A Picnic

The nightmare came again; the mysterious man cutting a bloody swath through her spear sisters, noone able to lay a blow on him, getting closer and closer to her until finally they face each other woman to man. He disarms her with ease, pushes his face up to hers, and says "may I buy you lunch?"

Luralee sat bolt upright in her bed, pulse racing, palms sweating. Gustav. That's what he called himself. She could still see his face. Strange, for usually she was able to push the nightmare image straight back into her unconscious where it belonged.

"I'm sorry, did I wake you?"

Panic brought on by the nightmare was quickly subsiding and she managed to surpress the urge to scream. The apparition in front of her wore Gustav's face. It spoke with his voice.

"I'd like to speak with you some more, without a horde of your friends dropping in uninvited this time. Are you free for lunch? Meet at the White Hart tavern?"

Luralee felt mentally numb. Fortunately the part of her mind that dealt with such mundane tasks as scheduling manged it's job without her conscious intervention. "We're on maneuvers right now. The day after tomorrow's the earliest I can make it."

"Done. I look forward to meeting you again."

* * * * *

Luralee felt quite the fool as she dismounted in front of the White Hart tavern. She had reported the conversation to the Captain, although she couldn't convince herself it wasn't just a new twist on her old nightmare. The Captain had been dubious at first, but grew more serious as Luralee told her tale. Finally she decided Luralee should try to make the meeting. "In the unlikely event this character does put in an appearance we can't afford to loose track of him again. I'll speak with the Mistress of Scouts." The Captain's father had been from the Midlands, Luralee remembered now, and took supersticious omens and their ilk far too seriously.

Luralee let out a sign of relief as she entered the tavern and saw no sign of Gustav. A glance at the grandfather clock in the corner told her she was early, so she settled herself at a corner table and comtemplated ordering a glass of chilled apple wine. not something the White Hart was particularly known for but the whole region was known for their apple wines so she was unlikely to go wrong.

A tavern boy carrying a large basket was coming in her direction, and Luralee had decided to send him off for the wine when he stopped and placed the basket directly in front of her. "What's this?" she asked.

"Some venison pasties, a roast duck, leg of lamb, loaf of dark bread, apple butter, strawberry tarts, and three bottles of apple wine. The man this morning said you'd be by to pick it up. Said it's for a picnic lunch. Don't worry. It's all paid for."

Luralee frowned. "Did he say where I should be meeting him?"

"Oh, right," said the boy as he fumbled in a pocket and handed her the somewhat crumpled piece of paper he drew forth. Unfolding the paper, Luralee saw a short set of precise directions.

"And how did you know it was me you were to give this to?"

Reluctantly the boy reached into another pocket and carefully drew forth another piece of paper, this one holding the image of Luralee in what looked to be colored pencil. The boy stepped back as Luralee reached out for it. "He said I could keep it" the boy said defensively. "You're very pretty," he added. With an inward groan Luralee said "All right," and lowered her hand. The boy scampered off for the safety of the kitchen while Luralee grabbed the basket and headed out to find her luncheon companion.

* * * * *

It took her much longer to reach her destination, in large part because she had parted from the given directions and taken an obvious shortcut and needed to backtrack considerably to find her original path, but at last Luralee found the elusive Gustav sitting on a sun drenched rock with drawing materials to hand. Uneasy at the unexpected landscape, she left Edsal to graze the rich grass which appeared to continue unbroken to the horizon while she took picnic basket hand and set off to confront her nightmare.

"You're here. Good. I was beginning to wonder if you were coming at all," Gustav said as he took the offered basket and examined it's contents.

"Well, I'm here. What did you want to talk about?"

"Relax, we've got plenty of time to talk later. One should never talk business over food. It tends to dull the palate." Gustav had by now extracted a pair of elaborate goblets from his saddlebags, filled them, and handed one to Luralee. "To new friends," he toasted then set about attacking the roast duck.

"So tell me about yourself," he had asked her. "Not much to tell," she had started, then got drawn into telling of her years as a wasteland tough, struggling to make a place for herself in the local militia, and the triumph she felt when her efforts resulted in an invitation for her to take a place in the Unicorn Brigade. As she talked she kept reminding herself 'He said he'd talk about business later. He intends to try recruiting me as a spy. I have to play along and find out what he's really planning.'

It was well into the afternoon before talk finally turned to business. Luralee was starting to wonder it it ever would. This Gustav character had asked her a lot of questions, some of which where of the sort she had been expecting. He asked about the general numbers and training of the Unicorn Brigade, and made some shrewd guesses about tactics and training. She gave him back answers which didn't reveal more than a network of careful observers would observe. He seemed satisfied with this. The rest of the questions were not of military significance, and these disturbed her all the more; questions about culture, history, religion, politics, geography, and trade, which would already be quite well known to the enemy. These Luralee answered truthfully, not knowing what they were leading to and fearing to be caught in a lie. The business he talked about, when she finally realized they were discussing it, was litterally that. He literally wanted to know who to talk to about a foreign owned trading business.

"Look," Luralee retorted angrely. "I really don't know why you're asking me about all this. I'm a warrior, not a merchant. You'd be better off asking someone back at the tavern about the business end of things."

"I have," Gustav answered her in a gentle voice, "but the Midlands is a landlocked land under military occupation, and ..."

"We are NOT an occupying power!" Luralee practally shouted.

"... and nobody there has ever been as far as the Serre mountains, let along crossed them to visit your capital, Daigo." Gustav finished.

"We are not an occupying power," Luralee repeated in a more conversational tone, "our army remains in the Midlands only to defend them, because we know the old invaders will return. We must be there, and ready to repulse them."

Gustav shrugged. "That's reason one. The second reason for talking this over with you and not an tavern owner is military."

Luralee's ears perked up at this comment. Gustav could almost swear Edsal's had as well.

"Your army is a peacetime army, and it suffers from it the way all peacetime armies do. None of you have ever been in a real battle. All of your training is against people who've had the same training as you. You've never the need to innovate or the practical experience to know what innovations will really work." Gustav looked over at Edsal for a moment, then back to Luralee, trying to gauge how they'd take this next bit. "Now, I'll have to talk with my sister about this, but her army has taken some heavy losses recently, and she might be interested in an exchange where some of you spend some service time in her army in exchange for further training and practical field experience."

Luralee held breath and slowly counted to ten, trying to restrain herself from killing this man for such an impudent suggestion. Finally her rage settled and her brain kicked in. "Your sister?" she asked.

"My sister," Gustav answered. "She's the one with the martial bent in the family. She commands the armies of Amber. If you think there's a chance your council might agree to such a deal I'll mention it to her." Remembering that this man had managed to best her and her sister with just a stick and a few rocks, Luralee felt a strong desire to meet this sister of his. "I'll have to talk it over with my superiors and get back to you." Gustav nodded his approval. Edsal just continued to stand there, thoughtful and curious.

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