Elf-Boy and Friends
Chapter 14. Parting of the Ways
"Come on in, the water's fine! Oh, sorry Aodh, I forgot. Kitty cats don't like to get wet!" Klarendes teased the boy while he sculled along easily in the cool waters of the lake.
"The hell they don't!" Aodh replied, executing a shallow dive that left barely a ripple on the surface. Popping up just once to orient himself, he ducked back below the surface and approached his naked prey under water. Klarendes was taken by surprise as his lover dragged him down briefly before letting him back up for air. As the boy floated on his back the nobleman remarked:
"I had no idea you could swim so well."
"There is a lot you don't know about cats." Aodh answered, then told him what he had told Karel about how panthers and jaguars hunt and play in the water.
The secluded inlet they had chosen for their swim was one of many such inlets and coves along the convoluted shore of the small lake. Fed by the waterfall, the lake emptied into the white water creek that flowed down the gorge past the fortified checkpoint grandly called the "Stone Castle" and so out to the wider world.
The lovers had stopped by the honeymoon resort one morning, not to stay but simply to visit the scenic wonder of the region. With the pride of proprietorship Klarendes boasted that the waterfall drew newly married couples from far and wide. Little wonder, for the cascade shot from a slot atop a vertical cliff then descended in a stepped cataract to fill a deep pool at the bottom. The spray and mist of the falling waters formed what was called the Bridal Veil.
But it was its rainbows that made the site a meteorological wonderland. On sunny days the mist formed a double spray rainbow arching over the pool plus a third rainbow reflected from the lake surface. At night the spray formed a single white moon-bow. And under the right conditions, large fogbows would appear, a ghostly backdrop for the nearby henge of standing stones left by some vanished civilization.
The nobleman's travel lecture was just winding down, when young Aodh's stomach growled loudly. Before the hungry boy could even ask, the nobleman pointed to one of the resort staff hustling to their location carrying a large picnic basket and blanket. A cute red-head wearing only a white kilt wrapped around his hips, the youngling greeted the naked lovers, spread the ground sheet next to where Klarendes had left his tunic, and set out a scrumptious picnic lunch, explaining that it was with the compliments of the management. Then he left them alone.
The hungry duo chowed down as they let the warm sun dry them off. The nobleman explained that at the resort, city customs prevailed for meals. The big meal of the day was served late in the evening. Somewhat confusingly it was called dinner rather than supper. The midday meal was a light repast called luncheon or just lunch. To span the long gap between sit-down meals, beverages and finger foods were set out in late afternoon.
"I asked the boy to return here with a canoe. We can paddle our way to the end of the lake and tour the Stone Castle".
When it came time to embark, the nobleman motioned the boy to clamber in first, expecting he would upset the tricky craft and dunk himself into the lake. A harmless trick; Aodh was naked anyway and knew how to swim. The young minstrel smiled slyly, knowing what game was afoot. Putting a hand on either gunwale he set a foot in the exact center and settled in smartly. As Klarendes joined him, Aodh mentioned, ever so casually, that canoeing was one of his favorite past times back home as well as his usual means of traversing the Lake Lands.
At first sight the Stone Castle was a disappointment, a stone-built barrier twenty feet high with and archway through it barred by three gates. Actually it was far stronger than it looked at first glance. An attacker would have to force the three gates one after the other, his men bunched up under murder holes the whole time.
Even as they tried to force the gates, their follow-on forces would be subject to merciless missile fire from in front and from both sides. The fortification extended over the river. Downstream it was flanked by galleries cut into the living rock from which slingers and crossbowmen could rain down lead bullets and quarrels, turning the last stretch of road before the gate into a killing ground. The small garrison would hold long enough for the village militia to form up and dispatch reinforcements.
"It looks pretty formidable, sir." Aodh ventured.
"Yes but only up to a point. Fortifications can be taken by storm, by siege, by stealth, or by treachery. A fortification might fall to stealthy warriors who took out the night watch. Or raiders might pose as traders or a wedding party and seize the gates before they could be closed. No, the Stone Castle is useful enough but hardly impregnable."
"And if it falls?"
"We either meet the enemy in open battle in the fields or fort up in the village. As you may have noticed, the village is situated atop a knoll where a streams splits in twain and flows entirely around, then rejoins below."
"So the village is a fortress on a hill on an island behind a moat."
"Not really a fortress, but the houses are sturdy enough, all stone or timber and stone construction with tile roofs, hence very hard to set on fire. Behind barred doors and shuttered windows, both men and women would be armed with repeating crossbows and shoot through loopholes and embrasures. Or we could march out to give battle, the grown men armed with war axes and shields. Boys down to thirteen are armed with slings and long knives."
