Here's the third release of the week. I hope you enjoy it!
Seeing the knights in front approach, Reidy suddenly thought of something: where did his pursuers get their mounts? Even Blademaster Xanthi had to walk on her feet during the pursuit, so how were those knights able to find a mount? Unless they came from the other direction...
As expected, the knights ahead stopped before they reached him.
"Who are you and the others over there?" asked the knight.
Reidy squinted and realized the knights were bearing the tri-colored griffin insignia of the imperial family. In other words, they were knights of the Andinaq royal family and subordinates of the second highness.
While Lorist wasn't too fond of the second highness in private, officially he was still considered a duke of the kingdom.
Reidy breathed a sigh and slumped on the ground, before taking out a silver ragebear badge and announcing, "I'm a subordinate of the Duke of The Northlands and also a knight of House Norton. Those behind me are pursuers from the Shabaj and Handra duchies. Please help me get out of this predicament."
The pursuers were already approaching and saw Reidy with the knights and around a hundred soldiers. The duchy's men didn't rush towards the knights, they stopped to gather their comrades, letting honks of low baritone resonate across the landscape.
After seeing the soldiers pursuing Reidy's equipment, the mounted knights believed him.
One laughed and said, "Very well, we were just starting to feel rather. I didn't think the duchy would actually serve themselves on a platter like this. Brother, you did well. Let us handle them for you."
With a loud cry and a crack of the whip, the knight launched forward. His companions also joined the fray without fear. And so, the six knights stormed the snow-covered lands, leaving a trail of trodden snow in their wake.
"Hey! Come back, the enemy's main force isn't here yet! There are three blademasters behind them!" cried Reidy to the best of his ability.
None of the hot-blooded knights could hear his warning as they clashed with the several dozen duchy soldiers and began slaughtering away.
The clash between roughly 70 soldiers and six knights took place on a narrow path where the knights charged first. The soldiers couldn't get into proper formation in time and the scene that soon greeted them was nothing but nightmarish. More than 20 soldiers lay dead on the ground in a flash. The rest crumbled and attempted to escape. At that moment, they no longer cared about escaping the knights' slaughter, and instead focused on using their comrades to block their strikes so they could escape alive.
Reidy hurriedly stood up and waved his hands frantically. But the knights reveled too much in the killing and didn't bother with him. Either that or they thought he was actually cheering them on.
Soon, a figure clad in a black cloak suddenly cut in front of one of them. The latter didn't mind and merely pointed his lance at the figure's torso. To him, a mere footsoldier couldn't evade his strike and would end up skewered. However, a sword flashed and the knight felt the lance in his hand lighten by at least half. He saw his body fall to the ground, with the headless stump above his neck spurting blood all over his decapitated head. Just as he saw nothing but blood in front of him, a flash of a blade caused him to feel as if he were flying higher and higher in the sky as his consciousness faded into nothingness.
The knight's death was quickly noticed by his five comrades, who turned and charged angrily at the cloaked figure. With agile movements, the figure cut another knight in two and slashed the mount of a third. Its rider fell haphazardly to the ground. It didn't take long for a blade to meet his neck.
The first to charge quickly snapped out of it and yelled, "Run! It's a blademaster!"
Thus, the three remaining knights frantically escaped. The first didn't forget to grab hold of the reins of a mount whose master was cut apart. The figure in black didn't give chase either, probably as a result of being tired out during the confrontation with five knights. The figure remained at the same spot even after the three surviving knights made it back to Reidy.
The first knight breathed a sigh of relief when he saw the figure didn't give chase.
Instead, he asked Reidy with a grim face, "What did you do to have a blademaster on your tail?"
"Didn't you hear me calling you back just now? Let's go, quick. There are two other blademasters coming," answered he bitterly.
The three knights were instantly shocked.
"Yes. Let's move!" Reidy exclaimed, "That guy was Shabaj's blademaster. The two that aren't here are even more powerful."
