A Masterful Play
Valley of Bradon
The Order army under Richard’s command had marched two days along the north-western Kingsroad until the scouts had clashed with their counterparts from Isarn. Both armies had made camp some distance from each other, and on the following day, they had marched out and arrayed their forces in ranks opposite their foe. The area was called Bradon, a slight dent in the landscape sloping downwards to shape a shallow valley. Both forces had made use of this and positioned themselves on a ridge; between them, the terrain gently rolled down from one occupied hill and up to the other.
This was not the only way in which these two enemies had become mirrors of their opponent. Both had formed a full battle line with no troops kept in reserve. The veteran Order soldiers took up the centre of the battle line while the newly arrived reinforcements from Theodstan had been split in two and positioned on the right and left flanks; one under Theodoric and the other led by his sergeant, Geberic. The centre of the battle line was to be led by the Order commanders; they sat on their horses a little further back at the top of the hill, granting them full vision of the prospective battlefield, with their respective sergeants by their sides and their bannermen nearby. Otherwise, there were no horses or cavalry present since Isenhart, his vassals, allies, and thanes had all dismounted to fight among their own lines in the same way Richard intended to do; this was to be an engagement of infantry forces entirely.
“You think they will attack?” Brand asked.
“If they planned to, they would have by now,” Richard replied.
Both armies had stared at each other for well over an hour. About a mile separated them, and insults were being hurled across the valley – mostly disparaging remarks concerning the parentage of the other party and usually involving goats or sheep. So far, neither side felt sufficiently infuriated to advance.
“I suppose since we are not going to charge uphill, it would be unreasonable to assume they would,” Brand remarked.
“The jarl may not be his brother, but he knows to avoid obvious mistakes,” Richard growled. “I am going to bring wine if tomorrow promises to be the same.”
“Perhaps not,” Brand contemplated. “If we can offer them the illusion of a fair battle, I imagine Jarl Isarn is the sort to embrace such a fight.”
“Probably,” Richard frowned, “but how do we go about making the illusion without actually giving them a fair battle? By the looks of it, we are outnumbered.”
“You would be a better judge of that than me,” Brand conceded. “How do you estimate their numbers?”
Richard squinted, straining his eyes. “Judging by their lines and banners, I would guess about five thousand men. Probably some hundreds more.”
“Outnumbered by a thousand,” Brand mumbled. “Unpleasant, but not unreasonable to defeat.”
“You got any thoughts?” the knight asked.
“Maybe,” Brand considered. “You have better eyes, Matthew. Tell me if I am right that the banners of Isarn, Deorcliff, Farbjarg, and Grenwold are all concentrated around the centre.”
“I can’t say, milord,” Matthew replied. “I see many banners, but I do not know the colours for each of the houses.”
“The jarl’s margraves as well,” Brand guessed. “He has few of his vassals on the flanks with the levies.”
“Wants to keep his allies close,” Richard snorted. “Especially now their families are no longer hostages.”
“Standard doctrine,” Brand said in contemplation. “The jarl knows the fundamentals of command, but as you said, he is not his brother.”
“Doctrine?” Matthew said questioningly.
“Jarl Isarn has placed himself in the centre of his battle line along with his thanes, his allies, and their best warriors. Probably his household troops as well. It is considered the wisest way to array your forces,” Brand explained to his sergeant.
“Oh. How come?” Matthew continued.
“Your sergeant talks a lot,” Richard muttered, though his tone of voice was not harsh.
“I encourage it,” Brand said with a hint of a smile. “If I can explain something to him, I know that I have understood it in full myself.” He turned towards Matthew to elaborate. “To win a battle, you must destroy the enemy’s battle line. Usually, you gain an edge on one of the flanks and begin to envelop it, pressing it from the side and cutting your way into it,” Brand said, using gestures to accentuate his explanations.
“Outnumbering the enemy makes this more probable if you can stretch your battle line long enough that the edges can march directly forward and swing into your opponent,” Brand continued. “The other way to win is by pushing through the centre of the enemy battle line. A tactic favoured by those with inferior numbers. If we can punch a gap into Jarl Isarn’s forces and effectively separate his army into two detached forces, we may crush each half at our leisure.”
“And to prevent this,” Matthew said slowly while his mind was absorbing this information, “the jarl uses his best soldiers to protect his centre.”
“Exactly,” Brand nodded. “Just as we have placed our Order soldiers in the middle and the conscripts from Theodstan on our flanks. Although…” the squire’s voice trailed off as he frowned. “Our veterans would make short work of those peasant levies on Jarl Isarn’s flanks,” he argued, speaking to himself.
