Elf Boy's Friends - I
Given the nature of the enemy, ordinary scouting would never work. Centaurs relied on scent as well as their sharp vision to detect enemies and they literally had eyes in the back of their head for three hundred sixty degree vision. With a full battalion left behind at the new town temporarily being called Plainsville, General Urqaart's army commenced a wide sweep of the rolling lands in the south of the country occupied by the centaurs. His cavalry squadrons quartered the landscape. Meanwhile the Frost Giants secured the site selected for the fort and new town on the banks of a major river. Under their protection, army engineers and the giants' own builders erected palisades enclosing the sites of town and fort which were separated by a distance of no more than two bow shots.
At first the centaurs refused battle. Their population lived by the hunt and was too scattered to muster quickly. In time though a great host gathered with the intent of slaying the interlopers and feeding on their carcasses. Both forces were made up entirely of cavalry as they squared off on either side of a small creek running through a wide meadow, some three thousand humans mounted on horses against perhaps twice as many of the six-limbed centaurs. Unfortunately the centaur's speed of maneuver had made it impossible for the allied infantry, that is the Frost Giants, to join the cavalry on the battlefield.
Looking very different from mythological centaurs, these creatures 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 a semi-opposable thumb. They had internal cartilaginous skeletons, unlike insects who wore their skeletons of chitin on the outside of their bodies.
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 eyes in the back of the head. These small eyes could not swerve, but they extended the centaurs' peripheral vision to 360 degrees.
The centaurs could make and use tools and weapons. In battle they slashed at their foes with a curved saber in each hand. As the human army shook itself out into a line of battle the centaurs formed a wedge. Their intent was clear: to crash through the human lines then wheel both left and right and roll up their flanks.
"Sorry, sir, but I don't think I can stop their charge," Artor admitted. "There are a thousand centaurs in that wedge, while I can form and throw only so many fireballs in the time it would take for them to close the distance."
"If only we had our Frost Giants with us to sling those glass globes of yours, Artor for you to ignite as they fall among them. The globes are a real force multiplier for your firecasting, enough to break up that wedge formation, I am sure."
Years earlier young Aodh had come up with the idea of filling small glass globes with a inflammable liquid which slinger boys could hurl at an enemy over the defenders' shield wall. Since then, the technique had been refined. Each globe held one of two kinds of liquid, dark or light. The dark fluid had been thickened by an additive devised by alchemists to make it cling to a target, much like a firecaster's fireballs. The light colored liquid was less viscous, splashing around easily over a wide area.
"Maybe we can create a force multiplier without the Frost Giants." Drew Altair remarked to the army's commanders. He went on to explain that working together, how he and Artor could disrupt the wedge long before it reached Urqaart's lines. Their supply carts held a supply of globes. Using his Fetching power Drew could precisely target the centaurs at the point of the wedge, smashing globes of clingy liquid in their faces for Artor to ignite. Drew could keep several globes in motion at any one time. He was confident that the centaurs could never get through that gauntlet of fire.
And so it proved to be. The wedge surged forward with the main body of centaurs following behind in support, ready to exploit the breakthrough once it was achieved. Alas those on point ran into a fiery holocaust. With the globes under control during their flight, Drew simply could not miss. Dozens then hundreds of globes flew at the centaurs then exploded into flame at just the right instant. The charge of the centaurs dissolved in a shambles.
Then it was the turn of the cavalry. Trumpets sounded the charge. With lances lowered and feet braced in their stirrups, the cavalry of the Commonwealth rode the centaurs down. Powered by the momentum of horse and rider concentrated on the tip of their lance heads, the riders skewered the centaurs. When lances broke on impact or remained lodged in the centaurs, the cavalrymen drew their swords and supported those who still had lances. Together they inflicted an unbelievable slaughter. The cavalry's own losses were relatively light -- only two hundred -- but those men died hard. The centaurs beheaded or sliced the bellies of man and horse alike whenever the cavalry charge faltered and lost its momentum.
Flanking columns of riders cut off attempts by groups of centaurs to flee. It was a battle of annihilation. General Urqaart expressed his satisfaction and his gratitude to the two young men who had been so critical to their success.
"Things looked dicey there at first, but thanks to Artor and young Altair, we blunted their attack then pressed our own against them. They won't try that again anytime soon, unfortunately."
"Unfortunately?" the young journalist asked, perplexed.
"These creatures are cunning. After such a defeat, they will change their methods and come at us another way, maybe adopt guerrilla tactics."
"Then you would have to flush them out of forest and hills and ravines that they know well and we don't."
"Maybe not, sir." Jemsen said tentatively. "These centaurs live by the hunt right? What if the game they fed on disappeared?"
"What do you mean, Sir Jemsen?"
"I think I know what my brother is getting at, sir." Karel interjected. "A game drive. A line of skirmishers spreads out across the countryside, making a lot of noise. That will drive the game before them. Oh the centaurs themselves will go to ground, hide, and wait for the drive to pass, but soon they will have to come out of concealment in search of food. That is your chance to wipe them out."
"Excellent! I suppose it would take a hunter rather than a military man to come up with that idea."
