Elf-Boy and Friends
Chapter 30. Up the Amazon
Dahl's first step once he reached the Ashokan Islands was to find out where the pests had come from. He interviewed sea captains, sailors, importers and merchants. That helped him narrow the time when the infestation had occurred. From what he learned about the foreign trade of the Ashokan Archipelago, only one shipping route had opened up back then. That new trade route to the mainland led up a major river called the Amazon.
In the past very little trade had passed up and down the river because of a chain of rapids and shoals near its mouth. These days the river ran deep enough to take seagoing ships and capacious barges a long way upstream. It seems the city fathers of the port at the mouth of the river had dreamed of turning it into a major entrepot between river and sea. They had hired a water wizard to clear the navigational obstacles that kept the river from realizing its potential as a transportation artery.
The grounded snags and sandbars presented little problem for the wizard. The rapids though were much harder to deal with. The white water there was a result of the river flowing around large boulders which had been dropped in that spot ages ago carried on an immense flood down toward what later became the Great Inland Freshwater Sea.
The wizard used his water magic to squeeze the river channel more and more, forcing the flow to move faster and faster, making it push harder to get past the boulders, while also scouring away the remaining sandbars and shoals. Gradually the water shoved the boulders against the far bank of the river where the town stood, stabilizing it. A rather good job the water wizard made of it too and well worth what they paid him.
Anyway, it was from the newly opened interior that the tainted timber had arrived from upriver some years before. However no one knew anything about the country of origin. The river was so long that cargoes might pass through several hands before reaching the islands. There were rumors about a country far upstream where women ruled over men, though how likely was that. Regardless, the river route was the young druid's best lead.
It was not like he was heading into a wilderness where he would leave no trace of his passage. The archipelago was well within range of the Great Southern Forest for mind speech. The distance between was little more than half that to Stone Mountain. However the far reaches of river would be quite a way beyond that. So he left a sealed message with the port captain in case anyone came looking for him, a sensible precaution in the circumstances.
The voyage across the sea and upriver was quite pleasant to begin with. With a local boy hired as a servant and factotum, the druid had little to do but to stretch out in the sun, to relax and read and take in the view as first a sailing ship and later a river barge propelled by oars and poles carried him inland. Their captains and crew mostly left him to his own devices. The local boy was willing enough, capable at his simple tasks, though largely a cipher. The shy and silent type, he spoke only when he had to.
Since the barge was a charter, the captain was answerable to his passenger. Dahl had them stop off every so often to check the trunks of trees for the characteristic holes made by the Emerald Ash Borer. No holes, no borers, no controls. What he was looking for was not so much an out-of-control infestation like in the islands, but evidence the borers were present but regarded as just one more minor pest among others.
The sailors warned him not to wade the shallow waters near the river banks nor to venture into the gallery forest that lined the banks. Though usually safe enough, the country thereabouts supported a goodly population of predators, both terrestrial and aquatic, who might find an elf-boy a tasty meal.
Despite their warnings, there he went, poking his nose everywhere, unarmed, empty handed except for maybe a note tablet and stylus, unshod and totally nude. At least the boy wasn't too proud to get his hands dirty, or his legs or his bum too when he slipped in the mud. All right, he was no sailor but no soft-skinned city slicker either from his callused hands. So they were prepared to meet him halfway. Besides, he was paying the freight and not interfering with the operation of their craft, which they appreciated.
So the captain was willing to keep sailors aloft in the shrouds even when they stopped and anchored. The lookouts were to keep their eyes peeled for creatures that might come swimming along and take after the pretty youth with the sexy little body who surely deserved something better than to wind up in the maw and the craw of some river monster, of which there were several types, the Scaly Long Mouth being the worst. Four times the length of a man, a Scaly, as they were called, might conceivably be a threat to a fair sized boat, though not to their own stout river barge.
