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煤 ま み れ の 騎 士
Chapter 3 – Part 4
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Well worn-on was the night, but I would not retire to the tents just yet. Through the 1st’s garrison I walked, and a short while of the stroll took me to the foot of a hill, to the top of which I climbed. There splayed before me in the moonlit landscape was the object of my egging interest: the Des Ailes Greatbridge.
It arched over the barely babbling Erbelde, not terribly far and below from the high slope whence I stood. Seventeen passūs wide. Eighty-one passūs long. A latticed mass of timberwork, ponderous in its girth. Arrays of campfires dotted both ends, illuminating the long-sworn foes as they gnashed their teeth at one another.
I continued observing the war-torn scene for a few more whiles.
The Nafílim—this would be the first time in all the years of my life that I’ve laid eyes upon them. And just as I had heard, they were inseparable in appearance from us humans, their sole distinction being their tawned complexion.
Our warring methods differed little as well: with weapons and magicks they fought, all under the guidance of codified chains of command.
Adept were their movements. Intriguingly so. Unfortunately for them, the men of the 1st were steps ahead. Their knightly deftness was a thing of awe, sure to raise many a brow.
This battle saw our kingdom’s forces as the aggressor, seeking to secure the opposite banks that the Nafílim defended with no small jealousy. Reason dictates that the latter should simply demolish the bridge, and for their part, the Nafiílim seemed to agree, if their movements were anything to go by. But in the face of the 1st’s masterful tactics, that goal remained beyond reach.
The Nafílim were not fain to blow up the bridge, not as long as their own ranks were stationed upon it. Ever were the 1st wise to this, fighting in such a way as to leave their foes with little choice but to permanently maintain a presence upon that great wooden span.
At any point when the Nafílim pulled back, the 1st would push forth, preserving both distance and formations all the while. And when the Nafílim pressed forth, the 1st would fall back, shields and palings rigidly raised. A veritable tug-of-war, one that the 1st partook with unbroken concentration. Only by alternating their active brigades and optimising the employment of their surgiens were the 1st’s hosts able to sustain themselves through so long a struggle.
On occasion, the 1st would unleash a fierce offence, full-keen on shattering through the embattled line. Well-timed, these tactics were, let loose whenever the Nafílim had already fallen far back, and the sheer aggression acted effectively in keeping our foe constantly on their toes.
In beholding such cunning warcraft, it was readily apparent that the 1st held within their numbers commanders of superb prowess, even amongst their intermediate ranks. Here were the Nafílim likely reminded of a grave truth of war: retreating from such a formidable force would surely come at a dear and deadly cost.
“Ey up, mickle-berk!” came a call as I observed the battlefield. From further down the slope climbed Raakel, with Gerd and Sheila in tow. “What ye faffin’ up here ‘bout, ey?”
“I thought to have a look at the bridge, no less,” I answered.
“To see with your eyes the state of affairs, I take it?” guessed Sheila. “My sweet swain, ever the eager schoolboy, you are. I doubt you will glean aught, but the effort certainly earns mine admiration.”
“Such words, I am not worthy,” I humoured her. “Are you all here to observe as well?”
“Why else? Unlike you, we have need of knowing the goings-on of the battlefield—at all times, of course,” Gerd quipped.
“Oh? Surprised am I to find company up here,” spoke a shadow. “Hasn’t the march taxed you all enough? I think it best to retire for the night, honoured knights of the 5th.” Up the slope emerged Erik Lindell, Lieutenant of the 1st’s Owlcranes.
“And rest we shall. We are merely come to glean a glimpse of what awaits us on the morrow,” Sheila replied. “I, too, bid you a sweet slumber tonight, Lord Lindell.”
“As sweet a slumber a battlefield will bestow. But before I retire myself, I should like to have a word with this young fellow, if I may,” Lindell returned, shifting his gaze to me. “The fair lady Emilie spoke highly of you, my young yeoman. Particularly of how instrumental you were in the success of the Belithas march. A laudable deed for a mere swain, I will admit.”
