While using money to wipe out the duke's men sounded rather wasteful, to Lorist, he didn't have much of a choice due to the disparity between his own troops and that of the duke. Additionally, the enemy had the aid of the rebels from Wildnorth Town and it could be said that a disastrous storm was about to descend on the Norton Family.
What Lorist could do now was to muster all his forces to resist the duke's army. For instance, the reason he hired the mercenary crews was so that they could help him wipe out the scouts of the enemy and withhold part of their battle strength by way of ambushes and harassment attacks so that they wouldn't be able to effectively besiege the bastide of the Norton Family.
What Lorist was most worried about currently was whether the duke had already launched his attack against Maplewoods Bastide. Even though it was defended by a company's worth of family soldiers, they only numbered around 600 people and up to 200 of them were injured to some degree. Even if the family had ten times the amount of troops stationed there, it would still find it rather hard to resist the duke's force that numbered among the thousands. The only fact that Lorist could find relief in was that Josk was at the bastide. With a Gold ranked marksman like him there, Lorist was confident that the bastide wouldn't fall to enemy attack just yet.
As the sky gradually brightened during the dawn, Lorist awoke in a rather drowsy state as he had slept rather late the night before.
"Milord, Paulobins has sent someone back..." Ovidis's voice rang out from outside Lorist's room. He had been on night patrol duty since yesterday.
Lorist got out of bed and said, "Ovidis, get someone to bring me a basin full of water that I can use to wash my face with..."
The one who was sent back to make the report was one of the former bandits that had joined the guard squad. Having traveled for the whole night, he looked rather worn out as he said, "Milord, Squad Leader Paulobins ordered me to report to you that the enemy have yet to make their move and they stayed within their camp for one whole day. Yesterday, we also eradicated a group of ten plus enemy troops who were felling trees and caught some of them alive as well. The captives told us that the duke mobilized around two regiments with up to 4000 soldiers to 'punish the Norton Family for their rebellion' with the Gold ranked knight Chevany taking the lead as their commander..."
"Did the prisoners say how they entered our dominion?" Lorist asked.
The guard nodded and said, "Sir Josk questioned them already and I was among the men he brought along with him. The captives said they were not too clear about it as the whole army had been guided by someone else and that they merely followed along. However, they mentioned seeing a white beach as they traveled by the coast and passing through a few caverns with the last one taking them one whole day to traverse. Also, they also said that they crossed a very long suspension bridge. After the journey that took them four days, the worn out soldiers were allowed to rest for two days after they set up their camp..."
"Was Knight Josk with you as well?"
"Yes, milord. When were sneaking around Wildnorth Town, we met with Sir Josk who led his men to spy on the enemy camp, so we simply joined up with him," replied the guard.
"Alright, you should go take some rest. You did good," said Lorist as he tapped on the guard's shoulder in a good mood.
Lorist exhaled and relaxed as he thought, even though what we lack most right now is time, I didn't expect that the duke would allow his troops to rest for two days. This is the best case scenario I can hope for.
"Ovidis, have you finished picking the men for the company I asked you to form yesterday?" Lorist asked.
Ovidis nodded and said, "Milord, the company has already been formed and equipped. I had them finish building the training ground behind the business sector and they can start their basic training drills first thing today."
"Good. During their breaks, don't forget to teach them about how to awaken their Battle Force. Since you have been in the empire's army before, I'm sure you can easily teach them the basic Battle Force technique to help them awaken their Battle Force quickly. I'll be leaving this company to you."
"Yes, milord," replied Ovidis as he straightened his body.
"Alright, that's all. Good work working the night shift since yesterday. You better go get some rest for now," Lorist said.
After having breakfast, Shadekampf, Patt, Jim and Waxima arrived at Lorist's room.
"Jim, later during the morning, let the mercenaries enter the castle in small groups to equip themselves before they return to the camp outside. I will be bringing them with me tomorrow morning, understood?"
"Yes, milord. I will start working on it immediately," Jim said before he left.
"Shadekampf, I will leave the matter of the communication with the Kenmays Family about the knighthood competition to you. Supervisor Hansk will also help you out with this. You're clear on what I want you to pay attention to, right?" Lorist asked.
Shadekampf replied, "Milord, don't worry. I will make sure to satisfy your demands."
"Patt, pick one squad from the guard company and two squads of family soldiers later today for Knight Waxima to command. They should meet a few criteria like having awakened their Battle Force as well as knowing riding and archery."
