Post

Region: Arkonos

Bloodlines - Part 1
Copost with Volgaro

Gabriele von Waling held still, back resting on a small spruce. The forest was still - or so it would seem to someone not familiar with it. For Gabriele, though, it was alive with sound and movement. Gustav, Gabriele’s father, had insisted that she knew the land as well as her eventual subjects did, and so more days than not she’d followed his Huntsman out into the woods, learning everything she could about tracking game, how to handle a bow, and most importantly, patience. And it was patience that had become so important now, with her cousin sitting on the throne in the castle to the south. She’d have her day with Greta soon enough, but right now was not the time to strike. She needed allies.

There was a sudden flutter of movement to her right near the ground, just as soon hidden again. Gabriele scanned the brush, searching for the source of it. Woodland animals were hard to spot, for they knew how to blend in with their environment. For a good eye, though, it was possible to pick them out. And there it was. The pear shape of a pheasant, holding still. The color was invisible, but the shape was unmistakable. She raised her bow and released.

The flutter became a burst of movement as the bird struggled against its sudden assailant, but death was inevitable now. Gabriele walked six strides toward it and grabbed it by its neck. It struggled until she snapped its neck with a sudden jerk. She’d eat well tonight.

The quiet time out in the forest let her think. As she prepared the pheasant and ate it under the darkening sky, she made up her mind. To the north was a large kingdom. Volgaro. She knew they’d come this far south before. Rumor had it that they’d gone even further, so she should be able to seek ties with them.

She separated the blood into a small iron cup, and cut a line up the nearest tree. Shoving a knife up into the cut, she went back to her bird and finished the meal. As she ate, she drew the knife out from the tree. A thin sap covered the tip, and she wiped the knife off into the metal cup, then stirred.

She lay back against the tree again after she ate and pulled out her oilskin pouch. She produced a sheaf of papers, and cut a feather for a quill. By this time her earlier mixture had settled, and she dipped her quill to write. In orange ink that would be brown tomorrow, she wrote. It was a formal letter, if an unskilled one. She knew nothing of the courtly graces or etiquette that her family once would have had before their departure from Alvaringen.

To the Noble Houses of Volgar,

I am Gabriele, heir to the Duchy of Kohlenbirke, east of the Imperial Highway to your south. I and my people seek your aid. For years now, we have been ruled by a pretender. We have a strong army, but only of equal size to the pretender. My people are Sudenmen like many of yours, and we ask that our bond in blood be honored. However, as you can see, I am plain-spoken, and cannot assume to be of the same station as you. Kohlenbirke is rich in resources. We can pay for aid.

Blood prevails,
Gabriele Von Waling.

She tied the letter back up into her pouch, and laid back to sleep. In the morning she would return to Kohlenbirke and send a rider north with the message.

__________

Two Weeks Later

Myrali, Lord Marshal’s chamber.

Drovij’s sat in his chamber alone lost in thought. He looked at a large map of Sokos that lay across a table, the pieces from his chess board lay to the side of it. He grabbed two pieces, a knight and pawn moving it to the lands of Duke Vaclou within Dhorvas. He then placed three knights and three pawns on the border of Volgaro and Dhorvas. He continued placing pieces till he stood for a second looking over the map, visions of battle filled his head tactics against a foe he had never seen only heard about from hius scouts within the Lizard Lands. His tired eyes snapped open as a knock came from his chamber door.

The Lord Marshal opened the door to a servant holding the message from Kohlenbirke, he sighed, grabbing his pipe, filling and lighting it before reading the letter.

“My Lord..” the servant had begun to speak before Drovij held his hand up to silence him. “Summon the Volkiban from their chambers.” he said bluntly.

“But it’s late My Lord, should you not wait for the Mor—”

“Do as I say or I shall have you flogged!” Drovij barked, causing the servant to jump before running to do as he said.