“You humble me, good sir.”
“I take it you are well-versed in matters of military strategy? Where might have you honed that keen ken of yours, my good man?”
“My teacher is but myself. Books have long been a fancy to me.”
“Ah, and so they have. A marvellous man indeed!” Lindell’s face was aloft with the glow of surprise. “Yet to be made to fight in so far-flung a fringeland… The fates never spare an inkling of ease for fresh swains nowadays, do they?”
“By your measure, I would be quite the pickled swain, sir, for I now serve in my third year,” I corrected.
“…Third year, you say?”
“I am but an inept and unblessed swain, shamefully so to this very day.”
If there ever was an unmistakable example of befuddlement, it would be Lindell’s face at this very moment.
“His is but a soul to which no measure of odyl has been granted, Lord Lindell,” Sheila began explaining upon seeing the lieutenant so puzzled. “Yoná, Deiva Suprēma, has spurned him of Her holy grace. What was given to him was only Her silence.”
“S… so the rumours rang true… that such a man loitered within the ranks of the 5th… I see. ‘Twas you.”
The quizzical astonishment that once misarranged Lindell’s features crumbled into quaking animosity, twisting his face into one of reddened wrath.
“Unholy hound. What foul business have you with the Order? Hm? What make you of us knights, that you would consort with us so for your own merriment and mockery?” seethed Lindell, his voice grating with unfettered anger. Drawing up dreadfully close, the lieutenant threw forth his hands and seized me by the collars. “Speak! Why oh why must I share a battlefield with this… this half-souled heathen!? Come to play now, have you!?”
“Nay, it is neither my intent to idle nor play, sir,” I tried to answer calmly.
“A godless dreg such as you shall not be suffered here! For this battle reckons both the holy and the profane!”
“And I reckon that it does not, sir.”
“Y… you!” fumed Lindell, before forcing me to the ground. Impressive was his strength, befitting a knight of his high stature. With it, he dropped down upon my torso and wrung up my collars once more, before jerking my face up to his, that he may scream into it with full fury. “Misbegotten wastrel! Feign to stand by her side, do you!? Do you, now!?”
I see the way of it.
Behind the storming curtains of rage and contempt for the ungraced was a smitten heart beating out the fair name of Emilie Mernesse.
I figured as much, given his honeyed manner whilst conversing with her earlier, when the war council had ended. The dame of the “Aureola”, veritable jewel of the 5th, beautiful and breathtaking in her brilliance—and a lieutenant of the Owlcranes to boot, just like him. Simple to see, then, how this man might have been so utterly taken with her.
And what name would sooner sing from her lips than that of “Rolf Buckmann”—my own, and as he just discovered, the name of the notorious ungraced. Erik Lindell was not one to suffer such a farce.
“I am but a swain, and to the Lady Emilie, nothing more,” I attempted to explain.
“Of damned course you are! Don’t you dare wet my ears with that obvious drivel!!”
It would seem I had driven him past the burning brink. Still sat upon me, Lindell proceeded to hammer at my face with his two fists, their vehemence clearly bent on taking my life. I shielded myself with both my arms, but to inadequate avail: blood was shed, darkly drenching Lindell’s coiled hands.
“Heretic! Cur-bastard, you!” he screamed. For all things a person of passion he was, whether in courting a mistress or killing a man. Crossing his path was a fell misfortune, one that earned my untarnished displeasure.
“S-sir! Stay your hand! You mean to murder him!?” came Gerd, rushing in to part us two.
“I do! Why, we ought to gain from his immediate death! Here! Now! This rubbish has been spared the pyre overlong!”
“You speak madness! He’s one of us! Shog off, will you!?” With heaving effort, Gerd tore the lieutenant away.
“That bastard… belongs not by her side… belongs nowhere at all…!!” Lindell coarsely hissed, his eyes crazed with rage as he trained them upon me. But even if I were to heed his wailings, I could not just up and vanish before his eyes, all to simply soothe his nerves.
