Dark Queen

CHAPTER ONE

Aquilea Warehouse

“There’s big trouble near our port in Tunis and I didn’t see it. I just didn’t see it,” Nerrina said, her dark eyes darting around the yard as she came towards Cal.

“Stay out here with me and help with the horses while the stories settle inside.”

“Sara’s saying she wants to go and slice people.”

“She always wants to slice someone. Let them get it out of their system, then we’ll go together and get the real story,” Cal said, taking Nerrina’s small hand in his and leading her towards the first wagon, the one Sara and Ava drove, the horse still huffing from the fast run. They always raced to be first. “I’ll straighten the wagon, then you take the horse.”

They backed the loaded wagon under the shelter, then he undid the harness and Nerrina led the horse across the paved yard to free it in the adjacent horse yard. Only bare dirt now, so while Nerrina checked the water, he fetched a bag of grain and tipped it into the feed box. One down, five to go.

The last wagon was their home, large and well built, its design honed by the three versions that had gone before. This one they drove into the horse yard. So much time spent on the highways with their animals that even here in town, they still preferred to sleep surrounded by friends.

“Let’s see if things have settled inside,” Cal said, reaching for Nerrina’s hand again as they walked from the horse yard towards the wide open doors of their main warehouse. She’d grown to be a strong young woman, but he could still feel her tension in her vice-like grip.

“I knew about the Pirates,” Nerrina said, her wide eyes looking at him as they stopped to close the horse yard gate.

“Maybe this trouble isn’t so bad. Maybe we didn’t need to know until now.”

“I always know.” She’d said it very quietly, looking now at the ground, her left foot kicking a small stone. Cal thinking the same, Nerrina always knew trouble.

“Let’s get the rest of the story now and maybe then go to the farm.”

“You want to ask her about me?

“Yes, so now let’s see what the rest have planned,” Cal said, leading off again, momentarily pausing as they walked from the bright sunshine into the comparative darkness of the huge building. They were off to the right, a large group of women all talking. As his eyes adjusted, Cal could make out Maree in the centre with two of the shop staff alongside, the rest of his women all clustered around.

“There he is! I’ll tell him. I’m best at stories,” Sara yelled, pointing at Cal, everyone else turning to see.

“I think Maree should tell me first,” Cal said, starting to walk towards the group, able to hear his footsteps echoing on the marble tiles in the silence, still holding Nerrina’s hand. Noticing now the emptiness of the display tables and shelves. Few items well spread for appearance, but even the bulk section only had a handful of oil urns and a pitiful pile of grain sacks. The warehouse even smelt empty, only the hint of stale spices in the air.

“Maree’s got the other wagon crews getting more stock,” Miena said as she saw him looking. “Darrius is getting glass and Petrus is due back soon with cloth.”

“Maybe we should start unloading our wagons,” he said, “That’ll help fill the shop.”

“Ava and me will supervise, we’re good at that,” Sara yelled poking Ava to back her up.

“I’ll supervise,” boss-wife Miena said firmly, but not as loudly as Sara.

“Unpacking and displaying we’ll do,” Heidi said, making a move towards the rear doors.

“You know before we’ve done that well,” her twin sister Helga added.

“I’ll hold the baby,” Ameena said, her soft voice hard to hear above the rest murmuring what they wanted to do.

“You just want to get out of carrying,” Karli said, clutching baby Petra tightly.

“I’d have to carry Petra and she’s getting heavy,” Ameena was determined.

“Both take turns, now let’s get a start,” Miena said, her arms outstretched sweeping the others in the direction of the door, glancing back to Cal. He nodded. The two staff took the opportunity to slip away and try to look busy leaving Maree standing alone.

“I’ll start from the beginning,” Maree said, Cal still holding Nerrina’s hand. “The boat crews returning from our port in Tunis had stories of trouble inland stopping goods getting through to the coast. I started sending some of our boats to other places then, and as the stories got stronger and the freight less, I diverted most to other ports. Then the trouble came close to our port, and I heard a couple of our men were hurt in a skirmish, so I sent twenty extra soldiers. Still waiting to hear how that went.”

“Stocks low?”

