I head back up the alley and walked towards the bakery with Sev and Eddie in tow. A few moments later, there was a scream from inside the apothecary behind us. Probably the healer setting his wrist back in place, what a wuss.
Ignoring the sound, a waft of freshly baked bread floated in the air, signaling our arrival at the bakery and there was a long line snaking outside the store. At the side was a small tavern with the symbol of a brown bear carrying a chalice on one hand and basket of bread and fruits hanging on the plaque outside the store.
“Ah, my dear friend! I’ve been wondering where you were since you didn’t show up this morning,” a hunched elderly man dressed in blue shirt and a white apron pushed open the door to the bakery.
“How are you, Samson?” I grinned, giving the old bugger a hug. Samson Baker lived next door when I first started out as a mercenary in the city, and he was a former cook for the previous viscount. When I asked him why he bought a store in this section of the city, he told me the middle-class citizens and the poor needed him more than the nobles and fresh bread is hard to come by especially when the stale hard-as-a-rock black bread is all the common citizen can afford due to heavy taxes placed upon them by the then viscount. Besides, the rent for a store in the ‘wealthy’ section of the city was simply ridiculous.
Every time I came home from a mission, he would knock on my door and hand me a fresh loaf of bread so I would not have to trouble myself looking for food in the city. I initially thought he was trying to curry favor from a noble’s son, but it turns out he was simply an old man with a large heart.
“Old but gold, Eric! Come in and have a pick of our fresh bread,” he beamed, taking my hand and pulling me into the store. The queuing citizens began muttering and staring in our direction as we cut across the line of people to enter the crowded bakery. As soon as we stepped inside, Sev trembled slightly before readjusting her mask and ambled towards the rows of bread arranged neatly on wooden shelves while humming softly. Eddie, on the other hand, was nervously looking around the store and closely following Sev.
While Sev was happily looking around the bakery for today’s meal with Eddie trailing behind, I weaved through the crowd and walked into the next room which was conjoined to the store. There were a few circular tables arranged around the room and larger, rectangular ones placed near the center to accommodate more patrons. The floor was a clean wooden floorboard covered in sand to conceal any traces of vomit or blood. Here and there were wooden beams supporting the tavern roof.
“Welcome to the Dancing Bear!” A serving girl greeted me nervously as she motioned towards a small table near the edge of the room. ” O-our store is not open yet for ale and such at this hour, so if you would like a drink you’ll have to wait until evening. ”
“It’s okay, I’m only here for a meal. Do you have anything for early lunch? My companion is next door, getting us some bread. ”
“One of our hired hunters caught some game this morning, bet I can ask the cook to make some roasted meat and soup for your bread,” she suggested, her eyes fidgeting around the room restlessly. Seeing the uneasy look on her face, I leaned back and took a glance at the kitchen counter. A bald, plump man with a wide girth stood near the kitchen door with a dirty apron tied around his neck, grinning at me.
“Sure, I’ll take that! Please tell the cook to add some taters to my soup,” I gave her my best smile as she scurried into the kitchen. ” And tell that fatty to stop hiding in the kitchen will you?”
A few moments later, Sev entered the tavern with variously colored slices of bread and buns in a small bag and the bald man approached us while carrying two full plates of food. Once he placed our meals on the table, he promptly grabbed a chair close by and sat next to us.
“Bullying your serving girls again, Jorge?” I said, tearing apart one of the slices of bread and dipping it into the soup.
“Bah – she’s just lazy. I hired her because her pa was an old friend of mine. Snoozes around all day she does. I had to threaten her with satisfying one of the drunk customers if she continues being such a lazy arse.”
“Heh, you’re just a softie,” I chuckled. “So, any news yet?”
As Sev and I began gorging down our meal hungrily, Jorge stuffed his fat fingers into his back pocket and placed a folded paper on the table.
“Things seem to be getting more dangerous by the month, Eric,” he scowled, leaning forward. “Adventurers and vagabonds roaming the kingdom have begun to notice the increase in private missions by the kingdom’s nobles. Rumors say there are levy recruitments in almost every town as if they’re assembling their own private army.”
“With most of the prince’s legion gathering at Penn fortress and more conscripts heading there over the coming weeks, the counts and duke are starting to get unruly I bet.”
“Ain’t that right. Seems like another civil war is gonna erupt soon, good thing we’re surrounded by mountains.”
5 years before I became the viscount of Brule, the Kingdom of Rustar was enveloped in a civil war until the King consolidated his forces and subjugated the nobles with my dead uncle being the last of them. During this period, I was a mercenary for a count in the north of Rustar. The kingdom, fortunately, had too few soldiers at the time and I was able to form a mercenary regiment of my own towards the end of the war and arrange a convoy to bring them to Brule.
We broke camp before sunrise, heading toward a field near the northern coast. Hired by Count Abel, my regiment of 2000 men – of two-thirds infantry and one-third archers – assembled at the very front lines of the battle. As a hired mercenary group, our contractors are unfortunately very determined to get their money’s worth as we became the vanguard of the battle.
“How are the men, Haron?” I yawned, stretching my arms as we stood on top of a hill overlooking the regiment with the count’s soldiers nowhere in sight. The coastal winds were freezing cold all year round and at times the toxic wind would blow over the coast from the poisoned sea volcanoes in spring for a few days, effectively killing all breathing newborns who have yet to develop immunity to the poison in during that period.
“They look well enough to kill and die if that’s what you’re asking,” Haron said. His features were hidden beneath his hood, but he was standing at almost two meters tall with a shortbow slung across his shoulder and two full quivers strung across his back. I gave him a quick once-over and saw a pair of hunting knives hidden at the sides of his calves. I bet he still has more weapons hidden all over his body.
The count’s army finally entered the fields- one full regiment of lightly-armored levy swordsmen, two levy archer cohorts and one company of light cavalry – a total number of 6700 including my men.
Riding lazily on his horse, the count – escorted by his retinue of knights – trotted up the hill we were on.
“It’s too early to be having a battle, isn’t it, lad?” Count Abel groaned, “The battle starting anytime soon?”
“Morning, Count. The earlier we end this battle, the sooner you and your men can go home.” And the sooner I can pay my men and get the hell out of this hell hole.
“Aye, warm bed and fine women for us all,” one of the knights escorting Count Abel said.
The count’s banners flapped fiercely within his ranks, three black stars on a white, diagonal stripe over a pine green background. His men were mostly armed with leather equipment, dawdling about and slowly getting into formation. God, the fight will probably be over by the time his men form up, I muttered.
Soon, trembles could be felt beneath us as the opposing army marched into view from the other end of the field. A large army of about 7000 halted approximately within 500 paces of ours. Two different banners within an army signaled an alliance formed between two counts; one was a symbol of two roses crossed over an unsheathed blade on a blue backdrop and the other, a white sun on a black flag.
“So, it is true. Count Maize and Count Lucas are now allies. Well, it’s all the easier for me to wipe the floor with them, isn’t that right, lad?”
“Good hunting, Count,” I grunted, ignoring him and trekking down the hill back to my groups of mercenaries. This was going to be one hell of a battle.