Elf Boy's Friends - III

by George Gauthier

Chapter 28


The next day Finn motioned for Dahl, Sir Willet, Drew, and Sergeant Ingersen to join him and started off by saying:

"So far we haven't run into danger, but the closer we get to the Barren Coast, the more I worry about an encounter with trolls. The low cliffs on the coast are no real barrier. Their ships could make an amphibious landing in one of the shallow coves. It would be easy enough for military engineers to chop stairways out of the soft chalk of the cliffs and to rig cranes at the top to lift up supplies."

Dahl nodded. "That possibility was one reason we had to explore and map these regions. With the twins, that job at least in in good hands. You can count on my druidic ability to see through the eyes of birds to warn us ahead of time of the approach of any hostiles."

Sergeant Ingersen noted: "My giants are stout lads, but they did not sign up for a war. We are an exploration team not a combat patrol, so I would much prefer to avoid a fight."

Finn nodded his agreement. "Our entire party numbers only forty, half of them Frost Giants. We are here to show the flag not to hold ground. There are no military objectives here anyway. So if we are forced to fight, let us do so but disengage as soon as we can and withdraw northwards to safety. To that end, let me explain how we should form up for battle."

"In a fight, our twenty-one giants would form a shield wall with the teamsters and scouts on their left to support the heavy infantry with their repeating crossbows plus the twins with their powerful longbows. They would fight from the backs of the wagons with the horses hitched and ready to pull back at the right moment."

"You Dahl and I would station ourselves on the right flank mounted on our brontotheres while Drew and Sir Willet would support the left. We magic users should be able inflict so many casualties on the enemy that he won't want to close with our shield wall."

Dahl nodded. "It is a good plan. Between us we have a powerful fetcher, a war wizard, and druid, and an avatar of a thunder god. All four of us can raise missile shields of different kinds against archery. Offensively Sir Willet can cast flaming streams or great clinging balls of fire, Drew can smash their heads and bodies with his steel spheres, I can invoke earth magic of many sorts, while you Finn can smash them with lightning bolts and your war hammer."

"Indeed" Sir Willet agreed. "Don't underestimate the psychological effect of combat magic. Flame weapons typically induce panic in enemy forces. Their formations disintegrate and they become easy targets for our own missile weapons. And yanking eyeballs out of their orbits induces visceral horror in enemy troops. Finn's lightning bolts from the sky induce a sense of helplessness in an enemy, making him inclined to veer off and let us go rather than press an attack."

Sir Willet also pointed out that like Drew he too could blind the front line of enemy soldiers by yanking their eyeballs out of their heads. All in all they were satisfied that their powers would make any enemy force think twice about pursuing and let them withdraw. The last thing any of them wanted was a pitched battle in the middle of nowhere.

It turned out though a pitched battle was exactly what they got. The very next day Dahl's avian spy in the sky spotted a company of trolls feating on the haunch of a brontothere they had killed and butchered and roasted on a spit. Generally about six feet tall, trolls were heavy boned and muscular with hairy bodies and bear-like muzzles equipped with tusks.

Behind the feasting trolls were five more brontotheres who were pinned against a cleft in a cliff by caltrops strewn on the ground and by troll guards armed with fire globes captured from a naval vessel they had taken. The glass spheres held an inflammable oil which would cling to their hides and burn them horribly.

Finn called a council of war. All agreed that despite odds of nearly five to one, they must not only free the brontotheres, they must afford them a part in the victory. With four magic wielders in their ranks, the risks were acceptable.

Now Dahl was one of the most powerful magic wielders and the planet. He might have destroyed the trolls all by himself, whether by setting a tornado on them, or making them deathly allergic to the brontothere flesh they had gorged on, or by turning their bones to powder, but he deemed it fairer to let this be a victory won by the whole team.

Powerful as they were, the other magic wielders would likely have needed the protection of the shield wall of the Frost Giants and the archery of the humans rather than do it all by themselves. Drew's whirling spheres could take out only so many foes a minute. No way he could kill two hundred in the time it would take for the trolls to close with him. Similarly balls and streams of fire could do only so much. And even a Frost Giant who was an avatar of a thunder god could be overwhelmed by sheer force of numbers. All of which reflected what Sir Willet always said, that war wizards were force multipliers for the military.

The allies formed a battle line comprised of the twenty-one Frost Giants in the center and on the right. The six wagons manned by human teamsters armed with crossbows and the twins with their long bows formed up to their left. The line reached across the saddle of the ridge overlooking the enemy camp. The slopes on either side anchored their own flanks and their elevation forced the enemy to attack uphill.

