Seated comfortably in the shade of his tent, with a fine wine in hand, Captain Fairchild took his time looking over the five bounty hunters who were at his mercy. All of them were hard men with dangerous reputations of their own.
After some time, Captain Fairchild finally addressed them:
“You men! I trust that you were listening to what I said to Mr Mason earlier. But, just in case you were not, or you are incapable of understanding it, I shall indulge you with a concise repetition. Our lord, the Baron Hart, feels it important that we all work together in these dangerous times. There are goblins massing beyond our borders, and portents of evil. You have been on the wrong side of things in this last job of yours. So I ask each of you now: are you ready to be good?”
The five men all assured Captain Fairchild that they very much were.
“Excellent! So, what I propose to you now is that you all join us in our mission to scout the wilds for these goblins. You may join Lieutenant Batters’ horsemen and serve as he sees fit. How does that sound to you?”
The five bounty hunters all assured Captain Fairchild that it sounded very good to them indeed.
“Most excellent! So let us now make it official. I hereby sentence all five of you to death by hanging. And I suspend that sentence, contingent upon your good service in our coming mission. Do good by us, lads, and you earn your parole. If, however, you fail to be good, you shall hang. And if you run away and desert, you shall be a wanted man with a death sentence upon his head. Is that understood?”
The five men all assured Captain Fairchild that it was, and went on to thank him for his mercy.
“Thank you, lads. I am quite sure you will prove an asset to us. Sergeant Stonehouse! You may untie these men. Return their horses and belongings to them and have them fall in.”
When they were free, the men all bowed deeply to Captain Fairchild and thanked him again.
“Now!” Captain Fairchild proclaimed when the conscripts were gone. “I suppose we should have Corporal Donny here before us. Father Nate, do you mind assisting us in our disciplinary hearing?”
“Not at all, Captain. It would be my pleasure.”
“Thank you, Father.”
When Corporal Donny was standing at attention in front of them, Captain Fairchild adopted a stern tone to address him.
“Well, now, Corporal, what’s all this we hear about you beating one of our prisoners to death last night?”
“I did it, sir.”
“And why did you do it, Corporal?”
“It’s a private matter, sir. Concerning a family member, sir.”
“Can you spare us no further details?” Captain Fairchild asked.
“I’m sorry, sir. All I’ll say is that it was a matter of honor concerning a woman in my family. I’d not shame her further by getting more into it, sir.”
“Good man. Good man. Well said. I can certainly appreciate your position, and we can leave it at that. I am quite sure the scoundrel got precisely what he deserved. However…” Captain Fairchild said, his tone dropping from neutral to displeased. “We cannot have our prisoners subjected to that kind of thing, no matter how much it might be deserved. We are men of law.”
“I agree, sir. I am sorry, sir.”
“Well, then, what are we to do about it?”
“I don’t know, sir. I will accept whatever discipline you see fit, sir.”
“Good man. Now, I understand you had two accomplices in your crime,” Captain Fairchild said mildly.
“No? That’s not what Mr Mason told us. He said it was three men who took the rascal upstairs to be beaten.”
“No, sir. It was just me, sir.”
“So are you calling Mr Mason a liar?” Captain Fairchild asked, now looking amused.
“Not at all, sir. I’m just telling ye that I acted alone. That’s all, sir.”
Captain Fairchild looked over to Father Nate, who returned a terse head shake to indicate that the man had been lying. Captain Fairchild smiled at this.
“Very well, Corporal. I appreciate your position. Good man. But I must say, had you just come to me privately with your reasons, I assure you we would have seen the man hanged today for you.”
“I know, sir. I thank ye for it. But it was something I felt I had to handle myself, sir.”
“I quite understand, Corporal. But surely you must understand that I cannot have this sort of thing under my command,” Captain Fairchild said as though a disappointed father.
“I do, sir. I await yar judgement, sir.”
“Very good. So, Corporal Donny, for murdering a man in our custody and refusing to name your accomplices, I sentence you to be stripped of your rank of corporal, effective immediately. Further, Spearman Donny, I sentence you to fifty lashes, to be carried out this evening in front of the whole mustered battalion and any such locals that care to watch. Do you have anything to say for yourself, Spearman Donny?”
