The sun painted the wagons gold as it rose on the horizon. It was daybreak and Gerald was checking his horse and the few belongings he managed to keep on it. He and Uncle Rudolf were at the city gates, preparing to leave. He hadn't met his sister, Lena, yet and he wasn't surprised. They were always kept apart, and were to meet as little as possible. She was supposed to come and send him off with the Duke, though.
Gerald waited until Uncle Rudolf came within earshot and said, "will Lena be okay all alone?"
Uncle Rudolf smiled kindly. "Don't worry. My daughter is with her. She will make sure she isn't bullied too much," he said in a suppressed voice, trying not to alert the wagon handlers or the guards. "And the Duke would never allow her to be humiliated. It would harm him and his reputation more than it would harm her."
Gerald nodded. It sounded reasonable. Uncle Rudolf's daughter was Lena's maid and an Earth Warrior herself, which Gerald had found unbelievable when Uncle Rudolf had first told him. Apparently, the Warrior attribute Uncle Rudolf's family practiced was darkness. His daughter had somehow become an Earth warrior under the nose of the Duke and his men without anyone noticing. She had come with them when they'd first arrived, and she was as old as Gerald.
"You should focus on home and the Viscounty," Uncle Rudolf continued. "If you could rebuild and make a name for yourself and the house, you'd be able to negotiate with the Duke."
"Rebuild?" Gerald asked, bewildered. "How bad is it exactly?" He had only been six when he left. He didn't remember much save for the castle's walls, the keep, and his father's face.
Uncle Gerald sighed and shook his head. "The war had hit our house the worst, Gerald. And as far as I've heard, the recovery hasn't been going well. But I suppose that's something for you to see for yourself once we return.
Gerald nodded and was tightening his saddle when he heard a yell from behind.
He turned around to the sight of his sister coming down a luxury coach. The Duke did well to preserve his face by making sure she rode the best coach and wore the best clothes. Her hair was brownish black like Gerald's, and it reached quite a bit below her shoulders. She tried to run to him and almost tripped on her crimson dress. "You're really leaving," she said, panting. "Is it true, what they said about father and eldest brother?"
Gerald nodded with solemn look. He would have to take a good look at this bandit problem that took the life of his father. "I'm afraid so," he said. He gazed at Lena with a tender look. She was the only real family he had here, and he rarely met her. Sometimes they were the only support for each other here. Now she was going to be all alone. He felt guilty for it, but he had little choice. "You should take care of yourself," he continued. "I won't be around to take care of you anymore."
Lena lowered her head with a sad frown. He knew that she couldn't remember their father nor brother. She was only two when they left. It wasn't fair to her, nor to anyone in his family. He wished to changed that. No, he would change that. They had suffered enough. "Don't worry. I will be fine, and I have Aya with me. She can provide enough consolation," Lena laughed, a forced laugh, he could tell.
Gerald was about to tell her something when someone interrupted them with a cough. He hadn't noticed that the Duke was there too, riding his horse. The Duke had come with his entourage. His sons hadn't come, though. Gerald was grateful for that.
"Gerald, I trust you've prepared?" the Duke asked in his dignified voice. He had an average build, and a well-muscled body. He had had his share of battles, or so had Gerald heard.
"Yes. We're ready to depart," Gerald replied. It was going to be a long journey that would take almost a fortnight, especially considering that there was no proper road to the Tellus Viscounty, just tracks to follow. If there had been a decent gravel road, they could have reduced this journey to a short week.
"Very good. I wish you well on your journey. But first, let me introduce to you someone who will become a friend of yours," the Duke gestured behind him and a well-dressed man came out of his entourage. He was middle-aged and quite short, at least compared to Gerald who was of average height. "He is called Renard, and he was my aide before, but now he will become your minister," the Duke said in a joyful voice as if it was some happy announcement. He surely had a fake smile plastered all over his face.
Gerald's face almost changed when he heard the Duke. The Duke had never sent him someone who brought him any good. Gerald eyed this Renard. His face wasn't the kind that let you feel comfortable, and his eyes spoke of something being schemed. The Duke wasn't even trying to be discreet. This was a direct attempt at shoving his hands in the Tellus territory. "Your grace, I'm thankful for your concern about the management of the my territory. But I believe the Viscounty has a minister already."
The Duke laughed. "Oh, Gerald," he said. "Don't you know that all prominent nobles have a minister of the right and another of the left. It prevents corruption and also provides more of the much needed counsel.
Gerald was boiling below the surface. Laughable, he thought. He knows that only Kings and very powerful Dukes have that kind of arrangement. No petty Viscount would have two ministers to manage his meager income or his limited territory.
"Your grace," Gerald said. "I think—"
"Gerald," the Duke interrupted him kindly, though the commanding tone couldn't be missed. "This is the help I'm providing you for the beginning of your rule over the Tellus basin. Would you refuse my help?"
Gerald found himself speechless. It was unwise to oppose the Duke now, while he was still in his territory, and even more unwise because his sister would be staying here. He noticed Uncle Rudolf subtly signaling for him not to resist. Gerald forced a smile and said, "of course not, your grace." He then turned to the Duke's aide and continued, "I welcome my new minister of the left."
Just more trouble for me to deal with when I return home. Not the best start.
The new minister, Renard, didn't look especially enthused by Gerald's words. He just nodded with an indifferent smile. He seemed not to hold Gerald in much regard from the very first day. And Gerald didn't find it at all surprising. So far, he had shown no lordly conduct at all. This Renard probably thought of him as a puppet. Time would tell, though. Time would tell.
