1874-11-28: Ambush at Devil's Pass
Ambush at Devil's Pass
Summary: The Galenthians conduct an ambush at Devil's Pass, near Duval
Date: 28 Novembre, 1874 IE
Related: Any related to the Parthian invasion
NPCs: Captain Quirinius, Lieutenant Clarus, Serjeant Leocadia, Private Charmbury

A dozen of them huddled together in the low fire and lantern light of the tent, squinting at a series of parchments which had been scribbled on with pencils to make a rough diagram of the plan. A week or more of icy rain had turned to snow two days ago, and now blanketed the ground outside. This tent had been up before then, though – it was mercifully dry. These things didn’t bother the troops too much, though. They were used to cold weather, with few accustomed to the more delicate climate that this area normally provided. More than half of them wore the high collared dark grey doublets of House Chandus’s military, but among them, there were others, too – two officers from House Tarris itself, their Duchy’s own forces, a salty Optio from House Venantius and, of course, a Strathclyde Highlander Lieutenant with a long, flowing red moustache.

This varied group of Galenthian soldiers was gathered in a low and rather hidden camp to the east of Duval, deeper in the mountainous terrain than the moorland which had rather recently played host to Caltu raiders, since captured and dispersed. This was wild country, at least for their Parthian adversaries. Few people lived here and there was little to gain in attempting to occupy it, and worse – those that did live here, the herdsmen and game hunters, had nothing but contempt for the southern invaders; contempt and javelins and sling shot.

The officer commanding the whole event, or OC, was a heavily bearded Chandus man, Captain Marshall Quirinius, and he knelt in the middle. By the sigil knit on his doublet he was one of the Sun Shield Guardsmen, the house’s heavy infantry. “Well, gentlemen. We will be conducting an ambush of a grain convoy moving up from the enemy siege lines around Duval to their front line camps. Enemy convoys have thus far consisted of no more than a strong platoon of escorts, plus teamsters. We will be marching with two platoon groups for the main force, same as we’ve been doing by mixing us all about, and a blocking force courtesy of our Duke’s own fine soldiers and our friends the Venantii.” He flashed a grin at the Tarris men and the Optio, who nodded in deference. They knew who held command in this area. This is what the war had become for these men of the East – fighting patrols consisting mainly of ambushes and raids. Don’t take or hold ground, unless it’s in a marginal spot away from it all – engage in skirmishes and reconnaissance. It suited them, especially those from the most mountainous areas, used to this way of life.

“The blocking force will act as either the bait, or the spur for them to move back the way they came. Number Six Platoon will have the majority of our missiles, and will whittle them. Number Four Platoon will be the assault force. Highlanders to provide cut off and security.” Captain Quirinius highlighted the different roles of each force, using a small knife to point things out on the sketches. “The Rangers have picked out a route which we have not touched before, one of the few left east of Duval. One more thing – we’ll be prepared to disengage if there are more than a platoon of real soldiers.” The Parthians often outnumbered them. It was why they’d adopted these tactics in the first place, and they were effective. They knew the land well enough, and were adapted to the climate. They had short supply line and could operate at will in marginal areas. Whatever wounded they took were easily and quickly moved back into areas firmly under control, whether their patrol bases south of the Parthian’s front or in the rear to the north. The Venantius fortress at the Redoubt had become prominent as a staging area, and Parthian attempts to take it had been rebuffed.

“I won’t bother with detailed groupings and tasks. You know your forces and roles. Questions in two minutes.” The officers and Serjeants descended into a low murmur of talk. The groups operating along and beyond the front line were highly varied and mixed – several company groups of Chandus soldiers, the de Ufford Blackguards light regiment, two squadrons of Royal Dragoon mounted scouts, and the Royal Burnished Spurs along with some attached Venantius and Tarris troops. Others who’d been in the south earlier in the year were now penned up in Duval with the garrison, near one thousand plus garrison artillery, well supplied and until now holding out. House Reine’s fearsome soldiers, the Royal Borderers and several Tarris Battleline regiments were arrayed to block the Parthians from advancing north up the Leonor and Scamandar rivers, while more remained in reserve further in depth. It was an adequate force – but just that. The Parthians had tried to push on more than one occasion and been rebuffed, and now seemed to be focusing on operations to the south around Duval and within the Sokar lands, but if they conducted a concerted offensive north, there might be trouble.

