Lykourgos VI: The Battle of the Einarbrycge
The Twenty-Fourth Day of the Ninth Moon, 872AD
Southern Einar, Central Teleytaios, Klironomea
Many of the Men-at-Arms were antsy, some chomping at the bit to get involved in the carnage. These men had been trained well, and Lykourgos was extremely proud of them.
"Come on then! Let's gut the bastards!"
There had been a raucous cheer at that, and Lykourgos wondered if any of them understood the irony of him calling someone a bastard. If they did, none of them cared.
The slow, almost thunderous march of the Armsmen as they took their turn to crest the hill seemed to shake the Rose forces out of their stupor, and small knots of men began to form around sergeants and knights. Bowmen armed with shortbows, used to poaching and hunting game now moved in front of the regiments of billhook wielding armsmen, searching for new quarry to bring down amidst the battle. Its use in screening and skirmishing forces was one of the only things that stopped the shortbow from being completely outclassed by the crossbow or longbow; its small size and light nature made it the perfect weapon to loose off a shot and then run like hell, which was useful if a man in armour with a sword or spear was annoyed at you.
Lykourgos furrowed his brow. There was another noise now, faster, approaching rapidly. Lykourgos signalled the Men-at-Arms to halt.
Dreamwulf stood beside him, no doubt grumbling at the prince's insistence on leading the Men-at-Arms into the camp himself instead of letting a Lieutenant do it. He had to concede that point partially; he was putting himself in harms way for little more than pride. To be sure, he could justify it to himself as much as he liked, telling himself that it was to ensure that his orders could be given and followed instantly, or that the spirits of the men would be raised by his presence. In reality, he knew that he just didn't want anyone to accuse him of cowardice.
Some of the men must have been confused as to why they'd stopped halfway to the camp, but the prince wasn't going to take any chances with this. If there was an enemy force on its way he would be ready.
Some of the Roses were confused as well, and from this distance he could actually see some of them donning chainmail or grabbing weapons. The noise grew louder.
At that moment there was an almighty crash and a great deal of screaming, as the first of thousands of horsemen burst onto the field, trampling men under their hooves and skewering them with spears and lances like one would spear an animal on a spit.
The prince saw a glimpse of the glittering silvered armour and sword worn by Ser Romanos, who sat astride a huge crossbreed with the size of a Brythonian Draft and the temperament and skill of a Anatolikoian Destrier, and let out a small laugh. He couldn't send his men forwards for fear of being trampled by their own cavalry, but the roses were now between a rock and a hard place. Only when the initial charge had stopped and the cavalry swept through the camp as individuals, not a stampede, did Lykourgos order his men forwards.
Within the camp was a scene of carnage and death. Burned tents, maimed horses, dead men, and strewn supplies. In some areas cookfires still smouldered and smoked, giving some evidence as to how the aforementioned tents had burned, and never before had the prince heard so many people cry out for mercy. He had fought in battle before at Seastream and Haestinghen, but this wasn't a battle: it was a massacre.
He found Ser Romanos, who dismounted from his enormous horse, and knelt to greet him.
"Your Grace. I give you the honour of victory."
Lykourgos snorted, and pulled his friend to his feet.
"You know as well as I do that this victory was won by your men."
Romanos raised an eyebrow, and nodded at the violet armsmen dismantling the damaged camp.
"Seems to me like you would have triumphed here with almost no losses anyway. This should even the odds somewhat in the war, should it not?"
Lykourgos nodded at his friend, but then looked upon the hill which the Starlings had taken for their camp. Romanos followed his gaze and frowned.
"Still need to dislodge those ruffians, hmm? Well, it seems as though your infantry might get a taste of battle after all. I'll leave this to you, if it please you?"
