A man removed the scarf obstructing his face. White puffs burst from his mouth as he did so.
"We've arrived at Egret Basin, Your Grace," said he.
It was the 11th day of the 12th month. Winter. A small round of snow had just fallen. The landscape was covered in a patchwork of white and ailing green.
"Your Grace. We received a messenger eagle from our informant in Shabaj. So far, the hunting party at Egret Basin still hasn't caught Sir Reidy. Instead, they ended up with carriage after carriage of injured troops. The informant managed to get word from them and learned they were still playing catch with Sir Reidy. He's become their demon. Nobody could resist his assaults apart from the three blademasters. Duke Shabaj also sent a regiment and a few hundred carriages filled with supplies, presumably in preparation for the hunting party's stay for winter," reported Tarkel as he read the thin cloth he took out from the small bamboo capsule.
Beside him was a heavily bearded man on horseback, on whose shoulder an eagle that looked rather warm perched as it swallowed the meat the man fed it.
Taking a look at the endless wildlands, Lorist slipped off his mount and pulled down the black scarf covering his face, "Map..."
He had brought three regiments of his personal guard, 1500 men in total. However, only thirty or so were beside him right now. Lorist couldn't afford to wait for the whole troupe to arrive, which would take three hours; he was too worried for Reidy's safety.
The heavily dressed Howard hurriedly dismounted, took a map out of his backpack, and called a few guards to hold it open.
Their guide, Jisan, took a swig of alcohol from his bronze flask, complained about the horrible weather, and walking to Lorist's side. After he looked at the map, he pointed.
"Your Grace, we're currently here. It'll take us half a day to reach Redtree Citadel. It's the only checkpoint we have to cross along this road. Both sides of the motte the citadel was built on are swamps that won't freeze even in winter. Apart from a small muddy road that only allows a carriage to pass, there are no ways to go around Redtree Citadel unless we take this detour from here."
"You're saying we don't have to go through Redtree Citadel if we use this road?" asked Lorist.
"Indeed, Your Grace. I, Jisan, am actually quite famous around these swamps. I know the routes here like the back of my hand. Honestly speaking, if Your Grace had hired any other guide, they would've been walking blind in winter. I, on the other hand, know where the swamp freezes up and where we shouldn't enter. This is all thanks to my 30 years of experience. I've been living here with my father since I was young and if I didn't learn a trick or two, I would've died many times over," said the old man as his voice coarsened from the strong liquor.
"Hehe, that's precisely why we hired you, Jisan. I just hope you're worth the fee. I'm sure you know we're here to find someone," said Tarkel.
"Oh, a search," Jisan said as he recalled something.
He turned to Tarkel, "Sir, if you're looking for someone, you should tell me roughly where they are. How did they enter and did they leave any traces or signs? Egret Basin is so big I doubt I'd be of much help without a single lead."
"Well, Mister Jisan, the person we're looking for entered the basin from Shabaj, and we think he's heading to Egret Lake. The duchy is our enemy and they sent out a search party to hunt for him, so we had no choice but to enter the basin from here. He probably didn't leave any markings, but even if he did, they were probably destroyed by his pursuers. If anything, he'd leave a circle with a cross or a picture of a bear at the lower right part of a rock or a tree. But don't worry, we have a rough idea how to locate him. We just need you to lead the way across the swamp," said Lorist.
"Ah, Your Grace, you don't have to be so formal with me. Just call me by my name. It's my pleasure to be of service," said he, a little surprised and glad after being addressed as 'mister'.
"Yes, Your Grace," Tarkel said as he turned around, "Morbinghan, we're counting on you."
The old man called Morbinghan was a bearded man with a white mop on his head. Though he looked old, he seemed far more energetic than most people his age. The old man dressed in hunting garb smiled after he heard Tarkel.
"Your Grace, leave it to me."
He lifted a large cage from the back of his horse and opened it, letting a huge eagle out onto his arm.
A cold breeze blew by, causing the eagle to flap its wings twice as it looked around.
"What a huge gold eagle!" cried Jisan.
"You've seen gold eagles before?" asked Morbinghan as he stroked his bird's feathers. The eagle seemed almost human. It scratched Morbingham's chest lightly with its talons.
"Little Inkfeather here has been with me for more than 17 years. When I picked it up at the bottom of a cliff, it still didn't have any feathers, it had likely hatched just hours earlier. I don't know how it fell, but, fortunately, it was still alive. I brought it home and treated it as my third son and spent our years together."
"Mister! Morbinghan! Snap out of it and let the eagle do its job! We can listen to your stories over some alcohol after we find our man, alright? We'll definitely listen to it even after you've repeated it for the thousandth time, alright?" beckoned Tarkel worryingly.
Morbinghan's eyes regained some clarity. He glared at Tarkel.
"What's there to rush? If I don't let the eagle get used to the air, it'll flop, fall, and die. Give it a minute."
"You're planning to let the gold eagle find your man?" Jisan asked curiously, "How does it work? Does he know the guy?"
"It doesn't," Lorist answered, "While finding a single individual would be difficult even for eagles, spotting a group isn't an issue, especially on the relatively empty swamps. The one we're looking for is wanted and pursued, so all the eagle has to do is to bring us to them. At the very least, we'll be much closer to the one we're looking for. Oh, Morbinghan, look for a campsite or something with your eagle. They should have set up something similar in this weather."
