Elf Boy's Friends - X

by George Gauthier

Chapter 3

Manticores

Over the next couple of weeks Corwin interviewed the inhabitants of the city of Flensborg and its outlying settlements. These included the newly re-elected governor Oddr Bjarnson who expressed his satisfaction that New Varangia had reached its goal of settling half a million Frost Giants in their second homeland, territories which they had wrested by force of arms from the carnivorous centaurs who had looked on all the sentient races of the planet as no more than meat animals.

Humans, elves, and dwarves added another eighty-five thousand to the mix with more to come, especially dwarves, who were occupying the systems of caverns in South Varangia as well as those in the mountains to the north of the farming country which the giants had settled. The Sylvan Elves preferred to live in secluded vales in the northern mountains where they farmed both mulberry trees and the silkworms that fed on their leaves.

More recently the elves had created an industry to supply cut-flowers and starter pots of medicinal and culinary herbs which were difficult to grow from seed to the urban centers of New Varangia and even of the Far West via air freight. Flensborg alone was a real city of some sixty-four thousand. Its flower shops were no longer limited to what grew locally but could offer exotic blooms nurtured by the Green Thumbs which elves were famous for.

Most of Corwin's interlocutors were Frost Giants, though some were human, often former nomads from the Western Plains whom the giants had invited to settle among them to take care of the draft horses which drew stage and freight wagons along the fine new roads the Commonwealth had built.

Frost Giants themselves were much too large for horses whether as riders or even as teamsters. That was simple economics. A team of horses could pull only so much weight. Human teamsters weighed only a hundred pounds or so while giants could weigh five times as much, making for that much less capacity for the payload. (That same logic applied to the humans and elves and dwarves whose telekinetic gift powered autogyros like the one that had brought Corwin to Flensborg.)

Frost Giants were a neat and orderly people. They had no patience with the mess draft animals left behind, so horses were not allowed in town but were stabled on the outskirts. In town goods were moved about by push carts operated by the powerful giants themselves which rolled along streets paved with well-set flat stones. The pavement let carts roll freely, and they never get stuck in mud. They did not make much noise either with solid rubber tires on the rims of the wheels.

Corwin knew Eike would have been pleased to see so many upright tricycles on the streets, all of them built with the wire wheel technology he licensed to the manufacturers. Three identical wheels nearly four feet across could support the weight of even the burliest of giants. Wire wheels only looked flimsy. In a wooden wheel the rim and spokes were thick and rigid. With a wire wheel the metal rim was flexible and the load kept the wire spokes under tension, a design that made the wire wheel light and strong and with very little rolling resistance.

These days Flensborg and New Varangia were connected to the Commonwealth proper not only by modern roads and a postal heliograph line but also by an iron road which brought in beef from the Western Plains in refrigerated freight wagons as well as manufactures and passengers from the settled lands to the east. So far the iron road reached only to Flensborg. From that point freight and passengers had to proceed by stage, wagon, river boat, or autogyro. Roads and river and sea routes connected New Varangia to the Far West.

The slaughterhouses which supplied the beef were situated in Plainsville, the only town on the plains built by the Commonwealth on land leased from the nomads. More than a few nomad families had settled in the town, preferring a settled urban existence in nuclear families and paid employment to the traditional life and extended families of the tribal nomads. Their departure eased the population pressure on those left behind so it was a win-win situation.

Corwin spent a day with Finn's brother Holgar who showed him around their operation both at their lumber yard in town and at their sawmill upstream where they owned extensive timberlands. Shipyards at the head of navigation on the River Calyx turned their lumber into ships which plied the Great Inland Freshwater Sea. The firm also supplied lumber to build houses in the growing town. Much of Flensborg was built of wood rather than of brick or stone which too expensive for most uses though a brickworks had opened recently to exploit nearby clay pits, much to the satisfaction of the volunteer firefighters of the city.

"The lumberjack first tops the tree then fells it with axe and cross-cut saw. As you can see, I also have the men at work extending logging roads to reach fresh stands of timber. We replant with seedlings after clearing a parcel. We'll give it thirty years before we come back to harvest the mature trees. That way our timberlands will yield quality wood indefinitely. The only downside is that over time we transform a good part of the forest into a tree plantation. But better than than encroaching endlessly on virgin forest."

