Thursday, June 4, 2015

Castles 158

158. In the Hills of Tarquint

            Archard Oshelm’s letter, brought to Hostage Camp an hour before sundown, required that Milo Mortane decide his course promptly.  Milo’s captains immediately denounced the option of surrendering Eudes Ridere to the Herminians.  The Herminian commander’s belligerent words—“I will dance on your grave”—enraged them.  Just as important, that very day, while Reynald Henriet met with Oshelm to deliver Milo’s letter, an unexpected turn of events had influenced their thinking.
            The man’s name was Roalt Valerin.  A soldier in the Herminian army, he said, he hailed from Caelestis Arcanus, the castle of Lord Osmer Beaumont.  He was serving his second turn in Tarquint.  He first came to Hyacintho Flumen at the beginning of the siege, he had been rotated home for three months in winter/spring, and now he was back in Tarquint.  He was a good soldier, Roalt said.  Like most soldiers in the siege circle around Hyacintho Flumen, he had endured many days of boredom.  But unlike others, he had also known the terror of war.  He and his brother Simun participated in a night raid last winter, a daring attack that had destroyed some of Aylwin Mortane’s cattle.  Roalt recounted the episode bitterly.  Simun had died in that raid, burned to death by the castle’s magic shield.  General Ridere, Roalt said, soon forgot about Roalt and Simun’s exploit; Roalt had never been promoted or rewarded.  Nevertheless, Roalt Valerin remained a loyal Herminian—that is, until they arrested Lord Osmer’s son, Selwin Beaumont.
            Sir Selwin was no fool, said Roalt.  He had confided to Roalt that Archard Oshelm could not be trusted, and he had given Roalt a message to be delivered to the Stonebridge army if anything should happen to Selwin.  So when they arrested Sir Selwin, Roalt had stolen a horse and ridden north.  After three harrowing days avoiding Oshelm’s scouts, Roalt reached the Stonebridge camp.
            Stonebridge captains demanded to read the message.  Oh no, said Roalt, pointing to his head.  It’s all here.
            They brought him to Milo Mortane, and Roalt Valerin rehearsed Sir Selwin’s message. One: something has happened in Herminia, something that alarmed Eudes Ridere. Two: Pulchra Mane armsmen are being packed off for home as fast as possible.  Three: General Ridere left Hyacintho Flumen for some unknown destination, but not aboard ship.  Four: Archard Oshelm had split his remaining forces, marching north with only two thousand and leaving three thousand to maintain the siege.
            At noon, when they first heard Valerin’s testimony, Milo’s captains expressed skepticism.  How much of the man’s story could be believed?  But in the evening, after hearing Archard Oshelm’s bellicose letter, they abandoned caution.  Two thousand only?  The Herminian force approaching from the south now outnumbered them two to one rather than nine to one.  With one mind, Milo’s captains wanted to fight.  This is our chance, they said.
            Milo asked for tactical suggestions.
About three miles south of Hostage Camp the road from Hyacintho Flumen passed through a narrow gap between two steep wooded hills.  Aidan Fleming proposed that archers placed on these hills could harass and significantly weaken the Herminian army as it marched north.  If the enemy tried to attack the archers, they would be slogging uphill, and a ring of swordsmen could defend the archers.  Bryce Dalston endorsed the plan; he said that three hundred men would be sufficient to defend the hills, one hundred fifty on each hill, leaving the bulk of the army free to maneuver against the Herminians.
Hrodgar Wigt and Ifing Redhair considered the proposal, and then nodded their approval.  Derian Chapman, the last of Milo’s captains, offered no opinion; and no one asked for it.  Derian’s role was quartermaster, not battle strategy.
            Milo ordered immediate action.  Every archer in the army was assigned to one of two squadrons, fifty in each group.  (Some swordsmen with comparatively little training with the bow were pressed into this duty to bring the number to fifty for each.)  One hundred swordsmen were added to each unit.  Aidan Fleming and Bryce Dalston took command of the archer/swordsmen companies, departing Hostage Camp under the light of first moon.  Before second moon set, Fleming and Dalston’s companies were concealed in the woods on top of the two hills.
            The thick forests on the hills provided plenty of cover for the swordsmen/archer companies.  If the men were quiet, there would be little danger of being seen by the Herminians.  It took some searching, though, for each archer to find an opening through the branches to launch arrows at the road.  Eventually word came to Dalston and Fleming that their archers were ready.
