Beddigan felt his stomach rumble as his gaze drifted over the expanse of stone table, littered with crockery bowls filled with steaming dishes; none of which looked particularly familiar to him, but all of which smelled delicious. He and his companions all sat quietly, waiting patiently to be joined by Karrinah. Torin am Megnarr, as it turns out, was one of her most trusted aids and advisers, and it was quite fortuitous that they had met him and his brothers at the stall market before any other members of this curious society.
After their introductions to the leader of the Deer people, they had been lead off by palace aids to separate rooms, which William had briefly protested, before Beddigan had reassured his old friend that he was sure no harm would come to them. Once in a guest room, he had been given fresh, clean water to drink, while the aid drew him a bath in a large oval bathtub that was sunk into the floor of the room. He watched curiously as water flowed from a spout at a moderate pace while the aid made frequent trips in and out of the room to come in with steaming kettles of water to add to the pool. After adding some fragrant smelling liquid that bubbled luxuriously, the aid had bowed to him and left.
Stripping out of his filthy, stiff with dirt and sweat clothing, it had felt wonderful to slip into the sweet, fragrant soapy water. He had allowed himself a few moments of leisure, laying and soaking before he took to the task of cleaning his matted fur. The water cooled so quickly that he had been glad that he hadn’t lounged for too long, and by the time he had stepped out of the tub it was all but cold. He had barely wrapped himself in a towel when the aid appeared again, quietly take his clothing away to be cleaned. Despite the unique sound of the Deer’s hooves clip-clopping on the stone floors, these people moved swiftly and quietly enough that he had not heard her enter.
Sitting on the edge of the bed he eyed the pile of cloth that had been left for him. It was much like that that Torin and his brothers wore. A stretchy pair of dark leggings, much like the breeches he had worn as a boy. Not as thick or durable as what he wore now, and they only extended to mid-calf. And then there was a drapey piece of fabric that shimmered a beautiful crimson red that he hadn’t had a clue what to do with. To his luck or by great design, the aid returned to drain the tub.
“Please dress in the bottoms and I will show you how to wear the Saresh.” She had said in a soft, lilting voice that had stuck in his mind with its loveliness, before turning her back and crouching down to drain and rinse the tub. He had moved swiftly then, tugging on the snug pants quickly, lest she turn around too quickly, and used the towel to scrub the last droplets of water from his chest before setting in on a low stone table near the bed. Once the water had drained from the tub, the aid stood and picked up the crimson fabric, shaking it out until it looked like a long irregularly cut sheet.
“Thank you for your assistance.” He had said to her awkwardly, feeling all too naked in just a simple pair of leggings. She had bowed her head softly to him in the way that he had noticed all the Deer did as a sort of kind acceptance.
“Raise your arms, please.” She said to him and then everything was a flurry of spinning and red fabric for a few moments. He tried to follow along, aware now that pieces of the fabric had golden rope ties that were used to fix it in place. When she had finished she stepped back to survey her work, and he had looked down to see it looked very much like that which he had seen on the other Deer.
“Thank you. I’m surprised it isn’t far too long on me, as your people are much taller than I.” He had said. The aid gathered up his damp towel and gestured for him to follow her out into the corridor.
“Ah yes. It fits you because it is for that of a child.” She had replied simply, and Beddigan had felt the stamp of embarrassment flame alive on his cheeks.
When they had reached the table, both Ragnon and William were already seated, though no food had been delivered to it yet. The aid bowed to him once more and disappeared back down a corridor. It had taken everything in him not to ask William how that whole ordeal had been for the Bear. The Bears were not ones for finery and not ones for help with any task such as bathing or dressing. But here he sat, cleaned and smelling far too fragrant for his liking, Beddigan was sure of that, and dressed in an emerald green Saresh.
Beddigan’s eyes drifted from the food on the table to Ragnon, sitting on the far side of William, who looked happier and more relaxed than he had ever seen the Wolf.
“You look happy, friend.” He said, smiling at the toothy grin the Wolf gave him as he lounged back in his chair.
“A good bath and clean clothes will do that. Plus, purple looks great on me!” the Wolf said with a cackle of laughter, gesturing to his amethyst coloured Saresh. “Now if we could just eat some of this food…” his voice trailed off with a grin. Just then, Karrinah and Torin appeared from a corridor and took their seats at the table across from them.
“You need not have waited for me. Please, do eat! You must be very hungry from your journey.” That was all the assurance that the three companions needed and they began to fill their plates from fragrant, colourful dishes. Torin selected a few things and placed the plate in from of Karrinah. She watched them all as they ate, which while a bit unnerving. He was having trouble taking his eyes off of the Deer as well.
After they had each eaten at least one plate of food, Beddigan met eyes with the leader of the Deer. He cleared his throat,
“I can’t thank you enough for your generosity, my lady.” She inclined her head in that subtle bow of acknowledgment that he was now becoming used to. A beat of silence stretched between them before she spoke.
