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Liavan: Spring - Part 9
 This follows on from Liavan: Spring - Part 8 and runs to 2,886 words.

The track continued past the strangler fig, and then began to turn south so that it was no longer headed straight at the short escarpment that marked the western and north-western edges of the royal preserve.  The mixed trees of the western edge of the woods gave way to hammurucks, a native tree traditionally associated with kings.  At first Liavan simply noted that, presumably through the heavy shade cast with their large soft swathes of needle-like leaves, they discouraged the other plants, but then she found the carpet of nunquils, palest pink and blue in the shade of hammurucks so old that they were tall, squat, hollow stumps sprouting the trunk leaves of senescence.  The ancient stumps marched along the track in pairs, marking what must have once been a grand approach to something.

Fifteen more minutes’ walk brought Liavan to the end of the avenue of hammurucks and left her with just their descendants again with the track leading further on, but now she could see flowering bushes on either side of the track ahead of her.  When she reached them, she discovered that they marked the edge of the trees because beyond them was an open space surfaced in the yellow clay, as big as Liavan's garden and beyond the expanse of yellow clay was a building as big as the Bishop's Residence in Market Cranebourne.

It was not in good repair.  The golden stone was marked with black and plants grew from the cracks between the stones. The windows were glassless, shutterless, and most of them appeared to be black holes leading into the interior of the building.  There was still an iron bound door in the main entrance, but it hung there lopsided and gaping as if the hinges had started dying of old age or someone had broken their way in.   Liavan couldn't see the full state of the roof because a dark green rillue vine and ivy were competing for dominance over the sunlit surface.  There were carvings in the stone over the main entrance and Liavan carefully approached the broken doors to see what they were, partly because she was curious and partly because they might give her a clue to the building’s purpose.

The building was large enough to deserve an entry on the duke's map, but the copy in his office that Liavan had seen made no mention of it.

The foot of the stairs leading up to the broken door gave Liavan a perfectly good view of the carvings without getting her too close to whatever might be lurking behind the broken door.  If anything was.  A movement caught her eye, and Liavan saw a satin flycatcher, a bird she could recognise, darting around the window nearest to the main door on her right to catch flying insects and resting in between flights on the empty windowsill.  If there was anything hiding just there, then the satin flycatcher didn't think it was a problem.  The carving, despite some weathering, was still clearly Urmagh royal arms.

The place had been built by one of the old kings, but Liavan had no idea why.  It's size alone suggested that it was not a gatehouse for the preserve.   Entering the building to look for more clues might be considered trespassing, even if it was an unoccupied ruin and its builders gone.  Liavan considered her options, and decided to walk around the outside of the building to see if she could find anything of interest to her, such as the remains of a herb or kitchen garden.  Staying outside also avoided issues like breaking and entering or rotten floors. 

The building's front facade ran north-south, and Liavan decided to circle the building counter clockwise.  The plants lodging themselves into the crevices along the front facade were ferns, the small pink and white daisies that thrived everywhere in sandy soil, and a tiny blue bellflower that Liavan hadn't seen before.  There was a line of bushes right up to the building along the edge of the yellow clay area, which Liavan now supposed must have been a forecourt when the building had been occupied.  There was more golden creset among the bushes, and something that she thought might be goose currant even though the flowers weren't the colour that she would have expected for that.  Liavan was just looking for the best way through them when a man's voice barked out, "Who are you and what are you doing in the royal preserve?"

Liavan stepped back and looked for the speaker, because the voice had come from the other side of the bushes.  "I'm Withemistress Liavan Haucmel," she replied more calmly than she felt, "and by the duke's map the royal preserve doesn't start until you get to the top of that small cliff to our east.  Who are you?"

A man stepped forward from between two tree trunks.  With the low hanging foliage, looking into the shade under the trees Liavan had mistaken his still form for another tree trunk.  His skin was the dark golden brown that the darker fawn skin tones went when they tanned and his dark brown hair, surprisingly ungreyed for someone who appeared to be the same age as her father, was pulled back into two braids that fell down his back.  His tunic only fell to his midthighs, and the brown cloth was trimmed with leather while the fastening buttons appeared to be bronze.  Liavan thought that the buttons had something stamped on them.  The bushes got in the way, but he seemed to be wearing brown knee length boots and leather trousers.  His hands were empty, but he wore a belt that supported a large sheathed knife, a quiver with a bow and arrows in it, and he seemed to have a haversack strapped to his back.  "I'm Warden Gauth Nierd," he introduced himself.  "You look like you're dressed for a stroll in your own garden, Withemistress Haucmel."

