Elf Boy's Friends - VIII

by George Gauthier

Chapter 16

The Stone Ring

Once past the karst region, the autogyros crossed a range of folded mountains, their summits low and rounded by eons of erosion and with trees growing right up to their summits. Past the mountains lay rolling plains. In the distance were fields and villages but below the ground was covered by bracken and gorse. Gorse were thorny shrubs up to ten feet high with tiny leaves and showy yellow flowers. In the middle of the gorse thicket was another geological marvel, a ring of stone forty miles across. This was the Stone Circle they had been told of.

Created millions of years earlier by a meteoric impact, the ring of stone still stood fifty feet high on its outward face and nearly one hundred feet high inwardly toward the sunken forest it encompassed. For about half the circumference its walls were nearly vertical much like a palisade. The rest of the circuit was rugged and steep though good climbers could get across. The central forest was dense, its canopy broken only by a string of lakes and a a few clearings. In its very center stood a sharp peak twice the height of the walls, the result of tectonic rebound from the tremendous impact.

As their autogyros approached the ring flashes of light from a signal mirror caught their attention. It was clear that the locals wanted them to land near the fortified gatehouse which controlled the only pass into the land within the ring of stone. Close up they could see that the ancient fortification was crumbling with cracks in the masonry walls and holes in the roof. Nearby were sheds and barns, orchards, and fields of maize, beans, yams, and earth apples.

An officer of the garrison escorted by two soldiers came out to meet the Corps of Discovery. The leader was a man of late middle years, fit and whipcord lean. Though his face was lined and drawn he had the soldierly bearing of a lifelong military man. The two soldiers with him bore the officer a family resemblance. Both stood easily, one to each side, their right hands resting lightly on the pommels of their swords. Theirs was the stance of soldiers who were not expecting trouble and certainly not looking for it, but were ready for it just in case trouble came looking for them. Addressing Finn whom he took to be their leader from his size and apparent power if nothing else he said:

"My name is Captain Salter. We don't get many visitors out this way, certainly not in one of those new flying machines much less three at once. Now who might you be and what business do you have here?"

Finn introduced the Corps of Discovery and briefly described their mission.

Salter nodded. "Your names are not unknown to us. Even way out here we have read Drew Altair's best-selling books, though we never thought we might meet their protagonists such as the famous twins Jemsen and Karel. Yet here they are."

"In the flesh!" Jemsen acknowledged.

"As to you Finn Ragnarson, they say that you are an avatar of a thunder god, though surely that cannot be literally true."

"Of course not. I invoke that name for tactical purposes, to dishearten my foes. I am really a Frost Giant with a unique magical gift and a set of powers like those of the Norse god of yore."

"I am glad to hear you are not taking yourself too seriously." Salter said with the first smile they had seen on him.

"Little chance of that, not with that cute copper-topped lad over there to keep me grounded in reality."

Axel grinned.

Captain Salter wound up the meeting with:

"Lets go inside and get you settled. Part of the roof has fallen in, but with our garrison so much reduced from what it once was, we can accommodate you easily enough. If you plan to stay over more than a day I'll have to ask you to cover our expenses."

"Understood. May I ask how the garrison supports itself. You might grow your own food, but how do you pay for other necessities if you are not on the payroll of a state?"

"We grow most of our own food and also make both hard cider and apple brandy from our apple orchards. Besides that the nearby villages pay us to patrol the area to protect them from raiders, bandits, and road agents. We used to earn a fair amount from the sale of raptor feathers. The wing feathers of the raptors fetched premium prices for three centuries. The earnings allowed us to purchase the little luxuries that make the difference between a life enjoyed and one only endured."

"Alas the bottom fell out of the feather market a dozen years ago and even our sales of apple brandy declined from competition with new producers. More than half our little colony has had to pull up roots and settle in nearby villages where the land is better for growing staple crops than this close to the Ring."

"The loss of so many friends and neighbors caused us much pain. Ours is a hereditary calling, and we are all cousins to one degree or another, a clan if you will, though our young men sometimes take brides from elsewhere to prevent inbreeding. We now number just over two hundred, only sixty of those trained soldiers. Our reverses meant giving up our dream of one day destroying the raptors and settling the fertile lands within the ring. But let's save the rest for when we sit down to supper."

