It took a day and a half for the group to march to the nearest manor in Count Talias’ territory. Kegan was sure he could run the distance in just half a day, but he had plenty of reasons to bring along his knights, even if they slowed him down. They could carry the extra food, carry his javelins, and maybe even be useful for distracting anyone that Kegan had to fight.
The first manor they came to was a large pig farm. The pig farmers in the fields ran off to the manor at the sight of a bunch of armed men walking out of the forest. Kegan told his knights to round up the pigs but asked Walter to come with him to the manor.
The manor was a two-story stone building, with small windows, and a thick wooden gate. The gate had slammed shut on the fleeing pig farmers, who then chose to run off into the woods on the opposite side of the manor. And Kegan could see people moving around inside at the small windows, and a few crossbows were starting to point out the windows at them.
Before Kegan could shout out a greeting Walter spoke up and stepped in front of him “Allow me milord.”
“Lord Kegan offers greetings to Swinehill Manor! We wish to speak with the Lord of the manor, and accept his delivery of goods.”
There was no response. Walter stepped forward to start speaking again, but a crossbow bolt whizzed out of a second-story window.
“Honorless Cretans! You are supposed to raise swine, not become one!” Walter immediately retreated while yelling curses at the manor. He quickly ran past Kegan, but Kegan didn’t follow him in a rush. He kept his shield in front, and slowly backed out of range. No more projectiles came out of the manor.
“My Lord, it is clear that they don’t wish to negotiate the delivery of goods. We are therefore within our right to take half of their stock.”
“If we just take it without talking to them, won’t they accuse of thieving?”
“Of course not my Lord. We are saving their reputation, and preventing them from being thieves. After all, it was they who first stole your coin without providing any services or goods in return.”
“How do you know it was the same group of men?”
“They are all under the banner of count Talias. So these men can just request the coins from whomever took them from you. It should be a simple matter for …”
At that moment the back gate of the manor opened up and a horseman galloped out at full speed.
“Ah, see. They are probably sending that rider now to go find your missing coins, to pay for the swine we have just purchased.”
Kegan glared at Walter, but the man just looked surprised and slightly offended.
“This was your plan, and it is already not going well. From now on you are staying by my side, and whatever happens, will be on your head.”
Walter tried to cover it up by looking offended, but Kegan saw a familiar look of fear in the man’s eyes. Kegan didn’t consider himself very skilled with words, or very knowledgeable about the rules of the nobility, but he’d seen enough dying men to recognize that look.
Kegan’s face hardened and they headed off to the next manor while herding a group of four dozen pigs.
The next manor was a large grain farm, some of Kegan’s knights, including Walter, came from this town, and they knew that there were some large grain silos. Their plan was to borrow some wagons and use them to carry off a bunch of the grain.
The plan hit an immediate hitch when they ran into a group of a dozen horsemen blocking the road, with a crowd of about fifty poorly armed peasants standing nervously behind them. The man on the largest horse wearing a full set of plate armor spoke up as they approached.
“Lord Kegan, I presume?”
Kegan glanced over at Walter, but for once the man seemed speechless.
“Ya, that’s me, who are you?”
“I am Lord Trivary, I see that you have acquired some of my livestock.” Kegan glanced over at the pigs, but he realized the man’s eyes had locked onto Walter instead.
“Yeah, some of your men took my coin, and I learned I was supposed to get something in return.” Kegan looked over at Walter again, but Walter’s eyes were glued to the ground and he was sweating despite the chilly weather.
“I see that you also took the initiative to select your livestock. Since you have already done so, know that I cannot guarantee the quality or loyalty of any piglets that might decide to run off into the woods.”
Kegan was sure he was missing something, Lord Trivary had been looking at Walter when he almost spat the word ‘loyalty’.
“Well, that’s fine, I don’t expect pigs to be loyal, I’ll keep them penned up before slaughtering them.”
Kegan wasn’t sure why, but his routine statement about animal husbandry surprised both men.
Lord Trivary recovered from his surprise first, “Hahaha, well said Lord Kegan. Perhaps you and I can work out an arrangement. I know you came here for compensation, but Swinehill manor belonged to me, so I think I have already provided compensation for you. Instead of unfairly draining my estates further I know just the man that you should seek compensation from. He provided twice as many men in that expedition to your estate, and he has far more grain sitting in his silos then I do. How about we discuss our options over dinner and wine.”
“We must respectfully decline your gracious invitation.”
Walter had spoken up for the first time in the conversation. And Kegan was immediately annoyed with him. The whole reason they’d come on this trip was to get more food, and Walter wanted to turn down a free dinner.
Kegan spoke quietly to him in a harsh whisper “What are you doing?”
“Please trust me, my lord, I will explain everything later”
Lord Trivary had a slightly sour look on his face directed at Walter. “Very well, I will send one of my men with you as a scout to show you the way.”
He called forth a surprised and frightened-looking peasant and told the man where to lead everyone.
They made their way to the next estate, after leaving sight of the village, Walter pulled Kegan aside to speak with him.
“Forgive me for my failure to speak up earlier, my Lord.”
“Why were you so afraid of that man?”
