Part VIII: The Brothers’ War
Through January 1466, 2,000 Kartvelians braved the harsh winter winds and snows that had turned the Caucasus into a frozen hellscape. They were sent by the king himself, with the knowledge that their families would be held accountable for their failure keeping many of them going even as their comrades collapsed from cold and exhaustion. Their purpose was clear; They would join the army of Alexios Megas Komnenos and install him upon the throne of the Trapezuntine Empire, or die trying. After a harrowing crossing of the mountains, the Kartvelians finally descended back into the (comparatively) less daunting Pontic landscape, arriving at Kapnanion in late March. Their arrival was fortuitous, for only a few days later battle would be joined between the two claimants.
Sabbas had immediately set about clearing the roads after the storm abated, throwing the considerable (well, on a Trapezuntine scale) manpower of the western bandons into digging them out. The aftokrator was furious that a swift victory had been denied to him by calamitous fate, and so set every man to work. He himself even took up the spade, as he was determined to get through to Kapnanion and was willing to lead by example. Following two weeks of round-the-clock work that saw hundreds of trees burned to keep the exhausted soldiers and workers from freezing and several dozen men lost to frostbite anyway, the road to Kapnanion had finally been cleared. However, the loyalist army had been so exhausted by their struggle that Sabbas was forced to remain in camp for the better part of the following week to let his men recover. He wasn’t foolish enough to be angry at his men, but he was still in a foul mood that clouded his judgement while planning, which would have a large impact down the road.
Alexios, meanwhile, was anxiously observing his brother’s advance while overseeing his own preparations. His plan was reliant on him escaping over the mountains to the southern border, but he was fully aware that Sabbas might reach his position before the passes thawed. As such, while his men were in winter quarters he put them to work constructing fortifications around Kapnanion. The frozen ground and all-around miserable winter conditions made construction a nightmare, but the resolve of doomed men kept them working at a similar exhaustive pace to Sabbas’ army. A berm was dug out on all sides of the city, which would both delay enemy advance as well as provide a makeshift moat if a concealed dike was pulled. A concealed ditch lined with spikes was then dug out, covered with the dense foliage of the Pontic mountains, on the closer side of the moat. Most importantly, the fortress of Kapnanion itself--which had been poorly maintained ever since the Safavis had sacked it nearly twenty years previous--was rebuilt and repaired, with the castellan stones being quarried out of the nearby mountains. All of this was rushed, given the short amount of time that Alexios had until his brother’s army made it through the pass, but it was enough to make an assault on the city a daunting prospect under the best of circumstances.
The daunting proved to be enough to prevent Sabbas from assaulting the fortress. The army of the aftokrator finally advanced to Kapnanion in early march, having finally recovered from their exhausting labor. However, Sabbas arrived to find not, as he had expected, a demoralized force camped on exposed ground and weakened from the privations of the cold but instead a well-garrisoned fortress bristling with defenses. He was duly furious that such an easy victory had been denied to him and flew into a rage, ordering an assault that he then swiftly halted. After a few hours spent stalking back and forth at the head of his army, Sabbas developed a plan.
The loyalist army camped in a semi-circle several hundred yards out from the trenches, with enough space between the two to form up in the gap. This accomplished its intended purpose of cutting off Kapnanion’s landward side. Then, the megas doux was summoned from Trapezous, putting out in late March after the winter storms had passed. Almost the entirety of the fleet had rallied to Sabbas and the few ships that had been crewed or commanded by Alexios’ supporters had either been captured or sunk on the rough seas. As such, Sabbas’ force was able to completely seal off Kapnanion from the outside world. This actually made one of Alexios’ previous decisions--back in February he had stood down several bandons and ordered them to return to their homes--surprisingly a good one, as he now had fewer mouths to feed. More importantly, it now meant that Sabbas had to divide his forces to deal with the irregulars who were harassing his camp.
For the next few weeks, the siege of Kapnanion carried on as most sieges do. The besiegers made occasional probing attacks across the moat, losing several dozen men to the spike pits and caltrops, but were unable or unwilling to directly attack the walls. The defenders, meanwhile, watched and waiting on the ramparts and behind murder holes in case the enemy launched a surprise attack. However, unlike most sieges where the defenders were the ones who had to deal with the cold and a lack of supplies, these issues beset both armies. There had been a large host of men in the region since December, and they had slowly but steadily burnt through the locals’ food reserves. Both Alexios’ army, who had taken as much food into Kapnanion as they could, and Sabbas’ army, which was having to be resupplied by sea, were rapidly running out of foodstocks. This situation was worsened by another major storm that flooded much of the countryside and forced the loyalist navy to be beached for several days until the skies cleared (well, as clear as they ever get in Pontos). The heavy rain also caused a section of Kapnanion’s hastily rebuilt walls to collapse, as the sudden deluge ate away at the thin crust of mortar. This caused the only assault of the siege, as hundreds of Sabbas’ men rushed the fortress. Despite an initial advance, Alexios’ appearance amongst the ranks of the defenders caused them to rally, pushing the loyalists back after an hour of fighting. The failure of this assault caused morale to plummet in the siege camps, but Sabbas’ natural charisma and a few speeches kept mass desertions from happening. In spite of this, the aftokrator was now aware that he would be unable to take the city by storm and would likely exhaust his own reserves before his brother did. He sent an expedition back to Trapezous, with orders to take the cannons from the walls and bring them to the siege.
