Elf-Boy and Friends
Chapter 19. Training
Three weeks after his arrival at the Great Southern Forest, Dahl was still adjusting to the deliberate pace and sedate lifestyle of a student, finding it quite a contrast from his previous adventures during their months long crossing of the continent.
Dahl was the sixth of the new recruits to show up, with nine more arriving over the next few weeks, some escorted by unicorns the others by elves or humans including a couple of wizards. All of the recruits were male. The very first recruit had arrived about three months earlier. He was a Stone Mountain dwarf from a land far to the southwest, beyond the huge fresh water sea that the Long River emptied into. Of the fifteen recruits, ten were human, one big fellow was a shapeshifter, a wir-bear in fact, four were young elves, plus the dwarf who was about twice the age of the other recruits.
Only a few parties had run into trouble along the way, but nothing their escorts couldn't handle. In one attack by dire-wolves, the wir-bear, a near giant in human form transformed into a mountain bear and simply tore both animals apart. In another, it took both silver tipped arrows and a unicorn to put down a Tracker. The last attack was aborted when a wizard escorting the recruit blasted a possessed raven from the sky before it could vector attackers to the party.
The druids were friendly and cheerful. None of the recruits had complaints about the food either, simple fare yes, but nutritious and tasty. Dahl's quarters were plain but cozy, quite comfortable really. He occupied one of four alcoves in a bamboo lodge raised off the damp ground. Each space held a thick futon oh a frame which doubled as bed and settee, a chest along a wall, and a chair set in front of the window where a wooden shelf swung up to serve as a study desk. He had put all his belongings in his chest, but it still looked forlornly empty. He had no garments to store since clothing was not part of his lifestyle and never had been. His quarterstaff was propped in a corner, ready to hand though it was unthinkable he would need it this far into the sheltering forest, except for weapons practice.
Anyone looking in on him in his quarters would find nothing remarkable going on, just a small nude youth with his nose buried in a book. Dahl liked to stretch out on the futon, reading about the origins of the various races on their world and a brief sketch of world history with an emphasis on the evolution of the Commonwealth from an aggressive imperialistic state into the benign hegemonic power it ultimately became. Fascinating stuff, a real page turner actually, a well written narrative told as an exciting saga with vivid characters and settings.
Still he missed his friends terribly. They had been so close, the six of them. Of their little company of adventurers, only Merry was still with him. The twins had joined the army as civilian scouts, and Aodh had taken up with Count Klarendes in a fine match for the both of them. When they parted, Aodh had been practically glowing with his new found happiness.
When all fifteen recruits had arrived, the Senior Druid assigned two recruits to each of the seven senior druids as their mentor and primary tutor. Dahl was delighted to be assigned to Owain. He and the strawberry blond had hit it right off. Their senses of humor were complimentary. The druid was inordinately fond of puns, which Dahl affected to dread but really loved himself, the worse the better. Dahl also loved to tell jokes. Unfortunately so did the druid. The elf-boy found himself playing straight man rather more often than he cared to. But the druid had many decades of experience in maneuvering interlocutors to feed him the straight line he needed to deliver his own carefully prepared punch line.
It wasn't long before Owain invited Dahl to his bed, an invitation the elf-boy was happy to accept. Here too they were compatible with the druid usually playing top to Dahl's bottom, though they sometimes switched. Thanks to the vitality conferred by his magic, the druid had the constitution and the sex drive of a teenager and an unflagging virility. He needed it to match the vitality the elf-boy enjoyed from his youth and his innate magical nature. Their couplings were enthusiastic, energetic, athletic, and loud. Afterwards they lay together, somehow looking as innocent as a pair of kittens snuggled together.
Theirs was a friendship spiced with sex; with every passing week, the two of them grew closer. The older druid was beginning to hope that he had found a life mate, but kept his deepest feelings to himself. It wouldn't be fair, not with Dahl as his student.
