“Well this ought to be interesting,” said Samuel after examining Leon’s aura. He clearly saw the newcomer’s third-tier aura—and how stable it was, indicating both how long he had been at that tier and how close he was to ascending to the fourth-tier.
‘What the fuck are they giving me this guy for?! He’s probably stronger than I am!’ he thought with a slightly worried smile.
Leon and Samuel stood there in silence for several moments, staring at each other. With Leon’s quiet nature, it was Samuel that was the first to crack.
“So what brings you this far north?” he asked.
“Orders,” Leon stoically replied. He was in a new and strange place, and that didn’t put him in a talkative mood.
“Orders, huh? From who?” Samuel shot back.
“Don’t know,” Leon admitted.
“Where are you coming from?”
“You’re from the Knight Academy?! What the double-fuck are you doing here?!”
“… Anything else you might need to fill us in on?” Sam asked after a moment’s pause.
Leon thought that over a little. He didn’t know what to say, and he hardly enjoyed talking about himself to begin with. There was one thing that did occur to him, though.
“My name is Leon Ursus. I’m from the Brown Bear Tribe from the easternmost inhabited Northern Vale.”
That statement got the entire tent’s attention. They had barely glanced at Leon when he arrived before returning to their duties, but when he said he was a Valeman, they all turned to look at him with only slightly disguised hostility.
“You’re a Valeman?” Sam asked slowly. “A Valeman from the Knight Academy?”
Samuel sighed and took a few steps back to sit down in a nearby chair. “Get back to work, guys,” he said to the others. Then he turned his eyes back to Leon. He sat there in silent thought for a long while, then finally said, “Well, let’s focus on getting you settled in first. Everything else can wait.”
The entire squad was housed in that tent. All nine—ten now—slept on cots that were piled up in a corner during the day, and all their belongings were secured in crates in the back of the tent. This also meant that no one had much in the way of personal items. Maybe a half a dozen changes of clothes, and little more. In fact, Leon with his twelve or thirteen changes of clothes, personal armor and weapons, enchantment supplies, and handful of books probably had more things than two or three of the other men in the squad put together.
But that was hardly a problem; there was plenty of space left for Leon’s stuff. The other nine had taken their limited space to heart and kept themselves tight and lean, so there were half a dozen crates available for Leon to use—though, he only needed two.
While Leon was packing, Sam walked over to chat for a while. The other eight people in the squad didn’t seem that keen on talking, and three had even left the tent. The young woman, about nineteen or twenty if Leon were to make a guess, did look Leon over once or twice. If her subtle smile was anything to go by, Samuel could guess that she liked what she saw.
“So,” Sam began, “you like enchanting?”
“Mhmm,” Leon affirmed as he packed away his spell paper and ink.
“Do you know how to make healing spells?” Sam asked.
“Yes,” Leon said.
“That’s wonderful! We don’t get very many supply caravans up here, so we typically have to rely on more mundane medical tools if there are any injuries. Bandages, tourniquets, and the like. If you want to get on the guys’ good side, giving each a few healing spells would work wonders.”
“That so?” Leon asked disinterestedly. He could pick up on the hints that the rest of Sam’s squad were none too pleased to have someone with his last name around.
“That is indeed so!” Sam said. “So, anyway, when you’re done packing, let’s go for a walk.”
“Sure thing,” Leon agreed. He had been assigned to Sam’s squad—as his squire, no less—so he could hardly turn the knight’s offer down. Thus, he quickly wrapped up his packing. The crates could all be securely locked, and with the keys to his crates in his possession, Leon wasn’t worried about the rest of the squad messing with his things while he was gone.
He still carried his most prized valuables with him, though, including his gold card, sword, bow, and armor.
“Hey, we’re stepping out for a while, gonna show the new guy around the fort!” Sam said as he and Leon made for the exit of the tent. The woman was about to join them, but Sam said, “Don’t worry, Alix, no need to act like my shadow.”
Leon didn’t say anything, but Samuel noticed his curious glance.
“She’s my other squire. Or rather, my actual squire, I think I should say. I doubt you’re going to be squiring for me in the traditional sense. Can’t have a third-tier mage squiring for another third-tier mage, haha!”
Leon nodded, but kept silent, which only brought a slight frown to Sam’s face.
“So, hey,” Samuel began again, trying to get Leon to be a little more talkative, “I’m sorry about those guys back there. They’re good people, honestly, but we’ve been fighting back Valeman raids for years now. They’re going to need a little while to adjust to having one around.”
This finally got Leon to start talking.
“How often are the raids?” he asked Samuel. It wasn’t much, but he had asked a question, which was far more than a simple one or two syllable acknowledgment of something. Samuel smiled; he could work with that.
“Well, I don’t suppose you’re familiar with the politics—or rather, the ‘politics’—of these westernmost vales?”
“I’m reasonably familiar, at least until last year when I came south. I spent some time in Torfinn Ice-Eyes’ longhouse and overheard him and his thanes talking about it. Hakon Fire-Beard has taken over the Northern Vales nearest here, hasn’t he?”
“He has, and ever since he nabbed the one on the other side of the pass this fort guards, we’ve had to defend against at least one large raid of one thousand or more Valemen every year, and countless smaller probing attacks.”
“How long ago was that? Hakon taking over the neighboring vale, I mean.”
“About ten years.”
There was a slight pause while Samuel tried to work himself up to asking a delicate question. Now that Leon was talking, he didn’t want to give the young man a reason to stop, but he also wasn’t sure what kind of answer Leon would give, so he hesitated. But only for a moment.
“… So, Leon, are you going to have any problems with fighting other Valemen?” Sam asked.
