The troops advanced slowly, but orderly. Locke put himself in the right frame of mind on his horse's back, something he usually did before battle. He had seen people stronger than him dying in the hands of people far weaker than them far too often because they were distracted. He did not want the same to happen to him, so he wanted to ensure he could use his full strength.
He had chosen the horse on which he sat shortly after his promotion. Every platoon jarl had their own horse. Under Yoshk's guidance, Locke chose a maroon one. A warhorse was worth more than most commoner's entire lives, especially in the midst of a war. Their prices started at 80 silvers, and there was almost no limit to how high the price could go from there. They were also rather more vulnerable to permanent inoperability. If a soldier died, his armour could be given to someone else and worn again, but a dead horse was a dead horse for the rest of time. This was why the baron had an entire cavalry platoon but only gave his first-rate platoon jarls a horse.
Locke gave his horse the spurs again and surveyed his platoon as they marched. Morale was one of the army's most precious commodities, and it was at a premium before battle. Because of that he had made a point of plopping himself right in front of his men. It did men good to see their officers close by, even better to see them out in front. It showed assurance of victory and confidence in them.
"When will we reach Farlans?" Gulas, a burly man, asked.
He was the only man Locke knew that was even bigger than Yoshk. He had been transferred from 1st Platoon and given the jarlship of 1st Squad. Locke had sounded him out for several days before coming to the conclusion that he was a decent sort.
"We're moving as fast as we can, which should be just fast enough to get us under the walls by nightfall," Locke said.
"So the siege starts tomorrow, then?" Gulas asked, his voice disappointed.
Locke shot him a chiding glance.
"Nonsense. We will surround the city tonight. Then we'll get a good night's rest and move on the city tomorrow."
Locke had feared this when he'd first laid eyes on the man's bulk. Gulas was what less polite commenters would call a battle maniac. Locke only hoped he wasn't one of those 'berserkers'. It wouldn't do discipline any good to have a squad jarl who was completely uncontrollable in the midst of battle.
Locke kept the reason they would be attacking the city tomorrow to himself; they had to meet up with Baron Cashel first, or the casualties suffered would be too much for Cardoj alone to bear. The Shalorian army had been defeated, but even a limp tiger could bite, not to mention that Farlans was also part of a barony.
Several hundred infantrymen sat at roadside that afternoon as dozens of cavalry rode up and down the road. Baron Cardoj and several platoon jarls sat on a giant tree stump, deep in discussion.
Several cavalrymen rushed towards them, their leader quickly dismounting as they neared.
"How is it, when will Baron Cashel arrive?" Cardoj asked, a trace of anger in his voice.
"Baron Cashel's troops are expected to arrive in half an hour, My Lord."
The baron waved him away.
Everyone shared the baron's irritation, others his short temper, though no one would let it show too much. For his part, the baron's face was smooth marble. Everyone who knew him knew, however, that the more emotionless his face was, the stronger his actual emotions. By that measure, he was quite heated.
Another set of hooves came clopping up to the baron several minutes later. The lead rider was the much expected Baron Cashel.
"Attention!" the order cascaded up the road as the baron neared. Men jumped to their feet and snapped to attention, saluting the baron as he passed. Once everyone had gathered up their baggage, the men were gathered up and formed into marching column. A few minutes later, the march resumed.
While the men were still preparing to set off, the new arrival met with Baron Cardoj.
"My apologies, the road was blocked by a group of refugees," Baron Cashel said when he saw the carefully concealed irritation in Cardoj's eyes.
The words were that of an apology, but Baron Caroj narrowed his eyes at the lack of apology either on the other baron's face, or in his voice.
"It's alright," he said with a diplomatic smile, "we just arrived ourselves. We're counting on you, brother."
Despite his burning eyes, the baron's face and voice was the picture of patience and nonchalance.
"I can't help but envy you your troops. They are grand," Cashel said, gazing at the men getting into marching order, specifically the cavalrymen, who were closest to them.
He had his cavalry as well, but only about a dozen, and they were all in his personal guard.
"You flatter too much," Cardoj said modestly.
The two continued exchanging the customary pleasantries which was very much the lifeblood of noble conversation.
Locke noted the pointed absence of cavalry from the baron's force. He had about 600 men, but he had thus far seen only twelve cavalrymen, and they all clung to the baron like lice to a scalp. This was not the first time Locke had seen the baron's men. The two barons had operated together in the past, and neither had been in the habit of using only portions of their forces.
Unlike Cardoj's orderly men, Cashel's more numerous infantry were a rabble. Locke noticed some of the men did not even hold their pikes properly, looking every bit the green recruits. The majority stood with a casualness Locke found appalling, some even stooped like old men at the end of a long day at the harvest.
"Time is running short, let's get underway," Cashel finally said, the list of pleasantries run dry.
"Very well," Cardoj returned and waved for the column to set off.
The order had been timed perfectly and the men stepped off just as Cashel's men stepped into formation on the far side of the road. Cashel was painfully aware of his own men's scrappiness next to Cardoj's men, but he did not let it colour his voice. The barons restarted their conversation as their horses got going as well.
Locke's platoon was quite close to the two barons, but only enough to hear their voices, not to make out what they were saying. Locke suspected it was the usual noble gossip, however. Nobles rarely spoke about anything else, he thought, shaking his head.
Locke's eyes scanned the other baron's men as they marched and he picked out a couple familiar faces. People he had gotten to know during their previous cooperations. They had also noticed him, and he saw the envy in their eyes at his rank insignia and shining new armour. He could see no officer's insignia on them, only the scratches of squad jarlship here and there. He did not look down on them, however. He knew how difficult it was to climb to even a squad jarlship. Despite the low rank of it, only one in ten combat men were squad jarls, so they were already the cream of the average crop. Locke, per his personal creed, endeavoured to befriend them. There was no harm in having friends and connections in such a hierarchical institutions as the army.
His prediction had been accurate and they came upon Farlan's walls just as the last of the sun was vanishing beneath the western horizon. It was a small city, but with its dense streets and successive rows of houses, it was obviously prosperous. It did not have the tidy appearance of a prosperous city, however. Dried leaves fluttered about in the streets and old dust had settled in the corners. Shops were closed despite this being shopping's golden hour. Those whose doors were open were not in business. Their doors were open because the locks had been broken by whomsoever had broken in. Some of the doors' lockes still hung against the doorway -- the rest of the door shattered with axes.
Two black-cloaked people hurried into an alley in the city.
"It's getting dark, My Lady. We have to leave," urged an old voice from under one of the cloaks.
The person beneath the other cloak hurried more. The cloak hid a beautiful, supremely feminine face. She had royal blonde hair, but her face was drawn. Her arms clutched a young girl, not even twelve years old, to her breast. The girl wore an exquisite dress of light, delicate fabric. The girl hugged the woman's neck. She was clearly not enjoying the ride but did not complain.
The two stopped in front of a wooden door deep in the alley and the man stepped forward and planted a series of soft but insistent knocks on it. Something rustled behind the door and a young lady opened a creak in the door. She inspected the two for a moment, then opened the door, shuttled them inside, and shut it again, quickly.