Out From Under

I.

The two men traveled swiftly through the small farming towns that dotted the main road leading to Caer Doneghal. The trip always seemed too short to Terin, the old stone fortress rising up unexpectedly before them after cresting just another in a long series of pleasant looking hills.

Upon first sight of the upper towers of the stone fortress, Baron Trendel urged the horses to move faster, so as to reach the Caer before the hour for the afternoon meal was too far advanced. “If I time it right,” he thought, “I should catch the Quartermaster just as he’s coming back from lunch, and feeling too drowsy to work overly hard at denying me proper gear for the trip.”

As the stone walls of the fortress rose before them, Terin marveled anew at the sheer size of the ancient structure.

The fortress Caer of the Duchy of Doneghal had been inhabited for about two generations now, and was still being repaired and improved upon all the time, but at it’s heart were the remains of a solid stone fortress dating back to before the diaspora.

Although the outer walls had suffered considerable damage over the centuries, it had still been standing strong and proud when the first outriders of Lord Arlen Doneghal’s forces arrived at the foothills of the great mountain range. Lord Doneghal had been following the trail of a fleeing band of Orc Wolf Raiders, orcs mounted on giant mountain wolves that had come down out of the highland passes, crossed the contested territory to the border and penetrated deep into the barony of Marches to sack a small town named Driscol.

Most of the people in Driscol had fallen to sword or fire, and the young Lord Doneghal, youngest son of the Baron of Marches, had sworn vengeance. He’d raised a group of like-minded young men, gathered supporters for the resources necessary to maintain a long stay in the field, and headed for the mountains to hunt the orcs down and extract a hefty blood price from any he found.

When Lord Arlen Doneghal first spied the remains of the old fortress, deep into contested territory and jutting up from the exposed bedrock of the hills, he instantly made it the foundation of his command and set the bulk of his men to reinforcing it and repairing the defenses while his scouts searched for signs of the trails the Wolf Raiders’ used coming into and out of the highlands.

For the next year, as Lord Doneghals’ companies skirmished with ever larger groups of orcs coming down out of the mountains, he bade his men continue to repair the fortress walls and improve the defensibility of the structure with trenches, spike walls and staggered blind holes. After a handful of years, the orcs finally retreated farther into the high passes, relinquishing their claims on the lowlands and surrounding hills. The stone fortress was raised as Lord Doneghals’ seat of power, his Caer, and from it he consolidated his position and arranged the settling of the lowlands under his protection, and the garrisoning of the passes leading into the highland vales.

Caer Doneghal remained the seat of power for the next generations of the Doneghal family, growing to become the hub of government for much of the area. It remained one of the most exposed Ducal seats in the Borderlands, vulnerable to orc invasion, and second only to Duke Hope’s mountain fortress in proximity to the mountains, Duke’s Hope stronghold being built directly on and into the foothills of the great mountain chain further to the south.

Now, the old Barony of Marches was but a small part of the easternmost part of the Duchy of Doneghal, and Arlen Doneghals’ great-grandson Michael Arneghast ruled there as the 3rd Duke Doneghal in his turn. 

Shaped like a huge bucket, stone walls rising more than five stories high and leaning outwards to hang over the ground, the massive main gates stood open but heavily guarded.

The Caer and capital of the Duchy of Doneghal remained one of the most amazing sights Terin had ever seen. Having been here many times before, he knew that, on the inside, it was open in the center like a cylinder, and all of a single structure with the rooms and corridors built into the walls, with the large open space in the center given over to a bazaar that was always open for business.

Although the layout of the rooms and corridors within the stone walls seemed originally intended to house one family and their household staff, leaving the space of the inner courtyard as easily defended against as the outer gates, the last two generations of busy bordermen had pierced the interior walls in many places to add passages deeper into the Caer, and also to hang out shingles calling for customers to sample their ale, food, clothes, and even livestock. Despite the occasional space in the wall given over to businesses, the bulk of the Caer remained the capital of Duke Arneghast, and the lot of it was given over to administrators, clerks, and lawmen seeing to the records and distribution of all of the taxes sent to the Duke from the outlying regions, the movements of armed men, and the organizing of the border defenses.

