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“That was Hakon Fire-Beard?!” Alix asked in a fearful tone.
“… I think so…” Leon said, his own voice slightly trembling from Hakon’s tremendous aura—for of course, that was Hakon Fire-Beard himself.
Leon and Alix quietly fell back to the tree line and hid there for about ten minutes, giving Hakon’s party plenty of time to gain distance, then they set back out.
“Should we check the watchtower?” Alix asked as Leon led her around to the south side of the hill.
“I doubt anyone could’ve hid from that guy,” Leon responded.
“But what if they did?” Alix asked again, with more insistence in her voice.
Leon frowned; he wanted to get back to the fort and put this failed resupply mission behind him, but Alix had a look in her eyes that told him she wasn’t about to let this matter drop.
“… Fine,” Leon said with some hesitation. The two approached the watchtower again, with Leon constantly scanning the trees around the hill for any signs of more Valemen, while Alix kept her eyes on the watchtower. As they approached the door, Leon stopped Alix from just opening the door and walking right on in and pulled her to the side.
“Quiet, for a moment,” he whispered. Then, he strained his ears, listening for anything that might be alive within the tower, such as Valemen left behind by Hakon. He heard nothing, so he nodded at Alix and the two entered the watchtower with sword and spear drawn.
The first floor was devoid of any human life. The supplies Sam’s squad had delivered remained where they had been stored, and nothing else seemed to have been taken.
“Looks like that Valeman party didn’t loot the place,” Leon observed.
“No blood or bodies, either,” Alix said. “The men stationed here probably escaped.”
‘We don’t know that for sure, though,’ Leon thought, but he decided to keep that to himself.
The two moved up to the second floor at the top of the watchtower. Again, there wasn’t any blood or bodies. Leon and Alix didn’t stick around and left the watchtower as soon as it became clear it was empty.
“We need to get back to the wall as soon as we can,” Leon whispered on their way out. “Every minute that passes, there will probably be more Valemen between us and the wall.”
Alix nodded, and they took off into the trees. They took a circuitous route, swinging a long way to the east almost as far as the edge of the pass before turning completely south. Leon figured that since the Valemen were coming from the northwest, they would have the best chance of reaching the wall if they went southeast.
Leon and Alix stealthily moved through the forest, remaining completely undetected until they finally came within a mile of the wall. It had been a stressful few hours as they moved on from the first watchtower, with the two almost running into large groups of Valemen twice and being forced to stop and hide another four times to let more groups move past them.
“How many are moving south?” Alix wondered aloud.
“Thousands, probably,” Leon answered. “He’s undoubtedly got the numbers.”
“That wouldn’t be enough to defeat a single Legion!” Alix said.
“Probably not, but it’s certainly enough to get past the wall, killing everyone in the fort, and ravaging the surrounding countryside,” Leon grimly replied. “There aren’t any full-strength Legions in the area, and I doubt Count Whitefield would be able to field a large enough army to do much more than defend his own demesne. Hakon Fire-Beard can still do a ton of damage, even if he lacks the power to truly threaten the Bull Kingdom.”
The two kept moving south, over small hills and past small seasonal streams. They had gotten lucky, as none of the Valemen who had come close to them on the journey noticed them after the last battle. They were being cautious and moving relatively slowly compared to their complete lack of caution on the re-supply mission that took them north in the first place.
But, their luck couldn’t hold out forever. As they were moving around a clearing less than half a mile from the open ground in front of the wall, they nearly ran into a group of dozens of Valemen for the third time. They froze, then dropped to the ground, obscuring themselves behind a large bush and cluster of ferns.
The Valemen party was only about fifty feet in front of them, sitting and laying down in a slight depression. Neither Leon nor Alix had seen the party until now because they were waiting in complete silence, and were mostly concealed by the dark trees and other foliage.
“Who’s out there?” shouted one of the Valemen, having heard Leon and Alix drop to the ground.
“Shit…” Leon muttered. There was no way the two of them were going to pass as Valemen, not dressed as they were, and lying was risky. Before he could try to lie, however, the rest of the Valemen started to get up and reach for their weapons.
“I think we’ve got some Legion soldiers out there,” one of them said. “They would’ve come forward if they were our guys…”
Leon glanced at Alix and whispered, “Run to the left!”
