CHAPTER 19 STAND-OFF
Niamh watched with Derry and Bridie as three ogres, carrying a large white flag on a wooden pole, walked forward.
‘They want to talk. Derry, come with me,’ Niamh instructed. ‘We’re going to see what they want.’
‘What? Just the two of us?’
‘No. We’ll pick up Dougal and Izzy on the way.’
‘Won’t it upset the pashas if we don’t take them with us?’
‘Most probably,’ replied the wizard. ‘But they have granted me command of our defences, and I haven’t time to listen to them fight and bicker over who will represent them at this parley. Bridie, stay here and keep a keen watch.’
‘What if it’s a trap?’ whispered Izzy, following Niamh from the tower.
‘I have cast a spell to protect us,’ replied Niamh. She was stern in her response. ‘Izzy, we do not strike while under a white flag. Is that understood?’
‘As if I would,’ said Izzy, as innocently as she could manage.
Dougal joined; his attention was firmly focused on the three waiting ogres. He knew without a shadow of a doubt that these were the officers Phil had told him about.
The three ogres watched the unusual quartet that walked boldly towards them, showing no sign of fear.
’So, Brennus, it appears it wasn’t just yumboes who defeated your caravan,’ said Vercingetroix, all the while not taking his eyes off the newcomers.
‘It would appear not,’ Brennus replied, intrigued by what he saw.
‘Try not to show your surprise. Let me do the talking.’
The other two ogres nodded in agreement, knowing that Vercingetroix, who was the scholar amongst them, knew far more about the races and history of Connacht than they did.
Niamh and the trio stopped well short of the ogres, but close enough for them to speak.
Vercingetroix took three strides forward and looked Dougal in the eye. ‘We have no quarrel with your kind shoemaker. Why have you entered our world to stand beside the lesser races?’
Dougal was curious about what this creature knew about his people. He was astounded the ogre knew anything at all. ‘I had a quarrel with you the day you began raiding the fishing villages of my friends.’
‘You and your people do not belong here.’ Vercingetroix’s tone was cold and threatening. ‘Leave while you still can.’
Dougal took another step closer, unfazed by the ogre’s menacing words. He was secretly pleased, however, that he had to look down, even if only slightly, to look his antagonist in the eye. ‘You don’t scare me,’ he said. ‘Now state your terms and be gone.’
Vercingetroix was slightly rattled by the confidence of the leprechaun but continued in a stalwart manner.
‘Surrender now and you live; fight and we give no quarter,’ he said.
Much to everyone’s surprise, Dougal laughed. ’As if you’re in any position to make threats. Leave now and I will let you return to the jungle where you belong. Stay and – well, I’m sure I don’t have to spell it out for you.’
‘We are done here!’ spat Vercingetroix, raising his right arm in frustration. ‘You have an hour to surrender!’
Dougal and the others turned and walked away.
‘Sorry,’ Dougal murmured to Niamh. ‘I didn’t mean to take over.’
‘I think you handled it very well. Did you see the startled look on that ogre’s face when you fronted up to him?’
‘Yes, it was most satisfying,’ Dougal replied, thinking that Phil wasn’t the only one who had questions for these ogre officers.
Brennus stomped back and forth. ‘How many of these leprechauns do you think there are?’
‘Your guess is as good as mine,’ Vercingetroix answered. ’But it’s not just the presence of the shoemaker that concerns me. What I’d like to know is how these fairies and brownies managed to convince a yumboe tribe to fight beside them.’
‘Are you sure your biggest concern isn’t that leprechaun?’ Ambiorix was about to ask a further question but decided against it when he saw the tomblike look on Vercingetroix’s face.
Brennus quickly intervened. ‘We need to test their defences,’ he said, hoping to distract Vercingetroix, knowing he was likely to take a swing at Ambiorix if pushed too far.
‘Do we give them their hour?’ asked Ambiorix.
Vercingetroix’s response was firm. ’No. They have made it clear they want a fight, and I’m more than happy to give them one – that leprechaun in particular. But the first thing we’re going to do is send word to King Teutates. I’m sure he would like to know what is happening.’
Niamh and Derry had only just reached their position when Bridie shouted, ‘Here they come!’
‘So much for our hour,’ said Derry.
‘What did you expect?’ Niamh said, as she gave Bridie the signal for the ellyllon archers to fire at will.