"I will have Inkfeather search in the lake's direction. Don't worry, we'll definitely find SIr Reidy," replied Morbinghan respectfully.
Morbinghan was a special advisor to Furybear. He used his years of experience to train messenger eagles. His eldest son was a Norton knight and took care of the messenger eagle department, while his second son was still at the bronze rank. Once he makes it to the silver rank, he would also be made a household knight. Morbinghan had the same status as Grandmaster Julian, he hoped to make more contributions to the house and eventually be made a landed noble.
After a good while, Morbinghan finally released his eagle. It circled the skies for a while before flying towards Egret Lake.
"Alright. Jisan, let's head west as well. I count on you to tell me where I should and shouldn't go," said Lorist after his eyes returned to the earth.
"This... Your Grace, we'll have to leave our horses here and travel on foot," Jisan said after some hesitation, "Some parts of the swamp can't be traversed on horseback. While bringing them along would be fine, we can't ride them. If one of us accidentally rides into a mud pit, we'll be submerged before we could even cry for help."
"No worries. You're the guide. I leave the final word to you," Lorist said with a smile, "Els, have two people stay here and watch the horses. They are to wait for the rest. The rest of you, make sure to bring enough necessities and a few workhorses along. We leave first. Order Park and Shuss to set up camp here and prepare to send reinforcements."
"Understood, Your Grace," replied Els.
Reidy found himself completely cornered.
When he disappeared in Demongrass Swamp a week ago, he managed to get two days' rest and recover some energy with the rations he'd looted. His wounds had also sealed and the situation seemed okay. He hadn't expected Xanthi to actually set fire to the swamp.
While the grass was still green even during winter thanks to the water, he understood they would be baked dry and set aflame easily even with the smallest fires. On a day with strong wind, the fire would spread quickly over the grass in the vicinity. He had to take his leave right away.
If Demongrass Swamp was said to resemble a rhombus, his little wooden raft would be a third of the distance to the center. He still had some time to row it to shore. Fortunately for him, the water-filled grass let out lots of pungent smoke, which he could use to his advantage and escape out of sight and prevent the hunting dogs from catching his scent.
However, the wind was a little too strong and made the fire to burn wildly. Even though he tried to hurry himself up, he couldn't as his little raft had been entangled by some of the grass stems in the mud. He had no choice but to use his sword to cut them off. By the time the fire was already behind him, the little raft was still roughly five meters from shore. In front of him was a thick wall of grass that prevented his raft from advancing.
He held the oar he used to row the boat and tied it up tightly with a pike. Seeing its roughly three-meter length, he used all his energy to plunge the long contraption into the grass, leaving only a few inches of it above the muddy waters. He clutched his longsword, took a deep breath, and leaped. His right foot landed accurately on the exposed part of the oar-pike stick. The stick slipped slightly and he fell. But right before his foot touched the water, he had already gained enough of a footing to propel himself once more. With a loud splash, he landed in a puddle of mud just beside the shore.
His upper body was on the shore while both his legs laid on a thick bunch of grass stems. While he could use it as a footing, he didn't dare to stand up. The direction the wind was blowing made the smoke travel towards the shore. It was nearly impossible to breath standing up. With his pursuers waiting for him long the shore nowhere to be seen, he cut off the grass that tangled his legs and crawled forward, trying his best to breathe in as little smoke as possible.
Demongrass Swamp burned for a whole day before the lake's surface could be seen once more. Reidy managed to escape the encirclement thanks to the darkness of night and made his way to Egret Lake as stealthily as possible. As his pursuers didn't know for sure whether he had hidden within Demongrass Swamp, he had an extra night to escape. The next day, however, the small raft was discovered half sunken near the shore, allowing his pursuers to determine where he was heading.
He had already predicted his pursuers would notice the traces he left. As he wasn't too familiar with the swampy terrain, he didn't manage to make it far in the night. He had to circle around quite a number of swampy areas without gaining much distance, so his pursuers were back on his tail just three short hours later.
Even so, they were still separated by a large swamp. He gave his pursuers the middle finger -- an insulting gesture he learned from Lorist -- and relaxed when he saw Blademaster Xanthi not giving chase.
His pursuers were unable to find a method to cross the swamp. The night before, Reidy had somehow managed to cross it by following the tree roots on the ground. Since they weren't too far apart, the pursuing soldiers fired volleys of arrows at him, causing the latter to miss the bow he left at the raft. Right now, he had no ability to retaliate. After cursing a few more times, he resumed his escape.
He ran out of rations two days later. Had it not been for the trail the water rats left on the snow, he wouldn't have been able to locate their nest. He feasted on them to fill his stomach and had a good night's rest. He would have already collapsed from exhaustion otherwise.
Not a lot of snow fell during the night, however. When the sun rose on the next day, his pursuers and their hunting dogs quickly caught his trail, forcing him to go on the run once more. When he finally arrived at a place near Egret Lake, he despaired when he saw a large troupe of soldiers with a dozen knights waiting for him. Sandwiched between two groups of enemies, Reidy laughed bitterly and drew his sword. As his teacher once said, 'kill one, make up for the loss; kill two, profit by one.' It was time to see how much 'profit' he could make with his life.