Elf Boy's Friends - III

by George Gauthier

Chapter 16

The Scilly Isles

The Petrel approached the Scilly Isles cautiously and set a landing party ashore on one of the outer islands. The Scilly Isles were the southernmost of the islands in the the Great Inland Freshwater Sea within the jurisdiction of the Commonwealth of the Long River.

The landing party made its way across the island to reconnoiter the roadstead in the middle of the archipelago. Sure enough, a flotilla of troll longships was beached on the shore of one of the other islands. So the Petrel's earlier encounter with trolls at the isles had been no accident.

The trolls were hard at work, building a pier and store houses for what they obviously intended to be a base of operations against the the Commonwealth Navy. Besides the longships two cargo ships captured by the invaders were anchored in the roadstead, unloading supplies into lighters alongside which were then rowed onto the beach. Supplies would be landed much more easily once the pier was finished.

Their human crews had not been slaughtered outright but were kept alive chained to the trunks of trees. This was not out of mercy. Far from it. The hapless captives were a living larder for the trolls, a source of fresh meat to supplement the fish caught locally and supplies the trolls had brought with them. The landing party watch in horror as the trolls selected their latest "meat animal" and butchered him, turning his flesh into so many roasts and chops to cook on their grills. Here was one more reason then to hate the foul creatures.

Captain Dahlgren called a council of war which included Ensign Lathrop and the sailing master Crawley and a weather wizard name Varney who was responsible for infrasound communications with their squadron.

"I'd like to disrupt their plans, but I am not sure how to go about it. We cannot simply sail into the roadstead and engage the enemy directly. Wide as the roadstead is, there is simply not enough sea room to keep us away from their longships and out of the clutches of their boarding parties. I am open to suggestions. Ensign Lathrop, you look like you have something to say."

"Yes, sir. A small party in the gig could slip in at night under the cover of darkness and set the longships and cargo ships on fire. I could ignite the inflammable oil from our fire globes with my electrum sparks. Instead of a couple of fire arrows at a time, I can snap sparks ten at a time again and again, setting fires in so many places at once that even their best efforts to put them out will come to naught."

"And sir, leave the navigation to me," the sailing master said, "I'll take the gig through one of the inlets and sail right past the line of longships, giving Ensign Lathrop his opportunity to destroy them."

Dahlgren nodded. It was a good plan. Now they had to work out the details. The crew of the gig used lamp black to darken the gig's white sail. The men in the gig would apply lamp black to their faces and hands for the same reason. Meanwhile Warrant Officer Varney sent Dahlgren's dispatch to Commodore Dekker outlining what they were about to attempt. Dekker directed his squadron to regroup on the flagship and sail for the Scilly Isles.

Try as they might though, the navy men did not see a way to rescue the human captives, lodged as they were in the midst of the troll encampment. Anyway the gig was very small, just large enough to transport its crew of five. It could never take on twenty more passengers. Here was one of the hard lessons of war. Sometimes there is just nothing to be done.

The gig slipped away from the Petrel in the wee hours of the morning, when the night sky was at its darkest. For stability when he snapped his sparks, Axel knelt in the bottom of the gig, his rump braced on one of the thwarts. As you would expect of a sailing master, Crawley's night vision was excellent. He expertly threaded his way through the inlet, helped by the natural phosphorescence produced by the sea swells as they flowed over and around shoals and hidden rocks. The gig moved entirely by the power of its single sail. Oars would stir up the phosphorescence too and give away their position. The light created by the bow wave and wake would not be noticed in the normal chop created by the wind. In this operation, stealth was everything.

Fortunately the night breeze was strong enough to move the small boat along at five or six knots. It blew parallel to the shore the longships were drawn up on, which was ideal for their purpose. The gig moved past the first two longships before two men slung fire globes onto them. The glass globes broke and splashed inflammable oil around which Axel ignited with fistfuls of sparks. Then it was the turn of the next two longships and then the next pair and so on.

Now the trolls could follow the trajectories of Nathan's electrum sparks back to their source much like with fire arrows. But the yellow flame of a fire arrow does not burn particularly bright but the white light of sizzling electrum sparks was intense and concentrated. To look at them was to ruin the night eye's adaptation to dim light. So ironically the brighter light of Axel's sparks made the gig harder to make out in the murk. This was where his research in the after-action reports kept in the library of institute really paid off.

