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The Amber Arrow – Snippet 22 Chapter Nineteen: The Competition The mead hall of the Apfelwein Inn was filled with Jager’s men and with many locals, too. It was now the third night of staying in one place. In the … Continue reading →
The Amber Arrow – Snippet 22
Chapter Nineteen: The Competition
The mead hall of the Apfelwein Inn was filled with Jager’s men and with many locals, too. It was now the third night of staying in one place.
In the inn were centaurs, Tier, and humans. By the fire, Wulf saw Abendar sitting in a rocking chair. He was smoking a long-stemmed clay pipe provided by the inn. Beside him stood Ahorn, who was smoking his own personal pipe, a hollowed briarwood root that looked extremely well used.
Wulf did not smoke, but he was overcome with the desire to take in the odor of good pipe tobacco. Pipe smoke reminded him of his old tutor Albrec Tolas.
Tolas was a gnome less than six hands in height, but he would always loom as a giant in Wulf’s regard.
When he’d left, Tolas was mad at him.
His old tutor had told Wulf that his expedition to Eounnbard was reckless. He’d said Wulf could send Lady Saeunn there with others if he had to, but that the heir needed to stay in Shenandoah.
Besides, Tolas knew that the dragon was calling again. He said he could see it in Wulf’s worried expression. Wulf was the heir. It was his duty to answer.
To cold hell with the dragon and with Tolas’s attitude, Wulf thought.
He was tired of feeling bitter about it. He just wished he could talk to Tolas now when he had so many doubts about the way forward. Saeunn had gotten so sick on the way.
Now she seemed to be getting stronger, but could he trust it?
Tolas would have given good advice. He always did, even if it was often something you didn’t necessarily want to hear, at least at first.
The least Wulf could do to bring Tolas to mind was to take in a little pipe smoke.
Wulf told Rainer he’d eat later, and went to join Abendar and Ahorn where they seemed to have set up shop near the fire.
The elf bowed his head toward Wulf, but did not get up. Ahorn bent a knee, and said, “My lord.”
I’m never going to get used to being treated like I already have Father’s position, he thought.
They shouldn’t do this bowing. The duke was still alive. But he didn’t have the energy to scold them. Instead, he sank into the deerskin-covered rocker next to Abendar and sighed.
“Maybe tomorrow we take to the woods again,” he said.
Ahorn nodded. “It may also be the day the princess leaves us. Ahorn here tells me that the road south leads to a border crossing less than a league from here. After that, the way goes onward into the Vall l’Obac piedmont.”
Ravenelle was going home after sixteen years as a hostage fosterling in Raukenrose.
And when Ravenelle turned south, that meant that Rainer would leave, too. He had promised to take her to Montserrat.
What Rainer would do when he got there, Wulf did not know. Probably turn around and head back. Rainer did not talk about his feelings much, even to Wulf. But Wulf knew how conflicted he was. Rainer was all about loyalty.
Even though he is walking straight toward a broken heart. Ravenelle wanted him to take her to Montserrat, so Rainer was going to take her.
It seemed to Wulf as if all the safety and certainty of his childhood had come apart in the past year and a half. His two older brothers were dead. Now his foster-siblings were intentionally splitting apart. All of them seemed to be moving on a path Wulf could not follow even if he wanted to.
“Your face is clouded with worry, m’lord,” said Abendar. He took a puff on his pipe and looked a Wulf quizzically.
“Almost stormy,” Ahorn agreed with a wink and a nod.
“Is there anything I can do to help?” Abendar continued.
Turn back time and bring Saeunn back to health and happiness, Wulf thought.
“No,” Wulf replied. He sighed. “It was another long day.”
“It was,” Abendar said. “I spent it tending to the horses. I am skilled at it. That wonderful mare Kreide does not like to show it, but I could tell that even she was tired from the ride. On the way here, she was careful to step lightly with Lady Saeunn on her back.”
“Kreide is a good horse,” Wulf said. “That’s why I picked her out for Saeunn.”
“I would be very happy to have her among my brood mares one day,” Abendar put in. “I suppose I’ll go back to raising and selling horses once I settle in Eounnbard.”
“I didn’t realize you had a job.”
“It is my main occupation. It’s an Amberstone and Anderolan specialty. Saeunn’s family owns Amberstone Ranch, where she grew up. They have always been horse breeders. They turn out the best travelling horses for the Elf Road.”
“I never heard about breeding horses,” Wulf said. “I knew she grew up on a ranch of some kind.”
“I remember Lady Saeunn when she was a toddler,” Abendar said. “Very happy. But she had her own mind even when she was very young.”
“Like in what way?” Wulf asked.
“She loved animals, especially the big ones. She loved buffalo, even the ones that might have trampled her. I saw her once running beside a big heifer buffalo when I was visiting her father. Saeunn must’ve been about three or four years old. She was running along a meadow lane holding a handful of daisies, trying to get the heifer to follow her. Which it did. I was scared for her. I was about to go and get her, but the buffalo seemed to know it was a game, too, and was being very careful.”
