Needle Ash – Chapter 2: The Means of Victory

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Chapter 2: The Means of Victory

 

Michael rode to Angelico, relief flooding him as his friend, dirty and mud-caked, opened his visor to smile. Michael opened his in return.

“What are you doing here, sire?” Angelico said as Michael reigned in Calot beside him.

“Coming to the real battle. How are losses?”

“Not so bad so far,” Angelico said. “Or should I say, they could be worse. They didn’t catch us totally unawares. Our squad mage sensed some magic upstream, as it were. But sir, those dragoons aren’t going to do much on that side of the river.”

“Just wait, my friend,” Michael said.

With the arrival of the cavalry, moral turned quickly. The infantry was able to form proper lines and advance toward the enemy. The light cavalry units intercepted the enemy knights and disrupted three charges, allowing some infantry armed with crow’s beaks to pull two of them down and dispatch them. With each break the Artallan cavalry would run back to the lines, pulling in a hasty knight to the front lines, where his horse would be cut down or otherwise injured.

The dragoons, stationed on the other side of the river, dismounted and planted their oversized scutums in the dirt, where they were able to fire crossbows from cover, disrupting the enemy infantry.

Before the two lines could meet in earnest, the enemy mage squad moved out with a group of knights and began casting spells at the front lines. Fire rippled over shield and over armor, cooking some men in a horrific way. The earth exploded, sending men flying.

Angelico was desperately trying to command the disheveled heavy infantrymen, but it was difficult amid the chaos. The dragoons focused on the mages, but their bolts were burning in air before the cadre of experienced wizards.

Michael formed up the heavy cavalry for a charge, intending to disrupt the magic attack when, with a shocking suddenness, the magic ceased. Michael saw that one of the trees, a tall pine had fallen where the cadre had stood. Two more were leaning and on their way to the earth, and he could see that at least one horse and rider had been caught by the first one. Another tree fell.

Michael looked to his right to see, dismounted and standing under an oak tree, Sharona, who looked like she was playing with a line of sticks stuck into the mud. She kneeled down, eyes glassy, and pushed one over, and Michael saw another tree begin to totter.

“I’ll give you a damn commendation if you keep that up!” Michael shouted to Sharona, but she seemed not to notice.

Angelico was already ordering a charge, looking to take advantage of the chaos of the falling trees. Several infantry squads, armed with smaller round shields on their backs and great long spears, moved around the wall of scutums.

“I’ll bring my squads around the flank!” Michael shouted. Angelico caught his eye and nodded.

Michael led his mixed cavalry under a low canopy oak and over a soft, turf-covered hill. Arrows flew at them at random, which Michael knew from experience to be an indicator of a strategic breakdown in the enemy. He urged Calot onward, kicking up mud and water. The horses behind him were equally unsure of their footing, but the command of the Artallan knights in particular of their beasts was superb, and the force crested the hill and flew down the embankment into the enemy lines, which had utterly failed to either turtle with their wall or bear pikes properly to stop the flanking charge.

“Second squad, pursue their mages!” he shouted. He didn’t turn to see if the light cavalry obeyed him, but he knew they would. He turned his attention to the men falling under Calot’s hooves, banging against the horse’s armor. He thrust his lance downward, once, twice… on the third stab, he caught a man and Calot’s massive bulk and momentum made him drop the lance. He drew his longsword and began hacking downward. The knights on either side of him were doing the same.

A quick glance to his left let him know the tactic had succeeded. The Ferrallese infantry was in a panic and the rear lines were no longer trying to prevent a route from the front. Michael looked across the river to the dragoons, who were already remounting to head upriver, preventing escape across the water and moving to harass any attempt to reform after the route.

“Knights!” Michael shouted. “Withdraw and move upfield!”

Pulling away from the mass of infantry, Michael could see through the trees a retreating mass of horsemen, including several armed with staves and short sticks, who he assumed to be mages. His second squad was actively brawling with the enemy cavalry, obscuring the mages’ view and ability to put their destructive magic to work without harming their allies. Trees were falling down once again, the source of which Michael now understood, though he could not see Sharona.

“Press them! Push them up against the water!” Stephen shouted. He stood up in the saddle to see the edge of the melee, and sighted, just past the mages (who were now casting what spells they could beyond the throng, feebly lighting the wet grass on fire for seconds at a time) a face he had met thrice on the battlefield (including that morning) as part of the customary parlay: Ballaco D’Ash, the high general of the Ferrallese army, far from the field proper.

