The carriage stopped in front of the entrance of Lorist's house. Reidy turned to Patt, who was sitting beside him in the coachman's seat, and said, "We're here. This is master's house."

After that, he got off the carriage and opened the door. Lorist came down with Alisa hugged in his arms with Howard, Els and Shadekampf following behind him.

Charade, Terman, Yuriy and Steve rented another coach that arrived a little later, after which they all got off one by one and entered Lorist's home. Patt didn't follow the group into the lounge and instead helped Reidy with bringing the Zeno Horses back into the stable.

Reidy asked curiously, "What's wrong? Why aren't you following them inside?"

Patt thought for a bit and said, "I have come here to look for the young master because it was my grandfather's wish. He instructed me that even if the young master refuses to go back to the dominion, I was to stay here by his side and watch out for him because he is the sole heir of the Norton Family from the main line of descent. No matter what, no harm can come to the young master."

Reidy laughed out loud before saying. "Brother Patt, it's not that I'm looking down on you, but given the situation, it should be you who gets protected by the master instead of the other way around. Given your ability as an Iron rank, it's already pretty commendable if you can take care of yourself and not become a burden for master."

Patt rolled his eyes and talked in an snappy tone, "In the Northlands, we have a saying that goes like this, 'even the most alert magical beast has a moment of weakness; even the strongest of horses have times when they slip'. I already know the young master's reputation as Iron Locke, Silver Undefeated. However, no matter how strong he is, he's still only one person. As long as I'm with him, it's enough if I can serve as a silent shield for him. Even if I'm only an Iron rank now, I believe that I'll be able to help the young master out much more when I reach the Silver rank."

"Well said, Patt." Suddenly, Lorist showed up beside them and said, "Did Butler Gleis really ask you to stay by my side and serve me?"

Patt nodded honestly and said, "If you are going to return to the dominion and inherit the place, then I will serve as your personal attendant. Even if you don't, I'll still stay by your side and offer whatever protection I can to you."

Patt laughed at what he said himself with a hint of derision before continuing, "Then again, after seeing you again for myself, you have changed way more than I could ever imagine. It's not only your skills... Even your personality has become totally different. You no longer need a person like me to protect you anymore. When the family lost communications with you, my grandfather Gleis and the rest of the elders thought that you might have been in a rather tight spot. It seems that they were wrong."

Feeling a little touched, Lorist nodded and said, "It's been ten years. The moment when I left the household has already passed for so long and I have been unable to contact the family for the past seven years as well. I had to adapt to survive. For me to have turned out like this today wasn't without its hardships. Alright, Patt, let's go in and have a chat about the family's situation."

It appeared that Shadekampf was more informed about the situation back in the Northlands that Patt. After the series of tragedies, the Norton Family's military might decreased by a whole lot. Even though Lorist's father was unable to advance from the One Star Gold rank due to an injury he had incurred from hunting magical beasts in his youth, he was still the main pillar of support for the family and his death had greatly destabilized the family's rule. Lorist's elder brother's death was an even heavier blow to the family. Being a Gold ranked knight, he had been struck with a poison arrow when he was leading a charge on the battlefield and had passed away soon after. As for the third young master, due to contracting a rather serious illness as a result of being pushed into the well at a young age, he was unable to awaken his Battle Force and had lost his life from falling off his horse which was startled by a magical beast.

Lorist truly felt rather unsettled at hearing all that. He understood that half the cause behind the third young master's death was due to the fact that he had fallen sick and wasn't able to train in Battle Force from an early age, which was chiefly the fault of the original owner of Lorist's body who had pushed his little brother down the well out of jealousy. Now that the current Lorist had inherited the body, he had also took up the fault and guilt for being half responsible for his little brother's death.

According to Shadekampf. when the third young master encountered the magical beast, the sole Three Star Silver Knight which was part of the young master's personal guard was present. While he had successfully slain the magical beast, he incurred heavy injuries and had to rest and recuperate for a period of time. Currently, the family only had one other One Star Silver female knight. Her name is Andrea Pesha and she is the daughter of Knight Andrea, who had served the family before his death, and was also the childhood friend of the first young master. While she was engaged to the first young master due to a the decision of the old master, she was never formally married to him as the first young master had perished in battle before that could happen. Shadekampf asked Lorist if he still remembered the face of that red-haired girl who always followed behind the first young master.

Lorist nodded. Within the memories he had inherited, there was indeed a red-haired girl who was as rowdy as most boys of her age. Lorist remembered the painful episode of her heavily pummeling him because he pulled on her ponytail once out of mischief.

