Elf Boy's Friends - VI

by George Gauthier

Chapter 4

Slashers and Orcs

Six days later the owner of the Sign of the Bow, a worried looking Raymond Bullock sought out the the twins and their friends.

"We have just been warned by a rider from the constabulary that the orcs are on a rampage. No one know what stirred them up but they and the monsters in their service are roaming these mountains and killing anyone they come upon: vacationers, travelers, hunters."

"Monsters? What kind of monsters exactly?" Jemsen asked.

"Dire wolves and slash bears twisted by alchemy and dark magic into demonic creatures who hunt at the side of the orcs."

"Hmmm, those demonic dire wolves are called Trackers. Karel and I have faced them twice before. I've never heard of demonic slash bears though we have battled normal slash bears."

"For convenience let's just call them Slashers." Karel offered.

"OK. Slashers it is."

"That is as good a name as any," a new arrival in the uniform of a Forest Ranger agreed.

"I've met some of you already. For those who don't know me, I am Lord Madden Sexton, a forest ranger in the New Forest on the other side of the mountains. As for the four rangers who with me, the full elf on the left is named Dylan, the half elf standing next to him is Brandon and the two humans are his cousins, the brothers Garret and Lorn. We tracked a pair of murderous orcs to the area but had to break off our pursuit when they joined up with a large force which looked like it was preparing to head this way. I'd estimate they number six hundred.

"That's terrible." Bullock said. "What should we do? Should we evacuate? I'm in the hospitality business and really out of my depth."

"Fair enough, Goodman Bullock and don't think less of yourself for not being a military man. Don't evacuate. You would only be caught all strung out on the road. No, the only thing to do is to fort up here and wait for the Army, though who knows when they might get here."

"No need to guess." Liam offered. "I can communicate with their war and weather wizards via infrasound and find out. Now I cannot reach the capital, but the garrison town of Bled is only sixty odd miles away."

"Good idea. Do so and let me know what they say. Now we have to settle who should take command. What about you? You are in the Army aren't you?"

Liam should his head.

"Mostly in the Navy if the truth were known, but war wizards are warrant officers who do not command troops. Ever."

"Does anyone besides me have any experience commanding troops in battle?"

They all shook their heads. Nathan allowed that he had lead squads of sailors in naval combat but knew nothing about fighting on land. The army major had made his career in the supply corps but had seen action only as an enlisted man before winning his commission.

"All right. I guess that leaves me as the only seasoned commander. You should know that in my day I've lead armies to victory on two continents. It is not for nothing that I was ennobled as the Conquering Lion of Sogdiana. So you are in good hands"

"Now as to arms. I don't suppose you lads brought your weapons along on your vacation."

"Actually we did," Liam answered, "but remember we ourselves now wield powerful magics. I am a full-fledged war wizard and Jemsen and Karel are earth and air wizards. Corwin Klarendes, that cute blond boy over there, wields ball lightning as both shield and sword."

"The others have lesser capabilities though they too can act as force multipliers and give a good account of themselves in a fight. I recommend we use those with lesser powers to stiffen the defenses at the most vulnerable points. Nathan can snap electrum sparks which is a big help to others in a fight and is a master of the naval cutlass, which is a good weapon in a close quarters melee. Axel Wilde has similar capabilities though he uses a kukri. Axel cannot throw electrum sparks, but he can Call Light to englobe a orc's head. Eike is still waiting for his magical gift to manifest, but has been sparring with us so he too is handy with a blade."

"It's true I don't have magical powers," Eike conceded, "but like the rest of you I am one of those with enhanced physical powers. I am easily twice as strong as I look, and I have stamina and really fast reflexes to match. I even trained with Karel to run with the wind at my back just like Axel and Jemsen so we could take part in ambushes or harassing or spoiling attacks over open ground."

"All right Eike. I'll keep that capability in mind. We just might be able to spring a nasty surprise on the enemy once we whittle them down and get some room for you and Karel to run in." Madden said approvingly. "Glad to see that you are up for a fight. You and Corwin are plucky lads for boys so much younger than these hooligans you've fallen in with."

Which was said with a wink and a grin.

Then Raymond Bullock said:

"We occasionally drill our staff as an informal militia and we could pass out some extra weapons to any of our guests who are enrolled in their militias at home or are just willing to fight. That might give us sixty fighters armed with spears and shields and short swords or long knives. Orcs may have a longer reach but our spears put us humans even with them on that score. Plus we could distribute all the repeating crossbows to women and teens and station them on the lower balcony. It's too bad though that we have only a couple of dozen bolts per crossbow."

