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Copyright 2015 by billwstories
Chapter 11 - Making Up For Lost Time.
While moving briskly toward his next destination, Commander Elgin realized he was forming a very strong attachment to this particular representative of the faerie folk. He couldn’t help but sense a fatherly pride and affection for the boy, especially since he knew how much the elf had endured. Elgin found it difficult to imagine any of his seasoned warriors surviving all of the tribulations Romaric had experienced, let alone having it all happen to them as mere teenagers.
The commander was also able to empathize with what the lad was feeling, as Romaric agonized over the thought that he had betrayed his friends. The elf had withstood a great deal of pain to protect Kieren’s secret, and as Elgin had later discovered, Romaric had suffered tremendously to keep Kieren's mission on track. He had done more than anyone could have asked from him or even expected, but everyone has his limits.
Elgin suddenly felt a desire, or was it a need, to spend more time with Romaric. He would have liked to do it now, but that wasn’t possible. However, as soon as the upcoming battle was over the dwarf would try to arrange an opportunity for them to get together again, so they could become better acquainted. For now though, he had other, more pressing matters to take care of. Without further hesitation, Elgin made his way to the place where his officers were waiting for him, so he could give his briefing.
“I’m sorry for the distraction and delay,” Elgin began, “but the prisoners and the young elf have provided me with some vital intelligence. According to the elf, Kieren’s mission may be in jeopardy, so stopping Madumda may fall entirely to our armies. Even if we are victorious, it may not totally do away with the threat the Dark Lord poses, but it could delay any plans he might still have about gaining power, at least until he can rebuild his support structure.”
Commander Elgin paused briefly after saying this, while his officers considered the implications of what he'd just said. After allowing his staff a few seconds to form their own conclusions, the commander spoke again.
“We will leave the teen and prisoners with a small detachment to watch over them, but the rest of us must move out quickly so we can join in the battle. Those left behind will take the elf and the captives to a spot just north of where Tunstan once stood. They won't leave until tomorrow though, in order to give the lad more time to heal and gain his strength, but they will only travel at a pace the injured elf can handle. They will then wait at that location until we come back for them or I send word about what I want them to do next.” Elgin paused momentarily, so he could think for a moment and see if he'd forgotten anything before he continued.
“The rest of us will head up into the mountains,” he added after this brief delay, “until we find a suitable location to ford the River Sterling. After the various delays we’ve endured, however, it is apparent we will not be able to reach the site of the battle today. Therefore, we will make our way to the juncture where the Devil’s Horseshoe meets with the upper plains and make our final camp there. I know you are all weary and this is asking a great deal from you, but it is imperative we try to make up for lost time.
“I realize making another camp will also delay our entry into the battle by one more day, but I think that location is about as far as we’ll be able to travel before dark. Besides, I don’t want to risk making contact with the Dark Lord’s troops as they are returning from today’s encounter and that could occur if we attempt to go farther. If it were to happen, then we would be severely outnumbered and relinquish any element of surprise we might otherwise benefit from when we eventually enter the fray. Obviously, we must avoid disclosing our presence in this area at all costs, if we wish to carry out a surprise attack against the enemy.” Elgin paused again, but this time it was so he could scan the faces his officers. He wanted to see how they were taking this news before he continued.
“I want you to spread the word to those under your command that there will be absolutely no fires once we leave here. It will also be imperative that we keep the noise level to an absolute minimum and that includes whenever we stop to rest or make camp. I don’t think I need to remind you how important it is that we are careful not to draw attention to our presence in this area. It is essential that we double our vigilance from this moment forward, for there are many other dangers we might have to deal with. Tomorrow, we will be forced to take the long way to reach the battle, in order to avoid any possibility of being spotted. This means we must stay along the river until we are south of Tunstan and it is safe to take a southeasterly route to reach the battlefield.”
The others nodded their understanding and then the commander answered all of their questions. Once each officer's concerns had been addressed, Commander Elgin went back to check on the young elf. Elgin felt he needed to look in on Romaric again, because he wanted to see, for himself, how the lad was holding up. The commander also wanted to make certain all of his medical needs had been taken care of before he and his troops set off on their march.
In fact, if Romaric was still awake when he got there, Elgin was also planning to use this opportunity to bid him farewell before they parted company. He didn’t want the boy to feel abandoned or rejected, which he assumed would happen if he were to leave without a word of explanation. The commander also wanted to inform the teen about what they were going to do with him next, so Romaric wouldn’t feel apprehensive once he discovered the commander and the others were gone. If the youngster wasn’t awake when he got there, then the commander would leave a note and give the guard a verbal message to pass it along to the lad, which he hoped would suffice.
