Elf Boy's Friends - Volume XIII

by George Gauthier

Chapter 18

Reconnaissance

That night the autogyro landed silently in a location which the druid's psychic senses told him was not occupied by people or indeed by any creatures which might be startled and so give the alarm. They landed about a half mile from the fort in a field of sweet-smelling alfalfa surrounded by a thorny hedge intended to keep animals out but which would also conceal the aerocraft from observation. They left a sailor on guard as the rest of their small party made their way single file toward the bastioned tower.

The recon team crossed a dirt path, but did not take it since its route would bring them too near to the farmsteads of the local inhabitants. Instead they went cross-country. Twice dogs started barking, but Dahl's druidical powers put them to sleep. In just a quarter hour they arrived at the inland base of the bastioned tower or rather of the rocky outcrop atop which it had been built.

Jemsen invoked his earth magic, psychically delving the structure and the rock outcrop, sketching the layout in detail even in pitch dark.

The tower was a square building with four corner turrets. It was fifty feet tall, with walls twelve feet thick, and it stood on a platform twenty-five feet high surrounded by a ditch and glacis over which traffic could pass via a drawbridge.

Cannon in the corner turrets commanded the harbor and the shore of the bay to the East while the high angle fire of mortars emplaced in the inner courtyard could drop explosive shells on both the landward approaches and the ground immediately around the tower, turning them into killing grounds.

The earth wizard's magical senses were keen enough to pick out the concealed exit of a sally port, by which part of the garrison could slip out unobserved by an enemy force assaulting the front gate and fall upon them in a hit and run raid.

As Jemsen reconnoitered the fort the druid listened in on the conversations among the garrison. The first importance piece of intelligence was that their language was related to the Anglic which was the remote ancestor of the common tongue of Valentia. That meant that with concentration they would be able to speak with the locals rather than rely solely on the druid's Mind Speech.

Now most of the talk among the small garrison of forty men was idle chitchat about the usual things which occupied the minds of bored soldiers in isolated posts: the bland if filling rations, sergeants and discipline, gambling, and sex. They were just marking time till the next call to arms.

The raids might have been scripted, they ran so similarly. Propelled with paddles by a crew of thirty and with only the raiders aboard, the canoes were fast and maneuverable. One they reached the beach they would fan out to seize valuables, slaves, stores of grain, and the smaller sort of livestock.

These so-called Sea Wolves would time their attacks to take advantage of high tide to thread through or pass over the reefs, shallows, and shoals which might otherwise impeded their withdrawal.

The Sea Wolves were basically thieves who did not slay wantonly nor did they engage in wholesale arson of farmsteads or crops. That would be counterproductive to their long term interest in periodically shearing their victims, something the raiders could do time and again if they left the locals enough to rebuild with. The Sea Wolves were astute enough to know that a shepherd could get mutton or lamb from a sheep only once, but could shear a sheep year after year.

The garrison was too small to engage the enemy on the ground. Their job was command the harbor and beaches and to sink or disable the enemy's sea-going canoes, to whittle their numbers down while the local militia formed up to face the raiders. Lookouts atop the tower watched day and night since nighttime raids were not unknown though rare. At need they would toll a bell and light signal fires. Those who had the gift would Call Light and zip their cool blue-white globes of light along the beach and over the harbor till they found the raiders.

Only a month earlier the fort had seen off a raid by sinking four of seven large sea-going canoes. How much longer could the raiders keep accepting such losses?

Voices of the garrison carried to the watchers below.

"No raiders will show up on a night with both moons down. It is so dark you can hardly see the hand in front of your face. So how could they navigate their big canoes without running onto a reef or a shoal?"

"Don't be so sure about that Danny. Some raiders have magical senses or maybe they could land a pathfinder during the day down the coast, a spy who could light a shielded lantern on the beach to guide them in. These Sea Wolves are crafty, make no mistake."

"Yeah, well this is what I think about those sea-going bastards and their craftiness."

The young sandy-haired soldier named Daniel stepped atop the wall and pissed over the side to show his contempt for the enemy. Unfortunately in the dark he misstepped, lost his balance, and toppled forward.

