The two rode together, the tall, muscular warrior with a broadsword slung across his back and the fair, chestnut-haired woman in a simple tunic. Rhys digested all that Elana told him as they rode.
“There is a white dragon flower grove about five kilometers north in a narrow valley. It is a hearty stand in a self-sustaining bog. It is exactly what I am looking for.” Her self-satisfied smile told Rhys she was very pleased with herself. “I was able to verify the medicinal potency.”
“You’ve done well,” Rhys acknowledged. “I just wish you hadn’t slipped out on your own. Your cover requires that you act the part of an indentured bondmaid. In fact here, you are one. Deserting the caravan in this country is both a serious offense and dangerous; and not only that, you took a horse.”
Elana sighed and cocked her head. “Look, I’m trained in woodcraft, and I have excellent equestrian skills. If I had waited until we got all the way to Westlyn, I’d have never had the chance. I had to do it.”
Rhys pursed his lips in a frown. These off-world women. They just don’t understand. This is Pendragon. It was a different planet with a different type of society. It was like nothing in the Federation. As a native, Rhys believed that the planet’s path was with the Federation, but Pendragon’s culture would be slow to change—-and the Federation did not interfere with native cultures. They were interested in raw materials and trade, not domination.
“We are getting close. They are camped over that rise. Here, give me your hands.” Rhys pulled a short strap from his saddlebag.
Elana was puzzled. “My hands? Whatever for?”
Rhys sighed. “I am bringing you back as I was tasked. You are an escaped bondmaid, and I managed to catch you. That’s our story. We must both stay in character. I’m afraid the next hour or so will not be pleasant for you.”
Elana tossed her head and looked at Rhys quizzically as he tied her hands in front of her. “What do you mean?”
“You are due a switching for running away,” said Rhys rather matter-of-factly, as he finished cinching her hands.
Elana gasped. “A what? Switching? What are they going to do? Wait! I didn’t run away.” Everything tumbled out at once, and she visibly shivered.
“Well, as far as the caravan master and old Luther are concerned, you did.” Luther was the head cook and her ostensible master. “But one thing’s fortunate—maybe.”
Elana stared at Rhys, wild-eyed. “And what is that?”
“Since they gave me the job of hunting you down and dragging you back, I’m the one who’s to give you the switching—and I think I will make a good job of it, for your sake. There are things you need to learn about Pendragon.”
* * *
Elana could only gape at Rhys’ broad back as he led her horse toward the waiting caravan and her promised switching. She’d had no idea. Despite being told of the cultural differences between male-female relationships that she was used to and those on Pendragon, her mind had refused to acknowledge that a man on Pendragon might actually assert his authority over her. After all, she was not some primitive barbarian. She was a highly trained field botanist. Only four days ago, she had been inserted on Aeolia 4 for this mission, her identity as a Federation agent a secret. Her mission parameters had seemed clear, but how things had changed.
* * *
Star Federation ship, the Bellera—two weeks earlier…
“It’s very much a male dominated society,” said Commander Drake. “As women, you’ll be treated according to their customs and culture. Just understand that, ladies. Mr. Crane, you will have to act just like men typically do on this planet. You’ll find they lack the sophistication of men on New Terra. The way they relate to women is a bit more… well, primitive, shall we say.”
Elana Courset listened intently. This was her first assignment as an agent in the Federation’s diplomatic corps. Technically, she was not a diplomatic agent. Rather, she was a botanist and biochemist assigned to the Bellera, a Federation starship on a diplomatic mission to Aeolia 4, an earth-like planet in the system of the star Wolf 359. It supported a population that numbered now in the millions. The natives, distant descendants of the original colonists, called the planet “Pendragon”, after the ancient royal family of Old Earth.
Another woman on the team was Jessica Blix. Elana did not know her well. She was supposedly a special agent with Federation Special Forces, an elite combat group. The man was Trevor Crane, a Federation diplomatic agent. The word on board ship was that he was actually a spy, a specialist in blending in with the various cultures of colonists populating the Federation. The third woman was Julia Rogan, a specialist in earth’s history and cultures of the diaspora.
Drake pointed to a map. “Our interest is in the central continental land mass, especially the mountain coves and valleys. That is where there are groves of white dragon flower, red thistle, and other highly potent medicinal plants.”
Elana understood the importance of that. These were much sought after.
“The problem is there are three factions that vie for power and claim territory on this land mass. The kingdom of Westlyn is generally friendly and seeks to establish trade with us. But Westlyn is bordered by Harkovia. The Harkovians are a war-like people and suspicious of off-worlders of all types. They want the planet isolated and may use this as an excuse go to war with Westlyn. There are old territorial disputes that date back centuries. But they won’t be strong enough to do this, hopefully, because of a wild card in the deck.”
Drake brought up an image on the screen of a beautiful young woman. “This is Princess Penelope de Granville of Westlyn.”
Elana studied the young woman. She was about nineteen and gorgeous, with a heart-shaped face, green eyes, and long, cascading reddish blonde hair. The sex appeal of the young woman was striking. She was a knockout. There were even a few low whistles from the men in the room.
“She is betrothed to Prince Edward Greyling of New Norfolk, the third kingdom on this continent. If she does marry Edward, Norfolk and Westlyn will be united, and Harkovia will have to stand down because it has no chance against the combined forces of these two kingdoms. So you see, it is very much in the Federation’s interest that this marriage takes place. Alfred de Granville, her brother, has engineered this. He and Edward are friends. Both were educated in Port Sarum university together, trained for knighthood together, and were rangers on the Harkovian border.”
