The mercenary contingent marched at a slow rhythmic pace, their flags and banners raised high in the air as the drums beat alongside them. Outrides patrolled the flanks and the men remained ever ready to rush forward should battle arise. The sounds of loud beating drums and the steps of hundreds of armoured mercenaries drowned out the usually peaceful sounds of the countryside as well as any quiet-peaceful conversation. Instead, Rohl just tried to focus on the beautiful countryside around him and drown out as much of the noise as possible.
It was the same route he and El had taken to get here, despite having already taken this route, he still got some enjoyment out of staring at the countryside with its rolling hills and endless plains. All in all these sights interspersed views of fruitful meadows and thick wooded forests did make for a pleasant experience. As an added benefit he didn’t have to worry much about monsters attacking, it was doubtful any in this area would have the strength to take on such an armoured force especially with his blessing. Still, he kept an eye on the shadows that lurked in the forests just to be safe.
Once the views of the countryside started to become repetitive, he turned his gaze onto the stone-faced mercenaries marching behind him. It was an impressive sight, Rohl had seen the 4th legion march before and even had one of their uniforms for his service, but this was different. These mercenaries were much better equipped and armoured, with every one of them wearing full plate metal instead of the leather that the army used. Out of the whole army only the archers, drummers, Rohl and Ell were not wearing full plate armour.
Even Tay and Rose had suited up in their shining white armour. They were easily visible amidst the marching men, the sight of two mounted figures in distractingly white armour was hard to miss. Tay even gave him a friendly wave when she noticed him, a wave he did return.
“Well I’m bored,” Rohl sighed out once he had finished observing the mercenary force. The noise of the march meant his words could only be clearly heard by those within close proximity, which at the moment meant Ell and the full plated Tilson who looked particularly strong in his shiny full plate steel armour.
“Well, what do you want me to do about it?” Ell replied in an equally bored tone.
“I don’t know, perhaps regale me with tales of your youth,” Rohl replied half-joking, the look Ell gave in return for his words soon quickly made him regret speaking. He couldn't help but sit up straighter and attempt to look respectful.
“Tales of my youth? Are you calling me old?” Ell asked with a clear warning edge to her tone.
“What? No. I mean technically in years you would be classed as old in human standards,” Rohl mumbled out in a confusing jumble of words. He knew immediately that he had given the wrong answer and even if he hadn't been able to tell, the sight of Tilson mouthing the word stop to him as he made a halt motion definitely would have tipped him off.
Rohl could instantly feel the glare on him as Ell processed his jumble of words and so he did the brave thing and stared intently at a tree in the opposite direction. Once it was clear she was not letting up he finally turned his head back around and apologised.
“I'm sorry, don’t hurt me,” Rohl mumbled out as he felt any respect Tilson have for him slowly drain out. A worthy sacrifice given the pain Ell could inflect during sparring.
Not like he had much respect for me after the arm wrestle incident anyhow, Rohl thought as he dismissed Tilson’s pitying gaze and turned all his attention onto Ell.
“What am I?” Ell asked.
“Young,” Rohl replied.
“The equivalent of my age?”
“Good boy,” Ell smirked as Rohl’s felt his dignity fall even further.
With that, the conversation ended as Rohl refused to meet Tilson’s eyes and thanked the gods that no one else around could have heard the exchange. He really had to stand up for himself a bit more but pain was a powerful deterrent for that. Just the memory of the spar against Ell sent shivers down his back, the elf was definitely not one to go easy if she felt slighted.
“Well, I'm going to go see when we make camp,” Rohl spoke next, he couldn’t bear to see Tilson’s pitying glances or Ell’s amused smug looks.
With his statement made, Rohl increased his horse trotting speed slightly and moved closer to the Valhalderson’s, they gave him a few questioning glances but didn’t question it.
“When are we making camp for the night?” he asked once he was sure they could hear him.
“A few more hours, there will be no night march. I prefer my men fresh and ready for battle,” the captain replied, despite the almost deafening drum sounds, the man's stern voice remained clear and easy to hear.
“So at current speed, we should arrive in Elmon in around two days,” Rohl somewhat guessed, the journey was made a lot longer by the slow marching speed, supplies and baggage train the mercenaries had brought with them.