His friend let out one anguished cry of "Danny!" then rushed to the wall and Called Light, expecting to see the broken body of his friend and lover on the rocks below. But Daniel was safe and sound, rescued as Liam reached out with his telekinesis to catch him and set him gently to earth.

"I'm alive! But how? And why would Sea Wolves reveal themselves to save the life of an enemy?"

"Because we are not those Sea Wolves of yours at all. Your enemies would have let you fall to your death. The fact that we did not shows that we are friends not enemies."

"Your foreign accent tells me the same thing, which is fine by me, but you'd better have a good story for the captain. Speaking of which, here he comes."

A dozen soldiers had exited through the sally port and taken positions around the recon team cutting off retreat, oblivious to the presence of the stealthy shapeshifter who had taken a position directly behind them.

The captain was a man of middle years with an authoritative air.

"We number more than a dozen, all professional soldiers armed with crossbows and short swords, while the four of you don't have any stand-off weapons, just those clumsy spears slung on a strap from your shoulders or that quarterstaff the elf-boy is holding."

"Normally I would just order my men to fall upon spies and slay them out of hand, but you spared my soldier's life when you could have let him die and slipped away in the dark. I need to know why. Who are you, and what are you doing here? You're obviously not Sea Wolves. If anything you look like a gaggle of rent boys."

"Obviously we are not Sea Wolves," Liam began, "nor, despite our looks, are we rent boys, though you are not the first to jump to that conclusion. We are explorers from a far off land which lies on the other side of the ocean. Our intentions are peaceable, but out of caution we sent in a small party to reconnoiter to learn out why the entire coast needs the protection of a string of fortresses."

"You call it reconnaissance; I might as easily call it espionage, though since we are not at war with your country I am willing to set that issue aside for now and hear you out. Will you surrender your weapons and enter the fort?"

Liam shook his head.

"Surrendering our weapons would be a pointless gesture. Our blades and spears as you call them are the least dangerous thing about us. As a war wizard of the Commonwealth of the Long River I could single-handedly level your fort with white fire. The blond boy on your left is an earth wizard who could bring your tower down with an earthquake. His twin is an air wizard. It's hard to make out in the dark, but he has already put up a shield of hardened air between our parties making us invulnerable to your crossbow bolts. If he were in a killing mood, his monomolecular air blade could slice the bodies of your soldiers in half."

Left unsaid that both he and the druid has impenetrable missile shields of their own.

"The elf-boy is a druid and one of the most powerful magical wielders on the planet. He could blind all of you with a thought and is a deadly close quarters fighter. The final member of our party is quite a stealthy fellow indeed. You cannot see him since he is a shapeshifter who has taken on the form of a black panther, but he is quite capable all by himself of taking out a dozen armed men in close combat, as I saw him do not so long ago."

"So please disabuse yourself of the notion that you hold the upper hand. You don't. We do. But we are willing to talk and will accept your invitation to the fort, but this is not a surrender, nor will we let you bind us."

"I am forced to accept your terms. But we have ignored the proprieties, I am Captain Darrow. That young soldier you rescued is named Daniel; he is well-liked by his fellows, so you won't have to worry about hostility from my men, now that we can see that you are not our traditional enemies the Sea Wolves."

Liam then made the introductions calling out to Aodh to reveal himself, which Aodh did, shifting his form from that of black panther to that of a naked youth with exquisite features, raven locks, and milky white skin, the mark of shape shifters who never burn or tan from the sun's rays.

"Whoa!" Danny breathed entranced by Aodh's beauty.

"I've never seen boys as lovely as you five. Uh, no offense to the rest of you guys, but if I had my druthers, I would choose the exotic shape shifter who has just revealed himself."

"And maybe you will get your wish, young Daniel," Captain Darrow told him, "if our visitors stay long enough, but only if I lift the rule against fraternization. Is that understood, soldier?"

Danny nodded glumly.

"I can readily appreciate your personal interest in such an exquisite boy Daniel, but my military mind is struggling to believe that such an unwarlike youth managed to kill a dozen armed men."