Even, and this was the part important to Terin, seeing to maintaining a supply depot for the Dukes’ local garrison of Border Guards, peacemakers, and soldiers traveling on the Dukes’ business.

Heavy carts hauling stone, produce, and tools shared the road with Terin and his new squire, and like all other places Terin had seen in the Borderlands, the roads steadily improved the closer they came to a Caer.

Both travelers were well covered in road dust when they finally passed under the bars of the west gate. Terin brushed the dust off his baldric, made They moved quickly through the west tunnel, and emerged into the dust-filled daylight and carnival atmosphere of the Caer Bazaar.

II.

Once through the tunnel and into the daylight of the vast and bustling courtyard, Baron Trendel wheeled to his left and halted his horse in front of the entrance to the stalls reserved for official business.

Dismounting smoothly, he gestured for Mikkelson to do the same. Turning the reins of the horses over to a stable hand, he told the straw-covered boy, “Feed them and give them a rub down, and see to it they have plenty of water. I’ll be needing them again before the evening meal.” Terin then handed the stable boy a small handful of coppers for his trouble.

Turning to face the bazaar that very nearly filled the courtyard, Terin looked around for a few moments to orient himself.

Most of the flimsy wooden and cloth booths of the bazaar were jumbled close together, and their locations tended to change as one would-be entrepreneur went out of business and sold his tent to another hopeful, who would move the tent to a new location he was certain would bring increased trade. Still, Terin knew that certain stalls remained a somewhat permanent fixture in the bazaar, and he finally saw the pennant of the one he was looking for through the crazed bustle of activity, off across the far side of the courtyard.

“Come along, lad. I know the food smells good, but our first stop is to get you fitted with some proper armor and a weapon that suits you for the road.”

The two pushed across the crowded courtyard, moving aside frequently to let heavily laden carts and even full sized wagons make their slow way through the crowd. It took nearly fifteen minutes for them to finally reach the stall sporting the pennant Terin had spied.

The stall Terin and Mikkelson approached was larger than most, almost twice as wide as other ones nearby, with stouter wooden posts holding it together, the colors of the cloth faded and rips and tears well mended. Mostly done in greens and yellows, it displayed no sign in front, but hanging limply from a tall pole was a large green pennant, showing an embroidered yellow lizard that looked a bit like a salamander, or maybe even a northern gecko, with an intelligent look and a closed beak. 

The stall was doing brisk business, with two ragged lines of locals moving forward rapidly and collecting their steaming purchases from the servers, who seemed to consist entirely of very pretty young ladies in bright green blouses and even brighter yellow skirts. A fragrant aroma, smelling of grilled and seasoned meat, reached Terin and his squire, and he briefly considered stopping for food before running the rest of their errands.

A glance to the sun settled him, as he saw that he had too little time to eat if he wanted the optimum conditions to brace the Quartermaster in his den.

Directly opposite the green and yellow stall was one of the dark openings in the walls, looking no different from any of the others that lined the great interior. These tall openings were the only passages that permitted travel directly from the open courtyard area of the bazaar deeper into the inhabited walls of the fortress, and although quite tall and wide, were reinforced with new stone and were lit only by lanterns. Baron Trendel marched straight into the tunnel across from the stall, avoiding the press of the crowds and carts within, and made his way briskly along the crowded narrow stone tunnels.

The sharp transition from the bright daylight and cheerful sounds and smells of the bazaar into the cool shadowed gloom of the tunnels was jarring, and Mikkelson stumbled a bit as the ground changed from dirt to stone cobbles, but their eyes adjusted rapidly to the light given off by the glass and tin oil lanterns.

As they walked, Squire Mikkelson asked, “Milordship, this is my first time here to the Caer. That stall back there, could you tell me what it was? It seemed to be doing good business serving food, but I’ve never seen a food merchant flying a flag of a lizard before.”

