Chapter 23
The Maksim Line

Ban Plateau, Byrn; Anno Regis 1286

"I've read stories of a small band of hardened fighters that fended off a massive invading army. They sacrificed their lives to buy time for their allies to fall back and carry on the fight another day. Their immortal deeds have spawned countless imitators over the course of history, some more successful than others."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

Life had steadily gotten worse for Klement Kasparov since he was taken captive by the foreign invaders. While the monk was in the custody of the knight Tariq, at least he was shielded from any overt mistreatment, but after the castle fell three weeks ago, he lost that protection. He was handed over to the enemy commander and pressed into service along with scores of unwilling conscripts. As member of the clergy, he forswore violence and abhorred the thought of killing another human being. As a Byrnan, he did not want to fight against his own countrymen, but the invaders had no tolerance for conscientious objectors.
He tried to escape once, but he did not get far before he was caught and beaten severely for his attempted desertion. Even though he could barely walk after his beating, the pitiless Gladians forced him to march in the front of the formation. Any time he started to lag behind the others, he was beaten all the more. It was a living hell, but he lacked the courage to become a martyr. In order to survive, he had to obey the invaders' every command.
His fortunes did not look like they were improving any when they reached Watchpost Maksim. Named after Byrn's greatest hero, the legendary Saint Maksim the Valiant, the watchpost was the kingdom's last line of defense. More than likely, the small garrison of hardened veterans would hold their ground while the survivors of the Dragon Guard took cover in the intricate cave system of Ban Plateau. At best, they would give their lives to delay the invaders long enough for the Dragon Guard to regroup for a counter-offensive.
As always, the conscripts were marched ahead of the enemy army. They could already see the palisades before them, staggered rows of sharpened logs meant to slow any attempt to charge en masse. Klement was under no illusions that the logs were the only hazard awaiting them in the mile-long stretch of land between them and the watchtower. He would quickly regret being right.
It was easy enough to go around the palisades, but as Klement had feared, they were not the only obstacle set by the garrison. Screams on the left flank were the first warning, followed by a few men who disappeared on the other side of the palisade Klement was crossing. Along with a few others, the monk rushed to where they disappeared and found the lost men fallen in a pit over a fathom deep. The men were cut and pierced all over from the sticks and jagged pieces of metal that lined the walls of the pit. The sight was horrible enough as it was, but worse yet, the men were still alive, writhing and howling in pain. In a dreadful sort of compassion, one of the conscripts put them out of their misery with a few well placed spear thrusts.
"Do the same for me if I get caught in one of these damned traps," the conscript told Klement, his eyes full of grim resolve.
The monk was taken aback by the request. Even mercy killings were beyond him. Why had it come to this? He was just a simple cleric. His life revolved around transcribing obscure texts only the most devoted scholars would ever read. He was never meant to walk on a battlefield, to kill his own countrymen or die for some foreign invader.
Another scream distracted Klement from his self-pity. Among the dozens of trees scattered about the field were other traps every bit as insidious as the spike pits. Snares would yank the hapless into the air, often ripping legs out of the socket, and rake-like contraptions would swing at their victims with all the force and lethality of a bear's paw. At least ten conscripts were dead and they had barely passed the first row of palisades.
The conscripts' started to retreat when they saw the hundreds of spears and pikes leveled at them. The Gladians were offering them only two choices: probable death by going forward and certain death by going back. The handful of Byrnan traitors who served as the conscripts' handlers wasted no time issuing their orders.
"Keep moving!" they barked. "Mark or disable every single trap between here and the watchtower! Ten of you die for every trap you miss!"
The conscripts had no choice but to push onward. It was bitterly slow going with people dying every step of the way. Nevertheless, the conscripts soon became adept at locating and avoiding the relatively small variety of traps set by the garrison. Within three days' time, they finally cleared the palisades and were less than a couple hundred yards from the watchtower. The price was steep--nearly one out of every three had died--and it would only get steeper.