Bridie nodded and raised her hand, sending blood-red fire shooting from her fingers.
‘That’s the signal, men!’ cried Llewellyn. ‘Make each shot count!’
Turloch was about to open fire when he realised that none of the ellyllon archers were firing. ‘What are they waiting for?’
‘For the ogres to get much closer,’ answered Dougal, arriving back at his post in time to hear Turloch’s question. ‘The ogres are testing our defences, and our friends don’t want them to know the full range of our weapons.’
Almost as soon as Dougal had finished speaking, Llewellyn shouted, ‘NOW!’ and every second archer fired their first volley.
The three ogre officers watched from a distance as a hundred of their army ran towards the fortified port. The first volley of arrows rained down, felling at least a dozen of the charging ogres.
‘Call them back!’ yelled Brennus. ‘Their deaths achieve nothing!’
Vercingetroix blew three long steady blasts from an ivory horn he carried in his right hand. Instantly, the well-trained ogre army turned and headed back to their camp. They had lost thirty of their number, who lay bleeding, turning the golden sand of the desert a mottled orange colour.
’Ambiorix, spread the word for the men to dig in,’Vercingrtroixordered.
’We can’t lay siege to a port,’ argued Brennus.
‘We need to know more about their numbers before we throw ourselves blindly at their defences, and we need to be able to defend ourselves if they choose to attack us,’ Vercingetroix explained.
‘I think we should send word to the Admiralty and see if they will release some of the raiders to attack the port from the sea,’ said Brennus.
‘I thought you wanted revenge?’
‘I do, and I will have it. But I’m prepared to wait until I know what we’re up against.’
‘It could take two weeks for help to arrive, be it by land or sea – if it comes at all.’
’It will come, and it will come by sea. The high command will not take this alliance of leprechauns, fairies, brownies and yumboes lightly. They will want to quash it as quickly as possible, and the quickest way is by sea. In the meantime, we become observers, and make sure no yumboes get through to boost their numbers, and that they stay confined to the port. If they think we are laying siege, all the better for us.’
‘They’re digging in,’ said Niamh, in surprise. ‘Bridie, go and get Izzy, Adam and Dylan, then see if you can find Phil.’
‘I’m right here,’ said the dragon from somewhere beside the wizard, ‘and I’m on my way,’ he added, not needing the wizard to tell him what she needed him to do.
Niamh and Derry watched the ogres work as they waited for Bridie and the others to arrive.
‘Credit where credit’s due,’ said Derry. ‘They work quickly.’
‘What do you think they’re up to?’ Niamh asked Izzy as the brownie studied the ogres from her new viewpoint.
‘Dougal has them worried,’ she said. ’They obviously thought they were coming here to put down a small yumboe rebellion, but instead they found leprechauns, fairies and brownies, and now they have no idea what else they face. I’m guessing they’ve sent for reinforcements.’
‘What do we do now?’
‘It’s our job to hold this harbour until the rest of our army arrive,’ Izzy answered. ’I guess we wait and see what happens next.’
’I never thought I’d see the day when you suggested waiting for anything,’ Niamh said, laughing.
‘I just hope Amir and Javid see things my way and don’t go charging recklessly at the ogres.’
Niamh smiled, wondering if Izzy realised the irony of what she was saying.
After a few moments of silence, Izzy said, ‘We could spare some men to finish the harbour wall.’
‘You still think they might attack from the sea?’
‘That’s where we came from and it worked for us. It’s worked for them every time they’ve raided one of our villages. I wouldn’t change such a successful formula, so I can’t see why they would.’
’Two days we’ve watched our enemy, while you do nothing but build a wall behind us,’ Javid snapped irritably, his disgust obvious.
’We’re not doing nothing,’ countered Niamh, no longer trying to hide her animosity toward this man. ’Our mission was to establish a landing point for our army and hold it until they arrive. If the ogres want to help us achieve this by not trying to drive us out, all the better. As for the wall, we must protect ourselves from an attack from the sea. Even you must understand that?’
‘No one is forcing you or your men to stay here,’ said Izzy, as usual the first to say what everyone else was thinking.
‘If I had known you were all cowards, I would not have come here in the first place,’ spat Amir, who was standing beside Javid, a man who had once been his bitter enemy.
Niamh made a grab for Izzy but was too slow. The fiery brownie leapt at Amir, pushing him backwards.
