I stood in the centre of the Hall tiers of benches surrounding me on three sides. I noted there were fewer Elders here than the last time. In front of me was a lectern. I'd stood in this very same spot months ago when the Elders released me to pursue Vanessa. My objectives had changed. I still wanted to get Vanessa but the Black Stripes had to be stopped. She was the lesser of two evils. Opposite me was another lectern an unfamiliar elder stood behind it. She was tall with a haughty demeanour and what seemed to be a permanent sour expression.
"Do you know why you are here?" The Elder stated disdain heavy on her words. It was obvious that she didn't like me.
"If it's to listen to idiots like you then I'm out of here." I didn't like her attitude and told her so. "I've got better things to do!" I turned abruptly and started to walk away.
"One moment if you please Gwen Hunter?" a new voice called out.
I turned to see one of the Elders standing from her tier her eyes on the one behind the lectern. The new voice addressed Elder behind the lectern. "Askra, Sometimes I do wonder where your loyalties lie. Sit down and let calmer heads prevail. And do take that stick out of your ass it disgraces the rest of us?"
A rumble of laughter accompanied the new voice's speech. Askra glared at me but sat down. Reluctantly I took my place behind the lectern. The new voice took Askra's place. She was a Valkyrie but her face was rounded if a bit plain. She wouldn't have looked out of place on a farm or the images of such I'd seen in vids.
The Elder addressed me directly her words a total contrast to her predecessor. "Do you mind if we start again?" She smiled. "I'm Svenna and you my brave sister are Gwen Martin or do you prefer Hunter." She held up her hand. "I know some here would prefer Martin or if what I heard Yanik but that is up to you?"
"I'm Hunter but my blood says Martin," I stated simply.
"Well said." Svenna applauded me.
That made me instantly suspicious. "Ok first the stick and now the carrot?"
"Stick, carrot, oh yes one of those Terran things. No it is neither of those things. We do need your help."
I heard a few snorts at that from a small minority of the Elders. I wasn't sure whom.
Svenna shrugged her shoulders. "The majority do?"
"Help? I'm just one in billions." A statement I'd said a thousand times before and I had no doubts it would go the way of the others and be ignored.
"One person that is true. But the one person that has the knack of disrupting plans before they have a habit of killing millions. So I say that's more than just one person?"
"Surely you have better people?" I countered.
"Probably but they aren't you," Svenna said without blinking.
I considered my next words I had a feeling this wasn't going to go away. This was what they must have decided all those months ago when they sent those ships to get me. "Why me?" Another of my constant complaints. "No, appeal to the Confederacy or the TCA they are better equipped to deal with the Black Stripes." I added. "Who are working for the Rhosani."
"Rhosani?" Came a general rumble for behind Svenna.
I heard a number of angry mutterings.
"Just an excuse to interfere in our affairs. Do we have to listen to this drivel?" A voice from one of the tiers cried out.
I felt my anger surge as I searched for the speaker. "Right!" I shouted. "What idiot said that. I challenge you!" I raised my hand and it curled into a fist. It was stupid to let my temper runaway with itself. I had no explanation for my reaction. It wasn't me I wasn't that person.
Svenna spoke again as if I'd never spoken. I was glad of her distraction. "We do have Commodore Thirika Yanik's report. I hope you've all read it? It makes grim reading." She paused letting her words filter through the tiers of Elders. "Two attempts were made on Gwen Hunter's life which proves that she is on the right track." Svenna paused again for effect.
I was surprised no one reacted to my rant yet it seemed they were taking close notice to Svenna's words.
"Does anyone have an alternative explanation as to why the rebels managed to arm themselves that quickly?" She carried on when none of the other Elders commented. "Anyone?" She nodded in my direction. "Someone not Valkyrie is aiding them. The same ones if my guess is not off that want Alfheimir in ruins. Dwell on that?"
I had being feeling hot when I suddenly felt a searing pain in my gut. It felt as if something in my stomach was trying to rip it's way out. I clutched my stomach and groaned. Svenna looked at me concern.
My last memory was the floor rushing to meet me and blackness.
