Legacy of the Black Crusade: The Fall of the Knight Protectors
Date: Fri, May 09, 2008
Topic: Heretic's Nest
So, what to make of the bit about the Great Kingdom having attacked Sasserine in the history of that city given in Dungeon 139? The idea for this article grew out of the Canonfire! thread on that subject - so I can’t really take all the credit for it. Though like all good heretics I’m certainly willing to take all the blame.
Legacy of the Black Crusade: The Fall of the Knight Protectors
“The failure of the Black Crusade was a cataclysmic drain on our order’s already overtaxed resources. The Overking – long may Heironeous and Hextor guard his reign, and Pelor shine on him – has lost faith with us, but still does not show the almost open enmity his grandsire did. Still, our creditors in the Church of Zilchus press us for repayment of the loans we secured to finance the expedition, and I fear we will not be able to hold them at arm’s length for much longer. Sasserine, Sasserine! I wish to all the gods and saints that I had never heard the name of that accursed city!” – Lord Gausis Hurren, Knight Commander of the Knight Protectors, 289 CY
In 271 CY evidence of Death Knight activity in a most unlikely place, a little known city on the southwest coast of Jeklea Bay, called Sasserine, reached the ears of the heads of the Knight Protectors of the Great Kingdom. Though they had lost favor in the Great Kingdom with the ascension in 213 CY of Overking Zelcor, who blamed them for the rise and depredations of the Death Knights, the Knight Protectors were still a power to be reckoned with. With the succession of Zelcor’s son Toran II they had come somewhat back into favor, though their operation depended much upon sizeable loans secured from the Church of Zilchus, whose power was on the ascendant. Enmity between the cults of Hextor and Heironeous had been increasing for decades, but the Order still served as a meeting point between the followers of the two war gods. Knights Protectors continued to hunt through the extensive lands of the Great Kingdom, and all of the Flanaess for any signs of the cursed Death Knights and their followers.
The report on Sasserine came from Sir Nidramon of Strilken, a Hextorian Knight Protector, named after the great Knight Commander of the order whose death had precipitated the feud between Benedor and Kargoth. That feud had resulted in the creation of the Death Knights. Nidramon had been hunting in the west, following rumors in the Sheldomar Valley, when in Gradsul he had heard whispers of a cult worshiping Demogorgon in the free city of Sasserine to the south. He had followed the rumors and discovered that they were based in fact. Not only that, but the cultists in Sasserine were being led by none other than the Death Knight, Sir Luren the Boar of Torquann, who had disappeared from the knowledge of the Knight Protectors decades before. The activities of the cult were focused on the recovery of artifacts of power in the ruins of a long extinct troglodyte empire, which had worshiped the Prince of Demons, in the Amedio Jungle. Nidramon had followed one of these expeditions into the jungle and stolen the demonic artifact they had recovered; a huge black pearl. He had barely escaped with his life and the pearl, making his way back to Aerdy and Morshaldin Castle, headquarters of the Knight Protectors.
With this new intelligence, over the following weeks, the council of the order debated what course of action to take. Some counseled sending a small group of knights to that far shore to fight the cultists in secret, while others, including the Knight Commander of the order, sought to make open war on Sasserine itself. Perhaps the latter group honestly thought this was the best course of action, but those today who are knowledgeable of the events believe that they were taken with the tales of riches that flowed from the southern city. It must be understood that the finances of the Knight Protectors were at this time stretched to the breaking point. Sasserine was an anomaly among the trading centers of the Azure Sea; an independent city separate from any larger political entity. Possession of its riches would solve all the financial difficulties of the order, and bring the favor of the Overking and the nobility. Few not privy to the council’s meeting heard of these reasons, sworn as the members were to secrecy. Of those who favored the more conservative course of action, none suspected the influence of the great black pearl, resting in the treasury of Morshaldin Castle, in the sudden uncharacteristic avarice of their colleagues.
In the end the council, led by the Knight Commander, voted for a crusade against Sasserine. Those who had opposed open warfare urged caution and patience in its undertaking, but the Knight Commander swayed the majority to the view that urgent action was necessary. Chathold, in Almor was chosen as a staging point for the expedition. Getting a large fighting force to Chathold would take two months, but the real problem would be transporting them to Sasserine. Though the Knight Protectors owned a number of ships, at least half of their fleet was in the Aerdi Sea and along the east coast and isles of the Kingdom, and would take three to four months at best to reach Chathold, even after the order to gather there had been relayed to their captains. The Knight Commander determined that the only possible course was to take out further loans from the banks of the Church of Zilchus, something that could likely be done only with the support of the Overking. Again the conservative members of the council pled for caution, but the Commander answered that the wealth gained from the crusade would easily pay back those loans.
