Leon and the rest of Samuel’s squad finished up work on the first watchtower before night fell, which let them venture back out into the forest in the morning. Most of the squad didn’t appreciate how long they had taken just for the first watchtower—these supply runs rarely ran more than a single day—and didn’t bother talking amongst themselves. Instead, they focused on hurrying to the next two watchtowers, so they could then hurry back to the fort.
They reached the second watchtower before noon. The men there had no work they needed the squad’s help with, so they delivered their supplies and moved on.
About an hour after leaving the second watchtower, Leon got a strange look on his face, and he slowed down.
“Keep moving, asshole,” said the man behind him. As they were walking in single-file, Leon slowing down was holding up everyone behind him.
“What’s wrong back there?” demanded Sam from the front of the line.
“Do you smell that?” asked Leon.
The rest of the squad couldn’t help but sniff at the air despite their own mistrust and dislike for Leon.
“I don’t smell anything unusual for the forest,” said Sam. None of the others seemed able to, either.
“Smells like something’s burning,” Leon said.
“There’s nothing out there, jackass, so get moving!” the man behind him said impatiently.
Instead, Leon ignored him and started moving out into the forest.
“Hey! Don’t separate from the group!” shouted Alix with some concern. She had managed to relax a little over the day but being out in the forest still clearly made her nervous.
“Where are you going?” shouted Sam. “Get back to the group!”
Leon ignored them and kept walking out into the trees.
“If he’s not going to stop, then we make him,” said one of the men.
“Yeah, he’s probably trying to rejoin his fellow savages. Best to stop him now, before he can manage to link up with them,” said another with a vicious smile. Several of the men in the squad gripped their spears a little tighter and took a few steps in Leon’s direction.
“Hold your fucking positions!” Sam ordered in a sharp tone accompanied with a hint of killing intent. The men glanced back at him and saw his hand on his sword, and they immediately did as he commanded.
“Good,” Sam continued, “I’d hate to have to punish any of you again for not following my orders.”
With that, he went after Leon alone. Alix hesitantly made to follow him, but he cautiously held up his hand, silently ordering her to stay put.
Fortunately, Leon hadn’t moved out of visual range, and had even come to a stop about two hundred feet away at the top of a small densely wooded hill. When Sam caught up to him, he found what made Leon stop in the first place: a clearing on top of the hill, with several still-smoldering campfires and obvious signs that a few dozen people had stayed there quite recently—probably over the previous night.
“Shit…” muttered Sam. “Leon, we have to get back to the rest of the squad. This was a Valeman campsite, and those who built it are probably not far away.”
Leon understood, and nodded back to Sam. The two quickly made their way back to the waiting squad.
“We’ve got enemies in the area, probably thirty or forty,” Sam said as soon as they got back. The rest of the squad paled a little and started scanning their surroundings. Alix almost freaked out, but Sam moved forward and comforted her with a pat on her shoulder and a nod of solidarity.
“We’ve got to get to the third watchtower and deliver these supplies, then make a break for the wall,” Sam said. “Since there haven’t been any warning flares, this group probably managed to slip past the watchtower, so we should hurry.”
“Thirty or forty Valemen is a lot of people, especially since they haven’t come close to the fort in months,” one of the men said.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve been planning something,” said Sam.
“Hakon Fire-Beard just finished conquering the vales neighboring the Bull Kingdom a year and a half ago, didn’t he?” asked Leon.
“He did,” answered Sam.
“With Torfinn Ice-Eyes holding down the east, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s turning his attention further south instead,” Leon said. “With all the manpower of most of the inhabited vales behind him, he could probably amass a force of thousands to come south.”
“But would he come here?” one of the men wondered aloud.
“With only Fort 127 and three watchtowers, this pass is the most lightly defended pathway for him to come south,” Sam said with some frustration. “The other three passages between the Northern Vales and the Bull Kingdom have huge Legion strongholds watching over them. If Hakon wants to come south, then trying to break through our fort would be the easiest way for him to do so.”
