Empire at War

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Chapter Two: Era of Heroes - Battle at Loudias

War was dirty and brought only suffering for the common people. Lahya Eventyr had witnessed the cruelties committed by humans during times of war first hand, its effects still lingering in her very being to this day. She hated killing, even to the point where she would not end the life of the slaver who had sold her and her brother separately, despite knowing of their familial relationship. Even then, she still participated in war, and called two men who compared the numbers of enemy commander’s heads taken after each battle, her closest friends. This was because to fulfill her ambition in a world that knew only violence, she had to rely on those that could sow the most of it. Even then, she had made it clear to the two that she would not stand for needless slaughter among the enemy soldiers and most of all, never allow pillaging. She had been glad to learn that her two companions abhorred the idea of stealing from and killing the common folk as much as she did.

The same was true for Count Straton, and being on the receiving end of such pillaging, he had declared war on the perpetrator without a moment’s hesitation. In a sense, he was upholding his principles in this way, although the situation seemed hopeless in the face of the overwhelming army headed by Duke Paramonos. With the garrisons from all across Abila pulled together, its army barely surpassed fifty thousand. On the other side, only the larger part of Olynthus standing army had marched out to meet them; eighty thousand men, nearly a hundred thousand when counting the auxiliary and supply convoys, trampled the grassy plains of Abila into a wasteland, as they crossed the borders.

Despite his rash decision to fight, Straton was well aware of the fact that his army was at a numerical disadvantage. However, at the same time, there were not many natural defenses between Olynthus and Abila, and to halt the advance of Paramonos’ overwhelming numbers, he needed to commit to an initial clash at the border. Such a battle against a larger enemy force meant that the individual capabilities of the various generals in the field were indispensible for the survival of the troops. Straton, as a mere count, did not hold the same force of attraction a duke did; all generals under his command were from Abila, which limited their quality. Paramonos counted many outstanding individuals from different fiefdoms of the empire among his subordinates.

The twenty thousand strong enemy vanguard under Zotikos Lecha of Sineia numbered already more than a third of Straton’s entire forces. Seeking to gain a quick first victory, Abila advanced with its entire army and forced the encounter before Olynthus’ main army could arrive. The resulting clash was a direct confrontation located in a shallow valley, with neither ambushes nor specific strategies on both sides.

It quickly became clear that Olynthus’ troops were of a caliber different from Abila’s. While Paramonos had been able to maintain an army of full-time soldiers due to the size of his fiefdom, Straton had to use levies and militia drafted from the common people. On the one hand, the difference in numbers meant little in face of the superior training the soldiers of Olynthus had enjoyed; on the other hand, the citizens of Abila were defending their own land from invaders - ones who had proven to kill innocent civilians and pillage their cities in a gruesome precedent - and thus, fought with righteous fervor.

Due to the fact that Paramonos’ main forces were only half a day away and would most likely speed up their march if word of a clash reached them, Abila was fighting a battle against time. Unfortunately, being unable to surround or push Zotikos back, Straton had to order a full retreat after three hours, fearing that if his army lingered too long, it would be beset upon by the full power of Olynthus.

The body count on both sides numbered less than five thousand each, which meant that the gamble had been a failure. On the other hand, Olynthus’ advance had been temporarily halted, as they began to move more carefully within Abila’s borders. Pulling back around fifty liges from the clash, Straton created a three-tiered set of camps, twenty liges outside the city of Eubea, at the dried bed of the Loudias river, and readied himself for a siege battle against the much larger enemy force.

“Straton declares war on our mighty Olynthus, but when we come all the way to Abila to meet his expectations, he holes himself up in his camp! How can you all follow such a cowardly leader?” The taunts from Paramonos’ soldiers, who came every day early in the morning and stayed until late in the evening, resulted from the passive stance Straton had taken for the past month. The enemy supply lines were long and having experienced such a battle before, the count seemed to employ the tactics that had wasted him nearly a whole year in Naxos.

“Let us ride out and meet them in battle! I cannot take these insults any longer!” Kyrillos Podio of Eubea was enraged at the incessant taunts coming from barely outside the range of Abila’s arrows. He stood atop the wooden gatehouse of the outermost tier of camps, watching the enemy drinking and feasting all day, throwing insults at him and his men at regular intervals.

