Elf Boy's Friends - V

by George Gauthier

Chapter 9

Explanations

The Army of the Plains regrouped and set up a fortified camp for the night, standard operating procedure when operating in hostile country. Artor, Dahl, and their party walked down one of the old logging roads that lead to the plains and headed toward the camp where they were admitted to the command tent and were greeted by Owain and Merry who introduced them to General Claiborne.

"Well met gentlemen and thank you all for your fine work this day. Between the portals of our allies the druids and our own war wizards and magic wielders we overwhelmed the enemy mages which allowed the army to triumph with fairly low casualties. Tomorrow we will interrogate the enemy's officers and find out what they had in mind with this ill-conceived invasion. Tonight we rest, eat, bind up our wounds, and take stock."

"Oh and special thanks to you Count Klarendes for persuading the High Command to assign a master of magnetism to each of our cavalry regiments. The three of them swept the field of caltrops just as you said they would in your well-received article in the Army Journal."

Klarendes nodded then said:

"The change in doctrine came none too soon. It should be perfectly obvious that an army can counter a cavalry charge in only a few ways: a countercharge by its own cavalry, pikemen, stakes, and caltrops. Armies prefer caltrops because they are lightweight and quick and easy to deploy and require almost no training. Formations of pikemen are formidable but ponderous. They are a specialized form of heavy infantry which takes a lot of training and constant drill. Which is why no one uses them much these days."

"One more thing Count Klarendes. We inadvertently brought along our very own war correspondent, a journalist of tender years working for the Dalnot Ledger. He told me that he was a kinsman of yours."

With that the general signaled a cute seventeen year old who had been waiting in the wings. It was the blond youth who controlled ball lightning. Short, slight of build, and clean limbed and standing maybe four inches over five feet, and with fine-boned features that suggested a considerable admixture of elfin blood, the boy stepped forward, a big grin on his face as he gave a cheery wave to the Klarendes clan.

"Hi there Uncle Taitos, Uncle Aodh, Cousin Artor."

"Corwin! What are you doing here? Did your father really send you out as a war correspondent?"

"Not exactly. He did send me over to the caserne in Dalnot for a story on a court martial. He doesn't know that I tagged along when the army moved out on this operation."

"How did you persuade General Claiborne to take you along?"

"I didn't. I just snuck in among the aides to the wizards and the mages; they're all friends of mine. It was only after the battle that I was introduced to the general."

Klarendes frowned at his headstrong nephew. "Young man, you and I are going to have a serious talk."

"Now there Count Klarendes, don't be too hard on the boy." General Claiborne soothed. "You haven't heard the rest of it."

"True, what the boy did was a breach of security, but I really did not want to bring charges against an overeager youngster who was only trying to do his job as he saw it. Anyway in the end, everything did work out for the best."

"What happened exactly?" Taitos asked.

"Your nephew talked the mages into letting him fight, to add his powers to theirs. The mages accepted knowing that the enemy outnumbered us considerably in conventional forces. From that high ledge you must have seen what he did even if you did not recognize him."

"Corwin charged the enemy time and again. Then, when a platoon of the enemy rushed out from their shield wall to finish off that squad of lancers unhorsed by a volley of crossbow bolts, Corwin positioned himself between the lancers and the enemy. Using his lightning balls as both shield and sword he got them all to safety ignoring a wound from a quarrel which grazed his ribs."

"I don't see now that I have any choice but to put the lad in for the Military Cross for Valor."

"Yay Corwin! Way to go!" Artor and Aodh enthused, giving the young journalist the double thumbs-up gesture.

Corwin beamed, green eyes flashing with pride.

"He doesn't need encouragement, you know." Klarendes complained. "And I could do with a little support here."

Artor shook his head:

"Father, is Corwin really so very different from how you were back in the day? In fact you were only sixteen when you went off on your first mission with Balandur."

"Ouch!" Aodh supplied.

Klarendes sighed and dropped his 'stern uncle' demeanor. He was tactician enough to know when he was outnumbered and outmaneuvered.

