There Will Be War: The Death of Oswine

An incident from the recently completed Irish War, where a dead man led a battle and won. This can happen occasionally in CK – he goes in living, dies in the battle, and the leadership is not updated. It is not clear if it’s a bug or not. It is also not clear what effect it has; the combat model is one of the more obscure parts of the game.

June 11th, 1176
Strathclyde, Scotland
Late afternoon

The battle was over, and the ransomable prisoners were being separated from the ones destined for Norwegian farms. There weren’t many of the latter; men able to afford enough armour to stand in the line were generally wealthy enough to be worth ransoming. And besides, Irishmen of the warrior class made poor slaves. There would be better looting when they got to Ireland and could take their pick of the peasants. The camp followers were another matter; women were always valuable, especially ones who followed the drum. Apart from those few who’d had romantic ideas about following their boyfriends into battle, they were mostly sensible women with no illusions about what happened when an army was defeated, and they were doing their best to smile at their new men, hoping for lenient treatment. They’d get it, too; Oswine would have no berserkers in his ranks, and most of the lads were reasonable young men who understood about vinegar and honey. There would be some marriages in the weeks to come, and men with Irish blood in the army twenty years hence. Oswine was glad of it; the gallowglasses [1] had fought well. A long line of corpses marked the hill where they had made their stand. Boys too young to fight in the line were busy keeping the crows and ravens off, by his order, until the burial parties could get both sides underground.

At last the long line of prisoners coming up to Oswine to receive judgement ended; he pronounced the final “Held for ransom, two silver marks” with satisfaction, stretched, and turned to his tent. It had been a long day, and Jamiy would have made sure one of the prettier women was set aside for him.

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June 12th, 1176
Strathclyde, Scotland
Early morning

Rising pillars of smoke marked the way the Norwegians had come; but now a dark fist rose towards the heavens ahead of their columns, and Oswine was puzzled. There was another army coming under Harald, but they were supposed to march across England and then cross to Ireland to campaign there, and anyway they could hardly have got ahead of him. Who else would be burning villages in Strathclyde? His frown cleared as the solution occurred to him, and he shouted for scouts. Scotland was a new conquest for the Irish, who were hardly very well disciplined at the best of times. Another warband perhaps, and then news of defeat carried by someone who’d gotten away yesterday, and a riot among the kerns?

Another thought struck him, and he turned to Jamiy. “Jamiy, bring me three of the prisoners we took yesterday, please. Chiefs, for preference. And some hirdsmenn,” he added prudently. Irish chiefs were notoriously savage, it wouldn’t do for them to get ideas. When they were brought up, big brawny men looking sullenly at the ground, he asked without preamble: “What other Irishmen are in the area?”

He gave them a few seconds; when it was clear that their silence was deliberate policy and not confusion or ignorance, he struck the middle one in the face with his gloved fist. There was a crunch of teeth, and the Irishman went down. He turned to the other two. “If you want to eat soup for the rest of your lives, just keep quiet. But I’m not an unreasonable man. A toothless chief isn’t worth much. So, I’ll reduce your ransoms to half. Or, of course, you can start talking.” The chiefs glanced at each other; they had both blanched at the threat. Pain was one thing, but to live the rest of their lives as toothless cripples, that cut close to the bone. Still, neither of them wanted to look a coward in front of the other. It was only when Oswine ostentatiously selected one of them for his next blow that words began to spill out.

“I’ll talk! Harald of the Isles is here, with all his men. A mighty host – ten thousand warriors!”

Oswine frowned. If that was true, he’d be outnumbered, two to one. Of course, it was quite likely that the Irishman wasn’t actually numerate, and was just putting together the number he could count to with the largest number he knew. But in any case Harald of the Isles was a powerful jarl and could certainly call up a large number of wild clansmen. It might be best to look for a place to defend, in case the scouts confirmed the man’s tale.

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June 12th, 1176
Strathclyde, Scotland
Noon

The hills swarmed with bare-legged clansmen, brown and grey in their plaid; the sun glinted off their spears. Their numbers were enough to chill the blood; “ten thousand”, the man had said, and perhaps he could count and perhaps not, but everywhere Oswine looked there were Scots bearing arms and out for his blood. Even so, he looked at his own army and was comforted. Where the Scots swarmed, his Norse stood in formed ranks, shoulder to shoulder, stolidly confident. Even the English levies, light-armed though they were, had picked up the example of the hirdsmenn, and stood in a reasonable line, not straggling in clumps all over the hill. Just in case, though, they were interspersed with Norsemen, and he had his own warband around him in the center of the position to deal with anyone who ran. It was a fine position for defense, as so many places in Scotland were; a hill, with his left flank resting on a steep, boulder-strewn slope.

Most of his scouts had not come back; the Scotsmen were lightly armoured, and that would tell against them in the line, but they knew the terrain, and there were lots of them. Oswine blessed whatever angry or greedy soul on the other side had fired that village up ahead; without the warning he’d gotten from the smoke, the Scots might have caught him in column of march, and that would have been very bad. Now it would be a stand-up fight.

