Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Several Adventures of Hugh, Part 39

“Okay… who was the most badly wounded survivor you saw?”

“Um…” Hugh scratched his chin. “Well, I guess it would have to be one of the laborers. He must have taken a slice to the head, but only the top, because nearly his whole scalp was cut back and flopping around behind his exposed skull. I think he got stitched up and is doing fine now.”

The Kolish officer shoveled another spoonful of porridge into his mouth, then shook his head. He swallowed and said, “You didn’t see the guy who was holding his intestines?”

“Oh,” said Hugh. “Yeah, I saw a few doing that… but I’m not sure any survived.”

“Well, survived to walk around holding his guts in,” said the officer, smiling.

Hugh set his spoon down and looked in his bowl. It kind of reminded him of the pale, yellowish fat that oozed out of several of the lower torso wounds he saw.

“What’s the matter, lose your appetite?” The officer scooped another spoonful of mush, smiling as he chewed.

“I’m not cut out for this,” said Hugh.

“What?”

“War.”

The officer laughed. “Of course you are. This is just your first war. This will be my seventh campaign. I’ve spent eighteen years on the march, and frankly… this is one of the best assignments I ever had. We have clean water, no shortage of supplies, all the luxuries of home… hell, I could take leave and go into town and get a woman if I wanted. How many wars can you do that?”

Hugh pushed his porridge around with his spoon a bit. “I don’t understand what we’re fighting for.”

“I’m fighting for personal gain. My salary, especially as an officer, is much higher than I could ever earn doing other work.”

“Well, I meant… what is all of this fighting for?”

“What is any war for? It’s a dick measuring contest between powerful men.”

Hugh smirked. “I guess. You’d think, then, that they’d just save us all a lot of time and suffering by walking out into the middle without their pants on.”

“I hope they never get that idea,” the officer said, shaking his head. “I’d be out of a job.”

The Koles built several tall towers behind the palisades. On them, they kept ten men stationed at all times, armed with long bows. While their armor had initially caught Hugh’s attention, his eye wandered before too long to their spear.

They were long… very long. Each spear was the length of almost four men lying in a line. They had simple, leaf-shaped heads, roughly the size of a man’s hand. In addition, the butt of the spear had a thick, bronze spike. When engaging the enemy, they would dig the butt-spike into the ground a bit behind them to brace it against charging troops. The spears were so long, four entire lines of troops would lower their spears in gaps between troops in front of them, creating a thick, porcupine-like wall of spears.

Hugh watched the Kolish troops run through drills, and it was a thing of beauty. It was almost like a synchronized dance. They ran drills in sixty man groups, seemingly all day long. At the shout of a letter of the alphabet, they would assume different positions. Usually, they started at A, which was standing at attention, spear and shield at their side. Then they went into B, which was raising the shield, crouching, and lowering the spear forward.

Perhaps the most interesting was C, and this was a covered formation, where the shields were lined up in the front and then the back rows would lift their shields to form what looked almost like a shingled roof. The shields had edges such that they seemed to fit together and almost lock. They could move into perfect cover, all sixty of them in unison, within seconds.

Drills usually consisted of a pattern like this: A, B, C, B, A, B, C, B, A, B, A, B, C, B, C, D. The shout of D would indicate the first row would run forward in a charge, while the second row became the first row. During drills, the old front row would then move to the back, this way every troop became acquainted with how to function in every row.

They also trained with swords, daggers, bows, and darts. Each man carried three large, lead darts, which looked like small, four pronged anchors with a spiked point. They had hooks on their end, and they hung from a leather strap behind their shield.

The Nudari, on the other hand, rarely trained, and they even more rarely mounted. Their horses grazed most days, with the exception of a hundred which were kept on duty, though even these were tied up near their riders. The Nudari had dark skin, many piercings, and they did not drink. Hugh found out alcohol was against the law in their homeland.

They chewed leaves of some plant most of the day, and when Hugh tried some, it made him kind of sick. They mostly sat around, sucking away, playing games or reading. They hardly seemed like soldiers, except that Hugh saw their weapons sitting on racks near their horses. They used long spears as well, though only about half as long as the Kolish spears. The spear heads were a great variety of designs, but most had a hook opposite some kind of blade, which a long spike at the point.

Their armor was also remarkably thorough, composed of a thick coat under scalemail armor. This was then covered by a long, leather doublet. Their helmets were lined with fur inside, since all the troops shaved their heads. They were shaped like simple cones, with a drape of scalemail hanging down around the sides and back.

One of the Kolish officers took Hugh aside after a few days.

“Please don’t take it as an insult,” said the officer, “But we want you to act as a skirmisher within our ranks.”

“Why would that be insulting?”

“Skirmishers are usually the lowest of the low within the military,” the officer said. “The problem is… your size does not lend itself to the fighting style of our regular infantry, but you do fit with the irregulars. You’ll mostly be working with the poorest and youngest within our ranks.”

The officer took Hugh to another officer named Marsellus, who looked Hugh up and down, smiling. “Just in time for lines. Armor up just as you would for battle and come back.”

Hugh put on his armor. He grabbed his mace and shield, and when he returned to the spot, there was a large group of men, all armed with small shields and javelins. They all also had a wolf’s pelt, with the wolf’s head resting upon their own. They wore very little armor, some of them seemingly none at all besides the pelt and linen pants. Many simply didn’t wear shirts.

