Sunday, August 15, 2010

[Solo GPC] 508: The Battle of Netley Marsh

Man, the Anarchy Phase sucks. Just when everything looks to be going along as planned--BOOM! Disaster strikes! I honestly felt bad having to run the events outlined in this year after last year's relative triumphs. Ah well, the element of drama and all that, right?

(Also, after this year's battle, I reached some conclusions on how I'm going to run battles in Pendragon for the foreseeable future, but I'll elucidate on that in a separate post.)

Despite the Saxon raids and plundering the previous year, Herringdale's lands managed to pull off a Regular harvest (no doubt due to Elaine's intercessions) and the Winter Phase passed otherwise uneventfully. Herringdale busied himself making plans to take a couple months to ride north to Gorre and visit his daughter Meleri, but these plans were necessarily put on hold in the spring when word reached Du Plain Castle that King Nanteleod himself was marching to Sarum!

After wintering at Wells, Nanteleod had determined that the Cornish threat had been neutralized for the time being and that, in light of last year's audacious raids against Salisbury, it was high time to finish the business he had started at Levcomagus three years before and put paid to King Cerdic of Wessex once and for all.

So rather than heading north, Herringdale rode west in mid-July, making for Sarum and the marshaling of King Nanteleod's mighty host. When he arrived, he found the city already packed with knights and footmen billeted in every available room in the city. He would later learn that manor houses and humble huts in a five-mile radius were occupied by even more knights, soldiers, and camp followers. The path from the city gates to the castle keep was crammed with people from across Logres and beyond. Dark-haired, blue-eyed hillmen from Gales rubbed shoulders with knights from Gloucester, Clarence, Wuerensis, Somerset, and other allied counties. Every alley and shadowed alcove seemed to shelter prostitutes offering their wares while the streets themselves were made even more crowded by tinkers and food mongers advertising their own, less illicit goods for sale.

After finally fighting his way up to the castle, Herringdale was welcomed warmly by King Nanteleod and his wife, Countess Ellen. As Marshall of the county, he was provided with a modest private chamber in the keep's north tower, and over the next few days saw to the logistics of mustering and organizing all of Salisbury's able knights and feudal levy. As he worked, he couldn't help but notice extra attention being paid to him by ladies and other noblemen alike. Puzzled at first, he soon realized what was going on: however scandalous the death of Elaine and the dissolution of his marriage may have been, it had rendered Herringdale a single man once again. As one of the richest men in Salisbury, and one of the most famous knights in all of Britain, he was suddenly a highly desirable match for many of these other knights' daughters, to say nothing of the ladies who gave him hopeful, appraising looks from under their wimples. This was to say nothing of the fact that he had no sons to inherit his vast holdings and two daughters of marriageable age. After a week of working dawn to dusk, everything was in order, and Nanteleod himself was talking of going on the march in just two days' time.

The afternoon before the army was due to muster and march out, Herringdale was invited up to Countess Ellen's solarium. There, he passed a pleasant evening in the company of Nanteleod and Ellen, as well as Ellen's guest, Liaze, the Countess of Rydychan. Liaze had brought along a young priest, Pertoines, an itinerant scholar and wunderkind who the Countess of Rydychan described as "versed in the Trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric and the Quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music, and cosmology as well as philosophy and alchemy, scripture and law."

Pertoines entertained the assembled nobility and their attendants with tales from the Bible as well as descriptions of some of the first examples of knighthood, worthies like Alexander the Great, Hector, Julius Caesar, Joshua, and King David. The two Countesses then took it in turns to play the harp and sing. As they did so, Herringdale mused on what he knew of Rydychan and its Countess. He had briefly had a squire, Beleus, who had hailed from Rydychan and had left his service to Herringdale ahead of time to be knighted and assume his inheritance back home. And hadn't Herringdale heard something about the Countess traveling from court to court in exile ever since the death of her second husband at St. Albans in 495?

As the music wrapped up and spiced wine was poured, Herringdale struck up a conversation with Liaze.

"How are you finding Sarum?" he asked.

"It pleases me," she said. "Much moreso than some of the courts I have visited in years past. Not all were as accomodating," she said with a courteous nod to Ellen, who returned the gesture. Liaze's courtly skills and deportment were impeccable, but Herringdale could sense profound sadness behind the mask of manners. He could identify with the feeling. Hadn't he heard that the Countess had a son about the same age as Heledd? Hmmm...

The next morning such considerations were far from Herringdale's mind as he dragged himself out of bed two hours before sunrise. The army was march at dawn, and he was in charge of getting Salisbury's assembled company down to the marshaling fields a half-mile outside the ancient walls of Sarum. Somehow, amidst torchlit chaos and tumult, he managed to accomplish this, and by mid-morning he was part of a massive column of troops marching east towards Du Plain Castle. Reports had come in that King Cerdic of Wessex had marched his Saxon army north into what remained of Hampshire, towards the decrepit Roman city of Caer Gwent, also known as Camelot. The city sat less than a day's ride from Du Plain; an invasion of Salisbury seemed likely if Cerdic wasn't stopped.

