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White Wolves v1 c1

by Yoon Hyun Seong


Brought to you by Jaiki & Shiki

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The Runaways


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“What happened to me to get into this mess?”

Cassel thought as he stared up at the sky. He pondered as he thought about the last time he was able to lay this carelessly and stared at the sky. It was probably the first time after he had left his home, but he wasn’t so sure. Cassel was unable to remember the things that had happened to him over the past month. Even if he did have his memories, the only thing he remembered was cutting grass, which was longer than his knife, and moving supplies around.

‘Was it after spearsmanship training three days ago? No. I had to retrieve my belongings because it was time to move to another camp. Didn’t we get a break as a reward after going through a two-day course all in a day? Everyone had slept straight after. Was I asleep as well? Oh, I went to make supper. That wasn’t lying down. Right! The last time was when I slept beside a sack of wheat, four days ago. Got beaten near to death after that, but it does count as sleep while lying down. So four days ago.’

Suddenly, out of nowhere, Cassel heard a multitude of horses running towards him. He quickly closed his eyes.

Earlier in the morning, for reasons unknown, there had been a battle. Cassel did not know if it was a surprise attack from the enemy, or a plan from his side. All he did was charge forward, or retreat when told. He followed instructions and marched with his spear like how any other soldier would but he had no clue who the enemy was.

Cassel had taken a fall, shoved by an enemy soldier. He couldn't even get to use his spear once in the battle. An enemy soldier, younger than him, had toppled over Cassel, bleeding furiously from his neck, only to die moments later.

‘That could have been me.’

Cassel lay there motionless, the corpse of the young boy pressing on him. He lay still in the midst of the screaming and yelling, not daring to move a muscle. After a quarter of a day had passed, he opened his eyes but chose not to stand up.

He thought to himself while waiting for the sounds of galloping to fade away.

‘It was stupid of me to come here. I should’ve stayed home and followed my father’s footsteps in being a wheat farmer.’

He didn’t know how to wield a sword, didn’t have talent for running, and didn’t possess the strength to be a soldier. His father did teach him how to ride a horse, to aid him in farming of course, but it didn’t help, as a mere soldier would not even have the chance to ride one.

There was nothing he could do to influence the outcome of today’s battle. He managed to survive while his enemies weren't able to claim another head from his side.

‘I should’ve listened to my father then.’

He recalled a month earlier, full of regret.

***

“You? Going to war? Our neighbor Paula would laugh.”

His father claimed while laughing out loud. Cassel could not argue as it was true as he once had lost a wooden sword fight against a fourteen year-old Paula.

“Son, it is a blessing that Lurune village is away from the battlefield. There are no other villages like us in all of Karmorte, we have supplies stocked for this year and plenty of wheat growing on the field, enough to make sure we don't starve. So, why would you want to go to a warzone?”

He realized after a month, that his father was right, but at that moment it only felt like nagging

“Father, do you know Lucci?”

Although he knew he couldn’t win an argument with his father, he was determined to prove his point.

“Oh, the scamp who declared to be a war hero and ran off?”

“He returned.”

“Oh my, he survived.”

His father said with sarcasm.

“Not just survived.”

Lucci returned after three months, wearing silver armor with a cloak with the Red Rose's insignia. Cassel could only admire with his shining horse and escort.

“He became one of the Rose Knights, you know? He wasn’t that special compared to me.”

“Had many flaws with him. Ferocious, greedy, lying to everyone, filled with bravado. What about his proud tale of himself failing to rape a widow when he was fifteen… We should’ve exiled him then.”

“But father! He's a knight, a knight! You clearly don’t know what a knight is. Want me to explain step-by-step? What’s more, the Rose Knights are one of the best in Karmorte.”

Cassel raised his voice in excitement.

“So, they call a mercenary with an armor a knight these days? Son, hundreds die a day in war. The higher rank you are, the higher chance to be killed. Lucci, he was always tactful, so he was bound to get his dead superior’s position. When you get to a position like that, you will give way to the next person waiting in line, soon enough. To my knowledge, the war is still raging on, so why did he return? He must not be of importance, to return.”

“He's here to recruit more men. It is of importance.”

“He came to his hometown to gather men to die at the battlefield? That bastard!”

His father swore repulsively.

“He is trying to get other men to die in place for his promotion! Do you envy a man like that?”

Cassel was frustrated by his father’s stubbornness. He just wanted to his father to see Lucci’s feather helmet and the shining greatsword hung on his waist. Asword like that would be worth more than every farm’s equipment, blacksmith’s, and mill’s combined in Lurune village.

“Father, who do you think Lucci is with right now?”

“How would I know? A bull he had eyes on to eat before he went to war?”

“Janet.”

“Janet?”

His father then sounded slightly surprised.

“Yeah, the one who never lay an eye on me when I treated her well, and now she is with Lucci…”

He could not continue. God, Lucci’s dirty hands all over her wonderful body! But his father returned indifferent quickly.

“Huh, he is quick. Well, isn’t it good for those two? Janet always wanted to move to a city and marry a knight, and Lucci was always saying that he would make Janet, the most beautiful woman in this village, his. A good match.”

When Cassel gaped at his father, his father said teasingly.

“Would you look at that? Boy, you liked Janet? Then why didn’t you go tell her? Oh, my mistake. You wouldn’t have the guts to tell her when all you do is read books inside your bedroom. Wait, is this the reason you want to go to war, like you want to be like Lucci, who you always hated?”

“Father, You know nothing!”

Cassel broke off and stormed outside of the house.

“Wait, isn’t leaving like this is same as admitting defeat?”

He immediately regretted his actions, but didn’t want to go back.

