Elf Boy's Friends - X

by George Gauthier

Chapter 14

The Minstrel

Approaching the village Derry took the same precautions that he had in Viborg. Changing from his equine form he wrapped a sarong around his hips and walked to the inn, giving no hint that he was a shapeshifter cum unicorn.

A hostler tended to Melody's needs. Before entering the common room, Corwin put on his uniform, copying Axel's example in leaving his decorations off. The pair did wear utility belts with kukris in scabbards at their hips. Axel also carried a pair of push or fist knives, a weapon with a T shaped handle attached to a very short triangular blade coated with Aodh's deadly venom. They were the weapons of the assassin Axel had been in the eastern campaign in Amazonia. Both boys slung their carbines over their shoulders rather than leave them unsecured in the room Corwin booked for the three of them.

The supper menu featured roast bear with roast potatoes and carrots, courtesy of a bounty hunter who had trapped and killed a nuisance black bear which had attacked livestock and even a young cowherd. The hunter needed just the paws to document his bounty, so he delivered the carcass to the proprietor of the inn, thereby covering the bill he had run up over the previous five days of the hunt. He had hunted alone and had not dared to sleep in the open lest the carnivore get at him during the night.

After supper came the entertainment provided by the minstrel in residence, a handsome dark-haired young man of mostly elven heritage but with more than a dash of human blood. The elf-boy was a walking wet dream with a willowy physique, lissom body, and delicate features typical of elves, including a chiseled jawline, and killer cheekbones which shielded lovely green eyes. His was the sort of youthful male beauty that turned heads and took one's breath away.

His lower body was sheathed in a green sarong wrapped low around his narrow hips. Moccasins, a golden ring through his left earlobe, and thin gold chain around his neck completed his ensemble.

The minstrel bowed to his audience then sat on a stool, giving tossing his long dark locks out of his eyes. He started off with a series of drinking songs with refrains which invited his audience to sing along. Later, with his audience further under the influence, he offered a ballad that plucked at the heartstrings with a poignant tale of love and loss against a backdrop of intrigue and high adventure.

The normally raucous crowd paid him the compliment of listening quietly. When he finished, they broke out into applause and cheers. Promising to return for a second set, the minstrel left his lute and banjo on his stool and circulated among the patrons. When he approached Corwin, Axel, and Derry's table, Derry gestured for the minstrel to take a seat and talk with them for a while. He introduced himself as Loren Mann.

"I just loved that ballad." Derry told him. "It's the kind of music popular with the elves I was brought up among."

"Glad you liked it. Am I right that you are part elf and part frost giant."

"I am. My friend Corwin also has a considerable admixture of elven blood for all his blond hair. As for our red-headed friend, Axel, I am still trying to figure out how a boy who doesn't have a drop of elven blood can be so damn cute. Just look at those cheekbones and those heart-melting dimples!"

"I have been looking… at all of you. You three are very easy on the eyes, each in his own way, but you are right about Axel whose killer cheekbones and heart melting dimples would not be out of place on the face of a full-blooded elf-boy. I hope I am not being too forward, Axel, but I hope we will have a chance to get better acquainted."

"Count on it. I've always fancied boys with a considerable mixture of elven blood — even more than full-bloods. "So you are just my type."

"As are so many." Corwin added with a grin.

"Incidentally" Loren continued, "the proprietor can secure your carbines if it is theft you are worried about. It must be awkward having to keep them with you. Don't worry. Nothing untoward happens here. The inn and indeed the whole village is neutral ground."

"Neutral ground?" Corwin asked, ever the inquisitive journalist.

"Neutral ground or maybe sanctuary is a better name for it. You must have heard about the band of highwaymen who have been operating along this road. You were lucky to reach this far without running into them. They never attack large parties, but a party of three makes an easy target for nine desperadoes who have the advantage of surprise. Their number includes giants, humans, and elves but not dwarves.So watch yourselves on the road tomorrow."

"The good news is that the bandits prefer simple robbery to murder, not so much from mercy as to encourage their victims to surrender without a fight, knowing their lives will be spared. Still they have killed several travelers who did try to fight them."

"Aren't they afraid witnesses will identify them?"

"No one can identify them since they always wear masks — sacks with three holes for eyes and mouth. Also they wear dusters or other concealing clothes like full trews and long-sleeved shirts which they stash between jobs. They attack on foot. If they do have horses they keep them far enough back that no one will recognize their mounts or even hear them ride away."

"That's pretty damn clever." Corwin admitted.

Loren continued:

"Folks around here suspect that the highwaymen or at least some of them might actually live here in the village or at least be patrons of the inn. Besides it is only good business for bandits to allow travelers a safe haven. It encourages folks to continue to take their chances and travel along this road, instead of following the longer and more difficult route through the hills to the south."

