“Anybody else hear that?”
Sakura had wisely ignored Medrauta and Viviane’s earlier romantic pause, choosing to focus on replenishing her ki reserves while waiting for Riku’s return. Closing her eyes and tuning out the rest of the world as she became one with nature and the world itself, she had shut off much of the outside world.
However, she now found herself forced to exit her trance as a strange yet still-distant sound tugged at her attention. Though she had an inkling of what it was, she wasn’t entirely sure just yet.
Viviane perked up, exiting her trance at the sound of Sakura’s voice. Thanks to her incredible affinity with ki, she’d replenished a great deal of her reserves already over the past hour. “Hear what?”
In contrast, Medrauta nodded in Sakura’s direction. “Glad to see I’m not going crazy. I wasn’t sure if I was the only one hearing that in the distance, but it sounds kind of like...”
“...Hoofbeats?” Sakura half-asked and half-stated.
“Yeah. Hoofbeats.” Medrauta confirmed. “Lots of them.”
Viviane frowned. She closed her eyes, enhancing her auditory senses as she attempted to pick out any unfamiliar sounds in the distance. After a few moments, she opened her eyes once more, a thoroughly disappointed look on her face. “Well, I don’t hear anything.”
“I’m not surprised, Viviane.” Medrauta said. “They’re quite far away, and honestly, I thought I was just imagining them until Lady Sakura spoke up. I’m surprised she managed to catch the sound too.”
“It is only expected of me,” Sakura said. “After all, the majority of our armed forces consist of cavalry. It would be embarrassing if I did not register such a familiar sound even from a distance.”
Medrauta nodded. Though she kept her expression neutral, she was actually rather surprised about the fact that Sakura—a noblewoman—was so familiar with her own country’s military. The knight honestly doubted that even Princess Gwenhwyfar would be able to confidently recite the makeup of the empire’s military forces.
“At least we know why there aren’t any guards on the ramparts now,” Medrauta remarked. “Let’s hope Sir Riku returns before we run into them. I estimate they’ll arrive within the next fifteen minutes or so.”
“Fifteen minutes or so...?” Sakura frowned. “Isn’t that a little too fast even for cavalry?”
“Not exactly,” Viviane said. “Higashi is rife with steppes and undulating landscapes, so it’s natural for cavalry to spend a little longer traveling through the country. However, the empire’s territory is mostly flat.”
“I see... That is slightly worrying. We have a way of contacting Riku, correct?” Though Sakura attempted to keep her voice calm and steady, a tinge of anxiety inevitably tainted it.
“I could probably track him down pretty quickly if I needed to,” Medrauta shrugged. “Other than running around and looking for him, we don’t exactly have flares, no.”
Sakura pursed her lips, clearly unhappy with the situation. Despite offering no further words, the expression lingering on her face said more than enough. Viviane and Medrauta exchanged a quick glance, causing the knight to shake her head.
“I’m not leaving you, Viviane.” Medrauta said, her voice unwavering. To reinforce her point, she took a step toward her lady, planting her feet firmly against the ground.
“...I’m not asking you to leave me, Medrauta. Can’t we just go as a group?”
“Lady Sakura won’t be able to keep up.”
Viviane paused as she reconsidered her suggestion. She already knew that her knight would be adamant about leaving her alone to go search for Riku, and though her original idea was to tag along thanks to her newly replenished ki reserves, she’d failed to consider the fact that Sakura needed to be guarded as well. Unless...
“...Oh! I know! I’ll just carry her!” Viviane beamed at Medrauta, causing the knight to cross her arms and click her tongue in annoyance.
“Why not? It’s a perfect solution, isn’t it? The three of us will be together and—”
“No means no, Viviane.” Medrauta said flatly. “I’m not letting you carry Lady Sakura before you’ve carried m—”
Although Medrauta attempted to mask her verbal blunder with a fit of violent coughing, it was already too late and the knight knew it. The tips of Medrauta’s ears began reddening even as a wry smile grew on Viviane’s lips.
“Oh? What’s that?” Viviane stepped toward her knight, causing Medrauta to retreat instinctively.
“N-Nothing!” Medrauta blushed vehemently. Unfortunately, there would be no escape for her as Viviane’s hand closed around her collar. With a quick tug, Viviane pulled the knight closer to herself.
“Perhaps I might indulge you if—”
“My apologies for interrupting your moment, lovebirds, but it seems we have a bigger issue at the moment,” Sakura said. Despite her formal tone, her voice was laced with alarm and it was clear that she was far more anxious than before.
Medrauta didn’t even need to ask why. In her fit of embarrassment, she’d been so distracted that she’d neglected to keep track of their surroundings. Worse yet, it seemed that Sakura had been the same, though the source of her distraction came from fear for her knight’s safety.
The sound of clinking steel echoed from their left, marking the advance of armored forces. Medrauta wasn’t sure where these soldiers had come from, nor had she picked them out earlier amidst the drumming of hooves in the distance, but judging from their proximity to the gate, they were probably the group meant to relieve the returning patrol.
They were dangerously close, and upon a more detailed inspection, Medrauta could see that the armored soldiers were exiting from what looked like a small hidden gate built into the side of Helfried’s city walls.
They filed out in a single line before taking their places in a neat formation outside the walls. Medrauta counted at least twenty so far, and it didn’t look like their ranks were going to stop filling up anytime soon. The knight shared worried glances with the two noblewomen present, her hand falling to the hilt of her sword unconsciously.
...That’s thirty, Medrauta thought as she counted the soldiers falling into line outside the walls. More trickled out from the hidden gate, and though she was confident she could deal with any number of regular soldiers, she had no way of knowing whether there were knights among the city’s forces or not.
