51. From Friend to Foe
From Friend to Foe
The River Cudrican
Once the Order army left Middanhal, it precipitated several days of manoeuvring and scouting. They linked up with the soldiers from Vale and marched their combined strength towards Athelstan. He similarly had his outriders keep close watch of their progression while moving his own army around in a careful dance caused by both sides’ apprehensions. The Order did not wish to initiate a battle on terrain favourable to Athelstan, who in turn needed time to fully understand the enemy he now faced.
Five days in all had passed before the two armies finally found themselves arrayed against each other. The main feature of the battlefield was a small river that flowed quickly with water from the Weolcans, moving from eastern Adalrik through the realm until it flowed into the Mihtea. Athelstan’s army had crossed the river a few days earlier and then kept watch of the fords, hoping to harass the Order army in their crossing should they pursue. Countering this, the Order had crossed the river at night, managing to establish a foothold on the southern side of the river and defending themselves against Isarn’s skirmishers until the rest of the army had crossed as well.
Rather than give them time to make proper camp and entrench themselves, Athelstan had marched out the following morning to give battle. He had approached them from the northeast, keeping the river on his side to prevent being flanked from that direction while marching. So now, the armies stood on the southern bank with the brook guarding their left and right flank, respectively. It was not too deep and possible to ford on foot, but the swift current made it a daunting prospect nonetheless; even on horseback, it would be slow progress to cross it.
To the far east of the battlefield, Athelstan sat atop his horse. Eumund was mounted on his own steed next to him; nearby were their sergeants, bannermen, and similar attendants. Further back, the Isarn cavalry waited on restless horses as the animals could practically smell the anticipation in the air.
“Are you sure we should not keep men in reserve?” Eumund asked. Ahead of them stood the entire infantry of the Isarn army, forming a battle line. “They have, after all,” the young knight continued, gesturing with his head towards the Order forces.
“Because they follow the standard tactics,” Athelstan explained patiently. “Since they have superior numbers, their battle line is still the same length as ours despite keeping some as reserves. We do not have that luxury. We cannot afford that they manage to envelop our flanks early in the battle.”
“As you say,” Eumund acquiesced. “I am surprised they would give battle at this place nonetheless. The flat terrain is perfect for our horses. One would almost think they had their own cavalry,” he said with a suspicious glance across the field.
“Our scouts were thorough,” Athelstan shook his head. “They do not have more than a dozen horses in their camp. They are placing their hopes on the river because it will protect their one flank. It will not be enough, unfortunately.”
“I will bring our cavalry against their right,” Eumund assented.
“Make sure you be swift,” Athelstan cautioned him. “Do not swing too wide or attempt to strike them from behind. The danger here will be if their reinforcements notice your approach and can intercept before your attack is completed.”
“I understand,” Eumund nodded. “We will bear down upon them directly from the side and shatter their flank before they can stop us.”
“Remember that one assault may not be enough,” Athelstan further advised. “If their lines do not disintegrate immediately, pull your men back and strike again. Twice should destroy their ranks fully.”
“What of their reserves?” his nephew questioned. “Will they not stop me before we can attack a second time?”
“Their reserves will be tied up trying to save the flank after your first strike,” Athelstan replied. “They must send their soldiers to strengthen it and keep it from breaking apart against our infantry. The only danger is if they can respond to your initial approach swiftly enough to counter it. If your first attack strikes before they can intercept you, their reserves will be committed to restoring their ranks. You will have free reins after that.”
“Very well,” Eumund declared. “See you after the battle, Uncle.” He turned his horse to ride back towards his cavalry. Behind him, Athelstan gave a small command to one of his bannermen, who waved his flag as a signal. Cautiously at first, the Isarn infantry began marching towards the Order lines.
Opposite, on the far west side of the battlefield, Brand sat on his horse, likewise surrounded by many others. His sergeant and several of the thanes of Theodstan protecting him were close by; two other noblemen present were Konstans and Hardmar with their own guards nearby. On horseback, they had a small height advantage that allowed them to gaze over most of the field. It was lush and green, and in peaceful times, the nearby village would no doubt have cattle or other animals grazing here. Now, only boots touched the grass and growth.
Directly ahead of Brand and his company were up towards a thousand soldiers in Vale colours, the men kept in reserve. Beyond was the actual battle line. In the centre were the Order soldiers, led by Richard himself; the flanks consisted of the remaining Vale soldiers. On the far left was the river; on Brand’s far right was only open grassland. Seeing the Isarn army set into motion, Brand nodded to his ensign, and the latter swung his banner back and forth. Near the middle of the battlefield, Richard saw this and gave the order to advance. Slowly but surely, the two armies neared each other.