He wouldn’t win an argument against his father anyway. Although Cassel’s father had spent all his life farming, he never made a losing deal against experienced merchants and made a lunatic with a sword put down the sword, with his words alone. For that, even the troublesome Lucci avoided him as well. Adults of the village came to him for help before going to the leader of the village. No, the leader came to him as well, in the case of an emergency. Hey, my wife escaped again! What should I do?

‘A man’s actions speaks louder than words. That stupid Lucci did it. Why can’t I? I will become a knight.’

A knight courageously charging into a battle with countless soldiers fighting! Cassel always imagined himself becoming a knight before falling asleep.

The first thing he did was visit a mercenary called ‘Guvra’. Guvra was retired, and taught swordsmanship, while moving from village to village.

When Cassel became twenty, he secretly took his savings to Guvra to learn. However, this sincere teacher taught him for two months but then refused to teach him at the third month and told him.

‘You don't seem to have talent with the sword. Do not come back.’

Cassel visited several times more, but Guvra rejected him and even went so far as to complain to his father.

After that, Cassel met and drank with Guvra a few times and they both eventually grew closer to one another, but Guvra was still unwilling to teach him. He had hoped this friendship would at least get him to a recruiter. However, that request was rejected as well.

“Lucci, well I guess it's Knight Lucci now, was someone with great skill in using the sword. The one year that he learned the sword from me, he became as good as I was. It’s very uncommon to have a someone at the age of twenty be that good at using the sword in the war. Because Luzi was that good, I introduced him to one of the people I knew in the army. But you want me to introduce you like I did to Luzi? My God, you fit here in the village. We need the kind and honest person you are in this village. But to get you in the army? Oh no, I'd be chased out of this village if I sent you to war."

Guvra explained the situation to try calm Cassel down. Dammit, couldn't you just ask for money instead!

“Is there any other way for me to go to war?”

Cassel asked.

“Don’t ask like you are asking the way to a market, and don’t stare at me with such enthusiasm either.”

Guvra shook his head, with a worrying look on his face.

“Yes or no?”

Guvra deeply sighed.

“Fine. Let’s just say I did give you a letter of recommendation to the Red Rose Earl’s army. The closest camp is hundred miles away, so how would you travel there?”

“Well, I could walk…”

“How many days do you think that would take?”

Cassel could not answer, and Guvra pressed on.

“Mark my words, you will meet bandits along the way, in a day at least three times. Going there alone, don’t you think it’s stupid? Here is the safest village in Karmorte. Other villages worry about the war or bandits, while this village worries about if it would rain the next day. Go back home and farm.”

Cassel had no choice but to go back home, where he felt like he was never going to leave. His father was cooking dinner for two.

“Already victorious from the battle, eh knight? Here’s a toast to your victory.”

His father teased as he filled the wooden cup with wine. His father drank to victory while he could only swallow a glass of bitter defeat.

 

The rumor spread quickly. Damn that Guvra!

The villagers even the half-deaf elders came on canes, shaking, after hearing news of Cassel wanting to leave the village. He was bewildered by their reactions.

“Why would a smart boy like you think that? One day you will become the head of this village. Didn’t you hear from your father that the villagers are saving up for your education? Your precious life shouldn’t be wasted on some noble’s war. Think about your studies. You have studied to be an academic, not a swordsman.”

The village head pleaded, holding his hands. He quickly subsided. He appreciated those praises, albeit hollow, for other areas while he thought he was useless and talentless for not knowing how to wield a sword. However, one remark from Lucci wrecked everything.

“Spineless worm, you let these old men control you?”

There, was Janet, shyly arm in arm with Lucci. She was broadly smiling, losing her indifferent face when she looked at Cassel. That alone took half of his rationality. That bastard, what poison did Lucci give to the angel last night?

“What is the point of academics in this era?”

Lucci continued, laughing out loud.

“What’s the use of being book smart these days? When I was in the battlefield, even the people who planned the attacks had to be in armor and could at least hold a sword. That’s no place for a nerd who has only held a pen. Only a sword can protect the village and only a sword can get the girl. Well, these old farts will deliver a suiting woman to kind, obeying Cassel.”

“You talk too much. Leave now if you intend to recruit soldiers in this village.”

The village head shouted with fury.

“Shut up, old man! Would you like to know how fast my men will arrive here if I told my superiors there is a village full of supplies?”

The village head backed down, frightened by Lucci’s snare.

At that moment, Cassel’s rage had reached its limit before he exploded.

“Try me! I can succeed at war, as one who has only used a pen. Would you like to see how fast I will surpass you? I will take your place in an instant.”

It was impulsive to say that, but after he spoke, he felt as if he could really do it. Climbing ranks faster and higher than Lucci!

Just as if he was waiting for Cassel to say these words, Lucci wrote a recommendation to the escort and had him assigned to a squad.

 

 

Three days later, the letter came. The old recruiter tried to read the letter in front of Cassel. However, Cassel snatched it and read it.

The recruiter was surprised.

“You can read?”

Cassel did not answer, but asked.

“How do you get to this place?”

“Knight Lucci will take you nearby.”

“Got it.”

The recruiter left, but Cassel just stood still, holding the letter for quite some time after.

His hands shook. So did the letter.

“Don’t go if you don’t want to.”

Cassel’s father had said, watching him like it was not his business.

“I can’t take it back.”

“Why not? Burn the letter, go to the field and dig up the water way. It is quite a mess there.”

“You want to make me a coward?”

He stared at his father, putting the letter inside his cloth.

“Who will call you a coward? Lucci? You listen to the man who wants to kill you and turn a deaf ear to the ones who turly care about you. Pathetic.”

His father shook his head in disappointment. His father never spoke to him again until the day he was about to leave. Cassel didn’t make an effort to communicate either. His father sat on a rocking chair in a small field outside the house on the morning of the day he was leaving. His father was casually smoking a cigarette, something that  you wouldn't see often.

