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The rain, which had started at dawn, suddenly intensified around noon.
“We’re really out of luck. This weather, when we’re hurrying over here.”
Elen ─ Eleonora Viltaria ─ brushed up her forelocks in annoyance while riding her horse at the head of Leitmeritz’s army. Looking up, she saw thick clouds blanketing the sky as if a huge amount of soot had been blown into the atmosphere and expanded all over up there. Plagued by the cold winter rain, Elen’s face was dirty, and her silver hair, which extended down to her waist, had lost its luster, heavily sticking to her back. Her breathing was blurred with faint fatigue as it left her mouth.
Right now Elen wasn’t wearing a helmet or hood. All for the sake of ensuring her soldiers of her firmness by clearly showing herself as their commander. Of course her body was covered by a long overcoat from the neck down, but her iron boots had long become mud-caked in the stirrup.
Gently undulating ups and downs sprawled across the area around here. No forests or mountains were nearby, but because of the rain, visibility was bad, and the ground was a slushy mess with pools of water everywhere.
“I think we should allow the soldiers to get some rest. At least until the rain subsides somewhat.” A tall female knight proposed to Elen from behind.
It was Limalisha, Elen’s best friend and adjutant. She was lovingly called Lim by those close to her. Unlike Elen, she was in full armor, including a helmet.
Elen looked back over her shoulder without answering at once.
Her soldiers were silently thudding on, kicking up mud with each step and getting weighed down by the armor covering their bodies. No orderly ranks and files could be seen as it was hard to tread through the sludge, in addition to the fatigue wearing down on them. One of the soldiers trampled into a puddle of water, immediately causing a grand splash of muddy slush.
Feelings of guilt crept into Elen’s ruby eyes. But she immediately shook her head, ridding herself of that emotion. Putting a stern expression on, she turned her face back to the front.
“They’ve got to endure. We must hurry. Under these circumstances they won’t get any decent fires going anyway. Ludmila and the others are likely thinking the same.”
Behind Elen and Leitmeritz’s soldiers marched Olmutz’s army, led by Ludmila Lourie, followed by Lebus’s army which was spearheaded by Elizavetta Fomina and Olga Tamm.
If they were to interrupt the march, Elen would need to inform the three to that effect and all of them would have to pass down deliberate instruction so as to avoid the armies running into each other. And even then, a considerable amount of chaos would remain unavoidable within this rain. Elen feared that some of the soldiers might get left behind or wander astray, a risk she wanted to avoid if possible.
“If something like that hadn’t happened to Sofy…” She spat out with a sigh, muttering something she had worded out countless times up until today.
Four days ago they held the funeral ceremony for Sofy ─ Sofya Obertas, the Vanadis who had governed the principality of Polesia. Although they called it a funeral service, it had been a simple ceremony where several people, including Elen, had offered their prayers.
But, this had been inevitable. Back then Elen and the others were camping on the vast grasslands located at the southeastern edge of Lebus. They didn’t have the time to search the vicinity for settlements to call a priest over.
On the next day, Elen and the others had joined up with Olmutz and Polesia’s armies. The commander of Polesia’s army, who heard about what fate had befallen their mistress, informed them with a calm tone that his army would withdraw.
“We are soldiers of Polesia. We came all the way to this land in order to fight under Lady Sofya. Even though all of you are Vanadis, we would find it difficult to follow the command of one of you.”
Unable to stop them, Elen’s group had no choice but silently watch Polesia’s army break away. As a result, only the armies of Leitmeritz, Olmutz, and Lebus were left.
Sofy had been attacked outside the camp, and no one had witnessed the moment it happened. At the time when the other Vanadis and Tigre had rushed over, she had already been in a state where she couldn’t speak any longer. Because of that, they didn’t know who had done this to her.
However, the group around Elen believed that the assailant had to be Valentina Glinka Estes. The slashing wound reaching from Sofy’s left shoulder to her right flank had been caused by a huge, sharp blade. Valentina’s draconic tool, Ezendeis, was a long-handled scythe, and she possessed a draconic art, allowing her to cross wide distances in an instant.
That very Valentina should be in the capital Silesia together with Osterode’s soldiers. And thus the reason why Elen and the others had been continuing to march on in spite of the heavy downpour was all for the sake of closing the distance to the capital as much as possible and obtaining information. If they couldn’t grasp the current circumstances surrounding Valentina and the strength of the military forces under her, they wouldn’t be able to form any strategies. After all, their military forces fell short of 5,000 soldiers, even after adding all three armies together.
If Sofy had been with them right now, they might have been able to decide on their plan even while on the march. Her capabilities in information gathering and analysis had been outstanding among all Vanadis. This had also been the reason why the late King Viktor had appointed her to be Zhcted’s diplomatic envoy.
Besides, Elen was sure that she’d have been much calmer than she was right now. Even putting aside the matter of both of them having been fellow Vanadis, Sofy was a dear friend for Elen. If Sofy had seen the current Elen, she’d have admonished her, “At this rate, you’re going to catch a cold,” with her usual, gentle smile, and Elen might have obeyed her without being stubborn about it while grimacing.
──I don’t know what to tell the soldiers.
She had staved off the soldiers by promising them to explain the details once they’d reach their destination. However, with Sofy’s sudden disappearance and the departure of Polesia’s army, most of them should have realized that something was amiss.
It’d be simple to lie. If I tell them that Sofy and her army decided to act independently from us in order to achieve a certain objective, the soldiers would likely buy it. But, once they learned that this had been a lie, their consent would change into disappointment and distrust, resulting in a drop in morale.
Besides, Elen and the other Vanadis hid yet another big secret. Namely, that their draconic tools had lost their powers.
Around ten days ago, Elen and the others had a deadly struggle against Maximilian Bennusa Ganelon on a land called Zagan. Elen remembered it as a nightmarish battle. Ganelon had shed his humanity and allowed the Goddess of Night, Darkness, and Death Tir Na Fal to descend into his body. The fact that they had suffered no casualties could only be described as a miracle.
But, the Vanadis’s draconic tools had lost their powers during that battle, transforming into simple stone slabs. According to Tir Na Fal, they would apparently regain their might in seven months, but unlike during peace times, it was unthinkable that they’d be able to keep their current state hidden for a long time. Elen believed that they’d need to inform the soldiers, sooner or later. At the same time, she couldn’t fathom how much of a shock it’d cause to them.
──That’s why we can’t lie about Sofy’s case. If we continue lying and concealing things, the soldiers are going to hold doubts, wondering whether there’s some more to it. A commander, who lost the trust of his subordinates, is miserable. I cannot afford to invite such a situation.
“Even though Ganelon is gone just like those annoying, unusual phenomenons, we’re still bogged down by nothing but headache-inducing problems. If at least the weather could not get in our way, it’d be a start.” Elen roughly wiped her wet face with a palm while grumbling.
It was at that moment that she could hear a bright laughter accompanied by a commotion from behind. Once she looked back, she spotted a hooded pair of people walking next to the soldiers with their bodies hidden underneath overcoats. One of them held a wine cup in their hand while the other lifted a big leather bag, just to pour something into the cup.
“What’s going on there?”
Seemingly noticing Elen’s puzzled look, the pair looked her way.
Elen’s eyes widened, “Tigre and Titta?”
“It looks like they’re treating the soldiers to some drink, but… I wonder whether something happened.” Lim tilted her head in confusion.
Tigrevurmud Vorn and his maid, Titta, should be at the rear of Leitmeritz’s army as guests of honor.
After having exchanged some light banter with the soldiers, Tigre and Titta walked over towards Elen and Lim while splashing mud with every step. Accompanied by several mounted knights, Elen and Lim separated from the army’s file, and stopped their horses.
Leitmeritz’s army fielded around 1,500 men. Even if Elen gave the order, the army wouldn’t be able to halt at once. Thus it was necessary for them to break away from the army’s vanguard to talk with Tigre and Titta.
Tigre stopped his feet in front of Elen, and lightly heaved up the leather bag in his hand.
“It’s vodka. You two, have a drink as well.”
“Please explain the circumstances first, Lord Tigrevurmud.” Lim inquired before Elen could say anything.
Tigre answered with a smile, “Gerard informed me that we had some vodka left. I decided to buy the surplus and share it with everyone. I got enough for around half a cup per person.”
Gerard Augre had taken over the duty of appropriately supplying the three armies with goods such as rations and fuel. Originally he served at Brune’s royal court as secretary, but because he excelled at math and management to begin with, he had enthusiastically thrown himself at the job. To such an extent that they adopted his request to consolidate the management of each army’s provisions into one.
“I’m sorry for not having informed you in advance, but I did talk with Rurick. He happily agreed to the idea. Mila and Liza have also told me that they’d stop the march for a while.”
“──Lim, inform the soldiers that we’re going to take a break for approximately a quarter koku.” Elen told her adjutant, revealing a bright smile that lacked any of her previous stiffness. “We cannot bluntly turn down the kindness of our precious guest. Besides, if Rurick has said that it’s a good idea, we should probably listen to him.”
“As you command. I shall get to it at once.”
After nodding with a cheerful gleam twinkling in her blue eyes, Lim swiftly hurled instructions at the knights who had accompanied them. They turned the necks of their horses, and galloped off towards the rear.
Rurick had obtained a huge achievement. Elen had entrusted her army to him when they had departed for Zagan, ordering him to lead the army east. This had been a move in preparation of Valentina’s movements. However, Rurick had followed that order only for a few days. Encountering one of the cavalry units dispatched by Mila, Rurick had changed the course of the army on his own discretion after wavering for a while, knowing that Mila and the others had also departed for Zagan.
After going all the way back to the spot where Elen and the others had split away from Leitmeritz’s army, he had the soldiers construct a camp, having decided to wait for the return of their mistress. Moreover, he dispatched messengers to Olmutz and Polesia’s armies, requesting them to join up.
His arbitrary decision turned into a big help for Elen and the others. After all, they were completely exhausted and their draconic tools had lost their powers when they left Zagan. Only Tigre’s Black Bow was unaffected, but it’d have likely been a challenge for the youth to travel while protecting his friends all by himself.
“Very well, I guess we’ll take you up on that offer.”
Once Elen and Lim dismounted, Titta held out cups to both of them. On a closer look, several cups had been tied together with a string which was hanging around her neck.
“I sure don’t want to believe so, but it’s not like it’s just you two distributing vodka to all our men, right?” Elen asked while accepting a cup from Titta.
In response, Titta said with a laugh, “No, Mr. Gaspal and Mr. Damad are helping us as well. Mr. Rurick has also gathered many people for us in order to get them to help out.”
Tigre brought the leather bag close, and poured vodka into Elen’s cup. Meanwhile Titta held both her hands above the cup, probably out of consideration to prevent the rain from falling into the cup as much as possible.
Elen drained down the vodka in one gulp. The vodka itself was lukewarm, but it first heated her throat, and then her stomach. Soon after she felt the heat spread across her whole body, causing her to spill a long sigh.
──Maybe I’ve looked at things too gravely.
Staring at the empty cup in her hand, Elen soundlessly muttered, Not only Tigre, but even Titta should be well aware of what a dangerous situation we currently are in. It’s unimaginable that they don’t feel angry and sad about Sofy’s death. But, without putting those feelings into words, those two treat the soldiers to drinks and laugh together with them.
A warmth, which didn’t only originate from the vodka, filled Elen’s heart.
“Thanks. I feel like all exhaustion has been blown out of my body.” Elen grinned at Titta while passing back her cup.
Titta looked up to her with an anxious look. Even during this moment, rain continued to pour down on Elen.
“Lady Eleonora. You will catch a cold if you stay like that.”
“I don’t have such a weak body that I’d get a fever from this little bit of rain. It might strike you as odd, but I do have my own reason for doing this. Still, I’ll gratefully accept your consideration.”
It didn’t look as though Titta could fully go along with Elen’s explanation. But she quickly bowed, and went away to give a cup to someone else. And, as if to trade places with her, Tigre walked up to Elen.
“I’m in no position to say much to others, but…make sure to not go too far, okay?”
“This is a time to prevail with willpower. Right?” Elen proudly thrust out her chest.
Tigre nodded lightly, albeit smiling somewhat awkwardly. If a commander forced his men to push themselves, he had to demonstrate something that would make them agree to go along with it. Both of them, Ellen and Tigre, were fully aware of that.
“Still, your face is a mess. Even your hair…”
Tigre reached out for Elen’s cheek with a hand, and gently swiped a strand of hair clinging to it away. And then he brought his face close in a very natural manner, and stole a quick kiss.
“──Well then, we’re going to head over to the other places.”
Shouldering the bag with the vodka, Tigre walked away as if nothing had happened. Following her lover with her eyes while dumbfounded, Elen needed a moment before she placed a hand on her lips.
“Isn’t that way hotter than any vodka…?”
That mutter fortunately wasn’t heard by anyone as it got drowned out by the rainfall.
If you walked for around five days northwest from Silesia, you’d reach a town called Lecheneaut. Two big main roads crossed at this town, and because most of those heading for the capital from Legnica and Lebus, and those heading northwest from the capital would stop by here, it was flourishing quite a bit.
The aspect of it being territory under the direct control of the crown might have also played a part in Lecheneaut’s prosperity. After all, no lord would dare to unnecessarily meddle with royal land.
The allied forces of Leitmeritz, Olmutz, and Lebus pitched their camp next to Lecheneaut. This also served as a declaration that their soldiers wouldn’t enter the town. Such consideration was indispensable, especially for the sake of gathering information and resupplying.
The one meeting Lecheneaut’s mayor as representative of the alliance was Elizavetta Fomina. She had already visited this town once in the past.
Around the time when it’d still be too early to hail noon, Liza passed through the town gate while escorted by several knights. Their little party came back to the camp when the stars were already twinkling in the very dim sky.
Liza headed to Tigre’s tent while accompanied by her subordinates.
Tigrevurmud Vorn stood in front of his own tent, his body hidden underneath an overcoat. Having heard about Liza’s return, Elen, Lim, Mila, and Olga had assembled in his tent. In response, Titta brewed black tea for everyone after having boiled some water.
As Tigre waited while feeling the cold wintry night air gnawing at his skin, soon the figures of Liza and her retinue melted out of the shadows of the tents, illuminated by many campfires. She immediately noticed him and waved a hand, which he responded to with a wave of his own. This short exchange of gestures resulted in a smile blooming on her face, and she heightened her pace as she strode towards him and his tent.
“I have safely returned. Did anything unusual occur while I was out?”
“It was peaceful. Well, I suppose Elen and Mila had a quarrel, but that’s just proof of the calmness.” Tigre answered with a shrug of his shoulders.
The bad blood between Elen and Mila was so famous that the soldiers even whispered, “They appear to even fight over the different shapes of baked sweets and the ingredients of fish soup,” amongst each other with wry smiles. Neither Tigre or Lim tried to deny those gossips since they were true for the most part anyway. And yet, the relationship of two seemed to have improved by leaps and bounds when compared to the time when they met for the first time, according to Lim.
