Rakuin no Monshou:Volume6 Chapter1
Chapter 1: Tempest
Esmena, the daughter of Taúlia’s governor-general Ax Bazgan, was under a canopy that was set up the on the rooftop of the hall.
Dawn was close at hand.
“Princess, won’t you be returning soon?”
The young lady’s maid accompanying her asked while looking as though she was stifling her yawns. It was no wonder. Upon suddenly awakening up at midnight, her mistress had immediately left her room. Thinking that it might be one of her usual fits, the ladies’ maids had hurriedly chased after her without even changing their clothes. “I can’t sleep. I will go for a breath of fresh air,” Esmena had said, seeming rather puzzled at their flustered state. In the end, the youngest of her ladies’ maids had accompanied her.
The inner quarters and the palace were connected by a long corridor that was guarded night and day. As had been the custom since long ago, the paths to the inner palace other than the corridor were blocked by the moat, in exchange for which, one could proceed through the corridor into the palace and directly to the throne room. As a relic from when the inner quarters had still been barred to men, when women came to the castle, they tried as much as possible to remain out of sight.
On the rooftop, as well Esmena and the lady's maid, a single guard on night watch stood in each of the parapets on either side.
Wispy clouds drifted across the sky. The stars that were disappearing behind the hazy light of dawn twinkled as though gasping for breath.
Esmena's eyes were fixed on the western direction. At this time, her father would be hurrying on horseback further and further to the west of Taúlia. It was around dusk yesterday that the interior of the castle had suddenly flurried into activity. Soldiers in full armour as well as horses and dragons lined up in rows outside the castle. That war was about to break out – and furthermore one in which would decide the fate of their House – was apparent to all. It had come as a complete surprise to Esmena.
According to what her father had said, the fleetest units would first rush west for a day and night without pause. Straddling his horse, Ax had embraced his wife Jaina and his daughter Esmena to his left and right, and had simply said,
“I'll be back soon.”
It seemed that the preparations for organising the troops had been proceeding in secret until just then. Even her mother Jaina had probably not heard of them.
“We will be awaiting your return, my lord,” Jaina bowed, her bearing exactly the same as it always was whenever she saw Ax off to the battle front. “I will look forward to performing a victory dance for you, my lord.”
“Yeah,” Ax grinned as put on his helmet. He too wore the same expression as usual. He turned to smile at Esmena also, then pulled on his reins and departed at the head of the troops.
Later, when it was already past midnight, the infantry corps and artillerymen had also lined up and left the castle. The units had been separated so as to make it difficult for the enemy to suspect their movements until such a time as the advance party was already upon them.
That ominous word flashed through Esmena's mind. She had learned after her father's departure that Cherik had set up camp near the border to the west of Taúlia. It was said that Cherik's aim was to contain them. Because of that, Taúlia had been unable to help the northern Helio, which had apparently been occupied by Garda's forces.
“With the cavalry's speed, they will easily reach Cherik's camp before daybreak,” was what the soldiers who had stayed behind at the castle had said when she asked them about it.
“Will it be war?”
“According to Strategist Ravan, it probably won't go as far as war. For the time being, Cherik should be putting it's all into defence. Meanwhile, the lord's vanguard unit will prevent things from turning into the siege war that Cherik expects.”
Esmena softly bit her lower lip. She knew the name of Garda. The terrifying sorcerer who often appeared in her nightmares and tormented her called himself none other than Garda. However, her encounter with the crown prince of Mephius, Gil and then the notification of his death had driven it from her memory.
Currently, the majority of the troops had left and the number of soldiers remaining within Taúlia did not total three hundred. Esmena had not had the slightest idea that the situation had grown so urgent.
A deep sigh escaped from her rose-coloured lips.
She didn't know when it had started, but right then, Esmena felt like an awfully small, utterly ignorant, worthless human being. The thought of how truly empty she was filled her with fear and tore her sensitive heart to shreds.
It was rare for Esmena Bazgan to take a step outside of this city-state of Taúlia. It could well be said that for the most part, she did not even understand Taúlia itself. As a result, and even if she thought about it, she couldn't grasp the first clue as to what was the full extent of the situation with Cherik, what Taúlia's chances of victory were, or what she, as the daughter of the Bazgan House, should do in this castle now that its lord was absent and that most of its military might had left.
Nobody tells me anything. They were laughing at me behind my back. It was as good as saying that even if that princess believes that she is living a contented life, she is just a doll whose head and heart are empty.
Even when she lay between her sheets, she truly couldn't sleep. Instead of worrying about this and that while in her snug and comfortable bed, she had wanted to go outside where she would at least be able to breathe the same air as her father while praying to the Dragon Gods for his good fortune in war.
Esmena was famed as the greatest beauty in Taúlia, and indeed, of the west. She had her eyes closed and her appearance as she let the wind caress her soft cheeks was reminiscent of the sculpted relief widely depicted throughout Tauran of the ancient priestess-princess Meuru offering herself to the Dragon Gods. Unware of her thoughts, the lady’s maid, who was younger than her, was admiring her mistress’ beautiful face when,
“What are you doing? At this hour.”
