Chapter 268 - Treason

The general mood in the Talfar camp was extremely low.  The retreat during the first assault, the casualties sustained during said assault and in previous engagements, the loss of the majority of their supplies leading to quartered rations, the loss of Bran, and Emrys’ failure to catch Leon all contributed to a severe drop in morale compared to the army’s confidence when they were first mobilized.

Arthwyn did his best to hide many of the problems the army now had, but there were too many people who knew that the supply situation was terrible and that the rat that had made it that way had escaped.  Now, it was all he could do to simply keep the levies working on the siege weapons, and even then, deserters were captured every day, though not nearly as many as were getting away.

The Marshal knew that he had a few weeks at most before the majority of his army would melt away.

But then, with barely two days left before the replacement siege towers and trebuchets were completed, he finally received some good news.

One of his adjutants burst into his command tent while he was reviewing the flow of supplies from Briga to the camp and said, “My Lord!  Marshal Gwen has sent word that she’ll be here in less than three hours!”

Arthwyn’s eyes lit up at the unexpected good news, but he maintained his dignity as a Marshal and ordered, “Make sure that her tent is prepared and that there’s room for her warriors in the camp.”

“Yes, My Lord!” the adjutant replied as he scurried off to fulfill those orders.

Arthwyn sighed and leaned back in his chair, a feeling of satisfaction and glee finally blooming in his chest after so many setbacks.  The army had taken more than forty thousand casualties between those killed and those too injured to participate in the battle anymore, but more than half of those were from the peasants.  With Gwen’s fifty-thousand-strong force, not only would the army increase even from when it was at full strength, it would be made up of a higher percentage of skilled, professional warriors.

Arthwyn quickly finished up his work and, when the time came, went to the camp’s eastern gate to welcome Gwen and her warriors.  Owain, meanwhile, chose to wait in the inner camp, as he said that waiting on a Marshal at the front gates wasn’t becoming of a Prince’s dignity, let alone that of a King.

Arthwyn didn’t care what the spoiled Prince believed, he only cared that he was finally receiving the reinforcements he needed to storm the walls again once the siege towers were completed.

“Riders on the road!” shouted one of the guards in a nearby watchtower.  After several seconds, he added, “Marshal Gwen is leading them!”

Arthwyn straightened himself up and waited with a large smile on his face.  A smile that faded once the gates opened and Marshal Gwen rode into the camp on the back of a blood-red horse and accompanied by no more than three or four hundred cataphracts.  Arthwyn glanced out of the gate, then back at the other Marshal; he didn’t see any other warriors with her.

Yet, he didn’t say anything out loud.  He warmly greeted his fellow Marshal and led her further into the camp.

Gwen was an auburn-haired woman, tall and thin, but with muscle where she needed it.  Her grey eyes were long and narrow, her cheeks were thin, and her century and a half of life had given her a few wrinkles in the corners of her lips and eyes, but she still possessed an attractive charm that drew the eyes of nearly everyone who saw her.

Of course, it could’ve just been her robust sixth-tier aura, indicating both her strength and vigor, but Arthwyn noted that he never got the same stares that Gwen was now getting as they walked through the camp making meaningless small talk.  Arthwyn considered himself fortunate that the mess that had resulted from the fire that destroyed their supplies had largely been cleaned up, so it wasn’t immediately apparent how dire their situation was.

Owain waited for them in the command tent, and upon their arrival, he quickly greeted Gwen after she bowed in respect.

“Marshal Gwen!  It’s so good to see you again, you’ve chosen a wonderful time to make your appearance!” the Prince said with a beaming smile.  He had thought that the disaster inflicted upon the army by Leon might’ve destroyed his bid for the throne, but Gwen would’ve had to come with supplies that could mitigate their supply problems.  “How soon can your warriors be deployed?  I’d prefer we launch an assault on the walls in the next couple of days.”

Unfortunately for him, Gwen hadn’t come to reinforce their position.

“I apologize, Your Highness, but I have not come with the warriors you requested,” the Marshal responded, eliciting surprise from Owain and an angry glare and hint of killing intent from Arthwyn.

“You… haven’t come with reinforcements?” Owain hesitantly asked, seeking confirmation.

“I have brought only my personal guard,” Gwen informed the Prince.  “Perhaps we ought to sit down and have a chat, Your Highness?”

Despite her jovial tone, the Marshal wasn’t asking.  She took a seat and stared at Owain and Arthwyn until they did likewise.

