The earth shook beneath the feet of the Talfar battle formations as they marched out of the camp and toward the walls of the Horns, miles away. The formations of the infantry were perfect, the cataphract armor glittered in the afternoon sun, and the charioteers looked heroic as they drove behind the siege engines.
However, there was a palpable sense of uncertainty; the army didn’t move nearly as fast as they did when they last assaulted the walls, and Arthwyn could feel the stares of thousands of warriors around him and hear the indistinct mutterings of his subordinates. The Marshal had a dark look about him, despite his seeming composure, and it was clear that the highest ranked warriors in the army were not keen on moving the army at this time.
One of Arthwyn’s highest ranked Warrior-Chiefs drove up to him in his chariot. He was a man so trusted and respected that Arthwyn had given him command of nearly all of the charioteers in the army.
“My Lord,” the Warrior-Chief began as soon as he was close enough to speak without shouting, “may I ask a few questions?”
One of the reasons for the uncertain air about the Talfar army was just how quickly they were ordered to begin marching. Arthwyn hadn’t even called the senior leadership to a meeting to plan the assault, he simply gave the order to get the army in formation and to get marching. Understandably, there were more than a few questions that the leadership had for their Marshal.
“If you must,” Arthwyn growled, making it clear through his tone alone that he would’ve rather rejected the Warrior-Chief’s request.
Regardless, the Warrior-Chief pressed on. “My Lord, there is a great deal of confusion amongst the ranks. We don’t even know what we’re supposed to do once we get in range of the walls!”
“I’m not hearing a question,” Arthwyn snarled.
“My Lord, what happened to His Highness?” the Warrior-Chief suddenly asked.
Arthwyn looked surprised for a moment at the change in topic, but he regained his composure in less than a second and said, “Marshal Gwen assaulted His Highness before proceeding with her meeting with the Bull Prince. His Highness is currently receiving medical care, I’ve seen to it.”
“Was there nothing My Lord could’ve done at the moment? To protect the Royal Family is one of the greatest duties a warrior has!”
Arthwyn whirled around and glared at the Warrior-Chief. He’d barely spared the man a few glances before now, but after that question, the Chief had his undivided attention.
“What are you implying?” Arthwyn asked with a dangerous look in his eye. But the Marshal restrained himself when he saw that several other Warrior-Chiefs were watching and listening to the conversation. Despite everything, he needed these warriors to keep the army together and moving, and he couldn’t afford to alienate them. And they clearly had doubts about his story, doubts which only grew when he ordered the current march on Ariminium.
“I request that we turn around and return to camp,” the Warrior-Chief said, finally getting around to his point.
“Denied,” Arthwyn instantly replied. “We’re taking this fortress and this city, that is what this army was assembled for!”
“My Lord, our Prince is injured, and a Marshal has been accused of treason! The morale of the army is in tatters, we can’t fight like this!” the Warrior-Chief protested.
“I have given you your orders, if you continue to argue against them, I will have you arrested for insubordination!” Arthwyn shouted, finally losing his patience. “Return to your duties! I will hear no more of this!”
The Warrior-Chief stared at his Marshal, and for a few seconds, it appeared like he was going to continue arguing. However, he backed down under Arthwyn’s withering gaze and quietly returned to his place at the head of the chariot corps. The other Warrior-Chiefs paled a little as Arthwyn swept his gaze over them, and any thoughts of adding their voice to the previous Warrior-Chief’s vanished.
And yet, it was clear to Arthwyn that the army wasn’t moving with the purpose it had only a week before. But Arthwyn was long past caring about that. What he had done would quickly come to light if he were to stop and take the time to try and alleviate their concerns or come up with a more concrete plan, so he kept them moving forward. He’d already committed treason and attacked a Prince, after all, and the lives of the rest of the thousands of peasants and warriors paled in comparison to his vengeance.
And so, despite moving slower and with much less purpose, the Talfar army marched on.
From the command tower, Leon and Trajan could see everything in the vale. The Talfar army advanced like a rising sea, but the walls of the Horns were strong and thick, and neither were too worried about their chances.
“They have less siege towers and trebuchets than before,” Leon observed.
“Thank the Ancestors for small mercies,” Trajan whispered before turning back to the soldiers manning the enchantment consoles. “Let’s begin,” he ordered, and the soldiers began to monitor the enchantments and occasionally activate runic circles.
Leon could see everything that happened. All along the vale erupted geysers of fire and bright explosions, pillars of rock and ice burst from the ground and literally poked holes in the Talfar lines, killing a few and causing the rest to slow down. As the Talfar army drew closer to the walls, a long line of rock spikes burst from the ground like anti-cavalry spikes.
By the time the Talfar army reached arrow range, they had already left more than five thousand of their comrades lying dead or severely injured in the vale.
“By the Ancestors…” Alix muttered from beside Leon. As his squire, she was allowed here—as was Anzu, but the griffin didn’t care about the battle down below and preferred to sit next to Leon’s feet, lean against his leg, and slowly preen his wings while occasionally glaring at the soldiers who glanced at him.
The Talfar army huddled together, firing their arrows back at the Legion archers on the walls as they advanced, but to limited effect. The Legion archers were much more effective, and the Talfar infantry paid in blood for every step they took.
The siege towers were tougher, and they shrugged off explosive spells from arrows and trebuchets. The peasants pushing them, on the other hand, fell in droves. They took so many casualties, in fact, that Leon could see a few peasants try to run, only to be caught by the infantry behind them.
