One year there was feud between the Komnenoi and the distant lords of Bavaria-over-the-sea. Now you may say that this is not so very unusual, for the Komnenoi are like any tribe: They are always quarreling with someone or other, and cruel as cats with it; and their men die in battle like as not, just like ours. And why not? All men die, soon or late.
So it was not so uncommon, you might say, when the war-arrow went around the tribes, and the Legions mustered; and you’d have the right of it. But there was this to be said: The fight was to be over the ocean sea. Now here was a new thing! It was the talk of the tents for a month and more – aye, that was before I left. For all I know they talked of it for a year after that; there’s not so many new things in this land, that we can let one go to waste. Or anything else, come to that; there’s little wealth for the wasting around here. But it’s good land for horses.
I was young then and wanted to make a name for myself; so then what cared I where the fight was to be? Ride west or sail east, it was all one to me; so I followed the war-arrow and took the Komnenoi coin. And I’ve got it still, see? An Equestrian that makes me; and if I went to New Byzantium, the lords are bound to hear my voice at council. That much honour I won for myself, over the ocean where the Sun rises.
We sailed east, yes. They’ll tell you terrible stories about ships, to try to scare you; but you needn’t believe them. Yes, they’re big as city houses, that’s no lie; bigger, even – I never met a man who had a house as big as a ship that can cross the ocean sea. But they don’t sway any worse than a horse with a limp. As for storms, a wind out of the tundra will freeze your face off right quick on land or sea, if it catches you ungreased. Weather’s weather, you just have to be ready. And anyway we were two months on the ship, and I never saw a storm that would have scared a horse. Well, it was summer, true… Ah well. All men tell tales of their dangers, Korean and Mongol alike; I suppose in my time I may have curled the hair of one or two Korean lads with a story of snowdrifts fifty feet high, or piss that froze before it landed.
It was September when we landed; the end of campaigning season, you’d say, and that’s true here. But such a land for fighting you never saw! There was sweet grazing even to the end of October, and almost no snow fell. So we did not go into winter camp, but rode east, a thousand miles and more – it may be that no man of the Nenet has ever been so far from our lands, and we are a far-ranging people, no farmers. We crossed mountain and desert, and three pairs of shoes my horse wore out before we reached the place where the fight was to be. And then it was winter; the mildest winter you ever saw, with rain in place of snow. But like sensible men, the Komnenoi and their enemies did not choose to fight in it, so we sat in camp until spring. Ah, now that was a fine way to make war; once a week we’d ride out to look about, in rain mild like a mother’s kiss. Sometimes we’d see our enemies on patrol, and then we’d fire a musket, or maybe two, at three hundred paces, and they’d do the same, and we’d both turn about and go back to report; and if anyone died of that it didn’t reach my ears. That land is so rich in trees, we could build a roaring fire every night, so we had warm barracks and fine light in the evenings… it was no wonder the lords of Bavaria wanted it; who wouldn’t? If I were Komnenoi, I’d have made alliance with them and no feud, and divided up that fine land between us; there was enough and more than enough for two to share. But, true, it’s often the stronger gets the best of such a bargain.
In the spring it was different. We fought in earnest then. The Bavarians marched up the Red River, a hundred thousand strong, and we went to meet them; and we made the river earn its name. Three days we fought, and in the end they turned back. But we hadn’t the heart in us to pursue. Two horses I had shot from under me, and there were so many men killed I had no trouble finding new ones. I was in the Third Charge, when Hercules the Arch-Strategos tried to break the Bavarian left flank. Three hours he pounded them with all the guns he could move. Three shots each barrel each minute, as they say, for hours on end; but the Bavarians didn’t break, though their dead heaped up around them. Then he unleashed us, ten thousand lancers, and we went screaming all the way, ai-ya-ya-ya! I wouldn’t have cared to be on the other end of that charge, truly I wouldn’t; but the Bavarian infantry stood. Lobsters we called them, for the style of their helms, that covered the neck against sabre strokes. They stood. I picked my man, and he was splattered with blood on both sides where his comrades had fallen, and their replacements too, when they closed ranks. There was no shoulder-to-shoulder for him, he held his place alone. But when the word of command came he leveled his musket and shot, cool as you please; and the next thing I knew I was barreling forward over my horse’s head. And they broke our charge. We limped back to our lines, nine thousand of us and many of those wounded; I found another horse that some poor bastard wouldn’t be needing anymore, and that was the end of the Third Charge.
