Far off on the border of the kingdom of Surcaster, the imperial commanders message had been delivered to the appropriate parties, but an ambush had stopped one of the squads in their return. The soldiers were exhausted, but they tried to steel themselves as the remnant enemy soldiers came out of nowhere.

Although they had won the brutal main battle, things seemed a little bleak for this small squad that had been separated from the main army. The sound of clashing swords could be heard from a distance as they engaged with the enemy.

They had had very few horses left anyway and now with this attack, the rest had fled further off or were injured in order to stop the advance. The enemy had planned well. The landscape below the rough mountain provided very little help, they were all exposed here.

The only help could come from the mountains, but they doubted that the other squads had come this far south of the border. Suddenly a single arrow shot through the backs of one of the enemy soldiers. Then a few more arrows came, and they saw in the distance horses speeding toward them.

The approaching company was not part of the official royal army but rather under the dukes banner of the Ulfric family. This also gave them some renewed strength as they started fighting back.

The enemy soldiers were taken aback by not only the swiftness and numbers of the approaching soldiers but also the new strength of the current force they were fighting. An order to withdraw could be heard through the battlefield but they were given no such chance as the company of a hundred joined in the close combat.

The new soldiers brought more determination than expected as the leader jumped off his horse and ruthlessly laid waste to the closest enemy soldiers. Blood splattered on his face and armour but that was the least of his worries as he pushed on with the rest of his company, mowing down the enemy.

After pulling his sword out of another opponent by kicking him away, he spotted something much higher up in the mountain. These people were wearing the enemy colours and yet they sat there on their horses looking down at the scene. They clearly just wanted to see what was happening and were not planning on doing anything about it. This detachment were just sacrificial lambs.

The captain of the dukes company turned and pointed his sword at them. They could barely make out the face considering that he was covered in blood and dirt. The distance did not help either in revealing his identity, but the banner was distinctive. He kept the sword pointed for few moments, then struck it into the ground as the battlefield went quiet behind him.

The enemy leader clicked his tongue, quite annoyed at the action and then turned his horse which signalled to the others that they were leaving. There would be another day.

”Should we go after them? ” asked one of the officers.

e too far to give chase. Wed better focus on gathering up any of the injured, ” he instructed.

”Yes Captain, ” said subordinate and he turned back to start talking to the platoon leaders as they had to work together to gather what they could.

”Young Master, how long do you think itll take to get back to camp? ”

The young master took his sword out of the ground and started wiping it down while speaking.

”If there aren more interruptions, even from here it should be about two days. We
e only leaving for the imperial capital in five days. Well have more than enough time. ”

He put his sword back in its sheath and with his hand casually on the handle, walked towards his immediate subordinate who was busy having a conversation with one of the kings soldiers.

”Captain, I think that should be everyone gathered. Most of the squads have been recovered, now its just a matter of meeting with everyone else. ”

The captain nodded and now that he was closer, the royal soldiers could see that he was quite young. When the banners had gathered under the order of the king, the royal army had only scoffed at the small number of soldiers that the apparently ruthless duke had sent. The army was not known for large numbers but for being vicious in battle so they doubted that these youths formed part of the cut-throat army that guarded the border.

Now that they had seen it, if a lone low-ranked young captain and his company could decide a battle in a few minutes, then what type of skill did their grand general have? No wonder the main battle was already over. As the captain took off his helmet, a chilling wind blew down the mountain even though it was broad daylight.

Signs of spring had come early but the air still carried the crisp of winter. The rather broad-shouldered young man who had addressed him as young Master gave him a wet cloth to wipe his face. The situation wasn so bad that he couldn spare a drop or two of water from his flask.

”Well report to the higher-ups later, we should have a few hours before sundown so gather up everyone and lets get going. ”

His piercing whistle brought closer the beautiful chestnut monster he had been riding earlier.

”Altair, ” he calmly called while petting the horse.

”Tell Lark to make sure they get enough horses for at least the injured. ”

”They had already started gathering them up young Master. ”

”Good. ”

The captain was clearly a man of few words. As he turned, the handle of his sword caught the light, and the royal soldiers couldn help but notice the design. They were stunned into deeper silence. It could never be. The youth standing in front of them surely could not be one of the soldiers they had heard about.

