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The kingdom of Brune had invaded the kingdom of Muozinel with an army of more than 20,000 in spring. In response to that, Muozinel had gathered its soldiers, who were protecting the kingdom’s border, in order to meet the enemy in the field. Both armies squared off on a prairie located near the Red Sand River which functioned as a border between both kingdoms.
The air around here was so scorching hot that it not only dried out the land but also felt like it’d burn one’s skin off. This was also the reason why Muozinel was known as 『Kingdom of Summer Heat』. Even the Red Sand River had lost most of its water, exposing the accumulated red sand, which was the source of its name, on the riverbed.
Brune’s army consisted of 7,000 cavalrymen and 16,000 infantrymen. On the other hand, the Muozinel’s army opposed the Brunians with less than 6,000 infantrymen and a negligible number of cavalrymen in a bid to hinder their further advance.
The battleground took place on flat land with no conspicuous obstacles, making it a terrain more advantageous to the larger army. And yet, not a single trace of despair was to be found on the faces of the Muozinel soldiers. Even their flags, depicting the golden sword and helmet symbolizing their war god, looked as if they were proudly fluttering in the wind.
“They appear to be awfully calm about this, don’t they?” Tigre frowned at the enemy’s state from his position among Brune’s vanguard.
I might be overthinking things here.
He was well aware of the nervousness and anxiety gnawing at him. He had experienced several smaller battles such as bandit subjugations, but it was his first time to stand on a battlefield where the armies of countries would clash.
His horse snorted. He suspected that it might dislike the heat or feel frightened by the pressure exuded by the enemy several hundred alsin away from them, and thus stroked its neck so as to calm it.
The vanguard was comprised of roughly a thousand infantrymen and a few cavalrymen. Tigre and the fifty infantry under him were but a small fraction of that unit. The other 22,000 soldiers, the main force, were encamped roughly 500 hundred alsin (approx. 500 meters) behind them.
“Looks like a nasty role’s been pushed on us, Milord,” commented Raphinaque with a sarcastic undertone while standing next to Tigre.
He was wearing a leather armor above his usual clothes. A cloth was coiled around his head as protection against the sun, and he was shouldering a long-handled spear.
Before the start of this battle, Duke Thenadier, the supreme commander of the Brunian force, had ordered the vanguard the following:
“Take on the enemy charge and lure them in while retreating.”
That’s easy for you to say, was Tigre’s impression. I wonder how many soldiers of the vanguard will manage to survive if the enemy follows Duke Thenadier’s expectation?
Tigre looked behind him. The ones standing there were Alsace’s residents whom his father Urs had recruited for this war. Together with Raphinaque, they numbered fifty. All of them wore leather armor and had a cloth coiled around their head, just like Raphinaque. The weapons in their hands, which they had been provided for this war, were a mix of long-handled spears and scythes. Half of them also held shields.
Tigre smiled at them from atop, jesting with a deliberately cheerful voice, “Guys, your bodies are working fine, right? I’ll be in a bind if your legs cramp up, causing you to fall down, or if you allow them to run away in the wrong direction when push comes to shove, you know?”
“Please don’t worry, Lord Tigre. We’ve grown accustomed t’fleein’ our naggy wives every day.”
As soon as one of the older soldiers cracked a joke, the soldier next to him immediately chipped in, “What’re ye talkin’ ’bout? Doesn’t she always catch ye in the end, just to chew ye out like an old rag?”
“Got it. So you guys can run like your life depends on it, if you feel like your wife is chasing you with the rage of a demon written all over her face, right? Then you just need to imagine her to be on your tail this time around,” Tigre commented in a playful mood.
The soldiers roared in laughter, their bodies shaking.
“Lord Tigre, you should also make sure to keep your calm. After all, it’s been deeds of arms this, deeds of arms that ever since we’ve departed Alsace.”
Tigre ransacked his dull red hair so as to veneer his embarrassment after getting hit by the soldier’s retort. He didn’t show it on his face, but he was feeling bitter about it. After all, far from being allowed to gain deeds of arms, they were treated as disposable pawns instead.
――It’s frustrating, but I’ve got no choice but to bear it for now. It’s the same as with hunting.
It was his first campaign, so there was no way that things would go as he wished. He admonished himself to not fret so much over achievements. He reaffirmed that it was his duty to return to Alsace without allowing his spirited men to die.
Horns blared in the distance, signaling a change in the formation of Muozinel’s army. Their soldiers moved to the sides, opening four paths that divided their army in six separate blocks.
And then, accompanied by furious earthquakes, huge creatures appeared from their army’s rear ― elephants. The overall length of the ten elephants exceeded forty chet (approx. four meters). As they stomped across the ground, they headed for the head of the Muozinel army.
The elephants’ heads, ears, and trunks had been adorned with gold and reinforced with iron. Pelts were wrapped around their forefeet. The elephant riders sitting on their back hurled orders at the animals while spurring them on with spiked sticks. Their dark brown skin gleamed as it reflected the sunlight.
The elephants hooted loudly, causing a clear commotion among the Brunian soldiers. No elephants lived in Brune, so more than half of the Brunians saw those animals for the very first time in their life. Even more so than their physique that reminded one of a sand-colored rock, the soldiers couldn’t help but be struck in awe when seeing the large ears, long noses, and white tusks.
“That’s their war elephant unit, huh?”
A sheen of tense sweat had formed on Tigre’s forehead. Just once, three years ago, he had seen an elephant. But, that had been a tame specimen, trained for entertainment. Its body and aura had been completely different. In addition, Tigre had never seen such a big number of elephants.
“Somehow…those are weird creatures. If I was told they’re monsters out of a fairy-tale, I’d buy into it.”
Tigre was spontaneously lured into laughter upon Raphinaque’s silly comment.
“You’re right, they do look scary, but I doubt I’d go as far as calling them monsters. Watching their ears flap and them grabbing things with their long noses is actually quite heartwarming.”
“That long thing was a nose?”
“What did you think it was?”
Seemingly having imagined something that was hard to put into words, Raphinaque changed the topic after a short pause, “Leaving that aside, how do you fight these things?”
Tigre faced the war elephants, tightened his face, and explained, “I know of three methods. You dodge when they come charging at you, and then stab them with spears from behind and the sides. You face them from the front while wielding weapons with long handles, injuring their forefeet and thus thwarting their movements. Or you lay out boards with many nails on the ground and make them step on those in order to dull their movements by wounding their soles.”
“Did that princess of Olmutz teach you all that? The one being called Snow Princes of the Frozen Ripples<…”
“Yeah. I also heard this from Father. In the end, those methods seem to be the only viable possibilities.”
At first it was planned for his father Urs to participate in the war as the one leading the soldiers while Tigre would have served as adjutant and his father’s assistant. But, because Urs fell sick right before the departure, Tigre joined the expeditionary army as representative of the Vorn family.
Concerned about the safety of his son, Urs had used the time until right before Tigre’s departure to teach him all he could think of. He had also entrusted his son with the family’s heirloom, a black bow. It was the very same bow that Tigre was holding right now.
“Go and grab yourself some deeds of arms,” his father had encouraged the young man. Tigre had firmly grasped his father’s hands, and replied, “I shall fight bravely so as to not bring any shame to the Vorn’s name.”
“Now I know the reason why we were given spears and scythes, but I wonder whether it’ll really work out so smoothly,” questioned Raphinaque with a doubtful look.
Tigre answered with a disappointed expression, “No matter what method we adopt, it looks like we’ll suffer quite a few casualties. Besides, the second method is likely not an option…”
――They’ve probably put pelts around the elephants’ forefeet to mitigate our attacks. Seems like the enemy has come up with some countermeasures too. I mean, it’s only natural for them to fear our army that outnumbers them by almost four times.
Muozinel soldiers showed up among the war elephants. One after the other, they placed something in front of the elephants. The objects, which glittered dully, were Brunian armor pieces.
“What are they up to?” Raphinaque cocked his head in puzzlement.
Suddenly understanding the enemy’s aim, Tigre swallowed hard.
The elephants skillfully wound their noses around the armor pieces in front of them and easily tossed them into the air. They threw them several times into the air as if juggling, or swapped their armor piece with that of another elephant. One of them even let its armor piece roll on the tip of its nose.
The Brunian soldiers stared the sudden street performance in astonishment. But then the elephants all tossed their armor pieces into the air at the same time, just to cruelly pierce them when they fell back down. Then they discarded the punctured armor pieces one after the other.
“…How lavish of them to turn expensive armor pieces into iron scrap,” Raphinaque remarked snidely, but his voice sounded hoarse.
The elephant riders signaled their mounts by lightly beating them with the spiked sticks. The elephants started to advance.
The Brunian soldiers readied their weapons in a hurry, but their ranks had already begun to fall apart.
――Please get away safely.
Tigre prayed in his heart. Directed not only at the soldiers of the Vorn family, but all members of the vanguard.
The war elephants’ pace quickened, gaining in momentum. A cloud of dust was whirled up in their wake, and the vibrating atmosphere made Tigre’s skin tingle. The animals had shortened the distance between them and the Brunian vanguard down to less than 300 alsin.
