Elf Boy's Friends - VII

by George Gauthier

Chapter 14

Council of War

The druids had kept in contact with General Urqaart via Mind Speech and apprised him of the progress of their preliminary campaign on the upper Amazon River. Urqaart's next offensive would kick off as soon as he got word that the trolls were locked in combat with the Amazons.

Urqaart intended to inflict a crushing defeat on the trolls. Most of his infantry was now equipped with the latest model of airgun and was by now well-trained in how to clean, maintain, and shoot it. The weapon fired sixteen small lead bullets farther than a crossbow could propel a quarrel. That was a real game changer. Volley fire from airguns would scythe the trolls down like wheat at harvest time, making the time honored tactic of the mass infantry charge obsolete. Against airguns, a charge over open ground amounted to mass suicide. Afterwards the Commonwealth's earth wizards would have to invoke their magic to bury the windrows of corpses.

Now horses covered ground faster than foes on foot and might close with Commonwealth infantry in less time. So for protection against cavalry charges, the airgun came equipped with a spike bayonet.

Fifteen inches long the bayonet was held in place by lug, a metal catch on the underside of the barrel, which locked the weapon in place while keeping the muzzle clear for normal shooting. As a last resort with ammunition exhausted, the bayonet might also fend off enemy infantry during close combat. The airgun and bayonet offered greater reach than the long-handled axes the trolls favored.

Commonwealth infantry armed with airguns could not carry shields and was thereby vulnerable to missile attack, but these days fetchers held a missile shield over the front lines, deflecting arrows, quarrels or slung lead bullets and stones but allowing outgoing missiles from airguns, longbows, crossbows, or slings.

Infantry drawn from the the ranks of humans and elves carried the standard infantry version with its long barrel, but dwarven infantry used the short barreled carbine version originally intended for cavalry. Though dwarves still carried their traditional mauls they had given up their shields relying on fetchers to shield them from arrows. For close in fighting they used the spike bayonets. Their thrusts, slashes, and parries were delivered by muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments originally designed for heavy gravity planets. Dwarves might be smaller than trolls, but they were nearly as strong.

Urqaart hoped that two more major defeats plus the certainty that retreat beyond the reach of the Commonwealth was now cut off, would make the trolls sue for peace.

That peace would have to entail their complete withdrawal from the continent of Valentia and the repatriation of all trolls back to their oceanic archipelago. Anything less would just be setting the stage for another war. The Commonwealth of the Long River was not interested in fighting a series of wars against the trolls. Its war aim was not just a victory but a permanent end to the threat.

"So far so good," Klarendes told his colleagues, "but in our own campaign the open country beyond the swamps works to the advantage of the trolls whose army is so much larger than that of the Amazons. We have to find a way to turn that around, to make the wide open spaces an advantage for our side."

The vast region was excellent cavalry country, a undulating tropical lowland covered by brush and grasslands where the low spots flooded up to three feet during the rainy season turning the savannas and woodlands into temporary wetlands with islands of slightly higher ground. That is what made the area unsuited to agriculture and why it did not have a settled population. But this was the dry season.

"I don't suppose Urqaart could be persuaded to send us a dozen regiments of heavy cavalry via a portal." Klarendes mused.

The heavy cavalry of the Commonwealth of the Long River was unmatched on the continent. To support its three battalions of lancers each regiment had a fourth battalion of horse archers or carabineers, that is riders armed with the carbine version of the air gun. Instead of a bayonet their blade was the traditional saber though now sheathed in a scabbard worn on the back rather than at the hip. That made it easier for the cavalry to dismount and fight as dragoons, without having to worry that the scabbard might trip them up.

"Actually I know where we might get heavy cavalry of a sort with emphasis on heavy." Dahl said.

"You're thinking of brontotheres, aren't you, Klarendes asked.

"I am."

"Brontotheres are Dahl's totemic beast" Owain reminded them.

"And mine as well." Aodh said then described how the people from whom he had originally sprung dwelt in harmony with brontotheres in their hidden homeland. "The great beasts are placid and friendly toward us and protect us from predators. Many is the time brontotheres stood between a lost child and a slavering tiger."

"They even tolerate the children climbing onto them for a ride though they are not biddable, going where they will. Many youngsters bond with particular animals. I did myself with one I named Manda."

"Much as we like brontotheres we have to keep them away from our crops with a system of ditches and canals they cannot cross. The inner walls are vertical, but the outer walls have an easy slope lest the brontotheres fall in and hurt themselves. And though they cannot get to our fields, we often supply them with treats like cabbages and sugar beets for which they are grateful."

"I saw that system for myself" Dahl picked up, "when I traveled with Aodh to the land of the wirs. It was Aodh's people who inspired my recommendation for your people Seerah to adopt that system of ditches and canals in your own country."

"Which we have, with excellent results." she noted.

