The Baron's Bastards

Standard sword and sorcerer serial. I thought it would be fun to do a serial and this one has been pranging me for a while.

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1. The War is over.

 

Introduction:



 

Here ye! Here ye!

 

The War of the Black Mage has ended! Baron Vorhern is victorious!

King Eustace in his infinite wisdom has awarded all lands of the Black Mage to the Baron and as such has promoted the Baron to a Dukeship of the Royal court!

 

God save the King!

Long live Duke Vorhern!




Prologue:

 

    The sun was out. The air was clean. And Sir Calvert couldn’t imagine a more beautiful day. He dodged the children of the city as they ran screaming at each other. It seemed that with the Dark Mage’s death a feeling of ‘life’ had returned to the city. Shaking his head at the vendors who hawked their wares in the street he thought how lovely life was now. The dark miasma that had covered the land was gone. And whereas Sir Calvert was not naive enough to believe all would be roses and kisses from now on he still could appreciate life without a vindictive monster running things.

 

    “The Wobbly Calf.” he saw on the sign over the tavern. That was where the castle guard had told him Al had gone for breakfast. Calvert wanted to catch him before he left town. As he entered he could see the place was actually quite clean and bright. All of the windows had been opened to let in fresh air. He scanned the room for a moment until he saw Al sitting alone at a table in the back. Calvert walked to him as he ate his breakfast. Al hadn’t noticed him approaching.

 

    “Surprised you could get a table to yourself after all you’ve done.” Calvert smiled.

 

    Al looked up at him. “Why don’t you say it a little louder. Most of the people in here don’t know my face.”

 

    “Sorry… Do you mind if I join you?”

 

    Al shook his head. “Nah. You’ve earned that much at least.” he smiled back.

 

    Calvert sat before commenting, “I had heard you would be leaving soon.” Al just nodded to him as he took another bite of his eggs. Rumor is that you have an Earlship waiting for you in “Tilford’s Birth.”

 

    Al looked at him. “Bar maid.”

 

    Calvert was confused. “...I’m Sorry, my lord?”

 

    Al pointed just past the young man’s right shoulder. “Bar maid.”

 

    Sir Calvert looked over his shoulder to see a young girl waiting for him to order. Sir Calvert looked back at Al, “Very funny.” Al gave a small giggle as he took another bite and waited for Sir Calvert to finish ordering his breakfast. Once his order was done and the maid had left, Calvert looked a little peeved as he asked, “Are you going past “Gordon’s Hope” when you leave… Your Grace?”

 

    Al thought a moment. “I certainly could. Is it important?”

 

    Calvert nodded. “I have two letters I was hoping you would give to my wife and my sister.”

 

    “Oh! Of course I could. Be happy to.” Calvert handed him the sealed letters and watched as Al put them in an inner pocket of his cloak. “How will I know them when I get there?”

 

    Sir Calvert nodded. “My wife is the Viscountess of Gordon’s Hope.”

 

    Al was about to take another bite when he stopped himself and shook his head. “We’ve been together for six years and you never mentioned you were a Viscount?”

 

    Sir Calvert shrugged. “...It didn’t seem important at the time.”

 

    “But you made sure we all knew you were SIR Calvert?”

 

    Calvert shrugged again. “I spent a lot of blood, sweat and tears on getting that Knighthood. I just had to be born to become a Viscount.” Calvert gave Al a mock withering glare. “Unlike some people who just had to show up and get knighted.”

 

    Al smiled. “The moral of that story is, good timing trumps hard work and discipline every time.”

 

    They both laughed as the Bar maid returned with Calvert’s breakfast. Once she was gone Calvert stated, “...I did have a special request I wanted to make of you.” Al nodded for him to continue. “I need to look into arranging a marriage for my sister.”

 

    “Cal, I may not be an expert on nobility but I do know that the geography of the nobility in this region hasn’t changed that much because of the war. You still know most of the people you can chose from for her.”

 

    Viscount Calvert shrugged. “That was before.”

 

    Al’s eyebrows rose. “...Before?”

    Calvert smiled. “Duke Vorhern has decided to reward me with a full Countship.” Al nodded his appreciation. “He said he liked the sound of ‘Count Calvert’ better.”

 

    “It does have a nice ring to it. Congratulations.”

 

    “Thank you. Of course I still have to call a farmboy ‘Your Grace’... your Grace.” Calvert frowned.

 

    Al smiled as he took a drink of water. “Yeah. That has to sting.”

 

    Calvert shook his head. “Anyway, could you get to know her a bit? My sister I mean. See if you think a nobleman would find her appealing.”

 

    Al shrugged again. “I’m not sure how accurate my opinion is going to be for you but I can certainly talk to the girl.” Calvert nodded his approval. “Is she pretty?”

 

    “She’s the spitting image of my mother.” Al bit his lip as he drummed his fingers on the table. Calvert shook his head at him. “Don’t say it... Don’t… My mother was lovely.”

 

    Al smiled. “Very good. I should be to Gordon’s Hope in a few days. I’ll be sure to visit for a day or two.”

 

    Calvert smiled. “Excellent!” He held up his cup of water. “To a safe journey.”

 

    Al clinked his cup with calvert’s before they both drank.



 

Chapter 1:

 

    Rebecca sat in the shade of the shrine admiring the serfs as they harvested the wheat fields. It had been a long day by nobility’s standards. She had supervised the harvesting and storing of the crop during the morning hours. When she had been a young girl she would have actually helped with the labor but now that she was a woman grown at the ripe old age of twenty, it would just be inappropriate for her to do labor with the peasants. If it wasn’t for her brother cleaning up the remnants of the Black Mage’s army then he would be home and she wouldn’t even be able to supervise the work. A horrible thought, she thought. To wish your brother away so you can be in charge of harvesting crops.

 

    “Anything I can help with, my lady?” Came a gruff voice from behind her.

 

    She turned to see Cleric Johannes smiling at her. She had always been honest with him. He was not a judgmental man and an easy person to open up to. Rebecca shrugged. “I dread my brother’s return.”

 

    Johannes laughed. “That is not like you.”

 

    “I know.” she cringed. “It’s just… I can do so little as a lady and when he gets back…”

 

    “You will do even less.” he had an understanding smile. She nodded. “Your brother knows you very well. I doubt he will let you waste your hours on needlepoint, my lady.”

