February 10th, 1333
Delta of the Nile, near Alexandria
“The Syrian came down like the wolf on the fold,” Pietro quoted to himself, and grinned savagely. His people had fought the Syrians before, and neither side had enjoyed the experience. He rather thought, though, that this time there would be no tribute paid to Damascus.
Which was just as well, for the army he led was fearsomely expensive – not so much for the mercenaries scrambling up the steeply sloped river bank behind him, Slavs and Bulgars would fight for little more than their salt; but even wealthy Venice strained to feed its back streets when the fishermen and labourers who brought their peacetime food were mobilised for the galleys. That was why the Senate disliked overseas wars; ironic, for a naval power, but it was just cheaper to fight in places you could march to.
Still, mobilising the Fleet had its tactical advantages. For example, you could embark ten thousand men early in the morning and loiter off the coast for a few hours, until a courier brought word that your allies were fully engaged; then row up the Bolbitine Nile to a point a little behind the Syrian right. And then you could beach the shallow-drafted galleys right on the riverbank, and unload eight thousand Slavic mercenaries and two thousand Venetian citizens. Not an immense force, by the standards of the Levant; though enough, probably, to have tipped the scales, if they had merely lent their weight to the Greek line. Then they would have driven the Syrians back in disarray, and forced them to retreat – unless, perchance, a regiment wavered at just the wrong time and the Syrian pikes pushed through the shield wall to unravel the line. That was luck, and luck cut both ways; you could do no better than to load the odds in your favour – if you chose to lend an allied army’s weight to an already-strong line. And you could win victories that way, if victory was to force your enemy to retreat, to make him march for his base of supply and his fortresses in good order and his own time. To win big, to break your enemy’s army and make it run – for that you had to gamble.
It wasn’t that much of a gamble, perhaps, to come up on the flank of an army attacking almost its own number; but it did rely on the Greeks standing firm for the time it took the Venetians to row up the Bolbitine, and on finding the right place to disembark. As he crested the slight ridge that hid the river, Pietro saw with relief that both opportunities for failure – and subsequent defeat in detail, and death in a foreign land – had been missed. The flood plain fairly crawled with soldiers, fifty or sixty thousand men, and they were still fighting; the blue-on-white standards of Greece still stood alongside the unheraldic banner of the Lazuli, gules a wyvern azure segreant in sinister. The banners were almost the only colour in the vast heaving brown-and-gray masses; no purple and gold in this army, except perhaps among the highest officers. Which had probably been true of Sennacherib’s army as well; and seeing the immense area that a mere sixty thousand men occupied, Pietro had to admit that he had his doubts about the hundred-eighty-five thousand, Holy Writ or none.
He was snapped out of his historic-philosophical distraction by movement nearby; horsemen, in turbans and flowing white thawbs that marked them as Arabs. Cold crawled up his spine as the third and unlikeliest thing that could go wrong happened right in front of his eyes: Enemy cavalry close to the landing point, in reasonable order, and under an officer with a reasonable amount of balls and brains. They weren’t many, perhaps no more than three hundred; but until the Venetian force was fully disembarked and formed up in its regiments, it was hideously vulnerable to cavalry attack. Three hundred veteran Arabs could range up and down the river bank cutting men down while they tried to wade ashore and get into order; eventually numbers would tell, but the disorder they would cause could delay the attack by two hours – and who knew what might happen in that time?
In particular, they could bring up reinforcements, Pietro thought, and winced to see the thought confirmed before it was finished; two of the Arab cavalrymen broke off and galloped west, towards their main body. The rest began to trot towards the ridge, scimitars out.
Pietro thought fast. If he ran back down the slope, he could get aboard a galley and organise enough men to form a square from a safe place. It wasn’t as though there were very many of them, it was just that they were formed up and ready to fight and his men weren’t. But running in the muddy Delta soil, against the current of men coming up from the boats, and getting enough of them to listen to an officer shouting from offshore while Arab horsemen charged down the ridge – no, there wasn’t time. Not if he was going to get to safety first.
