Elf-Boy and Friends
Chapter 42. The Raid
The "three twins" eventually went back to Elysion for an extended stay. That gave Ran a chance to renew his affair with Arik. Ardent though their feelings were for each other, both youths had now put their relationship into proper perspective. What they had was more serious than puppy love, but both youths also knew they were not each other's life partners. They were two good friends who enjoyed sharing their bodies whenever they could get together.
Also in residence was Balan, on a long-overdue and well-deserved vacation from his arduous duties as a Hand of the Commonwealth. The truth is that, at nearly one thousand, Balan was starting to feel his years. Oh he had a mission or two or three left in him, but already he could sense the onset of what, in only a handful of years, would be his kind's swift decline into decrepit old age. An unenviable prospect, he didn't mind admitting to his old friend, the count. He had left retirement till too late. There went his plan to spend his sunset years among the natural philosophers at the capital.
Balan and Klarendes spent long hours together talking, reminiscing, smoking their pipes, and playing a board game whose pieces represented cavalry, infantry, chariots, and olifants all of which moved in different ways. The object of the game was to capture the opposing army's general. Now Klarendes was considered to be quite good at the popular game, he had a real knack for strategy, but he was no match for his friend's centuries of experience. Still the count did sometimes win a match or two. Innate talent did count for something after all. Aodh merely watched. For all his keen intelligence, the boy just couldn't get his head around the subtle game of strategy, possibly due to the feline component of his nature.
All was well that spring in Elysion. The valley was peaceful and prosperous; its people were healthy and happy. The yields of wheat and rye and oats looked likely to set records. The boughs of the trees in the orchards bent down, heavy with fruit and nuts. Even the weather was unseasonably cool, still hot of course, but a welcome relief from the usually oppressive tropical heat. Life was good.
Till the day of the raid.
One fine morning in late spring, Arik went out to the forest to select and mark trees for lumberjacks to fell and drag to the sawmill. Their wood was destined for Master Justin's workshop. Arik still worked for the master carpenter who was also a joiner, that is a maker of furniture. The working of wood was in Arik's blood. It gave him a good deal of satisfaction to produce something tangible and useful. It was something he was good at, and his skills and hard work were appreciated by his community. Happy to have his former journeyman back with him after his adventures with Balan, Justin set him to working on his finer pieces, leaving the new apprentice to the humbler tasks.
For this outing task Arik wore a deerskin loincloth, the handle of his hatchet stuck through the thong around his hips. He had the horn of the Frost Giant slung over his shoulder intending to signal the lumberjacks when to set out with their gear. Ran went along with Arik to mark the trees, happy as any elf-boy should be, to find himself wholly surrounded by nature rather than the works of man. Ran was in the nude or, as the elves would have it "skin clad".
Off by themselves, halfway up on the slopes that ringed the green bowl that was Elysion, the two youths were the first to see the raiders that the Adversary had dispatched to Elysion, a mixed force of Frost Giants and Centaurs and wild animals. A trio of Trackers led the way with five slash bears lumbering along in their wake. They were just cresting the lip of the bowl that held the secluded valley when the boys spotted them.
Arik raised the horn to his lips and sounded the alarm and the call to arms. Ran took off at top speed to carry the specifics of the threat to the village and manor, leaving the much heavier and slower Arik to shadow the invaders. Here was where Arik's hard-earned field craft paid off. Completely unobserved by the raiders, Arik watched as four Frost Giants and twelve centaurs headed downslope toward the settlement in the center of the green bowl.
Looking very different from mythological centaurs, these creature were insect-like monsters who nevertheless walked on their four hind limbs while in front their bodies angled up to a torso with long arms and a head, whence their name. Their four hind limbs ended in hoof-like structures formed from fuzed digits, but their arms had large hands with three fingers and two semi-opposable thumbs. The centaurs could and did make and use tools and weapons. In battle they slashed at their foes with a curved saber in each hand. Joined directly to their bodies without a true neck, their heads could not swivel. To compensate, the beasts not only had two large eyes in front for binocular vision, they also had two small ones in the back of the head. These small eyes could not move, but they extended the centaurs' peripheral vision to 360 degrees.
Left behind atop the ridge was one lone figure standing on the rim of the valley, the leader of the raid, a human wizard in a cowled robe. Arik crept toward him as stealthily as he could. Nevertheless, just as the youth settled into what he thought a good spot from which to observe the man, the cloaked figured turned directly toward Arik.
