Needle Ash – Chapter 1, part 1

Chapter 1: On the Battlefield


The sweets of life are enjoyed seldom and by few;

But the bitterness of death is tasted by all, and

There you find bitterness is another relative thing

Among many other relative, mutable things

That make a mundane world you call immutable

But for the honorable, there is no death;

Only a return to the dream.


For dreams to a living man are like gazing through a clouded mirror, whereas the dreams of death are like crystal water Only beyond the hazy veil of the mundane, the old dreams, shall we meet face to face and see each other as we truly are.


-The Apocrypha of Verbus, fourth proclamation.


Michael walked through the muddy tracks of the forward camp, grumbling as he felt mud slip between his sabatons and his boots. Water was dripping through a gap in his open visor, running along his nose into his beard, making his helm seem stifling even in the cold rain. As he ambled through the wagons and tents, he saw Angelico, his favorite lieutenant, huddling under a makeshift canvas tent held up by barrels of unopened brandy, a piece reserved for a celebration, the occurrence of which seemed to Michael to be less likely with each passing day and each skirmish with the Ferrallese army.

“Ho, highness,” Angelico said from where he sat, bowing his head and thumping his bare fist to his breastplate. “I would stand to salute you, sir, but I’m afraid without my squire to assist in the effort I would knock over this lovely shelter.”

Michael chuckled stopped. “We wouldn’t want that. We’d risk spilling the king’s vittles.”

“No need to upset the old man so far from the comforts of home. I’ll stay seated.” Angelico picked up a bowl of steamy stew sitting on a nearby barrel. He tore something up and dropped it in, and then shoveled some of the grey, thick food into his mouth. “As for my own comforts, I am thankful. The pallet be a fickle thing, sir.”

“By the end of this campaign I think those dried peppers will be worth their weight in gold.”

“Already are to me,” Angelico said. “But I have some saved for you, in the eventuality that the stocks reserved for you begin to dwindle. Where are you heading already suited up?”

“Officers’ meeting. We’ll be going over the battle plans.”

“Already? Are they that close?”

“Just on the other side of the foothills, our scouts report.”

“I’m not invited to this meeting?”

“Legionnaires only, I’m afraid,” Michael said. “I expect you’ll be serving with me again, waiting for the inevitable call to guard the retreat after we stalemate.”

“Don’t let your father hear you talking like that.”

“I won’t. Don’t worry. Believe me, there’s nothing I’d rather do than take our cavalry into a real assault…” Michael shrugged. “I am not the commander.”

“Good luck to us, and hold your tongue, my lord,” Angelico said.

“I will, my friend. When your squire ceases his laziness, make sure your company knows that the battle is likely to be fought today. I want inspections done before we have to give the order to move, understand?”

“Yes sir.”

“And make sure they eat hearty.”

Angelico slammed his fist to his chest again as Michael walked on. The dreary raid seemed to have dampened most spirits much more than Angelico, but the prince, upon news of the battle council, had felt the churning anxiety of war in his stomach; the lurching and dread, and even excitement, left little room for feeling melancholy.

He arrived at the command tent at the same time as his brother Johan, who wore a cloak over his armor and head. He gave him a frowning nod as they paused in front of the flap.

“How is your legion?”

Michael thumped his chest in salute. “Ready and willing. This is a battle council, correct? Why no lower officers?”

“The king has his reasons, I suspect.”

“Which he will not voice to us.”

“Be patient and more thoughtful. Such is the prerogative of his position.”

“After you,” Michael said, lifting the flap of the tent. As he followed his brother in, he removed his helm and shook the water off of it.

Inside, their father, King Edward the Black, was leaning over a large table with a newly drawn map. His hair, long since yielded from black to mottled grey, hung damp on his gilded and embossed armor. Behind him stood the wide-girth of General Butler, the battlefield commander, and the Towler, the mage corps officer.

“The princes are here, your highness,” said Towler. A elfish blonde man from the north of indeterminable age, he leaned on his staff as if crippled, his blue eyes trembling as he took in the princes. Michael shuddered slightly under the gaze.

“Good. Good,” said the King, his eyes still gazing over the lines of the map. Michael stepped nearer and saw that it depicted in detail the elevated expanse to the west of their camp, where they expected to meet the forces of Ferralla in the first open battle in months. There was a tension in the room, acrid in the silence filled only with the rain softly falling on tent. Butler, a sweaty man in the normal heat of Artilland, seemed to be dripping like a cold pot. Michael wiped his own sweaty brow.

Everyone in the tent knew, succeed or fail, this battle would be the end of the campaign. Supplies were lower than spirits, and already the army had been out in the field longer than was standard. They could return home as heroes, forcing an armistice or at least a regrouping of the enemy, or they would all be scrambling against an invasion in earnest. Conquest, the intent of the original campaign, was but given up on.

At last the king spoke. “General Butler and I have devised a battle plan. This has been well-considered for some time. Even the location of this camp.” The king cast a dark eye backward to the general.

The general cleared his throat, wiping sweat from his large pate as he did so. He produced from a small box a series of wooden blocks, colored to indicate the various companies. He placed them on the map carefully as he spoke.

“The battle plain we have selected is beyond the hills to our west,” he said in his characteristic gravelly drawl. “It gives us some distinct advantages.” He approached the war table and pointed to som shallow topography lines. “We’ll have the high ground here and here, useful for both observation by command as a bulwark should the tide turn against us.”

“What about those other hills?” Michael said, pointing to a series of hills further west. “Seems like that would give Ballaco and his army some of the same advantages.”

