CHAPTER 18 EVE OF THE BATTLE
Hundreds of fairy soldiers stood side by side in long rows over slow-turning barrels that made a low droning sound with every turn. Inside the barrels was a viscous grey mixture that Liam had made. The soldiers were shovelling the mixture from the barrels and then pouring it into rectangular moulds that stood nearby. It was perpetual motion – churn, scoop, plop; churn, scoop, plop. No one missed a beat.
Once the sodden mixture was placed in the moulds, Niamh, Bridie and Derry used their magic to instantly dry it, turning it into a solid block. As the blocks, which were half the height of a fairy and as long and wide as they were high, dried solid, Dougal, Turloch and the ever-complaining Fearghus loaded them onto six sturdy wagons that were drawn by yumboe horses. As soon as the wagons were fully loaded, the wizards and leprechauns went with them to the seafront, where they continued to build the defensive wall that they began a week prior.
The wall was built using a combination of leprechaun strength and fairy magic. The leprechauns placed the blocks in place, and then the fairy mages magically fused them into a permanent position. Even though the wall now stood as tall as the leprechauns, and three times the height of the average fairy, Niamh worried it would not be finished in time.
The day was ending, the suns setting low in the violet sky, when Pasha Ali hurried over to Niamh.
’Sorry to interrupt you while you work, Niamh, but my scouts have just returned. There are at least fifteen hundred ogre warriors heading this way,’ he said, looking nervously over his shoulder.
‘How much time do we have?’ she asked the pasha.
‘A day at most,’ he replied, his breathing quick, ‘and only that long if we are lucky.’
‘Does anyone else know yet?’
‘No. I came straight to you. But I will now send messengers to the other pashas to inform them.’
‘Thank you,’ said Niamh, fully appreciating the respect he had shown by coming to her first. ‘Can you please ask the others to join us in the council room as soon as it is convenient?’
As soon as the yumboe pasha had left, Niamh signalled for Bridie to join her.
‘Bridie, I want you to stop all work on the blocks and make sure all the men are well fed and rested. Tell them that in the morning they are to return to their defensive positions.’
‘When will the ogres arrive?’ Bridie asked intuitively.
‘Some time tomorrow.’
‘Sail ahoy!’ a sentry called, trepidation in his voice.
Niamh’s heart sank as she heard the words. She believed they could withstand an attack by land but wasn’t confident they could repulse one from the sea at the same time.
The wizard reached the sentry at the same time as Dougal, and moments after Izzy.
‘It’s too small for an ogre ship,’ reported Izzy, as she studied the vessel through her spyglass.
Niamh sighed with relief. ‘Good. We only have the fifteen hundred in the desert to worry about, then.’
‘When will they be here?’ asked Izzy, feeling her adrenalin beginning to kick in.
‘Tomorrow,’ replied Niamh. ‘But let’s worry about the ship for now.’
‘It could be an ogre fishing boat,’ offered Dougal.
The ship seemed to take an eternity to reach them, but when it finally did, it became instantly obvious that it was an ellyllon vessel.
‘Llewellyn’s with them!’ Dougal exclaimed as the ship sailed into the port.
‘You have two hundred of your finest longbowmen with you,’ Izzy said, delighted by the news as she greeted Llewellyn.
‘Yes,’ Llewellyn smiled. ‘And there are another six hundred that have already sailed to join up with the main force.’
‘You couldn’t have arrived at a more opportune moment,’ said Niamh, equally as thrilled as Izzy. ‘There are well over a thousand ogres less than a day’s march from here.’
‘Dougal, please show Llewellyn our defences and see what improvements he can suggest? Just make sure you’re back at the council room within the hour.’
‘It will have to be a very quick tour, then,’ said Dougal, already leading the ellyllon miner away.
‘My latest scout has returned, reporting that they have made camp less than six hours away,’ Pasha Ali stated as soon as he entered the council room, not worrying about niceties.
‘Was he able to get a more accurate number?’ Niamh asked the pasha.
‘Their numbers are nearer two thousand than fifteen hundred.’
‘Fifteen hundred, two thousand, it makes little difference,’ said Pasha Javid, dismissing the information. ’We outnumber them close to two to one and will stain the sands with their worthless blood.’
‘This isn’t a lightly armoured undefended supply column who have no idea what’s facing them,’ replied Ali calmly. ’It’s an army of well-armed and armoured ogre soldiers.’