 

    “...I’m not so sure... I fear that six years at war may have changed him.”

 

    Johannes gave a slight shrug. “Why?”

 

    It was Rebecca’s turn to shrug. “The last messenger brought word that he was looking into arranging a marriage for me. He thought he had found the right man for me. Whatever that means.”

 

    The old cleric touched her arm to reassure her. “It probably means just what it sounds like. He has found someone appropriate for you that he thinks you will like.”

 

    She shrugged again. “Father promised me I could chose my own husband.”

 

    “...Promises of a doting father to his baby girl? They sound nice at the time, my lady, but…” he sighed. Rebecca nodded. “How go things between you and your Sister in Law?”

 

    Rebecca shrugged and looked at him. “She’s an idiot.”

 

    The Cleric smiled. “Have you tried to see things from her side?”

 

    “Oh yes. And things look idiotic.”

 

    He nodded. “All of us need you two to keep things civil. You remember what happened the last time you two came to blows?”

 

    “I remember the number of guards backing me were four times what she had.” Rebecca gave a malevolent smile.

 

    “Yes! And no matter how well the fight would’ve gone, Gordon’s Hope would have lost many good men that day.”

 

    Rebecca’s smile faded. “I know... She is the one that does not care how many people would have died!”

 

    She is not my concern. You are.” Rebecca looked at him confused. “She does not honor the Goddess.”

 

    “So because of that, she is beneath you?”

 

    He shook his head. “No. It just means she will not listen to me. You will.”

 

    Rebecca held up her hands. “It has been three years since that fight. I promise I will continue to do my best NOT to kill her.”

 

    Johannes smiled. “Pledge accepted. Now, who’s this?” he motioned to the front gates of the property near the main road.

 

    Rebecca turned to see a large wooden wagon with three brown horses and one white horse with grey dappled spots to pull. The wagon looked like a large wooden crate with four wheels. They couldn’t see the driver as the seat had a cover to provide shade and this made it too dark to see at this distance. She could see the guards talking and nodding. The position of the wagon showed that it clearly meant to enter.

 

    “Whoever they are, they don’t appear to be dangerous.” she said.

 

    “Appearances can be deceiving.” muttered the old cleric. “Let’s go have a look.”

 

    With that they headed off towards the wagon. In the wagon the driver sat back with his wide brimmed hat pulled down and his foot up on the front railing. The reins were tied off and the brake was set. He sat with his arms crossed waiting for the guards to finish with their argument as to who should be sent a runner, the Viscountess or the lady Rebecca. The driver sat motionless until he heard movement off to the side of his wagon. He looked up to see an old man and a young girl approaching. She was slender, young, nice curves and long brown hair.

 

    He gave a broad smile. “Well, hello beautiful. You are a site for sore eyes.” he could see the girl’s expression change to one of surprise.

 

    “You cannot address the Viscountess so familiarly!” bellowed a guard.

 

    The driver smiled at the man. “Who said I was talking to her?” Then he grinned and winked at the old man next to the Viscountess.

 

    The Cleric Johannes laughed. “My heart is all a flutter.” came the old man’s loud reply. “And praytell, my future parimore, what is your business here?”

 

    The driver removed his hat and scooted closer on the driver’s bench to their side of the wagon. Rebecca could see he was a handsome young man. Not much older than herself. He had light blue eyes and short cut dirty blond hair. “My friend, Calvert, has asked me to deliver a letter to his wife and another for his sister.”

 

     It looked as if he had more to say but the Sergeant of the gate interrupted him. “I will just take the letters to her ladyship!”

 

And then the man began to climb up the side of the wagon to reach the driver. Unfortunately for him the driver punched him square in the forehead with his left hand which dropped the sergeant like a bag of stones.

 

    The driver continued as if he had not been interrupted. “Now, the impression I got from him was that he wanted me to deliver the letters to them personally… Of course if he had told me he was sending me into some kind of family squabble, I would have delivered the damn things via balista!”

 

    “You should not curse in front of her ladyship!” stated one of the guards.

 

    The driver nodded and got down from the cart. “Which Viscountess is she?” he addressed Johannes.

 

    The same guard stepped in front of him. “Your familiarity with our lady will…”     The driver brought his left hand down on the man’s helmed head. Dropping him to the ground not far from the unconscious Sergeant. Rebecca was pretty sure the helm was dented where he struck it. The driver looked up to address the five remaining guards.

 

    “Gentlemen, let’s be sure we…” he smiled. “Get off on the right foot. Do as I say…” he motioned to the two sleeping soldiers. “Or join your brothers.” When he saw them nod their understanding he continued. “Shoulder these two back to the guard house and continue with your duties.” No one moved for a moment. “Now.”

 

    There were several mutters of ‘yes sir’ and the like as they drug the two guards back to their station. The driver then addressed Johannes again. “Now, which one is she?”

 

    He was not sure what to make of this man. He dressed in several layers of brown and always seemed to return to that infectious smile. “...She is the sister.”

 

    “Ah.” the man said as he removed a letter from inside his inner coat and handed it to rebecca. “Seemed like such a simple request at the time Calvert asked it of me.” The old man laughed while Rebecca smiled and opened her letter.

 

    “And what is your name, sir?” The cleric asked.

 

    He saw the driver smile broadly while thinking. “Gerrick?”

 

    Johannes made a face as he asked. “Are you sure?”

 

    Gerrick seemed to be thinking as he replied, “Ummmmm, yes.” he smiled. “And you are?”

 

    “Brother Johannes. Cleric of Airmid.” he gave a slight bow.

 

    “A healer?” Johannes nodded in reply. “I’m surprised we haven’t met before.” Gerrick replied dryly.

 

    Johannes laughed as Rebecca appeared to have finished her letter. “Good news, my lady?” he asked.

 

    Rebecca gave a slight shrug before looking at Gerrick. “Have you read this?”

 

    Gerrick shook his head and answered softly. “No, my lady. It was a sealed letter and none of my business.”

 

    Brother Johannes asked, “Is it bad?”

 

    She gave a slight shake of her head and looked at Gerrick again. “Do you know this, Aldore Bindle?”