"Years later," Axel continued "the Commonwealth established a wildlife reserve for brontotheres on the Eastern Plains to shield us from intrusions of the barbarians. The preserve lies at the foot of the Eastern Mountains hence it is in the transition zone between forest and grassy plain. So the brontotheres also protect the livestock of the farmers and ranchers on the open grasslands from predators who would otherwise range outward from their mountain haunts and hunt them."

"Now many herbivores will form a defensive circle when threatened. Brontotheres do so as well to protect their young, but they also go on the offensive and send a force of bulls and females to attack and repel the threat. Both sexes are armed with two forward pointing horns. They also use their bulk as a weapon to bowl foes over, to trample them. They will even rear up and smash a downed foe with the weight of their forequarters."

Sir Willet nodded. "Natural philosophers think brontotheres were deliberately installed on Haven as a biological control species to prepare the planet for settlement by the humanoid races: humans, elves, giants, and dwarves. Their job was to check and ultimately to wipe out a variety of bipedal reptilian predators called raptors. Covered with feathers like birds they were armed with a frightful dentition and sickle shaped claws. Now the largest had only twice the mass of a human or elf, but they hunted in packs which could take down much more formable prey by swarming tactics."

"Most herbivores accept the facts of pack predation and the loss of weaker or just unlucky individuals to attack by wolves, hyenas, big cats and the other apex predators who filled the niche that the extermination of the raptors created. Brontotheres however are absolutely intolerant of predation. If a predatory pack swarms a brontothere calf, adult brontotheres immediately counterattack aiming not just to drive them off but to surround and kill them."

"Brontotheres have a good tactical sense, so they are a natural form of heavy cavalry, as Dahl suggested. They coordinate their efforts through their magical gift of projecting imagery, similar to Mind Speech only with pictures."

"Are you saying that brontotheres are magical creatures like unicorns?" Artor asked.

"Exactly. Both species use magic, though brontotheres rely much more on their physical powers."

"You should have seen the brontotheres in New Varangia" Axel enthused, "when they charged a company of trolls. Finn and Dahl were in the lead mounted on a pair of young bulls who had befriended us. The angry brontotheres gored and trampled every one of the malefactors, reaffirming the lesson the brontotheres have taught their foes down through the ages: Don't mess with us."

"Axel can take some of the credit for helping us forge an alliance with the brontotheres who lived in the Barren Lands. He urged us to rescue five brontotheres trapped in a deep pit. Afterwards he had us show the brontotheres the slanting road which I myself had built up the escarpment that for ages had blocked them from expanding into a region perfectly suited to them."

"Dahl cemented our alliance when he lead a charge of brontotheres against a force of trolls. There is proof that the concept of brontotheres as heavy cavalry can work."

Queen Seerah's face tightened as she thought back to how Dahl had similarly enlisted brontotheres in a charge that crushed the life out of her daughter and the battalion of infantry she commanded.

Oblivious to the Queen's reaction, Karel jumped in with one of his jokes.

"And for us the brontotheres will be not only our heavy cavalry but specifically our lancers," Karel quipped, holding his fists to his temples with the index fingers pointing forward in a reference to the twin horns of the brontotheres.

Jemsen rolled his eyes.

"Hey! Direct that look at Dahl. He started it." Karel said defensively.

From his psychic link to his twin, Karel was pretty sure that the same quip had popped into Jemsen's head. Karel had just beat him to the punch line, that was all.

Frowning at their banter, which Dahl considered ill-timed given the Queen's presence, he spoke to her via Mind Speech on a private channel:

<Sorry about that, Seerah. I knew that the subject of brontotheres would distress you. You can understand though why I had to make my suggestion.>

<I do understand, Dahl. And don't be too hard on that blond boy Karel for his silly joke. I am sure that he meant no harm. If anything he lightened my mood. I gather Karel is the jokester of your group.>

<He is that, even more than his twin. Despite all the grim sights they have witnessed Karel and his brother have maintained a cheery outlook on life. Karel has a good heart, and he's really smart too. He is a co-inventor of contour lines for mapping and a Pioneer of Flight. Oh, and did I mention that he is really rich?>

<Those things would make him a fine catch for the right woman, but I understand that he fancies only boys. Too bad. His blood line would strengthen us Amazons.>

<It would, but it is just not going to happen.>

<What a waste!>

<His lovers don't think so. They include me.>

<Why am I not surprised?>

Since Mind Speech was so fast, no one noticed the time Dahl and Seerah took for their exchange. Resuming sonic speech Dahl said:

"I am pretty sure we druids can recruit the brontotheres to our cause. It's their cause too. Amazon scouts report that the trolls regard the brontotheres as so much meat on the hoof. The beasts are furious, but their natural armaments are of little use against bodies of trained troops armed with caltrops and fire globes and supported by cavalry. The momentum of horse and rider can drive the point of a lance through even the two-inch thick skin of a brontothere, not to mention what ballistas can do."