The recruit paired with Dahl was named Xebrek, the Stone Mountain dwarf from the far side of the Great Inland Freshwater Sea. He was Dahl's height but three times his weight, massively built with thick bones carrying an immensely strong musculature. His head was disproportionately large since it was the same size as the heads of humans and elves. Unfortunately, dwarves were not one of the comely races, and the squatness of his body held no attraction for the elf-boy or vice-versa.
The sandy haired dwarf usually wore light leather trews and vest. A maul or war hammer hung from his belt. This had occasioned some debate about whether a metal weapon was appropriate for a druid, but it had finally been allowed since it was not intended to draw blood. Maybe not, but a maul driven by dwarven strength would not just crack a skull, it would splash brains and blood and bone chips all about. Their favorite tactic was to take advantage of their low centers of gravity and advance under the protection of shields to smash the feet and knees of their enemies instead of directly attacking their vital areas. One downed, their foes could be dispatched with a 'dwarven headache' as they called their coup de grace.
Dahl was curious and asked Xebrek to tell him about his people. Xebrek was glad to oblige. He explained that dwarves were not aggressive or expansionist. The stone dwarves sought safety underground, dwelling in natural caverns carved out of the rock by acidic waters in limestone strata. These were wondrously complex spaces, with some chambers as large as cathedrals and others just niches in the stone. Underground rivers supplied all the water they could want and carried away wastes. Everywhere were stone pillars called stalagmites thrusting up from the floor and stalactites hanging from the ceiling and curtains of stone, looking like they had been melted in place.
Given their subterranean environment, the most common magical gifts among the dwarves were those that helped them live in their stony labyrinths: calling light and a directional sense like the twins had. A few had the trick of creating long-lasting balls of light which were placed in glass lanterns to illuminate public places or were provided to those who could not call light themselves.
The surface lands nearby were occupied by humans with whom they traded. The dwarves exchanged the results of their mining and metal work for food, fiber, wood, and other necessities. From their chthonian fastnesses they exported cast and wrought iron, copper, steel tools and weapons, and intricate clockwork mechanisms. You wouldn't think their massive hands were capable of delicate work, but obviously they were. They also grew a great variety of mushrooms, much prized by surface folk.
Despite lurid tales of fabulous hoards of gemstones, the caverns of the Stone Mountain dwarves offered no such wealth. Their mining operations did produce geodes which are hollow shells of rock which the dwarves split in half to reveal beautiful crystals inside. These had little commercial value, which was fine with the dwarves for whom the geodes had an aesthetic value far beyond the glittering baubles the surface folk prized. Virtually every household had a collection of the wondrous stones. Xebrek showed Dahl the favorite from his collection, a real beauty of a chalcedony shell filled with the delicate purple crystals of amethyst.
Over the next few days, Dahl told of his travels and adventures. The dwarf who was impressed with the matter of fact way the boy related the battles with the Trackers and the dark riders and his stoical endurance of the wounds he took and the discomforts along the way: thorns and sawgrass, lightning and hailstorms, drought and dust, and the painful process of learning to ride a horse. An introduction to horsemanship was something Xebrek was not looking forward to. Dwarves didn't fit horses any better than elf-boys did.
Still their training proceeded apace. As the elf-boy had quickly realized, for druids, training meant individual tutoring, self-study, field trips, and practical exercises more than classroom studies. The druids often hinted or spoke elliptically, expecting their students to fill in the rest with a burst of insight or intuition. It was the strangest sort of schooling Dahl had ever known. He shook his head remembering an unfruitful lesson with Owain from the previous week.
"Reach out with your heightened senses, Dahl, don't perceive with only your eyes. Feel the warmth of the life all around you on your skin. Listen to the birds and the insects and recognize what the sounds they are making mean. is that a mating call, sounding an alarm, a hunting call, or hungry offspring calling for parents to return to the nest. Are they disturbed or placid. Breathe through your nose and identify the various scents in the air. Is that the spoor of an antelope or the stink of a striper. If so, what could have alarmed it?"
