Chapter 257 - Assessing Losses

“Still no sign of Leon?” Trajan asked.

“No, Your Highness,” Minerva replied.

The two were in one of Trajan’s small sitting rooms that had a good view of the east.  The Talfar army had pulled out and the Legion was tallying the dead and reinforcing their position.  The Talfar warriors had managed to seize most of the first wall, but then suddenly abandoned their assault.  In the process of retreating, they lost two more of their siege towers, leaving them with a paltry three left.

Alix had come to the Prince about half an hour after Talfar began to retreat and told him of Leon’s decision to attack the Talfar trebuchets alone, along with Leon’s possession of a ring of invisibility.  Not long after, the Talfar trebuchets noticeably began to fire less, as if a number of them had been knocked out of commission, so it seemed that Leon was at least partially successful in that regard.

But the young knight hadn’t returned, despite the Vale being largely clear of Talfar warriors at this point.  Trajan frowned at the vale in both anger and worry—though there was, perhaps, more of the former than the latter.

After speaking with Alix, he dismissed her, allowing her to return to her room and rest and make sure Anzu was tended to.  He didn’t punish Alix for Leon leaving, though there were some unreasonable commanders who might punish a squire in the absence of their knight.  He just wanted the young woman to get some rest, as she appeared like she needed it after hours spent firing arrows and using her magic.

He now had to decide what to do about Leon—whether or not anyone should be sent out to look for him.  The risks were high for anyone who might go, and as much as Trajan wanted to send out entire battalions to ensure Leon made it back to the Horns alive and well, he wasn’t going to send large numbers of good soldiers to their deaths for one man when his forces were still so outnumbered, no matter who might be lost.

“Reckless idiot,” he whispered before turning back to Minerva and saying, “Well, let’s get this thing done with, then.”

They left their sitting room and made the short trek over to Trajan’s main meeting room.  All of the command staff were present, from the sixth-tier mages of the Diplomatic Corps to the Legates in charge of the Legions, and more than a hundred Tribunes there with their commanders.  All of them stood when their Prince entered and stormed over to his usual position upon the raised dais.  He paused only when he noticed that there was an empty seat, only to remember that one of his Legates had been killed in the fighting.

“Casualty report,” Trajan growled once he took his seat.  He tried to not look at the empty chair in order to preserve his composure, but it wasn’t easy.

“Initial reports are as many as eight thousand dead or missing, though we do expect that number to go down as we finish identifying the wounded and sifting through the bodies,” Saufeia responded.

“That might take a while, Talfar sent a great many warriors to their deaths when they took the wall, and we have to separate their dead from ours,” Amatius responded.

“And their losses?” Trajan asked as he glared around the room.

“Perhaps as high as thirty thousand dead, but we’re not sure,” Saufeia responded.  Since it was her Legion that was doing the counting, she was the one with the most accurate information.

“Any word from Pretani?” Minerva asked, though she felt like she could probably guess the answer.

“None, yet,” Aquillius answered.

“I get the impression that they don’t want to explain Owain’s actions until this conflict has been decided,” the sixth-tier diplomat Fonteius explained.  “From what I understand, there has been bitter fighting in the east between Queen Andraste and the Han Kingdom, and the Elder Council has been using this as an excuse to not inform their Queen about recent events.”

“So, they’re using their errant Prince as an excuse to try and annex Ariminium?” Minerva mused.

“That would be my guess,” Fonteius said with a bitter nod.

“When we push these invaders back, though, they’ll probably immediately disavow his actions,” Aquillius said with a cynical laugh.  “I wouldn’t expect a response from Pretani until we’ve fought a decisive battle.”

“Would you not call this battle we just won ‘decisive’?” Labienus asked.

“Not in the slightest,” Aquillius instantly responded.  “We’re still outnumbered by a hundred thousand at least, with who knows how many more on their way.  We can’t face Arthwyn and Owain in open battle, even with their recent thrashing.  We can only wait for them to regroup, rebuild their siege engines, and attack again.”

“That’s not all we can do,” Minerva interjected.  “We could launch some hit-and-run missions, Your Highness.  Prevent the enemy from resting too deeply.”

“That would also put many of our mages at risk in the open,” Aquillius cautioned.

“Not everywhere,” Saufeia quickly added.  “Florentia isn’t out in the open, we can launch an expedition to retake the city-“

“No,” Trajan suddenly said, his deep voice bringing silence crashing down upon the meeting room.  “We’d never hold Florentia, and we don’t have any skirmisher units fast enough to outrun a Talfar cataphract.  Sending anyone out there would be sending them to their deaths.”

“Your Highness, should we just wait for the enemy to regroup, then?” Amatius asked.  “If it comes to it, my 19th Legion will fight them on the walls, in the vale, or on the slopes of their fortified hill.”

“Why don’t we send out riders to harass their supply lines?” asked a Legate from Trajan’s retinue.

“To get at their supply lines, we’d have to go past their fortified camp and enter the plains that are dominated by their chariots and cataphracts,” Saufeia explained.  “To do so would be to send our skirmishers on a suicide mission.”

