Chapter Two: Era of Heroes - Invasions
Late 354, almost exactly four months after the partial success of the Anti-Hesper Alliance in deposing the eponymous despot, and its failure in securing the emperor, Straton Raimis of Abila had consolidated a force of thirty thousand soldiers. With over fifty generals of martial and strategic prowess under his command, he set out to attack the fiefdom of Naxos, to try and force Loukios and Miltiades to rush to their home fief’s aid.
Riding alongside him was Lahya Eventyr, who had been given command of a contingent of one thousand on the right flank. She herself had requested to start out on the same level as she had been during the alliance, due to the fact that she was still only an outsider and had not formally become a subordinate of Straton’s. Therefore, she took her orders from General of the Right, Hagnos Stigan of Abila, who was one of the three most trusted commanders under Straton. Incidentally, Thais Sacra of Abila was another one, although she was given free reign on the battlefield despite the fact that she was two years younger than Lahya herself, leading a contingent of five hundred top elites.
The alliance had successfully removed the most proficient military leaders from Naxos. With Hesper and Hypatios dead, Baltsar marked as a traitor and in hiding, and Loukios and Miltiades in the new capital of Hierapolis, there were none remaining in the northernmost fiefdom of the empire, who could hope to oppose an invasion.
Thus, several border cities fell to Abila in the first two months of their campaign, little to no resistance mounting from the gravely weakened Naxos army. However, halfway to the capital of Naxos, the enemy had finally decided to make a stand. The opposing general, a young man called Pantas Museo of Naxos, was a name nobody among the Abila army had ever heard of before. While many laughed at the sure to be doomed attempt at resistance, Straton remained quiet.
“Let us not become overconfident. It is during these times that nameless people rise to become heroes that can change the times. Hypatios of Naxos fell to one such unknown and the whole war was affected in the favor of the alliance,” He warned his generals when they prepared to prematurely celebrate an easy victory, mentioning the star general under Lahya. Thais watched her reaction, wanting to see how she would take that offhand praise. However, she had been contemplated the strangeness of the enemy movements silently and then conferred with Leontis, not taking note of Straton’s words.
“My lord, there is no need to be afraid. Sir Leontis swayed the war with a duel. All credit where credit is due, but this enemy is hiding in his formations and leading an army. In this situation, it is not an individual’s strength that decides the battle, but experience in war,” Hagnos stood up from his seat and spoke. Lahya had judged him to be sensible and honorable, but this display wiped that impression away in an instant. The fact that he completely disregarded the possibility that the enemy could be very capable regardless of experience meant he was nothing but a fool who prided himself in his long years of service. Straton was a man of prudence and the half-alf turned to look at him, to find to her astonishment that he was seriously considering the general’s words.
“I see, that is certainly true. The enemy only numbers around twenty thousand, so we have the advantage. With the additional ten thousand, we have more maneuvers at our disposal. I will personally lead the center to drive a wedge into the enemy’s left flank. Hagnos, you will circle around from the side, isolate them and crush them,” The warlord agreed to the prejudiced general’s words all too readily. Lahya almost forgot herself and opened her mouth to protest, but remembered that she was still only a nobody, while General Hagnos was one of Straton’s most trusted subordinates.
With this flimsy strategy, the army set out to meet the enemy, who had placed the bulk of their forces on a stretch of plains flanked by forests. Lahya had left the tent among the first and waited for Thais to come out. Taking her by her hand, the half-alf pulled her aside to speak to her in private.
“Thais, protect the lord. I have a bad feeling about this battle,” She said, looking into her opposite’s eyes intently. “Some unforeseen things may happen.”
“I understand, Lady Lahya. I will not let him fall here. Please take care of yourself on the right flank,” Thais responded in a serious tone, nodding to the request. In the past few months she had learned that the half-alf was an upstanding person who would never say or do anything without a good reason. Since she had not been given any explicit orders, she could lead her troops alongside her lord’s in the wedge formation.
The battlefield was a valley, which was mostly bare, although there were forests along its fringes that provided cover for stealthy maneuvers. Hagnos was to move his troops, numbering seven thousand, through the forest towards the enemy’s left and remain hidden, until the wedge had been driven in deeply enough, before charging out and striking their flank. Lahya’s one thousand soldiers was part of one of the three prongs, as she was stationed on the rightmost with another thousand-man commander. With her position she did not have enough responsibility, but enough ability to make a difference in battle.
