19 The Casselberry Event

The Lady of Bon Abbi sat still as Dali braided her hair. She gathered a section and separated it into three parts. Weaving them together, Dali took another handful of hair and repeated the process.

Before long, Eva wore a simple but elegant crown of braids, with her hair cascading down. “There,” Dali said. “You are ready for the evening’s ceremony in Casselberry.”

Eva stood and hugged Dali. “Now, if can you only do something about my eyes. Traveling all day to Neardore and then attending the reception in the evening will tire me out.”

“Do what you can to sleep along the way. It’s not ideal, but it will help.”

“That is good advice,” Eva agreed. “I can’t tell you enough what your support has meant to me.”

“Nor, I yours!”

Dali looked at Eva’s choice to dress modestly. She wore a white tunic with contrasting trim and a brown overdress worn by most farming women. “Are you sure you want to arrive in Neardore looking like a Miller’s daughter?”

Eva smiled. “I’ve never been to Neardore, let alone Casselberry. I suspect very few there have ever met someone from Bon Abbi. We’re a farming community. That’s what they should see the first time we meet.”

Nodding her head, Dali agreed with her sentiments. “Then you may not like what I’ve selected for you to wear at the Event. I’ve had them store several dresses and other travel things in the carriage.”

“The carriage?” asked Eva.

“Come outside,” Dali said, walking out of Eva’s chamber. She led her down the stairs, through the parlor, and out the front door. A covered black carriage with red trim waited for her. Painted on the door was a profile of a Dragoon against a shield.

“Where did you get this beautiful carriage?” Eva asked.

Dali placed her hand on Eva’s back and guided her over. “This was wasting away in the Tuva barn. The villagers cleaned it up and got it ready for you. One of them came up with the Dragoon crest.”

Eva beamed with delight. Two Shire horses, sixteen hands tall, dark with a shining mane and tail, were ready. These were working draft horses, known for their strength and beauty. The Shires had long, feathering white hair below their knees and hocks.

She came over and patted the horses. “I chose the Shires for the same reason you wear your dress.”

They laughed and hugged. An older man, dressed in a black tunic, white trousers and boots came running from the kitchen. “I’m sorry I made you wait, my Lady.”

“You didn’t make me wait,” said Eva with a slight bow.

“This is Bashan from a village close to Alder Woods called Henley. And these are his magnificent animals.”

He opened the door to the carriage and bid her enter. Eva turned to Dali, thanking her again. “It’s been a day since Josah left. I’m sure he wouldn’t approve of me going to Casselberry, but I must try to bring peace. I hoped to see Graybard before I left.”

“Don’t worry about him. He doesn’t want you going to Casselberry and made sure you knew it. Gray is either sulking in the barn or waiting for the Blue Door Pub to open.”

Eva investigated the carriage and saw someone sitting inside. She turned to Dali with a questioning look. “I’ve asked someone from Tuva to go with you to Neardore. Her name is Gira. She’ll keep you company and make the time pass faster.”

Eva suddenly felt unsure, questioning her decision to go. She whispered to Dali, “What if Graybard is right, and I’m putting myself in danger?”

“There is no doubt going to Casselberry is dangerous. Never be alone while you are there. Have Gira stay by your side. Be unpredictable and keep Luka off balance, as Graybard told you once.”

With one last hug, Eva entered the carriage. She greeted Gira, who sat with her back to the horses, dressed in simple garments. Her traveling companion had light, shoulder-length hair, brown eyes, and a soft complexion. Eva could see her excitement through her bright eyes and a wide grin.

Dali looked in for a moment. “Eva, my son, and I are coming to stay in the city. Someone will take over my duties at the pub in Tuva. I’ll be here by the time you return.”

Eva smiled and nodded her head. “Until we return.”

Shutting the door, Dali signaled Bashan to start the journey. Eva leaned forward, trying to look through the glass in the door. “My Lady,” Gira said. “I have laid a blanket for you should you get cold.”

“Thank you, Gira,” she said while spreading the blanket over her lap. “This journey will take us all day. So please call me, Eva.”

