The Journey North Begins
On the 3rd day of the 1st month, Lorist bid farewell to Baron Miranda and began his journey.
The massive convoy used the main road and traveled up to 60 kilometers within that day.
On the 4th day of the 1st month, the convoy traveled another 20 kilometers before noon and left the main road for a forest path detour. Having just crossed a small hill, they arrived at the territory of the nobles of the Redlis Kingdom.
On the third day of the journey, just when the convoy was about to start moving again, Yuriy sent someone over to report that the local dominion lord, a viscount, has led more than 20 knights to the convoy and said that they would attack the convoy should they not leave ten percent of whatever they had as toll.
Lorist merely laughed and asked the scout who made the report, "Did Knight Yuriy tell the viscount that this is the army of the Norton Family and we're only making our way back to our dominion without doing any business on the way?"
The scout replied, "Sir Yuriy has already told the viscount many times, but he refused to listen and stubbornly insisted that we are a smuggling group that is pretending to be a noble family. He even said that if we were going to impersonate nobles, we would be better off if we used a flag from some well-known one and not the flag of the Norton Family, a family that he hasn't heard of before at all."
Loris turned to his back and called out, "Terman, go forward to invite that viscount over. I'll let him know personally what our family is made of."
Without delay, Terman came back with the viscount as his prisoner.
Terman said that when he led the knight brigade on a charge, the viscount's men either turned back to escape or got off their horses to surrender, leaving the viscount himself staring in disbelief as Terman and his knights took all 27 of the viscount's men prisoner.
However, the viscount still retained the proud, unyielding demeanor that was expected from a noble; even though he was taken prisoner, he still held his head up high and cursed, "You actually dare to go against me, the family head of the Mestre Family? Are you looking to start a war with us?!"
However, he also said that if Lorist was willing to reimburse him for his loss and apologize, he would be willing to let the convoy off due since he was a benevolent and forgiving person. "You are to offer a huge tribute to me as an apology and... Ooooh... This maidservant looks pretty decent..." He was referring to Molise who was standing by Charade's side.
Lorist gave a bitter laugh and turned to Potterfang and said, "I suspect this guy doesn't have a brain."
The stuck up and arrogant viscount was instantly strapped onto the hollow rotor on the orders of the enraged Charade. Reidy had him go through more than ten minutes of the excruciating vertigo-inducing experience, after which the viscount was let go. He then answered every single question Lorist's group had with tears and snot all over his face.
It appeared that Viscount Mestre was in the midst of a war with a neighboring baron. Just yesterday night, the viscount and his men had intended to raid a small village nearby but they returned empty handed. As they were on their way back to the castle, however, they saw the northbound convoy and the viscount tried to make up for his loss by demanding for a toll fee to be paid. He also mentioned that his castle and the rest of his forces was only 30 kilometers away at a lake nearby.
Lorist said happily, "Oh, so the viscount has come over to invite us to his castle as guests. Terman, bring this Viscount Mes-thingamajig to his castle and have his men surrender. Otherwise, have him hanged right outside his castle. Also, have Dulles and his carroballista unit accompany you as well. If they refuse to surrender, besiege the castle right away. We're going to lodge there tonight."
Currently, Viscount Mestre felt extremely cold. Having just opened his eyes and still feeling a little woozy, he thought, that cursed fatty, he actually dared to treat a noble personage such as me in that fashion... When I get back to the castle, I will gather the citizens of my domain and teach them a lesson... Wait, where is this? It seems quite familiar...
The viscount gave his face a pinch and felt much more conscious of his surroundings. He found that he could oddly recognize that place. Finally, he noticed that this was his castle and the room he was in seemed to be his bedroom. But why had his bedroom changed so much?
The viscount propped himself up from the floor and noticed that he was stark naked with not one piece of garment on his body. What is this, thought the viscount as he inspected the piece of cloth that was covering him when he was unconscious. It seemed to be a rough linen bag that was used to store wheat.
Ridiculous! What did they do to me? The viscount cursed and walked quickly towards the empty spot where his bed once was and pulled on the bell rope to summon his maidservant to help him dress up. However, when he pulled on the rope, it merely slipped downward with the other end having fallen on the ground. The rope was disconnected.