"You might as well come out of the woods, young man. With my magic I can sense that you are crouched behind that split boulder. No doubt it was you who blew the horn to sound the alarm. My compliments on your courage and quick thinking. My raiders will now have their work cut out for them, attacking a militia mustered and braced for attack. Meanwhile, you interest me. Let's have a chat while we wait till my forces finish what I have sent them to do. I am afraid our talk will be a short one. Once I satisfy my curiosity about you, I will have to kill you. Nothing personal, of course."
"Also, though I do not know what your magical gift might be, I must warn you: don't try anything. Besides my own magic, I wear a charmed amulet that shields me from any magical attack."
There being no point in further concealment, Arik stepped out in plain sight.
"My oh my. I do so admire a big strapping youth such as yourself. I think I will spare you long enough for a proper shag. Meanwhile, why don't you get rid of that loincloth. There's a good lad."
Arik complied and stripped, turning slowly so that the man could get a good look at him. Meanwhile, with the wizard's attention focussed on his nude body, Arik used his gift to raise a good sized rock that lay on the ground behind the wizard to a position fifty feet above the man's head. Then Arik let it go. It fell and connected with a crunch. The wizard's head burst like a ballon, brain matter spurting from his crushed skull.
Arik had reasoned that while he could not have flung his poisoned arrowheads against the man even if he had brought them along, that amulet of his likely protected him only against direct attack by magic. All Arik had to do was to lift that rock into the air, turn his magic off, and let gravity do the rest.
Hearing Arik's signal the village militia had mobilized and formed up three hundred strong in a field just beyond the built-up area. The slinger boys lined up behind the shield wall, ready to throw oil-filled globes at the enemy. The women gathered up the children and forted up in their stout homes arming themselves with repeating crossbows. As captain of the militia, Klarendes climbed the watchtower to direct the battle. Aodh in his panther form went up there with him as his bodyguard, while the count's ten Molossian hounds stood guard at the base of the tower. Klarendes had to be protected at all costs. He was the key to victory with his ability to rain fiery destruction on the enemy.
The twins went around and distributed small bottles of Balan's silvered lacquer to some of the better bowmen, explaining that silver would burn the Trackers' flesh. The twins had coated their own arrowheads with it as well.
At Klarendes' request, Balan took command of the militia reserves, forty men stationed in a compact block a little behind the axe men and bowmen and slingers. Also under the giant's command were a dozen riders, Klarendes' arms men, who took the field mounted on war horses, their feet secure in the stirrups they had trained with over the past two years. The riders were armored and armed with lance and sword. Facing his forces, the giant raised his voice and told them:
"Men of Elysion. You don't need a speech from me to know what you are fighting for. Just remember this: we are the reserves. So we won't be the ones to start this fight, but we may well be the ones who finish it. Stand your ground no matter how much you want to rush forward and help your friends and neighbors when they clash with the enemy. Remember, they are depending on us to counter any surprises or turning movements or breakthroughs and to finish the enemy off. We can't let even one of these creatures get away. Can't have Frost Giants and centaurs and Trackers and slash bears lurking in the forests. I know, these creatures are fearsome, but believe me I also know from experience that they are mortal. Cut them and they bleed. They can die. You can kill them."
At their general murmur in the affirmative, Balan brandished his two-handed sword, confident that its silver inlays made it the weapon of choice against Trackers and its steel the best counter to Frost Giants.
The defenders could not know that Balan was himself the prime target of the raiders. Through his spies in the Commonwealth capital the Dark Prophet had learned that Balan was planning a strike at his own capital and center of power, a plan based on the intelligence gained more than a year earlier by the spy mission conceived by Aodh. Hence this preemptive strike to kill the giant before he could assemble his raiding force. It was fortunate then that the giant commanded the militia reserves. Otherwise he would have stationed himself front and center where even he might have been overwhelmed as the raiders concentrated on him, no matter anyone else did.
The twins started things off; their long bows far outranged any crossbow. The Trackers were fast and did not run straight at the defenders but jinked left and right. It took a couple of missed shots for the twins to see the pattern, then they put arrows into two of the foul beasts. Both were lucky shots. Karel's arrow pierced the Tracker's heart killing it outright. Jemsen's arrow cut an abdominal artery, causing massive internal bleeding, taking most of the fight out of the demon beast. Next the twins shifted their aim to the bears, skewering three but to little effect. The bodies of the bears were just too big; their vitals protected by too much muscle and bone.
