The garrison soldiers either sat in silence on the edge of the square, or in their positions at the wall walk. There were only about three hundred garrison fighters and a little less than a hundred peasants and artisans from around, who took up arms to protect their families.
Paris stood beside one of the fires with his distracted gaze buried in a gurgling liquid. Under his command, there were now 85 people, most of them were the same green youths who had never been in a battle. They were sent here right after the end of the last training year in a military camp near Arilla, the capital of the empire.
Many, just like him, hoped that they were just going to a dust-free job: to sit in the garrison for two years in this fortress almost on the outskirts of the world, save up some money on government grubs, and then ask for a transfer to a larger city or even to the capital.
In addition to them, there were two more companies, around a hundred trained warriors each. The first - a permanent garrison, mainly consisting of local, the second - the exiled ones.
In many remote fortresses, there were just such units for those who were skilled enough not to be kicked out of the army for one reason or another, but too uncontrollable to stay in a big city.
The fat, bolding Captain Werst commanded permanent garrison. The ungainly, unpleasant middle-aged man with watery eyes and constant creepy panting.
The Earl had long wanted to replace him, since his deputy, Capitan Berg was quite an intelligent man, and in fact was the one who carried out all the duties of both captains. The only problem was that Werst was the younger brother of the governer's wife.
And family ties in such small settlements meant quite a lot.
Earl himself arrived here just a couple of years ago. It was said that court life in the Red Castle had bored him immensely. Moreover, quite recently his wife died. Perhaps he, too, was looking for solitude and peace here.
The third captain of the exiled hundred, Berg, came along with the Earl and was rumored to be his long-time comrade and friend. An exceptionally silent and always gloomy man of about 50, surprisingly aroused in his subordinates genuine respect and admiration.
Paris tried to visit the exiled unite more often and carefully watched his senior colleague. It was not difficult for the young guy to determine the reason for such popularity of Berg among such unruly bunch.
Even if he seemed unsociable from the outside, but Berg watched his boys with a kin interest. All the problems and emotional struggles of his soldiers were not a secret for him. The old Capitan always knew how to help carefully or correct his rouges without hurting either their pride or honor, but still got a firm grip on them.
Paris was sincerely happy after spending a few months here. He quickly realized that time in this place not only will bring him good money but also valuable experience.
Although there was another reason for him being here.
He just couldn't bear to stay in the capital anymore.
Before, it seemed to him that time can heal old wounds, but it has been almost six years, and he could still see the little girl, at each step in the capital. Everything seemed to remind him of his sister there. That's why he jumped at the first opportunity to leave this damned place.
At first, he tried not to visit his father's estate at all.
The old mansion seemed to be soaked through with her cheerful laughter. In every window, Paris saw her pretty face with sly blue eyes and a shock of perfect curls the color of ripe wheat.
And every year it became harder and harder. It was as if everything that had happened by an invisible wall separated him from everything he had once loved. Everything around became half a ton darker. Even playful music and the cheerful laughter of friends seemed so far and kind of wrong.
Paris closed his eyes and inhaled several times deeply, as usual pushing unnecessary thoughts and memories deeper. Now was not the time to go weak and succumb to the visions that haunt him at night.
The lives of many depended on him and his focus.
Taking his eyes off the barrel of boiling oil, Paris went in search of the Earl. It was necessary to gather all the officers and once again went through the entire strategy of the upcoming battle, and also report on the preparation process.
He found Berg and Earl in the office in the keep. The room was exceptionally simply furnished, but particularly functional. Nothing out of place - a wide rack with books along the wall, a massive table, a few chairs. That's it.
The gazes of both were focused and serious.
"The preparation is almost over" - Paris reported entering the door, forcing the men to glance at him.
The Earl silently gestured for Paris to come to the table. He and Berg surveyed a map of the area around the fortress.
The senior captain sent a studying glance at the young colleague coming to the table. His stare was firm, but at the same time approving.
"Captain Marsters," - turning to a formal address, the Earl made it clear that the time had come for a serious conversation. - "I am already familiar with the state of the fortress and would like to discuss with you options for a counterattack."
