Chapter 10

“Look, sister! A city! We are finally at a city.” The farmers working the fields saw two young girls and their dad walk out of the path from the forest. Their dark brown hair and mismatched outfits looked odd; but, with the war going on there had been many refugees from the other side of the country heading inland.

“Hamlet. A proper city would have a wall and would check our status upon entry, Isabella.” Zenith replied; playing her part as Isabella’s sister. She was glad her hair had stayed a dark brown from the tea staining. With their hair dyed, they looked almost alike, albeit one had longer hair than the other. ‘I still can’t believe that worked. I’m going to kill those alchemists. I was even glad when they gave me a repeat discount!’ She was still mad about how much money she spent trying to dye her hair. Luckily, Isabella’s mood was infectious.

“Hamlet, village, town, city, capital, metropolis. They all describe the same thing. A place where people gather.” Isabella replied smartly.

“Not quite Isabella. Zenith’s answer is more accurate. A village and a hamlet are usually more spread out. Most will have at least one central marketplace though and they are usually ruled by an elder or one of the oldest people in the region. Anything larger than a town though will have walls, multiple marketplaces, and are lead by either an elected mayor or whoever the court appointed to rule the region.” Tyler added in. “Thus, it is quite important to know when traveling what the next stop is; because some goods just can’t be bought in certain places.”

“A hamlet such as this suits our needs just fine. We need more spices for our travels, since Nick is so picky with the cooking supplies; and we need shoes for you Isabella. Hopefully, we can get both here,” Zenith added. “Plus, with so many refugees here it will be easy to get updated information on the war effort.”

Zenith had wanted to give Isabella a chance to run around free for a while. There were no threats that a Vanguard and a Wind Magi couldn’t deal with; not in a hamlet this small. Plus, she felt a little guilty telling the girl what her future would hold.

It was certainly entertaining watching Isabella try and barter for goods; she clearly was not used to buying supplies by herself. Isabella was too easily distracted by the shopkeeper’s numerous sales pitches. ‘At least there weren’t any Merchants around; her gullible nature would lead to empty pockets in no time.’ Zenith thought wryly.

“A pair of boots; my size to be exact. Three sticks of cinnamon, four bundles of white clove, twelve leaves of oregano, sixty-four stalks of parsley and dried carrots….” Isabella listed the ingredients just how Nick had taught her. ‘Really Nick, why not just say a bundle of herbs?’ Zenith shook her head. She supposed measurements really did count when cooking. She usually cooked with her nose first, eyes second, and taste last. ‘I better stop her before the shopkeeper decides it’s not worth it.’ “We’ll take all of it,” she responded, cutting Isabella off mid-sentence.

“Sorry miss, but I really can’t sell all my food goods to you.” The shopkeeper responded wryly.

Zenith frowned. “We have the gold for it,” she said as she flashed a single gold coin. “I know you’ll make a decent profit on it.”

“Sorry little miss, but there is a mandatory ration in place. Most of the supplies are going toward the frontlines. Eighty percent of all food goods are headed that way; leaving the last twenty for the regions behind.” He looked at the two of them and warned them quietly, “You sister’s should probably have someone protect you when you go out; there have been a lot of bandits in the area due to the number of refugees coming this way. There’s already have been reports about missing people.”

“Bandits?” Isabella exclaimed, shocked that there would be bandits this close to the frontlines. “Why would there be bandits here?”

“Deserters most likely. Not everyone is cut out for service or are patriotic,” The shopkeeper said sadly. “The past year hasn’t been the best for morale. To be fair, the crown princess and the first prince are leading well, but they are no king or queen. I only hope Queen Rebecca can get better soon, then the nation will be alright.”

Isabella thought that was a weird statement. “Why would that matter?” Zenith and the shopkeeper stared at her. “Did I say something wrong sister? Mister?”

Zenith sighed loudly, “please forgive my sister, mister. She hasn’t done all that well in school.” Isabella blushed; not knowing what she said wrong.