“You must not! Can you not see that our lord is deliberately ignoring them to prepare for his stratagem?” Xenokras Jodocis of Abila, one of Straton’s closest advisors stepped in and chastised the impatient general. Kyrillos was a rotund man with an eternally red face, which was even redder now that he was puffed up with anger. The other generals shared his sentiment and Epaphras Nequam of Himera voiced his support for Kyrillos, when the words from the Olynthus army became bolder, as they began to insult Straton’s name and family. “At least let us attack that small group of loudmouths out there. They are few in number and have taken off their armor against the heat. They won’t have the time to get ready, if we ride out now.”

“Yes, let us do that!” Kyrillos agreed and prepared to step past Xenokras, who barred his way with his arms outstretched.

“If you do that, you go against the direct orders of our lord, and jeopardize his efforts over the past month!” Although the general was rotund, he was still half a head taller than and twice as wide as the scholarly advisor. Ignoring his efforts, Kyrillos pushed the latter aside and made his way down the ramparts. “When I bring back the head of the commander of that small contingent, our lord will be pleased.” He sounded confident. “Epaphras, take three hundred men and ride with me.” Kyrillos was second in command of Abila’s left wing, as such he commanded an army of three thousand. However, seeing as how the enemy only numbered around a hundred, he was confident that with a combined force of six hundred, he could ride them all down without losing a single one of his men.

By the time Xenokras had arrived at the command tent in the innermost tier of camps, Kyrillos and Epaphras had already set out. Lahya, having requested to be stationed in the outermost layer alongside General Hagnos, heard the commotion, called for Leontis and Alexander, and quickly ascended the ramparts with them at her side to witness how the impulsive attack would turn out.

Upon seeing the Abila riders come out of their camp, the taunting division of the enemy began to gather their belongings as quickly as possible and beat a hasty retreat, some losing parts of their armor or even their weapons in their flight. Emboldened by that sight, Kyrillos spurred his horse to ride even faster, closing the gap between them at an incredible pace. Just when the Olynthus soldiers were halfway up the opposite hill, a large force easily numbering in the thousands appeared on its ridge, displaying the flag of Hippolytos Ortiako of Abydos, the second in command of the enemy’s vanguard.

Lahya watched with a grim expression as the enemy general rode at the front of his forces and stampeded down the hill, while Kyrillos realized his mistake too late and barely had time to turn his small contingent around. Then, he was beheaded by Hippolytos in a single swing of his halberd, unable to even lift his weapon in response. Epaphras had been quicker in his reaction and his forces rode as fast as they could, to return to the Abila camp, with the enemy hot on their heels.

“We need to do something, or else they will be annihilated,” Lahya stated, gauging the numbers under Hippolytos. They were two thousand at least, riding down the stragglers from Kyrillos headless troops, while Epaphras desperately scrambled for safety. Leontis turned to one of the watching soldiers who wielded a longbow and took it off of him. In the towering man’s hands it looked like a short bow, as he nocked an arrow, took aim and drew back to the bow’s breaking point. The enemies were still well beyond firing range, but without a hint of doubt, he let the projectile loose. Flying with a deadly whirring, cutting through the air in an arc like a curved blade, it found its way into the head of the horse at the front of the pursuers - which happened to be the one Hippolytos rode.

The dead horse fell and its rider with it, very nearly getting trampled by the troops that followed behind. Quickly realizing that they had come within range of Abila’s archers, Hippolytos beat a hasty retreat. Even then, from the six hundred under Kyrillos and Epaphras, fewer than half returned. Those who witnessed Leontis’ incredible feat cared little about the state of their comrades who just entered the camp, as word of the fact that he halted an enemy army of two thousand with a single arrow from a seemingly impossible distance quickly made its rounds among the Abila forces. Alexander’s loud voice was one of the main carriers of the new legend that would be spun around this incident.

“I was aiming for the enemy general... I am sure Baltsar would have hit him,” Leontis seemed to be dissatisfied with the result. Ever since the duel with the legendary general from Naxos, Lahya had found him comparing himself to the younger man. It showed just how much of a monster they had been able to fight to a standstill at the gates of Lato Triada. Even though the shot had been an incredible achievement, it could only be considered a failure when compared to Baltsar’s mastery of all forms of armed combat.