The two then jumped to their feet and Alix took off sprinting to the east. Leon lagged behind a little, to intercept any Valemen who might be fast enough to catch up.
“There!” shouted a Valeman. “They’re running!” The small war party ran after Leon and Alix. With all of them up and out of the depression, Leon was able to start counting; there were about thirty Valemen, far more than he was confident of taking alone, even though they were all second-tier or below. It was fortunate, then, that they didn’t pursue Leon and Alix with any kind of coordination. They just ran after them, with the faster Valemen leaving the slower behind.
“You’re dead!” the lead Valeman shouted. He was a second-tier mage, armed with a spear, and he just caught up to Leon. He lunged forward just as Leon stopped in place and ducked. The spear passed over Leon’s head, and the Valeman ran straight into Leon, who knocked him to the ground and drove all the air from his lungs. Leon drew his sword and took the Valeman’s life in one smooth motion, but it still took enough time for three more Valemen to catch up.
One of the Valemen narrowed his eyes when he saw Leon. He turned to his two comrades and said, “I think I heard the Great Chief looking for someone in black armor. This should be the guy…”
The other two Valemen took a closer look at Leon, but Leon heard what the first Valeman said and lunged forward, impaling the Valeman on his sword. The other two panicked and jerked backward, leaving them open for Leon to kill one with a quick slash across the chest and to run the other through with a follow-up thrust.
But, more Valemen kept arriving; four more caught up once Leon had finished off those three. Instead of continuing to fight, though, Leon turned and ran off into the trees. Some of the Valemen stopped to examine their fallen comrades, but most ran right past in pursuit of Leon and Alix.
The land grew rougher as Leon, Alix, and their pursuers started to enter the mountains. This slowed down the former two and allowed the latter to catch up easier. Along the way, more Valemen recalled Hakon moving through the area shouting about someone in black armor, so a couple peeled off from the chase to find their Great Chief after getting a glimpse of Leon.
Unfortunately for the Valemen, they couldn’t stop Leon or Alix. Leon was acting as an effective rearguard, allowing Alix to gain more and more distance, while the Valemen seemed to refuse to coordinate—at least that’s the way it seemed to Leon, as they only came at him one, two, or three at a time. They had the numbers to pose a real threat to him, but they didn’t use them. Plus, whenever it seemed like they might start to gather together, Leon would unleash his killing intent and kill one or two in the resulting moment of weakness.
After ten minutes, Leon had whittled down the pursuing Valemen to about half of their original number, and the rest were keeping their distance; they no longer tried to run him down, rather they only tried to keep him in sight, as they had long since lost sight of Alix.
Leon couldn’t see her, but he hadn’t lost Alix. She was far ahead of him, and he was trying to follow her trail as best as he could. She had run east, then turned south again after going roughly a quarter mile. Leon was about to sprint after her when he heard an odd sound, the jingling of bells. He was so startled by how out of place it was that he unconsciously paused for a moment.
This was a grave mistake, as the bells came from one of Hakon’s thanes, a short but muscular man with a sash decorated with dozens of small bells that jingled with every step. This man saw Leon and his black armor, smiled, and sprinted toward him.
Leon’s eyes widened in alarm and he turned to flee; he could sense that this man was at least of the fourth-tier, and he didn’t particularly want to resort to Xaphan’s demon fire again. Fortunately, it seemed like he was faster than the thane, as he gained ground fairly quickly despite the thane’s dogged pursuit.
Leon could tell that he was catching up to Alix, and he picked up the pace. As the thane behind him started losing sight of him among the trees and foothills of the mountains, he pulled out a horn and gave a long blast loud enough for the entire pass to hear.
Leon clenched his teeth and kept going, even as a second and third horn blast sounded from behind him. As he ran, he finally caught sight of Alix again, but he also saw something else that sent a chill down his spine: more Valemen ahead of them, easily counting one hundred or more. Additional groups started materializing to their right, as well.
Alix started to slow down with so many Valemen ahead of them, which prompted Leon to shout, “Keep moving!” Alix hesitated for a moment but then kept moving. That moment was enough for Leon to finally catch up to her, and he quickly matched her pace.
“There’s going to be a single moment for us to get past them, don’t waste it!” Leon told her as they continued to charge at the Valemen to their front. “The wall is behind them, and safety beyond that! So keep moving!”
