Monday, February 4, 2013

The Several Adventures of Hugh, Part 40

Eventually, the skirmishers were ordered to conduct reconnaissance on the southern side of the river. Hugh went off by himself quite often and he got closer than any others dared. What he saw upset him.

Within a week of the previous assault, large catapults were being built. It was not long before they were hurling projectile over Polity’s walls. And they hurled everything…

According to the morning messengers, the list of catapult ammunition included: rocks of every size and shape, large hunks of dirt, animal bones, rotting fish, jars of urine, dead bodies and dismembered limbs, human excrement, horse excrement, and for one entire day, nothing but thousands upon thousands of frogs.

None on the Politian side had any idea of how to construct this type of catapult, nor anything that could reach as far as it did. Every piece of Politian artillery fell pitifully short. It was decided that a frontal assault of the Otros line would be necessary to end the daily barrage, and Hugh was called into the city to be briefed on the attack.

In Herbert’s war room, dozens of men stood around a large map with little metal chips representing troops on it. Herbert was still arranging them when Hugh entered. More men joined them and before long, Herbert spoke. He laid out where everyone would begin, and explained how he wanted the attack conducted. The only enemy targets on the map were the catapults, ten in total.

The attack would consist primarily of 200,000 Politian soldiers and militiamen, only 20,000 Kolish troops (including Hugh’s unit), the just over 10,000 remaining Northerners, and the entire force of 1,500 Nudari cavalry, leaving just 10,000 Politian troops to man the walls near the city, and about 60,000 Kolish troops at the cliff encampment, which could be called in using horse messengers.

The next morning, the troops marched out of the main gate and arranged themselves into lines, all while projectiles flew overhead into the city. Equipped with five javelins, his bow and a quiver of fifty arrows, a shield, and a short sword (well… short by Hugh’s standards… it was nearly the length of a man’s arm), Hugh stood ready with his fellow skirmishers on the outskirts of the Kolish ranks.

On the blowing of the first horn, the lines of ground infantry would march at a medium pace forward, while the skirmishers from each side would run out in front to engage the enemy until the lines had advanced to the point of nearly reaching the targets.

When the Otros line was pushed back far enough, fire squads would begin their advance, most on horseback, carrying torches and incendiary material in pots to burn the catapults. As it turned out, the Nudari had the most advanced alcohol making skills of anyone there. In fact, they made it so strong that it was explosive. This was part of why alcohol was banned in their land: besides the drunkenness that accompanies the beverage, it was too often employed as a destructive weapon.

When combined with a bit of tar that bubbled up from the ground in their homeland, this alcohol made a fast-burning material that sticks to everything. It was loaded into jars, which would be thrown on the catapults, causing them to spill the sticky material and speed up the burning.

On the sound of the horn, Hugh and the skirmishers sprinted forward. The Otros unleashed a hail of arrows, and Hugh took one to the thigh, between where two plates of armor met. He pulled it out. After a few more volleys, they were within Hugh’s javelin throw range, so he transferred one from his shield hand to his throwing arm and let it fly. He hit a horseman and knocked him clear out of his saddle.

Soon everyone was unleashing javelins, and the horse archers made a hasty retreat, taking very few losses. The archers retreated almost to the nearest catapult, then turned and fired more arrows.

On the next approach, the horse archers again retreated, leaving the path to the catapult completely open. The men operating it fled after the horsemen on foot.

Hugh reached it first. He ripped it apart, beam by beam. There was a stone nearby, and Hugh picked it up and hurled it with all his might at the archers, who were firing upon him. The stone fell well short, and Hugh continued to be pelted with arrows, most of which glanced off his armor (though every one of them felt like a hard punch). Some of the skirmishers ran off to engage the archers, but most stayed with the remains of the catapult.

“I don’t know what to do,” said someone near Hugh.

“It’s simple,” said Marsellus. “We do what we always do: we wait for the infantry, then we annoy the fuck out of them.”