“You did well, Leontis. Now Hippolytos and his men will wonder if you did it on purpose. You will grow much bigger in their imagination, more than you would have, had you killed him,” Lahya understood the psychology behind warfare, and knew that the enemy would fear Leontis for being capable of shooting and killing whomever he desired from a distance they had thought safe before.

The gate closed behind the last straggler, one of the few survivors of Kyrillos’ contingent, and they were back in safety. Lahya and Leontis came down the ramparts and Epaphras noticed the bow in the man with the golden mane’s hand.

“I thank you for saving my life, Sir Leontis,” Epaphras dismounted his horse and bowed. The latter was looking behind the returned general and a neutral expression masked the grimness of his following words. “Your life is all but saved, General Epaphras.”

“Guards, take this man into custody!” Staton’s voice boomed across the camp. He had arrived alongside his entourage, to witness the situation for himself; seeing the state the returning soldiers were in, there was no need for further explanations. “He will answer for his crime of disobeying my direct orders with his life.” At these words Epaphras’ face lost all its colors, as two soldiers grabbed his arms and pulled him away.

“For all those who do not understand, I will repeat it here: Nobody is to leave these camps to engage the enemy before I personally give the order. Those who do not abide by this are to share Epaphras’ fate.” Leaving this heavy statement lingering in the air, Straton returned to his command tent in the depths of the camp clusters.

But sure enough, on the very next day, Olynthus sent a new contingent to taunt Abila’s forces. Having learned from the mistakes of the two generals who rode out in disregard of their orders, all Abila’s generals could do was clench their teeth in impotence. Pelted by the insults, thrown at them by more and more voices every passing day, as the shouters swelled in numbers, Abila’s army was at a mental breaking point. This continued for several more weeks, during which Straton remained firmly locked inside his camp.

“Does our lord even have a plan or are we really just a turtle in our shell?”

“Maybe the count intends to wait until winter comes and Olynthus leaves on their own?”

“Our lord is actually too scared to take action.”

Discontented voices grew in the camps that were within earshot of the taunts, and dangerous rumors began to spread, stating that Straton really had no stratagem and was mindlessly copying the strategy he had been at the receiving end of against Pantas Museo of Naxos in his northern campaign the previous year.

During Thais visits of Lahya in the outermost layer of the camps, she noted that with every passing day, the voices became more and more audible. Emboldened by the fact that no punishment awaited them, the soldiers spoke with less and less restraint.

“This is becoming disconcerting, Lady Lahya,” Thais said, as she entered the half-alf’s tent. The latter was sitting on her bed, reading a wooden codex. Beside her were two neat piles of more codices, one much larger than the other. She had borrowed them from Straton’s personal collection and finished most of them over the two months in which they had remained inside the camps. Leontis and Alexander were diligently training the troops, while she trained her mind.

“I understand, but there is nothing we can do for now. Or do you also wish the army would ride out and meet the enemy in battle?” Lahya patted the space beside her on the bed, signaling for Thais to be seated. She did as asked and sighed. “Please do not tease me, Lady Lahya. I am concerned about the soldiers’ morale. If this continues for much longer, I do not know if they will be able to fight properly, when the time finally comes.”

“This will not continue for much longer. I am sure Count Straton’s stratagem is bearing fruit as we speak.” With conviction, the half-alf responded and smiled to Thais. The two had grown as close to each other as the former had with Leontis and Alexander, and at this point she counted the female human warrior among her close friends. Sometimes Lahya found herself envying Straton for having discovered Thais before she had.

“What do you mean? Do you know what the lord is planning?”

“Yes, I do think I know, but you can never be sure who is listening. There may very well be enemy spies within the camps, so I cannot tell you. One thing I can say, however, is that I believe it to be a very efficient strategy, although I do not agree with the method in itself.”

“Now you have me really interested. Please do not make such statements without telling me the details,” Thais spoke with a pout. Lahya had to remind herself that the girl before her, underneath all the shining silver armor and gallantry on the battlefield, was only eighteen years of age.

“Alright, I will tell you, but you have to keep it a secret. Anyone who asks you about it may very well be a spy, so be careful.” The half-alf was effectively saying that she trusted Thais without a hint of a doubt. Leaning in on her, she whispered what she believed to be Straton’s strategy into the human warrior’s ear.

