Elf Boy's Friends - VII

by George Gauthier

Chapter 13

Allies

Over the next three weeks the Commonwealth delegation and the leaders of the Amazons worked out a strategy to deal with the trolls whose army numbered more than one-hundred thousand soldiers.

The allies' approach had to be very different from that of General Urqaart. The armies advancing on the trolls from the west were huge and capable of fighting a war of attrition because they could draw reinforcements and replacements from a huge population. Which did not mean that Urgaart threw away the lives of his soldiers on frontal assaults. Quite the opposite. The whole campaign was based on the indirect approach via flanking maneuvers and attacks on the rear via space portals which saved many lives but made for a protracted campaign.

The Amazons did not have the luxury of time. What they needed to do was to isolate the army facing them from the main body of the trolls then crush it in a lightning campaign. A defeat on that time scale would encourage the trolls to look elsewhere for strategic depth.

But that was exactly what the trolls wanted to avoid. They not only sought strategic depth in their war with the Commonwealth, they would very much prefer to occupy a settled landscape with fine farms and crops plus and buildings and towns there for the taking, rather than expand into a wilderness whose resources were only potential. So the point of the allied campaign became to raise the price to the trolls so high that they would give up and turn aside toward other goals.

The troll army was building a line of communications and supply to an eventual base camp from which they could dig a broad channel of their own through the swamps. It would be sited considerably north of the existing trade canal where the swamp or sea of reeds as the locals called it was not so wide.

The first order of business of the allies was a campaign of harassment by the mages to disrupt the troll supply lines, degrade troll morale, and whittle away at their leadership.

Though few of the Amazons had magical gifts useful in battle, those who did had been identified and recruited into special teams, triads attached to specific battalions. Sir Willet worked with the fetchers showing them how even their weak gift could be used to blind foes by yanking the eyeballs out of their sockets. Nor did it take much strength to wield steel spheres even if the ladies did not have the stamina of male fetchers to keep it up for hours on end and might wield only one at a time.

The Klarendes father and son trained the few lady firecasters. Females might not be able to throw giant clinging balls of fire but even sphere a yard or a foot across would kill a man and horrify those around him. Setting grass or brush on fire to block or surround an enemy was also something within their capabilities. And even a weak stream of flame might turn a cavalry charge.

Some ladies could throw lightning bolts that would stop a foe's heart or numb his limbs. Others could snap electrum sparks. Under Sir Willet's guidance, they became better at it. Sparks might not seem like much, but it was impossible to ignore the burn and the jolt of an electrum spark especially when targeted at the steel codpieces many trolls wore. Similarly a soldier with his sword arm numbed is effectively disarmed and easy meat for a spear thrust. Bolts and sparks would act as force multipliers, disabling or distracting trolls fighting on the front line at just the worst possible moment for them.

Axel really showed what he could do with his new powers. No longer just a wizard's aide but a war mage in his own right, Axel used a far-viewer tube to pick out targets like infantry and artillery officers then jumped next to them and either stabbed them with his poison push blades or simply decapitated them with a tap on the head and a very short jump an arm's length away. With cavalry officers he sometimes stabbed the horse hoping that in its agony the mount would throw and injure or kill its rider. Otherwise a jab to a leg dig the trick.

Alternatively Axel jumped and tapped an officer on the shoulder to establish contact, then jumped them both into a sky a thousand feet up and let go. As the hapless troll officer fell to his death screaming the whole while, Axel would jump to a position of safety in preparation for his next foray.

Working as a team, Axel teleported the trio of Artor and Corwin and himself into marching camps after the troops settled in for the night. Corwin's ball lighting protected their backs while Artor laid about with white fire, killing hundreds as they slept in their tents. Meanwhile Corwin loosed exploding orbs at the rear of the bivouac. Or the team might hit a supply dump or artillery park and destroy everything in sight.

Jemsen and Karel also went along on nighttime forays. Twice Jemsen used earth magic to open ditches which channeled streams into enemy camps, leaving the trolls soaked and miserable and with their food supplies spoiled and ruined. Jemsen liked to call up whirlwinds to strip away tents just as the gust front of a natural thunderstorm arrived to drench the trolls with rain and pelt them with hail.

