And here we are for Day 3 of my personal approach to National Novel Writing Month. The title for this one’s pretty self-explanatory, so what what’re we waiting for?
“As the length of a discussion about Tonnish fighting equipment increases, the probability that someone will scream ‘talk about reaping spears!’ at the top of their lungs increases toward one, at which point so does my blood pressure.”
This was the Watra scholar Neesani Miroda’s way of summing up her field. It should be noted that Neesani was not a scholar of cardiovascular lore. Leaving aside her poetic license with the numerics of blood pressure, she was completely right. Outsiders looking at the North Ton’s killing gear and approaches to warfare frequently want to start with the largest, most dramatic weapons–also known as “being human”–without a care in the world as to whether they know any of the things they need to to comprehend the reaping spears’ actual role!
As with every people, and especially with humans, Tonnish history and culture are so intertwined with warfare that to discuss one without the other would just be irresponsible. Fundamentally, any species courageous or stupid enough to go out and engage in organized slaughter is courageous or stupid enough to cherish ideas about war which have nothing to do with practicality. The simplest and most obvious contrivance in Tonnish warfare is a scarcity of shields. This is often attributed to the difficulty of lugging a shield through the bogs, with an entire clique of scholars springing up in Anseth to study “the Ton-Ga phenomenon”.
The immediate Tonnish answer to the question is two-fold. The peacestock–if asked behind closed doors–will say, “Because they’re lunatics and they want to die.” The warstock answer: “We’ve never needed shields before. Why start now?” The obvious response to this is that, in all likelihood, any who needed the shields and didn’t have them aren’t alive to give input! As much as the relative absence of shields is a cultural hiccup rather than a conscious military policy, it does tie in well with the North Ton’s existing martial arts. They’ve had their share of practice in dealing with shields during invasions from the outside world–particularly Anseth–as well as their not-infrequent run-ins with Tresamer.
All this aside, shields do exist in the Ton-Ga: for House Guards and other forms of noble retainers, not front-line fighters. A fearless bodyguard is an obvious asset; a suicidal one is equally as useful exactly once. More to the point, it’s much easier to stop sudden arrows and dagger-clasping lunges with a great big disc of steel-bound wood than without. Because they’re frequently commissioned for a particular bodyguard by those who rely on them, these shields are often spectacularly ornate.
Outsiders looking at this have developed a lot of peculiar ideas about the reasons–as opposed to Neesani Miroda’s favorite method, “asking the person their actual reasoning,” a controversial method of cultural study with few proponents–up to and including superstitions that the North Tonnish pantheon have vowed to smite anyone bearing a shield unless it’s made so beautifully they can overlook the dishonor it brings.
The “archetypal”–a dubious term for a specialist item–Ton shield is a disc with a hollow outer face to make projectiles and weapons alike slide or glance away from its surface. Having an enemy’s weapon catch up on the shield isn’t precisely desirable when this would demand an immediate rush into range to take advantage. After all, a bodyguard’s first duty is to protect his ward until reinforcements charge in, not to kill any single attacker. More than a little counter-intuitively, the shield’s faces are nearly always engraved with warstock-appropriate imagery: infamous bog-predators, swirling vinework interlaced with thorns, and flowing stylized patterns representing national forces.
While it’s highly debatable whether all these little notches are useful for something that’s supposed to prevent questing spear-points from catching on itself, they do make shields an excellent chance to see North Ton aesthetics in their full scope all on one surface. There’s an idea in Tonnish art that every scene depicted on a weapon or given piece of armor should fit into the same overall panorama. Though there are always exceptions–some quite famous–most craftspeople in the Ton-Ga do their best to follow this rule. The shield of Matriarch Simu Tilar’s famous bodyguard and possible paramour Tai Rei was made for him when he lived in the Ton-Ga as part of House Lin, and it remains among the best examples of its tradition five centuries after his death in battle.