“Send out scouts,” Trajan ordered.  “Our fastest soldiers, I won’t make a decision until I know the enemy’s condition.  Until we get reliable intelligence, I want everyone resting, restocking the towers and trebuchets, and repairing what damage has been done to the walls.”

Once Trajan was finished, he was answered by a chorus of “Yes, Your Highness!” from everyone in the room.

With their immediate goals set, Trajan then turned his attention back to the situation with Leon.  His young protégé was missing, and the Prince had no idea where he was or if he was even still alive.  Without any contact from Leon, Trajan could only hope his scouts could find something that pointed to his current status while spying on the Talfar camp.

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After reporting to Trajan, Alix had to take Anzu to the griffin’s beastmaster for a check-up.  Unfortunately, without Leon present, the beastmaster had to sedate Anzu and keep him until he was completely healed, so Alix had to walk home alone.

‘Alone again…’ she thought as she walked through the streets of the Southern Horn.

She was hardly even angry, anymore.  It was just a fact that she wasn’t strong enough to be taken too seriously by the higher-ranked soldiers and it made perfect sense that even when Leon left to do something stupid that he would leave her behind.

Alix hated being weak.  Had she been stronger, her cousin Sam and the others that she had become acquainted with at Fort 127 wouldn’t be dead.  If she were stronger, Leon would take her on his missions.  If she were stronger, Trajan and Minerva wouldn’t have dismissed her after reporting Leon’s recklessness.

She was already essentially slated for a place in Trajan’s retinue when she achieved the third-tier, something which she desperately wanted.  All her life, she wanted nothing more than to be a knight, but she knew that this appointment was more of a courtesy to Leon than any endorsement of her own abilities.  The Prince surrounded himself with skilled and talented people, like Minerva, Constantine, Aquillius, and Leon.  She was under no illusion about how she stacked up against people like these.

She wanted to be a knight, to protect the weak and defeat the wicked like the brave and noble heroes in the stories she heard growing up.  More than that, though, she wanted to earn her achievements, to not be given a prestigious appointment because the knight she was squiring for was close to the Prince.

As she walked through the streets, she heard a voice call out, “Hey!  Miss Alix!”

She turned her dark brown eyes up from the stone pavement and saw Charles, Henry, and Alain sitting in a small corner café around a table eating breakfast.  To her astonishment, she couldn’t perceive either Henry or Alain’s magical auras, meaning both had ascended to the third-tier!  Even Charles’ aura was strong and stable, far more so than when she had last seen him during Trajan’s competition.

It was obvious they had benefitted greatly during their time in battle.  Alix was still a rookie warrior compared to someone like Trajan, but she knew from personal experience that there was no better training environment than the middle of a battle with the auras of thousands of mages mixing together and creating a region dense with magic power.  Additionally, few mages hold back with their power and strength when their lives are on the line, which makes for an extreme form of training that nothing can beat.

It made perfect sense to Alix why so many mages made great strides in their magic power after surviving a great battle.

And yet, Alix couldn’t be happy.  She was genuinely glad that Leon’s friends were growing stronger, but right now, after she had been left behind again for being too weak, it felt like a slap in the face to see the progress of others and know that her own was far more modest.

Charles smiled at her and waved her over in a clear invitation to join them, but she couldn’t, her legs wouldn’t move.  She smiled bitterly at the three young squires—they’d almost made it through their two-year minimum for their squireships, so they were soon-to-be knights—and shook her head.

“Need sleep,” she explained, and Charles nodded and smiled again.

“Maybe next time,” he responded, and Alix all-but ran back to the room she shared with Leon.

It seemed so quiet, so desolate when she was alone.

If she wanted to fix that, there was only one thing left to do: train.

‘When I get stronger,’ she thought as she quickly changed into training attire, ‘no one will leave me behind ever again!’

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Arthwyn glared at Owain, and the Prince felt himself unconsciously wilt before the bigger man’s terrifying aura.  Owain was only a fifth-tier mage, after all, while Arthwyn was a sixth-tier mage on the cusp of ascending to the seventh.

But Owain reached deep within himself, found his pride and dignity as a claimant to his Kingdom’s throne, and straightened himself up to glare right back at his Marshal.

“Our supplies are in tatters,” the Prince said in as menacing a voice as his smooth and boyish voice could muster, “to continue the battle would’ve been foolish.”

Arthwyn continued to glare at Owain as he tried to organize his thoughts and figure out what he should do next.

“We’d all-but seized the first wall,” Arthwyn growled as he emitted a copious amount of killing intent.  “That was our best opportunity to take Ariminium and you pissed it away.”

“Taking the city would mean little if my army dissolved afterward!” Owain countered.  “It’s the throne I want, not this damned city!”

Suddenly, Arthwyn changed the subject, bluntly asking, “Where’s Bran?”

This threw Owain off a little, but he didn’t show it on his face.  Instead, he admitted, “I sent him on a suicide mission, and it seems that’s exactly what it was.”

“You… sent him into Ariminium?” Arthwyn asked, seeking confirmation.  “You hoped that he would die?”