"Axes? Why not swords?"
"Why not swords? Not really practical. Too costly for one thing. Swords are made entirely from steel, which is expensive. Too hard to replace too. Sword making is a highly specialized task, beyond the skill of your average blacksmith. And it can take many days to forge a single sword blade, with the smith continually heating, folding, and hammering the bar stock into a blade. No, swords are for regular soldiers. We are just a rural militia."
"Why then the axe? An axehead is mostly iron. Only the edge is steel and the handle is a wooden stick, so it is cheap and quick and easy to make. Besides the men of the valley practically grow up with an axe in one hand and a hatchet in the other, used for timbering, chopping fire wood, building houses and barns, constructing fences, and even making rude furniture. The learning curve for a war axe is very short, since it relies on the same muscle memory. The same reasoning applies to arming our young males with the sling and long knife. Boys use their slings to keep the rabbit population down. As for crossbows, anyone can master the crossbow with minimal training whereas an archer armed with a long bow must train all his years to stay proficient."
"I am impressed by your knowledge of military matters, Taitos."
"Well I did serve in the forces during the last big push by barbarian raiders fifteen years ago, when I was about your age. I eventually rose to the rank of captain."
"Is that when you got that burn scar on your hip and leg?"
The man hesitated before answering. Deciding he would not keep secrets from this boy he loved, he continued.
"Yes, my own fault really. It happened when I lost control. You see, my magical gift is casting fire, either as a flaming stream or as great balls of fire. Normally I'd just set fire to tents or wagons or supplies, that sort of thing. Sometimes I created barriers to movement on the battlefield, firing a section of prairie or torching a stretch of forest. I did not target the enemy directly, not wishing to use magic expressly to kill."
"Then came my third battle, which we were losing badly. All of us were bone-weary from days of marching and two earlier fights. I myself was bleeding from a nasty cut to my shield arm which made it hard for me to protect my left side. Then the enemy attacked in overwhelming numbers. Friends and neighbors fell all around me, butchered and mutilated by a merciless foe. It seemed we must all soon be slaughtered. What then would become of our families in the valley?
Guarding my injured side was my best friend at the time, the blacksmith's son. Ahndray was my first love and one of the sweetest boys you would ever meet. All right, maybe what we had was puppy love, young as we were, but it burned fiercely. That all ended when a hairy barbarian with a two-handed sword shattered his skull, spraying brains and blood and bone chips all over me, my armor, my face.
That final horror set off the eruption of emotion that had been building for days, a psychic storm made up of pain and fear, grief and rage, numbing fatigue and loss of hope, but it was the death and desecration of my lover that finally drove me into a killing frenzy. Screaming my anguish I unleashed my will on the barbarian horde itself, setting on fire the tall grass they stood in, igniting their clothes, their greased hair, and the leather coverings of their wooden shields. Their own armor trapped the flames against the skin."
"I stalked back and forth like a fire demon, casting great balls of fire or burning streams of flame, laughing and cackling and hooting, utterly deranged, as the flames consumed the barbarians amid horrid screams and cries for mercy. But I had no mercy in my heart that day. I still don't, not for them, though I do have regrets, especially about the pleasure I felt in killing them."
"The psychic backlash nearly killed me. I swooned and fell, oblivious to the advancing conflagration. Someone on our side dragged me from the flames to safety. When I came to, my madness had passed. I lay there and looked back at what I had wrought. So many dead bodies but hardly recognizable as human. You see, cloth and hair act like wicks for the body fat that melts from flesh. I had turned living men into human candlesticks. All that was left were piles of disarticulated bones burned black."
"The worst part of all this was the cost to my soul. I had taken an almost orgasmic pleasure in burning the barbarians. In recollection, I felt unclean, unworthy of having survived. At first I despised myself for going all kill crazy like that, but later I came to realize that it was really their fault. From then on I hated them not only for their own crimes but also for making me do what I had done. I still offer incense yearly to the memory of my fallen comrades and beg the forgiveness of the gods, if they exist, for my own failings."
If the man expected the boy to recoil from him in horror, he was wrong. Aodh's face was filled with compassion and respect for the sacrifice Taitos had made to save his people. Here was yet another reason to love this good man. Aodh embraced his lover and held him for the longest time as the nobleman wept for a lost love and fallen friends as well as from shame and loss of innocence.