That evening the four Klarendes, their friends the druids, plus the two war wizards from the capital and Axel took supper together. Klarendes wanted their opinions on how well the Army had used magic that day. This was its very first battle employing both the Army Air Corps and an organic corps of mages that is one permanently dedicated and assigned to a field army.

Klarendes intended to write an after action report of his own to supplement the one General Claiborne would be sending to the High Command. To start the discussion Klarendes asked whether with better use of magic the battle might have been won at less cost.

"Absolutely!" Axel affirmed. "Close air support to the ground forces was done all wrong."

"Our flyers let their animal spirits inspire the foolish attack they made when they dove at the enemy like raptors swooping down on their prey with talons extended. They flew so low that it brought them within range of enemy mages. From now on there should be no more dive bombing forces supported by mages, only level bombing from altitude. Fetchers can direct their loads with pinpoint accuracy from any altitude."

Coming from one of the Pioneers of Flight, especially the one who thought up the yokes that let men fly in the first place, this was a devastating assessment.

"I agree with Axel." Sir Willet said. "The only thing the flyers did right was to approach out of the sun. Oh and their bombs were on target."

"Our own mages should have supported the soldiers better than they did." Sir Rikkard offered. "They were so intent on offense operations that they neglected magical defenses for everyone but themselves. And the weather wizard with the army should have brewed up a storm early on, just in case, before we even emerged from the tunnel."

"We mages did fight pretty well once we got in position. You have to give us that." Corwin Klarendes said defending his colleagues.

"That is true. Once the mages reached the hillock they did not hold back. And they were effective, not doubt of that. Thanks to the fetchers the enemy's field artillery was largely ineffective even before it was all swept away with white fire."

"You did very well yourself Corwin," Sir Willet offered, "but if you want to become even more effective with your ball lightning, check the after action reports in the library at the Institute. My aide Axel can show you around. One trick that comes to mind immediately is against troops splashing their way across a ford in a river or creek. If you dropped one of those lighting balls into the water you could zap the lot of them."

"Wicked!"

"Anyway, Corwin," Artor began, "how do you feel about being put in for the Military Cross?"

"It sounds great, but as a civilian I don't think I am eligible."

"But you are enrolled in your local militia. For the sake of proper form, army records will show that you were called up for the campaign so that you were technically on duty with the Army during the battle. Naturally you will also qualify for a Wound Stripe, a Campaign Medal, a badge for what they will no doubt call the Fourth Plains War, and the Combat Mage Badge. That doesn't exactly amount to a chestful of medals, but it is a good start."

They all could see that young Corwin was immensely gratified by the news. What teenage boy has not dreamed of martial glory?

"I hope this means Father will be proud of me rather than be mad that I charged off to war the way I did."

Klarendes nodded:

"As a father myself, I can know his reactions exactly. At first there was mystification when you didn't return home. He'd have wondered where could that damn boy have gone off to? When he finds out that you charged into battle and were wounded he will be filled with concern, but when he is told that you are healthy he will feel relief that his son and heir, the apple of his eye is safe. Lastly, when he reflects on the prestige of the Military Cross, he will proud that his son is a genuine war hero."

"And it won't hurt when you provide his news-paper, the Dalnot Ledger with a scoop on this lightning war with the barbarians."

"Right. I'll cover it in a series of articles after interviews with all the principal figures gathered in this camp, plus an account of what I personally saw and did."

"Your reporting will be the first public acknowledgement that we druids can create portals which will let our armies strike anywhere anytime suddenly and without warning." I see a Writers' Prize in your future."

"Poor Drew is going to be so jealous." Merry offered.

"No. Not jealous. Not him." Artor said emphatically. "I know Drew well enough to say that he won't be jealous, though he will be disappointed that he wasn't on hand to get the scoop himself. Also I would not be surprised if this eventually leads to a job offer from the Capital Intelligencer. The big city papers are always on the lookout for talent."

