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Varlarsaga Volume 3 - Consolation

Chapter 60 - Battle for Aileen

Was it a twin miracle, a simultaneous happening; an intervention by some higher authority?

Or was it but merest coincidence, as the tide of their first encounter turned and the Nugo forces were pushed back leaving the eastern heights free to Silval's army, that Elvra took a breath; a grasp of life again. Her eyelids fluttered and soon life, her precious life, was flooding back.

Many there, that day, believed in no such coincidence, but took it for a genuine sign of great good fortune.

Silval himself, rejoiced; lightly plucking his true-loved from where she lay, and carrying her off to others who might care for her under Friallaf's guidance. ‘I will come back,’ he shouted to Corin, before departing. ‘but first must I ensure that Elvra is taken away from here, from this danger. I would see her to the dragon Sgnarli, where the others abide in his presence.’ The Birdwing paused a moment, ‘Fleta and Cinglor, my elf-captains will command till I return... And Avarhli... It was you, you alone to restoreth the Huntress. You did for her, that which you did for me. To you, do both we owe our lives. I... we, shall not forget. Not ever... Master.’

‘She and I owe nought to each other,’ returned Corin. ‘After all, it was Elvra who protected me from that poisoned barb.’

Silval smiled and turned away and was gone, swallowed up amongst the tumult; leaving Corin, holding the cat Bim, nearest his heart. Other than that furry creature, Corin stood alone.

Meanwhile, beyond the war-ravaged ditch, great and mighty-terrible deeds were at hand. The allied peoples, in absolute fury, had counter-attacked their charging enemies.

The goblins and the forces at their disposal, though larger in number, were caused to spread out over a wide, convex front. More so, the armies of the elves had managed to hold the higher ways; halting the Nugo onslaught before they could consolidate their positions and drive at the elves on moderately level grounds. And though the Nugobluk held the skies by dint of dragons under their sway, the air-serpents were notoriously unreliable, occasionally forgetting themselves in berserk rages, and attacking their masters instead. Besides, dragons were not dependable to any but themselves; and so, could turn on each other in sudden fury. This alone was terrifying, especially if two mighty denizens of the air came crashing down, locked together.

There was also the bow-craft of the Elloræ to be considered; few but their finest archers could find a mark between the barded armour, and fewer still, strike that mark. Yet dragons were brought down, or maimed enough to cause them to limp away, ripping at galling shafts buried somewhere beneath their plated hides.

Corin, worn by his exertions and plagued by cries of pain and anguish, that were not wholly from the world without him, but were also from the strange and unknown world that lived within his head, was prompted again to go on, by Bim.

Not only by Bim, of course; for much more than the cat now motivated Corin's thoughts and decisions. What frightened Corin, at times such as these, was whether he guided his own path, or was simply puppeted; manipulated by other, unknown forces. However, there was no respite, no time to grasp or consider such thoughts.

As steadily as he could, he walked the rough way up the thorny slope, and there gained the heights that overlooked Aileen. About him rushed a seething torrent of elves, and taller men. Buffeted, he felt, like driftwood beaten and moulded by current and eddy and hard rock. A wind rose out of the west and met him full-face, blustering around, ruffling his elven garb and blowing through the cat's furred blackness.

‘Where,’ he wearied, ‘where are all those who have lived and drawn breath, aided, hindered, dwelt within Varlar, until now?’

He stood upon a high rock, with the flow of folk about him, all a'scurry. There, was the answer. There below, Corin cast his gaze to the multitudinous mis-patterns of war. Much did one glimpse catch, and further more, a long stare. Whilst he so looked, cat-warmed in the coldness and the sun shrank; the living and the dying shrieked together, each clawing, imploring, that one be the death-dealer, the other the dyer. Over that vast plain, thousands were locked together in the spidery groping of touch and parry; the probings of eventual death.

The sky soared down at sunset in ugly sores: blood crimson and bruised grey, blighting and damning the night to follow. And the criminal death, within that dark, was unhindered by the light; left to the skulking, the swift-eyed, the savage, and the unfortunate.

