Elf-Boy and Friends
Chapter 22. The Great Entrapment
Six months later, Count Klarendes, his sons, and Aodh traveled to Dalnot to rendezvous with the twins and to get first hand accounts of the great victory the armies of the Commonwealth had won over the eastern barbarians. They had heard that the invaders had marched straight into the trap the High Command had devised for them. Very few combatants survived, just a few score had managed to get away, out of ninety thousand warriors.
"We are letting their camp followers return to their homeland." Jemsen remarked. "Much more than that, they were a whole people on the march: old men, women and children, with their animals, wagons, tools and portable wealth. They never expected to return but intended to settle here on the plains, in the lands they hoped to seize. Along with all the herds and fields they could appropriate from Commonwealth citizens after their men folk killed them."
"I am not so sure how merciful that was, turning them loose." Karel continued. "I have since learned that the barbarians had torched the homes and villages they left behind them and even girdled orchards and set fire to woodlots. Done everything except poison their wells. Their great prophet made sure they would have no retreat, nowhere to go back to. It was either win or die. They all died. Now it is the turn of their families. No way they can get a full crop in, even if they had seed. You cannot run farms with only graybeards, women and children, no men, and with few draft animals and those short of fodder. No way to defend themselves against the next wave of barbarians, either."
"Next wave?" Artor asked.
Klarendes nodded. He had talked with officers who knew him. With his special responsibility for the army's redoubt on this side of the mountains, he had the right to be briefed on what to expect next.
"There are millions of them to the east, scattered across a vast land. They don't build cities and have very few real towns. Mostly they dwell in hamlets of a few families or in isolated homesteads, occupying what flat ground they can find in their mountain hollows. The population density is low, but their territory is huge, much bigger than the Commonwealth's. Hence their seemingly endless numbers. The barbarians are mostly human but their territory has enclaves of orcs, so many are of mixed blood. Ugly cusses, as you twins will have seen for yourselves.
The good news is that. with this recent defeat, we will have two or three years to get ready for the next wave. And preparation goes on not only here on the plains. Across the Commonwealth, in all military districts, new regiments for the standing army are being raised. The militia are drilling more seriously. There is nothing like a threatened invasion to concentrate minds. Supplies of arms at district armories are being topped off. Fletchers, bowyers, arrow smiths, and sword smiths are working two shifts. City walls and forts are being strengthened. "
"Oh? Karel asked. "I didn't see any protective walls around their cities except at Bled which lies at the inner end of that pass through the mountains."
"Indeed." Klarendes explained. It is just the frontier towns that have formal walls. In the rift valley, with its population of nearly one hundred million, we like to say that the militia are their own city walls. For which role, they are well-trained. They take drill seriously since the tax rates of their cities are adjusted up or down, depending on the result of thorough inspections for military preparedness. Understand, the militia are not intended to march as an expeditionary army. They don't have the logistical tail required for maneuver warfare. But they can form up in the surrounding fields and give battle for their cities, sparing them from destruction.
Also, did you notice the outer ring of buildings at the boundary of the built up areas? From outside the city, they present blank walls for the first two stories. The upper stories or roofs serve as parapets, while gates can close off every street. Even if any enemy breaches this shallow outer ring, each district becomes a fortress in itself, with the major public buildings sheltering the populace and open areas like parks, gardens, and training grounds offering wide fields of fire. No, our populous cities would be death traps for any army foolish enough to try to penetrate them.
Siege is pointless, given our huge stores of foodstuffs and easy access to water, not to mention the ease of resupply and reinforcement by river or military road. Meanwhile the western half of the Commonwealth is beyond the reach of any attack from the east, safeguarded by our navy on the river, and ready to transport fresh forces across to counter attack."
"No, this has been studied and war-gamed for a century. The Commonwealth is too powerful to fall to any conventional attack. Even if we pressed on all our borders at once we could hold off any conceivable coalition of the the lands near enough to march against us. And everyone knows it. Which is why the peace among civilized states on Valentia has lasted so long."
"The militia is also why the Commonwealth never became militaristic or belligerent. The populace are very much defense minded and stay at home sorts. We never go looking for a fight, but we are ready for one if forced into a war."
The last serious challenger to the Commonwealth was a coalition of piratical states along the southern coast of the Great Inland Freshwater Sea, the so-called Corsair Coast. Once the Commonwealth took the threat seriously, the ultimate outcome was inevitable. Those predatory city states no longer exist. Fed up with decades of predation, fruitless patrols, and limited retaliatory raids, the navy mobilized to sweep the sea of their ships and drive the rest into port. Our war wizards then brought down the cliffs that enclosed their sheltered harbors, blocking the pirate towns from access to open water, then flattened the towns themselves with earthquakes. The strategic lesson was there for all to see:"
"Do not mess with the Commonwealth. Do not provoke us enough to drive us to exasperation. You really do not want our undivided attention."
"With that campaign against piracy we gained the gratitude of all civilized lands surrounding the Inland Sea who had had to pay tribute, protection money really, to the corsairs. Our neighbors across the the Great Inland Freshwater Sea all know we have no further territorial ambitions of our own. Why fight when you can engage in trade to everyone's advantage? Which is why we are surrounded by states that are either allies, unaligned but friendly powers, or at least reconciled to our hegemony. The Commonwealth is never heavy handed toward peaceable neighbors. And we have the support of the druids and vice-versa."
"That is why the druids are so worried. Surely the Dark Prophet of the barbarians realizes all this. So what does he know that we do not?" Klarendes concluded.
"Then why did their prophet throw away an entire army in this first campaign?" the minstrel asked.