The first siege tower fell before it even hit the walls. Five Legion trebuchets concentrated on a single tower and fired star shells—pots covered in an explosive enchantment and filled with a special blend of resin, oil, and the blood of fire beasts—at the tower. Under this kind of literal firepower, the enchantments protecting the tower failed, and the five-story-tall siege engine burned to ash in minutes, along with the couple hundred Talfar infantry who had entered when the tower neared the walls.
Talfar’s remaining seven towers kept moving, though, and the Talfar trebuchets returned fire. Explosions flashed up and down the first wall, and Leon knew that scores of Legion soldiers had just died.
Still, the battle was going much better than it had a week before. Discipline in the Talfar ranks was breaking down enough for even Leon and Alix to see from their vantage point, and the piles of Talfar dead were growing.
The first siege tower hit the wall, with the ramp crashing down on the battlements of a tower. It was the one closest to the river and would’ve been in range of the Fire Lances had the fleet been in position, but with the surprise assault, the fleet hadn’t been deployed in time to stop it. Talfar warriors poured out of the tower, displaying for the first time in the battle the same fighting spirit that they had during the first assault.
Unfortunately for them, they encountered stiff resistance in the tower, halting them in their tracks. A shield wall had been established on the wide roof of the tower with a pair of fifth-tier mages out in front. Talfar’s warriors, despite fighting ferociously and displaying great courage, simply failed to get past this iron wall.
“There’s something off about this assault,” Leon muttered as he watched everything happening. His hand kept moving to rest on his sword, but the weapon was in his soul realm, leaving his hand grasping at nothing and leaving Leon’s tic unsatisfied.
“What’re you thinking?” Trajan asked, causing Leon to almost jump out of his skin. The younger knight had been so engrossed in watching the battle that he hadn’t realized the Prince was back at the window.
Leon quickly explained what he had observed, from the desertion of the peasants to the weakened unit cohesion between the Talfar units, and their much slower speed and ferocity.
“Hmm,” Trajan hummed in thought. “Well, it would make sense, given what we’ve heard from you, our scouts, and Marshal Gwen. This seems to me like a last-ditch attempt to snatch victory, regardless of the cost. I couldn’t imagine an assault when their supplies are so devastated and when their commanders had just been replaced under any normal conditions…
“It’s something to consider, but for now, it doesn’t change the fact that the walls are under assault. We’ll push them back and sort through the rest later.”
“Should be much easier given how they’re fighting right now,” Leon said. A second later, one of the Talfar trebuchets was obliterated by a Legion trebuchet directly hitting it with an earth spell; a rock spike the size of a four-story building rendered it into little more than splinters and smashed the Talfar team manning the weapon to bloody pulp with the speed of its creation.
“Indeed,” Trajan murmured.
Two more towers were destroyed in quick succession from intrepid Legion Tribunes, and it was clear that the other five towers weren’t doing so great. The infantrymen at their feet were far more concerned with blocking arrow fire than they were with entering the towers and storming the walls, and with every warrior that was killed, there were fewer replacements ascending the towers.
All in all, it was not looking good for the Talfar army.
“This is terrible,” one Warrior-Chief muttered.
“We never should’ve attacked in our current state, we’re going to be annihilated if we don’t retreat,” another responded.
Both men were speaking in low, hushed tones, but Arthwyn was still able to hear them, despite the sounds of the battle before them.
“Quiet,” the former-Marshal growled, silencing both of the Chiefs with a terrible glare.
There were others speaking as they were, of course, but it had taken about an hour after the battle began for the Chiefs to start voicing their concerns amongst themselves. Fortunately for Arthwyn, there weren’t any other Warrior-Chiefs around him that were so vocally discouraged, but as a trebuchet went up in flames from Legion counter-fire, he could feel the eyes of his immediate subordinates boring holes in his back.
The situation was terrible, they were losing warriors far too quickly to sustain this assault, and yet Arthwyn steadfastly refused to order the retreat. The Talfar forces had seized about half of the towers on the eastern-most wall during their first assault, but now, after an hour of fighting, they had yet to gain control of a single one.
Making matters worse, a fourth siege tower was cut in half by a Legate wielding light magic, causing the top two-ish floors to topple to the ground and render the remainder useless.
Four siege towers remained, and a mere eight trebuchets were able to continue the bombardment. There were a few broken sections of battlements here and there, and a couple of the towers were starting to crumble, but the gatehouse held strong and the Talfar warriors were rebuffed in their half-hearted attempts to seize it.
“My Lord…” one of the Warrior-Chiefs hesitantly began, “… Perhaps a… retreat… might be in order?”
Arthwyn remained silent. He honestly didn’t think he’d be able to respond to his subordinate without going off on him, so he didn’t even spare the man a glance.
Taking this man’s lead, a Warrior-Captain added, “It’s all we can do to keep the levies from beginning a mass-rout, and it’s clear that our infantry is simply not up to this task, My Lord! We must retreat back to camp!”
“NO!” Arthwyn roared, startling everyone around him. “We will not retreat! We will burn this entire fortress to the ground! We will kill that bastard Trajan and his traitorous bitch, and then we will march home in victory! We are not stopping this assault until victory is assured!”
Arthwyn’s aura spiked and his killing intent washed over his surroundings. Every warrior within a hundred feet of the Marshal felt like they were dunked into an ice cold mountain lake and their hair stood on end. Their heart rates shot through the roof, their hands began to shake, and any more warriors willing to speak up about the futility of their assault fell silent.
And then, from over the walls came the sound of a loud horn blast, and a cry of joy spread over all of Ariminium.
Arthwyn clenched his jaw in frustration, he knew what that horn meant: Legion reinforcements.
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