As he approached the spot where he had previously left the elf, Elgin was a bit surprised to discover Romaric was awake. The commander knew it wasn't possible that he could be completely rested now, especially after only such a short period of time, so this wasn’t totally expected. However, since Romaric was alert, it would give him a chance to say his goodbye in person.
“I suspected you might be sleeping, my young friend,” the commander said, in a soft, soothing voice. “You have been through a great deal, so I felt you might have given in to your exhaustion.”
“I did fall asleep for a while, but I feel much better now,” Romaric announced, which caused Commander Elgin to look at him skeptically. “I’m also ready to go find Kieren. How soon before we’ll be leaving?”
The commander wasn’t prepared for Romaric’s comment or what the elf presumed they were going to be doing next. For a few moments, Elgin struggled with how he was going to deal with Romaric’s unrealistic expectations. After agonizing over his response for several seconds, the commander plucked up the nerve to break the bad news to the boy. There was no way he could delay commenting on this any longer, because he didn't have a lot of time to spare.
“Even though I would love to be able to do that, I’m afraid it won’t be possible,” Elgin told him as delicately as he could. After saying this, however, the commander immediately noticed Romaric’s shocked and disappointed reaction.
“Romaric, you have to understand that I have an assignment I must complete,” the commander went on. “My army is already late entering the battle and we will need to make an appearance before all hope is lost. You shall be left behind with a few of my warriors and the prisoners that once held you captive, but I shall meet up with you again when the battle is over. The guards will take you to where Tunstan once stood and you will wait for us there.”
“No!” Romaric squealed, as his anguish clearly showed on his face. “I have to find Kieren and make sure he’s all right. Can’t you help me do that?”
“What if I promise that if I should run across Kieren I will tell him you are alive and well,” the commander offered. “Not only that, but I vow I’ll also bring him with me when I come back to get you. Will that suffice and make you happy?”
“No, it won’t!” Romaric shouted, emphatically. "I have to be the one to find him. I need to do it myself and not rely on anyone else to do it for me.”
“Even if we had the time for such things,” the commander told him soothingly, “it wouldn’t change what has already taken place. We will discover, soon enough what has happened to Kieren and the others.” Romaric looked extremely upset as the commander explained this to him, but Elgin continued.
“Since what you want is not an option and because Beraut is counting on my army to support his effort against the main contingent of Madumda’s forces, then that is what I must do. If we don’t make it to the battle as planned, Beraut’s strategy will be sorely tested and it may even doom our side to defeat.”
“But I need to know what happened to Kieren,” Romaric pleaded, while hoping he might still convince the dwarf. “I have to find out if what I did caused him any harm. Can’t we just go the way he did and use the back door into Treblanc, so we wouldn’t need everyone else to go with us?”
“First of all, it would take far too long for us to get over the mountains to do that,” the commander explained. “Second, you don't have any idea where to look for this secret doorway, even if we made it that far. Besides, if Madumda has learned of Kieren’s plans, he most likely has that entrance either blocked or heavily guarded by now.”
“There has to be something we can do to help Kieren,” Romaric whined, since he didn’t want to give up.
“Romaric, since using the back door isn’t an option,” Elgin explained, “it means the only other choice we'd have is to go through the main gate into Treblanc. We certainly wouldn’t be able to do that without having to engage in a major battle, which would result in many deaths. It just wouldn’t be safe for us to try to get into Madumda's fortress that way unless we had an entire army with us for support. As I've already told you, my small contingent is committed to join up with our main force to do battle with the Dark Lord's army.”
“Couldn’t we break in some other way?” Romaric pleaded, as he stubbornly refused to give up.
“Romaric, Treblanc is a mighty citadel. It was designed that way to protect the Council of Wizards,” Commander Elgin replied. “It would be extremely difficult to breech its defenses, because the fortress could withstand a full frontal assault, and I’m certain the Dark Lord has not left it completely unguarded. Besides, even if we could manage to find a way in, we would still arrive much too late to be of any assistance to Kieren. We may not be able to help him, but my troops might be able to assist our army, so that is what we must do. I’m sorry, Romaric, but you’ll just have to do as I ask, but I promise I’ll do whatever I can to help you once the battle is over.”
