To the Old Man on the Hill

Your days are short here;
This is the last of your springs.
And now in the serenity
And quiet of this lovely place,
Touch the depths of truth,
Feel the hem of Heaven.
You will go away with old,
Good friends.  And don't
Forget when you leave
Why you came.

~ Raibo Thrift



A beastskin map was spread on the desk, depicting the terrain around Paetro. It was laid between Forund and Farkel and stretched more than 50 kilometers, straddling. Dense forests covered the region with many streams, valleys, and cliffs scattered all over.

After being obstructed by the trenches and mud walls, Auguslo had tried to take the area near Paetro. As long as he could breach it, he would become a threat to Forund's capital, Paetro, and Farkel's capital, Freimox, at the same time. In the end, however, he just sent a division of Whitelion on a probing attack before abandoning the idea. It couldn't be done. The mountain roads were long and perilous, not suited for large forces to use.

The greatest difficulty was still the mountain legion Forund had stationed there. Most of the soldiers were mountain folk, incredibly fast at climbing and descending the mountains. Not only were they familiar with the terrain, they could even construct traps. Being people who loved battle, they were courageous and didn't fear death either. The division Whitelion sent was a thousand strong. They were ambushed by 400 mountaineers. Auguslo and Lorist were so shocked at the enemy's capabilities they withdrew after just a short skirmish.


In less than half an hour, Whitelion's 1000-man unit suffered nearly 700 casualties while the mountaineers lost less than half their men. While Whitelion's troops were more than double the enemy, given that the battle was fought in forests on the hills, the heavy-armored Whitelion soldiers couldn't do much against the poorly equipped mountaineers armed with small weapons and who cruised between the trees like they were flying. The men couldn't do anything but fight and cry in desperation.

The mountaineers were far too good at utilizing their terrain advantage. One of the rescued injured 100-man leaders reported his experience.

"I never knew where they were. They jumped down from the trees and blended in with the woods, and attacked when our guards were down. They never fought us head-on unless they had nowhere to go...

"There were a few times we managed to force them into a corner, but they would manage to climb the trees and escape or jump down and disappear quickly. We weighed down by our armor and couldn't keep up with them. Each time, by the time we realized they were gone, they were already behind us or had already found and taken out their target. We could do nothing but watch..."

Auguslo unwillingly withdrew his decision to take Paetro by breaking through the hilled region. The casualty rate was completely beyond anyone's ability to absorb. Whitelion had five divisions and one logistics brigade, around 56 thousand men. Each division had ten 1000-man units. They had suffered a full division's worth of casualties during the fight over the trenches, so they didn't have the strength to take the hilled area. They could easily have defeated the enemy on flat, open plains, but fighting in the mountains was a completely different story.

When he occupied Paetro, Auguslo heard the mountain legion had not withdrawn with the duke.  Instead, they had chosen to stay in the mountains.  He couldn't afford to dedicate troops to deal with them, however.

Let's leave them be in the mountains for now. If they dare to come down they won't be a match for my men

Since Auguslo wasn't going to deal with them, Lorist wouldn't either. Besides, sending cavalry forces, like those in Tigersaor, into combat in the mountains was just looking for death. He had barely made his decision when Tigersoar came under attack. He didn't suffer many casualties, but not so few that he could ignore it like one would a fly buzzing around one's head. The legion came under constant attacks until the snow and winds of the 12th month closed in. By that point, the legion had swept Phapsia clean of nobles and were headed to Samora.

The harassment infuriated Lorist.

You were fortunate enough to have me not bother with you, and yet you still came looking for trouble? You're pushing your luck!

Had it not been for the fact that they were busy with the migration, he would've slaughtered his way up the mountain long ago. He sent word to Potterfang and Malek, dying of boredom on Southern's border, to send over three divisions disguised as refugees. They quietly set up camp and replaced the refugees sent away.

"I had Reidy take several men and reconnoitre the area while the storm was at its heaviest. If not for winter they would've been discovered. The enemy does have winter gear and could theoretically attack us even now, but they seem unwilling to move in the cold."

Lorist pointed at a red circle drawn on the map.

"We had our pursuit teams stop at the border of the foothills after each attack to leave the impression of being unwilling to go up the mountains. Instead, I had Reidy and his mean track them in secret. We've located their main camp, it's in this circle.

"Hot Spring Valley, the largest valley in the region. There are lots of hot springs apparently and it's almost as warm as spring there. Their entire force is housed there. Our informants in Forund, tell me 80 thousand mountain folk spend winter in the valley every year. Coupled with the legion's 35 thousand, there should be just over 100 thousand. That's why I mobilized three of Firmrock's divisions.

"Two divisions from Tigersoar will also join you. They will dismount and enter the mountain range to seal off any escape routes. Pog, you'll take three divisions and attack Hot Spring Valley with me. We have to catch our enemy all at once. I'm sure you've already screened the more detailed plans. We don't need to exterminate them. We want prisoners. The mountain folk are a good source of manpower. Our development projects depend on their contributions and services."

The household knights in the tent all laughed ghastly. They knew their lord had the poor mountain folk in his sights. Lorist also chuckled. He had Jinolio open another map.

"This is a detailed map of the valley. According to the intel Reidy gathered, the eleven hills around the valley have watch posts and smoke signals. If we attack, we first have to take out the watch posts. If they raise the alarm, the rest in the valley will be on their guard. If they seal the three entrances to the valley it'll be very difficult to get in without suffering unacceptable numbers of casualties. Reidy, his men, and I will take care of this. Pog, you will take the three valley entrances.