As one of the larger settlements in the Revelo dukedom, Helfried enjoyed a larger volume of nobles, and by extension, knights. While a knight only owed servitude to their sworn noble, it wasn’t uncommon for petty nobility to lend their knights to the fief’s military in times of need.
“Viviane. Let’s head to the carriage.”
Viviane nodded to Medrauta, starting toward the parked vehicle almost immediately. “Good idea. I’m going to need my bow if we’re fighting.”
“We’re not fighting,” Medrauta frowned. She had no idea what Viviane was thinking, but it was clear that the restoration of her ki reserves had instilled a sense of somewhat misguided confidence in the noblewoman. Instead of trying to make sense of Viviane’s logic, Medrauta helped Sakura up, allowing the foreigner to lean against her as the three of them made a beeline for the carriage.
“Why not? They’re just soldiers, aren’t they?” Viviane asked. “I think I might be able to take them all on myself.”
“If they’re just soldiers, yes.” Medrauta agreed. There was no doubt in her mind that Viviane would actually be able to take down several platoons of soldiers from a distance so long as she had enough arrows. With her incredible shooting speed and accuracy that was rivaled only by her mentor’s, she would probably be able to cut down entire groups of men just by herself.
“Then what’s the problem?”
“They’re not just soldiers, Viviane. There might be knights mixed in there, especially given how Bastiche has locked down the entire duchy. I doubt Ritya is the only knight supporting him right now.”
Realization dawned in Viviane’s eyes as Medrauta spoke. As the daughter of a duke, she never really had to concern herself with the lending of knights, nor was it something that she had been thoroughly educated in. Of course, she was aware that knight-noble pairs would have to answer the call to arms if the emperor decreed it, but it was common sense that one would have to answer almost any call that the emperor decreed.
In other words, there was no one who Viviane would need to lend her knight to, and given her education was focused more on the finer points of nobility and less on preparing for war despite being the heiress of the Castellia duchy, it wasn’t something that had even crossed her mind until Medrauta brought it up.
“...In that case, it would be wiser to avoid them, yes.” Viviane agreed. As the three of them reached the carriage, they realized they hadn’t been the only ones who’d noticed the sudden influx of armed men. The coachman fixed Medrauta with a worried gaze, deferring to the knight in this pressing moment.
“Dame Medrauta, we are retreating, right?” The coachman asked hopefully. He knew Medrauta was incredibly skilled, but he also had no idea how skilled she was and whether she’d actually be able to take on so many soldiers. Regardless, he didn’t want to find out.
Medrauta nodded, much to the coachman’s relief. “Yes. The horses are ready to leave, I assume?”
“Yes. What about the foreign knight? Sir Riku?”
“We’ll have to pick him up as we go. Hopefully, they won’t turn their attention to the treeline.” Medrauta said thoughtfully. She’d considered pulling the entire carriage behind the forest’s foliage, but the idea was quickly discarded after she realized how thick the greenery was. Even if they managed to somehow squeeze it through the countless trees and bushes, they’d never get it out.
Concluding her conversation with the coachman, Medrauta finished helping Sakura get seated and then closed the door once Viviane entered the carriage as well. A quick glance to the line of soldiers sent a shiver down Medrauta’s spine. There were around eighty soldiers now, a few of them standing dangerously close to the carriage thanks to their wide formation.
If not for the boulders spread throughout the grassland and the slight curvature of the ground, they probably would’ve spotted the carriage already. Medrauta turned to the coachman, climbing onto the box seat.
“Let’s go. Slow canter, we can speed up once we get—”
“Lady Sakura! Dame Medrauta! Lady Viviane!” A familiar voice shot through the air loudly and clearly. “I’m back with the ingredients! Shall we—”
The color in Riku’s face drained as he stared in horror. First at Medrauta’s terrifyingly furious visage... and then at the large group of soldiers who had finally noticed their presence. A clamor of shouting erupted from the armored guardsmen, accompanied with excited whoops and hollers as they spotted Riku approaching the carriage.
“You fucking idiot!” Medrauta shouted angrily as she barely contained the frustration that boiled within her.
Medrauta’s anger and Riku’s approach had been more than enough direction for the coachman who wisely attempted to mitigate the situation by speeding up toward the foreign knight.
Within seconds, the sound of steel trampling grass and dirt echoed through the outskirts of Helfried as the soldiers gave chase to the now-fleeing carriage even as Medrauta pulled Riku onto the box seat.
“I-I’m sorry, Dame Medrauta!” Riku hastily apologized. “I couldn’t see them when I was coming up from the hill!”
Medrauta grit her teeth. Though she was obviously annoyed, she really couldn’t fault Riku for that. There was a slight uphill curve as the knight approached from the forest and with the multitude of obstructions present, it was obvious not even a knight would’ve been able to see the soldiers.
“It’s fine.” Medrauta forced the words out as the carriage sped off toward the treeline. The plan was now to turn at the walls and head straight. They could decide the rest after they managed to lose their pursuers. “We’ll just have to outrun them.”
Unfortunately, that would be easier said than done. Both Medrauta and Riku paled at the sound that now dominated the air. A cloud of dust could be seen rising in the distance, a telltale sign of approaching cavalry. Though it was still far behind the soldiers chasing them, it was inevitable that the duchy’s mounted forces would catch up with them eventually.
After all, there was no way a carriage filled with supplies and several passengers could outrun a relentless cavalry regiment.
Medrauta and Riku stared at the small army who pursued them before exchanging a glance of mutual understanding. Medrauta sighed and drew her sword in tandem with Riku.
Small army or not, victory was the only option now.