Hugh had one javelin left. While crouched and holding up his shield, he tried to get closer to the archers, but they maneuvered out of range. Skirmishers were taking heavy losses, and the infantry simply weren’t arriving fast enough. Hugh got the feeling that they engaged too quickly. By chasing the horsemen upon retreat, they were too far from the main unit. All this he thought from behind his shield, as horse archers just outside of javelin range fired into the skirmishers with impunity.

Hugh set down his last javelin, gripped his bow, crouched to one knee, and shot off an arrow that pierced through the neck of a rider. The Otros went from circling the skirmishers to sort of outlining the petals of a daisy. An archer would run out away from the skirmishers, then loop back in at them, fire off a shot, then quickly turn and retreat back a ways, then charge and shoot again. Hugh still managed to hit more than he missed, despite the change in the Otros tactics.

By the time the infantry had arrived, almost half of the skirmishers were dead or too badly wounded to continue. Marsellus had the survivors split into two. One group would move to the catapult upstream, and the other would go downstream towards the sea. Hugh went downstream and would act in Marsellus’ place, since he would be leading the group going upstream.

Each time they reached the next catapult, the Otros archers would react in much the same way as before. While Hugh was getting better at picking them off, the going was slow and painful. Hugh had more wounds than he cared to acknowledge. His armor had been pierced dozens of time, and with every step he took, he left a bloody footprint.

Around the third catapult that Hugh’s group dismantled, Hugh took an arrow to the cheek. When the advancing infantry reached them, Hugh had someone remove it, mostly so his field of vision would be clear. He had ceased to feel any pain some time before. He felt like he wasn’t even in his body.

As he looked around the battlefield, through all the dust, he swore he saw winged figures swooping around. One guided the hand of a soldier, causing him to spear a horseman. Another guided an archer’s bow, resulting in an arrow that pierced its target square in the left eye, while another embraced a dying defender, lifting him up into the air.

The next catapult Hugh assaulted already had Politian troops there, and he saw the helmets of the dwarf and giant above the rest. Hugh ran up to them and crouched low behind his shield.

“You look like shit,” yelled the dwarf over the din of battle.

“I feel fine,” Hugh said. “I can’t see anything through this dust.”

“Yeah,” the dwarf said. “I can’t even see the next catapult in the line.”

The giant motioned in two directions.

“Oh, I know where they are,” said the dwarf. “I just can’t see their progress.”

“Hopefully they can see it on the wall,” the giant said.

They hunkered down for a while, and before long they heard the sound of two horn blasts from the Politian side. After what seemed like a long time, some Nudari cavalry arrived, throwing clay jugs at the catapult. When they threw their torches, the blaze was immediate. All the Politian troops then made a hasty retreat.

The losses were enormous. The Politian militia lost one third of their number to casualties and debilitating injury. The Northerners fared the same. The Nudari had no losses, and the Kolish infantry had only a few hundred dead or wounded, but the Kolish skirmishers suffered heavy losses.

The first thing Marsellus did after returning to camp was to send a request to Kole for more skirmishers. Very few in Hugh’s unit were uninjured, though many survived to fight on.

And so the war went on for months like this. The Politians continued to throw men at the Otros when they rebuilt their siege engines, and the Otros continued to pummel the Politian city and troops, always just out of range. Tens of thousands died on the Politian side, while by even the most optimistic estimate, they had killed around five hundred of Jengo’s estimated 250,000 cavalry.

Just as summer was reaching its peak and the Politians seemed to be losing the will to fight, reinforcements from another ally arrived as scheduled. They were called Phebians, and they rode in on war chariots. There were fifty thousand chariots, all pulled by two horses and manned by two people, a driver and an archer.

Given the flat grassland between the Otros and the wall, the geography was perfect for chariot warfare. The next assault on the catapults was called in earlier than in previous cycles, in an attempt to catch them off guard. In addition to the usual line (which had been reinforced by new Kolish troops and additional Politian volunteers), the 50,000 Phebian chariots were split and provided cover fire while acting as flank protection for the skirmishers.

