Once the lords and commanders gathered in King Doldea’s tent, the war council resumed, but the discussion quickly started to go in circles, centered on the argument which of the three invasion routes to choose. The king watched for a while, but eventually he picked a good moment to stop the heated discussion by ordering his subordinates to quiet down.
And then, while feeling how all the eyes were pinned on him, the king slowly spoke up,
“I plan to cross over with my fleet at the Labian’s ferry crossing to launch the invasion from there.”
Upon the sudden decision by King Doldea, Prince Goldia was the first to raise an objection.
“With all due respect, Your Majesty, but won’t our losses be too high if we try to cross at the ferry point?”
It was a cautious view, befitting the prince very well with his inclination towards civil administration. Moreover, many lords and commanders expressed their approval of his opinion by nodding.
However, King Doldea had expected as much.
“Goldia, how does Fort Loylops look to you?” The king asked his son, revealing a smile reminiscent of a teasing teacher.
Believing that there had to be some meaning behind his father’s smile, the prince honestly explained his thoughts on the matter, “Many flags are fluttering in the wind up on the fort. An immeasurable number of spears is stretching into the sky. They have more than enough soldiers, and it looks like those soldiers are motivated and spirited. I have learned that it is a common practice in war to attack the enemy soldiers when they show weakness, and avoid them if they are of stout heart.”
Goldia rejected his father’s suggestion by indirectly claiming that it was a bad idea to challenge an enemy, which was brimming with fighting spirit, to an open battle.
King Doldea nodded his head in an exaggerated manner at his son’s exemplary answer, “Certainly, it seems like Holmea would meet our attack in perfect condition.”
At that point, he put everyone on the rack by inserting a pause, just to continue a little later, “But, those are dummy soldiers!”
The lords and commanders raised their voices in surprise.
“All of you, take a good look at the fort’s chest wall. Aren’t the birds carefreely grooming their feathers over there!? If the fort was truly manned by a great number of soldiers, the birds would stay away from there out of fear. In other words, those are just flags and spears set up to make us think that a large army is stationed at the fort.”
The lords and commanders expressed their admiration by saying, “Certainly,” or “Oh, you’re right!” Pleased by that, King Doldea deliberately proposed a careful plan without getting carried away.
“But, that doesn’t change the danger of the fort’s catapults. Accordingly, I plan to have a small group of soldiers attack the fort in order to make sure whether it’s truly dummy soldiers as suspected before I set over with the fleet.”
Then he slowly looked at the faces of those present in his tent.
“Is there anyone who would be willing to take over this important duty?”
None of the lords and commanders could answer the king’s call at once. If they could prove that Fort Loylops was vacated just like King Doldea assumed, it’d doubtlessly qualify as the first, great accomplishment of their western expedition.
But, if the assumption proved to be wrong, they’d end up attacking a fully-prepared fort with a small number of soldiers. It’d be equal to willingly leaping into the muzzle of a starved lion.
While the retainers were hesitating, not knowing what to do, a single general spoke up.
“Your Majesty! Please leave this important duty to me, your loyal servant, by all means!”
The one stepping forward was Lobnas.
“During peace times, I have used the ferry on many occasions while pretending to be a merchant. I believe to know the ferry point best among the lords and commanders present in this place. This makes me certain of being the best man for this task!”
Even though he had triumphantly announced that he’d chip away Holmea’s strength through the plan of a former, clever king of Romania, he got cheated out of a big amount of money by the rebels instead, and was eventually forced to return with nothing but a rude letter in his hands. Because of this huge blunder, Lobnas had resolved himself that he’d be stuck to remaining in the rear while not being allowed to participate in the war council any longer. However, King Doldea put his mind at ease by kindly telling him, “No matter how great a general, plans can alway go awry. Participate in the war council without fretting over it.” Thus Lobnas took part while bearing his shame.
And this was the perfect opportunity to clear his name, and restore his honor. Hence, Lobnas begged to be allowed to carry out this important duty himself.