“No, sir. Thank you, sir.”
“Very good, soldier. You may report for punishment when muster is called before dinner. I trust that you shall do so. Dismissed!” Captain Fairchild stood up smartly to deliver his man a crisp salute.
“Thank you, sir!” Spearman Donny said loudly as he returned the salute.
With both the trial and disciplinary hearing concluded, Father Nate said another prayer to give thanks to Stron and Altas and bring the proceedings to a close. The peasants and assembled soldiers left to get on with their business. What with the executions, it was almost noon, so Captain Fairchild had lunch served for his guests and officers. They ate in full view of the hanged bandits, who would be left as they were as a warning to all with the birds and elements mortifying their remains.
When lunch was over, Father Nate excused himself to his duties at the church. Peep smirked as Captain Fairchild again thanked the priest for his help and bowed deeply to him. When Father Nate was gone, Captain Fairchild smiled brightly at his remaining guests.
“So, Miss Otilla! Bartholomew, Nikolas, and Theodas! What say we go and see this tower of yours, yes?”
“Our tower, sir?” Choke asked, looking flustered.
“Well, it is the Baron’s obviously, and I make no promises as to its eventual allotment. But I do need to assess it, now that it is back in play, as it were. And I have the afternoon free, so what better time? And who better to show it to me? Yes?”
During the trial and executions, Choke had spotted both Unger and Aaron among the peasant audience. When the squad went to get their horses from the church stable, Choke sent Pinch to go and find them so he could introduce them to the Captain. It turned out that they were in Callic village to join the levy of archers Aaron’s father, Munn, was gathering. Fairchild was well pleased to meet them. He congratulated and thanked Unger and Aaron for their assistance to Otilla and her squad in clearing the tower of its spider horrors.
“So, well done, men! Well done! And I hear you are to join us as longbowmen in our coming mission! Most excellent!”
Captain Fairchild declared that he felt quite safe to go to the Old Mill without any soldiers along, accompanied as he was by Otilla, the Pekot squad, Thorn (who had decided to come along), Unger, and Aaron.
On the ride to the Unger compound and the Old Mill, Captain Fairchild asked Unger and Aaron about the state of the tower and the trail to Didsbury. They reported they were both in poor to fair condition.
“And how is the bush in these parts lately? Any trouble lurking about?” Captain Fairchild then asked Unger.
“No, nothing like that at all, sir,” Unger answered. “It’s been real quiet.
“Indeed. Normally, how are the goblins in these parts?”
“Pesky, I’d say. They skulk around the edges, trying to take some livestock or a lone person. It keeps us on our toes, but it’s not been a real problem for years.”
“Indeed. That’s what I understand,” Captain Fairchild said, nodding over Thorn’s way. “And now?”
“Haven’t seen or heard of a gobo in, what, about a year, right?” Unger asked Aaron, who nodded in return.
“So nothing at all. For about a year. That… is not good,” Fairchild said pensively.
“No, sir, it is not. Not with what Thorn and Miss Otilla have been discovering, it isn’t,” Unger agreed.
“Indeed. Well, thank you, man. As you were,” Captain Fairchild said, giving Unger a salute to dismiss him.
Unger saluted the Captain and nodded to Aaron to send him riding ahead to take point. Then Unger slowed his horse to fall back and take up the rear.
“Well, now!” Fairchild exclaimed, turning his attention to Peep, who was riding alongside him. “Miss Otilla! I do hope you take no offence when I say, you are looking like quite the bandit queen!”
Captain Fairchild was right about that. First thing that morning, before the trial, Peep had gone to the hamlet of Cattail Bridge to claim her prize from the peasant boss who had cleaned up her kills near there. Of the three horses, she had chosen the mount and tack of the Scythan warbow armed ranger: a fine, fast, spirited chestnut stallion. Cattail Bridge’s boss had been well pleased with the other two horses, their tack, and the two longswords. He had agreed to send Peep’s other prizes along to the Callic church. This consisted of two suits of chainmail, one suit of leather armor, two crossbows, and sundry other gear and kit. Peep had then gone back to the farmhouse outside the village to reclaim her Scythan warbow and quivers. These were now back in their place on the chestnut stallion’s saddle, which Peep was riding.