All-dark fell, quelling the cryings of misery-many; muffling the howlings of haggard and horrid. The florid moon lifted, travelling swiftly, or so it seemed, across fantastic patterns of grey-sombre cloud.

‘And here we are, in this nightmare night. When the moon goes in, you know Brother Bran, I can feel ice-fingers up my spine, and needle-pins, like nettles, round my ears.’

‘I know what you feel, Finikin. We Goosies have the self-same blood in our veins. It is much alike with me. Couldn't have been otherwise, after so many years living on the fringe of danger, scratching our living from such a place.’

Finikin shivered out of coldness, and more than mortal cold. ‘Any time, this night, we may be slaughtered. Did you see those brutes down there? More than a man could count, even if he did nought else all his life.’ He gripped his own home-made blade. ‘I tell you, if it wasn't for the folk, the elves, them ready to give their own lives and especially for the Master, him, you know, Master Corin; I would think twice about all this. I mean, what are we doing here? Strange land, strange folk, stranger enemies. Perhaps we should have stayed put, where we knew more, and was more comfortable.’

Bran shook his greying head. ‘No, we made our choice. We saw the progress. There is no going back. Even now, I dwell on what be happening to my dear wife and children, far-off at White Bridge. But, as you well know, Brother Jug and Kettler, there is no way back into the past.’

The two brothers huddled together, clasping the iron weapons they hoped might stave off Death; waiting for their turn, as surely it would come, and wishing for the light of day.

Down on the new-made plain, drained out of He´Remon's wizard-make, the hordes of Nugobluk recoiled about their machines: those mangonels, catapults, balistae, bricolas, war-rams and battle-rams that stood, for the most unused. Fires burst open in soaring, showering fountains. Sparks twisted away, flying into the night. The foul smell of rancid food: rank, dead meat, tepid-rotten broths and blood-baths dripping the entrails of victims, pervaded the air. After all, it took much and many to fill the coffers of armies; creatures had to die for this, for food, and for the fat that greased the rails of the engines of war. All creatures needed to die: birds, animals, and any other beings. Need, justified this. And if there was no need, still would the goblin mind have justified such.

The night held no fear for them. Rather it held favour; these creatures that dwelt and ranged by darkness, wielding terror, were a part of it. For with the Nugobluk, there was no respite, no mercy. No kindness or compassion did these folk know. Overall, it seemed them cruel, joyful of fear and torture, lust, barbarism and life-letting. Worst of worst; the thing that made many of their kind so frightening, was that they were willing to die, if need be. The ymps were not, of course, for they were slaves and used like base-beasts; as the higher goblindry desired. But there were those especially trained amongst the Ugush and the Gark who, at command, would die on the instant upon their own curving blades, without question or flinch. That, or rage into battle with dreadful fury; fighting until literally cut to pieces. These were spoken of with dread, even amongst their own goblin ranks. They were the Bairsarkis, the bearshirts; suicide-goblins, who named themselves Boghaz, the Gut-Rippers, the Disembowelers. When they took the field, those who came against them and knew their name, could not be blamed if they quailed and fled. Then, amongst the high-ranked, were the Attagark; the Head-Goblins. Fewer were they in number, but greater in power and authority than all others, and nigh the size of the largest Nugobluk; the hob-goblins known as Ugush. All these evil creatures, and many other fell folk: trolls, quasiads, dragon-squib, and wolves, massed together in the night; awaiting commands from those who had called them back from pursuit of their enemies.

‘Heh, Merkrot! And you other scum-bags; my murderers and cut-throats, shut up! Shut your traps I say!’ Sarpo bashed his iron bludgeon against the shining wall of Orichalc wherein, entombed, goggled the twisted remains of their ancient kindred; caught up and set there in the long ago, as warning to any who might ever put foot there again. ‘Close your gobs, before I give you what-for! And get shot of that Nugobluk talk! We're on orders, see! We've been told, and we won't be told twice. Not from King Gasric. You should know what he's like. Or have you forgotten?’

A big brute, as large as a man, who at that moment was regarding his fresh stools, laughed, ‘Arr, go on. Gasric's the other side o’ them drobban mountains in Yaghan-Gazzul. Ows 'e to know? 'Sides, lots don't speak it too good.’

