Chapter 146 - Rest

The doors in the wall slammed shut behind Leon and Alix, with half a dozen soldiers hurriedly locking it, just in case the Valemen in the pass decided to attack while the door was still unsecure.  Leon and Alix breathed a sigh of relief; it had been a long and bloody day, and they were both quite tired.

But, their rest would have to wait, as Sir Jean, the Tribune in charge of the fort, had been informed of their arrival and met them at the doors.

“Ursus,” Jean said to Leon, “what in the hell happened out there?!  Where’s Sam?”

Alix’s face fell with that reminder, and she didn’t speak a word as Leon answered simply, “He’s dead.  So is the rest of the squad.  Killed by Valemen.”

“He’s dead…” muttered Jean.  “Come with me.  I want a report of what happened.”  Jean then turned around and started walking back to his small cabin, which was both his quarters and his office.  Leon and Alix followed, along with about twenty other third and a few fourth-tier knights.

Within the cabin was a large wooden table and just enough chairs to seat everyone.  Most of Jean’s personal furniture was behind a linen curtain that divided the cabin in half, leaving the front half of the cabin with nothing but the table, accompanying chairs, and Jean’s small desk tucked away in the corner.

Upon entering, all of the knights took a seat, while Leon and Alix awkwardly stood off to the side and Jean moved to close the windows.

“Please, take a seat,” Jean said to Leon and Alix, waving his hand at a few empty chairs.  Once everyone was seated, Jean turned to Leon and said, “Now, explain everything that happened, in detail.”

Leon launched into his explanation, briefly touching on the mission and how uneventful it was until he found the Valeman camp.  He kept the details light until he reached the point where the squad found Jack and the Valeman war party chasing him.  He paused for a moment when he reached the part about how he killed Eirik, and when he started again, he said that he merely exploited the Valeman’s lack of training and overconfidence to win.  Alix gave him a strange look, but she didn’t speak up to refute him; in fact, she didn’t say a single word.  As a first-tier mage, the knights didn’t really expect her to say anything, either.

Leon described the journey back to the fort, including the deaths of the two survivors from Sam’s squad who attacked a group of five Valemen, the grisly fate of those at the second watchtower, and the tense journey back south.

When Leon was finished, Jean leaned back in his chair and said, “That’s a hell of a story, boy, but I don’t see any reason not to believe you.  Good job killing that thane.  Should make our job defending the wall just a little bit easier.

“But, that still leaves us with an unknown number of Valemen against us, and a barely half-strength battalion,” Jean continued.  “We need more information, and we need more men to defend the wall.  I don’t think we’re going to get very many of the latter, but Dion, I want you to go to see the local barons.  I doubt they want to see Valemen rampaging through their lands, so I’m sure they’ll cough up a few hundred men to help us out.”  Dion, the knight Jean spoke to, nodded, and left immediately.  Time was tight, and no one was playing around.

“We also need a more accurate picture of what we’re up against,” Jean said.  “To that end, we need every able body up on the wall.  That means you Ursus.  We have too few third-tier mages as it is.”

Leon frowned, but nodded.

“You can get in a few hours of rest and shut-eye, but make no mistake, you’re not out of the woods just because you’re literally out of the woods,” Jean stated.  “Those Valemen are still coming, so we need to be ready.  All right, you all know what you need to do.  Ursus, stay here for a moment so we can discuss your specific role in the defense.  Everyone else, get to it.”

With that, the meeting was over, and all the other knights got up and left, leaving only Leon, Jean, and Alix sitting at the table.  Alix was about to leave as well, but Jean said, “You can stay, too.  I meant it when I said we need every able body, and you’re absolutely no exception.”

“What, then, do you need us to do?” Leon asked.

“Your squad has been obliterated, along with one my best knights.  You’re not a knight, Ursus, but you’re a third-tier mage from the Knight Academy.  I need you up on the wall, leading your fellow men of the Legion.”

Leon paled a little; stepping up to lead the last three members of a shattered squad was one thing, but actually leading soldiers in battle was another.

“I get your hesitation,” Jean said, seeing Leon’s apprehension, “but there are only four fourth-tier knights here, including myself, and only twenty-one third-tier men, including you.  And, when I say, ‘lead your fellow men of the Legion’, I don’t mean I’m actually going to put you in command.  I just want you on the wall, ready to lead the defense wherever an anointed knight isn’t.”

“… I’ll do it,” Leon eventually said.  He didn’t like it, but he didn’t have much choice—and besides, gaining this kind of authority was one of the main reasons he joined the Knight Academy in the first place.  It was just a little sudden for him, even if it wasn’t permanent or official.

“Good.  I’ll let— ‘Alix’, was it? —act as your informal squire.  You’ll be a knight in all but name!”

Alix hardly responded, but Leon nodded.

“Good,” Jean said.  “Now, get some rest, you two.  I think we’re going to have a long few weeks ahead of us, until the rest of the Legions in the Northern Territories arrive to back us up.”

