Elf Boy's Friends - VIII
Over the next few days, Finn and Drew with the twins and Axel as passengers scouted the ring via autogyro to gain a bird's eye view by which to check the maps the Guardians had drawn of the land within the stone ring. That gave Jemsen an idea. Calling them together he explained his plan to isolate and seize a portion of the land within the ring to allow for immediate settlement.
"As you can see on this map, these two lakes plus a couple of smaller ones are connected by shallow streams. I propose to use earth magic to lower the land under the streams, thereby creating a single continuous lake arcing across this sector of the circle and enclosing about one-sixth of the area, some two hundred square miles or so. The western end already abuts a cliff so we know the water there will be deep enough to block the raptors. At the eastern end I'll build a sill and extend it out into the lake to ensure a depth of twenty feet along most of it. This lake will become a moat behind which you can establish yourselves.
"I see. And for future expansion, we could cross the lake in boats or build a pontoon bridge for access to the rest, clearing it in bite size portions behind canals or palisades." Salter was immensely pleased with this development.
"And to start things off on the right foot, the members of the Corps of Discovery have agreed to lend their powers to the clearing of this first slice of the territory." Finn promised.
Dylan wanted to know if the raptors had any natural enemies he might enlist in their cause. He was told of a jaguar species larger than any other. The males ran up to four hundred pounds and rivaled the raptors for the role of apex predator. The jaguars preferred to live by rivers and swamps and in dense forest which provided thick cover for stalking prey.
Solitary hunters, their favorite tactic was to drop from above to stun their prey with the impact of their fall then bite between the ears driving their canines through the skull and into the brain. That made for a safe quick kill.
Jaguars could match a raptor in single combat. but rarely attacked since raptors roamed in packs of three or four, which was too much for a single cat to take on. If caught on the ground, a jaguar would retreat, taking to the trees or jumping in the water to get away. Jaguars were excellent swimmers. Needless to say there was no love lost between the predatory species.
Dylan thought he could build on that. For starters though he would march prey species like badgers, porcupines, and opossums through the forest to lure raptors into ambushes.
Over the next ten days the Guardians got ready for their first ever offensive campaign. On the appointed day the Corps of Discovery donned military outfits and armor, ready to do battle. The plan called for Madden Sexton in his wolverine form to stand guard on Dylan. Sexton was sure his preternatural strength and speed and reflexes made him more than a match for a pack of raptors especially with his claws coated with Aodh's venom.
Drew and Liam would invoke their telekinetic powers to whirl steel spheres at the raptors on offense or in a tight arc defensively if they got too close. Liam's white fire was to be held in reserve just in case.
The trio of the twins and Axel would provide covering fire, the twins with long bows and Axel with his air guns. If need be Axel could jump fighters to safety if they looked likely to be overwhelmed.
The Guardians of the Ring realized that the battle would often be fought at close quarters in a dense forest which would allow the raptors to get close, too close really. The solution was portable mantlets, basically lightweight triangular wooden sheds which six shooters could lift and carry to shelter them from the claws and teeth of the raptors. The raptors would not be able to get at the men inside, but the soldiers could shoot the predators at point blank range from the two loopholes in each side and the single loophole at each end.
Those recalled to the colors manned the fixed defenses and constituted a mobile reserve while the sixty experienced soldiers marched under the ten mobile mantlets. Finn Ragnarson was stationed with the command group to help oversee the offensive. All were sure their plan would work, built as it was upon the military ideal of operating on the strategic offensive but tactically on the defensive.
And so it turned out to be. Jemsen isolated the battlefield by connecting his chain of lakes. From that point the campaign was mostly a series of skirmishes between a small pack of raptors and the shooters sheltered inside one or occasionally two mutually supporting mantlets. Dylan watched from a height or a tall tree and paraded prey animals past the sheds to draw raptors to them or occasionally a jaguar which the soldiers ignored.
Only one soldier died when the crew of a mantlet stumbled and overbalanced and fell over. That exposed the legs of the soldier long enough for a raptor to drag the poor man from within. In the moment it took his five teammates to right their shelter all three raptors in the pack pounced on the man and literally tore him limb from limb before the horrified gaze of his comrades. Leveling their air guns they took their revenge.
One soldier in another crew got rather too enthusiastic and poked his air gun too far through the loophole. That carelessness got his left hand bitten off. His comrades applied a tourniquet and sounded a horn which brought Axel to the scene. Timing his move, Axel touched the shelter and jumped it and all within to the infirmary of the fortress, a jump he had practiced beforehand for just such an eventuality.
