Elf Boy's Friends - V
Though Brandon would normally be paired with Dylan and Madden with Aodh, for the first patrol they would all stay together as a foursome to familiarize themselves with the entire patrol sector. For Aodh this was all new country. He had never come this far south on walkabout. Neither had Brandon on his hunts with his cousins.
The rangers went armed much like army scouts bearing quarterstaffs, with kukris on their belts, though only two carried bows. Aodh preferred a sling as his distance weapon while Madden wore a double brace of throwing stars. Madden also carried a morning star, which is a flail weapon of sorts, and a coil of climbing rope made of spider silk. In their line of work up in the mountains you never knew when a rope might come in handy. The rangers slung their packs from flat hooks fixed near one end of their staffs, a trick that Balandur had taught his proteges. The arrangement let them carry the pack hobo style with the staff over one shoulder and balanced by the arm and easy to ditch in an emergency.
Although the sky was overcast when they began, The rangers eventually emerged into sunlight as they climbed above the clouds. The temperature dropped to comfortable levels, which pleased Madden considerably. Wolverines, after all, were creatures of the higher latitudes, not the polar regions but they did prefer a cool temperate climate which was found only at altitude in the the Commonwealth of the Long River, situated as it was in the tropics.
"So what enhancements did the Forest confer on you, Madden?" Aodh asked as they hiked.
"Actually, to my way of thinking the Forest merely made suggestions. It was our own transformative magic that made the changes in our bodies. In my case they were straightforward enough. My bones are stronger now, knit together with tensile fibers. Same thing for the tendons and ligaments and my muscles are denser. I am nearly twice as strong as before, which makes me not all that far short of a Frost Giant in strength. Also my hearing is more acute which is why my ears in my animal form are larger than before. I have to admit the new look takes some getting used to. And I can sense body heat so I can detect a foe or a predator lurking in the dark or behind concealing shrubbery or even a thin wall."
Aodh explained that in a melee his poison claws could put a considerable number of foes hors de combat in very short order, while his killer screech could disrupt attacks with missile weapons like slings or bows. Madden agreed that these enhancements made the black panther a fearsome fighter.
The third day out from a height of two thousand feet the rangers watched a group of riders who were escorting a pair of light wagons. The column made its way along a dry creek, leaving hardly any tracks on the stones and gravel of the creek bed and those were wiped out by brush dragged by the last wagon. Men who needed to cover their trail were obviously up to no good.
When the column reached the border of the New Forest which was marked by a dense line of hawthorn several riders dismounted and dragged aside a pair of boxes with hawthorns planted in them to reveal a hidden road. The column took the road into the foothills and closed the way behind them.
"Very clever." Madden observed. "That camouflaged entrance shows careful preparation. They used live trees not just dead plants which would dry out and give away their secret. Those riders must be the gang called the Vanishing Bandits. It is thought that a wizard rides with them who can raise a concealment to let them get away clean. Concealment and camouflage and a lair in the 'forbidden woods' make a formidable combination."
"Aye," Dylan remarked. "We have been briefed to be on the lookout for them. They once grabbed an army payroll from a convoy on the road from Bled to Dalnot. Bold fellows indeed."
"And murderous. They killed all the guards and teamsters save one who was sorely wounded and feigned death. Add in all their other raids, including one on a farmers' bank, those men have taken the lives of more than eighty persons, including women and kids and dragged pretty youths and maidens off to an unknown fate." Madden added.
"So what are we going to do about it?" Brandon asked. "Should we send to Dalnot for the constabulary or ride to the nearest town to raise the militia?"
"Neither. They would get here too late. No, these men are going to ground only briefly, likely just overnight, staying in their hidden lair just long enough to make sure no one followed their trail. In the morning they will divide the loot and disperse. The bandits probably work at several of the nearby ranches on the plains, to all appearances honest herders and drovers. No, we have to strike tonight."
"It would be just us four against two dozen." Brandon pointed out.
"Two dozen men, asleep and likely drunk. The dark, their muddleheadedness, and the element of surprise will count against them. Here is how I think we can bring this off."
In a few sentences, Madden outlined his plan. The others agreed that it was workable. Now all they had to do was creep close to the bandit's camp and wait till the dark before the dawn to strike. The campfire had burned down to embers, and with only the smaller moon up, the scene was dimly lit, mostly shadows and shapes but enough light to work by. The sleeping bandits were scattered about, some lying in or under the wagons, others stretched out on the ground near the embers of the cook fire, too scattered about for Aodh to attack with his killer snarl.
With the two archers among the rangers poised to give covering fire, the wirs slipped into the camp. The bandits had grown complacent with success and had not even posted a watch so no one was awake to spot a black panther creeping toward the sleeping men. Madden was in his human form, throwing stars held at the ready. At such short range, he could fling with both hands and sink them deep into their flesh.
