When the crowd started to slowly disperse, Avarron turned back to the castle with Rogan and Behr in tow. Soon, they had left the occupied part of the city and once again traversed the deserted streets. There was no sound but that of their own footsteps and yet, as the city gates entered their sight, Behr whispered: “We’re being followed. Probably that robber that escaped.”
“We could set a trap and get him after all,” Rogan replied.
“No,” Avarron decided. “Leave him be. With a wound like his, he won’t be lifting a weapon anytime soon.”
“You’re being too good to the filth. He’s not going to change his ways, you know,”
“Then he’ll pay again next time we catch him,” Avarron settled as they left the city. Their pursuer didn’t dare to leave the shadows of the alleys and disappeared from Behr’s side as they climbed the hill to the castle.
As they approached, the gates slowly creaked open. “Welcome back,” Cullean said upon entering the courtyard.
Avarron’s eye immediately fell on the figure sitting on the steps up the walls, basking in the afternoon sun. “Tanac!”
“Good day, Sir. I thought I’d go for a bit of fresh air,” the healer smiled faintly. He had a crutch lying next to him. “As you can see, I’m healing very well. All thanks to Lady Nariain, of course.”
“She has to be good, if you’re already up and about,” Avarron replied cheerfully.
“I wish I had the chance to learn from her,” Tanac said, but then added softly: “Although I’m worried that she used witchcraft.”
“Don’t worry about that,” Avarron said as lightheartedly as he could. He was almost certain that she had, but he couldn’t expect the healer to understand that even witchcraft could be benevolent. He turned to Cullean and summarized the events of the morning in Lainthair.
“I’ll have some new students, then?” the armsmaster asked excitedly. “We should set up some training grounds.”
Together with Behr and Rogan, they went to the armoury and started to investigate what they had available. There were large stacks of spears and neatly stacked axes displayed, and even racks that proudly displayed beautifully crafted swords. In a drawer, Cullean found a small number of fine chainmail, fit for a knight. In another, Behr found a large amount of reinforced leathers in far less impressive condition. “Worthless,” he dismissed them. “We should have new ones made if we’re to properly arm this militia.”
Opening a heavy chest, Cullean said: “Well, we won’t need them until those men are field-ready. There’s wooden training weapons here.”
With Behr’s aid, he dragged the chest outside. As he went through the armoury’s door, he asked: “Rogan, can you start carrying some shields along?”
The boy eagerly started to stack the heavy round shields in his arms, convincing himself that he could carry at least five. The fourth one slipped out of his fingers and landed on the floor with a loud clang.
“Don’t overextend yourself or you’ll get hurt,” Avarron warned him, but that didn’t stop him from trying. When he finally managed to get the fifth one in his hands, he carefully asked Avarron: “Can I join the training?”
“Of course,” Avarron said as he took one shield out of the squire’s hands and loaded on another three. “Let’s get everything ready.”
They spent the entire afternoon setting up a small training camp. They cleared the courtyard of rubble and with what little they could find around the castle, they made wooden practice dummies, after which they set up racks for the shields and practice weapons.
As twilight started to set it and the little camp started to look like something, there was a loud knock on the door. As the four of them rushed up the gatehouse, they heard Dann shout: “Anyone hungry yet?”, which sparked them to run back down to unbar the gates.
Dann, Neval and Ferdiag came in, each carrying a heavy backpack. “We have bread, fresh milk and dried meats,” Ferdiag proclaimed. “Let’s get cooking!”
As they all followed the warrior inside, Avarron asked Dann if they encountered any trouble.
“We visited three large farms. They’re well-fortified manors, really. They live in large, extended families in a single home, rather than villages. And they’re more than willing to send a few arrows to anyone they perceive as a threat,” Dann replied.
“They shot you?” Avarron asked bewildered.
“Luckily, they weren’t the best archers. I should have been more careful,” Dann gave a sheepish smile. “Once we showed them our gold, they became a lot friendlier.”
“Perhaps you should train them,” Avarron proposed playfully.
“Right, I’ll tell them to aim a little more to the left next time,” Dann replied dryly.
“I’m serious, though. While you were out gathering, we made the start of a city militia. And I’m sure those farmers would also love to get rid of all these bandits roaming around.”
“They’d be invaluable allies,” Dann agreed. “They know the land, we could set up patrols from their homesteads and I think they’d be willing to join in some bandit hunts.”
In the kitchen, Neval and Behr were following Ferdiag’s instructions in preparing a meal. The young warrior seemed to have grand plans. “Since when did Ferdiag become a cook?” Avarron softly asked Cullean, who was casually leaning in a chair and left the work to younger men.
“Since we needed one,” the old veteran replied. “Initially, there were some disputes, but he’s without a doubt the best of us.”
Neval overheard them and joked: “He’d make a fine wife, Sir.”
“Fate of the younger brother: Help mother in the kitchen while father and brother work the fields,” Ferdiag lamented.
“We all knew that mother secretly wanted a daughter,” Neval added. “But if you look at him, squint your eyes a little…”
“I’d watch my mouth, boy. In my experience, the cook is probably the last person you’d wish to anger,” Cullean warned him.
