A guard accompanied Hugh to the docks, where he met up with Herbert. They talked for hours about military strategy, with Hugh sharing all he knew about weaponry and Herbert explaining what he would be facing. The invaders primarily rode horses, and most of the troops would be cavalry. Nearly all of their non-mounted forces were support troops with bows, slings, and javelins. There would be no light or heavy infantry.
“I keep hearing reports from the frontlines about how the enemy ‘does not fight with honor,’” said Herbert. “I have tried to explain to our commanders that honor goes to the victor. We just don’t have the tools to fight mounted archers who fire upon our troops and then retreat when we attempt to engage them.”
“Don’t you have ranged support?” asked Hugh.
“We have some of the best archers in the world, but they do not good firing at disorganized, irregular waves of mounted troops who can fire on them. Stationary lines of archers are no match for their tactics. They also have better bows than we do.”
“So set up a line of shielded infantry with spears in front of or around the archers,” said Hugh.
Herbert thought for a few seconds. “That was the plan, one of them anyway. So clearly that is your preference. My biggest worry is that it takes discipline to properly utilize shields. I don’t know how hard it will be to get our troops to stand their ground behind a shield, without being tempted to charge and chase or turn and retreat.”
“What else are you considering?”
“It has been suggested that we commission suits of armor for a special contingent of heavily armored archers. Since the enemy utilizes very light armor, we should win a slow war of attrition, since we can produce more arrows.”
“Anything else?” asked Hugh.
“We have dozens of plans, really. We could send our fleet off to make landing near their home, which can buy us some time if they send their soldiers back to defend themselves. That’s already underway, but we could commit to full-scale invasion of their towns, though we have no specific strategy at the moment. Many are calling for a wall to be built around the city, though even if we started today, it would either not be finished by the time we need it, or it would be a rushed job.”
Hugh thought for a bit. “How about you combine the wall idea with the shield idea,” he said.
“You say your soldiers won’t stand behind a shield… will they stand behind a wall?”
“I guess,” said Herbert.
“What if we build long sections of light wooden palisades that could be lifted and carried by your infantry. They could move the walls as needed, forming lines or closed formations. It would be like a moving fortress on the battlefield.”
“I’ll add it to the pile,” Herbert said. “I like that idea more than shields, because I don’t think the soldiers will reject it outright without even trying it. They may like the idea of a ‘moving fortress.’”
“Is there some reason you can’t match them horse for horse?” asked Hugh.
“We have half the horses they have, and we have no one who can reliably ride and shoot they way they do.”
“Well, it just seems like if you have some horse archers of your own, you could partially give chase, since your horses can rest behind your lines, then after a few hit and run waves, you can overtake them with fresh cavalry.”
“It’s not that simple,” said Herbert. “It’s not easy to shoot from a galloping horse. It’s a skill the invaders have practiced since birth. They shoot better while aiming behind them as they run away than our best hunters do aiming straight ahead. If we institute training today, it will take months, if not years, to even develop the techniques and equipment to pull it off. We’ve considered heavily armored cavalry, but ultimately heavy cavalry can’t keep up with their horses, which are already bigger, stronger, and faster than our own native bloodlines.”
Herbert stood up and walked over to a window overlooking the docks. “Ultimately,” he said, “It doesn’t matter what gimmick we can come up with. We have to come to terms with the shortcomings of our military tactics. It was effective against our old enemies, but we need to adapt to the impending threat. We’ve traditionally used two axes per man, with only light leather armor. We’ve relied on our light cavalry to flank the enemy and mow down archers or skirmishers that would have harangued our axmen.
“We’ve done the same thing for hundreds of years, and as those around us changed, we stayed the same. Now, as we face the same opposition that forced our ancient enemies to change, we’re stuck adopting the same tactics that our people have mocked for generations. It seems almost impossible to get our people to abandon their tradition, but we can’t just run behind horses while swinging axes.
“What I need is a few shield designs. It’s less important that the shield shape be effective, and more important that it look like no other shield. If we can introduce a type of shield that is our own, it’s less likely to be rejected.
“I also need spears. Spears are the only weapon our infantry can rely on against a mounted opponent. I leave it up to you to determine the specifics, but I want them to be long. I need a weapon that can be used before their horsemen are actually upon our men.
“And finally, I need some swords, but not for the troops. As much as I would like the troops to adopt swords, it may be asking too much. What I need is a sword you can use effectively in the arena and which can be used by our cavalry. Your height should lend to a style of downward slashing motions, and that’s what I need for my cavalry. If I can implement swords in the cavalry, it will set the stage for a complete conversion from axe to sword later down the road.”
Hugh nodded. “Who am I working with?”
Herbert and Hugh walked through the barracks to a workshop in the bar corner of the complex. Hugh met the young man who would be working the bellows for him, who was named Verne. Hugh immediately set to work inspecting various ingots of metal, speaking with the other two smiths who were present, and inspecting the furnace.
Before long, Hugh had donned a leather apron and Verne was working the bellows. Hugh decided to start with swords, since he would need to test it out before he used it in two days. Hugh chose an ingot recommended to him by one of the smiths, and he set to heating and hammering. By later that night, he had mostly shaped the blade. He stayed up all night, with an ever cycling series of help from around the workshop taking shifts at the bellows.
By morning, the sword was all but finished. It had a deep curve to it, and was roughly the length of an arm (a normal arm, not Hugh’s). Hugh sent it off to a hilter, who would hand it off to a grinder.
