Gerald accompanied Robard and Arthur to a chamber on the other side of the keep. They had brought Gasper there secretly, and had him wait until Gerald could see him. According to what they said. He’d come with over a dozen peasants who’d escaped from the eastern region of the basin in fear of the bandits. A good number of those peasants had been injured, which meant that their journey hadn’t been a peaceful one.
On their way, Uncle Rudolf joined them, and they soon arrived to the chamber they kept Gasper in. Robard advanced and opened the door, then Gerald stepped in.
He found a haggard young man with a charcoal black hair and sharp features. The young man, whose name was Gasper, was apparently exhausted. He leaned on the wall as he sat on the ground, eyes closed. He didn’t even notice them entering.
“Gasper!” Robard whispered sharply.
“Sir,” the young man stood up instantly. He ran his eyes over everyone until they stopped at Gerald. He hesitated for a moment before saying, “Viscount?” and bowing slightly.
Gerald broke into a smile. “Yes,” he said. It seemed that Arthur and Robard had already informed Gasper about him. “You’re Gasper. You were with my father and brother?”
Gasper stood up and tried to straighten his ragged attire. His leather rags were tattered, and his hair was a mess. He soon gave up on fixing himself and met Gerald’s eyes with shame. “Yes. I was there. I failed to protect the lord and his son. Please deliver me the punishment I deserve, my lord.”
Gerald shook his head. “I don’t think it was your fault,” he said. “In fact, I don’t even know what happened that day. All I know is that they found the remains of all the men that left with my father. Tell me what happened that day.”
Gasper didn’t lose his defeated look but took a deep breath and spoke anyway. “The Visc—former Viscount had led us to chase down the bandits that raided a close hamlet. By the time we got there, however, they were gone. The lord was furious. That was the closest those brigands had ever been to Ard. He swore that he wouldn’t let them escape. We found clear tracks to the south, and the lord commanded us to pursue them.”
“Did it lead to the Silver crew, the bandits to the south?” Gerald questioned solemnly.
“No,” Gasper shook his head. “The tracks soon took us to the southeast. We rode as fast as we could. It took a us a day to catch sight of them. But before we could catch up with them, they entered the mountains. As you might know, my lord, there are several passages leading into the depths and heights of the mountains in the southeast. They can only be found inside the Tellus basin. Some of my fallen brothers in arms had suspected that these bandits were too familiar with the passages, but the lord insisted on pursuing. We did as he commanded. We spent half a day in the mountains, tracking them. But when it was dusk, they descended upon us. It seemed that our suspicions were true. It was an ambush. We had followed them to where we shouldn’t have.”
“How many were there?” Gerald asked.
“Not too many. The lord had led us, 500 men, into the mountains. The bandits had even less than us. But their equipment was of good quality. Some of them were even wearing fine mail. The ragged arms and armors of bandits we expected weren’t there. They had prepared for us. They came from every direction. Everywhere I looked, there would be enemies. Archers rained our ranks with arrows from higher ridges. Spearmen clogged our path forward, and heavily armed men appeared out of nowhere behind us. The pass we were treading wasn’t wide enough for our ranks to exert their utmost potential. And as if that wasn’t enough, they had two Sky Warriors and several Earth Warriors. They came from everywhere. Your lordship’s late brother was besieged by one Sky Warrior, while the other one fought Sir Dirn, you father’s knight.” Gasper paused and panted slightly, as if the memories somehow tired him. Gerald saw a hint of wetness in the young Warrior’s eyes. He didn’t see grief, though, only guilt and shame. “It didn’t take long for my squad to be surrounded. I fought off an Earth Warrior while my brothers fell one by one. When I finally succeeded in chasing my opponent away, an arrow buried itself in my shoulder.” Gasper pushed down the leathers he wore and showed a deep scar. “The last things I saw were your brother falling to the Sky Warrior and a spear descending from the sky and going through your father. Our ranks were utterly broken, and I knew there was no hope. So I . . .”
“You fled,” Robard said. “Didn’t you?”
Gasper hung his head low and muttered to himself, and Gerald could see the wetness in his eyes intensifying.
“Did you make sure that the lord was dead?” Robard continued. “You could have—”
“Enough,” Gerald stopped him. “It wasn’t his fault. If anything, his decision wasn’t unwise. There was no hope there.” Then he turned back to the young man who seemed to be of the same age as himself. “Continue. What did you do next? Did you find anything about these bandits?”
Gasper shook his head. “I was injured. I ran and ran. They hunted me down for weeks, and I had to traverse the mountain paths that I’ve never seen before. I was lost in the mountains for a month. The arrow injury got worse. And I went through a strong fever. Eventually, even my Warrior strength faded. It was after the fever subsided that I found my way down the mountains.” He stopped and seemed to be recalling a memory, or perhaps trying to forget it. Gerald wasn’t sure. “I was met with another group of bandits when I descended into the flat lands,” Gasper continued. Then his shame visibly weighed heavier on his face. He didn’t raise his eyes once as he spoke his next words, and his silent sobbing didn’t escape Gerald’s notice. It occurred to Gerald that perhaps this survivor wasn’t as he’d imagined him. Perhaps he was just a lucky but broken young man who somehow lived. “My Warrior strength hadn’t returned,” he continued. “There were many of them, and they gave me a choice.”
Robard flinched. “You didn—”
But Gerald raised his hand to stop him. “Go on,” he nodded.
“I would either join them or die,” Gasper said, kneeling down as he spoke. “I had lived through the battle and being hunted down in the mountains, and I didn’t want to die, my lord. Forgive me.”