“We will wait for the signal of our lookouts and begin to move when our lord strikes their frontline. From my experience with our lord’s charges, we should reach the enemy flank about the same time he separates their forces. Be ready to charge at any time!” Hagnos repeated the order to all his troops once more, to confirm that everybody understood. In war, the common rank and file could only watch what the men in their immediate vicinity were doing and followed the larger movement of the tides. It took some talent and exceptional training to become able to individually decide based on the overall situation of battle.
One such talent was Leontis Genea of Dion, who rode alongside Lahya. Versed in both the martial and the strategic aspects of war, he continually watched the tides of combat. Another was Alexander Telari of Thoryvodis, who had mastered horseback combat in the few months since the battle against Baltsar. His martial prowess was not below Leontis’ now and his innate talent may even surpass the latter’s, with his actual skills sure to catch up in due time. They were both given direct command of two hundred men, although they preferred to follow Lahya closely and keep her safe. Ultimately, they were fighting in this war to help her gain fame, reclaim her birthright and bring peace to Yggdra. If she fell in battle it would defeat that purpose.
Lahya knew well not to risk her life for a little fame, but her ambitions prevented her from staying on the sidelines. She had personally requested to be put on the flanks rather than close to Straton in the center, where he had initially wanted to place her, so that she could contribute to battles and show off her two companions’ might. Even though she had a bad feeling about the enemy, she was confident that as long as Leontis and Alexander were by her side, she would be victorious.
War drums announced the commencement of the battle and the war cry from Abila’s side meant that Straton’s charge had begun. It would not be long before the lookouts informed them that the main forces engaged with each other, and their time to move had come. They had just begun to set off, when their scouts reported that an enemy contingent was moving on their position. Either they had been found out, or the enemy had the idea of flanking the weak looking right wing of their own army.
“They can’t know that we are here, yet. We will engage the enemy and take them by surprise!” Hagnos ordered and led his troops onward, but Lahya knew that it was the wrong decision. Before she could protest, his army had begun to move and was ascending the hill before them, beyond which they had freedom to maneuver. Thus, she could only follow along and make the best of the situation, which had turned into an unfavorable one for them.
“Leontis, Alexander, be careful. Something is wrong.” Lahya’s concern was met with solemn nods, as they, too, had sensed that the enemy’s movement was strange.
Just when they were about to arrive on top of the hills a shower of arrows came down upon them from the other side. The suddenness of the attack completely crippled their momentum, even though it did not claim many lives. However, the enemy appeared before them, taking the hill, and thus, the high ground. Hagnos was left speechless in face of the speed the enemy had moved up from the other side, but even more shocking was the fact that their strategy had been seen through so perfectly, and shut down before it could take fruition.
“D-Do not falter, men! We will reclaim the hill and proceed with our initial goal!” His voice, unlike his words, was already faltering, and even the less keen could sense his insecurity. Lahya understood that at this moment, it would have been better to retreat and regroup with the main army, instead of forcefully pressing on and sustaining heavy losses in the process.
“Let us move further up the right side, where the hill is less steep. We will attack their flank and help Hagnos in his endeavor,” She spoke to Leontis and Alexander, who immediately followed the orders and guided their troops away from the center. Due to the fact that their army held a numerical advantage of three to two, the enemy could not have sent a substantial force to engage them.
Thus, while Hagnos attacked from the front, taking heavy fire from the enemy arrows, Lahya’s one thousand spread out to the side, keeping a low profile while preparing to disrupt the enemy lines from their flank. It would have been a great maneuver, if it had not been for the fact that against all predictions, a much larger force had been delegated to protect the enemy from Abila’s attack. When Lahya reached the top of the hill, she had an overview of the entire battlefield, and found that Naxos’ main army had not split in two as expected, but instead had been able to divert Straton’s charge. Unlike intended, they were now embroiled in a melee on the enemy’s right flank, while the left wing that Hagnos had been tasked to attack once isolated, had extended up the hill as a countermeasure against his maneuver.
