Right after they exited the tent, they heard the loud cry of an eagle from afar. Upon raising their heads, they saw a large golden eagle flying past campgrounds into the distance.
"I didn't think a place like Egret Lake would be home to such a magnificent gold eagle," the second highness praised, "It's a shame we don't have the time to go check out where its nest is."
Reidy was completely flabbergasted that the second highness could still spare attention for something as so trivial despite the presence of three blademasters and the duchy's forces.
Given that he had already experienced his fair share of battles and had lots of experience, the second highness didn't just set up his camp casually. He chose a hill that only had a small path leading to the peak. The area around the mound was muddy and uneven with peaks and troughs up to tens of meters. While it made it easier to defend, it also meant the enemy could overwhelm the defenders and trap them on the hill.
The two duchies' soldiers gathered in the distance with a few men, probably silver-ranked knights, giving instructions from the front. Not far away, three blademasters with differently colored cloaks stood on a small mound to take a good look at the army camp. Even they hadn't expected to bump into the Andinaq kingdom's king here during winter. However, they quickly understood why the second highness had come.
"Ptooey! This stupid king really won't give up until he ends the four central duchies! He even came here to scout a path in this kind of weather? Fortunately, he bumped into us. It doesn't look like he brought many troops with him. Should we go mess with him?" asked the blademaster from Shabaj hatefully.
The Handra blademaster analyzed the camp.
"It seems our luck is rather good. The king didn't bring a lot of men with him, only about a thousand. Our duchies have deployed a regiment each. We should have double their number. The king will have brought men stronger than our own, though, and we're the attackers, so we're at a disadvantage. Also, the soldiers sent with us are here on a capture mission. They don't have equipment suited for attacking an entrenched position. If we insist on taking the hill, we'll have to suffer lots of casualties.
"There should be a blademaster by the king's side at all times. If that cursed Norton boy joins hands with the blademaster, it'll be enough to deal with the two of us. The only advantage we have is Blademaster Xanthi and House Fisablen's silver-ranked guards. If she's willing to step in, I believe the king will definitely regret leaving his main force behind."
The Handra blademaster seemed far more clear-headed than the other. He understood Xanthi was the one in charge in the end, so he didn't bother to think up any plans. Neither he nor the Shabaj blademaster could take 100 of Xanthi's strikes even while working together. He wondered whether she might have broken through the rank 3 already.
Xanthi was also checking out the camp. When she heard the two blademasters talk, she turned around.
"I have two questions. First, are you certain the Norton boy managed to make it to the camp? Second, did the escaped knights and soldiers send anyone to pass on the message?" asked she.
Xanthi was worried the second highness had already sent for reinforcements. If that were the case and they didn't act fast, they would eventually be swamped by the main force. Even a rank 2 blademaster like her couldn't face waves of formations one after the other. If one didn't care about casualties, it was indeed possible to kill blademasters by sending waves of men into the grinder.
"I am certain the boy made it," the Shabaj blademaster said before he called a few soldiers over, "After seeing the Andinaq kingdom knights and soldiers retreat, these men tailed them all the way to their camp. Let them describe the situation to you."
The leader of the soldiers bowed.
"Revered Blademasters, when we arrived, we saw our target enter the camp with a few other knights. The rest of their soldiers soon entered the camp and the gates were closed. They haven't opened since. I left two men behind to continue monitoring the situation while I circled the hill with the rest of my men. The surrounding area has mounds upwards of 10 meters high. We couldn't climb into the camp, but those inside can't escape either."
"You did well," Xanthi nodded kindly, "I will remember your contributions."
The leader was so excited his face turned red. He bowed hurriedly before leaving. He didn't know that Xanthi had only made the comment off-handedly. She would've asked for the soldier's name if she really wanted to remember his deed.
Xanthi looked at the hill once more.
"Since we've already been on the chase for so long, we should see it through all the way. At least we won't return humiliated. Also, somehow we had the chance to meet that king and I happen to want to invite him to take a trip to the duchies. I'm sure your dukes would be incredibly welcoming of the king's visit."