In the end we drove them back, yes. They couldn’t force us to yield, nor shift us out of their path; and when they couldn’t go forward and couldn’t stay, they had to go back. So that was victory. But we were too tired to have the fruits of it. We slept for a day, and then the lobsters were long gone. They weren’t running, you understand; they were marching back in good order, for their own reasons and in their own time. So we advanced after them, but carefully. We had some skirmishes with their outriders, and we had the best of that; the lobsters are deadly enough on foot but they ride like children of three winters.
I think the Strategoi had had enough of the Bavarians, and them of us. At any rate we slanted our march north, to the English lands; they were vassals of the Bavarians, and no wonder, for they couldn’t fight a damn. They tried to give us what we’d given the lobsters. I was on the right wing then, where we had most of our cavalry. I was a bit worried to begin, for the English had fifteen thousand mounted men against nine thousand of us, and very fine they looked. Their horses were all matched, each regiment in one colour, black or grey or roan; and fine proud mounts they were, eighteen hands if they were an inch. But “mounted men” I said, and not “cavalry”. We charged again, screaming all the way; and they came out to meet us, but it wasn’t the same. Oh, they were well enough for the first clash of lances, I suppose; they held their gallop and didn’t flinch, and their ranks didn’t shiver or break. But then it came to sabres, and we had all the advantage there. We broke them apart, and then we rode circles around them; much good their eighteen-hands mounts did them, when our fifteen-hands were behind them! Their saddles were meant for fighting in ranks, they couldn’t turn and twist so easily as we did; when it was down to sabres and pistols they were like children in our hands. We broke them there, and harried them a mile and more; my sabre ran red with blood and my arm was tired with killing by the time we formed up again.
Now if we’d driven off Bavarian cavalry, their infantry would have turned left-about-face, refused that flank, and stayed right where they were, thanks. Not the English! Nervous about their flanks like so many virgins, they were. Oh, I don’t say their soldiers panicked. But the officers, that’s another question. I saw three regiments trying to get to the same spot to stop us, and getting in each other’s way; their chiefs, colonels as they say, shouting at each other, and pistols drawn! Maybe they’d not have come to shots fired; at any rate we didn’t give them the chance – we swept right down on them and cut them to pieces. And that was the end of their stand, that should have held us and forced us back to our own lands; when he saw his lancers in among the enemy, the Arch-Strategos ordered attack all along the line. We had fought the Bavarians three days; the English were running inside of three hours.
So that was victory again, and we were drunk on it. I had three new horses, a matched set in black; and we took guns too, and provisions. But then we made, as drunken men do, a mistake. We thought the English beaten, and we pursued them north and east, into the dry midlands of their empire. By the time we realised that, for broken remnants of a shattered army, they were running in suspiciously good order, it was too late. The Bavarians had stopped retreating, and come up from the south behind us.
Our line of supply was supposed to be guarded by the Chinese and the native wogs, who had even less fight in them than the English. You can imagine how that went, against lobsters that could stand against a charge of the Legions. So they were behind us, and in front the English; and we had no maps, or only bad ones. How much water do eighty thousand fighting men drink in a day, and their horses? If a man does not drink, the first day he will live, with only a pounding ache in every joint that leaves him unfit to fight. The second day he shrivels, and is lucky if he can lift himself onto his horse, much less wield a lance. The third day his lips go black, and he dies.