“Listen to the entire plan before asking foolish questions, Michael,” the king said darkly, lifting his chin as if to look down on his son, who was taller than he.

Michael bowed his head and touched his fist to his chest as he stepped backward, hoping his father did not see him blush.

Butler cleared his throat again. “Yes, as I was saying. We have decided on this battlefield. Ballaco will give battle to us here because he sees the same advantages as the prince. It’s a good neutral battle plain. Or so he will think. He will also see our encampment as being dangerously close to the field proper, and press aggressively to force a route in the middle.”

“Which we will give him, I’m sure,” the king said.

Butler nodded. “We’re banking on him disregarding this ravine here, as it will be impassable for cavalry moving in wider formations than pairs. We plan on putting two companies of infantry into play there, along with one cavalry platoon and a detachment of dragoons. In these riparian woods they won’t be seen by the casual lookout, and Ballaco will expect our flanking maneuvers to come from our light and heavy cavalry, not infantry.”

Michael wanted to speak up, to counter-indicate the general. Flanking with infantry, especially that far afield, was doomed to fail. The Ferralla legions would form a shield wall on their flank before two companies of infantry could mount the hills and cover the distance to the battle plain. Even before he could open his mouth to speak, he notice his brother gazing at him with a look that approached contempt, and so Michael remained silent.

As if also sensing this tension, Butler chuckled and pointed to a further point west on the map. “The goal of this other pair of companies is not flank the enemy directly, but to engage their reserves, which I expect to be stationed here, with their own forward camp further west by this creek, here. With the reserves occupied, there will be no reinforcement of their forward push.

“Our plan thus, is this: We will engage in a standard set of tactics after the standard failure of treaty. Our cavalry, which is superior in number and in strength, and ought to be able to intercept their and have room to harry the flanks of their forward infantry, as well as press on their archer corps once the fighting begins. Their mage corps will likely be operating as one unit, thinking to counter our own, which they have been successful with so far, though not this time.”

“You have other plans?” Towler said.

Butler nodded. “Mages will be dispersed into the companies, with priority given to cavalry, of course. In that position they cannot be counterspelled efficiently, and will be a destructive asset to those companies. That will leave the rest of our men more open to their mages, but we’ll have to endure it. Michael will be in charge of the northern companies. Johan, you will take charge of your legion as well as the southern cavalry company normally attached to the second legion, due to the practical limitation of commanding across the battlefield. ”

“What about the rest of my legion?” Michael said. “I’m just to command the cavalry?”

“Your infantry and archer corps will be in the critical position of reserve,” Butler said. “Which I was about to say.”

“Critical position?” Michael said, raising his voice. He stepped forward, feeling sweat burst anew on his face. “How is waiting for the battle to go sour a critical position?”

“Silence,” King Edward said firmly, holding up his hand to Michael

For a moment, Michael was silent, but it only gave him time to feel his anger more thoroughly. “We’ve always had our own reserves for each legion, father. Why do my men have to stand on the sidelines?”

“Isn’t it enough that you aren’t?” Edward said, straightening up. “Your quest for glory is in no danger, leading your cavalry.”

“This isn’t about glory!”

“Silence!” Edward’s face grew taught. “Or will relieve you and hire a new legionary. He may be of lesser blood but brighter mind, and thus more worthy of my grace.”

Michael wanted nothing more at that moment than to shout down at his father, make plain his favoritism and foolishness, but the threat contained him. He was not the crown prince. He needed to have command to have a future in the court, and his father knew it. A sickening feeling in his stomach told Michael his father would likely always lord it over him.

“Forgive me,” Michael said.

“Forgiveness is earned through diligence and penance,” the king replied, his eyes turning back to the map.

Butler cleared his throat again. “Yes. Well, our light cavalry will do it’s normal role, engaging weak points and withdrawing, as well as disrupting the enemy charges. Heavy cavalry will wait for my command and hit the infantry lines. Michael, your dragoons will need to be working their way across the northern lines, which will inevitably form in response to our cavalry. This will stretch out the greater part of their fighting force.”

“Our primary goal is to stretch out their infantry. Johan, make sure you lieutenants know that they may fold their lines backwards. A slow retreat East is what we wish to create, keeping as many of our men on their feet and healthy as possible. As our lines fold back, I expect Ballaco, or his officers, to push for the route.” Butler pushed a few thin blocks of wood forward, and Michael could see his intent. The enemy legion’s infantry, rather than maintaining the great blocks necessary to hold a shield wally, would essentially have formed a large hollow ring with the Artalland army surrounding it.

“Your reserves, Michael, will relieve the first legion’s front lines and prevent the route. Once they stall out, we will use our archers to attack the middle of the field. A few good volleys, and then I will lead the king’s elite heavy cavalry, supplemented by heavy horse from each of your legions, to punch through the lines here. We’ll push west and crush their reinforcement and put the whole west end of the field into a route, which the light cavalry will ride down. Then it’s just a matter of cleanup.”

“You are sure it will work like this?” Johan said.

Butler nodded. “I’ve spent the last few months getting to know Ballaco the way only a general can know a fellow warrior. He’s as thirsty for a victory as we are. The moral of his army is likely as bad as our own. He wants a route in the front lines, to give his men the courage to push for victory. He will not think twice about pressing an advantage he thinks we have overlooked.”

“What of our own moral?” Johan said.

“Discipline will act in place of confidence,” the king said. “As long as each of you has maintained it in your men.”

“We have, sir,” Michael and Johan said together.

This post is part of a project to write and publish a book in a month, as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). If you enjoy this story, consider buying my other fantasy novel The Water of Awakening.

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