Tsurugi no Joou to Rakuin no Ko:Volume 1 Chapter 6
Chapter 6 – Battle of Retreat
Francesca laid the map down on the floorboards in the tent, while Gilberto placed two cobblestones on the map to represent the two units of the enemy. One of them departed from the river valley Chris and Minerva escaped from, and were heading towards the camp of the Order. On the other hand, the other unit was assaulting from northwest.
"The numbers and branches of the army units?"
"Two thousand cavalry each."
Hearing Gilberto's report, Chris couldn't help but clench his fists in tension— Four thousand cavalry, it's four times the people here...... And judging by their speed, we don't have time to escape at all......
"That's quite the big parade of an attack. Perhaps they already found out that their adversaries are we, of the Order of the Silver Egg?"
"Most probably, I think it's because I scattered too much money in the enemy camp. My apologies for this."
"Never mind that. It's thanks to you doing that that Meena is safe."
After saying that, Francesca walked out of the military camp. She loudly gave the order for the soldiers outside to dismantle the tents, and then sounds of metallic greaves bumping together rang outside the tent. Chris gripped his arms, gazing downwards at his fingertips while listening to the sounds by his ears.
—The enemy is here...... Is it because I am here?
The night of the new moon had just passed. He thought, the assault by the enemy might be the misfortune brought on by the influence remaining in the beast in him as well.
Francesca continued to give orders to the soldiers outside, causing the hustle outside to become louder and louder. That moment, Gilberto approached Minerva's side, while Minerva turned around with a look of guilt.
"When did you return?" Gilberto asked.
"I don't care what kind of future you saw, but your actions were already that of one abandoning the Order, running away."
Minerva's hands gripped her arms, causing Chris to almost speak out in defense of Minerva.
"I know. I am willing to accept punishment." However, as though she was deliberately stopping his action, Minerva hurriedly answered in a low voice.
"I do not have the authority to punish you, but I wish to know what Lady Fran said." Gilberto said.
"I said, I'm letting the issue rest if she hands over the beautiful beast." Francesca returned to the camp right that moment, and continued with an exceptionally bright voice: "Alright, it's about time for us to retreat."
However, Gilberto ignored her and pointed at Chris while saying: "Why is this person in Lady Fran's military tent? Isn't he an enemy? We should kill him directly instead."
"Wait a minute! Gilberto, he's my slave, I brought him back—"
"Since he looks so cute, I'm enlisting him in my personal guard— Gil, teach him the rules here properly."
"I have heard about this from the soldiers outside. Please don't make a joke like this! Do you know what kind of a person he is? I heard that it's all thanks to this person alone that the army of the Celestial Kingdom brought down Dekrecht and Raborazia!"
"I know that." Francesca answered nonchalantly. Chris froze in her nonchalance.
"Do you know why I said that it's all thanks to 'this person alone' as well?" Gilberto asked with his eyes narrowed.
"Of course. It's because the Celestial army devised plans of sneaking inside more than ten times, and all of the squad members died with only him being the survivor, isn't that right?"
—She actually knows even these details......
—Then were the efforts I did to hide my identity all for naught?
Even though they did not know that the reason was the Brand of the Beast on Chris, he already knew what would occur to his surroundings. The fact before his eyes caused Chris to have the illusion of his feet sinking into icy water, drowning gradually. This caused him to avert his gaze from the other three.
"The 'Star Eater' is but a myth. Even Gil believes in that?" Francesca asked.
"This is not a myth. It is possible for even ordinary people to do things like this. In other words, it is very much possible for him to kill his other comrades so that he could escape alone."
Gilberto's words caused a fire to flare in Chris's mind. He subconsciously stood up to grab Gilberto. However, without even flinching, Gilberto rapidly caught hold of the hilt of the sword on his belt. Then, Chris had the illusion of the world splitting into two. In a flash of light, his hand was caught. His body shook reflexively in surprise. On the other hand, Gilberto's half-unsheathed sword was pressed down as well, causing his facial muscles to convulse.
Red hair fluttered between Chris and Gilberto, falling on the slender shoulders of its red-haired owner.
"Stop it, idiot!"
Minerva was the one who grabbed Chris's hand. They failed to notice her movements due to her startling speed, as though it was a wall of flames that rose and fixed itself between Chris and Gilberto.
"You as well, Gilberto—"
Minerva caught hold of Gilberto and scolded him. However, Chris's consciousness sank into a daze, and was already unable to hear what Minerva was saying.
—What...... What did I extend my hands for just now......
—He said that I killed my comrades so that I could escape alone...... Did I move to deny his statement? Or was it to explain that all of that was done by the beast in my heart?
—But wasn't that the truth? As he said, I...... I......
"Look, the pair of beastly eyes." Gilberto put away his longsword and took a step back, glaring furiously at Chris at the same time, "Are you planning to keep a ferocious beast like this by Lady Fran's side?"
"He is my property!" Ignoring Gilberto's words, Minerva determinedly approached him, "I will suppress him, and will not allow him to make trouble. Let me feed him and watch over him! If anything happens, I will kill him. I will not allow him to harm anyone in the Order!"
"Why are you doing this for him until this extent? Didn't you just meet him on the battlefield a few days ago?"
"As for the reason...... I cannot say."
Minerva's head drooped when she answered. Chris bit his lips without saying anything as well.
"But don't get things wrong. This person is just my tool. I'm keeping him by my side because there is something that cannot be accomplished without him. That's all. There's no other reason."
Just at that moment, flustered footsteps rang outside the tent, and someone ran inside.
"Lady Fran, I-I heard that I will be the one to hold the flag later on. Is that true!"
Chris turned around, and saw that it was Paola, the female medic that he had met before. She was startled by the tense atmosphere in the tent, and her body leaning forward shrunk back.
"It's fine, Paola. Come on in." Francesca waved at Paola, "The units of ten must depart first. You shall be the leader of the main force." While saying that, she removed the Silver Hen flag from a post, draping it on Paola's shoulders like a cape.
"M-Me?" Paola said in shock.
"If the beauties are staying to bring up the rear, how will the men in the team think of running away? Hurry up and go." Francesca said.
"Lady Fran, you're not guiding the units?" Gilberto asked after hearing that.
"I shall bring up the rear. If the general flees first when the squad is retreating, both the enemy and our people would make a joke out of it."
