Needle Ash – Chapter 18, “Face to Face”

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Chapter 18: Face to Face

Each day, more men came, much to the surprise of Michael. Almost his entire legion returned, some three thousand men, along with many knights from the western half of the country, who had to travel further than the others to reach the camp. These men brought news with them, that King Johan was assembling an army to march on the rebellion in Calasora, but that it was taking longer to organize due to substantial desertion. A large number of knights had failed to show up, and most of the fiefs east of the Tallaros were empty of fighting men, all of them committed to Michael’s rebellion.

This news also meant that Johan knew where he was assembling his army, as well as its relative strength. He still wondered whether they would indeed march to meet them, or would play a defensive game. Michael suspected his brother would choose the former, if only because he believed the numbers to be in his favor and would expect to ply most of the rebellious lords back to his side.

He spent his days organizing and drilling his cavalry teams, running them through what he expected in the battle, and making sure each company had a good mix of familiar and strange faces, novices and experienced knights. The infantry was set to digging out earthen fortifications in the north end of the valley, hard points for the archers to harass the infantry as they marched in. The archer corps was invested in the manufacture of arrows (the fletchings of which had to be made from the goose feathers of the local farmers, which were not ideal), as they were short on ammunition.

Michael spent his nights in the company of Sharona, who seemed to shadow him both day and night like when they had first met, only he no longer seemed to begrudge her presence. As the thought of conflict with his brother grew more concrete in his mind, he found that union with her increased in terms of satisfaction, for that part of his mind that dwelled on the future knew that such moments were of limited supply.

She caught him smiling one night after supper, smoking his pipe and watching the soldiers in the valley below the tent they shared socialize and play games with one another. She sat beside him and packed her own pipe.

“What has you smiling so?” she asked him.

“I’m happy,” he said after a pause.

“With death and bloody battle looming?”

Michael nodded. “Makes you value the moments you spend alive, and who you spend them with.”

“So you do not value your time with me if you are not on the precipice of annihilation?” Sharona said, her voice high and playful.

“I think I shall value it always, if I can recall these days.”

“Do you really think Johan will march on us?”

“Yes. He will not tolerate me pretending to the throne.”

“Soon it may not be pretention.”

“I can only hope,” Michael said. “He cannot have the country divided for long, for he will need to suppress Ferralla, the high court of which I am sure is organizing to put a ruler of their own choice upon the throne. This rebellion merely existing will likely preventing him from holding Ferralla, as was his plan, and may secure their freedom.”

“He’s a cold one. Do you think this will goad him into action?”

“He’ll have little choice. We’re only giving him the illusion of choice. Normally, you would try to cut off supplies and wait out your enemy, but he has little time to do this, but I doubt he assumes I understand fully his predicament. I’m sure he thinks I’m acting as foolish as always.

“He’ll march and camp down in the foothills, which will cut off the valley, and he will attempt to force us to fight him on the battlefield he chooses. He knows I know this, and that I will pre-empt that with an open battle. With that in mind, he will choose a field that he thinks gives him the advantage, but we’re not going to play by his rules, we’re going to play by my rules, and I already know where the battle will be fought.

“He’ll go there and meet us, simply because time is short for him, and he’ll assume that his larger force will win anyway.”

“Can it win?”

“Definitely, but I intend to make it at least an even fight.”

 

Two weeks passed quickly, and reports came in that a massive force had left Calasora and was marching toward the Travisto fief and the Artallan Hinterlands. There was little left to do, so Michael allowed men to rest, knowing that Johan’s army would be road-weary, giving him that much more of an edge.

Langelo, who had taken to scouting, came bearing a report to Michael in the church dining room in the afternoon, what Michael reckoned to be the day before the battle. Supplies were already being moved to a hidden forward position, and he was there with Lord Talorci Travisto, Angelico’s father, discussing the particulars of supplying the men.

“Sire,” Langelo said, saluting as he entered.

“Something to report, soldier?” Gadero said, who was standing beside Michael as he and the lord looked over a ledger.

“Yes. Last night I was able to find and make a good count of the enemy.”

“How many did you reckon?” Gadero said.

“Four legions, sir,” Langelo said.

“Dreamer, four legions? Twelve thousand men?” Lord Travisto said. He scratched his grey beard nervously.

