Quarryton was dead silent at night, except for one place. The central plaza was illuminated by a brilliant bonfire. Almost everyone from Quarryton and the nearby villages was here for the annual Beerfest.
“Today, we gather here to wish for a better year to come!” Billy began.
To him, this was the most important part every year.
“Our sons and husbands may still be fighting on the frontline, but everyone in Quarryton will protect them!”
A veteran mayor, Bill spoke with a captivating conviction and his words incited the emotions of the townspeople. No one in the plaza could help but think of their loved ones.
"Quarryton had to overcome many difficulties this year again," he continued.
The people’s attention was starting to wane. They had already heard the most important part, and the rest of his speech was about the contributions and achievements he himself had made. Most people had only a very limited education. The Locke household was one example. Locke might have expanded his vocabulary on the frontlines, but the vast majority simply could not understand what the mayor was saying. From increases in mineral production to changes to the local economy, most commoners simply didn’t understand any of it. They weren't stupid, and they probably would have understood a fair bit if he had used plain language. But Billy was a bureaucrat through and through. He was drunk on his own grandiloquence... which made it entirely possible even he didn't fully understand half of what he was talking about himself. In fact, his speech had been written for him by the administrator the baron had assigned to his jurisdiction. The administrator was a rank lower than him, but he had no authority over him as he wasn't part of his administration. He was an outsider reporting directly to the baron.
Except for a small group of the more sincere townsfolk listening to him out of a sense of obligation, the people got the festivities started. They fetched beer and bread and were making merry. Today’s beer was free, but the bread cost a small amount of a few copper thalers. For most people who could rarely fill their stomachs, this was the rare time in the year where they could eat to their hearts’ content. Smart merchants began to sell their goods. Although the shops of the whole of Quarryton were closed, there were always one or two still persistent merchants operating. The annual Beerfest was the best time for them to make money.
Locke Senior was one of the merry-makers. He was drinking and having a grand old time bragging to his acquaintances. He was naturally bragging about his son. The flavour of the day at the moment was his current rank as a squad jarl. A squad jarl was a big deal to a small rural place like Quarryton. It was enough to get several father to chime in with offers of daughters to wed. Since marriage was still largely an affair between parents, it didn't matter that the prospective groom was not present to give his input.
Locke's father was not stupid, however. He realised how much potential his son had, so he was not going to buy a bride for his son when he was still busy with his rise. He need only wait a couple years for his son to climb even higher in the ranks. Then he could net an even better prize for his boy. Besides, his wife and daughter would frown upon him trying to make a unilateral decision on a matter of such gravity. He knew his son could do still better. Whilst a squad jarlship was a big deal in such a small town, it was not something incredible. He might be the equivalent of a captain in the town guard, or perhaps even one of the senior officials in the mayor's office depending on the kind of command he had and how well he had connections further up the hierarchy, but it was not enough to make the big merchants come asking for marriage. To them, he was just a mediocre candidate. On top of that, the big fish on the other side were not going to offer their daughters to someone who might never come back home. They would ruin their daughters' chances at a good marriage if they gave them to a dead man. Other men were not going to settle for second-hand women, even if they had never been touched. Well, some might because of their family, but those were not the level of men the merchants were looking for. The officials in the town with higher status, such as clerks, tax officers, finance officers and several higher garrison jarls were also still greater fish than his son at the moment.
Nobody would actually put any of that into words, but everyone knew what everyone else was thinking. They all recognised, as Locke's father did, that this young man still had a long career ahead of him, and to be a squad jarl at such a young age meant he had a lot of room and potential for further growth. As such, it would not hurt to stay friendly with the young man's father even if at the moment they had no intention to make proposals. One of them, was the town's forester. He was an exquisite man. He had thus far never provoked anyone and stood on good terms with the entire town. Old Locke toasted him friendily, and the official uttered a few casual pleasantries. Even the mayor’s family sent someone over to have some casual words with the old man.
Faustian sat in the continent's southwest. Shalor stood in the dead east, to Faustian's north, and produced mainly ales as their alcohol. Faustians preferred beer, mainly because it was more affordable thanks to the crops from which it was made doing far better in the kingdom's climate. Which made the festival in question quite widespread. The festival continued late into the night before things finally died down and the people dispersed.
A cold breeze woke the stragglers who'd either drunken so much they couldn't make it home or had made merry until so late they'd passed out in the plaza were woken by a cold breeze. It was cold enough to make them shiver through the alcohol and still-burning bonfire's heat. Old Locke's back acted up at the cold and he grunted in discomfort. He was one of the people who'd stayed on until he'd passed out. Now, however, he got up stiffly, grunting and moaning at his back and joints, and headed for home.
The two women in the family had stayed at a relative's house. They had left when most of the townsfolk had started dispersing, unable to bear the evening's much milder cold. Old Locke's head was full of his duties for the day as he walked. Most people only had time to think about how they would ensure they had food to eat and water to drink, as well as the other daily considerations of maintenance, debts, and the like.
He stopped by the house where his wife and daughter had eved, and they headed for home. Quarryton was very small, and most of the farmers and others who lived outside of town had family in it. Old Locke had no great family himself, but Tia was but one of a number of sisters, all of whom had married and settled in the same town in which they had been born. She was not very close to them, or her brothers, whom had all done the same thing, but family was family. And they had suddenly gotten far more interested in her and her husband and daughter after their son had started building his name in the army.
Old Locke started muttering about their land again as soon as they hit the town's entrance. His big concern at the moment was whether the guinea pigs he'd chased off a couple days earlier had returned already. Tia was fiddling with the two to three dozen copper thalers she'd made from her healthy sales the previous evening. She planned to buy two pieces of cloth and make a skirt for her daughter for the new year. Lia had been taking care of the couple for years, and she was as their own blood daughter as far as they were concerned.
Lia helped her parents home. Old Locke's face was still flushed with beer. Although Tia wore a headscarf and thick linen, she shivered every time the leaves rustled.
A group of horsemen came up the road in the early morning light. A bell on the lead horse's reins chimed. Everyone knew that sound, it was the caravan's bell, specifically, it was the bell of the baron's caravan. All plans for the day melted out of Old Locke's mind, and those of the rest of his family, when they heard it.