He really wasn’t looking forward to spending more days travelling but it was something he would have to get used to, endless walking and riding really was a downside of adventuring that no one warned him of. With time Rohl hoped he would get used to the aching feet and sore backside.
“As long as there are no delays,” the captain responded as a thoughtful expression emerged over the usual stern one.
“Now that we have time to fully speak, tell me more of the situation in Elmon,” asked the captain as both his children turned and seem to focus more on the conversation.
After a moment of pondering, Rohl soon responded “I’m not sure of the finer details but the 4th legion is currently holding the city. General O’Halley went to muster the garrison at Fort Getten, he should be back soon if not already. He also sent messages to the other legions requesting aid, hopefully, they will join us. Once the forces have gathered, the plan was to march on the capital and force the king to talk to us. If all goes to plan no more blood needs to be shed.”
“A solid plan,” spoke Freya with a contemplative gaze.
“I agree, I’d expect nothing more from a man of the general’s standard,” added her father.
“It will be an honour to meet him, didn’t you use his books as guidance when you first created the company father,” inquired Reginald.
“I did, his book ‘ Tactics of the modern commander” provided the base for all our strategies. I look forward to meeting him,” replied the mercenary leader with a clear tone of respect.
Rohl nodded at this, it was not only him who admired the general and his many achievements. The battle of the Thistrath plains was one of the generals most acclaimed accomplishments and even rural villagers like Rohl had heard of the general's achievements.
“He’s just as you’d imagine in real life, it was great being able to serve by his side. For my service in the battle he even awarded me a uniform and 4th legion iron signet, there back in my room in Elmon,” Rohl added.
“Impressive, you must have proven your worth to him,” responded Freya, a glint of respect in her eyes.
In truth all the Valhalderson’s seemed to be looking at him with more respect, Freya especially and Rohl was quite flattered if he was honest. He only wished Tilson could have heard this conversation, it may have helped his tattered reputation with the man.
“I think my blessing did most of the work,” Rohl countered, in truth, he would have been pretty useless without it.
“Your blessing may have its uses but it was you who risked your life in battle, that counts for something,” the captain responded as he moved to give Rohl a pat on the back. A pat coming from such a strong man felt more like a slap if Rohl was honest, a slap which kind of hurt, not that Rohl dared show that outwardly.
With those last few lines, the conversation came to a natural halt, allowing the group to continue their journey in a respectful silence. A silence only broken when the captain gave the order to halt.
With only a quick look around to take in the landscape, the captain began dishing out orders.
“I want a palisade around the perimeter, a ditch over there, latrines here and a full guard,” the captain ordered as his lieutenants rushed to muster the men and follow out his orders.
Within moments of the captains bellowed orders, fifty men or so began to rush into the small, forested area where they began hacking at the trees with their axes. After a handful of powerful swings from each man, the trees had all been felled.
Within seconds of a tree falling, men rushed to hack them apart. Some were turned into logs, other firewood or even seating areas. Ina remarkably short time, the majority of the chopped trees had been cleared and turned into a small wooden palisade that stretched around the whole encampment. As soon as the palisade was completed, the men swapped their axes for shovels and began digging a small ditch around the palisade. Rohl did try to help but at his slow unskilled pace he was just getting in his way, he had considered using his blessing but decided against it after a short consideration. It would be a waste if they were attacked and had no blessing support because he’d exhausted himself helping the men dig a big hole.
Instead, he busied himself with putting up small tents, each one would hold around five mercenaries if they crammed them in. Ell helped after a bit, she claimed that watching him do it was the equivalent of watching a blind man trying to climb a tree. If he was honest her help did help speed up the process. By the time the palisade, ditch, latrines and guard had been established they had managed to put up seven tents as well as campfires to go along with them.
With those tasks done, he knew he needed to at least talk to one of the Valhalderson’s before he got settled for the night if just to ask about the men and preparations. They were here because he asked after all, it was his duty to ask.
Ell decided not to join him, which was fair enough. Instead, she went to find a spot around a campfire far away from the stables and latrines. Rohl very much understood her reasoning even if he would have preferred her not asking if she should draw him a map so he wouldn’t get lost on his way back.