Hearing a voice raised half in reprimand, Esmena and the lady’s maid turned around, startled. There was Raswan Bazgan, whom the soldiers on duty were greeting with a salute. He was the first-born son of Toún Bazgan, who was Governor-General Ax’s younger brother and the man responsible for the Defence Corps. In other words, Raswan was Esmena’s cousin.
“You too, Lord Raswan. Why are you…?”
“I’m helping Father,” perhaps because it was somewhat self-mocking, Raswan’s smile turned cruel. “Now that His Lordship is no longer present, we must maintain a strict guard at all times. You too are important, Princess. You should go back to your room now.”
“Thank you. Then I shall do so.”
Although her wording and manner were courteous, Esmena had always found it hard to deal with her cousin, who never listened to what anyone had to say. Just as she was about to turn back,
“Princess,” Raswan rudely approached her at a distance so close she wanted to scream out loud.
“Wh-What is it?”
As Esmena asked that, opening her eyes even wider than usual, Raswan showed unusual hesitation under the sharply penetrating light in those eyes.
“No… The situation is as you know. Take care of yourself.”
Esmena smiled, however Raswan did not put more distance between them as one would at the end of a conversation. At the same time, neither did he say anything. Esmena felt it was strange as they had never had a close relationship, and so she was the one to open the distance between them then, with bow, she left the roof. The lady’s maid hurried after her.
“Lord Raswan looked as though he wished to talk a little longer.”
“It’s not that I felt against it,” Esmena put a hand to her cheek, “however, there is no denying that Raswan is at heart a warrior and if we remain too long in the same place, the atmosphere is likely to become unbearably mannish.”
“Hmm. But, Princess, is your father not also a true-born Taúlian warrior? And even though General Bouwen, with whom the princess has a good relationship, is usually a very gentle person, at heart he is clearly a rough warrior.” “Is that so? And yet, even now I can’t imagine Bouwen fighting with a sword in hand.”
“But if anything, I think that Lord Raswan has the more refined manner and that he does not project such a mannish atmosphere.”
And his appearance is also good, she added in a low voice. Esmena laughed softly at her honest way of speaking. Esmena did not have anything like friends close to her in age, but since binding herself in a vow of sisterhood with Princess Ineli in Apta and also, although it was unsure whether Esmena herself realised this, since encountering the insolent masked mercenary after Prince Gil’s death, her connection to those near had grown deeper than before.
Raswan, who had been left behind on the roof, clicked his tongue. The sun was gradually rising and it was the time when the figures of people could start to be seen in the fields around the outer walls.
Originally, Raswan had also been supposed to rush to Cherik at the head of the dragoon unit. Ax had selected five hundred dragon riders to entrust him with. However, Raswan himself had made a request.
“This time, I would help Father. Since it is my hope that sooner or later, I too will shoulder the important duty of defending the country.”
Raswan’s appearance resembled that of a Garberan knight and he displayed a nobleman’s figure, but he was known to fight like a demon on the battlefield. Therefore, although it seemed slightly surprising to Ax, this request had another meaning. By saying that he would succeed Toún Bazgan, he was also in effect declaring that he would not take part in the struggle for succession to become Taúlia’s governor-general.
Recognising that admirable intention, Ax left Raswan behind as commander of Taúlia’s garrison. Naturally, he never imagined that a viper was building its nest inside the heart of this nephew who was so splendidly growing to adulthood.
A lone shadow quietly stole up to Raswan, who was looking irritability in the direction Esmena had left in.
With a start, he turned to look and saw a short, aged man. A very ordinary man dressed in the garb of a civil servant and with nothing about him that attracted attention. Nonetheless, Raswan appeared nervous and, under the pretence of checking that the guards standing in the parapets on either side of them were sufficiently far away, he averted his eyes.
“Now that things are coming to a head, it’s best that you don’t do anything out of the usual. The majority of the soldiers left in the castle are not our allies. Although no one here has good intuition.”
“I know,” Raswan’s expression turned bitterer. “The girl who is the direct descendant of the governor-general’s lineage is needed in order to govern Taúlia peacefully. Since she will be involved, regrettably I feel that we cannot cut her life down and so I came to check on the situation for a bit.” He felt as though the old man’s eyes could see inside his heart. Having worked up his courage, he had spoken in a deliberately severe tone of voice.
“There is very little time before we rise to action. You must issue a notice to the soldiers.”
In preparation for this day, Raswan had come to an understanding with the commanding officers and high-placed retainers who were dissatisfied with the alliance between Ax and Mephius. Among the soldiers employed by Toún Bazgan, there were also those who had indicated their support. With regards to the essential piece that was his father however, he acted in secret. Raswan knew his father’s timid nature. Risking having the plan come to light because of a failed attempt at persuasion was a folly he would not commit. He had already settled his resolve. And even if it was his own father –
If he stands in my way, I will cut him down.
Nevertheless, Raswan had not revealed the whole plan to those who had joined him. In other words, he had to formally notify the soldiers that, utilising the invasion by Garda’s army, he intended to stage the uprising on this very day.
“I will leave the timing to you.”
“Yes,” the old man nodded his narrow chin. Information about the entire remote western region seemed to be accessible to him without his stirring from Taúlia. Ordinarily, such a thing would be completely impossible to believe, but Raswan had had many a chance to verify it. It was because he believed in his power in the first place that Raswan had decided to stage an armed uprising within Taúlia. There was no room for doubt now.