Tai Rei’s shield–which, for whatever reason, he never named–has a center boss of seven concave facets which form a sort of squat, asymmetric spike at its center. Three bands connect the boss to the shield’s rims, and its inner face is fire-hardened, mage-strengthened bao tai wood–the rarest and strongest of the traditional Ton-Ga craft-woods, known for its hardness, resilience and a slightly oily luster. The wood itself is alternatingly raised, lowered and chiseled to present an all-black scene from Tai’s own childhood: a disastrous hunt during which two of his best friends were killed by an enraged knifestail viper. As with any Ton relief which depicts violence, all wounds appear with chilling detail and in stark contrast to the stylized figures bleeding from them. Being a Lin decoration, the blood is also depicted using painstakingly-applied red lacquer: a direct legacy from a certain legendary weapon to be discussed later.
The silver bands, boss and rims are engraved with several weeks’ worth of delicate vinework set in copper, bronze, gold and patina’d iron, much of it scarred by the hundreds of strikes Tai Rei fended off during his long career. Its colors gradate gently into each other–another direct contrast with Ceslonian designs, which usually opt for sharp color contrasts. The masterwork shield didn’t save Tai Rei when a psionic from Southern Anseth launched him through a wall, unfortunately. His death has been held up obnoxiously often as “proof” that shields aren’t worth it by the other Ton.
It doesn’t take much martial analysis to guess that if the North Ton don’t use shields on a large scale, there likely won’t be any shield-walls to speak of either. The basic front-line unit of any Tonnish army is thus a group of Tonnish warriors wielding the famed Ton-Ga “war spear.” The war spear is the Tonnish attempt to find a middle ground between the pikes favored at various points throughout Cannoan history and the slimmer, shorter spears most commonly used in Ceslon. Each war spear has, at a minimum, a steel or iron counterweight which doubles as a mace when armored targets need a good concussing, a seven-to-eight (usually eight)-foot shaft of lacquered wood, and a spearhead secured to the shaft by spines in addition to a full tang socketed in and pinned along three points at the top of the spear.
Almost immediately, confusions start creeping in. House Lin’s war-spears frequently reduce the spines to long langets, but House Sairo’s rarely have spines at all. The Lins and Huans generally added prongs or wings both for manipulating undergrowth and enemy weapons, but the Yaos do not. The Sairos only include such things on reaping spears, in which case the wings and a blade-collar added to refine the spearhead’s fit against the haft and guard generally have serrations, blades or spikes small enough to add minimal weight but large enough to disrupt attempts to grab the weapon.
House Yao generally frowns on ornate weaponry, whereas a Lin warrior considers herself shamed if the spear she takes up on reaching adulthood doesn’t have at least one or two pieces of gold on it. As with any other group of humans on Canno, anything that one can say safely of this town might start a brawl in the next. This is no exaggeration; Neesani Miroda herself triggered a brief inter-village war when she innocently compared their opinions about the correct way to engrave a tulin flower!
One village’s warriors–from that of Longquin–insisted that it should be incorporated only as a structural element to frame panoramas of more violent imagery, with the flower’s petals forming lines between parts of the panorama or giving the impression of the landscape on which a battle took place. The warriors from the village of Shinli countered that by included the flower for what it was, it would create a masterful conceptual dissonance between the ugliness and brutality of war as represented by the weapon on which it was engraved, and the unspoiled natural beauty of a tulin flower. Which side’s opinion better fit this debacle on a broader thematic level was a question Neesani never conclusively answered for herself.
When making weapons and armor alike, the North Ton will generally try to fit the weapon’s aesthetic flourishes into the practical shapes of its parts. Blades, guards, prongs, counterweights and end-caps mostly use the same handful of shapes; it’s the engravings, inlays, colors and imagery fit within the generic lines that set them apart. This has allowed the Ton to refine making a few specific shapes to be almost as natural as breathing, but it means their less-practiced craftspeople often struggle if asked to play with a design’s larger geometry. This applies not just to war-spears, but to every field of Tonnish craft.