Jean and Leon hammered out a few more specific details, and then Leon and Alix left Jean’s cabin.  They returned to their tent, which suddenly seemed to be quite a bit bigger.  It was almost midnight, so the two didn’t even bother getting out of their clothes and immediately dragged out a pair of cots and collapsed.

Lying there in the dark, neither of them were able to sleep, despite their extreme fatigue.  There had just been too much that happened that day, and—for Alix especially—it was all starting to crash back in without something else happening to distract them.

Leon heard Alix begin to sob.  She was trying to be quiet about it, but he heard her anyway.  He could understand why, she had lost a family member less than half a day ago.  The journey back to the fort had kept her mind off it, but now she couldn’t take her mind off her grief.

But, just because Leon could understand her tears, that didn’t mean he knew what to do about it, or even if he should do anything at all.  They had spoken a little on the way back, but they still didn’t know each other that well, certainly not enough for either be willing to speak words of comfort to each other.  So, Leon didn’t do anything except lay there in the dark, listening to Alix cry and trying to think of what to do.

In the end, Leon didn’t say anything.  Nothing suitable came to mind, so he did nothing more than stay awake long enough to make sure Alix fell asleep first, before nodding off himself.

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By the time the sun rose, Alix had steeled herself and didn’t shed another tear, but that also wasn’t to say that she didn’t express any nervousness about the current situation.  In fact, she was clearly anxious and scared about the Valemen just north of the wall, as her clumsiness in cleaning up the tent displayed.

Leon, who had been helping her clean up and organize the personal items of the rest of the squad, noticed and took a deep breath.  The situation he was in put him in a position of authority, and that came with responsibilities.  If Alix was to be his informal squire, then he had to do something to try and cheer her up.

With that in mind, Leon quickly finished up his own work, then went to help Alix out with hers.

“Thanks…” she whispered when he appeared at her side.

“So, listen,” Leon began, deciding to try and take her mind off the previous day rather than bring up something sensitive right that moment, “we have about an hour before we meet up with Sir Jean.  I’d like to take that time to see how well you fight with that sword.”

Alix glanced at the sword she had taken from Sam.  She hadn’t used it at all on the way back south, which both of them felt answered Leon’s curiosity, but she got the meaning behind Leon’s request to spar.

The two quickly finished up their cleaning and readied themselves in the center of the of the tent.  There was plenty of room to practice with only the two of them there, and Alix certainly didn’t want to put her lackluster sword skills on display for the entire fort.  Over the next hour, Leon tested Alix’s fighting skills, while offering her some critique and suggestions.  He didn’t do the same with her skills with the spear, as she was undoubtedly much more skilled with the spear than he was, as Artorias had only ever given him some cursory lessons with spears.

Suffice it to say, Alix wasn’t going to be using Sam’s sword in battle anytime soon, if ever.  Still, when the sparring session was over and it was time to get back to work, she muttered a “Thank you,” to Leon.  The exercise helped her get her mind off her mourning, and her fear.

But, that fear came back when they left the tent and it was time to come back to reality.  Legion soldiers were running around everywhere near the wall, carrying supplies to various sections, such as arrows to the towers and barricades to build another wall around the doors.  The latter was technically illegal, as Count Whitefield unambiguously stated that the Legion wasn’t allowed any other defensive wall apart from the one that blocked the pass, but with thousands of Valemen still gathering, Jean didn’t much care for legality.

“Do you think that will help?” Alix asked Leon.  She didn’t expect him to answer, as she was just expressing her own cynicism over the situation now that she had gotten some rest and had time to process, but answer her Leon did.

“Every little bit helps,” he said.  “Who knows how many Valemen are out there right now, so every second that they haven’t managed to break through these defenses is another second we get to keep breathing.  The more fortifications that can be built to stave off our deaths, the better.”

“The Valemen have hundreds of third-tier mages.  We’re still going to lose this,” Alix responded.

“A third-tier mage will die as quickly as any man under arrow fire from second or even first-tier mages,” Leon replied.  “Don’t put so much stock in magical tiers.  Even the strongest of mage can be killed by the weakest of mortals if they’re not careful.  Plus, we should be able to keep them at range, if the archers are worth their salt…”

Alix took a deep breath and tried to internalize what Leon was saying.

“Look,” Leon said, bringing them to a halt, “We’re going to need everyone on point if we’re going to survive this.  We can hardly just run away in this situation—we’ll just get executed as deserters—so try to keep it together.  Don’t go saying such things like ‘we’re still going to lose this’ around anyone else.  Have to keep morale up, and all.”

Leon’s words weren’t particularly eloquent, but he got his point across.  Alix nodded, and Leon said, “We’re going to make it through this, no doubt in my mind.  We just need to stay, if not positive, then at least motivated.  Once a Legion or two arrives, this Valeman army will break and recede like the waves of the Endless Ocean upon the shore.”

“Right!” Alix said, putting some of the energy she had only a few days ago back into her voice.

“Good.  Now, let’s get to work.”

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Chapter 147 - A Clearer Picture

Chapter 145 - Retreat to the Fort