“Lord, it is possible that the king is lighting watch fires beyond his personnel,” Gadero said.

“Aye sir, I thought of that,” Langelo said. “So I got a bit closer and took a look at one camp. It was full to bursting sir.”

“How many cavalry?” Michael said.

“I estimated three hundred,” Langelo said.

Michael grumbled. “What a fool! He’s emptied Calasora. Every man he’s got is in that army. There’s no way he’d fill four legions any other way. ”

“How is that foolish, if he wishes to assure victory?” Sharona said from Michael’s left.

“He’s left the capitol unguarded. We could win this only to find enemies at home.”

Silence sat like a cloud in the room for a long minute, then Travisto said, “Only three hundred cavalry?”

“Aye, lord,” Langelo said with a slight bow. “That’s what I counted of proper horse. He might have a bit more, but I didn’t see them.”

“He’s gone to filling his force with all his enlisted personnel,” Michael said. “Because he can’t get more support from the lords of the land. Our own cavalry is near three hundred, with two hundred of it full heavy horse. That is very interesting Langelo. Anything else to report?”

“No, sire.”

“Then go have an ale. Dismissed.”

Michael watched Langelo go. “What do you think, Gadero? Four to one is pretty bad odds.”

“Don’t forget the five-hundred in the band. They’re worth half a legion by themselves.”

“I haven’t forgotten,” Michael said. “But I didn’t expect the infantry and archer numbers to be quite so lopsided.”

“We can retreat further inland,” Travisto said. “See if we can supply ourselves within Ferralla.”

“No,” Michael said. “There is definitely a path to victory here. We just need to play to our strengths. Maybe we’ll force them to march on the valley and harass them the whole way with archery and magic, since we’ve built some fortifications.”

Michael took a walk with Sharona a little while later and tried to clear his head, thinking of all the ways he could bend the battle to his advantage, but the numbers were so steep it was staggering. Sharona didn’t try to talk to him, but held his arm lightly wherever he led. He found after some time that they had walked back to his tent, and to his surprise Towler was there, gazing out at the camp fires below.

“Something to report, High Mage?” Michael said.

“In a manner of speaking. Somebody wants an audience with you.” He nodded toward the tent.

Michael glanced at Sharona and put his hand on his sword. He followed Towler inside to find two men sitting beside a desk in the large tent. One of them Michael recognized, but was struck dumb with disbelief upon seeing him.

“General Ballaco?” Michael said. “I thought you were dead.”

“Might as well have been, given how Alanrae delt with failure,” the general said, standing and extending a large, calloused hand. Michael shook it, still awestruck by the man before him.

“I mean,” Michael said. “I was sure I shot you with a poison arrow.”

“Takes more than that to kill me,” Ballaco said. “But the poison did make me mighty sick for a day. Enough that I had to send my captain with my sword to surrender.”

“What are you doing here?” Michael said.

“Saving my homeland from a tyrant.” He shook his head. “Alanrae was a horrible, sick despot, but at least she was our despot.”

Michael took a deep breath and steadied himself. “You should know, general that I killed-”

“Careful, Michael,” Towler said.

Michael ignored him. “That I killed Alanrae. Or rather, one of my men did. He has a right to know, Towler.”

“I’ve heard. Like I said. She was a despot. Very few of the people of Ferralla will be sad to see her go, but we are already trying to determine who among her relations will replace her. It is our right to be sovereign and free, and I have no problems allying with her murderer so long as it affords us our freedom.”

“How many men can you bring to bear?” Michael said. “I expect to give battle tomorrow.”

“I have two thousand hardened fighting men, loyal to me and veterans one and all of the war. They’re eager to avenge their honor. We’re encamped in secret fifteen miles to the north, in the woods.”

Michael glanced at Sharona, whose face was soft with worry.

“We never bothered to scout the northern border.”

“Towler told me to come that way,” Ballaco said. “He’s been instrumental in aiding us in Ferralla, after he escaped the dungeon.”

Michael gave Towler a frown.

“I cannot abide being idle,” he said in his defense.

Michael put his hand forward to Ballaco. They shook.

