Part LI: Union (Valley of Ananuri) (1525)
The Trapezuntine Empire and the Kingdom of Georgia had been joined at the hip since birth, driven together by the common threat of the seas of hostile infidels that surrounded them on all sides. The Kartvelians had given aid and succor to the Trapezuntines on many occasions, and the Trapezuntines had done their best to repay these in the name of solidarity against the dreadful hordes that bounded them and bound them. Now, with the enemy closer than ever and the gravest threat since the age of Temur-e-Lank on the horizon, the Trapezuntines would take up arms to help their sister state. As on the fields of Saint Eugenios before, so on the slopes of Ananuri now…
David had been watching the events unfolding in Ciscaucasia throughout 1524 and into 1525 with mild interest. Given his religious disposition, he was most displeased to see so many martyrs and apostates made out of the good people of the northern mountains, but no so displeased to do anything other than politely register a request with Sarai that they tone down the persecutions, a request which was, of course, denied. The interests of the Trapezuntine state lay in the consolidation of the Black Sea as a mare nostrum, something that would be impossible without a willingness to coexist on the half of the ruler of the Pontic Steppe; he would not throw away the long-term diplomatic goals of practically every Trapezuntine ruler for the sake of some distant coreligionists, no matter how severe their plight. As such, David was content to watch the ongoing crackdown with distaste, but not actually intervene to prevent it. His focus lay southwards, where he was hoping to gin up a rebellion within Neo-Rûmite territory that could act as an inroad for him into the region.
This torpor was broken when word of the Mongol advance towards Kartvelia reached him in the summer of 1525. As far as he was concerned, Nogai Ahmed could do whatever the hell he wanted on the northern side of the mountains--it was his territory after all--but any attack on the southern side of the mountains was an indirect threat to him and Trapezous at large. After all, once the Mongols had established themselves in Transcaucasia--devastating one of Trapezous’ greatest strategic allies in doing so, which would be enough of a provocation in an of itself--what would stop them from just steamrolling westwards into Pontos itself. There was, of course, the long-standing alliance between Trapezous and Tbilisi which had buoyed both of their states throughout its existence and allowed the isolated Orthodox states to cooperate for mutual defense. As David would later summarise in the first book of his Davidine Wars: “Trapezous and Kartvelia were interdependent; the loss of the latter state would mean the death of the former. Ahmed forced my hand, I had to fight.”
The bandons had already been martialing for war in the months leading up to the Mongol invasion, and so David was rather easily able to rouse them to arms, albeit against the heathen invaders from the north rather than the south. The armies of Trapezous had not seen decisive combat--well, apart from some of the western bandons which had been mustered out to aid the Nikaians in their revolt--in several years, but David hoped that the constant training and drilling would make up for the institutional attrition accrued during that period. While the threat posed by the Golden Horde was immense, some might even say existential, the aftokrator and his megas domestikos (at this time a provincial general named Alexios Kaballarios who had been promoted to reduce the power the Ratetoi and their allies held in the government) still had to pay mind to the threats posed by the Neo-Rumites and Ottomans in the west, as well as the financial burdens of large-scale mobilization. The total population of the Trapezuntine and Nikaian Empires was slightly above 600,000, and because of the efficiency of the bandon system in training and mobilizing men, in times of deep crisis a hypothetical 105,000 men could be put in the field. Attempting to do this for anything other than an apocalyptic invasion would be ludicrous, of course, so David ‘only’ called up 25,000 men, leaving the rest to be called out if things spiralled out even further.
Taking advantage of the coastal nature of his realm, David raised bandons across the eastern rim of the Black Sea and shuttled them along the coast to Vatoume, which had been designated since the reign of Alexandros II as the chief staging point for military actions in Kartvelia. The ships had assembled there by 6 August, aided by calm seas and strong eastward winds across the Basin, and the aftokrator and his host were ready to march out of the city and across the frontier on 11 August. They were marching for Ananuri from the start, as the rushed and hectic messengers that Vakhtang sent to the Pontic host asked that he advance there and set up camp to await the arrival of the main Kartvelian army. Neither of the rulers thought that the fall of Aleks’andretsikhe was even a possibility, and so they both concluded that Ananuri would serve as a good staging point for a defensive action in the Gates. Vakhtang and the bulk of his host had remained in the west along the frontier throughout the campaign season, as he had expected that the brunt of the offensive would come from that direction. This was a fairly grounded fear, but many later chroniclers would use it as an example of the king’s worsening mental state due to his disease. It was only with the arrival of news of the invasion of the Horde through the Caucasian Gates and the fall of the first two fortresses that he was persuaded to abandon this position and ask David for help, and because of this his force was quite tardy in repositioning. His host, now numbering some 30,000 after leaving behind a sizable force under Dadiani to hold the western defenses and keep the Mongols from getting any ideas, linked up with the Trapezuntine army on the march across the lowlands in late August.
