Places of Resolve

Awaiting

‘My poor darling,’ her hand touched his forehead ‘What a dreadful cut. I do wish you would wear your helmet,’

‘My sweet,’ he replied with warmth taking her hand and kissing it ‘There was only a brush of steel against skin. You know how I feel about helmets, they do impede the vision,’

There came the endearing little pout as she set to scolding him.

‘Your vision will be lot more impeded if your silly head was cut off,’ she tugged his nose for emphasis ‘Now let me clean that gash up properly The Good Lord God knows where that rag pretending to be a bandage has been,’

Thus he did sit patiently by the log fire of their apartment as she tended to the wound with her own astringent, following with application of the clean linen bandage. He thought himself the most fortunate man in the Empire to have found this beautiful, caring, able woman who had consented to be his wife, doubly so her being willing to share his lodgings at the outpost while the campaign against the stubborn clan continued.  

Once she was satisfied with her ministrations, a simple evening meal was partaken of and as was their custom, they sat before the fire, she curled up on his lap, head and one hand resting on his chest, each savouring the closeness of the other.

‘I worry for you so,’ she whispered ‘Out there upon those bleak fields and slopes. The risks are so great, and for what? A piece of ground an emperor does not even know about much less care for,’ her breath caught and she looked up at him, deep brown eyes pleading ‘You have rank and some say in the matter. They might listen to you,’

His frustration was shaped as a sigh with a groan.

‘Lord Frygem still wishes to raise his profile with Duke Mereth who remains the favoured advisor of Prince Nahdel who……’

‘…..wishes to prove to the Emperor that he too has his princedom completely under his sway,’ her completion of the litany ended with her own sigh ‘While the troublesome Clan K’ith Sondours refuse to trust the word of known Oath Breakers,’

‘It seems the only Oaths which count are those to The Emperor, know ones dares cross a strong emperor who also has the confidence of The LifeGuard. Everyone else thus scrabbles for their joint or separate favours,’

The frequently visited topic discussed, they sat in silence holding each other, until he said, kissing russet hair ‘Away with our gloom for this night. Let’s read the play: ‘The Adventure of Stefan and Alosia,’

‘This time I’ll be Stefan and you be Alosia,’ she announced, the previous plaintive sadness replaced by a rather appealing nuance in tone and glance. By the time he had returned with the bottle of wine to aid their intended comical narration she was curled up peeking over the script of the popular comedy. They had, a while back agreed the tale of a couple facing an arranged marriage turning the tables on the arrangers to suit the couple was a theme in which they found certain strands of empathy. Their efforts at acting this slightly bawdy theatre always raised their spirits.

She awoke tender with memories of the night. He had, of course risen before her, for duties and profile elsewhere called. As was his practice he had left breakfast dishes laid out, oatmeal and water for coffee bubbling in pots hung over the fire, while there as always a dainty vase of dew damp small star petalled flowers, she held them up and breathed in the freshness. As she drank her coffee she would read her copy of ‘Varow and Betherelle’s Encounter’, based on another factual couple, and the first of a series of verses recording their rather controversial deeds, popular amongst folk at the lower end of society. Good for resolve, she thought in the dawn still a measure away.

Lord Frygem, a stocky man of nearing middle years believed himself to know something of warfare, yet was possessed of enough basic sense to appreciate advice and experience, so was glad to see the outline, albeit hunched, almost furtive. Mercenaries were a variable crew, he would thank Duke Mereth for this one. Checking the large clan raiding force, holding them and pushing them back. Frygem ruefully had to admit his border troops liked the man and his skill. Also he had kept to his ducal contract, some might have given up on the task, particularly with a pretty and shy little wife in tow. That was a puzzle. Risking her safety in The Wilds. Still a man needed his comforts.

What did rankle Frygrem and touched on a raw spot was having the damn LifeGuard here. Observing. Five of them, long dark green coats, wide brimmed black hats. Their officer a hard faced major intoning ‘Imperial Stability’ at him. The Clan was a local problem. Did LifeGuard not have better things to do? He scowled in the direction of the far off group. Beneath their dignity to take part.   

‘Captain Leiding,’ he hailed ‘Surveying the ground I trust?’

