Elf Boy's Friends - I
A week later came bad news. A band of centaurs had attacked ranches in the northern stretch of the Eastern Plains. The regional governor wrote to ask for Klarendes' help in tracking them down. The count's Molossian hunting hounds, his tracking skills and firecasting gift, and his experience fighting centaurs were exactly what was needed to deal with the marauders.
This was a job for hunters not soldiers, hence the message was carried by an officer of the civilian constabulary, a Lieutenant Pieter Gern, along with ten of his constables. Unlike the patrolmen of the City Watch, the Constabulary operated in rural zone and in the wilderness areas. Constables were recruited from country lads who were good riders and trackers.
Unfortunately Count Klarendes had been called away just days earlier to the town of Sunda on urgent business. It seems a fire had ravaged one of the commercial districts and destroyed several buildings he owned there.
Wearing his silks, Artor received the officer on the veranda, read the governor's letter, then told the lieutenant that he himself would deal with the centaurs. He would also assume command of the expedition:
"Since my father Count Klarendes is unavailable, I'll be in charge. The servants will gather supplies, mounts and pack horses, and ready our Molossian hounds. I'll also bring four of my father's mounted retainers. They are lancers who have fought centaurs before. Meanwhile Lieutenant Gern, be so good as to fill me in on what you know already."
"Now hold on there, young Klarendes. Who said you were in charge? You may be the count's son and heir, but these men answer to me, not to you."
Artor let him down easy.
"Lieutenant, everyone answers to a Hand of the Commonwealth" Artor replied softly, displaying his credentials by triggering the small magic that made his right hand glow with a pearly effulgence.
The constabulary officer blanched. No one wanted to get on the wrong side of a Hand. The Dread Hands of the Commonwealth, to give them their full title, were the chief trouble shooters of the state, empowered with plenipotentiary authority should they see fit to exercise it.
"I didn't know, sir. Of course, we are entirely at your disposal."
"Fine. I would also like to invite a sometime comrade in arms to accompany us. Are you game, Drew?"
"Him!" Gern blurted out. "A bare-assed boy-toy! What can he do?"
"Don't be fooled by his looks. My friend Drew Altair has gotten very good at killing centaurs with those steel spheres of his, as he showed during the recent war."
"Steel spheres... war. You don't mean that journalist, the Fighting Fetcher? Him?"
"Yes, Lieutenant, him, that is me. And I don't wonder at your incredulity. I get that a lot, but I didn't earn this tattoo as a giant friend for nothing."
"And yes, I am a boy-toy all right, just not Lord Artor's toy. Artor, Lord Klarendes, consorts exclusively with the female half of the species, whereas I lean exclusively the other way."
"I see that I have badly misjudged the whole situation. My apologies to both of you."
"No hard feelings, Lieutenant." Artor said speaking for both of them. "Now to business."
Leaving Aodh behind to maintain his masquerade as Dahlderon, the small detachment of centaur hunters rode north across the grasslands of the Eastern Plains. Both Artor and Drew were in uniform. Artor had invoked his authority as a Hand to activate Drew's commission as an ensign in the reserves. Both young males wore slouch hats to shield their heads and shade their eyes from the bright sun. The Eastern Plains offered little in the way of shade save in gallery forests along streams or scattered copses watered by the runoff from hills and slopes.
On his feet Drew wore short boots with thick heels that fit more securely in the stirrups than a flat sole, giving the inexperienced rider a more secure seat in the saddle. Like the constabulary officer, Drew wore a leather belt supported by a narrower strap passing diagonally over his right shoulder. The belt held the young ensign's weaponry: steel balls, tranquilizing darts, and the kukri at his left hip plus a water gourd.
"Now that you are on active duty, Ensign Altair, don't forget the rule against fraternization in the ranks. And yes I do mean our handsome young officer of the constabulary."
"I am sure I don't know what you are talking about, Artor."
