Elf-Boy and Friends
Chapter 13. Elysian Fields
The next day Klarendes gave the boy the grand tour of his domain, sketching the history of Elysion by way of explanation for the obvious harmony and prosperity he saw all around in the happy faces of children off to school, the cleanliness, vigor and robust good health of the yeoman, and the respect the locals had for the nobleman. No one shot the man a resentful look behind his back. They genuinely liked and respected him.
Aodh learned that Klarendes ranked as a count, the latest scion in a second of two dynasties ruling these lands going back eight centuries. The first count in his own line had succeeded to the title after the last of the former dynasty were killed during the Formation Wars. His ancestors had managed to sire enough sons or daughters to keep it going, despite low fertility from the large admixture of elf-blood in their ancestry. Happily, Klarendes himself had two teenage sons, currently fostered with his late wife's family in a nearby town to acquire some cultural polish.
Everything within the mountain ring was his property save the village itself and the arable lands immediately around it: fields, orchards, pastures, and hay fields. Every farmer was a yeoman freeholder with his own acres. The other villagers were free men working in shop or smithy or tavern or were in the direct employ of the domain itself at fair wages. It had been that way for generations. The counts no longer exacted feudal dues. Their income came from exploiting the lands they personally owned which lay beyond the farms and included the timberlands and sheepfolds in the mountains, the well-tended vineyards on the hilly slopes, a small silver mine, and the scenic waterfall, site of a popular resort. The count also drew an income from his considerable real estate interests in nearby towns.
Like everyone else the counts paid local taxes levied by a council of elders for the upkeep of roads and bridges, for the provision of public services, and the maintenance of the fortifications at the head of the gorge that lead to the outside world. The village could boast a grammar school cum lending library, an infirmary with a diplomate healer, an herbalist, and two midwives on staff, and a chapel which served those who desired to worship their gods in public or collectively rather than at household shrines. Klarendes second steward managed their day to day affairs. (His chief steward managed the count's personal domain.)
"Not that we are self-sufficient here, Aodh, though we do raise practically all our own food. We still must import manufactures of all sorts, spices, exotic woods, and books, though we pay for all that not from the proceeds of the sale of crops but from ventures like the honeymoon resort at our scenic waterfall, a lucrative trade in amber, aromatic gums, and medicinal plants collected from the forests, and especially the silver work we turn out in the shape of buckles, buttons, broaches, bracelets, rings, and the like. High value, low weight, so much easier to ship than bulk cargoes like grain or fruit or ore."
They walked past a grassy area where a group of maybe forty youths and younger men practiced martial arts. Most of them trained naked though a few wore thongs or pouches. Whether tall or short, slight of build or heavy boned, the young males all had lean muscular bodies, tanned bronze by the tropic sun. One of the bolder lads glanced from the count to the minstrel and threw the latter a wink. A big fellow in back stared at Aodh's unclothed body with naked hunger.
Aodh watched their practice critically for a while then commented that their moves were much too staged, more like the boys were rehearsing dance steps than practicing moves to defeat a foe. One of the older youths, a brawny sandy haired fellow, bristled at that and asked sarcastically:
"All right, kid. Why don't you show us what you would do?"
Aodh shrugged off the resulting rumble of assent. He knew he was being tested and was sure he would have the last laugh.
"OK, big fella. Let's square off, just you and me."
"The name's Arik. How about we make it interesting? If I beat you, I get to spank that cute ass of yours right in front of everyone, then drag you into the bushes for a proper shag."
"And if I win, we shake hands and become fast friends."
After a moment's hesitation over this unorthodox forfeit, the older boy nodded then took up his stance. When they grappled he confidently went on the offensive, but Aodh countered his every move, twisting out of his grip then, with a sudden effort, sent the bigger boy flying. Scrambling to his feet, Arik approached his opponent with greater caution. Their second grapple had them both trying for joint locks. It looked like Arik might succeed but Aodh broke his concentration by kissing Arik full on the lips. As the astonished boy loosened his hold, Aodh turned the tables. Arik was well and truly pinned and had to conceded the match.
