The fun and adventure didn’t last very long they discovered.
Just one night in fact.
Before midnight they were in the city jail for disturbing the peace, fighting, and destruction of private property. Standing in court the next morning, they had no money for the heavy fines the judge handed them and for a scary moment, they thought that they’d be seeing the inside of the city dungeons. But a rich nobleman clad in expensive silks ventured up to the bench to have a word with the magistrate. After a few, tension-filled minutes he backed away and the judge announced that Sir Owen Halburn had offered to pay their fines in exchange for three months’ service. What was the guilty party’s pleasure – jail or servitude?
They chose servitude.
“‘Have fun’, he said. ‘Tear up a bar’, he said. ‘Adventure’, he said. Phooey!” Jon grumbled for the fourth time.
Aaren shot him a sour glance. “Alright, enough already! Kick me and let me up. How was I supposed to know they took such a dim view of brawling?”
They were riding north behind Sir Halburn toward his ranch outside of Taeljurm. He’d told them he was having trouble with rustlers and poachers, so they would be guarding his herds for him. The thin, haughty man had succeeded in antagonizing all of them within the first league of their journey and they were riding as far behind him as possible.
“How were you supposed to know?” Jon yelped. “You took us to one of the most expensive bars in town! Of course, they objected to our behavior. I objected to our behavior and I’m one of us!”
Aaren’s face reddened and he sought to avoid his companion’s eyes. Horace, seeing his embarrassment, rode to his rescue. “Ah, come on, we weren’t that bad. If those idiots hadn’t cheated none of this would have happened.”
Jon sighed as one much put upon. “I told you they were card sharks, but would you guys listen? Oh no, you had to try it for yourselves.” He shook his head. “Wonderful.”
Mira gave up listening to the argument as Horace and Aaren tried to defend their actions. She’d heard it all before and besides, it wasn’t going to do them any good now. What was done, was done. Better to concentrate on where their unpleasant benefactor was taking them. Within a few leagues they crested a low hill and she saw their destination.
It was a typical cattle ranch for this part of the world. It was nestled near the base of the eastern slopes of Blue Mountains, on the western side of the mountains was the Tagil Sea. The ranch itself consisted of a low, rambling main building, along with several barns, bunkhouses, and assorted buildings. There were two large corrals, one behind the main house and one off to the side surrounded by three of the bunkhouses. Several dozen horses stood in each corral along with an equal number of mules. There were four large buildings that looked to be granaries and the biggest water tank she’d ever seen.
What wasn’t so typical was the wall around the place. Or rather, the wall that was being built around it.
It was or would be, a 15 cubit high wall with strong battlements and easy access from the inside. There was plenty of room on top of for siege weapons of every kind. In fact, there were several ballistae already mounted on the wall near the main gate. She could also see construction underway on a number of the buildings. They were being reinforced on the rooftops. Their straw roofs were being replaced with wood and stone to protect them from any bombardment. The more she stared, the more she was convinced she was seeing preparations for war. She drew her companion’s attention to the constructions.
After a few minutes, they all agreed with her assessment. Sir Halburn was preparing for a siege. A long one.
As they rode down through the main gate, the war preparations became even more apparent. Huge cauldrons of oil were being pulled into place over clay-lined fire pits, ready for heating. Arrows, spears, and javelins were being made by the hundreds, bundled up and taken to the top of the completed portions of the wall. Behind the wall, the ground had already been scrapped clear of any combustible material and cobblestones were being laid for extra protection. Everywhere they looked they saw frantic, almost panicked, labor at a tremendous pace.
“By the gods,” Horace breathed heavily, “what have we gotten ourselves into?”
“Beats me, big guy,” Mira answered in low tones, “But it doesn’t look good does it?”
Horace ran a soldier’s eye over the fortifications. “Looks downright awful if you want to know the truth. They’re getting ready for some heavy-duty action here.”
The rest of them glanced around nervously. “It’s pretty obvious we’re going to be doing more than just guarding some cattle,” Jon said bitterly. “I wonder what other little surprises Sir Halburn has for us?”
Unmindful of their suspicions the nobleman led them up to the main house and swung his lanky form down from the saddle. He waved them after him as he entered the house and led them down a long hall into a large sitting room. There were tall windows along one wall, letting brilliant, morning sunlight into the room and lighting it cheerfully. At one end of the room was a fireplace and several chairs, at the other was a large, round table covered by maps. He led them over to the table and gestured at the maps on it.