The war-spears, by their nature, force Tonnish infantry into a specific range of tactics. The weapon serves excellently in a tight formation or as part of a skirmish line, but obviously creates problems if a Tonnish formation is caught in a flanking attack. North Ton warriors drill and fight constantly, so those within the formation will shortly pivot and present their spears to face the new threat without breaking the front rank’s integrity, but a few seconds and a few extra warriors down can easily prove the deciding factor. In fact, as deadly as the spear is en masse, the North Ton actually excel as a bizarre form of heavy-infantry skirmisher: falling on isolated enemy troops, lancing as many as possible with spear-thrusts, and keeping themselves defended with the war-spear while retreating to resurface elsewhere. The legendary Black Havener commander, Count Albrecht Duren, once said: “Give me men of Stoßdär for the front, children of Ulm for my archers, and Tonnish women for the flanks.”
This is a vast improvement over a previous age’s sentiment in which Teodor von Vallingen said: “Give me Haveners for my front and Ton for the charnel house!” While their martial arts and the bogs alike have conditioned the Ton into superb ambush troops, their physical size, relentless training and the ample armor now preferred by most Houses have made them a match for any front-line force on Canno. Matriarch Mei-la Sairo’s Scarlet Guard have become particularly renowned within the past few years, not least for defeating three times their number of well-armored Sarnish troops during a border dispute. Sarn’s King Euser has neither acknowledged the disaster nor attempted to attack House Sairo since.
In themselves, the Scarlet Guard indicate another peculiarity of the North Ton. While most other nations–including the other Ton subcultures–prefer to hold their elite troops back unless there’s a critical moment, the Ton-Ga’s Houses habitually throw their best into the fray during every battle. It’s not completely clear where this idea comes from. In House Lin it’s been attributed to Ten Zai’s aphorism that “If the greatest warrior withholds might, she becomes but the greatest waste of space.” This may explain their Banner-Guard’s tendency for fanatical charges, but doesn’t account for the other Houses. After all, Ten Zai can hardly have been so respected as to convince a Sairo to follow a Lin’s advice!
This does create a consistent need for replacements, but not so consistent as one might expect; a Matriach’s guard invariably have the best training, the most experience, the best fighters overall, and the very best equipment: fully-enclosed lamellar or plate armor which makes them almost impervious to mundane attacks–invariably warded by House mages for a further advantage–and sapphire-steel.
Whatever the Ton’s other advantages, the abundance of sapphire-steel refined from the wushai ore found throughout the bogs is by far the most decisive. Though still extraordinarily difficult to smelt and forge, it gives any weapon forged from it enough hardness to pierce and drive apart common high-carbon steel. The best Ceslonian plate armor becomes useless when it’s too soft to resist a thrust, as Euser’s troops found out too late when facing the Scarlet Guard. The wealthiest Ceslonian lords can afford armor itself made from sapphire-steel–usually laid over higher to compensate for impurities–but the rest are reduced to frantic deflections. When fighting as one tight formation against another, the North Ton’s bog-trained spear skills allow them to pith most enemies easily. Even for the average Tonnish warrior, most men-at-arms and peasant levies are never so well-armored that there isn’t an open spot or simple patch of chain to stab into.
When going into battle, many Houses try to offer their troops some flexibility. House Lin issues a wedgepoint sword as a standard sidearm–a luxury afforded by their wealth from exported sapphire-steel–and encourages every line-warrior to carry a lighter, shorter throwing spear for ranged capability. These have become status symbols in their own right, and wealthier Lin nobles pay their private enchanters to apply all manner of vicious spells to their throwing spears. When thrown in volley just before meeting an enemy advance, the throwing spears can decide the course of a melee. Of course, they just as often achieve moderate effects and leave the rest to brute handwork–one can’t expect to win without striking the enemy a few times!
In addition to throwing spears, the North Ton use bows as much as any people on Canno. The North Ton do have their fad weapons, like any other people. These function less as battlefield tools than dueling or even purely aesthetic ones, however; a subject for another time. Some better-organized Ceslonian armies employ catapults and ballistae as ordinance weapons to disrupt enemy formations, but the horrid density of the bogs prevents any House from adapting these tactics.