Liavan looked down at her brown overall apron over her grey-green dress, winced, and replied, "I'm afraid that I really didn't expect to run into anyone today, so I decided to wear something that wouldn't show every smut and smudge,"

"May I ask how you got here?"  The man was being absolutely courteous, but if he was one of the preserve's wardens, and Liavan was wrong about where the boundary was, then she could be in a great deal of trouble.  In this case courtesy cost nothing and she was still glad that she hadn't started taking cuttings yet.  On the other hand, anyone could wear a tunic and she didn't know this man.

"I wanted to see where the yellow clay track that leaves the road between Market Cranebourne and Ledbury a little west of the Kingsbridge goes," she answered brightly.  "Apparently the answer is, here," she gestured to include the house.  "Unless of course, it goes further on?"  She looked at him enquiringly.  There was no need in her mind to tell him that the track ran straight past her front door.

"It doesn't," he said shortly, "but thank you for telling us that we're so close to the road.  We might go back to our starting point that way instead of walking over the range again."

"We?"  Liavan scanned the shade under the trees again.  "So, you're not alone?"

"I'm not," confirmed the older man.  "I'm escorting a foreign gentleman on a tour of the preserve.  His lordship-."

"I'm not a lord," said a strangely accented voice, "any more than you are, Warden Nierd.  I explained that."   A patch of dappled shade and sunlight under and beside the two tree trunks moved, and there was clearly a man there.  He was wearing some sort of mottled overgarment that did up with wooden toggles down his centre front and covered him from his shoulders to his knees.  The overgarment had a hood that was pulled back to reveal a tanned face that had a ruddy tinge to its browning and pale yellowish hair that had been cut so short that it lay flat on his scalp.  He too carried a haversack, bow and quiver of arrows, but his bow was longer than the warden's and looked a different shape.  The mottled overgarment had a subtle enchantment on it that Liavan would have liked to get a better look at, and it seemed to her that it might be concealing other magic beneath it.  "I am Ky Belarond ne-ath Malafest hath Galafen sur Arriagh.  If we are to address each other using honorifics, then I am Ky Arriagh."

Liavan curtsied, her left hand holding up her skirts, as if she was being introduced to the baron or the duke.  "Ky Arri," she didn't get the final swallowed vowel sound right, "Warden Nierd, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance."

The foreigner bowed, "Withemistress Haucmel."  Liavan noted that he seemed to have some sort of design cut into his short hair so that the pale skin of his scalp showed through.  "Is it wise for you to be wandering around unfamiliar woods on your own and apparently unarmed?"

Liavan considered and then replied carefully, "As I told Warden Nierd, Ky Arri," she missed that final vowel again, "I wasn't expecting to meet anyone.  There's nothing that's big enough to consider me food, unless I run into a pack of wild dogs, and I believe I can get away from anything that might attack me for any reason."

He looked from Liavan to Warden Nierd and back again, then said, "Warden Nierd keeps assuring me that there are no large predators within the royal preserve, but you seem quite certain that you aren't in the royal preserve.  Surely the wardens don't patrol outside the preserve's boundaries?"

Liavan glanced at Warden Nierd, who was looking faintly bemused, as if he'd tried to have this conversation before.  Liavan switched her attention back to Ky Arriagh.  "Did Warden Nierd say that there were no large predators in the preserve, or did he say that there were no large predators?  Could you just have thought that he meant in the preserve?"

He cocked his head to one side.  "You think I might have assumed the context?"  He appeared to think, then said, "It is possible.  We had been talking about the preserve when I raised the question of...protective measures.  In my language, the way my people use it, there are contextual markers that would tell me if the scope of our conversation had changes.  I have come to know that if your language has them, then the good Warden Nierd here does no use them often."

Liavan said apologetically, "What I think Warden Nierd was trying to tell you is that the largest predator we have is a wild dog.  We don't have that many of them either because farmers and the land-holding nobles go after them."

"But that doesn't make any sense."  Ky Arriagh looked confused.  "What keeps your grazers in check?"

"There aren't many wild ones," replied Liavan.  "Feral bovines, sheep and goats, mainly.  Some deer that someone thought were a good idea.  Feral pigs.  Now, there could be pigs up here, I had forgotten about them, but I still think I could get away from one."

Ky Arriagh looked at them both and asked "What happened?  Something must have happened."

Warden Nierd sighed, "Do you remember, Ky Arriagh, that I started telling you about the first Urmagh king?"

"A little.  He was the one who wanted his people to be rice farmers instead of nomads, wasn't he?"  Ky Arriagh added, "A lot of people live very well on rice."

