We emerged from between two particularly forested hills to see the City of Lark. Lark would be more accurately described as a large, poor town. A thirty-foot-tall wooden palisade surrounded the city, the tops of the timbers sharpened to points. Much like the palisade, most of the buildings in town were made from logs, with the few nicer buildings constructed from timber boards. The guards, even though they waved us through without inspection, seemed more attentive and wary than the ones in Eiston. Sharp eyes constantly looked into the surrounding forests, and movements made with smooth and practiced motions.
On the other side of the palisade, the dirt road continued into town, but the guards directed us onto a nearly empty grassy field on the left. On this side of the palisade, I could see wooden watchtowers placed to either side of the gate with archers standing on top. In the field, a lone merchant stood before a trading cart lined with shelves of goods. I could hear the shouting and bargaining of the nine or ten customers crowded around him from the gate. We waited on that field nearly an hour until a guard captain arrived, knocking politely on the carriage door.
I motioned for Walker to open it, even though he needed to lean over his sister to do so.
The man outside was muscular, with chiseled features and a commanding presence. Blue eyes and tanned skin. Standing a little more than six feet tall, he would probably be a few inches shorter than me if I stood from my seat. He wore plain leather armor and a hardened leather helm, both smooth and polished to a shine. The only thing separating him from the other guards were iron pauldrons and a worn silver pin on his chest, “Greetings, travelers. I’m Guard Captain Untal. Who speaks for your group?” His words came out almost more grunt than speech.
“That would be me, Guard Captain. How can I help you?” I inquired.
“Nature of business?” He asked, his tone and manner of speech only indicative of duty.
“I have business with the Ranger’s Headquarters, and was told it was here. I may also seek to purchase land within the Barony, depending on a number of circumstances,” I hedged.
He grunted in understanding. I think.
“Rangers are right outside the gate you came through. Path up the hill on the left. Land purchases are at the City Center. Good day.” While he made a slight sneer when he said rangers, I couldn’t tell if that’s because he didn’t like them or if it was a local dialect. He turned around and was walking off before even hearing a parting word from me. Impressive. If I ever hired guards, I’d want them to act just like that. All duty and nothing else.
Outside the carriage, it looked warm and sunny, and I estimated I could make it to the Ranger’s Headquarters and back before dusk. Turning to the others in the carriage, I tasked Walker with seeing to getting us rooms in an inn while I was gone. I only took a quick moment to explain to the adventurers and [Wagoneers] my destination and when to expect me back.
Again, the guards said nothing to me as I passed through the gate. The trail up the hill was easy enough to find. Though I loathe to admit it, I wasn’t used to walking as much anymore. By the time I reached the cabin at the top, I was nearly out of breath. The cabin was a two-story tall wooden structure with no windows. On one side, a stone chimney rose a few feet above it. Guarding the single door on either side were [Rangers] standing at attention. The uniforms weren’t familiar to me but I recognized the iron symbol hung above them. The symbol of the Kingdom of Sena’s Army Scouting Division, a falcon carrying a trout, was something that everyone that served in one of the wars would recognize.
“Now what are the Scouts doing out here?” I murmured to myself as I walked to the door.
Without challenge or greeting, one of the [Rangers] pushed the door open for me, before returning to stand at attention. Inside the room, contrary to expectations, it was nearly empty. There was no second floor, just a high ceiling. An older gentleman stood behind a large table with a very detailed map of the duchy on it. On the map, there were several wooden markers carved in the likeness of rangers or soldiers or beasts, though several seemed to be plain markers of no detail. On the wall behind him hung two banners, one for the Scouts and one for the Kingdom. The man himself grew a scraggly beard that came to the middle of his chest and displayed a scar covering half his face. He wore a light green tunic with a dark green cloak hanging from his shoulders, though the chain and clasp were shining brass. On the other side of the table, a young lady stood at attention, appearing ready to receive orders. The only other thing in the room was the unlit fireplace.
“What can I do for you today, Warmage Fargus?” He asked, his deep voice seeming to echo.
I must not have been able to keep the look of shock from my face, because a smug grin crawled across his face.
“Surprised? It’s my job to know what happens in Eistoni. And the scouts never forget. Imagine my surprise when I learned the slayer of Trent the Mad was coming to see me?” He had a twinkle in his eye now.
I knew this type of man, even if I didn’t know him personally. While part of me was absolutely thrilled that my war accomplishments were still remembered, another wished they could all have been forgotten. If I did anything he didn’t expect, he’d become suspicious and search for secrets. Not that I had many secrets, but the ones I did have I didn’t want discovered. I didn’t have any malicious plans, but that doesn’t mean they weren't a possibility in the future. If I wanted to keep my options open, I’d need to allay any suspicions. But if I played into his hand directly, he’d assume the worst as well. I needed to be reticently accepting of his own plans and schemes. This would be an exhausting conversation.
I started by giving him a tight smile. Then I tilted my head as if conceding his victory. I followed this by spreading my hands to my sides as I spoke, “You have me at a loss. I don’t know your name. I wasn’t aware the Scouts even had a presence here. Since you know so much about me, then you undoubtedly know why I’ve come to you.”
His grin got even wider, “The ruins of a tower, right? We can help, of course. There are three such in the Barony of Lark. But only one that’s more than two hundred years old.” His hands motioned to the map that lay before him, tapping a finger on the top of a figurine before he continued.
“You stand right here. If you follow the road northwest for two days, you’ll reach the Town of Woodhoot. A day southwest of that are the ruins you’re looking for. Swampland mostly.” His finger traced along the path he described.