Yes, he had been successful in saving them with just a few men at his command, but he was still just a captain even if they had to admit that was a higher position than some of them. Some of the loose strands of hair blew about his expressionless face as he mounted the horse, the man known as the Blood Wolf of Louvaros.

It was a tough journey that took the whole day with a few stops in-between but by the fall of evening, they had caught up with the main royal army that had set up camp. The decision had been taken that they would start the journey back to the royal capital after resting for a day at a camp instead of continuing the journey to Yuva, the military base of Louvaros.

The captains company caught up with two more companies from their own camp and they were given supplies and places to sleep. The two other armies that had joined the battle had already departed to their own regions and therefore only two banners stood in the camp. The dark banner with an upward facing open-mouthed wolf which belonged to the army of Duke Ulfric and the navy banner with a gold crest of crossed swords on a round shield that belonged to the kingdoms royal army.

A few of the royal soldiers whispered that even the Ulfric family banner seemed somewhat menacing. In their dark clothing, most of the soldiers seemed more like mercenaries than officers but they were a very disciplined lot although a bit rowdy when they relaxed.

”Young Master, why does it feel as if we
e not very welcome here even though this is our territory? ” Altair asked as he stoked the fire. Some of the other officers smirked or chuckled at question.

”We don have to feel welcome by them; we just have to eat our earned fill, sleep and refill our flasks. Well be in our own beds tomorrow night. Lark, youve sent a message on the status of our company, right? ”

”Already done Captain, ” chimed the subordinate from earlier in a rather blissful tone. Truth be told, he was rather glad that this campaign was over. Being at camp afforded him more time to lay back.

”Come on now Captain Ulfric, why are you making us feel bad as fellow captains? ” asked another young man with a smile while swinging his legs over to sit on the low bench.

He took a sip from his rather fancy leather flask and then offered it to the one he had addressed as Captain Ulfric but the young man declined. He knew it was a different type of water in that flask.

”More for me then. Anyway, isn it enough that your company took all the glory this time Blood Wolf? ”

The people around the fire laughed at the nickname as the other captain nudged him.

While it had started out as just a joke, the young Ulfric had certainly lived up it because of his ruthlessness in battle. One of them started howling and a few others jokingly followed suit, really sounding like animals in the dark night. It gave the royal soldiers a bit of a fright since they were in unfamiliar territory until they heard the laugher along with the howling. Sitting there around the fire and making jokes, it was hard to tell that they were all highly trained killers.

”If even someone as lazy as Lark can get summoned to the Imperial Capital, we really must have done badly this time, ” he continued. Young Ulfrics lips turned slightly at the corners in a little smirk while Lark on the other hand looked highly offended at the comment. It was only for a second though before he lazily lay down on the blanket again to enjoy the warmth of the fire.

”I hear you and Clawe have been scouted by the royal army, how does that compare to someone whos only been summoned for a few words and not recruitment, ” commented the young master.

When he said it that way it sounded as if the others had a much better deal. Captain Clawe ran his hand through his ash brown hair as he took another sip of wine while leaning on a boulder. He was quiet the entire time listening to all the conversations around him.

Of course, getting scouted by the Royal army of a kingdom was a big achievement all on its own but getting invited to the imperial capital would allow one to make many more powerful political connections. The kings were still under the emperor after all. It was just unfortunate that the wrong person was being invited to the capital. Young Master Ulfric had no such political desires even when it came to the positions within his own family. The young man really lacked ambition.

Clawe was planning to make the best of this opportunity though. Even at twenty-two he felt that he wasn young anymore. Yes, the Louvaros army was well known and powerful, but it was still small and that could only take a man a man so far. The chance couldn be missed even if it meant being a captain for a year longer in another army just to prove himself.

When the opportunity would come to get promoted though, it would certainly be better being promoted in a kings army than a duke or marquiss army. What even was Louvaros compared to the royal capital?

”Captain Clawe is looking at young Master as if he killed his ancestors a hundred years ago. What happened now? ” asked Altair out loud.

They held back their laughter.

”You all play too much, ” said Clawe with a smile and they laughed.

It was really all in jest, but the young master glanced at Clawe a few moments later to see that the smile was gone which no one else had noticed.

