"Shing, Sayle, and Junna——you're telling me that all three of them were captured!?"
That was the first thing that Folnier said after meeting with an express messenger from their home country.
They could not use Magic Vision because they had kept the few mages they had with them, so they had no other choice but to use a fast horse——
It was likely that Folnier hadn't given much consideration to the possibility that Shing and the others could lose.
She was at an uncharacteristic loss for words and her expression was stiff.
However, Joe Lamberck, who was listening next to her, quickly switched gears and confirmed something crucial after confirming that no one else was present in the large tent they were using as a command post.
"In that case, is it all right for us to think that……the three of them are safe?"
"Yessir, there's no doubt about that. All of the soldiers who had temporarily been prisoners of war gave the same report. They appear to have asked to "be allowed to become prisoners as well because they were worried about their commanders." But, Sir Rain, the enemy, replied, "I'll release them once the war is over. I'll take responsibility and promise that, so go back to your country in peace.""
"I see……thank goodness."
Joe sighed before he knew what he was doing. He wore an expression that seemed to suggest that he didn't quite know what kind of face to make as he urged the messenger on and asked for details regarding the "Battle of Dead Valley".
"……Hmmm, that was marvelous. The plan itself wasn't all that complex, but he skillfully kindled our fear and pressed us into a retreat,"
Joe whispered before nodding at the messenger. He continued,
"thank you. You may go back and rest."
The messenger saluted in response, relived because Joe had remained calm, and exited the tent.
Joe did not go out of his way to tell the messenger to keep word about this information to a mum. After all, rumors of their defeat had already spread amongst the soldiers. The rumors hadn't quite reached Folnier's ears yet, but most of the knights had already known about their defeat before the messenger had arrived.
Rumors of this nature spread quickly, but this time, Rain's forces had spread the news on purpose.
He'd only shown off a small glimpse of his skill during the Battle of Dead Valley, but Rain was truly gifted in the art of psychological warfare.
"But why……? What was the reason he needed to capture the three of them alive……?"
Folnier finally opened her mouth after hearing Joe mumbling to himself.
"Isn't it just the silver lining that they are?"
"But of course. However, going off of the messenger's words, Rain seems to have planned his strategy with the intent of capturing them unharmed from the beginning. I cannot see the reasoning behind his doing so."
"……He probably means to keep them as hostages,"
Folnier replied, annoyed.
After all, that was what one would normally think.
But Joe thought otherwise. Rain seemed like an incredibly carefree man on the surface, but he always had an accurate reading of his enemies' intentions. The Battle of Dead Valley had proved this point.
Even if Folnier withdrew temporarily because of the hostages, it was plainly clear that she would challenge them to a rematch quickly afterward. Additionally, she would likely aim to capture hostages from Rain's side in retaliation……
As such, threatening Folnier by using the hostages as shields would not lead to a resolution on a fundamental level.
Rather, it would have the opposite effect in the long run.
Rain should have predicted all of this already.
And this was precisely why they had to be so cautious of the fact that he had purposefully planned to take Shing and the others as hostages anyway.
"Joe, this is bad."
Folnier was walking around the tent in irritation, unaware of the lengthy considerations that were playing out in Joe's mind. She continued,
"we'll have to figure out how to rescue Shing and the others somehow, but before that, there's the fact that our forces have been halved. Replenishing our numbers……will probably take some time."
"Indeed. And they'll be coming for us this time."
He understood what Folnier was trying to say all too well.
In other words——she was saying that, while Shing and the others had been defeated, they hadn't actually suffered many losses.
With that being said, the scattered soldiers wouldn't return to them immediately. Most of their forces served Shing and Sayle directly as their lieges and thus were not under Folnier's direct command. Chandrys was no different from Sunkwoll in this aspect.
Folnier was the empress, but her position could also simply be called "the greatest and most powerful liege lord in Chandrys."
Shing and the other lieges with territory to their name served under her.
It wasn't certain that Sayle's and Shing's men would answer to Folnier's summons when she wasn't their direct liege when their own lieges were in captivity.
Besides, even if the soldiers did answer favorably, it would still take time for all of the troops to gather together again. They would lose their chance to strike even if the order passed through their home country and the soldiers obeyed them immediately. Joe doubted that Rain's side would quietly give them the time to fully reconvene.
Folnier, who acknowledged all of this, stopped walking around the then and turned back to Joe.
"There's nothing we can do about what's already been done. We'll have to think of a way to break through our situation. Joe, what are your thoughts?"
"It depends on what you want to do, Lady Fol."
"Meaning that you must choose between fighting or withdrawing. We'll have to send over a peace treaty posthaste if you wish to withdraw……but do you?"
Folnier sat down on a nearby chair upon hearing Joe's question and silently shook her head.
It was as Joe had expected.
Joe consented and sat down opposite of Folnier on the other side of the table.
Then, he explained to his liege what he thought they should do.
Presently, their main force was spread out around Lydia to put pressure on the capital.
If they wanted to fight Rain, they would first capture Ralphus' unit, who were headed their way, and pursue Rain afterward. In other words, their best strategy was to annihilate their enemies one by one……
"Is that the order you're proposing……? But then, why didn't we do that to begin with? Couldn't we have pursued them instead of stationing ourselves here?"
"I thought that doing so could prove dangerous. Ralphus' unit is small. If we pursued them with our vastly greater numbers, they could have used their mobility against us and escaped to rejoin Rain. If they did, it would have made things more difficult for Shing and the others. But now——"
Joe slowly continued,
"now, they're closer to us than they are to Rain. There is a good chance that we'll be able to capture them."
Joe was only guessing at Ralphus' whereabouts, however. He had sent out scouts, but they had only been able to observe from a certain distance because Ralphus' army was on high alert, as usual.
Folnier looked suspicious as she nodded. She continued,
"since we haven't seen them yet, they've probably stopped marching somewhere to observe our movements…… And we can't leave them be for much longer. I suppose it's just about time."
She passed a pregnant gaze at Joe as she spoke.
It was possible that she had already realized that Joe had taken a passive stance in regards to this war.
Indeed, Joe had intentionally refrained from taking any aggressive measures until now.
It needn't be said that one reason for this was because he was being wary of Rain's clever schemes, but he had another reason as well.
Ever since the war had started, Joe had felt a strange premonition ——or rather, a conviction, that it was "better not to do anything during this war."
Truth be told, after observing Rain's actions, he felt that Rain had not been going out of his way to emerge victorious. If Rain had wanted to corner them into a crushing defeat, the Battle of Dead Valley would have concluded with a greater tragedy.
And yet, upon closer inspection, neither army had suffered many losses. To put another way, Rain was being lenient. He was being soft.
Joe could not bring himself to think it was by mere coincidence.
Just then, Folnier pressed on,
"in any case, now is the time to act."
Her emerald eyes, brimming with aspiration, were already clear of any hesitation or regret.
Moreover, she had the impish grin of someone who had just thought up of the greatest prank.
"Hey, why don't we just go on ahead and occupy Lydia? Would we have enough time?"
"……Time would certainly pose a problem. But more importantly, Rain would ignore us, regroup with Ralphus, raid our capital, Zawoll, and might actually conquer Sadaraan (Chandrys' main castle) if we did. If that happened, we'd realistically be exchanging countries with him……are you all right with that?"
"I am most definitely not,"
Folnier promptly replied with a sour look on her face. She continued,
"that sort of exchange would end in my net loss, wouldn't it?"
