Elf Boy's Friends - VII

by George Gauthier

Chapter 7

Combat at Sea and on Land

Nathan started off describing how the Petrel countered those three troll raids on allied shipping. Paddling small boats on moonless nights the trolls hoped to sneak aboard Navy ships and scuttle them or set them on fire. Few ships had sailors in their crews with the ability to see in the dark. When Liam was aboard the Petrel, the frigate did have such a sentry. His wizard's eyes could penetrate the darkness better than a cat, but the young war wizard was ashore fighting trolls.

Fortunately Nathan's delving power let him see or rather perceive everything around him whether on a moonless night with an overcast sky, in pitch dark caverns underground, or in windowless rooms. Which was not too surprising. If you think about it, delving should pierce air even more easily than it does earth or water.

Now the delver does not actually see with his eyes. Instead he projects a mental field of awareness something like the Missile Shield of fetchers. He perceives with his mind's eye not his physical eyes. He does not even have to be looking directly at he is delving. He can delve to the side or behind him, in effect giving him eyes in the back of his head. Once on the alert, it is impossible to sneak up on a delver, no matter how stealthily a foe might approach.

The local commanders subsequently drafted delvers from the construction battalions that were rebuilding the ports the trolls had destroyed when they pulled back from the coast. Sounders, as the Navy called its delvers, were assigned as night time lookouts. Meanwhile recruitment efforts were underway throughout the Greater Commonwealth. No one in authority had realized that delving could be used in this way. It was yet another example of how that state could mobilize the talents of its population for public purposes.

"And we also found out," Liam added, "that a delver can penetrate a Concealment, though only when actively invoking his gift. Otherwise he can be taken in by it too."

Drew nodded approvingly.

"With magic, it's not just what kind of gift you have. It is what you do with it. We fetchers basically move things with our minds, but that gift can manifest in a variety of powers besides the traditional trio of fetching, lifting, or throwing. Fetchers can also fly or propel small craft without oars, not to mention freight wagons and street cars on iron roads. As already mentioned, our missile shield defends us from arrows and slings. With such powers we can fight in the line of battle or rescue folks stranded by flood or fire, lifting them to safety. A strong fetcher can free victims of earthquakes trapped under collapsed structures. We can even juggle with no hands!"

"Or engage in lovemaking in ways that defy gravity." Liam pointed out, drawing a chuckle from everybody except Axel who blushed at the memory of their nights together.

The twins seconded the motion.

"It all goes to show that gifts are versatile and can be invoked in varied ways as distinct magical powers. Look how an air wizard like Karel can communicate by infrasound, run a mile a minute pushed by a jet of air, create a shield of hardened air or a sun mirror, direct land spouts and dust devils at enemy formations, and even take to the air himself, if somewhat awkwardly and only briefly, either within a whirlwind or with bat wings."

"And I" Jemsen noted "have only now realized that since delving is part of my gift of earth magic I too can see in the dark. I wished I had known to invoke it that night some weeks ago when, with both moons down, I stepped off the footpath and pitched myself into a muddy ditch. That'll teach me to take shortcuts in the dark of night!"

"A downside of the gift of Unerring Direction is a continual temptation to take shortcuts," Karel explained.

"Tell me about it!" Axel exclaimed, "I once slammed into the trunk of an oak," then summed up the conversation with:

"What all this tells us is that exploiting any gift to the fullest takes both imagination and instruction. Those with gifts should spend time in the Institute's library. The collection of after action reports is especially valuable. I can show you where to find them."

"And the gifted should also read my journal 'Magic' for tips from fellow practitioners." Drew added. "Anyway, it's your turn now Axel to tell of your adventures. What's this about a trio of assassins?"

Axel began by explaining that the trolls might not be able to raise a magical Concealment, but they were masters at camouflage and misdirection and sneaky tricks. They used one of their abandoned command centers as bait for a trap, fixing it up with maps showing troop dispositions, records of their order of battle, intelligence summaries and supply records. Then they set a fire carefully designed to burn itself out, leaving the impression of a failed attempt at arson. The trolls figured that the command center would draw high ranking officers and maybe war wizards to check it out. It did.

"The trolls stationed their assassins in the bushes lining the approach to the command center using a new tactic inspired by the hunting technique of the trapdoor spider. The killers lurked in holes concealed by woven camouflaged covers while they peered through a simple periscope made from a tube of bamboo and a couple of small mirrors. A leafy vine wrapped around the tube provided concealment. They waited for our party to pass by then surged out of their holes and attacked."

"I was lagging slightly, having answered a call of nature. So I was behind the ambushers as they aimed crossbows at Sir Willet and a couple of generals. With no time to even shout a warning, I invoked my gift of Calling Light to englobe the head of the troll on my left then attacked the others with my kukri relying on the doubled strength and speed conferred by my magically enhanced constitution."

"With their hands full and their attention of their prey I had the element of surprise on my side. I stabbed one in the back then spun towards the third troll, but he was already turning toward me, alerted by the ruckus the troll I stabbed had made."