“I never had any desire to rule Ferralla,” Michael said. “My only desire was to save my homeland from Johan, who has become depraved in his quest for power. I will pledge peace between us if you aid me in this rebellion.”

“Either way I doubt you’ll be able to do much to us after this battle,” Ballaco said. “But I’d personally prefer an honest face like yours on the Artallan throne. So what is your battle plan?”

“Now that we have a full accounting of men, we can actually make one. Let’s head back to the church and see if we can find Angelico and Gadero, shall we?”

 

The sun golden-pink rose to the back of Michael’s army. He held a banner and sat upon Turner, the horse he had made his own after slaying its rider. He wore his full plate regalia, and Turner was clad in dull barding that had been made hastily but well-made. Sharona was beside him, clutching nervously at a new sword Angelico’s mother had gifted her as if wondering if she could draw it. She was clad in mail and a sturdy open helm, all of which had been a hard fit for her short but full frame.

Before them were the ranks of the infantry, hard and well disciplined. Six companies of three-hundred men were arrayed in a long echelon facing what would be the field of battle: a wide green field flanked by rocky hills covered in pine trees. It was wide enough that Johan would commit to battle, wide enough for the cavalry to really move, but narrow enough to allow the control of the field with Michael’s six companies. Michael knew also that Johan would likely keep half his men in reserve, who would be rested come the afternoon, while his men would be weary, and he could hold nobody in reserve.

Hidden to the north and moving through the pine woods was Ballaco’s force, which would be rested enough to count for reinforcements when they finally reached the field. Cavalry and Dragoons stood milling about on fresh horses.Half the archers stood in lines, gazing west at the field. Michael had integrated the other half into the infantry, hoping to use them at closer range for greater effect.

Michael put a spyglass to his eye and saw Johan’s army moving north around the foothills, knowing via their scouts where they already were.

“Langelo,” Michael said. “Tell Gadero and Angelico that we have just over an hour. Have the men eat if they can.”

“Aye sir,” Langelo said, and rode off down the hill toward where Gadero moved among the infantry, setting things to his liking.

“Nice view,” Sharona said.

“Take it in. I intend to lead from the front,” Michael said. “I have Gadero to observe from afar.”

“Trying to do everything opposite from your brother?”

“I’m just trying to be myself.”

“Any regrets?” Sharona said.

“That I didn’t make love to you the day I met you,” Michael said.

“I wouldn’t have let you.”

“Not even for a prince that you spent years dreaming of?”

“I’m not a lady of leisure Michael. You should be proud enough that you seduced me at all. Very proud.”

“And people say I don’t understand women.”

“I felt sorry for you, to be honest.”

Michael laughed. “I’ll marry you if I live through this.”

“Don’t be upset when I hold you to that.”

 

Johan never sent anyone forward to treat; Michael had expected him to. Instead, he went straight into the fight. He moved his archers up to fire a volley. Even as they did Michael sent his dragons, armed with crossbows, to harry their lines. Johan moved his infantry into wide holding positions to protect the archers. The farthest infantry company in formation was the hardest hit, taking arrows to their turtle and having to deal with an early charge by Johan’s light cavalry.

Angelico reacted by intercepting with his own light cavalry, disrupting the attack enough for Johan’s troops to withdraw. As according to plan, they did not attack. Gadero began ordering the infantry forward, little by little. Behind the lines, Towler moved his cadre of mages to the front, and cast a volley of fire spells that ripped up the earth around the archers. Johan’s cadre, led by Marolo, was quick to counter, but the damage had been done and the archers had to withdraw to reform.

Johan fielded his infantry in the middle of the battleground like great squares in a chessboard. A huge expanse of grass lay between those on the south end of the field and Michael’s closest company. Michael saw the flanking charge of two cavalry divisions in this direction, and he smiled.

He urged Turner forward, and Sharona matched him on Rabble-Rouser. He led his own mixed company toward the tree line, to head off the flanking manuvre. The enemy, seeing this, turned more directly toward the center of the field. The crossed in front of the southmost infantry formation. Unexpected arrows rained on them from the archers at the back of the formations. Men were blown out of the saddle or had their horses lamed, and were forced to the ground. The rest of the enemy crashed into the side of the second formation in an attempt to flank and harry them, but that formation held its shield wall while their own group of archers fired upon the cavalry, many arrows finding purchase among the armored foes.

