After passing through Mt. Tigerwolf and tredging along the basin for two and a half days, they finally arrived at Sarady.
The two stumbled upon a most unusual sight. Despite Sarady being a small hilltop village built upon a mountainous region, people crowded the streets. Even with the long rows of simple houses taken into account, this was far too many people. The families sitting on the dust-filled streets, the middle-aged men plopped down on the ground with their torn backpacks—everyone gazed at the afternoon sky with lifeless eyes.
According to the info Age gathered, most of the miserable lot came here seeking refuge from Geil’s political upheaval. They stayed in Lenankamp for a while, but had to migrate here when Geil’s influence extended to Lenankamp.
“Hmm… Well, I guess we’re not the only ones with problems.”
“That’s exactly why we’ve got to stick it through!” remarked Age with a glint in his eye.
“If we can save Tir, General Teo will be able to fight. And with Geil’s forces crushed, everyone will be saved.”
Age was absolutely right. They walked around some more to gather info. It seemed like Sarady was still free from Geil’s influence, as information gathering went considerably smoother than in Gregminster.
“Actually, Geil’s soldiers were here just a while ago,” answered the item shopkeeper.
“I’ve been hearing all about ‘em, but those rotten bastards really are something else. They tried walking off with my wares when they came around here. I can’t tell you if they’ve got a kid with ‘em, but they should be at the inn right now.”
Gremio wasted no time bolting towards the inn.
“Umm, excuse me!!” gasped a panting Gremio.
A beautiful woman came out from the back room to the front desk. Petite-frame, white-skinned, short red hair, blue eyes, a penetrating gaze; at a glance, she looked to be a beautiful woman in her 40s. This beautiful lady, donning a stained apron above her crimson red dress, appeared to be the proprietress of the inn.
“What is it? If it’s a room you want, you’re outta luck. We’re not taking any guests right now,” answered the proprietress with a scowl.
“…Eh? Why’s that?”
The proprietress signaled towards the room to the side of the entrance with her chin. The sound of broken dishes and raunchy laughs came from inside the room.
Gremio immediately understood the situation. No guests were allowed to stay the night because the inn was under the occupation of Geil’s troops. But Age and Gremio’s objective was not to spend the night here.
“No, that’s not quite it. Actually, we’re…”
Gremio was cut short by a soldier opening the door. Gremio was flustered as there was no way he could reveal that he was looking for a kid the soldiers very likely took captive.
The proprietress did not look very pleased with Gremio, Even the rotten-breathed soldier approached Gremio with “Who the hell are you?”
“Oh no, it’s nothing really.” Age quick-wittedly changed the subject.
“We were hoping there’d be something to eat here. You see, we came a long way to get here and we’re starving.”
“Hmm, I see.”
She continued after the soldier returned to the room.
“With things the way they are, don’t be expectin’ anything fancy now. Why don’t you wait at the table by the window there.”
Apparently bitter at the rowdy soldiers, she pointed towards the table by the narrow lobby before disappearing into the back room.
Thankful for the proprietress’ kindness, Gremio put down his belongings and sat down with Age. After all, ever since leaving Gregminster, they had been living on the rations Age pilfered from the bandits. It was only natural for them to be so excited to finally feast on a decent meal.
Of course, they did not forget to eavesdrop on the conversations the soldiers occupying the big room within were having. But nothing fitting Tir’s description came up in their banter. They were more concerned with vulgar topics such as which girl in the village the finest behind belonged to.
At last their food arrived. The two put a pause to their eavesdropping and frantically stuffed their mouths, filling their stomachs.
Although it was a simple pilaf made with leftover ingredients, it was truly delicious.
“Gosh, that was good!”
Age pet his stomach in satisfaction. But as for Gremio, his stomach began to stir in anxiety. With the sun beginning to set and only three days—including today—remaining, they couldn’t afford to sit around waiting for the soldiers to talk about Tir.
Just then, the proprietress came to their table with a sullen face.
“Are you boys done eating yet? I’m sorry to rush you, but I need you to leave now.”
Gremio was troubled by her words. If they were kicked out, they wouldn’t be able to pick up any valuable info from the soldiers.
“B-But why? We appreciate the delicious meal you prepared for us, but to tell us to leave all of a sudden…”
“I’m sure you’ve already noticed, but…we’re not exactly in the best of circumstances here…” uttered the proprietress with a sigh.
“Look, we’ve got some real nasty guests here. They get violent after a few drinks, and it only gets worse when we’re out of drinks. Hell, even the Mt. Tigerwolf Bandits behave better. I’m saying this for your own good. Trust me, you want to get out of here before they come picking on you.”
Gremio did not know how to respond. She spoke in a rough manner, but was genuinely worried about them. Not wanting to force their stay and cause any trouble, Gremio began packing his belongings to leave.