Her words caused Chris's eyes to widen. His eyes flitted between Francesca and Gilberto.
—The commander bringing up the rear?
Chris had never heard of such a thing. What surprised him more was the fact that Gilberto and Minerva sighed deeply and nodded, as though they weren't planning to raise objections at all.
"E-Excuse me......" Paola, who had just received the team flag, turned around and asked: "Speaking of which, there's another member in the guard, right? T-Then, why don't we celebrate Chris's arrival after this?"
"Hurry up and go. I shall give my all to guard Lady Fran's life, and I will send her back to the camp safely even if I have to sacrifice my own life." To that, Gilberto merely answered coldly.
"N-No. I mean, everyone must safely—"
Before finishing her words, the soldiers outside were already calling Paola's name. She looked at the other people in the military tent with her large watery eyes, and immediately turned around to walk out of the tent.
"Almost everyone in the main force retreated!"
Nicolo shouted in the strong night gust. Chris thought back on the camp stationed with troops some time before while looking at the tents abandoned by the troops in the deserted camp illuminated by the campfire.
"Sigh, my blankets and sheets were really expensive...... I will have to buy new ones now, how troublesome......"
Nicolo sighed, but his tone did not sound all that sorry.
—So the troops are retreating directly, abandoning the camp equipment?
Even so, under pursuit by cavalry, they would still be caught up with sooner or later. Chris pondered if it would be more feasible to face the attack with a formation before the camp, turning around to look at Francesca's calm face at the same time.
"We are now a unit running away from battle in loss. I don't want my cute soldiers to make unnecessary sacrifices for a meaningless battle."
As though she saw through Chris's thoughts, Francesca explained with a smile.
At that moment, only troops of about a hundred, including Chris and the members of the personal guard, were left at the camp, while sounds of hoof beats could already be heard from afar. It seemed like the cavalry was getting near.
"Raise the fires— Quick!"
Under Francesca's orders, the soldiers scattered towards various spots in the camp.
—Raise the fires? Ah, I see! Doing so can indeed hide the fact that the main force has already retreated......
—If so, is she planning to raise a few more campfires, making the enemy think that our troops are still stationed here?
That moment, firelight could already be seen beyond the horizons. As Gilberto had described, two units of cavalry had been dispatched to attack them.
—But isn't this just a trick to deceive children? If they find out that the whole camp has already retreated, and change target to the main force led by Paola won't the whole Order be finished?
"It's about time for us to hide as well— Sigh, I really don't feel like fighting...... Everyone, don't let the enemy get near me!"
While speaking, Nicolo hurriedly stuffed medical equipment into a bag of cloth.
—Why is the military doctor staying to bring up the rear...... Nicolo seemed to have seen through Chris's look of surprise. He leisurely gave Chris the thumbs up and pointed at his chest while saying:
"Think about it, what if people get injured while I'm not here?"
His words caused Chris to be dumbstruck— Even if people get injured on the battlefield, how would there be time for him to deal with it......
"And Paola isn't right here as well. When Captain or Meena gets hurt, it's an opportunity of the lifetime for me to treat them!"
A perverted smile surfaced on the military doctor's face as he spoke. Chris was not only dumbstruck, the words caused his head to spin as well.
"If things get so serious that I get hurt, you would have long died."
While Francesca interrupted, her golden hair fluttered in amusement.
"Actually, I don't think you should stay at all, Francesca." Chris couldn't help but interject behind her.
"Didn't I ask you to call me Fran? Besides, what does it matter if I stay? Gil, Meena and you will protect me, isn't that right?"
"You can't just say—"
"Stop fooling around and check out the condition of the weapons."
Gilberto spoke up in annoyance while Chris was about to rebuke her. Chris could only look at the longswords and spears arranged on the ground obediently.
The sword that Chris used before had shape and forging of the highest standard, but it was already broken by Minerva. In comparison, the weapon given to him would be mediocre no matter which one he was given.
—Whatever, let's not think of meaningless things......
Chris picked up a longsword and slid his fingers from the side to the tip of the blade.
—Since Minerva is staying, I have no other choice but to do my best.
However, the doubt that Chris was harboring was whether the sword in his hands had the power to protect the others. However, he shook his head in the end, casting off the meaningless doubts.
—I am a beast, I have to devour the people approaching me, more ferociously than usual.
—I will bite them to death, and I only need to do that.
"You stay by Lady Fran's side. Don't do anything suspicious, or I will cut your head down immediately!"
Gilberto's warning rang behind Chris. He stood up after nodding and exchanged gazes with Minerva at a side. That moment, she was holding her large sword by Francesca's side. A shadow of sorrow flitted through her eyes for a brief moment. However, with a gust of wind, her red hair behind her covered her face, causing Chris to be unable to see her face anymore.
A soldier raised the long flagpole, erecting the flag of the duke on the ground.
—They aren't thinking of facing the assault at a place like this, are they? Shouldn't they at least keep some distance from the tents?
"If you're worried about an attack of arrows, that's not a problem at all— and they're here."
Francesca's reminder jolted Chris back to his senses in surprise, and he immediately turned around to look at the source of the imposing hoof beats.
That moment, they could already hear the roars of the enemy troops, but the majestic shouts were almost hidden by the deafening clatter of four thousand galloping horses. A heavy rain of arrows fell, slashing through the night skies. Minerva dashed forward, her red hair turning into madly dancing flames. The military tent in front was already trampled by the enemy troops. Among the neighing of the horses, a hundred-odd cavalrymen appeared before them at the same time.
"It's the flag of Zaccaria!"
"It's the duke's daughter! Capture her!"
"The Vixen who raised a flag in rebellion—"
"We'll drag you back to Santuario, the Holy Capital, for public display!"
Minerva's small silhouette shot into the crowd of cavalry verbally abusing her comrades. The campfire nearby reflected a strong ray of light on the large sword she was holding, and in an instant, the vicious sword raised a torrent of wind, whirling dust, bent spears, soldiers' blood and severed horseheads into the air.
"—Wha?!" "What's wrong with this person!" "We must go on— Surround her, hurry!"