“Those who do not feel easy with peace with Mephius are pivotal. Naturally, once we obtain Taúlia, next will be war with Mephius. We mustn’t make any mistakes in our preparations in that regards either.”
“Leave it to me.”
“You,” Raswan’s sharp eyes suddenly kindled with curiosity, “you can ‘see’ the west, but what about Mephius? Can you see what is actually going on there?”
“To a certain extent. The vassals grow increasingly dissatisfied at the current emperor’s conspicuous and opinionated self-righteousness. But at the same time, no one knows what kind of treatment to expect if they oppose the emperor, and so the mood is somewhat heavy. In addition, now that the crown prince has died, it seems that there is internal dissent about what position to adopt with regards to his fiancée, the Garberan princess.”
“Which means that there will be plenty of opportunities to take advantage of.”
“Indeed,” both the old man’s expression and tone of voice remained the same as ever.
Raswan took a deep breath and looked up at the sky, then dropped his gaze to the slumbering streets of Taúlia below. He was young and vigorous, and also proud of being descended from the Bazgan House. But because of the peace that had come from the war with Mephius, that pride –
Has been snatched away.
He was vexed. Raswan’s youth did not allow him to forgive. Both his violent blood that was always in search of an outlet and the advice of the old man currently by his side spurred him into action.
Not from fear. When he read of Zer Tauran in history books, when he called to mind how Taúlia must pursue that ideal in the future, when he saw the city of Taúlia before his eyes as he did now – a certain thought would always come to Raswan’s mind.
Always, ever since childhood. That thought having finally taken form, he felt that it was actually within reach, and Raswan trembled.
At roughly the same time as Raswan was burning with ambition in Taúlia, Moldorf, the Red Dragon of Kadyne, was spurring his horse on with furious energy. The troops following him numbered approximately three thousand. They were Garda’s forces that had departed from Helio. As they charged on raising thick clouds of dust, they were of course unaware that even then, fires were rising up within Helio. They urged their horses and dragons onwards, solely intent on swooping down on Taúlia’s main force as it headed towards Cherik.
There could be no way for the enemy to be aware their movements. Even for Moldorf, it was incomprehensible how the sorcerer from Garda’s army so thoroughly understood Taúlia’s movements. Given their numbers, they would reap Ax’s head in instant. And then,
If we take Ax’s head,
Those who were being held hostage in the various cities would all be released, was what the sorcerer had said. It was only a verbal promise. It was uncertain how far it could be trusted, but from the very start, Moldorf and the others had obeyed because they were being threatened with having their family and friends killed. They could only move the army as they were told to do.
Coming from the north of Cherik, their march had brought them to a position that directly overlooked Lake Soma to their right. For a moment, a column of lit fires brilliantly illuminated the lake that lay beneath the shadows of the night. This was to inform Cherik that assistance was on its way. Everything would go to waste if that city became frightened of Taúlia’s large army and hurried to surrender. The signal was to tell them that their forces and Cherik’s would contrive a pincer attack.
However, when they were almost at their destination, Moldorf noticed the scouting party by the side of the road. They were in position earlier than expected. Halting his horse, he listened to their report.
“Ho,” he gave a short grunt and looked towards the forest that lay ahead of them.
They were somewhat less than ten kilometres from Cherik. Apparently, at the centre of the forest was a reservoir which drew water from Lake Soma for the peripheral estates. As the space between the trees was narrow, it was also intended to slow down large enemy armies. Coming from the east, Taúlia’s troops had gone around to the south of the forest and had currently set up camp with the woods at their backs.
Ideally, Moldorf had wanted to attack the enemy before they had completed their battle formation. The troops were to have been divided in two, with one unit ambushing the enemy from the south while the other attacked from the north. He had thought that they had more than enough time but,
That’s Ax for you, he moves well.
It seemed that the fleet-footed mounted units had marched first, that they had set up their formation and that they planned to wait for those following behind. They were also keeping a strict lookout, so the reconnoitring party was not easily able to approach either. To the rear of the troop headquarters, five hundred soldiers kept watch on the road from Taúlia. There was no oversight there either. Although they had spent the night on a gruelling march, even the movements of the lowest-ranking soldiers were visibly energetic. Moldorf was astounded.
They truly stood united. Such was the skill of Ax Bazgan and of the far-famed strategist Ravan Dol.
The time that Ax spent waiting here for those following behind also gave Cherik a reprieve. Moldorf’s assessment was that if Cherik realised that it was at a disadvantage and surrendered, Taúlia intended to capture it without waiting to join up with the troops following behind.
It’s a drastic strategy. I can only say that it’s worthy of the inheritor of the Bazgan name.
Contrary to the feeling he had of wanting to praise the enemy, Moldorf held unspeakable fear and revulsion towards the sorcerer who was currently supposed to be his ally. Everything was going their way. And Moldorf couldn’t see anything amusing about the fact that whatever the stratagem, readiness or determination, everything was completely powerless when facing the sorcerer.
At any rate, knowing about the reinforcements here, Cherik would soon – probably around dawn – send their troops and make a sortie. And Moldorf would take that opportunity to attack Taúlia’s army from the rear.
