Elf-Boy and Friends
Chapter 39. Barbarian Raids
About mid-morning a ten-day later, the local shire reeve, Sir Tomas Drew, came by with a posse of locals. The twins were at work in the orchards, up in the trees, checking grafts and evaluating new growth. Ignoring scratches and scrapes on the rough bark, the nude boys gave a convincing portrayal of horticulturalists at work, which was the cover for the spy operation. As the locals approached, the blond boys waved cheerily and called the news of the arriving visitors to the others.
Merry made himself scarce. It was not generally known that a unicorn lived at the farm and he preferred to keep it that way, lest he draw attention to their operation. Dahl and Ran went out to greet the visitors, showing their peaceful intentions by leaving their weapons in the farm house. The posse of seven men and youths surely had nothing to fear from two tiny nude elf-boys greeting them with empty hands.
"Good morrow, Sir Tomas", Dahl offered. "What brings you way out here, and in such company?"
Which was a subtle reminder that Dahl had paid the man to discourage visitors and idle curiosity.
"Barbarians. Raiders have infiltrated over the mountains. So far just probes, though just what they are looking for is anyone's guess. They question those they seize about foreigners operating in these parts, persons who have an unhealthy interest in the goings-on in the lands of the barbarians. The raiders sometimes leave those whom they question unmolested, though they kill anyone who resists. I have to wonder why anyone from around here would be spying on their lands. I don't suppose you would know anything about that, would you now?" he asked shrewdly.
Evidently his duty to respond to the threat to his own people meant more to him than any bribe from Dahl. A honest man then, even if his curiosity was rather inconvenient.
"What can I say, sir reeve? Obviously such an intelligence operation as you suppose is going on would have to maintain plausible deniability. What then would you have us do, sir? Even if what you suspect were true and we cleared out, would that stop these raids?"
"It very well might, in time, if you fellas were no longer stirring the pot."
"So you figured it all out, then."
"Son, I always figured the bunch of you for secret agents of the Commonwealth. That was why I was so cooperative. I support the Commonwealth and its aims. It is just too bad the Commonwealth is so far away, otherwise I wouldn't mind if my own country became an associated state. Everyone knows the chief enemy of the barbarians and the defender of civilization is the Commonwealth of the Long River. Still, there is no way they can protect my people, not from so far away."
"So I have to ask you to clear out entirely. And that means all of you, those on four feet as well as those who go about on two. Did your unicorn friend really think that a snow white horse with a long horn would go unnoticed in these parts."
<I heard that too.> Merry sent ruefully, clopping into view.
"Meanwhile these men and I are heading out to check reports of raiders operating a little north of here. You are welcome to come along."
Which was a test of their good intentions. Smart man, this shire reeve.
"We'll get our kit and be ready in no time."
So Dahl and the twins collected their weapons and packs and joined the posse. Merry insisted on going along after being cooped up on the farm for so long. Meanwhile Ran would watch over the base of operations, while Aodh took off in panther form to reel in the spy network and send his operatives home. He expected to be gone for three weeks.
Whistles greeted the sight of three lovely nude youths marching as to war. A triple vision of youthful male pulchritude, smoothly muscled and with tawny glabrous skins, the boys looked even younger and more inviting than their tender years would suggest. None of them had an extra ounce on their trim and taut physiques, their wiry musculatures a testimony to clean living and hard work.
The twins had brought their bows and kukris while the young druid brought along just a staff, which drew a skeptical response from the shire reeve.
"Just a stick, youngling? That is good for close-in work but what about fighting at a distance. You don't have a sling or bow or even throwing knives."
"Don't worry" the twins assured him. "Dahl is a distance weapon all by himself. With any luck, he'll whistle up a herd of brontotheres to deal with the problem."
Seeing he wasn't going to get an explanation for that cryptic remark, the good man turned and lead the way down the trail. As they walked the druid assured the shire reeve that their agents would soon withdraw from the lands of the barbarians. A liaison officer was on his way even as they spoke.