The slash bears surged forward, aiming to break the line and get at Balan. They failed. First the bears and the single remaining Tracker ran into a storm of crossbow bolts shot by the crossbowmen. In terrific pain the bears nevertheless closed with the militia roaring and slashing. The militia roared and chopped and slashed right back with their axes, losing several men killed or wounded for each bear they stopped. It was over quickly with that last remaining Tracker and the slash bears literally chopped to pieces. Klarendes signaled the men to dress their lines and brace for the main attack.
The Frost Giants were bigger and more formidable than slash bears. They wore armor and carried shields and huge swords far outreaching the short handled axes of the villagers. The centaurs were nearly as massive as the giants though built lower to the ground. Though their chitinous armor protected their innards from arrows except at very close range, their limbs were vulnerable to axe blades. As the raiders got closer, the slingers flung volleys of glass globes which Klarendes ignited as they fell among the enemy. The flames had little effect on the armored Frost Giants who anyway blocked many of the globes with their shields.
The centaurs were another matter. The heat really got to them. Firstly they had left the shade of the forests to march several miles under the grueling tropical sun. Now they had to contend with fire raining down on them from the sky. The burning oil clung to their chitinous armor, and the flames set fire to the field of ripe grain they were crossing to get at the militia. Scorched and enraged, they charged the line aiming to break through where the slash bears had tried. The doughty militia fought stubbornly to hold the line but were pushed aside by the sheer weight and savagery of the centaurs. Right behind them strode the Frost Giants. The slinger boys broke ranks and ran back to form up with the reserves and Balan.
That was Klarendes cue. He cast great balls of fire at the centaurs who had broken through the line and were now in the clear. The fireballs clung to the chitinous shells of the centaurs burning and cooking them alive like lobsters in a pot. The stricken creatures screeched horridly as the flames consumed them, while the militiamen watched, fierce glee on all their faces.
With Klarendes attention on the centaurs, two Frost Giants turned toward the tower intending to take the forecaster out of the fight. The Molossian hounds threw themselves at the giants, seeking to hamstring their huge foes, but the thick leather leggings the giants wore kept the hounds from inflicting disabling wounds. Nevertheless, their attack distracted and hampered the giants and forced them to lower their shields to fend off the fierce canines
With their shields lowered, Aodh saw his best chance to counter the Frost Giant in the lead. Growling a warning to the count, the black panther leaped on the head of the giant and tore his face off with claws and fangs. The wounded Frost Giant managed to grab the shapeshifter and fling him bodily against a stone wall, which left the wir stunned. The second Frost Giant moved toward the downed panther and raised a booted foot to stomp him into the earth.
"Oh no you don't!" Klarendes cried.
With a downward slash of his arm, Klarendes unleashed white fire at the Frost Giant cutting his foe in twain diagonally from shoulder to hip. The grisly halves fell apart and lay smoking. Then the count turned his white fire on the giant Aodh had blinded, cutting him in half at the waist.
Next Klarendes gave Balan the signal for the reserves to advance against the remaining centaurs, the ones Klarendes dared not target because they were too mixed in with the defenders. Axe men from the main line turned about and came at the centaurs from their rear. The riders circled to the right and charged the centaurs with lances lowered. With the momentum of horse and rider behind them, the spearpoints of the riders penetrated the chitinous armor of the centaurs to reach their vitals. The infantry then joined the attack from front and back. Their fighting spirit up, the men first hacked the limbs off the centaurs then crushed their skulls. The twins fought with the militia. Working as a team, the pair would thrust their long quarterstaffs to fend off a centaur with his flailing scimitars while the militia chopped away at its legs. Soon all the centaurs lay dead though at the cost of heavy casualties.
Balandur took on the remaining pair of Frost Giants. His two foes met him confident in their advantages of size and strength and numbers. Once again Balan's uncanny speed and magically enhanced strength came as a nasty surprise to his enemies. The Frost Giants learned, to their cost, why Balan and his kind were known as the Dread Hands of the Commonwealth. Balan not only killed them, he chopped their heads off and kicked them contemptuously toward the pile of dead centaurs.
"There, join your friends on their funeral pyre."
The villagers dragged the headless bodies and those of the other fallen giants and slash bears and Trackers and piled them on top. Klarendes set them alight and kept the flames burning till nothing was left but ashes.
The good count was relieved to see that Aodh was all right. The Frost Giant had broken some of his ribs, but his transformation back into human form fixed that handily.
The worst of it was that nearly thirty villagers had died, and twice that number lay wounded, many seriously. The healers did what they could for them, but those with the worst injuries died anyway.
Just as the count was absorbing this sad news, Arik came running up.
