Elf-Boy and Friends
Chapter 18. Druids
Dahl was glad to have stout-hearted Balandur along for moral support on the long ride to the Great Southern Forest. They rode under the protection of a battalion of soldiers from the Commonwealth garrison at Dalnot. It was during that journey that the giant taught Dahl to ride a horse. The elf-boy was glad to acquire a skill that no doubt would stand him in good stead in the future, but it was a painful learning experience. Horses were so big. You never realized how wide the barrel of a horse was until you stretched your legs around it all day, a particularly difficult task for a little guy like Dahl with his slight stature and short limbs.
After that first day's ride, when he slid off his horse, his thighs were on fire. Never mind his skin was rubbed raw because he hadn't worn riding silks, the pain in his thighs muscles and groin was appalling. Gentle massage and salves from army medics helped, but he spent his first night as an equestrian thoroughly miserable and feeling quite sorry for himself. Why couldn't they provide a coach for him? He would much rather try that than travel atop a cantankerous mount who quickly sensed that her rider didn't know what he was doing. At one point, she took the bit in her teeth and ran off with him.
At least he had managed to stay in the saddle thanks to those newfangled iron triangles hung from the saddle by leather straps. Stirrups, the cavalrymen called them. Balan had pointed out that Dahl had it easy learning to ride with stirrups. Previous generations of riders had had to wedge their hips into the prongs of one of those old-fashioned horned saddles. Those on bareback could only wrap their legs around the barrel of their horses.
Stirrups not only helped keep a rider keep to his saddle. They let him wield weapons more effectively. A rider could brace himself or even stand up in the stirrups and swing a sword with his full strength, confident that he would not overbalance and fall off his horse. Ever better, stirrups let a cavalryman wield a lance without getting pushed off the back of his horse by the impact with his target. With his feet in stirrups a rider no longer held a spear overhand trying to stick it into an enemy. Instead he couched the shaft under his right arm and guided the spear head with his grip on the shaft. In a charge, the stirrups transmitted the full weight and momentum of both horse and rider to the point of the lance with irresistible effect. The spearhead would tear through any armor, gutting any opponent.
As if he wasn't feeling miserable enough already, after he dismounted Dahl's horse tried to bite him, Only Dahl's improved senses and reflexes let him get off unscathed.
"Bite her right back." Balan advised. "On the ear, but with your flat teeth. Show her who is boss."
So the elf-boy did just that. And damn if that didn't make the obstreperous animal settle down and let him ride her, no more nonsense. The unicorn, with his insight into equine psychology, explained why.
<Dahl, army mounts expect a firm hand on the reins. Any uncertainty is quickly conveyed by your seat, your posture, how you manage the reins, or the use of your spurs or bare heels in your case, to guide her. She won't take you where you want to go unless she is confident that you know what you are doing and can bring both of you back again.>
<She will warm up to you when she realizes that you are the one who will see to here needs by filling her oat bag in the evening, currying her coat, and checking her feet for injuries, especially the frogs of her feet.>
When they finally arrived at the stronghold of the druids, the biggest surprise was the druids themselves. Dahl had expected them to be men of middle years at least if not actual graybeards, tall and lean and stern of mien, their powerful bodies draped in full-length robes equipped with voluminous hoods the better to conceal their faces from the common herd. He could hardly have been more wrong.
Which lead to a faux pas on Dahl's part. Just inside the entrance to the druids' compound their party had interrupted a half-dozen teenage boys, as he supposed them to be, running around in the nude, kicking a ball around the lawn, laughing and joking and carrying on as boys will. They were of about average height or a little less, with builds ranging from slight and wiry to muscular. None looked to be over twenty. A mixed bag of cute twinks, pretty boys, and handsome youths, all were pleasant to look upon and some were real stunners.
Apologizing for the intrusion, he asked one of them, a diminutive boy with strawberry blond hair, to carry word to the druids that they had arrived. That is, his party had arrived, headed by Colonel Urqaart, the giant Balandur, a Hand of the Commonwealth, and the unicorn Meirionnydd. He did not mention his own name, which this servant boy would surely never have heard of.
The boyish blue-eyed blond beauty had smiled and, addressing Dahl by name informed, him that all the druids currently in residence at the compound were already aware of their arrival.
"How do you know my name? I never mentioned it."
"Ha, ha, ha. You must forgive us our little joke, Dahlderon, but if you were looking for the Druids of the Great Southern Forest you've found them, that is you have found us."
"What! You? A bunch of bare-ass kids horsing around? I didn't take you for druids yourselves. I figured maybe you were their pages or boys who served the druids as their cat-, er … their special friends." he finished lamely.
Dahl blanched. Here he had gone and almost said in so many words that the most powerful magic wielders on the planet looked like a pack of rent boys.
"Oh?" the youthful druid said mischievously. "I had understood that to be your department."
Dahl blushed furiously. Merry and Balan could hardly contain their merriment. Of course, they sympathized with their young friend, mortified as he was. Then again, Dahl did look ever so cute peering through his bangs and biting his lower lip in embarrassment.
