“In difficult ground, press on; In encircled ground, devise stratagems; In death ground, FIGHT.”
– Wu Changqing, 1st Sun General, Dawn Imperium
Aleksandr Vladislavovich Tuchkov — better known as ‘Sachka’ to his friends and family — gazed into the distance as he and his older brother Sergey rode over the last major ridge. Before them lay a valley of gentle, grassy slopes that bordered the Krasna River. He could see a ford five kilopaces away to the south, as the terrain had dropped and there were no more obstacles before them.
Four bridges had been built by Grand Prince Mstislav’s engineers last night. All of them were filled to capacity as battalion after battalion made their crossing. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of men, animals, and wagons packed the riverbanks on both sides, as the bridges’ bottleneck created an army-sized traffic jam.
On the far side stood a mass of at least twelve thousand cavalrymen. It revealed that the bulk of Mstislav’s druzhina and mounted streltsy had already made it across. However they were still busy reforming their companies and battalions, as officers and signalers rode back and forth to re-establish the chain of command.
Meanwhile just a few hundreds paces away from the crossing on the far side, arrows flew over the grassy plains as Federation light cavalry screened the river crossing from swarms of Eastling horse archers. Fighting also raged in the skies as Polisian hussars and shturmoviks met the Eastlings’ ‘berkutchi’ eagle-hunters. They fought across the air on pegasus, gryphon, and giant eagle mounts. However the most impressive in the aerial battle were the shturmoviks’ zmey gorynych — triple-headed black drakes that spewed acid and flames.
“We’re late! It’s already begun!” Sergey turned and spoke to his younger brother. Fifteen months older than Aleksandr, Sergey was taller, stockier, and a better fighter. They shared the Tuchkov traits of having brown hair, blue eyes, and a round, boyish face. However while Sergey’s rough charisma mingled well with the men, it was Aleksandr who was both more insightful and better spoken.
“See if you can contact Father or our brothers on the far side.” Sergey remarked before turning to the standard bearer who held the Polisian blue-and-white banner. “Everyone! Follow me!”
Aleksandr pulled out a runestone and began activating it as he guided his horse to follow. They knew that arriving before the battle was a longshot from the start. The two brothers had ridden ahead of their column with all the cavalry they could muster. Their force was scarcely a thousand strong, but it was better than nothing.
More importantly, they wanted to bring as much of the family together as possible, to better tackle the challenges that faced them: whether they be political or tactical.
However, it seemed even if they could gather the family together and pressure the Grand Prince to change strategy, it might already be too late. Aleksandr’s worries grew as his attempt to contact his father failed. Instead of trying again, he channeled magic a second time and tried to reach his eldest brother Nikolai instead.
Father must be in the thick of combat, the young man of twenty years tried to convince himself. Because the only alternatives were that Vladislav was unconscious or dead.
Aleksandr waited to see if his Farspeak spell could forge a connection with Nikolai’s mind. In the meantime his gaze surveyed the river’s far side to assess the battle. He came to attention as he watched two rows of lances peak over a ridge to reveal a large formation. At least two thousand Eastling lancers leveled their weapons as they pressed their mounts into a charging gallop.
A rain of arrows and spells preceded the charge from the supporting eastern light cavalry as they sought to disrupt the Polisian druzhina that were still forming up. However the well-drilled druzhina were quick to react. They raised defensive wards and hurled out offensive runes to churn up the open terrain. The ground erupted as stalagmites, stakes, and brambles burst forth from the grassy field before the Eastling charge.
With the defenders holding steady, the engagement became one of pure numbers. The Eastlings’ charge was broken up as the Polisian druzhina, though disorganized, responded with overwhelming magical support before launching a countercharge. Two companies of druzhina even managed to organize themselves into wedges before plowing into the nomads’ ranks. They shattered the Eastling attack and hurled its survivors back in a confused rout.
For an instant, a faint smile came to Aleksandr’s lips. The fight he just witnessed might only be a small victory, but it was an important one that secured the army’s hold on the river crossing. However, his satisfaction soon turned to dismay as he heard the sound of a horn resound. Other horns soon joined in as Mstislav had clearly given orders for a general advance.