We could only move where there were rivers or springs; so we of the lancers were sent out as scouts, to find water and a path out of the trap. But the English were ahead of us, and the tribes that served them: Kiowa, Lakota, Comanche… vassals of the English as we are vassals of the Komnenoi; and they knew their land as we know ours. They poisoned the springs against us, so we could only use the streams; and wherever we went to find one, their skirmishers were there ahead of us. I said the English had mounted men, but no cavalry; they should have taken their Kiowas to the battle, and stayed my mockery. Those servants of servants ride like Cossacks, and are twice as savage. If they had numbers they would rule the world; and so would the Nenet, if we had numbers. But we are few, and so we serve the Komnenoi.
The Komnenoi had led us into a trap, then; but we were eighty thousand fighting men, and guns, and there is a deal of ruin in an army. The English thought they had us. Twice we showed them otherwise, when they sent their armies, so they thought, to smash exhausted men and harry our broken remnants until their arms grew tired with killing. We showed them otherwise, yes. Twice we threw them back in disarray, and broke off, and continued our march. But we could not break them, and we were driven north, and every day took us further from our comrades. I’m told that twenty thousand men died, trying to drive the Bavarian army back south and clear our path; and I believe it. Twenty thousand men, and as many lobsters. But they stood, same as us. It’s a hard truth, but true all the same: You can hammer an army with guns, you can kill a tithe of it with musket shot, you can ride down regiments caught out of square and sabre them into red ruin… but if the men are brave and true to their salt, you will not shift them from where they choose to make their stand, though you heap the ground with their corpses. The lobsters stood. And so did we, when the English came for us. But it cost us, in men and horses and above all in powder and shot.
Twice we drove them off, I say; but by the end of it we were fifty thousand strong, and each man had powder enough for ten shots. We’d fight no more battles on such a ration as that, and every man knew it. Daily we expected the word of surrender to come; we were loyal to our salt, but there are limits to loyalty. Better some years cutting timber in Canada than fighting with naked steel against guns. Wars end and prisoners are exchanged; there is no ransom from the next incarnation. But the Arch-Strategos had other ideas. “Are we not free citizens?”, he said, and we stood a little straighter, hearing that. Straight backs load no muskets, though; it was his plan that fired us with hope. “Ride west,” he said, “over the great plains where the English writ runs lightly or not at all; ride for the coast.” It was surrender, in one sense: Such a journey would take months, leaving the English free to attack our friends in the south. But we would keep our banners, and thus our honour. And anyway the war might go on for years, and we’d get our own back. The banners, though; that was the important thing. We’d carried them through four victories; they were ragged with shot and stained with the blood of brave free men, and they were ours. We’d been resigned to giving them up, yes, when we saw no other way; but Hercules offered us a way to save them from the English, and ourselves from the Canadian snows.
We rode west, then, into the sunset; but first we double-shotted all our guns, and fired them so they broke. We left nothing for the English, and took nothing that would slow us; a gun’s a great comfort on a battlefield, but no use to men fleeing defeat.
It was high summer, and the land baked beneath the sun; and still we had no maps. But now we had no need to twist and turn and come about south, nor to take any but the straightest routes, for men and horses can go where guns and wagons will not. So we followed the Platte River, five hundred miles and more, and after the first week the English gave over their pursuit. We hadn’t enough powder for battle, but plenty for hunting beasts that don’t shoot back; and such hunting you never saw. Great fat shaggy oxen, enough to blacken the plains, enough to ride past you all day without ending; we shot and shot, and fifty thousand men ate good meat every day with never a dent in their numbers. The Komnenoi have a word that means “a thousand thousands”, and I never before or since saw any use to it; but we used it then, on the plains.
The tribes there were those that had fled west rather than submit to English rule – like us, I suppose: Apache, Cheyenne, Cree. They were no friends to us or to any man, but they did not care to fight so strong a host, and would barter guides for powder and shot. Still we could not go very fast. By myself, I might have ridden the distance in five days, if I didn’t care how many horses I killed; or twelve if I had only the one mount. As it was, we reached the mountains in October; and that would still have been fine, had we known the passes.
