Over the next couple of weeks, Leon and Alix were allowed to do their own thing for the most part, which mostly consisted of Leon getting the two to stay in their room and train. They were taken around to meet many of Aquillius’ other subordinate diplomats, but that hardly took much out of their day, so there was plenty of time to also explore the city and the citadel.
But, the relatively laidback days quickly came to an end the morning that Aquillius and his team were to depart for the Border Mountains, with Leon and Alix in tow. To that end, the two left their rooms early in the morning, ate a hearty breakfast in the private cafeteria, then made their way over to the neighboring building. They had spent the previous day packing, but since they were only scheduled to be gone for a week at most, their packs were fairly light.
However, Leon had also done some work on cleaning and polishing up his armor, so the black Magmic Steel gleamed in the light of the morning sun. He hadn’t gotten around to doing any more enchanting work on the armor, but he’d made the time to inscribe the bow over his shoulder with three runes forming an enchantment that more than doubled his effective range.
There was a dedicated room on the ground floor of the diplomatic building for gathering a team together before departing. When Leon and Alix arrived, the entire team save for Lucilius had beaten them there. Aquillius was near the front, chatting with Eleanor, Juliana, and Antonius, while their squires and the one hundred-man company that would act as their guards were sitting on the ground and resting up before the mission got underway. Just behind the soldiers were three wheel-less carts loaded with supplies, including the presents that had been bought for the giant chieftains.
“Sir Leon! Miss Alix!” Aquillius called out once he saw the two. Leon walked over and joined the conversing knights, while Alix took a seat next to the other squires.
“Ready for your first diplomatic expedition?” Eleanor asked Leon with an encouraging smile.
“As I’ll ever be,” Leon answered.
“You made it through a Valeman invasion, I think you can handle some reasonably friendly giants,” Antonius said.
“We’re going to get moving as soon as Lucilius arrives,” Aquillius said. “I sent him off to finish a few last bits of paperwork to inform Prince Trajan of our departure, and he should be back shortly.”
Leon guessed the second part of Aquillius’ statement was for his benefit, as he couldn’t imagine the others didn’t know where Lucilius was.
“Is there anything in particular I should be on the watch for in the Border Mountains?” Leon asked.
“Hmm,” Antonius said with a thoughtful expression. “There aren’t a lot of predatory creatures up there, but there is the odd mountain lion and a great many griffins. They rarely mess with humans, so no particular need to watch out for them. The real threat in those mountains are the stone giants, and I’m not expecting them to give us too much trouble.”
Leon nodded, feeling some slight relief. The Frozen Mountains in the north were exceptionally dangerous, being filled with all manner of monstrous beings, and so Leon had long since come to associate mountains with grave danger. Still, he didn’t imagine he’d be getting too much sleep until they returned to the Horns despite Antonius’ assurances.
About fifteen minutes after Leon and Alix arrived, Lucilius returned. As he handed a few papers to Aquillius, all of the resting soldiers and squires got to their feet and started to pick up their packs. Several soldiers tossed their things onto the carts and grabbed a pair of handles on the sides. The giant air runes carved onto the bottom of the carts made them almost trivial to transport, despite their heavy load. However, Leon did note that the soldiers didn’t look too happy to be pushing carts, regardless of how easy it was.
After another couple of minutes, Aquillius turned to the entire group and said, “Let’s get moving!” He then led the knights and their squires out the front door while the soldiers and the carts went out the back.
“Are we not going as one group?” Leon asked curiously, seeing the soldiers departing through a different door.
“The carts won’t fit through the front, and a sixth-tier knight is hardly going to go out the back, is he?” Eleanor whispered.
“We’ll meet up again outside the citadel,” Juliana curtly added.
“The walls extend from here all the way to the Northern Horn, so we’ll be walking across its battlements to reach the Border Mountains,” Lucilius explained.
Leon blinked in confusion and asked, “How big are the walls that they allow for foot traffic?!”
“The last wall is the biggest at seventy feet tall and more than forty wide,” Lucilius answered. “More than wide enough for us to walk across.”
Leon had to agree, thinking to himself, ‘Forty feet wide might as well be a raised road instead of a wall!’
The group made their way through the streets and open baileys of the citadel until they found themselves at the northern gate. As he did upon arrival at the port of Ariminium, he marveled at the tremendous defenses of the Bull’s Horns. The north side of the hill had been sculpted by earth mages into a mesa-like formation, so the group had to pass through two massive portcullises defended by an equally massive gatehouse, across a drawbridge to a tall tower, then take a hard right and over another drawbridge to reach the top of the wall. They had to pass through two additional portcullises in the tower, and another two portcullises in the gatehouse on the wall. Looking back, Leon could see that there weren’t any other gates on the north side of the citadel, leaving that one deathtrap of a route to get past the citadel’s walls.
