Under the Oak Tree

Chapter 415 - 176
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When day broke the next day, six hundred of Wedon's elite troops departed west for Midna. Among them were ten senior mages and a supply party. A victory did not necessarily mean no more attacks, so the coalition had sent sufficient troops and resources to ensure Midna's defense.

After watching the forces leave the city from her vantage point on the rampart, Maxi turned around. Even the remaining soldiers were busy preparing for battle. Hundreds shuttled to and fro loading wagons, while those who knew how converged in the square to trim and re-shoe the army's warhorses.

A group of armed spearmen convened at the northern gate. As Maxi understood it, once preparations were complete, they would depart for the fortresses of Ennismon in northeast Wedon, Igredin in southern Arex, and Rutigern at the border of Arex and Dristan.

As she made her way to the square, Celric looked up from his paperwork.

"Have you decided what you will do, Maximilian?" he called to her from within his tent.

Approaching, Maxi carefully examined the names etched onto the thin stone tablet before him. It seemed Calto's fatigue from the long journey meant that the task of distributing the mages had fallen to Celric.

"We have decided to send thirteen senior mages to each city," he said, pointing to the vacant spots on the list. "They will be accompanied by several junior mages proficient in healing or basic defensive spells. Have you made up your mind about your assignment?"

"If possible...I would like to remain here in Vesmore."

Celric gave a heavy sigh. "It seems everyone shares that sentiment. No one is keen on embarking on another trek."

Maxi's gaze following Celric's to the lengthy list of names of those hoping to be stationed in Vesmore. Departing as part of the reinforcements meant leaving the city that very day. She had hoped to stay in Vesmore to see her husband off.

Casting a beseeching look at Celric, she said, "I-I was told...Vesmore is the closest city to where the dragon was sealed. If the campaign party were to fail, Vesmore would be the first target. If you mentioned this to the others...I'm sure some would change their minds."

"I can see Albert and Beylus changing their minds."

After gazing pensively at the list, Celric scrawled her name in tiny letters. "Your husband is leading the campaign party, isn't he? I assume you wish to wait for him here. I will put your name at the top of the list. I'm sure everyone will understand."

"Th-Thank you"

Relief flooding her, Maxi skimmed the names below hers. The Godric siblings were grouped under Vesmore, likely due to their disinclination toward the northern regions, where the Orthodox Church had a stronger influence. Sidina's name was also among them.

Exiting the barracks, Maxi's heart felt light knowing her friends would be close. She noticed high-ranking knights from various kingdoms in the square, collecting their rations. Her pace quickened when she spotted a familiar face.

"Sir Gabel!"

The knight, walking toward a campfire with a steaming bowl in hand, turned to her. "Good morning, my lady."

She smiled slightly. "H-Have you seen..Riftan? He was gone when I woke up, so I have not seen him all day."

"The commander is in a strategy meeting with the knights. There is much to be discussed as the campaign party must set off for the Lexos Mountains as soon as possible."

Gabel sat by the campfire and began wolfing down his stew.π™‘π™žπ’ƒπ“»π’†π“ͺ𝒅.π“¬π’π’Ž

Maxi looked at him, puzzled. "Should you not..be attending the meeting as well, Sir Gabel?"

"I was left out of the campaign party, my lady," he replied, a sad smile playing on his lips. "We drew lots."

Catching the hint of bitterness in his voice, Maxi nervously shifted her eyes. Being left out of battles in the past had already soured him, and now he had to stay behind to guard a fortress.

Stirring his stew with visible frustration, the knight angrily added, "It isn't fair. If they had a shred of decency, they should have exempted me from the draw. I only agreed to it because I thought I wouldn't get the short end of the stick again. But fate is cruel, I complained, of course, but no one would hear it."

His voice grew fiercer, and Maxi hesitated before replying softly, "I-I'm sorry. Perhaps it's because of me that you were forced to stay. Because they need someone to protect me."