            When morning came, the still heat of the previous day was relieved by a wind from the west.  As dry as ever, at least the air was moving now.  Under the trees, Fleming and Dalston’s men felt only a fraction of the breeze, but they welcomed the slight comfort it brought.  They ate the limited bread and salted meat they had and waited for the enemy.  They didn’t wait long.
            The soldiers on the hills spied lightly armed Herminian scouts, one rider on the road and others picking their way through the wild countryside over ridges and between stands of pine and fir.  In their haste to establish their forces on the two hills, Dalston and Fleming had neglected to take signalmen with them.  The only way to send reports to Hostage Camp was via runners.  Rather than give away their position, Dalston and Fleming delayed sending news.
            Milo prepared the rest of his army for quick action.  The tents and gear were packed up in record time, and forty men were assigned to guard the prisoners and the baggage.  Everyone else assembled with his unit captain, either on the road or close by it, ready to fight.  Milo ordered two dozen runners, a few at a time, to fan out in the land between Hostage Camp and the hills; they were to report back to the main army often.
            Milo now experienced the discomfiture of military commanders throughout the history of warfare: once he had thrown his army into battle he had little knowledge of what they were doing and even less ability to help them.  He could see the hills where Dalston and Fleming were positioned, but nothing more.  He paced like a caged tiger, waiting for his runner scouts to bring news.
            Dalston and Fleming strictly ordered their archers not to fire on the enemy or do anything to reveal their position until commanded to shoot.  If a good portion of the Herminian army could be lured into the narrow space between the hills, Fleming hoped, Stonebridge arrows would decimate them.  All the men understood the plan, so hundreds of eyes watched the first Herminian scout pass between the hills, anxious to detect any sign that he suspected danger.
            The lone rider entered the defile cautiously, his gaze passing from side to side.  Halfway through, his little mount slowed to a stop, and the watching Stonebridgers held their collective breath.  Satisfied, the scout spurred his horse and trotted through the gap.  Many of the men began to think their plan would succeed.  Two miles further north, the rider would encounter the bulk of the Stonebridge army; many men smiled grimly, thinking of his fate.
            Soon after the scout, a dozen Herminian lancers rode through the gap.  They wore light helms and carried small shields and short swords.  Their main weapons were twelve-foot lances, lying couched across their horses’ necks.  At a moment’s notice, the lancers could ready lances and charge as one—but only on relatively level ground.  Aidan Fleming smiled to himself.  He had no intention of leaving the refuge of the hill.
            On both hills, a few Stonebridgers kept lookout on the other Herminian scouts.  These riders, spread out east and west of the road, constantly changed directions as they maneuvered around rock outcroppings and tree roots.  In general, though, they circled the two steep hills, which were too densely wooded for the nimblest of horses.  On both hills, men dared to believe: They haven’t seen us.
            The west wind increased its intensity, moving fir and pine branches.  Now Aidan Fleming, on the west hill, began to worry that his whole scheme might be ruined.  The thought came to him that some of the Herminians had to be experienced hunters; they might detect the smell of men on the wind.  It had been his idea to position archers on the hills.  He didn’t want the plan ruined by some foul smelling soldier.  But he put the thought out of mind; it was too late to do anything about this worry.
            Herminian infantry came into view, marching on the road, six abreast.  They were armed with broadswords, wore helmets, and carried shields.  Aidan Fleming could hardly credit his good fortune.  The rows of marching men were close together.  He quickly estimated numbers.  When I give the command, there will be almost a thousand targets between Dalston’s men and mine.  They can’t really come at us, since we have the higher ground.  We will rain arrows on them until they flee.
