Elf Boy's Friends - VII

by George Gauthier

Chapter 17


Now it was the turn of the brontotheres. Now it might seem that even sixteen hundred of the giant beasts would be outmatched by the more than seventy thousand trolls still in the field, but the brontotheres would not have to attack all their foes at once. It wasn't just Jemsen who could call on earth magic to divide the battlefield into manageable pieces. Druids were strong in earth magic too. Alternatively the druids could flash grow barriers of thorny cane brakes to cut off a part of the troll army from the support of the rest.

Dahl's contingent of brontotheres faced off against eight thousand trolls who were confident that they had little to fear from five hundred beasts, no matter their size. They had ways to counter the fearsome charge of the brontotheres. The simplest was caltrops scattered by hand right in front of their shield wall.

A caltrop is a foot trap with four spikes or points arranged in a tetrahedron so that when thrown on the ground it rested on three points and presented the fourth upright ready to impale the hoofs of horses or the feet of infantry. They were generally made of steel though even the dried seeds of the water chestnut could be used as caltrops against poorly shod infantry.

The brontotheres were counting on their two-legged allies to sweep the field of the caltrops strewn in front of the shield wall of the trolls. Now Dahl could not do it himself. He was neither a fetcher nor a master of magnetism. So he asked Axel to Jump to Karel's location and bring him back.

"Caltrops, eh?" Karel said as Dahl explained the problem. "Okay, I'll just call up a land spout to suck them off the ground and out of the way."

An air wizard like Karel could call both dust devils and a stronger type of whirlwind called a land spout, an atmospheric rather than a meteorological phenomenon which only weather wizards controlled. Land spouts were not associated with a thunderstorm and had a characteristic tubular shape rather than the funnel of the tornado.

The trolls watched with dismay as a whirlwind two hundred feet high scooped up their caltrops and dropped them well out of the way. They readied fire globes and flung the glass spheres filled with an inflammable liquid at the charging brontotheres, but Karel countered them with a jet of air that blew the globes back at the trolls.

Some had slings with red hot coals ready to fling in front of the shield wall and ignite the oil. These unfortunates became their own funeral pyres as the globes broke and the liquid splashed onto them and took fire.

The trolls now faced the oncoming brontotheres with only their personal weapons. Their arrow storm tactics were of little use against the thick skin of the brontothere. What use was an axe against an armed and armored giant as tall at the shoulder as a frost giant and weighing eight or nine tons?

From atop the matriarch Dahl nullified a good fraction of the arrow storm by turning the shafts of the arrows into dandelion seeds then disarmed a contingent of lancers the same way as the shafts couched under their arms disintegrated and blew away. Meanwhile Axel used the carbine version of Eike's air gun to pick off trolls bent on hamstringing brontotheres, a suicide mission even if successful. Good thing he had practiced with the airgun during mock charges during their approach to the battlefield. Marksmanship from atop a fast moving brontothere was problematic.

With the magic of their two-legged allies having swept away caltrops, nullified their flame weapons and a good part of their archery, the charge of the brontotheres was unstoppable. Roaring their war cry they crunched into the shield wall of the trolls and gored them with their horns or simply bowled them over and trampled them into the ground.

Not for nothing were the giant beasts known as the juggernauts of the jungle, though that phrase owed more to the attractions of alliteration than to strict accuracy. Jungles were no more the habitat of brontotheres than were desert wastes.

Actually some of the brontotheres did take wounds from arrows which penetrated weak spots in their armored skin or hit them in the face or their lower legs. Their new two-legged friends drew out the arrows and treated the wounds with an antiseptic from Axel's medical kit. Among his other roles, Axel was a combat medic. He treated axe cuts the same way, though in some cases, Dahl had to invoke his healing powers to regrow lost eyes or the tips of their horns or teeth which had broken off.

The young druid only wished he could do more for the more seriously wounded of their four legged allies. Druidical healing magic was most effective with humans. The differences between human and brontothere anatomy and physiology limited what his healing magic could accomplish. Another hindrance was the sheer bulk of their huge bodies. The magical strength it took to heal a single badly injured brontothere might heal two dozen humans. Even the greater powers of female Healers were soon be exhausted dealing with multiple brontothere casualties.

During one charge Dahl's matriarch got bogged down in soft ground. As she struggled to extricate herself, trolls charged the stranded beast, intending to blind her for starters. Axel's mount Lancer charged to the rescue at the head of a party of a dozen bulls. Avoiding the quagmire, they gored the advancing trolls and bowled them over, trampling them underfoot as the impetus carried them on toward new foes.