With the backing of the Overking having secured the loans, the plan was put into action and within the allotted two months a sizeable force had been raised in Chathold, including over five hundred Knight Protectors, plus their squires and a few companies of mercenaries. Word would be sent ahead by agents, and mercenaries hired and staged in ports along the way to be transported by the armada as it made the estimated three months voyage to Sasserine. In all of this the destination and purpose of the fleet was kept as quiet as possible. Traders from a number of nations called at the port of Chathold and doubtless word of an invasion of Sasserine would easily pass to that city, giving them time to prepare a defense. For this reason false rumors were put about, and by the time the fleet sailed west toward the broad straits leading out of the Sea of Gearnat, most believed that its goal was the mouth of the Selintan, to take back the Landstadt of Selintan, from which Great Kingdom troops had been withdrawn but a decade prior. Others believed that the Suloise pirate lords of Ekul on the Tilvanot Peninsula were the target.
Regardless, the first leg of the fleet’s voyage went very well, experiencing good winds and fine weather, and a good number of mercenaries brought aboard with stops at ports in Onnwal, the Pomarj and the Principality of Ulek. In Gradsul though, the luck of the expedition was to change and the seed of the crusaders failure would enter their army though this would not make itself plain for some time. In that great port the largest single company of mercenaries was hired on; one formed by a Keoish knight of noble blood though illegitimate birth, Jaron, the Bastard of Keaford. Jaron’s Black Lions boasted a force of freelance-knights and squires almost equal to the number of Knight Protectors in the expedition, plus heavy infantry and even some gnomish skirmishers, the latter two groups from the County of Ulek.
South of Gradsul, the weather changed for the worse. In the passage between Jetsom Island and the mainland a great storm swept in from the northwest, spreading the fleet over a wide area of northern Jeklea Bay. Worse still, the pirates of Toli took the disorder as an opportunity to attack stragglers and lone ships. The ship of Sir Calda Zellen, the Ahlissan knight who was in command of the expedition, was caught by two Toli galleys while taking on fresh water at the mouth of a creek. In the boarding action that followed the pirates were forced to retreat, but Sir Calda’s carrack (1) was too damaged to remain afloat and he was forced to change flagships. Three weeks were lost gathering the scattered members of the fleet. As it sailed south again it did so minus a half-dozen ships, most of them from among those that had been hired; some having been sunk by the storm and pirates, a smaller number having turned back under the threat of mutinous crews and troops.
Within a fortnight Sasserine was sighted, and as agreed upon many months before the fleet made straight for the harbor entrance through the ruins of Teraknian’s Arch(2). The plan was to land troops in the noble district and take the power centers of the city, forcing a swift surrender. As the first of the Knight’s ships, including that of the crusade’s commander, sailed through the waters between the pillars that once supported the span of the arch, the forces of Sasserine sprang their trap. Word had made its way to the city from the Toli of the approaching fleet, and preparations had been made. A large, thick boom of chain and rope had been laid in the waters beneath the arch, ready to be raised by massive counterweights that had been set on the intact outer spans high above. As the first five ships of the Knight Protectors passed into the harbor, the ropes securing the counterweights were cut and massive bundles of stone pulled the boom up out of the water. The force was so great that the sixth ship, a light caravel(3) was actually capsized by the chain as it snapped taut underneath its keel. Firepots were hurled from above onto the ships behind as they crashed into the boom or maneuvered in the chaos, attempting to escape. The five carracks that had made it into the harbor were swarmed by swift galleys that had lain in wait behind the islet of Castle Teraknian, and quickly boarded and captured. Sir Calda was surrounded on the aftcastle of the flagship and overpowered. Only two-thirds of the remaining fleet, equaling probably half of the original armada, managed to escape and land on the swampy shore west of the city.
The two days that followed were consumed by the remaining forces of the crusade in arguing over the succession of command. The most highly ranked knights within the order had been killed in the initial attack, and of the remainder most followed Sir Neras Gargild, a Heironean knight of great valor and reputation. However, a challenger to his authority was Sir Beric Wica, a Hextorian who had the support of Jaron the Bastard and his Black Lions. An uneasy agreement was reached with Neras in command and Beric as his second. It was felt that a strong assault would not be expected after the initial disastrous attack. Therefore the crusade’s forces reloaded their ships and sailed north, followed by Sasserine caravels at a distance. When darkness fell the ships at the head of the fleet extinguished their lanterns and changed course to the east while the ships at the rear of the fleet sailed on north, followed by Sasserine’s scouts who were fooled by this ploy. The ships in front of the scouts were operating under skeleton crews with almost no troops in their hulls. Those had been loaded on the ships which were now doubling back on the city, intent on landing in the docks of the city’s Azure District under cover of night and capturing one of the gates leading into the noble district. The Azure District was and still is the center of the city’s whaling industry and open to the sea. It was a desperate but brilliant plan, devised by Neras himself. Surprise worked on the side of the Aerdians and the landing was successful, but the drive up Whale Street to the Lighthouse Gate was stalled by gangs of whalers attacking from side alleys and buildings with nets, harpoons and lances. Neras’s own brother was snagged in a net, dragged from his horse then pierced with lances until dead. By the time the Lighthouse Gate was reached it had been well secured and in the next minutes a force of the noble district’s cavaliers had flanked the Knight Protectors from the Crow Street Gate. The Aerdians were forced to retreat to their ships and flee before they found themselves trapped.
