The coming of fall during the 9th month blanketed the Morgan Hills and Black Forests with a new coat of gold.
Lorist stood at the southern gates as he sent off Baron Camorra. Occasionally, the freed Silver ranked knights would show up before Lorist to pay their respects before following their attendant to the side to wait for the rest of their comrades before leaving.
Baron Camorra looked at the Silver ranked knights that gathered in the distance with a solemn expression. Eventually, he could no longer resist and said, "Your move was truly a stroke of genius. Even though I already know that the knights would stir up a storm for the Northland Army when they return, I was unable to come up with a suitable contingency plan even after pondering over it for the whole night. Sigh, the Lord Duke has truly made a huge mistake this time. Without the suppression of the Northland Army, I'm afraid the Northlands would fall into another period of instability and chaos..."
Lorist laughed lightly as he said, "The time of peril has long descended upon the land, and it's only a matter of time before the Northlands become embroiled within it. On my journey back from Morante City to the family's dominion, I've seen much of the artifacts of war from hungry peasants, rising bandit groups and homeless vagabonds. I initially thought that with the natural borders the Northlands has, it would remain the haven for the people in chaotic times like these and would be able to stay unified throughout. But I was wrong. After arriving here, I discovered that the Northlands was faring even worse that the outside world and is rife with conflict and wars. You can even seemingly hear the cries of and sufferings of the people carried by the distant winds that blow by..."
Lorist stopped smiling and continued, "As the Duke of the Northlands who has formed the Northland Army, Duke Loggins had the responsibility to pacify the Northlands and restore peace to it by unifying the nobles here and make this place to be the exemplar for the other nations across the continent. But what did the duke do? He used the Northland Army as the instrument of his reign of terror and even waged wars with it to expand his wealth. Even though he took so much resources from other dominion lords, what did he use them on? All of it was used to fund his luxurious and wasteful life of debauchery without even benefitting the Northlands in the slightest...
"Sometimes, I feel that it truly is laughable that the duke even has ambitions to form his own duchy. While having grand ambitions is a commendable thing, his fault was in his lack of courage and self-awareness. Who would ever truly support him in his endeavors? Even if the nobles of the Northlands are currently loyal to the duke, it's only because they fear the Northland Army. Nobody likes an incompetent, self-centered and morally-bankrupt person lording them around. Now that your duke has truly run into our family and crippled his own army as a result, he should've been trying his best to console his troops and buy back the freedom of the captives and learn from this lesson...
"But what did he do instead? His heart and mind is filled with thoughts of nothing but gold coins to the point that he angered even the knights who had sworn fealty to him. Did he really think the money was his? What an unreasonable, heartless, stubborn and unrighteous fellow. Baron Camorra, is such a person really worthy of your loyalty and service? I believe that if he were given a choice between a bag of gold coins and your survival, he'll definitely choose the former without hesitating even a bit and leave you for dead. I really feel that you're worth more than that, Baron Camorra. You are a talented person. While the duke has definitely given you your current position and privilege, it's only because you're of use to him and not because he appreciates your true capabilities and potential.
"Also, you are right in that I have benefitted from releasing Hennard and the other knights so that they can mess with the Northland Army and cause the duke to be unable to pose any threat to the Norton Family in the future. Without the Northland Army, I'd like to see how that duke of yours plans to get the money he craves so much from my hands. You should know that the funds are the spoils my family got rightfully from the result of the conflict, so I will definitely use it on developing my dominion. While the outside world is filled with chaos and strife, I will make the Norton Family's dominion a haven on this land of suffering."
"Developing a dominion requires more than just money: talented people and resources are equally as important," interjected Baron Camorra. Having been listening to Lorist's lecture for so long and being unable to counter any of his points, he had to find some way to vent his frustrations. "You only have money, but you don't have the ability to convert that money into resources that you can use. What you need most right now is a way to establish a trade route with the outside world and a peaceful environment that will allow you to foster your dominion. Otherwise, no wonder how resolute you may be, your words will remain as only empty promises."
Lorist nodded and smiled before he said, "You're right. I am currently trying my best to build that safe environment that my dominion requires to flourish."
