Elf Boy's Friends - VIII
It was also clear that Axel's despondency had lifted fully. He was his old self again. Good. Axel was such a sweet kid; his was the gentlest soul of all of them.
After a sojourn of three weeks at the Stone Ring it was time for the Corp of Discovery to push on in search of the fabled Snow Elves. 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.
Like all shape shifters they never tanned nor burned despite nearly constant exposure to the sun's rays. Even more than their cousins, the usual sort of Sylan Elves, Snow Elves elected to go about skin clad or sky clad as they would have it. Which was only natural for these were wirs or shape shifters who spent nearly as much time in their animal forms as in their human bodies. So garments were an unnecessary and indeed inconvenient encumbrance. Theirs was a nomadic existence, a perpetual walkabout.
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 and mostly lived a sedentary existence 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 only doubly so for wirs.
That was the sum total of what the aged beast master Padraig himself knew about the elusive elves or could tell Dylan.
Even as the Corps of Discovery took to the sky, the Snow Elves were being hunted by a posse of local farmers and crofters who blamed them for a series of savage killings of not only numerous cattle and sheep but also of at least three cowherds and shepherds also killed for their flesh. Another two boys had gone missing entirely.
Completely ignorant of the depredations of the man-killers, the nomads were encamped by a stream after feeding well from a large antelope taken early that morning as it came down to the stream to drink. That had spared the family, as they thought of themselves, the need to hunt for the next two days.
The carcass was large enough to feed all the wirs: the triplets who were dire wolves, a species larger and with darker fur than the gray wolf, the pair of cousins who were spotted leopards, and the solitary wolverine, only sixteen and the youngest of the bunch. All of them were male and very young — just getting started in life and all oriented to their same gender.
The meat of a single antelope would not have stretched far enough to satisfy their huge allies, but the two giant Kodiak bears with white coats who traveled in their company preferred the tasty red flesh of salmon who swam up the stream driven by the urge to reach the sandy pools where they themselves had hatched and then spawn the next generation. Salmon were only a seasonal resource, but when the fish were running, the bears gave no thought to any other flesh. Salmon were that tasty.
Sometimes the ursine giants just stood in the stream and caught a fish in their jaws. More often, swipes of their giant paws would propel one stunned fish after another right out to the water and onto the bank where they would flop about until the bear had caught enough for a meal and ambled over to consume his catch.
The wirs were fond of salmon too, but they had taken the antelope before realizing that the salmon were running. No matter. A salmon run could last many days.
Blackberry bushes heavy with ripe fruit were also on the menu as dessert though the wirs would have to change into human form to gather them, a task for which hands were much better suited than paws.
Bestirring themselves at last, the wirs took on their human forms and began to gather berries, though at first many of those they picked wound up in their mouths rather than in their baskets.
<Save some for us, you greedy imps!> the bears sent over their mental link. Not that the bears could not see that there were plenty of berries for everyone. They often engaged in banter with their young charges, as they thought of the wir youths.
For these were no ordinary bears. Ursine counterparts to unicorns hence the white coloration much like their counterparts of the polar isles, the bears were magical creatures though not shape shifters. Centuries old, they were fully sentient and gifted with projected mind speech which let them network their minds and those of the wirs.
Now their range was quite limited, seldom more than four miles, but it made the wirs and bears an unbeatable team. Their usual tactic was for the trio of noisy dire wolves to drive deer or antelope toward where the leopards and wolverine were lying in wait in their natural camouflage, listening for the silent call to rise up and to pounce on the fleeing prey. Then all would share in the bounty of the hunt.
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 more than three times size of a Frost Giant. The bears were giants compared to their remote ancestors on Old Urth. They weighed twenty-two hundred pounds and stood nearly seven feet at the shoulder when on all fours but twelve feet when fully upright on their hind legs. Solidly built and armed with strong claws and sharp teeth, the creatures were the embodiment of raw power, and when they put their minds to it, they were as ferocious as any wolverine.
With both baskets full and with their immediate appetites satisfied the boys brought their harvest to their simple campsite, really just a fire ring.
The three dire wolves had transformed into a set of identical triplets named Lobo, Lupo, and Volf. Eighteen but looking like they were going on sixteen they were blessed with fine-boned features which somehow hinted at their lupine nature. The trio were chatty and outgoing with personalities more ebullient than those of their feline counterparts, the cousins Leon and Brand. For the lupine triplets leisure was a chance for games, wrestling, horsing around, and rough housing. The feline cousins would rather relax, lie around, and challenge each other and all comers to solving the riddles they devised themselves or had collected in their travels.
The wir wolverine, the youth Gulo, sweet sixteen going on seventeen but looking no more than fifteen, often preferred his own company. He enjoying settling down with a book when they were available, which they often were not. The bears were willing to carry their common kit in small packs of negligible mass to them, but they drew the line at serving as living bookmobiles.
Regardless all of the wirs had the same alabaster skin, shoulder length ash-blond hair, icy grey eyes, willowy physiques, lissome bodies, and glabrous skin typical of Snow Elves.
They had been together for more than a year, recruited by the bears who offered them a way of life better suited to their nature than that of the Sylan Elves from whose loins they had sprung. Their wanderlust might have lead them to become trackers or scouts, or wilderness guides and still live as Sylvan Elves, but those born with the gift of shape shifting heard the call of the wild louder than other elves. Hence they took up a wandering existence with others of their kind with the bears as teachers and powerful protectors.
"One basket of berries for you two big guys, one for the rest of us." Lobo told the ursine brothers Bjorn and Bjarni. "Fair is fair."
"And so it is young one." Bjorn agreed, then he and his brother turned their attention to the tasty berries.
"Tomorrow keep an eye out for honeybees, would you?" Bjarni asked. "Bjorn and I have a hankering for honey."
"All right, but you guys are real messy eaters," Leon told him. "so leave it to us to collect the honey."
The truth was the bears 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. Their long fur made them invulnerable to bee stings. The boys could blow smoke into the hive to calm the insects and remove the honey comb with very little collateral damage and few mashed bees. Of course naked boys did get stung, but that was of little concern to wirs who could move out of range and transform, healing all their hurts.
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