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A lesson in humility

a journal from 509 by AshFall

Couldnt sleep either, boy? Have a seat, there is warm wine in the kettle over the fire.

Ah, that’s the thing to smooth an old mans’ sore throat. These wet winter nights, cough will keep us both awake until morning. One man with a spear is all it took, haven’t been able to shake the cough since. Age and war, either will kill you if you let them. Just a matter of which one you prefer.

You’re quiet tonight Elad, something got your tongue? Dont think I havent noticed you mooning around like a starstruck calf these past weeks. Aye, she is a wonder my Adwen, I suppose I cant blame you. Don’t look so surprised, any fool could see it the way you’ve been carrying on. Heh, being so distracted has earned you more than one whack of the practice ladle. Dont think I havent enjoyed it a little.

How to while away the hours until morning? A lesson perhaps?

What, say? A groan like all the sorrows and burdens of the world were yours. Phah… youth. No appreciation for the wisdom of old warriors. Well, I’ll have mercy, this once. Let us pick a subject you enjoy. Have I ever told you of the time the Bannermen stood against the mighty Attila himself? Aaaah, now he perks up. Well. Let’s see.

I used to be a proud young man. Yes, yes, you wouldn’t know it these days, but it’s true. Two men taught me humility, Attila and Aetius. It was a hard lesson, but one that has served me well to this day.

Cadwallon, Ceiwyn, Bryn and I sailed south at King Vortigern the Usurpers urging and landed in Constantia. There, a contingent of Aetius troops met us. When travelling abroad, Elad, always make sure to befriend someone who speaks the language and knows the traditions. Tibellus was a good man, I doubt I would be here today were it not for him. Ah, but I can see in your eyes the glassy stare of the inattentive, perhaps we should skip to the interesting part, yes?

We, the Cymric sent by our king, marched south together with many other warriors gathered from the area towards a place called Aurelianum. We marched fast, but the hun, that is Attilas people, were faster. We first saw their passing in the ruin they brought, villages and fields put to the torch, men, women and children slaughtered when they were not taken. This, we realized, was not some conquering army, but an enemy bent with all his will and cunning on destruction.

When we arrived, we found in Aurelianum a city marked, bent by savage pillage, but not broken. With Tibellus aid we quickly made sense of the situation. The hun had come and had begun assaulting the city itself. And what a city Elad! Walls of stone, arches and houses the like of which barely exist in Britain. And yet, they had not been enough. The enemy had breached them, and was busy burning and killing in the outskirts when Aetius army came to its rescue. Attila, wary of engaging in a city where he could not move swiftly or freely ahorse, had withdrawn to the north. We could see warriors arrayed there in the distance, and I thought we saw the entire enemy army arrayed to meet us. They covered the road northwards and a huge swath of valley land, they must have been at least twice as many as every man who fought at Carlion combined. Hah, I was such a fool. I soon learned that they were some Germanic tribe, and but the smallest part of the enemy that faced us. I didnt believe it at the time, thinking Tibellus boastful and trying to inflate the achievement of driving them from the city.

As we joined the emerging columns, I began to think again. Elad, I have never seen so many men in all of my life. They were as blades of grass in Salisbury plains, were you a rabbit among them. We did not have to wait long, Aetius rode out of Aurelianum, and at his heels came men from within.

How to describe the man? He was not tall, but his every movement bespoke strength and tireless energy. His speech, though I could not understand it, had the precision and cadence of a learned man. When he rode past us, he spoke to some aide and with but a glance and a word sorted us into his army and made us his. An efficient tool to wield. Ah, at that moment I understood why none of the tribes could stop the Romans when they came to our land. The man was an Eagle, noble and lethal. He had succeeded in persuading the king of the Alans, Sangban, to join his forces to ours.

