Elf Boy's Friends - X

by George Gauthier

Chapter 4

The Hunt

This was to be a hunt over rough country rather than a combat patrol so the hunters wore little armor. The giants did wear caps with steel crowns but those were to protect their heads from low hanging tree limbs. The gunmen marched with socket bayonets fixed to the barrels of their weapons. The ring of a socket bayonet fit over the muzzle and was locked in place by a lug. That allowed guns to be discharged even with bayonets fixed.

The elves bore no armor either. The weight would only slow them down. Neither did Corwin, but then his ball lightning was shield enough. The fetchers did wear cuirasses of boiled leather, not so much for protection as for the wooden yoke and straps built into it by which they could Lift themselves and fly.

All the hunters except the elves were sturdily shod in the hobnailed sandals the infantry wore, even Corwin who usually wore moccasins when he wasn't barefoot. They all wore full shirts and trews since they might have to push their way through brush and brambles or canebrakes. Everyone carried some kind of short blade in a scabbard at their belt, mostly kukris, Corwin's own choice since it was as much a handy tool as a weapon. They did not rely on pack animals but carried their supplies in their packs, enough for ten days, not counting whatever they might forage.

Their order of march had the elves in the lead searching for spoor, then the strike force of four pairs of giants followed by the five magic wielders in the center: Donnar and Otho, Hugh and Jules, plus Corwin, with the final pair of giants as rear security. Since this was not a war patrol they did not send a scout ahead of the column nor flankers to the sides. Their quarry were feral animals not enemy soldiers.

On the second day the hunters came upon the lair of the pack Corwin had destroyed at the road head including the body of one manticore which had died of its wounds. The trackers examined the site trying to understand the habits of the creatures they were hunting. That gave Corwin a chance to look over the airguns the giants bore.

"That's a pretty hefty airgun you guys are carrying there."

"So it is, young sir." their sergeant agreed. "It's bigger than airguns sized for humans. And though it fires the same lead bullets they pack a greater punch. With barrels being so much longer, the outrushing air accelerates the bullet down the bore for a longer interval, which imparts greater speed and momentum. These airguns won't have any trouble putting down a manticore. The bayonet is just in case."

"In case of what?" Corwin wondered.

"In case you empty either the magazine or the air reservoir or the mechanism jams. The bayonet give us nearly the reach of a spear. And see how this short spike unfolds from the butt plate of the gun and sticks out at a ninety degree angle. That is for when an enemy gets within your guard. You cannot use the blade then, but you can smash your foe with the butt and the spike. Driven by the power of a frost giant, the spike will punch right through a skull."

"Wicked!"

"It's a home grown modification we giants thought up ourselves. I understand the Army is considering adopting it for general use, though with the surplus of arms leftover from the troll war it will be a while before the manufactories gear up to produce replacements for the airguns currently in the inventory."

No one wanted to make camp by the lair of the manticores so the hunters pushed on till they found a better site: a thorn thicket with a stream running through it. The giants hacked away with their kukris to create a clearing in the middle, piling some of the cuttings into the pathway by which they had forced their way into the thicket. With no chance of the manticores sneaking up at them, they needed only one sentry on duty during the night. That meant easy watches of one hour for each of the frost giants.

The next day was spent casting about for the spoor of another pack of manticores. Late in the afternoon the hunters found promising sign but decided not to follow it till early the next day. A defile in the rocks provided a defensible camp site with just one entrance. They blocked it with a fire which they kept blazing through all the hours of darkness though that night they posted two sentries.

In the hours before dawn a pair of manticores tried to get past the fire by clinging to walls of the defile. One made it but the manticore bringing up the rear slipped and fell into the fire. It let out a yowl as it burst into the camp scorched, hurt, and angry.

The two young fetchers who had been on sentry duty dealt with the manticores while the others were still reaching for their weapons.

"I'll take the one on the left." Hugh told Jules who nodded and turned his attention to the manticore on the right.

The fetchers Lifted the beasts some twenty feet into the air and held them stationary, easy targets for their disks which they sent flying at the manticores, cutting at them with half a dozen passes, literally dismembering them before the eyes of the entire hunting party. After that no one doubted the effectiveness of those steel disks of theirs.

"Good job there Hugh and Jules. The manticores didn't stand a chance against your steel discs." Donnar said in praise of their actions.

Hugh and Jules beamed.

"And let me compliment the rest of you for your excellent fire discipline. It would have been disastrous if everyone had cut loose at the invaders at once. Just imagine the danger with lead bullets, arrows, fireballs, and levin bolts flying every which way. Instead you all kept your heads. No one started shooting wildly. This augurs well for our future success."

With that they settled down and went back to sleep.

The rest of the manticore pack may have been lurking or at least hunting nearby because they attacked the hunters half an hour after they broke camp and passed through the defile. As the hunters crossed a meadow two dozen manticores burst out of the tree line, howling as they raced at their prey.

The eight giants with airguns and the trackers with their long bows let loose. The shooters had put nine manticores down when the mages stepped in. Donnar himself threw two streams of fire which caught two closely bunched pairs of monsters. Otho picked off three more beasts with his levin bolts, while the fetchers whirled their disks through their dance of death. Only three manticores made it close enough to finished off with bayonets.

All it all it was a stunning success: all the manticores were dead and not a single hunter was injured.

"Don't get too cocky. All our fights won't be so one-sided as this one," Donnar warned them. "If the beasts had caught us in brushy terrain, we couldn't have aimed our stand-off weapons so well, allowing them get in among us."

One of the trackers had a private word with Donnar.

"Some animals are smart enough to attack from two directions at once. You really need to have some of us facing the other way when we are under attack."

"That is good advice. And thanks for mentioning it to me privately."

The next encounter did degenerate into a close-quarters struggle when ten manticores rose out of tall grass only a spear throw from the marching column. The manticores got in among them, their proximity neutralizing the powers of the mages. At such close quarters the fetchers couldn't wield their discs, but they did keep the manticores off themselves by simply hurling them back. They also tore away three manticores who had swarmed over a giant and brought him down.

Cold steel settled the issue: bayonets, kukris, and butt spikes ended the lives of the manticores though at a cost of several nasty bite wounds on arms and legs. Two giants and an elf were left comatose by stings. Thankfully Corwin's skills as a combat medic and as a magical Healer were up to the challenge.

"No offense to you elves but archery is all offense and no defense." Otho observed. "Now in military operations groups of archers can shelter behind caltrops or stakes, and in the troll war they had the support of magnetic cannon, but none of that works for a pair of archers in the wilderness."

"Right. From now on," Donnar told them, "whenever we are rushed, you archers should rally to the gunmen but turn the other way to watch for an attack from the rear."

With danger all around, Corwin and the fetchers Hugh and Jules decided to hold their budding romance in abeyance till they got back to civilization. No one wanted to be caught out in a vulnerable situation.

The hunters failed to make contact over the next few days. In need of resupply they stopped by an elven vale where they could purchase the supplies they needed. The hunters spent two nights there as guests of the elves, glad for a chance to rest without worrying about what might be lurking in the dark.

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