Jest of Darkwell A.S.XL
The Byzantine Bash!
Everything in this account happened just as I have written….well… almost…
Friday July 29th
It had been a long hard ride with many unexpected delays, but I had managed to arrive in Drawl ahead of the setting sun; still time to pitch camp and confer before dark with General Gregory about the coming battle. As I uncinched and removed the panniers from my packhorse I thought back over the trip. I had gotten a late start, and along the way I tried to drum up as many men at arms as I could. Thunderstorms had also impeded my progress. During one particularly bad storm I found myself holed up in a tavern full of troublemakers and tosspots. My efforts to rally any of them were in vain; they only drank and bickered. "Why is there always fighting in Darkwell?" complained one. The answer to that was simple. It’s a matter of geography.
As anyone who is well traveled knows, mountains surround the heart of Caid. You cannot go west to Isles, north to Wintermist, northeast to al-Sahid, or east to Steinsee without climbing a mountain pass. Darkwell lies near the top of one such pass to the north of Dun Or along a less traveled road, making it a more tempting route for invading armies from the north. However the northwest side of the pass is so steep that the main trade road makes a loop over itself, thus keeping the grade from being too steep for the horses to travel upon. An invading army is greatly slowed making this assent, and this gives us time to intercept them. In addition there are the usable ruins of an old keep and a wall with towers built to block the pass, left over from days before Caid. So here we were making camp in Darkwell, knowing that an invading army of Byzantine warriors would be coming through the pass by morning.
Once I finished pitching my tent, I visited the camp of General Gregory and Major Edward. They were spending the evening drilling the troops in preparation for the morning’s battle. I asked Lord Gregory when he thought he would be mustering the Fifth Brigade. The scouts had reported the Byzantine army far outnumbered our Caidan troops, so he was planning to wait until the last possible moment in the hopes that more soldiers would arrive, and also to give our men as much rest as possible. I continued to tour the camp, finding on my walk Baron Darius unpacking his cart, and to whom I told the battle plans. While in conversation with him, I observed Lady Una had arrived and was pitching her tent.
From there I climbed the hill where I found Captain Connor and his men. The plan, I advised him, was not to engage the Byzantines until they arrived at the top of the pass. The muster call would come when our scouts reported that they were close. Lord Connor then informed me that he had discovered that the services of the mercenary soldiers of Legion had not been secured. Since the La Broka’s "salvage operations" had been very profitable this past year, he was able to front the expense of hiring them, and had taken it upon himself to engage them for Dreiburgen. He also apprised me that he had heard about my injuries sustained during Potrero, and told me that he would assign Isaac to be my personal bodyguard, gesturing to a minstrel who sang by the fire. "A minstrel? I wondered. Then I noticed that the man was singing a song about cutting off ladies’ heads. I just shook my own head and walked back to my tent to retire.
Saturday July 30th
Awaking early, I fixed myself a breakfast of bacon and eggs, using the bacon grease as shortening for the pan biscuits that followed. It wasn’t until late morning that the report of the enemy closing and the call to arm up flew through the camp. We formed our ranks in the old gatehouse, effectively blocking the road. The first group of Byzantine soldiers marched up the road. By their reaction, they had not expected to run into opposition, and made a tactical error by attacking us instead of waiting for the rest of their forces to arrive.
They hit our defensive line but could not get through; our shields were steadfast and held the gateway. For a moment we were at an impasse — they could not penetrate our line and our pikes could not penetrate their shield wall. Then a bolt shot over our heads and one of the shield men fell. Then another, and a pike man fell; then another, and another. I turned to see Her Ladyship Teka with a grim look on her face as she cocked her crossbow and let fly with a speed and accuracy that was scary. Now the Byzantine line started to crumble. They pushed against us but it was in vain; we were whittling them down. Finally we pushed through the gate into the open to mop up those few who remained.
This was a mistake. Just as we finished off the last of them and the cheer of victory went up, the main army crested the pass. The men caught outside the gatehouse were trapped! The Byzantines split their forces. One group engaged the men who stood without, while the rest made for the unoccupied keep. Our men gave better than they got, but our casualties were heavy. We found ourselves with fewer men, and our enemy holed up in the keep.
The old keep had no gates, so the Byzantines formed up shield walls to defend the openings. It was a pity, I thought to myself, that there was no time to haul up artillery — we could have them out of there in short order. General Gregory observed that we did not have enough men to guarantee a victory, so the plan was to inflict just enough casualties upon them to force them to reconsider and turn back, thus not pushing further into Caid. I conferred with my privateers. Isaac exclaimed "Let’s not mess around. Let’s hit them hard and push our way in!" Captain Connor affirmed that all his men as well as the men of Legion felt the same. Returning to the Fifth, I found General Gregory and Major Edward discussing strategies. "I have many men eager to charge in and hit them hard", I offered. "We can use that", said Sir Edward.