I woke lying in a bed in what appeared to me as a medical ward. It had blue and silver striped walls and matching décor. There were three other beds in this room one of which was occupied. I wasn't on a ship as there was a window but the drapes were closed. At the back by what I assumed was a washroom was a coffin like structure. I knew it was a cell regenerator. I'd been in one too often to mention. The covers on my bed were blue and I was wearing silvery coloured pyjamas with blue ties. I must be in a Yanik room if one of those existed. What I did take notice of was the door out. Two guards flanked it both in full combat armour. One guard had a blue and silver sash while her counterpart wore a red and silver one, Martin and Yanik. I turned my attention to the other occupant recognising her as the Martin Elder.
"Elder?" I said my voice sounding hoarse.
The Elder turned to regard me. "Call me Freda. I never formally introduced myself?" Her voice sounded as hoarse at mine was.
I turned on hearing the door I had about to ask Freda a question but my attention was diverted. Miranda and Ella stepped through the door two guards on their heels. One with a black and silver sash from Runa's Clan, the other wore a green and silver sash a Clan I was unfamiliar with. My eyes were on Miranda studying her carefully. Ella was in combat armour, her coil assault gun strapped to her chest. So not prisoners I had imagined. As soon as Miranda saw me she smiled relieved. She swiftly crossed the room and hugged me.
"I was so worried," she said. "Good to see you are alright."
Freda spoke up her words a total shock for me. I half thought she was joking.
"What no hugs for your daughter?" Freda called out sounding out of breath.
Miranda let go of me a looked across to Freda. "For a daughter that told me she was too old for hugs?"
I stared at the two of them surprise on my face.
"Touché mother, touché."
I saw Ella give me a thumbs up from the corner of my eye I returned the gesture. For the life of me I couldn't see a resemblance between Freda and Miranda.
Miranda glanced to the four guards making it a little crowded in the room. "Could please leave us for the moment?"
It was another surprise seeing the guards leave. I guessed they wouldn't be far.
In the mean time Miranda had gone over to Freda and hugged her. She released her hold and stepped back her expression serious.
"Freda forgive me," Miranda said simply.
"For what mother?"
My heart went out to the both of them it seemed too poignant a moment. I found myself wiping away a tear.
"For not contacting you sooner."
"You don't get good comms in the mountains," Freda assured her. "Nor could you announce your presence aboard the shuttle. You were right to be cautious."
Finally my tongue caught up with my tongue. I seemed impossible that Freda was Miranda's daughter. The implications were too far fetched with Miranda's age.
"What am I hearing is this correct, Freda's your daughter?"
Miranda turned to me a smile on her face. "Of course Gwen. I gave birth to her."
"Mother was going though a bad patch." I saw Freda glance to the door. I got that it was something no one else should know about. "When our Clan Mother sent her a male and to everyone's surprise I resulted. "
"Yes I was surprised at the time myself. I'd thought that time had long passed. I still had a monthly cycle but I'd thought that was something to do with my long life and the alterations to my DNA."
"When was this?"
"A bit over eighty years ago."
Which was about the time my great grandfather met my great grandmother. I wasn't sure of the exact dates but it seemed to about then. What it didn't address was the present situation. Why was I here and why was Freda sharing the ward with me?
"Ok that's that but why am I here. The last thing I remembered was a burning pain in my gut then nothing?"
"Poison," Miranda stated bluntly.
I stared at her shocked to my core. "What?"
"We were poisoned," Freda said angrily.
That I did understand it wasn't the Valkyrie way. You confronted your enemy directly not killed them with stealth. "When and where?" I had to know.
"In my chambers, your food and my coffee!" Freda lay back her eyes closed tight her mouth a tense line. "Mother! How I could I have seen that coming. I was lucky I'd only taken a sip and not drunk the whole cup?"
I guess she was appealing to the Valkyrie Mother of All and not her actual mother.
"They've been operating in the background for a while now." Miranda sounded calm considering what was just revealed. I looked and her and saw it was a ploy. There was a smouldering anger behind her eyes.
"Several other Elders were poisoned at the same time," Ella added. "A couple of them died."
I winced at that.
"Cowardly mato!" Ella snarled.
"Well at least we have them in custody."
"Executed?" I had to say that. I disapproved of that I guess my thoughts were the same as the Keepers on that score.
"Oh no they'll wish they were by the time we've finished with them. They've been given the harshest punishment possible." Miranda statement was merciless. "The Elders agreed they didn't want to make martyrs out of them. They decided to treat them like common criminals."
