Prologue, Chapter 8: The Whereabouts of the Seal

1

 Baldo borrowed a horse from the Earl and rode east with Julchaga.
 He had originally requested a horse for Julchaga as well, but the young man in question instead said,

 “Well, the thing is…
 I really appreciate the sentiment, boss.
 But I have—what should I call it—pride or stubbornness in my craft?
 If you rely on a horse in my trade, it’ll be all over for you,”

 and other excuses of that nature before eventually continuing on foot.
 Baldo continued on horseback then, galloping at full speed, and would you know it, Julchaga never fell behind—that was the kind of extraordinary man he was.
 Baldo of course knew the trip would last many days, however, so he didn’t push the horse too far.

 On the night of the fifth day did they arrive at a small village.
 It was a place under House Telsia’s protection.
 In exchange for tax and a corvee did House Telsia then use their martial and governing might to shield this village from harm.
 The details of this agreement manifested in various ways.
 Telsia’s main castle was far away, and not often did they send patrols to this area.
 The mere fact that House Telsia would repay all ill-intent directed toward this land in kind, however, undeniably brought tranquility to its inhabitants .

 The mayor of this village allowed the two to spend the night at his house.
 The next morning, Baldo entrusted Julchaga with the care of the horses and made his way to another house.
 It was a beautiful building, despite being so far in the countryside.
 The head of this house was an elderly woman.

 “Well, who would have guessed it!
 Sir Baldo Rhowen.
 I am so happy to have the honor of your visit.
 Really, what an honor it is.”

 This elderly woman was once the personal maid to Eidra.
 Even when Eidra first went to the Coendelas to marry Cardos was she by her side.
 Some time later, she retired from her role and returned to this village to tend to her ailing mother.

 At this point, Baldo did something that he had never done before.
 He asked the woman what happened in the year and a half that the two of them stayed at the Coendela’s lakeside manor.
 It turned out to be a long story.

 When the tale finally concluded did Baldo at last understand the truth of the matter.
 He still did not know the whereabouts of the seal, however.
 So too was he unclear about Cardos Coendela’s exact aim and if his own predictions were correct.

 What he did know, was that it was imperative that he meet with the envoy as soon as possible.
 Were they to encounter Cardos while still in the dark, they might find themselves facing a perilous end.
 If the envoy’s group were in fact slaughtered, this entire region would would face naught but the fires of war.

 Baldo returned to the mayor’s house.
 As the two of them were drinking tea, Julchaga’s ears suddenly perked up.
 He opened the window and started listening carefully toward the forest.
 Eventually did Baldo start to hear the sound as well.
 It seemed as if several horses were en route to the village.
 They were quickly approaching.

 Baldo and Julchaga told the mayor to say nothing about the two of them and left the house.
 Julchaga took the two horses and hid them in the woods.
 Baldo went behind the house and kept a careful watch on the situation.
 Before long, five knights on horseback approached.

 At the front of the pack was a knight clad in black armor and a black cape on his back.
 Both his gloves and boots were the same color as well.
 The four knights who followed behind were also fully dressed in armor, but the one at the front possessed long, luxurious black hair, billowing freely in the wind.
 He had a black mustache and beard, and they exuded a sense of both savagery and refinement.
 There was a gleam in his eyes, as if amidst a dream.
 His stature was of daunting proportions.

 It was the man known as the Panzaar1, Jogg Woad.

 He was a bastard child of Cardos Coendela and the inheritor of his branch family.
 He was supposedly two years younger than Jourlan, making him twenty-six this year.
 Though he possessed unrivaled arrogance, so too did he have the strength to back it up.
 It seemed the blood of the Coendelas ran strong within him.

 The five men demanded to know who the mayor was and then barged into his house uninvited.
 Jogg sat down in a chair one of his underlings provided and leaned his sheathed greatsword on the table in front of him.
 There was beautiful finesse contained within the way he handled his sword.
 Yet when he sat down on the chair, it was as if he turned into a savage brute.
 He stuck out both of his long legs in front of him and leaned his left elbow on the table, stroking his chin with his thumb and index fingers.
 He gazed at a certain point on the wall, but none could guess what might have caught his attention.
 The mayor and his wife were both dragged into the room and made to stand before Jogg.

