Soarers Children

Chapter 51, North of Iron Stem, Near the Aerlal Plateau

Three riders guided the flock of large black rams, ewes and lambs among the quarasote bushes, watching closely as the big beasts almost daintily removed the green shoots from amongst the blade sharp barbs. What they were watching for were signs of sandwolves. Sanders appeared to be a thing of the past but sandwolves were a real and present danger.

Royalt rode to the fore of the herd, Alucius to the rear on the opposite side with Burtyl in front of him about half way along. A pair of rams were showing signs of facing off so Alucius called ahead.

"Alright, Burtyl, see what you can do about convincing them to settle down."

The younger man rode forward and began to project calm and authority as he had been taught. Both rams looked toward him and shook their heads as if to shake off the influence, but he concentrated harder and finally the rams relented and went back to grazing.

"Well done," Alucius said, "that's not easy for someone not long associated with the herd. You have the makings of a fine herder, if I'm any judge."

"Thank you, Alucius, sir. I have to bear down but it seems to be getting a bit easier."

"Wait until you have your own herd with rams and ewes you've raised from birth. You'll barely have to exert yourself to make them understand," Alucius said with a small smile.

"Yes, sir."

The three herders moved the flock for another glass or so when Alucius called out for them to stop.

"What is it, son?" Royalt called back.

"Reillies, maybe thirty, forty riders. From the direction and feel of them I'd say they're moving along the base of the plateau. I think they might be trying to skirt around Iron Stem and the new post to come at the townsheep steads from the opposite direction."

"Can you be sure of that?" Royalt asked.

"No, that's why you and Burtyl are going to take the herd back to the stead and then Burtyl will ride to the post and let Feran know what's going on. I'll keep an eye on them and maybe give them a reason to keep moving."

"One against forty? You can't be serious," Burtyl exclaimed.

"You just stick to protecting the herd and the stead. Leave the rest to me," Alucius said as he began to move off toward the escarpment.

"Come on, son," Royalt said to Burtyl, "we've sheep to move."

As the two herders moved the flock, Alucius rode until he was out of sight. Then he dismounted and tied his horse to a scrub juniper. He looped the spare cartridge belt over his shoulder and with rifle in hand he dropped into the earth and began moving towards the band of raiders. It took only moments and he could look up and see the tail end of the band. Reillies were led from the front so he continued to move forward until he was a quarter of a vingt ahead of them before rising up.

He dropped to one knee and sighted along the barrel of the big rifle. When the first riders came into view he sighted on the lead and squeezed of a single shot. The raggedly dressed older man was picked cleanly out of his saddle, his body getting tangled in the hooves of the horse behind him. Before the Reillies could react Alucius dropped back into the ground and moved off to the side. From below he could see the Reillies lift the body of their leader onto his horse, quickly lash it in place and then hurry at a trot through the sparse quarasote cover.

For the rest of the day he literally shadowed the band and on three occasions surfacing ahead of them and picking off the lead rider. By the time it grew dark the riders were to the east of Emal and made no move towards the townsheep steads. At the rate they were moving, now free of the quarasote, Alucius figured they wouldn't stop until they reached the headwaters of the Vedra.

He sped back to where he had left his mount. It wasn't there. There were no signs of sandwolves, so using his highly enhanced night sight he began backtracking towards the stead, the direction the tracks indicated. When he was confident that the horse most likely pulled free and started back to it's comfortable stall and full manger, he dropped into the ground and sped after it.

He was less than a vingt from the stead buildings when he caught up with the big fellow. He moved forward and rose up to stand about a hundred yards in front of the horse. The big chestnut moved perhaps another fifty yards before stopping, tossing its head.

"Come on, big fellow. It's been a long day, let's go home."

With a snort the stallion closed the distance and Alucius mounted for the short ride to the barn and dinner for the both of them. As he expected Wendra and Royalt were there waiting for him.

"Any trouble?" the older man asked.

"For them, not me."

Wendra raised her eyebrows, indicating the cryptic quip was insufficient. So he explained what he had done and the results. Royalt shook his head.

"When, or if, those Reillies ever make it back to their main tribe, they're going to be talking a great deal about the sander that has learned to shoot."

"If it convinces them to stay away from us, they can think anything they want," Alucius replied as he led his horse into the barn. "Where's Burtyl?"

"Still at the post at Iron Stem, I'd imagine. By the time we got the herd in and put away it was early afternoon before he got on his way. He'll either be back late tonight or early tomorrow morning."

"I bet he's back tonight with half a squad to guard the Colonel's home," Wendra said with a impish grin.

