CHAPTER 31 THE JOURNEY HOME
The following morning, the victorious army left Calètes and began the long march to Almoravid.
The mood of the soldiers had significantly changed. Gone was the fear and apprehension of defeat, replaced by a strange but understandable mix of joy, relief and sadness. The war was over; they were going home to their friends and families, who were now safe from the ogres. However, there was still sadness because there were few amongst them who had not lost friends, cousins, uncles and brothers. Sons had lost their fathers, and, perhaps even worse, parents had lost their children. Despite this, the soldiers marched determinedly forward to the port, where they would eventually board the ships that would take them home.
‘We should stop here for tonight,’ Izzy said, as the army arrived at a large oasis. ‘We won’t reach Almoravid before nightfall, and we won’t find a better place to make camp.’
‘Izzy’s right,’ said Adam. ‘That lake is teeming with fish, and I intend to have one for dinner.’
Niamh smiled. ‘I don’t need convincing; I could’ve stopped hours ago. Adam, give the order.’
The army pitched their tents for the last time before they would reach Almoravid.
Niamh dismounted her horse and led it to the water’s edge to let it drink. She knelt and placed her hand in the welcoming water and was surprised to find it was far cooler than she had expected. On impulse she stood and walked into the pool, letting the cool embrace relax and invigorate her exhausted body.
Adam and Dylan sat on a shaded part of the bank, using long pieces of string with an arrowhead attached to the end as makeshift fishing rods, hoping to attract the elusive fish in the pond.
Liam was immediately drawn to the peculiar-looking prickly plants, which, after close inspection, he was sure would be of great use in the future.
Izzy and Cameron watched as pixie and brownie soldiers ate and drank happily together beside the oasis.
Cameron looked at her long-time friend and said, ‘It seemed strange to me to fight side by side with pixies, but it seems even stranger to see our people socialising with them now that our joint enemy has been defeated.’
‘Why? We have pixie friends,’ Izzy replied. ‘Friends who fought in the army that conquered Caledonia.’
‘I know. I just never thought I’d live to see that day either. I never believed I’d see a pixie as anything other than an enemy.’
‘No, neither did I,’ Izzy admitted. ‘But our world is changing, and I think it’s for the better.’
Almoravid appeared as a haze on the horizon as, early the following afternoon, the army arrived. To their dismay, they found the city gates closed to them.
The sick and injured that had been left behind were waiting in a makeshift village of tents pitched in the desert.
The druids that Liam had left in charge of the hospital met them as they arrived.
’Banan, what’s happened here?’ Liam asked.
’Two days after you left, Pasha Javid returned at the head of an army of thousands. He demanded that the foreign invaders left his city. We refused, but during the night one of the yumboe tribesmen we were treating in the hospital opened the gates and let them in.’
‘Was anybody injured?’
‘No, we were treated surprisingly well. They gave us the tents and allowed us to take most of our supplies and medicines with us.’
‘So, he waits until we defeat his enemy, and then he takes the spoils.’ Izzy was livid and could feel her blood begin to boil in the blistering heat.
Pasha Ali replied sadly, ‘It is his way.’
‘We can take the city easily enough,’ said Niamh. ‘I could bring the magical wall down with a simple wave of a hand.’
‘And if you do,’ said Ali, ‘half of those who follow me will turn on you.’
‘Why?’ Izzy asked in disbelief.
‘Because, to them, you will have become the foreign invaders.’
‘But we have fought side by side, and freed thousands of your people.’
‘Yes, you have. But they’ll still say we liberated the work camps while you took the ogre city. You have to remember that the only contact we’ve had with outsiders has been with the ogres, and you all know how that turned out.’
‘What do you suggest we do, then?’ Niamh asked, her disbelief and anger equally as obvious as Izzy’s.
‘I will let Javid have his kingdom,’ said Ali. ’It matters little to me. I will return to Calètes with any who choose to follow me. There, I will set up a city that hopefully will be made up of both forest and desert yumboes.’
‘But free of outsiders,’ spat Izzy in disgust. ‘Maybe the world isn’t changing after all.’