Aodh sprang among the sleepers and slashed at their unclothed bodies with his front paws and their poison claws. In seconds seven men were thrashing around on the ground screaming in unbearable pain. Madden's hands flashed again and again as he flung throwing stars into the faces and necks and arms of the confused bandits. He then pulled out his morning star and whirled it over his head. The morning star was a variant of a flail with a spiked ball attached by a chain to a short wooden handle. It could inflict blunt-force trauma and terrible puncture wounds when swung by someone with the strength of a Frost Giant.
With half his men out of action the bandit chief brandished his sword and rallied his men: "To me, men! Form a circle." With a dozen men now roused and armed, the odds were still twelve against four.
The chief pointed to one of the bandits and shouted: "Wizard, Blast them!"
The wizard called light to see on what and on whom he should unleash his powers. A blue-white globe of illumination popped into existence to hover twenty feet overhead. Electricity crackled on the wizard's hands and arms as he readied lightning bolts to hurl at his foes.
That was just what Dylan and Brandon had been waiting for, to identify the leader and his wizard. Bowstrings thrummed and arrows flashed across the clearing to lodge in the throat of the leader and the skull of the wizard. The globe of light winked out and both malefactors fell to the ground dead.
With darkness restored Madden closed in on the knot of bandits in the middle, still in his human form the better to wield his fearsome weapon. This was a fight where upright posture and the longer reach of his morning star counted for more than the lower center of gravity and fangs and claws of his animal form.
Madden had trained for two centuries with his unusual weapon which looked and was incredibly lethal in the hands of one who knew how to wield it. The iron ball could crush skulls or break bones; the sharp points tore flesh and caused blood loss, while a flip of the wrist could wrap the chain around an enemy's weapon and let Madden yank it out of his hand.
Just in case though the wir carried a kukri as a backup. Madden favored the kukri because its bent blade allowed him to stab with with his arm straight, delivering the full force of his arm and shoulder and even put his back into the thrust. His heavy blade was specially forged to break or slice through sword blades or punch through armor. In this flight he used his blade defensively to fend off enemy blades. A buckler would have served better, which was why Madden made a mental note to carry one in the future.
A trio of bandits rushed Madden but Aodh took them out of the fight pouncing on them from behind and raking their bare legs with his poison claws. The archers gave covering fire, picking off bandits on the periphery of the melee.
In moments nearly all the bandits lay dead or dying. The wirs finished them off, letting the archers tie up the three least badly injured bandits to keep for questioning. The wirs themselves were covered with blood, fortunately mostly not their own. Invoking their transformative magic they healed their wounds handily and washed the blood off.
Dylan's shrewd interrogation got the truth out of the captives. Yes the bandits operated out of two nearby ranches. Everyone there was in on the racket, even the cooks and stable hands who joined in the fun when the bandits gang-raped a kidnapped girl or youth before killing them and burying the bodies under a manure pile. Much of the loot was hidden under the floorboards of the ranch houses along with the accounts and records of payments to their spies in town.
The rangers piled the bodies into the wagons, hitched up the draft horses, and drove to the nearest town. Close behind came Brandon and Dylan herding the bandits' twenty mounts which would be turned over to that authorities.
The next day the constabulary raided the ranches arresting everyone on site. They also uncovered most of the loot and all of the bodies. The four rangers later testified at the trial of the Vanishing Bandits held at the county seat. All the accused were sentenced to death.
To avoid the circus-like atmosphere surrounding an execution attended by the general public, only designated public witnesses were allowed to view the proceedings. Among them were the four rangers.
A squad of archers, three to each condemned man, lined up thirty paces from the posts to which the prisoners were tied. All of them were up and coming non-commissioned officers from the Army of the Plains and previously un-blooded in combat during the decade of peace since the last Plains War. Their participation was a psychological exercise to harden the soldiers and prepare them for the carnage of the battlefield. In this way, the deaths of these miscreants served two public purposes: removing moral monsters from civilized society and contributing to military preparedness.
While on leave the four rangers were lionized by local society and provided with good food and strong drink. Pretty girls offered companionship, though only Madden took any of them up on it. Dylan and Brandon had a fling with a pair of lively local lads, both freckled red-heads. As for Aodh, he was not interested in extra-curricular activities.
For Dylan and Brandon the bandits were the first people they had ever killed and the executed prisoners the first they ever watched being killed in cold blood. It took some getting used to. Surprisingly it was Madden's quiet counsel which helped the young elves accept the unfortunately necessity of taking human life in extreme circumstances.
Back once again in their cabin at the foot of the mountains, the four rangers took stock.
"We can take satisfaction in surviving our first pitched battle despite the odds against us." Dylan observed.
"And all of us acquitted ourselves well. We covered each other's backs," Brandon added.
"Indeed," Aodh agreed. "You archers killed the leader and the wizard, the single most dangerous pair, then kept the rest off us while we mixed it up close, Madden and me."
"And between your poison claws and my throwing stars and morning star we tore the rest of them apart, allowing me to chalk up yet another victory, one of the mighty deeds that have contributed to my growing legend," he intoned, only half in jest.
"You know Madden," Aodh began, "you should let my friend Drew Altair interview you about those mighty deeds of yours. There might be a book in it."
"Not just one book, my young friend." Madden corrected, one finger raised. "Volumes!"
[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.]