Only, there might not be. The Parthians had taken too long to invade, and subsequently the harvest had already been completely taken in. Most of it was stored securely north of what the invaders had captured, or else was in Duval. Subsequently, to feed their thousands of soldiers in Tarris lands, they needed to ship grain and other foodstuff from across the Great Salt, and with autumn gone and winter upon them, this would be harder and harder – the Salt was not known for its forgiving nature in these seasons. Meanwhile, the Eastern forces were well supplied and operating in familiar conditions.

A short, stocky man with three chevrons on his right shoulder and a grey caubeen beret of the Chandus Ironside Spearman (newly renamed from their former name of Borderer, in honour of their antecedents for service in the recent wars) raised his hand. “Serjeant Leocadia, Number Four Platoon. The maps say this is about a twenty mile jaunt from here to the objective rendezvous site. Are we to assume that this is going to be done fully over night? And are we eschewing pack animals for this?”

Captain Quirinius nodded with a smile. “Both correct. The Rangers have done the pathfinding for us and set out a trail to the site. We’ll all carry packs with day rations and some very basic tools, but we’ll need to bed down during the day and keep out of sight. No tents. We’ll be a lot more mobile than them, and we can melt back into the wilds.” Leocadia considered the answer and took down something on his own sheet of parchment. “And any supplies we find?” A short laugh. “We fill our packs and burn the rest. If they come after us, the packs get dropped and we burn them too.” Leocadia nodded briefly. “Thanks, sir.” The level of respectful informality might surprise those not from these lands, but it was considered a normal feature here. The Captain simply moved on.

Within five minutes, the orders group was over. Leocadia moved back with his platoon commander Lieutenant Clarus, a young officer of gentle birth with a good head on his shoulders. “We’ll let the lads get some sleep after they pack their kit up for the march and ready themselves. The camp defence staff will worry about tents and such. Keep them focused, Serjeant.” Leocadia simply nodded wearily. The sun was not yet high in the sky, but he was hoping to score at least a few hours of rest after ensuring that the soldiers were ready.

The sun began to drop and they moved. It was well below freezing already. The march had been uneventful, with snow piling on top of the several inches already on the ground. The Galenthians moved swiftly, their short mountain boots strapped in to snow shoes that made the passage far easier than it might have been. Lorrica armour had long been swapped for lamellar brigandine cuirasses; there was nothing but the quiet jingle of mail muffled by dark grey surcoats for noise of armour, and brigandine among the melee troops. Every hour, the group would perform a halt in a covered place, set security out and rest for a few minutes. It meant that they didn’t sweat too much, kept their energy and their wits about them.

Eventually, the sun disappeared below the horizon. The company made the objective rendezvous, a waiting area ahead of the ambush site, with many hours of darkness to spare and had occupied a cold camp, men not on watch huddled together in a small group with blankets thrown over their bodies and kit. Then, they’d moved off to the hill side.

The ground was miserable, and an ambusher’s dream – a wide road that gave the illusion of safety, surrounded by gently sloping wooded hills, difficult to see into but easy to hide. They called it Devil's Pass. The Tarris soldiers attached to their mixed platoon had been posted south near Duval before, and told them that this had always been a troubled road infested with bandits – never move with less than two sections of protection. To do so was to invite disaster, and these soldiers had fought off more than one attempt to overwhelm them and steal their goods in the past. Over time, movement shifted more towards the Leonor river and the paths around it, though this remainded a secondary route. The Parthians were unlikely to have gotten such a comprehensive handover upon their invasion; furthermore, the Leonor was freezing over, not good news for Parthian ships unused to such climes. Not being able to rely on ships, they now had to use any paths that they could to ensure that their forces were fed.

Six Platoon, their support base with most of the archers and slingers, had occupied a decent area on the opposite side of the road, angled so that their missiles wouldn’t affect Clarus and Leocadia’s Four Platoon as they moved in for the kill during the assault. There were better positions on that side of the road, with better lines of sight, but those were the obvious ones. Only a brand new commander would have chosen them, as they would surely be where the enemy sent their own scouts to try and flush them out. They would find nothing, and the sites occupied ensured that they could see enough while being able to withdraw on call.