The weight of the longseaxe felt awkward in his left hand. With his right hand injured he was at a disadvantage in this fight, for whilst he knew he could fight with his off-hand, he was nowhere near as proficient as his brother was at it. It didn't help that a light rain had started up a small while ago, leaving the pommel and handle slippery where its grip was worn. He would have been far better equipped with a longsword and kiteshield, but seeing as his longsword was far too unwieldy for him to use in his relatively untrained left hand he would have to rely on this smaller blade instead. The longseaxe was a useful weapon that had become synonymous with the Skraelings by the time the Klironomeans came; it was little more than a shortsword, truth be told, and Lykourgos had not wielded one in true combat since he was a child. Nevertheless, he always carried one on his belt for his own safety, along with a dagger sat next to it and a dirk in each boot. Rhema called him paranoid. Elikoidi called him smart. I'll have to see about replacing the dagger though. He wasn't quite certain how he'd ended up personally commanding the second wave up the hill, but after the first had been beaten back the prince needed his infantry to know that he was beside them. After all, if the cavalry and bowmen won the battle without the infantry bloodying their blades, he doubted they'd have quite the same élan the next time they went into battle
However it was that he'd managed it, he wound up trudging up the hill to command the second wave against the starlings. He wasn't able to fight with his usual level of grace with his injured hand, but could grip his sword well enough and fight with some skill with his left hand. Small mercies, I suppose. He crossed through one of the holes that the onagers had made in the palisade, the wood crushed to splinters as the sellswords had attempted to ready their remaining defences in the previous hours. There were already groups of infantrymen fighting within the confines of the camp, and when the prince looked around he realised that the Starlings had spent their time dismantling their tents and structures to clear the floor for combat. Ah, they want the room to manoeuvre their own forces properly.
All of a sudden he heard a bellowed challenge, and the prince saw a man making a beeline towards him, greatseaxe in hand. He readied himself to parry as best he could, though he never had to, for the sound of the man's approach alerted his bodyguard. Dreamwulf wrenched a kiteshield away from a nearby Knight and moved to intercept the approaching sellsword.
The sellsword broke into a run, hoping to bypass the large man and reach the prince, but Elikoidi had been right; Dreamwulf was deceptively agile, placing himself directly in the Starling's path. The blind man let out a bellow of rage, and with the sound of an almighty thunderclap the Starling was sent sprawling down to the mud, his whole body being struck by the kiteshield. Whether he was dead or just knocked out the prince couldn't tell, but either way something in Dreamwulf had changed in the heat of battle. He threw the shield to the side and bellowed at the man on the ground.
"Tell me how the grass tastes, little man!"
With that display concluded, he turned into something else entirely. The rain was coming down, though clearly not heavily enough to hamper the bodyguard's capabilities, and in the heat of battle he seemed to transform into one of the most intimidating warriors the prince had ever seen. He remained in the prince's line of sight throughout the fighting, his skill with his billhook making his movements seem less like a soldier's strikes and more like a choreographed dance, such was the fluidity with which his every movement led into the next.
Lykourgos turned about again, just in time to see a longaxe shear past his face. He didn't even have time to think, his body seemingly moving of its own accord to parry and dodge the man's strikes. The axe came down again, and the prince caught it off his blade, the impact sending jolts up his arm. He drew his blade back and slashed at the man's stomach, but found his blade blocked by the longaxe. Feigning a strike to his left, Lykourgos changed the attack's direction at the last moment, and placed all his force behind a blow aimed at the man's right arm as the starling overcompensated into the feint. As his longaxe moved to cover the area the prince had seemed to target, castle-forged steel tore through the man's padded leather and his axe fell to the ground, an arm still gripping the haft.
The soldier stared in disbelief at his dismembered limb, before Lykourgos drew back his blade and thrust it into the man's chest. He pushed as far as he could, and when he drew back his blade the man toppled forwards into the mud.
Right, okay. Lykourgos thought to himself, trying to ignore the look in the man's eyes. Where's Dreamwulf?
The prince watched on, commanding small knots of men that broke through the stakes that formed the perimeter, as Dreamwulf struck down man after man with contemptuous ease, leaving his shield arm free and instead stabbing and hacking with his billhook at anyone who dared to approach the prince.
Oh yes, the Prince thought. Elikoidi was almost certainly right about him.