Tigre tightly grasped his bow and drew two arrows from the quiver affixed to his saddle. One he put in his mouth while nocking the other into the bowstring.
Suddenly he felt several stares full of scorn stabbing him. It was a tradition in Brune to look down on archery.
“The bow is a coward’s weapon who doesn’t have the courage to expose himself to a blade.”
Such thinking was deeply-rooted within the country, and most of the time, the achievements of archers weren’t even considered worthy of evaluation. Tigre had continuously been scorned and insulted for just saying that he’d use a bow.
Why doesn’t he try to hold a long-handled weapon like the others? Does he have no interest in fighting together with his comrades? Tigre suspected that the other Brunians were watching him right now with those questions occupying their minds.
――Think whatever you want.
He spat at them in his head and aimed his first arrow at the elephant coming at him right from the front.
The wind pierced through the cloud of dust. The elephant in front of Tigre and his men reared while screaming. While shaking its huge frame left and right, it cried. Because of that, the elephant rider on its back was thrown off, disappearing somewhere within the cloud of sand.
While calmly observing all that, Tigre nocked the arrow he had held in his mouth next and released it.
The elephant screamed twice as loud as moments ago. It furiously stomped its four feet on the ground. Two arrows were now growing out of its small eyes, tears and blood running down its cheeks.
If a skilled archer had been present in this place, they’d have probably thrown their eyes wide open. It was said that 250 alsin was presently the biggest distance an arrow could travel on this continent. This was a figure that had been measured while under the assumption that letting the arrow fly was the only objective. If you also planned to hit a target with it, it’d be necessary to lower the range significantly.
But, had accurately shot his arrows into the eyes of an elephant that was more than 250 alsin away. On top of that, the elephant had been trashing around due to the pain of having one of its eyes crushed when Tigre released his second arrow.
Having lost both its eyes, the elephant staggered and bumped into another elephant that had tried to pass it. The two animals got entangled and fell to the ground.
Tigre responded with nothing more than a nod at Raphinaque’s praise. He was busy letting his eyes wander to the left and right.
Eight war elephants had ferociously charged into Brune’s vanguard while enveloped by a shroud of sand and dust. The Brunian soldiers brandished their long weapons, slashing at the animals’ forefeet, but not a single beast stopped moving.
Several soldiers were blown away together after getting kicked by one of the forefeet which could be misinterpreted as a stone pillar. The large quantity of spraying blood turned into a crimson fountain, scattering into the air. A soldier, who challenged an elephant from the front, was casually stomped to death, ending his life in a pool of blood. Just like some soldiers had their arms and legs torn off after getting stabbed by tusks, other soldiers were mowed down or slapped on the ground by the trunks. Most of them never rose again.
The elephants’ skin was tough and thick. Moreover, their forefeet were protected by pelts. Even so, the Brunian soldiers challenged their foes resolutely, but they were unable to even make those huge beasts falter with one or two blows. And as the soldiers met such unexpected difficulties, the war elephants brandished their trunks, squashing the soldiers’ heads alongside their helmets.
The flock of elephants, which had increased to nine after one of the two earlier colliders finally stood back up, exhibited even more menace. The ground was dyed with blood, just for a layer of sand to cover the red stains, before a new spell of bloody rain poured down once again. It was an endless repetition of red and sand-colored, speckled patterns. On top of all that, corpses piled up, adding to the ghastliness with each new one. Within a negligible amount of time, more than 200 soldiers were transformed into silent chunks of meat.
The fighting spirit of the Brunian soldiers continued to dwindle. They became ready to flee, faltered, and distanced themselves from the elephants. When one of the elephants swung its trunk as a threat, several dozen soldiers screamed.
“Retreat! Fall back!” Someone yelled with urgency in his voice, causing several of the commanding officers to finally recall the supreme commander’s order.
“Lure them in while retreating,” had Duke Thenadier said.
The elephants hooted while adding new corpses. The Brunian soldiers continued to retreat, threw their weapons away, turned around, and started to run. It was a sight that would be better described as a rout rather than a retreat.
While thrusting their allies away, being thrust away themselves, and treading across their fallen comrades, the Brunian soldiers chaotically scrambled to get away.
“We’re going to run as well.”
Vorn’s soldiers began to run upon Tigre’s order. Since they had been exempted from a war elephant’s charge, they had enough composure left to move orderly. Even at this very moment, the elephant, which had lost both its eyes, was whimpering sorrowfully while lying on the ground.
If Tigre had participated in the battle as an ordinary cavalryman, he might have been able to corner one or two more elephants into becoming unable to move. But, he had to observe his responsibility towards the soldiers under him. He hurried towards the main force while casting a sidelong glance at his allies getting trampled and kicked to death by the elephants.
――What about the movements of the Muozinel soldiers?
Tigre turned his towards the rear of the elephants.
The roughly 6,000 Muozinel soldiers had begun to advance. The infantrymen would leap into the openings caused by the elephants’ attack and use the commotion in the ranks of their opponents to widen those. Tigre had been taught that this was a strategy the Muozinel army often adopted when they utilized war elephants.
But, right now, a fairly big distance had opened up between elephants and Muozinel soldiers because the war elephant unit had used their momentum to vigorously chase after the Brunian vanguard that had retreated.
――We had been used for something like this.
Tigre gritted his molars in rage and frustration.
At that moment, horns resounded from Brune’s main force. The Scarlet Horse Flags, Brune’s national flag, were hoisted into the air, and the soldiers widely split to the sides. As if to open a path for something.
Tigre and his men plunged into the edge of the main force, and only after confirming that all their soldiers were safe and sound, Raphinaque and Tigre allowed themselves to breathe out in relief.
――Blasted Thenadier, how dare you make us go through such an experience.
Immediately afterwards a boom similar to thunder caused the ground to tremble. While tightly gripping his bow, Tigre turned his face, still sullied by sweat and dirt, in the direction of the noise.
“So he’s finally going to unveil it, huh…?”
A creature with a frame so huge that it exceeded a war elephant slowly trudged past the Brunian soldiers. Each of its steps sent a tremor through the earth and blew up huge amounts of sand. Its short and stout physique resembled that of a lizard, but its length easily reached 80 chet if you included its fairly long tail. Most of its body was covered by ocher-colored, thick scales. Its expression was ferociousness incarnated. Two horns grew out of its head. Sharp claws stuck out of the ends of its tough legs.
A dragon. The kind that was commonly referred to as earth dragon.
The dragon advanced while being watched by the Brunian soldiers. Each time his torso shook, the huge chain coiled around its thick neck clattered heavily.
Seeing the dragon appear from within the Brunian army’s ranks, the elephant riders groaned in shock. They swung their spiked sticks, quickly forcing their elephants to stop.
Dragons were said to usually stay cooped up in their dens that were hidden deep in steep mountains or dense forests, locations no humans would readily enter. This rule applied to Muozinel and Brune alike. Many people, and even those who had lived for fifty or sixty years, had never seen a dragon before. And some of them considered dragons to be creatures out of legends, folklore, or fairy-tales.
Hence, it was impossible that the Muozinel elephant riders would keep their calm when faced with such a legendary beast. Of course some of them didn’t even know that this was a dragon. And the elephants, who were encountering a dragon for the first time, got startled, frightened, and panicked. Having lost all of their earlier composure, they all had now fallen into a state of dread and unrest.
But at the same time, if you asked whether the appearance of the dragon had boosted the morale of the Brunian soldiers, the answer would clearly be negative. The men were staring at the monstrosity with faces dyed in blatant anxiety, trying to not miss even the faintest of its movements. Not because they were teeming with trust in its might, but out of a deep-rooted wariness.
This dragon obeyed Duke Thenardier, and only a selected few had been informed about its existence in advance. The majority of the soldiers had been confronted with that reality only this morning. Many of them had fainted, and although Tigre was one of those keeping his wits, he was clearly aware of the blood draining from his face.
――How is this going to play out…?
While stroking his horse’s neck to pacify it, Tigre stared at the dragon with bated breath. Tigre knew the dreadfulness of earth dragons quite well thanks to a certain incident. But, he couldn’t even begin to imagine how a clash between dragon and war elephants would turn out. Much less with the war elephants numbering nine.
The dragon powerfully trudged across the ground, its body swaying and a ferocious roar escaping its muzzle.
Several of the elephant riders jumped up while a few of the elephants became petrified. The Brunian soldiers ducked reflexively, allowed muffled screams to escape their lips, or curled up while tightly gripping their weapons. The Muozinel soldiers far behind the elephants finally noticed the dragon and stopped their advance.
The riders hurled instructions at their elephants, desperation twisting their faces. Even though their instincts were yelling at them to get away as quickly as possible, they couldn’t bear the terror that would accompany them showing the dragon their backs.
The war elephants charged with mad roars. The dragon, on the other hand, didn’t move from its spot. It was waiting for the elephants, a fiery gleam in its two savage, golden eyes.