That put a wry smile on the war wizard's face.

"Believe it. I was there and saw it for myself how even put on alert those men died in little more time than it takes to tell the tale."

"There's a whole lot more to our shape shifter friend than meets the eye," Jemsen assured the captain

"For one thing magic has given him tripled his natural strength and faster reflexes. And he has other gifts beyond those of a shape shifter, but for tactical reasons, I shall forebear to mention them."

During their discussion in the fort, both sides were circumspect in their revelations. Liam spoke of only one small exploration vessel currently standing out to sea rather than of a flotilla of naval vessels with unmatched combat power. He did not mention their autogyro at all, and he and Dahl made no mention of portals.

Captain Darrow was quite forthcoming about his enemies the Sea Wolves, though he was reticent about his immediate tactical situation or his ability to communicate with his headquarters. Meanwhile Dahl used Mind Speech to bring Commodore Dekker and Commander Grayson up to date but kept his telepathic ability a secret from the locals. Who knew what he might glean from their unguarded thoughts?

The raiders who called themselves the Sea Wolves lived on the chain of offshore islands, the Seaward Isles, some of which were sizable enough to support populations of thousands. The soils of the islands were thin and sandy, so crop yields were much lower than on the mainland which benefitted from the alluvial soils deposited over the ages by the many short rivers which drained a tableland to the South.

The islanders had arrived a couple of centuries after the mainlanders seeking fresh lands to settle on, having abandoned the desiccated lands of their origins. Now the mainlanders were willing to share the land they called Severna, to let the newcomers settle among them as immigrants, that is as individuals who sought a place in their existing society. That meant that the newcomers would have to adopt their ways or at least to adapt to them and to agree to live under the existing laws and political arrangements in Severna.

The newcomers refused to become mere immigrants. They had always ruled themselves and had no intention of submitting to rule by others. Theirs had been a migration of an entire people in search of a new land where they would be masters in their own house. Why should bold seafarers like themselves submit to the rule of unwarlike landlubbers like the earlier settlers? No, what the newcomers wanted was to seize, rule, and settle fertile lands already cleared and put to the plow by the earlier arrivals. Overplaying their hand even more, the newcomers expected the Severnans to pay them an annual tribute for the lands they were allowed to retain on sufferance.

The mainlanders found those demands intolerable. Those were terms for a conquered people, which they were not. A spontaneous mass rising drove the newcomers away, forcing them to settle on the islands and to farm the soils as best they could all the while raiding the mainland to supplement their poor yields. Meanwhile their population doubled then double again.

The ports on the islands became naval bases for continual low-level warfare which pitted the naval power of a sea-going folk against a population without a maritime vocation other than inshore fishing and no navy to speak of. Some of the coastal statelets paid tribute so that their lands and their fishermen would be left alone. Most refused since the tribute include annual levies of youths and maidens destined to gratify the lusts of the islanders.

The raiding strategy had served the islanders well until twenty years earlier when the Severnans developed guncotton, cannon, and explosive shells and built the bastioned forts to command the sea approaches. That gave them the upper hand ashore and sharply reduced the depredations of the raiders, though the system of forts was costly to man and maintain.

The Severnans had no warships of their own nor could they have mounted their heavy cannon on ships or hit anything with them, not while both target and firing platform were in constant motion, especially given and the difficulties of aiming the clumsy guns.

Liam summed up.

"Within understandable limits you have been candid with us and we with you. We shall leave now and return to our ship and report what we have learned. Then it will be up to the diplomats as to where we shall go from here. I trust you will not try to hinder our departure."

"Nay, we pledged safe passage. Go in peace."

The recon party knew that though the garrison would not stop them, they would no doubt shadow them as they returned to their ship. Liam and Dahl teamed up to fool the watchers. Liam used a concealment and gave Captain Darrow's scouts a false trail to follow. The soldiers followed the phantom party in the wrong direction till the concealment evaporated from their minds and left the scouts mystified by how the recon party had vanished into thin air. Meanwhile the recon party stepped through a portal Dahl had opened directly to the autogyro which then flew them out to the flotilla.

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