The next day saw the lovers set out on a hunt for a pack of wolves seen recently near the sheep meadows. Aodh was nervous about whether the mastiffs, so friendly to him in his human form, would accept him as a panther. He was encouraged by the fact that the dogs had no trouble with the count's ginger cat Esmeralda who was forever clambering over them, licking their faces, and snuggling against them for a snooze. So the dogs were locked in their kennel as the boy transformed before them. He need not have worried. The mastiffs recognized their friend even in his new form and greeted him with friendly yips. So they all set off together to hunt wolves.
As luck would have it, the wolves saw them coming and escaped over the mountains. The hounds marked tree trunks at the limits of the count's domain, a boundary the wolves were likely not to cross. Which was fine by the count. His only concern was their potential threat to his lambs and other stock. The wolves were welcome to hunt the forests on the other side of the boundary line. So Klarendes called off the hunt, explaining that there was no need to pursue the wolves beyond the boundaries of his domain
Klarendes had made an exception a month before to track down a pair of dire wolves that were the terror of the region. Never one to underestimate a foe, Klarendes had set off with all five of his Molossian mastiffs. The bones later found strewn around their lair showed they were responsible for the recent disappearances of youths who had unwarily gone into the forest on their own. The mastiffs drove the dire wolves into their den and kept them penned up till Klarendes rode up and cast fire into the den, killing the mating pair and their half-grown cubs.
"We got them just in time, before the cubs joined their parents in the hunt. A full pack of dire wolves would have been more than my mastiffs could handle. To corner them I would have had to raise the militia."
In the evening, they relaxed in front of the fieldstone hearth where a hardwood fire burned merrily, one set not for its heat, which was definitely not needed in that climate, but for the beauty of the flames themselves. Not for nothing was the count a fire caster. Many an evening he sat for an hour or so, a snifter of fine brandy to hand, staring into the flames, and sometimes making them dance to his will and form a portrait of his wife or fantastic shapes of wolves and warriors and slender youths.
Nestled in Klarendes lap the young minstrel sang love songs while strumming a left-handed mandolin borrowed from Klarendes; it had belonged to his wife. As the boy played, the nobleman petted him, stroking his hair, kissing a bare shoulder, or nuzzling the nape of his neck, taking in the heady scent of a healthy boy. One thing led to another, and they left off making music to make love right there in Klarendes den, sprawled atop a bearskin rug in front of the fieldstone hearth.
Aodh laid back spreadeagled and vulnerable, an offering to the gods. Klarendes held him down by the wrists and leaned forward for a deep kiss. The boy arched his back and spread his legs to give the man access to every orifice and crevice of his body. Klarendes bent forward to tongue and nibble at the minstrel's sensitive nipples. Kneeling between the boy's slender limbs, he rubbed his hands on the glabrous skin, appreciating that a boy's flesh feels so much better without body hair. By now the column of the boy's penis was fully swollen and erect. Klarendes had to be careful not to set him off prematurely.
Aodh drew his knees up and apart to give his lover better access to his butt and hole. Soon Klarendes was applying oil to the anal whorl and to the sphincter beyond. Aodh was the kind of sex partner Klarendes craved: complaisant and submissive in foreplay, wild and out of control as the hormones raged through his teenage body. He propped the boy's legs up on his shoulders and put the head of his cock at the hole. The minstrel boy looked up at him imploringly, eager to be taken. Here was the sort of man he craved: powerful, forceful, and commanding yet gentle too. As for Aodh, young as he was and only two years past the loss of his virginity, he knew that he was the sort of boy who was born to be fucked hard and often and by men who knew how. And how much better it was with a man he loved.
All the while the dancing flames of a low fire painted their bare skins yellow and red and gold while creating interesting effects of light and shadow on their entwined limbs. Afterwards they lay together in sleepy post-orgasmic lassitude, watching the flickering flames, and murmuring sweet nothings.
Just then Klarendes' ginger cat Esmeralda padded into the den to check out the newcomer to the household. She was a bit cross that the count had neglected her of late, even barring her from his bed chamber, while he carried on behind closed doors with this new friend of his. Esmeralda felt that, at four years old, she had a prior claim on the count's affections, and it was high time she reasserted it and got him to pay proper attention to her and her needs. Besides, she was curious about the interloper.
The cat clambered up onto Aodh's chest and sniffed him. The boy grinned and stroked her head lightly then held up his hand, which she licked attentively, almost like grooming one of her own paws. Then the feline's cold wet nose touched his own followed by her pink raspy tongue licking his face. Finding him a strange but not unpleasant combination of human and feline, she deemed him worthy of her company and began kneading his chest. She purred loudly, head lowered, looking intent, claws sliding in and out of their sheaths as she worked her front paws back and forth just as she had done as a kitten when she wanted her mother to let her nurse. Now mama cats have thick fur on their bellies. Naked boys have only thin skin, which is easily scratched. Grimacing gamely, Aodh tolerated the minor pain her claws inflicted, knowing that she would soon desist and settle down.
