Arc 3, Waxing Moon
The carriage was sold to the village merchants, and Ernst rode upon Targes’ horse. It was Ganche who lifted him carefully into the saddle. Ernst smiled wryly at all of the troops as they kept coming up to Targes, who was seated behind Ernst, and worriedly telling him, “We’re counting on you–don’t allow him to be hurt!”
All of the militia troops wore armor on their bodies. Brez, Mage, and Minaha wore the armor of the Meissen militia, while Targes and Ganche were clad in their personal armors.
The militia armor was more like materials that had been cobbled together in the shape of armor, given that the lack of money made it impossible for the troops to have theirs forged. Even through the eyes of an amateur, it was clear that their armor was made of thin iron with defects at the joints. Mage lifted and lowered his arms many times as if particularly worried over the shoulder area.
Targes told him, “If you’re that worried about it, just take it off. Better to go bare than be stuck in armor too stiff to move.”
At that, both Mage and Minaha cut the strings tied to the tops of their shoulders, removing the armor clad over their arms. These two youths wielded a bow and a spear as their weapons. If either of them were unable to move their arms well, then their fighting strength would be halved.
Targes and Ganche wore armor commissioned during their times as mercenaries.
Neither of them had scrimped on the cost of their armor. Targes’ armor had black as its primary color, and his sword also rested within a black sheath.
Ganche’s armor was blood red.
His armor was a red so bright it was like fire, and it had an exquisite pattern of intertwining gold and black applied to it.
This was the first time Ernst had ever seen Ganche wearing his armor. Ganche’s giant body seemed even larger and even more majestic than it had before. There was not a single scratch in that beautiful armor. A complex red cord twined the pieces of armor together, and the cord at his shoulder was also tied with a golden tassel. The crimson helmet had a black faceguard attached to it. There was even armor applied to the tops of the thick gloves. Ganche moved his fingers several times, confirming that the armor moved smoothly.
Back when they had been in their room at the inn, Ernst had stared, enchanted, at Ganche, who had casually donned his armor as easily as breathing. Once Ganche’s entire body had been clad in armor, Ernst had even forgotten to let out his breath.
The crimson armor had glowed, illuminated by the morning sunlight drifting in from the window.
As he stood in his warrior’s stance, so dignified and imposing, Ernst felt that Ganche looked so godlike that he hesitated to touch him.
Ganche carried his broadsword at his waist, and at Ernst’s request, put on his helmet and lowered his black faceguard.
All it took was Ernst seeing those eyes, the copper color starting to tinge golden with the taste of battle, for a numbing feeling to strike him and carve into his core.
It was the same intoxicating feeling as when Ganche embraced him, striking deep and powerfully into Ernst’s body.
Ernst let out a soft and indulgent sigh, then slowly reached out with his fingers. Ganche descended on one knee and grasped Ernst’s hand, and then, reverently, kissed it through the black faceguard.
The thick cloth of Ganche’s gloves had been delicately sewn with minute and complex patterns.
“Ganche… how magnificent you are. You’ve stolen my heart away…” Ernst had murmured.
Unwilling to lose, the younger man had whispered in reply, slightly muffled, “And as for myself, Lord Ernst occupies each and every one of my thoughts, with room for nothing else.”
Ganche easily swung onto his black horse.
This black horse was the largest and most expensive one that they had purchased from Gris fief. It was a fine horse, like what one would expect from Rintz Kingdom, which was known for its thoroughbreeds. It had the heavy wooden box tied to it, and didn’t startle even when Ganche, with all his armor, swung onto it.
With a single light kick from Ganche to the horse’s belly, the large black horse broke into a gallant run.
Ganche lead the way on his black horse, and Ernst watched as he sat atop the dappled gray horse that Targes rode. Targes steadied Ernst from behind with a tight arm around his waist, but Ernst’s body was still violently jostled up and down.
“Lord Ernst, if you would, please make sure to keep your mouth firmly closed. If not, you may end up biting your tongue.”
Targes sounded somewhat amused. Ernst was dizzy, his head shaking so much that his teeth clacked, yet still managed to come up with the sudden runaway thought that born-knights really were different from the rest.
The troops had formed their encirclement; to the right of Targes was Minaha; to the left, Mage, and at the rear, Brez.
Once they had reached about halfway through the forest, Targes switched to holding the reins only with his left hand, and he pulled out his sword.
The hand gripping the reins still firmly held Ernst in place, but Ernst’s own hands moved to tightly grip the saddle.
A forest without human influence was, it seemed, a forest overgrown with trees.
Although it did not have gigantic, towering trees such as those of Meissen, the leaves of the tall and short trees together wove deep shadows, blocking nearly all light despite it being daytime.
If the daytime was already like this, then there was no need to talk about how dangerous it would be at night. The troops’ accurate judgment had saved them.
The protruding roots broke up the paths, leaving no flat road to take. It would be impossible to dash through here on carriage, and the merchants’ wagons would also have no way to pass. This truly was a forest which created easy targets for bandits.
Shouldn’t the Kingdom’s soldiers be stationed in this forest? Ernst recalled the face of the commander of the Kingdom’s military affairs, the Golden Lion General called Marquis Artica. He was a man with a masculine face, sharp-eyed and cold. He was the kind of man who would not be bothered no matter how many deaths of small merchants or servants of countryside lords were on his hands. To the Golden Lion General, his most important priority was His Majesty the King, and after that, his own subordinates.
Due to the Senate’s decision, there was no choice but to send the army soldiers out to protect the roads, but the fact was that he did not want to lose a single soldier. He would never consider stationing any soldiers in this forest, where anyone had a high chance of being attacked.
Rintz Kingdom’s soldiers, the soldiers of the King, were nothing more than the Golden Lion General Marquis Artica’s dolls, after all.
Those were the words that one of Ernst’s former professors had unwittingly murmured during a lecture on military strategy.
Marquis Artica did not think of the soldier’s lives as precious; rather, he was simply a general with a strange and peculiar sense of aesthetic, one who believed that the greater number of soldiers he collected, the more beautiful his collection was.
Ganche lead the way through the forest as the vanguard. Suddenly, his horse stopped.
Targes reacted in an instant, reining his dappled gray to a stop.
Mage, Minaha, and Brez belatedly stopped their horses. The horses whinnied in complaint from having their reins so suddenly pulled.
Ernst’s vision registered Minaha’s movements to his right.
To Ernst, it looked as if Minaha was glaring in the direction that Ganche stared at, when Minaha gripped the bow from his back and nocked an arrow with a swift burst of movement.
He pulled the string as tightly as possible, then unleashed the arrow sharply into darkness of the forest, the light so dim that Ernst saw nothing other than shadow.
And that, was the signal that started it all.