Patrol was a chore, but Stella endured it the best she could. The southern trade routes were nothing special, she was usually bored with it by the second day, though the other three members of her unit always seemed to find ways to preoccupy themselves.
The sun was high above their heads and not a single brow was without sweat. Their armour creaked with each step that their horses took on the long winding dirt road leading to one of the few fishing villages that ringed the southern coasts. The occasional breeze brushed the emerald blades of grass and brought hints of ocean to the troop.
“Whoooo man, I cannot wait to be off this accursed animal,” the shortest of the group exclaimed. He took a swig of something that reeked of bitterness and alcohol. “Can't remember what it feels like not to be sweating my ass off in this blasted getup.”
He reached out and passed the canteen along to his comrade to his right. The man stared at the thing with contemplation for moment and then took a huge drag which he ended with a hick up. “Your getting paid to travel back and forth and intimidate on occasion, an' the only thing you can think to do is complain? Sig, your really somethin'.”
“Don't get me wrong, I love the pay, and I love seeing the sights, but we've only been in maybe twenty scuffles in five years” Sig retorted, “why do we have to carry this equipment and wear this fucking armour all the fucking time?” He removed a glove and wiped the sweat off his forehead, then flicking the moisture off to his side. “I'm not the only one here that doesn't see the point, right Lon?”
“The point is,” the no longer silent Lon reached out and snagged the canteen before its current holder could take a second swig and gulped a mouthful himself; grimacing, his face turning beat red, he let out a lung full of air. “The point is, we appear organized, and we appear intimidating. Your right though Sig, there's no way this will stop an arrow.” He flicked one of the rivets studded into leather on his shoulder.
“Thank you Lon,” Sig said with satisfaction, “at least two of us are in agreement, how bout you Stella? Your not on Durn's side with this one are you?”
“Sig, I don't ask questions, all I know is I am not here by choice, nor am I wearing this armour by choice,” she responded. She reached back and grabbed the canteen from Lon and took the largest gulp she possibly could. The liquid felt like fire on the back of her throat and the world almost immediately became a little hazy. She reached back and handed the drink back to Sig who was happy for more.
After sneaking one more shot, Sig returned the canteen to his saddle pack and brushed his hand through his shoulder length light brown hair. “Leave it to Stella to kill the mood.”
“Shut it you idiot,” was the response to that comment, and Durn concluded it with a blow to Sig's shoulder, nearly knocking him off his mount.
“Ladies, cool it,” shot out Lon, eying Stella for any sort of response whilst trying to pacify the fight before it could happen.
Coming to the crest of the hill they were currently climbing, they looked down at the ocean, its edges dotted with huts built partially on the water, supported by stilts. Small boats sailed to and fro on the water, hauling in their catches and returning for more.
They were stopped just outside the village by a old man dressed in a white and blue robe, the elder of the village. His wavy gray-white hair ran long down his back and his curly gray chin beard almost touched his chest. One hand clutched a gnarled wooden staff that was decorated with small inscriptions and images that Stella was sure held some significance to the people of the coastal town of Aracosta, but she never bothered with learning cultures. His other hand was extended to greet the visitors from Turndon, and Stella made sure to return the greeting.
“I wish I could give you all a more proper greeting, however, I must say I am glad that you have come when you have, there is a matter of great importance that we must discuss,” were the first words the elder spoke to them.
“Hellova welcome,” Sig whispered to Durn, who returned the comment with another fist to the arm, “sunnova...”
“Come, we'll discuss Aracosta's problems in my abode,” the elder continued, “we must make haste, for I know not if your arrival was too late.”
The group dismounted and leading their horses, they followed the old gray man to his home. The village was rather scattered, each hut was on the water, therefore it was more so a line of houses rather than a structured society. Here and there children ran up and down the hut line, weaving in and out of the stilted structures and drying racks lined with different varieties of fish. The smell was overwhelming at first, but fast became tolerable.
The elder led them to an older squat building that was slightly further inland than the buildings adjacent to it. Up a ladder and through a low sloping roof and they stepped into the elders home. The structure reeked of salt and aged wood. Nets and spears and rods lined the walls of the hut, the only furniture was a rack, a table with two chairs, and a few barrels with random nicknacks stacked on top. There were two square windows both on the eastern and western sides of the structure. There was a door in the back that led out to a exposed deck with a single chair on it, Stella assumed for leisure fishing.
“Welcome to my humble home, I hope you find it comfortable, and I am sorry for the lack of furniture for which you can sit in,” the old man said, impatience nipping at the back of his tongue.
“We thank you most graciously,” Stella responded, her impatience growing as well now, “now, what is the issue that you need addressed so urgently?” She joined the elder in sitting on opposite sides of the table while dispensing the formalities.