“They would,” Richard assented, “but our own peasants from Theodstan would not fare well against the jarl’s thanes, household troops, and those other traitorous lords that fight with him.”
“But I can prevent that,” Brand continued, still speaking quietly.
“Say again?” the knight by his side requested.
“We fight the jarl tomorrow,” Brand stated. “You shall have your battle then.”
“Good,” Richard grinned. “Not here, I hope?”
“Over there,” Brand replied, pointing towards the flat fields just east of their position.
“Good, good,” Richard nodded.
“What happens now?” Matthew asked.
“Now both armies stare at the other until it gets dark,” Brand said patiently. “Then we retreat to camp.”
In response, Richard dug out a carrot from a saddlebag. “I hate waiting,” he growled, taking a bite.
Nothing further happened until it grew dark and both armies returned to their respective camps. The men carried out the various tasks necessary; food was distributed, new sentinels posted, weapons stored in a manner allowing for easy retrieval. What required oversight, Richard and his sergeant handled; such would typically be the duty of the first lieutenant, but instead, Brand sat in his tent with a chessboard in front of him. He had lined the pieces up in an unusual manner, contradictory to how the game was played. Two battle lines were formed. Both had pawns on their flanks; one army had its centre made up of knights, the other had the pieces for a jarl and several thanes.
With slow moments and a thoughtful expression, Brand moved the pieces back and forth. His battle lines clashed, pawns were removed in equal measure; he returned the battle lines to their starting positions, rearranged the pieces, and pushed them against each other again.
“Milord, I have brought food for you,” Matthew said loudly as he entered the tent. Brand did not reply or look but merely pointed at a small table. After placing the bowl of stew, Matthew approached the chessboard, holding his own meal in his hands. “What are you doing, milord?”
“Not now,” Brand warned, raising a finger in the air without removing his eyes from the board. “I must think without interruptions.”
Matthew backed out of the tent as quietly as he could. He walked around camp a bit until he found a place by a fire. Taking a seat, he began eating his food while listening to the other soldiers. He was easily the youngest, though it varied by how much compared to the others; some were his senior by a few years, some by decades. Too busy emptying his bowl, Matthew did not speak much, but he listened wide-eyed to the sordid tales told around the fire.
An hour later, Matthew returned to his tent and saw that Brand had fallen asleep. Nearby, his stew stood untouched. The boy glanced around before grabbing the full bowl. While eating, his eyes glanced at the chessboard, and he moved to give it a closer look.
The battle line representing the Isarn forces was unchanged except that it was uneven in some places. The Order ranks were completely changed, however, with the knights on the flanks and the pawns in the centre. Matthew frowned and tried to look at the chessboard from different angles, but no light of understanding illuminated his face. Finally, he finished eating and used a small bowl of water to clean himself. Unclasping his cloak, he wrapped it around himself as a blanket and lay down on his cot.
The following day, the Order army marched out on the fields east of the valley. Once their scouts reported this back, the Isarn army followed suit and was arrayed opposite its enemy. The Order had stretched out their battle line and thinned their ranks to avoid being enveloped easily; the Isarn ranks stood many men deeper in comparison.
“You think this will work?” Richard asked of Brand. As yesterday, the two commanders and their small retinue were clustered a small distance behind their soldiers.
“Only one way to find out,” Brand admitted. “You are prepared?”
Richard nodded. “They will attack any moment now. Let us get to it.”
The knight dismounted, leaving his horse tied to a sapling that was making its first, frail attempts of growing into a great oak. His sergeant did the same; while Richard walked west to the right flank, Graulf went east to the left flank. As the knight reached his men, he drew his sword and raised it up high for all to see; in response, the soldiers roared and clamoured his name.
A mile to the north stood the Isarn army. A signal was given, and they began a slow march forward, making sure that their battle line remained intact and no part of it advanced ahead of the others. At first, the Order army did not respond. Brand sat on his horse, surveying the field. At length, he turned to his nearby bannerman and nodded. The soldier inclined his head and swung his banner pole back and forth.
Upon seeing this, the flanks of the Order army detached from the centre and began to advance on their own; they moved slightly outwards as well, extending the gap between them. Their progress was slow, giving the enemy sufficient time to witness this unusual advance and take measures.
For a while, Isenhart’s troops continued marching forward as before. When only half a mile separated his army from the advancing flanks, he issued a new signal. Mirroring the movements of their enemy, Isenhart’s flanks likewise separated from the main army and continued marching on their own. Both east and west, Isarn had the stronger numbers; thinning his centre, the jarl ensured that on either flank, his men held the advantage by several hundreds.