Within the hour the Lords and Ladies of the Volkiban had gathered, some with scowls and others with confusion covering their visage. Rurik of House Drovic was the first to speak. “Why have you called us here at this hour Drovij?!”

Another from the opposite side of the chamber, Count Albin Brun spoke softly in stark contrast to the Volgar’s booming voice. “For once i must agree with the Chief Drovic, why have you called us here old friend?”

Drovij handed the letter to a servant commanding him to pass it around the room before he spoke. “Just like my original purpose for calling you all here we have been called upon to aid another, but this time one of our brethren!”

“One of your brethren!” Chief Marov yelled from the left causing the usual bickering within the chamber before Drovij slammed a book against the stone wall, startling the chamber into silence. “Now I am usually not the one handling the lot of you but the Reichsfrau put me in charge till she returns, with that being said the Reichsfrau is both Volgar and Sudenmen!’ he said looking to each side of the chamber as he spoke about their respective cultures. “But as sons and daughters of the saints we owe it to our ancestors to at least hear the girl out!”

A voice called out from behind Rurik. “I’ll go,” he said, stepping forward.

Rurik scoffed “Olaf you would tarnish our name in such a way,” he said, scowling at his son. Olaf looked back to his father “The only one shaming our house and the Volgar people is you. This Gabriele calls for our aid what does it hurt to at least go hear her plea, we are warriors and this is a war waiting to be fought, but you all would rather sit and collect the ghost of victory instead of the real thing.”

Gasps were heard throughout the hall before Chief Marov burst into laughter. “I like you, boy! I vote we send this one and a group down to meet the lass and see what she has to bring to the table fully.” he said with a chuckle.

Drovij sighed in relief. “All in favor?”

All of the Sudenmen raised their hands followed by Chief Marov,Chief Vlasti, and High Chief Vadik

“All opposed?”

Rurik, Chieftess Radislav, and Chief Fausti raised their hands.

“Well that decides that then. Olaf you will be able to gather a group of men yourself; I will also be sending a group of guards with you just in case.” Drovij said, lighting his pipe once more. “Good luck.”

“Thank you, Lord Marshal.” Olaf said walking past his father without a word.

In the following weeks Olaf would gather a group of twenty men - counting the guards Drovij had given him - and began traveling south towards Kohlenbirke.

__________

Five weeks since the letter…

The mud was almost thick enough to pull Gabriele’s boots right off her feet. It had been raining for three days now, and although she was wearing her least-soaked coat - mostly dried out by the fire in her room last night - there was still enough wet left in it that the coat failed to cut the edge of the chill that came with the weather. She squelched along in front of her men, talking to each in turn, giving a little encouragement as they sat huddled around the bonfire. The night before, they’d broken up an attempted raid on Lenefield. A few crops had been burnt, but they’d run the intruders off without much of a problem. Where one raid happened though, there would be others. She had to at least try to make sure her men were ready for another round.

Before she could get very far with her task though, a rider galloped in along the road back to Kohlenbirke. He pulled his horse up to a stop when he saw her, mud flecks spattering her boots. “My lady! There’s a group of maybe 20 men coming from the north!”

Was it a response to my letter? Or is this some new worry to contend with? Gabriele kept her thoughts to herself as she sent a man for her horse.

It was raining in Kohlenbirke too, when the riders from the north arrived. The last few miles had been across hillsides and trails that looked like they’d only been used once in a decade, if that. But just as Kohlenbirke came into sight over the river, they’d been able to rejoin a decent road, if a small one. Several fishing boats could be seen mid-river, ignoring the rain falling in pursuit of their livelihood. Beyond the river - over a low, sturdy, stone bridge - stood the town proper, brick buildings side-by-side all the way along the top of the rise from the river, and over the tops of them, a taller structure, clearly an old castle that had been built for practicality over style. The blue slate of the roof was cracked and missing in several places, but the line of the roof was still straight and solid.

