At the southern gates of Ard, Gerald shook the reins to his horse, urging it closer to Reya’s carriage. “It is such a regret to see you go, my lady.”
“I am afraid I cannot stay any longer, Lord Tellus,” Reya said through the window of her ornate, green carriage. “The negotiations have already been sealed. Trade between the Viscounty and the Baronies will commence soon. There is no need for my presence anymore.”
“But you will always be welcome in Ard,” Gerald said, wearing a courteous smile.
“You have my thanks,” she smiled back. “I wish you the best of fortune in rebuilding your lands.” She glanced at the crowd of laborers south of the walls, working on the foundations of roads and buildings.
“And I wish you a safe journey, my lady,” Gerald said as he nodded to the riders of the convoy. “May we meet again one day.”
“I certainly wish we do,” she said as the carriage began to move. “I have enjoyed my time here. It never ages, watching a knight swear his oath.” She nodded to him courteously as a distance began to widen between them.
The trail of carriages, carrying the envoys of the Baronies, began to crawl over the road towards the south, surrounded by a few knights and many guards.
As the carriages distanced themselves farther and farther from Ard, Gerald turned his horse around. Arthur and Robard were on their horses behind him.
“My lord,” they said, bowing their heads slightly.
“You have informed Kale that I will visit him today, yes?” Gerald asked his minister.
“Of course, my lord,” Arthur said. “He will be expecting us.”
“Then let us waste no more time.”
Through the crowds of noisy merchants and subjects, Gerald and his aides reached Kale’s workshop.
The workshop was as lively as ever, and Gerald suspected that the talented woodworker had taken more apprentices under his care. Young boys and lad ran around, carrying unfinished bows and strings, and sometimes even unarched shafts of wood that were still to be mellowed. Others carried crossbows around with more care and steadiness.
Robard stepped forward at the entrance of the workshop and announced their arrival. “THE LORD HAS ARRIVED!”
The apprentices froze, and some of them mustered some courage to turn and take a quick glance at Gerald.
Soon, an older one among them urged the others to bow, and they all did, greeting Gerald. “Welcome, my lord.”
A few moments later and Kale spawned among the crowd, walking towards Gerald with a sunshine grin.
Arthur spoke first with a frown and a twitching brow. “I thought I informed you of the lord’s visit.”
Kale nodded. “Yes. Yes, you have.” He turned to Gerald and bowed hurriedly. “Of course, I knew the lord would be here.”
“Then why weren’t you here, waiting?,” Robard glared at him.
“I was preparing,” he replied, quickly dismissing the knight and turning to Gerald again. “Lord, I’ve prepared the new weapon.”
Gasper raised his brows. He had expected it to be some sort of weapon, or rather he’d hoped so. “What kind of weapon may this contraption yours be?”
“A small one,” Kale said, waving his hand at one of his apprentices. “Bring it, quickly!”
The lad ran inside and soon came out carrying something the size of a scrawny newborn, covered with a grey cloth. He came to Kale and handed the weapon to him.
Kale set it on a table, then removed the cloth.
Gerald raised a brow as his eyes fell on the small crossbow that lay on the table. “What may this be?”
“I call it a ‘sting’, my lord,” Kale gestured towards the crossbow. “It’s smaller, lighter, and quicker than the average crossbow, as you can of course see.”
Gerald scrutinized the crossbow, walking around it slowly. It was less than half the size of the ordinary crossbow that required a grown man to carry and handle. Its timber was smooth and polished, and it seemed more dashing in form, its wings arching backwards more than the ordinary crossbow.
He picked it up slowly, noticing that it carried no bolt. “It is indeed quite light to carry.”
“Yes,” Kale nodded fervently. “We have tried using it with one arm, my lord.”
“And?” Gerald glanced at him.
“Well, my lord.” Kale rubbed his head, apparently embarrassed. “My aim was never good. But I believe that a trained soldier can easily use it single-handedly.”
Gerald held it with one hand and extended his hand forward, aiming at one of the lumps of timber lying around. A smile slowly drew itself on his face as he realized that it was indeed light enough to be used with a single hand, and perhaps even on horseback while riding. “The gold you’ve received might have not been a waste after all, Kale.”
