Elf Boy's Friends - V
"Sir, a dispatch rider has arrived from Army HQ in Dalnot." Klarendes' steward told him, interrupting his midday meal. The count waved the courier in and read the dispatch.
"This dispatch is addressed as much to you druids as it is to me. The news is bad. It seems that long range air reconnaissance has detected an incursion by the eastern barbarians. Mostly moving at night a sizable force of fifteen thousand has marched west and is now close to the exit to the strategic tunnel through the mountains. The garrison will not be able to stop so many."
"What good could the tunnel do them, Father? This cannot be an attempt at conquest, not with only fifteen thousand men." Artor asked.
"This could be the vanguard of a larger force or possibly the column is a diversion to take our attention away from a threat to some other sector. Or they may just be after loot starting with the output of the silver mine at the western end of the tunnel, then the spoils of the towns and cities in that corner of the Commonwealth. Raiders could seize portable wealth like gold, silver, gems, silks, clocks and music boxes, weapons from the armories of the militias, you name it."
"And for trinkets like that they are willing to kill hundreds, maybe thousands, to lay waste the country, to burn crops and farms and towns?"
Dylan was outraged at the skewed values of the barbarians. Elves had little use for tangible wealth of that sort. Silly baubles in their estimation. To elves, the earth and its fruits were the truest sort of wealth.
"Sadly in this world of ours there are two kinds of people," Madden told him. "those who add value and others who only subtract."
Klarendes pointed out that the field army of some forty thousand which the Commonwealth maintained in the north country was stationed on the far side of the Long River, a good ways from the threatened area. And their own Army of the Plains numbering twenty-three thousand was based near the southern end of the Eastern Plains, with most of its strength in and around the garrison town of Dalnot.
Unlike the Commonwealth's great cities whose layout and architecture and powerful militias made them fortresses even without city walls, the small unwalled rural towns of that region were vulnerable to attack.
After some further discussion Owain spoke up, outlining a plan to deal with the crisis. The first task was to block the tunnel to keep the barbarians east of the mountains. Then the Army would bring the raiders to battle and destroy them or at least expel them from the lands of the Commonwealth.
"You intend to use portals, don't you Owain?" Klarendes asked.
"Yes. Portals give the Commonwealth unparalleled strategic mobility. We will use that mobility to block access to the tunnel. For that we will need a couple of war wizards plus yourself and your son Artor, who, as a Hand, can assume command of the tunnel garrison. You are both powerful firecasters who can also wield white fire. I hope you do not have to collapse the tunnel. Perhaps you can just incinerate the vanguard of the raiders as they poke their noses into the tunnel."
"Sounds good but what happens next?"
"Dahl will open a gate to the capital to fetch a pair of war wizards and bring them here. From Elysion the tunnel is just few steps away via a second portal."
"And what about the main body of the invaders?"
"That is a job for the Army. Merry and I will open a wide portal for the Army of the Plains which these days includes two regiments of Frost Giants. I doubt though that their commanding general will send more than half his force, lest this be revealed as a diversion."
"Which means our military will be outnumbered."
"True, but isn't that usually the case? The Commonwealth doesn't draft levies of untrained and unwilling conscripts to fight its wars. We have a professional army which is organized, trained, and equipped to defeat any conceivable foe, and that army is backed by a well-rained militia which makes the Commonwealth unconquerable. And these days we have a corps of mages not just a few war wizards and an air corps which can bomb our enemies with fire globes or incendiary kegs. Thanks to space portals our forces have the advantage of strategic and tactical mobility. Our infantry will be the anvil and the cavalry the hammer which will crush the raiders. So we have every reason to expect a victory."
Everyone agreed that it was a good plan. The rangers were not disappointed to stay behind. Madden had had his fill of warfare and Dylan knew he could contribute little as one bowman among many. Anyway, forest rangers were not in the military; they were civilian peace officers.
For similar reasons the twins too would stay behind and fill in for Aodh as forest rangers. Doughty fighters though they were, the twins fought as skirmishers or light infantry with missile weapons rather than in a line of battle. Their talents were best employed on missions like scouting, exploration, reconnaissance, and mapping, as in their forays to the Hot Lands with Balandur, and more recently to the Far West, and then the Barren Lands.
Eborn was intensely disappointed when told that he would have to stay in Elysion just in case.
"In case of what?" he grumbled, but the stern look on his father's face told him that further protest was useless. The family had a duty to protect Elysion. The militia was well-trained, but it counted on magical backup by the Klarendes family, and this time he was it.
Dahl opened a portal which looked much like an ordinary doorway except for the silvery frame and a shimmer in the air. He stepped through to the second floor of the Institute of Wizardry and Magic. There he located the war wizard Sir Willet Hanford and his young aide, Sir Axel Wilde in their laboratory. Sir Willet was surprised but quick on the uptake.