While Liza entered Tigre’s tent, Tigre himself first guided her men to another tent.
“I’ll have some wine brought over for you guys. Is there anything else you’d like?”
“Allow me to take you up on that offer and request a fish soup, if possible. I have seen Leitmeritz’s soldiers eating it on the way here. I would be grateful if it could be so hot that it almost scalds your tongue.” One of Lebus’s knights replied.
Tigre looked at him, unintentionally breaking into a smile. That knight was called Naum. He was the man who had looked after Tigre in various ways during his time of memory loss in Lebus.
“I understand. Please rest up well.”
Tigre called for a soldier, and ordered him to prepare wine and a serving of ukha.
After they had built their camp in this location, Elen and the others had gathered their soldiers and explained Sofy’s disappearance and the withdrawal of Polesia’s army.
“Sofya Obertas got attacked by the enemy and suffered serious injuries. Polesia’s army prioritized the protection of their lord, and thusly, separated from us.”
This was an explanation based on the idea that it’d be meaningless to try hiding the circumstances if Valentina publicly announced the truth. The shock and unrest among the soldiers was undoubtedly not small, but fortunately it didn’t lead to any bigger confusions. Most likely because the four Vanadis around Elen were safe and sound.
Then again, those serving the Vanadis as close aides didn’t feel as calm about this. They decided that someone had to always accompany their respective lord in order to avoid them wandering around by themselves. They even assigned a knight of Lebus to stay at Olga’s side. This was also the reason why Naum and his men had stayed close to Liza even inside the camp.
Tigre returned to his own tent. Once he entered, Elen and the other girls were sitting on a carpet, forming a circle. Several maps and a few figurines had been placed inside that circle. Tigre sat down in the open spot of the circle ─ between Mila and Olga.
The heirloom of the Vorn House, the Black Bow, was leaning against its stand in a corner of the tent. It was an inconspicuous bow with no redeeming features except for its black color which made it look like it had been steeped in darkness, but it was a sacred treasure that exhibited a tremendous might in Tigre’s hands while carrying Tir Na Fal’s wishes. Next to it rested a greatsword with a guard and hilt which had golden decorations ─ Durandal, the treasured sword of Brune which was also known as 『Sword of Invincibility』. After Marquis Greast had stolen it out of Brune’s royal palace, it had wandered into Ganelon’s hands, but Tigre had retrieved it the other day.
Behind Lim, Titta poured black tea in silver cups matching the number of people present in the tent, and placed the cups in front of everyone. Just before she left the tent, Tigre expressed his gratitude with a light wave of his hand.
“Okay, let’s start then.” Liza took a look at everyone present, and then told everyone what she had heard from Lecheneaut’s mayor. “I was told that His Highness Ruslan hasn’t recovered yet and that the capital is being ruled by the First Prince Aide Valentina and Grand Chamberlain Miron. Droves of noble lords have been visiting the palace to declare their will to cooperate with those two.”
Of course, this didn’t mean that all noble lords were in favor of obeying Valentina and Miron. For example, the forces opposing Ruslan still existed, and they were naturally hostile towards Valentina who was supporting Ruslan. However, it seemed undeniable that Valentina was steadily reinforcing her own position.
In the past, she had told Tigre that she wanted to change the current standings of the Vanadis. Her new policy would put two Vanadis next to the king as his aides while placing the remaining five Vanadis below. If Valentina continued to bolster her influence at court, her desire could possibly come true in the near future.
“Did he know anything about Lord Eugene?” Elen asked while leaning forward.
She spontaneously poured strength into her hands, clenching her fists tightly. Liza shook her head with an apologetic look.
“I tried to ask about him, but the mayor told me that he didn’t know anything about it. You might as well regard it as positive news since it’d mean nothing has changed.”
“I see…” Elen hung her head, grinding her teeth in mortification.
Eugene Shevarin, the lord of Pardu, could be described as a teacher for Elen and Lim. He took over the governmental work as acting ruler after Prince Ruslan collapsed, but he was soon imprisoned by Miron over suspicions that he might have colluded with Muozinel.
“That should mean that Lord Eugene still remains safe, Lady Eleonora.” Lim added.
Her tone betrayed that she was rather persuading herself than cheering up her mistress, but it caused Elen to look startled, before nodding several times in agreement. Eugen had been designated as next by King Viktor, and was deeply trusted by Ruslan. Not a few among the civil officials serving in the palace looked up to him. If something had happened to him, rumors would immediately make their rounds.
“Let me go on then.” Liza spoke up after confirming that Elen had recovered.
When they heard that the unusual phenomenons, which had brought fear and chaos to the continent, stopped occurring on the day when Ganelon perished, Tigre and the others breathed out in relief. Those phenomenons were a byproduct of Ganelon trying to make Tir Na Fal descend on the surface. After they had departed Zagan, their group hadn’t encountered any such phenomenons. They didn’t catch sight of fairies or ghosts either. As if these things hadn’t existed from the very start.
For this reason, they had expected that the phenomenons might have disappeared all over the continent, but now that they had heard a confirmation out of someone else’s mouth, it hit them as reality all over again.
Tigre remembered David and Lena, the father and daughter he had met on his way to Zagan. The serious expression of David as he worried over his daughter and the bright smile of Lena had carved themselves deeply into his memory and vividly revived every now and then to this very day. Those two wouldn’t come back to life anymore, but at least the survivors of their village wouldn’t be tormented by the same tragedy anymore.
Eventually, Liza finished her speech.
“Valentina must have had a blast.” Mila commented with sarcasm oozing out of her voice.
She didn’t just mean Sofy either. Even Mila wasn’t very amused about being treated like a game piece on a board and felt unhappy about Valentina maneuvering behind the scenes while they were fighting Ganelon.
“I’d like to hear your opinion on this, Tigre.” Olga looked up to him from her seat next to him.
The other four remained silent, staring at the youth.
The reason why Tigre let them momentarily wait for his answer didn’t stem from him having to collect his thoughts, but him asking himself once more for what reason he was fighting. But, the answer appeared to him in no time, without any hesitation to be found there.
“I’ll fight against Valentina.” Tigre openly declared, a calm determination gleaming in his eyes. “There are two reasons for it. One is Sofy.”
Elen and the other four nodded.
“The other,” Tigre continued, “is her leaving Ganelon at large despite knowing what he was up to.”
Unusual phenomenona had occurred all over the continent. Even Tigre’s territory, Alsace, had most likely been no exception to that. The same applied for other Brunian lands like Mashas Rodant and Hughes Augre’s territories, and the capital Nice where Princess Regin resided. As such he couldn’t think of the tragedy that befell David and Lena’s village as someone else’s problem.
“As Alsace’s lord, I cannot forgive Valentina.”
Whether Valentina might try to exercise power as Ruslan’s representative or change the ways of the Vanadis, both would be domestic issues of Zhcted. Tigre as Brunian wouldn’t be qualified to get involved in this. Of course that didn’t mean he wouldn’t do anything, seeing how it’d worsen the position of Elen and the others, but he’d likely avoid a direct confrontation.
However, Valentina had exposed Alsace to danger. This was more than enough a reason for Tigre to fight against her.
“It’s decided then.” Elen said complacently after folding her arms.
It wasn’t just her either. Lim, Mila, Olga, and Liza also looked at Tigre with smiles decorating their faces. They had accepted his response which went beyond their expectations.
Representing the five, Elen said, “Tigre, your feelings are the ropes tying us together. We pledge to you here and now that we’ll bring victory to you. Please accept those feelings of ours.”
Tigre was taken aback by her unexpected words, but he immediately noticed that everyone’s expression was serious. Having this much trust shown, he couldn’t afford to react in a silly manner.
“Thanks, everyone.” Tigre bowed his head deeply.
He felt five gazes pinned on the back of his head, yet all of them overflowed with warmth and affection. After wiping the inner corners of his eyes which had become hot, he lifted his head and asked something that had been on his mind.
“Of course I’m happy about you saying that you’re going to fight for my sake, but…could you maybe tell me if there’s some reason for doing so?”
All of them, except for Lim, were Vanadis who reigned over a principality. While it might be true that they had feelings for Tigre, it was unthinkable that they’d decide to fight for him based on that alone.
“We talked amongst each other about what Valentina’s next moves might be.” Mila explained after draining down the remaining tea in her cup, “We came to the conclusion that she’s either going to try assaulting one of us by surprise like she did with Sofy or that she’s going to try breaking us apart by sowing discord.”
“Both sound likely as options.” Tigre groaned.
Valentina could get in contact with one Vanadis and offer her a compromise. Whether it worked out or not, she wouldn’t mind either way. The fact of the Vanadis having met with Valentina would cause the others to doubt her, creating a rift between them. Once the Vanadis started to take independent actions because of their suspicions, Valentina would be easily able to pick a good moment to crush them one by one.
“As for surprise attacks, we can handle those by solidifying our defenses as much as possible, but her schemes to sow discord would be a problem. We must consider the benefits of Zhcted and the principalities we govern. Valentina should be aware of that, and thus she would approach us with offers that are hard to refuse. If the other Vanadis heard about it, they would end up doubting whether their fellow Vanadis agreed to Valentina’s terms.”
“Accordingly we’ve made a contract on which all of those present here can rely, allowing them to refuse any offers Valentina might make without any worries whatsoever.” Liza cheerfully followed up on Mila.
Tigre cocked his head in puzzlement, not understanding the meaning. Tilting her body to lean herself against Tigre’s arm, Olga explained, “Cooperating with you would result in the best outcome for our principalities. And of course for Zhcted as well.”
Tigre almost cried out in reflex.
“So that’s why…”
“We’re going to get the future king of Brune indebted to us. The soldiers are going to agree as well once they hear of this.” Mila laughed with tease coloring her voice.
Tigre shrugged his shoulders, indicating that he surrendered himself to his fate.
Calling for a short break, Tigre had Titta prepare another serving of tea for everyone. Then the war council resumed.
“──Valentina Glinka Estes is a treacherous Vanadis who plots to rule over Zhcted with Prince Ruslan as puppet. Sofya Obertas, who was trusted by the late King Viktor, was hated by her. Us four are going to bring down Valentina as loyal subjects of the kingdom. Brune’s Tigrevurmud Vorn is also supporting our cause…” Lim read out lout the text she had finished writing down on a parchment.
It was a legitimation of their just cause in fighting Valentina.
“It’s rather conventional, but it gets the message across, I’d say. I think it’s fine with us to go with this for now.” Mila evaluated the text while Elen, Liza, and Olga didn’t raise any objections in particular.
The key point here was that they regarded Valentina as their enemy, not Ruslan or Miron. It was for that sake that they brought up Sofy. It’d pose no problem for them if it was regarded as a power struggle, but they couldn’t afford to be misunderstood as aiming for a removal of Ruslan.
With the declaration set, the six shifted to the next issue.
“The military forces we have at hand amount to roughly 4,500 soldiers. 3,900 infantry and 600 cavalry.” Elen confirmed while looking at the map.
It approximated to Leitmeritz, Olmutz, and Lebus each fielding around 1,500 soldiers. But then again, the breakdown of infantry and cavalry was all over the place. In contrast to Leitmeritz, which had 1,000 infantry and 500 cavalry, Olmutz’s army had less than 100 cavalry at its disposal whereas Lebus’s army consisted of infantry only.
“The number of Osterode’s soldiers, who are protecting the capital, is approximately 5,000.” Mila sighed while placing a responding amount of figurines in Lecheneaut and Silesia on the map.
“We didn’t plan to attack the capital to begin with, but no matter how you look at it, it’d be impossible either way.”
A great number of soldiers and siege weapons would be required to attack the capital with its sturdy wall. Since they’d be fighting their own countrymen, they’d require a just cause that wouldn’t turn the capital’s residents into their enemies. Tigre’s group possessed neither.
“In that case, all points to this place, huh?” Elen pointed at an area northwest of the capital.
It was Valentina’s principality, Osterode. They’d attack her stronghold instead of Silesia. And if Valentina left the capital in order to prevent that, they’d drag her into a field battle. If not, they’d place Osterode under their control which would likely result in Valentina’s reputation plummeting back home.
They could choose two routes to travel from Lecheneaut to Osterode. The northern route where they’d be crossing Zhcted’s northern parts, or the southern route where they’d advance through Zhcted’s south as if drawing an arc to eventually attack Osterode from the south. Lim traced both ways with a finger on the map.
“If we go north, we will arrive in Osterode after 12 or 13 days at the pace of our infantry. If we go south, it will require twice that, I think.”
“But, going south has advantages too. If we proceed while making sure to advance through Leitmeritz, Olmutz, Polesia, and Brest, we’ll be able to increase the number of our soldiers and the procurement of the necessary goods won’t be a problem. It’ll also be possible for us to call out to the noble lords while we march.” Mila advocated passionately, earning herself a nod from Olga.
Elen refuted, “You make it sound like it’s all nice and shiny, but the longer we take, the more time Valentina will get to spend on battle preparations. Being able to rely on His Highness Ruslan’s authority while based in the capital might increase the other side’s advantage in proportion.”
Mila asked for Liza’s opinion with her eyes. Liza shook her red hair, seemingly dissatisfied.
“I think we should go north. Going south has its charm, but it’ll give Valentina time and there’s also the worry that our weak point will be found out in the meantime.”
Their draconic tools had lost their powers. If this fact were to be exposed, the predominance of having four Vanadis on their side would crumble apart in no time.
“Considering the matter with Sofy, it’s possible that she’s already noticed it, though.” Elen twisted her expression in irritation.
Mila shook her head, “I think she’s still not completely certain of it. Otherwise, she’d have attacked us a lot more aggressively.”
After they discussed the matter for a while longer, Elen and the other Vanadis agreed on taking the northern route. They had decided to prioritize speed based on the judgment that more lords would join Valentina’s side under the current circumstances.
Tigre had carefully listened in silence up until that point, but then he looked with a serious expression at Elen and the other girls, “Everyone, please make sure to be as careful as possible. Unfortunately, it’s about the only thing I can tell you though…”
“That’s our line.” Elen grimaced.
Lim and Liza directed worried looks at him. Tigre would act independently starting tomorrow. His task was to infiltrate the capital and rescue Eugene. The reason why they hadn’t mentioned him with a single word in their declaration was to avoid having Valentina focus on Eugene.
If they managed to spring Eugene, the knights and lords following him would likely join their side. Alleviating the fear of him being used by Valentina for her own devices would be a big boon, too. Moreover, Tigre liked Eugene’s personality which bore the wish in him to rescue Eugene, even while disregarding the political advantage it’d bring.
“Have you decided on who is going to accompany you? I’ve already heard about Lord Gaspal and Damad, but what about the rest?” Mila asked.
Tigre ransacked his hair and then shook his head, “Not yet. Right now I’m having Rurick search for more men, but…”
Tigre had requested Rurick to look for “Zhcted who are knowledgeable of the capital’s geography.” However, most of the Leitmeritz soldiers here had never visited the capital before. If Rurick were to expand his search to the commanding officers leading hundreds of soldiers, there would be some among them meeting Tigre’s condition, but it’d affect the stability of Leitmeritz’s army if they were to pull out those men from their current positions. Rurick was certainly racking his brain over the same issue right now.