“Yes, my lord,” Kale nodded. “But . . . ”
“What is it?” Gerald felt that a bolt was soon to be shot into his visions for this unique weapon.
“It has two problems,” Kale said, running his hand through his messy hair.
“What may they be?”
“First, its range is very limited,” Kale explained. “An ordinary crossbow can pierce solid armor from a hundred yards away. But this can only do so within thirty to forty yards, my lord, and it might not pierce heavy armor very well. Of course, for unarmored enemies, it can strike as far as a hundred yards and draw blood.”
“Is it because of the small bolts?” Gerald cocked his head, bringing the crossbow closer to his eyes and imagining the measure of the bolt that could fit into it.
“No, my lord,” Kale smiled wryly. “The coin you’ve provided me wasn’t enough to send for more intricate parts from outside of the Viscounty. I believe it can still be improved through further attempts with better parts.”
Gerald nodded. He’d limited Kale to five hundred gold coins instead of the requested thousand when he’d first met him. “Very well, you may have the rest of the gold you need. Five hundred more, yes?”
“Yes, my lord,” Kale said. “I will begin as soon as I can. I believe that after I’m done, a sting would be capable of penetrating any heavy armor within fifty yards.”
“You haven’t mentioned the second problem,” Gerald eyed him.
“Ahh, yes,” Kale nodded. “My lord, a single piece of this costs us as much as five gold coins. And after I improve it, I believe that will increase.”
“Increase to how much?” Gerald felt the pinch on his plans.
“Perhaps six or seven golds a piece.”
“I see,” Gerald sighed. “Have you crafted bolts for it?”
“Yes,” Kale motioned for his apprentice to run for the bolts. The latter did and came back quickly with several small bolts.
Gerald received one and fixed it in place. Then he aimed his crossbow at a log of wood in the corner of the workshop.
“My lord,” Kale smiled. “A moment is all it will take to reach the targets’ field.”
Gerald narrowed his eyes and followed Kale deeper into the workshop. They passed a door then took one turn and passed another, finding themselves behind the workshop. Several archery targets lay outside, waiting to be struck.
Gerald smirked and stepped closer to one of the targets, standing as far as forty yards away from it. He aimed the crossbow, or the ‘sting’ as Kale had called it, at the target. He aligned his arm with his sight and the sting’s bolt. He took a moment to adapt then released the bolt.
With a ‘Twang’, it left the sting and buried itself in the target, not exactly in the middle of it though. It was between the edge of the target and its bull’s eye.
“It isn’t a bad crossbow,” Gerald said, turning to the young bowyer.
Kale’s mouth twitched a little. “A sting, my lord.”
Gerald forced a smile. He really didn’t want to utter that name. He would have liked to name the weapon himself, but it seemed that Kale hadn’t prepared that honor for him. “Very well. It is a very good weapon, and a witness to your mastery in craftsmanship. How many do you have at this moment?”
“Only thirty that can be used, my lord,” Kale said. “The rest are mostly failures, hardly in any shape to be used.”
Gerald reloaded his crossbow and stepped to the side, aligning himself with a farther target, perhaps a hundred yards away. He aimed slowly then released the bolt, but it landed nowhere near the target. It seemed that its aim was only good on shorter range, but it was good enough for the uses he had in mine. “I will send someone to receive them from you. I need to have my men trained to use them.” He would have his elite corps train well with the new ‘sting’. It would prove to be quite useful for his Warriors.
“I will prepare them for your use, my lord.”
“Good. Good,” Gerald said, gazing at the one in his hand. “How long will it take for you to improve these stings?”
“Perhaps a month, my lord. It won’t be much longer than that. Everything is prepared except those parts I need from outside the Viscounty. Once they arrive, it won’t take long for me to have the new sting made.”
“Then I will leave this one here. Send me the best new sting you manage to make once it’s ready.”
“Yes, my lord.”
Gasper tapped the steal breastplate as he walked out of his house, wearing the set of steel armor that the lord had gifted him. He was heading east of Ard to take command of the elite corps.
His father had been busy preparing to open a shop on behalf of the lord in the new southern quarter. He would buy the goods from craftsmen who would otherwise be idle, hoping that merchants would become trusting enough of their goods in due time. He would also seek to buy certain goods the lord had requested. Gasper was glad that his father found something to busy himself with; something enjoyable for him.