"Fantastic!" Corwin enthused. "I have dreamed of one day writing for a big city paper."

"Of course we still need to find out what this war all means. Why did the barbarians attack at all, why here, and why now?"

"We'll know more tomorrow after we question their officers."

Count Klarendes concluded the discussion with:

"Now let us all raise a glass in tribute to our friend and kinsman, the young journalist whose courage has won the admiration of all. Gentlemen, I give you that intrepid war correspondent and brave soldier Corwin Klarendes."

At breakfast the next day Corwin caught Axel looking at him intently.

"Like what you see?" he quipped, only half seriously.

"No. Yes. I mean I do like what I see, Corwin, as would anyone who appreciates cute boys, but what made me stare was that I realized just now how much you resemble your cousin Eborn. Your facial features I mean. Obviously Eborn is not a blond and has a more robust build."

"Well our mothers were sisters, and though they were born ten years apart everyone always said that they looked like twins."

"Indeed," Taitos agreed. "though my first born takes after me."

"And as the first son, I am the heir while sadly, poor Eborn is merely the spare." Artor said.

"So I have heard and more than once." Axel returned dryly. He was aware that the rhyme was a very old joke and a regular part of the Klarendes sons' schtick.

"Why did you ask the healers not to clear away the gouge where the crossbow quarrel grazed your ribs? Won't it leave a scar?"

"Yes, but not much of one, just enough to serve as indisputable evidence of my martial prowess."

"Your prowess? Don't you mean the prowess of the guy who shot you?"

"Very funny. You know perfectly well what I meant."

"He hopes the scar will work as a girl magnet." Artor explained dryly.

Corwin shook his head.

"No, not girls. Boys!"

"Not you too!" Artor complained. "Isn't anyone besides me interested in perpetuating the species?"

"Actually I am interested too, just not right now. With a lifespan measured in centuries, I'll have plenty of opportunity later for a bride and a family, but not now, when I am genuinely young. I like being around other boys and having sex with them. I'm a kid and I would like to live like one for a good while yet."

"Anyway some of us are just not cut out for family life till after we have put some life experience under our belts. Artor, you and I got lucky with fathers who married young, but I know for sure that I would make a terrible father and husband just now, young as I am. At my age a life of domesticity pales before the prospect of a life of adventure. I hope that doesn't make me sound frivolous. Later on though is something else."

"Then there is hope yet for our species."

At his debriefing the next day the commander of the barbarians General Ransome was remarkably candid about the invasion. It had been a once in a century opportunity with a potentially huge payoff for the westernmost of the successor states of the former empire of the life-leech Urloch. So they gambled and lost. And having given the game away, the barbarians knew they could never try this particular ploy again. The Commonwealth would never again leave the tunnel with only a token garrison for protection. Maybe it was time to seal it up, useful though it was as a route though almost impassable mountains.

"We wanted to seize an opportunity while the Commonwealth was distracted and committed on other fronts: New Varangia and the Barren Lands, the Flatlands in the Far West, the naval war on the Great Inland Freshwater Sea, and your mobilization for the impending campaign to reclaim Amazonia from the trolls. Incidentally we wish you every success in your war against the trolls. They would slay us too for being magic users."

"So why help them by striking at us here and now?" General Claiborne asked his counterpart.

Ransome shrugged.

"Nothing we did here would change the outcome of your war against the trolls. You are going to win. No doubt of that. It will be a long and hard campaign, but without magic the trolls have no chance especially with your numbers. The population of the Commonwealth of the Long River is well over one hundred million while the trolls infesting Amazonia number some three million which includes their females and lately their whelps."

"How is it that you are aware of their numbers?" Claiborne asked. "That estimate of our opposition is a military secret."

"One not closely guarded enough. Our spies had no trouble ferreting out the information."

Ransom went on to say

"Numbers aside, your magic will be the deciding factor. No one understands that better than I do having seen for myself what your flyers and mages and war wizards can do. They outclassed our own magical support as much as your professional forces outclassed our largely conscript soldiers. Though I really would like to know how you got your army here so fast. Our spies told us you were concentrated at Dalnot."