With the exception of Choke’s light warhorse, which he had raised and trained by hand at the Pekot orphanage, Peep’s new mount was the finest in the squad.
“Yeah, that’s a hell of a weapon ye got for yarself,” said Thorn, gesturing to the Scythan warbow.
“Thanks, Thorn! Getting yar approval is really everything I could’ve dreamed of!” Peep said.
Captain Fairchild guffawed. Thorn hawked and spat, albeit in the opposite direction from Peep.
“D’ye mind if I have a look at it?” Thorn asked her.
“Nah. Fill yar boots, man!”
Peep drew the weapon from its open-topped saddle case and passed it over to Thorn. With the bow in hand, Thorn became engrossed in looking it over thoroughly before he began handling it, and allowed his horse to slow down and amble off the trail a little before it stopped. Trusting that he would catch up in time, the rest of the party rode on.
“So, Miss Otilla, the horse and bow you claimed as prize from the leader of the squad of rogues that assaulted the couple,” Captain Fairchild said.
“Yup, for sure!”
“Tell us again of how you killed them!” Captain Fairchild said.
Riding a little further back, Knuckle stifled a groan.
“Sure thing, Captain! Well, like I told ye, I slipped the whole lot of them when I cut back into the swamp. And let me tell ye, Captain, them motherfuckers were…”
Peep continued on into her third telling of her adventure for the Captain, this time unhindered by any divine or legal constraints to adhere strictly to the truth. With Fairchild obviously delighted by her embellishments and rough language, they rode on to the Old Mill.
Captain Fairchild was well pleased with the work that had been put in clearing the trail to the Old Mill. He took about an hour to inspect the tower and its underground complex. Unger’s carpenters had finished the sturdy double-doors in the main entrance, which could be barred from within and looked capable of standing up to a fair bit of battering. They were now working on a door in the escape tunnel, far enough in from the little cave exit so as not to be seen by a casual interloper. Captain Fairchild declared that as the Baron’s representative, he would pay the carpenters for the improvements, which he did right then and there with silver from his purse. Then they returned to Callic village.
On the road back, Peep spoke up:
“So, Captain, I had a question for ye.”
“By all means, Miss Otilla! Ask away!”
“So, captain: what does that mean?”
Captain Fairchild looked flummoxed. “Pardon me? What does what mean?”
“No, not you. What does the word captain mean? Like, yar captain, and then yar main doods are… what’re ye calling them? Loo…”
“Lieutenants,” Captain Fairchild answered, his understanding smile now wide.
“Right! Then there’s sergeants, right? Which I have heard of, but I always thought that meant a leader’s main doods. So what’s up with all these titles?”
“Well, Miss Otilla, first of all: captain and lieutenant are ranks, not titles. A title is that of nobility. Lords and ladies. Baron, earl, duke, and so forth. When someone holds noble title, they keep land for a higher noble, or the king, whom they swear fealty to. Do you understand that?”
“Yeah, right. I heard of that. That’s normal. So what’s with the captain and lieutenant stuff?”
“Well, Miss Otilla, that is a good question. It goes back to the rebellion under Stron, praise him, against the Alquinian occupation and their corrupted client kings. Stron came from over the Great Mother River to lead faithful against the evil, polytheistic, enslaving Alquinians. Yes?”
“Yeah, I’ve been hearing about that,” Peep said, gesturing Choke’s way.
“Good. Their rebellion was, of course, unsuccessful and lead to Stron’s martyrdom on the Wheel of Pain. But his followers fought on, and the rebellion spread, and the holy warriors cleared these kingdoms of the Alquinians and the Scythan hoards that followed them. Yes?”
“Okay, I’ll take yar word for it.”
“Good. And so, the Holy Stronian United Kingdoms were formed. Fourteen kingdoms in all: Bitina, Veretothoq, Verdoon, Domignia, Sturnaq, Kevert, Parat, Helvete, Deraht, Stogma, Verateka, Stonja, Slavat, and Pora. And shortly these United Kingdoms launched the First Holy Crusade, and pushed the Alquinians all the way out of the Gerant lands, all the way to Marrovique.”
