into the wild country
The horses had been calm that morning, allowing them be loaded and saddled quickly. The clouds had cleared from the sky, cold sunshine raining down upon them as they rode out via the north gate, this time with no crowd around them. Their progress was swift, riding their mounts at a gallop so that soon, the town of Illpialle was almost out of sight. The plains of Txarral were before them, and soon they would come in sight of the valleys and woods where glory was to be won.
All signs pointed to a good pilgrimage, and Rilluex could tell his companions were in high spirits. Franclerk’s blue eyes had never been so wide, and he let out a whoop or two as he spurred his horse faster. Demlun was right behind him, his laughter carrying in the wind. Rohais and Valette rode side by side, speed not a priority for them as they held hands. Every minute or so, they would lean towards each other to exchange a quick kiss.
Rilluex rode beside their newly acquired guide, Mer Papin. The two of them brought up the rear, the older man not able to match the blistering pace of the youngsters. Rilluex was content to ride beside him, as he enjoyed being in his company.
As he had thought, convincing the others to accept Mer Papin as their guide had not been difficult. Rilluex had called them all around the table, and Mer Papin had relayed his tale to them, of lost warriors whom he could have saved. They were as moved as Rilluex had been, and all of them seemed to warm to him as soon as they met him. Even Valette, who was normally quite guarded around strangers, became as light hearted and free as Rilluex had ever seen her, and she spent half the night asking the kind man questions about the Badlands, her face akin to a child’s as she listened to his answers.
It had been a grand night of drinking and storytelling, and as a result their last day in Illpialle had been quiet and peaceful, the price of good ale weighing on all of them. Rilluex’s companions had all done well in their individual tasks when they arrived in town. They were well stocked in food, arrows, and all the gear that they could imagine having a need for. They had found a storeroom in the inn in which to keep all they had until they needed it, paying off a guard to ensure nothing was taken (as that’s how things were done in Illpialle).
So they all spent the day wiling away their time, enjoying their last hours of comfort before heading off into dirt and danger. Demlun had wandered about town, showing off his expensive armour and twin swords to all that would admire them, and chatting to every pretty young girl he laid his eyes on. Franclerk had found a row of buttresses, and had spent the time in archery practice. Meanwhile, Rohais and Valette had not left their room, and none of the men considered disturbing them.
Rilluex had hoped to spend the day with Mer Papin, but to his disappointment, the older man had had to leave the inn at dawn, in order to gather his own supplies. Rilluex had offered to accompany him, but to this, the older man merely smiled.
“My young friend”, Said Mer, his hand on Rilluex’s shoulder matching the soothing tone of his voice, “My tasks today are to be quite dull and all too trivial for a youth such as you to not be bored to death by them. I shall be fine on my own, and shall meet you and your friends on the morrow, by the north gate”
Rilluex had protested, but Mer would not budge, and left the inn not to be seen again that day. So the young knight had spent his hours in much the same manner as Franclerk, practising his sword and shield drills in the yard outside the Inn. He was pleased with himself as he trained, his sharpness showing no signs of abandoning him after weeks of travelling. It was no secret to Hoilettan noble society that he was an exceptionally talented young warrior, impressing at many tourneys. But as his father, and indeed all of his companions parents had been clear to point out, tourney scores meant nothing in the badlands, or on the battlefield.
As he rode beside Mer Papin, who seemed to be looking around him with an air of whimsy not often seen in men of his age, Rilluex could not help but feel content. He was ready, his friends where ready. All of them where young, strong, and determined to prove themselves, against any foes that may come their way.
“You and your friends have the all the confidence of youth, it seems.”
Mer Papin’s remark brought Rilluex back to himself, and his mood swiftly changed back to that which Demlun called melancholy. He turned to face the older man, who still looked about him with the same whimsical air as before. Yet when he noticed Rilluex’s gaze on him, he turned to face his young companion. He was smiling, but his eyes told the young knight something else.
“I suppose those other young knights felt the same, didn’t they” Said Rilluex heavily.
