Elf Boy's Friends - Volume XII

by George Gauthier

Chapter 6

The Front Range

The first order of business was an aerial reconnaissance of the front range. Rising ten thousand feet above the flatlands, the mountains were covered by trees all the way to their summits.

Here and there were small plots of land cleared for gardens, some with crops growing amid dead trees, killed by girdling to make them lose their leaves and let sunlight reach the crops planted in their garden plots. Other plots were slowly reverting to forest, and a few plots still smoldered from fires deliberately set to clear the brush and turn it into ash to fertilize the soil. Those were clear signs of slash and burn agriculture. Steady bright lights in the evening darkness proved that some of the locals could Call Light, so they probably had the usual mix of magical gifts.

The aerial reconnaissance ranged three hundred miles north to south but penetrated only about twenty-five miles into the great massif. After that came the slower and more laborious task of a low order topographic survey. The autogyros touched down briefly on peaks or ridges where the twins took bearings on landmarks, took barometric readings for altitude, and made terrain sketches.

At first no attempt was made to contact the locals. That was left for later. Their own camp sites were deliberately remote from any sign of settlement, and the escorts scouted no farther than half a mile from the expedition's nightly stopping places.

It was during one of those brief stops that the expedition accidentally made first contact with the locals. Scouts Evan and Hugh Loring, a sandy haired young human, were just about to turn back to camp when they heard the roar of a tiger. Shouts in the common tongue called for help against the big cat. The scouts pushed through a screen of brush onto a trail to find a party of five was under attack by a tiger. One man was already down though whether dead or wounded they could not tell. His companions were shouting and poking at the tiger but were armed only with fishing tridents, hardly the best weapon with which to face a big cat.

The scouts stepped closer, leveled their air guns, and started shooting. Their first two volleys wounded but did not kill the beast. It whirled and charged at them. It nearly reached them as a third volley caught it in the chest. The scouts fended off the dying tiger with their bayonets as it slumped to the ground and bled out. Neither scout had been injured in the confrontation.

"The gods be praised!" the locals cried.

Evan resisted the urge to ask just why the gods should be praised. What miracle had their gods performed? Had a lightning bolt flashed from the cloudless sky and killed the tiger? Had their gods not in fact looked on indifferent to the man's fate and done nothing during the tiger's attack?

The fact was that its victim was still alive only because of his comrades' own conspicuous bravery. Instead of running away while the tiger focussed its attention on the wounded man they had fought to save him. The remaining four had pressed around and harassed the beast and kept it too distracted to finish the wounded man off even though they themselves were armed with wholly inadequate weapons. Surely they deserved more praise than any do-nothing invisible disembodied beings up in the sky whose very existence was suppositious at best. And was not some credit due to Evan and Hugh, two mortal beings at whose hands the beast had died?

Hugh was less forbearing than Evan and complained:

"There's ingratitude for you. And if they had to give away the credit for what we did, did they have to throw it in our faces? That's piling insult atop ingratitude."

"Hugh, I don't disagree, but drowning men will grasp at straws. It is human nature."

One of their number, a man of early middle years, broke away from the group and approached the scouts. Dressed only in a breechclout and moccasins and with a feather in his hair he was tanned and healthy with a lean wiry build and regular features.

"Welcome strangers. You were surely sent by the gods themselves to aid us in our hour of need. Know then that while we are usually wary of outsiders you have just proved yourselves to be friends. My name is Owen."

Evan and Hugh gave their names and asked after the wounded man. Would he live or die?

"That is in the hands of the gods. Alas, we forest folk live dispersed in small bands not all of which include a magical healer. For the most part we rely on herbalists and midwives and wise women. I would send for a healer who wields magic, but she could never get here in time to save our friend."

"Then let us offer you the services of our own healer. He is quite close by. Can the wounded man be moved?"

Indeed he could, so with sudden hope on their faces the band of forest folk took up their wounded comrade and followed the scouts back to camp. Hugh shouted to warn the camp that he and Evan were coming in with five locals. Corwin saw that the man was so severely wounded and so close to death from loss of blood that natural medicine could never save him. So Corwin invoked his gift which manifested as an immaterial nimbus which engulfed his patient. It pulsated in and out and fluctuated in hue going from pearly white to green and back again. When it died away, Corwin checked the man and pronounced him healed if not fully restored.

"He is still very weak and will need supportive care while his body restores its blood supply. You got him to me just in time."

Three of the fisherman left to carry the wounded man on a borrowed stretcher to their own campsite nearly a mile away. Owen remained behind to answer and to ask questions.

The forest folk were just one step up from hunter-gatherers. Their system of slash and burn agriculture made for a semi-nomadic life. Plots of land cleared by girdling and fire exhausted the fertility of the soil in just a few years forcing the forest folk to move on. In time the forest would reclaim the abandoned plot. New trees would grow beside those the farmers had killed, and in a generation the band might return to and reclaim the plot.

The forest folk exploited all the resources of their environment though always on a sustainable basis. To supplement the produce from their gardens they hunted and fished and gathered nuts and mushrooms and tubers and greens. Their women gathered and processed edible seeds, roots, mushrooms, berries, and seeds like acorns to make journey cakes and porridge.

