Prologue, Chapter 2: The Sword Fiend

1

 Suddenly the fishing pole jolted.
 It seems a fish took the bait.

 Following a brief battle of endurance and the eventual triumphant victory, Baldo was in good spirits when a familiar voice entered his ear.

 “It brings me great joy to see you are well, great Sir Rhowen.”

 Baldo turned around and saw kneeling in the grass of the dry riverbed a knight by the name of Cedelmont Expenglar.
 The two individuals behinds Cedelmont, both kneeling in similar fashion, were also familiar faces.
 Behind them, however, was a rather unexpected figure, glaring down at Baldo from the horse he remained perched atop.

 A knight named Yotish Peyn.

 He was said to be the right-hand man of Cardos Coendela, lord of the domain of Dorba.
 One would suspect Cedel might come, but Baldo never imagined House Coendela would send a messenger as well.
 Not to mention one of such repute.

 “Sir Peyn, I ask you dismount your steed.”

 Speaking down to a dismounted knight atop one’s horse in times of peace was considered a breach of etiquette.
 As such, Cedelmont’s words were but a reminder of the obvious.
 Yet Yotish’s mouth curled in clear displeasure.

 “Sir Expenglar, this man is no longer a knight.
 He has cast aside the lord he once served.
 One who is not a knight has no need for a knight’s courtesy.”

 “Sir Peyn, the great Sir Baldo Rhowen has not cast aside his lord as you say.
 In his Knight’s Vow, he swore to take the commonfolk as his lord, and never once has he broken it.”

 “Hmph.
 I suppose you’re right.
 ‘Galdegarsh Gwera,’1 was it?”

 Yotish said while dismounting.
 In his mannerisms was thinly-veiled ridicule.
 Even Yotish, however, had to show restraint before Cedelmont, or rather House Expenglar behind him.
 The name Expenglar carried weight in these lands.

 Baldo told the three kneeling knights to stand.
 Cedelmont remained kneeling yet, however, and staring directly into the eyes of his mentor, he said,

 “Great Sir Rhowen, I beseech you return.
 Lord Galiera is racked with grief.”

 I do not doubt it,

 thought Baldo.
 The current lord of Pacra, Galiera Telsia, was a deeply compassionate man.
 He saw Baldo, the man who served four generations of Telsia lords, as dearly as a brother.
 With the passing of the previous lord, Vorra, two years prior, Baldo was Galiera’s most trusted of friends.

 “Sir Baldo Rhowen, my lord as well thought you left with inadequate notice.
 We have prepared land for you.
 Houses Coendela and Telsia require your service yet,”

 Yotish said, to which Baldo thought,

 Quite the nerve to say those words.

 Baldo knew not where these lands were located, but he knew they were without doubt part of another domain, certainly not under the Houses Coendela or Telsia.
 Declaring the leadership of said land could only lead to conflict.

 Baldo’s fame had spread far too wide.
 Never have the walls under his watch fallen, never has he succumbed to insurmountable odds.
 He was undefeated.
 Though retainers of House Telsia were few in number, they repelled all cursed beasts, fought off all invaders, came down upon all the villainy in their lands, and Baldo was said to be instrumental in it all.
 Yet now that reputation proved only a hindrance.

 The current head of Coendela, Cardos, was a man of insatiable greed.
 After obtaining the title of lord of the region he so desperately coveted, surely were his eyes now set on other domains as well, wishing for their taxes.
 Years of conflict have exhausted his lands, however.
 Though he mobilized endless waves of troops in the final months of his campaign, his coffers were now undoubtedly dry.
 He had no choice but to keep the peace.

 Had he Baldo in his employ, however, things would be different.

 According to the resolution of the Meeting of Lords—though merely a pretext—Baldo and House Telsia were to be sent to cruel war and made to fought until the last of their blood.
 This was the strategy he drafted.
 Were he to remain in good health, Baldo would fight to the limits of his strength and could possibly secure the benefits of war for House Telsia.
 However, Baldo had grown old as of late.
 It would be not long before he met the end of his days.
 There would be no greater disloyalty than to die and leave house Telsia embroiled in senseless war.

