Getting Sergeant Blake on side proved to be incredibly easy. Charlie walked up to him and said, “Hey old son, how would you like to not die more?”
“Sure, I think everyone wants to not die. Not sure about your grammar, but yeah, not dying sounds like more fun than the alternative.”
“Alright, well, Tom and I have been putting our brains together, and surprise surprise, we actually had a couple of ideas. Ways we could enter a combat that reduce the odds of us getting blown up. Thought we could play with a couple of those ideas, see what we could make work.”
“This isn’t that tired shit from military history class is it? Because you know that shit doesn’t work anymore.”
“No, it’s not. Look, just hear Tom out. The man has a brain, at least when he isn’t pickling it.”
“Hey Sarge, so, been thinking a lot about this. Some of it’s pretty obvious, I think the only reason I didn’t think of it before was that we were always told there was only one way to do things. Nobody ever even tries to come up with something different anymore. Look, a really obvious one: fire shoots straight across the battlefield. We dig holes, get low, have more cover to work with. Maybe instead of just digging holes we dig trenches. Get our heads the hell out of the way.”
“You want us to dig when there’s fire raining down everywhere?”
“No, before… instead of waiting to rush in we dig. Once the fighting starts we are down low, out of the way. That ones easy. Another one, we move forward in jumps. A few guys lay down fire, keep the enemies from shooting, while a couple other guys run ahead. Not all moving at once. It means we need cover though, so we find paths with as much cover as we can, fuck this running through an open field bullshit. Maybe we move around to the side, try some of the old stuff like flanking in a new way.”
“Wait, yeah, that all seems to make sense. In fact it’s too obvious, why the hell isn’t anyone doing it right now?”
“No idea. Thing is, it can’t hurt to try.”
“You should know that it can. Disobeying regs means floggings, demotions, all that.”
“Is there anything in the regs says we can’t move forward differently? That’s a rhetorical question by the way, I’ve read them. There isn’t. Nothing I’m proposing breaks a single ordinance, we may never get promoted again, but since I usually get promoted when the people above me die I’m good with that.”
“Okay, you’ve got it. We start trying some new things.”
The next morning they started. It was rough. They had no way to test whether or not the tactics were working; they didn’t know if they were getting hit or not. It wasn’t like they could test out live wands, while lost limbs might save their lives, they wouldn’t be looked on very kindly. Hospital resources were already strained, adding that level of training injury was going to be looked on poorly.
In addition, they didn’t have complete buy in from the men. They all went along, but most were putting in half effort at best. Sergeant Blake said, “Alright maggots. I want to see some effort, some muscle put into this. You bunch of slackers need to get the lead out, get with it.”
All he got were blank stares. Tom had enough. “Look, this sucks. I’m making you work hard at even more drills, outside of regular drills. Here’s the thing, I’m still alive. I’ve been in this army for longer than any of you, and I want to stay alive. I would like the same for all of you. What we are doing is different, but it will help, it will save lives. I want that for this squad. I want this squad to be one where men retire at the end of a long career. If you don’t want that for yourself, please sit the drills out.”
That got them more motivated. The drills went better. They drilled for two hours that first day, then started the regular unit drills, mostly fitness and running forward together.
That night Tom contacted Adrian. We need weapons we can practice with. The tactics I’m experimenting with seem to work, but I can’t really prove it to the men. Any ideas?
The words on the scroll vanished, replaced with Yes, let me work on it. I should have something for you in two days. I will find a way to send them over. Trish says hi.
Two days later a courier showed up in camp. He had a series of wands, made of a very light wood. “Adrian Kline said to give this to whoever was in charge of training here. He said he had some idea about practice weapons, instructions are in the package. Please sign here.”
Sergeant Blake signed the slip and took possession of the weapons. “How the hell did you boys score this?”
Charlie said, “Remember that mage with the shitty plumbing? Well, me and Tom got to talking while I was fixing the shitter. He heard us, said he had some ideas how to help. Figured that’s all we’d ever hear from him, his type don’t usually come down off the mountain to help us grunts out. Guess I was wrong about him.”
“Guess you were. What’s in the instructions?” Sergeant Blake said as he handed the scroll to Tom.
“Apparently the wands make you feel a tingle, no damage. Same range as and spread as a fire wand, a bit of a light show. Exactly what we need.”
Training got more effective from that moment on. First, Tom got the squad to attack as per normal, with only him facing them. They assembled, their usual vague blob like formation, and charged. Tom lay down on the ground as soon as he saw them move, hitting the deck rapidly. He hit all eight of them before the could hit him once. That changed the game. From that moment on they were committed.
