Elf Boy's Friends - IX
The last of the roommates to come home was Corwin Klarendes, finally back from the war. Corwin stood five foot four with a slender build and green eyes that evidence the considerable admixture of eleven blood in his heritage, though his close cropped blond hair was the product of his human heritage.
Corwin was very much a changed boy since they had last seen him at the finish of the eastern campaign which saved the Amazons and the brontotheres. Then he had been eager to get to General Urqaart's headquarters to report on the progress of the western campaign. He now wore a haunted look on his normally cute face. The tell-tale sign of his war weariness was that the boy was unable to engage in the kind of lively banter and dark humor soldiers relied on to cope with the horrors of war.
And little wonder. Even in the face of inevitable defeat the trolls had ignored the Commonwealth's repeated offers to evacuate and repatriate all who surrendered to their oceanic archipelago. Instead the war had ended suddenly in an apocalyptic slaughter and self-slaughter.
In this final campaign the Commonwealth had committed no less than five field armies, three of them drawn from its own professional military and one each from its new dominions in the Far West and its allies around the western shores of the Great Inland Freshwater Sea. The conventional fighting forces numbered just under two hundred thousand soldiers, naval infantry, airmen, and sailors from the riverine flotillas, plus mercenaries to guard the supply lines. It was the largest military operation since the Formation Wars.
The allied forces were armed with the best weapons that the Commonwealth's industrial economy could provide especially the new airguns as their stand off weapon. Human infantry fought with the full size version with a bayonet affixed to the end for close combat. Dwarves used the shorter carbine version. So did the cavalry but without bayonets. Frost giants carried a larger version suited to their dimensions. with its longer barrel to impart greater speed to the bullet, their airguns packed a greater wallop.
The elves clung to their traditional long bows and not just out of tradition. First, even going all out the manufactories could produce only so many air guns. Second, long bows had greater range, and spent arrows might be collected after a battle and reused whereas spent lead bullets were gone forever. Finally archers could deliver plunging fire against troop formations or over walls and fortifications.
All formations were backed by slingers who hurled fire globes from just behind the line of contact over the heads of their own infantry to fall upon the enemy and burn them horribly. These fist sized glass balls were filled with one of two types of inflammable oil: a thick viscous clinging liquid and a thinner more fluid oil which splashed around more easily. Some slingers hurled glowing embers to set the oil alight. Originally thought up by the shape shifter Aodh of Elysion, fire globes turned ordinary youths into junior firecasters.
All but the elven forces were supported by batteries of horse drawn artillery. Ballistas shot giant arrows directly at the enemy while catapults lobbed incendiaries in a high arc.
The expeditionary force raised among the orcs had expanded to the size of an army corps of three divisions. Volunteers from all over Valentia had rallied to the cause drawn by the promise of a vast new land of their own in Amazonia. Even if ultimately they had different war aims the two forces had a common enemy and worked well together. The orcs subordinated their ultimate territorial ambitions to the military needs of the alliance. They did not try to carve out their new homeland by direct conquest and occupation, trusting to the peace settlement to provide them with suitable territories once the trolls were eliminated.
The orcs were armed the traditional way for close combat with lethal looking long hafted maces with spiked or flanged heads though they carried bucklers rather than the large round shields formerly needed to fend off arrows. These days fetchers or masters of magnetism held a missile shield over their ranks to deflect arrows or slung lead bullets or air wizards raised shield of hardened air to fend off enemy missiles. In the past their stand off weapons had been crossbows and slings. For this campaign they had been supplied with the new air guns. Not just weapons of war, the air guns were tangible proof of the Commonwealth's good intentions toward their former foe.
Alongside the conventional military fought thousands of magic wielders of all kinds, not just the Commonwealth's hundred or so war wizards but also war mages of every sort: water, weather, earth, and air wizards. Even more numerous were war mages with magical gifts effective in combat: fetchers, firecasters, master of magnetism, lightning throwers, wielders of ball lightning, and delvers.
Some were assigned as teams in support of particular regiments and brigades. Others were assigned to specialist units. Most fetchers were in the Army Air Corps. The strongest flew with wooden yokes while those whose telekinetic powers were less strong flew the Navy's rigid wings for long range patrols. Others propelled autogyros.
Scouts reconnoitered terrain, surveilled enemy movements, and carried dispatches. Most flyers supported the ground forces with bombing runs, dropping incendiaries on enemy formations. Airmen might also attack enemy cavalry with edged steel discs. Originally developed by the Navy for cutting apart the rigging of enemy ships their sharpened edge were just as effective in the anti-personnel role. The flyers did try to spare the horses, less from mercy than from an expectation that afterwards they could be rounded up and put to use by the victors.
Autogyros took commanders up for a bird's eye view of the battle area, making command and control of the combined arms battle much easier though it was clear that the armed forces needed better means of communicating aloft with other aerocraft or with elements on the ground.
Other fetchers piloted and propelled autogyros with war mages in the passenger compartment. As the autogyros orbited over head, well out range of arrows and ballistas, the mages directed their powers against the troll armies.