"We should lure them to ground of our own choosing, though just where I don't know." Karel finished.
"Maybe I do."
"What do you mean, Drew?"
"Last week I was with riders on a reconnaissance mission. We chanced upon a valley enclosed by steep hills on all sides, with only one way in. Drive a substantial number of game animals into the valley as bait for the centaurs."
General Urqaart shook his head.
"I read the report of that patrol. That valley is bad country for cavalry."
"But not for infantry. We'll station the Frost Giants at the inner end of the ravine leading into the valley. When the centaurs poke their noses into the ravine, you bottle them up with cavalry on the rolling plains that lead to the valley. That is prime cavalry country. The centaurs will be trapped. They can either die on your lances or face the blades and spears of the Frost Giants."
"Afterwards, you should have only stragglers to deal with. With the conquest basically finished, you could ride on with the bulk of your army in the strategic push to the endangered lands beyond."
"I like the way that boy thinks. All these younglings in fact, the twins and the Hand too."
It took some doing but events went as planned. The centaurs took the bait, marched into the ravine, got trapped by the cavalry to their rear, and died, mostly trying to breach the shield wall of the giants. Artor rode with the cavalry and roasted dozens of centaurs. He then hurled a few fireballs into the sky to panic the great mass of the centaurs in the ravine. The twins and the young journalist stood with the Frost Giants.
Jemsen and Karel took a position just behind the extreme right of the giant's lines, up the slope a ways. That let them fire down at centaurs locked in close combat with the giants or to reach out farther, beyond the fighters at the shield wall. Supplied by the army quartermaster with a dozen bundles of arrows, the twins kept up a steady fire. Ten arrows stuck headfirst into the ground were handy for volley fire, should a profitable target present itself.
The twins sent their shafts into the heads and necks of the monsters. Body shots could penetrate the chitinous armor of the centaurs and inflict ultimately fatal wounds from internal bleeding, but arrows to the body could not deliver the shock or stopping power of a lance backed by the momentum of horse and rider. The archers preferred to target unit commanders, identifiable by their body paint. With the decimation of its leaders, the centaur attack lost much of its cohesion.
Drew was in his element, whirling his steel globes back and forth, right and left, up and down, sending them smashing through the centaurs. The movements of the balls mimicked the emphatic gestures he made with his arms and his fists. This 'shadow boxing' helped him concentrate. The steel balls targeted the heads of the creatures, splattering their brains all around, creating a truly gruesome spectacle.
For all the help they got from the three humans, most of the fighting fell to the thousand plus giants. They grimly held the line, slashing away with their swords or stabbing with their spears, implacable and immovable. Their slingers flung fire globes over the shield wall which fell onto the great mass of centaur army beyond the line of contact. Hot coals flung at the their enemies set off a conflagration.
In the shield wall, the giants fought in close order and in pairs with the shield of the one on the left fending off sabers from that direction, the shield of the one on the right doing likewise on the other quarter. For each fighter his universe shrank to the small plot of ground he stood on and those immediately to their front and flanks both friend and foe. The heat, the sweat, the dust, the smoke and ash, the clang of steel on steel, and the anguished cries of the wounded and the dying made it seem like the battlefield was a particularly noisy corner of the infernal regions.
Centaurs did not fight in dressed lines. Their attack was more like a melee or perhaps a series of duels with the enemy each found immediately to his front. Centaurs needed a lot of room to effectively swing the sabers held in each hand. The result of all these factors was that even with superior numbers on the battlefield, at the forward edge of the battle, where it really counted, each centaur faced two Frost Giants. One of them might thrust his spear right into his chest while another cleaved his head from crown to jawbone with his sword.
At one point it looked like the centaurs might break through the giants' shield wall despite everything when a couple of giants tripped over the carcass of a centaur and fell heavily to the ground. The centaurs surged into the opening, slashing and kicking, heedless of their own losses, overwhelming the two front ranks.
Stationed just behind the breach in the line were Arn and Finn -- 'Old Arn and Young Finn in the Breach' as they would go down in legend. Looking over at his companion, Arn cried:
Arn laid about with his spear using the blade, the point, and the iron cap on the butt . Arn was one of the largest of the giants standing nearly nine foot tall. With his twelve foot spear and long arms, he had a tremendous reach. Centaurs who came within that reach died. Though Finn was much smaller he was quicker and more nimble. That helped him to survive and to protect Arn's flank. He covered his own sector valiantly, stabbing and slashing for all he was worth.
Seeing the danger, Drew lent a hand. With Arn and Finn locked in close combat with their foes, Drew was careful to keep his spheres moving vertically beyond the line held by Arn and Finn and the other giants who rallied to them. Pounding his fists in a pile driver motion, he plunged them into the backs and hindquarters of the centaurs and into the earth beneath. A quick uppercut brought the weapon up again, poised for another smash.
When Drew had cleared the centaurs pressing most closely on the pair of giants, he went back to his shadow boxing technique and attacked the main mass of the enemy.
"By Auden's beard!", Arn cried. "It's like there is an invisible steel giant out here with us, pummeling the enemy with left hooks and roundhouse rights. And the centaurs can't do a thing about it."