The enemy was forced to retreat, driving their tired horses across the long field back to their own lines. Michael decided to punish the move, and ran his cavalry up toward the most forward infantry formation on the western side of the field. The lines were already breaking as the cavalry retreated behind them, enough that Michael’s swift charge broke them. He and his knights ran roughshod over the first two lines, stabbing with lances. The enemy horsemen, still out of formation, attempted to turn and face them.

Michael ran his lance through a man and felt it break. He dropped it and drew his warhammer as a knight rode up to him. He pushed aside the other man’s lance with his hand and began pummeling him with the hammer. The knight panicked and threw up his arms. Michael flipped his weapon and slammed the spike into the man’s armpit, then tossed him off his mount.

Michael turned to another man and saw him scream and drop his lance, clawing at his leg. A quick glance to the right showed him Sharona, who was breaking chicken bones she withdrew from a bag one by one.

“Back to the line!” Michael shouted. His men reacted immediately and galloped away, having done what they came to do. Michael smiled as he saw the middle formation of his infantry rushing forward. Gadero had seen his gambit and was capitalizing, locking the enemy line in an awkward position.

Michael lead his knights through the gap between the second and third infantry formation, into a wide green field. He could see far on the other side Johan’s remaining cavalry riding around, skirting the treeline. They were going to hit the back of the front formations, or else run straight back to the supply lines and Michael’s minimal reserves.

“Langelo!” Michael yelled as he came to a halt. Langelo rode up. “Blue!”

Langelo nodded and withdrew a blue flag from his saddlebag. He fixed it on his lance and waved it high.

“Forward!” Michael said. “At an easy pace and follow me!”

The order was repeated through the company. Michael led them overfield, but not to where the enemy was attempting to double-side the furthest infantry company. They went round, past them toward the tree line, as if to flank the flankers.

At the same time the Band of the Badger moved in, just as the loyalists collided with the back of the infantry lines, taking face-fulls of arrows as reward. They came as if from nowhere out of the trees (for Thokar had cast a concealing spell on a good portion of ground) and orcish dragoons charged from the supply line.

Michael ordered his own dragoon squad to dismount and fire their crossbows.

The enemy charge did some serious damage, but were eventually repelled, the veterans of the front lines putting their pikes and shields to good use. The enemy turned to retreat and found the way blocked by the badgers’ infantry and two mages – Thokar and his wife Mona. Turning again, they were intercepted by Michael’s men and the whole of them was quickly captured or killed.

The north formation, having been pressed on both sides and now facing Johan’s reinforcements, fell back, their retreat guarded by the mercenaries so that the lines eventually went no further than their neighboring company. The front was now a long line held by two companies.

Michael ordered the cavalry to rest their horses. He knew that he had, already early in the battle, broken the enemy cavalry, but the infantry and archery forces were still overwhelming. His own knights would do their job in flanking and harassing, but breaking the infantry lines when so outnumbered was beyond hope. It was now a matter of slowing the other side and waiting for the Ferrallan legions to arrive for the final deathstroke.

The rebel infantry was experienced and battle-hardened, well-rested and confident. Gadero managed a careful retreat with them; nobody broke ranks or attempted to flee. However, in the slow backing of the formations to form one long line, the loyalists routed in places, fleeing from the relentless assault of arrows and the frequent cavalry maneuvers. These routes was not pursued, despite the thirst of the men to do so.

One the lines evened out Michael lead his forces in wide arcs to disrupt archery movement and to make Johan’s small mage cadre beat a temporary retreat (thus allowing Towler an opportunity to bombard the seemingly endless supply of infantry.

By noon, things were beginning to look more grim. There was seemingly no cessation in the movement of fresh infantry from Johan’s forward camp, and there was no sign of Ballaco. Michael, knowing he must do something, gathered his dragoons and those of the Band of the Badger. In a swift charge aided by a heavy cavalry squad, Michael attacked Johan’s forward camp. Sharona, Thokar, and Mona set fire to everything they saw while they pelted the camp support with arrows, confusing the reserves.

