The deck of the flagship was silent on the quick cruise back into Ariminium’s port. Out of the twelve Tribunes and three Legates that Trajan had taken with him on the mission, five Tribunes and one Legate had been killed, while the rest had no shortage of injuries. Fortunately, both he and Leon had little more than superficial injuries. What was more, there were at least eight hundred casualties in the four battalions that Trajan had taken on the mission, with more than a quarter of those being fatalities. The Prince fully expected those numbers to rise as the Tribunes in charge of those battalions finished their headcounts.
All in all, they had endured a savage beating from the Talfar army for little gain. Initial estimates put the Talfar casualties at higher than theirs, but not high enough to justify the expedition—not that Trajan particularly cared about the number of enemy dead when so many of his own soldiers had been killed.
And worse, Bran was still alive. Killing him was the entire point of the mission, and in that respect, it was an abysmal failure.
No one spoke much more than necessary on the way back to Ariminium.
Alix, Anzu, and the rest of the knights’ squires were waiting at the docks. They hadn’t a place in the shield wall or as part of the mission to kill a seventh-tier mage, so they were left behind to ensure their safety. The sixteen squires were incredibly tense as they waited for their knights to return, and that tension only seemed to grow as the solemn ships returned.
There were a few relieved cries when some of the squires saw their knights alive and well, and a few tears shed when the squires of the dead knights realized that their mentors were gone. When Leon got off the ship, his helmet in hand, Alix noticed his dark and slightly murderous expression breaking through his usual stoic exterior.
“… It didn’t go well, then?” she hesitantly asked.
Len simply shook his head. He couldn’t say anything, because he felt that if he did, he’d spend the next few hours cursing Bran. The vampire had been right there in front of him, but the monster had still escaped after bloodying his hands, despite everything the Legion had done to kill him.
However, for all the rage that Leon didn’t manage to restrain, Trajan was even worse. He radiated killing intent like the sun produced light, and he wore an expression on his face that parted the crowds before him like a herd of sheep before a charging bull. The Prince was in a similar situation to Leon, being unwilling to speak for fear of being unable to stop himself from shouting and swearing and cursing Bran, so after clapping a few of his knights on the shoulder and waiting for the bodies of the dead to be unloaded from the ships, he swiftly departed for the Southern Horn.
Leon, Alix, and Anzu followed. Anzu was ecstatic at Leon’s return, and the young knight almost had to shake the quickly-growing griffin off of him in order to walk. Anzu’s head now reached just past Leon’s hip, and he weighed a lot more than he appeared to; Leon didn’t want to be knocked down by a happy griffin trying to express his affection by jumping all over him, especially after such a costly loss.
And so, the three walked in silence behind the Prince, with Alix dying to know what had happened and Anzu happily bouncing along and rubbing his head on Leon’s hand, completely ignoring the somber atmosphere of the rest of the knights and Legion soldiers that followed behind them.
The battle between the 21st Legion and the Talfar cavalry was a bloody, grinding mess. Thousands on both sides had already fallen, and neither had gained much for that sacrifice.
Arthwyn watched with a sour look from his chariot as his cataphracts began another charge against the Legion shield wall. When the battle had begun, he’d eagerly had his chariot driven up and down the lines, looking for wherever Trajan was. Several times Arthwyn had traveled those few miles, never catching a glimpse of the Prince he so despised. He refused to believe that Trajan wouldn’t be a part of this battle. There was no way, Arthwyn had thought, that a Prince like Trajan would send his soldiers out to die while he hid behind the walls of Ariminium.
It wasn’t until he received word of the separate Legion force led by the Prince deployed further south outside of Florentia that he settled down. Of course, by that time his forces had been committed and both sides had already started clashing. He couldn’t just abandon it and drive his forces against Trajan’s battalions—the army was actually large enough that it was conceivably possible, but the peasant levies were untrained and couldn’t be relied upon to break the professional Legion soldiers, his cavalry was needed to fight against the 21st Legion, and he didn’t want to have his own infantry assault a Legion shield wall if he had a choice in the matter.
He was forced to leave it to Bran’s own force of fifty-ish thousand to deal with Trajan, and he wasn’t happy about it.
The battle had been raging for half an hour, a short period of time for a set-piece battle. The Talfar cavalry had been giving as good as they’d gotten, and if things continued the way they had been going, then the Legion would be forced to retreat back behind their walls. The Talfar army’s sheer weight in numbers would be enough to carry them through to the win.
But just as Arthwyn was about to swap out his cataphracts for his chariots again, a messenger arrived from Florentia.
“Your Lordship!” the young fifth-tier soldier shouted in greeting.
“What?” Arthwyn growled, his anger rising at the distraction.
“The Legion has been repulsed from Florentia! Lord Bran has pushed them back!”
