Elf Boy's Friends - II
The Talon of the Despotate
"So who are these freedom riders you mentioned?" Drew asked.
"Them." Gruffudd answered, pointing to a party of a dozen riders making their way down the far slope of the swale.
The dog handler explained that the revolutionaries in the Despotate facilitated escapes from serfdom through a network of safe houses and deployed riders to escort fugitives across the border. The riders often clashed with the mercenaries which the front line states hired to stop fugitives before they could reach the border.
The dozen or so men approaching seemed of two sorts. The freedom riders themselves were lean men in camouflage cloaks. The other five wore the gear of warriors. Nothing fancy but their arms and armor were of good quality and well fitted to their muscular frames. Their leader was a tall man of middle years, grizzled but still at the height of his physical powers. He raised his empty hand and proclaimed:
"We come in peace."
"In peace then we greet you." Finn declared. "Would you care to name yourself?" Finn asked.
"You may call me Colonel Ifans. That is not my original name but one I took years ago when I became a revolutionary. I count myself a friend of those who fight for freedom and against injustice and oppression. From the bodies strewn about, I can see you are of like mind, fellow fighters for liberty."
"Maybe so, but we don't do it for a living. We are not revolutionaries, just travelers, explorers you might say."
"Or I might say that you are military scouts for the Commonwealth, as indeed you are. Come, come gentlemen, your identities are known. I make it my business to find out things. When I see a pair of archers who are identical twins, blond beauties with splendid physiques, and sporting three friendship tattoos from elves, dwarves, and giants, I know they can only be the famous twins Jemsen and Karel from the Commonwealth."
"In the flesh!" Karel conceded.
"You, sir Frost Giant, would be none other than the Young Finn who stood with Old Arn in the Breach. And you, my diminutive auburn-haired beauty, can only be the Brave Little Fetcher who stood with them against the centaurs."
"There's that word again, Drew. Diminutive." Karel noted provocatively.
Drew did not take the bait. He simply stared at Karel till the younger twin dropped his gaze, abashed.
"OK, I guess now is not the time for one of my jokes." he admitted.
"No," Drew confirmed. Jemsen rolled his eyes.
In the silence that followed this exchange, Finn addressed the colonel:
"Scouts we may be, but we are not spies. We are traveling openly under our own names." Finn pointed out.
"Yes, but on a mission for Generals Zaldor and Urqaart. Our spies in Caerdydd have long ears."
"You have the advantage of us, Colonel."
"Then let me tell you something about myself. I am one of the Despotate's troubleshooters, much like your Dread Hands of the Commonwealth. We call ourselves the Talons of the Despotate. Now would you care to explain this scene of slaughter?"
In a few sentences Finn described what had happened.
"So you are setting this man free, the dog handler Gruffudd?"
"Not so long as he keeps his mouth shut. You will do that, won't you? Remember, we know where to find you if you play us false."
"No need for threats. I am a man of my word."
"I believe you. Go then in peace, Goodman Gruffudd. Your part in this is over."
With a nod and a wave of farewell to the young couple, Gruffudd mounted his horse, rounded up his remaining dogs, and rode off with the baron's body slung over the saddle in front of him.
After Gruffudd left, Ifans explained to the others that he had asked only as a test for he could sense when a man was lying to him. His gift was that of empathy. Ifans could not listen to a man's thoughts, but he could see into his heart and detect sincerity or deception. His empathic ability made him an unbeatable interrogator in the service of the Despotate. One who did not need torture to get the truth from a man.
The twins nodded and Jemsen said:
"You can even get answers out of a man who refuses to talk, can't you? Answer or not, his mind and body still react to your questions, and you can sense that."
"Yes, but that is a trick few know about, a trick I like to keep up my sleeve. How is it you two know about it?"
"Years ago we met a shire reeve who used that gift in criminal investigations. Karel even slept with the guy."
"Why am I not surprised," Drew commented dryly.
"How did you happen to be in the area, Colonel Ifans, if I may ask?" Finn continued.
"I did not happen to be in the area. I went looking for your party after my watchers lost track of you at the last town, where you left the road and struck out into the wilderness. I rode to find you but first stopped to help these freedom riders destroy a band of mercenaries. Now, since I am in a good mood from finding you, I will be generous to the young couple you have befriended.
"You there, Eiriann and Gerallt. I understand you youngsters want to start a livery stable. Now the five mounts appropriated from that dead noble are a fair start, but I am going to match them with another five taken from mercenaries who won't be needing them any more. What do you say to that, my friends?"
"May the gods protect you, Colonel!" the young couple cried, practically delirious with happiness at their further good fortune.
"The freedom riders will help you cross the border with your remuda and the spoils of war which these good people have so generously donated. Their captain will give you a pass which will carry my signature and stamp and so assure you of every assistance from the local revolutionary committee in finding a situation and settling yourselves."
Soon enough, pass in hand, the happy couple were escorted north by the freedom riders, along with their horses, booty, and coin.
"Why so generous?" Drew asked, ever the inquisitive journalist.
"Why not? Youngsters like those two are the future of our new society, one without oppression and exploitation. By helping them I am affirming my own commitment to that future and also, perhaps just a little, easing my conscience about... well, the bad things I have done for the sake of our revolution. I have a utilitarian motive as well. Acts of kindness like this help soften the hard reputation we Talons have earned and wins us support among the people. Without that we cannot succeed."
"We Talons prefer to lead rather than to drive. Men who bristle at a peremptory order may welcome a helpful suggestion. Not that we don't have the authority to command when we must. We work directly for the nine man Directorate which rules the liberated lands."
"Overthrowing the old regime was easy compared to building a new and better society in its place. So we Talons often have to knock heads together to get our tangled administrative structures working toward the same end."
"You see, as a result of the Revolution, the towns are under the authority of both a normal government of mayor and city council and a revolutionary committee, each with their own competing agendas, revenue, and constabularies. The government operates commercial and civil courts; the people's courts of the revolutionary committee deal with criminal matters though there is some overlap for political offenses. Also the towns runs primary schools while the committees run adult literacy programs, which compete for resources. Those are only two examples of the messiness even a successful revolution brings in its wake."
"Also, as officers of the law we Talons are empowered to right wrongs, especially miscarriages of justice. Sadly, unscrupulous persons sometimes denounce innocent citizens, trying to use the people's courts to settle old scores. That perverts the course of justice and reflects badly on the Revolution. We also come down hard on official corruption, very much like your mentor Balandur did in his day, though we Talons do not engage in espionage or work undercover as he sometimes did."
"Now that all that is out of the way, let us get down to business, shall we? How would you like to visit the Despotate? It would be a round trip, I assure you. We wish you no harm, quite the contrary. There is someone in authority who needs to meet you, to enlist you in the cause of peace. Will you come with me?"
"How can we refuse a chance to help the cause of peace?" the twins asked rhetorically, drawing a nod from Drew. Finn simply told Ifans:
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