Mstislav what are you doing! Aleksandr snarled in private. You’ve only half your forces across the river and you’re *already* attacking!?
At that moment, the mental link between Aleksandr and Nikolai opened as the Farspeak spell established its connection.
“Sachka! I’m guessing you’ve arrived?” The eldest Tuchkov brother spoke with a tense, agitated voice.
“Yes–” Aleksandr barely replied before he was cut off.
“We’re embroiled in heavy fighting so I’ll make this quick.” Nikolai spoke. “Father led our vanguard to attack the Eastlings and disrupt their battle deployment. We’ll buy as much time as possible for the main army but that’s all we can manage! Mstislav is trying to keep it quiet but last evening, the entire right wing under Prince Vorontsov was annihilated by an Eastling attack after they finished their crossing thirty kilopaces downstream! There’s no doubt we face the bulk of the Eastling invasion force right now!”
“Kolya,” Aleksandr called his eldest brother to pause for a moment as he hurried replied: “Mstislav has just ordered a general advance with the bulk of his cavalry alone. They’re moving away from the river as we speak–!”
“That imbecile!” Nikolai cut his young brother off with the most dreadful curses. “Fucking bottom!”
Both of them already knew that it was already too late to stop the Grand Prince.
“Sachka, get down there and do whatever you must to hold those bridges!” Nikolai immediately ordered. “Do you understand me Sachka? Hold them at all costs! It won’t be long before the Eastlings focus their counterattacks there, and they’re the only way we can retreat back across in one piece! Also send a message to Boris’ left wing and tell those useless whoresons to hurry the hell up!”
“Make way! Make way!”
Aleksandr and his brother called out as they struggled to bring their troops through the mass of wagons and men congregating at the riverbank. Mstislav’s center force had a total of thirty-seven thousand men, and almost three-quarters of it had already made it across. However that meant the west side of the bridges was now clogged by the slowest units — mostly Home Guard auxiliaries which guarded wagons full of ammunition, food, and other supplies.
It was now clear that there was no senior commander present to organize the crossing of these remaining units. Everyone of importance had already gone to the east bank or rode off with Mstislav to seek glory. The result was a tangled mess of men and wagons as multiple battalions at a time tried to force their way onto the bridges.
“Dmitrei!” Aleksandr called up his second cousin, one of his grandfather’s nephew’s sons.
“Yes Sir,” Dmitrei answered formally as he rode up. Eight years older than Aleksandr, Dmitrei had traveled the continent as a mercenary before he returned to Polisia and became a student. He studied infrastructure logistics at the Ilmen Academy. And while he held a lower official rank, he had far more experience than Aleksandr at organizing men and materiel on a battlefield.
“Take a squad and see if you can get this mess sorted out,” Aleksandr waved to the traffic jam that was all around them.
Dmitrei had barely turned away before a shrill cry pierced the air.
Looking up, Aleksandr watched as a flight of giant eagles flew down from the clouds in a plunging dive. The riders who rode on their backs gripped the reins tightly with both hands. There were thirty pairs of giant birds and their riders arranged into three echelons. Each eagle carried what looked like a large wooden barrel with handles in their claws beneath them.
Aleksandr took a glance around but it quickly became clear that this strike force had hidden themselves in the clouds until the last possible moment. There were no friendly air cavalry nearby to intercept, as all of them have moved on to cover Mstislav’s main advance.
Aleksandr and Sergey both shouted as they stopped their mounts and drew their recurve bows. The druzhina behind them mostly did the same, with only a few bad shots who activated runestones to raise Barrier wards instead. The rest of them notched lightweight flight arrows with rune-inscribed tips. These arrows were designed for anti-air use and had a quartz bit at the end to hold a small Levitation rune, which when activated relieved the arrows of gravity’s pull for a short time.
Aleksandr could hear the limbs of composite bows straining as each archer pulled back as hard as their arm muscles could manage. His hand was shaking as he struggled to maintain the strenuous pull while he tracked the diving eagles.
“READY–!” Sergey took command as he waited for the right moment. “VOLLEY!”
Several hundred arrows were released on command. The men then quickly drew their next projectile and notched to loose a second volley, which was joined by arrows from other units. Arrows intended for anti-air used spell-infused tips with proximity-detection instead of contact-activation settings. The air around those eagle hunters were soon set ablaze with Fireballs and Lightning Bolts.