Sure enough, there came one of them, headed right for the heedless lad who was wading crotch deep in the river with a belt of tough reeds between him and the sandy bank, which, anyway, offered no real refuge. Did the clueless youth even know how to climb a palm tree?
What a shame. With that firm round rump that invited fondling, that deep cleavage that inspired exploration, those nicely formed shoulders and the chevrons of his ribs that begged to be stroked, and those pouty lips that begged to be kissed, he would be a grievous loss indeed. All they could do was ring the gong and call out a warning and break out their weapons to take revenge on the monster should it come within reach of their anchored craft
The boy turned with a look of mild surprise and absolutely no fear. As the beast got to within two of its body lengths, jaws yawning menacingly, the boy simply pointed and said:
To everyone's astonishment, the beast instantly turned and swam away, no longer interested in the taste of druid. Clearly Dahl's powers had grown, especially his influence over animals.
The incident reminded Dahl that he had better recruit animal sentinels to watch his back. No good candidates presented themselves except a class of territorial birds, so he had them keep an eye out for him. He would have preferred a mammalian species living on the ground or in the trees.
Eventually, many days upriver, past wide timberlands, the barge captain pointed upstream and told the young druid that he could proceed no farther. Beyond the trees a swamp of tall reeds spread out before them, with only one channel through it, and that one an artificial canal, laboriously dug over who knew how many years. A small fort guarded the entrance to the channel.
"No, sir, young druid. Not only is my barge too large to enter that narrow canal, the soldiers here won't let anyone sail past, no matter who, no matter what. Whoever built that canal is in complete control of river traffic from this point on. Their purpose is to keep a monopoly of trade."
"I suppose there is no way around?"
"Not on water nor on land, either, I am afraid. The rate of flow across this grassy basin is imperceptible, slowed by flat ground and strangling reeds. As the saying goes, it is too dry to sail and too wet to walk upon."
"Nossir. If you want to go upstream, you will have to deal with the soldiers and that shifty looking under-officer and maybe someone above him. Good luck talking your way past. You might try a bribe."
"Since this is your charter, we will wait here for two days while you dicker with the authorities. Then either take you back downriver or return without you if you can talk you way forward. If you do proceed upriver and later return to this point, we won't be here, of course, but you can take one of the timber barges to the Inland Sea. Dunno what else ye can do, youngling, I mean sir Druid."
"One thing more. You talk to that officer, you might want to put some clothes on first. Look official-like yourself, as becoming a druid and an ambassador and all instead of some rich man's catamite or bum boy, no offense."
"None taken. That is good advice."
So he dressed in his best druidic regalia, green tunic and camouflage cloak and sandals. With his ashplant staff thumping the ground with every other step he strode along the wharf up to the guards and assumed the most official looking stance he could, feet just over shoulder-width apart, cloak blown back with a wind he called, the bottom of his staff planted next to his foot, the long shaft angling away from his body, gripped near the top at arm's length. Dahl was confident that he struck quite a imposing figure, even if one only an inch over five feet tall.
If so, the effect was lost on the surly looking under-officer.
"Hey, aren't you that nekkid kid what come up on the barge? All gussied up now, eh. I suppose you wanna see the Captain?"
"Yes, I do, fellow. Make it so." Dahl hoped that was the right tone to deal with the churlish soldier who by rights should have shown a druid more respect.
Out of the door of the main building set back from the channel emerged quite a different sort of man. A real soldier by his bearing.
"All right kid, or should I say sir? State your business."
Dahl started out by introducing himself. "I am Lord Dahlderon, Dwarf-Friend and Journeyman Druid of the Exalted Order of the Druids of Haven."
There. Count Klarendes wasn't the only one with a mouthful of titles to his name.
Dahl then explained his mission in a few simple sentences. The captain did not know anything about Emerald Ash Borers, but he did know the rules.
He explained that no vessels passed through this checkpoint except the river boats and crews who originated upriver. Visitors were not welcome there, were resolutely discouraged in fact, and warned that they entered at their peril. Entry by foreigners was not actually forbidden, but they could not ship anything on their own account, either in or out, but only through native intermediaries. Meaning they would have to take on native partners.
