The lands east of the Bull’s Horns had been won in the last war with the Talfar Kingdom, but they weren’t particularly extensive. They sat in a small vale between the Border Mountains and the Tyrrhenian River where the plain widened slightly, only to contract again further to the east. The land the Bull’s Horns had been built upon was still the narrowest part of the region, though.
Over the next eighty years, numerous watchtowers and a small wooden fort had been built within this small vale, all designed to watch for invasion and to hold off any surprise attack long enough for the Legions at the Bull’s Horns to get ready. These towers and fort were small, though, only needing five hundred soldiers from Trajan’s personal retinue to properly man. The fort, barely more than a tower surrounded by a single wall was located on a hill small enough to barely be described as such, but with a commanding view of all the other towers.
Right now, Constantine, the commander of Trajan’s five hundred men stationed in this vale, was on the eastern wall of his fort, staring out toward the Talfar Kingdom. He was joined by Leon, Trajan, and a dozen other high-ranking knights in service to the Prince. Less than ten miles away, they could see exactly what Constantine had sent word about: a massive army from the Talfar Kingdom setting up camp just on the other side of the border between their two Kingdoms, with thousands more continuing to stream in from further east with hundreds of wagons filled with supplies.
“Has your estimate of the size of that army changed any in the last few hours?” Trajan asked Constantine.
The short and stocky man quickly replied, “No, Your Highness. We still believe they number at least two hundred thousand, and probably a great deal more than that. My scouts tell me that their marching column hasn’t even left Briga yet, there are so many.”
Trajan frowned as he watched Talfar’s advance units across the plain hurriedly setting up their camp. There wasn’t much he could do about that, but he was still rapidly going through his options in his head.
‘We could sally out with a small force and disrupt their work… But then any soldiers we send out will be caught up in a battle with what is likely to be Talfar’s strongest troops… I can’t let them continue without challenge, but it will be at least another day before the Legions finish preparing for battle, and by then their camp will already be too fortified to take…’
The Prince hated not doing anything, but he couldn’t see any proactive option open to him that wouldn’t leave hundreds or thousands of his soldiers injured and dead, and he couldn’t have that when he was so outnumbered.
“We have another problem,” Constantine continued. “Before they assault the Horns, they’re going to have to take Florentia…”
Trajan’s frown grew deeper. Florentia was a small trade city built on the Tyrrhenian River over the past few decades, along the small section of the river that formed the border between the Samar Kingdom’s northeastern frontier and the Talfar Kingdom’s southwestern frontier. Despite this, the closest city to it was Ariminium, and as a result, most of Florentia’s citizens were from the Bull Kingdom, and the city generally considered itself an unofficial protectorate of the Bull King.
Ariminium’s static defenses were weakest along the Tyrrhenian River, and if this Talfar army wanted to take advantage of that weakness—as Trajan knew it would—then they would have to seize Florentia first. If they didn’t, then any assault force attacking Ariminium from the river would be at risk of being sandwiched between Ariminium’s local defense fleet and any ships Florentia might send to aid its mother-state. Not to mention as a trade city, Florentia had a great many ships, and though they were almost all civilian galleys or smaller and no match for the warships in Ariminium’s port, they were still better than the nothing that the land-locked Talfar Kingdom currently had, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch for Trajan to guess that that army would want to conscript Florentia’s ships.
The Talfar Kingdom simply couldn’t leave a potentially hostile city to their south when they finally entered the vale in front of the Bull’s Horns for fear of being flanked.
“How long would you guess they have?” Trajan asked Constantine.
“Less than a day. If I were leading that army, then I would send a few thousand soldiers as soon as possible to secure the city before they have a chance to evacuate,” Constantine answered.
“As would I…” Trajan muttered as he thought about what to do. He could see Florentia off in the distance, only about twenty miles away. He could even hear the sound of alarm bells coming from the city’s defense towers. “We can’t abandon our own people,” he finally stated after several long minutes of thought. “They are technically partially in the Talfar Kingdom’s territory, but they are our citizens!”
Many of the knights around the Prince nodded their approval, including Leon. Alix even had an adoring look like she was staring at a god as Trajan spoke about protecting the citizens of the Kingdom.
“Does Your Highness have something in mind?” Constantine asked.
“I will lead an expedition to evacuate the town,” Trajan replied, his tone light and simple, as if evacuating a town of ten thousand people was the easiest thing in the world.
“We’re going to need ships if we’re to pass by those Talfar guys setting up camp,” Leon soberly observed. He greatly approved of rescuing as many innocent civilians as possible, but he also wasn’t going to let such an idealistic goal distract him from what could realistically be accomplished.
Trajan nodded at the younger knight. “I know,” he whispered with a dark look in his eye. The Legate in charge of the local fleet defending Ariminium was less than cooperative with him, and had both refused to aid his soldiers in retaking the guild district during the riot and declined to render assistance in dealing with the smugglers.
‘He will not refuse me this time,’ Trajan thought as he glared at the Talfar camp.
The Legate in charge of the defensive fleet was a short and plain man. He was thin, with beady eyes and almost rodent-like facial features.
He also had blood running down his face from a gash on his forehead, and the only sounds coming out of his mouth were whimpers of pain.
Trajan had meant it when he vowed the Legate wouldn’t refuse him. After leaving Constantine’s fort, he, Leon, and the rest of his knights went down to the port to have words with the admiral. Of course, the Legate had tried to refuse at first, saying, “I will not leave my post without a direct order from the Consul of the Gulf! It doesn’t matter what’s going on, my ships don’t move without authorization from the Endless Gate!”
Upon hearing this, Trajan picked up the smaller man and literally threw him across the room, in front of all his subordinates. As he sailed through the air, the Legate smashed his head into a table, leaving a bleeding gash just over his left eye. Of course, it was only a superficial injury and would be fixed with a single low-quality healing spell, but it bled a lot, making it appear much more serious than it was.
