Black Queen's Gambit - Part 7

Two-Decker camp was an unusual arrangement, with the campfire next to the trail, and a couple of small tents nearby, but a larger tent was up on a rise further away. There really wasn't enough flat space in either location for all the tents to be pitched together, so it was the best anyone could do.

Being right on the trail, and one with a bear patrol to boot, you'd have thought it would have been unpopular with the bandits. Pala had remarked, however, that she'd have to clear it every few days. Apparently there just weren't many alternative sites they could use, so they kept coming back to this one.

"The only other one I know of is right up at the top of Gnoll Mountain," she'd told him. "I never bother going up there, as you can't do anything but turn round and come back. If there were any bandits, they'd have nobody to steal from. And my job's to keep the trails open for travellers. None of them would go that way, so I don't."

Clark knew that this was likely to be the last night he had Morgiah and Rinnala to himself. They'd probably reach the Morrowind border the next day. Morgiah had apparently abandoned her idea of departing at random, in favor of making quicker progress. Although he expected they'd camp before going across, it was likely they'd meet their guides for the next part of the journey.

They were apparently thinking the same thing. The two women were whispering to each other, and glancing in his direction. He wondered what they were cooking up between them. He turned back to feeding the campfire, and awaited their decision.

He woke up on a bedroll in the tent, with his hands and feet securely tied to the tentpoles.

"Rinnala was just saying how lucky she was that the Orcs had sent you to look after her," said Morgiah. "Too good to be true, was how she put it. And that made me think it might just have been too perfect. And then suddenly, it all made sense. You weren't sent to guard us, you were going to kill us. So before we kill you, you're going to tell us who sent you on this job."

Clark needed to stall for time. "If that was the plan, why would I have waited this long? We've been travelling alone for days. I've more than enough chances to kill you before now, if I'd wanted to."

"Well, I assume you were having fun when we .. had fun, and didn't want that to stop. But that wasn't the only reason. Tomorrow would be the ideal opportunity to blame the Camonna Tong for the killing."

"This isn't Morrowind, even if we are getting closer. Where would I find anyone from that bunch here? They're not creatures or undead that can just be summoned. And if I wanted someone else to blame, there have been enough bandits."

Morgiah was silent for a while.

"He doesn't know, does he?" Rinnala accused her mother, who was looking a bit perplexed.

"Know what?" asked Clark.

Morgiah didn't anwser, so Rinnala did. "About the guys from the Camonna Tong that are going to take us across the border. They usually smuggle skooma, but they'll take anything that pays. They're waiting at the next camp."

Rinnala glared at her mother, who was pacing at the entrance to the tent. "Don't interrupt me, I'm thinking" Morgiah snapped at her.

After a short amount of further pacing, Morgiah apparently came to a conclusion, and turned to address Clark. "I told you at Atrene Camp that I assumed you'd been sent to see to Rinnala's needs. I'd asked the Orcs to get us a guide, but I know Rinnala would have mentioned her wishes as well. And I think you were being honest when you told me that your local knowledge was more important than your fighting ability. At least,for getting us across Cyrodiil. So most of your actions on this trip have been above board."

"But I'd had far too much of a good time myself to think that was just a coincidence. I like to keep a cat as a pet, and it amuses me to see the way they play with a mouse when they catch one. I was starting to think you were just playing with your prey."

"I'm so sorry I misjudged you," she wailed and started to untie him. Rinnala started to help her mother but was shooed away. "No, I've to apologise properly. You go and make our supper while I make amends."

When Rinnala left, Morgiah brightened up. "That didn't end too badly. I've got you to myself after all!"

Clark was starting to wonder if this hadn't all been Morgiah's plan all along, but he said nothing about that. What had him more interested was this Camonna Tong connection. He'd always thought that House Hlaalu had good relations with them. It made sense that they'd be involved with smuggling the two across the border.

