Chapter 17: The Crisis of Crow Fortress (1)

Milton Forrest. The name alone was enough to make Louis’ blood pressure rise.

A noble from the small and feeble Lester Kingdom, and barely the Viscount of some country town. Milton would not have had so much as a glimpse of Louis if he was still living in the capital as the successor of a Count family; but not only did Milton dare to stand toe-to-toe with him, he also opposed him at times.

How so very impudent.

At first, it was okay. Louis thought that Milton would not be able to adapt to the menacing Grey Mountains and die not long after settling. Louis had seen a few nobles meet their end like that.

But Milton was different. Perfectly completing his missions was a given, and when he had no assignments, he could be seen spurring himself on by training. At his demeanor, the commander displayed a lot of trust and affinity towards him, while the subordinates looked upon him with respect.

This did not please Louis.

On top of that, Milton had been involved even more brilliantly when battles commenced. Unlike Louis, who prioritized his physical being and tended to delay his own entrance into battles, Milton always fought at the head and would win against the enemy every time he did so, attracting the praise of the allied forces.

And on top of that again, Milton became aware of the enemy’s stratagem and consulted the commander so as to bring home a triumphant one-sided victory as they drove out the enemy at the Valley of the Winds. As far as Louis was concerned, this was just a stroke of luck, but everyone around him marveled and gushed about Milton Forrest’s abilities. To Louis, such praise was exceedingly grating to his ears.

Then after the battle ended, Milton was promoted to a 300-man commander. He had become Louis’ superior officer. Although this was already enough to drive him nuts, Milton started operating the supply unit and began earning money by legitimate means. Louis heard that it was a considerable sum at that. He also heard that it was only a matter of time before that money would recuperate Milton’s family debts.

This did not please Louis. How could this backward countryside noble become his superior?

This did not please Louis. How could this shantytown noble’s future shine more brightly than his, while he had to rot in the Grey Mountains for the rest of his life?

This did not please Louis. He felt like his pent-up wrath would explode and he would die blazing in a fit of rage. The envy and feelings of inferiority that were piling on in his heart bloomed at last.

‘This just cannot be. I can’t live like this.’

In the end, Louis made an extreme choice.

“Sir Walker. With what business have you called me?”

“What did you mean by come in secret? Is it an important matter?”

Louis discreetly called over Butland Rigor and Marez Cardia, who always tagged along with him everywhere. These two did not need to stay at the Grey Mountains eternally like he did.

They had stuck to his side with the expectation that if they became friends with him, they could be helped by the financial clout of the Walker family once they were discharged. Although Louis had an idea about their ulterior motives, they were the only existences around here that catered to him and so he let them be.

And today, Louis had gathered these two at the onset of a grand plan.

“I believe you are all aware, but… our position in this fortress is a joke.”

The first words to be uttered from Louis’ mouth was a complaint.

The two in front of him nodded their heads as if they related.

“Indeed that is so. This is all the fault of that bumpkin foreigner.”

“The commander’s conduct has also been... unpleasant. To trust a foreigner to that extent… how could he throw aside his fellow countrymen and take care of a foreigner first…?”

Badmouthing Milton and Nelson behind their backs was a common pastime for them. They shared their petty little gripes with one another, and had formed some sort of warped empathic bond. Although this time around, Louis had not called over these two to gossip like the noblewomen did in city salons.

“I agree with the both of you. And so I’ve thought – we should flip this unfair state of things on its head.”

The two men’s expressions hardened when they realized that Louis’ demeanor was different from the usual.

“Is there something particular that you have in mind?”

Louis looked around him and whispered back in a small voice.

“I reckon this country is going under. So…”

The two men’s eyes widened at his next words.

“I’m considering defecting to the Republic.”

“HUH?!”

“S-… Sir Walker?!”

Taken aback, the two hurriedly checked their surroundings for ears. If those words were heard by anyone, it was off with their heads for all three of them.

Louis narrowed his eyes and spoke, “Why does this surprise you so? Besides, we don’t have a future anyway if we stay in this country any longer. Then it only makes sense to desert to the Republic and start a new life, does it not?”

Butland and Marez eyed each other hesitantly at his words.

Strictly speaking, the only one without a future in this country was Louis. These two could be discharged if they stay put a few more years. Then, they could live a life with all the perks that came with being a noble. As such, there was obviously no way that Louis’ words would sway them.

“Ahem… Sir Walker. I’m well aware of what’s causing you to act out like this, but let us think about this more carefully. What you are suggesting right now is that we commit treason.”

Butland carefully chose his words. But there was no way his counseling words would sway Louis.

“No future exists where the Strabus Kingdom exists for much longer. We should be abandoning this so-called nation that has no regard for its own capable men - like us - yet looks after bumpkins from foreign lands.”

Butland realized as soon as Louis said that.

‘Oh, this dude has lost it.’

He had known from the beginning that Louis was spoilt and out of touch. He had known that, but… Butland did not know that Louis would be this much of a loony.

“I didn’t hear any of this. Well, if that’s all…”

Butland stood up from his seat, realizing that associating with a lunatic any longer could result in collateral shit splashing onto him as well. But as soon as he turned away...

Shuk!

“Kuuuuh…”

A sharp dagger dug into Butland’s back.

“L…Louis…”

With a face of utter disbelief, Butland faced Louis who had stabbed him from behind.

Louis spoke with an icy gaze, “Betrayal will not be tolerated.”

Louis turned from the slowly collapsing Butland to face Marez, whose eyes widened.

“What will you choose?”

Marez clenched his teeth. Refusal here only meant he would follow Butland to his sticky end.

“I shall… follow you, Sir Walker.”