 “How much does this village pay to Telsia in taxes every year?”

 asked one of the knights next to Jogg.
 The mayor answered.
 Jogg continued to silently rest his chin on his left hand, scratching the side of his nose with his ring finger.
 After a moment, he then listlessly raised his right hand and opened it to show all five fingers.
 He had never taken off his gloves.
 His gaze was still directed at that particular spot on the wall.
 The knight who spoke previously nodded after seeing Jogg open his hand and said to the mayor,

 “Then from now on, you will be paying five times that to House Coendela.
 You are no longer obligated to pay taxes to Telsia.”

 The mayor couldn’t stay silent after hearing such a tyrannical declaration, and he immediately raised his voice in protest.
 The knight unsheathed and raised his sword, meaning to cut down the mayor where he stood.

 At that moment did Jogg suddenly stand and send the knight flying with a kick.
 The knight crashed into a wall, broke all the way through, tumbling onto the dirt outside.
 Jogg’s luscious black hair drifted up, temporarily caught in the wind, and then soon settled back down.

 “You imbecile.
 Kill the mayor and it’ll no longer be easy to get them to pay us taxes and follow our orders.
 Don’t attack the men and young women.”

 He returned to the chair as if nothing was amiss, and with those few sentences did he once more return to stroking his beard with his elbow resting on the table.
 He again started to stare at that particular spot on the wall.
 The other knights then tried to intimidate the mayor, forcing him to agree to their one-sided demands.
 Yet with a quivering voice did the mayor continue to refuse.
 One of the knights grabbed his wife and pulled her away.
 Another drew his sword.
 They were planning to set an example by slaughtering the woman.
 This time, Jogg did nothing to interfere.

 It was at that moment Baldo appeared at the front door.

 The knights stopped moving and glared at him.
 Jogg looked leisurely behind him and, upon seeing who it was, raised an eyebrow.
 Both of his eyes opened wide, and within them was a burning madness.
 He grabbed his chest with his right hand as if trying to tear skin from bone, then with crazed eyes and a ferocious smile did he say,

 “Baldo Rhowen.”

2

 Baldo and Jogg had met on the battlefield twice before.
 The first time was when Baldo was forty-eight and Jogg was but sixteen.
 Baldo saw the boy was full of ambition, but alas, his physical and martial prowess had not yet caught up to his spirit.
 His sword was unrestrained, and he could not see through the actions of his opponent—it could not even be considered a proper fight.
 Baldo couldn’t bring himself to kill the poor lad, so he simply knocked the boy off his horse and and let him go.

 The second time was when Baldo was fifty-four and Jogg was twenty-two.
 Jogg had grown so much as to nearly defy recognition.
 He wielded a large greatsword atop his horse and broke through a great many of Telsia’s knights, defying all odds and logic.
 Baldo stopped the greatsword with a shield in his left hand and sliced Jogg across his chest.
 Jogg looked as if he was shocked to the core.
 Baldo watched as this young man escaped under the cover of his allies, and he thought, Come a couple more years and there will be no one left who can defend against his blade.

 Baldo was now fifty-eight, and Jogg was now twenty-six.
 Without a proper sword or armor, how could Baldo possibly hope to contend with Jogg as he was now, brimming with spirit.
 Not to mention the four knights beside him.
 It would also be disadvantageous for Baldo to have his location known, especially at a place not at all far from House Coendela’s main base of operations.

 Yet Baldo could not merely stand by and watch as the mayor’s wife was killed.