The tribes there know their own hunting grounds well, but they do not range across the continent; they have no overlord to keep peace between them, and so each guards its territory jealously against the next, and no man learns the whole of the land. Perhaps we were the first men to travel the breadth of the plains and the mountains; certainly we were the first army to do so. So our guides were little use; they knew where there was water, shelter, and good hunting, but none had crossed the mountains, and they could not tell us which passes would serve an army, and which were dead ends. Besides, so far from the English writ their grasp of our interpreters’ speech was tenuous, and their interest in barter less; they still hunted with bow and arrow, reserving muskets for war. So again the lancers went out for scouts, dividing into regiment and then companies and even single squadrons. Each detachment rode up a likely-looking pass, seeking the lowest and broadest, and trying if they would come out the other side or peter out in ridges and cliffs. True, without our guns we might have forced even a bad passing, one step at a time; but winter was coming, and we were anxious to spend as little time in the mountains as we might. An early storm catching us on an exposed ridge might kill thousands; and that risk was increased with every narrow defile, every slope that might be churned into mud by thousands of bootheels. Weather is weather, as I said; and a wise man respects its hazards, especially in a foreign land when he is far from aid.
Respect, nonetheless, takes you only so far; as with so many things, you have to be good and you have to be lucky, and our luck did not quite hold. We found a good pass, but it took three weeks for our scouts to be sure that it went all the way through and to come back and report. So by the time we were on its downward slope it was November; and the storm that hit us there wasn’t particularly early.
Seeing what happened later, I’d have to say that the storm wasn’t so bad. We were on the downslope, sheltered from the worst of it; we were fat and sassy from our feasts of buffalo; and most of all, we were fresh, not worn down by weary weeks of fighting the snow. But at the time we thought it bad enough; there were many cases of frostbite, some lost fingers, and one whole squad that froze to death through putting up their tent on a small ridge where they got the worst of the wind. I see you scoffing; what sort of tent doesn’t stand up to a bit of early winter storm, you ask? But these weren’t triple-layered horsehide stuffed with down, suitable for steppe winter and handed down from mother to daughter for generations. They were military-issue (not Legion, but supplied by our allied wogs to save space on the transports) single-layered wool, made by the lowest bidder and meant for summer campaigning in the American plains.
That was the true hell of it: There we were, three full Legions, less our fallen comrades, whose worst problem was a bit of winter, and not even Siberian winter at that. And we were dying, because our equipment was sitting at home, too bulky to be shipped over the ocean sea! Our journey should have been a bit of a lark, with joyful sleigh rides and singing around campfires, if only we’d had real Legion-issue winter gear.
I think we might have gone back then, when we knew what we had got into; even into a Canadian lumber camp, even having to give up the banners. But what could we do? The storm had closed the pass beyond any possibility of crossing as an army; perhaps ten or a hundred strong men on snowshoes could have made it back, but not three Legions. We could sit and wait for certain death, or march west into uncertainty. We chose the march.
With our guns, we had marched fifteen miles in a day, or twenty if we forced our pace; it is slow work, wrestling ton weights of metal over cattle tracks. When we abandoned them and fled west, our speed had doubled; and we outriders, not bound to the pace of the column, might ride as much as fifty miles in a day. But that was in autumn. Now we marched in columns of platoons, and every half-hour the foremost men paused to let someone else take over the hard work of breaking the trail. Thus we made, perhaps, ten miles in a day. But the snow kept pouring down, and our exhaustion mounted. Soon we were making eight miles in a day, and then five; and the toll of fingers and toes, and limbs and men, lost to frostbite kept rising.
