Elf Boy's Friends - VII

by George Gauthier

Chapter 1

Poaching

Forest ranger Sir Aodh of Llangollen and Elysion was not happy to get an order to return immediately to his ranger station. It came without an explanation from hiss friend and sometime lover the druid Dahlderon who had contacted Aodh by Mind Speech. Dahl said only that the reason for their recall would be explained when Aodh and his fellows rangers got back. So when the rangers did meet the druid at the manor house in Elysion, Aodh asked straight out:

"Dahl, why did you pull all six of us from our regular patrol duties? You must know that the orcs are still lurking beyond the hawthorn hedge which marks the boundary of the New Forest which they hate so much ."

Aodh's fellow rangers, Lord Madden Sexton, the elf-boy Dylan and Dylan's lover the half-elf Brandon, and the latter's two fully human cousins, the brothers Garret and Lorn, were all thinking the same thing and looked to the young druid for his answer.

Dahl started off with:

"I think you are being unfair to the orcs. They aren't looking for trouble any more. They are abiding by the peace treaty and threatening no one — not any longer. They may not like having the New Forest for a neighbor, but they no longer see it as an infringement on their sovereignty and a block to their expansion. Their populace is marking time till their own expeditionary force and the armies of the Commonwealth conquer and liberate Amazonia from the genocidal trolls. Once that happens the bulk of the orcs will emigrate to their new lands leaving only a caretaker contingent in an enclave around their sacred peak. "

"How is that going anyway, Dahl, the invasion of Amazonia, I mean? Official reports and accounts in news-papers are disjointed. It is hard to see the big picture."

The others listened, eager for news. Dahl told them:

"I just got back from there myself. The orcs checked our invasion temporarily, though our forces are now pushing forward once again. What happened is this. The High Seas Fleet escorted an amphibious landing force to the coast and helped the army and naval infantry seize strategic ports and establish a solid lodgment area. Troll forces were forced back but then took up blocking positions on the roads and waterways leading inland. Still that was what we expected."

"One night, with our ships at anchor in two harbors thought to be safe from attack, the enemy floated great quantities of naphtha down the rivers and creeks emptying into the harbors then set the inflammable liquid on fire."

"Many ships were caught shorthanded with most of their hands ashore. The skeleton crews left aboard could neither get the ships underway nor put out the fires. Firecasters and water wizards eventually got the conflagration under control, but we still lost many ships, not just transports and cargo ships, but also fighting ships ranging from sloops and frigates to a couple of those big new carriers for naval flyers."

"The upshot was that the Army had to postpone the breakout for several weeks, but it has gotten underway again thanks to our space portals which allow us to leapfrog troll defensive lines and send whole regiments of Frost Giants to attack their entrenchments from the rear. Still the trolls are yielding ground only grudgingly."

"As to why the six of you are here, the reason is simply that we druids need you. We have a problem up north we want your team to sort out. Poachers have targeted our old friends the brontotheres, killing them then sawing off their horns and leaving the carcasses to rot."

"What use are horns taken from brontotheres?" Aodh asked.

Dahl shook his head.

"A sad tale of human folly. On the eastern continent of Karelia the horns are thought to have priapic properties when ground into a powder and taken with fortified wine."

"Our colleagues there have traced the foul trade in horns to its source, a strange land in the middle of the continent where an ancient and utterly useless pharmacopeia based on herbs, minerals, and ground up animal parts persists despite the proven efficacy of both natural medicine and magical healing. Having depleted the modest population of brontotheres in accessible regions of Karelia, the traffickers have turned to Valentia which has great numbers of the beasts."

Sexton shook his head in disgust."

"Ingesting horn to get horny is a particularly silly example of sympathetic magic. Only fools think that a bit of a brontothere's horn would restore their virility."

"What chance does common sense have in the face of the desperation borne of failing male potency?" Dahl countered.

"As you know," the druid continued, "brontotheres are intelligent enough that we protect them as a fellow sentient species. Though they lack the faculty of speech they can communicate with projected mental imagery, which is how I enlisted them in our service during the reconnaissance of the Barren Lands, now called South Varangia. The government of the Frost Giants made it illegal to hunt or capture brontotheres, making them crimes tantamount to murder and enslavement. The governing Council extended that to the entire Commonwealth."