The Eastlings’ air cavalry no doubt raised their own magical wards to defend. Nevertheless the curtain of flames and sparks conjured by the air defense barrage instantly overwhelmed a handful of those mages. Several flaming, screeching birds went from diving to falling from the sky as the cacophony of spellfire had turned them into oversized duck roasts.
Aleksandr’s eyes widened as he noticed secondary explosions after the initial volley’s spell blasts. Several of the barrels those eagles carried actually detonated, erupting into giant fireballs that –unlike the magical equivalent– summoned a thick veil of smoke.
He had been expecting incendiary tar barrels, not… whatever that was!
The young nobleman didn’t even have time to sort out the enemies who survived before the second volley met them. Once again a shroud of fire and lightning obscured the giant eagles and their riders. More secondary explosions rang out as the plumes of smoke grew. Aleksandr watched as one of the detonating barrels tore apart its carrier and sent adrift two flaming bird wings.
Yet, despite the defenders’ best efforts, around nine of the giant eagles made it through and released their barrels before climbing skyward. Three slower, injured birds were shot down by a last minute volley of crossbow bolts from the streltsy infantry. However their deaths no longer mattered for the payloads they dropped were about to reach the ground.
Aleksandr didn’t have time to vocalize his horrified thoughts before the tumbling barrels magically expanded a magnitude in size just prior to impact. Five of those giant, larger-than-man-sized barrels struck water, and raised the most impressive geysers he had ever seen as they promptly exploded under the surface. Three of those misses were so close to the nearest bridge that the sheer blast force tore the wooden structure apart and hurled those on it into the water. However, none of that even came close to the sheer carnage inflicted by the four barrels that struck their targets.
The two bridges hit were full of infantry when the barrels crashed through the wooden planking and exploded underneath. Each had a blast force dozens of times stronger than any Fireball spell, and could easily have torn even a stone structure asunder!
Aleksandr watched in horror as pieces of men and steel were blown into the air in every direction. Entire sections of the bridges were shredded as wooden planks and splinters flew into the faces of more screaming victims. The blast waves that traveled through the air pushed yet more men into the frigid water, while others on the collapsing bridges sank alongside the remnants of the wooden structures.
Considering that it was late autumn and the river flowed down from the north, Aleksandr knew that the water must be icy cold. It was also at least chest high at even the shallowest point. There was no doubt that many of those armored men would drown before they could find their footing.
What in Stormlord’s name was that!? Aleksandr felt his lips move but no sound came out.
He had heard from their nomadic allies that the Easterlings employed a new weapon, described as “iron tubes that belched smoke and thunder”. But they made no mention of a device that could be simply dropped from altitude, one which required neither setup nor platform!
As the young noble surveyed the resulting mayhem, he estimated that at least four hundred men just became casualties as a result of the air strike. However, if that alone were the damage, then it could be considered a victory for the defender. After all, air cavalrymen were extremely rare and worth their weight in silver if not gold. Four hundred militiamen of the Home Guard for twenty-five of the Eastlings’ most elite berkutchi eagle-hunters? Definitely a worthy trade.
Unfortunately, the damage was not limited to just lives.
Three of the four bridges they’d built over the crossings now lay in total ruin. Even the final bridge had taken serious structural damage and desperately needed repairs. The devastation might not have been as bad if Mstislav had reinforced the bridges with structural wards like Bulwark and Ironwood. However, as the supply of mana for mages was a limited resource, the Grand Prince had clearly opted to save his mages’ energy for more offensive use. At least the planks and beams looked like they’d been blessed with flame-repellent Resistance spells. However that was poor consolation when most of the wooden structures now lay underwater and in tatters.
With his arm still trembling in shock, Aleksandr grabbed the attention of one of his signalers nearby.
“Find some engineers and get them here immediately! You too!”
The two cavalrymen barely had time to nod before they rode off. Aleksandr then turned to his older brother, who bested him at almost everything except tactics and leadership. As Tuchkovs both of them knew exactly where their duties lay. There would be no haggling of who was in charge of what in moments like these.
