Elf-Boy and Friends
Chapter 43. The Mission
The next spring Balan returned to Elysion for a final visit before heading off into the lands of the barbarians. With him came an unlikely ally, a tall skinny youth with gangly arms and legs dressed in a sleeveless tunic. Not particularly handsome nor yet unpleasant to look upon, he was well spoken and clearly well read and intelligent. More of a bookworm than an adventurer, he seemed ill-suited to venturing into enemy territory. While reticent about his past and abilities, he was friendly enough but seemed to have something weighing on his soul. He named himself Rolf.
"This cannot be your entire strike force, just you, Arik, and this Rolf." the count asked his old friend.
"No, Taitos, we have a military escort as well.There an entire battalion of cavalry and mounted infantry under the command of Colonel Urqaart waiting at a rendezvous up north near the trade road. Dahl and Merry will go with us too. From the rendezvous we proceed east till we peel off from the soldiers, taking just five men disguised as caravan guards. We ourselves will be merchants from the North Country dealing in the amber, aromatic gums, and medicinal plants which I asked you to supply."
"Your trade goods are gathered, as we agreed last time you were here."
"Fine. And since we have a little time, I hope you won't mind our imposing on your hospitality for a few days."
"Of course. Is it really true, my old friend that you won't be coming back to us?"
"I can guarantee it." the gawky visitor interrupted. "It is the only way we can prevail against the dark power that threatens the world."
"And just why is that?"
"We now know so much more about our adversaries than we did before, thanks to Aodh and the wirs he recruited. The enemy of old, the barbarians, are under new management, a new leader, much smarter than the former Dark Prophet, has displaced the original leader of the cult. This new leader, this Urloch is the head of both a cult and a great state built upon the original barbarian confederation. His capital is the political, religious, economic, industrial, and military heart of our enemies. That is what we must destroy, not just the man himself who might be replaced in turn, as he superseded the Dark Prophet."
"His capital is ringed with army camps where they train and drill regular armies. Not just foot soldiers in formations, but officers in military academies. And they are equipping their armies not only with weapons but also supply trains and siege engines. Artificers and engineers work steadily at improving their equipment. Meanwhile they are building military roads west and south.
"Surrounding the capital are satellite cities that manufacture the implements of war and factories that turn out tons of rations that last indefinitely without spoilage. Meanwhile they keep shipping supplies to that staging area the Frost Giants are building, the one that Arik and Balan found nearly two years ago. Plus they supply the centaurs as well, who are still rebuilding after their losses on their long march across the Western Plains and the Hot lands."
"I estimate the population of the capital area, just the built up zone, including army camps and satellite cities, at over million, with two million more in the surrounding agricultural zones and industrial towns, mines and mills. And there are tens of millions in scattered settlements in their vast domain whose population must be nearly three times that of the Commonwealth."
Balan then added:
"If they all came against us at once, barbarians, Frost Giants, and centaurs, wave after wave in a war of attrition, I am afraid even the Commonwealth might fall. Even your final strike with white fire, Taitos, combined with those of the Commonwealth's war wizards could not stop the forces they could bring against us, much less destroy their heartland."
"Then what can your small team do much against such vast power?"
The visitor spoke up again, his voice full of sorrow.
"That is where I come in -- to fulfill what I now know is my destiny. I will visit Death upon them, those who live in the capital zone, all of them, three million souls: soldiers, civilians, workers and farmers, all of them: men, women, and children. Even their dogs and cats. Wipe out their center and all will collapse. The confederation will shatter, the faithful will lose their prophet, the newly established state apparatus will wither. Soon the centaurs will starve, and the Frost Giants will disperse and return whence they came."
"Do you really have such awesome power?" Aohd asked.
"I am afraid I do. I am a death wizard, a sort of anti-druid, if you will. My magical gift turns their own life force against them. A fraction of a living being's life force suffices to kill him. I take the rest and I grow stronger as my power accumulates. I have been gathering this power to me for many centuries. Understand, despite my lethal gift I am not a heartless killer. I do not take pleasure in hurting people, much less killing them, but sometimes it is necessary. Let me give you a couple of examples."
"There was once an island in the Great Inland Freshwater Sea that was quarantined because of a deadly plague. Even as the disease raged, word got out that gold and silver had been found there. Fortune hunters flocked there to mine the gold in its hills. They overwhelmed the small flotilla quarantining the island and its doomed population and set about unearthing precious metals. Afterwards the gold miners would have taken to their ships and scattered to the winds, carrying the pestilence with them to all the lands around the Inland Sea. To prevent that, I sailed out alone to the island and sterilized it. From the topmost hill to the shore line nothing lived, not a human, not an animal, not a plant, not even the smallest animalcules natural philosophers have seen with their microscopes. Nothing."
"Similarly I once stopped the spread of the red pestilence from a castle into which the "quality" folk of the countryside thereabouts had retreated, trusting to isolation to protect them while leaving their dependents to die miserably in the surrounding villages and towns. Fortunately Healers and herbalists organized the populace and identified and isolated the carriers of the disease, sparing most of the people from the infection. Finally the red pest broke out in the castle as well but no healer would enter to help the selfish aristocrats. In panic, they readied themselves for an armed breakout to scatter and flee for their lives. I stopped them. That time I did spare the cats but nothing larger."
"For a while there, I became an avenging angel, going from town to town, slaying street criminals and road bandits or those moral monsters whose wealth and power put them above the law, but I stopped because I found myself enjoying it too much. Wielding Death is a heady power, best kept restrained lest it corrupt the soul."
