Enjoy the last release of the week! Cya guys in two days!

"Barbarian courage is useless in the face of Loristian scheming." ~ Terman

On the 27th day of the 1st month of Year 1779, Lorist returned to Firmrock Castle.

There was no new year's celebration this year, mainly because the leader of the house, Lorist, was not around. There was also the matter of the war, which made holding a celebration a little inappropriate. However, Iblia conquest was complete. Winston and Southern were both now under the four houses' control. House Fisablen was locked within the three provincial plains, and Lorist also managed to get the position as governor of Windbury. Basically, it meant Winston would soon also be in the Nortons' jurisdiction.

While there wasn't a celebration this year, next year's would be even merrier. It would see the house welcome even more vassals. Lorist would have to entitle another large group of honorary nobles to acknowledge their contributions over the previous two years.

Rumors of a mountain barbarian invasion, surprisingly, hadn't caused a panic among the folk. However, the atmosphere in Firmrock Castle was still anxious and lifelessness. Lorist went to the rear of the keep and found only Dilianna and her one-year-old son there to receive him. After asking her about it, he learned that her two nieces, Arriotoli and Fennazali had gone to the new Dina barony now in Delamock. She had only refused to go because she was worried that the cold of winter would harm her precious child.

The other two new maidservants he'd taken in didn't think he would return in a month, so they had returned to their families for new years.

Oh well, it doesn't really matter if they're not here. I'll be fine with Dilianna.

He didn't manage to get any good sleep, in spite of the castle having so few occupants, because this son made too much noise in the night. Either he wanted to be breastfed or be with his mother. Given that he'd tussled with Dilianna three or four times already, he ended up getting no sleep.

He decided to go to his study for a nap. Just as he was walking there yawning, Howard appeared.

"Your Grace, Sir Tarkel and Mister Doboff have been waiting for you in the guest room for more than an hour now."

While it wasn't odd for Tarkel to come over so early in the morning, Lorist couldn't quite recall Doboff, though the name did sound familiar.

The moment Howard saw his expression, he knew his teacher was having a hard time recalling the man.

"Your Grace, Mister Doboff used to be the Pentasword Mercenaries' leader. You made him mayor of Twinmount Town."

Oh, that's the guy...

Lorist had hired the mercenary group to guard the outpost at the intersection between Magical Dragon Mountain Range and the dominion, as the first line of defense and an early warning. However, after he'd spent time among the barbarians, he got to know that the ones neighboring them were engaged in internal conflict, so they wouldn't come down to raid the dominion anytime soon. Hence the outpost being rather quiet for two years besides a few small skirmishes shortly after its first completion.

After that came the house's development of Blackmud Marsh. A wall was built on the border between the dominion, Tortoise Hill, and Hidebull Mound, along with forts at the other two areas. One local defense brigade was stationed at both the forts, so the outpost between the two mountains outside the dominion began to lose its importance. As a result, the house terminated the mercenary band's contract.

At first, Lorist had planned to absorb the group into the household forces but their leader, Doboff, refused. He was already old and didn't wish to live a life of blades and blood anymore. Given that he was going to disband the group, he would leave whether to join up to the men themselves.

However, he'd had already grown attached to the outpost he had lived in over the years. Given the recent time of peace, it had managed to develop into a small town where many mercenaries and adventurers would gather before they headed deeper to explore Magical Dragon Mountains. It was also through that town that small merchants traded with the barbarians. Some of the latter, who were more adaptable and intelligent, came to the town to trade their wares. The town had become a small bridge that connected the dominion and the barbarians.

However, Lorist had just returned from barbarian captivity and he avoided all word on them thanks to his traumatic experiences. He refused to even consider the notion of using the town to infiltrate and influence the barbarian tribes. Since Doboff was unwilling to leave, he made him the town's mayor. Apart from paying a small tribute, their administration wouldn't be interfered with in the slightest. They were left to do what they pleased. To Lorist, since the area was outside the household dominion, there wasn't a difference whether they controlled it or not. It wasn't something that would affect the house greatly.

