Here’s a bit of what I’m working on – unedited, so please, put down your pitchforks.
“I am glad to have you all here,” she began, “as I am sure you all know. But we five knew each other as friends before we met as queens and rulers, so I will speak plainly in this circle – not as the Muhdel of Vestrodge, but as Avorier. You cannot stay long in this country. It is not safe here for enemies of NaRasch; especially enemies of your profile. By all rights this evening should be a welcome dinner, but the world is changing quickly, and so we must turn your welcome into a meeting of council. Even as Yurod battles with his Royal Police in Ekron I too have certain factions among my officials that stand to lose money and power in this war. We have kept your names a secret as well as we could, but the city is beginning to whisper that there are strange new dignitaries in my court. Now every moment that you stay here becomes more perilous than the last. We must discuss plans for your departure.”
This statement caught Gail off guard. Up until now she had been feeling quite safe in Vestrodge and she was beginning to imagine that she might stay several weeks there in order to have rest. But Avorier’s words sent a cold sensation crawling up and down her spine and her dreams of rest faded away.
“Your advice is sound,” Hayley said when the Muhdel had finished speaking. “The same thought has been in my mind ever since I entered your country. I have kept my ear to the ground in many places where news may be heard and I have rumors of things that not even the Muhdel may easily learn. It makes itself evident to me that we must make our whereabouts unknown before this week is done.”
“Then a decision lies before you all,” Avorier said. “Is your intent to travel north toward your homes or to return to Ekron for harbor?”
Freyn, who had been lost in thought until now, joined into the conversation. “Could any haven be found for us there?” She asked. “If we are not safe here where your power is secure can we expect better in Ekron when the government is at unrest? My mind has been made up from the beginning. I must return to Kanedon as quickly as possible. I have come to Vestrodge only by the advice of Hayley for I have found in the past that his words are not wise to ignore. The question for me is not where I must go, but how I will get there.”
“And so we come to our true purpose,” Hayley said. “For on the very day that we left Ekron I heard news that not even the Muhdel had heard when she left behind us. While we sat in council there Groschen was not idle in NaRasch as we supposed. He has mustered his army and by now he will have occupied Coreson if he has not strayed from his intention. Coreson is not fortified to stand against such attack and for many years now they have been increasingly friendly to the Empire. They will not resist occupation – they may even fight against us when this comes to blows, if it seems to them that we will not win. Therefore the western ways have now become perilous and any journey by those roads would be ill advised.”
“So your plan is to sail north into NaRasch and passing through under Groschen’s nose,” Avorier summarized.
“It is,” Hayley replied. “Or rather it was until I heard the rumors echoing throughout the docks. The sailors are saying that a twenty-ship vanguard has put in at Kemlane ahead of the Emperor’s fleet. The sea is closed to us.”
“That news should be taken to Ekron,” Freyn said. “We had not discussed the possibility of the emperor’s fleet coming this far south.”
“Let them come,” Avorier replied. “They have not the strength or the skill to take any of our coastal cities. The best they can hope for is a desolate landing for a land invasion – in which case we will have caught them with their pants down. But Hayley is correct. The entire course of travel north from here is through Kemlane. The sea is not safe.”
“Is there no way to sneak a fast ship through?” Gail asked.
“Perhaps before now,” Hayley said, “I would have advised such a thing, but for another rumor that reaches my ears. I heard from an old man who listens that there came recently to Kemlane a lady of high standing who commands nothing, but whom all the men whisper about. I have heard it said that she goes about in the dark, and that she is beautiful – but that all men, soldiers and sailors alike, fear her. They believe that she comes from NaRasch; that she carries the scepter of the emperor himself. Some of them call her the ‘Red Lady’ others call her the ‘New Queen’ but no one who has seen her knows her true name.”
“Sailors say many things,” Avorier said, “and as useful as rumors may be, it would not be the first strange tale of a lady to come from Kemlane.”
“If only I could write this off as the imaginations of drunken sailors,” Hayley replied. “But too many of the details are the same from too many mouths, and if even half the stories were lies they would not be the first tales I have heard of a red-eyed lady who stands at the side of the king of NaRasch. When men make myths they give them names.”
From the moment Hayley began talking about this lady in Kemlane Gail began to grow uncomfortable. She could not understand why this was until he added the detail about her eyes being red. Then it all came back to her. “It’s not a myth,” she said, abruptly. “I’ve seen her. Back in NaRasch on the night when Groschen called me a rebel and threw me in jail a red eyed woman whom I had never seen before stood in the shadows behind him. She said nothing while I was there, but I thought that I had never seen a person so filled with hate.”
“I do not see that we should grant this woman so much fear,” Freyn said. “Has she eyes and ears that see and hear everywhere? Why should we treat her differently than any other commander among our enemy? Can’t we slip by her as easily as another?”
“It may be,” Hayley replied. “It is possible that there is no cause for concern. But my heart tells me different. It is my feeling that we may have not yet met our true enemy, and while this woman who says nothing and sees much is in Kemlane I am unwilling to set our company within the confines of a ship. The sea can be a treacherous place at the best of times.”
“Then, if you will not return west, and you will not sail, what option is left to you?” Avorier asked.
“The obvious option,” Hayley replied. “To go where no one will expect us to go – north into Arme.”