Alexios, meanwhile, was in similar straits. Unbeknownst to the besiegers, the Alexian food stores had gone out three days previous, and many of the defenders had consumed nothing but boiled leather and rainwater for several days. Alexios was beginning to wonder if his best course of action would be to surrender in exchange for his children (Alexandros (8), Basileios (5) and Anna (2)) being given safe passage to Kartvelia. However, any thoughts of surrender were ended on 16 April, when lookouts in both Kapnanion and the camps spotted a gleaming serpent appear over the eastern horizon.
Both the loyalists and the Alexians rushed to arms, the former forming up in their camps facing eastward while Alexios’ men formed up on the small strip of land around Kapnanion facing southwards. Seeing his enemy’s flank turned towards him, Alexios and his men splashed across the moat, losing several dozen men to the spike pits but hitting the loyalist line with great force nonetheless. The initial strike at their flank disorganized loyalist forces and pushed them back a great deal, and for several minutes the center was in anarchy as Alexios’ men pressed their advantage and bit hard into the enemy flank. Word reached Sabbas and he abandoned his position at the head of the army and galloped back to the center, pulling sections of his own center back to reform at a distance. The entire battle was chaos at this point, as the fighting had shifted into the camp itself, breaking up both armies’ formation. Any semblance of formation was now gone, with battle devolved to duels between lone men or groups of soldiers flinging themselves at each other. Corpses piled together densely amongst the tents and blood turned the cold mud into a bog. One of the loyalist strategoi, a Laz named Alexios Mgeli, took de facto command of the bandons that were west of the now-overrun camp and charged across the plain to Kapnanion, thinking to secure the fortress and cut the Alexians off from their lines of retreat. However, the sudden absence of the men to their left caused the remaining defenders of the camp to throw down their arms and route, stampeding through Sabbas and his reformed section in their rear. In the chaos, Sabbas was knocked off his horse and dragged beneath it, killing him. This went unnoticed amongst the chaos, for most of his men were either in route, with Mgeli or part of the few remaining formations in the front who were now being pinned down by the Kartvelian. Pinned down, mind you, as both were hungry and tired and weren’t especially eager to die. In spite of their hundred of mile trek across the mountains, the Kartvelian would never actually fight, just stand menacingly.
With Sabbas dead, there was no one left to rally his men and Alexios’ supporters were now chasing the remaining loyalists from the field. However, he would not live to see his triumph. As his steed cantered across the field, it stumbled over the body of a fallen man (the common story that it was Sabbas’ body is almost certainly apocryphal) and threw him. Alexios’ neck was broken, killing him instantly. By now, the fighting had calmed enough that the shouted message that both Alexios and Sabbas were dead quickly spread through the ranks. With both of their champions gone, both sides quickly stopped fighting, not quite sure what to do. Many of their soldiers, considering their causes to be pointless, threw down their arms and began to fraternize with their former opponents. Eventually, both armies assembled in the bloody ruins of the loyalist camp, with the Kartvelians standing by. After some debate, they concluded that the best plan of action was to march back to Trapezous and install Alexandros, Alexios’ young son, upon the throne, something that the Kartvelians also supported. With Alexios Mgeli--the highest ranking officer from either of the armies still alive--at their head, the army departed back towards Trapezous.
The losses from the Second Battle of Kapnanion and the civil war at large were immense, with more than two thousand men going to their deaths in the battle alone. As always, several hundred were also maimed, but the true losses of the war were the cold and illness. Nearly 5,000 men had frozen or died of illness or been killed by the warring factions over the winter of 1465-1466, a truly devastating blow for Trapezous. The pocket empire had a manpower pool of 35,000 at the very best, to cover both campaigns and garrisons. With one out of every six potential recruits either killed or maimed, the Empire had been exhausted by the civil war and was far weaker in December 1466 than it had been in December 1465.
After arriving back in Trapezous, Alexandros Iunior was installed as Alexandros II on 11 May 1466. There were few who were opposed to his installation, as the general consensus was that further division would result in Trapezous becoming a shiny new province of either Kartvelia (at best) or one of the Turkish states (at worst). However, no-one could decide who the regent would be, and the realm was once again plunged into instability
 Alexios had kept his children close to him, and they had been evacuated to the inland fortress of Ophos before the siege began.