Pinching his nose at the smell of the linen sack, he brought it up to his waist and used the rope to fasten it and walked towards the exit barefoot. Looking along the walkway, he couldn't see a single soul. The viscount called out loudly for his servants, but no one answered.
Going over to an adjacent room, he noticed that it was completely empty just like his bedroom without a single article of clothing, furniture or footwear left behind. All that remained was an icy cold wall. He checked the other rooms only to find that the furnishings and decorations that used to be there all but gone.
Wandering around his castle, the viscount noticed that even the torches on the walls were all missing and started fearing for the worst. What in the world happened? Where is everyone else? He then rushed towards the balcony and felt the sunlight warming his skin up before breathing a sigh of relief.
From the balcony, he swept his gaze over the rest of his castle and noticed that it was surprisingly clean, so clean that not even a single carriage, metalware, textile, livestock or person could be seen. The castle was only left with nothing but the stones and wood that it was constructed from.
"Is anyone around? Is there anyone left?" cried out the viscount in despair from the balcony.
"Milord, you're finally awake. That's... that's great." A silhouette could be seen leaning on the castle walls from afar. The viscount narrowed his eyes and thought, isn't that my loyal butler? Why is he half naked with nothing but a sack covering him like me?
The viscount quickly made his way to the yard where his butler was at and was met with the butler's emotional ramblings. "Milord, you're finally awake You have been out cold for two days already!"
The viscount rested his hand on the butler and asked, "Where is everyone? What happened to my castle? I can't see a single thing anywhere!"
"Milord, did you forget? Two days ago, a group of bandits threatened that if we do not surrender and let them in the castle, they would have you hanged. We had no choice but to comply for the sake of your life and surrendered without resistance. The bandits said that they were the army of some Norton Family and complained that you have delayed their journey and also caused them to suffer a blow to their morale. They demanded that we pay them back for their losses. But, milord, you understand too that our family doesn't have much gold coins left. The bandits then consumed all the livestock within the castle and took every single thing within it, not leaving even a single piece of cloth behind and also dismantled all the doors and took it with them," explained the butler.
The viscount was already going crazy with rage. "Then, what about the servants? Why don't I see anyone here?"
"They have all left with the bandits, milord. Before they left, they gathered everyone in the castle and a fatty asked all of us whether we wanted to leave with their group. I refused and they instantly stripped me naked and left me here while the others followed them and left long ago," said the butler.
"Milord, they only left me two sacks after I desperately pleaded. I have only managed to find a porcelain bowl after two days of searching and I just used to cook up some oatmeal. Milord, do you want to have a meal first?"
Having heard that there was food, the viscount suddenly felt the emptiness within his stomach. "Alright, get me some then."
At that moment, sounds of horses galloping could be heard approaching the main gates of the castle. The old butler's face instantly changed as he said, "Milord, this is bad! The Bocchi Family's men have come to attack us!"
"Shut the gates immediately," said the viscount anxiously.
"But, milord, the bandits took away the castle gates as well! During these past two days, I only managed to build a wall of rocks to shut the entrance of the castle..." said the old butler.
"We're finished......" said the viscount as he knelt down in despair.
Charade wasn't concerned in the slightest about their encounter with Viscount Mestre at all. To him, the viscount was a complete imbecile. He truly wondered how a person like him became a landed noble in the first place. The viscount thought that he could boss anyone around just because he was a noble without even bothering to consider the actual capability of his forces. He even wanted to take my Molise... Good thing we didn't let him off lightly.
At that moment, Charade was standing in front of the castle of the third noble they ran into during their journey. The dominion lord, a baron, was currently haggling over the price of a pile of weapons. When they passed through another noble's territory the day before, Charade sent a messenger to state their intent on doing business with the dominion lord. However, the lord was frightened by the military might of the convoy and had turtled up within his castle, refusing to respond to anything they said. Charade could do naught but give up on the notion of selling their goods to that noble.
Charade had learned his lesson after that and when they passed by the current baron's castle, they only bought three carriages and offered some of the stuff they took from Viscount Mestre's castle as gifts for the him. The reason the things were given away was because it was too much for the convoy to bring along on the journey.
Seeing the gifts dangling before his face, the baron appeared on the walls of his castle and asked Charade of his intentions.