“In that case, take Naum with you.” Liza offered readily.
Tigre stared at her with a look full of surprise.
“Naum has visited the capital together with me and my predecessor on many occasions. I’m sure he’ll be of good use to you. While he’s not here, I’ll have that girl over there do her best.” Liza shifted her blue and gold eyes to Olga.
Olga nodded expressionlessly. She had already proven her ability to command with the victory against Egol Kazakov. Even if she wouldn’t be fit to replace Liza, working as the commander of a detached force should be well within her capability.
“Thanks. That’s a huge help.”
Impatience vanished from Tigre’s heart, replaced by a sense of relief. After all, he was now able to believe that things would definitely work out.
“Which reminds me, what are we going to do about the name of this army?”
Elen asked around the time they had finished checking all details and were about to call this war council off.
Everyone present exchanged looks, and while tilting her head to the side in confusion, Liza said, “Wouldn’t Allied Forces of Three Principalities or Four Vanadis Alliance be alright?”
“It lacks impact as it’s just a line-up of words. Do you think that such a name would rouse the morale of the soldiers?”
“It’s easy to understand, but rather dull.”
Not just Elen, but even Mila turned those suggestions down, resulting in Liza looking sullen.
“Could we hear your name suggestions then, you two?”
“Let’s see. Reviving the name of 『Silver Meteor Army』──”
“──is a no.” Mila coldly interrupted Elen who was in the middle of declaring her idea with a triumphant expression.
“The silver part of the name was taken from your army, wasn’t it? This here is going to be our army.”
Elen was about to fly into a rage, but Mila’s argument was quite sound.
“Okay, then let us hear your idea. Of course you won’t include ice or spear, right?”
“That’s only natural. Snow’s──”
Having spoken up to this point, Mila abruptly held her tongue. Elen stared at her with eyes brimming with scorn and ridicule.
“Snow’s? Hoh, that sure sounds like a stirring name. Go ahead and give us the rest.”
Mila glared at Elen with her fists clenched. Tigre and Lim sighed at that. As might be expected, Liza didn’t feel like mediating either, only staring at the two with a fed-up expression. Olga ignored the two, looking up to Tigre.
“What do you think, Tigre?”
Tigre pondered while letting his eyes wander across the ceiling. He came up with a single name, and asked Lim, “How would you say Army of the Black Dragon Flag in Zhcted?”
“Hmm…『Arma Zirnitra』, I think.”
Elen and Mila, who had continued to scowl at each other up until this point, looked towards Lim.
“Arma Zirnitra? Isn’t that quite decent?”
“It means defenders of the black dragon flag, the national symbol of Zhcted, which perfectly applies to us, and not Valentina. Not bad.” Mila smiled with a tinge of irony and her eyes twinkling.
As Olga and Liza also agreed with the name, it was set.
Only around a half koku had passed since the war council had concluded when Tigre visited Olmutz’s camp. She had told him that she wanted to see him after he finished his preparations to depart for his own journey.
──No, it was 「make sure to visit」, wasn’t it?
Recalling the almost unnaturally cold attitude of Mila back then, a wry smile crept on his face. Even for Tigre it was the perfect time, since he had wanted to talk with her as well.
Mila’s tent was obviously located in Olmutz’s army camp. After explaining that there were several issues he wanted to confirm about tomorrow’s march, Tigre got the guards to lead him to her tent. Him feeling cold around the nape was because the evening had already advanced quite a bit, accompanied by a sharp drop in temperature, or maybe because had a guilty conscience.
When he entered her tent, Mila was sitting on a carpet in a relaxed manner. She still wore her blue uniform and white ribbon, but she had removed her armor, including the breastplate. Her draconic tool ─ Frozen Wave ─ leaned against a wall, still gray.
“Welcome. Did you get everything ready for your trip?”
An iron kettle with steam wafting out of its spout, a bottle with black tea leaves, a jar with jam, and two silver cups were placed on the ground next to her.
“Yeah, just as planned. I’ll wait for dawn and then set off with Gaspal and the others.” Tigre sat down opposite Mila.
Since a thick carpet had been laid out on the ground with a bear pelt laying on top, he didn’t feel cold. The lamp hanging down from the ceiling illuminated both of them.
“Let me first treat you to some black tea.”
Mila prepared the tea for him with practiced movements, and after the jam had melted, she handed Tigre his cup.
“Drink it while enjoying the taste.”
Tigre thanked her, and lifted the cup, bringing it close to his mouth. Contrary to the tea Titta had brewed for them during the war council, this tea had an invigorating aroma that made him settle down. Once he took a sip, the heat and sweetness gradually permeated throughout his body.
“Strawberry jam, huh? It’s really been a long time since I last drank your tea.”
“The last time I brewed some for us was back when we were in the capital, after all.” Mila giggled while brewing tea in her own cup.
The two talked about trifling topics for a while, but around the time she had prepared a second serving of tea, Mila suddenly began to act very nervously. She started to say something, but then stopped before actually voicing it out, her cheeks red and her eyes wandering.
Guessing what was making her hesitate, Tigre was about to speak up in order to broach the topic from his side, but before he could, Mila lifted her face, obviously having made up her mind. Tigre put down his silver cup, and waited for her to speak.
“H-Hey, Tigre, it’s about that matter…”
Tigre wasn’t as dumb as to ask what she was talking about. Going by Mila’s behavior, it could only be related to her confession. The scene of that time had occupied a corner of his mind ever since he had been invited over. It was only after the battle against Ganelon had come to an end that Tigre had seriously brooded about the question how he should answer Mila’s feelings. Until then, to be honest, he didn’t have any time to spare a thought on that.
Now he was glad that he had handled it like that. Mila had confessed to him while being aware of Tigre loving Elen and Titta. That emotional resolve and power wasn’t anything he could have faced while being preoccupied with something else.
This wasn’t about their respective positions nor did it have anything to do with his lovers. Just, he’d put his feelings for her into words. It took some time, but he managed to be in time.
“W-Wait a moment. Let’s do this after you come back from the capital.”
Getting energetically interrupted by her without having actually said anything, Tigre felt dumbfounded. He wondered what was going on. Once he took a peek at Mila’s state while being confused, he noticed that her face had terribly cramped up. He thought that she might be nervous, but it also looked like she was scared.
──What should I do? Should I postpone it to the next chance like she’s said? No.
Tigre breathed in lightly, and made up his resolve. I should go ahead with what I had intended to tell her. No one says that the tragedy that struck Sofy couldn’t happen to Mila or me.
Fixing his eyes on Mila, he slowly and firmly said, “I love you as well.”
Mila’s eyes widened with her face looking stunned. A short comment spilled out of her mouth, “You’re lying…”
“It’s not a lie.”
Confusion and anxiety welled up within Tigre. He couldn’t understand – why she had denied him, and whether something had changed in her feelings since the confession.
──Even if that might be the case, I can’t simply pull back here. If she says she doesn’t reciprocate my love, I cannot change it. But I’d hate for her to arbitrarily label them as a lie.
“I love you, Mila. I’m not saying that on a whim either. I remembered your words and thought about you, just to reach this conclusion deep down in my heart.”
Mila cast her eyes down. Wondering whether she was against it, Tigre straightened himself and silently waited for her reply. After a time of five breaths, Mila looked up to Tigre, her eyes red and moist.
“Tell me once more.”
Tigre blinked several times. He didn’t understand what Mila was thinking, but if she said that she wanted to listen to him, it was the best he could ask for.
“I’ll say it as often as you want. I love you, Mila.”
Mila lifted her face. Her cheeks were blushing. The Snow Princes of the Frozen Wave, who always tried to be a proud Vanadis, was nowhere to be found. Instead a normal girl, whose body was trembling out of sheer joy over her feelings having come through, was sitting there.
“It’s not a dream, is it?”
“If it had been a dream, I might have come up with far sweeter and better words.”
Mila sat up on her knees and leaped into Tigre’s chest. Tigre caught her delicate body, and gently hugged it. She relaxed her body, entrusting herself to him. Her weight and warmth felt pleasant to him.
“I had expected that I’d be turned down in all probability.” Mila admitted, her voice trembling faintly. The outer corners of her eyes as she took a quick peek at him glittered with tears. “I thought that I’d also be okay with being turned down. Because I’d be able to give up on you. Because I’d be able to tell myself that I had properly told you my feelings.”
So that’s what it was, huh? Tigre could finally understand.
“But, you allowed me to expect something, didn’t you?”
Just as she said back when she had confessed her feelings.
Tigre put some strength in the arms holding Mila. “Thanks,” he whispered close to her ear, “I’m happy that you harbored expectations for me, even if it might just have been one or two. And that I could answer those expectations.”
“Tell me,” Mila began with her face buried in his chest, “what do you love about me?”
“There are many things, but…first and foremost, it’d be your strict and gentle parts, I’d say.”
“Explain it properly so that I understand. No matter how long it might take.”
Being told so, Tigre reseated him. Mila wrapped her arms around him as if trying to stay glued to him.
“Can’t you let me see your face,” he asked, but Mila refused with silence as she pushed her face into his bosom.
Tigre regarded that action of hers as adorable. While looking at Mila’s head, Tigre put his feelings into words, little-by-little.
“When I met you for the first time, I thought you were arrogant. But I learned to understand that it came from your pride in yourself as Vanadis and your wish to be a proud Vanadis as you love your mother who used to be a Vanadis, and Olmutz where you grew up… I think it was around that time that I started to like you. I believe that being able to frankly state harsh things is the flip side of kindness.”
Probably out of embarrassment, Mila rubbed her cheeks against his chest as if trying to transfer the burning sensation of her face on to him.
“You see, I thought that you were unreliable when I met you for the first time. When I learned about the power of Tir Na Fal’s bow, I thought that you were able to fight recklessly because you had this weapon. But, after standing at your side, I understood that I had been mistaken. I’ll also say it as often as you want me to. I like you. I love you.”
The two hugged each other for a while but eventually Mila raised her face. Maybe because her feelings got elated by the words and warmth they had exchanged in addition to the joy over her feelings having reached him, her blue eyes were wet and tinged with a radiance.
“Tigre, tell me what part of my body you love.”
For an instant, Tigre pondered about it. For one thing, her words just now made him conscious of her body which she had been pushing against his for a while now. Compared with someone like Elen, Mila had a delicate body, with little to no fleshiness. However, her body contours definitely possessed a womanly allure. Her warmth, which got transmitted to him through his clothes, and the softness and youthful springiness of her modest chest were both more than enough to stimulate Tigre.
He thought that it’d be fine for him to phrase it out just like that. But, his reasoning got in the way. Maybe because Mila had sometimes done things like testing Tigre. So he overthought things, believing that he had to answer something appropriate rather than his own, unfiltered thoughts.
“Hmm, I’d say your trained warrior arms and legs.”
The sweet mood and smile vanished without a trace. Tigre immediately perceived that he had blundered. If he were able to hear the voice of her heart, 「You failed」 would have doubtlessly resounded in his ears, but what actually reached his ears was a thanks that sounded more like a blizzard turned into words.
“I’m happy. So you’ve approved of me as a full-fledged warrior.”
“Of course I also cherish you as a woman.”
Tigre tried to somehow salvage the situation. It was an effort resembling the pitiful work of repairing the edge of a huge, drilled hole, but apparently his sincerity still got through to her. Mila sighed very deeply.
“I’ll give you just one more chance.”
Mila quietly closed her eyes. Even Tigre wouldn’t be able to mistake this. He leaned his body over, and overlapped his lips with hers. It was a slow kiss as if they were transferring their affection and passion through their lips. The faint sweetness on their tongues came from the strawberry jam.
After a while, they separated. Seemingly basking in the lingering memory, Mila’s cheeks became bright red once more. However, her eyes didn’t only contain the gleam of a sweet lover, but also the hard fire of a Vanadis.
“Come back to me in one piece. Once you do, we’ll think about how we’ll be able to become happy.”
“Thanks. Mila, you too… Ah, right. I’d be happy if you could greet me with a smile when I return to you.”
Tigre gently clasped her hand. Currently, he was in a tight spot on how to even make his relationship with Elen work. He knew that his relationship with Mila would only add more problems to it. And since Mila was well aware of it herself, she had told him what she did.
The two kissed each other once more.
Around the time when Tigre met with Mila to tell her his feelings, Limalisha visited Titta’s tent. As it was getting late in the night, the moon had already risen high into the sky, but Titta was still awake. As might be expected, she didn’t wear her maid attire, but loose, casual wear made out of hemp cloth, wrapping her body up in a blanket on top of that. Her ponytails had been loosened as well.
“Excuse me for visiting you at such a late hour. There’s something I’d like to request of you.”
While being shown into the tent by Titta, Lim held out a plush toy to her. It was a plush teddy the size of a hand which was quite dirty. Moreover, it was missing its right front paw.
Titta blinked her eyes in surprise, accepting it from Lim. It was a plush teddy she had made in the past.
“You’ve been cherishing it quite a bit, haven’t you?”
Having seen the teddy as decoration at Tigre’s mansion in Alsace, Lim had asked Titta whether she could have it, or otherwise, have Titta make her a similar one. This was something that happened two years ago, just when Tigre had resolved to fight Duke Thenardier.
“Since I’ve been using him as a replacement for a good luck charm at times when I headed out for battle, he might have gone through somewhat rough times.” Lim revealed an apologetic smile.
Titta shook her head, and fetched a needle and yarn out of a small box placed in a corner of the tent.
“I’ll fix him up right away, so please give me a moment. Ah, let me prepare you some black tea before that. I still have some grape jam, after all.”
“No, I’ll take care of the black tea. Please allow me to do at least this much.”
Upon Lim’s offer, Titta bowed her head, telling her, “Please do,” and then began to sew on a new front paw for the teddy. After having Titta tell her where to find everything, Lim grabbed a small kettle and a leather bag with water, stepping outside the tent. After boiling the water, using a nearby campfire, she returned to the tent.
There she brewed the black tea in two porcelain cups. Just then Titta also finished up her repair work.
“Thank you very much. I considered asking you tomorrow morning, but…”
Lim thanked Titta from the bottom of her heart after accepting the teddy bear. Because she got spurred on by unfounded anxiety, she’d come here tonight to ask Titta despite feeling bad about it, but it had been the right decision.
“Things like these end up bothering you, no matter what you do, don’t they? Please feel free to rely on me at any time from now on.” Titta answered with a smile.
The two enjoyed a light-hearted chat over their black tea. Titta had been interacting with the soldiers in a way Tigre and the Vanadis couldn’t. As such, she had an inexhaustible supply of topics. At the time when they had emptied their cups, Lim brought up something she had been hesitating to mention.
“Titta, there’s one thing I’d like to ask you, if possible.”
