It was cold in the pass. Leon was a third-tier mage, so he wasn’t particularly uncomfortable, but he still didn’t like the chill coming off the mountains. He resolved to bring his coat made from the snow lion he killed to awaken his bloodline on any return adventures north of the fort. He at least had his armor and accompanying clothing, the rest of the squad he now found himself a part of didn’t even have that.
But, the cold was banished from his mind as he helped the rest of the squad with some routine maintenance on the first watchtower. Most of the men were allowed to slack off, but Leon and Sam—as the only third-tier mages around—had some heavy labor to do. The five men stationed at the watchtower were more than willing to help, though, while the rest of the squad organized one-third of the supplies they had brought and rested.
The first point of order they had was to replace the door of the watchtower. It was thick, heavy, very sturdy, and falling apart from rot; replacing it wouldn’t be easy. Fortunately, they had an ax and plenty of trees in the forest. Leon took care of cutting down a suitable tree, then he and Sam dragged it up a hill to the watchtower where the five men got to work making a new door.
Then, it was up to the second level. The watchtower had two levels stacked on top of each other, each with only a single room. The second level had a balcony on all four sides, and three of the balconies needed new guardrails; the second level was over thirty feet high, which was high enough to leave any of the five first-tier soldiers injured if they fell.
Sam and Leon got to work, with the rest of the squad ferrying materials upstairs after resting got too boring. While the two third-tier mages were working, Sam decided to get to know Leon a little more and tried to start a conversation.
“So, Leon, tell me about the Knight Academy.”
“What do you want to know?” Leon asked disinterestedly. He was focused on tearing out the old guardrail—and didn’t particularly want to talk besides.
“… Well, I’m just curious as to how they operate. People say a lot of things about the place, and I kinda want to know if they’re true…” Sam said, a little put off with Leon’s attitude.
“What kind of things do people say?” Leon asked. After ripping out the guardrail and letting it fall to the ground, he gave the balcony a quick inspection while Sam readied the replacement guardrail.
“The Knight Academy is the most prestigious training program for aspiring knights, and that leads to just about everyone who can’t get in to say it’s just a place for rich elitist pricks to funnel their kids into cushy positions in the Royal Legion. Before being stationed at Fort 127, though, I met a few graduates at Clear Ice Fortress, and they couldn’t stop raving about the place. I have to admit that I’m intrigued by the place, and I was hoping to get your opinion on it.”
“Hold on,” said Leon with a frown. He got down onto his belly so he could see the underside of the balcony better. “We might need to replace this whole thing, not just the guardrail. The supports are rotting.”
Sam got down just like Leon and gave it a look, but he couldn’t really see anything of note. Then again, Leon had learned some construction techniques living in the Forest of Black and White, where the only structures around were built and maintained by him and his father. Sam didn’t have that same acquired skill.
“Whatever you say,” Sam said as he stepped back from the edge, while Leon started prying apart the balcony. After a few minutes, Leon finally decided to answer Sam’s previous question.
“The Knight Academy is a good place to learn how to be a knight—just not for nobility. To a degree, those who said it was a place for noble kids to have respectable positions serving their King and Kingdom bought for them by their parents aren’t wrong. But, all the people who attend the Academy aren’t rich or noble. For them, it’s a valuable experience that gives them a chance to gain strength that they never would’ve had if they hadn’t enrolled.”
“Hmm,” Sam hummed.
For a little while, Sam asked more detailed questions about the Academy, which Leon did his best to answer. Some of the things he said angered Sam somewhat, like how much say the noble trainees had in how their units were run. Some other things, however, made him burst out into laughing fits.
One of the latter things happened to be the names given to each unit.
“Are you fuckin’ kidding me?!” he almost shouted. “Blood Eagles?! Deathbringers?! Who the fuck came up with those names?!”
Leon could only shrug, while Sam laughed uproariously.
“I get the need for strong names for units, but those are just too over the top! It’s ridiculous, who can take those fuckin’ names seriously?!”
As he shrieked with laughter, Leon just kept working. He actually agreed with Sam about the names, but he wasn’t as passionate about it that Sam seemed to be.
“Listen, Leon,” Sam said in between gasps of air—laughing so much had led to some heavy breathing on his part, “every Ancestors damned unit in the Royal Legions call themselves some shit like that. Most of the names are just to feed the egos of the nobles who came up with them, but as you get further down to smaller units, we’re always given names with a little more class and dignity to them. Like the Bottom-Feeding Tadpoles, or the Rabid Bunnies!”
He descended into another laughing fit, while Leon looked back at him in confusion.
“Are those real names?” he asked.
Sam quickly ran out of breaths to laugh with, which allowed him to recover. He used that recovery to look at Leon with some amusement, and said when he regained his breath, “No, those were just joke names. But, the concept is still accurate. To a degree, all of us on the lowest rung of the ladder like to have fun with the names of our units. All of the enemies we have to fight expect to get killed by guys called the Black Rangers, or the Wings of Death, or some other such nonsense as that. On the other hand, they don’t expect to get killed by the Gibbering Geckos.”