He turned to his back and pointed to Firmrock Castle before he continued, "You can already see it for yourself. This is the fruit of our recent efforts. Even though we were at war, I've never stopped the construction of the cornerstone of my dominion's safety. Gold coins are useless if I can't convert them into resources and the family does lack an established trade route. But don't forget that merchants are beings who are inherently drawn to profit. When word of the family requiring goods and having more than enough money to pay for it spreads out, the merchants will naturally come knocking at our doors to make trade. I believe that as long as we continue to work hard, we will definitely be rewarded for our efforts."
At that moment, Knight Henard with his two attendants and four servants left the southern gates of Firmrock Castle and arrived before Lorist and nodded to Baron Camorra. He saluted Lorist and turned around before he lightly prodded his horse with his boots, causing it to let out a soft neigh before it rode towards the path in the distance. The rest of the Silver ranked knights also started to follow behind with their respective attendants and servants...
Baron Camorra let out a sigh before he said, "I should take my leave now. I only hope that they won't cause too much trouble when they return..."
Lorist laughed out once again and said, "The Northlands is like a dam at its breaking point. Duke Loggins who had been serving as the dam wall thought that he could go on standing without any worries. The hole I just made on that dam is only a small defect; as for when it will collapse into rubble, even I don't know the answer to that. Since we're going to part here, let me give you some advice: if things don't go well for you, prioritize your own safety. The doors of the Norton Family will always be open to you."
Having received such a frank invitation, Baron Camorra was shocked. Feeling the urge to say something, he resisted it and got back up on his horse and waved to the four guards who had escorted him to Firmrock Castle and rode towards them quickly.
As Lorist ascended the castle walls slowly, he saw Josk leaning on the crenels of the walls as he looked at the cloud of dust rising in the distance as a result of the mounts of the people who were traveling away.
"Aren't you going to train your troops today?" Lorist asked.
"Nope, I let Pete handle it," Josk replied.
Pete was one of the knights who had joined the Norton Family after the knighthood competition. His full name was Peake Pulliste and he was one of the more famous wandering knights of the Northlands. Being only 25 years old, he had already reached the Two Star Silver rank in Battle Force training and was also the winner of the archery section of the knighthood competition. Shadekampf only managed to successfully recruit him after telling him of the presence of Josk, a Gold ranked marksman, who was serving the family.
Josk had once praised Pete in front of Lorist, saying that Pete was the second most talented person in archery only inferior to himself, to which Lorist said sarcastically, "Sol, are you really praising him or are you just praising yourself?"
Josk sighed as he passed over a thick beastskin document.
"Knight Hennard handed it to me before he left without saying anything else."
Lorist opened that document and saw a hand-drawn map with details like bridges, castles, bastides, cities and towns with rows of other text at the side of the map.
The longer Lorist studied it, the wider his eyes got before he finally laughed out loud.
"Isn't it merely a military planning map? What are you so happy about?" Josk asked.
"No..." Lorist said with a tone full of admiration. "Joe, look. We no longer have to worry about the duke sending more troops to attack us. The suspension bridge, the citadel and the capital of the Northlands, Gildusk City, all require three regiments of troops in total to defend while the three bastides and seven towns require at least ten companies. Hehe, I didn't think that the duke would also use the Northland Army as a makeshift garrison force for his territories... I really have to hand it for him for thinking of such a method...
"Of the 20000 soldiers of the army, more than 4000 have been wiped out by us. Now that he only has around 16000 left, deducting the 12500 soldiers he needs for the defense of his territory, he can only send around 5000 soldiers at most. Could the 5000 soldiers really accomplish what the previous 4000 couldn't? Even though I bet that the duke would definitely not be satisfied with this turn of events, even if he were to decide on sending out more soldiers, he would still need someone to lead them. I don't have to worry about Hennard going back to serve the duke now that he has done this. Heck, he might even backstab him for a change. Tabik would still need another year at least to recover and the other two Gold ranked knights of his won't be able to leave their posts either. Haha, the duke couldn't touch our family even if he wanted to..." Lorist said.