The other girl tilted her head to the side, making her chestnut-colored hair sway. The following silence was a result of Lim wavering once more.
Tightly clasping her cup, she shook off all hesitation, and rattled down without break, “It’s about Lord Tigrevurmud. That gentleman has Eleonora-sama as a lover besides you. I’ve heard that got a confession from Her Highness Regin as well. What do you think about that?”
When she finished speaking, Lim was fully enveloped by a gloomy guilty conscience. She had asked something she shouldn’t ask as an outsider in this regard. She had hurt Titta’s feelings, and thus she was filled with nothing but regret. In the past, she had confronted Elen with the same question. But, Elen was Lim’s mistress and best friend. As such, she had more than enough reason to ask.
Unable to look Titta in the face, Lim shifted her eyes to the teddy bear next to her instead.
After around two breaths, Titta answered, “Ms. Limalisha, do you love Lord Tigre?”
Putting her tea cup down on the carpet, Lim stared straight at Titta, and answered, “Yes.”
Even though she had asked a question first, being the only one to evade an answer by lying was no option for her. And, thanks to voicing out her honest feelings, the hesitation, which had been nesting in the deepest recesses of her heart, slowly dissolved.
However, no other words left Lim’s mouth. She couldn’t come up with the right words to precisely express emotions on the spot. As she kept brooding in silence, Titta said, “I want Lord Tigre to always smile.”
Titta’s eyes were overflowing with affection to her beloved youth.
“I’ve seen Lord Tigre looking pained on so many occasions. When a plague ran rampant in a village of Alsace, resulting in half of the village having to be burned. When his father ─ Lord Urs ─ passed away. When he had to tackle a difficult problem during his work as lord. And when he headed out for battle, too.”
Lim nodded. She herself had frequently seen that pained look on Tigre’s face.
Titta continued, “I can’t beam a smile on Lord Tigre’s face at such times, but Lady Eleonora can. I’m well aware that she has done all kinds of things for Lord Tigre’s sake. That’s also why I’m happy about Lady Eleonora loving Lord Tigre.”
After having talked up to this point, Titta puffed out her cheeks a bit and pursed her lips.
“Of course, there are times when I feel depressed about it in my heart though… Like what happened during the time when we distributed vodka to everyone during the rain the other day.”
Lim spontaneously burst into laughter. This was about Tigre having kissed Elen. She believed to have been the only one to have noticed it, but apparently she had been wrong.
“Didn’t Lord Tigrevurmud do anything with you afterwards?”
“No,” she ducked her head, seemingly embarrassed, and then answered with a faint whisper.
It looked like the two had hugged and kissed each other after having become alone.
Lim picked up the teddy bear, and deeply bowed towards Titta.
“Thank you, Titta. Thanks to you, I was able to sort out my feelings.”
When she lifted her face again, a bright smile was blooming on her face. Titta’s view was something she could fully approve of. Her heart always felt at ease whenever Tigre was smiling. If Tigre accomplished something, she was happy for him. She felt like she wanted him to always smile.
“Ms. Limalisha, are you going to confess to Lord Tigre?”
“Let’s see… Once this situation has been settled, I’ll think about the proper words.”
Turning her feelings into words. Just like Mila was doing at this moment.
Exchanging good night wishes, Lim left Titta’s tent.
The light of dawn quietly pierced through the cold air wafting across the ground as it flooded the land from the eastern horizon. Tigre gazed eastwards, squinting his eyes as the sun rays were too dazzling for him.
He stood outside the camp of Arma Zirnitra, his body clad in traveling clothes. Next to him were Elen and Titta who had come to see him off.
Shifting his eyes to Elen, he was about to open his mouth in order to tell her something, but what crossed his mind was the nightmare he’d seen in the past. The dream Tigre had seen at night after secretly meeting with Valentina in Silesia. A venomously purple ground, black vegetation, and a crimson moon. Monsters. And, several decayed draconic tools.
What allowed Tigre to calm down a bit more than Elen and the others when the draconic tools had lost their powers right after the battle against Ganelon was the nightmare from that time sticking to his memory, in addition to what the goddess had told him about the situation.
But, now Tigre couldn’t escape a feeling of uneasiness whether it was truly so.
Didn’t that dream show me the future of the wielders and not the draconic tools themselves? Though I’d love to believe that I’m overthinking this.
In the end, Tigre kept his mouth shut. He worried that he’d only make Elen feel anxious, no matter how he phrased it.
Elen passed a small strap of paper to Tigre. Once he looked at it, it listed three names.
“They’re bureaucrats serving at the palace, and people who are especially close to Lord Eugene. I’m sure they’ll assist you.”
“Lord Tigre, please be careful.”
“Thanks, you two.”
Tigre separately hugged Elen and Titta. And then he mounted the horse that had been prepared for him. His Black Bow, quivers, and things necessary for traveling had been loaded on the horse behind the saddle.
Three men, who had watched the parting scene from several alsin away, now brought their horse close. It was Gaspal, Damad, and Naum. Without saying, all three had finished their preparations long ago. Gaspal was Mashas’s second son, and something akin to an older brother for Tigre. Damad was a Muozinel soldier and a friend who was always open for a casual chat with Tigre. Naum was one of Zhcted’s knights, and while still in his thirties, the white streaks within his black hair stood out and deep wrinkles had dug themselves into his face.
“Done?” Gaspal asked with a smile.
Tigre nodded. Naum pulling a face full of complicated feelings most likely stemmed from this lineup. Even though they were heading to the capital of Zhcted, he was the only Zhcted in the group.
“I’ll ride in front. Considering the current situation where battles are raging all over the place, it’s not strange for Brunians and Muozinel to travel the lands, but if someone talks to you, pretend that you don’t quite understand the Zhcted language. Then I’ll handle the rest.” Naum said while looking at the other three.
In response, Tigre obediently bowed his head, Gaspal imitated Tigre, and Damad nodded lightly.
The hooves of four horses thundered across the ground, turning the cold air into a wind that pricked the men’s faces. Tigre and his escort spurred their horses on, galloping towards the sun which was slowly but steadily gaining in strength as it blessed the land with its light.
Arma Zirnitra vacated its camp roughly one and a half koku after Tigre had departed. Even though the sun was weak around this season, its light was brilliant and warm. The sky looked like a blue canvas, few clouds to be found.
After swiftly finishing their breakfast Arma Zirnitra had begun its march in the northeastern direction. Elen and the other Vanadis had their men rest every half koku, sending out scouts while checking their maps. Whenever they got close to a village or town, they’d write a letter for the local mayor or village chief, and have a cavalry unit deliver it.
The letters requested permission to buy provisions and fuel, but of course this wasn’t the only aim. They wanted to find out in advance whether those towns and villages were on Valentina’s side. Depending on the situation, it was quite likely that an enemy could suddenly show up behind them.
Maybe you could describe it as luck, but all the towns and villages, where Arma Zirnitra stopped by, declared their neutrality. Neutrality under these circumstances meant that they’d yield to the superior side as soon as it became clear who was predominating, but for Elen’s group it was plenty with them not turning into their enemies right away.
Just like that Arma Zirnitra advanced along the main road at a good pace for several days, but when they dispatched a cavalry unit to Piwa, a town situated in the middle between Lebus and Bydgauche, they received a grave request.
“Northern bandits have suddenly crossed the border. They don’t know the number of towns and villages that got attacked by them… Thus they’re begging us to lend them our strength as Vanadis.”
It might be more accurate to describe it as entreaty rather than a request.
“I’ll head over to ask them about the details. It’s my first time to visit this town, but I’m sure they’re much more familiar with the name Lebus than Leitmeritz or Olmutz.” Liza said.
Accompanied by just Olga, she headed over to Piwa early in the morning. Elen and Mila, who had been entrusted with the command of Arma Zirnitra, had the men set up camp near Piwa. Even in this place, it’d be impossible to allow 4,500 soldiers to enter town.
Snow seemed to have fallen in this area. Patches of white could be seen here and there around Piwa, glittering as they were struck by the sun rays.
It was just past noon when Liza and Olga came back from Piwa. The camp build had long finished. The sky was a sketch of light blue, and if you took the season into account, you could actually call it a sunny day, but the wind was freezing.
The sight of off-duty soldiers warming themselves at the campfires they had started could be watched manifold inside the camp. Some of them were also grilling dried meat or fish.
The Vanadis assembled in Elen’s tent. Next to the stony Arifar leaned the Sword of Invincibility, which Tigre had left in Elen’s care, in a corner of the tent. Noticing Liza revealing doubt and irritation in her odd eyes, Elen raised her eyebrows.
“You look like it’s quite a troublesome story.”
“Yes, it is a major pain.” Liza answered and spread out several maps she’d brought over from her own tent.
Lim called Titta over, and asked her to bring hot water with honey for everyone. Considering the state of the camp, she suspected that water should have already been boiled at several places. In little to no time, Titta poured hot water with honey into silver cups and carried them over.
With cups in hand, Elen and the other Vanadis sat down while making sure to surround the maps prepared by Liza.
Liza pointed at one map. It depicted the continent’s northern part. Her slender finger wasn’t aimed at Zhcted, but north of Zhcted, beyond the border.
“You’re aware that people referred to as savage tribes live in the north of our country, right?”
“If it’s around that much, yeah.” Elen answered while staring at the map.
Her Leitmeritz and Mila’s Olmutz were both situated in Zhcted’s southwest. Olga’s Brest lay in the east. Thus it was fine to describe the knowledge about the northern tribe of the three as almost non-existent.
“They’re asking us to repel those savage tribes. The enemy numbers around 20,000. Up until today, quite a few towns and villages have been attacked by them, and even in Piwa, many residents, soldiers, and then peddlers have run away.”
Liza’s voice clearly oozed with rage. Elen felt the same, but she prioritized asking something that was bugging her.
“If I remember correctly, Lord Ilda supposedly subjugated the tribes, didn’t he?”
“Right. I have heard that story from Lord Ilda himself. He told me that the tribes fielded big numbers, lengthening the expedition for days over schedule, and that his army also suffered casualties.”
This was an event which took place at the beginning of Tigre, who had lost his memories after defeating the pirates led by Torbalan, was brought to Lebus as Urs. Liza remembered that time quite well.
“You’re saying they recovered within just one year and launched a counterattack in the midst of winter?” Mila frowned in a way that made her doubt clear.
She hadn’t been close to Ilda, but she had learned through rumors that he was a skilled commander with a vast territory in Zhcted’s north. While it might be true that he had struggled with them,. she couldn’t believe that he’d wing the savage tribe suppression. Moreover, she couldn’t understand the tribes’ action either. If they took action for the sake of pillaging, the current season was extremely unsuited. After all, none of the villages and towns should have much reserves left anymore.
“I found all of this strange as well, and thus asked Piwa’s mayor about various things. One of the stories he told me drew my attention. Most recently, the chief of the tribes has changed.”
Elen, Mila, and Lim all inclined their heads in confusion. They couldn’t immediately grasp the meaning behind Liza’s words. Olga, who drank her water while looking at the maps, hadn’t participated in the discussion so far, but now she added with a dispassionate, detached tone, “A new chief would exhibit their power and start wars in order to increase their authority. Some of my ancestors were like that as well.”
“I see. That makes sense in a way.” Elen nodded.
Next to her, Lim faced Liza with a serious expression.
“Lady Elizavetta, our army fields 4,500. Let alone having half the enemy numbers, we do not even reach a fourth of the enemy numbers. I think it would be dangerous to fight them under these circumstances.”
It was the duty of a Vanadis to protect the kingdom from foreign aggressors. They also felt angry towards the cruelty of the tribes. And just because they were getting ready to fight Valentina, it was still no choice to leave the tribes to their own devices. But, as an army commander, one should avoid reckless battles as much as possible.
Liza placed her cup against her lips, and sipped some hot water. After adding a silent break, she revealed a smile filled with confidence.
“Of course we’ll call out to the surrounding lords to provide us with soldiers. We’ve got good prospects of winning this, even with just me alone handling it.”
Four curious stares converged on Liza. Mila’s blue eyes twinkled in amusement.
“Could we have you tell us the details?”
“It’s something I’ve heard from Lord Ilda before, but──”
With that preface, Liza told them what she knew about the tribes, and explained her plan based on that knowledge. After the other Vanadis and Lim offered several suggestions, the plan was completed.
If one exited Zhcted to the north, they’d enter a region inhabited by savage tribes. A traveler, who had visited the land, once said, “Forest and snow, tribes and beast, and nothing else. Even during daytime, the forest remains dark, and even during summer, the snow doesn’t thaw.”
As the plural suggested, the savage tribes didn’t consist of only one clan or tribe. Countless tribes had banded together in their refusal of being ruled by kingdoms such as Zhcted. If you also counted the tiny tribes, their number would amount to almost thirty. Their relationship with Zhcted could be summed up as unfriendly. Each time the tribes invaded Zhcted to pillage, they got repelled.
Some Zhcted merchants bartered with the tribes while some tribes were hired as mercenaries and guards, but all of this was limited to such a small scale that it didn’t have much of an effect on the general relationship between the two.
However, there existed two reasons why generations of Zhcted kings had ignored the existence of the tribes.
First, the tribes didn’t live only in forests. Their living space also included several of the small islands out in the northern sea, and depending on the season, they’d move residence. The tribes were quite capable of traversing the sea, which was deadly cold and ravaged by storms even in summer, with their small boats. Thus, a complete eradication of the tribes would include an attack on the small islands inhabited by them. Gaining control of such a segregated area would be impossible with half-baked preparations and military forces.
Second, even if Zhcted put in all that effort, it wouldn’t have anything to gain out of eradicating the tribes. Of course it’d be beneficial for the tribes’ raids to stop, but the reward for the soldiers involved in the mop-up operation would have to be paid out of the kingdom’s budget. Moreover, the government would need to rack their brains on who to assign as governor of a region ruled by forests, snow, and beasts.
Confronted with such issues, it was only reasonable for generations of kings to have concluded that it’d be best to leave the tribes be. Besides, Osterode was located in Zhcted’s northeast, and Lebus in the northwest. In addition, Bydgauche in the central north was ruled by the Kurtis House, a high-ranking noble family. In short, Zhcted’s preparations against any possible attacks by the tribes were perfect.
Right now, the tribes were raiding the northern extremities of Zhcted, attacking towns and villages while stealing lots of things. They stole food, they stole fuel, they stole cattle, and they set houses on fire. They numbered around 20,000. Moreover, this figure only looked at the tribes’ warriors. If you were to include women, children, elderly, the total would end up being close to twice that figure. They wore fur – in two or three layers – and iron helmets. Their weapons were varied, including hatchets, axes, spears, clubs, and bows.
The man leading the tribes was called Václav, 33 years old. Until just a month ago, he was no more than a certain tribe leader’s aide. A chain of several incidents granted him a chance for more.