Herringdale was feeling bold, however. For one thing, a few days prior to the march, he had been called to the workshop of Sarum Castle's master armorer. There, he was shown the armorer's latest designs in military harness. Chainmail leggings and a double weave of mail promised to provide superior protection over older designs at the cost of only a slightly heavier encumbrance on the wearer. There was also a new, more heavy duty helmet design to go with the new chainmail. Herringdale enthusiastically sat for a fitting and was now wearing his new suit of reinforced chainmail as he marched to battle.

What was more, his superior ability to tease the truth from campfire rumors gave him confidence that the army he marched with vastly outnumbered Cerdic's Saxon force. No doubt this would be another battlefield triumph for Nanteleod, putting him that much closer to acclamation as High King of Britain once the Supreme Collegium had reformed.

Herringdale and the Salisbury company had been given a place of honor, marching at the head of the vanguard of the army under the banner of Prince Alain de Carlion. As such, the Salisbury knights were among the first to catch sight of Caer Gwent, its old Roman walls falling into ruin, the buildings within providing a mere shadow of a once active and thriving trade town. It was what was outside the walls, however, that caught Herringdale's eye. A force of about 2,000 Saxons was forming up, preparing to meet Nanteleod's army as it began to spread out across the plain of the River Itchen. Herringdale began to see to the deployment and organization of his own company when he heard cries of alarm coming from up and down the ranks of the allied army.

Looking back towards the Saxon side of the battlefield, Herringdale's heart dropped. There, marching up alongside the Itchen, was a massive force of Saxon reinforcements. Even at a distance of a couple hundred yards, Herringdale could make out the massive battle banner of King Aelle of Sussex. So Cerdic had finally managed to convince the wily old chieftan to come to his aid. A quick estimate pegged the forces of Sussex at more than double the size of the Wessex army. Worse, Herringdale could see columns of mercenary footmen and - what was this? - a contingent of mounted knights! Squinting, Herringdale confirmed his suspicions when he spotted the banner of none other than Prince Mark of Cornwall!

In one fell swoop, the army of King Cerdic had nearly tripled in size and now outnumbered Nanteleod's army by two or three thousand men. Suddenly victory did not seem so assured. But the die had been cast, as it were, and there was no backing out now. Taking a deep breath, Herringdale ordered his knights to form up into a line and await the signal to charge. That signal came quickly in the form of a mighty blast of trumpets that was relayed up and down the lines, and over 1,200 knights surged forward as one, a mighty wall of metal and thundering hooves.

As in other recent clashes with Saxons, Herringdale found himself counter-charged by a unit of Saxon lancers mounted on war ponies, wielding spears in the archaic overhand fashion. The two lines of cavalry met in a mighty crash, and men and horses went tumbling to the ground screaming. His lance shattered, Herringdale drew his sword and led his company deep into the Saxon ranks.

His was not the only company to penetrate into the mighty Saxon host, but the units were as tiny divits marking the otherwise solid line. To his left, separated by about a hundred yards packed with furious Saxons, Herringdale could make out the great banner of Prince Alain. As he looked, to his horror, he saw the banner falter and fall. The Prince was in trouble!

Immediately he ordered his company to the Prince's aid, abandoning its forward push to move on the Saxon flank. He paid for this daring maneuver by coming under fire from a unit of levy archers, but he rode his unit directly into the bowmen, sending them scattering. As the archer unit melted away, Herringdale saw a unit of Saxon warriors advancing on his unit, frothing at the mouth with burning hatred. Inspired by his Loyalty to Nanteleod and the Prince, Herringdale fought these furious warriors to a standstill. Although he was unable to penetrate further, his audacious attack had managed to relieve some of the pressure on the Prince. With a wave of relief, Herringdale saw the Prince's banner flying proud again and pushing deeper into the Saxon ranks.

Herringdale followed the Prince's lead as units of footmen moved up on his flanks to support his advance. He led his company bravely forward, coming up against shield walls of richly-accoutered Saxons singing barbaric war chants and other warriors howling with hatred and battle fury. Although the Saxon units were eventually broken, the Salisbury knights were finding themselves increasingly beset and lost in a morass of confused melee. Distant trumpet signals spread further confusion - was that the signal to retreat?

After fending off two assaults of seething Saxon warriors, Herringdale determined it was time to make a strategic withdrawal from the thick of combat to assess the overall situation and perhaps rejoin the battle from a better angle. This decision was reinforced as a unit of Saxon archers rained a volley of arrows down upon the Salisbury company. One arrow glanced off the flank of Smuggy III, injuring him slightly. Herringdale was obliged to hang back and allow his men to lead the withdrawal. A unit of frothing Saxons hastened the withdrawal, pulling laggards down off their horses and brutally hacking them to death with their mighty two-handed axes.

