The flickering candlelight illuminated Lorist's furrowed brow. Before him stood Belnick, Pajik and a voluptuous young woman who held a two-year-old boy in her bosom. The child had just awoken and was looking around with his two wide, round eyes.
That woman and child was in fact Pajik's wife and son. The couple were also quite curious about the reason they had been summoned by Lorist to have dinner together along with their child. Not only was Belnick there, in front of them stood also Molocinque, Eidelwoke and Wellickson, all of whom were Lorist's half-brothers and the illegitimate sons of his late father.
The door to the hall opened and four middle-aged maidservants brought four adolescent boys and girls into the room. At that moment, the curiosity of Pajik and his wife were roused as they recognized the four children. All four of them were in fact the illegitimate children of the late Baron Norton like Molocinque, Eidelwoke and Wellickson. In other words, all of them were the half-siblings of Lorist.
After a few moments, the door to the hall opened again and this time, the ones who came in were Supervisor Spiel and Reidy. In Reidy's arms was a 6-year-old child and behind him was Pesha.
"Wonderful, everyone is here," Lorist said, before he waved to Reidy and instructed, "Carry the child over here."
Not intimidated at all, the child questioned, "Who... who are you?"
Lorist laughed out loud and kissed the boy's cheeks before he said, "I'm your uncle, and you better remember that. Now, tell your uncle your name and age."
The child thought before he said, "I-I am He-Helias and I'm five and a half this year."
"Good boy," Lorist said as he stroked the boy's face. Raising his head, he looked at Pajik and his wife who was clasping her mouth with surprise and said, "Pajik, madam, can you please come over here?"
Lorist placed Helias on the ground and stood up before he bowed to Pajik's wife and said, "I apologize, madam, for your painful experiences. Today, I shall return your child to you."
Pajik's wife passed the child in her arms to Pajik before hugging Helias tightly and saying, "Child... Oh, my child..."
Pajik on the other hand hugged his own son as he stared at the situation with confusion.
"Knight Pajik, may I request you to be the stepfather of Helias?" Lorist said towards Pajik solemnly.
"Milord, this is..." Pajik didn't know how to respond. He knew that his wife was previously the maidservant of the First Young Master and had birthed him a son whom Pesha took to be raised as her own son, forcing Helias to be parted from Pajik's wife. Pesha was also the one who established their marriage. This was why Pajik usually didn't dare to act against Pesha.
In the beginning, his wife missed her son dearly and often cried herself to sleep in the middle of the night. However, she gradually recovered after giving birth to her and Pajik's son. Even so, her first child was still Helias and no mother would ever forget their firstborn.
"Knight Pajik, in my eyes, you have always been an upright person who upholds his oaths. Helias is the sole offspring my elder brother left behind and I hope that he can obtain the love and care of a father and mother that a child like him deserves as well as siblings for him to grow up with. The reason I want you to be his guardian is because I hope that you will be able to raise him into a trustworthy and noble person. When he reaches 12 years old, I will fetch him back and begin training him into a magnificent knight like his father," Lorist said.
Pajik passed the child that was in his arms back to his wife and saluted towards Lorist. "Milord, I will gladly become the adopted father of Helias. Since my wife is her mother and the First Young Master had also treated me well, I will definitely raise him as I would my own son and won't let milord down."
"Thank you, my knight," Lorist said as he bowed towards Pajik gratefully.
Pajik and his wife stepped aside with the two children and Lorist returned to his seat before he said, "Molocinque, Wellickson and Eidelwoke..."
The three of them stepped forward and bowed towards Lorist to show their respect.
"Honestly speaking, I don't really mind your statuses. To me, the blood of the Nortons also flow in your veins and you are my brothers by blood. However, due to the customs and traditions of the family, I am unable to let you train in the hereditary Crimsonblood Battle Force technique. However, I've gotten you these..." Lorist said as he took out three high-ranked Battle Force manuals.
"Molocinque, your Battle Force is of the earth attribute, right? This is for you. Wellickson, since your Battle Force is of the metal attribute, this one is for you. As for Eidelwoke, I believe that you are quite talented in Battle Force training. Within only one year, you managed to train up to the Two Star Bronze rank. I hope that you will continue to strive hard. This fire attribute Battle Force manual is for you. Other than that, all three of you will also be receiving training in noble and knight etiquette.
"This is the least I can do for you as your brother. I hope that all of you will continue to train hard and break into the Silver rank to become knights of the family, after which you will be allowed to bear the Norton family name. When you rake in enough achievements for the family, I will also make you all landed nobles so that you can form branch families for the Nortons. I look forward to the arrival of that day," Lorist said.
The three of them once again saluted Lorist as they said in unison, "Thank you, milord."
Lorist then waved to the four middle-aged maidservants to bring the children forward.