Another technique with air wizardry was call up dust devils to scatter burning embers from campfires and watchfires with the aim of setting tents on fire or stampeding horses, especially the heavy draft animals which pulled supply wagons. It took hours for their handlers to round up the scattered stock which were by then too tired and sleep deprived to give their best for a couple of days.

Axel was gratified to finally have strong powers more like those his friends wielded. Despite his promotion he stayed at Sir Willet's side as his aide — first because he liked the work itself and second Axel cared deeply for his mentor. Sir Willet had become like a second father to Axel, and to Sir Willet Axel was the son he would have liked to have sired.

An important part of an aide's job was to watch his principal's back. Twice now Axel had saved Sir Willet's life by Calling Light to englobe the heads of the attackers. The first had been a tawny panther getting set to pounce on the wizard; the second was a troll lying in ambush. Then there had been that barbarian at the exit to the tunnel, though one of the others might have handled the threat just as well.

All three incidents happened before Axel's major gift manifested, and he became a Jumper and war mage, making him much more effective as a bodyguard. Why if a foe brandished a sword to his mentor, Axel could literally disarm the troll by jumping in, touching his raised arm, and jumping away, taking his foe's right arm with him, leaving the "disarmed" troll to bleed out.

Eike's airguns made Axel that much more effective as a body guard. Constant practice had made Axel a dead shot whether with the carbine version he carried when mounted or the longer infantry version when on foot.

One thing Axel knew for sure. No one was going to get to Sir Willet Hanford — not while he, Sir Axel Wilde, Jumper and war mage had anything to say about it!

During the preliminary campaign of harassment and interdiction Axel undertook solo missions as a sniper. His power of teleportation made him perfect for the job despite his modest degree of fieldcraft.

Most folks think a sniper is all about marksmanship. Not true. Just as important are fieldcraft and stealth which let a sniper reach positions where he can lie in wait for likely targets to present themselves.

Axel's gift of teleportation allowed him to jump anywhere, even to otherwise inaccessible positions which were useless to an ordinary sniper or spots a sniper dared not use since they lacked an avenue of escape and evasion. A sniper armed with an air gun had to shoot and scoot before the trolls could return his fire with long bows that could outrange his own weapon.

Twice Axel shot engineers in charge of rebuilding key bridges the druids had destroyed earlier in the campaign. Another time, he identified an enemy general not by his insignia which were too hard to make out even through a far-seer but by the way he returned the salutes of everyone he encountered. The fact that he himself initiated no salutes showed that he was the ranking officer there. The enemy must have thought that their base was so far from the front lines and possible enemy observation that they could dispense with the eminently sensible rule against such tattle-tale military courtesies in a combat zone.

Sniping was yet another way for Axel to employ his new gift, one he had thought up all by himself. No one trained him for sniping for it nor had he simply come across in after action reports on the shelves of the library of the Institute of Wizardry and Magic.

Sir Willet initially served as a one man Army Air Corps. He flew reconnaissance missions and harassed and interdicted enemy movements whenever he could. He invoked his powers to collapse bridges, destroy wagon trains, and set supply depots on fire, always careful to fly out of the range or archers.

Then he got the idea of recruiting Amazon fetchers to fly interdiction missions in the autogyros newly put into service in the Commonwealth. Opening a portal to the capital, he arranged for three of the craft and a small ground crew and their gear plus three wagon loads of incendiary weapons to be put at his disposal. He also brought sets of the plans and specifications so that the Amazons could later construct their own autogyros not only for the military but eventually for civilian uses.

None of the Amazon fetchers he recruited was strong enough to fly as he did with a yoke but flying with an autogyro was a whole lot easier. All it took to go aloft was a steady push to impart enough forward motion to the aerocraft to get the rotor spinning and generating lift. The airflow over the aerocraft's stubby wings provided the extra lift needed for the load of ordnance as well as hard points to connect their bomb loads to.

The amazon pilots took to the skies like they were born for it and soon were flying missions by themselves. Sometimes they all went out together: the amazons in their autogyros, Sir Willet, plus Axel who Jumped to a point well above the target and dropped the bombs he had had brought with him.

