On the 33rd day of the 6th month, a damaged ship covered in arrows and ram marks could be seen, at Bullhorn Bay. The battered Flying Fish of Dawn docked at the port and, after the walking plank was lain down, injured people disembarked. Freiyar and Patt were carried by a few injured marines off of the ship.
Lorist stepped forward. He breathed a sigh of relief after taking a closer look. Although the two's injuries were serious, they were not in any mortal danger. Perhaps it was because they had received emergency treatment very quickly after being injured.
Freiyar was injured, a physical shock had caused his internal organs to shift ever so slightly and bleed profusely. According to the marines by their side, he spat out lots of blood and shouldn't recover in less than three months. Patt, on the other hand, had been pierced through his lower abdomen by a sword. It had struck right through him and burst out of his back. Fortunately, his spinal cord wasn't damaged, but he would still be out of commission for half a year.
Captain Wilson stepped off the ship and saluted Lorist. He had also been injured during his trip as was apparent from the turban-like bandage he wore on his head.
With a cold voice, Lorist asked, "Is this the work of the Chikdor Merchant Guild?"
Captain Wilson smiled bitterly and shook his head slowly. "I don't know, Milord. To be honest, I don't have a clear idea who it was that attacked Silowas. But I'm sure they aren't people from the guild. The enemy seemed like pirates of some sort, but I have no idea what kind of pirate force would be as big as they were. They had around three to four hundred ships..."
"That's right, Milord. I also initially thought that we were being attacked by the Chikdor Merchant Guild, since only they could plausibly mobilize so many ships against us. But when we clashed something felt weird. Many of the ships flew different flags, and their sailors and crew were not as well-trained and calm as those of the guild.
"The moment our ships approached theirs, the enemy began to lose control and even broke their own formation. That would never happen to the guild's fleet. Milord, you should wait for a few days. Sir Senbaud's fleet is right behind us and he might've captured a few of the enemy alive," explained Captain Wilson.
Without accepting or rejecting Wilson's suggestion, Lorist said, "Tell me more about the incident. Start at the beginning."
"Yes, milord," Wilson said, before he began his recollection, "At noon on the 21st day of the 6th month, Sir Senbaud's fleet left Silowas on a trip back to the Northlands. I was patrolling around one in the afternoon when I discovered ships silhouettes not far away, so I ordered our men to sail out to see who they were. But halfway there, I realized something odd. More and more ships continued to appear, almost covering the oceans entirely.
"I was incredibly shocked and thought that the Chikdor Merchant Guild had decided to launch their attack. But using the telescope, I discovered that the flags flown by the ships were not uniform, neither was there any sight of the sword-and-barrel flag of the guild. So, I began to wonder where the fleet had come from and continued forward to intercept and question them.
"But before we even had a chance to converse, the ships began launching fireballs at us."
Wilson pointed at the burn marks on the Flying Fish of Dawn.
"Fortunately, our ship was agile and swift, allowing us to evade most of the enemy's attacks and escape. After we determined that they were enemy ships, we quickly returned to Silowas to alert the troops.
"Sir Freiyar suggested that we mount a naval attack against the enemy. That way, we would be able to give the island more time to prepare. He also ordered his men to inform Sir Charade and Sir Patt and his guard brigade, before ordering me to seek out Sir Senbaud, who had just left, and have him come back to reinforce us.
"By the time I reached Sir Senbaud's fleet, it was already midnight. He gave the order to turn back and reinforce Silowas immediately. But the morning of the next day we ran into four ships from Sir Freiyar's fleet that managed to break out of the encirclement. According to the troops on the ship, Sir Freiyar had commanded 30 ships to receive the attack and managed to destroy more than 50 enemy ships, but the four that escaped were the last ones that remained.
"On one of the ships was Sir Freiyar. He had suffered heavy injuries. The marines said that Sir Freiyar had intended to intercept the enemy, but the enemy sent 100 ships to hinder his fleet, allowing the remaining ships to continue sailing to the island.
"Sir Freiyar's fleet used up all their weapons and had to board the enemy ships to fight in close-quarters. At first, they were able to take two ships, but the enemy sent out a blademaster which Sir Freiyar went up to receive. After a few bouts, Sir Freiyar got struck on his chest by the blademaster's sword, causing him to spit out blood and faint.
"The marines said it was Sir Karitoke who had hauled Sir Freiyar back. Sir Karitoke later ordered them to break the encirclement. But right as they were about to leave, Sir Karitoke was struck down by the enemy blademaster...
