Leon sprinted back west along the wall, over the hills and through the towers filled with dead soldiers, until he reached the closest tower to his own.
“What happened? Where’s Sir Edmond?” asked the squad leader in charge of the tower once Leon entered.
“… He stayed behind, to attack the Valemen,” Leon hesitantly said.
The squad leader stared at Leon and his subordinates had to hold in their panic at the loss of one of the only fourth-tier soldiers in the fort.
“Why… why would he do that? Did you do something?!” the squad leader asked accusingly.
Leon didn’t take the question too seriously, as he could see how affected the soldiers were at the news. “I didn’t do anything to warrant him staying behind to let me escape, if that’s what you’re asking,” Leon stated in an even tone. “Sir Jean was killed, and I think Sir Edmond lost all hope when he saw that. It wasn’t until he saw Sir Jean’s body that Sir Edmond made the decision to stay and attack the Valemen.”
“Sir Jean…” the squad leader whispered in horror. He staggered back a step and had to lean against a table to stay upright. “What… what do we do now?” he asked quietly, his accusatory tone directed at Leon long gone.
Leon took a deep breath and looked around at the hopeless and dejected faces of the ten soldiers in the tower. “We keep doing what we’ve been doing,” Leon said simply.
“We’re going to be killed if we do that!” shouted one of the soldiers.
“If you’re telling us to stay here, you can fuck yourself! I’m not going to stay here and wait for the Valemen to come and kill us all!” shouted another as he made for the door.
[If you don’t stop that one, you’re going to have a serious problem,] Xaphan observed.
[I know,] Leon responded. [If I let one go, none will stay…]
Leon released his killing intent and halted the soldier in his tracks. However, the tone he struck was conciliatory and reassuring, or rather, as conciliatory and reassuring as Leon could be. “I’m not saying we stay here. The soldiers were spread out among every tower along the wall to try and keep the Valemen from breaching it at any point. Well, the wall has been breached and the Valemen are in, so we don’t need to spread ourselves so thin.”
“What are you saying?” the squad leader asked. He was only of the second-tier, so he wasn’t going to argue with Leon much even if the news Leon had brought back weren’t so crushing.
“I’m saying we should gather as many of the soldiers that are left alive into one tower,” Leon said passionately. “We take as many supplies as we can, bar the doors, and prepare for a siege. The Valemen won’t leave us here to patch the breach and dig in while they’re off raiding; if they do that, they’d only be caught between us and whatever force is assembled to fight them. No, they’re going to come for us, so we need to prepare!”
“How many men do you think are left?” one soldier asked.
“Not sure, but as many as a couple hundred,” Leon answered. “Potentially everyone to the west of my tower!” The fort had been built to be staffed by thousands of soldiers, even though Count Whitefield only allowed five hundred to be stationed there, so there had been plenty of towers for the small garrison to spread into.
“A couple hundred might be a bit of a squeeze,” one soldier mentioned as he glanced around at the tower. It could comfortably hold dozens of people if need be, but two hundred was definitely pushing it.
“We’ll make do,” Leon said with a shrug. “If we need to hold two or three towers, then so be it. But, we need to link up with other units if we’re going to survive.”
“… Makes sense,” the squad leader said quietly. “All right! Then we’ll follow you to your tower! Everyone, pack up any arrows, food, and water that you can find!”
Leon patiently waited for a few minutes while the soldiers scrambled to collect all the critical supplies they’d need, then found ways to carry them. He even offered to carry some of it.
“We can always come back later,” Leon said, looking at one soldier who was carrying so much he was practically hunched over.
“I guess, but I’d personally rather to get this done in one trip so we don’t have to,” the squad leader admitted.
Leon shrugged. “Everyone ready?” he asked. They all were, but he only asked out of politeness. When they all nodded back to him, he smiled and said, “Then let’s go!”
Leon picked up his own pack of supplies and left the tower, leading everyone west.
The people in his tower were a little surprised to see a squad of soldiers appear on the wall, but with Leon in the lead with his unmistakable armor, no one was shot, and Alix came downstairs to meet them. Leon filled her in on what happened as he put down the supplies he was carrying. As he spoke, both squad leaders came over and listened in.
“… so it would be ideal if someone could go to the other towers and have them come back here,” Leon said. “And, it would be probably be most ideal if that person were myself.”
“I agree,” said the squad leader who followed Leon from his tower.
“As do I,” agreed the other squad leader.
“If you’re leaving again, I’m going with,” Alix said with determination.
Leon thought for a moment, then nodded. “I doubt there’s going to be any Valemen in our way, but if any appear that are third-tier or above, you are to retreat to the nearest inhabited tower.”
Alix nodded her agreement.
“Good, then we should get going right now. We don’t know when the Valemen might attack, after all.”
“Our numbers are around nineteen-thousand,” Hjalmar reported to Hakon.
The great chief was silent for a moment, letting that number sink in. “So we lost almost ten thousand warriors in our assault?” he asked solemnly.
“Hmmm, you’re not wrong, but I’d guess only six or seven thousand were actually killed or wounded. The rest of our missing warriors just deserted after witnessing the massacre, I’m sure,” Hrorekr added.
“Their loss is our gain, once we move on to the proper raid,” Hjalmar said with a smile.
Hrorekr let out a deep contented sigh as he leaned back in the cot he was laying in. “What are you two going to do with your loot once we get home?” he asked.
