Trouble on the Road
The next morning they left, expecting to get to the barracks in the early afternoon. The road was direct (although not necessarily straight) and mostly protected by the Markland Imperial Guard. However, it was only mostly protected by the Markland Imperial Guard--certainly any decent commander knew where the most important battles were. And these battles were rarely in a secluded area, isolated from the main fronts, and far from the major engagements riddling the border with Helluland. So the two boys (and Varulf, of course) continued on in naive bliss.
This bliss, of course, was interrupted by the typical backcountry rogue Match and your typical band of penniless theives hoodlums. Typical, of course, except that they were all female. They called themselves the Valkyries. They appeared on the road in front of Hand and Turnip, seeming to dissolve out of the trees and bushes surrounding them.
"Good morning, fellow travelers, what brings you here?"
"Match!" said Hand, "Figures we would run into you when we least want to."
"Well, we do have this nasty habit...and, you know how it is...times are getting tougher, food is harder to find. Not to mention money. A girl's got to keep her name, you know."
"She's got a lot to keep, I'd say," mumbled Turnip.
"For one so young, I would be careful your words don't exceed your reputation. Or, should I say, the reputation of your older brothers?" Match certainly shared a mutual dislike with the people of the local area, but it is hard to dislike someone you do not know intimately. Match knew the local news as much as the local news knew her and her band of theives. Many daughters had even run off to join the Valkyries, although they were they type of girls who would be seldom missed by their families in any case. As Match began to approach the two boys, with three of her cronies flanking her sides, she suddenly made a menacing leap (mostly for show) right in front of the two boys.
Varulf suddenly jumped from his spot, heeled at Hand's side, and growled fiercely to match Match's own grimace.
"Figures you'd need something like that to guard you." said Match as she kicked Varulf in the nose. Varulf whined, turned tail, and ran off.
"How dare you!" shouted Hand, and he drew his sword to defend his retreating pet and strike pre-emptively in the fight Match was certainly going to pick with the two boys. The battle was fierce and the boys held out for a short time before it was clear they lacked the skill, the power, and the numbers to defeat the Valkyries. With sweat dripping off his brow, Hand heard a distant panting grow nearer.
"Varulf!" he cried, "and not a moment too late, either!" And with that, the battle continued on, the boys fighting alongside their reinvigorated comrade with renewed strength. It still looked like a stalemate, though, and the determination of the two boys to get to the barracks eventually won out over the shifting thieves they were fighting.
"You're not worth the effort!" said Match, as she spat on the ground in front of the two boys. She disappeared into the woods with her friends to nurse their wounds.
"Neither were you!" shouted Turnip into the stillness of the forest.
The two boys continued as the day began to reach its fullness. Shortly after their midday break for food, they reached deCumbell and had to relocate their orientation. Although both had been to the town before, they did not know it intimately. They only came for the occasional festival and on special errands like the one they were on currently. They greeted the guard at the front gate.
"Ho, friends," said the guard.
"Edgar!" they both shouted excitedly. It was not often they got to see Turnip's next older brother since last year when he left for a place in the city guard. How lucky for them that it happened to be his watch when they arrived at the city. Since the difference in ages was slight, all three got along very well. Edgar soon dropped his noble stance at the city gate and fell into a laughing embrace with his friends.
"It seems like forever since I saw you last!"
"I know, hasn't it? Mom and Dad have been worrying about you, you never send letters, and you live so close!"
"I've just been too busy here at the garrison."
"Sure, looks like nonstop work."
"We even got ambushed by Match and her brood," interjected Hand, wanting to get a part in the conversation.
"Boy, just what we needed--another ambush. That must be the fourth time this fortnight. They're getting more desperate."
"They've always been desperate," replied Turnip.
"Well, get along you two, see the town a little before you head in for the night. Just come to my room in the Guard's Quarters and I'll have mats laid out for you. Don't stay out too late, tommorrow's the big day, right?"
"Sure," they both seemed to grumble, and making their goodbyes, they headed off to explore the city before they went to bed.
There wasn't anything special about deCumbell and the fort that was constructed at the northeast corner of the granite walls that surrounded the city. It was moderately-sized, large enough for a marketplace, weaponry and armory shops, a few specialty goods stores, enough pubs for the off-duty soldiers, and residences for both the local tradesmen and the more lucrative merchants. But, of course, the highlight of the town was the fort, specializing in training new recruits due to its proximity to the harsh conditions of the nearby forests and hills. Although they marveled at the size of the city, as they always did, the two boys found no trouble to get into, so they went back to Edgar's room to bed down for the night.