The trolls formed up in a triple line considerably longer than that of the allies and engaged the explorers with archery, shooting hundreds arrows. Those in the center shot either directly at the shield wall or in a high arc, knowing that the shields of the Frost Giants could not simultaneously offer cover to both direct and plunging fire. The trolls on the right and left of their line fired at an angle, trying to slip past their heavy wooden shields and hit the giants in the side.

Drew and Sir Willet used their Missile Shield to send many of the trolls' own arrows back at them. At his end of the line Dahl invoked his druidic power to change the wooden shafts of the arrows to dandelion seeds. The arrowheads lost momentum and fell harmlessly to the ground. Finn's own magnetic power was less flexible than the powers of his magical colleagues so he contented himself with making the arrows sent his way fall short.

Nevertheless some of the arrows struck home, mostly in arms or legs. The plunging fire of the trolls was largely ineffective thanks to the helmets and cuirasses that protected the giants.

Frustrated with the poor results of their archery, the trolls marched closer, brandishing their axes. That was when Dahl invoked earth magic, tapping the water table to turn the ground under their feet into a muddy quagmire into which they sank to their knees. Dahl then drained away the excess water turning the ground back into hard clay which held their legs fast. The ground was so hard the trolls could not free themselves with their axes.

Caught fast but undaunted, the trolls screamed their defiance and their hatred of the magic that was being used against them, magic that was far stronger than their old enemies in the archipelago had ever brought to bear in their earlier wars.

The archers in the wagons targeted the trolls on the left, skewering them with crossbow quarrels and war arrows. With their enhanced strength the twins could draw bows nearly as powerful as those of the trolls. The Frost Giants on the right unlimbered their slings and flung stones or lead bullets at the trolls with enough force to penetrate their armor though not always their heavy shields.

That was only the beginning of the trolls' ordeal. Sir Willet cast clinging balls of fire which took a heavy toll, one matched by Drew's whirling spheres. On the right Finn raised his hammer to the sky which answered his call with a tremendous clap of thunder.

Then Finn rose up into his stirrups and flung his war hammer at the troll commander, smashing his body apart, only to call Mjolnir back into his outstretched hand, utterly astounding the trolls. This was their worst nightmare, powerful magic they had no way of countering, not even with odds in their favor of nearly five to one.

Invoking his magic as an avatar of the thunder god Thor Finn called lightning down on the troll's store of fire globes igniting them and burning the trolls guarding the brontotheres. Using his control of magnetism, Finn swept the ground in front of the trapped brontotheres clear of the steel caltrops. Dahl sent mental imagery to tell the brontotheres that they were now free from that threat.

Free to charge. Which is just what they did sounding their battle cry. Dahl's and Finn's mounts Tyr and Hodr joined in. Finn used the strap on the haft of his hammer to extend his reach, swimming the hammer in vicious arcs left and right to smash any troll within reach. Dahl contented himself with stopping the hearts of trolls who tried to hamstring their huge mounts with their axes.

Between them the seven brontotheres rolled up or really stomped down the whole left flank of the trolls. The brontotheres did not stop there but kept going till they had gored and stomped every single troll, even those already lying dead.

Axel patched up the five frost giants and humans who had caught arrows. Only one wound was serious. The others were grazes to their shoulder muscles or arrows through their calfs. Axel cleaned the wounds, disinfected them with fiery spirits, stitched them up, then bandaged them, all the while cajoling the wounded to put them at ease. The young medic had a fine bedside manner.

One unfortunate human driver took an arrow to the gut, a wound far beyond the ability of natural medicine to deal with. Dahl invoked his druidic healing magic to rebuild the man's damaged viscera, remove the filth and blood from the abdominal cavity, and prevent infection. Two of the wounded would thenceforth ride the supply wagons, but there was plenty of room, since the corps of discovery had depleted more than half their supplies.

Axel packed up his field medical kit and put it back in his saddle bags. Axel knew very well that battles were rarely so one sided.

Finn summed things up. "The great advantage of annihilating the enemy in every encounter is that no one reports back to their commanders about our tactics and capabilities whereas with each battle, we learn more about how to fight trolls. For the trolls, it is always their first battle."

"And their last!" Karel noted.

"Their tactics are deficient from any point of view." Sir Willet noted. "The trolls should have refused battle and maneuvered to fight us on ground of their own choosing, perhaps by blocking our route of march and forcing us to attack them. Their fanaticism is a weakness."