The riders were met at the bridge by a small company of soldiers, two on horseback, one of those armored, and the rest common foot soldiers. One of the smaller soldiers - probably trained to do exactly what he did - took off at a run as soon as the riders approached. The rest held their positions as the armored horseman nudged his mount forward a few paces. “What brings you men here to Kohlenbirke?” His Kostuan was good, but with a heavy accent that marked his lack of direct tutelage in the language.

Olaf held his hand up to stop all of his riders. He looked the man on the horse up and down before speaking. “We have business with the ruler of these lands, if you would excuse us I would rather get out of the rain.”

As he said this the men around him seemed to ready themselves for battle staring at the horsemen on the bridge with grins on their faces.

The horseman isn’t quite ready to fight. Besides, if these men wanted to speak to Gabriele it was not his place to say no. Let her say it - surrounded by many more men than he had here. He wheeled his horse around, and gave a gesture to his men. “Come. We’ll escort you to the castle.”

Olaf nodded to his men who mounted their horses once more following the rider.

The city of Kohlenbirke was not as small as it had first appeared while crossing the bridge. Inside the city walls, houses were crushed together in a manner that was borne from years of uncertainty and mutual protection. It would have probably taken a full day to walk around the edge of the city, following its walls. The robber baron that had had power over the land prior to the Duke’s coming had run roughshod over the inhabitants of the land, until the vast majority had moved to the safety of Kohlenbirke’s walls. Throughout the succession war that followed, both capitals had come under seige more than once, and Kohlenbirke’s perimeter still bore the marks of that. While sections of the wall were undermined and leaning, while others that had been repaired had not met the original standard. This latter work seemed to be more in the vein of having it done, with plans to come back later to repair it properly.

Inside the walls, most streets remained dirt, with the few main ones having had cobblestone laid at some point in the past that was now slowly being covered by dirt and - in the less busy areas - moss. Kohlenbirke Castle itself stood at the highest point of the city, and it too showed signs of having been assaulted in the past. Here too, repairs were underway, but the damage was extensive. Indeed, an entire wing had been leveled nearly to the ground, and a large workforce was even now clearing the last of the old building away in preparation for new construction.

Gabriele von Waling, alerted by the runner, had just finished cleaning up from where she’d been working, assisting with the clearing of the rubble. Her father had always told her that it was important that she never expect others to do what she would not, so although her time could not be spent completely on mundane tasks, she made sure that the townspeople saw that she could - and would - work alongside them. Her hair was wet after having been rinsed of the dust that billowed around the clearing-out work, and her hands and lower arms were clean, but there was no way to completely remove the dust, save a bath and a change of clothes, and there’d be no time for that until this evening. Gabriele moved to the center of the courtyard and took up a neutral stance, waiting for the visitors to arrive.

When Olaf and his party approached the courtyard he waved the straki off to stand guard over the meeting, bidding only two of his men to enter with him. All three of them wore a mix of leathers and furs with emerald cloaks held on with a pin in the shape of a boar with an arrow through it.

Upon entry Olaf and his men bowed before her. Olaf removed his hood, revealing his long dirty blond hair slightly dampened due to the rain. “Are you the Lady of these lands?” He said.

Gabriele returned the bow with a polite nod. She wasn’t sure of the rank of any of the visitors, and her etiquette tutor had died last year, but she was almost certain she was not supposed to bow in her own lands in front of her own castle. Still, whoever these men were, they almost certainly held more power than she did. “I am. And of the lands south of here as well, although my cousin would not agree. Gabriele von Waling, of the Alvaringian Walings, though I am not sure if they’re still aware of our existence all the way out here. Are you simply passing through, or…” She let the end of the sentence hang there, hoping that it would invite a conclusion from the others.

Olaf chuckled. “If we were simply passing through, there are much grander places to travel through, but I am Olaf Drovic of Volgaro.”