The shopkeeper laughed, as he measured Isabella’s foot and started to look for a pair of boots that would fit her small feet. “Mister Harry. Or Old Harry will do. My sons didn’t do well in school either.” Isabella blushed even harder at that statement.

“The Queen’s skills, young miss. Do you know of them?” He asked kindly.

“Umm, isn’t it something like [Nation’s Blessing]? Or is it [Army’s Blessing]?”

“Your right! At least you’ve learned something in school. My boys couldn’t even name the royal family.”

Zenith spoke to Isabella, filling in her lack of knowledge. “Although Queen is a title and not a class, it does grant some very useful skills.”

Old Harry picked up where Zenith stopped. “Even an old shopkeeper like me knows it’s important. When the queen is awake, every person in the government will work toward the betterment of the nation. Or that’s what the rumors say anyways. Same for the King’s skill; the army will not break from lack of morale.” He sighed. “That is why the nation is so on edge. With the queen injured and the king dead, the nation is barely hanging on. If not for the numerous national heroes propping the frontlines up, I’m afraid the Demon Army would have already occupied the whole country.”

Isabella shook. “Is it really that bad?” She had thought her older siblings could do just as well as their parents had done.

“There’s been talk of civil war.” Old Harry grimaced. He adjusted his features after noticing Isabella blanch in fear. He didn’t want to scare children. He cleared his throat and continued. “But our national heroes will stop it before it comes to that. I hear that even Old General William has come back to lead the army. The nation is in good hands and it will be even better once the Queen awakens.” He bundled the supplies up in an old sack he had lying about his shop. “Take this and be off quick. Remember, watch out for bandits.”

Zenith smiled and told the shopkeeper as they left “You won’t have to worry about bandits anymore, at least for a while. Thank you!” They skipped off out into the streets. “Heh, they’d have to have classes in order to deal with deserters.” Old Harry just laughed it off, not knowing how close to the truth he had been.

“Zenith, do you think my mom will wake up soon?” Isabella asked quietly. “I didn’t know she was that well liked.”

Zenith smiled back at the girl. “Our internal reports indicated that your mother was a great queen; else she wouldn’t have the title to prove it. When she was young, she and Paige went out on adventures throughout the country. They mainly did small things like fulfilling a request or to simply sightsee, but the citizens loved it. They called her the ‘the citizen’s princess’ since she stooped down to their level to help them out. That was why there was such a big riot when she was injured; she was the moral support for the citizens throughout the war thus far.”

“If the queen matters that much to a country, then how do Leit and Appealte function?” Isabella was thoroughly confused about this matter. ‘It is just a title, so how could it influence a country? I thought only the class mattered.’

“They are alike but different. Appealte is ruled by the Mage Guild, but it also has governing houses, or you could call them the founding houses. Instead of a single person upholding the country like your mother, the bloodline of the founding houses protects the country. So long as the bloodline exists, the country will exist.” Zenith said proudly.

“Then what happens if one is destroyed? Or if a founding house goes into ruin?”

“The other houses would help it through. Or, that is the hope anyway. No family is quite willing to test out what will happen.”

They walked slowly to the meeting spot they had agreed to with Tyler. Isabella, getting bored at the plain houses they were passing, asked: “So, what will happen to Alcudia if the queen doesn’t wake up?”

Zenith hesitated to answer but went along with the question. “My guess is that if the queen dies, the nobles will split up into factions. The only reason they have not is because of the war. But If the queen is not awake once they take back most of the country, I can almost guarantee there will be a civil war between the Crown Princess and the First Prince. It’s all theoretical though because your mother will wake up.”

“But how do…”

“Your aunt. She speculated that the queen will most likely awaken. She thinks it’s just taking longer than expected to flush whatever she was poisoned with from out from her system. Paige thinks there must be a Skill at play from whoever attacked her.”

