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Hakon Fire-Beard triumphantly walked down the stairs and left the tower. He didn’t want to move quickly as his magic was almost depleted, so he walked as dramatically as he could, strutting down the steps of the wall and standing over Jean as heroically as he could. The Valemen around him looked to their Great Chief with shining eyes, as they could barely believe that he had led them into the South.
Hrorekr met Hakon where Jean fell.
“This one is still alive,” Hrorekr said after a moment, noticing the bubbles in the blood around Jean’s nose.
“Well we’re just going to have to fix that,” Hakon said as he raised his hatchet and brought it down on Jean’s head. “These Southerners are tough,” he said as he straightened up, “I think any of us would’ve been killed had we suffered this fall.”
“Fortunately, we didn’t,” Hrorekr said with a smile.
From a little to the east, a voice said, “You did it! You breached the gate!”
The two Valemen turned and saw Hjalmar, who had also made it over the wall. He, however, wasn’t quite so battered and bloody as Hrorekr.
“You look like shit,” he said to Hrorekr.
“I’m alive, though, which is more than can be said for the bastard that fought me,” Hrorekr responded.
The three Valemen had a little chuckle, but then they got to work. They had to coordinate the rest of their army coming through the doors, which Hrorekr took care of, and they had to get the men looting the fort under control, which Hjalmar went to deal with. Hakon, however, went back up to the wall and took a seat where he could look out over the fort. He was exhausted, and he needed some rest.
Following the second blast of their horn, all of the Valemen around Leon’s tower began to retreat back down the hill.
“SHOOT THEM!” the squad leader cried. “SHOOT THEM NOW, WHILE THEY’RE EXPOSED!”
All twelve of the soldiers atop the tower began to fire arrows as fast as they possibly could. It took the thousand or so Valemen that were around their tower almost ten minutes to cross the distance between the tower and the forest, but they left another hundred or hundred and fifty behind, dead or bleeding on the ground.
“Is that it?” one of the soldiers asked. “Did we win?”
“If we managed to fight them off, we’d have gotten a signal from the center,” the squad leader said. “A horn blast, or a signal flare. This can’t be a retreat…”
“Maybe they got in somewhere else,” Alix theorized. “They couldn’t get in here due to the wall’s enchantments, and the only one of their people who could was killed by Leon. Maybe another one of the thanes got through in a different place, so that’s where all the Valemen are going…”
Leon and the squad leader glanced at each other. They both suspected the same thing, since the Valeman horn had sounded from a direction that seemed disturbingly too far south.
“Maybe…” the squad leader said quietly.
“For now, we don’t need so many people up here. Maybe we should focus on barricading the entrances to the tower?” Leon suggested.
“That’s a good idea,” the squad leader agreed. He quickly took eight of the men downstairs to do just that, leaving Leon, Alix, and one other soldier up on top of the tower to keep watch.
The three stayed up there in tense silence. If the Valemen attacked again, they’d immediately raise the alarm, but it didn’t seem like that was going to happen. After their attackers left, there had been no sign of movement from the forest hundreds of feet away. But, they couldn’t let down their guard—not until they received word from Jean that the danger had passed, anyway.
“Hey, someone’s coming!” Alix suddenly cried, pointing to the wall.
Leon hurried over and checked it out. A man was running along the ramparts of the wall, and it seemed like he was injured as one of his arms was held close to his chest.
“It looks like he’s a fourth-tier mage,” Leon said with some trepidation.
“Should we raise the alarm?” Alix asked nervously.
“… No,” Leon said after a moment of thought. Then, he shouted down at the rapidly-approaching man, “STOP! OR WE’LL SHOOT YOU!”
To Leon’s surprise, the man actually stopped. After a short moment of silence, he shouted, “I’m Edmond, a knight of the Legion!”
The three of them breathed a sigh of relief, and Leon called out, “Sorry, just have to make sure!”
Edmond ran up to the door while Leon went down to meet him. Fortunately, the squad was still working on the ground-level doors and hadn’t yet started on the wall-level doors, so Leon could let Edmond in.
“You’re injured,” Leon remarked once Edmond entered the tower.
“I am. A fourth-tier Valeman tried to jump over the wall and attack my tower. I came out on top, but many of my men can’t say the same…” Edmond answered, wincing at both the pain of the wound on his chest and from losing his soldiers.
Leon pulled out one of his healing spells and handed it to the knight. “This should help,” Leon said.
“Thanks,” Edmond replied as he applied the spell.
“So, did all the Valemen around your tower leave, too?” Leon asked.