“You are a rare one, Rilluex Lacrossie, to so read the thoughts of other men. You aren’t by any chance a latent sage, are you?” Mer Papin replied.
By now they were both far behind their companions, Demlun and Franclerk almost out of sight as they raced each other.
“No, I am no such thing.” Rilluex said, with an air of laughter. “It’s only that, with what you told me the other night, I can guess you of all people are cynical when it comes to youthful confidence.”
“Now my friend, it is there you are mistaken. It is true that all those I could have saved where confident, but without that confidence, they would have been far worse off.”
“How so?” Asked Rilluex.
“The warrior without confidence before facing danger is already slain. One must believe themselves capable of facing any foe, should the need ever arise. “
“But surely too much confidence can be dangerous, for it makes one foolish?”
At this response from his young companion, whom Mer Papin had only just met, the old man was momentarily amazed.
“You do not speak as a man as young as you should. Who taught you such lessons?
“My father. He told me that if one lets themselves get too full of themselves in battle, then it shall be their last one. Caution and care are what get you home, while victory counts on supporting your comrades as they support you.”
It was a familiar lesson to Rilluex, more familiar to him than anything. When he said it out loud, it was always a recital, as one would make in a classroom. He spurred his horse to go faster, as now even Rohais and Valette were quite far ahead of them.
Mer Papin followed suit, kicking his horse’s flanks to ensure he stayed level with his young companion. Illpialle was fading out of sight behind them, the smoke of the steelworks serving to shroud the town in white fog.
For a few minutes, neither of them spoke. Rilluex simply looked ahead of him, trying to keep sight of Franclerk and Demlun. He did not put much thought into what he had just told Mer Papin, as indeed he rarely thought whenever he spoke those words. It was his mantra, as it had been of all fighting soldiers of his family.
“Your father has it half right, Rilluex Lacrossie.”
This break of the silence made the young knight turn halfway in his saddle, his eyes now upon the old man, whose face betrayed nothing.
“What do you mean?” Rilluex asked, uncertainly.
“I mean that what your father has told you is half of the truth of battle, but he has either forgotten, or left out, the rest of what you must know.”
Mer Papin spoke in a slow and deliberate manner, as if carefully choosing his words. Rilluex wondered at this, as he had not seen him act this way before.
“If I can surmise what the secret of being a true warrior is, that being one who lives to see an old age, it is this. Balance my friend, in all things.”
“Balance?” Asked Rilluex.
“One must Balance confidence with caution, practiced skill with instinct, faith in your friends with the willingness to rely one oneself. This is achieved by the attainment of a focused mind, with a clear understanding of one’s goals and values.”
“From which book did you learn this, old man?” asked the young knight.
Mer Papin looked to Rilluex, and gave him a warm smile.
“From the book of my life, my oh so young friend. The true lessons of your life cannot be taught to you, remember that.”
“This is probably why you should forget everything I’ve just told you, as it is just one old man’s opinion. For all I know, I’m completely wrong.”
It seemed to Rilluex that Mer Papin laughed a little at that last remark, but before he could question him further, the older man spurred his horse again, now riding at a fast trot towards Rohais and Valette.
“Balance.” Rilluex repeated this word to himself, his mind unable to focus on anything else. What Mer Papin had said had seemed to make sense, at least in theory. But Rilluex was unsure as to whether one could really life their life by such a creed, and stick to it.
He tried to see if he could understand all his goals and values, as they stood at this moment. He knew he wanted to survive the pilgrimage, and hopefully win glory that would reflect well on him and his family. He wanted his companions to survive with him, and hoped that they too would win honour and renown.
But what did he truly value? Of course he valued his life, and the lives of his comrades. But he couldn’t be sure of anything beyond that. His mind went back to the quarrels with his father, which ranged from workers’ wages to the need for constant wars with Gardena. His father had called Rilluex’s outbursts simply youthful rebellion, and sent him to tourneys in hope his son would work out his frustration. When the chance to send Rilluex on pilgrimage came along, Baron Feyzin could not be quicker to make the arrangements.