“Oh yea! About—”
Gremio was going to ask about Tir when the proprietress interrupted,
“It’s ok, I’ll give you a discount for the meal. Just give me 300 potch.”
Gremio panicked at the thought of paying. After all, he was captured back at the mansion in the middle of the night and took nothing but his own axe when he left Teo’s camp, Gremio did not have a single potch on him. He looked nervously at Age who only returned the troubled gaze.
“O-Oh no, Age… Don’t tell me…”
“Hey, I thought you were you gonna pay for the food this whole time…”
The proprietress’ facial expression immediately changed. Her forehead, covered with red hair, twitched.
“You’ve gotta be kidding me! You didn’t come in here expectin’ a free meal now, did ya?”
Her voice packed so much force it was hard to believe it came from such a small, petite woman. They desperately fumbled through their pockets, but all that came out were Age’s treasured slingshot, an insect-bitten acorn, a candy wrapper, and a dirty handkerchief—things of no monetary value.
“I figured you were tired from traveling around and tried to be nice to you, and this is how you pay me back?! God damn it! I oughta tie you up and feed you to the mountain wolves!”
With her sudden change in behavior, Gremio felt as if he was being threatened by Mt. Tigerwolf Bandits. At this rate, it wouldn’t be long before they were turned into wolf feed. Gremio hastily took Age’s backpack off of him and handed it over to the proprietress.
“We’re really sorry! That wasn’t our plan at all! Please, in exchange for the food, take anything from this bag. Anything at all! Please, forgive us!”
“Hmm… Let’s see what you got…”
Glaring at Gremio, the proprietress began rummaging through the backpack. The two silently prayed as they watched their articles being taken out of the bag.
“Two pieces of dried meat… an old, tattered rope… What’s with this stinkin’ leather sack?”
She opened up the bag to take a whiff.
“Heh, these here must be sleep pills… A glove with a gaping hole in it, a signaling whistle, half-used medicine… Damn it, there’s nothing but trash in here. Do you really expect to pay the bill with this garbage? To hell with it!”
The proprietress was furious. Age lowered his head in apology.
“S-Sorry! We didn’t have any real food on the way here, so we walked right in without thinking. We’ll work it off! Gremio’s good at cooking! Please, we’ll do anything!”
“Hmph, good at cooking, eh?” the proprietress refocused her glare at Gremio.
Gremio was afraid they wouldn’t be able to look for Tir if they were bound here; but right now, pacifying the proprietress came first.
“Y-Yes. There’s not much I can make, but I guarantee you my bread and stew are the absolute best!”
“Well then, let’s get you to work.”
The proprietress finally calmed down.
“I was just thinking of making stew tonight. Why don’t you cook us all dinner tonight? Be careful though, Geil’s soldiers can be real picky. Serve them a bad dish and your head might go flying.”
The exchange ended with her heading towards the kitchen. Gremio breathed a deep sigh of relief and turned to look at Age, who stuck his tongue out at Gremio in glee.
Following the proprietress’ orders, Gremio began preparing dinner. Presumably tired from having to deal with the disgustingly ill-mannered soldiers, the proprietress complained of a headache and went off into her room, leaving Gremio alone to work in the kitchen.
In other words, Gremio and Age were left to deal with the soldiers. But the two could not have asked for better circumstances. As Gremio washed the cylindrical pot, he recalled what Age had said a bit earlier.
“Hey, if we work here where all the soldiers are, we might be able to fish out some info on Tir’s whereabouts. And when we do, we’ll just scram.”
Age was right. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, as they say.
Gremio had already asked the proprietress about Tir. Impressed with the brisk pace at which Gremio worked, she answered frankly while grasping her head in pain.
“Sorry to say, but I haven’t heard anything about that. Besides, I couldn’t care less about what they were saying.”
Gremio was a tad disappointed, but they still had a way. Age pretended to clean the inn, giving him the perfect excuse to check out each room. Gremio waited for his return.
A loud thumping sound came from the second floor; Age must have been toiling away with the cleaning. Gremio suddenly began scrubbing real hard. By the time he polished it spick-and-span, Age showed up in the kitchen.
“Age! How’d it go?!”
“Something’s fishy…,” Age’s eyes lit up.
“I couldn’t find Tir anywhere, but the biggest room is looking really suspicious.”
“…? What do you mean?”
“That room is actually made up of two smaller rooms, and the door leading to the inner room is being guarded. When I tried to go in, they told me: ‘This room’s ok, just bring me some more booze.’”
Gremio’s heart was racing. Just the thought that Tir might be trapped in that room made it hard to keep still. Gremio threw his aside his scrubbing brush and flew out of the kitchen.”
“You idiot! Gremio!”
Age quickly grasped his arm.
