Elf Boy's Friends - II

by George Gauthier

Chapter 11

Generals Urqaart and Zaldor

With the good corporal's guidance the travelers found their way across town to their destination. The military encampment was really a small town sprung up on the outskirts of the city where they had room for the cavalry. After more than four years the original canvas or leather tents had been replaced by buildings of timber or brick, lending the installation an air of permanency. The Commonwealth flag flew in front of headquarters, a deliberately unimposing edifice in the center of a quadrangle of similar two storey buildings.

Jemsen showed their papers to an orderly who directed them to the duty officer who had them shown to comfortable quarters in the building next door where they dropped their kit, sent their soiled clothes to the laundry, bathed, and generally made themselves presentable for the brass.

Alerted to their arrival, both Lord Zaldor and General, more correctly Marshal Urqaart, were waiting for them in the latter's office.

"Well well, well, look who has turned up at our door." Urqaart remarked genially as the four travelers trooped in and saluted.

"Welcome to Caerdydd, young soldiers four!" Zaldor said, returning their salute. Remarkably for him, Zaldor was in Army uniform, that of a brigade general.

"Thank you Lord Zaldor or should I say General Zaldor? Why the uniform and whatever happened to your retirement, sir?" Drew asked, ever the inquisitive journalist.

"Oh the uniform? My military garb is a formality intended to impress the local leaders, many of whom are hard-headed fighting men. The Army reactivated my commission and sweetened the deal with an entirely undeserved promotion. Make no mistake, all military matters remain in Urquaart's capable hands. As a divisional general he outranks me. Also the Alliance appointed him to lead the joint military command and laid a fancy title on him to go with his new status."

"Gentlemen, I give you Marshall-General, Sir Brian Urqaart of the Eastern Plains, Shield of the Commonwealth, and Supreme Commander of the Allied Host.

"Marshall-General?" Drew asked.

"Divisional General is my permanent rank in the Army of the Commonwealth though for this assignment I have been breveted to Corps General. As such I am in command of the twenty-thousand or so Commonwealth soldiers stationed here in the Far West." Urqaart explained, "but the Alliance has also appointed me Marshall and Supreme Commander of those military units which they have dedicated to a joint command."

"Urqaart flies a personal flag which sports a double-headed eagle. At ceremonies he rates a fancy bugle call with ruffles and flourishes."

Urqaart rolled his eyes. "It is really too much for a simple soldier like myself, but I go along with it for the sake of the alliance."

"Anyway my friend General Zaldor is the last one to be poking fun at fancy titles. Were I to recite my distinguished colleague's honorary titles we would be at it for the rest of the afternoon."

"That's not that much of an exaggeration, I am afraid", Zaldor explained ruefully to the youngsters.

"The man who stands before you, when styled in full is: Brigade General, Lord Rahnald Zaldor, Sword of the Commonwealth, Councillor of the Commonwealth of the Long River, High Earl of Vanderhagen, Baron of the Sachsen Reach, and Ambassador Plenipotentiary to the Alliance of the Far West."

"That's a real mouthful!" Drew chuckled.

"Isn't it though?" Zaldor agreed.

"He left out that he is also holder of the Military Cross for Valor, like all of you are." Urqaart added.

"Ha! It's another duel of impressive titles!" Karel exclaimed.

Jemsen explained to the generals that the first duel of titles happened a half a dozen years earlier in Elysion and had gone down in local legend. It also bore mentioning the twins themselves had nearly as many titles as Zaldor did himself. Speaking in the affected baritone which the twins used facetiously to sound profound, Jemsen intoned:

"Know gentles, that you stand in the presence of no less than Captains, Sirs Jemsen and Karel, Holders of the Military Cross for Valor, Elf-friends, Dwarf-friends, and Giant-friends, and Masters in the Honorable Guild of Cartographers."

"I suppose we can all take satisfaction knowing that our titles were earned and not simply inherited." Zaldor conceded.

"We Frost Giants don't have much use for titles", Finn rumbled, "but we do value our reputations. For my part, I am satisfied to be known simply as Finn Ragnarson or the Young Finn who stood with Old Arn in the Breach."