Michael even spotted Johan among his commanders, but he did not linger long enough to try anything. They sortie retreated to the treeline as soon as Michael felt they had done sufficient damage. Unfortunately, it became apparent that it was not going to be enough. The infantry was exhausted and thinned by injury and casualties. Desperately, Michael moved from place to place, anywhere the line was giving way, and fought the enemy enough for his infantry to reform lines.

He met Gadero near the archery lines, were now firing at will their diminishing supply of arrows.

“How goes it?” Gadero said.

“We’re almost done,” Michael said. “Our last option is to fold from the sides and our cavalry can attack them from behind.

“Circle up and leave us surrounded?” Gadero said. “We’ll all be dead if it doesn’t work.”

“Well, Ballaco isn’t here, is he?”

“No. Hell, let’s do it. We’ll all be hanged for traitors anyway. You be the hammer, I’ll be the anvil.

They split up. Michael gathered all the cavalry, along with Towler and the mages, which were reaching their own sort of exhaustion. Let by Gadero, the lines of the infantry folded around into a great arc, then a near circle, letting the enemy’s vast numbers hem them in.

Michael started leading charges, each one driving to the relieve the friendly infantry company, killing men by the dozen under hoof and lance, sword and hammer, magic fire and earth. It was not enough. The horses were foaming. Several fell over dead with their riders still upon them. One of the mages passed out, asleep on the grass. Their tactics were effective, but not enough so. They enemy was not endless now, as Michael could see, but his horse lacked the strength to continue.

But just then came the sounding of horns and signal drums. Michael pulled out of a hard fight to climb a hill. He saw the remaining men Johan had brought running toward him, not in a charge, but in fear. A swarm of cavalry was riding in, bearing the banner of Ferralla’s hammer. They rode along the back of the enemy lines, stabbing and cutting as the route formed around them.

Ballaco’s infantry was moving in, running more than walking, and after a few minutes the enemy seemed to notice. They attempted to turn about and reform lines, but were already set upon by them. The battle became an ocean of fright as the churning mass between the Ferrallan forces and those loyal to Michael pressed together.

Archers fired in all directions. Men beat against each others’ shields in desperation, hoping not to get crushed. The battle threatened to turn into a total melee.

Then loyalist army devolved into a frantic route, running in many directions.

Michael rode out of the scrum and westward, toward the westering sun, leaving the Ferrallese to clean up. His cavalry followed him. Out beyond the mass of fleeing men, Michael caught sight of his quarry: his brother Johan was fleeing the field, a few retainers in tow.

“Forward, and capture the king!” He shouted over the pounding of hooves. Turner, feeling the vigor of his master, lost all sense of fatigue and raced forward, faster and faster.

Marolo turned away from the king and raised his hands, fire emerging from his fingertips. Michael, with a sudden horror, realized that he was alone, having out-ridden all his knights. He held up his shield, knowing from Guissali that it was likely futile. The mage cried aloud, and fire flew in all directions as he fell screaming from the saddle. Michael glanced back and saw Sharona behind him, her horse chasing his of its own accord. Her eyes were glazed and she swayed in the saddle.

Michael reigned in Turner and caught Sharona just as she fell from the saddle. Rabble rouser ran in a shallow circle, then stopped on the ground.

Michael held Sharona as tight as he could in his armor. Her eyes rolled, then suddenly came back into sharp focus.

“Did you get him?” she asked breathlessly.

“No,” Michael said.

Sharona shook her head in response.

“He’s dead sir,” Langelo said, riding up to them and wiping sweat from his unhelmed brow. “The mage. Fell dead out of the saddle.”

“What of the king?” Michael said.

“He’s still running, but I’m sure the knights will catch him. He’s got nowhere to hide out in the grassland.”

“Damn, but I wanted him,” Michael said.

“Why did you stop?” Sharona said.

“You were losing consciousness.”

Sharona nodded. “I’m so very tired, Michael.”

“You’re safe now. You can rest.”

“Not while you don’t.”

Michael laughed. “We’ll see. What did you do to Marolo?”

“I gave him a broken heart.”

Michael paused as he looked down at Sharona’s sardonic smile. Thokar’s words found their way to the front of his mind.

“I’m sorry you know it so well. I want you to forget that spell!”

Michael sighed. Sharona was already asleep in his arms.