In one solid mass the Fifth formed up with Dreiburgen and our privateers to hit the Byzantines like a hammer. I positioned myself behind the shield of Baron Darius and Isaac. The plan was to push their line back, the rest of the troops filling in behind us and flanking their defenses. The charge was called and in we went. We hit them hard! They were forced way back, leaving wide openings to the left and right of the gate. Now we just had to hold them long enough to allow the other brigades to file in.
The fighting was furious. A pike man was determined to get me, and I could not get my pike past his shield men. Then Isaac went berserk, and the shield in my way went down and then another fell. I jabbed my pike into the cheek of the pike man opposite me. He took a stab back at me. I returned, driving my pike into his chest deep enough to puncture a lung. He responded by taking another poke at my head. "So that’s how its going to be, eh?" I thought to myself. Another shield man tried to cover him but Darius dispatched him quickly. I cocked my arm back and thrust as hard as I could! It caught him in the throat and he staggered backwards. At that moment another pike caught my helmet and spun me around. I hit my knees to gain the cover of the men on the line. My vision was partially obscured by my shifted helmet. I scrambled out slightly dizzy from the hit, expecting to have trouble exiting through the ranks of men coming up behind us. But there was no one there!
Pulling my helmet off to regain my vision and inhale a breath of warm air, I saw a horrific sight. The other units were not taking advantage of the openings that the Dreiburgen forces were sacrificing themselves to make! "The cowards are costing us the battle", I cursed as I staggered back to the shade of a tree where chirurgeons were hastily bandaging wounds and armor was shabbily being repaired. Sir Edward was regrouping some freshly bandaged members of the Fifth as I took some water from a page tending to a scratch on my forehead.
Our losses continued to mount and the enemy pushed back to the gate, shoving us out of the keep. We continued like this for what seemed like an eternity, with Lord Damashi caving in helmets, Isaac hacking up anyone who came near me, Gregory leading the Fifth in wave after wave of attacks. Finally with both sides exhausted, I found myself standing in the gateway with whom I believe was Damashi, though I am not certain, just out of my vision to my left, Darius a few feet to my right, and only a hand-full of men still standing. General Gregory and Sir Edward were having wounds treated, and I was the only one left in command. The Byzantines were panting and had backed up from the gate out of range of my pike.
"What do we do?" came a voice from behind me. "Only one thing to do", I replied. "Charge and flank right; that will get us inside and behind them." "But that’s a thousand to one shot." "You want to live forever?" I shot back. "At your command, Your Excellency", said Darius. "LET’S DO IT!!!" I yelled as I ran in with what was left of our army behind me. We charged at the enemy’s shield line, but instead of engaging we turned to the right and ran around the line into the open room. That’s when I saw the Byzantine general standing back from his men in the open. "Cut the head off the snake", I thought to myself and continued to charge with Darius right behind me.
His eyes looked like dinner plates as I thrust at the general’s head. Obviously he was not expecting me. He raised his sword and shield to block my attack. I dropped my point to go for his leg, but his shield came down just in time. I made a faint for his hip, then raised my point to make him eat the baronial banner still secured fast to my pike. He rolled his shield up just in time to deflect my pike over his shoulder. By this time two of his guards had come to his aid. There was a clash and my legs were knocked out from under me. I found myself lying on the sandy cobblestone floor. Turning my head I saw that Darius had been knocked over backwards. "They have us now", I thought as I scrambled for my pike.
As I regained my feet I saw a very curious sight. The enemy was retreating to the back entrance of the keep. Apparently my attack on their commander had startled them and they were retreating him to safety. A horn sounded from one of our lookouts reporting that the enemy was coming out the back entrance of the keep. The plan had worked; the Byzantines were flushed out of the old fort. But most of our men were still outside, and it would be only a matter of minutes before the enemy made their way down the wall and through the gatehouse on the road. I dashed up the stairs to the battlements and waved Dreiburgen’s banner high to let our army know that the keep was ours.
There was a mad scramble to get everyone inside. Those who could walk, carried or dragged those who could not. Gregory surveyed what was left of our army, while Sir Edward started lining up what remained of the Fifth in the open gateway. He had Lord Viridovix and Lady Adriann get on their knees, and told them that their job was to be an obstacle. "Stay behind the shields and stay alive." I told Captain Connor and Lord Ulfblod to back them up.