Marsellus stood in front of them. “You know the drill: touch a tree and come back.” With that, everyone ran out to the distant woods, Hugh only slightly hesitating.

Hugh was the first to touch a tree, and he got back with so much out in front of the rest that Marsellus sent him to do his next one. Hugh finished his second not long after some of the last soldiers finished their first.

Marsellus sent everyone on their next line, this time to the tower just outside of town. It would be a couple miles, and everyone had to touch it before coming back. Again, Hugh finished well before everyone else. Marsellus again sent him to do another, and this time Hugh finished well before the final stragglers.

By now, most people were very tired, though Hugh seemed unfazed. “The shore,” said Marsellus. And once more, they all ran off, this time for the sea.

Marsellus did not send Hugh back for a second run to the beach. Instead, he shook his head and had Hugh remove his helmet.

“I have never seen someone move like that, let alone wearing all that weight.” They sat down around a fire. “Do you know much about skirmishing?”

Hugh shook his head and said, “No.”

“We have a simple role. It’s not a glorified one. Epic poets don’t write ballads to the skirmisher, but we are the key to every Kolish victory. We don’t move in ordered ranks like the Kolish regulars. We’re irregulars. We bunch up and often break off into small groups, all unofficial. It’s mostly friends fighting alongside friends, brothers next to brothers, sometimes even fathers with their sons.

“We fight out in front of the Kolish infantry, then must retreat through gaps in the Kolish line before the armies truly meet. You don’t need this,” Marsellus touched Hugh’s mace. “We don’t engage the enemy in much melee combat, and when we do, we primarily use daggers to finish off soldiers who are already engaged with our infantry. We use missile weapons, anything you prefer. Javelins are the most popular and my preference, plus we provide them for the troops, but many of the aspiring young troops also carry lead darts, like the infantry. Slings are also popular with foreigners, as are hammers, axes, and even the odd archer or two.

“Anyway, the point is, we make first contact with the enemy, though they should not make contact with us. We may take arrow fire, but that’s what the shields are for. After the initial exchange, we retreat behind the infantry, and we essentially at that point begin our next phase of battle, which is support. We launch missiles over the Kolish line at the enemy, and if any gaps form in the line, we have to plug them up.

“If the battle descends into individual combat, our primary role is to aid the infantry as they engage the enemy, and in the event that we route them, we are expected to chase down and kill or capture the retreating troops, since we are the lightest armed and should be the fastest runners.

“Any questions?”

“I don’t think so,” said Hugh.

“Good. Now, run to the shore again.”

Hugh finished right alongside the last man shambling in. They spent most of the afternoon running to various places. Then, at sundown, Marsellus had them target practice. They had to fire into the sun, and Marsellus informed Hugh this was by design. Hugh found the javelins to be kind of awkward, but with some practice he was getting close to the target.

In a few days, a large package arrived with the morning messenger. It was a large bow and dozens of arrows, sent by the dwarf and giant, who had heard about him joining the ranks of the skirmishers.

When Hugh was using them during practice at dusk, Marsellus stood by Hugh and watched him firing. After a few arrows, Marsellus asked to see the arrows. He shook his head. “These won’t do.”

“Why not?” asked Hugh.

“You can use these for target practice, but when we go into battle… well, the Koles have a saying: never throw the missile that could kill you. These arrows are too sturdy. Follow me.”

Marsellus took Hugh to a large tent where weapons were held. “These are approved missile weapons,” he said. “They all have a mechanism by which they become damaged and unusable after use.”

Hugh looked around the room, picking up a javelin. Marcellus walked next to him. “Notice the tip,” he said. “It is designed such that when it hits a shield, person, or even the ground, the tip will lodge in but the shank is very thin, so it will bend from the weight of the shaft. We can collect them after the battle and reuse them after repair, of course, but the enemy cannot pick them up and use them immediately.”

Hugh set it down and picked up a hammer. He inspected it, and noticed the head was partially translucent. “The head is made of hallow glass,” said Marcellus. “This is the most expensive of the missiles, but we have some glass blowers who make their own in their off time. We can’t use them in any situation where the infantry may advance and have to cross the broken glass, but they’re great for holding a defensive position.”

Hugh picked up an axe, which had two blades, both on top and bottom. “I know this one,” said Hugh. “Obsidian blades.”

“Right,” said Marsellus. “Those will mostly break after being thrown. There’s quite a few obsidian deposits around Kole, so this is one of our most common materials. To be honest, the blades are even sharper than the best steel blade.”

“I used to trade for obsidian tools back home,” said Hugh. “They’re great for skinning.”

“Are you any good at chipping?”

“Not particularly.”

“Well, now is a good time to master it,” said Marsellus. “Obsidian is pretty much the cheapest approved arrow head material. We have literally thousands of heads here for reserve use, ready to go, but I would prefer you make rather than take, since we have the downtime.”

Marsellus then had someone sit down with Hugh for a few hours as they ate dinner, showing Hugh how to use a hammer and chisel on a raw piece of obsidian, first breaking the large chunk into thinner sections, then working these sections into arrow heads.

Hugh broke the head on his first attempt while he was working with it, and his next efforts were not much better (most of them ending up too small), but Hugh acquired the fine touch before too long. The next morning, after Hugh had made some heads, he hafted them onto his arrows, while keeping some with their iron tips for practice shooting.

To be continued…

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