‘Two thousand ogres are hardly an army by ogre standards,’ replied Amir. ‘It’s more an advance guard.’
‘How many ogres are there?’ Niamh asked.
‘No one knows,’ nodded Ali. ’Anyone who has stood before a large ogre force is either dead or working in a slave camp. I still think we have the element of surprise on our side; the ogres will believe they are only fighting yumboe tribesmen. They will only be expecting to face four to six hundred warriors. As far as I know, this is the first time any yumboe tribes have united against our common enemy. Let us pray this is only the beginning.’
The other members of the council noticed that of the four other pashas present, only Imram and Yusaf nodded in agreement.
‘Liam, is Phil’s wing strong enough for him to return to the skies?’ Niamh asked the druid.
‘Only if he lets me examine him as soon as he returns.’
‘I believe he will, as long as you make it clear to him it is the only way you’ll let him fly again.’
‘Excellent,’ said Niamh, pleased with the reply. ‘Adam, tell Phil we would like him to join us. Don’t worry, Liam – I’ll make sure he reports to you after every flight.’
Minutes later the door opened, and Phil pushed his head through. Although the room was built for ogres and was large enough for the leprechauns to stand comfortably in, the dragon was simply too wide to enter.
‘Thank you for coming so promptly, Phil,’ Niamh said as he arrived, trying not to laugh at the sight. ‘How is your wing?’
‘There is nothing wrong with my wing, as I have told you on several occasions,’ Phil snapped, adding in an equally annoyed tone, ‘I can assure you that the druid has greatly exaggerated its condition before he began treating it.’
Niamh could feel Dougal’s eyes on her as they tried to conceal smiles at the dragon’s determination and obvious denial of the true situation.
‘I’m pleased to hear that because I have a job for you. But before I ask you, I must get your word that you will let Liam examine your wing on your return.’
‘If it’s the only way you will let me contribute to the cause, then I guess I will have to give you my word,’ said the dragon through gritted teeth, his nostrils flaring.
‘Good,’ said Niamh. ‘An ogre army has made camp about six hours’ march from here. I need you to watch them. See if you can find out what they know about our defences, and our numbers. We also need you to give us an accurate account of their numbers, and at least two hours’ warning before they arrive. If you can do anything to slow them down, feel free to do so. Sorry, Phil – I know it’s a lot to ask, but you’re the only one who can do this.’
‘I’ll be back before dawn with a number count, and as much other information as I can find,’ he replied. He backed out of the doorway with such enthusiasm that he smacked his head on the doorframe, leaving a gaping hole.
‘How long will it take him to reach the ogre camp?’ asked Pasha Ali.
‘Normally about an hour, but at the speed he’ll be travelling, I’m guessing he’ll be there in half that time,’ Dougal replied. ‘Liam, are you sure his wing is up to this?’
‘Yes,’ replied the fairy druid. ‘Don’t worry – I will be keeping a close eye on him to make sure he looks after it from here on in.’
‘We don’t have time for such insignificant matters as the dragon’s health,’ Pasha Javid said, waving his hands around. ‘Tomorrow we will engage an ogre army. We must use the limited time we have to prepare ourselves.’
‘Pasha Javid,’ Niamh said, with as much respect as she could muster. ‘The information that Phil will bring us will greatly aid in our defence. But you are right – we do have much to discuss.’ She then turned to Llewellyn and asked, ’What do you think of our defences?’
‘I think you had a good teacher,’ replied the ellyllon miner, who had planned and built the defences around the fairy capital almost two years before.
Phil pushed his newly mended wing to its limits, flying high into the vast cloudless sky, banking left and right far more than he needed to. While he would never admit it to that meddling druid, for the first time in years, the dragon felt whole again. The feeling of freedom was intoxicating; he had forgotten what it felt like to live without pain, and now to be able to fly without it sent a feeling of absolute joy coursing through his whole body.
‘Yes,’ he said to himself, ‘I’m back, and I’m going to make a real difference. I’m going to make sure these ogres don’t harm my friends – even the druid.’
The dragon was shaken from his thoughts when he spotted the bright glow of campfires in the distance. He changed direction, then vanished from sight, and headed directly towards the most central fire.
‘I still think we should have marched through the night and attacked them at dawn,’ said a large ogre who went by the name of Brennus. He pummelled his giant fist into his open palm.
