The Baroness & The Bard

By Sel Vecanite
© July 1999

Who are you to speak to me of loneliness, you who have not suffered as I have suffered. My father was lord of the Andu, ruler of a million souls, but not once did he ever claim me as his son. All those years I waited for a single word from him, a simple acknowledgment of my birthright. But, not even on his death bed did he claim me as his. So do not speak to me of your loneliness, you who have never been as alone as I have been all my life.

- Prince Raesene Andu, -2 HC.

Chapter 1

A gentle breeze wafted through the open window, bringing with it the perfume of the spring flowers from the vase by the window sill, but also allowing in the various aromas that drifted up from the city below. The stench of rotting fish from the docks vied with the heavenly scent of freshly baked honey-bread from the market. The acrid scent of the previous night's cooking fires combined with the intoxicating fragrance of the incense used in the Temple of Haelyn's morning service. Even the distant stink of the city stables, located on the other side of Proudglaive City, could be detected if one was determined enough.

None of this mattered to Marlae Roesone though, it was just the normal atmosphere of morning in her city. Sitting on a high backed chair near the window, the young baroness' attention was fully occupied with the latest reports from across her realm, hand delivered by her seneschal earlier that morning. In quick, if somewhat untidy handwriting, she scribbled a note on one of the pages, before placing it to one side and turning to the next document, a report about raiders in the province of Ghoried. She sighed, putting down her quill for a moment, and rubbed her tired eyes.

It was times like this, when the weight of paperwork required to run a realm like the Barony of Roesone began to get to her, that Marlae wished that she could just toss it all in, climb onto her horse, and ride off across Anuire, seeking adventure wherever she might find it. But she couldn't do that, not when there was no-one suitable to take over the responsibility of her realm, and not when the Seneschal, Gaered Biersen, was waiting in his office for word on the day's festivities. For today was the Day of Rebirth, the festival that celebrated the end of winter, a very important event among the common folk of Roesone. It was a day when the cold of winter was forgotten and everyone, commoner and noble alike, joins in the celebration of the arrival of spring.

Marlae had never been one for revelry though, a trait she shared with many of her ancestors. Those few who could still remember back to the earliest days of the Barony often compared Marlae's temperament to that of her great-grandfather, the infamous Daen Roesone, more commonly known as the Black Baron. Nearly eighty years ago now, Daen carved the small realm out of the lawless provinces that lay between the two great powers of Diemed and Aerenwe, and then later fought off both duchies to forge his own kingdom and found the Roesone line. He had been a brutal and violent ruler, perfectly suited to the times he lived in, when the young nation had been forced to fight for its very existence against the might of Diemed's armies. Marlae's nature was tempered somewhat by a touch of mercy and compassion, but beneath the surface lay a strong and unyielding personality, determined to do whatever was necessary to ensure the survival of her nation.

She had inherited more than just Daen's temper though, she also resembled him in other ways. Although both her parents had been of a slight build, Marlae was a tall woman, nearly reaching six feet in height. She possessed the Roesone trademark blue eyes, but, unlike her more immediate family, her hair was a thick mane of tangled black strands, contrasting with the neatly combed light-brown hair of her brother and cousins. To many, this had been seen as a good sign, an indication that the young baroness' possessed the spirit of her famous ancestor and many hoped that Marlae could restore Roesone's fortunes and lead the Barony into greater prominence. Marlae only hoped she could live up the expectations of her people.

Pushing the pile of reports and other papers aside for a moment, Marlae stood and walked across to the window, staring out at the city below. From her study window, located near the top of Blacktower Castle's highest tower, she could see almost all of Proudglaive, the city stretching down the hillside to the very edge of the Spider River. Proudglaive was a small city by Anuirean standards, housing perhaps ten thousand souls during the peak summer months, but it always looked big to Marlae, even after she had seen the splendors of the Imperial City and the other great cities of the Heartlands. She had been bought up here, playing in the courtyard of the castle as a child, and then later, when she was older, sneaking out of the postern gate to spend time with friends in the city. Now she was baroness, charged with ensuring the safety of all ten thousand of Proudglaive citizens, and nearly eight times that number spread across the rest of the Barony.

