What strange children.
His visitors arrived a little more than a couple of hours, they have not asked for any breakfast yet and continue to move around their meagre city. The people are wary, thinking that they might just be like any other nobles since they are from the Royal Capital. Everyone was very careful not to offend them.
The first thing the ladies asked is if there is a place for them to wash their faces. The baron stiffened, this place doesn't have sophisticated water source like aqueducts. They throw the buckets inside the well and pull on it hard. Just like that.
But these children held no qualms saying they will make do. The knights pulled a bucket full of water and the three ladies started scraping the grime off their faces.
"The Crocus plant sprayed pollen on my face." the lass with dark blue hair said. "But I did get a lot from it enough to make medicine and dyes."
While they cleaned they talked energetically. Soon after the dirt came off and the baron heard his people let out gasps. "Such beautiful daughters…"
They inspect the manor in high spirits.
He already expected them to be whiny but minutes to hours passed yet he hadn't heard a single complain so far. Aren't they supposed to be complaining about the lack of accommodation by now? He intentionally did not prepare too much expecting that they would immediately turn their backs after getting inside the city. He and his people would rather decline help than be subjected to humiliation, there's a nearby fief half a day from Steinburg. The landlord there could not wait to receive nobles. It might be better for them to head in that place.
Though he had these negative thoughts, he did not show it on his face. In truth, Baron Steinburg would feel hurt if they actually did what he expected. The city badly needs reinforcements. Thankfully none of them said something rude so far, even their lady's maids are quite polite it boggles his mind.
The entourage of strangely dressed trio fascinated everyone in the manor, the clinking their shoes created melodic sounds not grating on the ears. They raided the kitchen next. Who would have thought that the perpetually grim-faced cooks would react so much? They almost dropped the pots after seeing three ladies enter their sanctum.
It was rare to see children of upper nobilities enter a kitchen, it's even unheard of even if they run the house themselves.
"What do you do with meat?" Lady Odette asked picking up a heavy skillet gracefully.
The cook's mouth dropped to the floor. That's a thick metal weighing almost five pounds not your lady's fan! Put it down before you hurt your foot.
Cook hesitated for a moment, "Our local butchers downtown takes care of the everyday meat. The excesses are smoked to avoid spoilage and waste."
"The meat can also be cured with salt, lemon, sugar, black sauce and peppercorns." Lady Sterne mumbled on the side. "You can dry it under the sun after to make it last longer and cook it with butter later."
The baron gaped. Curing then drying?
"They will taste marvellous I tell you." she insisted when she saw he doesn't look convinced.
The two ladies sounded an agreement. Further, they moved to look around the ash-filled kitchen going to the stone ovens, hearth and pots. Lady Sterne said something when she stopped near a broken pillar.
"I'm familiar with this structure." She tilted her head thoughtfully then threw her sights to the walls.
While the two ladies are preoccupied, she walked near the baron.
"Baron, does this manor have a spacious cellar under? One with a lot of pillars and some odd niches?"
How did she know about that?
The cellar is a family secret. Though there was no treasures or valuable wine barrels whatsoever the former lords explicitly said that the cellar is strictly forbidden to be known outside the family. While he was deep in thought, Sterne runs her hands to the top of the hearth where fibres of light momentarily shone then, looked at him.
She knows something! Engulfed by a feeling of anxiety for some reason, cold sweat dripped as Baron Steinburg follow behind. Finishing with what they needed from the kitchen, he nervously leads them outside towards the butcher shop where the pigsty and cowshed are.
"Oh, pigs!" Sterne said peeking inside the pigsty.
A mage happens to be nearby, the poor lad had to be dragged forcefully by the lady, after she threateningly says, "Lucian, you're a water mage. Quick, quick, clean them for me or else I will not give you dinner."
The shocked Sir Lucian, looked at her as if she had lost her mind. The baron, on the other hand, became even stiffer. Does she plan on roasting all of them because they smell?
No! Those are the only pigs they have left.
"Just this once. Alright?" Lucian sighed and chanted Naiad's Song. Three palm-sized water nymphs appeared from the void holding a harp, a jug and a palm leaf and began singing. The voices overlapped in a soothing chorus, almost illusory it was hard to imagine it came from tiny little creatures.
Baron Steinburg's rampaging nerves calmed down. He rubbed his chest and faintly smiled. In a space of a few seconds, the pigsty was cleared out of the dirt. He was finally relaxed when suddenly Sterne opened the pen and stepped in.