Just when things were going so well, a ballista spear shot at point-blank range pierced Lancer's chest. It missed his heart but did tear through his lungs and viscera. As the great beast faltered and sank to his knees moaning horridly Axel jumped acrobatically to the ground beside his stricken mount.

While the other bulls dealt with the remaining trolls Dahl also dismounted and came over to see what he might do for poor Lancer. There was little even he could do except dull his pain. Massive blood loss from the wound and the red froth at Lancer's mouth showed that he was finished. He told Axel:

"It won't help Lancer if we just yank the spear out of him by main force. The barbs on the spearhead will cut even worse coming out than going in. Even if I turned the shaft into dandelion seeds, that would leave the steel spearhead inside him, still slicing his guts with every movement, including his tortured breathing."

"OK, so maybe Lancer is going to die, but it won't be with a damn troll spear in his guts. I'm going to grab the end psychically as well as physically and then Jump away with the entire spear, shaft, head, and all. That should ease his pain some."

Axel put a hand to the end of the spear the jumped a few yards away. With disgust he threw it to the ground crying "Filthy thing!".

Lancer's distress did ease considerably once Axel got the spear out of him. He rumbled his thanks to his two legged friend a sentiment echoed by the matriarch and Lancer's brontothere friends, the young bulls he had lead in his final charge. They gathered around for the death vigil. Within a half-hour brave Lancer was dead, his passing announced by a giant sigh which brought an end to his pain.

It was too much for Axel who burst into tears and cradled the great head of his four legged friend.

{Are those watery seepings from the boy's eyes the way you humans express grief?} the matriarch asked Dahl.

{Yes. We humans readily bond with animal friends and grieve at their passing.}

{This we did not know. The young man's grief confirms for us, as perhaps nothing else could, the wisdom of trusting you two-legs and forming an alliance against our common enemy. We will never forget you or your kind or what you have done for us.}

Brontotheres feel death as keenly as humans, but their rituals to mark a passing center on a sharing of memories of the deceased. The matriarch and the others projected mental imagery at a pace the druid could not easily follow. He realized ruefully that in communicating with him, the brontotheres had been using their equivalent of baby talk. Since burial was impossible brontotheres could only turn away from the ugliness of what happens after death and leave the body for the scavengers.

In Lancer's case, that was not good enough. So Dahl entombed Lancer's remains deep in the earth, beyond the reach of any scavenger. Not even worms could get at him. His corpse would slowly decay, consumed from within by the tiny creatures which inhabit all animate bodies.

The brontotheres fighting with Owain and Sir Willet had it easier, taking fewer casualties. Sir Willet used his control of magnetism to sweep the enemy's caltrops aside. Then when the trolls got ready to sling fire globes at the trolls Sir Willet invoked his firecaster magic to ignite all the oil in all the globes at once. Flames splashed all around engulfing the slinger and any troll standing nearby and totally disrupting the cohesion of their shield wall.

Forty brontotheres formed a wedge and charged through the wide gap in the shield wall which Sir Willet had opened with a blast of white fire. The war wizard hung on for dear life as his mount carried him along with the wedge into the mass of trolls. Wheeling left and right the brontotheres caught the trolls from the flank and the rear and wreaked fearsome destruction.

Sir Willet held a missile shield over himself and Owain and their huge mount and let the brontotheres do the fighting though at times he had to use his powers to fetch an axe out of the grasp of a troll who got too close to their mount. Owain helped by blinding any trolls who looked like a threat, afflicting their eyes with cataracts. Afterwards the druid hardly had to invoke his healing magic, there were so few casualties among his brontotheres.

Merry and Artor attacked with the third contingent of brontotheres. Artor countered both caltrops and flame globes at the same time, igniting the inflammable oil before the trolls had the chance to sow the field in front of them with caltrops. Merry countered trolls armed with long bows by turning the shafts of a good third of the arrows shot at them into dandelion seeds and blinded many other archers just as Owain had. Then Artor blasted the shield wall with white fire to open a breach though which the brontotheres charged and tore into the hapless trolls.

And so the campaign went as the brontotheres and their allies cut off a part of the troll army and crushed each detachment in turn. In one notable action Sir Willet countered a stealthy turning move by a division of trolls. Thanks to a concealment raised by Sir Willet troll scouts had quite professionally patrolled along the high ground, a ridge overlooking a swale which might conceal an enemy but has seen nothing except empty grasslands. They failed to detect the presence of the massed brontotheres waiting patiently till the scouts rode by all unknowing. A little while later the brontotheres caught up with the trolls and charged them from behind.

Via a Mind Speech conference, with the others linked in from separate locations, the druids and the others reviewed the results of the early battles.