"The north side is completely blocked by cliffs.  The east, south, and west sides each have an entrance. The valley itself isn't completely flat either. It has around ten small hills. The mountain legion occupies them. Most of the mountain folk use the run-down bases as residences. Forund counts on the legion to govern the mountain folk. We have to make sure we pull the roots out completely, we can't leave loose ends. Understood?"

"Understood, Your Grace," replied the knights and high-ranked military officials.

......

"Shut the door quickly. I'm freezing to death," barked Jack.

He had become more and more susceptible to the cold lately, possibly due to his age. Every time it became wet, he would feel intense pain in the joints of his arms and legs. It was probably a serious case of cold autoinflammatory syndrome which Jack probably got because of his exposure to cold during his youth. The treatment was simple, though - just a simple medical concoction worth 10 gold coins a bottle. Three bottles would return everything to normal.

"What horrid merchants!" complained Jack, Do they think gold Fordes are so easily earned? I sold half my life to the mountain legion and only saved 23 gold Fordes… I'm already over 40. Thankfully, the Norton cavalry scout I killed had three gold coins. I also got one coin from general Nuori.

At that moment, the old man was faced with a difficult choice. Upon saving up 30 gold coins, would he buy the medicine required to cure his disease? Or would he use it to wed the widow, Sarina? He was rather old already, he didn't have much time left in the legion. Sarina had told him he could buy farmland with the 30 gold. He could farm herbs and hunt -- a decent life for a family. She would marry him if he could provide her with such a life; they could have children and he could spend the rest of his life in peace.

"Sigh, Old Jack, the mountains are really cold. Even such a short trip froze my limbs stiff! I really miss the hot springs in the valley. Bathing and having a few shots of steaming hot wheat brew in this kind of weather is the ultimate pleasure..."

The one who had just entered was Maskrei. The two were in charge of one of the outposts together.

"Do you think I don't want that as well?" Jack said, rolling his eyes, "But for the sake of my gold coins, I have to forget about luxuries like that. If not for your gambling debts, would you be willing to spend winter here with me?"

His words rang true. It was precisely because General Nuori offered a reward of two gold Fordes. Jack and Maskrei were only willing to leave Hot Spring Valley to suffer the cold for the coins. As long as they could endure the winter, they would get two gold Fordes.

"Any signs of movement outside?" asked Jack.

Maskrei shook his head.

"Nothing, like always. I only see white no matter where I look. Staring too long only makes my head hurt. I circled the peak a few times. The woods are quiet. I did see a muntjac deer down the cliff, though. It's a shame we can't get down there. Otherwise, we'd have fresh-meat soup tonight. I'm sick of drinking salted-meat soup and teething on black bread every day."

They were stationed at the outpost built on the outermost hill. It was also one of the tallest, so it was incredibly hard, even outright impossible, to descend especially during winter. The small path that required one to walk sideways was sealed. The two could only spend winter in their run-down shed. Their rations were also brought up using a rope that hung over the cliff.

"Winter's still fine. When the snow melts and rainy season comes, it'll be far worse. We'll know if our sheds have leaks then. We might have to basically rebuild the entire shed, otherwise we won't sleep all season," said Jack.

"I see..."

All of a sudden, Maskrei's ears twitched.

"D'you hear anything? Something's outside."

"Impossible, no one could climb a cliff like--"

Beroe Jack could finish, there was a knock on the shed's door. It was pushed open a moment later. A lone figure filled the doorway. The cold wind squeezed in around him.

"Surrender now. You have one chance," said the caped, white-scarfed figure.

Jack's teeth chattered, either from fear or the cold, he didn't know which.

"Y-y-you... How did you get up..."

"How?" the figure mused as if it was an odd question, "Isn't there a path? I got up using that."

Jack had calmed down. He secretly tugged on Maskrei's clothes.

"Hold him off. I'll light the smoke signal and help you deal with him after," whispered he.

The smoke signal fire was behind the shed. However, there was an opening in the cabin that gave access to it. Jack had already thought up a plan. As long as Maskrei could hold the figure off for a moment, he could get some quick-burning firewood, ignite it, and toss it out the window. The pile, pre-doused with fuel, would be set alight immediately. If he was fast, he could do it in a few blinks. The enemy's plan would fail and they'd either try to kill the two or panic and run away. Either way, Jack would've completed his mission. Jack didn't mind if it broke into a fight either. Having dwelled on battlefield after battlefield for most of his life, he wasn't afraid of tussling with a rookie.

"Now!" cried Jack before he took out the quick-burning wood from his waist pouch and turned to the opening behind him. From the corner of his eye, he saw Maskrei draw his sword and dash towards the figure.

"I did it!" cried Jack.

Just as he was about to open the wooden window, he felt a cold sensation in his chest and lost all his strength. He lost his balance and crashed into the wall.

What's going on?

He lowered his head and saw a blade poking out of his chest.

"Ugh..."
He turned around with much difficulty and saw Maskrei, still standing a moment before, collapsed on the ground. He didn't know if the man was dead. The figure drew his sword and complained.

"You really don't know what's good for you, do you?"

His vision darkened. He slumped to the ground and lay there, dead.

On the 3rd day of the 4th month, Year 1782, House Norton attacked Hot Spring Valley near Paetro. Forund's mountain legion was completely defeated. General Nuori fought to his death at the hands of General Potterfang. More than 10 thousand mountain folk resisted and were massacred. The remaining 50 thousand discarded their weapons and surrendered.