She shook her head in extreme distaste before speaking again.
"Wise men……no, tacticians are so difficult to deal with. They come with all sorts of plans to oppose us that I can't even begin to think up of. I'm so glad that I have you with me."
Joe abruptly opened his eyes wide and stared at Folnier.
His liege tilted her head to the side quizzically.
"……What is it?"
"Ralphus' unit…… In the end, they weren't a decoy. ——Am a wrong?"
Shock and comprehension spread across Folnier's countenance.
Indeed, one look at the results of the Battle of Dead Valley told them without a doubt that Rain had predicted that the Chandrys army would pursue him. From the very start, his aim wasn't to capture Sadaraan, but to annihilate the detached force that had broken off of the Chandrys main army.
He had predicted how they would react.
Which meant that, unlike their initial presumptions, Ralphus was not some mere decoy.
Then, just what was Ralphus' role?
"Lady Fol, do you still wish for war no matter what?"
"——But of course."
"Then let us pursue Ralphus posthaste. I have a bad feeling about this."
"All right. Then we should hurry and——"
"Is it true that Junna and the others were captured as prisoners!?"
Zartz suddenly rushed in, pushing aside the piece of cloth that served as the entrance to the command center, and cut Folnier off with his booming voice.
He was considerably shaken, judging by the fact that he had forgotten to greet or salute them. In fact, the panic had already colored his face. He had lowered his head in a hurry upon seeing Folnier, at least, but he showed no signs of having noticed that Joe was present as well. Besides, going off of how he had said, "Junna and the others," his inner turmoil was plain for all to see.
Joe and Folnier exchanged looks and sighed before they knew it.
The sun had begun to set by the time they had explained the current situation to Zartz and left the large tent. Still, they had no time to waste.
They would still have to inform the commanders about their new course of action, even if they wouldn't begin forming battle formations until tomorrow morning. Joe had immediately planned to send out a messenger to summon all of the knight-captains, but——
He saw a fast horse approaching from the distance and furrowed his brows. Only ill-boding news had reached him as of late. In any event, he steeled himself and waited for the messenger.
Upon seeing the knight draw near while parting the sea of their allies, Joe realized that he was the man whom he had ordered to scout out Ralphus' unit.
With barely even a greeting, the messenger promptly whispered certain information in Joe's ears as quickly as he could.
Joe remained silent for a while.
He simply combed through his thoughts without a word and let out a sigh once he arrived at an answer.
And now, I finally understand Rain's objective……he thought.
Zartz interrupted Joe's calm composure before Folnier could.
"What it is, what happened? Was it bad news again!?"
"……I suppose you could say that."
Joe ordered the messenger to fall back with his eyes and informed Folnier and Zartz of the news he had received in a business-like manner.
"Ralphus' unit, which had been encamped at a town along the way, has resumed their advance. The problem lies in their numbers. The scout I dispatched was only able to spy on them from afar, but—"
Joe looked to the other soldiers and lowered his voice.
Folnier urged him on in agitation.
"……Going by what he saw, their current numbers are between eight and nine thousand. In addition, their numbers are increasing rapidly as they continue their march."
Folnier and Zartz exclaimed loudly at the same time. The voices centered the attention of all the soldiers in the area on them.
Joe quickly nodded.
"And yet it's the truth. Their numbers didn't suddenly increase overnight. We've underestimated the man named Ralphus Juliard Jervael a bit too much……it seems."
Joe had instantly understood more information than what he had heard from the scout knight.
Why had their numbers, which had once been a mere two thousand, suddenly increased? It wasn't as if they had convened with another detached force, so where had the numbers come from? It didn't take much thought to reach the answer.
Sunkwoll did not have any reserve soldiers to spare. And, naturally, their numbers hadn't suddenly increased out of thin air. As such, the answer was obvious.
Joe quietly summarized his conjecture and explained it.
Folnier and Zartz's expressions turned astringent as they listened to him speak.
……This will be difficult.
Was what they were probably thinking.
Joe concurred. Moreover, he also clearly understood the all-important point behind this plan that his two companions had yet to realize.
And, this very reason was likely Rain's true objective.
A little before Joe had received the scout's report……Ralphus was speaking quietly to a large crowd of citizens in the plaza of a town that his unit had marched through.
His words were neither difficult nor political in nature.
All he was truly doing was asking them one single favor:
Please, lend me your strength.
"——It was a simple explanation, but this is the current state of our kingdom. We are simultaneously facing both a rebellion and an invasion from another country.
Naturally, the first thing we must do is recover the lands we have lost.
We'll prepare your weapons. All I ask is that you act as dummy soldiers, nothing more. It is our duty as knights to put our lives on the line and fight for real.
You need only accompany us to the battlefield. Our troops will take responsibility if, by chance, our strategy fails. I will personally take responsibility before anyone else!
I have no intention of dragging you to the battlefield just to die. But please, if you still hold hope for this kingdom's future……please lend me your strength……"
Ralphus spoke gently to the people around him and lowered his head a little when he was done.
"It was unmistakably our lack of power that brought about this situation today. I am sorry for causing you all such an inconvenience……"
The citizens who had gathered around the small plaza whispered Ralphus' name. Then, they drew closer to him one by one and began speaking to him without pause.
"I, I have experience serving in the garrison. If you give me a weapon, I'll fight for our kingdom with you, Lord Ralphus!"
Once a robust young man in his prime said his piece first, others came up before Ralphus as though not to be outdone. There were the elderly, women, and children among their number and they all spoke with great fervor.
"I don't have any experience in battle, but I can still use my life to stall the enemy. Please take me with you!"
"I can do that too——"
Ralphus suddenly raised a hand and stopped everyone in their tracks. The hustle and bustle died down at once.
"I'm grateful for your feelings, but it is supposed to be our job as knights to die first."
There was no hesitation in his decisive words.
He surveyed over the crowd, which threatened to speak over him again, with his lake-colored eyes.
"That being said, your lives may fall into danger depending on the situation despite everything I've said. As such, I don't want any of you to overdo it. I'd already be more than grateful if you would simply follow along behind the army."
"——Then, please let me follow you. Even I can do that much."
Somebody's voice suddenly sounded.
It belonged to a single youth who had kept his silence up until now, and he continued with a slightly embarrassed look on his face.
"I've hated nobles all my life until now……but my feelings have changed after seeing you, Lord Ralphus. I'm sure the Princess is a wonderful person too, since you're supporting her——that's honestly what I thought after hearing you speak."
Though he was stammering, the youth managed to finish what he had to say and turned deep red.
"……Are your parents all right with that?"
"My mother passed away the other day, so I'm on my own now."
But I haven't given into despair or anything, the youth declared while looking Ralphus straight in the eye.
He looked like a young, naïve boy at first, but his will was strong.
Ralphus stared deeply back at his eyes for a moment……but he eventually broke out into a smile.
He swiftly extended out his right hand.
"What's your name?"
"……Huh? Oh……erm, it's Johann!"
"Then I'll be in your care, Johann."
Ralphus took the youth's hand before the latter could shy away and shook it.
He didn't mind at all that Johann had grown incredibly flustered.
Many people within the crowd began to laugh naturally——truly naturally, upon seeing this. Their hearts had grown warm after hearing the good-humored way Ralphus had spoken to the youth. There weren't many who hadn't heard of Ralphus' reputation, and his sincere attitude had deeply moved the people anew.