Despite her mocking of him, he did still chuckle a little at her comment, she was starting to wear off on him. Doing his best to put such thought from his mind, he focused on finding the captains tent and also some food to eat before bed. The first was much harder than he anticipated given how all the tents were alike in shape and colour. Only after asking Gray for directions to the captain's tent was he able to find it in good time.
The mercenaries leadership were all based towards the centre of the camp with much more roomy tents, they even had a covered area in the middle where a makeshift table and several documents had been arranged.
The only Valhalderson’s present were Freya and her father who stood using the light of a standing torch to examine a small map that had been spread out over the small makeshift table.
They looked up at his arrival allowing him to speak without feeling as if he’d interrupted.
“I just wanted to ask how everything is going and if there is anything I can do to help,” Rohl asked.
The captain seemed to approve of his words and the sincerity behind them, well Rohl believed he did, the captain was not an easy man to read.
“Thank you for your offer but all is in order. We were just examining some local maps and scout reports for possible camp locations tomorrow if you’d like to offer any suggestions,” the captain offered in return.
Rohl took him up on the offer and moved to get a better look at the map as Freya moved to pass him a small cross marker. She hesitated before handing it to his outstretched hand.
“Are you able to read?” she asked somewhat apologetically.
Rohl did not blame her, the ability to read was not particularly common outside of major cities or professions that required it.
“I am, my village was included in Governor Sampson’s literacy programme,” Rohl answered honestly. Over the course of a month, several scribes hired by the governor had taught everyone in his village to read. An opportunity he was extremely glad of, it was hard to accept monster contracts if you couldn’t read about the danger posed.
“Ah of course,” Freya replied somewhat embarrassed for having asked.
Rohl gave her a small smile in return before he quickly skimmed over the scroll. It gave the basic details about local terrain and possible sites that were suited and easily defended. Rohl doubted he could give much input, all he really knew about defensible positions was how important the high ground could be.
“My only suggestion is avoid camping near the Getsari river, it flows through here and down past Shrewsborough, it tends to burst its banks a lot this time of year,” Rohl replied hoping they found his suggestion somewhat useful.
The captain gave a few nods as he absorbed Rohl words “I shall, thank you. I would get some rest soon if I were you Rohl, it will be a long ride tomorrow.”
With that Rohl took his departure wishing the captain and Freya a goodnight before he left. Freya seemed to want to talk more but held off as her father nudged their attention back on the map.
Rohl didn’t wait around, instead did his best to find Ell and whatever campfire she’d secured. It only took a few minutes before he managed to find her at the far end of the camp. Only a handful of tents separate them from the palisade, she had definitely chosen a spot as far from everyone else as she could.
To his surprise Ell was sat around a small campfire, with several other mercenaries perched on logs across from her as well as to her sides. They formed a neat square around the blazing campfire, its bright orange flames lighting up the darkness around them. Its light easily allowed him to spot the rather sour look on Ell’s face and Rohl could easily tell why, there was no way she would have chosen such a campfire if she had a choice. Ell was not exactly a people person.
And Rohl he got closer, he could make out Ell’s hands gently tapping a spot of the log next to her. It seemed that was to be his spot, not that he had a lot of choices given how the only free spots were on either side of her.
Rohl took the space to her right, it was here he noted his belongings placed gently against the log. They had been taken in turns carrying them or when possible, leaving them with the mercenaries baggage and supply carts. Not that he had brought much with him in the first place, only a few changes of clothes, some money, his ukatar and Mimi’s cloak.
He did a quick check to make sure nothing had been damaged during transit before turning to face the fire and the small chicken that was roasting over it. At his turn, the mercenaries gathered around seemed to cut off their small talk and instead focused on him.
Rohl found their intense gazes rather unsettling, only one of them was giving him a small apologetic smile instead of an intense gaze.
The mercenary had short brown hair that just crept onto her shoulders where her hands fiddled with it in embarrassment at her cohorts behaviour. Her soft brown eyes shifted between them awkwardly, perhaps hoping that something would break them out of this situation.
That something turned out to be Ell, who gave out a small fake cough, her annoyance clearly showed through the small frown on her face.
At her cough, the mercenaries snapped out of their focus and instead began to look at each other awkwardly.
“I'm sorry about their behaviour,” spoke the embarrassed mercenary “your story is just so incredible and well were big fans.”