“Finally her mother thought she’d teased the heifer long enough. She went and scooped Saeunn up.”
Wulf smiled. “I’d liked to have seen that,” he said. “Seen Saeunn when she was little, I mean.”
Abendar nodded. “I suppose that was about, oh, sixty years ago,” he said, and took another draw on his pipe. He puffed out a smoke ring. “Elves do not have many children. Even for us, she was special. That’s why her family sent her to the Old Countries after she was star-melded. They wanted the best education for her.”
“She learned to be a healer there,” Wulf said.
“And many other things,” said Abendar.
“I wish we could take her home to Amberstone Valley,” Wulf said. “That was the original plan.”
Abendar took his pipe from his mouth, looked at the stem. It was getting blackened. When the taste got bitter, it was time to break a small piece of the clay stem off. The elf carefully snapped off a section and dropped the broken bit onto the wooden floor beside his rocking chair. This was the custom at the Apfelwein. It would be swept away in the morning.
Taking time with the stem caused the elf’s pipe bowl to go out, however. Beside him, Ahorn took out a wax-coated punk stick from a pouch he wore about his flank. He dipped it in his own pipe bowl. The centaur took a couple of deep draws, and the tobacco in his pipe crackled with building heat. This ignited the punk stick. Ahorn then handed this to Abendar to relight his own pipe with.
The elf did this, then blew out another cloud of smoke. From the odor, Wulf guessed it was Valley Orinoco, which was the more popular tobacco brand. Ahorn’s brand was Perique, which had a stronger odor with more bite. This was also the type of tobacco Albrec Tolas smoked, so Wulf knew the odor well.
Finally Abendar spoke.
“I would gladly have taken her home,” he said.
“We were going to,” Wulf put in. “We.”
Abendar smiled playfully. “Yes, I understand, Lord Wulf,” he said. “You’re not the only one to have ever felt Saeunn’s allure, though.”
Sounds like you’re one of those, Abendar Anderolan, Wulf thought, a twinge of jealousy passing through him. Everyone seemed to want to kid him about his feelings for Saeunn. Well, let them.
“I’m sure I’m not the only one,” Wulf replied curtly.
“I meant no offense, m’lord” Abendar said.
“I know, Friend Abendar. I’m just . . . worried.”
“Neither one of us can take her back to her homeland. The Elf Road is impassable. My traveling band was attacked over and over on the way here. Brothers and friends were killed. When our sulfur wagons burned, all the profits went up in smoke. The ones like me who fought through to the east are lucky to be alive.”
“I get that the way west is closed,” Wulf said, irritated by having to hear yet again why his first plan had been a bad one. “That’s why we’re going to Eounnbard. To the Mist Elves. To find help there.”
“If there is help.”
Wulf stared at the fire. He rocked back and forth. Finally he spoke.
“This can’t be for nothing,” he said. “There has to be.”
Chain of Command – Snippet 22 The third briefer wore dark blue: Commander Cassandra Atwater-Jones, Royal Navy. She seemed quite amused by whatever had gone before. “So you’re the famous Lieutenant Bitka,” the gray-haired staff captain said, making famous sound … Continue reading →
Chain of Command – Snippet 22
The third briefer wore dark blue: Commander Cassandra Atwater-Jones, Royal Navy. She seemed quite amused by whatever had gone before.
“So you’re the famous Lieutenant Bitka,” the gray-haired staff captain said, making famous sound like an epithet. Her mouth seemed sculpted into a permanent frown, accentuated by her heavy jowls and deep-set eyes. “I better let you know neither I nor Commander Boynton thinks much of your theory of the uBakai attack profile. Commander Atwater-Jones disagrees with us, but I do not believe either she or you appreciate how tricky the astrogation set-up for that attack must have been.”
Boynton. That name was familiar. Where did he know him from?
She glowered at him and after a second or two he realized she expected a reply.
“I still believe the problem must have been an intelligence leak.” She turned her glare on Atwater-Jones, who returned a cheerful smile. “Do you have anything to add to that, Commander?”
“If I had,” Atwater-Jones said, still smiling, “and as it would involve an on-going intelligence investigation of a most sensitive nature, it would of course be for your ears only, Mum.”
So apparently Sam was not the only one who occasionally felt the urge to bait the bear.
The formal briefing got going after that. The formidable gray-haired captain running the show turned out to be Marietta Kleindienst, chief of staff to Admiral Kayumati, the commander of the task force. Atwater-Jones was obviously there as the N2–smart boss. Sam still couldn’t place the other officer.
The plan was essentially as outlined before: a direct descent on K’tok, two cohorts of mike troops landed to seize the needle, another cohort in reserve, the fleet to engage and destroy any uBakai warships in the area of operations, then provide orbital bombardment support and secure the orbital space from interference by any arriving uBakai forces.