The twins and Axel chose an exposed position in the middle of a small meadow. No less than five packs of raptors, twenty-three in all, converged on the trio who seemed to be standing out in the open, vulnerable and unprotected. The short distance from the tree line to their prey could be covered in seconds.
Bowstrings twanged as the twins sank a dozen shafts into the on-coming predators though it usually took two each to be sure of stopping them. Face on the raptors made a narrow target much of it bony head, ribs, and limbs. Still their years of practice and their gift of Unerring Direction made the twins the deadliest archers on the planet.
Axel had had less than a year to practice with his air gun but he too had that same magical gift. He made his shots count though it took two or three bullets to put down an enraged raptor. When his air gun ran out of bullets he did not bother to reload it or recharge its air reservoir. Instead he switched to the shorter carbine version and cooly resumed shooting as they closed the range.
That left seven raptors who got within striking distance only to fetch up on Karel's invisible defenses. The young air wizard had created a new version of his blade of hardened air. Instead of a vertical cylinder around the trio, it was in the form of a flat ring slanting upward from the ground to about shoulder height, so the defenders could shoot over it. The outer rim sported a monomolecular blade like the weapon Karel had used against the "dragon" back in the caverns.
With the blade braced on the ground the charging raptors own momentum was their undoing. They ran onto the blade and literally cut themselves in two, their forward parts sliding messily and bloodily down the shield to land at the feet of the defenders while the rest of their corpses dropped outside.
"Well done Karel! You stopped them cold."
Karel grinned and joked:
"It's so much easier when your foes do you the favor of committing suicide, isn't it Jemsen?"
His twin clapped his brother on the shoulder then turned and said:
"And good shooting there too Axel. You must have dropped five of them."
"Six actually, but who's counting?"
The climactic battle took place at the end of a rocky peninsula into the lake where the soldiers in their mantlets formed a shallow U. That left the flat rocky expanse in front of them as a perfect killing ground. To the right of the line of mantlets, behind another of Karel's sloping air blades stood the twins and the command group of Salter, an aide and his two guards armed now with airguns as well as swords plus Finn, all brought there by Liam in his transport aerocraft which he had then flown back to the fortress. Autogyros were too precious to hazard on a battlefield. Afterwards Liam gated back to the lake shore. Dylan and Axel and Madden Sexton in his wolverine form anchored the left, standing behind a chest high boulder pressed into service as an impromptu breastwork.
Finn had reminded his friends that they must let the Guardians take the lead in destroying the raptors. This was their very first campaign where they had gone on the offensive, a fight which they were taking the attack to the enemy not merely fending them off or blocking attempts to exfiltrate. A victory won mainly by their own efforts would give the Guardians confidence in their new weapons and tactics and in themselves as soldiers not just glorified game wardens.
Liam was to hold his white fire in reserve. Same thing with the others and their major powers: no tornados, lightning bolts raining down from the sky, no sun mirrors turning the raptors into ash, nor chasms in the earth opening up to swallow the creatures. Let the guardians win the fight for their future homeland.
Just as everyone got into position a horde of prey animals burst out of the forest, initially drawn by Dylan's powers and now just fleeing the on-coming raptors. Once released from Dylan's control they scattered, many plunging into the lake to swim to safety.
Behind them surged a pack of seventy predators. They raced forward screeching their defiance only to be met by a hail of lead from the air guns, arrows from the twins and Dylan, and lightning bolts from Mjolnir.
A pack of four swung to the left of the defense line and targeted Dylan, Axel, and Sexton, but the wir wolverine made short work of them. His magical strength and speed made it look as though the raptors were moving in slow motion. And once he cut them with his poison coated claws, all they could do was scream in pain and writhe on the ground, making it easy for Sexton finish them off by tearing through the top of their skulls and ripping out their brain pans. Wolverines were messy that way.
Another raptor tried to flee the killing ground, but the wir wolverine dragged it down. With the poison he had painted on his claws worn off, this was one kill he had to make the hard way: pitting strength against strength, his teeth and claws against the raptor's. That just made the fight all the more satisfying. Wolverines are fierce that way.
For their part Liam and Drew whirled their steel spheres to stop a trio of raptors which had approached through the shallows to the right of the line of defenders.
