The 13th day of the 5th month was sunny.
On a small hill not far from Fokby Hill stood near a hundred men. Most were commissioned officers superior to second lieutenant. They even counted several majors among their number. There was also a lieutenant-colonel. He'd come to observe a wargame.
Claude was one of the stars. He'd brought up the suggestion in the infirmary, and the competition had spread like wildfire throughout the camp. At least half the camp was present to watch. Everyone wanted to see what gave the green officer his balls.
A combat-strength band had 54 men. Claude's was not, and as such only had two tents -- just 23 people. Everyone knew the state of most of those men. They were hardly what one would call 'soldiers', which was why they had not been stationed anywhere else. They faced a combat strength band and a cannon. Surely the young brat that was their commander must be hearing the loose screws in his head rattling now.
No one expected a decent fight. They were just here to watch a self-overestimating boy get put in his place. Who did this brat think he was? So what if he had the kingdom's strongest baroness' backing? Was he the incarnation of the war god? He could be as strong as he wanted to be, firearms made the strength of a single man irrelevant. A bullet killed a king just as readily as it did a peasant. Even magi fell in its face, so what was a little boy?
"Combat Band 1107 will take up defenses at the top of the slope. Fifty four men and a cannon, as you requested," Most said, opening a simple map.
Lieutenant Most and the man in charge of the base's gunpowder, Second Lieutenant Carlos, were the judges. Wargames between bands weren't worthy of anyone of greater rank's attention. None of the majors and above would be present if not for the ludicracy of this particular one, and the backing of the boy who'd called for it.
"Your attack shall start here. You are to drive your opponents from the hill. The enemy has a cannon, so you will start taking losses once you come within 800 metres of them. One will die every ten minutes regardless of anything else as long as the cannon remains standing."
"Alright. Lieutenant Kemondo, please set your men up as you see fit."
"Three tents will hold the slope. The cannon will watch the left flank. A fourth tent will guard the cannon itself," the lieutenant announced, "I don't think we even need to play this out. There can be no victory for the sergeant-major. Half his men will be dead even before the first reaches firing range. We could literally just have them march up the slope, take their first volley, and march down to clean them up in hand-to-hand,"
Claude didn't speak. He just smiled at the lieutenant.
"Enough complaining. Take it as a favour," Most sighed.
Could the bastard not see how many people were watching? It was one thing to embarrass himself, but to embarrass Most...
"Go make your preparations."
Kemondo nodded and descended the slope. He had a band set up their dummies half-way down the slope. A firing line three metres deep quickly took shape. The trunk of a felled tree made for the cannon, and half a dozen dummies were placed around it as the crew.
It took about an hour, but everything was finally set up. Despite how insufficient such a setup was at mimicking true battle, safety concerns prohibited anything else. As such, one side was always static, while the other could manoeuvre. Deaths on the defending side was counted with hits to the targets, and deaths to the attacker's side at the discretion of the judges. They usually calculated losses based on average hit-rates during live training.
"The targets are ready, are you?" Most asked.
Claude pointed at the targets.
"Someone has to pull down the hit targets. If they remain up they'll obscure the targets behind them."
Most hesitated. War was decided by range and numbers. Pulling down targets was unnecessary, even more so it was ridiculously dangerous.
"Don't worry, Sir. I will not be firing in volley. You've seen my men train. We prefer... sniping. You can rest assured we will not accidentally hit the man. I volunteer Myjack. He can pull down the targets between rounds."
"Then I shall go as well," Carlos declared, "I want to see up close what stock your waste of my ammunition has made. At least get a shot or two off before you're all killed!"
Carlos marched away angrily while Claude called Myjack and gave him his instructions. The kid darted off after the second lieutenant a few moments later. The two stopped a safe distance from the targets and waited for the signal.
The meeting was thus adjourned and each went their way to make final preparations. Most took a spot next to the lone lieutenant-colonel on the field.
"What are your thoughts, Colonel?"