 What if Baldo was not there?

 A strategic piece would be lost, and the plans could not come to fruition.
 Would house Telsia be used for everything they had without Baldo, no longer would the cursed beasts be held at bay.
 Were that happen, Coendela and all the other lords would find themselves in cruel conflict with beasts both cursed and not.
 He would likely lose control of the Great Seat.

 Thus Baldo decided to part with House Telsia.
 He could buy the house some time if he did.
 It was fortunate that a new generation of retainers was being brought up.
 Weather the storm, nourish the soil, prepare for the future.
 For this, time was of the upmost importance.

 Baldo’s pupil, Cedelmont, was likely well aware of this.
 Had he not tried once to convince Baldo to return, however, it would only do House Telsia harm.
 Frequent are the rumors that twist context and reverse cause.
In difficult times, the House chased away their most meritorious of vassals, old as he was.
 Such rumors will always be born.

 Thus it was necessary for a retainer of House Telsia to seek Baldo out and beg his return.
 To send three knights led by a man of such stature as Celelmont, this display already went far beyond what was excepted for a decrepit old knight born to a small military family in the frontier.

 “Baldo Rhowen,
 I await your answer.
 Do not tell me you intend to refuse.”

 This man was the only mystery.
 What exactly was Cardos Coendela planning by sending him?

 For him to call on his very nephew to try and stop Baldo from leaving seemed an impeccable show of sincerity.
 Yet Coendela should have no need for such pretenses.
 Stopping him and obtaining a strategic piece came above all.
 If he couldn’t be stopped, House Telsia would be given the responsibility to do so.
 Now that this man came, however, only Coendela himself would bear the blame of failing to convince Baldo to stay.
 Not to mention, this very conduct could only serve to anger Baldo in its discourtesy.

 “Sir Peyn,
 You must show restraint.
 My lord has acknowledged House Coendela as the rightful possessor of the Great Lord’s seat, but that does not imply House Telsia serves under you.
 Neither is Sir Rhowen beholden to the wishes of your house.”

 For whatever reason, Yotish Peyn did not retort.
 What did he come for, truly?

 Cedelmont then continued in his attempt to dissuade Baldo from retiring for some time longer.
 Baldo merely responded that, being unable to fight any longer, he wished to spend the last of his days in peace.
 Though perhaps the wrong thing to say, Baldo couldn’t bring himself to lie that he left due to any sort of ill-will towards the house.
 His reason for leaving could only be due to the ever-weakening nature of his physical and mental faculties.
 It was imperative that Cedelmont and the two other knights listen intently to these words and spread them to a great many people.

 Once his answer came to an end, Cedelmont reluctantly gave up on convincing Baldo and instead retrieved a pouch of money.

 “It was Lord Galiera’s wish that should you not choose to return, he would at least bless you with a peaceful journey,”

 he said, handing Baldo the pouch.

 Hm.
 What would happen if I refused, I wonder.
 Surely there would be those suspicious that I did in fact harbor grievances towards the lord,

 thought Baldo for a moment before he reached out to receive the money.
 It was at that very moment.

 There was a strange glint that shone in Yotish Peyn’s eyes.
 Neither was it directed at Baldo or Cedelmont,
 but at the pouch of coins between them.
 Though it was generous sum to an old traveler, it was not nearly enough to inspire greed in the nobility.

 Once the knights of House Telsia concluded their farewells and mounted their horses once more, Yotish too left with them.
 As Baldo placed the pouch in his horse’s bag, he almost felt as if the man’s glare was even from the far distance trained on him yet.

2

 In the end, Baldo decided to spend the night in that very spot next to the river.
 He began to collect stones as to build a little campfire.
 Old Stabaros continued to graze on the grass as it always did.
 Just when he finished arranging the stones, he heard the sound of two horses approaching.

