The ride back to Uzec was good for Emmeline in the sense that it helped get her more used to riding her rouncey rather than on her little cart. Having slept huddled near a campfire that was a little small the previous night, she’d felt a little uncomfortable and cramped when she had met with Riok. Before she departed Cerisey, his wife, Rhozenn, had provided a breakfast of fresh milk and eggs with butter and toasted bread. It was simple yet wholesome and it had helped refresh her as well.
Uzec was only as bustling as any frontier town would be just a couple days after festival. Merchants, entertainers, and noble guests had departed by now and an aura of peaceful quiet seemed to be settling around the town in the wake of such a busy time.
She knew that Baron Roland would be expecting her; she’d left all her possessions at the castle and would not be leaving for such a long journey without them. Besides, she knew Wizard Elemix would likely be appearing very soon and it would be wise to travel in company rather than alone, especially considering the wizard had a habit of wisely employing a man-at-arms for protection. She would meet Elemix in Uzec before setting out.
As Emmeline entered the town and went to the castle, she saw something she had never seen before. In the central square a gallows was being dismantled. Obviously a hanging had occurred that morning, likely the murderous ally of Rurrick who killed the unfortunate guard.
Turning her rouncey over to the castle’s groom, Emmeline was escorted by a footman to the Baron’s conservatory. On the side table was a rose, a small box with a ribbon, a much larger box with a lock and key, two letters, each with the Baron’s seal, and a formal scroll with a ribbon on it. The footman noted the the Baron should be here shortly, “Please fee free to relax.”
“Thank you, Robert,” she told the footman. She glanced at the items on the little table curiously, but didn’t touch them. Instead she wandered near the various potted plants enjoying the midday sun allowed through the conservatory’s tall windows. He had a lovely variety, from ferns to flowers to vines and even sweet-smelling succulents from some distant, arid land.
The door opened and the Baron entered. Smiling, he said, “It is good you returned. You left a lot here.”
Emmeline smiled, then moved to him and bowed gracefully. “I did, my lord. I’m sorry for that, but I did see Tiffanie off so hopefully she is clear of those mercenaries by now. I was able to speak with a few people in the fief as well. It turns out that Steward Riok is much more capable than it might seem at first glance. And Aurryn is already at work on his task. Things are off to a very good start there.”
“Mademoiselle,” he took her hand and drew her closer, “I see you are learning our ways and addressing me correctly, for a formal setting at least.” Seeing Emmeline’s confusion, he added, “you may call me Baron as if that was my first name, by title alone without epithet, when we are alone. My childhood cousins call me Rohl from time to time, but I like it when you call me your Baron.” He kisses her hand, holds it with his right hand, and then waves his left hand over to the side table, “These are for you.”
“Baron,” she said, “all of these things?” She first picked up the rose with her free hand took a moment to enjoy its scent, then after seeing thorns had been removed, slipped it over her ear. It’s color was a near match for her hair. With growing curiously and excited smile, she began to open the gifts, starting with the small box.
Inside the small box was an elegant silver choker, probably worth 200 gp. It caught the light of the many windows, its subtle hammerwork reflecting it in all directions. Baron said, “I had it commissioned for you. It is the only one like it, by my resident dwarven silversmith and made from some of the silver extracted from the mine you rescued.”
She stared at it in total surprise for a moment, then turned to him. “It’s beautiful! Baron, I don’t know what to say but thank you and…” She had to blink away tears and that surprised even herself. “It’s really wonderful. I… I hope I deserve such a beautiful gift.”
“Need you ask? You have in short time taken my heart, acted for the betterment of my realm – twice, been an inspiration for my people. It is but a token, but one of thanks. Now, wipe away the tears and try it on.” The Baron kissed her on the forehead and put the choker on Emmeline’s neck. Taking her to the mirror, the Baron placed the choker on her neck. “There, what do you think?”
She looked, smiled and leaned gently against him. “I love it. I’ve never worn anything so beautiful in my life.” She turned and put her arms around him. “Or so precious.”
The Baron kissed her deeply and powerfully. Letting go a touch he said, “I wish there was a method to make you mine dear one, to keep you here in splendor. But that would be to cage the songbird. I cannot be so selfish, even if I have the power to do so.” He stared into her eyes, “it is my will you find success in life.” He took her over to the table again…
Emmeline squeezed his hand. It meant a lot to her that he saw the truth so clearly. She hoped he knew that. She was gentle at heart. Perhaps her adventures might harden her her attitude in time, but today it was hard to know she would leave a man who so wanted her to stay, a man she’d to whom she’d given her virginity.
She looked next at the letters and scroll. “Are these what I am to deliver to Derrien?”
