Elf Boy's Friends - IX

by George Gauthier

Chapter 4

The New Forest

"These are the claw marks of a slash bear," the young shapeshifter named Brand said to his companions, pointing to the trunk of a dead tree which bore the deep grooves cut by the long claws characteristic of that species of bear. "It's a big one too, that is, big as ordinary bears go."

That was an acknowledgement that his companions, the giant white Kodiaks named Bjorn and Bjarni were three times its size. Bjorn and his brother Bjarni were the guardians of the band of Snow Elves, shape shifting elves who lived a nomadic existence on perpetual walkabout.

Bjorn answered Brand via Mind Speech, as telepathy was usually called on the planet of Haven.

<No doubt he was after the honey in the hollow of the trunk. Realizing he could not get at it, the bear vented his frustration on the tree which houses the hive. Now the marks are fresh, and he's likely to be hostile to interlopers so keep your eyes peeled.>

White Kodiaks were the ursine equivalent of unicorns and like their equine counterparts had the telepathic gift though their range was much shorter, four miles or so. Their projective telepathy let them link all the wirs and themselves to coordinate movement during a hunt. Although they could not understand sonic speech directly, their elven companions often spoke to them aloud, knowing that the bears would pick up the thoughts behind their words. When the situation called for silence and stealth, the elves readily shifted to thinking back at their protectors.

The Kodiaks were huge, massing a ton or more. They stood nearly seven foot high at the shoulder when on all fours. When they reared up on two legs, their heads towered twelve foot above the ground. They weren't shape shifters, which was just as well. A biped that large and heavy was simply not viable.

And though they sometimes envied the boys their hands as when they gathered tasty berries, the bears could sit back on their haunches and use their paws to hold and manipulate objects. They might not have opposable thumbs but they did have opposable paws, as Bjorn liked to put it.

Snow Elves were named not for their preferred climate but for their alabaster skin, shoulder length ash-blond hair, and icy grey eyes. They generally stood an inch or so under six feet with the willowy physiques and lissome bodies and glabrous skin typical of elves. Their skins were white because, like all shape shifters, they never tanned nor burned despite nearly constant exposure to the sun's rays.

By contrast the much more numerous Sylvan Elves were dark haired with eyes the color of growing things. Not surprisingly many of them had the gift of a Green Thumb. Sylvan Elves tanned easily. Most lived in permanent agricultural settlements called vales where they cultivated mulberry trees and raised silkworms and spun and wove silk cloth. Both sorts of elves were talented trackers and woodsmen whose field craft was unsurpassed and doubly so for wirs. Hence the more adventuresome hired out as woods guides, trackers, and army scouts.

Even more than their sylvan cousins, Snow Elves elected to go about skin clad or sky clad as they would have it. Shape shifters spent nearly as much time in their animal forms as in their human bodies. So garments were an encumbrance and regarded as both unnecessary and inconvenient. Which was just fine for boys who, as elves, were wholly oriented toward their own gender and loved to display and share their sexy bodies, whether by twos or by threes.

Now it wasn't only the slash bear who liked honey. So did the Kodiaks and the six elven youths they protected. But Kodiaks were messy eaters. They normally just broke into a hive and tore out big hunks of honey comb and ate it all, honey, comb, and the bees crawling on it, inadvertently crushing many others as they did so. Their long fur made them invulnerable to bee stings.

So it usually fell to the boys to gather the honey with minimal damage to the hive. They would set a fire going in a smoker — a device which generated smoke from the incomplete burning of a fuel like pine needles which were everywhere in the New Forest.

The smoke pacified the bees in a paradoxical way. The bees took the smoke as an indication of a forest fire that might force the abandonment of the hive. That triggered a feeding response which was their way to save their store of honey. Smoke also masked the pheromones released by guard bees to signal an alarm. In the ensuing confusion a raider could open the hive and extract the sweet reward without triggering a general attack.

Of course naked boys did sometimes get stung, but that was of little concern to wirs who could move out of range and transform, which healed all their hurts and perpetuated their youth indefinitely. Wirs had no fixed life span but continued till misadventure or foul play ended their existence.

Brand knew that the Kodiaks were so big and powerful they could knock the dead tree right over. Wir were magical creatures in and of themselves. As such Kodiaks had twice the strength natural to their form and size. Wanting to spare the bees, Brand prepared to climb the trunk to get at the beehive.

"I'll extract enough honey for all of us." he promised.

Now the trunk was smooth and had no branches save a couple at the very top. A boy could not climb that smooth column, but a spotted leopard might. Morphing into his animal form, Brand dug his claws into the wood and climbed to the top where he transformed back into human shape and sat astraddle a high branch. His cousin Leon tossed him the end of a rope to which was attached the smoker, already lit, and a basket for collecting the honeycomb.

With a practiced technique indicating considerable experiences in raiding beehives, Brand blew smoke into the hive to calm the bees then extracted a goodly amount of honeycomb but not enough to threaten the integrity and survival of the hive. After lowering it to his friends, Brand slid down the rope, released the slip knot, coiled the rope for future use, and placed it in the pack with the rest of their gear. It was the Kodiaks who carried the packs since to them the weight was negligible and it was important to wirs to be unburdened so they could transform and not leave their gear behind.

In any event the packs were no burden since the material needs of the six were simple: rope, kukris, smoker, ground sheet, far-viewer tube, burning lens for starting fires, and such items. The six had little need for coin, and when they were short of funds they took temporary jobs in taverns as wine boys, a lucrative profession. Even more than sylvan elves, svelte snow elf-boys were prized by males who fancied pretty boys and engaged them for short trysts.

