Elf Boy's Friends - VII

by George Gauthier

Chapter 19

Standing Down

"Friends, General Urqaart sends us his thanks for our victory over the trolls," Dahl told his comrades, "but he won't need us for the big battles now underway in the western theater of war. As he sees it we have already done our part and then some. So he told us to stand down and go home."

That brought nods and smiles of relief from the weary group of magic wielders who, with the help of their brontothere and Amazon allies, had thrown back an invasion of the secluded homeland of the Amazons. That group included the three druids Owain, Merry, and Dahl himself plus four members of the Klarendes clan: Count Taitos Klarendes, his spouse Aodh, his son Artor, and his nephew Corwin Klarendes. The final quartet was comprised of the twins Jemsen and Karel and the war wizard Sir Willet Hanford and his aide cum war mage Axel Wilde.

"I understood from Queen Seerah that the Amazons would rather we did not hang on here for too long but leave next week after the national holiday of celebration and thanksgiving. Much as they are grateful for our help, the presence of such powerful males in their midst is disruptive to their evolving society."

"Nowhere nearly so disruptive as your first visit a dozen years ago, Dahl." Sir Willet pointed out.

"At this point, their transition from a strict matriarchy to a society of more equal status between males and females is unstoppable. Better it proceed as it has been doing in an orderly fashion. The Amazons recognize that change is inevitable and are adjusting as well and as fast as can be expected from any dominant caste. There is no doubt about their wanting to join the wider world beyond the sea of reeds which for so long isolated them from the rest of the continent."

That was a reference to the wide and deep canal Dahl, Count Klarendes, Jemsen and Karel had constructed through the impassable wetland called the sea of reeds. The new waterway would allow the passage of large riverboats and barges, thereby joining the upper basin of the river to the basin of the Amazon River proper.

"As I judge things," Dahl added, "this forced change made the Amazons admit the cruelty underlying their old social arrangements. Their old society stunted not only the bodies and the sexuality of their males but also the talents and ambitions their country so desperately needs not to mention their magical gifts."

Corwin cocked his head to concede the points Dahl had made.

"If you say so Dahl. For myself I am still too much of a kid to appreciate the big picture like that. What I can be sure of is that my work here as a soldier is over, but I still have a job to do as a war correspondent for the Capital Intelligencer. Once I dispatch my reports about our eastern campaign, I will return to Urqaart's headquarters and cover the new campaign, the final campaign as the good general calls it. This was my first deployment against the trolls while everyone else was on his second or third."

"Good luck Corwin," Jemsen said. "but Karel and I are glad to be going home."

"As for the rest of the Klarendes' clan we three will return to Elysion," Count Klarendes said. "Artor for a vacation and Aodh to get back to his job as a forest ranger and me to the estate."

"We druids will be joining you there, Taitos. The New Forest needs tending during these critical years of its growth. Once it becomes fully sentient and wakens to its powers, we can leave most of that job to the rangers."

"What about you and Axel, Sir Willet?" Corwin asked.

"Home and not before time." the war wizard said with an emphatic nod. "I may be a war wizard, but right now I am heartily sick of war or at least of this war against the trolls. Horrid creatures every single one of them. I am usually not one to demonize the enemy, but in their case I had to made an exception. I pray Urqaart wipes them out utterly. I know that's bloody minded, but there it is."

The twins nodded. "That was just the way we all felt about centaurs, especially after one of them killed our friend the elf-boy Ran. It was trying to force its way into the village school so it could kill and eat the children sheltering inside. You cannot help but hate foes who regard you as meat on the hoof in the case of the centaurs or, in the case of the trolls, beings who should be slain out of hand simply for being what they are."

"So why is Axel looking so glum this morning?" Corwin wondered.

"You would think he'd be pleased by our success. That last raid of ours was what made the trolls pack it in and give up on the invasion as a lost cause. So why the brown study? What do you think, Sir Willet?"

"It's like this, Corwin. It is true that what you boys did on that raid was as a major coup. And yes, it was the climax to our successful campaign to block the trolls' invasion of the land of the Amazons. Axel knows this as well as we do, but he is heartsick at the loss of life including his brontothere friend Lancer. And he deplores the waste of so many resources not only on this campaign but during the larger war with the trolls."

"Axel sees the whole thing as a futile and completely avoidable war. Of course the Commonwealth had to defend itself, but the trolls did not invade Valentia for ordinary reasons like territorial aggrandizement or for booty, or in reprisal for some injury. Nor did the trolls invade Valentia because of population pressure back home in their oceanic archipelago."