“They did, and I was going to find Jean to see what was happening. I can’t believe the Valemen would just leave like that, after barely an hour of fighting…” Edmond explained.
“It is strange,” Leon replied.
“How’re things here?” Edmond inquired.
“We’re good,” Leon answered. “Another fourth-tier thane attacked, but I surprised him after he opened the door. Managed to kill him. All of my guys are doing fine.”
“That’s good to hear,” Edmond said with a smile.
As they spoke, the healing spell was exhausted and, though Edmond had to move gingerly, he no longer needed to try to keep himself from spilling out through his wound.
“Anyway,” the knight said, “I’m going to the main fort encampment. You should come with, to see what’s happening.”
Leon frowned, but after a moment of thought, nodded. “Hang on,” he said, “let me tell the others here.”
“Don’t take too long,” Edmond said.
Leon quickly informed the squad leader of what he and Edmond were doing—though he referred to it as a ‘scouting the encampment’ rather than looking for Jean—and then he went and did the same with Alix.
“What should I do?” Alix asked.
“Stay here,” Leon answered. “I have a very bad feeling about where those Valemen went, and it would be best for you to stay in the most defensible place you can. A first-tier mage won’t survive long outside if the Valemen have indeed gotten inside the fort…”
Alix frowned, but she understood her own power and the need to stay behind, so she agreed to stay.
Leon went back downstairs to where Edmond was waiting and said, “Let’s go.”
Edmond nodded, and the two left the tower. They ran along the wall in silence for a few seconds, long enough to escape earshot of the people in Leon’s tower.
“So…” Edmond began, his voice wavering slightly, “the main encampment has probably fallen…”
“I figured as much,” Leon said grimly.
“Good. I didn’t want to say so back in your tower, though it seemed you were taking some precautions…”
“Even if the Valemen found a way through the fort, they still need to take the rest of the towers so that we don’t re-fortify the wall and prevent them from going home,” Leon said matter-of-factly.
“Indeed, they can’t afford to leave us behind,” Edmond agreed.
“How many towers are between us and the center?” Leon asked.
“Five,” Edmond answered.
“Let’s hope they’re intact…” Leon said.
Fortunately, when the two arrived at the closest tower, they found a squad of soldiers who, despite being worried and confused, were all fine. The next tower, however, wasn’t so lucky; all the soldiers stationed there were dead. The third tower was the same, only with twenty soldiers instead of only ten.
Leon and Edmond glanced at each other on the way out of the tower. With only two more towers to go, they could see the top of the central tower over the hills and hear a loud commotion from the main encampment, a commotion that those who were left to defend the center couldn’t make by themselves.
“No doubt anymore,” Edmond said, “the Valemen are in.”
“Should we fall back and try to barricade ourselves in a tower, try to wait until reinforcements arrive? Or should we run?” Leon asked.
Edmond’s eyes narrowed as he thought. “Let’s get a little closer to see the situation first…” he muttered.
Leon clenched his jaw, but he nodded. He also subtly started to twist the invisibility ring on his finger and hoped he wouldn’t need to use it.
The Valemen rampaged through the fort’s tents, but given the size of the place, the looting was over less than an hour after Hakon broke through the door.
“So, what now?” Hrorekr asked Hakon.
“We wait for everyone else to assemble, then we crush the rest of the towers,” Hakon growled.
“How long will that take?” Hjalmar asked.
“As long as it needs to,” Hakon said.
In the time he had been sitting and waiting on the wall, one more of his thanes had arrived—the man whose clothes were covered in bells—and most of the Valemen that had been sent to other parts of the wall were lining up to come through the relatively small doors. It was a slow process, moving so many Valemen through, but they were essentially in control of the fort, so they weren’t in too big of a hurry.
“I want a count of how many warriors we still have,” Hakon ordered. “I also want scouts sent out so we know what’s nearby. We’re going to need to find food in the next couple of days, and I want to know where that food is.”
“What about our missing thanes?” Hjalmar asked.
Hakon grimaced. “They… might not have made it,” he said quietly.
“Speaking of which, should I get started on building Eirik and Ulfr’s pyre?” Hrorekr asked. “There’s a few cabins nearby that we can tear down…”
“Do it,” Hakon said bitterly. “We’ll burn them tonight. Use the men who guarded this tower as kindling. Tomorrow, we finish our job here, and destroy the last remaining towers!”
“We need to get back to the towers,” Leon whispered, seeing the thousands of Valemen down in the encampment. He was quietly thankful that he moved all of his irreplaceable items out of Sam’s squad’s tent while he was able, though he felt like he wasn’t going to see most of his clothes ever again, which had been left behind.