“The king of Cherik is Yamka the Second, isn’t he?”
“Yes?” The adjutant by Moldorf’ side spoke up.
The army was a disjointed assembly both in terms of origin and composition, but Moldorf had gathered units from Kadyne around himself. He had known them long enough to remember the face of each and every soldier. After a moment, the adjutant nodded.
“He is young king. Still only about thirty or so.”
“Was the fool dreaming?”
The adjutant didn’t reply at Moldorf’s wretched-sounding voice. Cherik had sinned by associating themselves with Garda. Unlike Kadyne, which had been stormed by Garda’s forces then had the lives of its people and princess taken as collateral to ensure obedience, in Cherik’s case, it was thought that King Yamka had cooperated with the sorcerer of his own accord.
Even though Cherik was comparatively rich thanks to the blessings of Lake Soma, it was still a small country after all. The one known as Garda might well be able to rewrite the power relations within the West at a single stroke, and the young king must have seen in that a way of realising his ambitions for Cherik.
Yamka must not be aware of what to expect from that sorcerer. Of the plight that Kadyne, Lakekish, Fugrum and Eimen are in.
Moldorf’s country, Kadyne, had succumbed almost exactly one month before Eimen fell. The officers and soldiers had not been negligent. As at the time, Lakekish and Fugrum in the north had already been captured, they had from the start recognised that Garda’s army would be no easy opponent. All the officers including Moldorf had exerted themselves to thoroughly reinforcing the city’s defence. Not even the tiniest ant could have passed through the formations arrayed along Kadyne’s outer walls.
And yet Kadyne fell in no time at all. Moldorf had been confident that they could repel every charge the enemy launched at them, but that was because he hadn’t imagined for a second that the enemy was inside the gates.
And furthermore, that enemy –
While Moldorf had been deeply absorbed in his thoughts, a man on horseback had come up to him. In the style of a general from Lakekish, he wore a helmet with horns shaped like swords. With his narrow face and slanted eyes, his features were typically Zerdian.
“Why have you halted? Shouldn’t we attack?”
“I’m waiting for Cherik to make a move.”
“How relaxed of you. According to the scouts, there are at most five hundred guarding their escape route around the forest. If we overwhelm them in one go, we can strike at the main force.”
Can we overwhelm them? Moldorf wondered to himself. Thinking about it, there was the enemy’s high morale and the skill that he had guessed at just a moment earlier, while they on their part were no more than ill-assorted medley.
There was a risk that if they met with unexpected difficulties, the enemy’s main force might move and this surprise attack would lose its effect. In order to protect their path of retreat, troops might come rushing from the main force and a great many enemy soldiers would put up a desperate fight. After all, Ax Bazgan was at that encampment.
On the other hand, if we make a large detour around those five hundred and advance towards the Taúlians, we might get slammed into by those behind.
“No,” coming to a decision, Moldorf gave a broad shake of his head, “Even if we cut off their retreat, it’s still better to wait for Cherik to make a move. Unless the enemy’s attention is diverted, there is still a risk that they might withdraw. After all, we have to settle it with this battle. There’s also the worry that if the enemy draws us into Taúlia, their ally Mephius might butt in.”
“Hum. But if we wait here quietly, those following behind them might get here.”
“Let them join up. If Cherik assails them at the same time, numbers won’t be a problem.”
“Have you lost your nerve, Moldorf? This is a golden opportunity, we could easily…”
“I was appointed commander-in-chief. If you can’t follow me, then that’s the same as disagreeing with Garda.”
The man from Lakekish went pale. After which, he scowled at Moldorf with narrowed eyes exactly as though he were looking at Garda himself and turned his horse around. He went back to his subordinates. He must have said something sarcastic as the soldiers from Lakekish turned that way and laughed.
“It’s fine,” Moldorf stopped the adjutant who was bristling with anger.
Moldorf’s nature was by no means patient. But he felt that he could understand that commander’s zeal, as well as his fear. Everyone there was deeply afraid of Garda. They had been robbed of their home. No one knew where the sorcerer’s eyes and ears lay.
I too, have I also changed? No, it was impossible not to change. Even now, I fear neither swords nor bullets, but that sorcerer’s ways are just too strange.
They were bundled together under the name of “Garda’s army”, but needless to say, their ranks had been swollen by absorbing soldiers during Garda’s ineluctable march forward. There were those from the mountain tribes that were rarely seen in central Tauran, soldiers from Lakekish, the first city-state that Garda had targeted, and soldiers from the cities of Fugrum, Eimen and Kadyne, cities that had likewise fallen.
When it came to fighting, they brandished their swords on Garda’s orders and threw themselves into dangerous situations, but when the fighting was done, and despite the tight military discipline, their morale was naturally anything but high. At the time of Helio’s fall, there were said to have been many who joined the Red Hawks mercenaries in looting the townspeople.
Even in our world of warring states, that didn’t happen.
Although they might constantly be fighting, Zerdians had a strong sense of camaraderie. It couldn’t be said that there had absolutely never been pillaging or massacres, but it was well understood that if the troops lost their discipline, it would bring misfortune to the townspeople. Time and time again, Moldorf had witnessed the rise and fall of countries, but he had always believed in strict control over himself and his companions.
