Viking 3 kings man, p.13

Viking 3: King’s Man, page 13


Viking 3: King’s Man

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  Abdallah had chosen his position well. Behind the emir’s camp, and on both sides, was broken terrain unsuitable for any direct assault against the fortifications. In front, open ground led down to a small stream shallow enough to be crossed on foot. On the opposite bank the land rose gently upward again to the low ridge where Maniakes set up his own headquarters, facing across to the Saracens. And here I watched how Maniakes’s military genius turned Abdallah’s apparent advantage against him.

  Nikephorus explained to me what was going on. I had been perplexed to find the engineer included in the flying column because his heavy equipment was much too ponderous to be brought along. When I said as much, Nikephorus had grinned at me and said cheerfully, ‘We’ll find something on the spot to make up what is needed.’ Now, as I waited near Maniakes’s command post, I saw the engineer busy by a table and went over to see what he was doing. He had prepared a model of Abdallah’s camp and its surrounding terrain set in a bed of soft clay.

  ‘Hello, Thorgils,’ he greeted me. ‘As you can see, I don’t always knock things down. I can also build them, but usually in miniature. This is where the strategos will fight his battle.’

  ‘You and Trdat are just the same,’ I said. ‘In the Holy Land Trdat spent more time examining a model of the Golden Dome than looking at the real thing.’

  ‘No, no, I mean it. Victory on the battlefield often depends on observation and timing, particularly when the enemy is so obliging as to shut himself up and let us take the initiative. See these little coloured markers? They represent the tagmata’s forces. The grey markers are light infantry, orange for the archers and slingers, yellow for the heavy infantry, and red for the kataphractos, our armoured cavalry. Note that I’ve placed half of the red markers in that dip behind this ridge where they’re out of sight of the Saracen lookouts. Later I’ll add markers for the Saracen forces when I know more about them.’

  ‘How’s that possible? The Saracen forces are hidden behind their defences.’

  Nikephorus winked at me. ‘Not for long. That’s just a wooden palisade, not a high city wall. Look behind you.’

  I turned round to see an extraordinary structure rising from the ground. It was like the mast of a ship, but far, far taller than any I could have imagined. It was being hauled upright by a complex web of ropes and angled poles. ‘It’s a bit makeshift,’ admitted Nikephorus, ‘You can see the joints where my men have had to lash the sections together. But it will do. Think of it as a giant fishing rod, and that we’re fishing for information.’

  ‘What do you call it?’ I asked.

  ‘A spy pole,’ he said, ‘and that’s only the lower section. We’ll hoist an upper section later, and then steady it with guy ropes of twisted horsehair. There’ll be a pulley at the top, and we’ll use it to haul our observer into position. He’ll not be the heaviest man in the army, of course. But he’ll know his signal book, and after he’s had a good look over into the Saracen camp, he’ll signal down the information. Our scouts have already told us that Abdallah is expecting a frontal attack. His men have sewn the ground in front of their main gate with spikes, intending to lame our cavalry. They know that the kataphract is our main weapon.’

  We spent the next four days waiting in front of the Saracen camp while Nikephorus and his assistants added to the coloured markers on the sand table according to the information from the lookouts. Each time they did so, Maniakes and his staff would come across to review their own tactics. They shifted the markers back and forth, discussed various possible manoeuvres, and heard additional reports from the scouts. Twice a day the officers of the tagmata were told the latest assessment of the enemy strength, and as I watched them cluster around the table I soon differentiated between them. Infantry men wore knee-length quilted cotton coats and greaves of iron to protect their shins, while the cavalry dressed in chain-mail body armour or the jacket they called a thorax, which was made of small iron plates stitched to a leather backing. Rank was denoted by a metal band of gold, silver or copper worn on each arm. The imperial troops were recruited from a dozen different countries and spoke at least as many languages, but all had been trained to the same army standard. They observed closely the little counters as they were moved about, and it was clear that every officer was learning precisely what was expected of him. I realised how chaotic and ill disciplined our Norse contingent must have seemed by comparison, and I understood why Harald and his men had been assigned a position where we would be directly under the eye of our general.