From the battlements we could see that the enemy was using the trees to make siege ladders. "I don’t get it," said one soldier. "They have us trapped and the road to Dun Or and the rest of Caid is clear. Why do they waste time with us?" "Would you want to push deep into enemy territory with a known hostile at your back?" I asked. "Besides, it’s a good thing that they are wasting time with us. It gives Caid an opportunity to rally its main army. Not to mention that they waste not only time, but precious resources as well. By taking this route they are not passing through the fertile lands of Wintermist. There is much wasteland between here and the cities of Dun Or, and high mountains between Dun Or and the heart of Caid. They now have fewer men and soon they will not have the supplies to make it through Dun Or."
Those outside the keep continued to make ladders, while we inside treated our wounded, trying to get as many back on their feet as possible. Then the attack came. The bulk of their forces hit the gateway while a few of them put ladders to the wall and started to climb. As the Fifth with my privateers and mercenaries held the gate, I took what was left of the Dreiburgen Irregulars up to the battlements. After their earlier failure, I did not trust the units not under Dreiburgen command to keep the enemy off the walls. I looked down at the gate; the first wave hit and the entire front row of shields went down. The enemy stepped over the bodies to press the attack. "Big mistake", grinned Sir Edward, and with that Viridovix and Adriann popped up from under their shields unhurt and behind the first row of Byzantines. Teka covered their backs with her crossbow as they slit the throats of the men who so foolishly mistook them for dead.
After that my attention quickly turned to the battlements. The enemy was at the top and on the attack. I managed to knock three off the wall when I heard a cry from Darius von Tannenberg|Darius]]. The Byzantines were ascending one ladder so fast and furious that we had missed a second ladder placed on the next battlement, a ladder that for some of us was to our backs. One Byzantine officer had climbed into the opening onto the stone and struck Darius hard in the back! We turned on him but he retreated back down the ladder. "I’M TIRED OF THESE COWARDS HITTING OUR PEOPLE IN THE BACK!" I exclaimed as I glanced down to the gate. Things were not going well there either; for every Byzantine we killed, we lost two. We were loosing this fight! I descended to hastily confer with General Gregory, Sir Edward, Captain Connor and the other officers.
It was decided that holding the keep was suicide; we had to get out. The Byzantines were not attacking the rear gate, just as we had not earlier. Most likely they had the same goal, push us out and finish us. We would need a diversion to keep the Byzantines occupied as we escaped. The plan was to send a small force around the left side through a hole in the wall to engage and draw away as many of the enemy as possible; the rest could escape to the right. But here was the twist…most commanders would expect us to retreat to the southeast towards Dun Or, but we planned to run through the gatehouse down the road to the northwest. This would leave our enemy with a problem. If they decided to leave us and move on to Dun Or and the rest of Caid, they would have us biting at their heals all the way. If they were to pursue us, their resources would be far too depleted to cross the wastelands.
Volunteers for the diversionary force were sought. "No one will be ordered who will not go freely", said Sir Edward. The brave detachment crept out the back gate and were climbing through the hole in the wall when a horn sounded. They had been spotted. The bulk of the Byzantine army turned on them and moved in for the attack. That was our cue to retreat. We ran along the wall to the gatehouse and charged down the road to the northwest towards Wintermist. As we retreated I could see that the diversionary force had been flanked and was surrounded. Many of our men still fighting had no idea that the enemy was behind them. It was now our job to make sure that their sacrifice was not in vain.
An enemy unit spied us and decided to attack. We formed a shield line to cover our retreat. Damashi smashed, I jabbed, Isaac hacked, and Una had taken up two swords and chopped any Byzantine soldier unlucky enough to get through. One solider came at me yelling "DIE! DIE! DIE!" I drove my pike into his eye socket. He kept coming, "DIE! DIE!" I jabbed my pike into his other eye. "DIE! DIE! DIE!" he still kept coming swinging blindly. "Then die already!" I yelled driving my pike into his mouth so hard that it came out the back of his helmet. This shut him up, but he kept on swinging his arms. I jerked my pike free and with a large gush of blood the solider dropped to his knees and fell over. "What are they feeding their men?" I muttered as we turned to run down the road until we came to a bridge. It seemed like only yesterday we were knocking retreating Mongols off this bridge, but this time we were the ones retreating. Taking up a defensive position on the bridge we caught our breath. Compared to the number of men we started with at the beginning of this conflict, there were not many of us left. We waited, wondering if the Byzantine army would choose to retreat through us or march to Dun Or.