"I can't believe I lost. I never for a moment thought that a little slip of a kid like you could ever…"
"Don't be so hard on yourself, Arik. Actually your moves were pretty good. You almost had me there till I tricked you with that kiss. What I said earlier wasn't a personal criticism of anyone's abilities, just that your training practice was too staged, your moves too choreographed. Everyone was leaning into the throws that put them on the ground to make their falls gentler. And another thing, you guys pair off with others the same size and weight. You gotta mix it up. Opponents come in all shapes and sizes.
"Always keep in mind that in a friendly fight, say against a romantic rival or in a taproom brawl, you want to prevail but not hurt the other guy bad. He's your friend and neighbor. In combat against soldiers, highwaymen, robbers and street thugs, restraint would be misplaced. When you fight for your life, that is no time for halfway measures."
"Finally, while I think you all look great running around naked, your opponents will be wearing clothes and maybe armor. Learn how to cope with that. Grab their tunics and straps and belts and baldrics for handholds and control the fight. And learn how to counter close-in weapons like the knife or hatchet just long enough to get away."
Arik frowned for a moment then said:
"What about swords, spears, or quarterstaffs?"
"If you are talking about a fight, one on one, then forget about it. Against a long weapon, a bare handed fighter has next to no chance. Best you can do then is to run or hide. If you are already caught up in a melee, with those from both sides all mixed up, then some of these techniques might help you long enough to grab a proper weapon and lay about."
Arik nodded and smiled wryly at the candid and eminently practical advice, then offered his hand in friendship to the newcomer, drawing approving smiles all around for his sportsmanship. Afterwards, the minstrel and nobleman resumed their walk.
"Did Arik actually do as well as you said?"
"Not really, but he wasn't bad either. Like all you bigger guys, he overcommits and gets off balance without quite realizing it. I could have made Arik look really bad, but to what purpose? I don't want to make enemies of him or his friends. And he does have potential. Maybe with the right teachers, like those I had, and a few years.."
"How long have you been at it?"
"Ten years. No eleven. I started when I was six. I turn seventeen next tendi. Martial arts are part of our heritage, my people I mean, like the high percentage of wirs among us.
"So you are nearly full grown now? And yet so petite."
"For me this is it. I am all that I will ever be. Wir-humans mature faster than pure humans. I reached full height at fifteen then filled out a bit the following year. I am never going to get any bigger or any older. I will always be sweet sixteen. That's part of my template. Anyway, to change the subject, why do your people call you captain instead of lord?"
"That is a courtesy title from my youth when I served in the armed forces. Also I am the elected captain of both the militia and the volunteer fire brigade. In these more egalitarian times, it has a better ring to it. Captain is a title I earned for myself, not simply an accident of birth. Though I do employ my full titles on formal occasions such as when I don my sash of office and take the bench in court to sit in judgment. There I am in my persona as, ahem, 'The Honorable Taitos Klarendes, Chief District Magistrate, Dispenser of the Middle Justice and the Low, Lord-Zamindar of Elysion, and Count of the Eastern March.'"
"That's a real mouthful!" Aodh laughed.
"Isn't it though?" Klarendes agreed chuckling. "Titles and offices are deliberately grandiose. As a prominent legal scholar once put it: 'The dispensation of justice requires an imposing solemnity of setting and procedure and a commensurate orotundity of speech and of prose.'"
"Another mouthful!" the minstrel chuckled, looking up at his lover with a big smile.
Klarendes hugged the boy, whose cheery personality warmed his heart. He realized how quickly he had grown attached to young Aodh. But how to persuade him to stay?
Even a clueless youth would have sensed this good man's loneliness and his obvious hope to have Aodh stay with him permanently as his lover. The minstrel was strongly attracted to the handsome nobleman. And Elysion looked like a fine place to live. Still, he really did have places to go and friends to meet and things to do.
No one more than Klarendes understood the call of duty, but he could not hide his intense disappointment. Nothing for it then but to make what they could of the next few days. Aodh was well ahead of schedule. His friends had walked the long way around, following the easy grades of the military road that threaded its way through the mountains. The couple could look forward to four more days together at Elysion plus two more on the road to Aodh's intended rendezvous. Klarendes would escort his young guest to that rendezvous in the very town where his sons were fostered.
For both of them it was the happiest week of their lives, a honeymoon in all but name.
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