When the intelligence agency, Furybear, was formed, the one in charge, Tarkel, took note of the small town outside the dominion and sent his men to do a detailed investigation. In the end, he realized the town had developed properly under the ex-mercenary leader's administration. Doboff himself hadn't overstepped his bounds and considered Twinmount Town under Norton control. Hd didn't rule with uninhibited ambition. Apart from paying a yearly tribute, the extra funds collected would be used to develop the town's infrastructure. Twinmount Town's population had grown to roughly two thousand. Most of whom relied on hunting, collecting herbs, and trading with the barbarians to make a living.

Two years earlier, Tarkel had submitted a report to Lorist about Twinmount Town. In it, he suggested it could be directly administered by the house. Building it into a large-scale trading post like the one House Kenmays had in the east would not only provide large amounts of herbs and other rarities, it could also be used to take note of the barbarians' moves.

However, Lorist had been completely occupied with his dealings with the second highness and the plan to take out Madras. Given the unpleasant memories he had, he neglected reading the report in detail before archiving it. No matter how much he tried to avoid the matter, however, he was only delaying the inevitable. The barbarians were a looming threat that had recently begun to move again.

"Get me a basin so I can wash my face. And bring those two to my study!"

He ought to freshen himself up to understand the possible attack thoroughly. Tarkel and Doboff soon made their way to the study. After greeting Lorist, Tarkel reported his experiences before he sent out the emergency message.

The matter was first discovered by Major Doboff. According to him, the barbarians would be most active during autumn. It was also when their trade with Twinmount Town would be most frequent. But, when Doboff inspected the trade market, he realized something weird was going on. The barbarians that had come didn't bargain at all. They were willing to complete the trade even if it meant taking a loss, and they purchased mostly metal tools and weapons.

This odd behavior peaked his interest and roused his caution. While it wasn't uncommon for barbarian traders to incur losses, those who'd come to town in recent times were sly and cunning. The number of merchants that got scammed was also increasing. Those who treated the barbarian traders as uncivilized fools often ended up suffering losses. But this time around, the barbarian traders were unusually agreeable and didn't mind taking losses if it meant being able to purchase even more metalware and weapons. It was weird, considering that they'd mostly bought daily necessities in the past.

Doboff secretly sought out an old barbarian that Doboff had rescued once. When the barbarian first arrived at the town, he bumped into a tough mercenary whose eye caught onto the piece of fine white leopard skin the barbarian'd brought to sell. He insisted on trading a cruddy old sword for it and even boasted that the sword was a precious weapon. However, it broke apart the moment the old barbarian knocked against it with his dagger, so he refused the trade 'offer'. It resulted in the mercenary blaming him for breaking his precious weapon and beating him until he spat out blood.

Doboff happened to pass by at that moment. He rescued the old barbarian, got a hold on the situation, and punished the mercenary. He became good friends with the barbarian and had frequent interactions with him. Sometimes, the man even brought precious herbs as gifts for the mayor during his visits to his home. Given their relationship, Doboff trusted his information he got from him on occasion.

He revealed that the last year's Kubawessen festival, held only once every twelve years, the barbarians celebrated the birth of Mountain God Kubawessen and would have all sorts of activities to commemorate their deity. For example, they would have one sacrificial rite monthly where they sacrificed large numbers of livestock to the mountain god. All the chieftains would also participate. Most \hailed from the larger tribes, with the chieftains being mostly Jambassens from other territories across Magical Dragon. The Jambassens were similar to landed nobles.

The largest tribe neighboring the Norton dominion was called the Habibaba. Their chief was a Great Jambassen, roughly equivalent to a duke, with more than 20 tribes under his control. In the past, Habibaba had always been struggling for the title of Great Jambassen with another large barbarian tribe. But in the recent Bywessi Conference, they yielded to Habibaba and their chieftain's wish came true. He was finally made a Great Jambassen. After the conference, the Great Jambassen decided he would show the flatlanders what the mountain barbarians were made of. It was highly probable the barbarian horde would start their invasion next year, hence the majority of products traded for being metalware. They wanted to caste them into arrowheads and weapons.

