Authors: James Becker
The Lost Testament
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The First Apostle
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The Lost Testament
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Copyright © 2016 by Peter Smith
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eBook ISBN 9780698187016
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
15 November 1315
Near Lake Ägeri, Canton of Schwyz
“We are facing a disorganized rabble, nothing more. You cannot even dignify this motley collection of farmers and serfs by calling them a peasant army. I would prefer not to sully my blade with the blood of any one of them.”
The man who’d spoken was standing with a group of his fellow knights near the center of a large open area of flat land, the site they’d chosen for their overnight camp. All around them, snowcapped mountain peaks contrasted with the pale blue of the sky, a low bank of clouds to the west threatening more snow later. The clear blue waters of Lake Ägeri shimmered just a short distance away from the edge of the camp.
The knights were fully armed and ready for combat, each wearing a linen surcoat bearing his armorial emblem,
with the device repeated on his shield. These were essential means of identification in the confusion of a battlefield, where each man’s face would be hidden inside his enclosed helmet. They were waiting for the orders from the leader of the army, Leopold of Austria, to mount their warhorses and ride as the vanguard of a force of more than ten thousand well-trained men-at-arms. Their task, on behalf of Frederick of Habsburg, Duke of Austria and Styria and King of Germany, was to smash their way through any opposition and by doing so open up the most direct route through the mountainous terrain in front of them and then drive on into Italy and seize this strategic swath of territory for the Habsburgs.
There was not the slightest possibility that his experienced, well-armed, and properly equipped fighting men could fail to prevail over the ragtag opposition that the fledgling confederates of Schwyz and Uri had apparently managed to assemble, and Leopold knew it. But even then, he had taken no chances.
The operation had been planned as a surprise attack, with his army advancing from the south past Lake Ägeri and then on through the Morgarten Pass, and he had expected nothing less than a total victory. The ace he was playing was that the obvious approach for his army to take had been from the west, passing near the village of Arth, where his spies had confirmed that the confederates of Unterwalden had already erected fortifications and had dug themselves in to prepare for the expected battle.
That crucial piece of intelligence was why he and his men hadn’t done that but had instead approached from the
south, effectively splitting the opposition forces. By the time the confederates of Unterwalden finally realized they had been outmaneuvered, it would be too late for them to regroup. Leopold’s army would first destroy the men from the Schwyz and Uri confederates, then move on to mop up the confederate of Unterwalden.
Their opposition was, as the knight had just stated, a hastily assembled force of perhaps a thousand men, not militarily trained, and equipped with the simplest and most basic of weapons, and Leopold’s men knew it. And that, perhaps strangely, was the reason for their disquiet. In an age where chivalry and the responsibilities of knighthood were taken very seriously, many of the men listening to him shared exactly the same sentiments. Sending a mounted and armored knight into battle against ordinary foot soldiers was not considered simply unsporting, but actually disgraceful conduct and entirely unworthy of a member of the warrior class.
“Perhaps our swords can remain sheathed, my brother,” one of his companions suggested. His armorial device identified him as a member of the powerful Austrian Huenenburg family. “We have seen no sign of movement in their camp since early this morning, so possibly they took my advice.”
Several of the other knights chuckled at this remark. They were all aware that the previous evening, on sighting the position where the opposing forces had established themselves for the night, Henry of Huenenburg had prepared a simple note, crept to within a few dozen yards of the enemy camp, then attached it to an arrow and fired it
into the center of the encampment. The brief written communication had simply explained that Leopold’s forces would be traveling through the Morgarten Pass the following day and advised the peasants that their best option would be to return home, put their primitive weapons aside, and not attempt to interfere with their passage.
“The problem, as I see it,” Henry continued, “is that there may well be nobody over there who can actually read.”
There were more chuckles from the other armed knights.
“But it is true that their camp appears to be deserted this morning,” another knight said. “So clearly they must have gone somewhere, and faced with an army of this power and ability, all these experienced warriors”—he swung his arm in an expansive gesture to encompass not only his fellow knights but also Leopold’s entire encampment, where the final preparations for moving out were just being completed—“their best option would definitely be to run away or hide somewhere.”
