At last they were off to war. Aeronbed would be invaded. Vigmar’s long and costly struggle with the hated enemy would come to an end. Peace and security would be established for evermore — all thanks to Eirwen’s brilliance. At least, that’s how things were expected to play out.
The Emperor and Empress were happy. Fridis, the eider duck, had come to accept the necessary — and hopefully short-lived — separation from her friend Eirwen. The generals had bought into the polar bear’s grand enterprise, and Eirwen, leaving his ever-present anxieties behind and having learned much from the Battle of the Antern Mountains, was now confident of success.
The send-off to war had been celebratory and enthusiastic, befitting the momentous occasion. The eager troops had departed Vigmar’s capital, Blakfel, with a jaunty swagger, a rhythm that slowly evolved over the ensuing hours into a steady, calm and efficient march.
The determined demeanor of the armies pleased their generals, who in turn demonstrated a brashness that pleased Eirwen. The polar bear couldn’t help but bask in the soldiers’ high spirits, their optimism and, best of all, their easygoing banter. It was all to the good. The campaign, he felt, was off to a great start.
The usual milky gray cloud cover dominated the skies. However, the first day of the long march south had actually begun quite auspiciously — no rain and little wind, and a faint, austere sun had even put in a brief appearance. It had been a long time since Eirwen had remarked on Blakfel’s dismal climate, a fact the polar bear took as a positive sign, or at least an indication that he had far more important things to worry about than the weather. Whatever the case, everyone concerned took the benign conditions as a sign of good fortune. Those who were more experienced or in the know, meanwhile, appreciated that they’d need every bit of luck that fell their way. Even Fridis’s unexpected farewell flyover had been grabbed onto as a promising omen.
Since Vigmar’s mountainous capital was located at one of the highest points in the Empire, the leisurely march southward was largely downhill. And since the first day’s advance was over safe, well- trodden terrain, the going was easy. The troops’ infectious good humor increased as they advanced inexorably toward the Empire’s warmer central plains.
The first day passed without incident, as did the second and third, and the mood remained upbeat. On the fourth day the armies passed into the northern reaches of Arundati, home to a number of the allied armies. The promising weather continued and the troops were making good time, still on schedule according to Eirwen’s timetable.
At the end of the fourth day’s march, soon after orders were given to set up camp for the night, Eirwen called together his generals and their most senior officers. This evening he would finally break his silence on the details of the attack on Aeronbed.
The animals met in a large circle under a heavy forest canopy. In the distance Eirwen could hear the sounds of an army coming to rest: brusque commands, the hustle and bustle of setting up guard posts and encampments, followed by organization of dinner and sentry duty and the quieter chitchat of the common soldiers settling in for the night. The polar bear turned his attention to the matter of greatest concern to his colleagues.
“Aside from consulting with General Aravat — who, as you know, has remained in Blakfel to take charge of our headquarters operations — I have held back from providing any of you here with my specific battle plans. It was an unusual step, I know. But I felt it was essential to keep our intentions secret from prying eyes and ears. This decision, I assure you, was not a matter of trust but one of necessity. Don Baal- dulce warned me about the existence of spies in Vigmar and the need for care when it came to broadcasting our intentions. I decided to err on the side of caution. If you have been forced to operate in the dark for several days, so be it. Let Aeronbed suffer the same burden.
“Fortunately we’ve seen no sign of enemy forces, on land or in the air, and have been completely successful in keeping our movements to ourselves. Maintaining the element of surprise for as long as possible will be key to our success.”
“Unless it turns out they’re doing exactly the same as us,” someone ventured with a loud guffaw. Everyone joined in the laughter.
“It would be rather ironic,” the bear said. “Imagine two great armies advancing to the exact same place at the exact same time, colliding inadvertently or, even worse, passing each other in the night as they move into enemy territory. Just think of the result — a new standoff.”
“And we end up having to wage war in the opposite direction,” Harclan added, hooting. The mountain dog’s fancy generated yet more laughter.
“Of course, it’s highly unlikely,” Eirwen hastened to add before anyone’s imagination rushed off on that tangent. “We’ve taken care of that possibility by reinforcing our forces in the north and ordering a large-scale assault on northern Aeronbed. Two days ago Aravat’s troops began to advance through the mountain passes, pushing farther into enemy territory. Should the Army of the North — which is what it will be called from now on — need help, Aravat can provide reinforcements from Blakfel.
“The Army’s advance will be slow and drawn out. It will also be marked by as much clamor as possible, serving to draw Aeronbed’s full attention to that region. As a consequence, the enemy will believe our main offensive is taking place there and has already begun.