“We need to repair and fortify the wards covering that last bridge!”
“Leave it to me!” Sergey replied before he turned his horse to gather the magic-capable officers amongst his men. Aleksandr was about to order the rest to follow him when a horn resounded in the distance.
More horns soon mirrored the first signal. None of the sounds were recognizable to Aleksandr, which meant it could only belong to the enemy!
With his position so close to the riverbank, Aleksandr had too low a vantage point to observe the battle’s flow. Still, he could see a steady stream of eastern horse archers emerge over the ridge on the far side, and he sensed that it was merely a prelude. Sure enough, a fresh wave of heavy lancers in glistening, lamellar armor soon crested the ridge and came into view. Thousands of horses and armored men swept down in a pivot like a great broom, ready to sweep aside all resistance from the flank.
Grand Prince Mstislav’s druzhina cavalry had long pushed out of sight from the river crossing. The main battle had gone with him, while a long stream of streltsy troops marched up the far side ridge in neat infantry blocks as reinforcements. More were being formed from the troops that had reached the other side of the crossing. Each company would form up for battle before marching after the nominal leader of the Federated Principalities.
Line formations. Aleksandr surveyed the blocks of streltsy troops with dread as the Eastlings closed the distance towards the reinforcement stream’s flank. This is the worst combination possible!
A line formation was more than quadruple as wide as it was deep, which expanded the unit’s frontage to increase the number of men who could fight at once. This formation was important as it determined how many individuals could shoot per volley, as the streltsy were hybrid-role infantry who carried both bardiche axes and crossbows.
However line formation was designed to engage the enemy head-on. Unlike the square or column, it was extremely vulnerable to flank attacks. They would be caught at an enfilading angle, and the opponent could roll them up like a carpet while minimizing their own casualties.
Several of the streltsy commanders saw the incoming cavalry and tried to turn their units. However the swarms of light horse archers that preceded the Eastling charge disrupted their movement with a continuous rain of spells and arrows. Streltsy officers and men fell while others stood still to retaliate with crossbows. Their compact formations soon lost their cohesion and some even began to unravel.
A single wounded zmey gorynych was in the vicinity. Its rider flew down and unleashed its fiery breath attack to roast a segment in the line of charging cavalry. However the accompanying mounted Eastling archers shot dozens of spells and arrows into the black drake. The zmey roared in one final, painful cry before crashing into the ground.
Aleksandr felt his chest contract with a dreadful sense of helplessness as he watched the impending disaster unfold. It was clear to him that there was no overall commander for the units in the reinforcement stream. Each company had been sent ahead as soon as they’d been reorganized. There was no one in overall command who could manage the situation, and all the other senior leaders were too far from the focal point!
Who the fuck is responsible for this! He couldn’t help but curse in his thoughts.
As the lancers drew closer and closer, Aleksandr noticed that something seemed strange. Thousands of Eastling heavy cavalry all carried their lances in their shielded left hand, while their right arm spun something that looked like an iron ball attached to a rope. Then, as these ‘lancers’ closed to below one hundred paces, an unknown cry resounded and over four thousand cavalrymen released the weights they spun.
A torrent of round, metallic weights flew across the air, straight into the still-pivoting formations of streltsy infantry. They exploded like tiny versions of the giant eagles’ barrels, using sheer numbers to make up for what they lacked in individual strength. Swarms of them landed among ranks of men before ripping them apart, as a cacophony of thundering blasts tore limbs from body and sent pieces flying in every direction.
Aleksandr couldn’t see exactly what was happening as a curtain of choking smoke obscured the worst carnage. But it soon became obvious that entire battalions were collapsing as the troops wavered and routed. The sight of panicking men triggered a chain reaction. The entire line was crumbling before it could even finish pivoting to face their foe head on.
At the same time, four thousand eastern lancers in double-ranks heeled their steeds into a forward gallop. They swapped their lances to their right hand and lowered them into a bristling row. The sight and sound of this massive charge broke the courage of yet more defenders. Only a few scattered officers managed to hold their units together. But without a solid defensive line, there was no way they could stop the oncoming tide.
The result was like watching the ocean sweep away sand.