“We should keep moving,” said Leon.
“We should,” agreed Sam. “We still have a job to do, and we have to do it. Keep your eyes peeled, everyone. And if you notice anything else Leon, don’t hold back, let us know.”
The entire squad nodded, though Alix needed to take a deep breath first. Then, they continued onwards.
Along the way, the squad discovered at least three other Valeman camps of similar size to the first, and Sam began to get nervous.
‘This makes at least one hundred Valemen in the pass who’ve gotten past the third watchtower. That shouldn’t happen! Something is wrong with the watchtower…’
“We need to hurry up,” Sam said, spurring his squad forward.
However, they didn’t get far before he called them to a stop again.
“Why’d we sto-“ began one of the men.
“Quiet!” Sam interrupted. Then, he began to give orders via hand signals. He ordered the men to get into a horizontal line, then silently move forward. He also kept both Leon and Alix at his side. He and Leon exchanged knowing looks; they could both hear what was ahead.
“This weak coward! Look at him, he’s practically pissin’ himself!” came a shout from ahead of the squad, followed by the laughter of at least five other people.
“S-stay back!” said someone with a shaky and terrified voice.
“Hmmm, no! I think I want to get closer, otherwise how would I split your skull in half?” came another, far more vicious sounding voice.
After about a hundred feet, Sam’s squad came within sight of a clearing where the voices were coming from. There, they saw a force of twenty rough-looking men—Valemen, they guessed—and another man on the ground and covered in blood in the center of their group. The Valemen were laughing and kicking at their terrified victim, who ended up curling himself into a ball to try and shield himself from their blows.
“That’s one of the men at the third watchtower!” Sam said in recognition.
“He looks like he’s about to be killed,” Leon whispered. He quietly put the supply pack he was carrying on the ground, then reached for his bow. He only brought twelve arrows as he wanted to pack light and didn’t think he’d really need them. Plus, so preoccupied was he with planning his armor enchantments that he hadn’t gotten around to enchanting his bow yet. But, he still figured the weapon was good enough for the unarmored Valemen in front of him; only one of them was of the second-tier, with all the rest being first-tier warriors.
Seeing Leon’s actions, Sam whispered, “You stay here and shoot on my mark, we’ll move forward and engage in close-quarters combat.”
Leon nodded, then Sam ordered the rest of the squad to silently move forward. The Valemen continued to play with their prey, kicking him and making jokes about his obvious fear, all the while not paying enough attention to realize that they themselves were about to be attacked.
In preparation for Sam’s signal, Leon pulled out four arrows from his quiver. He kept three in his hand for easy access, while the last was nocked on the bowstring. He only had to wait a few more seconds before he saw Sam look back at him and wave. Leon smiled, drew the bowstring back, then loosed the arrow at the sole second-tier Valeman.
His aim was true and the Valeman was caught completely unaware; the arrow sank into his back, slipped between his ribs, and pierced his heart. The Valeman fell dead, leaving the rest of his friends staring in stunned surprise.
Leon didn’t give them a chance to recover and fired his other three prepared arrows in less than five seconds, each one striking his target and instantly killing a Valeman.
“Let’s go!” shouted Sam as he charged out of the trees and into the clearing. The clearing was tiny, small enough that Sam’s squad was on the Valemen in seconds. In the face of the third-tier Samuel, his two second-tier companions, and five highly experienced first-tier soldiers, the Valemen took heavy losses in those first ten seconds of battle.
The battle itself lasted no more than a minute. All but two of the Valemen were killed, while the squad only suffered a few light wounds, the worst of which was a long cut along the arm of one of the first-tier soldiers. When Leon caught up to the rest of the squad, the first thing he did was to take out enough healing spells that he’d made to fix those wounds.
