Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Scout's Law - Chapter 41

< Chapter 40                                                                                                 Chapter 42 >

As the Tercel steams toward our heroes at top speed, Thor demands David surrender or be burned out of the Vanguard.

My gaze swept over the men gathered in Vanguard’s largest hold. Hard eyes looked back from faces covered with blood and sweat and grime. Each face wore a grim, resolute smile. Men too wounded to stand on their own were supported by comrades. Front and center, unconsciously holding hands, Jade and Chris watched me with the same resolution as the rest.

I turned to the man standing next to me. “Captain Wright, you heard our opponent’s demand. Should we accede to it?”

“Sir, the finest crew of the finest ship to ever sail the skies of Aashla stands before you,” Wright said. “Men like these are destined for greatness—and you don’t achieve greatness by giving up!”

A ragged cheer rose from the men. I held my hands up and silence fell immediately.

“Ensign Marlow?” I asked.

Surprised to hear his name called, Chris released Jade’s hand and snapped to attention. I returned his salute before saying, “At ease, Ensign.”

I looked back and forth between the two teenagers. “I have a particularly tough set of orders for you, Ensign. I want you to lead Jade, the other three ensigns, and the four ship’s boys to safety.”

“You want me to abandon my ship and my crew in their most desperate hour, sir?” Surprise and consternation filled Chris’s voice.

“I want you to save the youngest and most vulnerable members of this crew. I want you to carry on in memory of the Vanguard. I want her story told far and wide. And, should this be the end for those of us who stay, I want you to offer comfort to the families of the crew—from the parents of the lowest ranked airman to Her Royal Highness, Princess Callan.” I placed a hand on the young ensign’s shoulder. “I told you my orders were particularly tough. Are you up to it?”

“Aye, aye, sir!” Chris snapped.

All in all, it was a truly moving moment. One filled with manly stoicism. Every man present swelled with pride and honor. The teenage girl present was less impressed.

Her green eyes wide in what I soon recognized as incredulity, Jade said, “Wow, you guys really are ready to die and you’re feeling pretty damned pleased with yourselves about the whole thing. Far be it from me to get in the way of your mad charge toward the grave, but could I offer a suggestion first?”

All around the hold, men turned affronted glares on the girl. Next to me, I sensed Captain Wright drawing himself up to issue a stern rebuke. I hurried to speak first.

“If you have a better idea, Jade, I will be most happy to hear it.”

“Why don’t you just challenge this Thor guy to a duel for leadership of the army?” she asked.

I furrowed my brow, puzzled. “You know as well as I do that he won’t accept the challenge. It won’t even buy us an extra minute, so what would be the point?”

Jade actually rolled her eyes at my question. “Did you pay any attention to the army you’re fighting? At least half of them are trogs.”

Comprehension dawned on me though Chris responded first. “Of course! If he refuses, the trogs will see him as a coward and abandon him! And if he fights, Captain Rice will kill him! That’s brilliant!”

His face shining with excitement, Chris wrapped his arms around Jade and kissed her. Surprised, Jade stiffened for a second before settling into the kiss. Hoots and hollers from the crew suddenly got through to the young couple. Blushing furiously, they broke apart, eyes downcast.

“My deepest apologies, sir,” Chris said. “I don’t know what came over me.”

At a glance from Wright, I let him respond to his ensign. “You should apologize, Ensign Marlow. If I were in your place, I’d kiss the young lady a second time!”

The crew laughed as Chris and Jade stared at Wright in surprise. From somewhere in the crowd, a voice called, “Don’t just stand there gawking, lad! Vanguards never shirk their duty!”

I waited a few seconds for the embarrassed pair to finish a much more awkward kiss.

“Ensign Marlow, while our plans have changed, your orders have not. I still believe this will come to a fight and, now that we’ve got the enemy fixated on those of us inside the Vanguard, I want our youngest crew members away from here.”

“Aye, sir,” Chris responded. “With your permission, I’ll gather my charges.”

When I nodded, Chris and Jade went through the various holds. They returned a minute later, trailed by the ensigns and ship’s boys.

“Stay low, keep the Vanguard between you and Thor’s little army, and don’t stop for anything except a direct order from a superior officer,” I said. “Do you have any questions?”

“No, sir.”

“Good. Take off as soon as I call out to Thor and draw all of their attention to me.”

With that, I left the broken hull and climbed atop it. Wright came with me as Chris and the other youngsters waited for my challenge.

“Do you have any idea why this Thor fellow pulled all his men back to him?” Wright asked. “A smart commander would have kept us encircled.”

“We already know Thor isn’t a smart commander. He’s a brilliant technician, I’ll grant you, and probably assumes brilliance in one area means he’s brilliant at everything else.” I stared across the quarter mile of open ground to Thor’s army, trying to pick him out of the crowd. He wasn’t anywhere near the front. “I also suspect he’s afraid I’ll Boost, somehow cross a quarter of a mile before anyone reacts, and kill him. So he surrounds himself with sword fodder.”

“Coward,” Wright muttered.

Instead of responding, I raised my voice and yelled, “Thor, can you hear me?”

From somewhere within the mass of men and trogs, a voice responded, “Yes. Are you ready to surrender?”

“Not in the least,” I called. “I challenge you to trial by combat for leadership of your army!”

Will Jade’s idea work? And what of the Tercel? Find out what happens next in Chapter 42, coming Friday!