A barrel-shaped Gark, guzzling at a human skin-bag filled with sour vinegar wine and bile, growled. ‘The more sense to close that dung-hole you call a mouth, Skakkur. You got big head, big gob as well. Others have big ears, yakshat! Ai, spy-ears. Spies for Gasric, who knows?’ he laughed a gurgle-drain laugh, ‘I might be one mesel'!’

Skakkur stuck his thick-lipped, bulging-eyed, bushy face into Murghab's, dragging the wine-skin from his grasp and puncturing it with curved nails so that the bag bled liquid from several rents, then dashed it into the mud. ‘Big head eh! About time mec arkha-nach un; paduch, globoc yakshat!’ Skakkur's paw searched for a gnarled knife that he always carried in a thong at the back of his neck, but this time he groped Sarpo's beefy fist. It closed about his wrist, and bent him over so that he fell to his bowed knees, his head twisted backward, whilst his tormentor cruelly snapped his claws: one, crack! two, crack!

‘Any more of your rough-stuff and I'll slash your tendons, then leave you to our wulfaz friends!’ He threw Skakkur down. ‘Sit and lick your wounds, gorge-mouth, and thank me that no spy of our Nugobluk-King is here to dispatch you!’

Skakkur whimpered and, bent low, shambled a few paces off, biting at his broken paw and snarling at Murghab as he passed.

‘Business, now to our plans,’ leered Sarpo, having finally gathered the attention of all the others. ‘This is what we are meant to do.’

‘Wait on!’ shouted Mugsot, the spurious spawn of a liaison between a ymp-wench and a gark.

They waited, despising him, but amazed at his audacity.

‘So far we've done all that you told us sir; kept speakin' the tongue of our accursed enemies, and having a go at 'em when they arrived. Then we give in and fall back on your orders, when we mighta had 'em. Who's orders? I say. Was it them Blackies we've seen bowling along driving the winds o'terror a'fore 'em? Do orders come from Gasric or not? Wot's it to be now? Why don't we go out and slay 'em? Slit 'em, stick their heads on goblin spears. We've got what we wanted; brought the maggots here, all of 'em important. Now they're ready for the kill, ready for slaughter. When do we go?’

Sarpo grinned. He might have made some pun about Mugsot's impudence; a wry jest, considering the half-breed's lineage, but instead settled for a straight insult, ‘We don't, you cheeky slave-whelp. Wrap your tongue around your throat and choke your useless self!’

At this, Gorta, Skuggi, Cromm and the others gnashed their fangs and jumped up, protesting against doing nothing to the gathered foe.

‘We do!’ shouted Sarpo, over their growling and whining, ‘what we are told! Don't question orders direct from Yaghan-Gazzul! Attack. Fall back. Orders told to us are for our own good. They, are against the hated white-skins. Don't complain, you scum! There are reasons known to King Gasric, I'll wager. Anyway, that's how it is. We don't go to them,’ he rubbed his filthy paws together, ‘they'll come to us, and then we'll have their hearts to give to the wolfaz!’

‘Your horse seems skittish, my good Beald. Surely sun-up does not shift him so?’ Cadogan said this lightly enough, whilst the pair sat mounts together in the night-destroying light of day-break.

The other laughed, as Izod the Fair rode toward them, the west-rising sun flooding over him and the riders at his back.

‘This is scant time for jests,’ smiled Beald, though his next words were grim enough. ‘Down there awaits death, our deaths maybe. And why that fate does not, even now, come springing and bounding and flying upon us I cannot, for the life of me, tell.’

‘Nor can I,’ replied Cadogan, ‘and though it is flippant to make fun of death from a distance, do not think humour will be in my sword when I ride.’

‘I shan't.’

‘Nor I,’ said Izod, the light catching his radiantly blue eyes. ‘Let us hope that we shall all acquit ourselves well, whether in life or in death; for our young King, for our loved-ones, and for the elvish peoples who fight by our side. Yet, if the many are to perish, as surely they must, then let it be costly to the enemy; swiftly and with dignity. No man, of his demise, can ask more than that.’

