Two short blasts followed by one long blast; the horn signal for Legion reinforcements. Seven thousand Legion cavalrymen barreled down the Gold Road toward the Bull’s Horns. In the lead were four men: August, Roland, and the Bronze and Brimstone Paladins.
“Get to the gate!” August shouted at the other three as he peeled off toward the Southern Horn. He wasn’t much of a fighter, but that was what the three Paladins were for.
“Yes, Your Highness!” Roland shouted.
“Understood,” Brimstone replied.
Bronze simply smiled and nodded in acknowledgment.
The three kept moving, and the seven thousand knights and men-at-arms behind them followed. As they approached the main gates, they were met by the ecstatic cheers of the soldiers on the walls, and as news of their arrival spread, the cheers were echoed up and down the fortress complex.
“It’s damn good to see you all here!” shouted Minerva, who had come down from the top of the western wall’s gatehouse to greet them in person.
“We’re here to fight for our King and Kingdom!” Roland shouted back. They had to shout in order for their voices to be heard over the sounds of battle just a few hundred feet to the east.
“Then I hope you don’t mind if I put you to work right away!” Minerva replied. “Open the gates!”
The signal was repeated, and the portcullises began to slowly open. As the Paladins and their retinues waited for a clear path to charge out onto the battlefield, the Horns’ cavalry appeared; the Paladins and their followers would not charge beyond the walls alone.
Once the portcullises were open, twelve thousand of the finest cavalrymen that the Bull Kingdom could field sallied out through the open gates and slammed into the surprised, dismayed, and terrified Talfar forces.
The already gloomy mood of the Talfar officers around Arthwyn plummeted further as the gates of the Horns opened. There were only two possibilities for such an action: either the Legion was surrendering, or they were sallying out to launch a counter-attack.
Given that they had just heard the signal for Legion reinforcements, Arthwyn and the Warrior-Chiefs knew exactly which option it was. And they were not wrong.
A few intrepid Talfar warriors tried to charge into the walls once the portcullises were opened, but they were immediately cut down as the Legion cavalry thundered through the open gates. More than a hundred thousand Talfar warriors and peasant levies had gathered on the east side of the walls, but with bright flashes of steel and intense bursts of magic, the Talfar units were the ones to reel from the sudden attack.
“My Lord! Your orders?!” a Warrior-Chief requested of Arthwyn.
The Marshal stared in disbelief, anger, frustration, and a hundred other similar emotions. He was stunned that he couldn’t even speak.
After waiting a few seconds for their paralyzed Marshal to act, the Warrior-Chiefs began looking at each other, wondering which of them would be bold enough to do what they all knew that they must.
Finally, after a few minutes and the deaths of several thousand more Talfar warriors, one of Arthwyn’s closest and most trusted Chiefs shouted, “SOUND THE RETREAT! FALL BACK TO THE CAMP!”
This jerked Arthwyn back to reality. “Belay that order!” he bellowed. “Send in our cavalry! Show them the true strength of our horsemanship! Run them down with lance and sword, trample them under the hooves of our cataphracts! Break them upon the armor of our chariots!”
The Marshal was furious and impassioned, but his words didn’t move his Warrior-Chiefs in the slightest. Even the Warrior-Captains ignored him and stared at him in quiet defiance.
“Sound the retreat!” Arthwyn’s trusted Warrior-Chief repeated.
“Those who retreat will be guilty of insubordination, treason, and desertion!” Arthwyn wildly screamed. Any thought of maintaining his composure and dignity as a Marshal was long gone; his eyes were wild, and he slammed his fist down on the frame of his chariot with such force that it nearly collapsed underneath him.
And yet, none of the Warrior-Chiefs batted an eye.
“My Lord, if your order is to continue this assault, then you may consider this a mutiny,” the Warrior-Chief who ordered the retreat calmly stated. “Is it Your Lordship’s intent to proceed with this failed assault?”
“You traitor!” Arthwyn roared, having completely lost any semblance of control he had left. He leaped out of his chariot and drew a sword from his soul realm, intending to cut down the Warrior-Chief who was so insubordinate, but before he could take more than a few steps, he found himself surrounded by half a dozen of his other Warrior-Chiefs. He barely had time to react before they tackled him to the ground and disarmed him.
“You traitors!” he shouted, “I’ll see you all hang for this!”
He could see the revenge he’d waited eighty years for disappearing before his eyes, and his furious shouting descended into incoherent shouts and grunts, which only ceased when one of the Warrior-Chiefs gagged him. As Arthwyn was enduring this indignity with all the grace of a pig in a mud pit, his Warrior-Chiefs wasted no time in giving the signal to retreat.
There was no thought to trying to counter the Legion cavalry, as their own infantry and levies were in the way, which would blunt their charge and break up their formations, limiting the cavalry’s effectiveness. What was more, the line of rock spikes conjured by the wall’s defenders was still mostly in the way, it had only been penetrated in a few places, so that, too, was an obstacle that blocked the cavalry’s way.
None of the Warrior-Chiefs wanted this fight after weeks of limited success and heavy losses. The Talfar army began a disorganized retreat.
As soon as the signal to retreat was given, the levies began a mass-exodus from the vale as fast as each person was capable of moving. Hundreds were trampled in the disorganized mass, and no shortage of those under the levies’ feet were the Talfar officers that attempted to give the horde some order in their retreat.