’Calètes will be closed to no one, as long as they do not take up a sword against my race,’ Pasha Ali said.
Niamh understood. ‘When will you leave, my friend?’
‘At first light. But I believe it would be best for all concerned if we make our camp some distance from yours, and the sooner I go, the better it will be for everyone.’
‘Go in peace, my friend,’ Niamh smiled.
‘Thank you for freeing my people,’ Ali replied. ‘I am truly sorry things have ended like this.’
As the pasha turned and walked away, he paused and said, ‘May your journey home be quick and safe.’
‘This is becoming a most annoying habit,’ grumbled Izzy, as she and Niamh sat on their horses, her right hand gripping a white flag.
They watched as twelve yumboe riders headed toward them. Dougal, Derry and the other leprechauns stayed away, as they thought it would be far less threatening if they weren’t involved in the negotiations.
‘It would seem we’re not important enough for Javid to attend to us personally,’ Niamh observed.
The riders stopped just short of the wizard and brownie, and then one rider rode forward.
’I am Abd al Malik, and I speak for the most exalted Sultan Javid, the Great and All Powerful of Akkadia. He is most unhappy that you have marched an invasion army into his lands, and he orders that you leave them at once.’
Niamh met the man’s stare. ‘That is exactly what we intend to do. Unfortunately, your city lies between us and the ships.’
‘That is not my sultan’s concern.’
‘We do not want any trouble. We simply want to go home.’
‘There is a deserted ogre port less than two days’ march to the west. Although the lands still belong to my sultan, I am sure he will graciously allow you safe passage, as he did when he compassionately spared the foreign invaders, he found occupying his city.’
’We are not invaders,’ insisted Izzy, barely able to contain her anger. ‘We have freed this land from occupation.’
’You came here for your own personal reasons, not to liberate my people,’ Malik countered. ‘And if you are not here to occupy our lands, then why did you leave a garrison behind to defend this city?’
Niamh was shocked by the man’s ignorance. ’We left behind our injured, and most of the men we left behind were yumboe warriors.’
’Prisoners and slaves,you forced into service, wizard, using your evil magic to steal their free will. Your magic was not strong enough, however, to stop them from joining their rightful sultan.’
Izzy was incredulous. ‘A sultan that lets others do his fighting for him. One who has brought his kingdom with the blood of others.’
‘The great one only left your army because he refused to let his subjects be sacrificed so you could defeat your enemy.’
‘Enough,’ said Niamh, raising her hand. ‘If we agree to use the port two days away, how are we going to inform our fleet?’
‘That is also not our concern. However, for one who is supposedly as powerful as you, I would think it would be a relatively simple task,’ said Malik. ‘The great one knows that you might be able to take the city back. But if you try, thousands of Ali’s men would join the fight against you. The losses would be enormous, and he doubts that it would be a price you would be willing to pay.’
When they were left alone, Izzy said, ’He wants us to attack, and I bet the coward’s not even in the city.’
‘I’m sure you’re right,’ agreed Niamh. ‘If we attacked, we would easily take the city, but it would be at the cost of many lives, and no doubt the only thing we would achieve would be to make Javid stronger and Ali weaker.’
‘He may be a coward,’ sighed Izzy, ‘but he’s a clever one.’
Within an hour, the army of the free nations of Connacht began their march toward the port. Niamh sat on Phil’s back and monitored their progress. Malik was right – with her power, it would’ve been simple enough for her to magically let the fleet know what was happening. But before she departed, she wanted to make a point. She wanted to make sure that those who followed Javid knew full well that she didn’t fear him, and that, in fact, there was no one in the city who could stop her from doing anything she wanted to do, when she wanted to do it.
The wizard and dragon circled high above the city in full view of everyone on the wall, waiting for her army to disappear over the horizon. It wasn’t just her army that left the city as soon as the fairies and their allies departed; Pasha Ali and those who followed him also did so.
‘Right, Phil,’ Niamh said, as soon as both armies had crossed the sand dunes and were out of sight. ‘Let’s give them a bit of a show.’
‘Gladly,’ the dragon replied, gliding gracefully down to a position so close to Malik that he ran from the city wall in panic when he saw the dragon swoop toward him.