"Don't laugh, young lady," Royalt offered from his spot at the door. "With one raiding party out there, there could very well be others. I wouldn't mind a few extra guns around the place until we know whats going on. With the Matrites subdued, those scoundrels might be stirring again."

As he racked his saddle, Alucius looked thoughtful and then said,

"You know, when I was first captured by the Matrites, I was chained to a Reillie they had captured off of his stead. He was a fairly decent sort of fellow. I wonder what ever became of him. Can't seem to recall his name."

"I'm glad you had some good company then, son, but I hope you won't mind if I don't let that sway my opinion about what to do with thirty or forty of the armed devils riding on the flats," Royalt said.

"No, sir, and I would have to agree with you there."

Chapter 52, Northern Guard Headquarters, Iron Stem

Burtyl sat astride his horse at the gate to the post. Next to him was Faisyn and behind was a half squad of troopers. Standing next to him was Colonel Feran. The rest of the post was a hive of activity. In addition to the squad that was being sent to keep an eye on Alucius and his family, one full company was being sent north to scout the road all the way to Wesrigg. A half company was being sent toward Emal to look for any signs of the raiders and another half company was going to check the steads and farms between Iron Stem and Dehkron. Those remaining would be available to respond to an attack on the town itself.

"So, you'll give Colonel Alucius my message and let him know I'll likely be out that way in the next day or so. We assumed things wouldn't stay quiet for long."

"Yes, sir, Colonel Feran, I'll make sure he gets this first thing."

"Fine. Alright, Faisyn, the detail is yours. Carry on."

"Yes, Colonel. Detail forward," Faisyn called back and signaled for the small column to move forward.

Burtyl was a little surprised to be riding at the head of a cavalry column, no matter it's size. It wasn't all that long ago that he hadn't ever been on a horse. The only ones he had ever been around were the massive draft horses used to pull logs out of the forest. He was thinking about this when he was startled to hear himself being addressed.

"So, you're to be a herder then," Faisyn said.

"Yes, sir."

"You don't have to call me, sir, son," Faisyn said with a laugh. "Faisyn will do but if you must squad leader will be enough."

"Alright, squad leader. And yes, apparently the Lord Protector doesn't want to see any of the steads go abandoned. So when this elderly couple refused to pass theirs on to someone not family, they did some checking and found out our family was very distantly related and that I would be capable of handling the nightsheep."

"Hmm, makes you wonder why the Lord Protector would care about some herders and nightsheep."

"Well, Royalt and Alucius both said this one cares a lot about what the Valleys could mean to Lanachrona, even the whole west of Corus. Guess he wants to make sure the herders stay around," the young man offered.

"Well, he certainly treats troopers a whole lot better than did our own council, curse their fat bellies. We even played host to a bunch of his engineers who wanted to learn about the new post. They say their gonna build a couple to guard the north and south highways."

Burtyl just nodded. Then Faisyn looked over at him and said,

"If you have what is required to be a herder, like as not you would have made a good trooper. And right now you're living with two of the best there ever was."

"You served with them, squad leader?"

"Only the Colonel. Captain Royalt was a training officer long before I enlisted. Some say he was the best ever at it. One reason why the Colonel is so good. Had a full year of individual training before he stepped foot on Sudon training post. Whatever it is they're trying to teach you, I suggest you listen well."

With that the two fell silent. One looking for signs of trouble, the other looking troubled.

Chapter 52, Lord Protector's Palace, Tempre.

"Sir, you are positive that you must do this?" Marshall Alyniat asked.

"My dear Arms Commander. I am now the ruler of an entire region in which I have never set foot. In fact, the only Lanachronan of any rank to make even a cursory tour was Frynkel and he's now back on the family vineyard collecting his stipend and keeping a low profile," Talryn said with a frown. "I suppose in a very real way he saved the campaign and set much of this in motion but his methodology rankles me still."

"We all have things I think we would prefer not to recall, sir. I still shudder at the thought of suggesting Colonel Alucius try and capture that second Legacy of the Durarches," the Arms Commander said with a grimace.

"Don't feel bad, Alyniat. In the beginning of this mess, I was hoping he'd get killed in Deforya," Talryn said, shaking his head. "But back to your question, yes, I need to see what's up there and I'm going. You will handle the military situation while the ministers attend to their business as usual. You all know what I want so see to it. I won't be completely out of touch."

"Yes, sir, so you say. I only wish I knew what you meant."

"It's not necessary for you to know, Marshall. If anything truly earthshaking occurs bring it to Lady Alerya's attention and she will see to it that I get the message. Anything else?"

"Just one other thing, sir. It's a logistical issue and ordinarily I wouldn't raise it with you but I believe it may point to a bigger eventuality."

"Noted, go on."