Michael slowed Calot and let his men gallop around him. He sheathed his sword and found hanging from his tack his compact crossbow, which he spanned with a crank and loaded with a poison-tipped bolt. He moved forward toward the melee again, then worked his way through a grove of pines. Sighting the general, he took aim, resting his arm against a nearby oak and steadying himself against the nervous twitching of his horse. He watched and waited for the general to turn and present a wide target.

Ballaco turned, but before Michael could pull the trigger he felt in his hip the unmistakable impact of an arrow and the bite that followed. Feeling the pain distantly, he fired the bolt, just as Ballaco saw him. The general put an arm up over his face, and Michael watched the bolt strike and pierce his vambrace.

They locked eyes with each other for a moment, then the general turned his horse about and called a retreat.

Michael looked down and saw a long war arrow sticking through the mail in the gap between the his cuirass and his skirted cuisses. He broke the arrow off, knowing that removing the barbed arrowhead would be impossible, and turned back to join his men.

The enemy was fully routed, but Michael knew pursuit could be dangerous; he could already see the careful lines of Angelico’s infantrymen breaking apart to give chase. The dragoons on the other side of the river, well-disciplined, were already stowing their gear, the commander mounted and looking across the water for orders.

“Hold!” Michael shouted. “Bloody hold your ground!”

It was no use. Angelico’s company, so close to death, now had the bloodlust upon them. Reluctantly, Michael drew his warhammer and ordered his knights into formation on the southern slope, hoping to pick up the pieces when the retreat turned on them.

The Ferrallese cavalry was moving to intercept and prevent the flanking maneuver, buying time for Ballaco and the rest of the battalion to escape. Michael engaged along with his men, hammering the armored enemy and trying to hook their armor, hoping to dehorse at least a man or two. The enemy called another retreat and galloped away, only one man down.

Within a few minutes the fatigue of the chase had worn the men down, and at last Angelico (horsed once again) was able to rank up and order the infantry. Panting, he caught the eye of Michael, who observed the retreat from beneath an oak tree, his visor up and sweating even in the cool, damp air.

“What now, sir?” Angelico said.

“We beat it back to the camp,” Michael said. “Your company has seen enough of fighting for the afternoon. We need to call up the reserves and push the route on the main field, since our initial plan has gone pear-shaped.”

“What about Ballaco?”

“He’ll be dead within the hour. I hit him in the arm with a poisoned bolt.”

Angelico chuckled. “What a day, sire! They’ll make songs about this.”

“Just glad you’re alive, my friend,” Michael said, and clapped him on the shoulder.

 

Michael returned to the field with his dragoons and knights to find the battle moving steady against the Ferrallese. The Artallan reserves were called up, late by Michael’s judgment, and the exhausted enemy was not able to match force. The enemy forces were quickly scattering, and victory against the now weakened opponent was imminent. A Ferrallese messenger was brought to field with a white flag.

Michael hastened from Gardero, who had ordered the legion masterfully in his absence, toward the center field to meet with his father, brother, and general Butler.

He reigned in his horse to find his father and Butler glaring at him darkly.

“What are you doing here?” the king said, hunched on his own horse, looking oddly deflated and small in his gilded armor.

“Here to take part in the surrender of the general’s sword,” said Michael, thinking that the formality of the surrender would be an opportunity for his father to find out he had slain the great Ballaco D’Ash.

“You’ll take no such part,” the king said. “Victory is for proper soldiers. Head back to the forward camp and await me there.”

“What?” Michael said. “I don’t understand.”

“Your orders were to follow the battle plan, not divert our personnel and resources to your own objectives.”

“But father,” Michael said.

“Your highness,” the king growled.

Calot, as if sensing Michael’s fury, began to pace underneath him as he shouted. “We defeated an entire battalion in the ravine, a full half of a legion that was making an end run to our reserves and our back. I won this battle for you. Without my actions-”

“Get out of my sight.”

“And I killed Ballaco! This victory is mine!”

“Begone from my sight.”

Stunned, Michael looked to Johan, who had just arrived. “Do not make me enforce the king’s will,” Johan said, his face iron. He placed a hand on his sword.

Furious, Michael spurred Calot and galloped away.

 

Michael sat in the canvas chair, ignoring the discomfort of his armor as he leaned over, his elbows on his knees. He watched the west light from the flaps of the tents ignite motes of dust. They danced, hypnotically. He realized, as he sat there in the command tent, dark except for those motes, that he had not tended to the arrow in his hip. It hurt, he realized, but not enough to make him think he had suffered much more than a scratch, though he could still feel the arrowhead stuck in his jack when he moved this way or that.

