Fortress and Forest
Eventually, the castle settled into some manner of routine shaped around the new baron. Damien would take off for several days, hunting and riding. On his return, he would spend half his time sleeping, eating, taking long baths; the other half was spent barking orders at his guards, exercising them around the courtyard. This would last a few days before he left again, allowing the sentries room to breathe until his next return and the inevitable resumption of training.
A month after his initial arrival, Damien had arrived home after yet another hunt. He lay in a large tub of hot water, soaking with a cup of elderflower drink and eyes closed. There was a soft knock. “Enter,” he replied with the growl of an old dog, raising his head.
“It is me, milord,” Henri announced, entering. “Is everything to his lordship’s satisfaction?”
“Fine,” Damien said. He drank from his cup and leaned back again, closing his eyes. “This is good. Much better than plain water. Are you sure it is not fermented? It tastes too good.”
“I swear, milord. I will let your kitchen servants know of your pleasure.”
“As long as they make more.”
“If his lordship ever returns with any game from his hunts, the kitchen would be happy to cook it to his lordship’s preference.”
One eye opened to stare at the steward. “You better not be making any insinuations, Holfast.”
“I would never, milord. Also, I came to tell you that a visitor has arrived, asking for permission to be your guest at the castle.”
“My guest? Such cheek! Does this look like an inn? It is one thing for vagrants to sleep in the stable, eating scraps from the kitchen, but I will not entertain them at my table!”
“Not even a member of the clergy, milord?”
“I already have one priest eating my food,” Damien growled. “If the good brother wants other robes here, they can sleep at his temple.”
“Very well, milord, I shall let her know.”
“Her? Not another whiterobe, then.”
“Indeed not, milord, she follows Austre, by the colour of her garbs.”
A moment passed before Damien’s eyes flew open and the cup fell from his hand. “Green?”
“Yes, milord, as all the priestesses of Austre.”
“What is her name?”
“Forgive me, she told me, but it was something strange. Northern, harsh. More like a man’s name, really,” Henri mused.
“Old fool,” Damien mumbled. “What is her age?”
“I did not ask, milord, that would have been impertinent. Past twenty, but not yet thirty? I would wager so.”
The baron looked over the edge of his tub around his room. “I need clothes. Tell her to wait in the entrance hall – no, how long until the evening meal?”
“It should not be much longer, milord.”
“Good. Tell her to wait for me in the great hall – no! Let me get dressed and go there first, and you can show her in. Bring her something to drink while she waits.”
Henri kept the confusion on his face from appearing in his voice. “Very good, milord.” He disappeared while Damien hurried up and began rummaging through his garments, dripping water on the floor.
A while later, the baron sat in his chair in the great hall, named so for being larger than the entrance hall and thus being slightly more impressive in size and appearance – the keep had no other halls. As the steward opened the doors, he entered first before gesturing at the young priestess that followed. “Gunvor from Hareik, milord, a priestess of the order of the Hart.”
Smiling, Gunvor approached and bowed her head. “My lord baron.”
“Gunvor,” Damien exclaimed, quickly rising from his seat. He cleared his throat. “Welcome to my halls.”
“Thank you. Your lands are pleasant. I saw that as I travelled through them.”
“You are too kind.” He glanced around as if it took him a moment to see Henri standing by her side. “Have the food brought in.”
“Yes, milord.” The steward clapped his hands while the baron sat down again. With the lord of the castle seated, his companions at the table followed suit. One steward and one whiterobe as usual, this night joined by a greenrobe.
While the servants brought in food, Damien poured into Gunvor’s cup. “Elderflower drink,” he told her. “Not fermented,” he quickly added. “Only thing around here with decent taste.”
“His lordship seems wise,” Gunvor remarked. “On my way, I heard the common people praise your benevolent rule, removing old laws that lay like a yoke on them.”
“I try,” Damien mumbled, looking down at the table. “It is my duty.”
“It is unusual to see a sister of Austre this far south,” the whiterobe interjected, looking at Gunvor. “What brings you to our home?”
“Yes, what happened after I left Middanhal?” Damien asked, causing Henri and Pierre to exchange looks.
“I stayed over winter to plant and nurture the seeds I brought from Hareik,” Gunvor explained. “I was tasked by my gydja to bring rare herbs to the great Temple in Middanhal,” she added, aimed at the other two. “Lord Damien escorted me on the journey, providing me with safety.”
“An apt choice,” Henri remarked.
“When spring came and the seeds sprouted, the priestess at the Temple was so pleased, she gave me leave to choose any assignment I wished,” Gunvor elaborated. “So I asked permission to travel south and establish a new temple to Austre.”
Pierre coughed violently as if a garrotte had been tightened around his throat. “Here?” he wheezed.
“That – that was my thought. Are you ill, good brother?” she asked concerned.
“I think that is a marvellous idea,” Damien considered. “I greatly enjoy the forests here, and with a greenrobe’s touch, they might flourish even more. What would you need?”