“My family once served Lord Trivary, my father was a scribe and one of his closest advisors. I was raised in the capital from a young age in court politics. My father was often Lord Trivary’s representative in the capital, and Lord Trivary tended to make a lot of enemies. My father loyally carried out Trivary’s orders, even when it meant he made personal enemies with other nobles. However, despite his decades of loyal service, something happened last year. Some disagreement lead to Lord Trivary withdrawing support for my father. We are of common birth, and had many enemies among the nobility. My family tried to flee the city. My mother, father, and sister were all caught before they could escape. If they aren’t dead they are either enslaved or being held captive. I was lucky to have escaped the city with my life. My brother also might have escaped but I don’t know where he ended up.”
“Ah, so you seek to kill Lord Trivary to avenge your family?”
“What? No, I just want the power to survive against men like him. I wouldn’t dare try to kill a noble. When I heard of your promotion to the nobility through a loophole in the old laws, I knew I had to join you. There is only one rule that the nobility respects, and that is the strength of arms.”
“Trent and Jacus said I wasn’t a noble, just a steward or someone who watches over the land until a real noble takes over.”
Walter sighed. “They can be a bit naive living out here in the peaceful countryside. The laws were changed because too many ‘stewards’ turned into lords with real power. Half of the lords in the realm are descended from men that took this path. Those lords can’t contest you becoming a lord without calling their own nobility into question.”
“Why did you insist that we skip dinner? If you were afraid of Lord Trivary you should have just held your tongue, I haven’t had a good meal all winter.”
“I think he was trying to stall for time. He either has more troops on the way, or he was planning to poison us and kill us all in our sleep. Lord Trivary is a deceitful snake, and I would never trust his hospitality.”
Kegan thought over these scenarios. He didn’t think they would have posed much personal danger due to his iron stomach perk, and his sleep control perk, but all of his knights would have been in grave danger.
Walter told Kegan more about his past, and some of the details of the capital city. Kegan realized that his descriptions of the capital matched his memory of the location for the nearest world stone. However, when Kegan tried to describe the world stone, Walter couldn’t recall seeing anything like that in the capital city.
They continued to talk for an hour, and Kegan felt like he was getting a much better sense of who his ‘head knight’ was. One of the other knights approached them after a while.
“Milord, I know the way to the manor, but Jerry is taking us on a longer route.” Jerry was the man that Lord Trivary had loaned to them.
“Jerry! Come over here.” The man flinched at Kegan’s words and looked a bit nervous as he walked over.
“Why are you taking us on a longer route?”
“My Lord this is the normal route for heading to Golden Grains Estate.”
“What about the path over the old bridge?”
“The old bridge … it uh collapsed this past winter, you must not have heard.”
Walter and Kegan shared a glance.
“Arrest this man for lying to Lord Kegan!”
Everyone was a bit slow to react to the order, but Jerry was in the middle of more than forty men. So he was soon clumsily grabbed by five or six men.
“What!? No I would never lie to a lord!”
“Would you like to pick a tree for hanging this man my lord, or shall I select one?”
“No! No please! He ordered me to take you on the long route. He said to get you to approach from the southern road.”
Jerry was crying and blubbering at this point, trying to explain all the things that Trivary had threatened him with. Walter looked over with raised eyebrows. Kegan responded
“Sounds like he wanted to set up an ambush. ”
“I agree, Lord Kegan, but this seems too … simple … and sloppy for Trivary. It is as if he wanted us to find out. I don’t trust this situation, I think we should take the pigs and head back to the village.”
“No … all of you are my knights. I gave you armor and weapons because I expected a fight. Now it looks like we will have our fight. Any cowards should leave now. Everyone else, follow me.”
Kegan had noticed a lack of resolve among his men earlier when they faced off against Lord Trivary’s group. If there was going to be a fight, some of these men would be useless and just run off at the first sign of danger. If no fight happened at all, or if Kegan easily took care of it then he would still be responsible for feeding all the useless men. He decided it was best to just get rid of them now.
Kegan did some scouting but never found any kind of ambush. Instead he found the village and manor that they had been heading towards. There were about two dozen men at arms, three heavily armored knights, and forty peasants wielding shoddy weapons and wearing little armor.
There was a large stream marking the edge of the village. The water was only knee-high, but the banks were as tall as a grown man, and it was far too wide to jump across. All of the men were setting up a barricade on the bridge that crossed the stream.
As he was watching most of the men left the bridge and went into hiding in nearby village buildings. There were now only about a dozen peasants and five men at arms visibly defending the bridge.
Kegan considered his options as he headed back to his men. They had about twice as many men as him, and way more trained soldiers. His “knights” were mostly untrained, and although they were well-armed, they wouldn’t be a match for the men at arms.
The village was probably planning to let his men get an easy victory at the bridge. Then after his men had charged across the bridge all of their men would come out of hiding, cut off the escape and slaughter his group. If he had been in that situation he would have cleared the blockage at the bridge, and then held the bridge while any of his remaining men backed him up. As long as he had enough men remaining after the ambush he was pretty confident in winning.
He was trying to think through ways to lose fewer men after crossing the bridge but realized before he got back to his men that he was being dumb. Why cross the bridge at all? Just take the bridge, force them to attack, and hold the bridge. He was feeling confident when he returned and explained the plan to his men.