He had been given hours to tend to the wound, but he would not – at least until after he had stood before his father. Stood up to his father. He would stand before the king in his full armor, a knight and high captain of a legion. The empty, dark tent had been an intentional gesture, he knew, when he was called here from the forward camp of his legion.

The reverie in the camp was almost enough to make him forget the acid of his father (and his brother, as he thought about him, was part of it too, refusing to side with him as always). There kegs of ale had been opened and flagons passed; a turkey was slaughtered and roasting. The camp followers had come in, which meant many things that did not concern the gentry, but it meant more cheer for the enlisted men, and that made the officers turn their eyes away.

What had made Michael really forget about missing the surrender, however, was the cheering that the men had done for him. Not only the enlisted men, but the officers and knights of all the assembled companies had named him a hero for saving Angelico’s sortie. He had already had half a dozen men of title promise their daughters or sisters to him in marriage; who knows how many it would be when the tale spread?

As Michael sat in thought, watching the sun motes fade with the return of the clouds, he considered that he might have been wise to agree to a marriage then and there. Who could say what his father would do?

But then, his father was always harsher of word than of deed. He had the harder time of the boys, it was true, but he had earned his rank in the officer corps through impeccable command and great exertion of body. His father wanted to dress him down, to hang his position as High Captain over his head and make him suffer shame and fear, to let him know who was really in charge, but his father would not do more than that. His worth as an officer had been proven even this day.

Michael stood as the tent flap opened. Butler, Johan, Towler and Edward the King walked in. With a snap, the mage commander gave fire to all the lamps in the tent. The king wore one of his crowns, this one made of iron darkened and polished black. Johan and Edward wore makeshift garlands above blank faces.

“Captain,” the king said with flat intonation. Butler and Johan moved to each side of him.

“Your highness,” Michael said, putting his hand to his chest and bowing slightly.

“You disobeyed orders today and let units away from the field of battle,” the king said. “What is your defense?”

“I received word that a battalion was marching through the ravine to the north. Our two companies of cavalry and infantry were insufficient to overcome or stall them-”

“You judged them to be, you mean,” Johan said.

“I am explaining to my superior, brother, not my-”

“He is your superior now,” the king said. “I have promoted him to general of the army and the legions of west Artalland.”

“I see,” Michael said, feeling a drop in his stomach. He looked again at Johan. “Well…sir… I judged our forces as insufficient to hold the superior numbers and specialized units-”

“What specialized units?” Johan said.

Michael gritted his teeth. “Heavy cavalry, a cadre of mages, and-”

“The Ferrallese mage corps was on the field. We overcame them using my dragoons, since yours quit the field,” Johan said. “Do not lie, Captain.”

“There was a cadre of mages,” Michael said, turning back to his father. “The senior most mages. The ones we saw wreak havoc in Tolice.” He looked to Towler, whose eyes looked remote, as if he was not listening or even looking at him. He got no affirmation from him. “And General Ballaco was leading the sortie.”

“More lies?”

“I shot him with a poison bolt. A dozen men witnessed it. And he did not relinquish his sword for surrender. Someone else would have brought it forth.”

“And how do you know that?” Butler said.

Michael felt sweat break out on his face. “Because I killed Ballaco D’Ash, saved some four hundred of our men, and won the battle!”

“You won nothing,” the king said flatly. “Our armies were victorious, not you. And did you not consider that we anticipated such an expedition down that ravine from the Ferrallese?”

“I did not,” Michael said, “but if I had, I would not have just left my men to die. A proper officer knows how to adapt to changing battlefield conditions. This was one of those conditions.”

“You do not win a battle without losses,” Butler said.

“Two companies would be acceptable losses?” Michael said.

“If that was the price of victory, then the price must be paid,” the king said.

“We won the battle without those losses, as I have demonstrated,” Michael said.

“That was not your decision to make.”

Michael took a breath. “I have won you a battle, and I also know this, not just from my studies but from this campaign and the management of General Butler, sir,” he nodded to the general, “That victory in the battle may not be enough. You must preserve your fighting force from battle to battle, if you wish to actually conquer. Two companies of dead men would not make for a strong invasion force. You taught me this, sir.”

“There will be no invasion,” the king said. “We have reached an agreement and a new border will be settled, I’m sure.”

“I think he took his cavalry into the ravine to rescue his friend,” Johan said.

“Angelico?” the king said. Johan nodded.

“He’s a good officer,” Butler said. “He was a good choice for such a sorie.”

“I know Angelico,” the king said, grimacing. He straightened up, losing the smallness he seemed to have sitting upon his horse, and looked hard in the eyes of his son. “I find you defense insufficient. I hereby revoke your commission.”