One of the elephants ran its entire body against the dragon, causing the air to tremble from the following thunderous boom. Yet, the one kissing the dirt was the elephant. The dragon had swatted its foreleg sideways as if getting rid of a pesky fly. The war elephant’s tusks didn’t even manage to scratch the dragon’s scales.
“No way…,” groaned Raphinaque, his face as white as a sheet.
Tigre couldn’t even muster a voice, so shocking was the sight of one of those elephants, which had given them such a hard time, being taken down with a single blow while unable to achieve anything with its attack.
The dragon stepped over the animal, which was convulsing with its head crimson, advancing. At that point, the other eight elephants had ceased to move forward, and their riders sat on their backs in a daze, dumbfounded.
Of course, the earth dragon wasn’t such a kind beast as to wait for them to snap them out of their stupor. It fiercely rushed at the group, baring its sharp fangs. At the time when the riders shouted their orders in panic, it was already too late.
Taking on the dragon’s head-butt, one of the elephants toppled over. Large quantities of warm lifeblood spilled out of two big holes now adorning its jaw, forming a pool around its huge trunk. After having pierced the animal with its horns, the dragon stabbed its claws into the head, just to rip out flesh and bones in the next moment so as to deliver the finishing blow. A fountain of blood went up into the air.
The remaining seven war elephants panicked. They turned around and dashed away with such a force that it’d take a miracle for the riders to stay atop their backs.
Spotting the crazed elephants stomping their way, the Muozinel soldiers screamed. They discarded their flags and weapons, solely focusing on escaping. Some even flung off their steel helmets, proof of them being commanding officers. However, the elephants caught up to them in no time. They sent the soldiers flying with their forelegs, and trampled them into the ground. They wildly brandished their long noses, mowing down the humans, as if to get rid of annoying obstacles. In their wake they left a path of blood and Muozinel limbs.
And just after the war elephants had passed in a storm of madness, the dragon swooped down on the soldiers next. Smashing the Muozinel with its forelegs, cleaving them apart with its claws, and devouring them – armor, clothes, and all.
The whole scene resembled the earlier spectacle when the war elephants had overrun the Brunian vanguard, but the dragon’s way of doing things was far more brutal and gruesome. It pulverized the Muozinel army, one-sidedly.
“What a battle…” Tigre couldn’t suppress the quivering of his body.
A short while later, this battle was over. The Muozinel army had suffered close to 2,000 casualties and twice as many wounded. Their ten war elephants had all died.
In contrast to that, the Brunian army had lost approximately 300 men with less than 500 being injured.
This was the beginning of the Brunian invasion into Muozinel territory.
The reason as for why Brune had started a war against Muozinel was, in short, retribution.
The kingdom of Muozinel, which practiced slavery, frequently invaded its neighbors to obtain fresh batches of slaves. Their armed soldiers crossed the borders, attacked villages and towns, plundered all valuables, and kidnapped the people, before retreating soon after. The various countries sharing borders with Muozinel had suffered those kinds of attacks on many occasions.
Brune’s king, Faron, had dispatched multiple envoys and protested that transgression, but the Muozinel answer was simple and straightforward.
“If you desire water, you’ll travel to a nearby lake, won’t you?”
Those words might have also carried a tinge of provocation, but for the Muozinel obtaining slaves was as important as obtaining water, and thus they saw it as their natural right to do so.
Faron flew into rage, but back then he could only reinforce the border’s defenses. After all, Muozinel wasn’t the only country adjoining Brune. If he were to move unwisely, Brune’s other neighbors such as Zhcted, Sachstein, or Asvarre might see it as an invitation to attack.
Under those circumstances, it was Duke Thenardier who had stepped forward, requesting permission from the king to invade Muozinel.
“I wish to bring peace and tranquility for some time to the area around the southeastern border by delivering a heavy blow against that country.”
They couldn’t force Muozinel to abolish slavery, but when it came to beating them into submission so that they’d be more willing to conclude a temporary ceasefire with Brune, it wasn’t impossible. The king approved of it, and after they succeeded in forming an alliance with Zhcted, the expedition was set in stone.
Brune would gather 23,000 soldiers and attack Muozinel from the west. Duke Felix Aaron Thenardier was appointed as the expedition army’s supreme commander. Zhcted would prepare 10,000 soldiers and attack Muozinel from the north. The Vanadis Ludmila Lourie and Eleonora Viltaria would serve as supreme commanders of the Zhcted forces.
Both armies would assault the major cities, towns, and forts in Muozinel’s north in a bid to use those as chips on the negotiation table.
Zhcted Kingdom possessed seven principalities within its domain, each being ruled by a woman hailed as Vanadis. The Vanadis only answered to Zhcted’s king.
Dispatching two of such Vanadis was a clear display of Zhcted’s will to see this through.
On Brune’s side, many lords with fiefs in the kingdom’s south or east took part in this expedition, too. Tigre was one of them.
After having moved eastwards through the Muozinel realm, Brune’s army reached a region called Eleşkirt. Five days had passed since the battle at the border. The army’s march had proceeded exceedingly well since none of the predicted resistances by the Muozinel army came to pass.
Eleşkirt was a grassland with gentle ups and downs. The river streaming into the region from the east drew a big curve in the center of the grassland, before disappearing into a forest sprawling to the north.
The expressions of Tigre and Raphinaque relaxed when they saw the river carrying plenty of water as they marched at the army’s edge.
“If not for the marching, I’d jump into the water and take a swim.”
“The hot days have been continuing ever since we entered this country. If only I could drink a nicely cooled beer after taking an extensive dip in that river, it’d be pure bliss, I’m sure.”
“Oh, that sounds awesome. Beer, huh? But, personally I prefer――”
“Black tea, wasn’t it? A properly chilled one at that, right?”
Tigre blinked in surprise at Raphinaque as he had taken the words right out of his mouth.
His adjutant laughed with tease twinkling in his eyes, “Milord, you’re too easy to read. Are you looking forward to meeting the princess of Olmutz so much?”
“Well, after all is said and done, it’d be the first time in two years, so yes,” admitted Tigre while bashfully scratching his cheek.
Three years ago, Tigre had visited Olmutz as a guest and spent a year over there. Mila had welcomed him as the principality’s ruler. They had talked about many things, experienced lots of things together, and formed an emotional bond.
“As far as I’m concerned, I’d wish you’d also pay some attention to Titta. Didn’t she stand at the town’s gate, watching your departure for the whole time together with Bertrand?” Raphinaque asked.
Tigre grimaced as if having had something bitter stuffed into his mouth.
Titta was a maid working at the Vorn family’s estate. She was one year younger than Tigre, and yet handled all the housekeeping chores flawlessly. Tigre saw her as a little sister, but he had also noticed that Titta harbored stronger feelings about him.
“I cherish Titta. This is no lie, but what I truly feel.”
“I’m well aware of that. But, only that much won’t fly with Bertrand, you know?”
Bertrand was an old man who had been serving as Urs’s personal attendant for many years. Tigre adored that man as he had been pouring his love and affection into the young boy since his early childhood.
Ruffling up his dull red hair, Tigre lowered his voice, unskillfully changing the topic, “Aren’t our men getting tired in this heat?”
Tigre had asked them directly, but they had acted brave or answered tactfully. For this reason, Tigre was now asking Raphinaque, but the other man nodded in a way making clear that he was aware of the issue.
“It’s not a problem at present. At least they got enough stamina to joke around. Personally, I’m more worried about the influence of that thing on them…than some heat.”
Raphinaque put on a serious expression, before looking back. Tigre followed his eyes.
The earth dragon was trailing behind them, at the furthest rear of the Brunian army. The huge, legendary beast walked onwards, silently and obediently, while wiggling its long tail every once in a while.
After the battle at the border, several of the lords had swarmed Duke Thenardier, pressing him to answer from where he had procured an earth dragon.
Thenardier had responded with a laugh, “The only thing I can tell you is that this dragon is loyal to no one but me. If you’re eager to learn more about it, how about you try asking the dragon itself? I’ve never seen it use human speech, but it might unexpectedly start to talk if you manage to convey your passion.”
His attitude could be called the epitome of arrogance, but the lords had no choice but to pull back. The Thenardier family was a distinguished family since ancient times with the duke being one of the two most influential nobles in Brune. His authority was so extensive and powerful that even the king had to take his opinion into account. On top of that, he was well-known for his harsh and merciless temperament.
For example, one rumor said he arrested a married couple of residents for disobeying his orders, had each hold a sword, and forced them to kill each other. Another rumor stated that Thenardier whipped a servant’s back bloody after that person stole at his mansion, just to order the servant’s family to pull out all of the servant’s nails and teeth. And when the servant’s younger brother refused to comply, he received the same treatment as his brother.
No one could tell what terrible fate would await them, if they incurred Duke Thenardier’s wrath. It was quite possible that the duke would feed them to the dragon, just like he had done with the Muozinel soldiers at the border.