The rest of the squad didn’t quite know how to take his actions, with only a couple subdued and awkward thank you’s. Which isn’t to say that any of the healing spells were refused, of course, only that the injured men were at least self-aware enough to feel some shame and awkwardness that after insulting Leon repeatedly, he was still willing to give them his healing spells.
“Hey, hey, you’re alright, we’re not going to hurt you,” Sam said to the still shaking man they’d rescued. The man had stayed curled up while the battle was fought, and only when Sam approached him did he finally look around and see the dead Valemen.
“They’re… dead?” the man asked.
Sam gave him a few seconds to process, then crouched down and laid his hand on the man’s shoulder. “They’re dead,” he said comfortingly.
The man looked up, then asked disbelievingly, “Sir Samuel?”
“Yes, it’s me. Can you tell me what happened? What’s going on at the third watchtower that led to you being chased by Valemen? If that is too much for now, then how about your name?”
“I’m… Jack… The others at the tower are dead,” the man said, clearly trying to hold back the tears. “I was out gathering firewood, and when I came back, I found the other four dead and the watchtower on fire!”
“Shit…” muttered one of Sam’s men.
“I-I tried to help, to see if anyone was still alive, but then the Valemen came back to the watchtower and found me! I’ve been running ever since, trying to get to the second watchtower!” Jack continued.
“Sir, we need to get back to the wall, as soon as we can!” another man shouted in panic.
“Quiet!” Sam responded. “We need to check on the third watchtower. We need to verify what happened!”
“No! We need to get back to the fort! There are more Valemen out there! Hundreds, at least!” cried Jack.
“Hundreds?” Sam asked in disbelief.
“Yes! They were the ones that found me, but they only sent these ones when I ran…”
“All the more reason to check things out,” said Sam.
“No! No! I’m not going back there! We’ll die if we go!” Jack shouted hysterically.
“We have to see for ourselves what happened,” Sam repeated. There was a hard edge in his voice that would broker no argument, but Jack was too scared to notice.
“I’m not going!” Jack said as he struggled to his feet.
Sam glared at him. His eyes promised nothing but pain and punishment if Jack didn’t fall in line, but Jack stubbornly stood his ground. Sam was about to repeat himself for the last time, but as his hand went to his sword to emphasize his words, Leon spoke up.
“All of us don’t have to go to the watchtower, do we?” Leon asked.
Everyone else in the clearing turned to look at him. It seemed, for the moment at least, that any further conflict would be avoided.
“I’m just saying, two or three of us could check out what’s going on—assuming we actually have to see for ourselves. Personally, I’d recommend falling back to the second watchtower and making sure the alarm is raised. We could then check out the third watchtower after getting some reinforcements from the fort. But, if the only knight here says we should scout the watchtower out now, then we should. But, we don’t need that many to do it.”
“Yeah, and I’m sure you’re just waiting to volunteer for that job, aren’t you, savage?” said one of the men in the squad with a hostile tone, the healing spells all but forgotten in light of Jack’s news. “I’ll bet you’re just chomping at the bit to desert the Legion and rejoin your barbarian brethren!”
“Not another word!” roared Sam. “I’m fuckin’ sick and tired of that shit! If I hear the words ‘savage’, ‘barbarian’, or any other word with similar intent directed at one of our comrades again, I will personally force the person who said the words to eat their teeth!”
With that, everyone fell into silence, especially the man Sam yelled at. Sam took that silence to think, to try and figure out what to do. Everyone waited for his decision; if he ordered that they were to scout the third watchtower, then whoever was sent would probably never return. They’d be almost guaranteed to be killed by Valemen—assuming Jack was right in saying there were hundreds in the area. Despite their personal feelings toward him, everyone wanted to do what Leon suggested, to fall back and wait for reinforcements.
Everyone’s attention was on Sam, not even Leon was keeping an eye on their surroundings. And that was their mistake. Before anyone could react, an arrow came flying through the trees and pierced Sam right in the throat.
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