It wasn’t long before the sound of marching feet answered the question. They had chosen retreat; now it was our job to make it as costly for them as possible. They formed ranks and marched onto the bridge, stopping just out of range. For a moment we just stared at each other. Then they charged. We exchanged blows and their resolve was so great that I noticed the bigger, meaner, soldiers had to be run through three or four times before they lost their will to fight. "What’s with this?" complained one of our men. "Does Zeus or some magic bless them?" "No", I replied, "They are like big dumb rhinos. It just takes a lot of injury to slow them down." The next one I faced proved my point. I stabbed him in the nose, and he just stared at me. A crossbow bolt flew over my shoulder into his eye; he waved his spear point in my face as if he were drunk. I drove my pike hard and deep into his chest, and he staggered backwards out of sight. At that moment a thrust smashed my left arm, crushing my armor and leaving my arm immobile. I tucked my pike under my right arm and attempted to jab at the enemy from this compromised position. I was able to take out one more, when another pike caught me in the shoulder and sent me toppling off the narrow bridge. The sting of the water as it streamed into my helmet had my senses reeling. I was choking for air as I struggled to find which way was up to scramble for the river’s edge. I came up coughing and pulled myself up the bank. Removing my helmet, I dumped out the water, and as I tried to remove the armor from my left arm I looked back to the bridge. There weren’t many of the rank and file left. Most of our men were either wounded, swimming, or dead. I saw Sir Edward in the front line shouting orders and Gregory was walking up the edge of the bridge like it was a tight rope. He reached the line, dropped the point of his pike, and make a half turn thrusting it into the belly of a Byzantine. The shot was fatal, but the execution overbalanced Gregory and splash, he was swimming.
I noticed the Byzantine soldiers scrunched close together like an animal collecting to pounce. Then they charged. Our men went flying off both sides of the bridge. "Here we go", I thought as I looked around for a weapon. But the Byzantines did not swarm over those of us that remained; instead they continued running down the road. Soon the sound of their running feet fell in sync to a double time march. "Well how do you like that", I muttered. "They didn’t even say goodbye." I found my pike on the riverbank, leaned it up against a tree, shook some of the mud off my surcoat and staggered over to Edward and Viridovix. We three just sat there breathing hard for a few minutes. Then I asked, "Well, do you think that’s it?" "Hard to say. We’ll need to send out some scouts", Edward replied. "Looks like they left some stragglers we’ll need to mop up", added Viridovix. "You’ll have to do it without me - with this arm, I’m done." With that I picked up my pike, unfurled Dreiburgen’s banner and walked back to camp where I removed my armor and bathed in a nearby stream.
After I had donned my last set of clean clothes, I retrieved some jerky, whey bread and a flask of wine from my saddlebags and sat down to lunch. I had no more than finished when a roar of excitement went through the camp. The king had arrived with more troops, and he was well pleased that we had managed to turn back an overwhelming foe. So pleased, in fact, that special commendations were awarded to Viridovix and Adriann, and His Lordship Taliesin was made a member of the Order of the Gauntlet. Ulfblod was called before the king’s court and given gifts for all the help that he provided, and Lady Mora was recognized as well for her service. But what fortune gives with one hand, she takes away with the other, and amidst all this joy I took no pleasure in accepting the resignation of Dreiburgen’s Secretary of War, Katherine of Scarborough. Unavoidable business calls her to the Kingdom of Anstora. Her services in securing extra troops will be greatly missed.
After all this excitement I only wished to rest and sit in my camp by a fire, but alas, it was not to be. An alert was sounded from the guards posted on the lookout tower. They reported a rider approaching upon the road, but no scouts had been sent forth as of yet. "Is there any indication of who the rider is?" I called up to the tower. "Yes", came the shout. "The rider is wearing the markings of The Dreiburgen Light Horse." Now this was indeed curious, for I had no horsemen patrolling this far out. "Let him approach, but stay alert", was my command.
When the rider was allowed to pass the gatehouse I was astonished to see that it was none other than Elzbeta Belz Bearcrusher one of the founders of the Dreiburgen Light Horse. She had ridden out of the barony in October of A.S. XXIII and had not been seen since. As it turned out, she was living in the wilds of Wintermist and, hearing of the battle, had come to lend her support. She reported that the Byzantines were still marching down the pass and showed no sign of turning around. With this news the evening was given up to wine, dancing, and song. I paid the privateers of La Broka, gave the Fifth Brigade and the Dreiburgen Irregulars their bonuses, and introduced our lost horseman to everyone I could find.
Now before you rejoice in this ending, let me remind all who read this that we did not defeat the Byzantines, we only forced a withdrawal. The undead enemy still lies to the south of Calafia, and there are reports of troop movements in the desert somewhere between al-Sahid and Starkhafn. Now is not the time for celebration, now is the time to prepare for war. Stockpile your grain, prepare your wagons, train your warriors. I want to see every man-at-arms with ties to Dreiburgen (not just the Fifth Brigade) drilling on the green in our city of the Redlands on fourth Sundays!
Baron Malcolm /I\/I\/I\