"That sounds like good advice. Aren't you worried about getting held up yourself?"

Loren shook his head. "I'd like to see them try to get past my defenses. I am a moderately strong fetcher. While I cannot fly long distance, I can certainly fly away from the site of an ambush. Also I can hold a strong missile shield against lead bullets or arrows."

"I have offensive capabilities too. It wasn't so long ago that I fought at the side of our elven forces in Amazonia. We didn't have enough magnetic cannon to go around so it was left to fetchers assigned to the elven units to counter some of those armored centipede formations the trolls invented for the occasion."

"The stronger fetchers would wield steel spheres to batter down the heavy shields the trolls carried, but I had a better idea — to aim our cutting discs at their unprotected shins. My idea caught on, and the colonel wrote it up so I got Mentioned in Dispatches. After mustering out, I did't want to return to my humdrum job as a mechanic. Instead I went on walkabout to see the world and to make beautiful music."

"What kind of work did you do as a mechanic?" Corwin asked.

"As you know we elves are famous for our silk fabrics. Water wheels power the machines we use to spin and weave silk in quantity. The machinery is complicated and liable to break down from constant use. Since I had a considerable degree of mechanical aptitude, they gave me the job of fixing them. It was a living, but my heart was not in it.

"How long have you been singing Loren? I mean in this village."

"Three weeks. By now the locals have heard my repertoire twice over so it is just new to travelers. I will be moving on in a week or so. Convoys of freight wagons will always accept a paying passenger. Sometimes I work for my passage as an extra guard, ready to throw up a missile shield to protect the convoy."

"You ride then because you don't have a mount of your own?" Axel asked.

"No. It's simple economics. The only use I would get from a mount is maybe one or two days a month when I travel to my next gig, but I would have to board it thirty days a month. Besides, though I am not a bad rider I don't really enjoy riding, so I would rather take a seat in a wagon or a stage."

"I can understand that." Axel allowed, "A rider on a trotting horse works nearly as hard as if he were trotting himself. Either that or endure continual slaps to the butt."

"A pardonable exaggeration, but with considerable truth. What you should do Axel is get yourself a mount which can amble instead of trot. Problem solved." Loren offered blandly. Corwin shot Axel a knowing grin.

The boys were careful not to mention their own magical powers. Anyone might be listening at the next table. Indeed, the minstrel himself might be a member of the gang, the spotter who chatted with potential victims to size them up. The possibility of eavesdroppers was why Corwin gave Derry the unobtrusive signal for a telepathic conference.

<What is it, Corwin?> Derry asked.

<Maybe nothing, but I sense a degree of deception or at least reticence on Loren's part. At first I suspected he might be a spotter for the gang, but I can now sense that his intentions toward us are benign. Guarded is how I can best describe his attitude.>

<All right. Ask him straight out if he suspects anyone in particular of being a member of the gang. I'll read his surface thoughts. The psychic connection will be so subtle he won't suspect a thing.>

"So Loren, if you had to put money on it, who among the patrons would you bet was a member of the gang?"

"I couldn't say, and wouldn't even if I could. I am not by nature a reckless person. Understand, the village has no professional lawmen here, only a part-time constable. Aside from patrols by the rural constabulary, the locals police themselves. In case of a crime the constable raises the hue and the cry and rouses the populace."

As a minstrel Loren was a keen observer of human nature and indeed had made some shrewd guesses about possible malefactors in their midst. It was just that, as an outsider, he was in no position to make accusations.

From his thoughts Derry had picked out the images and names of the possible suspects, persons with aggressive personalities and no steady jobs or other source of income who yet never seemed to be short of coin. Oh, they did not flaunt their money. It was enough that they never seemed to lack the wherewithal.

Two of whom were in the common room right at that moment. Directing his telepathy to the two giants Derry discovered that both had an unhealthy interest in him and his friends. And that was before two more unsavory types, both human, joined them. Highwaymen for sure. He relayed his conclusions to Corwin and Axel.

Corwin nodded then said with his voice almost in a whisper. "Don't let your face or body language betray what is about to happen."

"Which is?"

<Mind Speech.> Derry sent him. <It's me Derry talking in your head. I can link you to Axel and Corwin. We need to confer without anyone suspecting what we are up to.>

<What are we up to?>

<We intend to expose the bandits and make a citizen's arrest. Call it a preemptive strike lest they fall upon our small party on the road ahead. Better we stalk them here and now rather than face them at a time and a place of their choosing. That is where you come in Loren. We could use your help doing it. Your telekinetic powers added to ours could overawe them and force them to surrender and avoid bloodshed. The gods know how Axel and I are heartily sick of killing. So after your next set, let's go upstairs, as if for an assignation, and make plans. Are you in?>

<I am willing to listen to your pitch. That's all I'll commit to right off.>

<Fair enough.>

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