Which she did. Looking ever so content and pleased with herself, Esmeralda lay down on the boy's breast and tucked her front paws under her chest. Her tail curled around her body and across her front. With her eyes closed to slits she continued to purr, though more softly. The man and boy looked over at each other and smiled.
It was a tender moment they would long remember.
From then on, Esmeralda considered Aodh to be one of her regular attendant humans, with all the obligations attached to that role. She required this select few among the two legs, her real human friends, to attend to her needs for attention, affection, entertainment, and sustenance. For instance, when she was in a playful mood, she expected her humans to pull on a string and drag a cloth mouse across the floor for her to pounce on and ravage with fangs and claws, or to provide her with catnip for a genuine feline high.
Nor could they neglect her twice daily feedings. It was not enough to simply fill her bowl and walk away and let her eat. No, no, no. Meal times were social occasions and just about the most important times in her day. As she hunkered down on all fours and nibbled her chow, she expected whoever fed her to kneel down next to her and stroke her gently all the while, much like her mama had licked her fur when she nursed. In turn, Esmeralda would purr away during her meals, knowing how much that softened the hearts of the two legs. From time to time, she would look up for reassurance. Those feeding her soon learned that she expected both tactile and verbal encouragement, so they started murmuring phrases like: "Eat your chow, little one" or "That tastes good doesn't it, girl?" or "Nothing is too good for our Esmeralda."
Two days later they set out for Aodh's rendezvous with his friends, the boy still totally nude even for this visit to town. He set a good walking pace, explaining that his human form was better when he wanted to cover distance. Felines were stalk and pounce predators; they did not chase and run down their prey like canines. The nobleman wore a silk tunic and mostly rode, though he dismounted and walked beside his lover from time to time.
Their route lead them past the Stone Castle, through the gorge, and out onto the plains. Unlike the domain of the nomads to the west, the locals there were a settled folk, ranchers and farmers and townsmen. The pair followed a well maintained dirt road to the town of Dalnot, the garrison town appointed for the rendezvous. It was much like the other towns of the plains except for the sprawling army base on its outskirts. Largely unfortified, its security was ensured by wide flung picket lines and observation towers equipped with solar telegraphs, plus the sheer size of the garrison, five thousand at least, and that was being reinforced, mostly with cavalry.
Not just a march-land or buffer zone, the entire stretch of prairie, which ran parallel to the mountains with an average width of about nine days' walk, was considered an integral part of the Commonwealth. The writ of the Commonwealth ran right up the foot of the dissected plateau to the east from which the barbarians emerged periodically to lay waste to civilized lands. It was only the grass, hay, and grain produced by the plains dwellers that let the Commonwealth maintain such a large garrison beyond the great rift valley and its parallel mountain ranges.
At the inn where they were quartered, the minstrel embraced Dahl and the blond twins in a group hug telling them he had so much he wanted to share with them. Aodh introduced all three boys to Klarendes who noted that the young minstrel had told him much about their adventures crossing the continent. Now he could put faces to their names. And see for himself how very cute and sexy the other boys were. The twins preened under the praise. Dahl noticed, caught Aodh's gaze, and rolled his eyes.
No need to introduce Balan. Back at the manor, when Aodh had mentioned his name, Klarendes had told the minstrel that he and the giant were old friends.
Aodh's interlocutors listened as the excited boy told them of his adventures crossing the mountains, the scenic wonders of the hidden valley, the Stone Castle, their aborted hunt for wolves, and of Klarendes' recent success against the dire wolves. They chuckled when he related the embarrassing circumstances of his first meeting Klarendes. The young minstrel's friends smiled indulgently, knowing they were listening to a boy in love. Well he could have done much worse than Klarendes. The nobleman was youthful, good looking, and rich.
Balan then explained that their plans had to change. The unrest among the barbarians made the route they had planned to take unsafe. Any small party traveling that road, which skirted the plateau, might be overwhelmed. Instead, and under his authority as a Hand, the army would escort them to the safety of the Great Forest, two weeks' march away. The local commander was sending a whole battalion, making it both a reconnaissance in force and a demonstration of the power and the long reach of the Army of the Commonwealth. Until they reached the Great Forest the battalion would focus on its mission to protect their charges.