“Perhaps,” the first knight replied, injecting a note of caution, “but let us not forget that they do have legitimate claims over this land, claims that were actually agreed to and ratified in the past by our own Habsburg masters. Agreements that should never have been made and documents that should never have been signed, I agree, but agreements that definitely exist. Maybe we should not be quite so quick to dismiss them.”
“But whatever the legitimacy of their cause, against us they are powerless. They can do nothing except create a nuisance,” Henry of Huenenburg insisted. “We are a trained
fighting force and we outnumber them by more than ten to one. They have no knights to face us, and they have no training and virtually no weapons. If they are stupid enough to offer any opposition, it will be a rout. But I am hoping that our march past the lake and through the pass will be entirely unopposed. Anyway, we’ll find out soon enough.”
He pointed to the center of the encampment, where Leopold and his most senior advisers were now clearly ready to leave.
Within twenty minutes, the entire army, appearing massive and unwieldy when scattered around the makeshift camp they’d occupied overnight, had metamorphosed into an organized fighting force, formed up into regular lines and columns, and begun a steady advance toward the shores of Lake Ägeri.
The knights, mounted on their heavily armored warhorses, led the way at a sedate walk, maintaining a slow but steady pace that the foot soldiers could easily match. Placing the knights at the head of the column was a deliberate tactic. They were essentially the heavy armor of medieval combat, virtually invulnerable in most battle situations, and the presence of such a large mounted force would almost guarantee, at least in Leopold’s opinion, that the army would be able to continue its advance unmolested. Taking on a single knight, even for a large group of armed foot soldiers, would usually be suicidal. To take on dozens of them—because Leopold had ensured that his army was as strong as possible by recruiting knights from most of the noble families in Austria—would be nothing short of madness.
And it looked as if Leopold was right. Their overnight encampment had been only a short distance from the shores of Lake Ägeri, and within a few minutes the force had reached the water and passed along the shore, heading toward the Morgarten Pass, which lay a few hundred yards ahead. They neither saw nor heard the sound of any enemy soldiers. It was as if the entire area had been robbed of human presence, apart from the dull rolling thunder of the marching and steadily advancing army.
In front of them, the path began to narrow, but that was to be expected because of the mountainous terrain, and the knights had to spread out into an elongated line, riding only three or four abreast. That was a slight cause for concern, because along the more restricted path the armored and mounted men would have little room to maneuver. Then the track they were following swung around a rocky outcropping, and almost in that instant everything changed.
In the vanguard, Henry of Huenenburg pulled back on the reins of his warhorse as he stared straight ahead. Perhaps fifty or sixty yards in front of the advancing column, the path they would have to follow narrowed even more, a steep slope on one side and what was clearly a bog or marshy ground on the other.
But what particularly concerned him was that the track was very obviously blocked, a roughly constructed pile of rocks and tree trunks spanning it from one side to the other. The blockade wasn’t particularly tall, and in all probability the foot soldiers would have little difficulty in clambering over it. But for the knights it was a different matter.
Their armored warhorses were unable to jump anything of that size, or indeed to jump at all, so the obstacle would need to be dismantled before they could proceed.
Henry reined his horse to a stop and scanned the slope above the path. He looked farther along the track as well but saw nothing to concern him beyond the blockage. No sign of a single enemy soldier.
“I think,” he said to his companions, and glanced around him, “that they probably prepared this barricade to slow us down, perhaps so that they could regroup and summon reinforcements. Or maybe they intended to ambush us here but changed their minds when they saw how large our force was. It’s obviously now deserted.”
“It will have to be taken apart before we can advance,” another knight said. “But that shouldn’t take too long.”
Henry swung his horse around and called out orders. Immediately the whole vanguard of knights came to a stop and then parted enough for some of the foot soldiers to move forward, heading toward the roughly constructed obstacle.
And then, before the men could move a single log from the barricade, they all clearly heard a single shrill whistle from somewhere above them. And then it was as if the hillside suddenly came alive.