But, once they were past all those bridges and portcullises, they were on the wall. Unlike the black stone of the palatial keep in the citadel or the whitewashed limestone bricks of the diplomatic building, the entire wall had been constructed out of concrete mixed with volcanic ash. This made it extremely strong, as well as resistant to most fire magic, which was the element of choice for most besieging armies when trying to penetrate walls.
Leon’s previous thought of the wall almost being a raised road wasn’t too off the mark, as there was a clear path made of light grey stone tiles running down the center of the dark grey ramparts for people to walk along. Taking a glance over the east side of the wall, Leon could see the other two walls that formed the border of the Bull Kingdom. There were only about thirty or forty feet between the walls, and each one was shorter than the one directly to its west, allowing each wall to fire down upon the one to its east if an enemy ever managed to seize one of them. Leon also noted battlements on both sides of the ramparts in case an enemy were to gain access to the area between the walls, as well as small machicolations for archers to shoot anyone at the foot of the wall.
“This place really has been fortified…” Leon said.
Hearing him, Antonius said, “Of course it has! What you see is the cumulative efforts of more than a thousand years of hard work! I don’t think there’s a Kingdom in Aeterna who could make it past these walls!”
“Careful there, buddy,” Lucilius cautioned, “saying such a definitive thing all but guarantees that our defenses will be breached!”
“Since when were you so superstitious? Oh, don’t look now, Luc, but I think I see a cracked mirror!” Antonius sarcastically responded.
The group continued on, walking the entire five-mile length of the wall in about an hour and a half. They passed through dozens of towers that doubled as gatehouses and Leon saw that there were thousands of men on the wall—the Legion clearly wasn’t understaffing this place as they had at Fort 127.
The Northern Horn was much the same as the Southern Horn, only without the city. The main castle was up on a large hill close to the mountains sculpted into a mesa, and within its gigantic walls were more than a dozen baileys forming what might as well have been a small city by itself. From what little he could see of it as Aquillius’ group passed through, the only thing that was missing from the Northern Horn that the Southern Horn had was the titanic palatial keep and the diplomatic building.
By noon, the group had made it all the way to the western gates of the Northern Horn. Leaving the northern half of the fortress was just as much of a chore as entering the Southern Horn had been, with multiple portcullises, gatehouses, and drawbridges, as well as a long concrete ramp down to the plain between the Horns, interspersed with yet more gatehouses. But, once they were through, they were finally close enough to the Border Mountains for Leon and Alix to get a good look at them.
Immediately, Leon found some of his assumptions being challenged, as the Border Mountains barely resembled the Frozen Mountains that he knew so well. Instead of great boulders, immense lumps of earth, snowy peaks, and the occasional mountain forest, the Border Mountains were comprised of millions of towering hexagonal basalt pillars. Most were fused and twisted together, forming steep cliffs and deep crevices.
The group halted near the bottom of the ramp and waited for the supplies and Antonius’ company of soldiers to catch up. Fortunately, they only had to wait for a few minutes before the carts and soldiers appeared on the road heading toward the ramp.
“Is everyone here?” Antonius asked the company Centurion, who responded in the affirmative. “Good, then get those supplies off the carts and let’s get into those mountains!”
The soldiers grumbled a little about being used as pack mules, but they did as ordered and started to unload the carts and carry everything themselves. The carts were left at a Legion post house near the ramp and the group started walking into the mountains.
They barely walked a quarter mile before the dirt and grass beneath Leon’s feet gave way to the hexagonal basalt pillars, which were short enough to almost be steps leading upward. However, there was a large amount of winding the group had to do in order to keep going, as there were many taller pillars forming sheer cliffs that blocked their way.
An hour into their trek, they entered the mountains themselves. There was some dirt here and there with weeds and grass, but for the most part, the only thing that could be seen were black pillars. Their path was rough and narrow, only allowing for one person to continue at a time in many places. More often than he cared to count, Leon had to proceed with one shoulder pressed up against a cliff, and the other hanging over the dark abyss of a deep crevice.
Eventually, the group arrived at the top of a mountain where the pillars formed a reasonably flat surface and stopped. Leon noticed six particularly large pillars on the rim of the mountaintop that didn’t look natural.
Seeing Leon walk up to one for examination, Aquillius said, “This is where we’re meeting the giants. It’s a meeting place they established to be neutral ground and is actually where we met for our first talks.”
“I thought these looked a little out of place,” Leon said as he reached out and lightly touched one of the large pillars.
Just as his fingers brushed up against the pillar, the group heard a deep rumbling coming from somewhere in the cliffs further down the mountain. For a moment, Leon thought that he had accidentally caused something to happen, especially when, several minutes later, the ground began to shake. He quickly stepped back away from the pillar and started to look around with a not insignificant amount of panic, but he quickly calmed himself when the diplomats seemed completely unfazed.
“The stone giants are coming,” Aquillius said, casting his gaze down the mountain at a specific rocky passage between the cliffs.
Leon followed his eyes and saw, emerging from the crevice, six stone giants appear.
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