“Thank you for your aid,” Xaphan said to the Thunderbird. It was still perched atop the throne staring down at Leon, where it had been since bluish-silver lightning had erupted from its feathers and banished the golden lightning cage around its descendant.
[I have rendered no aid that would deserve thanks,] the Thunderbird stated. Its tone was almost defiant, as if the thanks of a demon was an insult.
“But you released Leon and caused him to ascend! We survived because of your intervention! Proper courtesy requires that I at least thank you for it…” Xaphan argued.
[A demon talking about ‘courtesy’?] the Thunderbird asked with some amusement. [And make no mistake, former Lord of Flame, I have bestowed none of my power unto my descendent; his ascension is the result of his own labors, not of my generosity.]
Xaphan stared at the Thunderbird in confusion. “So, then, all you did was…” the demon began.
[… To dispel the hold the storm had over my descendant’s mind,] the Thunderbird finished.
Then, without another word and, more importantly, without giving Xaphan any time to ask any more questions, the Thunderbird took off back into the mists.
Back at the fort’s main encampment, much of the rubble of the destroyed fortifications had been assembled into a makeshift execution platform. It had only been a day, but the three Legions the Consul of the North had brought to the fort had quickly and ruthlessly exterminated the Valemen who made it south of the wall, including the few thousand scouts dispatched to forage for food. But, there were a small handful of Valemen that had been taken prisoner, most of them for the sole purpose of a public execution.
Leon, Alix, and other remaining survivors of the fort’s garrison were present, plus several thousand soldiers from the three Legions. The rest of them were busy cleaning up the bodies from the fort and manning the wall in case more Valemen arrived.
Leon and Alix were up on the platform standing next to the Consul, the three Legates who led the Legions, and a handful of other Legates and Tribunes who were a part of the Consul’s retinue.
Six large wooden blocks were prepared for the last Valemen, including Hakon Fire-Beard and the heavily burned Hrorekr.
“… and so, for the crimes of invading his Kingdom, slaying his soldiers, and attempting to raid the villages of his subjects, Julius Septimius Taurus, Bull King and monarch of these lands, has granted me the authority to give you the most severe of punishments!” the Consul shouted. He was acting as formally as he could, but he had already condensed much of what was normally said in these situations. Leon could tell that he wasn’t of noble birth just from his speech, as almost any other noble would’ve taken an hour to say what the Consul had just said in five minutes.
“But,” the Consul continued, “before we begin, I would like to invite Leon Ursus, ranking soldier of this fort’s garrison to come forward and say a few words to the captives in the name of his fallen comrades!”
The Consul beckoned Leon forward with a smile and a wave, while Hakon glared at him with as much hate as he could express. The Great Chief couldn’t speak, though, as he and the rest of his surviving war party had been gagged.
Leon took a deep breath and then walked forward. He didn’t address the watching crowd of thousands of Legion soldiers, and when he spoke, he did so in a quiet and subdued tone that only those on the platform could hear.
“You came here without provocation,” Leon stated, making sure to mention some of the crimes that the Consul had just castigated the Valemen for, “and you slaughtered the good men stationed here. You attempted to kill myself, the soldiers I had taken responsibility for, and the soldiers who were responsible for me. For this, I will ensure that your bodies are not burned.”
The eyes of Hakon only grew more terrible and hateful, while the other Valemen paled and tried to scream at Leon through their gags. But, Leon wasn’t finished.
“You will never know the embrace of the Sky Mother. Instead, I will ask the Consul to bury you in the same mass grave that is being dug for the rest of your war party. You and your people will have to find peace among the bones of the Mountain Father, and hope his wrath isn’t so terrible when he asks you about the failure that brought you to him.”
The Valemen wailed and struggled against their bonds as Leon backed away, his piece said. The Consul behind him was rather amused at Leon’s statements, but he didn’t let that get in the way of what everyone was gathered there for; he gestured to the headsman, a fifth-tier Tribune, to come forward.
This particular Tribune was the man in charge of maintaining discipline within the ranks of the Legion, and as such, one of his duties was to behead brigands and traitors. That being said, brigands and traitors rarely survived long enough to be brought back for him to deal with, so he was a little out of practice. He awkwardly kicked the weakest of the Valemen down onto the block, where a pair of fourth-tier Centurions held him down, and then drew an enormous sword. The blade was almost comically large, far too large to be used in battle even for a fifth-tier mage, but it made for quite the spectacle as it flashed in the sunlight as it sliced clean through the Valeman’s neck.
