Gerald sat agape, gazing at the two children who’d just a few moments ago entered his study. Yanna and Harrid had just told him their findings in the streets. It had only been six days since the two left the keep to ‘hear’ things. Yanna had taken some food, clothes, and coin to satisfy the homeless who would be Gerald’s ears in Ard. But to his surprise, Yanna didn’t just bring him gossip and rumors from the streets, she brought him real news. “Are you sure of what you just said?” Gerald asked. “Say it again.”
Yanna took a deep breath then spoke, “Yes. There is a woman. Some call her Madame Grina and others call her Lady Grina. We’re sure that she has recruited over 100 men. A homeless man heard servants from her manor talking about it.”
“And you two don’t think that the homeless man just lied to you for the coin?”
Harrid quickly shook his head. “He couldn’t have because we’ve threatened hi—” He was interrupted with a glare from Yanna, and then there was silence for a moment.
Gerald squinted and glanced between the two dubiously. “Why would he be scared of you two?” Gerald asked. He doubted that a grown man would be scared of two children, but he also believed that the girl, Yanna, might have employed methods that nobody would call kind, specially for a child. So far, she had proven herself to be more than just a little girl.
The two of them didn’t answer his question, but he didn’t pressure them. If Yanna had talents that helped her tread among the people of the alleys, then it was also good for him. So he chose to ask another question. “Can you have some people keep an eye on that manor and that lady?” he asked, eying Yanna.
“I’ve already done that,” Yanna nodded with a smile.
Gerald stared at her, surprised. It seemed that he didn’t have to worry about much with her handling the matter. He laughed in his heart. Arthur and Robard had warned him against taking homeless children into the keep, because they were endless. The two aides never looked kindly at Yanna and Harrid, but they would never have expected such a growing talent to be picked up by Gerald.
“Do you know her, my lord, that lady?” the girl continued, tilting her head.
“Yes,” Gerald chuckled. “She’s my cousin.”
Yanna was visibly shocked, while Harrid flinched.
“You don’t have to worry about it, though,” he continued. “I want you to keep an eye on her. She’s up to no good, and we’re not on good terms. You two can each start handling your work here again. I will send you out of the keep in a few days again to check what your friends have managed to ‘hear’.”
The two calmed down and Yanna nodded. She soon left the study, and Harrid stepped forward to stand beside his lord. Gerald glanced at him and pointed outside the study, hoping that the boy would finally understand and stand outside.
Harrid walked to the door and was about to shut it from the inside again when a yell stopped him. “Get out!” The boy jumped in surprise, looked back at the helplessly fuming Gerald then nodded and stepped out of the study.
“And summon Robard for me,” Gerald continued.
Soon, Robard arrived, saluting Gerald.
“How’s everything with the Big Mountain crew in the east?” Gerald asked.
“The rider will depart again tonight, my lord,” Robard answered. “He will carry fifty gold coins and deliver them to the bandits as per your command.”
“Good. Don’t forget to remind them that this must keep this secret, and explain why we haven’t paid the whole toll of passage yet.”
Robard nodded. “I will,” he said. Then he hesitated for a moment and looked at Gerald. “May I ask a question, my lord?”
“You’ve sent that lad, Gasper, to the east with a group of recruited refugees. Is this related to him?” Robard asked.
“Heh,” Gerald chuckled softly. “You’ve finally connected it. You need broader vision, Robard. It took you a while to see part of what I’m doing. Have you noticed that Arthur never objected to my actions towards the bandits in the east? Sometimes you have to be adaptable and leave yourself some space to think. The first thing you thought of when I spoke about negotiating with bandits was honor. When was the last time you thought of victory, though?”
Robard slightly hung his head, ashamed. “I admit that I haven’t been successful in fulfilling my duties, my lord. But I still don’t believe in negotiating with bandits to fulfill them.”
“I know. Thankfully, you’re not the lord,” Gerald said indifferently. Then he gestured for the knight to take his leave.
Robard bowed and left.
Gasper sat on a thick log, twirling a green stem in his hands. He was deep in thought. Black Dog had successfully invited the two crews in the north to witness the Big Mountain’s ‘betrayal’. Two representatives had arrived three nights ago. Black Dog had accompanied the two representatives to spy on the Big Mountain camp himself. But now it was the fourth night, and they hadn’t returned yet. Gasper couldn’t help but think that if Black Dog didn’t find the proof he needed to convince the representatives, then nothing would prevent the bandit chief from venting on him.
Soon his fears were shattered, though. There were a few yells. Then he heard Yellow Dog shouting from the gates. “The chief is back!”