Seemingly erupting from the very ground itself, a crowd of men appeared close to the top of the hill. Their motley array of clothing identified them as farmers, laborers, serfs, and peasants, and none appeared to be carrying any kind of weapon apart from a mere handful who had daggers attached to their rough belts. They stood and bellowed
their defiance at the army of intruders who were defiling their lands.
Instinctively the mounted knights raised their shields, but no missiles—no swarm of arrows or thrown spears or even hurled rocks, the assault they had all clearly expected—materialized.
Orders were shouted back to the leading ranks of foot soldiers, and some forty archers pushed forward to stand between the mounted knights and the precipitous slope. The commanders had realized immediately that bowmen—or more accurately their arrows—were the only weapons the army possessed that could easily reach the ragtag opposition.
But before a single archer could loose his arrow, another whistle sounded from up the slope, and was followed just seconds later by an ominous crashing and rumbling sound that grew instantly louder.
And then the elegant simplicity and lethal effectiveness of the ambush became only too clear. Jumping and tumbling down the steep slope, gathering speed with every second, piles of rocks and cut lengths of tree trunk began smashing through the undergrowth, heading directly toward the vanguard of the invading army.
The knights, the most formidable element of the invading force, had nowhere to go. The barricade blocked their advance, and the press of foot soldiers on the narrow path behind them prevented their retreat. A handful turned their warhorses toward the bog that bordered the path, the only possible avenue of escape, but those that reached
it quickly became mired in the soft and treacherous ground, the weight of the armor worn by both the knights and their horses causing them to begin sinking immediately.
And then, with a rumbling roar that was almost deafening, the avalanche of wood and rocks smashed into the helpless warriors. The bouncing rocks, some of them half the size of a man, wreaked appalling carnage on the almost stationary leading ranks of soldiers, while the tree trunks carried away the legs of the warhorses, fatally wounding the animals and tumbling the knights to the ground, where the falling rocks finished off the job.
Screams and howls of agony tore through the air as the pride of the Habsburg army was reduced to a disorganized rabble in a matter of just a few moments.
The surviving officers and knights shouted orders and counterorders, but there was no mistaking the mood and intentions of the Habsburg foot soldiers. They had just seen the most powerful part of their formidable fighting force destroyed in seconds, without a single enemy soldier coming anywhere near them. With one mind, the frightened warriors turned around to retrace their steps. But the numbers were so great, and the path so narrow, that even this caused chaos, soldiers being forced into the bog to die a lingering death by drowning or worse, while others were trampled underfoot by their panicking companions.
Then, from the vanguard of the army, a handful of surviving knights began forcing their way through the fleeing soldiers, trampling more of them in their wake,
heading back toward the more open ground where they would be able to confront whatever other enemy forces had been assembled.
But even as they did so, other ambushes that had been prepared by the outnumbered and ill-equipped confederate forces were triggered. Further avalanches of rocks and logs were triggered above the track now choked with a mass of panicking foot soldiers and retreating mounted knights, decimating the invading army.
Before the echoes of the last falling rock had died away, there was renewed yelling from the hillside above the path, and just seconds later the confederate warriors ran down the slopes and fell upon their enemies. And many were carrying a new weapon, the halberd, a device that was cheap to manufacture and easy to use, and which inflicted terrible injuries on the Habsburg soldiers, both from the sharpened point at the end of the shaft and from the ax blade that could easily decapitate a man.
And when the surviving knights finally reached open ground and turned to face this new enemy, they discovered to their cost that the halberd was equally effective against mounted soldiers.
As four of the knights charged toward the ragged confederate line, the foot soldiers they were facing simply rammed the ends of the seven-foot shafts of their halberds into the ground behind them, then gripped the shafts so that the lethal points formed a row about six feet above the ground. And it wasn’t just the halberds that they used. Several of the soldiers were carrying eighteen-foot-long
pikes, each tipped with a sharp iron point, a much longer weapon than the lance carried by a knight.