“Yes and no. The scroll is your land grant. You will find two copies, one for yourself and another for the Duke. While I only ask a small time, I would hope you choose to expand that time, not as an obligation, but because you wish it. The Duke is a hard man. He will not like my decision, but he will accept it. The first letter is the key to that. It makes clear what you did, and what you and your friends intend to investigate; at least as much as you explained to me. It should be enough to grant audience. The second letter is for my daughter’s eyes. It will explain your role to her; hopefully. The long box is also for you. It is a traveling desk, with ink, paper, everything you need to continue writing music.”
She ran a finger along the smooth wood of the box, then took up the key and opened. She was very pleased to see everything was exactly as the Baron had said. “Thank you, Baron,” she said softly. “I do hope to return here often, but I will do whatever is necessary to track down those two people who presaged the goblins’ attack.”
Emmeline turned to the baron. “I want to be honest with you. I know we spoke of this once, but I feel like you hardly know me. I want you to, yet I’m not sure I even know myself.
“When this all began I went with Wizard Emelix and the warrior Tiffany to seek the missing villagers and the patrols of men at arms that disappeared. I gave the reason that they would be heroes if they succeeded and that I wanted to chronicle their deeds. Well, they really were heroes and I did chronicle the story. Yet I was drawn to become involved directly, to raise a crossbow and staff and to call upon my own strengths to aid, slay, and even heal. Something changed in me at Calder. I love the path of the entertainer. I will always love to sing and dance, play my fiddle and take part in plays. But I must do much more than that. I need to see what was begun in Calder to the very end.”
She drew close to the baron again and took his arm in her hands. “But I have begun something here, too, something very important. The acorn. The elves. The people of Uzec. You.” She paused. The temptation to fall into another kiss was difficult to resist, but if she didn’t she knew she might not stop there. “Being here is important, too. I will return.”
Looking down at her and brushing the hair away from her eyes, the Baron said, “I know you will. For now you must do what you must do. I confess that a small part of the reason for granting you Sir d’Arcy’s lost fief was personal, but it could easily have been Tiffanie being granted that land as you know. It was up to the two of you, but I am glad it was you. Also, granting the elves the Cairns area serves my purposes as well, and that is the growth and protection of the upper and lower valley lands of Uzec.
“Let us make an agreement. Politics aside, which you will have to learn someday, when we are alone you must tell me the truth or anything that might affect my people. I will similarly be honest with you. I cannot say I fully understand this business with the acorn, the corrupted tree, the battles between elves and dwarves, but I am choosing to trust you, despite what some advisors have said, because I am a good judge of character. I am only asking you to trust me, and abide by the decisions I make for my people – which you are as far as anyone is concerned.”
“I will,” Emmeline promised. “For now I can tell you that the acorn, which becomes the new Mother Tree, is of great importance to all people of fey descent. This reaches far beyond elves — for I suspect many humans are also touched by the fey from ancient times, even if they don’t always look it or even know it.”
She paused, then decided to take the chance. “People like me.” She looked up at the baron, wondering how he might take this news, but kept talking. “Keeping the Mother Tree in human lands means it cannot be used by … less forward-thinking fey as a symbol behind which to rally and thereby bring harm to their neighbors. The true victory here for Uzec and for all people in the Thalassa region, is that the Mother Tree will symbolically be part of all of us now. The future is unknowable, but already we can see a new alliance has been made between Uzec and a race of people that had been embittered toward us. Now they will protect us and be glad to do so.”
“One of those decisions is for you to continue to get to know who you really are, to find your destiny. If it is here, so much the better – but it may not be. In the process, teach my daughter to do the same. She is her father’s daughter, headstrong and decisive. But she has not learned humility – in fact Thalassan ways may have made her more haughty. It will be needed if she is to succeed me, again despite what my advisors wish.”
“I will do my best,” Emmeline said. “My strengths lie not in long-term planning, I know. But I can teach her to think on her feet and to make the best of whatever life throws at her, just as my grandfather taught me.”
She smiled and adopted a sultry look, though she was being more playful than serious. “I also am very curious as to what my yearly obligations might entail…”
“I would be happy to show you, mademoiselle,” the Baron replied with a smile, “but it may take much of the evening.”
Her blush proved the idea was enticing to her. “So it’s like that is it, Baron?” She laughed with some delight and a lot of anticipation, and was glad she’d run a small errand before she had arrived at the castle.
The following morning, the Baron and Emmeline sat in his private garden, having breakfast after creating a night of memories, which after this day would be all they would have for some time. The Baron, while taken by her, did take the time to explain her feudal obligation to main the land, protect the people (which he would be assisting with), and to come to the defense of Uzec in time of need. It was a pleasant conversation, as both were gifted in this manner. Robert, the footman, brought a message to the Baron, who upon reading it, thanked him.
“We have news of your Magus friend,” he handed the note to her, “it seems he was spotted on the road. A guard was with him, but not the man who passed though town with him when he went south.”