"Gosh, as a lowly Ensign, I am feeling so left out." Drew complained disconsolately.

"Don't sell yourself short, my young friend, " Zaldor replied. "Remember, you are not just Ensign Drew Altair, you are also a Giant-friend, and a Holder of the Military Cross for Valor. That's a good start for anyone your age."

"And you're also a two-time Winner of the Writer's Prize." Jemsen reminded him.

"And among us Frost Giants Drew, you are celebrated as The Brave Little Fetcher Who Stood with Old Arn and Young Finn in the Breach."

Drew brightened. "Saying it like that, sounding the capital letters, does make it sound like a title," Drew admitted.

"What did I tell you, Ensign Altair? There are honors enough to go around." Zaldor said encouragingly.

The 'young soldiers four', as they now thought themselves to be, joined the two generals for supper at a large circular table in the post dining room. The main dish was a savory stew made with venison, carrots, and chunks of a pale root vegetable. It came with a side dish of asparagus and walnuts in an oil and vinegar dressing and pumpernickel bread. Carafes of a full-bodied red wine were set at both ends of the table.

"Zaldor and I rotate the officers who break bread with us around this table", Urqaart explained. "An informal setting like this lets us get acquainted with our younger leaders and also sound them out about morale, the state of training, problems with the facilities or the allies, and so forth. They know that here at table they may speak freely, even if it is to tell us bad news. It goes to make for a better command climate."

"Just one more reason you both have had such success in your military careers." Drew observed shrewdly.

"I was very much impressed to see that you, General Urqaart, wear the badge for the Shield of the Commonwealth, a medal higher in precedence than our own Military Crosses. And you General Zaldor have won the highest medal of them all, the Sword of the Commonwealth. What is the story behind those, if I may ask."

"Ah yes, the Sword of the Commonwealth. In truth the medal is a souvenir of a rash action during a misspent youth."

"Nonsense! Lord Zaldor is being entirely too modest." Urqaart interjected, then explained:

"I didn't see it myself, mind you, but during my first year at the military academy, I got the story from an instructor who had been there. Zaldor was a captain, having already won the Military Cross and a battlefield commission three years earlier. In that battle he commanded the skirmishers, who at first harried the enemy battle line, then withdrew and reformed behind our lines as planned."

"A large force of infantry suddenly appeared on our right flank, having crossed supposedly impassable terrain. This force threatened to roll up our line and destroy our entire army."

"Now skirmishers are light infantry armed with missile weapons, and Zaldor's bowmen and slingers had already expended their combat load of arrows and lead bullets. It was while they were still drawing ammo from the supply carts that the flanking force appeared on our right wing. At that moment, the rest of our army was fully committed. Only the skirmishers were in a position to confront the surprise attack."

"It looked hopeless. Nevertheless the skirmishers shook themselves out into a battle line and let loose with a hail of arrows and slung bullets, those they had to hand anyway. They killed or wounded the soldiers in the front ranks of the enemy. Stung by their losses and judging they had little to fear from our scratch force, the enemy advanced at a trot, their ranks falling into disorder, which opened gaps in their line."

"Then the skirmishers ran out of ammo again. There was nowhere to retreat. The entire army was surrounded. It looked hopeless. Zaldor rallied his men, telling them that ammo or not they had to attack. What happened next seems insane. The doomed men cheered three times, defiantly brandishing their long knives and kukris at the enemy."

"With their commander out in front the skirmishers charged and closed with the heavily armed and armored infantry. It should have been a one-sided slaughter, but the headlong charge of the skirmishers made the enemy suspect that they had marched into a trap themselves, that somehow their stealthy approach had been detected by our scouts, and that the attack of the skirmishers was a ruse de guerre to fix their attention, to distract them while a blow fell upon them from the rear. Having lost their nerve the enemy disengaged and withdrew to a hillock where they adopted a defensive posture. That was how a force of little more than two hundred saved an army of fifteen thousand men."

"Yes, well battles are always more dramatic in the re-telling." Zaldor said, then explained:

"Our charge was born from desperation as much as from courage. Having admitted that, I have to say that my men were magnificent. We were outnumbered and poorly armed. That we won was partly because the enemy infantry had exhausted themselves by their forced march. Our hearty cheers and heedless charge unnerved them and shook their confidence. The gaps in their ranks meant we were not facing a shield wall."