Ever since that day, the Brunian soldiers had been marching while fearing the dragon and its master. They stayed away from the beast as far as they could, and even avoided meeting its eyes. When they didn’t have to move to the army’s rear out of necessity, they deliberately took a big circle around the dragon. Neither the knights extolled for their bravery in the kingdom nor the nobles boasting that they had survived many battles were an exception to this behavior.
“Everyone is afraid of that dragon. I’m surprised that you can keep such a calm face, Milord.”
Raphinaque looked at his young lord with a face that was filled with astonishment rather than admiration. While soldiers and lords feared the dragon alike, only Tigre acted normal. He didn’t try to look away in a hurry when he was about to meet the dragon’s eyes, nor did he go out of the way to keep his distance from the beast. Up until today, the dragon had roared only a single time, but even during that time, Tigre’s face had remained calm and collected, showing not the slightest change.
“It’s not like I’m completely calm about it either, though. I told you a while ago, didn’t I? That I once encountered such a dragon deep in the Vosges.”
The Vosges were a range of steep mountains, separating Brune and Zhcted. Alsace’s territory was adjacent to a part of the Vosges, and Tigre had often gone into those mountains to hunt.
“Yes, I remember. You took down the dragon after persisting through a heroic battle, right?” Raphinaque’s response as his eyes were fixed to the front was oozing with disbelief. Seeing his young lord looking discouraged, the older adjutant smiled wryly, “I’m not saying that all of it is untrue. Having watched you the last few days, I think that you might have encountered a dragon for real, Milord. But, you see, fighting one, bringing it down, and yet having no proof of it…”
“You’re forbidden to drink any alcohol for the next three days,” Tigre hissed at once.
Even Raphinaque became flustered at this, “Please spare me, Milord. Alcohol has been about the only pleasure on this godforsaken march.”
Tigre averted his face without listening to the other man’s frantic pleas. But then again, it wasn’t as though he was so angry that it showed on his face. He didn’t plan to seriously forbid Raphinaque his booze. Rather, he just felt like being somewhat cross.
After all, only very few people such as Titta and Bertrand believed his story of the dragon-slaying, and even his father was half in doubt about its credibility. Even if it was a story coming out of Tigre’s mouth, it was impossible for Raphinaque to believe him after having personally witnessed the terror of a dragon five days ago. And Tigre could sympathize with that notion.
A horn’s blaring tore through the air, signaling the march to stop.
“Tonight we’re going to set up camp around here, huh? Though I feel it’s slightly too early for that,” Raphinaque commented with a baffled expression.
The sun had already crossed its zenith, but the sky was still bright, and it would still take quite some time for the sun to disappear beyond the horizon.
“It’s because we’re part of an army with more than 20,000 soldiers. Building a camp in a bad spot is anything but smart, right? It’s also necessary to contact Zhcted soon.”
They were scheduled to join up with Zhcted’s army in a region called Zalafan. They should reach that place either tomorrow or the day after.
――Once we join up with Zhcted’s army, I’ll be able to meet Mila.
He had exchanged many letters with Mila, but the last time he saw her in person was two years ago. Tigre’s heart started to beat faster when he thought of the upcoming reunion with her while he wondered whether it’d be possible to create an opportunity for them to meet alone.
Tigre intentionally tightened his expression to not reveal any of what was going on inside him. Next to him, Raphinaque watched his young lord with gentleness dyeing his eyes.
The Vorn forces led by Tigre erected their tents at the edge of Brune’s army camp. Though it was probably more correct to say that had been chased off to the edge. Fifty soldiers was a large army for Tigre, but compared to the entirety of Brune’s army, it was a negligible number.
Besides, Duke Thenardier was full of contempt towards Tigre and his men. Several reasons for that came to mind, but if Tigre had to voice the biggest of all, it’d be his archery.
Four years ago when Tigre had visited the royal capital Nice for the first time together with his father, he was terribly bullied by the young nobles such as Duke Thenardier for only being able to use archery while being a complete dud when it came to swordsmanship and spearmanship. Even nowadays, only few among the nobles thought of him amiably.
When the sun had sunken, Brune’s soldiers began to prepare dinner. Most of the units only had bread, thin veggie soup, and dried meat to sate their hunger, but a part of the units were eating eggs and fruits in addition to the other three dishes. They had forced a town, which had surrendered to Brune, to deliver those extras.
Pillaging was something they only did rarely. Normally Duke Thenardier was rather proactive about looting, but this time he was treading carefully, and many lords followed his example.
The food of the Vorn unit also consisted of bread, soup, and dried meat, but Tigre had purchased wine in a nearby village before dinner, and was now treating his men to it. The wine itself was sour and barely enough for half a cup per man, but this still didn’t diminish the fact of it being alcohol. Because it was properly cooled, his soldiers appeared satisfied with this small bonus.
“Hmm, so the Muozinel also drink wine, huh? It seems to have a fairly peculiar taste, however.”
“They not only drink wine, but also beer, mead, and vodka. The sourness of their wine stems from their grapes simply having such a trait, I hear.” Tigre explained with a serious expression to Raphinaque who didn’t forget to make his usual sarcastic remark even while looking quite relaxed.
This piece of information was something a Muozinel had taught Tigre during his stay in Olmutz. If he had felt like it, Tigre could have also ordered the village to hand over the wine without paying a dime for it. It wasn’t as though his wallet was bursting either. However, Tigre had deliberately paid for the wine. One reason was to be found in Tigre’s personal pride. He didn’t want to act like some common bandit while it wasn’t absolutely necessary to do so.
Besides, Mila had once told him, “It’s simple to extort something you need by threatening others with force, but it might buy the other party’s resentment, resulting in them paying you back in some way. I think it’s better to avoid such worries if you just need to pay some money to have a peace of mind.”
Tigre believed her opinion to be spot on. Even when it came to this wine, the villagers might not have given him a chilled wine if he had extorted it. Tigre was convinced that they had very likely provided him with a wine, which had been stored in well water, because he had paid a silver coin.
As the soldiers finished up their dinner while chatting, Tigre informed them that he’d tend to his bow, entrusted the rest to Raphinaque, and retired to his tent.
Lighting the lamp hanging from the ceiling, he picked up his heirloom from its place at the wall. After unfastening the bowstring, he thoroughly wiped the curved bow limbs with a tanned deer skin.
――Tending to it like this sure tickles the urge to hunt in me.
You could easily say that hunting was something like a daily routine for Tigre. Alsace had many mountains and forests, and he’d never fail to take his bow and arrows with him to hunt down harmful beasts who trespassed into human habitats. Tigre had forged his skills in archery through this regular shooting of animals, and at times, bandits.
Around the time when he had almost finished half of his work, Tigre’s hands stopped, and he mumbled under his breath, “Gleaming Star Medal, huh…?”
After they had finished setting up camp, Thenardier had called the lords together.
“If we manage to join up with Zhcted’s army, Muozinel’s army might challenge us to a decisive battle. Accordingly, I shall tell you the following, my dear lords: The Laciole will be awarded to the three men who accomplished the most outstanding exploits during this expedition. Of course, I have already received His Majesty’s permission.”
The Laciole was a medal which would be awarded to great knights and warriors. It was high enough an honor that any lord would bow their head to its wearer. You could describe it as the highest medal low-ranking nobles and knights could hope for.
Frenzy had colored the eyes of some lords while others had tightly clenched their fists. And even though Tigre cynically thought that Thenardier had played this hand quite smartly, he was well aware of the fighting spirit raging deep inside his chest.
Duke Thenardier’s objective during this expedition was pretty clear.
He wanted to plant awe and fear into the Brunians, Zhcted, and Muozinel by showing off the might of his dragon. As long as they had a dragon at beck’s call, other countries would find it hard to act carelessly against Brune. Moreover, Brune’s lords would likely obey the duke, fearing his power.
There existed another high-ranking noble on equal standing with Thenardier in Brune ― Duke Ganelon who ruled over a large fief in Brune’s northern parts. Ganelon hailed from a distinguished, noble family whose ancestor was said to have served the founding king as advisor.
Thenardier likely intended to drastically bolster his authority in comparison to Ganelon by securing himself an overwhelming victory against Muozinel’s army. Tigre had no doubt that the battles from now on would proceed around the dragon as the core of the Brunian forces.
For this reason, the lords had thought that Duke Thenardier would hog all the deeds of arms, and that they’d only be able to get a tiny share of fame by currying favors with him.
That course of action didn’t seem available to Tigre. After all, it didn’t suit his own style because he had difficulties coming to terms with Thenardier’s cruelty and ruthlessness. Hence, he had partly given up all hope of scoring some deeds of arms.
However, the duke had prepared three Lacioles. Raphinaque had said something along the lines of “I guess it’s to let a carrot dangle in front of a horse,” but it had certainly resulted in the lords’ morale soaring.
――It means he’ll prepare a chance to achieve deeds of arms at least once during this expedition.
Even if Tigre were to obtain a Laciole, it still wouldn’t be enough for him to wed Mila. Then again, this wasn’t anything he could handle one way or another by scrounging up deeds of arms. But, it’d definitely lower the distance in standing between him and her.