Before anyone knew it, the crowd surrounding Ralphus had grown larger and larger.
Ralphus' subordinates were watching the scene from a short distance from them. Well, Elena had forcefully joined them as well and was sighing little sighs of love.
"Oh! How gallant Lord Ralphus is! I don't know how I feel about him lowering his head before the common folk, but such is the greatness of the man I've decided my heart upon! See how popular he is."
She snapped open her white feathered fan and hid her face behind it.
Then, she wiped dramatically at the tears around her eyes.
Gwen and Nigel, who had stepped away from her, exchanged glances as they watched her antics. And it wasn't because they empathized with her.
Frankly put, their exchange was a sign that they were both repulsed by her and were thinking, 'what nonsense is this woman sprouting?'
They both held deep respect for Ralphus, but Gwen and Nigel were also hardworking commoners.
There was no way they were about to be impressed to tears like Elena was.
"……Well, at least we've got our numbers for now,"
Gwen suddenly whispered, as if he thought he couldn't leave the situation be. He continued,
"ya think our Boss really understands how much influence he has? They'll start fightin' when we get to the battlefield at this rate, if things go poorly."
Nigel, who had been staring at his liege with his arms crossed, cast a quick side eye at his colleague.
For once, he nodded slightly and expressed his concurrence.
"Lord Ralphus always underestimates himself. ……Though it looks like Sir Rain understands this about him all too well."
He shook his head as if to express his exasperation.
Gwen's gigantic eyes widened just a little.
Surprised, he asked,
"oho? Didn't ya dislike Boss Rain?"
It sounded like ya weren't angry at him anymore just now."
"That was a misunderstanding on your part. I don't dislike him."
Nigel turned to Gwen and subtly corrected himself.
"——I'll admit that I did almost dislike him, but I've changed my mind. I've decided to put my faith in him, just as Lord Ralphus does. That's why I'll turn a blind eye to something small like this. ……Plus, there's also the fact that the situation doesn't allow for otherwise."
Nigel allowed a small tint of distress to color his eyes before swiftly turning away.
Gwen's bear-like face lightened up as he broke out into a grin. He gently pat his partner, who still only looked like a slender, effeminate boy, on the latter's slim shoulders.
"That's great! He and our Boss are good friends, all things despite. That's why we gotta believe in him too. ……There's no way that he'd let all the people gathered here suffer. I have faith in him!"
"That is preposterous!"
Gwen aside, even Nigel was surprised when a loud voice cut into their conversation.
Elena, who had inched closer without them noticing, had evidently overheard them talking.
She then began scolding them with stern eyes.
"That is a preposterous misunderstanding, you two! There is no way that all-black commoner is fit to be friends with My Lord! How could you not understand this as his aides?!"
Gwen and Nigel silently exchanged looks.
Naturally, it wasn't because they didn't know who the "all-black commoner" was.
Both Gwen and Nigel agreed that it was actually Elena who wasn't "fit for Lord Ralphus (the Boss)," but they also felt that there would be no point in pointing that out.
After all, she'd only start barking louder.
Eventually, Ralphus returned with great timing as Elena was beginning to quiet down.
"What's going on between the three of you? Let's start preparing to take off soon. We have to march as far we can, even slowly."
Elena promptly ditched the other two and called out to Ralphus in a saccharine tone while clinging onto his arm. She continued,
"please rebuke those two, if you will! They are being imprudent despite being your aides!"
Elena prattled on and on about her claims with great vigor.
Neither Gwen nor Nigel were able to hold back their laughter.
There had to be a limit to how stupid one could be. Elena had made a fundamental misunderstanding of Ralphus despite being so deeply in love with him. Sure enough, Ralphus looked to Elena in fury after hearing all that he had to hear.
"……Elena Felicia Hartoul."
"Wh, what is it?"
Elena stopped in her tracks upon being called by her full name out of nowhere. She blinked her blue eyes quizzically. Not many people failed to correct their posture when Ralphus began speaking to them seriously. Elena was no exception to the rule.
"It seems that you aren't aware, so I'll spell it out clearly for you. Rain is my friend. A very dear one, in fact. I'll have to ask that you refrain from speaking ill about him!"
Elena was rendered speechless by his decisive words. Ralphus untangled his arm from her and looked to her with quiet eyes. He continued,
"……how unfortunate, Elena. It appears that we're fated not to be able to understand one another after all."
The blood swiftly drained from Elena's face.
Ralphus had struck the arrogant noble princess, who refused to budge regardless of what anyone said, in her only weak spot.
Gwen and Nigel exchanged looks again upon seeing Elena stand stock still in a daze.
……This feels like it'll bloom into another uproar later down the road,
they both thought.
After all, the girl named Elena was a girl who seemed skilled at shifting the blame unto others instead of finding honest fault with herself.
And, in this instance, all of the blame would be placed unfairly on Rain……both Gwen and Nigel were sure of this.
——Well, in any case…
Ralphus' call had been answered favorably in this town as well, and the number of people following him had increased yet again.
Their unit, which had drastically increased their numbers (though Ralphus only planned for them to be dummy soldiers), marched toward Lydia slowly but surely.
Meanwhile, the Chandrys army had increased their activities.
They had quickly moved forward with both the reorganization of their troops and the formation of their battle lines and were nearly finished with their battle preparations.
All they had left to do was to begin marching with the coming of dawn. Still……Joe, seeking a quiet place to speak with his liege, invited Folnier out for a walk for once. It was impossible to talk at leisure in the busy camp.
Naturally, no one insisted that Folnier brought an escort to protect herself against the enemy nearby because Joe was accompanying her. Everyone had faith in Joe's abilities.
Joe walked in-line with his liege for a short while.
……He had only just now realized that the fierce winds could be bad for her health. Besides, theirs was only a walk in name, and all they could see were the rustling grasses by their feet and the watch fires of the camp that was now a distance away.
And yet, Folnier seemed to enjoy it nevertheless.
"Haha, this is rare. To think that you'd ask me out on a walk. ——Have you finally awakened to my charms?"
Joe looked back at Folnier in a little bit of surprise.
His liege quickly shrugged in response.
"It was a joke. After all, you're a thickheaded and inconsiderate man, Joe. I'm sure you don't care for me at all."
"You misunderstand me."
Joe glanced at his liege from beside her underneath the unreliable light of the moon.
He felt that she had suddenly said something absurd.
"You are an important figure in my life, Lady Fol. I'm always worrying over you——"
"No, that's not what I was talking about,"
Folnier cut in as she toyed with her blonde hair in irritation. She continued,
"you really are as dull as a mud doll! You should put the effort you put into polishing your sword skills into something else from time to time."
Folnier shook her head and urged him to another topic when Joe tilted his head to the side.
"Well, whatever. I not that old yet. I'll be patient and wait (for what? Joe wondered) since I still have time. More importantly, you had something to say to me, right? I doubt that you seriously only meant to invite me out on a walk. Go on, let's hear what you have to say."
Something about her choice of words tugged at Joe a little.
He couldn't quite put a finger on it, but something about her tone had sounded completely desperate.
It worried Joe a bit, but he decided to put aside investigating into the matter for another time and promptly broke the ice.
"Rain desires for peace."
"——What did you say!?"
She was likely surprised by how sudden his proclamation had been.
