"Never do what your enemy expects, unless that is what they don't expect." ~ excerpt from Treatises on War by Norton Loris
"Why have you come?"
Blademaster Xanthi had returned to her residence. She was surprised to see Fisablen seated near the fireplace drinking tea. They were at Cherry Blossom Ridge. The moment Xanthi received Sylvia's letter about her being with child, she had rushed from Crouchtiger Castle all the way there, ignoring Fisablen's order to guard the dominion, opting instead to stay by Sylvia's side. It was only after Lorist returned that Xanthi returned to her residence for not wanting to see him.
"I came back together with Lorist," the duke replied, "Also, how's Sylvia doing?"
"Not bad. She should be giving birth in a month or so. Now that the guy has returned, she's so happy she's stopped caring about me, her adoptive mother," complained she.
"Hehe, someone your age is jealous of their juniors?" Fisablen teased laughingly, "Come, sit down. We haven't spent much time together for quite some time now."
Xanthi walked over and sat down, leaning on the duke and snuggled into his embrace. Every time the two were together, she would turn into a little girl and stick closely to her man.
"You've come so far in this cold, stormy weather. You must be worn out, right?" asked she as she reached her hand out to touch the duke's face.
"I bet you wouldn't believe me if I told you I didn't suffer at all. I traveled from Wesstwood all the way here with Lorist without rest. It took only four days and three nights," said he, sighing.
"Impossible! How many provinces did you have to cross? Let me count... Wesstwood, Perolina, Freewood, Jigzai, Messen, Rimad, Southern, Winston, and The Northlands. Look, even if you travel on horseback for a day and a night, you'll only cross one province. How could you go through nine provinces in this kind of weather so quickly?"
"It's true, I'm not lying," Fisablen said as he gave her face a kiss.
She giggled and buried her face even deeper in his chest.
"I bet you never would've imagined we didn't come on horseback. We came on sleds. Apart from the mountainous paths where workhorses had to be strung, we only used sails to travel down the mountains and across the plains. I didn't think sails could be used in such a way as well. The heavier the storm, the faster the sleds. It was like a bolt of lightning. The scenery whooshed by so fast I couldn't see it at all.
"Lorist said House Norton only experimented with two kinds of sleds with the aim of solving the problem of transportation during the winter. We'd used one of them. Unfortunately, you can only transport small amounts of supplies like this; you still need animals to pull larger loads," said he with much insight.
"That kid loves to use these unconventional and devilish methods," said Xanthi.
"Devilish? Haha, you look down on them too much," said the duke, a little crestfallen, "I only now understand they were holding back when they attacked us. Had he not been worried that nobody would keep the grassland barbarians in check, he could've long sent his troops to Crouchtiger Castle.
"Don't tell me we have a huge population in Eastwild with limitless potential and that our frontier legions are best at hit-and-run attacks. As long as it's winter and our soldiers huddle up in the castles for heat, House Norton's forces can use sleds to send their forces to encircle us. There'll no way we can escape."
Xanthi's eyes widened. "It can't be. If even you're so pessimistic… are the sleds really that amazing?"
"This isn't really a problem of sleds. While they are indeed quite suitable for use on the plains, especially when snow covers them, I am more concerned with the mindset behind it. The is far more conservative than House Norton. There are no talented people in the next generation that stand out with creative ability and tolerance.
"Oh, and, six days ago, House Norton's Tigersoar used the cover of the snow and their skis to attack the defenses in Welony Pass. I watched the battle myself. I saw Lorist lead his men across the snow to the defenses' rear quickly.
"The defenders would never have imagined that the enemy would show up behind them in that weather. The many blizzards have packed snow hard on the ground. Using the skis, Lorist can attack quickly and easily from anywhere.
Reddragon was completely swarmed. They didn't even know how the enemy had appeared. The hundred or so catapults along the mountain pass fell without inflicting any casualties, and the number of enemies that escaped was negligible. The defenses that had held us back for eight months were conquered in a few minutes, with few, if any, casualties on Lorist's side. I understand completely why Lorist says winter is his friend, not his foe."
"Then we can also train House Fisablen's forces to fight like that! I'm sure you can do whatever that kid can," consoled Xanthi.
Fisablen laughed bitterly. "I already told you it's a problem of mindset. I've seen how the soldiers of Tigersoar are armed and their response to orders. It isn't something a quick training course can achieve. It's the result of years of regular winter training.
"Each soldier is given a set of specially made insulating clothing. They know how to not lose their way in the midst of a blizzard as well as how to camouflage themselves in the white, snow-covered fields and even how to prevent snow-blindness and keep their body temperature up.
"I really can't fathom Lorist investing so much into his forces. I asked around at one point; it's not just Tigersoar that has that training. Every Norton soldier has to go through it every year."
"I've always thought my fate was unordinary and dreamt of ushering in a new age for the house. But compared to Lorist, I am worthless. Whether it is personal power or the might of our armies, I'm not his match. I'm not saying this just because I'm sour. We're just too far apart.