The repeating crossbow was the standard weapon for the militia of the the Commonwealth of the Long River. Almost every adult, male and female, was familiar with the weapon which was lightweight, easy to master, and simple to operate. What it lacked in range it made up for in rate of fire and ease of use. Given a goodly supply of ammunition the militia would confront attackers with hail of quarrels or bolts which could punch through armor at close range.

Madden nodded. "Make it so. I'll post my four rangers and their long bows up there with the crossbow archers My rangers can engage at long range. Save the crossbows and your supply of quarrels for when the enemy closes in. Now about that big bow hung over the bar. With a weapon like that I could take down a Tracker or a Slasher all the way out to the tree line."

"Do you really think you could even string that bow much less draw it." Bullock asked skeptically. Madden was a muscular man who stood six feet tall and weighed two hundred fifty pounds, but the bow was made for a giant.

"There is a lot more to Madden than you might think." Dylan offered. "As an enhanced wir wolverine he is as strong as a Frost Giant.

"Let's see, shall we." Madden said confidently. "Drew, if you please."

Drew nodded and Lifted the bow and quiver of arrows from the display on the wall and floated it over to Sexton. In one fluid motion Madden bent and strung the bow, selected an arrow from the quiver, drew the string back to his ear, and shot at the spot on the wall where the bow had hung, driving the shaft deep into the wood with a convincing thunk.

"OK, but we'll need more than just steel against demonic creatures." Jemsen said. "What we need is silver. Silver burns their ensorcelled flesh and keeps their wounds open so that they bleed out. Balandur always applied silver grains suspended in lacquer to his arrowheads. We should do the same. Goodman Bullock, you must have silver handy."

"Of course, but it is all in the form of coin."

"No problem. Remember I am an earth wizard. Earth and rock and minerals and metals do what I tell them to do."

Sure enough, Jemsen stared at the clutch of silver coins Bullock spread on a table, fixing their structure in his mind, then passed his hand over them. The coins disintegrated, slumping into a small pile of powdered silver. The paint shed supplied the lacquer. Soon they had enough silvered lacquer to go around.

It wasn't applied just to the arrowheads but also to the first hand span of the shaft behind the point. The twins, Drew, Axel, Nathan, and Eike applied it to their blades and filled tiny medicament jars with more lacquer for when that first application wore off or maybe washed off with the foul blood of the demonic creatures.

"What about the Klarendes clan? Surely they could destroy the orcs. Liam can get them here via a portal. And what of the druids who live in Elsyion." Drew asked as they tried to figure out what to do to turn the resort into a fortress.

Madden shook his head.

"The druids are in the capital making final preparations for their participation in the conquest of Amazonia. The Klarendes are obligated to protect Elysion, which is by far the most populous settlement in the mountains. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few."

"Now let's take a look at the layout of our fortress to be. Goodman Bullock, if you please."

Bullock passed out copies of the map that they handed out to visitors. It showed not only the main house but also the outbuildings like the kitchen, stables, laundry, toolshed, staff quarters, storage sheds etc. It also depicted the well and nearby terrain features which included a stream and a pond.

"Excellent. We'll mark everyone's position on their personal copy of these handy maps."

From the topography and the layout of the place it was clear that the enemy would have only two avenues of approach coming from the north as expected: straight up the road to the entrance of the main house which faced east or from the left rear through a blind spot created by outbuildings including the stable. Toward the south were the pond used for swimming and boating and the ornamental gardens which included two hedge mazes, the smaller for kids and the larger for adults and courting couples.

Madden had the stable and nearby sheds rigged with incendiaries so it could be touched off with fire arrows. With any luck, they could incinerate or at least singe any orcs who sought to infiltrate from that direction using the structures for cover.

They all put their heads together. Jemsen suggested he create bear traps with earth magic. Sexton agreed the idea had merit and marked the map to show where he wanted them. Bullock had the carpenter sharpen stakes to plant in the bottom while he set some of the women to fashioning covers of sticks and cloth and leaves and grass to conceal the openings.

Sexton was pleased to see that they had a secure source of water. The well and an ornamental fountain were in the courtyard in the middle of the main house. To deprive the enemy of a reliable supply of water, Sexton had Jemsen invoke his earth magic to reroute the stream and drain the pond. Food was not a problem, not at a well-stocked resort.

Their main disadvantage was that they could muster only about seventy hand to hand fighters plus the women and teens with crossbows against maybe six or seven times as many of the enemy. True the orcs would be out in the open, vulnerable to archers and the twin's earth and air magic and Liams' various magics. Then there were the monsters. The gods forbid they got inside among the defenders.