The wave of heavy lancers crashed into the routing defenders with almost no resistance. Those few who bravely held their ground were skewered by the charging lances, while those who broke and ran were hacked down as the cavalry drew their sabers. It didn’t even look like a battle from Aleksandr’s position a kilopace away. Instead, it was a complete slaughter as though armored nomads rode through a herd of fleeing cattle and butchered them in mass.
‘Cattle’ that just happened to be Aleksandr’s countrymen.
Is this the glory and fame you wanted, Mstislav? Aleksandr felt his body tremble and tears fill his gaze. Is this what you want!? To go down in history with the worst defeat Polisia has ever suffered? To see thousands of our countrymen slaughtered because of your incompetence and arrogance!?
It took the hand of a druzhina commander on his shoulders before Aleksandr snapped out of it. Peeling his eyes away from the carnage and slaughter at last, Aleksandr gathered up the remaining Tuchkov druzhina before squeezing their way towards the bridge.
“HOLD YOUR BANNERS HIGH!” He shouted as he rode. “OUR TRUE TEST IS STILL NIGH! FIGHT BRAVELY FOR VICTORY! SHOW THE GODS THAT YOU ARE WORTHY!”
Even as he did this, Aleksandr already knew that what he spoke of was a lie. His mind was certain that the mayhem he just witnessed had been the decisive moment. The battle had already turned completely against them. The only undecided matter was how badly they would lose.
With the benefit of hindsight, the Eastlings’ first attack had clearly been a provocation. They had a perfect grasp of Mstislav’s character, especially his desire for glory to solidify his political hold on the title of Grand Prince. They sacrificed two thousand lancers to lure out Mstislav’s eagerness and greed, which pulled the Polisian cavalry away from the crossing where the decisive action would take place. The Eastlings then swung a massive sledgehammer with their recent charge, smashing the flow of reinforcements from the infantry massed near the crossing and the cavalry somewhere over that ridge.
Worse yet, those reinforcements had included much of the semi-professional streltsy while those remaining near the river were mostly units of the ‘Home Guard’ — poorly-trained militia equipped with spears or axes plus whatever armor they could afford.
It was a classic defeat-in-detail in the making. Without adequate infantry support, the now-encircled Polisian cavalry would be whittled down by the Eastlings’ superior horse archers. Without adequate cavalry, the infantry would be constantly outmaneuvered and flanked by the eastern heavy cavalry.
Kolya must have seen this coming, Aleksandr thought of the previous orders from his eldest brother Nikolai.
Their only real chance of extracting their army was to hunker down at the bridge for as long as possible. This offered them two opportunities to salvage the situation. First, it bought time for Mstislav’s main cavalry force to break out of their encirclement and retreat back to the river, where they could launch counterattacks from the shelter of the infantry. Two, it kept the Eastlings’ focus on the eastern side of the river, hopefully until the army’s left wing under Boris Sheremetev-Naryshkin could arrive with his eighteen thousand reinforcements.
As Aleksandr and his men made it onto the last remaining bridge, they quickly helped repair the gaps before making their way across. The young lord sent his druzhina to gather all nearby infantry commanders on the east bank. He hoped that in this moment of crisis, the name ‘Tuchkov’ could still be of some use in restoring order.
But until then, Aleksandr realized he still had one last act to perform before he could fight without regrets. Peeling his gaze from the continued exchange of arrows and bolts at the perimeter, Aleksandr extracted another Farspeak rune from his pocket and held it against his chest.
It wasn’t to his father or his brothers. They would certainly be fighting for their lives if they were still alive. It wasn’t even to his grandfather or his newlywed wife. The Marshal had a lifetime of military experience and would understand. Meanwhile Lidiya wasn’t a mage and couldn’t receive a Farspeak spell; though even if she could, Aleksandr always felt that Lidiya was too emotionally fragile for something like this.
No. It was to the best friend whom he couldn’t reach earlier this morning, likely because the lazy bum had been asleep.
The seconds passed by as Aleksandr feared something had happened, then…
“Sachka…” Konstantin’s groggy voice came back.
“You’re only waking up now!?” Aleksandr voiced his irritation before he could even stop himself.