Behind her. Sig shifted uncomfortably on his feet, most likely due to the amount of alcohol he had consumed just earlier. The firewater was fine on the more casual days, but almost always was a detriment when the time came to actually fulfill the duties as a patrol watchman. Stella never minded drinking while working however, and thus, never attempted to control it.
“I, Lendell, elder and leader of the humble village of Aracosta, request your aid in dealing with a band of thieves that have recently begun to encroach upon our territory and halt any attempt we make to trade with Turndon.” The look on Lendell was rather grim, but once he had cleared his throat and was ready to continue, his face became far darker. “They've begun sneaking into the village and stealing woman, mostly younger than thirty seasons.”
“And they're using them for ransom, huh?” Sig tossed the question into the hat before hearing Elder Lendell conclude his thought.
“Have the bodies appeared yet? How many women so far?” Durn interjected, fearing the loss of faith in their work due to his comrade's question.
The old man sat there for a moment, running his hand the length of his beard. His darkened appearance softened and then re-hardened into sad desperation. “They've taken my granddaughter, and one other just last week. We've received no sort of indicator saying that they would be returned for ransom either.” A single tear ran down the leaders cheek, but Stella knew that would be the last, leadership can't afford to have strong emotions of sadness or any other sort of weakness, though he was most likely falling apart on the inside. “No bodies.”
“Doesn't mean a thing,” Lon finally added to the conversation. His gaze was fixated at the constantly rolling waters tumbling about outside the doorway behind the elder. “Most likely, they are probably still alive, but being used as slaves for breeding.”
Stella closed her eyes and dropped her her face, shaking her head at the dry wit of her team mates. If they keep this up, they may manage to lose the confidence of Aracosta before even being able to demonstrate their purpose. She knew full well that four trained soldiers were good, but were twenty times better when supported by those they are trying to defend. She was just glad Sig's comment wasn't quite as off kilter as Durn had thought. Hope is a strong ally.
“Their incursions have become more common as of late,” the elder continued, his eyes wandering from Stella to Sig, to Lon, then Durn, and then back to Stella, “we fear they will return tonight or tomorrow, that is if they hadn't already and no one has noticed anything amiss.”
“If this is the case, then we shall do the best we can to remove your little bandit problem, but first, any idea as to numbers and direction?” Stella was all business now, attempting not to step on any feet.
“Almost always west or north west, I'm surprised you all didn't encounter them...”
“I'm sure most travelers don't roll in wearing metal and leather, with bow's and quivers full if arrows and blades sharpened for death.” Leave it to Lon to attempt something inspirational after just talking about your granddaughter being raped repeatedly. He crossed his arms before him as if to add emphasis to how great of warriors they all were.
They did have more training than the average commoner in these regions, but their combat experience was most likely far lower than a roving band of robbers who probably saw combat every other day of their lives. Stella just hoped their equipment and organization would be enough to enable them to come out victorious in a defensive situation. The only issue she could see now was accessibility.
“Is there any particular time or location that they attack and or come from?” Stella inquired. She got up and made her way to the entrance from which they had all entered. The elder knew almost immediately and joined her in exiting his home. The others lagged behind a bit, but soon all five were back outside and looking down the row of huts.
The elder pointed his finger in the direction they had come from when they entered the village, and then angled it slightly. “The woods, they come from the woods. At first they would only raid at night, bursting into houses, beating the men and stealing away with women.” His finger settled on a wooded area that they had ridden past earlier. “However, my daughter was taken in broad daylight while her husband was out at sea. I fear they are becoming bolder and plan on wiping us out, thus I've ordered that we all work in shifts to keep an eye out. We are a peaceful people, and we would rather negotiate than make war,” Lendell paused at the thought, his face slightly contorting as if a stone was working its way through his insides, “but these people are savages. We need your help.”
Stella surveyed the line of trees, then turned her attention to the row of stilted huts. Not a single defensive position existed for the village. Not that this was surprise, most of these outlying towns had not seen war since back when they all came under the hand of Turndon. “I see, my question now is, what sort of accessibility do we have to peoples homes so that we may defend them?” She turned her attention back to the elder and was looking for any hint of something unusual.
“Most of these people have families, so privacy is very important,” the elder said with a air of pride, “but I'm sure if their homes come under attack, there won't be any talks of intrusions at the hands of their defenders.”
“Fair enough,” Durn chimed in to the conversation briefly.
Stella began walking down the row of houses, headed in an westerly direction along the line, looking for anything that could possibly aid them in a battle if it did come looking in the next day, otherwise they would be relieved by the next patrol and be on their way. Behind her, the elder tightened his grip on his staff and began to follow.