Neither do the North Ton rely on their mages for this purpose, though they habitually train as hard as any others in a given House. In battle, the priority for North Ton mages isn’t the enemy’s formation, but the enemy’s own mages. Tonnish military theory argues that targeting the enemy’s formation with the mages does nothing to change the battle’s core dynamic. The enemy commander loses her basic troops more swiftly, but she retains the same range of options. Kill her mages, however, and every plan she wished to execute involving them is brought to an end.
North Ton mages often function in small hit-and-run packs which rove around the battlefield, fall upon each of the enemy’s mages in a given unit, and unleash a brief hail of murderous spellcraft to cover their escape when they either kill the last or become threatened themselves. If the mages they kill include a unit’s wardists–mages specially trained and designated to shield against offensive magic–they may kill hundreds in this last burst. Ideally, this happens so quickly that the units they strike have no idea what happened. House Lin’s mages, for example, train in spearfighting alongside the common warstock, and often deliver the killing blow with these ordinary weapons.
This thinking runs directly counter to Ceslonian theory not just tactically, but socially. In Ceslon mages are a precious resource, sought for marriage more desperately than royalty and guarded more fiercely still. In the Ton-Ga, mages are just one part of the immense whole needed to survive the bogs. Deaths in battle have led to a somewhat lower number of mages overall, but hardly so many that the North Ton’s numbers are depleted. The House Matriarchs, however, have gone out of their way to support myths stating just the opposite. Where possible, some even go so far as to insert spies into enemy forces for the sole purpose of writing reports that downplay the role of Tonnish mages. This has also lead to mages being thought of more fondly among Tonnish troops than anywhere else on Canno. Even though the mages’ tactics come from pure pragmatism, they have the feel of an honor code: the mages target each other first as equals, and only turn on mundane troops as a matter of duty when this grudge has been fought to the conclusion.
No monopoly exists on the use of deception in warfare, but the North Ton excel at it to a rare extent–again, another legacy of life in the bogs. The Huan Matriarchs have–the present generation aside–become infamous for their mastery, honed by training in the muck, murk and murderous filth along with their lowest subjects all through childhood. Even those of other Houses are still used to looking a dozen layers below the surface of the simplest event for some threat. A Ceslonian general uses battlefield deceptions masterfully, but a Tonnish one tricks her enemies into fighting a completely different war! Or at least, this is the ideal.
“When things get complicated, things go wrong” remains among the chief truisms of Ceslonian strategy. If the Ton-Ga’s children have a conclusive weakness at war, it’s the ease with which they lapse into planning, re-planning and over-planning for a hundred little contingencies. Individual commanders are also liable to think they understand their commander’s plan better than she herself does; a few have thrown off entire campaigns by mistakenly interpreting direct orders to mean the opposite of what they say! General Wuri of House Yao famously launched the siege of a Central Ton citadel because Matriarch Okulan told her it would ruin the entire offensive if she did. When asked for her reasoning before she was executed, the General tearfully confessed, “I thought I would never be ordered not to do something so obviously stupid unless it wasn’t really stupid!”
These instances are incredibly rare, but they do reflect a broader problem among the Ton-Ga’s forces: a lack of communication between superiors and subordinates. The North Ton warstock is far more stratified than those of either Ceslon or Anseth. In Stoßdär, for example, a rank levy is welcome to curse at a knight-commander incessantly provided he does it in good humor and isn’t wasting time on it in the middle of an actual battle. The Black Havens in general regard themselves as siblings all in the Long-Night War against necromancers, undeath and agents of chaos. While it has its own pitfalls, soldiers and their leaders come to understand each other’s thinking, respect each other, and intuitively grasp their part in the whole. This kind of tactical agility comes only from constant, open practice.
The North Ton view the entirety of society as a framework to support the Matriarch even as it flows from her, and treat all things warlike in the same way. Not just authority, but merit, are seen as naturally flowing from the Matriarch: the House’s great spiritual mother. Thus the further someone is from the Matriarch, the less authority they should have. It’s a simple idea which causes a multitude of problems. Few warriors learn effective tactical thinking; each assumes that her superiors know what they’re doing, and many of the few who don’t only drop this assumption because of self-aggrandizement.