If even I, who preached the ways of a warrior to my younger brother, were to fall into lawlessness, I would no longer have been able to face either my brother or my home country.
And so, when he fought for Kadyne, he had sternly warned his subordinates against such actions. Put differently, not even Moldorf’s long military experience was enough to pull together an army that had swollen up to this extent.
Our numbers are high. And to save our birthplaces and our families, our ardour is fierce. But this army is fragile. Such was Moldorf’s genuine assessment. Which was why he couldn’t authorise an assault as things were. They would be able to crush Taúlia’s army only if they performed a pincer attack together with Cherik.
Through the forest ahead, lights within the encampment could be seen to be moving. A large number of voices could be heard raised in shouts. Cherik had launched their offensive.
Cherik’s army had sallied from the gate – having received that message, Taúlia naturally positioned themselves to counter-attack. Moldorf could feel a great many presences rustling through the forest.
Good. With this, the enemy will also move forward. Now is the time to cut off their retreat.
Behind the man known as the Red Dragon of Kadyne, the troops had also all at once taken on a tense air. A number of commanders lined up their horses on either side of Moldorf but he deliberately forced them to stand down with a wave of his hand.
Many among them were famous. Their expressions turned sullen.
“Those on that side will go around the forest and strike at the five hundred soldiers. We, the Kadyne troops, will wait for the right moment to join up with Cherik, break through the forest and act as vanguard,” Moldorf announced flatly.
“Wha-” the commander from Lakekish who had laughed at him a little while earlier seemed about to cut him off but,
“Do you want to say that I’m snatching the glory? Then tell me, where’s the glory in a fight like this?”
“Threatened by the sorcerer, forced to wield our swords as he tells us to on this kind of battlefield, how can there be honour or glory or even victory? Even if we defeat Ax himself, just what kind of fame is there to be had? Rather, we’ll be reviled by posterity as the sorcerer’s puppets.”
“At any rate, a large army can’t break through the forest. A small number will go through the woods first and cause a disturbance among the enemy. In addition, we’ll cut off their path of retreat and with Cherik coming at them from the front, the enemy won’t be able to move.”
His voice was calm but it was all the more powerful because of it. Most of the commanders knew of Moldorf’s fierce fighting style. They would follow him after all.
While a number of officers and soldiers lined up their horses to take the path around the forest, Moldorf selected a few dozen mounted warriors and had them conceal themselves on that side of the forest. From the start, their surroundings were far from brightly-lit and the trees’ long shadows stretched over Moldorf’s face. Under his dragon-shaped helmet, a dark shadow fell across his eyes also.
The men and mounts in Taúlia’s encampment were growing increasingly active. Perhaps as part of a diversionary attack, a shot was fired and resounded throughout the dawn sky.
“General!” The adjutant cried out in surprise.
“Follow me!” Moldorf called out to his subordinates, but although it was a command issued to the entire troop, a lone horse rider suddenly went flying forward.
Having rushed his horse into the forest, Moldorf rode hard through the trees. The rising sun cast a faint, emerald light as it filtered through the leaves.
I’ll end this.
The expression under his helmet was fierce as he spurred on his horse. Just as he had said to the commander from Lakekish, this battle had neither honour nor victory. No matter how much they might pride themselves on being upright and principled, being forced to fight against their will would sully the souls of warriors.
That being the case, the only way was to finish things as quickly as possible. If after this Garda did not keep his promise, if he kept the people imprisoned, if he continued to coerce the soldiers and forced them to fight new wars…
If that time comes, forgive me, my wife, my son, my daughter. Forgive me… Princess Lima. I will drive the entire army forward and march on Zer Illias. And this I swear, the Red Dragon’s beard will be dyed crimson in his opponents’ blood. Even if that means that you will be sacrificed and that it is your blood that will flow.
Moldorf passed out of the forest. As expected, Cherik’s sortie had caused part of the defence to collapse. For a moment as he raced through, he saw the face of a youth who looked up vacantly towards him. One of the sentries. He parted his head from his neck and sent it whirling through the air. Once more readying the spear that had tasted first blood, Moldorf continued his charge.
A number of lights were lit on a slightly protruding hill. Taúlia’s standard fluttered in the centre. Its design was the same as Zer Tauran’s.
He saw the figure of a man bring out a folding stool and sit on it.
In shouting out, he was at least displaying a last bit of pride as a warrior. Belatedly noticing the rider fiercely approaching, the Taúlians tried to reach for their swords and spears, but they were easily blown away before Moldorf’s onrush.
Panicking, Ax fell off the folding stool. Moldorf sharply kicked his horse’s flank and readied the aim of his spear. He steadily approached the enemy figure. Ax wasn’t even able to grab a sword. Blood spurted. As Moldorf’s horse seemed to cut across the hill, Ax’s head disappeared from the neck upwards as he grovelled on the ground.
Moldorf felt an intense sense of incongruity. “That” was not Ax Bazgan. The atmosphere in the enemy camp when he had set his aim and when he had actually decapitated his target were clearly different from what he had expected.
In that case – as Moldorf was about to turn his horse’s head left and right, a huge shadow suddenly fell across him.
When he looked up, the large figure of a Sozos dragon was reflected in his eyes.