“My sisters in Fontaine should be able to supply craftsmen,” Gunvor said, “trained to build without nails or iron. I would only require suitable timber from the forest itself. And the right clearing to build the shrine, of course.”
“Perhaps we should ride out tomorrow,” Damien suggested, sounding almost shy. “I will bring my bow for a bit of hunting, and you can find your clearing.”
“That sounds excellent, milord,” the greenrobe declared with a happy expression. Opposite her, the steward sat with a beaming smile while the priest looked like his meal contained hemlock.
After the meal, Henri retired to his chamber, attending to his other duties as steward. The changes in taxation demanded by the baron kept Henri occupied most available hours as he went through the ledgers of the fief. He had only resumed this task when the door opened wide, revealing Pierre.
“Something ails you?”
The whiterobe strode into the room. “Did you not see the same as me? At the meal,” he clarified.
“Indeed, extraordinary,” Henri exclaimed. “I would scarcely have believed it, except it happened in front of my own eyes.”
“Yes, it’s – what? Why?”
The priest waved his hands about in despair. “This greenrobe, appearing out of nowhere, to ensnare the mind of our hapless lord!”
Henri frowned, staring at Pierre. “What are you on about?”
“You said you saw it yourself!”
“What I saw,” the steward explained patiently, “was our bellicose baron turned gentle as a lamb, thanks to the greenrobe’s presence.”
The priest froze his frantic hand movements. “You think she is a sorceress? She has bewitched Lord Damien, cast a spell on him!”
Henri’s expression turned to disappointment. “The only sorcery is the fact that our baron is a man, and the greenrobe is a woman. I know you’re a priest, Pierre, but even you must be aware of how such matters work.”
“But why would she come here?” Pierre asked with suspicion in his voice.
“You heard her – she knows the baron.”
“That entitles her to a visit, perhaps, but building a temple? When there is no need or reason for it?”
A sly smile appeared on the steward’s face. “So that’s the berry you find sour. You don’t like the thought of competition.”
Pierre huffed. “It’s not that. I’m worried what she’ll do. I’ve spent my life teaching the townspeople. For two hundred years, my predecessors have carved the temple to Hamaring. And now, they’re supposed to stroll around the forest, praying to the trees?”
For a moment, Henri looked worried. “I see your concern. But,” he continued, and a smile dawned on his face. “Stagnation is death. Change is the only path to improvement.”
The whiterobe spluttered an incomprehensible reply and stormed off.
The next day, two horses rather than the usual one departed the castle. They bore their riders to the nearby forest in the early blossoms of spring. They passed through trees of oak, elm, and ash, occasionally observed by curious foxes or cautious squirrels. When they reached a glade that allowed sunlight to reach them, they dismounted.
After tying the reins of their mounts to the nearest branch, Gunvor paced around the clearing, counting steps. “It should be more than large enough,” she told Damien. “I don’t intend for any grand structure, after all.”
“Sounds wise, or you would end up with a temple bigger than my castle,” he laughed.
The priestess looked around at the glade. “This is a good place. Our presence will not disturb the forest. And it will offer tranquillity for all in need of such.”
“All, you say? Even old scoundrels and new barons?”
“Especially those. I hear you’re already fond of travelling into the forest. That sounds like a man who knows the necessity of such a place.”
“Truth be told, I find my new role difficult. Most of my life, I have lived in camps and slept in tents, feeling no different from any common soldier. At times, it feels like the castle walls are not there to protect me, but imprison me.” Damien ran his hand through a branch, pulling off some leaves and tearing them into pieces, looking down rather than at Gunvor.
“I wondered at that. Especially since I am told you go hunting, but you never return with game.”
“Damn servants,” Damien swore. “They talk too much. Though I cannot say if I would rather they knew the truth.” He finally looked up at the priestess, holding one hand in front of him. “They do not shake like they once did, but they are unsteady. No use for shooting a bow with accuracy.”
“I am sorry,” she said with a genuine voice. “Some things cannot be changed.”
“At least I can swing a sword the same.”
“You are not hindered in that regard?”
He shook his head. “Fighting is blood and instinct. In the heat of battle, my hand knows what to do. But hunting is patience and precision.”
“That, at least, is a matter known to me as a servant of the Huntress.”
Damien let out his barking laughter. “True. So there you have it. I go to the woods and throw my arrows away, pretending I have been hunting rather than risk the attempt. It seemed too likely that I would maim the animal without killing it, forcing a slow death upon it.”
“I shall keep your secret,” Gunvor promised with a smile.
“Good. Do not give Hamish any satisfaction.”
Gunvor frowned for a moment before she slapped Damien’s arm. “His name is Henry, or how did he say it? Henri. In any case, it’s not even close to what you said.”