Cassel hung his bag and asked.

“Do you have anything to say?”

‘Do not rush to the middle of a fight. You will either kill or be killed.’

His father’s words made his face stiff with fear.

“And where do you think I am about to go? To a war zone, a warzone where you kill or get killed!”

Unsatisfied, his father replied, slowly letting out a smoke.

“Then don’t stand there.”

“Why don't you just plead for me not to go?”

His father made an unknowing smile and replied.

“If you weren’t going to stop when I pleaded, then you shouldn’t have packed at all.”

He took those words as his father’s last taunt. He turned around and made his way out, leaving his father unanswered.

The villagers, bewildered, tried to stop him when they realized he was going for real. Even Janet was surprised. She wasn’t that surprised when Lucci ditched her for a new girl after three days.

If Janet had stopped him, would him have left? Of course, it did not matter if she spent the night with that Lucci who was worse than a bug feeding off wheat. If she had given him the same chance as she did t o Lucci, he might have turned back. But instead, Janet’s poor wording hastened his journey.

“You, going to war? But you can't even beat me in a fight. You'll probably die in a heartbeat.”

Just like that, Cassel left the Lurune village. He and Lucci ventured together on a horse, just as promised. They didn’t say a single word until they came to a crossroad and Lucci spoke.

“You going above me? Good luck.”

“You bet! Just you wait.”

“Oh, right. I want my horse back.”

This made Cassel baffled.

“There is still long road ahead.”

“Walk. That horse is Rose Knight property. You wouldn’t think that a mere soldier such as yourself would be given a horse? I gave you a ride here for old time’s sake.”

Cassel got on his feet and Lucci went off with the horse. Cassel saw a devious smile planted on his face as he took a glance behind him.

Cassel walked for two days with the warnings from Guvra haunting him. Fortunately, he arrived safely without any accidents along the way.

When he arrived, he knew Lucci fooled him. This was the frontline.

Janet’s words were true. He had nothing to do in a battlefield with no skills.

His father’s last advice was useless. When his father told him not to get caught up in the middle of killing, he was at a place where dozens of lives didn’t vaporize in a matter of seconds.

After barely surviving the battle, he looked up to the sky like a fool, because the person he wanted to see the most was his father. He thought that Janet would be the one, but he couldn’t even remember her face. He wanted to see his father. It wouldn’t have mattered even if his father teased ‘I told you so ‘after seeing him between corpses, dirt covered and playing dead.

Uncontrollable tears fell on his cheeks.

His first battle was not a glorious battle to protect loved ones, the country, or even human dignity.

His first opponent was a boy, younger, and seemed more scared than him. Perhaps he too was in the same predicament as Cassel, having to leave his village to fight in the battlefield for the very first time. They did not amount to much as it seemed like they were scared to their wits.

It was an ally mercenary who cut the neck of the boy, his blood gushed everywhere, splattering on Cassel’s face. The very same ally died immediately right after that, by an enemy’s spear and whose body shoved the bleeding boy, which pushed Cassel farther into the ground.

He had been lying on the ground since then. The boy’s corpse was still on top of him.

“Father.”

He covered his face with his hands and cried.

“I was wrong. In truth, I never envied the likes of Lucci. I didn't even think much of Janet either. I just…”

He couldn't even continue, he just cried and cried.

*

Cassel did not move until sunset. As the wind decreased and the smell of blood and the rotting corpse increased, his senses could no longer recognize them. He could take in the smell but the feeling of something crawling around him was too much for him to bare. It was hard for him to endure the fact that he was surrounded by rotting corpses.

He looked around with his swollen eyes and was met with disgust rather than fear. He checked to see if the ‘Black Lion’ flag was there but instead he only saw the Red Rose flags laying like trash among the corpses.

He then realized that he had been lying for six hours between corpses, which made him shudder, and got up. The only shadow that was moving was his on this bare hill.

Two eagles were flying in circles afar. He stared at them foolishly, which made him dizzy. Shaking, he could barely walk. There were crows sitting on a gloomy tree without leaves, holding something in their beaks. Their heads went toward him when he went past them.

“Hey, I’m still alive! I have a sword and I’m not afraid to use it!”

He yelled, oblivious of the fact that he never wielded a sword in battle. Of course, the crows could not understand him, and just blinked their red eyes.

He stared at them intently, as if to threaten them, and turned back to walk. His back itched, but fortunately for him, the crows were not interested in the living. There were plenty of other foods.

‘It is not the time to be scared of crows.’

There were bound to be soldiers roaming around, cleaning up the remainder of enemies. There was a rumor that these ruthless soldiers would never give anyone the chance to beg for their life. They’d usually peel of the scalp or cut off an ear of the people they’ve killed to keep count and then hung it around their necks. Cassel felt another chill as he thought about someone close by looking for him.

‘Let’s check if any others survived.’

He thought about his fellow mercenaries.

All of them could have easily been bought by money. They could be more dangerous after the battle.

After his placement in the army, they were not impressed and gave cold looks. He couldn’t say anything because he was scared to death by all of them so he just accepted all of their bullying. He was unable to become true comrades with them because of this. Of course, the jokes had disappeared after sometime, but he didn’t feel like they were any closer than they were before when the jokes had stopped.

‘Hmm? When did it stop?’

He tried to remember, but then shook his head.

‘Forget it. Why does it matter now? Just think about getting away from this hill. Nothing good can come from meeting anyone, friend or foe.’

He wandered around for half an hour, but couldn’t find an exit from this corpse-filled field. He didn’t know how the war began in the first place, so he had no clue which direction was towards the ally camp.