 Well, I’m sure things will work out somehow.
 And if they don’t, I’ll die in combat and that will be that,

 thought Baldo, convincing himself to make his presence known.
 Baldo showed himself to the men in the house and then walked outside without uttering a word.
 Jogg and the four knights accompanying him followed behind.
 Jogg removed his cape and handed it to one of the men with him.
 He unsheathed his sword and handed its scabbard to another.
 Turning to his men, he ordered,

 “Wait here.
 None of you are to get involved.”

 Once he was about twenty paces away did Baldo turn around.
 His right arm loosely dangled down, and his left hand held his scabbard tightly in place.

 Jogg inched forward.
 One step, two steps, three steps.

 His gaze was trained on Baldo’s sword.
 A twisting, entangling gaze it was.

 As he walked forward, Jogg spun his sword around.
 From the bottom right to the front.
 From the front to the left.
 Above his head and behind him.
 From behind him to the right.
 One rotation, two rotations, three rotations.

 Upon reaching the right distance between him and his enemy would he surely then attack with unrivaled speed and destructive force.
 Jogg continued to careful watch Baldo’s sword.

 Baldo knew his sword would immediately shatter into fragments if it ever met that greatsword head-on.
 Not to mention he was old and frail now, thus he had to avoid a direct clash.

 Baldo stepped slightly forward with his right foot and moved his center of gravity along with it.
 He meant to time his breathing with the advance, lunging forward and dodging to the right of his opponent.
 Once he did, he would strike at the man’s left flank.
 That was his only chance at victory.
 Just as he was about to grab the hilt with his right hand was he struck with terror.

 I cannot move it!

 His right hand was frozen in place.
 Baldo desperately tried to muster the strength to do so, but his right arm refused to budge.

 Ever since he was young had he trained this arm beyond it capabilities.
 His right shoulder had often started to cramp up and throb in recent years, and he found he could no longer raise his right arm directly upwards.
 So too would he occasionally be assaulted by a wave of pain depending on how he used it.
 It was an unavoidable reality, and Baldo was prepared to meet the day when he could no longer raise a sword at all.
 Yet to think it would happen today of all days!
 Jogg mercilessly continued his advance.

 Now!

 Baldo rushed forward with all of his strength the moment he saw the chance.
 His right arm was still as unmovable as ever.
 Baldo gripped the hilt with his left hand instead and did the best he could to unsheathe the sword.

 Jogg seemed to have predicted Baldo’s intentions.
 That too was the reason he never pulled his gaze away from Baldo’s weapon.
 Had he instead focused on his hands or legs, it was possible Baldo could have deceived him through a feint.
 So he only looked at the sword.
 The very moment Baldo drew his sword and attacked would also be the very moment he perished.

 Baldo finally managed to extract the sword from its sheath.
 It was because his sword was short and his arms were long that it was even possible in the first place.
 His right hand still remained immobile.
 There was no longer any chance for Baldo to slice his opponent’s left flank.
 He adjusted for the timing by leaning back.

 It was fortunate that he did so.

 It was precisely because Jogg was focused with such determination on the instant Baldo drew his blade with his right hand that his own sword came but a moment too late.
 Baldo slid forward on his right foot, and the greatsword, clad in a fierce gale, passed over his head.
 Knowing that he had failed to catch his prey, Jogg continued to spin his greatsword around on the same trajectory and clenched the muscles in his left leg.
 Into that very leg did Baldo’s blade travel.

 Baldo rested his sword on his left arm and used the momentum of his slide to slice the sword against Jogg’s leg.
 It was a desperate, painful attack, but thanks to Baldo’s weight and momentum as well as the fact that Jogg placed all of his weight onto his left foot at that moment, the attack was surprisingly powerful.

 Having slipped past his opponent, Baldo twisted his body to the right.
 His left knee touched the ground, and with his right knee still upright did he quickly kill his velocity.
 Dirt was kicked up into the air.

 Baldo stood up the moment he stopped his slide.
 His left hand held the sword in a reverse grip.
 He was three and a half paces from Jogg.
 A single step forward would put his greatsword in range of striking Baldo.