‘From dawn Lord Frygrem,’ the mercenary said ‘The Clan has quit the hill and removed themselves. They have given up on the incursion. We can take back the hill and await re-enforcements. The crisis has passed,’

Emboldened by the encouraging news Frygrem’s irritation at Imperial Supervision took hold.

‘A retreat?’ his eagerness unsettling the mercenary captain  ‘We might pursue them,’

‘If we had a larger reserve,’ Leiding said, intending to bring neutrality into the conversation. ‘Our current force needs rest and recuperation,’

‘Whereas I can appreciate your caution captain, as your profession values conservation of resources, in my world, political demonstration is equally as weighty,’ this was accompanied by a brief twitch of his head towards the LifeGuard. ‘I would like to consider the ground myself. Accompany me,’

Since there was no evidence of Clan numbers Leiding saw little point in arguing here and hoped he could dissuade Frygrem during the ride. He gestured to four men selected for skill with crossbow to accompany the lord’s small entourage.

‘This is Lord Frygrem’s idea. Keen eyes,’ he said to his own ‘Bows loaded, but aloft to avoid accidents,’

The approach was not the issue, the slope and the sparse cover would be a risky place for an ambush. Leiding insisted his group reached the crest first, sharp eyed they scanned, dismounting, to avoid being an easy target.

‘Captain,’ the lord called out impatient after the slow climb ‘I would advance,’ Leiding surveyed the grasses, heathers, gorse  and small outcrops; the only true cover a copse in the far distance. The land  appeared safe, though ‘Appeared’ was never a word he trusted.

His pause obviously did not suit Frygrem, the man advanced his horse at a swift trot, until he was amongst Leiding’s group, disrupting their watch.

‘My Lord,’ Leiding said, command in his voice ‘Dismount,’ Frygrem having briefly looked ahead turned his attention back to the LifeGuard.

The brief warning was the gorse bush twitching against the direction of the breeze, too fast though for the message to go from eye to head to hand. The figure rose already losing off their own bolt, before starting to duck. By the time even the swiftest of the party at the crest was physically reacting Frygrem was tipping back from his mount, either it was the bolt in his chest or the fall from his horse, killing him.

Whether he was dead by the time three crossbow bolts flew towards the gorse, one hitting the ambusher it was of no consequence.

Against the backdrop of clamour from the entourage Leiding and his men viewed the body, caution staying them.

‘High Holy,’ breathed one ‘He was swift,’

‘Little,’ added another ‘That’s how he hid,’

‘Patient,’  said the third

‘Steady,’ concluded the fourth, adding, alarmed ‘Captain?’

He was uncaring of the warnings from his men and the indignation from the entourage, drawn to brief view of russet hair loosened as the ambusher fell backwards. There should be anger, anguish, at least confusion. Why was there admiration, laced with hope, melding with confusion?

Voices were but sounds as he reached the body, eyes flickering, the grimace of triumph softening to a smile.

‘It was a lovely breakfast,’ she said, raising her cap ‘Look I wore your posey,’

Her accent was no longer regional encompassing three princedoms, there was the distinctive rolling lilt of these clan folk, an urgency caused a cough, blood running from her mouth.

‘I taught you too well,’ he said.

‘I did not play thee, dear husband. There was no long plan. It was only when your contract drew you here. I had prayed there would just be scraping like wee dogs, then going away,’

He stroked her hair. A lord’s death. Who cared?

‘You do not hold Clan deaths against me?’

‘They should have stayed in our own lands,’ she slurred ‘My father, always counselled  The Chief to stop raiding. Yet, Frygrem had to go, a warning,’

‘It was deftly done,’

‘While you boys were out brawling I learnt the exits,’

 ‘There’ll be reprisals,’

A pained little laugh.

‘With The LifeGuard hovering around. Them and their adherence to Stability? Look not surprised, a Clan Chief’s niece learns a much of politics,’

A tearful chuckle was his response.

‘That was the marriage you were running from,’

‘I think I saw him die yesterday,’

‘What in the Second Hell is he doing?’ someone on the crest demanded.

One of the crossbowmen shrugged. The arrival of the LifeGuard Colonel stilled all conversation.

Their shared laughter stopped, his face grave as he placed the knife in her hand.

‘Also as I taught you,’ he said ‘It makes sense, for I let a lord die on my watch, grave mistake. More to the point, I can’t spend time on this realm without you,’

Her eyes were losing focus, breath ragged.

