“Damn it!” the lord shouted when he received the news.
He closed and opened his fist, his breathing getting heavier. Alonso looked around, trying to find something to vent his anger. His eyes ended on the rack where his dented armor was. Without thinking twice, he pushed the whole thing on the ground as hard as he could.
The pain crossed his face as the sound of metal rattling filled the noble’s tent.
Alonso groaned, but refused to scream. Closing his eyes, he placed a hand on his back and took deep breaths to withstand the pain.
“My lord, please, don’t move too much,” Enrique said, coming to his lord’s side with the worry stamped on his face. “You’re lucky that you didn’t break anything more than a few ribs fighting those bandits all by yourself…”
The moment he spoke, the advisor’s expression changed. The worry gave room to guilt as he looked at Alonso’s bandages.
“Stop that, Enrique. It wasn’t your fault,” Alonso said in an angry voice, waving a hand to his advisor, wincing in pain with the effort.
Enrique opened his mouth, but then closed it, looking at the ground.
Yes, Tetsuko thought. Who could’ve seen that snake? If not for that, Alonso would’ve led the troops and killed the rest of the bandits…
The soul in the sword had been watching her wielder ever since the lord had awakened. She couldn’t know his state, so the only thing she did was listen to their conversation while resting uncomfortably on her sheath that was too big for her metal body.
But you shouldn’t push yourself too much, my wielder. It’s already amazing that you woke in less than a day with those wounds. Your resilience is incredible, but you should rest for the next battle…
Besides, you did the right call at the time, the soul inside the sword thought. It was the best choice… or the losses would’ve been too many…
After the lord and the sword had barely managed to join the main army again, Alonso realized the situation of the battle right away.
Despite their overwhelming numerical advantage, the bandits stopped using that. Instead, they were retreating to the heart of the forest.
The army was pressing on under Enrique’s order.
But they never realized that was part of the bandits’ plan.
The criminals were indeed retreating. But that wasn’t all they did. At the same time, they were luring the army.
The closer they got to the center of the forest, to the heart of the bandits’ lair, the traps they had laid out became deadlier.
As the army advanced, more and more soldiers fell into their traps. But they still pursued the criminals.
The lord realized; his soldiers were taken by bloodlust. Their initial noble goal of ridding the kingdom of the criminals was gone. If the battle continued that way, if they kept chasing the bandits to the heart of the forest, they wouldn’t defeat the group.
Instead, the army would only lose more men and women.
When he rejoined Enrique, the commander was surer of that fate.
It pained Alonso to do so, both his body and his soul, but he shouted the command to retreat to his men and women.
The soldiers had trouble obeying that command. They were too overtaken by their bloodlust to hear right away.
But grudgingly, they obeyed their commander’s order at last.
The reason they didn’t want to retreat was plain in their faces; they wanted to avenge their dead companions.
The lord pressed his lips.
Tetsuko knew what was inside her wielder’s head.
He felt the same rage, shame, and regret his soldiers, but still repeated the order, shouting as loud as his body allowed at the moment.
To his relief, the bandits didn’t go after them as they left the forest.
Even on the brink of losing his consciousness, the lord ordered the army to stop a few hundred meters from the edge of the forest, far away from any potential archers’ reach.
The last command Alonso gave was to send word to move their camp to that location.
“We can’t…” Despite his rising temperature, he was looking into Enrique’s eyes as he spoke. “We can’t… let them… recover their territory… they’ll be… more prepared… next time… if we let them…”
Then the lord fainted due to his wounds and exhaustion.
Tetsuko could only watch as the soldiers tended to her wielder’s wound.
Thanks to the medicine for the pain, the soul in the sword felt as Alonso’s mind went in and out of focus for a whole day until he woke.
Even before the lord recovered, he insisted on hearing all the information regarding the battle from his advisor.
The bandits had fled their turf and had yet to return.
Their scouts had found traces of some of the bandits, but they still had no idea where the main group was.
But what troubled the lord was not the bandits’ whereabouts.
A numerous group like that would soon be found. There weren’t many places left that could hide such group in such short notice.
The trouble was the number of deaths the army had sustained.
Out of the 2000 men and women from their fighting forces, they had lost around 500 lives.
A quarter of their forces, Tetsuko thought. A considerable number, especially for something like hunting criminals…
On the other hand, the bandits’ losses mounted to the thousands.
The soldiers had no time to count due to the moving of the camp.
Even with numerous losses, the bandits were still a large threat that had to be dealt with as fast as they could.
The lord sat on the chair. With a hand over his bandage on the ribs, he observed the maps scattered on the table inside his tent.
“There are only two possible places the bandits can go right now,” he said in a low voice, more to himself than to his advisor.
Enrique placed a finger on the map.
“The Stone Hills Labyrinth,” he said in the same tone as his lord. Then he slid his hand across the map. When his finger stopped, his face darkened. “Or the Swamp…”
Tetsuko knew the reason for that expression.
If they go there, they’ll join the swamp’s bandits…
Even from her uncomfortable scabbard, the soul in the sword could overhear what the soldiers guarding the tent whispered. And the topic of the swamp’s bandits came up often. Along with a fear.
The swamp’s bandits were the complete opposite of the forest bandits, whose advantage came from its large numbers and their loyalty to the leader.
Even so, their threat wasn’t to be taken lightly.
They were a small group composed of former soldiers, assassins and people who had nothing to lose. And at the top was a cunning lord that had betrayed the king.
Despite their small numbers, that group had managed to make trades around and near the swamp impossible.
And that was even before the whole situation with Fael and his people, Tetsuko recalled.
From the rumors, she understood that their main advantage was their land.
Only they knew how to navigate the swamps without falling prey to its traps.
Along with their skills, a decade had passed without the kingdom eradicating that group.
But some of those rumors are just too absurd, Tetsuko thought, entertaining herself as he imagined it.
I doubt this leader of them rides an alligator, whatever that animal is, like a horse. What did that boy say? A snake with legs and a hard and pointing skin that can both swim on water and walk on land… And if you’re caught, it’ll drag you to the deeps of the cold water until you stop breathing.
The soul in the sword shook her head in her mind, rattling a little.
I doubt those rumors, but I don’t doubt that this man has earned the title of the lord of the swamps.
“My lord, I have some information,” someone announced at the entrance of the tent.
“Come in,” the lord said in a tired voice.
The young man with short brown hair and a scar across his cheek bowed to the lord before standing erect. His eyes darted for a moment to the table with the maps before turning back to Alonso.
“The soldiers have finished setting the camp,” the young soldier informed. “And, as you ordered, the men and women who are in good shape and rested enough have gathered.”
“Good,” Alonso said, trying to stand up. He winced and panted with the effort, but still did it.
The young soldier bowed again and then left the tent.
“What are you planning, my lord?” Enrique asked, walking to his commander’s side.
“What we… need now… is information… We can’t stand here… waiting for our scouts… to find the bandits… without… doing nothing,” the lord said in a pained voice as he headed to his bed.
He sat on the bed, closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
“Tell the soldiers to divide into small groups and scout the entire forest. We might find clues to where they’re hiding. Or at least where they’re going.” Despite his face losing some of its colors, he spoke in a stronger voice.
“Understood, my lord,” the advisor bowed slightly to him, the worry filling his face again.
“Also tell them to not wander too far from the other groups. There might still be some bandits left and we can’t afford to lose any more soldier. And there’s also those traps… they need to watch out…” With care, Alonso lied down on his side, wincing from the pain. “Ah, and tell them to look out for snakes,” he said in a bitter voice before resting.