However, Tigre’s position was far more disadvantageous than that of other lords. Judging by what Raphinaque had investigated for him, most of those who had been ordered to act as vanguard during the battle at the border, had been people who bought Duke Thenardier’s animosity and hostility in the past. Tigre appeared to be a nuisance or roadblock in Duke Thenardier’s eyes.
His feat of having crushed the eyes of a war elephant hadn’t been acknowledged either. On the other hand, Tigre had been the only 「Human」 who managed to deliver a blow against a war elephant. Besides, a dragon was terrifyingly strong, but that didn’t make it immortal or almighty. Tigre knew this firsthand. He was sure that his chance would certainly show itself at some point, besides the one planned by Thenardier.
Suddenly, Tigre looked down at the bow in his hand and jokingly commented, “If I can draw all the power hidden in you, I think I’ll be able to pull off an achievement that would startle even someone like Thenardier.”
In the past, Mila’s mother Svetlana had told him, “This is no ordinary bow. It’s hiding some sort of power.”
When being told so, it had triggered a certain memory to surface in Tigre. Ever since he was a child, he had always felt an indescribable eeriness being exuded from this bow. Whenever he gazed at it for too long, a choking sensation assailed him, and he started to feel like he’d be whisked away to some place.
In addition, this bow also had some mystery to it. First off, he didn’t know how it worked, but it bent nicely when he tried pulling its bowstring despite the bow’s grip and limbs feeling more like stone than wood. Second, its color, which made it look as if it’d melt into darkness at any moment, was the color of its material and not something painted onto it afterwards. The color also never faded or bleached.
According to his father, an ancestor had used this bow as a hunter. And even though it should be fairly old by now, Tigre couldn’t sense a sliver of degradation by age when using it himself.
Up until this day, Tigre had come in contact with many bows. Because of that, he could readily believe that this bow possessed some secret power if told so. But then again, it seemed as if Svetlana hadn’t known what kind of power it was and what had to be done to draw on it. At present, it was no more than an ordinary, black bow.
But, Tigre didn’t mind that. This was his family’s heirloom. Just it having withstood his use until this day was already plenty for him. And it wasn’t as though he desired some strange power either.
“――I’ll patiently wait for as long as I have to,” Tigre told himself as if addressing the bow.
This was one of his understandings as a hunter.
Pulling himself together, Tigre resumed the bow’s maintenance. And after completing the polishing of the bow’s limbs, he spanned the string back on. This bow didn’t require frequent maintenance, but Tigre still never failed to do it in preparation for the time when he’d need to rely on this bow’s performance and out of respect towards his ancestors.
With the maintenance completed, Tigre leaned the sparky clean bow back against the tent’s wall.
At that time, someone outside his tent called for him. However, it was a voice he didn’t remember having heard before. When he answered while feeling suspicious, the voice’s owner identified himself as a subordinate of Duke Thenardier.
Late at night, around the time when most of the Brunian soldiers had fallen asleep, Tigre silently slipped out of his tent. Looking up, he found the sky shrouded by a pitch-black darkness. The moon should stand high, but it was concealed behind thick clouds. The nights in Muozinel during this season were so cool that the sweltering heat during the day seemed like a bad lie.
After lightly waving at the soldiers on nightwatch, Tigre started to walk. He had been summoned by Zion, the eldest son of Duke Thenardier.
――Make sure to come alone, huh? Most likely it won’t be anything decent anyway.
Even though he could guess as much, Tigre couldn’t afford to disregard the summon. Zion was the next Duke Thenardier. If he were to tell his father something, it might result in him and his men being placed in a dangerous situation once again.
Because it was in the dead of night, the camp was wrapped up in darkness, but since campfires were glowing at several parts within the encampment, the darkness wasn’t thick enough to cause Tigre any difficulties in finding his way. He could spot lords and soldiers having casual chats around those campfires.
As he passed a group of several nobles, their conversation reached his ears.
“I thought that it’d be a dull war, but suddenly I feel all motivated.”
“Say what you like, it’s the Laciole on the line here. Victory is all but guaranteed thanks to the dragon, so there’s also the option of daringly stabbing deep into enemy lines, I’d say.”
“But, why doesn’t Duke Thenardier pillage at all during this expedition? Usually, he’d have razed at least one village or town to the ground for fun, right?”
“As far as I’ve heard, it seems to be out of consideration for Zhcted’s army. The two Vanadis acting as commanders over there seem to loathe pillaging. I think it’d be difficult to have pillaging approved as a deed of arms this time around.”
“Vanadis, huh? All of them appear to be young and very beautiful women. I heard a gem would look like a crude stone if you placed it next to one of them. I’d love to meet one by all means.”
“I’ve heard that the Vanadis are a match for a thousand soldiers. With a filthy mug like yours, it’s quite likely that they’d mistake you for a bandit and cut you down on the spot. At least do something about your appearance first.”
Several of the nobles guffawed at that, their laughter dissipating into the night’s blackness alongside the smoke billowing up from their campfire.
Tigre quickened his pace. He feared that he’d feel like interjecting at this rate, if he kept listening to their banter.
A single youth waited for him at the designated place in the camp’s rear ― Zion. He wore silken clothes adorned with golden embroideries, and a sword hung at his waist. He held a lamp in hand.
“So you came, deadbeat of the Vorn family.”
His gaze clearly showed his condescending attitude of Tigre, and his voice was teeming with blatant malice.
With his eighteen years, Zion was one year older than Tigre, but probably because they were close in age, he would occasionally mess with the younger man one way or another, using him as a laughingstock. Tigre frowned reflexively, but immediately regained his composure. He knew there would be no end if he reacted to each and every insult of Zion.
“What kind of business might you have with me, Lord Zion?”
“I thought I’d show you something nice. Come.”
Zion turned around and walked off. When he had taken several steps, he stopped. Tigre’s eyes flew wide open.
Ahead of him stood a huge tent, surrounded by a fence. The tent itself was larger by a magnitude if compared to the tents around it. With the night sky as backdrop, it towered as a black shadow, making one believe they were facing a fortress.
At first Tigre wondered just how many dozens of soldiers might be using this monstrosity, but he immediately reconsidered. Going by the fact of it being fenced in, it was very likely not intended for human use.
“Enter,” Zion pointed at the tent’s entrance.
As might be expected, even Tigre couldn’t help but to ask, “Is the earth dragon possibly inside this tent?”
“Indeed,” answered Zion with a nasty smile. “I thought I’d allow you, a poor, poor, rural noble, to take a great tale of your travels back home. As someone who lives in a backwater fief like Alsace, you won’t have a second chance to ever see dragons from nearby, right?”
“I am grateful for your consideration…” Tigre bowed.
He didn’t know why, but Zion apparently wanted to scare him. In short, it was his usual harassment. He thought it might be the safest approach to let it go past while remaining silent.
While earning themselves a quizzical look by the soldier on watch, the two entered the tent.
When Tigre looked around himself, he noticed that several layers of cloth had been stacked up to form the tent’s curtains while being supported by several thick braces. Each and every brace was as thick as an adult’s torso.
Zion’s lamp cleared away a part of the darkness inside the ten with its light, illuminating the head of a crouching dragon. Its nose tip was in arm’s reach. White fangs could be seen arrayed within its faintly opened muzzle. Recalling the Muozinel soldiers which had been crunched apart and swallowed whole by this snout, Tigre’s body stiffened out of tension.
Suddenly something moved at the edge of his eyes. Tigre turned his face in that direction, just to freeze in shock.
Another earth dragon was crouching over there. And it wasn’t limited to just that dragon either. Next to it were another two dragons who were sleeping with their big wings folded. Both were one size bigger than the earth dragons.
Only now Tigre realized that Zion had earlier said “dragons.”
“Those are flying dragons. They fly with those huge wings. It’s also possible for humans to ride them.”
Unable to answer Zion, Tigre merely stared at the dragons. Just one of these had easily routed ten war elephants and several thousand Muozinel soldiers. But, when it came to four dragons, Tigre suspected that it wouldn’t matter how many soldiers Muozinel were to field, they’d all die either way as all that would be left in the wake of these four monsters would be mountains of corpses and rivers of blood.
“So surprised that you can’t even speak up, eh?” Zion laughed in satisfaction.
Tigre didn’t know, but in the last few days Zion had enjoyed watching Brunian soldiers and lords getting frightened by the earth dragon. He believed that them being awed by the dragon equaled them fearing House Thenardier. Moreover, he found it hilarious how the men, who energetically bragged bravery in front of their comrades, all were unable to even look at the dragon, let alone get close to it. All of them insincere, boot-licking cowards, he had ridiculed in his mind as his superiority complex and sadistic nature were fed by them dreading the dragon.
However, Tigre was different. For some reason, this young man hadn’t feared the earth dragon. That attitude was more than enough to piss off Zion.
Thinking that Tigre would tremble and kowtow in front of him, if only he led Tigre in front of the dragons, Zion had brought the youth here.
“Just how did you obtain this many dragons…?” Finally snapping out of it, Tigre asked with a hoarse rasp of a voice.
Maybe there existed other things he should have asked first, but his head was a mess, making it impossible to get his thoughts sorted.