“Ho,” the one who spoke from atop the Sozos’ back was the strategist Ravan Dol. He was an old man whose body was as thin as a dead tree, but he handled dragons with admirable skill. "Surely that is Kadyne's Red Dragon? The fish we caught was much bigger than expected and we reeled it in, reeled it in."
Beating a wooden dais that had been set up on the dragon's back, Ravan did not look to be as merry as his words suggested. While "reeling it in" was good and all, this was in fact a situation in which it would have been better if they "had not needed to reel it in".
Ravan was in command of several dragons and had been making preparations to capture Cherik. They had lit fires some distance behind their real encampment and thus created a decoy "headquarters" in readiness of a surprise attack from the enemy. But still, that had only been on the unlikely off-chance that a few of Cherik's troops would come through the forest.
Yet here, beneath his eyes, was Moldorf.
Intense regret welled up within him. The opponent was Garda's army which had set out from Helio. Ravan had calculated that they could advance on Cherik if they emptied Taúlia, but any way he had looked at it, he had not believed that reinforcements could possibly rush towards Cherik. If it had come to this, then it wouldn't only be a single military unit coming through the forest. The enemy would be fielding a far larger force.
Be that as it may, the enemy had moved fast. He had been sure that even if they were aiming for Taúlia, news of its battle with Cherik would not be reported to Helio until later. That meant that their movements had been leaked to the enemy but even so, there was still one point that remained unclear no matter how much he thought about it.
It was too fast.
Considering their relative positions, at about the same time as they had left Taúlia, the enemy should have been in Helio. With regards to the preparations for the march, he had been vigilant to the point of over-cautiousness. He had severely restricted people’s comings and goings from the city-state and had advanced his arrangements in such secrecy that even the people of Taúlia probably hadn’t realised that they would soon be taking the field.
So why – worrying about that now wouldn’t make any difference.
Ravan sent out three dragons. At that moment, the Kadyne cavalry unit, following Moldorf’s charge, was approaching the “headquarters”, but the horses took fright and dispersed as the large dragons ran towards them with earth-shaking vigour. Only one of them, Moldorf’s horse, rushed around the Sozoses with unimpeded vigour, almost as though it was possessed by the soul of its rider.
“Ax, where are you? Show yourself!”
Moldorf shouted in a voice as loud as a dragon’s roar. An arrow whistled past his cheek but he paid no mind to something so trivial.
“A sneak attack from Cherik?”
“It’s the Red Dragon – the Red Dragon of Kadyne!”
Noticing the disturbance, the Taúlian troops lined up their spears and guns and took up defensive positions. From that point on, they were not imposters but guards protecting their headquarters.
Retreating is the one thing we can’t do.
Perhaps drawn in by Moldorf’s spirit, the Kadyne unit that had for a moment been about to disperse showed signs of charging once more.
It was a fact that Ravan’s eyes were quick to spot an opportunity. And that his decisions were fast. If the entire army had left Helio, the numbers would be comparable to theirs. Moreover, Cherik’s troops were to their front. Any way he looked, they were at a disadvantage. Rather than wring his hands, Ravan would protect the headquarters by driving away the onrushing soldiers.
He sent a new signal to have his apprentices open the dragon cages and release several small-sized Fey dragons. By continuing to make use of the dragons to stall for time, they would allow Ax’s main force to move east and, with the dragons as the rear guard, they would also halt the enemy’s pursuit. He did not think that would dampen the enemies’ spirits as they now had Ax close at hand. Nevertheless, the large enemy army would probably turn their way in order to crush their path of retreat. They, the rear-guard, would probably – no, they would almost certainly – be annihilated.
In that moment, Ravan prepared himself for death. Although even he had already lost track of exactly how old he was, it had never occurred to him to wonder when he might die. As far as Ravan was concerned, to do so would be halfway towards greeting death. The dreams, ideals and goals that he needed to achieve were as numerous as the stars.
But if Ax Bazgan were to be defeated here, Taúlia, no, not only Taúlia but all the western lands, would fall into Garda’s hands. More than all else, the one thing that Ravan could not lose was Ax himself. Because his dreams, his ideals and his goals were all of the legitimacy of the Bazgan House.
“Humph,” Ravan half narrowed his ever sleepy-looking eyes. “Although there is still a mountain of things I need to teach them, it can’t be helped. I’ll have to hand over their training to someone else.”
Be that as it may, the first thing to do was to kill the momentum of this surprise attack. Ravan had intended to dispatch a messenger but Moldorf, galloping without fear of the dragons, would not allow a single horseman through. He was no average commander. Inwardly, Ravan hurled violent hatred at the enemy general, but also, and above that, he heaped praise on him.
Moldorf too was prepared to die. If they could take Ax's head, it would be their win. Rather than turn away here, they would force their way further in. He calculated that if they plunged deep into the enemy line, Taúlia would not be able to use the dragons that were its strongest asset.
Spurring on the Sozos, Ravan sent continuous signals from the top of the dais and guided the Fey to chase after Moldorf. But even as the Fey bounded closer and the Sozos advanced with ground-shaking steps, man and horse, united as one, galloped on unperturbed.
Even Ravan the Strategist was starting to feel impatient.