"A small group of nomad horseman arrived in Indyor not long ago with around fifty horses that were described as some of the finest our agent had ever seen. They offered as many as seventy five score more at extremely attractive prices. By purchasing directly from the nomads we could replace nearly three quarters of the mounts that we lost in the last two years of fighting and do it over a year ahead of what we thought would be possible," the Marshall said.

"I seem to recall Colonel Alucius mentioning something to that old reprobate Baysart at the Ball about nomad horses. A fortunate coincidence, wouldn't you say?" the Lord Protector said with a straight face.

"Yes, sir, most fortunate. Are you in agreement?"

"If the budget can accommodate it, certainly. We can juggle a few things around and be that much further ahead with rebuilding the Southern Guard. Thank you, Alyniat, carry on and I'll be seeing you again before too long."

"Yes, sir."

Chapter 53, North of Iron Stem

Alucius walked out onto the porch of the stead house, a mug of tea in hand. The flock wasn't going out today so he was looking for signs of activity from the half squad that had arrived two days before with young Burtyl. Senior Squad Leader Faisyn had been very polite but very resolute in relaying the orders that Colonel Feran had given him. The day before had been interesting with a flock, three herders and a hundred yards behind, five troopers, picking their way through the quarasote.

When they returned home the other five had set up look out posts at various high points, or as high as the flats would allow, to look for signs of approaching trouble. This morning he could see the five troopers not on look out duty attending to their horses and gear. Faisyn was making his way towards the house.

"Good morning, Colonel, no signs of any trouble. Dispatch rider was by. Got news that that small band you spotted was seen moving north of Emal. Wonder where they think they are going."

"I couldn't say, but I can't imagine things have been too hospitable up in the Sloughs. Maybe they think they can find something better up there," Alucius said.

"Or get away from something out here," Faisyn suggested.

Alucius nodded and to cut off any further speculation in that direction asked,

"Shouldn't you have been a Captain by now? I thought you were supposed to stay Fifth Company's senior squad leader for just a few months."

"Yes, sir, that's what was supposed to happen. A couple of things got in the way though, one being the new post getting set up. Colonel Feran thought he needed me to keep doing what I was doing to make sure we got everyone settled in and set up proper. Then a new order came through directing all promotions had to be sent through Guard Headquarters in Tempre for approval. Mine finally came through, effective next Londi."

"Good, you deserve it. How much longer do you think you fellows will be staying?" Alucius asked.

"I'd imagine Colonel Feran will be out here in a day or so. He'll have an idea of what's going on."

Alucius nodded and then made his way to the stock shed to check on the flock. Burtyl was nearby and Faisyn noticed the look on his face, one of concentration and a little confusion. The senior squad leader drifted over and when he was close enough asked,

"Something troubling you?"

"I don't really understand what's going on here, squad leader. At the other steads all there was was nightsheep and nightsilk. Here there seems to be something else going on. I mean, if he's so good, why isn't Alucius still the Commandant, or in Tempre?" the younger man asked.

Faisyn offered a rough smile and chuckle.

"That be simple to explain. It's because he doesn't want to be. I've met a few herders in my time but never one that seemed more, I don't know, rooted to the land I'd guess you could say. He's here because this is where he belongs. Anything else he does is because he thinks he needs to to keep the Valleys and the flats safe. Don't let it bother you, son. Learn everything you can from him and you'll do fine."

With that the older man went back to his work and left the younger to consider his words.

As predicted late the next day, Colonel Feran and his security detachment reined up in front of the stead house and looked around, taking note of the orderly structures and the bivouac area of his troopers. As Alucius approached he swung down off the horse and handed the reins to his security detachment leader.

"Good to see you, Colonel," Alucius said.

"And you, Colonel," Feran replied with a grin.

"So any news about our wild friends?"

"So far nothing serious. Those visitors of yours made their way across the river, lost a few in the attempt but they seemed bound and determined to leave the Valleys behind. That bunch up in the Sloughs are getting antsy but between the companies occupying the North of Madrien and the patrols, they haven't made a move yet. This may have preempted something on their part," Feran explained.

"I imagine it was just a matter of time before they did. At least they should be more manageable than a score of companies of Matrites."

"Indeed. On another note, I need to discuss something but it needs to be kept quiet. Let's take a little stroll," Feran explained.

The two former comrades in arms moved slowly toward the edge of the stead proper and the beginning of the flats. When he felt they were far enough away Feran stopped and turned to face the taller Alucius.

"I got a message by special dispatch rider yesterday. We are going to have a special visitor from Tempre in the next week or so."

"Someone from the General Staff, like Frynkel did?"

"Um, no, a little higher up the ladder," Feran replied.