There would be a few hours before the convoy made its way to the ambush site, according to the Rangers. Instead of tiring out everyone, Lieutenant Clarus pulled most of his platoon back into the objective rendezvous on the reverse slope and left a few sentries in the vantage point to watch if anything changed. The troops huddled together, their armour on and weapons at hand, but helmets to their side. No one put helmets on until just before battle, but they all kept their warm helmet liner on their head. Serjeant Leocadia observed his kit in front of him. Short spear. Gladius on his left side. Dagger on the right. Kite shield, its Sun in Splendour sigil covered by leather, just like their uniforms were subdued for stealth. All as normal.

He arched an eyebrow at the new pieces – five small, lead weighted darts, no more than a foot and a half in length, with barbed heads and fletched rears, like arrows. This was a new one, brought in for the fighting that they’d been doing since Partharia invaded. Officially, they were listed on the quartermaster’s documents as, ‘Dart, Barbed’ but the troops all called them ‘Wasps’ for the buzzing sound they made when thrown. Not as big as a javelin but heavier than an arrow, they were easy enough to carry and packed a punch when they hit, and their construction made them conducive to penetrating light to medium armour. Leocadia loved them. They meant that foot soldier such as him were able to shower the enemy with missiles on their approach, keeping them disjointed and preserving their own initiative.

Everyone in the platoon carried them, except for the five archers who were attached to them. Most archers were in the support group on the other side of the road, but Captain Quirinius had ensured that all groups had some mix of troops. Four of their attached archers were seasoned soldiers with at least a campaign under their belt, except for the youngest – Private Charmbury. Leocadia observed the newest member of the platoon with a relaxed countenance, contrasting with the young lad’s nervous demeanour. Picking his shield up, he went to go sit with him.

“Charmbury. This your first ambush?”

The young man nodded. “My first anything, Serjeant.”

A meaty hand patted him on the shoulder. “Nothing to worry about. Either we catch them with low trousers, or we don’t. We’ve enough for either situation, we’re all fit and can ruck out of here. We know the land and they don’t – and they have a convoy to protect. We can move freely with only our packs and weapons. And our snow shoes. They don’t even know how to move cross country in snow.”

The archer gave him a nervous smile, but said nothing.

“Your family’s new in the County, eh? Parents or Grandparents?”

Charmbury eyed his Serjeant warily for a moment, before answering, “Parents. Moved from Griffon Point to Silvermines. They’re miners. How’d you know?”

Leocadia chuckled. “Your name. Most all change it in a few generations. My great great grandparents came from Daltre lands, way back when, afore the border was closed with the Empire. They changed it right away. S’what makes us unique, I guess. You speak Imperial?”

The lad nodded.

“Well, then you’re halfway there.” Leocadia said, leaning back on the ground. His smile faded and his demeanour grew serious. “Listen. Watch your arcs. We need you to be intimate support. I know you Leatherbacks are up on what that means. You’ve got less shots in your quiver than your mates across the way, so don’t fucking empty it at first contact. The platoon on the other side in support will make sure that they Southron’s busy. You keep sure that there aren’t any nasty surprises for us, and watch our flanks. And when we get in close, you be ready to sling that bow of yours and hack ‘em down with your gladius. You’re a soldier, and this’ll be soldiers work.”

Hours passed. Finally, word came down from the line of Rangers that were pushed out as far as two miles from the ambush site - the enemy was coming. Troops rolled over for one last nervous piss, or in the case of one Guardsman, a quick shit far too close to the rest of the platoon, who jeered at him until being told to “Shut their fucking holes and get up the hill” by Serjeant Leocadia. Soon enough, they were settled in the shallow trenches which had been dug to provide them with cover and concealment on the opposite side of the hill. Now it was a waiting game.

Minutes passed, seeming to those on the ground like hours. Every movement sounded like a thunder storm that would surely reveal their presence to the oncoming Parthians. Exhaled breath hung in the air like clouds of smoke – surely the enemy couldn’t fail to see that?