With that, the pilots secured their autogyros, immobilizing the rotors and staking the craft to the ground then carried their gear into the fortress. The accommodations were not a barracks as they had halfway expected but a set of apartments, family quarters in the old days. Neat, airy, and swept clean though with only the minimum of furniture they were comfortable enough.

Dylan assured Finn that his empathic sense had detected no deceit only honest concern about their unpromising future.

Contrary to their expectations of a grim military mess hall, the dining hall was bright and airy; its walls were hung with watercolor paintings of landscapes and sunsets by the locals. The only military touches were the hierarchical arrangement of the tables and perhaps the scrupulous hygiene and cleanliness. Those of the colony who were not in uniform wore simple trews and shirts and boots for the males and skirts and blouses and sandals for the females.

The visitors took the seats of honor at the head table along with Captain Salter and the civic leader of the colony, an older man whose name was Xander Larson. The entire population sat on benches at the other tables. The tasty fare started with onion soup with croutons to wake the appetite. After that came fried breaded fillet of fish, cornbread, baked squash, and steamed vegetables buttered and sprinkled with grated cheese. Among the guardians their communal evening meal was a long-standing tradition.

Finn explained that though the expedition was an official undertaking of the Commonwealth of the Long River, it was strictly a civilian undertaking, as witness the lack of military uniforms. The twins, Drew, Axel, and Liam were dressed in their new square-top low rise short shorts. Dylan and Madden Sexton wore the uniforms of forest rangers, who were law enforcement officers, not military, as he was himself in his capacity as a Hand of the Commonwealth.

"One of those Dread Hands, eh."

"When we have to be." Finn admitted.

During conversation with Captain Salter and Headman Larson, the Corps of Discovery learned that it was the druid Kyle who established the Guardians of the Ring. Their job was to contain the reptilian raptors with the walls of the ring until some way could be devised to exterminate them.

"Are you saying it was Kyle who confined the raptors in their stoney prison."

"Not at all. They were already there. The ring was not their prison, not originally, but their refuge from the brontotheres who had wiped their kind out everywhere else except here. Brontotheres were too bulky to negotiate the narrow tortuous passage our fortress now blocks. The brontotheres left the region a millennium ago which allowed the raptors to come out and and prey on livestock. After seven centuries Kyle helped us confine them within the ring."

"Why didn't the druid just wipe them out?" Finn wondered.

Salter shook his head.

"That was beyond the powers of a mere journeyman druid as he was then. Kyle did give us the key insight that kept the beasts at bay for so long. He observed that raptors could not swim. They are all bone and muscle and sinew so their bodies are denser than water. Once they got in over their heads they drowned."

"Kyle used earth magic to create a moat in front of our wall. It held the raptors back until an earthquake drained the moat and diverted the stream that had fed it. Since then we have had to hold the raptors back with masonry and cold steel. Not entirely successfully, I will admit."

Can you describe a raptor." Finn asked. "None of us knows what one looks like."

"I can do better than that. I can show you a mounted specimen and a skeleton with its bones held in place by a metal armature. But I see the servers are bringing out dessert. Tonight it is blueberry pie. Let's tuck in. The raptors will keep."

"Right! Blueberry pie first, raptors later." Axel enthused. The young Jumper was inordinately fond of fruit pies and fruit tarts.

The raptor specimens showed how formidable and fearsome the predators were. Raptors were bipedal reptiles with a large toothy elongated head atop a short neck, four strong limbs, and a long tail for balance. At the end of the forelimbs were clawed hands armed with three curved claws for grasping.

The raptor walked on its hind legs though only on the third and fourth digits of their feet. The second digit was formed into a large, sickle-shaped claw held retracted off the ground. It was used to rip out the throat of prey.

"The throat? Why not target the abdomen and disembowel their prey?" Jemsen asked.

It was Sexton who answered. "Look there. The sickle claw does not have cutting edge. It cannot tear the belly open."

Salter nodded. "You have a keen eye."

"It comes with the territory. I am a shapeshifter, a wir wolverine."