“... to think the lord planned this...” Mixed feelings were displayed on her face upon hearing the truth. There was wonder and disapproval, but also resignation. “I do not agree with it either, Lady Lahya, but it is indeed very efficient, and will help us in this war, in which the odds are stacked against us.”

“Truthfully, Paramonos is at fault for sending such an incompetent negotiator. The right person with the right attitude could have prevented this whole war. Now, more lives are being lost because of a single person’s mistakes.” Lahya rubbed the bridge of her nose. “If this stratagem succeeds, it may end the whole war in one stroke. That is far better than Olynthus’ forces pushing further into Abila and potentially pillaging and razing cities along the way.”

“I agree with you on that point, Lady Lahya. As long as the war ends here, I can accept my lord’s solution.” Thais was a like-minded spirit in regards of war and its effects on the common people. Although she did not hesitate to take lives in battle, it was out of necessity rather than to seek glory. “Do you know when the stratagem will commence?”

“For that, you would have to ask the weather,” Lahya responded with a shrug, earning a chuckle from Thais. They shared an almost childlike moment of joy at the thought that they had a secret between the two of them.

And sure enough, it began to rain just a few days later, transforming the dry riverbed that was the no man’s land into a muddy field, causing the men from Olynthus to be even more enthusiastic about ridiculing Straton’s inactivity than they had been under the glaring midsummer sun. Due to the rain, they had to come closer to the camps to be heard, but for the same reason, Abila’s arrows still could not reach them.

The heavy rainfalls continued for almost two weeks, during which Lahya had Leontis and Alexander secretly prepare their troops for battle, until one afternoon the rain slowly drizzled out and came to a stop. At that time, Straton suddenly gave the command for full mobilization, and the war drums resounded throughout the camps. Within less than half an hour, the gates opened to reveal an army pouring out like a flood, riding down the hill with their standards held high. The taunting division immediately gathered up and retreated, to report this unusual behavior to their superiors. There were no pursuers chasing after them.

“Finally we get to see some action!” Alexander beat his chest and grinned. He had replaced his unwieldy sledgehammer with a two handed bladed mace that looked deceptively lighter than it really was. In the past few months he had gone through several different types of weapons, as his skills in combat progressed at a terrific rate. Leontis had pointed out to Lahya that the boisterous man would surpass him in due time.

“Remember what the lady told us. Keep an eye out for her signal,” Leontis reminded his companion with a steady voice. The half-alf had repeatedly stressed that this battle was not going to be what it looked like on the surface, although she had not told them the details.

“I am riding with you today, Lady Lahya,” Thais approached them on her white horse, her spotless silver chest plate shining in the rays of the sun which finally broke through the heavy clouds that had loomed overhead for so long. “Count Straton has ordered me to stay with the left wing and oversee the plan’s fruition.”

“It is great to have you with us. So, was my guess right?” Lahya greeted Thais and asked with a mischievous smile. “Down to every single detail. You are incredible, my lady,” The latter responded with a bow. “But since we are the closest to it, we need to get the timing right, and become the lead for the entire center and left wing.” Even now, it was important to keep the exact details under wrap, in case an enemy spy was able to hear it and give a warning signal.

More than forty thousand soldiers from Abila lined up in ranks on the slope before their camp, standing ready to face the more than twice as numerous army from Olynthus, which began to form up on the other side of the wide gulch. Although the numbers were far less impressive than those in the clash between the alliance army against Hesper’s forces had been, the sight was nonetheless one to behold. The resulting bloodbath was sure to be a gruesome one.

“What is the occasion for this mobilization, Count Straton?” A familiar voice boomed across the gulch and reached the ranks of Abila. It was Paramonos himself, sitting atop a mighty northern horse in full armor, a hand on the handle of the broadsword sheathed in the saddle, another in a greeting gesture. “Have you finally grown back the balls you lost after the clash against my mighty vanguard?”

“You are brave to come out of your camps now, even though your supplies have been insufficient over the past week and your soldiers are hungry and weak, Duke Paramonos!” Straton shouted back. Indeed, his spies had reported that the supply lines had encountered problems during the heavy rainfall, and that food had to be rationed over the past few days.

