“Hey Old Locke, why are you rushing home?” a voice from some distance away.
Its owner was one of the caravan's junior managers.
“Come, drink with me today!” he said as he rode closer.
Old Locke recognised him as Bruce. Unlike the baron or the other caravan members from influential families, these junior managers were quite numerous. They handled the caravan's day-to-day operation. In a way, the title was only a vain attempt of flattery. They had little actual decision-making authority. The position did have it's perks, however; the senior managers didn't interfere with their operations, for example, and, as a result, they got away with quite a bit of side hustling. And despite the position's actual lack of authority, it could only be obtained by having at least a couple decent backers.
Bruce's backer was his uncle, Henry, whom was a senior manager in the caravan. He was the man who'd helped Locke put Suzanna in the battalion's entourage so she could keep up with them. He was also the man who'd taken the job of getting Locke a shield. Henry, and indeed none of the other senior managers, had actually returned with the caravans. There was too much harvesting to behind the advancing army. Henry had only accompanied the caravan as far as Bideslane to oversee some of the more crucial sales, then returned to the battalion whilst the caravan continued on homewards.
The juniors managers had been left in charge of the caravan for the rest of the journey, amongst whom stood Bruce. None of them had been eager to return home, however. The frontlines were dangerous, yes, even being just behind it, the merchants were still risking their lives to make risky profits, but when profits were made, they were substantial. Unfortunately, the junior managers were just that, junior, and so they had little choice but to accompany the caravan all the way back to the barony.
Although Bruce was young and had a little standing at the moment, he had a good eye for things and was an excellent socialite. There were few people he could not talk around to his point of view, and few with whom he'd not built up enough report that he could speak casually with them, regardless of their ranks, at least in private. His uncle sent him home with the caravan almost every time, which meant he was a frequent traveller on the roads between the barony and the battalion's bases and knew them well. He had been the one to bring the news of Locke's previous promotion last time.
Old Locke smiled at him warmly.
“Why, it’s Herr Bruce. You’re back quickly.”
Bruce smiled wryly. Quarryton sat in the southernmost corner of the barony, the furthest from Shalore. It also sat just on the other side of a thin mountain range, which made travel to it quite arduous and time-consuming. That usually made it the last stop on the caravan's rounds through the barony before they headed back to the battalion. This time, however, they'd come here straight from the baron's castle.
Bruce had always been somewhat arrogant towards the squad jarls' relatives. Squad jarls were jarls, but they were only barely more than grunts, one could say, in fact, that they were the mutant midway between actual officers of command and just plain men of the line. They were half-grunt and half-officer. This reality was reflected in that, whilst they were the most powerful of the ordinary soldiers, they were still just ordinary soldiers, they were the most senior rank that didn't have proper impetus. The next step up, where Locke was now, had complete impetus cores and proper training in their use. There was no real difference in the respective hierarchies between Bruce's position as a junior caravan manager, and a squad jarl. He had something most squad jarls didn't, however: backing. And that was enough to let him be prideful in front of those same squad jarls' families.
He could no longer behave that way with the Locke family, however. They were now the family of a platoon jarl, not a squad jarl like the last time he'd been in town. He had to treat them with the proper etiquette and polity. If even a single word got Herr Locke's ears of him being arrogant to his family... he would not be long for the position he currently had.
You must be joking, Uncle Locke. I am not 'Herr' to you. Anyway, I have good news!” he said with his signature beaming smile.
“What news?" Old Locke asked, as the three of Locke's family gazed at him with curiosity and anticipation. They had only been hoping for news of Locke's safety this time, perhaps news of another battle honour, but no more.
"Herr Locke was promoted to platoon jarl!”
“Platoon jarl?!” the listening ears shouted before the three for whom the information was actually meant could react.
“Doesn't that mean he's equal in standing to the mayor?!” someone gasped.
“Indeed,” Bruce said, gracing them with another smile.
Old Locke just stared at him, eyes like saucers. His wife looked much the same, though she was slightly pale at the shock, positive as it was. She had not yet had time to start dreaming of where her son might go next after his previous promotion. She would have been more than happy just to hear he was still safe. His previous promotion had already exceeded her greatest hopes for him. Their daughter took the news more in stride. Her eyes still danced with emotion, however, and Bruce found himself entranced by those eyes.
It didn't take more than a minute for the mayor to show up, an entire minute during which none of the three had said anything, and during which the crowd had been chattering away. New people showed up with every passing second, asked what was going on, and those already present informed them of the thunderous news.
"Make way! Make way!" the mayor shouted as he pushed through the crowd, "Let the caravan through! They must be tired from the long journey! Let them through so they can enter the town!"
The crowd parted obediently and made way for the caravan.
The mayor had probably drunk more the previous evening than any two other people combined, but he was already completely sober. He had even had the sense to change into the appropriate robes before making his appearance to greet the caravan.
While he had not heard Bruce's words directly, he had heard the news making its way to the back of the crowd as he'd arrived and he could not believe his ears. He had to be dreaming. He was quick to sort his mind, however, and his face showed no sign of his own disbelief and incredulity at the news. He might have been unable to control his face were he some twenty years younger, he might even have been jealous then, but now he had little ambition beyond his station, and his long years had cemented his position and his confidence in it, so he took the news in stride, despite his initial shock. Rather than jealous, even threatened by the rising star, he was merely proud that his town had produced such a bright and capable young man and he looked forward to basking in the reflecte glory this would bring upon the town.