The aftermath of Ganelon’s ceremony to allow Tir Na Fal to descend on the surface spread across the entire continent. Evil spirits and fairies had also appeared in the lives of the tribes. The one ruling the tribes up until then was a man called Boleslav, but he transformed into a monster through some strange phenomenon, and after he had killed his own family and friends, he was killed by the other members of his tribe.
Boleslav wasn’t the only person to transform into a monster either. The same tragedy took place all over the place, and a fairly high percentage of the stored food and fuel was lost during the following tragedy.
It was Václav who called his disheartened friends together, urging them to rouse.
“Shouldn’t we attack Zhcted!?” Václav fervently advocated at the tribal meeting of the chiefs to discuss the future course of action and report the damages. “It’s said that Zhcted lost its king, now being in the middle of chaos as various influential nobles started to fight over the succession. I’ve heard that even Ilda Kurtis, who formerly knocked us a good one, has passed away. The current Zhcted is full of openings. It’d be foolish to let this chance pass!”
Of course, some of the chiefs were cautious. Just as Mila and Liza had suspected, the tribes hadn’t recovered from the blow they suffered in last year’s battle against Ilda. Although Ilda had sustained higher losses than he had anticipated, he managed to crushingly defeat them. Several chiefs suggested that the tribes ought to carefully monitor the situation without trying the impossible.
“If we don’t steal now, we will lose many of our comrades before spring!” Václav roared and then repeated his earlier claims.
And as several chiefs backed his opinion, the approving voices quickly gained in force. Zhcted’s army was strong, and they might die even if they fought. But, if they didn’t obtain food and fuel, they’d eventually starve or freeze to death. In such a case, many judged that they had no other choice but to steal.
“The spirits have──” The chief of a certain tribe, which believed in spirits said, “──punished us for our cowardice and laziness over the last year. We must battle. We must offer the deaths of brave warriors to the spirits alongside victory.”
His feelings were even passed on to the chiefs of those tribes which didn’t believe in the spirits. The tribes’ will united, and Václav was given command over the whole operation as head chief.
With their plan decided, the tribes acted swiftly. They surged into Zhcted’s northernmost towns and villages like an avalanche. Tearing down fences and scaling walls with hastily made ladders, their invasion pushed onwards. Giving free rein to their desires, they murdered and pillaged wherever they went.
Those who resisted were surrounded and slaughtered. Those who didn’t resist were tortured to death. The men were chopped up or beaten to death with clubs. The women were killed after being raped. The houses were set on fire, and the elderly as well children were cruelly tossed into the flames.
As for the young women and men, the tribes would often capture them alive during their looting sprees. Although they’d usually sell them as slaves, they didn’t do anything like that this time around. The composure to consider obtaining slaves had completely vanished out of their minds.
The only places avoided by the tribes’ attacks were cities with tall walls and fortresses with stationed Zhcted soldiers. And the most tose place could do was to fortify their walls and firmly lock the gates so as to not attract the tribes’ attention.
One city got attacked when it opened its gate to usher in people who had escaped from the neighboring towns and villages, falling within less than half a day. 20,000 tribal members was an overwhelming force, and once they got inside, there would be no means to expel them.
In an attempt to stall the tribes at least for a bit, several hundred soldiers rushed out of their fortress, just to get literally obliterated in a few koku.
Around the time when they had laid waste to most of Zhcted’s north in such a manner, Václav received a report about a Zhcted army having appeared. At once he assembled the tribal chiefs, and held a war council.
“We’ll battle the Zhcted army once.”
Several tribal chiefs objected, claiming that they had already stolen everything they needed, and showed their military might by burning down many towns and villages. They insisted that it was time to quickly return to the forests.
But, Václav shook his head, “According to the report, the Zhcted army fields 4,000 to 5,000 soldiers. It’s simple to go back into the forests. But, then we’ll likely be regarded as having run away in fear from a small enemy force. The brave people of the tribes will scorn us as cowards, and our enemies will ridicule us as weaklings. Are you really fine with that!?”
Václav had a reason to choose battle. He was fully aware that just pillaging wouldn’t suffice to exhibit his authority as leader. If he won against Zhcted’s army, his ruling over all tribes as head chief would be likely accepted and acknowledged by anyone.
The tribal chiefs, who were still entranced by the afterglow of their pillaging, actively supported Václav’s plan. Of course, Václav had held this war council while calculating on that.
The tribes started to move south in order to do battle.
Valentina Glinka Estes spent busy but productive days in Silesia. As the first prince aide, she attended to governmental affairs together with Miron, the grand chamberlain and acting ruler.
On the day she was inaugurated as the prince’s aide, Valentina had gathered the civil and military bureaucrats, and informed them of her own policies.
“We should make sure to regain the usual everyday’s life in the capital in order to allow His Highness Ruslan to immediately start on the governmental duties without any impediments as soon as he has recovered. I believe that to be my duty. And I would like all of you to strive on your own posts with the same goal in mind.”
And then Valentina took several measures to restore public order in Silesia. She increased the number of patrols at night and day. She hired traveling entertainers and minstrels with her own money, and had them sing and dance in the streets. Furthermore, she announced that next year’s taxes would be cut somewhat.
All of these measures showed remarkable effects.
When Valentina had become the prince’s aide, Ganelon was still on the loose. Thus the people were confused and anxious about all the unusual phenomenons. But, thanks to her increasing the number of patrols, it became easier to discover those phenomenons. In most cases, the guards merely isolated the site by putting an impromptu fence around it, but just limiting the incidents in scale made a drastic difference. In grave situations where monsters came forth, Valentina went out herself to get rid of them.
Even the news from outside the capital gradually started to improve in mood. Thanks to Ganelon’s demise, many fearsome phenomenons disappeared, and lines of caravans and travelers started to form at Silesia’s gates. One lord after the other dispatched messengers to the palace, because it had become safe enough to make them believe that they could do so. Valentina’s subordinates, Osterode’s soldiers, were slowly being accepted as protectors of Silesia.
Miron requesting to be allowed to focus himself on his duty as grand chamberlain while all of this was going on caused Valentina to become slightly startled. She had a chat with the chamberlain, who would become sixty this year, in her office in the palace.
“I thought that I must protect the capital until His Highness recovers. But, it looks like it was impossible for me. Please, won’t you take over for me, and become the acting ruler?”
Miron’s request was unexpected for Valentina, and also a bother. Miron was a convenient tool for her to hide her own ambitions, and thus she wanted to continue their joint ruling for a while. Hiding her real thoughts and pretending modesty, Valentina persuaded him, “Your Excellency, me being able to fulfill my duties as the first prince aide is based on sharing the matters that ought to be handled by you. It would be well beyond my station to do this by myself.”
“That isn’t true. Because you have been governing your own principality for a long time, you possess magnificent discernment and abilities, Lady Valentina. Come to think of it, when His Highness returned to the palace, you served him in his official business. The current state of the kingdom still doesn’t allow any predictions. With me remaining the acting ruler, I’d only become a hindrance for you.”
“Why would you become a hindrance for me, Your Excellency…? Did something happen?” Valentina asked while guessing in her mind that he might be worried about the matter with Bydgauche’ army.
Miron had disappointed a part of the bureaucrats with his half-baked responses to the approaching army of Bydgauche.
He didn’t try to explain himself at once, but as Valentina continued to silently wait, he twisted his face into a pained expression and confessed. A part of it followed Valentina’s guess of it being related to the matter with Bydgauche’s army. But that wasn’t the only reason.
“Almost every day messengers of the lords from all across the kingdom have been visiting the capital, right? I’m worried about His Highness. I can entertain all those guests, but I can’t do any more than that.”
During the time he was serving King Viktor, doing that much was plenty in his position. After all it was the king who entertained the lords. Miron further continued, “Besides, all Vanadis except for you are showing strange movements. Even though I’ve ordered them to return to their principalities, they don’t try to even listen. Just when I thought they had gathered at Legnica, I was told they were marching on the capital. I don’t know what I should do in such a situation.”
Valentina put on an expression of complex feelings. Since he had failed at dealing with Bydgauche’s army, Miron had apparently started to believe that he wasn’t any good in dealing with the lords and Vanadis either. From the very start, Miron held no ambitions of his own. He became acting ruler because Earl Pardu had been imprisoned. The arrest of Eugene Shevarin was driven by anger over having seized information that Eugene had collaborated with Muozinel. Him not having any hesitation to let go of his current position was likely connected to this whole chain of events as well, Valentina suspected.
──This man’s ability for governmental affairs isn’t bad by any means.
Valentina assessed, but even if she persuaded Miron now, making him continue his governmental duties, she couldn’t believe that it’d lead to a good outcome.
At the end of her deliberations, she answered him in a way suggesting a reluctance, “Very well. But, I can’t receive the title of acting ruler. I shall do my utmost as aide of His Highness. I hope you will not be too concerned about it.”
Valentina was careful. She believed that it’d be better for her to pose as prince’s aide rather than stand in the limelight by becoming the acting ruler. After all, neither naming would have an impact on her authority anymore.
“By the way, about the talismans against evil which are being carried by a part of our officials.” Valentina changed the topic.
Miron pulled a troubled expression, “More than ten days have already passed since the strange phenomenons stopped. Isn’t it just fine for them to put these away at home anytime soon?”
It was something that had just recently come to light, but some of the palace’s civil officials were carrying amulets or charms close to themselves. Miron was one of them, too. Judging from the stories Valentina had heard from them, she identified the cause to be the momentary change of the sky ten days ago. On that day, many people collapsed with high fever in the capital, and one after the other fell comatose after their health deteriorated.
Until then, most of the civil officials didn’t falter even when hearing stories about fairies and ghosts appearing. Given that some of them had actually witnessed it personally, they couldn’t completely deny the incidents themselves, but they strove to act calm. This likely stemmed from their awareness that it’d be bad if the confusion seized even them.
However, when the sky turned violet and many sick people started to appear as an effect of it, it was more than enough to throw their hearts in turmoil. Some of them started all kinds of divinations, some of them became regular guests at temples, and yet others began to carry around charms. By the way, the talisman Miron carried with him was a small dagger.
Valentina got him to show her the dagger only once, but it possessed a silver blade and its guard was adorned with gold and jewels. According to Miron, King Viktor had given him this item in the past. It was nothing that would be of any use as a weapon, but its value as a piece of art was high, Valentina guessed.
Usually it was necessary to receive permission to bring weapons into the palace, but since Miron, as acting ruler, had been granting that permission to applicants and himself, even Valentina didn’t learn of it right away.
“I know what you’re trying to say, Lady Valentina, but…” Miron continued his words which sounded more like he was entreating her, “Certainly, the unusual phenomenons have stopped occurring. Maybe they won’t ever again occur either. But, there are many who say that they become worried when recalling that time.”
“However, there are also people feeling uneasy when watching others carrying such items. Would it not be possible to compromise by setting a time limit at least?”
Miron frowned at Valentina’s proposal, and asked for a detailed explanation.
“Let’s see. If nothing else happens even after another ten days have passed, we will conclude that no other unusual phenomenons are going to occur, and have everyone put away their charms and amulets. How about that?”
“You’re right, I guess… Your point is fair and very reasonable. Let’s adopt this measure.” Miron agreed, albeit not overly eager about it. “Well then, please take care of the rest.”
After bowing towards her, Miron tried to leave the office. Suddenly, as if having remembered something, he stopped right in front of the door, and looked back. His face had changed from being calm and collected to being unable to hide his anger and hatred.
“Which reminds me, when are we going to carry out the execution of that bloody Earl Pardu?”
“I informed you earlier, but it will be impossible for a while,” Valentina’s answer shot out immediately because they had the same exchange several times by now. “Is there any reason for the hurry? Certainly, the crime perpetrated by Earl Pardu is absolutely unforgivable, and any Zhcted would probably be enraged if they heard of it, but…”
Miron’s anger at Eugene was so fierce that Valentina felt compelled to ask.
With his wrinkled face becoming bright red, Miron turned his feelings into words, and hissed, “I have served King Viktor for a long time. I have had the privilege to serve His Highness Ruslan since his childhood. That cunning man betrayed both of them. That man served next to His Majesty in the past, and was close to His Highness Ruslan, so he should have been well aware of His Majesty’s suffering when His Highness fell ill. Even though it’d be unthinkable for him to not know the feelings of His Majesty, who didn’t decide on his successor over many, many years… I also…I also trusted that man, although it’s something extremely disgraceful nowadays. I was sure that he’d succeed His Majesty’s will. And yet…”
Afterwards Miron gritted his teeth, apparently unable to turn the rest into words, while his fists trembled. Valentina erased her expression, waiting for him to calm down.
Miron didn’t know that the secret agreement between Eugene and Muozinel was no more than a concoction fabricated by Valentina. No, most likely no one besides Valentina knew of it.
If you considered that, the elderly chamberlain’s resentment was pathetic, but Valentina had no plans to reveal the truth. After all, she needed Eugene to die for the sake of her ascending the throne. But she assessed that she should probably pay heed to Miron’s anger.
“I fully understand your feelings on this matter, Your Excellency. However, it is necessary to wait for the right moment to execute Earl Pardu. And there’s one more reason. It would stain the name of the late king if the man designated to become the next king had been collaborating with a foreign country.” Valentina tried to soothe Miron.
In response, Miron breathed out deeply, finally suppressing his rage. And then he bowed once more, and left the office.
This was how Valentina started to manage all governmental duties by herself. There was no criticism from the various bureaucrats as it was common knowledge that Valentina enjoyed Ruslan’s trust. Also, they could feel a lot more relieved with her handling the governmental affairs than Miron.
It was a few days after her conversation with Miron that a notification about the tribes devastating Zhcted’s north reached the palace.
The invasion by the tribes was unforeseen even for Valentina. Just like Liza, she had expected that they’d likely keep a low profile for a while. This idea didn’t stem from her being ignorant of the tribes, but rather the opposite. If anyone could claim they had fully grasped the reasons why the tribes had been constantly attacking Zhcted throughout history, that person might as well be awarded for having pulled off something transcendental.
“We’ll set up countermeasures at once. Please have all chief vassals assemble in the council room,” she ordered the civil official who had brought the report, and spread out a map on the work desk in her office.
“Things will become hectic, won’t they? Even though the south is going to become turbulent from now on as well.”
Of course no one besides her could hear that murmur. Valentina pondered while tapping several locations on the map.
At present, neither Osterode nor Bydgauche had any significant military forces. In such a case, Valentina had the option to either have the northern lords gather their soldiers and then launch an assault on the tribes, or move north with Osterode’s soldiers which were currently in the capital with her.
But, as soon as Valentina’s eyes noticed Lebus written on the map, a giggle escaped her lips.
“Come to think of it, I wonder where Tigrevurmud Vorn and his happy-go-round friends might be prowling around by now?”
The sole occasion when Valentina scouted out Tigre’s camp by using Ezendeis’s power was the day when she had attacked Sofy. Ever since then she stayed clear of Tigre and his party whenever she leaped to other regions. On that day, while staying hidden in the shadows of a tent, Valentina had heard Leitmeritz’s soldiers talking. Those soldiers had mentioned that Brune’s treasured sword Durandal was stored in Tigre’s tent.