The Shire horses pulling the freshly painted carriage to the Square was a sight to behold. Dali, standing outside the Manor, smiled when she heard cheers coming from the Square. All Bon Abbi came to wish Eva Marie farewell.

The Ruelanders worked on the gates as they had disassembled and leaned them against the wall. They paused long enough to wave as the carriage went through the opening.

As the wheels of the carriage announced passage over the bridge, Gira expressed her joy. “I have never gone beyond Sui Saor.”

“Well,” replied Eva, “I’ve never gone beyond Midland, so we are both in for surprises. Tell me something about yourself.”

Gira blushed for a moment. No one ever seemed to acknowledge her presence. “I live in Tuva, working for Dali doing kitchen chores. She asked for a volunteer to travel to Casselberry with you.”

“I see,” Eva said. “So, how did Dali choose you to go with me?”

Hesitating, the farm girl said in a quiet voice, “No one else volunteered.”

Eva Marie looked away. “Oh,” she replied.

“But I wanted to go with you! Desperately so.”

Looking into Gira’s eyes convinced Eva she meant every word. “Did Dali tell you why I’m going to Casselberry?’

Gira nodded. “Yes, and that I was to stay by your side. ‘These are dangerous times’ was what she said to me.”

“And you didn’t change your mind?” asked Eva.

“No,” she replied. “I wouldn’t expect you’d remember me, but I attended Lord Rando’s ceremony. That’s when you spoke, last planting season. You inspired me to do more than kitchen work.”

Eva squinted her eyes, trying to recall her words. Gira couldn’t wait to tell her. “You told everyone that the measure of success in one’s life is not by how long you lived, but by how well you have loved.”

Hearing those words from someone else made them sound more eloquent to Eva. “I waited, looking for an opportunity to serve Bon Abbi,” Gira continued. “I never dreamed it would be today, serving you.”

The honesty this farm girl expressed refreshed Eva’s spirit. It made her hopeful that the trip to Casselberry would be fruitful. Eva reached for Gira’s hand and squeezed it. “Then let us make our time together memorable!”

Gira got up and sat next to her. She slipped her hand around Eva’s arm and said, “I know we’ll become good friends by the end of this journey.”

Without prompting, Gira told Eva how she came to Bon Abbi alone. She was old enough to remember her father paying someone to take her to the city.

“My father said he would join me when he could, but I never heard from him again.” Sadden, for a moment, Gira smiled and added, “He must have known Bon Abbi was a safe place to be.”

Gira talked most of the way to Midland. Eva grinned at the appropriate time to disguise the real reason she smiled. Dali knew someone like Gira would keep her distracted. She let the farm girl speak freely.

The midday sun declared they reached the city early. The draft horses whickered a low, throaty sound, as Bashan waited for the Midland guards. Once approved to enter, he drove through the gates and brought the carriage to a stop near the first stable.

“My Lady,” he told Eva as she stepped out of the carriage. “Neardore is but a few hours away. Gira can take you into the Square, so you can eat and refresh yourself. Dali provided me with enough coins for this journey. Let the merchants know I’ll exchange the coins for food and drink.”

This time Eva wrapped her arm around Gira’s. “Are you ready for an adventure?”

The young girl nodded. Bashan laughed as he watched Gira drag Eva through the doors. He rubbed one of the horses, as he lifted its front leg. Dislodging a stone caught in its shoe, he released the leg before straightening up.

Pulling the reins down, Bashan looked into the horse’s eyes. “Nester, I’m supposed to keep Eva Marie safe. But who’s going to protect our Lady from Gira?”

Josah sat outside under the coverings in the courtyard. The sea swelled out in the distances, rocking the ships docked at the Rona Island pier. Winds swirled from the north, cool but not cold, before shifting from the east.

He found comfort on Rona Island. High terrain stretched from the east to the west like a horseshoe. Leveling off at the compound called Baile Sona, the flatland continued to the pier. The cliffs on the backside protected the island from would-be intruders from Liez.

Captain Munro came outside to join the restless young man. “You know, Josah, she needs time to process everything.”

“I understand,” he replied. “But we are running out of time.”

