Chapter 237 - Arthwyn's Nightmare

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The acrid stench of smoke filled the air, and Arthwyn could hear the pleading of dying Talfar soldiers in the distance.  Above that, though, he heard the sounds of clattering armor and the beat of battle formations.

Briga was on fire, and the Legions of the new Bull King were pressing further into the city.  Block-by-block they had pushed, seizing the outlying residential districts and the college district in less than three days.  The market district fell the following day, and half of Arthwyn’s eight hundred man battalion had fallen with it.

He could still see the faces of the warriors under his command when he was given the orders to retreat by his Warrior-Chief, a woman named Aeronwen.  His battalion had occupied a caravansary that had been converted into a field hospital, and there weren’t enough litters, carts, or other carrying devices to bring the hundreds of wounded Talfar warriors with them.  To retreat from the hospital would mean abandoning them to the Legions.

Arthwyn had given his orders.  He tried to take every man and woman that he could as he retreated in an attempt to both protect his people and to follow his orders, but carrying the wounded slowed his battalion down, and the Legions caught up.  In the end, the wounded had to be abandoned anyway, and half of Arthwyn’s battalion was dead, dying, or captured trying to prevent it.

Now, the tattered remains of his battalion had linked up with the last few thousand warriors in the city that remained, following the King’s orders to delay the advancing Legions by any means necessary.  The last district that had yet to fall was the noble quarter, which had been walled off from the rest of the city and built upon a hill.  The wall was mostly ceremonial, meant to segregate the nobles and the province’s governor from their lessers, and not actually meant to defend against a determined and organized foe; it was only a matter of minutes, a few hours if they were lucky, before the Bull’s Legions penetrated it and began their final push into Talfar’s last stronghold in Briga.

“I’m sorry about your guys,” Aeronwen whispered to him as they gazed out from the top of the stairs that led up to the governor’s palace.  As she turned her eyes toward him, he was struck with her beauty, as he had been so many times before.  Her eyes were so dark as to be almost black, but when the light caught her in the right way Arthwyn could see within them a hint of green.  Her long auburn hair was pulled back into a tight ponytail, and she had the single blue stripe along the side of her head that signified her descent from the Royal Family.

She was of the highest noble class; not a Princess, she was too far removed from the main royal line for that title, but she was still a distant cousin of the reigning King.  And Arthwyn couldn’t help but love her.  She was captivating, able to speak with confidence about almost anything, and she was intelligent, with her tactical acumen being the only reason why it had taken the Bull’s Legions so long to seize the city in the first place.

But right now, with all the death they’d seen and their enemy almost upon them, Arthwyn couldn’t even bother to be as nervous around her as he usually was.

“It’s my fault,” he quietly replied.  “You ordered us to go, and if I had followed that order from the beginning…”

“We’re going to lose this city,” she stated matter-of-factly, and Arthwyn felt his heart sink into his knees.  “There’s no way around this,” she continued, “any army near enough to come to our aid has been obliterated, and we’re down to six mauled battalions.  The enemy is at the gates, and those gates are weak.”

“We’ll make them pay for every inch with their blood,” Arthwyn vowed.

Aeronwen smiled at that.  Arthwyn was only of the fourth-tier, and the enemies that were arrayed against them not only numbered in the hundreds of thousands, but they even possessed several seventh-tier mages.  Even she was only of the sixth-tier, and she wasn’t feeling so bold.

Still, she chuckled and said, “I think we can do that if all of the rest of our people are as determined as you are.”

Again, she turned her beautiful eyes toward Arthwyn and her almost-perfectly heart-shaped face broke into an unabashed smile.

‘Now or never,’ Arthwyn thought to himself.

“M-my Lady,” he said, the nervousness in his voice finally breaking through his anger, fear, and frustration, “is there… Is there any chance that we…”

She cut him off by placing her finger across his lips.  “Shhh,” she cooed, “Let’s save that conversation for later.  This isn’t really the most… idyllic of circumstances for such talk, is it?”

Her eyes locked onto Arthwyn’s, and he hardly even realized that she had taken a step forward and was almost pressing herself against him, practically shouting at him with her body language that his feelings were reciprocated.

There were a few other Talfar officers around keeping an eye on the assembled warriors formed up around the noble estates, but there was so much going on that few were paying any attention at all to Aeronwen and Arthwyn’s display.

Just before Arthwyn was going to respond, a tremendous crash resounded from the central gate and their moment was over.