Pantas had outwitted Abila completely and turned the battle in Naxos’ favor. Hagnos troops, a considerably large part of the Abila forces, were now the ones isolated, while Straton’s charge had ended in a slowdown in which the enemy lines were holding out well so that his larger numbers did not make a difference. In fact, Straton’s center and the entire left wing of his army was being kept in check, while Hagnos was literally fighting an uphill battle against an almost equal force, beyond which the main army of the enemy lay in wait.
“Alexander, follow me in a charge on their flank. Do as much damage as you can, but retreat on my command. Leontis, go down further and scatter them. I will give you half of the troops, so make a lot of noise and let them think you have more soldiers than you actually do. When I give the signal, retreat as well.” Lahya was desperately thinking of a solution to this dangerous situation. “Hermeitos, go and quickly report to General Hagnos about the state of the battlefield. The plan has failed and the entire right wing is in danger of getting isolated and wiped out if we continue to press on.” The man she addressed was Hermeitos Lacu of Abila, a scholar from Abila Lysaniou who had heard of the half-alf’s exploits during the Anti-Hesper Alliance and enlisted in her services. He had been the first talented man to join her without her personally seeking him out for recruitment, but as she was a warlord without any land, she could only offer him a promise for the future.
“Understood!” Hermeitos responded and rode away to fulfill his mission.
“Everyone, follow my lead!” Lahya yelled, her usually delicate voice slightly amplified by magic. “Chaaaarge!”
The enemy, taken by surprise at the sudden appearance of five hundred men on their vulnerable side, was unable to muster their defenses in time and fell into chaos. Further down, on the other side of the slope, Leontis hit the troops that were still ascending the hill.
“I am Leontis of Dion, slayer of Hypatios! Whoever stands in my way will be cut down without mercy!” Announcing his name and his exploits against the renown general from Naxos served to break the enemy’s morale. They had heard about the appearance of the man who had killed Hypatios Diua of Naxos in a single strike, and furthermore knew that he had fought Baltsar to a standstill. Suddenly facing that man spread fear among the Naxos troops like wildfire.
As if not wanting to fall behind, Alexander rode at the front of the charge, even further ahead than Lahya, who had led it, and swung his battle hammer through the enemy lines as if he was demolishing the walls in a derelict house. His fierceness inspired his men and scattered the enemy, who had thought they held the advantage against Abila.
Lahya’s rapiers danced, stabbing through openings in the enemy soldiers’ armor while passing, leaving most of them too wounded to fight, but only few dead. It was not that she had an aversion to killing, but felt that showing mercy to the enemy would spread her name as a benevolent warlord, rather than a cruel one. Based on that, the type of people that would come to join her was the one she preferred over ruthless warriors who only sought fame and fortune.
Soon, just before their momentum ran dry, Lahya ordered a quick retreat. The enemy was still in disarray, especially at the display of Leontis and Alexander’s strength, so none thought of pursuing them despite their numerical advantage. The half-alf was glad to see that Hagnos had heeded her suggestion and sounded a retreat just a little before her troops had. When the right wing regrouped with the rear guard, they counted about two thousand losses, instead of a complete rout, which would have been the case had it not been for Lahya’s quick-witted gambit.
Straton had not been so lucky; when his charge had been diverted into the enemy’s right wing, a contingent had broken off and struck their flank, isolating him from his main troops. Without his guidance, his main force had been in disarray and was hit hard by the unexpected cavalry charge from Naxos, which cut through the middle of Abila’s forces. Due to the enemy’s lower numbers, the cavalry quickly retreated after inflicting heavy damage, leaving shield-bearers to hold the line while the right wing whittled down Straton’s isolated contingent.
If Thais had not charged in with her five hundred elite riders and broken him out of the encirclement, Count Straton would have been captured or even lost his life then and there. Reportedly more than thirty enemies fell to her spear, and she even claimed the head of an enemy commander, as if in passing, while protecting her lord on the way out. Her gallant and inspiring figure returned morale to the Abila troops, as they beat an organized retreat while surrounding and protecting their lord.
However, out of the thirty thousand soldiers that joined this battle, only twenty-three thousand made it back to their camp alive that day. The scouts reported that the enemy incurred far fewer losses, their troops still numbering eighteen thousand. The first clash between the established warlord Straton of Abila and the up-and-coming commander Pantas of Naxos resulted in a crushing defeat for the former.