The Tribune’s nerves were a little allayed with how smoothly the first execution went, and so, one-by-one, he started to work his way down the line of captured Valemen. Heads rolled, each one to the deafening sound of Legion cheers.
After a few moments, it was Hrorekr’s turn. The thane had maintained some semblance of dignity, but that began to crumble as the Centurions forced him down onto the block. He turned his scorched head to Hakon, his eyes wide with fear, hoping that his chief could somehow escape and free him, praying that the Thunderbirds, the Sky Mother, of the Mountain Father would save him. His hopes and prayers continued even as the executioner’s sword swung down onto his neck.
Hakon struggled against his chains as he watched his thane’s head hit the platform and roll away, accompanied by a spurt of blood. His eyes were wild with hate, but that hate was tinged with the fear of knowing that he had come to his end, and that he had led all of his friends to the same end he found himself in.
With the memory of Eirik, Ulfr, Bragi, Hjalmar, and Hrorekr, and all the rest of his dead thanes and tribesmen fueling him, the Great Chief threw himself against the block, straining to get free of the chains attached to his wrists. His muscles bulged and the wind started to pick up, but the chains were enchanted, and Hakon didn’t go anywhere. The Centurions appeared at his shoulders, and they firmly pushed him down onto the block, even as he tried to scream and bellow and roar through his gag. He couldn’t even properly channel his magic with the enchanted manacles on his wrists.
And then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw the flash of the executioner’s sword, and everything went dark.
The watching Legion soldiers cheered, and few cheered harder than the remaining survivors of the fort’s garrison. The garrison had taken more than ninety percent casualties and seeing those who inflicted those casualties lose their heads was immensely gratifying.
After a few seconds, the Consul raised his arms, calling the soldiers to order. The cheers and celebrations died down almost immediately.
“With the punishment meted out to these invaders, we have a far more honorable and dignified event to get to! Leon Ursus, step forward!”
Leon paled when thousands of eyes suddenly turned to look at him. He had been fine speaking with the Valemen because they were still the focus, whereas now, everyone’s eyes were specifically looking at him. The Consul of the North smiled at him and encouraged him to come forward with a friendly wave. Alix pushed him forward as well, which brought him out of his shy paralysis.
“Don’t worry, you don’t need to say anything more,” the Consul whispered to Leon, seeing the young man’s nervous and apprehensive expression. “You only need to kneel.”
Leon’s eyes went wide as he realized the implications of what the Consul just told him to do. He slowly got down onto one knee, facing the Consul and the crowd behind him.
“Leon Ursus!” the Consul boomed, his voice echoing over the entire crowd. “You have led the defense of this fort when all other officers stronger than you were killed! You were only a squire, but you kept almost fifty of your fellow soldiers alive until reinforcements arrived!” As he spoke, the Consul drew his sword and raised it above Leon. Then, he slowly lowered it to touch Leon’s left shoulder, and then his right.
“Your brave actions have brought honor to your King, to your Kingdom, and to all the King’s Legions! For your bravery, wits, and strength in battle, I now pronounce you ‘Sir’ Leon Ursus!”
The crowd practically exploded as the Consul returned his sword to his sheath and extended his hand to help Leon back to his feet. Leon stared speechlessly at the Consul, not knowing what to say or do next.
“Well done, son. You can return to that young lady’s side,” the Consul said with a smile.
Leon hurried back to Alix and the rest of the high-ranked soldiers, several of whom clapped his shoulder in celebration. Meanwhile, the Consul called a few more soldiers up to receive honors, to the exuberant celebration of the crowd.
After the ceremony that followed the execution, the Consul ordered Leon to his tent.
“Sir,” Leon said in greeting when the Consul’s adjutant showed him inside.
“Ah, Sir Leon, I’m glad you’re here. How are your injuries?”
After the battle, Leon had collapsed into and passed out in his cot, and when he came to, both of his arms had been wrapped in high-quality healing spells. His broken arm and most of his other injuries had completely healed, but many of the burns from using Xaphan’s fire were still raw and peeling.