Aeronwen instantly switched into commander mode, shouting orders to form up before the main gate several hundred feet in front of the governor’s palace.  The exhausted Talfar soldiers had been resting in formation, so all they had to do was to rise and raise their weapons.  They had no cavalry to speak of and were relying almost entirely on a few thousand pikemen and a handful of archers.  Still, Aeronwen hadn’t the intention to surrender.

Arthwyn, as one of the last surviving commanders, ran forward to take his position at the front of the tattered remnants of the Talfar army.  Just a few months before, they counted in the hundreds of thousands, and now, after the failed invasion of the Bull Kingdom, the last few battalions that could be spared were escorting the King back to Pretani while Arthwyn and his own were expected to die to buy time.

Aeronwen took a position next to Arthwyn.  “We’re going to survive this,” she whispered.

Arthwyn was about to say that he hoped she was right, but he held himself back from saying something so cynical.  Instead, he answered her with, “Yes, we are…”

The gate in front of them shook and trembled with repeated blows.  The wall had no towers, no ramparts, and little else in the way of practical defense, leaving the iron gate the only real obstacle the Bull had to overcome.  The gate only took a few more hits to finally rip free of its struggling hinges and collapse backward.

“Archers!” Aeronwen shouted, and the couple hundred archers they had left loosed their prepared arrows into the hole the gate had made.

However, what was on the other side was a wall of crimson shields, each emblazoned with the eponymous golden bull of the Bull Kingdom.  The arrows bounced off these shields without leaving so much as a single scratch on any of them, and the Legions advanced.  The ground shook beneath their footfalls, and the soldiers behind Arthwyn and Aeronwen began to shake with it.

“Steady!  We can do this!” Aeronwen shouted, trying to strengthen their nerve.

“No, you can’t,” came a deep and rumbling voice from behind the first company of Legion soldiers.  The Legion soldiers halted barely more than fifty feet from the front ranks of the Talfar army, and two men jumped from behind them to land right in front of their shield wall.

The first was a man that Aeronwen knew well.  She’d accompanied the King west and fought against this man several times.  He was tall, but not overly so, and had pitch-black hair, sharp and distinct facial features, and a long straight nose.  His eyes were as black as his hair, and his broad-shouldered armor had been etched with a feather pattern.  The tabard he wore over his chest had been adorned with the sigil of a silver and blue eagle with wings spread.

The second man had similarly black hair, but he was built like an enormous tree, with arms like the ancient branches of a mighty and venerable oak.  He was taller than his comrade, standing at almost seven feet tall, he had a handsome face covered in black stubble, and in his right hand, he held a gigantic single-bladed ax that he balanced over his shoulder.

“This will be the last chance you have to surrender,” the first man said in a much softer and smoother voice than his tall and broad frame implied.  “If you don’t take it, then you will be killed to a man.”

“Why don’t you try it, Kyros, see where that gets you?” Aeronwen shot back.  From her soul realm, she drew a long halberd and pointed the spear-tip at the Archduke.

From his own soul realm, Kyros drew a plain-looking bastard sword that sparked and glittered with currents of silver-blue lightning magic.  “I shall take you up on that challenge, then, my Lady,” Kyros said with a smile.

And then he was upon her.  In a flash of lightning and with thunder resounding in the ears of everyone present, Kyros closed the distance between himself and Aeronwen and got within range of her halberd.  Aeronwen barely had time to react, but she still just barely managed to avoid instant death by twisting her body out of the way.  As it was, Kyros’ sword raked across the side of her ribs, slicing through her armor of enchanted blue scales and cutting through more than half of the layers of linen in her gambeson.

She pivoted and countered with a slash of her halberd, trying to catch Kyros in the back of the knees with her ax-head, but the Archduke only had to take a step back and raise his forward foot, and her weapon tasted nothing but air.

It took a few fractions of a second longer to get her halberd back into position than she would’ve liked, and the lightning mage wasn’t going to waste those moments.  Lightning coursed through his body and he slammed his shoulder into Aeronwen’s body, knocking her to the ground.  Kyros then brought his sword down upon her, but an ice spike burst from the ground which, while almost instantly destroyed by the Archduke’s silver-blue lightning, afforded Aeronwen the time to get out from underneath Kyros and regain her footing.

‘Time to do away with honor,’ she thought.  It was clear that Kyros wasn’t playing around, and she didn’t have any other mages to support her as she did at the Bull’s Horns when last they’d fought.  She shouted to the soldiers behind her, “Charge!!!”