“Explain yourself,” Arthwyn growled as he contained his anger as much as he possibly could.

Gwen merely flashed a smile at the other Marshal before turning her attention back to Owain.  “Her Majesty has learned of this campaign you’ve launched.”

Owain instantly paled.  He was trying to usurp his sister, so he wasn’t going to follow her orders, but Queen Andraste was still more than powerful enough to halt his army in its tracks, even with the war with the Han Kingdom in the east.

“And what… does my sister have to do with this?” he coolly asked.

“Her Majesty has demanded that this foolish endeavor be halted immediately and that Your Highness surrender himself to the Elder Council for arrest.  If Your Highness does not comply, she will come here all the way from the east to personally arrest you.”

Owain gave the Marshal a bitter smile, and after a moment of thought sarcastically asked, “Oh?  Is that all she wants from me?  To give up everything I’ve ever wanted?”

“Furthermore,” Gwen continued, “both Your Highness and Lord Arthwyn have been formally removed from your posts as governor of Briga and Marshal, respectively, as ordered by Her Majesty and more than fifteen members of the Elder Council.”

Arthwyn remained silent, but Owain audibly gulped in nervousness as Gwen laid a letter signed by the aforementioned Queen and Council members on the table corroborating her statement.

“I have also been charged by Her Majesty to negotiate peace with the Bull Kingdom on her behalf, while she deals with the eastern menace.”  With that, Gwen’s formal relaying of the decisions of Talfar’s leading figures completed, her tone softened.  She looked Owain in the eye and said, “Owain, stop this.  If you turn yourself in, you’ll be sent to a comfortable temple in the south.  If you don’t, you’ll be executed, just like all the others that have rebelled in the past few years.”

“I appreciate the thought, my Lady,” Owain whispered in dejection.  He didn’t whine, ask for proof, or curse everyone in Pretani; he didn’t believe that Gwen would lie about such consequential things.  Besides, while he was more than willing to continue, he didn’t actually want to keep this war going.  “Perhaps I could have a few hours to think things over?”

“My guards will stay here to ensure Andraste’s will is carried out,” Gwen said with a sad smile.  “However, I must go to Ariminium as soon as possible, just in case the Bull charges before we can begin negotiations.”

“I understand,” Owain replied.  Gwen smiled, then turned her attention to Arthwyn.

“And you?” she growled.

“‘And I’, what?” Arthwyn snarled.

“Will you relinquish your command and return to Pretani?” Gwen asked, her tone harsh and her killing intent spiking, making it clear without explicitly stating it what would happen to Arthwyn should he refuse.

Arthwyn stared daggers at Gwen for a long few moments, but then he sighed and said, “I suppose this whole campaign was a fool’s errand, anyway.  I will step down.”

“Good, my cataphracts will take over running this army until I can return and dismiss it,” Gwen said as she stood up.  “Until then, I would prefer if neither of you left this tent.”

The Marshal then turned around and left the tent.  Arthwyn and Owain could hear her muted barking of a few orders and then riding away a few moments later.

What followed was a long silence between the two.  Owain sunk deeper into despair as he tried to think of a way out of his mess without directly fighting Andraste; he hadn’t the money, food, or troops for such direct action, and if he could find the support to do so then he never would’ve begun this campaign in the first place.

Arthwyn, meanwhile, seemed eerily calm despite agreeing to end his attempts to gain revenge on the Bull Kingdom and Trajan in particular.

“So,” the Marshal began with a light and airy tone as if he were about to comment on the weather or something else just as inane, “what are you going to do, really?”

Owain glanced at Arthwyn in confusion.  “What do you mean?  Everything is over now!  I’m not the governor of Briga anymore, there won’t be any more supply shipments!  We can’t feed or pay the army, there’s nothing else that can be done!”

“Hmph,” Arthwyn snorted in disdain.  Owain had attempted to assert himself throughout the few weeks the campaign had been going on, but he wasn’t the kind of monarch that Andraste was, the kind that could end a rebellion with a single letter.

“Don’t give me that shit!” Owain spitefully cried.  “You’re in the same boat!  You’re no longer a Marshal, and-“

Arthwyn interrupted the Prince by slowly rising from his chair, then, in a split second, hurled the table between them out of the way and lifted Owain by the throat.

