Zoe and Emmeline arrived near Uzec. Zoe deftly transformed from a giant eagle to herself again. As they approached the gates, guards led them in. Sir Videl, the Baroness’ seneschal met them and made sure Emmeline was escorted to the safety of their quarters where Mirel and Amelie joined them. After introducing herself to them, Zoe examined Emmeline carefully making sure any wounds had not harmed the babies.
“My lady, the babies are fine,” she said reassuringly.
Emmeline closed her eyes in relief and sighed. She nodded. “Then it is time to go to work. Mirel, I need to set up a temporary court. It should be respectful and not displace the Margrave’s or Baroness’s place of court. It should be a humble room that is accessible to people. I’ll need a comfortable chair, and we’ll need a table and chairs for others. I’ll also need security in that room. I know we are short on soldiers, so draft a couple of men from the town guard — the constable will help you choose.
“Amelie, we need to assess any damage. Please summon the constable and whoever is in charge of any guards that are left in the castle. In addition, we need to sent word to local Uzec nobles that they are needed here. I want to share information and learn from them as well. I’d like you to draw up the messages. Add to that the leaders of guilds here in town, as well as whoever is in charge of the Temple now.
“By the time everyone is gathered, if luck is with us, we will have heard from Lady Rivanon and we will be able to explain the situation to them. If not, then I’ll think of something to rouse Uzec to a state of readiness, not panic.”
Amelie will say, “How should we treat the Seneschal my lady? Sir Videl is technically in charge when the Baroness is away but young like us. We should be delicate in these matter and include him.”
“I need to discuss with him moving forward. Will you please send for him? We will work together.”
Amelie nodded and left. Mirel said, “He shouldn’t see you here in the bedroom cousin. Let’s get you cleaned and dressed and meet him in the drawing room.” Zoe said nothing. She looked pensive.
Emmeline nodded and began to get ready. As she did so, she asked, “Zoe, what’s on your mind?”
“On the flight here you told me the story of this Hugo and Skall saving you from what was clearly not a simple bandit raid, but a coalition of Azenkuul hobgoblins, some undead spirit, and some person unknown who got them there. They then basically telegraphed everything they planned to do when they could have easily remained silent. Now they are in Derrien I suppose trying to follow through on their threats with your friends to oppose them. To be honest, this just doesn’t add up.” she said.
She added, “Why bother to save you? What did it gain them? Unless they truly believed they were in the right and felt honor-bound to deal with the side-effects of what they did. To be honest, I think they are merely someone else’s tools. And frankly, if the coup succeeds we up here may be better off.”
Emmeline shook her head. “Not better off. They will seek to murder my children and kill Roland if they succeed! Not only would we be devastated, the Vale and the Mother would be exploited, not protected. And then eventually Thalassa would send a legion to conquer them. Only pain and misery would result in their victory.
“No, I think they saved us because they had to. Whether it was out of some twisted sense of chivalry or because they were made to, or because they thought it would thwart the plans of a rival or enemy, no one can say. Now, they may know how to behead a realm, but I know how to win hearts. No matter who else dies, as long as I am alive, we will throw off the yoke of a conqueror. We will protect Uzec.”
Zoe nodded, “I see your point. But wouldn’t it be better that we created a new realm up here? A realm that honored the old ways and the new. I’m afraid Emmeline of what the Guild, the Aarithines, or Thalassa will do. It is troubling.”
Amelie entered and said, “Sir Videl awaits you.” Mirel quickly completed the last touches, “There cousin. You are ready!”
Emmeline winked at Zoe. “Do not fear; that is exactly what we are doing. If we win the hearts and minds of the people, the rest will follow.” Her answer was a little cryptic, but it was all she would say for now.
She gave Mirel a smile and headed to her meeting with Sir Videl.
“Good to see you are safe,” Videl said. “Once I heard the rumors I sent word out to Axiney to check on the new outpost and others. We should have word by late morning.”
“That’s quick thinking. I want to try to retain the calm here in Uzec. We must have confidence in our leadership that the usurpers will be or already are put down and whatever happens, people need to be assured that life will continue as normal. I can tell you that I had a terrible premonition that Rol— the Margrave was also in terrible danger. I had Elemix send word of warning to him. I will try to confirm his condition as well as those with him by dawn.
“To this end I would like us to meet with our current secular, temporal, and financial leadership of Uzec. I strongly suggest we tell them that Uzec is safe, and that we have already dispatched help to put down an attempted coupe in Derrien and have every confidence they will be successful. I want to tell them that the Margrave is safe — and until we hear otherwise, this is the truth everyone will hear. I want them also to hear that order is in the process of being restored in Derrien, headed by the Baroness herself who went to rescue us all. But they will need our help because they are going through a traumatic event. I would like to ask local merchant guild leaders to donate or offer at cost medical supplies such as bandages, salves, and any expertise they can spare to go help. I would see the names of any who are able to provide charitable assistance noted and presented to the Baroness and Margrave later. Should they choose to recognize those who are so willing to help, I want to be able to present them with a list.