This type of man wouldn’t tell me this out of charity. Telling me beforehand meant the information wasn’t valuable to him and probably common enough knowledge that I could have discovered it if I kept looking. I wondered if maybe the [Administrator] back in Eiston was on his payroll to begin with. It would make sense, in a way, if he was. First, he arranged for me to meet with him, then he just happens to offer me something I’m looking for?
I raised an eyebrow, and with as much pessimism as I could voice, “I will take a look. It might not be what I’m looking for.”
My eyes met his eye just once before he gave a barely perceptible nod of his head, “I might be of more help if I knew exactly what you were looking for.”
The way he looked at me, I was willing to bet that if I said I wanted a hundred dancing ladies he’d arrange it. Then, he’d turn around and tell me I owed him an equitable favor. I placed my hands behind my back and gave a quick, dismissive glance towards the female [Ranger] still standing at a position of attention nearby. Just because she stood silent and still didn’t mean she wasn’t listening.
“Let’s us assume that the ruins you mentioned are what I’m looking for. What is it you would ask of me in return, commander…?” I spoke softly as if I just then realized that he was bargaining.
“Reciprocity is a beautiful concept; don’t you think Mr. Fargus? I’m sure the political pins in such a small part of the country are beneath your notice, but my [Rangers] are often affected. Being able to call such a powerful wizard a friend of the Scouts would mean a lot to them.” He once again dodged giving me his name.
As for his request--a friend of the scouts? If he thought he could have a 4th tier wizard under his thumb, he was sorely mistaken. I could build my tower anywhere. Dead sea gods! The nobles would probably pay to have a wizard place his tower in their territory. I didn’t hold back my scowl, “We would need to define such a ‘friendship’.”
“I see. Let us speak again after you see these ruins,” He answered me. On some unspoken notice, one of the rangers guarding the door opened it. A clear dismissal.
He wasn’t wrong. Without knowing the value of what he offered me, it would be hard to negotiate its worth in favors. I huffed once and turned to leave.
“Oh, and Mr. Fargus?” He called right as I reached the doorway. I paused to listen, “The Scouts also have a dungeon nearby that would be just perfect to grow your little tea flowers in.”
I kept walking through the doorway when he finished. Outside, I turned to look at the cabin, my brows creased in irritation. I worked a brief little bit of spellcraft and, timed with the stomp of my foot, created a foot-thick wall of stone right before the only doorway to the building. Nothing they couldn’t get out from, but something to show my displeasure.
It wasn’t until halfway down the hill that I thought to drop the act. I replaced my scowling and angry visage with a slight smile and hummed a little tune. That conversation was more exhausting than I originally thought but enjoyable in its own way. Compared to the political machinations I faced in the capitol, the man had a lot to learn. Even the Baker’s Guild would walk all over him.
When I returned to Lark, I had no problems finding our group. Despite the town boasting a population of close to forty thousand, there wasn’t a lot of outside trade. There was only one inn large enough to house them. The main building was a large circular structure made from unprocessed timbers, with the sleeping quarters being three different buildings placed around it. The circular building where they greeted guests had an enormous firepit in the center. Stones lined it and a boar was roasting over red-hot coals. Two women were cutting off pieces and serving them on crude wooden plates. Around the pit, two yards of gravel separated it from the wood flooring in the rest of the dining hall. Tall tables and stools offered seating here. The walls, not different than they looked on the outside, held furs of beasts and animals hung for warmth.
I nodded a greeting as I met with my assistant Walker, and his sister Lilly jumping out of her seat to fetch me a plate of roast boar and an ale. Kine, the adventurer, and Sten, my carriage driver, joined us before I was even half-finished with my meal.
Between bites, I spoke, “I will be headed towards a village Woodhoot in the morn. My wagons will be staying here until I return. I don’t believe the roads would do a carriage well in the direction I’m headed.” Even if the roads weren’t well-made enough for wagons, if the ruins I found were where I wanted my tower then I could make good roads. If the ruins weren’t what I was looking for, I’d still want both the wagons and the carriage to carry me to the next destination.
The man glanced at the [Wagoneers] as he spoke, “How long will you be gone, sir?”
I took a sip as I considered it. “Six days. Maybe eight. I’ll arrange for your stay here until then and I should know more when I come back.”
I looked at Kine, who hadn’t said a word since he joined the table, “Will your team be willing to extend until I return?”
Judging by the way he grimaced, I knew the answer wouldn’t be a simple one. “We aren’t really a team anymore, sir.”
Well, things like that happened in adventurer parties. But I didn’t want to know the details, I only wanted to know how it would affect me. Turning back to Sten, “Will you and the [Wagoneers] feel comfortable in the city without them?”
Sten just shrugged, “Don’t believe it’ll be a problem, sir. City’s a bit different than the roads. Not so many bandits to be bothering us.”
I finished my meal as I thought about how this would work. The city guards seemed sufficient to protect my property and the [Wagoneers] while I was gone. I wouldn’t want to leave Lilly without Walker, and I didn’t want to travel without an assistant. Though, by the look of Kine, he seemed to be considering his words for some kind of request. “Kine, what are your plans?”
It seemed to break him out of his internal thoughts, though he opened and closed his mouth a few times before he asked, “Sir, I appreciate the instruction you have already given me, but I know I haven’t had the opportunity to prove myself. If I prove myself, will you take me on as a disciple?”
This again? Why does this generation of [Mages] think that all they need is to find some master to pass on his legacy instead of working hard to create their own? No. “No. I could find room for an assistant, but I am not taking disciples.” I poked the table to emphasize my point.
He looked disappointed, but then tilted his head side-to-side as if considering different things, eventually ending with the only really relevant question, “How much?”
“Fifty gold a year. Two years.” I watched as Lilly took my plate away to wherever dirty plates went here as I waited.
“Should I call you master?” He asked, by way of acceptance.