Elf Boy's Friends - X

by George Gauthier

Chapter 9

Boomtown

In time their journey brought the travelers to the bottom of the Great Escarpment. Ages ago an earthquake had split the earth for many miles, lifting the bedrock to the south by more than three hundred feet [100 m], creating a nearly vertical escarpment. The stone wall extended east and west as far as the eye could see.

During an expedition years earlier, confronted by this impassible barrier, Sir Willet had built an access road to the higher land south of the escarpment. Shooting a stream of white fire along the face of the wall the war wizard had blasted a ledge slanting all the way to the top.

His road was wide enough for horses and wagons. Its surface was quite smooth, but the natural grain of the rock afforded decent traction. Weeks later Sir Willet had built a second road further along the wall, explaining that you always needed a back door. Axel had been along on that earlier expedition so, guided by his gift of Unerring Direction, he headed straight for the start of the first road at the base of the wall.

Derry was surefooted enough to walk up on four legs, though Corwin dismounted to ease his burden. Axel followed on foot leading his uncomplaining mare Melody. The road really might have been wide enough Derry and Melody to climb side by side, but that would have put the one on the outside a little too close to the drop-off for comfort.

From the top they headed south along a winding road which bent back and forth to keep to the ridge lines rather than descend into the hollows where the creeks flowed and then up the opposite slopes. This route was originally a brontothere trace, an energy saving game trail which spared the massive brontotheres the effort of endless descents and ascents which they would have had to make traveling across the grain of the country.

Brontotheres still traveled seasonally to salt licks three hundred miles to the south, coexisting amicably with travelers on the understanding that brontotheres always had the right of way.

[Salt licks provide animals with salt and elements like calcium, iron, phosphorus, and zinc plus trace elements) which are needed in the springtime for bone and muscle growth.]

The road led from the escarpment toward the settlements of the Frost Giants and those of the elves and dwarves with whom they shared the virgin land now called South Varangia. It was all undiscovered country even to Axel whose prior journey had gone down a different path.

The first two settlements they encountered were the clean well-ordered villages typical of Frost Giants, but the next was a raw mining town laid out helter-skelter, with little care for practicality or even basic sanitation. Board sidewalks flanked the unpaved streets lined with tents and temporary buildings thrown up hastily. Privies rather than sewers served for bodily wastes.

The town of Viborg teemed with with persons of all races on the lookout for the main chance. There were giants and dwarves, and humans, plus a sprinkling of elves and orcs. Homes were few. The town was all boarding houses, tent dormitories, eating places, saloons, gambling joints, and brothels. The sounds of music and drunken revelry jarred their ears. And the smell left a lot to be desired. At least the ground was well drained so they did not have to slog through mud.

<A boomtown is an excrescence upon the land.> Derry observed. <Only greed makes people live in so foul a way.>

Corwin nodded.

"We could bypass this town, but I am a reporter, and I suspect there are some good stories here. Shall we stop for a while or push on?"

"I am for staying." Axel said, "but we'd better keep our guard up. Towns like this attract unsavory sorts who prey on the miners who do the hard work only to see it slip through their fingers and wind up in the hands of saloon keepers, brothel operators, and professional gamblers, not to mention thieves and footpads and claim jumpers."

<Before we get to the built up area, I am going to change to my Snow Elf form and wear my sarong."

Derry removed the boldly patterned green and white sarong from his pack and wrapped it around his hips, securing it with a bone clip.

"Let's keep it to ourselves that I am a shape shifter. It might be our trump card.>

"Good idea." Corwin agreed. "Same tactic with our major gifts. We don't talk up our reputations and make no mention that I can wield ball lightning or that Axel can teleport. To throw bad guys off, I will wear my expeditionary outfit with the armbands which proclaim me both a combat medic and a Healer, but let's keep our sleeves rolled down to the elbow so they cannot see the tattoos that mark me as a Giant-Friend or you Axel as an Orc-Friend."

"Fine, and let's ask the local law about the best place for honest travelers to stay." Axel proposed.

"We'd better hope the local law isn't corrupt." Corwin replied.

Corwin's empathic gift confirmed that the town marshall was an honest man or rather a tough looking Frost Giant with a harried look about him. The nameplate on his desk gave his name as Lars Sigurdsson.

"I see that one of you is a Healer. Healers we need. So if you here to practice your profession, then you are welcome. If you come looking for sapphires my advice is to move on. Nice boys like you wouldn't be safe in a boomtown like this. You three don't look like you could defend yourself against claim jumpers. Only one of you has any brawn, and you would be facing giants and dwarves. Your life is worth more than any pretty stones you might dig up."

Corwin shook his head:

"We aren't miners, but there is money to be made in a boomtown without getting your hands dirty. I am sure I can make a good living here as a Healer. As for my friends, they have private means and interests of their own and will be staying with me for a while. Also we three are more capable of taking care of ourselves than you give us credit for you, though I don't care to elaborate on how."

"I can understand that you want to play your cards close to your vest. Anyway Red, that ruby in your amulet will draw attention. You just might get bashed over the head and wake up without it, if you do wake up."

"Actually the stone is just a garnet and has little value as a gemstone."

"Maybe, but robbers wouldn't know that beforehand, would they?"