"Then we won't have to be going into battle anytime soon, right?" Josk asked.
"Perhaps. The Kenmays Family have already turned their attention to the eastern Northlands and have also expressed their desire for peace with us. You also know that the duke's situation looks quite dim as Hennard and the other knights will definitely try to rile up as much trouble as they can when they get back. The Northland Army might even revolt with all the recent incidents and the duke will definitely have lots of stuff to settle. Before restoring the situation of the Northland Army soldiers, he definitely wouldn't be able to start more expeditions against us.
"If nothing out of my expectations happens, we should have a period of peace in the near future. But that doesn't mean that we can relax and Viscount Kenmays must still be holding a grudge at the fact that his money had been taken by us, so he definitely wouldn't let a chance to cause us some trouble slip by. As for Duke Loggins, being a madman, there's no telling what he would do based on our common sense. Perhaps he might even rally up the whole of the army without caring about his own dominion to launch another expedition against us for the sake of mere gold coins.
"That's why we have to always be alert and prepared just in case something goes wrong. Also, Joe, I am thinking of leaving Firmrock Castle for some time. I can only be at peace if you're in charge of this place," Lorist said as he looked at Josk.
"Where are you planning to head to?" Josk asked.
"I was thinking of going to seek out the convoy. Ever since I read the letter delivered by Ruhr and Mort, I've been rather worried that something else has happened to the convoy after they sent the letter and have been losing sleep at night because of that. I can't help but feel unsettled by all that, so I plan to use this period of peace to seek them out..." Lorist said as he looked into the distance.
"Then who are you going to bring with you?" Josk asked again.
Lorist gave it some thought before he said, "I guess I'll have Patt come along with me. Everyone else is busy with their own tasks. I can only have Patt come after having Paulobins take over his duties at the new recruit camp."
"That won't do..." Josk said as he shook his head. "With only Patt and you, there are only two people. That's far too dangerous. Think about it: Ruhr and Mort initially traveled in a group of 12 and only 2 of them survived the journey. How about this? I'll agree to your request to stay here to guard the place, but you must bring the mounted archers squad with you. Only with Pete leading them will I be able to rest assured. If you refuse, I will start packing my luggage right away to tag along with you."
Lorist said frustratedly, "Alright, alright. I will bring the mounted archers squad. Well, you should understand that with my skills, I shouldn't run into any trouble anyway. Don't you think that bringing the whole squad along is a little too high profile?"
Josk said solemnly, "Milord, the outside world is rife with dangers and if you travel in a pair, you'll definitely attract a lot of unwanted attention. However, if you bring the mounted archers squad with you, then trouble will actively try to move out of your way. Only with that will you be able to make a swift and uninterrupted journey and find the convoy quickly enough."
Lorist nodded and said, "Fine, you've convinced me thoroughly. Instruct the guards to notify the mounted archers squad to make preparations for departure tomorrow."
Outside Nadegas City which was located at the border of the Andinaq Kingdom and the Madras Duchy were tightly packed tents and the main camp of the northbound convoy was in the middle of those tents.
Everyone within the large tent looked crestfallen and sullen.
"Why did the Madras Duchy refuse our request for passage? They even sent the Ironguard Legion to secure the border to prevent every single person from entering..." Charade said to the rest of his comrades within the tent.
Potterfang gave it some thought before he replied, "I don't understand it myself. Nadegas City is only 50 or so kilometers from the border of the Madras Duchy and we should have been able to cross the border after passing through Lichtana Citadel. But when our vanguard arrived there, we noticed that the forces stationed at Lichtana Citadel were on high alert as if an enemy invasion was about to happen. The defense troops at the citadel forbade our entry and a few days after that, the Ironguard Legion was mobilized to secure the border. When we sent someone to inquire about the matter, the Ironguard Legion's commander sent an officer who said that the convoy will not be allowed to enter the Madras Duchy under any circumstances."
