We open on the Aquilonians again, this time standing guard at Venarium.
A harsh chattering came from the woods. Granth’s hand leaped to the hilt of the shortsword on his belt. “What was that?” he said.
“A bird,” said Vulth.
“What kind of bird?” asked Granth. “I’ve never heard a bird that sounded like that before.”
“Who knows?” said his cousin. “They have funny birds here, birds that won’t live where it’s warmer and sunnier. One of those.”
We flip to Mordec’s perspective as the battle begins.
Before the Bossonians and Gundermen outside the encampment were fully formed to face the Cimmerian tidal wave, it swept onto them.
Wait, why were they outside the encampment in the middle of the night? Is Venarium not big enough to hold the army that built it? Why not? There’s plenty of materials, and more soldiers means more labor to assemble it. If the fort is unfinished, I can’t find any mention of it.
The foemen in front of them gave ground. A few archers and pikemen ran for their lives, forgetting in their fear they would find no safety in flight. Most, though, put up the best fight they could. And, to take the place of the fled and fallen, more and more soldiers came forth from the camp.
Why did you even build this thing?
I get the feeling that Turtledove had an image of his head for how he wanted Mordec to participate in the fight – tearing men asunder with his barbarian strength and such – and had the Aquilonians act so as to facilitate that, regardless of the fact that building a fort signals both ability and intention to funnel enemies into chokepoints and possibly loose arrows on them from raised platforms, rather than running out to meet them. The fort is actually counterproductive if you’re going to fight the Cimmerians head-on anyway, because its chokepoints only serve to limit the rate at which soldiers can join your side of the battle.
“Mitra!” exclaimed Granth, and snatched up his pike from where he had laid it on the ground.
“Mitra, watch over us,” echoed Vulth, grabbing his own weapon. “And the god had better, for we’re in trouble if he doesn’t.”
By the way, Mitra is actually a male god, because he’s a Vedic god and completely out of place west of Pakistan. I forget that Mitra’s not a woman more often than not, particularly in context of Conan, where he’s a latin-speaking Aquilonian deity.
“Form a line!” shouted Sergeant Nopel from somewhere not far away. “Form a line, protect your comrades, and fight hard. If they break us, we’re ruined. If we stand fast, though, we’ve got a chance.” He strode up to take his place among the men he led, using his example to buoy their courage.
A captain was shouting, too: “You pikemen, ward the archers as you can. They aren’t worth so much at handstrokes.”
These officers are very wordy considering there’s a battle going on right now. There’s a reason why shouts like “form up! Form up!” dominate battle dialogue. Speed is important and you want your troops moving immediately, not sitting around listening for the end of your command, so you establish the meaning and purpose of commands in advance and then shout very brief orders in a fight.
Granth had no time to thrust, but used his pikestaff as if it were a cudgel, clouting the Cimmerian in the side of the head.
The enemy warrior wore a leather cap strengthened with iron strips. That kept the shaft from smashing his skull like a melon. But, though the blow did not slay, it stunned, leaving the barbarian dazed and staggering and easy meat for Vulth’s newly freed pike.
As the Cimmerian fell, Vulth bowed to Granth as if to an Aquilonian noble. “My thanks, cousin,” he said.
Playact the nobility when you’re not literally in a battle right this second, you idiot. In one place the narrative talks about how often they have to fall back, but here they’re exchanging bows instead of keeping their eyes forward and pikes steady for the next attack.
For all that they’re not super focused on the fight, they still manage to kill like eight Cimmerians. These guys are supposed to be just regular, unexceptional Aquilonian soldiers, not like Mordec the super-Cimmerian, so having them impale so many enemies without ever taking any significant damage in return makes the Cimmerians seem really non-threatening. They keep talking about how often they have to retreat and saying that they’re in danger, but they never see an Aquilonian die and they never take any kind of injury or feel any kind of fatigue. The retreating might give a sort of aura of “we can only back away so far” except 1) it’s never clear how far they’ve retreated or how much farther they can do so before they’re in trouble and 2) they’ve got a fort behind them, and as stupid as it was to leave it, provided they don’t get trapped at the chokepoint it will only be to their advantage if they retreat within it, particularly since they keep despairing at how numerous the Cimmerians are. If there’s so many of them, then just stay in the palisade and use your chokepoints! Nullifying numerical advantage is the whole reason for having a chokepoint!
They forced the Gundermen and Bossonians back and back, until the men from the south were fighting desperately to hold the barbarians out of the fortified encampment. If the Cimmerians forced themselves into the camp, Count Stercus’ army was probably doomed.
We are, at least, finally getting a sense of peril, here, in that the Cimmerians have an endgame and they’re actually moving towards it, rather than our simply being informed that they’re super scary while being mown down as fast as they arrive by two apparently unexceptional pikemen. Unfortunately, the endgame makes no goddamn sense at all. It’s all over if the Cimmerians capture the fort that the Aquilonians aren’t using? Why? The Aquilonians are abandoning it as fast as they can, what do they care if the Cimmerians capture it?
A Gunderman to Granth’s left slumped to his knees, bleeding from a dozen wounds that would long since have slain a less vital man. “What are we going to do?” cried Granth. “What can we do?”
“Fight,” said Vulth. “This is where we’ll win or lose, so we’d better win.”
Granth fought, and fought hard. If the battle were to have a turning point, he and his comrades would have to make it here. If not—He shook his head. He would not think about that. It might befall him, but he would not think of it before it did.
It’s weird that he has the spare focus to think at all. A melee that you are actually a part of right this second usually demands all of your attention. On the bright side, at least an Aquilonian has finally been killed onpage by someone other than Mordec.
We pivot back to Mordec, who, unlike Granth and Vulth up there, is supposed to be very much exceptional amongst the Cimmerians:
Mordec smashed at the tip of a pike seeking to drink his blood. The iron head flew off. He roared in triumph. But the Gunderman he faced defended himself so fiercely, first with the pikestaff and then with his shortsword, that Mordec could not slay him. At last, balked of his intended prey, the blacksmith sought and soon found an easier victim.
So not only do the totally ordinary pikemen rack up a killcount right around triple their number, the Cimmerian champion is stymied by a guy fighting with his backup weapon. And it’s not much longer before an Aquilonian cavalry charge is shattering the Cimmerians utterly.
Mordec’s axe was a different story. When he brought it down between a horse’s eyes, the beast foundered as if it had run headlong into a stone wall. Agile even in his well-articulated armor, the rider tried to scramble free. The blacksmith’s countrymen swarmed over him. Their blades probed for every chink and joint in his suit of iron. He screamed, but not for long.
This is not a bad way to kill heavy cavalry when you have super strength, nor is the subsequent rout of the barbarians as everyone else but Mordec fails to stand their ground particularly terrible. It is kind of odd to me that the Aquilonians apparently have something like full gothic plate in an otherwise bronze and iron age world, but as that “bronze and iron age” descriptor suggests, Hyboria was always a world of anachronism, so, sure, why not. Might even be some mention of plate armored knights in the Robert E. Howard stories that I just haven’t read or forgot about.
Mordec escapes with his life, though he’s one of the last to flee the field. He comes home and bemoans their defeat, while Count Villainous back at Venarium is preparing to bring settlers up north and colonize Cimmeria.