Elf Boy's Friends - VII

by George Gauthier

Chapter 5

Harben

With the ranch as their base, the rangers rode to nearby ranches and farms and questioned the locals. Based on what they told him Sexton thought a visit to the nearby town of Harben might be in order. After saying goodbye to the Gwillam family the two rangers set out across the plains.

As the county seat, Harben was larger than most rural towns. Its main buildings were laid out around a leafy square not just strung along the main road. On the square stood the post office cum heliograph station, a modest courthouse and jail, the school, a medical dispensary, the cattleman's association, and two sanctuaries dedicated to different pantheons.

On side streets just off the square stood three general stores which competed for the custom of the ranchers and farmers and townsmen. Four taverns offered food and drink, entertainment, and rooms for travelers as well as the services of compliant lasses and lads. Also there was the usual collection of service businesses like the livery stable and blacksmith, lumber and carpentry shop, barber, etc.

Sexton had learned that a survey team was at work in the area, scoping out the route for an iron road running from the northern end of the plains south to Dalnot, where it would connect to a line already under construction which would run westward through the mountains to the city of Bled in the Commonwealth proper to join the growing transport network. Not only would the iron road ship grain from the Eastern Plains to the populous heartland, refrigerated freight cars would carry chilled beef carcasses from slaughter houses located along the route.

The route of the iron road ran some little distance west of and parallel to the unpaved roads which linked the towns on the Eastern Plains from north to south. That way the road bed would cross streams while they were still narrow freshets carrying the runoff from the mountains. Farther east, the land was flatter and the streams joined into wide, slow-moving braided rivers which would be more expensive to bridge. Also their roadbeds would have to be supported by piers in the riverbed which made them vulnerable to scouring and undermining during floods.

The business plan sounded plausible enough, but it could be just a ruse, a clever cover story for a party of poachers to roam the countryside without exciting suspicion. Harben might well be the transshipment point for brontothere horns smuggled out in freight wagons.

The survey for the new iron road operated out of offices at an old lumber yard. Where stacks of lumber once stood was a corral for horses and a shed for the light wagons commonly used on the plains by ranchers and farmers.

Lightweight enough to be drawn by a single horse the wagon was steered by its two front wheels which are connected by an axle to a pivot in the middle. The front and rear axles supported a simple unsprung platform of roughly finished boards which carried the load. That made for a rough ride though the twin seat up front was on springs. [In other words a buckboard.]

Sexton introduced himself and Aodh to a man working at a set of maps spread over a trestle table. A big sandy-haired man with rough hands which showed he was no mere office clerk, he said he was the chief of the survey for the iron road. His name was Josef Kramner and he described himself as a native of Grayling, the town at the head of navigation on the Long River and headquarters for the firm of Angus McFarden, King of the Iron Roads, whose firm was contracted to build the transport line.

Kramner seemed cooperative enough, explaining how the survey operated. Yes, they did have fetchers on staff who made aerial surveys of the possible routes for the iron road. Official maps were not detailed enough to finalize a route.

At the mention of fetchers the two rangers nodded to each other. Meanwhile Kramner added:

"The survey also employs a pair of delvers."

"Why delvers?" Aodh asked.

"The fetchers check the lay of the land, but the delvers tell us what lies beneath. That way we won't route the road over an underground stream or worse, the roof of a cavern liable to collapse and form a sinkhole. In some sectors the plains are underlain by limestone, you see. I'm surprised the dwarves haven't claimed the caverns as their own and moved in."

Aodh shook his head.

"Until the Commonwealth defeated the eastern barbarians and broke up their confederation, they would have not been safe. It is mostly humans out here on the plains now, though the dwarves would be welcome to settle here as well. If they haven't done so yet it is because they are a long-lived race with a slow population growth and plenty of room in the caverns they currently occupy."

Kramner told the rangers that the survey was also prospecting for rock oil which could be refined into a fuel for oil lamps. Not every home or business had someone who could Call Light. Shipments of rock oil to refineries might become a third cargo for the iron road after grain and chilled meat. There would also be passenger service and supplies for army garrisons and the towns along the route.

Pointing to a map on the wall, he said that Harben would become the northern hub of the iron road, with less sturdily built feeder lines radiating out in all directions. That was why the survey had been operating from Harben for some weeks now. Eventually the survey would shift operations southward though always maintaining premises in Harben, the northern terminus of the planned iron road.

Just as he finished his explanation one of their wagons drove up.

"Here comes one of our fetchers now." Kramner remarked.

The man who walked into the office had a weathered look about him and was covered with dust. He was surprised when Kramner introduced him to two forest rangers.

"Forest rangers? Aren't you guys out of your territory?" he asked. "The forest is about twenty miles that-a-way." he added, pointing west.

"So we have been told," Sexton replied dryly. "But our authority as peace officers extends over the plains as well. Besides we are working for the druids who have global legal authority. As to why we we showed up in Harben, an investigation brought us here."

That news put the man on the defensive. He suddenly turned wary and soon found an excuse to go back out. To attend to his team, he explained.