“I will miss Nigel, the previous hired guard,” Emmeline mused. “He has a good heart, but if Elemix hired this new guard, I’m sure Nigel’s replacement will be equally well considered. Did you wish to meet Elemix, my lord?”
The Baron replied, “Yes I would. He is the only one of your ad hoc troupe I have not met. You intend to travel with him and your Snowmorian friend?”
Emmeline nodded. The footman had left, so she reverted to less formal language. “Yes, Baron. I think Emmelix is also very interested in tracking down the two strangers who wanted to search the old dwarven mines. Tuderic was the man’s name. Odd sounding, isn’t it?”
The Baron seemed to recognize the name. It did not sit well with him. He replied, “Long ago, I met a person with a similar sounding name. He was old then, a descendant of the old Snowmorians, the ones the Empire first defeated and drove into the edge of the wild hundreds of years ago, who later on were driven from even Snowmor by the Norvik Tribes, such as your ally Typhon Kné’s people. They are scattered from the Vannes Valley, to the Rift Kingdoms, and into Maelith, where many are said to have settled. He was,” the Baron remembered, “an angry man.”
Emmeline paused. “That’s just what the villagers said! I mean, about Tuderic seeming to come from the Rift countries. They said he had looked ‘older’, whatever that means. And the woman,” she continued excitedly, “she was described as being tall, too, but not so gaunt, and she had white hair. I figure people that look like that, they can’t be hard to track down if they are wandering around these parts. Baron, it sounds like this Tuderic might be the same man you met. Can you tell me anything more about him?”
The Baron answered, “It was awhile ago. In my youth I took up errantry and by my father’s leave became a young cavalry officer in Thalassan Auxiliaries. This was almost 30 years ago. We were stationed outside Mesquér, which was just a fort then, sometimes under attack by the Kingdom of Legan and constantly harassed by Stavan raiders from Malith. It was on one occasion that we rescued an adventuring party who had gotten over their heads with an orc tribe. We brought them back to safety at our outpost. Their leader was a man named Tuderic. There was another older man, and a terrified girl. They said the orcs were on the move and it was our fault. Our ‘civilization’ had caused all the misery in the world – like the other ‘empires’ of old – and that our arrogance would get us killed. The bulk of our forces advanced to engage the orcs before they got closer to Mesquér. Meanwhile, we tried to keep the refugees, but this Tuderic – I think he was some kind of priest – destroyed much of our men’s morale with his wailing and doomsaying. The next day, this Tuderic and party had left by stealth in the night, along with all of our native levees, cutting our reserve force in half to barely over a hundred.”
The Baron paused.
“Word came that our advance force confronting the orcs had been destroyed, nearly a thousand men. With the levees gone we had but a hundred twenty men to defend the fort, and defend it we did. Over three days we held off the orcs, losing eighteen men. We must have slaughtered a thousand of them. It was the hardest fighting I’ve ever been in.”
“It sounds as if Tuderic and his allies were trying to set up your force to fail. It makes one wonder if they may have incited the orcs to attack,” Emmeline observed. “Whatever his motivation, it seems Tuderic was not in in favor of seeing Thalassan forces succeed. And recently in the north, after he was refused permission to work the mines or even look around, a force of goblins attacked. It seems like there is a pattern to his actions.”
The Baron replied, “Perhaps. Though that day they were both wounded and afraid. That Tuderic did try to convince us to abandon our post and retreat – something we would never do. Maybe it was a conspiracy, maybe it was not, but it is hard for me to believe these people are one and the same. It isn’t impossible, but he’d have to be almost a hundred by now. He had a visceral hatred of civilization, saying our ‘empire’ was as evil and corrupt as the Eterians, Hattani, or even the Silurians.”
“Hm. There must be a reason he thinks this, and a reason he wanted to look into the old dwarven ruins at the mines. Elemix should have access to libraries in Thalassa. I hope we will learn more about what we found north of Calder Keep.”
“I would consider his religion and his experiences. If memory serves, His people were Carian, the Amar tribe I believe.”
“Are they human?”
The Baron was pensive for awhile and said, “From what I remember, mostly.”
“We’ll look into what you told me. If they are the same man, or perhaps related, then knowing more about these Carian people might be important,” Emmeline said.
“There are many Carian peoples, some civilized, some not. It is good to learn in any case.” Finishing breakfast he added, “you should get ready, the Magus should arrive within the hour. I’ll send a man to bring him to the castle.”
After excusing herself, she returned to her quarters, collected her various things and set about securing them on her cart at the stables. Though she didn’t really need the help, she let the stable boy hook up her pony and tie her horse to the back of the cart, and provided him a modest tip for his aid. She wanted to be ready to move as soon as Elemix was ready to go.