Owain’s smile was all the confirmation he needed.  Arthwyn believed that Bran was a liability after witnessing the vampire killing his own subordinates and he certainly wasn’t going to lose any sleep over the vampire’s apparent death, but to lose him was a serious blow to their war potential.  Now that he knew it was a deliberate act that got Bran killed, he began to feel his blood boil in wrath.

“You have…” Arthwyn began, but he stopped because he simply couldn’t find the words for the situation.  “I have… This is…”

“Spit it out,” Owain demanded with a triumphant grin on his pretty face.

Arthwyn snapped.  He flipped the table between him and Owain out of the way and grasped the Prince by the throat, lifting Owain into the air.  The Prince was so surprised that he didn’t even begin to resist until his feet had already left the ground.

“Put… me… down!” Owain sputtered, but Arthwyn barely heard him through the blood pumping through his ears.

“You have ruined this campaign!” Arthwyn almost shouted.  He was grateful that the command tent was enchanted to prevent voices from leaking out, as the Prince’s guards would’ve run in if they had heard the shouting.  “This was supposed to be so easy, but you’ve gone and fucked us!  Our supplies are nearly gone, most of our siege towers have been destroyed, and the rat that burned our supplies is still unaccounted for!”

There was a brief moment when Arthwyn seriously considered snapping Owain’s neck and ordering another immediate assault on the walls, but in the end, his rationality won out.  He dropped Owain, and the Prince barely managed to hold himself upright while he gasped for air.

“That… was treason…” the Prince rattled.  “You… could be… executed… for this!”

“I’d like to see you try,” Arthwyn challenged.  “Kill me, and you lose this army.  I was the one that built it, they’re not here for you!”

Of course, Arthwyn was just speaking in anger, if push came to shove, he honestly didn’t know if his own warriors would choose him over the Prince, let alone those from Bran’s battalions or the peasants.

The two stood there silently staring death at each other, knowing that they couldn’t actually do anything to the other without serious consequences for their future.  Owain wouldn’t take his throne without Arthwyn, and Arthwyn couldn’t keep the army together without Owain.

Finally, Arthwyn broke the silence by stating, “There’s work to be done,” and leaving the command tent.

Owain felt like he won since Arthwyn broke eye contact first, but it was a hollow victory in the empty command tent.  All the other warriors were taking counsel with Arthwyn, and the Prince wasn’t going to follow the Marshal in his state of mind.  So, he sat in the command tent, wondering what he should do next.

Outside, Arthwyn met up with several of his Warrior-Chiefs and their Captains, and the entourage followed Arthwyn back to his personal tent.

“What’s the status of the army?” the Marshal asked once the flap was shut and no one could overhear.

“About twenty thousand dead, maybe twice that injured,” a fifth-tier Warrior-Captain reported.  “We’ll have the vast majority of the injured healed in about five days, though.”

“Good.  Get started on more siege towers.  Cut down that whole damned forest if you have to,” Arthwyn ordered, and several Warrior-Captains left to see to that.  “What about Marshal Gwen’s army?”

“Still no word, my Lord,” a Warrior-Chief responded.

‘Odd,’ Arthwyn thought to himself.  ‘She should only be about a week out from Briga by this point, we should be getting word of her movements by now…’

Just another thing going wrong; Arthwyn pushed it out of his mind until he could calm himself down.

“And the Legion rat that snuck in?” he asked with a dangerous look in his eye.

“Emrys reported that he jumped into a canyon more than a thousand feet deep,” another Warrior-Chief said.  “He’s supposedly dead, but Emrys and several thousand others are scouring the forest looking for him in case he survived.  Emrys has also asked that cataphracts be deployed to patrol the plains between the forest and Briga, in case the rat tries to go around the forest and return to the Horns.”

“Get it done,” Arthwyn immediately responded.  It was the peasants who would be building the siege towers, for the most part, and the cataphracts wouldn’t have much to do until it was time to attack again.  To that end…  “How long until we’ve replaced out siege towers and lost trebuchets?”

“A week, maybe,” Arthwyn’s supply officer reported.  The Warrior-Chief withered a little as the Marshal turned his anger toward him.

“It only took a few days for the first ten,” Arthwyn stated, keeping his voice calm even if his aura weighed heavily on his subordinates.

“We lost too many enchanting supplies when the supply tent burned,” the supply officer explained.  “To make our siege towers strong enough to resist the Bull’s magic, we’re going to need to wait on an emergency supply run from Briga.”

Arthwyn scowled, but there was little he could do.  He knew the supply officer was doing his best, and he didn’t get to where he was by making unreasonable demands of his subordinates.

“Find that rat,” he growled to the entire room.  He knew that Trajan wasn’t likely to attack a fortified position with inferior numbers, so he was confident that he had plenty of warriors to spare for the search.  “Even if it’s just his corpse.  Find that rat and bring him back to me.  He’s nearly destroyed this campaign.  Take as many warriors as needed.  Bring him to me.

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Efflorescence – Kyle J Smith – Max Strand – SpAzzo – Caleb – Lawrence D Jones – Virgo Morrison

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Chapter 258 - Hunting a Rat

Chapter 256 - Pursuing the Fleeing Rat