“Okay…” Peep said, looking confused. “What’s Gerant?”
“Why, we are Gerant, Miss Otilla. Such is our race. Well, not Bartholomew, obviously. But he has been civilized by the grace of the light of our faith, thanks to the Brothers of the Holy Stone.”
“Yeah, praise Stron for that!” Peep exclaimed with an approximation of earnestness. “A jink no longer, huh, Bartholomew!”
Captain Fairchild coughed. “Yes. Well. In the First Crusade we had soldiers from multiple kingdoms fighting together under the banner of the Stronian Church. So, to keep everything running smoothly, they adopted the Alquinian system of a professional military structured with a hierarchy of rank. So, a general leads an army. Then, under him, we have colonels, then majors, then captains, and, finally, the lowest rank of officer, lieutenant. Sergeants are the most senior of the common soldiers, with corporals under them.”
“Wait. Hold up,” Peep said with a scowl. “I thought ye guys hated the Alquinians like poison. But yar using their system in yar armies?”
“I think, Miss Otilla, you meant to say that, ‘we’ hate the Alquinians like poison. Yes? And I understand your trepidation, Miss Otilla. But, if an evil man forges a blade to use against your people, when he is killed, should we then throw that blade away? You must understand that most of the experienced soldiers in the United Kingdoms had previously been serving in the militaries of the Gerant client kings of Alquinia. Yes? Those kingdoms were structured in the Alquinian way. Why, even the Holy Book is written using the Alquinian alphabet.”
“Okay. I see. So, you guys are in this holy church army?” Peep asked.
Captain Fairchild smiled. “Ah. No. We are in the army of the Kingdom of Bitana. Being the largest kingdom in the United Kingdoms, and being upon the front line of the Alquinian occupied Stronian lands to the south, Bitana had need of, and can afford, a proper professional army. And so, the kingdom has also adopted the Alquinian military system. It is the only way to assure a unity of purpose under the King’s unadulterated authority.”
“Okay, yeah… ye lost me, Captain,” Peep said.
“My apologies, Miss Otilla. Let me see if I can’t express myself better. In a feudal military, which most of the other kingdoms in the United Kingdoms still use, the king is at the top. His lords, the nobles, hold title and raise their own forces of soldiers. When war breaks out, these lords come to the king’s call to battle with their soldiers and fight under his orders.”
“Yeah, I get that. That’s normal, right?”
“Indeed. But the system is less than ideal, to put it mildly, for assuring a strong, unified, central government. The soldiers that the nobles raise are loyal to their own lords, yes? And the lords are prone to squabbling amongst themselves. Indeed, without his lords, the king has no true military force of his own. Yes? The true power of the kingdom is divided amongst the lords, not held by the king.”
“Uh-huh. So how does yar system work?”
“Well, take our barony, for example. The Baron Hart holds all these lands in the King’s name. Yes? He collects the rents and uses the proceeds to raise soldiers for the King’s army. This being a smaller barony, and not a particularly profitable one, our Lord, the Baron, is able to support enough soldiers to be a colonel in the kingdom’s military. However, with these being times of relative peace, the Baron presently has only three active battalions. My own; that of Major Cunnings, who garrisons Spitzer; and that of the Baron’s son, Captain Hart, who campaigns on tour at the Alquinian front line to the south.”
“Okay… but that all sounds just like the feudal thing, right? He’s raising the soldiers and keeping them here, mostly. What’s the difference?” Peep asked.
“Yes, it would seem that way. But, in fact, did you know that I am not from this barony? I am from Farthing Earldom, and was assigned here as a lieutenant two years ago. There is much lateral movement of officers between units, particularly at the Alquinian front. By that, I mean, as a Captain now, I might, at any time, be transferred to another unit in the kingdom’s army. I serve at the pleasure of the King, after all. We are moved about. This assures that our true loyalty is to the king, expressed through the chain of command. We follow orders from our commanding officer, not our lord.”
“Okay, yeah, whatever. That’s all real interesting, Captain. Thanks for the lesson,” Peep said.
“It was my pleasure, Miss Otilla. I am most glad to have been of service to you,” Captain Fairchild said, unable to hide his irritation at her dismissiveness as he stiffly gave her a suggestion of a bow.