“No, Sir Jean may still be around here,” Edmond whispered back.
Leon frowned, but he didn’t press the issue. The two were up on the wall, hiding within the shadows. As they waited, Leon felt a familiar itch as thunder roared in his ears and lightning flashed miles to the south.
“Shit,” muttered Edmond. “If this storm hits us, it will affect our archers, assuming the Valemen don’t wait until it’s over…”
“That storm is coming for us,” Leon said with certainty.
“With the way this battle has gone for us, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re right,” Edmond said.
“Hey, look at that pyre!” Leon said, pointing to the enormous wooden platforms that the Valemen were building from the ruins of the cabins.
“What am I looking for?” Edmond asked. The only thing of note he could see were the Valemen celebrating the seizure of all the spare weapons from the supply cabin.
“Look at the bodies that are being stacked,” Leon directed, pointing to the area beneath the main platforms where the spare wood had been piled.
Edmond followed Leon’s directions and saw that the bodies being piled on top of the wood were men he recognized. In the center of the pile was a figure he recognized as Jean, though it was only by his clothing that Edmond could identify his commander as his skull had been pulverized beyond recognition.
The knight stared in shock, horror, and grief, his mouth agape and his eyes wide and teary.
After giving him a few moments to process, Leon gently said, “We need to get back to the towers we still control. We need to prepare for the Valemen.”
Edmond didn’t respond.
“This funeral will give us some time,” Leon continued, “but we have to use it! We need to leave!”
“I can’t leave him here,” Edmond said quietly. He slowly turned to look at Leon and said remorsefully, “I’m not going back with you, Leon. I have to get to my commander.”
Leon looked back at Edmond in disbelief. His expression alone demanded ‘why?’
“I can’t let him go out like that,” Edmond said, turning his attention back to the pyre.
“… I’m not going with you, if you do this,” Leon said slowly.
“And I’m not asking you to,” Edmond said with a smile. “Go back to the towers, get everyone ready for what’s going to come for them. I’m going to get Jean, and I’ll meet you back there.”
“I think you’re being overly optimistic,” Leon replied.
“Optimism is a good thing,” Edmond said. He was still smiling, but his eyes seemed hollow and hopeless, and they didn’t leave Jean’s body.
“Good luck,” Leon whispered, then he vanished back into the darkness and started making his way back to his tower.
Edmond stared down at the pyre and thought to himself, ‘I’m sorry for wasting your healing spell…’
Then, disregarding all caution, he jumped down from the wall. He walked right up to the encampment, which was still chaotic enough that it took the Valemen a moment to notice when he walked out into the light.
Those around him stared in shock at the Legion soldier that just waltzed out of the darkness. So shocked were they that they barely had the time to react before Edmond had drawn his sword and killed three of them with a single slash.
“A SOUTHERNER IS ATTACKING!” another Valeman bellowed, then he and his comrades fell back and spread out into a circle around Edmond.
“You made a big mistake coming here, moron,” another Valeman said derisively to Edmond.
Edmond, however, just smiled back at the man and lunged forward. Almost faster than the Valeman could blink, Edmond had skewered him upon his sword. The knight then twisted, slicing clean through the Valeman and biting into the flank of the next Valeman in the line.
The rest of the Valemen weren’t going to just stand there, though, and several of them stabbed toward Edmond with their spears and axes, but Edmond twisted out of the way and counter-attacked. The Valemen around him were only of the first and second-tier, so his fourth-tier strength and speed nearly overwhelmed them, and after killing fifteen in less than two minutes, only three were left.
There were far more Valemen among the tents watching, however, and as soon as Edmond finished off the last three of the initial group, more Valemen rushed in to take their place. There were even a few with vicious smiles on their faces as they anticipated the entertainment they’d get from watching the soldier face hundreds of Valemen a handful at a time.
However, before Edmond could move to finish his last three opponents, a wind blade came ripping out of the darkness and sliced his sword arm clean off.
Edmond fell to the ground with a blood-curdling scream, and Hakon stepped out into the light, closely followed by Hjalmar and Hrorekr. They paid no mind to the dead Valemen, as they were from a subordinate tribe—which was another reason why the other Valemen didn’t come in to help, as those watching were all from different tribes.
“You’re brave to come here alone,” Hakon said with cold fury. He didn’t wait for Edmond to reply before he brought his hatchet down upon the knight’s head, just as he’d done to Jean’s. “But it was still a mistake,” Hakon finished.
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