"Indeed. Remind me not to get you mad at me. Wolverines have a fearsome reputation."

"Just what is it that the raptors hunt?" Karel wondered. "Surely they would have wiped out deer and other such large prey by now."

Salter answered that lack of big prey kept their numbers in check. Raptors had to hunt smaller animals, burrowers and arboreal creatures when they chanced a descent to ground level to drink or to mate. Thus raptors went after badgers and muskrats, porcupines, anteaters, spider monkeys, possums, squirrels and sloths.

"Raptors like to jump on their prey, hold it with their front claws and tear into it with their sickle claw and bite and tear. We never confront them in the open on level ground. That's plain suicide. Even with armor they could knock us down and then finish us off with their claws and teeth."

"Another thing is that they cannot really climb. Their wrists don't rotate and limbs ending in tearing claws are not much good on rock. Otherwise there must be a dozen spots around the ring when an agile man could scramble over the barrier. Even more with equipment."

"Above all we never let them get close to us. The recurved bow and the boar spear are our main weapons. If only we could carry the battle to them and clear them out of Ring entirely. That has been our dream — to consecrate this land to civilization."

"The ring, the forest within, and the land around it out to a day's ride are not in the territory of any country. The Ring is legally ours. We were granted sovereignty by the Druids of Haven in the person of the druid Kyle."

"We know of this Kyle. He it was who helped the Medkari settle the Vale of Asshur." Finn told him.

"Kyle told us that he would send help, but nothing ever came of it."

"Alas" Drew began, "Once Kyle became a senior druid he was posted to Karelia. There he he died not many years ago when a landslide crashed into the lake where the druids had their headquarters in a spacious villa and caused a tsunami."

"That explains why no further help was forthcoming." Captain Salter said sadly.

"Maybe not then, but now help is once again at hand. Us." Madden Sexton affirmed.

"How can you help?" Salter asked. "Can you destroy the raptors for us."

"That would require a long campaign for which we don't have time, but we can equip you Guardians to do the job yourselves with air guns. They are the ideal stand-off weapon."

Axel fetched his own and Sexton's air guns and explained how they worked.

"It strikes me that these air guns of yours are instruments of precision manufacture. They cannot come cheap. I don't know how we could pay for them."

"You won't have to." Finn told him.

"I propose a fair exchange. You get air guns and diplomatic recognition of your sovereignty. You let us build an air field to support civil aviation: the postal service initially and later passenger and freight traffic. The Ring is ideally located to be a link in a chain of airfields which will connect the Commonwealth to the northern ocean. We might also want to establish a single holograph station here for a postal heliograph line stretching between the Commonwealth and a port on the Northern Ocean."

"We accept, and most happily!" Salter and Larson declared then added:

"And I can see also where we might go into business to accommodate travelers, providing lodgings and food and drink. We could attract tourists too. The Ring is the geological wonder of the northlands. Well, after the Cave of the Mountain River that is."

The plan the two sides worked out called for the Guardians to recall all their scattered brethren. That would give them a force of nearly two-hundred soldiers and a total population of well over seven hundred. Later they would invite folks from neighboring villages to settle among them.

Liam opened a portal to the capital for him and Finn. While the Frost Giant reported to Baron Jarmond, the Chief Hand and arranged for a shipment of guns, Liam went by the offices of the Capitol Intelligencer to deliver Drew's latest reportage. Then he swung by the Institute to fill Sir Willet in on what the Corps of Discovery had been doing. There he found the war wizard immersed in a study of the theory of magic investigating just how the minds of sentients could tap into and modulate the basic power of the universe, understood to be a field of bound energy that existed everywhere and every-when and could be freed to power magic.

Afterwards Liam rejoined Finn and opened a portal back to the Ring. Teamsters drove two wagons loaded with air guns, ammunition and ball molds for making more, tools for repair and maintenance, and spare parts. It was enough to equip a battalion of infantry.

Finn also handed Salter a pouch of gold coins and another of silvers, seed money the Guardians could use to buy the equipment they would need to settle the lands they hoped to conquer. Salter was loth to accept charity, but Finn told him to consider it rental for the future air field and as an earnest of the Commonwealth's good intentions.

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