“Oh, that’s great then!” A weight had been lifted from Isabella’s chest. She couldn’t bear the thought of losing another parent in so short a time.

As they walked toward their meeting spot with Tyler, Zenith noted that a few people had marked them and were following them as they walked the main street to the marketplace. ‘They’re marking us as targets. Are they possible bandits? Not like they could kidnap me, but I don’t want to worry Isabella.’

“Eyes straight ahead Zenith. I’ve seen them already.” Tyler said quietly, appearing behind a bend. “Let not put a damper on Isabella’s mood. From the way they move, they are army scouts. I told William we were likely to stop at one of these villages, so chances are he has some posted at each location. I’ve already flashed the call sign we’ve agreed upon, so they should…”

“Hey there young lads, care to join us at the Hunter’s Inn?” A young man and his two travel companions asked. Zenith noted that the two behind them slowed down and spread out. “Refugees such as yourselves should rest a little at times too.” He winked playfully at Isabella and Zenith.

Isabella stepped behind Zenith, looking at the strangers warily. Tyler stepped forward to adress the people in front of them. “Sure, we can, but only if you’ll pay,” Tyler said with a smile on his face.

“Haha. Sure, we’ll pay for you and your daughters.”

“Great, thanks. The skies have been busy with falcons.”

“And the trees have been filled with Rangers.”

Tyler smiled and told Isabella and Zenith in a low whisper. “That’s the call sign. They’re Royal Army Scouts.”

“Ah!” Isabella’s eyes grew wide. “So, they aren’t trying to kidnap us or anything?”

“Only if you want us to.” The man smiled. “But that’s more hassle than it’s worth.” He led them toward a rundown tavern closer to the outskirts of the town. After giving the barkeep a glance and flashing five fingers, the man nodded his head and stepped outside, shutting the door behind him. His two companions went to either side of the room, securing the exits; while the other two following behind sat outside, watching for any threats. “Officer Steve, reporting for duty.” He said while completing a standard salute. “We have secured the information you requested from General William.”

Shaking hands with the officer, Tyler responded. “Great. What is the situation at Castle Lidale? How are the frontlines doing?”

“Castle Lidale has been holding on. The first prince is currently leading the army there. The front lines are holding steady, and moral is not an issue. There have been reports that small units of enemy scouts have infiltrated the countryside surrounding the castle though. General William says to go ahead to Trulton but be wary of enemy scouts. Divert to Castle Patel if necessary.”

Officer Steve stopped to catch his breath. “General William also reports that The Leit Confederation’s reinforcements are heading toward Lidale as well. He estimates that they will start pressuring the area around Lidale in about a week; hopefully moving any enemy units toward Lidale instead of Mount Terst. Our scouts have said there have been no movements from the Demon Lord since he has arrived at Mount Terst. They believe he and his party are testing the environment around the mountain.”

“He must be looking for the ley lines,” Zenith added carefully. “It is almost impossible to circumvent formations without studying the surroundings. We should have plenty of time still.”

“Tell the general we will still stop at Trulton in three days and will decide which route we will take via messenger falcons.”

“Yes sir!”

Isabella hesitated, working up the nerve to ask Officer Steve. “Has my mother awoken yet?”

Officer Steve looked at the young girl critically. “And you are?”

“Third Princess Isabella,” Tyler responded quietly.

“Ah, I thought she died at childbirth?” Officer Steve gave the young girl a formal salute, the other two officers stationed in the room followed suit. “You do look a little like the Crown Princess.” Officer Steve gave Tyler a look of confusion.

“It’s complicated. And restricted information, make sure all of you say nothing of this matter.”

“Sir!” All three officers in the room gave Tyler a formal salute. They knew that he was the former royal guard and knew many of the royal family’s secrets. “The queen has not awoken yet. She is currently at Castle Patel since that has the closest Healer’s Hall.”

Isabella sighed with relief. ‘At least mother is getting professional help.’