"He decided to force the change by having the herds his people followed slaughtered," went on Warden Nierd.  "They were wild animals, not domesticated ones, but the people depended on them.  Many of his people tried to leave, and he wound up conquering almost all the rest of the continent to stop them escaping.  He oathbound his son and his grandson to his vision, and by the time they were done, the herds were gone.  Then the mercenaries who'd killed the herds were put to work killing the things that used to prey on the herds, because they'd started going after people.  By the time it was done, they'd broken nature."

Ky Arriagh looked at them, dumbstruck.  Then he asked, "Did no-one think to assassinate him?  Or have him declared mad?"

"It was tried, unsuccessfully," replied Warden Nierd.

Liavan asked, "Wasn't that why he declared war on the Aesides tribes, because their council sent assassins after him?  Or is that just an old story?"

"I don't know," admitted the Warden.  "It was two thousand years ago and I'm a forester working as a warden of the royal preserve, not a history scholar.  Besides this used to be the Aesides' territory, so if you grew up in these parts, you're more likely to have heard the right of it than me - I hail from the old Muhennag lands."

"To be self-centred in the face of your country's ongoing disaster," interjected Ky Arriagh, "if you have no large predators, then that makes it more likely that the animals I'm looking for have survived here."

"I'm sorry, sir," the warden turned to Ky Arriagh and went on, "but we've crossed the preserve with no sign of your Emperor's deer.  There's been no scat, hoof prints or marked trees to show that they still exist.'

"I am obliged to leave no stone unturned," replied Ky Arriagh.  "We have traversed one route across the preserve.  I can't make a declaration that they have gone based on only one trip-."

"Excuse me," put in Liavan, "but what are you looking for, exactly?  I know that you're talking about deer, but beyond that?"

"One of my Emperor's predecessors gifted one of your kings with specimens of the giant deer that our ancestors used as mounts.  They have died out in our lands, but the Emperor wishes to use them as a symbol of his throne's authority.  Or that's what he told me when he gave me this task."

Liavan asked, " When you say 'giant' do you mean as tall as a man at the shoulder?"

"I've never seen one, but yes, they did get that big," replied Ky Arriagh.  "A peculiarity of theirs was that they didn't drop their antlers, so they had them year-round."

"And their antlers are these sort of hand-shaped things?  If you hold your fingers together and bend your hand a bit?"  Liavan demonstrated with her left hand beside her head.

The men looked at Liavan as if she had two heads.  Ky Arriagh said, "Yes.  How did you know that?"

"I've seen one twice, or two different ones once each," replied Liavan.  "Both in the same place at the same time of day.  Stags, I think.  Or a stag."

The two men looked at each other and Ky Arriagh asked, "Can you show us where, please?  I can make it worth your while, if you require recompense."

Warden Nierd rolled his eyes and gave him a look that suggested he would be talking to the younger man about prudence when they were alone together.

Liavan smiled and replied, "If you two can wait while I take cuttings, and possibly dig a few things up to take back to my garden, then yes, I can take you to where I've seen the animal or animals today."

Warden Nierd asked cautiously, "And your price, Withemistress?"

"I might get you to carry some things for me if I get overenthusiastic with my cuttings," said Liavan airily, "and I might ask you identification questions.  For instance," she pointed at a bush between the two of them, "is this a goose currant?  I thought the flowers were white, but this is purple."

"It's a goose currant," confirmed Warden Nierd.  "They're usually white, but there are purple and pink flowered ones in the garden of the Royal Lodge at the entrance to the preserve - this is the first time I've seen them anywhere else."

"There's an old Urmagh royal emblem carved over the front door," Liavan told him.  "If this was a royal establishment too, then that would explain it having the same plants.  Why would something like this have been abandoned?"

"When the Urmagh kings were overthrown, the new royal family was a lot smaller," replied Warden Nierd.  "They didn't need so many homes for royalty when it was just Thangleur I, his wife, and their children instead of the whole royal tangle of cousins the Urmaghs had at the end.  Even the old royal family was much smaller than it had been.  The journal of the Chief Warden of the time says everyone was worried that there would be no work for the existing royal servants and officials when the new king came in, but he left the care of the preserves and forests alone."

Ky Arriagh suggested, "Perhaps we could talk while walking?  Do you not wish to explore inside the house, Withemistress Haucmel?"

"No thank you, Ky Arria," answered Liavan.  She still didn't have the end vowel on his name right.  "I have no wish to find out if this substantial building has cellars by walking on rotten floor boards."

"A good point," he conceded.  "Shall we continue?"

Part 1.
Part 2.
Part 3.
Part 4.
Part 5.
Part 6.
Part 7.
Part 8.
This is Part 9.

Part 10.


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