Beald nodded, grasping Izod, wrist to wrist. ‘Bravely and truly said, past Master of Fernon Leven. Now there is no more time for speech. Hark to the horns far-away in the hills. Hark to the winded horns of the elves! It is time to ride, and may fortune be with us on a fair, sun-risen morn!’ At that, Beald the Bold lifted his own hunting horn and sounded forth a mighty blast that was taken up around, by many other lips, and carried on left, right and rearward.

The hosts of Silval, Prince Clovell and Morgan Faneking, as one began to move; driving over the petty rises like some curling tide, spilling out into the vast basin that had once, in the long ago, been the sight of another titanic struggle: then elves had battled goblins upon the Plain of Aileen amongst many groves of tall trees that yet stood dead and gaunt, whilst now the Nugobluk, silent-massed, waited amongst them for the onslaught of their foes.

To the charging forces of the Elloræ, it seemed strange how still and quiet were the goblin hordes. So queer indeed, that the bugles and trumpets and horns, and the very battle cries died in their own throats, and they rode on, determined, yet now oddly hushed themselves. Only was there the rattle of trappings and weapons, the tinklings of harness bells, and the pounding, pounding of thousands of hooves, whilst the distance between closed to no more than half a dozen furlongs.

At three furlongs, eagle-sighted elves began to draw rein; crying out, signalling a slowing, a halt to the multitudes behind. The impetus bore them on some way further, and it was barely a single furlong between when the hosts came to a standstill. Away before them by maybe a hundred paces, amidst the ghostly trees, and half buried in the slow-drying mire, lay the first of a staggered line of caltrops; hideously spiked iron balls that could rip any horse charge to pieces long before they reached their objective. Strewn randomly throughout this field of murder, it was then perceived, were hundred upon hundred contrivances: traps, gins, snares and pits, all cunningly set to impede foot-soldiers and archers. There, but for the sharp-sighted fore-ranks of elven kind, the entire front would have dashed itself a'shatter on those fiendish, goblin devices.

Frustrated, the forces of men and elves tarried at the edges of that death's-road; whilst beyond them, there began a murmur from the thronging nugobluk that became a mutter as of withering leaves blown on a parched wind. In turn, that grew to a harsh and chilling rattle; a guttural cacophony that rose to a furious shrieking, so that Aileen Plain resounded as if filled with all the maniacs and demons of Varlar.

And this, perhaps, was close enough to the truth.

So violent was this din, that it was impossible to hear, unless words were shouted; though the elves had other ways of communication. By sign and signal, commands were passed, and in order, the Elloræ armies and their mortal allies retreated some little distance to safer ground. When this was near done, the goblin uproar diminished as swiftly as it had arisen, and soon all was silence once more over the vastness of Aileen.

Before the ranks of Prince Clovell's pechtkin, which were the central of the three armies, met their leaders and greats; taking care to be wary and ready at a moment, should the enemy attack. Clovell and Dalfin Farinmail were there, as was Silval, Corin, and King Ordrick for men. Soon, up came Possum Wollert for the dark-skinned peoples from overseas, striding beside the grey steed that bore Morgan, now wearing over his blue-coat, the Mantle of the Fanes, and clasping in his right hand the Staff of Levalla.

When they were met together, Silval was the first to speak, ‘What are we to do now? They have ringed themselves with defences and hold Earth-Mouth.’

‘Well, they cannot stay there forever,’ growled the dwarf. ‘Sooner or later they must come forth, if only to scavenge for food.’

‘That may be so,’ replied Morgan gravely. ‘Yet they can now choose their time of attack. There will be ways, paths through that maze of perils set for us, of that we can be certain. And do not forget that we are less in number, by far, than they. When it suits them, they will emerge; perhaps this very night, now that their first trap has failed to ensnare us.’

‘Aye, we would have been easy work for them,’ said Clovell, looking faintly comical in the tiny armour that the pixie prince wore. ‘Those monsters could have sat back gloating, whilst we crashed on to doom, and then fallen upon us too easily.’

