Elf Boy's Friends - II
The purely cartographic part of their mission went well. The twins sketched and made observations of azimuths and angles of elevation that would later let them calculate the exact distances between the chosen landmarks. The twins' pace count gave them a good measure of the distances between towns along the road with spot elevations taken from a dry barometer. Once they returned to Caerdydd they would calculate the distances and draw up maps.
Quite apart from the topographic value of triangulating from high points, they all enjoyed the feeling of accomplishment as they conquered height after height.
The hard part was gaining soft intelligence about social and economic conditions and the degree of unrest among the local populations. That was mostly Drew's job, in his role as a journalist, sounding out the natives, at least those who would talk with them freely. Many of those he met in taverns or inns were cautious, fearing to be candid with strangers or perhaps wary of informers in their midst.
Drew and the twins had better luck among those they encountered on the roads, persons away from their normal haunts and those who knew them. Messengers, pilgrims, and priests usually traveled alone and were glad of companionship, however fleeting. Others traveled in groups: merchants and their guards, families of migrant laborers, and bands of mercenary soldiers but might still open up to fellow travelers.
The twins had much better luck in the larger towns with tradesmen, operators of freight lines, commodity brokers, and bankers and factors who could see that the twins' maps and commercial guides would facilitate trade. These men of substance met with the twins openly and discussed business and trade knowing that the authorities could hardly object to anything likely ultimately to increase their own revenue from tariffs and imposts on expanded trade.
Drew sometimes took notes during interviews and sometimes wrote them up afterwards. Since he was traveling openly as a journalist, his jottings would not be taken as incriminating evidence of espionage.
He also read the news-sheets available in the larger towns and cities. With the low rates of literacy in the region, they were still only a single sheet. Also many readers had to listen while they were read aloud on market day or in the taverns.
Their journey carried them through more than a dozen member states of the Alliance of the Far West nearly to the border with the Despotate.
One day, while cutting cross country to just about their last objective, their party came upon a poignant human drama: a young couple fleeing from a pack of hunting dogs. The boy had boosted the girl to the top of a boulder then stood with his back to the stone, defying the oncoming pack with only a quarterstaff held at the ready.
Behind the pack came a well-mounted party of six, a dog handler, four men-at-arms, and a nobleman, as he appeared to be from his rich dress, a cruelly handsome dark haired man in his thirties. This lord called to the dog handler to set the dogs on the brave youth and tear him apart.
That brought a look of dismay to the face of the handler who thought the role of his pack was just to track the fugitives down, not to kill them. He shook his head, refusing to carry out the homicidal order.
"Damn you Gruffudd for disobeying me. You will answer for it, be sure of that."
"As for the eloping couple, the bride-to-be will now witness her consort-to-be torn limb from limb before her very eyes. The dogs are trained to obey my voice too. Watch and see what happens to those who cross me."
"Hold!" Finn called out with all the power of his deep chest.
The lord turned his mount toward the four interlopers. His four guards flanked him, shields unstrapped from saddles and brought forward, all of them easing their swords in their scabbards. Finn stepped forward to face them his own quarterstaff in hand, with the twins to his right and Drew to his left, his deadly steel spheres at the ready in his hand.
Arrogantly thinking he had the upper hand, the noble called out:
"Who are you, stranger, to interfere in my business? Those two over there are serfs, fugitives from my estate. I have every right to stop them."
Finn shook his head:
"Maybe you had a legal right to catch them, but to loose a pack of dogs on a brave boy and kill him is just murder. As I see it, you just forfeited any claim you had on them."
"How dare you talk to me that way? You are a nobody, a commoner and a foreigner to boot, while I am an aristocrat of ancient lineage."
"Besides, do you really think you can stop me, stop us really. We are six mounted men and thirty dogs against a half-grown Frost Giant, a pair of pretty boys, and a diminutive red-head. No armor on any of you, and your three allies are more than half-naked. Back off."
"So be it!"
With that the noble sent the pack at the "interlopers", thinking the dogs would reach them before the twins could loose more than a few arrows and swarm their party, wounding, killing, or driving them away.
