The rhythmic chopping of wood pierced through the chatter of peasants in the grand courtyard. Axes swung into the air and then hammered back down in near unison, like a piercing metronome that counted the remaining hours until dusk. The sun peeked over the horizon underneath an orange sky, providing just enough light for those labouring in the courtyard to continue on. Once nightfall came, Lord Dominic would be hosting a feast for the visiting Martelli, Duke of Alaxi. The guest of honour was arriving in only a few hours, and an army of peasants worked to ensure that the courtyard would be prepared.
My axe swung into the air amongst the others. Mine was of visibly better quality and larger than those of the two men cutting by my side. The sharp iron tool sliced through the air as gracefully as it cut through the lumber on its return trip, easily breaking the wood in a single slice. The other men wielded blunt and inferior tools but they knew well to refrain from any jealous gazes, instead mumbling in frustration as their axes took several swings to chop their logs. I felled wood as though it were an innate function of my body. My arms rose and fell to a distinct beat as a scrawny, younger man rushed to retrieve the finished pieces and replace the log in synchronization to my rhythmic strokes.
The monotonous and rhythmic labour was ubiquitous. Torches were being lit as the daylight trickled from the sky, dimly lighting the way for a group of men to lay down a table in the yard for the guests. Stunning textiles were brought out from Dominic’s manor to decorate the finely crafted table. The finishing touch to the table was a delicate dotting of porcelain dishes. The table was set for a king, and a single gaze at it would reveal that any meal of bread or oatmeal would offend the furniture itself. Only the finest cuts of meats would be served this night, with a luxury of abundance far surpassing the wildest dreams of those who set up the courtyard. I wondered if Dominic had recognized my hard work today, and if so then perhaps I would be entitled to whatever the noblemen could not finish.
Aldo, a nobleman under Dominic, approached us and signaled quietly to halt. The two men beside me also put down their axes, huffing and sweating.
“This is sufficient.” Aldo looked at the young men who were collecting the lumber. “Go bring the firewood beside the pit. We should not have to walk all the way to the end of the courtyard if our guests get cold.” The young peasants moaned but began to collect the lumber once again and haul it toward the fire pit. The other men who were cutting wood had disappeared quickly, trying desperately to dodge any further assignments.
“Sir Aldo, I can move the wood. They can rest.” I spoke to Aldo in the most amiable tone that I could manage. He started at me for a moment.
“No, they will still carry the lumber, but you may assist them. They will work quicker that way.” He nodded appreciatively. “I will let Dominic know of your initiative, however.”
I did not hesitate to grab significant loads of wood for each trip. The other boys were exhausted and I had a much greater carrying capacity than they did. What might have been another hour’s work for them was completed in about fifteen minutes with my help. As I completed my final trip, I looked up to see that the sun had fallen from the sky. I had hardly noticed time’s passage, and the two boys had fled. A nobleman stood at the gates, rushing the labourers to leave the courtyard. Those who had contributed significantly to the preparation of the courtyard were given some of the extra or less desirable cuts of meat from the dinner as reward for their hard work.
“Mastiff!” I heard Dominic’s voice call me from the end of the courtyard. I turned to face him and walked quickly to where he stood. “Aldo told me that you worked hard today.” He said. “I am pleased. You know that today is a big day for me.” I smiled at him. “I have gotten word that Martelli will be arriving a short time earlier than expected, so I would like you to go inside now.”
“I can.” I responded, and began to turn away.
“Not so fast, Mastiff. Today, I would like for you to clean yourself up and come back outside when we beckon you. Martelli has been dealing with some barbarians in his province lately and he has heard of your valour. He would like to negotiate a contract tonight, and I need to present you well. Do you understand?”
“Good, now go inside and put on clean clothing. Perhaps wash the sweat from your body if you have time. Aldo will let you know when you are needed. You may go.”
I headed toward Dominic’s manor, intrigued by the idea that I was wanted at the table tonight. I lugged my way through the side entrance of the manor, bypassing the more aesthetic rooms of the home. Instead, Dominic’s manor had a short and shoddily constructed wooden hallway that led to a room around the side of the manor where I spent most of my free time. The room provided everything that I needed for comfortable survival, and for that I was thankful. The room had a bed for sleeping on, though it wasn’t quite large enough for me to roll over in, and a large iron bucket for me to bathe myself with. Dominic provided me with fresh water for the bucket every two or three days, and also gave me enough food and water to survive. It was usually very basic food, but it was always enough to survive.
I stripped and walked over to the bathwater. I noticed that the water had been refilled and a new, clean rag was also provided. Knowing that I might be needed soon, I bathed quickly, wiping the sweat from today’s labour off of my body and I washed my hair. When I was done, I put on fresh clothing and tied my hair back into a tight ponytail that fell from the crest of my head to my shoulders. I tugged gently at the fabric of the clothing that I had been provided with; it was strangely formal and ill-fitting. It did not resemble the clothing that the men who surrounded me wore. It was instead a finely woven tunic, bearing the Ferro family crest, that of Lord Dominic. It was scarlet in colour, and fell awkwardly on my large frame. By the standards of the noblemen, it was a much nicer piece of clothing than my usual ragged wear. After taking a moment to accept the strange clothing that I was being made to wear, I began to walk to Dominic’s common room, where I figured that I would be given orders. Before I got there, however, I was stopped in the hall.
A small, shaggy man stood in the hallway and looked up at me uneasily. He held a straight razor and a small glass bottle. He stuttered as he addressed me.
