WARNING: Wall o' Text!
Alexander, Crown Prince of the Empire, sat on his warhorse, looking out from his vantage point high in a mountain pass over the kingdom he had once seen as an immovable rock of stability. His army streamed past, totaling some 50,000 militia spears and 6,000 heavy cavalry, returning from campaign in the far North; a campaign that had ended prematurely due to the breathless report of a haggard courier.
The king, his father, was dead: murdered, so it seemed, by his younger brother John.
“I never thought you wanted the throne so much, brother,” he thought. “I never thought you would do this.”
Alexander took up the reigns of his horse and galloped down the slope, his personal cavalry guard following, purple banner emblazoned with the royal Lion Rampant snapping in the wind.
The room resounded with three knocks. Prince John looked up as the guards opened the massive doors and Duke Ferdinand stepped through. As John started to rise, the duke began without preamble:
“My lord, I bring terrible news.”
“Your father has been assassinated.” John simply collapsed back into his chair. “The killer was caught, and…interrogated. He confessed. Alexander sent him.”
“WHAT?!?” Normally John was the most soft-spoken of the Royal Family, but when his ire was raised, he could be truly fearsome.
“It seems he thought he could use the army to crush any challengers and claim the throne.”
“I refuse to believe that.”
The duke approached. “My lord, you must take action. Tell the people before your brother can sway them. Raise the levies to meet his army. Declare him a traitor and take the crown yourself.”
John opened and closed his mouth several times, but no words would come forth. Finally, he said, “Very well. Do it.”
Ferdinand bowed and left swiftly. As soon as he was sure the doors were firmly shut, John let his head fall to the desk and wept openly.
“I just don’t understand it! It’s not like my brother!” Alexander stalked his command tent, and his generals shrank back from his rage. Holding the edict and staring at his own portrait, his anger built until he crumpled the parchment and hurled it across the tent. “John would never declare me a traitor, much less kill our father. It’s not like him!” Alexander repeated.
“Your highness, please, calm down.” It was his trusted second, Baron Edward. “Whether or not it was your brother, clearly someone has an eye on the throne. They’ve accused you of attempting to use the army to seize the crown; perhaps you should. I know for a fact it was not you, but whoever it is, they mean this Empire ill, and they may use Prince John as a puppet ruler.”
“I will not fight my brother.”
“You may have to.”
The army had advanced through a remarkably normal countryside until their movement had met that of the Royal couriers. The people grew skittish; after all, the man who had their monarch murdered was marching by with an army at his back.
A scout stumbled into the command tent. His boots were caked with mud kicked up by his horse’s flailing hooves. The poor beast must have been ridden to the edge of its life. He saluted. “Your highness, I have seen troops marshalling, both spearmen and knights. It seems Duke Ferdinand leads it.”
A puzzled look crossed Alexander’s face. “Who called them?”
“Prince John, sir. Only, he’s calling himself king now."
Alexander waved the man out, and then closed his eyes. Without opening them, he spoke to his generals. “Ready your men to march. It seems we will have to fight after all.”
John and Ferdinand sat side-by-side on stunning warhorses. Thousands of troops stood deployed before them.
“How many?” John asked.
“About 30,000 spearmen. Almost 10,000 knights, though. Apparently they turn out better for an internal, political threat than an external one.”
“40,000. It will have to be enough.” John turned his horse and rode away.
The armies met just west of the crossroads of Swynwall. John had chosen this ground to maximize the advantages he held. The Greenspring River, slow and meandering, turned the ground soft. His left rested here, trusting to the muck to negate Alexander’s greater heavy infantry line. Farther east, where the ground became firmer, John’s massive cavalry force waited for battle. The road swung by the river and through the battleline, and fog would conceal the army until it was too late. Here John would fight his enemy—his brother.
Alexander swore as the nervous-looking courier waited. “Are you certain?” he asked.
“Yes, my lord. Some of the vanguard have already engaged John’s army.”
The Crown Prince shook his head. “Tell my generals. Deploy for battle, my knights on the left.” Both rode away in opposite directions.