"No, it was all because the trolls were and still are engaged on a genocidal crusade. They weren't satisfied with abjuring magic for themselves in their own lands, which was easy enough since they have no innate magic. Instead they have sought to destroy magic everywhere by exterminating entire races simply because they had magical gifts."

Having heard their exchange, Axel looked up and said hotly:

"It's so stupid!". Shaking his head in disgust he went on to add:

"Damned religious fanatics the lot of them. Envy of those who do have magic lead them to believe that their gods hated magic so much that they had not only denied it to trolls, they were against magic entirely. Except, of course, for such magic that the gods themselves might use, if indeed they do use the natural force we call magic and not some entirely supernatural source of power. Providing such gods or any gods even exist, a dubious proposition at best."

"How could the trolls pledge themselves to gods who were too feeble on their own to stop the other races from using magic? If the gods were dead set against magic then why don't they wipe out magic themselves or the races who use magic. But no, these feeble gods call on their worshipers, mere mortals, to do what they themselves in all their divine power and majesty either cannot or will not do. Unbelievable!"

Corwin told him. "I think the hardest part for you Axel is knowing that peace is entirely out of reach even though it should be easy to achieve. If only the trolls would leave the rest of us alone, we would let them be. Not on Valentia, of course. We cannot tolerate genocide. So as things stand there is no scope for a peacemaker like yourself to broker a settlement. The trolls won't even talk with us. They can't really. Neither side speaks the other's language and the trolls won't allow Mind Speech because it is magical."

Axel nodded. Corwin was right. He was sick at heart that neither he nor anyone else could act as a peacemaker the way he and his friends had helped make peace and allies of the brontotheres in New Varangia, the Medkari in the Hot Lands, and the orcs in the Eastern Mountains and earlier of the Despotate of Dzungaria in the Far West.

In Axel's case that feeling was more acute because his style of fighting was mostly either close up and personal or at least done one kill at a time, a particularly brutal and bloody way to make war. Acting as a sniper he preferentially went for head shots, which practically guaranteed a kill rather than a shot to the body which might merely wound the target. The blast from the hydrostatic shock of the impact splashed brains and bone fragments from the back of the skull backwards and enveloped the head in a characteristic red mist, indicating success.

Acting as an assassin Axel would jumped beside a troll and slash him with the poisoned blades of his push knifes. The target's agonized screams and howls and the mess and the stench of his loosened bowels confirmed the success of his attack. Then there were the kills where Axel simply dismembered a foe, touching him lightly then jumping away with just his head or arm, leaving his torso to stagger upright for a bit with arterial blood pumping out of a severed neck or truncated shoulder.

The mess he left when he jumped a troll into the air and let him go was particularly grisly. The impact of a fall from three hundred feet left body parts and fluids strewn around the impact point. Then there was aerial bombing with incendiaries which turned enemy soldiers into "crispy critters" — soldierly slang for burnt corpses.

There was no glory in that kind of war against enemies who were utterly merciless. Axel and Liam and Sir Willet had seen the mass graves of men, women, and children where during their invasion of Amazonia the trolls had hastily buried the victims of their war of extermination, burials motivated not by any regard for the dead but merely a public health measure to dispose of rotting corpses.

All that Axel had done in combat was necessary and fully justified, but it left him troubled. Such terrible things really should not happen in a well-ordered world. The others shared his sentiment, but of them all Axel's was the gentlest soul, so the tragedy of war affected him most keenly.

"You know, Axel," Sir Willet told his aide. "I went through the same kind of despond thirty years ago after my first war. I held nothing back attacking the barbarians with streams of flame and great clinging balls of fire. I used telekinesis to whirl a steel axe head to smash their heads and bodies and hail and lightning from thunderstorms to break their shield walls. I didn't keep count of those I slew, but the total was in the hundreds.

The fact is I really joined the army so I could learn about magic full-time and get paid for it. I did not become a soldier for martial glory. All I can tell you is that with the passage of time the horrors of war get easier to bear, not because you grow callous, but from the perspective of greater life experience."

"And Axel, one thing you should do when we get back. Look into how you can use your gifts constructively. After two tours of duty you and I are finished fighting trolls. We can look forward to a time of peace, a chance to explore the positive possibilities of our magical gifts."

"By all means talk to Drew Altair. If anyone appreciates the value of magic in civilian life it is he, in his capacity as editor of the Institute's journal 'Magic'. Look how he used telekinesis in his rescue work. Fetchers also move freight along iron roads and passengers on street cars or fly autogyros. There are plenty of other examples which might inspire you."

"That's good advice. I'll do that when I get back. And thank you, Sir Willet,."

Sir Willet nodded and squeezed the boy's shoulder encouragingly. He had the highest regard for the youth who had become like a son to him, the son he had never had.

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