"Sir Senbaud ordered the four ships that escaped to travel with his fleet. We managed to arrive at Silowas..." Wilson paused as his face turned grim. "Milord, by the time we got there, flames and smoke filled the skies of the island. Cries of pain or grief could be heard all around. From the telescope, I could even see corpses littering the port. Rivers of blood flowed all over... Tho-those pirates... They killed, maimed, and did all manner of terrible things on the island... It's hell... Silowas has become hell...
"The enemy's ships were docked at the southern coasts. Even though we fought with them for the whole afternoon, their numbers just seemed to grow more and more. We managed to burn down more than 20 enemy ships, losing seven of our own in the process. In the end, Sir Senbaud had no choice but to order a retreat. The enemy didn't bother to pursue us either. They were content with us leaving the island.
"Sir Senbaud still had to circle Silowas a few times before we lost the enemy. Only after that could we rest. He said that since Swordfish Ridge still flew our Raging Bear flag, he would sneak into the marine camp near the bay during the night to make his way up to the ridge.
"When midnight came, Sir Senbaud brought us into the small bay and we realized that the fires were still lit at Swordfish Ridge. So, he brought his men up there but left me outside. They returned after a good while and had us hurriedly retreat. According to the marines who went up there, there were lots of enemies waiting there. Given that we only had a thousand or so men with us, we had no choice but to retreat. We could no longer defend Silowas.
"We didn't bring many boats when we entered the bay, so each one we had was packed to the brim with people. By the time we ferried everyone out of the bay, the sky was already brightening and the enemy discovered us. They sent their ships for us, but we sunk the first ten or so that arrived and we even managed to take control of two middle-class armed merchant vessels in the process. The enemy mobilized another hundred or so ships to attack us, however. We were fully laden, so we weren't able to sail quickly enough and were caught once again in the afternoon.
"Fortunately, Divine Marksman Josk was there. He and Sir Senbaud picked ten ships that were still in decent condition and deployed them as our rearguard. They managed to eliminate the five ships right on our tail. As a result, the enemies further back became more cautious. They didn't come closer, but they continued to barrage us with ranged attacks all the all the way into the evening before they retreated. I don't know why that happened, but I was too relieved to be free of pursuers to care at the time.
"The next morning Sir Senbaud ordered me to head back first with the injured. Flying Fish of Dawn is the fastest ship in our arsenal, after all. The rest will catch up and arrive in few more days."
Lorist stretched out his hand and patted Wilson's shoulder.
"You must've had a hard time. Go back and rest for a day or two. Your head injury isn't serious, is it?" said he.
"Milord, I'm fine. My head only brushed against a passing fireball. All I lost was half my hair... I shudder to imagine how my wife will react when I get home..."
Lorist nodded in response.
"Thank goodness you're alright for the most part. First, rest up at the marine camp. I will have herbalists head over and treat the injured. I hope you'll recover soon, I might have to trouble you to go out to sea in a few days,"
"Yes, milord. I will be awaiting your orders," said Wilson while standing as straight as a ramrod.
"Howard, bring some men with you to check on the injured. Console them and ask them their opinion on our enemies. Also, have someone ask around how the enemy's flags look and have a sketch drawn for me.
"Other than that, pass this order on to Potterfang: 'bring a division of heavy-armored troops and standby for deployment'. Also, have Els check on the status of Dulles's new wheelbarrow-ballistae division. Don't forget to reach out to Professor Balbo as well and give me a detailed summary of his experimental progress," instructed Lorist.
By the time Potterfang rushed to the port city, it was already afternoon on the next day. Lorist had already ordered some men to set up camp near the coast.
"Milord, our territory, Silowas, was attacked?!" asked Potterfang the moment he barged into the room.
Given how heavily he panted, he must've rushed there the moment he received the order.
"Where are your men?" asked Lorist.
"They will only be able to arrive by tomorrow, Milord. I left early with a few attendants. Milord, who is it that dares to attack our dominion? Is it the Chikdor Merchant Guild or the second highness's men?"
Lorist shook his head.
"It's neither of them. Look at the few sketches of emblems and flags over here on the table. We haven't seen any of them before. I suspect that we've been attacked by pirates of some sort..."
Potterfang held up one of the beastskins on the table and revealed a look of shock. "Milord, the enemy are not pirates. I know these emblems and flags. They're the slave traders and slave owners from the Hanayabarta kingdom..."
"What did you say?! The Hanayabarta kingdom? The island-based kingdom built on slavery?" exclaimed Lorist.
His voice was cold as ice. He had finally found a lead he could follow.
