It was currently the 5th day since Lorist returned to Firmrock Castle after receiving the news of the initial setbacks suffered by the forces there.
The horns outside the city once again sounded: another knight had come for a challenge.
Yesterday afternoon, three challenges were carried out with Ovidis winning two of the matches and gaining a total of more than 30 gold Fordes from the ransom money. However, he was unable to continue after the second match as he had sustained a light injury to his arm. The one who replaced him was Patt who had picked to fight on foot and used his shield-bearer skills to his advantage to wear down his Two Star Silver ranked opponent who gave up in frustration after one hour of not being able to defeat Patt.
During dawn just now, when Lorist was patrolling the walls, he noticed that there were tents set up by the other noble families near the empty space in front of the castle walls and felt that his side would definitely receive a few more challenges from them. As expected, at 9 in the morning, a knight showed up and blew the tune of challenge.
Patt once again headed out and fought on horseback. However, given Patt's acquired dynamic vision, he was able to strike a One Star Silver knight which was of the same rank as him off his horse within a little more than ten minutes.
Normally, a knight would be allowed rest for an hour before accepting another challenge to ensure fairness. However, when Patt was on his way back to the castle, a wandering knight emerged from the campsite of the Warzone Merchants and issued a challenge to the knights belonging to the side of the various noble families. That was when many other lordless, wandering knights showed up all of a sudden to compete with each other in front of the castle walls, effectively turning the battlefield into a carnival for knights, causing the knights of the Norton Family to be pushed aside and forgotten.
As the wandering knights, the lordless freelance knights and the knights of the noble families faced off against each other, the whole situation became confusing rather quickly. During the afternoon, a few other noble families arrived at the place. They were not requested to come over by Viscount Kenmays to help him defeat the Nortons; the real reason they came was because they heard rumors of a knight challenge carnival being held nearby. The family knights of the newly-arrived nobles didn't even bother to set up camp and joined the fray of challenges instantly.
"Ugh... We've been forgotten," said Ovidis as he sighed and looked at the chaotic scene before the castle walls with his left arm all bandaged up.
Currently, three pairs of knights were fighting each other in front of the walls.
"Milord, I really don't understand why so many wandering knights and freelance knights came over to participate in matches over here. Usually, they would only join fighting tournaments organized by other nobles, right? This scenario, however, unfolded on the battlefield. The knights have effectively occupied the place for themselves," said Butler Boris a look of fascination on his face.
"This..." Lorist paused in thought before he continued, "As the Northlands are relatively poor compared to other territories, dominion lords here usually wouldn't organize tournaments like that because that would cost quite a bit of money. Given the chaotic situation of the Northlands for the past two years as well as the countless conflicts that broke out here, many of the lords have lost their riches or their lands, so many knights no longer continued to serve them as they had lost their means of securing a stable life.
"You should know that knight challenges like these are a lucrative source of income. If they win, the ransom they would gain was almost equal to the salary a family knight would receive for three years combined. That was why most of them scrambled right over the moment they heard that a challenge bonanza was being held here and couldn't care less about whether this was a battlefield or not since the challenges would be conducted according to very stringent rules. If they perform well during the competitions, they might also be noticed by the nobles present and gain employment. Why would they miss out on a chance like that?"
"Erm, during noon just now, Jim came and told me that there were 4 knights who had lost all their belongings and had no choice but to join his mercenary squad," Patt interjected.
"That's right, where has Jim gone?" Lorist just remembered that he hadn't seen Jim even once ever since the morning.
"Look, he's over there at the Warzone Merchants campsite and running a gambling pool for the competitions. It seems like he's earned quite a bit," Patt said.
"Sol, that bastard still can't change his old habits. While it wouldn't be a problem if they were betting on small stuff, betting on the honor of knights is a huge taboo. When he comes back, I need to find someone to teach him the proper etiquette and customs of knights," Lorist said.
"Milord, do you want to see if you want to recruit any of the wandering or freelance knights into our family?" said Old Man Balk, expressing his thoughts on the situation.
"Well, I can definitely consider that. But I still haven't seen any knight that managed to pique my interest ever since the morning and most of them seem rather plain and have only normal fighting skills. Look at the three pairs of knights who are fighting down there: none of them would be able to best Ovidis in a fight. Well, the freelance knight Waxima who fought earlier this morning still seemed okay... Patt, go with Shadekampf to visit him later tonight and see if he's willing to spend some time with us as a probationary knight," Lorist instructed.
"Yes, milord," replied Patt.
