The day dawned bright and sunny. When Anna, Sophia, Laura and Lucy entered Catharine’s room, they found she was already awake, and doing up her belt. There seemed to be something poking out from under her cloak, but none of them could make out what exactly it was. Alexander joined them soon, and said, “Matthias and Serdresin have joined our small group, if you don’t mind, Catharine.” Catharine replied, “no, but the Serckreans will need to know. I can go to them and come back to find you if I go now. It is about two days ride into the forest, but I can meet my friend Astridia in the forest – Anna, you remember Astridia?” Anna replied, “Of course I remember Astridia – she was adorable, and a lot of fun to be with.” Catharine smiled, and went on, “well, I can meet her in the forest; it should be her Patrol Day today; I can meet her and pass her a message to give to Keleya, the Queen of Serckrea. I can be back with you by midday.” Alexander replied, “We’ll have started riding out by then, Cathy.” Catharine replied swiftly, “then I’ll meet you half way.” Alexander nodded, and Catharine left the room. “Something’s changed about her,” Sophia said. Laura replied, “She seems more confident... I’ll give you that. Maybe she has a sweetheart waiting for her in Serckrea.” They giggled briefly, and then saying “ummmm” simultaneously, they stared at each other in silence for a split second afterwards and then burst into giggles again. When Matthias, Serdresin, Katie and Thomas were ready, they all mounted horses that had been made ready for them, and made their way through the city streets.
When they reached the city gates, they nudged their mounts smoothly into a canter, and cantered out over the plains between Eleaya and the Forests of Serckreleaya. As they drew away from Eleaya, a small figure detached itself from the shadows between the trees and moved away from the Forests of Serckreleaya to move towards them. “It’s Cathy,” Thomas called, having the sharpest eyes of them all. Alexander smiled briefly, but then stopped himself, and looked to the side briefly. Catharine galloped towards them, and circled briefly. “Whoa, Alexis,” she laughed, as they all stopped, and Alexis pranced anxiously. “Is he alright, Cathy?” Serdresin asked, nervously, and Catharine replied, “he’s fine, Serdresin, Alexis’s just got too much energy from being cooped up for three weeks. He’s been dying for some exercise, and he’s a bit of a show off when he’s over energetic.” Alexis chose that moment to throw a small rear into the mix, proving Catharine’s point. “Anyway, Astridia is now on her way to pass the message on to Keleya that there is a small addition to our party,” Catharine went on, and Anna said, “that was awfully quick, Cathy, even if Alexis is as energetic as you say he is.” Catharine shrugged, and replied, “She was a bit far out of her patrol zone, and she’s not that hard to find.”
Alexander said, “Well, as long as Queen Keleya finds out we’re on our way with a small addition to our numbers, then that’s fine. I also see no reason why you shouldn’t be able to rid Alexis of some of his extra energy, as long as you stay near us, Catharine, seeing as you’re our only guide to Serckrea.” Catharine replied, “thank you, sire, that’s very kind of you”, and turning Alex away from the group, she whistled twice, and Alexis, twitching his ears, paced excitedly. Catharine then dug her heels in, and rearing slightly, Alexis cantered away to begin a large oval loop around the group. While he was cantering, Catharine adjusted something under her cloak, and took the same something from under her cloak and put it in her saddlebags; she then removed her cloak and put it in the other saddlebag. She had left the reins on Alexis’s neck to do this, and she now picked them up once more, and moved him smoothly back into the oval loop he had been doing before. “You have a very odd seat, Cathy,” Thomas said, as he watched her ride, “you ride like a man.” Catharine replied, “Serckrean riding methods. The Serckreans aren’t fussy about who has what duties to family or friends; they believe they have equal duties to their country. The women learn to ride, and those who are more expert on horses can be drafted into the army, if they give their consent.” Katie asked, “Who’s that on the horizon?” Catharine looked to where Katie pointed, where a group of four riders had come from the edge of the Forests of Serckreleaya.
