Dear Ablia,

I am leaving today for Amononaush the capital city of this Alkimene kingdom. As you can guess, I am unhappy to be going. You know I stalled as long as I could, but I will not be able to spend the spring festival with your family. I will also miss Losarn's fifth birthday. With the long journey to Amononaush, I will not return until the fall harvest. I hope we will be able to spend the harvest festival together.

I have been making the final preparations for my trip to the hall of this Alkimene queen. I am quite nervous because I am afraid that it will not have changed from our father's time. I do not know if he shared the same concerns he did with me, but I can assure you that the Alkimene hall is a place of great debauchery.

I have said many prayers to the balancing and grounding gods of Air and Earth to save me from this trip, but all they seem to be providing is balance and grounding to my own life. Nothing has happened to prevent me from leaving. To stay here and not mingle with the barbarians would make me so happy. It is sadly my obligation, having inherited it from our father, so I must go.

Right now I'm looking out my chamber window, and the horses have arrived. I am to be escorted to the capital city by Alkimene soldiers so I suppose that I need to end my letter. My love to Losarn. I will write again when I have arrived in Amononaush.

Fileas

I heard a soft knock on my chamber door. I turned from the window and said, "Come in."

"My lord Fileas," the servant bowed, "Everything is prepared."

"Thank you."

"And the soldiers have also arrived."

I pondered for a moment the use of soldiers to escort me. All the neighboring kingdoms between here and the Alkimene homeland are vassals of our queen and her kingdom. I have nothing to fear from them or their people. "The queen's soldiers have her seal?"

The servant handed me a letter with the royal seal. I broke it and read the letter quickly. I gave it back to the servant. As I thought, the letter said the queen's soldiers would guard and escort me to her home. I sigh, "Yes, lord?"

"Please send for my steward."

"Yes," he bowed, and I walked back to the window. I grabbed the letter I was just writing. I placed my seal on it just as my steward knocked on the door. Several servants followed, grabbing my trunks, and I handed one my letter.

"You will be gone for seven months, is that correct my lord?" my steward asked.

"Yes, you will see me again during the harvest. I plan to be back before the harvest festival and do my usual sacrifices of grain, fruit and wine."

"We will have a wonderful harvest too, my lord. Already we have received abundant rain and sun. Our seeds have become sprouts. If the weather holds, we will have our best harvest in years."

"Has the oracle said anything about the weather? With last year's drought, I am concerned about this year."

"All over our land the rivers are filled. The springs and streams are filled to the brim, but they are not over flowing," he paused with a flourish.

"So the oracle?" I said expectantly, waving my hand for him to continue.

"He said we will have a year to make up for three years of drought," he said with a smile.

"Good, then all is prepared," I made my way to the door, but my steward looked as if he was not done.

He cleared his throat. "My lord, the oracle did say one more thing."

"What is that?"

"He said you must be careful while in the Alkimene queen's court."

"Why?"

"He did not say."

"This is strange." I furrowed my brow, "I need more detail. He has never been so vague before," inaccurate but never vague.

We stood quiet, and my steward raised his hand, a signal he uses when he wishes to speak freely. I gestured him to do so. "I think he is worried about the influence of the barbarian queen's court on you. Your father was older and more experienced in the ways of the world when he has first called to the Alkimene court."

I stopped him, nodding my head, "My father told me what to expect. I am prepared."

My steward smiled. "Certainly lord, I will have everything managed while you are gone," he said smiling. He believed me, and I wish I believed me. I feel apprehensive about this journey, and the sights I will undoubtedly see.

I wrapped a fur cloak around myself. The chill of winter still lingered in the air despite the green of spring. A light drizzle started recently and a chill ran through me. I am not looking forward to this trip for other reasons as well.

I walked out of my home and former hall of the Sarkin people when my father was sovereign. I saw among the Alkimene soldiers a man wearing ornate leather armor with metal detailing and a helm also of leather, but his helm had a feather in it. I assumed this was their commander. I gave him the scroll. He bowed, and the other men follow suit.

"Lord Fileas?" he asked in the common tongue.

"Yes," I gave him a slight nod.

"We have your trunks strapped; are you ready?"