“Starving soldiers from Olynthus still make greater warriors than a rabble of farmers from Abila!” Paramonos taunted back. In reality, he had secretly arranged for a surplus of supplies within every man’s tent at all times, so that whenever there should come a time of need, he could create the illusion that his troops were suffering a shortage. It appeared that Straton had fallen for that trick and was willing to bet on an all-out battle against a supposedly weakened foe.

“Do not underestimate a farmer fighting for the very land that feeds his family, my friend!” Straton deliberately stressed the word “friend”, the sarcasm in his voice impossible to miss. “We shall see whether the hungry elite or the desperate but well-fed peasant will win today.” With this, the count gave the signal. The cavalry began to trot forward, accelerating with time until they were in a full gallop.

On the other side, the enemy cavalry had done the same in response, charging down the hill in far greater numbers. Only a hundred paces from each other, the sound of the drums coming from Abila’s side changed. Due to the fact that they had started earlier, Abila’s cavalry had already entered a stretch of flat land and its momentum from going downhill was running out. Just then, they made a sharp turn to their left, turned around and rode back uphill.

“Archers, ready!” Straton shouted, as he watched the cavalry from Olynthus continuing on and entering the muddy riverbed, in pursuit of his own slowed troops. Unable to easily maneuver due to their greater numbers and the momentum still in their step, the rain of arrows that would have otherwise hit allies, now came down as a deadly shower onto the helpless enemy. Still, the difference in numbers and discipline became apparent, as Olynthus’ cavalry did not slow down or stop, and hit the rear of the retreating Abila troops. The lives that had been claimed by the arrows were repaid in kind.

“Advance!” Straton’s voice boomed across the front line of his army, and the war drums picked up in pace. A wave of motion ran through the soldiers and the sound of armor pieces rubbing against each other, magnified by more than thirty thousand, could be heard throughout the gulch. The same motion ran through Olynthus’ main forces, albeit accompanied by a much louder noise, when tens of thousands of feet began to march nearly in unison.

“So it begins...” Lahya commented under her breath. This marked the true beginning of a clash between two former members of the Anti-Hesper Alliance, a sign of the times to come. She raised her right arm, rapier in hand, signaling for her troops to follow her lead. With Alexander, Leontis and Thais by her side, she felt that nothing could stop them.

Olynthus’ cavalry separated from Abila’s and rejoined the ranks of their advancing army, while Straton personally led the center and soon clashed with Zotikos. To the right of the enemy’s center were the familiar flags of Hippolytos, and due to its sheer size, its approximate position corresponded to that of Lahya’s forces within Abila’s left flank.

“Leontis, that is Hippolytos. You know what to do!” She announced with a confident expression. The towering man responded with a smile and nodded wordlessly, leading his troops towards the man he had seemingly spared with that impossible arrow not too long ago. “Alexander, protect his flank. The enemy is far more numerous than us, so don’t let them circle around.”

“Understood, milady!” The boastful man responded and led his troops after Leontis, a grin filled with anticipation on his face. It seemed that he felt that he could finally make a name for himself on this day, and step out of Leontis’ overbearing shadow. “Do not overdo it, and remember to look out for my signal.” Lahya was more worried that he would do too well and lose sight of her during the battle. Raising his weapon, he confirmed that he had heard her and understood her concerns.

Thais remained close to Lahya, although she was effectively the leader of the left flank. Due to the difference in the size of the two armies, the flanks of Abila had to put in additional effort. Ultimately, sheer numbers could only be used in a set number of ways: To grind through the side with the smaller numbers or to surround it. After all, the line where both armies clashed could only be manned by the same amount of people. The important thing was how many rows followed up to close gaps created by the fallen, how far the front line extended to either side, and whether that line could circle around to hit the back lines of the enemy.

Olynthus clearly had the numbers to extend both flanks in an attempt to surround Abila’s forces and grind them down. However, Abila’s placement was more favorable, as they were fighting a downhill battle. Lahya understood that the most important thing was to inflict enough damage on the enemy army to make it want to pay it back. After all, even if every single soldier from Abila killed one from Olynthus before falling, there would still be more of the latter left than there had been of the former in the first place. When thinking like that, Paramonos was sure to pursue, once the inevitable retreat was sounded by Straton.