The key to a successful defense was throwing back the orcs' initial attack. Once the orcs realized that they could not carry the place by storm, they would settle down for a siege, which would work to the advantage of the defenders. Time was on their side.

An orc withdrawal was unlikely. The object of their attack was undoubtedly to gain control of the road which ran by the resort whether as a jumping off point for further advances or maybe to establish a southern anchor for the lands the orcs wanted to control.

The orcs wouldn't be expecting a vacation resort to harbor three wizards and other magically gifted fighters including a powerful fetcher and a boy who could wield ball lightning. Among the staff and visitors were two older men who could throw lightning bolts, one master of magnetism, and three who could Call Light.

It was in the nature of magic on Haven that the gifts most useful in combat were the province of males. The most common gifts among women were healing, a Green Thumb, the empathic sense, eidetic memory, delving, electrum sparks, calling light, and fire starting, the last meaning they could kindle a bonfire or set the fuel in a stove alight but not actually throw flame, though even this gift was useful in a fight.

Now some of those gifts could be turned against individual assailants. Healers could deal with attackers one or two at a time — though not a body of men — by stopping their hearts or putting them to sleep, or paralyzing their limbs. Calling Light to englobe the head of a rapist would kill him. A handful of electrum sparks snapped to a man's face could blind him.

Delving had an obviously military function in siege warfare to detect attempt to undermine the walls but not directly in combat. Many lady delvers worked as or for civil engineers, architects, and mining engineers or for the public works departments of cities and towns. (All excavation work had to be cleared and foundations checked by a delver.)

Liam was stationed at ground level at the front entrance. At close quarters he would use his telekinesis to wield steel spheres just as Drew did, while also attacking the orcs with weather magic, reserving his white fire for the critical moment during the main assault. With him was an oldster named Baldur who was there with four generations of his family celebrating his proverbial five score and ten. He allowed that as a firecaster his powers had grown weaker, but he could still blunt or divert or disperse streams of flame or clinging balls of fire hurled by enemy firecasters.

Liam was glad to have him at his side. Firecasting was the one gift lacking in his own repertoire. (White fire is a learned skill, not a gift.) So even a elderly firecaster whose powers were waning could employ them defensively to put out fires started by the enemy whether with magic or fire arrows, or perhaps a wagonload of hay rolled against the building.

The only fetcher among the fighters besides Liam and Drew was a plucky fifteen year old named Steen who volunteered to fight though he was just coming into his powers. It took considerable persuasion on Liam's part and on Drew's to get his folks to allow the boy to fight at ground level with his father, instead of shooting a crossbow from the relative safety of the lower balcony alongside his mother.

"Ma, you gotta let me protect Pa with my powers. If he got killed you would never forgive yourself knowing that I might have made the difference had I been at his side. I'd never forgive myself either. Don't lay this burden on either of us."

Steen would carry a shield and a short sword just in case while standing behind the line of defenders whom he would assist by yanking out the eyeballs of foes pressing them hard. Drew also requisitioned a rack of billiard balls for the kid to whirl about just as Drew did with his own steel spheres, only one at a time since he was just coming into his powers. Ivory was more fragile than steel and might shatter, hence the extras. Anyway the billiard balls were a last resort which Steen would wield to counter a breakthrough, holding the breach long enough for the reaction force to counterattack and repel the enemy.

The tool shed held a keg of nails which provided both fetchers ammunition to hurl at the orcs. To make the supply last they would hurl only a handful at a time, targeting clumps of foes rather than use the scatter shot tactics normally used with nails.

Sexton's plan was for a resilient defense with a reserve force reinforcing the defenders on the perimeter wherever it looked like they might crumble and yield to enemy pressure. Corwin's ball lightning would be crucial as he lead counter attacks shielding himself and his reaction force of eight staff militia against any breakthrough. The staff militia were chosen because they were used to working together and knew the layout of the rambling structure.

Nathan was stationed to support those guarding the approach from the blind side. The double handfuls of sparks he could fling would help their amateur fighters hold out against the orc warriors. The burning heat and electric jolt of his sparks were impossible to ignore and would distract the orcs at the critical moment of contact, giving the defenders an inestimable advantage in hand to hand combat.

Sexton commanded the defense from the upper balcony that ran all around the main building. From there he would wield the "legendary" bow to pick off both enemy commanders and their monsters. Eike was with Sexton on the upper balcony. His job was to peer through a far viewer to identify profitable targets for the wir wolverine's archery.

As a powerful fetcher Drew was a second reaction force all by himself, though for starters he would be on the upper balcony for an overview of the situation. Sexton could then direct him to any threatened sector.