"He should have done that before he came in." Kramner observed. "Some of this new crew I have hired seems preoccupied, as if they had a purpose of their own, and for some reason they have an inordinate fondness for watermelon."

"Then you have not worked with them before?"

"Not all of them. Half are permanent party and half recent hires who responded to recruitment notices we published in various news-papers when it became clear that besides our surveyors we would need fetchers and delvers and not just locally hired roustabouts. We had to pay premium salaries too. There aren't many fletchers left out this way, thanks to the Army."

After the rangers left the survey offices, they talked about what they had learned.

"Kramner seems honest enough, but not that fetcher of his, this Wrangel fellow." Sexton said. "I may not be an empath like Dylan, but I can often tell when a man is lying to me. He either flushes, which makes his face warmer, or blanches, which makes it cooler. Thanks to the enhancements conferred by the New Forest I can see the temperature change."

Aodh nodded. "I cannot see heat or detect changes in body temperature as you can, but my hearing in acute enough to detect the low frequency undertones in a man's voice that usually signify deception. And we both smelled the onset of fear when he learned that the druids were involved."

Sexton nodded. "In recent years the druids have exercised their powers more publicly. In the past there were only seven druids on Valentia who mostly dealt with ecological problems and worked out of public view from their remote stronghold in the Great Southern Forest or in the wilderness."

"Nowadays there are a score of druids including three stationed in the Commonwealth itself at Elysion. Recent events like the birth of the New Forest, the fertility plague unleashed on the trolls in their homeland, that death duel between Dahl and the rogue war wizard, and the use of space portals in warfare against the eastern barbarians and the trolls have served to remind everyone that the druids are the most powerful magic wielders on the planet."

The rangers agreed that they should wait for Dahl to contact them with Mind Speech, as he did every evening, and tell him to collect Dylan and the others and bring them to Harben to pursue the investigation together.

While the pair was waiting for the rest of their team, Aodh reprised his old role as a wandering minstrel and put on two shows an evening which drew a good crowd. Dressed only in a green sarong slung low around his hips, Aodh was a veritable vision of youthful male pulchritude. Even patrons who did not fancy pretty boys appreciated his musical talent as he sang rousing ballads and bawdy drinking songs while accompanying himself on a borrowed ukulele.

With their enhanced hearing, both shape shifters could eavesdrop on the talk going around them, sorting out one conversation from another while listening for anything about the iron road and its workers. It was a tactic to collect intelligence without putting anyone on the defensive from being questioned by law enforcement officers.

On the evening of the third day after the meeting in Harben the two rangers were reunited with their colleagues: Dahl, the elven lovers Dylan and Brandon and the latter's cousins Garret and Lorn. Sexton and Aodh reported what they had learned including what they had picked up from bar talk in the local watering holes during and after Aodh's performances.

Dahl's plan was to catch the poachers in the act. He would watch this Wrangel through the eyes of a hawk while the others trailed him from a distance. When the time was right, Dahl would contact the rangers via Mind Speech to join him in making the arrests. Then it would be the Dylan's job to interrogate the culprits.

The next day the rangers followed Wrangel out of town while Dahl watched from aloft. Meeting up with confederates he targeted a half dozen brontotheres for slaughter. This time things did not go well for the poachers.

Dahl watched as the brontotheres refused the poachers' proffered treats, having been put on the alert by the young druid's warnings. Instead of placidly chewing the cabbages and watermelons laced with ground glass, the brontotheres recognized the poachers as the enemies they had been warned about. Roaring their challenge they charged the poachers. The two fetchers among the poachers took to the air and got away, but their earthbound colleagues suffered the fate of those who messed with brontotheres: a grisly but mercifully quick death.

Badly shaken by the hideous fate of their comrades, Wrangel and his fellow fetcher set down a couple of miles away to think about what they should do next. The initiative was taken out of their hands when Dahl and the rangers stepped through a shimmering portal.

Wrangel shook his head at the druid's demand to surrender.

"No way we are going to surrender," he sneered, "not to a bunch of pretty boys dressed up in ranger uniform. That was a neat trick with the portal, elf-boy, but I'll bet none of you can fly, but both of us are fetchers and take to the air thanks to these yokes the Army invented. No reason though we shouldn't kill you first so you cannot raise the hue and the cry against us."

But it was Sexton who acted first. Drawing his powerful recurved bow, really a dismounted naval catapult minus the cocking mechanism, he sent a war arrow at the fetcher who simply snorted as the shaft slowed to a halt just in front of him. Plucking it out of the air, Wrangel snapped it in two and threw it contemptuously on the ground.

"Now we could set our steel spheres whirling and smash your skulls, but that would be too quick a death. No, as revenge for our friends we are going to make you all suffer. For starters we'll yank the eyeballs out of your head. Once we have you helpless, we'll strip the clothes off you and haul you off the ground by your balls. Then a strong yank will turn you into eunuchs for the short while you have to live till you bleed to death. You're first, elf-boy. Your green cloak means you would be the druid. Right?"

"Yes, I am a druid."

