Claude attended school again the next day. His friends were waiting for him when he arrived.
Welikro gave him a fist nudge.
"You're finally back," Welikro said, stabbing him with a fist.
Claude's eyes wandered around the room, pausing on each face for a smattering of a second, and he realised they all stared back at him with admiration. Why, though? Was it because he skipped school for a whole fortnight?
"Everyone knows the baroness just outside town hired you to be her guard," Borkal chimed, "Even the instructors are jealous. Your future is all but sorted already."
"How did you find out?" Claude asked, surprised.
"Everybody knows the baroness was back from the capital, but no one ever gets a chance to meet her. She's always been a recluse, she doesn't even attend the mayor's events. How did you do it?"
Borkal, for all his apparent ignorance, always knew quite a lot about the town's undercurrents, about the unsaid and the unspoken. That had only grown stronger after his father started actively training him as his successor in the last couple of months. He told Borkal everything that happened in town as well as the problems he bumped into during business without reservation.
"I was out hunting. Wero told me there was good hunting to be found in the area, so I went there. I came across her on the way there. Her horse was startled by something and came charging down the road. It was about to charge off the road so I stopped it and calmed it down. She took me to the manor to thank me. One of her servants found a singular of boars and I took out a couple of them, one of them was the boar I brought home. She decided I would be useful so she hired me to keep an eye on her estate while she's gone."
"Damn, you've got some luck!" Borak cried, "I heard she came here to do an experiment for her herbal medicine research. Is it true?"
"I don't know. We didn't interact all that much, you know. I only know she spent most of her time in her laboratory. She had me lay some herbs out in the sun to dry a couple of times, and she taught me a bit of herbal medicine. But that's it."
"And I heard she went back to the capital yesterday?" Eriksson asked.
Claude smiled bitterly. Whitestag was too small, and news travelled too quickly. Claude saw no reason to play coy about her absence, however, so he nodded. He could hardly deny it and be believed when she'd left in the coach with her insignia and drove it right through the middle of town on the way.
"So you're not going out to the wood anymore, right? We can finally hang out again," Eriksson said, his voice growing more excited with every word.
Claude's head shook.
"I'm still in her employ. I've moved to her estate and I'm still responsible for it."
His three friends' shoulders slumped.
"So we can't hang out anymore?"
"You can come visit me if you want," Claude offered, "Why not come tomorrow?"
"Really?" Borkal's smile was awkward, but his voice excited, "I've been wanting to go there, but my dad wouldn't let me."
"The madam is easy-going. She won't have a problem. And she's not here, anyway. When you come, just ask the old couple to show you to me."
The four chatted for a while longer and eventually decided to head home after school and pack a few things before heading to the manor together. Everyone was excited to hunt on a noble's estate. There wasn't enough space on the carriage for everyone and their stuff, so Claude made a trip alone first to take their luggage and weapons to the estate.
The carriage stopped by the manor, all four boys in tow, at sundown. Lancy was cooking dinner and nearly had a heart-attack when she saw the three extra mouths arrive. Her husband was somewhat cooler-headed, however, and asked if they should make dinner for the three unexpected guests as well.
The three boys gawked at the referential tone the two old people used and finally learnt that Claude was in charge of all the servants, few as they were.
Claude smiled apologetically at the panicking old woman and thanked her but said they had their own dinner. The old lady nearly sighed her lungs out when she heard that and vanished back into the kitchen before Claude could change his mind.
When the carriage pulled up to the main gate before that, the boys nearly lost their jaws. The white-and-black manor loomed over them like a giant sculpture, and they gawked like the country bumpkins they were. Claude had no intention of taking them inside, however. He didn't think their egos could handle it, so they'd headed around to the back without stopping.
The three boys gawked no less at Claude's new residence. It was far less impressive than the manor, but the fact that it was their friend's residence more than made up for that. None of them thought they'd own a house like that for at least the next fifteen years, possible even never, but Claude was already living in one. Claude immediately got to work on dinner and had Welikro take two servings to the Sioris to try as well.
"Why haven't they torn it down? It's beautiful and all, but they can house many more people if they replace it with the same quarters they have for the servants."
"The madam said they've kept it around because it was the estate's original villa. I don't know exactly why, but that's what she said. Besides, you know she doesn't get many guests, and she doesn't have a lot of servants here, so she doesn't need extra housing. Why tear a perfectly good house down when you don't have any reason to?" Claude asked.