The old barbarian advised Doboff to leave Twinmount Town so he wouldn't be in the way of the invasion. The army mobilized this time would number up to a hundred thousand. Upon hearing of how developed the Norton dominion was from his subordinates, the Great Jambassen soon turned the focus of his campaign there. It was said some traveling merchants were also bribed to be their informants and guides.

The moment Doboff learned of this, he made a report to the house. Tarkel was the one who personally went to verify it's veracity. Some mountain barbarians were bribed with luxuries and meals and gave similar reports.

At the end of the 11th month, the old barbarian made his last visit and told Doboff that a group of grassland barbarians came to request the Great Jambassen form a grand army and set out for the dominion. They claimed the land was almost completely undefended. The old barbarian didn't know whether the Great Jambassen accepted the proposal and set out for Twinmount Town because he was worried about Doboff's safety and wanted to advise him to leave.

As Lorist had expected, the barbarians didn't launch their invasion when winter was so near. Even if the Great Jambassen accepted the proposal, there was no way it could be achieved given that they couldn't leave their shelters without cold-resistant clothing. If there was a snowstorm, loads might die without even a fight. He estimated the soonest they would descend would be during the 4th month after the rainy season.

A barbarian army of 100 thousand, huh, thought Lorist with a cold smile.

Currently, the forces of the Norton house wasn't like it had been back during the days of Lorist's father, when a few hundred barbarians were all it took to plunder the house's livestock and scour about without worry. House Norton was a huge entity, one that rivaled even a kingdom. Both their advanced siege weaponry and military gear were far beyond the barbarians. Even another 100 thousand wouldn't be much trouble.

"Your Grace, I have a map of a gold mine," said Doboff as he stood up and carefully took out an old an torn beastskin and placed it on Lorist's table.

Tarkel looked surprised. It was obvious he hadn't anticipated something like this transpiring. It seemed he wasn't aware that Doboff possessed such a map.

"Actually, I wasn't the one to discover it, nor does it have an owner," Doboff explained, "Two years ago, an old mercenary got shot with a poisoned arrow. I discovered him unconscious on the ground when I was out hunting. It was a shame he was beyond saving. He handed me the map as he breathed his last breath. During the past two years, I surveyed the area carefully and found the mine, deep within the Black Forests. There's a small hill near a riverbank where the mine is. However, the area is inhabited by roughly 30 thousand barbarians.

"Your Grace, to be honest, I've thought of monopolizing the mine by keeping its existence secret. However, I realized I have no way of dealing with the tribes, so I can only give you this map."

Lorist appreciated Doboff's frankness greatly. He recalled the riders that he encountered when he was on the way to Firmrock Castle from Maplewoods Bastide back then. That time, Josk showed off his divine archery skills and made them discard their shot comrades and retreat into the forest. When they went to investigate the bodies, they found they were carrying sacks of gold grains. Lorist had suspected the barbarians controlled a gold mine, and it seemed he was right. The mine Doboff mentioned could possibly be the one the riders controlled.

"Thank you, Mayor Doboff. Your contributions will be remembered. We will not mistreat our loyal subjects. We thank you for your efforts," said Lorist as he stood up.

"You're welcome. It is my pleasure to be of service to the house," replied Doboff a little hastily, surprised.

"Tarkel let Mayor Doboff rest in the castle for a few days. When Tigersoar arrives, we will hold a meeting to discuss how we should deal with the barbarian army. We will have to trouble the mayor to brief us on the situation as well. Let's leave it at that."

"Understood, Your Grace," said Tarkel as he stood up.

"Thank you. I will be more than happy to help the house out," said Doboff.