In an even voice Finn said: "Drew, if you will, the dogs."
Drew nodded and set his spheres to work. In seconds they smashed through the bodies of the half-dozen lead dogs sending the rest fleeing in confusion and panic from a foe they could not comprehend.
"Diminutive red-head indeed!" Drew snorted.
"But you are a diminutive red-head, aren't you?" Karel asked, eyebrows arched interrogatively.
"Not the way he meant it."
"I'll have your heads for that!" the nobleman shouted. He and his men spurred their horses, swords in hand, though the dog handler lagged behind and collected his diminished pack.
The twins shot the four men-at-arms, their shields of no use against the twins' unerring aim. Their speed let them send one arrow right after the next. The first shaft went into a rider's thigh. When he dropped his shield in reaction, the second arrow went into his exposed neck or chest.
Finn stopped the baron. His long arms and quarterstaff gave him a much greater reach than the mounted man's sword. Sidestepping to his right, he poked the end of his staff into the rider's mid-section and lifted him right out of the saddle, letting the rider's momentum carry the hapless man in an arc that intercepted the ground with a heavy thud and the sharp crack of a broken neck.
Finn looked down at the dead man and shook his head:
"Damn fool! You brought this on yourself."
The dog handler raised his hands, eyeing the arrows the twins had trained on him.
"Quarter! I cry quarter!" he called out.
"Dismount then and throw down your blade." Finn told him coldly. Meanwhile the young fugitives ran over to their rescuers.
"Thank you, strangers." The young man said. "Lord Vauz would have killed us both though not before having his way with my Eiriann. My name is Gerallt. And yes, it is true we were that evil man's serfs. He wanted to take Eiriann to his bed though we were pledged to each other. We fled, hoping to reach the Despotate, where we would be free to marry."
"And so you shall." Finn declared. "The border is not far. Why don't you round up the horses while we check the bodies for valuables. The sale of the mounts and weapons alone should set you up in a trade or a shop."
"You mean you are giving us the spoils of your victory? I don't know how to thank you. I was a groom on Lord Vauz's estate and Eiriann is the daughter of the stable master. Since we both know horses, I think the best thing for us is to open a livery stable, hiring out these horses and boarding those of travelers."
"And for working capital you can use the contents of their purses." Finn said as the young fetcher checked their bodies. "How much did he have on him, Drew?"
"A dozen golds and some silvers. The silvers from the men at arms amount to another two golds. That should set the youngsters up nicely."
The boy and the girl hugged each other, hardly believing their change of fortune: freedom and a good start in life from the hands of strangers."
"What about him Finn?" Jemsen asked. "Shall I put an arrow into him?"
"No! Please don't hurt him." the young couple urged. "Gruffudd is a good man. A neighbor of ours. His kennels are close by our stables.
Finn nodded. "I granted him quarter. So we must let him go."
"Don't worry about me talking." the dog handler assured them all.
"I'll tell the authorities that it was freedom riders who killed these men. They let me go because I was a serf, one of the oppressed. That tale will ring true. The riders are known to be active in these parts. As for Lord Vauz, I despised the man heartily for his greed and cruelty, but I too was tied to his estate and to his service. His men-at-arms were mean thugs whom no one will miss."
"You could escape to the Despotate yourself," Finn pointed out.
"Nay, Sir Finn. I have a wife and three young ones back in our village. Also two brothers, a sister, and parents who are getting on in years. So I will be staying."
"Pick up your hunting knife then, round up your horse, and go in peace." Finn allowed.
"With your permission, I will throw the baron's body over my mount and take him back with me. Not out of any consideration for him, you understand, but so that less attention will be paid to what happened here.
"Good thinking, Gruffudd."
"Uh, Gruffudd" Drew began. "Sorry about your dogs. I like dogs too."
The dog handler acknowledged his regret.
"Not your fault, son. I lay their deaths on Lord Vauz. The last of his line, he was. Whoever gets the estate now can hardly be worse and likely better. Maybe even much better. Not all lords are like him. Some are decent enough, as these things go."
[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. If the email address pastes with %40 in the middle, replace that with an @ sign.]