The chariots were not fast enough to run down the swift Otros horse archers, though with the chariots firing arrows on the approach, the going was much easier (though the Otros still had bows with greater range). With the help of the chariots, the Politians suffered fewer casualties, but they still managed to inflict very few losses.

As rough as it was for the soldiers, the city itself suffered the most. After the first assault, incendiaries were hurled over the walls, along with everything else. Fires broke out on a daily basis, and before long, there was very little left standing just inside the walls. The wall itself also took a pounding, and in places it had crumbled to only half its original height. While some repairs were made, it was largely futile in the face of constant bombardment.

As the heat of the summer began to dissipate, they received word of two allies who would be sending troops. The first was a Kolish island colony known as Honosis, which sent a large contingent of 100,000 troops, all equipped and trained in much the same manner as the Kolish regulars. The second was the Austerians.

When the Honosi arrived, word was sent to the Austerians via ship. An attack was planned, whereby the Austerians would march in behind the Otros at the height of the fighting, signaled by a large plume of white smoke within the city (though really, it would not be smoke, but steam from water being poured on a vast fire).

The attack went horribly. Again, the Politians suffered greater losses, with the Otros effortlessly retreating from the slow-moving Politian advance, and when the Austerians marched in from behind, they met only with advancing Kolish troops. The Otros slipped around the five hundred Austerians with little effort.

As Hugh’s group of skirmishers approached the Austerians, he removed his helmet and approached Leocrates.

“You came yourself?” asked Hugh.

“A great commander never asks his men to do what he would not do himself.”

Hugh nodded. They marched back to the city walls, occasionally harangued by arrow fire from the Otros, who followed them from a distance, eventually retaining their original positions. Hugh led Leocrates to Herbert after the last troops were inside the walls.

“I have to say,” said Leocrates, “You are not getting your money’s worth from my men if you would have us just sit around behind piles of stone and dirt. You could have gotten Austerian women and children to do that, and it would have been much cheaper.”

Herbert stood hunched over his map, looking up at Leocrates. “Tell me how to defeat them.”

“You want me to play general of your forces, as well as my own? We never negotiated for that.”

“Do you have any idea what’s at stake?” asked Herbert.

“A city of singers and dancers, painters and sculptors, bankers and traders…”

“You’re right,” said Herbert. “This isn’t a military city. This is the economic heart of the kingdom. If the Otros take the city, Kole will crumble within a generation. You will be cut off from your greatest allies, and–”

“And Austeria will continue to defend itself, like it always has.”

“You think the Otros don’t have their eye on your small city? You think they don’t know about the wealth that pours from your mines, or the vast tracts of fertile land just behind your mountains? Maybe they won’t invade after sacking Polity, and maybe they won’t even invade after plundering Kole itself, but someday their insatiable appetite for conquest will bring them to your city, and by then there will be no one left to stand with you against them.”

“We don’t need anyone else.”

Herbert chuckled. “More than anyone here, you need us. Without tradesman to work the ore, your mines produce little more than blood and sweat stained rubble. Without our navy, the seas around your land become utterly infested with piracy. Without the weak, disorganized tribes around your land, you can’t even pillage and enslave. Your way of life relies on those around you, just like everyone else.”

Leocrates stood silently, his eyes never straying from Herbert’s hard gaze.

“I’ll ask you again: how do we defeat them?”

“You don’t,” said Leocrates. “You can delay them, but my scouts tell me their forces number over 275,000 cavalry, with another half million non-military force following them, mostly women and children. They’re scavenging off of the land, so there’s no supply line to cut off. They are completely mobile, and even if you did manage to gain a temporary advantage, they will refrain from engaging you until they have the advantage again.”

“So what should we do?”

Leocrates glanced at Hugh, then said, “You should have made a deal with them while you could. As best as I can tell, the city is already gone.”

To be continued…

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