But there was time, just barely, if he stood his ground, and if the men behind him were fast on their feet. If they didn’t listen, or fumbled, Pietro would die with an Arab scimitar in his spine. He gritted his teeth against fear and made his decision.
“Ranks!” he shouted, at the top of his lungs. “Form ranks! Close up!” He grabbed two mercenaries who had been just behind him, and physically pushed them together; their faces registered annoyance, then shock and fear as they spotted the horsemen, then relief that the damn interfering officer had grasped the situation and was doing the only thing that could save their lives. “Form ranks!” one of them yelled, adding his voice to Pietro’s; the other began calling out to his friends, adding urgent curse-words in some guttural Slavic tongue. That worked; men heard, and ran instead of walking – not every which way in panic, but towards the little knot of command, the seed crystal of order.
They were still only two dozen, when the Arabs reached the ridge; but two dozen soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder, spears and swords forming a bristling barrier that no horse would willingly try, were an entirely different affair from two dozen men walking casually up the slope to take a look at the battle. The Arab cavalry split in two, curving round to either side of Pietro’s tiny unit to come in behind them. But behind Pietro’s line were another three dozen soldiers, men who had been too far down the slope to reach it in time but who had been given time and warning to form clumps of six or ten, to stand back-to-back and threaten to impale any horse that got too close. Men still fell under the Arab charge, men caught too far from their comrades to join the tiny squares, or frozen with indecision, or too slow to understand what was going on; but it wasn’t a massacre, as would have happened if the first man up the ridge had tried to guarantee his own safety by running. The Arabs were slowed by the need to maneuver between defending formations, and split apart; instead of charging down the slope in a single glorious flood, killing as they went, they found themselves going in trickles and rivulets, losing the momentum they needed to fight thirty times their own number.
Their officer was no fool; realising that he had lost the crucial fifteen seconds that would have delayed the Venetian attack by two hours, he turned his men around and rode hell-for-leather away from the river. Clearly he intended to come back with friends and have another go at spoiling the flank attack. But he was too late; the moment was lost when three hundred men could have turned the course of the battle, and now it would take a third of the Emir’s army to match Pietro’s attack – a third of the army still hammering at the Greek line. Pietro bared his teeth in satisfaction at their retreating backs, the turned his attention to forming some better ranks for the actual attack. By nightfall, there would be no more nonsense about “unsmote by the sword”.
I’m contributing! About one-fifth of the victorious Crusader army is mine, unloaded from ships at just the right moment for victory. It looked to me like Oddman was trying to send his 30k army to Tripolitania where I was sieging, to defeat me in detail; fortunately I saw it coming and jumped aboard the fleet. Not sure why we ended up fighting in Egypt, perhaps he was hoping to defeat the Greeks sieging the Delta. Didn’t work out for him, if so.
This week there was a great Crusade, and much slaughter among the infidel; Venetian troops crossed the Mediterranean to campaign once more in the desert, where they made a definite contribution to victory over Syria. To be sure, with England (and its player vassals), Spain, Germany, and both the Russias all attacking the Caliphate, the military outcome couldn’t be much in doubt. Nonetheless, by clever diplomatic maneuvering – specifically, sending peace offers saying “you surrender” and hoping that the other side would read “I surrender” and accept – the Caliph did manage to cheat Spain out of all its gain. (Everybody else apparently actually read the text of the peace offer before clicking.) Germany, also, was forced out of the war when everybody else had got their bit; the Caliph had managed to retain his army in being, and defended his Levantine possessions ably enough when he wasn’t outnumbered three to one. Nonetheless, a good portion of the Caliphate gains of the previous sessions are now gone, in Africa, Anatolia, and Russia. Still it has to be said that these are imperial outliers, border marches, and highly expendable; the real core of Caliphate strength, the Iranian highlands and Mesopotamian floodplains, haven’t been touched.
Venice recovered Tripolitania, and also had some minor victories in Italy, so the weekly map looks much nicer:
Not much left of Unorganised Italy. Tripolitania is not actually very important economically or militarily, but it sure looks nice on the map. Note the bilious Russian green making a reappearance in the Caucasus.