Folnier stopped in her tracks for a moment. She adjusted her coat from top to bottom to regain her dignity.
"What do you mean? We've been completely done in by that man, and yet you're telling me he wants peace?"
"It's certainly true that he's done us in……but more people would have died if he had been serious. There was no reason for him to go out to his way to capture Sayle and the others unharmed if his only intentions were to win."
"You say that, but he's still recruiting civilians by the hundreds to increase the size of his army, you know?"
Folnier pointed out sharply instead of replying.
Joe nodded readily as he walked.
"Indeed, the people of this kingdom are flocking to him by the hundreds. ……Do you understand why Rain and his comrades began to gather the people, Lady Fol?"
"Like I said, it's to increase their numbers, is it not?!"
"And yet, you don't seek to avoid battle despite that the tides had changed against us in terms of numbers, Lady Fol. What is that?"
"Why, you ask……the answer's obvious. It's because it's easy to break through an army of ordinary people who aren't even soldiers no matter how large their numbers are."
"Numbers are a form of power. Moreover, that man is the one who is wielding it…… I doubt that things are as simple as they seem. But, well, let's put that aside for now. On the assumption that it'll be as easy as you say it will be, Lady Fol, do you plan on killing the civilians as well when the fighting begins?"
"It's only natural, since they've decided to step onto the battlefield. Even civilians should understand that there are casualties in war even if they aren't soldiers!"
"It is truly just as you've said."
Joe bowed lighted and continued,
"but if you do, it will become difficult to rule this land after you've emerged victorious from the war."
Unrest ran its course across Folnier's visage for the first time during their walk after a brief moment.
She had undoubtedly failed to think that far through.
As if to supplement his liege's thoughts, Joe pointed out,
"most civilians have families. Do you believe their families will follow you obediently even after losing their loved ones to an invader?"
He shook his head sharply and continued before Folnier could answer.
"To be blunt, they will not. It is a completely different matter to when a knight, who's job is to fight, perishes on the battlefield. There were surely be riots……and not only a few. The civilians will resist you to the bitter end. Or, they will pretend to obey you while burning the flames of their hatred in secret…… They will think, "just you wait, dammed invaders!" ——It will be next to impossible to rule over a country in that state."
Folnier had long since stopped walking.
She looked up at Joe, who had also stopped walking, with a stiff expression on her face.
"——Is that what Rain is after?"
"No, I don't believe that he truly intends to get the civilians involved. Which is why I think that this is a warning from Rain. All of his plans up until now……they all contained the same message. He is telling us withdraw before we dig our own graves."
"B, but that's still a dangerous wager, isn't it?! I don't know about Rain, but I've heard that the man named Ralphus is virtuous in character. Will he really partake in a wager that might expose civilians to danger?"
Joe smiled ever so faintly.
He thought that Rain would probably grow angry if heard what Folnier had said. Well, he also felt that there was a chance that Rain surprisingly wouldn't mind.
"Naturally, Ralphus is likely planning to dismiss the volunteer soldiers he gathered if we don't fall back and retreat before the "threat of numbers". However, he is not aware of his own popularity with the people. He underestimates himself too much."
"So, the people won't disperse?"
Folnier asked timidly.
"Indeed, they won't. They will grow concerned for Ralphus, who will head willingly to his death, burn even fiercer in anger against the unreasonable invaders, and will stubbornly continue to march. ……This time, of their own accord, and not because of Ralphus asked them to. There is a possibility that the people, newly determined, will fight as well as a group of soldiers of equivalent numbers."
Folnier fell into silence.
There was hesitation coloring her face, unbecomingly of Joe's normally unyielding liege.
However, after her moment of silence, she spoke up in a tone of half admiration and half annoyance.
"……Did Rain calculate everything that you just told me about? All of it, including Ralphus' miscalculation?"
"Yes, he likely predicted everything from the very start."
And——Joe thought without saying it out loud.
Rain was using this incident to test Folnier, so to speak.
Something along the lines of, "now then, are you worthy of joining hands with us?"
Joe was able to surmise as much after seeing the series of actions that Rain had taken.
Just as they had initially wanted to forge an alliance with Sunkwoll, Sunkwoll had also considered joining hands with them as well. It was what Rain had planned for, at the very least. And now, Rain was moving in accordance to his revised scenario to put his script back on its intended track.
Still, if Folnier refused to give up her fixation on the war and still moved to wrest victory for herself, then Rain would bare his fangs at them for real.
You aren't worth forging an alliance with!
Rain would undoubtedly judge them thus.
However, instead of elucidating all of this to Folnier, Joe simply told her, "It seems that Rain might wish to forge an alliance with us."
"An alliance? He looked completely uninterested in one when we first met."
"That's the kind of shrewd man he is. That much is obvious just from the way he devised a plan as elaborate as this."
Joe gracefully shrugged his shoulders.
If he had to add on to his statement, he'd note that Rain had predicted that Joe would uncover his plans part-way through and would attempt to persuade Folnier out of fighting. Right now, Joe was acting exactly as Rain had wanted him to……regardless of how Joe felt about the situation.
From the depths of his heart, Joe thought that Rain was a man to be feared.
"He is merciless……and he will be a man to be feared should we make an enemy of him. However…"
Joe gazed deeply into Folnier's eyes before he continued,
"there will be no one more reliable than he should we make him our ally."
What will you choose, Lady Fol? I'd be joyed if you chose peace. Because if you don't……than it will be my turn to have to choose.
Just as a liege had the freedom to choose their retainer, a retainer, too, had the freedom to choose their liege.
Joe, too, would have to choose what stance to take on this matter.
Distress colored Folnier's beautiful countenance after a rather long period of time of passed.
"It might be selfish of me, but I don't want to accept defeat so readily. I still don't think that my decision was wrong——that we should feed Zarmine our weaker neighbors as bait."
Joe nodded honestly and continued,
"we still have time. I will await your decision, Lady Fol, until the very last moment poss——"
Joe suddenly broke off his words and looked toward Lydia and pursed his lips.
"There is a dizzyingly large amount of Ekseed……in other words, 'Ki', swirling about inside of Lydia."
"Tell me what that means in words that I can understand."
"My apologies. Allow me to rephrase myself: It seems that the nobles who had holed themselves up inside the capital have begun to move."
"——! Are you serious?!"
Folnier instantaneously regained her unyielding spirit and sharply raised her head. She continued,
"they're preparing for battle——is that what you're saying?"
"By how animated the Ekseed is… I believe that there's no doubt."
"That fool! He should've just stayed huddled up inside the walls of both Lydia and Galfort Castle like a good little boy. He needs to learn his place."
Folnier's lips twisted as her almond eyes flared brilliantly in the night. She continued,
"Rain and Ralphus one thing, but to think I'd allow the likes of Safir to bare his fangs at me! Fine, I'll show you what happens when you bite off more than you can chew!"
Joe looked to his liege with dazzling thoughts.
Folnier certainly had her faults. Yet, she also had the magnanimity to acknowledge them. ——Or so Joe thought she did.
Moreover, and more importantly, Joe believed that her ambition and fighting spirit would be indispensable for the wars that were sure to come.
Folnier, who had quickly and boldly begun walking back to camp, turned back to Joe.
"Joe! What are you doing?! We have to wake the soldiers into action and begin preparing for battle!"
Joe nodded firmly and began following after his liege, who had already starting walking away.