“Under Aravat’s overall command, General Nashorn will direct the local efforts. Two squadrons of Rad-Alya’s eagles have been deployed to assist Nashorn. The rest will serve our needs and maintain communications among the various armies. Clearly, the farther south and west the rest of us advance, the more challenging Rad-Alya’s responsibility becomes. In other words, we must be able to operate on our own if a communication breakdown occurs.”
At this last, some muttering ensued, particularly from the back rows of the circle, as individual officers began to get their minds around what might be involved in Eirwen’s grand scheme.
“Quiet,” Adarix commanded. Silence was immediately restored. They were, after all, eager to hear more.
“Let me now turn to our own army,” the polar bear continued. “My plan is to move our forces toward the south of Aeronbed, split into two groups and attack the enemy from unexpected quarters. Since the bulk of Aeronbed’s army will be preoccupied with the fighting in the north, we will be able to catch the enemy unawares and inflict a major defeat. At worst, a very surprised Aeronbed will need to split up their forces and fight on three fronts. At best they will be fenced in and unable to respond. At that point we push the enemy back to the western shores, where it will find no escape and be forced to capitulate.
“Our degree of success will depend on how fast and how far we can advance into Aeronbed without anyone noticing and launching a counterattack. Thus it will be crucial to maintain secrecy and keep the enemy confused about our intentions for as long as possible.”
The polar bear paused to let this summary sink in. The noises from the troop encampment had subsided into a distant harmonious murmur. In the relative stillness of approaching darkness, only the buzzing of insects and the sounds of occasional foraging birds broke the relative tranquility.
“It would certainly help to know the enemy’s positions, even approximately,” Emer-Sigr said. “Not to mention a sense of their intended movements ... ” The mare’s ears swiveled back and her voice trailed off.
“Intended movements? Don’t make me laugh,” Harclan scoffed. “Rad-Alya’s eagles have been absolutely useless. My lord, if you’re relying on them ... ” Leaving the rest unsaid, the scowling dog glared around as if daring anyone to contradict him.
Eirwen had heard such criticisms before. In his initial round of meetings, the various commanders had been quick to complain about the contributions of others while consistently defending their own, valiant efforts. The polar bear had hoped to end such sniping, but evidently he still had a long way to go. In Rad-Alya’s absence the dog’s position did not go unsupported; several others around the circle were quick to signal their agreement.
“I’ve been troubled by the lack of information about the enemy. We’ve learned next to nothing about troop whereabouts, strength and intentions,” Eirwen went on. “Can any of you explain this failure?”
“We’d been promised — ” Emer-Sigr began.
The horse’s attempt to speak was cut off by the wolf commander. “While I share my cousin’s view of Rad-Alya’s failings,” Adarix said, ignoring the mare, “I cannot really blame the eagles. Whatever some of us may think, it’s never been easy to keep track of the enemy.”
Eirwen noticed several heads nodding, especially from the contingent of wolves. The polar bear signaled Adarix to continue.
“Aeronbed’s army is composed largely of lions.” The wolf spat out the last word as if he were talking about an infectious disease. “Not just lions but a host of others as well: panthers, tigers and leopards. They operate by stealth and largely at night, using the forest for cover, where it exists. The point is, the cats have an uncanny ability to escape detection.”
“And without the burden of needing allies, they are united by a clear purpose and direction,” Emer-Sigr added, almost admiringly. “Unlike Vigmar.”
“Nevertheless, no creature can stay hidden forever,” Adarix added. “Rad-Alya and Aeron-Urd must simply keep at it.” The wolf paused to see if any of his peers were prepared to object. Seeing only approval, he carried on. “To my way of thinking, the eagles’ efforts are of little importance to achieving final victory. I’d say we not waste time quibbling over small potatoes.” He shrugged. “I’d rather get back to the meat of the meal — discussing your overall approach to the invasion.”
Receiving no objection from the bear, the wolf continued. “Your scheme to distract the enemy in the north has obvious merit. What’s of greater concern, however, is how the rest of the plan will unfold.
Specifically how, where and when do the rest of us meet up and encircle the enemy? In my view, the danger exists that we remain separated and isolated. Let’s not forget that Aeronbed has a huge advantage in numbers. If we don’t pull off this maneuver, we’ll simply end up being slaughtered, one by one.”
The grim response from his audience indicated a general acceptance of his words.
“We’re dealing with a formidable foe,” Adarix continued, “one that has withstood determined attacks over many years. Secrecy is all well and good, but we need time to turn this grand strategy into actual battle plans.”
It was a crucial point. The wolf had spoken carefully, offering no offence to anyone, but his words posed a challenge to the bear. The message was lost on no one. Complete silence now reigned as all eyes and ears fixed on Eirwen.