M4 Festuscato: Gaul in the Balance, part 2 of 3

Chlodebaud and Etheldrood came from one direction, their armor covered in blood, and they laughed and slapped each other on the back like the best of friends.  Merovech and Childeric came from the other direction looking more somber, Adalbert trailing behind.  They were not nearly as bloody, though no one would doubt they had been in battle.  Gregor, who surprisingly stayed with Festuscato in the tent, sipped his drink and spoke softly.

“I think I finally understand what you say.  Sometimes men have to fight, but peace is always better.”

“We pray for peace,” Bran said, and they went back inside the tent.

Merovech arrived first.  Childeric had a sword in his fifteen-year-old hand, and he looked down at the sword while Merovech spoke.

“You must thank Strongarm for me when you see him.  He and his dragon men got Childeric and myself out of a pretty jam.”

“I will say something,” Festuscato said, and thought that Strongarm and his people were supposed to guide the Franks to the right position, but they were not supposed to participate in the battle.

“Sun will be up soon,” Adalbert said as he entered the tent.

All that while, something itched at the back of Festuscato’s head.  It would be impossible to say whether Festuscato, Aetius or Attila thought of it first.  Perhaps they thought of it all at the same time.  A small ridge angled across the open field Attila had selected to bring battle to his enemies.  It rose slowly from north to south to somewhere near the north-middle of the field and petered out quickly in the south after the high point.  No telling what happened with Aetius or Attila, though rumor has it, Attila whipped himself several times for his stupidity.  Festuscato merely shouted.

“The heights!”

From there, they could observe the whole of the battle and bring men down on the enemy, or at least force the enemy to fight uphill.  “Marcellus, get the men moving, now!  Get them moving ten minutes ago.  Dibs, mount up!”  He turned his head back into the tent and spoke calmly.  “Merovech, get together with Aegidius to set the troops on this end of the field.  You need to hold the north flank of the battle, though after last night I doubt the Gepids and their Germans are in any position to be trying anything.”  He smiled for Childeric and shouted again.  “Bran, Gregor, you coming?”

“Wouldn’t miss it,” Gregor said.  Bran just came.

###

Festuscato heard the thunder of his hundred and thirty men all decked out in their dragon tunics.  They saw few enemies in the dawn, even when they cut the corner of the field and probably strayed through enemy territory.  No Huns made a move to stop the dragon men, but then maybe they did not need to.  The Huns were closer, and Attila sent two thousand men under his son, Dengizic to take the ridge top.  Aetius had the auxiliary cavalry troop he brought up from Italy also riding as hard as they could from the other side, but they were furthest away.

Dengizic and his men arrived at the base of the ridge and looked up, not far to the top.  But there they stalled.  Two men stood on the height, and when the light stopped buzzing around, it became a third man, if they were indeed men.  The short one that stood in chain mail to the ground and the dragon tunic had a face that was all beard.  He also cradled a wicked looking ax in his arms.  The tall one, also in a dragon tunic, had a bow already strung and ready.  The third one, who might have been an ordinary man in a dragon tunic if it had not been a flashing light moments earlier, had a sword and shield, and showed the dragon also on the shield.  Behind them, at the very top of the ridge, waved the banner of the dragon, and too many Huns were not going up there.

Dengizic had been there when the messenger came and brought his father the ring of the dragon.  He had been there when they first encountered the dragon north of the alps, all those years ago.  He ran in that first encounter and thought now that he had been wise.  He heard all about how the dragon threw Megla and his entire Hun army out of Britain and declared Britain off limits, and even if the story got exaggerated over the years, the story did not sit well in the Hun psyche.  Then the dragon sent a message and another ring to Attila before they reached Orleans.  He never saw his father rage so much, and he had seen some great moments. In fact, if he did not know better, he might have imagined his father was afraid.

“Lord,” the Hun captain sought his attention.  “Lord, too many of the men are refusing to go up there.  If the dragon has taken the high point, they say the high point is lost to us.”

Dengizic said nothing.  He growled and turned his horse away from the ridge and his two thousand men followed.