”What the hell are you in such a hurry for?! You need to keep in mind we’re up against Geil’s elite here! Heck, we’re not even sure Tir’s in there. And even if he is, one wrong step could get him killed!”
Age’s screaming stopped Gremio in his tracks.
“I-I’m sorry. You’re right. Everything will have been for naught if we mess up here.”
“That’s right, we need to calm down and think this through… Like I said, Tir might not even be in there.”
“I know, but…”
Gremio breathed a long sigh and suppressed his urge to immediately barge into the room they suspected Tir was being held.
“How are we going to get inside that room? Hmm, there must be a way…”
“Well, first things first. We have to do something about that guard by the door.
Gremio paced about the kitchen with his arms folded. After all, they were going up against Geil’s elite troops. Gremio, in particular, learned the hard way that he was no match for them.
Then, what other options were there? Gremio looked around the kitchen. On the cooking counter were the ingredients for the stew all crammed together, while under it was Age’s backpack. An idea surfaced in Gremio’s head.
“What do you think about this?”
Gremio bent down and whispered into Age’s ear. Age nodded excitedly. Their next course of action was decided as their eyes met and they burst into laughter.
“I apologize for keeping you waiting. Tonight’s dinner is my special stew made with the utmost care.”
By the time the sun could no longer be seen beyond the mountain range surrounding the village of Sarady, Gremio began to put bowls of stew on a large tray and made his way to each room to serve dinner. Age, with lamp and bread basket in hand, followed behind him. While making the rounds, they made sure to observe each soldier carefully. It was as Age had said, all signs pointed to the soldiers being elite troops. Many had scars on their arms and shoulders, but all of them seemed battle-hardened.
Gremio entered the largest room to find a soldier planted on the single-seat sofa in front of the door leading to the inner room. Gremio was hit by a sudden urge to push away the soldier and open the door, but thankfully recalled Age’s warning and desperately restrained himself.
Having finished serving dinner to everyone, the two returned to the kitchen and plopped onto the chairs. The restless Gremio spoke.
“Don’t you think it's about time…?”
“You idiot! Didn’t we just finish serving dinner?! You said it yourself: if we mess up now, this will have all been for nothing!”
“I-I did, didn’t I…?”
As if Age had already made up his mind, he began serving himself stew. Gremio, on the other hand, was so worried about Tir it didn’t seem like anything would pass through his throat.
After some time, Gremio spoke again.
“Isn’t now a good time to—?”
And again Gremio closed his mouth. While staring into the flickering lamp, Gremio kept telling his impatient self “Just a little longer, just a little longer...” That was when…
The sound of broken dishes could be heard from the second floor. The two held their breath while maintaining eye contact. But no further sounds came from the second floor. Not even a “Clean this mess up,” or a “Bring us seconds, damn it.”
“Did it work…?!”
Age grabbed the lamp and bolted out of the room, with Gremio right behind him. They ran up the stairs and opened the door to the first room. In the dark room made visible by the lamp, the soldier had dropped his bowl of stew and was giving off a loud snore with each breath.
“W-We did it!”
“Yea, it’s all thanks to your awesome stew. It was so good they probably didn’t even notice the sleep medicine in there.
They closed the door and proceeded down the hallway. Room after room, they checked up on every soldier; as it turned out, they had all dozed off in the same manner.
At last, the two reached the front of the room at the end of the corridor. Age winked at Gremio. This was the suspicious double room where Tir was likely being held. Gremio was so ecstatic his heart nearly burst open.
Age gave a light knock. No response. Age knocked once more. No response indeed.
Age slowly opened the door. It was quite a big room, with three beds and a cozy sofa. Two soldiers on the sofa and another sitting on the sofa in front of the door leading to the inner room. They were, of course, sleeping.
“All right, let’s do this!”
Darting into the room, Age dragged the sofa, along with the soldier sitting on it, away from the inner door. In the meantime, Gremio was containing his raging heartbeat and grabbed the handle of the door.
In an unexpected turn of events, the door was locked.
Gremio cried out in panic and began banging on the door. A muffled whimper, as if talking through a gag, could be heard from the other side. There was no mistaking it—Tir was inside.
“Young Master! I know you’re in there! It’s me, Gremio! I’m here to save you. It won’t be long now, just hang in there!”
Age rushed to Gremio’s side upon hearing his voice.
“T-The door‘s locked!”
“Crap! Now what do we do?!”
“Age, search that soldier for the key. I’m going downstairs to look for duplicates.
Gremio left the room and ran down the stairs. He searched the reception area, but to no avail. Next, he opened the proprietress’ room only to find it completely empty; the proprietress must have gone out a while ago.
“Damn it! I can’t waste any more time here!”
Gremio returned to the kitchen to pick up his axe. He couldn’t afford to wait for the proprietress to come back. He would have to apologize to her later for breaking the door open with an axe.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?!”
