Elf-Boy and Friends
Chapter 36. Land of the Wirs
The three friends took up their conversation the next morning.
"If only we could take the initiative. The enemy prepares stroke after stroke against us. We defend, push back, then wait for the next attack, the next war. Balan, is there any chance of striking at their heart? Take our their leaders?"
"Realistically, no. We know so little about the lands to the east. The Commonwealth has never had any real commerce with those regions, so we cannot infiltrate spies as merchants. Nor as priests. The Dark Prophet has suppressed all competing cults. And don't bother to ask, Aodh, they wouldn't let a minstrel circulate freely, nor anyone else. You need papers to leave your native district. That much we do know.
We don't even have decent maps of those vast lands. A strike force would be going in blind with no idea where to strike. Mission impossible."
Hmmm," Aodh began musingly. "What about sending in wirs to gather intelligence, before you send a strike force against their rulers. Here is how I see this happening:"
"We infiltrate in our animal forms, living entirely off the land. Memorize landmarks, routes, and the location of their nerve centers. As predators, we are pretty good at recon. As for intel on their society and government and such, first we sneak around and listen in on conversations and tavern chatter. In our human forms, we could seduce informants and subtly question them during pillow talk. Alternatively we snatch informants, people who won't be missed for a while, not till we clear the area. We force whatever information we can them. Again as predators, we wirs can be very intimidating and persuasive."
As was his wont, Aodh used the 'v' sound instead of the 'w' sound at the beginning of 'wir'.
"What would you do with these coerced informants afterwards, Aodh?" the count asked his young lover. The boy blinked then replied:
"Kill them. What else? We could not afford to let them talk. The hard part is hiding the bodies, which is something we predators are not very good at."
"That is cold, my young friend, very very cold."
"Hard to believe isn't it, Taitos. There he sits, your pretty little boy toy, all of five foot zero, small, skinny, smooth muscled, and glabrous, with the face of an angel. And yet, he is a stone cold killer."
"As are we all, Balan, as are we all," the count reminded him.
The giant could see that his friend was troubled by the implications of the wir's proposal. It meant that Aodh would go off, leaving the count behind, not only bereft but unable to protect the boy he loved. Klarendes had far too many responsibilities to go traipsing off into the unknown for months on end.
"Also, I have been away from home far too long. I need to get back."
The boy had not meant to do so, but his ill-chosen words wounded Klarendes keenly. The nobleman had tears in his eyes as he asked in an anguished voice:
"I thought this was your home now, Aodh. Do you mean to say that you want to leave me?"
"No! No! Damn me for speaking without thinking, Taitos. No, my home is here in Elysion with you. That will never change, not by my choice anyway. No, what lies back there is not my home, not any longer. But it is still my home-land, the land of my birth. All that I am, I owe to those people."
"I have to go there, first to make a full report of the situation and to get debriefed on what we all have done to thwart our adversary. The second reason is this mission I proposed. I am the only one who could put it into operation. My final reason for going back now, is to say good-bye, to tell family and friends how happy I am in my new home in the west, a home I share with a very special person. That's you Taitos. It will always be you."
The two lovers fell into each others arms in a chaste embrace, tears of joy running down their cheeks. Balan too had to keep blinking his eyes and dabbing at them with a cloth. That boy had so much love in him, and in so tiny a body. For once Balan didn't mind being thought a sentimentalist. There is a time and a place for everything, and for these two fine people, this was their time. This was their place.
"More power to you." he whispered under his breath.
When all had recovered their equanimity, they resumed making plans.
"Would you bring the twins in on this, to make the maps?" Balan asked the wir.
"Yes, but I do not want them to infiltrate enemy territory. Our operatives will pass their observations back to the twins who in turn will pass them on to, well, to whomever. That is your department."
"If you were planning on using them, why then did you leave the twins and Ran back in Dalnot, Balan?"
"They are waiting there to go over final proofs of their printed maps, which are coming by secure courier from the nearest town with a print shop good enough for that kind of detailed work, especially those contour lines the twins invented to show elevation above sea level."
"Based on readings from those small metal boxes called barometers. Did you know that the devices measure altitude above sea level based on differences in air pressure? It seems air actually has weight. The artificers and natural philosophers are turning out all sorts of mechanical marvels these days."
"Whom do we send on this mission. Which wirs besides yourself?"
"My own people. We haven't done much yet in this great struggle for the fate of the world. Our leaders sent me west to scout, to learn about this threat our shamans sensed. Find out what it might be. And to see what they might do to help. Well, supporting this mission is the best contribution they could possibly make. I intend to make them see that."
"Oh, and I will need a druid and a unicorn too. Dahl and Merry."
"Why a druid and why Dahl, you might ask? Sticking our necks out so far, we need a druid for magical backup. Who better to work with me than Dahl? The unicorn can relay intel from his station with the twins. On his last mission, Dahl himself got out of range. We cannot let that happen again."