“Huh. So having a silly name is like an insult to our enemies?” Leon asked.
“I guess. It also embarrasses the hell out of the nobles we’re commanded by. They can’t do anything about it, though, as the units are named by the men who comprise them.”
The two third-tier mages continued talking like that for a while, while fixing up the watchtower at the same time. Sam enjoyed their conversation, even if some more of what Leon told him about the Knight Academy were things he found baffling or hilarious. Plus, he was happy he had gotten Leon to talk, even if most of it was a single terse sentence between his own lengthier spiels.
There was enough work to do around the watchtower that the squad ran out of time to head back out into the forest, forcing them to settle in for the night. Normally, there wasn’t so much for them to help out with, and they could’ve been back at the fort by nightfall. But, sometimes work that has been pushed back due to laziness just has to get done, and this was one of those times.
As the squad started moving north again the following morning, continuing on their journey to bring supplies to the other two watchtowers, another group at the other end of the pass was preparing to head south.
Hakon Fire-Beard was a great beast of a man. He was over seven feet tall, had enough blood-red hair to weave a decent sized rope, and was built like a bear. He now stood before the pass leading south with thousands of Valemen at his back.
‘This is it,’ he thought to himself. ‘This is the moment that will make my name live on forever. This is when I cement my legacy as the greatest of my people. This is when I bring unimaginable wealth back home!’
For a moment, he reflected on how he had gotten there, from his first accomplishments to becoming the most powerful man in the Northern Vales. He had been a strong if unimportant warrior for most of his life, until he first come to prominence thirty years ago, when he challenged the chief of his tribe to a duel, with the title of chief on the line.
Hakon had only just ascended to the fourth-tier mage at the time, and the chief was of the fifth-tier. However, on the day of the duel, the chief moved sluggishly and didn’t use any elemental magic, which led to Hakon’s easy victory. The next day, the former chief’s cook was found murdered in his home. A few tribesmen were able to connect the dots and realize that Hakon had probably bribed the cook to poison the previous chief, then killed him to permanently silence him, but those who were smart enough to realize this were also smart enough to keep quiet.
Over the following few years, Hakon consolidated power within his vale. His tribe had more than a few enemies, and he viciously massacred them, burning many alive as sacrifices to one of the gods of the Valemen, the Mountain Father. However, he never managed to completely conquer his home vale.
That changed upon his ascension to the fifth-tier, making him one of only two Valemen with that level of strength. Only Torfinn Ice-Eyes was as strong as he was, and Hakon quickly set out on a campaign to flaunt his new power. His home vale was conquered within a year, with the other tribes either massacred, sacrificed, or driven out. Then, he moved on to the neighboring vales.
Most of the Valemen in the rest of the vales were too divided or dispersed to form a coalition strong enough to resist Hakon, and more vales fell to his tribe. By the time Leon arrived at Fort 127, nearly all of the inhabited vales fell under Hakon Fire-Beard’s vicious rule. Torfinn Ice-Eyes had been worried that Hakon would turn his attention to the east, to the Brown Bear’s vale, but that wasn’t Hakon’s goal.
At the entrance to the pass guarded by Fort 127 on the Valemen’s side, Hakon had assembled his army, massive in size compared to anything the Valemen had ever managed to field before. There were almost thirty-thousand warriors, made up of warriors from over a dozen different tribes that had submitted to Hakon Fire-Beard rather than suffer extermination.
Upon a large boulder near the entrance to the pass stood Hakon himself, surrounded by a dozen of his thanes.
“There it is, my friends,” he said, “on the other side of this pass lies more plunder than any of us can imagine. Silver, jewels, slaves, tools of enchanted iron, we can find all of these treasures, and more, at the end of this pass.”
Most of Hakon’s thanes stared into the mountain pass with greedy and hungry looks on their faces. The rest didn’t share in their comrades’ desire for loot and treasure. Instead, they looked into the pass with the hope that a worthy enemy was looking back at them from the other side. They followed Hakon not because he promised luxury, but because he promised battle.
“Let’s get moving; those treasures won’t make themselves ours of their own accord,” Hakon said with a chuckle and a smile.
His thanes immediately sprang into action, leaping down from the boulder and getting the horde of Valemen moving south. For such a large force, it would take them a few days to reach the end of the pass, but when they did, all hell would break loose. All that was between them and Fort 127 were three watchtowers staffed with five men each, and a single ten-man squad. If Hakon knew what was in front of him, he would laugh and not give it another thought; his army was far too large for so few men to get in his way.
Fort 127, on the other hand, would be a tougher nut to crack. But Hakon wasn’t worried. He had ordered a few probing attacks over the past few years, looking for weaknesses in the Bull Kingdom’s defenses, and he found one in Fort 127. He knew the fort was understaffed and undersupplied; few of the men on the wall wore armor, and they all fought with spears. None of the other forts that blocked mountain paths were so undersupplied.
When he arrived at Fort 127, Hakon knew that his numbers would carry the day. The wall of the fort was sturdy enough, but it wouldn’t allow five hundred men to stop an army of almost thirty thousand.
Hakon smiled, then led his army into the pass.
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