Dahl thought all that was no more than an elaborate way of telling them to keep their eyes and their ears and noses open. He had learned that lesson on the long journey across the continent. As to feeling life with his skin, that already happened much too often for his liking with tiny many-legged things crawling or alighting on him. Few of them bit, humans never smelled like a meal to them, but who wanted six-legs or eight-legs crawling over them at night or buzzing at their ears.
The senior druid tried another approach.
"There is more than one way of knowing things. For instance, in an athletic game popular in the Commonwealth a player tries to lob a ball through a hoop set horizontally about eight feet high on a pole at the end of a court thirty paces long. Even from the far end, a player using a two handed throw can send the ball down range in a graceful arc to pass through the ring without touching the sides. I have seen it done many times. A lob shot they call it.
"Now natural philosophers with their mathematics can calculate the forces required to propel the ball to the target, to overcome the resistance that air presents to its passage, to define the rise and falling curves of the arc to counter the attraction between ball and planet, the angle of elevation and so forth. That is one way of knowing how to sink the shot. The players know nothing of this, and it would not help their play if they did. Even if they knew the technical terms, how could they translate the degree of impetus demanded by the equations into how hard their muscles must work to achieve their goal. The obvious answer is that the cannot and do not. They think intuitively, with their muscles as well as their senses."
"There is nothing magical or supernatural at work either way, for ball player or natural philosopher. It is the same with us druids. What we do may be magic, but how we think is not magic. It is a simply different pattern of thought."
Owain offered further insight into their own thought processes. He pointed out that the sentences people spoke were not really thought out in words beforehand and then expressed. Most of the time we didn't know what the final word of the sentence we were speaking would turn out to be. In other words, our minds did not fully articulate what we said until we actually said it. There was no homunculus inside us writing a script for us to recite.
That sort of reasoning did get through to the apprentices. They found themselves more open to the senior druid's suggestions on meditation and thought processes and found it easier to touch the magical energy all around them.
The new trainees seldom worked or studied all in a group, though they did encounter one another frequently enough at the library or the refectory or the training fields. Students were pitted against each other in mock combat, going at it in every conceivable match up. Or they met on the running trails which everyone used to keep up their stamina. Even Xebrek gamely trudged around the track in an awkward shuffle. His stumpy body had not been designed for running.
Athletics were always non-competitive. It wasn't that druids did not approve of competition. There was simply no point with every student getting stronger and faster and nimbler at his own pace. So their training concentrated on individual activities like running and swimming and negotiating obstacle courses. Which isn't to say the boys couldn't indulge in pick up games in team sports. They all trained in the nude, save only Xebrek. Dwarves usually kept their clothes on in their cool chthonian depths. Public nudity was simply not part of their culture. Dahl and the other elf-boys plus a human elf-friend were the only recruits who stayed nude full time. As for the rest, some favored sarongs, others breechclouts, trews, or kilts when it came to clothing.
For formal occasions the druids donned robes of office, tunics woven of silk, colored forest green that nearly reached the knees. When they went out in the field, they wore a silken camouflage cloak with a big hood. When a druid invoked his magic, it would shift colors and patterns making them very hard to see against any background as long as he held still. Otherwise it was sarongs or breechclouts when they weren't entirely nude, which was usually the case, especially for Owain.
Four unicorns were in residence though only Merry contributed his seed to his chosen elf-boy, strengthening him physically and magically. By now, Dahl was fully adjusted to playing the role of the filly mounted by the white stallion. He could now accept all of Merry's prodigious member as it poked and prodded and penetrated his innermost being. The unicorn's pheromones rendered the elf-boy delirious with lust, as his small body shivered and shuddered from the intense pleasure of their coupling till finally the boy could feel the equine's member swell within him then spurt his seed as a welcome wet warmth that set his entire body to tingling.