 

Michael sat beside Angelico as a doctor stitched up a gash along his forehead. He had already had an arrow removed from his groin, which he counted lucky.

“I think it looks great,” Michael said, observing the stitch work. “It’ll heal nicely.”

“So much for my pretty face,” Angelico said. “Say, does Sharona have sisters?”

“I don’t think so, why?”

“I was just thinking that might be alike. Sharona seems to appreciate your ugly exterior, perhaps her sister won’t mind an ugly scar.”

“Are you the jester now? Because you just insulted the king,” Michael said.

“I lay my life in your merciful hands.”

“I hereby order you to drink five pints tonight as penance for your crimes.”

“Ugh, beer,” Angelico groaned. “Would two bottles of red suit the court?”

“Consider your mercy granted,” Michael said.

“Ah, here comes young Langelo.”

Langelo, looking dirty and tired, dismounted and walked to where Michael and Angelico sat. He slumped down on the ground.

“Did you see that, sir?” Angelico said. “Failing to salute a superior and sitting before your king!”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Langelo said, making to stand.

“Stay sitting,” Michael said. “What news?”

“The King has been captured, sir.”

Michael nodded and looked to Angelico. “Drink well if I do not see you.” He stood up, groaning and stretching, his armor clinking. He did not have to go far to find Johan, who was being held over a saddle by Nit and Baradict.

“We found him trying to ride off to the north,” Baradict said. “He had stripped off his armor and clothes, but we’re pretty good at human faces. Saw the family resemblance. You’re the better looking one. And I’m not just saying that because you’re the one passing out the rewards.”

“I’m not sure how to take that coming from an orc,” Michael said. “But I’ll find a way to reward both of you.”

“I need a new horse,” Nit said.

Michael chuckled. “You can have mine. I named him Turner, but he’s had at least one name change before.”

Nit and Baradict pulled Johan from the saddle and stood him up.

Michael cleared his throat and signalled to a few nearby soldiers. “Johan Harthino. For high crimes including conspiracy to sabotage a military operation, conspiracy with the enemy, high treason with Alanrae, Queen of Ferralla, Regicide in the murder of your father, Edward the Black, Murder in the first Degree of Butler Dolanari, and conspiracy to murder your wife, Alanrae, I hereby sentence you to life imprisonment.”

“You’re not going to hang me?” Johan said cooly.

“Our laws prevent me from executing one of royal blood,” Michael said. “You are dangerous left alive, but I am not like you. Take him away.”

A few soldiers carried him roughly off. Gadero approached from behind Michael.

“Noble of you, sir.”

Michael nodded. “We’ll have to arrest Lady Julia too. There may not be much mercy in my heart for her. We shall see.”

“What shall we do with the prisoners?” Gadero asked.

Michael thought a moment. “Those prisoners are citizens of Artalland. Disarm them and strip them of rank. They can walk home freely after we leave here.”

“Sire? Are you sure?”

“Yes. They were on the wrong side today. I won’t say choosing loyalty to the crown is a crime.”

“Aye. Any other orders?”

“Give the prisoners all a pint. They’ll need it. And have a drink yourself, General.”

“Aye sir.”

 

Michael found Sharona sleeping soundly on the wide cot when he entered his tent. The sounds of raucous celebration became a dull roar as he closed the flap and tied it. He sat down on a stool and realized that he had no squire about to help him out of his armor. With some effort he began to take it off himself.

“Need help?” Sharona said. She was leaning up out of the quilts. The thin underclothes left on her body after he removed her armor and jack still clung to her, damp with sweat.

“If you’re able,” Michael said. “I didn’t meant to rouse you.”

“It’s fine,” she said airily, getting out of the cot to help him.

With some effort the armor was all taken off and stacked neatly. Michael took off his jack, which was terribly sweat-stained, and shivered with the chill of the air on his bare skin.

“You smell bad,” Sharona said flatly.

“You’re no bed of roses yourself.”

She grabbed his hand and led him to the cot. They got in together and she pulled his arms around her.

“Will I make a good king?” Michael asked.

“I don’t know.”

“You didn’t see in your dream?”

“I can’t even remember the dream now. There’s just this. I like it better that way.”

Michael sighed and went to sleep.

The End.

This post was 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,  of which this book is a sequel.

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