The war entered a stalemate, during which both sides set up camps on opposing hills and stared each other down for months to come. Abila’s forces had weakened enough that their numerical advantage was not one that could substantially change the tides of battle. Without the means for a decisive victory neither side made any rash moves, and all that was fought were small skirmishes on the fringes of the larger battlefield, between contingents of a few hundred soldiers each time. Scouts continued to map the surrounding terrain to find a way to break the deadlock, but seeing as Naxos did not move despite having the home advantage meant that there were no such convenient pathways or locations for ambushes.
Thus, both sides prepared for a drawn out war that would last through the year, as reinforcements and additional supplies slowly trickled in to bolster the numbers of the two participants steadily, as they let the freezing Naxos winter pass.
In early 355, while neither Abila nor Naxos gained any ground in their struggle, Heron Beneris of Cumae invaded Rhamnus’ northern borders, taking many cities along the Pamisos River within the first month of the campaign. Due to Galeno’s death and the loss of a substantial part of the Rhamnus fleet, little resistance could be offered against the invasion. Myrrine Nouus of Stagirus was holding her parts against the land-based incursion, while her seaborne fleet raided the Cumae shores to divert their attention. However, she did not have enough troops at her disposal to halt the enemy’s advance completely, and was only able to stall for time while Drakon consolidated his army.
By the time the young leader of Rhamnus was able to muster an army of twenty thousand, reinforcements from the heartlands of Cumae arrived, bolstering the enemy’s numbers by another forty thousand. The difference was an insurmountable obstacle for the weakened Solaris family, and they had no choice but to seek help from their neighbor, Iason Aquila of Herolus. Not forgotten was the anger his father Galeno had felt for Iason due to his failure to protect the alliance supplies, which had resulted in the Rhamnus forces, which had been at the forefront of the siege, being endangered in what should have been an easy push into Zenter. However, at this point, it was their only option, as the other two adjacent fiefdoms were those directly responsible for Galeno’s death.
Thus, lowering himself to offer his vassalage to a lesser man came with great humiliation, but to ensure the survival of his family, it was a necessary step. Drakon personally travelled to Chios, the capital of Herolus, bringing as many gifts as he could afford. Furthermore, he brought along all the remaining horses his father had bought in the north, knowing Iason’s love for them.
“My lord, Drakon, the son of Galeno of Rhamnus has arrived and seeks an audience,” A guard announced to Iason, while he was sitting on a cushion at the side of an arena, watching his cavalry exercise in formation.
“What does he want?” The count was impatient at the interruption of his favorite pastime. He boasted to possess the strongest cavalry south of Naxos, although many knew that it could not even hope to compare to Thronion’s or Kamarina’s, which both also fit that description. Watching that cavalry train was how he spent most of his day, after morning assembly to discuss state matters with his advisors. “I’m busy.”
“He brought many gifts and northern horses to present to you, my lord,” The guard explained, instantly earning Iason’s attention. The advisers who stood by perked up their ears at that fact, as many had heard of Marquis Galeno’s expensive purchase during his stay in Edessa.
“I will meet him right away. Bring him to the audience chamber!”
“Please wait, my lord. I know why he has personally come here, and you need to take that into consideration before meeting him,” An adviser suddenly cut in as he stood up from his spectator’s seat. He was Estorgios Fossa of Chios, the oldest and arguably wisest member of Iason’s entourage. “You are aware that Marquis Galeno has perished in an ambush at the hands of forces from Cumae and Myrmekion last year, and that Cumae has since been on a campaign to claim all of Rhamnus. Drakon’s visit is for the sole purpose of asking for help.”
“Oh, I know that. So what do you suggest I do?” Iason spoke as if he knew the background of this visit, but his demeanor suggested otherwise.
“Receive him warmly, but do not promise him any help. Our fiefdom of Herolus has been on good terms with both Cumae and Myrmekion for many winters. If you stand on Rhamnus’ side now, it may cause a break in our relations with those two,” Estorgios warned. “Rhamnus has nothing to offer you that these two could not provide, either.”
“But he brought northern horses. They are expensive and difficult to bring to the south. Especially now that the empire is unstable, journeying north again will be exceedingly difficult...”