He looked as a demon, his blank eyes and a ferocious snarl only accentuating his height and broad form. He was not the tallest man on the battlefield by any means, but Lykourgos couldn't help but notice how he seemed to tower over anyone who stood against him.
"Dreamwulf! Good killing out there!"
The blind man snapped his body round, and let slip a borderline feral smile.
"Well you ain't exactly doin' much are you? I've gotta kill for the both of us!"
There was a glint in his eyes that wasn't there before, and Lykourgos found himself letting the same feral smile that had overtaken Dreamwulf take him.
"I may only have one good hand at the moment, but I'll be damned if I lose to you!"
He knew he couldn't actually keep up, but a bit of competition never hurt anyone.
The second to die was hardly a man grown, somewhere around the same age as the prince. The greatseaxe he had held seemed too big for him, and his strikes, while not clumsy, were predictable. His eyes and feet betrayed his every movement, and it hadn't taken long for him to fall. The prince had held him as he died, but neither had said a word.
As he stood back up there came a man dressed in a patchy hauberk, holding a buckler in his left hand and a hand-axe in his right. Lykourgos readied himself as best he could, but quickly found himself on the defensive for most of the fight, for this was no boy playing at war, but a seasoned fighter. He began steadily walking backwards as the man advanced with a flurry of overhead strikes and sideways swipes, and whenever the prince tried to retaliate he quickly found his blade turned aside by the man's axe and shield. The man struck out again, a particularly forceful blow that the prince caught on his sword, sending a shooting pain up his left arm. As the man pressed downwards with all his might the prince found himself pushing back on the flat of his own blade with his injured right hand, trying to counter his force.
As the axe inched closer and closer to him, he swiftly raised his right leg and stamped with as much force as possible on the side of the starling's knee, breaking the deadlock, though the man righted himself faster than the prince and summarily bashed him with his shield. The buckler made contact with his upper chest and sent him sprawling backwards into the sodden earth behind him. As the man advanced on him and moved to finish him off, somehow Lykourgos found him gripping the haft of the man's hand-axe as it fell, locking them in another deadlock, though luckily someone seemed to stumble into him in the conflict, sending the axe tumbling in the dirt. Both their weapons now lay aside, and so they sprawled in the mud, punching and kicking at each other, but the man was far, far larger than the prince. The impromptu melee lasted all of two minutes, until Lykourgos lay there as the man gripped his throat and began to choke the life out of him.
Come on, come on...
The prince, with a shaking right arm, reached for his boots, whilst his left hammered ineffectually at the chest of the man strangling him.
Just a little more...
Then he felt the slick pommel in his hand, and, gripping the dirk from his right boot in his injured hand, Lykourgos slammed the blade upwards into the man's gut. Three more times he stabbed him before the man's grip fell slack, blood bubbling up in a pink foam in his last breaths, covering the prince's face as he lay in the mud. Lykourgos was too exhausted to even move the man off of him, let alone continue the fight. Black spots crept in from the corners of his vision, and at last he felt exhaustion catch up with him.
Angels above, I hope we win. Otherwise I don't think I'll be waking up.
When the prince next came to he was in a tent overlooking the battlefield. How did I...
"Ah, your Grace!"
Ilias moved to his bedside in a blur, asking him a million questions a minute. Was he alright? Did he want a drink? Water? Wine? No, Nasos said wine's bad if you've just woken up. What about ale? Would ale be fine? Tea? He could find a cookfire and make nettle tea, and-
"Ilias, please. I'm quite alright."
His cupbearer stopped himself, his voice taking on an almost dejected tone, like that of a child caught stealing a sweet.
"Sorry. Was just worried, is all."
The prince smiled at him, before Ser Romanos entered the tent.
"Ah, your Grace. I see you've awoken."
"How did I end up here? I don't recall being taken off the field."
Ser Romanos raised an eyebrow, and looked at him with a genuinely surprised expression.
"You... you honestly don't remember?"
The prince stared blankly.
"Well, by all accounts you and your Personal Champion got into a competition of sorts, counting the number of men you killed. By the end of it you'd both fallen unconscious, likely from over-exertion."