“You’re probably right about that.” Gabriele held no illusions as to the state of her miniature domain. Her family’s estate was full of drawings and paintings of the castles and cities of their former home, and any single one of them outshone Kohlenbirke. Still, if they were from Volgaro, it meant that her letter had been read - and answered. She made up her mind to be a good host. There were the people, after all, that would hopefully help her against her cousin.

“It’s good that you’ve come, though. And I suspect you must be tired after the last part of your ride. The pathetic excuses for roads between here and the Imperial Highway are horrible. If you’d like, you can stable your horses just to the side,” she said, pointing to a tall, sharp-pointed roof just visible past the corner of the wing that was in-tact, “or I can have my people take your horses there and tend to them, if you’d rather. We’ll have to wait a bit for dinner, since we didn’t know when you’d be here, but we do have ale so you can wash the road out of your mouth.”

Olaf looked to the two hooded men behind him speaking in the Volgar tongue before they bowed and stepped away.

The Volgar then looked back to Gabriele “You said you had ale?”

Gabriele nearly laughed, and the amusement probably showed quite plainly on her face, but she managed to keep her composure. “We do indeed! One of our small villages has a good brewery and the owner supplies us with drink in lieu of taxes. He seems to like the arrangement, and I can’t say we’re complaining about it either!”

She turned to lead the way to the castle, and waved an arm. “Come with me and we’ll get you off your feet.”

Olaf followed, noting the hidden smile on her face with a smirk.

The castle was not a very ostentatious building, but it was solid. It imposed on the landscape in the way that relatives did when they found you had better lodgings than them. It controlled the view and its dark blue-grey stone walls, and high towers with small slit-like windows drew eyes toward it and away from the squalor that surrounded it. Inside, the grey was broken by slivers of silver as the sunlight that made its way through the clouds glimmered. More light than that was cast by the sconces along the walls.

Gabriele led the way in through the tall couple doors and through the large hall that stood directly behind them. The wall opposite the door, where the interior branched off in two directions - or went around it - was covered by the fading remnants of a fresco that had been commissioned years ago and burned in a fire that began when the southerners had broken through the front doors of the castle two years ago. It was not as impressive as it had once been, but the quality of work was still clear.

The great hall stood directly to the right, open through a doorless archway. There was seating for probably forty here, but it was empty at the moment. As they came through the archway, Gabriele pulled a servant aside and - with a whispered command - the girl ran off down the side corridor. “Take the weight of the road off and relax. We’ll have refreshment delivered shortly.” There was, notably, no chair or place grander than the rest, and Gabriele waited for her guests to have a seat before she made a move to sit.

Olaf noted the destruction around the castle before taking a seat. “I’ve been sent by the Lord Marshal to….” He paused for a moment. “Assess your readiness as an ally, and if I am being blunt your realm looks as if victory was a forgotten outcome all together, let alone the state in which your castle is in.”

A darkness flashes across Gabriele’s face for just a moment as she answers. “Not forgotten, just delayed. But war is in our blood, and it is in our foe’s as well. We have a peace… of sorts, out of necessity. It is a peace of three months now. The rebuilding has only just started.” The dark look is replaced by pride as she continues. “However, that does not mean that we are not ready to fight. Nearly twenty-thousand men proudly serve Kohlenbirke. When we recover, that number will be closer to thirty thousand. We may not be the grand armies of the east, but we know how to fight.”

“I would like to assess that as well.” Olaf said with a smirk. “We Volgars pride ourselves as warriors without equal, and I have brought some of our best. While I am here I will test you and your men….and your ale.” He said with a chuckle.

Gabriele raises an eyebrow. “I am not sure there is a better test than half a decade of war. You judge the castle, but look at the countryside. It’s nearly completely untouched. We protected our people at the expense of ourselves. But I welcome your tests all the same. We may not be the best, but we will stand up to anyone who presents themselves. As for the ale…”

She turned at the sound of footsteps, and a line of servants entered, carrying a keg of ale and trays stacked with mugs, wooden, but polished to a shine. “... it appears the first test is starting now,” she grinned.

