Release that Witch Chapter 874
Despite the fact that there were numerous functioning wells around the castle, the servants were still unable to control the flames. The fire started without any notice, and by the time people outside realized that something was wrong, thick columns of smoke already filled the whole interior of the dungeon and held back any potential rescue attempts.
The First Army promptly retreated out of the castle and sealed off the area. The fire lasted for hours, and by the time most of the smoke had finally dissipated, there was already nothing left of the prisoners previously held inside.
Without delay, the First Army started to clean up the scene and investigate the incident. The officers who came with the army set up a temporary City Hall and began to take over the administration of Valencia.
Soon they found out the cause of the fire: a group of Rats had sneaked into the dungeon through a secret passage and ignited the stacks of wheat on account of their resentment for Duke Berger who turned this once prosperous trade city into a husk of its former self.
Therefore, this was an egregious arson, a significant threat to the order of the Eastern Region, and an act of open defiance to the First Army of Neverwinter.
Apart from propagandizing the investigation result, the First Army and the City Hall started a city-wide operation to root out the Rats; leniency to those who confessed, punishment to those who resisted, silvers for those who reported, grains for anyone with information. Moreover, the food liberated from the mansions of the nobles was recirculated back into the market and was also used to succor the starving. The previously near-dead city now regained its vitality.
The night the command to exterminate the Rats was given, Bearpaw entered Iron Axe's tent once again.
"Chief, we've spotted some signs of the evacuation of the big families. A dozen carriages exited through the West City Gate, seemingly heading for Seawindshire. Some of the furrows left behind by the carriages were particularly deep, so I think they must be loaded with..."
"Gold and jewelry." Iron Axe put down the quill in his hand. "I've made myself clear at the start that I will only want their food, so they can take anything else as they wish."
The commander-in-chief was not at all surprised when he heard about the nobles' hasty evacuation.
The moment the dungeon was on fire, any trust between the First Army and the nobles had crumbled. At that point, fleeing this place was, in their opinions, the only way to survive. A noble family could bear losing its lords and some knights, for the title could be inherited, and more knights can be accoladed, but they have already lost the courage to confront the First Army directly.
Instead of staying here to wait for their inevitable demise, they had much rather take the remaining family members, servants, and fortune to somewhere far away in hopes of new opportunities. Their lands were very important, but naturally, they much more cherish their lives.
Also, to prepare for battle, Wilion Berger had gathered all the nearby resources to Valencia, thus leaving the surrounding lands in such a sorry state that it would take at least two or three years of hard work before they were of any value again. Otherwise, those nobles would not have made up their mind to turn tail and run away so soon.
"Chief, I have one more question..." Bearpaw paused, his next words frozen on his lips. This was very rare for the simple-minded lieutenant.
"Go on," Iron Axe said seriously.
"Were you the one who set the dungeon on fire?" Bearpaw hesitated for a long moment before he asked this under his breath.
"What makes you say that?"
"The secret tunnel was designed with a partition door made of solid iron that was far beyond a few Rats' skills to open. Also, I don't think our stationed brothers were so lax that they would be completely unaware of the arsonists. I've checked the dungeon, and the burning marks suggested that the fire was more likely to have started in the corridor rather than in the cells. Lastly, from the look of the burnt wreckage, I believe the blaze was fueled by oil."
"You're right. The fire was set under my command." Iron Axe nodded.
Bearpaw, who was startled by his boss's unreserved confession, was stunned for a while before he found his voice again, "Why?"
"I think it's better that these kinds of things are left for me to handle. The more people that know of the plan means a bigger chance for something to go wrong."
"That's not what I mean." The lieutenant shook his head. "I mean... didn't they already surrender?"
"I see..." Iron Axe meditated for a moment and said, "To be frank, I don't have the time to discern whether or not they were sincere in their surrender, nor does His Majesty has time to judge one by one. This is why His Majesty had given me full control over the Eastern Front before the army left Neverwinter."
"Are you going to tell me that a sentence without a trial may kill the innocents among them?" Iron Axe said brusquely, handing his lieutenant a book on the desk. "Have a look."
"Is this a... demographic report?"
"Yes, we found it in the library." The chief nodded. "Five years ago, 220,000 people were living in Valencia and the surrounding lands. It was the most prosperous area in the Eastern Region. But by this year, the population has dropped to a mere 60,000. The refugees we've taken in from the Eastern Region are about 30,000 to 40,000 people in total. If we round it up to 40,000, the deficit still stands at about around 120,000 even without considering the growth in population. I believe you are aware of the cause for this."
Bearpaw gasped. "The farmlands that were ruined by floods..."
"And they have also distorted Valencia beyond recognition." Iron Axe arose and walked up to the candlestick, his hands on his back. "Wilion apparently called up all the people who lived nearby to work for him. They were sent to block the roads and reinforce the walls. He alone should never have been entitled to this kind of authority. This would never have been possible unless he was backed by someone more powerful or, even worse, assisted by the other nobles. As a result, the massive dislocation of people had severely interrupted trade and left much of the crops unattended to. In other words, all those nobles are accomplices of the Duke. Now, do you still believe that His Majesty will accept their allegiance?"
Bearpaw was dumbfounded for a moment.
"But they did not lie about believing in their innocence," Iron Axe continued, "For all they care, what they've done was no big deal. Even with half of the farmlands ending up being devastated, their mansions were still crammed with food, and even... human. After all, meat can save for longer than wheat when properly stored."
Bearpaw's pupils suddenly contracted.
"To put the cherry on top, what they've done critically hinders the progress of His Majesty's plan. Our king values the population more than any other resource, but they squandered their human resources wastefully. Can you imagine how the battle would have turned out if we didn't have the mortars with us? You know how difficult it is to move the field artillery in the mud. We would have had to resort to storming the city or prolonging the battle. I don't think the nobles would have yielded before they used up all their people had we not have come prepared." Iron Axe turned around. "Any other questions?"
For a long moment, Bearpaw kept his head down. Finally, he glanced up. "You're right. It would be too merciful to let them just burn to death... But His Majesty didn't give this specific command, did he? What if he hears of..."
"What do you mean 'what if'?" Iron Axe raised his eyebrow. "Do you think that I'll hide this from my King? No, he'll know. I've included everything that has happened in Valencia so far in the report for him, and I'll take full responsibility regardless of the outcome."