Elf Boy's Friends - III

by George Gauthier

Chapter 9

Sea Battle

The Petrel headed directly away from the islets to give herself some sea room. Then the schooner turned on a course that would swing it wide around to the other side of the island. By the time they got there, they found that the original eight longboats of the trolls had been joined by seven more and had put out to sea. They had not raised their sails but were moving under the power of their oars. They did not move in a formation but all strung out, with faster ships in the lead.

"Stand out to sea, Mister Crawley, if you please. Give us room to maneuver. With the weather gage in our favor we can stand off or engage at will. Nice of them to string themselves out like that. That should make it possible for us to whittle them down one longship at a time. True, we could just turn away and rejoin the squadron, but there's a small army aboard those longships. Easier to burn and drown them out here than to fight them ashore."

"Mister Liam, code a dispatch for immediate transmission. Make to Squadron Leader from CS Petrel, Captain-Lieutenant Jan Dekker commanding. Enemy concentration at the Scilly Isles. 15 longboats with a thousand trolls aboard. Am engaging. End. Send it in the clear. The trolls know we have seen them."

Liam ducked down to his cabin for the pad on which he wrote a series of dashes and dots in groups of three which represented the letters and numbers that spelled out the message. Invoking his weather magic, he thumped the air around him creating the low frequency vibrations called infrasound that would be heard aboard the flagship two hundred miles away.

At first the battle went entirely in favor of the Petrel. With the wind at her back she swooped down on the longships like an eagle swooping down on a clutch of chickens, attacking them one at a time. The tail wind even increased the range of their fire globes which the sailors flung at the enemy vessel followed by incendiary arrows to set fire to four of the longships.

As the Petrel turned for another run at them, a sheet parted, letting the fore mainsail flap uselessly. The crew replaced the line which had been nicked by an arrow and got the Petrel fully underway again but in the meanwhile the lead longships had closed on her, firing arrows at the schooner as each came into range.

Nathan had been right. The trolls had no ship to ship armaments. Their intent was to close with the Petrel and board her.

"Mister Liam, time for your rocks."

Nodding Liam looked over to the pile of boulders and lifted one of them a hundred feet into the air. Positioning it over a longboat he let go. It dropped but just missed and splashed into the sea.

"It's harder that it looks, sir" Liam explained, "against a moving target and from a bad angle like this."

"I am sure you will soon get the hang of it, Mister Liam. Continue, if you please."

That was Captain Dekker, cool, calm, and collected while all hell broke loose around him.

Liam did get the hang of it. In short order he sank another four of the longships and disabled a fifth. By then he was out of rocks.

At least those aboard the Petrel didn't have to worry about magical attacks from their enemies. Like the centaurs, trolls had no magical gifts.

The crews of the ballistas earned their pay that day, repeatedly skewering trolls manning the steering oars and then their replacements and anyone else aboard who looked important, making it hard for the trolls to coordinate their approach.

Liam knew that he could not use weather magic, not while in combat at such close quarters so he called on his water magic, raising a monster wave which crested over two of the longships and swamped them, sending them straight to the bottom with all hands.

"Good work, Mister Liam. That's six you have destroyed."

"Thank you sir. I don't know how much I've got left after doing so much and in such a short time. Raising a monster wave takes more effort this far out to sea. Close to shore, the seabed rises toward the surface so you don't have to raise the water so much as push it towards shore to make it pile up into a wave. Too bad the longships were so strung out or I might have gotten more than just two with a wave that size."

"I'd better sit down for a moment. My head is spinning."

Liam sat with his back to the hull and breathed deep, trying to center himself as Sir Willet had taught him. Meanwhile, he got his steel spheres ready in case the trolls managed to board the Petrel.

Captain Dekker was trying to disengage. His ship had inflicted major damage, destroying half the enemy force. They were getting low on fire globes and arrows for the ballistas anyway, just about out of both in fact.

The Petrel heeled over in a turn only to find her way blocked by seven longships converging from straight ahead, starboard, and port. It was clear that their intent was to grapple with the Petrel and swarm aboard, overwhelming her crew by sheer force of numbers.

Liam got to his feet and looked around appalled. No way seventy men could fight five hundred trolls. Reaching deep for his magic, Liam cut loose with a stream of white fire that sliced the bows off the nearest two longships, those approaching from starboard. They plunged to the bottom.

"Good work, Liam. Can you do anything with those two closing from port?"

Liam shook his head.

"I've given you all I've got captain. I can still manage my steel spheres, but that's it."

"Let me try, Captain." the sailing master said. At the captain's nod he called out

"Take cover! Missile hazard to port!"

"Take cover from what hazard? We are still out of range of their bows."

"Get down you fool," Crawley said as he pushed Liam onto his ass. Liam looked around and realized that everyone else was hunkered down low, putting something solid between them and the two longships approaching from the port side. Obviously they knew what was coming.