Charade made a knight salute and stated that he came to represent the Norton Family's convoy and asked whether the baron would be able to offer their group with some provisions in exchange for some weapons and equipment.
Upon hearing about weapons, the baron quickly got out of his castle to take a look and picked 100 pikes, 20 chain mails, 20 round shields, 20 two-handed greatswords as well as 3 full sets of knight armor. All the items totaled up to around 500 gold Fordes, but since the baron did not have that much money at hand, he decided to offer some other resources he had for trade.
In the end. the baron spent 100 gold coins and ten carriages with two horses for each all filled up with wheat as well as 5 cows with another 50 pigs to be exchanged for the weapons. To commemorate his first sale, Charade offered the items at 80% of the original price and even treated the baron to a bottle of wine produced by Sloph's vineyard.
The baron was quite happy at having been treated to some fine wine and kindly advised that once the convoy leaves the mountain range, the convoy would no longer be in his dominion and warned for them to be on their guard as that area was rife with bandit activity. He also told them to be wary of attacks from Count Cobry's army.
Charade hastily thanked the baron for his advice and invited the baron over to the convoy's campsite near the mountain range for a banquet.
The baron thought it over and said that he would attend it and hoped that his presence would not cause too much trouble for the convoy.
Charade quickly responded that having the baron over to join them for the night was an honor and said that he would go back quickly to prepare for the banquet that night.
In the evening, the baron came over with his eldest son, a Three Star Silver Knight, and four other attendants. Upon entering the campsite, the baron expressed his wonder and praise at the Norton Family's military might.
Charade, who was seated at a table that they had took from Viscount Mestre's castle, introduced Lorist and the family knights to the baron. The baron was called Charles and his son's name was Soria. After that, they all started eating and chatting merrily.
Charade said that the main reason he invited Baron Charles over was to get an understanding of the situation of the areas where the convoy would be passing through. The baron and his son thus started telling the group everything they knew.
According to Baron Charles, the mountains where the convoy had set up camp at was the border between his and Viscount Debonar's territory. However, not only was Viscount Debonar dead, the neighboring Baron Anlar, Count Bajri as well as Baron Omador also suffered the same fate. That was to say, Lorist's convoy would be passing through lands that were currently without rulers. He said that there would not be any place where Lorist can resupply as the cities and villages there had all been raided to ruin.
And the cause of it all was Count Cobry's private army. It was said that in his younger days, the count was a morally bereft knight who was also a serial womanizer whose favorite pastime was to travel around within his dominion to force the women he fancied into bed with him. No matter whether they were in their teens or their late forties, he didn't let even one of them out of his grasp, thus causing the women in his dominion to stay cooped up within their homes or leave it altogether.
Due to his lifestyle, the count had over 60 illegitimate children. Though, he didn't mind that fact at all and adopted all of them, thus causing the neighboring nobles to give him the moniker, 'Count Ravenous'. On one occasion when Count Cobry went to the imperial capital for some merrymaking, he got to know the First Prince and the two of them quickly became close friends. Two years later when the First Prince was exiled by the former emperor, the count returned to his dominion and stayed within his bastide to nurture all of his illegitimate sons.
After a couple of more years when the First Prince raised the flag of rebellion at Bodolger Province, the count responded by bringing his thirty other grown up illegitimate sons to pledge their allegiance to the First Prince. After the civil war, the count returned with his army and loads of loot and gold back to his dominion, but only ten of the thirty sons still survived.
At present day, even though the count was already in his sixties, his ambitions still hadn't waned. Soon after his return to the dominion, he used various excuses to start conflicts with the neighboring nobles and has successfully expanded his territory to twice its former size. The 13 noble families who had resisted him all perished. The men were culled with the women suffering fates worse than death: they were either abused to their last breath or sold to slave traders when their oppresors were done with them.
There was one noble who made complaints about the count's cruelty to the First Prince so that the fallen noble families may be avenged. However, the First Prince stated that he was unaware of the full picture and would investigate the matter further before taking any action. But no follow up was done even though the noble had waited for more than three months. It was after that when he ran into one of the count's sons who was one the way to the Redlis Kingdom's capital to pay their taxes and tributes.