I’m not much good with tallies and counts, but here was a simple enough sum: At five miles a day, and ten men lost, how many would we have left when we reached the coast, and when would that be? It became our favoured talk around our meagre campfires; now even wood was in short supply and often wet at that. How we longed for the great forests to the south and east, out there on the shelterless desert! We could argue it endlessly, for who knew how many men we might lose daily in the depths of winter; ten, twenty, fifty? Or how fast we could march if the snow came up to our thighs instead of our knees; three miles a day, one mile? Then again, when would spring come, in this foreign land? Who knew, even, how far it was to the coast? But whatever numbers we used, the answers were never good. Soon it was only the optimists who held that a few thousand men might stagger into our allies’ territory sometime in March, if the snows broke by then.
No doubt the officers were doing the same sums, and not liking their answers any better than we did. At any rate, sometime in December the order came down that we were to make winter camp and ride out the storms in one place.
Of course there wasn’t any question of fifty thousand men making a single vast camp – bigger than most cities, it would have been, and with no convenient farmers to bring us food! We had to split up, to get far enough apart that we could hunt through the winter without killing off all the game. But we couldn’t divide into such penny packets that the tribes could kill us off one by one. They didn’t like us any more than they liked the English, and we were passing through their land and eating the game they needed; and besides it was winter, so what else did they have to do?
We marched in cohorts, then; east and west and south and north. We had to get far enough apart to hunt through the winter; but how far was that? Even in such a rich land, five hundred men need a lot of land. No doubt there was some calculation done by the officers, that’s their business after all; and they decided the farthest-flung cohorts had to be a hundred miles from our starting point. A hundred miles! You could ride it in a day, if not for the damn snow. Not that there was any way of keeping the horses; we shot them the morning the Arch-Strategos decided on wintering.
A hundred miles, what was that to us who had crossed oceans and continents? And yet it was the worst part, our hardest ordeal. Each cohort had to break its own trail, now; and it was the darkest part of the year. Not the coldest, although the chill was bad enough; but it was the dark that sapped our spirits, hour after hour of trudging through snow up to our knees. At least we knew how far we were going, that helped a bit; we could count down the days. But still… there were men who decided that they wouldn’t do it, that they would rather die than face one more day of the cold and the dark. They stepped out of the line of march, gave their food – if they had any – to their friends, and sat down. Waiting for death. Sometimes their comrades would try to talk them out of it, at least at first. Sometimes it worked. I saw one man, what was his name? Boke, that was it; and he was well named. When he couldn’t argue his friend into getting up and marching, he just picked him up, musket and all, and carried him over his shoulders. He only had to do it for maybe a hundred paces; then – I think out of plain embarrassment – his friend asked, very politely, to be let down, and took up the march again.
But for the most part, we just had to let them sit. They were cheerful, mostly. Why not? They’d made their decision and had only a few hours to go, sitting down and not working. They say cold’s a good death, though how anyone knows I can’t tell you. But I saw men, hard veterans of six years’ service, looking enviously at the ones who’d given up.
What kept us marching? Who can know the hearts of men? I think each of us would tell a different tale. Some had women waiting for them; others had only hopes. For some – like me – it was hate; the snow and the cold were just another weapon of the English, and I wasn’t going to let them win with that when I’d beaten them with sabre and gun. Then there was fear; deathly tired, cold, soul-chilled by the darkness, we still wanted to live, and see the sun again. Death marched beside us then, and we envied the rest he gave to those who chose his company. But at the last, if there was nothing you wanted more than rest and the end of struggle, you could get what you wanted.
I lost count of the days and the miles. Perhaps we went the full hundred, perhaps not. But someone was keeping track; officers have their uses. We stopped on the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. Then we built a town; not from wood nor rock, but from snow. We started with our tents, poor woolen things that they were, and packed hard snow outside them, then layered soft snow on top of that; then we took down the tents, and had our buildings – long and low, but proof against wind and cold alike.