Olaf filled his mug quickly, gulping it down. “I don’t doubt your men’s capability to fight a foe that thinks like them.” He said quickly refilling his mug again. “It is one’s that don’t, that tend to cause trouble,” he said before gulping down his second mug.

“As for your lands, I did notice they seem intact in comparison to the castle. Which is good in my opinion.”

“It’s never a bad idea to learn new things.” As the others have gotten their ale, she goes ahead and fills up a mug of her own, knocking it back as quickly as it was filled. “Anything that you see that you think we can do better at, I’m willing to listen. I won’t guarantee a change, of course, but it’s stupid to be close-minded.”

Olaf nodded. “What exactly are you promising for Volgar aid in this civil war.”

Of course, this was the one question that Gabriele had been thinking about ever since she’d sent the letter to Volgaro. Kohlenbirke was not a large nation. Not a nation at all, really. She didn’t want to end up eternally beholden to an outside power just to get rid of a local one. “We do have natural resources - gems and gold, but we also have soldiers. Soldiers that would feel honor-bound to repay your kindness in an hour of need.”

“So an alliance of sorts, yes?” Olaf said, looking at Gabriele with curiosity.

“Well. Truth be told, I am not sure how much the number of fighters we have at our disposal would tip the scales, but yes. If we receive help in defense of our homeland, we will repay the favor.” Truth be told, she was unsure how welcome the offer would even be. She had read stories of that sort of offer being seen as an insult, so she only hoped she was reading the situation correctly and that the offer would not discover even more enemies.

Olaf thought for a moment. “It is customary for things such as this to be sealed with more than a simple hand shake.”

Gabriele smiled. It wasn’t exactly friendly, but those present would have been hard-pressed to say exactly what it was. “If it is a document you wish me to sign, I would need to let my advisors read it, but I would not be averse to formalizing the arrangement. It wouldn’t mean much to the people here, but they will honor it just the same.”

“I was not talking about a document but if that is what you wish then I will report back that we need to bring a scholar on our next visit.” He said, nodding. “In Volgaro most treaties are sealed if possible by marriage, that way noble lines can continue and hold true to the terms of the treaties made by their forefathers, mostly a ceremonial thing but we Volgars tend to be a superstitious folk.”

A marriage. This hadn't really been at the forefront of Gabriele's mind, though now that it was mentioned, she realized she probably should have at least been aware of the possibility. It was how things were done after all, even if it hadn't been possible here for a couple generations. The slightest tinge of a blush crept up the back of her neck as she fully realized what was going to be asked of her. She had no relations that she could call on for this duty. If there was going to be a marriage, it was going to have to be hers. "I'm sorry. I meant no offense. I've simply been in one mindset for quite a long time — marriage never entered my mind. How exactly would that work?"

Olaf chuckled. “Well you could marry one of the Reichsfrau’s cousins, or one of the available nobles from the different houses which sit on the Volkiban.” He stroked his beard, thinking.

“It would have to be someone who could stand the plain living here. I wouldn’t want to drag someone all the way down here who was accustomed to a more sophisticated life. And someone who could stand the rain. It does that a lot here.” Practical things first. In truth what she meant - and what Olaf no doubt understood - was that she didn’t want someone who would complain all day every day about having to live in Kohlenbirke. If she was going to be wed out of necessity she was at least not going to be wed stupidly.

Olaf’s face turned stern for a moment before he responded. “Well that is an interesting request, can’t be the Reichsfrau’s cousin; he complains about everything” He stroked his beard once more in thought.

While he thought, Gabriele took the opportunity to refill her mug from the keg that her people had provided. She’d made a show of drinking quickly, but to a keen eye, her speed was rather slow — she appeared to drink significantly more than she did. “It’s not something that has to be decided here and now. You’re here as our guests; I don’t want to foist work on you right up front. Supper will be served soon, and tomorrow I can show you the land.