The blade that was swung around continuously like a windmill created a space that allowed only a strand of hair to pass through while Minerva's white sleeves danced in the darkness. The sword in her hand spun continually like a windmill. Armor flew in the air along with soldiers' flesh, terrifying the soldiers' horses into bouts of fearful neighs. The forward troops of the enemy had already fallen apart due to Minerva's attack.
"Blast, let's just ignore her. The enemy troops haven't even assembled a formation. Their main forces had probably ran away long ago. Hurry up and assemble to vanquish these enemies!"
The commander donning a helmet with long feathers shouted while raising his sword to point at Francesca, who was in front of him. The order raised the morale of his troops. They charged at their enemy with deafening horse beats once again. Minerva was kicked away by the horses of the enemy force. Her delicate body spun in the air.
Just when Chris was about to dash outwards, a hand caught hold of his shoulders, forcibly dragging him back.
"Don't act rashly. She is our sole vanguard."
It was Gilberto. His voice made Chris extremely uncomfortable, like a thorn was stabbing him.
"How can you say such a thing!"
"Defend the position that you are stationed at. She can deal with it even when she is alone!"
Gilberto was absolutely right. After Minerva was kicked into the air, she regained balance after a somersault. She even lowered her position when she reached the ground as well, effortlessly evading the spears stabbing her directly in front and from the side. After that, she raised the huge sword in her hands, and immediately cut a soldier into half along with his horse from below.
Chris gazed at Minerva. Even though he saw that the white skin on her face and shoulders was stained with her and the enemies' blood, he could only suppress the urge in his heart and squatted down in a stance with his sword raised— the tent at the side had already been lifted. A second and third wave of troops was charging towards them with torches held high.
"Vixen of Zaccaria, your useless subordinates already escaped. Look at how dumb they are, scattering everywhere holding torches. I'd say that you don't have any face to save anymore, so hurry up and yield!"
Chris blocked the spear lashed out by the first cavalryman who charged at him, stabbing his sword into his opponent's abdomen along the way. The sense of his sword swirling in flesh and blood came from his hand. With a wail, his assailant fell from his horse, his armor making clanking noises when they banged onto the ground. He had only just finished dealing with the attack when the next spear stabbed at him yet again. Chris waved his arm, barely blocking his opponent's attack with his wrist guard, and immediately took the chance to check out his comrades' battles.
The style of Gilberto's attacks was completely different from that of Minerva's, but there was an imposing presence that would make people shiver as well. He was teamed up on by quite a few cavalrymen, but his feet never shifted from their original position. The longsword in his hands slashed like flowing water, using momentum to block his adversaries' spears, then cut off each of the horses' front legs one slash after another. Francesca stood behind him, imperiously gazing upon the starry skies with her head raised.
—Wait...... Her eyes are closed?
—What is she doing? Enemies are already at her side—
—Does she believe in Gilberto's capabilities to this extent?
The enemy forces were all focused on Francesca alone. As she was to be caught alive, they did not use arrows. Apart from that, their assault pathways were limited at the camp where tents were erected everywhere. Was that a strategy to counter their attack? Chris was puzzled. Disregarding that fact, what was she planning to do next?
—Most of their men had left. But we really can't hang on any longer......
Chris gritted his teeth and decided not to think of the problems any more. The most important thing was that they were already drowning in a sea of enemy cavalry, and the missing Minerva. He must do his all to kill another person, killing more enemies to protect Minerva from harm, making this place into a sea of blood that could only tolerate corpses.
A blow at the edge of his sight from an enemy cavalryman scraped away Chris's shoulder armor. The impact caused him to kneel down on the ground. At the same time, his adversary immediately landed a kick on him as well. Chris spat out a mouthful of blood, and swung his sword to kill the enemy soldier with his body arched. His attack made the enemy cavalryman fall down with copious amounts of blood gushing out below his helmet. Then, as though he wanted to suppress Chris's presence, yet another cavalryman rushed forward to crash suddenly into Chris, directly charging at Francesca right after that. Francesca stood there proudly without moving, eyes closed and head facing the starry sky. Gilberto turned around as he realized the soldier's intent, piercing through the warhorse's throat with his sword, but was unable to stop the soldier from abandoning his spear for a sword, pouncing at Francesca from his horse— This is bad, we won't be able to make it......
All of a sudden, the sound of a sharp object slashing through the air whistled. The soldier's body flew in the air, turning in a back somersault and landed before Chris. There were two sharp daggers buried in his face.
Right after that, the same killing aura flashed past Chris's head a few more times as he continued to kneel down on the ground. Then, he saw daggers buried in the eye sockets of a few heavily armored cavalry men as they fell one after another. Chris turned around in a tremor.
"Ack, idiot, don't look over here, I'll be noticed by the enemy!"
Chris saw a belt full of daggers tied to Nicolo's chest as he concealed himself at a shady spot at the edge of the tents, and he threw viciously like a whip once again.
Now, he finally understood the reason Nicolo stayed to bring up the rear with Francesca's personal guards. Each time his whip-like arms lashed out, another enemy soldier fell in piteous wails.
—Isn't such accuracy a bit too scary? So he really isn't just any doctor......
"Stop spacing out!"
Gilberto shouted at Chris. Chris finally came to his senses with a jolt, and raised his longsword high to meet the next attack from a halberd, turning in a circle to reach his opponent's side right after that. His gaze met that of the soldier's shortly. Seeing his profound eyes distorting in terror, he pierced through the enemy with his longsword, feeling through his blade the sense of metal piercing through armor, stabbing into flesh and blood.
Chris took a step backwards after pulling out his longsword, his elbow actually coming into contact with another unfamiliar arm that was hard as steel. He turned around abruptly and saw that Gilbert seemed to have long predicted his movements, and already retreated to Francesca's side. The eyes bright like marbles did not look clouded even when it was stained in the enemy's blood and dust from the ground.
"E-Everyone, scatter! Bring down the tents and let the unit surround them in a circle— Archers, stand out, quick!"
The enemy commander raised his voice to shout at the soldiers under his command in panic. After that, the smell of rust faded like ebbing tide. What was left on the battlefield was hills of corpses of horses and soldiers. Among them, a sole white flame that burnt, pressing close to the ground, was over there......