"It is a hell of a concept." Balan said, sounding enthused. "I will put it to both of them. This will count as Dahl's third challenge. Hell, his fourth and fifth as well, really."
"Just one more thing. Do brontotheres live in your far off land?" Klarendes asked shrewdly.
"Too many to count. We get along with them famously. Their very presence drives large carnivores away, protecting our livestock and children."
The count nodded to the giant. "Brontotheres. That will bring Dahl in for sure."
And so it did.
After a long and round-about journey beyond the eastern end of the lands held by the barbarians, two weary travelers arrived at Aodh's homeland, a place that went by the utterly prosaic name of Wirland, pronounced Virland by the locals.
Aodh's country was just as he had described it when they had first met: a geographical gem, a hidden valley far to the east, beyond nearly impassable mountains and jungles. Nearly impassible but they had blazed a path and coming up from the southwest, the hard way, against the grain of the land. They entered the hidden valley through its single point of entry a path leading off a logging road and then across the mountain barrier.
It was much larger than Klarendes' secluded valley. Thirty times that size. A small country in fact. Much of it was uncultivated, deliberately left wild. As you might expect, the chief recreations of the inhabitants of Wirland were hunting, trapping, and fishing. That was true even of the majority who were not shape shifters themselves. They too liked to hunt with bow and arrow or boar spear. Most extended families had at least one and often two members who were wirs.
The inhabitants farmed like any other rural folk, supporting themselves with agriculture horticulture and especially animal husbandry. These people liked their meat. Aodh's people raised goats, pigs, rabbits, and ducks by preference, disdaining the flesh of the chicken as too dry. No one bothered raising cattle when deer and antelope were for the taking in the woods.
The travelers sought out the authorities who quickly agreed to Aodh's plan and sent out a call for volunteers.
With that settled for the time being, Aodh and Dahl had time to socialize. First there was a family reunion where the young wir renewed ties with those he had left behind. For security reasons, he had not communicated with anyone at home the whole time except for a couple of official reports. Aodh even got to meet the girls who had borne his children and the youths who had married them later. Aodh neither expected nor sought any role in the bringing up his natural children, which would not have been allowed anyway as potentially too confusing for the kids. They had their moms and dads and that was that.
After that came a grand tour of the valley, where they were greeted warmly everywhere they went. All who met them assumed, without the need for an announcement, that they were lovers. How could it be otherwise? Here they were, two impossibly pretty youths with trim lissom bodies which were totally on display since the boys went about nude, often hand in hand, speaking volubly, sometimes hugging and kissing. And such a nice looking couple too, everyone agreed.
More than any people except the elves, the males of Wirland approved of same gender relationships and sought them out unapologetically. No doubt many of the locals yearned for a tryst with this exotic stranger. Comely young elves were rare in those parts. Alas, he looked to be out of reach.
And yes there were brontotheres in that land. Several hundred in fact, as many as the restricted range could comfortably support. The wirs had long since come up with the way to keep the beasts out of their farmlands. They dug ditches too wide for even these giants to step across and too deep for them to climb in an out off. The outer walls of these ditches were gentle slopes, lest the animals be trapped or break their legs falling in. The ditches provided the beasts with water to drink and to bathe in. The inner walls of the ditches were just that, a vertical face that kept the brontotheres from going farther. For all their strength even they could not push over walls buttressed by the entire weight of the country behind them. The happy result was that humans and beasts lived in peaceful coexistence and usually stayed out of each other's way.
The young druid could not pass up another opportunity for a ride on a brontothere. It was such a heady experience, to sit astride the neck of an animal eight feet high at the shoulder and weighing nine tons and to guide it where he wanted to go. Being the courteous lad that he was, Dahl preferred to ask politely rather than to compel. Brontotheres were not sentient exactly, but they were more intelligent and more self-aware than a canine or even a cat. Just don't tell that to Esmeralda.
Dahl was surprised to see Aodh swing up onto another of the beasts. With an insufferably smug look on his pretty face, the wir boy explained that he and Manda, as he called his beast, were old friends. It seems Aodh had been riding brontotheres since he was a kid.
"They are friendly and allow us to ride them. I think they find it as much fun as we do. It is part of our growing up. Here in Wirland, we love our brontotheres. Having said that I have to admit that we are along for the ride but strictly as passengers. We cannot get them to go where we would. You are something else, a true rider of brontotheres.
The ponderous beasts usually took things at a slow walk, grazing and browsing, but when they wanted to they could really move. Their best pace was the charge, a fast shuffle that could nearly match the speed of a galloping horse. However, the brontotheres themselves were too heavy to gallop, a gait where all four feet left the ground at the same time, if only briefly.
"This is amazing," Dahl marveled after he had had a few days to explore this new land. "Your farmlands are like an island surrounded by an octagonal ring of ditches which not only protect them but supply water and carry boats around the town. And the only permanent crossings are foot bridges which would break under the weight of a brontothere."