“They’re Serckrean riders. Obviously an escort to come and bring us to Serckrea safely,” Catharine replied, “wait here for a moment, and then follow at a trot. I know these riders; they might need some talking to, to let them get used to you.” The group drew to a halt, as Catharine cantered ahead. She met the group not far from Alexander, Anna, Sophia, Lucy and Laura, and they could clearly hear what was being said:
“Edrethier astrdi edresta wretu, lledrasej,” said the one at the forefront.
“Niedretr asejed, Edrea; estreajos diexias thretr,” Catharine replied.
“Keleya dreidr wrestryu astrenathr wretu, adresau,” said another.
“Teriedsuo adresankowe estredsos” Catharine replied, looking over her shoulder. Alexander asked, “what do they want, Cathy?” Catharine replied, “Queen Keleya wants to see me as soon as she can. It’s best not to keep a Queen waiting. Edrea, wretasi qeriko dedasui puñieksidro.” The one called Edrea, who was slightly in front of the rest of the group, rested her fist on her chest plate of armour, bowing her head slightly. Catharine turned to Alexander and said, “I have to go and see the Queen, Alex. Edrea here is going to make sure you all get to Seleucia, the capital of Serckrea. I will find you there once I am finished with Queen Keleya, I promise.”
Edrea moved to the head of Alexander’s group, as Catharine moved to the head of Edrea’s group, and Catharine raised her hand in farewell. Alexander responded in kind, and Anna said, “Save the best dresses for us, Cathy.” Catharine laughed, and turning away, she nudged Alexis into a canter, and then into a gallop ahead of the other two riders that had come with Edrea, one of which was recognised as Astridia. When they had disappeared amongst the trees of the Forests of Serckreleaya, Edrea said, “This way, please, everybody”, and nudged her horse into a smooth canter. Alexander couldn’t help noticing that Edrea’s horse was the same breed and colour as Catharine’s. They rode until sunset that day, and stopped to set up camp. Alexander offered Edrea a place with them to share the evemeal, and after a long moment’s pause, she replied, “thank you, sire, I will.” Her mannerisms were so like Catharine’s, it felt like Catharine was still there with them, although they were all aware that she was not. After the evemeal, Anna, Katie, Sophia, Laura, Lucy, Thomas and the guards all slept. Alexander, however, sat against a tree, and looked up at the moon, which was visible through a break in the tree canopy. Edrea had disappeared shortly after the evemeal, and Alexander jumped slightly as her soft voice said to his left, “you like Catharine a lot. I could not help but notice it, in the way you look at her.” Alexander looked at the silent soldier, and replied, “she’s very good company, Edrea.”
Edrea sat next to Alexander, and said, “She has secrets... secrets she would more readily share with you, than anyone else. Should you ever find them out, forgive her for not sharing them with you sooner. She has been sworn to secrecy... otherwise she’d readily trust you.” Alexander, taken aback by this sudden outburst, replied after a long hesitation, “thank you... I will, Edrea. You have my word on that: I will.” Edrea nodded; moving away until she was on the other side of the fire, she lay out, and slept. For Alexander, however, sleep was not as swift in coming. The next morning, they woke early in order to reach Serckrea by midday. Edrea, in spite of her outburst to Alexander the night before, was her usual almost silent self at dawnmeal, and was the first in the saddle. They rode at a smooth pace between the trees, and soon reached a large cliff of rock. Two guards stood by it, and Edrea, dismounting, moved around her horse to them, and held her wrist to them. On her wrist was a wrist guard with this symbol on it:
When the guards saw this, they turned as one to the cliff, and clapped twice in complete unison. There was a loud grating sound, and part of the cliff face slid back and to the left, revealing a large hole.