Olaf nodded “Well I will retire till then. Good day, Lady Gabriele.”

With his departure, Gabriele turned her attention to overseeing the upcoming dinner. Under normal times there would be three simple courses, but for the first time in over a decade, Kohlenbirke was to have guests. There was to be no corners cut, no spices pinched. An hour later, after spending the majority of the intervening time in discussion with the cook, Gabriele was satisfied, and retired to her room to change out of her day clothes.

The dining hall was lit for the evening with candles adorning the upper walls and three large polycandela that hung from thick chains along the middle line of the room. The combined effect cast an amber glow over the room, with shadows licking the corners of the hall.

Gabriele let the hall fill before she made her appearance - not that she’d had much choice; it had taken her a good while to get clean after her work earlier in the day. The servants in charge of the dinner had made sure that Gabriele - along with her Steward and intelligencer - were seated at the long table at the head of the room. She strode into the room - that was the only word for it, really - not pausing at the door as some would have had they planned the same type of entrance. Her burgundy gown that trailed behind her was trimmed with black fur, around the deep cut collar and at the ends of the long, flared sleeves. Although it was of a style that was long out-of-date in the capitals of Sokos, she wore it well. A wide belt of golden thread tied in the back just above her waist, and her hair cascaded down her back freely. She sat down with just enough time to greet the others before the first course was served - a mistake on the servants’ part, but not an overly large one.

The food was simple, but well-presented. After the water and towels were passed around, the first course was served. This dish was a mix of vegetables, parsley roots, carrots, radishes, and turnips. All thinly sliced, then boiled until soft, and then soaked in honey, salt, and ginger, and then cooked with sugar, wine, and raisins until the sugar vanished, and finally sprinkled with ground anise and fennel. Arranged into small bite-sized balls, they were served in large, shallow bowls, allowing anyone who wished to take them with their fingers.

Olaf looked at the dish with a slight grin, before looking towards Gabriele. Olaf had thought she was attractive to begin with, but the dress stunned him for a moment before he spoke. “You continue to impress, Lady Gabriele.” He said, chuckling.

Gabriele was quite obviously taken aback at the form of address. She had never been one to stand on formality, even while her family was still alive to insist upon it. She required only deference from her small court, not honorifics, and so hearing it once more gave her a momentary pause. Her eyebrow raised — and then lowered again. She smiled, a small gesture, as she sat. “It is my only good dress, and I have so few opportunities to wear it. I thought it would be a shame if I missed it.”

“Well my lady, I will happily say it suits you.” He said eating the food. “I thank you and the Saints for this meal.”

Gabriele nodded her head in a tiny mirroring of a curtsy. “I appreciate the compliment. I do hope you enjoy the rest of the meal as well. Is it much different from what you’re accustomed to so far? I know it’s just been the one dish…”

“While I am a noble, I have become appreciative of any meal I'm given, for I spend most of my time in the wilderness with my men,” he said.

“Well, at any rate, I do hope it’s not too jarring to your palette. I know my father often spoke of how hard it was to get used to the food here. I’m used to it, having never known anything else.” She plucked a few of the pickled balls from the bowl and popped one into her mouth. “Perhaps cuisine could be part of the exchange.”

“Perhaps.” Olaf said thinking while he ate. “If I may ask, what exactly are you wanting my people to do?”

“My family spent considerable effort increasing the quality of these people’s lives - and yes, probably our own coffers too; I know little of that because by now the coffers all around are bare. War does that.” She’d interrupted her reply with that aside, but now gets back on track. “Then, because of a fluke of birth, someone else claimed the Grand Duke’s title. I’m sure she’s a lovely woman in her own right, but,” she punctuated each word now as a separate sentence in itself. “She is not the rightful heir…” and her brow furrowed. “... regardless of her order. She is not a von Waling, her family did none of the work, and I will have her gone if it is the last thing I do. Our forces are regretfully equal, however, and so we have been unable to make significant headway in our efforts—”

The next dish was served just then. This heavier one was spit-roasted steak, basted in wine and vinegar with black pepper and ginger. The meat would have been served no matter who ate at the castle tonight, as the preparation took over a day, but tonight’s was more special than normal. Over all else, the cook had added a sprinkling of cinnamon. It was the last of Kohlenbirke’s stores, and Gabriele would sorely miss it, but this was the occasion for it.