At Chris's shout, the girl whose red hair was dyed in blood turned around and gave him an absent-minded smile— So beautiful...... That thought surfaced in Chris's mind on instinct. The long hair behind Minerva that was like burning flames had a red stronger, more vibrant color than blood. Holding her huge sword, she stood on the hill of corpses without a hint of fear on her face. And such a radiant appearance—
No! This shouldn't be so...... A trace of sorrow surfaced on Chris's chest and gradually spread— This shouldn't be so, no...... If her fate is to stand in this rain of pain, attracting people's gaze with her radiance, then......
—I will devour this fate!
"The second wave of enemy troops has arrived."
Gilberto said in a low voice. At the same time, Minerva shifted her attention to the foes before her. Chris listened to the sounds that ran in the night— Clatter of hooves resounding in front, and sounds of a commotion approaching. It was the hoof beats of another troop of horses. It seemed like the pursuit unit left behind by the rear unit of the enemy troops had finally arrived.
Chris turned around to look at Francesca. Even with Gilberto's protection, the enemies' blades and blood still flashed past her skin on occasions, but she was still standing there without moving, with her eyes closed and head raised......
Just when Chris realized the true meaning behind her appearance, the gold-haired girl radiating elegance had already opened her eyes.
"Start the fires!"
Under Francesca's orders, every single military tent that occupied their horizons in the camp suddenly burst into roaring flames. The blazing fire that almost burnt down the whole wilderness lit up the originally pitch-black night. Its tremendous presence caused Chris to take two steps back, bumping into Francesca as a result.
The young commander gave another sonorous order. At the same time, Minerva and Chris turned around instantly, preparing to flee the battlefield. Chris was slightly slower. After taking his first step, he hurriedly quickened his footsteps and gave chase. The soldiers holding torches at various locations in the camp assembled into an orderly unit after escaping from the burning tents and retreated from the battlefield. On the other hand, Nicolo joined their procession from a shady location at the edge of the tents as well, with his luggage on his back. In the process of retreating, wails and roars of anger as well as panicked whinnies of warhorses in the fire continually resounded in their ears.
So the reason Francesca ordered the soldiers to prepare a fire was for this moment...... Oil could be smelt from the remaining ashes that floated over from the burning tents. At the same time, Chris understood that Francesca stayed to use the flag of the Dukedom and she herself as bait, tempting the enemy forces into the fire that she designed. As long as the remaining people thought of a way to block the path of the enemy vanguards, they would be trapped when fires were set when their reinforcement arrives.
"—Captain, hurry up!"
Shouts of the soldiers rang in front of them. At the end of the camp, a few tents were lined up in an orderly manner. When the flaps were opened, quite a few horses could be seen inside.
" Don't let them escape! It's just a tactic of flames of such a degree, just to disperse our focus!"
The angry roars of the enemy made Chris turn around as he ran at the end of the processing. He saw posts of a few tents collapsing due to the tongues of flames licking at them, burying quite a few enemy soldiers. The purple flag was whirled into the sea of flames as the fire spread. However, under the orders of the enemy commander, quite a few arrows still shot out from a few military tents burning by Chris's side. It was the enemy forces. In the confusion, they managed to gather two lines of cavalry to pursue them.
" They're catching up!" Chris shouted.
"Just ignore them and run!" Gilberto couldn't help but say.
Wooden posts crackled in the sea of flames and fell. Hoof beats gradually approached from behind. However, the extent of wounds on Minerva and Gilberto prevented them from escaping at their maximum speed.
"We won't make it, huh......" Gilberto clicked his tongue while his expression twisted.
—No, they'll catch up at this rate!
......If so— Why did I stay in the first place!
Chris turned around as he came to a decision.
—My sword, the sword of the Beast, is one that will not be used for the protection of other people. If so......
—Let the beast inside of me swallow everything, and survive for slaughter!
He raised his sword hilt to the side of his mouth and held it with his teeth so that his hands could move freely.
"What are you doing!"
Minerva noticed his abnormal actions and turned around to call him. So that he would not stumble over her voice, Chris quickly ran in the direction of the enemy soldiers. He saw the mercenary in front of him glare at him.
"Are you crazy, kid? Die—!"
His adversary waved his lance, swinging it at Chris while slashing through the dust on the ground. Chris focused his attention completely on the opponent's hilt. Horses approached rapidly while raising dust. The instant before he was kicked by hooves, Chris's feet viciously stomped on the floor, dashing forwards all at once.
The expression on the enemy soldier's face twisted in surprise, and he raised his spear to fend Chris off. However, Chris leapt when his feet stepped on the tip of his opponent's spear, stretching his hand out to frantically grab the rope tied to the horse's head, kicking the soldier off the horse right after that.
Chris took the horse, but saw another cavalryman passing by his fallen comrade, rushing towards Chris while swinging his spear. Chris held firm on the saddle and lowered his body to evade the spear from behind. His horse was startled by Chris's action, and was about to turn tail and run when Chris halted it with a single hand, taking back the longsword in his mouth with his other hand at the same time.
"Actually using a dirty trick like this—"
The horse Chris was riding on was quickly caught up. As he did not do his best to stabilize his sitting position after leaping onto the horse, focusing his attention on warding off the opponent's attacks, his riding speed dropped continually.
"You actually look down on us so much, I'm definitely making you regret this—"
In the foes' roars, Chris pulled on the rope, causing his horse to collide with that of the chasing soldier's. The two horses neighed in pain at the same time, maniacally twisting their bodies to rush towards the burning tents. Chris used the opportunity to swing the longsword in his hand and landed a blow on his enemy's hand holding the spear, using the momentum of the force to correct the path of his horse. However, his adversary did not have any chance to do so, and thus rammed directly into a burning tent. Right after that, Chris heard hoofbeats of quite a few horses and panicked breathing behind him, and guessed that there would be blades flying at him yet again. He rode his horse between the burning tents, his actions almost all done on instinct. After he severed the umpteenth head of the enemies, the longsword of poor workmanship finally snapped. A startling sense of foreignness spread from the sword to his hand.
"Damned kid, actually giving us so much trouble! It's time for you to die, so DIEEEEEE—"
Accompanied with curses, the sword in his enemy's hand had already swung towards him, while Chris— he raised his right hand, catching the sword with one hand. The action caused his enemy to sink into shock, the expression on his face abruptly clouded over with fear, as Chris quickly snatched over the sword in his hands.
