July 20, 2010

The Price of Sama Valley

This was written principally by me in 1991 from an idea concieved by my then-husband. He was given co-writing credit when the story was published in E.T., an SF magazine published once upon a time by one of our local libraries. As a side note, Conversation with a Computer was published in the same magazine as a two part serial.
The Price of Sama Valley
The mist hung heavy in the air, making it impossible for Stefan to see across the open square. No matter, he knew every crooked and broken stone, and could have found his way blindfolded, even without the fog-muted noise coming from the brightly lit tavern. Silently he slipped around the side of the inn and made his way to the stable at the rear. If he were seen by anyone, custom would force him to stay and tell stories of his trip abroad rather than keep his urgent appointment. As yet, no-one knew he'd returned except the man he was to meet tonight, and his true-father, who'd promised that his horse would be waiting. The stable was deserted, and Stefan opened the last stall he came to. The large stallion was midnight black, and nickered softly as Stefan stroked his nose before leading him out into the yard. He swung himself into the saddle and settled his cloak around him in the manner that would provide the most warmth. Man and beast quietly disappeared into the night. Not until they were well away from the inn did he urge the stallion to greater speeds, and then he did not dare to go slow, for a kingdom lay in the balance tonight. He must reach the cottage on time.
* * * * *
Prince Jalon Komel returned his dance partner to her escort and quickly made his way out of the room before he found himself forced to dance with yet another unattached young lady. True, they were all exceptionally beautiful, but they were also all exceptionally brainless, simpering young girls. Sometimes he wondered if they had any thoughts other than the latest fashion or proper decorum. Certainly husband-catching was high on their list of priorities. One day he would find the right girl to make his princess, but as his father was in excellent health, he had a while yet before he needed to make that choice. Besides, good leadership was as important as good looks or breeding. He let himself out the tall Jamian doors made of many panes of glass, on the flagstone garden terrace and began to wander among the elaborate flower beds in the formal gardens. Jalon was quite aware of the person watching him from the upper window, and tried to make his wandering appear aimless. Actually, he was headed toward the stand of trees that screened off the stables from the house. The moment he was out of sight of the house, he ran to the stables, already beginning to remove his brightly colored dress uniform. Once inside, he completed his change to the plain black leather preferred by common soldiers. Jalon carefully hung his formal clothing on a peg so that he could wear it again when he returned. He did, however, retain his sword, re-fastening it around his waist. A short hooded cape would protect him from the cold mist, ever-present this time of year, and it would also serve to complete his disguise. Swiftly saddling his horse, he led it around to the rear before mounting and galloping away across the fields. He was careful to keep the stables between himself and the house until he entered the woods. As he rode, his thoughts centered on the meeting ahead. Stefan had been raised at the palace, as a companion for Jalon. He felt they were like brothers, and trusted Stefan implicitly. Fredric was Jalon's cousin-heir, and his jealousy of the throne had long been common knowledge. He had often tried to kill Jalon, but the attempts were always so childish that they were easily thwarted. Fredric was not a tactician. There were recent rumors that Fredric had allied himself with the peasant farmers in the Sama Valley, the newest part of the kingdom of Zwa -- having been purchased by Jalon's great-grandfather. He'd been worried by the length of time that Stefan had been gone, nearly a full weather cycle, though the trip itself -- there and back -- would only take two and a half moon cycles. He hoped that Stefan had brought some valuable information back. If solid proof were found against Fredric, they could imprison him, and Jalon would have no further worries from that quarter. Jalon stopped his horse at the edge of the trees and surveyed the clearing. No-one lived in the small cottage, yet the yard was well cared for, the well water was always fresh, and the white picket fence kept in good repair. Older children scared their siblings with tales of a witch who would eat you for dinner if you ventured too near, and rare was the child that dared. Adults scoffed at the stories, but they also tended to avoid the cottage, rendering it the perfect place for clandestine meetings. It was with great relief that Jalon noted the large black stallion tied to the fence, and the rosy glow showing in the window. Securing his horse next to Stefan's, he strode to the cottage, tapped twice on the door, and let himself in. Stefan was standing by the fireplace, in which there burned a hearty blaze. The two men embraced, sharing the warmth of a life-long friendship. Stefan gestured toward a table on which rested a cut crystal decanter of brandy and a pair of empty glasses. "Care for a drink?" Jalon smiled. Stefan had always been one to worry over the small details that made life more comfortable. "No, thanks. I need to get back before I'm officially missed. Jules watched me leave, so I'm sure that Fredric already knows I'm gone. What news do you bring?" Stefan grimaced, and sat down heavily in one of the well padded chairs in front of the fireplace. "Your dear cousin Fredric has been inciting the people of the Sama Valley to revolt against your Father. Not that they need much reason. Have you been up there?" Jalon shook his head, and Stefan continued. "They're little more than slave labor for the personal gain of the royal family. Fredric plans to lead them in battle himself. Their version of recent history is that your Great-grand hired an assassin and killed their king. With no-one left to lead the army, they were easily assimilated, and the land was "bought" cheaply. Their king had an heir, of course, but a baby can't do much to stop an invasion. "The people want their freedom from your family, and to have their rightful king restored to the throne." Jalon turned his back to the fire to warm, and looked at Stefan, his face showing his puzzlement. "So where does Fredric fit in?" Stefan raised his booted feet to the fire, and took a sip of brandy. "Fredric, of course, is the infant prince. Apparently he has a particular birthmark that proves his claim. Your great-grandfather's youngest son felt sorry for him and brought him home as an adopted son. He was raised at court, but his adoptive father made sure that he knew he was the displaced king of a vanquished nation. Sama Valley has already held a coronation and declared Fredric their King. He wants Zwa, too, to avenge two generations of slavery. "He's got an assassin, someone who claims can get close to you." Jalon laughed. "Not possible. There's at least half-a-dozen guards within sound of my voice at all times, as if I don't know how to defend myself. I'm never alone. Stefan smiled. "Beware overconfidence, my friend." Jalon turned toward the door. "I'll be careful. Right now I need to be getting back." Stefan rose and flung his cloak across his shoulders, striding easily alongside of Jalon through the yard. Jalon's hands deftly checked the saddle fittings. As he slid his foot in the stirrup to mount, he felt a sharp pain in his side, and the warm trickle of blood beginning to saturate his tunic. He staggered and fell against Stefan. "Why? My trusted friend -- we've been like brothers." "I'm sorry, my friend," Stefan's voice was soft, his throat choked with tears. Jalon seemed to hear him down the length of a tunnel. "Not all the money in the world would have turned me, you know that. I also learned that Fredric is my true-father. The farmers in Sama Valley are my people, and they need their true king, one who won't enslave them, but grant their freedom." Jalon nodded his understanding and forgiveness before he died. Stefan picked up the lifeless body of his friend and silently dropped it into the well. He turned Jalon's horse loose with a hefty swat across the rump, and quickly left. If it were not known that he had returned from Sama Valley for several weeks, Fredric would be blamed, and likely hung, and he'd have the perfect alibi...