"You should get mounted too. His Majesty is back there and also has a blademaster with him. If can get to him, all will be well," decided the first knight.
It went without saying that the soldiers who accompanied the knights on their scouting mission would have to turn tail right away after making it there, for the sake of their own lives no less.
"I need some food," said Reidy as he mounted the free horse.
While he didn't feel the chills despite his tattered clothing when on the run, the breeze that blew against him when he mounted the horse felt like blades of ice against his skin.
One knight tossed him a liquor flask. He gulped it down and felt his body warm up.
"Thanks. Now, where's His Majesty?"
"He's just ahead. We'll see him in about 30 minutes. We set up camp on a mound nearby," replied the knight.
"How many blademasters does His Majesty have with him? What are their ranks?"
"One rank 1 blademaster, Manst. But we have two gold-ranked knights and a regiment of roughly a thousand men."
"No way. His Majesty will also have to move soon as well. I don't think those forces can hold back the pursuers," said Reidy sincerely.
"Brother, I'm really curious, what did you do to make them send three blademasters after you. Heavens, even the empire's most wanted criminals didn't get this kind of treatment," the knight said, "Whatever, don't say if you don't feel like it. I doubt I'd like to hear you brag. It's better if you tell His Majesty yourself. I bet he would be interested. As for whether we'll retreat or not, that's up to His Majesty."
"Why did you guys come here in winter? You mentioned you were surveying?" Reidy remembered the complaints uttered by the knights earlier and understood the second highness was there to find a route he could use to go around the Centerlake Island citadel. Perhaps, he was trying to launch a surprise attack on the four central duchies.
It was no wonder the knights didn't really mind they were being chased by three blademasters. They knew since Reidy was able to escape and encounter them, he would surely be more familiar with the route through Egret Basin. If they brought him to the second highness, it would save them the trouble of surveying the route.
It was too bad even Reidy himself didn't know how he had gotten through Egret Basin. It was almost a miracle he managed to make it this far. He was at his wits' end and couldn't be bothered to memorize the route. He had only survived thanks to his amazing ability to adapt. He took quite a few risks to travel around by swinging from tree to tree through the swamplands. This was the sole reason he could maintain a good distance between him and his pursuers.
As expected, the second highness was quick to recognize Reidy when he arrived at the campsite.
"Aren't you Reidy, Lorist's eldest disciple? Why do you look so haggard?"
Reidy didn't bother with too many formalities and made a simple knight's salute.
"Your Majesty, I require a bath and fresh clothes as well as a meal before I can tell you my story."
After a bath, Reidy was brought to the second highness's tent. The monarch pointed to the table filled with food.
"You can eat as you tell me about it. My knights told me you had three blademasters chasing you. I'm really curious what caused all this."
Reidy wolfed down a piece of roast meat and took a huge gulp of wine before he spoke.
"I was traveling in the four central duchies and bumped into Duke Fisablen's envoy sent to forge an alliance between the two powers. I killed him, but he turned out to be the duke's nephew. They've been hunting me down ever since. I think it's been two months now."
"Two months?" the second highness exclaimed, shocked, "That can't be. If this were true, my informants should have noticed and notified me by now. I haven't a single word, not a whisper."
Reidy continued to stuff food down his throat.
"I'm telling the truth, Your Majesty. While Handra and Shabaj might attempt to hide the incident, I'm sure you can ask your informants whether they saw a wanted notice issued two months ago. I should be the one on the notice."
"Alright. So you killed an envoy and they don't intend to let you off. Since they've been chasing you for so long, I doubt they'd stop until they bring your head to Fisablen. Don't worry, you're safe now that you've made it here. The Handras and Shabaj duchies' blademasters aren't a concern," the second highness said casually, "I'm really curious how you managed to cross Egret Basin. I hope you can tell me."
Reidy shook his head.