Although Chris raised his hand high so that the speed of his foe's sword could not reach its maximum, the swing was already enough to cut the leather armor on his palm, causing his palm to be cut open. However, under such excitement, Chris was unable to feel any pain. He applied force with the hand holding the blade, directly knocking his adversary off the saddle. After that, he quickly turned around to knock the horse catching up behind him on its head, causing the enemy cavalryman to fall with his horse.
—I am a beast!
—My body and the pain on my body belongs to the beast!
—I must struggle frantically, sucking people's blood dry, then finding a place for me to die.
Just when his consciousness was gradually fading into the bloodstained surroundings, a voice pulled him back to reality. Flames of red and white appeared in his eyes......
"Do you want to die? Hurry up and get down from the horse!"
—Minerva? Why......? A red-haired girl came into Chris's gaze that was blurred due to blood— She rode back to find me? Then have we escaped from the camp? But there were still soldiers in pursuit, and sounds of tents collapsing, roars of the enemy troops, clanking of armor and horses raising dust by stomping frantically on the ground could still be heard behind them. If this goes on, we'll still be caught up—
"Just ignore that! Hurry up and get down!"
—Why? Why is Minerva telling me to get down the horse? Chris did not understand, and did not have the energy to care anymore. He planned to continue killing, slaughtering the enemies without exception. However, before he turned around, he saw Minerva standing up on her saddle—
She jumped over from her saddle, embracing Chris with her slender arms. Her red hair fluttered in the air, drifting past Chris's face. At the same time, an unexpected strength pressed on him, bringing him away from the saddle, floating lightly under the pitch-black night.
Chris and Minerva fell onto the ground together, and rolled on the grassy land while holding each other tightly before stopping. When Chris supported his bloody right hand on the ground and was about to clamber up......
"Release the arrows—"
A loud order resounded through the area. It was not Francesca's voice. The voice was more tender, and it sounded like its owner was younger than Francesca...... It was Paola. Just when Chris made out the owner of the voice, he saw a silver flag waving under the pitch-black skies. At the same time, bolts descended from the sky like heavy rain, frantically pelting on the soldiers in pursuit of him.
They had indeed left the camp. The camp with military tents burning in a cluster was currently at the lower end of the sloping land of the hill.
The ones who launched an ambush counterattack on the enemy soldiers was the archer unit of the Order of the Silver Egg, in an orderly formation. Even the cavalry unit charged forward.
They turned back to support the squad bringing up the rear, under Paola's command.
—If so, were the torches held by the members of the Order that the enemy saw when they attacked the camp a smokescreen by Francesca as well?
Chris thought, such a strategy could not be described just by the word 'daring'. Francesca handed the commanding power of the main force to her subordinate, standing on the front lines as bait. Such a thing would be absolutely impossible without guards who can be trusted, and everyone had to complete their own tasks completely as well.
Apart from Minerva, Gilberto's swordsmanship was gained through rigorous training as well, so the feats that he accomplished were all backed up by true skill. As for Paola, she definitely had her own merits as well. After all, she and Francesca did not have any time for discussion of strategy before the battle at all. However, she accurately perceived the meaning of Francesca's arrangement, commanding the cavalry to run away with torches, all for the sake of a chance for a counterattack.
Chris lied blankly on the cold grassy land, staring at the soldiers of the Celestial army who were forced by the troops holding silver flags to scatter and escape into the camp with blazing tents in loss. Chris was in a daze, and completely forgot about the pain of his bleeding wounds, and didn't even notice the warmth of the body squashed under him.
Only when a fist pressed onto his abdomen did he come back to his senses.
"How long are you trying to squash my body for!"
Minerva was squashed under Chris's body with her back on the grassy land. She flailed her arms, trying to crawl out from under his body.
Chris tried to rise, but his head suddenly spun, causing him to collapse onto Minerva before he was able to do anything else.
"W-What are you doing, idiot!"
—Blood...... There's so much......
—This is bad...... So cold......
"And also, didn't you go a bit overboard by stealing an enemy's horse all by yourself? What if you couldn't get the pursuing soldiers off your tail? You're my tool! You can't just die when you want, idiot!"
Minerva tried her best to carry Chris while her brows furrowed. Although her injuries weren't as serious as those of Chris's, she was hurt all over as well. With her clothes charred in many places and bloodstains all over them, they were already in rags.
"Hey, Nicolo, somebody call Nicolo over! Chris, you can't sleep, my body is not your mattress!"
That moment, Minerva's curses were like tender caresses to Chris's ears. He leant closely to the warmth pressing on his body, trying not to lose consciousness.
"Chris, you can't sleep! I forbid you to die easily by yourself like this! It's just a little injury! You can't sleep, idiot! Wake up already!"
While Nicolo treated Chris's injuries, Minerva was still doggedly calling him by his side. With a helpless look, Nicolo was forced to assign tasks of boiling water and changing towels to her, trying to make her speak less. However, as soon as Minerva's tasks were completed, she would immediately run to Chris's side, pinching his cheeks to wake him up.
When Nicolo finished treating the hurt, unexpectedly, Francesca asked them to move through the night.
"The tents were all burnt down. We need to walk for at least two days and two nights before we can sleep at the village closest to this place. Hurry up and move if you know that it's troublesome as well." She said.
It was actually a wise decision. After all, it was not impossible for the Celestial army to continue assigning pursuit units to chase them. Besides, since the tents burnt down, the men did not have the time and mood to console themselves by drinking in the wilderness while waiting for their wounds to heal anymore.
Chris slept on the horse cart containing weapons and armor. Seeing him turn when the horse cart moved, Minerva cried out and asked Nicolo: "H-Hey, I-Is it really okay for that guy to lie down in the horse cart?"
"Sigh, probably?" Hearing her question, Nicolo answered in a sleepy, lazy tone: "He's a monster. His arrow wounds from yesterday are almost completely healed. What does that guy usually eat for him to have a body that recovers so quickly......"
By eating people's lives— Chris still couldn't say those words. However, Nicolo's words raised a question in Chris's heart......
—My injuries heal very quickly? Is that so? Is it possible that it's because my body is really the body of the Beast?
The thought caused him to shudder. In fact, he never had the military doctor of his squad tend to his injuries in the past. So, there was not any information for him to judge if his wound recovery was quick or slow. However, that moment......
—So I really am a beast living on by swallowing lives.