Brand gave an overbearing smile upon seeing this. Ahead of him, Theodoric stood behind his own troops. The Order army had switched its positions and placed the levies from Theodstan in the centre; the flanks now advancing each consisted of about a thousand Order veterans. The jarl Theodoric turned to gaze questioningly at Brand, but the young lieutenant shook his head. With a look that could be interpreted as impatient or frustrated, Theodoric turned away again.
“What is going on?” Matthew dared to ask.
“Jarl Isarn has more soldiers than us. He is sending each of his flanks to fight ours alone, thinking that superior numbers will crush them both. Then he can reform his battle line and advance upon our remaining troops,” Brand explained.
“If that is going to happen, then why did you tell the flanks to advance, milord?” Matthew said puzzled.
“It will not happen. The jarl’s weakest troops are now facing our strongest. Once they clash,” Brand elaborated, “they will cut the enemy into pieces and shatter his flanks.”
“But won’t he just send his remaining soldiers into battle?” Matthew questioned. “He can’t just stand back and watch his soldiers lose, not when his army is bigger than ours.”
“Probably the jarl is thinking similarly,” Brand gave another smile. “Soon, however, he will realise that he cannot. The centre of his battle line is locked out of combat, and he cannot advance. He can only stand and watch his flanks be destroyed,” the lieutenant said; his tone of voice gained a harsh undercurrent in the last sentence.
“I don’t understand,” Matthew frowned.
“Look at the field,” Brand instructed. “When our flanks meet, left and right, they will fight. If the jarl moves his centre forward, it will become embroiled in the battle already taking place. His centre will be stretched so thin, it is left vulnerable. We may then move our own centre forward, reform our battle line, and punch through theirs.”
“But why doesn’t he attack us instead?” Matthew argued. “Have his centre engage ours.”
“Because,” Brand explained, “he would have to move past our flanks to reach us. We might with ease detach the rear ranks from our flanks and have them attack his forces from behind.”
“That would apply to us as well, though, wouldn’t it?” Matthew asked. “If we do any of those things, if we move forward, we become vulnerable.”
“That is true,” Brand nodded. “Both our centre and theirs are locked out of combat.”
“So how is it an advantage?” Matthew frowned.
“Because our best warriors are fighting,” Brand said patiently, “while his are not.”
“What will happen now?” Matthew asked. The smell of blood had reached them by now; the sound of men screaming and metal singing filled the air.
“Starting slowly but soon with increasing swiftness, Isarn’s flanks will crumble. I imagine at that point, or perhaps even before, the jarl will lose patience and order his men to attack,” Brand predicted. “They will attempt to reinforce their flanks, but to no avail. Meanwhile, our forces from Theodstan will advance in response and push through the enemy centre. Isarn’s battle line will disintegrate, and they will take flight.”
“This is more exciting than any solstice games I have ever watched,” Matthew exclaimed, leaning forward in his saddle. By his side, Brand curled his lips upwards briefly before his expression turned serious, his eyes fixed on the battlefield in front of them. In one hand, he clutched a king piece from a chess set.
Half an hour passed where Isenhart kept reins on his impatience; then, watching in frustration as his flanks were pushed back, he gave the command for his remaining soldiers to advance. They did not march but ran forward, yelling battle cries. Some of them moved into the rear ranks of their suffering brethren, halting their retreat and reinforcing them; the remainder filled the gap between the flanks. Filled with battle lust, many of them left their place in the centre of the battle line, however, and moved to the sides to attack to the Order soldiers.
Brand had already given the command to Theodoric to advance; with the Isarn centre spread out, the men of Theodstan surged forward against it. They were less accustomed to war than the thanes and household soldiers they faced among the Isarn ranks, but the enemy lines had grown thin; the sheer ferocity of Theodstan’s onslaught pushed through, disrupting their formation. A chaotic skirmish erupted, but the Isarn soldiers were too separate, becoming surrounded in many places and cut down by the spears of Theodstan. Slowly, inexorably, Isarn’s battle line was being torn apart in many places.
“How did you know this would happen?” Matthew asked with wide eyes.
Brand gave a vague smile. “Think of it as a very complicated game of chess.”
“I tried last night,” Matthew frowned, “but it didn’t work for me.”
“It is not that different,” Brand explained. “In chess, you have full knowledge of the board and the pieces. You know all their positions, which movements each is capable of doing. This allows you to calculate every possible outcome.”