Since Xanthi was willing to lend a hand, the matter would be concluded swiftly. The Handra and Shabaj blademasters called their two regiment leaders over and gave their instructions: they were to send three hundred archers to surround the other three sides of the hill and prevent anyone from leaving by rope and calling for reinforcements. The rest of the duchies' soldiers would gather at the main path leading up to the hill to cook and rest. At the same time, another group of soldiers would be sent to fell trees for wood to use as shields for the upcoming assault.
"Your Majesty, I think they're preparing to take action," said Gold-ranked Knight Ripleid with a solemn expression.
The second highness, Blademaster Manst, and Reidy all stood behind the camp's large wooden door and looked at the droves of enemies. They were as scurrying ants.
"Your Majesty, that person with the black cloak in the middle is Blademaster Xanthi. She's the shortest one. The other black-cloaked person beside her, the taller one, is the Shabaj blademaster. I don't know what he's called. He isn't that strong anyway. I fought him for over a hundred strikes and he wasn't able to do anything to me. The guy in the grey is the Handra blademaster. He's a bit stronger than the Shabaj one. I think he's called Bill-something," introduced Reidy.
"Billjack. We met on the battlefield once in Redlis," the second highness mused, "He isn't a match for Manst. If your claim of being able to hold the Shabaj blademaster, leave Billjack to Manst. I need to find a way to prevent Xanthi from breaking through our defenses. Great, this will be quick. Ripleid."
"I await your orders, Your Majesty," replied Ripleid as he came to attention.
"We brought a thousand man regiment this time around," the second highness continued after a moment of thoughtful silence, "Including the servants and laborers, we have roughly 1100 people in total. There's also the three gold-ranked knights: You, Molva, and I. Fortunately, we have 500 longbowmen, 200 shield bearers, and 300 pikemen. It's enough to force a blademaster of the third rank back.
"Ripleid, split the longbowmen into five groups and take up the pentagon formation by the entrance. Next, match the shield bearers and pikemen into groups of ten. They will be in charge of holding Xanthi's assault back and limiting the battlespace to force her into range of our longbowmen. As for you, Molva and I, we will each take five silver-ranked knights. Once Xanthi evades the arrow volleys, we'll charge in to force her back into the longbowmen's range,0 understood?"
"Yes, Your Majesty. I will start preparing now," replied Ripleid as he left in a hurry.
Reidy looked at the knight's back curiously.
"Your Majesty, will you be able to deal with a rank 2 blademaster like this?"
"Of course," the second highness laughed, "The combination of many normal soldiers and formations allows us to deal with high-tier fighters. It's a lesson we've learned from the centuries of warfare the empire has under its belt. As long as we stand our ground without escaping, we can even teach blademasters a lesson or two. Don't the Norton forces have a similar formation?"
"Well..." Reidy scratched his head embarrassedly, "Your Majesty, our forces have never run into situations like these before. We haven't had to do anything about it. Usually, when there's a blademaster in battle, His Grace would go out and deal with the threat himself. All our forces have to deal with are normal soldiers, whom are far from our match."
The second highness was shocked.
"What did you say?! Locke deals with blademasters personally?! I-I-Isn't he unable to break through to the silver rank?!"
"Actually, Your Majesty, my teacher trains in the ways of the ancient eastern combat monks. That's why his battleforce has always remained at the iron rank. However, most rank 2 blademasters aren't his match. Back when we defeated the second prince's 100 thousand troops, His Grace defeated Blademaster Xanthi once," said Reidy.
"You were serious when you said you could face the Shabaj blademaster?" pressed the second highness.
"Yes, Your Majesty. Teacher taught me the ancient eastern combat method as well. While my battleforce is stuck at the silver rank and I can no longer improve it, I defeated seven gold-ranked fighters at Duke Fisablen's knighthood tournament and won the championship," replied Reidy honestly.
"Very good. Since that's the case, I'm confident I can hold the camp. Reidy, you'll be in charge of dealing with Biljack. You just have to stall him, I'll let Manst deal with the weakest blademaster so we can take him out of the picture or at least wound him as quickly as possible. He'll help you out with Billjack. As long as those two blademasters are defeated, we'll stand a chance against Xanthi. Looking at the skies, I predict there'll be a snowstorm in a day or two. Given that the enemy didn't bring any resources to weather the winter, we'll see how they fare when the snow falls," said the second highness in high spirits without the slightest worry for the busy enemy troops at the foot of the hill.