“A wise choice. Now then, stamp your thumbprint here.”

Louis whipped out a memorandum and forced Marez to seal it with his thumbprint.

This was so there was no way that Marez could take his foot out halfway through. Even if Marez were to disclose Louis’ plan, Marez could not evade being charged as an accessory to his crime as long as Louis possessed the pact detailing their cooperation on this coup de tat.

‘Damn it, I had no idea he would have more than a few screws loose.’

Marez grated his teeth as he pressed his thumbprint onto the agreement. As he did so, he tried to reason with Louis.

“Even if we were to simply leave everything and defect to the Republic, there is no assurance that we will be treated well. Do you have something in mind?”

Really, Marez wanted to tell Louis to reconsider his decision, but he said it in this roundabout way as it seemed like he would follow in Butland’s footsteps if he said it as is. He did not expect much of an answer. However, Louis replied with confidence.

“Do not worry, for I have already played my hand.”

“What do you mean?”

Louis whispered something into Marez’s ear. And Marez was greatly astonished upon hearing his words.

“Don’t tell me… is that for real?”

“The preparations have already been completed.”

Marez now knew that Louis was well and truly set on defection.

‘This dude’s really causing a scene, huh.’

Marez felt the ground he was standing on crumbling away, but there was no escape anymore.

That day, Nelson Cardinal felt a sense of unease. Could it be said to be the internal state of things? Or could it be said to be the atmosphere of the fortress? He could not quite put his finger on it, but something was different. Such a subtle sense of disharmony hung in the air that only he, who had served at the Crow Fortress for decades, could detect it.

He immediately sent out an internal patrol to inspect the fort’s situation. As a result, he was able to discern what was so strange. The fortress was empty of a considerable number of its internal personnel.

“Francis, where did all the other commanders go with only you left here?”

Nelson called on Kerber Francis, the only commander remaining inside the fort, to ask the reason for this development.

“Sir Forrest left to replenish the supplies, sir.”

“I too am aware of that. But what about the other three?”

“Sir Walker said he was heading out to reconnoiter the surroundings. And indeed, the other two also left after him saying that they were conducting a reconnaissance of the surroundings.”

“All three of them?”

“Yes, that’s so.”

“…how strange.”

Nelson looked puzzled.

“Is there a problem?”

“The range of recon we can do in winter is considerably narrowed. So with what reason would there need to be a mobilization of three 100-man commanders?”

“That’s…”

Kerber was about to retort, but there was nothing he could answer back with.

“In which direction did the three of them go out to recon?”

“They… did not inform me of that.”

“You mean to tell me they went out without even letting us know of their scouting direction? When did they leave?”

“I, too, did not see them leave in person. It was merely written in the mission log. I’m inclined to believe that they may have left early in the morning.”

“……”

Nelson was struck with a considerable feeling of discomfort. There were a few conjectures that entered his head – and none of them were good. At that moment, the sentry atop the fort’s watchtower bellowed.

“The allied forces that left for reconnaissance are returning through the back gate.”

At the sentry’s notice, the troops stationed at the fort’s back gate began opening the defensive wall.

“The back gates are opening!”

But witnessing this scene, Nelson suddenly hurried to the top of the watchtower. He had turned deathly pale.

“Close the gates! At once!”

Taken aback, Kerber trailed behind Nelson who was frantically shouting, and asked for an explanation.

“What’s the matter? Our allies are returning, so why…”

“They’re not our allies!”

“What?!”

Nelson glared intensely at Kerber’s astonished question and rashly barked at him.

“For what reason would the forces who entered the mountains to recon return through the back gate? How has a force that was 300 strong when they left grown by that much?!”

“Uh…oooh…”

“All troops prepare for battle immediately! It’s the enemy!”

An arrow flew past the moment Nelson shouted this command, skimming by his face.

“It’s… it’s the enemy!”

“All men prepare for battle!”

All men in Crow Fortress were fully aware now. The enemy really was about to barge in.

“Tch, did that not hit?”

Frederic clicked his tongue as the gates of Crow Fortress sealed shut. By his side, Louis Walker chimed in with an angry expression.

“It appears that they have caught on somehow.”

“Hah… I wanted to take care of this smoothly if possible, but looks like that was too much to ask for.”

Frederic muttered under his breath as Crow Fortress’ gates shut again.

As Nelson had assessed, the soldiers that had appeared at the back gate were the enemy. Not only that, but these were the combined forces of the Hildess Republic and troops originally affiliated with Crow Fortress, led by Louis Walker.

In exchange for defecting to the Republic, Louis was intending to hand over Crow Fortress to the enemy. Although Louis’ position had been no different to an exile in the Grey Mountains, he could still issue orders using the Walker family’s private troops. Using his authority, he arranged a secret rendezvous with the Republic to request that he be allowed to defect to them. As compensation for receiving him, he claimed he would hand over Crow Fortress.

Frederic began moving his troops after accepting this proposal. Mobilizing troops into the Grey Mountains in this winter was suicidal. However, it was possible to cross the border by going all the way around instead of climbing over the Grey Mountains.

Of course, there was a problem with this approach. There was a serious danger of being discovered by the enemy as one had to cut across the internal territory of the Strabus Kingdom. But it was this part where Louis came in with his solution.

The Republican soldiers could be disguised as a detachment of the Walker House’s private army. They would not be able to move a large number at once, but moving the troops in 100-man units would allow them to traverse right through the heart of the enemy state without a hitch. In this manner, Frederic had split up his forces and successfully infiltrated the Strabus Kingdom, combining with the 300-strong forces of Louis that he had hastily withdrawn yesterday.

They were intending to enter the fortress under the guise of a reconnaissance team returning from their mission, but…

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