‘There is no doubt that they mean to hold Earth-Mouth at all costs,’ said Morgan, staring hard toward the black hordes, teeming like soldier ants behind their barriers of hidden pitfalls. ‘Ah, by every sun and moon that I have ever seen,’ he sighed, ‘even when Elfame itself was invaded by those detestable horrors, that long time past, were there not a third so many as here confront us. Now we have lost that fleeting chance to meet them; we swooping with the weight of speed, they flat-footed. Nay, we must swift conceive some new plan of attack, before they sense our faltering, and strike first.’

‘Easier might that be if Darion's army appeared out of the north,’ said Silval.

‘And if my kin-dwarves poured from the Ramabad and fell upon the goblin's backs,’ muttered Farinmail.

‘Alas, we cannot rely on either, at this moment,’ Morgan replied, whilst he scanned the northern horizon for a sign of life.

‘Dartæ iasar!’ cried Silval on a sudden. And as he called warning, so fell a roaring ball of flame that plummeted into the earth, not fifty paces from them. Several horses nearest reared and plunged in fear, as a reek of burning tar assailed their nostrils, whilst the fireball seared the mud into baked clay, and smoke, grey-black, billowed into the sky.

There came a scornful laugh that issued from a single goblin throat and then the voice of he who laughed, ‘Hai! You of the stinking white-skins!’ It cried in the common tongue of men. ‘You eaters of dung-worms. You with the minds of mice and the guts of rabbits! I am the mouth of Skragga, Captain of all the Nugobluk here. I am named Sarpo, and I answer directly to Oorlog, the lieutenant of Skragga.’

Morgan raised his arm in rejection.

‘If you answer to those rapine murderers, and are but the hollow voice of these too cowardly to show themselves, then begone! We do not trade insults with the servant, when his master may answer for himself. Go and toady to your lords, you servile parasite, and come not hither again bandying words that offend the very air we breathe. Begone I say, or you shall feel the wrath of the Elloræ!’

The ugush goblin was silent for a moment. Then, brazenly, he shouted, ‘Come closer, any who dare, that we may spit on you; we twice-over dare you! As for my Masters, they are much too busy to bother with the likes of you and your puny lads. They'll be supping on elve's tongues, as I speak, and washing them down with men's blood! Yes, and soon it will be your turn. Run if you wish. You will never run fast or far enough. No hiding place will you find that we can't sniff out. Or stay, and await our pleasure; as beasts of the pastures await slaughter!’ He laughed again, hideously. ‘Now listen good. This will be said but once. Any who desire to come to us freely, we shall show mercy, and generously give them life as our slaves. This offer we pledge by the honour of Captain Skragga. It will be withdrawn come nightfall, and those who don't accept will die in horrible agony, I promise you!’

Silval stood in his stirrups. ‘Your mercy, your pledges, your honour and your promises are as hollow and empty as your every word. You have heard the answer from the Faneking. Go hence and prepare for bloody battle, and your own eternal night!’ And as Silval said this, swifter than sight, he lifted his bow, and away sang a gleaming arrow, to bury fully a quarter of its length in the twisted bole of a dead tree, hard by the goblin's pointed ear. With a screech, Sarpo darted aside and fled back to his own lines; once, almost falling into a pit of sharpened stakes as he rushed headlong on bowed legs.

‘Quickly now,’ said Morgan, ‘whilst there is time enough. I have thought of something. We may not be able to attack them outright, but yet we may sting them to attacking us. This is what I would have done... ’

Soon the elves were eagerly engaged upon Morgan's plan; a strategy designed to counter the nugobluk bombardment from their fearsome catapults and mangonels, whilst still striking a blow against them. First, all the light and heavy horse troops were withdrawn far out of range, as were all foot-soldiers. Only the elvish archers, several thousands strong, were left nearest the enemy. These bow-elves were sprinkled in twos and threes over the entire length of the nugobluk front, in distances of a score-pace between each group; so as to frustrate the ballistas and other fire and stone hurling machines. In addition, further archers were kept in reserve on the highest vantage points, there to watch the skies for dragon raid. Since of a certainty, they would come, and when they did, only the bows of the Elloræ could ward them off.