By the time the raiders reached the tenth longship the enemy was up in arms, trying desperately to throw water and sand on the fires. Water only made things worse for the flaming oil floated atop the water and spread the conflagration. There was plenty of sand on the beach but only so many buckets. Some trolls scooped up sand with their shields. At one longship the trolls formed a line to pass buckets of sand up to those fighting the fire, but Axel disrupted their coordination by snapping sparks at the trolls themselves. It was soon clear that the conflagration would result in the loss of all ten vessels. All the trolls would have left were a few jolly boats and lighters.

Flights of arrows reached out toward the gig seeking revenge, but the shore curved away from the course of the small boat, helping the raiders put distance between themselves and the enraged troll archers. On the way out of the roadstead Axel and his crew set fire to the defenseless cargo ships, destroying most of the food stores and other supplies the trolls would need to survive. All that was left for them was what had already been unloaded and put into the storehouses ashore.

As the raiders sailed away they could hear the human captives cheering the heavy blow struck against the trolls. Their defiance cost them their lives for they were slain out of hand, but at least their quick deaths and put an end to their long nightmare of dread and torment. They died with hope and defiance in their hearts.

The gig slipped back through the inlet to rejoin the Petrel, its crew having emerged from the encounter unscathed. For their signal accomplishments, the ensign and the sailing master were Mentioned in Dispatches. Infrasound messages indicated that the squadron would reach the Scilly Isles in a day's time.

And so it proved to be.

Only the Petrel and the flagship sailed back into the roadstead. The rest of the squadron remained out to sea in case an enemy fleet arrived at what the trolls would expect to be a functioning naval base. As a firecaster, Braeden the war wizard on the flagship easily destroyed the pier and storehouses with great balls of fire. With all their supplies gone, the trolls would starve.

The Petrel sailed in close enough for the sailors to fling fire globes to set the few remaining jolly boats and lighters on fire. Now the trolls would not even be able to fish in the roadstead save from shore.

Commodore Dekker realized that the Commonwealth had to occupy the Scilly Isles to deny their use to the enemy. Via infrasound he asked the Admiralty to send a force of engineers to build a proper naval base on a second island including a high lookout tower atop one of the low hills. Lookouts stationed in the tower and equipped with far-viewer tubes to help them distinguish friend from foe would give a squadron based in the roadstead sufficient warning to put out to sea to face an approaching enemy force. Land defenses alone could never secure the archipelago, though the base itself would have a garrison of naval infantry.

Meanwhile the Petrel was ordered to make soundings in and around the islands from which proper naval charts to be drawn and printed. The ship's longboat and gig were used for this purpose.

Over the course of the next two months as a small town and naval base arose on a second island, the trolls were driven by hunger to resort to cannibalism on their own island. The strong preyed on the weak as starving trolls fought each other in an ultimately doomed battle for survival. In the end, a force of naval infantry swept the island and wiped out the last few trolls still alive.

One morning as he awoke in his cabin aboard the Petrel, Ensign Lathrop suddenly remembered something that had been nagging at him.

"Huckleberries!"

Nathan sat up so abruptly he knocked his head on the upper bunk but hardly noticed in his excitement. Getting dressed he made his way to the quarterdeck and told Captain-Lieutenant Dahlgren about the stand of huckleberry bushes he and Liam had discovered on their last visit to the Scilly Isles months earlier. Why not send out a party to gather the fruit and also forage for other fresh foodstuffs on the various islands? That would also let them ensure that all the islands were clear of troll stragglers.

An hour later Nathan lead a party of sailors and a squad of naval infantry onto what he privately dubbed Huckleberry Island. They filled their baskets at the patch of huckleberry bushes and sent them back to the ship. The rest of the party pushed on into the interior.

Now the island was fairly small, about five miles long and three wide, but that was a lot of territory to cover on foot. Still they were not in any hurry. They did find some edible tubers in abandoned gardens and fruit trees in overgrown orchards. The islands had been sparsely and intermittently populated in the past by solitary types or even fugitives from justice, but eventually abandoned. They were simply too far off the beaten path for regular commerce with the mainland.

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