He said to the maidservants, "You all used to be the personal maidservants of my father and have graced me with four other siblings. Since you've been taking care of my siblings rather well even after you have formed your own families, I will allow them to continue staying with you so that they may experience the joy of being raised in a normal family. However, when they reach the age of 12, they must begin receiving training for noble etiquette and knighthood. As long as they are hard working enough, they will definitely have the same prospects of their three brothers here. You will also be receiving a yearly sum to improve the quality of life within your families so that my half-siblings will be able to live better lives."
The four maidservants paid their respects and said, "Thank you, milord."
"You may return for now," Lorist said.
When the maidservants left with his half-siblings, Lorist said, "Pesha..."
Pesha stepped forward without any fuss. She felt that Lorist behaved rather differently tonight and got the same vibe she received when she looked at the late Baron Norton in the past: strict, confident and dominating.
"Pesha, since you have chosen to become the leader of the female garrison unit, I hope that you will give it your best to fulfill that role and obey the regulations of the family and become a fine female knight. However, you must remember that without my permission, you are not allowed to act as you please and change the organization or regulations of your unit, understand?" Lorist said as he stared at Pesha.
She merely nodded painstakingly.
"Today, with Brother Beck, Knight Pajik and Supervisor Spiel as witnesses, I will entrust you with the responsibility of being the leader of the female unit. Similarly, you must uphold the promise you have made to me. Otherwise, don't blame me for being ruthless. Also, if you receive an invitation, you may go to Pajik's home as a guest to visit Helias. However, I forbid you from going there on your own accord to disturb the calm and harmony of their lives. Remember my words well. You may leave now."
"Irina, thank you for birthing this wonderful child. He's so cute..." Lorist said as he hugged his son gently as the child narrowed his eyes quietly, wanting to go back to sleep after being breast-fed.
At that moment, Irina was leaning on the bed and looking at Lorist hug the child lovingly with the warm smile of a new mother on her face.
Reidy silently opened the door and whispered from the outside, "Milord..."
"The Pentasword Mercenary Crew leader is here to collect the rewards. He heard that you were back so he wanted to pay you a visit."
Lorist nodded and placed the child back into Irina's bosom. "Shhh, be careful. He's asleep..."
Irina rolled her eyes at Lorist jokingly and said, "I know, just go."
The Pentasword Mercenary Crew had brought their family members and friends from their village over to Firmrock Castle during the first round of snow on the 11th month of the previous year and they were settled down at Wildnorth Town by Supervisor Kedan. The tale of their migration was rather dramatic: they used the opportunity during the celebration of the 36th day of the 9th month when everyone else was heading to Windbury City to participate in the harvest festival and traveled by river and carriage to the Northlands. Using the cover as immigrants which the Kenmays Family were bringing into the Northlands to develop their dominion, they managed to pass the customs point at Hendliff Suspension Bridge within the duke's dominion and headed for the Norton Family's dominion right away.
The crew leader Doboff respectfully greeted Lorist before he was invited to have some tea together.
This time around, Doboff and his various subordinates brought more than 50 heads of the mountain barbarians to claim the bonus from Supervisor Spiel and also requested for some support in terms of weapons and other equipment.
Doboff reported the developments of the past few months starting from the 3rd month to Lorist. During the time the Pentasword Mercenary Crew defended the intersection point at the two mountain ranges near the border of the Norton Family dominion and the Magical Dragon Mountains, they have encountered the cavalry of the barbarians a number of times. In the beginning, the mountain barbarian cavalry units numbered less than ten and eventually grew in number to a few hundred. Doboff expressed his suspicion that they would be facing a large-scale barbarian attack some time in the future.
Lorist agreed to Doboff's request for weapon and equipment support right away and also promised that each mercenary of the crew would receive one metal armor to increase their defensive capabilities.
Incredibly grateful, Doboff thanked Lorist three whole times before bidding his leave.
Lorist then spent another month of bliss with his child before receiving an urgent letter from Charade that called for his presence at Firmrock Castle.
Currently, Lorist, his family knights and other administrative officers were gathered within the wide hall within Firmrock Castle, which was only used for the first time since the completion of the castle. Even Belnick, Pajik, Supervisor Spiel and Pesha who were usually stationed at Maplewoods Bastide came over to the castle to attend the meeting.
This time around, Pesha was finally able to come to terms with the true might of Lorist, causing her to develop a sense of respect and fear towards him. As the only female knight within the family, she also received curious stares from the other family knights and when some knights came over to introduce themselves, Pesha instantly hid behind Belnick shyly.
Lorist and Charade then entered the hall, followed behind by Reidy and Patt who were booth holding a wooden rack and a huge beastskin scroll in their arms.
The chatters in the hall gradually quieted down as everyone understood that the fate of the Norton Family's 500000 plus subjects would be discussed during the meeting.
Patt and Reidy placed the rack firmly on the ground and hung up the beastskin scroll, which was in actuality an enlarged version of the map of the Norton Family dominion.
After Charade saluted Lorist, he proceeded to tell everyone within the hall about the problems the family was facing that had to be solved as soon as possible. Holding a wooden stick, he started pointing it towards the map.
