Aurei put her head down in her hands as the uproar filled the great hall of the Duchy Keep. Next to her, Brother Darv, Pectros and Sir Davit looked equally as frustrated.
"Quiet, please!" Aurei tried to calm the multitude of passionate voices raised in the hall, but her voice went unheard over the chaos.
"Allow me" Brother Darv said to her, and taking a piece of Pectros’ shield that they had used to illustrate the ferocity of the giant, he slammed it down full force on the top of the metal table they were seated at.
*WHAM! WHAM! WHAM!*
The room went totally silent, everyone eyeing the podium.
"Everyone sit down and shut up!" Aurei yelled at them, her red eyes glowing angrily, and the town folk, not used to seeing the girl mad, meekly complied.
"Look, everyone, I know this all sounds crazy to you. It would to me as well, had I not been there and seen it with my own eyes. Like it or not, the Necromancer’s Guild has developed an interest in Westmark. We’ve had a number of people killed in two different attacks and all of us on this podium were nearly numbered among them. Like it or not, I am responsible for the protection of the people of Westmark and for securing for King Haroldris, the western passage into his Kingdom. As people of my duchy, you are my responsibility. Most of you thought it was a great idea at my father’s funeral."
"So you show your care for us by making us all your foot soldiers?" came an upset voice from somewhere in the hall.
"Like pawns marching off to death?" Came another and the rumbling of voices began, but this time Aurei yelled over it.
"What would you have me do, then? Turn the other way and hope they all go away? Let other outlying farms get attacked and murdered? Have you talked to Leah Flydros recently? She lost her entire family in a raid by the Necromancer’s Guild! Did she imagine that? Go tell her this militia is a bad idea! Who here wants to risk their family’s safety?"
"Well, you are the great duchess with all the answers, its YOUR JOB to protect us!" Shouted another angry voice.
"With what? A handful of guards on the Keep tower? Or perhaps I should hire mercenaries to patrol. Would all of you like me to levy taxes for that, or increase the cost of ale and beer at the Muddy Boot? How in the world do you expect me to patrol the entire duchy without a militia?"
"You should have thought of that before taking the title!" another townsperson yelled.
Aurei had enough, slamming her hand down on the metal table, she jumped to her feet and stormed off the podium, into the crowd, which leaped out of her way. She went up to the last speaker of discontent, a grumpy old farmer named Chal who spent most of his time drinking rather then farming. He looked wide eyed in surprise when Aurei pushed him back against a pillar and got right in his face.
"I NEVER ASKED FOR THIS STUPID JOB; I WAS DRAFTED!!! DO YOU THINK YOU CAN DO A BETTER JOB, YOU GRUMPY OLD FOOL?!! ANSWER ME!! DO YOU THINK YOU CAN DO BETTER?!!!"
She was screaming in his face, less than an inch from his nose.
"N-no, I-I-I’m sorry Duchess, I…I’m just scared, that’s all."
"WELL, WHO ISN’T SCARED?! WE ARE ALL SCARED, CHAL!!! FOR YESH’S SAKE, I’VE LIVED AMONG YOU FOR 73 YEARS AND I’VE NEVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE THIS HAPPEN BEFORE, DON’T YOU THINK IT IS SCARING ME TO DEATH TOO?"
Aurei paused, tears streaming down from her face and her body trembling, but she glanced around her and the stunned looks told her that her explosion had finally reached them. Turning to Chal she smiled weakly, "I’m sorry Chal, I was very hateful, that wasn’t right. I’m just scared too."
"It’s alright, Aurei… I mean Duchess."
"Aurei" she corrected, looking around her, "I’m only Aurei Bugley --one of you. This is my home too and I don’t want to see it get overran by undead or their masters. The only way I know to try to not let this happen is to police the area with a force strong enough to keep more people from dying. We have been very lucky here; we’ve not had much danger to deal with, while much of the rest of the world has wrestled with evil. Now I’m afraid we are the target of their latest conquest, unless we do something to stop it. Please, everyone, forget for a moment that I’m duchess, forget that I’m a Drow that has lived among you my whole life. I appeal to you as a resident of Westmark, as a woman that wants this place to be the happy place to live that it has been all of my life, please, help me defend our home. Please."