Romaric was finally beginning to understand that he wasn’t going to be able to do what he wanted. Slowly, he started to grasp the inevitability that he would have to do what the dwarf was suggesting instead. With that in mind, Romaric finally agreed to accept the commander’s suggestion.
“Do you really promise that you’ll help me find Kieren just as soon as you can?” Romaric asked, while his eyes searched Commander Elgin’s face. He was trying to determine if the dwarf was being sincere in his offer.
“Yes, Romaric, I promise on my honor as a dwarf and on the souls of my dearly departed parents,” Elgin replied while looking directly into Romaric's eyes. “I will do anything and everything I can to help you once we have dealt with Madumda’s army.”
Although he was extremely disappointed, Romaric now realized this was probably the best compromise he was going to be able to wheedle out of the commander. Grudgingly, he accepted the dwarf’s assurance and agreed to do as he was told. Willingly, he turned around and was ready to follow the guard, as they went to join up with the others assigned to watch over him. Romaric was still mildly depressed about how this was working out, but he was desperately trying to hold on to the brief glimmer of hope that his previous momentary weakness hadn’t resulted in the deaths of his friends.
Since Romaric’s tortured body was still quite sore, he felt a twinge of pain as he started to walk away, but he didn’t let his afflictions stop him. Instead, he put on his best stoic face for everyone else to see, as he began to follow the guard to the spot where they would meet up with the rest of his escort. Even though the guards would also be keeping a close watch over the prisoners, Romaric understood he wouldn’t be expected to help with this task.
Since Romaric was still feeling guilty about telling his captors what Kieren and the others were up to, he desperately wished to discover how Kieren, Garreth and the warriors had fared, but obviously that wasn't going to happen any time soon. Since he was still having trouble dealing with his feelings that he should have done more to protect Kieren, he wasn’t ready to be alone just yet either. Instead, he was hoping that one of the guards would remain by his side, because he thought having someone else with him would provide a distraction from those nagging doubts.
Romaric was only part of the way to his destination when he suddenly stopped and turned around again. He stood very still for a few moments, as he watched the commander move away from him and return to his troops. Suddenly, Romaric realized there was something else he had to do. Without explanation or hesitation, and while ignoring the pain he was currently feeling, the elf bolted off in the direction of the dwarf military leader. He did this so he could remind Commander Elgin, one final time, about the promise he had made. Romaric also felt he needed to give the dwarf a powerful hug for being so nice to him.
Once the youngster reached the commander, he wrapped his arms around the dwarf’s stout body and squeezed, even though doing this caused him considerable discomfort at the same time. Slightly startled by this unexpected embrace, Commander Elgin managed to return the elf’s affection before Romaric reminded him about his pledge. Humoring the lad, the dwarf patiently reaffirmed his commitment and intention to keep it. Once that had been cleared up, he sent Romaric back to join up with the others, before he gave the command for his small army to move out.
As the commander strode away, Romaric watched his every move, but Elgin didn’t bother to look back to see what the elf was doing. The commander thought if he were to do that then it might make this parting even more difficult for Romaric than it already was. He felt if he were to turn around and wave at the young elf it would only encourage Romaric to race back and say goodbye to him again. Therefore, he decided it would be best to merely walk away. What Elgin didn’t realize, however, was that Romaric was busy saying a silent prayer for the commander’s safety, so he would be able to fulfill his important pledge.
While he hoped Romaric was doing what he had promised, Commander Elgin led his troops northward. Eventually, they completely disappeared from sight of those they’d left behind. No matter what lay ahead of him or what dangers he still had to face, the dwarf military leader was having a difficult time shaking the memory of the horrors Romaric had been subjected to. This, in turn, made Elgin wonder to what extremes the young elf might go if his fears about Kieren were confirmed. Silently, Elgin prayed this scenario would never come to pass and made an unspoken vow to stick by Romaric and do everything he could to protect him, no matter what else happened.
Out of necessity though, the commander was now forced to refocus his attention on the task at hand, so he concentrated on his army. The first thing he did was to order scouts to be sent ahead to look for signs of potential danger. He was still mindful that they needed to remain cautious and not needlessly walk into any threatening situations.
Next, he sent word around to those whom had been selected previously to watch for the giant condor and advised them to keep their gaze skyward, in case the monster reappeared. Elgin was still having trouble believing they’d been as fortunate as they were and the winged guardian hadn’t shown up prior to this. However, even though they’d been enjoying this streak of good fortune for quite a while, the commander was fearful their luck was about to change.