 One of the figures was Yotish Peyn.
 No longer was he attempting to hide his bloodlust.
 The other was a man unfamiliar to Baldo.
 He looked less a knight, more a mercenary.
 Yotish dismounted and said,

 “Hey, Sir ‘Galdegarsh Gwera.’
 I forgot to mention something earlier—completely slipped my mind.
 Hope you don’t mind me coming back.
 Let me introduce you to a certain someone.
 Someone named Venn Ulir.”

 Venn Ulir!
 So this is the man!

 He was the wandering knight known as the Rolo Spia.2
 The stories say he was once a knight of a country in the midlands.
 He possessed an unquenchable desire to challenge the strong in combat and before long could no longer remain in his country.
 It was said he made his living as a contracted killer, slaying his targets in duels.
 Perhaps he is now a borrowed blade of the Coendelas.

 In moments of death, an invisible red crow will fly in and land on your pillow.
 The moment one sees this red crow is the moment they perish.
 They likened him to this folktale, and thus was he known as the Red Crow.

 There were many fantastic rumors surrounding this man.
 Above all was that he was not human.
 That he was half demihuman.
 Demihumans cannot bear children with humans.
 It happens once in a blue moon, but the infants rarely survive the birth, let alone grow into healthy adulthood.
 It was a curious rumor.
 Perhaps it was created by one who bore great malice toward the man.

 “So you’re Baldo Rhowen, huh?
 I’ve been wanting to meet you.”

 It was a deep, dark voice.
 I’ve never met a man with such a piercing glare, thought Baldo.
 There was not a warrior’s spirit in those eyes, however, nor was there any trace of madness.
 All that radiated from him was a sense of quiet and rationality.

 Tsk-tsk, came the sound from Baldo’s mouth as he removed his cloak.
 He had put his sword on his waist the very moment he heard the sound of hooves.

 Yotish Peyn and Venn Ulir tethered their horses to shrubs twenty paces away from Baldo and began to approach him.
 Now they were but ten apart.
 Venn Ulir raised his hand to stop Yotish in his tracks.
 Don’t get any closer to him, were the words hidden in the gesture.

 “Well then, Sir Rhowen.
 About that certain something I forgot to mention—”

 said Yotish as he glanced toward Venn Ulir, prompting the man to take four steps further,

 “—would you mind dying for me?”

 Venn Ulir unsheathed his sword the moment Yotish stopped speaking, and Baldo did the same.
 What a fine blade, thought Baldo as he gazed at his opponent’s weapon.
 The light that shined off it betrayed its quality.
 A masterful work, forged with excellent materials aplenty.
 It was a bit longer than Baldo’s blade and a bit narrower.
 Baldo’s sword could be wielded two-handed if desired, whereas Venn Ulir’s could be held in but one.
 It was the type of weapon fancied by a swordsman who trained in speed and technical prowess.
 So too was his armor made of leather, allowing for nimble movement.

 Upon first glance, the equipment the two possessed seemed not dissimilar.
 Both had leather armor and a shortsword.
 The truth of the matter was that the two were extremely different.
 If they fought head on, Baldo’s sword would but break in a single clash.

 Baldo’s preferred method of combat after all was to be clad in heavy armor, wielding a giant longsword.
 For many a moon had he trained in this style.
 For Baldo, the strikes of an opponent we not to be dodged.
 They were to be received and endured.
 There was no way Baldo could receive his opponent’s attacks with his current equipment, however.
 Not to mention his opponent was a notorious fiend with the sword and in some manner could be considered a knight.
 Baldo seemed destined to lose.

 “I ask you for a duel,”

 said Venn Ulir.
 A tad late for that, thought Baldo, though a small smile formed on his lips to see the man so strangely sincere.