Of the six, seventeen year old Brand and his cousin Leo were spotted leopards and had rather more robust builds than the trio named Lobo, Lupo, and Volf who were dire wolves and one year older with Lobo the senior by twelve minutes. A younger elf-boy, Gulo, a teenager of just sixteen was a wir wolverine.

Beyond their innate magical nature as shape shifters their gifts were modest enough. Like all Snow Elves they had the gift of Unerring Direction; the triplets could Call Light; the wolverine could Kindle Fire; while the leopards could snap Electrum Sparks.

As yet none had manifested a major magical gift, but the bears had taught them how to use the gifts they did have in combat, should it ever come to that, as it nearly had during their confrontation with a vengeful posse in the Northlands. The lawmen had mistaken the cousins for a pair of man-eating leopards who had been preying on the ranches and farms on the edge of the forest. Fortunately no blood was spilled thanks to Finn Ragnarson and the other members of the Corps of Discovery who proved them innocent.

In bipedal form the elves might fight with either of their standard weapons, the kukri and the sling, even while employing their gifts in combat mode. Electrum sparks delivered both an electric jolt and a nasty burn which were impossible to ignore and distracted a foe at the worst possible moment, and not just the foes the cousins faced themselves but those of their comrades as well.

Englobing the head of of foe when Calling Light would scramble the electrical circuits of the brain and kill almost instantly though Lobo had set his gift only once — on a wild boar which threatened to gore Lupo. As for Gulo's gift, a foe's clothing and effects could be set on fire as easily as the twigs and branches of a camp fire.

None of them had a Green Thumb, which was quite unusual for any group of six Sylvan Elves but not at all for Snow Elves.

"Mmm mmm good!" Brand pronounced as he licked the sticky honey from his fingers.

A contented rumble from the Kodiaks signified their assent to that sentiment.

They decided to make camp just where they were and had hardly got started setting up when the slash bear emerged from the shrubbery. At first he saw only the elves in their human form and bristled threatening to charge. That was when the Kodiaks rose from the ground where they had been lounging.

Bjorn coughed to get the slash bear's attention, but otherwise made no hostile move. He didn't have to. Three times its size, solidly built and armed with strong claws and sharp teeth, the Kodiaks were the embodiment of raw power, and when they put their minds to it, they could be as ferocious as any wolverine.

Turning aside as if he had suddenly remembered urgent business elsewhere, the slash bear stalked away with as much dignity as he could muster. The Kodiaks did not chase him. There was no point in humiliating the creature which, after all, was not evil, only a wild animal acting as his instincts drove him.

<Through my psychic link I can sense that the New Forest approves of both what my brother Bjorn did just now with the slash bear and what you boys did to get the honey from the beehive. To its mind we have shown due respect for our fellow creatures.>

Not just an expanse of trees and the animals and plants which sheltered beneath it canopy, the New Forest was itself a magically sentient and self-aware entity that encompassed all the life forms under its boughs, both animals and plants, ranging from the lowliest creepy crawlies living amidst the leaf litter on the forest floor to apex predators like slash bears, wolves, and tawny panthers. It was a recently established exclave of the much vaster Great Southern Forest, within which lay the stronghold of the druidic order.

Now the Forest did not speak to the Kodiaks in words. Their psychic link was different from the projective telepathy which linked the bears with the shape shifters. Instead the forest communicated with symbolic imagery and feelings. You might say that it hinted and whispered rather than stated things out loud.

The Forest did not to intrude too far into the thoughts and lives of the sentient beings who lived within its borders. As moral agents they had a right to their thoughts. For another thing the forest's thought processes were much slower — though far deeper — than those of sentient creatures like Kodiaks and elves. Nevertheless its mind was always there in the background, a reassuring presence.

At camp that night the boys built a fire and roasted a wild turkey which one of the dire wolves had taken. It was the work of moments to pluck, wash, and spit the bird and set it to cooking atop a fire pit. With antelope and deer and other animals with smooth skins where the meat was easy to get at, they were as likely to eat the flesh raw while in their animal forms.

The bears had eaten their full earlier. As omnivores the bears would eat just about anything: wild onions and carrots, yarrow and other greens, fruits and nuts and berries, even carrion, though only when fresh, and grubs which they found by pulling apart rotting logs, something easily within the power of creatures nearly four times the size of a Frost Giant.

For entertainment the boys often joined in choral singing, favoring songs of love won and lost or old ballads about quests and mighty deeds. Sometimes they challenged each other with riddles, a game of which the feline cousins Leon and Brand were especially fond. Competitive story telling was a specialty of the lupine triplets who would propose a theme for a story contest two days ahead of time, then listen as each of the boys related the tale he had thought up. Theirs was a mostly oral culture, not because they were illiterate, not at all, but, as nomads, they could hardly lug books around with them.

Which was why the elf-boys appreciated access to libraries like those at Elysion where their new friends the druids and the Klarendes both maintained sizable collections of history, geography, natural philosophy, travel, technical subjects, poetry, and imaginative literature plus the complete works of their journalist friends Drew Altair and Corwin Klarendes. Indeed the Snow Elves were headed south once again toward Elysion though that secluded valley still lay a couple of hundred miles away.

At night the six paired off in an ever changing constellation of partners and positions. All were versatile though Gulo the wir wolverine, bottomed more than he topped. But then he was the youngest, sweet sixteen going on seventeen but looking no more than fifteen, and much the smallest, standing only five and a half feet, which was short for an elf. As teenagers their lovemaking owed more to enthusiasm than practiced technique, but they had centuries of perpetual youth ahead of them.

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