“Put a finger up,” Festuscato said.
“What? I don’t see how—”
“No, I mean right now, put a finger up.” Merovech did and Festuscato explained. “That finger represents you, the Salian Franks, a strong people, but alone.” Festuscato raised his hands and started with his left thumb. “Now on this side we have Attila and about fifteen thousand Huns, and he has with him at least another fifteen thousand others.” With each name he turned down a finger until he made a fist. “Ostrogoths under Valamir, Bavarians, Suebi, Avars.” He turned to his right hand and started with his thumb again. “Here, we have the sons of Attila with another fifteen thousand Huns, and with them we have Ardaric and his Gepids, Goths, Thuringians, and your brother Cariaric and his Hessians. Tell me how a finger alone is going to stand against two big fists.”
Merovech put his finger down and looked awkward for a moment. “I understand.”
Festuscato continued. “Why do you think the Huns hold sway over such a large empire? It is because all of the various German and other tribes try to stand up, one finger against the fist. I don’t know why. Stupidity or pride, I guess. They are often the same thing. I spent the last nine or so years listening to great tales of courage and valor, but in the end, the people bow to the Huns and pay tribute. But I was thinking if a few of those German tribes joined together to make their own fist—”
Merovech interrupted. “I see, Chlodebaud and Adelbert. We join forces. Salian, Ripuarian and Mosen Franks together, like our father Clodio tried to do.” Festuscato simply nodded while Merovech thought it through. Childeric had come over to listen, Heather resting comfortably on his shoulder. He put his elbows on the table and looked back and forth between Festuscato and his father. “But that is only three fingers. We still cannot come near to matching even one fist. If each fist is thirty thousand as you say, and I do not doubt it, we can raise maybe ten thousand. Not much more.”
“That is why we get the Saxons to join us,” Festuscato said.
“Saxons?” Merovech almost objected. The Franks and Saxons were not good neighbors, and the prejudice could be heard in Merovech’s voice, even if he only said the one word.
“Who do you think you have been drinking with at Felix’s tavern these past few months?” Festuscato asked, knowing full well that Merovech went by the tavern any number of times.
“Why? Only that one-eyed loudmouth of a Saxon. He is a rude, crude braggart and displays everything that so many don’t like about the breed.”
“Granted,” Festuscato nodded. “But he is not a bad man.”
“No,” Merovech admitted. “He is not a bad man.”
Festuscato nodded again. “He is also the king of the Saxons, or father of the king, anyway.”
“What?” Merovech bounded out of his seat with enough force to knock his chair to the floor.
Festuscato finished nodding. “Gregor will keep his son in line and pointed at the enemy. or he will kick Egbert’s butt.”
“Etheldrood,” Childeric said.
“Yes, thank you,” Festuscato smiled for Childeric and Heather. “Etheldrood will bring about four thousand men or more, ready for battle, men who have come to despise the Huns. Indeed, it will probably be difficult to hold them back and stick to the battle plan.”
Merovech picked up his seat. “So, if my brothers and I can raise about ten thousand between us, that still leaves us short. Even with the Saxons, we will have only half of one fist.” Merovech shook his head again as he shook his finger at Festuscato. “But somehow I feel you have an answer. Son,” he spoke to Childeric. “This one is sly. Maybe you can learn from him.”
“Yes, father. I have been paying attention,” Childeric responded.
“Liege,” Festuscato said. “The hills around give good cover, and the town is not a capital or of the size to be tempting to the Huns, plus it is about in the middle for you and your brothers. Cologne will have to be abandoned, and Tournai, and probably Trier as well. Let the men come to Liege ready to fight and let the women and children seek refuge in the country. Leave enough treasure and food in the cities like an offering, so the Huns are not tempted to scour the countryside. That would lead to too many unnecessary deaths. So, leave enough food and treasure to make it worth their while and they will move on. Remember, buildings can always be rebuilt.”
Merovech shook his head again. “What you ask will be hard, but I see we will not be nearly ready to meet them in time to defend even one city. And I see if we try to defend our own cities, we will not have the force on our own to stop them.”
“Or even slow them down,” Festuscato agreed. “So, we gather around Liege, and when the Huns pass out of Salian territory, we will follow them carefully. We might pick off their stragglers, but we must stay prepared to back away if they turn. They will know we are behind them.”
“But wait. You haven’t answered about the fist. With my brothers and the Saxons, we have only four fingers. Where is our thumb to complete the fist?”
“Aegidius,” Festuscato said. “Right now, he has three legions with auxiliaries, about twenty thousand men building earthworks around Paris. When the Huns arrive at Paris, Ardaric and Attila will be facing a wall. We may be able to crush them against that wall, though I doubt it.”
“They will know we are behind them. It will be April or May, so the weather will lighten up. They may turn to join up with the other fist and avoid the bad position we will put them in.”
“That would be bad. If they rejoin their two fists, they will once again badly outnumber us. How can we hope to counter so many wild dogs?”
“General Aetius,” Festuscato smiled for the man. “I have it on good authority that General Aetius has returned from Italy and raised many men in Provence. He has a large number of men coming from Burgundy in the spring and is talking to the Visigoths. Thorismund, the son, has given me his word that he will bring what men he can, and I believe if the son comes to fight, his father Theodoric will not let him get all the glory.”
“Visigoths,” Merovech sounded thoughtful and pulled on his beard.
“And you know the Visigoths do nothing by half measure. When they come, it will be twenty-thousand or none.”
Merovech began nodding at last. “But you give me Romans, Burgundians and Visigoths, a great army, but the fist is not complete.”
“I expect them to reach Orleans by the end of May. There, they can pick up King Sangiban and the Alans, maybe another ten thousand.” Merovech waved his pinky finger, but Festuscato just smiled. “King Budic of Amorica will bring his men from the west and meet them at Orleans. Then we will have Attila between two armies, two fists, so whichever way he turns, he will have an army at his back.”
Merovech smiled at last. “The plan is good, even if nothing ever goes exactly to plan. And to think you arranged all this while sitting in my prison cell. Makes me tremble to think what the dragon will do if I set you free.”
“That reminds me,” Festuscato said and stood. He stepped to a certain spot and kicked the floor. They all heard the hollow sound, and a trap door opened a crack. “Tell Branhilde I’ll meet her in the inn after an hour or so.”
“Very good, Lord.” The deep, booming voice sounded out before the trap door closed.
“Horeburt,” Festuscato called.
“Yes, Lord. Majesty.” Horeburt came to the door and acknowledged both Festuscato and Merovech, his king.
“When I escape, you better go with me so you can say you are still guarding the prisoner and not get into trouble.”
“If it is all the same to you,” Horeburt responded. “My brother has a place up north on the shore. I was thinking of taking my family and going for a visit.” Clearly Horeburt had listened in and thought about the Huns coming to Tournai.
“Wise move,” Festuscato said and turned again to Merovech. Merovech smiled at the jailer’s good thinking when something sunk into his brain. He stood suddenly.
“Why am I sitting here? I have so much to do and only a couple of months to do it.” He headed for the outside door but returned a thought. “Jailer, let the rest of the prisoners out before you go.”
“Yes majesty,” Horeburt responded while Festuscato began to collect his things.