‘I could not leave you alone,’ she said and plunged in the blade.

Only the Colonel of LifeGuard did not seemed surprised.

The Colonel of LifeGuard bore the tirades of the Duke and Prince with an impassive disinterest. They owed more to the Oakhostian Empire than it did to them. They knew full well. When they ran out of ire, he spoke.

‘You were fortunate The LifeGuard was there to return the young woman’s body to the Clan, the whole business could have spread from Clan to Clan like a gorse fire. Never mind this Clan was an inveterate nuisance, Clans rally when Princes push their luck. The LifeGuard will have to attend to this,’ he let the words hang, the warning, LifeGuard were arbiters of this Emperor. ‘Captain Leiding was obviously being generous in tending her last religious rites. Being confused she stabbed him. Unfortunate. I will tender my report on the matter, both to The Grand Oaken Throne and my Commanders. You should await the Emperor’s Word. Do not venture beyond that crest. It is his wife I feel sorry for, secretly fleeing in distress,’

He left.

The winds blew across the freshly raised twin mounds. Four men crossbowmen, and four Clansmen had stood watch all the day. The sun settled, the quartets nodded to each other, and returned  to their own ranks.

Newly planted flowers quivered in the wind.

The tenth draft might be the foundation for the official report. Only LifeGuard’ s grim fortress Drygnest would know the captain was their own, despatched to act as mercenary, mining fertile battlefields for nobility’s indiscretions. Dangerous road, sometimes a LifeGuard went in so deep they lost perception. Usually going hard rogue taking lives like tankards of ale, conspiring for thrills. Instead here a fellow had stepped off the road, onto softer pastures, tripped when he came back onto the road. Tendered his way out with dignity, and it seemed love.

The Colonel looked to the copies of play and verse. Romance. Just as likely to kill.  

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Places Which Whisper

Park

No one was wholly sure how long there had been The Park. When each earlier record was discovered, the account suggested four generations before held the true answer.

Stefan of Ingefahr took one last look at the thin curtains of early morning spring mists drifting over the water. A loud, wailing “kuk-kuk-kuk-kaow-kaow,” signalled a grebe had an opinion. He wanted to remain until the mid-morning sun had burnt off the light grey veil, affording him a better view; was the span of water was a very small lake or a distinctly large pond? In a park of many pleasant views this was his favoured of early morning; sunlight on water, dappling and dancing, temporary jewels on ripples. However duty called. Oh, to be like that lad in the distance, a simple garden worker.

Stefan  had accepted one day he would be prince, but not this early in his life. Still alive and generally healthy Stefan’s father Prince Heyrold had been elevated to the rank of Court Advisor to the Emperor. Even if was only to advise on porcelain art, the emperor’s latest interest, you did not refuse. You handed on your title and with your spouse set up residence in the vastness of the Imperial Estates. Leaving an young inexperienced lad as prince.

At least Stefan had his father’s Chancellor Scharfsinnig to advise and commiserate with him as he faced this crisis.

‘Well Chancellor. Do our Intelligence Services confirm, who plans advancement from this paternal elevation?’

Whereas the lands were dwarfed by the surrounding princedoms Ingefahr had by far the most astute, deft and loyal Intelligence Services.

‘Raffgierig of Drohend,’ inevitability in Scharfsinnig’s delivery. House Aufdringlich held its princely throne by dint of being a constructively obnoxious family in the unfortunate land. Drohend was a frequent cause of local ‘issues’.

‘Malignant, grasping fellow, but father ever placed faith in quiet diplomacy,’

‘Thus he was held in Fond Regard by most of our neighbours. He hosted some fine conferences to smooth out local issues and,’ there was a sad smile on the usually hard face ‘Always the visits to The Park. Everyone looked forward to those,’

‘Apart from Raffgierig who never got his way. Looking for even the score,’ Stefan scowled ‘Listig, his sly chancellor, is probably behind this. The  intelligent one. Arranging the singing of my father’s praises at the imperial court. Out-manoeuvred us this time. Leaving an unmarried son thus by imperial law in need of a wife. Raffgierig at the head of the line having a daughter of correct rank,

Aloisia, I saw her at a distance once, small passive thing in the wake of her father. She seemed to appreciate The Park. Raffgierig pays a dowry, which he can afford, while accordance with imperial protocol I must impart a nuptial gift,’ Stefan tapped an ominous rhythm on the arm of his chair ‘Thus we must wait for his princely suggestion, one detrimental,’

‘Likely he will request rite of passage through Ingefahr,’

‘As son-in-law I could hardly refuse. Even if it does remove our neutral status,’ Stefan looked pleadingly to his Chancellor ‘I don’t suppose Father’s new station will give us leeway of Imperial Benevolence,’

Scharfsinnig sighed.

