Alexander stood looking out of his window, his gaze scanning the horizon from east to west. The fires of war still burnt, the scars of the wizards magics littering the view.
The years had been hard. Food was scarce and more people arrived at the shanty town just over the river everyday. Technically that town was not part of his concern, but Riverside was the last Fort Town still standing, and as far as he knew he was the last Patriarch still alive. That being the case everything this side of the mountain border was now his burden. It was a burden that needed to be shared.
Alexander was not a warrior, was not a paladin and in no way was he a leader. He was, for all intents and purposes, an accountant. His job had to been to keep tallies on the income from the people of the fort and those the fort protected and to ensure that that income covered the expenses of the fort. Income came in many forms, but the two basics were food and metal. Money was a relatively new invention, and with Riverside being the last fort standing, and was now relatively worthless. Keeping people fed he was good at; keeping their morale up and planning a strategic defence he was not.
Of course a fort was meant to have three clear leaders. A Patriarch (or Matriarch if more applicable), a High Lord of the Armies and a Grand Paladin. Both of his counterparts were now dead, with the Paladin Order of Riverside now completely devoid of members. He did still have an army, but they were rudderless and now more of a burden to him than a boon.
His own council was similarly in tatters. His second, a young man named Arthur, had crossed the Mountain Border to align himself with the Wizards, taking with him secrets of fort design and the weapons they were working on to fight the war. His wife, Margaret, had left the table behind to become the de facto head of the growing underground element, and his secretary Bob had seemingly vanished into the ether. He was alone, and alone he could not keep Riverside going.
The town across the river was his only hope. He needed them to join with the fort and provide good men and women for his table. He needed someone to take control of the army and he needed a Paladin to take residence in the Hall. Lastly, he needed to find a replacement for himself. He was too polarising a figure to stay in command, and if he was honest he no longer wanted to do it. His passion now fell into the Mech project, and he knew the future rested on its success.
A knock on his door made him swing round from the view. It opened before he could say a word, his wife of twenty years sauntering in as if nothing had happened. Let her. This meeting would go easier if she believed she was in charge.
“Margaret. You look well.”
And she did. Younger than him by some ten years and of a beauty well above his own, she would always be a striking figure. But more than that her fierce intelligence shone through her auburn eyes. She was never going to last as second fiddle to anyone, let alone a wet blanket like himself. Still, they had had some good and memorable years, some of them even fun. His love for her was still as real as it always had been; he doubted she felt the same.
“The same cannot be said for you. You look tired and malnourished. Not a good look for a Patriarch.”
“I will not eat more than I need as the people starve. We may have pushed the Wizards back over the border for another season, but our crops took a huge hit. I have sent out parties to see if any of the other forts lands can be harvested or supplies taken from their keeps, but even so I doubt we can feed everyone this winter.”
“Do you try and guilt me, Alex?”
“I never have and I never will. But if the rumours of you and yours stealing food for your own stockpiles is true there should already be guilt in your heart.”
He watched as his proud wife deflated. The rumours he knew were true, but still he had hoped she was not directly involved.
“They are not for our stockpiles, we have more than enough squirrelled away. But a few of our members are fascinated with money, putting more weight in paper than food and people. They steal the food in the hopes the people will buy it back. I have tried to stop it but my word only carries so much weight and I can not afford to splinter the gangs; only bloodshed and death lies that way.”
Alexander smiled. Margaret had always been a woman of action, where he was one of cautious words. That she dove headfirst into the gang problem and created a delicate peace was just her way. That it also took her away from him was obviously a bonus.
“The people have no money.” He said.
A flash of anger in those fierce eyes sent a jolt through him.
“I know that! But those idiot gang leaders don’t and will not take my word for it. But you have money, stacks of it. Give it to the people, let them buy back their food.”
He stifled a smile. Clever as she was, she was no politician. Alexander had many weaknesses, but playing people was not one of them. He hated to do it to his wife, but she would come to no harm because of it and he needed quick action.
“I cannot give them money for nothing. If I flood the people with money even your idiot Gand leaders will see it has no value. Yet you are right. I have not the army to take the food back by force or to quell the gangs when they surge force with their reprisal for such an action. But for money to have value it must be given to the people in exchange for something else, yet the people have nothing.”
He watched his wife carefully. The idea had to be hers, and she could only be spoon fed so much before realising she was being played. Normally quick at this kind of thing he could see that she was struggling to join the dots. Lost in concentration as she was he could see she was not as together as she once was. Her once flawless skins was marred with worry lines, her once full skin starting to sag from her bones. She was sacrificing as much as he was, she was just much better at hiding it. But a mind cannot function without fuel, and she was clearly eating so little that her mind was starting to run dry.
“Shit.” He said.
He never swore, and the word brought a smile to his wife’s lips. He should not play her, it was not the relationship he wanted with her. Always he had been honest, even when it meant a disagreement between the two. This course of action was cowardly, and unbecoming of a husband to his wife.
“You are my wife, and we may no longer live together and you may no longer see me as your husband, but you are still my wife. I have always been honest and open with you, yet today I tried to play you like I have so many others. No more. I have a plan and I ask you hear me out.”
He saw the anger in her, at his words or at his actions, he could not tell. He could see she almost turned to leave, and in that second his heart almost broke. Yet she did not leave, instead she simply nodded and waited.
“We need to bring the shanty town over the river under control of the fort. The council table needs to have bums around it, the army needs a leader and the Hall needs to be repopulated. To do that we need to build a bridge, and to build a bridge I need workers and materials.
“Workers I have; the townspeople. Materials you have hidden away or know where to get them from. I can pay the people to build the bridge. If you can put a clean front over your compatriots I can pay them for the materials, and the people will pay them directly for the food. If money is what they want they will have stacks of it to play with.
“When the bridge is built they will have a whole new area to exploit, and I know for a fact that the town has money from the others forts flowing through it and people have arrived well stocked with food and materials for the future. What do you think?”
She took some time to answer, clearly rolling the idea around in her mind, looking for any gaps she could exploit or traps she could be walking into.
“A fine plan, one I wish I had had if I’m honest. It will be a hard sell, even harder to have the town join us with you in charge. Huh, but then you don’t intend to be in charge do you? They will want you hanged you know, for what you did, or rather, what you didn’t.”
He knew; it didn’t matter. His fort still existed and the Wizards had been forced to retreat because of his actions. They could hang him if they must, but he didn’t plan to stay in Riverside for long after this meeting.
“My fate is immaterial. Every action I do or do not take is in service of Riverside and her people. They will either see that or they won’t. But yes, I do not intend to be Patriarch when the town becomes part of Riverside. I am its past and I am looking to give it a future.”
“Good. I will announce the bridge project in two weeks, asking for all people to join in the effort for compensation in the way of money. By that time you must have made the idea of money attractive to the people and founded a legitimate enterprise to supply the building materials. Can you work to that timeframe?”
“Good. This will likely be our last meeting, though I imagine you will soon see the inside of this council chamber again. It was pleasure to work with you, and I am glad I got to share your life with you for the time I did.”
She nodded, slowly turning to leave. With her back now to Alex, she spoke once more.
“This may well be our last meeting as Patriarch and whatever I am now, but a husband should never abandon his wife, or a wife her husband. We both put duty above all else, but when the dust settles I will find you. I love you, Alex. Though I know you struggle to believe me, it does not alter the fact.”
She left before he could respond, before he could even fully comprehend her words. He turned back to the large window, a smile on his face. The likelihood they would ever meet again was slim, for the path he intended to walk would almost certainly mean death, and more likely sooner rather than later. Still, she loved him and he loved her, and that was enough.