Gremio turned around to find a soldier by the entrance, staring at Gremio in alarm. Behind the soldier stood seven thugs resembling bandits scowling at Gremio.
“You must be…!“
Gremio ran up the stairs as they bellowed after him.
“Age! Did you find the key?!”
“None of them have it here! How about you?”
“No luck here either! More importantly, we have a soldier with a crew of bandits on our tail!”
“What?! What do we do?!”
Rapid footsteps made their way across the hallway. There was no time to break the door, much less look for the key.
Not ready to go down without a fight, Age took out a slingshot from his pocket. Gremio stood ready with his axe in front of the door leading to the room where Tir was.
Before long, the soldier made his appearance with the drove of bandits behind him.
“Damn, they have us cornered!”
The soldier let out a crackle upon seeing the desperate Gremio clench his teeth.
“Ha, so that’s how it is. You must be here on orders from Teo. Sneaking in here to take back your precious hostage, eh? Sneaky little bastard, that Teo.”
“You have no right to call him that!”
Gremio would hold back no longer. He cared not what might happen to himself, but now that it had come to this, Tir’s life was also in danger.
“You guys are the real cowards for trying to bring Master Teo down by kidnapping the Young Master!”
“That’s right” You’re the dirty ones!” chimed in Age.
“You pathetic cowards resorted to kidnapping ‘cuz you know you don’t stand a chance General Teo’s Armored Cavalry!”
“Hmph! Say what you will!”
The soldier and the bandits drew their weapons.
“It’s too bad you couldn’t save the little brat. So I see you put sleeping pills in the food… It’s just too bad you didn’t know I was out calling for backup from the bandits at Mt. Tigerwolf.”
“Damn you!” Age’s slingshot-equipped arm trembled in remorse.
“But why would even you need the help of the bandits to begin with!?”
“We didn’t come all the way to this village just to hide the little brat. This place was nothing more than a step on our way to hand the kid over to the Mt. Tigerwolf Bandits. Don’t tell me you thought the Empire actually sent us elite soldiers out here to babysit this kid?
“So that’s how it is…,” Gremio said with regret.
“So, where’s the key?”
“The key to this room where you locked up the Young Master! Where is it?!”
The bandits burst out laughing. Their repulsive, condescending chuckles filled the room.
“W-What are you laughing at?!”
“Look kiddo, I know what you’re thinking, but do you really you can grab the key from me with those scrawny arms of yours?”
The soldier tugged on the slender chain hanging around his neck. The clank of the key resonated as it brushed against his breastplate.
“Come and get it if you can!”
“Ah, just my luck!”
Gremio pounced at the soldier, who easily evaded it. Before Gremio could regain his balance, he bumped into the bandit standing behind the soldier.
The bandit held Gremio down by his shoulders. Just then, Gremio suffered a painful blow to the stomach.
Seeing Gremio in pain made the bandit grin.
That kid is gonna make us rich. Geil’s paying us by the day and all we gotta do is babysit him. It’s only until they crush Teo’s battalion of course; so the longer Teo lives, the better our pay.
The bandits cracked up. Gremio was still wheezing from the punch, but he could no longer forgive these bandits for making a fool of Master Teo and the Young Master.
“Argh, to hell with you!”
Gremio held his breath to pull himself up and smashed the bandit’s jaw with the handle of his axe. The bandit fell, turning completely over as he went.
A brawl ensued as the other bandits joined in on the fight. Gremio swung his axe while Age maneuvered around. With the aim of a sharpshooter, Age landed acorn after acorn on the foreheads of the bandits charging after Gremio. Gremio followed up with his own attack against the bandits flinching from the acorn. This combination attack proved quite effective.
“…You little snots!”
A few bandits went after Age, but he gracefully evaded them using the bed spring. Even from where Gremio was standing, Age looked to be quite the agile one.
After putting down the third bandit, the enemy decided to change up their tactics. Having trouble against Age’s slingshot, they began to gang up on him.
The moment Age jumped onto the bed to evade an attack, another bandit yanked the bed sheets. Losing his balance, Age slipped and fell on the bed.
Gremio immediately jumped in with his axe to parry the attack aimed at Age. In that one instant, Gremio became completely defenseless.
The sword-swinging bandit managed to slash Gremio’s arm. Taking a boot to his stomach, Gremio fell to the ground. As for Age, a bandit had grabbed him by the neck.
“”Let me go, damn it!”
The soldier swung his sword towards the raging Age. Meanwhile, a bandit’s axe was about to land on the fallen Gremio.
Is…this it? Is this the end?
Just as Gremio closed his eyes and grit his teeth, he suddenly heard two loud clangs in rapid succession. If that was Age, then next was…
But the axe did not come down. What’s more, Age’s squealing could still be heard resonating across the room.