But they didn’t notice. The first Parthians that were visible were a pair of scouts on their beautiful light horses. Though the horses steamed in the cold, it was plain that neither they nor their riders were built for the below freezing weather. They rode up the road a few hundred yards, made a half-hearted effort to examine the ditches by the side of the road and then signalled their main body with a blast of a Parthian hunting horn, an odd, unsettling sound coming from a short ram’s horn on a rope. Next were some spearmen, heavy cloaks piled on top of their tunics to keep them warm. They seemed even more desultory than the riders, barely bothering to look up the hillside.

Leocadia looked left and right, observing his troops. While Lieutenant Clarus was concentrating on the mission and waiting on the signal to advance, it was Leocadia’s job to make sure that the troops were holding to their discipline and ready to go on the attack. Any nervousness that was percolating in the men seemed to have vanished; even Charmbury eagerly fingered his bow string, an arrow already laid atop it. Leocadia shifted his eyes to the young archer’s equipment. His buckler was secured tightly in the small of his back, and his scabbard unlikely to move much either. Professional. Good.

The Serjeant snapped his gaze back to the road at the approach of wagons. There were more than he’d expected, fifteen of them with southron teamsters, surrounded mostly by slave spearmen and javalineers in boiled leather armour. They were thin, and looked dejected, demoralised. Grist for the mill. More troubling were the section of ten desert lancers in the centre of the convoy, atop their light chargers. These were professional troops, and surely they thought that their presence was wasted. So to the section of crossbowmen alongside them.

Well, a tougher nut to crack than expected. Probably forty or so plus the teamsters. If they passed the head of the valley, then Leocadia knew that Captain Qurinius would have decided to pass on this force, but he doubted that he would let it come to that. They still outnumbered them nearly three to one, and held a commanding position on two sides.

The convoy rolled on. Leocadia began to have second thoughts, that the ambush might actually being aborted. Then, the sound of screams and horses neighing emanated from up the road, just out of sight. One of his soldiers began to climb out of his trench until the Serjeant hissed, “Get back in there, you fucking wretch! No signal!” Of friendly signals, there were none, but the Parthians began to blow their rams’ horns and form up in a wagon laager, parking their wagons in an oval in the middle of the road.

Or at least that was the intent. Whether on purpose or not, an arrow snapped out of the woods on the opposite side of the road and into one of the pack mules drawing a wagon. The wounded animal cried out, rearing and smashing into one of its fellows, causing a chain reaction of animals. The teamsters quickly lost control, unprepared for this. Soon, a shower of arrows and sling bullets began to rain over the beleaguered convoy, dropping animals and teamsters alike. Whatever plans to form a wagon laager they might have had were a complete wash, as animals dragged their wagons clear of the road and into the ditch or fell in place.

The Parthian soldiers seemed nearly paralysed; the sound of horns down the road indicated that the blocking force was in fact marching in ranks towards them, and they were being hit from one side. The desert lancers moved into the ditch on the assault force’s side of the road, shielding them from the arrows of the Number Six Platoon’s support base on the opposite side of the road and enabling them to form up to try and attack the blocking force marching down the road. Half of the spearmen and javalineers joined them, while the other half remained in the laager, shielding themselves in formation. The Parthian crossbows took position behind wagons and begin to try and shoot back at Six Platoon. It would be rather difficult. Leocadia knew they were entrenched, difficult to see and to hit. The crossbows would likely waste their ammunition.

A smoking arrow arced through the air at a high angle, and Serjeant Leocadia grinned. Lieutenant Clarus raised his sword, rasping in a still quiet voice, “Number Four Platoon! Prepare to move!” The troops pushed out of their trenches, loosened their swords in their scabbards or shifted their spears to their shield hand and took a dart – a wasp – in hand. “In skirmish order… ADVANCE!”