Rilluex did not know if he could inherit his father’s title and lands, if he clashed with the man so much. It was not that he didn’t love and honour him; it was just frustrating for him that the old Baron was so set in his ways. Rilluex had looked around his father’s lands, indeed all of Hoilettan, and had come to a conclusion that things needed to change. So much of what the people valued could not last, and serious reform needed to happen, if the kingdom was to survive.
But in his private moments, he sometimes wondered if his father might be right after all; that he was simply acting like a child, naïve to the way the world really worked. After all, the kingdom had stood for over a thousand years, and his family’s lands had been prosperous for twenty generations. So who was he to demand it all change.
“Rilluex, you need to hurry up, we can’t leave you behind.”
At the soft voice of Rohais, Rilluex came back to himself. He turned about in his saddle, and saw the copper haired mace wielder riding beside him. She was smiling at him, as if trying to make her comrade understand that she wasn’t annoyed with him.
Seeing that Rilluex had understood her, Rohais spurred her horse to catch back up with Valette. Rilluex followed suit, and in a few moments they had both pulled up beside Valette and Mer Papin. Rohais gave Rilluex another friendly smile, as she was pleased that they were now all together. Valette noticed this, and as Rilluex anticipated, gave him a withering glare. The daughter of the D’orzerge family was certainly the jealous type, and reached out for her lovers arm. In anticipation of this, Rohais simply turned around and stroked her cheek in gentle reassurance.
Rilluex turned away from the pair to see that Franclerk and Demlun where now riding back towards them, having seemingly tired of their race. The two of them were engaging in a heated argument as they rode, obviously prompted by a perceived slight.
“–and I tell you this again, oh third son of a Count, that if my horse was on even ground, you would not stand a chance!”
“Trust a Le Sasbil to come up with excuses like that! Just admit it Demlun, the better man won!”
Valette rolled her eyes as the two young nobles argued, making a gesture with her hand that caused Rohais to cover her mouth and giggle. Rilluex couldn’t help but smirk, but Mer Papin seemed far less amused.
“You should not ride so far ahead my young fellows, nor should you tire out your horses. We shall need to stick together when we reach the forests, and it is hard riding wherever we shall go.”
At this stern lecture from their guide, the two young knights ceased their squabbling, and simply moved their horses in line with the rest of the group.
For half an hour, no one in the group spoke and they simply rode on towards the ever approaching line of trees that marked the true beginning of the Badlands. The sky was now starting to show clouds, and the cold was just starting to bite at them.
When they were within a hundred yards, Mer Papin suddenly dismounted his horse, and knelt low to the ground, his head raised as if listening to something. The young warriors were surprised at first, but they assumed it was simply a scout’s technique.
Mer Papin rose to his feet, and turned to face them. His expression betrayed some worry, and Rilluex hoped that there was not any danger near.
“The forest is not so quiet at this moment. A great confluence of beasts is near where we would seek to enter, and I fear that a large band of men, either bandits or tribesmen, are also nearby.”
“What should we do?” Asked Franclerk, his hand already reaching to his bow.
“Patience, my friend. While we would be in peril if we passed into the forest now, I believe if we wait an hour or two, there shall be an opportunity to pass through without too much trouble.”
“But why should we wait at all!” shouted Demlun, angrily pulling on his horses reigns. “We came on this pilgrimage to fight, and to face any danger. What is the point of waiting around like cowards when glory is right before us?”
Unfazed by this outburst, Mer Papin simply turned towards Demlun, and smiled.
“My dear Demlun, the purpose of the pilgrimage is not just for glory, but to prove that you have the skills to survive. One of the most important of these skills is practicality, and knowing when to strike. We will wait for our best moment, and there we shall find victory.”
Franclerk nodded in agreement, as did Rohais and Valette. Rilluex for his part could not help but concur with what Mer Papin was telling them, yet he could understand Demlun’s frustration. They were all trained warriors, and he was eager to test his skills against some real foes.
