Elf Boy's Friends - VIII

by George Gauthier

Chapter 19

Posse

From a hill two miles away, unsympathetic eyes watched the wirs and the bears through far-viewers.

"That's gotta be them all right though I never thought that the killers would be shape shifters."

"What does it matter, Sheriff Anders? True animals or humans who take the shape of beasts and behave like they did are worse than natural animals who don't know better and just follow their instincts. Whether true animals or wirs, put enough arrows into them and you can kill anything, even shape shifters"

Old Jeb Hardin had lost four cows and a cowherd to the killers, the latter an orphan boy he had taken into his home and employ. He was in no mood for halfway measures.

"Alright Jeb, take your riders and circle around to the south. I'll keep my half of the men with me and approach from the north. We'll catch them between two fires. No way they can scramble up the walls of that ravine they pitched camp in, not with us shooting arrows into their backs the whole time."

Stealthy as the approach of the posse was, as they moved into striking distance they were spotted from above by Corps of Discovery. Not knowing who was in the right but not liking the potential for massacre that he saw below, Finn had the Corps settle their autogyros on the flat ground just north of the camp, rolling to a stop in little more than their own length.

When they got out of their aerocraft the explorers were all fully armed though only Finn and Sexton were in uniform and wore their full kit. The pretty boys in the group were armed but wore no armor and precious little else, just those short shorts of theirs.

Without the wooden armor built into the yokes of their cuirasses, the fetchers Drew and Liam would find it harder to fly, though they could always Lift their kukris and hand on.

Going on full alert the wirs unlimbered their slings, their only distance weapon, and also hung the scabbards of their long knives over their shoulders, part of the equipment which they bears carried in packs for them. The bears positioned themselves on both flanks. The wirs remained in their human forms so they could communicate with the visitors via sonic speech and not give away their ability with mind speech.

"Hello the camp." Finn called out.

"Advance and be recognized." Lobo called out. Lobo was the oldest of the wirs, though only by minutes in the case of his siblings, and their leader.

"We come in peace," Finn said, "and we bring you warning of mounted men moving into position for an attack."

"What? Why would anyone attack us? We have done nothing wrong. No one claims these forest lands."

"I don't think they regard you as mere trespassers or poachers. These men look like they are ready to ride you down." Finn answered.

Just then the posse came into view, at least two dozen riders in each wing north and south all armed with crossbows and swords or more often axes.

"Stand aside strangers, lest you be caught in the charge and trampled." the sheriff called. "We mean to put an end to these miscreants."

"By what right do you condemn them to death?" Finn asked.

"I am Sheriff Anders and this is no lynch mob but a legally constituted posse in hot pursuit of a pair of man killers though their victims were really teenage boys."

"What? Us man killers? Not us, no way, no how." Lobo protested.

"I would hear them out." Finn told the sheriff.

"I give you back your own question," the sheriff said with some asperity. "By what right do you interfere? My men and I would be within our legal rights to attack you too for obstructing justice, harboring fugitives, and being accessories after the fact in at least three murders."

"I am sorry, Sheriff but my friends and I will not allow you to kill these boys out of hand. Now climb down off your mount and come forward, you and one other, and explain yourselves. With the exits of the ravine blocked no one can get away. You lose nothing by talking first."

"Ride them all down." Jeb Hardin urged.

"I am tempted to do just that." the Sheriff told Finn. "What make you think six pretty boys, six elves, a couple of bears, and a smallish Frost Giant could stop us."

"I may not be the largest of Frost Giants, but I am far and away the strongest giant on the planet, for I wield the power of Thor!"

So saying Finn raised Mjolnir and called a bolt of lightning from a clear sky then blasted a rock off to one side.

Pointing to one of the larger fragments, Finn hurled Mjolnir at it. Forged by dwarves with heat and magic from meteoric iron, the super hard hammer head would never rust and was virtually shatterproof. Instead it was the rock fragment that shattered when the hammer smashed into it. Finn gave it a second then used his control of the planetary magnetic field to call his war hammer back into his hand, to the astonishment of the posse.

"There he goes again." Axel said sotto voce to Drew who frowned and gave him an elbow to the ribs.

"This is no time for levity, Axel." Drew chided.

"Sorry. I guess I'm just nervous."

The rest ignored their brief exchange.

"Impressive, but that would not deter us. Step aside or take your chances dodging volleys of arrows." Hardin warned Finn.

Finn shook his head. "Fifty arrows, even five hundred would not get through our missile shields. I myself can magnetically deflect arrows into the ground. That is why I bear only a buckler against blades rather that a full shield. Also two of us are powerful fetchers who could sent the arrows right back at you point first, and another can throw up a shield of hardened air. Don't be rash."

Even Hardin looked unsure. The eight who had arrived via autogyro seemed supremely confident and not the least bit intimidated by the odds against them. Maybe it was better to talk first.

"All right, Sheriff." Hardin conceded. "I say let's stay our hands till after we talk some more."

"I see it that way too, Jeb."