“We brought them from our territory ― Nemetacum. We were discreet about it so that the Muozinel worms wouldn’t notice. They arrived here around the time when the sun had sunken,” Zion explained, his voice bouncy.
His face oozed with terror. The dragons looking up to him within the thin darkness was plenty to cause him to be assailed by anxiety.
“Even that 『Black Knight』 Roland would be helpless in front of these dragons. He might be extolled as strongest knight of our country, but seeing how he is a human――”
Zion’s voice cut off. One of the earth dragons had opened its eyes, apparently disturbed in its slumber by the lamplight and their voices. Its huge frame swayed slowly as it growled.
Tigre instinctively drew back while Zion was on the verge of collapsing. By reflex, Tigre extended a hand, grabbed his arm, and propped him up so that he wouldn’t fall down.
“D-Don’t touch me!” Zion shook Tigre’s hand off in a fluster.
Tigre being unable to respond originated from his surprise by his own action. Why did he lend a hand to a man like Zion? Maybe his excessive tension towards the dragons had induced him to do something he usually wouldn’t do.
Zion brought up a new topic as if to erase the awkward atmosphere.
“Come to think of it, it’s been bothering me for a while now, but why did your family approach Zhcted’s Olmutz Principality? Even if poor nobles like you push yourself beyond your own, measly limits, it won’t lead to anything worthwhile, will it?”
As Zion seemed to ask this genuinely, Tigre pulled himself together, and provided a safe answer, “It is not like our Vorn family approached them from our side. Rather, Olmutz was as kind as calling out to us from their side. Is that not because they wish to lower the quarrels across the Vosges Mountains as much as possible, seeing how Alsace is also adjoining the mountains?”
“Humph,” snorted Zion in boredom. “Aren’t you just being used by Olmutz? Your poor family might not possess any significant influence, but should you ever become a nuisance to Brune, I’ll slaughter all of you.”
“The Vorn family and I of course offer our full loyalty to His Majesty,” Tigre answered while hurling as many insults as he could think of at Zion in his mind.
Zion showered the youth with several more, awful remarks, before he finally let Tigre go.
Having stepped out of the tent, Tigre breathed out deeply, vividly engulfed by a sense of liberation.
――I was shown something crazy, for sure.
Just like during the times when he was drunk, a part of his head felt numb and hot. He wanted to talk about this with someone, but he couldn’t. Thinking back on Zion’s explanation, he could tell that the presence of the three, new dragons was a crucial secret.
――Guess I’ll take a walk up to the river.
He suspected that his feelings would somewhat settle if he took a stroll all the way to the river and back. The moon was covered by clouds just as before, but it would be a dim illumination he was used to from hunting. And it wouldn’t be completely dark either, given the twinkling stars.
Tigre left the camp, and after walking for a while, the river came into sight. However, around a time when he was a few dozen steps away from the water, Tigre suddenly stopped.
――Is someone there?
Something was floating across the river’s surface. It looked just like a person. Tigre wondered whether one of the soldiers had gone out to take a dip in the cool water.
He cautiously and slowly approached the river in a bid to check who it might be, just for his eyes to fly wide open.
The one floating on the river was a woman. He assumed her to be in her mid twenties. Her long, blond hair and white skin vibrantly stood out against the dim backdrop of the river and its environment as she was basked in the stars’ light. She was definitely a pretty thing.
Tigre stared at that beauty, not moving an inch with his breath bated. But, that didn’t stem from him being spellbound by what he saw. What he sensed from that woman was dread. A sensation as if he was facing something terrifying and mysterious was dominating his whole body.
She looked like a human, but something that ought to be described as instinct screamed at Tigre that she was anything but a human. He wondered whether he should call out to her, but he couldn’t muster a voice. Even though he tried to flee, his legs were paralyzed, pinning him to the spot. He would have loved to at least have his bow and arrows with him, but now he regretted having left both in his tent.
The blond woman looked his way, their eyes meeting. The instant she smiled at him, his legs could move again. Tigre whirled around and started to sprint at full speed. He was fully absorbed in getting away, even believing that she might catch him, if he eased on his pace a tiny bit.
When he finally came to a halt after storming into the camp, he noticed his whole body being drenched in sweat.
――Just what was that…?
He racked his brain after getting his breathing in order and recovering some composure.
If it’s someone present in this area, it should be a Muozinel. Then, a slave who ran away? Or maybe a harlot earning her pay from soldiers? Or…
At that point he stopped brooding about it since he wouldn’t be able to find an answer anyway.
When he got back to the camp of the Vorn forces, Raphinaque was already waiting for him.
“Milord, I’m glad to find you sound and healthy. What did that creepy, pampered scion wanted you for this time?”
“What, he simply suspected our relationship with Olmutz and kept nagging about it with his usual slander and sarcasm.”
Tigre apologized in his heart. Even if Raphinaque was an adjutant he trusted very deeply, he couldn’t talk to him about the dragons.
“Anyway, did something happen while I was gone?”
“No, nothing in particular. It’s been a peaceful night.”
“Got it. I’m going to take a rest now, but increase the number of watchmen just in case. After all, the time before you join up with your allies tends to be the most dangerous period,” he instructed after recalling something Mila had taught him.
Besides, an indescribable anxiety was still gnawing at Tigre’s heart.
“Okay, as you command,” replied Raphinaque.
Tigre entered his tent, and without even lighting the lamp, he groped for his blanket in the darkness and laid down just like that. He felt drained. Especially his mental fatigue was weighing down on him heavily.
The various ghost stories he’d heard so far crossed his mind. Tigre reached for the black bow, which was still leaning against the tent’s wall, and clasped his hand around its grip.
After a short while, his eyelids became heavy, and sleepiness finally sneaked up on him. Before long, Tigre started to snore.
Perceiving an unusual presence, Tigre jumped up. The tent’s interior was dim and he could feel the bow in his left hand. Pushing aside his blanket, he reached for the quiver with his right hand.
Immediately following, he heard battle cries that reminded him of a storm outside his tent. Angry roars, screams, and swords’ clashing overlapped into a cacophony. As soon as Tigre rushed out of his tent, he found Raphinaque standing right next to it, spear at hand.
“We’re under attack!” He yelled with a tense expression.
A Muozinel soldier appeared behind him as if breaking out of the darkness. Brandishing a sword, the enemy soldiers assaulted them.
Tigre swiftly pulled an arrow out of his quiver, nocking and releasing it right after. The Muozinel soundlessly collapsed on the spot, the arrow embedded in his forehead. Any average archer wouldn’t have been in time in the first place, making this a display of Tigre’s abnormally quick shooting.
“Raphinaque, have our men gather,” Tigre surveyed the vicinity while hurling that order.
But, then he gasped. A fog began to drift across the camp. Tigre knew that it’d just increase the chaos among their allies.
The eastern sky started to brighten, dawn’s break being right around the corner.
Yells in Brunish and Muozinel flitted about within the curtain of fog and dimness. Brune soldiers bumped into each other as they attempted to run away, tripping over each other. Muozinel soldiers didn’t miss that chance, showering the men with sword stabs and ax slashes. Iron baskets filled with burning wood fell over, tents went ablaze.
While the number of jeers and screams kept growing, they became louder with each second. Corpses were strewn across the ground, and the blood flowing out of them painted the flowers and grasses crimson.
The Muozinel army’s surprise attack was in the process of succeeding. The Brunian army still couldn’t mount an organized counterattack and kept falling apart with its tender spots being exploited. Of course, some Brunian soldiers fought back resolutely, but it was impossible for them to fight decently under these circumstances. They were immediately surrounded and mercilessly hacked apart.
Tigre ordered the Vorn troops, somehow managing to keep the incessantly attacking Muozinel at bay. Then again, he was lucky as they could assemble the soldiers quickly since they only numbered fifty to begin with.
But, no sooner than starting to fight, Tigre gave up on the battle.
“We won’t last.”
The chaos was clearly spreading. Naturally, the Brunian army would be able to easily repel the Muozinel if they let those four dragons loose, but it’d likely result in many Brunian soldiers getting dragged into the onslaught. At this point, foe and friend had already become one big cluster. As such, Tigre had to take action while he still could.
Tigre called out to Raphinaque, “We’re going to escape this place. We’ll use the bad visibility against them.”
“Sometimes you’re really way too blunt, Milord. At times like these, you’d usually talk about changing locations.”
“For all that you’re saying, you don’t seem to mind it much.”
Tigre tried to leave his horse behind, but his men fervently opposed that idea.
“If push comes to shove, we will have you run away by yourself, Milord. Get on this guy.”
With Raphinaque leading their group, the Vorn forces dashed out of the camp in one lump. Even here, Tigre served as rear guard, shooting many arrows with each arrow consigning a Muozinel soldier to oblivion.
As he’d expected, the area outside the camp was shrouded in fog as well, though it wasn’t so thick that they couldn’t see where they were going. With Raphinaque and Tigre’s voices pouring down on them from the front and rear, the soldiers of the Vorn family put their all into running.
