Long silk curtains fluttered gracefully in the cool morning breeze. The warm sunlight poured into a large room from arched windows. A large man with thinning gray hair and a short gray beard sat at a long table. Under his extravagant red wool court coat, his rumpled white shirt was stained with several food stains. He rested his chin on his palm allowing his body to lazily slumped forward.
The man continuously reached over to a bowl of fruit popping red grapes into his mouth as he looked over a large map. He glanced idly at the sunlight streaming in through the arched windows. A faint smile curved his thick lips. Spring, he thought. His smile widened. Taxes would be rolling in from his estates.
“Lord Vorick,” a tall, slender man dressed in dark clothing called out upon entering the room. Dust from the road still clung to his boots and pants periodically falling onto the floor as he approached.
“It’s about time! I expected you yesterday!”
“I’m sorry your lordship, I had some difficulties,” the slender man said as he produced a pouch from under his cloak.
Vorick popped another grape into his mouth, “what difficulties?”
The slender man stepped forward setting a small pouch on the table and quickly stepping away. “The towns on the eastern side all all gone. Only a few farms left.”
“That’s all?” Vorick knew of and counted on at least four towns that had plenty of land that always paid their taxes each year. “What of Framshire?”
“Abandoned, your lordship.”
Vorick stood up in frustration, pointing his thick finger down on the map in front of him, “Munclaven? Lapendal?”
“What’s this nonsense? What’s the reason?” Vorick asked loudly. If Marcus was joking, he did not find it amusing.
“I’ve asked the farmers there. They said crops continue to fail.” Marcus paused for a second casting his gaze to the floor. “Livestock and even townsfolk have mysteriously died. They blame it on monsters from Castle Ghrakus. The people just moved away.”
“This nonsense again? I’ve heard these same tales as a child. How it was supposedly sealed by great magic two centuries ago to keep hideous monsters inside from getting out. I’ve never seen any monsters!” Vorick said pounding the table with his fist. “Bandits have been plundering the area under the guise of its dark reputation for years.”
“It’s what they told me, your lordship.”
“Where do these towns move to? Farther west?”
“No, I’ve been told they moved out of your kingdom. They no longer feel benefited by your protection.”
Losing people and towns was one thing but the thought of losing out on land taxes and damage to his reputation was something Vorick took very seriously. “Send out our guards, scour the lands and kill these so called … monsters.”
“Yes, your lordship,” Marcus said as he quickly exited the room.
“Monsters…” Vorick muttered to himself rolling his eyes and sitting back down. Glancing back over the map he pushed the bowl of fruit aside determined to restore his reputation as a protector and to collect the taxes due.
. . .
Six months later, Vorick sat back at his table. Slumped in his chair, he stared mindlessly into the table’s surface. He contemplated his future and the decreasing income of the kingdom.
“Lord Vorick,” Marcus entered the room.
Vorick looked up anxiously, “Yes? What word do you bring?”
“Bad news, your lordship. We’ve sent all the guards we could to the eastern side. They’re not returning. If we send anymore we will be unable to defend your castle.
“Enough with the guards. They are much too expensive to lose anyway. What about the mercenaries I hired?”
“None of the three groups have been heard from again.”
“This is terrible,” Vorick’s said in a shaky voice. “I’m quickly running out of resources and men to send. Find six more mercenaries, tell them they’re get paid upon their return,” Vorick said with a sigh. Sending mercenaries to deal with this issue over trained guards made economic sense. If the mercenaries never came back at all, it was no cost to him.
“We have already searched for new mercenaries but no one is volunteering.”
Vorick sat up in this chair with narrowed eyes. Pointing his finger at Marcus he said, “I don’t care what it takes! Get some men to that area to clean it up. I don’t care if you have to go as far as Mortimer to find someone willing.”
“Right away. I’ll send our scouts.”
“See it done.” Vorick muttered once again staring into the table.
“Another thing your lordship.”
“What is it? Vorick shouted. He wanted nothing more but to be left alone.
“I do not have a formal report on this but there are whispers of a possible revolt,” Marcus said with his head held low.
“Revolt? I’ll have them crushed!” Vorick said in anger raising his fist toward Marcus.
“Yes, your lordship. But as I’ve mentioned, your forces are now dangerously low.”
Realizing Marcus spoke the truth, he wanted to quickly end this eastern side terror. Hanging his head, he took a deep breath. Letting it out, he spoke, “well, hire a large group of mercenaries and find the best man you can to lead them. This may be our last chance.”
“How large, your lordship?”
“Double the size, make it twelve. Pay the leader an advance and have the others paid upon their return.”
“Very well, your lordship.” Marcus spoke, quickly exiting the room.
Vorick slumped back in his chair. He rubbed the back of his neck with his thick fingers. The deterioration of his reputation as a competent king and the thought of revolt rested heavy on his mind.
His only hope rested with this large group of mercenaries. If they fail, it could very well mean the end of his reign.