Neval immediately toned down his jests and even complimented his brother when he received a plate with a perfectly grilled slab of beef.
After the meal, Avarron and Rogan went up the battlements looking out over the city. “Do you think anyone will come?” the boy asked.
“I had hoped for more enthusiasm,” Avarron admitted as he peered into the settling darkness. “Maybe we’ll have more luck with the farmers.”
He remained there until the last purple of twilight had faded from the sky. With an abrupt turn, he headed back into the keep, bade his soldiers a good night and returned to his chambers.
Early in the morning, Rogan stormed loudly into his room, yelling excitedly: “They’re coming!”
“Who are?” Avarron asked as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes.
“From the city. A whole bunch!”
Avarron jumped out of bed and quickly got dressed. He left the room as his fingers fumbled with the buckles on his gauntlet and quickly draped the green cloak ove rhsi shoulders. It was in a sorry state, he noticed, but that was of later concern. Cullean and Neval had already opened the gates, allowing the group in. There were about thirty of them, led by one of the Herald’s strange bodyguards. As soon as he had herded everyone through the gates, the black-armoured man left again without a word.
Thirty. Avarron grimaced. He had hoped for at least twice that amount.
“It’s a start,” Dann replied to his expression.
Avarron nodded at the scout, took a deep breath and stepped forward. “Men of Lainthair, I thank you for coming. You will find that everything has been prepared for you. There is food, lodging and you will receive training from the best armsmaster I know of. He will instruct you in the necessary skills and tactics to drive the bandits from our homes,” he motioned Cullean to step forward.
The veteran wasted few words and immediately directed the men towards the new training area. Avarron spent a moment looking, but Cullean seemed in his element and received excellent support from Neval. Avarron turned his remaining men. “By the end of the day, we’ll have a whole group of hungry mouths to feed. And they need a place to stay.”
“I’ll get started on some lunch,” Ferdiag replied and returned to the kitchen.
“Which, I suppose, leaves me to dust off the barracks,” Behr sighed. “Can’t you get some maids in here for the cleaning work?”
Avarron hadn’t even considered that. “Why don’t you go to the city and see if you can hire some?” he replied.
Behr’s face lit up. “you’re paying, right?”
“Of course. Unless that treasure vault magically disappeared,” Avarron replied and Behr eagerly set off to the city. He turned to Dann and Rogan. “That leaves just us. Are you going to join the training, Rogan?”
“Nah, I can skip the first day. These guys know nothing,” the squire chuckled at the new militiamen.
The three of them left the castle and headed south. The mosaic of fields and forests, spread over the softly rolling hills was instantly familiar to Avarron. They had walked for about an hour when a lone homestead, nestled in a small valley, surrounded by bright yellow fields entered their vision. The building was walled in with a palisade and featured a wooden tower. “It looks more like a fort than a farmhouse,” he remarked as they approached.
“That’s the point,” Dann remarked as he waved at the lookout positioned at the tower.
The gates swung open. “Still hungry?” a man in the enclosement asked Dann jovially. Moments later, several men, women and children came out.
Dann shook hands with a tall, broad-shoulered man with narrow, dark eyes and a bushy red beard. “You brought some new friends this time, I see,” he said.
“He wanted to see your impressive homestead for himself,” Dann replied and turned to Avarron. “This is Toan Obrann, head of the family.”
Avarron stepped forward and bowed. “Well met, master Obrann, I am Sir Avarron of Windvale. It is an honour to meet you.”
“May the fae take me, it’s a humble knight.” Toan said.
“I’ve heard that the self-proclaimed nobility here have done little to earn such a title,” Avarron replied.
“Indeed. Nothing but thieves with a castle and armed men at their command,” Toan shook his fist violently.
“Do they bother you?” Avarron asked.
“Not here. We’re safe behind these walls and they don’t bother us when we’re working the fields. Those lazy sons of trolls prefer to wait until we’ve done all the hard work and head to market,” he said and the followed with: “Say, I sense a business opportunity. You have the weapons, we have the food.”
“An excellent proposal,” Avarron replied, but it wasn’t that simple. “However, I do not have the manpower to offer protection beyond the city. If more would join the militia,” he said and looked at Toan hopefully.
The large man shook his head. “I can’t spare anyone here, but please consider my offer. The city-folk and your militia also go hungry when our harvest is stolen.”
“And if the robbers don’t get their hands on it, they’re the ones going hungry,” Avarron thought out loud. “I’ll see what I can do, master Obrann.”
“Blessings upon you, good man,” Toan cheered. “I’ll await your return eagerly.”
They left the Obrann homestead and followed Dann to another, equally fortified home where they received a similar story. And the third homestead suffered from the same troubles. As they headed home, Avarron wondered: “If they’d go to the market together, I bet they could muster enough manpower to deter any banditry.”
“They’re too far out. It’s a large detour to make with a heavy cart through the hills,” Dann argued.
“But are they all going to the market on the same day? One could support the other and have the favour returned on the next day.”
“If they were good friends, they’d have come up with that already,” Rogan added.
“Indeed. I don’t think they know each other all that well,” Dann agreed.