“Until this moment, I still found it hard to believe that Sir Richard would leave supreme command during battle to a squire,” Konstans remarked with a contemplative voice.
“I would say that is one of the strengths of the Order,” Brand replied. “We use the skills of every man available, be he knight, squire, man-at-arms, or recruit. Did you not say that Lord Hardmar brought this army that now fights on the field? It would seem that age or lack thereof is no hindrance for achievements,” he added with a smile. Vague laughter was heard from Geberic and the thanes of Theodstan.
“The armies seem evenly matched,” Hardmar inserted. “As many of them as on our side on the front lines. When will the men held in reserve be sent into battle? We must use our greater numbers, surely,” the young nobleman declared.
“When the enemy cavalry attacks,” Brand explained, “they will hit our right flank with a crushing blow. Already fighting against the enemy infantry, our men will be hard pressed. We will need to reinforce them at that time.”
“You seem certain this will come to pass,” Konstans mentioned.
“The river protects our left flank,” Brand gestured towards it. “The only opening is to the right.”
“But why would Athelstan accept fighting here if it limits the manoeuvres of his cavalry?” Konstans frowned.
“The terrain is flat,” Brand pointed out. “It is otherwise perfect for his horsemen to execute their charge. It is worth the trade in his mind,” Brand elaborated, “because if his cavalry strikes our flank but once, it will most likely be devastating. We cannot expect our lines to hold much longer after that happens.”
“You are describing defeat,” Hardmar exclaimed. “Will the reserves turn the tide? Save our flank from their cavalry?”
“Not as such,” Brand admitted. “They would arrive too late. Pressured by Isarn’s infantry, I would expect our right flank to crumble.”
“Then send the soldiers now!” Hardmar all but yelled. “Command the reserves to reinforce the flank now!”
“That would be no use,” Brand shook his head. “If we commit our reserve now, they will spot this. Nothing can prevent their cavalry from circling around the battlefield and attacking our centre or right flank from behind. Because our reserves are positioned where they are now, their cavalry must attack the closest target. They must attack with speed before we can respond.”
“So what are we gaining from this?” Konstans asked. “We have a thousand men kept out of combat, and you say that their cavalry charge will spell defeat for us.”
“We gain enough. We know exactly where their cavalry will attack,” Brand answered, turning his eyes towards his soldiers fighting to his right.
Upon the field where the lines clashed, steel and blood were sprayed in the air. Every moment, men died with agonising screams. Spears thrust forward, shields raised in protection, mail armour ripping. For the most part, the armies were on equal grounds; the same number fell on either side. The only difference was in the very centre of the battle lines where the levies of Isarn faced the Order soldiers. While some of the latter were still recruits, fighting their first battle, most of them had become experienced veterans by trials endured. They had crossed the Weolcan Mountains on forced march, they had conquered Middanhal, and they had defeated the jarl of Isarn. Furthermore, they had survived Lake Myr, Athelstan’s betrayal and sudden assault; now they thirsted for revenge and none more so than Richard.
A champion of the solstice, the men’s heart soared upon hearing his battle cry time and again, whenever another foe fell to his blade. Motivation, discipline, skill, leadership, the Order soldiers were superior in all these respects compared to the warriors of Isarn; slowly, the men of the Star gained ground as they hollowed out the Isarn ranks.
From a long distance, Eumund was watching the battle. He had already moved his forces a mile south of the field in preparation to strike. With his ears alone, he could hear that the battle had not only commenced, but that both armies were fully committed; the sound of thousands upon thousands of ironclad men wielding steel weapons could not be misunderstood. Turning to those nearest him, Eumund gave a slight nod. They responded in kind and passed the message on. Soon, the horsemen lined up in formation, taking shape like a wedge that would now drive deeply into the Order ranks and split them apart. Eumund took renewed hold of his reins with his shield arm; spurring his horse forward, he held his spear in a tight grip. Behind him, his men did likewise; before long, they had reached a fast-paced trot and lowered their spears to strike into the side of the Order’s right flank.
The battle was raging across the frontlines when Brand and his companions saw the cloud of dust kicked up by Eumund and his cavalry. The riders were approaching swiftly; within a few moments, they would reach the armies. Brand gave a nod to his bannerman, who made a signal. By the reserves, Fionn waved his banner in response and commanded the soldiers to march forward. However, it was clear that by the time the reinforcing soldiers arrived, Eumund and his cavalry would have had all the time necessary to strike a deep blow into the ranks of the Vale men fighting on the side of the Order army.
