Warfare is about resolve, deception, and a willingness to do whatever your enemy doesn’t think you’re willing to do. It wasn’t complicated. Certainly, some formations were tricky. Some of the histories were tricky. But when one considered it at its root, it was all about control. In war you needed to control information. You needed to control terrain. You needed to control timing. You needed to control your troops. You needed to control the enemies troops. A whirlwind of things that needed to be controlled all crystalized into a single experience, manifesting itself at the tip of a spear.
And, at the end of the day, control every possible variable, and you still needed a monumental amount of luck.
“Intel checks out, sir,” Troels said, looking over the same documents that Sven had been pouring over for the better part of an hour. “What’s the plan?”
Sven was looming over two maps, one fine sewn leather, another ink blotted and occupying paper that had once held a letter of some sort. The knight was silent for a moment.
“If Sister Solace is willing, we have a chance,” the knight mused. “This village the Stormhammers are looking to raid is a problem. They will be able to freely attack Runeheim from that position. Bolstered by fresh Thralls, and the advantage their cavalry will have on the plains of Greywater…”
The knight closed his eyes, envisioning the slaughter that would come with the spring thaw. No. That must be avoided at all cost. The Citizens were vulnerable, and that would not be allowed to stand.
“But, it is well outside their surveillance range. They know we are too far away to easily defend it, not with half our force being Gothic,” the knight mused. “They will expect an easy push of it. In fact…”
He sketched a line from the mountain fort they had taken last Forum to the wooded village in question.
“They can move here and be largely unseen by our forces at all,” he said, finally. “If Gottfried hadn’t seen scouts here, and Siggy not collected the reports… I think its safe to say, this would have taken us entirely by surprise. I would have taken our force South to the Fort and found it empty. The only word we would have had of their movement would have been the fires of Runeheim as it burned to the ground the first weeks of Spring.”
“With the snows, we still cannot get to the village,” his commander commented.
“We can get close enough,” he said. “If my niece is willing to bless our troops, I think their flesh won’t faulter before we secure it.”
The grizzled old commander looked up confused.
“Why wouldn’t she bless us?” he asked, genuinely surprised.
“I threatened to kill her,” the knight said without looking up from the map. Troel’s eyes grew to the size of small saucers. If rumors were to be believed, Sven was overly fond of his niece. Doting, one might say. But, he’d served the knight for close to two decades and had never known him to make a casual threat. If whatever had been their argument was enough to warrant a threat to Solace, further inquiry might just be enough to earn him an early death. Wisely, he lets the matter drop.
“Your orders?” he asks instead. The knight looks at the smaller map.
“Break camp and mobilize. We’ll march through the fields here and land in the woods along this vector,” he says, drawing a line on the large map, then marking the smaller. “Station our dragoons here. Our archers here. Flamberges and Armsmen here. We can use the terrain as cover. Last count of the Stormhammers had ten or eleven units of Karls. They’ll have some Thralls from their taking of the Saenger fort. Let us assume twelve units in their force. Their previous disposition was a very long, single line.”
The knight begins to set up small mock-ups of the units in the battle.
“If we’re lucky, we can obliterate their center before they even know they’re in a battle. A long single line marching through the woods this way is very vulnerable to attack,” he concluded. “Let us make all due haste. We’ve no time to waste if we’re to get these Southerners to the woods through this ice and snow.”
The battle had been glorious. He called it a battle because two armies had fought together, so it was technically correct. However, anyone that had witnessed it wouldn’t have used that word.
It had been coming on to evening with the Stormhammers had surrounded the village. It had been their hope to move their forces orderly onto the village, enslave all the peoples there, and then set up a camp for some carousing. With the fading light, they never saw the flamberges, the most well equipped, seasoned of the vanguard forces carve into their lines. There had been no trumpets. No war cries to signify that battle had been joined, Just quiet soldiers moving about their bloody business. Hundreds had been slain before Guthar had even had a chance to react.
By the time Guthar had drawn up his cavalry for a retaliatory attack, the green dragoons of the Krigare force had been mid unruly assault, drunk on the rush of battle, unlike their seasoned linemen. But it had been effective. The light dragoons and archers, even hampered by the winter and wood were brutal in their efficacy against the slower, heavily armored troops they fought. The Stormhammers counter attack hadn’t even pierced the heavily armored lines of Sven’s forces; their cavalry not even having a chance to encircle their enemy. Guthar’s forces had been reenforced with archers, and had been three hundred larger than expected. But it had amounted to very little difference.
The battle was over in a few hours. Then the slaughter began.
Traditionally, when an army was routed, it was given some latitude to regroup. Wounded were collected. Missing comrades were given fall back points. Standing orders for where to go and who to answer to were standard faire. But not when the Fenris were involved.
Part of the fearsome reputation of the Imperials came from their unwillingness to allow these polite niceties. Their doctrine was more… brutal. Those who felt were run down like dogs.
