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The Blackfire Annals: Chasing Ghosts

By Osprey703 All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Adventure

Chapter Twenty-One: Wartime

Free Peoples’ Domain

Elven Capitol-Andrion

Five days later

The elven city of Andrion ranked as one of the most natural and beautiful cities in all of Pathonia and, given that mountains served as castle halls and lakes as the base for settlements, that was saying a lot. Unlike many other elven villages, which resided beneath the trees, Andrion and her residents dwelt between them. A series of rope ladders connected to homes suspended from the branches, with squares and shops and larger buildings situated on the largest of the sky-high oaks and cedars. None of these houses were made of fresh wood, either; the elves consciously chose to take it from deadfall, and they even farmed high above the ground. And Telara had chosen Andrion as the spot for the Free to meet. They had all come; dwarves, elves, humans, and Huntresses. The meeting had gone exactly as Telara expected. In other words, the whole thing had gone sideways the moment everyone entered to room and took a seat. She told her story from start to finish, as best she knew it; her daughter’s capture by the raiders during an illegal hunt, her travel to Frostspire Castle, her branding, and then the arrival of Carsten and his friends. Then she recounted their escape, Arcaena’s wounding, their arrival at Haven, and finally their meeting outside the village. She did of course neglect to mention that she had tried to kill Carsten, as she felt that that particular detail was best left unmentioned. Other than that, she divulged as much of the truth as she knew.

“As far as bad ideas go, this one has to be the poorest you have ever suggested.” The elven king, Karyth Redbark, was speaking to Telara, and he was far from happy. Nor were many of the other Free People leaders inclined to agree with her. Of course, she had anticipated this. After all, it was a ridiculous plan, in fact more ridiculous than any she had previously proposed. This indeed was quite the accomplishment, since Telara was famous for thinking on the move and making plans as she went. And, in their minds, this was in keeping with such behavior. The proposal the dwarf had made seemed to them preposterous. They disbelieved that the raiders could do such a thing; the Outlanders were barely above loosely organized mountain rabble, while the Free had disciplined military forces, strong fortifications, and a systematic method of delivering information in the form of tower-like beacons, which burned different colors to send different messages. In addition, each beacon was protected by an immensely powerful sage, called a Flamekeeper. Each of these was nigh immortal, extremely lethal in magical arts, and female. One of the prerequisites for the role was that the Flamekeepers be female. In the face of such a well-constructed defense, they felt confident that no enemy could prevail. As much as Telara hated siding with a mortal enemy, though, she had to admit Olaf was right. Conquering the Outlands left the raiders free from doubt or fear, free to devise all manner of countermeasures for the Free defenses and to attack at leisure. And such a strategic mistake could not be permitted. She had believed calling all the Free leaders here might be a disaster; that was a mistake. She should have known that it was a colossal mistake.

“You misunderstand me,” she said. “This is neither fevered imagination nor hearsay. I saw both the dwarf and the destruction that these raiders have caused. They are far more than mere looters; they destroy anything and everything in their path. And they show no signs of stopping or even slowing.”

“So what?” Karyth asked. “Not to dispute your claim, but do the Outlanders really matter much? Look at them, Telara. They are barely organized and running scared at these petty criminals. And, in all honesty, what makes you suddenly so concerned about them? You have been one of the strongest voices in this alliance for their destruction. Why the change of heart?”

“I acknowledge that I have made my distaste for the Outlanders no secret,” Telara admitted. “That should indicate how urgent I believe the matter at hand. If I am willing to take their side, I who have asked repeatedly for their elimination from the world, how dire must the situation be?”

“Or how desperate must you be to profit?” This question came from one of the human’s Electors, a male named Fynn Ark. “Telara, when have you done something out of the goodness of your heart, even once? You do nothing for nothing, and I intend to find out what it is you wish to gain.”

“I want to gain tactical superiority. Yes, I am not selfless in this, but I need not be so. What makes you think that good cannot be made of somewhat less than pure motives? The motive of our forebears in the formation of the Free Peoples’ Alliance was to preserve themselves. We dare not call such a thing selfless, and yet we sit here because of it. Can we really pretend that we can do anything else in this situation but fight?”