“I’ve been sending most of what comes in to our outlets in Rome and Ancona, trying to keep them happy. I’ll need to do the same with most of what you’ve bought... Oh, I did order another war boat when this started. I knew you said before you wouldn’t mind. It should be well under way by now, you’ll need to give the boatyard man a name for it. Also I’ve held two boats here in case you need them.”

The first load of sacks were noisily entering through the rear doors. By the look, they were the lightweight sacks of trinkets from the traders at Cetium, each sack needing one to carry and one to supervise and guide.

“We know where to put them,” Helga saying, her sister pointing where she thought best.

“This’ll take a week at least,” Cal said, shaking his head. “Any idea of what’s behind this trouble?”

“No one knows for certain, but most mention a Dark Queen. You going there to see?”

“As soon as we can. Sara wants someone to slice.”

“So do I,” Nerrina muttered softly.

“This work is making me hungry. Can we go for fish soup?” Sara asked loudly in Cal’s direction.

“She’s always hungry,” Nerrina said softly by Cal’s side. Maree was trying to stifle a laugh.

“All who want to go to the market for fish soup can and all who want to come to the boatyard to see the new war boat can come with me,” Cal said loudly.

“Wait while we get soup. I’ll be better at inspecting boats when I’m not hungry,” Sara said making a line for the front door, most of the other women close behind her.

“Go on,” Cal said to Nerrina. “Take some coin, I’m sure they’ve forgotten.” He handed her a few coppers and watched her running after the others.

“She didn’t see it then?” Maree asked.

“No.”

Women soon recharged and ready for an expedition. “We’ll take our chariots, it’ll be more fun,” Sara said as the group rushed through the warehouse.

“Walking this time,” Cal said, Miena by his side ready to discuss business while they strolled last behind Karli and Ameena who were still fighting to see who held Petra, Cana trotting by Karli’s side keeping close watch.

“We’ll lead, we know the best way,” Sara yelled, pushing her way to the front of the group and marching ahead, Ava running to catch up.

“Best way,” Miena poofed. “There’s only one way and it’s all downhill.”

The masts of boats in the boat yard could be easily seen as they walked the well paved streets, people nodding and saying a friendly ‘hail’ as they passed.

“We’re getting well known here now,” Miena said as a complete stranger almost bowed at them.

“I’m not sure if they’re just being polite or they’re really afraid of us,” Cal said. “There must be stories going around. This is the only place we haven’t been told about them.”

“Maree looks after us well here. I’m sure she’s stopping the stories spreading.”

“Or not telling us.”

Loud shouts ahead in Sara’s voice made Cal look away from his boss-wife to see what the trouble was. No trouble really, just the full vision of what must certainly be their new war boat and a pair of warriors running towards the wooden ladder placed by its side.

“These boats look so beautiful when they’re sitting on land like this,” Miena said, Cal silent, gazing at the newest addition to their fleet. Beautiful indeed. Fresh planed and shaved timber shaped into a gigantic long wooden bowl with tall arching prows front and back, rearing up over the deck. Two masts stationed equal distant between the prows, no sails fitted to them yet. One prow definitely the front with a large carved wolf’s head protruding forward, and far below it, and underwater when at sea, the long, metal tipped ram, the bronze point glinting in the afternoon sun. No sign of the other women now, because this was a war boat, the builder made the sides very high to keep the crew out of sight and out of the line of arrow fire.

“We better go and see what they’ve broken,” Cal said, making for the ladder and waiting while Miena went up first. He stepped onto the deck behind Miena who was standing hand on hips and head shaking.

“Let them get it out of their system,” he said as he watched women race around the deck, pulling and poking everything, baby Petra abandoned to crawl the deck boards herself. The high sides trapping the scent of fresh worked timber and the sharp twang of the sealing pitch. “Have a good look yourself.”

Cal stayed by the ladder, watching. Sara and Ava had found the biggest crossbows, there were four of them, one each side, front and back, but they were manning the two on the front, standing on the raised operating platforms, gripping the heavy weapons and swivelling them on their mountings posts, aiming at imagined targets. There were three more smaller weapons on each side, but the warriors always wanted the biggest.