The enemy rested for roughly four hours after lunch before launching their first attack. The duchy soldiers had originally intended to establish a foothold on the hillward path, but it had two sharp turns that exposed them to arrow fire even after they deployed their wooden shields. The first offensive was forced to retreat, leaving a trail of roughly 50 corpses.
It was evident even from the camp that they paid a hefty price for retreating without orders. The first six were beheaded publicly. After regrouping, the second attack was launched. It was worth noting that the two duchy blademasters had joined the group.
"Let them come. Have the longbowmen look out for Xanthi and fire whenever she makes a move. Make sure she isn't allowed to come here no matter what. I leave the two blademasters to you two. Manst, Reidy, don't let me down. As for the other small fry, I hope you'll deal with them, Ripleid. Instruct the shield bearers to keep an eye out for the enemy's longbowmen," barked the second highness as he watched the enemy climb the hill.
"Understood, Your Majesty."
The two blademasters didn't expect their advance to go unopposed. They arrived at the camp gates without much effort at all. They couldn't help but wonder why. They had been expecting to be hit by a volley of arrows like before; the reason the two blademasters came up with the rest of the soldiers in the first place was to nullify the damage the longbowmen could do so Xanthi could make a sudden follow-up attack. But when they saw Reidy and Manst stepping out to receive them, they knew that their plan had gone awry.
There were only a little over a hundred duchy soldiers accompanying the two blademasters. Thanks to the wooden shields were already deployed, there were only ten or so shield bearers and longbowmen among their ranks, alongside 20 or so pikemen with the rest empty-handed. Given they had to hold wooden shields with both hands, they could only draw the daggers and shortswords they brought with them. Faced with Ripleid and five other knights' charge, all they could do was cry out in terror as they were cut down. A massacre.
The two blademasters were barely holding on against Reidy and Manst's savage assault. They could only hope for Xanthi's assistance. They didn't see that two of Xanthi's attempts to get up the hill was halted by volleys of arrows.
The second highness commanded his 500 archers to fire relentlessly at Xanthi to good effect. He didn't order them to shoot at Xanthi herself, but instead at the spots where Xanthi would land from a leap. She was forced to jump around like a circus monkey and couldn't gain much ground.
After Xanthi was forced back for the third time, she picked up a wooden shield, enrage, and ran up the hill. She got about halfway before the shield was shattered -- no longer able to withstand the concentrated volleys of arrows -- and she was forced back once more. All things considered, her physical constitution as a female and light, speedy sword style, it wasn't within her capabilities to rush uphill with a wooden shield like a barbarian. In fact, the second highness would welcome several more attempts -- having the archers fire at one concentrated spot was far more effective. The combined force of 100 arrows against the wooden shield was not something a normal person could bear.
"Agh!" cried Shabaj's blademaster as he clutched his right side with his left hand, bleeding from Manst's strike.
"What's up with you?" asked Billjack after he forced Reidy away and headed to his partner.
"I got hit over here, but such a small scratch won't kill me. Is Blademaster Xanthi here yet?" asked Shabaj's blademaster with grit teeth.
Billjack took a glance at the foot of the hill before hurriedly turning back to block an attack.
"What's going on? Why isn't she rushing up?" wondered he.
Seeing their enemies already on the brink of breaking down, Manst and Reidy intensified their attacks in a desperate attempt to force the blademasters to remain. Billjack protected his companion as he retreated slowly until he reached the side of the hill.
All of a sudden, Billjack threw his longsword towards Manst and used the opening it created to roll down the hill with his comrade in his arms. Reidy leaped down and struck out with his sword. He managed to land a cut on Billjack's left thigh.
"Ugh!" cried the two blademasters as they rolled down the hill before the duchies' soldiers dragged them to safety.
"What a shame. I didn't think those two would actually use such a method to escape. If we had a squad of archers on standby, they'd have been pincushions by now," the second highness said, slightly regretful, "Then again, it's already a better result than I hoped for. Those two have been incapacitated, so let's see how Xanthi plans to make her way up here by herself."
When evening came, snow began drifting down from the grey sky like the feathers of a swan.