"Also, after I bring the three squads away, the castle will only have two squads of guards and two squads of family soldiers remaining. I will leave these men under your command, Patt. As for Ovidis's newly-formed company, you won't be able to use them as of yet, so let Ovidis train them up first. Four squads' worth of soldiers should be enough to defend Firmrock Castle. However, make sure to be vigilant even during the duration of the knighthood competition lest we get attacked by surprise," Lorist instructed Patt.
"Milord, don't worry. I will definitely keep my eyes wide open," Patt promised.
Lorist patted on his shoulder twice and said, "Alright, I'll leave it all to you. Waxima..."
"Milord, please give me your instructions," said the knight as he stepped forward.
Lorist turned to him and said, "I'm really sorry that you have to accompany me to the battlefield the moment you joined us..."
Waxima interjected, "Milord, the battlefield is the second home of the knight. It is my honor to be able to serve the family. Please don't hesitate to give me my orders."
"Alright, Waxima. Go with Patt to pick the men you will bring to battle. You will be in charge of overseeing the preparations and equipment of the soldiers. For the guards, let them take double-layered metal armor, pikes, riding shields, a quiver of javelins as well as one sidearm of their choosing. For the family soldiers, they will be allocated chain mail, pikes, bucklers, training longbows, a quiver of arrows and a longsword. Every man will have a pair of mounts, three days' worth of food as well as a wool blanket. Begin the preparations today for our departure tomorrow."
"Yes, milord," said Waxima as he clenched his fist and knocked onto his left breastplate in a knight salute.
"Alright, you guys go work on your tasks. Notify the guards at the door to call Butler Boris, Old Man Balk and Supervisor Hansk over."
"Locke... You're far too shameless..." said Telesti with a flushed face while wearing an annoyed expression with hints of embarrassment and anger.
When Lorist went to bid her goodbye, he hugged her the moment he entered the room and gave her a French kiss, causing Telesti to gasp softly as she slumped down powerlessly in surprise.
"My dear Telesti, I will be going on the battlefield soon. This time, the enemy I face is really formidable and I truly feel that this might be the last time we meet. That's why I've decided to bid my farewells in hopes that your kiss will grant me the courage I need to defeat my fearsome foe. When and if I return, I will definitely present my spoils of battle to you..." said Lorist as he read out a classic line from one of the chivalric tales he read.
"Alright, alright. There you go again plagiarizing the lines you read in some knighthood novel. I don't know about the others, but I'm pretty sure that sooner or later you'll appear before me without a single scratch on you. I can only hope to pray for your enemy who have used up all their luck for them to have met you," said Telesti as she interjected in the middle of Lorist's recital.
"As expected, my dear Miss Telesti understands me best. But even though you hold so much confidence for me, this expedition will no doubt be a rather dangerous one as the men of Duke Loggins outnumber ours by two to three times. I have already ordered Patt to notify you to move if the worst comes to happen," Lorist said with a solemn expression.
Telesti fell silent for a while before she raised her head and said, "I believe that nobody will be able to defeat you and that you will return swiftly. You should go now, after all, you've hugged and kissed me already and said all you wanted to, right? What are you waiting for?"
Lorist smiled and said, "I was thinking if I should kiss you once more..."
"You..." said Telesti angrily as she looked around to look for something to pummel Lorist with.
Lorist dashed swiftly out of the doorway and gave Vinny an imperial gold coin when he passed her by. "You did well, this is for you."
Telesti sat down powerlessly on her chair and said, "You darned..."
Upon thinking back on the kiss moments before, she felt her face heat up as her vision blurred for a bit.
"Mistress, look! Lord Locke gave me a gold coin!" said Vinny happily.
Looking at Vinny's genuine smile, Telesti couldn't even get mad at her even is she tried. "Little Vinny, you sold me out for a single gold coin?"
"I didn't, aren't you sitting here just fine right now?" said Vinny with an innocent expression.
"Then why did you close the door just now?"
Vinny replied with a touch of naivete, "Lord Locke said that he wanted to give you a surprise and didn't want anybody else to see it. I thought it made sense so I closed the door and got rewarded by him with one gold coin! Oh, what was the surprise Lord Locke gave you just now? Can you show me?"
Telesti shrugged and buried her head within her arms as she laid flat on the table. Frustrated, she said, "Nothing..."
"Sheesh. Mistress, you're so stingy..." said Vinny.