Phil landed in the central courtyard, and Niamh was quick to dismount.
‘Javid, come and face me, you coward,’ she called, her voice magically enhanced so it sounded like a loudspeaker in an empty vessel. Everyone in the city heard it loud and clear.
There was a stony silence that lasted several minutes.
Finally, Malik appeared, puffing and out of breath. ‘The great one is not here,’ he panted.
‘The coward,’ scoffed Niamh, and again the whole city heard her words. ‘No doubt he’s hiding in a hole somewhere.’
‘No, he is away on important state business,’ Malik replied defensively. ‘And he would not meet with you anyway. You are unworthy.’
Niamh smiled confidently as she saw archers move into position around her. ‘The truth is, he’s not here because he fears me and knows he only rules because I allow him to.’
Malik was shocked by the convincing way that Niamh spoke about his sultan, and he became more and more uncomfortable at the situation he found himself in. He was relieved to see that his archers were in their fighting positions, their bows poised.
He screamed with undisguised hate, ’Kill them, kill them now!’
Pinging and twanging filled the air as a deadly rain of arrows flew toward them. Niamh calmly raised her right hand and instantly the arrows stopped mid-flight, some falling harmlessly to the ground, others suspended as if held up by an invisible string. The wizard moved her hand and pointed directly at Malik, and the hovering arrows changed direction and attacked him, pinning him down. He panicked and struggled to free himself but found he couldn’t.
Niamh stood directly above him and looked down at his ashen face. ‘Remind Sultan Javid,’ she said, and again everyone in the city could hear, ‘that he rules only as long as I let him. Also remember, Abd al Malik, the fool only lives because it is not worth my effort or energy to kill him. And believe me, it would take very little effort indeed.’
Malik was now visibly shaking as he watched Niamh and Phil walk off in the direction of the city.
As they marched through the dusty alleyways, the occasional yumboe challenged the wizard and dragon, but they were quickly dispatched with a mere shake of Niamh’shand. She was careful not to kill any of the warriors, but many would wake up with the worst headaches of their lives.
When the pair reached the giant doors that separated the city from the docks, Niamh raised her hands above her head and chanted, ’Moenia inflatus proprius, moenia inflatus proprius.’The gates exploded into a million pieces, sending shards of debris all over the city.
The wizard and dragon watched as the Menanan Mac Lir set sail with the rest of the fleet on the sapphire-blue water. They sat in the same small oasis as Javid had when he had observed their army leave Almoravid.
Phil’s attention was momentarily distracted. His front claw splashed into the water and instantly drew out a large wriggling fish that didn’t have the chance to wriggle for long. He casually flipped it into the air, caught it in his mouth, and swallowed it in one gulp.
‘How long are we going to wait?’ he asked Niamh.
’Not long. Didn’t your mother ever tell you to chew your food?’
Phil chortled. ‘How long is not long?’
‘An hour, maybe two. Why don’t you lie down and enjoy the sun,’ Niamh urged.
The fairy dragon didn’t need to be told twice. He coiled himself into a ball and promptly fell asleep, snoring loudly beside the oasis’s gentle water.
‘Phil, wake up,’ said Niamh, hours later.
The fairy dragon immediately sprang to his feet, looking left and then right, making sure they weren’t under attack.
‘I gather it’s time, then,’ he said, when he was satisfied all was clear.
‘It is,’ said Niamh. She climbed onto the dragon’s back once again.
Phil took to the sky with long, even swooshes of his giant wings.
’So, Niamh, why do we have to be invisible to do this?’ he asked.
‘Because what we’re going to do could be considered an act of war, and I don’t want to put Ali in an awkward position. If we’re seen attacking the city, many of his men might desert his cause and join Javid.’
‘But they’ll know it was you.’
‘Yes, but they’ll never prove it. I may not be able to stop Javid from taking Almoravid without causing a war, but that doesn’t mean I’ll let him keep it in one piece. We lost friends defending this city while he hid, and it’s my magic that runs in the walls. I won’t let the coward hide behind it.’