A freelance or wandering knight didn't have to accept or reject outright the recruitment of a noble family. Instead, the noble family was merely a party who was offering those knights an opportunity and choice to change their lives in the future. To both the noble family and the knight being recruited, that was a huge choice to make. Once a dominion lord gives an offer of recruitment to a knight, the knight can choose to follow the lord for a period of time ranging from one month to half a year to see if their goals and values aligned with each other before a proper decision is made. During that time, the probationary knight would receive the same treatment like the other knights serving the noble family. As a saying that Lorist had heard in his past life went, 'A ruler can pick his subordinates. However, the same is true for a talented individual in that they can pick the ones they pledge allegiance to'. Similarly, if the dominion lord is not satisfied with the knight, he can also ask him to leave the family.
Old Man Balk shook his head and said, "Milord, that Waxima might be hard for us to recruit. He is a freelance knight that is unlike wandering knights who have nothing better to do than to travel the land. Waxima is quite famous in the Northlands and he also has a rather extensive family background: his father was a Gold ranked knight who had perished in the final battle between the empire and the Forde Trade Union. At that time, he was only 7 years old and he had inherited the manor and land of his late father. However, he was known to be 'Waxima the Slow' as many people believed that he was unfit for combat and slow in his wits. But Waxima was the tenacious sort and managed to awaken his Battle Force in the end at the age of 23 using the Battle Force manual his father left for him. Currently, he's 29 years old now and he has already reached the Three Star Silver rank and it is even rumored that he had once refused an offer by Duke Loggins before. I don't think that he would even consider the Norton Family..."
"No wonder I felt that he was far more stable than the other contestants of the duels. After hearing your explanation, I now know that he is a person who has very firm foundations that came as a result of hard work and preservation. Nevertheless, we should still try to recruit him. How would we know if he will refuse or not before we even ask?" Lorist said as he nodded.
"Hehe, I'm trying to imagine the look on Viscount Kenmays face right now. At first, he wanted to attack our castle. But it ended up turning into a knight carnival. His anger must be off the roof by now," said Patt as he suddenly laughed.
Lorist said, "Those nobles are not idiots either. If we had taken over the Redriver Valley Bastide of the Kenmayses, then the noble families the viscount invited might have gave it their best to drive us away. However, now that we've burned that place to the ground and returned to our own dominion, what do you think the other nobles would choose? They can't say that they are fighting to liberate the Kenmays Family dominion from us as we don't even have a single soul on their lands. Given that they have absolutely no chance of conquering our walls with only their family knights, a number of guards and farmer soldiers, they have chosen to only make knight challenges. With that, not only would they be able to stall the viscount, they also managed to avoid thoroughly offending us. What a perfect way to resolve the situation.
"However, I bet that even those nobles didn't expect that this would blow up to become a full-fledged carnival beyond their control. Look, another group of people have arrived. It must be another noble family that has come to join the party," Lorist said as he pointed in the direction of the newly-arrived group.
Viscount Kenmays was so enraged that he felt like he was going to explode. Currently, he was thrashing and smashing everything he could get his hands on within his tent.
Not only did he reject the invitations of other dominion lords to watch the knight challenges, he felt that the invitations were insults to his family. The main reason he invited the other noble families over was that he wanted them to help conquer the Norton Family and not organize a knight carnival. Though, the other nobles knew that the Kenmays Family did not have any family knights which meant that they could not issue any knight challenges either. Is that their way of ridiculing my family for having a merchant background instead of a traditional noble background?
Naturally, Viscount Kenmays was also a Two Star Silver ranked fighter and he could go into battle himself. However, he understood his own temperament and abilities as the reason he so painstakingly raised his Battle Force rank was not because he wanted to compete against others but rather to put on airs to seduce women into bed with him. While he could still command his troops on the battlefield, there was no way he would be willing to lead a charge.
What Viscount Kenmays didn't expect was that the 2000 or so soldiers the family had tried so hard to recruit almost rebelled against him after two failed attacks on the castle and were still unwilling to follow his orders while accusing him of not knowing how to properly lead an army. The viscount's efforts to invite the other 7 noble families were also for naught as they had turned the war into a 'battle between nobles', letting his enemy, the Norton Family, sit back and relax as they watched the proceedings from their castle. Other than that, the sudden influx of wandering and freelance knights had further fueled the viscount's anger. If he could, he would kill all the soldiers who refused to listen to his orders as well as the knights who had disrupted the battle.
"I see you're doing quite well as a dominion lord smashing things around alone in your tent," said a cold voice from outside the tent.