"Why are these axes so different?" Corwin asked pointing to tools laid out in the bed of a wagon.

"Ah, this first one would be your basic felling axe. The bit or cutting head has to be very sharp to sever the fibers as it cuts across the grain of the wood. Now this splitting axe is shaped like a wedge and cuts with the grain. It parts the fibers rather than cuts through them. This next type is a broad axe which is swung with the grain of the wood to hew the felled log and shape it into the squared-off timbers used in construction. It is chisel-shaped with one flat and one beveled edge, for better control as the flat cheek passes across the squared timber. This final type of tool is called an adze. Its main differences from the others is a side-to-side blade. We use the adze to rip the level surface off a horizontal piece of wood. We also use it as a pickaxe for breaking up rocks and clay when building logging roads."

"Now I understand. I am more familiar with war axes than any other kind. Damn the trolls and their murderous ways."

Just then shouts and sounds of a fierce struggle came from up ahead, where the road building crew was at work. Someone blew a horn to sound the alarm and the call to arms. Everyone in the crew grabbed an axe or adze and marched to the road head prepared for the worst, which is exactly what they found.

Monsters out of legend had attacked the road building crew who were mostly giants though with a few human teamsters to clear felled logs. Already two giants were down while a human teamster had been dragged by his runaway team and lay still, either injured or dead. The rest of the crew was fighting as best they could wielding adzes and shovels instead of proper weapons, but they were outnumbered, seven giants to a score of the attackers.

Looking much like a pack of wolves with an extra set of legs, their attackers were six limbed creatures the size of pony. Like the centaurs they had internal cartilaginous skeletons. Unlike the extinct centaurs the creatures ran on all six limbs which ended in paws with blunt claws, much like those of dogs and wolves. The jaws were armed with shearing teeth designed to tear the flesh of their prey, and they had tails as long as their bodies equipped with a vicious stinger. Their external shell of chitinous armor gave protection against the claws or fangs of their prey but would not stop cold steel.

Holgar took in the situation and realized that their only chance was to keep the beasts from surrounding them and attacking them from all directions.

"Over to the rock face." he shouted. "Put your backs to it. Then the creatures can come at us only from the front."

The giants and humans converged on the rock face, though not without loss. Two more giants went down, swarmed over by the beasts.

"What are those things, anyway?" Corwin asked of no one in particular.

"Manticores." Holgar told him. "They were the hunting beasts of the centaurs. After we wiped out their masters they must have run into the forest where they turned feral and multiplied. To them we are just so much prey."

The giants soon realized that work tools were not the best weapons for fighting manticores. If you had to fight with edged weapons, better they be boar spears to hold them at bay or a combination of buckler and sword. The buckler would block a sting or a bite while the sword could sever the tail or split a skull or stab into the guts of the manticore, something you could not do with an axe.

That was when Corwin set to work with his ball lightning, sweeping a pair of crackling and humming spheres four feet in diameter just in front of the defensive line the giants were trying to hold. That drove the manticores back far enough for a safety buffer for Corwin's explosive technique. Targeting the milling manticores he launched balls of lighting into their midst which burst with a flash and an electric crackle electrocuting or tearing the beasts apart, leaving grisly piles of disjointed limbs, guts, and charred body parts. He kept at it till he had killed all but the final few which disappeared into the woods.

Corwin then checked on the fallen. The human teamster who had been dragged by his team was only stunned and had scrapes on his arms and legs. Two giants had had their throats torn out while another's arm was badly savaged by the teeth of a manticore. Surprisingly, those who had been stung were not dead, only comatose and still breathing.

"It seems that the sting of a manticore is not deadly, which kind of makes sense."

"What do you mean, Corwin?" Holgar asked.

"The centaurs evidently needed the help of their manticores in running their prey down but wanted to reserve the honor of the kill to themselves. Hence the soporific venom. Here, let me see what I can do for them."

Invoking his healing magic Corwin flushed the venom from the systems of the manticore's victims, drawing it to the site of the sting and making it dribble out of the puncture wound. That left the victims still feeling terribly out of sorts from after effects, but Corwin was confident that their natural recuperative powers would restore them to full health in very short order. He then repaired the badly torn arm more fully than he would have done if he had had medical supplies at hand. Magical Healing was intended for when natural medicine could not do the job.

