Chapter 139 - Supply Mission

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After showing him around a little more, Samuel led Leon back to the squad’s tent.  It was starting to get dark by that point, so the rest of the squad was busy cleaning up and getting out the cots.  None of the others were in any particular hurry to introduce themselves to Leon, and Leon was in just as much of a rush to introduce himself to them.  Instead, after helping out a little with organizing all ten cots, Leon laid down and began to quietly read.

He was largely left alone over the next few days.  As Sam’s squad were scouts, they didn’t have to man the walls, and when they weren’t north of the wall, they were allowed to chill in their tent and rest.  And rest was exactly what they did, and little else.  Leon took the downtime as an opportunity to train, usually in the form of meditation or practice with his sword behind the tent, the others would laze around all day, chatting or playing card games, except when they had to do maintenance on their spears or clean the tent.

Sam was a little different.  He was a third-tier knight, and one of the Tribune’s more trusted men, so he was around Jean’s cabin most of the time.  Alix, his squire—the squire he was focusing on, at least, given that he’d already judged Leon to not need his education—was oftentimes with him.  The two of them would usually take Leon’s place behind the tent and train when they returned to the tent in the evening.

Leon was more often than not done with his own training by then and would either return to reading or practice his enchanting skills.  He focused on healing spells, since Sam had indicated that healing spells were hard to come by at Fort 127, but he also devoted much of his time to learning about fire enchantments from Xaphan.  His armor was still unenchanted, after all, and Leon wanted to fix that problem as soon as he could.  He was already starting to formulate some gauntlet enchantments that would help amplify his use of Xaphan’s demon fire, while also protecting his arms from being burned in the process.

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[This place is quite the dump,] Xaphan said casually.

[You’ll hear no arguments from me,] Leon answered disinterestedly as he wrote a few fire runes down on spell paper.

[How long do you plan on staying?] the demon asked.

[Sir Jean said someone might arrive in a few months to transfer me somewhere else.  If things last beyond that, I will take action so I don’t have to stay here wasting my time for years,] Leon replied.

[What do you mean by ‘take action’?] Xaphan asked curiously.

[I’m going to go to Sir Jean and formally quit,] Leon responded.

[… Oh…] Xaphan said with some disappointment.

Leon stopped writing his spells for a moment.  [What did you think I was going to do?  Or rather, what did you hope I was going to do?]

[I don’t know, but just quitting seemed boring,] Xaphan answered truthfully.

[Well, something boring would fit a backwater fort like this quite nicely…] Leon said with resignation before turning back to his enchantment practice.

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Sam’s squad went out beyond the wall every two weeks.  Depending on how the watchtowers in the pass were doing, this mission could take anywhere from twelve hours to two or three days.  They also had to bring some supplies with them, enough to keep the handful of men in each watchtower alive for a week until another squad made the same run.

The squad would also help the men at the watchtowers if they had any jobs that needed a lot of physical labor, which usually meant the occasional helping hand with maintenance on the watchtowers themselves.

By the morning the supply run was to begin, Leon had been at the fort for about a week.  He’d barely spoken to the others in his squad, but that was as much their fault as it was his.  He wasn’t particularly friendly to begin with, and they weren’t about to take the initiative to get closer to a Valeman.

The only real exceptions to this were Sam and Alix.  Sam liked to talk and didn’t much care who it was with or what they talked about.  Alix didn’t talk much with Leon, but she also didn’t go out of her way to ignore him.  She gave him a few polite greetings when they happened to train at the same time, and would even exchange a few words, though they weren’t exactly best friends yet.

“Relax, Alix, you’ll be fine.  This isn’t our first rodeo, you know, and we almost always come back fine.  Almost,” Sam said to a nervous Alix.  Leon had found out pretty quickly during the week that Alix hadn’t been at the fort for much longer than he had—only about two weeks longer, in fact.  This was only her second mission, and her nervousness was obvious.

He, on the other hand, was quite calm.  Valemen rarely broke the first-tier, and it was even rarer for them to have actual training.  Given his familiarity with Valeman tactics, Leon wasn’t worried at all.

