Elf Boy's Friends - IV

by George Gauthier

Chapter 6

Flyers

Sir Willet Hanford and his aide Sir Axel Wilde were in army greens as they settled themselves onto the small bleachers which overlooked the firing range at the Army's main proving grounds. Also in uniform were Liam, Drew Altair and and the twins Jemsen and Karel. As war wizards Sir Willet and Liam and their aide Axel were part of the active Army. The twins and Drew held reserve commissions in the armed forces, as an ensign in Drew's case while the twins held the rank of captain. Though the lowest ranking in the crowd, they were the most prominent personages there as the Pioneers of Flight, a phrase Drew had coined in his articles published in his family's news-paper the Capital Intelligencer.

Dozens of officers from both army and navy filled the bleachers. Some were generals and admirals including Admiral Van Zant from the Bureau of Ships. Another familiar face was the commandant of the naval infantry General-at-Sea Sir Deane Chard. Liam had worked with him at Alster devising new tactics combining the strengths of naval infantry and magic wielders.

Many attendees were staff officers who would need to learn to integrate air operations into their planning. The firepower demonstration would impress on them the devastating effects of air power.

A mock village had been constructed at one end of the range. It consisted of a dozen flimsily built cottages set around a large shed with a porch representing a tavern. In the middle of the range stood a company of scarecrows made of straw armed with wicker shields and sticks for spears. A dozen wagons drawn by straw horses at the far end represented an enemy supply train.

"Well Axel," Sir Willet began, "today we put aerial attack to the test. This is the culmination of our work these last two months of devising tactics and signals and equipment for our new air arm. News articles like Drew's generated excitement in the general public, but our military professionals won't be convinced until they see it with their own eyes."

Axel nodded. "It is too bad the navy is not so far along in adopting aerial tactics."

"It is not that we aren't trying, Axel," Liam countered.

"No disrespect meant to the boys in blue." Axel soothed. Liam nodded then explained.

"Army flyers can deploy on horse or by wagon or even on foot. The Navy has to convert cargo ships and troop transports to ferry flyers and the large loads of ordnance aerial tactics requires. These naval air carriers also have to accommodate a platoon of naval infantry plus their sailors. When the ship goes to general quarters almost everyone is on deck at once: the sailors controlling the ship, the crews of the ballistas and catapults, naval infantry and the flyers and their deck crew on the flight deck."

"Flight deck?" Karel asked.

"It's an large hatch cover in the well of the ship where the flyers suit up in cork flotation vests then strap themselves into their flying yokes to which the deck crew has already attached the appropriate armaments, usually kegs of incendiaries. We reinforced the hatch cover to take the greater load."

"You see the carriers are multipurpose ships. They can engage in air operations, attack with ship to ship armaments, or close with and board hostile vessels. The carriers are a new kind of naval combatant, one that has yet to be tested in battle."

A fanfare signaled the beginning of the demonstration. A captain briefed the audience noting that six flyers formed a unit called a flight with three flights comprising a squadron. In turn three squadrons formed a wing, though that was mainly an administrative formation. Each unit had about twice that many soldiers in ground crew and logistical support.

The demonstration would consist of attacks by one flight on each target followed by a caltrop drop by the entire squadron. The squadron approached from the west in three columns of six. The captain explained that in combat the squadron would preferentially attack from the direction of the sun to conceal their approach. Or, if a friendly war wizard were with them, they might approach behind a Concealment.

The first flight peeled away and flew over the village. One by one flyers pulled cords which released a pair of kegs filled with an alchemical liquid. Inside the keg was a glass vial filled with a white powder. Neither substance was inflammable by itself, but on impact the glass would shatter allowing the substances to mix and ignite. Either the impact or combustion gasses would burst the keg and splash a burning liquid everywhere, one that could not be extinguished by water but only smothered by sand or earth.

The kegs sailed gracefully to the ground. None of them missed. How could they guided as they were by the flyers' magical gift of Fetching? In moments the village was an inferno of burning buildings.

Next came the attack on the company of straw men deployed in the field in battle array. The weapon of choice for troops in the open was fire globes each about the size of a fist. Made of glass and filled with an inflammable oil they would burst on impact to be ignited by glowing coals rained down by the flyers. The flyers swooped down on their mock foes, though careful never to get within bowshot. Most of the officers were impressed though some noted that enemy soldiers were not made of inflammable straw and would not burn so merrily.

The captain conceded the point but noted that their clothing and the grass and brush they stood in would indeed burn merrily and that half the fire globes were filled with the dark clinging version of the oil that would stick to skin and cloth even as it burned. That revelation drew shudders from soldiers who could imagine how horrible that would be trying to run from a fire that clung to you.

Then came the attack on the supply train. The captain admitted that in real life the wagons would scatter and take evasive action, but that tactic would be to no avail against fetchers with their unfailing accuracy.

The flyers flew away briefly and reloaded with caltrops. On their return they flew in line abreast spreading the caltrops in a belt right in front of the observers. Caltrops had four points arranged in a tetrahedron so they always landed point up, ready to impale the hoofs of cavalry or the feet of infantry. Practically bursting with pride the young flyers landed and formed up near the reviewing stand, silver wings gleaming over their left breast pockets. They drew thunderous applause from the appreciative audience.

For the finale a cavalryman invoked his gift of control of magnetism visible to the onlookers as a grey nimbus which formed and pulsed around him. With a slash of his saber for dramatic effect he swept the caltrops from the field forming a neat pile to one side.

The captain then called on the Pioneers of Flight to step onto the stage to be introduced though the Pioneers hardly needed introductions.