Lahya watched with satisfaction as Leontis cut through Hippolytos’ troops and approached the general with every passing second. Alexander followed him into the gap and prevented it from closing, effectively driving a wedge into Olynthus’ center and its right flank. Under Thais command, the enemy was unable to collapse on them and was prevented from surrounding the left flank. The half-alf kept a close eye on Straton’s position, as he was just about to engage Zotikos in direct combat.

After only a few bouts, during which the count looked like he was barely able to defend himself from the enemy general’s attacks, the former began to retreat. It was the signal she had been waiting for, and she quickly rode up to Thais to tell her about it. “Indeed, I can hear it coming,” The female general commented when she was informed of her lord’s retreat. Lahya was unable to hear anything other than the clashing of weapons and the screams of the dying, but maybe that was why Thais had been selected to lead the left wing.

Leontis finished an exchange of blows with Hippolytos, before he heeded the secret signal for the retreat - a slight change in the pace of the war drums - and feigned flight. Emboldened by seeing the man, around whom legends had begun to form, flee from a duel against him, the enemy general ordered a full pursuit.

“It’s a shame we’re fighting with a plan this time. You could have easily claimed his head there,” Alexander commented when Leontis rode alongside him in their retreat. “It is more important that the army succeeds than that we gain more fame,” Was all the latter said in response, as he spurred his horse. With the pursuing general hot on their heels, his forces felt that this was the perfect opportunity to rout Abila’s left wing.

In a left echelon formation, Straton sounded a general retreat, while Paramonos felt that he had to capitalize on the fact that the enemy lines seemed to be stretched thin against his own. With all but the rear guard advancing, he ordered his entire army to descend into the gulch and press the chase, even though it was going uphill all the way to Abila’s camps. Olynthus’ victory was in sight.

Then, a deep rumbling noise began to swell in the distance and steadily began to drown out the din of battle. Stopping in his tracks, Paramonos looked in the direction it came from - to his right - but a forest blocked his view. There had been cases of stampedes of wild horses before although they should not have the numbers to create enough noise to become louder than a battlefield involving over a hundred thousand men. Just then, he finally noticed that trees in the distance shook and some seemed to topple over. Olynthus’ soldiers had already slowed down and were looking around in confusion, but it appeared that Abila was aware of the situation, as their army’s retreat did not cease. “I have a bad feeling about this...” Paramonos muttered.

Just then, at the edge of the battlefield, the line of trees broke apart to reveal a rolling mass of muddy water. It was a flash flood.

“Retreat!” The duke shouted, although he did not need to order his men to do so, as they already began to run for their lives. In fact, nobody had been able to hear his voice over the sound of the water that was bearing down on them. Some were too far on the other side of the gulch to be able to make it back, and had to run towards Abila’s army, while others were right in the middle and stood no chance of escape. Nonetheless, everyone scrambled in the direction their instincts told them would have the greatest chance for survival. Paramonos’ disciplined army crumbled within moments after the river appeared to reclaim its bed. “Damn you, Straton!” He cursed in impotence, as he watched many of his men disappearing into the watery grave.

When the waves washed over the battlefield and reformed the river that would normally only flow knee deep during the summertime, men and horses in its path had completely vanished. A raging stream was now in its place, creating a natural barrier that could not yet be crossed by boats.

Olynthus’ army had been separated in the middle, with part of its vanguard and more than half of its right wing now on Abila’s side. More than ten thousand men had been washed away - most of them presumably dead - and another fifteen thousand were stranded, exhausted and confused, facing the larger and well rested army headed by Straton, which had taken up formation again once the river had come crashing down. In the ensuing battle, thousands of Olynthus soldiers fell by the spears and arrows from Abila in the confusion.

“Surrender your arms and you shall live!” He announced, directed at Olynthus’ army. The enemy general, highest in the chain of command now that he had been cut off from the rest of the army, was Zotikos. He understood the situation of his army and the fact that they were at an extreme disadvantage. Facing an army three times their size and on high ground, while an impassable river blocked their way of retreat, was not something discipline and training could easily overcome. Especially since morale was at rock-bottom after having witnessed the demise of a large number of their comrades, Zotikos could not expect his troops to fight at even half capacity.