"One of the Ministers? Come on, Feran, I don't like guessing games."

"Within in the next ten days we can expect the arrival of Talryn, Lord Protector of Lanachrona."

"What? Are you joking? Why? He never indicated any desire to come here when we've talked," Alucius said, obviously taken aback.

"You're asking me? You're the one that has the ear of the man."

"I need to talk to Wendra. Maybe the Lady Alerya mentioned something to her."

"Oh, and the message indicated that he's coming by river and a company needs to be standing by to greet him and provide his security detail. I'm planning to send Faisyn and Fifth Company. I'm taking them back with me, things seem secure enough out here."

Alucius nodded, his mind still swimming with the consequences of the news. He led Feran up to the house, the Commandant hailing Faisyn and giving him instructions to begin preparations for returning to the HQ post.

"Wendra, have you a moment?" Alucius called in.

The tall redheaded woman came down the hallway to the front door, Alendra perched on her hip. When the little girl saw the Commandant her face lit up and her hands reached out. Completely disregarding his rank and station, Feran took hold of the girl and gave her a hug and kiss on the cheek and then perched her in the crook of one arm. All concerned were certain that some time in the near future 'Uncle Feran' was going to be heard around the stead.

"Wendra, Feran has just told me that the Lord Protector is coming to the Valleys next week. Did Alerya mention anything about this to you?"

The fact that her eyebrows disappeared into her bangs was evidence she knew nothing about it.

"No, sweetheart. You know I would have told you. Whatever is he thinking?"

"Well, it is territory under his control now, and he's never been here. I suppose he might be simply curious," Feran replied. "Or maybe he wants to see what kind of lands produce people like you two, and this one," he concluded, tickling the girl under the chin.

"I suppose," Alucius said a bit dubiously.

"Oh, I forgot to mention that you're expected to make yourself available. I imagine he intends to visit the stead."

"Good grief, mother will have a fit."

These were very prophetic words. When informed, her exclamations attracted the attention of the troops forming up by the stock barn, at least the volume and tone, if not the actual content, since the comments were a bit incoherent.

Chapter 53, Dehkron, Vedra docks

As the swift river barge was pulled up tight against the dock fenders, a Northern Guard captain walked down to stand at the bottom of the short gangway. A man of moderate height and simple dress walked down and came to a stop before the officer.

"Captain, I believe you are here to escort me to Northern Guard headquarters."

"Yes, sir. Presuming you are the Lord Protector," Captain Faisyn replied.

"Well done, Captain," Talryn said, holding up his hand to display the signet ring that had been described in the dispatch message.

The captain came to attention and then gestured for the Lord Protector to precede him down the dock to the waiting company.

"Sir, are you traveling alone?"

"Not as such, Captain. I had the crew on the barge and now I have you and a hundred troopers. Every one else needs to be back at Tempre doing their jobs. Everyone else I need to have around me are waiting a day's ride from here so let's be on our way, shall we?"

"Yes, sir."

With a hand signal, a half squad moved off at a fast trot to serve as a vanguard. A trooper brought up a horse bearing a plain cavalry saddle and bridle. The Lord Protector mounted smoothly and once he was settled, he signaled the captain to move out. At Faisyn's signal a squad moved forward and once past he gestured for the Lord Protector to move out as well.

"Are you not concerned that such obvious precautions might draw attention to my presence?"

"It was discussed at some length, sir, but both the Commandant and the Colonel felt that the recent movement of some Reillies dictated the show of strength."

He didn't mention it but Talryn took note of the fact that both Colonels were mentioned. He did smile.

"Might I know the name of my escort."

"Ah, yes, sir, your pardon. I'm Faisyn, commander of Fifth company."

"Fifth? The same that went to Deforya, Hyalt and Southgate?"

"Yes, sir."

"Did many of the men present see all three?"

"Not many, sir. Deforya was costly. I'd say a score. Two times that for the rest. There have been rotations and retirements as well."

"You?"

"All three, sir," Faisyn said keeping his eyes forward.

"I'm honored," Talryn said, and chose to let drop the idea of correcting the Captain on his use of 'sir'.

Talryn let his eyes sweep his surroundings as he took note of the look of the town. He was aware of the history of the region, at least as much as was still known. It looked tired. As they passed out of the town and into the barren reaches between Dekhron and Iron Stem he noted the sparse looking growth.

"What part of the Valleys is home to you, Captain?"

"Near Wesrigg, sir."

"Is that herder country?"

"No, sir. A bit too wet for the quarasote. Farms and townsheep."

"I see. Tell me, what do the farmers and townsheep herders think of those that herd the nightsheep?"