He walked downhill, ready to bolt if he saw something move. His head was so filled with anxiousness and fear that even the beautiful sunset looked bloodstained. So when he came across a man with green tunic leaning on a burnt tree of a hill, his heart froze and he stopped on his tracks.

The man was holding a flute, wearing a grass hat with an ostrich feather. He was surprised as well after he saw Cassel and giggled. Cassel suppressed his screams so hard that he could feel his intestines tighten up. Shortly after, he noticed that the man did not have any weapons and let out a short sigh. Only to realize a moment later that he did not have one for himself either.

‘You Idiot! Were you too scared to have never thought about getting a weapon when you were fleeing?’

In his short military life, the only weapon he received was a spear, if you could call a wooden stick with a hand-sized metal fixed on the end a spear. His imagination of being a brave knight, wielding a sword to fight, was shattered by that spear.

‘It is a powerful weapon. Crushed my inner delusions.’

So he became accustomed to not having a sword. If he had seen a sword lying around, he would have thought to pick it up, as bare hands does not really make a great weapon, but there was no way either army would leave weapons lying around even after the battle, not with a shortage of weapons due to the prolonged war.

“I’m part of the Red Rose army. What about you?” Cassel said, trying to make his voice deeper. His voice sounded more convincing than he thought he would be.

“I am a bard.”

The man said, making an awkward smile.

“A bard?”

The ones who chose neither sides and only sung tales of war after observing it. Cassel was previously told to leave men with green clothes alone.

It was the countless poems and tales by bards, which planted false impressions of war to him. All of this was their fault. He wanted to smack the bard and say ‘It is all your fault, you prick!’ But more importantly was that bards were not dangerous. Still, he didn’t let his guard down. There was no telling if this bard would turn around and brandish a sword against him.They were still in the middle of a battle field and anything could happen.

“The war’s already over. What makes you stay here when there is nothing left to be seen?” Cassel said with bravado.

“Finishing my song. It is almost over.”

“A bard’s song, to my war?... I would have liked to hear it, if I had the money.”

It was a mistake to say ‘my war.’ It was his way of saying that he liked songs and poems and would really want to hear them. But to the bard’s ear, it meant something else, not what Cassel truly meant. The bard asked with a slight smile.

“Well, would you like to hear it and see how it is?”

The bard’s tone was abruptly soft.

Cassel replied, wondering what he meant.

“As I said, I have no money.”

“That I can see. Are you a commander of the Red Rose’s army?”

From that, Cassel could see how the bard had misunderstood the situation. A soldier with blood over him with no wounds in a battle? It must be a skilled swordsman, unharmed in the heat of battle. Calling a large-scaled war his, and the way he asked for a song when he lost a battle did not make him look like a low ranking soldier. Everything was relevant to having the bard think that he was a commander.

“I am no one. I have nothing valuable so you can forget about earning any money with your song.”

Cassel spoke with a rush. His lie was to not seem as a swordless and defeated like how he really was, but to instead support and wrap up what the man thought of him.

The bard showed a friendly smile.

“I have no intentions of getting money from you.”

Bards. They like to be around the upper class rather than lowly peasants. The bard’s look made Cassel realize the meanings of his words.

‘He must think I am one of the high ranked officials.’

Now to think of it, those mercenaries were not harsh with him. His weak face initially made them tease and quarrel with him, but that faded away completely in time. Back then, he thought they must be anxious of upcoming battle. Now he was not so sure.

‘Thank you, father. Because of your indifferent nature of talking, it seems to have taught me well to speak and get responses like these.’

The bard spoke.

“Well, not right now. It isn’t finished yet. Just listen to it and see if it matches this battle.”

“That I can do. I wanted to take a rest from wandering the hill.”

Cassel sat, trying not to show he was anxious.

‘Do I really have the luxury of  being hear and listening to this when an enemy could appear out of nowhere?’

He hid his uneasiness, tried to appear laid back, and listened to the bard’s song.

Blades in the sun, aglow, Horse hooves on the green meadow

Red roses, bloomed first on the hill,

Black lions, they stood still.

As one horse falls, blood falls too on the blade

The Black Lions are as cold as they are unafraid

No one was leading, no one was retreating

The Black Lions were sieging while the Red Roses were unheeding

The twenty advancing Red Rose horsemen, were on the floor before they knew it

The knights holding the black flag have come to break away the crowd

As the twenty cavalries fall, the Red Roses’ circle formation fall with

The Black knights’ successful siege, they overcame the Red Roses

Battling without a strategy, over with an order without a leader

Black Lion’s leader, let out a victorious cry

We have won, we have won.

 

Cassel was surprised.

Although the song made it seem like that the bard was not on the Red Roses’ side, it was surprisingly accurate. Everything that happened that Carsel didn’t even know of was written in the song., and the poem even consist of battle strategies.

“Now I will play the tune.”

The bard played his flute. He was mediocre.

“Quite a song. Although it only emphasizes on our defeat.”

Cassel said after the song.

“I always try to sing based on objective truth. A lot of people, even the losers, want to hear that.”

“Where do you sing these songs and who pays you? The nobles?”

“I am not famous enough to be summoned by nobles. I just sing in taverns. I sometimes sell songs to foreigners who are curious about the war in Karmorte. To tell you the truth, the tune is more important than the lyrics in terms of money, but I am weak at melodies…”

“It does sell better that way. Once I heard from my hometown… forget it.”

He almost gave away his identity.

“So you should know? How is it? Will this song sell?”

The bard asked with expectant eyes.

“I don’t know about the tune, but lyrics seem too fancy. The content is good enough, but in the end, it repeats the cry of victory. I think it should just end as a single cry.”

“That’s a good idea.”

The bard quickly took memo and continued.

“You are knowledgeable, of course. You listened to songs like this a lot?”