Gasper breathed a sigh of relief. Black Dog wouldn’t return after just four nights if he didn’t achieve his purpose. Everything was going in the right direction so far. He stood up, waiting a few moments until a small procession came into his view. Black Dog was in the lead, followed by two well-armed men, who Gasper knew were the representatives. A number of bandits came and followed the three to the cabin. Gasper noticed a furious frown on Black Dog’s face. It didn’t bode well that the bandit chief was fuming even after having his proof.
Gasper waited until Black Dog reached his cabin, then listened to the whispers of the dispersed procession of bandits that confirmed his thoughts. Black Dog had indeed found his proof. A rider from the Viscount had arrived at the Big Mountain camp again, and apparently, something else had happened too. Gasper tried to find out what it was but didn’t have much luck.
It didn’t take long for him to hear a loud argument coming from the chief’s cabin. There were some furious yells and howls, easy to recognize as Black Dog’s, coming out of the cabin. It took a while for the bandit chief to vent his anger. Then Gasper saw the two representatives coming out of the cabin with ugly faces.
“Gasper,” Yellow Dog yelled as he opened the cabin’s door from within. “The chief wants you.”
“Yes,” Gasper yelled back and trotted towards the cabin.
When he finally entered, he saw Black dog standing in a semicircle of lieutenants. “Those shits in the north think that they can stop me,” the bandit chief growled. “They’re out of excuses and now they want to delay it as much as possible. They’re probably hoping that Big Mountain will notice something and prepare for me. That way we’ll both wipe each other out and leave the east empty for them.”
Fire Dog snorted. He was the only other ranked Warrior in the crew aside from Black Dog. He was an Earth Warrior with peculiar orange eyes and Black Dog’s second in command. “If the east is ever empty, it will fall in the Silver crew’s hand, not anyone else’s,” he said.
“It doesn’t matter,” Black Dog frowned. “The east will never be empty. It will be ours, no matter what. They asked for proof and they saw the rider. They even forced me to visit Big Mountain’s camp and talk to that fucking ape over there.”
There were a few gasps of surprise at the last words Black Dog said. “You visited the camp?” Yellow Dog asked.
“Yes,” the bandit chief’s mouth twitched. “The representatives insisted that maybe the Big Mountain chief hadn’t agreed to any of the Viscount’s proposals. They even said that it might be my imagination and there was no conspiracy. So we waited for a night after the rider left then pretended to be on a friendly visit while the representatives pretended to be two of my men. When we asked the Big Mountain if he was ever approached by the Viscount, he denied it and said that he had nothing to do with Ard. He lied right to our faces and those two cunts still want to prevent me from lopping his head off.”
Gasper had stopped beside the door after entering. He listened intently to Black Dog’s words. He had understood the unspoken rules among the bandit chiefs in the last few days. The crews weren’t supposed to attack each other even if one was stronger than another. The reason was simple. It would not be good for anyone. The main beneficiary would be the Silver crew in the south because they were the strongest. Peace among the bandits would be better as it would keep the Silver crew in check. If Robben Luwin ever got too greedy, all the other crews could unite against him and his Silver crew.
Whether the two crews in the north were worried about that or were actually greedy for the east themselves wasn’t very clear, but Gasper knew that Black Dog wasn’t a patient man, not at times like these at least. The assault would happen soon.
Gasper was still thinking when Black Dog noticed him. “Gasper,” the bandit chief said. “You’re here. Come join us.”
Gasper nodded and stepped forward.
Black Dog suppressed his earlier anger and smiled widely at his lieutenants. “This is our chance. If we control the east, everything will change. I would recruit the remnants of the Big Mountain’s men. Then we’d have enough resources to recruit even more men and soon enough we’ll match the Silver crew in numbers.”
“What about the other crews? The representatives haven’t agreed yet,” one of the lieutenants said.
“We will begin right after the two cunts leave,” Black Dog said, chuckling. “I’m sure they don’t really care about the rules as they claim. When they first arrived, they offered to ‘help’ me deal with the Big Mountain crew if we could prove their collusion with the Viscount.” Then the bandit chief sneered. “They wanted half of our current territory as compensation. They just want benefits. If I accepted their offer now, they’d agree on wiping out the Big Mountain crew. I’m sure of it.”
“But if we do it anyway, the other crews might act against us, chief,” Yellow Dog said, fidgeting as he stood.
Black Dog snorted. “Don’t piss your pants just yet,” he said.
Yellow Dog’s face changed. “I didn’t mean I was scared, chief,” he said. “If the two crews in the north don’t agree, though, we’ll be under a lot of pressure. We need two other crews supporting us at least if we don’t want to be condemned after attacking the Big Mountain.”