The fact of their equipment being scarce and shabby worked in their favor. The majority of the Muozinel soldiers prioritized the Brunian soldiers who looked like they’d bring more loot than Tigre and his men.
Shaking off the few enemy soldiers chasing after them, Tigre’s small group withdrew from the battlefield.
Even after Tigre’s group broke away, the Brunian camp remained a melting pot of chaos and disorder. Zion Thenardier quickly walked through the mixture of smoke, fog, and fire. Last night, after showing the dragons to Tigre, he had drunk some wine with the young nobles belonging to his followers’ circle, and went to sleep just like that.
“Staying away from our unit’s tents so that father wouldn’t find out was a blunder…”
Because of that, he woke up in a place far away from his father’s current location. Then again, it wasn’t that far away when talking about physical distance. Just, his view was filled with fog and smoke, his path was obstructed by flames, and Muozinel soldiers kept coming at him.
While frantically swinging his sword to repel the enemy soldiers, Zion headed for the camp of Thenardier’s troops. His followers, who should have been with him, had strayed from him at some point.
“Just what have those stupid soldiers been doing…!?”
Zion pointed his anger at the soldiers while grinding his teeth. Why didn’t they notice the enemy’s approach? Why didn’t they immediately report the appearance of fog? He had to discipline them later for all these failures. In Zion’s eyes soldiers registered as nothing more than replaceable mobs, and as such he had no problem with selfishly unloading all his emotions on them.
Three Muozinel soldiers appeared from within the fog. Zion froze on the spot. His sword hand trembled and his teeth chattered with terror.
It was at that instant that the atmosphere shifted greatly, carrying away all the fog and revealing a huge foreleg wrapped in brass scales. The grim face that looked as though it had been carved out of rock belonged to an earth dragon.
“Oohh…,” Zion cheered as he looked up to the dragon.
The desperation and fear plaguing him just moments ago were now completely gone. He suspected that his father had ordered the dragons to destroy the Muozinel soldiers.
The dragon casually swiped its foreleg. The Muozinel soldiers, who became rooted to the spot due to the unforeseen intruder, were blown away, dispersing their blood, flesh, and entrails across the area. The dragon’s huge frame was exposed alongside an earthen tremor, causing yelps of surprise to be heard all over the place.
“I cannot stay idling here. I must hurry back to father,” Zion pulled himself together and began to walk.
Because the fog’s density thickened gradually as the darkness thinned, he couldn’t quite get a read on the situation around him.
――But, I should soon arrive as long as I advance in the direction from where the dragon came.
Just as he thought that, something got splashed on his face. Once he wiped it away with his hand, he noticed it to be water. Thinking it might rain, he looked up to the sky. The sky was still clouded, but it didn’t seem like it was raining.
In the next instant, a sound similar to a large tree falling over thundered across the vicinity and the ground shook.
Zion scanned the area around him in panic. A dense cloud of sand and dirt rushed at him and clogged up his visual field. Next he heard loud watery noises from within, and a weird scent drifted his way, causing him to grimace.
An earth dragon was standing within the sandy cloud. Having an ominous premonition, Zion approached the dragon by a few steps, just to squeal in the next moment.
The part from the dragon’s neck upwards was missing. Dark red blood was gushing out of a fresh cut section like a waterfall. The dragon’s big frame shook violently before slowly inclining to the side. Moments later a thunderous roar, which was several times louder than the earlier one, filled the air and a furious cloud of dirt, sand, and earth blew the fog apart.
Zion tossed his sword away and started to run at full speed. His reasoning had been devoured by fear. His whole mind was occupied with the desire to get away as far as possible. Tents, soldiers, and everything else stopped playing a role to him.
Once he came to himself again, Zion found himself standing in front of a flying dragon. While being out of breath, he leaped on the dragon’s back, clapped its scales, and pulled on the rein.
The dragon lifted its head, sucked in some air, spat it back out, and then unfolded its big wings. Meanwhile Zion urged it to hurry with incoherent, delirious mumbling as he clung to the dragon’s back.
The dragon kicked off the ground. Blowing away fog and sand clouds altogether, it took to the sky while causing the wind to howl. At last, now that he was looking down on the ground, Zion spat out a breath of relief. But, right then he noticed that his face was a mess of tears and snot, resulting in him roughly wiping his face.
Zion’s action proved to have been right. The other two dragons, who had remained on the ground, were slaughtered by something, having their heads cut off just like the first earth dragon.
Moreover, Zion also saved many Brunian soldiers. As soon as he spotted his father and the soldiers under him, he had the dragon fly in their direction without any hesitation. Watching that, the Brunian soldiers knew the direction for their escape.
The Muozinel army persistently pursued the fleeing Brunian army. And when the battle had ended, Brune’s army had lost close to 4,000 soldiers and three dragons. Moreover, many soldiers got lost inside the fog, ending up separated from the main force.
Abandoned battle flags sorrowfully fluttered within the fog that was teeming with the stench of blood.
The fog gained in density. Tigre stopped, breathing out his irritation.
Until a little while ago, he could still make out the fog’s outline. But now everything beyond a dozen steps had merged into a murky, white soup. Looking back, he was only able to confirm four or five of the soldiers who had been following him thus far.
“Raphinaque, hurry and have everyone connect their feet with ropes,” ordered Tigre in a strict tone.
He worried that they might soon lose sight of each other if the fog continued to thicken like this. And straying from your comrades under these circumstances basically meant death. There was also worry that their whole unit might be caught in one swoop, if the enemy should discover a straddler.
Tigre quickly covered his horse’s hooves with leftover cloth and blocked its mouth by having it bite onto a piece of wood. Even like this, he was still anxious about an enemy hearing its snorting, but nonetheless, it was better than not doing anything at all.
“Please, behave like a good boy, okay?”
He lightly clapped the horse’s neck to relieve it of some of its uneasiness.
At that point, Raphinaque showed up, “All done, Milord.”
Tigre could see him, but was unable to tell the faces of the soldier behind him apart. The fog had grown even denser.
“Alright. Everyone, lay down on the spot. Close your eyes, and keep reciting the names of the gods in your hearts while staying as silent as possible. You can also use the names of your wives, sons, or daughters, if you like,” Tigre instructed them as he thought they would find it difficult to simply stay silent while not moving at all.
――As long as no enemy, who would take any drastic actions, appears now…
If the enemy was roaming around without caring about the fog being so dense, they’d likely spot them.
Suddenly, he could hear footsteps and unfamiliar words ― Muozinel language ― from within the white curtain.
――They don’t seem to be overly many…around ten people, I’d say.
He switched his thinking and decided to defeat them before they’d be discovered.
While getting his breathing in order, Tigre stood up straight, tightly grasped his black bow, and started to draw an arrow. With his eyes still closed. But, since he couldn’t see anything within this fog anyway, this method was better for concentrating.
――Oh, Goddess of Wind and Storms, Eris.
What Tigre was about to do from now on went beyond mad and could only be described as silly. In short, he was going to kill the enemy inside the fog with his archery.
A superb hunter might be able to detect the location of his quarry by sound. But, where shooting an enemy to death was concerned, he had to determine the enemy’s physique and posture from just their sounds and voices. Otherwise, he would not only be unable to kill his target, but be spotted in reverse.
Tigre was trying to pull that off.
He strained his ears, chasing after the sound. And while twisting his body, he drew the bowstring to the limit.
Then he let go. The arrow vanished into the fog, cutting through the air.
He heard a short scream from the direction where his arrow had headed. Followed by the thud of something hitting the ground.
Tigre breathed out shortly, and nocked a new arrow onto his bow. Letting go once more.
Just like moments ago, a muffled scream followed an instant later.
――It’d be great if they believe they are under friendly fire. I doubt that they’d ever think that a Brunian is currently shooting arrows at them.
During the attack on the camp, Tigre had killed Muozinel soldiers with his archery, but that happened during a chaotic melee.
――Much less to say, why would they be able to guess that an enemy was killing their comrades with one shot after detecting their location through sound within this heavy fog.
After shooting another arrow and taking down a third enemy, Tigre stopped moving. He judged it plenty if he could cause unrest to spread among his opponents with this much. Moreover, his supply of arrows was limited, too.
The Muozinel talk he could hear from the fog had changed into something curt and panicked. The footsteps grew distant. However, Tigre and the other remained where they were for a while longer. It’d spoil all their effort if they were spotted now after all this.
Bating his breath, Tigre patiently counted to thirty. After confirming that the enemy soldiers were gone, relief filled Tigre. Raphinaque also relaxed, and their men changed their postures or wiped their faces, albeit remaining silent.
“Raphinaque, we’re going to move once the fog has thinned.”
“It seems like we’ll be discovered by the enemy if we wait until it clears up, yep.”
It wasn’t said that they’d be safe if they got out of the fog, but staying in the fog came with the risk of being surrounded. Hence, Tigre chose to move.
When the fog became visible lighter, Tigre and his men started to run.
Wondering how far they had separated from the battlefield, Tigre stopped at the base of a small hill enclosed by prairie after running for dear life. Around that time, dawn had passed for the most part, and the sun was already standing high in the sky.