Nothing could have done more to cement the alliance with the Amazons than Sir Willet's demonstration of confidence in their magical abilities and his willingness to share the Commonwealth's latest military technology so fully. He only regretted not being able to outfit the Amazons with airguns, but the Commonwealth's own army rightly had priority for those weapons. Even with the manufactories going all out, some Commonwealth formations still were armed as in the old days, though in the case of the elven contingents it was by choice. They stuck with the long bow as their distance weapon.

Sir Willet and Axel saw with considerable satisfaction that a genuine bond of comradeship had formed between the female pilots and the male ground crews whose skills they depended on to keep their autogyros flying. Specially selected local males had shadowed the Commonwealth crew till they themselves were qualified to take over not only the prep for flights but also maintenance and repairs. The Amazons had long ago recognized that males had greater mechanical aptitudes so most artificers, artisans, and mechanics were males.

The twins carried on a two man campaign of harassment and interdiction targeting isolated groups of scouts or bands of foragers. Lightly armed and unarmored, off by themselves, and spread out too much for mutual support, such soldiers were easy prey for the twins's ambush tactics. Scouts were the eyes of the enemy while the foragers supplied fresh meat to fill hungry bellies.

Waiting in concealment for the right moment Jemsen and Karel would rush upon their foes. Propelled by a jet of air which Karel called up with his air wizardry and with their movements synchronized by the twins unique psychic link, they ran at a pace of a mile a minute and were on their victims almost before the surprised trolls realized that they were under attack.

The twins slashed at the trolls with kukris whose blades were coated with Aodh's venom, a poison as potent as that found in the spines of the dreaded stone fish. Even a small dose could induce the worst pain a living being could endure without dropping dead from shock. A full dose would kill. Either way, one scratch and a foe was out of the fight, leaving him rolling on the ground screaming with agony and begging his comrades to end his existence to put him out of his pain. The psychological effect on the rest was devastating.

The twins never mixed it up with the scouts and foragers, just slashed and ran. Trolls who tried to parry Jemsen's and Karel's blades found that the combination of the twins' doubled strength and the momentum from their headlong rush quadrupled the power behind the attacks making them impossible to meet anyway.

To counter the threat of the twins troll cavalry quartered the countryside, though with little success. The twins kept on the move. Thanks to their enhanced physiques the twins had tremendous stamina. Given a head start they could run horses into the ground on a long chase, even without Karel's air wizardry.

On two occasions troll cavalry almost closed off their avenue of escape but Jemsen used earth magic to create a trench ten feet deep between them and formed the excavated earth into a berm on the near side. There was no way riders could get at them across such an obstacle, which gave the twins plenty of time to get into the clear.

Aodh went on walkabout prowling areas where supply roads passed through dense woods. The first order of business was to learn the lay of the land, to select spots for ambush as well as reconnoiter routes by which to escape and evade pursuit.

As a stalk and pounce predator, the panther's favorite way to kill was to wait atop an overhanging branch while a supply convoy passed under then drop on the final guard or pair of guards.

Aodh's weight and momentum would unhorse the trolls and the fall would likely stun or injure the riders making it easy for the black panther to nick them with a single poison claw then bound away and disappear into the thick woods. The stricken rider's agonized cries helped cover any sounds Aodh himself made.

Aodh also liked to attack a single horse in a team of four, crouching by the side of the road and swiping the passing equine with his poison claws. The horse would run crazy or rear uncontrollably, very likely crashing the wagon and spilling its contents onto the roadway. The wreckage and the cargo would block the road till they could be cleared away.

Occasionally the escort took up the pursuit. Now a panther could not outrun horses over any distance. Horses were built to cover distance and predatory cats were not, though the great weight of troll riders did slow their mounts considerably.

In such cases Aodh's favorite tactic was to lead his pursuers up a draw which would bunch them up and make them a better target for his sonic weapon. Aodh's purpose was not to kill a few more trolls but simply to get away and continue his raids on their supply lines.

Aodh's human side did feel sorry for the fright and distress he visited upon the poor horses. As for the trolls, if they got away with their lives that was more than they deserved.

