Captain of the Royal Knights, Francis, turned to look back at the knights following to his rear. Not only was the marching ranks a mess, but their outfits were ragged and their number small.
As Francis pulled on the reins and stopped his horse, all the knights behind him followed suit. The hazy smoke that swirled about them was carried away by the wind just as swiftly as it had come.
Releasing a raspy breath, Captain Francis asked, “And where is Lars?”
Lars, who should have been flanking the group at the very back, was missing – with only his horse standing in his stead.
“Last I checked, he had hurt his neck, sir”, huffed one of the knights in response as he tossed forward a helmet broken almost in half. He could barely choke the words out in between his ragged breaths.
“It seems he may have fallen off his horse at some point, and I did not notice. I am sorry, sir.”
Francis could not blame the knight. He, too, had not turned to look back even once since the incident.
‘It seems there are only seven of us left. Including myself.’
Francis took another labored breath as he recalled the ghostly knights that had appeared out of nowhere to attack them. He could not seem to keep his hands from shaking as he tried to grip the reins of his horse.
“Did you recognize who they were?”
At that question, the group of knights uneasily stared at one another without responding.
Until one of them said in a reticent voice, “’The Black Lion Knights’…I believe.”
Francis emphatically shook his head.
“Though their armor had been stained a black color, they were definitely not the Count’s knights. In my opinion, they were probably…”
Just as the word ‘Spirits’ climbed up his throat to the tip of his tongue, he swallowed it back down.
Twenty knights had been instantly reduced to just eight in a span of less than ten minutes. The royal knights had all but shamefully fled without putting up the least bit of resistance and, amidst the chaos, their reduced group of eight had further dwindled to a mere seven in number.
At this point, Francis could not even tell North from South. He thought they had been running toward the West, but the sun was setting in that direction and he was really starting to doubt his sense of direction at this point.
‘Could I have been, perhaps, hallucinating the whole thing? There is no way that monsters like that could really exist.’
Francis began to think back on what had happened just moments ago. How the huge swords the black knights swung about practically cut through iron like butter in one easy stroke. How they were able to easily lift up with their lance and toss aside an entire horse with a man still astride it. One of them had even grabbed the lance Francis had thrown into the air and snapped it in two like a twig right in his face.
“Captain, what exactly is our mission? Isn’t it time that you told us? Who were those knights dressed in black, and why did they attack us?”
The knight that seemed the most frightened of the group asked in a small, whining voice.
“Are we not Kamort’s Royal Knights? Not only did we sneak out of the gates under the cover of darkness that is dawn, but we have not been reporting to anyone – including his highness. And why is it that we have been riding through hidden trails as if we have something to hide?”
“Yes, Captain. I, too, was under the misconception that we had received an official invitation to attend a party. But from the beginning you had commanded us to be heavily armed, and then we encountered an enemy so fearsome that none of it was of any use. What exactly is going on?”
The other knights also began to chime in.
Francis, who had been silent this whole time, took a moment to pull out an envelope from deep within his armor. The envelope had the official stamp of the King and was sealed tightly.
“This is a letter containing confidential documents of His Majesty King Charles. I had initially planned to keep this a secret at least until we arrived at the royal household but, with these recent events, it seems I have no choice but to reveal it now. Yes. We are not on our way to a party or any other event by order of an official invitation. Reinforcements have been requested by order of His Majesty. And we are a part of those reinforcements.”
The knights stared at one another with astonishment in all their faces.
“Further, a group of three from Alantia and five from Ganellok also left one day earlier – as additional reinforcements. “
“Is His Majesty getting ready for a war?”
“Yes. He has not relayed who the enemy is as of yet, but I am sure everyone can guess who they might be.”
“Is it the Black Lion Count and the Red Rose Count?”
Francis nodded his head and braced for the onslaught of words. But all the knights remained silent.
Then the eldest of the knights asked, making sure to form his words carefully.
“If that is the case, then were those monster-like assassins sent by one of the two Counts?”
“There is definitely a good chance of that. Honestly, that was the only likely scenario that came to mind. But we cannot jump to conclusions. It could also all be a coincidence. Can it not?”
“You can’t really think that was all a coincidence. Can you, sir?”, the knight laughed just a bit too loudly.
Francis mustered an uneasy smile. He could not think of anything he could say to boost the morale of his men.
“Let us make haste.”
Francis started back on their trek, and his knights followed close behind.
If he were to keep in mind the possibility of the reinforcements from the other countries facing a similar danger, it was important for Francis’ group of knights to succeed – as they were the largest in number. He had thought it could be worth saying something along the lines of being the King’s last hope, but then decided it would be wise to keep that to himself.
Francis was afraid. He was so afraid he could not do anything but to keep riding toward the west. He kept riding on, holding onto the futile hope that if they kept it up, they would eventually reach the Royal estate where the border guards would be there waiting to rescue them.
‘All I need to do is make it to the border. Just until the border.’
Francis’ small prayer to himself did not last longer than an hour.
Just ahead of the Royal Knights, two knights dressed in black awaited blocking their path. Before Francis even took notice, his horse began to whinny at the sight.
Francis, struggling to take control of his panicking horse, shouted out loud, “Battle position!”
But before the words left his mouth, the knight riding next to him cried out a moment sooner, “Protect the Captain!”
Francis had always stood at the forefront of every battle. And so his knights had taken it upon themselves to protect their Captain this time around.
“Please run away, Captain.”
“What are you saying?!”
Francis yelled out in aggravated opposition, but none of the knights paid any attention.
“These are monsters. Twenty of our men could not fend off against just three. If we have any chance at all, it is if the rest of us fought to block these two so one man can go back to the royal family and tell them what has happened.”
“I can not do that. If we must, it does not have to be…”
“Please face the facts, Captain. The enemy already knew which path we would be taking. The only option we have now is to turn back. And the person who must do that is you, Captain.”
Francis shook his head.
“You are now giving me orders?”
“There is no time to argue!”
And at that moment, the two black knights stirred their horses and began riding towards the Royal Knights.
Captain Francis bit his lips gently before saying.
“Please make it alive.”
Before tears could well out of eyes, Francis pulled his reins and turned his horse’s head around. His horse, maybe feeling his rider’s weary heart, galloped fast and hard as if he had forgotten all the fatigue he had felt thus far. But it wasn’t even a few minutes later that Francis could hear the pounding of hooves following behind him.
Francis drew his sword as he turned to look behind. The black knight’s horse, almost flying with its eerie speed, caught up in a matter of seconds and was now running side by side with the Captain’s horse. He could see the almost animalistic breath leaving from the dark hole of the black knight’s helmet.
Francis swung out his sword as he let out a fierce yell. And the moment his blade hit the black helmet, it shattered into pieces. The helmet merely shifted a bit to the side before returning to its original position, unharmed. The darkness within the helmet seemed to watch Francis.
Pitch black. There was nothing. As he watched the black knight’s giant ax rushing towards his neck, Francis briefly thought to himself that these monsters would soon put the whole country into a nightmare just as dark as their armor. More than the fear of death, Francis felt the overwhelming pain of not being able to fulfill the last wish of his knights.
In that last moment, he just wished for the fear and pain to end more quickly.
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