Conan of Venarium: The Battle At Venarium

Chapter 11

If someone’s bad at depicting classical combat, you know they’re not any good for classical logistics. Fortunately, there’s rarely any call to write about the details of classical logistics. Unfortunately, Harry Turtledove has dodged directly into the path of that bullet:

And forward the Cimmerians went. No Aquilonian army could have done the like. Aquilonians, civilized men, traveled with an elaborate baggage train. The Cimmerians simply abandoned everything they could not carry with them. They had briefly paused here to gather in full force. For that, lean-tos and tents had proved desirable. Now the Cimmerians forgot them. They would eat what they carried in belt pouches and wallets. They would sleep wrapped in wool blankets, or else on bare ground.

Civilized armies didn’t give up on forage because they’re soft and delicate and cultured and need to bring many nice things with them on campaign. They gave up on forage because things like food cannot be gathered in sufficient amounts to feed an army of sufficient size. When you gather more soldiers to a single spot, the radius your foraging parties must range out to in order to feed them all eventually exceeds the range that humans can walk in a day, at which point everyone starves to death. That’s the point when you need a baggage train. The overwhelming majority of military baggage was always food.

Also, if your soldiers are sleeping under the sky and a rainstorm kicks up, people are going to sleep poorly and be exhausted for the battle, assuming they don’t die of exposure. You can make a lean-to whenever it looks like it might rain, but that will take up much more time than the fifteen minutes it takes to set up a tent, time you could’ve spent marching. You can’t just grit your teeth through hypothermia any more than you can being impaled.

Conan comes across the ruins of Duthil. They are not entirely unoccupied.

But scavenger birds were not all that moved in Duthil. A pair of Bossonian archers spotted Conan and Tarla as they came forth from the forest. “Mitra!” exclaimed one. “We missed a couple of these damned barbarians.”

“Well, we’ll get them now,” answered the other. Both reached over their shoulders for arrows, nocked them, and, in the same instant, let fly.

Do an experiment for me. Speak those two lines out loud, timing how long it takes to get through both of them. Then, see how much ground you can cover at a dead sprint in the same amount of time. This is the amount of ground Conan could’ve covered, either to engage the Bossonians or fleeing for cover in the wilderness, in the time these two dumbasses spent chatting instead of just shouting “Cimmerian!” and reaching for their bows. Even if you didn’t actually try it (most of you probably didn’t), you definitely take my meaning.

Both Bossonians aimed for Conan. He was plainly the more dangerous of the two—and, if they shot him, they might have better sport with Tarla. The bowmen were well trained and long practiced in what they did. Both shafts flew straight and true—but Tarla sprang in front of the blacksmith’s son and took them full in the breast.

Okay, fine, talking is a free action and the Bossonians shoot at Conan on sight despite their dialogue. Even ignoring that, if Tarla has time to dive in front of Conan, why didn’t Conan have time to duck? This really just further builds the image of Conan, this allegedly hyper-skilled hunter, staring dumbfounded at the men who just wrecked his village. If he’s overwhelmed by the destruction of Duthil, fine, but the narrative makes no mention of this.

Conan rendezvous’ with the Cimmerian horde and they retake Duthil, driving the Aquilonian garrison south. Our two viewpoint Gundermen split up, Granth sticks with Melcer to make a stand with the settlers while Vulth retreats to Venarium to make a stand within the radius of its passive combat buffs.

We talked about the racism of Conan. At some point, we’re also going to have to talk about the sexism of Conan. Harry Turtledove’s victim-blaming came up, but he’s not writing for the 50s:

Sciliax was older than most of the settlers who had come north out of Gunderland, and plainly set on old ways of doing things. But he glanced toward Granth, as if wondering what a real soldier thought of the question. Granth did not hesitate. “This fellow’s right,” he said, pointing Melcer’s way. “Whatever you do—whatever we do, I should say—our chances are bad. The more fighters we have, the better we’re likely to fare. I’ve seen Cimmerian women fight. Are ours weaker than theirs?”

So, y’know, that’s not a lot, but it’s something.

Here came a Cimmerian swinging a scythe. He was lean and dirty and looked weary, as if he had traveled a long way with nothing more in mind than murdering Melcer. He shouted something in his own language. Melcer could not understand it, but doubted it was a compliment. The Cimmerian swung back the scythe—and Melcer speared him in the belly.

The soft, heavy resistance of flesh tugged at the pike. For a moment, the barbarian simply looked very surprised. Then he opened his mouth wide and shrieked. Melcer felt like shrieking, too. He had never killed a man before. He had to kick out with his foot to clear the Cimmerian from his pike.