The Talfar infantry were a little more organized, but for every inch they stepped back, the Legion cavalry pushed them a foot. Lances struck the lightly armored Talfar infantry, impaling them and hurling their corpses back into their comrades. Legion swords ripped the Talfar warriors apart, splattering their comrades with their blood. Holes were ripped in their formations by beams of light and fiery explosions, while great cracks opened at their feet, swallowing entire squads whole before sealing up and burying them alive.
Most of these magics were coming from Roland, whose golden light sliced through the Talfar armor like a hot knife through half-melted butter, from the Brimstone Paladin, who was accompanied by fires so hot that he left piles of charred corpses in his wake, and from the Bronze Paladin, who seemed to shake the earth with every step he took.
Under the combined strength of these three Paladins, the Talfar infantry broke less than ten minutes after the signal to retreat had been given. Their formations collapsed and they began to run en masse, with little differentiating them from the levies that they pushed, hit, and even attacked to bypass.
“Look at them run!” Brimstone bellowed as he and the knights at his back slowed down to gain some distance between themselves and the Talfar front line. As soon as they gained about fifty feet, they charged again and crashed into the Talfar lines. They did this repeatedly, like a hammer striking a nail, and crushed thousands of Talfar warriors under the weight of their horses.
“For the Prince! For the King! For the Kingdom!” Roland shouted between swings of his sword as his knights hewed their way into the Talfar line, locking down several battalions of warriors between themselves and the rock spikes. The warriors had nowhere to go, and could only try to fight back, though they did little, if any, damage to Roland or his knights.
The Bronze Paladin, meanwhile, remained silent, but in his radiant bronze armor that was covered in glowing runes and his massive bronze ax, he cut a distinctive figure. He hadn’t brought any knights from his own modest retinue, but all five thousand knights and men-at-arms from the Horns followed him, making his group the largest and most furious. With every swing of Bronze’s ax, more fissures would erupt beneath the trapped Talfar infantry as they bottlenecked at one of the few openings through the rock spikes, burying dozens at a time.
All in all, the Paladins and their followers were cutting right through the Talfar infantry, and there was nothing any of the latter could do to stop them even if they hadn’t broken and tried to run.
“What a mess,” Trajan muttered as he watched the one-sided slaughter from the command tower in the keep. Twelve thousand Legion cavalrymen were practically walking right over the Talfar infantry, and the soldiers on the wall were cleaning up the remaining towers and showering the Talfar horde with thousands of arrows.
Leon sighed in response, eliciting a smile of victory from Trajan.
“If you hadn’t pulled that stunt, you’d be out there with them, I daresay,” Trajan said. With Leon back safe and Talfar on the run, his anger had cooled enough that he slipped back into the relatively informal attitude he and Leon had with each other. But he wasn’t going to forget Leon leaving his post to launch his own solo mission.
Fortunately, Leon hadn’t argued with him in the slightest about his punishment.
“Probably,” Leon agreed with a slight smile. Even though he was in the command tower, he’d still dressed in full armor, save for his helmet, just in case.
“Your Highness!” an adjutant suddenly called out from near the door. “Prince August has arrived at the keep!”
“Show him here,” Trajan ordered, and the adjutant bowed and ran off.
Several minutes later, he returned, accompanied by a slight man of modest stature, dirty-blonde hair, and dark brown eyes. His features were somewhat pale and gaunt but lacked the chiseled handsome quality that Trajan had, giving him relatively average looks. And yet, he carried himself with all the dignity of a Prince, which combined with his dark green gold-trimmed clothing, gave him a commanding presence and an aura of cool calm.
“Uncle!” August loudly exclaimed as he walked forward with his arms outstretched.
“Nephew!” Trajan responded as he pulled the much shorter man into a hug so tight that Leon could hear a few popping sounds coming from August’s body.
When Trajan finally released him, August was forced to take a few deep breaths and stretch a bit.
“You’re early!” Trajan said with a joyful smile on his face.
“I pushed hard to get here as quickly as I could,” August said once he caught his breath after Trajan’s hug forced all the air out of him. “I left behind the Legions that accompanied me in order to get here as soon as I could.”
“How far out are they?” Trajan inquired.
“Two days, I think,” August replied. “My two Legions met up with one of yours that was coming down as well, so there should be three Legions incoming.”
“Wonderful,” Trajan said as his smile turned vicious. That would bring him up to six Legions, or one hundred and twenty thousand soldiers, not including his personal knights or the Paladins and their retinues. That was more than enough soldiers in his mind to force the Talfar army off its hill and to burn its camp to the ground, though not enough to launch a counter-invasion as King Julius had done eighty years ago.
With the catastrophic casualties that the Talfar infantry were taking now, it would only be easier to kick the rest of the army out of Florentia and throw them back into their Kingdom.
“Who else have you brought? Anyone you haven’t told me about?” Trajan then asked.
“The Paladins Roland and Saturnius, which I told you about, and Praecilius, who I managed to convince to join me,” August said with obvious pride.
However, what he said made Leon, who was listening with rapt attention, freeze up in anxiety. He had fought alongside Roland in the Northern Vales, and he didn’t want the Paladin to know that he was now in the south. He still didn’t trust the man, even if he didn’t honestly think Roland had a hand in his father’s death.
Unfortunately for Leon, though, for all his general gruffness and seriousness, Trajan wanted to be polite with his nephew, and he turned to the side to let August get a better look at Leon.
“August, let me introduce you to someone…”
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