As Herringdale and his company emerged from the crush of melee in the seventh hour of battle with the sun beginning to sink towards the horizon, he caught sight of King Nanteleod and his retinue. They were also repositioning themselves, riding near a copse of trees that marked the boundary of a large expanse of wetland called Netley Marsh. The King was frantically engaged in issuing dispatch riders to various points on the line, simultaneously receiving reports from squires riding up on frothy horses. Nanteleod was therefore taken by surprise when a band of mounted Saxons burst forth from the trees near the marsh and began riding towards his unit.

Herringdale, having just switched horses and mounted Baldrick's rouncey, dug in his spurs, galloping across the bloody field towards the King's retinue. He could see the Saxon riding at the head of the ambush party was none other than Prince Cynric of Wessex, and it was towards him that he directed his charge. The Prince, his eyes fixed on the King, only saw Herringdale coming upon him at the last moment. Barely raising his shield in time, he managed to deflect the main force of what would otherwise have been a mortal blow.

The momentum of Herringdale's charge carried him past the Prince and through the column of Saxons. Although Cynric and a couple other mounted Saxons wheeled around to face Herringdale, the other dozen or so warriors continued their charge unabated. Cynric hung back, and Herringdale, wheeling his rouncey about, watched in horror as Nanteleod was set upon by three Saxons. One, rising high in his saddle, brought his axe down on the King's neck, cutting through the armor around his throat with ease. A fountain of blood spilled forth from Nanteleod's neck, catching the light of the setting sun. Too late, the rest of the Salisbury company charged in, engaging the Saxons in combat.

Word of Nanteleod's death spread like wildfire as Herringdale and his men fought against Cynric, and soon the retreat was being sounded. The Saxon army surged forward as the British forces began to rapidly disintegrate. Herringdale ordered his company to fall back as well, allowing Cynric to escape. The Saxons released their pursuit units to run down the fleeing British troops. The Salisbury company was saved from the full brunt of a charging unit of naked berserkers only by the timely intercession of a friendly volley of arrows that felled many of the Saxon madmen.

Conducting a fighting withdrawal, Herringdale managed to capture the leader of a unit of mounted lancers. With such a valuable hostage, other Saxon units proved unwilling to attack, and the Salisbury company joined the general rout along the road leading back to Du Plain Castle.

Du Plain became an impromptu rallying point and safehouse for many of the broken units falling back from Netley Marsh. Most were at least as bad off as the Salisbury company, which had suffered nearly half its number of knights killed, wounded, or captured. Although the Saxon army proved unwilling or unable to move on Du Plain Castle and invade Salisbury proper, many smaller units of Saxon raiders filtered into the county, overrunning it and plundering its fields and pastures. Over the following weeks, reports came in that Hampshire county had been completely subjugated, many of its villages completely depopulated and resettled by the mercenaries who had served Cerdic and their families. Of the luckless inhabitants of Hampshire, most had been led off in chains to serve as slaves to their new Saxon overlords. Salisbury was not the only county to suffer raids; reports also came in that Silchester was suffering pillaging at the hands of Saxons, mercenaries, and Cornishmen alike. As summer turned to autumn and the Saxon raids abated, more ill news arrived from abroad: Duke Corneus of Lindsey, that old warhorse, had died of age and illness. His nephew, Derphel, was due to succeed him, to what end no one knew.

As winter approached, Countess Ellen moved her court to Du Plain Castle, the better to be under the direct protection of Herringdale and to be closer to her son Robert, who had come to Du Plain from Nether Wallop with his charge, Lady Heledd, soon after Netley Marsh. Ellen arrived swathed in the black drapery of a widow, but her demeanor was one of stoic resignation. She brought the Countess of Rydychan with her, and on Yuletide Day Herringdale found himself entertaining the two noblewomen in a gloomy mirror of the pleasant evening spent in Ellen's solarium six months earlier. There was no music this time, no tales of great deeds from times long past. The only sound was the crackling of the Yule log in the great hall's fire-pit as everyone sat sipping mulled mead and staring into the flames.

Suddenly, young Robert, a beardless youth of not quite seventeen summers, leapt to his feet, startling everyone else from their reveries.

"Mother, the time has come for me to take up my inheritance! I cannot wait any longer! Salisbury is mine by birthright, and I must protect it from further Saxon outrages. Marshall Herringdale has mentored me in the ways of knighthood, and though I am still young, I am ready to take my oath!"

Robert stood, the firelight flickering across his face and hardening his already fierce expression. His nostrils were flared and he was breathing hard. Without a word, Countess Ellen nodded her assent. Herringdale watched her closely, his wily eyes narrowed. Was that an expression of relief mixed in with sadness and resignation?

The remainder of the winter passed a bit more quickly with preparations to be made for Robert's knighting ceremony. Although there was no King to invest the young Earl, Salisbury would have a lord to lead it again. Would it be just in time to face a great Saxon invasion?

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