“The secular leadership, the nobles who are able to come, need more. You and I need to hear from them any news of movement or activity near their holdings, or attacks upon our own people. Whatever is happening right now smells like a long-planned coupe and I think we would best be served catching any collaborator we can quickly and quietly. What do you think?”
He paused a moment, gathering his thoughts. Then said, “Lady Emmeline, my father was direct to the Margrave and serves him now. Not to be indelicate, but exactly what authority do you have in this matter, besides being a fiefholder like scores of others? Some will… think you are being a bit big for your britches if this comes from you. If you understand me?”
Zoe, who had remained on the edge of the room looked annoyed and was about to say something that would likely make this worse. Amelie gave her a dire look that gave Zoe pause.
Emmeline smiled and began counting the reasons on her fingers. “I’m also the only wizard in Uzec until Elemix returns, the one who has directly encountered both Skall and the exiled son of the Duke, the one who has battled the minions of their orcish allies from the depths of Azenkuul, I have direct communication with both the Baroness and the Margrave, and am still the only one who can dial in help from Thalassa directly.” The last was a bit of a stretch, especially considering the magical defenses there might prevent a dream spell from working, but Sir Videl wouldn’t know that. “And I know how that bastard got the power to pull off this coupe and where he went to get it.”
“In short, Sir Videl, I’m the best source of real information and communication you’ve got. And I know how to dispense it in a way that will avoid unrest and panic. That said, you are correct — I don’t have the authority to get things done. That’s why we need to work together.”
“I agree,” he said. Continuing he added, “I will do this then. I will make any initial pronouncements to set the stage in any discussions with the council, nobility or gentry. When more detail is needed for the areas to noted, I will turn to you to explain what is going on. I will do similar for other members of the Baroness’ advisory council. I will temporarily name you to that council as a special advisor until the Baroness returns. That said, all decisions remain with me as that is my job. The details will as usual be left to whom tasks are delegated.”
Zoe continued to look a bit annoyed. Amelie and Mirel were more supportive.
Emmeline thought about that and decided it was an acceptable compromise for now. The priority was retain peace in Uzec, not some temporary power grab that would only saddle her with more enemies. This was a step in the right direction. With a nod, she said, “Thank you, Sir Videl.”
Videl said, “We all have a part to play. Now, I’ll call the council and the Wardens to meet tomorrow morning. In the mean time, please craft a message we can give the town cryer and to post showing our loyalty to the Baroness & Margrave, the rightful Duke, and the League. I trust in your expertise. If the Council feels it is necessary, we can make a formal announcement from the balcony of the castle to the people. The Baroness has done so a few times; and while the Margrave did not, the people certainly know you are his paramour but more importantly a hero of the people.”
“Anything else?” he asked.
“Relief for the people of Derrien?” Emmeline asked. “I think we should be prepared to give them help.”
He looked askew, “Derrien is three times our population. Derrienport alone is larger than Uzec. I hope you do not mean troops. We are stretched extremely thin as it is with the Baroness’ personal guard already down there save for a couple ordered to stay such as Dame Galatea. We have a grand total of 40 guardsmen in the whole town. If we call in the nearby local gentry we could raise perhaps two dozen more. The baronial fiefholders, knights, and men-at-arms in peacetime number around two thousand with each expected to serve a month, plus a week. 80 or so are spread throughout the Barony. With the winter’s losses and half of them gone – if we call all the banners at once – we could raise perhaps another 700 men, half of which are old men and boys. That is if we call the banners. Harvest is here. We raise them for service, we risk harvest.”
“I will not give that order until I know Derrien is lost. We will need those men in the winter.” he said. “Now other aid, perhaps.”
“No, I have faith that the Baroness and Elemix will have the fighting in hand. If we have to raise a fighting force to defend ourselves or Derrien, then we have already lost and the Baroness and Elemix dead. I prefer to prepare instead for a better outcome, because there is little we can do if the duchy is already fallen.
“I meant relief as in bandages, salves, people to help care for the wounded, perhaps some food. I thought we could ask the guild leaders if they might volunteer charitable assistance or at cost. Now is a time to bond, not hunker down in our homes. A duchy that stands together can weather any calamity. And perhaps we might note those willing to help our neighbors. Perhaps one day the Baroness or Margrave might want to know who was willing to help countrymen in need.”
He nodded, “very well. Organize what you can. I can spare four horsemen to guard it. If we are to help it should go out early, If the city is taken, they should return.”
Emmeline nodded. “Thank you, Sir Videl.”
After he had left, Zoe said, “You need to become the Baroness’ primary advisor and be named to the Barony’s Council. This one is just a few years older than you and thinks he is the gods’ gift. Likely one that thinks you are a mere woman.”
Mirel and Amelie looked somewhat startled, but Mirel added, “Cousin, Mother Zoe is right. You could ask Lady Rivanon to be an advisor to her. I mean, the Margrave has both Elemix and Brennic as advisors in one capacity or another.” Amelie added, “Elemix could perhaps do so as well, while the Margrave is away. He has a great deal of knowledge.”
“That’s good advice. I’ll do that. And over the next couple months I’ll be here pretty constantly so it’s not as if I wouldn’t be available,” Emmeline mused.