"It really is unfortunate we have such a neighbor. The only thing I can be happy about is that this kid married my granddaughter and can be considered my son-in-law now. As long as I don't step out of bounds, I don't have to worry about House Fisablen being exterminated. I'm sure the kid will give us a hand in consideration of Sylvia."
On the 11th day of the 1st month, Year 1783, House Norton's matron, Duke of The Northlands', Norton Lorist's, wife, Sylvia, gave birth to a healthy child Lorist named Anderbael, 'peaceful bearling' in the language of the fae.
Auguslo's envoys traveled to The Northlands one after another after the rainy season ended, with the order to return to the frontlines. Duke Fisablen had already returned. After the attack on Welony Pass, the entrance to Handra was opened. It wasn't known whether the four dukes would react in desperation. So, Duke Fisablen rallied his troops after the new year's and rushed back to the pass. Lorist used the excuse of accompanying his wife and child to delay his return.
He only started packing in the 5th month. Had it not been for the king's consideration of how a monarch should behave, Lorist suspected he would have cursed in his letters already.
As expected, the frontlines were in complete chaos. The successful attack had been a pleasant surprise for the king. When he received word of it, Lorist had already returned to his dominion. As it was due to Sylvia's upcoming labor, there was nothing he could do. When he rushed to the frontlines in the blizzard, he quickly realized it was thanks to the skis he had obsessed over so much that the attack could be carried out successfully.
In Egret Swamp those years ago, he had seen how fast Lorist had traveled across the snow with the skis and even learned how to make them. He had forgotten one important factor, though. When he returned and wanted to form a ski assault corps, he realized all the men would have to be provided the skis, and a set of expensive heat-retaining clothing.
The reason Lorist could outfit his men was that he had a massive surplus of the necessary material from the magic beasts they had hunted. He had exterminated millions of them and obtained their pelts. But, lacking any way to ship them for sale in large quantities, he had used them for winter clothing for his troops.
Auguslo didn't have that kind of fur. He realized every soldier being given a set would be a huge burden on his finances. So, out of consideration for his coffers, he dropped the plan. He was really envious of the equipment Tigersoar's men had. He had wanted Tigersoar to press on and continue raking in the victory while winter lasted but Loze refused. He had told the king that Lorist's orders were to defend the pass so their efforts wouldn't be wasted if the enemy launched a counterattack. Additionally, the skis could only be used to catch the enemy off-guard. Now that they were aware of their presence, they'd definitely be ready. Any further attacks would only lose them more men.
What a load of bull. So what if the enemy is prepared? There's no way they'd stay in their trenches during the blizzard! They'd freeze to death before you even fight! Who else would have such priceless winter gear and the ability to show up out of nowhere in this kind of weather?
It was too bad Tigersoar wasn't under his direct command. Loze could rightfully refuse his orders because he wasn't their commander.
He returned, anger-filled, and swore he would spend even the last gold coin in his coffer to form an assault corps he could deploy in the winter as well. All he could do in the moment, however, was watch as the opportunities slipped away. After the rainy season passed, he kept on sending envoys to Lorist to have him return.
What are you doing in your dominion now that your child is born? Get your ass back here!
Welony's conquest meant that at least half of Wesstwood was now controlled by Andinaq. With Handra losing their advantageous defensive position in Cloudsnap, they had no choice but to retreat a further hundred kilometers. Fortunately, there were a few low hills there where the duchies had set up defenses to resist the first prince's invasion. The legions made their way there, reformed and took up position.
For now, six legions were stationed there. The four dukes had basically deployed all their forces in that single location. Forund's first and second legions, Handra's Whitedragon and Blackdragon legions, as well as the horribly defeated Reddragon, joined ranks. Farkel's Forestmont and Bloodspear were also there. As for Duke Shabaj's division, it was stationed along Nibarak to keep the enemy from passing through.
Perhaps because of the stimulation of Tigersoar's attack, Auguslo had led Whitelion and Duke Fisablen's the reserve legion in attacks on the defenses multiple times. But the defenses held and he was unable to break through.
"Locke, only the defenses in front of us are left. As long as we break through, we can completely annihilate the enemy. I believe it's possible with Tigersoar's capabilities. I hope you'll take this on," said the king during their council.
After inspecting the troop layout diagram a scout had drawn, Lorist shook his head.
"Why?" Auguslo's face darkened.
"Simple. The reason I led Tigersoar to attack Welony was to apply even more pressure on their defenses. The four dukes will soon crumble on their own. One look at the defenses and you'll understand they have to form new legions now that they've stationed the six available legions they have there. They also have to make sure the riverbank is defended to keep us from launching an attack there.
"We can only imagine how many soldiers they need to ensure their full defense. There's no way they can keep this up with only two provinces. As long as we maintain this stance without going all out, Handra can only keep trying to increase their defenses until they can no longer keep it up. Why would we then waste our men in battle?"
"But our attack could apply even more pressure on them! If we succeed in crumbling this line, the enemy will fall even faster!" argued Auguslo loudly.
"Perhaps. But it will kill our men as well. Since victory is already assured, why sacrifice unnecessarily?"
A voice interrupted the exchange from outside the tent.
"Reporting to His Majesty, Duke Handra's envoy is requesting an audience."