The combined host--some 50,000 soldiers strong at this point--arrived at Ananuri on 13 September. For several weeks as they marched on, Vakhtang and David had begun receiving reports from their scouts and outriders that Mongol cavalry had been spotted in the lower pass, but they had dismissed this as anxious scouts and inexperienced men mistaking Alan auxiliaries for the Mongol army, respectively. It was only on 8 September that a desperate courier from the garrison at Zakatsikhe, warning of their imminent collapse and begging for help, reached the army, and it was this that finally spurred the two rulers to take these reports seriously. The allies dramatically picked up the pace, knowing that the results of the Mongols reaching the open plains would be utterly catastrophic. They arrived on 13 September at the valley beneath the fortress, having been harassed for several days by Mongol pickets and outriders, to find that they had arrived in the nick of time. Nogai Ahmed would have to fight his way past them if he wanted to get into the lowlands, and they would not yield easily.
That night, they set up a joint camp on the southern side of the fortress, almost directly opposite the Mongol position on the northern side of the embattled castle. Both sides knew that battle would be joined on the morrow, and the usual simmering air of anxiety that fills most camps on the night before combat was multiplied by the sheer scale of the looming action. A battle of this scale had not been fought since the apocalyptic Battle of Didgori in 1121, which had seen nearly 300,000 men take the field. While the total number of men assembled at present was much smaller, the sentiment--that Kartvelia was facing down utter ruin--remained the same. Indeed, Vakhtang even made what he hoped would be a rousing speech on the matter and likening their current situation to Didgori, but this only hurt morale as his disease-addled mind lost cohesion halfway through and he began rambling about architectural advancements under Davit IV. In the Mongol camp, Nogai Ahmed promised immense wealth--specifically, ten pounds of gold and a dozen slaves--to each one of his soldiers if they carried the day, and the usual seventy-two virgins in paradise if they were slain. The only speech in the Pontic camp was a solemn rendition of a copy of Nogai Ahmed’s letter to the Avars with the sole comment of “If.” at the end. Both allied armies as well as could be expected that night, although the Mongol supply situation was contracted by their long lines and the lack of pillage in the surrounding country. The khan made a great show of doling out the last of the food, warning his men that they would face starvation if driven back but could feast to their heart’s content on the soon-to-be collected harvest of Kartvelia if they broke through. Sermons by ulema and priests were concluded at midnight, at which point both camps fell into an uneasy silence.
Before dawn the next morning, the Kartvelian army rose and took the field in as close to complete silence as was feasible. The valley was at its widest barely a kilometer across, and so Vakhtang was sure that he could plug any attempt at eastward breakout by moving the bulk of his force thence. 15,000 of the Kartvelian soldiers, mostly heavy footmen and dismounted knights, followed the king out into the lowlands and took up positions there, facing down the Mongol camp in the faint pre-dawn glow. Another 10,000 took up position on the ridges to the north and south of the valley, forcing any attackers to funnel themselves into a kill zone before even making contact with the main force. 5,000 Kartvelians and 5,000 Trapezuntines remained behind to guard the camp, while the other 15,000 Ponts guarded the Arkala and its passage into the valley itself. If everything went according to plan, David’s dawn push up the hill of Ananuri would rescue the besieged defenders and push on to hit the Mongols in their flank, splitting their force and driving half of them into the Kartvelian lines and sending the rest running up the valley
Ahmed Nogai, meanwhile, was far more cagey about his plans. He was deeply concerned about his convoluted stratagem being leaked and so told only the highest-ranking of his generals and officers until it was too late for any defector to sneak away. He spent the pre-dawn hours of 14 September as busy as the allies, but did a far better job of concealing it than they did. The positions of the allied forces were as clear as day by the sheer noise that they made, in comparison to the steppe riders, who were well-versed in moving silently, out of self-preservation if nothing else. By the time dawn came, as many things were in place as was possible to guarantee, and he was ready to join battle.
At dawn, the battle opened up with the barking serenade of cannonfire. The Kartvelian guns along the Samlyn (Southern) ridge roared to life first, firing at the reported position of the Mongol camp in hopes of fooling them into believing the main attack would come there, as opposed to at its true target, something which was shortly followed by the guns on the north ridge. The final battery to open up were the Trapezuntine cannons themselves, attempting to fire over the walls of Ananuri and strike the besieging camp, or at least give the signal for the defenders to rejoin their attacks. With cannonade raining overhead, David began the attack, leading twenty of the best bandons under his personal command up the ridge. As he had hoped, they were able to reach the fortress with minimal casualties, mostly due to friendly fire, and push on around the castle. The lightly-armored cavalry and dismounted horsemen did as had been hoped and crumbled, fleeing away to the north. It was here that things started to go horribly wrong.