Meanwhile, men and elves, dwarves and pixies were hard at labour; engaged in various tasks, as Morgan, Silval and their respective leaders directed. Great piles of brushwood and dry grasses were stacked in stooks at the feet of the eastern rises, and up their slopes. Long lengths of man-made chain, and coils of the lightest elvish marline were brought to the mounted cavalries and distributed there. Scouts and lookouts, of course, had long been posted far to the north and south; both to watch the goblins, and to search the sea and land for any sign of activity, albeit friend or foe. Finally, as many kegs and barrels that could be mustered were rushed away to the ocean, filled and returned.

So it was that afternoon came, the sun climbing past it's zenith, and by that time much was to the satisfaction of Morgan.

‘The goblins seem content to skulk in their camp, and wait for nightfall,’ Ordrick of Ravenmoor commented, peering over the plain from the rises above.

‘I doubt that they will come against us today,’ returned Morgan. ‘At least not when the sun sinks into the east at our backs, and they face directly into it. I guess that they will come out tonight, when the sky passes sundown.’

‘There will be a half-moon tonight,’ said Farinmail, silently honing his dwarf axe.

‘That is true,’ Silval agreed, ‘yet look you to the faint mist looming from the south; sea-mist that may well obscure our Turner-of-Night. Blackness is the goblin's delight; dank, damp blackness especially. A perfect time for them to prowl and kill silently. And then, by dawn's first glimmer, to pour forth in full strength.’

‘Well why did they not do this last night?’ asked Beald the Bold, who had stood, listening quietly, beside his young king.

‘Perhaps they waited, hoping we should fall into their trap this morning,’ said the pixie Prince Clovell, at his vantage point upon Cornarian's broad rump.

‘As we very nearly did,’ agreed Izod the Fair, ‘but for the eyes of elves.’

‘Or perhaps it was too moon-lighty,’ squeaked Dalen, from where he leant against Corin's knee, his little fingers entwined within his master's.

Ordrick made as if to speak, to ask Corin's opinion, but Silval signed him otherwise. ‘Look at him,’ said the Birdwing. ‘He is not with us now. He is deep within himself. So deep that even we cannot reach or see. Behind his eyes rages another battle, one that he fights alone. We must protect him at all costs; to lose him, is to lose everything here fought for. We cannot hope to win the war against the enemy by our force alone. At best we may be able to drive them away for a time, a short time. Then shall it be his decision as to our fate, for the Nugobluk will come again and again. And, I fear, they shall not be denied by us, in the end.’

‘Silval is right, I believe,’ Morgan sighed, ‘and as a paradox, it is a danger to have Master Corin so close to the enemy stronghold, yet a folly to leave him behind. We are at greatest strength here. Elsewhere, he might be in worse peril. Besides which, when the time comes, if it comes, then Earth-Mouth is his destination, and he must come there swiftly.’

‘Aye,’ said Silval wryly, ‘his destination, and the destiny of us all.’

Morgan drew himself to his feet and wrapped the Fane cloak about his slender figure. The white-haired elf shivered, as if a chill had passed through him, though the sun was still warm and the breeze faint. ‘Now come, whilst Corin Avarhli fights the shadowy enemies of his innermost mind, we needs begin our own attack.’ Thus saying, Morgan gave the first signal, heralding assault in earnest.

At once, the sky filled with flights of elf-shot; like flocks of green and golden birds they were. But more so, a deadly hail of wasps, that poured forth from the archer's bows, where they had waited patiently for such a sign. Down over the Plain, over the enemy-held land of pits and traps, down into the very midst of the nugobluk camp, showered the first volleys; raining destruction hundreds-fold over.

Many found the mark. Goblins toppled and fell along the front line of their defences. Many died, kicking and scratching out their lives without knowing what had struck them. Many lay wounded, cursing and screaming with rage and pain, their eyes glazed over in hatred and fear; for if too injured to be of use, they were fated to death by their own comrades at the ends of the needle-pointed stampers. The dreaded stampers of the death-squads; carried to slaughter those enemies left alone, alive, and helpless on the battlefields of carnage.

But this time, the goblins had no chance to dispatch their fallen; too frequent were the waves of arrows, for them to do more than seek shelter beneath the siege-engines, and their many-layered shields, there to begin some kind of return fire. Yet their bows were not so suited as to match the archers of the Elloræ, especially since pinned down by the whistling shafts from above. And when the Nugobluk came to use their catapults, contrived with such delight at the damage they would cause, it was found that these were of scant effect upon the widely scattered elves.