“I am pleased to give you all rest and respite, but I know that is not why you’ve come to Haven.” Beddigan halted in the middle of refilling his plate. “Please, Beddigan, tell me of this war in your lands.” Setting his plate down, he leaned back in his chair and sipped from the glass of sweet, cold tea to clear his throat. And then he began, the long and painful story of his part of the world, and his role in it all, leading up to the Wolves threat of expansion into the free Republic of Katheyra.
Both Karrinah and Torin listened with what appeared to be great interest as he wove the tale for them. When he was finished, he began to pick at the food on his plate again, waiting for their response. He had finished his food, along with his companions, before Karrinah spoke.
“I am grieved to hear of the fighting amongst your people. And I am heartbroken at the thought of a free society falling to tyranny. Katheyra sounds similar to Haven. Tell me, are the people there very much like us?” Beddigan winced at the bark of laughter that Ragnon let out. The Wolfe rushed to explain, as all eyes at the table fell upon him.
“Apologies, Miss, but nothing on the other side of the mountains is anything like this place. Or your people.” He added hastily. Beddigan shot him a look of annoyance.
“What Ragnon means is that while Katheyra has no traditional ruling class, they are governed by a council of peers, but still function very much like the other countries in our piece of the world.” He waited while several aids cleared the table of dishes before he continued. “Haven is something the likes of which we have never seen… and we don’t quite understand how it is possible to have such a peaceful society.” This time Torin spoke, his lilting accent hardened with a bit of judgment that Beddigan did not expect.
“We can see how it would seem impossible to you war-mongering types.” Beddigan winced at the growl that began low in William’s throat. Karrinah held up her hooves in a halting gesture.
“Now, now, gentlemen, we have no need for that. Torin, you make take your leave.” Torin stood, bowed stiffly, and left. “I apologize for Torin, he worries that you will bring war with you in your search for help.” Beddigan shook his head fiercely.
“We wish you no harm, and respect your way of life. But please, could you tell us a bit about this part of the world? Are there other peoples besides the Deer in these lands?” The melodic tinkling of laughter that escaped Karrinah before she spoke caused Beddigan’s heart-rate to increase dramatically.
“We Deer are but a very small piece of this area, dear Beddigan. We are by far the smallest of the countries, but we are also a free nation. We are not governed directly or indirectly by any of the other peoples of these lands, and we are in fact, a destination of rest and respite for many of them. We hold no trade agreements of import, as we supply all our own needs in our small country, though we do export some specialty goods. We have stood free since the beginning of our history.” Beddigan listened intently to Karrinah as she rose from her seat and began to pace gracefully the length of the room. “This, however, does not mean that this part of the world has not seen war. A very long time ago, before the Empire became what it is today, the countries fought unceasingly. But now I’m getting ahead of myself.” She said with another lilting caress of laughter. “Come, let us retreat to the library so that you may see what we have in the way of maps, and I will tell you of the peoples that inhabit these lands.
Beddigan stood eagerly, happy to see that his companions looked just as enthusiastic about the process of seeing a map and learning what other creatures existed here. They followed Karrinah’s delicate form through the maze of corridors and into one of the few rooms that was not open to the elements, with a thick, heavy door. Opening the shutters over the windows, the leader of the Deer let light into the space, allowing them to see rows upon rows of books and a low stone table with a cluster of softly embroidered chairs around it.
“Sit, sit.” She said with an airy wave before she began rummaging in cabinets below the book shelves. Beddigan looked around the massive room and felt the itch of the Adventurer, tickling at him to start reading as many of these books as he could.
Karrinah joined them then, spreading a very worn and delicate map over the table, setting little stones on the corners to hold it in place. All three of the them leaned over the map and murmured sounds of wonder and delight at the completely foreign geography. Karrinah gave them a moment of looking and murmuring to one another, before reaching her delicate hoof across towards a wall of peaked mountains.
“These are the mountains you crossed to reach us.” She said with a tap. Pulling her hoof back a bit she tapped a circle not far from the mountains, “And this, is The City of Light, and surrounding it, Haven.” Beddigan looked at the land mass that stretched out from that point. The sea to the west that they had seen from their vantage point in the mountains, was indeed the sea that stretched beyond the landbridge and north of Illensdar. It was labelled the Bintack Oceania here. Karrinah sat back a bit. “The other circles you see in this part of the map are our other cities. You will notice they are few. They are also much smaller than The City of Light. We have one Island community as well, in the Bintack Oceania.” Beddigan nodded to her. She had not been being modest when she had described the Deer’s territory as small.
Beddigan was now looking above the dotted line, not far from The City of Light’s circle, to the large expanse of land beyond it. He met Karrinah’s eyes.
“And this place?” he asked, as there were no noted features separating the huge land mass into countries. Karrinah was quiet a moment and Beddigan noticed both Ragnon and William had looked up from the map at her unexpected silence.
“This, my new friends, is the Empire of the Lions.” Beddigan felt his chest tighten.
“All of it?” Ragnon squeaked. Karrinah nodded and rose, moving over to a book shelf, running her hoof along it until she found the heavy woven spine of the book she was searching for. She brought it back to the sitting area and sat, cracking open its cover with a puff of dust.
“Listen well friends, and I will tell you the tale of these lands and how the Empire came to be.”
To Be Continued…
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