 

    Gerrick laughed. “You’ve never heard of him?” They both shrugged and shook their heads as if to ask ‘should they have?’ “You have never heard of Sir Von, Jare, Aldore Bindle and Doreen Tomb?” They shook their heads again. “The Baron’s Bastards?”

 

    Now their eyes lit up as Lady Rebecca answered. “Ohhhh. Yes. They are a military force of some sort. We heard about them fighting the forces of the Black Mage during the war.” she nodded.

 

    Gerrick seemed to be a little relieved as if he had been offended by their ignorance. “Aldore was one of them. Rumor is that he is to be named an Earl of some place by the Duke now.”

 

    Rebecca bit her lip before asking, “What is he like?”

 

    Gerrick gave a smarmy smile. “He is not nearly as handsome and charming as me, my lady.”

 

    She gave a few short nods. “So, I should throw myself out of a window now.” Gerrick’s smiled dropped while She turned to Johannes. “Will you help me pick out window, Brother?”

 

    Johannes shook his head. “What - does - the letter - say?”

 

    Rebecca sighed. “Calvert thinks he can get this Aldore to agree to a marriage with me.”

 

    Gerrick let out a “Huh.” Rebecca looked at him. “Not hard to do, my lady. They are good friends.”

 

    “But will I like the man?!” Rebecca almost whined.

 

    Gerrick smiled. “Well, give me a minute and I’ll tell you all about him.” Gerrick looked back to the guards at the gate before pointing to the youngest of them. “You! Come here!” The soldier ran to him. The boy appeared to be about 15.

 

    “Yes sir.”

 

    “Drive my wagon to the barn and let these four go in the paddock so they can run the kinks out.”

 

    “Yes sir.”

 

    “These four are smart and they bare a grudge. So be gentle with them, for your own sake.”

 

    With that the soldier climbed into the driver’s seat, took control of the reins, undid the brake and gently urged the team forward. Once he was past them Gerrick turned to his two companions. “Shall we head to the castle so I may deliver your Sister in law’s letter?”

 

    “Will you tell us about Aldore on the way?” Rebecca asked.

 

    Gerrick took in a deep breath as if to mull the question over. “It was a dark and stormy night… about 23 years ago when a wizard in the city of ‘Old Crone’ heard a knock at the door of his home…” With that the three started walking towards the castle. “When he answered the door all he found was a young babe in a basket. When he inspected the child he saw the blanket that covered him had the name, ‘Jare’ embroidered on it...”

 

    “I thought you were going to tell me about Aldore.” Rebecca interrupted.

 

    Gerrick looked at her as they walked. “Do you want to hear the story or not?”

 

    “Oh! No. No. Please continue.”

 

    “Ahem. For whatever reason the old wizard kept the boy and raised him as his apprentice. Jare learned well and had a knack for the art. His Master was happy with him. Until one day Jare woke up to find that his Master had passed away in the night. Jare found him laid out across a magical tome. He said he had never realized how much he loved the old man until he was dead. The rest of the Wizards clan came together to deal with the funeral and the property, which was fine with Jare. But when he heard them discussing who would continue his training he decided it was time to go. So he took one of his Master’s horses and left the city…”

 

    Jare sat staring into the small fire. He had not noticed a fellow traveller watching him from the road until the man announced himself.

 

    “Ello in ze camp!”

 

    The traveller had a kind of ‘sing song’ quality to his accent. He appeared to be a cavalryman of some sort as he wore chainmail shirt and pants with a steel helm. Jare could see a large round shield on the back of his horse as well as three long spears attached to one side sticking up and back from the rear of his mount. The rider also had a large quiver of arrows and a shortbow mounted to the front of his saddle. Jare kept his seat as he waved for the rider to come forward. He watched as the horseman rode toward the camp at a calm pace.

 

    “I saw your fire and zought I might join you for ze night, ya?”

 

    Jare smiled. “Sounds fine. Please do.” Up close Jare could see that the rider, much like himself, was only about sixteen years old.

 

    “You not been on ze road long, ya?” The rider asked as he dismounted and removed his helm.

 

    “What makes you say that?”

 

    The boy shrugged. “Most people on ze road vill make camp out of sight of ze road. Not everyvon is your enemy, but zey aren’t all your friends eizer, ya?” Jare smiled and nodded in reply. The horseman removed his gloves and extended his hand to shake. “My names Aldore Bindle, ya?”

 

    “Are you telling me, Aldore Bindle sounds like an idiot?!” Rebecca exclaimed.

 

    “Rebecca…”

 

    “That’s going to drive me crazy listening to that…”

 

    “Rebecca!”

 

    “Ya. Ya. Ya.”

 

    “REBECCA!” She stopped talking and looked at Gerrick a little taken aback. “This story is about seven years old… ya?” They both heard Brother Johannes laugh.

 

    Jare shook his hand. “My name is Jare.”

 

    Jare shared his story with Aldore as the cavalryman unpacked his horse and began to brush it down. When Jare finished Aldore went on to tell him he was of the Semnones horse people. He had left his family a few months ago to seek adventure as his father and brothers had done. His father was a farmer now but had at one time been a well known warrior with his people. Now, the man could drink more beer than any other person known to Tyr. As for Aldore he had several jobs since he left home but recently he had had much success as a caravan guard.

 

    “Zat is until I got to Old CRone.” Jare looked at him with a confused expression so Aldore explained. “Many caravans go zere. It is a big city. But vonce zere you find zere are so many men trying to hire on vit anozer train zat it is too hard to find vork, ya?”.

 

    “So after months of steady work you found yourself stuck in my home town?”

 

    Aldore nodded as he got feed and water for his mount. “I have heard zere is a large town furzer up ze road. Uhh… Beavers Diddle?”

 

    Jare laughed. “Weaver’s - Needle.” he nodded. “There are a couple of small towns to pass through but we should be able to reach it in a few days.”

 

    Aldore turned to look at him. “You zinking of joining me, ya?” he smiled.

 

    Jare smiled back with a nod. “Ya.”