"So you druids have finally perfected the technique of space portals. Are you going to share it with us war wizards? We are all on the same side, you know."
"Er, not just yet Will, but soon. Count on it. We still have to work out some of the kinks. It is tricky porting north or south because you have to adjust for the difference in the rotational speed of the surface of the planet at different latitudes. If not for this emergency, we would hold off using it a while longer."
"By emergency you must mean the threat to the tunnel. We got word via Army heliograph just this morning."
Sir Willet recruited his colleague Sir Rikkard who had to come without his aide who was out of the building on an errand. Which meant that Axel would have to do double duty as their single aide.
Though only lightly armed himself with a kukri and a sling, a wizard's aide like Axel Wilde would nevertheless watch his mentor's back and cry out a warning. If necessary Axel could even take down a foe with his gift of Calling Light by englobing his head which scrambled the electric circuits of his brain, as he had once done with a tawny panther about to pounce on Sir Willet. He also carried the extra gear a wizard might need when deployed tactically. And Axel was a trained combat medic who could keep a wounded man alive till healers could get to him.
Axel's gift of unerring direction was another big help to Sir Willet, sparing him the embarrassment of getting lost in the field. Sir Willet had never got beyond the rudiments of what the Army grandly called the Art of Land Navigation. For all his powers, the wizard would get lost in the wilds more easily than most city folk.
After they suited up and collected their gear they all stepped back through the portal to Elysion.
It wasn't like stepping through a doorway. Nothing happened till you got your entire body through the portal which left you with a sense of falling weightlessly for a half a second until you exited the far side. Evidently this was when the druids adjusted for the difference in the rotational speed at different latitudes.
Only moments had passed but already Merry and Owain had ported out to Dalnot to brief the Army on the plan.
Since they were going off to war, all those in Dahl's group were in uniform along with their weapons and gear. Dahl wore the robes of a senior adept of the druidical order, with green tunic, camouflage cloak, and stout sandals. The war wizards and aides were in green silks with leather armor. The wooden yokes built into the armor of the wizards would let them fly like birds. Artor wore the buff uniform of a Hand of the Commonwealth including the white kepi recently adopted as standard headgear. Klarendes himself wore his uniform as captain of the local militia. The young shapeshifter wore his forest ranger uniform with a camouflage pattern based on Sir Willet's research: brown with splotches and slashes of green and black.
None of them had armed themselves heavily. Dahl had a quarterstaff and a set of throwing knives, the wizards and their aides and Aodh had kukris to which the wir added a sling while Klarendes contented himself with a sword on a baldric, but such weapons were almost beside the point. These magic wielders were living weapons. What need for a sword when you could fling fire or lightning bolts?
With no time to lose, Dahl opened a portal to the tunnel for the Klarendes father and son plus Aodh as their bodyguard and the two war wizards and Axel.
The young captain in charge of the tunnel garrison was puzzled at the sudden appearance of Dahl's party inside the fort just as they were getting ready to resist the approaching enemy column. A hopeless task, but they had to buy time for reinforcements or at worst a reaction force to avenge them. A runner from the main post at the other end of the tunnel had brought a message transmitted by army heliograph that the army was mobilizing against the threat but likely could not get there in time.
"Who the hell are you? And how did you get past the gate? I heard no challenge from the sentries."
"I am Lord Dalhderon, Senior Adept of the Order of the Druids of Haven. My party includes Lord Artor here, who is a Hand of the Commonwealth."
Artor triggered the small magic which made his hand glow, proof that he was indeed one of the Dread Hands of the Commonwealth a plenipotentiary agent of the state with full authority to assume command of the garrison.
"I am Captain Fallon. All right, Lord Artor, it seems you are in charge. Who are the rest of your party, and why do you think so few can make a difference?
Artor made the introductions.
"We may be few but among us we number two war wizards and and two powerful firecasters one of them my father Count Klarendes of Elysion, plus the druid Lord Dahlderon. Never doubt that we can deny the tunnel to the invaders."
The captain looked over the newcomers. One wore the formal robes of a druid. Two older men wore army greens with leather armor marked with the unobtrusive insignia of a war wizard plus a young aide with hair the color of copper. Then came the father and son, Count Klarendes and Lord Artor. All of them, except the impossibly cute twink with the slanted eyes, carried themselves with authority and looked dangerously competent.
"I am starting to think we might actually get out of this alive." the captain remarked. His company of less than two hundred soldiers would have had no chance against even the the seven hundred strong vanguard, much less an army of thousands.