In his role as a reporter for the Capital Intelligencer Drew kept his note and sketch pads handy. The high vantage point on the upper balcony also allowed the twins to see where best to employ their powers as well as use their bows. Their proximity to Sexton made it easier to coordinate their efforts.

Two younger boys were stationed as runners to carry messages between strong points and the unit leaders Sexton had appointed who included two retired army non-coms and the Army major from the quartermaster corps, all combat veterans.

The carpenter and his assistant who doubled as glaziers removed the glass windows on the ground floor from their frames, covering the bottom half of the openings with room doors nailed to the frames and braced with posts and floor boards or whatever else was handy. This gave the fighters good cover against arrows and the improvised bulwarks could not easily be shoved aside.

The double doors of the main entrance were there to keep the weather out and never intended to withstand an assault. Only an active defense could stop the enemy from pouring through. Bullock had the doors taken down and nailed and propped the long way across the opening. That gave the defenders a chest high bulwark from which to thrust spears at the enemy or slash at them with their long knives.

Bullock passed out the few extra shields to the lucky fighters at the barriers. The rest had to be content with improvised shields made out of barrel heads, cut down floor planks, and the like, reinforced with staves and leather or canvas covers. Eike helped with their fabrication.

"What were you looking at so intently over there?" Sexton asked Jemsen.

"That cliff beyond the pond is loose shale. I think I can bring it down on the orcs if they march along the stretch of ground between the two."

"You have a good eye for terrain, Jemsen. "Wait for my cue. This is a trick we can use only once so we will want to lure as many as possible into the kill zone."

At Karel's suggestion, some of the guests took up shovels to loosen the surface of the ground on the two lines of approach and also carted wheelbarrows of gravel from the road and drive to those spots. The dirt and stones would be ammunition for Karel's whirlwinds and dust devils. Let's see the orc archers try to fire arrows when they had keep their eyes closed against the dust. He also planned just when and where he would raised missile shields made of hardened air.

Karel was reluctant to slay large numbers of troops with a sun mirror, wary of the psychic backlash Count Klarendes had suffered in his youth. Perhaps he could find a clever way to employ one indirectly. Karel had read about an air wizard who boiled the water in a nearby pond then pushed the cloud of superheated steam toward enemy entrenchments, forcing the troops stationed there to withdraw lest they be scalded. Too bad Jemsen had already drained the pond at the resort to deprive the enemy of a source of water. Meanwhile Karel had another idea and sought out the proprietor.

"What are those hollowed out logs we saw in that big shed?" Karel asked Rayburn Bullock.

"Wooden pipe for a storm drain we were about to lay to help drain that soggy ground on the south end. The sections are shaped to fit together to make a continuous channel. We used wood because it is available locally and does not crack like pottery nor corrode like metal pipe."

That gave Karel an idea. He wasn't sure it would work but he enlisted Eike's mechanical talents and a couple of Bullock's men to join a dozen sections of wood pipe into six tubes and block one end of each tube with a wooden plug tamped into the end that would face the enemy. The workmen set the six tubes in low mounds of earth Jemsen raised with earth magic. He then rolled small boulders on top to anchor them in place.

"I still think your contraption looks backwards" Eike said. "Folks are gonna wonder what good are tubes pointed at us rather than toward the enemy?"

"Trust me. If my air guns work, the effect will be devastating. Now I don't want to over-promise so let's leave it there for now."

"Guns?"

"It's an old word for a tube weapon which somehow shot lead bullets like those used by slingers. I read about them in old stories. The trouble is their authors assumed their readers would know how guns worked. So they provided no technical specifics other than mentioning smoke."

Karel charged each tube or gun with several pounds of nails and any scrap metal he could lay his hands on such as nuts and bolts, pins from door hinges, saddle fittings, and the like. The plan was that when the orcs made their initial charge he would direct jets of air into the open ends of the pipe. The plug would resist long enough to let the pressure build up. When the plug finally gave away, the blast of air would propel all the loose metal at great speed against the orcs [like grapeshot fired from a gunpowder cannon]. Against troops in the open, the storm of metal should be devastating. Their main limitation was suitable ammunition, not propellant of which there was a virtually infinite supply.

Just then their scouts Garret and Lorn ran up to report that the enemy was close, no more than a mile away. It was time for everyone to stand to at his position marked on his personal map and await the attack. Liam reported that the Army was on the way but it would take time to traverse the sixty-four miles from Bled to the resort. There was no war wizard or druid available to open a space portal for them. So the next move was up to the orcs.

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