Drew opined: "That is the root of all their problems, their fanaticism. Their whole belief system. Whatever gave the trolls the notion that magic was something reserved by the gods for the gods alone? Surely if there really were gods who felt that way, they would to do something about it themselves, rather than ask mere mortals to fight their battles for them. And since the gods have done nothing about mortal magic on Haven, who is to say that they do not approve of it?"

"And isn't it an implicit denial of their power to claim that that deities needs the help of their worshipers? That is tantamount to blasphemy isn't it. And isn't it megalomaniacal for any mere mortal to think the help his gods need should come from him in particular?"

"It makes you wonder if there really are any gods up there in the sky." Axel opined. "I suppose some of the cults are inoffensive enough, but it is hard to credit the existence of the strange deities so many profess their faith to. In that connection a certain thunder god comes to mind. No offense, Finn."

"None taken, Axel."

Nevertheless when Axel turned away to attend to his mount Axel stumbled as Finn startled him with a tremendous clap of thunder from directly overhead. No, Finn had not taken offense, but the opportunity was just too good to pass up. Axel nodded to show that he realized that he practically asked for it with his blasé comment about a certain thunder god.

The giants dragged the bodies of the trolls into a pile which Sir Willet turned into a funeral pyre. he kept it burning till little remained but disarticulated bones. Each of the Frost Giants helped himself to a troll war axe, adding it to his normal panoply of sword, spear, and kukri or long knife. Finn called lightning to melt the remaining axe blades into a useless lump of iron and steel.

The company of explorers made camp an hour's march from the site of the battle, away from the stink of battle. The newly freed brontotheres trumpeted their thanks then went off to rejoin their herd and also spread the news that there were two sorts of newcomers in the land. The hairy ones who looked like bears on two legs were the bad guys; the others the good guys.

The next morning Finn asked Dahl to reconnoiter the whole area, not just their proposed line of march. There must be other trolls around and probably in greater numbers.

Through the eyes of an osprey Dahl looked out over the whole region all the way to the Barren Coast where the trolls were making an amphibious landing. They had not simply run longships up on to the beach. Instead they had towed floating piers and anchored them in place affording an easy way to unload passengers and freight from their supply ships, mostly captured sailing vessels.

Workers had cut a dozen stairways in the soft chalk of the cliff face which was only about forty to sixty feet high at that point. At the top troll engineers erected cranes to lift supplies and wagons. Trolls in their tens of thousands were already atop the cliffs — soldiers and settlers and females too though unaccompanied by whelps.

On the flat tableland above the cliffs farmers were marking out fields and villages, lumberjacks were cutting timber for houses, a corps of engineers was building a road and a fort. They must have had an advance party at it for weeks with no one the wiser.

It was clear that the trolls intended to assert a claim to the Barren Lands by physical occupation. Once established their colony would swell from natural increase and further immigration. In time the Barren Lands would become the kernel of a new troll empire on Valentia, an empire with no room for Frost Giants, humans, elves, and dwarves all of whom would ultimately be exterminated.

But that dreadful future was not to be. The Navy had arrived to thwart their plans. Out to sea a naval battle was raging between the High Seas Fleet of the Commonwealth and a much larger covering force of troll longships protecting the landings. The troll longships outnumbered the Navy more than three to one. Powered by oars their longships were more maneuverable than the Navy's sailing ships. On the other hand, naval vessels were larger. Their higher freeboard made it difficult for the trolls to board from their low slung longships. Moreover the Navy's fully decked ships were equipped with ship-to-ship armaments not just the crews' personnel weapons. With the wind in their sails, naval vessels were faster in the long run and had much greater endurance.

"Our force is too small to take on tens of thousands." Finn declared. "We should retreat to safer ground and await the outcome of the titanic battle at sea."

Sir Willet and Dahl agreed though the druid added:

"I am going to contact someone in the fleet to find out what is going on and to ask whether we can help in some way, perhaps as observers."

Dahl reached out with with his magical senses seeking a person whose mind he had touched in the past. That was the most reliable way to carry on Mind Speech with someone who did not have the gift himself. In short order he found the contact he was looking for, Sir Willet's protege the young war wizard Liam who was serving aboard the CS Petrel along with his lover Nathan Lathrop.

Liam reported that battle was going well. As usual the trolls pitted their oared longships against the Navy's sailing vessels, trying to close with, grapple, and board their enemy and fight it out in hand-to-hand combat. The Navy used speed and maneuver to stand off from troll longships and attack them with ship-to-ship armaments like ballistas and catapults.