The twins were famous across the continent for their unique distinction as elf-friends, dwarf-friends, and giant-friends, as well being holders of the Military Cross for Valor twice over. Drew was another holder as well as a writer famed as a journalist, war correspondent, and author of prize winning military histories. Liam sported the badge for his award of the Commonwealth's second highest military honor, the Shield of the Commonwealth.

Sir Willet himself sported a Combat Mage insignia and badges indicating that he had been Mentioned in Dispatches twice. His sleeve showed no less than three wound stripes earned over the course of long career fighting the eastern barbarians. His aide Sir Axel Wilde had seen combat only briefly but had acquitted himself well enough to earn the Expeditionary Medal for their survey of the Barren Lands, as had Sir Willet himself, Drew, and the twins.

All of the Pioneers sported ribbons for the various wars they had served in: the Troll War, the First and Second Centaur Wars, or the First, Second, and Third War for the Eastern Plains. In the third war against the eastern barbarians it had been Sir Willet who had used white fire to blast open the secret tunnel through the Eastern Mountains allowing the Entrapment Army to fall upon the barbarians from behind. Caught between the Entrapment Army and the Army of the Plains, the invaders were destroyed in a battle of annihilation.

It was ironic that the pioneers whose contributions had been the greatest lacked the fetching gift themselves and could not fly. It was the twins who had had the original insight that allowed fetchers to levitate by Lifting their sandals. And it was Axel who had extended that concept to a yoke by which fetchers could fly like birds and even drop ordnance on the enemy.

In the question period Admiral Van Zant asked Sir Willet about the built-up shoulders of his boiled leather armor, his and Liam's.

"I am glad you asked, sir. It's the latest development in flight tactics which Axel and the twins thought up just last week. A short wooden yoke has been incorporated into my armor. Unlike the ones which fetchers use, this short yoke does not have attachment points for ordnance. It is solely to allow us wizards to fly at will, maybe to avoid an enemy cavalry charge or to traverse impassable terrain. A wizard's aide can go along for the ride by dropping down a pair of stirrups which he can step into. There are also straps he can slip his wrists through and hang on."

"That's quite clever, but why can't you just Lift your aide as well as yourself?"

"I could, but the stirrups make for one less task to divide my attention. If I take to the air the tactical situation might require me to fly, cast fire, hold my Missile Shield or a Concealment or both, survey the terrain and enemy dispositions, and send an infrasound dispatch all at the same time."

The admiral conceded: "I can see you have thought about this some, but I wonder if you have actually tried doing all those things at once. If there are problems juggling so many tasks at once, better find out now with practice maneuvers than on the battlefield."

"You are absolutely right. I'll get started on realistic trials right away."

Liam smiled and said. "Now you know why they made him an admiral and put him in charge of the Bureau of Ships."

Sir Willet claimed only a small share of the credit, mostly for his role in championing the idea of flight to the High Command. "The six of us put our heads together to figure this all out: equipment, tactics, signals, organization, formations, and so forth, but Axel's insight was the key to everything."

"Who would have believed that a revolution in military affairs would start with a handful of pretty-boys at a picnic table. Out of uniform cute and sexy as they are they could be taken for a pack of high class rent boys. And I speak objectively as one who consorts exclusively with the female half of the species."

"As do I general." Sir Willet replied. "But only a blind man could fail to appreciate their physical charms at least in an aesthetic sense. As for those who do fancy pretty boys in a romantic way, there are none more worthy of being fancied than those five."

"And to answer your next question before you even ask it, yes, all five of them are lovers. Drew, Axel, and Liam share a suite of rooms in a residential hotel and the twins are their neighbors just down the hall. Which makes for a whole lot of bed hopping, as you might imagine."

"Is it any wonder?" Karel asked rhetorically. Sweeping his hands down his sides he smiled and said:

"Just think. All this and brains too!"

His twin picked up his cue. Pointing a finger skyward he added:

"Plus we are rich!"

That brought a chuckle all around.

How could anyone not respond to these personable youngsters? The candor and intelligence shown by the Pioneers made a favorable impression on the veteran officers. Everyone appreciated their contribution. Air power as they had conceived it was a powerful addition to the Commonwealth's military capabilities.

For the Army Air Corps those capabilities were scouting, reconnaissance, close air support of ground operations, interdiction of supply trains and reinforcements, and the destruction of choke points like bridges and ferries.

Air raids on naval vessels and supply convoys by the Naval Air Squadrons would profoundly alter the scope of naval warfare whereas scouting and reconnaissance were much less important. Lookouts in crow's perches served that purpose well enough, out to the horizon anyway, but it was dangerous for scouts to fly out of sight of their ship. They might become lost from disorientation or weather closing in or splash into the sea from simple fatigue. Though the Navy did need a capacity for long range scouting, flyers equipped with yokes were not the answer.

What the Navy needed was something else entirely, a way to stay aloft for hours at a time and scout far ahead of the fleet.

At the close an Army general said: "For my part I want to commend whoever thought up that final flourish where a rider swept the caltrops off the field with his mastery of magnetism. Am I right in thinking that Count Klarendes put you up to it?"

"Who else? He thought a demonstration would reinforce the point he made in his proposal to the High Command which he later published as an article in the Army Journal. It drew much favorable comment."

"So my cavalry commanders keep reminding me. And Marshall Urqaart has already implemented the tactic to good effect in the Western Alliance. All right. I am convinced and looking around at my colleagues I can see in their faces that they are as well. We will definitely add this to our bag of tricks. And thank you. And thank the count for me, for us really."

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