Festuscato brought his men to the ridge line and rode them along the top.  Aegidius had his legions already digging into the ridge, small as it was on the north side.  Festuscato thought when they reached their destination, he would send back a man to put the Roman cavalry on short notice.  He imagined several scenarios when he might need several thousand horses to back him up.  Then he thought, of course Aegidius did not think to secure the top of the ridge.  Lord knows, he probably did not want to spread his men too thin. 

Once at the top, they found Luckless lounging with Strongarm and Birch around a fire, sipping some thick dwarf grog.  He told the men to be prepared for Huns to try to take the position, but Luckless said, “Too late.  About two thousand or so already made the attempt, but they turned around when they saw our dragon banner.  How do you like it?  Strongarm’s wife made it.”

Festuscato looked and nodded.

“For the record,” Birch spoke up.  “It was Luckless who thought to take the high point.  He says hanging out with you has made him think of things he never thought about before.  Hogtick has his thousand dug in behind us here.  They are mostly going underground.   Strongarm has as many elves in the woods that start just on the other side, on the down slope.  My men are…around.”

“So Merovech says thanks,” Festuscato turned to Strongarm.  “Remind me later to yell at you since you were not supposed to take part in the battle.”  He pulled up a seat by the fire as Strongarm opened a keg of elf amber ale that Gregor and Dibs loved.  Gregor said he tried the dwarf grog more than once, but it made him burp too much.  Marcellus and Bran preferred Birch’s fairy wine.  Festuscato stuck with water for a while.

The men, taking their cue from the command staff, tied off their horses, set up a bunch of tents against the overcast and started any number of their own fires.  That became the condition General Aetius found them in when he and his four hundred arrived.  Festuscato stood and made sure the Roman troops had a clear lane, where the four hundred could pass through and reach the north side of the ridge, because there really was not enough room at the top for so many men and horses, even if the dwarfs stayed underground and the elves stayed on the back side, and the fairies did not take up much room.

“You are passing them through?” Aetius asked.  Flavius Aetius, the commander in chief of all the Roman armies in the Western Empire, had become like Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.  He answered only to the Emperor Valentinian, as did Festuscato.

“I figure now that you know the height is secure, you are going to want to see how Aegidius is deploying his legions, and maybe pay a diplomatic visit to the Franks and Saxons.  We had a battle last night.”

“Oh?”  This came as news, and after he waved his men to pass through the camp two by two, he sat down to hear all about it.  Strongarm did most of the telling, being there, though Festuscato noticed Birch filed in some gaps.  Aetius, meanwhile, caught sight of Strongarm’s pointed ears and finally turned to Festuscato with a comment.

“You were telling the truth about your governess, weren’t you?”

“A house elf, as God is my witness.  Now Queen of the Geats and happily married.”

“Geats?”

“A much longer story which I will be glad to share some time if you ever come to visit.”

“Visit?”

Festuscato nodded and looked at his water.  “After we kick Attila’s butt, I plan to go home.  I haven’t had a good orange in forever.”

Aetius stood.  Men were waiting with his horse.  “I am glad you have confidence in our chances.”

“I do, but come to think of it, be careful with the Franks.  Merovech and his brothers might not be happy with you considering you, or your men, killed Clodio, their father.”

Aetius stopped.  “I’ll keep that in mind.”  And he left.

M4 Festuscato: Huns, part 2 of 3

“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.”

“Eh?”

“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.

M4 Festuscato: Huns, part 1 of 3

Festuscato stayed in his prison cell for a month, waiting for Merovech to return from Soissons. Gaius came to visit every day.  Childeric came almost every day, often with Gaius.  Luckless took up with a nearby dwarf clan so he was not around much.  Tulip and Waterborn were in love, so also no help whatsoever.  Tulip and Waterborn visited now and then, but their minds were far, far away, in love, and young fairies, meaning less than five hundred years old or so, have a hard time staying focused as it is.  To a human, it might have appeared like a whirlwind romance, but for fairies that was often the way it worked.  The fairy world never made the horrible mess of love and relationships we humans made.

Fortunately, the young male fairies Ironwood and Clover, and the young female fee, Heather, were a great help and company.  They often entertained Childeric when Festuscato and Father Gaius went into confession mode, and Festuscato had a lot to confess.  But Festuscato had to keep one eye open during his confessions because Heather in her big form appeared to be about seventeen, and beautiful, as all fairies are, and he feared it might be too much for Childeric at almost fifteen, hormones raging as they undoubtedly were.