Gremio slowly opened his eyes to be greeted with…
“You two did well.”
A powerful, yet gentle voice fell upon his ears. Gremio opened up his eyes further to see the axe, a few millimeters short of his face, blocked by a rapier.
It turned out to be the proprietress who blocked the bandit’s axe. Gremio propped himself up in a hurry. The soldier who went after Age now lay on the ground, with his sword stuck on the wall. The loud clanging sounds turned out to be the sound of the proprietress parrying the soldier’s sword and blocking the bandit’s axe.
“You damn wench! Get out of the way if don’t wanna get hurt!”
The bandit who had his axe blocked glared at the proprietress. Not intent on backing down without a fight, she glared back at him with an angry retort.
“Hmph! You pathetic losers can’t even touch me!”
The next moment, she smashed the handle of the bandit’s axe. The bandit lost his balance and toppled over.
“I heard everything you had to say! Cleaning up after Geil, eh? Hah, how the proud Mt. Tigerwolf Bandits have fallen!
She didn’t waste any time swinging her rapier. Her apron stained red as she cut across the arm of the bandit trying to get up. As the other bandits winced, Age took the opportunity to shake off the arm of the bandit grabbing him by the neck and ran behind the proprietress.
Against her incredible swordsmanship and fearlessness, the bandits finally showed some fear. With his weapon at the ready, one of them shouted at the proprietress from across the room.
“Just who the hell are you, damn it?!”
“You guys must have been living in a cave not to know of me. Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of the Ronnets of the Dual Rapiers?!
“Yea, I may run this inn now, but I too was once a Mt. Tigerwolf Bandit. New recruits like yourselves probably don’t know, but I made quite a name for myself as the former night raid squad captain under the leader before the last.
Both Gremio and Age looked at Ronnets in awe. They now understood the cause of her sudden transformation when they lacked the money to pay for their meal.
“B-But Ronnets… Why would you want to save us?” Gremio asked in a low voice.
“Well, I guess I just couldn’t let them kill off my cook—especially not one that makes stew as well you do. Actually, I went out to the doctor for my headache, only to come back to this mess. Looks like I could’ve been back a bit earlier, but I got here just in time.
“But at this rate, your inn…”
“Hah, gimme a break. You’re too much of a nice guy. Building an inn or two is nothing. What’s more, I can’t overlook what these bastards have done here.”
“Geil’s lackeys rubbed me the wrong way from the start, but I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it in this little mountain village. This village wouldn’t hold if they sent an entire company here. But I’ve had enough—taking a kid hostage is going too far!”
Ronnets swung her rapier, pointing the tip at the bandits.
“Especially you bandits doing everything Geil wants you to! What the hell happened to the pride of the Mt. Tigerwolf Bandits? Geil might be a rotten bastard, but you guys kissing his ass piss me off even more! I wouldn’t give a damn if you were family; tarnish the name of Tigerwolf and you’re going down!
“Tch, you’re one to talk!” The bandit screamed as he raised his weapon.
“We’ll take the kid by force if we have to! As long he’s with us, the money will come pouring in!”
The bandit grabbed a key from the neck of the unconscious soldier. The four bandits clumped together by the window facing off against Gremio and Age slowly moved along the wall to surround all three of them.
Rapier in hand, Ronnets dashed towards the bandit on the right. Gremio took up his axe, preparing to engage the bandit on the left. Behind them, Age loaded up his slingshot with acorns.
But Gremio could not shake off his anxiety. Even with Ronnets on their side, they were still surrounded by four bandits. Just then…
Ronnets lowered her rapier. She cast her eyes over the bandits and spoke gently.
“It’s over. Do yourselves a favor and drop your weapons.”
“…You sure you have your head on straight?”
One bandit turned out to look out the window only to let out a yelp.
“Crap, we’re surrounded!”
Gremio couldn’t see outside from where he was standing, but he noticed the broad daylight pouring in.
“You see? Even if you were to defeat me, there’s no way you’d get out of this village alive. One of the doctor’s trainees is a real gutsy one. After dropping me off here, I had him go around the village getting everyone to come here.
As if in response to her statement, footsteps approached from the hallway and in came a sharp-looking young man. Sword in hand, he looked back and forth between Ronnets and the enraged bandits, and chuckled in amusement.
“Ronnets, it's done. Just like you asked, I got everyone in the village to surround the inn. As soon as I told them you were ready to beat the crap out of Geil’s troops, they gladly joined up. We also have a lot of people here taking refuge from the capital who absolutely detest Geil, and they took up arms on their own.
The young man cast a glance at the bandits and spoke as if to mock them.
“As for new intel, I regret to say that Lenankamp has been completely overrun by Geil’s forces. But the town’s garrison force managed to escape unscathed and are headed here as I speak. They should be here before long and when they do, our numbers will amount to over 300; it doesn’t matter if more bandits or soldiers come, we can fight back.”