Crawley took a last look at the enemy, ducked below the gunwale then invoked his gift. A grey nimbus engulfed him then the air was rent by screeches as the two longships were torn apart, the nails pulled from their planks. Nails, knives, axes, and everything else made of iron or steel, even an anchor and chain flew across the gulf between the Petrel and the longships and crashed into her side or passed over the gunwale and flew across the ship. Then the nimbus faded.

"All clear!" the sailing master yelled.

"Magnetism," he explained to Liam.

Liam popped back up and looked over the side. Nails and blades and all manner of metallic junk were embedded in the ship's hull. An anchor had left an impression in the hull where it had hit then slipped to the bottom. Crawley shook his head.

"We'll have the devil's own time of it, yanking all that iron out of her. If I directed my magic at our hull I'd pull the nails out of our own planks too."

"Thanks, Chief, but right now we have more immediate problems." Dekker told him pointing to the remaining longships.

"I don't suppose you can help with those."

"Sorry sir. I have shot my bolt. Like young Liam here I need time to recoup my strength, should we live so long."

Shrugging Captain Dekker went back to fighting his ship. The trolls were so anxious to get at the Petrel that they got in each other's way fouling their oars. One longship found itself directly in the path of the Petrel. Smiling grimly Dekker ran her down, sailing right over the top of her. There were no survivors.

But there was no stopping the trolls on the two remaining longships. Their huge loses had enraged the trolls beyond caution or reason.

Lieutenant Dahlgren relayed Dekker's next order, shouting: Prepare to repel boarders!"

The lieutenant himself joined the sailors in the well of the ship and had several two-man teams wielding the oars from the longboat and the gig. Meanwhile Nathan took command at the bow, splitting his eight men to hold the two ladders that led from the well of the ship to the "higher ground" of the foredeck.

Also on the foredeck were the four man crew of the ballista. They too would take up cutlasses and bucklers when they ran out of ammunition for their weapon. Several men prepared to pick off boarders with lead bullets propelled by slings. The foredeck gave them a good vantage point to pick out targets.

As the longships pulled up along side the trolls flung grappling hooks and hauled the vessels close, then swarmed up the lines onto the higher deck of the schooner. It came down to hand to hand fighting where almost everything favored the powerful trolls.

Everything except that they were not used to fighting aboard a sailing ship. The deck of a schooner like the Petrel was uneven. Trip hazards were all around: deck hatches, companion ways, ventilators, the cradle for the longboat, the capstan to raise the anchor, battens and fire buckets, etc. Her human crew had the advantage of fighting on home ground, so to speak, and they went barefoot. The leather boots of the trolls slipped on the smoothly honed deck.

For all their ferocity, the trolls were raiders not professionally trained troops. They fought as individuals not as the sailors did in teams of two. Those wielding oars rushed trolls just as they topped the gunwales, shoving them back to fall into the sea. And the sailors never let the enemy get their whole strength aboard all at once, but whittled them down, one wave at a time.

Many of the trolls never even got aboard, their grappling ropes severed by cutlasses even as they climbed up. They fell into the sea and were pulled under by the weight of their armor. One sailor flung an empty bucket at a troll hitting him in the head. He lost his grip, hit the water, and sank like a stone. Slingers accounted for several more.

Trolls were not the only ones to splash into the waters of the Great Inland Freshwater Sea. Sailors too were pushed, fell, or jumped overboard when sore pressed, but the sailors were unencumbered and knew how to swim. The trolls' own grappling lines let the dunked sailors clamber aboard and rejoin the fight.

The tide of battle eventually turned in favor of the Petrel. Some of the trolls discarded their armor and weapons and jumped into the sea thrashing their way inexpertly toward the last longboat or floating wreckage. Not all of them made it.

Meanwhile the crews of the ballista on the forecastle loosed their last arrow at the trolls. The range was so close they skewered two at a time. The remaining trolls aboard gathered below the forecastle, hoping to take and hold that "high ground" and bargain for their lives.

Facing them were the crew of the ballista and the clutch of sailors lead by Ensign Nathan which had defended the forecastle till then. What changed was that now they faced a concerted attack by nearly all the remaining trolls, save only a rear guard to hold off the sailors in the well of the ship.

At first it seemed they might hold the foredeck. Nathan snapped sparks at the trolls engaging his men distracting them with an electric jolt and a burn impossible to ignore. The sailors took advantage of their momentary distractions to cut them down. Unfortunately, Nathan could not be in two places at once. The trolls forced their way onto the foredeck.

"Sir I know my post is here by your side, but' "

Dekker interrupted him saying.

"Your post is where I tell you it is. Go Liam. Don't let that ballista fall to the enemy."

They both knew perfectly well that the weapon was out of arrows.

