Elf-Boy and Friends
Chapter 28. Triumph and Tragedy
Unfortunately that was the last of the good news for a while. For all their efforts including a mad dash across the continent by Owain, Klarendes, and Aodh in the speedy courier boat, time ran out. Human politics being what they were, the hotheads in Brax prevailed over the voices of caution and moderation. Granted temporary control of the city government and extraordinary powers, the extremists mobilized their city-state for war.
If only the humans had held off another few days. But no. They had bulled ahead, rejecting all pleas for peace, which they took for a sign of weakness. Now battle would be joined.
The human army marched out of the city, determined to force the gate to the surface domain of the dwarves, the green vale at the heart of Stone Mountain. That would give them access to the unfortified entrances to the caverns below. The humans chanted slogans like "The surface world is for humans. The underworld is for dwarves." And by 'underworld' they did not mean the caverns their enemies lived in.
Their line of march was completely predictable, straight up the river valley, columns marching on both sides of the river which was at low water affording many places for either column to cross the river in support of the other. Likewise no surprises about where they would bivouac at the end of each day's march. Indeed advance parties went to work in the five places where the army would stop on its march to Stone Mountain.
That made the twins' job much easier. Acting as snipers and concealed under their camouflage cloaks, they loosed their arrows from vantage points overlooking the line of march, targeting the officers of the human army, picking them off at extreme long range. Their power of their long bows and the advantage of the boost from gravity by shooting down from a height let their arrows carry much farther than the humans could reply with crossbows. After each ambush, the twins retreated down escape routes they had previously scouted, setting traps for anyone foolish enough to try to run them down, and trusting to their cloaks to fade into the background. Only once did they run into a flanking patrol and have to cut their way into the clear with their kukris.
Even before the human army set out, the journeymen druids had been at work, first creating defenses at Stone Mountain and then devising fiendish ways to harass the army on the march. Working together the druids devised a trap of sorts for the army, a stretch of innocent looking woodlands. Rerouting small streams, Dahl and Xebrek created prime soggy habitat for tiny insects, non-biting midges which fed on the detritus of the forest floor. The marshy lowlands along the river were perfect places for their eggs to develop and hatch at just the right moment.
As the humans settled into camp late one afternoon, clouds of midges hatched, rose up, and swarmed the area. The tiny buggers got into the eyes and ears and up noses of the humans, distracting them and making their lives miserable and depriving them of sleep. The men made masks to cover nose and mouth but that left their ears open. Midges wormed their way into the middle ear or into the sinus cavities of some unfortunates and literally drove their victims crazy. These soldiers ducked their heads underwater to try to drown their tormenters but either failed or drowned themselves instead. Though very few actually died from the midge attack, the effect on morale was disproportionately bad.
At various points along the march, Dahl flash grew wide belts of poison ivy and poison oak, interspersed with thorn bushes and shoulder high grass to hide the hazards. The cuts made by thorns in clothing and the bared arms and legs of the invaders increased the effectiveness of the contact poisons exuded by the noxious plants, taking many men out of the fight before it got properly started, which actually saved their lives.
At Stone Mountain itself, the way up to the mountain gate lay through thick woods on the lower slopes and tangled brush at the higher elevations. Dahl created a defensive line of entangling vines which sent out runners and creepers to slow or trip up front ranks of the human soldiers, making them stationary targets for the dwarves' crossbowmen. No need here to root the enemy in place as Owain had done with his giants.
The vines grew faster than the human soldiers could hack them away. Meanwhile, the follow-on formations had to stand still behind the entangled front line, helpless to assist and really only waiting their own turn to advance into the green hell and arrow storm to their front. Anyway behind that first line was a second barrier -- a wide thorn brake.
That was all Dahl could come up with in his first battle as a druid. His new "belly-ache" technique worked on only one subject at a time, and the thought of using it on misguided humans made him queasy. He would have to pick his targets one by one, look the man in the face, and then condemn him to a horrific death. Dahl just could not bring himself to kill that way.
Xebrek was less squeamish in defense of his homeland and people. He rallied animals all along the route of march of the human army. Every night wolves and bears and panthers snuck into camp and carried off sentinels and sleeping soldiers or left behind grisly corpses. Xebrek also gathered a pack of fearsome dire wolves but held them back as a reserve. Meanwhile he sent serpents to slither through the tents. Impossible to detect in the gloom till they struck, the constrictors wrapped themselves around their victims and squeezed the life out of them, leaving corpses with hideous death masks. At one enemy bivouac Xebrek surpassed himself and raised an army of scorpions from the sands to plague the enemy.