"Actually Merry filled us in with mind speech over a private channel as soon as he crossed the border. We couldn't resist the chance to tease you. You would think that, at our advanced ages, we would not indulge to such pranks. By the way, my name is Owain, and I'm 182 and much the youngest among us."
"I am seventeen." Dahl admitted in a very small voice.
Owain's senior colleague put him in charge of seeing that the new arrivals were made comfortable. Fresh victuals were sent to the battalion encamped in a nearby meadow. It was agreed that after a bath and afternoon nap, the travelers and druids would get together for an evening meal of welcome and celebration. Owain turned the three guests over to a gray haired couple, the head steward Forstal and his wife Megan. Forstal was kindly but taciturn as he showed Dahl and Balan their chambers then lead Merry to the special stables built for resident and visiting unicorns.
By contrast, the steward's wife was talkative and bossy. Taking charge, she bustled about, directing servants to draw baths, to take the traveler's dusty clothes to the laundry, and sent word to the cooks that there would be three more at the main table for the evening meal. She drew Dahl by the arm, saying. "Come along, child."
"Child, is it, after all I've been through?" Dahl thought to himself crossly.
Balan was pleased that the bath house had a tub large enough even for him. A pair of bath attendants, nude boys about fourteen years old, stepped forward to assist them. Megan handed each of them a sponge and armed herself with a long handled brush as she prepared to help them bathe. These people obviously had no problem with nudity.
"Nothing personal sir and sweet boy, Megan assured them, but I cannot abide dirt and disorder. Before you slide onto my clean sheets I want to be sure that you are clean yourselves. Balan, this lad will scrub your back. I sure you can handle the rest. I'll give this elf-boy my personal attention."
"Thank you madam," Dahl ventured, "but I can take it from here."
"I hardly think so, young man. In my considerable experience, boys your age have absolutely dreadful standards of personal hygiene. No offense to those in charge of your upbringing, but boys will be boys. And just look at those nails. If ever anyone needed a manicure and a pedicure it is you."
"No, the two of us, this bath attendant and I, will scrub you down then let you soak in the tub to ease your muscles, while he does your nails. And I have just the shampoo to bring out the luster of your raven locks. This will be so much fun. You remind me so much of my youngest at that age. What age are you really, thirteen or fourteen? No use pretending to be seventeen, not with me. If there is one thing I know it is teen age boys. Raised three of them myself, didn't I. Still you are a comely one. No doubt you will soon be turning heads, when you grow up that is."
"Already there, silly woman." thought to himself. "Why couldn't she realize that an elf-boy his age was done with growing up, physically anyway."
Dahl held back from confronting her even though she had just as much called him a lying child. She continued, oblivious to his growing irritation.
Dahl was mightily annoyed by her condescending tone not to mention all the frank talk. What was he, ten years old? He reached for a sponge to scrub himself, but snatched his hand back as the housekeeper rapped his knuckles with the back of a long-handled brush.
"Tut, tut, child. I will do the honors this first time as you are our guest. Just sit on this stool for a first scrubbing, then you may climb into the tub."
Seething that he was being treated like a dull-witted and naughty boy, he complied with ill grace and sat on the stool while the bath attendant worked away at his front and the woman scrubbed his back. The attendant fought him for the sponge to attend to his manly parts, but Dahl's enhanced strength easily let him prevail. He ignored the woman's express disapprobation. The final straw was when the presumptuous woman asked him to stand up and bend over, arms braced on the seat of the stool while she applied the soapy bristles to his bottom.
This was too much. Too much by far, for the elf-boy.
"For crying out loud!" Dahl exclaimed. "I can clean my own ass. I haven't needed a woman's assistance for that task since I was in diapers."
"So you say, but like every boy you get all sweaty or dusty or muddy from work or exercise then think a quick dunking will get you clean. Then there is the delicate matter of, shall we say, cleanliness at the nether end of the alimentary canal. I am sure you know what I mean. I am warning you elf-boy. I'll not tolerate brown streaks on my bedsheets. Now bend over."
"Not a chance!" he said defiantly, standing up and grabbing the brush out of her hands. "I am not a child. I am a man. I have fought and killed slavers and dark riders and Trackers and taken grievous wounds while crossing an entire continent with a small party of adventurers." Pointing imperiously at the door, he said. "Leave us, woman!"
The housekeeper backed off, abashed, then left with as much dignity as she could muster. Dahl finished his ablutions, then let the attendant do his nails. He was still angry, mostly with himself for letting things go so far. He should have stood up to her from the start. And would have done so, had not his faux pas with the druids thrown him on the defensive. No more. Not from now on.
"So, our boy has finally grown a pair." the giant thought to himself.
<I couldn't be more pleased. Pardon my listening in, Balan. I touched your mind to let you know that Owain cautioned me about her. She's a real battle axe though competent and conscientious in her own way. I am gratified to see that our boy has had his fill of playing the victim and has grown a spine. Adversity has tempered his mettle. To think, I found him as a callow youth, a sheltered farm boy. Now he is his own man.>
<Aye> the giant replied with immense satisfaction. <Mission accomplished.>
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