“I see, I see, it is just as you say,” King Doldea started, but then his face clouded over, “――But, this is an extremely dangerous endeavor. Didn’t you run for the opportunity while aware of its recklessness because you’re regretting your previous blunder? In that case, I told you that it wasn’t your mistake, but my lack of wisdom, didn’t I?”
Lobnas shed tears of gratitude thanks to being blessed with King Doldea’s kind words once more.
“Your Majesty, I am deeply grateful for you bestowing me with your heartfelt worry! That is exactly why I would like you to entrust this duty to me so that I can repay you for your gentleness and trust!”
King Doldea brooded for a while, his arms folded.
“…Okay, I can tell that you are more than willing. ―Very well! I leave it to you!”
“Yes, Your Majesty! I am honored and shall not disappoint you!”
Looking down on Lobnas as he genuflected on the carpet while deeply lowering his head and verbally expressing his gratitude, King Doldea hid a smirk with his hand by pretending to stroke his beard.
Returning to his own encampment, Lobnas immediately gathered a suicide corps of 500 soldiers by promising huge riches as reward. And then he chose the night of a new moon to cross over in the dead of night with 25 small boats, each carrying 20 soldiers.
Of course, none of them had torches in order to avoid detection by the Holmeans. Because their destination, Fort Loylops had such intense bonfires going that they actually dyed the clouds crimson, as if to intimidate the assault party, they didn’t lose their way even without torches.
But, when it came to confirming the safety of the river crossing, they only had the faint light of the stars as they peeked out between the clouds to rely on, making it extremely difficult to not only spot rocks hidden beneath the water surface, but also confirm the other boats’ positions. If they were hit by either, a boat that was built for shallow waters would easily capsize and the soldiers within would be washed away by the river.
Because of that, all 500 of the suicide corps, including Lobnas, were biting down on big gags. It was a measure to avoid them screaming if their boat toppled over with them getting washed away, which would undoubtedly alert the Holmeans. It was a clear show of their resolve to do or die.
That alone caused Lobnas to crumble to his knees in relief when their boat entered the rocky area underneath the cape that carried Fort Loylops. The same applied to the soldiers with him, and for some time, no one was able to move atop their boat.
After finally standing up and counting the number of boats that had safely made the passage, Lobnas realized that their number had dwindled to 22. Once he asked a soldier, he reported to have seen how two boats had collided in the middle of the river, just to sink in the next moment. However, it would remain unclear whether the last missing boat had been carried away by the river’s draft or sunken altogether.
Be that as it may, they didn’t have any time to look for the missing boat right now. Without much of a break, Lobnas ordered his men to climb the cape’s cliff. He had the nimble ones among his soldiers go ahead and then throw down ropes. Using those ropes, Lobnas’s men worked their way up the cliff one after the other.
Another four soldiers lost their lives by slipping and being hit by falling rocks on the way, but in the end Lobnas’s group managed to get atop the cliff one way or another.
By the time when Lobnas’s corps put on their armor which they had brought with them, most of the night had already passed. They didn’t have much time left if they wanted to capture the fort before the sun rose, and thus they had to hurry.
With the impatient Lobnas spearheading the group, they very slowly and quietly approached the fort which was illuminated by bonfires as if it was daytime. Fortunately for them, no guards or patrols were in sight, and Lobnas couldn’t sense any people on top of the outer wall either. Accordingly, he set up a long ladder against the fort’s wall, and began to climb it, himself being the first one.
Within the eerie silence that was only interrupted by the crackling and popping of the fires, Lobnas cautiously peeked out his face above the balustrade, checking the vicinity.
“…! It’s really just as His Majesty said!”
Spears and flags were tied to the fort’s wall all over the place. Scarecrows resembling soldiers had been set up in huge numbers, but not a single soldier could be seen anywhere. Climbing on the wall, Lobnas beckoned the soldiers waiting below to follow his example.
When the entire suicide corps had reached the top of the outer wall, Lobnas handed out orders to them in whispers.