“And Prince Trajan?” Arthwyn asked, his eyes narrowing and his killing intent spiking.
“Unfortunately, he escaped, my Lord,” the messenger replied.
‘That incompetent bastard let that man go?!’ Arthwyn silently raged, barely managing to keep himself from shouting it out loud. It would only sow discontent and divide the army if he were to so publicly disparage a fellow Marshal, and for all his desire to kill Trajan, Arthwyn still managed to hold onto his discipline.
“And what of Marshal Bran? What state is he in that he could not stop the enemy’s retreat?” Arthwyn asked, phrasing his previous thought in a more diplomatic way.
“The Marshal has been… gravely wounded,” the messenger replied. He quickly went into specifics after enduring Arthwyn’s withering gaze for several long and excruciating seconds.
As the messenger was speaking, Arthwyn’s gave the slightly-delayed signal to switch out the cataphracts for the chariots, but as the cataphracts pulled back to make room for the chariots, a loud horn blast came from behind the Legion lines. The Legion immediately began to fall back in an exceptionally orderly fashion, with each battalion covering the others with their archers, and the defense towers remaining vigilant.
Arthwyn stared at the retreating Legion soldiers and briefly contemplated running them down. However, he wasn’t in a position to deal with the towers quite yet, especially since some were up on hills that had been partially flattened into artificial cliffs, preventing easy assaults from the front.
‘No,’ Arthwyn thought, ‘I won’t pursue. Not much point without Trajan… Besides, my people have taken casualties, best to give them some rest…’
The order to fall back was given, and the Talfar cavalry began to pull back to their camp. The site of the battle was marked by the bodies of four thousand dead soldiers.
“This is where he’s been staying for the past few days?” Owain asked Bran’s assistants outside of the villa that the Marshal had occupied in Florentia. Arthwyn’s cavalry were busy reorganizing, tending to their wounded, and retrieving their dead, as were the Legion soldiers. There would be no more fighting for the next couple of hours, at least, so both Arthwyn and the Prince had quickly driven their chariots down to Florentia to check on Bran, to see for themselves if his injuries were as serious as they’d heard.
“Yes, Your Highness,” Bran’s head assistant replied.
The villa wasn’t that large, and both Owain and Arthwyn knew that Bran had to have noticed their arrival. That he hadn’t come outside to greet them showed just how terrible his injuries were. Or how insubordinate he had decided to be, neither honestly knew which it was.
Without another word, Owain led the way inside with Arthwyn just behind him and a few other high ranking Warrior-Chiefs behind the Marshal. However, before the assistant opened the door for the Prince, Owain turned to the rest and said, “Perhaps it’s best for the Marshal and I to proceed by ourselves?”
Arthwyn cocked an intrigued eyebrow, but he otherwise remained quiet. Both he and Owain knew exactly what Bran was, and though the others probably suspected, they likely didn’t know for sure. To associate with a vampire wasn’t a good look, and since the injured Bran had been left alone with several medics—medics who hadn’t come outside in more than an hour—Owain thought it best to leave the others outside. He didn’t know what they would find, and he preferred to maintain some level of discretion in this matter.
The reactions of the Warrior-Chiefs varied from confusion to slight offense to anger, but none of them argued with the Prince. They all hung back as Owain and Arthwyn entered the villa.
The two were immediately assaulted with the metallic stench of blood. They could hear a few whimpers coming from a nearby room, and a heavy sense of dread settled into Owain’s stomach.
Owain and Arthwyn exchanged a knowing look, neither particularly wanting to proceed but knowing that they should, nonetheless.
The first thing both saw when they entered the room where the whimpering had come from was a young man, his dress indicating that he was one of the medics assigned to deal with Bran’s injuries, laying on the floor covered in surprisingly little blood given what had happened to him. His eyes were glassy, and his shirt had been torn, displaying the chunk of flesh that had been torn from his throat; he was obviously dead.
Three more of his comrades were scattered around the trashed room, one hung over the arm of a broken couch, another nailed to the marble floor with the leg of a wooden chair, and the last hanging upside down from the ceiling by a rope tied around his ankle. All were just as bloody as the first man. More shocking was the two Talfar soldiers there as well. One, who Arthwyn recognized as Bran’s second-in-command, a sixth-tier Warrior-Chief, was sprawled on the ground with wounds far more vicious and savage than the others; one of his arms had been nearly ripped off his shoulder, his eyes were clawed out, and his throat ripped open. The second soldier was lying in a pile of broken furniture, his body more broken than the splinters of the chair and table he had fallen upon.
Despite all of the terrible injuries each person had suffered, there was very little blood, but neither Owain nor Arthwyn had to guess why; Bran was in the corner, his teeth buried to the gums in the neck of the last medic, whose whimpering had drawn the Prince and Marshal to the room, to begin with. The medic’s feeble struggling grew weaker and his voice softer, until only a few seconds after the arrival of the two newcomers, he died, going limp in Bran’s arms.