‘Well, I did.’

Cassel a coughed, but did not reply. The bard ended his memo and asked.

“Where are you headed now? I am headed to Deserters’ Village’.”

“Deserters’ Village?”

“No one knows who started it, but there is a village called that. There’s a bunch of mercenaries and runaways who are trying to hide their identity. A lot of people there, so my songs should well there.”

“Seems like a good fit for me as well.”

“Would you like to come with me?”

The bard still maintained his politeness.

‘If only he knew, I would be begging him to guide me. How fortunate.’

Cassel thought to himself, and said in hardened tone.

“I will go if you promise that you will mention nothing about me to anyone. There shouldn’t be a problem when I look like this and have lost my sword.”

“That’s a shame. Your sword is your identity.”

“So let’s pretend I am one of you until we reach the village.”

“Understood.”

The bard packed his stuff.

“My name is Laure.”

“My name is … call me Cai.”

Cassel did not let his guard down, nor did he think he had  fooled this bard completely.

“So, shall we get going, Cai?”

Laure smiled, and guided the way downhill.

The sun hid itself completely in the mountains, and darkness came seeping through from the east.

*

From what Cassel had seen, Laure was a much more competent poet than he gave himself credit for. Recently, his poem’s quality had gone down, as he had doubts about making poems, but his previous poems were quite good.

Especially the sarcastic song called ‘Lion with Rose’  which consists of the two earls’ battle as a clown fest. Cassel quickly memorized the song, and sang, while Laure would play the flute accordingly. Cassel’s anxiousness and uneasiness seem to melt away from that song and quickly took a liking to this Laure.

“It must’ve been hard to follow all the battles. It is quite an accomplishment to do that. Hasn’t anyone asked if you like wars?”

Cassel asked.

“I have loved epic poems since I was child. Someday I will write one as well. Should be fun.”

“Using the current battles?”

“No. The conquering war of Lontarmon, in the past, which shook the entire continent. I started this trade after hearing songs about that war. I loved it.”

“You and me were children back then.”

Ten years ago, the invasion of Lontarmon had even affected the small countryside villages.

Cassel can vividly remember when Lontarmon’s Excelron knights raided the Lurune village. Villagers hid their children when they heard rumors that the knights are monsters who eat children. However, nothing had happened after thirty knights slept in their village. They only stayed one night.

They paid for their accommodation as well. The captain of the knights even chatted with Cassel’s father for two hours, or so, in front of a campfire.

Their gentle attitude made an impression on the young Cassel, who only heard rumors of them being servants to a demon. His father praised the knight as well, a rare sight. He especially praised the captain, and remarked ‘Those knights, with a captain like him, can’t be stopped even by dragon knights.’ His prophecy-like praise came true in a year.

Come to think of it, Cassel’s dream of being a knight started from seeing those enemy knights.

“I know stories of countless battles and heroes from that war.”

Laure continued, as if he was dreaming. His face was filled with excitement, emphasized by the light of a campfire in the dark.

“The Excelron Knights, knew no defeat, and their leader was the Great Knight Welch. It was a close battle between the dragon knights and the Excelron Knights at Carnelog. he largest battle between knights in our history. It was a real shame that the dragons who protected Carnelog died out. If they were still alive, it would be Carnelog who would owns these lands. But my favorite hero’s tale is…”

“Arantia?”

“So you know.”

“I know. I always wanted to visit but never had the chance to.”

“Haha. Yes, I have only been there once and it is a great country. However, only the capital and some major cities are place worth staying. Their countryside is the same as ours.”

Laure continued, staring somewhere far away.

“A small country ruled by a holy queen. The Wolf Knights are the dreams of every child that dreamt to be a knight from their success in stopping the Excelron Knights’ three hundred with their fifty men. Also, the stories of their elite member, ‘White Wolves’ being the guardian knight for the queen…”

Laure raised his flute and suggested, looking as happy as a child.

“I know a lot of songs praising them. Care to listen?”

Cassel loved stories like these. It was a shame that he wasn't able to share the stories he knew with the bard.

Cassel shook his head, smiling.

“I would like to, but maybe later. We got a long journey together ahead of us, so let’s pace ourselves.”

“Alright.”

Laure withdrew his flute and nodded.

Cassel never had a conversation like this back in hometown. If he became friends with the bard, he wanted to learn all of Laure’s poems.

‘What if? No, it can be done!’

Cassel changed his mind.

“Seems like the sausage are cooked. Let’s eat.”

Laure passed a cooked sausage on a wooden branch. It seemed delicious, the knife marks cut open, sizzling with oil.

“I will repay this debt, someday in the future.”

Cassel politely said.

“Don’t worry about it. But can you answer this question? Which unit did you command in the Red Rose army, Cai?”

“I…”

Cassel hesitated.

‘Will this hospitality continue after I spoke the truth? Or will I be kicked and be robbed of this sausage?’

Cassel had never lied to others and never made an attempt to. Although it was for his own survival, his continuous lie had his mind uneasy.

He replied cautiously.

“I am no commander.”

“What? What do you mean?”

Laure’s eyebrow contorted. Cassel was ready to speak the truth.

‘I am a runaway rookie in a spearmen unit. I am sorry that I lied to you. But there was no other way. I was too scared at the time. Even now, it is a relief to say the truth.’

He was about to speak those words.

Shuck!

It was Cassel who first found the arrow struck on Laure’s chest than Laure himself.

Laure took a short breath and grasped the arrow. His opened mouth wouldn’t close. The bewilderment in his eyes caused by Cassel’s confession of not being a commander did not close, but lost light. His green tunic, penetrated by the arrow, turned red. He collapsed slowly and his face slammed into the cold ground.