Engineers at the Bureau of Ships under Admiral Van Zant had developed a new and safer incendiary weapon to replace the hazardous fire globes which were safe enough for infantry who fought on dry land but always a potential fire hazard at sea.

The new weapon combined an alchemical liquid and a powder, neither of which was inflammable by itself. Sailors added a glass jar of the powder to a small keg of the liquid at the last minute just before it was sealed then flung by a catapult at the enemy.

Whether by the shock of the launch or the impact when the keg hit an enemy deck, the glass jar broke allowing the two substances to mix. They reacted vigorously, fizzing and churning and igniting the mixture which burned much hotter than the inflammable oil of the fire globes. The conflagration generated combustion gasses that burst the keg apart and spread flames everywhere. Nor could the fire be put out with water.

Catapults of a new compact design were installed on all ships. Even small ships like the Petrel had room for six, three to starboard and three to port. That gave her a powerful incendiary broadside. With their slings sailors now flung volleys of lead bullets at the enemy instead of fire globes.

The Navy's new ballistas were likewise of a compact design based on recurved bows. A ship the size of the Petrel could fit three of them on her foredeck and two on her quarterdeck. Yet they shot the same giant arrows as the bigger weapons they replaced. And the new ballistas are fitted with wooden shields to protect their crews.

All major naval vessels also had magic wielders aboard whether it was a full-fledged war wizard or a weather wizard, water wizard, firecaster, or fetcher who attacked the longships in their characteristic ways. The weather wizards set waterspouts on the longships while water wizards disrupted their formations with whirlpools. Contrary to popular belief, whirlpools cannot suck ships under but can swamp vessels like longships with their low freeboard.

Fire casters threw streams of fire, turning longships into infernos while fetchers smashed great holes in their hulls either by flinging ballast stones at them or dropping them from above. Those with gifted with control of magnetism could tear a longship apart by ripping the nails out of her hull or simply push against the nails to keep the enemy from closing with a naval vessel, thwarting the boarding tactics of their foes.

Poor defenses against arrows had long been one of the fleet's greatest weaknesses since long bows outranged the sailor's slings. Placing magic wielders aboard naval vessels solved the problem. For protection from troll archers, Fetchers raised their missile shields. Those like Sailing Master Crawley gifted with control off magnetism could make arrows veer off. The crews of the ballistas were protected by the greater range of their weapons and by rectangular shields newly affixed to the frames of the compact ballistas.

The trolls had equipped a score of captured sailing vessels with a boarding ramp at the bow. They called it the crow after the large spike at the end which resembled the beak of that bird of ill-omen. Pivoted at the base and weighted at the front, the end of the crow could drop onto the deck of a naval vessel literally nailing the two ships together. The decks of these special boarding vessels were just as high as the decks of naval vessels making access easy.

It was a good idea in principle, but the trolls were not very skilled at maneuvering fully rigged ships in combat. Anyway, the Navy's fetchers had a tactic to counter the new threat. Fetchers wielded steel disks against the rigging of the boarding ships. Shaped like a discuss but with keen edges the disks cut apart lines, sheets, shrouds, hawsers, and cables thereby rendering the ship inoperable, an immobilized hulk on the water that could be dealt with later.

The water wizards in Commodore Dekker's squadron had devised a clever tactic of their own inspired by the way dolphins would pace fast moving ships by riding the bow wave they generated. The water wizards realized that they could hold the trolls at bay with a similar wave by raising swells to push the longships away from the naval ship. If the swells were driven at the right angle, then the combined vector of the swell and the forward motion of the longship made it keep pace with the naval vessel, holding it at a constant speed and at a constant distance.

That made them it an easy target for the Navy's catapults and ballistas with understandably devastating results. The technique also let the water wizards husband their strength instead of exhausting themselves by raising great waves to sweep over troll longships and send them to the bottom.

Dekker's squadron had perfected the technique months earlier in maneuvers against a couple of captured longships in the roadstead of the Scilly Isles. Dekker's report to the Admiralty came to the attention of Admiral Tregaron, commander of the High Seas Fleet. He soon had his ships practicing the bow wave standoff technique during maneuvers. It promised to make naval battles even more one sided in favor of the Commonwealth.

The new tactics and armaments paid off handsomely in the Battle of the Barren Coast. Only a handful of longships got away to carry news of the catastrophe.