“You seem to be alright,” Sam said, looking at Leon, whose only response was to shrug noncommittally.

“Of course he’s alright!  If we get attacked once we’re past the wall, he’ll probably embrace our attackers as brothers rather than fight them and leave the rest of us to fight them off!” said one of the other men in the squad, who didn’t even try to hide the hate and bitterness in his voice.

“Watch it,” Sam said, glaring at the man who spoke.  The man looked a little cowed, but the presence of the others at his side only emboldened him and he stood up a little straighter.  But, just as he was about to speak again, Sam said, “Another word about this, and I’ll make you the point man.”

The guy quickly shut his mouth after that.  The squad typically marches single-file, and in more than ninety percent of Valemen attacks, the man in front is the one who’s killed first.  Sam, being the strongest in the squad—at least until Leon arrived—took it upon himself to lead from the front and take the biggest risk, but he also reserved the right to put anyone else up front if he so chose.

“Sorry about that,” he whispered to Leon, who shrugged again.

Leon was fully decked out in his black and dark grey armor, making a stark contrast between himself and the rest of the squad, who only had about three cloth gambesons between them; everyone else was unarmored.  Sam was the only one apart from Leon with a sword, the rest all had cheap spears.  None of them had shields.  They were essentially equipped like light cavalry, only without the horses.

There were only three watchtowers in the pass, each with five men assigned to guard them.  The squad carried enough food for all fifteen of these men to last at least another week with them, most of which was piled onto Alix as the most junior member of the squad.  She was only a first-tier mage, though, and she struggled a little with so much weight.

Watching her sway and rock on her feet from the weight of the supplies on her back seemed to amuse several others in the squad; Leon guessed this was some form of hazing for the squire.  She bore the weight with a bright smile, though, and the chuckles at her expense from the squad.

Leon, however, found it rather distasteful for most of the supplies to be dumped onto someone who was one of the weakest members of the squad.  Alix’s magical power was quite lacking and didn’t provide her with much added strength.

So, Leon walked over to her and said, “Take off that pack.  Put it down for a moment.”  She looked at him in confusion for a moment, but his tone and expression brokered no argument; she took off the pack and set it on the ground.

“What do you think you’re doing?” demanded one of the squad’s second-tier mages, who was now both offended that Leon would dare to interfere in their hazing and elated that he had a chance in front of him to yell at the newcomer.

Leon ignored the man, much to his anger and frustration, and simply picked up the pack Alix had set down and swung it over his shoulders with such ease that the second-tier mage was stunned into silence.  The pack was probably about as heavy as Alix herself, and Leon swung it around like it was packed with pillows.

Leon didn’t say a word, but he did send a brief derisive look at the second-tier mage.  Sam, who had been about to intervene, only watched with a smile on his face.

[Hehehe, look at that dickhead’s face,] Xaphan said while giggling like a spoiled child.

[If he didn’t stop there, I would’ve gladly bloodied it,] Leon said back.

[Uggh, I would’ve loved to see that,] Xaphan replied wistfully.

“Thanks…” muttered Alix.  She didn’t have anything personal in the pack, so she wasn’t unhappy to see someone else take it, but she was also conflicted in that it had been hers to carry.  “I can help with some of that if it’s too heavy,” she then said.

“It’s fine,” Leon replied.

“Thanks,” Alix repeated with a smile.

While they were talking, the second-tier mage who had almost tried to start something with Leon walked over to Sam and asked, “Sir, how strong is that guy?”

“Leon’s a third-tier mage,” Samuel responded, greatly enjoying the sudden look of terror on the other man’s face at the realization of what he had almost done.  “Leon could’ve torn you apart if he wanted to,” Sam added.  The second-tier mage resolved to keep his mouth shut about Leon from then on.

With the rest of the squad sufficiently cowed, the remaining few minutes before they could depart north went by quickly.  Leon was actually a little frustrated, as if he had known simply tossing around something heavy would get the other seven men in the squad—excluding Alix and Sam—to stop glaring at him, he would’ve done so as soon much sooner.