Too bad there wasn't a herd of his brontotheres handy, Xebrek complained to Dahl. One forthright charge would trample the vanguard of the human army into the dust. Both journeyman druids agreed that, sadly, brontotheres were never around when you needed them. Even without the giant beasts the dwarf did more than all right with his beasts.
With their noxious plants and scorpions, both druids tried when they could to render soldiers hors-de-combat without actually killing them. They were motivated both by compassion and by calculation. A dead soldier reduced enemy ranks by one but several healthy soldiers were required to carry a wounded man to the healers, taking them off the line, at least temporarily. For all his stern resolve in defense of his people, Xebrek never resorted to the cruelest of tactics his wily mind could devise. Xebrek knew that after the fighting, the dwarves would have to make peace and somehow find a way to live alongside their one-time enemy, to trade with the other side. Their economies were interdependent. They needed each other.
Much more numerous than the dwarves, the human army marched with dismantled siege engines they would set up to force their way in, and were allied with a war wizard cashiered from the Commonwealth army, or so Darpal claimed to be. A human though with a touch of orc blood, gaunt, bald, brooding, and utterly malevolent in appearance, he promised to shake the dwarves defenses apart with earth magic. If need be, his earthquake would split the gate to the mountain and let the human army march right to the green vale within. Actually, though he was capable of powerful magics, Darpal had exaggerated his abilities, but he was still a very real threat.
Ranged against the evil wizard and the human army stood the dwarves in arms, a unicorn, and three druids, though Owain was there essentially a witness. The druids were easy to pick out, dressed in formal green tunics, their camouflage cloaks, turned a matching shade for the occasion, billowed around them by the wind. Just in front of their position was a short thorn brake to protect them. If need be it could be flash grown to an uncrossable barrier. The druids needed to concentrate on the big picture, not let themselves get distracted by personal self-defense.
The twins stationed themselves just upslope from the dwarves' crossbowmen behind a barrier of planks they had placed to protect their nude unarmored bodies from enemy arrows. There they stood, ready to loft their own shafts over the line of crossbowmen to fall on the aggressors, loosing at a greater range shooting downhill than their allies or enemies could achieve uphill. Their hapless human targets would be forced to make a choice to either hold their shields low against the crossbowmen or to raise them against plunging fire from the sky.
Ran kept them supplied with arrows. Though he did not mix it up with the invaders, Ran was very much a part of the battle, constantly exposed to enemy fire, with nothing to protect him, no shield, no armor, no helm. Just a small nude elf-boy running himself ragged fetching arrows or carrying messages to the various unit commanders.
The dwarves had no choice but to use messengers. It was their only way to coordinate the efforts of their left, center, and right wings with their reserves. Their army was a militarily unsophisticated militia, lacking the standard operating practices of professional militaries like signaling with bugles, drums, or flags. The human army, while also mostly militia, had a core of professionals supplemented by mercenaries looking for loot. So their formations did respond to signals.
Despite his quickness and nimbleness, Ran twice felt the sting of arrows. The first scraped a rib before deflecting off to the right. The second transfixed his thigh. Ran fell to the ground, crying out in pain. Noticing the elf-boy's plight, Owain broke off the arrowhead and pulled the shaft out of his flesh. Ran was losing blood and might well have bled out. The senior druid called on his healing powers to stop the bleeding, close the wound, and knit the torn flesh together. Ran returned to duty, though walking instead of running and keeping a dwarf shield he picked up between him and the foe.
Despite the restraint of the druids in particular and the dwarves in general, much blood was spilled on both sides. In one incident early on, the humans fell upon a patrol of dwarves and massacred them, mutilating their bodies, and putting them on display at the foot of the mountain. That saddened the dwarves but only strengthened their resolve. They tightened the leather retaining straps around their wrists and gripped the short handles of their war mauls, ready to bash their enemies once they came within reach.
Meanwhile, in the vale, Count Klarendes was at work, lining up his first shot of white fire, guided by the taut cords the twins had rigged to establish the azimuth and angle of pitch of the tunnel. Aodh was there to watch his back. One wir-panther would count for little in a pitched battle. Anyway, the two lovers were inseparable.
At the climax of the battle, the war wizard shook the battlefield with an earthquake, splitting the ground open to swallow a couple of hundred dwarves in the front rank, then closed the earth back over them to bury them alive. A huge groan rose from the embattled dwarves and their line faltered.
Xebrek stepped into the breach. The dwarf gambled that the wizard had overreached himself with that effort and was vulnerable until he could recoup some of his magical strength. Calling on Merry to guard his back, Xebrek charged and engaged the wizard physically. Drawing on the earth to increase his already prodigious strength, he smashed his hammer against the magically strengthened shield the wizard interposed for protection.