Upon reuniting with the rest of the fleet it was decided to divide the force in two, one for each of the land gates of the city, and lay a siege. Sir Neras made sure in this division to have the Black Lions outside the eastern gate, where Jaron could not plot with Sir Beric, who was in charge of besieging the western gate. The siege camps were fortified against sorties from the city and the engineers and common soldiers were put to work cutting trees for the construction of siege engines and towers. The work was hindered by the usual enemies of camp life; boredom, short tempers and disease, but the cavalry was kept busy raiding the villages and plantations of the river valley, so starvation was not a factor. Sasserine’s small cavalry forces launched a number of sorties at the besiegers and in one such from the east gate Sir Neras was barely saved by the mercenary gnome skirmishers of the Black Lions when he was unhorsed and surrounded. He rewarded each gnome with a bag of gold and gave to their chief an emerald and silver ring that was an heirloom of his family.
By the end of a nearly a month the siege engines were ready. An assault was the only option as the city could be easily supplied by sea. Neras called for a coordinated attack on the gates to keep Sasserine’s forces from concentrating all their forces on one side. Whether the assault would have worked or not will never be known because it was at that moment that Jaron the Bastard betrayed his employers. Over the past week he had been sending messengers back and forth between himself and the city’s defenders, and had warned them of the impending assault as well as agreeing to attack Neras from behind. Neras went down beneath the back-biting sword of Jaron himself, a curse upon his lips for the traitorous mercenary. The gnomes took Neras side, their chief dying beside the Heironean knight. A handful of the Aerdi and those who had remained loyal to them fought their way to the ships and made for the western side of the city. Beras, meanwhile had actually managed to break through the western gate when word of Jaron’s treachery reached him. A retreat was sounded and the ships were loaded in a panic. Now Sasserine unleashed its full naval might and swift caravels poured out of the harbor mouth like a swarm of angry bees intent on destroying the remnant of the crusade’s fleet. The lumbering Aerdi carracks were swiftly overtaken though a number of the smaller hired ships, mainly commanded by Onnwali captains managed to pull away and escape. Sir Beras, pierced through and slashed with numerous wounds managed to leap into the bloody waters of Jeklea Bay, dragging a number of Sasserine marines with him.
From the ships that returned to Chathold after a return voyage of months, less than fifty Knight Protectors remained. Of the fleet that set out only one-fifth made it back. The Order of the Knight Protectors of the Great Kingdom was stripped of the majority of its fighting force, dishonored before the Overking who had shown it favor, and in financial ruin. The Knight Commander was left with no choice but to sell off most of its land holdings and estates. Even the great black pearl resting within the vaults of Morshaldin Castle was given over to the Church of Zilchus to pay back as much of the defaulted loan as the order could. The order would never recover and continued to decline in the years that followed. By the second decade of the next century it would be they would be hunted by the Death Knights rather than being the hunters. In the aftermath of the civil wars that would bring the Naelex to the Malachite Throne, Ivid I outlawed the Knights, forcing the remaining few to take refuge in Almor and Ratik. Of the expedition that would thereafter be known among the Knight Protectors as the Black Crusade, few outside of their membership would ever hear, and the name of Sasserine would remain spoken by few for centuries to come.
Notes and References:
1. A carrack is a three or four-masted vessel, with a rounded hull and high fore and aft castles. It is square-rigged except for the mizzenmast which is rigged with a triangular lateen sail. They tend toward instability in high winds and are not particularly fast or manueverable.
2. Dungeon 139. An attack by the Scarlet Brotherhood in 30 CY resulted in the destruction of this great arch which spanned the headlands guarding the entrance to Sasserine’s harbor. The central span was entirely destroyed, but parts of the outer spans remained intact and were often used to defend the city, as in the instance of the Black Crusade.
3. A caravel is a two or three-masted vessel, lateen rigged, so it is able to sail closer to the wind than a square-rigged ship such as a carrack. Sleeker and of shallower draft than a carrack, it is more maneuverable and stable. It has no forecastle and a low sterncastle.