"What are you doing?" Royce caught her crouching down the floor pushing a black piglet chewing on the hem of her skirt.
"I found something." She said focused on the floor. Then suddenly she looked up. "Baron, has the Spectre entered the innermost part of this city before?"
"Not that I remember," he trailed trying to wrack his brain for memory. "These past years, it started to inch closer from the outer walls towards the houses inside the inner curtain wall."
She nodded in understanding, patted her clothes before picking up the black piglet toting it like a toy. The pig tried to squirm and run away but her grip was tight it couldn't escape.
The baron bid his farewell to the pigs. They will end up being roasted for dinner after all.
Maelys gave a hopeless sigh.
"I have never seen a black pig. Can I take it out?"
You already took it out.
"Don't worry, I promise I won't eat it!"
Uh, you absolutely cannot when it is raw.
The baron has a pale face seeing her wrestle with the animal for a good couple of minutes before finally subduing it, wiping the sweat forming on his brow he answered, "S-Sure you can, milady."
"You're mine." Everyone heard her whisper happily.
Hell and fire, she's cuddling the creature as if it's a rare breed of a dog. It's a pig you know even if it is small. A pig! No matter how loud their minds screamed, nothing was conveyed.
The whole time the black little pig helplessly wiggled its trotters while being dragged around by its newfound mother. Toting it on her hand she showed it to everyone who was busy with their jobs.
"What on high heaven is that?" Kyrios groaned holding his head. He had been looking for her for half a day and couldn't find her, then suddenly she shows up with a pig on hand. "It's too early to find ingredients for dinner."
Sterne felt the little thing shivered she hastily covered its ears. "You can't say that. What if you scared Hecate."
"A suckling pig! This will taste good when roasted with milk and herbs" Dio pointed its snout deliberately scaring the already frightened animal.
"Not it's not food." Sterne argued hiding it away.
Kyrios sighed. "Not food? Then put the blasted piglet down and help with the preparation. Viktor is asking for you, they are about to put wards on the outer walls."
Sterne put on a belligerent pouty face. "I will help but I will not leave the little one alone."
"No, it's dangerous outside. You will get distracted." Kyrios firmly stated.
Baron Steinburg watched the exchange with an awkward face. Royce moved to her side, he thought maybe he would be able to convince her. To his surprise, the lady dumped the pig on his hand with lightning-fast movements and dashed away as fast as she can after warning him not to lose Hecate.
Apparently, she named the pig already. The poor lad looks dumbfounded while the pig wildly wriggled out of his hold with all its might. Royce raised an eyebrow and leaned down to whisper.
"Don't make trouble unless you want to end up in a stick rolling over the fire."
The piglet froze quickly, unable to protest.
The new arrivals tidy up the place, patched the roof of the barracks, replaced the rotted fences and repaired the watchtower's broken flame cauldron. They look busier than the townsfolk.
"Lord Steinburg, the tower has been fixed." One of the guards on duty reported.
"That was too fast. They just got here."
"They used high-level crafting 'Fortification'. Even the broken fire cauldrons look new."
The reason why they haven't touched the of the light tower's cauldron was that is used up a lot of oil. Oil is hard to procure since the wells are in the forest.
Wait, Fortification? Where have I heard that before?
"The curious thing is that they wrote a magic circle in it. I told them it will only get dirty when we pour oil again but the mages said it's fine. I'm confused."
The baron as well.
The letter said that enrollees and noblemen are coming. Bracing themselves to pompous high handed aristocrats, people were soaked with the colours of stress. However, nothing was mentioned about a pig chasing girl and labour workers armed with hammers and saws instead of swords and shields. It took them completely unprepared.
Will these people really be able to help them kill monsters?
Lunch came bringing another surprise.
The food is nothing like they have eaten before.
They were just potatoes but with bits of bacon and pickles giving a crunchy bite to it. Savoury, salty and tangy at the same time. It balances the palate well. In all his years as a landlord, he had not once eaten food with vivid flavour that is not too salty, mushy or too greasy. The knights said they requested it from the young lady since they liked it a lot after eating it the other day along with the grilled Red Bison steak.
Isn't Red Bison a monster? There are plenty of those in a village along the main road. The baron decided he will think about it later since he was hungry as well from moving the whole morning acting as a guide.
Cutting a piece of thick juicy meat on his plate, he gulped. The aroma really is triggering. From the first bite onwards he can no longer tell whether it's a monster or a livestock animal. The fat marbling is superb giving it a very soft texture.