 If I am going to die, I might as well fight with ever fiber of my being.
 Though my left hand is lonely to be without shield,

 thought Baldo as he said, Tsk-tsk, in response, Then I shall take you up on that duel.
 Both men held their sword in their right hand.
 Venn Ulir’s blade came flying first, crossing the six paces between them in an instant.
 Baldo stayed rooted upright in the spot.

 Venn Ulir sliced his blade up diagonally from the right.
 Swiftly like a gust of wind.
 Baldo pulled the left half of his body back and leaned back a fraction, narrowly avoiding the strike.
 The tip of the sword passed a hair’s width from Baldo’s left eye, but he did not close it for he kept careful watch over Venn Ulir’s movements.
 With nary the slightest drop in speed, Venn Ulir changed the sword’s trajectory and swiped up at  Baldo’s ribs from the opposite direction.
 Baldo stepped forward a fraction with his right foot and swung with his sword, deflecting Venn Ulir’s blade with a seemingly effortless swipe.
 Realizing he could no longer guide his sword along its intended path, Venn Ulir pulled the blade to the left before the swing was completed and lunged forward towards Baldo’s chest, attempting to finish the strike there.
 Baldo had pulled back his sword and positioned it upright along the center of his body, however, so Venn Ulir instead aimed to meet the blade with his own, for he was wary of a counterattack to his head.

 The two swords collided with the sound of metal against metal.
 Venn Ulir’s blade struck squarely against Baldo’s.
 Fortunately his sword did not break.
 Baldo could furthermore match Venn Ulir in the contest of strength, so neither was his sword forced back.
 In but an instant, Baldo had repelled his attacks thrice.

 The Rolo Spia must scarcely believe his eyes,

 thought Baldo.
 Of course, Baldo was thoroughly surprised himself.
 Those three strikes were nigh unavoidable.

 The first strike came in a predictable manner, and so Baldo simply gauged the timing and pulled his body back accordingly.
 He did not evade it by watching the blade.

 He was able to knock aside the second strike as it reversed direction due to a particular technique he learned.
 It was a technique he had seen many times forty-eight years ago, when he first learned the basics of swordplay from a wandering knight.
 When he dodged the first strike and realized the blade was going to return from the opposite direction, he swung his own sword where he predicted the weapon to be, and by chance did he manage to hit it.

 The third strike was an even larger coincidence, or perhaps more accurately the result of Venn Ulir misreading the situation.
 This too was a lesson from Baldo’s once-teacher, that if unable to predict the opponent’s strike, one should execute a middle guard and try to perform a feint.
 As Baldo did not know what to do, he faithfully brought his sword back into a middle guard, and Venn Ulir misjudged his intentions.

 Baldo thought it a funny thing, that he would suddenly remember this lesson from forty-eight years ago and perform it so reflexively.
 Baldo also realized something in that moment.

 Venn Ulir was a man who was trained in orthodox swordplay.
 Furthermore was he a man of extraordinary skill.
 The nature of his prowess is fundamentally different from a layman like me, one tempered on the battlefield, thought Baldo.
 Strength comes in many forms, one could say.

 That was not all.
 Though his skill was great, what truly commanded praise was his speed.
 Venn Ulir’s blade was frighteningly quick.

 When learning to wield a weapon, natural talent plays a large role.
 Some find themselves suited to it; others do not.
 Speed, however…
 The quickness of one’s blade…
 These are not things that can be achieved through talent alone.
 Only countless hours of blood and sweat could birth a speed that miraculous.

 Baldo realized that this battle-crazy wandering knight was the most dedicated man he had ever seen.
 Chances were he truly, truly loved the sword.
 Chances were he only held interest in the polishing of his own swordplay through life-threatening combat.
 It goes without saying that this man was also blessed with talent in the shortsword.
 This was not swordsmanship that relied on genius, however.
 One could not achieve this level of speed and skill without sacrificing all else.

