Authors: Mark Acres
“No!” he said forcefully. “They will not strike the elves.”
“Why not? Dragons have racial memory,” Shulana explained. “Every detail of the old wars lies somewhere in the backs of their minds. They will want revenge....”
“They may want peace,” Bagsby said. “They remember that they were defeated in that war.”
Shulana looked at Bagsby in full amazement. “You have spoken with them of these things?”
“Well,” Bagsby hedged, “we’ve had a few conversations.”
“And?” Shulana asked, anxiety mixed with hopeful eagerness on her face.
“And,” Bagsby said, “there are a few details yet to be worked out, but I plan to have the dragons with us when the elves and the Holy Alliance stand together against Heilesheim.”
Shulana stood and, resisting her instincts no longer, threw her arms around this strange human to whom her heart had become attached. Bagsby felt her slim form against his thick body, wrapped his arms around her back, and buried his face in her long, straight brown hair. It seemed to him as though his very soul heaved a sigh of relief and joy.
So entranced were the two that both failed to hear the clink of armor as the soldier-messenger came running up to them.
“Uh, humm!” the man said, making gentle coughing sounds. Bagsby opened his eyes, cocked his head, and looked at the man askance.
“What is it?” he growled. “I’m busy at the moment.”
“Sorry to interrupt your leisure, Sir John,” the man said, head lowered in a curt bow. “But the Council of the Holy Alliance requests your presence to assume the office of Commanding General of the Holy Army of Men and Elves for the prosecution of the war against Ruprecht of Heilesheim.”
sat alone in his study in the royal palace at Hamblen, his eyes pointed dully at the maps on which he had once planned the conquest of the Holy Alliance. But his eyes were not focused on the maps; instead, they were focused on the visions of disaster being manufactured by his imagination—an imagination that could draw upon a lifetime’s experience of war to foresee the thousands of things, large and small, that could go wrong in the best-planned campaign.
Culdus saw his well-trained legions marching in their stunning pike columns up to the very edge of a towering wood. Up to that point they were invincible; only magical fireballs or other spells could harm them, and the rows of mages that always accompanied Heilesheim’s armies were more than a match for any wizards in the world. But as the formations began to inch their way into the forest, it would be the beginning of the end of Heilesheim’s greatness. The leading ranks, composed of the bravest and best troops, would maintain some cohesion as they moved at a snail’s pace into the dense undergrowth of the forest floor. But their cohesion would do them no good: they would be mowed down by arrow fire from elves perched in the high trees all around them, out of reach of humans’ deadly pikes. The rear ranks of the columns, of course, would lose their cohesion; individual men becoming separated, wandering in the undergrowth, getting confused, becoming turned around. More arrows would now come down from the trees—a downpour, a deluge of arrows. And then the spells would begin to pop, each elf enemy in his own right a minor mage. More men would drop, and still more would wander, stunned, dazed, and panicked. Then the elves would drop from their high perches to the forest floor, where they, long accustomed to the wood, could move with the speed of lightning, slitting throats, running men through, destroying in fifteen minutes the formations it had been the work of Culdus’s entire lifetime to create.
The general shuddered. He knew his imaginings were not far from accurate. To attack the elves in that vast wood they called the Elven Preserve was suicidal. Ruprecht thought that the elves could be defeated by sheer weight of numbers. What foolishness, Culdus mused. The more men that were thrown into that endless tangle—where not even the light of sun could penetrate save at the elves’ desire—the more men would be killed. And as for the king’s idea of a flanking attack—sheer nonsense! Bad enough to penetrate into the wood; even worse to attempt to coordinate two separate attacking forces when communications between the two forces were not secured.
And yet, Culdus knew he had no choice but to obey. It had taken Culdus his entire life to devise the tactical system that had so far destroyed every human force opposed to it in battle on an open field. Now he would have only a few weeks to devise a system that would defeat elves—magic-using elves—in their own enchanted forest where they knew every tree, bush, and stick, and where every living thing of green could be a spy, a scout, and a trigger for a preset magic spell. And he had to do it.
Culdus beat his fist against the table in frustrated rage. It could not be done! Even a mad fool like Ruprecht should be able to see that it could not be done!
“The problem,” said the scratchy voice of Valdaimon, “is, of course, the forest.”
Culdus looked up and saw the old wizard, who had appeared out of thin air as was his wont, walking slowly across the spacious room toward the table. Normally he would have greeted the sorcerer with curses. Today, for some reason he could not fully understand himself, he was actually glad for the intrusion.
“Certainly the problem is the forest,” Culdus barked. “Aside, of course, from the elves themselves,” he added, dripping sarcasm.