“Take a good look,” he said in his nasal voice. “This is my estate and the borders I share with my neighbors.” His voice took on a sarcastic lilt at the last word.
Behind his back, Aaren pulled out a scroll and read several arcane words in a low voice.
“These lines indicate the lawful boundaries of my estates,” Halburn continued, unaware of Aaren’s activities. “I have forty thousand head of cattle and as you can clearly see, my property is only just big enough to properly feed my herds. If I lose any range land to outsiders, my cattle will starve and I’ll lose enormous amounts of money. I simply can not allow that to happen.”
He glanced around to make sure he had their attention. “My neighbor,” again the sarcastic tone, “to the west claims the boundary line is four leagues further this way than it should be. Clearly, that would take in a great deal of my property as well as the stream you see there.” He pointed to a thin, blue line that meandered down one side of the map. “He began moving the boundary markers! The fat pig!” Halburn’s nostrils flared in anger and he had to pause for a moment to regain his composure. When he calmed down, he continued. “Naturally I couldn’t let him get away with that, so I began moving them back. He retaliated by setting armed guards around the markers. I had them killed of course and he began raiding my herds. I exercised my lawful rights and took them back as you can imagine. Would you believe he had the audacity to accuse me of stealing? Then he began attacking my home! He won’t get away with it!” he shouted. “I swear it!”
Halburn paused to calm himself again then continued in a more rational voice. “That’s where you come in. You and these fortifications you see around you. You will go out to act as guards for one of my herds between here and the boundary line. He and his men will have to come by you on their way here to attack me. But my defenses won’t be done for another three months, so you will keep them from getting here.”
“Harass them whenever you see them. Harry them. Hit and run in the dark of the night. Those cowards always attack at night, make it work against them. Lead them on a wild goose chase through the hills and back to their side of the boundary. They mustn’t know what I’ve accomplished here, they mustn’t suspect. That way, when I finally let them through, well, that fat son of a whore will be in for a rude shock,” he finished with a vicious laugh.
“Uh, Sir Halburn?” Elric held up a questioning hand. “Who is your neighbor?”
“Morgrim the Mad,” he told him sharply. “Can’t you read?” He pointed at the map. There, tucked away in one corner was the inscription ‘Morgrim Leers’.
Elric shrank back from Halburn’s bullying tones. “Sorry,” he muttered.
“I’m glad you mentioned the fortifications, Sir Halburn,” Horace said respectfully. “I’ve been meaning to ask you about that.”
His watery eyes rested on Horace suspiciously. “What do you mean?” he snapped.
Horace shrugged. “It looks like you’re getting ready for a lot more than just a cattle raiding party.”
“Morgrim isn’t called Mad for nothing,” he said evasively. “I want to be ready for anything. Besides, we’ve been having problems with goblins lately. I’d feel much better with a proper wall around my estates.”
“Yes, I see. But isn’t it a bit much?” Horace argued.
“Enough! Prepare to ride out once,” Halburn told them abruptly. “The foreman, Ivan, will take you to your post near the boundary. Be ready when he comes for you.”
He waved them out of the house with a dismissive hand and turned back to his maps before they were even out of the room, their presence forgotten.
Mira tugged on Aaren’s sleeve as they were trouping back outside. “What was that you were doing?” she asked him.
“A spell to see if he was telling the truth.”
They left the house and settled down on the porch to wait for the foreman. “Yes and no,” Aaren said in a troubled voice. “But it was hard to tell where the truth ended and the lies began. One thing came through loud and clear though, he believes everything he told us. That’s what made it so hard to tell when he was lying and when he wasn’t.”
Katrina looked at him with a worried frown. “So part of what he was telling us was false and part was true but he’s such a nut case your spell couldn’t tell which was which?”
Aaren nodded heavily. “Pretty much.”
“It could be the boundary line, it could be who’s attacking who, it could be anything, couldn’t it?” she pressed him.
He nodded reluctantly. “I’m afraid so.”
Jon’s eye’s crinkled with concern. “Then we could wind up breaking the law again, and not even know it.”
Horace nodded grimly. “Sounds like it to me.”
“We gotta get out of this!”
“Calm down,” the burly fighter told him. “Morgrim and his men may not even come during the next few months. We may not have to do anything.”