Children of the Fatherland: The Breaking of the Don, part II

“They retreat in good order,” Alexandros said.

“True; but no matter,” Konstantinos replied. “They must either defeat us, or scatter into a hundred foraging parties. They’ll be back, and then they’ll get what we came here to give them.”

“You’re so sure they’ll follow your plan, then?”

“Not at all; but what matter if they don’t? They’ve already shown they can’t break us with archery. If they scatter they’re as good as defeated; if we stand, we have the victory.”

“You don’t want them defeated, though. You want them broken.”

“True,” Konstantinos admitted. “But one thing at a time. Have the men stand down for a while, and rations distributed; fighting is hard work. And bring me the prisoners. It will be necessary to explain to them what we are doing, so they can spread the word.”

Before the prisoners could be brought up the stairs of the command tower, an officer – a droungarios, commanding 400 men – came pelting up from the infantry line and made the full prostration. That was unusual in the field, where military rank took precedence over civil, and even the Autokrator, in his capacity of Imperator, could without disrespect be greeted by raising the right hand. Usually it indicated bad news, and a bearer hoping that a display of submission would keep him from being shot. Konstantinos wished he knew were they got these ideas; it wasn’t as though his dungeons weren’t full enough of criminals, without him throwing in highly-trained soldiers. Surely not all his officers read Arabic romances; and anyway, if you believed those things, he would be throwing people to the torturers for looking at him wrong, never mind bearing bad news. He kept his sigh of annoyance internal, and motioned the officer to his feet.

“Sovereign Mighty Lord,” he began, “the Cossack arrows – ” he stopped, uncertain, then thrust forward a bundle of the weapons in question. “Look!” he commanded, apparently unaware that it was not polite for minor officers to give orders to a sovereign. Konstantinos’s lips twitched at the contrast with the earlier prostration, but on the whole he preferred this earnestness. He bent to look at the arrows, which did not really repay inspection. Straight wooden shafts, gray feathers, some of the heads bloodied – they looked quite ordinary to Konstantinos.

“Well, what about them?” he asked, when an explanation was not forthcoming. The young droungarios looked distressed; but Alexandros came to his rescue. “The arrowheads, my lord,” he said quietly. Konstantinos frowned, and the Megas Domestikos expanded. “Iron. And the shaft is lathe-turned.”

“Ah.” Konstantinos grunted in enlightenment. Roman weapons were turned out by the thousands in the State-owned forges of Constantinople, and in consequence they were all alike; that was why the arrows had looked ordinary to him. But Cossack arrows were usually hand-made, and tipped with bone, not iron; bone was suitable enough for game and for unarmoured men. The Ukrainian plain produced no iron, and little wood; almost nothing, in fact, except hides, horses, and fighting men. If the Cossacks had suddenly acquired enough iron-tipped arrows to fire them off in great sun-darkening flights, there could be only one source.

“The Czar has been generous, I see.” The losses would be heavier than they had first expected; bodkin points like these could punch through armour on which bone would shatter. “Nu, it takes a long spoon to sup with that particular devil. We’ll see whether the Cossacks appreciate the gift, when all is done. Go back to your unit, soldier.”

Bundling the arrows in his right hand, Konstantinos looked to his prisoners; a dozen of them, variously wounded, hard-faced men in thick leathers and round caps. He mentally turned down his Greek several social classes; although various Greek pidgins were a common tongue for trade and diplomacy around the Black Sea, it was unlikely that these men would appreciate the literary allusions and formal inflections that were admired in the court of Constantinople.

“The Czar,” he began, “has given you arrows; and you have taken the gift, and so become his servants, to do his bidding.” He paused, and one of the Cossacks spoke, defiantly.

“The Cossacks are no man’s servants! We go where we will, and kneel to none.”

“Indeed,” Konstantinos said dryly, “and so today you are all fifty thousand of you come here, to fight in this place of my choosing, of your own free will. As for kneeling, do you feel so safe, then, where you stand with my soldiers behind you? Could I not make you bend the knee, if I chose?”

The Cossack’s dark eyes flashed. “You can make my knees touch the dirt; but in my heart I will remain unbowed.”

“That is true,” Konstantinos conceded. “Your heart is free, and therefore I allow you to stand. Your outward respect is useless to me. I have brought you here today to win your true obedience.”

The Cossack spat. “That for obedience. I took the Czar’s arrows, but I take no orders from any but my hetman, and him I chose with my own voice.”

“That is so. The Czar thinks you useful, and so he tries to bribe you to attack his enemies and not his friends; and that has worked, for a time. He does not require your obedience, or so he thinks; for he plans for his own lifetime, and his sons’ lifetime, and not for centuries. But I am a citizen of Rome; and we know of old what happens, if the barbarian is given too free a rein. I send you no bribes of arrows, Cossack; I do not point you at my foes in the hope that you will spare my own domains. The end of that game is ruin and flame. In the end, the civilised man must break the barbarian, or be broken by him. Each must remake the other in his mold, or go under. Hence, if things go according to my will, this battle: The breaking of the Don.”