Valdaimon inched closer to Culdus, his eyes riveted on the general’s face. “The problem,” he repeated, “is the forest. Your mass formations cannot be brought to bear there. The elves can murder them from the trees. Our own wizards cannot be sure of the effects of their spells there, for the plant life itself is said to be enchanted. Your men will become separated, panicked, slaughtered in detail.”
Culdus returned the wizard’s stare. Instinctively, he sensed that, despite their deep and abiding hatred for one another, each needed the other now.
“Yes,” Culdus responded simply.
“Yet, if the elves could be driven into the open—a field, a valley, or even a plain—the outcome would be very different.” Valdaimon came to stand next to Culdus, his leering face pressed close to the general’s. Culdus stifled his impulse to retch at the stench that always accompanied Valdaimon; despite years of interaction with the wizard, he had never grown accustomed to that smell.
“It would,” Culdus acknowledged. “In melee, the elves fight as light troops with bows and swords. Our cavalry could circle them, then charge, driving them headlong into our massed pike formations,” Culdus said, visualizing the scene clearly. “Your wizards could do what was necessary to negate their spells,” he added, giving the greatest acknowledgement he had ever given to Valdaimon’s contribution to Heilesheim’s previous victories. “The result would be a slaughter.” Culdus stepped up to his maps, pointed to the broad expanse of Argolia, where the bulk of his army lay to the immediate east of the Elven Preserve. “Especially if it were well planned, in advance,” he muttered, showing with a few brisk motions of his broad, brown fingers the potential movement of his corps. “The elves cannot field more than a few thousand fighters, even including their women. On three days’ notice I could mass thirty, forty, even fifty thousand men against them.”
“Then I have a solution,” Valdaimon announced, smiling, his few yellow, scraggly teeth peering obscenely from between his narrow, dry lips.
“And what is that?” Culdus demanded, skeptical. He had heard promises from Valdaimon before—countless promises—and he was hard pressed to remember when one of them had been fulfilled.
“Burn the forest,” the old wizard said with a shrug. “Burn it root and branch. The elves can either die screaming in the flames or march out to face you in the field.”
Culdus stood stock-still for a moment, the simplicity and brilliance of the idea seeping into his soul. “It would have to be magical fire,” he answered slowly. “The elves would use their magic to try to stop it.”
“Of course,” Valdaimon said, surprised that a point so obvious would even have to be mentioned. “It would be a small contribution from my League to the victories of the army.”
“And so say you all?” Sir John Wolfe asked the assembled nobles of the Holy Alliance.
The lords of the lands stood behind the chairs they had occupied for many weeks of council sessions. These were men of power, Bagsby realized—men born to power, raised with power, used to the everyday exercise of power. They were men of great pride, who found it difficult to submit to any outside authority. If he were to lead them in battle against Heilesheim, which he had no wish to do, he would have to be sure of their loyalty.
One by one, the noble heads dropped ever so slightly in courteous bows, acknowledging their assent to Bagsby’s selection. He had been a compromise candidate—any one of these men was better qualified in terms of pure military background or skill in traditional, personal combat. But being proud men, they could not submit to one another. Besides, Bagsby—or Sir John as he was known in this company—was the only knight known to have defeated any force of Heilesheim regulars. Bagsby watched intently until every head save one was bowed in submission.
“And the elves, Elrond?” Bagsby asked. “What says the head of the Elven Council?”
“Sir John is well aware that there are unresolved issues between himself and the Elven Council, issues that could be considered... divisive,” Elrond responded, speaking slowly. “Still, as no other leader could be agreed upon—and as we elves suspect that our forces will fight as a... separate contingent—I will consent to the choice.”
“In giving this consent,” Bagsby pressed, “do you or do you not pledge your obedience?” Bagsby did not demand absolute power, but if his plan were to succeed he must be given it, voluntarily, by men and elves.
Elrond was slow to respond. He studied Bagsby’s face with a look of distaste on his own. And in the back of his mind, he remembered an ancient prophecy concerning the end of his race at the hands of a lesser race. Dare he put the fate of his race in the hands of this unreliable human who had already betrayed his trust? And yet, under the circumstances, what choice had he?
“So far as military authority extends,” Elrond said carefully, “I will pledge the obedience of the elves. But in return I demand a pledge that the defense of the elves will be given equal weight with the defense of any human kingdom in the struggle to come. If this pledge is not kept, then I shall consider myself and my people released from our pledge to you,” the old elf finally responded.
“So be it,” Bagsby replied solemnly. “My lords, Your Majesties, I pray you be seated.”