“Can I get something to eat?” Hugh asked one of the smiths.
A while later, someone brought him bead fried in bacon grease.
Hugh picked another ingot, this one slightly larger, and set about making another sword, similar to the first. This one had the same curve, but Hugh reverse tapered it, so that the blade was thin at the hilt and got thicker all the way to the base. The blade had no point, and ended in a dull, flat edge.
Verne looked at the sword as Hugh was inspecting it late on the afternoon of the second day. “Why did you make it so fat at the end?” asked Verne.
“It will be used by someone tall like me or someone on a horse, so it will be swung in a sweeping motion. The extra weight at tip will make it swing like an axe and give it extra force.”
Verne nodded. “And why is it curved?”
“Well, for some of the same reasons an axe blade is curved. If you’re planning to swing the weapon, you want a curved edge. It will concentrate the force no matter what part of the weapon you hit them with, and it makes it easier to just slash-and-drag the blade, so you can move on quickly to a new target. It’s really for cavalry, but if this one turns out better than the other, I’ll be using it.”
He sent this sword off to the other crafters.
“Why don’t we take a break,” said Verne. “I don’t think anyone will hold it against you if you take the night off after making two swords in two days.”
Hugh shrugged. “Sure, I’m up for a break. What is there to do around here?”
Verne shook his head. “Well, for one thing, there have been amazing arena events going on for the past two days, and I missed them all.”
“I don’t want to hold you back, but I don’t think I want to see people dying.”
“You know what you might like?” asked Verne. “They have plays being performed at the theaters. I can show you the way, then I’ll head off to the games.”
Hugh agreed. They walked a few blocks, and when they arrived, Hugh entered the theater and took a seat. He came in during the middle of a performance, and he wasn’t able to understand what was happening. By the end, a lot of people were dead, and there was singing. Some people got up and left, and the actors made their exits. After a bit, another play began.
The story was hard for Hugh to follow, even from the beginning. As best as he could tell, a father tried to kill his son, but his mother saved him and hid him. Then, the boy grew up and met the father, only he didn’t know it was his father, and the boy killed him because the father was a serious jerk. Then the boy defeated a monster, became the king, married the old queen, and it turns out his mother was the queen.
Hugh shook his head to himself at the end. Why is everyone always related? he thought.
As the audience moved about after the performance, many lingered for the next show. Hugh leaned back on the seating behind him, and before he knew it, he was fast asleep. He woke up to someone shaking him.
“The shows are over, you should go home.”
Hugh blinked a few times and looked around. “Sorry about that,” he said. “I really needed some sleep.”
“It’s no problem at all, sir,” said the old man, smiling. “Take your time. The theater grounds are public space, I just thought you might want to go home to avoid the riff raff who spend the night here. You wouldn’t want to wake up and be missing that.” The man pointed at the medallion around Hugh’s neck.
Hugh nodded and thanked the man, then slowly made his way home. Every now and then, a roar of applause would rise up in the distance. He assumed it was coming from one of the arenas. He cringed at the thought of it. Violence is such a messy thing. Violence is something one does because there is no other choice, not something to be celebrated and cheered, let alone to be done solely to be celebrated and cheered.
When he got back to the workshop, the first sword he had completed was finished. He held it in his hand. The grip was a bit small for his taste, but he held it, swung it, and felt the weight of it. He tested the spring of the sword by bending it a bit against an anvil. It was a great piece of steel he had to work with, and the sword turned out nearly exactly as he wanted… all except the grip.
Hugh found another smith and asked for another strip of leather to be wrapped around the handle to suit his larger hand. Hugh found an apprentice to work the bellows and began forging spear heads. After selecting a small slab of iron, he hammered it into a long, leaf-shaped blade. He tempered it, hardened the point, and had it sent off to be sharpened and have a shaft added. Hugh recommended a pole length between two and three times as long as the apprentice was tall.
Hugh immediately went to work on another spear head. This one he modeled on an axe, with a round, solid spike poking out past the blade of the axe and a hook on the opposing side of the axe blade that curved towards the user.
He handed off the second spearhead to the other crafters, then worked on drawing up designs for shields. He outlined every possible shape he had ever heard considered for a shield, coming up for over two dozen. He handed them off to a carpenter with instructions to give to a tanner after he was done. Hugh went to sleep just before the sun came up.
Hugh was awoken by the giant, smiling over him. The dwarf was standing behind her. Hugh hugged her.
The twins told him about how boring the hunt was, how the dogs did most of the work, and how sore their thighs and back were from horseback riding. “Sometimes it was like being in a jar that was being shaken up,” said the dwarf.
Hugh told them about his promise to appear in the arena. The twins told him about their plans to fight each other.
“What?” Hugh asked.
“They have non-lethal gladiator battles,” said the giant. “They have mule matches, bear matches, and lion matches. The mule matches allow only kicking, the bear matches are anything-goes unarmed fights that end when someone gives up, and only lion matches are done with weapons to the death.”
“And we fight all the time, so the least we can do is make a little money doing it,” said the dwarf.
“You’re being paid?” asked Hugh.
“Of course, aren’t you?” asked the dwarf.
“No, I’m doing it for other reasons, I guess,” said Hugh. “I have to be honest, I’m not looking forward to it.”
“I wish I got to kill unarmed people with a sword,” said the dwarf.
Hugh sat up and smacked him on the head. “I raised you better than that.”
The giant smiled. “Come on, let’s go get something to eat.”
To be continued…