It took all of that day to get the vast army organized and moving, but Aetius wasted no time. He called for skilled and renowned fighters, and partitioned his forces. We four answered the call, not lacking in appreciation of our own skill, and many others. Half moved northwest and half northeast, to either side of the valley where the Germanic enemy waited. Tibellus was our closest commander, and from his superiors came quick and cunning orders. We slaughtered those men in the night, falling on them from the sides while their attention was fixed on the larger army moving slowly towards them in the distance. It was grim, bloody work. Honourless? Cruel? Still your tongue boy.

We got a little sleep, and then marched hard to catch up with the larger army.

Ah, pour me some more wine Elad. That’s a good boy. I need to wet my throat. Hm. I wont bore you with talk of days on the march. Though were I to teach you to command an army, such stories would be more important than any description of bravery or fighting I could muster. An army is only as good as it’s organisation and support. Yes, yes, I’ll get to it. Suffice to say we could learn much from the Romans about armies on the march.

Chalons. Ah. To this day I sometimes wake in the night, remembering the horrors of that battle. We arrived in the morning upon a field stretching far to the distance, bordered to our left by a wide river called Marne. The enemy was already there, arrayed for battle, far off in the distance. When we marched onto the field we were with the Romans in the centre, with Sangban and his Alans to our left, and Visigothic warriors to our right. The Visigoths, and their king Theodric, were as hard a race of men as I have ever known and they clashed first with the enemy. You see, on our right lay a long rise of high ground, high ground the Visigoths who had been the first of us to arrive held, and the Hun wanted. Now I’ve been calling all the enemy the Hun, but that is not quite the truth. I learned later that Attila too had many other peoples fighting for him, and on his left facing Theodric were the Ostrogoths. They were a feared tribe, and the fighting on that rise was bitter and hard.

We had arrived in marching formation, and it took all morning and into the afternoon to array properly for the battle to come. We had yet to see the Huns themselves, but more of the Germanics we had fought outside Aurelianum took position to opposite the Alans to our left. Aetius changed our order as we marched and took the left himself, and put Sangban in the centre, how he could keep all of those men straight in his head, or make them end up where he wanted, I do not know.

As we arranged ourselves we received word that Theodric had fallen upon the rise, but that his son Thorismund fought on. So large was the army that we could barely see what was happening on the rise, it was that far away. All we could see was a mess of shapes and swarms of arrows, of cavalry charging tho and fro. But the Visigoths held, again and again. Brave men. Let us drink to their memory!

At last we were ready, and the Hun came in force. They came from an encampment in the far distance, and my blood ran cold. I am not ashamed to admit that I considered throwing down my weapons and running from the field Elad. Of course I did not, a truly brave man knows his fear, and stands despite it. They were a dark tide spilling up the plain, and the ground began to quiver and shake, as if a tribe of giants were beating it with trees like a drum. It was at that moment that my pride was broken, for upon that field was arrayed two armies, and each of those armies would outnumber us even should we gather every fighting man in Britain. If you take nothing else from this story, then take this. Whenever your ambition and pride whispers to you of great power and opportunity, of your own greatness. Remember: There are forces in the world such that no matter how great you may become, you would still be barely a gnat on their horses rump.

Ah, good question Elad, very good. Your father never gave you enough credit. Yes, why did Attila take the low ground when he was first to arrive? And why did he wait to attack until the afternoon?Most conventional wisdom would name the higher ground the better choice, and to attack the enemy at speed before they are fully arrayed the decisive move. They would be wrong. Attila, one of the greatest generals the world has ever seen, knew to use his strengths. The Huns were faster ahorse than you would believe, and could attack, feint, withdraw and reposition at a moments notice. Their bows were strangely curved, I saw one after the battle, and shot farther and hit harder than any bow in our army. They wanted to draw us down, let our natural inclination carry us to them, and then slaughter us as we moved. He had waited, because if the battle should go against him, darkness would fall and cover his retreat.

Now, where was I? Ah, yes. The fighting. Aetius was a wise commander. He knew that the Alans were his weakest link, and he had them hold our centre. They would fight cautiously, holding their ground as long as they could. We met the germanics on the left, and for hours that day we drove them slowly back along the bank of the Marne. What? Show you the fighting? What are we, children at play? Well, I suppose I could show you a move or two, the Gepids had axes and spears, and used them as so.