The girls then helped Emmeline back to her room and her bed. With respectful bows they left, leaving Zoe and Emmeline together.
Zoe sat on the edge of the bed and said, “I think we could do so much more Emmeline. When Lara is here we should be open minded to what could happen. She could lead us back to the old ways and we could lead these people there as well.”
Em wasn’t sure if the ways that Lara might know — if she even remembered her past existence — were anything like what the druids new. But since they were only speculating anyway, it hurt nothing to toss ideas around. “Perhaps so. Or perhaps we will find a truth that bridges old and new and can lead us all into a future together. Wherever the future leads us, I look forward to seeing how it unfolds.”
Zoe added, “You can MAKE it unfold Emmeline. I believe in you. You said it yourself, Lara, the essence of Maryswynifar, can be what we make of her. We shouldn’t take chances on hope of how she might be. If we did, we may as well have her raised as a normal baby. We could school her in our ways and gain a champion for the Old Faith and more. Some leaders are born, some are made. We could do both! And I’m not talking about even the Danaean Old Gods; but something even older. We could take us back to how we were meant to be before the Invasions, the Hattani, the Eterians or the Carians.”
“To do this we need Lara and a third witch. Kalista is one choice, though Mirel has been an interesting student.” Zoe added.
Emmeline thought about that carefully. “Our priority should be not in making my daughter be what we want her to be. We should help her to become all she can be, no matter what that is. She will know our ways. That means both the old ways and the new ways. She will know the ways I have learned from the elves upon the sea, and she will know what I will learn from the city I shall visit within a year’s time. I will impart to her the wisdom that the ancient Mother Tree of the sea elves imparted to me — or at least I will try. And one day I will find her sister who exists yet in this world somewhere in the far north. Lara will not be starved for knowledge, nor shall we. The circle will teach her, but so shall you and I and many others in this world. She will have the chance to grow wise.
“But we must prepare for all possibilities, Zoe. She will have the power of choice. I will give her that. If she chooses not to perform the role we hope for, then we will respect it. And then I will take on that role instead.” She was silent a moment, studying the questions and retorts that would inevitably arise from Zoe. “One way or another, our dream will be realized. But the future does not always give us what we expect.”
Zoe asked, “What is your dream? I’m curious because we have been on the fringes of society for centuries, and it is only getting worse. St. Alador, as they call him, took the vast majority of our old followers over a century ago. With the exceptions of the edges of the Periphery, the Old Faith is gone, lost in Danaean folk customs at best and forgotten altogether in the cities. Our culture itself I feel is going away for the lure of Thalassa. It makes me sad, and others are angrier but Mara gave them hope.”
“I want to the Vale to become a rallying point, a shining beacon of hope for the fae and for people who would honor the fair folk and our connection to the Otherworld. The Mother Tree itself is so important to the Circle, but it means many things to other people, too. It’s a powerful symbol and I hope that it can draw us together as one.
“There are those who selfishly wish to abuse the Mother Tree or corrupt her, or use her for their own selfish designs; these are the enemies we must hold back for the benefit of all.”
Zoe answered, “But is that Thalassa’s plan?”
“To draw various people together for mutual benefit? I should think it is very much their plan.”
Zoe looked skeptical, “I’m not Thalassan like you, so maybe I don’t understand, but one Guild of magic, one guild for each profession, one sanctioned religion, one language of commerce, now there is one army or it seems to be that way, and one direction – outward. I don’t sense a plan, but a conceited self-fulfilling prophecy of their own importance. They are just one small island in a league of equals, but they seem ‘more equal’ than others.”
She smiled a bit to reduce the tension, “but maybe you are right. I’m just a bit paranoid.”
“Nothing is perfect. But change can happen. In fact, in all the lifetimes for which I have been given glimpses, change is the only constant. I plan to be around for a long time, Zoe, and I believe that in the long run, we can make the changes we need happen. We only need to be smart and patient.”
“Maedoc is less patient than I, as are many of the others. But I agree, we can wait.” Zoe said. “In the mean time, we need to find you a local midwife to care for you. I want to be that person, but with that dark spirit arriving so close to our Vale, I am torn. Only I can tap the Vale’s power and I should return as soon as possible.”
Emmeline nodded. “I understand. I’ll miss you but yes you must go. There was someone you mentioned before?”
Zoe nodded, “Yes. Her name is Aline Chevrier. She is the daughter of an Aarithine deacon who’s grandmother was a believer in the old way. She is a skilled herbalist, healer, and most importantly a trained midwife. She is young, but has helped in a hundred births so far in Uzek. My friends tell me she has been a customer of your cousin’s shop of late.”
“Aline Chevrier. I’ll remember.”
“I do not know her well, save by reputation. Maedoc and her grandmother had words years ago, but he respected her despite their differences. If you wish, we can reach out to her. I’ll explain the situation. We’ll need to pay her.” Zoe added.
Emmeline nodded. “I wouldn’t think that would be a problem. The Margrave has afforded a budget for household things. I doubt he will begrudge a small expense for the well being of his children. I’d like to have her contacted if that isn’t too much trouble.”
“Of course,” she said.