"Anyway, to make a long story short, our general refused our left flank, which allowed him disengage a regiment and send it to our aid. Then, when the lines stabilized, he sensibly agreed to the enemy commander's call for a parley to arrange a truce to prevent further bloodshed. At that point, neither side was in a position to win a decisive victory. All we could have done was kill each other till no one was left standing. Both sides withdrew to the fortified towns they had set out from. In time the diplomats stitched up a peace settlement which both sides could live with."

"Wow! the twins breathed. "So that is how you won the Sword."

"Yes, but glory comes at a price. We took thirty percent casualties, killed and wounded. They were men I had known and worked with for three years, men with families or sweethearts or lovers. Some of their names have slipped from memory but not their faces. Wars are terrible things which we would do well to avoid, if at all possible."

"True, and just about the best way to avoid war is to prepare for it." Urqaart affirmed. "Then, if war does break out, you are ready. Like my cavalry was ready to counter the flanking maneuver of the barbarians on the Eastern Plains. My regiment was among the first to adopt the stirrup. We trained hard for two years in the new tactics. At the Battle of Annihilation we rode the barbarians down, boots braced in our stirrups, lances couched under our arms, which concentrated the momentum of horse and rider at the tips of our lances. We did more than stop them cold. We ripped right through them."

"That charge earned Urqaart the Shield of the Commonwealth." Zaldor noted, then added:

"Our real aim out here in the Flatlands is not to fight a war like the ones we served in but to prevent a general war from breaking out. Urqaart and I have both won enough 'glory' to last a lifetime."

That evening, the 'young soldiers four' repaired to their quarters, for once more interested in rest than recreation. So their evening shower was just a chance to wash away the sweat and salt and cool down, not the occasion for grab-ass rambunctiousness it usually was. Still nude, the four settled into rattan chairs on the porch to catch the breezes that reached their second storey balcony.

"I feel better knowing that our leaders are striving for peace rather than war." Jemsen said. "For my part, I will never forget the horror of the slaughter we inflicted on the eastern barbarians at the Battle of Annihilation. "

His twin nodded.

"Even though as scouts we ourselves were not in the line of battle, we witnessed the fate of the barbarians from a vantage point in the mountains above the killing ground. Stragglers clambered up the steep slope only to find us in their way. That last look of despair as they realized that escape was impossible will never leave me. I had to steel myself to loose my arrows at them. It is hard to think of men as just targets when you are close enough to smell their fear."

Finn nodded, then steered the conversation to other matters.

"So what did General Urqaart mean when he said he had been breveted to Corps General, and how many kinds of generals does the Army of the Commonwealth have anyway?

"Let me answer that", Drew volunteered.

"Before I left the capital I looked over the handouts I had studied during my month long orientation into the military, to refresh my memory of such things. Anyway to answer your question Finn, there are four ranks of generals in the Army. All general officers are addressed simply as 'General' but referred to in the third person by their full rank. Starting with Brigade General, the next higher rank is Divisional General, then Corps General, and finally Army General.

"In theory an Army General commands a field army while Corps, Divisional, and Brigade Generals command the units named in their ranks. In practice field armies are much smaller these days. With anticipated reinforcements, the force stationed here will rise to twenty-five thousand, so well short of a corps much less a field army. Nevertheless it is designated the Army of the Far West since it operates independently. "

"The higher ranks and units originated during the Formation Wars, when military forces were much larger. It was a time when the our young republic was locked in a death struggle against successive coalitions of dynastic states fighting on the wrong side of history. Today the total strength of our active forces is six-hundred thousand, though not all are combat soldiers, and they are stationed the length and breadth of a commonwealth including in some seven field armies.

"Urqaart said he had been breveted to Corps General. What does that mean?"

"It is the worst of both worlds: more responsibility without more pay. A brevet is a temporary promotion. It carries rank and prestige but no higher salary. After its designated term, the brevet expires and the officer returns to his permanent rank. Or the brevet promotion can be converted to a permanent one, depending on the officer's performance."

"A trial run, then."

"You can think of it that way."

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