With the Sozos chasing behind him, Moldorf leapt over the soldiers firing bullet at him, he cut down the swords and spears approaching him from either side and, within the crowd moving about confusedly – from the other side of an enemy soldier whose helmet he had sliced through lengthwise he finally caught sight of his prey.
“So you were there, were you? Ax Bazgan.”
He raised the hand in which he held his sword towards the large man he had called out to. Although all around him was nothing but gleaming spearheads as numerous as the enemy soldiers who brandished them, he charged on with unabated vigour. Moldorf roared in a voice loud enough to cross the battlefield and pitched his posture forward.
Ravan was going to pursue behind him when suddenly, blackish blood spouted from the back of the Sozos’ neck. Despite the infinitesimal probability of doing so, an enemy bullet had struck the point where its scales were the weakest.
The dragon’s giant body lurched sideways and Ravan was thrown from the dais.
“I’ve got it!”
The belief in victory gleamed within Moldorf’s eyes. He himself knew it to also be the herald of destruction. If Ax died, Taúlia too would fall and no one would be able to stop Garda’s invasion anymore.
This is –
More than two hundred years after Zer Tauran.
This was the end of the western lands.
As he charged, Moldorf tore through the wind, tore through the glittering sunlight, through the surging crowd and through the screams.
Ax also pulled out his sword but it was already too late. Moldorf’s readied spear was already in position to pierce his neck.
The finishing blow was about to be delivered. Then – just before he did so, an unexpected sound struck his ears.
Certainly, that wasn’t unexpected on a battlefield. Besides which, they were coming from a position far away from Moldorf’s. He didn’t think that the bullets would hit, but the gunshots that resounded were so orderly that it felt incongruous.
It should be too early for their allied troops to be in sight of the enemy sentries. In which case,
An enemy ambush?
After all, they had positioned a fake Ax in the decoy army which they had constructed at their rear. For a second, Moldorf suspected that every move they had made there might have been provoked by the enemy. The Ax before his eyes might well be another body double.
In some ways, Moldorf was too calm. As a general who had led countless soldiers over many years, he kept his eyes and ears on his surroundings even while in the middle of an assault, and because of that, in that moment, the force of his spear was slightly weakened.
And in that same moment, Ax’s sturdy sword flashed upwards.
Sparks flew between Moldorf who was on horseback and Ax who stood on the ground.
At the same time, a large part of Garda's army was making the detour around the forest when suddenly they were struck by an attack from their flank.
The very gunshots that Moldorf had heard echoing caused many of the mounted warriors to be thrown from horseback with a clatter. The other horses bolted upright and while the soldiers were thrown into confusion, what they heard next was the reverberation of horses' hooves advancing towards them.
An unknown cavalry was launching a charge from their side. Their momentum was like a loosed arrow and there was only time for a single shout of “Enemy” before the soldiers galloping in the van had pierced the chest of two, then three of Garda's soldiers with their spears.
Although Garda's army was numerous, the soldiers from the various countries were unable to move as one. Their reaction to the unexpected event was dull and, just as Moldorf had assessed, the army was fragile. Some turned their horse towards the forest and tried to escape through it; some got caught up in the charge and fell from their horse, or ended their lives pierced by a spear; some lost their judgement and attempted to flee as the enemy soldiers passed by their flank, and so were decapitated from behind by enemy swords.
The one leading the assault force was Lasvius, the commander of Helio's dragoons. About five hundred followed behind him.
He was a man whose forte primarily lay in leading operations that involved small or medium-sized dragons. There were currently no dragons left in Helio so he had of necessity ridden a horse into battle, but even so, his skill was far superior to the average cavalryman.
When Lasvius, who had led a deep thrust into the enemy ranks suddenly turned around to once more meet Garda's army head on, the cloud of dust that flew up was thick with blood.
“Calm down, calm down!” The general from Lakekish shouted angrily while quieting his horse which had bolted upright. “The enemy are few in number. Follow me!”
Although the troops' morale was by no means high, there were many far-famed commanders from each respective country. They were on the verge of gathering the various units in a coordinated strike at Lasvius' troops when,
The soldier next to the Lakekishan commander was shot in the head and collapsed face forward from horseback. The commander cried out in surprise as a spurt of blood showered him the face.
This time, it had come from behind.
Their white clothes fluttering in the wind, a group from the Pinepey tribe appeared. Most of them had a gun on their shoulder as they raced forward. They were nomads who excelled at horseback marksmanship. Along with the innumerable gunshots, the top of their shoulders were momentarily wreathed in white gunpowder smoke. It was almost humorous how the soldiers of Garda's army scattered before them, unable to maintain their battle formation.
As the Pinepey drew closer and spread out on either side, from behind them appeared a new group of riders wielding swords and spears.
Leading them was a swordsman whose face was half covered by a mask.
Their momentum carried them rushing through the centre of Garda's forces which had fallen to the gunfire. Swords, spears and maces glittered in the light of dawn. Garda's soldiers were cut down without being able to react and were trampled by the horses. The sound of screams and the horses' hooves rose together, and the battlefield was filled with a bellowing reminiscent of a dragon's roars.
“Right, we're going too. Follow me!”
Lasvius brandished his spear and urged his men to charge once more. “Yeah!” the riders behind him shouted in response and he grinned inwardly as he jolted up and down on his horse.