Gregor and Bran settled in at Felix’ place, and Dibs fit himself right in when he and his troop of thirty men, all sporting their dragon tunics, returned from the meeting with Aegidius, the new Magister Millitum of northern Gaul, which is to say, the chief General of the Roman province in the north.  It looked for a while like Merovech, the king of the Salian Franks might settle in Cambrai for the winter, but come mid-November, when the last of the harvest came in, he returned to Tournai with some serious questions for his guest.

“Aegidius says I should keep you locked up and throw away the key,” Merovech said.

“I was not aware that cliché started this far in the past,” Festuscato mumbled before he spoke up.  “But to the point, why?  I am no threat to you.  I am only here to help you.”

“That is what I am afraid of.  We have had our fill of Roman help, all my life.  My father got tired of it and rebelled.  He got killed by Romans, not that many years ago.  So why should I trust you?”

“You don’t have to trust me.  You just have to prepare your men for the Hun hurricane.  Attila has brought his victorious armies up from the border of the eastern empire and is even now preparing to explode on to the western stage. My spies tell me he intends to overrun Gaul, and don’t think he will let the Franks be at his back.  I suspect he will take you down first before he ever meets a single Roman in battle.”

“But what evidence do you have?  Only the word of these dragon flies.”

Festuscato smiled.  “That is very good.  The dragon and the fairies.”

Merovech grinned at his own wit, then he left Festuscato where he was, in jail.

Six weeks later, around the new year, word came that the Huns laid siege around Strasbourg.  Merovech returned to hear what Festuscato had to say, or maybe to gloat.

“The Huns have entered Swabia.  It is a great army, as you said.  My report says ten thousand Huns and ten thousand others, Germans of all sorts, what the Romans call Auxiliary troops, like Bavarians, Goths and others.  But Strasbourg is a quick route to the heart of Gaul.  My men say from there he will surely fall on the Burgundians and pass us by.”

“Surely, he will not,” Festuscato responded.  “I have it from Maywood, King of the fairies along the Rhine, that the Huns have a second army, the main army coming up from the south and headed right for Worms.  Ellak, Attila’s eldest is leading the Huns, some fifteen thousand.  Ardaric the King has ten thousand Gepids and Valamir the Ostrogoth has some ten thousand men as well.  Keep in mind, these are battle tested and hardened troops that have defeated the legions of the east three times in the last several years.  What is more, the Thuringians and your brother Cariaric with his Hessian Franks are waiting just north of Worms, near Mainz.”

“To fight and try to turn back the Huns?”

“No.  To join the Huns, but sixty thousand troops is too much for the land to support, especially in February.  I would guess Attila will divide his forces more evenly into two or three groups, and plan to rejoin them after the spring harvest is in, maybe around Paris.  Exactly which direction they will head after they ruin Mainz is a guess, but they will have to take cities to steal the winter food store along with whatever loot they can pillage.”

“Why would Cariaric despoil Mainz?  It is his own city.”

“My spies tell me the city fathers rejected him and closed their gate to him.  I imagine he wants revenge for the insult.”

Merovech pulled on his beard.  “Yes, that sounds like Cariaric.”

“He is the eldest brother, isn’t he?”

Merovech nodded before he turned toward the door.  “My men say the Hun will turn on the Burgundians.”

“He is not going to leave you Franks like a big knife in his back,” Festuscato protested.

Merovech nodded again.  “But I am listening,” he said, and left Festuscato in jail for another month.  

When Merovech came back for the third time, he brought a chair to sit and face Festuscato, and he looked worried.

“As you predicted.  Mainz has been burned.”  Merovech threw his hands up and spouted his disbelief.  “They surrendered.  They gave no struggle.  They turned over everything they had, and they still were killed and burned.  The Huns are like wild dogs.  How can we fight them?”

“Very carefully,” Festuscato said.  “Go on.”

“Well, it looks like Attila will split his force in two, as you said.  How did you know?”

“Common sense.  Armies have to be fed, even in winter.  Go on,” Festuscato encouraged him.

“Well, it is too soon to say which way they will turn, but I would guess one will head down the Moselle and the other will come here.”  Merovech shook his head.  “What can we do to stand against him?”