“Into Arme?” Avorier seemed intrigued. “The wilderness of Arme is not a friendly place. It will prove every bit as treacherous as the sea, and we have never been able to guess what we might run into there. The weather is always sour in those mountains.”
“It is true,” Hayley said. “But my point still stands. We might take three times as long wandering into the lands north of Vestrodge, but it is far better to arrive late then to never arrive at all. Should the entire empire march south on us tomorrow we would still not meet a single man there.”
“I do not have the means to send a troop into Arme,” Avorier said. “If your choice were some other road I could put two hundred stout warriors beneath your command, but in the wilderness I cannot offer much protection.”
“Nor shall we ask it,” Hayley replied. “For on this road our advantage should not be in strength but rather in speed. In traveled lands our passing will be the cause of whispers and rumors, but in the wilderness why should we leave any trail more than those of the wild animals? You must send with us one of your Hunters who know the layout of that land. I have passed there only a few times and am liable to get lost. We will take with us what animals may survive such terrain, and leave in secret. They will still be whispering of us here in Vestrodge when we have passed into Greatwood.”
“What do the rest of you say to this plan?” Avorier asked.
“I like it,” Anne said abruptly. “Mind you, there are about a thousand ways it could fail, but I think this is the best plan I have heard in a long time. People tend to be rather too predictable for my taste, but this… this is right out of the water.”
“What about Freyn of Kanedon?” Avorier asked. “What do you think?”
Freyn took some time in replying. “It’s not nearly what I had in mind when I agreed to come here with Hayley,” she replied at length. “But if there is really no better alternative than this, and as I have already stated that I have found Hayley’s advice to be valid and his advice unwise to ignore, it would be a rather poor time to go back on my word. I have need for a means to travel north, and it seems that at least we have found one, though I am not pleased with the form it has taken. I will commit to this plan.”
“And what about you, Gail,” Avorier asked.
“I don’t believe I have a choice here,” Gail ventured in reply; “at least, nothing beyond choosing between coming along or staying behind. Still, I don’t see that the second option will benefit anyone, so I might as well come along.”
“You choose well,” Hayley said kindly. “And I promised you this morning that I would give you some answers here. My plans and intentions I have kept to myself, saying to those who needed to know only that I needed to return to NaRasch. But it has been in my heart for a while now that our enemy is yet too strong for us. I am on my way to Gaeline to see if she cannot be turned against the empire. I will go with you and do whatever I may to see you succeed. That was my express purpose in coming here. All I needed was your consent, and you have given it.”
Gail didn’t have anything to say to this. She was overjoyed by the news, but she had no way of articulating her feelings. At last she had some sort of plan and purpose, or at least someone to turn to with questions. But it was Avorier who spoke next.
“This is a good plan, I believe,” the Muhdel of Vestrodge said. “Gail, you will be in the very best of hands. If anyone may help you succeed it is this man, and in return you may yet return the favors done you. Have we settled this matter then? When should you be departing?”
“Tonight,” Hayley said. “We have just had our first audience. We will be expected to have at least a second and third to prepare for a departure, but thanks to the foresight of your Prime Minister, we are ready to leave now.”
“Are you indeed?” Avorier said. “It appears this plan has been in the works for a while without my knowledge?” She turned her attention on Morgan.
“I wouldn’t put it that way,” Morgan said defensively. “It is true, Mister Hayley had a few things in mind that he wanted made up for the girls, and I did not see it particularly damaging for his wishes to be complied with. No decisions had yet been made. We were keeping options open to them.”
“And why shouldn’t you?” Avorier said with a laugh. “It is well planned. I suppose this Elemental will be accompanying you then as well.”
“Certainly,” Anne said. “Or else you can lock me in your best dungeon and see how long it lasts before I break free and follow. I too have my own discrete purposes, but for the time my interest is best served in seeing to it that the queen of Gaeline stays alive. If she is traveling into danger then my resolve to go is strengthened.”
“Then if none of you are opposed let this be your intent,” said the Muhdel. “We will order transportation for you when darkness has fallen, and you will leave the city by the east road. I will order a commission of Hunters to make a strike into the western wood as I have done on some occasions in the past, but they will turn before the wood and go north to meet you with supplies at the old standing stone. Then you will be beyond my land unlooked for.”
“Your plan is good,” Hayley said. “We are grateful for your help.”
“Perhaps you would be wise to wait another day and prepare yourselves better,” Avorier suggested. “The wilderness can be an unforgiving place.”
“So can the courts of mighty rulers,” Hayley said, “and doubly so now that we have eaten with you. No, I believe we have made all the necessary preparations. We will leave our final packing in the capable hands of your hunters, and be off as soon as we may. The safest place is always where we are least expected.”
“Your group finds itself in the best of hands,” Avorier said to the rest. “I think I will not detain you much longer. We must have a round of drink to celebrate our parting, and then you must all prepare to leave.”
At this point Gail very nearly interjected. It had not until now occurred to her that this plan would indicate immediate departure. She was now keenly aware of the fact that she had spent only one night in their house, which was much less than she wanted under any circumstance. But the more she thought about it, the more she thought it made sense, until by the time their drinks were poured she had come to terms with the plan.
“I wish you all good health and success in your ventures!” the Muhdel said. “One day we all will meet upon the ruin of NaRasch, and that will be a brighter day.”