“We had an incident last night–”
Konstantin was still talking before Aleksandr swiftly cut him off:
“Kostya, listen to me as I don’t have much time! Seryosha and I hold the last bridge built by our forces over the Krasna River. We’re trying to buy as much time as possible for the retreating troops and in hope that Boris’ left wing will arrive! I don’t know if the army will survive this day. The Eastlings did attack Mstislav during the river crossing, but they were even more insidious than we could have ever imagined!”
Aleksandr turned his sights to the left flank as fresh cries of alarm resounded. A new wave of eastern lancers charged forward behind a barrage of arrows and exploding iron balls. Two Home Guard battalions on the left flank shattered almost immediately. But a battalion of streltsy had braced themselves and now held their ground. Spells and bolts hurled back to break the charge as the two lines soon crashed in a chaotic melee.
Nevertheless, this new charge revealed that the Eastlings were shifting their focus. The crossing had clearly become a new priority for them.
“What do you–” Konstantin’s voice then brought Aleksandr’s attention back to the communication spell.
“The Eastlings pretended to have struck prematurely and feigned a rout, which provoked Mstislav to charge after them before the remainder of the army even finished their crossing! Only after Mstislav strung our forces out did the Eastling counterattack in force. Our lines are crumbling. Our infantry and cavalry split. And the Eastlings have this new weapon that can blast apart men in fire, smoke, and thunder! Remember to tell Grandfather all of this. Because it’s painfully clear our enemies know too much about us. Meanwhile we knew nothing about their armaments and tactics!”
Aleksandr knew that Konstantin will relay this information word by word. His best friend’s eidetic memory, combined with the fraught emotions in his words, would guarantee that the young man never forgot a single syllable or accent from this exchange. Aleksandr also knew there was a strong possibility he had just added to the burdens and guilt that already weighed upon his friend. Nevertheless, for the sake of his family, his country, and the survival of Polisia’s very civilization — he had no other choice!
“Sachka,” Konstantin’s voice was grave as his tone fell almost to pleading. “You have to retreat. Don’t throw your life away!”
“I. am. a. Tuchkov!” Aleksandr retorted as though Konstantin’s words were downright insulting. “Besides, without sufficient cavalry support, the infantry has no chance of retreating back to Seym across several hundred kilopaces of open terrain! My duty is clear. I will hold out until my last arrow is shot and my last breath stopped!”
“Sachka…” Konstantin begged again. But this time, Aleksandr cut him off as he thought of his friend’s face with a nostalgic smile.
“You’ve always been the most fainthearted among us, Kostya. Even Katya used to make fun of how easily frightened you were. I sincerely hope that things work out for the better and we’ll meet again. But if not, I pray that you’ll find your strength when your decisive moment comes, so we may at least drink together again in the Sky Father’s Golden Halls.
“Do me a favor though,” Aleksandr then added. “If I don’t return, look after Lidiya for me. Make sure she finds someone nice to remarry, and that means not you,” he stressed with a half-hearted snort. “I don’t want a playboy like you to break her heart, you hear!”
“Sachka, let me just say one thing,” Konstantin forced his words through this time.
“Good luck.” He sounded as though his voice was about to crack.
“Thank you.” Aleksandr replied sincerely. “And don’t call again before dusk! I don’t need the distraction!” He finished before closing down the Farspeak spell.
He’s right, the young man closed his eyes and thought to himself. Let’s not host our funeral until we’re actually dead, shall we?
As Aleksandr reopened his eyes and surveyed the vicinity, he noticed that his druzhina had already collected at least four infantry battalions around him. Two thousand men wasn’t much when the opposing armies likely brought over seventy thousand total troops onto the field today. However, only twelve thousand or so Polisian infantry were in the vicinity of the river crossing, and half of them were either embroiled in combat or already in flight.
“Polisians!” Aleksandr cried out as he seized a banner and hoisted it high above him. “I am a son of the martial house of Tuchkov. Protégé of our illustrious Marshal! I call upon you to meet the challenge that the Stormlord issued to test our courage and resolve! We stand here now at the pivotal moment. The Eastlings seek to seize this crossing and destroy our brothers fighting over that ridge! We must deny them the opportunity by holding this crossing at all costs!”
