“Thus it was from a base in the heart of the renewed and growing Frankish realm that I witnessed and participated in some of the most profound events of Western Civilization. Only a few years after I had arrived in Paris and settled into a life of quiet luxury (routes to the east were too hindered for me to take up my usual trade of trading), the Muslims crossed the Pyrenaeus, conquered Septimania, and besieged Tolosa. I heard the Parisian crier shout out a need for warriors to join Dux Odo in his relief of his capital (the Dux had fled north to gather an army and had spread the word through the major Gaulish cities), and I eagerly joined up as a mounted, armored, and armed fighter.
“We men of Gaul who joined the Dux’s banner marched hard south to face the invaders still besieging the Aquitanian capital in late spring. We stopped not to rest the day of our attack, and fell upon the besiegers’ camp with almost total surprise on our side. The enemy was slaughtered, the survivors fled back to Narbonne in Septimania, and I was able to return to Paris in peace. Yet I had tasted once again victory in war, and, after a respite on the Ile, I continued north to volunteer my services to the Dux’s Dux.
“Not for the last time Dux Carl surprised me. I had ridden from Paris to his capital of Suessiona, after his army had returned from campaign in Bavaria in time for the harvest. I told the commander of the guard at the gate of the ducal hillfort that I wished to offer my services as a veteran of the Battle of Tolosa, thus gained an audience with the Dux’s chamberlain, repeated the purpose of my visit, and, to my aforementioned surprise, was ushered into an inner room of the ducal lodge.
“The master of all that lay between the Liger and the Visurgis sat in a simple and comfortable wooden chair beneath the smoke and the rafters of that room, not a scrap of parchment in sight, listening to a herald describe the state of West Friesland. Upon our entry and the chamberlain’s stooped whisper in his master’s ear, the herald was abruptly dismissed and the Dux even rose from his chair, once the man had departed. ‘You were at Tolosa?’ Charles asked in a half-whisper seemingly borne more out of reverence than out of need for secrecy from the guards.
“‘I shook the Dux’s hand with equal reverence, and replied, ‘I was, my Lord.’
“Charles gestured to a chair which an astute servant had already brought in, and he insisted that I sit. I obeyed with a ‘Yes, my Lord,’ and then the Dux began to pepper me with questions. What was the size of the Muslim force which we had defeated? How many horses did they have? What were their weapons and armor like? How many escaped? Was it true that we had encountered no Muslim scouts, indeed no Muslims at all, until we had fallen upon the sentry line along the perimeter of the enemy camp?
“I answered Charles’ questions to the best of my ability, comfortable talking about a recent battle and not my extensive past, and, in retrospect, he seems to have been impressed, for the Dux asked me what should be done to prepare for another Muslim invasion. I looked up at the smoke amidst the rafters, trying to hide my disdain for the world of this man, then looked down to look him in the eye. ‘You need to create a standing army,’ I told him.
“‘Standing army?’ the Dux repeated with a perplexed look.
“I decided to play upon the term. ‘You must create an army which can stand against the Muslim cavalry,’ I told him. ‘You must train your soldiers year-round, and you must train them in phalanxes.’ To the Dux’s blank look, I explained, ‘Your foot soldiers must be hardened and disciplined enough to stand in a tight block formation against a cavalry charge.’ My own utterance of ‘foot’ surfaced an ancient memory. ‘And you must teach your horsemen to use the stirrup.’”
“Fortunately for me, for Charles, and for Western Civilization, Dux Charles was a man out of place and time. In other words, he had an open mind.
“And a good deal of faith in myself, or, more likely, a keen perception of the soundness of my ideas. That first winter I was allowed to train Frankish horsemen in the use of the stirrup, citing the invention’s use by the Muslims as both an explanation of my knowledge and as a means of instilling fear into my otherwise unruly pupils. The following summer I was allowed to accompany my lord and pupils on another campaign in Bavaria, where we stirruped soldiers proved our value as shock soldiers in charge after charge against the Bavarian peasantry. And upon our winter return, I was put in charge of training a hundred peasants in the art of the phalanx, much like I had trained a hundred horsemen in the use of the stirrup.
“My peasant pikemen were as ignorant as their mounted peers were obstinate, but they almost held their ground during a demonstration the following spring, on which occasion the Dux thought it good fun to send a line of his new heavy cavalry into a headlong charge against his new heavy infantry drawn up in a square on a mist-shrouded field. The men on foot were broken by the men on beast, but only after a second charge by a doubled force, and my master most certainly saw this as an improvement over the normal nature of his peasant soldiers, for I was allowed to reconstitute my infantry before the summer marching season arrived, and march at their head back into Bavaria.