Karli and Ameena together looking at Cana who had chosen to stand out on the timber of the figurehead like a living prow. Turning the other end of the boat he found Mary, Nerrina and Miena all together on the high platform used by the steering oarsman and the captain. These large boats needed two steering ores and sometimes two men to man each one. It was the most exposed position on the boat, needing to be above the high protective sides so the steersman could see where he was aiming the boat.

Petra had crawled to Cal’s legs and he’d picked her up before he saw the twins emerging from below the main deck. Practical women, they’d have been checking storage and cooking he thought as he watched them now blinking in the brightness as they murmured to each other. Helga saw him looking and smiled back, nudging Heidi to do the same. Sara had seen him now too. “We can use these crossbows can’t we? We’d be best at shooting pirates with these.”

“Maybe,” Cal said back.

“He didn’t say no,” Ava said, both warriors looking pleased.

“It’s a beautiful boat, isn’t it?” The words startling Cal making him squeeze Petra tight and that made her cry.

“I’ll hold her,” Ameena yelled, loud for her, as she raced to be first to grab the baby from Cal.

“I saw you coming to inspect,” the boatyard man said as Ameena took hold of the still crying baby.

“Have you got bolts for these crossbows,” Sara yelled.

“Plenty of bolts, enough to fill those holders,” he yelled back pointing to what looked like wooden urns fitted to the post each crossbow was mounted on.

“Not until we’re at sea,” Cal said.

“Three more days. We’re making the sails now, three sets as usual and with golden wolf’s head picture. Be starting on the rigging tomorrow. Found another wife to name it after?”

“Sea Wolf II,” Cal said.

“I’ll get it written.”

“Maree paid you?”

“Paid in full. Always happy to do your work. Think you might need another one soon?”

“Not sure yet.”

“I could do a better price if we made two at the same time. The lads enjoy working on this design.”

Two war boats were already too many for a trader.

“I wouldn’t need payment to start. Your credit is good with me.”

Cal was sure he’d singlehandedly kept this boatyard afloat. They’d built every boat in his fleet, starting with the smaller single masted trade boats and then the large twin masted boss-boats they’d been using lately. He’d lost count of how many of each. “I’ll let you know in a few days once I see what state our coin is in.”

“Sea Wolf III and IV?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll start ordering the timber.”

The man was clambering back down the ladder. More boats. More soldiers. More sailors. It seemed a never ending circle, all these people and their families dependent on him. They’d come a long way since it was only Sara and him in a tiny wagon looking for a way to make money for food.

“What did the boat builder man want?” Miena asked as she approached.

“Asking if we wanted more of these.”

“You told him yes?”

“I told him maybe, until we know we have the coin flowing to pay for it all.”

“I’ll go back and discuss with Maree.” “No, we’ll all go to the farm. I’m more worried about what we’re up against in Tunis.”

“We’re going to the farm next,” Miena said loudly, starting a race for the ladder down.

“We’ll take our chariots,” Sara said while she waited her turn.

“No chariots, only the home wagon,” Cal said.

“Ava and me will drive,” Sara said as she slipped over the side.

“Only if you get the wagon ready first,” Cal said.

Nerrina was last, waiting while the last few worked at passing the baby and wolf down. Miena was racing after the others to keep some order so it was left to Nerrina and Cal to walk back alone. “You want to ask her about me?”

“Partly. You and what’s happening over there.”

“It must be bad for her to have hidden it from me.”

Cal thought the same. “Or maybe it isn’t something we need to do.”

“You don’t believe that. I know.”

“Whatever it is, it’s not your fault. Remember that.”

The warriors must have ran because there was a horse harnessed into the home wagon and Cana sitting on the driving seat when Nerrina and Cal came through the rear gates into the warehouse yard. “We’re ready now. Miena’s in telling Maree,” Sara said as she was adjusting the harness. “We’ll drive.”

There was a scramble to get into the wagon, the sleeping rugs rolled up and used for seats. They rarely drove this wagon with so many inside. Sara and Ava had the driving seat. “Someone hurry Miena,” Sara yelled. Mary jumped down and ran inside, eventually returning with Miena, who seemed a little reluctant.

