The Tales of Lady Gwenllian
8. Ambassador Gisela
Due to the recent attempt on his son’s life, Staffen Conzaga decided to send his children away from him for their safety, choosing a different location across Historica for each. Distrustful and crafty by nature, Staffen sent false ‘official’ word of the locations and travel plans of each of his children ahead of them to confuse potential attacks. Only his daughter Gisela stayed behind in Varlyrio, but even this was a ruse. After a few weeks at home, Gisela set off to attend a concert of one of her favorite Nocturnian bands who were playing a show in Avalonia. She traveled light, and by all appearances, she was only going to be away for a few days. However, Staffen had secretly met with Gisela and her bodyguard Mohatu, directing them to attend the heavily guarded concert and connect with the many lords in attendance to secure a safe location for Gisela to reside while Staffen ruthlessly hunted down the source of the attack.
Gisela was annoyed: she did not fear assassins and felt that she could take care of herself. She was not about to disobey her father when he was so furious, but she had little intention of begging some foreign lord for shelter while her family was under attack. Thus, she saw an opportunity to go to a concert, have some fun, and return home ‘unsuccessful’. She took one of her father’s nicer ships (loaded with all the comforts of home) across the sea, accompanied by her bodyguard Mohatu and several servants. Her ship anchored in the mouth of the Afondraig Riverat the fledgling rural community of Prenmôr and here she had attended a concert of The Rolling Bones. The concert was heavily guarded due to the number of nobles in attendance, and had drawn a huge crowd from across all the guilds. Gisela had enjoyed herself and the music, happy to be anonymous for a night, lost in the crowd.
She hadn’t made a great effort to meet with the lords and ladies as she was more interested in listening to the music. The few she had met were from impoverished communities in Avalonia, the frozen wasteland of Mitgardia, or the desolate sands of Kaliphlin, none of which were appealing to her. At the conclusion of the concert, when Gisela had searched for accommodations for the night, she had found that this area was terribly underdeveloped, without a single inn or tavern yet. Faced with the unappealing choice of demanding shelter of some dirty peasant family or spending the night on her ship moored in the river, she chose the latter.
In the morning, she had a mind to set sail back home, but, being the astute politician, had thought the better of it and decided to meet the local lord of this new community. Although she had no interest in asking the lord for a place to live, she had learned at an early age that it paid to make as many connections as possible, particularly among the nobility, in the case there was an advantage to be had. After all, this lord had put on the concert, so it was possible he was better connected than one could assume.
After the servants had rowed Gisela and Mohatu to shore in the ship’s dinghy, Gisela had to make her way through the unseemly campsites of the peasantry who had attended the previous night’s concert, being careful not to dirty her skirt. Inquiring where the local lord might be, she had been directed to some temporary housing on the large elevated rock outcropping that overlooked the ocean, river, and the fields below.
Without a carriage, and without a nice, paved Varlyrian street, she was beginning to regret her decision to make the climb when she finally reached the top. Several neat wattle and daub, timber-framed, thatched-roofed houses, surrounded by roughly hewn wooden fences, sat in a disorganized fashion near a well. Filthy peasants were delivering stone from a nearby quarry to new foundation footings being set for structures of some sort. Gisela set aside her distaste for the rough living conditions and made her way to the largest of the houses that bore the green flags of Avalonia, assuming that belonged to the lord. A little peasant girl in some low-cost clothing was on the side of the house feeding chickens, and a few soldiers were in a side yard practicing at swordplay.
She bade Mohatu knock on the door, which he did without complaint. He stepped back, resting a paw on his sword hilt while keeping one eye on the door and the other on the soldiers to his right. A moment later, the door swung open, and a rather pleasant lady greeted them. She wore the green colors of her Avalonian lord, but Gisela was a little taken aback that she was wearing pants rather than the more proper skirt or dress. She hid her surprise well as the lady addressed her.
“Well met, m’lady,” she said in slightly accented Avalonian speech. “What brings you here this fine morning?”
Gisela ignored the unrefined direct manner of the lady, replying with a polite Varlyrian greeting. “I bid you a good morning. I am Lady Gisela Conzaga of Varlyrio, and I seek the lord of this house. Is he home?”