The wizard found himself driven back by the dwarf's powerful onslaught, sore pressed by the doughty dwarf's untoward strength and that wicked maul he wielded. A final blow from Xebrek's maul powered by his druidically augmented strength split the wizard's magic shield in twain, something the magic wielder had thought utterly impossible. He fell back, arm broken, in consternation and afraid for his life. In desperation he reached out with magic to loose stones lying nearby and with an effort flung them at his foe.
Alas several stones got past Xebrek's shield and struck him. One cracked his skull open. The dwarf champion fell dying, but even then Xebrek wasn't finished fighting. His death released the wily druid's last reserve, his pack of dire wolves, stationed back with Dahl and previously held in check by Xebrek's will, but now freed to wreak vengeance on the foe who had killed their master. The attack of the big canines caught the wizard by surprise as they swarmed over him, barking, clawing, biting, rending, and tearing. In moments the magic wielder was reduced to chunks of meat strewn about the field. The fearsome predators disdained the tainted flesh. True to the last command of the druid, the giant wolves ran off, leaving those on two legs to fight it out as best they could.
Meanwhile, the exhausted unicorn retreated to his own lines, his horn bright red with the blood of the men he had impaled, his hooves and lower legs spattered with blood and gore and brain matter. His own blood seeped from wounds all over his body inflicted by the weapons of the enemy. Fortunately the largely militia army was mostly equipped with improvised weapons like pitchforks, rakes and flails and such rather than military hardware. Merry's only consolation for his wounds was that his own fight had kept Xebrek alive long enough to dispatch the wizard.
Though the loss of their magical support took the heart out of the human army, they stubbornly rallied for another attack till an officer pointed and yelled:
On the slope below him a hole opened in the earth spewing white fire, though it was clearly not an attack. It was simply that Klarendes had finally broken through all the way. Behind the fire came water, a whole river of it.
While everyone was milling around, uncertain of what to do, Owain stepped forth and levitated above the fray. Creating a golden nimbus to attract all eyes toward him, he amplified his voice to carry everywhere on the field of battle, calling out:
"Behold the outlet for the overflow channel of the dwarves, placed here to serve the interests of both your peoples, humans as well as dwarves. You can see for yourselves that the waters of the annual flood will carry your cargoes down the river, as in the past. If this war ever had a point to it, it doesn't any more."
The humans were stunned. Not that the new river itself was a military obstacle, not at low water it wasn't. But it was obvious that here was the solution to their conflict of interest with the dwarves over the annual river flood. While they themselves had plotted wholesale murder, their foes had been at work on a peaceable resolution to the problem. Suddenly the humans were ashamed of themselves, realizing their whole war had been a horrible mistake.
The people of Brax sued for peace and agreed to pay reparations. They finally recognized how they had been deliberately mislead and hunted down the hotheads and outside agitators and gave them swift justice in a court of law. The judge dismissed their self-serving pleas.
"Surely you cannot blame us? We are not men of the sword, nor do we have blood on our hands. We are men of words."
"Yes, too many words and those ill-chosen. The sentence is death!"
Owain was gratified that he had not had to take a direct hand in Dahl's and Xebrek's success. To them went the credit for a task well done with two more to go. To Dahl he gave his warmest congratulations.
To the dwarves Owain said that the name of their fallen hero would be inscribed on the roll of honor of those druids who had fallen in the service of the living world. Xebrek would be enrolled as a full druid, promoted at death by his valor and his sacrifice.
The twins and Ran did what they could to console Dahl who most keenly of them all felt the loss of his close friend, Xebrek. A little more than a year was all they had had together, two people from such different worlds, but he would never forget the bluff but hearty dwarf, no matter how many centuries he lived. The trio stood by Dahl as the journeyman druid, weeping unashamedly, lit Xebrek's funeral pyre on the slope of the mountain the stout-hearted dwarf had given his life to defend. Klarendes morphed the flames into a heroic image of the dwarf then accelerated the combustion so the body was utterly consumed, leaving no grisly remains.
"That was a good thing you did for Xebrek, Count Klarendes. Thanks."
"It was little enough, Dahl. All one can do in the face of a tragic death is to remember the man well. I gave the dwarves an indelible memory of their hero. They won't forget him any time soon."
"Nor will they forget you, Count Klarendes. The way you constructed that tunnel so fast, with a dozen blasts of white fire, and brought an end to the war. I understand that we are all going to be named dwarf friends."