"Right! I happen to know that besides petite guys like yourself and Aodh, you are also attracted to males who are tall and powerfully built like Finn and a certain constabulary lieutenant who goes by the name of Pieter Gern."
"Come on Artor. For all you know, the lieutenant fancies females."
"No he doesn't, not the way he's been looking at you."
"In which case, Young Lord Spoilsport, you can count on me to observe the proprieties -- under protest."
Drew accepted the situation philosophically. After all, his attraction to the young officer was casual and purely physical. Not like his bond with the twins, Finn, or now Aodh which were so much more than that. His new friends offered more than just sexy bodies. They were people with bright minds and engaging personalities, people he had come to like and respect, people he liked to spend time with, people he hoped to go through life with. That also applied to his firm friendship with Artor, forged in war as comrades in arms, though without any sexual component.
Drew loved them all without being life-bonded the way Klarendes and Aodh were or the way the twins were with each other. Jemsen and Karel were not only identical twin brothers but lovers, comrades in arms, and each other's best friend.
True their backgrounds were different. Artor was an aristocrat, an heir to a title and lands. Though wealthy now and titled, Sirs Jemsen and Karel were originally country lads of modest means. Drew's family had been comfortably well off for generations -- not rich exactly but no one worried about money. Finn and Aodh's circumstances in their homelands were also modest. As a beneficiary of Balandur's will as well from being Klarendes' spouse Aodh was now very well off in his own right. He too had been knighted for service to the Commonwealth and was addressed in full as Sir Aodh of LLangollen and Elysion.
Of them all, only Drew himself was born in the Commonwealth and in the capital at that, which made him a real city boy. The twins grew up in the forests northwest of the League of Independent Towns. The land of the wirs from which Aodh hailed was a hidden valley thousands of miles to the east. And Finn Ragnarson came from the district of (Old) Varangia in the chilly land of the Frost Giants.
Drew reflected on how lucky he was to have such friends not to mention centuries of youth and vitality ahead of him. No longer a boy in a hurry to capitalize on his fleeting youth, Drew was less interested these days in shallow relationships.
Besides his friends, Drew's ties to his family were strong. He was the apple of his father's eye and worked well with both him and his older brother, his publisher and editor respectively. Drew somehow managed to juggle three careers as a journalist, historian, and activist for the community of the gifted. And while not exactly his personal friends, he had the good will and patronage of influential figures like Lords Klarendes and Zaldor, General Urqaart, and the chiefs of the Frost Giants.
Life was good.
The next day the expedition set off down the recently paved road to connect with the military road that ran north from Dalnot. Its right-of-way was really two roadways in one. One was a carriage-way paved with flat stones which served horses shod in iron, whether mounts or draft animals. The heavy infantry of the regular army also marched on the pavement in their sturdy hob-nailed sandals. Travelers who went barefoot or in soft foot gear took the other walkway. Its firm but resilient surface was designed for them and for the unshod feet of oxen, aurochs, and camels. The top level of that roadway was a composite made of sawdust and bitumen. compressed and heated, then laid in squares over the same substrate as the stone paved roadway alongside.
They made good time. As their horses tired, riders switched to remounts, which let them canter rather than clop along at a walk. They took lodgings at travelers' inns in the villages and towns they came upon. In these regions, farmers lived close together in villages, working the surrounding arable lands, but ranches were scattered across the landscape, each housing perhaps twenty persons.
After a hot day in the sun, there was nothing better than stopping at a village or town, to find some shade, put a roof over their heads, sleep in soft beds, eat hot food and quaff fortifying or refreshing beverages. The more adventurous even sought out willing girls or wine boys.
When distances between towns were too long, the hunters camped beside the road, a much less satisfactory state of affairs, especially from a culinary point of view, having to satisfy hunger with only way-bread, fruit, and dried meats and cheese, or whatever stew their cook could put together from chance-taken small game.