We might have left the tents inside the snow, but we wanted their ropes for snowshoes. After so long trudging through snow to the knees, it was unutterable relief to have proper equipment at last; men actually volunteered for hunting duty, going out three and four days into the cold, just for the sheer joy of gamboling across the top of the snow. And rest! We slept, I think, a day and a night once our buildings were done.
We spent a lot of time sleeping, that winter; what else was there to do? Well, we hunted and gathered firewood, yes, but that took only so much time. And we went hungry. On the march we had eaten freely of our stores, dried meat from the buffalo herds mainly; marching through cold and snow cannot be done on an empty stomach. Now we were almost out of food. And the desert wasn’t like the plains, where you could fire a musket into the air and the ball would be pretty sure to hit something you could eat; hunting was a slow business. But a man can go a long time on little food, if he’s not doing heavy labour; and after the second day or so it doesn’t bother you so much. We sat in our miserable snow huts, feeling our bellies contract towards our spines, and waited for spring.
It wasn’t very cold in the huts, but it was dark, and after a few days of little food you don’t feel like doing much, not even talking. We drifted in and out of sleep. When one of the hunters got a kill we woke and ate, and then there was chatter for a few hours; but mainly we sat, each man with his thoughts. When the weather cleared we’d sometimes get up and walk around a bit; but it wasn’t as though there was anything to see, just the low mounds of the huts, and the lake where we got water.
We were all hungry; but it wasn’t hunger that killed, not even disease, though we had a bit of typhus. Madness was our scourge then. The unending sameness, the dark and quiet – men’s minds broke under that slow pressure, which had been calm in the middle of battle and steadfast during our long march. Some just walked out into the dark during storms, and were never seen again. But the worst were those who turned on their comrades in their madness, swinging knives and bayonets. A man who doesn’t care if he lives or dies is a terrible enemy. The day three men died from one’s mad rampage, we began keeping a loaded musket in every hut. That helped; but in the winter damp our powder wasn’t perfectly dry. And sometimes the madness was sly, and went for the gun first.
All winter must end; and so did the winter of our madness. In March the last snow melted. Our snowshoes became tent-ropes again, and we resumed our march towards the coast. We met our mates in that springtime; a broken, scattered band! We had been fifty thousand strong; now we were, perhaps, half that, and gaunt with long hunger. But after all it was spring, and we could move again; and we were glad to be alive. We went west with something of our old strength, and the land came to life around us.
In April we crossed the low mountains that mark the eastern border of our allies’ land, and shocked a local garrison by demanding food and other supplies for twenty-five thousand men. Then it was all ease and comfort; we reached the coast on roads, and if you’ve never marched a thousand miles through trackless waste you have no idea how pleasant it is to see a gravelled surface stretching endlessly before you.
The war was still on; but we didn’t fight in it that year. We needed guns and horses, powder, new uniforms – the ones we had were rags after that winter – and above all, reinforcements. But it wasn’t so easy to reinforce Legions that had been through what we had. We had lost three-fourths of our comrades, and what new chum could be worthy to stand in the place of our honoured dead? Men who hadn’t marched with Death beside and behind; men who hadn’t faced the hunger and the dark in the winter of madness – what use were they to us? In the end we were made a new Legion, the XVII Sol Invictus; and the Eagles of the Komnenoi, the Victrix, and the Fusilia were shipped back over the ocean sea, for new musters to form around. That suited us well enough; but we kept our cohort banners, and the honours of our old Legions were transferred to the Sol Invictus. That’s why the newest Legion of the Empire has more battle honours to its name than the ancient I Komnenoi.
Was it worth it, in the end? I don’t know. Perhaps the dead would say it wasn’t. But we made our choices, and lived, or died, with them. And we saved our banners. Pieces of cloth, yes; they are that. But that’s not all they are. The bodhisattva said that men do not live by bread alone; that which is eaten in memory of him, is it only bread? Men die for all sorts of reasons, from stupid quarrels to plain old age. Why shouldn’t some die for the honour of their Legions?
I served out my twenty years in the Sol Invictus, and I never found a better answer.