The Cossack was now nonplussed, rather than defiant. “You are mad, or deluded. Perhaps you can defeat the Host in this day’s battle; that is as God wills it. But to break the Cossacks? As well speak of breaking the wind. Have you captured the sun and the moon, and given them to your children for toys? If you have the victory this day, the Host will scatter to its camps; and how will you catch us, with your army of farmers? Have you taught them to fly, that they might outpace a swift horse?”

Konstantinos smiled, darkly. “You see my problem, yes. You are here to witness my solution. Look there, man of the Don.” He pointed to the north, where the Cossacks were still arguing over what to do next. “Your comrades know they must break my army where it stands, or scatter to their camps. The Czar’s gift and treaty is a hook in their hearts; if the Cossacks take no orders from outsiders, still they are honest men and brave. They will not flee unless they are defeated, not in an exchange of arrows, but in true combat, man to man. They will attack. Mark my words well, man of the Don: When they attack, if you would save their lives, kneel to me and swear to obey.” He held up a hand to forestall the protest. “Perhaps I am mad, perhaps I am wrong. If so, stand. But if I am right, you will know; and you will hold their lives in your stubborn knees, that will not bend to any man. You need not believe; but remember.”

The Cossacks looked at each other uneasily, perhaps thinking of the reputation of Greeks for sorcery and prophecy. If so, good; it would make his lesson stick the more thoroughly, if it worked. Konstantinos turned his attention north, where the still-free comrades of his captives debated. But now there was movement in their ranks; had they reached some decision? Yes – there, dust rose, and metal glinted where men marched. Marched, not rode. He squinted; men afoot, mailed and helmed in iron, in a classic swine-fylking, a blunt wedge. Rus settlers, then; whatever the boyars had been able to scrape up on short notice to encourage their Cossack cat’s-paws. The banner at their front showed gules a griffin passant argent, with wings displayed and bearing a shell, the emblem of the Crimean settlers. There were perhaps two thousand of them, which probably made them the largest group under a single commander on the enemy side. The Rus were not much given to democracy; perhaps their boyar had gotten tired of Cossack wrangling, and decided to settle the argument? If so, he was taking an awful chance – but no, the Cossacks were mounting. Konstantinos gave his counterpart a respectful nod. Seizing the initiative that way, among so many half-hostile allies, needed either moral courage or hotheaded stubbornness.

There was no need for Konstantinos to do anything; his officers were not given to waiting for orders when an enemy approached. Cornicens blew, and the infantry took their ranks again. Konstantinos was not worried the Rus would break his ranks. True, they fought as their Viking ancestors had, with round shields and heavy axes, and armoured as heavily as his own men; they were perhaps the only people in the world able to stand in line against Roman infantry and match them blow for blow. But there were only two thousand of them. No, the question was what the Cossacks would do; and to his relief, they were advancing together with their allies – most of them, at least. He saw a few horsetail standards moving north, hetmen who had decided they weren’t going to let any Rus boyar boss them around.

Two hundred paces out, the Rus began beating their shields with their axes, chanting in unison. Straight from the textbooks – but it was one thing to read about barbarian hordes, and quite another to see a real one bearing heavy metal and coming to kill you. A shiver ran along the Roman ranks, as men tensed themselves for combat. Konstantinos felt his own mouth go dry, though even in defeat he ought to be safe enough with his Scholai surrounding him. The Cossacks had caught up with their allies, and were matching their pace. A hundred fifty paces, a hundred – the missiles arced out from both sides, the Cossacks firing as they advanced. Eighty paces, fifty. The Rus broke into a run. A last flurry of crossbow bolts, and the Roman ranks clanged with steel as the men drew the short gutting swords from their scabbards and raised their shields. The Cossacks spurred their horses into a trot; on the Roman side, the cataphracts did the same – there was no point in them standing to receive a charge, when they could charge themselves and get the advantage of their heavier horses and armour.

The infantry did stand, to receive fifty thousand screaming Cossacks. The whole war-levy of the Don Host, and they literally were screaming; a noise like the end of the world, and the drumming of their hooves made the earth tremble. Konstantinos had always thought that a poetic exaggeration, but now his tower shook with the force of them. His infantry, like one man, stepped backwards; again, and again…

…exposing the long lines of pointed stakes hammered into the ground between their ranks.

“Tch,” Konstantinos commented, not that anyone was likely to hear him over the cacophony of the charge. “Practically the oldest trick in the book, and they fell for it. Of course, there are some advantages to sissy skills like literacy. Being able to read the book and find out what the tricks in it are, for one.”

No horse ever foaled was willingly going to run into the field of stakes and impale itself; but in the dust and confusion of the charge, those in the rear ranks could not see what they were going towards. The front ranks could, but with the press behind them, stopping would be fatal. The best they could do was to turn their horses and try to head the charge off parallel to Konstantinos’s lines, instead of straight at them. But there was little room to turn the whole host. They turned to their left, towards the river, because Konstantinos had slanted his line in that direction, and so they had more room going that way. Even so the first edge of the charge was driven in towards the stakes by the press behind them.

