The morning dawned with shafts of sunlight streaking from the eastern sky. Camilla awoke blinking at the unexpected light. It seemed weeks since the sun had shone down from the perpetually overcast sky. Even today storm clouds were beginning to roil up in the east and unless Camila missed her guess the clouds would swallow the sun before too long. Still, it felt unexpectedly good to stand in the sun for a few moments.
The rest of her small band were also rising. Per Camilla’s instructions no fires had been set during the night, but now the remaining wood was being piled into small cook fires and Oderic, the self appointed quartermaster, was doling out lean portions of grain and meat to each man from the supply wagon. He seemed to take particular pleasure in serving Beaumont and his knights the same portions as the rest of the men. Initially the Knights had hired some of the runaway serfs to do their cooking but Camilla had flatly refused to allow them to draw rations for their would be employers. It had been a minor act of spite but one which had unexpectedly buoyed the morale of her little band. Beaumont and his men still glared, but they had to eat.
“A Good sign nien?” Matis commented as she stepped from the canvas tent she had strung against a crumbling corner of stonework. There was enough of an overhang that she could use the tent as a door for the small space at the intersection of two stone walls. The Witch Hunter was looking off towards the sunrise, looking as though he had stepped from an Altdorf tailor rather than having spent a restless night on the ruins of a castle. Camila settled her blue cape around her shoulders. She was wearing a divided riding skirt in the Brettonian fashion along with her thigh high riding boots of tilean leather and her tooled leather breastplate. The piece had been laboriously decorated with a pattern of ivy vin that wrapped around the left side. In Brettonia it was surprisingly difficult to find high quality equipment that wasn’t also artistically embellished.
“I hope so,” she answered without much enthusiasm. Matis tossed her a loaf of bread underhanded, which she caught out of reflex. She peered at it as though uncertain what she was expected to do with the coarse peasant bread.
“Eat it,” Matis ordered folding his arms across his chest. Camilla looked at the bread without enthusiasm.
“I’m really not hungry,” she objected but Matis shook his head.
“You weren’t hungry last night either and it's not as though you have any extra weight to lose,” he commented.
“If you don’t want me to spend the day singing devotional Hymn’s…” Camilla held up her free hand in surrender and took a bite of the bread and began to chew. It was hard, baked several days ago, but as Matis had said it had been a while since she had eaten.
“Myrmidia’s tits you are annoying,” she muttered around the mouthful of bread. Matis nodded his head in agreement and then produced a wineskin from his small bundle of possessions. He passed the skin to her and she unstoppered it and drank greedily. The wine was a sweet red typical of Brettonian, without the sour tang that Tilean vintners prefered, but even Brettonian peasant wine would have been welcome on any Imperial table.
“Service has its rewards,” Matis said piously, his tone making it clear he was quoting something. Camilla shrugged her shoulders and passed the wine skin back.
“I’m not sure I’m serving anybody,” she replied.
“Mademoiselle?” Leofric, a tanned and lean poacher who had taken the role of sergeant for her little band, more or less by virtue of being willing to do it, picked his way across the rock strewn ruins, followed by the three peasants that had asked to join her the previous night. All three looked nervous and a little uncomfortable. Camilla knew by now that even the small rations of her camp were a feast for men who spent their lives half starved in the Brettonian villages, hungry amid the plenty of Aquitaine so that their lords and masters could live in silks. All three immediately fell to their knees. Camilla felt a stab or irritation at such obsequiousness, The Empire had its problems but at least its citizens would look you in the eye.
“Oh get up,” she snapped and the peasants leaped to the their feet with such fear in their eyes that Camilla immediately felt worse. Leofric held back a snicker with evident effort. He had been a man at arms he claimed, though as far as martial distinctions went that wasn't much of a boast, but he had the right attitude for a soldier.
“We wish to serve you Mademoiselle Aqua,” one of the new comers declared nervously, the others nodded in enthusiastic agreement.
“You are all from Bienvine?” she asked, referring to the village a few miles from here whos destruction had bought her here in the first place. All three men nodded.
“Did you have trades?” she asked, experience had taught her that most peasants were agricultural laborers, and those that survived the raids tended to be shepards or hunters who were away from the village when the dead attacked.
“I was a fletchers apprentice,” the youngest of the men responded unexpectedly. The other two men looked unhappy not to be able to volunteer similar skills.
“You are all welcome to join us,” she said after a moment, holding up hand to forestall immediate agreement.
“I cannot promise much, other than food and fighting, until either the undead are destroyed or we are,” she cautioned.
“That is more than we ever had before,” the oldest of the three responded.