“L-lord Dominic has requested that–that you shave your face and use perfume. He would really like to impress tonight’s guests.”
I took the objects from him and returned to my room for a moment. The man left immediately afterward without saying another word. Wetting my face with the bathwater, I took another moment to consider what tonight meant. I did not often get to meddle in employment affairs. In fact, I was hardly ever even told that an opportunity had become available until it was time to act. Dominic was going to great lengths to groom me, almost to the same degree as he had for his wedding ceremony. Something grand was on the horizon, and I felt a small surge of excitement pass through my body.
“Mastiff.” Aldo’s voice called through the corridor. “Dominic would like for you to come out as soon as you can.”
“I will go, Sir Aldo.” I called back in a polite tone. I ran one hand across my face to make sure that I had not cut my skin or missed any hairs, and headed to where Aldo’s voice had come from. He greeted me with a smile, a very unusual occurrence. He, too, seemed excited. I followed him as he led me back out toward the courtyard.
It had undergone a great transformation, even since the time when I had finished preparing the yard. The sky was now completely vacant of the sun, instead lit by stars which gently poured light onto the faces of those at the table. Howling laughter and stimulating conversation filled one’s ears much like the smoke from the torches and the scent of cooked pork filled one’s nose. Candles sat atop the table between the dishes and diners. The table was now a shining beacon in the otherwise dimly lit courtyard, and a pure, positive energy radiated from the men seated there. Aldo brought me closer to the table, and as I arrived I took notice of an empty chair to Dominic’s right. Aldo signaled for me to take that seat, and I did so. As I neared the table, the men began to quiet down, and once I had taken a seat they had became silent.
“This is my Mastiff.” Dominic proudly stated, putting a hand on my shoulder. “He is the best bounty hunter you will find in any price range. He has been killing since the age of ten, and has since then honed his abilities. He has either killed or returned over one hundred wanted men. All of the names are on record, if you do not believe it so. These are not petty thieves either, mind you. Among the men hunted by him are Shogo, the pillager or Bonne Rago, and Sjorte of the nomadic Kanden barbarians to the north. Please, don’t forget that this count does not include those who died at my Mastiff’s hands attempting to defend their leaders. I can undoubtedly say that he is the most formidable fighter you can find. He will be worth every piece of silver that you spend.”
The qualifications of which Dominic spoke were true. Bounty hunting was something I did, and something that I did very well. It was usually a simple task: enter a place, retrieve a person or body, and return it. I had been doing so since childhood, and it seemed to me and Dominic that bounty hunting was a mundane form of income by now. Dominic’s rejuvenated fervour to sell my services only further solidified my suspicions that Martelli was a man to impress. The table remained silent, some men with their mouths wide open. Somehow, I felt that the resume Dominic had presented for me was not the reason for their astonishment. After what seemed like an eternity, Martelli finally spoke.
“He is an orc.”
“Well of course he is an orc, had that not been the reason you traveled so far to see me?” Dominic spoke nonchalantly.
“I was unaware that he was an orc. This does explain his legendary strength and finesse, though. I suppose it is logical that he is an orc. I simply did not expect it.” Dominic smiled as Martelli spoke. “Where, Dominic, did you get an orc?”
“Well, I do not like to speak about my Mastiff’s private affairs with others, but I certainly have an orc, and he is a very great bounty hunter. He is qualified to do as you would like.”
Martelli spoke carefully, and leaned into the table. “Five thousand silver lira.”
Dominic chortled, “I know that these barbarians will cause more than five thousand silver lira of damage if left unmanaged. My Mastiff will not work for less than ten thousand, plus you must provide the two of us with board.”
“Too expensive.” Martelli leaned back.
“I’m sorry to hear that, Martelli. My Mastiff was quite excited about this proposition. Head inside Mastiff, we are done here.”
Wordlessly, I nodded at Martelli. “I can, my lord.” I stood and began to walk back to the manor.
“Okay, seven thousand.”
Dominic shook his head slowly. “Martelli, if you are not willing to make a fair proposition, then we should at least enjoy the dinner that I had my chef prepare for us. We can still enjoy one another’s company.” Dominic took a bite out of his meat.
“Fine.” Martelli’s spoke harshly and pounded his fist on the table. “Ten thousand, but board must be handled by you. You may stay in Nakovan’s inn at a reduced price. You will have ten months to complete your duties.”
At Martelli’s words, Dominic grinned from ear to ear. “I’m glad that we could finally come to a reasonable agreement.”
He lifted his head and called out to me. “Mastiff, return to the table!” I turned around and did so. Once I had arrived, he signaled for me to face Martelli. “This is Martelli, Mastiff. Greet him; he shall be your superior for the next ten months. You and I will be travelling to his land, Alaxi. We will stay in Nakovan and deal with a foreign uprising.”
“Hello, my Duke.” I kneeled to bow to him, and stood once more. Martelli nodded in acknowledgement.
I faced Dominic once more. He spoke. “Mastiff, have a slice of pork in celebration. You may take it back to your room. Rest; we will travel to Alaxi in the morning. We will go with Martelli on his return trip.” A man at the table passed me a plate with a large slice of pork, which I took. As I began to walk away, Dominic called to me once more. “Mastiff, leave the plate at the table.” I took the pork off of the plate and returned it to the man. “Goodnight, Mastiff.”
“Goodnight.” I returned to my room.