Baron Trendel sidestepped a man leading a heavily laden donkey by a rope, and replied, “That stall is a long standing fixture of the bazaar here in the Caer, lad. There’s an old story I’ve heard about it, but the short version is, they sell mostly roasted spiced lamb carved and served on warm soft flatbreads, with a fresh cucumber sauce. It’s very good. In fact, I usually eat there when my business takes me to the Caer.”

Squire Mikkelson hurried along in the Barons’ wake, effortlessly avoiding collision with the people crowding the corridor. “I think I could sae that from the bowls of the folks what be eatin’, sir, but the part I’m not about understandin’ is the lizard on the pennant.”

“That’s part of the long version of the story, lad. The short of it is, if you order a flatbread special, and they ask you if you want it ‘with or without’, don’t say ‘with’. And for Tyr’s sake, don’t ask ‘with or without what?’”

As they had been talking, the main corridor they had been traveling had been descending and curving, very gently but quite steadily. Most carts and small wagons were being pulled by donkeys or harnessed pheasants, mostly browns or golds, and the cobbles were liberally salted with the unfortunate leavings of many hard working grain-eating animals.

Picking their way carefully, and walking for what Count Terin judged was just about half an hour, they turned one last gentle corner and finally saw the huge double gate that marked the end of this corridor, and the entrance to the main armory and supply depot.

“Now pay attention, lad, and watch close while we’re in there. The Quartermasters’ name is Drummond, and he’s a sneaky one. He hides the highest quality equipment that makes its way down here, saves it for his ‘paying’ customers. If you see something that catches your eye that looks out of place, let me know.”

Squire Mikkelson had, up to this point, managed to appear very self-assured despite the fact that this was his first time in any structure with a second story to it, let alone the massive and highly-crowded capital of Doneghal. But as he chewed over what the Baron had just said, his face began to cloud up in confusion.

“Again beggin’ yer pardon, milord, but I thought that everyone that served the Duchy got issued the gear they needed, and nobody had to spend none of their own money on it lessen’ they was stupid enough or careless enough to lose it. I mean, I’m not stupid, I saw you give the stableboy some coppers fer tending the horses, but I figured that you was just thanking him kinda in advance for doing a good job, a job that he’d be havin’ to do anyways. Do we have to pay extra to get good gear here?”

It took Baron Trendel a few moments to work his way through Mikkelsons’ question. When he understood what the squire was really asking about, he grimaced in annoyance at the time an explanation was going to take. Still, Terin was determined to make sure that he answered his new squires’ questions promptly and thoroughly, and this was a question that had to be addressed before Mikkelson met Quartermaster Drummond.

“Squire, in a perfect world, you would be correct. The landowners and farmers would send their just taxes to the Dukes’ administrators, and the clerks in turn would see to it that what was needed would end up with those that needed it, when they needed it. Unfortunately, this is not a perfect world, and since it does not look as though it will become a perfect world anytime in the near future, I’ll have to explain a little more.”

Baron Trendel stopped short of the next double gate, and pulled Squire Mikkelson out of the way of the plodding traffic and up against the stone wall.

“The way it works here at my level is you have clerks who establish what you are entitled to in order to accomplish the duties the Duke or his Council have assigned to you.”

“Then, you take the order of entitlement they provide to the different supply clerks that oversee managing whatever it is, show them the order, and make arrangements to get it to where you need it.”

“When I first was assigned the taks of setting up the Academy, a large part of getting it organized was working out what my order of entitlement was going to include, to see to it I could get it up and running, and then once that was done, changing those orders to just what I needed to keep it going from month to month.”

“You weren’t a trainee there long enough to draw extra duty as a runner, but I had a staff of four clerks whose sole job was to act as my proxies and see to it that our orders requesting materials made it to the supply clerks here at the Caer, and at the supply strongholds at Barten and Longcreek, in time to have the materials arrive at the Academy when we needed them, but not so soon that perishables would spoil, or we’d run out of storage space for blankets, or any of a hundred other things that could go wrong.”