Regardless, it was done, and it was time to get on with their mission.  In the center of the wall were a pair of small doors, barely big enough to fit a cart through.  The doors had been fortified as much as they could be without adding a second wall, which the men at the fort were specifically forbidden to do by Count Whitefield, who technically owned the land the fort was built on.  It took several minutes for the locking enchantments on the doors to open, but once they were, Leon and the squad passed through and ventured out into the wild pass.

All the trees for about a quarter mile on the northern side of the wall had been cut down, leaving a rough grassy plain to the east and hills to the west, but after that point the squad would enter a moderately dense forest.  It was cold in the pass—not surprising to Leon, given that they were in the middle of the Frozen Mountain Range—and most of the trees were evergreens, with little in the way of underbrush.  That said, the terrain was hard and broken, and the travel speed wasn’t even close to Leon’s limit.

From the moment they left the fort behind and ventured out into the hilly forest, Leon had a subtle smile on his face, contrasting with the stoicism that had been his usual expression over the past week.  It also contrasted with Alix, who seemed so nervous that she almost jumped at her own shadow once they started walking among the trees.  She, as Sam’s squire, was walking directly behind him as the second person in the marching line, so the entire rest of the squad could see her anxiety.

“What’s the matter, little Alix?” asked one of the biggest guys in the squad teasingly.  “You’re not scared, are you?  A soldier in the Royal Legions shouldn’t be frightened of some hairy unwashed barbarians!”  He also pointedly glanced at Leon, though he wisely didn’t say anything more.

“Of course I’m not scared of them!” Alix shouted back at him.  “I’m just keeping alert for any ambushes!”

None of the rest of the squad bought her explanation, and continued to tease her, but fortunately for Alix, Sam was there to help her out a little.

“Don’t listen to Lothar, Alix.  With the way he acted last year, when he was first sent out into the pass, he has no right to start picking on a nervous newbie.”

Sam flashed Lothar, the big guy, a cheeky grin, and Lothar immediately shut his mouth.  He absolutely didn’t want Sam to say anything more, which he mercifully didn’t.  Instead, it was one of the more senior men in the squad who spoke up.

“Indeed, it was then that we learned that if Lothar was going to survive in the pass, he would need dark pants.  No barbarian would ever feel fear if he saw this guy walking around with a wet stain on his pants!”

With that, the focus shifted from Alix onto Lothar, allowing the young squire to relax a little.  She still maintained her vigilance, though, with her head constantly swiveling around and trying to catch any ambushes before they happened.

Then, from behind her, came a reassuring voice.  It said, “Valemen rarely attack during the day.  They much prefer nighttime raids.  Little need to be so nervous right now.”

She turned around and saw that it was Leon who had spoken, with a slight smile on his face.

“Leon’s right,” added Sam, “I’d say more than nineteen out of twenty battles out here happen at night.  We’ll either be in a watchtower or back south of the wall come nightfall, so there’s not much to worry about.”

“But there’s still that one in twenty chance…” muttered Alix.

“Even if we are attacked, we have two third-tier mages with us!  We might not be able to fight off a group of more than three dozen or so, but any Valemen we’re attacked by won’t be able to do much more than injure a few of us before being forced to retreat!”

Alix wasn’t particularly reassured by Sam’s answer, but she gave a quick nod back to Leon for trying to calm her down a little before getting back to watching their surroundings.  Neither Leon nor Sam thought she was in the wrong for being so vigilant, so they held their tongues.  She wasn’t looking around so frantically, at least, though she still quite tightly gripped her spear.

Within two hours of leaving the fort, the squad arrived at the first watchtower.  It was a small place, barely big enough for the five men manning it.  If they saw anything, they would activate a flare enchantment similar to what Leon learned from Xaphan, then immediately run back to the wall.  They’d likely be killed on the way if the Valemen ever truly attacked in force, but at least they’d give the fort hours of preparation time.

Once they had arrived, Sam’s squad got to work handing out supplies and inquiring about any repairs to the watchtower they could help with.  There were quite a few repairs and other maintenance things that had to be addressed, so the squad was forced to resign itself to a night spent in the pass.

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Chapter 140 - Trouble Moving South

Chapter 138 - Samuel