"My apologies, Your Majesty, I'm afraid it won't be of much use. There's no way a group of soldiers can be led through the basin. I spent a whole month running from Handra to Shabaj before I entered Egret Basin. It took me another 20 days to make it here. I'm not familiar with the terrain, I just kept heading in the general direction of Egret Lake as best I could and circled around the swamps I came across. I've never considered actually crossing the swamps, and half the time I managed to find a route was thanks to luck.
"The three blademasters and their soldier had to rely on hunters that live nearby, many of whom brought hunting dogs with them. That's why they were able to track me for so long. They are all traveling on foot. Egret Basin can't be crossed with cavalry. Sending only infantry to attack the duchies isn't only risky, it's suicide."
Reidy wasn't wrong. The four central duchies were not like Frederika at all. With Frederika, one could reach the city in just a night after crossing Cloudsnap Mountains. But Egret Basin… even if the second highness brought tens of thousands of foot soldiers across, there was no city or town he could attack quickly. In fact, he'd be exposing his position and allowing the duchies' cavalry forces to wipe him out. Tens of thousands of infantrymen would still fall to the charge of mounted cavalry.
"What if we wait for winter to set in? Perhaps the swamps will freeze and we can take carriages with supplies as well?" asked the second highness stubbornly.
Reidy smiled bitterly.
"I doubt I'm qualified to answer this question. All I can suggest is that you seek out the hunters that live in the swamps and ask their advice."
"Well, that..." said the second highness hesitantly. There wasn't anybody living in the part of Egret Basin near the kingdom. The second highness couldn't consult anyone even if he wanted to. That was why he sent his subordinates out to scout in the first place.
"Oh, didn't you say the duchy's soldiers you found natives living in the vicinity with hunting dogs? I just have to capture one and ask them, right?" said the second highness after he thought up his magnificent idea.
"Your Majesty," Reidy sighed, "I think it's best you worry about your safety first and retreat. While the blademasters of Shabaj and Handra aren't much -- I can easily take more than a hundred strikes from either of them one on one -- Duke Fisablen sent his lover, Blademaster Xanthi. That old hag's moves are rather odd. Even though she was already a rank 2 blademaster a few years back, I couldn't even take one of her strikes during our last encounter.
"Your Majesty's the leader of a kingdom and bears a heavy responsibility. Since you only brought a thousand men to scout the swamp, I worry the old hag will target you when she finds out. To be frank, I doubt these soldiers can take the combined assault of three blademasters. If anything bad happens to you, the kingdom will be gone."
All of a sudden, a figure of a stern old man appeared in the tent. It was Blademaster Manst, the second highness's protector. When Reidy first entered the tent, he could tell there was another light set of breathing.
Blademaster Manst looked at Reidy in a flabbergasted manner. The latter stared back curiously.
"You fought Blademaster Xanthi and didn't manage to receive even one of her strikes?" he asked after a moment.
Angered, the old man exclaimed, "Nonsense. If you couldn't even take one strike, you would've been dead! How could you have escaped?!"
Reidy got angry.
"Are you calling me a liar?" he shouted, "Old man, take a closer look. The wounds on my chest, shoulder, and thigh were all left by that old woman. I only managed to escape because I jumped into a nearby river."
Blademaster Manst inspected Reidy's wounds closely and sighed before he turned to the second highness.
"Your Majesty, it's best if we retreat for now. If Blademaster Xanthi comes, I doubt I can protect you."
"Aren't you about to break through to the second rank soon?" the second highness asked, surprised, "Do you think you can't match Blademaster Xanthi?"
The old man nodded.
"Your Majesty, I'm still only just preparing to break through. Blademaster Xanthi has been at the second rank for twenty years. I could tell her swordsmanship has improved considerably from this guy's wounds. To be honest, I doubt I can last ten strikes. For your safety, I think it's best if Your Majesty returns to the main camp..."
Before he finished, an alarm sounded outside the tent. The enemy was already here.