“No,” Leon responded without any hesitation.
“Really? You’re so certain?”
“I am. Don’t make the mistake of thinking all Valemen think themselves a part of some greater whole. They’re loyal to their tribes, and that’s about it. If this were Clear Ice, and Torfinn Ice-Eyes were trying to bust down the gates, then I admit I might be a little conflicted. However, I have no love for Hakon or those who follow him. I don’t know them, and I won’t show any mercy to them if they try to kill me, even if they worship the Mountain Father and the Sky Mother.”
“Well that’s quite… emphatic,” Sam said, though he was reassured by Leon’s definitive answer. “Honestly, I was expecting something a little more vacillating, or at least some hesitation…”
Leon just glanced at Sam, but his face remained stoic, so Sam had no idea what the glance was supposed to mean.
“Moving on,” said Sam, “let’s just check out the wall and head on back, yeah? Not much else to see up here, and you hardly look like you need to take a trip to the armory…”
“Speaking of,” Leon started, “I’ve noticed that most of the soldiers around here have spears instead of swords, and no shields. There a reason for that?”
While the two had been talking, Leon had been taking a good look at every man they passed, and several things stood out to him. First, none were particularly clean. He guessed that the fort didn’t have much in the way of sanitation facilities. Second, few of the soldiers seemed to have even the most basic equipment. He hadn’t seen a single man with the standard Legion armor, shields, or shortswords. Instead, they all used eight to ten foot long spears. As for protection, the knights at least had gambeson armor—dozens of layers of cloth or linen that was effective and cheap armor, especially against the poorly-armed Valemen—but the rest of the soldiers had to make due with skill and luck if they were ever in battle.
“As I said, we don’t get many supplies this far north. That’s why I was happy to learn you could make healing spells. We don’t have any gear, save for extremely cheap spears and a few pieces of gambeson to give knights. Plus bows and arrows for those in the towers.”
Leon started to frown. Fort 127 was utterly failing to impress him.
“So what’s the problem, then?” he asked. “Why can’t supply caravans come this far north?”
“Count Whitefield is paranoid that if there’s a large and well-supplied force of Royal soldiers in his backyard, then he’ll lose his autonomy, or so everyone has been led to believe. Though, the Count has been rather transparent in how he views the presence of the fort. So, we only get five hundred men to guard the pass even though we probably need two or three times that, minimum, and supply caravans are few and far between.”
Sam looked and sounded to Leon resigned to the miserable state of affairs at the fort, and Leon couldn’t blame him. The Legion had basically sent five hundred men to the fort, ordered them to guard the pass, and given them nothing but sharp sticks to do it with.
By this time, Sam and Leon had made it to the wall blocking the pass. This was perhaps the only faintly impressive part of the fort. It was primarily made of timber, with a thick walkway that could accommodate four men walking side-by-side. It wasn’t built high enough to stop determined mages, but that was also what the stone towers and men atop the wall were for.
Sam led Leon to a staircase and took him to the top of the wall. There wasn’t much to see, thanks to the hills and forest on the other side, but it was a good place to talk a little more, given that the only soldiers on the wall were in the towers rather than the ramparts.
“Got any questions about this place?” he asked.
“What will I be expected to do?” Leon inquired.
“Well, I don’t need you to squire for me, so you’re going to act as the tenth man in my squad. We don’t guard the wall, rather we range out past the wall on scouting and supply missions. The Legion has built a few small watchtowers further out in the pass, and we check up on the men assigned there and bring back reports to the fort.”
“Being sent to those towers is an enviable task,” Leon said sarcastically.
“Yeah, those soldiers who’re sent out there are hardly happy about it,” Sam admitted. “But that’s what we do. We might be attacked by a few Valemen in the pass, but at least we’re not watching the wall twelve hours a day.”
“I suppose,” Leon whispered. The few soldiers he could see in the nearest tower certainly looked bored. “How long do these rangings usually last?”
“A few hours at the quickest, a couple of days at the longest. The farthest watchtower we have out there is only five miles or so into the pass, so we can easily head out there and bring back updates in a single day,” Sam answered.
“Sounds like an easy gig,” Leon observed.
“To be frank, someone like you is probably wasted on us,” Sam admitted. “You must have really pissed someone off to be sent all the way out here.”
“So I’ve heard…”
“Hey, let’s head back. Get you a better introduction to the others. Can’t have you watching our backs if you don’t know us, right?”
With that, Sam led Leon back to his squad’s tent. Along the way, he talked a little about himself. He was from the Northern Territories and had joined the Royal Legions as a way to get away from the mines that made up more than half of the Northern Territories’ economy. He admitted to Leon that if he hadn’t advanced to the first-tier when he did and signed on with the local Legion, then he probably would have died trying to dig some low-quality iron out of the ground, then buried in the very mine he would’ve died in.
Sam didn’t have any immediate family to speak of, so him joining the Legion wasn’t that inconvenient for anyone except himself.
“I’m actually not doing too bad,” he’d said to Leon, “I’ve been made a knight, and have had the opportunity to train and ascend to the third-tier! Sure, I’ve been sent to the very edge of civilization, but that just means my account at Heaven’s Eye will be quite large when I get out of here!”
Leon only stoically nodded at him. Not a lot of good that money was doing him up there, though. Leon had to take a deep breath. Fort 127 was incredibly depressing; it was even worse than Valetown! And he was going to be here for two years!
Elise’s offer to join Heaven’s Eye was looking more and more attractive with every passing second. Leon wasn’t about to stay at a place like this for long; it went against the very reasons he’d joined the Knight Academy to begin with: to gain both political and magical power. He doubted he’d find either here.
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