Firecasters threw great clinging balls of fire or streams of flame preferentially at troll artillery and their crews. Lightning throwers targeted the favorite weapon of the trolls, their war axes, to electrocute them. A single bolt of lightning could jump from axe to axe to axe, sometimes taking out a whole squad of trolls. Masters of magnetism disarmed the trolls at the worst possible moment, yanking their weapons out of their grip just as the battle lines clashed.
Sun mirrors were horridly effective engines of destructions. In a moment their heat beams could turn a battalion of cavalry or infantry into piles of ash. Earth wizards open chasms not so much to swallow enemy formations as to separate them to allow them to be crushed separately.
Those who could wield ball lightning used the explosive technique Corwin Klarendes had perfected by which explosive balls of lighting were hurled into the midst of charging cavalry or infantry which burst with a flash and an electric crackle either electrocuting or tearing apart horse and rider or foot soldiers, leaving behind grisly piles of disjointed limbs, guts, and charred body parts.
Corwin's technique was even more effective when delivered precisely from an orbiting autogyro. On the ground a mage had to juggle three or four balls of lightning at once since ball lightning served as both sword and shield. That lead to fatigue. Attacking from above made things much easier. A mage needed to create only one ball of lightning at a time and then only for a brief moment, giving him a chance to recover his magical strength before throwing the next one.
Many in the ground forces had particular gifts too which helped in combat. Those who could see in dim light like a cat stood watch at night to counter the infiltration tactics of the trolls. Troll sappers liked to sneak up to the lines and garrote or slice the throats of dozing sentries, as a way to instill terror. Those with the gift of Unerring Direction took point when maneuvering into position, and they were better shots with air gun or bow. Soldiers who could kindle fire set watch fires and made it easier to set up camp at night by getting cook fires going.
Those who could Call Light could make balls of cold light hover over a spot to reveal what the night might conceal. The trolls came to learn that it was the Commonwealth armies which ruled the night. Stealth counted for little in the face of delvers who could detect approaching troops on the darkest of nights and alert the defenders till the commander gave the order to light up the battlefield and give the infantry targets to aim at.
The war wizard's invoked all their magical gifts, but their biggest contribution was the tactical flexibility they gave to the military with their ability to open portals through which strike forces could pass to attack the rear or the flank of enemy formations.
Also on hand were many healers, both magical and natural. Triage stations routed the wounded to the appropriate level of care whether to a bonesetter to put a cast on a broken limb or to a chirurgeon for life-saving surgery. The worst cases went to a magical healers who had to husband their magic, using just enough to stabilize the patient so they he would survive long enough for his natural recuperative powers to finish the job with supportive care from nurses.
The troll armies fought as determinedly as they ever had, displaying all the tactical flexibility and innovativeness that had made them the hardest foe the Commonwealth had ever fought. It was just too bad that all that energy and cleverness was expended in behalf of the worst cause for which sentients had ever fought on the planet of Haven.
For the trolls were engaged in a genocidal campaign to wipe out magic on Haven by exterminating the races who could wield it: humans, elves, dwarves, giants, and orcs. Denied magic themselves by some quirk of their nature, their civilization had been swept up by a proselytizing new religion which taught that its worshippers had a duty to wipe magic off the face of the planet. Left unasked and unexplained, as often happens with religious revelations, was the question of why these gods did not just do that job themselves.
In the face of air guns and magic, the trolls traditional tactics were ineffective. Fetchers could counter the arrow storms by which they weakened their foes before fighting in close combat with long-hafted axes. The trolls could not mask the movement of their forces at night or by terrain thanks to delvers and aerial reconnaissance.
They did have one big advantage. The Commonwealth had to bring the war to them, to fight on the tactical offensive, letting the trolls fight defensively on ground and at a time of their choosing, hoping to weary the Commonwealth armies, force a stalemate, and make them withdraw, which would give the trolls a chance to recover, rebuild, renew their numbers and ultimately take up the crusade once again.
Against any other state on the planet that might have worked, but the Commonwealth was simply too strong. The rich farmlands of the great rift valley easily supplied the foodstuffs the armies needed which were shipped over waters controlled by the Commonwealth Navy. With an industrial economy like none other on the planet, the Commonwealth had the means to forge the new weapons of war that had proved so decisive in battle. And unlike the trolls' old foes on their oceanic archipelago, the peoples of Valentia were rich in magic.
It all came together in a great battle which broke the troll armies. The trolls attacked all along the front, but mostly as a feint to keep Urqaart from shifting forces to support the elves, the main target of the troll offensive. The elves were thought to be more vulnerable since they bore only bows not the new air guns. The elves might throw out caltrops in front of their lines to protect against a cavalry charge, but heavy infantry could shuffle forward, avoid the points, and penetrate and break the elves whose only other defense might be a line of pointed stakes planted into the ground. In a fluid situation there was no time for earthworks.
