Elf Boy's Friends - X
When it was time for Sir Willet to return to the capital, he said goodbye to both Corwin and Axel who had decided to travel together for a while. Sir Willet could reach the capital instantly via a space portal and deliver Corwin's latest reports to the Capital Intelligencer faster than they could be transmitted letter by letter over the postal heliograph.
"Don't worry, Sir Willet." Corwin assured the war wizard. "I'll bring Axel back safe and sound."
Axel snorted. "You mean I'll bring you back, Corwin. Remember I can transport us anywhere at the speed of thought."
Actually Axel could teleport himself and anyone he touched instantly to any place he himself had once reached via a space portal or those he could see either with the naked eye or through a far-viewer. Once Axel's neural circuits invoked his gift, transit was instantaneous, which was why he liked to say that he traveled at the speed of thought.
After taking their leave of their comrades Hugh and Jules and Donnar and Otho, the boys rode out of Flensborg on new mounts, a couple of tractable mares, having relinquished their cavalry mount to the military. With ample supplies in the saddlebags and carbines in scabbards on their saddles, they rode side by side either at a walk or more usually at a trot.
Now Corwin was born on the Eastern Plains and had grown up with horses. Axel was a city boy and so was far less accomplished as a rider. Oh Axel did not dislike horses the way Drew Altair did, but he never went riding for recreation. To him a horse was strictly for off-road transportation. If you went by road, then folks would be better off taking a coach or riding a bicycle.
And these days Axel had a much better alternative: teleportation. The only disadvantage of jumping from place to place was that you missed everything in between. That was simply no way to explore new country or take in the sights. That meant riding, often at a trot.
Now the trot is a two-beat gait where the diagonal pairs of legs move forward at the same time with a moment between each beat when all four feet are off the ground. For long distance travel average speed is 8 miles per hour. A skilled equestrian could ride without bouncing, but that required well-conditioned back and abdominal muscles, and even then trotting for long periods was tiring even for experienced riders which Axel definitely was not. That led to grumbling.
"Whoever invented this gait anyway? Either the saddle slaps your butt with every stride, or you have to post up and down, which is a lot of work. Isn't the whole idea about riding that the horse does the work?"
"But Axel, the trot is the working gait for a horse. Horses can canter or gallop only for only a short time before they have to rest, whereas a horse can maintain a trot for hours. The trot is the gait by which horses travel any real distance."
"Then they should all learn the amble. Now there's a gait which is reasonably fast, smooth, and easy on the rider, and the horse can keep it up for a very long time too." Axel countered.
"That is true, but few breeds of horses have that particular gait and very few of those which don't can be trained to it. Trust me. I am a horseman from way back. Why I was still a kid when they invented stirrups."
"As long ago as that eh?"
Corwin shook his head.
"You are lucky Axel that you didn't take up riding till you were seventeen right after you got your job as Sir Willet's aide. I first got up on a horse or really a pony when I was ten years younger than that."
"Back in those days saddles had leather covered prongs which you wedged your hips into leaving your feet to dangle. That wasn't really a problem for me. I learned to ride bareback without even a saddle blanket between me and my mount. That kind of early experience develops your seat, as we horse persons like to put in."
Some days later, the travelers were forced to make camp as the setting sun caught them on still on the road. Axel set things up while Corwin saw to the horses, checking the frogs of their feet and brushing them down.
"Aren't you going to hobble them so they don't run off?" Axel asked.
"They won't do that now that they are familiar with us. Saddle horses know that their riders will take care of them: show them where to go, shelter them in stables out of the weather, feed them oats which are tastier and more nutritious than grass, and sometimes offer treats such as tart apples or crunchy carrots. That is why I refilled my sack of treats at that last farm. No, these mares know when they are well off. They won't stray. Not unless something runs them off."
Corwin shrugged. "Predators with a taste for meat: a tawny panther, a pack of wolves, a slash bear. Just the cry of a predator can spook a horse."
After an uneventful night, Axel and Corwin were just sitting down to breakfast when their horses let out screams of fear. A pair of slash bears charged out of the tree line. The one in the lead killed Corwin's mare with a mighty sweep of its paw, which was armed with fearsome claws hence species' name. The second bear started to go for Axel's mount when a snow white shape rushed forward and interposed itself between predator and prey.
