Elf-Boy and Friends
Chapter 40. Elysion
Their return to Elysion brought joy to the heart of the lonely nobleman. Lookouts had relayed word of their approach and he was waiting for them at the gate of the manor. Aodh broke away from the pack and raced ahead, flinging himself into Klarendes arms. Tears of joy streamed unashamedly down their cheeks. Jemsen assured him that the rest of them could find their own rooms. The count should not stand on ceremony.
With a nod of thanks, Klarendes carried the boy in his arms straight to their bed chamber for a proper reunion. They did not come down till well after breakfast the next day. If the count looked happy, the young wir was practically glowing with youth, giddiness, and sex appeal. They made a very happy couple.
The count later apologized to Esmeralda for banishing her from his bed chamber for his reunion with Aodh. The ginger cat graciously allowed herself to be mollified with an offering of her favorite cat treats. Meanwhile the count asked for a light meal in lieu of breakfast. He and his lover were famished from their exertions.
Meanwhile Dahl had stayed behind at the stronghold of the druids in the Great Southern Forest. He also had a happy reunion with his mentor and lover Owain. The pair frolicked on the lawn, in the baths, and in the bed chamber. Business could wait. This was their time together to renew what they both hoped would be a lifelong partnership. They went swimming in the lake and ran the trails with Merry joining them in a muscular celebration of life and love. It was a glorious two weeks for the trio.
Then it was time for the ceremony that marked Dahl's advance to the status of a senior druid, the second in his cohort of trainees to do so. (Xebrek counted as the first.) Dressed in his formal robes for once, Dahl pledged himself to the defense of the living biosphere of the planet. He declared enmity toward the death cult of the Adversary and his Dark Prophet. He also promised not to take himself too seriously, but to recognize that fun and pleasure were part of the good life too. There was something to be said for the pleasures of the table and of the bed and of the library as well. The good life was a balance between meaningful work, physical pleasure and the life of the mind. Even for druids, life should not be all grim duty.
All the other journeymen had completed two of their challenges. None of them had been lost like Xebrek. Within the year or two, the Druidic Council could expect to field a score of senior druids, though the new ones would take the better part of a century to match the original seven in raw power, much less experience. But that was only a matter of time. Every year that went by without an attack would only strengthen their order. In time the druidic order would resume recruiting, with so many potential teachers and mentors now available. A world protected by fifty druids would be nigh unto unassailable.
All the more reason to guard against stealthy attack through deliberate poisoning like the giant had warned about. Security at fairs and celebrations was nowhere near as tight as in their own kitchens. The druids devised spells to detect a wide spectrum of poisons and used them on all their foodstuffs. They actually uncovered one such plot against them, the workings of the usual suspects.
The dark cloud on the horizon was in the northwest, once again centered on the Eastern Plains. When would the centaurs, Frost Giants, and barbarian hordes invade that much fought over land? How much blood would be spilled in its defense, how many lives lost, how many wives made widows, how many children made orphans, and how much of the land itself would be ravaged by scorched earth tactics? It did look like they had some years to prepare, perhaps as much as a decade or two. Best to use their time wisely. A good start was to implement Dahl's plan to recruit brontotheres.
During his stay, the Druidic Council approved Dahl's plan to augment the Commonwealth by establishing a herd of brontotheres on the Eastern Plains. While in the land of the Wirs the young druid piqued the interest of the matriarchs. Via mental images, he had explained his plan to the great beasts, showing them the wide expanse of the northern stretch of the Eastern Plains. The transition lands between mountains and open grasslands would be an ideal homeland for a colony of brontotheres. They would have room to breathe and to breed beyond the confines of the lovely but geographically constrained home of the wirs.
To sweeten the deal their human allies would build a farm protected by ditches, the kind they were familiar with, but most of the produce of those acres would go to the beasts themselves rather than the colony of farmers. Meanwhile the open grasslands would remain in the hands of farmers and ranchers and townsmen. An equitable arrangement.
Dahl explained the risks from the barbarians and soon Frost Giants and centaurs. The brontotheres were unimpressed and unafraid. Once they got their numbers up, no one would dare challenge them. If they did, then they would meet the fate of all their foes down the ages. No one messed with brontotheres. Doubly so if they had human allies to clear traps that would turn their size and strength against them. Caltrops and concealed trenches were good examples.
They were ready to face the risks of a long sea voyage. The journey would be made in stages to give the great beasts occasional chances to stretch their legs and to fill their lungs with fresh air. As his third challenge a journeyman druid of human stock was assigned to accompanying them as liaison. The track from the land of the Wirs lead southeast to the seacoast, along the eastern shore of the continent to where it bent west. Sailing in that direction they would eventually disembark at the port nearest the Great Inland Fresh Water Sea. From there it would still be a long trip but a comparatively easy passage across the pacific waters of the gigantic lake. Next they would sail north up the Long River by riverboat and take the road to the great tunnel though the Eastern Mountains at the foot of which lay their new stomping grounds.