-Just before Joe sensed the enemy's movements. –
The enemy——Galfort Castle's new master, Safir, was advocating for war in the audience chamber.
He had gathered up a large number of nobles in his faction and was shouting at them with a pathetically weak fist raised high in the air.
"It has been several days since the enemy set up formation around our capital! We've sent them messenger after messenger to demand an explanation for their actions, and yet they've failed to reply back to us! My patience is running thin!"
He surveyed over the large chamber before continuing,
"the royal family of Sunkwoll will become a laughingstock if we continue to allow their violence!"
"……But you're not even related to the royal family!"
No one pointed out the above piece of relevant information, but that didn't necessarily mean that all who were present unconditionally agreed with everything Safir had said either.
Though many shouted back their approval in a stormy rage, there were still a few people who were opposed to what Safir had said on an emotional level.
Ludic, whom Safir had recently invited to the castle, was a prime example.
He interrupted Safir in a hurry before the chamber could become buried under cries for war.
"A moment please, Your Majesty!"
Safir's cheeks were tinted red as he sat on the throne. He was evidently a little too excited.
He glared down a little at Ludic, perhaps because he found it unpleasant that his momentum had been cut short.
"Are you opposed to this?"
Safir abruptly spoke his conclusions first before Ludic could say a word.
Ludic shook his head, unable to do much else in his situation. He moistened his lips and chose his next words carefully as not to provoke his master further.
"I am not voicing an opposition. It's only that we are currently facing another enemy, the Princess' faction. I am simply saying that it is unwise to fight multiple enemies at the same time."
"……Then what would you have me do?"
"We should allow them to exhaust themselves while fighting each other first,"
Ludic stressed with utmost emphasis. He continued,
"at least one side will come out for the worse should they fight. Then, we'll have our chance when one side is defeated and about to withdraw. Your Majesty can deliver the iron hammer of justice on them when the opportunity strikes. Doing so will provide you with the easiest path to victory."
"Ludic, I have no doubt that you are skilled in the art of warfare. However, you are in the wrong this time around."
Safir flatly rejected Ludic's hard-earned counsel.
He sat unusually straight on the throne and continued with renewed dignity.
"I see that I will likely emerge victorious if I do as you say. However, I am now the ruler of this kingdom. How can a ruler ignore his duties and stand by doing nothing when faced with an invader?! There is no way that the people and the soldiers will follow after a liege who does nothing!"
"Oh! As expected of His Majesty!" (cheered the nobles in the chamber)
Not that Ludic cared about their clamor.
Unlike usual, Safir had declared something that was terribly proper.
Even Ludic could not help but be silenced by his words. After all, Safir was exactly right. Ludic wondered to himself why Safir, who was constantly off the mark, had to bring up a decent argument this one time.
Ludic bit his lip and looked to his liege in resent.
Besides, he thought that, while Safir's words had indeed been correct, they should have only been said by a "competent" king. He didn't want to hear those pretty words when there were multiple powers struggling for influence within the kingdom's borders.
You don't have the ability to back up your words!
"Ludic. You couldn't possibly be getting cold feet now, are you?"
Someone asked impudently while Ludic was grumbling silently to himself.
When Ludic looked up to see which idiot had spoken, he found that it was a man named Shadac, or something. His recollections were hazy, but Ludic was sure that he belonged to the Estherhart family.
There were a good number of people who from the Jervael, Estherhart, and Hartoul families, which served under the Princess' faction, who had fled to Safir's. They were all those who had lost their love for the heads of their respective families, who backed the Princess.
In other words, it meant that Rain's side was not a stable monolith.
Ludic felt that there was no helping that some people had betrayed their families, as their base would weaken to the point of peril if the Princess, a reformist, wielded royal authority. Regardless, he felt that those who didn't even know the basics of warfare had no grounds to find fault with him.
In irritation, Ludic spat out,
"……my duty is to make our battles as favorable for us as I can. There is no place for foolhardiness on the battlefield."
"What?! Are you trying to say that my valor is mere foolhardi——"
"Argh, enough, Shadac. Ludic's argument is only to be expected from a commander of an army. And Ludic. I'm sure you have more you wish to say, but keep quiet for now and follow my plans. All right?"
……Ludic didn't know what kind of face to make.
And so, he simply closed his mouth and lowered his head, since, as much of a surprise as it had been, his liege had undoubtably covered for him.
(Still……does His Majesty understand? They say that no army commanded by Joe Lamberck has ever been recorded to have tasted defeat……)
While their own army had plenty of battle experience, Ludic couldn't say that morale among the lower-ranked soldiers was high even as a lie or that their knight-captains were even remotely of good quality. Wasn't it too much for them to battle Joe, whose armies were boasted to be invincible, in the face of all of this?
Ludic thought it was.
Dawn broke out after both armies had finished their battle preparations through the night.
Safir's army had advanced after squeezing Galfort castle's forces dry. Essentially, they had brought forth every available soldier to the battlefield and left only the smallest possible number of soldiers behind.
Their troops numbered thirteen thousand, including the many soldiers who had been freshly recruited with the funds they had to spare.
They opened the outer walls of the capital for the first time in a long while and poured outside of them in droves.
They glared at the Chandrys army, which had taken formation in a slight retraction, and began to form their own lines. Ludic stood at the rear of the army with Safir and looked over to oversee the Chandrys army's movements.
The Chandrys army had yet to move, however.
They apparently did not want them to be able to flee back inside——which was likely why it did not seem that the Chandrys army would attack until Safir's entire army was outside of Lydia's walls. Ludic thought that this was because they were either the very reflection of knightly etiquette……or it was because they were simply making light of them.
Ludic suddenly noticed something strange and furrowed his brows.
"What is it?"
Safir promptly asked.
"Well……I feel like the Chandrys army has fewer numbers than before."
"We already knew about that. They split their army to annihilate that damned Rain and were soundly met with defeat…… You were the one who explained this to me, were you not?"
"No, I meant as in comparison to yesterday,"
Ludic tried replying anyway.
However, even Ludic did not have an accurate grasp on the Chandrys army's numbers. He was simply going off of what he could determine by eye from afar as they could not send out scouts.
But……I do feel like they are fewer of them than there were yesterday. Perhaps I should have sent out more spies even if I didn't think they would be effective…… Ludic could only express his regrets after the fact.
"In any case,"
Safir interjected again,
"from what I can see, our army is slighter larger in numbers. Let us commence our attack at once!"
"……Please wait a moment. Our lines will be ready soon."
Ludic could not erase his apprehensions even as he spoke. Additionally, he could tell even just by looking from afar that the enemy army had no openings.
They maintained their formation, like that of a bird spreading its wings, without panicking, without stirring, and without moving even in the slightest.
No one even budged as they single-mindedly kept their silence.
Ludic could see why Grand General Joe Lamberck was such a famous commander just by looking at the enemy formation.
But his own army, on the other hand——
Ludic grew fed up upon looking at his army, which was still in the process of staggering into arrow formation (a battle formation shaped like an arrowhead). At this rate, it would be better for him to hope to avoid defeat rather than to hope for victory.
"What are you doing?! Hurry up and get in line!"
Ludic barked his order in near-desperation.
Ultimately, the Chandrys army remained deathly still and silent as Safir's army finished arranging their formation.
Ludic thought from the bottom of his heart.
If he could, he wanted to order a retreat back inside of Lydia's walls.
But his master was fully psyched up for a fight, so there was no way that was going to happen.