The lady seemed amused at this notion. “Indeed m’lady, there is no lord of this house, but a lady, and she is here.” She gestured with an open hand to the two soldiers at practice.
Gisela directed her attention to the soldiers practicing melee in the soft earth that doubled as a pig pen and quickly understood, surprised yet again. With their helms and armor on, she had a hard time deducing which one was the lady of the house, as both wielded their arms with terrific skill and force.
The woman in the doorway led Gisela and Mohatu across the yard to the edge of the pig pen’s fence. “M’lady Gwenllian!” she called out, and the fighting stopped. “Lady Gisela Conzaga of Varlyrio is here to see you!”
Both combatants walked over to toward Gisela. The taller of the two wore full plate armor with a visored helm and wielded a hand-and-a-half bastard sword in a single hand like it was a matchstick. The other more slight individual wore a closed helm with scale mail under a green Avalonian tabard and carried a mace. Gisela assumed the latter was the lady of the house due to her stature, but it was the other who sheathed the massive sword and strode forward to the fence, shooing a pig out of the way with a gentle shove of the foot. With practiced hands, the helm was quickly unlaced and Gisela was confused when a cascade of long, dark red hair flowed out of the helm as it was removed, to reveal a sweaty, smiling face of a woman in her mid 30s.
Tucking her helmet under her left arm, she removed her gauntlet and glove, pushed some wet red hair out of her eyes, and extended her hand to Gisela in a warrior’s greeting. “Well met, Lady Gisela,” she said with the same slight accent as the other woman. “I am Lady Gwenllian. I see you have already met my Lady-at-arms, Lady Seren.”
The usually unflappable Gisela actually hesitated a moment from shock, and started to curtsey before realizing that she had best return the greeting offered her. She took Lady Gwenllian’s hand to shake as she had seen her father’s warriors do many times before. She immediately noticed the feel of Lady Gwenllian’s hands: they were callused and incredibly strong, like the hands of a smith or a soldier, having obviously known hard work, and were not the smooth hands of nobility she was so used to. She sensed Mohatu stiffen ever so slightly to her side, not entirely sure of this strange and potentially dangerous woman. If Lady Gwenllian was at all distressed by an armed lionel standing before her, she didn’t show it. Gisela had always been tall for a woman, taller even than some of the male soldiers of her family’s home, but Lady Gwenllian matched her every inch and then some, standing several inches over six feet, with broad, squared shoulders and a muscular frame. She looked imposing in full plate armor, but her rather plain face and inviting smile put Gisela at ease and she quickly regained her senses.
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Lady Gwenllian,” Gisela began formally. The handshake ended and Lady Gwenllian smiled as she continued. “I am of the house Conzaga from across the sea in Varlyrio. I attended the concert last night and wished to meet the lord of these lands before I departed.” Pausing a second, she added, “The concert was quite lovely, and I greatly appreciated all of your effort in sponsoring such a lavish event.”
Lady Gwenllian held her hand up. “I am glad to meet you, but I cannot take credit for the hard work of my household and the villagers that put up the stage and trappings you see below.”
Just when she didn’t think that she could be more surprised, Gisela was. Here this noblewoman was giving credit to peasants? For labor they were supposed to be doing anyway? What?
“How generous of you,” she offered. “I’m sure that you had many hours of planning involved."
Lady Gwenllian smiled again. “Your compliments are what is generous,” she said with a laugh. “How about some tea? May I offer you a drink and a place to sit while we talk a bit?” She gestured to her house.
“Thank you, I would be honored,” Gisela replied. She followed Lady Seren as Lady Gwenllian clanked into the house in her armor. Inside, the home was neat and tidy, or at least as much as a dwelling with a packed dirt floor and an open thatched roof could be. She found herself somewhat put off by this sparse, rural dwelling. The two-story house had a fire pit on the bottom level that fed heat into the upper level by means of a hole in the floor above that formed a sort of balcony. Lady Gwenllian led Gisela upstairs, which had a wooden floor, and offered her a chair while she doffed her armor on a stand near her bed. Gisela wrinkled her nose as she carefully wiped the chair off with a handkerchief before sitting. Mohatu took a post not far behind her, standing.