Charade was incredibly troubled by that matter. In actuality, everyone knew the reason why the convoy was refused entry into the duchy, but they didn't mention it to save Charade some face. The reputation of Charade the Demon had long spread far and wide ever since the convoy's voyage through the Andinaq Kingdom which resulted in the deaths of more than 80 dominion lords followed by the eradication of their families. It was only natural that the Madras Duchy would reinforce the border the moment they heard about Charade's approach. Other than that, the 100000 plus vagabonds that followed behind the convoy were akin to locusts that would sweep everything clean in their wake.
"We can't even enter if we pay a toll fee?" Charade asked as he clung onto the slightest glimmer of hope left.
Potterfang looked back at him and shook his head.
"What if we only send a few across? Can't we form a merchant convoy in the name of the royal family of the Andinaq Kingdom to send in tens of carriages?"
"It's pointless. The officer from the Ironguard Legion already mentioned that they are planning to seal the border off completely for no less than a year and a half. Don't mention merchant convoys, even smaller groups of people won't be allowed entry," Terman interjected.
"Sigh..." Charade turned to an accountant he had recently promoted and asked, "How much food do we have left?"
"Sir, after sweeping the whole of the Welbassia Province clean, the food we have will be able to last the convoy and the vagabonds for three months at most. However, it's already the 9th month and winter is coming in another one month or so. Many of the vagabonds lack the necessary clothing to survive the winter and if we don't make preparations to weather through the season, the old and weak will freeze to death en masse when the snow starts to fall..." replied the accountant respectfully.
"Pass these instructions down that the family soldiers' treatment will not change and every member of the convoy will receive three meals a day, but the amount will have to be rationed. As for the vagabonds, they are allowed only 2 meals a day with each person getting one bowl of porridge per meal. It's fine as long as they don't starve to death. When the convoy is able to move, we will feed them just enough so that they have sufficient energy to travel along with us. Potterfang, increase the surveillance of the vagabonds and instantly quell any trouble the moment you see it. Also, have the vagabonds collect some firewood and dig pits in the ground to start preparing for winter. Additionally, we will have to send some men out to purchase more food and clothing just in case."
Charade's hatred for the vagabonds that followed the convoy was deep-seated. Had it not been for them, the convoy would have never fell into such a predicament. Perhaps they might even have arrived at the Northlands by now and met up with Lorist. Originally, he thought that bringing the vagabonds to the Northlands as human resource would be a good thing, but now Charade hated himself for his greed and tendency to overthink things. Couldn't he have waited for the convoy to reach the Northlands first before sending people out to bring the vagabonds in? It was primarily his fault that the convoy ended up in so much trouble.
"It's not good, Sir Charade!" Dulles of the carroballista unit cried as he entered the tent. Taking ragged breaths, he continued, "Edma and Wamp both went to join the Second Highness and brought two companies of family soldiers with them..."
Edma and Wamp were both the old students of the Dawn Academy and were acquaintances with Lorist, Terman and Charade. They currently held the positions as company leaders within the forces of the convoy.
Ever since the convoy's forces started eradicating the nobles of the Welbassia Province, the Second Highness followed behind them with his own force of 5000 to help some of the vagabonds settle down. Had it not been for him cleaning up all the trouble, the convoy would have far more than 100000 vagabonds following behind them now.
However, after the Second Highness found that Potterfang and several others used to be ex-officers of the Whitelion Legion, he had frequently visited them at the convoy to try to recruit them, but Potterfang and the rest refused his advances. On the other hand, Charade's father-in-law was moved by the offer and privately asked Charade himself to join the Second Highness's side, only to end up being severely reprimanded. In the end, Charade only had to say 'If milord Lorist finds out about this...' to cause Engelich to shiver in fear and kneel down to plead for forgiveness immediately.
Since the Second Highness wasn't able to recruit the higher-ranking officers of the convoy, he proceeded to turn his efforts to the former students of the Dawn Academy and within but a month, 7 of them had already defected to his side. However, this instance today was going too far as the two members left with the two companies of soldiers which were placed under their command.
"What kind of bullshit is this... Deploy our forces and have them surround Nadegas City! If the Second Highness isn't willing to return the soldiers of our convoy, we will declare war with him immediately and turn back to the imperial capital and fuck up the entirety of the Andinaq Kingdom!" roared Charade as he smashed his fist onto the table.