The fetcher gestured, invoking his telekinetic power to yank Dahl's eyeballs out of his head. Only nothing happened except that the jewel which the druid wore at his neck glowed briefly. Bewildered by the failure of his magic Wrangel stared stupidly at the druid. The other fetcher was equally unsuccessful at directing his powers at the druid.

Dahl nodded to Aodh, the signal for him to ground the fetchers by incapacitating them.

The young wir cut loose with his stand-off weapon, an intolerable screech much like the sound of fingernails scraping on a slate only far worse. The sound could rupture eardrums and induce pain, temporary deafness, and dizziness, making it easy to close with and kill enemies as they staggered about with their hands over their ears. The screech was highly directional, strong in a conical zone in front but negligible to the sides or behind.

As the poachers writhed on the ground Garret and Lorn clapped irons on their limbs. Then the whole group stepped through the portal which had been realigned to exit in a cell in a prison in Dalnot. Behind bars, chained to the wall, and deprived of their flying yokes and their clothes and weapons, the fetchers were well and truly caught.

It wasn't long before they were persuaded to talk, the truth of their tale confirmed by Dylan's empathic sense which let the young elf know whether his interlocutor was sincere. Sexton was relieved that the fetchers cleared Josef Kramner of any part in their scheme. In short order the constabulary had all the information needed to round up the rest of the ring of poachers and their middlemen.

The fetchers had been so cooperative because the druid promised that they would not be punished for attempted murder but only for poaching. Their sentence would be exile on a deserted oceanic island with only themselves for company: no jailers, no healers, and no provisions only the tools they would need to survive. They would have to grow, gather, or catch their own food. And exile was only half of their punishment. Their bodies would be wracked by periods of joint pain, itchy rashes, toothaches, earaches, and migraine headaches in a continual cycle of petty miseries.

For giving evidence the two fetchers got a reduced sentence of only fifteen years while their confederates were sentenced to twenty, though that was kept quiet to prevent retaliation by their partners in crime.

Afterwards the druid and the rangers stepped through yet another portal to the capital where they met with the elf-boy's friends: the twins Jemsen and Karel, Drew Altair and Corwin Klarendes, Axel Wilde and Karl-Eike Thyssen. Young Corwin Klarendes wrote up their story and got a scoop for the Capital Intelligencer.

"So why did their magic fail them?" Drew Altair asked. "The fetchers should have been able to yank your eyeballs right out of your head."

"True, but I was wearing an ensorcelled amulet just like Axel's which nullifies any magic wielded against the wearer. Before they could turn their powers on the others or try to flee, Aodh incapacitated them with his sonic weapon."

"Where did you get such an amulet?" Axel asked. "I understood from Sir Willet that they were rare."

"It is the very same amulet borne by that evil wizard who lead a raid on Elysion more than a decade ago, a thrust aimed at killing Balandur before he could lead a covert operation against the center of power of the dark empire of the life leech Urloch. You will remember how cleverly Arik killed the wizard by letting a boulder fall on his head. He had raised it by his magic but then let go. Gravity did the rest. Count Klarendes retrieved the amulet and turned it over to us druids as those best able to make use of it."

"I only just got it back from Chief Druid Bjornn on Karelia to whom we lent it for several years while the druids there replenished their diminished numbers following a natural disaster which practically wiped them out."

"Now if only you druids could figure out how to make others." Axel said. "After all, you did rediscover the technique for creating portals. Why not amulets too?"

Dahl nodded. "We are working on it, Axel, believe me, and not just to learn how to create new amulets but also how to counter their magic. Remember I myself once had to face a foe protected by an ensorcelled amulet."

"Oh? What happened?" Sexton asked. "I take it you defeated him."

"Yes, while he was gloating about how his amulet protected him from magic I hurled a throwing knife made of ironwood into his skull. The miscreant dropped like a marionette with its strings cut. An ensorcelled amulet gives no protection against purely physically attack."

"Anyway, now that we have captured the criminals, I have told the brontotheres via projected imagery that they are no longer in danger." Dahl related with satisfaction. "They are very grateful to the humans and elves who protected them, and their matriarch Manda knows of your part in particular Aodh."

The wir nodded.

"Manda and I are old friends. As a boy I would clamber aboard and let her take me where she would. As you know, the people in my original homeland regard the brontotheres as our friends and totemic beasts. We get on famously with them. I am so glad I enlisted in the forest rangers and so was in a position to protect the brontotheres."

"So what happens next?" Eike asked.

"We will return via a portal to Elysion and the New Forest." Dahl replied. "But that won't be for a few days. Creating so many portals one after another has worn me out. Anyway we have all earned some time off. The good news is that Aodh and Eborn have graciously made Count Klarendes' town house here in the capital available to us."

"Outstanding!" Dylan exclaimed.

"And this will us twins a chance to show you and Brandon around Twinkle Town." Karel told him.

"Twinkle Town?"

Karel smiled and explained:

"Named for the cute twinks who are its most notable denizens, and of whom all of us except Madden Sexton are prime exemplars, Twinkle Town is a district or rather a cluster of dining, drinking, and dancing establishments favored by males who fancy pretty boys and by pretty boys who favor being fancied."

"It's fabulous!" Jemsen assured them.

"Lead on!"

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