The night was silent and dark as the moon was mostly hidden behind the clouds leaving the soldiers to adjust to the darkness.

”Oh, I just remembered, Lady Cecily said shed be waiting for us to return in victory, ” commented Altair with a smile as he chewed on a bit of grass. They were part of the guard assigned to night watch duties.

”And this had what to do with me? ”

”The Captain is certainly taking his time. We need a young Madam Ulfric wholl take of him, ” insisted Lark with a mischievous smile.

”Maybe, hell take it easy on us as well, ” he continued.

Altair smiled at the comment as well, trying to imagine the stoic young master being taken care of by anyone. In all honestly, it wasn even that he wasn handsome but the grim look on his face seemed to scare potential candidates away before even talking to him. Not that he spoke much to people he wasn acquainted with.

”Twenty-one, a handsome well-travelled young master with a military title and a noble family, I say we find a matchmaker as soon as we get back, ” added Altair and the duo laughed as the other only shook his head.

Now that they had to return home, he would have to deal with such comments more often seeing as his stepmother was trying to pull him in one direction while he was pulling in another. His age was considered the peak age where most people were married or had a prospect, but he preferred the strange peace that came with his work.

”What military title? Most nobles would only laugh behind my partners back. ”

He knew well that even though he carried the Ulfric surname that wouldn help his low-ranking military title. Not being the eldest son also meant he wouldn inherit a higher noble title either. In all, him getting involved with another noble would only make his partner gossip fodder.

Maybe a gentry or commoner marriage would work better but that might make his partner a target for the craftier family members. There was too much politics even with getting married, so he preferred staying away from such troublesome things.

”Anyway, you two are also twenty-one in a year, Ill find you matches not to worry, ” he insisted without a hint of sarcasm in his voice. Just as the other two were about to comment, they saw a shadow move through the trees.

The three of them were on high alert, each with a hand at the sword on their side until there came the lone sound of a nightjar deep in the night. An arrow suddenly hurtled past them, embedding itself in the nearest tree.

Lark jogged over to the tree to retrieve the dark arrow and the small piece of paper which he handed over to the captain. He read it and then passed it on to Altair who threw it into the hot coals that served as their heater and source of light. There hadn been a particular look of worry on his face.

”It was just the General confirming he received our reports. We
e still going to the capital as planned. ”

The other two nodded a bit more serious than before. Thinking about it, how was it that the imperial commander had personally summoned them to the capital not even a day after the battle had ended? They had only heard from the king three days later even though Imelinn, the imperial capital was much further.

Military information was a valuable commodity, and it wouldn be given to just anyone especially not with such speed so either they had people in their ranks who were reporting to the capital or there had been people watching them all along. Either way, it just showed that the commander and the resources of the imperial capital were not something to be taken lightly.

Now they had been summoned right into the lions den. Why them rather than the bigger royal army? There was enough tension between Duke Ulfric, the local nobles in Louvaros and then the royal officials in the kings court. So casually bypassing the king and getting to the emperor would certainly give them something to talk about.

The young Ulfric was not looking forward to the political intrigue this would bring but it was interesting. The captain smirked as he thought about it but the other two simply found it just a bit scary to see him suddenly changing his expression.

The sun was high in sky by the time they marched into Yuva; hundreds of soldiers exhausted after weeks of battle and travel. They were welcomed with warm baths and the night held the promise of specially prepared food and drinks to celebrate the victory.

For now, it was all about treating the injured, honouring those who had lost their lives and for those in higher positions, reporting to the appropriate people. Lark casually strode in from a bath, shirtless with a drying cloth on his shoulder when he noticed Captain Ulfric getting dressed in another set of dark clothing that was not uniform.

If they were the same gender, every captain and their immediate subordinate shared a room close to the quarters of the company they commanded. Just one of the small advantages of having a slightly higher rank although they had also started out sharing a room with multiple people.

”Don tell me you
e already leaving without celebrating, ” Lark commented as he lay on his bed after putting on an undershirt. Altair readied the robe for the young Master as he already had a tunic on.

”The sooner I go home, the more Ill get a chance to have sorted a few things before we leave, ” he assured as he fastened up the robe himself. Altair handed over the belts and straps that secured the sword scabbards.