“Please, my lord. Do not risk our friendly relations over some leftovers that survived the ambush in which Galeno fell.” In his heart, Estorgios already knew that Iason would accept almost any terms just to get his hands on purebred northern horses. The ones his cavalry was training were bred in Zenter’s heartlands and could not compare to the much stronger breed from fiefdoms such as Naxos, Abila or Pandosia. There were historical records that cavalry units from these fiefdoms massively outperformed armies of larger sizes from the south, solely based on their powerful charges which were almost unstoppable on even ground or downhill slopes.
“I heard that Galeno bought five thousand horses. Even leftovers should be a considerable number. Well, let us first hear what he has to say,” Iason argued, no longer listening to advice. Sighing, Estorgios bowed his head and stepped back, knowing that whatever he said now would only fall on deaf ears.
Drakon was brought to the audience chamber, an oblong room in which the various generals stood in two rows, separated into martial and strategic factions. Iason sat on a throne - one as lavish as he could get away with without being accused of harboring the intent to usurp the emperor’s title - and seemed eager to see the young man who only recently inherited the title of Marquis of Rhamnus.
“Welcome, young lord Drakon of Rhamnus. What brings you here today?” He greeted the guest, trying his best to keep an amicable expression. However, he already knew the reason for the visit and was unable to contain his feeling of superiority, especially now that he could look down on the Solaris family from his high horse. Galeno had openly condemned Iason for his failure in the siege of Zenteroest and Zentervest, causing the latter great humiliation. Now, that man’s son was crawling before him like a beaten dog, hoping for his goodwill.
“I have brought you tribute, Count Iason Aquila of Herolus,” Drakon responded, his visage a mask beyong which little could be read. Estorgios, especially adept at probing a person’s emotions, could feel the unwillingness and boiling anger underneath the surface of the young man’s outward appearance. It was clear that coming before a lesser lord like Iason, if even only in name, had been a hard decision.
“Tribute? We are neighbors, so why do you bring me tribute?” Iason either feigned ignorance or was actually ignorant of Drakon’s implication in using that expression.
“I have come to ask you to accept me, and in extension all of Rhamnus, into your vassalage. Therefore, I bring you the tribute we normally give to the emperor, to ask for your kindness.” The young lord was clenching his teeth at the end of his words, but Iason was too far to see it. It had taken him great willpower to speak what no other lord would have, but the survival of his house and his people was more important than his dignity.
“Your late father and I rode in the war against the usurper Hesper as equals. How could I ever accept his son lowering himself to become a mere vassal under me?” The lord of Herolus was still keeping up the facade, despite interest clearly glowing in his eyes.
“I bring you one hundred thousand zentera in gold coins, one talot of pure gold, one talot of fine silk, two talots of cotton cloth and one hundred imperial barrels of the best wine from Rhamnus’ south,” Drakon listed the presents he brought. The yearly tribute to the imperial court only consisted of the one hundred thousand zentera. In gold coins, that equaled one thousand in number - still weighting less than the one talot of pure gold mentioned afterwards. Rhamnus was not known for any gold veins, so that amount must include crafted trinkets and luxury items.
However, Iason did not look very interested, even though the amount brought before him would be considered eye-opening to anyone, except maybe to the dukes of the realm or to members of the imperial family. Even then, he could count much more than that in his own coffers; he was clearly waiting for what could not be obtained so easily.
“And three thousand warhorses from the north.” As if leaving the best for last, the young lord finally announced.
“Three thousand!” Iason repeated the number with delight. His entourage silently sighed at the speed at which his facade was crumbling, but none dared to mention it. “We should not be speaking of vassalage, but friendship, Lord Drakon. We will immediately send an envoy to Cumae and ask that they cease their attack on your lands. Duke Heron and I have maintained friendly relations through trade, so I am sure that once he learns of our new circumstances, he will stop the meaningless attacks.”
Estorgios almost forgot himself, but luckily he had remained far in the background, and could slip out of the audience room unnoticed. Indignation and anger was building inside him, but resignation soon followed when he remembered that Count Iason was still the lord he had sworn his loyalty to.
“Drakon did not even mention anything about Cumae and Duke Heron’s invasion, but the lord goes well beyond just accepting Rhamnus’ vassalage by agreeing to call for a ceasefire. Such witless folly!” He waited until he was sure that nobody could hear him, before exclaiming loudly and sighing. “My lord’s greed will be his downfall one day.”