The sheriff ordered his men to stay mounted and at the ready in case of treachery. He and Hardin stepped forward to easier conversational distance though both sides made of point of talking loud enough for their backup to follow what was said.

After perfunctory introductions the sheriff told of the depredations of the killers and of how they had tracked them from the south for hours the day before only to lose the trail at dusk. Casting about they had finally picked up the trail several miles north of the ravine and followed it south, only to find the wirs and the aviators.

"You lost a trail yesterday south of here and picked up a trail today north of here. Who is to say they were one and the same trail? Sexton asked. "Was the spoor the same?"

"Not exactly," Anders admitted. "First it was a pair of big cats like those two spotted leopards. The trail we picked up today was much easier to follow. Two leopards, three dire wolves, a wolverine, and two huge bears made an easy trail to follow. We wondered why such different creatures would join up, but when we realized they were shape shifters we figured the killers had joined up with confederates."

Lobo scoffed:

"Big party or small, we don't leave a trail when we don't want to. The fact that we did leave sign of our passing shows that we were not trying to shake off pursuit. Don't think you can teach either elves or wirs about trails and tracking, and we are both."

"A very good point." the sheriff conceded.

"And here is another." Dylan said, speaking for the first time. "As an empath and a trained law enforcement officer I can tell you categorically that these elves are innocent."

"So says a fellow elf." Hardin said, mistrust written all over his face.

"Not just an elf, a forest ranger of the Commonwealth of the Long River, as am I." Sexton pointed out.

"Harrumph!" Hardin snorted. "You fellas are way outside your jurisdiction."

Sexton shook his head. "Not at all. Our legal authority extends everywhere on Valentia under a concurrent appointment by the Druidic Order."

"And I too am a law enforcement officer." Finn told the sheriff and Hardin. Triggering the small magic that made his hand glow. "I am one of the Dread Hands of the Commonwealth."

"The Commonwealth is a long way from here."

"But its power reaches even to where we stand. To where I stand, to be precise." he said in a tone that brooked no contradiction.

"And to where I stand too," Dylan added. "As a beast master I can take control of your mounts so they won't charge no matter how hard you try to spur them forward. I could even have them sink to the ground and roll over forcing the riders to dismount lest they be crushed."

"A beware our powers too." Jemsen said. "One of us is a powerful earth wizard who can turn the ground under your feet into a quagmire or indeed make it gape open and swallow your posse whole. The other is an air wizard whose sun mirrors could turn you all into ash, as he did not so very long ago to an entire regiment of troll cavalry and then a battalion of archers in the war in Amazonia."

"Lest you overlook Liam and Axel." Drew said "Liam is a war wizard who could disintegrate your whole posse with blasts of white fire. And that copper topped fellow holding an air gun which outranges your crossbows is one of the deadliest snipers in the Commonwealth. Axel, what was your motto in Amazonia: one shot, one kill?"

"Yes, but I actually averaged a bit better than that." Axel replied. "One hundred two kills for every one hundred shots."

Hardin wasn't buying it. "Nonsense. That's just not mathematically possible."

"Sure it is," Axel assured him. "My gift of Unerring Direction plus endless target practice at both fixed and moving targets made me a sure shot. And like all the best snipers I am patient. I can wait till two targets line up, one head behind the other, then can drop them both with a single shot. An occasional two for one kill makes up for the very rare times I miss when the target moves during the flight of the bullet."

"Now trolls have thick skulls so the bullet splashes the brains out the back of the skull of the closer target, but with the farther target, the bullet penetrates the cranium all right but does not exit. Instead it bounces and rattles around churning the brains to mush."

"Thank you, War Mage Sir Axel Wilde," Finn began, "for sharing some of the subtler points of the art of combat sniping with us laypersons."

"Oh and Sheriff did you catch that part about Axel being a war mage? I'll think I'll just let you worry about what his specific powers might be."

All that put matters in another light. To the members of the posse attacking these eight as well as the shape shifters no longer seemed such a good idea.

"How then can we resolve this without unnecessary bloodshed?" Sheriff Anders asked.

"A compromise." Sexton began. "We forest rangers will take the wirs into protective custody with the twins as backup to keep everyone honest. Meanwhile, the other four will take to the sky and try to spot the killer cats from the air. It shouldn't be too hard."

"All right, but please let our trained bears go free." Lobo pleaded. "Surely no one thinks circus animals like them could be involved."

"Very well." Anders agreed. He ordered his men to dismount while the pilots and Dylan went over to the autogyros to begin the aerial search for the killer cats.

<Greetings friends of our friends.> Bjorn sent via mind speech. <It would be best for all if you gave no verbal indication that we are communicating.>

All four nodded. Then Finn sent back. <Agreed, though I never thought I would speak with a bear.>

Bjorn explained how he and his brother were the ursine equivalent of unicorns. He proposed that they coordinate their efforts. It would be best for establishing real trust if it were the bears rather than the four of them who actually killed the man killers. Finn agreed.

