Here's this week's last release! It's been really busy for me with my tests lately, but I'm glad I can still keep up with the rate!
Even though the second highness felt like crying, he didn't even have the tears to do so. Corpses lay sprawled all over the bloodied ground covered in a thick layer of snow. The soldiers fortunate enough to survive were flipping around the corpses of their comrades in hopes of finding other injured survivors.
The sky seemed to glitter as the snow fell. The snowflakes were no longer as large as a swan's feather, though. The dark of the sky stood in stark contrast with the pure white on the ground, so bright it almost seemed eye-piercing. One look would bring tears to the eyes.
The second highness looked at the enemy camp with bloodshot eyes. Over there was a large bonfire and songs and cheers of the victorious. Within a single bone-chilling night of snow when both armies unable to fight, Blademaster Xanthi actually scaled the sides of the hill to enter the campsite using a human ladder. Her sudden appearance caught the second highness and his silver-ranked knights off-guard, allowing her to slaughter away in the camp.
Ripleid came over wearing a thick bandage on his head that covered the cut. It looked just like a large hat. It was the mark Xanthi had left him. If her cut had been the slightest bit lower, not only would Ripleid have lost an eye, his face might also have ended up disfigured.
"We just finished the casualty count, Your Majesty," said Ripleid, kneeling.
"Out with it. I'm listening."
"There are 189 casualties among the longbowmen, 128 of whom are dead. The other 61 are no longer combat capable. The pikemen suffered the worst of it. Of the three squads, there are 247 dead. The remaining 53 are mostly injured. Only 45 shield bearers died with another 51 injured. We only have one combat capable squad remaining. Twenty-two of our servants and laborers were killed as well," reported Ripleid as he read the beastskin in his hand.
The second highness waved his hand, annoyed.
"How are our knights?"
"We only have seven silver-ranked knights left. Even Knight Molva was injured. He wasn't as lucky as me. He needs three months to recover. Blademaster Manst is fine, but Reidy of suffered another injury to his shoulder."
"In other words, we lost about half our combat strength in a single night," sighed the second highness.
"This isn't your fault, Your Majesty. None of us thought the enemy would attack from the sides of the hill. The two squads of longbowmen we stationed at the gates were useless."
"I've always been known for my surprise attacks, but after last night, I finally get to know how it feels to be on the receiving end. It was due to my carelessness alone. I forgot I wasn't dealing with normal soldiers, but a rank 2 blademaster instead. Had I not been numbed by the victory yesterday and thought everything was under control... I should've understood that one shouldn't follow the common train of thought when dealing with blademasters. If I had thought of this earlier, I could've set a trap in the camp and bit back at Xanthi instead of sustaining such terrible losses," said the second highness with a raspy laugh.
"Your Majesty, you shouldn't blame yourself. It is we, your subordinates, who were incompetent and unable to resist the enemy. Given we already lost most of our forces, I was thinking it's about time we handed Reidy to the enemies and come to an agreement to stop fighting. After all, they came here for that kid and even chased him for so long," expressed Ripleid after seeing that nobody else was around.
The second highness laughed bitterly.
"Ripleid, I understand you make this suggestion out of your loyalty for me and consideration for my safety. But you don't seem to understand that their target changed to me the moment they saw my banner. This matter will not end if we hand Reidy over. Also, as the king, while I can allow my own knights to make sacrifices for my sake, I can definitely not surrender my loyal servants to the enemy for a truce. This is something that goes against the honor of being a king."
Seeing Ripleid attempt once more to convince him, the second highness waved his hand.
"I know your thoughts. You're going to say that even though the Nortons are on our side on the surface, that's not actually the case, right? I know he's let my hopes down a number of times, but he's still a duke of the kingdom and has already paid his dues. Even if there's conflict between the two of us, it's only one concerning our goals. What he cares about is the wellbeing of his subjects, while I want to reunite the former empire.
"You should respect the duke, Ripleid. Even though Reidy isn't my knight, I have the duty to ensure his safety. Reidy is Locke's eldest disciple that trains in the ancient combat arts of the eastern monks like he does. This goes to show how heavily Locke regards this disciple of his. As long as we can tough this predicament through, I am almost certain the duke will make it up to us. You don't need to convince me anymore. Make your preparations, our enemy will attack the moment the snow lets up."
Ripleid bowed deeply before leaving wordlessly.
Just as the second highness predicted, the skies brightened as noon approached. Snow fell no more and the duchies' soldiers below the hill made their preparations to attack. With high morale, they got into formation and prepared to scale the hill once more. Xanthi stood at the very front of the formation with tens of House Fisablen's silver-ranked guards behind her holding wooden shields.
Perhaps, this will be the last battle.
The second highness had the remaining 80 or so longbowmen split into four smaller squads. He no longer had the confidence to halt Xanthi's advance. Blademaster Manst stood beside him with a stern expression, prepared to resist Xanthi should she come over. While he didn't manage to fight her during the night attack, he knew there was no way he could match her.
Reidy was standing next to Manst with his shoulder heavily bandaged, the cloth died red with blood. It was the mark Xanthi left after the previous night's attack. While he managed to parry two of her strikes, the third struck his shoulder. Had it not been for Manst's prompt reinforcement, the next attack would have killed him.
Ripleid and the seven remaining knights formed the last shock troop unit. The second highness had left Reidy and Manst in charge of holding Xanthi back. Apart from the eight knights, everyone was there to deal with Xanthi alone. The knights had to hold the 2000 or so soldiers back. It was practically a suicide mission given the odds. Even if the duchies' soldiers are really that weak, sheer numbers was enough to make up for the difference. The only question was how much damage Ripleid and the knights could cause.