"As to what happens afterwards, that will be up to the living to decide. I myself will die in that cataclysm as will Balan and Arik whom I need to get me into the throne room to confront this Urloch. Once I loose my final strike, killing everyone and every thing above the physiological level of a mouse out to a distance of half a day's ride, no one will escape, least of all us three."
"Nor would we ourselves want to survive and live with much blood on our hands, so many lives." Balan and Arik admitted. "We would be mass murderers on a scale never before surpassed. We take such a monstrous sin upon ourselves only to spare the world much worse, a future of unending darkness."
"Is that truly the only way?"
"I only wish it were not." the anti-druid replied for them all. "We have to strike now while their power is concentrated in one locale. The alternative is endless war and wholesale slaughter of populations in the tens of millions and after that the arbitrary rule of an undying dictator and the imposition of an intolerant and evil religion on everyone who is left. That is what we are willing to give our lives to stop. It is a sacrifice which all three of us are ready to make. Try not to think too harshly of us for what we must do."
"Never!" Klarendes and Aodh assured them. "You are courageous and moral persons trying to save all that is best in this world of ours."
As if to indorse their words Esmeralda climbed onto the giant's shoulders and rubbed her face against this cheek. Having marked the giant as one of her own, she settled down companionably on his shoulders and purred.
That evening Aodh slipped into Balan's room. No words needed to be said. They realized this was their final tryst. The boy melted into the giant's arms, determined to express physically the love and admiration he felt for Balan. And so he did for the next three nights till they left on their mission.
Balan gave Klarendes a copy of his will by which he bequeathed his landed estates and personal effects to his brother but left his substantial financial assets to a trust he had set up for all the boys: Dahl, Aodh, and the twins. Ran would have been included too but for his untimely death. Count Klarendes would act as trustee for each beneficiary until he reached the age of twenty-five. With their financial futures secured in this way, each of them could live quite comfortably for the rest of their long lives. Of course, neither Dahl nor Aodh really needed Balan's money. With his earth magic, the young druid could draw precious metals from deep within the earth. And Aodh had his legal union with Klarendes, but having their own fortunes would establish all four youths as substantive persons in their own right to go along with their titles and continent-wide reputations.
The strike team's leave-taking was hard on everyone. The count and the giant had been best friends for twenty years, and Aodh was one of the great loves of Balan's life. The couple maintained their decorum even though their eyes were shining. Once the travelers drew away, Klarendes and Aodh wept in each other's arms. Sensitive to their moods, even Esmeralda felt forlorn.
As he rode off, Balan looked back and waved a final farewell to Klarendes, very likely the best friend he had ever had and to Aodh, his last great love. He was glad the two of them had each other. As for himself, a thousand years of life and adventure was a good run for anyone, even a giant. The grey coming into his hair was the first sign that he had reached an inflection point toward a physical decline that would accelerate in less than a decade. He was resigned to sacrificing his remaining years to save the world from unending darkness. Who would want to live in such a world anyway. Not Sir Balandur of Leinster.
Their trip north was not uneventful. The trio of travelers was set upon by bandits on their way to the trade road. Balan slew four with his sword and Arik blinded three more Fetching their eyes before finishing them off with his long knife. Meanwhile, trying to conceal his power from hidden lookouts, Rolf made it seem like his own pair of kills were the result of his skill with a blade. He stabbed his foes just after he cast death on them.
Arik and Balan were pleased when they joined up with Dahl and Merry at the rendezvous. Though the pair would not be joining them in the final assault, they would escort them a good deal of the way. Dahl and Merry were there to make sure the three reached their jumping off point into the lands of the barbarians. They were also the strike team's line of communications. Dahl and Merry would be watching through Balan's and Rolf's eyes when they finally confronted Urloch.
Balan introduced Rolf to his friends who explained the plan and his part in it.
"So are you really the Death Bringer of legend. Is Rolf your real name?" Dahl asked.
"Yes, it is. I have used many names over the centuries, but the one I was born with and soon shall die with is Rolf. That young elf-boy who went by the name of Rolf has faded almost entirely except for one treasured memory. The one shining highlight of my youth was a bittersweet love affair with another elf-boy my age. His was named Meirionnydd or Merry, like your unicorn friend. He had a good heart my Merry did and a sharp mind. I loved him inordinately, but his life magic lead him down a different path from mine. For all our love for each other, our magics were simply incompatible."
<But now that incompatibility had drawn us back together, Rolf.>
"What? M m merry?? Is that you in there? You're the unicorn!"
<Yes it is me, Rolf, Merry, your Merry. I am in my second life so I am unrecognizable in this equine form, but I have never forgotten you nor what we once had. I was so sorry we had to go our separate ways. I have to say that even after so many centuries you look much the same, only a little older and rather care-worn.>
"I come by that look honestly. I must say you are very handsome as a unicorn though it does look strange."
<I am accustomed to this form by now though I do very much miss having hands, especially those times when I want to pick something up off the ground, or to turn the pages of a book, or to caress a pretty elf-boy.>
"Ha! Some things never change!"
<It really is a small world isn't it, Rolf? I am so glad we have come together if only for this short while.>
The two old friends went off together and communed till late. After two magically extended lifetimes apart, they knew it was impossible to simply pick up where they left off, but they could be friends once more and share a final adventure. When Rolf and his strike team finally separated from the main party. he told Merry that through his magic he would bequeath the unicorn a gift, though he would not say just what it was.
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