As the fog lifted, two armies were revealed, facing off against one another. Alexander sat at the head of 6,000 heavy horse, looking out over a much greater enemy cavalry force. He prayed, “May God forgive me for what I am about to do,” then turned to the trumpeter who followed him like a puppy. “Sound the advance.”
John sat on a horse opposite his opponent. “Please brother,” he thought. “Don’t do this.” A trumpet sounded from the enemy line, and the mass of men and metal began to grind forward. King John, ruler of the Empire, rode forward at the head of the largest cavalry force his kingdom had ever seen. There were tears in his eyes.
The mud did what it was supposed to. Alexander’s spearmen were worn out and disrupted, and therefore did not shatter John’s outnumbered infantry as they would have on better ground. Still, these men were veterans who had ground through the crucible of combat before, facing untried militia. The cavalry advanced simultaneously. John’s line vastly overlapped Alexander’s, but Alexander’s seasoned warriors pushed their way through in compact masses, wheeling back into confused enemy formations.
The slaughter soon began in earnest.
A great roar rose from the infantry battle as men physically shoved one another back, spears lashing out, seeking and finding flesh to tear. The eastern end of the battlefield was a mill of horses and men, some living, some dead, and some in between. John began to wheel the units furthest to the right back inward, seeking to envelop his enemy, but a squadron of Alexander’s cavalry smashed into their flank, throwing the entire line into disarray. John blindly hacked with his saber, swinging his shield more in reflex than any effective attempt at self-preservation. Soon he had lost track of everything; the battle became a whirl of color and shouts and faces and screams of men and horses. One thing was clear, however: his horsemen, despite their superior numbers, were losing, succumbing to the greater experience of the enemy horse.
He located his standard-bearer, who had somehow managed to stay near his king. “Sound the withdrawal, my own squadron only,” John shouted over the din of battle.
As the notes rang out, John extricated himself from the fighting. His standard followed, waving as a rallying point for his own knights. From this point behind the lines, he could clearly see the bulges being forced into his infantry line, the sheer chaos of his cavalry. The army was wavering; soon it would dissolve entirely.
More answered the call than he expected. Those of John’s squadron who were dead, unable to hear the order, or unable to withdraw from battle accounted for only about forty of his original hundred. John watched as the men quickly reformed their ranks, slotting into line without having to be ordered to do so. John scanned the waving swords and spears and banners, searching for…
He found it: the unmistakable silver-on-purple lion of the Crown Prince. His brother was there. Pointing at it, he commanded his trumpeter to sound the charge, and rode directly toward that standard, sixty of the best horsemen in the Empire at his back.
The charge gained impetus as it advanced, more of John’s cavalry joining it as they realized that here a concentrated effort was being mounted, not a small, isolated, desperate melee. Alexander’s knights reeled from its ferocity. Once again, John plunged into that surreal whirlwind. He barely registered the distance covered by his mount’s long strides. Once again, his sword licked out almost of its own accord, rending flesh.
They were amongst Alexander’s personal cavalry. John stabbed one man in the face, seeking his brother. Soon, he sighted the richly decorated but functional armor the Crown Prince wore. Even as he watched, a knight struck Alexander through the shoulder with a lance. John’s brother slid from his saddle.
John dismounted and walked to the man he had grown up with. As Alexander struggled to his feet, John whispered “I’m sorry” and buried his sword into his brother, up to the hilt.
As blood bubbled from Alexander’s lips, he gasped out, “Why? Why did you kill our father?”
“I—I thought you did,” was John’s stunned reply.
He never heard, over the clash of weapons and thunder of hooves, the man approaching from behind. He never felt the spear that contemptuously brushed through his armor and pierced his heart. He never saw Duke Ferdinand turn over his body with a toe, making sure both princes were dead.
As Ferdinand lifted the crown from John’s bloodied brow, the word of Alexander’s death was already spreading like wildfire, his army melting away, leaving a trail of cast-off weapons and shields. John’s army, too exhausted to pursue, simply collapsed on the spot. Everything had gone according to plan.
Walking away from the carnage and twirling the crown in his hand, the Duke was already planning how he would spin John's glorious, yet tragic, death in bitter combat with his traitorous brother. He spoke to himself. “King Ferdinand. Has a nice ring, doesn’t it?”