The whole room was deadly quiet, all eyes on Aurei, who stood there with her head in her hands, weeping in exhaustion.
Chal cleared his voice, "Alright, Duchess, you are right, like you usually are. I’ll sign up for the militia, if you will have me."
Suddenly Aurei had a room full of volunteers. She wiped her eyes and nodded, "Thank you. I’m not going to send any of you off on anything that I won’t be personally leading you against. I won’t order any of you to go do anything that I know to be life-threatening without me leading you into that danger. Hopefully we won’t face anything like that, but whatever I ask of you, I swear to you, I will face it with you. And Yesh help me, I swear to you I will do my best to move skies and seas to keep any of you from dying in my service. I would not ask this of any of you if I did not know it to be of immense importance. The Necromancer’s Guild has made several communities in the southlands into ghost towns and I will not allow that to happen here. As much as I’d love to be liked by all of you, I would rather have you all alive and resentful of me."
"Ah, Aurei, we don’t resent you" There came another voice from the crowd, "Change is just hard, that’s all."
"Yes it is." She agreed, "But change as a group struggling along together is easier than facing change alone. So here is what I intend to do. We need professionals to train our militia. I too need training. I have asked Sir Davit to make inquiries with the Blood Knights arm of the Bitter Dregs to see if they could send some knights to train and instruct us. King Haroldris mentioned that the Blood Knights were looking for a place to train their knights anyway, so maybe this will appeal to them. Sir Davit leaves tomorrow for Aegoppa and will speak to the order there. Until we hear a response from the Blood Knights, we are going to try to prepare ourselves the best we can. All able-bodied men between 14 and 60 will be expected to report to the Keep once a week for arms training. I will have a list of what day you will be expected to report posted on the door of the Keep as well as at the Muddy Boot. You will serve for that day and bunk in the Keep barracks that night, your shift ending at 9 AM the following morning when the next shift will begin. Anyone unfit for duty will send word to Pectros, Brother Darv or me as early as possible."
"What about us women? Can we serve too?" This came from Alis, who smiled as she asked this, for she already knew the answer, but brought the question up to help Aurei remember.
"Women who wish to can volunteer for militia duty. The exceptions are those caring for small children or who are expecting. Any lady interested, please see me and I will add you to the list."
"What if you are too old to serve? Or too young?" Elderly Gred Challos asked.
"Or too pregnant?" Gred’s expectant granddaughter, Lindi, added, to the amusement of the crowd.
"For those of you too old, young -or pregnant- to serve, there is still plenty to do. We are waiting for arms and armor, but we need seamstresses to craft some sort of ducal tunic and launder clothing and blankets. We need men to keep up the weapons that we do have -- sharpening them, stringing bows or fletching arrows for example. Youth could work in the stables grooming the horses. All in all, there are plenty of ways anyone could help out if they want to. Remember, I’m not asking for a full-time commitment, if each of you would just willingly work one day a week all would go smoothly."
"Well where do we sign up then?" Lindi asked and to Aurei’s great relief, she had won over the crowd and spent several hours signing a good number of the townspeople into service of the ducal militia.
The next morning, four days after their battle with the undead giant, Sir Davit and the others who had travelled with him, again departed from Westmark. Brother Darv cast a spell of blessing upon them before their departure and they were off in a cloud of dust.
"I hope their journey this time is safe" she told the Priest of Yesh, who nodded in agreement.
For the following couple of weeks, the town was alive with the townspeople taking their turns serving in the Duchy of Westmark’s militia. Aurei was greatly pleased to find that all the men of town served their turns, and after one or two times, most began to enjoy the sense of purpose and importance their service gave them – not to mention the free meals that Aurei provided for those serving their turn, along with their immediate families.
Twenty three women volunteered to serve in the militia, including Alis, Brandi and Krys and all were trained alongside the men by Pectros and his guards.