"Yes," Aodh nodded smiling, proud of the ingenuity of his people. "we carry heavy traffic on bridges which we swing across the gap at need. The giant beasts have long since realized that they can never get over to our lush croplands, but our ditches and canals allow easy them access for drinking and bathing. I think they realize that we build our the ditches the way they do to spare them injury. Hence the beasts are careful not to soil the waters with their dung."
"In any event there are authentic accounts of brontotheres coming to the protection of children against wolves and tigers. Usually they have only to issue a challenge to the predator. If that is ignored they gore or trample the miscreant and wait patiently for a human to come take charge of the child. They are almost sentient in that respect."
"Then there is the story of how my people once freed a mother brontothere and her calf from a bog. We dragged the calf out of the muck with ropes. The mother was too big for our unaided efforts. Fortunately the brontotheres were cooperative enough to let us hitch them by their horns to drag the mother to safety."
"And you never hunt them, of course." It was a question.
"Gods forbid we should. Not only are they benign, they are our totemic beasts."
"Not cats?" Dahl asked, puzzled.
"How could it be cats?" Aodh smirked. "We ourselves are cats. Our totem must therefore be something else. Something powerful."
"Hmmm. Could they be my totem as well?" he asked growing excited.
"I don't see why not?"
That brought a huge smile to Dahl's face. He actually got giddy thinking about it. Aodh chuckled as he repeated to the druid an oft told tale among his people.
One time, a youth who had just crossed a footbridge saw an old bull gazing longingly at the succulent fruits and vegetables growing just out of reach. With the mischief upon him the boy teased the animal with comical gestures. Maybe brontotheres do not understand language, but they know when they were being tweaked by a young whippersnapper of a human. The clever animal scooped the youth up on his horns, careful not to hurt him, walked to the middle of the ditch and dropped the boy in with a splash. Then the beast and several others gave out the rumbling sound the wirs have always considered their form of laughter. Even the boy saw the humor of it and burst out laughing.
The next day, nice boy that he was, he brought a sack of cabbages for the old bull who let the boy feed him by hand, nine tons of brontothere standing companionably next to a slender youth.
"My people were mightily impressed with your tale of how you lead the charge of a herd of brontotheres against an army of Amazons. They are calling you the 'Master of the Brontotheres'."
Dahl just shook his head in wonderment and amusement. He was really glad now they had made the long journey. And they already had seven volunteers, enough for their intel operation. None of Aodh's cohort of agents was interested, the five who had made it back home. From the summit of all of his nearly nineteen years and playing the grizzled veteran to the hilt, Aodh had dismissed the youthful volunteers as "all balls and no brains."
"I am sure they all volunteered just so they could get laid. Otherwise boys their age would have to wait for access to females. But our law prescribes that we preserve their blood lines, so they will be allowed to mate with three girls and get them with child before they leave."
"And just how old were you, Aodh, when you were picked for your mission." Dahl asked shrewdly.
"Ouch! OK, I was fifteen, but remember, my people mature sooner than most."
"As have our ballsy brainless wonders, I don't doubt."
"By the way, Dahl, speaking of preserving blood lines… "
The young druid cut him off.
"I know where this is going. So let me tell you in no uncertain terms: No! In fact, don't even think about setting me up like your volunteers. I will neither accept the honor nor perform the service. I could not perform it really. I mean, if I wilted when I was taken to bed by a fabulously beautiful Amazon queen, what hope could your girls have?"
"You have a point, Dahl."
That evening, at the appointed hour, Dahl reached forth with his mind speech, confirming that the twins, Ran, and the unicorn had set themselves up in the safe house they would occupy for the entirety of the operation. In a far off land beyond the territories of the barbarians, agents of the druids had bought an old farm with extensive orchards, quite off the beaten track for privacy. Lush pastures and purchased grain would provide for Merry. The twins and Ran would draw their supplies from a nearby town whose shops could easily meet their needs, unlike a village which did not have sufficient surplus to provide for an extended stay of three always hungry youths plus their visitors.
The boys had set up a work area in the main room. They would share a bedroom and a single bed that Ran knocked together from old bed frames he found in the house. No feather mattresses this trip, just large sacks stuffed with straw and laid crosswise across the ropes.
Their cover story was admittedly thin. The twins were supposedly journeyman horticulturalists trying their luck at reviving the local orchards by grafting exotic stock to the rather ordinary trees growing on the farm. When he finally got to the farm himself, Dahl would have no trouble making these grafted cuttings flourish, producing superior fruit and nuts. The success of their new agriculture venture satisfied the curious and their promise to share cuttings with the locals satisfied the envious.
A monthly gratuity for the local shire reeve ensured that the representative of the law in those parts would discourage unwelcome attention and shoo away unwanted visitors.
All was set therefore for the launch of the first offensive operation against the Adversary and his Dark Prophet.
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