“What’s your family business?” asked Lady Gwenllian rather bluntly, as she looked at Gisela over her shoulder while continuing to remove portions of her armor.
“We are vintners, growing some of the highest quality grapes and fermenting some of the best wine in Varlyrio,” Gisela replied.
“Very nice,” replied Lady Gwenllian. “I am originally from Albers, and my family were brewers.”
Suddenly, everything was clear to Gisela. She remembered hearing of the land of Albers, far to the north of Varlyrio and west of Avalonia, across the sea. She recalled that Albers was a matriarchy, with families ruled and inherited by the first-born woman. She had always been fascinated with tales of this land as a small girl, wondering what it would be like to have the kind of power and respect her father and brothers did. She never thought anything past it being just a fantasy, however, and had forgotten about it as she grew up. The revelation that here, in front of her, was a real-life example of her childhood imagination was exciting: an intelligent, confidant, and capable lady who was completely oblivious to the male-dominated culture that she was now a part of. Gisela’s disgust with the backward, dirty village and home was temporarily lost as her interest was now piqued: this was no widow of some male lord, holding down the household until another man came along to marry her, as Gisela had assumed. No, this was the noble in charge around here, and it opened many new possibilities in Gisela’s mind.
“We have not yet had a harvest,” Lady Gwenllian continued as she sat down across from Gisela, wearing her sweat-soaked dark green tunic and heavy breeches. Lady Gwenllian leaned back in her chair and crossed her legs as Gisela had seen her father do so many times before, but rather than seeing his fancy shoes, she saw a muddy leather riding boot crossed on Lady Gwenllian’s other knee. “But we hope that our first will offer enough wheat, hops, and oats to brew some ales and lagers this winter. One of our first priorities is our brewery, after we finish the forge for our blacksmith, of course."
The same small peasant girl Gisela had seen feeding the chickens earlier arrived with some tea as Lady Seren joined Gisela and Lady Gwenllian. Gisela then understood that Lady Seren was not a servant, but a minor noble of sorts herself, as the Lady at Arms and seneschal of Lady Gwenllian’s household. The serving girl then interacted with Lady Seren in a way that made Gisela realize that she was not a serving girl at all, but the daughter of Lady Seren herself. This household was full of surprises!
The conversation devolved into some discussion of the Conzaga family fermentation process, something with which Gisela was familiar but by no means an expert, so she confidently fabricated the details she didn’t know. When Lady Gwenllian began explaining the brewing process (which Gisela really couldn’t care less about), Gisela was more interested in the plain and direct manner with which Lady Gwenllian spoke. It was clear to Gisela that there was a great opportunity here: Lady Gwenllian would be underestimated by almost all the men who met her. Combine an underestimation of Lady Gwenllian’s ability with an adversary’s overconfidence and it would spell disaster for anyone who opposed her, and by extension, be a boon for those allied with her.
For her part, Lady Gwenllian was similarly impressed with Gisela. She had been happy that a young lady had the temerity to approach her without a man (even if she was wearing a dress), something that had not yet happened since she had arrived in Avalonia. Listening to Gisela describe her family’s business, Lady Gwenllian realized that Gisela was extremely socially adept and that she was likely very good at something Lady Gwenllian was terrible at: politics. Lady Gwenllian’s direct nature, while beloved by the peasants of her land, had not been particularly well-suited for the court in Albers, relegating Lady Gwenllian’s family role to more physical activities like swordplay and jousting while her mother and sisters played political games. With the rest of her family having been murdered in Albers, Lady Gwenllian was now on her own and her household had a need for a shrewd politician. She thought that Gisela might be a great liaison for the neighboring tribes, communities, and fiefdoms, so she tried to steer the conversation in a direction to interest Gisela into staying. Little did she know that Gisela was already thinking along the same lines.
“It’s not much now, but we have some designs on turning Prenmôr into a thriving community and a strong outpost. Lady Seren has already drawn up plans for the castle itself, along with some sketches for the surrounding lands.” She turned to Lady Seren. “Lady Seren, if you could please bring the parchments, I would like to show Lady Gisela the construction that is underway.”
