FROM CHAPTER 23
With the next dawn Constantine joined his troops. The memory of Beth was nothing but the remnants of a very pleasant dream which he shook off with the light. Of the map he remembered nothing at all.
Services were held before dawn in the Great Cathedral. As he afterwards rode through the crowds that lined his path to the triple walls he thought of how beautiful the earth can seem when death may be near. “In saffron-colored mantle from the tides of oceans rose the morning to gods and men.” Outside the city defenses he blessed the city and prayed the prayer of victory with his men. John Pikridios had given him another Homeric quote with which to address his troops:
“Oh friends, be men and let your hearts be strong,
And let no warrior in the heat of fight
Do what may bring him shame in others’ eyes;
For more of those who shrink from shame are safe
Than fall in battle, while with those who flee
Is neither glory nor reprieve from death.”
Only the emperor could see a figure flitting in and out between some cumulus clouds above the marching army, or hear a far away voice singing: “Ho-jo – to – ho!” For just a moment Constantine imagined that the figure swept very close through the sky above him and that the sun reflected off a gilded and bulbous breastplate almost blinding him. He had prayed that Saints Sergius and Bacchus would fight along with his men but certainly this was not one of the military saints. The Valkyrie drew a cape across her glinting bosom and when her mount reared in the sky above him Constantine saw or imagined that her legs were bare under the shortest of leather skirts, reinforced with iron plates. Beneath it the straps of a leather panty showed. She was not wearing her usual high heels. Instead her legs were encased in short boots and bound with bands that crossed and recrossed from her pretty feet to the straps of her panty.
“Ho-jo – to – ho! How Say you, Your Serenity? Do you like my battle-dress?”
Nice, Constantine thought in answer, but said nothing. His head hurt. “Listen to Bertmund.” What was it Bertmund said? “Belisarius would remind us that a few cataphracts attacking at a decisive moment are of more worth than thousands trying to engage infantry in the woods. He would not hesitate to use those thousands in other ways than combat.” Constantine himself thought that too many cataphracts encumbered the army. There are also light cavalry and archers. But to rely on them would displease the cataphracts who think they have a right to own the battlefield. They must not feel slighted.
The Bulgar khan planned an ambush, planned it well to intercept his enemy two day’s march from the Via Egnatia, the great stone road along coastal Thrace. The Romans would have to move inland to reach the Struma where according to the blind Nasoforis, they intended to chastise the barbarians who had broken them four years before, destroying their army and enslaving its remnants. The khan thought he knew every important detail of the Roman attack; its route through the mountains, the strength of the cataphract troop, Constantine and his officers; their strengths and weaknesses.
The sun was not yet very high when advance units of the Bulgar force reached a pretty meadow wet by a shallow stream. The day was bright and seemed yet brighter here where the forest gave way to open marshland. The warriors expected that in another day they would reach the place of their planned ambush of the Roman force moving up the coast. Had they any cause for concern here, Khardam might have sent a few mounted men to scout a rise just beyond the marsh; but his mind was focused elsewhere. After we eliminate Constantine’s army again, the way will be open through Thrace. We’ll scare his mother and her gelding general Stauratius plenty. They’ll be more than happy to provide us with everything we’ll need to reach the Adriatic. Ah, the nice warm sea. My people will forever praise me. A land of grapes and olives with an easy winter.
The Romans had endured the chill of the previous night without fires. Breakfast had been cold sausage and cold eggs cooked the day before. There was a little wine but the older cataphracts had kept the younger from drinking to the point that they would not be clearheaded. A pink dawn had spread across the sky and lit the marshy field that stretched along the stream a little below them. They had early formed a ragged battle-line hidden among the cypresses. Now they waited concerned only that their mounts might give them away with a noisy display or that the sun might find a bit of chain mail beneath their cloaks to glint from. Neither happened. If a Roman horse occasionally whinnied to its neighbor, a pat on the neck silenced the mount and the sound was lost among the noise of several thousand moving Bulgars.
The day would be cool; a good day for hard work if entirely too pretty to be killing and mutilating. Some troopers had images of saints painted on their kite-shaped shields. These they kissed. All crossed themselves, their thoughts a mix of fearful devotion and wary attention to the enemy that straggled in bunches of friends into the field below them. Priests moved silently between the cataphracts offering icons to be kissed, prayers for their safety, a few words of faith for the younger men, and absolution. Now Roman battle standards took the morning breeze and their icons were raised before them. A line of dismounted archers, who had been resting on the hill’s reverse slope, formed up behind the cavalry.
When the Bulgar men were well away from the tree-line which still hid their families and animals Constantine, who had been standing beside one of the cypresses, mounted his war-horse and trotted to the line of lancers. He took the banner bearing Christ’s Labarum from a standard bearer and rode along the line. He had no brave words of Homer now nor would his soldiers want to hear a speech. He did not even signal the trumpeters but made a hand-signal to the officer commanding the archers.
The air was filled with heavy-headed arrows. After three salvos of agony and death fell on the confused enemy below him, Constantine did give an order to his trumpeters. Before the war trumpets had sounded three notes, many hundred — but not several thousand — cataphracts were forming up in front of the tree-line. Within a minute they were proceeding at a quick walk toward the marsh, being sure to maintain a proper line. The trumpets sounded again and the cataphracts urged their armored mounts to a trot. A third trumpet blast when within a hundred yards of the enemy brought the horses to a gallop and lances to the ready. Now they were so close that they could see the last volley of arrows falling like a summer hail storm before them in the sun.
It was not a pitched battle of thousands but it was a humiliation for Khardam. It was a slaughter but not the slaughter Khan Khardam had planned. His own foot soldiers lay where Roman arrows felled them en mass. Roman lances had dispatched hundreds more and Roman spathions several times as many; for Constantine had led an advanced guard into the mountains two days before Khardam.
After much death and many failed attempts to rally his warriors, Khardam and most of his supporting cavalry managed to disengage from their own foot soldiers and escape. Soon the Bulgar infantry followed him into the forest as best they could. A few days later the large and heavy Roman main force finally joined up with their emperor, bringing with them the fire-weapon and the baggage. An attack on Struma had never been intended; nor would the fire-weapon be needed to defend Roman positions against counterattack. Constantine had understood the terrain better than Khardam and had used his light forces effectively without offending the pride of the imperial cataphracts. The Bulgar advance was halted. For seventeen days Constantine’s cavalry pursued Khardam with his main army, but the khan would not be brought to combat again. He retreated deep into the forest, then had to face his angry clan leaders. Why was it, they demanded, that he had survived when so many of their kinsmen lay dead? Had he not mocked the Roman emperor for that after Markella?
Back in the city Stauratius seemed friendly and spoke informally with his emperor in as man-to-man a manner as protocol allowed. The old eunuch now offered advice, rather than discoursing as he had when Constantine had been only a little younger. That might have been because Constantine had proven himself against the khan. It might also have been to promote himself over his rival Aetius in the emperor’s mind. In fact it was to put Constantine off his guard.