Apart from the swords, he looked like a nobleman maybe a bit rough around the edges but much proper than they had looked in the past few weeks. That said, he was still imposing to anyone who did not know him and even for some who did.

”Well see each other in two days then, Captain, ” said Lark while turning his back to sleep. While others might have considered it disrespectful, he just shook his head at the character and both and him Altair said their goodbyes before heading to the stables.

The plan was to start out by visiting the busy market before heading to the castle estate. He picked out some desserts and an exotic assortment of dried fruit to go with it.

It was just unfortunate that they had not passed near any big towns on their way back to get something that was not local, but he smiled as he looked at the parcels he had gathered. She would certainly be happy.

A young woman happened to catch the young lords smile as she stepped out of the carriage, it was an extremely rare sight. It wasn even a big smile, but it changed the hard look he usually had. She wondered what the smile was all about as she readied herself before walking over to him, her servant adjusting her dress and dusting off her cape.

”Lord Sorin, ” suddenly said a clear pleasant voice.

Altair nudged him and gestured in the direction of the approaching young woman. She curtseyed earnestly in front of him with a slight smile, just glad to see that he was back.

”Miss Cecily, Giselle, ” answered Sorin with a slight bow and Altair following suit.

e already back, its good news then. ”

”We just returned my Lady and yes our kingdom is still intact. ”

”So is Lord Sorins life, Im happy to see that, ” she said with a genuine bright smile.

Altair almost smiled at the comment but managed to hold back.

They were distracted by the thunderous sound of wheels and a galloping horse. It seemed to be coming closer and before Cecily could react, Sorin had grabbed her wrist, pulling her out of the way of the driverless horse cart. Unfortunately, she was not steady on her feet, but Altair averted part of the disaster by catching her before she fell.

A few people surrounded the horse some metres away to get the stubborn creature to calm down. The market was busy enough and incidents like these were not uncommon. The two young women were still in shock when one of the men came to them to bow and apologise about the incident and Sorin sent him away with a slight warning, but it was all a bit of a blur to Cecily.

”Is Miss Cecily, okay? Im sorry if I was rather rough. Theres no bruise is there? ” he asked urgently as he noticed that she was holding onto her wrist. The concern in his voice was touching and she shook her head.

”Oh no, no thats not it at all. I guess this is why ladies should stay at home or only do house visits, ” she said with a small smile, obviously still shocked.

Her heart was still beating fast and now she wasn sure whether it was because of the incident or the sudden contact with Sorin. There seemed to be someone calling Cecilys name and they turned in the direction.

The older woman had just seen the horse cart speed by fast where Cecily was standing and her heart had almost leapt out of her chest. The material shop they were visiting was quite busy so there had been spectators waiting to see the outcome of the incident.

”Cecily! ”

”Mother, Im okay thanks to Lord Sorin. ”

”Young Master Ulfric, thank you for saving my daughter, ” commented the older lady with a smile. She hadn even known that he was back in town. They must have returned that very day.

”Madam Vogel, as long shes safe, ” he replied with a small bow.

”If the ladies would excuse me, I have yet to report to his Grace. Good day. ”

Sorin made his exit before they could bring up another topic of conversation and Cecily could only watch as he left not knowing what else to say. Her sparkling eyes followed his every move while her mother studied her expression.

When they were finally out of sight through taking a few shortcuts, Altair cleared his throat.

”Since when do we report to his Grace? ”

”Since whenever I say so. You know that woman wants to go on about everything under the sky. ”

Altair laughed as he tipped the stableboy, and they retrieved the horses. Sorin was so masterful in avoiding contact with people and possible gossip that he had averted that entire disaster by pulling on Cecilys wrist and sending her to someone else instead of grabbing her arm and pulling her closer to himself.

Young Master is quite scary, thought Altair as he followed behind Sorin and his horse.

It wasn long before the castle walls came into view. They passed the entrance of the main castle. Sorins military position wasn high enough to report to the duke directly so the general and those under him were most likely with the duke at that moment.

Sorin lived in a completely different part of the castle estate and preferred not to be at the main castle if he could help it. As soon as they arrived at their destination, he eagerly jumped off his horse and handed the reins to Altair before jogging across the large courtyard.