"That final foe was nearly a foot taller and three times my size, but I was quicker and more agile. As he swung around to train his crossbow on me I ducked and tucked myself into a roll, letting his quarrel fly over me. I came out of the somersault right at this feet and stabbed upward into his groin. That took the fight out of him, all right. When I got back to my feet, I finished him off then brushed the dust from my clothes."

"Wow!" Corwin exclaimed. "I gotta write this up, his and Nathan's stories both. You can take Liam's story, Drew."

"Two for you, one to me, eh? Oh, what the heck. Go ahead Corwin."

"That's twice now you have saved Sir Willet's life." Drew pointed out.

The first time was when Axel englobed the head of a tawny panther who was about to pounce on his mentor.

"The generals thanked me for acting decisively to thwart the assassins and declared that my actions had one earned me a medal, very likely the Military Cross for Valor. Sir Willet embraced me, telling me that he couldn't have been prouder of me if I were his own son. That meant a whole lot to me, as you can imagine."

Axel might not have actually sprung from Sir Willet's loins, but the war wizard's love for his young protege was as strong as if they were linked by blood.

"After we sorted ourselves out Sir Willet lead us into the dummy command center. That was where he really came into his own. He took one careful look around and pronounced it phony. Which is no less than what you would expect of our top expert on concealment, camouflage, and misdirection."

"Anyway, it's your turn Liam to tell everyone what you saw and did."

Liam shrugged and said:

"There's not all that much to tell."

"Now, now. This is no time for false modesty, Liam," Drew admonished. "Tell us a story which will excite my readers. And Axel, when you get a chance, write down everything Liam says."

"I'm already on it for both you and Corwin." Axel told him, tapping his temple with his index finger.

Axel's gift of eidetic memory let him remember what he heard for long enough to transcribe it to paper. Another aspect of his gift was a permanent memory of everything he had ever read.

Liam nodded and began his tale.

"As you know I have limitations on my ability to open portals. These days I can open a portal wide enough for a small group but certainly not for a party of one hundred much less a whole regiment of Frost Giants, not even closely bunched in march order much less spread out in a flotilla of longships. So my job was to serve as the advance man for the contingent of war wizards and mages scheduled to rotate into our forces for the latest campaign in our war in Amazonia."

"I traveled there aboard the Petrel and then upriver on a captured longship rowed by Frost Giants. At the appointed time I opened a portal to the capital for Sir Willet who was thus able to get to Amazonia without a long sea voyage which would have incapacitated him with seasickness. Sir Willet and Sir Rikkard stepped through my portal then opened wide portals for rest of the corps of wizards and mages assigned to the campaign. After an orientation the magic wielders were assigned to their units."

"During the campaign the senior war wizards opened further portals to transport Frost Giants behind enemy positions. The other magic wielders, the wizards and mages supported the conventional forces of naval infantry, Frost Giants, dwarves, and human and elven soldiers who travelled by long ship but fought on land. The vessels from our riverine navy protected them from naval attack by the trolls."

"You cannot believe the level of violence in those hard fought battles. Fighting on their own ground the trolls had the advantage of numbers but we had better weapons and tactics plus our magic. Our soldiers and naval infantry fought them with steel and arrows and fire globes while our Air Corps bombarded them from above. Strong as they were physically, they were no match for Frost Giants. Our dwarves gave a good account of themselves too. Though about two feet shorter than trolls dwarves are more solidly built and very nearly as strong as trolls, which caught our foes by surprise."

The sturdy constitution of dwarves and their dimensions had originally been designed for life on heavy gravity planets in the galactic empire of yore.

"The trolls had never faced magic as powerful as ours. Fetchers and masters of magnetism blocked the showers of arrows they loosed at our forces. Wizards and mages directed storms and tornados at the trolls; firecasters burned them with streams of flame or flung swarms of fist sized fire balls or hurled great clinging balls of fire to cook them like lobsters in a pot. Masters of lightning blasted them with lightning bolts which jumped along a chain from axe to axe to axe. Masters of magnetism yanked the axes right out of their hands while fetchers yanked their eyeballs out of their skulls or smashed whirling steel spheres through heads and bodies."

"The trolls never gave quarter so neither did we. That makes for a war of attrition and battles of annihilation. We held nothing back. Earth wizards shook slopes with earthquakes to bring landslides down on the trolls, opened trenches to divide and isolate enemy formations, or immobilized them in muddy mires. We even resorted to sun mirrors as frightful incendiary weapons against the trolls, turning hundreds at a time into crispy critters."

"The trolls do sometimes withdraw tactically. In the lands they have invaded they have the strategic depth to yield ground and bleed us as we push forward. Their zone of control extends many hundreds of miles into the Amazon basin. No one knows how many trolls there are on this continent but aerial reconnaissance indicates the population at least a million and maybe two or three million."

"Their strategy is to wear us down, to bleed us so badly that we will give up and withdraw our expeditionary forces and thereafter seek only to contain them, allowing them a respite during which they would build their strength for a renewed campaign, possibly breaking our blockade of their former corridors to the southern coast to draw reinforcements from their oceanic archipelago."

