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Trajan read and re-read the letter Constantine had sent him. The others around him waited for an explanation, or at least for the Prince to allow the competition to continue, but the Prince was silent for a long moment. Trajan knew that things were going to get loud and busy, so he savored this one last moment of quiet and calm.

As soon as that moment was over, he flew into a flurry of activity.

“That Talfar army that has been assembling in Briga is now marching for our borders, their force is much too large for it to be anything other than an invasion!” he exclaimed, to the shock and anger of the knights and their squires. He saw Leon tense up, though it was subtle enough that he doubted anyone else did. Minerva walked over to stand at his side, ready to get back to the Northern Horn at his command to get the garrisons ready. Everyone else waited on his word.

“All members of your Legions who aren’t here at the Horns are to be recalled. I want us as close to one hundred percent readiness as we can get to in two days.”

They had trained for this. The last foreign war the Bull Kingdom had fought had been fifty years ago when they had subjugated the Serpentine Isles far to the west, and thirty years before that had been the last war with Talfar that been won by such a wide margin that Trajan didn’t think they’d try another invasion in this generation. But even though it had been a long time since war had last been visited upon the Kingdom, Trajan kept the twelve Legions under his command in the Eastern Territories in shape and ready for when it would next arrive.

And that time was now.

Trajan dismissed the Legion knights, and the three Legates departed the chamber with haste as they hurriedly issued orders to the knights they had brought with them. It wouldn’t be a monumental task to get all three Legions formed up and ready for battle in two days, but they would still need every second they had.

Minerva, Leon, the two other knights, and their squires all remained, along with the messenger from Constantine waiting to take Trajan’s response back to the Legate.

“Tell your commander that I will be personally visiting him within the next few hours to confirm his report and to gather more details,” Trajan said to the messenger, who instantly bowed and began his run back to Constantine. “Get the Northern Horn in order,” Trajan said to Minerva, trusting her to do what she needed to do.

“Yes, Your Highness!” she responded, and she, too, left the training chamber.

That left six others.

“Follow me,” Trajan said to them as he led them out of the chamber and toward his office. There were a great many things that needed to be done, and he’d need all of his knights on deck.

The first order of business was to send messages to the capital and to every landed noble in the Eastern Territories. Trajan also needed to make sure the other nine Legions in the east were ready for deployment as well—he couldn’t call upon all of them, as that would essentially leave almost half of the land in the Eastern Territories without peacekeepers and law enforcers, but he felt like he could safely pull two or three down to the Horns to defend the Kingdom.

What concerned him much more was the situation in the capital. When Talfar attempted their last invasion eighty years ago, his brother Julius Septimius had only been King for a handful of years, and the Talfar King thought that he could steal the Bull’s Horns while Julius was still consolidating power.

Instead, Julius had reinforced the Bull’s Horns with ten Legions he’d gathered from the Central, Northern, and Southern Territories, along with the personal armies of a dozen high nobles including Archduke Kyros Raime. Against such a mighty force, the armies of the Talfar King were repulsed from the Horns again and again, and the Bull’s Legions pushed them back deep into their lands.

As punishment, Talfar only had to sign a fifty-year truce, pay a huge amount of gold and silver in one lump sum, pay a substantial tribute for twenty years, and cede an inconsequential amount of land east of the Bull’s Horns.

Julius had hoped that by showing a modicum of mercy, peace would be maintained. And it was, for eighty years the Talfar Kingdom had kept a respectable distance from the Bull’s Horns.

‘Of course, part of the reason why they did that was that the Han Kingdom has been rather violently disputing Talfar’s eastern border…’ Trajan cynically noted.

Eighty years ago, Trajan, Kyros Raime, and Julius Septimius Taurus led an army composed of twelve Legions, along with four of the seven Paladins of the time against the armies of the Talfar Kingdom.

This time would be different, Trajan knew. Constantine’s estimates put the Talfar army at about the same size as it was eighty years ago, but the Bull Kingdom was in a much weaker position. The Bull King was indisposed, House Raime was effectively gone, Trajan couldn’t count on the presence of any Paladins, and he couldn’t count on any Legions outside of those directly under his command coming to reinforce the Horns without the King.

Trajan glanced at Leon, the last scion of House Raime. The Prince couldn’t help but feel a slight pang of regret that even after it’s effective destruction, House Raime still provided all it possibly could to the Kingdom—regardless of Leon’s specific reasons for being there.

‘I would trade all the gold in my vaults to bring Kyros back for a single hour…’ Trajan thought, his apprehension growing stronger the more he thought about facing down an opposing army almost five times the size of his own while lacking such brilliant and experienced commanders as Kyros, Julius, and the Paladins of his youth. The death of the Blackstone Paladin forty years ago, in particular, had a terrible impact on the potential military force the Bull Kingdom could bring to bear. Only the Bronze and Penitent Paladins could’ve ever compared to her, in Trajan’s mind.

He would have to make do with what he had. He lacked manpower, and those soldiers he did have, while well-trained, had cut their teeth on bandits and monsters, not on an organized and well-equipped foe like Talfar cataphracts or chariot teams.