Although they knew they were far from being out of danger, the conscripts were sure that the Gladians would charge forward in full force once they closed the short distance between themselves and the watchtower. A quick and decisive victory would put off any more deaths in the ranks for a little while at least. In these bleak times, it was the best they could wish for, but even that would not happen.
As the conscripts matched forward, they noticed the grass was stained and the ground smelled odd. It was not until Klement saw a half dozen lights at the watchtower that he realized the latest ploy. It was too late by then. Flaming arrows flew at the oil-soaked grass, igniting a blaze that left the conscripts with no escape. Ironically, their best chance of survival was to keep on going forward, but even that path was fraught with peril.
The frantic conscripts rushed through the flames and in range of the garrison's archers. Only about twenty of them were armed with bows and crossbows, but they were among the best marksmen in the kingdom. A crossbow bolt caught Klement in the leg and he was falling to the ground when one of his comrades grabbed him by the collar.
"Stay on your feet!" the conscript shouted. "As long as you can walk, keep moving! The foreigners'll trample you if you fall down!"
Klement was in terrible pain, but the thought of being crushed underfoot was even more terrible. Of course, moving closer to the watchtower was hardly a guarantee of survival. As the conscripts got closer to the walls of the compound, the soldiers pelted them with stones and poured out oil and boiling water from the windows. All the while, the invaders stood back and let them suffer the brunt of the garrison's fierce defense.
It was during the twilight hours that the battered conscripts found a lull in the fighting, and that was when the Gladians marched forward. Klement was having his leg wound treated when the ranks of the invaders came into view. It was not long before their handlers passed down the latest orders.
"Listen up, you dogs!" the most senior traitor yelled. "We're going to smoke out these rats! Half of you will gather wood for the fire and the rest will hold the line. Now get moving!"
In spite of his injury, Klement was chosen to go collect firewood, but he was not the only wounded man sent out there. The palisades meant to impede them were now being torn down and cut up to be used against the people they were meant to defend. In spite of the chill of the winter night, the Gladians did not light any campfires. Klement realized that they would soon have light and warmth enough.
After several hours of work, wood was piled high all around the watchtower compound. The garrison's efforts to harry the conscripts were not enough to stop them. It was part of the genius of having no light on the ground. The Byrnan soldiers could not see well enough to do any appreciable harm. The moment they threw down torches to give them a better view, they signed their own death warrant.
The flames quickly spread to encircle the entire compound. For added effect, the Gladians loosed dozens of fire arrows into the windows. Shielded by stone walls, the garrison was not likely to die by fire, but there were other ways for them to die. If they stayed inside, they would choke to death on the smoke and their enemies were lying in wait if they tried to flee the compound. It was a choice between one death or another. In the end, the men of the garrison opted for the latter.
There were only three doors to the whole compound, deadly choke points for anyone going in or out. The Gladian archers were trained on those three locations, but the garrison was more resourceful than their enemies expected. Some had abandoned their armor to squeeze through the narrow windows and divide the enemy's attention. It gave them a fighting chance, however slim that chance was.
The conscripts could not stand against the veteran soldiers and quickly gave ground. While Byrnan fought Byrnan, the Gladians moved in for the kill. However, the men of Watchpost Maksim were not untried recruits. They recognized the real threat and reacted accordingly. Ignoring the conscripts, they threw themselves at the invaders with the ferocity of wild beasts and the skillful cunning of seasoned professionals.
Klement had fallen when the men of the garrison first started to stream from the compound. He was not hurt badly, but he played dead, hoping that the ploy would allow him to survive the battle. With one eye half-open, he was amazed at what he saw. The men of the garrison proved themselves to be worthy successors to the legacy of Saint Maksim. Though wounded by blade, spear and arrow, each and every one stubbornly clung to life as they railed against the invading foemen. Even the scornful Gladians would long remember their valiant stand. They fought well past daybreak, but outnumbered five to one, it was only a matter of time before the inevitable conclusion.
The captive monk felt his heart sink when the last Byrnan soldier fell. A testament to the garrison's skill and their fierce determination to stall the enemy advance, the Gladians suffered more casualties in that place than any other in the entire campaign. It was a resounding blow for Byrn, but it would probably be the last.