Cassel dropped his once-bitten sausage, having a dumbfounded look on his face. Laure slowly died in pain, trying to breathe. Cassel was too shocked to do anything.

There were several shadows of humans, fumbling, approaching from the dark, chatting.

“I told you I could make that shot.”

“Right. You were aiming for the one with the sausage.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. You owe me now.”

“Funny story. The one who owes money is you!”

A man, wearing clothes made with animal skin, came close to campfire’s light, fuming.

Cassel knew who they were. These bandits.

They hid until the army passed by, and attacked unarmed travelers, runaways, or lone soldiers away from groups. They killed their prey and took the spoils. The worst thing you could face alone, even if you are an experienced mercenary.

There were famous ones like ‘Falcon’, ‘Greydog’, or the ruler of east ‘Rengsang’, but even these six common thieves were a threat.

Mercenaries told him that the two earls had no interest in safekeeping civilians in times of war. The knights were too busy fighting each other, the king was too busy trying to keep his position from the earls and the land wasn’t close enough to a city so, the area was considered to belong to the thieves.

‘Dammit, I’d rather be captured by the enemy. Least then there is a possibility I won’t be killed and become a captive.’

A small bandit, armed with a rusty sword and helmet he must have got from a battlefield, asked Cassel.

“Hey, you. You a runaway?”

There were four of them, all of them had filthy faces.

The smaller bandit with a bow kept touching his arrows in the quiver. He gave a mean grin towards Cassel. How many runaways were scared by that grin, and how many lost their lives by their ‘joke’ arrows? Although just thinking about it made Carsel mad, he was not in the right situation to be getting into a fight with these guys. He had just gotten scared of a ghost poet and had lied to his face. Although it was just a lie.

Cassel swallowed and lifted himself up slowly, lifting his hands off Laure’s back and breathed out for the first time after Laure got hit by the arrow.

“Hey, what is your boss’s name?”

He hoped his pounding heart would calm down, and tried his best to sound laid back. He thought his voice would quiver, but his thick voice came out naturally, like when he first met Laure.

The first bandit who suggested to stab first, talk later, stood puzzled, and asked.

“What? Our boss?”

“This guy was leading me to his friends. Should’ve killed me instead. At least then I won’t be beaten by my boss to death and had a silent death instead.”

Cassel clicked his tongue, and started to undress Laure.

‘I’m sorry Laure.’

In a small voice, he apologized to the dead bard, who was kind to him.

The bandit with a bow, hesitated, and asked.

“You… which group do you belong to?”

“I asked first! What is your boss’s name!”

They seemed to be more puzzled by Cassel’s unexpected bold behavior.

“Tiger.”

Cassel quickly thought of a name he heard from the mercenaries.

“I am one of Falcon’s.”

“Fa-Falcon?”

That made one of them surprised, but the other one pressed on.

“This is our area. Falcon’s should be more northward.”

“Thank you for that, you son of a bitch.”

Cassel muttered to himself and made a quick excuse.

“Can’t you tell? I got him from the north. And I was fooling him with my stinky, bloody disguise as a runaway and had to follow him for six hours! So let’s see here. If my prey went over to your area, is it mine, or yours?”

“Of course it is mine!”

One of them answered, brandishing a sword to him.

Cassel took a step toward the sword and spoke.

“Oh, you said it was yours? I should tell your boss about how you should set your boundaries straight. Is the northern part of battlefield at dawn my area, or yours? You don’t know, do you? I don’t know either. I can’t set boundaries in this matter.”

Cassel intentionally spoke fast, and the bandits did not really understand what he was saying. Cassel argued swiftly.

“Right. Let’s do it like this. I get this small pack he was carrying. I got this in my area, so it is right for me to have this, yes? To compensate, I will guide you to the town this bard was originally headed to.”

“Hmm, so what happens then?”

One of them dumbly asked in a foolish voice.

Cassel explained, feigning kindness.

“There, should be some of his friends. Should net you a month’s worth if you catch them. So? Do you accept this deal?”

The bandits looked at each other. Cassel was not so sure he could fool them for long, so he hastened his actions. He started changing clothes with Laure.

“What are you doing?”

One of them asked. Their threatening voice was gone. Honor among thieves, maybe, but Cassel was forced to continue the lie he started.

“I’m changing.”

“Why?”

“Do you really need an explanation?”

Cassel, frustrated, continued.

“My mission may be a failure but my boss, Falcon, should know I am here. He watches over us, even the rookies. He could be heading here any minute now, so I should guide you to the bard’s party as soon as possible. I need this clothes to approach the town without alarming them.”

He picked up the sausages from the campfire. Fortunately, it was four in total.

“Have these. It would be a waste not to eat them. Oh, have this flute as an apology.”

He handed over Laure’s flute, making it look like a nice gesture, when he knew they were going to take it anyway.

The bandit with a rusty helmet took the flute swiftly. Others quickly ate the sausages, as if they killed Laure for it.

“So, where are you headed?”

The bandit with the helmet asked.

“The Deserters’ Village.”

“It is a dangerous place to be for our kind and yours. They accept all but bandits.”

He said like he was providing a favor. Cassel pointed at his bard clothing instead of giving an answer. The bandit hit his knee as if he realized it just then. He gave away a crucial bit of information too.

‘They can’t go into the Deserters’ Village? Then I can go in alone!’ Cassel thought happily.

“Then I will go into the village, if you guys wait outside, I can come out with the bard’s party.”

Cassel confidently said, then realized his mistake.

‘I should’ve told them to wait here!’

“Yeah? Then we will come with you till right outside to the village.”

One of them said, roasting his sausage.

“Come to think of it, you guys can wait here. All of us don’t have to move.”

Cassel said in a laid back tone to hide his lie, but it didn’t work, or they were showing too much favor.