Meanwhile, as quivers were emptied, so were they refilled, whilst relays carried fresh bundles of shafts, and the bow-elves shifted from place to place, never giving the goblins permanent targets. It was harrowing work, but soon enough, these tactics began to anger the Nugobluk. Their fiery missiles and huge boulders, for the most part, fell on open ground, doing little mischief. Their poisoned darts and arrows dropped short. And still the rain of death continued. Not that its striking power was enough to do more than claim a few hundred of the goblin's tens of thousands. But it pinned them down against the dwarf mountains of the Ramabad at their backs, so that if they attempted to outflank the elvish armies by breaking to the south, there would they encounter two foes; the light, swift horse of Silval's command and the mighty ocean. Then, to the north, waiting patiently, were Wollert's Karakara Black-bird folk, together with several hundred elvish riders. A pitiable few against such hordes, though the valiant allies outmatched their foes in other ways that the enemy was still to discover.

As the afternoon wore on, the Nugobluk wearied of such constant harassment and they saw, to their dismay and fury, that much of their evil work was being undone; many the snares and traps, elves were tearing down under the cover of their archers, widening a way where horse might charge without fear of falling foul.

In the end, the Nugobluk could stand this no longer, and driven mad by the constant, stinging hail, began to mobilise their forces undercover of raised and overlapped shields. Soon they started forward; a wide, surging mass, that stretched the length, south to north, of Aileen Plain, heedless of their own pits and traps, bent only at striking the offenders, the insolent white-skins.

Now it was the elves turn to employ fire. Their shafts kindled, and burst flaming upon the goblin ranks. The fire caught on in many places and soon the Nugobluk were forced to abandon their protections and boil forth like wild hornets. Before that stampede, the archers began to give ground; falling back, rank after rank, still sending showers of flaming brands into the oncoming enemy. But even as those foremost fell, more and more gark and ugush climbed the piles of the slain; driving their slave-ymps before them with whips and goads, that they be first to suffer the bite of the bow-elves.

Upon the heights, the captains and champions of elves and men looked out; waiting impassively for the signal to send them down to battle. As the archers, who were now far out of range of Nugobluk bombardment, reached the slopes, and the pursuing enemy cleared their own entrapments to get at the elves, horns were sounded and the bow-wielders withdrew swiftly, up the rises to the higher ways. Then, down between these retreating Elloræ, poured the foot-soldiers: men, dwarves and pixies, bearing spear and sword, bills with spikes, broad-heads and two-handed axes.

And still, until the forces met, the arrows of the archers flew deadly, into the goblin charge. But soon, the foot of the elvish hosts clashed with the foremost of the goblins. Pechts grappled with Ymps; Prince Clovell and Harthanut, his second, leading the pixies. Men, Ied by Albern the Boar, Stagga and Atheling of Fernon Leven, clashed head-on with gark, under one, Sogbo's command. In the central fighting, the dwarves of Farinmail closed with the legions of gark. Glōri leading their right flank, and two others, Strella and Strel-yat, covering the left.

Anxiously now, Morgan, Silval and the others watched as events of the battle began to unfold below. At first the Pechts, fighting with the agility of squirrels, overbore the adversary Ympari with ease, since the imps carried only such weapons as stone-hewn knives and short hook-swords, and wore little armour except leathern cuirass of fore and back piece buckled together, whilst the pixies wore jointed, metal breast-plates, visored helms, and greaves upon their tiny legs. Their weapons were also superior; the longer reaching spear and thin, stabbing rapier, more than a match for their opponents. The imps too, were prone to panic; what with the enemy confronting them, and their own, cruel taskmasters whipping them on from behind.

Meanwhile, the dwarves, with deep, dreadful battle cries, clashed against the gark, and even some groups of ugush, who were rushed into the fray. Hewing and cleaving, the Zwerge struck down the first ranks of their assailants, without so much as a backward step. Like reapers at harvest time, their axes falling in rhythm, they spread their number, eight and ten deep, over a very wide area; allowing the Pechts to fall back between their ranks, as soon as the Ymps were broken.