‘There are bigger games being played at the Imperial Court than the well-being of Ingefahr. The regional stability crafted  by your father and grandfather is no longer the most important coin on the table,’

‘Thought so,’ Stefan sighed ‘Not much option only to wait and see,’

Scharfsinnig was sorry for Stefan. He had a good grasp of the situation, and was handling matters calmly. Intelligent, reflective and popular with the people. And he had The Park. Where he did the best of his thinking. The princes and wives had worked diligently to nurture the blend of wild and cultivated, while adding tasteful bridges over waters, attractive empathetic walk ways and small constructs from where to rest and ponder, or chat. A cause of national pride.

In a small princedom closeness to the population verged on personal, in consequence delegating was not an option. Therefore three days passed before Stefan could take a walk through one of The Park’s winding lanes into a glade at the western edge of the wood, affording him the gilded shades of late afternoon upon leaves and bark. He sat upon a simple rustic bench and to the background of birdsong pondered upon options political and even military.

He reasoned, if you started at the worst result you should be able to trace backwards and find out where to make the right turn. In theory.

‘You got the grumps too?’

To Stefan’s surprise a new arrival was leaning, then slowly slumping down a tree opposite him, the sizeable untidy woollen headgear was familiar, the gardening lad he had seen the other day.

‘Yes,’ Stefan admitted at ease with the casual attitude, presumably he was not recognisable in the shade, opportunity for a relaxing share of woes, guardingly ‘Your accent is not local. Missing home?’

The initial response was a common vulgar sound although the particular application of tongue to lips made it somewhat musical.

‘My uncaring parent farmed me out to be an apprentice. Horrible idea. I ran away,’

‘All the way from,’ he paused placing the accent ‘Drohend?’

‘I started not far from the border,’

‘You have hiding out in a royal park. It’s not a public place,’ he tried to sound friendly and helpful; the idea of a runaway seeking sanctuary in his Park was bemusing.

‘I know that,’ they retorted ‘It’s good place to hide. This wood particularly. You looked miserable enough to be hiding yourself,’

A perceptive runaway.

‘Close,’ he drawled ‘I work in the Castle, a type of clerke. A difficult busy time now. I come here for peace,’

Not actually a lie, simply short on details.

‘Is your prince horrible too?’ they asked.

‘No,’ this time his reply was defensive, only to be interrupted by an unmistakeable gurgling sound and the interloper squirmed. ‘Hungry then?’ Stefan asked, interest piqued by this arrival.

‘My supplies finally ran out,’ they complained, adding defiantly ‘I’ve not been stealing either,’

‘I didn’t say you had. You have an air of cynosure and probity about you,’

‘Thank you. I endeavoured to keep balanced. Not to cause problems,’

‘You chose well to stay here. The gardeners leave the wood to itself in summer. I will bring you sustenance at dusk. Here’

‘Again thank you. May I ask why this generosity?’

‘I would like to learn about your land. And your name?’

‘Call me Al,’

Stefan was doubly occupied. Musing on reasons for the absence of the expected approach by Raffgierig and nurturing this cautious refuge, whose appearance suggested regular washing in a stream. Conversation was stilted, you could give away facts about yourselves when asking questions of others. Thus each evening’s delivery of food involved a conversation about The Park, a shared enthusiasm it seemed. They talked of nothing but The Park. On a particularly warm breeze softened evening Stefan concluded they were sharing evasion.

‘At the risk of sounding a snob, a runaway apprentice when being told they have an air of cynosure and probity would normally say ‘Uh?. Not thank me. Nor sound eloquent,’

Their face crumpled into acceptance.

‘It took you long enough to admit to your suspicions and ploy,’ a smile quivered ‘Prince Stefan,’

A beam of late sunlight flickering through branches caused sparkles upon alert eyes, accompanied by a slow removal of the untidy head gear.