Sitting on a barrel that never moved to storage, the Captain stretched his leg. “Did I ever tell you why I named this place ‘Baile Sona?'”

“No, sir,” Josah responded, not clear why the name mattered.

Munro chuckled slow and steady before it turned into a roar. “We lived in Liez long ago. I hated every moment. But Yeva’s family lived there too. So I worked doing anything for anyone who paid me in coins.”

Josah grinned, trying to image Captain Munro doing something other than sailing. “How did you end up here on Rona Island?”

“Ah, that ‘s the story I’m telling you now. When merchants exchanged coins for my work, I put some away. Before I knew it, I had a hefty sum, enough to buy a place for Yeva and me.”

He combed his fingers through his hair. “But there wasn’t anything I could buy that felt right. While loading a ship right there in Liez Bay, I heard a captain saying he wanted to sell this island.”

“Why would he sell it?” asked Josah.

“Well, now,” said Munro. “The island had nothing on it. There was no house or pier, only trees, and rocks. But that didn’t matter to me. Buying Rona Island would keep me from living in the city. So I bought it, costing me every coin.”

He stood, looking around the compound. “I bought it from Treynor McKanzel. I’m sure he regrets ever selling it to me. But he needed to pay his tax, and I needed to buy a place to live.”

“I built this house over time, then bought me a small ship so I can get on the island. One ship brought me business, so I kept setting coins aside, then buying more vessels. Over time, I took on a crew who needed a place to live. They helped me build the bunkhouses and pier you see today.”

Josah still didn’t see the connection. “So, why is this place called ‘Baile Sona?'”

The Captain chuckled. “The name means ‘happy home.’ Yeva hated it, told me so every day. She said I should have consulted her before buying the island. Then something happened. She made this place home, and now she would never leave. There is a lesson here if you look for it.”

Before Josah could respond, Yeva Evermore stepped out into the courtyard. She wasn’t like anyone he ever met. Tall and slender, Yeva kept her dark hair under a wrap. The rough land weathered her appearance, but her eyes remained sharp. She commanded every space she entered.

“Josah, you left out some details in the story you told me,” she said.

Wrapping the surcoat tighter against the cool breeze, Yeva leaned over. She whispered into his ear. “Caleb tells me you have a special bond with this Eva Marie.”

Josah felt his face become warm. All he could do was stammer. “No need to say anything. Your actions told me what I needed to know. If I say ‘no’ to this foolish plan to secure weapons, will you stay here or go back to Bon Abbi?”

There was no need to hide anything from Yeva. “I’m going back.”

She ran her hand along the back of his head. “I remember you as a little boy, running everywhere on this island. I know this is home to you, even if you refused to sleep in the house. From the moment I saw you, Josah, I cared for you, as has Munro.”

Turning to Munro, she said, “We protect the ones we love, don’t we?”

The Captain nodded his head. “Then get him some weapons!” she shouted, walking to the door. “I don’t want him defending his love with sticks against swords.”

With one last glance at Josah, she said, “Don’t stay out too long. The food is on the table.”

Yeva went entered the house and closed the door behind her. Captain Munro smiled, pointing to Josah. “Now you understand why I call this place “Baile Sona.'”

The journey from Midland to Neardore was uneventful, as Bashan brought them to the city. The sun was setting as the carriage rolled up to the Grand Hall. Unlike the other centers on Rylie Glen, Neadore had no walls.

There was no need for protection, as Casselberry gates were minutes away by horse. The nobles of Neadore greeted Eva Marie and Gira, quickly ushering them into the Grand Hall.

The welcoming room wasn’t quite as big as Eva imagined but well maintained. There were elegant appointments everywhere placed on wide-planked oak floors. One servant led them up a flight of stairs before reaching the bedchamber they would share.

“You need to get dressed. You don’t want to be late for the Event. It will start soon!” shouted the servant as she entered the room. “Your trunk is on its way.”

The servant curtsied and left to ensure the trunk would arrive as promised. The room was spacious with a welcoming glow from the burning logs in the fireplace. Candles brightened the room, revealing a washbasin, changing screens, and an inviting bed.