“And you spent the last month in their company, yes?” Gerald spoke.
Gasper nodded. “I’ve shamed myself and lost all honor. I deserve any judgment that you pass, my lord. Anything. I will suffer through it without sound or complaint.”
Gerald took a deep breath. “Did you murder any innocents on their behalf?” Gerald asked.
Gasper shook his head, raising his head and meeting Gerald’s eyes. The latter could see sincerity in his eyes. He could have lied several times in his story. But he told it truthfully. He told it all. There was no reason for him to lie now. “They didn’t trust me enough to take me on any of their raids,” Gasper said. “The first time I left their camp was when they wanted to hunt down those peasants that arrived with me. I decided to escape that day. My Warrior strength had mostly recovered. And it was the best chance I had, since we had to enter the forest.”
“Then you met those peasants?” Gerald said.
“Yes,” Gasper nodded. “We decided to head back to Ard together.”
“You could have come alone. It would have been easier and faster for you,” Gerald stared down at him, and Gasper met his eye. “But you didn’t. From your condition,” he eyed Gasper’s attire, “I’m assuming you were attacked on your way back.”
Gasper nodded fervently. Then he told Gerald about the attack they suffered by the mounted bandits on their way back. He told him of the three horses that carried six armed bandits. The bandit lieutenant, Red Dog, that came himself to ride down the peasants, and the peasants who fell while fighting those bandits.
“I know I don’t deserve to be in your service, my lord,” Gasper said calmly. His fit was over, and he had somewhat calmed down. Gerald could see a firm readiness for whatever fate may come in the young Warrior’s eyes.
“I never said that,” Gerald laughed. “You’re still in my service.”
“My lord,” Robard yelled. “This can’t be. It’s . . .”
‘No, this is perfect,’ Gerald thought. ‘The missing piece I’ve been hoping for has fallen upon me from the sky. Perhaps everything will fall into place after all.’
“Get up,” Gerald told Gasper. “There is yet a chance for you to redeem yourself. But the fate of the soldier hasn’t abandoned you yet. You’ll have to see more blood.”
Gasper stood up slowly. “Command me, my lord,” he bowed.
“You’ll rest for the night. But tomorrow, you’ll begin making use of the many refugees on the outskirts of Ard,” Gerald commanded.
“Yes, my lord,” Gasper nodded. “But how will I make use of them?”
“Why, of course you’ll recruit them. As many of them as you can,” Gerald said, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
“Recruit them, my lord?” Gasper still looked bewildered. “For the army?”
Gerald laughed heartily. “No, I wouldn’t need you if it were for that. You’ll recruit them for your crew. Your bandit crew.”
Gasper stood agape for a moment. Arthur, Robard, and even Uncle Rudolf turned their heads to Gerald questioningly. It was as if everyone in the chamber was waiting for some sort of explanation.
“If I had to exterminate rats, I wouldn’t chase them around my home like a fool,” Gerald explained. “I would poison them. It’s about time we poisoned the bandits. I’ve been here for only a few days, and I’ve already had enough of them. Let’s start the preparation for an extermination.” Then he turned to his side and eyed his aides. “Keep quiet about this,” he told them solemnly. “Uncle Rudolf, you will accompany him in this recruitment. But you’ll disguise yourself. Leading a bandit crew needs an iron first, and one Earth Warrior isn’t enough.” Gerald had been thinking how to make use of Uncle Rudolf’s strength as a Sky Warrior, but he still didn’t want his strength to be disclosed to the Duke. It was always good to have something up your sleeve, even if it was for no reason. If Uncle Rudolf could accompany Gasper and use his strength to affirm the latter’s hold on the crew he was going to recruit, then that would be the ideal situation.
“I will do as you command, my lord,” Gasper bowed again.
“When you recruit some of the refugees, it will be easy to distinguish those who joined you due to need and those who’ve always waited to rob and kill,” Gerald explained. “I want you to keep an eye on both. I will send you Uncle Rudolf tomorrow with more commands for you to follow. He will act as your personal guard as you return to the east.”
Gasper nodded silently but enthusiastically. “Can I see my father before leaving, my lord?”
Gerald shook his head. “No, you cannot. Nobody can know that you’re still alive. Not until my plans are over.”
“My lord, I will follow your commands,” Gasper said. “But going back to the east with a bandit crew won’t be easy. There are two large bandit crews there that are very territorial. One rules the northern half of the east and the other rules the southern half. I will likely be chased out as soon as I arrive.”
Gerald chuckled. “Robard has already informed me about the bandit hegemonies in the east,” he said. “It’s good that you’ve kept that in mind, though. Don’t worry, however, I won’t send you and a few inexperienced refugees to defeat the bandits on your own. I said that I will poison them, and I will. You’ll see that for yourself. You and your ‘crew’ will just be there to clean up. Rest well. Many of my plans will rest on you. Although I’m not sure yet if you’ll be competent enough, I won’t lose a thing. Your failure or success will decide both your honor and your fate.”
Gasper saluted with a fist on his chest. “I will strive to live up to your expectations, my lord. And I will redeem myself,” he said with determination.
Gerald nodded, satisfied. Then he turned to his aides. “Nobody will speak of Gasper’s return or his mission,” he commanded. “Not to others, or even among yourselves. I want this matter forgotten until it either bears fruit or fails entirely.”
“Yes, your lordship,” the three men said in unison. Then Robard approached Gerald and whispered, “will we move against the bandits that killed your father, my lord?”
“No,” Gerald whispered back. “We won’t move against those bandits. Because they weren’t ‘bandits’.”