Black Dog shook his head. “I don’t care. I’ve already proven it to them. They can’t condemn me later. The news will spread about the truth sooner or later. Even if they blame me for acting on my own, I will have certain proof of Big Mountain’s actions when we capture some of his men. If the other crews still push me too much, I will even ally myself with Robben Luwin. With the whole east in my hands and Robben Luwin as my ally, no one would dare stand against me.”
This time Fire Dog spoke up. “But allying ourselves with the Silver crew would bring us no good. Robben Luwin will swallow the other crews slowly and then it will be our turn eventually. He’s too strong and ambitious.”
“Heh,” Black Dog laughed. “I agree. Allying ourselves with ‘him’ isn’t a wise choice, but it’s a good threat. A threat that will work against the other fools if they try to pressure me or act against my crew. ”
Everyone nodded. If the assault against the Big Mountain succeeded, then the Black Dog crew would be the second most powerful crew in the Tellus basin. If Black Dog allied himself with Robben Luwin after that, then no one would be able to stand against them. Even if all the other four crews united, they’d just be enough to keep themselves from being wiped out, but it wouldn’t change that they’d be slowly eroded.
“Gasper,” Black Dog said. “I didn’t forget that you brought me this piece of news in the first place. I wouldn’t have had this opportunity if you hadn’t seen that rider. When I succeed in ruling the east, I will make you a lieutenant, but you have to prove yourself in the coming battle, if you want the men to recognize you.”
“Thanks, chief,” Gasper nodded. “I will fight with my all.”
“Good,” Black Dog smirked. “The two cunts will leave tomorrow. We’ll start preparing after they leave and we’ll attack in two nights after we’re fully prepared. Fire Dog will stay here in my stead. I might have to spend a few days in the enemy’s camp after I take it. I don’t want the northern fools to move against the camp here, so keep it safe, Fire Dog.”
“Yes, chief,” Fire Dog said lazily.
“You can go have a good night’s sleep now,” the bandit chief said. “Our battle is coming soon.”
Gasper and the lieutenants soon dispersed. Gasper returned to his tent to have a good sleep. He lied down, pondering about what would happen from now on. The Viscount hadn’t told him much about what would be done next. He was just supposed to get the two crews to clash, and he was almost there. It was at this moment of pondering that he heard something moving behind him.
He quickly turned around to find a masked face an inch from his own, staring at him. His heart jumped for a moment as he reached for his sword, but soon he calmed down. It was Master Rudolf, the Viscount’s steward. Gasper couldn’t imagine how the old man had snuck into the camp and then into his tent. The bandits didn’t have the tightest of patrols, but sneaking deep into their camp wasn’t an easy feat.
“Why are you here?” Gasper asked as he sat up, eying the squatting old man. “Has something happened in our camp?”
The old man shook his head. “The Viscount sent a ranger to the camp,” he said. “He wants to know if you’ve succeeded.”
“I have,” Gasper whispered, nodding. Then he eyed the sleeping mat that was across from his own. Each tent in the camp was shared between at least two bandits. If the other bandit came now, he would see Master Rudolf. Gasper didn’t want to imagine what would happen then.
“Don’t worry,” Master Rudolf said. “He won’t come yet. He’s gambling.”
Gasper nodded in relief. “Black Dog will attack the Big Mountain camp in two nights.”
“I’ll let the Viscount know,” the old man said. “Will you be able to return to the forest camp before the battle?”
Gasper smiled wryly. “No,” he said. “It isn’t possible now. I have too many eyes on me. Even the chief is eying me now and is thinking of making me a lieutenant.”
“Just keep yourself alive,” the old man said.
“I will,” Gasper nodded. “Have the people in the our camp given you any trouble?”
The old man sighed and pointed at his mask. “They can’t fully trust me with this, and they’ve been wondering where you’ve gone, since you’ve recruited them yourself. There have been some violent dissidents, but their heads are now on spikes. Nobody has acted since then. You’ll have to come back and take command again if we don’t want the crew to disperse, though.”
“I will. Do you know what the Viscount will do next?” Gasper said.
“No,” the old man shook his head. “I’ve finished what I came for. I have to leave now.”
Gasper nodded. “Be cautious. They could see you,” he said. Gasper could swear that he got a smirk in response. He couldn’t see it under the old man’s mask, but he somehow sensed it from his eyes.
The steward slowly stood up then stepped out of the tent as if he was at home. Gasper found himself staring at the entrance of the tent after the old man disappeared.
‘Where did the Viscount get such an odd steward?’