"A liaison officer, eh? That wouldn't be a certain sloe-eyed raven-haired beauty in his kitty-kat form, now would it?"
"Dahl laughed ruefully. "And here we thought we were being so discreet and so clever about the whole thing. How did you know Aodh was a wir?"
"I could just say it was those cat-like eyes of his or his panther-like grace plus the reports of a black panther seem coming and going though never making a confirmed kill. We don't have panthers around here. Fact is though, once I knew how he pronounced and spelled his name, I knew him for a wir. No other people writes with so little regard for phonetic accuracy."
That set the twins to chuckling. "Karel has been saying that for years." Jemsen said, grinning. "And it is not just wirs. My brother and I once worked for a man whose name was spelled W-R-O-C-L-A-W, but he pronounced it Vrot-swaf."
The shire reeve shook his head in mock regret. "Clever men go to all the trouble to invent an alphabet making literacy easier to acquire, and these characters spoil it. Pun intended."
"You are a man after my own heart!" Karel assured him.
"I'll hold you to that, pretty one, say tonight, in my bed roll."
Karel's mouth dropped open in surprise. For once he was blessedly speechless.
"My brother is shameless, Sir Tomas, but very good in bed, as you may soon find out for yourself."
Seeing himself entrapped by his own wit, Karel decided to be a good sport about it. After all, though the reeve was in his late thirties and with some gray at his temples, the tall lean official was a man of striking looks, if not classically handsome. So why not take a tumble with him? Besides Karel did not want to be thought a cock tease, prancing around in the nude, letting everyone see the clench and twitch of his buns as he walked along. Let good man Drew take those as a foretaste of good things to come. And anyway, cooped up as they were on the farm, Karel had an itch that needed scratching and ached for a change of pace.
They reached the first of the burnt-out homesteads near evening. Three dead including a woman lay sprawled out in grisly death, but no children, fortunately. The posse buried the remains in the farmer's own herb garden marking the common grave with a cairn, then set up their camp. Within the shelter of the standing walls and hearth the shire reeve insisted they make a small smokeless fire to cook their supper. A hot meal was important to keep up not only their strength but also their morale.
The reeve talked with Dahl and the twins companionably enough. "So what are your magical gifts, youngsters?"
Most sentients on the planet had a magical gift. One of the most common was calling light, a globe of illumination without heat hovering overhead. Two of the locals in the posse had that gift, though they knew not to invoke it lest the glow gave away their position. The shire reeve himself was an empath, a person who could sense the emotions of others though not read specific thoughts. His gift allowed the shire reeve to separate truth from falsehood, a talent of obvious use in law enforcement. More generally it helped him understand and to gauge other people. For their part, the twins told him that theirs was the gift of unerring direction, useful for their original role as hunters and bowmen and then as military scouts during the Second War for the Plains.
"There must be more to it than that." the reeve said. "Oh you two look like young innocents, but you don't earn a designation as elf-friend or dwarf-friend, much less both, without some extraordinary accomplishments."
Jemsen admitted that was true but suggested the man question his brother Karel further when he took him to his bed. Which was also a good way for him to deflect inquiries about Dahl's magical gifts. Jemsen knew that Dahl was reluctant to admit that he was a druid and one of the most powerful magic wielders on the planet.
That night, the lawman did take Karel to his bed roll, commandeering one corner of the common room to spread it out. The couple had no privacy, but Karel was a former rent boy and not shy about making love in public. The shire reeve was so excited to take such a lovely creature to bed he couldn't have cared less if his wife were watching. So with much oohing and aching and cries and moans, they consummated the man's longing for the boy he fancied. Karel was surprised to find the man ready for a second go before they went to sleep and once again in the morning. A lusty man was the good shire reeve Tomas Drew.