Ah, no more. Ah, I have to catch my breath. Damned cough. Well fought squire, well fought. A man with an axe and a shield with a spearman behind him is a fearful thing, but turn the spear and hook the shield, and you let the man beside you open the way.

We stood face to face with the Hun himself at last, our furthest left still held the Gepids at bay, and we turned towards the centre. We had suffered losses, but they were nothing to what was to come. The Alans had been pushed back, but had held, and Attilas centre flank was exposed. Looking up to the rise opposite we could see heavy cavalry charging down into the enemy lines, if we could push hard enough the enemy would be cut off and surrounded. Even having seen them at a distance throughout the day I was not truly ready for the fight ahead.

The huns were short and quick, like picts if those craven savages had been as a man with a horses lower body and the courage of a lion. They held their heads high, and their eyes gleamed cruelly as their arrows fell. They shifted so quickly, flowing from a forward charge into a sideways clash with us. Several different groups suddenly fought us as one, half firing from above, and most of us raised our shields. As soon as we did, a fresh storm of arrows fell on us from almost straight in front. Tibellus died then, and I took an arrow in my leg. It still hurts in this wet weather. When we tried to advance to engage them, they danced back. The arrows kept falling, it was truly like an autumn storm, a relentless hammering on our shields. All around me men died. My friends and I had much practice covering one another with our shields, and we took only minor injuries. I remember thinking, again and again, that this must be it. This must be their last arrows, we could not survive another hailstorm. But we did, another, and another. Then suddenly it stopped, and the ground jumped. I almost lost my footing when they came on. They threw nets, one fell on Cadwallon, and I had a devil of a time getting it off him while trying to avoid being speared by one of those bastards. They had ropes in hoops as well, they threw them and pulled men out of our formation, stabbing them to death as they screamed and kicked. Ah… I. So many men lost.

What? Cowardly? That is the second time you interrupt me with that tripe. In war, Elad, victory goes to the man who uses the tools he is given well and who plays to his strengths. It is no place for sentimentality.

I’m tired, it’s time to draw this story to a close. It was chaos, we were fighting as hard as I have ever fought in my life, and we were dying. One of them pulled me off my feet with those ropes of theirs, and a spear took me. I thought I was dead for certain, but suddenly they simply vanished. Cadwallon had cut the rope, and the Hun had gone. I realised then that for all our skill we had been fighting against a rearguard, making sure Attilas centre could retreat off the field without getting cut off. Our enemy ceded the field, and as such I suppose we won the day. Night was falling, and it was impossible to follow and fight any longer.

We four were all badly wounded, and yet the dead and injured numbered so many that we could not get off the field. We sat there in the dark, waiting for morning. I have never been more glad of their company. When the sun rose we saw madness. We were on a field of red, with barely a hint of green in all the blood. It stank, the flies were legion. Some ways to our left the river ran red, it was as if the earth itself bled. We staggered back to camp and were given what aid there was. The ground was a graveyard, we walked on the bodies of men to make our way home, there was no ground to find beneath our feet. I heard a few things of the conclusion to that ugly business later. Seven in ten men had died that day. It is… hard to imagine such slaughter, and yet there it is. Aetius had followed Attila back to his camp, and though he should have been able to pin him there and starve his army to death, he sent his allies home and quit the field the very next day. We were told to make our way home, and through some miracle, we did so and lived. Attila in his turn withdrew east and as far as I know never returned to Gallia.

I never learnt why Aetius did what he did, but I have my suspicions. One final lesson perhaps, before we both collapse from wine and lack of sleep. There is no victory too great to be undone by infighting, suspicion, and the sudden greed and self interest that is born out of success. Remember that Elad. Strive to make true friends of your allies so that your victories bear fruit. But if you cannot, always watch them most when you think you have won.

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