"Ludic, can I give the order to commence the attack once our preparations are complete?"
"……Go right on ahead."
"All right! Then——"
Safir stuck out his chest in elation and drew his ornate sword that was over-decorated with jewels.
He cleared his throat and raised his sword to the heavens.
Safir screamed out in a voice which Ludic could only say was reminiscent of a chicken with its neck being wrung, signaling the bow unit to nock their arrows all at once and release them into the air slightly above their enemies.
A countless number of arrows, enough to cover the sun, flew underneath the azure sky and fell on their enemies like torrential rain. Rank and file soldiers from all throughout the enemy army that was so orderly that they could have been a still-life painting fell one after another.
However, that was the only change that occurred in their formation.
No one let out so much as a scream. Instead, the vanguard unit began to march upon receiving Joe's signal. They stepped over their comrades' bodies and advanced in silence.
Then, naturally, the enemy began to return fire just a beat later.
They sky grew dark under the arrows the two armies exchanged.
No arrows reach the back of their formation, where Ludic was, but his soldiers still dropped like flies from not that far in front of him.
They weren't nearly as quiet as the enemy was. Death cries sprouted up from here and there and the grassy field was beginning to be dyed red by the blood of the fallen soldiers. The sound of several thousands of arrows whistling through the air filled the fields with what sounded like the eerie, sardonic laughter of a grim reaper.
Even now, at this very moment, there were soldiers falling to the arrows in both armies.
But this was just the preface.
Feeling mean, Ludic quietly took a glance out of the corner of his eye. He was certain that Safir would be afraid. After all, Safir had hardly stood at the frontlines before despite being a high general.
……And sure enough, Safir looked scared.
It was plainly obvious that his teeth were rattling and his shoulders were shaking.
And yet, despite all of that, he remained facing directly forward and was pointing his sword at the enemy lines.
Then, in a loud voice, he rebuked those around him.
"Don't falterrrr! Forward, keep moving forward while shootiiiiing!"
He still sounded like a dying chicken. And it was all too obvious that he was pushing himself because he was terrified on the inside. And yet, Safir did not move to fall back like he always did. According to the rumors, he had always retreated to the very back of the army at times like this.
Ludic's opinion of his master rose just a little.
Perhaps Safir's "sense of duty", which had been hiding behind some nook or cranny somewhere, had finally surfaced now that they were on the brink of a subversion of the state. Ludic thought that it was about time, too, but it was better late than never.
Ludic stiffened his expression and returned his gaze to the enemy in front of him. They were just about the right distance away. Actually, the enemy had inferred that they would soon move on to close-quarters combat first and their bow unit had already put down their bows.
Ludic called out an order as if in response to that.
"Bow unit, cease fire!"
The bow unit quickly fell back at his order.
Then, Ludic turned to Safir and bowed.
"Your Majesty, please issue the next command."
"Of, of course."
Safir's glistening golden armor shook as he nodded repeatedly. Did he really know what he was supposed to say? Ludic was a little worried at first, but Safir managed to shout out the correct command.
"All right! Vanguard, attaaaaaack!"
Safir's army let loose a battle cry when he swung down his sword.
Several thousand soldiers began their charge while kicking up clumps of earth and yelling to incite themselves.
Even the Chandrys army, which had remained stock still until then, had finally been roused into motion. The knights at the head of their formation had readied their lances.
They let out a war cry as one, without any prompting, as they prepared to face against their enemy.
The distance between the two armies vanished in a blink and Safir's army promptly crashed into the Chandrys army.
The battle had truly begun.
The knights' armors, plenty enough to cover the earth, glistened, and the exchanging lances brought forth more death from both sides.
Even if they didn't suffer fatal wounds, they would not be able to remain unharmed in a battlefield this densely packed even if all they did was fall off their horse. If they were unlucky, the wounded would be trampled underfoot the horses behind them and would swiftly join the ranks of the dead. Moreover, they would become corpses of such miserable state that their own parents would not be able to tell who they were.
They would not be able to help a comrade who had fallen off of their horse, even if they happened to see them fall. This was especially true now that their enemies were bearing their fangs and brandishing their spears and swords before their very eyes.
All that a knight on the frontlines could do——was to protect themselves while slaughter as many enemies as they could.
The earth was stained scarlet by the blood pouring out from the growing piles of corpses.
Joe quickly encouraged his troops from the rear of his formation when his army began to be pushed back a little, unable to fully withstand the first wave.
"Don't falter! We shall undoubtedly be victorious!"
——Just one line.
The Chandrys army had been galvanized by just one line from Joe. The entire army cheered, "We will be victorious!" in chorus and ceased their slow retreat.
Each soldier shouted, unafraid of death, and repelled Safir's army, which had been eroding through their lines like a wedge.
They slammed bodily into Safir's army, which had highhandedly continued their attack after their initial advantage and forced their once-broken lines back into formation.
Their absolute trust in Joe Lamberck, the Fearless God-General, had overturned their premonition of defeat and called forth their conviction of victory.
And lo, Joe had personally leapt out from the rear lines with a pike in hand.
The knights of Safir's army could do little but turn around in panic upon seeing his silver-white armor as his white horse galloped across the land.
Then, all alone, like a single gust of wind, Joe began his own charge.
"Standing before you is Joe Lamberck! I shall be your opponent!"
His pike flashed as he introduced himself with brevity.
The tip of his pike drew a silver line as it sank into the throat of an enemy who tried to attack him. A fountain of blood erupted. His opponent's head lobbed to the ground, frozen in an expression of astonishment.
Joe's pike swiftly turned course in search of new prey.
His attacks were precise and merciless.
Stab, mow down, spin, and rend.
Joe's godly skills with the spear diminished Safir's army's numbers as they gawked on in blank amazement.
Although it looked like he was hardly putting any strength into his swings at all, someone's hand or head flew, or their torso was pierced, and they fell off their horse with every elegant movement Joe's arms and pike made.
It was hard to tell because he carried it to easily, but, like Rain's, Joe's pike was specially made to be several times heavier than normal. It was only natural that his opponents' arms would go numb just by blocking it once. That was to say nothing of the fact that no one had the leeway to block it twice.
Even if someone did somehow manage to block Joe's pike at first, Joe would run them through, armor and all, in the very next moment.
The knights of Safir's army, who had challenged Joe into a futile battle, rushed into retreat after the sky had been colored by erupting fountains of blood for a time.
A vacuum had formed around Joe as a result.
Then, every soldier of the Chandrys army began to fight with all their might upon seeing their revered Grand General fight……
Meanwhile, Safir was visibly expressing his terror in the midst of his army's main formation.
While his enemies were suffering at least as much as he was, Safir, who had little experience in commanding an army, began to fear defeat as soon as the tides had turned against him, even if just a little.
"Ludic! Our army is about to collapse!"
he immediately raised up a fuss.
"I know that. Now's a good time to send out our reinforcements, in any case."
Ludic let his master's cries go through one ear and out the other and raised two fingers on his right hand to signal to the orderly.
Eventually, two thousand soldiers from their reserve troops moved out toward the enemy. Ludic had ordered them to target the right wing of the enemy's formation, which had been composed of fewer soldiers from the start of the battle.
He planned to whittle down the Chandrys army, which had only been wary of Safir's army's frontal assault——in other words, the enemies in front of them, slowly from the sides with time.