The gallant stand made by Arn and Finn turned the tide as their comrades rallied to their side. The Frost Giants paid for their victory with blood. Arn and Finn both took nasty cuts from the scimitars of the enemy. They were treated with natural medicine: disinfectant and stitches. Even with a contingent of Healers from the Commonwealth magical healing was reserved for those who could not be saved otherwise. No one could say that they had not earned their title to this land which they decided to call New Varangia, after Finn and Arn's home district.
For his victory against the centaur wedge, for standing with their shield wall, and for suggesting the tactics that won them that new homeland, Drew Altair was made a giant-friend, tattoo and all. Artor reluctantly turned down the honor explaining it was against policy. The Dread Hands of the Commonwealth could acknowledge only one loyalty. Lord Zaldor's report to the Commonwealth government urged that Artor be promoted from journeyman to become a Dread Hand in full.
Zaldor and Urqaart moved out soon thereafter, heading west, leaving behind a battalion to secure their line of communications. The Frost Giants who had stayed behind on the plains made the journey to New Varangia and set to work building their new country.
Artor stayed on for two months to represent the Commonwealth during the transition from a military zone of conflict to a civil society of Frost Giants operating under their own laws. The twins stayed on too, working with a small force of giants to root out the remaining centaurs. What looked to be the very last of the creatures proved exasperatingly difficult to track down. The creature was wise to their tactics and had the advantage of an intimate knowledge of the lay of the land.
Then Jemsen and Karel got creative. They offered themselves as bait. With Finn and several other giants providing security the twins found a good spot at the edge of the forest to trap the centaur. To disguise their own mild body scent they coated their nude bodies with juices from crushed mint leaves which grew in the shady understory. Then they got to work, using pulleys and ropes borrowed from the army engineers to raise one end of a deadfall high off the ground, positioned above a trail. Finn offered to help, but they told him this was one job they had to do by themselves. In the open country just beyond the edge of the forest, they constructed a hunting blind, then staked out a goat a little ways off.
"Er guys, I know I am just a city boy and certainly no hunter," Drew ventured, "but won't the centaur get suspicious of a goat staked out in the open like that. It is rather obvious that creature is bait for a trap."
Jemsen shook his head.
"The goat and the hunting blind are just props. We ourselves are the bait. Of course the centaur will realize the goat is bait for a trap. And it will realize that this clump of brush growing on the slope is artificial, so it must be a hunter's hide."
"Really? It looks pretty natural to me."
"Yes, but it is constructed of plants which grow in the shady understory of the forest, plants which would never grow out here in bright sunlight. So the creature will stalk its hunters, creeping down the trail so as to approach silently, thinking to turn the tables on us."
"Now that is really crafty."
Just before dawn, the centaur tripped the trap. The deadfall fell and broke its back, the weight pinning the creature in place. It howled horridly. The twins waited till full light then led Drew, Artor, and Finn and his giants to the site of the trap. Still very much alive, the centaur tried to slash at its tormentors. Jemsen open a small sack he was carrying and threw several of the glass globes at it, covering it with both kinds of inflammable liquids. He gestured to Karel to finish the job. His brother lifted a cup of burning coals and tossed them at the centaur which went up in flames. As the flames burned merrily he flung a final globe at their victim.
The twins watched the conflagration, their faces mirroring the fierce glee in their hearts. When the fire died down, the twins turned away. In a low voice, Jemsen told Artor and Finn:
"That was for Ran."
The next day the twins were their normal cheerful selves, having finally exorcised their inner demons over the loss of their friend and lover Randell by the extinction of the cruel species that had slain him and so many other sentients. They intended to stay on in New Varangia to finish the initial mapping of the Commonwealth's new dominions, returning with Artor after his mission ended. Finn would stay on with his people but would always be their friend and very likely a companion in future adventures.
Drew stayed on for a bit too, in order to get the story of how the giants were taking possession of their newly conquered land of New Varangia and what they were doing with it. After two months, all four youths returned to the Commonwealth capital. Drew's first order of business was to write a connected account of all that had happened. It would be serialized in the Intelligencer and bound in book form with woodcuts made from Drew's own sketches.
Upon their arrival at the capital of the Commonwealth the young journalist found that the dispatches he had sent via postal rider and heliograph had established his reputation as a journalist. And though he was too modest to play up his own role in thwarting the charge of the centaur wedge or his 'shadow boxing' at the battle in the ravine, official bulletins from Lord Zaldor and General Urqaart lauded him and Artor and the twins for their vital contributions to the success of the campaign. To the public Drew was a genuine hero.
"So now I am a hero too. I have to say, Jemsen, that if what I did makes me a hero, I am in good company: you and Karel, Artor, Oddr and Harald not to mention Old Arn and Young Finn in the Breach. This calls for a celebration. Any suggestions?"
"Hmm. Karel, what do you think would be the ideal way to celebrate our friend's new-found status as a war hero?"
"The best way would be a three way."
"Huh?" Drew exclaimed, then gulped as he realized what he had let himself in for.
The twins snatched up their diminutive friend and carried the auburn-haired beauty off to their rooms.
[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. If the email address pastes with %40 in the middle, replace that with an @ sign.]