In the morning they set out once more. They had marched only an hour before Merry caught a scent and sent warning.
<Enemies close. Watch out.>
A bowstring twanged and an arrow thrummed through the air aimed straight at the shire reeve. Just before it pierced the man's breast, Dahl reached out and snatched in from the air. He then used it as a stick to swat a second arrow out of the way. The man was so astonished he stood there mouth agape. Dahl dragged them both to safety as the twins gave covering fire with their bows. Dahl smiled as he handed the man the arrow that would have slain him.
"Keep it as a souvenir, with my compliments. We must have been under observation for a while, for them to pick you out as our leader. You have been quite circumspect about your exercise of authority. Let me guess. You were in the military for a while."
"Aye. During my misspent youth, it was. I actually joined a mercenary outfit. Now that I am older, I know better than to go looking for trouble. So what's next? That herd of brontotheres, maybe?"
Dahl ignored his friendly jibe and reached out with his senses, finding only three raiders concealed in the brush lying in the ambush. It took but a thought for the druid to have the plants twine themselves around the raiders' limbs and hold them in place.
"It's all right." Dahl called out to his own side. "They are helpless, held fast right over there in that clump of brush."
As members of the posse collected their prisoners, the shire reeve looked at him appraisingly.
"So, my young friend; you are a druid. That is not something I suspected though I would dearly love to say I had, if only to reinforce my reputation for omniscience."
"Now you know why I do not bear a blade into combat nor need a distance weapon."
Their prisoners screamed defiance and would tell them nothing till Dahl had them staked out on the ground, their clothing cut off.
"Shall I invite the swarm of red ants in that big earthen nest yonder to feast on your flesh? It is a bad way to go, getting eaten alive by such small creatures. They start with the soft parts, like the eyes and the testicles, then the lips and the nose and the eyelids. Some of them infiltrate through the ears, nose, or mouth, penetrate inwards, then start to chew their way out. I'll bet we could rig something to keep your nether holes open as another entry into your bodies."
To add credence to his threat he had marched a couple of thousand ants close by. They waved their antennae and clicked their mandibles hungrily. That broke the raiders. They could not talk fast enough.
Not that they knew the big picture. Only that their leaders had finally realized that there were spies operating in their midst, spies who had been tracked in this general direction. No, their leaders did not know who might be behind it. The job of the raiders was to look for anyone and anything out of the ordinary in the borderlands. This was a purely defensive operation, not a prelude to an invasion. Their leaders had their gaze fixed firmly west toward the Commonwealth and southward to the Great Southern Forest and its druids.
That satisfied the shire reeve. With the end of the spy operation, his people would be safe. On his orders, his men gave the raiders a quick and almost painless death with blades thrust into their brains.
Karel asked if anyone had a shovel to bury them.
"Why bother? Did they give their victims a decent burial?" Sir Tomas answered.
Karel turned to Dahl.
"You could make the earth open up and swallow them, couldn't you?"
"Yes, Karel, I could do that, but the shire reeve is right too. One way or another, the flesh of their bodies will return to the earth, though in their case first through the droppings of vultures. As a giant of our acquaintance once told me in a similar situation: 'Buzzards gotta eat, same as worms.'"
Karel looked hurt as he muttered. "That is cold, Dahl. Very cold."
The druid wanted so much to reassure his friend. He could have reminded him that no one had buried the Dark Riders they had slain on the Western Plains. Better for Karel to remember that on his own. Karel was a sweet boy with a good heart, but he needed to steel himself. So Dahl said nothing.
It took rather more than three weeks for Aodh to return. His operatives had been sent home. Everyone at the farm packed up their gear and set out on the long trek south and west. Dahl turned the farm over to the shire reeve, enjoining him to get someone to work the orchards and share the cuttings with the farmers all around. He promised that the upland landholders in those parts would see a great increase in yields and quality. Coming from a druid, that was good enough for the shire reeve. He made it his business to see it done.
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