“I’m afraid you must dismount and go from foot from here. The guards will bring your horses to the stables soon,” Edrea said, and the group dismounted. They stepped through the hole, and down a corridor, following Edrea. They then stepped into a large hall, and the sound of running footsteps was the first sign that alerted Anna, who had stepped into it first, that she was not alone, despite the others following behind her, and Edrea in front of her. She turned, and saw a woman in armour running towards her, a knife in her hand. Anna instinctively stepped back, but someone had stepped in front of her. Catharine’s hands came up to stop the knife, her palms curving around it, and then falling to her knees, Catharine said, “majesuzue. Majesuzue, estrendi mriteyu, yanwe dangilewa, Catharine... estrendi mriteyu”; the woman was still a moment, and then she pulled the dagger from Catharine’s hands, cutting them, though Catharine did not cry out. Putting a hand to Catharine’s cheek, the woman smiled, and said in reply, “mriteyu dangilewa, wreskate andreawi wretu kesyle.” Taking Catharine’s hands, the woman helped her to her feet, and hugged her. Catharine’s shoulders shook for a moment, her hands held with their palms facing upwards; when she came away from the other woman, though, her face was neither wet nor showed any signs of having had tears on them. Edrea had knelt immediately, her right arm crossed diagonally across her chest and her head bowed. The woman said something, which sounded like an order, and Edrea bowed her head even lower before standing, and moving through the tunnel from which the woman had come.
The woman looked at Anna, Alexander, Thomas, Katie, Serdresin, Matthias, Sophia, Laura and Lucy, who all stood watching them and said in Eleayan, “Forgive me. We have very strict security, and therefore I had to do something. Somehow, the message Catharine intended for me did not reach me.” Katie was the first to understand the significance of the words “intended for me” and curtsying quickly, she said, “Queen Keleya, an honour to meet you at last”. The others quickly followed suit, and Keleya, watching Katie for a moment, said, “Katie, daughter of Edmund the tailor on Dersenien Street... is that right?” Katie nodded once, and Keleya went on, “your instincts serve you very well. You will need to pay heed to them even more in the future, for many will depend on them. And Thomas, son of Matthias, the palace cook... I am sure what you wish for will come true, though I will not embarrass you by speaking it aloud. Rest assured you are all very, very welcome in Serckrea, and Seleucia. You have already met Catharine... my youngest. You have done well in keeping this a secret from those you hold in high esteem, but it is now no longer necessary.” Catharine did not look at any of them, her eyes fixed firmly on a point on the ground in front of Alexander’s feet. There was a furious rising of colour in her cheeks as she was obviously aware that they were all staring at her.
“Come, we will find rooms for you in the Seleucian palace,” Keleya said, and motioned for Anna to follow her. Catharine did not move as the others went on, except for Alexander. The soldiers made to hang back, but Alexander said, “Go on ahead. I wish to talk to cath – Princess Catharine, in private.” Catharine shifted slightly as the soldiers trooped past, and the two of them were left alone. “Why did you not tell me?” Alexander asked, temporarily forgetting Edrea’s words from the night before. In a breathless whisper, Catharine replied, “I couldn’t, Alex. I made a promise; Serckreans don’t break their promises.” Alexander stepped towards her, saying, “I could have kept it a secret, for you, Cathy. I wouldn’t have told a soul; not even my own father... you know I speak the truth.” Catharine gasped, and replied quietly, “I wanted to tell you. Alex, I really did – I trust you more than anyone else, I promise you that... I couldn’t tell a soul, Alex! When Serckreans make a promise, it... it has the same effect as a spell. You may as well have been hit by a charm to bind your tongue every time you try to mention it. I did try to tell you, Alex...” Alex stepped even closer to her, and his fingers brushed her cheek as he whispered, “Are there any other secrets I need to know, Cathy?” Catharine had gasped a sharp inhalation when he had touched her cheek, and she now replied, “I’m the leader of... of a small troop of soldiers, called the Keleysanel. Edrea is one of my... well, one of my men. My final test before I became their commander was to follow orders from another leader. The mission to Doleatraya was that test. Alex... I wanted to tell you, honestly, I did, but –”
Alexander shushed her, and said, “My father will have to know about this.” Catharine nodded once, and Alexander offered his arm to her. Catharine smiled a small smile and taking his arm, they went in the direction the others had gone. They emerged from a small tunnel into bright sunlight, and Alexander saw that they were standing on a narrow, slanting path which led down to a large market place in a large city. The city was visible in every direction that Alexander could see, and appeared no different to Eleaya, except that it appeared more ordered in its layout. People hurried through the streets and around stalls and people in the market. “Come on,” Catharine said, taking his hand, and they went down the path to the city gates. The guards caused them to pause slightly, but Catharine showed them a wrist guard identical to Edrea’s, and they were allowed through with all haste. As they stepped into the market, several people near them stopped and bowed or curtsied in Catharine’s direction. Catharine nodded at them once, and stepping forwards, her hand took Alexander's once more, and she led him through the market. There were a few people who bowed or curtsied to them on their way, and Catharine inclined her head to each of them.