Their possessions were few, but they were healthy and reasonably happy. Most important of all they were free. The forest folk were the descendants of runaway serfs, refugees from the Flatlands fleeing starvation and oppression under the old regime. They might not have much in the way of material goods, but they had full bellies, they lived in peace with their neighbors, and they answered to no lord and master.

Owen was full of questions himself. What were the strange weapons with which the scouts had slain the tiger? Finn explained that they worked on a pneumatic principle. He operated the charging lever of his own rifle to demonstrate and fingered the pressure release. Compressed air from the reservoir shoved a lead bullet down the smoothbore barrel after which its momentum carried it to the target.

Owen nodded. "So your weapon is like one of our blowguns only the impetus to the missile is imparted mechanically instead by a strong puff of breath."

Finn was impressed by the man's quick grasp of the underlying principle, ignoring the superficial differences. A lead bullet was round, small, heavy and metallic; a wooden blowgun dart was long lightweight and pointed with a fletch at the base made of down, feather tips, or animal fur.

Owen next asked about the odd contraptions parked nearby. Were they really capable of flight? Was that how this Corps of Discovery traveled to the mountains? Why had they come there anyway?

Finn spoke of the Corps of Discovery keeping his explanation simple. He also spoke of the reforms in the Flatlands that had swept away the old ways and abolished serfdom, ushering in an age of peace and prosperity.

Owen finally left after inviting the scouts and Corwin plus Finn to a celebratory dinner. He was sorry he could not invite all of their party but a small band of forest folk had so few resources.

The next day the strangers arrived at their camp by autogyro utterly astounding and delighting their new friends. Everyone who wanted to got to go up a demonstration flight. Afterwards, the army pilot showed how he could take to the air without a machine, simply lifting himself by his flying yoke.

"You folk of the Commonwealth have wondrous machines and strong magic." Owen told the visitors. "We ourselves have more modest gifts though ones of great importance in our lives: Healing, a Green Thumb, Calling Light, Kindling Fire, electrum sparks, and Unerring Direction. They make the difference between bare survival and a good quality of life."

Finn assured him that that was true of most people of the Commonwealth. It was just that with a population of one hundred thirty millions, even the small fraction with powerful gifts was very large. The Corps of Discovery was disproportionately made up of such persons. Owen and the forest folk were astonished to hear of such a huge population.

The celebratory dinner featured roast peccary, an animal much like a pig only smaller and with a gamier taste to the meat. Woven mats served for seats. Food was served on trenchers made from strips of bark and was eaten with the fingers. The forest folk lived in modest wigwams — dome-shaped huts made by fastening bark over a framework of bamboo poles. It kept out the wind and rain and gave them some protection from prowling animals. As Owen put it:

"A bear or a tiger could easily push its way through the wall of a wigwam or slash through the flap over the entryway but not without making enough noise to wake those sleeping inside. Alerted to the threat they might respond with electrum sparks, call light to englobe their head, or resort to spears or poison darts from their blowguns. We extract the poison from the skin of tree frogs. It is particularly handy for hunting monkeys. They think they are safe up in the trees, but one prick of a dart and in moments they lose their grip and fall at our feet."

"So despite the tiger attack you are not much afraid of predators?" Evan asked.

"No, we are not. In the forest big fierce predators are rare; otherwise they would soon run out of prey. Most animals fear and avoid humans and their sharp weapons and fire. At night we don't cower in the dark. We sing around the campfire and tell stories or just chat and socialize. We can call globes of light which hover overhead till we put them out, letting us look out and see what is out there."

"So no, we don't live in fear, though as yesterday's events show you never can tell. I was just bad luck that the tiger pounced on the one man out of the five fishermen who might have driven it off with electrum sparks."

Owen asked Finn to tell his band about the changes in the Flatlands. What Finn had told Owen sounded good, though he doubted that many of the forest folks would abandon their familiar way of life. Most likely it was the adventuresome young who might leave the mountains to seek their fortune and a future in the new world Finn had spoken of.

A trio of unattached young men did question Evan and Hugh at length about what life was like in the Flatlands. They thought they just might go there and see for themselves. Owen assured Finn that news about the new state of affairs below would spread among all the neighboring bands which traded and intermarried with each other.

Regardless the forest folk would end their long isolation which had been their shield against possible efforts by the descendants of their former owners to recapture them.

Finn then asked what they knew of the lands to the West beyond the front range. Owen shuddered and said that beyond the front range was an intermontane plateau which lay in the rain shadow of the front range. Hence much of it was open forest or meadow.

To hear the forest folk tell of it, the plateau was a place of ill omen, one the forest folk kept well away from. Those few who had ventured there and returned alive told of rapacious carnivorous birds twice the height of a man with huge heads and beaks. The birds were the apex predators of the plateau, fast runners and utterly unafraid of human beings.

The expedition had previously found several rough passes through the front range. No roads or trails crossed the intermontane plateau beyond which lay ever higher ranges of mountains. Who knew what monsters or hostile peoples roamed those still distant lands. Owen hoped their weapons and powerful magic would protect them since they seemed bound and determined to push westward. Good luck and may the gods watch over them.

In a whispered aside Hugh commented sardonically to Evan:

"Sure their gods will watch over us benignly but do nothing as we get torn apart by monstrous birds."

Evan shrugged.

"Bullets can kill birds as easily as tigers; the bigger the bird, the bigger the target."

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