It tasted even better than expensive veal.
The afternoon was dedicated to repairs as well. With these many hands working the inside of Steinburg slowly regained its vitality.
"It would be nice if we can access the fields along the outer curtain wall without any worry." Kyrios thoughtfully mused.
He was right, there are plenty of crops outside that can feed the whole Steinburg. The problem is that some portions of the wall have fallen creating huge openings. The houses of the farmers outside are all abandoned. If those walls are to be repaired they can reclaim the huge piece of farmland they lost.
During the first night of his visitors, a shocking change surprise the whole city. It was supposed to be night but it was brighter somehow.
"Oh good, the orbs activated nicely. That was a lot of work." Viktor mused looking up to the glowing light above the towers. The watchtower was lit up as well with the same orbs yet with a much brighter glow leaving no shadows in the corners.
"First, we need to set up a wide array of wards against that Spectre. Since it cannot enter places with lights, we had to place light around the city. With this, we can prevent its nighttime assault by tricking it."
The reason why they were all busy all day is to prepare for tonight. How efficient are they?
"But still to cover a huge place in such a short time…"
"There is still a lot to do though. We will resume with the repairs tomorrow onwards." Sterne said.
These children, they kept surprising them.
Everything they did was out of everyone's expectations the people could only stare while holding their breaths. Gradually their wariness faded, and they are received more warmly by the time dinner came.
As a habit, every night Baron Steinburg would climb the battlements to inspect the surroundings. Tonight however there are plenty of people lining up in the parapet walls to look outside.
"The Spectre is coming but it won't get close to the light." a guard said.
"Are we safe now?"
"W-We can sleep peacefully?"
"Aye, you can. Leave the night watch to the soldiers." The adventurers who also climb the battlement said. "No-rank monsters are formidable but they are not without weakness."
"They will not enter the walls anymore, however, the night guards still have to be on the lookout since there are not only Spectres outside but other beasts as well."
The adventurer named Gram was right. After all, the one who destroyed the outer curtain walls is not the Spectre but a group of monsters that came in waves every month. Dorn already relayed this information to everyone. Since the last attack happened two weeks ago, they have a couple of weeks left to prepare for the next wave.
Out in the forest where none of them can see. Beasts and monsters alike are starting to gather, getting ready.
The night guards are in high spirits. When their visitors arrived four days ago they never had much thought about it but only a few days and the city has become livelier. During the night watch, warm black drinks with a bitter kick were passed on among them by the adventurers who also sat to guard.
They have gotten used to Dorn and his unit bringing in snacks in the middle of the night. That ginger and lemongrass tea they had was also good for a cold evening like this but this new bitter taste completely won them over.
Dorn's master came so he had to stay by her side all the time now. They thought that his talent is wasted just waiting idly for her to call on him. But they were wrong.
When the ladies arrive, the soldiers were stunned to see them dirtied with mud and blood from the monsters.
"Which one of those three is your mistress again?" The guard stationed on the right tower asked.
"Dorn said it's the one on the black horse. He also said not to give her trouble or else…"
Who would? Not with a lady with a sword and armour plate.
What they ate at lunch was the one their guests encountered on their first village towards here. "I never thought that that Red Bison would taste so good. I bet it would taste good even with just salt."
They were all in agreement while sinking their teeth on the succulent steak. The atmosphere was strained during the first day with both sides secretly appraising and measuring each other, fortunately, it gradually loosened eventually after they shared a meal.
The Steinburg soldiers are more at ease on their stations now that the light orbs are active. The mages said that only a tiny amount of magic is needed to activate the orbs so even non-mages can open it at night. Everyone couldn't be more relieved.
"You can take a two-hour nap if you want. I'll take it from here." Gram offered.
"Nah, tis fine. I won't fall asleep when I'm this excited."
"The Willows are patrolling the towns and some of the knights filled in the empty sentry towers as well."
"We could get used to this, unfortunately, you will be leaving after a month. It's just the first week but it's a bit lonely when thinking about it."
"I'm sure your King will decide something soon. I mean after all his sons are here. Though this is an enrollment test, the soldiers and adventurers will still do their duties and naturally help."
With that statement, the guard shot to his feet.
"What did you say!?"
"Your king will send help to the--"
"No, the other one." He urged.
"About the princes? Yes, they are here. Prince Arthur and Prince Siegfried are here to help as well."
He's sleepiness completely disappeared now.