"It shows how little they know us. Backing off is not the way that the Commonwealth of the Long River wages war. With our hegemony over the continent of Valentia we don't start wars, but we always finish them and on our terms. In time — and not so much time really — we will extirpate this menace root and branch."

"Now getting to my own actions. Since I am with the Navy I was assigned to the naval infantry, specifically the three regiments of Frost Giants I had trained with last year. Sir Rikkard opened a portal for us, putting us in an advantageous position behind entrenched earthworks the trolls were trying to hold."

"Sir Rikkard himself stayed back with most of the mages to fight alongside the army units pressing the trolls from the front. As our most powerful weather wizard he called up a monster thunderstorm and rained hail the size of duck eggs on the enemy and blasted them with lightning while torrential rains loosened their bowstrings."

"The only magic wielders attached to the force of Giants were myself, a fetcher on defense to help me hold a missile shield over us, and a firecaster on offense plus a weather wizard whose main job was infrasound communications with the main body though he did loose a tornado at the trolls before our forces got too mixed up with theirs. Oh, and we had a magical Healer with us too."

"We caught the enemy in a vise, the army in front and the Frost Giants from behind, but the enemy by now was wise to our tricks and had a second line of entrenchments facing the other way, towards us. The firecaster, the fetcher, and I used our powers to force a breach in their line. The giants surged through and started to roll up their second line. Meanwhile the army pressed forward against the main enemy force, holding their attention."

"Just when we thought we had the battle won, the enemy sprang another surprise. Their mobile reserve suddenly appeared behind us, having made a forced march from their bivouac to the battle field. It looked like the Frost Giants were in for a bad time till the army could break through and join their strength to ours."

"Now directly in the line of march of the mobile reserve stood a rocky knob some forty feet high. The approaching column of trolls parted and marched around both sides of the knob. I saw my chance and stepped through a portal to an exposed position atop the knob, right in the middle of four thousand trolls. I came under fire from hundreds of bows. With arrows arcing at me from all directions I struggled to keep my Missile Shield up while preparing to unleash white fire on the column."

"There were about twenty-five hundred trolls in front of me marching straight down a road toward the Frost Giants. Targeting those farthest away, those who would soon be out of range, I summoned white fire and swept it left and right in a very short arc across the road. Then I dropped my aiming point and successively attacked two sections of the road closer to the rocky knob, before turning and loosing a final strike at those behind me. It took just about everything I had to throw white fire four times."

"In the end, I was nearly drained of magic and did not have the strength to open a portal for my getaway. I even had to drop my Missile shield to conserve enough strength to Lift myself by the wooden yoke in my armor and fly back to our lines. Flying through a storm of arrows I got hit three times. The first arrow broke a rib but glanced off and did not penetrate my body. A second was driven into my thigh. The pain made me lose my grip on magic. As I started to fall I caught a third shaft in the ass."

"Yikes!" Karel exclaimed sympathetically, a hand going to his rump where he had taken a crossbow quarrel years earlier.

Liam continued with:

"Sir Rikkard was watching through a far-viewer and caught me with his telekinetic powers. He drew me safely back to our lines and set me down at the medical aid station where a Healer pulled the arrows out of me without further damage thanks to my silk trews. There is a very good reason why silk is the fabric of choice for the military."

Liam went on to explain that arrows could do more harm when drawn out than when they went in — partly from the barbs but also from the fabric of one's clothing. The fibers of wool, linen, and cotton would fragment and contaminate wounds, which then festered. That could lead to potentially fatal blood poisoning if you could not reach a magical Healer in time. Silk retained its structural integrity and wrapped the point and barbs of the arrowhead which allowed the arrow to be withdrawn without snagging and tearing the flesh on the way out.

"In my case the healer used a combination of natural and magical healing. She let the blood flow freely to flush the wound and disinfected it with fiery spirits but stopped the bleeding and healed the wound magically."

"Why didn't she just use magic for the whole job?" Corwin asked.

"With so many wounded, she had to husband her magic and use it sparingly relying on natural medicine when she could. That was why her healing left me with a small white scar on my butt cheek."

"A souvenir we will all soon get a chance to examine, in bed or otherwise." Karel joked.

"I'm calling first dibs on taking Liam to bed!" Axel interjected.

"Be that as it may, my eager young wizard's aide, and I am just as eager to join you there, I must first conclude my tale."

"The destruction of the reserve force broke the morale of the trolls in the trenches. They surged out of their entrenchments and ran for their lives. None got very far. The Army cavalry rode them down or drove them into the shield wall of the Frost Giants. Sir Rikkard and the other mages and our Army Air Corps smashed the remaining knots of organized resistance. Our victory was complete."

"Wow! Aren't you sorry now, Corwin, that you let such a terrific story get away."

"Only a little, Drew. What I mostly feel is relief that we got our Liam back in one piece."

"Amen to that."

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