I don’t think Harry Turtledove knows what a pike is. You can’t kick someone off the end of it unless you’ve choked up more than halfway up the shaft (three-quarters if it’s Macedonian length). The weird thing is, he makes reference to spears in the hands of non-Gundermen, so he’s clearly aware that “pike” isn’t just some regional dialect term for “spear.” The same viewpoint characters refer to both separately. Does he think a pike is, like, one foot longer than a 5-ish foot spear? Because that would just be a slightly longer spear. Medieval polearm terminology isn’t that granular.

Another Cimmerian swung a two-handed sword, a stroke that would have taken off Melcer’s head had it connected. But the weapon was as cumbersome as it was frightful, and he easily ducked under it. He had gone a lifetime without killing anyone, but claimed his second victim only moments after the first.

And again! Even if this guy is swinging a claymore, if he’s close enough that Melcer has to duck under the blade, there’s no way he can spear him using a minimum-ten-foot pike.

Also, this random farmer has now killed two Cimmerians. Plot armor at work again.

The farmers are able to repel the first wave of Cimmerians, but there’s more where those came from. The chapter closes as the second wave arrives.

Chapter 12

This book has been building up to a showdown between its Aquilonian and Cimmerian viewpoint characters for its entire length. This is it. Conan and Mordec arrive with the second wave to fight with Melcer and Granth.

One of the pikemen—the one Conan had recognized—nodded in an almost friendly way to Mordec and him. “I knew the two of you were trouble,” the soldier said. “Now I see how right I was.”

Some of the Aquilonians at the camp by Duthil had been dreadful. Some had merely been hard. A few, this fellow among them, had been decent enough. “If you stand aside, Granth, we will spare you,” said Mordec. Granth shook his head.

“No. These are my people. If you try to harm them, I’ll kill you if I can.” “Honor to your courage.” Mordec might have been a man passing sentence.

The fight grew fierce again, the Cimmerians battling to push past the last few defenders. Granth went down. Conan did not see how. He only knew that he fought his way into the farmhouse.

“Granth went down.” That’s it. These last few passages have depicted a half-dozen Aquilonians and Cimmerians killed in blow-by-blow action, and yet when it comes time for a confrontation between named characters, he just “goes down.” Melcer doesn’t get any real final confrontation, either. Conan catches him fleeing the battle, demands he leave and never return, Melcer accedes, and Conan lets him go. If you wanted to emphasize the barbarian ways of the Cimmerians, this was your chance, but apparently Cimmerian barbarism mainly comes down to being bad at logistics and incapable of formation fighting.

The battle at the outskirts of Venarium is quick. The Aquilonians have a bunch of archers set up in the cover of the town, defended by some “pike”men, but the barbarians burn them out of their cover.

Open space separated the fortress from the town. Count Stercus had not permitted taverns and saddleries to encroach on the palisade. Whatever else he had been, he had made a competent military engineer. Bossonian archers on a walkway inside the palisade shot at any Cimmerian who ventured into the cleared area.

The archers also shot at Aquilonians who ventured into the cleared area. By then, the town’s attackers and defenders were inextricably mixed. Realizing as much, the Aquilonian officer in command ordered the gates shut against his countrymen outside, lest those gates also admit Cimmerians who would bring ruin with them.

Conan’s in trouble now. The Aquilonians have figured out how forts work.

And then, to Conan’s surprise, the gates of the fortress flew open once more. Out stormed the knights of Aquilonia, of whom he had heard so much. He had seen how fearsome Stercus seemed, riding into Duthil on his great horse in his helmet—the very helmet now topping Conan’s head—and back-and-breast. Twoscore knights thundered forth now, their lances couched, their faces—what could be seen of them—grim. “Numedides!” they cried, and, “Aquilonia!”

Well, maybe not. In fairness, having heavy cavalry sally forth from a fortress isn’t an indefensible tactic, but it’s definitely a bad look in a book where the first battle at the fortress saw it going completely unused.

Everything I have to say about Harry Turtledove’s writing on battles has been said, half of it reiterated in this post. The fight against the cavalry and the subsequent storming of the walls – and the barbarians do actually have to scale the walls, so it’s worth noting that this is a battle actually at Venarium – happens the same way the rest dead. Mordec takes an arrow to the chest with slightly more fanfare than Granth went down. If Vulth is in here, it was brief enough that I missed him (I am feeling kind of rushed today, so I may have actually missed him). Either way, that is the chapter – Conan has nothing left in Cimmeria, and resolves to leave.

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