They heard a sound like gathering thunder off to one side. This was rather odd, though, as there were so few clouds in the bright sky. As they stopped to wonder at it, they saw first a cloud of dust off to one side followed by row upon row of horses with heavily armed riders.
The riders all wore helms with giant plumes. Some carried banners, others trumpets, and most had swords or spears at the ready. As the riders approached, Sarai and her friends slowed to a halt. Not far from, the riders stopped, too, and one rode forward.
"What business have you here?" he inquired gruffly.
"We're on our way to the desert, just passing through," Sarai answered. "And how about you?"
The rider seemed somewhat surprised at the question. "We're off to defend our kingdom," he replied. "They used to trade with us, but for quite some time now they've been looting our food stores. Though we have plenty to share and sell, they're no longer interested in trade. What's worse is that they won't sell us the wood from their forests, either. We used to use it in the smokehouses to cure meat, as well as to warm our fires in the winter."
Mandalar frowned, "But how did it start? Why did the trading stop?"
"I'm afraid I don't know - but it must be that they decided they just didn't want to pay a just and fair amount for the food," replied the rider. "And that's when we had to start taking to wood without payment. No reason to try to trade with someone who's stealing from you, after all."
Everyone sat for a moment, until Sarai remembered the goblin king and how he had helped the dwarves and goblins to get along. She looked up with a smile, "So you're saying they don't want to trade anymore?"
"That's right," he said, "and there's no help for it."
"And you would rather go back to peaceful trade than continue this war?" she askeed.
The rider looked back over his soldier at the horsemen gathered. "I've lost too many friends already. If I could end this, I would."
"Suppose, though, just suppose that they did want to trade and would prefer peace to war, as you do. Would you work with them?"
The man nearly fell from his horse with laughter. "And supppose the sun were to rise purple in the north." He paused to wipe a few tears from his eyes and grew serious. "Yes, clever girl, if they prefer to talk rather than fight then we would be happy to oblige."
"Then let us go talk to them and see what we can do," Sarai offered.
A shadow passed over the rider's face as he said, "It won't do any good, and I must see to the defense of our kingdom. But still, your wit might just amuse them enough to try..." He paused to sigh. "Very well. I give you two hours. If you've not returned by then with news, or returned at all, we ride on to the border to take the wood we need."
Sarai exchanged a glance with her companions, and then they swiftly rode off as fast as their horses could run. The horses' breath grew heavy and labored before they finally neared a castle with archers and spearmen lining all the walls. A thick moat surrounded it filled with water, and only one drawbridge lay across.
"Halt! Identify yourselves!" commanded a guard by the gate.
Me: Did Sarai tell him right away or did she try to be crafty?
Elie: She told him right away.
"I'm Sarai, and we want to talk to your king about stopping this fight," she answered. "May we see him?"
The guards looked them over for a moment. "Leave any weapons you have here and you may enter."
Sarai immediately handed him the long dagger she carried. Mandalar took his sword and gently handed it to the guards. "Keep it safe," he said, "for that is no ordinary knight's sword."
To the amazement of the guards, Tiana quickly removed forty seven daggers from all over her armor and put them in a sack. She gave a sideways glance to Sarai who nodded. Then, with a sigh, Tiana took three more well hidden ones and added them, too. The stunned guard took the sack and placed it along with the other weapons.
They dismounted their horses and followed another guard to the king's court. He looked at them sternly and asked, "Are you spies? Are you hear to learn about our defenses from theh inside and report back?"
"No! And you haven't much time to end this war before a great many horsemen attack," Sarai shouted. "Would you rather fight or do you prefer to trade peacfully with your neighbors?"
The king shook his head. "Of course I would rather trade without incident. Too much is lost in war. But they asked for too much for the food we need so we had to take it or our people would starve. Then they attacked and stole the wood so we had even less to trade. Now there's no reasoning with them"
"You can reason with them! They want to trade, too, and I'm sure they'd be willing to talk about a fair price if you're willing to listen. Maybe they had a bad harvest and food was scarce for them, too. Perhaps they had a fire and lost much," Sarai said.
The king regarded her for a moment. "And you're sure they would rather trade than fight?"
"She speaks the truth," said Alatar, and everyone knows that a wizard's word is good. At least when he speaks so plainly, that is.
"Quickly! You only have a half an hour before they cross the border!" Sarai urged.
The king lept to his feet. "Then there's not a moment to lose! Guards, gather as many wagons loaded with timber as you can. We ride as soon as they are ready."
Minutes later, they set out from the castle with a dozen or more wagons. There were only a few guards to ride along with them to show they did not intend to fight. They rode hard, arriving at the border at the same moment as the riders came into view at full speed.
However, when the horsemen saw the wood, they slowed and stopped. The same rider came forward.
"What is this?!" His eyes were wide as he stopped before them.
The king rode forward. "A gesture of good faith. Let us stop this fight. I'm sure there's a good reason you wanted us to pay more for the food, but we just don't have the money. Perhaps we can work out something else?"
The rider nodded, "Rats ate a good deal of our foodstores and so we had less for us, too. But we didn't expect it to lead to war. I'm sorry it got to this point."
"And I, too," replied the king.
The horseman called for his men to bring forward all the food from their caravan that they could to give to the foresters. The horseman and king talked for awhile and arrived at a new deal to trade the one for the other in the future.
"I haven't let many know, but I am actually our king's brother and can make bargains in his name," explained the rider. "We'll work together, now, and be sure to talk about anything that changes instead of being so quick to fight."
They all thanked Sarai and her companions, sending them on their way and promising to remember them.
Part of the "There Once Was a Kingdom" bedtime stories series.