The rest all gave nods at her words and Rohl couldn’t help the embarrassed blush that turned his cheeks red. Having multiple fierce, strong and powerful mercenaries tell you they were fans was quite a new experience for Rohl, it was flattering and different. Maybe he should introduce them to Nia although it was likely they were fans for a different reason.
“Uhh thank you,” Rohl replied somewhat embarrassed, his hands fidgeted nervously at his sleeves. Rohl could handle being a bard fine but moments like this were entirely different.
“You defeated a sacrilegious beast, how could we not be fans,” spoke a large bearded man, his thick brown beard was the only thing visible from under his helm.
“Like a hero worthy of legends,” came an awestruck voice from a starry-eyed mercenary to his right.
Ell only snorted at their words, her muttering about him getting big-headed went unnoticed by the mercenaries. Although her worries were unwarranted it was hard to get big-headed when Ell was his companion besides it was not like he defeated the beast on his own with a cool final killing blow. His ego was more than in check.
“I wouldn’t go that far, I did have a lot of help after all,” Rohl replied as he tried to temper their high praises and expectations.
“So modest and humble,” came a respectful voice from his left.
Ell only snorted in laughter again.
This time the six mercenaries did hear and gave her somewhat annoyed looks. Ell was not one to back down from such a situation and so Rohl quickly did his best to change the topic of conversation.
“I had help from the 4th legion, although I’m sure your company is far above their level,” Rohl spoke a tone of flattery in his voice.
“That we are,” shouted a more boisterous mercenary much to the agreement of his companions.
“Can you tell me about some of the contracts you’ve been on, your company have a fierce reputation after all. But first, what are your names?” Rohl asked as he sat forward a little and enjoyed the warmth of the fire.
“Peter Tifflewell,” came from the respectful voice from his left, the man was still wearing his full armour including his helmet. All Rohl could see of the man was a small stubble of a beard to go along with a youthful smile.
“Jeffard Garardson, it as an honour to meet you,” spoke the man next to Peter. He had exchanged his armour for a simple jerkin and trousers. The man had an unusual appearance, in that Rohl really struggled to tell his age, from one angle he looked to be in his thirties, the other he looked about twelve.
“Zara Beatlesworth,” spoke one of the mercenaries across from Rohl, her features were equally disguised under her helm. However, its design left space around the eyes and mouth, which allowed for Rohl to glimpse her dark green eyes and straight teeth. She seemed to notice his eyes lingering on her gear and answered the unsaid question “Were on patrol later.”
Rohl only nodded slightly in understanding before the remaining mercenaries spoke.
“Flora Riscent,” came from the mercenary who had seemed embarrassed at the group's actions. Even now she still fiddled with her hair whilst her soft green eyes still gave him apologetic looks.
Flora’s words were soon followed by the names “Frank Zeobolt,” and “Grifith Theroway,” from the starry-eyed and boisterous mercenaries respectfully.
“Nice to meet you all, I'm Rohl and this is Ell, we both helped at the siege of Elmon, so feel free to ask her any questions as well,” Rohl spoke as he gestured at Ell with a slight nod of the head. A moment later he felt a sharp pain in the back of his legs. He couldn’t help but smile and smirk at that. He had known that there was no way Ell wanted to answer any questions but he couldn’t help himself. Still, he was probably going to regret that later.
“So tell me how long have you all been serving in the Deaths Brigands?” Rohl asked genuinely curious.
“Since we were of age, all of us were born in Gleaton Morrow, and as tradition, we all joined up. We were all too young to take part in any of the company’s most famous battles if you were wondering, except Jeffard that is,” answered Zara quickly, her eyes glinting mischievously at the older mercenary.
The man only sighed at this in return “You just want me to tell the story again.” Jeffards words were soon followed by another sigh.
“But aye, I was here when we still used to wear fur armour, looked cool but bloody useless compared to the armour we have now,” the older mercenary spoke for all to hear before giving Zara a small joking glare. “What tale do you want to hear about?”
“The siege of Luken,” Zara replied almost immediately
“Ah fine, but you all better shut up, I don’t want any interruptions,” Jeffard spoke with another small glare aimed towards Zara. “Back during the Caspien- Thorn border wars, we were hired by King Lisculian to lay siege to the elven fort of Luken. The company’s reputation wasn’t respectable back then, any contract went. This siege helped change that, well a little,” Jeffard lectured. The attention of all within the campfire was glued to him, especially Rohl who was particularly eager to learn about the company history.