Tyler looked through the plans the general had sent, gauging the best path to take for the remainder of the journey. “Is there anything else? Why are there so many scouts here?”

“Besides giving you the updated information, we’ve also come here because of the deserters. There have been reports of bandits in the area, so we thought we’d wipe them out.” Steve replied gravely. “It’s a damn shame that the army isn’t unified. But without the King…”

“Leave the deserters to us. Although Nick and Paige have probably found them,” Zenith was about to speak up when Tyler spoke for her. Looking toward Isabella, he outlined his thoughts. “Don’t undercount Nick’s training; he knows the signs of people traveling in a forest. He probably could spot it easily, even without knowing the situation. This is one of the original jobs Rangers are tasked to do in Leit.”

Isabella and Zenith were confused, the former greater than the latter. She understood after thinking about it for a moment. “Ah, Leit Confederation.” She heavily stressed the last part. She turned to Isabella to explain. “Leit is made up of many different fiefs, coming together as a whole only for national interests. But because of the many opposing views, it is hard for them to come together to form a national army; since each fief must send a certain amount of people based upon their population and proximity to the battlefield, Rangers are there to monitor the fiefs and arbitrate any problems.”

“And also to make sure deserters are punished. No army likes deserters miss.” Officer Steve responded. “It makes the citizens nervous that army soldiers are prowling around killing and looting, especially when their own families are off on the battlefield and cannot protect their loved ones.”

“We’ll take care of the deserters around here. Hand me a messenger bird, and I’ll let you know what we find. Let’s go Zenith, Isabella.”

“So, Nick, have you tried any of your subclass skills yet?” Paige asked Nick quietly.

Tyler was right about Nick’s training; the Ranger had noticed a large group of people was traveling in the forest and they both decided to investigate. Paige had left most of her armor behind in favor of a leather vest.

“Some. Although they are useful skills, I don’t know how much I’ll use them. Ranger’s rely more on camouflage and long range rather than close combat.”

“I know. It’s not like I haven’t fought Rangers before.” Nick took a hard glance at Paige, going over past casualty reports. She rolled her eyes at him. “I haven’t killed any of the ones I’ve met. I respect the work you do for your country.” Paige continued, keeping her tone level. He had noticed that she was not making much noise as they traveled through the forest. He gave her an inquisitive glance.

“Formal training of some kind?”

“I knew a few Ranger’s myself; even taught a few. Heard of Ranger Diana?”

Nick stopped in his tracks. “Stop joking around. There hasn’t been another female Ranger in over four hundred years; not since the organization was officially created.”

“I know. You really think a bunch of guys started the organization on their own. Who do you think funded them initially? The border nations must be united. Alcudia needed a strong neighbor, just in case of an invasion such as this; not small fiefs fighting amongst each other.”

Paige walked through the underbrush, taking careful steps; her leather clothing muting the sounds of the twigs brushing against her. “I helped fund and train the Ranger Organization. In fact, most of them eventually settled down in Leit because they felt they were making a difference to the people there. Ranger Diana and Ranger Daniel were twins who I trained together.”

‘Damn, that is two of the original founders of the organization.’ Nick thought gravely to himself. “How old are you again?”

“I never did say,” Paige responded teasefully. “And probably never will. One tends to forget things as they get older. The passing of the seasons is one of them; they tend to blend together after a while.”

Paige stopped in her tracks. “Smell that? Must be a pretty large group if you can smell the cooking fires this far out.”

“How do you want to do this?”

“You’re the Ranger here. What would you do?”

“Says the person who allegedly trained the Ranger’s.” Nick sighed. “My gut says bandits. Or deserters. Either way, let’s see what we are up against. There shouldn’t be anyone with a high or a medium ranked class, so there should be no problems for us.”

“Let’s check first then. It would be a hassle to deal with any hostages.” They both knew the first thing deserters did was kidnap locals. For ransom or worse.

“Well, you might have the chance at using your Warrior Subclass at least.” Paige responded.

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