Shadekampf continued and said that aside from Pesha, the rest of the main force of the family were a few Iron Swordsmen in the garrison squad as well as several other Iron ranked old men who lived in the castle. Currently, Pesha was in charge of managing the affairs in the dominion as Butler Gleis had stepped out of the limelight due to his age. That's why the family desired Lorist to return to succeed the position of the dominion lord as soon as possible.

Patt, who had been part of the personal guard of the late Baron Norton, described the events that led to Lorist's father's death. According to him, when the Lord Baron had heard about the attack from the barbarians, he quickly summoned the armored cavalry that was stationed within the castle which numbered only 18 people. This was all that remained of the main force of the family's military. Including the Lord Baron and Patt, they were a force of 20 mounted soldiers. As the barbarian pillagers had come with a force of about 50 people, the Lord Baron requested help from the garrison and was prepared to take out the invading barbarians.

As Patt and the Lord Baron had arrived at the enemy's base early, they discovered that the barbarians were not yet prepared for battle. As the agreed time for the joint attack with the garrison was nearing, the Lord Baron decided to launch the assault first and believed that the garrison would later arrive from the other side of the battlefield and join them in launching a pincer attack to wipe out the invading barbarians.

Patt said that he had tried to warn the baron to wait for the arrival of the garrison troops before launching the attack, but his warning was ignored and the baron initiated the assault immediately. At first, the surprise attack seemed to work and the barbarians weren't able to react in time. However, as they noticed the troops of the baron were far fewer than their own, their morale rose and they gathered for a counterattack. Had the garrison troops arrived at that moment, the barbarians would be completely defeated without a doubt. But no matter how long they waited, not a single garrison soldier could be seen on the battlefield. Seeing his troops starting to falter, the Lord Baron himself joined the fray even though he still hasn't completely recovered from his sickness. It was at that moment when the barbarians started cheering as their reinforcements of 50 more people joined the battle. The baron's troops quickly crumbled and Patt and the baron were the only ones who emerged alive from the carnage.

When Patt returned from battle, he got wind that the garrison troops were never dispatched in the first place. In a fit of rage, he went over to the main camp of the garrison and injured Malte, the commander of the garrison troops, which prompted the rest of the garrison members to go on a strike at the Norton Family castle and demand for Patt to be sent out for them to punish. The matter was only settled when Butler Gleis and Pesha tried very hard to calm them down on account of the relationship the family had with the garrison over the past hundreds of years. That was also the other reason why Butler Gleis had Patt leave with Shadekampf to look for Lorist so that he doesn't get into trouble with the garrison troops again.

Based on Shadekampf and Patt's explanation, it could be said that the Norton Family was in a rather tight spot at the moment. The first one was that every winter, a wave of migrating magical beasts would move to the dominion from the wilderness to look for a food source. If the magical beasts that come to the dominion were only herbivores like those magical bulls and goats, then it wouldn't be much of an issue. At most, the farmlands and orchards would sustain some amount of damage. However, what usually followed behind those beasts were carnivorous magical beasts like snow wolf packs or leopards which attacked even the towns and bastides.[1]

The second problem were the barbarians. The Norton Family dominion is located in the far desolate north. Further north was the limitless Blackmud Marsh and to its west was the Bladedge Mountains which separated the dominion from the sea. To procure salt, the Northlanders had to cross the Bladedge Mountains to boil seawater, which was needless to say, an arduous task. That was also why the price of salt in the Northlands have always been relatively high. To the south of the dominion was the Black Forests and the desolate hills, where the sole passageway out of the Northlands from the dominion was located. To the east was the Magical Dragon Mountains which was nothing but dense, primal forests and tall domineering peaks where the barbarians mainly resided.

It was said that the barbarians were the descendants of humans who had went into the mountains to lay in hiding for survival after the fall of the magical civilization during the dark ages. Having lost all contact with the outside world, their culture and customs deteriorated into a more primal form, among which included worshipping ancient totems, eating their food raw and not having any rules but the law of the jungle where the strong oppressed the weak. Even though in recent times they have started coming into contact with people outside of the mountains, they retained their old barbaric ways and made no effort for communication.

The barbarians had already started causing trouble when the first generation family founder of the Nortons was enfeoffed the dominion by plundering and pillaging. They were even harder to handle than the waves of magical beasts in the area. The family founder had once tried to set up 10-odd outpost villages to develop the dominion but had to abandon the plan as the attacks of the barbarians caused much loss of lives and property. The main reason for Lorist's father, the late Baron Norton in launching the attack against the barbarians was also because they had plundered the only livestock ranch of the Nortons and took almost all their cows and sheep.