Viscount Kenmays seemed like he was struck by lightning as he hurriedly stood up straight and said, "Father... You're here."
"If I don't come right away, did you think I would just sit back and watch you ruin the future of our family?" Three people entered the tent with the person at the forefront being a well-built elderly man with a benevolent expression. However, his face was rather stiff with a savage aura leaking out from his eyes. He was the true family leader of the Kenmays Family, the chairman of the largest construction merchant guild in the former empire, Viscount Kenmays's father.
The Kenmays Family leader went before his son and gave him two slaps on the face before he said anything else.
Even though the viscount was a Two Star Silver rank, he felt a chill down his spine when he faced his Iron rank father. He didn't dare to move and obediently took the slaps without resisting.
"Do you know why I'm hitting you?" asked the family leader.
"I don't..." replied the viscount.
Slap! Slap! Another two harsh strikes on the face caused Viscount Kenmays's lip to crack and blood to flow from his mouth.
"Let me ask you... Why did you force our soldiers to attack the Norton Family's castle?" the Kenmays Family leader asked in a loud voice.
"Di-didn't they burn down our bastide and take all our resources? They also conquered our construction site... I-I just wanted to take it all back for the family..." stammered the viscount in response.
"Is that so?" Slap! Slap! Six more slaps landed on the viscount's face.
"You still dare to talk back! Did you think that I wouldn't know about your personal little fund of 100000 gold Fordes that you lost to them? I'll tell you what: that money has already entered Duke Loggins's sights and he had already sent someone to the Norton Family to demand them to hand over the money and resources to him. In the end, they were chased out of the dominion and that arrogant Knight Tabik had also had both his hands crippled, not to mention all the other injuries he suffered that would take him at least one year to recover from." The Kenmays Family leader just revealed a shocking piece of news to his son.
The viscount instantly said happily, "Then... Then we should take this chance to conquer them and take back the gold before the duke gets it..."
"Idiocy! On what grounds do you think you'll be able to defeat them? They don't even put the duke in their eyes and even managed to cripple Tabik! How do you think you'll go about getting all that back?"
"But... But I've already reached their main castle during my previous attempt and even managed to besiege them for three months..." said the viscount, dissatisfied.
"Then do you know why the Nortons were so stubborn towards the duke this time? Do you know why we lost contact with the Feathersoar Mercenary Crew? Do you know why our bastide fell to them in the first place? I bet you don't. That's because the Second Young Master of the Norton Family has returned and brought a group of people with him within which includes a Gold ranked marksman! To top it off, Tabik was personally injured by the Second Young Master himself! Now do you still have the confidence to be able to fight your way to their main bastide?" said the Kenmays Family leader before he drew a deep breath and sat down on a chair near him.
"This... Is the news reliable?" the viscount asked suspiciously.
"Duke Loggins's butler told me all that personally. I even spent quite a sum to bribe the Silver ranked knights of the Northland Army who had been there as well and they told me that they had witnessed it all with their own eyes. By the time I was rushing back here, the duke was already preparing a large force to punish the Norton Family," said the Kenmays Family leader.
"Then that's great, we can attack the Nortons along with the duke," said the viscount.
"Imbecile!" roared the family leader loudly. "Do you have a pig's brain in that head of yours? Are you seriously that fixated on beating the Norton Family or are you just trying desperately to get your 100000 gold Fordes back? By the time the duke's army comes, our forces will officially be used as projectile fodder. Do you intend to end the last hope for our family? Right now, the first thing we need to do is to avoid the army of the duke and find other targets. We must abandon our original plans."
"But our losses are so huge and the Nortons took so much of our stuff..." said the viscount weakly.
"Then consider that a lesson you paid a huge sum to learn! If we run out of slaves, we can buy new ones with money. If we lose our resources, we can gather more in time. If our goals far exceed our current ability and we strive towards it desperately past the point of no return, that would spell our true downfall. Now that we've lost, we should accept it. We just picked the wrong people to mess with. The Norton Family is a family with 300 years of heritage after all. I thought at first that they have depreciated over the years, but who would've expected their Second Young Master to turn the whole family around all of a sudden? This situation is not all that bad for us either. With the Norton Family occupying the duke's attention, I believe he would not be able to find out about our other movements. I am looking forward to them tearing themselves apart..." said the family leader.
"Then, what should our family's next course of action be?" the viscount asked.
The Kenmays Family leader took out a beastskin map of the Northlands and thumped his fist on one spot. "Over here. That is where we will attack next..."