Commander Elgin also took time to strategically arrange the men from Tunstan within the formation. He did this in a way that the men would be able to slide in between the dwarfs whenever they performed this maneuver, so they would be protected too. They even took a few minutes to practice doing this a handful of times, in order to be certain everyone understood how to carry out this disguise. Elgin also made sure to give the men a very vivid description of the threat they were facing, so they wouldn’t have any doubts about how vital their cooperation was to ensure everyone’s survival.
Finally, since they had so much ground to cover, the decision was made that they’d have to move at a swifter pace. Elgin understood they wouldn’t be able to march as quickly as his dwarfs troops were capable of doing, because he was worried about the men being able to keep up. Therefore, the commander selected a pace that would address both of these concerns.
It was just a short time later when the advance scouts began to report back and, fortuitously, none of them had noticed anything unusual up ahead. Pleased by this news, the army continued to move farther into the mountain range and was making very good time in the process. However, it was still well past midday when they reached a suitable spot where they’d be able to ford the river. Eagerly, the front ranks stepped into the icy water and anxiously started to cross over to the other side.
The river was still nearly waist deep for the dwarfs, but none of them complained. They didn’t want to waste more time going even farther into the mountains, just to locate a place where the water was shallower and the current even slower. Before long, the last of the troops was climbing up the bank on the other side and they had now managed to put another obstacle behind them. Once they'd formed up again, they reversed their course and headed south, as they followed the opposite bank of the river.
Rather than taking the time to stop, dry off and change clothing, Commander Elgin decided it would be best to keep marching and use the remaining sunlight to help them get back to the lower reaches of the mountain range. They would let their body heat and the air dry the excess water from their garments as they moved on.
They quickly resumed their earlier swift pace, as they followed the river out of the mountains. Once they got closer to the spot where the two mountain ranges ended and the plains began, the scouts were sent out to search for an appropriate place where they would be able to make camp for the evening. The daylight was nearly gone when they found a suitable location, so they were forced to act quickly and do what needed to get done while there was still some light left to aid them. As a precaution, they were reminded that no fires would be allowed, since the light would give their presence away to any watchful eyes.
Once the camp was established, the dwarfs and men from Tunstan removed their still damp clothing and changed into something dry. At this point, they were no longer certain if the remaining moisture was from the river water or the perspiration that had accumulated during the lengthy and strenuous march. Whatever the source, they were happy to change into dry garments just the same. Once they had done this, they selected a place to bed down, before consuming another cold meal.
Besides having no fires to cook with or to use to keep warm, they were also reminded that they needed to keep the noise-level to a bare minimum as well. A few of the common soldiers tried carrying on conversations in whispers, but most decided to use the opportunity to get as much rest as possible.
While the others were unwinding and settling in for the night, Commander Elgin moved about the camp in a very harried fashion. He appeared to be an unbridled bundle of energy, as he checked out the campsite and conversed with some of those under his command. He also conferred with the ranking officer from the Tunstanese Army, to see if he had any suggestions concerning what they should do next. Once Elgin was satisfied that he had learned all he could from him, the commander held a brief meeting with the officers from both armies, so they could finalize preparations and tactical plans for when they reached the battlefield.
Even though Elgin knew his scouts were tired, he dispatched them now. He felt they could stay behind and get some rest after they returned, but first the commander needed them to locate and report on the positions of both armies. These details were necessary, so he would be able to select an area to target where they could not only surprise the enemy, but also make an immediate impact on the battle. The scouts were requested to make note of anything they felt might be of importance, such as the remaining troop strengths on both sides, the types of troops and weaponry the enemy was using, as well as the terrain of the battlefield or whatever else might prove significant. Elgin was seeking any advantage he might be able to gain from this type of knowledge and felt it was worth any inconvenience it might cause his scouts in order to get it.
In addition to assigning the scouting duties, Elgin ordered guards posted around the perimeter of the camp and doubled the number he normally would have used. He instructed these guards be changed every half hour, to limit the amount of sleep each sentry would lose, because he didn’t want them to be too fatigued when they finally entered the fracas.
Once those details had been seen to, the commander mentally went over several different plans of attack. The one he would eventually choose would depend on the information the scouts reported about the current battle situation and the layout of the area. No matter which plan he selected, his primary concerns were to arrive undetected and then strike at the enemy’s most vulnerable location, where they could do the most harm and make the greatest impact. After all they had been through up to this point, he certainly wanted to be able to make a decisive difference in the battle.