“The switch from command of cavalry to command of infantry might have seemed a slight at first glance, and naturally many of my rival courtiers chose to see it as such, but I, as a former king, knew the danger of allowing any lieutenant too much power, and did not hold a grudge against my master. I instead mastered the art of holding my footmen in tight formations against charging enemies and thus holding those enemies in place while our cavalry rolled up their flanks and rear. The results of that campaign were quite good, and I was again commander of Charles’s heavy horse when a former rival Majordomo and now Comes of Anjou rebelled against Charles, and my horsemen had the pleasure of sharpening their skills against fellow Franks.
“Anjou’s rebellion was the last of Charles’s civil wars, but he knew (and I reminded him) that even an intact Francia would be no match for the Muslims in its then-present state. Thus that state was changed drastically: now that his last possible internal rival had been removed, Charles proceeded to confiscate the very lands which he had donated to the church over the years, and used the incomes from those lands to pay the new professional army which was entrusted to me for training.
“I cannot describe to you, my friend, the joy which wells up in my heart to this very day at the thought of a true army’s return. My peasants-turned-soldiers were not the legionaries of yore, but they were professionals at my disposal year-round, and I took full advantage of that fact. Train year-round my foot soldiers and handful of horsemen did, the training broken only for an annual holiday and intermittent campaigning in Bavaria and Alemannia. The fighting in old Germania was good practice for my students, but its intermittency became non-existent after the death in battle of Dux Lantfrid of Alemannia, for southern Germania was now securely within the Frankish realm and that same realm was now more immediately threatened from the south, for Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi had been made governor of Al-Andalus.
“Al Ghafiqi began preparing for an invasion of Gaul from the moment of his appointment as governor, calling for recruits from throughout the Muslim empire. How Dux Charles gained such knowledge I do not know, and I only knew of his knowledge because he ordered me to Aquitania with my horsemen one summer, ostensibly as an emissary to Dux Odo but really as a scout to give an advance report on the coming invasion.
“And perhaps as a dangerous castaway thrown into the Muslim tidal wave rolling over the Pyrenaeus. Charles well knew that his rival Dux’s victory eleven years previous was borne of out luck more than anything else, and that my horsemen and I would share the fate of the Aquitanians.
“As indeed we did. Desperate Odo greeted us not as an emissary and his bodyguard, but as reinforcements, and I was at the Dux’s side in both fight and flight when he was defeated in front of his city of Bourde. I was at his side, parrying one Muslim sword after another, when his army was slaughtered at the River Garumna. The poor Dux had gambled that the river’s famous tidal bore would sweep in and sweep away the invaders as they attempted to cross the river, but the savvy Muslims waited until the wave had passed to charge across. It was I who pulled the Dux onto the back of a horse and carried him from the field of battle, before escorting him and a handful of survivors, not one of them the Franks I had arrived with, all the way to Suessiona.
“It was in Charles’s smoky lodge hall that Odo, on a bent knee, acknowledged Charles and his house as Odo’s overlords, and it was in that same hall that Charles immediately began to plan the defense of the Christian realm against Islam. I was sent south the next morning with the soldiers who could be summoned on short notice, and was ordered to find a high wooded plain between the massacre site along the Garumna and the riches of the city of Turonensis, which was most certainly the invaders’ next objective, all while maximizing surprise by avoiding the old Roman roads.
“Find a good defensive position south of Turonensis my men and I did. We encountered Muslim scouts almost as soon as we pitched camp, and waited six days as reinforcements for both sides streamed in. Charles and the second large contingent, which included a subdued Odo and fellow noble Aquitanian refugees, arrived at our site the day after we did, and I had the pleasure of watching my stationary phalanx double in size. Driven by a sense of community borne of hovering calamity, as well as admiration for Dux Charles, those barbarians in bear and wolf pelts stayed and slept where they stood in formation, except only to march north, east, and back west to give the Muslims the impression that our reinforcements were far more numerous than they actually were.
“It was on the seventh day, driven by frustration and the growing October cold, that the Muslims attacked. In wave after wave up the wooded slope before us their lancers charged, but their cavalry could not break my men, and the fighting was soon on foot, hand-to-hand. Even on foot the Muslims were formidable, and they were encouraged when they saw that we were not as numerous as they, but still my men stood their ground, their pikes replaced by swords in their hands.
“The slaughter that day was prodigious, the stalemate firm, and the Muslims withdrew back down the hill when the early darkness began to gather. I, who had stood by Charles as one of his liege men throughout the day’s fighting, had the privilege of seeing the light in that man’s eyes as he watched the enemy trot and limp back down the slope. He most certainly sensed the gloom in those men’s souls, saw that most of their horses had been left as corpses on the field of battle, and turned to me. ‘You will lead Odo and the Aquitanians on a raid of the enemy camp,’ he told me. Sensing my hesitation, he added, ‘On the morrow, when they attack us again. But you leave tonight.’