There had been no formal declarations of war from either side, but regardless, war was now coming. Trajan didn’t like it, but he had to accept it.

Once he and his knights reached his office, Trajan turned to them and said, “Let’s get to work…”

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Briga was only twenty miles to the east of the Bull Kingdom, but that was only in direct distance. Owain’s army had to march more than twice that distance past the southern reaches of the Border Mountains to approach the Bull’s Horns. That still wasn’t a huge distance, but his army was more than two hundred thousand strong, and an army column of that size didn’t move quickly, ten miles a day if they were lucky.

They still made for a spectacular sight, despite their lack of speed. Owain led the army from the front atop a stallion that had been equipped in stunning silver armor adorned with blue war paint. He matched his horse, with a suit of glittering silver armor encrusted with sapphires and covered in blue druidic symbols.

Riding behind him was the stern and serious Arthwyn, dressed in his own silver and blue armor and riding a warhorse no less impressive than Owain’s, though his was of a more rugged attractiveness while Owain’s was the picture of well-groomed equine beauty. Following the two of them were the chariots, five thousand in all and each with a team of four operating it. Then came the heavily armed mounted cataphracts, the light cavalry skirmishers, the professional heavy infantry, and finally the light infantry of levied peasants, every one of them with their armor covered in blue war paint, showing their resolve to fight until the end for their Prince. The army was so large, in fact, that Owain knew that there would still be some of his soldiers in Briga by the time the front of the column reached the chosen site of their camp.

Owain couldn’t help but feel conflicted about this. He was launching a campaign to raise his prestige and become acknowledged as King, but he still believed that they were marching in the wrong direction. He wanted to take the capital while his sister, Queen Andraste, was fighting the Han Kingdom in the east, not starting another war in the west with the Bull Kingdom.

But, in the end, Marshal Arthwyn had convinced him to march on the Bull’s Horns, and whenever Owain voiced his doubts, the Marshal would always argue in favor of the invasion. As Arthwyn was his only official support in Talfar, Owain felt obligated to continue with his Marshal’s invasion plan, though he still didn’t like it.

“We’re going to win this, Your Highness,” Arthwyn reassured Owain. “Once we seize Ariminium, the Elders will appoint you to the Kingship for sure!”

Owain trusted Arthwyn not to lead him to disaster, but even still he was only able to turn and give his Marshal a half-hearted nod in acknowledgment.

Arthwyn hardly cared what Owain thought of him, though, just so long as his invasion was underway. Inside, he was a mess of excitement and anger, but his face and body language displayed none of it. He was before his troops, marching them west toward the Bull Kingdom, and he wasn’t going to let them know anything of his agitation.

His old wound began to throb the more he thought about finally tearing down the walls of the Bull’s Horns. He still remembered the massive man who gave it to him eighty years ago.

Arthwyn had only been a fourth-tier mage at the time, and his unit had been left behind in Briga when the army retreated in the face of the Bull Kingdom’s counter-invasion. It was when the Bull King’s Legions entered the city that he encountered Trajan, and after the encounter, Arthwyn had been left dying in the streets with the bodies of his comrades all around him. He’d only been saved when a nearby Legion medic recognized him as an officer and tended his wounds so that he’d live long enough to be ransomed.

The Marshal was unable to prevent a subtle smile from appearing on his face as he again thought about the destruction of the Bull’s Horns. So many people close to him had died when the previous King had failed to seize the fortress, and now there was nothing he looked forward to more than the fortresses destruction and the defeat of the Prince that had taken everything he cared about from him eighty years ago.

But Owain and Arthwyn weren’t the only commanders of this army, as Arthwyn had utilized his contacts to bring another one hundred thousand soldiers to bear on the Horns, and these soldiers were the fifty thousand commanded by Marshal Bran, and another fifty thousand commanded by Marshal Gwen. Gwen’s base of operations was much farther from Briga than Bran’s, so she would reinforce them in several weeks, but Bran had arrived in Briga with his army several days ago. Now, the tall, inhumanely pale man was supervising the levied peasants further back in the column.

Arthwyn hated Bran in ways that he couldn’t properly articulate—in fact, Trajan and maybe Kyros Raime were the only men Arthwyn hated more. The other Marshal had always stared at him with hungry eyes whenever there had been cause for the two to meet, and Arthwyn knew that the rumors that Bran was a cannibal had more truth to them than most people knew. When Bran arrived at the palace in Briga and Owain and Arthwyn greeted him, not even the Prince had been happy about the additional military support when he met the wolfish and disturbingly unblinking gaze of the Marshal.

As they rode along the road west, Owain thought to himself, ‘Arthwyn will be the first to die when I’m King. But after him comes Bran… That man’s a monster, and I want him eradicated…’

With titanic effort, Owain turned his thoughts from his companions to the task ahead of him. The army had been raised and supplied, but now it had to seize the single most heavily defended fortress outside of the Central Empires. Thousands would die, but when everything was over, he would be King. And that’s all Owain truly cared about.

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warden1207

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