Minutes later Phil landed fifty feet from the city, directly in front of the main gates.
Niamh waved her hands from side to side in a sashaying motion, and instantly felt the magic that held the gatehouse and towers at each end of the city disperse.
At first there was only a slight tremble, but this quickly turned into a steady shake. Even from fifty feet, Niamh could see the looks of discomfort turn to panic on the sentries’ faces.
Bricks began to dislodge themselves and fall into the sand below. The yumboe warriors fled their posts to save their lives. It took less than twenty minutes for Niamh’sspell to turn the two towers and gatehouse, along with large sections of the city wall, to little more than rubble.
‘Javid will know that we did this,’ said Niamh, pleased with her handiwork. ‘But he’ll never admit it. If he does, then he admits that we’re more powerful than he could ever dream of being.’
Yet another ship rigged its sails and then cruised out of the harbour. The Menanan Mac Lir and her crew had been the first ship to land troops in the desert, and they would be the last to leave. For three weeks now, ships had been sailing from the abandoned ogre port and dry dock with thousands of fairies, pixies and esprit follet soldiers who had finally left the desert sands behind them once and for all.
Dougal looked down at the book that lay open on his lap. The gentle breeze played with the pages, causing a rhythmic, soothing rustle. Since Ambiorix had given it to him, it had rarely left his side. Liam had already translated the beginning, but the druid had been too busy mixing potions that would cure seasickness to spend too much time with the leprechaun and his tome. He had, however, been able to confirm that the book was indeed Seamus O’Farrell’s journal, or at least a copy of it.
He looked up when Cait called his name.
‘Prince Gaston will board his ship within the next hour.’
Dougal stood up and took hold of Cait’s hand. Together they walked to the docks. He had to admit that Gaston had surprised and even impressed him. The other surviving follet prince, Pepin, was the first Carolingian to board a ship destined for home. Gaston, who had fought at the front line the entire battle, was determined to be the last Auvergnen to leave the desert.
When the two leprechauns arrived at the docks, they found all their friends already waiting for them.
Izzy shook her head and said, ’Who would’ve believed we’d all come to say goodbye to him?’
‘He fought well,’ Sir John replied, who was also departing that day. ‘He deserves a farewell with honour.’
The prince and Mazarin arrived a short time later. Gaston looked uncomfortable as those gathered shook his hand and clapped him on the back. Finally, he stopped in front of Dougal, who was last in the long row.
Dougal looked at him and smiled, then pulled out what was a sword to the prince, but a mere dagger to the leprechaun.
‘I believe this belongs to you, your highness,’ he said, presenting it to Gaston.
‘It’s a little smaller than last time I saw it,’ Gaston replied wryly.
‘My sister managed to return it to its rightful size, so I think it’s only right that it’s returned to its rightful owner.’
‘No, I don’t think so,’ nodded Gaston. ‘I have a more than adequate replacement, and the way you seem to upset people, I think you’ll need it far more than I will.’ He handed the sword back to Dougal and chuckled. ‘I’m sure your sister can return it to a more appropriate size.’
Derry simply smiled as she looked first at Gaston, then at the sword, and immediately it began to grow even before Dougal had sheathed it.
’Come on, Mazzy,’ said the prince. ‘We have a ship to embark.’
Two days later, Dougal stood on the deck of the Menanan Mac Lir as Tyler bellowed orders to his crew. ‘Pull the anchor, set the sails – to your positions, men.’
The ship rocked gently as it prised itself from the wharf to make its way to the great ocean.
Dougal watched as the desert started to shrink, and he thought about all those who wouldn’t be returning home. His mind wandered to Llewellyn, the gallant miner that Dougal had come to think of more as a favourite uncle than a friend, a man who had taught him so much. He, more than any of his friends, had spent time with Llewellyn. They had worked very closely together when they built Sarasidhe’s defences only two years before, and now Dougal was going home, leaving the soul of his friend behind forever.
‘Memories are just not enough,’ he sighed.
Llewellyn’s last words came flooding back to him. Thanks to you, my friend, I have died a free man.
But the memories did nothing to ease the aching sadness in the young leprechaun’s heart.