Bagsby alone remained standing as the nobility resumed their seats around the conference table. Bagsby smiled broadly as he surveyed the group. Not bad, he thought, for a little thief from Laga to be the acknowledged leader of the civilized forces of the earth. Not bad. And not enviable. There was much to be done.
“Good men and women, humans and elves,” Bagsby declaimed, “I shall endeavor to my utmost to keep the trust you have placed in me. It is my determination to destroy the enemy in one, large battle.”
Shouts of “Hurrah!” and “Hear! Hear!” rose around the table.
Bagsby held up a hand for silence. “This battle will be fought, I strongly suspect, in the plains and valleys of Argolia, in the lands not many miles east of the Elven Preserve and south of the border of Parona.” Bagsby studied the reactions of Elrond and King Harold to this announcement. He was not certain how Harold would respond to the presence of a large army from Parona in Argolia, and he was uncertain as to how Elrond would react to learning that the great showdown would not be in the Elven Preserve, where the old elf surely expected it. Harold kept his face stony still, betraying no emotion. Elrond looked at Bagsby with frank curiosity.
“To prepare for this engagement, I will demand of each of you obedience to a set of commands that may seem... unusual,” Bagsby continued, “to those skilled in the traditional arts of war.” He paused again for effect. “We have learned from bitter experience that traditional methods are less than effective against the powerful arms of Heilesheim.”
There were general nods of agreement around the table, mixed with looks of frank apprehension on the faces of the more powerful nobles.
“Nothing that will be asked of you will compromise your honor,” Bagsby said, assuring them, “so long as you remember that your true honor lies in victory.”
The assembly banged its assent with mailed fists on the top of the great table.
“I am glad of your response,” Bagsby said. “Over the next week, I want all forces for the battle to be assembled here, in a great camp outside the capital of Parona.”
King Alexis Aliapoulios visibly blanched at this announcement. The destruction that could be caused by even a friendly army could cost hundreds of thousands of crowns.
“King Alexis,” Bagsby said, “as the member of the Holy Alliance which will be supplying the greatest number of troops, Parona will also have the honor of feeding and housing those troops.”
“That is an honor,” the king responded quickly, “that our treasury is ill equipped to receive. Perhaps if the elves, whose treasure is legendary, were to assist in defraying the expenses...” the king began.
“Then we would be asking much too much of them,” Bagsby dared to interrupt. “They will be required to abandon their forest in order to lure the enemy to the chosen battle site. They will supply most of the magic our forces will use, and they will almost certainly bear the brunt of the enemy’s first attack. Surely, that is contribution enough when Parona has been and will remain unscathed by the presence of the enemy.”
“I fear our new commander has little experience in the financing and equipping of armies,” Alexis said, rising. “The other members of the council....”
“Are well aware that Parona recently sold to the enemy, Heilesheim, for purposes undisclosed, the most fabulous treasure owned by humankind—and that the treasury of Parona is filled to overflowing with the gold Heilesheim used to make payment for that treasure,” Bagsby snapped. “Your Majesty has pledged his obedience to
in these matters,” he added.
King Alexis resumed his seat, silenced and embarrassed.
It was a bitter draught Sir John had made him drink—and publicly—one the king silently vowed not to forget.
Bagsby continued, noting to himself with satisfaction that with sufficient presumption and a bit of hard facts, one could silence even a king.
“It will be necessary for me to be gone for the next week or two, to arrange for certain matters pertinent to the coming conflict that are best not discussed publicly,” Bagsby declared. “In my absence, the footmen who gather will be trained by my trusted lieutenant, George of Heilesheim.” Bagsby silenced the murmurs of rising outrage that rippled through the noble audience by quickly adding, “What better way to defeat a Heilesheim force than by understanding its tactics? Mounted knights are to work out their own order of battle during my absence.” That, Bagsby thought, should keep the nobles occupied for the better part of much more than the time he required.
“And now, my friends,” Bagsby said, reaching to the table and pouring a golden goblet full of Parona’s best rich red wine, “let us drink to The Holy Alliance, and to victory!”
Bagsby took Shulana with him, and only Shulana. For what he was preparing, he wanted no witnesses, save for the one person he knew would never willingly harm him. He had pondered the risk to her when he formulated his plan, and he knew it was considerable. But if she died, he would die with her. And what more pleasant fate could a man have than to die with the woman he loved?
Bagsby stole a glance at Shulana. As always, she was very lovely, in her simple green tunic, with her magic cloak folded and tucked neatly beneath her small saddle. She wore a small bag on a strap around her shoulders, and it rocked gently with her horse’s motion. A quiver of arrows bobbed on her back, and by her right leg her bow and sword were carefully secured, ready for instant action.