“You can shut the gate since you’re down,” Sara yelled as Ava started the horse moving out the gate onto the roadway, Mary and Miena dragging the solid timber gates behind them, not locking because the latch was inside. Hands over the back to help pull them up into the wagon while it was moving. “Hurry up,” yelled from the front. Everyone was still settling while Sara was yelling the horse to greater speed.

“It’s not a race,” Miena muttered.

“Everything’s a race with her,” Mary said quietly. “It always was.”

Outside the city walls, they turned off the main road onto a bare dirt track winding its way between stacked stone fences enclosing fields of various sizes, some small with vegetable plots, and others larger for grazing animals.

“It feels more like home now,” Karli said softly.

“You just don’t like being with other people,” Sara said from the front seat, her hearing good when she wanted it to be.

“You like being in the country too,” Mary shot back.

“I was just teasing her. It is better in the country, there’s no one to tell you to be quiet.” Sara couldn’t see those in the back of the wagon all smiling at that.

“We’ll do the gate,” Helga said when the signs of their land could be seen ahead. Both twins shuffled to get by the back ready to jump down when the wagon stopped.

Maree had found them this land. Originally it was to be a place for them to build a home away from the city and a farm for their horses to rest and raise foals, but building plans never seemed so pressing and the horses liked it as it was.

“Hurry up,” Sara urged as she sat on the driving seat watching the twins unlatch and pull the gate open, horses galloping toward them to see who was invading their domain and what treats they might be bringing.

“You go, we’ll walk,” Heidi said, both women standing by the gate, looking dreamily at the approaching horses.

“Race you to the creek,” Sara yelled as she flicked the reins to start the horse who didn’t seem as keen to race now and slowly towed the wagon towards the centre of the farm, the twins bounding ahead, their long white hair trailing behind looking like the tails of the loose horses who were following close behind them.

A small stream divided their rolling green property, separating the front, where they’d made a chariot race track, from the rear that they kept very private. By that stream, in the centre of their lands, they’d made a place to call their own. A site to camp and enjoy the surrounding peace unbothered by others, the ever tinkling ripples of the stream the only sound. It was here that Sara stopped the wagon, unhooking the horse so he could munch the lush grass that grew around the water, everyone else getting down to settle and adjust to the peace. Only Cana was active, sniffing scents in the grass but still staying close.

Cal noticed the reluctance. Even Sara wasn’t rushing everyone to go. “Stones now, then we’ll know.”

Tucked away from sight in a small valley and shielded by trees were ten ancient lichen-covered stones arranged in a perfect circle, each stone about waist high. They never took wagons or chariots near, always parking alongside the stream and walking the final way. This was usually done just before dawn and carried out with Sara hustling any stragglers to go faster. Today, they walked in compete silence, even the wind still, only the calls of birds in the trees sounding alarm as they spotted Cana, although even he seemed in no mood for chasing them today.

“Choose your stones,” Miena said as they stood looking at the ring. This time, there was reluctance. This time was different.

“She’s never hid danger from us before,” Ameena said in her soft sweet voice.

“Maybe we’ve done something wrong,” Ava said, still not making a move to choose a stone.

“Maybe we didn’t need to know until now,” Cal said, taking the lead and starting to remove his clothes. The rest followed, at least the sun was warming their bodies. Cal began checking for his stone, walking the circle and feeling the stone that wanted him to choose it, then sitting down on the grass, his chest against the stone and his arms around it, hugging it as though it was a person. The others were doing the same. Only Miena was standing back, waiting until everyone else had chosen before continuing. She was the one who knew the secrets of the stones, and as her arms surrounded her chosen stone the familiar pattern started, the stone warming, as warm as a body. Cal could feel the calming presence of their spirit wife enter his mind. Feel her in the way that said she was in everyone’s thoughts the same. He felt the deep connection with her he always felt. She was his true mother. All their mother. She was the whole Earth. She had brought them together and guided them to a fantastic life and she loved them as they loved her.