The third main problem the Nortons had was the garrison squad in the dominion. Out of the 5000 citizens the Norton Family has in their dominion, almost 3000 of them lived in Wildnorth Town, the only town within the lands of the Nortons. The citizens there were mostly relatives of the garrison squad who occupied two-thirds of the safe farming areas within the dominion and only paid a tax of ten percent of their harvest and nothing else.

Back in the day, due to a low population in the Norton Family's dominion, the founding family leader invited vagabonds as well as purchased slaves and granted them freedom in his dominion so that he would have a workforce to develop the land. Those who joined the dominion garrison were also granted preferential treatment and privileges despite their meager salary, such as an exemption from all other taxes apart from 10% of the harvest they get and unconditional ownership over their farmland.

Other than that, as a dominion lord entitled by the Krissen Royal Family, the Norton Family had the responsibility of sending military support if the royal family requested it and also had to pay a yearly tribute of 10% of the harvests of their farmland to the imperial government. At that time, most other noble families levied a taxation rate of about 50% of the harvests of the citizens under their jurisdiction along with other taxes like per capita tax, trading tax, fishing tax, firewood tax, etc. It was already rather benevolent for the nobles to let the citizens of their dominion have enough to feed themselves.

The treatment that the garrison squad members received was as if the Norton Family didn't collect any taxes from them at all apart from the 10% that was required to be submitted to the empire. Initially, not many wanted to enlist as a garrison member, as that represented risking their lives to drive off the magical beast wave every winter season. However, as the safe zones in the dominion expanded and stabilized, a rising number of people could see the great treatment they would receive as members of the garrison and the garrison troop numbers rose quickly, much to the Norton Family's delight, until much later when they discovered a flaw with the system.

Normally, on the Grindia Continent, when a family's descendants became adults, they would leave their parents and start independent families of their own. However, these garrison members refused to leave their homes and lived together even though many of them had already married and started their own families. The main reason for that was so that the other family members get to enjoy the preferential treatment granted to their parents, who were members of the garrison. Some garrison members even demanded for their siblings who were not enlisted into the garrison to be granted farmland.

It wasn't until then that the Norton Family started regretting enacting a policy like that. However, at that time, due to the tremendous contribution the garrison had, instead of scrapping the policy altogether, the family only enforced a limit of roughly 6000 square meters of land per person, which can only barely sustain a family of three from the yearly harvest and believed that would limit the garrison family members from exploiting the policy. Little did the Norton Family know that the garrison family members were after the tax exemptions rather than the farmland and heavily fished and engaged in salt smuggling to the point where their lives were even more lavish than that of the Nortons.

Over the course of a hundred-odd years, the garrison members grew in number and many other families sprouted in Wildnorth Town with the smaller ones having at least 20 people and the larger ones having around 40, making them a force to be reckoned with in the dominion.

While the Nortons had wanted to wipe out the garrison troops at one point, they had to give up as the entanglement of the Nortons and the families of Wildnorth Town was too deep: many of the servants and soldiers of the family's main army had relatives living in Wildnorth Town. If there were any military movements, the garrison would quickly get the news about it. If the Nortons really wanted to use brute force to wipe the garrison out, the result would only be disastrous for both sides and the Nortons would become the laughing stock in the noble circles.

On the other hand, as long as the Norton Family doesn't touch the preferential treatment the garrison family members have, the garrison would still heed their orders. When the first young master was still alive, the garrison still remained loyal to him and were willing to participate in skirmishes here and there. But after the first young master's death and the old master becoming bedridden from an illness, the third young master took over and the garrison started to show signs of disobedience. For example, when magical beasts attacked the third young master's group, the garrison members fled immediately and allowed the beasts to startle the young master's horse, causing him to fall to his death.

That was also the case one year back when the old master launched the attacks against the barbarians. Due to the garrison not showing up for the battle, the old master incurred serious injuries. They even dared to surround the family's castle and demand for Patt to be handed over. In one way or another, that behavior could already be considered treason to the ruling family nobles. However, due to the Norton Family's deteriorated military force, they had to try to negotiate for peace with the garrison. Thus, the problem of the garrison is an undertaking that the next family head will have to solve.

The other issue was territorial disputes with the neighboring noble families, especially with Viscount Kenmays whose dominion was located south of the Norton Family's dominion. Given that the Northlands were mostly barren, disputes over territory rarely occurred. However, the Morgan Hills where the Norton Family's mines were located had drawn the Kenmays' attention. As the mines were the main source of the income for the Nortons, they engaged in several martial conflicts with the Kenmays, causing them to incur a huge loss.