 

    The boys spent their next two nights in the two small towns along the way. They slept in the barn and each had a little money so they could afford food. Up to that point it was a pleasant trip. They were a few hours out from Weaver’s Needle when they heard a woman scream. Jare pulled his  bow and nocked an arrow while Aldore pulled his lance and shield. As they came around the bend in the road they could see a man holding a woman while two others watched. A fourth man was saying something to her but they were too far away for the boys to hear.

 

    Aldore glanced at Jare. “You stay here in case zey do somezing odd, ya?”

 

    “You expect me to just sit her?”

 

    “Jare. You do ze ‘arrow-magic boomboom’ zing. While ‘I’ do ze ‘run-zem-down-impale-zem’ zing, ya?”

 

    Jare nodded just before Aldore kneed his horse into a gallop. Jare pulled back the arrow and aimed at the man talking to the girl. As Aldore closed the  distance to the highwaymen Jare remembered what his archery instructor had told him. “When you do this for real don’t think about what you’re aiming at. He’s just another drawing on the wall. Another target. That dark shape at the end of the arrow’s tip is just another bullseye.” Just then, Jare saw some movement in the bushes just off to the side of the robber’s. He loosed his arrow and watched as it sailed past Aldore and on to lodge itself in the target’s head. The man fell silent and slumped to the ground dead. Just then the woman started screaming.

 

    “They killed Wollard! They killed Wollard!”

 

    Aldore brought his mount to a halt a safe distance from them just as he heard Jare muttering something. Just as the shock was about to ware off of the brigands Aldore saw a fiery explosion launch the small group into the trees. Aldore sat back in his saddle and pulled his lance up as he studied the mayhem and then looked back at Jare. Jare for his part just shrugged at him as if to ask, ‘what?’ After a few moments Jare road up next to his friend.

 

Aldore looked at him. “Jare… I zink it’s time ve had discussion bout the vord ‘excessive,’ ya?”

 

“No. No. No. No. No. No. No.” he pointed to the bodies laying everywhere. “These people were smart enough to use bait to trick us. That means they were smart enough to hide ambushers in the woods too. And now, any of those ambushers are running like mad rabbits to get away from us!”

 

As if on queue they heard a man break from cover a far distance ahead of them as he ran off down the road. Aldore yelled after the man.

 

“You’re not teaching my friend any self control, yah!!?”

 

Jare laughed as they put away their weapons and dismounted. They drug the bodies back to the road and went through their things. A few weapons and a little money was all they found.

 

“Burry them?” Jare asked.

 

Aldore shrugged. “My people would hang zem upside down from a tree and slit zeir zroats. Not a true sacrifice for Tyr but it couldn’t hurt, Ya?”

 

At first Jare didn’t know what to say. “...Well, let’s bury them.”

 

Aldore nodded. Jare knew a few farming spells so moving some dirt didn’t take too long. An hour later they had all five of the dead safely entombed off to the side of the road and were continuing on their way.

 

“Any chance we can track them back to where they came from?” Jare asked.

 

Aldore shook his head. “I have no gift for it. Mostly spears and svords for me.” he turned to look at Jare. “Vhat bout you? You got a chant for scurrying after vood folk, Ya?”

 

It was Jare’s turn to shake his head. “I’m good with a bow, not bad with a sword and pretty damned impressive with magic if it involves blowing things up.”

 

Aldore laughed. “Zen it looks like ve are on to Beaver’s Diddle, ya?”

 

Jare smiled and shrugged. “Ya.”

 

A few hours later they came out of the trees to see the town in the distance.  As they sat there it became apparent that the people of Weaver’s Needle had cleared the trees for a mile in every direction. The cleared space had been filled in with farm fields. They could see the town was large and there was a two story stone wall around it complete with turrets every hundred feet or so. From what the boys could see, the town looked to be about half the size of old Crone.

 

“Looks like a safe place to live, ya?”

 

Jare nodded in response. “What is that around the base of their wall?”

 

Aldore looked closer at the city defenses. “Looks like zey’ve put in an outer vall of vood vit long spikes to stop ze horse charge.”

 

Jare shook his head. “I never heard about Weaver’s Needle being under attack, so why the secondary wall.”

 

Aldore shrugged. “No telling. But the vooden vall may not be new. Zese fields look to have been cleared years ago and zey vould’ve had to have done somezing vit all zat vood, ya?”

 

After a few minutes of watching the farmers they continued on to the town. As the approached they could see the secondary wall was a full 100 feet from the stone wall but was only about fifteen feet tall. The guards waved them through as they approached. The space between the wooden wall and the stone one appeared to be filled with military housing and serf’s huts. Inside the wall however was bedlam. The western gate they entered was one of the quietest but traffic overflowed to this sector of town from the northern gate where they learned was the busiest next to the southern. The southern being the route people were taking to get away from the war.

 

Jare turned quickly to Aldore. “War?!” Aldore made a face and shrugged. Jare turned back to get more answers from the man who said that but he had melted back into the crowd. Aldore tapped him on the shoulder,

 

“Look at zat von.”

 

Jare looked. He saw a man in golden armor standing with a group of other armored men. The breastplate of his armor was made to look like perfectly sculpted stomach muscles and chest. It even had nipples. Around his waist he wore a belt from which hung strips of leather alternating between red and white with a large golden disk at their tip to weigh the ends down. His full golden helm had the visage of a lion on the face with snarling fangs and a brush plume ran down the middle with stripes of white and red as well. The man removed his helm to show a full head of long curly black hair. He was a handsome and powerful looking man. The epitome of what a warrior should look like.

 

“So the boys went to talk to him?” interrupted Rebecca hopefully.

 

    “No, they were far too intimidated for that.” Gerrick replied. Rebecca let out an exasperated sigh. “They were just children, my lady.” After a moment of thought she gave an understanding shrug. “Anyway…”

 

Jare felt another tap. “Tavern.” he saw Aldore point to a building not far from where they sat on their mounts.

 

“I’m not thirsty.”

 

“No. Taverns are where we find merchants to hire for caravans, ya?”

 

At first, Jare nodded his understanding but then, “Why a tavern?” he asked  as they headed over to the two story beer-hall.

 

Aldore shrugged. “I don’t know. But in all ze stories ze intrepid heroes alvays go to a tavern to get vork, ya?”

 

“But why?” Jare almost whined as they dismounted.