Trapped in the struggle with the Isarn footmen, the Vale soldiers on the right flank discovered late that Eumund’s cavalry was charging at them. There was a desperate attempt to form a line against the onslaught, hindered by the confusion and loud noise of battle. Of the many hundreds standing in the ranks, only a small number had the quick wits and cool nerves to react as two thousand and four hundred hooves bearing six hundred riders came thundering towards them. Then the horsemen crashed into the defending foot soldiers.
Shock rippled through the ranks of the Vale soldiers, and for a moment, it seemed like a building shaking during earthquake, its very foundation threatened with being ripped away. To the distant onlookers, the dust and bewilderment was too great to observe what had happened; only those nearby could gain any measure of what happened next. The Vale ranks reasserted themselves, their walls of shield and steel steadied, their line held. What should have been a rout became a stalwart defence as the Vale soldiers surrounded the Isarn horsemen and struck back.
It took a little while before those near Brand could see what had happened; as they did, their eyes widened and their foreheads became wrinkled in thought. Matthew exclaimed a sound of triumph and laughter while the thanes grinned and exchanged remarks.
“What happened?” Hardmar burst out. “I thought the enemy would shatter our ranks.”
“Under normal circumstances, yes,” Brand acknowledged. “All but the most experienced, disciplined soldier will waver when he faces fifteen hundred pounds of flesh and steel charging at him. If you position fifty of the strongest warriors in the right place, however, no cavalry may break their resolve.”
“How did you do this?” Konstans asked with a frown.
“Among the regular soldiers are fifty Templars,” Brand elaborated. “They were ordered to stand back and wait until the cavalry charge. Their sole command was to withstand it and keep the flank steady.”
“Templars?” Konstans exclaimed. “You have the Templars fighting in your army? How so?”
“They are knights of the Order,” Brand responded casually. “This is their duty. The Highfather understood this and gave his acceptance.” Konstans did not reply to this but merely sent Brand a scrutinising glance. The rest gazed towards the southeast and the right flank.
On their own, fifty Templars would still have been overrun by six hundred horsemen charging them. But here, their steadfastness anchored the entire flank and gave courage to their comrades; although few in number, the Templars became a dagger that found the opening in Athelstan’s armour and struck back. Now, Athelstan’s army was bleeding. The knights knew their task, and they struck firstly against the horses of the riders. It became an equine slaughter, but the result was unquestionable. It turned dangerous horsemen striking from a position of strength into overwhelmed foot soldiers, surrounded by enemies. Eumund tried to call for a retreat, but the word barely managed to escape his lips before his horse was felled beneath him and he tumbled to the ground. Quickly getting up on his feet, he gripped his sword.
From a distance, Athelstan saw his cavalry become entangled in the fight and unable to turn the tide of battle as he had predicted. Next, the reserves under Fionn were reaching the ranks and adding to the slaughter. Looking at his attendants, none of them had insight or hope to offer. Dismay spreading across his face, Athelstan drew his sword and spurred his horse forward in a final charge.
From their vantage point, Brand and those around him could see a handful of riders on the other side of the clashing armies. It was Athelstan and his personal retinue, which counted about fifty of his best warriors; soon, they struck into the flank, assisting Eumund and his beleaguered cavalry. As the lines were torn apart, the colours of the fighting armies swirled together in a maelstrom of blood and steel. It became impossible to tell what was happening and which side was winning; even to those less experienced in war, however, it seemed clear that the battle was being decided in that very place and in that very moment. Reaching into his pocket, Brand closed his fingers around the figurine he carried with him.
“Will you not react?” Konstans asked. “It seems that the Templars are not sufficient.”
“The lines will hold,” Brand declared confidently, though his face was blank.
“I would be less certain,” Hardmar remarked. “I see more black than gold down there.”
“They will hold,” Brand reiterated.
Confusion reigned where the battle lines clashed; it only become clear what had happened after the battle was concluded. As Athelstan and his retinue struck the embattled Vale soldiers on the southern flank, their lines wavered; the physical shock of the assault could not easily be absorbed into the already chaotic ranks. It took a moment, but then the Vale soldiers began to be pushed back, their lines dissolving.