 Jogg himself turned around, keeping close watch on Baldo’s movements as he slipped past him on his left.
 He placed all of his weight on that left foot, pivoting around it and swinging the greatsword in a large arc with him.
 After bearing that injury on his left leg, however, it seemed he could not support the pivot.
 His posture broke, and as he was sweeping up with the blade to the right did it drift off course.
 Baldo would not allow this perfect opportunity to pass him by.
 He rushed up to Jogg and attempted to slice him with his sword, still reversed in his left hand.

 Baldo underestimated Jogg, however, who was still young and limber.
 He bent both of his knees, lowering his body, and forcing himself back in a workable posture, he slammed his greatsword against Baldo’s chest.
 The moment the greatsword brushed past his left elbow and dug into his chest, Baldo knew then that death had finally come for him.

 It should have come for him.
 But it did not.

 The instant his greatsword came into contact with Baldo’s chest did Jogg suddenly stop the swing in its tracks.
 Baldo’s sword sliced through naught but the wind, dancing in the air.
 Jogg stared at Baldo’s right arm, dangling lifelessly at his side.
 The flames of combat still burned vigorously in Baldo’s eyes.
 He stared defiantly at the man clad in black, nary a trace of fear or hesitation in his gaze.
 Jogg continued to look at that right arm.
 That right arm that hadn’t moved once.

 Jogg’s entire body started to relax.
 Without muttering a word, he pulled back his sword and turned to walk toward the rest of the knights, completely exposing his back to Baldo.
 He once more sheathed his blade, jumped atop his horse, and silently left the village.
 Though there was hesitation painted on their faces, the knights who had come with him followed closely behind.

3

 Once the five men were completely out of sight did Julchaga come running from the woods with the horses in tow.
 He tied the horses to a hitching post, approached Baldo, and asked,

 “Is your chest okay?
 There was quite the sound when it hit.”

 I don’t feel a thing, remarked Baldo as he walked into the mayor’s house.
 He slumped down into a chair and said to the mayor, That was quite the ruckus, wasn’t it.
 The mayor was about to thank Baldo profusely for saving his wife, but he waved his hand for the man to stop and instead asked for a cup of water.
 He greedily drank the entire thing and then took off his breastplate.
 As he was doing this, he was gradually able to move his right arm again.
 Baldo was grateful to see it.

 There was a great gash across the breastplate.
 He would have certainly died had Jogg not stopped the blade.
 Yet, although it was a direct hit, there was surprisingly little pain after the fact.
 What protected him from the brunt of the impact was in fact a small table knife, hidden in his breast pocket.
 No wonder the strike produced such metallic sound, thought Baldo.
 After receiving the blow, the knife was slightly bent.

 “Wow!
 What a pretty knife.
 It tickles my thieving spirit,”

 said Julchaga with alarming straightforwardness,

 “Let me see it for a sec.”

 Baldo handed him the knife.
 Julchaga looked at the item from various angles for a moment and then made a peculiar request:

 “Can I take it apart?”

 I highly doubt that’s possible, replied Baldo, but instead came the response,

 “Hold on a sec,”

 Julchaga pulled out a pouch and from it retrieved some small tools, using them to fiddle around with some spots on the knife.
 Suddenly, the knife split cleanly in two.
 Inside was a metal, square-shaped item.
 Julchaga took it out and gave the thing a look before continuing,

 “This is made from holy silver.
 It’s small, but it looks like there’s some kind of family crest engraved on it.
 You think this is the seal?”

 Baldo took the small item and stared fixedly at the design.
 It certainly was a seal.

 Now that he thought about it once more, Eidra had in fact given this knife to Baldo upon returning to Pacra.
 It had been so long ago that he never once associated the item with this whole incident, and in fact considered it to be something that had always been his.
 Even when asked what Eidra had given him, this knife never once came to mind.

 Why did the princess give me this knife?

 As Baldo was pondering the question, there was a mischievous glint in Julchaga’s eyes as he gazed at the holy silver seal.

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