"We need to retreat down the tunnel a way, say a tenth of the way in." Artor told the captain, then added:
"That way the invaders will be nicely bunched up when we unleash our powers on them. We'll stop them cold."
"Cold?" Aodh asked mischievously. "Don't you mean hot?"
"Very funny." Artor gave back. "Now why don't you make yourself useful and carry a couple of those water skins. We are likely to get thirsty in the next few hours."
Meanwhile the soldiers collected their weapons and valuables and rations for a day and entered the tunnel which was wide enough for five to march abreast. The floor of the tunnel was no rougher than many an unpaved path in the woods while the ceiling rose a good ten feet above the walkway. The walls were only roughly finished, exactly like those of the silver mine at the far end.
Sir Willet's aide Axel Called Light, producing a cool blue-white globe of illumination which hovered close to the ceiling. Axel was not the only one with that particular magical gift. Two of the soldiers and Sir Rikkard did the same. Some of the soldiers carried empty buckets for when nature called. The Army was a practical organization, and field hygiene was ever one of its concerns.
The soldiers had not set fire to the fort, figuring to reoccupy it soon enough. The invaders would likely leave the fort alone when they reached the tunnel.
"It is surprisingly cool here in the tunnel." Artor mentioned to Captain Fallon. "And I can detect a current of air too."
"Yes, sir. The miners built ventilation shafts which work with wind catchers and the configuration of the tunnel itself to induce a constant current of air from west to east. So we won't have to worry that two hundred men in one spot will make the air go foul."
Two hours later the barbarian vanguard entered the tunnel, moving forward confidently, their way illuminated by two among them who could call light. They had taken the abandoned fort as a sign that their enemies would not offer resistance to the passage of their troops. In that hope they were very much mistaken.
"Their lights are only a few hundred yards down the tunnel. It is nearly time to give them a warm welcome Count Klarendes," Sir Rikkard said.
"Shall it be with streams of fire or with white fire? With four of us able to wield both we could incinerate half their whole army."
"A pardonable exaggeration, though I appreciate your confidence. Actually I anticipate only a vanguard will enter the tunnel. The main body is likely still approaching on the plains. As to burning them, I am concerned that our fires would destroy the timbers supporting the tunnel in this final stretch and possibly bring down the ceiling. And it would be sure to leave a grisly mess. No I have something else in mind. You know how we firecasters create ice for our refrigeration business?"
"Of course. You release the latent heat from a pond into the air and turn the water into ice. Is that your plan, to freeze the enemy solid?"
"No, not solid. We don't have to turn them to ice. All we have to do is drop the temperature of their bodies about twenty degrees or so, below the level necessary to sustain life. They will slump to the ground like marionettes with their strings cut."
"It will be a merciful death: a sudden chill and shivering, then confusion and lethargy followed by loss of consciousness and finally extinction. Dead is dead, but their dying will be easier without the horror of flames charring their skin, hot gasses scorching their lungs, flames consuming their hair and clothing. And it will leave much less of a mess."
"It's a better death than they deserve." Rikkard contended. A native son of the Eastern Plains, he had scores to settle with the eastern barbarians.
"This tactic is as much for our own benefit as it is for the barbarians, to prevent psychic backlash." Klarendes countered, explaining:
"As a youth I fought in the Second War for the Plains. Things went from bad to worse and our militia faced annihilation, but it was after the death and desecration of my first lover that I went into a killing frenzy and loosed my full powers on an army of barbarians, setting fire to the tall grass they stood in, igniting their clothes, their greased hair, and the leather coverings of their wooden shields. Their own armor trapped the flames against the skin."
"I stalked back and forth like a fire demon, utterly deranged, hurling great balls of fire or burning streams of flame, laughing and cackling and hooting as the flames consumed the barbarians amid horrid screams and cries for mercy."
"The psychic backlash nearly killed me. When the madness passed I looked at what I had wrought. So many dead bodies but hardly recognizable as human. You see, cloth and hair act like wicks for the body fat which melts from flesh. I had turned living men into human candlesticks. All that was left were piles of disarticulated bones burned black."
"The worst part of all this was the cost to my soul. I had taken an almost orgasmic pleasure in burning the barbarians. In recollection, I felt unclean, unworthy of having survived. At first I despised myself for going all kill crazy like that, but later I came to realize that it was more their fault than my own. From then on I hated them not only for their own crimes but also for provoking me do what I had done."
"I hadn't realized." Rikkard said. "All right, we'll do it your way, Klarendes. And thank you for your candor. It cannot have been easy talking about something that touched you so keenly."
"You are right about that. I have opened up to only a few about that day, including my spouse Aodh early in our relationship. I was afraid he might recoil, rejecting me as a moral monster. Instead he saw me as a tormented soul. I knew then that I would love him all the days of our lives."