Several children ran up to her, calling her name eagerly, and the youngest boy jumped eagerly into her arms. Catharine’s hand slid from Alexander's to hold the boy on her hip, and she winced slightly as his knee dug into her stomach. The boy’s mother stepped out of the crowd after a moment’s hesitation, and Catharine, smiling a gentle smile, handed the boy to her. The boy clung to Catharine, and she gently held his wrists, and looking him in the eyes, she said, “it’s OK, Edresun, you can let go.” Reluctantly, the boy let go, and his mother carried him away. Alexander said, “You seem very natural with children.” Catharine replied, “I guess it’s a talent that surfaces of its own accord, Alex. Come on – my mother is waiting for us.” Alexander frowned at her, and Catharine, tapping the side of her head, explained, “Telepathy is one of the few abilities that make the Keleysanel so effective. We can keep in contact with each other, and thus anticipate each other’s movements in battle. Families can also use the ability to contact each other.” They headed to the palace, and started up the steps. Keleya stood at the top of the steps, with Edrelaos. When Catharine saw him, she smiled and said, “Edrelaos! Glad to see you made it out to Doleatraya,” and stepping forwards, Edrelaos hugged her, replying, “it’s thanks to your Travelstone that I got out of there alive.” Alexander shifted uncomfortably, and Keleya looked at him, an eyebrow raised. Alexander looked at her, and felt something brush against his mind. Keleya’s voice sounded in his head:
- I take it you sorted out the initial misgivings with my daughter, then.
- I did, thank you for your concern.
- Sometimes, it is best to take the first step in establishing relationships.
- I take it this is more advice, following on from Edrea’s advice, my Lady?
- I see Edrea followed Catharine’s orders. She is a loyal and sensible soldier, and trusted by her fellow men; the others in Keleysanel will follow her lead.
- My thanks for the advice, Lady Keleya.
Keleya looked to Catharine and said, “Your usual room has been organised for you, Cathy. Edrelaos is just down the corridor from you. Alexander may take the room opposite yours.” Catharine nodded; looking at Alexander, she smiled and said, “This way, Alex”, and stepped forwards past her mother. Bowing a small bow to Keleya, Alexander stepped past her as well, and followed Catharine to the second floor. Once there, Catharine stopped outside a door on the left hand side of the corridor and said, “This is my room”, and opening the door on the opposite side of the corridor, she said, “This will be your room, Alex. It’s not much, but it’s grand by Serckrean standards.” Alexander stepped into the room, and was very impressed.
It was larger than his room in Eleaya, with a balcony; curtains fluttered on either side of it, and the balcony appeared to be made of marble. There was a table in the middle of the room, and a four poster bed stood about a metre and a half from the left hand wall. The bathroom was similar, with a wash basin of stainless steel on a small cupboard containing soft, well made white cotton towels. “This is amazing – grand even by Eleayan standards,” Alexander said, standing in the middle of the room. “I’m glad you like it,” Catharine replied. She had not moved from the door, and Alexander, looking to her, said, “I’d have never expected this sort of grandeur in Serckrea.” Catharine smiled, and said, “The people all know that Eladreaya is attempting to make an alliance with Serckrea. They will notice many small details, including the clothes you wear.” Alexander looked down at the clothes he wore and looking back up at Catharine, he said, “What would you suggest?” Catharine smiled broadly, and replied, “I’ll have a servant bring some Serckrean clothes up. Keep your ears peeled; between us, my mother and I will be tossing little tips out into the open.” She left, and shut the door behind her, throwing a small smile over her shoulder before she disappeared. Alexander sat down, and rested his chin on his hands. The trip to Serckrea would be more interesting that he had anticipated.