A knock at the door announced the arrival of the trunk. Eva thanked the two men who placed it by the warming fire. With nothing more to do, they bowed and left the room. As Eva closed the door, she grinned, knowing Gira could wait to open the trunk.

There wasn’t anything special about the chest, rectangle in shape, and flat on top. Gira released the latch and opened the trunk, letting the lid drop back. She saw three surcoats folded and placed on top with care.

“These are lovely!” Gira cooed. “It’s going to be difficult for you to make a choice.”

“I’ll let you choose first,” Eva told her.

“My Lady, what do you mean?”

“Why, you are attending the Event with me. I have no intention of leaving you here by yourself.”

The young farm girl gasped. She drew out each surcoat and laid it on the bed, then matched the flax linen kirtles. Two were identical, except different colors.

“You must wear this one, Eva, black with lace, a high collar, and hood. The white linen against this mantel will make you the envy of all those who see you.”

Eva smiled. “Which one will you choose?”

“Oh, this is difficult, but I am partial to blue!”

Gira selected the outer garment and held it close to her. The surcoat swept down to the floor, with sleeves blossoming at the upper arms. They narrowed towards the wrists, and then flared to a point. White lacing on the sides complimented the broad trim.

“You’ve made a great choice. I’ll select the sister garment in green. Standing out in the crowd is the last thing I should do.”

Choices made, the two girls washed up and changed undergarments. They helped each other slip on their linen kirtles. Dali didn’t forget anything, packing everything they would need, including shoes. But they were a tight fit for Gira.

“Not to worry,” she said. “No one will look at my feet!”

When they were ready, the girls descended the stairs to the welcoming parlor, and then outside. Bashan escorted them into the carriage and drove them to Casselberry.

There were buildings and markets along the way. Most people retired for the evening. But some stood outside, holding torches or talking by a campfire. When the carriage passed by, they bowed or curtsied, assuming Nobles were in the carriage.

Bashan pulled up to the Casselberry gates, closed and guarded by two men. One of them held his hand up and said, “The carriage must remain outside of the city.”

Bashan hopped down and opened the door, bidding the girls out. “You will have to walk the rest of the way. I can see people entering from where we stand. Follow them.”

Eva’s anxiety rose as she looked through the iron gates. “You will be here when we return, won’t you?”

The driver reached under the bench inside the carriage and pulled out a walking stick. It was the kind Graybard used in his training. “You can count on me being here!” he exclaimed.

Arm in arm, the girls entered through the gates opened by the guards. The city was massive in size, clean, and well lit. Nobles dressed for the occasion ascended the stairs leading to the first building. “This must be their hall,” Gira said.

As they entered through the doors, they heard stringed instruments playing. The long hall had another door on the other end, with people walking towards the center. A line formed as each guest waited for the herald to announce them.

Gira, excited to attend her first reception, squeezed Eva’s arm. The herald dressed in a dark coat with a white linen shirt, ruffled collar, and black toggles. With one hand behind his back, he extended the other to the girls.

“Your names please,” he said without looking at them.

“This is Eva Marie, and I’m Gira from Bon Abbi.”

The herald paused and looked at them before announcing their names. He turned to the room, clapping his hands to get their attention. When the music stopped, and the chattering ceased, he took Gira’s hand and guided them inside.

“Please welcome Gira and Eva Marie, the ladies of Bon Abbi.”

The music restarted as the nobles clapped politely. The girls stood in place as the attendees walked over. They introduced themselves amid curtseying and bowing, one at a time. Gira laughed and looked at Eva. There wasn’t any way they would ever remember the names.

As quickly as the lines formed to welcome them, they parted to give Luka access. “Welcome, my Lady, to Casselberry.” He reached for Eva’s hand and kissed it.

He turned to Gira. “I wasn’t aware you would be bringing a companion.”

“I never travel alone,” Eva replied. “This is Lady Gira of Tuva.”

The farm girl didn’t flinch at her introduction. Luka kissed her hand as custom required, but he wasn’t pleased. “What would Luka say if he knew he kissed two commoners’ hands,” Eva thought.