<We've been doing terrifically well so far.> Axel enthused. <Let's hope it keeps up.>

<It won't. And you can take that from an old campaigner.> Count Klarendes said flatly. <In your first attacks you had the element of surprise in every respect. The enemy did not know that they even would be attacked, much less when, by whom, or how. In future attacks only the timing will be a surprise. The trolls have shown themselves to be tactically clever and adaptable and their combat engineers are as good as anyone's.>

The veteran campaigner was right. The trolls reacted to their initial defeats by bringing ballistas forward to shoot at the charging brontotheres early in their charge before they crashed into their shield wall.

Looking like a giant crossbow set atop a wheeled frame, a ballista could shoot an arrow the size of a spear and propel it with enough force to penetrate the hide of a brontothere and reach its vitals. Close up, an arrow from a ballista mighty penetrate even the thick skull of a brontothere.

A particularly innovative tactic was to employ trebuchets in field warfare. The trebuchet was normally a siege weapon which relied on leverage and a sling to hurl boulders at fortress walls. Against defenders it had the advantages of throw weight and long range, well beyond that of torsion catapults or long bows. Defenders could only watch helplessly as their walls were battered and broken from the impact with the boulders.

The trolls used a pair of trebuchets to fling bundles of caltrops wrapped in netting. Just before the bundles were launched the netting was doused in oil and set afire. At the top of its arc, the bundle fell apart and scattered the caltrops in front of the charging herd.

Nevertheless the brontotheres pressed on. The trebuchets threw the caltrops over a very wide area, so they were too few and far apart to do more than catch the unlucky among the approaching brontotheres. As for ballistas, there were only twelve with that whole division, not enough to drive off brontotheres when their blood was up. Nevertheless dozens were wounded by ballistas or caltrops and more than a dozen slain outright. No one could question the courage of the brontotheres nor their determination.

In the next engagement Axel destroyed two batteries of ballistas with incendiaries. Jumping to a supply point in the rear Axel touched a pair of kegs of combustible rock oil to which the male engineers attached a ceramic jar holding steel balls heated red hot. Axel jumped to a position five hundred feet above the ballistas and let them drop, then jumped back to his brontothere mount to watch them fall. When the kegs burst, the red hot bullets ignited the inflammable liquid destroying the batteries and a good part of their crews.

That was the theory, anyway. When he tried the tactic a second time Axel didn't quite gauge the point of release, which after all was just an empty point in the sky along a line of sight to the ballistas. So even though the wooden engines of war were stationary targets, his next attack found him arriving too far to one side. Even after he got the hang of it the time it took the kegs to fall gave their crews time to scramble out of the way. So only the ballistas but not the skilled artillerists who were just as much his targets burnt up in the resulting conflagration.

Troll commanders changed their tactics, now fielding their ballistas not as single batteries attached in support of an infantry battalions but massed in artillery battalions in support of entire regiments and brigades. Later they were all massed into a single artillery regiment to support the whole troll army as it drew together rather than operate as separate brigades and divisions.

Hoping that more ballistas might turn the tide, troll engineers, carpenters, and smiths outdid themselves devising and building new and bigger ballistas atop the frames of repurposed catapults.

The catapult was a type of heavy artillery which threw stones or iron balls in an arc. Designed for use against fortifications and infantry shield walls, they were useless against brontotheres. Their missiles nearly always dropped into the gaps between charging brontotheres. Just as well then to use their frames for bigger ballistas.

The result of design and engineering compromises, these new and more powerful engines of war could not match the accuracy and the rate of fire of the smaller ballistas, but they propelled an arrow with greater force. The engineers protected the ballistas from aerial attack with sheds in the shape of a A covered with fresh hides. The structures were sturdy enough to resist the impact and make the kegs bounce or roll off and the hides protected the underlying wood from the incendiary action of the kegs.

It was Aodh who came up with the best solution to the problem. Since the harassment campaign, the young wir had been forced to sit out the fight, charged as he was with guarding the command group from stay-behind ambuscades and raids. Trolls had been known to conceal themselves in what were called spider holes and let an enemy force set up came right over them, only to emerge at night and start killing key personnel.

Aodh had argued that the command group would not be in any danger during his absence, not after Jemsen had delved the entire camp and found no holes or voids. Plus the druids would have sensed life forms anywhere on the site of their marching camp as they arrived.

Aodh's proposed sending a small team to destroy the ballistas and to kill the skilled artillerists who manned them. After that the brontotheres could charge the trolls with impunity.