‘You, me, outside now! I’ll show you who the coward is!’ Izzy seethed, her eyes flashing with zeal.
‘I am a pasha. I will not fight you – you are beneath me.’
’Izzy now is not …’ started Niamh, but never got to finish.
’I am a Caledonian princess, and the leader of my people’s successful rebellion against an evil conqueror. I am beneath no one. You have insulted my honour; but if you are afraid to face me, I will accept your apology.’
Javid was shocked. ’Is this true? Is this brownie a princess?’
‘Yes,’ replied Niamh reluctantly. She knew Izzy was beyond reasoning with the moment Amir called them all cowards. Izzy had been pushed too far.
‘You have no choice,’ said Javid. ’The girl is royalty. You must let her defend her honour or lose your own.’
‘I’m glad it’s him and not me,’ Adam said to himself, but loud enough for everyone in the room to hear. ‘She’s the best I’ve ever seen with a sword.’
Niamh took Izzy by the arm as they left the room. ‘Don’t kill him,’ she whispered.
‘I’m not going to kill him, but I am going to humiliate him,’ Izzy replied. ‘With a bit of luck, that will settle him and Javid down a bit.’
Javid and Amir stood outside together as they faced Niamh and Izzy.
Javid was the first to speak. ‘I believe, princess, that since you challenged Pasha Amir, he is the one to choose the weapon.’
‘Weapon type is of little concern to me,’ replied Izzy.
Amir, slightly perturbed by the little brownie’s abundance of confidence, tried one last time to back out of the situation. ‘I give you one last chance to save yourself. I don’t want an ally’s blood on my hands.’
‘You called me a coward.’
‘Attack the ogres and prove me wrong.’
‘Stop wasting my time,’ Izzy replied, irritated by the maddening pasha. ‘Choose your weapon.’
Amir, who wasn’t sure he could beat the brownie veteran with any weapon, spotted a camel out of the corner of his eye. ‘Swords, mounted on camels.’
‘No!’ shouted Cameron. ‘Until you arrived, we had never seen a camel, let alone ridden one.’
‘Your princess can withdraw her challenge,’ Amir replied, gaining in confidence. His expression was now a smug one.
‘This desert would freeze over first,’ snapped Izzy. ‘Enough of this talk. Get me a camel!’
Even though the camel was knelt on all four legs, it still looked extremely large and ungainly. As it waited for its rider to climb between the two pummels of the saddle, it spat and hissed, shaking its head from side to side.
Izzy eyed the beast. She silently prayed that riding a camel wouldn’t be too different from riding a horse, as she was, after all, an excellent horsewoman.
She looked at Niamh and Cameron and gave them a watery smile. ‘Well, here goes nothing.’ She put one foot on one of the camel’s knees and hoisted herself into the saddle.
Izzy gave herself a minute to get as comfortable as she could and feel secure. Then she carefully tugged on the reins and brought the camel to its slipper-like feet. It was a bad-tempered beast and seemed to do everything in its power to make the situation as awkward for Izzy as possible.
‘I don’t like this any more than you do,’ she whispered to the animal, wishing she could communicate with it like Liam could. ‘But let’s just work together and get this over with.’
She unsheathed her sword and edged the camel forward, nowhere near as confident about fighting from the back of this animal as she would have liked to have been.
Amir watched the brownie in amusement from atop his camel; he was as comfortable on the camel’s back as Izzy would have been on a horse. Taking advantage of the brownie’s vulnerable situation, he suddenly let out a primal scream and charged towards her, sword raised high in his right hand. Sand whipped around as the animal gained speed.
Izzy calmly waited for them to get closer. When Amir was almost level with her camel, she stood in the saddle and launched herself like a rocket at the pasha. She grabbed him with two hands, and they both sailed from his mount and fell to the ground. They landed apart, rolling and tumbling in the soft sand.
Izzy sprang to her feet and drew her sword. Amir was a few feet away. Despite the relatively soft landing, he had the wind knocked from his lungs and was gasping for air.
Izzy stood over the prone pasha and placed the point of her sword to his throat, her left foot on his chest.
‘You’re not worth having to clean my sword for,’ she said in a fearsome tone. ’If you don’t want to follow Niamh’sorders, leave this camp today.’
‘She has disgraced you,’ said Javid. ‘You must regain your honour.’
Amir felt totally humiliated. ‘And what do you suggest?’
