Gerald pulled the reins of his horse, bringing it to a stop. They’d ridden to the southern pass of early in the morning. His aides and even Lucas had escorted him there. Ahead of him was the narrow pass that could hardly fit fifty men abreast at its entrance, and it would get narrower as one walked deeper into it.
Gasper and Uncle Rudolf rode beside him while Robard, Arthur, and Lucas rode behind him.
Gerald turned his horse around eying the latter three. “It’s farewell then, for a few months at least.”
“May your journey be safe, my lord,” Robard spoke first then saluted.
Lucas saluted as well. “Farewell, my lord.”
Arthur bowed slightly on his horse with his weak body. “May you return to us healthier and wealthier, my lord.”
“Thank you, Arthur,” Gerald said, acknowledging his aides’ farewells with a nod then turning his horse around and nodding to Gasper. The latter signaled for the fifty Warriors following them to begin moving again.
Gerald urged his horse forward into the pass. It was a straight passage, flanked by rocky walls on both side. Such walls would converge above them sometimes and create shaded areas below.
They spent the early morning riding across the Viscounty’s border into the Baronies’ lands. They were met by several patrolling riders who only stopped by to ascertain that the riders below the banner really belonged to the Viscounty north of them. Most of them were surprised to find that the lord himself was riding under the banner.
The Baron of the piece of land they were trudging was informed of their passage that day, and he sent Gerald an invitation to rest at his castle. But the journey was still beginning and Gerald had no time for pleasantries, so he refused.
A Baron’s territory was often too small to stand for much on its own. So Gerald and his men passed managed to pass several Baronies on their first day without incident. The roads within the allied Baronies’ lands seemed quite safe, and none of the Barons had shown any hostility or unwelcome behavior towards them, likely because he was leading so few men that he could never threaten them from within.
They set up camp for their first night in the wilderness. Their journey was still long. A lone rider with a good horse could perhaps reach the capital in one month. But a group like Gerald’s would need at least a month and a half if not two months. Hopefully, the weather wouldn’t be their enemy on this journey, at least not during most of it.
It took two more days to reach the southernmost Barony and prepare to cross the bridge. They were in Baron Elrite’s territory. Gerald remembered that he was the one that had sent his daughter, Lady Reya, to the Viscounty. Gerald had disappointed her back then by telling her that he had no intention of seeking a union of marriage with her family, and by extension no intention to ally himself with the Baronies.
Gerald and his men arrived at the bridge before dusk. It was quite crowded with many passing merchants and travellers. Each would have to wait for their turn to cross the bridge. And Gerald reckoned that if he were to wait like everyone else, it would be dark before he and his entourage crossed it.
To his surprise, Baron Elrite didn’t send someone to deliver his greetings but came himself to meet Gerald.
The Baron came guarded with a few dozen riders aside from the guards around the bridge. Gerald saw him from afar, and guessed that he was perhaps fifty years old, with greyish hair and streaks of black running through it.
The Baron rode forward from among his men, and Gerald too rode forward to meet him.
“Viscount Tellus,” the Baron nodded. “It’s a pleasure to have you in my lands.”
“Thank you, Baron,” Gerald said, smiling. “Your men have been most hospitable.”
The Baron nodded, apparently having disregarded anything about Gerald’s refusal to marry his daughter. “I must be honest. I didn’t expect you to leave your territory so soon. Journeying to the capital, I assume?”
Gerald nodded reluctantly. He didn’t want the news of his journey to reach the capital before his arrival. He was riding there under his family’s banner, but he would bring the banner down as soon as he enters the Royal lands. The last thing he needed was the King’s council asking him questions, or worse, asking him for the King’s tribute.
“Quite the long journey that is,” the baron said with a sigh. “Well, let me make it slightly shorter for you.” He signaled for someone near the bridge, then a rider arrived soon after. The Baron whispered something to him and the rider nodded, galloping back to the bridge. “I had wished to talk to you longer, but it seems you’re in a hurry.”
Gerald nodded with a wry smile. He was indeed in a hurry. His face seemed to say it, but he hadn’t noticed that his countenance was so easily readable today.
“I have commanded my men to let you cross the bridge before anyone else,” the Baron continued. “It won’t make your whole journey shorter, but at least it would make today’s ride shorter for you and your men.”
Gerald was quite surprised. He had been for a few days. The Barons had reacted quite kindly to his passage, and many of them had invited him to rest at their holdings. And now Baron Elrite was being courteous as well, even after the recent failed attemptby his daughter. It seemed that the Baronies wanted to at least stay on good terms with him, or perhaps aiming for an alliance.
Gerald thanked the Baron warmly then led his men across the bridge. His group received a few begrudging stares, but most of the stares dropped after noticing the noble banner flying above them.
Thus he and his men crossed the narrow stone bridge before nightfall and continued on their journey.
After crossing the bridge, they had stepped into another territory, the lord of which Gerald didn’t know much about.
They didn’t meet as many patrols in this new territory, but they were still stopped by one during their ride through it. It seemed there was not as much scrutiny to passersby in this territory as there was in the Baronies, since merchants often passed through these lands. For the northern Baronies, the passage of so many merchants towards the Viscounty had likely been unusual, and they had still not loosened their guard when it came to passersby.
They passed two more Viscounties on their journey without anything odd to see. After that, they came across their first incident, quite a peculiar one.
Their road was blocked by a dying horse, the owner of which was sitting beside it and caressing its neck. He was a decently armored man, but he was wearing no noble colors.