Stage II

Off on the left flank, the cataphract countercharge had bogged down in the mass of Cossacks, but Konstantinos was not worried. Weight of metal would tell, in a close-fought melee; the Cossacks could not hope to push back armoured cataphracts. Their main chance had been to panic his infantry with the sheer terror of watching fifty thousand horses come straight at you; but that had failed. The Russian infantry wedge, likewise, had crashed into the Roman line and was hacking and hewing energetically; but again, that struggle was irrelevant. Two thousand men could not prevail against twenty thousand. The decision would come from the Cossacks on his right flank, who were crashing into the stakes. No horse would have done so willingly; but with the pressure behind them it was unavoidable. When that happened, horse and rider went flying, creating another obstacle for those behind them. A barricade of moaning and screaming flesh was forming in front of the Roman ranks; but that was not enough. Eventually the Cossacks at the rear would pull up, and stop, and cease pushing their comrades into the chaos; and most of them would be able to escape to the north. They would be defeated, but not broken. Konstantinos raised his voice in command. “Now’s the time! Sound the advance!”

The cornicens blew yet again, the long stern swell that bade the Romans forward; and the infantry began to move. It was no wild charge, which would only have got tangled in the barrier of horseflesh at the edge of the stakes. The men advanced at a walk, shields forward, gutting swords held ready to flicker out between them and bite into flesh. The Cossacks were finally getting their horses under control, mainly through the sheer friction of collisions that had slowed them down; but the impetus of their charge was broken. Now it was an infantry fight, where weight of metal and discipline were decisive, in which one side happened to be mounted. That was no advantage; true, the Cossacks could rise in their stirrups and hack downwards with great force, but they were not armed with the huge, heavy weapons that Western knights carried, longswords and morningstars, that could break a man’s arm right through his shield. The Cossacks carried guardless sabres and lances, both very suitable weapons for hacking down fleeing enemies or maneuvering at speed through a mounted skirmish. Against the helmets and mail of Roman infantry, they tended to bounce off. Worse, their horses took up space; three or four Romans could stand in line against a single Cossack – as the bitter jest went, one to hamstring the horse, one to gut it, one to stab the Cossack, and one to make sure he was dead. Then clamber over the fallen beast, and go on to the next, and the next.

The Cossacks were not stupid; they did not try to fight on their enemies’ terms, but to escape, to open up the range and have room to maneuver again. Now their numbers, so impressive when darkening the sky with arrows or making the earth tremble with their charge, were a hindrance. So vast a mass, under dozens of commanders, could not be shifted with any precision or speed. Their host bled men in every direction where there was room; to the rear, but also to their left, onto the empty peninsula that jutted into the Ingulets. The Romans on the right flank held back, while those on the left pushed hard; slowly, over the course of several minutes, a large part of the Cossack host was driven into the peninsula.

Final stage

The Russian infantry, feeling their allies disintegrate around them, had given up the struggle and were retreating; the cataphracts were pushing the Cossacks on their own front. Konstantinos gave orders to release the reserve for the final push, then turned again to his prisoners. He had to shout, still, to be heard over the screams of the battle, but compared to the earlier quaking of the earth, it seemed almost quiet.

“And now I have captured the sun and the moon, and will give them to my children for toys; now indeed I shall break the Don. Look! There are your comrades, trapped between my men and the Ingulets; what now of their swift horses, that will carry them to their camps? Kneel, men of the Don. Ask for mercy. Beg, for the lives of your brothers and fathers, your comrades and neighbours! Bend your stiff knees to my will; or I shall not only break your people, but slaughter them, and make the Ingulets run red for a day and a night.”

The Cossack who had defied him earlier licked his lips; his face was pale under the tan, but he kept himself under tight control. “Lord – what terms do you offer?”

“The terms of my mercy! Kneel, now, or I give the order to kill!”

The Cossack looked around wildly, but found no answers. Finally he looked down, the defiance drained from his face; and, slowly, bent his knees. Konstantinos regarded him steadily.

“Very well,” he said. “You are not untameable, then; if one man can kneel, his people can do likewise. You shall carry my terms to your hetmen. They are to give me hostages for their good behaviour; and they shall take an oath to serve Rome, and obey my commands and those of my officers set over them. I shall ship them south, to guard the military frontier against Croatian raids. It is well known that the Cossacks are loyal to their salt. Very well, they shall eat mine, though they choke on it. Hear me, man of the Don! You shall bend your stubborn necks to the yoke; you shall serve, and your sons after you, and make no more war in my domains. You would not bend; now Rome has broken you, and shall reshape you after its own fashion. The old free life on the steppes is gone beyond recall, for those within my power; but you may choose a new one, or to die fighting. If you cannot live without your freedom to do as you will, say so; I shall spend lives and blood grinding you to glorious dust, and the Don Host will follow Cimbri and Celt into the darkness. Today I have defeated an army; shall I also destroy a nation? Think hard, man of the Don. Will you carry my word to your chiefs?”

The Cossack was a brave man, and hard after the fashion of his folk; but he had never faced true war, war that would destroy a whole people in a single afternoon. His face was a ghastly grey, and his voice wavered; but he bent his neck.

“I will take your word… my Lord.”


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