Nevertheless, the trolls were prepared to accept huge losses at sea to hold off the Navy long enough for their soldiers and settlers to establish their colony ashore. For the Navy, winning the sea battle would be only a partial victory unless they could destroy the landings as well.

Liam told them that for their own safety, Dahl and his party should seek high ground, well away from the coast.

<Why do we need to get to higher ground?>" Dahl asked Liam via Mind Speech. Liam replied:

<Because once the Navy defeats the troll covering force at sea, our water wizards will push a gigantic wave against the coast to destroy not only the landing ships and piers but also the occupation army and settlers atop the cliffs. The wave will crest three hundred feet (100 m) and carry away everything for several miles inland. So get out of there while you can.>

<How long do we have?>

<I'd say maybe three or four hours judging from the way the battle is going.>

<Three or four hours is plenty of time to get clear.>

After listening to Dahl's running commentary, Finn turned to the twins and asked: "Where would be our best direction of march?"

"Well, we are already five miles from the coast." Jensen said. "That might be enough but let's add a margin for safety. That is where we should head for," he added pointing to a bluff about four miles off.

"Sounds like a plan." Finn concluded and ordered them to head for the high ground.

In the fullness of time the Navy swept the seas clean of the troll longships though not without grievous losses of their own. In the melee some longships got close enough to naval vessels for the trolls to grapple and board them and slaughter their crews. Sailors who jumped into the sea to swim to safety made easy targets for troll archers.

At one point the Petrel collided with a longship. A score of trolls managed to scramble aboard from the wrecked longship and attack the crews of the ballistas on the foredeck. The sailors had time to get off only one shot at the trolls before they took up their bucklers and cutlasses to face the boarders.

In command on the foredeck, Nathan came into his own in that fight, flinging handfuls of electrum sparks left and right at the faces and arms and legs of the trolls, stunning and distracting them with the electric jolt and nasty burns the sparks delivered. That made them easy opponents for the blades of his ballista crews and the other sailors who rallied to Nathan and cut the boarders down in short order. The young ensign found himself Mentioned in Dispatches for a second time.

The fleet commander Admiral Tregaron reflected on two officers who had help make his lopsided victory possible. First was Admiral Van Zant, Chief of the Bureau of Ships. The fighting admiral had accelerated the refitting of the deep water fleet with the new weapons: the new incendiary and the compact ballistas and catapults. And earlier Van Zant had donated ships to three of the smaller allied navies which had thwarted attacks on the Far West. In the same vein Commodore Dekker had validated his two step promotion by taking up the suggestion of his water wizards and developing it into a valuable tactic for the fleet.

The new equipment, clever tactics, and above all the powers of the mages had made it possible for a fleet of fifty-seven warships to crush an enemy numbering more than two hundred, not counting transports. This surely validated the Commonwealth's policy of mobilizing the magical gifts of its populace. The military applications were obvious but the civilian ones no less so for fostering rapid economic development that generated the greater revenues that allowed the Commonwealth to fight this war without raising tax rates.

After the naval victory seventeen water wizards concerted their powers to push the sea against the coast. It started out as a long low wave, but in the shallows the front of the wave slowed down from friction with the rising bottom letting the back of the wave catch up to it, which raised the crest of the gigantic wave to three hundred feet. It first bashed the trolls against the cliffs then surged onto the tableland above where it smashed the soldiers and settlers like the fist of any angry god. The destruction was total, the death toll in the tens of thousands.

From their perch on the bluff, the explorers watched through far-viewer tubes at the utter destruction of the troll invasion. The receding waters uncovered a scene of devastation with dead bodies and broken equipment everywhere. In places the land itself was scarred, the topsoil scoured down to bedrock. Dahl related all this to Liam, a report Liam relayed to his captain. After assuring Liam that his friends were just fine Dahl signed off.

It had been a momentous day in the history of the the Commonwealth of the Long River and the other civilized states around the Great Inland Freshwater Sea. This might be the end of the Troll War or at least the turning point.

The explorers returned to New Varangia by a more westerly route, which let them explore still more of their new dominions. At a strategic point Finn affixed a small bronze plate to a prominent outcrop of rock, taking formal possession of the Barren Lands for New Varangia and the Commonwealth of the Long River of which it was a part. It was their land by right of discovery and conquest. Let no one say otherwise.

At the face of the escarpment Sir Willet created a second inclined road by which they descended to the known lands. At the bottom Finn and Dahl released their mounts Tyr and Hodr from their service wishing them well in finding mates among the brontotheres who would no doubt soon join them in the new range below the escarpment.