“What?” Michael said. He shook his head. Surely he must have misheard.

“I revoke your commission. You are discharged from the service of Artalland, forthwith. You will surrender your banner and cape, your insignias, and your baldric. Your sword, I know, is your own, as is your armor, but you are forbidden to use them in service.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“I’m deadly serious,” the king said. “And I know of war than you. An army with soldiers who do not follow orders cannot operate as one mind, and cannot win a war where courage is tested. Whether this is a footman, or the highest officer, it cannot be forgiven.

Butler frowned at the king, seemingly unaware of his decision. “Your highness, don’t you consider that a bit harsh? After all, it was just an error in judgment… perhaps just a demotion. Make him a lieutenant and place him in charge of a cavalry detachment, where his skills can be used.”

“I am already being lenient, general,” the king said. As he turned to the mighty girth of Butler, his eyes aflame, he looked every bit the image of Edward the Black, the scourge of the Divine Strand. “If he was a footman, he’d be executed. As it is I am merely stripping him of his commission and title-”

“My title?” Michael said.

“The promised estate is for those who serve the kingdom and, perhaps, the empire. Not bad officers that happen to princes. And yes, I am being lenient, because I believe it was an error in thought and judgment, and while that is less in moral terms as defiance, it is just as bad as outcomes. I have no use for officers that prove they make bad decisions.”

“I don’t believe this,” Michael said.

“Believe it. Now leave your insignia and get out of our sight. You are no longer a soldier of Artalland. May you find mercy and fortune where you will.”

With that, the king turned his back to his son.

“Before I go,” Michael said, turning to Towler. “There was a mage in our detachment. Her name was Sharona. If I were her commanding officer, I would investigate her for a commendation.”

“I will do that for you, Prince,” Towler said softly.

Michael nodded to the old mage and turned to the entrance to the tent. He walked out into the returned rain, which had not put a damper on the celebrations. In the west the clouds glowed with the sunset, lighting the mountains in a multitude of shades. He took off his helm and looked up at the dark clouds, thankful for the cool drops on his face.

 

Michael tied down his tack carefully. It was, he thought, a pitiful amount of possession for a prince, but then almost everything he used had been property of the army – his tent, his pack mule, his cot and furniture, his wagon, and even his cloak of bold blue, the sign of his house and legion, which would be getting a new banner soon. His armor was piled behind the cantile, an odd pile of now dirty steel.

He heard footsteps in the mud and turned to see Angelico walking toward him, unarmored but still belted.

“Where are you headed, sir?”

Michael forced a smile at him. “Home. I’ve been… discharged from my duty.”

Angelico frowned, his eyes trembling by the light of a nearby campfire. “That can’t be. You won the day, sir, you-”

“It is, my friend. Not sir, anymore, by the way.”

“Your highness?”

Michael laughed.

“Sir,” Angelico went on, “I’ll resign in protest. I can get the entire cavalry-”

“No,” Michael said sternly. “No, I will take no man’s career and prospects with me from this camp. Merely my own.”

“But if you were reinstated-”

“I won’t be. You know my father.”

“Not as well as you.”

“True. Don’t tell the men until the morrow. I want nothing to spoil their well-earned satisfaction. And Natino, my squire,” Michael went on, “Will need someone new to apprentice with.”

“You’re still gentry,” Angelico said. “You can still have a squire.”

Michael shook his head. “I can’t afford him.”

“The prince cannot afford a servant?”

“My promissory title is forfeit. I am lucky I didn’t take any debts out on it. I will have to rely on the royal household now.” He bit his lip. “And the future.”

“You’ll always have a place in my house, if you want it. My youngest sister is eligible.”

“Allow me to refuse you today.”

“I owe you a debt,” Angelico said. “A steep one.”

“You owe that debt to your fellows, not to me. One thing my father said today is at least true: it is the army that wins the battle, not the commander. Pay the men back well. Keep them safe.”

“I will, sir.”

Michael winced as he stepped into the stirrup.

“Did you ever tend to that arrow wound?” Angelico said.

“Yes,” Michael said, gritting his teeth and swinging into the saddle. “Hurts worse now that the arrow’s gone. Luckily it wasn’t deep.”

“I can have a mage heal you.”

“Those services are reserved for soldiers. Now go have a drink for me.”

Michael clicked his tongue and Calot set off slowly. He looked back to see Angelico standing in the path, and waved to him. Angelico trotted off, wrapping his blue cloak about himself. Michael let Calot walk of his own accord up the path and under a low hanging oak. At the end of the path, among the entrenchments and camp fortifications, he saw a shadowy figure. Instinctively he reached for his sword and loosened it in its scabbard.