General Claiborne smiled. "We were all at Dalnot. And we brought only half of our army in case this was a diversion."

"I don't mind telling you now how we got here so fast since it will be impossible to keep a secret known to our entire army. We marched through a space portal or rather two portals, one for the cavalry force and the other for our regiments of Frost Giants. Your scouts never saw us coming because we did not travel by conventional means. We just appeared north and south of here with your army trapped between us.

The barbarian general shook his head. "This reinforces what I said before. Against that kind of strategic and tactical mobility, no army stands a chance."

"If you have so much respect for the Commonwealth's capabilities I have to ask. What you hoped to accomplish with your invasion."

"General Claiborne, you have been candid with me and also spared the lives of my men so I will tell you. Our force of fifteen thousand was a vanguard for an army of occupation. We hoped to seize the tunnel then send a large army through it to occupy the northeast corner of your realm before your northern field army could react."

"But we hoped to avoid any serious fighting by proposing a bargain: You would cede to us military control of that region of Commonwealth. Your civil administration would remain in place and function normally, and the civilian population would remain unmolested. Every year your government would turn over to us the bulk of the tax revenue your treasury would have drawn from the region, you would keep just enough to defray the costs of administration. If not, we would ravage the towns and the countryside so no one could draw taxes from it."

"Did you really think the Commonwealth would pay protection money?"

"Myself no. I never thought so. Though we would have termed it tribute. That is a much more pleasant word, is it not? No I liked our chances with our fall back position much better. You would cede the Eastern Plains and in return we would withdraw our army of occupation to east of the mountains, though we would retain control of the tunnel, as a surety of good faith."

Claiborne shook his head.

"Not negotiable. The Commonwealth does not start wars but always ends them on its own terms, not on those dictated by an enemy."

"Perhaps. We are both professional soldiers. Who can say what bargains our political leaders might make or feel they have to make? Anyway, what will happen now to me and my men."

"We granted you quarter, though really it was to spare the lives of our own men. Still, having done that we must now honor it. If you and your men will give your parole to never again fight against the Commonwealth we will allow you to return to your homeland. A cavalry regiment will escort you to the border. Your supply train is intact, so you should have no trouble making it back. You won't need so many wagons, so we will use some to transport the weapons and gear you surrendered back to Dalnot."

"Each of you will be marked by a small brand on the shoulder, an outlaw mark. Anyone with that mark who returns to the Commonwealth will be fair game and not only for our military. Anyone they run into will have the legal right to kill them out of hand. Count yourself lucky that we are feeling generous these days. Tell your leaders not to try our patience further."

"Remember, neither distance nor high walls can stop us. With portals we can deliver an army inside your capital or any fortress. Keep that in mind."

Actually there were limitations on portals that General Claiborne was not aware of, but then neither were the barbarians.

The main body of the Army of the Plains returned via a portal to Dalnot where young Corwin Klarendes was given a hero's welcome by family and friends. Afterwards the druids and the Klarendes traveled by conventional means to Elysion where Aodh resumed his duties as a forest ranger. Sir Willet and Axel also stayed for a while though Sir Rikkard had traveled directly to the capital from Dalnot.

The High Command rebuilt the fort with stone walls. Their job was to to hold off a hostile force till reinforcements arrived through the tunnel supported by war wizards traveling on the Army's long range flying wings. To ease their isolation, the guard duty rotated among the six companies of the garrison at the western end of the tunnel.

Things went back to normal though who knew for how long.

Six months later Corwin did indeed win a Writer's Prize for his coverage of what he cleverly dubbed the Lightning War, borrowing from Dahl a term which caught the fancy of the public. On the strength of that accomplishment he went to work for the Capital Intelligencer. As with his new colleague Drew Altair, Corwin's career in journalism launched him on a series of exciting adventures.

But that is another story, or rather several of them.

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