’I know you want your revenge, Brennus, but we can’t expect our soldiers to march for the best part of twenty-four hours and then, without rest, fight a battle against an unknown enemy,’ Vercingetroix replied, a giant of an ogre.
’We’re only fighting a few yumboes,’ Brennus scoffed.
’Are these not the very same yumboes who wiped out the caravan that you were in command of?’ said Ambiorix, the third member of the ogre command. He added with a smirk, ‘It was a miracle you survived.’
‘I had less than a dozen guards, and we all know that the merchants and labourers are useless in a fight. This time I have eighteen hundred warriors, and I know what I’m up against.’
Ambiorix grunted. ‘What about the rumours?’
’It’s not a rumour about the yumboe tribes uniting,’ replied Brennus. ‘There were far too many of them to be one single tribe.’
‘I’m more concerned about the rumour of the dragon,’ Ambiorix replied anxiously.
Both Brennus and Vercingetroix laughed out loud – deep throaty chortles.
’You can be a brainless fool sometimes, Ambiorix,’ said Vercingetroix. ‘The fairy dragon vermin have left this world. They have always feared the dark ones, even if they don’t fear us.’
’I would love to rip the wings slowly and painfully off every dragon,’ saidBrennus angrily.
Vercingetroix spat on the ground. ’As would we all. None of our race will forgive our ancient enemy. Long have we waited to return to Alesia, but now is not the time for that vengeance. First, we must drive away those that now rule our lands and those of the dragons.’
‘All those years of fighting the dragons when all our forefathers had to do was wait for the dark ones to banish them from this world.’
‘We have hidden in shame since the coming of the lesser races,’ said Brennus. ‘But only because we knew the dragons would protect them. Their time in this world is almost over, and I for one am honoured to be part of their destruction. I only wish, as I said before, that it was the dragons we faced, and not such insignificant vermin.’
‘All I know,’ said Vercingetroix, ‘is that I will be glad to leave the forests of the untamed lands, even though it is preferable to this cursed desert.’
‘I want a post on the fairy coast,’ said Ambiorix. ‘I led a raid on a village the fairies called Clew. Its ruins would be a nice spot, lots of green pastures. All I’d need are a few dozen fairy slaves to keep the grounds for me and see to my every need.’ His eyes wandered up and to the right, as he imagined what his life could be like.
‘No, it has to be Alesia for me,’ Vercingetroix said. ’Even if I have to personally kill everyfollet living there.’
’I’m with you, Vercingetroix,’ agreed Brennus. ‘It has to be our ancestral homeland. But to more immediate matters at hand – I want everyone ready to march at the break of day.’
Phil listened, anger welling up inside him, as the three ogre captains discussed their plans for the following day. When he heard one say that he wanted to pull the wings off the dragons, it had taken all his self-control not to bite the ogre’s arms off there and then. It wasn’t the throwaway remark that had upset Phil so much; it was the fact that when he was younger, his father had told him that according to the fairy dragon histories, ogres used to cut the wings off any fairy dragon that was unlucky enough to be taken alive in battle. To any dragon, whether fairy or any other, there was no greater disgrace than the loss of one’s wings, and dragons preferred to die from the loss of blood than to lose their wings.
When Phil heard them mention the dark ones again, he remembered seeing those very words written in an old tattered book years before, and he had asked his father who they were. The fairy dragon king had told his son that they were only a legend and to forget them, but now that Phil thought about it, he never saw the book again.
Who are these dark ones, and are they really the reason my kind have gone? Have they run away and left this world exposed to the ogres as they did the fairies? he wondered to himself, making a promise that one day he would discover the truth on a private mission of his own.
Phil felt a deep shame, even though he had not deserted his friends, as he now believed the fairy dragons had. He vowed to himself he would take an ogre officer prisoner and find out more about these ’dark ones.’ Finally, he had his first clue as to why the fairy dragons had left Connacht, if not where they had gone.
For a moment, he considered snatching one of the three ogres there and then, but thought better of it. Now wasn’t the time for personal issues, and the one called Vercingetroix was huge, even by ogre standards. He was closer to Dougal’s size than to that of the average ogre. Phil wasn’t certain he could take on all three of them at once, and he knew he had to keep his presence secret if he and his friends were to hold out the ogres until reinforcements arrived. They needed to use every advantage they had, and the element of surprise was their best weapon. The dragon waited until the ogres went their separate ways, and then took to the dark sky once again.