 Venn Ulir gripped his sword with both hands and tried to push Baldo’s blade from left to right.
 Baldo responded to the force with but his right hand on the hilt and thought to himself, I see, so that’s what he’s trying to do.
 Venn Ulir would apply pressure and then suddenly pull back, causing his opponent to lose balance, and then go in for the final strike.
 Where is he going to strike?
 The head?
 The legs?

 The legs, predicted Baldo.
 Though it may have simply been a hunch, it was correct.
 Correct though it was, Baldo could not evade it.
 The sword fiend suddenly pulled his blade back and sliced down at Baldo’s left leg.
 With Baldo’s unsteady footing, there was naught he could do to resist.

 If Baldo could not evade, however, then he would not evade.
 This was a foe he simply could not best.
 If he could simply land a single stroke of his blade then he would be satisfied.

 From a starting position, Baldo struck forward with his sword, aiming at the top of his opponent’s head.
 If he aimed for the center of the fiend’s body, then it was more likely for him to land a blow.

 There the sword fiend was—lowering his body, slicing towards a spot below Baldo’s right knee.
 There Baldo was—eyes carefully trained on the head as it moved, bringing his blade furiously down.

 Even at this moment did the sword fiend react with marvelous speed.
 Though he was facing completely forward at the time, he managed to twist his body around in a matter of moments.
 Baldo’s sword hit naught but air.
 So too did the sword fiend’s strike leave but a shallow wound.

 As he placed all his weight behind this fruitless blow, and the fiend’s blade left a gash across both his boots and shin, Baldo fell.
 However, to fall as such would spell death.
 He curled his body into a ball as he dropped, and in his left hand he grabbed a broken branch from the ground, using his momentum and all the strength in his hand to throw the branch where he assumed his foe to be.
 The girthy branch flew through the air.
 Though a step into his twilight years, Baldo still retained his uncanny strength.
 The fiend stepped to the right and avoided the branch, but his breathing could no longer remain composed.

 The branch continued on its path, now toward Yotish Peyn instead.
 Surely was he caught off guard, originally content to spectate.
 The sight of the incoming branch flustered the man, and though he managed to evade, he fell back and landed on his rear.
 He was a ridiculous sight.
 A look of incredulity appeared on his face for a moment, and in the next was it flushed with rage.

 “You old bastard!”

 Yotish screamed as he pulled his sword from its sheath and started to rush toward Baldo.
 The sword fiend grabbed him with his left hand and stopped him in his tracks.

 “It’s not your turn yet.”

 “Out of the way, Rolo Spia!
 I’m going to cut this bastard down!”

 Now! thought Baldo.
 Now was the time for him to employ the trick he prepared.
 After hearing a certain signal, Staboros had waited on standby behind the pile of stones that Baldo collected.
 As Baldo stood up, he shouted,

 Gedan!3

 and rushed toward his enemy.
 The sword fiend was naturally aware of his surroundings, but Yotish had his eyes set only on Baldo.
 From behind the pile, Staboros kicked the stones.
 That certain signal was when before the duel Baldo said, Tsk-tsk.
 He taught it to Staboros when he was young, as a practical joke.
 As the stones collected were for a campfire, they were of considerable size.
 From the kick, several stones were launched through the air toward the two enemies of Baldo.

 The sword fiend was again able to dodge the rocks with aplomb.
 As he did so, however, Yotish was released from his grip.
 One of the stones struck Yotish square in the back.
 Perhaps it was the stone or being released from the fiend’s grip that caused Yotish to lose his balance and tumble to the ground before Baldo.

 I hoped to land a blow on Venn Ulir at least once, but alas, some things are not meant to be,

 thought Baldo as he slit Yotish’s throat.
 There Yotish was—laying face-down upon the earth.
 A pool of blood slowly grew from beneath him.