Sven clamored off his massive warhorse, well adapted to the cold and large enough to draw a wagon on its own, the beast was nearly as fearsome as the man. His muscles were fatigued and blood marked his face, along with the rest of him. He’d spent hours with his men riding down the retreating Stormhammers.
Battles in the ice were beautiful. The crimson gouts of blood steaming in the air, splashing against trampled or pristine snow, melting towards the earth until the heat of life faded and the crystals reformed. The snow started white. Then splashed with red. By the end it resembled black mud, such was the slaughter. The canopy of the wood was thick with crows and ravens in the fading light and growing dark, hungry for the feast below them. A handful of survivors had been pulled to a small cordoned area. The fifteen hundred men and women of the Stormhammers had been reduced to a few dozen. Their eyes were blank and glassy. That distant look that Sven understood so well. His own men had stared at the ground with that look as they’d marched away from their bout with the Hollow Song. When his enemies wore that look, it was much more pleasing to him.
“Is this all of them?” he asked, settling his cloak about his shoulders after getting jostled about on the saddle. The officer standing watch over them put fist to breast before executing a sharp salute.
“Yessir,” he said in a clipped, professional tone. “The Devourer himself made it away, though. We counted less than ten with him.”
Sven nodded and approached the line of loosely bunched Karls. He looped his thumbs into his sword belt and glowered down at them. He would have taken a knee, but he was sore from the saddle and his armor granted little latitude with moving.
“Stormhammers,” he said in a booming voice designed to carry. “We have come to an unfortunate crossroads. The Branded whom you have elected to follow was arrogant and foolhardy. I believe he boasted that he would raise a flag over our fort. And then did no end of crowing that he did that very thing.”
The knight bends slightly for dramatic effect.
“He raised many Karls to come fight for him, using that victory as a springboard for his recruitment. Some of you, perhaps. Now all dead,” Sven said. “I am Sven álfrblóð. For all of the Devourer’s faults, he is a man of singular purpose. That purpose can be of use to me. Because of that, one of you will be given clemency to carry a message to him. Are there any volunteers?”
One of the glassy eyed men, a fellow with a beard and long golden locks struggled to his feet. Sven thought he might have recognized the figure, perhaps he was one of the Stormhammers who had interrupted the warfare planning meeting.
“Imperial dog,” he said in a shaky voice that grew in confidence as he continued to speak. “None of us will serve you.”
The knight nodded slowly.
“I wasn’t looking for a servant, just a messenger. Does this… fool speak for the rest of you?” he asked. A younger man, scarcely more than a boy, looked up through his blood spattered and snowflake marked hair.
“No sir,” he said. “Please let me go and I will deliver your message.”
The knight smiled as genuine and kind a smile as his armored, blood smeared visage could muster.
“Excellent. What is your name?” he asked.
“Leif, sir,” he said shakily.
“Leif. What a charming young man you are. Step over here to the edge,” he said. “The message is simple. The álfrblóð has defeated his force, slaughtered his men, and knows precisely where the Devourer has fled to. I only don’t chase him now as a kindness. I wish to offer him the same deal that I have offered to all of the Branded that I have bested in warfare: he needn’t die with his men. He can work for me, and I will show him mercy. Tell him that if he is willing to be baptized and offer me his oath, he can live. I will even grant him glory against the Ironbloods and Doghearts. This needn’t be where his saga ends.”
The knight waited a moment to see if the youth understood. Then he reaches out and placed a mailed hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“Look at me, son,” he said softly, waiting until the boy looked up, eyes betraying tears wishing to well up. “Can you remember all of that, Leif?”
The boy nodded twice before his head drooped towards the ground again. Sometimes watching the iron melt out of a man was exhilarating. It had a fragrance to it, like arousal on the wind. It stirred something within the iron clad figure. Were there time to experience this youth in a different way, it wouldn’t take much to make him appealing.
The knight smiles.
“Good lad. Stand here on the edge, away from your fellows,” then he gestures to Troels from the side. “Commander, this is Leif. He is to be given fresh travel clothes, a warm cloak, and enough trail provisions for three days. He is to be taken to the edge of our encampment, told where Guthar the Devourer has fled, and allowed to leave to deliver my message, escorted of course. Once the message is delivered, he will be free to go about his business.”
Troels nodded, “Of course, sire. And the others?”
Sven smiled, never looking away from Leif, refusing to release the boy’s gaze, even as his head drooped and hair began to obscure his eyes.
“Crucify them. Start with the large one that has called me an Imperial dog twice now. See that Leif watches. I want the full gravity of the message intact when it is delivered,” he said, his tone soft, nearly gentle. A giant about to step on something insignificant in a way that would crush it utterly, forever.
“Goodbye Leif,” the knight says, giving the youth’s shoulder another squeeze before releasing it. “Should I see your pretty visage again, I shan’t be so gentle with you a second time.”
The black cloak swirls around the figure as he turns to walk off into the darkness, sparking a chorus of warnings from the crows at his passage.