Valentina suspected that Leitmeritz’s soldiers, which had been involved in Brune’s civil war, might have had to actually see Durandal with their own eyes. And she also knew that Ganelon had been holding onto the Sword of Invincibility. Hence, she wouldn’t consider it odd even if Tigre’s group had obtained Durandal at the moment of Ganelon’s defeat. Durandal was endowed with the power to erase draconic arts.
──I was quite lucky back then.
Not only did she obtain information about Durandal, but she also discovered Sofy wandering around by herself, used that chance to slay her, and managed to escape with her draconic art before anyone else could come running. But, it wasn’t said that it would work just as smoothly on the next occasion. If Tigre were to rush over with Durandal at hand before she could get away, Valentina would end up stranded amidst enemies with her draconic arts sealed. Considering that possibility, she couldn’t afford to act carelessly.
“After all, I’d love to avoid going through the same experience as Eleonara when she got caught by Greast.”
Seeing how she couldn’t scout them out by herself either way, Valentina had no choice but to predict their movements through the numerous reports reaching her. All Valentina currently knew was Polesia’s army having withdrawn, them having announced that Sofy sustained heavy injuries, and them having been sighted near the town of Lecheneaut with an army of less than 5,000.
“Sir Miron claimed that they’d head for Silesia, but I suspect they’re not targeting the capital, but my Osterode.”
Or to be more precise, I am their aim. They should consider it more beneficial to lure me out of the capital instead of attacking the capital head on.
“If I could get them to fight the tribes while heading for Osterode through the northern parts, it’d be just what I’d wish for, but as might be expected, that would be too much of a wishful thinking. It’d be better for me to assume that they’re going to pass through the south…”
When she had considered things up to this point, Valentina shook her head with a bitter smile. She suspected that she might not be the only one having misread that the tribes would stay put. As such, she couldn’t fully discard the possibility that Tigre and his party wouldn’t pass through the north for some kind of reason.
Besides, there was one matter that bothered Valentina. When she had killed Sofy, it wasn’t as though Valentina had launched a surprise attack on the blond Vanadis. She had challenged Sofy to a fight straight from the front. And yet, Sofy not only didn’t try to summon her draconic tool, but she even turned her back on Valentina in an attempt to run away. When Sofy collapsed on the grassy plain, it was actually such a surprise for Valentina that she suspected some kind of trap.
──It didn’t look like she tried to summon it, but couldn’t. Something has happened. Very likely during the battle against Ganelon. Based on that, wouldn’t it be quite possible that they would try to move in a way that’d be unexpected for me?
“I guess I should try to come up with scenarios for the various paths they might take.”
I’ll probably learn what happened during the battle against Ganelon when I ask one of their group eventually. For now I should work out countermeasures while predicting how they might move.
When around a quarter of a koku had passed with the map and her glaring at each other, a knocking could be heard from the door, causing Valentina to lift her face. She thought that a civil official might have arrived to inform her that the preparations for the meeting were finished.
But, she was wrong. The one entering was a subordinate knight of Osterode.
“As milady ordered, we have laid out the iron chain that had been stored in milady’s mansion on top of the wall.”
“Thank you for your efforts.” Valentina smiled at the knight.
Of course this iron chain was no ordinary chain, but one possessing the mysterious power to seal draconic arts. However, she was the only one aware of that.
“Lady Vanadis, if you allow, I would like to know what that chain might be.”
Valentina slowly shook her head in response to the knight’s look that was filled with questions, “I can fully understand that you consider it odd. But, I cannot tell you yet. However, I’d like you to keep in mind that this chain is something important for me.”
It was something she couldn’t explain even when confronted about it by a reliable subordinate. Now that he’d been told so by his lord, even the knight couldn’t probe any further into this.
Valentina had handed out this order for the sake of preventing an infiltration by Elen and the other Vanadis. She didn’t believe that they’d come attacking the capital with their armies, but she deemed it as possible that they’d try to enter by themselves. With Elen’s Silver Flash, scaling a wall would pose no problem, and even Mila’s Frozen Wave seemed capable of instantly creating an ice ladder. Even if it’d be impossible to completely lock them out, it was still better to prepare at least some kind of measure in advance.
The knight left after saluting, passing a civil official on his way out. Hearing that the council was in full attendance, Valentina left her office.
A region called Balş existed north of Piwa. It was a huge plain endowed with a large lake in the west, and a big river flowing across Balş’s center. But then again, both the river and lake were frozen solid during this season. The ice crust was sturdy enough to allow groups of armed soldiers walking on it without any cracks forming.
“How regrettable.” Mila lamented in apparent vexation when she confirmed the ice’s thickness.
It wasn’t just her either. Elen, Liza, and Olga embraced the same feeling.
If they could have used their draconic tools, they could have deliberately allowed the tribes to cross the frozen river, just to destroy the ice layer with their draconic arts when the enemy had arrived in the middle of the river. This might have allowed them to throw the enemy in disarray by dividing them.
“Let’s refrain from asking the impossible.” Liza shrugged her shoulders.
Arma Zirnitra had erected its camp in front of the frozen river as they had decided to confront the tribes in this area. After talking it over, they had decided on Liza taking on the role of supreme commander. Elen would lead Leitmeritz’s army, Mila Olmutz’s army, and Liza and Olga Lebus’s army.
In the morning two days later, Liza received a report stating that the tribes were heading their way.
“It’s just as planned.” Liza commented calmly.
Ever since they had built their camp in this area, Liza had regularly dispatched scout units to spy on the tribes’ movements. Fighting spirit lit up in her odd eyes.
“I think it’s slightly regrettable that we’ll be the only ones allowed to raise our cups for a toast.”
The neighboring lords hadn’t answered Liza’s call. But then again, she didn’t really feel disappointed or discouraged by that. After all, it was easy enough to predict. Besides, it was also possible to interpret it as a chance to wrap up this whole story without any outsiders learning about their draconic tools having lost their powers.
“Tell all units to vacate the camp. We’ll meet the enemy on the field around noon.” Liza ordered her soldiers while making the hem of her dress sway.
Elen was getting everything ready for the battle in her own tent while having Lim help her out. Compared to the hustle and bustle outside, the atmosphere inside the tent between the two was chilly and silent.
Elen put on shoulder protectors, breastplate, gauntlets, and greaves atop her uniform. Moreover, she affixed two guardless daggers to her belt, and a somewhat bigger short sword on her back.
“Are you going to make use of the short sword and daggers?” Lim asked with a face clearly showing her not having expected it.
Elen nodded with a serious expression, “It might become necessary in this battle. Ludmila and the others mentioned it earlier as well.”
Waiting for Lim to separate, Elen drew the short sword on her back. She slashed it from the right to the left, swiftly swapped to an underhand grip, and swung it down from above. Her swordsmanship was fluent without any wasted movements. Even after becoming a Vanadis, Elen had never shirked on her training.
Once she sheathed the short sword, Elen finally hung up a longsword at her waist. It was a common steel sword. It was heavier than Arifar, but that weight allowed Elen to feel a reliability from it.
“Lady Eleonora, as expected, I should be in front…” Lim suggested, anxiety coloring her eyes.
This was a proposal as her best friend, and not as her aide.
While feeling grateful, Elen shook her head, “It must be me who stands at the front, Lim. Besides, I sure hope that you haven’t already forgotten about the day before yesterday.”
In the evening of the day they’d built their camp in this area, Elen gathered all of Leitmeritz’s soldiers and made them line up outside the camp. Standing atop a podest, Elen had looked down at her men. The light of the setting sun had dyed the land madder red, but only her vicinity had been painted over black by the shadows formed by the mass of soldiers.
“There is something I must tell you before the end of the day.” Carried by the wind which made the whole place even chillier, Elen’s voice had reached all the way to the back of the rows. “To put it in simple words, my Arifar was broken.”
Shock had engulfed the soldiers. Elen had boldly taken on their stares which were either filled with panic, anxiety, or confusion. Her silver hair had fluttered in the wind.
Waiting for the soldiers to calm down to a certain extent, Elen had continued, “Until just a little while ago, strange events with fairies and ghosts kept occurring, didn’t they? We exerted all our powers in order to make these things stop. And as a result of that, Arifar broke. You could also say it sacrificed itself for us.”
The last sentence had been Elen’s true feelings. She believed that their draconic tools had passed their power to Tigre while exceeding their own limit in order to save them.
The captains of each unit, who stood at the front of each row, were apparently satisfied with Elen’s explanation. They had probably realized that the timing for the unusual phenomenons having stopped had matched with the timing for Arifar having vanished from Elen’s waist.
While sensing their gazes pinned on her face, Elen had further explained, “I might have said that it broke, but Arifar will recover before long. I can tell as its master. However, it’s not like it’ll be back to normal today or tomorrow. Rather, it’s not going to happen anytime soon. At least I’d like you to assume that it won’t happen during this war.”
A commotion ran through the ranks. Voices of relief and delight transformed into sighs and disappointment. Elen pursed her lips, waiting for them to quiet down.
Then, while gazing at her men, she had declared, “Just as always, I’ll fight while leading the charge. This is the duty of a Vanadis, and my own pride. I shall promise you that I’ll make sure of your brave fighting with my own eyes while brandishing my sword.”
While she had kept talking, the dusky sky had continued to darken, the soldiers’ face gradually becoming indistinguishable. However, she could clearly tell that many of them were staring at her with bated breaths.
“Me having remained silent about this until today was owed to my own hesitation. That’s inexcusable. Accordingly, I shall allow you to not join the battle front, however only limited to the battle against the savage tribes. Those wishing to take this offer can wait in Piwa for the battle to end. I have already talked it over with the city. You don’t need to report to me either.”
Bringing it to a close like that, Elen had ordered them to break up.
This was what took place the day before yesterday.
“Certainly, you have told the soldiers that you would lead the charge. But, I cannot believe that they would be disappointed by you, assuming you were to command the army from the rear. I believe that it is of highest importance for you to remain standing on the battlefield.” Lim objected with an unhappy face.
Elen placed a hand on her shoulder, “Sasha said before: If I use my draconic arts too much, the soldiers will start to only look at the draconic tool instead of me.”
Alexandra Alshavin, whom Elen referred to as Sasha, was a former Hidden Princess of the Luminous Flame and Elen’s dear friend. Agreeing with her advice, Elen had always kept in mind to hold back on her usage of Arifar’s draconic arts. But, now that she tried to think about it, she wondered whether the overuse of draconic arts might be a prime example. In the sense of it being unfitting behavior for a Vanadis.
“Lim, you see, I think I was being tested. No, I think it’d be better to describe it as being called into question. To see whether I’d be able to be a Vanadis even without possessing a draconic tool as someone who had been chosen as Vanadis by a draconic tool.”
Four years had passed since Elen became a Vanadis with fourteen. Elen had governed Leitmeritz as its ruler, and fought on battlefields as commander over the soldiers she led. She had made blunders, and also suffered defeats, but she had strove hard to gain their trust. In the meanwhile, Arifar had always been at her side.
Elen wondered how the people and soldiers of Leitmeritz looked at her. Did they offer their loyalty to the holder of Arifar? Was Eleonara Viltaria just a random pebble at the roadside for them without Arifar? Or had she managed to get just a little of their approval as a simple girl called Eleonora?
Elen stated to her best friend with a beaming smile, “Please allow me to fulfill my duty as Vanadis.”
Lim couldn’t answer at once. She closed her eyes for a few moments, receiving Elen’s unshakable determination with her whole body. Feelings transformed into heat, which then spread in every corner of her body.
And when she opened her eyes again, a resolve that wasn’t inferior in any way to her best friend, dwelt in Lim’s eyes.
“I shall also do everything I can.”
“I’m counting on you.”
Suddenly, they could hear Rurick’s voice calling for them outside the tent. The two exchanged a look, nodded, and left the tent. Rurick wore full armor, holding his helmet under his arm.
“The soldiers have assembled outside the camp.”
Guided by Rurick, Elen and Lim exited the camp.
A thousand soldiers and 500 war horses had orderly lined up in ranks underneath the wintry sky with its tinge of gray coloring the clouds. The black dragon and Leitmeritz’s flags violently fluttered in the wind.
“Not a single person has gone to Piwa. All of us wish to fight under your command, Lady Vanadis.”
While listening to Rurick, Elen surveyed the soldiers in front of her. She couldn’t find a single soldier not fully prepared and armed. Their faces were brimming with fighting spirit.
Something welled up from deep in her chest due to the zeal passed on to her. Elen forced herself to tighten up her lips as they were about to relax, and she had to pay attention to not start crying.
“You might have heard from your captains, but the enemy numbers around 20,000. Our side fields 4,500.” Elen raised a voice, completely omitting any prefaces. “It’s true that there’s many enemies. But, remember Dinant. We crushed 25,000 enemies with a mere 5,000. Compared to that time, this will be a walk in the park.”
Some laughters were audible among the soldiers. Some of those in front shouted cheerfully, “While it might be presumptuous, I shall show you, Lady Vanadis, that I can be useful enough to cover for Arifar!”
──I’m a truly lucky woman.
Elen drew the longsword at her hip, and hoisted it high up in the air.
“It’s time to grab victory!”
Accompanied by battle cries, spears, swords, shields, and flags were energetically thrust into the air. The same scenery repeated itself at Olmutz and Lebus’s armies as well.
Just as Liza had predicted, it was around noon when the tribes made their appearance on the plains of Balş. The sky’s canvass had changed its hue from a dull gray to an unmotivated blue. The sun was now blazing down from its zenith. Probably also owed to the still remaining patches of snow dyeing the plain white at various spots, the wind felt cold as it furiously scraped across the surface.
Arma Zirnitra had deployed its soldiers in front of the frozen river. The center consisted of Lebus’s 1,500 infantrymen. Leitmeritz’s 1,000 infantrymen covered the right wing while Olmutz’s infantry of 1,400 soldiers formed the left wing. Only Leitmeritz’s troops had taken up a position that fell back behind the other two armies in comparison. And lastly, approximately 600 cavalrymen were stationed behind the center after having been pooled together from all three armies into a single unit.
Opposing them were the tribes led by Václav. They had formed loose ranks while glaring at Arma Zirnitra which was separated from them by several hundred alsin. Their soldiers had been evenly distributed to the two wings and the center with each holding 6,000 warriors. Václav himself, accompanied by 2,000 warriors, had taken up position in the rear of the center. Their strategy was to pulverize Arma Zirnitra straight from the front without any pretense or tricks.
──I guess we were unable to create a detached unit…
Gazing at his men from behind the central unit, Václav’s face screwed up into a grimace. If there had been anyone he could have trusted in regards to ability and personality, he might have designated that person as his adjutant and set up a detached unit. After all, he was leading an army big enough to have that much leeway. But, in the end, Václav couldn’t find anyone suitable for that task.
“Elizavetta and Olga, was it? Now then, let’s see how fearsome they are.” Václav muttered to himself as he stared at the enemy army on the other shore of the river.