When the steak was finished being served, she likewise finished her thought. “I want the war decided and done. However it’s managed, we will obviously be in your debt and would likewise come to your aid when requested.”

“That being said I have made a decision on my recommendation to Lord Marshal Drovij.” He’s said, eating into his steak.

This surprised Gabriele, and it undoubtedly showed across her face despite her attempt to bury it. She paused just before her first bite of steak, fork hanging in the air to disguise the fact that her jaw was trying to do the same thing. "I didn't expect something so soon. I thought you'd at least want to see the land or the men first."

“I will see those things while I’m here but my decision was always going to be based on your hospitality, therefore I have made my decision.” Olaf said with a chuckle.

“I’m glad to hear it then! We do enjoy having guests, I just wish everything was in better shape. I’ve had to hold off on repairing the castle while we rebuild Kriev. It was caught in the middle of a major battle last month, and over half of it burnt down. We can’t very well prioritize an extra wing of a castle when I have a roof over my head and they don’t.” She caught up on eating her steak. Truth be told, her eating habits were a bit more mannish than could be expected. But growing up with four elder cousins, all male, had taught her the value of finishing your food and doing so quickly, lest it become someone else’s. At least she wasn’t eating with an arm around her bowl as she used to when she was a child.

Olaf chuckled at the sight, finishing his steak calmly before setting his cutlery down, looking Gabriele in the eyes. “So what are the numbers of your cousin's forces?”

“Almost identical to my own, by all accounts. We’ve been trading blow for blow pretty evenly. She has better defenses than we do - or at least than we did. We’re fairly confident in ourselves… now. The quality is probably where we differ. Her troops are trained by veterans, mine are not. But we know the land better.”

“So what you need is a well trained force to turn the tides, yes?”

“I believe so. I have faith in my men, and they have heart. We simply - and quite frankly - lack the tactical knowledge that my cousin’s armies have.” She sat back after saying this, leaving room for the servants to again swap out dishes. This one, a simple pasty, was designed to calm the stomach after the heavy meat, was filled with mushroom, and topped with cheese and fried egg. A simple preparation, it would tide the eaters over until the next course was here.

Olaf ate into the pasty making a face as he did so for a moment before continuing the conversation. “I would say calling our straki down would do the trick, each of them is a general in their own right and the order that will be sent will of course do their duty or die trying.”

He thought for a moment. “Saint Ulrich’s own might be willing to come here, Grandmaster Fredrich is only second to the Lord Marshal when it comes to his tactical mind.” He said putting his hand to his chin.

Gabriele did not have a lot of input on this matter; he certainly knew his own countrymen better than she did. And so — as was her unfortunate wont when she was at a loss for words — she spoke anyway. “I certainly hope I’m not going to be expected to marry them all. That could be tiring.”

Olaf stopped for a moment bursting into laughter. “Wouldn’t that be a sight!” He said before regaining his composure. “But no, they will most likely want to marry you with someone within the Volkiban so that Kohenbirke is kept close to Volgaro for years to come.”

Gabriele managed to keep herself from laughing at her own joke — and avoiding the embarrassment after she realized what the sight was that he was talking about — by eating a good half of her pasty. Then, she asked, “What is the Volkiban? I suppose I should know some about the workings of Volgaro if we’re to be tied to you.”

“Do you want my personal answer or the official nobility answer?” Olaf said, a smirk on his face.

Gabriele chuckled at that. “Something tells me your personal answer will be both less flattering and more informative than the official one. Let’s have that one.”