“A traveller?” Gerald mouthed to Uncle Rudolf.
“Perhaps,” the old steward said.
Gerald shrugged. If the man didn’t move the dying horse, they could still circle around the spot. But he saw someone who would have trouble doing that.
On the other side of the man and the dying horse, a carriage came to a stop. Two riders flanked the carriage. One of them seemed like an ordinary guard while the other was heavy in a full set of steel armor,apparently a knight.
The supposed knight wasn’t wearing a visor, and irritation was obvious on his face. He didn’t wait long before yelling at the traveller sitting beside the dying horse. “Drag that filthy corpse to the side of the road. My lady’s carriage needs to pass.”
The traveller, who seemed to be in his late middle years, simply ignored the yelling knight. He kept caressing his horse with a grieving countenance. The Horse seemed to be breathing with difficulty, and it would likely not last for long.
Gerald had been meaning to lead his men around the blocked road, but what would transpire in a few moments interested him. So he waited.
The knight dismounted, his irritation seemingly turning into barely suppressed fury. He stepped closer to the traveller. “Did you not hear me?”
The traveller finally spared the knight a glance, an indifferent one as far as Gerald could tell. “Your filthy lady can wait.”
The knight’s surprise froze his features for a moment, before they morphed into unbridled fury. “What did you say, commoner?” He gripped the hilt of his sword, drawing it half way out of its sheath.
“Did you not hear me?” the traveller said, not even sparing the knight a second glance. His eyes were back on his horse again. He caressed it and whispered something into its ears.
The knight fully drew his sword. “I’m knight errant Oldo Valsoy. For the honor of my lady, Lena Ulryck, I challenge you to a duel.”
“After my horse passes,” the traveller said, as if dismissing a child.
“I will not wait another moment,” the knight growled.
The traveller turned to meet the knight’s eyes. “Then I will not show mercy.”
“As if I would need a vagabond’s mercy,” the knight snorted.
The traveller stood up, obviously reluctant to part with his dying horse. His glare was fixed on the interrupting knight.
Gerald glanced at Gasper and Uncle Rudolf beside him. “He doesn’t seem scared.”
“Perhaps a travelling Warrior?” Gasper muttered.
“Likely,” Uncle Rudolf said. “And if he is . . . ”
Gerald eyed the two combatants again. They had moved to the middle of the road beyond the dying horse. The traveller drew his sword and circled his opponent.
After a few moments of circling, the two of them lunged towards each other. The knight took several steps forward, swinging his sword wide. But the traveller merely took what seemed to be three leaps towards the knight. Gerald barely saw his sword cutting through the air, faster than any he’d seen.
Like the stories he’d read when he was a child. The two combatants rushed past each other, or more accurately, the traveller rushed past the knight.
There was a delayed scream coming out of the knight’s mouth as his sword arm dropped to the ground beside him, cut off from the shoulder. The traveller had slashed at the unarmored shoulder joint of the knight’s armor, lopping his arm right off.
“He cut through the mail?” Gasper gaped. Most knights would wear light mail below their plate armor. It wasn’t impossible to cut through, but that didn’t mean that one could cut through them with an ordinary long sword in a single swing
Gerald looked at Uncle Rudolf. “A travelling Heaven Warrior.”
Gasper turned to the two of them. “I thought they were too rare to meet.”
Uncle Rudolf shook his head. “Not as rare as you might imagine. Most of the Heaven Warriors out there are travellers. They seek the next step on their path; the one that would allow them passage into the City of Saints. They all dream of it. Very few Heaven Warriors actually serve nobles. A Battlemaster is more likely to accept a lord’s invitation than a travelling Heaven Warrior. Of course the former are too few, so Heaven Warrior knights still outnumber them in general.”
The screaming knight kneeled on the ground, holding his profusely bleeding shoulder, his eyes not leaving it for a moment. His furious face from before had turned into a panicked one.
Gerald spied the other rider who was beside the carriage shaking his head, as if he’d expected something of sorts from the beginning.
The traveller walked back to the kneeling knight and swiftly slipped the tip of his sword into the latter’s neck from behind. There was a moment of choked coughing that was followed with silence and a ‘thump’ as the knight fell into a pool of his own blood.
A young woman’s head popped out of the carriage. She yelped at the sight and retracted her face quickly.
The traveller glanced at the other guard of the carriage, apparently prepared to take on another opponent. But the mounted guard didn’t show any hostility or even care for the fallen knight’s corpse.
He then glanced at Gerald’s much larger group warily, and seemed relieved that they didn’t intend to do anything.
He then walked back to his horse and knelt beside it again. The horse was still breathing, though much slower than before. And it hadn’t been breathing quickly before either.
Gerald glanced at Gasper and said, “send someone with a cloth and some water.”
Gasper seemed perplexed. “Yes, my lord. But I’m certain that he has water and a cloth himself.”
Uncle Rudolf chuckled and looked at Gerald. “He won’t accept an invitation, Gerald. You shouldn’t bother.”
Gerald shrugged. “No harm in trying.”
One of the elite corps’s Warriors was soon sent with a cloth and some water, which the traveller accepted with a nod to Gerald.
It wasn’t long before the horse breathed its last.
Gerald sent some of his men to help the traveller move it to the side of the road and proceed to dig a grave for it. He told his men to rest for a while, as he wanted to get a chance to invite the traveller into his service.
Oddly, the carriage hadn’t left after the road was cleared.