"Those that have any sense treat them with wary respect. Others sometimes make the mistake of not doing so until they run afoul of one. Once is usually all it takes," Faisyn replied matter-of-factly.

"I trust that would include Colonel Alucius?"

The Captain snorted once before catching himself.

"No one has crossed the Colonel who hasn't come to regret it."

Talryn took note of the Captain's tone. Respect with a touch of wry amusement at the fate of those who had transgressed. Would that one day he commanded such, he thought. Based on the instructions provided the midday meal was taken in the saddle. Despite the hardness of the leather, the Lord Protector was enjoying himself immensely. The earliest histories of Tempre suggested that the original Lord Protector may have been a trooper who emerged from the Cataclysm leading a body of men who formed the kernel that would one day grow into Lanachrona.

The sun was touching the horizon when the company moved through Iron Stem. He took note of the ancient buildings that seemed to have received a recent freshening, probably the result of the influx of coin from building the new post. Based on his conversations with Alerya in preparation for this trip he sought out and located the cooper shop that was the family home of Wendra. It appeared neat, well maintained. He expected no less.

The terrain was much more sparse this far out and he marveled at the folk who made this their home and who fought with such tenacity to keep it. His disdain for the late, unlamented traders council redoubled at what they nearly destroyed in their greed and stupidity. As the post walls came into view he was taken with the practicality of the design. The towers made great sense given the relatively flat treeless terrain. No one was sneaking up on this place. As they approached the gates were pulled open and two mounted riders moved out to greet the company. The half squad vanguard was just visible up the road and the full squad forward guard had formed up on the road just past the gate.

Talryn and Faisyn rode up the short drive and came to a stop before the pair of Colonels, one past, one present. Both stiffened to attention.

"Welcome to Northern Guard Headquarters, Lord Protector," Feran offered.

"Thank you, Commandant. I'm looking forward to my time here. And may I commend the Captain here. He's an efficient officer and amiable company," Talryn replied.

"Thank you, sir," Faisyn responded crisply.

Both Feran and Alucius looked at the Captain but before anything could be said the Lord Protector broke in.

"Be at ease gentleman. I assumed he wasn't aware and after I discovered his battle history, I chose to let it stand. In fact, it applies to anyone here that endured Deforya, Hyalt and Southgate."

"Yes, sir," both Colonels replied, while Faisyn looked on in obvious confusion and concern.

"Protocol dictates that the Lord Protector be addressed as such," Alucius began, "only those told so by the Lord Protector may call him 'sir'. I guess you weren't informed."

Faisyn looked aghast as Feran grimaced,

"That fault is mine. I didn't include that in my instructions to the Captain."

"Lord Protector, sir, I mean, my apologies," Faisyn tried to get out before Talryn held up a hand.

"At ease, Captain. As I said, you and your comrades deserve that simple courtesy. More than most. We'll speak no more of it. Now, how about we start the tour of the post and we let these troopers get in out of the chill?"

"Yes, sir," three voices offered and the Colonels pulled back and around to bracket the Lord Protector as Faisyn saw to the stand down of the detail.

Due to the dwindling light the 'tour' comprised only riding about the courtyard to view the buildings and the troopers sitting their horses in formation. The Lord Protector was suitably impressed and said so.

"Gentlemen, I must say I am impressed. I saw the report by the engineers but I have a feeling they may have understated the achievement by a bit. Particularly when one considers the cost. After seeing this I intend to order the construction of one each at the western ends of the north and south highways. We may decided to scale them down a bit. But that will be discussed. Well done."

"Thank you, sir."

"I hope dinner will be equally impressive. Quite frankly, I'm famished."

"Yes, sir," Feran said. "We have everything waiting for you in the officers mess."

"Excellent, Colonel. Lead on."

Feran led the way to the officers mess, which was attached to the Headquarters building. It looked like nothing either he nor Alucius had experienced in Deforya or Tempre. There was no marble, no gilded weapons decorating the walls. Just finely crafted furniture, well fitted wood paneling over the stone walls and polished stone flags on the floor. When they entered Talryn stood and let his eyes roam over the compact room. He looked at the table that would sit the entire headquarters officer corps. One Colonel, one Major, eight Captains and a guest who held, in Talryn's mind at least, the rank of Colonel in both Guard forces.

Feran indicated the chair at the head of the table was for him, while the Colonels took position on either side, Feran the right, Alucius the left. Then came the Major who served as Feran's deputy and the Captain who was the post commander. The staff officers and three company commanders filled out the rest. The Lord Protector took his place and then indicated the rest should do likewise. He looked around the table, each face asking it's own questions.