With his coat of black fur Aodh was invisible at night as he snuck up and took out sentries. It did the trolls little good to replace single sentries with teams of two. Both were supposed to stay alert their whole tour, but through complacency the pair often traded off and let one sleep for half the night. Anyway even when both were fully alert, Aodh had no trouble dispatching both before ducking into the brush or taking to the trees. Far from helping, the practice of doubling the sentries just made it easier for Aodh to add to his body count.

The three druids focussed their attacks farther afield, not on the field army directly involved in the campaign against the Amazons but farther back on its logistical tail and the follow-on forces that would reinforce that army and help occupy the territories they expected to conquer. Portals allowed them to gate to the scene of the action then get away clean.

One favorite tactic was to visit dry rot on the timbers of the many small bridges troll engineers had erected across the numberless streams and creeks and rivers of Amazonia. They left just enough sound wood to keep the bridge up till wagons tried to cross it. The inevitable collapse from the heavy load caused not only the loss of the bridge, but often the cargo, the draft animals, and the teamsters as well.

Similarly the druids invoked earth magic to heave the ground under the corduroy roads troll engineers had built to carry wagon traffic over soft ground. A corduroy road was constructed in a low or swampy area by setting logs perpendicular to the direction of travel and linking them in place with rails along the side. The bed was often covered with sand for better traction and to pack the grooves between adjacent logs.

Corduroy roads were an improvement on simple dirt roads which were fine for the light traffic of rural life but could not bear up under the heavy traffic of military convoys. Besides, regardless of how many wagons passed along it, dirt roads might turn into quagmires after rain.

Yet even corduroy roads were rough going. Their corrugated surfaces were difficult for animals with hooves to walk on and could become dangerous when logs shifted under their weight. The alternative was plank roads built of hewn boards instead of logs resulted in a smoother and safer surface. Unfortunately they took longer to construct since the logs had to be sawn lengthwise and planks cut from them, work typically done in a sawmill off site, whereas the trees for a corduroy road could be simply chopped down on site and trimmed.

The worst damage the druids inflicted on the roads was less to the logs than to the roadbed beneath. Drawing on the water table below they transformed the road bed into a trough of nearly liquid mud. Troll engineers could not repair that kind of damage unless they could refill the soupy void with gravel. Alas, the stretches of road the druids attacked never had a gravel pit handy, not so anyone would notice after the druids buried a couple that actually were close by.

Owain scored a coup when he gated to a warehouse which stored the troll's supply of axle grease for the campaign. Next door stood the manufactory which produced the grease, an industrial facility taken over after the original inhabitants were put to the sword or rather the axe. Owain ruined the entire stock with an alchemical change, denaturing it, that is turning the semi-solid grease into an runny liquid of no use to anyone.

At a lumber yard he used sawdust from the adjacent sawmill as kindling then set a fire that consumed both the sawmill and the lumber yard in a merry bonfire whose wind-blown sparks caused further consternation.

Maybe it was his past as an equine which suggested the idea, but Meirionnydd infected draft horses with a debilitating but seldom fatal illness that took them out of service for a while. The druids spared the lives of the horses both from mercy and because they hoped to ultimately capture the stock from the defeated enemy and turn it over to the settlers whom the Commonwealth would bring in, especially their allies the orcs who were fighting determinedly to carve out a new land for themselves and giving a very good account of themselves. As mountaineers they would have few draft animals of their own.

Merry might not be able to throw streams of flame or clinging balls of fire like the Klarendes father and son could, but he had the gift of kindling a fire. Only instead of setting a cook fire to blazing merrily, he acted the arsonist and caused a conflagration which engulfed an entire industrial quarter.

The campaign of the mages achieved its aim of isolating the trolls confronting the Amazons from the rest of the theater of war. Couriers would always get through but few supplies or reinforcements.

That still left an army of just over one-hundred thousand trolls preparing an attack on the Amazons. A big battle was shaping up, one in which the mages and druids would really let loose with their powers on the genocidal trolls. A victory by the Commonwealth could mark the beginning of the end of the troll threat to decency and civilization.

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