Elf Boy's Friends - X
Three splendid youths, one leading their only mount, jogged along a stretch of unimproved road, carried along by the metronomic scissoring of their legs. The road was really just a dirt track compacted by the feet and hoofs and footpads of countless travelers and animals before them. The three ran bare foot and in the nude, the morning sun making the beads of sweat on their glabrous skins sparkle like so many diamonds.
This trio traveled light so their gear fit into three sets of saddle bags, which was no real burden for the tractable mare named Melody who obediently clopped along at a trot easily keeping pace with the three joggers. The trot after all was the gait which horses favored for covering any real distance.
The youth holding Melody's reins hardly looked the part, but Axel Wilde was a powerful war mage for all that he was slightly built and extremely boyish looking. He had fair skin and red hair the color of copper, and, as with many red-heads, his peaches and cream complexion did not develop a deep tan even from exposure to a tropical sun though it did darken just enough to prevent sunburn. Axel's pretty face was dominated by large green eyes set over heart-melting dimples.
Next to him jogged his companion Corwin Klarendes, a youth just about the same height as Axel, say four inches over five feet. Corwin had close-cropped hair the color of corn silk which contrasted nicely with his sun-bronzed torso and limbs. Corwin was blessed with fine-boned features including green eyes, consistent with the considerable admixture of elfin blood in his ancestry, as indeed was true of the entire Klarendes clan.
Axel and Corwin ran without conversation, saving their breath. There would be plenty of time for talk once they were atop their mounts. Melody was Axel's mount, while Corwin rode a much more exotic equine, a magical unicorn named Derrionydd or Derry for short.
The unicorn was currently in his two legged shape, that of the third youth in their party, for this Derry was a shape shifter. In contrast to Axel and Corwin he had a much more robust build and stood a finger over six and a half feet while weighing nearly 300 pounds. His ancestry was equal parts elf and frost giant, but Derry was no ordinary hybrid. He was a Snow Elf, the designation given to shape shifters among the elves, so-called for their alabaster skin which never tanned nor burned, shoulder length ash-blond hair, and icy grey eyes. As both a wir and a unicorn Derry was endowed with the powers of both magical species.
To spell the mare the trio ran on foot since the weight of even a slightly built rider like Axel could tire his mount. Hence from time to time a rider would dismount and walk or jog along with the mount, easing the burden on its back for a while before climbing back into the saddle. And running was good exercise for the rider. It helped him maintain his own wind and stamina.
Axel and Corwin had had their constitutions enhanced by druidical healing magic, which conferred on them long life, prolonged youth, acute senses, fast reflexes, doubled strength and stamina, and in Corwin's case especially greater healing powers and resistance to disease. Derry's innate magic made him nearly four times as strong as he seemed. He might weigh just under three hundred pounds but was stronger than a draft horse or a Frost Giant, easily strong enough for a rider.
The road they ran along led southward from the Great 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 followed a winding route which bent back and forth to keep atop the ridge lines rather than descend into the hollows where the creeks flowed and then up the opposite slopes.
The road had originated as a brontothere trace, an energy saving game trail which spared the massive creatures the effort of endless descents and ascents which they would have had to make traveling across the grain of the country. Brontotheres still traveled along it seasonally to salt licks two 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 trio stepped aside to let an empty buckboard pass them by. The teamster was a dwarf who was in a hurry. He snapped the reins to let his team of two know that they should maintain their fast pace. He nodded politely to the three youths then continued on his way. A pair of frost giants passed them heading in the opposite direction. Frost Giants were too large to mount anything smaller than a brontothere so they either walked or rode in a conveyance like a stage coach.
Unlike the trio of youths both giants and dwarves were lightly dressed is silk trews an shirts. The dwarves dwelt in chilly or at least cool caverns. The original homeland of the giants lay in the temperate zone and got cold enough in winter for ice and snow. Hence both those races were much less likely to go about in the nude or sky clad than elves or human.
Among those two races nudity taboos for males were virtually non-existent. Young human and elven males almost never wore clothing for exercise or for any kind of dirty or sweaty work, not in that tropical climate. Besides, tan lines were off-putting and even unseemly. Good looking guys proud of the trim and taut bodies they had so recently grown into and were so proud of much preferred to sport an even all-over tan.
"Time we mounted up again." Axel called out as they reached a tree-shaded stretch of road.