Hjalmar smiled and said, “I’m going to present my wife with slaves that can do her work for her. She spends all day weaving silkgrass, so her hands are more callused than a carpenter’s.”
“Not a bad idea,” said Hakon. “Personally, I will make a tribute to the Sky Mother and her Thunderbirds.”
“You would give away a portion of your silver and slaves to the priests?” Hjalmar asked.
“We must honor her, and our fallen friends,” Hakon replied. “We must show her why we had to send so many into her embrace, to show her that their sacrifice wasn’t in vain, that we accomplished what we set out to do.”
Hjalmar frowned, but Hrorekr said, “I’m not so sure about paying the priests that didn’t want to accompany us south, but Hakon is right, the Sky Mother must be honored. She is more even-tempered than our wrathful Mountain Father, but he will only kill you; she will damn you for eternity.”
“What about the families of our fallen?” Hjalmar asked. “Will they get a portion?”
“Yes,” Hakon answered. “Even if I must give up all of my treasures, those who gave us their sons, daughters, fathers, and mothers so we could come south, and will never see them again, shall at least see Southern silver.”
“Well, then,” said Hjalmar as his frown turned into a smile, “maybe we ought to get started on getting that silver?”
“What are you suggesting?” asked Hrorekr.
Hjalmar sat up from his own cot and paced a little as he thought. “There are only, what, a hundred Southerners left here? We don’t need nineteen-thousand warriors to stamp them out! Let’s have half of our warriors kill the remaining Southerners, and then have the other half raid the closest villages! We can seize food, silver, and slaves all while we secure our way back home!”
Hakon frowned. “Stamping out the rest of the people here is the priority but send out a few thousand raiders. Make sure they know to bring back food above all else. Beyond that, we’re going to have one hell of a time taking those towers tomorrow, so we’re going to need most of our warriors to concentrate on that.”
“What’s the plan?” Hjalmar asked.
“Start in the east, then work our way west.”
“Why in the east?” Hrorekr asked.
“Flatter terrain, which means more towers with Southerners. Less Southerners in the west, so we can safely ignore them for the time being.”
With their strategy set, Hakon and his two thanes relaxed and went to sleep. Hakon’s last surviving thane finished funneling the Valemen through the open doors of the wall an hour later and joined them. All nineteen thousand Valemen were now south of the wall.
“Only fifty soldiers…” Alix muttered as she and Leon watched a squad of soldiers barricade the doors and another squad fortify other parts of their tower.
Leon frowned. He’d hoped that the other towers would’ve had more soldiers to assemble, but it seemed that several of the towers to the west were considered so low risk that they weren’t even staffed; given that only fourth-tier mages and up could get over the wall, he understood assigning the soldiers to places where they were more needed, but he couldn’t help lamenting Jean’s distribution of manpower in his current situation.
Making matters worse, many of the towers to the west were attacked by hunting tribes that were more used to the rougher terrain, and which had a higher than usual number of archers. This led to the soldiers in the western towers taking significantly more casualties to Valeman counter-fire than Leon’s group had.
“It is what it is,” Leon said with resignation. “Now, we can only do what we can with what we have. Our tower is on a hill and has four floors, including the roof. All but the ground floor has arrow loops and all of our doors are being barricaded. We can hold out for a long time.”
“We only have enough supplies to last three days,” Alix countered.
“Then we’re going to have to ration,” Leon replied. “Jean’s estimation yesterday was that the Consul of the North would be able to bring three Legions to reinforce us within a week. We’re going to have to make those supplies last.”
“That’s a long time to wait with thousands of Valemen out there and only fifty of us in here,” Alix mentioned.
Leon frowned again. He slowly started walking up the spiral stairs leading to the roof, as he could still feel the storm coming. “We will hold out as long as we can,” he said quietly. “Not much else we can do. Fifty soldiers will be slaughtered out in the open. This tower will be our only hope of survival.”
“I…” Alix began, but then she caught herself. She could hear the pessimism and argument in her voice with only a single syllable, so she waited a moment before speaking again. “I understand,” she said.
“Let’s get some rest. It’s been a long night, and I doubt the Valemen will wait for tomorrow night to attack us again, not with their advantage in numbers,” Leon said, stopping at the room he and Alix used to train in. The two collapsed into their cots, as had about a couple dozen other soldiers. There was only enough room for two squads to work on fortifications at a time, and with a third squad keeping watch on the roof, that let two squads rest at a time.
It was dark the next morning. Storm clouds still covered the sky and lightning was striking the surrounding mountains with increasing frequency. The clouds were so thick that it was almost impossible to tell that the sun had risen.
Leon and Alix slept in a little, but suddenly, Leon was awoken by Xaphan’s voice resounding from his soul realm.
[Wake up! Leon! Wake up!] the demon shouted.
Leon shot up and wildly looked around the tower room, his hand reaching for his sword. [What is it?] he asked groggily.
[It’s the storm. It’s coming now, you need to get up to the roof!]
Leon was disturbed by the sudden awakening that he didn’t even question how Xaphan knew the storm was coming, but he trusted his partner. He bolted up the stairs, waking Alix up at the same time.
“What is it?” she asked with some panic, but Leon didn’t answer.
Instead, he startled the squad on the roof when he burst out onto the roof and whipped his helmet off.
“What’s wrong?!” the startled squad leader asked.
“… It’s raining,” Leon said calmly as a few drops of rain fell upon his cheek.
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