Aodh's eyes glistened as he listened to this affirmation of their love. Meeting Taitos Klarendes was the best thing that ever happened to him.
When it came, the confrontation in the tunnel was fast and furious.
The barbarians took the initiative when two firecasters cut loose, one with a stream of flame the other flinging balls of fire. Klarendes and Artor extinguished the flame weapons of the enemy and directed the heated air up a ventilation shaft but did not themselves throw fire back at the enemy. Wondering why their first volley had not produced the screams they expected, the enemy followed it up with a second ineffective volley of fire.
Switching tactics a fetcher moved up to their front ranks and hurled a swarm of nails down the tunnel at terrific speed hoping to impale anyone who might contest their passage. Sir Willet caught them all with his Missile Shield and sent them back the way they came, only faster and with greater force. Cries of woe were evidence of his success.
The Missile Shield was a specialized application of the fetching power normally used to block or deflect arrows and crossbow bolts. It was just as effective against a swarm of nails. Sir Willet realized that as a offensive weapon a swarm of nails could be devastating.
"From now on, Axel, you should pack a box of nails when we deploy tactically. Better make that a couple of boxes of dowel nails, the ones with points on both ends unlike the framing nails the enemy hurled at us."
Axel nodded resignedly. Here was yet more gear for him to lug around. A wizard's aide like Axel carried gear for his principal like his far-viewer tube, map case, magnetic compass, and signaling mirror, ration pack, and now two boxes of nails, plus his own weapons: kukri and sling, his personal gear like water gourd, cloak, ground sheet, and his own ration pack not to mention his bulky combat medic pack. Little guy that he was, Axel was glad that the same druidical healing magic that had extended his lifespan and indefinitely prolonged his youth had also doubled his strength and stamina.
"Oh, and Axel, tell Drew to write about this in his journal 'Magic'. All of us with the fetching power should consider using nails as a weapon."
Sir Rikkard agreed. "Let this be a lesson to us war wizards with our pride in multiple gifts. We should have adopted this trick years ago, but it was a fetcher who devised it because he gave a lot of thought on how best to use his single gift. I won't make that mistake again. From now on I'll be reading 'Magic' and not just our own journal 'Wizardry'."
"Well said Rik, er Sir Rikkard. I already do, since Drew Altair is a protege of mine."
In public Sir Willet tried to address a colleague formally though in private the two were always Rik and Will.
Meanwhile Klarendes and Artor gestured dramatically, invoking their powers to draw heat out of the volume of space occupied by the enemy vanguard. Three hundred barbarians felt a sudden chill in the air, shivered uncontrollably, lost consciousness, then slumped to the floor. Soon thereafter they gave up their lives.
"I'll bet those firecasters never thought of using cold as a weapon!" Artor crowed.
"Well we do have an advantage, don't we, son?" Klarendes asked. "We are in the ice business. They were not."
"The rest of the vanguard has withdrawn into the fort in a panic." Dahl announced.
"How do you know that, Lord Dahlderon?" Sir Rikkard asked.
"Clearly you have never worked with a druid," his colleague Sir Willet remarked dryly. "No doubt a little bird told him."
"Actually it was a squirrel up a tree overlooking the area. We druids can see through the eyes of animals and hear what they hear."
"Gentlemen, let us step outside to where we can witness the battle which is shaping up even as we speak."
"How do you know that Sir Willet?" Captain Fallon asked. "Did a bird or a squirrel tell you?"
"Hardly. I got that from an infrasound dispatch sent by a weather wizard assigned to the Army of the Plains. They are moving into position to attack the main body. From the heights we will have an excellent view of the proceedings. And maybe we can help in some way."
"And I got the same news just now from the druid Owain via Mind Speech." Dahl announced. "He is with the Frost Giant infantry while Merry is with the cavalry, as you might expect."
"Oh?" Sir Rikkard asked.
"Merry used to be a unicorn. Long story." Dahl told him, waving off further inquiry.
"Okay, let's get back to the fort." Artor said and had Captain Fallon give the order to march back out of the tunnel. They blinked their eyes as they stepped out into the bright sunlight. It was shaping up to be another hot day.
Any hope the barbarians had of holding the fort vanished as Klarendes demonstrated the power of white fire. With a wave of his hand he scythed down a stand of trees next to the tunnel exit. It was obvious that white fire could cut right through the wooden palisade of the fort and any humans sheltering inside.
Dahl magically amplified his voice and warned the enemy that only their desire to retake the fort intact stayed their hand. If the barbarians abandoned the fort, they would be allowed to withdraw unmolested to rejoin their main body. The barbarians agreed to a temporary truce and in moments the fort was back in Commonwealth hands.
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