This brings us, at last, to the reaping spear: the purest symbol of Matriarchal authority and the accidental gift of a single woman. Before Ten Zai rose to fame in the Loar War, there were no reaping spears in the Ton-Ga. Indeed, her Skybleeder was the only weapon of its kind for close to half a century. Then, over the space of a few generations, first the Lins and then the other Matriarchal families adopted the weapons for themselves. This in itself serves as the perfect microcosm for the Ton-Ga’s blind adoration of their Matriarchs. Whatever else might be said of her, Ten Zai was an unusual woman. Every legendary figure has dubious stories associated with them, but with Ten Zai these are the only stories that exist!
There are two possible answers, stating one of which nearly got Neesani Mirodo gutted in the street during her journey’s final stop before returning to Anseth. As she suggested, it seemed most likely that the majority of the stories about Ten Zai and Skybleeder were fabricated. It was entirely possible that the Inferno Matriarch herself never existed, except in a metaphorical sense as a folkloric incarnation of the North Ton’s fighting spirit against the Loar. Skybleeder itself was obviously real–then-Matriarch Chanru Lin had actually let her hold it!–and admittedly seemed outrageously well-crafted, but when Neesani asked to test the weapon’s reputed “immutable evisceration” the Matriarch told her it was too dangerous and snatched it away.
In fact, no Lin Matriarch has wielded Skybleeder since Ten Zai herself did. Though each theoretically has the right, they’ve always used their own privately-made reaping spears in battle. Skybleeder reputedly sheared through Loar exoskeletons and armor without slowing–some even claim that it actually moved faster in Ten Zai’s hands as it butchered them. Sapphire-steel weapons existed at the time, and proved just as useless in thrusts against the Loar as in cutting. The level of spell-craft needed to kill one Loar–assuming it struck, which considering Loar speed was a charitable assumption indeed–could slaughter a thousand humans. It took tens of thousands or even a hundred thousand dying before pure material fatigue let them crack its exoskeleton by blunt force. Most scholars have come to accept that if Skybleeder was ever capable of these things, the capability must have been lost. Why would any House refuse to use such a devastating weapon in combat?
Even outside House Lin, the North Ton fiercely deny these claims. The normally-opposed Houses comes together on this because doing otherwise might mean admitting that reaping spears, in themselves, were popularized by a lie. Yet ironically, this doesn’t matter. The archetypal reaping spear, a polearm of seven to nine feet with up to three feet in its curved, usually double-edged blade, is such a murderous weapon in its own right that no myth needs to justify it. It also exemplify’s the role of the Matriarch and her daughters on the battlefield. By tradition and simple common sense, the Matriarch stands in the center of her guards whether they advance, retreat, or hold their ground. From here she directs the entire course of battle in relative safety. Enemies must break through her Guard to attack her, and those who do invariably wish they hadn’t.
With clear space to move it on all sides, the Matriarch can put the reaping spear to bloody use. It concentrates enough force in its tip that a hooking strike will pierce most armor; when striking with the counterweight, skulls shatter inward, necks snap, ribs crush, organs pulp. The reaping spear is fundamentally either a dueling or area-control weapon, and this includes empty space in a formation. If caught alone, the Matriarch can defend herself for a long time simply by whirling the spear ceaselessly around her. Her armor will invariably be warded heavily, so even a Matriarch with no mage-talent is unlikely to be downed by enemy mages. Meanwhile, her armor protects her against the swift piercing attacks of physical weapons which breach those wards. She is as close as any human can sanely expect to total invincibility.
In the end, of course, she isn’t. It’s conspicuous that despite her power, the Matriarch is usually shrouded by her encircling troops–a fitting reflection of her own place in her people’s wars.
(If you found this post enriching or simply enjoyed it, then please leave a like, share it with your friends wherever you may go online, and consider supporting me on Patreon!)