"I’m not sure we really need any other help" she told Brother Darv one afternoon as they stood outside the Muddy Boot watching a group of twenty townspeople practicing a sword drill, "Pectros is doing a fine job."
"He is indeed." Darv agreed, "But the Blood Knights would certainly expand on his knowledge."
"Have you had any dealings with them?"
"The Blood Knights? Oh heavens, yes! Before I moved here, Aurei, I served a long while as a Cleric among them."
Aurei looked over in total surprise, "You did?! Why in the world didn’t you tell me?"
"Well, I wasn’t an actual knight, Aurei, I only went out on campaigns with them as a young Cleric. But I have seen them in action many times and I have nothing but the greatest respect for them. They are a humble, serious-minded order and extremely skilled in battle."
"Do you think they will send us someone to train our people?"
"I don’t know – they are warriors, not teachers. But our reasons are just and so they just might."
Their conversation was interrupted by the arrival of a caravan of Dwarves from Forgestone with a delivery of shields and Long swords. Riding in the lead wagon was the familiar figure of Thorm and Aurei raced over to see him like a girl greeting her father after a long journey.
"Hello Duchess!" The Dwarf said with a wide grin as she approached.
"Thorm, I am so very glad to see you!" She didn’t wait for him to climb down from the seat of the coach but joined him in the seat, giving him a big hug.
The Dwarf blushed at her sign of affection, but still grinned ear to ear and he returned her hug.
"I see you’ve started training your people" he said after the hug ended.
"A lot has happened since the last time you were here."
"Really? I haven’t even been gone a month. What has happened?"
Aurei recounted the events of the past few weeks and Thorm listened with growing concern on his face.
"That is sobering news, Duchess. ‘Tis a good thing I took the liberty to bring ye something extra."
"Nay, but for ye people. Look in the wagon behind me."
Aurei leaned over and glanced into the wagon bed. It was loaded down with what she first thought were chains, but a closer look revealed it to be sheets of joined chainmail.
"Aye – we Dwarves construct it a wee bit different then others do. At least my clan does. We have craftsmen that make those long sheets of mail, then we’ll craft them and tailor them to individual suits on site."
"So these are the 500 suits for the militia?"
"I’m grateful, Thorm, but I haven’t been able to secure the funds to pay for it yet."
"Well, I suspected that, Duchess, which is why I think I have figured out a way to solve that problem."
"Well, we set up a Foundry and armory here."
"Aye, Westmark! My clan could use our facility here as a warehouse for shipments to the south, as well as a sort of showroom to display our wares without large groups tromping through our territory to the north. My guild is willing to trade all the weapons and armor that your militia needs for the sale of a piece of land. My people would construct the buildings, furnaces and supply all the material except maybe for wood. Ye would grant us the land and exempt us from any ducal taxes. If ye agree, we would construct your armor and weapons on the spot and hopefully set up contracts with King's Reach and the neighboring duchies as well. That would mean more finances generated for your coffers, Duchess."
"It sounds perfect, Thorm, but who would run this Foundry?"
The Dwarf grinned broadly, "Yours truly! I’ve been considering getting off the road – too dangerous, as ye personally know."
"I do indeed. As Duchess of Westmark, I am happy to whole-heartedly agree to your proposition, Thorm! I suspect the townspeople will agree too."
"Tell them that it will provide some jobs for them as well, and that we’ll sell our goods to locals at a deep discount. I’ve also already spoken to Lute and Siris on the way into town, and – pending your approval— promised both of them positions as master armorers if they’d come work for me. They liked the idea when I told them what the guild would pay them."
"It sounds perfect!" Aurei said gleefully, happy for some good news, "I’ll tell everyone tonight at a town meeting. For now, let me get you and your men something to eat."
The Dwarf was enthusiastic about that and followed her out of the wagon.
Unseen by both of them, a rather large Crow with an unusually intelligent looking expression in his eyes, took flight as soon as their conversation ended, flying off to the south as if he were on a mission.