A year's time would see the great beasts installed on the Eastern Plains. Within ten years, with room to reproduce at will, there would be two hundred of them, rising to more than a thousand when they filled their range, forming another shield for the Commonwealth.
As it turned out. Dahl met the convoy at the southern port on the Inland Sea and took ship with his animal friends. He escorted them all the way across the lake, up the river and through the tunnel and finally set them loose. There to greet them were all his best friends: Balan and Arik, the three twins, plus Klarendes and Aodh.
"I believe you have already met the matriarch of the herd." Dahl mentioned to Aodh. The young wir look closely then shouted.
"Manda!" He ran forward and threw his arms around her great neck.
The great beast recognized him and greeted him with a friendly rumble. Aodh clambered aboard, a tiny boy astride a beast of eight tons, never no mind that stiff hairs on her skin scratched his bare bottom. Like many of his people, Aodh had ridden brontotheres in the past but always as just a passenger. The great beast let their human friends climb aboard but they were not biddable. They went where they wanted to go and that was that. Only Dahl was a true brontothere rider, and he was alway polite enough to ask rather than command.
At Aodh's bidding Dahl asked Manda to circle around the small herd of breeding stock which amounted to seventeen younglings chosen from different blood lines. How the beasts knew about the danger of inbreeding was their own affair.
The great beast was agreeable to Dahl's request and set off at a much faster pace than her rider expected. No placid walk this, she made good speed, charging at and deliberately plowing through patches of brush in her way, as if attacking a foe. Dahl had asked her to give their friend a taste of what it must have been like when he had lead that charge of brontotheres against the army of Amazons. Quickly tumbling to the game and holding on tight to the front fold of her thick skin with his left hand, her happy passenger raised his right hand in a fist and yelled "Charge!". Both rider and mount had a grand old time.
Klarendes smiled at his lover's boyish enthusiasm and nodded his thanks to the young druid.
When the ride was done, farmers brought up a cart bearing a load of sugar beets. Two farm lads tossed the treats to the young brontotheres who happily gobbled them up. Aodh dismounted and fetched several beets for Manda, and hand fed his old friend. After which the matriarch lead her youngsters to a nearby pool to bathe.
Several days later, Dahl decided it was time to reward the twins for their many services to Haven by extending their youth and longevity. He was finally ready for it after months of research. Owain had inspired his research when he told Dahl what he himself had done years earlier for his first lover Will. Dahl got further inspiration while in the lands of the Amazons. The herbs those women used to maintain their power were now extinct, thanks to a blight Dahl had raised to kill them. But the druid had noticed that the herbs delivered via the mother's placenta kept the males not only small but youthful and under-developed. They could perform sexually well enough to procreate but their males never really grew up or filled out. For instance, they never grew a beard. It was an example of unintended neoteny, the retention of juvenile features in an adult.
That realization inspired Dahl researches. Also, as a senior druid himself, there was no one to tell him no, and anyway Owain had urged him to go ahead. If ever two young humans deserved this gift it was Jemsen and Karel for their great contributions to humans, elves, dwarves, the Commonwealth, and the planet in general. And this would spare the twins the heartbreak of growing old while their closest friends continued youthful for centuries. And it would spare those friends the anguish of witnessing the decline and loss of two such beautiful youths.
After doses of potions administered over some weeks, Dahl was ready. He had the twins recline on couches then invoked his powers, visibly glowing with a pearly effulgence which engulfed the boys too as the druid directed his magic at them. The glow of his healing magic pulsed from pearly to light green and back again several times. After it faded the young druid slumped in exhaustion. Even for one as magically powerful as he, this had been a major effort. As for the twins, they reported that they did feel anything except a sense of wellbeing.
"Thank you, Dahl. I think. Actually I don't feel any different. Do you Karel?"
His brother shook his head. Dahl smiled.
"That is the whole point my friends. You are not supposed to feel different, not today not tomorrow, not next year or decades from now. Also you will find that your magically enhanced vitality will improve your reflexes, double your strength and stamina, increase your resistance to disease, and stimulate your sexual potency, as if you really needed any help on that score. As with us druids your increased strength does not show, giving you the advantage of surprise over a foe. Actually I might have to repeat this spell once or twice to make it permanent. Meanwhile, you are now one of us, magically enhanced beings with very long lives ahead of you."
How can one express gratitude for the gift of centuries of youth and life? The twins were so overwhelmed they could not speak, which is really saying something for those incessant chatterboxes. They held Dahl close for a very long time.
To no one's surprise, by the next day the twins were their usual loquacious and inquisitive selves, bubbling with questions about magical healing and about magic in general. They asked Dahl where magic really came from.