At first it looked like a bad idea for a very small horse, a pony really, to challenge a huge slash bear. When the boys looked closer, they saw the equine had a horn more than a foot long slanting forward out of its forehead. The skull was different too, much larger in back to accommodate a fully sentient brain, for this was no horse but a magical being, a unicorn.
Taken aback, the slash bear rose onto his hind paws and roared a challenge. That was when the unicorn cut loose with its so-called killer neigh. Really an intolerable screech, it did not kill but startled, pained, and distracted its foes, and either drove them off or made them vulnerable to the unicorn's natural weapons: horn, hoofs, and teeth.
That was a simple enough power, but surprisingly effective in battle for both defense and offense. Armed foes could not handle their own weapons effectively. They put their hands to their ears, making them easy to dispose of or to run away from.
Both slash bears abandoned the hunt and ran for the trees. Anything to get away from that horrible sound. After which the unicorn ambled up to the camp.
"Thank you Sir Unicorn," Corwin began, using an honorific which he thought only proper for addressing so noble a creature and one which had rendered them so signal a service despite its apparent youth.
<Actually it should be I asking your pardon,> the unicorn began with Mind Speech.
<I let my situational awareness slip. Instead of keep alert for predators and chasing them away, I focussed my attention on the two of you. That was why the bears got close enough to attack.>
"My name is Corwin Klarendes and my friend here is Axel Wilde."
<My name is Derrionydd or Derry for short.>
"Uh, no offense Derry," Axel began, "but what you you have done if that bear had shook off the effects of your screech and attacked? The slash bear was more than twice your size. A colt like you ought to wait till you grow up to tackle such opponents."
<I'm no colt but a stallion and I am all grown up. You are judging me by the standards of a fully equine unicorn, but I am a shapeshifter. Watch.>
Leaving that statement hanging, the unicorn transformed, its shape blurring then taking on an entirely new one, that of a naked youth standing a finger over six and one half feet, with glabrous alabaster skin, shoulder length ash-blond hair, and icy grey eyes.
"You're a Snow Elf!" Corwin exclaimed. "But you're so much taller and more solidly built than those we have met."
<My folks are equal parts giant and elf so in size I am in between. I am a shapeshifter rather than a natural born unicorn though I am endowed with the powers of both.>
<As for taking on a slash bear, we were not so mismatched as you think. I am nearly four times as strong as I seem. I might weigh just under three hundred pounds but I am stronger than a draft horse or a Frost Giant. If that bear had charged on all fours, I would have crushed its skull with my hoofs. Or if it had stayed poised on two legs, I could have impaled its heart on my horn.>
"What if your horn had hit its breastbone. Might it not have shattered or broken off?"
<Not hardly. The horn of a unicorn is stronger than steel and has the sharpest point of any weapon. It will shear through anything, even armor.>
"He's right Axel. Not long ago Merry told me that horn of the unicorn was a sharp as one of your obsidian surgical blades."
Scalpels made of the dark volcanic glass obsidian had a cutting edge many times sharper than a steel blade. Under a microscope the blade of even the sharpest metal knife has a jagged, irregular edge while that of an obsidian blade is smooth and even.
"Anyway, would you care for some breakfast?"
As his stomach rumbled Derry joked: <There's your answer.>
With that they settled down and ate what Axel had already prepared while he put more bacon and hash browns into the pan to cook. They had a full pot of kaffay.
<You said that you lived in the capital of the Commonwealth of the Long River. So I have to wonder what brings so far from there?>
Corwin explained that he was a journalist writing an update on the development of New Varangia. He and Axel had recently taken part in a hunt and then a brief war against manticores and centaurs. Derry had never encountered either species, which was probably just as well as they might have overwhelmed him. His sonic weapon might not be as effective against invasive species so alien to the planet.
"OK, now you know about us." Axel said. "What are you doing all alone and so far from the nearest settlement?"
<I am on walkabout and have been since last year when I turned seventeen and left my folks and the vale of my birth. My family and friends are all good people but the life of a sylvan elf was not for me. I was made for roaming. I want to see what lies over the next hill, to see natural wonders like volcanoes, cataracts, canyons, and caverns. I hope to travel the world and visit different peoples and learn something of their ways of life. As you might expect I usually cover ground in my unicorn form. Four legs are better than two."