In easy stages the expedition made its way back to Flensborg where the expeditionary corps made its report to the Frost Giants. Drew wrote a pair of articles for the local news-paper highlighting the contributions of the locals. That helped the twenty Frost Giants attract brides to go with the homesteads they could established thanks to the grants earned by their service. The teamsters and scouts were awarded substantial bonuses too.

The consultative assembly of the Frost Giants passed an ordnance that put brontotheres under legal protection. They could be neither hunted nor taken into captivity for any purpose. Looking ahead to the coming decades when the giants occupied and developed the Barren Lands they petitioned the druids to recruit those gifted with mind speech to facilitate communication with their new neighbors, whether by a resident druid or perhaps a couple of unicorns looking for new vistas to explore or even giants, humans, elves, or dwarfs with that magical gift. In time there might be more brontotheres willing to partner with riders just as they had done with a druid and an avatar of a thunder god. What an army they could field then. Talk about heavy infantry and heavy cavalry!

Dahl, Finn, Drew, the twins, and Sir Willet and Axel returned to the capital of the Commonwealth where they reported to the Chief Hand and the Council. Islon Mewalal, the Tahsildar of Nancowry was gratified with the outcome of the war, but cautioned the Commonwealth that Valentia might not have seen the last of the trolls. The trolls would be cautious but only for a while. They now knew that they were no match for the Commonwealth in a stand up fight. Not yet anyway

It might take ten or twenty years, but they would be back perhaps focussing their attacks on the Western Seaboard which lay beyond the Great Barrier Range or on the lands in the eastern sector of the continent.

Dahl confided that the druids had been working on a long term plan to end the threat of the trolls without endless warfare. From tissue samples taken from prisoners, Owain and Merry hoped to develop a biological control. It would not be a deadly plague to kill them off but infectious agent that reduced the sexual potency of male trolls to below replacement levels. It would spread surreptitiously to the entire population before the trolls realized what was happening. By the time they did, it would be too late. Over generations their population would crash.

It would take several years to develop the anti-fertility disease and test it on captive trolls turned over to them by the Navy. The druids had to be certain that it would affect only trolls, but now they had the time to do the job right. The naval victory would give the world a respite from devastating troll invasions. When all was ready, the druids would sail to the archipelago. Weather wizards would assure them a safe passage across the tempestuous waters of the outer ocean. War wizards would be aboard to raise a concealment that would let them approach, disperse the agent, and get away undetected.

Finn's leadership of the expedition won him promotion from journeyman to Dread Head in full. Initially Finn was assigned to Flensborg though as the threat from the trolls receded he might be posted elsewhere.

Drew wrote articles about the expedition for the Capital Intelligencer illustrated with his own dramatic sketches depicting the charge of the brontotheres, a thunder god directing smashing the shield wall of the trolls with lightning bolts, and a gigantic wave crashing onto the tableland to destroy the troll colony. The government published an official report of the expedition largely based on Drew's journal and official documents.

Drew traveled to the naval base at Alster and interviewed the principal naval officers in the High Seas Fleet for a book about the great naval victory. It won him a another Writers' Prize for journalism. Drew dismissed the rivals who grumbled that he was monopolizing the annual literary prizes. Let them cultivate sources in the military and go in harm's way as he had done time and again. That was how he got his scoops — fair and square and all open and aboveboard.

Liam and Nathan were among Drew's best informants. Both were on detached duty from the Petrel to the southern Annex of the Institute of Wizardry and Magic. In Nathan's case it was to train his newly manifested delving power. In Liam's case it was to train with the naval infantry in amphibious tactics and landing on contested shores and ports. In the naval infantry, the Navy had a small army of its own which allowed it to intervene anywhere on the the Great Inland Freshwater Sea to sort out all sorts of problems from border disputes to political upheavals in the bodies politic of the Commonwealth's allies and neighbors. For that purpose Liam was attached to the office of the commandant of the naval infantry, General-at-Sea Sir Deane Chard.

The twins, Drew and Axel and Sir Willet resumed their comfortable lives in the capital. The long drought in their love lives was over, though the youngsters did have to make do with fewer partners. Finn was stationed at Flensborg while Liam was at Alster with Nathan. So it was just Drew and Axel plus the twins. Not that the four of them did not give a good account of themselves. They tried their hardest to make up for both lost time and missing company.

The only cloud on the horizon was uncertainty of what would happen next. In these parlous times it was very likely that they would be off on another adventure sooner than they cared to.

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