The prince took this in for a moment, before turning back to Romanos with a mischievous grin.
"What did we score?"
There was a look of resigned exasperation on Romanos' face, before a Man-at-Arms poked his head in the tent from where he was guarding the door, a grin on his face.
"You were at three, your grace."
"And Dreamwulf? The Personal Champion?"
"He was like a berserker your grace. Six and ten."
Lykourgos laid back as his playful loss befitted.
"It's only because of my injured hand. I would certainly have won otherwise."
The Armsman nodded, grinning all the while.
"So you say, your grace. Shall I inform him you'd like a rematch?"
The prince laughed with the Armsman.
"Very good, dismissed."
"Aye, your Grace."
The head vanished back outside the tent.
"There is someone who would like to speak with you, whenever you're ready."
"Indeed. Symon, son of Symon, leader of Symon's Starlings, would like to speak with you. He would not say what about, but I'd hazard that you may be able to win his forces over to our side by promising to fulfil his contract when we take the capital and royal treasury."
"Ilias, help me dress as befits a Prince of the Realm. Ser Romanos, seeing as you're the greatest knight in the land, you'll be my honour guard; my own seems to need some rest."
"Dreamwulf's the next tent over. He's out cold like you were, except he had to be dragged from the top of a pile of corpses, not beneath one."
Lykourgos grumbled under his breath.
"Look, my sword-hand is injured, let's not forget that. Can we simply get on with preparing for this meeting?"
The knight smiled at him, his face softening slightly.
"Certainly, my Prince. I may not like sellswords, but I'd rather they were fighting with us rather than against us."
Lykourgos nodded stiffly.
"On that much we agree, old friend. Now, let's get these scum on our side."
"I swear to the Angels, do your men not know 'ow to sing anything apart from that poncey fockin love song? Derry's Ten'll be stuck in my head for weeks."
The man entering the tent was very clearly an accomplished killer, with blood-stained scale armour, a scar running diagonally across his nose and the demeanour of a man who was confident that, at any time, he could fight his way through everyone else in the room.
Lykourgos smiled at him, hoping to convey the same smarminess that the approaching sellsword did.
"You are Symon?"
"Aye, that'd be me. Now what's this I hear about you offering a deal, because my men damn near beat me into accepting whatever you proposed."
"They did, did they?"
"Well, at least I think they were trying too. I landed three of them on their backsides and the rest went quiet real fast."
The man continued.
"Not that it really mattered. If they didn't trust the decision I was gonna make then they would've just slit my throat and put forwards a new leader."
"But they didn't."
Symon nodded, the expression conveying a type of cocky arrogance that, for once, Lykourgos didn't think was misplaced.
"Aye. They didn't. And now I'm here, in front of you, and I haven't even been offered a drink."
He stared at Lykourgos expectantly, and the prince waved forwards a beaker of wine.
"That's a little better. Now then, business. You're a bastard and want to usurp the throne from the rightful heir, your trueborn brother."
Lykourgos refused to rise to the bait, instead sipping at his own wine. When Symon realised he wasn't going to get a reaction he shrugged, seemingly in disappointment, and took a long swig of wine.
"Now, I've got nothing against that. Far as I see the only reason you weren't the heir was because a priest didn't tell your daddy he could stick his cock in yer mother. If I thought that made for a bad leader I'd be out of a job, and all my kids would be as well."
"You have children?"
Symon shrugged, again.
"Maybe. Never stuck in one place long enough to find out. I've seen a few kids who look like I did when passing back through villages we'd been to a few years back but none of the women said anything to me."
Lykourgos bit his tongue to hold back a retort. How many children lived with the stain of bastardry all their lives, never knowing their true parentage because of this man?
He closed his eyes briefly and let the tension leave his body.
"Anyway, you want a throne. Your sister wants to keep your brother on the throne. Predictable results ensue, and my lads find ourselves with a lucrative contract; a gold raven for each officer, 5 silver crows for a man, and a bronze sparrow for every camp follower we had at the time of signing. You know what that makes in total? Somewhere around one-thousand two-hundred gold ravens, all for a war that should have been child's play to win."