Paris was stunned by such a statement. He believed that all that was left for them to do was to deter the attack of the enemy from behind the walls of the fortress and wait for reinforcements.
"With all due respect, General, but it seems to me a counterattack can put us at a disadvantage. Having taken a defensive position, we can hold out for several days. They have no siege mechanisms to break through walls. We will be able to defend against their attacks for a long time. "
Paris did not have time to finish, as Berg unceremoniously interrupted him
" This is all very good, but how you are going to defend yourself from the Stone Beasts attacks? "
The young Capitan did not have time to object to the older comrade as the door slammed again, letting in the bulky carcass of Captain Werst.
Apparently, he arrived in a big hurry, as his face was deep crimson and large drops of sweat rolled down his flushed cheeks. Finally, having recovered his breath, the fat man solemnly proclaimed as if those present were waiting only for him
"Dear friends! Rejoice! I've come to save the day! No need to worry anymore, I found solutions to our problem! "
Paris diligently tried not to allow any excess emotion to affect his face.
Berg limited himself to a skeptically raised eyebrow, while the earl was not ashamed to breathe out a curse through clenched teeth, and rolling his eyes in irritation.
Werst, as always, pretended not to notice a change in the mood of those present, although he rather didn't really pay attention to it, as he was utterly absorbed in his triumph.
"I spent a lot of time, did real research, and finally found a solution." - Werst solemnly examined all those present, and only after a dramatic pause, resumed his speech.
"I understand how everyone got scared when they heard about a hundred Stone Beasts at the walls of the castle. But I want to assure you that it is not our misfortune, but our salvation! "
" Get to the point, Werst! "- barked the earl, unable to withstand the self-admiration of the fat captain any longer.
The self-proclaimed hero of the day shrank a little, but pulled himself together quickly and continued.
"So, I collected information and came up with two possible options. First, we will send someone to negotiate. From the reports of the spies, it is clear that there are only mercenaries here so far, which means that we can try to outbid them. Also, I heard a lot about the code of behavior of Stone Beasts, but despite all those incredible legends about them, they are just people. And each person has a price. The Treasury now has about 30 thousand gold. I think His Majesty the King will appreciate our originality if we invest this money in a good cause. After all, the lives of our charges are much more voluble! "- He finished on a pretentious note, victoriously looking around the audience.
Now even Paris could not hold a scornful glance in the direction of the disgusting fat man. Everyone immediately understood the intention of Werst.
There was no secret for anyone about his close relationship with the governor of the castle. Through the fortress, everyone knew that he regularly steals from the treasury and does not hesitate to share with a relative.
The earl, a famous military leader, was not a particularly good manager and had a firm principle not to do stuff that he knew nothing about. But even he immediately became aware of the motives of his subordinate.
It was kind of funny that Werst and the governor were so stupid that despite the overall lousy situation they still worried about their wealth. It seemed that they believed in the success of the defensive campaign to the point that they started to think about the time when reinforcement arrives. What if newcomers might be interested not only in the course of the battle but also in the general situation in the castle?
Such a dumb optimistic made even Earl smirk a bit.
"Captain, we are grateful for your initiative, but I think it is worth discussing other options before transferring all your treasury into the hands of the enemy." - replied the general firmly, trying to hide mocking notes in his voice.
"Yes, yes, of course. As I said, I have a second option. As we should all have heard, there is another way to make Stone Beasts do what we want."
The Earl skeptically raised thick eyebrows. Werst wanted to make another pause, but, catching Berg's promising glance, decided to hurry up.
"You must have heard how Stone Warriors become who they are?" - He looked around again with a proud look. The answer to him were only three pairs of dark eyes. And Werst, having restrained a new stream of reasoning, decided to go straight to the point - "As you know, the Stone Elders find their wards around the world and in exchange of fulfilling one desire, they take the person in. Well, consider this: there are about a hundred Stone Beasts in front of the castle walls, and there are a hundred trashy exiled ones inside the fortress. Kill two birds with one arrow, as they say!" - he finished on a high note, triumphantly lifting up his hand.