Ludic meant to send out reinforcements to the right wing next to cause unrest in the enemy ranks.
He had to make the best use of his advantage in numbers as he could.
But……something feels off.
Ludic could not help but tilt his head to the side. The Chandrys army looked like they were fighting desperately for their lives.
Well, that was only to be normal in battle, but this time, it was odd.
After all, Safir's improvised army should have been nothing more than an easy opponent for the invincible Joe.
It's strange that they're having a difficult time to begin with!
This was why Ludic had maintained a set distance from Lydia's walls at all times as the battle progressed. It was, of course, so that they could retreat at any time. It was a pessimistic strategy, but he felt that it was the correct one.
Is this a trap……? While Ludic had his doubts, he couldn't decide on anything for sure because the enemy's desperation looked too real. Furthermore, the Chandrys army had changed out of their offense and had begun to collapse while he was lost in thought.
This had happened because of the reinforcements he sent out, which caused the Chandrys army to be at the absolute disadvantage in terms of numbers. Their left wing had collapsed, as Ludic had wanted, and unrest spread out from it into the rest of the army.
The rout looked all too natural even in Ludic's eyes, and he had been suspicious of them from the very start. When Joe, who had been fighting at the very front of the enemy army, drew back, the knights, who had been fighting for their lives, slowly began to be pushed back.
Their perfectly and beautifully composed formation finally broke apart, and the soldiers at the rear began to flee.
Then, after a set point, the soldiers of the Chandrys army, known for their valor, turned tail one after another. The entire army had begun to collapse.
Saifr swished around his spear from his horse.
"All right, now it's time for our complete victory!"
Simultaneously, Ludic turned to the orderly and screamed,
"the retreat, sound the retreat! Stop advancing, and don't chase them too far! Hurry!"
"Pre, preposterous! What are you saying, Ludic?! We're winning! We're winning, aren't we?!"
"It's to take precaution. Certainly, the enemy rout looks natural to me——"
"Then why aren't we chasing them down?!"
Ludic looked at his liege with bloody eyes before he answered.
As Safir flinched, he quietly said,
"if I must answer, then it is because of my intuition. Besides, Your Majesty's objectives will be fulfilled even if all we do is chase them away from here."
"……Unfortunately, Ludic. Even if your intuitions are correct, it's far too late. Look, the frontlines are already chasing after them in pursuit."
It was just as Safir had pointed out.
His allies were already in pursuit despite the fact that a retreat had sounded. Not only had the frontlines advanced, but many other units had followed after them and were moving around Ludic in droves. Ludic saw Shadac, far in front of him, rushing toward the enemy with his men in tow.
He was not the only arrogant noble present. The nobles had likely never had the intention of listening to Ludic, an upstart general, from the very beginning. And now, Safir's army's fatal flaw had finally been exposed.
No, I can't say for sure that this is all a part of the enemy's plans yet.
Indeed, the Chandrys army had split their forces heavily in order to battle Rain.
It was still possible that Safir's army could win just by having the simple advantage of numbers, as was proper.
It was still possible that pursuing them was the right choice.
"There's no other choice. Slowly advance the main troops,"
Ludic shook his head and reluctantly amended his order. He could not abandon his allies, regardless of what fate had in store for them.
All I can do now is place my bets……
Ludic made great efforts to remain positive.
His instincts had not been wrong, however.
He had been right not to underestimate Joe. His only misfortunes had been that his mismatched army could only have been said to be crudely put together and that his enemies' rout had been far too skillful and ingenious.
To begin with, it was impossible to order his allies "Don't pursue," when the enemy had collapsed and scattered before their very eyes. It was only natural that the knights and soldiers wished to stand out in the battlefield, become famous, and receive as large of a reward as possible.
Moreover, the fact that he had to give orders to nobles who ignored martial law had been Ludic's downfall.
As a result——the scales of the battle had finally tipped out of their hands for good.
……They had missed their only chance at victory.
"Enemy soldiers from the rear!"
A soldier screamed, causing Ludic to bring his hand up to his forehead before he knew what he was doing.
We've been had!
Sure enough, he turned around to find that a unit of enemy soldiers was approaching from the rear while stirring up a cloud of dust.
"Shit! It's a pincer ambush!"
Ludic punched his saddle.
——He regretted that he hadn't followed through with what his instincts had told him. Though, nothing would have changed even if he had, since the nobles hadn't followed his orders.
"A pin, pincer ambush? What is that?!"
Safir asked while trembling with fear.
You don't know something that basic even though you're a high general……? Ludic thought afresh that Safir was pathetic.
"A pincer ambush is a tactic that involves purposefully fleeing before an enemy to lure them into a position where your ambush troops are waiting in advance and then annihilating them in one fell swoop. This isn't a normal pincer ambush because the ambush unit circumvented the entire battlefield and attacked us from behind, but their objective remains the same. In other words, they enticed us, their enemy, to let down our guard so they could change the tides against us and attack."
——Then, our enemies, who had been fleeing before us until now, will mount a counterattack.
Everything Ludic had said had come true by the time he finished his explanation.
The Chandrys army, which had been fleeing until just moments ago, began their counterattack upon the arrival of their ambush troops.
They thrust their spears and scythed their swords as if in revenge for the fact they had been made to flee until then.
On the other hand, Safir's army was visibly disturbed. They foolishly turned tail and began their rout as if the fight they had been putting up earlier had been a mere fluke.
The biggest reason for this was because their path of return to Lydia had been sealed, though the appearance of the ambush troops had also played a part.
If things went poorly, they would not be able to return to their home base…… This fact served to double their fears.
"Ugh……. To think that we'd fall for it so easily, even if it's only natural give chase when the enemy flees. ……How pathetic."
"Now isn't the time to be saying that!"
Safir's voice had quickly become colored by panic. Ludic thought he was hopeless, since Safir, a general, had lost his nerve before the soldiers had.
"Is, is there nothing you can you?!"
"——I will try."
Ludic nodded and raised his voice in a hurry.
"Don't falter! There are only a few enemy troops behind us! Their formation is thin! Break through them in a straight line and return to Lydia!"
Ludic, a seasoned veteran, knew that this was the only course of action available to them. It was all he could do, as he had been caught in the enemy's pincer attack and his army had grown agitated.
However, Joe, who had set up the "pincer ambush" to begin with, understood this as well.
There was a subtle change in the Chandrys army's movements.
After a short whistle, the Chandrys army, which had begun its counterattack, halted their simple unidirectional offense and charged on their horses to group up with the unit behind Safir's army.
They moved in the same direction as Safir's army, which was trying to change its target.
Naturally, their objective was to cut off the rear of Safir's army from the rest of the group. They were trying to make it impossible for them to return to Lydia by sealing off their escape route.
Their tactics had abruptly changed——from a pincer attack to a maneuver to regroup their forces.
Ludic, who had quickly discerned this, barked out orders as rapidly as he could in an attempt to break through the enemy lines——
But, unfortunately, his allies were too shaken to act as he wanted them to.
There was also the fact that not everyone in his army listened to his orders.
"This isn't good!"
Ludic muttered to himself after a short while. They had long since lost the battle.
Not only that, but they had little choice but to abandon Lydia as well. They would be annihilated if they stubbornly continued to try to return to the capital.
"Your Majesty. Let us escape to Greatark Castle (Safir's castle) for now! That is the only thing we can do. Fortunately, there are no enemy soldiers in that direction. We can make it if we leave now!"