Lykourgos gestured outside the tent at the devastated camps, half cleared by his own men and being scavenged for valuables. Symon laughed.
"Yeah, I know. Funny how things turn out. Harran wouldn't listen to me when I told him he'd made every mistake possible on campaign, the twat. Turns out when you highborns teach your kids how to fight and lead men, you only teach them the skills for the battlefield, not how to get your men there alive in the first place. Before your cavalry came I was content to watch Harran and all them poncey highborns die to your lads with the billhooks then strike my banners, but as soon as the cavalry came you forced our hands."
The sellsword smiled at him.
"Because fancy highborns in fancy armour, if we'd struck our banners when they arrived, would've claimed the victory as theirs, and I'm not willing to let them have that. They'll crow for years and years of how just the sight of their steeds and lances cowed us into submission. I'm tired of shit knights thinking they make good fighters because they got more money than the rest of us. Besides, the two-hundred you killed just means another thousand silver crows for the rest of the company."
From his position next to his camp-throne Lykourgos could see as Ser Romanos, completely covered in his silvered plate armour, bristled at the lowborn man's accusation and disregard for his men's life. To his credit, he kept silent in the face of the insults. Lykourgos didn't.
"You are so eager to spend the lives of your men?"
"You really want to tell me I'm being calloused with life? How many of your men are gonna die to see you on the throne? If you cared, you'd have been the perfect advisor and supporter of your brother, keeping him out of the shit. But you don't. You're sat here, on a field overlooking four-thousand dead men, judging me because two-hundred of mine died and I'm trying to find an upside. Let's keep the judgement to ourselves, hmm?"
Lykourgos ground his teeth in frustration, not because the man was rude or crass, but because he was right. How could he take the moral high ground when thousands would die to see him sit a glorified chair?
Symon raised a hand to his face in annoyance.
"Saints 'elp me, you're no fun. Look, are we gonna talk business or not?"
Lykourgos sighed and nodded, eager to get this over with.
"Take down the banners of my sister and brother and march with us. You've seen us draw first blood here and devastate a royalist army, and I've never known a sellsword fight for the losing side."
Symon raised an eyebrow.
"Oh? And have you known many sellswords, little Prince?"
Lykourgos nodded, knowing that now the man was just testing him. He wants to know whether I can be reliable and not get his men butchered. Probably how much more he can extort from me as well, but that goes without saying.
"Yes. Twilight Rebellion, Battle of Haestinghen. There were thousands on either side, but when it became clear that the lords were going to lose most of their sellswords defected to our side. You can't pay a man enough to die for you."
The sellsword smiled at him and nodded, seemingly satisfied with this answer.
"Look, lets actually sort this business out, okay? You match the contract your sister made with us, that's a good starting point, but I'm gonna need something if our reputation is gonna take a hit from switching sides."
Lykourgos nodded. It wasn't an unreasonable point by any means, and it was hardly like the prince didn't have anything to offer.
"Well whilst I may be unwilling to pay you any more than you are already promised, I can tell you this: after this war is over, if you stick around the capital you might not find yourself waiting long for new employment. In fact, stand by my side and I doubt you'll lack for employment for a decade."
That got Symon's attention.
"Ten further years of employment, eh? We'd have to switch over to a per-person, per year contract rather than a single promised payment for afterwards, but I know for a fact that the lads 'll be happy with that. So long as you ain't planning anything stupid, like targeting those Scelopyrene fucks. Like you said, there ain't enough gold in the world to die for, and I know that none of the lads would disagree with me on that."
The prince smiled.
"So, we have an accord then? Full payment matching the contract you signed with my sister, with the promise of further employment in the years to come after."
"Deal. Just don't forget the further employment, cause two-thousand well-armed sellswords can get a little bit frisky if they don't get what's promised to them."
He held out a gloved hand for the prince to shake.
Lykourgos smiled, and firmly shook the proffered hand.