"Remember the brontotheres and the New Forest are both part of the defenses of the Commonwealth against incursions of the ever restless eastern barbarians. As yet the forest is still too weak and the brontotheres too few to really play that role, but they will in time. We druids aim to make sure that happens."

"We know all that Dahl. You don't have to tell me about brontotheres. As you saw during our visit to my homeland years ago, my people are on friendly terms with our brontotheres. They are our totemic beasts."

"But how is this poaching any business of the forest rangers? Where the brontotheres roam is not part of the New Forest. It lies to the east, beyond the hawthorn hedge which marks the forest boundary. The brontotheres inhabit the transition zone between mountain, forest, and grassy plains, which suits a species which both browses and grazes. The range which the brontotheres roam up north is public land where hunting is prohibited entirely. Isn't this a job for the constabulary?"

"The constabulary does a good job in maintaining order, but they are not criminal investigators. You six are the best team we could field. Dylan is a trained and experienced interrogator, not to mention a champion archer and you are all expert trackers and doughty fighters. Your fellow forest rangers will cover your patrol areas while you six are away.

"Collectively you have the best record in the service counting arrests of malefactors and rescues of lost or injured hunters and travelers. Your greatest asset on this job will be Dylan who is a trained interrogator. His gift of empathy will let him know when a suspect is guilty."

"Actually, Lord Dahlderon," Dylan interjected, "an empathic gift does not tell you whether a suspect is guilty. Rather in investigations empathy detects deceit or falsehood. Sometimes innocent men confess to crimes they did not commit to protect a loved one, or for the notoriety a petty criminal might brag about a major crime to get a reputation."

"You make a good point Dylan. I also remember your saying that even keeping silent is no help since people react to questions they refuse to answer. It was your interrogation skills that let you fellows unmask the accomplices of the Vanishing Bandits a couple of years ago."

"So will you yourself be working on this problem as well?" Sexton asked.

"Yes, though I won't be with you rangers every step of the way. My initial task is to warn the brontotheres to be wary of strangers. Your job is investigation. Find out who is involved in the trade here in Valentia: the poachers themselves and the middlemen. Our colleagues in Karelia have a team of investigators tracing the illegal commerce in horns back from the wholesale buyers. The two investigations should dovetail in the middle."

"When it comes time to punish the malefactors we druids will not turn the malefactors over to the courts. Instead we druids will invoke our concurrent plenipotentiary legal authority and ourselves inflict an exemplary punishment which should make others think twice about killing brontotheres for their horns."

"I wouldn't want to be in their shoes with the druids mad at me."

Dahl nodded. "We do have a reputation for visiting condign punishment on those who cross us. Exile will be just the start of their ordeal."

"You won't kill them then?"

Dahl shook his head, a grim smile on his face. "No. They won't get off so easily. They will have twenty years to regret their crimes, confined to a deserted island in the outer ocean with only themselves for company: no jailers, no healers, and no provisions. They will have nothing to eat other than what they can nurture and grow, gather, or catch for themselves. And exile will be only half of their punishment. Their bodies will be wracked by recurring bouts of joint pain, itchy rashes, toothaches, earaches, and migraine headaches in a continual cycle of petty miseries that come and go. The occasional periods of remission and normalcy will only make the return of their miseries that much harder to bear."

"And if they repent their ways?"

The druid shrugged.

"What if they do? Can regrets undo the harm they did already?. No, we druids neither forgive nor forget those who provoke our just wrath."

Sexton shuddered at this coldness so uncharacteristic of the normally cheerful druid then asked:

"One more thing. Do we get to travel by space portal? All our friends got to step through portals during the short war with the orcs or when traveling to the tunnel in the Lightning War with the barbarians."

"Yes. We'll go through a portal and likely more than once, but don't expect much of a thrill except at the thought of covering hundreds of miles in an instant. It is a lot like stepping through any doorway except for the shimmer in the opening and a half second when you feel like you are falling. That is when our magic adjusts for the fact that half your body is in one location and half in another and also for the difference in rotational speeds at different latitudes. Otherwise you would be smashed by a landscape going by much faster or slower than you were at your point of departure."

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