Donning silk riding trews to prevent chafing Axel slipped his feet into a pair of short boots with thick heels which fit more securely in the stirrups than would the flat sole of a sandal much less the soft one of a moccasin. The boots gave Axel a more secure seat since he was not a particularly good rider. He didn't bother with a straw hat against the sun but rode bared to the hips.
As Derry transformed Corwin removed his own and Derry's packs from Melody and threw them over the unicorn's withers. Corwin remained in the nude. Atop Derry he always rode bareback and bare-ass. Derry very much liked the feel of his new boyfriend's bare rump on his back. Since Corwin had grown up on the Eastern Plains and had been riding nearly as long as he had been walking riding bareback was no problem.
Anyway no saddle would fit the shape shifter which, in its four footed form, was only the size of a small pony. Derry accepted no harness either, whether bridle or hackamore. He was in control and went where he chose. His rider could make suggestions but that was all.
Riding the unicorn was far more comfortable than riding a horse bareback since it was easy for Corwin to lock even his short legs around the barrel of his mount. And if Derry broke into a gallop, Corwin could grab the mane the better to hang on.
The best part was the Derry's distance gait was not the trot but the amble, a four-beat intermediate gait at least as fast as the trot or the pace but far smoother to ride. The amble was reasonably fast, smooth, and easy on the rider, and the mount could keep it up for a very long time too.
Axel had vowed that his next horse would be trained to the amble. Hang the expense. What was the point of being rich if you could not indulge yourself?
Around the next bend in the road they came to a timbered toll bridge which crossed a deep ravine. The toll taker was a friendly looking Frost Giant who did a double take when he looked closer at Derry.
"Now there is something I never thought to see. A genuine unicorn, horn and all. He must be just a colt, small as he is."
<Actually I am a full grown stallion, and you really shouldn't talk about me as if I weren't standing right here and couldn't understand what you were saying.>
"Mind Speech too! Uh, no offense Sir Unicorn. You caught me by the surprise. Everyone knows unicorns are magical beings and are fully sentient. Now normally the toll would be six coppers, two for each of your mounts and one for each rider. But counting you as a person rather than as a mount the charge is only five coppers."
Corwin shook his head. "Six coppers is fair when my friend is in his four legged form."
"His four legged form?"
"The unicorn is a shapeshifter, a Snow Elf who is on walkabout. He could demonstrate but not with me rider astride his back. Anyway six coppers is a reasonable charge for the convenience of a short cut across the ravine. How far would we have had to go following the original brontothere trace?"
"You would have to go out of your way another three miles to where the trace loops back along the ridge lines before passing by the other side of our fine new bridge. Ours is one of only three chartered toll bridges on this road. These days even the brontotheres take the bridge."
"What do you charge a brontothere to cross? And how do you collect it. I don't suppose they carry much coin on their persons."
"Very funny. Obviously brontotheres cross for free. We don't even try to stop them. That would be against the law."
Brontotheres were protected by law everywhere in the Commonwealth including its more recently acquired territories of New Varangia and the Far West.
"Funny thing is," the giant added, "they know enough not to cross over in a crowd. Instead they cross singly or in pairs. Smart."
Two hours after crossing the bridge Axel and Corwin dismounted. Derry transformed while Axel got out of his trews and boots and put them into his pack. For the next stretch he would run in the nude and barefoot.
It was actually healthier to run barefoot than with sandals or even moccasins. Barefoot locomotion promoted a natural and healthy gait. Footwear warped the natural human gait, imposing strains and stresses that denied its natural grace of form and ease of movement. Going barefoot helped develop bodily awareness, the sense of the relative positions of all the parts of the body employed in movement and strengthened the feet and lower legs, making for a physique that was agile and less prone to injury. A barefoot runner was better able to climb, cut, pivot, balance, or adjust to changing conditions of the ground under his feet.
Calluses could protect the foot nearly as well as moccasins, and the inhabitants of the planet of Haven never had to worry picking up a disease. Parasites were not a problem on a terraformed world like Haven. Old plagues like hookworm just never made it to that planet of refuge. The galactic empire of yore had had its faults, but it had freed humanity from the scourges of cockroaches, rats, and insect vectors of disease like mosquitos.
Finally going barefoot was a joy to the senses. It let you feel the soft warm sand at the beach or the cool of the dewy grass of a summer's morn. There was even something to be said for the feel of slippery wet mud as it squished between the toes or that of the rough bark of a tree you were climbing.
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