It was approaching midnight when Phil finally returned; he found Izzy and Niamh still planning for the impending battle.
He landed gracefully next to them as he always did. ‘I have much to tell you,’ he said, and went on to explain all that he had learnt from the three enemies.
‘Thank you, Phil. You have done well yet again my friend.’ Niamh gave a warm, affectionate smile.
Phil found Dougal sitting on the dock, legs dangling freely as he looked out over the pitch-black ocean. He was playing his fiddle, a slow sombre tune that seemed to reflect the general sentiment of the night.
‘It’s been a while since I’ve heard you play,’ Phil said, as he settled beside the leprechaun.
‘I always carry it with me; it’s just that I haven’t had a lot of free time lately. I couldn’t sleep, so I thought I might as well enjoy myself.’ He played a few more bars. ‘Did you find out anything important about the ogres?’
’There are eighteen hundred of them, and they’ll be here by noon.’ Phil paused and then added softly, ‘They mentioned fairy dragons.’
Dougal stopped playing and lowered his fiddle. ‘What did they say?’
’That we were always more afraid of the dark ones than we were of them. They believe that is why my kind left Connacht.’
’Who are the dark ones?’
‘I don’t know, but I need your help to find out.’
‘Anything. Just let me know what you need me to do.’
‘Help me capture an ogre officer so I can learn everything they know about these dark ones. You’ll have to be very careful though Dougal. This isn’t like fighting pixies. Tomorrow, we fight highly trained ogre soldiers, and even though most only come up to your chest, they’re still the most dangerous enemy you have faced in hand-to-hand combat. One of the officers we are encountering is nearly as tall as you and much more solidly built. He may even be a match for me.’
‘Simple then,’ said Dougal confidently. ‘We’ll go after one of the other ones and leave the big one alone.’
‘That’s what I plan to do, as long as we don’t find them together.’
‘Why don’t we go and get one of them now?’ Dougal said.
Phil entertained the idea for the briefest of moments before coming to his senses. ‘No, Dougal. We both need to rest. Tomorrow is going to be a very long and demanding day, and our friends are depending on us.’
Izzy was riled and paced back and forth in front of Niamh. ‘So much for Javid’s guarantee that no ogre escaped from our ambush! Still, only eighteen hundred – it could’ve been worse, I suppose.’
‘How exactly?’ Niamh asked.
‘They could have sent their entire army, and at least they don’t know about our numbers, or who they are really facing. I’m just glad Llewellyn and his archers arrived today. They should thin the ogres’ numbers before they reach our lines.’
‘Let’s just hope we can take advantage of any surprise our numbers cause the ogres,’ said Niamh.
‘You were supposed to report to me as soon as you returned from your mission,’ Liam said in an exasperated tone, irritated that the dragon continually defied him.
’I didn’t finish with Niamh and Izzy until well after midnight,’ Phil defended.
‘Why did I have to come and find you now, then?’
‘Because you just woke me up,’ bit back the dragon. ’It’s not even dawn yet.’
‘It will be in a few minutes. Now, stop making excuses, and show me your wing.’
Reluctantly, Phil extended his left wing. The druid spent the next few minutes examining it thoroughly before he nodded his head in satisfaction.
‘I told you it was fine, didn’t I?’ said Phil.
‘Yes, it’s healing nicely,’ Liam agreed. ‘I think your flight last night has actually assisted the healing process. If you don’t overdo it, you can return to your duties.’
’Good. Please tell Niamh that I’m going to see what the ogres are up to. I will report back well before they arrive.’
‘Enjoy your flight,’ replied Liam, smiling at the proud dragon.
‘I will. Oh, and Liam – thank you,’ Phil said awkwardly as he flew away.
Appreciating how hard it was for the proud beast to say thank you – and in the process admit that he had needed help – Liam smiled and waved him off.
When Phil was clear from sight, the druid went to a prearranged meeting to join up with the rest of his companions. As he neared the tavern that had now been turned into a mess hall for the officers of the fairy army, the tantalising aroma that wafted in the light breeze teased his taste buds.
Liam eyed up Dougal’s large plate of delicious-looking food, and his stomach began to rumble. ‘I hope you’ve saved some eggs for me.’
