Elf-Boy and Friends

by George Gauthier

Chapter 35. Centaurs

As things turned out, the timing of the the twins' expedition with Balan and Ran was fortuitous. The Commonwealth soon found their maps to be of strategic importance. It looked liked yet a third War for the Plains was shaping up, this time on the Eastern Plains and bringing a new foe into the conflict: the centaurs whose normal range was way on the other side of the Commonwealth in the southern reaches of the Western Plains,in the cooler climes far south of the Equatorial belt. Now they were migrating, doing an end run north of the Commonwealth to reach the Eastern Plains.

The centaurs on Haven were not at all like the mythological pairing of a human torso with the body of a horse. These creatures were not even mammalian. To many they looked reptilian though they were not reptiles. Others thought they were akin to insects but that was mostly because they had chitinous armor and six limbs, the only large species on the planet to do so. In an event, these centaurs had internal cartilaginous skeletons, unlike insects who wore their skeletons of chitin on the outside of their bodies.

Actually the centaurs were a race unto themselves, arrived from who knew where by means unknown, though an off-world origin was the consensus among the natural philosophers who had studied the centaurs and survived the experience long enough to write about them. The two best monographs on the centaurs had to be published posthumously from salvaged notes.

Now the creatures had their eye on the Eastern Plains, that is those lying to the east of the Commonwealth proper, the theater of two recent wars.

The geography was clear enough. The spine of the Commonwealth was a mighty river called simply the Long River. If flowed due south in a great rift valley hundreds of leagues long and eighty wide. Ages ago tectonic forces had thrust blocks of crust up to create parallel mountain ranges, forcing the land between them to sink downward into a rift or graben. The flatlands of the graben were considered the Commonwealth proper. Its rich alluvial soil supported a population in the tens of millions.

The mountains facing the river were quite rugged but their outward flanks were much less steep. Few passes crossed these mountains. As the Commonwealth expanded, first by conquest and then by more or less voluntary annexation or accession of its neighbors during the Formation Wars, it occupied the mountains, not only for the sake of clear and secure borders but to obtain the resources of those lands from mines and timberlands, and such. They made good sheep country too. Wise stewards of the land, the rulers of the Commonwealth conserved the forests which protected their watersheds, guaranteeing a steady flow of water for water mills, river boats, canals, and irrigation.

Outward from the mountains were wide areas of plains. Those to the east had previously been uninhabited, a no man's land. Beyond them lay a huge area of rugged terrain, a series of plateaux and mountain ranges and inland basins occupied by millions of barbarians. To create an outer defensive zone, the Army of the Commonwealth occupied the Eastern Plains and brought in settlers. With a few decades the plains were a prosperous province of the Commonwealth, dotted with ranches and farms and the towns that served them. Plus the army camps and forts that protected them and the agricultural heartland west of the mountains.

The Western Plains were another story entirely. Long inhabited by nomads the country wasn't all grassy plains by any means. Scraggly trees lined the swales; brush and thorn bushes formed thickets. Patches of scrub forest sprung up at the base of rocky outcrops.

The nomads were no longer a danger themselves. In ages past they had raided widely, but that was before the towns to the northwest, along the Great Trade Road, built wooden palisades and drilled their militias to defend them, making raids unprofitable. Whereas once the horse riders had roamed freely over the plains, they had been forced into fixed territories after the armies of the Long River Commonwealth made it clear that they would no longer tolerate raids and inter-tribal warfare which always spilled over into civilized lands.

The centaurs ranged over the cooler lands to the south, farther from the Equator. Their large bodies did not tolerate heat as well as humans or even horses, especially since they lacked the sweat glands of mammals.

All this was so well known that everyone was surprised when the centaurs picked up and headed north right across the hottest zone, the very lands the twins had mapped only months earlier. What were they doing in that land of sweltering heat, so hot that even svelte human youths like the twins had found it nigh unto intolerable?

"What do you make of it, Taitos?" Balan asked of his host at the manor in Elysion. Actually he had already studied the analysis the nobleman and former soldier had sent to the high command. Written at his own initiative, it might easily have been ignored by the army brass and mostly was. Somehow it reached the attention of the Hands of Commonwealth who sent the giant to see his good friend Taitos Klarendes, Count of the Eastern March.

"Getting forgetful are we in our old age, friend Balandur? You ask as if you hadn't read the analysis I forwarded to those clods in the capital."

"Of course I read it, studied it in fact, unofficially, which is why I have to ask now. As you know, the relationship of the Hands with the Army is rather strained right now."

"Not surprising, given the reports I read in the news sheets that one of the Hands recently killed two regimental commanders west of the river. Due to their corruption, a badly constructed barracks collapsed without warning, killing, what was it, twenty-two sleeping soldiers?"

"Thirty-two. And the collapse injured many more, all trained soldiers. Such a cruel waste of young lives. A couple were within days of their discharge dates and looking forward to starting families. Actually we were glad the culprits resisted arrest, and this time that is not just a convenient fiction. They really did fight. Fools, thinking their military skills would let them overcome a Hand. Who is promoting such men to regimental rank these days? Bigger fools, no doubt."

"Actually it was just as well, Taitos. Their assault let my colleague um, dispense with the formalities, as we say in the trade."

"I can imagine." the count chuckled. He then launched into his analysis of what was afoot.

"In this I see the hand of the Adversary or of his Dark Prophet."

"You always do, Taitos" the giant said with a grin.