The young wizard spun around and headed for the bow. Under his breath Captain Dekker said what he could not say out loud: "Save him, Liam, save your Nathan."

Liam ran along the gunwale, the upper edge of the hull, his progress aided by yet another sense enhanced by druidic healing magic, the sense of balance. That route avoided the chaos on a deck littered with bodies both living and dead and all manner of weaponry and armor, blood, and brains, and spilled guts.

When he reached the bow of the ship the young wizard found that the fight for the forecastle had grown desperate. The sailors were outnumbered. They had no armor only bucklers [small round shields], and wielded cutlasses against the stout armor, heavy shields, and axes of the trolls. The sailors had tried to hold the ladders leading up to the fore deck but were pushed back. Nathan ordered them to put the ballista between themselves and the trolls. It wasn't much of a breastwork, but it was better than nothing. Meanwhile he kept snapping sparks with one hand, his other wielding his cutlass with good effect. A cutlass was not much different from the cavalry saber he had practiced with at home for years.

The trolls came at them from both sides. Fighters of both races fell to the deck dead or wounded including the newly minted ensign. Clearly winning the trolls surged forward.

Liam arrived just as Nathan disappeared beneath their boots.

"NO!" Liam screamed.

He whirled his spheres at high speed in a short arc back and forth one high one low, normally a defensive maneuver called the Shield. In the close quarters of the fore deck it became an offensive weapon.

Caught up in a killing frenzy beyond all caring Liam scythed his foes down, ignoring the cries for quarter that came from the last few. He was not about to spare trolls who had cut down his Nathan. Not by a long shot.

With all the trolls dead at his feet, Liam's rage abruptly left him, replaced by concern for his lover. He turned to find Surgeon Durban working on him. Nathan's head was pillowed on a coil of rope as the surgeon operated on his patient, tying off the blood vessels where his lower leg had been severed by an axe.

"He lost a lot of blood, but I got to him in time. My healing magic will prevent corruption from setting in. Your Nathan will live, Liam. He is young and strong. He should make a full recovery."

Liam sagged in relief.

"Uh, why is he out like that, sir? Did Nathan get hit on the head too?"

"I did that. I put him under myself. You see, I can use my gift as an anesthetic to render a man unconscious so he doesn't thrash about while I work on him. Surgeons without the gift have to use the juice of the poppy, which depresses a man's whole system, or worse, have men hold their patient down. With my gift I can even work on belly wounds."

"You're a real lifesaver."

"Thanks, Liam. I know I can be a grump, and the sailors criticize my bedside manner, and they are more than half-right, but they have to be alive to grumble, don't they? I take satisfaction from that. With us healers, healing people is not just what we do, it is what we are."

"Good man!" Captain Dekker remarked as he stepped over the dead bodies to their little group.

"Good work men." Dekker told the survivors. "In all this excitement you may not have noticed, but the ship is ours. There is not a troll left alive aboard the Petrel."

He pointed to where a single overloaded and crippled longship was limping back to the island.

Everyone was so tired they couldn't raise even a weak cheer. They just nodded then slumped to the deck.

As the Petrel got underway, she set the remaining pair of longships afire.

It wasn't till the next day that Liam could summon enough magic to send a dispatch to the Squadron commander.

The reply confirmed Dekker's fears. The way the squadron was deployed the trolls could only have approached from the south.

"Gentlemen, this means they are headed for New Varangia."

Dekker pointed to the chart. To the north of the Scilly Isles lay the Barren Coast, an inhospitable and uninhabited land which dropped abruptly to the sea as a line of low cliffs. It had no harbors or navigable rivers. No, the first access inland was by the river which flowed past Flensborg, the capital of the land of the Frost Giants.

"We have been ordered to rejoin the squadron. Our complement will be brought up to strength with temporary transfers from other ships. We will also take aboard two squads of naval infantry the better to counter the boarding tactics of the trolls. I am not sure yet where we will put them all. Sailing master, find room for them. Purser, work out what we will need: victuals, extra hammocks, and so forth. We'll resupply at the rendezvous. Our wounded will be transferred to a hospital ship for transport to base. Young Lathrop will be well cared for, Liam, rest assured of that."

"Yes sir. I understand from the surgeon that after he heals he can be fitted with a prosthetic and eventually return to duty. It was a clean cut made well below the knee, just above the ankle."

"Good. And as a genuine war hero, Nathan should also return to the good graces of his family. Imagine, calling a member of your own family a black sheep just for joining the Navy. That's the Army for you."

Dekker continued:

"I have put Ensign Lathrop in for the Navy Cross for Valor, him and Chief Crawley both. I have nominated you, my friend, for the Shield of the Commonwealth."

"I don't know what to say, sir."

"When the time comes, just thank the Admiral and be sure to laugh at his jokes."

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