Some among these hundreds of new minions are awake and a portion of them notice me but, with the distance and low light, the number is scarce. I raise my hand and shape a fire construct which I launch into the sky.
Frshh. The ball of flames bursts in a bright flash of light that startles many and attracts their attention. The second purpose behind my doing this is to call on Nahl, Rowland, and Uhla who fought by my side before so they’ll recognize the signal if they see it.
“What are you doing?!” The town guard exclaims in panic. “Lady Din is definitely going to show up now, Dame Freepath.” He mutters worriedly.
“Don’t worry about it.” I dismiss the concern. I care none about who this Lady Din could be but it does make me curious. “Where is this by the way?”
“Where?” The guard repeats.
“What Kingdom, which demesne? Who rules this land?” I press.
“This is Haitia, and Lady Din rules this town on behalf of Duchess Marchione.” He responds.
This Din doesn’t have a title which means the land is directly under the Duchess’ control, it makes sense considering it’s so close to Kruzser and thus is on an important trade route for the Kingdom.
As I think, people begin gathering in the prairie before me as a result of the signal I sent out. A few dozen fit on gear that only mercenaries or guards would wear while a handful have equipment good enough to suit a true soldier.
Some are young, others are borderline old, most seem nervous but eager at the same time. The crowd multiplies until I can no longer hold doubt that at least a thousand have responded to my call.
Worries and questions appear on many faces as my silence prolongs but I remain still. It takes a good twenty minutes for all to group up and, by then, even more travelers appear on the road to the town to join the gathering.
I remain outwardly unfazed, taking care to show neither an insane smile nor a nervous one that would expose the butterflies fluttering in my stomach. I doubt I’ll ever be comfortable facing so many people.
I hear steps approaching from the town behind, I estimate that a dozen people in soldier gear are headed here. The guard noisily holds his breath, confirming the fact that the Lady Din showed up. I don’t bother turning around even as the town’s gates open for them.
“You’re Freepath, right?” A woman with a deep voice speaks up. “Are you the one who sent that fireball?” She asks, apparently not too bothered by my rude behavior.
“I am.” I reply. “Get lost now that you know.” I add without a shred of patience.
The angry voice is cut off by someone noisily waving their arm. I hear more steps approaching, the weight and rhythm telling me my three minions have shown up.
“The name Freepath doesn’t allow you to do as you wish, the wild use of a fire construct endangers the town.” The Lady utters with a cold tone.
“So you know who I am.” I casually comment. “Since you do, then you’re aware there are consequences for obstructing me. You’ll have no excuse when I launch you through your town’s walls.”
“I’ve welcomed honorary Duchess Lance in good faith, Jessica Freepath, what quarrel do you have with me?” Lady Din questions, sounding peeved by my attitude. One of Leomi’s supporters, I assume, at the very least she’s in favor of reforming Nobility.
“I’m not her consort so her relationships bind me not.” I clarify the situation. “As for a quarrel, you came speaking with authority when you have none over me.”
“The pride of a free-woman, is it?” Lady Din mutters provocatively. I don’t reply, feeling too lazy to argue whichever way. “I would respect that had you not ambushed Elizabeth Vil a few days ago.” She comments with unmistakable disdain.
“Hh.” I snort, amused. “E.Vil would have cut your head off merely for stepping within reach of her blade, Din.” I tell her. “Count yourself lucky I’ve a forgiving heart and a generous temperament.”
“How does she say these things with a straight face?” Uhla whispers loudly, trying to be subtle to break the tension but failing because of her nervous tone.
“Our dear boss has always been openhearted.” Rowland mentions with a touch of sarcasm.
“The two of you need to shut up before you drag me into this.” Nahl snaps at them.
“I heard you’re a cripple now.” The Noble remarks with a venomous tone.
“I am, yet I can still flatten you and your guards.” I coldly respond.
“Don’t cause chaos or we’ll find out if that is a boast.” Lady Din utters and turns to depart without wasting another moment.
I mourn the fact this one is so decisive because I could have almost picked a fight over her last words. I decide to let it go since there are over a thousand pairs of eyes on me.
“What was that buzzing I heard earlier? My minions wouldn’t be talking behind my back, would they?” I wonder aloud with a chirpy voice.
“There! We all heard it this time! You called us ‘minions’ and you can’t take it back!” Rowland exclaims victoriously.
“I did.” I admit with a smirk.
“No denyin… wait, you did?” Rowland stutters. “Then… uh. I win?”
“So what if she admits to it? You’re too naive.” Uhla whispers mockingly. “Besides, she obviously wouldn’t unless it worked against us.”
“Leomi sold you out so you’re officially mine now.” I tell them, impressed by Uhla’s clairvoyance but also a bit annoyed because her revelations make it so I can’t toy with them anymore than this.
“What? Nuoo!” Nahl dramatically cries out with a low voice and not a shred of sincerity to his despair.
“This is vexing.” Uhla declares plainly. I hear discreet steps.
“Don’t even try to run away, Rowland.” I speak up.