“We wait,” Caleb the Strong suggested. As leader of the dwarves, he had four large families to mind instead of one unified people group, and it made him extremely hesitant to move. Any action that three of the dwarf clans supported might easily be blocked by one of them alone. “I apologize for this, but this Alliance needs to confirm that such things are true. However, giving you full respect and belief as a leader of one of the Free Peoples, I believe that the force we send cannot merely be equipped for reconnaissance. We must be fully prepared to go to war if the situation calls for it. Therefore, I suggest we send an expeditionary force to the north by sea to investigate these rumors.”

Karyth Hawthorne laughed. “And if we are proven right? How will that force report to us if they get destroyed?”

“Would you rather we send the entire army?” Caleb asked. “That would like an invasion to even the most casual observer. Depending on the Outlanders in question, they might think of us as a greater threat than the raiders.”

“How exactly are we supposed to get their permission?” Fynn’s wife Keila asked. “The Outlanders won’t take kindly to our desire to intervene either way.”

“How about a balance?” This statement came from another dwarf elder present, Frewin Blackfist. “If our expeditionary force is to arrive by sea, we will need time to assemble a serviceable fleet. In that time, we need to send emissaries to the dark elf king in Karkopolis. In fact, I suggest we immediately dispatch one of our swiftest dragon riders under a flag of truce to speak with him.”

“The dark elf king does not speak for all Outlanders, Frewin,” Caleb reminded him. “The others may very well refuse us.”

“Oriem holds the most sway of any leader,” another human Elector stated. His name was Jyrak, and he had a keen head for politics that some among the Free lacked. “If we can convince him we mean no harm, he can pass the message on to others.”

“A sound strategy,” Karyth agreed. “However, I have several questions. How will we divide the expeditionary force? Will each people group be expected to furnish some troops? Will others be asked to help the effort in different ways? If so, what will be their trade-off in troops?’

“Let all that be determined after we gain Oriem’s permission,” Caleb said. “For now, do we all at least agree that we should send the rider?” Nods of assent around the table. “Good. We send an elf; after all, they have the most experience with riding flying beasts. With your permission, Karyth?” The elf king nodded.

“But first,” he told Caleb, “we ought to send for the scribe.”

Outlands

Arcaena Blackfire sat on the balcony of her room, fingering her fire glass necklace. She had gotten dressed for bed an hour ago, and since then had been trying to find Carsten. He had been absent lately, and she could not imagine way. The last time they had spoken, she had detected significant longing in him; that he had not spoken to her in a while only indicated that something else must have him significantly preoccupied.

Come on, Carsten, she thought. I miss you. Please answer.

I missed you, too. The reply was soft, but the voice was unmistakably Carsten’s. How are you? Upset, I can see. Or hear or...whatever we’re doing.

Arcaena reflexively covered her face to hide her smile. Well, there you are. I was beginning to think you had somehow dropped off the earth.

Not quite, he replied. But I have been rather busy. As things turned out, the village elders have had me overseeing refugee settlement. It’s slow, and the work isn’t easy. Plus, we’re running out of resources fast.

My father sent a shipment of supplies to Haven, she informed him. I prevailed on him to do it. Also, by royal decree, you are to send for whatever you need to house, clothe, feed, and otherwise care for them.

Carsten sighed contentedly. Good. Thank you so very much.

My pleasure. She fingered the glowing medallion pensively and stared off into the horizon. Or what horizon underground had; the view from Karkopolis of gemstone-studded walls and underground lakes was indeed grand, but it lacked the beauty of sunlight. And that was something Arcaena had grown to miss; along with the person she had long associated with the world aboveground. Any word on your cousin yet? Carsten hesitated before answering.

I have, he said. The Shatterhands and the rest of Vadhyl is surrounded inside a mountain fortress about fifty miles to the east of the village, hard by the coast. No one has yet had the brains to name it. Or, perhaps, they’ve all been too busy staying alive.

How many of them survived? Arcaena asked.

Almost a thousand, he replied.

Even with full stores, they will not last much longer, the dark elf mused. Perhaps we should plan on sending them food somehow…

I did mention they were surrounded, right? Even if you could somehow get provisions there, how could you get them inside the walls?
Well, my father has begun assembling an army,
Arcaena explained. If all else fails, use brute force.

He’ll need strategists, Carsten said.

And he should have them, she said. If you want to take a hand, feel free. Your father will be there, after all.

I just might, he responded. By the way, Arcaena, I have a question for you.

Let me hear it, she told him.

Have you told your father about me? About us?

She shook her head. You know he would disapprove. Why even ask me such a thing?

Because you have to if you intend to pledge yourself to me, he said. Or I do. I really ought to be the one to do it, you know.