 

Aldore sighed. “Because taverns are vere mighty varriors go to get Beer - and - food… and to get pretty bar maids to sho you zeir yaya’s.” he smiled on the last part.

 

Jare laughed.

 

“Vit all zese people bout von of us should stay vit ze horses. You vant to go in and look for vork or stay here?” Aldore asked.

 

Jare took the reins from his friend. “You’ve done this before, so you go ahead.”

 

Aldore nodded and went into the tavern. Jare watched as the golden knight collected his men. They discussed something for a minute and then mounted up and headed off into the town. It was almost an hour later when Aldore came outside with a platter of beef and bread and two cups. They took a seat on one of the benches outside of the tavern.

 

“Thought you might be hungry, ya?”

 

“I am. Thank you.” Jare ate a slice of the meat and took a drink. It was sweet. Very sweet. “What is this.”

 

“Mead, ya? Be careful. It’ll sneak up on you.”

 

Jare took a bite of bread. “I thought your people prefered beer.”

 

Aldore nodded as he swallowed his last bite. “Zey do. But I alvays liked this. Tastes like a children’s drink, ya?” he smiled. Jare nodded. “Sure doesn’t feel like it in ze morning zough.” Jare stopped  drinking and looked at him with worry. “Oh, von cup or two is fine but if you get carried avay it’ll feel like a demons in your head tomorrow.” Aldore answered as he took another bite of beef. He scanned the streets as he ate. “Vhere’s ze golden knight?”

 

“He and about twenty men road off not long after you went inside.” Aldore nodded. “Did you find any work for us?”

 

Aldore nodded as he finished his food. “Maybe. ze tavern keeper said zere’s an old merchant named John who needs a new crew of guards for his vagon. He’s supposed to be back here later on zis evening. I zought it vas vorth vaiting around for him.” Jare nodded his agreement.

 

Aldore had learned that the “war” was not as sure as the man earlier had implied. There were rumors of combat to the north and dark brigands had been spotted across the land but there had been no declaration of war from anyone. There had, however, been enough dead bodies to let people know something was afoot. The town was recruiting soldiers for her defense because many of the people running from the perceived conflict were coming here.

 

When they finished their food Jare picked up the platter and cups. “I’ll take them back. I want to see the inside of this place.” Aldore nodded. “Did you want another mead?”

 

“Ya, von more should do me.”

 

Jare walked through the door to a well lit large beer-house. There were large and small tables strewn across the floor. The traffic in and out of the place had been quite busy; the noise had been high since they arrived, so he was not surprised to see most of the tables filled. He took the platter back to the bar. When the Tavern man approached he gave the man two coppers for refills on the mead. It wasn’t like the stories he had been told. ‘A dark and seedy place where life was cheap.’ There were many warriors in the place but many of them were there with their wives and children. The bards were playing bawdy tunes but other than that the place seemed like any other village tavern he had been in. When the drinks came he thanked the man and headed back outside.

 

Jare handed Aldore his drink. “That’s a nice place.”

 

Aldore nodded. “Nice people, ya?”

 

A few hours later the boys had started drinking beer. Slowly. Until Aldore got Jare’s attention. “I zink zis may be our man.” he pointed to a large man with a large belly. Red hooded cloak and full gray beard. With him walked a tall young woman in a green cloak and a bow slung across her back. When they got close enough to be heard Aldore addressed the man. “Excuse me, sir. Vould ye be John ze merchant looking for guards to hire, ya?”

 

The man looked the boys over before saying,”You lads lookin for work?”

They both nodded in reply. “Yuh done this kinda work before?”

 

“Ya. I’ve vorked caravans from Fifelton to Old Crone over ze last few monzs unt my friend here is new to it but he’s very good vit a bow, ya?”

 

“How good?” asked the woman.

 

“He hit a bandit in ze head  from 300 feet, ya?”

 

The old man looked at Jare. “Did you mean to do that? Or was it just luck?”

 

Jare shook his head. “No, I meant to do it. Aldore was moving into his charge and I saw movement in the bushes so I knew they were going for an ambush. I loosed my arrow and ignited an explosion after it hit.”

 

The woman looked at Jare. “You what now?”

 

Jare quickly recapped  his life and how he came to meet Aldore as well as their fight with the highwaymen.

 

“Prove it.” she said.

 

Jare muttered something and a small firey ball appeared in his right palm. He bounced it a few times like a child at play and then snuffed it away with a “shush.”

 

“Pappa we have to hire these boys!” she exclaimed. The old man looked at her a little upset. “Well, they’re a damn site better than nothin!”

 

He looked at his daughter and back to the boys before nodding his agreement. He then looked into the tavern through a window behind the outside bench. “Pretty packed in there tonight. Doreen, go get us some food an drink an have em bring it out here. And see if you can steal us a small table.”

 

With that, Doreen bowed to the men and went inside. The old man sat down on the bench with them. “And you?” he motioned to Aldore. “Ye as good with a bow as your friend here?”

 

“I’m no Jare of Old Crone.,” he smiled. “But ahorse?.. I can hit a man at 300, ya?”

 

The old man smiled and nodded. “I’m John Tomb and that was my daughter Doreen. We pay five copper a day for a guard.”

 

“Aldore’s eyebrows went up as he gave a lite whistle. “Half a silver? Vhy so high.”

 

“The Esquire has offered a bounty of 10 gold for every “Dark brigand’s” head you can bring him so everyone is off trying to find them.”

 

“That’s a lot  of money.” Jare commented as Doreen returned with a small round table and a bar-girl carrying four beers.

 

Aldore nodded as he took his beer. “Ya. All ve have to do is find zese brigands before our money runs out; hope ve survive ze encounter., collect ze heads unt hopefully get back to ze Esquire before ze price drops. Sounds good, ya?”

 

Jare looked at him with obvious disapproval. “You know, sarcasm doesn’t really carry through with your accent.”

 

Aldore smiled as the others laughed. “Unt yet you caught it none ze less,ya?”

 

Soon the food arrived and John revealed that they had been hired by the Esquire to carry supplies from Weaver’s Needle to other towns nearby. He was expecting this brigandry to get out of hand as it seemed to be escalating. John was to leave as soon as he had replaced the men he had lost. Two of his outriders had died from these Dark Bandits just a few days ago and the one that survived had quite when they reached Weaver’s Needle. They spent a few more hours on the front porch of the Tavern drinking and eating and that night, Jare and Aldore slept on top of John’s War Wagon in the local barn while John and Doreen slept inside the wagon.