Their tea finished, Lady Seren rose to collect the plans, and Lady Gwenllian tossed a chain shirt over her tabard, fastening it with a belt. She led Gisela and Mohatu downstairs and outside. Lady Gwenllian motioned to the man she had been training with, who was sweeping up. “Chwyd, go fetch my sword,” she directed him. The man diligently scurried off without complaint. Gisela smiled to herself at the thought of male servants carrying out her every whim.
“I prefer to be prepared for any eventuality,” Lady Gwenllian explained as Chwyd and Lady Seren returned. “You never know when you will be called on to fight.” After fastening on her sword and scabbard (much to Mohatu’s chagrin), Lady Gwenllian led Gisela around the grounds, showing her the foundations of the buildings in progress. Lady Seren walked alongside Lady Gwenllian as an equal, holding the unfurled scroll of parchment with the plans for the castle as Lady Gwenllian pointed out the areas where different parts of the fortress were to be laid and discussing the military strategy for each. Gisela did not have a formal education in engineering or military tactics, but it seemed to her that these two women knew what they were doing and had spent a great deal of time planning the strongest possible fortress.
Lady Gwenllian stopped by the foundation of the blacksmith’s forge that was underway. “As you can see, we have some way to go, but by setting a priority, we will build the most important logistical and defensive structures first.” She looked around the high plateau, then back to Gisela. “I am in need of a strategist and liaison with the neighboring communities. We are surrounded by humans, elves, dwarves, hobbits, and other races, all of whom we need to trade and collaborate with in order to flourish and remain safe here. As we are a new community, we cannot yet bring great leverage to the dealing table, so we need someone practiced in negotiation to help provide as favorable a position as possible for Prenmôr. You strike me as such an individual. Would you be interested in taking up the position of Prenmôr’s official ambassador? At present, I cannot provide vast wealth, but I can assure you a living wage, room in my personal residence and such comforts as the area allows, plus travel to the neighboring communities and whatever entertainments and victuals accompany these, until such a time as our permanent residences are constructed.”
Gisela paused a moment to take everything in. “May I have a moment?” Lady Gwenllian nodded, and Gisela took Mohatu aside. Gisela assumed that he would be displeased with the lack of fortifications of the area and would try to bring her to a safer area per her father’s instructions, so she was determined to force her will on him. “We shall be staying here. I know you’re going to argue that it doesn’t have high walls and all the troops of Varlyrio, but my father’s instructions were explicit that I find a lord willing to take me in until this family trouble blows over. I expect that you will send word to my father that this area and this lady are acceptable,” she finished with a pointed look.
Mohatu held up a paw and shook his head. “My lady, I shall take no convincing and will wholeheartedly report that this area is secure. What it does not have in high walls and fortresses, it more than makes up for in its obscurity. With a population this small, outsiders will be noticed immediately, making it difficult for assassins to blend in, and this geographic site,” he motioned with his paw around the plateau, “provides a vantage over land, sea, and river, making it impossible for an advancing army to take the area by surprise. These ladies have done well in selecting the most defensible position, and while the lady herself,” he said, inclining his head toward Lady Gwenllian, “regrettably does not have a bodyguard, she looks… formidable,” he finished with a low growl and an almost begrudging respect.
Gisela was pleasantly surprised, although she never let it show to her bodyguard, and smirked after turning away from Mohatu. She returned to Lady Gwenllian. “I accept your offer and the position as Ambassador of Prenmôr. I have a few household servants and my bodyguard Mohatu, who will require residence here.”
“Of course,” Lady Gwenllian replied. “I will have space made for the servants with the rest of my household. Mohatu,” she turned to him, “you shall have a place downstairs in our residence with Lady Seren and her daughter Alis, while Gisela and I shall share the upstairs.”
That settled, the servants began transferring Ambassador Gisela’s possessions from the ship to Lady Gwenllian’s home, and Lady Gwenllian’s household began making room for the entourage to share space with them until their permanent residences could be built. Gisela looked around the plateau, taking in the salt smell of the ocean, watching the gulls soar on the sea breeze and the peasants busily toiling away on the land below. Yes, this was going to be the beginning of a very profitable relationship.