“Well spoken, Sir Estorgios!” Suddenly, someone praised his insults directed at Iason, and his hairs stood on end for a second. But he recognized whom the voice belonged to and turned around to greet Nasos Angulos of Eretria, another advisor in the service of the count. The elder advisor knew that this one would not tell Iason of his words.
“Sir Nasos, do not scare me so.” Estorgios was of an advanced age, so anything that made his heart beat faster than it normally did felt like it would shave away his remaining time in this world. “Tell me, what do you think of our lord’s foolishness?”
“It is what I had expected, when I entered his services. Knowing that he is from the prestigious Aquila family, which is serving in high positions all over Zenter, it was obvious that he would turn out to be a man who understood luxurious tastes, but not much else.” If any loyalist had heard Nasos speak such slander, he would have been locked up and most likely executed the next day. Iason was as proud as he was petty, and he did not forgive those who would sully his reputation, unaware of the fact that his actions did enough of that on their own. Even then, his voice was only of a mocking tone, as he did little to keep it low so it would not reach ears it was not intended for.
“What good are we advisors, if he does not listen to our advice?” Many times Estorgios had wanted to leave the services of the count, and he was clearly old enough to retire. His grandchildren were already of age and ready to found their own families, so there was no financial pressure, but habit and a lack of anything better to do prevented him from taking that step. As a scholar, not being able to move the muscles of his brain meant that they would grow decrepit, and he did not want to become a case that required servants to take constant care of. “I envy you, Sir Nasos. You are still young and could find employ under another, better suited lord.”
“I have no intention of leaving the count’s services anytime soon. It is easy money, as we have little to do,” Nasos stated with a snide attitude. “Still, if he goes down, I would prefer not to be by his side at the time. And with the empire in such a state, it is only a matter of time before powerful warlords emerge who wish to build their own dynasties. In fact, I can see our lord becoming one of them, announcing his intention of becoming emperor despite having no real power to realize it.”
“Do not speak of such treachery. We swore our loyalty to Count Iason, so we have an obligation to him. However, it is only by the will of the emperor that I serve here, so if I get the order to go elsewhere, I will follow it.” Estorgios was indignant at the fact that Nasos hypothesized about Iason’s downfall in the same breath as a change in dynasties, even though an emperor was still on the throne of Zenter - even if only in name. He had known the young advisor’s character since meeting him the first time, but he did not like it when he openly showed it.
“Dear Sir Estorgios, the times are changing. Duke Hesper and the alliance against him have transformed the empire forever. Many lords are building up their military and preparing supplies for next summer. Lord Kyron of Thronion, in his father’s name, is amassing an army, Count Straton of Abila is campaigning against Naxos, officially to attempt and lure Loukios and Miltiades back from the capital, but if he can claim the fiefdom for himself, he would certainly not hesitate to do so. Paramonos of Olynthus, our lord’s older brother, is gathering resources to fuel his already strong forces.” Despite saying that he had little to do, Nasos was very interested in gathering intelligence about the other fiefdoms of the empire. He was the first at the court who had learned of Galeno’s death, and also brought the information about Straton’s battle to the count. “The north is clearly taking steps towards consolidating their power. And here in the south, you have Duke Heron, who has already openly violated the emperor’s will by trying to expand his fiefdom. Duke Hieronymos, who joined hands with Duke Heron in killing Galeno of Rhamnus also has designs of conquest, although his failing health has prevented him from taking too much action for the past year.”
“What are you implying?” Raising an eyebrow, the old advisor looked at Nasos with a deprecating expression. “For now it may be self-government, but I believe that the emperor will return to power. By that time, those who have acted against his will are going to be punished.”
“Very well, remain stubborn and look back at the glorious past. If that helps you and your family for the times to come, good for you.” Nasos showed slight irritation as he concluded the conversation without further ado. Estorgios decided that he would watch the young man closely, in case he harbored any intent of treason, once their lord faced hard times.
On that day Rhamnus inofficially vanished from the maps, becoming a part of Herolus. However, it only served to slow the advance of Cumae, as the raids committed under Myrrine’s orders would be used as a casus belli to begin the invasion anew in the very near future.