Once he had all of these options organized in his mind, Elgin went to his pre-selected spot to get some much needed rest. Tonight he would be sleeping out in the open, just like the rest of his troops.
The commander’s sleep was not very restful, however, because his mind continued to race over the same information he had been working on while he was awake. Subconsciously, he went over every scenario he had formulated previously, so he could examine how each option might play out. This way, he was able to envision potential problems more clearly by utilizing these hypothetical encounters.
Commander Elgin awoke after nearly every vision and would take a few precious moments to note how the results matched up to his expectations. He would then either alter his original plans to adjust for these potential problems or confirm those tactics he felt were sound. After experiencing his latest vision of one of these scenarios, the commander decided to remain awake, since he noted the dawn was rapidly approaching.
Elgin was now functioning at a heightened state of awareness and utilizing the same degree of mental preparedness that had gotten him noticed and promoted so quickly after similar engagements when he was first starting out. It was this extra attentiveness to detail, as his mind raced over every nuance of his battle plan, which had set him head and shoulders above his peers. The only difference between how he preformed then and now was that his advancing years were beginning to take their toll and such preparations exacted a far greater price on him physically. He was still focused on these various options when the first of the scouts arrived to make his report.
Over the next hour or so, each of the scouts returned and gave a detailed account of what he had seen. Elgin now knew the approximate number and types of troops they would be facing, the weapons the enemy was using and the location of each of the Dark Lord’s units. He also had a fairly detailed impression about where the battle would be taking place, including the topography of the area. In addition to this, he had also learned a few details about the battle that had concluded the previous day.
"Even though there was no clear victor, it was apparent it had been a costly encounter," the first scouts to return had reported. "I could see vast numbers of dead and hear the pleas of mercy from the dying, while still managing to keep my own presence in the area a secret."
The scouts had also collectively made it a point to avoid all contact with Madumda’s troops, which even meant avoiding the urge to kill or capture any enemy soldier they happened upon. It was felt that if they risked such an encounter they might end up exposing their presence, which would mean they'd effectively relinquish any advantage they might carry into the upcoming battle.
Elgin was pleased with most of the information he heard, but not everything was to his liking. He was disheartened to learn that from their current location, the scouts estimated it would take the army nearly half a day to skirt around the enemy’s flank undetected and be able to pull off a surprise attack. If they took the shortest route to get there so they could charge into the fray sooner, they would most likely be spotted well before they were within striking distance. That would give Madumda’s officers time to realign their troops and prepare for such an encounter, which would take away any advantage they were trying to gain. No matter how frustrating it would be to delay their entrance into the conflict, they would have to be patient and stick to the plan in order to maximize their effectiveness.
Once the last of the scouts had returned, Elgin assembled his troops and got underway again. He allowed the scouts to stay behind and rest for a time, but advised them they were to rejoin them later. Since so many Tunstanese troops had been lost when the city was destroyed, the army would need every warrior they had if they wished to be effective.
Elgin only allowed his army to take one short break as they made their way to the battlefield, but he also sent out more scouts to get an updated report about what was awaiting them. It didn’t take long before the scouts returned and each one gave a brief account of what he had seen.
“The battle is fierce, sir, and many lives are being lost on both sides,” the first of these new scouts informed him.
“Can you tell who has the advantage at this point?” Elgin pressed.
“No, sir,” the scout replied. “While our forces seemed to be doing well in one area, the enemy seemed to have the advantage in another. I didn’t observe the fighting for very long, but the momentum seemed to shift twice in just the short period of time I was there.”
Elgin received similar reports from the other scouts, but he also got some important information from one of them.
“Is there any way we can slip up behind the enemy unnoticed?” Elgin wanted to know.
“There is one path I think might work, but only if we crouch low and advance slowly,” this new scout advised him. “Otherwise someone will most likely notice us before we are able to get close enough to strike.”
“Then that is how we must proceed,” Commander Elgin announced, before sending messengers to advise his line officers about these new orders.
The dwarf army now made its way across the plains, but their progress was slow and steady. As they continued to move nearer the fighting, they reached a point that required them to use even greater stealth. To accomplish this, they crouched as low as they could, which was even more difficult for the units with the men from Tunstan, but they also utilized whatever natural cover they found. Slowly, they continued their advance, but Elgin was beginning to wonder if they were going to be able to enter the fighting in time?
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