“One of the things you’ll have to learn as my squire, is how vital it is to have damn good organization for your supplies if you’re to get anything done.”

“Now, we’re not here on the business of the Academy. I signed a change of command order yesterday that I sent out by courier to all the other chains of supply, letting them all know that from here on out Captain Henessy was responsible for all orders of entitlement for the Academy.”

“And technically, Squire, as I am not a native son of the Duchy of Doneghal, Duke Arnghast is not my liege lord. I have never sworn fealty to him, and although he entrusted the founding and command of the Academy to me, he did so on the basis of my rank within the Order of Radiance, and on my reputation and experience, and above all else, on what he thought of me once he’d known me for a while. Now that I have reassigned those duties to the Captain, I am no longer an official part of the Border Guards, and I am not entitled to so much as a cold cup of tea and a stale biscuit.”

“And as you are now officially my Squire, neither are you.”

Baron Trendel could see panic instantly begin to rise in Squire Mikkelsons’ eyes, and smiled reassuringly. “Relax, Lars. You are still getting paid, and the bulk of it is still going to your mother. I am a Knight of the Order of Radiance, and even if our Order is not so very large, it is still quite wealthy.”

“When I made the decision to take you with me on this trip as my Squire, I signed an order to that effect and sent it to our chapter house in Longcreek. Each Knight is entitled to at least one Squire, and furthermore it is expected that every Knight will do his best to find a worthy man or woman to train as his Squire to ensure the survival of our skills and honor. There is a sizable endowment available to help provide for the family of a Squire, and I added your name and your families’ to the roll. I imagine you and they will be pleased to learn that your wages just doubled. Of course, I will be working you twice as hard as you’re used to, so at least there is some justice to it.”

“Now, the key to our situation here is that the whole reason we are making this trip is because the Duke sent for me by official court page. I have a letter from the Duke, signed personally by him, that directs any and all of his household to provide for us what I feel I need to make the journey promptly and safely.”

“And that means that, within reason, I have nearly unlimited entitlement. At least, I do so long as I’m heading in the direction of the Dukes’ hunting lodge. And I feel that, in order to arrive safely, we need to get you outfitted with the best armor and weapons available to make best use of your natural speed and skill.”

“And here we come to the heart of the matter. Quartermaster Drummond is a right bastard, but give the devil his due, he’s one of the best around at seeing to it that what the Duke needs, he gets, and just when he needs it, too. Even if you would’ve sworn there was nothing there to find, beg, borrow or scrounge.”

“To the Duke, he is a necessary evil. He gets the job done better than anyone else ever has, and he’s responsible for most of the supply movements in the entire Duchy, but on the nickel and dime scale he is the greediest, most larcenous bastard you ever laid eyes on.”

“First and foremost, if you have an order of entitlement saying you can draw, for example, a suit of chain from his stores, there’s usually nothing on any order specifying what quality the suit has to be. Sure, and he’s not a total bastard, you’re allowed to walk the aisles of his storerooms yourself to pick which suit you want, but it’s a well known fact that the very good stuff he hides in unlikely places, and if you want something better than what you find on the shelves, you’d best be digging deep into your pockets.”

“Or,” thought Terin, “catch him in a good mood, say, right after he’s had a big meal, and doesn’t feel like working too hard at getting another gold crown.”

“So you see, Squire, that if we have to pay the Quartermaster extra to get him to find proper armor or weapons for you, we will, but if your sharp eyes can spot any appropriate items that may be hidden around the place, it would help us gain a bargaining position. And, yes, before you say it, I am as disgusted as I can see you are to hear that it’s likely we’ll have to pay out of our pockets to make sure we get you equipped properly.”

“But the fact is, we’re fortunate we have money at hand to pay what it’s likely to take, and there is nothing we can do to change the way things are until such time as Drummond fails the Duke in accomplishing his mission. And as good as the small souled bastard is, that’s not liable to happen any time soon.”

“Now, let’s get a move on. I don’t want him falling asleep before we get there.”  

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