He would wholeheartedly hate you, the dark elf protested.

Have more faith in him, Arcaena. We have to try, don’t we? Isn’t that all we can do? Our best?

She shook her head. And if that is not enough?

Let me know when you find something you put your hand to you can’t do, he responded. Look, I’m no fool. Talking this over with you father will be far from easy or pleasant, but I think it’s a wise decision in the long run.

She sighed. Have I ever told you how much I hate it when I think you might be right?

Given that you don’t concede that I’m right all that often, no, he answered. You should be in bed right now, shouldn’t you?

Are you my mother, telling me when to go to bed? She bristled.

I’m concerned about you. I thought you’d appreciate that. Evidently, I was mistaken.

I am sorry. It…I would rather people not tell me how to run my life, Carsten. Have I not spent enough of it being told what to do?
With an attitude like that, you’ll never take a decent suggestion, even if it’s offered,
Carsten pointed out. All I meant was that I was worried about you. And that means you’re important to me; in case it’s unclear, I don’t worry easily.

She nodded. I know. I would just rather you not sound so imperious about it.

Maybe I have spent too much time around the Free, he mused.

Thomas is hardly that much of a demanding person, she pointed out.

That doesn’t make the rest of them any less annoying, Carsten countered.

True. Well I hate to admit it, but you are right. I need sleep; my sister kept me up for several nights in a row, and rest would we welcome.

Then take it, starlight. I promise I’ll talk to you again tomorrow night. A pity you don’t know any projection spells; this would be so much easier.

Not really, she answered. See, Father might come into my rooms at any time, and getting caught in the middle of an astral projection spell opens up a good many questions I would rather not see answered.

All right. Well, get some rest. I think I could use some, too.

Below

Castle Blackfire Armory

Of the many smithies and armories in the world, the dark elven armory that Oriem oversaw was by far the most impressive. Not only did he have a ready and plentiful supply of more ore than most people would have known what do with, but he also had a sizable number of smiths and artisans of all peoples trained in their shaping. The forges he used were large, hourglass-shaped affairs, with large pulley-operated bellows that fed the stacks of blazing coals beneath. Great jets of flame shot into the air from the latticed vents on the sides, far above the heads of the workers. This led to the blackening of the ceiling above their heads, one of the reasons that Oriem’s family had chosen the title Blackfire. Of old, they had been one of the greatest blacksmiths in the realm, although now he oversaw more work than he did. His lead craftsman, a squat dwarf named Jens Keldray, was currently providing an inventory of the work that they had done preparing the armory. Most of this work was fashioning weapons, although some of it was sigils which sages crafted. The fashioning, he reflected, was best left to blacksmiths, not wizards.

“Over here we have our ballistae,” the head blacksmith told Oriem. “We have only been able to craft a few on such short notice, but we did manage to make seven, plus several crates’ worth of bolts.”

The dark elf king nodded. “And production of weapons? For men, I mean; not for siege engines.”

“We have turned out several thousand swords, composite bows, and arrows,” the craftsman told him. “Axes in the hundreds, as we have few axmen to speak of. In addition, we have about two hundred spears for the cavalry. As the Airknights furnish their own armaments, we felt that weapons of that nature ought to be fashioned last.”

Oriem nodded. “That makes sense. Have the armor-smiths been able to find something reasonably able to deflect arbalest bolts? According to my daughter, the other slaves in the castle were made to fashion quite a few.”

“The armor we produce cannot be arbalest-resistant,” the smith explained. “Otherwise, it would be far too bulky for a knight to feasibly use. We have armor that might deflect arrows or crossbow bolts, but not arbalest quarrels yet. My humblest apology, majesty.”

“No need,” Oriem replied. “Keep working. I believe that we may yet find armor for this. Perhaps a spell to enhance the structural integrity?”

The dwarf bowed. “I shall inform the sages immediately,” he said. “Anything else?”

“Yes. Fashion more shot-handled axes. The dwarves use them extensively, and they will be short on weapons.”

The craftsman bowed again. “Of course, my lord. Any word on when the armies are to arrive?”

Oriem shook his head. “None so far. But I have given orders to our swiftest Airknights to ride to Vadhyl and begin to harry the besiegers.”

“Very well. We shall follow your specifications to the letter.”

“See that you do.” Oriem turned to leave the armory, his mind already elsewhere. How was he going to tell Arcaena and Miera that he did not wish for them to go to war by his side?

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