It seemed that the Elders were sending the rebels and I assumed they were rebels a message a harsh one at that. "And that will weaken the rebels hand?" I hazarded.
"Exactly. These poisoners being branded as criminals and I do mean branded literally." Miranda said.
"Branded as in burn a brand into them?" I was horrified I hadn't expected the Valkyrie to be that barbaric. But it was their way I couldn't gain say their methods.
"Yes!" Freda told me.
Typical of the Valkyrie way I thought but I kept that to myself. "What have you found out?" I asked generally not sure who'd answer. "Why target me?"
"Why?" Freda answered and grimaced." Oh no I copying you now?"
"Fear," Miranda said stepping close to me.
"Of what?" It didn't make any sense why would anybody be afraid of me if that was what she was implying.
"We don't know. Sufficient to say that they panicked and acted in haste which was their downfall."
"The Elders have tepes combing through their minds as we speak," Ella added.
I saw Miranda shiver. Of course, she was old school before things like telepaths were common place. Hell she probably lived through the AI war. "Telepaths, the mention of them send shivers down my back."
I had a more pragmatic outlook. They were a necessity. I'd let Xenai walk through my mind and I trusted her. "I've got a friend who is one, I trust her." I defended Xenai.
Before Miranda could formulate a reply the door to the outside slid open and a Valkyrie stepped into the room. Typically Valkyrie with her blonde hair and blue eyes she looked young. Dressed in white scrubs she had a medical gauntlet on her hand the same as the one Kelli used. I had a brief thought about her another face I missed. I wished I had my team with me. We were a family despite Jervic coldness towards me. He had thawed somewhat and then I was kidnapped if that didn't put a kink in our rather fragile relationship nothing would.
The Valkyrie medtech spoke her tone brooked no dissent. "Right anyone not supposed to be here leave now!"
"And how do you know who isn't?" Miranda told her in a mildly deceptive tone.
"You're standing aren't you? My patients are in their beds, so out!"
Miranda bristled at that but Ella said something to her too low for me to hear.
"Ok we are going but we will be back," Miranda warned her.
I watched them go as they walked out the guards returned taking positions flanking the door. The medtech walked over to me.
"Hold still," she said to me as she passed her glove over me. "Quite remarkable," she muttered looking at the data on her glove.
"What is?" I had to ask.
"Your return to health."
She turned away and did the same to Freda. "And you have a way to go yet."
The medtech turned back to me. "Ok get up!" she made a gesture with her hand.
I'd been in this situation before so I knew what was coming. Suddenly she lashed out with her free hand. I had anticipated her action and immediately retaliated. I ducked and grabbed her wrist as her fist whistled past me and flipped her. She landed hard on her rear. She got up not angry with me she seemed pleased.
She leapt forward launching a series of kicks and punches. I easily avoided her flurry without a hit landing on me. Suddenly she stopped and I stood back breathing heavily.
"Good," she said. "But you do need more exercise and control that breathing." She pointed to the door. "Out!"
"My clothes?" I protested.
"Find them yourself who do you think I am? I'm not you mother."
"I can just leave like that?"
"Did I not just say that or would you rather I do so more tests on you?"
"Ok I'm going." I waved at Freda she waved back a bit shakily. I was worried about her one of the few I'd knew who'd be on my side.
"Good girl," The medtech said and ignored me.
I exited the room still dressed in pyjamas and my feet bare. I walked down a corridor outside the ward unsure what I was supposed to do next. There were another two guards outside the ward they paid me scant notice as I walked past them. Luckily I hadn't gone far when Miranda exited from what looked like a waiting room with a glass window and a number of comfortable armchairs all in blue and silver.
Miranda regarded me carefully. "So good to see you up and about."
"Good to see you to," I replied with genuine feeling. "Is there anywhere I can get some clothes?"
"I know just the place," Miranda said to me. "Ella's gone on ahead." Which explained why I hadn't seen her.
Two guards hurried out of the waiting room and fell into step behind us. "I'm afraid we'll just have put up with the intrusion." She opened another door. "Clothes are in here."
I dressed feeling more in charge of myself. Miranda was waiting for me. "Better?"
"Hold onto the feeling we go to confront the Elders."
I had no choice but to follow Miranda. We exited the Medical facility and out into the crisp cold of an Alfheimir autumn.