“This trouble is more than you expect. Those behind these problems are using magic to hide their actions. Your seer could not see from this distance, however when you get closer, her ability will overcome their magic. This mission is very dangerous. I can’t always help. Take no risks and keep constant guard, even here. There are traitors amongst your people. Be careful who you trust.”

Cal could hear the others asking questions all at once and then he felt her presence enter his mind alone, filling him with passion. She was his tenth wife, and she loved him like no one else could.

“Watch Zebba,” she said for him alone, then was gone. The session wasn’t over though. Starting at his feet, he felt a huge rush of energy sweeping up his body, pushing fears and worries ahead of it as it swept up to exit over his head, leaving a pleasant feeling of power, then the stone was cooling in his hands. It was completely cold by the time he decided to get up. Most of the others were dressed before him. None of the usual chatter until they were nearly back to the wagon.

“It can’t be Maree,” Ameena said quietly.

“She’d never hurt us,” Sara said, much more loudly.

“It’s not Maree,” Cal said definitely. Miena looked at him with a tell-me-later look on her face. “Let’s get back to the warehouse and finish unloading quickly.”

“We’ll drive,” Sara yelled, racing ahead, Ava by her side. She was no match for Cana, he was waiting on the wagon seat before she arrived.

- - -

“The new boat will be ready in three days,” Cal said to their warehouse manager Maree. “We’ll need more soldiers to take.”

“I’ve a list of those waiting, I can sort that out. Uniforms?”

“I’ll send Mary to order them now.”

“I can order uniforms,” Sara yelled from where the rest were sorting boxes.

“So can we,” Helga said.

“We’re good at uniforms,” Heidi said.

“Mary can order twenty soldier’s from our factory. She knows the way and she won’t take very long,” Cal said, waving Mary off before returning to lugging crates inside.

That night, all cuddled together in their home wagon, talk quickly turned to the information they’d received at the stones.

“It’s the magic. If it’s strong enough to block me now, maybe it’ll be strong enough to not let me see the truth when we get closer.” Nerrina’s quivering voice showed more concern than that.

“Is there something else?” Cal asked softly.

“The traitor,” she said after a pause. Everyone silent now. “I know who it is.”

“Zebba?” Cal asked.

“You knew?”

“She told me to watch her. She’s not the real traitor, but there’s something there. I think the real traitor might be cloaked with that same magic, so we need to be careful with everyone.”

“I trust Maree,” Miena said, everyone else nodding.

“So do I. She’d never do anything to harm us,” Cal said. “Tomorrow we’ll get her alone and tell her to keep our plans secret.”

“What plans we got?” Sara asked.

“I think someone’s trying to take control of the whole area, and using whatever means they can. I also think they have some connection with Zebba, and have spies in our camp, but I can’t be sure. My plan is to go there as soon as we can, and treat everyone as normal, but keep all our plans to ourselves until we know for sure who we can trust.”

“Can we kill the spies?” Sara asked, her arm reaching over her shoulder for her sword that she’d already taken off for the night.

“We only kill those that directly attack us. If we find the spies, then we’ll decide.”

“I’ll kill the second spy,” Ava said.

“And I’ll chop their heads,” Nerrina said with passion.

“What about their magic,” Ameena said quietly, temporally quelling the passion for killing amongst the three with swords.

“I don’t believe in magic being stronger than us. We can overcome anything we set our minds to, and I’m sure we can overcome their magic and win,” Cal said.

“He’s right,” Miena said, “We’re stronger than magic.”

“Tomorrow we prepare to leave. As soon as that war boat’s finished, we sail.”

- - -

It gave an additional task for the day, but first thing, before the staff arrived, Miena arranged for Maree to join everyone in the courtyard for a business discussion.

“We have one or more people from this enemy group amongst our people. It means we don’t know who we can really trust,” Cal said, just loud enough for those close to hear.

“They’re using strong magic to hide,” Nerrina said.

“Stronger than you?” Maree asked.

“We don’t use magic, but yes,” Miena said.

“You know I’ll look after here for you. I’ll keep quiet about all plans in case it’s someone here,” Maree said.

“I think it’s in Tunis,” Cal said.

“So do I,” Nerrina said quietly.

...oOo...

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