Earlier this morning a messenger of Arma Zirnitra had shown up at the tribes’ camp. The messenger had been riding a horse, but without getting carelessly close to them, staying at a good distance, the messenger had called out to them in a loud voice.
“To all of you seedy, dumb mutts who only know how to go berserk: We are a Zhcted army led by Lady Vanadis Elizavetta Fomina and Lady Vanadis Olga Tamm. Our kind leaders are giving you a last warning. You bastards are to return everything you stole and surrender on the spot. If you say you’re going to fight, nothing but a disgraceful defeat and miserable deaths await you.”
Arma Zirnitra only announcing two Vanadis was a precautionary measure to avoid the opponent running away. Many of the tribal members flew into rage, but since the messenger had quickly pulled the neck of his horse around and fled, they were unable to get a hold of him.
On the other hand, Václav didn’t feel upset even after hearing the report. After all, it was a common occurrence to phrase it like that when it came to demands for surrender. However, now he understood why the enemy had awaited them on this flat land which would give their large army an advantage. He suspected that it had to do with their side having two Vanadis which were extolled for their peerless might.
“Still, do you really think you can overturn the difference in numbers just because you have two Vanadis? Don’t get cheeky, you Zhcted worms.” Václav tossed the hand holding his big machete into the air.
The horns, which sounded completely different from those used by Zhcted’s army, made Balş’s sky tremble, and 20,000 clansmen began to advance.
Arma Zirnitra blew their horns in response. With their flags being furiously swung, the Zhcted soldiers got their weapons and shields ready. However, they showed no signs of moving from their spot.
The clansmen responded to Václav’s shout with beastly battle roars.
The tribe men trampled the ground flat and then raced across the frozen river, closing in on Arma Zirnitra at a terrifying rate. Seeing this, the faces of even the toughest Zhcted soldiers cramped up with a shudder, but they quickly regained their calm thanks to their respective Vanadis hoisting their weapons into the air while standing at the front.
“Savage tribes are not worthy of our fear! Teach them this very fact with your power!” Elen shouted at her men while brandishing her longsword atop her horse.
Leitmeritz’s soldiers roared. The soldiers of Olmutz and Lebus also raised battle cries.
Elen wasn’t the only one who had decided to fight while standing at the front of her soldiers. The same applied to Mila, Liza, and Olga.
And there was a reason why Liza had been appointed as supreme commander. Swords, spears, and axes were the soldiers’ weapons of choice. Even if those broke or snapped, they could be replaced. But, a whip capable of withstanding a fierce clash didn’t exist. Liza had explained that she took lessons in the sword from the late Ilda, and thusly claimed that she could fight with a sword, but in the end, it was the whip she excelled the most at. Besides, someone had to be the supreme commander. In the end, Elen had bowed her head, asking Liza to do it, and the Princess of the Thunder Swirl had accepted that duty.
By now the clansmen had crossed the middle of the river.
At that moment, the clansmen running in the lead suddenly crouched down or toppled over in a flashy way. Those following in their wake ran into them, pushed them away, or fell on the ground themselves. Chaos ensued all over.
Arma Zirnitra didn’t wait for them to recover, and sent a hail of arrows and stones their way. The arrows whistled as they cut through the wind, the stones boomed as they pushed the wind aside. Both raining down on the clansmen. Just as screams echoed in a chorus across the frozen landscape, blood died the river’s solid surface crimson.
“The first part went smoothly, huh?” Elen flashed a smile that was oozing with tension.
Yesterday night, the soldiers of Arma Zirnitra had rigged the frozen river. They had prepared long ropes, tied daggers onto those ropes at set intervals, and spread out the spiked ropes across the frozen river with the blades pointing upwards. And then they sprinkled water on the ropes during the night, actually affixing them to the underground by having them frozen over.
Of course the soldiers had done something else at the same time as the ropes would otherwise be visible from a distance. They collected snow from all over the plain, carried it over, and shoveled the snow on the ropes in amounts that would hide the daggers. Given that the new snow layers only reached a height up to an ankle, they wouldn’t cause anyone to get suspicious either.
The tribes’ scouts had focused their attention on Arma Zirnitra itself, and didn’t pay any heed to the snow that had mostly fused with the river’s ice. Because of that, they didn’t notice the daggers either.
However, the tribal warriors lost their momentum for no more than a moment. Even though the leading group had been annihilated by the trap, arrows, and stones, the warriors in their back were almost completely unhurt. They climbed or trampled across their fallen comrades, heading for Arma Zirnitra. Their war cries caused the atmosphere to tremble, and the dull brilliance of their machetes and axes dazzled Leitmeritz’s soldiers.
Once more they launched a ranged attack by arrows and stones, but the clansmen didn’t falter from that. Elen ordered a shift towards close combat. The soldiers readied their shields and prepared their spears.
The tribal warriors clashed with Leitmeritz’s army. The spears thrust out by the soldiers, easily ripped through the fur covering the savage warriors, forcing pain and blood loss upon them. The axes and hatchets brandished by the enemy crushed shields, and hit helmets as well armor from above, causing the soldiers to scream out in pain. A multitude of jumbled noises, which were hard to describe as death and destruction, filled the vicinity. The air grew hot in no time, and the stench of blood hung over the battlefield like a curtain.
Elen cut down the clansman, who assailed her first, with a single flash. Her swing was so fast that it didn’t even allow her opponent to wield his weapon. Dodging a spear lunging at her, she slashed her sword. It was only her second enemy, and yet, she couldn’t defeat him right away. The threefold layers of fur blocked the force behind her slash.
Elen flipped her wrist, stabbing the clansman’s forehead with her sword. After giving off a short scream, he crumbled this time for sure. Without giving her any time to catch a breath, the third enemy swooped down on her. She repelled a swing of his big hatchet with her sword, and smashed his face with her return blow, just to be showered by his blood.
──My sword feels heavy. I’m using more strength than usual to tear through their fur and to severe flesh and bones. The strain doesn’t go as far as making me pant yet, but I have to be careful. Once again I understand the value and dreadfulness of Arifar which cuts through everything, be it metal or fur, like butter. I guess it just means I returned to my mercenary day.
She scolded herself. Next she was being attacked from both sides. Elen sent the extended spear handle flying with a slash, and struck her blade on top of the enemy’s iron helmet. One of Elen’s soldiers quickly finished off the tribal warrior who pitched forward and fell over. In the meantime, Elen lopped off the head of the other clansman.
The soldiers grew excited by the gallant fighting of their Vanadis, cheering full of zeal and passion.
Yet, the tribes showed no signs of backing away. Without sparing even a single glance at their fallen brethren, they stepped over the corpses and relentlessly attacked Elen and her men like wild beasts. Some among them clearly began to target Elen. With her being mounted in addition to her womanly allure, it was unthinkable for Elen to not stand out.
For Elen, this was all she could ask for. She brushed away an approaching spear, dodged a club that mowed down, and evaded an one-handed ax that came flying at her. As she wielded her sword left and right, she drew iron-colored traces and rainbows of blood in the air.
The soldiers of Leitmeritz put up a hard fight to protect themselves and their mistress. They lined up their shields, forcing back the enemy. They stabbed, swept and knocked down clansmen with their spears. The charge of the tribes possessed the fierceness of an avalanche, but Leitmeritz’s soldiers withstood with their lives on the line.
When they had spoken about what kind of battle it would be, Liza had said following to Elen and the others:
“Don’t try to thin the enemy numbers. Instead, weaken their momentum.”
If there was this much of a difference in military power between two sides, it’d be meaningless to cull the enemy by a hundred or two. Rather than that, it was essential to not allow the enemy to capitalize on their numerical advantage, Liza had explained.
──It’s about time, I think.
Elen ordered the soldiers to fall back. Leitmeritz’s soldiers built a wall of shields, and while holding back the tribal warriors with their spears, they began to slowly retreat, step by step. It was an maneuver that could immediately end in disaster with the clansmen overrunning them if they made a single mistake here.
One of the soldiers had his shield broken, resulting in him losing his balance. The clansmen, who judged this to be a good opportunity, moved in a way you could easily call daring. One of them kept the soldier pinned to the ground by showering him with club blows. Another two cut into Leitmeritz’s army while fiercely treading across the soldiers.
If the clansmen were able to widen that opening in the shield wall by throwing their overwhelming numbers at it, Leitmeritz’s army wouldn’t be able to fend off their offensive and would likely collapse.
However, that didn’t come to pass.
Without a moment’s delay, Elen steered her horse towards the gap in the defense, and hurled one of the enemy warriors away by ramming him with her horse. Using the momentum, she used her sword to smash the head of the other alongside the iron helmet protecting it.
A bizarre screech resounded. Elen’s sword had snapped in half. Half of its blade whirled away, coming down amidst the tribal warriors before vanishing out of sight.
This stirred their excitement. They charged at her, brandishing their hatchets and clubs in an attempt to beat Elen off her horse.
However, Elen showed no hint of faltering. She narrowed her eyes, glaring down at the warriors. She threw her broken sword at them, followed by two daggers she had drawn from her waist. One of the clansmen staggered after catching the broken sword with his face. Another toppled over after the daggers embedded themselves in his chest.
“Spear!” Elen thundered rather than shouting.
She took a spear from the closest soldiers as if snatching it out of his hands. Immediately following, she twisted her body in the saddle, running the spear’s blade through the throat of an approaching clansman. As soon as she pulled the spearhead out, a bloody rain wetted the ground. A cloud of dust and sand immediately erased it.
It allowed Leitmeritz’s soldiers to witness a rare spectacle. Their lord boldly wielded a spear with a booming, knocking down one clansman after the other. It was a fairly unrefined performance when compared to Ludmila Lourie, who was also known as spear danseuse, and also showed some openings, it possessed more than enough finesse to deal with savage tribe men.
Without missing the moment when the enemy’s charge came to a halt, Elen ordered the retreat once again, and had a soldier bring her a new sword.
The soldier, who held out the sword to her, said with flushing cheeks, “You were beautiful.”
“Tell your family all about it once we get back to Leitmeritz.” Elen accepted the sword with a laugh.
At this moment, there was new development at the tribes’ left wing which had been running against Leitmeritz’s army. More than 300 tribal warriors started to move on their own device. Losing their temper over their allies not making the desired progress, they planned to attack Leitmeritz’s army from the side.
However, this attempt ended in failure. A merciless rain of arrows rained down on the bolters who were drawing close to Leitmeritz’s right side by drawing a curve. Within a time of ten breaths, a hundred warriors kissed the soil, and on top of that, around the same number squatted down on the spot.
Elen had assumed the possibility of an attack by a detached unit in advance and made preparations in that direction. Leitmeritz’s army being able to instantly cope with the new situation was owed to Rurick handing out orders in the rear.
The hundred clansmen, who had barely managed to struggle through the shower of arrows, gambled everything on a charge, but at this point their movement already lacked any kind of coherence. When Leitmeritz’s soldiers lined up their shields and thrust out their spears, they were repelled without having any chance to do what they came to do and were forced to fall back, their bodies riddled with injuries.
──It looks like Liza’s words were true.
Elen muttered in her mind as she watched the clansmen scurry away.
“It’s said that a new chief often doesn’t organize detached units. Though the reason is split into the new chief wanting to place all warriors under his command to show off his authority as chief and him being unable to form detached units because he doesn’t have any adjutants he can trust,” Liza had explained.
Once Václav, the new chief of the tribes, learned of Leitmeritz’s army retreating repeatedly, he withdrew 2,000 warriors from the center and sent them to the left wing. Because of this, the tribes’ forces in the center shrunk down to 4,000, but even so, they still outnumbered Lebus’s army threefold.
If they could crush Leitmeritz’s army, the tribes would be able to attack Lebus’s army from the left and the front at the same time in the next step. They’d probably be able to annihilate Lebus’s army by surrounding them in a half circle while relying on their huge numbers. If you also considered that Leitmeritz’s battle array was the thinnest within Arma Zirnitra’s deployment, Václav’s judgment was correct.
Upon the sound of horns, the tribes’ left wing halted its advance. Elen felt that the enemy’s movement was strange, but she decided that she should make the best out of this precious break. Her silver hair was covered by a faint layer of dust and clung to her face because of all the sweat. She was gasping with her shoulders heaving.
Unwilling to waste even the time and effort on brushing up her hair, Elen ordered a further retreat. Moreover, she had injured soldiers fall back to the rear, replacing them with those who still had enough stamina left. In addition, she had the soldiers replace their shields with new ones. More than 30% of the prepared shields had already become useless. This was proof of how tenaciously her soldiers had been enduring the tribes’ savage onslaught.
By now a distance of around 100 alsin to the tribes’ left wing had opened up. Elen widened her eyes. The tribal warriors, who had stood at the frontline until then while glaring at them and baring their hatred, fell back and fresh warriors stepped out in front.
“Look just how much time they need to shift their ranks,” Elen sneered, but emotions resembling nervousness and irritation colored her ruby eyes.
The enemy supreme commander’s aim was as plain as daylight. Just when the leading group had run out of steam, he swapped them out for rear units that were still brimming with stamina and fighting spirit. The strategy was to beat the enemy by tiring them out through constant, fierce attacks. Elen asked herself how long Leitmeritz’s soldiers, who were largely outnumbered, would be able to last.
Suddenly Elen frowned. She could feel the change in the battlefield’s atmosphere with her own skin.
“Don’t falter!” Elen called out to her men while brandishing her blood-stained sword. “These guys are nothing but worthless scum whose sole advantage lay in their big numbers! You guys are a lot stronger than them!”
Leitmeritz’s soldiers answered their lord’s encouragement with loud, spirited yells.
Elen didn’t prattle some nonsense in order to raise the morale of her soldiers. Leitmeritz’s soldiers were clearly superior when it came to competency as warriors. For this very reason they had persisted until now without collapsing. It was Elen’s duty to make them exhibit their mettle for a little while longer.
The clansmen roared, and charged while holding their battleaxes and clubs aloft. They closed the distance of a hundred alsin at a frightening rate. Leitmeritz’s soldiers formed a shield wall while huddled together with those behind supporting those in front, all in an attempt to stop the flood swooping down on them.
An abnormal crashing sound drowned out almost all other sounds. Helmets and armors were smashed. Flesh got squashed. Bones broke. Just like there existed Leitmeritz soldiers who had their head bisected by a clansman’s battleax, clansmen had spears penetrate their heads from the nose all the way out to the back.
However, limited to only this moment, the biggest number of people got crushed, regardless of whether they were tribal warriors or Leitmeritz’s soldiers. Neither armor nor triple-layered fur was of much use here. Amidst a blinding cloud of dirt and dust, those who didn’t die wielded their weapons with the corpses of friend and foe at their feet. Those who couldn’t move any longer had speckled patterns of mud and blood painted on their bodies.
Within a cacophony of bellows and screams, spears snapped, clubs broke, swords split, and shields cracked. Some stumbled over corpses, others injured their legs through discarded weapons. The battle instantly gained in ghastliness, and the way how the fallen stopped moving looked as if their life had been siphoned away by the land.