On the assault, the officer’s job was to lead from the front, with his Corporal section commanders controlling the individual groups. Meanwhile, the Serjeant stayed in the rear to ensure that the troops were keeping in formation and pushing where needed. Their platoon was formed two sections up and one in depth, a so called “Two-up Tee”. This meant that Leocadia was in line with the depth section, all five of their platoon’s archers and some spearmen, along with their designated medic, a spearman who’d been trained by the real healers to properly clean and bandage wounds. They all advanced in loose order, still partially crouched. The Parthians in the roadside ditch had still not spotted them, more interested in the enemy to their front and the arrows pelting the wagon laager. But they were about ready to trot off and attack the blocking force on the road.

“Number Four Platoon – prepare to loose wasps.” A pregnant pause as the two front sections reared back, slowing their jog down the hill to take aim. “LOOSE!” The Lieutenant’s voice was punctuated by the whirr of twenty of the barbed darts. Some of the wasps hit trees or missed entirely, thunking into the ground. Still, many of them found their marks. Most of the good shots hit horses, unarmoured legs or arms, causing utter chaos in the Parthian ranks. Having been ready to charge to their front, they were now receiving missiles in their unshielded right flank.

“SECTION! SECTION! SECTION!” Came the platoon commander’s cry. This meant that each section would move in two groups under control of their Corporals, the first charging forward ten yards while the second held firm and loosed a second round of wasps. The Parthians, still disoriented, were beginning to draw together in a shallow semi-circle in the ditch, horses abandoned as they fell or darted away and shields locked.

Serjeant Leocadia yelled, “Three section! Concentrate your shot on the crossbows!” It was in good time, as the crossbowmen were reorienting themselves to the threat in their rear. Hucking one of his darts in a long shot, Leocadia turned to see Private Charmbury take aim and snap off three shots in succession at the crossbows. “Watch your ammo, lad!” He reprimanded, though with a smile. The sharp rush of battle flowed through his blood, as it did all of them.

Leocadia looked down the hill as Lieutenant Clarus yelled, “GROUP! GROUP! GROUP!”. The two lead sections broke up into pairs, now, moving like a swarm of ants down a hill towards the foe. “Three section, let’s go!” Leocadia urged the depth force closer to the battle, in order to continue to support the rest of the platoon. “Keep on those crossbows!”

Not that they were truly much of a problem. In earnest, many of the Parthians had expended most of their ammunition or were already peppered with arrows, sling bullets or, now, wasps from the approaching infantry. The teamsters were trying to form up into their own group by their wagons, but receiving a bad end of it as they too were showered with missiles.

The crashing sound of troops pushing into the ragged remnants of the Parthian lancers and the foot spears signalled the beginning of the end for this fight. Exhausted and demoralised by the weather, surprised by a three sided ambush and overwhelmed by superior numbers and training, they were swiftly slaughtered by the spears and swords of the two lead sections. Leocadia brought the depth section around and ahead of the fight. As the missiles from the support base ceased shooting, the Serjeant’s section moved into the destroyed wagon laager and finished off the crossbowmen. The teamsters tried to put up a fight, to their credit putting their backs to a couple of wagons and attempting to stand against the Galenthians, but it was no use. They simply could not stand against professionals.

Leocadia looked around, eyes wide, blood pulsing through his veins with the thrill of a successful ambush. Strewn all along the ground were dead, or wounded Parthians, and their animals. Somehow, a fire had been set in one of the wagons, smoke rising into the clear early morning sky like a beacon of devastation. “Four platoon, ammunition and casualties.” The Serjeant’s voice boomed loud enough for all to hear and yet somehow still sounding quiet.
“One section, thirty wasps, all okay.”
“Two section, thirty three wasps, all okay.”
“Three section, fifteen wasps, fourty six arrows, all okay.”
Leocadia didn’t bother to take it down. Not but scratches marred his men. “Recover your wasps if you can, lads, strip these poor buggers of their weapons and kit and grain, and prepare for follow on.”

The lull post combat was always deceptive, and usually dangerous. A battle, especially a successful one, dulled the senses and made one easy prey to a counter reaction. The troops had drills to follow to prevent complacency, but this was a fight against human nature.

The air was filled with the tang of blood, the smell of smoke from the burning wagon and the sound of laughter intermixed with groans from the remaining Parthians. The section commanders organised their troops in looting the corpses, or separating wounded from dead. Some expected to simply slit their throats, but orders were given to put them by the side of the road where their comrades would find them. A wounded Parthian, it was reasoned, would take more effort to treat than a dead one.