“Wagons to the perimeter!” Sergey’s voice could be heard as he directed a supply unit and their heavy wagons that just crossed. “Form a defensive half-circle behind the engaged battalions!”
However, even as his older brother said this, Aleksandr noticed another wave of hostile heavy cavalry was forming up on the right flank. Screened by the skirmishing horse archers, this massive force of at least three thousand began cantering forwards in the prelude to yet another massed charge.
We’ll never set up the wagon-circle in time, the younger Tuchkov realized. Spurring his mount forward, he swung his banner in the air to gather what cavalry he could before a hand on his arm pulled him back.
“No, I’ll lead! You keep talking!” Sergey spoke with a grim face from just a pace away. The two brothers nodded in understanding as the elder rallied their druzhina for a countercharge to buy time. Both of them knew perfectly well that could have been their last exchange in the mortal realm.
For a second, Aleksandr watched Sergey’s back ride away with apprehension and foreboding. However, it did not escape his attention that thousands of eyes and ears were still upon him. Even the lords and officers near the large Polisian banner nearby — presumably the ranking local commanders — looked up towards him with expectations.
It was apparent now that fate had tossed him into the front stage of history in the making.
Aleksandr calmed his own anxieties from their expecting gaze. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath before pulling out a runestone.
Speaking before a crowd was always your forte, Kostya, he reminisced of his best friend.
Nevertheless they could not switch places now. Aleksandr could only steel his nerves before activating the rune to amplify his voice.
“Polisians! I charge you now with a task that will determine the fate of our Principalities! Our duty is to hold this side of the crossing at all costs! For every minute we persist in our struggle, more of your brothers fighting over that ridge may come back alive! For every hour we last, we buy time for reinforcements to arrive and turn the tide in this decisive conflict!”
“Polisians!” Aleksandr continued at the tip of his lungs as the sound of clashing steel intensified all around. “You are sons of the Stormlord’s courage! There is nothing to fear but cravenness itself! Therefore, I give you orders that I demand no less of myself!”
He then took a deep breath before shouting with all his might.
“FOR THE MOTHERLAND! FOR THE STORMLORD! STAND AND DIE!”
“NOT A STEP BACK!” Aleksandr heard a resounding cry as the Tuchkov household druzhina around him raised their swords and lances skyward.
“FIGHT!” He repeated. “UNTIL YOU HEAR THE VALKYRIES CRY OUT YOUR NAME!”
Upon a shallow hill over a thousand paces to the south, a wizen cavalryman well into his old age lowered his telescopic sight.
“So young and full of potential. What a shame.”
“Jebei, Sir?” A young captain inquired from another steed next to him. They were surrounded by only a handful of flag-signalers and adjutants — a forward command post to direct the battle at the riverbanks.
“Individual courage cannot compensate for strategic blunder of this magnitude,” the older man named Jebei remarked. “Give me my best arrow. The least I could do for a brave warrior is to pay him the appropriate respect.”
“Yes Sir,” the younger man drew an arrow from one of the four quivers on his back before presenting it to his superior with a respectful bow.
Taking it with care, Jebei’s wrinkled gaze examined the serrated, wootz-steel tip and the tiny holes that revealed droplets of poison. Fifty years ago, he had once shot the would-be Great Khan in the neck with an arrow just like this. Yet, as fate and the Sky Father Tenri would have it, the man survived and became a living legend who built an empire that stretched from ocean to ocean.
Who knows? Jebei thought to himself. The Great Khan is not the only one destined for greatness.
His thick, muscular arm raised the composite recurve bow in his grip. His other hand notched the arrow and activated the spirit magic imbued into the shaft.
“Lord of the Sky, receive my prayer: guide this young soul to his destiny.”
His thumb loosened to release the enchanted arrow over a flight distance of almost fifteen hundred paces. It was far beyond the shooting range of most marksmen, yet Jebei never even felt the need to draw another arrow.
After all, his name had been a gift from the Great Khan he once failed to kill. It meant ‘arrow’, because no other man across the entire prairie could shoot with the same perfection he achieved.
—— * * * ——
Konstantin listened as the arguments ran back and forth between Anton and Drazhan. The two commanders debated whether spears or bows should be prioritized for the recruits that show aptitude for both, meanwhile the young baron sat and said nothing. He had tried to keep an open mind and listen. But truth be told, his heart and his focus were hardly in the meeting.