On its way back, the force might launch a spoiling attack or preemptive strike to disrupt the enemy's mobilizations. Or, if their depredations continued, it might turn into a punitive expedition. The colonel was confident that he had the numbers, the weapons, and the trained soldiers to handle just about anything. Fierce as they were, the barbarians were merely disorganized bands of warriors, not a disciplined force of professional soldiers.
Just then more visitors arrived; these were Klarendes' sons, Artor and Eborn, one fifteen and the other thirteen. The older son took after his father, the younger evidently after their mother, but both were fine looking lads dressed relatively modestly in loincloths and sandals. They greeted their father enthusiastically not having seen him for some months.
When introduced by their father as simply "my sons Artor and his younger brother Eborn", the boys winked at the minstrel waved cheerily and quipped in tandem:
"I am the heir."
"And I am the spare."
Aodh grinned at what was obviously a very old joke and a regular part of their schtick.
When the father asked what was new with them, the younger boy confided, much to the older boy's chagrin, that his brother was sweet on the daughter of a family friend. The younger brother made up for that breach of confidence when he praised the senior sibling for tutoring him in geography, enabling him to pass that final section of his school leaving examinations.
Last to arrive was the officer in charge of the battalion, Colonel Urqaart, a bluff man in full uniform, though unarmed except for a long knife. They sat down to get acquainted over a hearty meal and a fine brew. Klarendes had met Urqaart before professionally. That worthy turned to the others and lauded the nobleman, saying:
"My friend Lord Klarendes is too modest to mention it, but he is a real hero in these parts for his role in the last war against the barbarians, when he almost single handedly turned back the invasion. The barbarians lost heart after that third battle turned into a slaughter and retreated back to their homeland. We hit them a couple more times to reinforce the lesson. In later years I watched young Klarendes rise to captain."
"Before he left active duty with the forces, he persuaded the High Command that his own militia company should not march out with the field army as before but should hold the valley as a potential redoubt for us regulars in case we had to fall back before overwhelming force. With our army behind their fortifications, the valley would be impregnable. I understand the quartermasters have stocked a depot there with a mountain of rations."
"Yes, enough to feed 10,000 men for 100 days."
"Let us hope it won't come to that. Anyway, with these reinforcements we can go on the offensive. Which is why my commander, the general, did not complain too much when Balandur suggested he provide a battalion as an escort."
"Suggested?" Karel teased, drawing chuckles all around even from Colonel Urqaart.
Balan cleared his throat theatrically, clearly having something important to say.
"Friends, I must now exercise my authority as a Hand of the Commonwealth to give you new assignments. The unicorn concurs fully in this.
<I do, much as I will miss all of you.>
Regrettably we now take separate paths. The elf-boy, the unicorn, and I will travel with a military escort to the Great Southern Forest for Dahl's training as a druid. You twins would have little to do there except get bored and into mischief. Best thing for you is to sign up with the army here as civilian scouts. As hunters and archers and explorers of new lands, you are just what the forces need to find their way in unmapped country. Having some military experience will prepare you for what is to come."
"And no, as civilians, they won't make you wear a uniform. You can enroll in the scouts and even keep running around stark naked as proper elf-friends should."
The twins nodded, seeing the wisdom in Balan's idea.
"I will send word as to where and when we will form up again as a company. It could be as much as two years though likely less."
"I was unsure about Aodh and reluctant to lose him and his unique abilities after the way he fought so well against the dark riders, helped us face down those unruly soldiers, and even replenished our purse. But now Fate has stepped in. Young minstrel, your place is with Lord Klarendes. Your next contribution to the cause will be to train his militia in unarmed combat until we get together again. And perhaps Lord Klarendes will join us at that time. We could use someone who is both an veteran soldier and a powerful fire caster."
A nod from the nobleman conceded that he was open to the suggestion, but only time would tell. Then Aodh spoke up.
"I'd like that very much, Balan. As for my own mission, with the assistance of Lord Klarendes, I will send a report via the Great Northern Road to my people telling them that the danger, while growing, is not imminent, and that the Commonwealth and the Druids are mobilizing to meet the threat."
"And another thing Taitos, you really need a better maths teacher at the village school. Granther Brandez knows the material all right, but he has no feel for the subject. He bores his students to tears. He should stick to teaching history and geography and composition, which he is good at. Now it so happens that I am very good at maths, especially practical stuff like arithmetic, geometry, trigonometry, and converting weights and measures. And wouldn't you know it, I am between jobs at the moment."
Klarendes grinned, like a drowning man who suddenly finds a floating spar to hang on to.
"You're hired!" he announced grandly.
Klarendes two sons seconded the motion, telling Aodh simply:
"Welcome to the family."
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