"Yes, I'm sure you are wondering what this is all about. It is simply this. I find myself the ruler of a land about which I know next to nothing. This is an unacceptable situation. My father made sure that as the heir I had visited every major city and many of the lesser ones in Lanachrona. I rode among the Vyan vineyards, farmlands and traveled the Vedra along the entire length that fell under our control. Now that the Madrien situation is well in hand, I find I can take the time to visit and learn what I can about the Iron Valleys. As I said, simple."

Heads nodded but Alucius exchanged a glance with Feran that indicated they weren't accepting the Lord Protector's words at face value. Talryn took notice of the table and it's settings. The plates were well made put plain, all the Northern Guard had mugs for ale, but a crystal goblet and a bottle of Vyan wine was set before him. He glanced over at Alucius with raised eyebrows.

"Yes, sir. We don't drink much wine here in the Valleys."

Talryn simply nodded, knowing precisely where the goblet and bottle had come from. Two servers entered the room, bearing platters and bowls. They were not troopers. After they had put one of each at each end of the table they left.

"We don't employ troopers in non military roles here, sir. With what local labor costs, it's actually more economical to employ civilians. We use them in the kitchens and general cleaning as well. The additional coins going into the local economy has made us rather welcome."

"Sound reasoning, Colonel," Talryn said, then he noticed that no one was moving to serve the food. "Gentlemen, I realize my coming here as upset the routine. Please, conduct yourselves as usual."

After the briefest hesitation the bowls and platters were passed and the food served out. The meat was beef with a white sauce, and the bowl contained a mix of vegetables. One of the servers returned with two small trays of bread and cheese slices. After several mouthfuls the Lord Protector nodded and said,

"This is excellent fare, gentlemen. Nothing fancy but quite tasty and filling after a day in the saddle. Is this the standard?"

Feran swallowed what he was chewing and said,

"This is one of the cook's specialties, the sauce in particular. She usually reserves it for Decdi dinner. But we do manage to eat well enough. She's a trooper's widow with a real talent. She also oversees the troopers mess although others do the actual cooking."

"My compliments."

"I will be sure to pass them on, sir" Feran said, then he smiled a bit. "Dessert however comes from a special source, sir."

"How so?"

"Um, my mother supplied dessert, sir," Alucius replied.

Talryn look at his special agent and adviser and smiled.

"I can imagine it will be worth the ride."

He wasn't disappointed. It was a square of delicately flavored cake, drizzled with a pale glaze and sprinkled with crushed nuts.

"This is extraordinary, Colonel. I will be happy to convey my appreciation when I visit your stead."

"You wish to visit the stead, sir?"

Talryn laughed and shook his head.

"My dear Colonel. Do you think I traveled all this way not to? I will spend tomorrow here at the post discussing the current situation and future plans with Colonel Feran and his staff and then on the next day we'll come out to the stead. If not too much of an imposition I'd like to spend several days there."

"As you wish, sir," Alucius said.

"And no special consideration either. I wish to experience stead life as it truly is."

"Yes, sir," Alucius said, inwardly cringing at what he was going to have to deal with upon his return home.

Chapter 54, North of Iron Stem

"He what?!" exclaimed Lucenda upon hearing of the Lord Protector's plans for the following few days.

"He's coming out here tomorrow morning and wants to stay for a few days to learn about life on a stead."

"That's all very well and good, son, but couldn't I have been given some time to prepare. I need to get the house in order and..."

"No, mother, you don't. First of all, this house is always neat as a pin. Second, he doesn't want any special consideration," Alucius tried to explain.

"Son, this is a man raised in a palace. What does he know about what is and is not special consideration?"

Alucius shook his head and looked to Wendra, who shrugged but gave it a try anyway.

"Mother, if you saw the apartment where the Lord Protector and his family live you would be surprised. It is really rather modest compared to the rest of the Palace. I think a lot of that is for show. Talryn and Alerya are very straight forward people and quite frankly they hold you in very high regard. Just do things as you always have and it will be fine."

"I can't imagine that he is coming by himself. I mean even Feran has five troopers with him when he visits. The man will be here with a full company."

"No, mother, just a squad and they will be bringing their own provisions and shelter. Just think of it as a long gather. Maybe you could even sing for them," Alucius said and then ducked under the thrown dish cloth.

Lucenda and Wendra did do a fair amount of cleaning and labored over menus. When Royalt and Burtyl brought the herd back in a second animated discussion ensued as daughter tried out the same arguments with her father. He simply listened to what she said, nodded a time or two and the said,

"The man obviously wants to learn something about what produced the likes of Alucius and Wendra. Take the opportunity to solidify his good graces. Personally I'd like for herders not having to live as an afterthought in some ruler's mind."