"Anyway, you cannot pass the checkpoint in that get-up or anything at all really, especially not a young male like yourself. That is definite. Males don't go upriver unless naked and unarmed. You can check your clothing and weapons here and pick them up on the way out, if they let you out. No guarantees they will, understand? Pretty as you are, little one, you might find yourself enslaved and set to work in a boy brothel.
No hard money goes upriver either. You exchange coin for script with the finance office next door. Understand? Don't cause trouble or you will be in big trouble. Understand?"
Not liking it at all, but unwilling to turn back now, the young druid stripped and handed over all his belongings. What kind of a country made all male visitors strip naked? Were they just making it impossible to carry a concealed weapon or to smuggle contraband? Or was he taking a first step toward sexual slavery?
All right, he did look like a juvenile and a youngish one at that, and males his age went about naked in many lands including the Commonwealth itself, humans as well as elves and others. But so did slaves in those benighted countries that still tolerated the institution. This sounded like one of them, languishing in barbarism, far from the reach of the Commonwealth's benign and progressive hegemony.
And physically Dahl was just the sort slavers would target. With his androgynous if wiry physique and fine-boned features he fell far short of normal male standards in height, muscular development, and secondary sexual characteristics like beard and body hair. He might not taken seriously as a male but viewed as a pretty boy-toy just begging to be mounted.
Anyway, the captain made it sound like boys his age had no choice about perpetual nudity at least once they had reached the bloom of their youth and became attractive and sexually active. Was this another society where same gender relationships were the norm at least for younger males with each other or with older males as their mentors? He was only surprised the guard did not do a cavity search, but none of these men seemed attracted to pretty boys. Or maybe they were just lazy.
How was he supposed to present himself as an ambassador now? A small nude elf-boy without a feather on him anywhere was not exactly ambassadorial timber. More like a bum boy trolling for custom. True, he had never had much use for clothing. Maybe perpetual public nudity had not bothered him when he had first started out on a life of adventure, but he was older now, more experienced, and had a greater sense of personal dignity. Not that he didn't like to show off, but preferably on his terms. Best he use a cover story to explain his presence while he took soundings rather than announce himself to the authorities right off.
It got worse. The financial "script" they gave him was not paper currency as you might expect but a small temporary tattoo stamped on the inside of his wrist. All transactions were executed magically, with a small device called a dongle, that added or subtracted value and changed the tattoo accordingly to reflect the new balance. If that balance fell to zero, that made you a vagrant. You could and would be arrested and put to work. In shackles, if you resisted.
Still Dahl felt he could take care of himself, even naked and unarmed. He knew martial arts. His burst strength was three times what you might expect from someone so small, and that advantage would be increased by the element of surprise. Which was why he never showed off, never let a potential foe realize just how strong he was. He could have picked up that surly soldier one-handed and tossed him into the canal as long as he set his own center of gravity right.
Anyone who came at him with a weapon and serious intent to harm might get the belly-ache of a lifetime or maybe a heart attack. Now if he were confronted by a body of troops, then he would cast around for a herd of brontotheres. Half-jokingly he had asked about them and was delighted to learn that the beasts were common in those parts. Brontotheres at last! He couldn't wait to see them. The great beasts were considered bothersome to farmers but not especially dangerous unless provoked.
"Ditches. That's the solution." Dahl asserted confidently. "As a way to prove my bona fides, I think I will mention that to your rulers when I finally get to the capital."
Dahl was surprised to learn that the guards and the boatmen were not natives of the country upriver. Just mercenaries. They ignored all his other questions, just telling him he would find out for himself soon enough. So Dahl got on board a river boat, parked his bare butt on the gunwale, and let himself be carried to…, to what he didn't know. His destiny? That sounded far too highfalutin for a simple farm boy like him or even a journeyman druid, however many his grand titles.
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