Marlae wondered if she was truly cut out for ruling such a vast nation. She had experienced these feeling before, but had dismissed them as nervousness over taking up the title, or as the effects of grief over her fathers untimely death late last year. Now they had returned, and Marlae wondered what she should do. She had been trained well in the skills of a ruler, sitting in at her fathers side when he held his court since the day she had been old enough to walk. Vaesin Isilviere, the old general from the county of Fairfield, and a distant relative of the Roesone family, had taught her well in the arts of battle and combat. She was commonly held as one of the better warriors in Roesone, second only to her distant cousin, the famed adventurer Arvuor Raemel.

So why then did she feel this emptiness deep inside her. Nothing seemed to hold much excitement for her any more, and the days had just become filled with long hours of signing reports and settling disputes. Perhaps she longed for adventure, or maybe it was just company she was lacking. Ever since she had taken up the title of Baroness of Roesone, Marlae had been alone. Her old friends, some who had been with her since childhood, were suddenly distant, or even worse they suddenly expected her to be able to help them out of every little problem they got into. She longed for someone to sit with and talk to, an equal who would respect her for who she was, not just because she was the baroness.

She wasn't the only one to notice this either. Last week, her little brother Daenal, in his usual joking manner, had commented on her lack lustre attitude towards the upcoming festival, mentioning that perhaps she should consider marriage, even offering to introduce her to some of his friends, most of them minor nobles who had sworn fealty to the Roesone family. Marlae had rejected that idea though. It wasn't a lover she needed, but a companion, someone to listen to her problems and help her through the tough times. She didn't imagine that she was going to get that through any arranged marriage with someone she could never love.

With a despondent sigh, Marlae turned away from the window, leaving the common folk of Proudglaive to their cheerful morning activities, and turned back to her work. The report from the count of Ghoried on the recent goblin raids was on top of the stack and Marlae picked it up and began to read. It seemed fairly standard, goblins out of the Spiderfell, the dark woodlands to the north of Roesone, had raided one of the northern villages, carrying off two villagers and several cows before the local militia turned out to drive them off. She was about to write an order authorising increased patrols in the region, when an idea struck her. Picking up the report, she left her study, taking the stairs two at a time as she headed for the Seneschal's office on the floor below.

Gaered Biersen, a rotund man in his forties, with elegantly styled blonde hair and flamboyant clothes of the latest fashion, looked up as Marlae entered. He appeared a little surprised to see her, but quickly hid his surprise in a ready smile. "Good morning, Baroness. I did not think you would be finished so soon."

"I'm not," Marlae told him, tossing the sheet of parchment down on the table. "I want you to organise a trip to Ghoried. I haven't had time to tour the province yet, and with this recent raider activity, it might be a good idea to travel there and examine the situation."

Gaered quickly scanned the report. "I see," he said finally. "Surely this could be left to Count Denoered. His militia can take care of a few raiders."

"I'm sure they can," Marlae agreed. "But I want to get out of this castle for a while. Ever since father died, I've been stuck here trying to get everything under control. I'm sick of talking to emissaries from Aerenwe and Diemed, trying to settle disputes between the guilds and everything else that seems to need my presence. Besides, it wouldn't hurt to show the standard. Perhaps we could make a big thing of it, a tour of all the northern provinces."

The Seneschal scratched his chin, considering this for a moment. Then he nodded. "That does seem reasonable, Baroness. There are several matters that do need your attention, especially in Ghoried and Bellam. I can draw up an itinerary for you, so you put this trip to good use." He paused to pull out a fresh sheet of parchment, and dipped his quill pen in a pot of ink. "When would you like to leave?"

"How about today?"

Gaered frowned. "But it's the Day of Rebirth," he said, a worried edge to his voice. "The people will be expecting you to make an appearance at the festivities. I've arranged meetings, and there are contests you have to judge. If you leave now, the people might think that you don't care about them, and then there are the priests. They will be will be most upset and you know how they are about festivals. I heard that High Prefect Armiendin from the temple of Haelyn has been preparing for his evening sermon for a month. He made the trip up from Ilien especially to perform the ceremony. It's the first day of the new year, and...."

"All right!" Marlae exclaimed, a half smile on her face when she realised that Gaered had convinced her to follow his suggestions yet again. "I'll stay for the festival. But I want to leave first thing in the morning. Arrange an escort of bodyguards and send a messenger to Count Denoered to let him know I'm coming."