All it took was that one remark to remove the bloodlust from their eyes and get their heads drooping as if to acknowledge defeat. Ronnets took advantage of the opportunity.
“You heard that? You pathetic excuses for Mt. Tigerwolf Bandits! Your mischief ends here and now—give it up already! The old me would’ve cut you down right away, but I’ve learned to calm down as a proprietress. I won’t take your lives. ”
The bandits all dropped their weapons, along with a key strapped to a chain, making a clanging sound as it hit the ground.
Gremio picked up the key in a hurry. Ronnets gently tapped him on the shoulder.
“You two did great! I never imaged two kids could last this long against Geil’s elite.
“Hey, I’m not a kid!” Age retorted.
“Anyway, if you heard what these guys were saying all along, why didn’t you come rescue us sooner?!”
“Hahaha! Sorry about that. I stuffed my rapiers way in the back of one of the drawers. It took me a while to get them out. Personally, I’m just glad they haven’t gotten rusty yet!”
“Tch, we almost died back there!” Age spoke in a miffed voice.
Gremio, however, was too happy to say anything.
“Go on and open up the door, Gremio. Save Tir with your own hands. You’ve got every right to.”
Gremio ran towards the door. But he couldn’t get his trembling hands to fit the key in the keyhole.”
“Yea? Why don’t you open up the door already?”
”Uhh, well, my hand won’t stop shaking for some reason… I was able to save the Young Master thanks to you. So please, Age, take the key…”
“Ok, if you say so…”
Looking slightly abashed, Age grabbed the key and effortlessly inserted it into the keyhole, making a clickety sound as he turned the key. Gremio slowly turned the doorknob and opened the door. Inside was a tied-up Tir with a gag in his mouth thrown on the bed.
“Young Master! Yooouung Maassteerr~!!!”
With enough tears to clog his vision, Gremio rushed towards Tir. He undid the ropes and removed the gag, all while his hands continued to tremble.
At that moment, what came out of Tir’s mouth was Gremio’s name—nothing more, nothing less.
The two took some time delighting in their tear-filled reunion. The bandits were hauled away by the young man. Remaining in the room were a few dead bodies, Age and Ronnets, and the re-united Gremio and Tir locked in an embrace, holding each other tightly.
Age called out to Gremio, who had seemed to forget everything.
“Hey, Gremio… It’s great that we were able to save Tir, but…”
Gremio suddenly recalled something important.
“That’s right! We have to let Master Teo know immediately!”
“Exactly! If we don’t get word to General Teo, the Armored Cavalry’s gonna suffer huge casualties!”
“Hmm? What’s this all about?”
Ronnets’ eyes widened in surprise upon hearing Gremio’s explanation of the events leading up to this rescue.
“Why didn’t you mention this sooner?! We’ve gotta send out a messenger fast!”
“Alright, Gremio! I’ll go look for General Teo”
But Age… If I don’t bring the Young Master there, Master Teo will…”
“Ronnets admonished the worried Gremio.
“Suppose you did bring Tir along: Do you really think you’d be able to ride a horse with the two of you? Would you be able to paddle your way through the high tide of the sea with the two of you? We’re on a time limit here, and Geil could be sending more troops here. Believe me, you’re better off letting Age go in your stead…”
It was just as Ronnets said. As Gremio turned his eyes to gauge Age’s reaction, Age too did the same in response. No different from the time Gremio first met Age at Gregminster, his eyes showed determination.
“I’ll do it! If doing so results in a crushing blow to Geil’s army, you bet I’m gonna do whatever it takes to get this message to General Teo!
Ronnets chuckled as she tapped Age on the shoulder.
“Well said, Age! You’d better get ready then! I’ll fix you up with the finest steed we have here!
“Thank you, Ronnets. But I have no idea how to steer a boat. So if I’m gonna have to go through the Shasarazade floodgate...”
“Why not just pick out someone from the village who can handle boats? Get on it—there’s no time to waste.”
“I’m counting on you, Age! I’ll bring the Young Master and follow you afterwards!”
“Leave it to me!”
Age bolted out the room, with Ronnets following right behind him.
Before long, Ronnets’ voice could he heard from the streets outside. Gremio approached the window with Tir still in his arms to see a man walk forth from the crowd towards Ronnets and Age. It appeared they had found their sailor. All that was left was to pray Age would get the job done.
“Whew…” Gremio breathed a sigh of relief, and looked up to the moon as it ascended the night sky, as if to offer a prayer. Tir placed his hand on Gremio’s cheek.
“Gremio, are your wounds ok? There’s still blood on your arm. Does it hurt?”
“Oh this? Don’t worry, it’s nothing compared to what you had to go through, Young Master”.
