“Your Lordship sees them, don’t you?” a middle-aged Warrior-Chief asked Marshal Arthwyn.
Arthwyn smiled as he glanced at the sixth-tier officer. The man had been his subordinate for more than twenty years, and they trusted each other greatly; Arthwyn never would’ve tolerated such a patronizing question, otherwise.
“Of course I fucking see them,” Arthwyn whispered. He didn’t want any of his other subordinates or the lower-ranked warriors around them to hear him breaking the air of dignity he carefully surrounded himself with by swearing, and neither did he want to undermine his or his subordinate’s authority by joking around so openly.
Unfortunately, someone he very much did not want listening in was standing close to the door flap of the command tent he and his subordinate were standing in front of and overheard his whisperings.
“What are you two talking about so sneakily?” asked a tall and inhumanly pale man as he pushed open the flap of the tent and sauntered outside.
Everything about this man rubbed Arthwyn the wrong way. His hungry pitch-black eyes lingered unblinkingly far too long on everyone he looked at, his skin was so pale as to be nearly translucent, and whenever he smiled, he never showed his teeth. Even when he spoke, he did so with the minimum of lip movements needed to clearly speak.
What was more concerning, however, was that he plainly refused to use the same blue warpaint as every other soldier in the Talfar Kingdom’s army, symbolically separating himself from the hundreds of thousands of soldiers that now camped just beyond the vale that the Bull Kingdom had seized in the last war between their two Kingdoms.
This was Marshal Bran, and it was something of an open secret among the highest levels of the Talfar Kingdom’s ruling class that he was a vampire. Normally, it would be Arthwyn’s duty to destroy the creature before him—and the Marshal would be only too happy to do so if only to see the arrogant smirk omnipresent on Bran’s gaunt face wiped away—but Bran was a seventh-tier mage, one of the strongest mages within all of Talfar. What’s more, he had pledged himself both to Queen Andraste and to her father, the previous monarch, before her. So long as he moderated himself when it came to making the occasional peasant disappear and remained a loyal supporter of the crown, the Queen and the previous King seemed to be content to let him live.
Arthwyn didn’t want to answer his fellow Marshal, but his subordinate didn’t pick up on this, as the sixth-tier Warrior-Chief said, “The Bull’s Legions are garrisoning Florentia.”
“Well we’re not just going to let them have that place, are we?” Bran said, his ashen face twisting in a provocative smirk as his gaze landed upon Arthwyn.
“Of course not,” Arthwyn replied with a dismissive tone as if the question never needed asking. “If we let the Bull have Florentia, then we can’t remove his Horns without being struck from behind by those in the city.”
“And yet you aren’t moving against them,” observed Bran.
“Not yet,” Arthwyn testily responded. “I’m waiting for my scouts to return with a more detailed report of what the Bull is doing!”
“And in doing so, you’re allowing them to dig in deeper,” Bran said, his smirk growing into a full-fledged closed-mouth smile.
“What are you getting at?” Arthwyn demanded.
Bran stared at Arthwyn with his smile on his face for several long moments before stating, “If you will not go and dislodge the Bull from Florentia, then I will.”
Arthwyn had to fight not to snort in disdain at Bran’s recklessness, but he didn’t say anything to stop the Marshal.
‘If that monster wants to throw himself upon the Bull, then let him be gored upon its horns,’ Arthwyn thought to himself with a smile.
Florentia almost vibrated with the sound of the horn from the city’s main road. The horn itself wasn’t particularly deep or intimidating, but everyone knew what it meant: the warriors of the Talfar Kingdom were on the move.
From his spot at one of the highest points in the city, Trajan could see the dust kicked up by thousands of horsemen charging across the plain. He could even see quite a few of them, though they were still several miles away.
Trajan hadn’t deployed the sixth-tier knights that he’d brought with him. He only had a small handful and he wanted them where they could help the most. So, the Prince stared at the oncoming Talfar cavalry and quickly estimated their number to be around twenty or twenty-five thousand. Then, just as quickly, he made a few guesses as to what parts of Florentia they were going to attack based on how they were spreading out and deployed his Legates accordingly.
