Baron Cardoj sat astride his horse, silently contemplative as he commanded his troops' march. Locke admired the mounted man's visage from a distance. He wondered if he would ever get the chance to be admired by others as he was now admiring the baron. Blue itched beneath him. Keeping it to stand still was a constant battle. He was incessantly pulling this way and that on the reigns to keep it in check. The only thing keeping it from dashing out in one direction or another was Locke's oppressive aura, which he leveraged to its fullest effect to keep the horse's spirit under control.
It was noon, but the baron showed no intention of ordering the halt for lunch. It appeared it would be yet another day of ceaseless marching. They had still one more day of marching ahead before they would reach Bimore, and Locke had heard the two barons, Cardoj and Cashel, intended to once again march until sundown. They hoped to make the city by nightfall.
And so the march continued. Everyone was thoroughly exhausted and fatigued. The squad jarls had to keep a watchful eye on the men, for several had already slipped out of the march and disappeared into the wilderness. At least the half of all casualties jotted on the battalion ledgers throughout the army were desertions. And with their campaign in such a crucial phase, they could not affort to lose one more man than was absolutely necessary. Only the grunts and squad jarls were quite so tired that they might consider desertion, however. The platoons jarls and up had quite an easier time on horseback.
Two of them, Locke and Jersson, chatted absentmindedly from atop their horses. Locke occasionally indulged in such small talk with the other platoon jarls. He even pointed a borrowed bow at birds that flew by when he was really bored. Extra meat at supper never hurt. Other times, he tagged along as the officers rode around for 'equestrian training'. He had never lived better.
Locke rode to the front of the marching column now. He wanted to check if their platoon had fallen behind. Instead he ended up with Suzanne's lips on his own. The platoon was all young and fit men, there was little worry of falling behind at this point in their march. Even if that were to happen, Jersson would be the one saddled with dealing with it as the senior of the two platoon jarls. Locke, as mere deputy jarl, was only really responsible for the half of the platoon he commanded.
Locke and Jersson got along very well. Jersson had even taken to joking with Locke. His favourite topic was Locke's lack of concern for the rest of the platoon at mealtime.
"You are my senior; you have to take care of me," Locke always retorted.
"Locke!" Yoshk called from up ahead as the pair of jarls arrived in the middle of the column.
"What's up?" Locke asked as he brought his horse to a pace-match with Yoshk's.
"You brat better hide the women well. Don't let the men discover them!" Yoshk chastised, "We'll arrive at Bimore soon. Be ready for a tough fight. This is your chance to prove yourself to the baron."
"I understand, Uncle," Locke answered obediently.
Yoshk turned his horse around and headed back to his polatoon. Locke returned to his platoon as well. He had been acting freely these last couple of days. Yoshk and the others had played no small part in that.
He had been heading into battle at Farlans not long after his promotion. Later he had stopped by Wallier's black market. Everything had still been too new then and he had not yet understood exactly what his promotion meant for his life. Yoshk had mentored him every step of the way, however. He had been the one to teach him how to ride a horse, though, if Locke was honest, he was still quite awkward atop one. He knew as little about the rest of the word as he did about horse riding before Yoshk had taught him. The baron had learnt to ride his horse in the Aomar Empire, for example, whilst Locke had not even heard of the empire until he'd enlisted.
"Hurry! Keep up the pace!" the squad jarls chimed on queue just as the men started relaxing their pace.
Locke still remembered being a mere grunt, it felt a life-time ago despite it being but a couple weeks earlier. He had not appreciated, then, how important squad jarls were. He also didn't understand how important the absolute cohesion of a squad was. Sure, he knew it was absolutely important for the men if they were to survive any number of battles, but he had not understood how important it was to their effectiveness in combat and the army's ability to win battles. Similarly he had not understood how important it was for them to be able to cooperate and fight alongside the platoon's other squads effectively. He understood that thanks to his platoons high levels of cooperability, and their unity, they were far more effective than Baron Cashel's platoons, but he still did not understand why that was.
This part Baron Cardoj had taught him. Less by actual instruction than by example and exposure. Thanks to the baron's tutelage he had become a far greater soldier, and more importantly, a far greater leader of men than he had ever thought he could be. It, however, also revealed to him how much of an ignoramus he had been before his superiors' tutelage. If not for them, he would have been completely useless in his current post, no, he would have been a liability, not just useless. He was at least smart enough to admit his ignorance, and to be willing to learn, which was half of the reason behind his current success.