“I’m doing well, Sir,” Leon answered.
“Good to hear! Well, have a seat, I’d like to talk with you a bit,” the consul said good-naturedly as he waved his hand at a triclinium, a grouping of three chaise lounges around a small table. Leon knew from Artorias’ lessons that such an arrangement was usually reserved for very intimate conversations between nobles, though the style had faded from fashion in recent centuries.
Leon stretched and reclined into one of the lounges, while the Consul took a seat in the one opposite.
“So, Sir Leon, I understand you were sent here from the Knight Academy,” the Consul began.
“Yes, Sir, I was…” Leon said, wondering how the Consul knew that despite having only known the former for less than a day, having completely forgotten that he’d told the Consul that himself before passing out from his wounds the day before.
“Well, I have to say that a third-tier—now fourth-tier—mage being sent to such a remote location is incredibly strange and must mean you have enemies…” the Consul said. Leon frowned, and the Consul continued when it was apparent that Leon wasn’t going to verbally respond. “I received a letter from the capital a few days ago concerning you. It seems a Paladin has been looking for you. I have also received several letters from the Legate in Cyrene requesting that I rescind your orders assigning you to this fort and send you somewhere more befitting your strength and training.”
Leon’s eyes grew wider and his frown grew deeper with every word the Consul said.
“I take it from your expression that you don’t like one of those things… Let me guess, it’s the one about the Paladin?” the Consul asked with an arched eyebrow. Leon didn’t answer verbally, but he slowly nodded. “I’m not surprised, I can’t stand those fuckers down in the capital either…”
Not liking the knights in the capital wasn’t the reason Leon was apprehensive about hearing Roland was looking into him—and the Consul no doubt guessed that—but for the sake of privacy and politeness, the Consul said something generic about not liking nobles and left it at that. Leon was grateful for that, as he had no idea how he would explain his relationship with Roland, especially his own suspicions about the Paladin. He may have linked Adrianos Isynos to Valeria’s family, but he hadn’t ruled out the possibility that Roland was still involved in Artorias’ assassination.
In fact, the more Leon thought about Roland investigating him, the more nervous he became.
“Moving on,” the Consul said as he noticed Leon’s nervousness beneath the stoicism Leon had managed to return to, “given your training history and how well you performed during this incident…”
The Consul paused as he noticed Leon’s slight frown.
“You disagree with something I said?” he asked with an interested smile.
“I do, Sir,” Leon said with a grim expression. He told the Consul about what happened to Sam’s squad, and how he had lost two of the four survivors on the way back south. “… and if you hadn’t arrived when you did, the Valemen would have broken through the defenses in the tower and massacred the people I had gathered there. We wouldn’t have lasted a single night on our own. I’d hardly call that ‘performing well’.”
Once Leon was finished, the Consul burst out into booming laughter. “HAHAHA, you’re quite the arrogant little shit, aren’t you?” he said once he regained control of himself.
Leon looked at him in confusion.
“I mean,” the Consul explained, “that you’re taking blame for something that isn’t your fault! You could’ve handled what happened with your squad better, for sure, but those two dickheads who rushed an enemy that was numerically and magically superior might as well have committed suicide! That wasn’t your fault! And you did quite well with the tower after the wall was breached. You gathered together as many survivors as you could, and you held for as long as you could with the resources you had available! Don’t undersell that shit, you did good, kid!”
“I still could’ve done better,” Leon said, thinking about the failure of the fire runes on the walls of the tower’s ground floor to activate, as well as dozens of other tiny little details that he felt could’ve been improved.
“That’s a good mindset to have! I know a great many nobles who would simply say, ‘Well, I’m perfect, so the imperfections were everyone else at fault!’ Asshats, the lot of them! I wouldn’t have put them in charge of the fuckin’ mess halls back in Cyrenaica! You’re reflecting on what happened and looking to make improvements! That’s what we need in the Legion!”
The Consul spoke with such passion that Leon didn’t even try to argue; the Consul got particularly heated when talking about the useless nobles that he had seen, and Leon just sat back while he ranted.
“Anyway, as I was saying, fuckin’ movin’ on,” the Consul said, slowly working himself back down from the fiery passion he just had, brushing a few errant strands of brown hair out of his eyes. “With your accomplishments, I agree with the recommendations from Cyrene, that you need to be reassigned.”