Lieutenant-Colonel Leoncrow had put aside a day of his duties as the right hand of one of the headquarters' tribes for this match. Like the others present, he wanted to see what had given the young sergeant-major his balls.
A long-eared, fat-faced major laughed before Leoncrow could answer.
"You think it's worth mentioning? This little crow of yours stands no chance. What gives him such balls? Your second lieutenant has a good head on him. He's chosen the perfect formation for this situation. I don't see how that little crow could turn this around." Morimyde Lee Kesdir, a combat strategist for Bluefeather, barked between his laughs.
He'd gotten his current position as much thanks to his family's reputation as by his own skill. His father was quite the well-known noble in the capital. He had little interest beyond thickening his CV. He rarely fulfilled much of his duties, preferring to spend his time in search of more interesting things to do. This little wargame offered him at least some passing amusement, so he'd come along to have a look.
Leoncrow smiled at Morimyde's assessment quietly.
"Lieutenant Kemondo's setup is by the book, that is certain. Records suggest the sergeant-major would need at least a clan to dislodge it, especially considering the cannon. The sergeant-major did suggest this of his own accord, however, and I doubt even someone as green as him would fail to have a plan, however unfeasible it may prove to be. If nothing else, I look forward to seeing what his plan is, at least."
Most waved his blue flag to announce the game's start when he saw Claude reach his men.
A whistle blew in the sergeant-major's position and his men scattered. Doctrine proclaimed the unit ought to line up and prepare for an orderly advance, however, the men under Claude's command simply faded into the bushes like rabbits darting into hidey-holes.
The audience burst into a bout of commentary immediately.
"Why are they running around like that? Where's their line? How can anyone fire effectively like that? How's he going to command them? He doesn't even know where they are!"
Most and Kemondo were dumbstruck. They watched as the troops ascended the hill. Claude could not be said to be leading them. They were too far apart for anything short of a thunderous roar to get anything across, and they all moved independently. There was no calling this a formation. It looked more like a bunch of frightened fowl running in the same general direction.
"Are you using the cannon?" Most asked.
Kemondo shook his head, a bitter smile on his face.
"I'd only be wasting ammunition. I've less chance of hitting one that if I just chucked a stone and hoped for the best. The men will deal with them with volley fire when they try to reform their ranks. Honestly, this makes no sense..."
The two lieutenants thus waited, but the enemy never reformed their ranks. The men closed the distance to about 300 metres, practically melee range, crawling the last of the distance flat on their stomachs.
Kemondo couldn't keep himself from screaming any longer. His volley fire would be useless. His men had nothing at which to fire. The enemy was still spread out, and now prone. His shots would just fly over their heads.
Was the brat planning to fight this in melee? That would completely void this whole exercise, however. This was to prove that his use of gunpowder wasn't a waste. If he fought this out without using any, it would defeat the whole purpose of this little game. Not to mention that a fight like this, even if won, would see at least a quarter of his men dead, and at least a further quarter wounded, probably crippled.
Kemondo wondered if he should just hit them with grapeshot when they finally stood up. It wouldn't kill them all, but it should incapacitate at least a quarter of his force in one blow.
The men on the field had stopped advancing while everyone had been discussing the various degrees of stupidity of this tactic. They'd closed up to somewhere between 150 and 200 metres. Some of the men were closer than others. White puffs of smoke popped into existence and hid the men from the observers' eyes for several seconds, then the wind cleared the clouds. A moment later the sound of their shots echoed past the crowd's ears. The shots were scattered and out of sync. It felt more like they'd had a rough idea of when to fire, but had done so as soon as they had a target, rather than wait for an actual order.
A red flag went up, and Calros and Myjack darted to the dummies.
"He's actually having them reload while laying down?!" someone shouted.
Everyone's eyes squinted, then gasps rang out about as scattered as the first shots of the battle.
More rounds followed in much the same way. The sixth saw the last dummy fall. Even Carlos and Myjack were stunned. A whistle blew again, and Claude's men stood up and marched over to the enemy's positions leisurely.