“After a month of hard siege, the captain got bored and devised a plan to take the fort, with the help of a few dwarven engineers. Worked an absolute charm. The company faked a withdrawal in the night, leaving our entire camp completely abandoned. Once morning broke, the small elven garrison marched out intent on hunting the retreating forces down. Prideful fools didn’t even think of the possibility of being deceived,” Jeffard continued.
Rohl could feel Ell bristle slightly at his words, but she didn’t act. Instead, she muttered something about idiots from Thorn.
“Our entire force was hidden in one of the tunnels we’d built to undermine one of the defensive towers. Once we emerged and took positions outside the fort, the remaining garrison surrendered within seconds. You should have seen the faces of the returning elves when they saw us on their walls. I can still picture it clearly today,” Jeffard finished with a laugh.
Soon enough the other mercenaries joined in with his laugher whilst Rohl remained silent as to not earn Ell’s anger later.
“Impressive wasn’t that the only battle of the dispute without any casualties,” Rohl asked, not fully sure about his statement.
“Aye, that it was,” Jeffard replied.
“We’ve shared a battle story, could you share another one of yours?” Peter inquired.
Rohl took a moment to respond, he didn’t really want to go into detail about Bureihal forest or the siege of Elmon and his battles against the wolf and the later monster stampede weren’t exactly shining examples of his skill. This left Rohl with one option since Ell didn’t seem to be offering any stories up either.
“How about a song instead?” Rohl asked and after a moment of consideration, the mercenaries responded with nodding heads.
Rohl cracked a small smile in response and ignored the muttered “show off,” comment from Ell. Given his audience there was only one real choice as for which song to perform, its name came to him in an instant as his left hand reached blindly for his ukatar.
Once he had positioned his instrument and knew he was ready he began to perform ‘A soldier of gold’. It was a classic fast-paced melodramatic war song, one to entertain and please soldiers drunk from the adrenaline of battle.
“When the day is done and the battle won.”
“What comfort will always wait for you.”
“Not King, not honour, not love.”
“But gold shall always await you.”
“So fight loyal soldiers, be brave and true.”
“Hold the line, they will not break through.”
“Slay my enemies, hold my land and my gold will always be awaiting you.”
“Honour is fickle, love is brittle.”
“But gold will always be there.”
“It will always love you.”
The song continued for a few more versus much to the enjoyment of the mercenaries, it was not a particularly good song or famed for its lyrics, but the mercenaries enjoyed it and that was what had made it popular. A song for people with particular tastes, even a few seconds after he’d finished singing, Ell still had a befuddled look on her face as if she couldn’t believe the spew that had come out of his mouth.
Just to prove that he was a real bard, he did make sure to perform a few more famous songs, those that he would typically sing back in the Halleway inn. Each one brought him a few whoops and rounds of applause from his small audience around the campfire.
“That was fantastic,” spoke Flora enchanted.
“A man of many talents,” spoke Jeffard
“Yeah, like being an idiot,” whispered Ell.
Rohl couldn’t help but chuckle at that, he was starting to find her comments rather amusing even if they were directed at him.
“Thank you, I think it’s time for me to head to bed, I’m shattered and it’s going to be a long day tomorrow,” Rohl spoke to the assembled group, his voice displaying just how tired he was. Even now he was fighting back a yawn.
His statement was met with a chorus of “Goodnights,” and “See you tomorrow,”. With that, he bid them all one last nod goodbye before collecting his belongings and heading to the nearest empty tent. He felt so tired that he just let himself run on instinct as he got changed and collapsed onto the ground.
The tent contained only a few small pillows and a small blanket of furs which Rohl snuggled tightly into. The tents were shared among the camp, so Rohl was not surprised when he heard someone else enter shortly after.
It was Ell who didn’t take long in readying herself for sleep before snuggling in beside Rohl, the small covers were barely enough to cover them both even with their bodies pressed together. Their bodies provided just enough heat to push away the cold of the chilly night.
With a comfy blanket and an exhausted soul, it didn’t take long for Rohl to fall asleep, his mind ignoring the whistles and chuckles from outside that accompanied Ell’s entrance.