  Abdallah brought us to battle on the fifth day. Perhaps he thought his advantage in numbers was overwhelming, or maybe he was still relying on the crippling effect of the iron spikes sewn on the battlefield. He did not know that our scouts had been picking up the iron spikes under cover of darkness, and that half of Maniakes’s heavy cavalry had always remained hidden behind the ridge, where the army farriers had reshod all the cavalry horses with flat iron plates to protect their hooves. Nor had the emir any benefit of surprise. Hours before the Saracen army began to emerge from its defences, our observer on the spy pole had flagged a warning, and the imperial light cavalry were poised to disrupt the Saracens from forming ranks.

  Standing next to Maniakes’s command post, waiting to relay his orders to Harald and the Varangians, I watched as our scorpions, as Nikephorus called them, began to fling small rocks and iron bolts into the enemy ranks. These scorpions were the army’s portable artillery – long-range crossbows mounted on tripods and light enough to be carried on the march. Between their salvoes the light cavalry unleashed wave upon wave of attack. One squadron after another they cantered deliberately forward to within range, then released a first and a second flight of arrows. Then each squadron wheeled about, and as it rode away the riders turned in their saddles and released a third volley.

  ‘Our army learned that technique generations ago, on the eastern frontier, against the Persians. It triples their effective firepower,’ Nikephorus commented.

  Their assault looked to me more like a war game than a serious battle, yet men were falling in the Saracen ranks when each flight of arrows rained down, and I could see the disorder which resulted.

  ‘If you watch carefully, Thorgils,’ Nikephorus added, ‘you’ll note that one-third of the light cavalry is engaging the enemy, one-third is preparing the next attack, and one-third is regrouping, attending to their wounded, or resting.’

  Fifty paces to the rear of each cavalry squadron rode eight men. They carried no offensive weapons apart from short swords. The moment they saw a cavalryman unhorsed, one of them came dashing forward at full gallop to retrieve the downed man who, reaching up, grabbed the rider’s forearm, and at the same time placed his foot in a third stirrup dangling behind the rescuer’s saddle. In one smooth movement the unhorsed cavalryman was plucked off the ground, and the two men were speeding away to the rear, where the cavalryman was provided with a remount. I estimated that for every five cavalry horses struck down by Saracen arrows, four riders were back in action by the time their squadron next moved forward. The exceptions, of course, were those men who were wounded. But they were not abandoned. They were taken to where Maniakes’s medical teams had set up their field hospital behind the ridge and out of sight of the enemy.

  All this time Maniakes never stirred from his position on the crest of the ridge, but stood watching the conflict. The tagmata was extended in a line along the slope of the hill, facing across the shallow valley towards Abdallah’s forces. The Saracens were still clumped together in a disorganised mass as they flinched from the repeated attacks of the imperial cavalry. More and more of the Saracen troops were emerging from the gates of the camp, and now they filled the space in front of the palisade until they were too closely packed to be effective. Most of them were foot soldiers, as presumably Abdallah had not been able to ship much cavalry with him from North Africa, and many seemed to be peasant levies, for they were armed with only small swords and shields, and wore leather caps instead of helmets. I saw Sa
racen officers trying to cajole their men into orderly lines, pushing and shoving at the troops, hoping for some formation. Meanwhile the tagmata stood calmly, regiment by regiment, scarcely moving as their company commanders watched Maniakes’s signallers for their orders. I had no idea of their battle plan, and counting the superior numbers of Saracen troops I wondered what Maniakes had in mind.

  I never found out, because the Gods intervened. I have mentioned that our march to the battleground was across dry and dusty ground baked under the summer sun. The soil was very loose, almost sandy. As we waited for Maniakes’s instructions, I felt a puff of wind, which stirred the dust around my feet. Looking behind me I saw that a windstorm was gathering, rolling down from the distant slopes of the fiery mountain and sweeping across the dry countryside. It drove before it a cloud of fine dust. In almost the same instant Maniakes must have noticed the approaching dust storm, because he said something to a staff officer who produced a wax tablet and scribbled a note on it. Then he handed the tablet to a rider, who galloped away to the rear towards the hidden heavy cavalry. Moments later Maniakes’s signallers were flapping their flags and sending orders down the infantry line. Two regiments of the heavy infantry who had been facing the centre of the enemy position moved fifty paces farther apart, leaving a clear path between them.