“No, no. You could get in trouble in that outfit if you run into our friends. We don’t discriminate lone travelers. Whether they have a sword or a flute.”

“Then I could be in danger as well. Like before.”

“Yeah, right. We almost fired an arrow at you.”

The bandits laughed out loud and Cassel joined in, crying inside.

There was no excuse. There was no way to refuse their favor without arousing suspicions.

They did have a point. They could be his escort and protection until they arrive at the village. Once inside, who cares!

“It would be rude not to accept a helping hand.”

What’s more, he did not know the location of the village of runaways. Cassel composed himself to fool them to the last minute.

‘I can survive after I get out this. Maybe it was fortunate meeting these dumb bandits.’

Cassel tried to think positively.

*

‘If only I knew how to use a sword…”

Cassel thought.

‘If I was extremely skilled with a sword, I wouldn’t have had to lie to Laure. I wouldn’t have to take my benefactor’s clothes to fool these four. And in today’s battle…’

Cassel thought about his image of wielding a sword in today’s battle. He changed his mind immediately.

‘… if I knew how to use a sword I would be dead.’

Random thoughts were bound to come to mind when you walk in a moonlit night. Especially when having these mean and stupid bandits brandishing swords carelessly.

“So what is your name?”

One of them asked.

“Cael.”

Cassel made up a name in an instant. The one who asked Cassel’s name waited for him to ask the name back. He never did. He did not want to know anything about these killers and was worried to expose his lie when their conversations prolonged.

‘I will end up dead if I am made.’

He tried to compose himself not to be anxious.

‘It isn’t wrong to lie hundreds of times, like this. Anything is allowed in survival. This is a battlefield. You either kill or be killed.  Lying to help you survive isn’t a problem!’

He had an internal fight against himself when he recalled his father’s last advice.

‘Do not rush to the middle of a fight. You would kill and be killed.’

He assumed his father was being sarcastic, and didn’t carefully see his father’s face. But his father was making a sad smile.

‘What does that mean, father? How could you not be in the middle of a fight?’

The one who was waiting for him to ask back resigned, and spoke.

“Our boss, tiger, always wanted to meet Falcon.”

For some reason, the other three was chuckling.

“Our boss is not some small fish to be rotting here. If he was a mercenary, he would be in high places of earl’s or king’s by now. But he hates to be a mercenary, so he became a bandit. And why not be a great one while at it? So he wants to join forces with Falcon or Greydog, the big bandits. What do you say?”

Cassel had nothing to say so he had to buy some time.

“I’m not sure.”

What to say next?

‘My boss isn’t that idle.’

That made no sense.

‘I will say it to my boss some time.’

That would make this conversation prolonged.

‘I’m tired, let’s talk later.’

It was not good to avoid a conversation.

While Cassel was figuring out what to do, they got out of the mountain and came to a crossroad. He was perplexed. He did not know where to go, and the so-called guides were just following him. It did not make sense to claim to go to the village of runaways and say he did not know the way.

As the crossroad came near, he slowed down. So did the others. They did not go faster than him nor did they prompt him to go faster. Suddenly he thought they might not be following to escort him after all, and felt uneasy.

“So? What do you think?”

They wanted an answer.

‘I should say something.’

Cassel made a choice.

“How should I, a lowly member, know?”

“If Falcon refuses, I might go join forces with Greydog.”

“How do you know your boss’s will?”

“Because I’m the boss.”

“Hmph, so I was fooled. So you are Tiger?”

Cassel stopped on his tracks.

“Why did you stop?”

The crossroad was right ahead but Cassel could not choose which way to go. One who call himself Tiger was grinning, looking at Cassel as if he was measuring Cassel up.

‘My lie failed.’

However, Cassel did not back down.

“You, you’ve met my boss, Falcon?”

“Of course I have, that son of a bitch!”

Tiger snared, and continued.

“He caught me and rolled me over the ground and threatened to kill me if I was ever caught robbing here again. But do you think I would listen? I was going to kill every one of Falcon’s men on sight.”

“So why didn’t you kill me?”

“You don’t seem like a bandit to me, Cael.”

Cassel felt dizzy. This guy was not as dumb as he looked.

“Oh, and you know what? Greydog is long gone, killed off by the Rose knights. The only people who don’t know that famous story are outsiders.”

The one with a bow was slowly getting out an arrow, and others raised their swords. The uncleaned blood on them was clearly black, even on moonlight.

‘I have to say something. Even if I run away, the arrow will strike me from the back. What do I do? What do I do? What do I do?’

Cassel opened his mouth, then closed it.

‘Do not rush in the middle of a fight.’

This made him nuts. It was like his father was interrupting his thoughts.

‘Don’t interrupt me, dad. I’m already in the middle of a fight. Right at the center. What do I do now?’

Somewhere, he could hear his father’s angry voice.

‘You dumbass! You sold the wheat at what price?’

He defended himself.

‘What am I supposed to do? The current prices are like that. I tried to raise the price as well.’

‘They all say the same even if you try to raise the price. You can check it with others, you get the same price… isn’t that what they said?’

‘Hmm, th-they did say that. So what do I do then? They obviously want lower prices when I want higher. How do I win such a fight?’

‘How do us farmers win a fight like that with merchants? Even if we could, we shouldn’t! If they think they lost the fight, they won’t buy it from us next year.’

‘That makes sense. So what now?’

‘To win a trade never pick a fight in a trade. In a trade or a fight, same rules apply to be a victor. Who is the true victor in a fight? The one who never fought!’

His father’s exclamation ringed in his ear.

Recalling his father made Tiger the bandit less scary.

He scratched his neck as if he had been bitten by a mosquito, then he crossed his arms, gave a cold stare to Tiger and spoke.

“Have it your way.”

“What?”