The next morning, after seeing the dust from the column coming up the road from the highway, all the family were standing on the porch awaiting their exalted visitor. When they came into view Alucius had to suppress a smile when he heard his mother mutter,

"He looks like a trooper. You'd think they'd turn him out better than that."

"Mother, he obviously doesn't want to draw attention to the fact he's here," Wendra said.

When the Lord Protector, flanked by Captain Faisyn and at the head of the squad of troopers and a wagon, drew up in front of the house he smiled broadly and said,

"Colonel, good morning to you and your family. Thank you for the opportunity to be here."

"You are most welcome, Lord Protector," Alucius replied.

Talryn swung down off his horse and handed the rains to the Captain. He mounted the steps up to the porch and shook hands with Alucius. He offered no familiar greeting to Wendra as her visits to the palace was closely held information.

"Sir, may I present my grandsire, Royalt."

"It is my privilege to meet you, Royalt. I appreciate the efforts you've made recently at my request."

"It was an honor to assist you, Lord Protector. We herders appreciate your concern for our well being."

Talryn smiled and then focused his attention on Lucenda.

"And this must be Madame Lucenda. My apologies for intruding on your home with such little notice, Madame. It was my hope to see a stead as it truly is, not spit shined and made over for a visit by my eminence," he said with a grin.

Lucenda regarded him with a squint and said,

"With all due respect, Lord Protector, no one has ever found this house anything but spit shined."

Talryn laughed and held up his hands as he noticed the chagrined look on her son's face.

"Your pardon, Madame Lucenda. My wife and consort would be giving me a severe tongue lashing right now. My mood has improved a great deal since your son so neatly resolved the Madrien issue. She accuses me of being a bit silly at times."

"All men are silly from time to time," Lucenda offered. "But I suppose my son is staring daggers at me right now. Why don't we go inside and you can see for yourself."

Both Royalt and Alucius rolled their eyes and Wendra tried to suppress a smile at her mother-in-law's tone. The Lord Protector gestured for the ladies to go ahead of him and with a small grin at the men he walked in. He quickly realized that Alucius' mother was true to her word. While the house lacked the marble and gilt of the palace it was every bit as well cared for. He took note of the thick walls, the heavy door and shutters. Part home, part fortress. It spoke volumes of the men and women who spent their lives here. He again cursed the band of fools that had sold these people into his hands. And his expression must have reflected these feelings.

"Is something amiss, sir?" Alucius asked as his skills picked up on the sudden tension in the room.

"Not as such, Colonel. I was reflecting on the abysmally poor judgment of those fools, your traders council. I must admit it was quite fortunate for me but for you and yours..." he tailed off, shaking his head.

Any further discussion along this line was interrupted by the patter of feet and the cry of 'momma' as Alendra ran into the room and made straight for her mother. She was followed by Burtyl who was looking sheepish.

"My apologies all. I was trying to keep her occupied but when she heard voices she darted past me."

The smile returned to the Lord Protector's face as he watched Wendra sweep her daughter up into her arms. He let his eyes move from daughter to mother to father.

"It is obvious who her parents are. There is much of the mother in her face and she seems somewhat large for her age, from her father to be sure."

Alendra looked at the source of the unfamiliar voice and her eyes, so much like her mother, fixed on Talryn. Then she did the unexpected by holding out her arms to him.

"May I?" he asked.

"Certainly," Wendra said, having no concerns since she had seen him with his own son.

Talryn took the girl and propped her in the crook of his arm and they traded serious gazes until the little girl smiled and laughed and settled down into his arm.

"I suddenly find myself missing my son," the Lord Protector said.

Lucenda smiled, the man suddenly having gone up a notch or two in her estimation.

"Perhaps we should allow our guest the chance to sit down. Please, come this way," she said.

Showing no sign of relinquishing his hold on Alendra, the Lord Protector followed Lucenda into the parlor. As he walked along he passed the leshec board. He turned to look at Alucius.

"So this is where you learned to play?"

"Yes, sir. My grandsire taught me the game."

"Yes, and I haven't been able to beat him since he was about fifteen," Royalt offered.

"I imagine there are a few people in Corus that can say that," Talryn said with a laugh.

He took the offered seat in the chair that was so favored by Alucius' late grandmother. He perched Alendra on his lap and said,

"I'm rather surprised she's so at ease with me."

"She's very perceptive. She took to young Burtyl right away, but she finds the trader that brings us the solvents less than admirable," Lucenda said. "I've never seen such a look on her face before or since."

"Perhaps you can come work for me when you grow up and tell me who in my court I can trust or not," Talryn said, tickling her chin. "Although, I imagine you'll be much like your father and not ever want to leave the stead."

