As planned, the next morning, a much restored Dilandau and his second-in-command left Chesta and Ryuon back at the inn to scout the outskirts of the small town. They were meandering through farms and pastures in search of anything that might be of interest to a group of mercenaries.
The dirt road circling the village was well preserved and all around they could see old farmers calmly working the sun-kissed crops with the help of large, gentle oxen beasts. Gatti thought this was the sort of place where he saw himself living once he got too old to follow Lord Dilandau and decided he wanted to settle down with a family. But that was a long time into the future still, he knew, as he contemplated how his Lord stood straight atop his horse next to him, scrutinizing the landscape with hawk-like detachment.
They had just finished scouring the temporary settlements erected around town. It had taken the two of them hours amongst the multitude of precarious tents to get a feel for the lifestyle of the refugees sheltered there, only to come to the conclusion that there wasn't anyone interested on hiring their services. After that, Lord Dilandau had left quite upset, not just from the lack of results but also from having been forced to endure the company of the miserable for so long. Gatti was wisely choosing to remain silent for the rest of the ride back so as not to unintentionally inflame his Captain's temper.
The sandy-haired Slayer was trying to think of something to pass the time, when a cry coming from the road ahead caught his attention.
"What was that?" he asked automatically, before realising that a riderless, brown horse was leisurely trotting in their direction. When the beast reached them, it halted to greet their mounts and, seeing the saddle, Dilandau reached out to grab the harness.
Just then, a sprinting young woman came into view. She was gasping for breath like she had been running for a good while. Tendrils of platinum-gold hair clung to her cheeks, while others stood up from the wind, giving her a wild air. Her cheeks were healthily coloured from the strain, but she was undeniably a pretty lady, even if grime and use had worn her light purple dress plain.
"I thank you for catching him, sirs," she told the pair with a harmonious, yet precise, voice. Dilandau was surprised by her delicate accent, thinking it sounded strange coming from a country woman's mouth. "One of the boys left the stall doors open and the horse was frightened away by the working beasts nearby..."
"It was nothing," Gatti said. He knew Dilandau was not one for polite exchanges, and he did not want to leave the apparently kind woman alone to suffer his Captain's intense glare - not that she seemed to be minding it much so far. "Have you been running long?"
"Not much." She turned back to the way she had come to point out a farmhouse at the crest of an elevation. "Just from over that hill over there, but I'm afraid I'm not used to running even that much. I have always lived in the city, you see, and there are no endless pastures in which to chase horses there," she feebly joked.
Gatti gave a polite laugh, while his silver-haired Captain extended the wayward mount's reigns to the young woman.
"You are not from around here, then? One of the war refugees?" the Slayer asked.
"Yes," she nodded. She was looking at Dilandau with curiosity, probably wondering why the red-eyed stranger hadn't said anything yet. "I'm out here, while my brother is fighting in the war, back home..." she let the sentence hang for a while before changing the subject, obviously not wanting to pursue that line of thought. "Say, would you two be so kind as to lend us a hand back at the farm? We could use the extra pair of horses."
"We're busy," Dilandau callously dropped, hoping to drive the girl and her useless chatter away.
"It would only take a minute," she insisted, earnestly focusing on the silver-haired man.
"No," Dilandau said with finality, before the woman engaged him in a staring competition, red versus blue.
He had to admit she was bold. It was rare the occasion when he met a man who could look him in the eye without flinching, and to find this quality in a woman... It was refreshing, if unexpected.
Eventually, she gave up on the strangers. The silver-haired Captain heard her mutter something about mercenaries under her breath - a curse, most likely - earning herself another favourable point in his opinion. She was sharp to have realised what they were.
Turning to her horse, she carelessly threw a leg over its back to mount, unwittingly awarding the Dragon Slayer Captain with an eye-opening display of the white creamy skin of her thigh in the process that left Dilandau staring at the spot even after the dress had fallen back to cover it. Then, looking exclusively at Gatti, she thanked and bade them farewell before spurring her horse to move.
"Pretty little thing, wasn't she?" Gatti commented with slight admiration, looking at the young woman's retreating back.