Looking around, Luka shouted, “Please enjoy yourselves. Play your music.”

As the melody restarted again, servants entered the room from different locations. They carried trays of delicacies and wine in glass vessels, as they weaved through the crowd.

Luka led the girls to his table towards the back of the room. “Let’s sit and talk. Perchance, Lady Gira, would you allow me time to speak to Eva privately?”

Gira curtsied, looking at Eva for a sign, who nodded her head. “Stay nearby, as I may need you.”

Luka looked at Eva Marie with curiosity. “You still don’t trust me. I put together this Event, introduced you to the nobles of Rylie Glen, and you still doubt me.”

He waved his hand to a servant nearby and whispered something. The servant nodded his head and walked away. “We may not be on the best of terms, my Lady, but I will call you Eva, despite your concern.”

Eva nodded her approval. “I almost didn’t attend, but I decided to take this opportunity to speak to you about Bon Abbi.”

Luka tilted his head and nodded. “We are peaceful folk in Bon Abbi,” Eva continued. “We mean no aggression nor pose harm to Casselberry.”

“I see,” he replied. “So, the fact that Graybard is training your people as soldiers shouldn’t be of any concern to me.”

Taken by surprise, Eva admitted they were training soldiers. “But they are for protection and not conquest, my Lord. You’ve been to Bon Abbi. We are a farming community, with nothing of value but land to grow food and raise livestock.”

Luka leaned back in his chair. “Well, that is where you are wrong. There is more value there than your land.”

“What do you mean?” Eva couldn’t imagine what he meant.

“It’s not my place to tell you,” Luka chided. “Ah, here she is, my daughter, Sada Rae.”

He stood up to welcome his daughter. Sada was a little younger than Eva and Gira, with dark hair tied back with lace. Her blue eyes and porcelain skin were enchanting. Luka introduced her to Eva Marie.

Sada curtsied and smiled. “Father has spoken of you often.”

“That’s enough, Sada,” Luka said with a smile. “Enjoy your evening.”

As his daughter walked away, he confessed to Eva that an illness overtook her mother. “I vowed to keep her safe once her mother passed.”

“So, we both have people we want to protect,” Eva told him.

“Which is why I invited you here. Let’s form an alliance between our cities. Together, we can rule Rylie Glen.”

Eva paused before responding. It was clear to her that Luka wanted the island under his rule. “We are already in agreement, as we expressed our desires to keep our loved ones safe. But I don’t understand the idea of ruling the island.”

“Then you aren’t aware of the other cities. Lord Tao of Midland is aging with no heir. Neadore can’t provide for their people, and Southport has become greedy. God only knows what is happening in Northport.”

“And how would an alliance between us change everything?”

Luka inched closer to the table. “All the walls would come down, allowing people to choose the city where they want to live. We could disburse the food you grow to everyone. No one would go hungry. A single army can protect us all.”

Eva shook her head. “That may sound pleasant to the ear, but what you say comes at a cost. Midland would never surrender their city.”

“They’ll have plenty of opportunities to decide. Together, we could convince them that this is in their best interest.”

“And if they decide not to surrender?”

Luka slammed his hand on the table. “Then, we’ll force them to surrender!”

The sound startled Eva. She glanced over to Gira, standing near the table. Shaking her head, she said, “I can’t help you.”

Standing up, Luka stared at Eva Marie, almost willing to try once more to convince her that his plan had merit. But there was something about Eva he disliked. She didn’t fear him as he saw it in her eyes.

Acknowledging that it wasn’t worth the effort, he nodded his head. “Then enjoy your evening. You never know when it may be your last.”

He walked away, ignoring nobles who greeted him as he passed by them. Eva waved Gira over to her. “We have to go now!”

She grabbed Gira’s arm and walked through the gathering. Eva nodded her head as people called her by name, but she never stopped to speak. Pulling up her surcoat, Eva ran to the hallway, Gira following behind her.

“What happened?”

Eva stopped at the doors leading outside. “Luka told me to enjoy the evening because you never know when it’s your last. He threatened me. I don’t think he expected us to leave this early, so we should be safe.”