Trajan knew he made a mistake by throwing the Legate, but he wasn’t going to back down with a Talfar army bearing down upon those that he felt he had a duty to protect. Besides, he was a Prince, and he wasn’t going to lower himself to an obstructive bureaucrat during wartime.
A few of the Tribunes and administrative Legates looked like they wanted to intervene, but a few glares from Leon and Trajan’s other knights quickly put an end to those thoughts.
“We have a city of ten thousand to reach and less than a day to do so!” Trajan suddenly roared. “That army from the Talfar Kingdom isn’t going to leave Florentia alone, not when more than ninety percent of the city is made up of our citizens! If you do not agree to sail out with me and see to the defense and evacuation of Florentia, then I will have you all arrested and I will conscript enough sailors to move the damned ships myself!”
The Prince’s demeanor was dour and serious, and none of the officers present doubted the words he was saying. Technically, though, he could only arrest all of them during wartime, and there had been no formal declaration of war from the King, either of the Prince-Regents, or the Assembly. And yet, he was still a Prince, and few Arbiters would argue with his decision if he decided to toss them all behind bars when a Talfar army was encamped only a few miles away.
“We’ll see to the ships, Your Highness,” one of the Legates said. Leon recognized him as the second-in-command of the fleet.
“I want everyone ready to head to Florentia by nightfall!” Trajan thundered, followed immediately by a chorus of ‘Yes, Your Highness!’ from all the fleet’s knights.
The messages had been sent, the Legions were mustering, the fleet was getting ready. Minerva was seeing to the medical and food supplies of the Northern Horn, while another of Trajan’s Legates was doing likewise for the Southern Horn. There was nothing left for the Prince to do except sit and wait for a few more hours. Constantine was still watching the Talfar army like a hawk, so if anything happened, Trajan would know within minutes.
Additionally, he had the senior diplomat responsible for managing the Bull Kingdom’s relations with the Talfar Kingdom sending emergency messages to his underlings in Pretani, the capital of the Talfar Kingdom. He also sent a few messengers to the Talfar camp to politely inquire as to what was happening.
When he sent word to the capital, he used the communication stones, so he expected to get word back soon. But that had been hours ago, and he had yet to hear back from either Prince August or the Consul of the Central Territories, which only brought more worry to his mind.
There was nothing left for Trajan to do except wait for his subordinates to report back to him and for responses to his messages. With nothing to do, he took to inviting Leon into one of his living rooms, as the younger knight had little to do, himself. Trajan hadn’t yet assigned Leon any subordinates, as he preferred to wait until Leon had spent more time learning from other more experienced knights before assigning him a formal command—he’d been introduced to Trajan after recklessly endangering a diplomatic mission, after all.
“You all right, Trajan?” Leon asked quietly as the Prince stared out of his window to the east. From the height of his tower in the keep, Trajan could just barely see the Talfar camp through the haze, dust, and evening shadows of the miles that separated them. He could also see thousands of soldiers scurrying through the streets of the Southern Horn preparing the fortress for a lengthy siege.
“Thousands of people are going to die in the coming days,” Trajan said with a sober expression. “We don’t even know why, yet…” As he trailed off, the Prince patted his breast pocket, where the onyx plate with Caecilius’ ruby was. The Bluefire Guild’s founder had been fairly quiet over the past few weeks, likely processing the forced disbandment of the guild he had worked so hard to build. Trajan hoped the man would recover soon as, with both Kyros and Julius gone, he was in need of good counsel from someone whose judgment he trusted.
“Then it’s our duty to keep as many of them alive as possible, right?” Leon asked, even though he knew the answer to the question. He only asked it to keep Trajan talking.
“Indeed, it is.”
Trajan left it at that, so Leon hesitantly asked something that had been on his mind, “I hope this isn’t impertinent to ask, but what will my place be in all this?” Leon had no soldiers to organize and only a single squire to command. He was, officially at least, one of Trajan’s personal knights, but he also held the formal rank of Tribune, so he could be placed in charge of up to one thousand soldiers it the need arose.
But Trajan didn’t intend to put Leon in command of any forces. He couldn’t envision a situation where placing an eighteen-year-old in charge of a battalion was a good idea, no matter how much trust he had in the individual in question.
“You’re going to accompany me to Florentia,” Trajan said. He knew Leon wanted to know what he would be doing throughout the coming war, but the Prince instead chose to answer in the short-term. “You’ll assist me in evacuating our citizens from that city.”
“And if we’re attacked before we finish?” Leon asked, his eyes narrowing from recognizing Trajan’s avoidance of his previous question.
Trajan was silent for a long moment. “You’re too young to command,” he said bluntly, “but you’re not too young to fight.”
Leon felt his stomach plummet from disappointment—he wasn’t looking forward to having to interact with as many people as having a command would necessitate, but it would be a vital next step in his own ambitions to gain power. Still, he could understand Trajan’s decision perfectly well, even if he wasn’t thrilled by it.
“When we arrive in Florentia, I’m going to have the soldiers we bring spread throughout the city to garrison it and prepare for the Talfar attack. You’ll stick with me, and I’ll send you wherever you’re most needed if the need arises.”
Leon nodded in acknowledgment. It may be for the best, but he wished that what was for the best didn’t leave him stuck in the back when the attack came.
“No need to worry, though, kid. I don’t intend to stay in the back lines for the entire war…” Trajan said with a smile of anticipation.
At that moment, both heard a knock at the door.
“Enter,” Trajan growled.
A Tribune walked in, bowed, and said, “Your Highness, the ships are ready and the 23rd Legion stands ready to accompany you to Florentia.”