"This plan involves the area from the valley city all the way to Wildnorth Town. The family is in favor of developing these wastelands into the main food producing area of the dominion. As everyone may have noticed, the wasteland is divided into seven sectors which are painted in different colors. Within each sector, one town will be constructed and each town will be surrounded by around 10 villages with each town housing roughly 1000 to 1500 households and each village housing from 300 to 500 households. This way, the seven sectors can hold up to 500000 people and roughly 12000 square kilometers of farmland will be cultivated.
"This map was brought to you by the painstaking month-long effort of the light cavalry scout regiment and the sacrifice of tens of family soldiers. Right now, on these lands are huge groups of magical beasts which have crossed over from the Magical Dragon Mountains into the family dominion last winter that haven't yet returned to their habitat. If we are to develop these lands, we will first have to deal with these magical beasts.
"We plan to use three years to develop this wasteland so that we may be able to establish a haven for our loved ones, unaffected by the perils of war going on outside. This year, our plan is to first clear out the magical beasts within the dominion and settle the folk down into the seven sectors to start sowing the seeds for the winter wheat as well as construct temporary living quarters and build roads and other infrastructure. We will also be readying the supplies the folk will be needing to survive the winter and all the preparations must be finished before winter comes in the 11th month.
"Next year, we will widen the roads and improve the transportation infrastructure as well as launch a large-scale irrigation project for the farmlands and distribute farmland to the folk. Each household will receive up to 30000 square meters of land and we will also provide farming tools and one horse for each household. In the future, our lord will fulfill his promise and construct new stone houses for each household so that all the people who have followed us back to the dominion will be able to live in warm, safe homes.
"The three years of development is estimated to cost millions of gold Fordes. After distributing the farmland, our lord also promises to give a discounted tax rate for three years. During the first year, the commoners will only have to pay 10% of their harvest. During the second year, they have to pay 20% and during the third year, 30%. After that, the tax rate will stay at 40% and that is the highest it will go. As for the family members of our soldiers, they will even get a discount of 10% in their taxes. We believe that after three years, we will be able to convert this wasteland into an earthly paradise for all."
Charade then turned to Lorist and said, "Milord, you should name this piece of wasteland."
"Alright," Lorist said as he stood up. "In hopes for the plentiful harvests produced by the land and the bliss of those who settle within, I will name this place the Felicitas Settlement.
"I'm sure all of you have heard Knight Charade's description of the plan. It's already the 7th month now and there's only 4 months remaining before the 11th month, so we don't have much time. I hope all of you will cooperate and give this effort your all," said Lorist as he made a knight salute towards the rest.
Everyone within the hall stood up and said in unison, "Milord, we pledge to give nothing but our best efforts!"
"Milord, I am awaiting your instructions," Josk said as he stepped forward.
"Where is my Fiercetiger Knight?"
"Milord, your Fiercetiger Knight awaits your orders!" exclaimed Lode Wales passionately as he stood beside Josk.
"Where's my knight brigade?"
Terman stepped forward and said, "Milord, your knight brigade will always serve as your sword loyally."
"Where are my eyes and ears, Knight Yuriy?"
"Milord, the direction in which you point will be where we head!" Yuriy said as he stood up.
"Good. The mounted archers, knight brigade and light cavalry scouts... I order you all to clean up the magical beasts that are still roaming the wasteland before the coming of the 9th month!"
"Yes, milord," Waxima said as he stepped forward.
"Your heavy-armored cavalry company will be fused with Loze's heavy-armored cavalry unit with you becoming his second-in-command. You shall join him in this mission as well."
Lorist then looked at the rest within the hall and said, "Knight Potterfang's heavy-armored infantry unit will be in charge of policing the immigrant camp. Ovidis's guard company will be stationed at Firmrock Castle as usual and Pajik's guard company shall defend Maplewoods Bastide and reinforce the two army bases of the Pentasword Mercenary Crew should they need any help. Freiyar's three garrison legions will escort the immigrants to their settlements and each village shall be defended by a company of troops with each town also being defended by a regiment. Els, you shall bring your guards to oversee the captive laborers who will be constructing the roads. The rest of the units will be managed by Knight Charade."
"Knight Malek, please step forward," Lorist said.
"Milord," Malek said as he stepped in front of Lorist.
"Knight Malek, as your dominion lord, I order you to take a break from your duties until you break through to the Gold rank," Lorist said with a smile.
"But milord, the family will be quite busy and I have to work my share as well..."
"Nonono, you have already been held back far too long during the journey with the northbound convoy. I have already ordered Knight Belnick to replace you as the second-in-command of Knight Freiyar and take over your garrison legion. You shouldn't worry too much and go on your vacation. It won't be late for you to contribute when you reach the Gold rank. Not only is this my personal request to you, it's also an instruction by me as your dominion lord, so there is no room for negotiation."
"So be it. Thank you, milord," said Malek as his ever-stoic face revealed a touched expression while he made a knight salute to Lorist.