"That is an honor which I will accept and not only to avoid giving offense. I respect the dwarves, their courage, their industriousness, even their shrewd business sense which has sometimes gotten the better of me, I don't mind admitting. They fight only when driven to it, never out of calculation. I only wished humans did likewise."
"No chance of that happening. Forgive me for being blunt, but those fiends relish war for the meaning it gives to their otherwise pointless lives. You see, the barbarians don't have souls."
"Oh I don't mean that in any metaphysical sense, which would be silly. The notion of the soul, of the spirit, is only a superstition rooted in what the philosophers call a category mistake. Spirit is merely a reification of the breath of life. Spirit and soul are really the same root notion as respiration or breath, just mis-categorized as an entity instead of as a process. That is the fundamental error of those who believe in immaterial and immortal souls. To say a man's soul has gone out of him merely signifies that he has stopped breathing, stopped living. Life is not a thing but a process, or rather a concatenation of many intricately woven processes. Death marks the end of the delicate juggling act that keeps us alive. Death is most emphatically not the expulsion of some immaterial entity from a mortal shell."
"And the mind?"
"What is the mind but the brain at work? Mind is another process mis-categorized as an entity. I set aside all the airy-fairy speculations of the philosophers who argue endlessly, make bold claims of proof, but can never convince their interlocutors, so the wordy wrangle goes on endlessly. Quite in contrast to the natural philosophers, who, when they prove something, prove it undeniably. Anyway, reading philosophy gives me a headache."
"No, when I say that barbarians have no souls, I am not just expressing simple hatred for them, born of the wars against them. They really are little better than animals, never lifting their heads up to look at the heavens and wonder what worlds might circle other suns. They never look at the ground at their feet to marvel at what mighty processes have been at work for eons, to mold the land to the shape it has today or will have tomorrow. They do not build infrastructure as we know it -- no roads, no bridges, no drainage systems, no libraries, no schools. Nor do they invent devices and processes. Don't look to barbarians for technical progress."
"Like animals, the barbarians live entirely in the present, thinking with their bellies and their crotches. They treat their women like brood mares and drudges instead of partners. Illiterate, they never look to the past for instruction or even for entertaining stories. They are heedless of the future and poor stewards of the land. Look how, at the beginning of the War for the Plains, they defiled their own lands, actually girdling the trees in their own orchards. To me that constitutes sacrilege, an attack on the very earth which sustains us. That is why I say they have no souls."
"You sound a lot like a druid."
"An angry one, maybe. That is why Xebrek's sacrifice touched me so, even though I barely knew the man, the dwarf, I mean, from his visit. This needless war was a diversion from the real enemy or at least the pawns the real enemy sends against us, the barbarians. I am glad I did not have to fight in this battle, to kill otherwise decent men, who, if their blood were not up, might turn out to be fine fellows you would share a pipe with. Now, so many have died, leaving behind their widows and their orphans. And then there are the wounded. What does a carpenter do for a living after the loss of his right arm? No, those unfortunates will be paying for this war for the rest of their lives."
"Count Klarendes, I have never fought the barbarians, but I share your regret about this war with the people of Brax. I know it had to be done, but my magic helped kill and wound so many. It fills me with regret."
"As it should. You have a good heart, Dahlderon. And please, you must call me Taitos."
Meanwhile Owain healed Merry's hurts magically, closing up his wounds and knitting the skin perfectly, leaving it unmarred.
"Remarkable. You can heal as well as any green-robed healer." Aodh said surprised.
"We all can, all of us senior druids. For most hurts we just heal ourselves. Also, on another level, our healing power works continuously, without conscious effort, much like the ordinary healing power of the human body but much better, to maintain our health and our youth. It is the basis for our longevity which exceeds even that of the elves. It is why female Healers all look young and pretty. Only shape shifters live longer than druids, barring misadventure."
"We keep our healing abilities quiet for two reasons. First, we are so few we cannot appreciably add to the number of healers at work in the field. And we cannot be afford to be distracted. Second, women are much better healers than men are, and those with great power are much more numerous. They wield more healing power and have greater finesse. If I had a choice I would always pick a female healer over a druid for anything serious. So should you, if it ever comes to that."
Then Dahl spoke up:
"I have to ask. How did you manage to levitate like that?"
"Let's save that trick for your advanced class on druidical powers. I will tell you this much: Levitation is not easy and it won't let you fly like a bird. It is mostly going up and down, and not very far at that. Still it is handy if you need to clear a wall or go up or down a cliff in a hurry. I once went aloft to gauge the approach of a column of army ants five thousand paces long and two thousand wide… ten billion ravenous insects on the march."
