“Our rough headcount indicates we lost one hundred and seventy-three during that attack, along with four hundred and thirteen soldiers who were stationed in the vale, and we only rescued eighty-nine,” the Legate reported.
“The number we rescued doesn’t matter that much, so long as it isn’t too devastating,” Trajan responded. “The important thing is to show that we don’t leave our people behind when it can be avoided.”
“Still, might it not have been better to simply abandon those watchtowers and the fort? Keep our men behind walls made of well-enchanted stone rather than hastily enchanted wood?” the Legate responded.
Trajan frowned. The thought had occurred to him to have Constantine and his subordinates abandon the vale and pull back to the Horns, but while that may have been the better idea if he wanted to keep every single one of his soldiers alive at all costs, it would’ve been a strategic mistake in his opinion.
But before he could respond, Leon spoke up, stating, “Talfar can’t be allowed to seize territory unchallenged. Hundreds of our people died, but thousands of theirs joined them in death.”
“It is the province of the Legion to protect the people of this Kingdom,” Trajan added. “We cannot shy away from our duty just to protect ourselves. Sir Ursus is right, we can’t let Talfar approach our walls without challenge.”
The Legate sighed, then said, “I understand, Your Highness, but it’s hard to keep perspective when counting the dead.”
Trajan placed his hand on the Legate’s shoulder in solidarity, then turned to the rest of the knights that had gathered around him in the main observation tower of the Southern Horn. From there, Trajan could send signals to all the other towers along the walls as well as observe everything that happened on the battlefield. However, he didn’t intend to get too involved in the specific tactics employed by his commanders. The Legions needed to be flexible and be able to respond quickly to changes in the battlefield, and to that end Trajan had delegated much of his authority to commanders he trusted, such as Minerva who took over command of the section of the walls between the Horns, where he expected the Talfar army to concentrate their attacks.
“What are our estimates for the number of enemies killed?” the Prince asked.
“Anywhere from two to three thousand, including those killed in the traps,” Constantine replied. The knight had been offered a chance to rest, but he refused so long as the Talfar army was still in the field.
And indeed, the Talfar army was still occupying the vale, though they had yet to approach the walls of the Horns in any serious manner. Instead, they seemed to be taking their time burning the fort and watchtowers.
Silence descended on the tower as many of the knights asked themselves if the price they paid to delay the Talfar advance was worth it. The soldiers on the wall were ready and waiting for the Talfar forces to charge, so in that respect the time bought was crucial, but since the Talfar army had yet to begin the actual assault on the walls, it left the tactical defeat feeling a little more important than the strategic victory.
“Why are they doing that?” Leon wondered aloud as he watched the fires ravage the fortifications in the vale. “Couldn’t they have used the structures—or what’s left of them, anyway—instead of destroying them outright?”
“I’d guess they feel they have no need for them and want to prevent us from reoccupying them after pulling out of the vale,” Constantine replied.
“I’m sure that’s part of it,” Trajan agreed. “Their army has much greater mobility than our Legions, and so they don’t really need a strong point so close to our walls. Plus, it’s not easy to see past all that smoke they’re making, making me wonder what they’re using that cover for. Probably bringing whatever siege engines they have closer to the walls.”
“What sort of siege engines should we expect?” Leon asked the room. He was the youngest knight in the room by far, though his place at Trajan’s side and his obvious strength prevented anyone from questioning his right to speak. Much like Trajan himself, most of the knights at the Horns were patient in light of his youth and inexperience and were usually more than willing to explain things to him if he needed the help.
“Siege towers are my guess,” one Legate replied.
“Definitely. Probably hundreds of ladders as well. Trebuchets to throw boulders with attached spells at and over the walls, and if they’re being particularly extravagant, maybe even a few Lances.”
“Lances?” Leon repeated in confusion. “Like the Fire Lances the fleet uses, or some kind of… hells if I know…”
“Fire Lance technology is an exceptionally powerful version of a siege weapon that’s been spreading around the plane in recent centuries,” Trajan explained. “These weapons supposedly originate from the Four Empires, and given their power I don’t doubt it. However, they’re tricky to use and easy to break, so easy in fact that they’re not easily made mobile. They’re expensive, not usually effective enough to be worth the time and material to build when faced with heavily enchanted walls, and are prone to breaking in the middle of battle.”
“But the navy seems to have found out a way to make these weapons a little more reliable,” Leon observed. “Couldn’t the Talfar Kingdom have done something similar?”
“Hmm, I suppose it’s possible,” Trajan admitted. “Still, the fleets are using a kind of Lance that isn’t particularly mobile, either, unless it’s been put on a large enough ship. I can’t imagine that Talfar has created a Lance that’s even as mobile as a trebuchet. Still, they may set a few up close enough to the walls to cause some damage, so we can’t rule them out.”
“Other than those, we don’t have to worry about much apart from enemy mages using their power, though the enchantments in the walls are too strong for any single mage to penetrate,” another knight added.
“A single mage did penetrate them, though,” another knight reminded the room.
“If the Talfar army had an abundance of seventh-tier darkness mages, I think we would’ve already lost this war,” the first knight shot back.
“Enough,” Trajan whispered, instantly silencing the room and preventing the second knight from responding. He had noticed some movement in the smoke of the burning fort that filled the vale, a few glimpses of something that passed too quickly for him to identify. “Whatever those Talfar bastards are doing, I think they’re just about ready,” the Prince said. “Get ready, everyone.”