Bran stood there in the corner for several seconds, licking his lips and coming down from the high of so much feeding and healing. He barely looked any worse for wear, and if it weren’t for his bloody and tattered clothes, it might not have even been obvious that he’d just gone through a deadly struggle for his life.
The vampire turned to face Arthwyn and the Prince. His eyes were hungry, and he took a few steps toward them, causing Arthwyn to draw a sword form his soul realm and prepare himself for battle with a freshly-fed vampire.
But Bran stopped and after a few seconds of dazed staring at the shiny steel in Arthwyn’s hand, lucidity returned to him.
“Ah,” he said with some embarrassment, “you two seem to have caught me in a slightly compromising position…”
“… Yeah,” Owain murmured. The Prince wasn’t quite sure what else he could say in this situation. Fortunately for him, Arthwyn wasn’t quite so tongue-tied.
“What in all the hells happened here?!” Arthwyn demanded.
“Oh, this?” Bran asked as casually as if he were commenting on a new shirt. “Well, that one,” he indicated with his eyes toward his former second-in-command, “grew insubordinate, and I do not appreciate insubordination…”
“And the rest?” Owain asked, his tone deadly serious.
“They were just here. I was terribly injured, after all, and needed the sustenance to recover…”
“You have weakened us with this!” Arthwyn almost shouted. “Taking Ariminium will be this much harder now!”
“Don’t go blowing this out of proportion,” Bran said, a smile spreading over his face and his eyes narrowing in warning. “These were my people, not yours.”
“And what happened with Prince Trajan?” Owain asked, heading off the argument that he could see brewing.
“He got away,” Bran said with a shrug. He had long since stopped caring about the Prince; his thoughts were now dominated with Leon and his heavenly taste.
“Then we still have some options…” Owain muttered, taking a seat in the last remaining intact chair in the room and ignoring the corpse of the hanging medic only a couple of feet away.
“Such as…?” Arthwyn asked as he returned his sword to his soul realm in a few seconds.
“Give them a chance to surrender,” Owain said. Arthwyn’s face contorted in anger for a moment, but before he could complain, Owain continued, “They’ll refuse it, of course, but we’d be uncivilized not to at least offer. Besides, I want to get a measure of Trajan.”
“We should just assault their walls,” Arthwyn said in a low voice. “We have the numbers, we don’t need to talk, just take the damned fortress and put the Bull Prince down.”
“For once, I think I agree with Arthwyn,” Bran said.
“We’re still assembling our siege engines, no?” Owain asked, to which Arthwyn nodded. “And how long will it take to complete them?”
“A few days” Arthwyn honestly answered.
“Then we have the time to talk for a little while. I can speak face-to-face with Trajan, and maybe we can all come away from this happy.”
Arthwyn’s face almost twisted in anger again, but this time he managed to control himself. The only happiness he’d ever receive in regards to Trajan was to see the man dead at his feet after weeks of retributive torture.
“This is a terrible idea, Your Highness,” Arthwyn advised. “We’ve killed their soldiers, they’re not going to want peace!” Left unsaid was how little he wanted peace.
“I’m going to try anyway,” Owain said. He’d always been a little apprehensive about Arthwyn’s plan. After these first few skirmishes, he’d come to doubt whether or not fighting this war would win him the crown he desired, but he was now too committed to Arthwyn’s plan to stop now. If he did, he’d look weak and forever lose his crown. “If Ariminium can be annexed peacefully, then all the better.”
Bran just smiled and nodded. He honestly didn’t care about the city or the accompanying fortress, he just wanted another shot at Leon. If he didn’t get that opportunity in battle, then he’d just make one later on.
Similarly, Arthwyn was only here to kill Prince Trajan; the capture of Ariminium was secondary to him.
Still, he was hard-pressed to say anything against the peaceful approach, especially since Owain had acknowledged that it probably wasn’t going to work.
The three made a few more plans, and then Arthwyn and Owain departed. Both were glad to be out of that charnel house of a villa, but each walked away with very different thoughts in their head. Arthwyn’s were about any potential action he could take against Trajan if the latter accepted their offer of negotiation.
Owain, however, was trying to think of a way to get rid of Bran. The vampire was only allowed to continue to operate in the Talfar Kingdom if he was discreet in his feeding, and killing high-ranking officers in the army had certainly been prohibited. If the vampire were to continue, then he’d become a liability. But for the time being, he was still needed if the Talfar army were to successfully seize Ariminium.
And then, he thought of something. Once he and Arthwyn split up in the camp, Owain turned around and made his way back to Florentia to make a proposition to the vampire.
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