The Rift Valley is a pleasant place – if you like being wet – welcoming – if you enjoy grumbling moaners – and quiet, for the simple reason that no cartographer hadn't deigned to pay the least attention. There was a wide deep valley between two high plateaus where fog contrived to settle down summer and winter alike. The agriculture and construction required a special skill; reason why its annexation to other kingdoms had been shelved. Its neighbours shamelessly ignored it... at least they ignored it until the day Samyr Delarre, a sales representative, proclaimed himself to be king of this charming country. Natives, too happy to see someone finally arrive to take care of the bumf, welcomed him with open arms. Much good may it did them. Samyr didn't lack imagination and knew an impressive number of synonyms for the word tax. He also had a clear vision of his environment and the location of the Rift Valley gave him an amount of profitable ideas very quickly. Indeed, his new kingdom formed a bottleneck between those of Alor and Praline: north and south, the Rift Valley was overlooking the Sea of Forgetfulness. Tradesmen had to cross their land. The seaway was to be avoided, due to the presence of unsightly reefs that took pleasure in impaling the first ship to reach them. So, overnight, there appeared entirely new concepts such as customs fees, export taxes, rights of way ... In a few months, the Rift Valley went from darkness to light. The leaders of the Border Kingdoms moaned against the situation they were in part responsible of, but yet, as few were willing to engage in a battle with uncertain results, they paid the amounts claimed. The Riftese then saw their lives improve and King Delarre constituted a perfectly acceptable icon, even for a former sales representative.
Ermengarde Courtbouillon progressed through the streets of Solviche, the capital of the kingdom, like a hurricane on a small scale. The strange woman, wearing a very strict black dress, dispersed the many passers-by who fled her trajectory like startled sparrows. The witch paid no attention. Since the time she held entering this position, she had obtained a long experience. It had been fifty years since the amazing bun of her grey hair received the Alissandre Stones, the symbol of all witches. She was also the Guardian of Sacred Columns, the Oracle of Renewal, the Elect of Disembodied Spirits, the Recipient of Primary Elements; and a half-dozen other secondary titles that she herself had forgotten. In brief, her social scale weighed as heavy as her short temper, as saying her charming fellow. About what they weren't completely wrong.
Ermengarde arrived at the royal castle at the end of the morning. It was more of a vast manor than a castle, but the king was very fussy about the designations of official buildings. The guards didn't flinch when she walked past them and Lorin, the chamberlain, stayed well away from the woman he was escorting. Accustomed to her unbearable walking speed, he outran her in the outer court and led her to the lodge of the Queen; a domain exclusively reserved to the sovereign. The witch was really the only one to have the privilege to enter. Lorin opened the door and stood aside to let her in and then he closed. The old woman, familiar with the place, crossed the small lobby, sparingly decorated, to get into a room to merge weapons, armor, shields and other typical utensils usually used by seasoned warriors. Queen Elya, a young athletic woman with short black hair and the eyes of a clear green, interrupted her work. She was cleaning a beautiful rapier pommel decorated with a dragon spewing flames. Her visitor didn't bother to bow and sank into a comfortable chair.
“Hi, yer lordship”, she dropped, adjusting the cushion wedged behind her back.
The sovereign showed little offence at this blatant disrespect of the protocol. Repeated bows banged on her nerves, and in the matter, the old woman was refreshingly simple. Elya preferred it, probably because she came from a modest family. She readjusted her very simple housecoat, before greeting the one that had always held the role of counsellor.
“Hello, mistress Courtbouillon. Thank you for coming.”
“You pulled a face”, noted Ermengarde.
“You definitely know me too well.” Elya hesitated a moment before declaring. “Jalya seems to be back.”
The witch frowned, as if this revelation required an intense reflection from her to grasp its meaning. She remained silent for a minute before reacting.
“Huh!” She spat, rubbing the inside of the ear with the tip of a finger. “I knew he was stupid, but not to that point ...”
The Queen was hardly surprised by her reaction. Although Jalya was a dangerous enemy, no one would frighten the woman whose full set of titles in witchcraft would give migraines to most talented Chamberlains. No, the problem he posed had nothing to do with that.
“He is in my country, so! What a cheek!” added the old woman, outraged.
“I think he wants a particular object.”
“I'm sure of it! You've left items everywhere in the kingdom!”
“I had no choice ...”
“Oh, I know! I don't criticize, not my style.” Queen Ermengarde observed a moment. In her eyes still shone the flames of the fierce warrior she once was. “You've gone through a lot of work, I can't deny it. And this moron will not step on my toes.”
“I would have gladly accompanied you, but the king is suffering. I have to run the kingdom until his recovery.”
“No reason to bore you with a trifle. I will kick his behind in no time.” She stood up and rearranged her dress, with a nasty look. “No way he is putting the mess in my kingdom!”
On this statement, Ermengarde left the room to her usual fast pace and the queen listened to the sound of her boots dwindle little by little. There was no need to give her safety advice. Despite her temperament of a white hot volcano, the witch never made the mistake of underestimating a threat. Recklessness was, from her point of view, a defect as despicable as stupidity.