Recognition.

‘And you would be Princess Aloisia,’ his response was hardly a question, although the subsequent words were ‘Are you actually a runaway?’

‘Yes,’ she was quite frank ‘This would be the last place Prince Raffgierig would look,’

‘Quite so,’ Stefan struggled slightly as he attempted to thread the logic through a needle eye of circumstance ‘My information suggests he was intending to manufacture an unavoidable alliance through our marriage. However, you arrive of your own volition,’ pause to weave irony  ‘Al,’ which caused a giggle.

‘He can’t offer me, if he hasn’t got me,’ came a sing-song reply.

A cogent point. Emperors held strict laws over their princes, each prince aware fellow princes would take advantage of a transgression.

‘Al,’ the shortened name did suit this forward maid ‘Are you not afraid he will demand your return?’

‘It’s The Park, I do love it so,’ she hugged herself ‘Makes me feel safe,’

Although the reply should have been evasive, her words struck him as an affirmation of faith.

‘I saw you once in tow during a conference  The Park greatly impressed you at one brief visit?’

Aloisia blushed, simpered, this time the eyelashes lowered.

‘Two brief visits,’ she said, biting her top lip.

‘You’ve sneaked in before?’ fascinating girl.

‘In a way. My mother; entrapped in a cold marriage. And Chancellor Listig lonely in his demanding work. Attraction. My mother told me of an evening such as this, The Prince was out being boring, and you know the sweet little summer house at the river bend,’ a flicker of mischief ’There were other occasions, but my mother was quite sure,’ she spread out her arms ‘Raffgierig  not my father and this is my home,’

Stefan was sifting the politics and musing on what his chancellor would say, when Aloisia knelt forward batting her eyelashes brushing a kiss on his mouth, adding hopefully.

‘Will you marry me? Before Raffgierig finds me?’

With his emotional foot tripping over his political foot to regain a semblance of balance Stefan opted for the simple approach. He took her shoulders, kissed her back and said ‘Yes’. Naturally there was going to have to be some swift diplomatic dancing. Meanwhile against the background of a few nightingales, clarifications were needed.

‘You are remarkable Al,’ compliments were useful openers.

‘I have to admit my father, Chancellor Listig played a part. He sees Prince Raffgierig as an idiot who will bring down Drohend. My precipitate action will make public that trait. Listig has delicately tutored my nearer brother to replace him. My elder sibling is hopeless,’

‘This is all part of an overthrow strategy?’

She nodded cheerfully.

‘There are others facets. I only helped because there’s the benefit of nabbing,’ she emphasised the next words spicing them with allure ‘You as my husband,’ she tapped his  nose and in her sing-song style added ‘And having The Park,’

Answers bringing clutches of questions.

Uppermost at present. Why had not his Intelligence Services warned him? More to the point why would Listig take this audacious, paradoxical risk? A robin chirped up, Princess Aloisia pursued her lips. Matters became clearer for Prince Stefan.

Chancellor Scharfsinnig had finally reached bed, only to be summoned to Stefan’s council chamber, Stefan seated with Princess Aloisia at his side.

‘You do not look as surprised as you ought Chancellor,’ Stefan said ‘Please be seated, and meet my bride to be, who fled her,’ he coughed ‘Father’s domain. For two weeks she has resided in The Park. Did you know?’

‘I would have told you My Prince,’

In response Stefan addressed not him but Aloisia.

‘You will notice, dearest, no expression of frantic concern over Raffgierig’s possible responses,’

‘Yes my dearest. Chancellor Listig always spoke well of Chancellor Scharfsinnig,’

Holding the other’s hand, the couple rose.

‘My Chancellor, rest, busy times are ahead. Aside from the politics of weddings and neighbouring states, I would know whether my father was truly inveigled or simply positioned himself in a long game. I will arrange Princess Aloisia’s domestic comforts,’ he kissed her hand.

Scharfsinnig left, relieved. As Listig had suggested; here was a couple with potential.

Entwined they lay in the Summer House, respite from hectic days navigating the political storms. A respite with a impish edge.

‘Imperial Law insists we must marry now,’ she said moonlight playing on her eyes.

‘Anything you wish Al,’

They had been drawn in. Willingly, of course. Coercion never worked. They had embraced the ancient tides of placid continuity. The Park was content.

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