That Orba, he thought.
The two-stage surprise attack was a plan that had been suggested by the masked leader of the other group of riders, Orba. Before leaving Helio, they had accurately foreseen that they would be far fewer in number than the enemy. Orba however had presented a plan to deliberately divide their troops into even smaller units. In doing so, it would conversely become difficult to gauge their numbers and the enemy would not be able to predict how many more attacks were still to come.
In reality, they were running out of bullets from this two-stage assault and the troops from Helio weren’t even seven hundred strong. Since Helio had only just fought the usurper king Greygun and the city was still in chaos, this was the most soldiers they had been able to scrape together. Furthermore, there had been no time to reorganise the troops, so their defence was fragile.
But the army led by Moldorf had the same weakness and on top of that, it had the added misfortune that Moldorf, who had in effect been entrusted with its command, had gone with the vanguard. Orders flew about in every local accent and it was impossible to tell who was handing down decisions to whom. Lasvius’ unit charged once more and Orba’s unit effortlessly cut down Garda’s army then plunged into the forest.
At their head, Orba smoothly galloped his horse to slip through the trees. A soldier from Kadyne thrust at him from the side with a spear, but Orba easily sliced at the tip and sent it flying.
While he took command to hurry them through the forest, the leader of Garda’s army, Moldorf had Ax in his sights but had just missed him. Ax had tumbled backwards and he was going to pursue with another attack, but the Taúlian soldiers swarmed to stop him.
“Don’t get in my way!” He swung his spear from atop his horse.
With wild energy he mowed down another and yet another, blood spraying, while Orba’s horse-riding form approached from behind.
Clang – sparks flew. Moldorf managed to stop Orba’s sword thanks to his animal intuition and turned to look back at him with a ferocious expression. He opened his mouth so wide you could see into its red depths.
“So you’re still alive, you masked brat?”
Orba and Moldorf circled around one another on horseback, jabbing repeatedly at each other. In the blazing white sunlight, the favoured weapon each held in hand glittered and clashed with the other’s.
In a head-on confrontation, Moldorf, who was proficient at fighting on horseback, had a huge advantage. But all around him were Taúlian soldiers thrusting spears at him from the ground and preventing him from overwhelming Orba.
“How much longer does a man like the Red Dragon of Kadyne plan on playing the sorcerer’s accomplice?” Orba shouted at Moldorf as sparks flew yet again.
“Right now, you should be rallying the western powers to destroy Garda. I don’t get it, how long are you going to be content to be Garda’s slave?”
Orba nimbly twisted his neck away just as Moldorf’s spear cleaved through the air right before him. If he had been just a fraction slower, the force of that strike would easily have torn off his head.
“What would you understand?”
“What I understand is something you should know too.” Orba continued to ridicule him. “Take your troops back to Kadyne. They’re undermanned over there. You can retake it.”
“Shut up, boy! Do you not understand that that will only cause the people who have been taken hostage to be injured in vain? And besides, it isn’t only the people of Kadyne, our princess, Lima Khadein, is in Zer Illias. But you keep flapping that mouth of yours as though you know everything.”
“And what if I keep flapping it? Your spear has been slicing nothing but air for a while now. You wouldn’t be able to bring down a single bird with that.”
Thanks to those words, Orba was able to gain an understanding of Moldorf’s circumstances, as well as of those of the soldiers serving in Garda’s army. Naturally, he had absolutely no way of knowing Kadyne’s situation from the outset. It was just an act to draw out the real motive.
The tip of a spear flew over the top of his shoulder with a whistling sound. They were surrounded by ten or twenty soldiers and it would be easy to lose a limb if one relaxed one’s attention.
“If it’s about your princess, then all the more reason.”
One of Moldorf’s blows was about to pierce Orba’s mask. Just before that happened, a gleaming sword swept upwards and deflected it.
“There is no way that a princess wouldn’t lament that her home country had submitted to the sorcerer because she was taken hostage. Show true loyalty, Moldorf. Prove to your princess that Kadyne will not bow to the likes of Garda.”
“Y-You. You bastard!”
Moldorf’s face turned blood-red at the masked swordsman’s impudent words. He was no longer aiming to defeat Ax. His target was now Orba alone and, skilfully handling his horse, he cut down the distance between them.
Although Orba was forced into a defensive position, at that same time, his troops exited from the forest in a line and immediately crossed spears with Garda’s forces. The Taúlian army was also on the alert. Furthermore, the main body of Garda’s troops were still being held back by Lasvius’ unit.
Damn, Moldorf was forced into making a new decision.
However great their numerical advantage, it would be difficult to take back the momentum that had passed into their enemies’ hands.
What was especially problematic was that no sooner had Cherik's army, which had originally been the one to need the reinforcements, seen that those reinforcements were in difficulty than they had lost the vigour with which they had thrown open the city gates and flown out, and instead indecisively held back before even having crossed swords with the Taúlian troops.
With a silent prayer, he swung his spear one last time and shattered Orba's sword. With that, his remaining regrets were all the more bitter and he glared piercingly into Orba's eyes before pulling on his reins with all his strength.
“Retreat. Retreat, retreat!” He cried out as he kicked his horse's flank, and even his voice sounded stained with blood.
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