 

Master Gerrick stopped just as they were about to enter the main courtyard of the Viscount’s castle. Rebecca watched as he admired the construction.

 

“So that’s it?” she asked.

 

Gerrick looked at her a little confused and then looked to Brother Johannes. The Brother wasn’t sure why Gerrick was looking at him so he just gave a shrug. Gerrick returned his gaze to the Lady Rebecca.

 

“What were you expecting?”

 

She gave an exaggerated shrug. “I don’t know!.. Something… profound?”

 

“Huh.” Then he began to walk through the portcullis of the castle so she and the Brother followed. “Where might we find the Viscountess? I have another letter to deliver.”

 

“She is in the garden most days.” Rebecca replied.

 

The lady took this as her queue to lead the group through the castle. She made sure to point out the interesting portions of art and history as they passed. Though this was more from habit than anything else. She had become accustomed to being the family tour guide ever since her mother passed away several years ago. When they came to the back of the castle Master Gerrick saw that the entire back side of the estate had been converted into a flower garden. He could see the Viscountess, Celia, sitting under a small shelter covered in flowering vines. She appeared to be talking to a man in armor.

 

They knew she heard them as they approached because she turned to see who they were. Her frown at the Lady Rebecca was obvious though it was soon replaced by one of mild confusion when she saw Gerrick.

 

Rebecca introduced, “Lady Celia, this is Master Gerrick. He brings news and letters from the Viscount.” then she bowed slightly to her sister in law.

 

Celia inclined her head in reply. “Master Gerrick, how is my husband?”

 

Rebecca cringed involuntarily. She had not even asked.

 

Gerrick noticed and smiled as she showed a pinkish blush. “He is quite well, your Grace. He is finishing up some cleanup of enemy troops for the Duke before returning home. That should be done within the next two weeks.”

 

“That is exceptional news.” smiled the man in armor.

 

Her ladyship was smiling as well. “Forgive me.” she said. “Master Gerrick, this is Sir Roland. Captain of our guard.” Gerrick smiled and bowed in greeting while the Captain quickly stood and returned it. “Rebecca mentioned, letters?”

 

“Yes, your Grace.” Gerrick proffered the wax sealed letter to her.

 

As she read it Sir Roland asked, “Any other news from the front?”

 

Gerrick nodded. “The Duke is handing out many promotions. Viscount Calvert for instance is to be promoted to Count Calvert,” Celia stopped reading for a moment.

 

“Truly?”

 

Gerrick had a confused expression on his face.  “...Yes?”

 

She looked mildly peeved at him before going back to her letter. Gerrick gave a small laugh. “The Duke is also promoting many of the men who fought with him against the Black Mage.”

 

“Such as one Aldore bindle.” Rebecca commented dryly.

 

Sir Roland asked, “What is so important about this man that you mention his promotion?”

 

“My brother is trying to arrange a marriage for me with this Bindle person.”

 

Gerrick smiled again. Roland looked at him. “What do you know of this man?”

 

“We served together in the war. He is smart. Attractive. And uh…” Gerrick shrugged. “...a very affable fellow by all standards, my lord.” Sir Roland was nodding. “He is also to being given the Earlship of Tillman’s Birth.”

 

Celia looked up suddenly. “My God, Rebecca! Why are you complaining!? As an Earless you would be able to harass me to no end! I would think that alone would make you happy!”

 

Rebecca’s eyebrows went up. “...I honestly hadn’t thought of that.”

 

Celia gave a derisive snort. “Would have been the first thing ‘I’ thought of.”

 

“Well maybe I’m just not the selfish brat you are?!”

 

Countess Celia stood and took a step toward Rebecca. “Selfish brat!? You’re the one complaining about an arranged marriage to an Earl!”

 

“At least I didn’t try to sell five hundred acres of my family’s land for a new party dress!” Rebecca screamed as she took a step closer to celia.

 

“It was the King’s celebration for his newborn son!”

 

“Right. And what do you think Cal would do when he got home?” Rebecca looked at her as Celia became obviously less sure of herself. “Do you know?”

 

“I know.” smiled Gerrick. Everyone slowly looked at him. Celia sat down expecting to hear the worst. “He would come through those gates. Find out about the sale. Then drag her ladyship with him to visit the man who bought his land and buy it back from him.” Rebecca looked a little upset. “And that would have been the end of it.”

 

“You’re siding with her?”

 

Gerrick shrugged. “I’m not siding with anyone. That is just what would have happened. Calvert will be so happy to return home from the war to find his wife and his sister safe, that nothing could perturb him.”

 

Rebecca looked very angry and on the verge of tears. “So, I should have done nothing?”

 

“...From what I overheard from the guards, I doubt he will think it appropriate that you raised an army to stand against his wife, my lady.” Gerrick answered softly.

 

Rebecca turned and walked quickly back to the castle. Gerrick let out a sigh.

 

“She is an emotional girl. She will get over it, Master Gerrick.” Commented the Countess with a smile.

 

Gerrick replied in a calm tone. “I would not be too happy with this little victory, your Grace. The Count will still hold you responsible for letting the situation escalate to Martial conflict.” When she stopped smiling he continued. “The Count has sent me here to see how suitable she will be for a marriage, so I suppose I should go after her.” With that he bowed to the little group and left.

 

“What do you make of this “Gerrick”, Brother Johannes?” Celia asked.

 

Johannes thought for a moment as he watched Gerrick walk into the castle. “He is dangerous, your Grace.”

 

“In what sense?” asked Sir Roland.”

 

Johannes turned to face them. “In every sense, my lord. There was an argument between the guards when he arrived over who was to be notified first. The Countess or the lady. Gerrick knocked two of them out cold… With very little effort. On top of that, I believe he is VERY close to the Count. And… I think he wants that girl.” He looked at Celia. “Even so, I would hate for him to have a bad report to give to the Count about me.”

 

It was Celia’s turn to be pensive. “...Thank you Brother.” Johannes bowed and left. “Your thoughts?” she ask of Roland.