Dougal finished his mouthful and grinned. ‘There’s plenty for everyone,’ he said. ’You should try the bacon. It’s lip-smacking good.’
’Dougal don’t tease Liam,’ scolded Derry. ‘You know he no longer eats meat.’
‘Don’t worry, Dougal,’ said Adam, taking a large bite of a sausage. The juice ran down his chin. ‘I can’t understand it either.’
Liam – who, like his fellow druids, abstained from eating the flesh of any living animal – smiled at his friends. ‘When you can communicate with a living creature, it becomes far harder to eat it.’
As Liam was speaking, Niamh realised how long it had been since they had spent any quality time together. As a wizard, Niamh was first and foremost a scholar, and was fascinated by everything her druid friend had learned from the ghost of the ancient druids. She wanted to learn as much as she could about their magic and beliefs.
‘You could communicate with animals before you were a druid,’ Dylan put in, ‘and you ate meat then.’
‘You’re right, to an extent, but it’s different now. I can talk to them in the same way I can talk to you. Druids look upon animals as our equals; some can even be our friends. Remember that ginger cat you had when you and Adam were children? What was his name?’
‘Thomas,’ replied the brothers in unison.
‘You couldn’t eat him, could you?’
The brothers were shocked at the suggestion.
‘Well, for druids, it’s like that with all animals.’
Adam put down his knife and fork and pushed his half-finished plate away from him. ‘Well, that’s done it for my breakfast,’ he sighed.
‘I’m not telling you what you should or shouldn’t eat,’ said Liam. ‘Just why I don’t eat meat.’
‘I know,’ said Adam. ‘And I think I now understand your motivations. Just be sure you never teach me how to talk to any animals.’
‘I won’t,’ replied the druid, laughing. ‘Although druids aren’t the only ones who can communicate with animals. It’s written that wizards often took animals as their companions. Most commonly a black cat, but it could be anything, even a bat. They called them a “familiar”.’
As Niamhlistened intently to Liam, she wondered what else he had learned about her art, and again vowed to visit her learned friend when time permitted.
She was shaken from her private thoughts when Dylan asked, ’What kind of animal would you take as a familiar, Niamh?’
Niamh didn’t hesitate. ‘A raven,’ she said immediately.
‘I thought you hated ravens?’ said Derry.
‘I do. I don’t know why I said it,’ replied Niamh, shocked at her answer. ‘It just felt right.’ Not wanting to think about her reasoning, and not sure why it made her feel so uneasy, she turned to Derry. ‘What about you?’
Derry took her time before answering. ‘A red squirrel. Yes, I think a squirrel would make a lovely companion.’
‘If I was a wizard, I would have something far more formidable,’ said Adam. ‘A badger, or even a wolf.’
The two wizards laughed as Liam said, ‘I read about a wizard who tried to keep a wolf as a familiar.’
‘What happened?’ Adam asked.
’It ate him. Unfortunately for the wizard, the wolf, unlike a druid, did eat meat.’
‘Just as well I’m not a wizard, then, isn’t it?’ said Adam.
The sound of laughter filled the room.
The time had come for all concerned to take up their posts and start the wait for the inevitable ogre attack.
Dougal – along with Cait, Turloch and Fearghus – took his place alongside Llewellyn and the ellyllon longbowmen. Izzy, Cameron, Adam and Dylan joined the fairy infantry that held the central position, while Jonty took command of his artillery. Liam joined his small contingent of druids, who were preparing a makeshift infirmary to treat the injured.
Niamh and Derry climbed the stairs of the wooden tower that had been built to give them a view of the entire area. Bridie was waiting for them. ‘There certainly is a good view from up here,’ she said.
Niamh studied the defences, looking for any weaknesses. She knew that the fairy infantry in the centre would stand their ground, but would the yumboes on the flanks? To the right of the fairy soldiers, Pasha Ali and his men waited with Javid’s cavalry, ready to attack the ogres at the first opportunity. On the left-hand side, Pasha Imram’s troops held the ground, while Amir’s cavalry waited behind them. Pasha Yusaf’s men were in reserve, ready to plug any holes that formed in the defensive lines.
Satisfied by what she saw, the fairy wizard nodded to Derry and Bridie. ’I’m sure our three thousand can hold off eighteen hundred ogres, but at what cost, I just don’t know.’
Phil appeared beside her, as if reading her thoughts. ‘They will be here within the hour.’