“We’ll split into two groups. One half is to go with me to take over the catapults. If that fails, we’ll destroy them. The remaining half is to kill all enemy soldiers. Throw the enemy in disarray by running around, screaming that a rebellion is under way.”
Once he entrusted half of his soldiers to one of his commanding officers, Lobnas headed towards the catapults to gain total control over them. He led his men through the fort which had suddenly become very lively as the other half of his corps was kicking up a ruckus, yelling “A revolt!” and “We’ve been betrayed!”
The Holmean soldiers in his way were cut down as they had been caught totally off-guard, but as might be expected, the fort’s commander had stationed around four or five guards around the catapults that were lined up as they faced towards the Labian.
However, as soon as they spotted Lobnas and his men coming their way with drawn swords, they threw their spears away, whirled around, and dashed away. Watching that, Lobnas couldn’t help but to spit out in scorn, “Weaklings.”
Having obtained the catapults without any resistance, Lobnas had his men first secure the perimeter, and then sent the remaining soldiers to help with the clearing of enemy forces in the fort. Then he gazed at the catapults once more.
“These are the catapults which gave us such wretched, hard times, huh…?”
Examining them from nearby, they were big enough that you had to look up.
The catapults installed in the fortress were monstrosities referred to as counterweight catapults. Their long, flexible crossarm, which was affixed to pillars with a shaft, became narrower at one pointed end. A basket for loading the stones was connected beneath the pointed end with a sling. Several operators would lower the basket by using a winding machine. Once released, the crossarm would jump up like a supple bamboo thanks to the heavy counterweight affixed to the opposite, thick end. At the same time, the stones in the basket would be tossed up. Precisely because of its huge structure, this catapult could deliver big stones over a much wider range than other catapults such as onagers or mangonels.
Moreover, those catapults had been installed on rotatable pedestals, allowing the catapults’ aim to be even changed from the Labian to Masalkar. Lobnas believed that these catapults would be of good use to assist the succeeding army that would land soon in their battle against Masalkar.
Just as Lobnas was considering all that, the officer he had ordered to clear the fort from enemy soldiers showed up.
“Your Excellency, we have finished eradicating all enemy forces!”
“I see, good work. ―So, how many did we lose?”
The officer answered with a laugh, “Several of our soldiers were injured by the enemy, but no casualties. After all, those Holmean cowards immediately threw down their spears and scurried away without putting up much of a fight.”
Believing that to have been a funny sight, Lobnas laughed out loudly together with the officer. But, he couldn’t afford to keep laughing like that. Lobnas was aware that Holmea would very likely send new forces to recover Fort Loylops once they learned of its fall. Thus he had to solidify their defenses before that could happen.
He ordered his soldiers to check the catapults’ operation in order to make them available for use as quickly as possible, and headed over to the storehouse located in the fort’s basement. Even if King Doldea were to cross the river with his fleet after receiving the signal of the fort’s capture, Lobnas’s corps would need to hole up in this fort until Masalkar had fallen. Thus it was indispensable for Lobnas to check the stored provisions.
And luckily for him and his men, the storage was crammed with wheat and assorted grain bags, dried meat and fish, and a full wall of jars filled with wine. Lobnas suspected that all of this would easily allow them to last for more than twenty days.
“Alright, I leave the management of the provisions to you. ―I’m going to strengthen the fort’s defenses next.” Lobnas instructed a subordinate, and left the storage at a quick pace.
Lobnas had entrusted the provisions to his subordinate, but ultimately it was a job going well beyond what a single person could handle.
Therefore, the subordinate decided to gather some help first.
It’d be great if at least some within the corps are capable of calculating.
Just when he was about to leave the storage, he suddenly stopped his feet. He immediately looked back, surveying the interior of the storage with a dubious expression for a while, and then tilted his head in confusion.
“…Was it just my imagination?”
He felt like he heard some kind of sound, but he suspected that he had either misheard or heard the sounds of rats doing their work. After explaining it away to himself like that, he closed the door of the storage, and headed out to search for more help.
A little while after he left.
Something caused a rattling in what was supposed to be a deserted place.