  Glancing back towards the Saracen forces I saw that Abdallah himself had now come out from the camp. A cluster of green and yellow banners rose above what seemed to be a group of his senior officers. They were positioned directly opposite the path that the infantry regiments had now left clear.

  The wind ruffled the hair on the back of my neck. I heard the sudden slatting sound of the flap of the command tent. Small twigs and dry leaves tumbled past me, and the wind brought a strange noise to my ears: it was the metallic clatter of the horseshoes of the kataphract riding up the hill behind us, still out of sight of the enemy, but heading directly for the path that led to the heart of Abdallah’s army.

  Moments later the dust storm was over us. Grains of sand were falling down my collar, and the hot breath of the wind pressed my leggings against the backs of my legs. The enemy vanished from sight, obscured in a brown-grey cloud. A bugle sounded, and was answered by another, then a third. Through the gloom, over to my right, I could make out the shapes of heavy cavalry riding past in a dense mass.

  Then, as suddenly as it arrived, the dust cloud swept on and the air cleared. Ahead of me on the far side of the shallow valley, the Saracens were still half blinded by the trailing edge of the swirling sand; many of them had turned away to shield their eyes, or stood with heads bowed, arms raised across their faces. Those with turbans had wrapped the cloth over their mouths and eyes. All of them must have heard the triple trumpet call of the imperial heavy cavalry as they sounded the charge, and looked up to see the kataphract descending down the slope towards them like those sand devils they fear, an evil spectre spawned by the dust.

  The kataphract was the cutting edge of the tagamata. As a cavalry force it was unique. Hand-picked and rigorously trained, it was the ultimate shock weapon of the imperial army. Palace regiments could be relied to fight with great bravery, but they were comparatively unwieldy on the battlefield because they were on foot. Only the heavy cavalry of the kataphract could be rapidly directed with devastating effect at a weak point in the enemy lines. Maniakes was doing just this, ignoring the military manuals which advised a field commander to be cautious about committing the kataphract. Maniakes had seen his chance, and now sent it into action very early in the battle.

  Five hundred troopers, Nikephorus later told me, made up the kataphract that day. Three hundred of them were heavy cavalry, the remainder were archers. They rode in a close-packed arrowhead formation, the troopers on the outer edges protecting the bowmen in the centre as they laid down a devastating rain of arrows directly ahead of them. The advancing horses moved at a deliberate trot for they were too heavily burdened to gallop or canter. Long padded blankets hung down on each horse’s sides, shielding the animal’s flanks and legs. Steel plates were strapped to the horses’ faces, and across each charger’s chest hung a guard of chain-mail. Their riders were equally well protected. They wore steel helmets and thick body armour. Heavy gauntlets covered hands and forearms, and their legs were encased in chain mail leggings under aprons of leather reaching to their heels. The lances they had carried on parade in Constantinople had been for show. Now they held the kataphract’s weapon of choice: the heavy mace. Four feet long and made of iron with a six-sided head, it was an ideal instrument to smash any enemy.

  The kataphract split the Saracen forces just as a butcher’s chopper cleaves a chicken carcass on the block. They rode down the slope, splashed across the shallow stream, and drove their way into the enemy ranks. I saw the leading troopers wielding their maces as though beating on anvils. The kataphract’s arrowhead formation thrust deeper and deeper into the mass of their opponents, and those Saracens who did not fall under the rain of blows were thrust aside by the armoured horses. They were too far away for me to hear their cries. Many slipped and were trampled under the hooves. A platoon of disciplined pikemen might have stopped the charge of the kataphract, but the Saracens had no such defence, and their foot soldiers were too lightly armed. The only real resistance came from the Saracen cavalry, who defended their emir. There was a confused struggle as their riders fought back with swords and lances against the remorseless advance of the mace-wielding shock troops. But the impetus of the kataphract was too great. Their charge thrust far into the Saracen position, and I saw the clump of battle standards around the emir begin to waver.