"I am," I stood around while the men quickly jumped on their horses.

"Lord, do you have a horse to mount, or do you plan to walk the whole way?" he said with a laugh. Other soldiers snickered with his comment.

I was taken aback by his tone. It was said mockingly, but I answered cordially, "I guess my horse is not here yet."

A few moments passed, I scuffed the toe of my boot in the wet dirt. I was slightly embarrassed by the delay, but a servant finally arrived with my horse. "Now I am ready," I mounted, and the commander smiled.

"It is a long trip, I hope you are prepared," again in a mocking manner.

He rode off and the other soldiers rode around me.

I am shocked by his tone. I would only address a woman like that, but I suppose they do not have respect for anyone; they are barbarians after all. I must say his demeanor should not have surprised me, but his look was very surprising along with the other soldiers.

I remember the warriors of my childhood, when we became vassals of the Alkimene kingdom. Those men were scruffy, straggly with long, wild hair and beards. Not to mention dirty and stinky. These men dress the same, but they are clean shaved or have very neat and trimmed beards. Their hair varies as either cut short or pulled back. It doesn't blow wildly. What an interesting change. I wonder if…. No that would be silly. They are still barbarians.

I rode up to the commander and made an attempt at conversation. "How long have you served our queen?" I used 'our', to induce a sense of oneness.

"All my life, as are all of us, we are born into her service." He stressed 'us' and 'we' as if I was not included.

I tried another approach. "How long have you been a soldier?"

"Since I was 14. That is the coming of adulthood."

"What is your name?"

He did not answer me. The commander pointed to a man with some hand signal, and the other rode ahead. I rode alongside the commander until the other man rode back. The commander turned all his attention to the other soldier, and they spoke in the Alkimene language. I heard it as a child, and it is hard to forget.

Soon we were out of my ancestral lands and stream that marks the boundary. We rode the rest of the day in silence. I see a long and lonely trip ahead of me. Toward night fall a man, my age or slightly younger, rode up. "We'll be stopping soon lord. There's a farm house ahead that we will be staying at, and I am your guard for the evening." He seemed friendly enough, not like the commander. He smiled the whole time he spoke.

I ventured to ask, "What is your name?"

"My lord, we are not permitted to carry on idle conversation."

That was all he said so I pressed him. "But you told me we would be stopping, when the sun will be setting within the hour. I believe that is idle conversation. Unless you plan to travel at night, we would need to stop." I paused a moment then continued. "I'll be very bored on this long trip if I do not get to speak to someone."

He sat on his horse and said nothing. He did give me a little shrug.

For being barbarians they were more than just stubborn. They had some semblance of decorum and following orders. Why that meant I could not talk to them? I do not know.

I brought books, but I expected to read them during the evenings after meeting my fellow lords or dealing with the affairs of this kingdom that are so urgent I am required to travel almost a month. I am completely sarcastic saying this because I only manage my people. We follow vague Alkimene rules (and not even all of them, most are not mandatory) and pay tribute and that is the extent of my interaction with them. I am really more of a regional governor.

I remember for a moment, I will be close to the Great Mountains for some time. The Great Mountains are the center of my earth god's, Fishe, power and worship in this world, so I will have to go at some point and consider it a pilgrimage. I am sure the queen will not keep me too busy. Although I will have to make sure it is fine with her of course.

The corners of my lips fell. I am sad to be leaving home. I was lonely when my sister married, but when my father died, I knew what it was to be truly sad. My sister is important to me of course, but only as important as a woman can be, which is not terribly important. Men, my father especially, are important.

A fellow man as ruler would have been fine to me. But I am being summoned by a woman and having to listen for no other reason then she is queen, by some barbarian rule, is ridiculous. If I really spend the time to think about it, many things upset me.

Within just a few minutes, we reached a farm. The soldiers started setting up their camp in a pasture. The man, from before, led me to the small weathered home. It was dark inside, much darker than the night had already become. After several moments my eyes adjusted, and an older couple sat at the rough-hewn table. Dinner sat on the table, and they are waiting for me.