“Left that night I did at the head of Odo and his Aquitanians, leading them wide around the enemy’s left flank, the mounted scouts who might have detected our movement dead on the field of battle along with their mounts. The next morning we bided our time behind the cover of dense forest, waiting until the sun reached the position in the sky Charles had indicated, then charged through that forest to fall upon the Muslim camp.
“The few soldiers who guarded the camp either were killed or fled for the protection of their forces fighting the battle, and we were left alone with tents and the plunder of Aquitania, which included women tied to tent poles. I attempted to lead a hunt of the fleeing guards and a charge of the enemy’s rear so as to maximize their panic, but my companions seemed to go mad in every which way. One noble found his captured wife in an infidel’s tent, but the rest of the Aquitanians seem to have seen their countrywomen as the spoils of war, and proceeded to treat them as such on the spot.
“Perhaps the screams from the camp alerted a man on a swift horse at the foot of the hill, but, in any event, several Muslim horsemen broke off desperate struggle against Charles’s main force and came charging down the hill with unnatural promptness. My Aquitanians stopped their spoiling to join a battle over property rights, but the lot of us fled with that single woman who happened to be a wife when it became apparent that our rearguard action had prompted a full-fledged rout of the Muslims through their own camp.
“We retreated back the way we had come, and arrived at the main battlefield and Charles’s reconstituted phalanx after nightfall. I argued with the Dux that evening that the Muslims had been in full flight through their camp that day and had shown no signs of stopping before they re-crossed the Pyrenees, but he ignored my advice to march down the hill at first light, even though Al Ghafiqi had fallen in battle.
“And so it was not until well into the next day, and only after reconnaissance by men not under my command, that the Frankish army marched down the hill to seize the tents and booty which the Muslims had left behind in prodigious quantities. The fleeing invaders had slain many of the captives whom they did not take with them, and the sight of beauty after beauty lying dead and ravaged by wolves amongst the tents churned the heart and stomach of even this seasoned veteran. Charles was all business, ordering the bodies piled and burned, the loot gathered up for later division into spoils for his army as well as goodwill gifts for the people of Aquitania, and the tents stricken down to be used later for the pursuing march to the Pyrenees.
“I, who had trained the army victorious at Turonensis, had led the decisive raid on the enemy camp, and had been proven right about the flight of the enemy, approached the Dux standing before a funeral pyre and asked him for leave. The Dux looked at me quizzically, but did not object, asking only that I take a small band of guards with me and return south when I was ready.
“Return south I would, but not before riding north with a pair of young Aquitanian nobles in tow. I had the most pressing urge for solitude and bid my escorts to make camp at the first stream we came to, before I continued on alone. It was a few miles beyond that stream and after having wandered into a set of woods that I finally stopped my riding to dismount beside a field. I, who had lived and suffered for seven centuries, wept beside my snorting horse as I sat in the mud.
“The farmer whose field it was approached me with a sickle in his hand but kindness in his heart, and asked me in his vulgar Latin if I was okay. I looked up at him with tears in my eyes, but, after a moment of reflection, replied that I was. I pushed myself up with my sword, looked about myself at the peaceful countryside, then looked back down at my blade. ‘I will pay you handsomely,’ I told him, pulling a handful of gold coin from beneath my chainmail, ‘if you’ll allow me to bury my sword in your field.’ I handed him the coin without waiting for an answer.
“Why, of course, my Lord,’ the peasant replied, his jaw slack but his hand tight around the money.
“Without another word, I tore a furrow in the Earth with the heel of my boot, rested my blade within, and kicked a covering of the Earth back with the same heel. Then I re-mounted my horse and bid my stupefied host farewell.
“I continued the ride north.”
“That’s quite a tale you have there,” Joshua Carter told his guest, speaking to the man for the first time in quite a time. He pushed himself up from his lean against the couch, and stooped back down to gather the containers of take-away Indian food they had consumed for their last meal.
“Quite a tale, and quite true,” the Wanderer asserted as he stubbed his latest cigarette out in a tray on the floor.
“Yes, well,” Carter huffed as he stood erect and started for his cubbyhole of a kitchen, “we all have our fantasies.”
“Fantasy it is not,” the Wanderer replied from his host’s armchair before the latter put his foot down to open a waste can.
“Well, believable it isn’t either,” Carter shot back as he emerged from the kitchen. Then, with the callous familiarity of one who has played host for days on end, he added, “Do you mind not smoking yet another cigarette?”