“I’ll tell on you.” He threatens.
“Go ahead.” I reply with a chuckle, almost certain he wouldn’t. I hear him grunt but that’s it, he doesn’t leave. “Alright, enough screwing around. Which one of you three has the most knowledge on stuff?”
“Depends the kind of stuff you’re talking about.” Uhla replies.
“War, logistics, planning, administration.” I list.
“That would be Nahl, then.” She says. To my surprise, the two don’t contradict her.
“I know Rowland is uselessly big and muscly, but you shouldn’t bully him.” I comment.
“Nahl was a Templar, his education was far more expansive than mine as a bastard who skipped classes.” Rowland cuts in with a sour tone. “And you said no more screwing around, why are you still picking on me?”
“No reason, really. For sport?” I mumble as I think things through. “Nahl, you’re in charge of stuff from now on. Uhla, you do whatever you want. Rowland, you’re to smack these recruits into shape and then lead them in battle screaming.”
“Wait, you’re seriously doing this? With just the three of us?” Uhla asks with a worried tone.
“Sure, how hard could it be?” I reply with a shrug. “You and Nahl are going to be doing most of the work while Rowland yells at them.” I wave at the silent crowd facing us. “I’ll be lazying around.”
“Uh, I get that I’m meant to be second-in-command, or something, but…” Nahl trails off.
“What exactly do we do?” Rowland continues for him.
“Fuck if I know. I’m launching the show, your job is to follow through.” I offhandedly reply. “Oh, and try to keep in mind there are going to be a lot of spies among them.” I add.
I gather flow and take a step forward into the air, climbing atop a platform of solid air which lifts me above the city’s wooden rampart. I take a deep breath as the true size of the crowd enters my field of vision.
“Voice construct is up.” Rowland speaks up. I nod in acknowledgment.
“We’re going to teach you but, by following me, you will have no right to learn.” I speak up, my voice spreading throughout the plain. “My authority is that which I gain with the point of a blade alone.” A soft grumble spreads as these people take in the revelation but I pay no attention to it and continue. “You will neither be paid nor given any gear until we reach Telnur, at which time it will be far too late to back out so make your choice now and make it well.”
I stop talking to let my words sink in and control my energy to take me to the rampart’s wall-walk where I step down and take a seat on the wall with my feet hanging down.
The guards stare at me but don’t find the guts to tell me I’m not allowed up here. A few dozen people leave the area as time passes and they realize the consequences of answering my call to arms.
Most likely realize that no one will take them to task for learning the lion strike to defend the Empire from cold bloods but the shrewd know that things are never so simple and that following me almost guarantees they’ll clash with Nobility.
“Not all of you will be accepted, I will only take those that make it through the training which will consist of a test of endurance, both physical and mental.” I utter and wait for the loud echo of my voice to dissipate. “You have one hour to travel to the forest to acquire a wooden stick at least a meter and a half long before returning.”
My command is received in startled silence that is abruptly broken when the first depart towards the small woods fifteen minutes away in a sprint. I sigh but take care not to shake my head so as not to give out any clues.
I spoke of a test of endurance yet these idiots began running when there is plenty of time to walk there. The rest of the crowd soon follows like a rumbling tide, many running but most jogging. Those too eager may think they’ll have time to rest when they return, a mistake.
“I’m surprised that Lady didn’t blow a fuse, or that no one sent an envoy to disrupt this.” Rowland comments, showing off his own wit. I glance to Nahl who nods, confirming I can speak privately.
“The lack of opposition means they now take me seriously.” I explain. “I’m unsure whether it’s good news or bad news.”
“Surely it’s…” Nahl starts but stops as his mind catches up with the nuances. “No one should be as foolish as to take you seriously, that is a road which leads to headaches often born of a severed neck.” He jokes. Is that reference to decapitation an oblique way to say he knows I’m E.Vil? Unlikely, he would have shown some shock.
“At least one arrogant idiot should have shown up, the fact none did means orders were given to stay away.” I say. “Any news I should hear about?”
“There is word that Caeviel is mired in unrest, people are worried about a possible famine.” Uhla speaks up.
“When did you hear this?” I ask.
“Yesterday.” She replies.
I close my eyes for a moment, feeling no sense of accomplishment at Cenwalh’s mistake for it means death and suffering. I glimpse down at my three minions who’re gazing at the underlings I’m testing.
“Exchange weapons and get used to them again.” I speak up.
Nahl and Rowland glance at each other before unfastening their sheathes. The former grabs the bastard longsword while the latter takes the claymore as these weapons fit their sizes and fighting styles.
They immediately start sparring, following my instructions like instinct which shows how far we’ve come as a unit. I feel naught at this because I still don’t really trust them and likely never will.
They’re unlikely to ever truly turn against me but I will never be as close to them as I am to Leomi and Celyz. Uhla sends me a questioning glance to which I respond with a nod. She enters the town and climbs up the rampart.
While she assembles the various constructs I need to stay alive, my other two minions fight it out with bared blades. It pleases my madness to witness their lack of fear as they exchange blows.