The bright cry of an eagle sounded in the skies once more. It was the majestic gold eagle they saw the previous day. It was circling the area.
Blademaster Manst gave it a regretful look.
"This eagle's rather intelligent. It knows a battle will break out soon and it'll have enough corpses to feed on later."
The second highness laughed.
"Blademaster Manst, you're mistaken. Only vultures and crows like to feed on corpses. Gold eagles are majestic, they won't feed on corpses. I bet it's here just because it's curious why there're so many people down here. After all, Egret Basin should usually be rather quiet, especially during winter."
After the low hum of a horn blown at the bottom of the hill, the battle began.
The first wave of attacks ended within thirty short minutes with Xanthi unable to wreak much havoc. Even though she managed to make it to the top of the hill, she didn't think the second highness would have everyone in the camp target her. Given that it was daytime, she wasn't able to hide easily like she could in the dark of night. Under the second highness's flawless instructions, the soldiers forced the blademaster to retreat after seeing that she couldn't achieve much.
Ripleid and the eight knights were sweating non-stop. They had just managed to stop the soldiers from advancing with the help of tens of servants so they didn't have to charge out yet. They just had to throw lumber down the mound to break the formations on the slope, scrambling their ranks and disrupting their synergy with Xanthi.
After half an hour of rest, the soldiers at the base of the hill prepared for another attack. This time around, Xanthi no longer tried to enter the camp herself. It seemed she intended to join the soldiers in the climb up the slope so he wouldn't be the focal point of the second highness's attack. But right after the duchies' soldiers were given their briefing, loud cries sounded from afar. They rumbled the ears.
Almost everyone looked in the direction of a snowy slope to the north. Nobody knew when a silhouette appeared there. The person had two long and thin pieces of wood strapped to both feet with each hand holding a black, curved stick. The silhouette pushed against the ground with the sticks and soared down the slope. It really did look like flight to the second highness. He never imagined anyone could travel down such a steep slope so quickly and only leave a trail of lines behind.
Normally, one would have to walk down the slope step by step or roll downwards horizontally. But the latter method wouldn't work when the slope was littered with rocks. Yet, the figure swerving down the slope could change direction swiftly and made it to the bottom in a few blinks of the eye.
"We're saved! We're saved! His Grace is here!"
The second highness' eyes widened.
"That… That's Locke? The Duke of The Northlands?"
"Yes, it's my teacher, the Duke of The Northlands, Norton Lorist! Your Majesty, there's no need to worry anymore. We're safe now," stammered Reidy.
"Nonsense, he can't deal with more than two thousand soldiers by himself, right? Xanthi is also here. I worry Duke Norton will be in danger as well. It's best to have him join up with us and face the enemy together," said Ripleid with rolled eyes.
Just like the second highness, he had never seen Lorist fight before and treated all the rumors about Lorist's ability as tall tales. For example, the second highness even though word of Lorist fighting at the frontlines himself was just a rumor made to boost the morale of his troops. There was no way an iron rank like Lorist was brave enough to try a stunt like that.
"Don't utter crap if you don't know my teacher," Reidy snapped, glaring at Ripleid, "His Grace would never do anything he wasn't confident he could do. Since he dares to attack the enemies down there, it means he doesn't even consider them a threat. Apart from Xanthi, the rest are only small fry to him."
Ignorant of what those on the hill were discussing, Lorist continued to advance towards the formation of duchy soldiers. Blademaster Billjack was the first to be bothered by Lorist's sudden appearance. Even though he had suffered a strike from Reidy on his left thigh, he was only slightly hampered, unlike the Shabaj blademaster, who was injured on the right side of his torso and laid resting back at the camp. While he wasn't in danger of dying, he needed at least three months to recover.
Dragging his injured leg along, Billjack limped forward, drew his sword, and called out, "Stop! Who goes there?! Announce your identity and purpose!"
"Idiot..." Lorist didn't bother to decelerate and handed the stick in his right hand to his left before he drew the longsword hanging by his waist.
Since the newcomer was definitely an enemy, Billjack roared and positioned his injured leg to his back with his right leg in front as he turned the sword in his hand into a bolt of lightning and cast it in Lorist's direction.
Clang! The loud clash of swords reverberated throughout in the area, yet, Lorist's longsword didn't fall to the ground like everyone expected. Lorist had flicked his wrist and positioned his sword horizontally as he swooped past the blademaster.
Billjack remained standing in an odd position. A cold breeze blew by and the onlookers realized his figure shook from the wind. His head fell to the ground, rolling, before his headless body collapsed, dying the snow red.
Billjack was beheaded with only one strike. Almost all the soldiers gasped in complete shock and took an unconscious step back. They realized someone far stronger than Xanthi had arrived. Even she required three or four moves to defeat Billjack, this had been confirmed by some of their earlier sparring sessions.
Lorist circled around and stopped in front of Xanthi like nobody's business before he stuck the two sticks into the ground and took off the skis tied to his feet. He removed his scarf and smiled.
"It's my pleasure to meet you here, Blademaster Xanthi."
"How can it be you? Lorist? Why have you come here? Did you forget that y-you're the Duke of The Northlands?" exclaimed she, shocked.
Lorist furrowed his brow.
"So what? What stops me from coming over? Even His Majesty is here. Why can a duke like me not come to receive him? I also heard you've been taking care of my trouble-making disciple, so I came here to show you my gratitude."
"Oh, really? That's very nice of you," Xanthi said before she laughed wryly.
Her expression turned serious and she drew her sword.
"Enough with your nonsense. Norton brat, since you dared to come here today, don't think I'll let you go back in one piece! En garde!"
Becoming one with her sword, Xanthi closed in on Lorist in an instant.