"Ah! Thereby hangs a tale…
"We can thank the wizards and natural philosophers who opened the space portal to Haven for the gift of magic. The civilization they had left behind was far advanced in natural philosophy and the mechanical arts. It is said that they had ships that could cross the emptiness between the planets and the stars and devices that connected everyone on a planet in a vast web of communication and information. Their carts propelled themselves; some even floated a couple of feet off the ground, if you can believe the tales."
"These wonders and many more were the product of a vast machine civilization that largely ran itself. There was no way they could transplant such a civilization to a virgin planet. Once the machines they had brought with them wore out or exhausted their power sources, the refugees would be left to fend for themselves with only the most primitive technology such as windmills and water wheels and animal drawn vehicles. Most of their knowledge disappeared with the loss of the devices that stored it. They knew it would take millennia for the various sentient races to populate the planet and start the long climb of our civilization back to the stars."
"To tide us over, so to speak, these wise beings gave us magic. Magic is only a partial recompense for what we lost but it does help. We have our healing magic to replace their advanced form of medicine. We can call light to illuminate the darkness. We can use mind speech to communicate at a distance, and so forth."
"How did they do this? First their artificers built a great engine, one that could maintain and repair itself in perpetuity without any outside intervention. That engine tunneled its way deep into the planet, filling in the shaft behind it, down to where it could tap Haven's internal heat to power its transmitter, which is a kind of sending device. These 'transmissions' resonate with the minds of sentient beings allowing us to tap into and modulate the base power of the universe, said to be a field of energy that exists everywhere. That energy field is what powers our magic."
Dahl's account left even the twins astounded and speechless.
The next day Balan got them all together at the manor house and explained that the strike against the center of power of the barbarians was set for the following year, after the alert for spies died down. Before that, Balan had to travel to the western continent to recruit a wizard with the special talent this job required. When all was ready, his strike force would take the Northern Trade Route to its nearest approach to the enemy heartland then infiltrate till they were close enough to attack its capital.
He himself would lead the strike force, and no, he would not be taking any of them. As to why he would not take any of his friends with him, he reluctantly admitted that the only way this could work was as a suicide mission. He simply could not take any of those he loved with him. With their potential longevity, they had too much to lose. On that point he was adamant.
Meanwhile it was time to celebrate. And there was so much to celebrate: the success of the spy mission to the east and Balan and Arik's mission to the north to reconnoiter the activities of the Frost Giants, plus the safe return of all the wirs to their homeland and of Dahl and his team to the Commonwealth. Not to mention Dahl's elevation as senior druid and the twins' new found longevity.
Balan offered toasts to all these worthy accomplishments. Then he added one more.
"Finally let us celebrate the reunion of a pair of lovers who are destined to be long remembered and celebrated in song and story, the sometime minstrel cum wir-panther Sir Aodh of Llangollen and the love of his life and vice vera, the Honorable Taitos Klarendes, Chief District Magistrate, Dispenser of the Middle Justice and the Low, Dwarf Friend, Lord-Zamindar of Elysion, and Count of the Eastern March".
Before any of the others could mention their own titles, irrepressible Ran piped up with an impudent question for Klarendes.
"I'll raise my glass to that, all right, but could someone explain why the Eastern March isn't under a marquess instead of a mere count?" he ventured, mischievously. He started to grin at his own cleverness but subsided under the count's frown.
"Politics." was all the nobleman would say on that subject.
"Hey, those two aren't the only ones around here with grand titles." Dahl grumbled jocularly. "I am after all, ahem, 'Lord Dahlderon, Dwarf-Friend and Senior Druid of the Exalted Order of the Druids of Haven'. Not to mention 'Dispenser of the High, the Middle, and the Low Justice' so I am one up on Lord Klarendes in judicial powers."
"And lest you overlook us as well," the twins piped up, "know gentles that you stand in the august presence of no less than Sirs Jemsen and Karel, Holders of the Military Cross for Valor, Elf-Friends, Dwarf-Friends, and Masters in the Honorable Guild of Cartographers"
Ran's eyes glittered with merriment as he listened to this duel of impressive titles. Finally it was Balan's turn.
"In that case, dear friends, know that you may address me in full as 'Sir Balandur of Leinster, Laird of Roxley, Dread Hand of the Commonwealth, and Baron of Saragozza'. That last one is my court rank in a kingdom on the next continent eastward.
"Gosh, all those capital letters! I am feeling so left out!" complained the irrepressible Ran in a exaggeratedly vexed tone of voice.
They all laughed.
A short while later the good count drew the young scamp aside and putting a hand reassuringly to his shoulder and said to him softly.
"You know Ran, you really shouldn't feel left out. You earned your own titles with capital letters. Were you not designated a Dwarf Friend, tattoo and all? And you have also earned a place in our hearts. If you ever weary of chasing all over the planet with the twins on their adventures, you can settle down to life here as a Citizen of Elysion. You are not just a Dwarf Friend; you are Our Friend."
Hearing the carefully enunciated capital letters Ran nodded, too choked up with emotion to speak, as tears glistened in his sky-blue eyes.
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