No matter how he tried, Konstantin couldn’t peel his thoughts away from the campaign in the east.
Please be safe, Sachka, his thoughts repeated the prayer that he had already made countless times. You can’t be dead. You have to come back!
He had invited Katsiaryna to the meeting as well, but the girl was oddly absent. It left him wondering if those within the Tuchkov family had more information about the campaign that he did not yet know.
These thoughts distracted him until he felt the tingle of a Farspeak spell touch his mind.
He received a mental image from the last time he saw Marshal Tuchkov. The two of them hadn’t spoken for over four years, not since the last time the elderly Tuchkov sorrowfully called to apologize for his inability to aid the boy’s family during the Streltsy Revolt.
Nevertheless, Konstantin did not hesitate as he gave the incoming spell a mental ‘pull’ to accept the connection.
“Marshal,” Konstantin spoke quietly but in reverence.
“Konstantin,” the older man addressed him with a formality that had never been used before the Streltsy Revolt. “I’m afraid I’m not the bearer of good news.”
There was a pause as though the old grandfather didn’t know how to proceed.
“I’ve heard about the clash in the east, Sachka had kept me informed until yesterday,” Konstantin replied with a stony face. “I have not been able to reach him since.”
“None of us have,” the Marshal’s voice shook for the first time. “We have not been able to reach any member of my family who partook in the Battle of Krasna River, nor any of the senior leaders of the coalition forces.”
Another pause. This time, Konstantin felt as though his body had suddenly plunged into freezing water. He neither noticed nor cared that everyone in the cabin now had their eyes on him. His lips trembled but no words could come out, either audibly or mentally over the link.
“I’m sorry Konstantin, but to the best of our knowledge, the entire army was obliterated near the Krasna River,” the old Marshal forced out as though it took all of his remaining strength. “Even the left wing under Lord Boris Sheremetev-Naryshkin, who failed to reach the battle on time, advanced too far to successfully retreat. The Eastlings encircled and destroyed every organized combat formation. They’ve since asked for no ransom and, as far as we know, took no prisoners.”
Konstantin’s mind had grown numb. His entire body was trembling as though icicles had begun to form on his skin. Images passed through his mind of his mentor Vladislav Tuchkov, who had taught him the sword and military arts with a patience even his own father didn’t have. They were followed by scenes of playful laughter with all four of the brothers, who had always treated him as though he was one of the Tuchkov siblings.
Tears flooded into his eyes before he even realized it. The entire world grew into a blur as Konstantin’s clenched teeth chattered and his tightened fist shook.
“Sachka… his brothers… all dead?” Konstantin’s thoughts whispered as though he could hardly believe it.
“Yes.” Even the grizzled old Marshal’s voice cracked as he barely managed to reply.
For a moment the young man stood between his chair and the desk. His lips were gaping and his jaw trembling. His eyes were too flooded to see. His body shook with the lingering shock of incomprehension, as though he had forgotten how to even react.
“AHHHHHHHHHHH!” Konstantin’s bloodcurdling scream filled the cabin as he raised his arm high before smashing it into the table. The wooden table broke into two and collapsed as he held nothing back.
Aggrieved beyond the ability of words to describe, the young man almost didn’t feel the excruciating pain as he broke his own arm in his outburst of rage.
- Jebei: Jebei/Jebe is well-known in history as one of Genghis Khan’s top generals. He, along with Subutai, destroyed the Kievan Rus army (under Mstislav of Kiev) at the Battle of Kalka River. It’s important to note that ‘Jebei’ is a title for the best archer in the Khan’s army, and not actually the man’s name.
- Tuchkov Brothers: the Tuchkov siblings are named after the four real Tuchkov brothers –Nikolai, Pavel, Sergey, and Aleksandr– all of whom fought as generals during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia (known as the ‘Patriotic War of 1812’). Two of them died in one day during the Battle of Borodino.
- ‘Stand and Die’: The famous order was twice issued during the Napoleonic Wars by a different Sachka: General Alexander Ostermann-Tolstoy. Amazingly, he survived both times, though he lost a hand in the second engagement.
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