Part LV: The Best Defense (1526 - 1527)
By the time David and whatever forces he could scrape together from the east returned to Trapezous, things were rapidly spiraling out of hand. The Rûmites had overrun much of Inner Paphlagonia and now seemed poised to finish the job, as Kadir and his forces approached with enough firepower to level Boyabad and Kastamone, the only fortresses standing between the Turks and the Pontic lowlands. The bandons were scattered across the country and would need time to be reorganized into a fighting force, time that neither David or Trapezous had. Trapezous was on the verge of being crippled or utterly destroyed and nothing seemed able to stop it, except for maybe a miracle….
The aftokrator landed in his capital on 25 March, having spent the last three weeks on a manic march across the plains of Imereti before taking ship in Vatoume and making a harrowing voyage back to Trapezous, buffeted by fierce winds and waves as he went. He was greeted on the docks by a small crowd led by Alexios Kaballarios, his megas domestikos, who told the aftokrator that he had escaped from prison the day before, only hours before his scheduled execution, and had had to hide in a drain pipe until he spotted the returning monarch. David had left a bureaucrat named Thomas Papadopoulos as his regent before departing for Kartvelia the year prior, hoping that his timid nature and all-around tepidity would keep him from getting any ideas in his absence. This had worked for a time, but as soon as word of the Rûmite invasion came, the glorified desk jockey panicked and handed the regency off to an experienced general fresh from the provinces. This was a fairly smart move, and had he summoned, say, the megas domestikos, who was at that time dealing with what he thought were some Turkmen raiders in the Lykos Valley, it could have led to a smooth transition of power that would help the Trapezuntines face down the invaders. Hell, if he had called up one of moirarkhs from Trapezous’ hinterlands, it could have helped create a united front. Instead, Papadopoulos summoned Sabbas Tarkhaneiotes from Sinope and appointed him regent, without even bothering to inform David of doing this.
Tarkhaneiotes had moved at once. This was a golden opportunity, if he was able to route the Rûmites now, he would be the savior of all Trapezous and all Greeks and he could finally, finally, have enough legitimacy to overthrow the Komnenoi and install himself as aftokrator. He summoned Kavallarios to the capital and then arrested him, along with anyone else who would have the desire to inform the aftokrator of this quasi-usurpation. Kavallarios had been particularly troubling, and so after getting the greenlight from the Patriarch he scheduled his execution before gathering up the bandons from the surrounding region and marching west to join the fray. Kavallarios had managed to dodge his execution, of course, and now David was very, very angry at this upstart. He and his men quickly went through the city, freeing all of Tarkhaneiotes’ political prisoners and arresting all of his supporters, installing Kavallarios as his new regent. He then set about scraping together a force of bandons, mercenaries and slave soldiers to deal with the invading hordes, and this one prick of a subcommander. He had managed to assemble a ragged and makeshift force by the middle of April; 5,000 veterans from Ananuri, 17 (4,250) bandons, 2,500 mercenaries and 500 conscripted vagabonds and slaves with no value other than acting as human shields. With this semblance of a campaign army, he set out along Tarkhaneiotes’ trail two months behind.
By the time he reached the Alys Gorge, things had changed dramatically once again. Kadir had arrived in Paphlagonia only two days behind David himself, and like Tarkhaneiotes he had immediately leapt into action. Splitting off two forces of 2,500 men each, his lieutenants had laid siege to Kastamone and Boyabad, respectively, pinning down the two largest Trapezuntine forces on the plateau and threatening the ancestral capital of the Megalokomnenoi itself in one smooth move. He sent cavalry forward to scout and probe Trapezuntine defenses in Outer Paphlagonia and western Pontos, while he kept the bulk of his forces in reserve on the Plateau, where they would be free to strike at will. He had, in his mind at least, placed himself into the ultimate advantageous position; if the Trapezuntines or Nikaians struck out at him, he could intercept them and crush them; if they cowered on the other side of the mountains, then Kastamone and Boyabad would be taken with ease, opening the road across the mountains and attaining his goals for this first war. Of course, it would be preferable if the Ponts came out into the open so he could slaughter them but hey, it was his day to lose either way.