"Milord, it's about time we departed," said Waxima as he showed up in front of Lorist.
Patt brought over a huge Northlander Horse which Lorist subsequently mounted.
"Milord, are you fine like that?" said Waxima in surprise as he looked at the simple chain mail Lorist wore.
"Well, Waxima, even though I'm a knight myself, the techniques I trained in is different from yours and the others. Wearing heavy armor will only serve to limit my abilities instead," Lorist explained.
With an expression of understanding, Waxima got onto his own horse and followed behind his lord.
One guard squad and two family soldier squads were already standing by. All of them numbered to more than 360 fully-equipped men in metal armor who were lined up in three long rows. Beside them were mounts without riders which they could switch to when their current ones tired out. Even though it was a relatively small group, the troops gave off an indomitable feeling, especially when compared to the unorganized mercenaries standing beside them not far away.
"Have the scouts been sent out?" Lorist asked.
"Yes. All 30 plus of them left early this morning. They were split into groups of three with several groups sent in front, to the left and to the right respectively," replied Waxima.
"Alright, let's depart. You'll be leading the march."
"Jim, come here," Lorist said.
"We're going to leave now. Tell the four mercenary crew leaders to follow our troops from behind and organize themselves. When they are ready, bring the four crew leaders to me. I'd like to meet them," Lorist said.
"Okay, milord. I will head there right now."
Among the four mercenary crews, the one with the most members was without a doubt the Nightbat Mercenary Crew. They were the last crew who signed the agreement with Jim as they believed that given that their numbers were the highest, they deserved a pay of at least 150 to 200 gold Fordes. In the end, Jim ridiculed them for ranking only number three among the four crews even though they had so many members and said that they didn't have the right to ask for a raise and were free to not sign the agreement if they so pleased. In the end, the crew leader caved and signed it anyway.
The 260 plus Nightbat Mercenaries didn't seem to have any discipline at all and moved at their own pace. When Jim brought the Nightbat Crew Leader to meet Lorist, he was ordered to reorganize his own men who didn't look the least bit like the rest of the Norton Family soldiers and instead resembled a motley crew of rascals.
The leader of the Nightbat Mercenary Crew, Ulampmaxin, was an old, slick and cunning Two Star Silver ranked mercenary. Having been rebuked by Lorist, he looked at the soldiers of the Norton Family as well as the other three mercenary crews before he returned to his own group in embarrassment and started scolding away. It didn't take long for his men to behave and look more like proper soldiers.
The Cromwell Mercenary Crew was the strongest among the rest due to their leader, Cromwell Richard, being a One Star Gold ranked swordsman. It was rumored that his grandfather used to be a knight who had been stripped of his status for having angered his lord and was chased out of the family to become a lowly mercenary. Even so, he managed to have some fortuitous encounters during his life as one and managed to earn quite a fortune, which he used to form his own mercenary crew which he often employed to explore ancient ruins in search of artifacts. In the end, the grandfather of the current Cromwell leader left behind a will that stated that his descendants had to inherit the crew he had formed. Even if one was a commoner, as long as one was strong enough, one would be able to live the free and unchained life of a mercenary without worries.
The group that ranked number two in terms of strength was the Razorpike Mercenary Crew which numbered more than 170 people. Lorist paid the most attention to that crew as they were formed from retired commoner military officers and soldiers who adhered to standard military discipline and regulations as was seen in the way they marched. Their leader was a Three Star Silver ranked mercenary called Sandro who used to be a garrison officer for a town which had been eradicated during the civil war within the empire. For the survival of his family and comrades, he had formed his own mercenary crew so that they would be able to support themselves financially while not being oppressed by nobles at the same time.
The weakest mercenary crew was the Pentasword Mercenary Crew. As the name implied, the crew was formed jointly by five Silver ranked swordsmen. Even though their numbers were the least at only 132 people, they still looked more disciplined and united than the messy Nightbat mercenaries.
Lorist remained behind his own troops and chatted heartily with the mercenary leaders. Given that he had been a mercenary for up to 6 years back at Morante City, he didn't run out of topics to talk about with the rest of the mercenaries. Lorist also didn't put up any arrogant airs nobles usually did and occasionally even mocked himself just to cause the rest of them to laugh out loud without restraint.
Just when the conversation was getting heated, a mounted soldier rode over from further ahead and said, "Milord, Knight Waxima requests for your presence at the vanguard. Squad Leader Paulobins has returned."