‘Attack the ogres. Show the cowards they are wrong to hide.’
‘I don’t have enough men.’
‘I will follow you with my men. Hopefully the other tribes will see the wisdom of our actions and join us.’
‘Our tribes have been enemies for generations. Why would you stand beside me now?’
’Because the fairies are right about one thing. We must put aside our differences if we are to drive the ogres from our lands – andthen the fairies, too, if they choose not to leave, oncewe have destroyed the ogres.’
‘Will we lead the attack together?’
‘No,’ said Javid. ‘To restore your honour, I think you and your men should lead the attack. I will follow.’
‘When will we attack?’
Amir was pleased with the other pasha’s plan and left to prepare for his ride to glory.
When he had left the room, Javid smiled with satisfaction. He only wished all his rivals were so easy to manipulate.
Dougal watched in horror as Pasha Amir led hundreds of camel and horse riders towards the ogre lines. Their charge was tactically naive, and the ogre crossbowmen picked them off one by one, decimating the riders.
Pasha Amir was the first of the warriors to fall. He died before he even realised that Javid and his warriors had not joined him in his charge.
Dougal did what he could to help the wounded, but the warriors’ numbers had been severely depleted.
‘How many survived?’ asked Niamh, after the event.
‘Less than fifty,’ replied Dougal. ‘And most of them are injured. At least ten will be lucky to see the dawn, according to Liam.’
‘Why did they do it?’ Derry asked, amazed at the stupidity of their actions.
‘I must have pushed him too far,’ said Izzy, feeling guilty.
‘No,’ said Dougal. ’One of the yumboe warriors told me before he died that Javid had hatched a plan with Amir to ride out together and drive the evil invaders from their lands. Javid clearly had no intention of fulfilling his side of the bargain.’
‘I’ve told you all before, Javid plays more games than Rupert,’ said Izzy, ’and I think he’s more dangerous.’
‘Izzy,’ said Niamh sternly. ’Now is not the time for any more trouble between us, or any of the pashas.’
‘I know,’ Izzy replied, but she had the feeling that she had inadvertently become a pawn in the dangerous pasha’s plans.
Pasha Ali knocked three times, and then entered the room. He walked over to Dougal and bowed. ‘I thank you for the risk you took in saving Amir’s warriors.’
‘I’m sorry we couldn’t have saved more, my friend,’ replied Dougal.
Ali bowed again, and then turned to Izzy. ‘Princess, you must not blame yourself. Amir was always going to die that way. If it had not been at the hands of an ogre, it most likely would’ve been at the hands of a rival pasha.’
‘You don’t have to call me princess; I would actually prefer it if you didn’t. Would you like to join us for a late evening meal?’
’Thank you, but I must take my leave, as I am late for a meeting with Yusaf and Imram to discuss what we can do about Javid.’
As dawn broke the following morning, Niamh met with her friends. She told them the bad news. ‘Javid and his men have gone.’
Dougal could not believe what he was hearing. ‘What? When?’
’No one knows when. We found a dozen of Ali’s men, who had been guarding the western coastal flank, murdered. Because there are no ogres out that way, we only had a token force guarding that position. We were, after all, trying to keep ogres out, not yumboes in.’
‘Good riddance to them, I say,’ said Izzy. ‘Another day and I would probably have killed him with my bare hands.’
‘The only problem,’ Niamh continued, ‘is that he took over three hundred of the other pashas’ men with him, which means of the two and a half thousand yumboe warriors, less than half remain.’
Izzy bolted from where she was sitting. ‘He never meant to fight the ogres,’ she said, with undisguised disgust. ‘All he was doing was strengthening his position, hoping that if we manage to defeat the ogres, he will be strong enough to take control of the entire area.’
’Amir, Yusaf and Imram agree with you, and I don’t think peace will come to this land, even if the ogres can be defeated.’
Izzy was determined to do the right thing. ‘We should help Ali and make sure Javid meets the fate he so richly deserves.’
Niamh shook her head. ’Ali believes that other yumboe tribes will not join Javid’s cause if he fights against any foreign army, including ours.’
‘Why?’ asked Dougal.
‘The tribes would see us as another invader,’ Niamh explained. ’And they would view any yumboes fighting beside us as traitors. Which is exactly what Javid wants. He sees it as his best opportunity to unite the tribes under his rule.’
‘I told you from the beginning he was another Rupert,’ Izzy said.