The shooting from the mantlets halted as the air guns ran dry. Captain Salter had his aide sound a horn, the signal for the men inside the shelters to pick up their mantlets and swing them around to present the other side to the killing ground. That gave the soldiers at those loopholes a chance to shoot with their fully charged air guns while the others reloaded and recharged their air reservoirs.
Shooting eventually fell off for lack of targets.
Eight wounded raptors had turned to flee and actually got out of range only to run into Dylan's big surprise: the jaguars. Roaring their hatred nineteen big cats pounced on their enemies. With two or three jaguars per wounded raptor the outcome of the fight was a foregone conclusion. Only one jaguar died, and two more had gouges to the shoulders left by sickle claws aimed at their throats.
Disdaining the flesh of the raptors the jaguars turned to leave pausing only long enough to study the strange two-legged creatures who had briefly been their allies. After seeing how powerful the two-legs were the jaguars ruled them out as future prey. Then they faded into the trees and went their separate ways.
Pairs of spearmen stepped out from inside the mantlets and finished off the wounded raptors with boar spears. One soldier got careless when approaching a dying raptor and took a bad slash to a leg. The others took notice and made sure to approach the beasts from behind.
The final count was one-hundred thirty-seven raptors. Only a few juveniles were ever seen on the near side of the lake which served as a moat, and they were easily killed. The land was now safe for settlement and civilization. Acting on Sexton's suggestion, the guardians later released antelope and deer into the forests to restore the balance of nature. Better the jaguars have wild animals to prey on instead of livestock.
Sexton himself was in fine fettle, relaxed and cheerful after expending all the nervous energy that might normally have had to be relieved by a walkabout in his scrap with the raptors. For the wolverine in him, a tough fight was positively therapeutic.
Finn pitched in helping with the metal work, working at a forge to form door hinges and lantern brackets and stove grates for the houses that were soon going up. Fields were laid out and granted to all the families including those who might have arrived too late to fight but not to build. It would be years before the guardians would be ready to expand across the boundary lake, but the foundation had been laid for what in time became an exemplary polity on the continent of Valentia.
When the eight of them were alone Sexton asked Finn:
"Why are you making such an effort to promote aviation?"
"Er, I guess it is time to fill you guys in on the new orders I got when I returned to the capital to arrange for air guns for our new friends."
"Baron Jarmond picked up on the strong interest throughout the Northlands in flying in autogyros. After he brought that to the attention of the High Council I got orders to include the Stone Ring and the other locales as stepping stones to a shipbuilding port on the Northern Ocean."
"The Commonwealth will one day have seaports on the southern ocean. We need to learn how to build stout ships suitable for navigating the tempestuous outer ocean and not just in coastwise trade as now happens."
"With all we have on our hands in the Far West and Amazonia is the Commonwealth seriously thinking about expanding north as well as south?"
"No, nothing like that. The Commonwealth has no territorial ambitions in the north. We do not want to annex these lands, or even turn them into protectorates. Nor do we want formal alliances whether political or military, offensive or defensive. We also won't try to set up a customs union or even a free trade area."
"So what are we after?"
"The High Council calls it a Co-prosperity Sphere, a loose group of independent but friendly states linked by communications, trade, investment, travel and tourism, and cultural exchange."
"The postal service can link our lands via surface mail, air mail, and later heliograph lines. Once locals establish air fields and air services, they can operate the postal autogyros under contract, similar to our arrangement with operators of mail coaches. As aviation develops, passenger and freight traffic will develop."
"That will boost the opportunities for trade, commerce, and investment in modern industries. In time these states will find it in their interest to adopt our commercial code as other states around the Great Inland Freshwater Sea have done along wth common courts to enforce them."
"Books printed with moveable type already circulate in the North, but they are lagging in setting up print shops, book publishers, and news-papers. That is where your family firm Drew can help. "
"Right. We not only run the Capitol Intelligencer and the Western Intelligencer out west in Caerdydd, we own print shops and foundries for moveable type and wood pulp plantations. Once the northerners start up news-papers they will be able to join the centralized news service we have set up, the Press Association of Valentia which flashes stories to subscribers via heliograph."
"So you see," Finn concluded, "we do have ulterior motives, but they are benign."
Their visit to the Stone Ring was one sojourn where none of the members of the Corps of Discovery found romance. Not that the guardians were hostile to the notion of same gendered love, only indifferent.
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