I got back on my feet, in the while wiping away the blood coursing from my cut lips. In time, the dust settled, and the ire in Lindell’s eyes cooled to a smoulder.
Collected once again, he looked to us all.
“…You will forgive me for the ruckus,” he said. “Owlcranes. My leave, I take.” Words reserved only for the other three. Turning on his heels, Lindell left the hill. We watched on in silence till he faded from view.
“Lord Gerd, you have my thanks,” were my honest words. Had I given in to resisting the lieutenant’s raining fury, Lindell likely would have flown further into a frenzy—from there, who knows what might have transpired?
“If you think I stopped him for your sake, you thought wrong,” Gerd corrected before returning to the garrison.
“That Lindell fellow—by gum, a loose bag o’ bolts he be, eh?” Raakel commented. “Right then, I should go hit the sack meself.”
“My poor swain,” spoke Sheila. “You had best treat those wounds on your face soon, lest they harry you in the heat of the morrow’s battle.”
With that, the remaining two left for the tents themselves. Sheila had not the epiphany of soothing the wounds of an ungraced, it seemed, surgien though she was. But what she lacked in inspiration, she made up for with consideration, at the very least, even if all she offered were words.
She was right, though. I had better wash and salve the wounds, lest my eyes swell or somesuch. After one last look at the bridge, I descended the hill and made way to the medics’ tents.
“Rolf! Your face…! What’s happened!?”
Morning had come, and just as expected, Emilie was aghast at the sight of my sudden injuries.
“I kissed the ground too enthusiastically, my Lady,” I tried to pass off the situation.
“You mean you tripped? No trip would wound you so, Rolf!”
Of course not.
Let’s not fool ourselves here.
While I anticipated that Emilie would respond as she did, I had not the wherewithal to come up with a proper excuse. More than anything, I wished to avoid sowing in Emilie any seedling of doubt towards the 1st, this very hour being the eve of an important battle and all. But knowing her, she might have deferred to Gerd had I kept silent.
“Lieutenant Lindell of the 1st,” I let slip from my lips. It was no use hiding it now. “It would seem I’ve earned his disfavour.”
“Sir Erik? But why?”
“Because I am ungraced, my Lady.”
“What? All because of that…!?”
And because he yearned for your affection, and in so doing, lost himself to his base emotions and precipitated the situation before you. This, of course, I chose not to reveal. Had Emilie known of such, she most certainly would have partly blamed herself for it.
But to read of Lindell’s fancy for her just from his manners, and see the jealousy that sprouted from such feelings—it would seem I’ve grown enough to discern delusions of dalliance when I see it, if I do say so myself.
Would that I was more so, perhaps I could have showered Emilie with honeyed words of my own affection while we were yet betrothed. Whether or not the fates would have torn us apart anyway, at the very least I felt shame in not having done for her aught befitting of a fiancé.
Be that as it may, I could not let Emilie be taken by her own emotions. She would surely try to declare a protest to the 1st at the earliest, but I foresaw only trouble in doing so.
“Lady Emilie. We can ill-afford to stir up strife between the Orders now, not when we’re to join arms in the battle to come,” I stated calmly. “Victory comes first, before all else.”
“I know that, all too well, yet… You cannot expect me to just sit idly by, Rolf!”
“It will be dealt with once the battle settles. But at present, more pressing matters demand your full attention, my Lady.” The mired moment that followed found her roiling in silence. “Lady Emilie?”
“…Fine, then,” she consented with no small reluctance.
Too much hinged on this day. The fording operation sure to decide the battle, the knights who would wager their lives to see it through—now was not the time to debase the gravity of it all with a play of finger-pointing. Fortunately, such was not lost to Emilie.
And at the heart of the garrison was Mareschal Tiselius, giving a briefing on the fording operation to come, one that would decide the fate of the month-long struggle for dominance over the Erbelde basin.
──── Notes ────
(plural: passūs) A unit of measure used by the ancient Romans, taken from the length of a pace (2 steps). 1 metre is equal to 0.6757 of a passus. A passus, therefore, can be roughly equated to 1 and a half metres.
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