However, there was one commander who refused to give up even in such a hopeless situation. He had pursued Leontis, thinking that the tall warrior was unable to defeat him in a duel, and saw that as their path to survival. Surely, if the man rumored to be on par with Baltsar fell under his blade, Abila’s morale would drop significantly.

“Leontis, prepare yourself!” Hippolytos yelled. His eyes were crazed, confusion and overeager fervor creating a dangerous mix that could only be described as madness. Rallying his men, he charged up the hill, with the sole intention of killing Leontis and turning the tide of this hopeless situation single-handedly.

With a single swing, Hippolytos was cut down from his horse and his lifeless body dropped into the muddy ground unceremoniously. In an instant, all the momentum he had built up in his forces was gone. Dropping their weapons and falling to their knees, they surrendered to the unwavering man who had slain him. Leontis, on his powerful northern warhorse, towered over them like a monument of might.

Zotikos had witnessed his vice commander’s demise and the subsequent surrender of the troops under the latter’s direct command. The battle was lost and fighting to the death would accomplish nothing. No reinforcements were coming for them, and there was no escape; every single one of them would die, if they chose to resist. All it would serve was to discourage their comrades on the other side of the river, and deal a great blow to Olynthus and Paramonos’ ambitions for the future. “I understand. We surrender,” He announced with a stoic expression.

Ultimately, the battle ended in the loss of eight thousand soldiers on Abila’s side and nearly twenty five thousand on Olynthus’. It was a heavy blow for both sides, but in actuality, Straton’s war potential had been hit harder in the grand scheme of things. He had lost nearly half of his troops, many of which were drafted farmers, while Paramonos still had a considerable army remaining.

“Count Straton, please allow me to speak,” Lahya said during the strategic meeting after the battle. They had taken eight thousand soldiers and several generals prisoner, including Zotikos and Phylares, commanders of Olynthus’ vanguard and right wing. “It would be best to call Duke Paramonos to the bargaining table now, and opt for a ceasefire.”

“Lady Lahya, how can you say that after what he did in Chalcis?” Straton protested on the surface, but he looked tired. In reality, Olynthus still had the numerical advantage, and it had not even tapped into the civilian population to man its army. If Paramonos committed to a total war, Abila would be hard-pressed to offer any significant resistance for long, as it stood now. However, just like in Naxos, he needed an excuse to call for a ceasefire, as he did not want to admit to his own faults. Lahya’s opinion of him continually dropped, with no end in sight.

“Chalcis was done by a rogue general who fled into the mountains after the act. Duke Paramonos sent an ambassador of goodwill to try and explain the situation. I believe that this incompetent ambassador is the cause for this war, and surely, neither the duke nor you truly wished for this to happen.” She was appealing to his humanity. He had just lost thousands of men and ordered the painful drowning of thousands more. If her initial impression of him could be trusted to a certain degree, he was still a man of righteousness and chivalry.

“I agree... I think it would be best to end this war. There has been enough bloodshed already,” Straton stated and sighed. He looked almost ten years older than he had been before the beginning of the war. His entourage nodded in silent agreement and muttered among themselves in regards of the steps to take afterwards.

“Then allow me to act as the ambassador and speak to Paramonos,” Lahya offered with a definite expression; it was not a suggestion but a statement - one that was not up for debate. It was granted, as if in passing, while Straton rubbed the bridge of his nose. Without any more words, the half-alf exited the command tent, leaving behind the speechless entourage of Straton.

The morning after the flash flood, the river had returned to its natural state. Riders were able to cross on horseback without their feet touching the water’s surface, and thus Lahya set out with a neutral flag, announcing that she came in peace. She was flanked by Thais, Leontis and Alexander, their impressive figures inspiring awe and attention. Approaching Olynthus’ camps, the latter of the three acted as their herald and let his powerful voice carry the message over the closed gates.

Soon, the gate opened and Paramonos personally emerged with his entourage, to welcome them. He did not look as exhausted as Straton did, but there were signs of tiredness in his features, too. After all, he had lost a great number of troops and capable commanders, which only served to stunt his ambitions for the future. However, he alone was to blame for that, as Telesoron had warned him not to take any rash actions during the latter’s absence due to an illness. Despite these warnings, he had fallen into the enemy’s trap due to overconfidence.