“And…you’ve gotten thinner.”
Gremio felt it strange to hear that coming from Tir; as Tir had also lost weight, quite possibly from being confined here. Even then, he was only worried about Gremio, which made him feel strange, yet happy at the same time.
A disturbing noise filled the room.
“U… Ugh...” Someone was crawling on the floor, all the while making painful groaning noises. Gremio’s feeling of happiness instantly turned into fear and worry. From the silhouette of the bed crawled out the soldier that Ronnets had cut down earlier.
“Damn...you... I’m not… handing over… the kid…”
The soldier raised the sword in his blood-drenched arm and flung it with all his might.
Towards the Tir held snugly in Gremio’s arms.
With the warm spring breeze blowing against his skin, Teo stood against the opposing army in front of the Kwaba Fortress. Just as Assam had promised, two weeks had come to pass. It was time for the final battle.
Teo placed the Armored Cavalry in the front, with the standard cavalry right behind them. This was the formation he always used to fend off the Jowston City-State invasions. He had no intention of changing that for this battle.
The messenger Teo sent off to Barbarossa had already returned. Barbarossa did not blame Teo for leaving the capital. He knew well that Teo went to the Gouran region just for him. Barbarossa’s letter informed Teo that he would be building up forces at the Kunan region, and ordered Teo to maintain the front lines at all costs, even if it meant their deaths.
There was one more order: to crush the enemy in this decisive battle.
Teo did not tell Barbarossa about Tir’s kidnapping, as he felt leading his troops to war to be his duty as a general, while Tir’s matter was a private issue.
Taking a good look at the enemy formations across the vast plains, Teo turned to face Cleo who stood right beside him.
“Cleo, have we learned anything about the enemy?
“Y-Yes. Geil’s Commanding General Schmidt commands the main force, a cavalry battalion of 2,000. There’s also Bergen who’s in charge of Kwaba’s defenses; he has another 1,000 cavalry, meaning we’re up against a 3,000 strong.
“While our cavalry only number a 1000…”
“What?!” retorted Teo.
Cleo answered in a panic.
“N-No, I apologize. Counting the Armored Cavalry, we have a total of 1,500 troops.
“Cleo, I know what you’re trying to say,” sighed Teo.
“But I’ve already decided to fight, so enough of that. All there is now is to do our best to carry out His Highness’ orders.
Hearing Cleo’s response made Teo look down in shame. He advanced his horse towards the front of the formation with Cleo beside him, and surveyed the enemy lines. A mere 3,000 troops was nothing to Teo. On top of that, Schmidt, although a fierce general, was ultimately nothing more than a wild boar who knew only to charge forward. With the Armored Cavalry, breaking their defenses would be a simple task…
Teo tried to play out the battle in his head, making different movements with each platoon and formulating various strategies, but he could not obtain victory no matter how many times he played out the scenario in his head. Whatever orders he gave, the Armored Cavalry in his head would only retreat—with their armor off.
Teo clenched his teeth. Teo had won many battles, but this was the first time something like this happened. Yet he had no choice but to fight—to vindicate his honor, to protect His Highness—is what he kept telling himself, but the memory of his son’s visage, and the mother who entrusted Tir to him would flash across his mind.
“Master Teo…” called a voice from behind. Teo turned around to find his good friend and loyal subordinate, Ain Gide, pulling up his horse next to him.
“Is something the matter? Master Teo of all people couldn’t possibly be at a loss as to what to do now, could you?
“M-Me? At a loss? N-No… Of course not…”
Ain took a long hard look at Teo, and decided to speak his mind.
“Please, Master Teo, I can see right through you. For us soldiers, there’s nothing more misfortunate than blindly following a lost commander who doesn’t even know what he wants. Indecisiveness will only dull our blades. Please make up your mind, Master Teo!”
“Ain… Forgive me… I...”
Despite Teo hanging his head in shame, Ain carried on.
“I fail to see what perplexes you so. Assam’s sole condition is for us to enter battle with the Armored Cavalry’s protective gear off. He never said anything about drawing our swords or striking with our spears. So why not just disarm the Armored Cavalry and place them in the back?”
“But then the cavalry will have to…”
“So Master Teo, you say we cannot fight with the just the cavalry? Ok, allow me to set this straight. You have absolutely no faith in the cavalry, and in I, who lead them. If we fight, we will surely lose. Is that right, Master Teo?!
Teo raised his face and looked into Ain’s eyes. He appreciated the thought: Ain’s consideration for the captive Tir and his effort to stir up Teo.
“Ever since serving you, I’ve run about the battlefield ready to throw down my life at any time. I am not afraid to die for our cause, Master Teo. Please, I ask you to place your faith in me, and to make your decision swiftly.”
Just as Ain ended his statement, a man’s voice echoed from the plains.