Sam was unfamiliar with the terminology of the planetary assault itself, never having served in assault transports or in exercises involving deployment of ground troops. He kept squinting up glossaries to guide him through the maze of jargon. “Mike” stood for Meteoric Insertion Capable–soldiers dropped from orbit in individual re-entry capsules and accompanied by clouds of decoys to confuse missile interceptors.
The five heavy cruisers would hold low planetary orbit (LPO), positioned to bombard the area around the Landing site. The four destroyers of DesDiv Four would form the outer screen in much higher planetary synchronous orbit (PSO). The transports and logistical support vessels, along with USS Pensacola, the task force flagship would take station as needed.
Captain Kleindienst also told them a Nigerian and a British cruiser–NNS Aradu and HMS Exeter–had been detached to secure the system gas giant, Mogo. The four destroyers of DesDiv Five had been dispatched to Mogo; they would arrive later than the cruisers but relieve them on station there so the heavier ships could rejoin the task force.
“Any questions?” Captain Kleindienst asked and looked at the twelve men and women in the crescent.
To his surprise, Sam heard Filipenko clear her throat.
“I have one, ma’am.”
Kleindienst’s frown deepened and took on an added layer of impatience.
“Very well, but make it fast.”
“I’m a communications officer by training and principle experience. Usually communication back to Earth takes weeks, because there is no communication except by data transfer by jump craft. This is only our fifth day of war.
“I know our emergency procedure calls for an automated comm packet dispatched by jump missile to Bronstein’s World, where it will be received, transferred to a similar jump missile to Earth, where it will be received, acted on, and the procedure then repeated in reverse. But even the emergency process takes days, usually many days.”
“Yes, what’s your question?” Kleindienst snapped.
Filipenko took a breath, perhaps to steady herself, and then spoke.
“This plan was given to us in outline the day of the attack. I don’t see how consultation with superior authority was possible. Is this attack authorized?”
That was a hell of a question. What Filipenko said was true, obviously true, but Sam hadn’t thought to wonder about it. He faulted the astrogators for not thinking tactically, but Filipenko just showed him what it meant to think as a signaler.
Opposite them, Kleindienst paused, apparently to let her glare grow even more fiery.
“Given the very problems you enumerate,” she said carefully and slowly, “and given the volatile nature of the situation here, Admiral Kayumati sailed with sealed orders covering a variety of anticipated contingencies. Yes, Lieutenant, this attack was authorized at the highest level. Admirals don’t go around starting wars.”
Sam did not find that particularly reassuring. Of course the attack was authorized. But if the task force had sailed with contingency plans this detailed, how peaceful had the original intention been? The uBakai had struck the first blow, taken the role of aggressor. But what if they hadn’t? Maybe they had been very obliging to strike that first blow. Maybe that’s just what the coalition had wanted when the task force was sent, but that left Sam more unsettled than the idea of a rogue admiral swept away by desire for revenge would have. If their side had wanted this to happen, then they had wanted Jules and the others to die. But that was a very big “if.”
“Very well,” Kleindienst said, eyes narrowed with irritation. “The smart boss will update you on our current threat assessment.” She nodded to Commander Atwater-Jones.
“Right,” she began. “Our best estimate, based on communication traffic analysis and sensor tracks over the last six months, is that the uBakai have four cruisers in the star system, of which two are currently in orbit around K’tok. One had been in orbit around Mogo but withdrew upon approach of Task Group 1.4–that’s Aradu and Exeter. We don’t know its angle of departure as it made its escape burn when Mogo was between it and our task force. Very clever boots, these uBakai. One cruiser is currently unaccounted for, but did depart K’tok orbit at a time consistent with Lieutenant Bitka’s theory of the initial uBakai attack profile.”
“That doesn’t prove anything,” the dark-haired male officer with a squat face and bulbous nose said. He wore the three broad stripes of a commander and Sam finally placed him: Holloway Boynton, who had been Ops Boss on USS Theodore Roosevelt where Sam served as a sensor officer until three months earlier. He knew him by name but had never spoken to him.
“No,” Atwater-Jones answered, “but if that cruiser made both attacks, and if it made its final evasive course correction using its MPD thrusters at a low enough energy level to escape thermal detection by us, we have a reasonably limited sphere in which it must be.”
“Commander, we’ve had HRVS optics looking in your sphere for days, and haven’t found anything,” Boynton said.
“Which means,” Atwater-Jones shot back, “either Leftenant Bitka’s theory is incorrect or the vessel is where we cannot detect it by visual stellar occlusion–which is to say it is directly between us and the asteroid belt, which I note we have not completed mapping.”
“That’s enough,” Kleindienst snapped. “This is a briefing, not a staff debate.”
“Quite right,” Atwater-Jones said. “As I was saying before I was interrupted, our best estimate is that they have four cruisers in the system, two around K’tok, one somewhere near Mogo, and one unaccounted for, but it’s bloody-well somewhere and up to mischief.