.
Sensing a change of mood in her audience, Umatar
spoke in a voice that all could hear:
-“Free Tribesmen of the Steppes, She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons
hail you and offer you her sincere thanks for all coming to this place
on this fateful day! I have called on you to speak about the changes I
have already told you! Listen well, and I promise your lives will improve
for the good of all the Free Tribes of the Steppes!”
The crowd kept silent, a lot of stares hardening
more than ever. Although she hated that form of dictatorship, the Golden
Dragon understood she would have to bully them in a worse manner if she
did not act swiftly.
-“First, you will have to accept you are a nation
obeying the same laws wherever you are. Your freedom of movement should
stay as it is, but we are going to create a permanent settlement here we
shall call Trade Fair City, as this will be where all Tribes will be able
to come to conduct better trade and barter for the mutual benefit of all.
This will be a city of tents and yurts, though
one single building will be devised and erected to house the Hospital to
treat the sick and lame and form our future healers. We shall also have
an Orphanage to welcome all abandoned children, regardless of sex or origin.
Finally, we shall establish a Hall of Learning for anyone who wants to
become cognizant of all arts and sciences. As you shall have to look after
the affairs of your nation yourselves, representatives will have to stay
in Trade Fair City.
I charge He-Who-Talks-His-Heart to choose seven
warrior chiefs who will bring their tents here after having designated
a new chief for their respective tribe. She made a pause to let the order
sink in. She had effectively named the young warrior as her personal envoy
but still had preserved the authority of more senior chieftains.
She turned to the young warrior’s companion:
-“You, She-Who-Smiles-At-Danger, will go and
choose seven sage women to represent their Tribeswomen and children.”
A chorus of protests interrupted her. The most
vocal reactions came mainly from the shamen. She had expected that kind
of response and was ready for it.
A more courageous shaman addressed her directly:
-“Since when do women have names? And why should
they have a say in the running of the Tribes?”
The man was standing in the forefront of his
peers in visible anger. It was the first time she met him. He must have
come from a very distant and consequently remote part of the Steppes to
have the nerve to talk to her in such a direct manner. She walked to him
and stopped in front of the man. The shamen around him cringed away, but
he stood his ground in spite of his obvious fear. Umatar appreciated the
man’s will and guts.
-“You are brave, unlike the rest of your colleagues,
but you are misguided. What is your name?”
-“I was told you knew everybody’s name! Why should
I tell you?”
Umatar kept staring at the shaman for a while.
Sweat appeared on his forehead and he needed all his resolve to stop his
hands from shaking, but he did not back down. She became thankful to have
found in one single day the three people she had been seeking.
-“Your true name is yours and yours only for
you to keep. Therefore I shall give you a second name. Let everybody know
that from very moment you will be called He-Who-Stands-Fast and that you
will choose seven shamen to represent your order. You will elect another
shaman in your place to look after your Tribe. When you have finished your
mission you will come back to me in the company of He-Who-Speaks-His-Heart
and She-Who-Smiles-At-danger. The twenty-one representatives of the Tribes
of the Steppes will become the Council of the Sages to discuss and implement
all rules and laws of our nation and will permanently stay at Trade Fair
City to receive all complaints and requests. Anybody will be free to address
them. Anyone who prevents another party access to the Council shall face
my personal wrath! The three of you will be known as the Envoys as your
role will be to ensure that the authority of the Council is recognized
and abided by!”
Without any further word she turned back, leaving
an astounded crowd in her wake. Confused and angry voices began to raise
their defiance here and there. But she stopped halfway and slowly moved
her body around to face them all one last time.
The moment had come to establish her own authority
over the people and nation her father had chosen her to look after and
A steel-cold voice came out of her mouth:
-“Do you want to know why I am called She-Who-Speaks-To-Dragons?”
Suddenly out of nowhere, an enormous golden dragon
materialized. He hovered over her person, beating its giant wings with
the sound of a hurricane and screaming his anger at the Free Tribesmen
of the Steppes. All fell on their knees hands or their heads, incoherently
crying and begging for mercy, except for the three Envoys who stood white-faced
and trembling, their eyes staring at the terrible sight.
As quickly as it had come, the dragon vanished
in a clap of thunder and Umatar turned back again to walk to her tent leaving
her adopted people to their confusion and fear.
(Chapter 14: Diplomacy)