They landed some distance away from Harvesria near the edge of the forest. As they descended they saw smoke trails rising from the town of harvest. Fires but small ones judging from the thinness of the smoke. There were fifty of them here in total. Spearfort would be sending about a hundred, but they would be travelling by land and not expected here until sunset. The Captain had sent word straight to the Lord-Knight in Rondiar as well.
"My father will likely bolster Rondiar's defences than send men to aid us," Fayte said as they trudged through the forest towards Harvesria. "And it sounds like there will be an attack on Rondiar as well, so I doubt he'll have the resources to spare."
"We are on our own then," Wilson said.
"Not quite," Captain Windon corrected them. A lone man approached them from the opposite direction, hooded with an ornate bow and a quiver of arrows slung over his chest. Fayte glimpsed numerous knives and two short swords underneath his cloak. "Greetings, Master-Ranger."
The hood of the Master-Ranger was lined with dull metal carved to the likeness of a dragon.
"Captain," the man greeted softly with a nod. His eyes were thin and moved inquisitively, twitching and glancing quickly at Fayte and Wilson as well as the other men around them. "Are squires trained to draw their swords on allies now?"
Captain Windon didn't understand the question until he turned to Fayte. His sword was not drawn but Fayte had his hand gripped on the handle of his blade firmly.
"The Rangers of Hylan are not famous, but surely you would have learned about them in the Order," he said.
"Forgive me," Fayte said, but still his hand did not move. "But the Master-Ranger is not alone."
He is not alone at all.
That drew a smile from him. The Master-Ranger glanced over his shoulder and whistled. Wilson and the other soldiers were startled when more hooded figures stepped out from behind trees and shadows. Every one of them had a bow and were armed with knives on their vests and belts.
"You are Jeremiah Vladertz I presume," the Master-Ranger said.
"Fayte Kaywin," he answered, taking his hand off his weapon now. "Jeremiah is standing beside the Captain."
Jeremiah crossed his arm and eyed the Master-Ranger.
"Is this man a friend or a foe?" Wilson asked. "I do not appreciate the tension."
"This is Master-Ranger Lenthil of the Harper family," Fayte explained after the Captain gestured for him to. "Second-in-command of the Rangers of Hylan. They are a lesser known unit within the Hylan army led by Lord-Ranger Leena, also of the Harper family."
"These men are the elites amongst our soldiers," Captain Windon added. "Master-Ranger, if you and your men are here then I hope that I have made an unnecessary trip."
"My father must have deployed them here to protect Harvesria," Fayte whispered to Wilson. "Without the Captain's knowledge it seems."
"The Saldarians have taken over the town," Master-Ranger Lenthil said plainly.
"Then you have failed your mission."
"They flew in on the backs of Gwedonian gryphons," the ranger said. "Good job letting in our enemies, Captain. Good job to the Fearsome Five as well."
Fayte knew very little about the Rangers of Hylan, but he had heard his father grumble about the politics within the Order before. On paper, Master-Ranger Lenthil outranks Captain Windon, but the latter is a noble and a knight blessed with the Light of the Spirits. That made matters complicated at times.
"Report," the Captain said as his expression grew sullen.
"About a hundred gryphon knights and twice the number of Saldarian troops. They attacked the heart of Harvesria from the sky and took the town from within. While the attack went on, gryphon knights were grabbing farmers from their fields and taking them back to the town."
"Captain Yandor and his men are trapped inside with the townsmen. I've sent a report to the Lord-Ranger and Lord-Knight. We are awaiting further orders now."
"Three hundred enemy forces." Captain Windon shook his head. "You are keeping something from me, Lenthil. Yandor's men should have been able to defend the town with help from your rangers."
"That's Master-Ranger to you, Captain," he said, reminding the Captain of the difference in their ranks. "And yes, I am keeping something from you."
The Master-Ranger crossed his arm and said nothing more.
"Well, spit it out then!"
"The enemy had twice that number before you arrived."
Politics aside, Fayte had a feeling that these two men also shared a personal history. The Master-Ranger was out to make the Captain look bad, and the man was doing a good job so far. Wilson stepped forward with a scowl on his face.
"Has the enemy made any demands thus far?" he asked.
"And who's this?"
"Wilson of the Sayde family," Fayte introduced him. "A priest from the Order of the White Rose."
The Master-Ranger recognized that name.
"Ah, the young priest." Lenthil removed his hood and bowed a little. The man had short hair like Fayte, but his nose was crooked like it was broken before and not given the time to heal properly. "Greetings, good priest."
A noise from the foliage above prompted the rangers to reach for their weapons. They relaxed only when they saw Preston landing on Wilson's shoulders.
"Greetings to you as well, companion of Wilson Sayde."
"His name is Preston," Wilson told him. "Back to the matter at hand."
The Master-Ranger nodded. Wilson's presence seemed to have made the man more sombre.
"My scout reported that Magister-Lord Raymius just arrived earlier in the hour. The townsmen are held in the town square, along with Captain Yandor and his men. The farmers are unharmed but most of the knights and soldiers are badly beaten up. Captain Yandor is wounded, a gnash on his arm, but not fatally so."
"Do you have a plan to rescue the townsmen?" Wilson asked.
They can't. Not without casualties.