            Fleming can be forgiven his mistakes.  Before this day, he had no battle experience outside the streets of Stonebridge.  He had never fought a veteran army.  He had never witnessed the quality of castle steel weapons (except for Milo Mortane’s).  And he misjudged the wind.
            The Herminians filled the defile, close to one thousand men in a column five hundred yards long.  Aidan Fleming signaled his men, and fifty arrows flew, spaced out irregularly over a quarter mile; a moment later, fifty more missiles launched from Dalston’s hill.  Some Herminian soldiers fell, and Stonebridgers on both hills cheered; the time for concealment had ended.
            The first volleys were less effective than one might have expected.  The freshening wind, quite strong now, pushed arrows from Fleming’s side too far.  Arrows from Dalston’s archers fell short.  On both sides, archers adjusted their aim and their arrows began falling accurately on the enemy—to surprisingly small effect.
            Up and down the Herminian column, swordsmen held shields over their heads.  The Stonebridge arrows, falling from considerable height, hammered the shields powerfully.  But they rarely penetrated castle steel.  Most shafts shattered on impact, broken bits falling to the ground like a particularly ugly hail.  Only those arrows that slipped between the shields could strike targets, and these were few.  Aidan Fleming estimated more numbers: each of his archers had about forty arrows; together they might shoot two thousand times.  Dalston’s archers could match that: four thousand arrows in all.  Fleming anxiously realized they might expend all their missiles and kill less than one hundred enemy.
            The enemy attacked neither hill.  They seemed to be content to stand their ground under the rain of arrows.  Then Fleming saw it wasn’t so.  The swordsmen holding the shields were stationary, but under the roof of steel a single column of men was still moving north—bent double almost, but running the gauntlet.  To Fleming’s left, at the north end of the defile, a company of Herminian swordsmen was rapidly growing and forming up outside the range of his archers.  Fleming now realized that his plan, which had seemed so promising, was heading for failure.  The bulk of the Herminian army would pass through the gap unharmed, and then they could attack Milo’s main force.  The three hundred men committed to the hills only reduced the number who would face the Herminian assault.
            Fleming seized a young man and shouted at him to take a report to General Mortane.  He had to shout over the wind.  And then he smelled smoke.  In despair, Fleming realized his doom.
            Herminian scouts had set fires in the dry brush on the west side of the hill.  Fleming’s men didn’t notice at first.  The fires were on the backside of their hill, and every one of them was watching the battle.  It probably wouldn’t have mattered if they had been more attentive.  Pushed by strong hot winds in dry forest, the fires exploded upward.  In the defile between the hills, the Herminians started more fires on their right, at the base of Dalston’s hill.  At first, the fires at the base of the eastern hill spread more slowly, but then the wind kicked them into an inferno.
            The smoke of the fires on Dalston’s hill quickly obscured his archers’ vision.  They stopped shooting.  Within minutes, they were fleeing for their lives, as the wind-stoked fires raced up the hill at them.
Fleming’s men could still see to shoot, since the blaze and smoke on the western hill were raging into the sky behind them.  For a few more minutes they could yet launch missiles into the enemy.  But they could not escape.  A conflagration raged behind them and an overwhelming force lay before them.  With no order from Fleming, his swordsmen and archers began fleeing in the only direction possible, down the steep slope to the north.
            When the hail of arrows stopped, the Herminians lowered their shield roof and quadrupled their speed through the gap in the hills.  In an hour’s time, Archard Oshelm’s army had passed through the Stonebridge trap, routing Fleming and Dalston’s men as they went.
            Aidan Fleming, veteran sheriff in the Stonebridge Guard, died in a choking haze of smoke.  He tripped while trying to run down a brushy slope and smacked his head against a tree.  He tried to get up, but something had broken; whether his back or his leg he couldn’t tell.  From somewhere in his subconscious a vision of River Betlicéa in Stonebridge came before his mind; how refreshing it would be to feel the spray once more.  So he smiled at the last.

Copyright © 2015 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved.  International copyright secured.

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