This might have turned the battle decisively if not for the presence of one man. While Fionn had sent the reinforcements under his command to attack the Isarn cavalry as instructed, the knight had not immediately entered battle personally; with a cool head almost uncharacteristic to his nature, he had remained outside the sphere of combat, overseeing his soldiers.
Thus, when Athelstan’s charge reached the lines, Fionn had spotted it in advance. He gathered the soldiers closest to him that were not yet embroiled in combat and led them in a counter-charge. For a brief while longer, it remained uncertain who would be favoured with victory; like a pendulum, the fortunes of war seemed inexorably to swing back and forth, never resting with either side. At last Fionn and his followers reached the gap in the ranks of their comrades and were able to fill it. Strengthening the lines of the Vale soldiers, who found new courage, Athelstan’s last attempt to gain victory was halted.
While the outcome of the battle had been decided in less than an hour, the fighting continued for many more. The Isarn army gave valiant resistance against the inevitable for as long as they could, but eventually, their battle line dissolved and their forces were separated, surrounded by Order and Vale soldiers. Finally, the men of Isarn threw their weapons to the ground. All to a man, they discarded spears, swords, and shields, either to surrender or to allow themselves easier flight.
“As you predicted,” Matthew said happily to his lord.
Brand’s face wore an unimpressed expression. “It was not hard.” He stretched his fingers, which bore the marks of how tightly he had clutched the chess piece now resting in his pocket.
“A great victory, milord,” Geberic congratulated him, and many of the thanes gave their assent to this, including those following Konstans.
“You have earned a reputation today,” Hardmar spoke with a smile wider than his mouth. Konstans did not speak; he merely kept his discerning glance on Brand, weighing unspoken thoughts in his mind.
A footman came walking from the cluster of armies towards their small group. Upon approach, they could see it was Graulf, sergeant to Richard. Brand spurred his horse gently forward until the other man was within speaking distance. “The enemy wishes to surrender, milord,” Graulf called out with a satisfied tone of voice. “Sir Richard thought you should be present.”
“So I shall be,” Brand nodded. “Matthew,” he turned his head briefly to his squire, “let Graulf have your horse. By the looks of it, he has fought a long battle.” He set his steed into motion, trotting towards the gathering of soldiers.
Reaching the army, Brand dismounted and left the reins of his horse to his sergeant. Walking through the throng of soldiers, they turned and hailed him, Order and Vale soldiers alike. Some shouted his name, some his lineage, but all gave him honour. As he moved among them, Brand nodded curtly in recognition of the valour they had shown and in acceptance of their adoration; many of them extended their hands to touch him on his shoulders. Eventually, he reached Richard. The knight was bloody in every place, but it did not seem to trouble him; he wore a grin and seemed exuberant.
“Sir Richard, I knew I need not fear for your wellbeing,” Brand greeted the knight with a smile. “Already Graulf has told me that you fought like a man invincible.”
“Come!” Richard exclaimed, slapping Brand’s shoulder. “There are some men of high standing here that you should meet,” he jested, gesturing for Brand to follow him. They moved through the crowds of soldiers until they reached one of the many circles where Isarn soldiers sat, unarmed and under guard after their surrender.
“Richard,” Athelstan burst out, standing up as he saw the margrave of Alwood. “This was you? I did not know you were my opponent on this field.” Richard did not reply but simply stood aside, making way for the man that followed him.
“It was I,” Brand said forcefully, appearing between the soldiers as he walked forward. Eumund had remained seated, looking downwards, but now he raised his eyes with disbelief; the same expression was painted across Athelstan’s face. “I was your adversary on this day. You lost by my hand,” the squire told his former lord while Richard wore a satisfied smile.
“You,” Eumund all but spat as he also rose from the ground.
“Yes, I,” Brand almost sneered. In one hand, he held a king piece meant for a game of chess; with a contemptuous look, the squire threw it to the man who had once been his master, protector, and comrade. “You may have this back. I have no further use for it,” Brand spoke dismissively, though traces of anger in his voice belied his cool demeanour.
Athelstan blinked a few times as he caught the figurine before he composed himself. “I surrender myself and my forces to your mercy,” he told the Order commanders with as much dignity as he could retain.
“You will find that in short supply,” Brand said disdainfully. “Place this one in chains once we are back in camp. And that one,” he commanded, gesturing towards Eumund as he spoke the last words. “Bring the rest of them back to camp under guard.” Without further words, the squire turned his back and walked away. Athelstan watched Brand’s departure with a dismayed expression on his noble brow and a tight grasp on the king piece in his hand as he allowed the Order soldiers to lead him away.