Locke was looking forward to Bimore in a way. It didn't matter how tough the battle would be, in fact, in some ways, the tougher the better. It was his chance to test himself, and it couldn't get much worse than some of the bad fights he'd been in over the four years he'd already been in the army. He wasn't guaranteed to survive the war even as a platoon jarl, but he was very unlikely to die in the upcoming battle. A county was relatively small, especially compared to some of the domains he'd already had to conquer. Counts generally couldn't afford more than two or three thousand soldiers, even as conscripted levees. Their battalion was five thousand strong, and most of them were veterans, so it would be a stroll in the forest to take the county.
Another reason he was looking forward to the fight was that, after they took the city, Yoshk would take him to the supply train and let him have a gander at their loot. He might just find something useful. He would be especially happy if he could find a potion or two. He believed they had to be strongly related to magic, though he had been unable to get a straight answer from Yoshk when he had asked him about it a couple days earlier.
His impetus had failed to progress any further since they had departed Wallier. It had been only a month since he'd started training his impetus, but he was frustrated beyond belief that he should so suddenly, and so soon, hit a plateau. He had tried to ask Solon for more redsea flowers at least half a dozen times since he had realised he had hit a plateau, but he had gotten with the baron's son. Solon was certain it would be a waste to give him any more. It would not do anything for his current predicament. Locke had been quite disappointed, even somewhat upset at the rejection, but he had since gotten over it. He had to admit Solon's explanation made some sense. And it helped that Solon did not strike him has a miser.
"The redsea flower is the most precious medicine for the beginner-rank Knecht, and only the nobles with strong households will have it." Glace said, seeing Locke troubled by the lack of redsea flower to train with. Locke was more convinced that there was more to this woman than met the eye, making him more certain that she was a keeper. The prospect of marrying someone who was most likely a noblewoman was exciting.
Over time, Locke grew closer to the maid Laffey too. He was surprised to learn that Laffey had redsea flowers too. According to her, their head of maids gave the maid escorts some. Since she was protecting the lady, she took the redsea flower twice. Perhaps one could only take it no more than twice.
"We should be arriving Bimore by evening. I hope we can meet some old comarades," Yoshk said. As the veteran platoon jarl, Yoshk not only knew some among Baron Cashel's troops, but most of the men of 2nd Division, elites aside. He had many acquaintances in other divisions too. He even had friends in the cavalry division from serving as an escort for Baron Cardoj on his trips to division headquarters.
"Uncle, you should introduce me to some seniors too."
"Sure thing, kid," Yoshk said generously. Being bold and generous were good qualities to have, especially in the army.
The temporary headquarters of Falcon was located In the Als Valley, which was in front of Bimore. Rows of dark green tents rose one after another in this grassy valley. At the very centre of the valley, a banner of a brown eagle fluttered along the wind. Orders could be heard shouted from one soldier to another, passing through the ranks.
"3rd Company of 2nd Division, present!"
"7th Company of 2nd Division, present!"
"5th Company of 3rd Division, present!"
"Half of 2nd Division has assembled!" Standing firmly in attention, a herald in a black Faustian uniform said to a slender old man standing at the centre of the camp. Were Locke there, he would have ignored the old man and glued his envious eyes to the herald's sword and neat military uniform. Throughout Faustian, only a herald wore a proper uniform; Locke's own looked like a rag in comparison. This old man had a keen sharpness in his eyes; the rest were no different from ordinary people.
"What about 3rd Division?" The old man asked calmly.
"Uh…" The herald paused. "Currently only 1st and 3rd Company are in place."
"Hmph! Cursed nobles, dumping just anyone into my Falcon corps. Do they think we're a junkyard?"
The old man waved his hand hard and caused a strong breeze. Judging by this wave, he was at least as strong as a high-rank Knecht, as was evident by the clear sign of his impetus projection, something only high-rank Knechts could achieve.
He was corps jarl of Falcon, Margrave Steyr Marmen. He bore the title of 'Falcon' given to him by the current king and was famous right across the kingdom.