“Argh! Traitorous General Teo!”
Teo set his sights on the general standing at the head of the enemy formation. Clad in silver armor with battle axe in hand, the man with the unkempt mustache under the helmet was none other than the enemy’s commanding general, General Schmidt.
“What is this? Why does the Armored Cavalry still have their armor on?! You don’t really give a damn what happens to your son, do you?! As if losing the capital wasn’t enough, now you have to lose your son too?! Useless to your country, and now to your own family. You pathetic excuse for a general!
Teo finally made up his mind.
“I’m counting on you, Ain. I’ll be in the center. Ain, you go to the right, and Cleo, you go to the left. We will not fall back!
“Leave it to me!”
Ain and Cleo turned their horses around and returned to their own units.
All too suddenly, the left flank of the formation became restless.
“Let me go, damn it! I’ve got nothing for you! My business is with General Teo!”
The young man’s voice pierced through the commotion among the soldiers.
Teo, Ain, and Cleo looked at each other, and nodded in agreement as they ran their horses towards the direction of the voice… Only to find a young man who somehow broke into the formation, and was rushing his horse this way while brushing past all the soldiers.
“Speak! Who are you?!”
Ariving first, Ain called out to him. The young man beamed with excitement.
“Aah, are you General Teo?!”
“No, I am Ain Gide, loyal subordinate of General Teo. State your business with Master Teo!”
“No, not to you! I have to tell General Teo directly! It’s top secret!”
“I’m Teo. Tell me, what’s this top secret info you have for me?”
“Ooh, you’re General Teo?! Yes! I did it, I made it in time!”
“Made it in time?”
The young man first looked at Teo’s face, then at the enemy camp. Age began to speak in a low voice.
“Yes, sir! General Teo, Gremio and I have rescued Tir. So please fight! We must defeat Geil! Tir is safe now! I’m sure he and Gremio are headed here as I speak.
“…Thank the gods!”
The news caused a stir among the soldiers. Teo looked up towards the sky. His chest quivered with joy, he felt the power returning his arms as they held onto the reins. The troops immediately received a huge boost in morale. Teo’s army was once again the strongest force in the Scarlet Moon Empire.
“Gremio, you did well! Now, I won’t have to hold back anymore. I can fight at full strength again! For His Highness, for my son!” thought Teo while still looking at the sky.
Teo drew his sword upwards towards the sky and issued a command to the troops.
“This is it! Everyone, prepare yourselves for the final battle! Give them everything you’ve got! Only victory awaits us!”
A gently burning flame lit up the forest. A dead silence filled the darkness as Gremio looked around, putting more wood into the fire. The sparks of flame dispersed, lighting up the area for a brief moment. Gremio breathed a sigh of relief as he held over the fire the tea kettle that Ronnets gave him upon leaving Sarady.
“Let’s make the Young Master some tea when he wakes up.” Beside the bonfire, wrapped in Gremio’s green mantle was Tir, breathing peacefully as he slept.
At the Sarady Inn, the sword that the soldier threw at them grazed Gremio’s cheek with Tir still in his arms, smashed through the window, and landed in the hallway. That was the last ounce of strength from the soldier, as he no longer budged.
A new scar remained on Gremio’s cheek, but he did not mind. To him, it was proof of victory in the war—a proud reminder of how he fended off Geil’s troops to rescue Tir.
For now, Gremio, along with the young Tir, continued his journey towards Teo’s camp.
Just as Ronnets had told him, he wouldn’t be getting there very fast with Tir beside him. But there was no need to hurry. The news of Teo’s overwhelming victory against Geil’s army at the Kwaba Fortress spread like wildfire in the Arlus region.
Age did his best. While thanking him, Gremio threw another piece of wood into the fire.
Tir was turning in Gremio’s mantle. Gremio wondered what he might say next, but looking closely, that was no longer a concern. Tir was fast sleep, with his face buried in Gremio’s green mantle. That was enough for Gremio.
“Young Master…” whispered Gremio in a low voice.
Gremio recalled the days he wandered the wilderness every day in sadness. But things were different now. Gremio had Tir, and Tir had Gremio.
That was enough to calm Gremio down. Entrapped by darkness in his youth, he found himself slowly falling asleep by the bonfire.
This peacefulness, this warmth that the Young Master provides me, I never want to lose it.
Gremio looked at Tir’s face once more. Looking at his peaceful face made it feel like the war was all over. Yet, at the same time, it somehow felt like this was just the beginning.
Gremio took up his axe and looked closely at the edge.
When I get back to Master Teo’s camp, I should train in the martial arts. Then I can continue to protect the Young Master. I swear this on my father’s axe.
Gremio took great care as he carved a message on to the hilt of the axe.
“No matter when, no matter where, I swear to always protect the Young Master.”