It’s also quite satisfying to see Rowland restraining his swings while Nahl moves in to pressure him, it shows they’ve both learned to be balanced in their approach to combat rather than overly aggressive or defensive.
“Alright, enough.” I tell them as the first potential recruits return.
The two split with dissatisfied expressions, which is fine as competition will help them both grow as it did for Leomi and me. I’ve never been confident in truly defeating her and it remains true now that she has her jay to rely on.
“Have them thrust their weapons.” I tell my minions before closing my eyes to inspect Uhla’s work.
“That’s your job.” Nahl says.
“You don’t have anything to do so help out.” Rowland returns.
“You’re both right.” I murmur. “Since you’ve failed to acquire weapons or supplies, you might as well help him manage them.” I tell Nahl.
“I just got the job!” He protests at the unfairness.
“So? Victory is all in war, excuses mean naught to the dead.” I admonish, causing Rowland to snicker.
“Form ranks!” He bellows immediately after, definitely aware I would have turned my attention to him otherwise.
I let the two of them manage the recruits until all have returned upon which I open my eyes to gaze upon the eight hundred or so that remain. It seems this small test and my earlier warning were enough to weed some out. I glance to Nahl who nods.
“First of all, let it be known I am of above average height.” I speak up, my voice spreading throughout the plain. A deafening silence answer me but the truth seeks not the crowd’s approval so it matters not. “Who hasn’t split what little food they had during harsh times to starve over a period of time instead of eating their fill to die a couple of weeks later?” I question rhetorically, knowing most low born have lived through similar experiences. “This is the truth of the world and so it applies in war, I shall only select a thousand at most because this number is all I am confident of being able to supply. I require an elite core of troops with mental strength to surmount the direst of circumstances.”
I fall silent with these words and observe as another hundred people split from the crowd. I wait a while as a couple dozen more wander off before glancing to Rowland and Nahl.
“Who told you to stop thrusting! Keep at it!” Rowland snaps at the ranks.
“Your skill with the spear, sword, or harvesting scythe matters not to me.” I speak up. “What will allow you to survive is your ability to function as a group, and such a unit’s strength is defined by its weakest individual.” I explain. “This test is one of endurance and willpower, it will not end until I say so even if it means I take a mere dozen with me to Telnur.”
With that said, I fall silent and watch the recruits thrust their sticks out at a rhythm guided by Rowland. A few hundred more of them give up within an hour but, surprisingly, an equal number of new arrivals make it to the town and Nahl organizes them in a second testing group.
I keep waiting, observing as people fall from exhaustion and leave of their own accord without commenting. The whittling down continues until one sixteen-year-old kid who had fallen gets back up and resumes the exercise, causing those around him to stop in protest. He frowns at the criticism but doesn’t give up.
“No one told them to leave when they fell.” I cut in, startling the crowd. “If you’ve not the willpower to get back up, then why would I want you to follow me?” I question and continue without waiting for an answer. “Once more.” I tell the kid.
A brilliant grin flashes on his youthful face as he obeys. I sigh internally because his courage and tenacity are admirable but will also likely lead to an early grave without the corresponding martial skill or access to the Lake.
Another hour passes during which almost all crumble and sit down to rest since they aren’t going to be disqualified for it but the fact that the training continues with seemingly no end in sight causes many to give up on their own accord.
“You’re here to fight a war, there are no excuses on the battlefield. Neither fear nor exhaustion are valid reasons to give up on your life.” I speak up, causing all those resting to rise as if a fire burst beneath their asses. “Once more.” I command.
The test continues throughout the morning, more people giving up on joining me as time goes by, presumably because there is no end in sight to their torment but likely from realizing the harshness of a warrior’s path.
“Once more.” I repeat after more than a third have crumbled again.
Of those on the ground, less than half get back up while the rest look to the ground in shame. I say naught but many of them crawl away from the group, giving up. What pleases me is that there are plenty who remain and keep resting despite their shame, proving their drive for success.
“Once more.” I speak up after another quarter of an hour, and grin as those who hadn’t given up despite their inability to continue rise up. “Those who can last throughout the day, I will accept.”
My declaration breaks the will of dozens who still stood strong as they finally understand I’ve no intention of going easy and allow them to stop for lunch. Yet, none of those who showed shame at being unable to stand up leave.
“There are no rules here, I am no Noble and will make use of all those that remain to the end regardless of the effort they put in.” I tell those who’ve begun acting lazy. “Your conscience and the opinions of others will be the determining factor as to whether you remain to the end.”
Upon hearing this, a few of those who gave up decide to return to the field. As I do not reject them, many more return as well. Two recruits, who didn’t slack off in the least from the very beginning and took no breaks, turn red at this sight.
They decide to leave, clearly angered by my way of doing things, but do so slowly as if expecting to be stopped. They turn even redder when no one tells them to stay.
I care not about this pair of fools but I engrave their faces in my short term memory to ensure they are kicked out if they try to return as I’ve truly no need for their arrogant kind.
“Once more.” I plainly instruct.