Through Dahl's growing mastery of mind speech Merry expanded Dahl's knowledge of Haven's geography including its political boundaries, the distribution of the sentient races, and of land forms, climate, languages, religions, plants, and animals. The unicorn tutored Dahl in the art of land navigation and ran him through practical exercises. Dahl would not always be in the company of the twins. So he had to learn to read maps, to tell direction by the sun and the navigational stars in the nighttime sky.
As for learning druidic magic, that had been a disappointment so far. What the recruits had learned was all theoretical, philosophical, and historical background information. No spells, no new powers though Dahl continued to grow in strength. His senses had become amazingly acute, and his agility was beyond anything he could ever have imagined. He could reach farther with mind speech and was able to initiate contact with anyone he had previously been in contact with through Merry. It wouldn't be long before he could talk to anyone, all on his own.
During one lesson, Dahl's mind wandered, and he speculated whether druids were shape changers. Could they transform into eagles and fly? Suddenly Owain's words intruded on his consciousness.
"… which I am sure your fellow student can explain to you, Xebrek. Isn't that right, Dahl?"
"Er, sorry, what was that you were you saying, Owain?"
"Just that students should pay attention to their tutors if they want to make progress."
"I really am sorry, sir. Just now I got to wondering if druids were shape shifters like my friend Aodh. He is a wir and can change into a black panther."
"Hardly. Anyway we have no need of such transformations. We can influence and even take control of animals to scout and to fight for us. For instance, if we need an aerial view of the terrain we look through the eyes of an eagle or fish hawk by sending a portion of our consciousness to ride with the bird. Through him we see what he sees. Or we can enlist jaguars and bears to fight our enemies. Mind you, they will carry out our will as long as it is in keeping with their nature."
"Well, for example, no druid could get a brontothere to try to jump a ditch, not when the beasts can never get all four feet off the ground at once. They simply won't do it."
The dwarf interrupted to ask: "What is a brontothere anyway?"
"A huge beast, looking like an armored one-horn or rhino, only as high at the shoulder as a Frost Giant is tall. Unlike the rhinos, their two horns point forward and are composed of bone and set side to side at the nose. Bizarre in the extreme and virtually unstoppable."
"It is a good thing that the beast cannot get all four feet off the ground at once. That limitation gives farmers a way to keep brontotheres out of agricultural lands, You surround the fields with a ditch too wide for the animals to step across and too deep to step in and out of. The builders usually site the ditches so they can double as military obstacles or canals for barges and small boats and sometimes for irrigation or drainage as well. These were techniques designed by druids and engineers working together."
"As you will learn, the way of the druid is not to force nature to our will but to combine nature with man's ingenuity. For example, I know you have traveled through the Commonwealth. Those sanitary wetlands downstream from their cities and towns were first developed by druids and engineers working for rulers concerned about the health and cleanliness of their towns. The contribution of the engineers was just as important as anything the druids did to get the plantings established. It was engineers who designed the tunnels that carried the effluent giving them the cross-section of an egg standing on its pointy end rather than a circle. That squeezed the flow of water faster at the bottom of the channel thereby scouring it clear of anything that might settle there."
"Now Dahl, as an elf you have already shown you have a green thumb. So I expect your magic will be more effective with plant life than with animals, though you will be able to control both. You certainly will learn to see through the eyes of animals and listen with their ears. Taking control of say a herd of brontotheres might never be within your powers, though one never knows how one's magic will develop."
"OK, but when do we develop these powers?" Xebrek asked somewhat truculently.
"Soon. Though not soon enough for impatient dwarves, obviously."
"Hmmm. Plants, eh." Dahl mused. "So what do I do against a barbarian invasion. Throw flowers at them?"
"A military problem, is it Dahl? Well speaking from my own experience, I might induce a thorn brake to spring up across their line of march cutting off their vanguard from their follow-up formations. That would allow allied soldiers to fall on and overwhelm the advance force even though outnumbered on the battlefield over all."