“Then you are welcome among us,” she said simply.
“We swear to serve you faithful,” one of them responded, perhaps nonplussed at the lack of formality.
“We swear,” the other two parroted. Camilla crossed to them and touched each man on the shoulder, trying to give them the dignity they were obviously seeking.
“Join us then,” she said, smiling at each man in turn. It was an actress’ smile, not quite reaching her eyes but convincing enough. Matis would take over training the men to use spears and swords, but the work was slow and there wouldn’t be enough time to make them truly competent. Likely they would all die the first time they met the undead, but with luck one or two of them would live long enough to learn something.
“Riders!” shouted a look out perched atop one of the nearby walls. Camilla’s head snapped around to the sound of the voice, the scout was pointing to the southern road. All around the camp men were babling in fear and confusion.
“Arm yourselves and make a circle!” Leofric’s voice bellowed, cutting through the babble of voices like a sharp knife through canvas. The confusion subsided as men grabbed for pikes and bows. Their progress was disorderly but within a few minutes the had managed to make a passable defensive line around the crest of the hill.
“Looks to be knights, from Acue by their banners,” Beaumont called. The knight was already in the saddle and the rest of his companions were either mounted or in the process of doing so. Camilla sprang into the saddle of her bay and guided the horse forward to where two large piles of stone made an improvised gate in the waist high tumbledown. A score of mounted men, all bedecked in gorgeous tabards trotted along the road. The remains of the pyres smouldered by the road side in grim contrast. The leader of the men, a young knight in quartered white and purple, held up a mailed fist to his companions commanding a halt. The great warhorses obeyed though they stamped and pawed at the ground. He came forward alone.
“Villains!” he shouted, “Come down and explain yourselves!”
Beaumont and Camilla emerged from the ruins, side by side. Beaumont’s battered armor and fresh cut lance made a marked contrast to the glittering finery of the new comer.
“Good morning Sir Knight,” Camilla said, her courteousness a slap in the face to his bellicose shout. The knight stiffened in his saddle and then reached up to remove his helmet. He was dark haired and might have been handsome if there wasn’t a slight pinch of cruelty to his features and his brown eyes were agate hard.
“Ah you must be the Contessa I have heard so much about,” he replied in an oily voice, eyes flicking dismissively to Beaumont.
“Well if I must be then I suppose I am,” Camilla responded, stopping her horse ten feet from the knight.
“I am Guy D’acue, my father is lord of these lands and holds the lordship of Bienvein,” the knight responded haughtily.
“A pleasure to meet you Sir Guy,” Camilla responded without warmth.
“Why are you trespassing on my father’s land?” Guy demanded, making a broad gesture to indicate the surrounding countryside.
“This is the King’s Highway Sir,” Beaumont responded stiffly. Guys eyes cut to the other Knight, glittering with anger.
“If there is nothing else Sir Guy we will return to our…” Camilla began but the Knight rounded on her.
“You are harboring fled serfs from Bienvein! I will have these men returned,” he snapped. Camilla arched an eyebrow.
“As you must already know Bienvein has been destroyed by the undead,” she explained with artificial patience.
“Or destroyed by bandits?” Guy rejoined with a look towards the armed peasants ringing the shallow hilltop.
“These men are my entourage Sir Knight,” Camilla responded with icy formallity, “You have called them villains and bandits already, do the Knights of Acue treat all travellers in their land with such disrespect?” Guy drew his sword from his saddle with a rasp of steel on leather. Beaumont gripped his own hilt but didn’t pull it free, perhaps vacillating on whether there was enough distance between them to properly set his lance.
“You are harboring runaway serfs, these men are our property. The Knights of Acue won't be robbed by foreign chits with fancy titles,” he snarled. Camilla who had been snarled at by Chaos warriors in the past, sat impassively, unimpressed.
“You go too far Sir Knight, I demand satis…” Beaumont began, but Guy was already wheeling his horse around to face his men.
“My friends, It seems the Noble Contessa has been kidnapped by Brigands and false knights! It us our duty to rescue her and string everyone of these men up for their crimes. He finished his rotation and faced them again, grinning impudently. The Knights behind him drew their swords and shouted challenges.
“Your move, Contessa,” he said mockingly. Camilla drew her pistol and fired in a single smooth action. The bullet punched through the skull of Guy’s horse, spraying the fine white fabric of his tabard with gore. The horse spasmed as it died pitching the knight to the dirt with a clatter like a bull in a cutlers shop. Without wasting further words she wheeled her horse and galloped back up the hill with Beaumont at her heels, Guy screaming invective at her as she passed through the narrow gate to the ruined keep.