"And so far events have borne me out." he gave back eyebrows raised.

The giant nodded to concede the point.

"Our foes are doing an end-run around the entire Commonwealth! Gods the audacity of it. A great strategic stroke really. They enlisted the centaurs, who were not a threat to us where they were, so far south and west. The centaurs marched north into the Hot Lands, not to dwell there but only as a path to the Eastern Plains, their true objective. The Eastern Plains lie at a considerably higher elevation than the Western Plains, so they would be cool enough for the centaurs as a homeland."

"Once again our great enemy seeks to deprive us of our best cavalry country here in the east and turn it to his own use. Their plan must be, that once they seize the plain, there would be an extended lull in the fighting, lasting a decade or two, while the centaurs spread out and took possession of this land and increased their population, no longer constrained by the low productivity of their old country to the west. In favorable conditions their eggs hatch quickly and the creatures breed young. Given a decade or two, we could be facing five or six times the number that arrives here on the plains. Meanwhile, the steep western slopes of the mountains would serve as a wall to protect them from any counter-attacks till they are ready to march on the Commonwealth proper."

"Make no mistake. This is a well-though out and long-term plan. Someone on the other side is using his head for once. Unfortunately for us."

"Eventually the enemy will attack our heartland from their new eastern dominions, with both centaur cavalry and those great masses of ill-trained infantry he traditionally throws at his foes. Still you would think he would train a proper army after loosing three hundred thousand in that stupid attack on the Great Southern Forest.

"It would not have worked with three million. Or at least, I think it would not. He does have three million and a whole lot more. It is our good fortune that he does not have the logistics to provide for such a force. Any army that large would be a like a horde of locusts quickly stripping the country of all resources. Nor could they move fast enough on foot to outpace the hunger their own bellies generated."

"Yes," Balan agreed. "Only the Commonwealth fields so large a force, counting the militia and they stay close to home."

"What is our order of battle, in rough terms Balan?" Aodh asked, the first time he had spoken up. "Maybe Taitos already knows but, I don't have a clue."

"Our regular army is six hundred thousand, one-quarter cavalry. Plus fifty thousand border troops and constabulary. I don't count the city watch forces who are police rather than military. Ready reserves of recently discharged soldiers, two hundred thousand. Militia, well, if everyone musters on the same day, over ten million, virtually all infantry. The militia fight in formation armed with spears and short swords interspersed with other formations armed with crossbows. As to sending an expeditionary force beyond our borders, the biggest I could imagine is about a two hundred fifty thousand. Remember a lot of the Army is support troops, training establishments, arsenals, and frontier garrisons. And the militia fights at home. Which is why we could never take the offensive and invade their lands."

The pretty face of the young wir frowned in concentration as he offered an observation.

"I know I am no soldier, but I think the enemy could still rely on his overwhelming numbers to wear us down, couldn't he? Maybe he doesn't have the logistics to support a force of three million all at once. Suppose he sends armies of one or two hundred thousand at us, again and again and again in a war of attrition?"

A pained look crossed the count's face.

"That is an appalling thought, Aodh. The gods forbid it comes to that. Even if every battle ends in a tactical victory for us, the cumulative slaughter of our own people would be tremendous. Unless the druids help. Which I expect they would."

"I agree. The druids tip the balance in our favor. Which is why we are always happy to do them a favor, like escorting a recruit to the Forest, or putting one of our swift courier boats at their disposition."

Which is what Balan had done for Dahl and Owain had done for the dwarves at Stone Mountain.

"That is why I suspect some attack will soon be launched at the druids who are so few in number anyway. How many are they? No more than a score and most of them still journeymen druids. Tremendously powerful yes, and clever, but they have to sleep and eat. If it were me, I would try poison. Catch them out at some festival. Their kitchens back home might be secure but what about all the taverns and inns in the town or the grills and food stands on the festival grounds. Security for them would not be tight. "

"You have a devious mind, my friend."

"Comes with the territory."

"Also, and keep this quiet, Taitos, and you too my pretty little wir, our Watchers tell us the centaurs will soon be joined by a force of Frost Giants."

"Wow!" the boy said breathlessly. "I wouldn't care to go against one of those monsters."

"Sound thinking. I know you are brave and nearly three times as strong as you look, little one, but you would not stand a chance."

"Oh, I don't know, my dear Balan," the young wir countered in a supercilious tone. "I can see myself lying in wait in panther form, belly pressed to a branch of a tree the giant must pass under. I drop down and take his eyes, maybe tear out his jugular. Then scramble down and fade into the woods."

"Get trampled is more likely. Actually it just might work, once. Don't try it if you don't have to. Run away and live to fight and to love another day, eh Taitos."

"I agree wholeheartedly, especially that part about loving another day. Come here Aodh."

Smiling the young wir slid his nude body next to the count displacing the ginger cat Esmeralda from his lap. She stalked off as if it were her own idea to leave in the first place. Balan watched enviously. Would he ever get another chance with the boy? Aodh was one of the two sweetest lovers he had ever had, him and Dahl. Not just for their incomparable beauty but because they were the only young males who could take his immense cock all the way. With this boy, he could let himself go. For all his centuries of experience, to his own surprise had given his heart away to this strange boy. Klarendes was not the only one in love with the young wir.

The giant soon left the pair to their own devices and went to a tavern in search of company. He wound up in bed with a local youth he had met before, a certain brawny young carpenter named Arik. Ran had taught him well.

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