In actuality, Viscount Kenmays had no jurisdiction whatsoever over that region as it was originally part of the Norton Family's territory as per the enfeoffment of the founding Krissen emperor himself. On the other hand, the Kenmays' territory was only recently granted to them by the Second Prince almost five years ago, which also included the Morgan Hills. Whether the mistake was intentional or not was debatable. Even so, the Kenmays should have conceded the territory and asked the Second Prince to redraw the borders as the land originally belonged to the Nortons. However, the Second Prince couldn't be bothered to settle the dispute and asked the two families to handle it themselves, which ultimately resulted in armed conflict with the Nortons emerging victorious.

However, now that the Norton Family's influence was declining, the Kenmays tried to claim the Morgan Hills for themselves once again. And this time, due to the cousin sister of Viscount Kenmays becoming the mistress of Duke Loggins of the Northlands, the Kenmays became even more bold and started another mine at another spot of the Morgan Hills and started taking the resources that rightly belonged to the Nortons, who could only swallow their anger and endure.

If Viscount Kenmays knew of the true predicament the Nortons were in, it wasn't hard to imagine him launching another attack at the Morgan Hills right away and take the mines of the Norton Family for himself. Should that come to happen, the Nortons would lose their main source of income and soon go bankrupt. This was the fifth issue the Norton Family had, an economical crisis.

Just ten years prior, while the Norton Family didn't levy heavy taxes on their dominion folk unlike most other nobles of the time, they relied on their own armed forces to hunt magical beasts for their furs traded them along with some other local products of the Northlands at Morante City through the family's own merchant convoy. Back then, the yearly income was rather great and the family had easily over 200 fully mounted and equipped soldiers in their famous armored cavalry.

But the good times came to an end when the whole merchant convoy led by Lorist's third uncle fell under the attacks of bandits, causing the family to lose its main source of income. After the first young master led the armored cavalry to war under the Second Prince's banner as well as the battle which the old master had fought with his barbarians, only tens of the original 200 soldiers of the cavalry remained with almost half of them crippled. The pension the family had to pay to the relatives of the dead soldiers cost the family another great fortune.

The Second Prince's order for the Norton Family to become the subordinate of Duke Loggins instead of the Krissen Royal Family further exacerbated the situation. Had the first young master been alive, he would have definitely refused to accept the order even if that meant making an enemy of all the other nobles in the Northlands as the Norton Family had pledged their allegiance to the Krissen Royal Family and not some random prince.

The Second Prince was still rather courteous when the first young master was still alive. However, shortly after his death, the Second Prince quickly tossed the Nortons to the duke and didn't reimburse the Nortons for their losses when they fought for him. Not only was this a huge blow to the Norton Family, it could also be considered a huge breach of etiquette and insult against them. But most of the nobles in the Northlands served the Second Prince at that time so the Nortons had no choice but to accept the situation.

Even though Duke Loggins wasn't of the Krissen Royal Family, the ridiculous taxes he levied on the lands under his rule easily rivaled half of the revenue of a noble family's dominion. While the other noble families could still somehow cope with it, the Nortons didn't collect as much taxes from the family members of the garrison troops and had to pay it from their own pockets. Had it not been for the mines, the family's accounts would have been in the red long ago.

Even though the wars in the empire had ended, the duke made no attempt to lower the taxes and instead introduced yet another country-rebuilding tax with bringing back the glory of the Krissen Empire being the main excuse. However, no one knew how long the collection of that tax would go on for. Given that the main transportation route for the Nortons were in the duke's territory, they could do naught but endure yet again.

When Shadekampf finally finished describing the whole situation of the Norton Family's dominion, everyone fell silent. Even Terman, who suggested that Lorist go back to inherit the dominion, was totally speechless. It was practically a pit of fire! Nobody would willingly jump into one and try to put the fire out.

Charade asked Patt and Shadekampf, "Did the family specify a deadline for Locke to return to the dominion?"

Patt replied, "The old master had passed away around the 3rd month of this year and we took about 3 months to come all the way here from the Northlands because we were caught up with bandits, slave traders and conflicts within noble dominions along the way. After arriving here, we took another month before finally finding the young master. My grandfather said that if the young master intends to inherit the position of the lord, he has to arrive at the Northlands before the 3rd month of next year or another successor will be picked from the illegitimate children of the old master."

Charade nodded and said, "That's great. At least there's still time to decide. For the two of you, you should stay by Locke's side and decide for yourselves which option will be better for him and give him some time to think about it as well. Let's leave it at this for today."


[1] Fortified medieval towns. See Wikipedia.





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