Men, too, were there, fighting under their leader's banners; seasoned men now, after the skirmish and battle of Ravenmoor. And for a short time, all these foot held ground; indeed, throwing back the Nugobluk onrush. Yet then, as more and more gark took the field, their progress halted, and with sheer weight of numbers against them, they began to tire. With the sound of elvish horns at their backs, they started to retreat, whilst fresh reserves passed through, to bear the brunt of the pressing goblins.

On the slopes, the bow-elves, having had some respite and replenishing their stocks, renewed the storm of arrows, aimed now at the rear of the goblin vanguard. For as was seen, and hoped, the main forces of the enemy remained intact; holding at their encampment around Earth-Mouth, and sending only some twenty thousand against the allies. Such seemed the confidence and contempt of the goblin captains, that none of their crack troops were yet allowed into the conflict; not even after the provocation of the elvin archers.

In the meantime, those goblins at the front, seeing the retreat, continued their charge; redoubling in savagery, heedless of those behind, falling to the shafts of the bow-elves. Then it was, and only then, that Morgan gave the sign; trump and clarion sounded, and the horse-cavalry of elves and men leapt forward, lance and sword lowered, plunging down in a great onrush that embraced the full semicircle of the battlefield and extended, sweeping in all-encompassing wings that cut between the goblin's rear and the desolation of the no-man, no-elf's land that lay before the main Nugobluk lines. Now, though the cavalry ranks thinned over such distance, the enemy were effectively encircled. Those gark and ugush trapped within, were forced to turn and fight on the perimeter, so that those in the centre could do little but randomly shoot arrows over the heads of their comrades. And as the goblins attempted to crash through this containment, they became disordered and near to breaking ranks. Some, in fact, did this; either to escape back to the main body, or in the misguided delusion that they were about to storm the Elloræ forces.

Nothing could have been further from the truth, for as these rabble struck out into the open, the horse-folk employed a new and devastating innovation; the chains and the elvish marline were brought into action. Stretched between pairs of galloping horses, these lines were lowered to head and shoulder level, and fixed to the armoured plate of each mount, so that each rider was free to use sword or lance without hindrance. The Nugobluk were thus mown down; many decapitated, others crushed beneath flashing hooves, and those left clinging to line or chain or rider, were stabbed or pierced by sword thrust, or impaled by lance.

From the high ground, the archers were free to fire into the midst of the milling goblins, whilst the riders wreaked havoc on those who dared come at them. The Ymps and their masters began to panic, and the panic became rout. Many turned and fled toward their encampment, though few lived to reach the safety of their lines. Of those that stood their ground to fight, none would have survived at all, but as expected, dragons took to the air, sent to relieve the beleaguered.

At once, Morgan commanded the recall and the riders, harking the horns, wheeled and converged as one mighty, charging mass, that smashed through the very heart of the Nugobluk; felling and slaying as they drove on toward the slopes. The foot of elves, men and dwarves came before them, whilst behind, those left of goblin-kind, not stricken by elf-shot, stumbled away; leaving the battle-field strewn with uncountable dead.

Soon, a trio of fire-drakes roared over the Elloræ ranks, but the archers of the elves were equal to the dragon's challenge. Blasts of fire swept the rises, scorching and withering. Horses screamed in fright and pain. Riders were thrown. Wagons burst into flame. Yet as the dragons hurtled past, the bow-elves on the heights let fly their shafts at the hindermost parts of the monsters. The creatures were momentarily caught in a storm of arrows. Many snapped or glanced off, yet one drake was hit several times, and instead of zooming upward together with his two companions, went twisting and tumbling over and beyond the low hills. Moments later there came, on the late noon air, the sound of a mighty thump; as if some huge weight had struck the earth. The remaining brace of fire-drakes banked sharply away southward, and surprisingly not renewing the attack, went winging off toward the Nugobluk camp.

As night fell, and the red fires of the goblins sprang up, the shadows of the east stretched over the battlefield; upon which, huddled the dead.

And no thing moved.


Chapter 61 [next]

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