He turned to the little clump of officers on the hill with him, to give final instructions. “Well, it looks like we dodged an arrow, here. The Scots will have to come to us. Just stand firm, watch out for feigned retreats, and throw them back. No pursuit until we’ve beaten their best.” They all nodded, though his eldest son Oswine [2] looked rebellious. The lad had inflated ideas of their battle-luck; that was a danger of arranging things so you won, it made inexperienced folk think you couldn’t lose no matter what you did. The younger Oswine no doubt wanted to launch an instant attack across the marshy valley, driving the clansmen before them. He would have to learn.

The Scots were organising into a proper formation, preparing for a massed charge across the valley; some of them were working themselves into a Celtic frenzy, shouting, turning to waggle bare buttocks towards the Norse army. Oswine was about to make his usual joke – the lads expected it – when he was interrupted by Brigid. She was the woman Jamiy had found for him the day before, black-haired and grey-eyed; a true beauty. Oswine couldn’t help but smile a little at her when she curtsied, saying “M’Lord, there’s something you ought to know.”

“And what’s that?”

“I’m not a camp follower.”

The dagger she had been hiding in her skirts flashed once as it entered his eye.

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June 12th, 1176
Strathclyde, Scotland
Just after noon

The Norse officers stood frozen for a second, but they were hard men, used to violent death, and recovered quickly. Inge lashed out at the assassin, knocking her over; the younger Oswine rushed to his father’s aid, but there was nothing to be done. The body kicked a few times, voiding as the muscles loosened, and that was all.

There was no time; across the valley the Scots were beginning their charge. Thousands of brawny highlanders flung aside their plaids and sprinted near-naked across the bog, screaming and waving their spears. It was a sight to impress even the most veteran soldier, and a tiny shiver ran along the Norse ranks; and then the cry rang out: “Oswine is dead!”

The shiver repeated as men turned to see; one or two even broke ranks in their effort to see the commander and be reassured. That was deathly danger for all of them; even if the man who broke ranks was not thinking of running, another might see, and think him trying to escape, and then it would be every man for himself. Armies died that way.

The younger Oswine had looked up from his father’s body in startlement when his name rang out. The grief hadn’t had time to settle in yet, and his voice was firm; he knew what his father would have wanted him to say, and it was even true, in a sense. “Stand still, you bastards! Oswine lives! Close ranks and stand!”

Others took up the cry; “Oswine lives” and “Stand” ran along the line, and the shiver of movement stilled. Then the Scots were on them. A long, shrieking clang of iron on iron; men screaming. Smell of sweat and shit and blood; noise to overwhelm the senses. The Scots beat against the Norse line, spears flashing, spending their lives like water to create the breach that would end the matter. In return the Norwegians closed ranks around their dead, pushed their shields forward, and began to march. Step by step the Scots were forced back down the hill by sheer weight; as always, armour counted as much for weight in a shoving match as for the actual protection it gave. The near-naked clansmen could strike, and strike, and strike, and yet make no wound; but where an axe or sword lashed out from behind the wall of shields, a Scot went down, to be trampled in the slow advance.

This was the moment of maximum danger, when the Scots realised they were losing but hadn’t yet been panicked into flight. Armour does not make a man invulnerable; Norse as well as Scots were going down. It only took a single man in the second rank to hesitate, to fail to close the gap in time, and a swift-witted Scot to push through and strike left and right to open the floodgate, and the line could still be broken. A brave man in the right place, a moment’s failure of nerve on the other side – battles and empires turn on such things. But not this day. Today the line advanced like a mill stone, grinding exceeding fine; and at last – it had taken perhaps five minutes of close fighting – the Scots’ nerve broke, and the men at the front ceased struggling to break the Norse line, and began struggling to get away through the press of their own comrades.

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June 12th, 1176
Strathclyde, Scotland
Evening

Once again the sullen prisoners stood in line to hear their ransom or their fate. They were being set more harshly now, as befitted an army that would stoop to assassins. One man blanched to hear the price of his freedom set at thirty marks; protesting, he cried out, “Give me back my sword! I’ll sooner die in honest fight, than surrender to such greed!”

Oswine smiled grimly. “Don’t surrender to me, then. Under that bush lies my father, who defeated you this day. Surrender to him, who died by a woman’s treacherous dagger. And then, if you will, complain of greed.”

The Scot was silent. Where the line had stood, a vast flock of birds cawed and fought for the finest bits of carrion. No man lifted a hand to prevent them.

[1] I’m aware this is somewhat anachronistic. I think that with Brittany conquering the Isles, though, there could well be any number of “foreign Gaels” running about in Ireland.

[2] Sorry about the confusion, it’s not my fault. To be completely clear: The viewpoint character is Count Oswine, in command of the Norwegian army. He is referring to his son, also Count Oswine, in command of his own regiment.

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