Demlun looked about him, the looks on his friends faces telling him all he needed to know. Like it or not, he was outvoted.
“Fine” grunted Demlun through gritted teeth. “We can make camp I guess. But we’d better not be staying too long.”
With all the party now in agreement, the business of setting up the camp could begin. They had foregone the use of tents, choosing instead to bring rough blankets for resting. It was now past noon, and all where feeling quite hungry, which made the fact that they had to be careful with their rations quite irritating. They hoped that once they were inside the forest the game would be plentiful, so that they could indulge now and then.
Rilluex busied himself with building a fire, using the spare dry wood he had remembered to pack. He saw that Mer Papin had gone back to his listening position, so he knew there was little chance of conversation there. Demlun was still sulking, chewing on his jerk beef while sitting by himself. Valette and Rohais were inseparable as always, laying together on the grass.
Franclerk came over to him, lowering himself down into a kneeling position.
“You think that Demlun will be alright?” Asked Rilluex, not looking away from his task.
“He’ll be fine.” Said Franclerk. “If anything, this’ll help us. When we finally do encounter an enemy, He’ll be more than willing to take his anger out on it. He may not look it sometimes, but Demlun is fearsome when he’s properly provoked.”
“Fair enough; I suppose you know him best” Remarked Rilluex.
“It’s not him I’m worried about though.” Franclerk’s voice lowered at this, and he leant in closer to Rilluex, who was now forced to give him his full attention.
“It’s those two” Whispered Franclerk, and he made the slightest nod of his head in the direction of Rohais and Valette.
“What; are you jealous?” Quipped Rilluex.
“Of course not.” Replied Franclerk indignantly “If anything, I would accuse you of that. I’ve seen you smile at Rohais.”
“Only when she’s smiled at me, and she smiles at everyone. Maybe you would see it more often if you weren’t such an ass.”
Franclerk was about to object, but he stopped himself, remembering that he had a point to make.
“Anyway, that’s got nothing to do with what I’m saying. The two of them are practically joined at the hip; I don’t think any of us have ever seen them apart.”
“What’s wrong with that?” Asked Rilluex. He was now genuinely confused.
“What’s wrong is that neither of them seems to care about anything but each other. It’s like they think this is a holiday, and that what we are here for doesn’t matter. This is a dangerous journey, we all need to be focused, and romance is always a distraction”
Rilluex was almost tempted to believe that Franclerk was joking, but one look into his eyes told him that the bowman was entirely sincere. He felt like wincing on his friend’s behalf, so embarrassed he was for him.
He put his hand on Franclerk’s shoulder, at which the young knight’s face looked curious.
“Did no one tell you any tales as a young man, Franclerk? Do the Du-Bresse family allow no minstrels or Bards at their castle, who pass on the great epics of our kingdoms history?”
“That’s correct.” Replied Franclerk, annoyed at this line of questions. “We don’t believe in any of that kind of frivolity, not while there is work to be done. I learned my history where it should be learned; in a schoolroom, not around the meal table.”
Rilluex sighed at that. “Then my friend, you know nothing about the legends of Heisaria and Arkrane, the lovers who held of the wild hordes of the south by themselves for a day and a night. Of Erik Kuld, who faced every danger the world could offer so he could see his beloved once more. Everyone should hear about Darui, and how she stood outside her lovers tent as he lay dying, fighting off all foes so that in his final hours, he could be at pea-“
“Enough!” Exclaimed Franclerk, loud enough so that all their fellows, who thus far had ignored them, could hear.
“Very well”, continued Franclerk. “You’ve heard a tall tale or two, I grant you. But life is not a tale, and even then, I don’t see your point.”
Rilluex laid himself on the grass, letting his eyes wander up to the clouds. There was no doubt that it would rain soon, the sky growing ever darker.