"Which is where we druids can make our greatest contribution to the campaign." Merry said. "Working directly with brontotheres, I mean."

"We three will go among the brontotheres and persuade the herds to ally themselves with us and the Amazons. Sir Willet's fetching and magnetic powers and the Klarendes' control of heat and fire can neutralize both the caltrops and the fire globes of the trolls. And the earth magic wielded by druids and Jemsen can stop a cavalry charge in its tracks. That will let the herds use their juggernaut tactics against their enemies."

"We three druids will guide the brontotheres and coordinate our maneuvs with each other and the rest of you via Mind Speech. Taking converging lines of approach we can hit them from one direction, then, when they turn to face that threat, from a different direction."

"If only we had heavy infantry that could attack them from the rear, but all we have is light infantry." Klarendes observed.

"What do you mean?" the Queen asked. "We train our soldiers as heavy infantry; they fight with the spear in close combat as well as the crossbow, which is their stand-off weapon."

Klarendes pointed out that the female soldiers who comprised the Amazon army were physically no match for trolls. Amazons might be good sized women and not far short of the same height as trolls but they had only half the mass.

In the final analysis Amazons were merely human. Trolls were a different race of beings: large-bodied creatures with heavy bones and a powerful musculature. Not particularly tall they generally stood six feet but weighed three hundred pounds. Their hairy bodies and snouts armed with tusks made them look more like animals rather than the human beings their race had sprung from.

No, the Amazons must never engage the trolls with spears in close combat, Klarendes told them. Such tactics might work against other humans but not trolls. Instead the Amazons should attack with their stand off weapon, the repeating crossbow. It was true that crossbows would be outranged by the powerful long bows drawn by trolls but only till the women closed the range.

Jemsen agreed with Count Klarendes' tactical analysis but said that the solution to the physical mismatch was for the Amazons to engage the trolls in a series of battles where the Amazons positioned themselves behind earthworks and let the trolls attack them. With his wizardry Jemsen could throw up earthen berms to give the Amazons cover from troll arrows. A deep trench on the side facing the trolls would keep the enemy from getting close enough for hand to hand combat.

Then there was the problem of disparate numbers, just over one-hundred thousand trolls versus nineteen thousand Amazons, the largest expeditionary force that could be drawn from their regular army whose maneuver forces numbered only twenty-three thousand. The rest were scattered in garrisons, headquarters and logistical support, training camps, and so forth. Their militia would stay at home. They were neither trained nor equipped to take the fight to the enemy, nor did they have the necessary transport nor logistical support.

As to why their regular army was so small, the Queen explained that they had never needed a larger one. Having no hostile neighbors on their borders and protected by geographical barriers the Amazons had never had to fight a full-scale war. Their military was really for defense against occasional bands of marauders, river pirates, or slavers who thought a country ruled by women would be easy pickings.

As for the militia, it guaranteed the power of the matriarchy by making uprisings and rebellions by males futile. Smaller in stature, untrained, and unorganized the stunted Amazon males had no hope of overthrowing the female regime of the Amazons.

"Anyhow how is our Amazon army going to cross the sea of reeds?" asked the Amazon commander, General MarAna. "We can't move over twenty thousand soldiers and their logistical train through the narrow commercial canal. So is one of you wizards or druids going to open a space portal for us?"

Klarendes shook his head.

"No. We will need your forces established and formed up on solid ground well past the reeds and in plenty of time and with room for maneuver before they launch their attack in support of the brontotheres and mages."

After some discussion, the group decided that the Amazons would arrive by entirely conventional means, a flotilla of shallow draft cargo boats which would shuttle their army across the sea of reeds. The only magic involved would be in building a new and wider canal across the reeds.

The route of the canal led from the lake which marked the upper basin of the river to the southern edge of the reeds at the point where the Amazon River proper started its long journey to the Great Inland Freshwater Sea. After the war, the canal would become the Amazons' commercial link to the outer world.

The first step in construction was for Dahl to use his life magic to wither the reeds along the whole course of the canal. Once that was finished his job was done, so he left with Owain and Merry to rally herds of brontotheres to the cause.

After a couple of days to let the reeds dry out, the Klarendes, father and son, threw streams of fire to burn them off section by section over the course of a couple of days. Karel blew jets of air both to fan the flames to ensure complete combustion and to disperse the smoke lest it rise like a smoke signal and draw the attention of troll scouts.

On the third day Jemsen excavated a canal deep enough and wide enough for deep draft river boats and big barges like those that plied the river west of the swamps. In the future they could navigate right up to the the small city on the lake beyond the reeds which served as the Amazon capital. The levees Jemsen erected and the deep water of the canal would keep the reeds from growing back and reclaiming their old territory.

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