"Then as opportunities present themselves at saloons and eating places I'll make a point of mentioning, just in passing mind you, that it is only a garnet, which I wear because it is my birthstone. Hopefully word will get around for them not to waste their time."

Axel wasn't really worried about theft. His wartime experiences had taught him to maintain situational awareness at all times. And as a Jumper, he could easily dodge blows directed at him and turn the tables.

"Is crime really so out of hand?" Corwin asked.

"It's not so bad as that. Mostly it's crooked gambling, armed robberies, and fist and knife fights which result in mercifully few fatalities. Gems are kept in the vault of the miners' cooperative, so no one had been killed or robbed for his stash. Understand we do what I can to keep the lid on, but my two deputies and I cannot be everywhere at once. So watch out."

"One more thing which might interest you as a Healer. People have been dropping dead for no apparent reason. Five so far this spring. They were the picture of health in the evening, but when found the next morning stretched out in the street or an alley they were dead and looking as if they had aged thirty years overnight. Any ideas what might cause such deaths?"

"Not offhand, I'd have to examine the bodies."

Sigurdsson shook his head. "Cremated just in case whatever killed them was contagious. I'll bring you in to consult on the next case, all right?"

"Fine, and what about lodgings?"

The marshall directed them to what he assured them was the cleanest and safest boarding house in town. The landlady was none other than Mrs. Sigurdsson which explained why the criminal element largely left the place alone. It didn't hurt that one of the deputies boarded there too.

The rates were high, even for the inflated price structure of a boomtown, but then the travelers could afford it. Derry had only a modest poke, but since he had provided Corwin with transportation it was only fair that Corwin pay for the lodgings. The rooms were small but clean and fresh smelling though their thin walls forced Corwin and Derry to be less vocal during their enthusiastic couplings.

Suspicious about the mysterious deaths which he already suspected were the result of murder by magic. Corwin went to work at the local infirmary where he was paid the modest stipend of a beginning Healer. The job gave him the chance to sound out the local medical community. Over time he had a chance to question the staff about the mysterious deaths. What were their observations? Did they have a clue as to a diagnosis?

They too suspected that foul magic had been at work but also grumbled about having come under suspicion themselves. It was well known that magical healers could kill with a touch or just a thought really. Physical contact was not necessary though proximity was. But a heart attack did not leave a person looking like the way the victims had.

Axel and Derry carried out a parallel investigation into the circumstance of the deaths all of which had happened in the commercial district. While Derry sounded out the humbler members of the business community such as clerks and drivers Axel called at the bank, the businessmen's association, the offices of the freight line and other firms, ostensibly in search of investment opportunities. Sooner or later he brought the conversation around to the five mysterious deaths, saying he was worried not only for his personal safety but for the impact a larger outbreak might have on the prosperity of the town.

The substantial letter of credit Axel carried testified to his financial wherewithal. Moreover Axel had picked up enough about business from the wily dwarf Lennart to walk the walk and talk the talk.

All three took to visiting saloons and gambling palaces, though careful not overindulge. Corwin especially was the sort who was easy to talk to, while many were eager to chat up the exotic Snow Elf. Some men liked to brag, others to complain, still others expressed their hopes or their fears. To all of them the boys lent an ear. That gave them a better feel for this town and its varied populace, and what might be going on with the mysterious deaths.

The victims were found in circumstances that suggested they had not fallen prey to a malefactor skulking around or lurking in the shadows. No it had to be someone who could approach them openly and whose presence and movements at night would not attract undue attention.

A grizzled human seated at a card table in the most popular gambling hall asked Corwin:

"You always watch interestedly, Healer, but you never play cards yourself. Are you one of those fellows who just can't stand to lose?"

"Hardly. If I did play I would almost certainly win. First off I grew up in an army town where card playing is a major pastime. Second my healing magic includes a sensitive empathic gift. It would tell me whether an opponent really had good cards or was just bluffing. So it wouldn't be fair for me to sit in on a game. That would be like cheating. Not the kind of cheating where a player palms cards or deals from the bottom of the deck, but cheating all the same."

"Can you tell the real cheats from the honest players?"

"Certainly. You yourself are an honest player but also a skillful one, which is why you win more often than you lose, unlike that swarthy fellow sitting across from you who is neither honest nor very good at manipulating cards. He really should practice more."

The man in question rose to his feet, a scowl on his face.

"Are you calling me a cheat?"

"What else should I call a man who exchanges two of the cards he was dealt for better ones from up his sleeve?"

"But I have nothing up my sleeves, youngling." the man said smugly pushing his sleeves up past his elbows.

Corwin shook his head.

"Your sleeve was where you took your new cards from. You hid the discards in your sash."

Rough hands held the man, and a search produced the incriminating evidence. The crowd was in a mood to administer summary justice. There was talk of tar and feathers, but just then the marshall hurried in, alerted to the trouble by a customer who had stepped out and waved him down as he went about his rounds.

"I'll take it from here, gentlemen. Those of you who are willing to stand witness should give my their names."

The bartender produced pencil and paper and after taking down the names, the marshall took his prisoner to jail along with the man's chief accuser, Corwin Klarendes. Axel and Derry tagged along.

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