Dilandau "hmm"ed at him, still not quite in his right state of mind, and motioned for them to be on their way.
"I wish we could have helped her, though," Gatti added some time later.
Dilandau shook his head, relinquishing once and for all the thoughts of how nice it would feel to be with a woman again, to instead remind himself how the way Gatti was reacting had been the exact thing that had earned him his position as second-in-command.
From among all the available Black Dragon Army recruits, he had been the chosen one, not only because he had been exceptional with a sword for his age - and Dilandau would not have picked anyone who was much older than him - but also because he had the social skills that the silver-haired commander sorely lacked. He had been an asset to the elite Dragon Slayers team, with his unquestioning loyalty and aptitude to get along well with other people, no matter how different, and now that their little group was forced to mingle with the crowds those skills were coming in especially handy.
Conversely, it had also been one of Dilandau's priorities when training him to temper the young man's soft side.
"Gatti, what we need right now is a paying job; not to be wasting time on charity for a daft girl."
"Yes, Lord Dilandau." And that had been the end of the discussion.
By the time the sun had hit its highest point, Dilandau and Gatti were back at the inn, hoping that Chesta and Ryuon had had better luck than them. Walking into the establishment, they found the pair sitting by a group of tables pulled together in one corner, already digging into their lunches. Gatti's stomach growled a loud protest at the sight.
"We told the cook to save you two some food, don't worry," Ryuon told them upon noticing this, while dragging a chair from a nearby table closer with his foot.
Chesta, ever the more sensible one, rose and took it away from his reach, offering it to Lord Dilandau. "Any luck?" the petit blond then asked.
"Nothing. Everyone is being very well taken care of at the camps and the supplies are plenty enough that there aren't any conflicts. No one has any errands to run or needs to have things delivered abroad. No missing family members to be found, no debts to collect, no wishes for anyone to drop dead, no nothing," Dilandau told his subordinates. "Just a stupid girl wanting to borrow our horses."
"It's the same thing around here. But we did manage to find out that there might be a need of people to act as security during the distribution of the emergency supplies that arrive regularly in town," Chesta reported.
"Apparently, there are always some guys who think they're better than the rest and try to hoard the goods for themselves," Ryuon elaborated, after offering the rest of his food to Gatti. "And it also seems that it's been getting worse, since there isn't anyone around to put up a fight."
"How is that possible? The whole town gathers down there when the supplies arrive, we saw it yesterday," the second-in-command wondered in-between bites.
"Doesn't matter," Dilandau said. He was not about to question a possible job, when it was one where they could finally use their swords again. "It sounds like it could be interesting, not to mention easy. Did you find out anything about possible payment?"
"That's the catch. The people distributing the supplies are all volunteers. We don't know what kind of payment they could offer."
Everyone around the table lowered and fixed their gazes upon its grimy surface. When the Captain next spoke, it was only to confirm what was already running through everyone's minds.
"We'll go talk to these volunteers and see what they have to say. If things don't start looking up by this afternoon, we'll use the rest of our money to stock up on supplies and check out of the inn. We'll have to find a better place to stay, or even leave town. Chatal had too much trouble, but this place has far too little to keep us busy..."
Later that afternoon, the Dragon Slayers were to be found stationed at the entrance to the stables, where they had seen the supplies arriving the previous day. Their plan was to find out who was coordinating the volunteers, and then talk to the man to try to reach some sort of arrangement.
Dilandau stood stoically, arms crossed over his chest and looking bored as he leaned against a wall. Ryuon and Gatti were being more practical and had chosen to rest their legs and sit on the steps that lead out to the street. Chesta was inside, taking the opportunity to pay the ostler his daily fee and making sure the horses had been well treated.
The group was not sure whether or not any convoys would be arriving today, but they had no other way of contacting their would-be employer. Consisting mostly of volunteers, the workgroup didn't have a post where they could go to for information, and no one they had spoken to had been very forthcoming about identifying the person in charge or telling them where he could be found.
Fortunately for the Dragon Slayers, the hour at which they had arrived the previous day was drawing closer and people were slowly but steadily beginning to gather in the street. Things were looking favourable.