Some of the servants excitedly bowed or curtseyed when they saw that the young master had returned. After crossing one of the smaller gardens, he saw his target. She was busy watering some flowers with a smile on her face. He carefully crept up on her.

”Young Master, I suggest you save the tricks for someone who didn help to deliver you. ”

It was near impossible to sneak up on her after all and she merely smiled as the rather tall young man caught her in a hug.

”Young Master isn a child anymore; youll crush this old lady. ”

”I missed this dramatic old lady. Here, to make up for the time Ive been gone, ” he said holding up the wrapped parcels with what he had bought at the market earlier.

”You think I care more about desserts than seeing you alive, ” she commented.

”No, but its an added bonus. ”

”Oh, you, what will I do with you? ”

She smiled again while moving away the wild strands of hair hanging about his face. At this stage, it was too late to ask him to have his hair tied and slicked down like other noblemen. The young man might as well have been her own son but the line of work he had chosen didn bring her much joy.

”Nanny, is it just me or does this place feel a bit empty? ”

There were usually more servants, running around doing random things around the property. He had only been a gone a month or two and already there were changes he didn know about.

Since overseeing his own residence, most of the people he had hired came from very impoverished backgrounds or had been convicted of petty crimes which didn require imprisonment and no one else would hire them.

As a soldier, he had seen these types of cases very often. Nanny only sighed and led him inside to serve him some refreshments. Altair came in a few minutes later to find Sorin sitting opposite Nanny Delara with a cloudy expression on his face.

A few minutes back and the play had already started. As exhausted as he was somehow Altair couldn wait to leave for the capital.

Sorin was storming over to his study when he heard laughing in one of the gardens. He was about to walk past but thought it was better to confront the situation right there and then. As he marched towards the pavilion, the two young women sitting there immediately stood up when they saw him while the older two remained seated.

All four attendants, old and young curtseyed to him; he was still a young master of the family after all.

”Your Grace, eldest Aunt, ” he said in a rather annoyed tone as if saying the very words disgusted him. He completely ignored the two young women, and they could tell he was not in a good mood.

”If it isn our dearest Captain. We thought youd be away for a few more days so we came to keep the girls company, ” replied the duchess with a smile as if nothing was wrong.

”Where are the rest of my servants? ”

”M- my Lord. I had to send some of them away after an incident, ” replied one of the young women.

”By whose authority? ” Sorin asked the question corresponding to her answer, but while staring directly at the duchess.

There was a storm on his face at that very moment and the two young women were holding their breath. Even the duchess and his aunt were a little intimidated.

They had not expected his temper to become worse, usually he seemed mildly annoyed and never questioned them. This time he was even speaking out and though he wasn shouting; his commanding voice and expression clearly showed his anger.

”Son, don be angry at Amara, shes just merely been trying to keep this household together since you
e always so busy. ”

Sorin knew this conversation was headed to her suggesting he take a wife to keep everything in order because even though he had given Nanny authority to run the household, in the duchesss words she was just a nanny after all.

Undermining his authority and getting rid of the servants he had personally hired was a completely different situation, but they would link it to him getting married somehow. He was too angry and if he heard that one more time at that moment, he was convinced that his head explode.

”I don have time for this nonsense, ” he turned to leave without another word.

”Such disrespect, who does he thi- ” the Duchess cut off her sister-in law with a look and afterwards bid the girls to sit down.

”What can I say, Im only a stepmother after all. Maybe once theres a daughter-in-law, hell be better to her. ”

The Duchess took a sip of tea with a worried look on her face. Amara glanced at the young woman sitting next to her who happened to be looking at her at the same time. The Aunt nodded at the situation.

They certainly needed someone who could pacify him. With that imposing presence and temper, if Sorin ever decided to be ambitious, there would be no stopping him on his intended path.

”Ill find out if hes friendly with any of the young ladies. Im sure well have found someone by the time they return from the capital. ”

The Duchess nodded with a relieved smile, but the subject of the imperial capital was a bit of a sore point to her. She would have preferred that the eldest son attend the gathering, but she couldn even try to convince her husband on the account that he was not attending either.

He had passed everything over to be handled by the military leaders and a few other officials from the other families. She would just have to find another way to deal with Sorins situation while he was in the capital.

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