The trolls advanced in a new formation with companies of soliders staggered checkerboard fashion rather than as a solid line. Companies marched in rectangles a dozen files wide and twenty ranks deep, pressed shoulder to shoulder. Those on the outside of the formation locked shields while those in the middle raised them over their heads and the whole company advanced in step as if on parade, looking like a cross between an armored tortoise and a centipede if such a thing could be imagined. The idea was that the shields would protect the trolls from arrows long enough to close with the elves and hack at them with their axes.
It might have worked but for Eike Thyssen's latest wonder weapon: the magnetic cannon, something so secret he had not even told Axel about it during his brief visit.
The cannon was quite unlike the air gun which was fired from the shoulder and used compressed air to propel a single bit of lead downrange. The magnetic cannon had a lightweight bronze barrel or tube fourteen feet in length and open at both ends. It was mounted on two wheels and attached by a hitch to a limber or ammo cart which was drawn by four horses who also carried the four crewmen into battle.
The cannon's projectile was a reloadable steel canister packed with dozens of the same lead bullets which the air guns shot. They were held in place by a cardboard seal at the top or rather the front or business end of the projectile. To prepare for firing the crew dismounted and detached the cannon from the limber and rolled it into firing position. The gunner took his position at the left rear, sighted along the top of the barrel, and worked a crank to traverse the barrel right and left. The assistant gunner stood to the right rear and elevated and depressed the barrel with a second crank following the gunner's verbal instructions. The loader fed fresh rounds into the back of the tube and worked a lever to close the breech, really just four lugs which extended partway into the tube to keep the shell from slipping out the back as the tube was aimed.
The gunner was a master of magnetism. Once he laid the gun he forced the canister down the tube, accelerating it to high speed. Just as it exited, he jerked the canister to a halt. The momentum of the lead balls inside made them burst through the flimsy cardboard seal and fan out in a shallow cone to wreak fearsome destruction. The lead bullets had so much momentum they easily penetrated wooden shields. A single shell could take out a squad or blast a hole in the new formation.
Typically they fired volleys of three to five rounds then reloaded the empty canisters from the limber. A sixth shell was always kept at the ready for self defense if say enemy cavalry showed up.
In the face of the storm of lead from the cannon in front and the rain of incendiaries dropped from above by the Army Air Corps, the troll attack on the elven lines disintegrated into a bloody shambles. The trolls panicked and streamed back to their line of departure. That marked the last actual clash between the armies though the allies continued their bombardment with incendiaries and attacks by mages from orbiting autogyros.
A few days later, troll sounded horns and drums not for an attack but for an act of racial suicide.
As Corwin related it:
"It was horrible. I watched everything from an autogyro orbiting overhead. At the end the trolls turned their weapons on themselves, refusing to live with defeat. First they killed their human and elven slaves and hostages, then mothers took knives to their own whelps, then the males killed their females and finally themselves. Bodies lay everywhere."
"They set fire to their capital intending to make it their funeral pyre, but our weather wizards, firecasters, and fetchers put the fires out. The firecasters stopped the flames while fetchers ripped roofs off so the weather wizards could douse the embers with downpours from the thunderstorms they called up, bringing the temperature of the still hot embers below the kindling point of wood and paper. Otherwise the fires would have started up again."
"We took very few prisoners, those too wounded to finish themselves off or those who had been rendered unconscious by falls or a knock on the head. We sent them through a space portal to their oceanic archipelago not so much out of mercy as a warning to the trolls to keep to their islands lest they find themselves the target of a war of annihilation. The trolls understood that we could as easily transport an avenging army through such portals."
Not that the Commonwealth had any such notion. No, the druids had taken care of the long-term problem with the trolls by unleashing an anti-fertility plague on their males. It would not kill anyone, but it did reduced the fecundity to below replacement levels. Within three generations the trolls would number a small fraction of their current population in their oceanic archipelago.
"We mostly buried the bodies in mass graves opened by earth wizards. In the city which they had made their capital the bodies were either turned to ash by air wizards with sun mirrors or turned to a cloud of hot gas by war wizards wielding white fire."
"General Urqaart is as tough a soldier as they come, but he too was profoundly shaken by the outcome. He urged me to report the story candidly, to hold nothing back, to describe the full horror and the sheer waste of it all. I promised that I would."
Axel embraced his friend and tried to comfort him.
"What you witnessed goes beyond anything the rest of us have seen of war, and you know how badly it ate at our hearts. Our expedition helped heal us. That and the passage of time. Perhaps a similar journey could do the same for you or maybe you could go on a walkabout, say to visit the New Forest and report on the Snow Elves for the Capital Intelligencer."
In the days that followed Axel and the others related their adventures in the Northlands, how they had saved the river town stranded high and dry and the trapped miners, and diverted the mud volcano. Corwin grew animated listening to the stories of how the twins slew the dragon or how the forest rangers had saved the frost giants from the mosasaur. He vowed that once the air routes were opened he would visit the Cave of the Mountain River and the Stone Ring, and the Fjordland too.
The company of his friends and their stories help lift Corwin's despond, but only time would heal the grave wounds to his heart. In the meanwhile, Corwin signed up for training as a combat medic. Next time he found himself on a battleground he wanted to be able to heal and comfort the wounded, not just strike at the enemy with his ball lightning.
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