"How did you stop them?"
"We turned them aside by tapping into a reservoir of rock oil. The river of oil blocked their line of march, sparing the lush croplands we were protecting. Eventually, as is their way, they dispersed, as suddenly as they had gathered, no longer a threat to anyone. Our tactic worked, but it left behind a sticky mess which defiled the land and took years to weather, but no one starved, so it was worth it."
After the funerals, came the victory celebration, a subdued one to be sure, for no one was forgetting the cost of victory. The dwarves declared Dahl, Klarendes, Ran, and the twins dwarf-friends and inscribed a small tattoo on their left shoulders. The twins now had two such designations as both dwarf-friends and elf-friends.
Ran was cited for his courage. During the battle he had run dispatches to the various unit commanders, essentially unarmed and unprotected by armor which would only have slowed him down. He criss-crossed the battlefield half a dozen times unarmed and unarmored, with arrows falling steadily among the ranks of the dwarves two of which struck him. Owain healed both wounds but at Ran's request left the shallow scar along Ran's fifth rib, assuring the Druid that the girls would swoon over a war hero with a battle scar to prove his valor.
The twins were cited not so much for their archery before and during the battle itself as what they had done before it. The maps they drew for the militia helped their officers plan their deployment. Then their maps and magic helped Klarendes construct the overflow tunnel, the completion of which brought the war to an abrupt end.
During the quiet days that followed Klarendes and Aodh were charmed by the peaceful setting of the vale and the lake at the center of Stone Mountain, so much like their own secluded valley, despite the obvious differences. This vale was enclosed by stone mountain peaks, their own valley by wooded slopes, closed off by a rock wall only at the gateway gorge.
The count and Aodh spent days at the lake at the head of the valley, swimming and sailing a small boat, picnicking on the shore, climbing the lower slopes, and making love out in the open like a couple of teenagers. One afternoon, after making love, they just lay on the mountain slope, basking in the sun, and waiting for it to sink behind the mountain, all the while listening to the wind rustle the grasses they lay upon.
Afterwards, one of the moons rose in the east and bathed their bodies in moonlight, making their forms gleam with a blue effulgence. This was a quiet and romantic tryst, a joining of their bodies and souls for the sheer joy of living.
Klarendes started off by nuzzling the shell of the Aodh's ear. Next came light kisses on the nose, the cheeks, and the chin followed by a lingering lip lock and tongue parry. From there the nobleman turned his attention south, circling the boy's tiny red aureoles with the tip of his tongue and gently biting the nubbins which were already stiff and erect. A series of kisses tracked the boy's mid-line down to his navel, where his attentions lingered as he kissed and laved and tongued the deep hollow.
By that time, the boy's ball sac had pulled tight against the fork of his legs, its globularity in contrast to the cylindrical column of the engorged member itself cantilevered over his flat belly. Taitos blew on the head of Aodh's cock aiming the stream of air right at the slit, making its tiny lips open and close in response to the stimulus.
The smooth cock plumped up straightening and lengthening as the head, the only part of him hidden from view, emerged from the foreskin, to point toward the belly button. As the cock lifted completely off the boy's hairless belly, it cantilevered out from the root, rigid but dipping rhythmically with the throb and beat of his heart, all the while leaking a clear fluid which fed a limpid pool on his belly.
A quick intake of breath and a tightening around the his eyes was the only indication that his climax was at hand. Aodh's proud cock engorged beyond its previous impressive girth and began spurting and spitting his white seed onto his chest and belly. Even after six spurts, the gism continued to leak from the still tumescent shaft but now in a slow flow, like a lazy river, emptying into and collecting as a milky pool in the hollow of the boy's belly. Most of the gism gradually gradually turning clearer though some of it turned to crust
Taitos remembered that the natural philosophers had examined the male ejaculate with their lenses, seeing furious activity below the surface as tiny carriers of life in their millions swam and thrashed and corkscrewed in search of an impossible consummation. Klarendes looked at Aodh's orgasm as a visual paean of praise to life itself, to the male powers of generation, to continuity of the flesh and the great chain of being, and, not so incidentally, to the beauty of the young male.
The youth's energetic climax was a catharsis for them both as they lay back to rest. Klarendes gazed fondly at his lover, at the lines of his face and at the slow rise and fall of his chest, visible evidence of the continuity of the vital processes within that sexy body and a promise of so much more to come. If Xebrek was the exemplar of how to die before your time, if you must, the nobleman and the young minstrel were the exemplars of how to live during the time you were vouchsafed.
Their sojourn at Stone Mountain were a quiet idyll before the return to their busy lives in Elysion.
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