And how could glory not reflect onto the town? There were only eight platoon jarls under the baron, after all, as far as the townsfolk knew, anyway. The necessities of war might have changed that number one way or the other, but it could certainly not be much more than eight. There were only four platoons under the baron, after all, and each of the four towns in the barony had thus far had 2 platoon jarls from their populace in the baron's army thus far. If Bruce's news was true, and he had no reason to doubt its truthfulness, then Quarryton was the first town in the barony to have three platoon jarls, assuming the other two were still in active service, of course. This would give him, Billy, the undisputed seniority amongst the barony's four mayors as far as this particular aspect was concerned.
He quietly pulled Billy aside as the caravan continued, however, and talked to him, just to be sure he had heard things right.
“Has anything happened to Yoshk or Karl?” he asked.
"Uncle Yoshk and Karl are doing well. That reminds me, they asked me to tell you they want some of the good beer, so could you please save some for them? They want to take a short leave once the current campaign comes to a close and come home for a visit.”
Billy smiled with obvious relief.
“You can tell them I've been saving some for them every year. I already have four years' beer waiting for them. I'm running out of space. They have to come drink it soon or I'll have to start throwing it out.”
“That's good. Then I'll drag my uncle over for a drink when he come back as well.”
Neither Bruce, nor his uncle were from Quarryton, however. They hailed from the baron's castletown.
The rest of the day came and went whilst the town made merry and interrogated the caravan's people for every scrap of news and gossip from the front lines and the rest of the kingdom. Since they had only just finished their previous, most major merry-making event of the year, however, the celebrations were far milder than they would have been otherwise. Some were merrier than others, however. Locke's family, for example, were even merrier than they had been the previous evening.
Even just Locke still being alive would have been news enough to make them ecstatic, but to have him be even further promoted, and so soon after his previous promotion, had then all outside themselves. Old Locke only got to sleep again late the following afternoon when he almost quite literally passed out at the dinner table. His wife and daughter had to drag him to bed. His wife, whilst not struggling to sleep that evening, spent the next week blabbering on and on about her son. So much, in fact, that by the end she had even started irritating her friends and neighbours.
Her chest burst with pride every time she thought of her son, which was all the time for the first couple of weeks after they heard the news. Her son was basically the mayor's equal! No one from either her or her husband's families had ever been this high up the social ladder. Old Locke wanted nothing more than to head to the family graves up on the mountainsides and share the news with the family forefathers. And he would have the very day they had gotten the news, but the townfolk would not give him a moment to himself. Everyone was suddenly putting in a visit or had some excuse or reason to have a chat with him and the rest of the family. Some even outright tried to bribe him. Others were more subtle and settled for buttering him up every which way they could. The marriage proposals were also pouring in. Not just for Locke this time, either. Several families brought both son and daughter over, the latter to offer to Locke's son, the former to suggest for his daughter.
It was ridiculous, really. The town was small and had little in the way of true standout talents. The few there were had either left early on in their lives to seek greener pastures or had been swooped up by the army. Only the very young, the old, and the infirm were left among the male population. Several of the more useless ones who hailed from wealthier and more connected families had avoided the draft, however, and they were not worth considering.
Both the family and the mayor were very busy. The mayor had just about as many social visits to make as the Locke family had to receive. And even more official visits and meeting to attend. There were very few people in the town's administration. Among them the top ones were the mayor himself, of course, the garrison's captain, the clerk, the chief constable, and the master of taxes. The last three were somewhat junior to the first three, however. They were also the top dogs in the town's hierarchy, just above the merchants, who made up the lower upper and middle classes in town. The rest of the town made up the lower class. Locke's family had effectively just jumped into the lower-upper class by association. After Locke returned from the war and retired from the army, he would almost certainly be made garrison captain. If he did not retire from the army, however, he was just as likely to occupy a senior position in the baron's post-war levee. If that happened, he and his family would join the baron in his castle and live in the small town which surrounded it. They would move into the upper classes of the entire barony, not just the town. There were preparations to be made to ensure a good connection with him through his family before he left the town. Foremost on the list was preferential treatment in the tax office, shortly behind that was organising some complementary labour assistance with the farm. They were simple things, but simple things carefully tailored to the needs of those for whom they were being done were often the most effective of all gestures. The mayor's family understood this very well, which was why the last three mayors had all been from Billy's family.
The entire town was lively for the next two days. It was enough to bring back memories of how the town had been before the drought and the war. It was like this every time the caravan came by, though not always to this extent since not every trip came with news of a local being promoted to platoon jarl. The talk of the town was not just Locke, but the hopes of the families that their husbands and sons would have similar fortunes, or at least return safely.
Back on the frontlines, Locke flicked his whip at his horse's rear -- he had decided to call it Blue -- and followed the men of his platoon as they started off in marching column, banners held high. They would next stop in the city of Bimore. The full three days of their travel from Wallier had been spent in the mountain passes of the Bering Mountains. They had not stopped in the day. They had marched from sun-up to sundown each day, stopping only to pitch camp once it was too dark to travel without the real risk of losing the road.