The knights snapped to their workstations, eight consoles covered in glowing runes, much like the consoles in Constantine’s fort. These were controller enchantments that could direct the magical defenses of the Horns, though they were extremely expensive in terms of magic power; a bank of a couple hundred sapphires each the size of Leon’s head had been installed in the room below. These sapphires powered the defensive wards within the walls but were so extravagantly expensive that they weren’t easily replaced when drained.
But Trajan wouldn’t hesitate to run every magical battery he had dry if it meant defending his Kingdom from Owain’s army.
Finally, hours after Constantine’s remaining soldiers had been evacuated, the Talfar siege engines appeared out of the smoke. Ten enormous siege towers pushed by hundreds of peasant levies, each one about seventy feet tall or so, more than tall enough to reach the top of the first wall. Between these towers were several dozen trebuchets and thousands of Talfar infantry. The cavalry couldn’t do much when assaulting a fortified position, so the chariots and cataphracts were in the back.
“It occurs to me,” Leon said quietly enough that only Trajan could hear, “that I’ve yet to see Talfar archers…”
“They’re out there,” Trajan replied. “It takes quite a bit of time to train an archer, and the Talfar army prefers its cataphracts and chariots, so they don’t have many archers. They’re still out there, though.”
Trajan glanced at the younger knight. He was still in his armor, but he’d taken his helmet off to reveal a deep frown of restlessness. It was clear to the Prince that Leon didn’t want to be in the tower.
“Tell you what,” Trajan said slowly, with a great deal of apprehension, “why don’t you head down to the main gatehouse. Minerva should be there. If she needs reinforcements anywhere, you can assist her.”
Leon looked at Trajan with eyes wide with gratitude. “Yes, Your Highness,” he said, his frown immediately disappearing. He then bowed to the Prince and all but ran out of the observation room.
Trajan chuckled, amused at the young man’s enthusiasm for battle and reminded at his own similar enthusiasm when he was Leon’s age.
Outside of the main observation room, Alix and Anzu were waiting. They’d met back up with Leon when he and Trajan returned to the keep.
“What’s the word?” Alix asked. She was both upset at being left behind again and exhilarated at the thought of joining the battle.
“Follow me and find out,” Leon said with a subdued smile. He patted Anzu on the head and led his tiny group out of the keep.
‘Incompetent morons,’ Arthwyn thought as he glared at his Warrior-Chiefs. ‘Fucking imbeciles let that bastard into their ranks and then let him go!’ He didn’t say any of this out loud, though. He had to maintain the image of a respected and efficient commander, and his experience as a Marshal was telling him that even if he were more in control of the immediate tactics during the assault on Constantine’s fort—which as the commander of an army the size of his, was an impossibility—he couldn’t have gotten an effective response to Trajan’s strike organized any quicker than his Warrior-Chiefs did.
Of course, this knowledge only made him more infuriated, but he had to let it go. His cataphracts and chariots had the man he most wanted dead almost completely surrounded, but they let him slip through their fingers. It was over and done with, and the best thing to do was to move on. The lost opportunity fiercely stung, but it didn’t change his plans.
His army was arrayed before him. One hundred thousand peasant levies, fifty thousand infantry, fifty thousand cavalry—less perhaps five or six thousand from casualties already sustained. Many of the injured soldiers had already been healed and returned to service, mitigating much of the price that had already been paid to get the Talfar army to the gates of the Bull’s Horns.
But they were there, with siege engines ready and soldiers practically chomping at the bit to begin the fighting. The peasants were a little more subdued, but they were ready as well.
Arthwyn sighed in satisfaction as he stared at his forces. It was with this army that he was going to crush the Bull’s Horns and drag Trajan’s broken body back to Briga. He couldn’t wreak his revenge on Kyros Raime or Julius Septimius, but Trajan, the man who most deserved to die in Arthwyn’s eyes, was within his grasp. And so, the Marshal relished the beginning of his revenge.
‘Enjoy this moment, Bastard,’ he thought as he stared at the Southern Horn. ‘This will be the la-‘
“Go forth!” Owain roared from beside the Marshal, interrupting Arthwyn’s thoughts. “Go forth and win for yourselves riches and glory! When I am King, you will all be honored with gold, with the men and women of your desire, with stories and poems in your honor! Go forth and take this fortress!” The Prince backed his words up with his magic power, and his voice reverberated across the field to every Talfar ear in the vale.
Immediately, the infantry charged, the peasants pushed their siege engines, and the cavalry roared a tremendous war cry—this being really all the horsemen could do for the time being.
Arthwyn snarled at the Prince ordering around the Marshal’s forces. He paid the soldiers and levied the peasants, but he didn’t blame them for following the orders of their Prince. Instead, he was angered at the Prince’s presumption when it was Arthwyn’s sole support that made him anything more than an impotent provincial governor.
He began to contemplate having the Prince murdered and continuing the war alone. If he blamed the assassination on a Bull assassin, he might be able to pull it off.
‘Something to consider, at least…’ Arthwyn pondered as he glared at Owain. But there was a time for those considerations, and as his war was truly, finally beginning was not it.
The Talfar armies charged across the field, and the Bull’s Legions responded with arrow fire and blasts of magic. The Talfar forces responded in kind, and the darkness of the pre-sunrise morning was illuminated with flashes of magic and the ground shook with the footsteps of hundreds of thousands of warriors.
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