A fight erupted between the two with it ending with the noble's death at the hands of one of the servants of the illegitimate son. It was described that the servant was angered by the noble who insulted his beloved master to the point where he couldn't contain himself and started lashing out violently. This led to the servant being given the death sentence for killing a noble with the count's son remaining unscathed from the whole affair.
When word of that matter spread to the territories of the noble families near that of the count's, a chain reaction occurred. People started to accuse the First Prince of favoritism towards the count. At that moment, one of the aides of Count Cobry revealed a stunning fact when he was dead drunk at a tavern: before the count returned to his dominion, the First Prince had promised him that he would grant the count the title of 'Duke of the Northwest' if he was able to make the nearby nobles submit to him and that the lands of the nobles would become part of his dominion.
That was why Count Cobry was so fervent in looking for trouble with the nobles around the area without heeding any of the customs and traditions of nobles when it came to war. He even purged every single one of the opposition, down to every single family member, so that they wouldn't cause any problems to him in the future. The whole of the kingdom's nobles all lost faith in the First Prince upon hearing that revelation and almost 40 of those families banded together to form an alliance to curb the threat of Count Cobry, vowing to support each other should any one of them be troubled by the count. Even so, given the past grudges some of them had with others, it was not uncommon for some of them to stab another family in the back from time to time. During the past half year itself, two families have already fallen to Count Cobry's clutches. The alliance also suffered quite a number of losses in battles, causing some of the members to leave it and join the count's side instead.
Baron Charles then downed another large glass of wine before he said now that Count Cobry's army has wiped out the Debonar Family, his own would undoubtedly be the next target. Recently, other than expending his efforts on raising an army of his own, he has also sent some of his sons and daughters to Morante City to some relatives living there to minimize the damage Count Cobry would cause should he succeed in his next conquest. That was also why he purchased so much military equipment from the convoy.
The baron's eldest son, Soria, told Lorist all he knew about the count's forces. Having gotten quite a great haul from the recent conflicts. the count brought over a thousand mercenaries when he returned to his dominion. These men were all mounted and equipped with leather armor and pikes. They called themselves the Spear Cavalry. Adept at chasing down and surrounding their enemies, they were the main force of Count Cobry's army. Other than that, the count also had a local garrison that numbered around 2000 people which was led by a couple of his illegitimate sons who had joined him in his previous expeditions and also helped him manage some of his other territories' security and administration.
Whenever the count defeated an enemy, he would raze the whole territory that belonged to his fallen foe and bring the surviving citizens of the land back to his dominion to serve as slave laborers to build infrastructure for his dominion. Rumor has it that Count Cobry intended to build a city that rivaled that of the kingdom's capital as his main base as the Duke of the Northwest.
Soria also said that in the dominions of the noble families who have been eliminated, small resistance groups formed by the locals that numbered from ten to a hundred people were all over the place and they caused the count quite a bit of trouble. Due to the lack of resources and provisions, they often acted as bandits from time to time and pillaged not only the count's dominion but also the territories belonging to the other nobles as well. In an attempt to wipe out the resistance, the count had sent his forces to the lordless dominions to kill the insurgents as well as capture some strong young men for extra labor.
Among the ranks of the insurgents, there was a famous knight called Josk who was a One Star Gold rank that was famed for his superb archery skills. In one of his exploits to avenge his former master's family, he snuck into Count Cobry' dominion alone and managed to snipe two of the count's illegitimate sons as well as hurt the shoulder of the count himself, causing a large bounty to be of 100 gold coins to be placed on him. Currently, Josk leads a force of over a few hundred men and has even threatened some local nobles to provide them with weapons and equipment. Soria expressed his hopes that Lorist's convoy won't run into him as he crossed that area.
He advised that Lorist take a detour and not pass through the area that was within the count's influence. Otherwise, should the count or the insurgent groups set their sights on the convoy, no matter how strong they were, there was no doubt that they would suffer quite a huge loss. Other than that, when Soria and his father were passing through the area, they noticed a huge number of refugees which followed armies around in hopes of being able to get some food. They would also become a potential burden to the convoy.
After sending the baron and his son off, Lorist's expression turned solemn. Should we continue on the original path or go back the way we came? This was indeed a matter that required extensive consideration.