Which of those lads below are the sons of their sovereign? He wondered critically.
Despite staying for a week inside Steinburg, they have not experienced a monster attack yet. The days came into a lazy crawl, giving them ample time to work around the Fortress City. The three ladies had nothing to do aside from helping around, most of their free time was spent walking around town, during the sixth day they visited the temple where most children and women stay.
The temple is divided into three parts, the worship hall, the monastery on the west courtyard where they sleep, and an oast house to the east. There's a field of hops at the back cultivated by the temple head and the children.
Steinburg has all the basic buildings like the apothecary with a garden of medicinal plants on the side, bakery with a windmill to refine grains, meat shop that gets its supply from the cooper, cowshed and pigsty. It's an adorable city.
A little repair and this place will look very lively.
The fathers work as soldiers and lives in the barracks so the womenfolk were left in the care of the temple head. An energetic seventy-five-year-old grandpa who also like to compound various salves and tinctures.
"What's this called, milady?" a six-year-old girl asked poking the swirl of the round cake.
"Cake rolls. The white and pink ones are strawberry and cream while the brown one is chocolate."
"Do you eat this in the royal capital every day?"
Sterne laughed. "Not always."
"It feels like biting into a pillow."
"A very tasty pillow and it's real this time." another little girl giggled.
One of the older girls who help inside the temple shushed them, she stood up and did not touch her cake unlike the rest and set it aside. Odette looked up puzzled, "What's the matter? You don't like sweets? D-Do you have a toothache?"
She shook her head meekly and looked at Sterne. "I would appreciate it if milady wouldn't spoil the children too much. I'm afraid once milady leaves Steinburg there wouldn't be anyone who will give them this kind of food. It's a luxury we cannot afford."
The children continue to eat but the three were stumped quiet. The girl did not say anything anymore, she bowed and hurriedly walked out the door.
Sterne knew she messed up. Seeing the condition of the city it was easy to tell what kind of life they have been living. The older people worked nonstop to scrape by and survive. Goods from the capital are hard to come by, and of course sweets as mundane as this as well. It looks like her intention has picked on some deep wounds.
"It's alright." Odette said sitting beside her.
To dispel the awkward mood Maelys proposed to let the children tour them around the city. Hecate, the black pig she picked on a whim surprisingly became attached to her, sensing her mood it inched closer and nudged its snout to her foot. Feeling the cold snout on her skin out of nowhere, she jumped in fright nearly kicking the poor pig away.
"Hecate!" she glared down and picked it up.
This fellow would always follow her behind wherever she goes. After Royce threatened to roast and eat it, it became more attached to her.
"You did nothing wrong." Maelys nudged her shoulder. "We're not here for charity, remember? We came here with a task, and I don't see anything wrong with putting their mind at ease. They have been through a lot, it's only normal that the gesture would be taken in a slightly different way, don't take it to heart."
"When I heard that we are to be sent here, I panicked and almost cried." Odette admitted. "But if we can extend help as long as we can, why not do it?"
"Come on, cheer up."
"I'm not upset, just a little conflicted. There's always struggle in many parts of the kingdom that it became almost natural not to hope. Even little children had to hold themselves back when it comes to things they like." she said looking into the piglet's eyes while tickling its belly.
"The calamity lasted this long because not everyone is willing to help. But just because everyone thought it's hopeless we will follow suit and turn a blind eye to it without even trying." Maelys said. "We're not saints, we are only human. A bundle of different emotions packed inside flesh and bones. Once a person loses their ability to feel it's either they are dead or empty."
"I think both choices are worst." Odette said with a laugh.
Maelys smacked her shoulder. "Do you think people like that are any better off?"
"Of course not! And I would rather not be with those." She said with feeling. It was a blessing she did not join the Hallowed One's entourage and avoid freezing to death. Speaking of those lot, "We also need to enter Moonless Forest to meet with the rest of the enrollees after this week."
"That cannot be avoided." Sterne said.
They were walking leisurely when the bells rang. The whole city was instantly stirred into a panic.
"An incoming attack in the middle of the day?" A man rushing across the street exclaimed.
The children shrunk back in fear as the bells continue to ring. After going back to the monastery the three rushed to the battlement to see what's going on outside.
"A lot of them. Those are A-rank monster."
"Wait," Dio halted the adventurers who were about to exit the gates. "If it's a pack then it is possible that an S-rank White Elder is giving the command. Don't just jump in recklessly."
S-rank? The adventurers unconsciously stepped back.