Of course, his force of five thousand soldiers wasn’t going to keep out so many Talfar warriors, but he didn’t need to. He wanted to draw the Talfar response force into the cramped streets of Florentia where their mobility was limited and their numbers meant much less than out in the open. It was a battlefield that greatly favored the heavy infantry that the Bull Kingdom focused so much on, giving his quarter-Legion a huge advantage.
More than that, however, was the need to give the civilians more time to board the ships and set sail for Ariminium. Talfar hadn’t the ability to damage the ships on the river, especially not since they had no experience at all with naval warfare, so all Trajan and his soldiers needed to do was to hold out for a few hours.
It was with this strategy in mind that Trajan sent out all but two of his sixth-tier knights. He still had Leon and a dozen or so fifth-tier knights, but the vast majority of his fighting potential was sent to the front lines.
The Tribune commanding the battalion at the main road was grateful for the two Legates Trajan sent his way, especially since they specifically told him they weren’t there to usurp his authority over his battalion upon their arrival. Instead, they were there to counter any high-tiered mages that would probably take part in the assault on the Legion’s position.
They got to the Tribune’s position just in time, as well, as not even five minutes later, the Talfar cavalry rode in close enough for even the first and second-tiered mages in the shield wall to lay eyes upon them.
Thousands of men and horses, glittering with brightly polished plate armor and gaudy blue trappings, screaming and roaring as they came closer and closer to the Legion lines. Many of the Legion soldiers couldn’t help but tremble as the cacophonous horde advanced, but the presence of their comrades at their sides made desertion impossible.
“Raise shields!” the Tribune bellowed as the Talfar horde drew within fifteen hundred feet. In seconds, what few Legion soldiers in their formation that hadn’t already done so raised their shields and prepared themselves. They had to put their trust in their friends and equipment if they were to live through this, but they knew that everyone else was relying upon them as well.
The ground began to shake as the masses of horses thundered toward them. The Talfar cavalry had spread out a great deal as they advanced toward Florentia, but since the Legion shield walls were spread out among the houses and the ground was soft and marshy so close to the Tyrrhenian River, the charge had to be slowed considerably and a new formation taken.
The Tribune saw most of the riders come to a halt about a thousand feet away. A few continued their advance, only in a thinner column that would smash into the biggest Legion force at the main entrance, while a few other smaller cavalry squads peeled off to attack the other nearby city entrances.
The main Talfar column was led by a water mage and two earth mages, from what the Tribune could tell, and they were making sure that the ground in front of the column was stable enough for the charging horses behind them. But, the Legion had had about an hour to prepare for the Talfar attack and had anticipated this slower pace the Talfar cavalry was forced to take.
There was a dull orange flash of light beneath the hooves of the twelve-horse-wide column, and a second later, a fiery explosion ripped through their front lines like a hot knife through butter, instantly blunting the charge.
“Now!” the Tribune shouted, and a company of archers he’d spread out over the rooftops of nearby buildings nocked and loosed their arrows at the Talfar cavalry. Eight hundred feet was just within the range of Legion bows, and the mine they had just run over signaled that the enemy cavalry had reached that distance, but Talfar cataphract armor was thick and nearly immune to arrows.
But that wasn’t the Tribune’s intent. As the arrows landed among the Talfar cataphracts, more explosions began to tear chunks out of their lines. Additional mines had been hidden out in the marshy plain to the east of Florentia, and yet more fire spells had been affixed to the first arrows of the Legion archers.
The Tribune watched in glee as many cataphracts pulled back in disorganized groups in fear of the fire, but there were just as many who charged instead, intending to get in too close for the Legion archers to use that attack again.
But they needn’t have bothered, as all of the fire spells the Tribune’s battalion had been given were used in that first salvo. From now on, his archers would have to use regular arrows. And they did with little hesitation, firing arrows as fast as they could, but to little effect against the heavy cavalry charging at them.