"Aye, but it is a risky one. This task requires the aid of the mages from the Order of the Elements. A defensive spell to protect the townsmen and injured while we strike the enemy."
"I have three mages with me," Captain Windon said, turning around to look at them.
"The three of us not suited for the task," one of the mages told him. "We specialize in the school of fire magic. Our control over defensive magic is insufficient."
"So far there has been no movements within the town," Lenthil told them. "It appears as if they are waiting for something."
"Rondiar," Fayte said.
Captain Windon nodded. He knew what Fayte was thinking.
"We have reasons to believe that there will be an attempt on the lives of the royal family," the Captain explained. "It may have already happened. However, the royal family is heavily guarded especially on this day. No harm will befall them."
That information helped the Master-Ranger to understand.
"They're waiting for the royal family to be killed off," Lenthil said, though he remained troubled.
Why would Raymius need to come all the way here just to wait for King Eardon and his family to be killed?
"What's the matter?" Captain Windon finally asked having noticed the expression on the Master-Ranger for a while now.
"Raymius is here," Lenthil said. "What for? Why not wait within the safety of his city?"
"To lead his men to battle," said the Captain, but even he find that doubtful. "Hmm, I see your point now."
Raymius is not a fool but neither is he a warrior.
"We shall wait for further orders from the Lord-Knight," Captain Windon said.
"Or we can rescue them," the Master-Ranger mused, as if only to go against the Captain.
"We are not risking the lives of the townsmen."
"You may think poorly of me for saying this but my biggest concern here is not the lives of the farmers." Master-Ranger Lenthil's expression became grim.
Captain Windon was drawn deep into his thoughts.
If the assassination attempt in Rondiar fails, they could burn our crops and stores before waging a drawn out war with us. It will not assure them victory but time would be against us. And even if we do win the war, Hylan will face food shortage for months. A prime opportunity for the Black City to attack us again.
"Could that be why Raymius is here?" Captain Windon asked. "To give the order to burn the crops?"
"It seems the likeliest of all reasons," said the Master-Ranger.
But it wouldn't serve Raymius to starve Hylan if he intends to usurp the throne. A last resort perhaps?
The lack of information bothered the Captain greatly. The man paced about as he thought. Orders from Rondiar would arrive after sundown at the earliest. And reinforcements would come even later.
We need more information.
"I need more information," Captain Windon said at last. "Can you get me into the town?"
Master-Ranger Lenthil let slip a smirk.
"I can do more than that," he said. "I have men on the inside controlling the southern entrance of the town. If your mages can send a message for us, I can sneak a small party through into the town."
"Five, including the both of us. I'll be taking one of my rangers with me. We will want the priest with us, so that leaves you with one."
"I am afraid that I cannot leave my ward," Wilson said, stepping back to stand next to Fayte.
"Fayte's pilgrimage has ended," Captain Windon told him, casting a wary glance at Fayte. "Your duty has been fulfilled."
"My duty is only fulfilled when I see my ward safely back to his father."
"Need I remind you that there are Saldarians in that town holding Hylanders hostage? Fayte's pilgrimage is over and he was not blessed by Sera. I cannot take him with us."
"I understand, Captain," Wilson said most understandingly. "Then you cannot take me as well."
The Captain's expression grew dark as he turned and stepped up to Wilson.
"You may not be from my Order but as a knight of the Order of the White Shield I have command here and I command you to come with us into the town!"
"As you command then, Captain," Wilson said understandingly, again. "Fayte shall just have to follow."
Before the Captain burst a vein on his redden face, Fayte pulled Wilson aside but his friend pushed him away.
"Fayte has been commanded by King Eardon to look into the matter of the East Kingdom assassin."
"And that matter has been resolved," the Captain reminded him.
"Not quite," said Wilson. "The East Kingdom assassins were colluding with the Saldarians and the Gwedonians. Right now we have a town full of them. Fayte is bound by the King's command to investigate this matter until the end. The last spot in the party belongs to him."
Both Fayte and Jeremiah braced themselves for what was to come. Julin had long begun to back away from them. His instincts for survival sharp as always They were expecting Captain Windon to go into a rage but instead the man just sighed.
"I know what you're trying to do, Wilson." Captain Windon shook his head. "Sera doesn’t work that way. You're a priest. You should know better."
Wilson remained steadfast, standing with both hands behind him, a steady look in his eyes as he addressed the Captain.
"I do this not as a priest," he said. "I do this as a friend."
Another chance for me to prove myself worthy, Fayte realized.
"Fine." Captain Windon relented, turning to Fayte. "If it's to be a squire then I guess I can't do any better than you."
Jeremiah casually cleared his throat.
"Quiet, Vladertz." The Captain turned to addressed the others. "The rest of you shall remain here and await further orders. Be ready for anything, even for a full assault. If the situation calls for it, we may have to risk a rescue attempt immediately before Rondiar gets back to us."
After Captain Windon appointed one of the Tyrox knights to take command, they gathered their equipment and followed the rangers to the edge of the forest. Fayte found the Master-Ranger staring at him just as they were about to set off. The man shook his head and led the way mumbling to himself.
"…Leena's going to put an arrow through my knee if the Lord-Knight's boy gets scratched…"