"That makes sense," Axel said then asked. "It strikes me that a name like Derrionydd is so much like that of our friend Meirionnydd. He is druid who was locked into the form of a full-fledged unicorn for centuries before he was permanently transformed into an elf-boy. Now your own shape shifting powers would not have manifested till your teens, so how did your parents know to give you such a distinctive name?"
"Actually my folks originally named me Wolfgang. Now that is a fine name for a frost giant. It suggests strength and fierceness. But for a magical being like a unicorn? No way! So I gave myself a name more fitting for my newly exalted station in life as a unicorn cum Snow Elf."
"Admittedly though I do feel more like a Wolfgang than a Derry whenever I have to fight or to hunt.>
<Yes I do. I can easily run down game like antelope or rabbit or such. One kick to the head and I have meat."
"But unicorns are vegetarians." Axel objected.
<Unicorns, yes, but in my true form I am like you. I have hands and the teeth and the digestive system of an omnivore. So after the hunt I transform to dress the carcass and cook the meat and whatever tubers or greens I can rustle up locally or have in my pack.>
<Now you guys are on walkabout yourself in a certain sense. So I am thinking, would you care to join forces? It could be a lot of fun.>
"How do you know you can trust us? We might be highwaymen for all you know, looking for the chance to rob you of your valuables."
<My gift of Mind Speech includes the power of empathy. Without invading the actual thoughts of others, I can tell who is trustworthy and who is not. So I know that both of you are good people.>
The boys agreed that it was a fine idea that they travel together. And yes eventually Derry would travel to Elysion to visit with and maybe join the snow elves of the New Forest, but that was for later. For now, Derry wanted to see something of the wider world.
<Just one thing. When I said earlier that I was watching you so intently that I missed the approach of the bears, I didn't tell you that the reason why my attention was so centered on you was because I was enthralled. I fancy pretty boys, and there you were: two lovely youths prancing around in a state of nature. I hope I haven't offended you with my forwardness.>
"No problem. The two of us are lovers, and ours is an open relationship. What's one more?" Corwin told him blithely.
Later Derry fetched his gear which was in a pack he could carry conveniently in either form. That left the problem of transportation. Axel's mare Melody had run off a ways but then returned of her own will, enticed by Corwin's carrots. Corwin's own mount was dead. They left the carcass for the bears who no doubt would return once the three of them broke camp and resumed their journey. You couldn't begrudge wild animals for following their instincts.
"I don't suppose you could let me ride you, Derry." Corwin ventured. "Our unicorn friend Merry never let Dahlderon ride him except that one time when he was badly hurt fighting a Tracker. "Besides, I am not a virgin."
"Oh?" Axel asked him with eyebrows raised. "Have you finally found a girl to your liking?"
"You know what I mean, Axel." Corwin chided him.
<That business about virgins is just a silly superstition.>
<The reason unicorns don't let people ride them is that we don't want to be thought of as beasts of burden. We see ourselves as people with four legs. Sure I'll give you a ride, though under certain conditions. You ride bareback. No saddle; yours wouldn't fit me anyway, and no harness whether bridle or hackamore. I am in control. We go where I choose. You can make suggestions, but don't try to take charge or to guide me. The barrel of my body is small enough for you to get your legs around and you can hang on to my mane too, so you won't have any trouble staying on my back even at a gallop. Besides the gait I use to cover any real distance is the amble.>
"The amble! That is so unfair!" Axel grumbled. "You get to amble while I am stuck with this nag who can only trot — uh no offense Melody. One thing is for sure. My next mount will be trained to the amble. I don't care how much I have to pay for a special breed. Anyway, what is the point of being rich if you cannot spend money on things you really need?"
<And one thing more, Corwin. You ride sky clad. No clothes. Not a stitch. I want to feel your bare bum on my back.>
"That's fine by me. I've always hankered to spend an extended period running around sky clad as the twins and Drew have done or like the Snow Elves do. And I am sure I will look just fabulous bare-ass and bareback atop a magical unicorn."
"One more thing, Derry. When you mount me, you must do it in human form."
<No problem. Shape shifters always mate in human form.>
That was how Derry the wir unicorn joined their circle of friends and the three youths set out on walkabout in search of adventure.
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