What didn't make sense was that they'd suspect him of trying to blame their murders on them. He didn't see who'd gain from that. When he got the chance to ask Morgiah, she didn't know either. But anyone who wanted to weaken House Hlaalu would try to drive a wedge between the two, wouldn't they?

"If we were still in Wayrest, I'd have suspected Elysana, but she's got no interest in the affairs of Firsthold or Mournhold. They're just too far away to affect her."

She'd considered Indoril and Redoran, too, but the only motivation there would be revenge, and there would be no need to involve the Cammona Tong. Morgiah was convinced there was some other faction involved. Perhaps the one that was causing unrest in the Summerset Isle, whoever they were. Those people had something really big planned, she was sure of it.

"And I was wrong, wasn't I?", she admitted. "You weren't trying to harm us. But I'm still not feeling safe until we get to Mournhold."

She wasn't changing her plans to go with the Camonna Tong tomorrow. Clark had already told her he didn't know Morrowind, and they did. Especially how to get across the border, now that the Valus Passage was blocked.

Clark had heard Ystrel's story about the Mythic Dawn that had captured her there. The Champion and Pala had rescued her, and tried to hide the torture instruments they were intending to use. She'd seen enough to have nightmares for weeks after that. It made him think about what he'd been told of The Beautiful in the Summerset Isle. Had that been what happened to the King of Shimmerene's daughter? Was there any connection between The Beautiful and the Mythic Dawn?

Rinnala's voice interrupted his musing. Supper was ready.

"What will you doing once you get to Mournhold?" he asked them as they ate. "We haven't heard a lot from Morrowind, and I've no idea of the situation there. Are you sure you won't just be turning round and coming back?"

"A lot depends on how secure my brother's hold is on the Hlaalu territories. I've heard that the Daedra devastated some of the other houses, and their neighbours are fighting over the remnants. I expect those areas will remain unstable for a while, but Mournhold itself should be safe. Redoran has problems with Skyrim, so they won't be an issue until they get those sorted out."

"Helseth renouncing the slave trade has caused major changes, hasn't it? I thought Hlaalu was among the most dependent on their slave workforce."

"Possibly, but I think it was inevitable that he'd need other sources of trade than agriculture. And it kept him dependent on House Dres for the slaves. They mostly arrived by boat, around the coast, where Dres was in control. That move changed the balance of power, as much as the Daedra had. I doubt it bought him much support from Elsweyr and Black Marsh, but it might keep them neutral."

"Mother will probably want to stay in the city, but I'd like to travel as much as I can," Rinnala stated. "It wasn't safe to leave Firsthold, even without the Daedra at our door, and this trip across Cyrodiil has been an eye-opener. I want to see more of the countryside, and they tell me Morrowind has scenery like no other province."

Clark glanced over at Morgiah, expecting her to tell Rinnala that it wouldn't be possible. But, instead she just shrugged. "Maybe, we'll have to see when we get there."

"I've not been to Morrowind yet," Clark told Rinnala, "but I've heard others say the same. If you do get to travel, write and tell me about it."

"I'm not sure that's a good idea," Morgiah interrupted. "What if someone intercepts the courier? Then they'd know where she is."

Clark could see two flaws in Morgiah argument. "If they knew where to intercept the courier, they'd probably already know where Rinnala was. And I'm not suggesting she sign her name and let the world know. If she writes anonymously, it will just look like any tourist writing home about their travels."

"If you two want to keep in touch, I'd want a more secure method than writing letters," Morgiah insisted.

"I might just know of one." Clark saw an opportunity here that he hadn't expected. He described the flash signalling system that Uzgash had devised. "We'd need to deliver one to you in Mournhold, but then you or Rinnala would have a way to communicate with me that you could trust to be secure."

"Whoever operates it would need to be someone trusted, but that's the same as trusting a courier. And Rinnala would have to come back to Mournhold to use it, but that's not an issue." He could see that Morgiah had figured out that it would make Rinnala dependent on her for the use of the machine, and she liked that. Rinnala might also have seen that, but she wasn't saying anything.