Gira opened the door and stepped out. “Come one. There’s no one around,” she said.

As they walked down the stairs, Eva found it odd to see the gates opened, but no guards. “Bashan,” she yelled, but there was no one there.

Holding hands, Gira led them through the gates. Eva saw the carriage down King’s Road. Bashan ran towards her shouting something she couldn’t make out.

“What’s he saying?” Eva asked.

It wasn’t long before the girls could hear Bashan. He pointed at Eva, screaming, “Turn around.”

But it was too late. Two men, dressed in black with hoods hiding their faces, caught up and pushed the girls down to the ground. “Which one of you is Eva Marie.”

“I am,” Gira said, lifting herself to her knees, trying to shield the Lady of Bon Abbi.

Without hesitation, one of the men plunged a knife into Gira’s abdomen. Eva shouted as he removed his blade, then placed herself in front of the farm girl. The man swung his weapon, slicing Eva’s left arm, as she deflected the attack.

Before he could do more damage, Bashan came with his walking stick. He brandished it with force, cracking the man’s head holding the knife. The other assailant ran away behind the buildings.

“My Lady, you are bleeding.” He saw Gira was motionless, holding on to her midsection. Scooping her up, he told Eva to stand and hold on to his arm.

With quick steps, he reached the carriage, then struggled to open the door. Eva leaned against the wagon, as Bashan stepped in and placed Gira on the floor. He folded one of the blankets on her stomach.

“Gira, can you hear me?” The farm girl nodded her head slightly. “Press the blanket down on your wound.”

Bashan came back out and attended to Eva. He tore his linen tunic and bound Eva’s wound. “Please get into the carriage. I’m taking you to Midland.”

The driver caught Eva as she stumbled, then helped her to the bench. “I have to hurry,” Bashan said. “They may come back.”

As he stepped out, he looked around but didn’t see anyone. He mounted the driver’s seat, grabbed his reins, and brought the Shires to life. People stood outside the Grand Hall, watching as the carriage rushed past them.

Eva pressed her arm, slowing the blood loss. She slid off the bench onto the floor. Carefully lifting Gira’s head and shoulders, she placed them on her lap. “Keep pressing down on your wound.”

Gira stirred for a moment. “I’m not feeling the pain anymore.”

Sobbing to herself, Eva pulled her closer. “We’re taking you to Sola. He’ll know how to make you better. I’m so sorry I couldn’t protect you!”

“That wasn’t your duty,” Gira gasped. “I was to keep you safe.”

“And you did,” said Eva, kissing the farm girl on her cheek.

Gira looked into Eva’s eyes. “Do not mourn for me, my Lady. I did what I had promised.”

The Lady of Bon Abbi smiled. “Tonight, you have loved well.”

Gira closed her eyes and said, “Then, I must sleep and bid you goodbye.”

Eva wept as she felt Gira’s lifeforce leave. She held the farm girl close, wishing she was the one who passed away. As a healer, Eva knew her wounds were severe and may still cost her life.

All Bashan could do was urge his horses to run faster. He wondered what he would find when he arrived in Midland. Even though he knew his horses gave him everything, Bashan felt the trip took too long.

Arriving at the Midland gates, Bashan shouted for help. The night guards recognized the carriage and opened the gates. Without hesitation, he guided the horses inside the city, pulling up to the stairs.

“Quick, I need help. Someone wounded the Lady of Bon Abbi, and her companion is severely hurt.”

Bashan flung the door opened and entered. Eva slumped next to the bench while the farm girl rested on her lap. The driver saw Gira’s fixed expression, confirming she had passed away.

But he could see Eva breathed slowly. “She’s alive!” he shouted.

He lifted the Lady with care and brought her out of the carriage. “Please, lead me to Sola del Sol. Now!”

One guard stayed with the carriage as the other led Bashan up the stairs. He spoke to Eva as he followed the guard with haste. “My Lady, please stay with me. You’re in Midland now.”

With no strength left, Eva leaned her head on Bashan’s shoulder. “I’m going to sleep now.”

“No!” shouted Bashan. “Stay with me, my Lady! Stay with me!”

Written by Mike Arroyo

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