 

Sir Roland shook his head. “I’m not sure. Let me ask around a bit. I’ll report my thoughts to you tonight.” He then stood and bowed to the Countess before leaving.

 

Master Gerrick finally found Rebecca in the library on the top floor of the castle. She sat in a window seat looking out over the fields of the estate. She looked as if she had just finished crying. Gerrick strode across the large rug silent as a breeze and watched her for a moment.

 

“I thought you were my friend.”

 

He was taken back a bit by that but he decided to remain silent and instead sit next to her on the window seat.

 

She turned to face him. “You’re a friend of my brother’s. I assumed that meant you were mine as well.”

 

Gerrick watched her a moment. “When did being your friend mean that I could only tell you what you wanted to hear?”

 

Rebecca shook her head and looked away. “She is evil.”

 

It was Gerrick’s turn to shake his head and laugh. “If that were true, your brother would have already killed her.”

 

She looked at him suddenly. “He still might!”

 

There was a pregnant pause before they both laughed. It took them several moments to get control of themselves. “Alright. I’m sorry. I - may - have overreacted.” she said. Gerrick gave a mirthful nod. “Tell me more of this Aldore.”

 

Gerrick gave a shrug of “why not.” At breakfast the next day John learned that Jare and Aldore had acquired some weapons from the bandits they killed. He had them bring him the weapons so he could give them an idea of what they were worth. After looking them over John told them none of the weapons were special but they should get about five silver pieces for all of them  if they sold them to the Esquires agent.

 

“What do you mean by special?” Jare asked.

 

“I mean magic.” Jare looked stunned. John laughed. “I got my hands on an appraiser’s ring a few years back.” John fingered the ring around his left index finger. “It let’s me know things about items I inspect. Pretty darned handy actually.”

 

“Vould it tell you if me father’s shield vas magic? He alvays claimed it vas, ya?”

 

John nodded several times so Aldore retrieved his shield form his things and handed it to John. After a few moments of studying the shield John gave an appreciative nod. “Very nice shield. Good quality steel. Good craftsmanship…” He looked at Aldore. “Do you find you manage to block things you thought you were going to miss?” When Aldore nodded he continued. “Thought so. There’s an old enchantment on this girl. Makes her inclined to slip in front of those swings you were going to miss.” he handed the shield back to Aldore. “Very nice shield son. Take care of her.” Aldore nodded staring at the red horse’s head on the green background as if he was seeing it for the first time.

 

Later that morning they drove the wagon to the keep of the Esquire where John picked up the medical goods , weapons and armor his lordship wanted taken to the next town. The Esquires agent wanted to give Aldore three silver for  his and Jare’s weapons but John talked him up to five. Once that was done John insisted they head out. John and Doreen sat in the driver’s seat of the war wagon while Jare rode on top with a bow ready. The wagon had a small two foot tall wooden rim around it to provide cover. Aldore was the outrider so he galloped before them on his horse with his spear and shield at the ready.

 

That was the beginning of a very long year. The first few trips went fine but on their fourth trip from a fort outside of Old Crone to Barleydale… It was raining pretty hard when Aldore heard Jare scream the alarm. Just before the woods to Aldore’s left exploded into fire. Jare had reacted instinctively. Aldore had just enough time to see several men and mounts go flying in different directions from the blast. But there were another eight riders still mounted and charging. Aldore readied himself then spun his horse and retreated past the wagon…”

 

“He ran!?”

 

“Like a coward.” Gerrick answered with a smile.

 

“...Truly?”

 

“NO! Now stop interrupting.”

 

Jare and Doreen were firing arrows as fast as they could. The enemy’s armor was pretty good so there were still about six of them on horseback when Aldore came through the woods and slammed into one of the bandits farthest from the wagon. He pushed with his lance until he shoved the horse into another bandit. The second bandit fell from his mount as the first horse went down from the lance wound. Aldore’s horse jumped over the carcass and shouldered the second horse aside which unfortunately for it’s rider meant it trampled the man pretty badly. By this point the archers had managed to drop two more bandits. One bandit tried to flank his way down the side of the wagon but a jet of flame engulfed his head as he screamed and fell to the ground writhing in pain. The last brigand took off at a hard sprint into the woods. Aldore’s lance was stuck in the first horse so he pulled a new spear and charged after the bandit.

 

“Aldore, No!” yelled John.

 

But he was inside the war wagon with Doreen so Aldore could not hear him as he pursued the highwayman. A few moments passed before Jare heard a thump from inside the wagon.

 

“You alright up there?” he heard John yell.

 

“Yeah!” he yelled back. He saw John open the ceiling hatch to inside the wagon. When John poked his head out to check on him he continued. “Just exhausted.”

 

John nodded. “Get down here and eat somethin. We need to get these bodies in order. Lota gold on the ground right now.” he smiled.

 

Doreen and Jare retrieved the nine horses that had survived and tied them to the rear of the wagon. Between the trampling, the arrows and Jare shooting a man in the face with fire, five of the brigands had survived the fight. The other eight were stripped of everything and tied across the horses at the back of the wagon. Aldore returned with a dead bandit tied to his own horse.

 

“I was worried you were gonna get yourself killed, boy!”

 

Aldore nodded as he got off his mount. “I figured ve didn’t know how many of zem zere vas so why let em know ve had a vizard, ya?”

 

John nodded with relief. “You alright then?”

 

“Ya!  He vas riding so hard to get avay he never knew I vas zere. Had me spear up under his chin unt zrough his head fore he knew I vas zere, ya?”

 

John nodded as he patted Aldore on the shoulder and whispered something into Doreen’s ear before going to the wagon. Doreen walked into the woods where the brigands had been waiting in ambush. A few minutes later John re-emerged with a small green bottle. He approached the man who had been burned. Though once he squatted next to him he could see he was not much older than Jare and Aldore. The boy was still whimpering in pain. His entire head had been burned. He had no hair left. His nose was mostly burned away along with his right ear. John opened the bottle and put it to the boy’s lips.

 

“I canna do anything for the pain, lad. But this will let ya sleep so you’ll na have to feel it.”

 

The boy quickly took a sip before John rose to go to the rest of the surviving bandits. Soon all of them slept. John and his friends stripped them and bound their hands and feet. Then carried them to the top of the wagon. They were storing the armor and weapons in the wagon when Doreen returned.