"Alright," the Duke grinned. "It's time for you to start moving. No need to delay anymore."
Gerald nodded and looked to his sister who approached him and leapt into his embrace. "Come visit me," she whispered. "I will be patient, but I have to see you again." Her eyes spoke volumes of her predicament. She was stronger than he had expected. She didn't cry, probably so she wouldn't trouble him. But he knew in his heart that one of the greatest challenges in his future was her. He had to find a way to free her, or at least guarantee her well-being.
"I will. We will meet again," he said with a sincere smile. "I promise."
The sun was over their heads, shining with intensity as Gerald and Uncle Rudolf rode together, followed by Renard, the guards, and the rest of the convoy. It had been a week and they were half-way through their journey. So far, it had been uneventful and it led Gerald into deep thought about the territory that he would be seeing for the first time since he left.
"According to the letter, my father has passed away over 40 days ago," Gerald said in an uncertain tone. The letter wasn't exactly clear. Gerald could only think that whoever wrote it was too panic-stricken to arrange his words properly.
Uncle Rudolf nodded. "It would be two months by the time we reach the castle."
"How do you think it would be in the Viscounty now?"
Uncle Rudolf pondered for a moment then shook his head with a troubled look. "I'm afraid it would be anything but good. From what little I understood from the letter, your father's incident wasn't the first bandit problem, and probably not the last."
Gerald sighed. He didn't have the energy to complain anymore. He would do his best. He would give all the energy he could spare for the territory and see what he could do. As he thought about his coming predicament, he caught sight of a trail of people in the distance. They were walking in a large, spread out group that lacked any organization, and they were heading in the opposite direction of their convoy. It seemed that they weren't the only group either.
Upon a closer look, Gerald noticed their tattered clothes and disheveled looks. They were miserable, with every meaning the word carried. They looked malnourished and struggled to walk straight. "What … are they?" Gerald stammered, not realizing that he just asked what they were instead of who they were.
His reply came from behind, from the man who had ignored him for most of the journey so far, Renard. "Refugees," Renard said with an annoyed shake of his head.
"From the war to the far south?" Gerald widened his eyes. "But how could they get so far north. This is impossible."
"The ones you see are the ones who survived the journey," Renard said, not brothering to call him 'my lord'. "They prey on the granaries of every territory they pass by, and are eventually kicked out by the nobles of those territories. I doubt they would find much luck here, either. No charity for them in the Andross empire. We only reward working people."
Something annoyed Gerald in his words. It was too condescending. It wasn't that Gerald felt too much for the refugees. It was out of his hands for now, but Renard spoke with too much contempt. It was obvious that these ones had no choice; otherwise, they wouldn't have walked a whole kingdom.
"We?" Gerald said, deciding that he should grab this chance to put him in his place. "Need I remind you, Renard, that you are now my minister? A Minister of the Tellus family of the Maric Kingdom?" Gerald twisted his waist and turned around while on his horse to glare at him.
Renard realized that he had made an obvious mistake. Even if Gerald was a puppet, saying such words publically was just stupid. "Oh, my apologies, your lordship," Renard hurriedly said. "A simple mistake. You would understand that I've lived most of my life in the Andross Empire. I shall endeavor to make the Maric Kingdom my home from now on."
At least the word 'lord' came out of your mouth for once, Gerald thought. Though I doubt you really meant it.
"It's fine," Gerald said graciously, waving him off. "Now tell me why no one hired them as soldiers or even to till the fields along their journey here."
"Of course," Renard said. "There are actually several reasons, your lordship. The first being a lack of a major war in the Maric Kingdom. No one wants so many soldiers, and considering that their loyalty isn't guaranteed because they come from another kingdom, it is only natural that they wouldn't be recruited in territorial armies."
Gerald nodded. The war to the south was getting too heated. The Mali Kingdom and the Neejer Kingdom were fighting it out as always, but this time, it seemed that they were both suffering. These two were to the south of the Maric Kingdom, and it was safe to say that their state of continuous war didn't bode well for the Maric Kingdom, for they were its guarantee against the invasion of the Andross Empire. It was because they threatened to interfere 14 years ago that the Andross Empire was forced to sign a treaty with the Maric Kingdom. And it was because of them that the Andross Empire didn't try to invade again.
It was very simple actually. The Andross Empire, the Maric Kingdom, the Neejer Kingdom, and the Mali Kingdom together formed the southwestern subcontinent of the Asura continent. They were isolated from the mainland of the Asura mainland by the Wild Plains to the east. It made them safe from invasion from the mainland. It had its price, though. Tribal raids from the Wild plains every few years.
The Andross Empire was as large as any two of the other kingdoms combined. Separating it from the Mali and Neejer Kingdoms was the Maric Kingdom. Naturally, the two kingdoms that always warred against each others weren't stupid. If the Maric Kingdom fell to the Andross Empire then they would be easy pickings, so they supported the Maric Kingdom. It was akin to a shield for them.
Gerald was brought out of his thoughts by the words of Renard. "As for other sorts of work," Renard said. "That is hard for them to find. They are simply too many, as you can see. Any good craftsmen are picked up by the first noble they come across, but the rest of the rabble hardly find similar treatment. That is aside from the criminals and bandits that hide and sprout among them. For any lord, they are a horde of locusts and a plague of crime."
Gerald watched the stream of people heading north while he headed south. He only saw the beginning of this stream but not the end. The sun was already starting to lean towards the west, and the heat would be gone soon. He sighed. He wondered how many refugees would be in the family territory. This whole stream had to pass by the Tellus territory to get here.
I wonder if I can make use of them somehow. And he spent the rest of the journey on that thought.