“We’ll never agree on what is true history and what isn’t, given how we’ve both been raised. But those tales have a point to them beyond entertainment. They teach us that love can motivate a person to do incredible things, and give someone determination beyond what is thought to be possible. It seems that those two may well have found such a love, and it’ll make them both that much more determined to keep the other safe. That’s why they’ll stay focused my friend, so no need to worry.”
Franclerk was silent for a minute, thinking on what Rilluex had told him. The first drips of rain began to fall, but far too light to be of any nuisance.
“ Fine, I suppose you have a point” Sighed Franclerk as he finished his thinking. “ I suppose we’d best worry about ourselves, and they’ll take care of each other. Although I should imagine Rohais must be a genius with that mace, if a castellan’s daughter is riding with us.”
This time, Rilluex could not supress his groan.
“ You fucking snob, do you know what you sound like?”
“ Now look, don’t mistake me” Franclerk replied, his tone defensive. “ I have no problem with her being here. But given how high born the rest of us are, for our families to have consented to let her join us is unusual, to say the least.
For a moment, Rilluex was stunned.
“ Did your father not tell you the story? Did no one tell you how she earned her reputation?
At this, Franclerk looked over to where Rohais and Valette were sitting. The pair had pulled up a blanket over themselves, as the rain slowly began to become heavier.
“ No, he told me nothing, just sent me on my way. I only found out she was with us when I met up with all of you.”
“ Well then” began Rilluex. “ I can tell you the whole tale, if you wish.
“ You may, but do so plainly. None of that flowery stuff.”
Rilluex took on a sombre look, knowing full well that this tale was not a pleasant one.
“ The castle her father governs is called Amrol, down near the Nikralkan border. It’s the property of the Penuthe family, though they never visit it. It’s pretty remote, but well defended. Rohais is an only child, and had a fairly ordinary life”
“ It was during the last war with Gardena though, where she earned her reputation. The main bulk of the castle’s garrison had been called to the front, with barely more than ten soldiers left behind. You and I both know that means easy pickings for determined bandits, and sure enough, a band of fifty men soon came to attack.”
“ The walls of Amrol are well built, and at first it seemed that the bandits would simply leave. But all it took was one bribe and they were in through the sewers. They attacked at night, killing half the servants before the alarm was raised. That should have been it, castle plundered and all slaughtered.”
“ Yet in the morning, fifteen bandits had escaped, leaving the rest of their comrades dead within Amrol’s walls. Of the castle’s residents, all that remained where one soldier, eight or so servants, and the castellan and his daughter.”
“ All the survivors swore before witnesses that Rohais had slain twenty men by her own hand, wielding her mace with skill far beyond anything they had ever seen. They told tales of her fighting in the courtyard, standing strong while soldiers twice her age fled. If it weren’t for her, the castle would have been lost.”
“ So that’s the story” Concluded Rilluex, pulling a blanket over his head as he finished his tale. The fire had died by now, and the rain was now becoming a torrent. A few metres away, Demlun was going through his sword motions, clearly eager to get moving.
“ By every star” gasped Franclerk. “ I…. I didn’t have the faintest idea. It’s just…..how terrible that must have been for her. But you could never guess at it, seeing how she acts.”
“ That was puzzling for me too” Remarked Rilluex, looking again towards where Rohais and Valette were. “ I suppose finding Valette helped a great deal, which might explain why they never leave each other’s side. But I don’t know if I could ever smile so much if such a thing where to happen to me.”
“ Mount your horses, my friends!”
Rilluex and Franclerk rose to their feet, their contemplations set aside for later. Demlun practically leaped onto his horse, once again yanking the reigns. Valette and Rohais were slow to follow, both content as long as they were together.
Once they where all mounted up, Mer Papin raised his hand, and pointed towards the forest. The young knights rode in line now, all following the old guide. Finally, they were about to enter the Badlands, and begin their pilgrimage in earnest.
Rilluex never forgot this day, for as long as he lived. This was to be the last day of his childhood, and from this point on, all that he knew about the world would be proved to be false.