‘Who would ever want to live in these dreary Northern Territories…?’ Roland thought as he rode his horse along the last dirt path on his journey. The sky was overcast, the ground was rocky and broken, and what few forests he’d seen were thin and hardly inviting.
It had been more than a month since he’d left the capital, and he felt like he’d been riding all over the Northern Territories looking for the Consul of the North. First, he’d gone to Cyrenaica, a large fortress city located near the center of the Northern Territories—itself a more than two-week journey from the capital—only to find that the Consul wasn’t there. When he’d asked where the Consul had gone, he’d only been told that the Consul hadn’t returned from Cyrene.
Naturally, Roland then rode with all haste to the harbor fortress, expecting some kind of trouble there—the Valeman incursion had long been dealt with, so he’d expected the Consul to return to his central base. However, Cyrene was calm as could be when he arrived, much to his confusion. He’d gone to the citadel looking for answers and was only then directed to Fort 127. With some mild annoyance, Roland departed for the Fort with a guide, who he was sure took him on as winding and circuitous route as he could.
But, finally, after a month of riding through the Northern Territories, Roland and his guide crested a hill and the fort he was seeking appeared in the distance. It looked incredibly different compared to when Leon had first laid eyes upon it, as it was now staffed with a full Legion—Clovis having sent two of his three Legions back to their respective posts. Thousands of simple wooden barracks had been constructed, and much of the forest on both the southern and northern sides of the wall had been cut down for wood.
“… I didn’t realize this place was so big,” Roland murmured as he looked out over the fort.
“It didn’t use to be,” his guide replied, “that recent raid really shook things up out here.”
“Oh really, I didn’t notice…” Roland said sarcastically as he glanced back south at the other camp in the area.
This other camp wasn’t nearly so big as the Legion that was entrenching itself at Fort 127—Roland estimated it was only big enough for two or three thousand men—but it was certainly close enough that it could cut off supplies going to the fort if those in the camp wanted to. The banners flying over this camp showed that these soldiers were Count Whitefield’s personal army.
Moving along the dirt road between the camp and the fort, Roland and his guide were watched by hawk-like soldiers on both sides, making this final short leg of the journey more than a little nerve-wracking.
“Hold there!” came a shout from ahead. A ten-foot-tall wall had been built on the southern side of the fort, with short battlements and stocky guard towers along its length.
Roland wasn’t too impressed with the fortifications, but since they had only gone up in the last month, they were relatively remarkable. The gatehouse appeared more formidable in his eyes, with a clearly enchanted gate built into the foot of a tall and sturdy looking tower.
The person who had called out to him to stop appeared, walking out of the gatehouse and onto the ramparts.
“Identify yourselves!” the soldier demanded. He wasn’t too overbearing, as he was a third-tier mage and could tell that Roland was stronger than him, but he also couldn’t allow them to enter the fort unchallenged.
“I am the Paladin Roland! I’m here to speak with Sir Clovis!”
The third-tier mage in charge of the gatehouse paled a little, but to his credit, he didn’t back down. “Wait right there, I’ll send someone out to verify your identity!” he shouted.
Roland was wearing a full suit of gleaming silver armor polished to a near-mirror shine, with his blood-red Paladin cloak hanging from his shoulders and his aura proudly unrestrained. He found it doubtful that anyone would really doubt his identity, but he patiently waited several minutes until a fourth-tier mage—the man in charge of the all the gatehouse guard shifts, Roland guessed—appeared out of a smaller door built into the gate.
The Centurion hurried over and checked Roland’s ID, and several minutes later, the gate was slowly opening for the Paladin. Roland couldn’t help but be a little surprised and disgruntled that the only person waiting for him on the other side of the gate was a single fifth-tier Tribune.
“This way, Sir,” the Tribune said, pointing the Paladin and his guide toward the nearby stables.
The two quickly got their steeds taken care of, and the guide was directed to the guest barracks; he’d stay in the fort until it was time for him to take Roland back to Cyrene. The Paladin, meanwhile, followed the Tribune to a relatively large two-story structure near the center of the main fort wall. He could sense dozens of people within, including several high-tiered mages.
“I assume this is the command building? This is where Sir Clovis is?” he asked the Tribune.
“This is the fort headquarters,” the Tribune confirmed. “However, the Consul may not have time to see you today. I’ve only been ordered to escort you here, for anything else I’m afraid you’ll be waiting on those inside to make time for you.”
Roland couldn’t help but visibly frown.
“Perhaps things might have been a little different had you sent a message ahead informing us of your arrival,” the Tribune said in a hard tone.
‘Don’t bite, don’t get angry,’ Roland repeated in his mind like a mantra. He had no idea why the Tribune would be so snippy with him, but he refused to get outwardly angry—Prince August’s position was too fragile for him to alienate high-ranking members of the Royal Legions.
Wiping his frown off his face, Roland politely asked, “That couldn’t be helped. Perhaps you could take me somewhere I could wait for the Consul to finish his business and find some time to have a quick chat with me?” It was a tight rope the Paladin had to walk; he couldn’t be subservient, but he also couldn’t act superior, given his own uncertain position. Regardless, he was still a sixth-tier mage at the end of the day.
The Tribune stared at him for a moment but seemed to decide against further passive-aggressiveness. “Of course, Sir,” he said, guiding Roland into the headquarters.
Ten minutes later, Roland was sitting in a comfortable chair outside the Consul’s office, waiting to be shown in. To complete his investigation and find Leon, he was willing to wait for as long as it took. Fortunately, he had to wait no longer as a group of Centurions and Tribunes left the office, and one of the Consul’s assistants waved Roland in, where the Consul was sitting at his desk waiting for him.