Special vigor was devoted to the assault on Kastamone, as Kadir calculated that a determined and prolonged assault there would serve best to draw out the Trapezuntines. Dozens of cannons were brought up to the city, subjecting the defenders and their families to round-the-clock bombardment from all directions. The city’s walls had been rebuilt under Ratetas, so the Trapezuntines were able to withstand the punishing bombardment with relatively light casualties. Cannonballs and other projectiles--the former soon nicknamed ‘Kadir’s stones’ pounded away at the city’s defenses for hours on end, crews of gunners rotating in and out to keep the assault constant and only breaking when the guns threatened to overheat and explode. Gradually, the hastily-erected dirt berms which had been raised around the city were worn down, clearing the way for direct assault, and the stone and mortar walls of the city seemed as if they would be next. Khaltzes, knowing that the defenders would be unable to repulse a direct assault, raced to put together a response, and eventually, figured one out. The cannons on the city’s walls were too exposed to Rûmite artillery and would be blow to hell if their crews tried to man them there; given the primitive stage of cannon development, this meant that they could be barely used at all and thus were able to lay down suppressing fire to lessen the constant bombardment. Khaltzes ordered the cannons taken off the walls and raised levers so that their barrels just barely rose above the top of the wall and then opened fire, his men missing most of their shots but succeeding in forcing the Turkish cannonade to be pulled back, which bought them and their comrades more time. The Trapezuntines had just invented the howitzer. Kadir used this as an excuse to desist from any assaults, but in truth he didn’t wish to lose any men on what was supposed to be a bait attack. Throughout May and June, the worst months of the siege, he waited in his camp, which lay some twenty miles east of the city, for news of a Trapezuntine response, but none seemed to mobilize. At the same time, his scouts didn’t report any concentration of men other than the smallish force that was holding the Alys Gorge. Would David not only sacrifice two of his cities, but leave a highway into his heartland barely defended? The Trapezuntines must have been gutted by the war in Kartvelia, he concluded, there was no way in hell that they would do something as stupid as this! What the hell was going on?
This abnormally quiet state of affairs continued for the next six weeks, throughout the end of June and all of July. Kastamone itself was forced to surrender due to starvation on July 14, but Kadir treated the starving defenders with surprising mercy, calculating that dangling the threat of razing the city and massacring its inhabitants over the Trapezuntines would be worth more than just doing so outright and throwing away such a lovely opportunity for extortion. The main point of attack was shifted to Boyabad; the continued presence of a Pontic garrison there made any advance down the Alys nigh-on impossible, and holding it would essentially slash the heel of any future Pontic offenses into Inner Paphlagonia. Cannonade pounded away at the city’s formidable citadel, which rose some two hundred feet above the surrounding plain and had been fortified by successive rulers ever since the Çandarid anarchy in the 1460s. The Rûmites, meanwhile, merged their siege forces together and dispatched 5,000 men to test the Nikaian section of the frontier for any weakness, keeping some 25,000 men behind at Boyabad All the while, Kadir sent further probing expeditions down the Alys, wondering where the Trapezuntine army was. He would soon find out.
On the evening of 10 August, a ragged and dazed-looking rider came into the Rûmite siege camp outside Boyabat, asking to be brought to see the sultan. When Kadir met him, the man informed him that he was the commander of one of his Zaza formations, and that everyone else in his unit was dead. He wove a tale of woe and destruction, speaking of how his and several other Zaza formations, as well as several thousand militiamen and would-be ghazis from the eastern edge of the sultanate had come together west of Ezurum to meet a supposed Trapezuntine invasion force. The Rûmites, numbering some 6,000 strong, had made contact with and given chase to an estimated force of seven bandons up the Lykos Gorge, where that river’s valley narrowed to only a few dozen feet wide and was surrounded by sheer cliffs. The horsemen were able to enter with relative ease, as a dry summer had weakened the river to a bare tickle. They had rounded a bend in the canyon to see the Ponts scrambling up the cliffs on rope ladders and a torrential wall of water--supposedly fifty feet high--surging towards them. The lucky captain had managed to grab hold of one of the ladders and cling to it as the flood swept his men and his comrades downstream to their deaths. Once the floodwater had receded, he had found a horse and ridden with all speed to Boyabad to inform the sultan of this disaster, for there were no more fighting men left in the east. The captain then drew his sword and fell upon it.