Elana said nothing; she just nodded, perusing the map. Westlyn was a strategically located kingdom on the south end of the continent, the capital a seaport on the edge of an island archipelago. The plants were in mountains to the north and west. On the other side of the western mountain range was New Norfolk.
Commander Drake continued. “In the Great Diaspora at the end of the twenty-first century, the population of Old Earth dispersed in a thousand directions. These pioneers colonized distant worlds, bringing Earth culture with them. While many prospered, some crash landed on habitable planets and had to struggle to rebuild, and still others scuttled their ships in an attempt to establish utopian societies that would live without technology.”
Elana had read her history. It was true, and she also knew that some of the populations in the new worlds had vowed to live simply, without computers or modern machinery. They had all failed. But this planet had remained hidden from view for over seven hundred years.
“Aeolia 4, or Pendragon, as the natives call it, is one of the latter. Originally these colonists sought to create a utopian communal society that would live off the land, without technology. We suspect that their ships were destroyed or scuttled, leaving them no choice but to make do with what they had.”
“But in the seven hundred years since landfall, they have managed to farm, build cities, and create societies without modern technology, returning instead to an agrarian or hunter-gatherer model, using only the land and hand-made tools. They have made their way back a bit, but they have gunpowder now, and they also have rudimentary steam engines and hot air balloons. Crude hydropower is on the way.”
“But there is a dark side. The utopian society gave way to infighting among factions. The colony split up and warlords emerged. Fights over territory became common. What their society has evolved into now is an advanced form of feudalism, with kingdoms that have territorial boundaries, and within those, different cultures and religions.”
“It helps that Aeolia 4 is a fertile, temperate planet with long growing seasons. Both Westlyn and Norfolk are roughly equivalent to pre-industrial Europe of Old Earth, technologically speaking. Politically, New Norfolk more resembles a theocracy with power split between the king and the religious order. Harkovia is modeled after the cultures of Old Earth’s northern Europe, like the Danes. They live in the north. It’s a harsher climate and they are a harsh, warlike culture.”
Drake continued. “Even with primitive technology, disease here is low, and that is the consequence of the natural herbs and plant life. Obviously, the Federation has a keen interest. Now Westlyn, it seems, is changing. It is the more progressive state. In exchange for a treaty, they want medical technology. They have the native medicines in their plant varieties, and we have the extraction technology.”
“But the Harkovians are suspicious, and the Church in New Norfolk doesn’t like it at all. The prelates fear that outside influences will dilute their power. The Church may be hostile to the planned wedding because it enhances Westlyn’s power. The archbishop, a man named Gregori Leister is, we believe, opposed to any contact with off-worlders and the Federation, despite his frequent public pronouncements to the contrary. He is not to be trusted.”
“Where do we come in?” asked Elana.
“You are all to be inserted undercover. We have local agents on Pendragon, and you will be under their care. Prince Alfred of Westlyn is one and is a strong ally. He is, in many ways, the new face of Pendragon. Jessica will be working with him. She will be a handmaid to Penelope until the wedding. Her job is to protect Penelope from any danger that could come from inside.”
“You, Elana, are a bondmaid, an indentured servant to a merchant trader. Your job will be to survey and catalog promising flora for medical applications and to report on what you see and hear along trade routes between Westlyn, New Norfolk, and Harkovia. Your contact and protector is Rhys Hollander, a friend and confidant of Prince Alfred. He is a ranger, a type of roving marshal for caravans and on the borderlands.”
“Mr. Crane is being inserted as a tutor hired out of the university at Port Sarum in Westlyn. He will tutor the daughters of a Harkovian noble, Baron Frederick Von Ryn of Danska. He has no sons, so he wants his daughters to be well educated so they can help him to manage his lands and estates. He is an important military leader and would have a role in any conflict with Westlyn. Trevor will be our eyes and ears in Harkovia.”
“Julia will join the Benefice Sisterhood of the Universal Church of Atonement in New Norfolk as a novitiate from Westlyn, a new convert. The Benefice Sisterhood is a female religious order that supports the Church. She will monitor the activities of the Church, and Archbishop Leister in particular.”
“Communication is limited. It’s too dangerous for Julia or Jessica or Elana to carry communicators. But Alfred of Westlyn will be given two, one for himself and one for his agent who will accompany Elana. Mr. Crane will have one, as well as other equipment.”
“You mean the natives are to be given communicators, but not us? We’re to be dependent on them?” asked Elana.
“That’s right,” said the commander. “Except for Mr. Crane. If they found something like this on you—a mere woman as Pendragon culture views you—it could go very badly.”
She smoldered under that “mere woman” comment. Well, she’d see about that.
“Now the bad news. You’ll be on your own for a month. Operational Command has cut orders that we are to travel to Beltrain’s World to pick up the ambassador. When we are back in orbit, we’ll make contact, but until then, you will have to maintain your cover and complete the mission.”
It was one thing to be down there with the ship hovering in orbit and all that technology at their disposal. It was another to be left on their own, with the communicators in the hands of these uneducated barbarians.
“Well, that’s the overview. I’ll now turn you over to the ship’s computer. You have a lot of training audiovisuals to review.”