The figure was holding a lamp and sitting upon a horse, a long cloak over its head holding off the rain. As he got closer, Michael could see the unmistakable pointed black beard of his brother, Johan.

“What do you want from me now, brother?” Michael said, sliding his sword safely back into its scabbard.

“Just to see my brother safely on the road.”

“To gloat?”

“When have I ever gloated, save when we were children?”

Michael answered with silence and gave Calot a slight squeeze. As he passed by, Johan reached out a gloved hand grabbed the reigns.

“I try to warn you, Michael, but you don’t ever listen.”

“Pray tell me, brother, what I should have listened to this time.”

“The quaver in our father’s aging voice. The croak in old Butler’s voice. The subtle, soft breathing of Towler.”

“I should have listened to the old men.”

“You should have listened to their age, Michael. Old men are hard and stubborn, set in their ways and they don’t like to be countermanded. Perhaps if you had held your tongue this morning your stunt would have been reluctantly rewarded. Now you head home, to shame.”

“This isn’t gloating?”

“I’m trying to teach you something Michael.”

“Why? I’m out of the service. I have nothing to give for the kingdom. Or at least, nothing I am permitted to give.”

“You may be free of the military, but you are still a prince of Artalland. Nobody can strip you of that inheritance.”

“The younger prince. I have no inheritance, besides by grace or by… this failure.”

“The future is uncertain. Death is a always a closer friend than you realize, even outside of this business of war. Did it occur to you that I could have been slain today?”

Michael thought for a moment. “I suppose I always know that’s a possibility, but you’re too good to be slain. Too valuable for ransom. And you never lead from the front.”

“It is irresponsible to lead from the front. I have a duty to minimize my risk in the pursuit of my manly duties. And you do too, for you know that I could die, and since I am yet childless,  you would be king. Or father could have been slain, and then your position in the house all the more relevant.”

Michael said, “I shall be safe in Calasora now, at least.”

Johan chuckled. “Oh no. The battlefield is indeed safer than the capitol for you. On the battlefield, you are at least competent. Among the gentry, you are… Politics are dangerous brother.” Johan took a slow breath. “I said old men are hard, but they are also wise. Butler is not a fool. He considered the press down the ravine among possibilities, as he assumes the enemy has the same knowledge of the terrain as himself. That gambit he stacked in our favor. By sending two our best companies – and indeed they are the best, Michael, for in the ways of war you are far from inept – he could counter a sortie. If none came, they had a clear auxillary objective. Did you not discern this in the planning meeting?”

“Truthfully, no.”

“You were too busy objecting to the plan to consider its merits,” Johan said. “I’m sorry for being harsh, but that is how it is.”

“He knew Angelico’s companies would be wiped out.”

“It was a possibility, yes.”

“I couldn’t allow that. I won’t sacrifice my men like that.”

“Then it is good you are exiting warfare now. Sacrifices are sometimes necessary. You cannot think that the men beneath you are as valuable as yourself.”

“What? How could you say that?”

“Because it is true. You are a prince, they are noble sons and mostly commoners. To secure the future of the kingdom, it must remain in the hands of those most competent to guide the kingdom, which is us. To deny your importance is to hand Artalland over to tyrants and fools. You must always do what is necessary to hold power, lest it fall into hands of lesser character.”

“Sending my friends to die doesn’t sound like good character to me.”

“See, there it is. These men are not your friends, Michael. They cannot be your friends, for they can never be your equal. They are soldiers, sworn to do what is necessary to preserve their king and, therefore, their country.”

“So the end justifies the means.”

“If it doesn’t justify the means, what does? You are a grown man, Michael. It is time to put childhood ideals of being righteous behind you, and focus on the outcomes of your actions.”

“The outcomes of my actions won the battle tonight.”

“The battle was won before the first horn call. Before the first arrow flew.”

“My actions saved a large part of my legion.”

“At the risk of the entire army, and therefore our family and our country. I need you to think like a king.”

Silently, Michael pulled Johan’s hands away from the reins.

“Wait, Michael.”

“No.”

“Please, I have something I would ask you to do.”

Michael stopped and looked back. Johan pulled a roll of paper from the inside of his cloak and handed it to him. “Please give this to Julia when you see her. And tell her I miss her.”

Michael nodded, stuffed the scroll into a pocket in his coat, and slowly rode out past the makeshift battlements.

“Preserve yourself, brother!” Johan called after him. Michael waved a slow hand in return.

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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