Couriers flooded in from all directions in the following days, bearing confused and panicked messages from all across the northern half of the Rûmite Sultanate. Seeming hordes of Ponts had come swarming out of the mountains, catching the unsuspecting Turks completely off-guard and supposedly carrying the day wherever they went. Hundreds, no, thousands, of Rûmite soldiers and militia had been slain, thousands more wounded or deserted, dozens of towns had been captured or burned, and hundreds of Greek and Armenian slaves freed. Kadir was overwhelmed with it all and struggled to sort through the influx of pleas for aid and salvation, spending all of his time trying to get a handle on the situation and subsequently not paying attention to the events playing out to the north as his army grew ever more splintered….
Back in early May, David had arrived at the Alys Gorge to find Tarkhaneiotes camped before its mouth with an army slightly smaller than his own, dug in after barely repelling a Rûmite reconnaissance in force a few days before. The aftokrator stormed into the camp demanding to know what the hell Tarkhaneiotes thought he was doing and threatening to send him on the next ship to Alexandria, only to be met by a smug general who ignored his threats. Tarkhaneiotes explained that this army was loyal to him after he successfully turned back the Turkish assault, and as they were about a third of the total Trapezuntine force in the field at that point, David couldn’t do anything; punish or try to kill him, and he would make him a martyr. The young ruler stormed out in cold silence, plotting already.
Tarkhaneiotes woke two days later with a bag over his head and a horse between his legs, head stuffed from the cocktail of sedatives a loyal officer had placed in his drink. After a few moments, his ears stopped ringing and the sack was roughly pulled off, revealing a cold David shouting to the assembled army how he had caught Tarkhaneiotes trying to slip out of the camp with maps of the camp and formations written in Persian, doubtless meant for the Rûmites. The eleutheroi had to beat back the angry mob of men that rushed the bound general, and it was only with great effort that David calmed the soldiers. Tarkhaneiotes was sent back to Trapezous under armed guard, with orders for Kaballarios to throw Tarkhaneiotes in a sunless hole under constant surveillance, to be killed if anyone tried to break him out--as he repeatedly told the bastard--and to then had the regency over to Ionela and come join him as soon as possible.
David then turned his attention to the situation at hand, finding it not to his liking. While the nominal strength of his force was equal to the Rûmite army that laid siege to Kastamone, it was equal to the Turks only on paper, and the Trapezuntines would certainly be defeated if they attempted to meet the Rûmites on an equal field, and likely even if an action took place on ground that was to the Ponts’ favor. However, he couldn’t just leave Kastamone and especially not Boyabad out to be conquered, as their loss would give the Rûmites an open road into the Pontic heartland. After some time, he concluded that his best option was to try and pull off Rûmite forces so that he could strike against the bulk of their force and relieve Boyabad.
Once Kaballarios arrived in the Trapezuntine camp, David was able to begin implementing his plan. Eight of the twenty bandons which had accompanied him to Ananuri and back would be broken off, along with sixteen bandons either freshly raised or from Tarkhaneiotes’ army, giving him a force of some 6,000 men and leaving 15,000 men to hold the pass. Kaballarios was charged with whipping the motley bands into a true fighting force in David’s absence, and to give backbone to this force the surviving eleutheroi and most of the Trapezuntine artillery train were left with him. Meanwhile, David sent a coded message to Lakharnas in Nikaia, asking him to begin an offensive southward on the day after the Transfiguration. Meanwhile, the aftokrator and his newly-mounted force of infantry rushed eastward; timing must be tight if David’s plan were to work.