When he thought of that, Chris felt like tearing open the freshly-stitched wounds open with his fingernails...... When he woke up from his nightmare, he saw Minerva on the same horse cart as he was as soon as he opened his eyes. Her gaze was on him, and she turned away right after that.
He tried to lift his head slightly and shift his gaze outside the horse cart, and saw Gilberto riding on a horse while Francesca was by his side, her golden hair reflecting the morning rays exceptionally dazzlingly.
—Was the situation the same as well?
—This time, did I survive because of the Beast's blood as well?
Chris could not reach a conclusion. He closed his eyes once again.
After midnight of the next day, the members of the Order finally arrived at a large village. It was already Zaccarian territory. Because of that, the villagers eventually came out to welcome Francesca when they saw her. But speaking of which, the total number of soldiers was over a thousand, and with the horses as well, if they really had to stay for a few days, finishing up the horse feed and well water was something that would happen sooner or later.
"I wish to borrow your storerooms for us to have a night's rest here. Can you please give us some food and water? I shall send someone over with the payment after this."
"What payment? How can we take that! Our village doesn't have anything but if you want beer, we can provide some for you instead."
The village chief's answer gave the soldiers much excitement. Even though Francesca reminded them that they shouldn't drink too much as they had to set off from the village in the morning, not one of them listened.
They drank by campfires. Chris sat on a patch of grass at a side as well, looking at them laughing while he leant on the pile of luggage at a shady spot.
He felt a sense of alienation from the surroundings, from the scene, from the wounds, the bright illumination from the campfire surrounded by people, and the people laughing around there......
—Is it really fine for me to stay here?
—Should I allow myself to continue living?
—The battle ended, but I'm in a situation where everyone is smiling at each other in a circle. Is that really okay?
"Hey, newbie!" "Don't fall asleep! You won't be able to wake up if you do!" "Wahahaha! Look at him! Is that Meena's doing?"
All of a sudden, the topic of discussion focused on him while he was hugging his knees by the pile of luggage, making him raise his head. That moment, a crowd of unfamiliar soldiers— no, Chris had already seen these people. He just never asked for them, and never spoke to them before. They headed towards Chris, each looking quite drunk.
"I-Is there anything wrong?" Chris asked the people.
"Isn't it cold for you to sit here? That's bad for the wounds." "See how we make your body warm from inside to the outside!"
"Ah, um, wait a minute......"
Disregarding Chris's intentions, the people forcibly pulled him to the campfire, stuffing a cup the size of an urn into his hands. Chris took the cup before he was able to refuse them, and all of the surrounding people came to pour beer for him. The others surrounding the campfire gradually sat by Chris's side as well.
—What the heck? Why are these people suddenly......
"......Um, about the beer......"
Chris was unable to swallow wine stronger than grape wine.
"How old are you?"
One of them asked. When Chris answered that he was seventeen, "Then just drink while pinching your nose!" An illogical answer tossed the question back again. Then, the people started clamoring, even poking him with their elbows to urge him to drink. Chris did not have any choice but to take a sip, and frantically coughed after that with his face flushed, making the surrounding soldiers fall onto the ground laughing.
"......Sorry for yesterday."
One of them abruptly said. Chris stared blankly at him with his eyes widened.
"Saying that you're a harbinger of misfortune who would kill one of your own...... Haha, it seems like your legend did not affect our luck at all."
"Yeah, and this guy helped us protect the Captain's small butt from being violated by the enemy."
"Sorry." "Yeah, the Captain's chagrin is more important to us than the land of the Principality!" "Haha, that's true!"
—Why are these people apologizing to me? Even though I'm......
"Say, where did you learn that way of killing from?"
"All of us shuddered when we saw that. Good thing we didn't meet you three days ago." "Yeah. You would've been our enemy that time if so!"
"Hah, we have good luck, didn't I keep telling ya? Our Captain is a goddess who brings luck!"
Listening to the soldiers' hearty chuckles, he felt tortured, as though someone was prying open the wounds on him with a pick.
—Luck? There's no such thing......
—There will be one day when the beast in me will......
—Sooner or later I will have to swallow your fates to the bones......
—No, please don't talk to me anymore, please...... Don't laugh by my side......
"Can you please stop counting Captain in? It's enough with Paola alone. She's not some sort of goddess of luck, but a true goddess of fortune!"
"Yeah! A true goddess of fortune!"
"If so, doesn't that mean we have a true soul reaper as well? It's Meena!" "Ahahahaha!"
The laughs by the people surrounding the campfire whooshed by Chris's ears like cold wind.
"Say, the Meena yesterday wasn't like a soul reaper at all, but just an extremely normal pure maiden!"
"Yeah, seeing her face drained of blood, like she's asking what she should do if this kid died."
"It was the first time I saw her like that" "She looks cuter that way!" "Agreed!"
"Hey, I'll say, if it's this kid......" "Yep!" "There's a chance!"
As the surrounding people chatted, meaningful smiles suddenly surfaced as they exchanged perverted gazes. Then, "Kid, listen, you're the only man in the Captain's squad of personal guards." The soldier with light brown eyes sitting by Chris's side said to Chris with his mouth curling.
"......The first? But......"
—What about Gilberto? Isn't he the head of the Captain's personal guards?
"Even though our Chief's strong, he still isn't a man." "Yeah, no balls." "Captain asked him to sleep in the same room as her, and he actually refused!" "Yeah, it's an opportunity all of us dream of!" "Kid, you'll have to investigate this properly for us!" "Because we started bets on things like, is the hair under Meena red, and the like......" "Wahahahaha, but nobody had the skill to confirm that, so the money we bet is still hanging there!" "People who would dare to do that would lose their lives, after all!" "Most probably, the only person who can evade that sword is the Chief." "Yeah. Pity he doesn't have balls."
That moment, the people sitting opposite to Chris suddenly paled, springing up from the ground and the chairs, while the insensitive people sitting by Chris froze all of a sudden as well. A foreign presence that was totally alien to the atmosphere appeared behind Chris, making his head hurt so much that he wanted to look for a hole to hide in— he actually wasn't able to notice his appearance at all. However, from the shocked reaction of the surrounding people, he should have noticed it long ago.
Chris slowly turned around and saw a suit of pitch-black armor and a cold longsword. When he raised his gaze, he saw the pair of bright marble-like eyes.