Elen kept slaying one clansman after the other in the middle of the overheated battlefield while ordering a retreat for the umpteenth time.
The sun, after passing its zenith, seemed as if it had lost some of its power.
Václav was handing out his commands behind the central unit without losing his cool. The tribes were dominating in the center as well as on the left and right wings.
Whether they endure while holding their ground or retreat while giving up ground, the soldiers of Zhcted probably won’t last long against our onslaught either way, he assessed.
“Those peerless Vanadis or whatever they are called are nothing to fear either.”
Going by the number of casualties and wounded, the tribes had suffered a lot more than their adversary. But, Václav didn’t pay much heed to that. His own future depended on the outcome of this battle. If he could gain victory by sacrificing half of the men under him, Václav would do so without blinking an eye.
──Still, the left wing has advanced too far.
The tribes’ left wing had advanced each time Leitmeritz’s army had retreated. The problem with this lay in a stretching of the ranks which in lieu weakened the force of their attack. Moreover, as the distance to the tribes’ headquarters increased with each advance, it started to take time for orders to reach them.
──That’s probably the aim behind the enemy’s constant retreat. But, even if I were to order the left wing to retreat at this point, it might only result in the ranks becoming disordered.
As Václav was musing how he should tackle this problem, he received a report, stating that the figures of close to two hundred riders had been spotted in the northeastern direction. In other words, diagonally behind their current position.
Without showing a hint of surprise at that, Václav spat out scornfully, “I expected them to come at me like that.”
──While attracting our attention by taking us on from the front, they’ve actually aimed to attack the commander by having a detached unit go around the battlefield. It’s a move that Ilda Kurtis, the man who gave us such a hard time, used as well. Northeast, was it? I’ll have a unit of the left wing go greet them. …No, I guess we won’t have that much time.
Václav chose 500 from the 2,000 warriors at the headquarters, ordering them to intercept the enemy who had shown up northeast. Those 500 completely consisted of clansmen supporting him. They were precious warriors who would loyally follow Václav’s orders to a tee.
And just after the 500 warriors ran off, Václav received a new report, stating that the figures of several hundred riders had now appeared in the northwest.
──So the ones in the northeast are a decoy, huh?
When he comprehended that, the tribal chief’s face cramped up.
The ones who had appeared northwest were 500 cavalrymen of Leitmeritz led by Limalisha. She had started to move the instant Elen had ordered a retreat for the first time. That order had also served as a signal towards Lim.
Lim didn’t use the 600 cavalrymen entrusted to her just like that. She had Olmutz’s hundred cavalrymen circumvent the battlefield clockwise to the northeast after asking them in advance to do everything to make themselves appear more numerous than they were. Meanwhile she took the rest to go around the battlefield counterclockwise.
Olmutz’s cavalry succeeded in misleading the clansmen by cleverly spreading out their ranks and waving an increased number of flags around.
If Václav had known about the northeastern enemy numbering just a hundred cavalrymen, he might not have dispatched 500 of his men to fend them off.
Lim was giving orders in the rear of the remaining 500 cavalrymen. She was lightly equipped, only wearing leather armor. Two short swords hung at her waist, and she held a sword.
Upon Lim’s command, Leitmeritz’s cavalry began to thunder across the land. The roaring of the hooves made the ground tremble and whirled up a cloud of dust in their wake. The swords and spears shone dully as the riders hoisted them into the air.
1,500 warriors were still with Václav. They panicked when they spotted Leitmeritz’s army charging at them, but apparently regained some of their composure thanks to Václav shouting at them. Tightly gripping their spears and hatchets, they got ready to meet the cavalry attack.
However, Leitmeritz’s cavalry did something they hadn’t expected in the least.
It seemed like the 500 cavalrymen were heading straight for them, but right before arriving, they lowered their speed and drew a gentle parabola, crossing right in front of the clansmen’s noses. Leitmeritz’s cavalry proceeded to gallop while pointing their and their horse’s backs at the clansmen. At a speed that gave them the impression that they’d be able to catch up if only they ran.
And the tribal warriors fell for that lure. Most likely they had felt disgruntled over not having been allowed to participate in battle despite being on a battlefield. Once some of them started to chase after the cavalry with angry bellows, the others also started to pursue with a slight delay. Without waiting for Václav’s further orders.
If one could look at this whole maneuver from above, it’d probably seem as if the clansmen were being sucked towards Leitmeritz’s cavalry. After looking back and confirming that the clansmen were disorderly chasing after her unit, Lim gave a new order.
Leitmeritz’s soldiers turned the necks of their horses around in succession, facing towards the clansmen. They immediately fixed their ranks as well.
Standing at their head, Lim curtly yelled, “Charge!”
Raising battle cries, Leitmeritz’s cavalry spurred its horses into a mad dash. On the other hand, the clansmen were terrified by that mass of horses and riders suddenly heading for them in one clump, although they had been fleeing just moments ago. Of course, some of them tried to put up a fight, but with their pacing having been all over the board, they were in no state allowing them to resist a cavalry charge as a group. Some were sent flying, others were cut down, but they all shared the fate of falling to the ground like broken dolls.
Lim let her eyes wander across the enemy camp, searching for the supreme commander. Spotting a clansman glaring their way while having surrounded himself with several tribal warriors, she concluded that he had to be her target.
“So you bastard are the chief!?”
It wasn’t in Lim’s nature to make shouts like that, but this one had the goal to prevent Václav from retreating. After all, the tribes would likely never acknowledge a weakling who didn’t name himself after being asked by the enemy.
“Come at me, if you dare, you lowly Zhcted trash! I, Václav, will take you on!” Václav barked at Lim while shouldering his big hatchet.
While scattering the tribal warriors surrounding him, Lim closed in on the tribes’ chief. Then the sound of wind being cut, followed by blades ringing. Sparks scattered as a rally of several slashes unfolded.
No sooner than a remarkably shrill sound filled the air, the sword flew out of Lim’s hand. A smile full of confidence over his victory formed on Václav’s lips.
But, without showing the slightest agitation, Lim made her next move. Removing the feet out the stirrup, she hurled herself at him while turning her body so that her shoulder would hit him first. Faster than Václav could swing his hatchet, her body impacted against his.
The helmet fell off Lim’s head, rolling away.
Within the tiny moment when Václav recovered his posture after staggering, Lim landed on the ground, just to immediately jump while capitalizing on her momentum. Her hands were holding the short swords she had drawn from her waist.
With one blow after closing the distance between them, she cleaved Václav’s right wrist apart. Groaning in pain as blood sprayed out of the wound, Václav let go of his hatchet. In no time, Lim stabbed both her short swords into Václav’s chest.
Václav stretched his hand out for Lim, but only managed to grab at empty air. His lips trembled as if he was trying to say something, but all that left his mouth was a torrent of blood. Having lost its power, his body crumbled to the ground, followed by the surrounding clansmen crying out in grief.
Lim looked back towards one of her men, and ordered him to blow the horn. Everyone should get a grasp on the situation if a Zhcted horn trumpeted from within the tribes’ headquarters. She continued repelling the clansmen charging at her with her short swords, and then got back on her horse while being protected by her subordinates. As soon as the horn loudly and repeatedly blared its signal, the tribes began to visibly fall into turmoil. Shock and fright spread among all of them at a breathtaking speed.
The horn signal naturally reached Leitmeritz’s army under Elen’s command as well. At this time Elen was holding a spear – her third one. Deep scars riddled her shoulder protectors and breastplate, and their surfaces depicted complicated patterns drawn by the mud and blood clinging to them.
With her eyes twinkling, she raised her sword overhead, and shouted towards her soldiers, “Shift to mopping up the enemy!”
The clansmen stood stock still in front of Leitmeritz’s army, confused and without the earlier drive. Leitmeritz’s soldiers discarded their shields, grabbed their spears with both hands, and attacked like a horde of beasts swarming at its prey.
The clansmen screamed, threw their weapons away, turned around, and ran away as fast as their feet carried them. It was the start of a stampede where they pushed, and trampled over their allies. Leitmeritz’s soldiers were hot on their heels, mercilessly cutting or stabbing down any clansmen entering the range of their weapons.
Olmutz and Lebus’s army also thoroughly beat up the clansmen who had lost all their fighting spirit. They had to make sure that the tribes wouldn’t think of attacking Zhcted again by planting a deep sense of defeat in the surviving clansmen. Even if it’d be impossible for it to last forever, it’d be best for it to be as gruesome as possible so that it would last for a long, long time to come.
Like that, the Battle of Balş welcomed its end before the sun sank.
As soon as the battle entered the mop-up phase, Elen entrusted the command to Rurick and stood still on the battlefield for a while. The frozen river surface was littered with abandoned weapons and piles on piles of corpses. The ice had turned crimson while having gained in thickness thanks to all the blood.
Feeling a presence, Elen shifted her eyes. She spotted Mila and Olga’s horses trotting her way.
“You two look really terrible.” Elen laughed.
Both their hairs had become disheveled and stuck together in a weird shape. Their faces were dirty with a sheen of reddish brown thanks to mud, blood spurts, and dust clinging to them. Their armors were riddled with cuts and scars, too.
“Then it’s truly deplorable that I don’t have a mirror with me. Even a donkey after wallowing in mud would look like a beauty when compared to you.” Mila retorted with a shrug, and then noticed that Elen had no other weapon but a spear with her
“What happened to your sword?”
“I went through three swords. This is my third spear, too. I also used an ax on top of that. But, back at you, what happened to your spear?” Elen answered while holding up her spear.
The later part of her remark was pointed at Mila holding a sword. Mila’s sword was sullied with blood and lacked its pointed end.
“The same as you. I broke four spears during the battle, forcing me to even start using something like a sword.”
It was plain as day that Mila and Olga had gone through a battle as fierce as Elen. Elen believed that the three of them did well to have lived through that, but the words leaving her mouth were about something else.
“I see. So your achievements were worth four spears and one sword, huh?”
“That’s simply because I’m more skilled at the use of sword and spear than you.” Mila responded to Elen sarcastically while lifting the corners of her mouth.
With creepy smiles stuck to their faces, the two Vanadis competed against each other with belligerent glares. But, maybe because of their exhaustion, they didn’t keep it up for long, and soon looked away without it being clear who had given up first.
For no particular reason, Elen asked Olga, “How about you, Olga?”
“Four axes, one spear, and plenty of arrows.” The small girl answered indifferently.
A crack ran through the long-handled ax she was currently shouldering. Elen stared at her with eyes full of praise.
“Come to think of it, you were quite decent at archery, weren’t you?”
“That’s nothing special for us. But, no one in our clan is as excellent at archery as Tigre.”
“I think it’d actually be weird if archers like him existed all over the place.” Elen shook her head with an amazed look.
Mila nodded deeply, showing her agreement.
After looking up to the two with a puzzled look, Olga said to Elen as if having just remembered it, “Which reminds me, the daggers came in very handy. Thank you, Eleonora.”
She curtly bowed in her saddle, and then continued while pointing at Mila, “Ludmila also said that they were a big help and that she wouldn’t have prepared any if you hadn’t told us.”
Mila’s face dyed red. A soundless scream leaked out of her mouth as she stared at Olga. Elen suppressed her urge to laugh out loudly, and pretended to not have noticed anything.
At that moment, Elen perceived Liza steering her horse close. At her waist hung a rapier instead of a whip. Her deep violet dress was free of anything you could describe as dirt, and her hair looked gorgeous as it fluttered in the wind. A supreme commander wouldn’t join the melee, and thus her appearance naturally remained flawless.
Elen waved a hand at her with a triumphant smile.
Before long the sun disappeared beneath the horizon, forcing Elen and the others to hurry with their post-war cleanup. It didn’t only contain the burial of the dead and the treatment of the wounded, but they had to also deal with clansmen who had surrendered. Moreover, those clansmen showed up at Arma Zirnitra’s camp with their entire tribe, such as the “White Wolves Tribe” or “Ice Boat Tribe.”
Elen and the others, who were exhausted from the taxing battle, felt like asking them to wait until tomorrow, but of course that was not an option. After splitting up in groups, they met with the chiefs, and accepted their capitulation. For one, they planned to have the chiefs of influential tribes to persuade the tribes that hadn’t surrendered yet. Thus they had no choice but to keep meeting with them until late into the night.
From their talks with the various chiefs, the Vanadis could deduct what had pushed the tribes into taking action.
“In short, we might as well call this a parting gift from Ganelon, eh?” Mila croaked.
Unable to suppress her raging emotions, Elen powerfully struck her hands together.
“That man only caused us unnecessary trouble, really…”
The casualties of Arma Zirnitra amounted to less than 300 in this battle. Leitmeritz’s army lost something around 120. The wounded exceeded 250 in number.
Considering the enemy’s reckless, savage attack, you could describe these figures as being on the lower end. But, once Elen considered that this battle might not have occurred without Ganelon’s actions, she couldn’t adopt such a lax view on the losses and wounded.
Liza decided how they would treat the tribes. She concluded several agreements with the influential chiefs. All the stolen food, cattle, and fuel would be returned. The influential tribes would give hostages into Zhcted’s custody. The hostages would spend one year in Lebus. 6,000 people from among the tribes would be chose for being sold off as slaves.
It was only a matter of course for Arma Zirnitra’s side to take hostages. They couldn’t allow the tribes to band together again, and Liza suspected that they’d stay obedient if it was limited to a period of one year. This would also allow for the move of winning over the hostages as their ally.
Selling the clansmen off as slaves was an unavoidable measure. Although they had been incited by Václav, they took action because they lost their food and fuel. It would be necessary to provide them with food and fuel to prevent a repetition of what happened before. But, of course it was impossible to hand over what they had stolen just like that.
Therefore Liza decided to have the tribes pay for the food and fuel they required in such a form on top of having them return the stolen goods.
This also served as a measure to soothe the feelings of revenge among the lords and people. After having been defeated in battle, the tribes surrendered, handed over hostages, and supplied 6,000 of their people as slaves. All of this would be sufficient to show that things had been settled. Moreover, it had been negotiated by a Vanadis. It was unlikely that anyone would protest this.
And then, once dawn broke, one messenger after the other from the surrounding lords visited Arma Zirnitra’s camp. They apologized for not having or not having been able to respond to the call for arms, praised Arma Zirnitra’s victory, and promised to cooperate with them. Some like Mila cynically commented that they were all talk, but considering the upcoming battle against Valentina, it was smarter to actively welcome their support.
Several lords showed up in person instead of sending messengers. One of them was the lord of the Kazakov family. The patriarch Egol greeted not only Liza politely, but also Olga. The sight of a tall, bulky youth humbling himself in front of the small girl lured those watching into wry smiles and chuckles.
Another outcome of this battle was that Arma Zirnitra’s sphere of influence was now encompassing all territories from the northwest to the central north of Zhcted. It would be several days later that a report about all of this would reach Valentina in Silesia.
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