And that was how Corwin, Lord Klarendes of Dalnot, earned his tattoo as a Giant-Friend.

The authorities at Flensborg realized that packs of manticores constituted a danger to the public but not an existential threat to a land with nearly six hundred thousand inhabitants, many of them trained to arms. As a long term solution Governor Bjarnson put a bounty on their heads or rather their stingers. In the short term he had the constabulary organize hunting teams to track down packs of manticores living near any of the settled areas including the caverns of the dwarves and the vales of the elves.

The hunting party from Flensborg set out two days later under the command of Donnar, a woodsman from way back with Otho as his deputy, who were both members of the constabulary. The party included six pairs of giants armed with airguns. Two elves armed with long bows served as trackers. Humans were represented by two fetchers named Hugh and Jules, cute sandy haired lads with hazel eyes, but no dwarves were in the party. Dwarves did not have the fieldcraft necessary for a hunt. Besides, their legs were too short for them to keep up.

The veterans Donnar and Otho were the heavy hitters of the group, one a firecaster the other a lightning thrower. Otho also had the gift of Unerring Direction so he was their designated navigator. Corwin went with them but as a reporter rather than a hunter or mage.

"So Donnar, why do we need both a navigator and a pair of trackers?" Corwin asked.

Donner smiled. "The trackers can tell us where the manticores are. Otho can tell us where we are.

"As I see it," Otho added, "on this hunt we Varangians are just finishing the job of exterminating the centaurs. By the time we are through even their hunting dogs will be but a memory. My levin bolts and Donnar's balls of fire will ensure the safety of the hunters though I expect most of the culling will be done with lead or cold steel."

"That includes the steel of our disks." the young fetchers reminded him.

Otho shrugged. "Let's hope so. I've never seen them in action."

The Navy had developed the disks for use in ship to ship combat. They were shaped like a discus but with keen edges and were designed to cut apart lines, sheets, shrouds, hawsers, and cables thereby rendering the ship inoperable, an immobilized hulk on the water that could be dealt with later.

Later the Army Air Corps adopted them for use against enemy flyers in the anti-personnel role, as the military chillingly put it. Meanwhile fetchers like Drew Altair and Liam also carried theirs in wooden holsters at their hips to supplement their steel spheres. Spheres were for smashing and disks for cutting.

The human fetchers in the hunting party both carried spears, partly as a hiking pole and partly for psychological reasons. No one cared to confront danger empty handed.

"Are you two boys twins?" Corwin asked the fetchers.

"No, though we get that a lot since we look so much alike, but we are actually first cousins. It is our fathers who are the twins." Hugh told him.

"We're not just first cousins; we are kissing cousins," Jules clarified naughtily.

"Ah, boys after my own heart."

"Likewise" the fetchers responded in unison eyeing Corwin appreciatively. "We three should get better acquainted while we are out here in the woods."

"Count on it." Corwin told them.

The fetchers might not have been in Corwin's league in the looks department, but they had fine athletic bodies and pleasant faces and were outgoing and friendly and good company. The trackers were mature elves who were not interested in a casual romance, not while on the job anyway.

Hugh and Jules told Corwin that they had been hired for Flensborg's first street car line which was nearing completion. Now with Frost Giants for riders, you needed a fairly strong fetcher to propel a streetcar, but Hugh and Jules were fully up to the job.

Street cars had been pioneered in the Commonwealth capital by Sir Angus McFarden, King of the Iron Roads, as Drew Altair had dubbed him in his reporting. A single Fetcher propelled a car down steel tracks laid flush to the paving stones. The street cars traveled at more than twice walking speed and stopped at marked locations every three blocks. Passengers either chucked two coppers into the fare box or flashed a monthly pass.

Streetcars were popular. They were fast, convenient, quiet, inexpensive, and safe. Streetcars had an unblemished safety record. Running into a pedestrian or vehicle was almost impossible with an operator who could simply Lift anyone or anything off the tracks to safety. McFarden's firm had licensed its technology to a start-up in Flensborg where the flat terrain of the city was ideal for the purpose.

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