A soldier in black laughed emptily.
"C, C-C-C-Chief— Ah, um...... W-We— We're talking about cannonballs of the catapult machine!"
"T, T-T-That's right, we're thinking where we should look for the supplies......" "Oi, you idiots, we don't have a catapult machine at all!"
The voices with slight quavers hissed to each other. When Gilberto took a step forward, the people tossed their cups away and hid at the other side of the campfire.
However, Gilberto didn't even look at them. He shifted his gaze to Chris, looking at him coldly. Under a subconscious impulse, Chris put down his cup and stood up from the ground.
"......Are your injuries okay?"
Gilberto's question made Chris's eyes widen in surprise. He never thought that Gilberto would be concerned of his injuries, and thus nodded somewhat unnaturally.
"Did you battle in that way from before?"
Gilberto suddenly grabbed Chris's right arm, causing cold sweat to seep abruptly from Chris's face.
"You always target the enemies' weapons or wrists. Is that your subconscious choice? Is it because you don't wish to kill?"
Chris swallowed after hearing that.
"If you keep doing dumb stuff like that, normal swords would break in no time."
Gilberto noticed it. In the few seconds when they were dealing with the enemy back to back......
"After this, don't think of rushing into the enemy's ranks like a mad dog. If you die, their attacks will reach Lady Fran very quickly, so it's best if you remember this."
Chris averted his gaze, retracting his right hand at the same time, locking his hand on the arm of his left hand, applying force to squeeze his left arm with his fingertips.
—But I don't know other ways of fighting......
—How can a person like me be someone's guard? How can a person like me know how to fight to protect the other?
That moment, Gilberto placed his hand on the hilt of the longsword tied to his waist, making Chris take a step backwards.
However, Gilberto's action was not to unsheathe his sword, but to untie the longsword instead, handing it to Chris. His act shocked Chris. He gazed blankly at the longsword before his eyes and turned around to look at Gilberto again.
"I'm lending you this sword." Gilberto said.
"......Eh? Huh? What?"
"I think you can't change your way of fighting at a moment's notice. Material superior to the metal making up the sword probably can't be found even if you comb through the Seven Countries of the East. Take it. After all, members of the personal guards can't always look for weapons in battles. That will endanger Lady Fran's life. Don't you lose this sword. Return it to me when you find a better weapon that suits you more."
Chris took the sword that Gilberto was handing to him, his heart still in disbelief over what was happening before his eyes. The workmanship of the sword in his hands was startlingly good, and it was unbelievably light in the hands. It was definitely not something that one would lend people just like that.
—Why did he...... Chris raised his head to look at Gilberto with a look of disbelief once again. That moment, he suddenly tossed a question to him again.
"I'm asking you for you name— I haven't heard it from you personally."
Before answering, a sound choked in his throat, moving his heart.
—When...... was the last time I told the others of my name?
—The name Mother gave me...... Minerva knew it before we even met......
—Even so, right now...... I want to answer him...... I want to tell Gilberto my name. Why is that?
Hearing Chris's answer, his brows furrowed for a moment. He then turned around and said, "You can just call me Gil."
From the instant Chris took the sword from Gilberto, the surrounding people were looking with bated breath. That moment, all of them gulped at the same time, and some even made sounds of admiration. Chris could think of the reason. It was because, Francesca was probably the only person in the whole Order who could call him Gil.
"It's hard for one to call a person's full name on the battlefield."
Gilberto said coldly, and rose to leave. Chris held the longsword with his hands, staring blankly at his leaving silhouette.
—What the heck is this guy thinking...... Chris did not understand. However, the longsword he was holding was unquestionably lent to him by Gilberto.
"You're...... seriously amazing......"
"Chief, he......" "Didn't he?" "It was the first time we've seen him like that......"
Chris gazed at the silhouette of the knight clad in black armor while listening to the surrounding soldiers' thoughts, then pressed the cold longsword to his chest. That moment, the people's clamors reached his brain once again, various smells stimulating his senses as well. Fragrance of wine, the aromatic smell of grease from roasted meat, and the smell of grass from the farm, all of the smells mixed together in the night breeze, emanating through the whole village.
As she said from the start, the place Francesca slept in was the storeroom in the village head's house.
"She really won't go back on her words......"
The village chief couldn't help but smile wryly when they talked about Francesca's stubborn personality as he led the way for Chris at the outskirts of the farm. Francesca probably told the village chief that she couldn't sleep in someone's warm house since she already mentioned before her men that she was to sleep in someone's storeroom.
"This way, please. Then allow me to excuse myself."
The village chief stretched out his hand to point at a small house emitting a faint glow through the windows and the door seams, bowed at Chris and turned around to leave after handing the oil lamp he was holding to Chris.
The storeroom was spread full of white cloth. There were so much that it would make people wonder if they were collected after searching through the whole village. The flags of the Dukedom and the order were hung on the wall. Francesca lied elegantly on soft wool, enjoyably sipping her apple wine. Minerva squatted by Francesca's side while doing something under Paola's instructions. When she saw Chris entering, she suddenly hid her hand behind her. It seemed like she was holding something.
"D-Don't just barge in all of a sudden!"
She called out while randomly grabbing something to throw at Chris.
Chris hurriedly shut the door and left, almost smashed by the object thrown by Minerva that hit the door instead of him. It fell before the seam of the door. It was actually a stone pestle used to grind herbs.
"What does it matter. Enter. It is cold tonight. You can warm my feet in place of beast fur."
"Fran, don't act recklessly!"
"Hmm...... Speaking of which...... This medicine was ground for Chris, so why don't you put it on for him, Meena?"
"Paola, don't be such a busybody!"
Chris listened to the three girls talking in varying degrees of loudness and couldn't help but sigh. He removed the sword on his waist and hung it on the wall outside the storeroom, sitting down by the windows.
"Chris, didn't I ask you to enter?"
The window opened, and Francesca poked her head out of the window. Paola approached the windowsill as well.
"I, um...... I'm here as security. Gilberto handed me the job......"
"You sleep at other storerooms, it's enough for me to guard her!" Hearing that, Minerva came closer to speak to Chris as well: "You're hurt! Who told you to be a guard— This is your medicine, here— Hurry up and scram after taking your medicine and look for a place to sleep!"