To Ludic's great surprise, Safir rejected his proposal without a moment of hesitation. He was caught off guard, as he'd thought that Safir would have spared no doubts to flee, and was stunned into silence.
Safir continued to speak in great agitation.
"I am the ruler of this kingdom. How can I abandon that which I'm supposed to protect and run away?! If I do, I'll never be able to face the people ever again!"
He knew he was being rude, but Ludic thought that Safir had lost his mind for a moment.
It was because Saifr had said something that was incredibly unlike him. Putting the question of how serious his resolve was aside, that is.
"……What you say is correct, Your Majesty. However, our army is currently on the brink of collapse. We will not be able to maintain the battle any longer, and I am sorry to say that it is because I am powerless."
Safir's anger promptly subsided when Ludic was honest with him.
He hung his head down while on his horse and quietly replied,
"……no. This my fault for not heeding your counsel."
"Is this where you wereee?!"
They didn't have time to be conversing so leisurely like this.
The Chandrys army's vanguard had already broken through their frontlines and was upon their main troops. At their point was a young general in his twenties mowing down Safir's army in reckless fashion.
He looked at Ludic and Safir and opened his eyes wide.
"A lot of stuff's been worrying me lately, so I've been pretty pissed off. I'm gonna take it out on you guys, so get ready!"
What do I care that you were pissed off?!
Ludic wanted to quip back.
But in any case——
"Your Majesty! The war isn't over yet. You simply need to emerge as the final victor later! Now, to Greatark!"
"Alriiight, you crawled out! Die, Safir-or-whatever-your-name-was!!"
They had less time than Ludic had anticipated.
The youth from earlier jumped in front of Safir.
His pike extended out to pierce through Safir's overly-decorated armor. Safir simply stiffened up on his horse and watched it happen in a blank daze.
Ludic immediately thrust his spear out from the side and repelled the enemy's.
"Don't get cocky, whelp!"
"Whoa! ——Not half bad, old man!"
The youth's eyes glistened.
He was dangerously belligerent.
"I prefer fighting guys with some backbone better than these weaklings!"
He turned his horse around to face Ludic and continued,
"my name is Zartz! Now, let's do——"
But situation changed yet again.
The men under Ludic's direct command, who had been stunned like Safir was, rushed before Zartz and formed a human wall.
They were comrades who had served under Ludic for a long time. They were reluctant to die for Safir, but for Ludic……for Ludic, they steeled themselves and leapt into action.
"Hey! C'mon, that's just dirty!"
Zartz cried out.
"General! Please escape! We'll hold him off here!"
Ludic hesitated for a moment.
Should I die here with the men who've served under me for so long……? I've fought for life and death on countless battlefields with them. Is dying here with them not the path I should take?
However, he came to a conclusion upon seeing Safir trembling besides him.
No, I still have something I have left to do.
Even if I'll be heading down to Hades soon, I can't die just yet!
"I'm sorry, everyone!"
With one line, with just one line, Ludic turned away. He whipped Safir's horse on the behind. Then, he urged his own horse into a gallop and followed after his master.
He leaned his upper body into the horse's mane and yelled as loud as he could.
"To Greatark! Escape to Greatark! Head there, everyone!!"
On a few of the soldiers who had heard his voice obeyed. Everyone else had already fled and scattered.
At this moment, not only had the nobles, but the overwhelming majority of the common soldiers had also turned their backs on Safir.
Joe watched Safir's army break away in droves from afar and nodded.
He then bowed to Folnier, who's horse was standing neck to neck with his as she squinted like he had been.
"Victory has been decided, Lady Fol."
"Yeah, good work."
His liege cast him a sunny smile. She continued,
"your command was brilliant, as always. The noble army was no match for you."
"No……. This time, the enemy soldiers were just too poor in quality. This fact helped me immensely."
Joe spoke what he truly felt.
He felt this way because he had seen the orders the enemy commander had given out and had felt that they had always been the right ones.
He had ordered a retreat right when they had needed to, and the orders he shouted out from time to time had been accurate and precise.
Safir aside, the general called Ludic, who had actually been commanding the army, was a first-rate commander.
His only misfortune was that the soldiers he commanded hadn't lived up to par.
Joe had simply capitalized on this weakness.
Folnier shook her head when Joe explained this to her.
"You were the one who saw through that and set up our strategy in response, Joe. A "pincer ambush" is certainly a difficult tactic to defend against, but it requires the same amount of talent, if not more, to pull it off. There's nothing for you to be modest about."
Joe obediently extended his thanks instead of being stubborn about it. Then, he nonchalantly changed the topic of the conversation.
"And so, what will you do?"
"——About Safir's army?"
"Yes. Will you pursue them?"
"No, this is enough. Victory's already been decided. There's no point in any further fighting,"
Folnier refused decisively.
Joe was a little relieved for it on the inside.
He had been planning to stop her if she said that she would pursue.
And yet, his apprehensions still remained.
He sounded the retreat in haste before inquiring about his misgivings.
"……Then, what will you do with Lydia? There will barely be more than a few hundred soldiers left to guard the capital right now. It will be easy to conquer, but——"
Joe spoke slowly with a hint of hesitation, but Folnier threw a quick glance at him and smiled bewitchingly before he could finish. For some reason, she then extended out a white hand and stroked him on the cheek.
"Hahaha……I think I know what you want to say."
"Don't play dumb. You were planning to stop me if I said that I'd occupy Lydia, weren't you?"
When Joe remained silent, Folnier smiled smugly and said, "Looks like I was right." She continued,
"relax, I've changed my mind a bit. I'm going to wait right here for Rain and the others to arrive."
"——Is that so?"
When Joe nodded in relief, Folnier shot back,
"hey now, I haven't actually decided anything yet!"
and struck home her warning.
"By the way, Joe…"
She pulled away her hand and turned serious again. She continued,
"there's something I wanted to ask you too……. Do you remember the time when the messenger arrived with news concerning Ralphus' movements earlier?"
"Yes, you speak of the time when we received report that his troops numbered eight to nine thousand. ——What of it?"
"Do you remember……how you called Ralphus 'Ralphus Juliard Jervael' back then?"
It was Joe's turn to take a long and hard look at Folnier.
Mischievously, she continued,
"not many people call him by his real name. After all, the name 'Ralphus Juliard Sunkwoll' has stuck now. It's a lot more famous, since it's crowned with the kingdom's name itself, after all. So, why did you go out of your way to call him by the surname "Jervael"……?"
Folnier flashed a grin and answered her own question.
"This is what I think. Did it just slip out? Unintentionally, to boot. You're emotionally attached to that name."
She stared hard into Joe's face and gradually broke out into a mean-spirited smile. She continued,
"hmm, it looks like I've hit bullseye. I guess the word on the street wasn't just a rumor……huh. You're being too distant, Joe. You could have just told me."
"……No. It's a private matter, after all. I don't intend to bring in my personal feelings onto the battlefield."
Joe began to smile alongside Folneir as he spoke. He continued,
"that was quite mean of you, Lady Fol."
"Hmph. I'm only being mean because I told you not to keep secrets from me, but you went on ahead and kept quiet about this anyway. Tell me everything before I have to ask next time."
Joe ended up being scolded by her.
Joe assented quietly and gently looked back at Folnier.
As he did, he thought……As I'd thought, she's the person whom I'm meant to serve.