"Th-That's not true, my lady! Someone would have had to stay regardless. Vesmore currently holds the Chalice of Purification. With the Temple Knights part of the campaign's main forces, it was decided that some Remdragon Knights would stay behind to protect it."

Looking flustered, Gabel vigorously waved his hand.

"Please don't take my venting to heart.'

"If that is all, then I am much-"

Their conversation was cut short by the arrival of the other knights. With a light nod to Gabel, Maxi slipped away. Soldiers from Dristan and Balto were also among those flocking to the fire, so she did not want to draw any attention.

She drew her hood and headed to the infirmary. Though she longed to speak with Riftan, even briefly, she thought better of disturbing him when he already had so much on his plate.

Making her way across the square, Maxi stepped into the guest house where the wounded were kept. Most were on the mend, but appearances could be deceptive; seemingly well patients could suddenly take a turn for the worse.

She meticulously checked their food intake before heading to the dispensary to prepare remedies. Inside the dim room, half a dozen mages were already engrossed in blending herbs. They were likely making emergency medicines for the campaign party.

Nodding in greeting, Maxi gathered the essential tonics and pain-relievers. Once her patients were cared for, she dove back into the bustling activity of the dispensary. Hours blurred as she prepared various remedies for wounds, and frostbite, antidotes, and nourishing tonics. Lost in her work, she was startled when one of Wedon's healers cautiously intervened.

"I think this should be enough. Why don't you go rest?"

Maxi paused, glancing out a nearby window and wiping sweat from her brow. The sky, veiled in wisps of cloud, gave no clear sign of the time, but she guessed it was well past noon.

Reluctantly setting aside the mortar and pestle, she stepped outside. The hundreds of soldiers on standby now poured out the city gate, heading toward the trio of northern cities beyond the Lexos Mountains.

Her curiosity piqued, Maxi scaled the ramparts to see if she could spot familiar mage faces among the departing soldiers. Craning her neck over the battlement, she was dismayed to find that she could not tell individuals apart, as they were all bundled in thick coats.

She squinted at the procession for a while before finally conceding defeat. Back at the mages' lodging, she shared a late lunch with Anette and Sidina. Afterward, they busied themselves mending magical devices.

The day flew by. After working on the magical devices late into the night, Maxi curled up and slept soundly in the shared billet. Upon waking, she willed her stiff body to sit up and peered out the window. The silvery rays of dawn were slowly taking over the dark sky.

The campaign party was set to depart from Vesmore by midday. Though she chided herself for not spending what could have been her last night with Riftan, a part of her felt it was for the best. Had they been alone, she might have clung to him, refusing to let him go. She didn't want him to see her in such an undignified state again. Her resolve was to bid him farewell with an undaunted front so he would have one less thing weighing on his mind.

Taking a deep breath, Maxi ran to the billet's small kitchen to wash her face. She also took the chance to tidy her hair and hastily arrange her clothes. As soon as she stepped outside, she was met with the sight of countless knights in full armor.

She quickly scanned the assembled troops as she navigated the square. The Temple Knights in their black habits over gray armor, Bolose Royal KNights in dark plate armor, and the Knights of Phil Aaron draped in wolf pets stood by the north gate. Meanwhile, the Remdragon Knights, the elite unit of Balto's Southern Confederacy, and Wedon's Royal Army formed a column of fours by the west gate.

It did not take long for Maxi to find Riftan among them. He and Hebaron were checking the formations. She could feel the moment of departure drawing near and hurriedly approached.

"R-Riftan."

Her breath caught in her throat when he turned to face her. In his rugged plate armor, dark cloak, and the Remdragon emblem on his shoulder pauldron, he looked every inch the knight he was born to be.

"Where were you last night?" he said, handing off his helmet to a nearby squire.

The rebuke in his voice made her guiltily lower her gaze.