"Good question, Aodh. I think he really expected to win here on the plains, beyond the centers of power of the Commonwealth and before we were fully mobilized. Remember, until recently our Army of the Plains was only about six or seven thousand. Reinforcements raised that number to nearly ten thousand. They came at us with nine times that many.
"Seizing the plains would give their prophet a base to raise a cavalry army to march beside his infantry hordes. And it would deprive us of our own best cavalry country. Two birds, one stone. Their leaders had no inkling of the trap we had set for them. Still, that is a trick you can use only once. And of course, a tunnel runs in both directions. So now we have to keep a garrison at the tunnel with a war wizard stationed nearby to collapse it, if necessary."
"Wheels within wheels," Ran said, shaking his head. "What a tricky business warfare is. And a bloody one too. I saw it for myself, fetching replacement arrows for our archers. Those repeating crossbows of theirs need a lot of ammunition. The barbarians outnumbered us ninety thousand to our not quite ten thousand. Yet they never stood a chance. Especially when that second army closed the trap."
"There was more to it than you could see, young Randell" Klarendes explained. "Colonel Urqaart told me that the barbarians had to attack across the bed of a braided river, two hundred paces across, all mud flats and shallow channels, no cover of any kind. They couldn't even duck out of sight underwater, not when it was only shin deep. Our men were dismounted and sheltered behind earthworks studded with pointed stakes. The worst obstacle was that the southern bank of the river flows east along an old fault line, where the land was upthrust in some ancient cataclysm. It rises more nearly a man height above the river bed, too high for men to cross easily. Especially in the face of a berm equally built atop the bank, plus sharpened stakes and stake filled-pits dug under the water to trip or impale the unwary."
"Farther upriver, the fault line peters out. That is where the enemy tried to break through. They advanced across the river with a large force, but our dismounted troops refused the left flank, bending the line south, which gave our mounted regiments time to move into attack position. They charged the enemy force, taking them by surprise, rolling up their line, slaughtering them with lance and sword. Those new stirrups really proved themselves in that fight."
"Their losses trying to force that formidable line would have defeated their invasion. But we were aiming at more than turning them back. We did not want to face this particular horde again, the next time coming at us strengthened with reinforcements and hankering for revenge. So we designed a battle of annihilation. While you and the Army of the Plains were going at it hammer and tongs, the infantry army forced marched to the north bank."
"Then that relief army, the Entrapment Army I think they are calling it now, hit the enemy from behind, hammer to anvil, achieving total surprise. Pressed from both sides, their outer lines falling back to the main body, their warriors became so bunched together that they couldn't rotate men from the line of contact to rest and recuperate in the rear. As the press of flesh grew greater, they hardly had room to raise their arms to swing their weapons. Some even suffocated from the sheer crush of bodies. Whereas are forces repeatedly executed a passage of lines, sending fresh formations against their weary warriors and giving our played out soldiers a rest. I am told the river literally ran red with their blood."
"In the end, they knew their situation was hopeless and stood there stoically, resigned to their fate. We gave no quarter, not even for such patient courage in the face of certain death. Nothing we could do with tens of thousands of prisoners. We don't make slaves of defeated foes or anyone else for that matter, haven't done so for centuries. Nor would their lives have bought us peace, not from our dread foe. He does not reward good deeds or exchange prisoners."
The twins nodded, adding:
"We scouts did not join the general slaughter ourselves, though we did kill a dozen stragglers who fled into the hills where we were posted overlooking the battlefield. But we can take credit for leading the Entrapment Army from the tunnel exit to their line of departure at the foot of the mountains. I never saw such an impressive body of troops. No offense to horse soldiers, but a huge mass of men on foot, armor shining in the sun, bristling with pointy weapons, and marching in step in close order presents a different aspect than a cavalry army."
"So Merry, I understand how you galloped all the way from the Great Southern Forest to the battle field?" Aodh asked his friend. "Did you really cover the distance in a week?"
The unicorn replied to all of them.
<Yes, I didn't lose time stopping to graze. Instead I ate stores of grain our escort had secretly positioned along the route when we brought Dahl to the Forest. For a unicorn, such a run is comfortably within our capabilities. I knew I had to be at the battle front. My job there was to contact Balan, who was with the war wizard, that it was time to blast open the end of the tunnel. I can reach him with mind speech over very great distances, farther than anyone except another unicorn.>
"Aah" the twins exclaimed. "We wondered how they sent the signal all the way from the river through solid rock to the wizard and the relief army. That is the Entrapment Army. Funny, it is just the six of us who were enrolled in the Army of the Plains, but we marched to battle with the Entrapment Army."
"I believe you have a decoration coming, Karel." Klarendes said. "Or maybe a unit citation. Some sort of recognition, certainly. There you were, just six scouts, alone on the eastern side of the mountains and on the wrong side of ninety-thousand howling barbarians. Yes, I think that deserves recognition. I know it does. I told the army as much, though your service speaks for itself. And if it doesn't speak loud enough, then a word from Balan will rectify that oversight."
"Meanwhile, I must ask you not to speak with those nosey agents, which those new-fangled news sheets have dispatched to "cover" the war. The cheeky fellows have taken to calling themselves "war correspondents". Can you believe it? The first thing their publishers did when word got out about our successful campaign was to complain to the government that their precious war correspondents should have been seconded to the military to get the story first hand. I mean, whatever happened to the concept of operational security?"
"Now they are pressing to interview the commanding generals of the two armies. They say they cannot wait till the Army gets around to issuing a bulletin suitable for public consumption. No they want to come out right away with something called an 'extra', meaning a hasty edition which jumps the queue of their own print schedules!"
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