“But this is different,” his young sergeant argued. “These are not different pieces, they are all men. They fight and move the same. And a chessboard is flat. There are no hills that suddenly change everything.”
“It is more complicated,” Brand repeated himself, “but not that different. The board may be different. Hills, forests, rivers, they restrict movement or change how the pieces fight. The only difference is that more factors are at play. More things to consider.”
“But,” Matthew said, his frown deepening if possible, “soldiers are soldiers. In chess, a pawn moves one step, a jarl moves as far as it wants. So do thanes, just across. And a pawn can kill a jarl as long as it makes the attack. If a peasant tried to kill a jarl, he would just die himself.”
“Fine,” Brand laughed a little, “I grant that the comparison is not perfect. But I would hold that it is valid. Think of each unit of soldiers as a different piece. Some are pawns such as the peasant levies on Jarl Isarn’s flanks. Some are knights, mounted and fast with unique movements. Just like chess pieces, soldiers have different abilities, allowing for different outcomes.”
“But I know what the pieces can do because you told me the rules,” Matthew countered. “Who told you what the different soldiers can do?”
“Nobody did,” Brand smiled vaguely, “which is why a commander must observe and take many things into account. How well trained, well equipped, well disciplined, well fed are his troops? Those of the enemy? The aim for a captain should be to gain all possible knowledge about his own forces and those opposing him. Study the landscape and understand the terrain completely. If you possess full knowledge, you can predict every possibility.”
“Still sounds like sorcery,” Matthew mumbled. “There aren’t rules on the battlefield, though,” he continued. “In chess, both players agree on the rules. But in battle, wouldn’t a commander break all rules just as long as it meant he won?”
“There are rules,” Brand insisted. “They have not been agreed upon, and they may change, but rules apply nonetheless. Cavalry charging heavy, disciplined infantry ready for them will fail to make impact. A battle line losing its centre will crumble swiftly and suffer defeat. A trained knight in armour, fighting on foot, can defeat eight untrained recruits and is worth more on the field. These are all rules of battle that are in effect, forged by the nature of war.”
“Who told you about these rules?” Matthew asked.
“Same man who taught me chess,” Brand said in a low voice. They did not speak further but watched the battle unfold; with every soldier in both armies engaged, the din of battle became a roar, swallowing all other sounds.
Despite the tactical advantage possessed by the Order army, victory did not come readily. The centre of Isarn’s army consisted of the jarl and his personal attendants as well as his allies and their thanes; many of them were strong warriors equipped with weapons and armour made of Nordsteel. Against them, the conscripts of Theodstan were inferior. Their initial assault had forced gaps into the thin ranks of the Isarn centre, but they struggled to take full advantage of this. In response, Athelbold led a charge from the western flank, followed by the closest landgraves and their thanes, in an attempt to reach his cousin the jarl on the other side and reconnect their lines. The soldiers from Theodstan were hard pressed to withstand this; Athelbold was a ferocious warrior as were the thanes by his side.
Theodoric was fighting in the thick of this; with his own thanes surrounding him, they strengthened the lines of his wavering soldiers wherever they went. Inevitably, Theodoric’s group clashed with Athelbold’s as one commander tried to keep the Isarn soldiers separate while the other attempted to reform their lines.
The deciding factor came from elsewhere. Richard had been fighting on the flank since the battle started; constantly, never weary, he moved where his soldiers were most pressed, and he gave them relief through his presence and blade. Short and stocky, the margrave of Alwood was nonetheless quick on his feet and at home in the midst of battle. During the battle when the remaining forces on both sides joined the fight, pressure had increased temporarily with new assaults by fresh Isarn soldiers; then the Order’s own reinforcements, the soldiers from Theodstan, had reached them, reforming the battle line and granting them reprieve.
Eventually, Richard had a moment to look up and see that the banner of Isarn was not far from him. Surmising that this meant the presence of the jarl, the margrave gave a roar, renewed the grip on his blade, and surged forward. Rallying his men around him, he led an assault forward on the already pressed Isarn soldiers. Isenhart was almost within reach of Richard’s sword when the northerners lost their last resolve.
One shield at first, one more, and then many others were thrown aside in favour of flight. The wave of fleeing Isarn soldiers swept their jarl with them as his thanes ensured he was not left behind. Cursing under his breath, Richard had to abandon his attempt to reach Isenhart; around him, however, his men raised their weapons and voices in jubilation. Outnumbered and after suffering many hardships, the Order had achieved its first victory on the field of battle in this war.