 Baldo then entered a fighting stance once more to receive the sword fiend’s offensive, but the man instead coldly stared at the collapsed Yotish, unmoving.
 No longer did Baldo sense a desire to do battle from the fiend.
 Baldo witnessed the scene with confused thoughts and then asked Venn Ulir,

 Are you unhappy to see your employer perish?

 “I’m not unhappy to see him die.
 Neither is he my employer.
 With him gone, though, it’s simply that I don’t know what to do after I kill you.
 So I no longer have a reason to fight.
 I will put this duel on hold for the time being,”

 responded Venn Ulir.
 Once the blood stopped flowing from Yotish’s neck, he tied the body to his horse, mounted his own horse, and holding the reins of both, disappeared into the distance.

3

 Baldo covered the blood on the ground with dirt and moved to a nearby spot to set up camp.
 As he made preparations, he wondered what exactly Yotish had been planning.

 They clearly wanted him dead.
 But why?

 Perhaps they feared Baldo would take action against them.
 Yet Baldo could do nothing to harm Coendela, for he was alone and possessed nothing.

 Were they worried?
 It was not outside the realm of possibility, but employing the services of a man such as Venn Ulir did not come cheap.
 There were countless ruffians among their ranks, and with but ten of them could they make swift work of a single old man.
 There were even some whose swordsmanship surpassed Baldo’s as he was now.

 I wonder if he must keep it secret from his own flesh and blood.
 Though, I suppose one would be hard-pressed to send their powerful vassals away.

 Baldo himself rarely ventured far from the main castle’s fortifications in his day.
 If Venn Ulir truly wished for Baldo’s demise, then how could one explain his peculiar actions.
 He said he did not know what to do after killing Baldo, which implied that Baldo’s death was not his aim, but rather something that came after.

 Well then.
 If they did not attack only to maim and kill me, then what does that mean?
 Did they intend to use my corpse for something?
 Is it perhaps something in my possession they desire?
 But I’ve left behind everything of value that I owned.

 Baldo suddenly recalled the strange glint in Yotish’s eyes when he received the pouch of coins.
 He had already checked the contents of the pouch but found there was inside naught but money.
 So too was the bag itself exceedingly normal.

 Baldo did not know what to think.
 There was an even more pressing matter to attend to, however.

 Dinner was ready.

 The freshly-caught fish were sizzling hot.
 He ground the delectable rock salt he purchased from the last town he visited and sprinkled it atop.
 There was an irresistible smell.

 Baldo retrieved a jar of alcohol and a cup from his belongings.
 Upon his departure, Cedelmont gave Baldo three jars of spirit and called it a parting gift.

 What a considerate fellow,

 rejoiced Baldo.
 It was surely a fine alcohol and surely as dry as Baldo liked it.
 It was truly the most pressing concern of the night—in what manner is this spirit best enjoyed?
 He decided to make a soup.
 He decided to have just a bit of jerky.
 Once the fish was grilled to the perfect extent, he took a small sip of the alcohol.

 Incredible!

 He bit into the fish.
 Firstly into the meat on it’s back.

 Wow!

 Freshwater fish often possessed a strong smell, but this one was utterly stunning.
 Next he bit into the stomach.

 Mm-mm!

 Nary a trace of bitterness.
 In fact it was almost sweet.
 Perhaps because it was so fresh?
 Perhaps because of the type?
 Glistening oil coated the meat of the stomach—it was an inexpressible delicacy.
 Such a sweet, fragrant experience could be said to be a privilege solely of the fisherman.

 Ah, who cares about all that difficult nonsense.
 I hunger, I prepare delicious food and spirit, I savor it all.
 There is no greater bliss than this.

 The gash on his right leg continued to radiate pain, but with more alcohol in his body would he soon forget it.
 His hip continued to hurt, but what could be done about it now?
 No longer was he at the age to cower in fear of death.
 He had done all he needed to do.
 All that was left was to live as though truly alive and then die.

 As he gazed at the starry sky and the wind crossed the river to brush against his flushed cheeks, Baldo enjoyed his supper.

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