Everything they were doing was new, new ways of moving, of supporting each other, of taking formations that allowed them to be effective combatants. They were training with each other, predominantly, but people started to notice. In not time at all there would be a few extras watching. Tom made sure that the few extras included people he knew were sympathetic to the cause.
The first battle came a week after they started training. They lined up, ranks of soldiers on either side of a narrow pass, a rocky defile through the mountains. This was not a good spot for the Iskengarian forces. The Gandian troops were dug in on the far side, occupying as much of the high ground as they could, all they really had to do was wait for the Iskengarians to charge, and then cut them down. Of course they wouldn’t do that, they would charge in at the same time. How had it come to this? How had this almost suicidal approach to warfare, for Tom could see that’s what it was now, come to exist? He knew he wasn’t all that smart, and he could see a thousand better ways to conduct combat. Surely tradition alone didn’t cover it?
The fire started streaming overhead, lighting arcing through forces. Tom and his squad hit the ground, moving forward in a low crawl. They moved from cover to cover, leapfrogging positions, covering each other. Fire streamed over Tom‘s head, the heat searing his hair, but it was over his head. Men from other squads burst into flames, died screaming. An arm fell in front of Tom, he didn’t see the owner. It was cauterized at the stump, likely the owner had been burned out of existence.
Charlie was working in tandem with Russel, covering Tom and a young private named Simmons as they moved forward, in a half crouch. What mass insanity had inspired them to stand tall in the face of all this fire?
They reached the enemy lines, the entire squad uninjured. Instead of drawing blades they fired their wands at a concentrated spot in the enemy line, moving as a unit, moving only as opportunity to do so as safely as possible came up. Finally, the enemy line passed them, the break where they had been concentrating their fire allowing them to slip through. There was nothing between them and the Gandian mages.
The air, previously so full of fire and death was still. The battle behind them. The rocky defile provided cover, lots and lots of it. Tom took the lead. Despite the rank structure everyone was following him now, even Sergeant Blake.
They moved from cover to cover, the sounds of death and dying still around them, echoing. The ground was littered with corpses, burned, charred bodies. Then the bodies stopped. They were behind the original battle lines, from before the charge. If the Gandians had just waited here Iskengar would have been stopped in its tracks. Ahead of Tom was a small cluster of men, well dressed, but sweating. They were chanting, concentration fully on the battle ahead, two of the five had scrolls laid out in front of them. All were moving their hands in arcane gestures. Battle mages. The core of the army, the most dangerous weapon either side had. They were sweaty men, unfit physically, dressed in ridiculous finery, befitting a garden party, not a battlefield.
Tom sited one of them with his wand and activated it. The rest of the squad did the same. In a moment all five men were dead, never having realized Tom and his squad were there.
The tide of the battle was turned instantly. The mass of Gandian soldiers was destroyed in minutes once the battle mages didn’t have to worry about the other side casting spells back. Tom couldn’t imagine it. Four hours of battle, and losses for Iskengar in the hundreds, the low hundreds. It couldn’t be that easy could it? Battle mages were nearly immortal, godlike, they could bring down the heavens on any who dared oppose them. He had heard this all of his life.
Maybe everything he thought he knew was wrong. He was getting deep into the philosophical implications of this when Charlie said, “It all makes sense now. We fight the way we do so the men act as a shield for the battle mages. Well, fuck. Never realized I was basically a human shield before.”
“Right, of course. They have to focus on each other, so they can’t really focus on protecting themselves. A few humans on foot get close, we can kill them. Both sides do that, all of a sudden the battle mages can’t be as effective, they have to split their attention. So. Yeah. Fuck.”
“Well, at least not all of them buy into the idea. More I find out about this, more I’m in favour of your boy Adrian and his mad plans. At least he’s telling us what we’re risking our asses for. These fuckers, for years, feeding us lines about other tactics not working with magic weaponry. They fucking work, that much is clear after today.”
Tom had never seen Charlie get emotional before. The tall corporal always seemed detached, emotionally uninvested. Charlie‘s upper lip was curled in a snarl, his eyes narrowed behind the inevitable green spectacles. Both his fists were balled, so tightly his nails dug into his palms, leaving traces of blood dripping down his hands.
“I knew something was wrong, that this was insane. Fuck. Fuck them all. They need to go, need to die.”
Of course Tom was angry too, but not in the same league as Charlie. Maybe it was a loss of faith issue. Tom had never had any faith in the system, he was already cynical. Charlie had always seemed detached, uncaring, but maybe there was still a kernel of faith there. Didn’t matter, what did matter was what they did with it now.