"That's right. Milord, since you've never been to the kingdom before, it's no surprise that you don't know their emblems. Actually, these emblems don't even show up often here on the main continent either. Look, these emblems and flags all have black borders. It marks them as the slaver nobles and slave merchant guilds of the Hanayabarta kingdom. Most of the nations on Grindia don't recognize the legitimacy of the Hanayabarta nobles' claim to peerage. To the royal families and noble houses of Grindia, they are naught but a bunch of lowly pirates and slave traders."
Potterfang had been to the Hanayabarta kingdom twice before. The first was when he went there at the invitation of Loze. Loze had been a bodyguard for a slave trader back then. Potterfang couldn't bear the practice of slavery, he left after a month had passed.
His second trip was when he went to Nupite to purchase slaves to add to the fighting strength of the northbound convoy, as well as to recruit Loze and Malek. After these two experiences, Potterfang was well-acquainted with the flags and emblems of the kingdom.
"You're saying that a bunch of slavers and slave traders attacked and raided Silowas? Why, aren't they rather bold? Aren't they afraid of our retribution?!" growled Lorist angrily.
Shaking his head, Potterfang said, "Milord, the Hanayabarta kingdom was, after all, founded by a bunch of slavers and slave traders. To them, raiding is but a common activity. A century ago, they had been residing at the Golden Coast of the mainland. But as the defenses in that area gradually strengthened, they attacked the Hanayabarta archipelago and formed their slave nation. Those pirate bosses and slave traders became nobles of the kingdom overnight. That is also one of the reasons for the nations' non-recognition of their sovereignty.
"After the founding of the kingdom, they even raided Hidegold Bay, forcing the Union to send out the Invincible Fleet to deal with them. But after that, the old pirate king passed away and the new king announced he would no longer carry out raids at coastal areas. That allowed them to obtain trading permits with some coastal nations. They've become rich off their slave business in the decades since.
"Master, at the end of last year, Count Kenmays, Baron Shazin, and Baron Felim all went to Firmrock Castle to discuss the profits of the salt merchant committee. It was Supervisor Spiel and me who received them. During that time, I overheard that the second highness had suddenly taken a hard stance against the slave traders of the Hanayabarta kingdom. Quite a few slave traders who were buying slaves all the way from the Iblia kingdom to the four central duchies were captured at the borders of the Redlis and Andinaq kingdoms. Second Highness Auguslo ordered for them to be sent to the gallows without a second thought.
"Also, it is said that the Hanayabarta slave traders hate the second highness to the bone. The slave trade at the four duchies and the Iblia kingdom soon became less than ideal and is basically extinct there now. It was such that many nobles even approached the committee and asked us whether we were interested in dealing with slaves. All of them held grudges against the second highness for what they considered personal business, adversely affecting their income in the process.
"That's why, Milord, I think that the Hanayabarta kingdom's slave owners and traders were the ones who attacked Silowas. On the one hand, they intend to capture the tens of thousands of islanders as slaves. On the other hand, they want to exact revenge against the second highness's policies against them. They are not the least bit afraid of the retribution of our house either. It must be known that they are descendants of pirates. Add to that the fact that their nation spans several islands, they can't even wait for us to go there and try to avenge ourselves. They hold great terrain advantage and superiority at their islands, and it will be tough for us to fight against them on foreign ground..."
Bam! Lorist thumped heavily on the table before sitting down slowly, not exchanging any words with Potterfang.
After a long pause, he instructed, "Pog, make some reorganization with your heavy-armored division when your troops arrive tomorrow. After Dulles finishes grouping the three wheelbarrow-ballistae brigades, place him under your command as well. In another two days, the whaling crew will be back and I will have them start preparations to set sail. By the time Senbaud's fleet arrives, you will mobilize your troops and reinforce Silowas.
"If... If it really is as you had described, I suspect that the enemy would've long escaped by the time you arrive. Should that be the case, take care of the aftermath left on the island and await further orders. If there are any enemies left on the island, exterminate them immediately. Other than that, watch out for your safety. Wilson mentioned the presence of a blademaster among the enemy. Don't carelessly get into a fight alone with him, alright? Just order Dulles's wheelbarrow-ballistae brigades to deal with him."
Standing up straight, Potterfang said, "Yes, Milord."
"Come in!" called out Lorist towards the tent's entrance.
Howard walked in and said, "Milord, what is your will?"
He nodded slightly to his father as well.
"Howard, have someone go to Firmrock Castle and get Supervisor Spiel to bring me every map and piece of information he can find on the Hanayabarta kingdom archipelago to me," said Lorist.