"A druid often works with the military as a force multiplier. The soldiers need our unique abilities for reconnaissance and for battle, and we need their numbers and protection. Even a druid powerful enough to set a tornado against his enemies can be felled by an archer with bow and arrow. And we sleep as other men do if somewhat fewer hours. Which is why, along with our small numbers, there is no way we could ever try to rule the world, even if we wanted that burden, which we don't."
He shuddered as he added: "Politics, no thanks!"
"So why are you so few in number, why triple it now, and why are there no lady druids?" Xebrek asked shrewdly.
"That's three questions. Let me take the last one first. There are in fact lady druids all around, quite a few in fact, only you call them healers. They combine magic with natural medicine to effect their cures. And since they cannot be everywhere, they extend their reach by training others in first aid, herbal healing, and midwifery, spreading best practices through their network. For instance, there are thousands of oldsters alive today because the healer's network spread the word about a way for anyone to assist victims of a heart attack. It relies on assisted breathing and rhythmic chest compressions to keep blood circulating until a heart beat resumes and the victim starts breathing again. Magical healing can then cure the underlying problem."
Also, and this is strictly for us to know, lady druids or healers can protect themselves and others. Their magic can induce a stroke or heart attack as easily as a cure, though the have to be fairly close, not touching, but within a stone's throw. Not useful against a body of men, but one or a few, yes."
"As to your other questions. The innate ability to become a male druid is very rare among all races. Finding those few is difficult. We had to mount a huge effort across this content to find just the fifteen of you. The search continues on the other two continents. As to why now, what else but to meet a coming threat."
"So we are the arrow fodder in your magical army?" Xebrek declared belligerently. You'll send us into the meat grinder to spare yourselves."
Owain face grew sad as he shook his head.
"No, Xebrek. Just the opposite. We are training you as our replacements. Few of us expect to survive the next few years, but we could not leave the world without druids. And since the new set will be less powerful individually, for a century anyway, we doubled the number. That is the simple truth of it."
Abashed, Xebrek was quiet and subdued as he absorbed that revelation. Meanwhile, the druid turned to the elf-boy and resumed his war stories.
"There was a time in one of the southern kingdoms when I faced eight full-blooded giants marching at the head of a column of three thousand reavers. We had less than two thousand, half regulars, half militia. The job of the giants was to split our shield wall, letting their army through to turn left and right and roll up our flanks, destroying us utterly."
"So how did you stop them?" both students asked. "Not with a thorn brake. That would not have slowed giants down much."
"No. I grew a belt of ground-hugging vines, deeply rooted in the earth. When the giants crossed the vines, stems and runners grabbed at their legs holding them in place long enough for the vines to drive shoots anchored to tap roots into and through their feet, literally rooting them in place. Then I flash grew a bamboo grove, driving the burgeoning stalks into their bodies especially into their orifices, impaling them. I made the bamboo push through their body cavities and up and out of their mouths, while other stalks churned their brains to mush and forced the pink slurry out thru their ears and eye sockets. I made sure they were very dead."
"The horror of it destroyed the morale of the reavers. They raced away pell-mell, splitting into bands that were easy for our forces to surround and destroy one by one. I doubt that a hundred made it back to where they came from. Just as well there were some witnesses to transmit the lesson we taught their warriors: Keep the peace or die."
"And you know something, the skeletons of the giants are still there, standing like so many scarecrows in the grove of bamboo that spread out from the first patch that I flash grew, which was fertilized by their own decomposing flesh. Ironic isn't it?"
The student druids sat still, mouths agape. Here a single druid had taken out eight full-grown Frost Giants, saved one army, and helped destroy another. No wonder they had such a reputation.
"You can sign me up." Dahl said fervently.
"Already done, both of you." the druid reminded them.
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