“What brings you here, Lady Lahya?” He was reluctant to address her as majesty, since her origins were not completely clear. His entourage clearly understood the meaning of his choice of words, and their body language suggested the level of respect they would be paying her based on that. The half-alf was used to such treatment, even among Straton’s followers, and cared little for it.

“I would like to initiate peace talks in Count Straton’s name. I believe both he and you have had enough of this war,” Lahya stated, clear annoyance on her face. It was not the expression one would wear while speaking to somebody who commanded an army that could very well still complete the objective it set out for. However, nobody dared to point that out, for they were captivated by her beautiful anger. “But before we begin the procedures, I would like to suggest that you choose your messengers more wisely from now on, Duke Paramonos.”

The duke in question could only swallow his words at the face Lahya made during these words. She thought that the precursor to this war was not the actions of the rogue general in Chalcis, but rather the incompetence of a leader to select an even more incompetent negotiator. Had it been someone with as much persuasiveness as she had, the two fiefdoms would have grown stronger together over the incident and sought to punish the perpetrator as a unified force.

“We will have a tent ready on the other side of the shallow river, where you will be able to speak with Count Straton about the terms of this armistice. Please be ready to meet him at noon.” Without waiting for a reply, Lahya turned her horse around and rode off. Paramonos and his followers could only watch her back in amazement. There was no doubt that she had the bearing of royalty, and some who questioned her origins were beginning to feel convinced that she was really a member of the alfar royal family.

“I expected more from you two, my lords.” Lahya’s chastising voice resounded throughout the tent. She stood at the end of the table, the seat she had been granted, and glared at them in displeasure. Everyone went deadly silent at it and the two men in question looked up at her with blank expressions. They were Paramonos and Straton, who had been bickering ever since their talks had begun. “Is this how two pillars of the empire should act?” Her choice of words was both a direct question and a thinly veiled statement; if they still considered themselves officials of the empire, they should put their differences aside and work together for the betterment of the people. In this case, it would be to find and capture Melanthis, the perpetrator of the Chalcis incident. “Instead, you wage war, bringing more suffering to the people. What sets your actions apart from the man who is the cause of all this?”

Ashamed, the two commanders were unable to speak and only looked at each other in embarrassment. Xenokras looked up at Lahya, impressed by her dominance even as her position was nothing more than that of a guest’s. Anybody else would not dare to speak to a count and a duke in such a disrespectful manner, but the fact that this thought did not even cross their minds showed her charisma as a member of royalty - no matter how little real power she possessed. Sostrate Granetas of Oenos, a female advisor under Paramonos and the temporary replacement for Telesoron during his illness, found herself admiring the half-alf for her outspoken nature despite her low standing within this meeting. She was acting on the principles of good advisors, in which followers, no matter their rank, should speak the truth freely in spite of potential punishment. The principles of good leadership were meant to follow up by treasuring such followers rather than scorn them.

“I propose that you continue from before Linos of Rhegion’s poor choice of words created a break in your friendship, and begin by addressing the problem of Melanthis of Rhegion’s continued freedom. The rebuilding of Chalcis and costs of reparations should be personally discussed between you lords, rather than through a messenger,” Lahya continued as the mediator of the talks, ignoring the fact that there were higher ranked advisors who were more entitled to that position. “But most of all, the many lost lives in this war should warrant an apology to your citizens... but that may be asking too much.” She added under her breath, only audible to Thais and Sostrate, who were right next to her; both looked at the half-alf with astonishment, at the audacity of the words she seemed very tempted to speak. No aristocratic leader had ever spared a moment of thought for the people whose loved ones they had used up in warfare like wood in an extravagant fireplace. Alkaios Ohm of Zenter, the first emperor, was historically acclaimed for his benevolence towards his citizens, going so far as to apologize publicly during his speeches. But such behavior had faded away in the peace the generations that followed him had experienced, now forgotten to all but those who studied history.

With her stinging words, Lahya had forcefully mended the broken relationship between Straton and Paramonos. Not a single man dared to speak out about the fact that the half-alf had ignored all conventions and done away with formality, when even their own leaders were uncharacteristically submissive to her. Thus, the war between Abila and Olynthus ended on a ceasefire, with nearly fifty thousand lives lost. This would leave a wound on the relationship between the two lords in the north which time could never hope to heal.

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