  Maniakes saw it, too. He growled an order, and the signallers sounded the general advance. Drums began to beat, a war cymbal clashed, its sound ringing clearly across the valley. To my right I noticed the battle standards of the four palace regiments hoisted in the air. Behind them the icons of the White Christ and his saints were lifted up on poles to encourage the men. To the steady clash of the cymbals, Maniakes’s entire force, some seven thousand men, swept down the slope towards the disorganised and leaderless Saracens. They broke and ran. Within moments the battle became a rout. A Greek staff officer shouted to me to tell Harald and his Varangians that they too should join the fighting, but the Norsemen did not need me to translate. Yelling, they ran down the hill towards the combat. I was about to join them when Nikephorus held me by the arm and advised calmly, ‘Stay back. Your place is here. In case the situation changes.’ I looked across towards Maniakes. He still stood carefully watching the confusion and, surprisingly, I could not detect any look of satisfaction on his face. He seemed to be thinking, not of the battle just won, but of what would happen next.

  Four hours later the exhausted officers of the tagmata trudged back up the slope to report total victory. In front of the palisade, the emir’s army had been crushed. The majority of the Saracens had run away, throwing down their arms and fleeing into the scrubland. The rest of them were either dead or sat meekly on the ground, knowing that soon they would be sold as slaves. The tagmata had lost less than a hundred men killed, and four times that number wounded. Yet Maniakes scowled as he surveyed his officers.

  ‘Where is the emir?’ he demanded sourly. ‘The kataphract’s duty is to decapitate the enemy by killing or capturing their commander. Otherwise victory is nothing. The Saracens will regroup around their leader, and we will face another battle.’

  Abruptly Maniakes swung round and faced me. I quailed in front of his bad temper.

  ‘You there,’ he shouted at me, ‘tell your northern colleagues that now they are going to earn their pay. As soon as we get back to Syracuse, I want every galley to put to sea and blockade the coasts. Abdallah must not be allowed to escape back to Libya. I want him taken.’

  He turned again towards the officers.

  ‘The palace regiments and the kataphract will return to Syracuse. Light infantry and cavalry are to go in pursuit of the emir. Track him down. He must be somewhere. I want th
is matter settled for good.’

  Behind me I heard someone mutter in Norse, ‘What about our loot?’

  Maniakes must have heard and guessed the meaning of the remark, for he stared icily over my shoulder at the Norsemen, and said, ‘All loot taken from the dead bodies or found in the enemy camp is to be brought to the quartermasters. They will assess its value, and it will not be shared out until the tagmata is back in Syracuse.’

  Syracuse knew of our victory long before the tagmata reached the city walls. With no hope of relief from Abdallah, the citizens opened the city gates. The Greeks in the population greeted us ecstatically, the Saracens with resignation. Naturally Harald’s Norsemen were eager to know just how much reward they would receive after the great battle of Traina, and we contrived to delay our departure for the coastal patrol until Maniakes’s quartermasters had made their calculations. In the end each man in Harald’s war band received a bonus of thirty nomisma, more than three years’ pay. Certain items, however, were kept back for distribution to the senior officers, and this led to an open quarrel between Maniakes and Hervé, the leader of the Frankish mercenaries. The object of their dispute was the same bay stallion which had carried the nobleman that Iron Arm had killed in spectacular single combat, a superlative example of that breed of horse for which the Saracens were famous. When the stallion was led forward by a groom and shown off to Maniakes, there was not a man in the watching crowd who would not have wanted to own the creature.

  Unwisely, Hervé, who spoke some Greek, ventured a suggestion. ‘Autokrator,’ he proposed, ‘the horse should given to Iron Arm in recognition of his victory over the Saracen champion.’

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