He lifted her chin upward. "I came back late, and you weren't in our room,"

"I-I lost track of time making magical devices and fell asleep in the billet," she said, forcing a smile. "With the campaign leaving, the city will be defenseless. We had to..ensure all the devices for the walls were finished. I wanted you to leave...without worrying."

A faint line creased Riftan's brow. After a searching look, he asked, anxiety evident, "You are not still upset with me, are you?"

"I-" Maxi's voice wavered, forcing her to stop.

You must not cry.

When she looked down again, the trinket dangling from his sword belt caught her attention. Her handmade cord, hanging next to his bastard sword, blurred in her teary vision. Swallowing the lump in her throat, she inhaled deeply, trying to find her voice.

"I'm not upset. Please don't worry. I will be here, patiently waiting for your return."

Riftan wordlessly regarded her for a long moment. Unable to bear the silence, Maxi hastily pulled out a pouch from her coat and placed the firestone she had crafted just the day before into his palm.

"This stone was specially made to retain fire mana. It should stay warm for half a month, even in the mountains."

Still, he remained silent.

"And this is emergency medicine. I am certain you'll be fine with Ruth around, but...th-this is just in case."

"Thank you," he muttered, accepting her offerings one by one.

As she fought to keep her emotions in check, she locked eyes with him. Though his expression remained stoic, the sadness in his eyes was unmistakable.

The urge to draw him close was overwhelming, but she feared she might never let go if she did. It took everything she had to maintain the undaunted front expected of the supreme commander's wife.

"Please be careful," she said. 𝘭π˜ͺπ˜£π‘Ÿπ˜¦π˜’π’Ή.π˜€π‘œπ“‚

"And you."

For a moment, he seemed poised to caress her cheek but faltered. In the end, he lowered his hand. It was as if the pain of their separation was stopping him from daring to touch her as well. After silently gazing at his gauntleted hand, Maxi took a step back.

They had said their farewells. There were no more promises to be made

Glancing at Hebaron, positioned a short distance away, Maxi said with as much courage as she could muster, "I shall pray for your safe return."

"Worry not, my lady. We'll all come back unscathed," Hebaron assured with a playful wink.

Maxi smiled at the burly night before her attention turned back to Riftan.

"We must go now," he said, his voice heavy.

Though her heart sank, she managed a calm nod. Riftan gestured to the sentry overlooking the gate. As the gate rose, the Knights began their march with fierce determination. After silently watching them pass through the gate in perfect formation, Riftan finally headed toward Talon. maxi looked away, the weight of his departure too much to bear. Unexpectedly, a firm hand gripped her shoulder.

She turned, and Riftan guided her to a quieter spot, away from his marching subordinates.

"Before I leave, there's something I must tell you," he said, locking eyes with her.

His words were heavy with significance. Maxi could not speak, only blink her eyes.

Riftan appeared to struggle before the words came bursting out of him. "I should have told you this three years ago. I just couldn't bring myself to say it back -" He paused when his voice cracked, causing Maxi to look at him with concern. What could possibly be so challenging for him to confess? She was getting more and more anxious when he looked at her squarely.

"I am proud of you."

For a moment, Maxi could not breathe.

Placing a hand on her cheek, Riftan slowly added, "Even when I was close to losing my mind with worry, a part of me was always proud of you."

Tears she had staunchly held back spilled from her eyes. An emotion that was too intense for words erupted in her chest. She recognized the courage it took for him to share these sentiments

Aware of Riftan's fear of losing her, she knew he would go to great lengths to keep her safe - even if it meant using threats. and she felt the same about him. She understood how difficult it was for him to say those words of encouragement.

"Th-Thank you," Maxi managed to choke out.

She tried to smile, her quivering lips refused to cooperate. In the end, she could not restrain herself any longer, and she flung herself into his arms. It would only amplify the pain of their imminent separation, but she did not care. The fact that he had told her what she needed to hear at that moment despite his fears tore her heart to pieces.

She wondered if this man fully understood what those words meant to her.

With considerable effort, she managed to reply, "That truly...means a lot to me."

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