On the designated day, the offensive began. Lakharnas’ force exploded out of the Bithynian hills, moving with alacritous speed for an entirely infantry force. The Rûmites had focused the bulk of their forces at Gerede and Nalisaray, as these had been the expected sites for a counter-attack, and so they were completely unprepared for 5,000 Nikaian footmen to coming streaming south-west out of the mountains, running along the edge of the Ottoman frontier before swinging out to attack Eskişehir on 10 August. The city’s garrison had been transferred to Nalisaray, and so the militia of the town were unprepared for such a sudden attack. The Nikaians feasted and pillaged the city--Lakharnas had turned his army into a giant flying column, prioritizing speed and maneuverability over supply--before moving out two days later, continuing his south-westward run. Five days later, the Nikaians arrived at Kütahya, a major trading city on the western edge of the plateau. Once again, the defenders were caught off guard and the city was taken, but rather than pillaging as in Eskişehir they burned the city, smashing the kilns of the city’s ceramic district and destroying anything that couldn’t be nailed down. They then turned north and made for Nikaia, Lakharnas being forced to abandon his desired burning of Eskişehir by the arrival of several thousand Rûmite horsemen. The Nikaians would manage to escape back across the frontier near Kolpazar, the Turks nipping at their heels. The operation, in the west at least, was a complete success.
In the east, David and his mounted infantry began their offensive on the same date, striking south from Neokasieria on horseback. They struck first at Tokat, succeeding in drawing the garrisons of Erzincan and much of the Rûmite east into a pursuit down the Lykos Gorge. David had intended to pin them down and massacre his pursuers in the narrow valley, but as it turned out it was much easier to just overload the irrigation dams on the southern end of the valley and then blow them, hence annihilating the Rûmite force with shockingly few losses. He then advanced to Erzincan on 24 August, advancing without cannons or a baggage train in another instance of speed prioritization. Erzincan was one of the few Shiite centers of Anatolia and as such had little love for the Konya regime, and David was able to strike a deal with the Qizilbaş, a militant Shiite order from the surrounding hill country; the Shiites would keep the Trapezuntines supplied, and in exchange the Pontics would leave them unmolested.
David then left his expeditionary force, riding with all speed north-westward accompanied only by a small group of guards. As planned, he met with Kaballarios en route and confirmed that everything was going to plan, after which the two commanders continued their ride, completing their switching of commands. While the aftokrator continued Kaballarios’ training of the makeshift army, the megas domestikos continued David’s breakneck offensive. He dispatched two bandons to seize Erzurum, the far easternmost possession of the Rûmites, in an ultimately doomed expedition.. Kaballarios then continued his southward advance, taking the cliffside citadel of Çemişgezek by deception, then using its captured artillery to pound the mountaintop fortress of Harput into submission before advancing on Malatya, raiding the lands around the city before retreating.
These raids had the desired effect of forcing Kadir to split his forces, as the fall of a city as large and prominent as Malatya would be a nightmare for a regime such as his, and some 10,000 of the 25,000 Rûmite soldiers in Paphlagonia were hastily sent eastward or westward to supplement the local militias that were doing the bulk of the fighting against the Pontic raiders. Even worse, as far the sultan was concerned, Boyabad remained defiant and the campaign season was drawing to a close, meaning that he would have to dismiss the militia in his already reduced army, only further weakening his position. With great reluctance, the sultan gave the order in early November, hoping that the snows and the frost would keep the Trapezuntines at bay for long enough for him to reassemble his army in the spring. David, meanwhile, was eagerly awaiting the end of the winter, having already committed his forces to winter camp; the Rûmite levies would be forced to traipse back and forth across their realm to return to their homes and then back to the field army, while the bandons would have to cross only a tenth of that distance.
The future of Rûm and Rome hung in the frosty winter air….
 Papadopoulos would later claim that his message to David had been lost at sea, but the veracity of this is undeterminable.
 Kadir had done a great deal of research on Trapezuntine governance and mentality before his invasion, and the significance of Kastamone was not lost upon him.
 Dirt berms were commonly raised to prevent cannonballs from impacting directly on the ramparts of a fortress, making enemy assault much more difficult
 That is, 7 August.
 Mounted infantry are just that, infantry who ride to and from the battle but cannot actually fight in the saddle.