Cassel closed his eyes and turned away.

“Have it your way! If you kill me, you will end up dead in an hour.”

Tiger’s sword stopped right in front of his eyes.

“You are bluffing.”

Tiger laughed, his saliva all over the place. Cassel flinched.

‘It is a bluff. But now I’m inside your head.’

The best way to survive a war was to not participate in it. In a life-or-death fight, the best way was not to be caught in the middle.

“That’s right, it is a bluff! What can you do? You are bluffing as well! Killing Falcon’s men? Go ahead!”

He shoved his neck toward Tiger’s sword.

“Who do you think you are, threatening me?”

‘I win if he doesn’t shank me now!’

Cassel recalled the time when he got his wheat back from the wheat merchant using what he had learned from his father.

‘No farmer will sell quality wheat to you if they find out you bought these wheats in such low prices.’

He said, like at that time, in a neutral voice, not too strong or soft.

“I am not threatening you. It doesn’t matter to me if you die after I am killed. Let me live! So you can live too.”

Tiger started to fear for his life. When it seemed like Cassel’s life was at risk, in reality, the risked one in the middle of this fight was Tiger’s life.

“Let’s see if Falcon comes after you die.”

He raised his sword. Cassel twitched, but after seeing Tiger’s eyes tremble, Cassel did not back down.

Tiger asked, his sword still raised.

“You speak truth, Cael?”

“You wouldn’t believe me even if I told you, so what?” (ED NOTE: YOU WOT MATE?!?!)

“Say it anyway! Is it true?”

Feeling fortunate, Cassel was about to answer when abruptly,

A black shadow came out, with a sword, from the brush by the crossroad and sliced the neck of the bandit with the bow. Tiger, flustered, turned his sword against them, but was skewered by a spear. Same thing went for the other two bandits.

They were dead before Cassel could breathe twice.

 

One of the shadows slowly picked up the fallen torch. Cassel could see them now.

They were knights wearing steel armor and helmets. They confirmed the bandits deaths and approached Cassel who had collapsed down.

They didn’t show intentions of attacking him, but they did block the way. He was overwhelmed by the tension, incomparable to the tension he felt from the four bandits.

He wasn’t scared because he saw a black armor in the dark. He experienced the horror of that very armor in today’s battle. The knights made seasoned mercenaries seem like children.

They were the Black Lion Knights.

At first, he could not understand how, and why would they appear here and now.

But it made sense. The part where he met the bard and the bandits were what he didn’t foresee. All day long, he was afraid of meeting the enemy as a runaway.

‘I avoided the fox to meet the lion.’

He was too shocked to say anything, and just mumbled.

“What is the relationship between you and these bandits?”

He replied, stuttering.

“C-caught, sir.”

“Are you a bard?”

He could now see why they kept him alive. It was Laure’s tunic that shielded him from knight’s spear in the dark.

“Yes. Right. I am. I am a bard.”

He replied, hurriedly.

“That’s weird. They never keep their prey alive… Of course, there is nothing weird about it if you are one of them, you killed the bard and took his clothes.”

The knight was very perceptive. The other knights pressured Cassel with their unseeing gaze.

The other knight spoke.

“We kept you alive because of that clothing. But it is funny that you are a poet wandering around in the dark where bandits made themselves home. If you are a bard then prove it by playing an instrument.”

“Mine is a flute. B-but mine was stolen by them.”

“Then we shall find it from them.”

The knight was unfazed.

Cassel felt a slice of despair.

“Right. thank you.”

He rummaged the corpse to find that the flute was broken in half by the knight’s spear.

‘Oooh, the god of mill, the goddess of wheat, thank you.’

He almost said that aloud, and proceeded to show the broken flute to the knights, his face almost crying.

“M-my flute… in pieces.”

The knight apologized curtly.

“Sorry about that. Must’ve been my spear.”

“No. You saved my life. It is cheap for the price of my life being saved.”

Cassel managed an awkward smile and threw the broken flute behind him.

“Forget the instrument, sing us a song instead. You can prove that you are a bard with that, right?”

The other knights agreed, shrugged their shoulders.

“Here?”

“Why, are you a bard who can’t sing in front of corpses?”

“No, sir. As you wish.”

Cassel was unfazed by the request and sang the easy song Laure had taught him. He mumbled a bit during the middle, and hoped that it looked like he was scared to sing in between knights.

“H-how is it?”

Cassel tried to make a obsequious smile, but was unsure if he pulled it off, as he thought he would have died before being able to sing this to someone else. The knight’s voice remained firm.

“It was quite a fun song. But come to think of it, anyone can sing that kind of poem. You wouldn’t be an enemy soldier who is trying to get out of this situation by singing an old song you know, would you?”

The other knights burst into laughter.

At first, Cassel thought he was exposed. But then he was relieved to know the knight was requesting another song in an indirect way. At his position as a knight, it was common courtesy to pay at least a silver dime. But what money should he have as a knight on cleanup duty in aftermath of today’s battle? He must have thought it was best to be indirect.

“What about this one? This song had good remarks of the ones I made. It’s called ‘Lion with rose’. I could use the melody, but you know, the flute broke…”

Cassel excused himself, then sang Laure’s song. It went quite well, as one of the knights was moving his shoulders to the song when the song reached the chorus.

“A very direct song of making fun of two earls. If I were you, I won’t sing this song in front of the nobles. But it is quite nice.”

The knight awkwardly praised, smiling.

The other knights were satisfied, and asked.

“Where were you headed?”

“To the Deserters’ Village.”

“We will escort you to the entrance. How is that, for the songs you sang for us?”

Finally, they dropped the hardened tones and started laughing.

“Thank you. It would be an honor.”

Cassel finally felt relieved.

‘I’m safe now.”

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