"Of course, My Lady," Gaered said, with an answering smile. "I shall send a fast rider to Ghoried before the day is out and arrange accomodations for you and your party during your journey. I will also speak to Lord Noelon and organise an escort. It will need to be large of course, what with the possibility of raiders from the Spiderfell. I'm sure old Tal-Qazar would love to get his hands on you."

Marlae grimiced at the mention of Tal-Qazar, the ancient goblin king who ruled the Spiderfell. The old monster had been the bane of her people for many a year, constantly raiding the northern provinces. Despite her concern over the goblin hordes, Marlae shook her head at Gaered's suggestion. "Not too large an escort," Marlae warned him. "I don't want it to look like I'm leading an entire army across the countryside, especially in the current political climate. Baron Tael is just waiting for an excuse to invade Bellam province and I'll be damned if I'm going to give him any excuse to do so. Ten men should be fine, but maybe you could request a priest from the temple of Haelyn just in case."

"I'm sure that won't be too difficult. The High Prefect has been preaching the need for increased representation of Haelyn's temples in Roesone, so he will agree to any request that get him the ear of the court. If you're not careful he might even agree to accompany you himself."

"I hope not," Marlae groaned. "Try to discourage him if he suggests it." As Gaered wrote furiously, the parchement filling with neat lines of script, she slowly backed away from the desk. "Anyway," she continued. "I'll leave you to make the preperations. If you need me I'll be in the great hall, preparing for this stupid ball we are hosting tonight."

Gaered looked up at the mention of the ball. "I assume you met with Lady Keller yesterday?" he asked, recalling the meeting he had set up between Marlae and the famed dressmaker from Avanil, the large kingdom in the far west of the continent. A frown crept across his face as the Baroness was less than forthcoming with a confirmation. "I spent nearly a week arranging her visit," he continued, a faintly irritated note to his voice. "Not to mention a considerable amount of your money convincing her that a frontier barony like Roesone was worth a visit. You are a noble of Anuire and, Haelyn willing, may one day even be in a position to make a claim for the Iron Thone itself, and you still insist on wearing this... this..."

"I'm comfortable like this," Marlae cut in, before Gaered could finish.

The Seneschal eyed Marlae's drab clothing, turning up his nose at the worn trousers, and the plain woolen shirt covered by a red tabard displaying the Black Hart, the symbol of Roesone. Compared to his own garments, crafted from the finest Khinasi silk, the Baroness seemed underdressed for one of her statue. Gaered knew that Marlae prefered things this way, but he also knew that if she was to be repected by the other nobles who ruled the realms around Roesone, she needed to look the part. "Go and see her," he said firmly. "The main ceremony doesn't begin until midday and the ball isn't until sundown, so there is still time for you to arrange suitable attire. Just promise me you'll speak to her."

"All right, I'll do it," Marlae agreed finally. "But I'm not going to enjoy myself!"

With that last comment she spun around and left the room, shutting the door a little harder than necessary as she left. She grumbled to herself as she marched down the stairs toward the hallway that led to her private rooms. She wasn't really angry with Gaered, just annoyed at having to finally accept some of the trappings of her high office. Despite having been bought up in her father's court, she had never really been taken with the accepted norm for Anuirean ladies. Sitting around all day sewing and doing embroidery was not her idea of fun, although she knew that it was the way the most people expected her to behave. Since an early age though, she had always been more interested in the more male dominated pursuits, taking up the sword when she was only five, and learning to ride a horse like one born to the saddle.

Her rough way of doing things hadn't damaged her relationship with the common folk so far. In fact, if anything, it had done just the opposite, striking a chord with the down to earth farmers and ranchers who made up most of Roesone population. But she knew that in the courts of the Heartlands, things were very different indeed. She couldn't imagine one of Avanil's perfumed nobles being at home in the stone rooms of Blacktower castle, or riding a horse across the moors just for the joy of feeling the wind rushing through their hair. Marlae knew that there were some things she was going to have to give up though, especially as she sought to gain new allies in the western courts. The constant threat from her neighbours, especially the powerful Baron Tael to the north, who had made no secret of his desire to expand his already extensive holdings, meant that she needed allies, preferably one of the large nations like Avanil or Brosengae.

Marlae sighed, again wishing that she could just escape the pressures of her office. There always seemed to be some threat, or problem lurking just over the horizon. If it wasn't the spring floods, then there were goblin raiders in the north, or Tael's spies sneaking around the mines in Bellam. Running the barony seemed mainly to consist of solving a series of never ending problems, with little time for herself, or anyone around her. In the six months since she had been Baroness, Marlae couldn't recall one time where she had actually spend a day by herself. Still there were some benifits, she thought with a smile, looking forward to the hot bath that awaited her in her room.