“Right!” Alix responded with determination. Leon had gotten her through every disaster throughout the day, so she placed her trust in him again.
Seeing the two of them charging at them, the Valemen spread out a little, forming a half-circle. Under normal circumstances, sprinting into the center of that circle would be suicidal, but Leon and Alix were desperate. Leon, especially, as he knew there was a thane not too far behind. That desperation made his killing intent all the more potent when it erupted from him, and even the hardest Valemen among the group felt the harsh bite of paralyzing fear.
The Valemen directly in front of Leon and Alix when Leon’s killing intent was unleashed felt another harsh bite: that of Leon’s sword slicing them open. Three Valemen fell to Leon’s blade, and he and Alix ran right past the rest, who were still shaking off the effects of Leon’s killing intent. A minute or two later, Leon and Alix burst out from the trees and into the open land between the trees of the pass and the wall.
They ran forward and turned toward the gate; they were perhaps a mile away from it, so close were they to the mountains. It would take a few more minutes of running to get there, but fortunately, the Valemen didn’t pursue the two of them past the tree line. If they had, that would’ve put them in range of the Legion archers on the wall.
As they ran, Leon and Alix drew the attention of said archers. Luckily, the two of them weren’t a big enough group that the archers opened fire on sight, but most of the men who manned the wall were watching them like hawks. Consequently, Leon and Alix maintained as much distance between them and wall as they were comfortable with, and once they realized the Valemen weren’t pursuing them, they slowed down to appear less threatening.
Once the doors of the wall came into view, a voice came from the wall that shouted, “Stop! Identify yourselves!”
“We’re Legion soldiers!” Leon responded.
“We’re survivors of those who left yesterday morning on the supply run!” Alix added.
There was a brief silence, during which Leon presumed those on the wall were conferring with a knight or two. They must have decided to believe them, because much to Leon and Alix’s relief, the doors opened.
“We made it…” Leon said with a sigh. The two hurried back into the fort, and only started relaxing once the doors slammed shut behind them.
Hakon Fire-Beard watched Leon and Alix return to the relative safety of the fort from the trees. He’d heard the sound of his thane’s horn, but he and rest of his thanes had been too far away to help.
“I will kill that man,” Hakon said, glaring at Leon in his black armor. Even once the doors closed and he lost sight of Leon, Hakon continued to stare at the doors with such hatred that the other thanes remained silent until he turned his attention back to them.
“Let’s go,” he said to them, “we need to rest and wait for the rest of the war party to arrive. Then, we can knock down that wall, burn everyone on the other side, and get on with our raid!”
Hakon and his thanes walked back to their camp while the Valemen who heard Hakon’s statement shouted and celebrated; they didn’t care if the soldiers on the wall heard them, as they already knew the Valemen had arrived in staggeringly large numbers.
Back at the Valeman camp, Hakon noticed some of the third-tier warriors building a funeral pyre.
Walking over to them, Hakon asked, “Who’s the pyre for?” The Valemen had certainly taken quite a few casualties during the day, but none that called for building a pyre in the center of Hakon’s own camp.
One of the third-tier warriors looked at Hakon in slight confusion. “For Eirik, my chief,” he said.
“No!” Hakon said forcefully. The warriors working on the pyre immediately froze, then slowly backed away from the pyre. Hakon frowned at the looks of fear on their faces, as if they had done something heinous and wrong. Hakon took a deep breath, clapped the two closest third-tier warriors on the shoulder, and said, “You all have done nothing wrong; however, I want Eirik to see the south before we send him to the Sky Mother! To that end, I can think of no greater pyre to build for my fallen thane than out of the ruined fragments of that damned fort!”
At Hakon’s mention of destroying the fort, the surrounding Valemen raised a battle cry, then continued to get ready for the upcoming assault, leaving Hakon and his other five thanes alone with Eirik’s body. Silence fell as the third-tier warriors left for their own camps, and Hakon let his fierce chiefly demeanor slip as he sat down next to Eirik.
‘I’m sorry, Haukr,’ he thought. ‘I promised to lead your son out of the Northern Vales and show him the south, but instead I’ve brought him to his own death. But, if you can hear me where you are in the Sky Mother’s embrace, please forgive me for stalling your reunion with Eirik, for I would fulfill my promise even though his eyes have been closed for good. I will show him the south, and then I will send him to you atop the corpse of that black-armored bastard!’
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