Rather than withdrawing his heavy siege guns, Nogai Ahmed had instead ordered them loaded with grapeshot, correctly guessing that the Trapezuntines would attack from the same direction as the fortress. As soon as their fellows were out of the way (for the most part, anyway) the Mongols opened fire at near point-blank range, blowing the front bandons to hell and turning the ranks behind them into swiss cheese. The Trapezuntines, as expected, almost immediately routed after seeing the men in front of them turned into mincemeat, and despite David’s desperate exhortations to rush forward and seize the guns, only a few bandons followed him forward. The artillerymen hadn’t been expecting any of their attackers to press on, and so David was able to take and spike several of the guns before being forced to pull back in the face of enemy reinforcements. As he retreated, many of the Kartvelian gunners on Samlyn Ridge mistook them for advancing Mongols and opened fire on their allies, thankfully to little effect. Once those guns were silenced, David was able to hold at Ananuri Castle proper and fight off several attempts to drive him off.
While the Trapezuntine failed to push on into the Mongol flank as planned, Vakhtang was not informed of this, instead believing that David and his men had punched across the valley and were currently massacring the poorly-armed and worse-armored enemy horsemen. As such, when he observed several hundred horsemen thundering down the valley in loose formation, he assumed that these were panicked Mongols running for their lives. He ordered both batteries to turn their guns on this formation, and ordered his men into close ranks to repel any charges, unlikely though they may be. The cannons roared to life once again, their handlers struggling to turn their big guns to keep pace with the quick riders. As tends to happen in these scenarios, several of the cannoneers severely misjudged their headings in the early morning gloom and wound up firing upon their own men, carving broad gouges into their tight ranks. Then, as quickly as they had come, the Mongols fired a valley and withdrew back up the valley, out of gun range. The horsemen repeated this tactic twice, both times drawing heavy cannonfire but inflicting little damage on the formations of infantry. Vakhtang most likely concluded that this was a desperate attempt to draw his men forward, and so ordered them to remain in position come hell or high water. This would be a fatal mistake.
After the third volley, the powder supplies of both batteries were running low. Resupply came in the form of carts rushed up the side of the ridges, hurriedly doling out shot and black powder to the cannoneers so they could continue their fire. Suddenly, at around terce or 9 AM, the air above the northern ridge was split with jackal-like screams and whoops, above it all the shouted cry of “Kika rika!”. Hundreds of Circassian warriors came pouring down the side of the mountain, emerging from concealment behind bushes and trees and in innumerable hollows with swords and crossbows. Two nights before, after he had received word of the approaching army, Nogai Ahmed had sent a thousand of his fiercest Circassians up the ridge, and now his long-planned stratagem was bearing great fruit. The Circassians swarmed down the hill, driving all before them, and capturing the northern battery with the loss of only one cannon. Freshly provisioned, the guns were turned against their masters and began raining hell down upon the tightly-packed Kartvelians, in addition to a great bit of suppressing fire levied against the southern battery to keep them down.
The Kartvelians were standing shoulder-to-shoulder and so were absolutely devastated by the sudden bombardment, shot falling densely among them like they were fish in a barrel.Vakhtang had ordered his men to stand their ground at all costs, and so the bravest or most loyal of the soldiers did just that and so were massacred, while most either fled, tried to charge piecemeal and were cut down or began milling about in panic. It was at this crucial moment that Vakhtang could have salvaged things if he had acted, sending men up the ridge to recover the guns and end the flanking assault. He did not, however, have the presence of mind to do so, instead lapsing into inane ramblings in the heat of battle, which even further demoralized his men.
It was at this moment that Nogai Ahmed struck the fatal blow. In the weeks before, he had secretly conducted negotiations with the Lord of Arishni, a restive vassal of the Kartvelian king who resented how the king neglected his march-warden along much of the Qutlughid border. The Lord of Arishni felt that the Mongols would be able to win handily given his experiences with Qutlughid raiders, and so was remarkably defeatist and sought to find the best way out of this mess for himself personally and his retainers. In exchange for protection from pillaging and position as the khan’s chief man in Transcaucasia, Arishni agreed to refuse to take up arms against him. It was by sheer bad luck that Vakhtang appointed Arishni to occupy the very rear of the Kartvelian formation, at the easternmost edge of the part of the valley occupied by the soldiers. With his new liege’s guns turning the soldiers of his old liege into a fine paste, Arishni decided that now was an excellent time to abandon the latter ruler and began a swift withdrawal eastward, ordering his officers to proclaim that they had been outflanked by a massive force of Mongols. This caused the already panicky soldiers to collapse into anarchy, entire formations dissolving as they stampeded to try and escape the noose which they believed was closing around them.