When he reached the eastern gate of Ard, he saw Master Rudolf accompanied by a sullen boy who was scrunching his face with visible effort. Yet the boy’s face lightened up upon seeing him. He stared at Gasper’s steel armor for a while then contemplated his face.
Gasper glanced at Master Rudolf.
The latter chuckled. “Don’t mind Harrid. He intends to wear that ugly countenance for a few days since I didn’t allow him to attend your knighting ceremony.” The old steward glanced at the boy. “But it was no fault of mine that he failed to meet expectations in his training.”
Gasper looked at the boy who was still observing his armor. He patted him on the arm, holding himself back from breaking into a silly smile. And with some pride he said, “before battle comes training, lad. Train well so that you may become a knight one day.” He stared the boy in the eye, awaiting a dismissing or contemptuous response, but Harrid’s face lit up and fervent nods followed.
Master Rudolf watched for a moment then shook his head with a wry smile. “Shall we go, Gasper?”
“Yes,” Gasper nodded, walking towards the three prepared horses.
Master Rudolf mounted his horse and looked at Harrid who struggled to mount his. “Let’s see how you ride today,” he told the boy.
The three of them rode out of the gate to the east.
“The lord had entrusted you with the leadership of the elite corps, Gasper. But the Warriors of the elite corps might not be so easily persuaded to take you as a true commander,” Master Rudolf said as he rode beside Gasper. “You would do good to gain their respect with time. After all, you’re young and you’re a freshly named knight. There is not much difference in strength between you and them as well.”
When he heard those last words, Gasper gave Master Rudolf a look. The latter raised a brow. Gasper smiled apologetically. “I’ve been a Sky Warrior since we set camp with the crew in the south.”
“I didn’t ask back then because I didn’t want to salt your wounds, considering that you may have failed,” Master Rudolf cocked his head. “Yet you used that to keep secrets.” The old steward chuckled and shook his head. “It will please the lord, I suppose. Becoming a Sky Warrior at such a young age shows promise. Twenty-two years, yes?”
Gasper nodded. “Indeed.”
“Well,” Master Rudolf sighed. “It will still be a matter of gaining your men’s respect. The elite corps may be as small as seventy men, but leading it will be no small matter.”
Gasper nodded again, this time decisively.
It didn’t take long for them to reach the corps’ camp. There, they were met with a crowd of men who stood scattered in the camp’s field.
Gasper pulled the reins to his horse and dismounted it.
Master Rudolf didn’t. He rode into the middle of the camp. “This is your new commander, Sir Gasper,” he said with a mild but clear voice, pointing at Gasper. Then he ran his eyes over the Warriors of the corps.
“Commander,” one Warrior said, and the others soon echoed him.
Gasper ran his eyes over the Warriors of his corps, stopping from time to time to see their expressions, none of which looked convinced.
Soon, Master Rudolf left with Harrid, and Gasper stayed with his men.
He glanced at the men around him, standing without purpose. “Well . . . To the training fields then.”
There was silence for a moment then the men began dragging their feet towards the training grounds, as if reluctant to obey his first command.
‘Quite prideful,’ he thought.
In the training grounds, which was a very simple, large field, Gasper headed towards the sparring ring. He leapt over the fence and walked to the middle of it. “A few spars are due, yes?” He glanced at the men, noticing some faces brightening with anticipation and others filled with amusement.
He ran his eyes over the lot of them and said, “a long day is ahead of us. Let us not waste any more time. Who comes first?”
Quickly, a Warrior hopped into the ring, picking up a training sword. Gasper picked one as well and they circled each other.
“Let’s begin then,” Gasper said.
His opponent nodded and lunged in for thrust. Gasper parried it, unsure if the recklessness was a trap.
His opponent attempted a low slash, only for Gasper to step back, avoiding it. But then he recovered with two quick steps forward, pushing his opponent’s unstable sword to the side and striking him mildly in the knee, forcing it to buckle and the Warrior to kneel down.
Gasper raised a brow. Maybe these Warriors weren’t only weaker than him but also less crafty with a sword. He ran his eyes over them. “Only seventy of you, huh?” He grinned. “Perhaps this won’t be a long day after all.”
And thus began a day of painful training, unlikely to be forgotten by any of its victims for quite a time.