None of them expected the Parthians’ comrades to show up as soon as they did. A blast from one of their Ranger’s horns alerted them to movement down the road to the south. Even on a cold, clear day, it was still hard to make out exactly what was on the road, but it was clear that it was full of metal and bearing down there way.

“Officers and serjeants, on me!” Cried the grizzled Company Serjeant Major, jogging through ranks that a moment before had been carrying on and enjoying their post-ambush rush. Corporals and lance corporals hustled their troops to form into blocks to the north, that is up the road, of the ruined wagon laager.

The group of senior soldiers conferred quickly, with the OC Captain Quirinius in command. “Rangers got back. They’re cataphracts.” Despite the seriousness of this all, the company commander was laughing. “They don’t know about our little support base, and we still outnumber them. I think. Lieutenant Mascius of Six Platoon tells me he’s still got enough sling bullets and arrows to make their day nasty. Form up under the Serjeant Major and make this count.” He was never one for big speeches.

The Serjeant Major walked through the sections, picking out both Ironside and Tarris spears, Sun Shield Guards and Venantius troops with their swords and the archers. There weren’t many of the latter – most of them were up on the hill, still out of sight. “You, spears, front, first two ranks. Plant your fucking shields and spears. Guards and sellsword scum,” this with a grin on his face, “middle, help brace with your swords.” The dig was meant to refer to the handful of Venantius men at arms, whose origin was as Kentairish mercenaries fighting alongside the Thorn nearly a decade ago. The laughter among the troops helped break the tension. “Archers, get in the fucking rear. We keep one section of sword-y types in the back with the OC and me and the standard. Alright, move it, move it!”

Surprisingly, the cataphracts did little more than approach and sniff at the tight group of spears formed up across the road. Their officers either must have been naturally cautious or simply wary that whatever had been sprung on the convoy would be on them next. Their heavy warhorses encased in armoured barding stomped their feet. They screamed in guttural Parthian, and they made obscene gestures at the Galenthians, but none approached much past bowshot. Some of their supporting cavalry archers shot arrows at the shield wall, but it wasn’t very effective.

Captain Quirinius made the call. “We’re going to withdraw, in sections. First, I want to get rid of this. Light it.” A handful of the swordsmen darted forward, weapons sheathed and torches in their hands, and set the wagons aflame with their precious cargo of Parthian wheat. Still, the cataphracts did not come. Two short Galenthian horn blasts followed, and they began to withdraw in an orderly fashion.

To the Parthians, they must have looked like a group of grey centipedes moving back into the snow covered trees, having sown death and destruction at will.

The withdrawal took them on a totally different route than the one they came. It was much faster; there was far less stopping, and much more impetus to put distance between them and the cataphracts. After doing so well during the ambush, Private Charmbury was utterly spent. He fell into the snow on more than one occasion and had to be rescued by Serjeant Leocadia and the troops of Number Four Platoon. After it happened three times, he was verbally berated by the Serjeant. Discipline had to be maintained. A petulant look and upset expression was quickly quelled by an unblinking Serjeant’s stare.

They need not have bothered being so careful. The Parthians had no way of moving cross country like they did in the winter. Their horses were not shod for it, and their troops were not accustomed to it, and this taught a valuable lesson to the Galenthians – they could own the countryside, if they were careful.

As the sun dipped below the horizon for a second time, a windblown and exhausted company stumbled back into their forward camp, greeted by a small crew of camp guards that had already gotten food and fires ready for them. There was a priority of work, but it would wait until after they stripped gear off and got out of the wind for a few hours.

The officers and serjeants, of course, were immediately called into the command tent, weary as they were. Serjeant Leocadia and Lieutenant Clarus dropped their armour and all except for their swords in their tent, threw on heavy cloaks and followed the rest of their peers. To their surprise, a half dozen fresh faced officers were there, and chief among them, their Viscount, Brigadier Thomas Chandus.

He smiled gregariously. “Well done, lads. Take your rest and refit. You’ve earned it. More are arriving tonight. Warm your bones and ready yourselves for two days hence. We march on Duval.”

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