“I don’t fucking care what Talfar calls me!” Arthwyn growled, keeping his voice low and menacing despite the enchantments on the command tent preventing their voices from escaping.  “That bastard Trajan took everything I ever cared for from me, and I will see him dead at my feet for it!”

Owain’s eyes were wide in panic as he saw the real possibility that Arthwyn would kill him.  With no other option, the now-former Marshal revealed the true depths of his hatred and need for revenge.  Arthwyn had a wild, crazed look to him, and Owain struggled against his tightening fingers.  The edges of his vision began to darken, and in his panic, Owain tried to summon his magic power, but it was too late.  His hands fell to his sides and everything went dark.

“I’ve waited a long time to do that, you little shit,” Arthwyn growled as he tossed the Prince’s unconscious form on the floor.

Gwen rolling in and taking away all of his political power infuriated Arthwyn, to say the least.  Once he managed to calm down and realized what he had done, though, he wasted no more time.  He stepped over Owain’s barely-breathing body and confidently strode out of the tent.

Once outside, he was greeted by the sight of the hundreds of cataphracts that Gwen had brought with her relieving his subordinates of their duties.

“HALT!” Arthwyn roared, and the entire inner camp froze under his powerful sixth-tier aura.  All of his Warrior-Chiefs and Captains turned their attention to him, as did Gwen’s cataphracts.

One of Gwen’s warriors, a sixth-tier mage himself, shouted, “Lord Arthwyn, please remain in your tent until the Marshal returns!”

Arthwyn rolled his eyes and waved his hand at the warrior, causing half a dozen stone spikes to burst out of the ground and impale the man, killing him instantly.

“MARSHAL GWEN INTENDS TO SURRENDER TO THE BULL!” Arthwyn bellowed, letting his voice reach every ear within the camp.  “SHE IS A TRAITOR TO THE CROWN WHO HAS ASSAULTED PRINCE OWAIN AND ATTEMPTED TO USURP AUTHORITY WITHIN THIS ARMY!  EVEN NOW, SHE VISITS THE BULL PRINCE OF ARIMINIUM TO SELL TALFAR LAND IN EXCHANGE FOR A POSITION IN THEIR ARMY!”

Arthwyn was making things up as he went along, and whether or not his immediate subordinates believed him was something he didn’t know, but he did see Gwen’s warriors starting panic with his words and many of his lower-tiered warriors reaching for their weapons and glaring at Gwen’s warriors.

Arthwyn continued with one last statement, “I HEREBY RELIEVE MARSHAL GWEN OF HER COMMAND AND CHARGE HER WITH TREASON!  ALL WHO FOLLOW HER ARE TO BE JUDGED JUST AS GUILTY AND ARE ORDERED TO SURRENDER TO THE NEAREST TALFAR WARRIOR!”

Gwen’s cataphracts were stunned at Arthwyn’s accusations, and many began to panic as Arthwyn’s people, already angered at the less than gentle treatment they received at the hands of Gwen’s warriors, surged toward them to take them into custody.  There were a few thoughts of resisting, but in the end, the hordes of Arthwyn’s army proved too much, and Gwen’s warriors surrendered without a fight.

As Arthwyn watched in satisfaction, one of his top Warrior-Chiefs ran up to him and asked, “My Lord, what are your orders?”

“We must prevent Gwen from succeeding in her plot,” Arthwyn said, extending his lie despite the conflicted look that passed over the Warrior-Chief’s face.  “Order the assault on the walls.  It doesn’t matter if a few of the trebuchets or siege towers aren’t finished, we’ll make do with what we have.  The Bull’s upper leadership will be distracted dealing with the traitor, so we can manage with what we have.”

“Yes, my Lord,” the Warrior-Chief responded.

Over the next hour, the Talfar army began mobilization as fast as they were able.  While this was happening, Arthwyn had Owain taken to a hospital tent and ordered that he be kept sedated for the time being.  When the attending medic tried to protest, Arthwyn unleashed his aura on the man, pushing him face-first into the dirt.  The next medic did not argue with Arthwyn and placed a few enchantments on Owain that would keep the Prince unconscious for the time being.

“Good,” Arthwyn muttered with a smile.  After his plans being set back time and time again by Owain, he found it immensely satisfying to finally be rid of the Prince.

Three hours after Gwen arrived at the camp, the entire Talfar army began to slowly march west, toward the walls of the Bull’s Horns.

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Chapter 269 - The Second Assault Begins

Chapter 267 - Xaphan's Gems