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."
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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."