As Sexton had predicted it did not take long to spot the killer cats who were resting in an thicket. Finn fired lightning bolts at them to chase them toward the bears. One cat sprang at Bjorn who killed it with a mighty blow of his paw which cracked its skull and scrambled its brains. The other pounced on Bjarni who had reared up on his hind legs to see better. The huge bear outweighed the cat ten to one and easily crushed it in a bear hug, squeezing the breath and life out of it. The wounds Bjarni took were of no consequence. Though not shape shifters, the bears too were gifted with innate healing magic.

The autogyros landed and Drew loaded the dead cats telekinetically into Liam's air freighter. Liam then created a portal to the camp site and held it open long enough for the autogyros to roll through it followed by the bears.

"That didn't take long." Sheriff Anders said. "How did you kill the leopards? I don't see any significant wounds on their bodies."

Finn explained that it was the bears who had killed the cats by main force. None of his party had had to raise a weapon to them.

"Then what is that small wound on the shoulder of the larger cat?"

Finn frowned. "It does look like a stab wound. My magnetic sense detects a piece of metal lodged in the shoulder bone. Perhaps an arrowhead?"

Invoking his power he drew the piece of metal to Mjolnir and examined it. "No, not an arrowhead but the broken off tip of a knife blade."

Jeb Hardin stepped forward. "I think it will match the knife my boy carried. It was still in his hand when we found his body. The blood on it was not all his."

Sure enough the tip matched the broken end of the knife perfectly, proving that these two leopards were indeed the man killers.

Anders and Hardin apologized to the wirs and thanked the Corps of Discovery for preventing a miscarriage of justice.

"You fellas in this Corps of Discovery really had us going, brandishing your powers."

Finn shrugged. "It wasn't bragging, just a tactic for prevent a foolish attack from getting started."

"More than foolish. It would have been suicidal."

Finn shook his head. "No one would have died. We would have stopped you all right but not killed you or even hurt men who were all operating from honorable motives. And after all, we ourselves would be safe behind those missile shields I mentioned."

Sheriff Anders nodded. "Your and your friends could face down an army and laugh at them while hurling lightning bolts, white fire, shooting lead bullets, and who knows what else at them. And I suppose those blond boys are really good with those long bows of theirs too."

"You will never meet better archers than the twins."

"Of course!" the sheriff exclaimed. Turning to the twins he told them: "I am usually not this dense, but you two would have to be the famous twins Jemsen and Karel."

"In the flesh." Karel admitted.

Now it was Drew's turn to nudge Axel and tell him sotto voce: "There he goes again."

The quip put a grin on both their faces.

The sheriff assured the wirs that they were welcome to stay and hunt in the forest as long as they wished.

<Thank you Sheriff, but I think we should all be moving on.> Bjorn sent to both him and Hardin.

"What, Mind Speech now? From bears? You wirs and your friends are just full of tricks, aren't you? Very well, but if you should ever return to these parts know that you would be welcome. And I know I can speak for every man with me."

We never got properly introduced, and I do have to write up a report on today's events so can you just tell us who you all are?"

"Of course," Finn said agreeably. "Axel you have all that written out don't you?"

"Sure, but with my eidetic memory I can recite it by heart."

"Our leader here is none other than Finn Ragnarson, Dread Hand of the Commonwealth, Avatar of Thor, Thunder God of the Norse, Peacemaker, Pioneer of Flight, and Dwarf-friend. The powerfully built older man with him is Forest Ranger Lord Madden Sexton, Earl of Drangiana, Baron of Osrhoene, Conquering Lion of Sogdiana, and Master of the Royal Hunt."

"Next are the twins who, as you belatedly realized, are Captains Sirs Jemsen and Karel, Twice Holders of the Military Cross for Valor, Elf-Friends, Twice Dwarf-Friends, Giant Friends, Peacemakers, Pioneers of Flight. Dragon Slayers, and Masters in the Honorable Guild of Cartographers."

"Dragon Slayers?" the Sheriff said eyebrows raised in astonishment.

"Truth to tell it wasn't really a dragon — just a monster snake, ninety feet if it was an inch."

"You already know Sir Axel Wilde is a War Mage. He is also a Holder of the Military Cross for Valor, Orc-Friend, Pioneer of Flight, Peacemaker. The elf-boy is Forest Ranger Dylan of Reeling, Beast Master."

Axel continued:

"The auburn haired twink is Captain Sir Drew Altair, Holder of the Military Cross for Valor, Peacemaker, Pioneer of Flight, and Giant-Friend."

"Ah, the famous author, then." the sheriff interjected.

"Right. Last but far from least is that dark haired fellow, the War Wizard Sir Liam, Pioneer of Flight and both Sword and Shield of the Commonwealth, our nation's two highest military honors."

The Sheriff shook his head. "Good thing I have fifty witnesses to back me up or the folks at home would never believe this. Uh Axel, I am not sure my man here got all that down, so could you write it out for us?"

"No problem."

Afterwards Bjorn ran down the names of the wirs.

After that the posse collected the dead cats as trophies and rode off.

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