The strike team had four members: Axel whose job was to Jump them in and out, a perfect match for his unique set of powers. Corwin was to destroy the ballistas, while Aodh was tasked with killing their crews. Artor went along as protection from the inevitable troll reaction force. Except for Aodh, they all wore light leather armor including a steel helmet to protect their heads. Even powerful mages like them might be killed by a lucky shot from a sling or bow.

As dusk fell Axel stood on the back of his brontothere and peered through a far-viewer at the troll camp. Looking past the outer ring of trenches and the sea of tents sheltering the enemy host, he fixed the position of the artillery park in his mind.

Axel saw that it was invulnerable to direct attack defended as it was by an anti-cavalry barrier called a cheval de frise, an ancient term of uncertain origin. Whatever that term originally meant it referred to a device apparently inspired by the hedgehog or the porcupine. Built around a horizontal spar, really just a log with holes drilled through it, it bristled with spears or iron spikes which pierced it radially and alternately slanted left and right, each pair in the form of the letter X.

The barriers were lightweight enough to be dragged and dropped in place. With their spines interlocked and their lower points dug into the earth, the barrier would strongly resist a push while the points facing up and out would impale horses or brontotheres for that matter. The trolls emplaced their ballistas on ground from which they could shoot over the protective barrier. This made the defenses of the artillery park doubly dangerous to charging brontotheres.

In the pre-dawn hours, Axel and his team joined hands and jumped to the artillery park right next to one of the new shielded ballistas. Already naked, Aodh morphed into a black panther becoming virtually impossible to see in the dark, which was no hindrance to him since panthers can see quite well in the dimmest of light. The stealthy predator streaked in among the crews who were lying all around sound asleep and slashed the nearest trolls with his poison claws.

That put the artillerists out of action, but the engineers, carpenters, and smiths who had built the ballistas and were camped close by had time to form up and organize a hasty defense. Aodh incapacitated them with his sonic weapon, an intolerable screech which rendered them helpless and easy prey for claws that delivered near fatal doses of an incredibly potent venom which literally drove its victims mad with pain.

Their screams were Corwin's signal to lay about with his ball lightning which not only set fire to the wooden frames of the ballistas but melted and slagged the metal mechanisms and fittings plus the fastenings like nails and nuts and bolts that held them together. Wood might be replaced but not cast or forged metal parts.

To help them see, Axel Called Light, setting four blue-white globes to hovering twenty feet off the ground and about forty yards out, one in each of the cardinal directions.

Unfortunately that also gave enemy archers enough light to aim at Corwin who was especially conspicuous because of his ball lightning. One unlucky shaft hit him in the back and penetrated the boiled leather armor and cut into the flesh though not the shoulder blade beneath. Corwin fell to his knees and lost control of his gift for a moment. His ball lightning fizzled out.

Unable to reach the shaft to pull it out, he gritted his teeth against the pain, stood up, and called up three spheres of ball lightning, deploying them as a missile shield against the archers who had loosed at him. Sending two of them zipping forward he turned the archers into crispy critters.

Still good and mad Corwin threw explosive ball lightning at anyone and anything else within the ring of defenses, guided by the illumination shed by Axel's four blue white spheres. In very short order all the artillerists and technicians and most to the archers who had shot at him lay dead or dying.

Artor spotted the anticipated reaction force of some three hundred trolls forming up. Just before they charged, the young fire caster laid into them with white fire killing nearly all of them as his infernal beam swept through their ranks. He then flung clinging balls of fire in all directions at the surrounding army which by now was fully stirred up.

Just then two trolls dressed only in small clothes crept out from under the big ballista the team was standing around. Awakened from their impromptu shelter by all the excitement, the two had stayed hidden and bided their time, waiting to make their move. Artor looked vulnerable with his attention on the reaction force and his back to the trolls. They straightened up and advanced toward him axes raised.

Axel stopped them. With the advantages of surprise, superior speed, and agility, he went on the attack and stabbed the trolls in the back with his fist knives. Grasped by their T shaped hafts the knives had short triangular blades coated with Aodh's fast acting venom. The trolls fell to the ground screaming.

Artor whirled around, took in the situation and nodded as Axel told him:

"That was for Lancer!"

With the whole troll camp aroused against them, it was time to leave. Having done what they came for, the raiders joined hands, or in Aodh's case his paw, then jumped clear, materializing an instant later back at their own camp.

Artor and Axel brought Corwin to the healers who fixed him up just fine. Aodh changed back to his human form which also healed several knife and axe cuts he had taken in the melee, but he elected to stay naked and headed off to the kitchen for a midnight snack if only of leftover stew to replenish the energy he had expended in morphing and healing. Then he slipped into bed with Count Klarendes. Aodh and his spouse slept spooned together, the young wir nestled in the embrace of the man he loved.

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