Minerva pressed the outstretched herbal medicine by Chris's ear. Warmth lingered on the freshly-ground herbs from its grinding, and it had a strong smell of grass as well. However, Minerva's rough actions almost stuffed the herbs into Chris's ears.
"Um...... Herbs aren't used like that......" Paola timidly said at a side.
"Huh? That sword?"
Francesca was the one to notice it first. From the side, Minerva's eyes widened as she saw it as well.
"Isn't that Gilberto's sword? Why is it on you?" Minerva asked.
"......He lent it to me."
Although Chris did not think they would believe it, he still explained the things that occurred thoroughly. Hearing that, Minerva heaved a sigh and shrugged, while Francesca said while smiling after repeating the same actions for a few times: "That guy really isn't truthful enough......"
"Speaking of which, where's Gilberto? Where did he run off to? Didn't I say that the five of us have to celebrate?"
"Hmm, I seem to recall that he said that he's going back to the Zaccaria Castle to report the results of the battle." Minerva said.
"Didn't I tell him to go there tomorrow...... Whatever, then let the four of us have a pajama party to celebrate ourselves!"
Minerva furrowed her brows when she heard that and pulled Francesca and Paola into the storeroom. She closed the window forcefully, almost hitting Chris's nose.
"......But I deliberately arranged a place by your side to sleep at." Francesca said.
"Shush, hurry up and sleep!"
After the conversation got cut off abruptly, Chris leant against the wall while hugging the longsword Gilberto lent to him. However, the window was suddenly opened once again. It was Minerva. She stretched out her arm and threw out quite a few white cloths that covered his head.
"......Ah...... Thank you."
After thanking her, the window was closed once again without any response from her.
Chris used the cloths to cover his body with the areas above his neck exposed, raising his head to look at the unblemished night sky. Not far away from the fence, there were still people fooling around the campfire. There were songs that went off-pitch due to drunkenness as well.
Chris thought that all of that was just surreal. Even though it was the night-time that he was the most afraid of, even though a battle had finished, he couldn't remember the faces of the enemies he met the previous night, the feeling of piercing through enemies' flesh and blood with his sword, the pain of his flesh cut open by the halberd, and the condition of the enemy soldier who died with blood seeping out from his neck at all. He closed his eyes, seeing the happy faces of the people who survived. It was the first time in his life that he experienced such a night.
Chris woke up suddenly from his bleary sleep due to an abnormal movement around him. He stretched out his hands to search for the longsword covered below the white cloths by his hand. That moment, the campfire was already extinguished, while the sounds of frolicking around the campfire had gone silent. All was silent under the night sky. The only thing that was still awake was the dark grassy land and the estate surrounding the house. The coldness almost made people yawn. Such an atmosphere was probably just a scene before daybreak. There weren't any sounds around at all, and neither were there moving people and animals. However......
—What was that small noise just now? Chris noticed it. The abnormal presence came from behind him— from the storeroom behind him.
—Someone is crying?
Just when he was stretching his hand out to open the window, the voice that passed through the wall made Chris convulse without prior warning.
"Don't move, don't you move......"
It was Minerva's voice. She noticed Chris's movements. Chris saw the scene through the window in the instant she cried out. That moment, Minerva had her back against the wall of the storeroom, and was sitting down on the floor while hugging her knees.
Chris breathed out, and turned around to sit down while leaning against the exterior wall of the storeroom once again.
"I'm fine, you just stay outside...... I'm just feeling a bit of pain, it's okay......" Minerva said to Chris through the wall of the storeroom.
—Did she...... see a scene from the future once again?
—That's right, I remember her saying that she hates sleeping......
—Seeing the future......
—Because she can feel the pain of death from the death omens she sees......
"Just stay outside the door." Minerva said.
Her words made Chris clench his ten fingers on his kneecap.
—What kind of pain is this......?
—When did Minerva start shouldering such torture......?
Minerva stretched her hand out from the window. Her white arms were trembling continually. Chris caught hold of Minerva's hand in his confusion. The two palms overlapped tightly. At first, Chris could still clearly feel Minerva's five slender fingers trembling continually, but when her palm started to get warm in Chris's hand, the trembling gradually calmed down and stopped.
A long silence enveloped the area surrounding his and her palms, the fading time almost making people feel that it was about to get light. After some time of consolation, Minerva finally stopped her choking, but the surroundings were still bathed in the pitch-darkness of the night sky. She suddenly pushed Chris's hand aside again. Chris felt her pressing her hand back to her chest, hugging her knees.
"W-Who asked you to care for me......?" For some reason, Minerva suddenly snapped at Chris: "Forget what happened just now— Ngh...... Whatever, it's nothing!"
"That's not the case at all......"
Minerva was about to close the window when Chris realized it and hurriedly stopped the closing window. From the seam, he saw a pair of slender ears and neck through the red hair on Minerva's back.
"W-What are you doing, I don't need you to care. Even though you said that you're going to guard the door, you still dozed off in the end, useless fellow!"
"......Sorry. But...... But I just wanted to look at your face and hear your voice. That's all, so just relax......"
Because Minerva was the only person who did not die even though her fate was swallowed by the beast. If she were to go missing one day, Chris would have to avoid all contact with other people, walking alone in the night once again.
However, Minerva did not seem to understand. With a turn, she grabbed Chris's wrist, clenching furiously onto him, "Idiot! Only you were able to sleep well, I-I—"
"What sort of future did you see?" Chris asked.
"You don't need to know!"
"Tell me, because I am staying by your side just to eat up the signs of death that you foresee."
Chris grabbed the longsword by his side and squeezed his upper torso through the window. Minerva raised her head, her moist eyes meeting that of Chris's. That instant, their voices were completely hidden in the profound night.
Chris opened his mouth, but was unable to speak, and could only huff out breath that lost all temperature. On the other hand, Minerva's gaze wandered, and refocused on Chris in determination after some effort. She said: "It's you!" While biting her lips so hard that it almost bled, Minerva thought of how to speak of her next words as she trembled.
"You used that sword to kill me, I saw my face reflected on the blade of the sword!"
Her words made Chris grip the hilt of the sword in his hands reflexively, and he was unable to realize the significance of Minerva's words that moment.
"I saw it...... I saw you using that sword— Gilberto's sword to pierce through my brows!"
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