Damien gave a sly smile. “But his face twitches every time I call him something new, yet he dares not correct me. In lieu of a court jester, I must make my own jests,” he declared, to which she laughed. As the glade became quiet again, he cleared his throat. “If you are to build a shrine here, does that mean you will stay out here as well? Rather than at the castle.”
“Certainly at times, I must,” the priestess replied. “When rituals or the like require it.”
“But not all the time?”
“That would not be necessary, no.”
“You would be welcome to stay at the castle, in that case. When your duties permit it.”
“I should be happy to receive your hospitality, my lord baron.”
“And perhaps,” she continued slowly, “since you are so fond of hunting, you might make your trips to the forest when my duties demand my presence here.”
“That would be most agreeable to me.”
Damien took a deep breath. “I am starving. Let us see what the kitchens prepared for us,” he suggested, walking over to open his saddle bags.
In the evening, the baron and his guest returned to the castle. While the old stable hand took their horses, a servant appeared to offer something to drink. Soon after, Henri also entered the courtyard, waving a letter in his hand. “This arrived for you today, milord.”
“Leave it in my chamber,” Damien told him with a dismissive voice and turned towards Gunvor. “Where was I? Right, the siege of Tricaster.”
“It bears the king’s seal, milord,” Henri interjected, tripping with nervous energy.
Growling, Damien reached out to tear the letter from the steward, and he broke the seal to read the content. A cloud passed over his face.
“What is it?” asked Gunvor.
“The king bids me raise my levies and join him for war,” Damien exhaled. Every servant within earshot raised their heads, looking at their lord.
“Oh dear,” Henri exclaimed. “Not again.”
“Make the arrangements,” the baron commanded. “Gather every oaf who can hold a spear.”
“Gods willing, we will be home before the harvest.”
The next day, Damien went to the castle smithy. It was little more than a small room with the most basic necessities for forging, along with a smith more often tasked with making horseshoes than weaponry. As the baron strode into the room, carrying a great sword in each hand, the smith looked up from his anvil and the nails he had been making. “Milord,” he mumbled, bowing his head.
“I need you to perform a task for me.” Damien placed his swords on the workbench in the forge.
“I can sharpen your blades well enough, milord,” the smith said, “if that’s what you need.”
“No. This is my old sword,” Damien explained, pointing at the sword that had served him as a Templar. “I cannot use it in battle. I will bring this instead.” He gestured at the new sword, gifted by the marshal. “I want you to remove the jewel in the pommel from the old one and insert it into the new.”
The smith walked over to investigate the hilts, including the sapphire set into the Templar sword. “It will take me a while, milord, to adjust the pommel and allow room for the stone.”
“As long as you get it done. But be careful,” Damien growled. “That gem is blessed by the Highfather.”
“I have sent the summons, milord,” Henri informed his master. “Your levies should arrive within the next handful of days. Of course, it will not be as many as your father brought to the king’s war last year.” The steward coughed demonstratively. “Not everyone returned.”
“Fine. I plan to do as little in this war as possible, in any case.” Damien stood investigating his armour, which was an old suit of mail that once had belonged to his brother. Some of the rings were missing, but all in all, it still offered good protection.
“As could be expected,” Henri mumbled. “Will his lordship bring the guards?”
“And who will protect my castle in my absence? Do not be foolish.”
“Very good, milord. That will be a relief to the servants, knowing they remain behind.”
“After all the trouble I have had, training them to be even slightly capable in a fight, I am not letting them all die on some battlefield,” Damien remarked brusquely. “Though I will need a sergeant. There is the old fellow with the scars on his face, he must have seen a skirmish or two.”
“I think that’s from his wife, milord,” Henri considered. “He angered her one too many times, and she came at him with a knife.”
“Then he has already faced a greater foe than anything on the field,” the baron declared serenely. “Tell him of the honour bestowed on him and his new duties.”
“I shall, milord. Anything else?”
“Any shrine to Rihimil in this gods-forsaken land?”
“Not to my knowledge, milord. I shall ask Brother Pierre.”
It took about a week to assemble the levies from around the holding. A hundred men or so, armed with old weapons inherited or scavenged, gathered at the keep. A horse stood saddled and waited for the lord of the land, as did all the servants, waiting to bid their master farewell.
Damien appeared in armour with a great sword by his side; a sapphire sat in the pommel. He gave curt nods to Henri and the other servants and approached Gunvor. She gave him a half-hearted smile. “I didn’t expect us to part company so soon again.”
“This whole war is nonsense,” Damien claimed. “Some misunderstanding with the islanders. It will be quickly sorted.”
“I hope so.” She bit her lip. “Make sure you come back.”
“I promise.” A sly smile appeared on his face. “And Damien of Montmer always keeps his promises.”
Something that resembled choked laughter issued from the priestess. She stood uneasy, extending her arms towards the baron before pulling back, finally settling on gripping his hands. He returned the grasp, and no further words were exchanged. Separating, Damien swung into the saddle of his steed and set the horse into motion; his band of soldiers followed their lord, marching out.