Reaching the bottom of the stair's, Marlae turned down a corridor that led past the library to her personal quarters, an expansive series of rooms that covered nearly a quarter of the castle's third floor. The halls were quiet this morning, a direct contrast to the frenzied preparations taking place in the Great Hall, just below her. One of the servents, who's name Marlae didn't recall, bowed low as she passed, nearly dropping the stack of towels he carried in his haste. The Baroness nodded briefly in his direction, before heading on her way. She realised that that brief moment of recognition would probably be the highlight of the young man's day, but to her, he was just another faceless servant, someone who did all the work that was deemed beneath her station.

Marlae wondered who decided that for her. When she was younger, she had thought nothing of snatching meals in the kitchens, or chatting with the maids, but now it was as if a barrier had been erected between them. Every time she met her old acquaintances among the serving staff now, there were bows and curtsies, but no actual warmth. Certainly some of those who had been closest to her, like Harold, the head of the serving staff, still spoke to her in friendly tones, but the rest remained cold and formal in her presence, as if they were no longer allowed to be her friends. She supposed it had been like that for her father as well, but wished that she had been given more time to settle into her position before it had suddenly been trust on her on the same day her father had died.

The thick iron door that announced the seperation between her quarters and the rest of the castle loomed before her. Lost in thought, Marlae walked straight past the two guards who waited outside, barely even noticing their murmered words of greeting. As one of the guards closed the door behind her, Marlae paused, looking around her study. It was still decorated the same way her father had left it, although she didn't use it herself, prefering the tower room to this place with all its memories. She still remembered the many days she had spend here at her father side, especially after her mother died giving birth to Daenal. It was here she had learned the art of governing the barony, although at no time during her childhood had she ever learnt how to cope with the lonelyness she now experienced.

A large painting of her great-grandfather dominated one way and Marlae stared at him for a moment, wondering if he had ever been lonely. Probably not, she decided. Daen Roesone had been a notorious womaniser, not to mention a drunkard and a braggart, but even he had eventually found someone to share his days with, the lady Saraele Elin. It had been an arranged marriage, but Marlae had read Daen's old journals and knew that they had eventually come to love each other. She wondered is the same could happen to her. Her brother Daenel certainly seemed to think so, but Marlae wasn't so sure. She had always thought that there was only one love waiting for her, a special someone that would be with her forever, even beyond the great void and into the realms of the dead.

Shaking her head, she dismissed those thoughts. She didn't have time to think about such things right now, not when the indomitable Lady Henrita Keller awaited her presence. Leaving the study, Marlae headed toward a smaller inner door. Beyond that door lay her bedroom, which like the study had once been her father's, but unlike the study, she had made considerable changes since her father's death. While she had preserved the study as it had been, mostly to keep some small part of him nearby, she could not bare to sleep in the same bed where her father had once rested.

Old Aeric, her tabby tomcat, looked up briefly as she entered the bedroom. He purred a greeting, before settling back into his comfortable resting place on Marlae's soft bed. She gave his head a quick scratch before leaving the cat to his dreams of chasing mice along the corridors of Blacktower. The Roesone's had always had an affinity with the barony's feline population, and Marlae was no exception, although Aeric was the only cat that currently resided inside the castle proper.

She looked across the room and noticed with some pleasure that her bath had been prepared. In the two hours since dawn, her servants had cleaned the room, made her bed and drawn a bath of piping hot water in readyiness for her return. She shook her head in amazement yet again, wondering how they managed to do all this and still stay out of her way. She never kept any set time for her baths, but somehow the servants always managed to have it ready. It was one of the few benifits of being the Baroness of Roesone.

Stripping off her clothing, she slung it over a chair near the bed, realising that by the time she emerged from her bath, it would have been replaced, probably by identical garments. Then she walked naked across to the steaming copper tub, drawing the thin curtain across to give herself some privacy and then climbed into the hot water. Settling down in the bath, Marlae allowed herself to relax, enjoying the wamth of the water as it gathered around her body. Baths were her one secret pleasure, the one short time she allowed herself each day, where she could put the troubles of the day behind her and just relax. The troubles of her life could wait for later, until after her bath.