Elf Boy's Friends - X

by George Gauthier

Chapter 13

Brontotheres

The brontothere trace next passed through a landscape formed by hills with gentle slopes which ascended gradually to an abrupt drop along one side. Its forests and grasslands were the habitat of all sorts of wild creatures including fierce predators like slash bears, tigers and jaguars.

Brontotheres also roamed the land not the least bit concerned by the presence of carnivores. No predator would dare to attack even a single adult brontothere, who anyway travelled in herds. Standing as tall at the shoulder as a Frost Giant and weighing eight or nine tons brontotheres were covered with a thick hide that hung in folds on their frames like armor. Hence these placid herbivores browsed and grazed without fear. A predator might chance an attack on a calf that had wandered too far from its mother, but always risked a countercharge from the herd.

Unlike other herbivores brontotheres were absolutely intolerant of predation, even the sort which culled the weak, the sick, and the young. At the first sign of an attack, the matriarch would have the herd form a circle horns facing outward and dispatch a strike force of two or three young bulls to run off or preferably kill the interloper. Brontotheres were not ones for giving second chances, much preferring a permanent solution, either by impaling the predator on their two forward pointing horns or by simply trampling it predator underfoot.

Frost Giants were seeking to expand the settled the area and establish farms on the cuestas to take advantage of their well-drained gentle slopes which made for prime farmland. Now brontotheres could not climb the steep front slopes, but they would certainly try to feed on any crops growing on the gentle back slopes. Brontotheres had no concept of property rights, regarding any planted fields as a bounty laid out for their delectation. The giants did not really blame the brontotheres for doing what came naturally to them, but obviously could not tolerate raids on their crops. The solution was for an earth wizard, a dwarf for hire, to erect passive barriers at the bottom of the back slopes.

These barriers were not the ditches farmers in flat country used to protect their crops from brontotheres but walls created by slumping the slope enough to form a vertical wall upslope which the magic of the earth wizards then hardened into stone. The brontotheres could not get past the walls or the sturdy gates which gave access to the farmland. Problem solved — and without the possibility of injury to the brontotheres whose vigilance actually protected the livestock of the farmers from predation.

With Axel mounted on Melody and Corwin on Derry the trio was making good time. Melody trotted while Derry ambled along. As they approached a bend in the road they heard a loud clanging of metal on metal. Wary that they might be riding into a fight, the riders readied their carbines and advanced at a walk.

What they found beyond the bend was nothing like what they expected. A half dozen frost giants were banging pots and pans together trying to drive a small herd of brontotheres off the slope of the latest cuesta which the local folk wanted to put to the plow. First though they had to clear it of brontotheres.

Axel was glad to see that the frost giants were not armed except for simple sticks which could not possibly harm the great beasts. For the most part, the brontotheres ignored the racket as they placidly grazed and browsed. One very young Frost Giant let his enthusiasm override his common sense and got too close to a large bull and blew a signal horn practically in its ear. That did get the bull's attention. He turned his head and cut loose with a bellow which sounded like the trumpeting of an elephant combined with the roar of a tiger. It was so loud it momentarily drowned out the metallic clamor from the frost giants.

The startled young giant stepped back, tripped, and came down on his butt. Having made his point, the brontothere resumed grazing. His prank drew a rumble of amusement from his fellow brontotheres.

Seeing the travelers, the frost giants gave up the unequal contest and walked toward the road to hear the latest news. Nothing for it anyway but to wait the beasts out. Once they cleared the cuesta the earth wizard would close it off with a wall.

"Brontothere problems?" Corwin asked of their leader, a big red-haired fellow.

"Nothing serious. This is the first time we found brontotheres on land we wanted to enclose. At first we tried herding them with sticks the way we do with our aurochs."

"I take it that tactic did not work." Axel interjected.

"No. The first beast one of our lads whacked on the rump stopped, turned, and fastened a funny look on him that held more amusement than annoyance. If he had had the power of speech the brontothere might have said: 'A stick? Really? What is that in aid of?' So we tried noise, with the results you have seen."

"You're not giving up, are you?" Corwin asked.

"No. We will just wait them out. It won't be long before they move on. This is just a minor delay. We will have to come back tomorrow in the hope that the beasts have left."

"Maybe you won't have to wait. My mount here is a unicorn who has the gift of Mind Speech. He might be able to persuade them to abandon the fields you want to enclose."

<I likely could, Corwin, though I have never before tried to communicate with a brontothere. You'll have to dismount first so I can transform and maintain my dignity. I want it to be clear that I can be asked by my rider but not bid.>

"Fair enough." Corwin said as he slid off Derry's back. His transformation caught the giants by surprise.

"You're a shape shifter! No wonder you are so small."

<I suppose everyone else looks small to a Frost Giant> Derry allowed generously. <Except a brontothere of course.>

"They won't understand words, Derry," Axel reminded him. "In Amazonia the druids proved that anyone gifted with Mind Speech can communicate psychically with brontotheres but not with words. You must use projected imagery. That is how brontotheres communicate among themselves."

<That's good advice, Axel. Thanks. Now let me concentrate.>

Establishing psychic communication was not difficult. The brontotheres immediately realized that someone other than a brontothere was trying to "speak" to them. It was only when Derry flashed them an image of himself that they realized who it was. After some trial and error, the two species were able to communicate meaning if not subtle nuances.

Derry snorted then relayed what he had received from the herd.

<You giants made a mistake with all that metallic clanging. The brontotheres were pretty much ready to abandon the cuesta when you guys showed up and tried to drive them off. Brontotheres are not belligerent, but they can be stubborn. In particular they don't like to be forced to do anything. As far as they were concerned, you two-legs were terribly rude just now.>

"Is there some way we can make it up to them?"

<There is. Up ahead a ways is a small stream which runs off the ridge, but its channel lies in an incised ravine too steep and deep for them to reach. They cannot get at its water so they have to climb all the way down to the main stream to get a drink. What the brontotheres want is for your earth wizard to dam the stream and make it fill a trough at which they can stop to drink whenever they pass by.>

"That seems like a reasonable way to make up for our mistake. Besides a drinking trough will benefit everyone who passes by: travelers and their mounts and draft animals as well. We'll do it."

The dwarven earth wizard the giants had hired grumbled a bit at having to hike even farther on his short legs. The giants had not provided him with a mount since they did not keep horses or mules. Still the dwarf knew his business. After delving the ground he found a good site close to the brontothere trace and raised a stone dam and a trough for livestock.

The brontothere matriarch ambled close and pronounced herself satisfied which she relayed to the herd which immediately abandoned the cuesta to the giants.

"You have our thanks. Let me offer you boys the hospitality of our camp. It's not much, but the food is good, and our tents will keep the rain off. Our wind talker predicts rain late in the evening."

"Thanks, but we really want to push on to the next village. The tavern there has a good reputation."

"It does, but that village is too far ahead for you to reach before sundown."

"Not a problem" Corwin told the giant. "All three of us have enhanced vision which lets us see in dim light much like cats. Traveling by twilight won't be a problem. Besides both Axel and Derry can Call Light to let us see where we are going even in full darkness. We'll get there in plenty of time for supper and likely before the rain this evening"

After wishing the trio a safe journey the giants returned to the cuesta to finish what they had started. The travelers pushed on, passing the brontotheres who were not in any hurry. Less than an hour after dark they reached the village where the inn more than lived up to its reputation.

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