The Consul waited a moment for Leon’s reaction, which was a slight frown.
“What will happen to Alix?” Leon asked. His unofficial squire had grown on him during their flight back to the wall, training sessions, and defense of their guard tower. He didn’t want to leave her at Fort 127.
“Oh, I don’t mind if she comes with you. An official knight needs an official squire, after all,” the Consul said after Leon explained who Alix was. “I’ll make the arrangements and make her your squire. She’ll go with you wherever you go. Speaking of which, if you don’t want to meet with Sir Roland and let him recruit you, I can have you sent somewhere else. Do you have anywhere you want to go?”
“Sir, you’ve already knighted me against the guidelines of the Knight Academy, I couldn’t ask for more than that…” Leon humbly said.
The Consul then responded, “Fuck the Knight Academy and fuck the Legate who runs it! They can’t do shit to me! If they don’t like that I knighted one of the people they sent off, then they can chortle my nuts!”
The Consul continued on in that vein for a few more minutes, and when he was done, Leon fully understood that he didn’t care about any potential repercussion from the Knight Academy; he was a Consul, one of the seven most highly ranked knights in the kingdom, if he wanted a squire, then all the nobles in the Northern Territories would trip over themselves to offer him their sons and daughters. Since the Knight Academy couldn’t do anything to him except try to withhold their own trained squires, they were essentially powerless to do anything to him.
“Anyway, I’ve got a friend in the Eastern Territories, works as a diplomat for Prince Trajan down at the Bull’s Horns. I can have you transferred to him instead of this dump,” the Consul said.
Leon’s eyes went wide for a moment before he regained control of himself. The Bull’s Horns were a pair of fortresses on the border of the Bull Kingdom just like Fort 127, but that was the extent of their similarities. The Bull’s Horns watched over the one land route into the kingdom from the rest of the plane, and as a result, was the single largest Legion fortress complex in the entire kingdom. Making it even more prestigious, three combat Legions were stationed there, under the command of the king’s elder brother, Prince Trajan, who was also serving as Consul of the East.
Seeing the momentary expression on Leon’s face, the Consul of the North smiled. “I take it you like that potential post?”
Leon slowly nodded.
“Then that’s where I’ll send you! Get your shit packed, I’m sending you back to Cyrene tomorrow! You’ll hitch a ride on a river galley and head back south through the capital, all the way down the Naga river until you enter the Gulf of Discord. Then, you’ll turn east and go all the way to the Bull’s Horns!”
Leon couldn’t contain his smile any more. It broke out over his face and resisted all of Leon’s attempts to stifle it. But then, something occurred to him that sent a chill down his spine.
“Sir…” Leon hesitantly began.
“What is it” the Consul asked.
“I don’t suppose I could request some leave time in the capital?”
“Sure, how much do you want? I can give you a couple of weeks.”
“A couple of weeks would do perfectly fine,” Leon said.
“Then that’s what’ll happen!” the Consul said. “While you’re here, is there anything else you want to ask?”
It was rhetorical question, but Leon did have one more thing he was curious about, so he took the opportunity to ask, “Sir, if I may ask, how did you get here so quickly? Sir Jean thought it would take you at least a week to get here, not a couple of days…”
“Ha! If I’d stayed to wait for Count Whitefield to allow me to enter his land, it would’ve taken a week! But the Legion’s first job is to kill any assholes who invade the Bull Kingdom! I’m not going to wait for some shitstick noble who thinks himself more important than he is to fuckin’ allow me to do my job!”
“Well I, for one, am glad you didn’t wait,” Leon said with a genuine smile, which the Consul returned with a chuckle.
There wasn’t much left for Leon and the Consul to talk about, so Leon took his leave.
[You looking to spend some time with Elise?] Xaphan asked curiously, referring to Leon’s request for leave. [She’s probably going to be pissed at you, you know…]
[I’m very aware of that, demon,] Leon replied with some annoyance, [but it wasn’t my fault that this place didn’t have a damned postbox! She wanted me to send her a letter with my location, but how could I do that if there’s no damned postbox?!]
[Hey, don’t waste your words on me, save them for her,] Xaphan said as he tried to suppress his laughter and glee at the thought of the trouble Leon was in for.
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