Tigre looked around himself, checking the faces of his soldiers. He noticed that several men were missing.
Once he called out to Raphinaque and asked him about it, his adjutant answered matter-of-factly without showing any emotions on his face, “Three were done in.”
According to him, they were cut down by Muozinel soldiers during their escape from the Brunian camp.
“…Do we have anything that could serve as an article of the deceased?” Tigre asked almost imploringly.
Raphinaque shook his head.
――Even though I acted as rear guard…
He prayed to the gods to allow the souls of his men to rest in peace. Then he faced his remaining men. Not one of them was unhurt and all of them were casting their eyes downwards, appearing anxious, while whispering among each other.
“――Men!” Tigre raised his voice while gazing at them, “Did you forget that fearsome dragon our army possesses? Sure, we were caught by surprise, but that is a temporary state. I think the Muozinel army is being repelled around now.”
His body screamed at him and his injuries complained with pain as soon as he raised his voice, but Tigre straightened his back in pride and put a smile on his lips. Right now, his task was to bring some hope to his men.
After ascertaining that several of them were smiling, Tigre ordered them to take a rest. They were unable to take more than a few bandages and medicines with them, so they couldn’t attend to their injuries much.
――It’d be a huge help if the enemy has been truly repelled, but…
Tigre was unable to be too optimistic about the outcome of the battle. After all, he could guess the reason for the Muozinel having launched a surprise attack.
――Their aim is the supreme commander, or in other words, Duke Thenardier.
If you couldn’t deal with the dragon, you just had to kill the human controlling it. It was simple enough as a theory, but you’d be literally obliterated by a dragon if you made a single mistake. Tigre couldn’t tell whether he’d be able to pull off the same, but he judged the enemy’s commander to be frightening to go with such a daring strategy.
Raphinaque came his way and asked in a whisper, “What are we going to do? Are we going to return to the main force at a good time?”
“To be frank, I’m not quite sure,” answered Tigre in a whisper.
If the Brunian army lost, it’d be suicide to try going back to the main force.
“That’s why I was thinking of trying to go scouting for a bit. Fortunately, this guy here is unscathed,” Tigre said as if it was nothing of importance while stroking the mane of his horse as it stood next to him.
Raphinaque blinked in surprise, before starting to raise his voice.
“Milord, you’re our commander. Doing something dangerous would――”
“I’m the only one capable of riding a horse, right? My eyesight is the best, too.”
Tigre didn’t feel like conceding. Raphinaque was at a loss how to object, holding his tongue. The two kept glaring at each other for around ten breaths. The older one folded first.
“…Alright. As you’d be too ashamed to meet the Olmutz princess without having a single thing to show for it, you want to perform some reconnaissance at least. That’ll do as an explanation for the men.”
“Yeah, please go with that.”
Both smiled provokingly at each other. It was an exchange they had grown accustomed to.
At that moment, one of the soldiers yelped in surprise. Tigre and Raphinaque looked in his direction, just for the faces of both to freeze at the same time.
A black shadow had appeared on the other side of the prairie. That black shadow quickly broadened to the sides as Tigre and the others kept watching.
“The Muozinel army…”
A shiver ran down Tigre’s spine.
A great number of riders, who led the group, were proudly flying flags depicting a golden sword and helmet. Tigre couldn’t tell their exact numbers from here, but they doubtlessly outnumbered them.
The speed of infantry and cavalry was completely different, so he knew the enemy would immediately catch up with them, even if they ran away.
――But, why are they in a place like this?
A bad premonition weighed down on Tigre.
――Don’t tell me, the Brunian army was destroyed…? I can’t assert that to be impossible either. I mean, I just considered that possibility myself.
“What are we going to do?” Raphinaque looked Tigre’s way while completely lost.
Tigre surveyed their vicinity and looked up the hill right next to them.
Raphinaque required some time to comprehend what had happened in front of him. Just when he had resolved himself that they’d have no choice but to fight after having escaped halfway up the hill while being chased by the Muozinel, a beautiful girl with blue hair had dashingly shown up. Even from a distance, he could tell that the spear in her hand was an exquisite item of marvelous make, but seeing her like that, he actually wondered whether a goddess had descended upon the surface.
“Is that lady the Olmutz princess mentioned by the young lord…?”
Since Tigre had dashed down the hill as soon as he shouted, “Mila,” Raphinaque believed that there could be no doubt.
Behind her followed around fifty cavalrymen who were hoisting Zhcted’s Black Dragon Flag.
“I hope this is no hallucination we’re seeing right before our death or something like that,” Raphinaque mumbled with a serious look and lightly struck the belly of Tigre’s horse.
The horse caught up to Tigre. After running next to each other for almost ten steps, he jumped on the horse, and widely swung his bow instead of a thanks.
A battle was about to unfold in front of Tigre. The Muozinel army apparently couldn’t hide its surprise over the sudden appearance of Zhcted’s army, but they immediately adopted an offensive formation. Since Zhcted’s army was just another enemy for them, it was a natural reaction. Not to mention that Mila and her men were drastically outnumbered by them. Thus, they had no reason to avoid a battle.
Mila cast a glance at the Muozinel and got off her horse with nimble movements.
“――Come at me. Zhcted’s 『Snow Princess of Frozen Ripple』 shal give you a special training lesson.”
Three Muozinel spurred their horses into a gallop while bellowing in anger upon her provocation.
A white flash.
Mila’s spear knocked two of the Muozinel of their horses with a sweep. And just as their bodies hit the ground, Mila slew the third with a sweep in the other direction.
A commotion. It wasn’t a scene anyone would be able to believe right away. Three soldiers had been killed in almost no time. Moreover, their killer was a young girl who gave others the impression of being frail and delicate.
Strangely enough, the wounds of the three dead had frozen solid, but none of the Muozinel soldiers noticed it.
Riding across the corpses, a single Muozinel cavalryman fiercely attacked Mila. But, that man suddenly stopped moving just as he had brandished his spear, and fell forward as if to cling to the neck of his horse. A single arrow was embedded in his neck.
Of course, this arrow had been shot by Tigre.
After shooting down another two Muozinel, Tigre lined up his horse next to Mila.
The attention of the Muozinel forces shifted to Tigre. Using that instantaneous opportunity, Mila swiftly jumped on her own horse, her blue eyes asking Tigre what she should do.
“Could you take the front for a bit longer?”
“Leave it to me.”
No sooner than saying that, Mila kicked the flank of her horse, resolutely charging into the mids of the Muozinel army. An invisible, cold air was released from the head of her spear, creeping across the ground, and causing several Muozinel soldiers to stop as they suddenly felt cold.
Mila didn’t miss that opening. She mercilessly thrust her spear through the throat of the enemy closest to her, before swiftly pulling the spear back and using it to pierce the head of another soldier.
While dodging or repelling the spears thrust at her alongside war cries, she counterattacked by weaving her way through the small gaps, knocking another rider off his horse.
It was a display of strength that could only be described as overwhelming. Despite having killed so many soldiers, Mila wasn’t even panting. She observed the Muozinel army with icy eyes.
Tigre spurred on his horse once more, lining up next to Mila again after closing the small distance between them. He had already prepared a new arrow and drawn his bow.
The arrow flew above the enemy soldiers’ heads, and pierced the throat of their commander who was situated around 250 alsin away from their current location. His iron helmet slipped off and fell to the ground. He himself also fell off his horse, his face colored with shock.
With its commander killed, the Muozinel forces lost all their fighting spirit. And just then, Zhcted’s cavalry finally caught up with Mila.
In spite of having an overwhelming, numerical advantage, the Muozinel were overpowered by Mila and Tigre. As their resistance weakened, they continued to retreat, at first five steps, then a dozen, before finally scurrying away in all directions.
“Shall we go after them?” An elderly Zhcted knight asked Mila.
The blue-haired Vanadis shook her head.
Turning around towards Raphinaque and his men, who were still halfway up the hill, Tigre waved his black bow, telling them that he was alright, and then he faced Mila again.
The two stared silently at each other. Their first meeting in two years caused both to feel deeply moved and embrace a novel astonishment accompanied by joy. The myriads of emotions turned into myriads of words, welling up in their hearts, but both frantically pushed all of those back into the deepest recesses of their chests.
“I am Tigrevurmud, the eldest son of Earl Vorn who rules over Brune’s Alsace. You have my deepest gratitude for having rescued me and my men.”
“I am Ludmila Lourie, the Vanadis ruling over Zhcted’s Olmutz. It is a pleasure for me to hear that I was able to help our allies.”
While extending formal greetings, a pair of reddish brown eyes met a pair of blue eyes.
“――Did your arrow reach Sizurite?” Mila asked, suddenly reverting her tone to that befitting for a girl of her age.
Sizurite. That word bore the meaning of a promise exchanged between the two of them.
Tigre blinked his eyes, but immediately broke into a smile.
“No, not yet. But, I’m not even thinking of giving up on it.”
Both laughed at each other soundlessly.
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