“It’s where most of the nobles parade around like peacocks while getting nothing done due to being at odds with one another, won’t even listen to the one man who is trying to help our people due to his ties with the Reichfrau or the fact he is a Sudenmen.” He took a sip from his drink. “In short it is a circus of fools and dried up old warriors longing for a bygone age of delusional and grandiose speckles of wasting their subjects' lives for some fools notion of pride.”

“I’m not sure I like the sound of marrying one of them. Is there another option?”

“Well it could be one of their children, which is the most likely option, that would include me and a few others.” Olafs said finishing his course.

“And then I’d have a few years before I’d have to fit you for your tailfeathers,” she smirked. She was saved from immediate retort by the next course. The servants brought in the second meat, a civet of trout, cut open, boned, and splayed, breaded with a paste of ale, then fried in butter along with onions.

“Oh, is that proposal my lady?” He said faking shyness, before chuckling and eating into the fish with a smile. “Now this reminds me of home.”

“I really shouldn’t yet, Gabriele replied. “I don’t know you at all, really. But I could see it. At least I know I wouldn’t be having to deal with unmitigated ego for ego’s sake. That gets rather boring after a while.”

“I suppose you are right, I only have great pride In very few things but the only thing I will not let be slandered is my fighting prowess and my love of this fish!” He said digging in.

“Two things that should never be taken for granted,” Gabriele replied dryly. The next few moments were empty of sound, save for the demolishment of the fish and the pouring of wine. Then, as she finished her fish, she added, “Tell me about Volgaro, then. What is it like there? What are your favorite things?”

“Well my people the Volgars made a warrior folk, raised up knowing the way of the blade and horse from a young age, it snows most of the time other than spring and early to mid summer. I particularly like what being a ranger allows me to see. The way nature bends and shapes with time I can almost hear the singing of the spirits during High spring and their howls during the Long winter, they are beautiful songs that I would never wish to miss.”

Gabriele’s eyes lit up as Olaf talked about the outdoors. It was an experience she too enjoyed. So enraptured was she that she nearly forgot to reply, until her Steward nudged her with his elbow as discreetly as possible. “I’m sorry, I was paying attention. Too much attention, perhaps. The woods and hills and streams of our lands are my favorite place to be as well. My father told me that a ruler could not hope to truly rule well unless they understood the heart of their people and the soul of their land. It is good to meet someone from outside who holds the land in such regard.”

“The ancient Volgar faith is based on the worship of spirits and the belief that they are in everyday even the tiniest grain of sand, that is what I believe in, I believe that you can hear these spirits singing a certain song as if it is the world’s orchestra.” Olaf stated, smiling softly.

“The people here believe something similar. My family, on the other hand, has always believed in the Greatest, but we have also never been in touch with the natural world. The more I am, the more I feel that they - and you - might be correct.”

Just then, the last course, the desert was set before them. So invested in the conversation they were that the servants had managed to do it almost unnoticed. It was in two parts. First, a cherry pottage, the fruit pureed with bread, wine, sugar, and salt. It was served in a bowl lined with rose petals, and once eaten through to the bottom, they would find a rose pudding made with cream and pine nuts.

Olaf ate his desert. “I am glad you feel the way you do about nature, most in Volgaro have forgotten that part of our ancestry and only focus on the warriors and raiders.” He said after he finished.

As Gabriele finished hers up as well, she replied, “There’s definitely something to be said about fighting prowess. But what are you fighting for? If it’s not the land that you love, a battle might as well be an immense gathering of town drunks, for all the good it will do. And if you destroy the very thing you’re fighting for, you might as well surrender and let your foe enjoy it.”

“Agreed, we may have more in common then I had first thought, I believe this visit shall prove enjoyable.” Olaf said, raising his mug to Gabriele with a smile.

Gabriele returned the smile with a grin of her own, knocking her mug against his. “I am sure it will be! And our common interests will hopefully lead to a long friendship.”

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