At one entrance that was only guarded by about fifty Legion soldiers, a mass of several hundred cataphracts almost smashed right into the Legion shield wall, but less than twenty feet away from the first line of Legion soldiers, a wall of stone spikes burst from the ground and skewered many of the charging cataphracts. All of the others were forced to stop, as even the most highly trained horse will still refuse to charge into a wall of spikes. Still, a handful of cataphracts were killed, the rest were stopped, and the entrance had been sealed until a Talfar mage could rip through it.
The Tribune watched a similar encounter happen at another road, only the Legate who had run over there used ice instead.
‘The Prince is wise,’ the Tribune thought to himself with a smile. ‘He sent two mages who can block and barricade roads leading into the city with magic to the area of the city with the most roads leading in…’
After blocking the cataphracts at those two places, the Legates moved to assist other Legion soldiers in neighboring areas. The Tribune thus felt secure turning his attention back to the main road, where the Talfar cavalry had managed to douse the flames and rally together for another charge, despite the Legion archers still pelting them with arrow fire.
This new charge quickly formed up again and charged at full tilt at the Legion shield wall blocking the main entrance of the city. From below, the Tribune could hear his Centurions urging the rest of their companies to stay calm and stay in formation. He didn’t see even a single soldier try to break away and run out of fear, even though hundreds of cataphracts were barreling toward them with their lances extended.
Four hundred soldiers were in the main shield wall. No sane person would’ve ever thought they could withstand the full weight of thousands of heavily armored mounted Talfar soldiers crashing into them.
But they did. The Talfar cataphracts crashed into the front line of the shield wall lance first, and the wall held. There were a few ripples here and there, but the enchanted shields that the Legion took so much pride in did their jobs and turned the shield wall into an almost impregnable fortress.
The cataphracts crushed themselves against the shield wall, and those behind them couldn’t stop in time to prevent themselves from running over their comrades and smashing into each other. They’d thought the shield wall would break, but it held firm.
In the confusion and disorder, the front rank of the shield wall shimmered as the soldiers pulled their shields back just enough to stab forward into the cataphracts as they fell or were thrown off their mounts by the crushing weight of so many behind them. In an instant, dozens of cataphracts were killed or severely injured, with the Legion soldiers rapidly stabbing into the gaps of the vulnerable cataphracts’ armor. Before the Talfar cataphracts could exploit this momentary lowering of the shield wall, the front rank snapped back into formation with their shields up.
With nowhere else to go, the cataphracts in the back were forced to pull back to relieve the pressure on those in the front. The first charge was an abject failure, leaving around five hundred cataphracts dead. But this was an insignificant number compared to the thousands of cavalrymen that remained, and they didn’t run away. Instead, they rallied again to prepare another charge, while other units spread out to surround the city.
Still, the Tribune couldn’t help but smile. Casualties on his side were light, though not nonexistent, but such a victory created numerous more roadblocks that the cataphracts would have to find a way past if they wanted to penetrate into the city, from the mound of corpses that they had left behind in front of the shield wall to the spikes that both Legates had created to block the other roads leading in and out of the city.
What the Tribune didn’t know was that the real assault had already slipped past him while he was distracted with the battle.
A reasonable distance behind the shield wall, the gray-skinned Bran literally stepped out of the shadows, with inky black darkness rising out of him like smoke. He glanced back at the shield wall blocking his cavalry from entering the city, but he didn’t once entertain the thought of fighting them.
No, that wasn’t where his interest lay. He’d leave the leading of his soldiers to his immediate subordinates; he never considered himself particularly skilled or talented at tactics, anyway.
Instead, his interest was the brief glimpse he got of a figure standing atop a hill hundreds of feet back from the front line.
‘Trajan…’ the vampire thought, his fanged mouth opening in a vicious smile that he never showed anyone. ‘I’m coming for you, Prince…’
Thank you to my Seventh-tier patrons:
Efflorescence - Kyle J Smith
Please visit Royal Road and leave a rating or review!
Patreon (Up to 30 chapters ahead)