As the rear of the Kartvelian force began to collapse, Nogai Ahmed finally made an appearance with the bulk of his men. He had intentionally kept the two strongest tumens available to him to lull the allies into a false sense of security, and with their sudden appearance many of the footmen concluded that their enemy had been reinforced and that all was lost, joining the ever-growing number of fleeing men. In formation, the khan and his horde thundered down the valley and slammed into the Kartvelian front in a tidal wave of horses and men. In spite of their light arms and armor, few of the Kartvelians fought back and so the Mongols took surprisingly few casualties. Instead, most of them turned and ran and so were ridden down. David, seeing the horrible situation unfolding before him, tried to catch the Mongols in the flank but found to his dismay that only the eleutheroi, who numbered only 2,000, followed his order to advance; rather than losing them too, he ordered his men back and into defensive formations. The Mongols pursued the routing Kartvelians all the way down the valley, riding down thousands of them before they finally broke through into the Zhinvali Pass, whose defenders had been swamped by their own fleeing countrymen. They advanced down the valley and, by sunset, had reached the plains.
The Battle of Ananuri was an absolute disaster for the Kartvelia-Trapezous alliance and both Christendom and Transcaucasia at large. Nogai Ahmed Khan and his horde had broken through onto the Kartvelian plains, and there was no-one left to stop them. Of the 70,000 Mongols and Circassians who had taken the field that day, only 10,000 had been killed or sufficiently crippled to not fight on, which left the equivalent of three full tumens with a free hand in the Kartvelian lowlands. The allies, in contrast, had lost somewhere around 25,000 men, or half of their entire force in a single day, most of them ridden down by the Mongols during the route or trampled by their comrades in their panicked flight. Vakhtang V was among them, according to varying accounts either a) being killed by a cannonball, b) being shot in the neck by an arrow, c) knocked off his horse and dragged beneath its hooves or d) falling off his horse and drowning in shit. The only saving grace, if it can be called that, was that David had managed to hold on to the camp and keep up his defenses until he could withdraw under the cover of nightfall, thus managing to keep 20,000 men--mostly Trapezuntines, but with a few thousand Kartvelians--and several dozen cannon under allied command.
In the aftermath of the disaster, David bid a hasty retreat all the way back to Imereti, abandoning the capital and the eastern duchies to the Mongols in hopes of saving what he could of the rapidly collapsing Kartvelian western provinces, inadvertently kickstarting the division of the realm into rival states….
 This is a rough estimate; don’t hold me to it.
 ‘Kika rika’ or, more accurately, “Keeka rike”, was a famous Circassian war cry of the 19th century known for striking terror and utter panic into those on its receiving end. A visiting British traveller during the Circassian Wars described it thusly: “This war-whoop of the Circassian warriors is indeed terrific, somewhat resembling the howl of a pack of jackals; so startling and earthly, that it is said to have caused insanity in some persons who heard it for the first time. We can easily imagine the panic it might spread among an army composed of the ignorant and superstitious peasants of Russia, surprised in some lonely glen or defile of the Caucasus by a band of these infuriated mountaineers, all yelling their war-cry, as they are accustomed to do when they commence an attack.” (Turkey, Russia, the Black Sea and Circassia by Edmund Spencer, 1854). Spencer also describes witnessing a Circassian attack in the same text: “The reader may therefore picture to himself the resistless impetuosity of a headlong charge of these flying horsemen of the mountains, sweeping like an avalanche on some devoted body of their country’s foes beneath them,—at the same moment making the heights around reecho with their fearful war-cry, discharging their carbines with terrible effect on coming to close quarters, while the stout staves of the Cossack lances that oppose their course are severed like reeds, by the vigorous and skilfully-directed blows of their admirably tempered blades. They will cut their way through an entire battalion, throw a whole column into disorder, and then as suddenly disappear through the yawning portals of some mountain gorge, or beneath the everlasting shadows of their primeval forests—before the smoke of their last volley, or the dust raised in their wild fray, has cleared off—and before their panic-stricken foes, in spite of their most strenuous efforts, have been able to bring their artillery to bear on the fierce band of guerrillas, who, although coming upon them and disappearing with the rapidity of a clap of thunder, leave yet a memento of their prowess behind them in the scattered bodies of their enemies that everywhere cover the ground.”
 The Kartvelians considered the betrayal of the Lord of Arishni to be such a foul betrayal that by the universal accord of both the church and the nobility his very name was damned from existence, all records of it being destroyed or overwritten with one of his many colorful cognomens, the most amusing being “He of the shriveled penis and gaping rectum’. Only the account of a Qutlughid chief named Mehmed of Ganja provides a clue as to his name, as Mehmed boasts of having defeated ‘Giorgi, the march-warden of Arishni’, in single combat in 1519.
 This is an OTL insult used by Ioannes Skylitzes (IIRC) against the eunuch regent Basileios Lekapenos/Basileios Nothos of the late 10th Century.