"Hmm..." Borkal mused, "I remember dad telling me about the villa. Afess Normanley used to be the town cobbler, everyone knows that. But it seems everyone's forgotten his father was employed by the villa's former nobles to watch over the estate and was allowed to stay in the villa when they weren't there. Afess wanted to inherit his father's position, but the old man didn't want him to have anything to do with nobles, since he saw how unruly things had become and know something like the civil war was inevitable.
"He apprenticed for several years and became a cobbler, but he never liked his job, so he jumped at the chance to join the king's small band when he was offered the option. He came back as a baron, now owner of the estate, to find his father's grave.
"He's probably kept the villa as is ever since in honour of his father."
It sounded reasonable, at least. The baroness had told him she didn't care much for the villa, after all. If not for all the trouble it would cause, she would have torn it down years ago. It didn't fit with the rest of the manor's aesthetic, but she wasn't here often enough and for long enough to be bothered enough to have it actually torn down.
Welikro returned, empty plates in hand, while Borkal was recounting the old town rumours. He ploshed the two in the sink in the washroom and took out two cloth-wrapped loafs of black bread.
"Remember to say thanks for the food," he said simply as he plopped them on the table.
His timing couldn't be better, Claude was just setting the dishes on the table, so the four got to eating immediately. Borkal took out one of the flasks of ale he'd brought along. He'd graduated from expensive wine to cheap, but quite tasty, ale during Claude's absence.
Dinner vanished in a wink and the four cleaned the table and washed the dishes, then retired to the rooftop arbour to relax before heading to bed. A fortnight was a lifetime to boys their age, so they had much catching up to do.
Autumn was beginning to wane towards winter, so the evenings were cool, with a slight nip just beginning to crawl in. The four braved the night air for about an hour before they started turning in one by one. Borkal was the first to surrender to his exhaustion.
Welikro and Eriksson had little intention of following him anytime soon. Welikro was well on his way to finishing the ale while Eriksson brooded as only teen boys in the middle of puberty could.
The three sat in silence for a while before Eriksson sighed and started spilling the beans for which everyone was waiting. It turned out he'd been having a recurring nightmare since the start of Claude's fortnight-long absence. He kept dreaming he was drifting in the middle of the ocean, alone, only a large wooden barrel to keep him both afloat and company. He never knew how long he drifted there in his dreams, but he was certain each time it was several days at least, despite never seeing the sun. The skies were perpetually covered in ominous black clouds, streaked only by lightning bolts. The seas usually started relatively calm, but quickly became stormy and he would be left clinging to the barrel for all he was worth as the waves tossed him around like a fly in a stiff breeze.
He'd had the dream five times in the fortnight since he'd first had it, and every time he would wake up drenched in ice-cold sweat. He knew more happened to him in the dream than just drifting there, though he remembered none of it. It made him deeply worried for his father and robbed him of his peace.
His father had promised to return for his graduation. His birthday was not long after, and since he would be eighteen, he would be liable for taxes and would have to find a job. His father had promised to help him with that.
"He'll be fine," Claude said as conciliatorily as he could, "He'll be back before you know it. He left with a big fleet, and a good escort. He isn't in any danger. Where was it I read that you always dream about the opposite of what will actually happen? You should be worried if you didn't have this dream."
Claude's words struck hollowly, even to himself, but he had little else he could do.
If everything had gone according to plan, Eriksson's father should be docked in Tyrrsim's harbour by now. He should be there for another month before returning home. If nothing went wrong on the way back, he would dock in Whitestag again somewhere in the middle of the 11th month.
That didn't leave him with much room for error since the graduation ceremony was on the 26th of the 11th. He had to get everything right to make it on time. There was still a month and a half for him to return, however, but also a month and a half for something to go wrong. Claude doubted Eriksson was the only one praying for the captain's safe return. At least two-thirds of the town had someone in the family on one of the ships, and all the big figures in town were invested in the trip in one way or another, even if many didn't know the true purpose of it. His father was foremost among the figures with investments in this venture. If everything went well, he could have news in the capital by new year's.
Despite the shallowness of his consolation, Eriksson's face lost some of its shadows and Welikro humphed as he gulped down the last of the ale.
The three turned in for the night, content.
The four spent the whole of the next day hunting, and returned with a decent haul, though none had scored any big prey. Most of their catch were hares, squirrels, and a few turkeys.