“Ahh, Sir Roland,” the Consul of the North, said with a jovial smile. “It’s been too long, how are you doing?”
“I’m well, Sir Clovis,” Roland answered. Clovis offered him a seat in a nearby chaise lounge, and Roland gratefully accepted.
“I’m surprised,” Roland said, “I didn’t expect to find so many Legion soldiers up here. What’s more, I wasn’t expecting to see you all but fighting with Count Whitefield’s own soldiers.”
“Well, we had about twenty, twenty-five thousand Valemen attempt to get past this wall. Not an insubstantial raid, to be sure, but easily taken care of. Unfortunately, Count Whitefield attempted to delay my dealing with the raid.”
“I wouldn’t imagine he likes the idea of thousands of Royal Legion soldiers occupying his land,” Roland observed.
“He does not,” Clovis said. “However, I’m not giving him a choice. He can bark about legality, but he allowed a Legions’ worth of Valemen into the Kingdom—I’m not going to let him dictate how the passage to a hostile nation is guarded. If he attempts to force us out, he’s going to have to fight in open battle, and if he does that, then I’ll execute him as a traitor to the Kingdom.”
The Consul’s face twisted into a sadistic smile, and Roland accurately guessed that Clovis would only be too eager to send Count Whitefield to the headsman’s block.
“Anyway,” Clovis said, moving on, “what brings you so far away from the capital? The Prince-Regents not giving you enough work?’
Roland was about to correct him to ‘Prince-Regent’, singular, as Prince Octavius was still in the Western Territories, but he clamped down on that foolish impulse. “Actually,” the Paladin said with a good-natured smile, “I was looking into a certain trainee from the Knight Academy that was sent up to this very fort for his squireship. I believe I sent you a letter a couple months ago inquiring into his status…”
“Ah, yes, I remember,” Clovis said.
“You told me that it wasn’t my place to know,” Roland continued, narrowing his eyes as he did. “You claimed that I wasn’t a real Paladin, and as such, didn’t have the authority to make the request that I did.”
“Well, to be fair, you aren’t a real Paladin,” Clovis said, his own gaze becoming sharp and angry as he did.
“I was appointed to my post by Prince August,” Roland responded, barely keeping his voice from quivering in anger. “Princes have all the rights needed to appoint Paladins.”
“True, but Paladins serve the King, not any Prince,” the Consul stated. “Without the King confirming your status, you could very well be removed, especially since you’re not even a seventh-tier mage…”
Roland clenched his jaw in anger, but he managed to keep a straight face; the Consul had just poked his berserk button, his lack of magical power compared to the five other Paladins.
“I’m sure the King will remove you from your post whenever he emerges from his training,” the Consul continued. “There’s no need for you to get too comfortable in that spot.”
“Do you have a problem with me?” Roland bluntly asked, deciding that his best course of action wouldn’t be to dance around the issue.
“You’re a Central Territories knight,” the Consul explained. “I’ve never met a knight from the Central Territories who wasn’t corrupt to the bone. And what’s more, on this rare occasion that one of my Legions in the Northern Territories receives a squire from the venerable Knight Academy, you contact me wanting to take him away. What makes you so much more deserving than one of my knights that puts their life on the line and spills blood every day to keep the barbarians from marching through the gates?”
Roland took a deep breath; the recent raid wasn’t big enough to be of much interest to many people in the south, but he knew there had undoubtedly been some casualties in cleaning it up. One thing he absolutely didn’t want to do was to insult the memories of those fallen soldiers.
“Your knights are more deserving than most,” Roland said quietly, carefully selecting each word to avoid offending the Consul. “They are some of the Royal Legion’s brightest—certainly more so than the lazy bastards in the Western Territories. However, this one squire in particular is special. I met him in the Northern Vales last year, his family did me a great service. If possible, I’d like to protect him to the best of my ability.”
Roland hoped that his reasoning would appeal to any honor Clovis might possess, but the Consul stared at him unmoved, his face passive and his body language all but hostile.
“I don’t care about your honor,” the Consul said. “If you wanted to protect this boy, then you should’ve made more of an effort, gotten him before he was assigned to my Territories. You’re too late.”
Roland scowled, then reached into his breast pocket. “I was hoping I wouldn’t have to resort to this, but since we aren’t making any progress, I guess I have to,” the Paladin said as he pulled out August’s letter demanding that Clovis cooperate with him.
The Consul opened the letter with far less reverence than Roland had carried it, and quickly looked it over. Roland resisted the urge to smile triumphantly as the Consul began to scowl.
When he was done, the Consul almost whipped the letter down onto the table between the two of them and shouted for his assistant.
“Sir!” the assistant said as he entered the room.
“Find me all the information on one ‘Leon Ursus’! He was assigned to this fort as a squire a couple months ago!”
The attendant immediately departed, leaving the two knights in oppressive silence. Neither man spoke until the assistant returned almost half an hour later. When the assistant entered the room, the Consul waved him over and took the small stack of papers from him. At the top of this stack was a light grey paper with the bright red seal of a blood priest upon it.
Roland’s heart sank when he saw that paper, and Clovis pointedly avoided meeting his gaze, instead choosing to examine the paper. Slowly, the scowl on his face disappeared, replaced by a look of disappointment and dejection.
“It seems that, regardless of our disagreements, you’ve come here in vain,” Clovis said. “The garrison that was stationed here sustained more than ninety percent casualties before I was able to arrive, and the squire you seek was among them. Leon Ursus is dead.”
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