"Sorry I couldn't get here in time to join the fight, Captain Klarendes, sir. I did take out their wizard up on the rim of the valley. And I got a good look at the battle as I circled around to get here."
"You did your part and then some Arik, sounding the warning with that horn. Thanks to you and to Ran we were braced for their attack. And now you tell me that you killed their wizard too. Good work. Your actions saved many lives today. Never think otherwise."
"Speaking of Ran, where is he? Anyone seen him?" Arik asked anxiously.
"I have." Karel answered, his voice choked with emotion. "I went looking for him, and I found him."
Karel paused to gather himself to impart bad news.
"And??" Arik asked impatiently.
"It seems one of the centaurs tried to break into the school house where many children had taken shelter. Everyone else was occupied with other foes so Ran took it upon himself to defend the school. Taking up a spear, he climb the next roof over then jumped off, his spear aimed downward at the creature's armored carapace. Driven by his weight and momentum it penetrated and pierced the centaur's vitals but not before the dying creature lashed out at Ran. I found his broken body lying by the schoolhouse door. All the children inside were safe, thanks to him."
The boy then broke down, his grief overwhelming him. Jemsen held him, both twins sobbing and crying. Arik was stunned. He had never thought Ran would die before he did, not a long-lived elf-boy. That was so wrong. Such things should not happen in a well-ordered world.
Tears streaming from his eyes, Arik went over to the school and retrieved Ran's broken body, cradling it in his arms as he took Ran to the manor house where he cleaned the corpse and laid it out in the sitting room covering it with a sarong. It seem the versatile piece of cloth had found yet another use — as a shroud. As the news spread of what Ran had done and the price he had paid villagers filed in to pay their respects to the boy who had saved their children. With the shroud covering his broken body, Ran's face showed no trace of the trauma of his death. He lay as if in sleep, in death as in life, a pretty little elf-boy.
As his closest friends, the twins were inconsolable. So was Arik who vowed that someday he would make their Adversary pay. He asked Balan to include him in any strike planned against the foe.
This was not mere bravado from a grief stricken lover. Arik did not want to live in the shadow of Adversary, waiting for the inevitable blow to fall, always knowing that nothing anyone did mattered in the least. It would all be destroyed in fire and blood and during his own lifetime. What point then for a master joiner like Justin to produce quality furniture and cabinetry intended to be passed on down the generations as family heirlooms. A life lived in fear of impending doom was no sort of life at all.
Arik also pointed out that the power of his own magical gift, allied to Balan's strength and prowess with weapons, made them a formidable team. The two of them might do much together.
Balan agreed. He had been impressed by the way boy used his magical gift so cleverly and so flexibly. Look how he killed the wizard who thought himself immune to magic. Balan also felt the loss of Ran keenly. He had taken a real shine to the elf-boy; the pretty little imp was the sort you are happy to have around you. Then suddenly he was gone, slain by an evil creature. Gods, what a shame.
The funerals were held the next day, a necessity in that tropical climate, the bodies interred in the village cemetery, a sandy patch of ground half a mile distant from the village. Most of the populace were on hand to bury friends and neighbors. One of the mourners was a local girl and her year-old son, called Little Ran. Against all odds, the elf-boy had gotten her pregnant, and she elected to keep her baby. Klarendes provided a dowry and arranged a marriage with a decent lad who did not mind raising someone else's child. The young man wanted a big family and was pleased at this proof of the girl's fecundity.
The fallen were not buried in a mass grave but as individuals in their family plots, their names and dates to be inscribed by masons on stones set flat into the ground. Ran was laid to rest in the Klarendes family plot. The count had come to regard the irrepressible elven poplet as a sort of scapegrace but lovable nephew.
Klarendes spoke the eulogy for the fallen. No fancy words, just simple truths. He promised that the families of the fallen would never suffer from want. Elysion took care of its own.
Then Balan with Arik at his side spoke about Ran, about how, though an outsider he had put everything at risk to save the forty children barricaded in that school. It had cost him dearly, not mere decades but centuries of life. Nor was this the first time Ran had been so brave and selfless, for had he not done the same thing at Stone Mountain. That is what made his loss, his sacrifice so special. Arik described Ran as a bright ray of sunshine in the lives of all those who met him. Let no one forget his humor, his love of live, and yes, his impertinence and rambunctiousness. It was all a part of what made Ran who he was.
As Klarendes and Aodh left the cemetery, they saw Esmeralda settle herself down next to the twins who were keeping vigil that night over Ran's grave. She too was mourning the loss of her good friend and sometime partner in mischief.
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