Kyros lifted an eyebrow in surprise, but a quick bolt of lightning that exploded out of his front leg showered the handful of nearby pikemen in smaller arcs of lightning, killing them instantly and dissuading any others from attacking the Archduke.  That didn’t stop them from charging the Legion front lines, though, and in seconds the situation turned from a single one-on-one duel to two formations of soldiers, each with the weight of thousands, crashing into each other.

Aeronwen and Kyros re-engaged each other, but Arthwyn lost sight of them in the melee.  Eager to do his own part and hoping that the death of a high-ranking soldier would give the Legions pause, he charged at Kyros’ comrade, the massive ax-wielder.  He trusted that the soldiers around him could give him enough support to not be immediately killed by this man, but the man quickly proved to Arthwyn how foolish and reckless he had been.

Arthwyn didn’t even see the man move before he felt an indescribable pain in his left shoulder.  It took a moment for his vision to catch up, and when it did Arthwyn saw the man’s ax head buried almost to the haft in his shoulder, his metal and linen armor little more than paper before the strength of his opponent.  With the last shred of rationality that he possessed, Arthwyn tried to slash at the other man with his sword, but his weak blows barely even made a sound against his opponents’ armor.

“NO!” came a terrible screech, and the ax-wielder had to jump back to avoid a barrage of ice spikes, leaving his ax embedded in Arthwyn’s shoulder.

Arthwyn fell to the ground, his vision growing dark.  Every blink seemed to him to last a lifetime, and each time he opened his eyes, dozens more of his countrymen had fallen.  The Talfar pikemen simply couldn’t break the Legion shield wall and were being cut down in droves.

A few faces here and there Arthwyn recognized.  Most of these faces belonged to members of his own battalion.  Ewyas, who had only just gotten married several months before the war began, had been skewered upon a Legion sword.  Meilyr, who had fought alongside Arthwyn since the latter had signed up for the Talfar army, had been nearly decapitated.  Cadwaladr, who Arthwyn remembered as always one of the bravest of his soldiers, who always insisted on being the first to jump into battle, had finally paid the price for his bravery when a Legion shield bash knocked him off his feet and he was trampled to death by both formations as the battle-line shifted.

However, for all that the battle-line shifted as each formation kept pushing against the other, there was one area that was devoid of people, and that was where Aeronwen was furiously battling both Kyros and the man who had left his ax in Arthwyn’s shoulder.  Arthwyn vaguely remembered hearing her call him ‘Trajan’, but he couldn’t focus well enough to accurately recall.

Arthwyn fought to stay conscious, to summon some kind of strength to go and aid his Lady, but his limbs refused to move.  He saw Aeronwen fighting off both of her opponents with quickly-summoned ice spikes, but it was clear enough to everyone else that Trajan and Kyros were just wearing her down and waiting for her to make a mistake.

That mistake came a few moments later when the fatigue of fighting so intensely started catching up to her, and Aeronwen was unable to react to both Kyros and Trajan at the same time.  With a blast of Kyros’ silver lightning, Aeronwen fell to her knees, her body scorched and stunned.  Trajan, after picking up a sword from a fallen Legion soldier, walked over to her and in one swift motion, removed her head.

The Talfar army broke at that moment.  The battle shifted permanently in the Legion’s favor, but Arthwyn didn’t notice.  He could only see the death of his Lady, of the woman he loved more than anything, and then everything went dark.

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Arthwyn awoke to one of his assistants hurriedly shaking him.  Seeing the Marshal’s eyes open, the assistant said in a voice shaking with panic, “My Lord, the Bull is preparing for an attack!  It’s soldiers have assembled at the foot of the hill!”

Arthwyn instantly sat up and gave the order for the soldiers to assemble, the cataphracts to mount up, and the chariots to be deployed.  When the assistant scrambled out of the Marshal’s tent to relay the message, Arthwyn’s left shoulder began to throb.

It had been eighty years since Trajan had left that ax in his shoulder, taken the life of the only woman Arthwyn had ever loved, and slaughtered all of the people Arthwyn had come to know in his first real command.  He’d been recognized as an officer when Briga had finally been taken, and a Legion medic had saved his life.  He was later repatriated to the Talfar Kingdom several months later when the war was over.

And now he was back with a large army, ready to take his revenge.  ‘Are you out there, Trajan?’ Arthwyn wondered.  ‘I hope you are… I have the strength to kill you, now, and I intend to use it…’

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