 

“What did ya find?” asked her father.

 

“That bandit Aldore chased down was heading back in the same direction they came from. From what I can tell they settled in here sometime this morning and have been waiting all day for this fight.”

 

John rubbed his beard. “It’s been quiet on this road today. They were probably waiting for anything. We just happened to be first.” she nodded. “Any idea how far away their trail leads?”

 

“If Doreen can track, zen ve can follow zeir trail, ya?”

 

John shook his head. “Wagon ain’t made for open country and we have supplies to get to Barleydale.” The others nodded. “...Mount up. We have to get back to it.”

 

A couple of hours later they came to a gate across the road with towers on either side and several guards manning the gate. Aldore stopped about one hundred feet from the gate. He looked back when he heard John raising the wooden shield that hinged up in front of the driver’s bench.

 

“That’s the entrance to Barleydale. Stow your weapons and proceed easy.” John told him.

 

Aldore secured his lance with his spears on the back of his horse and hung his shield over his saddle bags on the other side. When they got to the gate Aldore raised his right hand in greeting before sidestepping his horse out of the way so John could talk to the sergeant.

 

“Hey hey, John!” the sergeant exclaimed as they shook hands in greeting.

 

“How’ve you been boyo?” John smiled.

 

The sergeant shook his head a little. “It was a little too close for a bit there. We had several raids until we got these walls built around the dale. And now we’ve got hunters out tracking down these Black Brigands so the attacks have ‘finally’ stopped.”

 

“Good. Good.”

 

“How bout you? I see you have a few new men with you.”

 

John frowned. “Jorrie and Max died in an ambush from these bastards. Ralf made it but his heart just wasn’t in it after that and he left me as soon as we got to Weaver’s needle.” John looked up at the ceiling as he motioned upward. “Got these two miscreants to replace them.” he smiled.

 

The sergeant nodded as he looked to the back of the wagon. “Judging from the string of horses and dead you’re hauling I would say they’re probably pretty good lads?”

 

John gave a big smile. “Yeah. We ran into a little dust up. Killed nine of em and have five of em stowed up top.”

 

The sergeant gave a whistle in surprise. “Haven’t got our hands on any live ones yet. Sir Halfon will be very pleased.”  He then turned back to the towers. “Runner!” A young boy of about 10 years came to him. “Grab a horse and go to his lordship. Tell him John Tomb has five ‘live’ Black Brigands for him.”

 

The boy wasted no time in running through the gate and getting on a horse. He was halfway to the Knight’s tower before John and the sergeant had said goodbye. Aldore brought up the rear as they went through the gate. Barleydale had been built in a bowl with hills on all sides. It was a small hamlet with a tall stone tower in the middle and wooden walls surrounding it. Once inside they could see the Knight’s army had built wooden walls with towers on the top of the bowl that surrounded Barleydale. They could see a second road leaving town on the far side of the hamlet. The boys watched and waved to the serfs as they worked the crops outside the town wall.

 

Soon they were ushered through the gates to town and on through the stone gates for Sir Halfon’s Tower. John drove them along side the front door where a very large older man in a purple cloak with an ermine collar awaited them. He appeared to be about six foot five and around 350 pounds. Jare was happy the man was smiling at them. He quickly came down the few steps of the tower as John halted the wagon. He all but pulled Doreen out of the wagon as he hugged her hello.

 

“How you been girl!?”

 

Doreen smiled broadly. “I’d be doing better if I could breath!”

 

“Breathin’s not that important!” He said as he set her down. When John came out of the driver’s cabin the large knight grabbed him and hugged him just as he did with Doreen. “How you been you old haggler?”

 

John was laughing. “Very well now that I’ve seen you.” John motioned to Jare and Aldore. “Boys, come and meet Sir Halfon, Lord of Barleydale.”

 

Jare climbed down from the roof of the wagon while Aldore secured his mount to the rear of their transport. Once hands were shaken John relayed how the fight had gone.

 

“You think you can find that trail again?” Sir Halfon asked.

 

Doreen replied. “There are four dead horses just off the road so… probably.”

 

Halfon laughed and ushered them inside while his men collected the bandits, both living and dead. It was almost dusk when they walked into the tower. The entire bottom floor was a large dining hall for Sir Halfon and his men. He made sure to sit John and friends with him at the lord’s table. The dining hall was pretty lively with music and conversation. Everyone seemed optimistic about getting some answers now that they had live bandits.

 

At one point in the evening an old man came to whisper in Sir Halfon’s ear. They spoke for a few moments before the old man left and Halfon announced to the party he would be paying them 375 gold pieces for the bandits; their equipment, armor and weapons. Aldore spewed his beer across the table in front of him.

 

John watched this without expression then turned to Halfon. “Why so much?”

 

Halfon laughed and shrugged. “We lords decided that 10 gold per head was needed but if we got one alive he was worth 50. It all adds up to just less than 375.” John gave an appreciative nod. “We’ve also unloaded the supplies you brought us and are loading you up with casks of beer for Weaver’s Needle. BUT… I’m going to be sending some men with you tomorrow to follow that trail the bandits left. Just show them where it starts and they’ll take it from there.”

 

“Certainly.” John replied.

 

Just then some local dancing girls were brought in and began to dance as their part of the nights entertainment. They were quite good; spinning and jumping while the drums pounded. Aldore couldn’t help but notice the brunette was about his age but she seemed to making eyes at Jare, the bastard. He looked over in time to see Doreen shooting daggers at the girl as she casually grasped Jare’s hand.. ‘Wait.’ he thought. ‘Why was he sitting next to John and she was on the other side of Halfon next to Jare? When did that happen?’ Aldore fumed as he rested his chin in his left hand and stuffed another piece of pheasant into his mouth.

 

Late in the evening when all were good and tipsy John called it a night. The other’s felt obliged to go with him as they were to share a room in the tower. Aldore couldn’t help but notice Doreen kiss Jare goodnight as John unlocked the door to their room. Jares bunk was next to Aldore’s.

 

“Goodnight Aldore.” Jare said as they were lying down to sleep.

 

“I hate you, ya?”

 

Jare laughed.

 
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