Then the Lord Protector directed his attention to Burtyl and asked,

"And who might this young fellow be?"

"Sir, this is Burtyl. He'll be taking over one of the three steads that were at risk last year. The one belonging to the elderly couple with no heirs," Alucius offered. "He has been with us learning the trade, so to speak."

"Ah, yes. It is a pleasure and an honor, Burtyl. I greatly appreciate your efforts. I do not wish to see any more steads lost if it can be avoided."

"Thank you, Lord Protector, I will do my best," Burtyl responded.

"With these two gentlemen as your tutors, I suspect that will be more than sufficient."

"Yes, Lord Protector," the younger man replied.

"Well," Lucenda cut in, "I think Wendra and I should see about lunch. And Burtyl, would you please go out and check with the Captain and see if all is well. Father and Alucius can begin whatever discussions they need to hold with the Lord Protector."

Wendra went to recover her daughter and Talryn gave her up, although his expression showed just a hint of regret. This was quickly replaced with a look of chagrin. He reached into the inside of the jacket he wore and removed a folded and sealed piece of parchment.

"Madame Lucenda, I nearly forgot. My wife asked me to deliver this to you," he said.

Lucenda stepped forward and gingerly took the sheet from his hand, an eyebrow raised.

"Well, I can't imagine what the Lord Protector's Lady would have to say to me, I'm sure."

Talryn laughed and said,

"Were she here she would have a great deal to say to you, Madame, and a great deal she would like to have you say to her. But I will let the message speak for itself."

Lucenda stepped away, holding the message and then followed her daughter in law into the corridor, leaving the three men seated in a rough circle.

"Your daughter is a most remarkable woman, Royalt," Talryn said.

"Much like her mother. In most ways they are the ones who have kept the stead going," the older man replied.

Talryn nodded, as if he was cataloging another bit of information. The discussion that ensued had more the tone of a meeting of ministers as Talryn asked a number of questions about the status of the steads, the conditions of the quarasote flats and the prospects for next year's nightsilk production. They discussed the new Valley Council and the results of the first meeting, held in the small inn at Iron Stem. Talryn couldn't help but chuckle when he was told of the brawl that almost broke out when the two traders in attendance tried to take the meeting over. Kustyl himself offered to take them both outside and teach them a lesson or two before cooler heads prevailed.

"Change is a difficult thing to accept but you'd think after the fate of their colleagues they'd have a bit more sense. But I've seen it before. Privilege and power are hard things to let go," he said, then he turned to other matters. "I assume, Colonel, that your grandfather is well aware of your various efforts on my, and Lanachrona's, behalf."

"Yes, sir. All of it."

"Fine. So tell me, have you given any thought to the problem of the Dramurians?"

"Somewhat. The biggest problem is I don't know a great deal about them. In all the histories I've read there wasn't much detail about them. Even what I read while in Madrien. From what I can gather they are very much like the Seylters of Southgate, perhaps even more so, if you take my meaning. I've seen mention of a division of sorts, west and east, with the westerners the more wealthy. I'm not really sure what they are after on the mainland. Even with you holding Southgate, they could still do well trading all along the coast, even going around to the east of Corus. The piracy and attempts on Southgate," he shrugged, "speaks more of custom and desire, than commerce."

"Humanity has always done such and I believe so we will continue," Talryn said with a smirk, "that too is something I'm all too familiar with. Anything that you can add to that body of knowledge would be appreciated. The harbor defenses at Southgate are nearing completion. The three cannon are in place and the parts for three more have been retrieved from storage. But that doesn't resolve the basic issue."

The discussion continued in the parlor as Lucenda and Wendra worked on lunch. The message remained unopened on the table. Wendra cast a glance at it and said,

"Mother, don't you think you should see what the Lady Alerya has to say to you? The Lord Protector did carry it all this way."

"Don't you think we should see to lunch first?"

"A few moments won't matter, Mother."

Lucenda snorted by set aside her ladle and picked up the sheet of parchment and broke the elegantly formed wax seal. As she read her expression changed from curiosity to disbelief to confusion and consternation. Wendra watched and finally said,

"Mother, for goodness sake, what does it say?"

"It says that she is very much taken with my skills as a seamstress and recognizing that she wouldn't be able to lure me to set up a shop in Tempre, she begs me to create an outfit similar to what you wore to that Ball, but in the blue and cream of Lanachrona," the older woman said.

"That's quite an honor, Mother."

"Then you'll find this interesting. She believes that the fashion will find quite a following in Tempre and other cities and suggests that it might be worth considering exporting outfits."

The two women regarded each other for a moment and Wendra said,

"Do you know what I think?"

"No, dear, what?"

"I think we need to talk to my mother."