The man stood and bowed, "Praise the queen for bringing you to our home, lord of the Sarkin's. We're pleased to have you." His use of the common tongue does not surprise me. His speech is rough and harsh, but he meant well with the greeting.

I thanked him and sat down. They and the soldier stood quietly as I ate; I am not completely unaccustomed, but my steward often joined me if he was not too busy. More loneliness. I heave a little sigh.

I was not willing to talk to these simple people anyway. They will have nothing intelligent to say so I went to bed after I finished. They had prepared a small room. It was nice, considering their meager home, but it had no windows. That does not matter because it was night. I assume it also makes the room safer, though I would have liked to look at the stars.

I hit the bed and did not remember anything until morning. I woke to the sound of voices. They said something about the queen.

"Yes, I have seen our queen," the guard said.

"We recently heard of her latest victory," the husband said.

"I was at that battle."

"What's she like in battle?" the husband said.

"We have heard she's like your goddess," the wife said.

"You have heard of Ashane?" his voice relayed his surprise.

"We have. We've done our best to erect an altar to her," the husband said.

"Don't you have gods of your own?"

"Of course, but your goddess also represents your queen," the wife said.

"No, some believe her mother was the goddess, not herself. Some do not believe of course, but her prowess in the battlefield—I am convinced.

"We have always been a people to use women in battle as shield maidens or archers, but none have ever been like her. No woman has ever had the strategy and sword arm that she possesses. At the least, Ashane has blessed her greatly."

"I beg you Malrosh, teach us to worship Ashane," the husband said. "She's blessed your people so greatly. Even a pence of her blessing would bless us beyond belief." So this soldier's name is Malrosh.

"You may keep this image of Ashane," Malrosh said.

"Oh, thank you!" the wife answered.

"But wait, he must take the goat," the husband said.

"Oh, yes, we have a newborn kid. You must sacrifice it to Ashane for us."

"You want me—but I can't."

"We'd perform it ourselves, but we've no one to look after our farm, and we heard that a newborn goat sacrifice to Ashane is a fertility offering."

"Yes, that's right, but…" here Malrosh's voices softened. "Yes, I will take the kid.

"If you will come out with me, it is time for our morning prayer."

I could hear muffled boot sounds and then moments later the door squeaked open and closed. Being curious, I got up quickly. The wife was in the kitchen.

"Lord, I've a breakfast prepared." Hard boiled eggs and bread lay on the table. I grabbed two eggs and some bread and walked out the door.

The sun just peaking over the horizon, I looked across the field and saw all the soldiers on their knees. It was quite a sight to witness. Fifteen men, plus the farmer on their knees with arms raised, all singing together. It was a low song, but full of emotion.

I have been to many ceremonies, but none like this. No priest led the event, no sacrifice on a fire; I never thought it was possible for a person to go before a god without a sacrifice.

Malrosh was kneeling by the farmer whispering to him. I could only imagine it must be about the song. I munched on the bread and eggs while this continued on for at least a quarter of an hour. Afterward they packed up their gear and prepared to break camp.

The farmer hugged Malrosh. His wife brought the goat to him, and he tied it to the horse.

Malrosh spoke to the commander, and then the commander came to me and asked if I was ready to go. "Yes, of course I am ready."

"Good, then we will be off."

The morning was uneventful; we rode and rode and rode.

About midday I asked about a meal. No one answered until a few minutes passed! The commander rode up to me and said we would not stop until evening. I nodded. What else can I do? I have no authority with these men. They don't even seem to share the same sense of male camaraderie that I used to think all men share.

The commander gave me some dry meat. "This should be enough to tide you over for the next few days."

This shortness continues for half the trip, but by the time the soldiers opened up I determine the problem was female leadership. I had thought it might be a problem, but this confirms my suspicion. They lack strong male leadership. If they did not lack it, I feel sure we would have more camaraderie between us.

Women have ways. They drain the life from men. My people would love for me to bring home a wife when I return, improving our situation in this kingdom, but I have no desire to marry. (They think I've waited too long already to find a wife.)

I saw what happened to my brother-in-law. He was so full of life and happy, but my sister wrapped her claws around him, and that part of him that made him a man was taken away. It was sad to see. I will not let that happen to me.