Late one afternoon, Drew lifted the spirits of the whole company when he brought down two fat bustards which their approach had startled into flight. Among the largest of flying birds, each weighed nearly thirty pounds (13 kilos). As the birds rose into the sky Drew fished out a small steel ball the size of a marble.
"Bird shot" he explained to Artor.
Flipping the ball into the air with his thumb, he sent it off at high velocity to intercept the birds. Startled squawks marked their passing as the steel sphere did its deadly work before zipping back into Drew's outstretched hand. Before the carcasses of the bustards could fall to ground, Drew Fetched them into the laps of two of the constables.
"Er, yes," the lieutenant said, quick on the uptake. "Pluck and dress those birds would you? You get first dibs on portions after Ensign Altair."
The two constables nodded, satisfied that their lieutenant was playing fair with them in the assignment of camp duties.
Raising his voice Lieutenant Gern ordered the column to halt and make an early camp. While the bird were being plucked and dressed, the cook buried wild tubers in the earth and built a fire over them to roast the tubers and grill the birds too.
The lieutenant was gratified with Artor's respect for his own chain of command. Artor was of a mind that his command of the expedition as a whole did not mean taking command of the constables away from their officer. So Artor never gave direct orders to the constables and tried to consult beforehand with the lieutenant and Drew about strategy.
After the paved road petered out, their route took them through the nature reserve the Commonwealth had established a decade earlier for a herd of brontotheres transplanted from the land far to the East which they shared harmoniously with the wirs. This was familiar ground to the young journalist. Drew had visited the range a year earlier and written an article for his new sheet, the Capital Intelligencer.
Bizarre in the extreme, brontotheres were enormous animals, standing as high at the shoulder as a Frost Giant. Brontotheres had thick skin which hung in folds and served for armor. They were armed with two horns set side by side pointing forward. The charge of a herd of brontotheres was said to be unstoppable. Not for nothing were they called the juggernauts of the jungle.
The farmers who grew cabbages and sugar beets for the brontotheres told of a clash between their charges and the centaurs. It seems that after attacking the herds of local ranchers, a trio of centaurs foolishly thought to cut out several young brontotheres from the herd, the first generation of those born on their new range.
Though still only the size of an aurochs the five youngsters roared a challenge to the centaurs and squared off to fight them, unequal as the match might be. Their only advantage was that their thick skins protected them against the javelins the centaurs used in the hunt. The centaurs would have to get close enough to stab rather than just throw. The articulation of their arms meant that centaurs could not wield bows.
Hearing their calls for help, the matriarch of the herd formed her charges into a defensive circle, heads and horns facing outward while two young bulls charged off to the rescue. Now brontotheres were much too heavy to gallop, a gait where all four feet were off the ground at one time, if only briefly. Their charge was more in the way of a fast shuffle, which, given the length of their legs, was very fast indeed.
The centaurs turned to face the oncoming bulls but their javelins just bounced off their skulls and thick skin. The beasts closed with their foes impaling them on their horns and bowling them over with their momentum to be trampled underfoot. The bulls turned back and reared up, bringing the full weight of their forequarters onto the prostrate bodies of the hapless centaurs, stomping them into the ground. It was over in moments. The centaurs had learned the hard lesson brontotheres had taught to so many foes down the ages: Don't mess with us.
"These marauders must be stragglers from the centaurs who besieged the Frost Giants in that military staging area up north." Artor opined. "There can't be too many of them left."
"Not yet, but suppose they have females with them. Given time their numbers will increase. And here we had thought they were extinct."
"They will be after we're done." affirmed the lieutenant.
"Actually centaurs are facultative hermaphrodites," Drew explained. "Most of the time and always when on the hunt or at war, their bodies are male with the female organs atrophied. If conditions are favorable for it, some will transform into functioning females, couple with males, and lay eggs. We were lucky in our war in New Varangia, that all the centaurs were in their male phase, evidently waiting for the depleted population of game animals in the homeland to rebound after the migration of thousands of centaurs to the Eastern Plains relieved the pressure from overhunting."
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