The beginning signs of a commotion at the end of the street caught the attention of the ex-soldiers, and soon a wagon of the same type as the one they had seen the previous day, was clearing a path through the crowd towards them. The pair of beasts pulling the transport - bulky and grey with their horns sawed so they were harmless - was foaming in the mouth from exhaustion and thirst, and obediently stopped close to the entrance to the stables when the driver pulled the reigns.
A skinny young boy jumped off from the back of the wagon and pulled open the grate that was securing their precious merchandise at the back. Several men and women were waiting close by and as soon as the boy was done, they approached to unload the cargo.
Dilandau was pleased to see that there weren't many workers and that what few there were looked as needy as the rest of the crowd. It was also impossible to identify a possible leader, for they all executed their tasks equally: picking up as many crates as they could carry and taking them to a nearby house.
Meanwhile, another group was busy setting up a row of stalls in front of that house, separating the goods in the boxes and putting part of them up on the stands for sale, while the rest went inside. Dilandau looked on that last bit of activity with interest. If they were making a profit out of this, it would not be impossible for them to pay for their services.
"Gatti," he called.
Gatti was standing next to him in no time, but Dilandau didn't continue right away, for his eyes had encountered a curiously familiar sight. The girl he and his second-in-command had found on the road was just leaving the storage house and picking up more supplies to carry inside. It appeared as if she worked there as well.
"Find me the man in charge," the Dragon Slayer Captain finally said.
The Dragon Slayer immediately immersed himself in the crowd, under the attentive gazes of his companions. Dilandau disengaged his stare from the platinum-gold hair of the girl he had recognized and turned to Ryuon.
"Go get Chesta," he commanded his remaining dark-haired Slayer. Once again, his order was promptly followed.
The blond seer had probably already been on his way to join them, for Ryuon's footsteps had yet to fade when Dilandau heard them approaching again and at double the speed. He wondered if something had happened to bother the psychic, knowing how sensitive the sunny-haired Slayer could be to disturbances sometimes. His assumption was proven correct when the two emerged, Chesta looking at him with a sense of urgency.
"Lord Dilandau, something is going to happen, right..."
Across the street and a little further down, a man had just pushed an elderly woman into the stalls during an attempt to snag the bag she had been holding. The precarious wooden counter the few volunteers had put up did little to soften her fall, instead coming down like a house of cards and throwing the many colourful garments that had lain atop it to the ground.
"...now," the petite Slayer finished.
Dilandau knew for a fact that the seer's omen could not have been referring to something as petty as that woman's fall, so he upped his guard and waited for the situation to escalate.
The Captain did not move, but Ryuon and Chesta both stepped forward, the dark-haired Slayer going as far as to place a hand on the hilt of his sword. Standing just behind the wagon and close to where the stands had been, Gatti cast a questioning glance at his Captain, but remained where he was, ready for any eventuality but following his lead by not intervening right away.
The townspeople were not being quite so passive and, while some of the workers - fair-headed beauty included, Dilandau noted - helped the fallen woman back to shaky feet, a few of the strongest men had stepped forward to defend the elder.
They shouted colourful demands at the assailant and moved in on him, confident that their size and numbers would be enough to discourage him from any further action. They probably thought that they could not permit any disrespect or untowardly behaviour between the folk, lest the fragile town become a lawless haven for bandits in the blink of an eye. Unfortunately for them, they were underestimating their opposition.
Seeing their advance, the initial assailant threw the bag of goods he'd just taken over his shoulder and produced a ruddy-looking sword from under his long beige tunic. In addition to that, four more bandits had extricated themselves from the crowd to join their friend, bearing their own weapons and dragging a wailing woman by the hair along.
The threat was clear and the townspeople did nothing but watch as the group cleared the rest of the goods on the stalls and opened a path towards the wagon.
Risking a chance now that their attention was no longer fully concentrated on the woman being held hostage, one brash - or dim-witted - townsman crept closer to the villainous group. In an unexpected move, he lunged forward, managing to score a punch on a surprised thug, before another swung his blade at his midriff and cut him down.
Dilandau secretly smiled when he saw the fear and surprise on the people's eyes. It looked like this town had just become worth their while.