Elf Boy's Friends - X
The Sea of Grass
"It is just as we were told, Axel. There is neither road nor trail across the great sea of grass which lies before us. And no one back at that last settlement knew what might lie on the other side."
Indeed the rolling tall grass prairie reached to the horizon, crossed by lines of cottonwoods along the streams which drained the low hills to the south. It was a monotonous landscape without landmarks or signs of civilization.
The road the boys had followed had petered out at the salt lick days earlier. From then on, they had just picked a promising direction and headed out. They might not know where they we going but they could not get lost, not with Axel and Derry both gifted with Unerring Direction. Besides Axel was a jumper. If need be he could teleport himself high into the sky not only to look ahead but also to take bearings on far off landmarks, then triangulate his position on a map. In that way their little expedition was charting these regions as they went.
"Then we will be the first to find out, and you Corwin will be the first to report it to the world."
"Only as long as we come upon something memorable. The Capital Intelligencer is not interested in publishing a boring travelogue. My articles always deliver local color, intriguing personalities, excitement, and adventure."
"Isn't that just what we encounter practically everywhere we go: action and adventure? You have to admit we and our friends have seen more than our fair share of it."
<You two maybe, but I have not," the unicorn Derry sent telepathically, <being the newest member of your circle of friends. So I am look forward to more of the same. After all, what is the point of going on a walkabout if not to encounter what is new, interesting, and exciting?>
"Good point, Derry." Axel agreed. "And may I point out that we three have already captured a gang of highwaymen and unmasked a serial killer. So I think it's about time we took on a monster of some sort. Corwin wasn't with the Corps of Discovery when we faced either the dragon or the mosasaur so he himself is overdue for a close encounter with a genuine monster. Let's see, the first was terrestrial, and the second was a predatory sea creature. That leaves the sky. So let's all keep an eye out for flying monsters. Remember it can be hard to tell the size of something up there in the sky, without nearby objects for comparison."
"Yeah, right. I'll watch the sky all right, but only to keep a weather eye peeled for a thunderstorm. Or maybe for real predators lurking in this tall grass, say a pride of lions or a pack of hyenas."
Corwin shook his head and continued:
"Forget monsters in the sky. There aren't any flying creatures big enough to be called monsters despite those lurid tales of rocs and wyverns carrying off elephants in their claws. Anyway fliers silhouetted against the sky make easy targets for our airguns. Our carbines don't have the range of the infantry version, but we can just let the creatures fly a bit closer before shooting them down."
<And my sonic weapon will sweep the rest from the skies, bringing them down to earth where I can engage them with my strength, my hooves, and my horn.> Derry added confidently, tossing his head to emphasize the deadly horn growing out of his forehead.
"Corwin is a pretty heavy hitter too with his ball lightning. And Derry we are both counting on your great strength and natural armaments even more than your sonic weapon.
Of the trio of adventurers Derry supplied the muscle. He stood a shade over six and one half feet and weighed three hundred pounds. His magical nature gave him almost four times his natural strength which meant that he was actually stronger than a draft horse or any Frost Giant, save only Finn Ragnarson who was himself a magically enhanced person.
By contrast Axel and Corwin were short and slightly built and as pretty as high class rent boys. Indeed it was Axel's extremely boyish looks and sex appeal which had lead to his kidnapping years earlier by a cabal of rapists and sadists who had tried to turn him into a sex slave. Corwin himself had once toyed with the idea of going undercover as a rent boy, but he had yet to come up with a good hook for a story or a series. Rent boys were hardly news. They were generally well paid and seldom abused.
Both boys massed less than ten pounds over a hundredweight and at 64 inches were coincidentally the same height at the withers as Axel's sorrel gelding which he had named Blaze after the white streak on its forehead.
Axel rode bared to the hips displaying at least half of the trim taut body he was so proud of, though the rest of his outfit was conventional enough: silk riding trews plus high heeled boots which fit more securely in the stirrups than would flat soled sandals or moccasins. Axel needed all the help he could get since, as a city boy, he was not not a particularly good rider.
By contrast Corwin Klarendes, the cute blond boy at his side, had grown up on the Eastern Plains. Riding was as natural to him as was walking. Which was one reason he had no problem staying atop his mount despite riding bareback — without any help at all from saddle, stirrups, bridle, halter, or hackamore.
But then such accouterments (or clothing either for Corwin was entirely nude) were not needed when his mount could communicate directly with his rider via Mind Speech, as telepathy was usually called on the planet of Haven. Corwin had only to speak his wishes aloud and the unicorn would pick up his thoughts. Derry did allow himself to be guided by pressure from Corwin's knees or shifts of his body weight, taking those as helpful suggestions rather than commands.
Derry was doubly magical: both a unicorn and a shapeshifter and was endowed with the powers of both. In his two legged form he was a Snow-elf or rather a hybrid of elf and giant, standing a finger over six and one half feet and weighing three hundred pounds. Shapeshifting elves were called snow elves for their glabrous alabaster skin, shoulder length ash-blond hair, and icy grey eyes, though in Derry's case his build was much more robust than the willowy physiques typical of full-blooded Snow Elves.
The shapeshifter and blond boy were more than mount and rider; they had recently become lovers, leaving Axel temporarily high and dry with the departure of the minstrel Loren from their company. So, off the road it was Derry who mounted the very much smaller youth. It was at Derry's insistence that Corwin rode not only bareback but also bare-ass naked, bare bum pressed to bare back.
The three friends had been traveling at an easy pace that morning when the the red-head turned to the blond boy and enthused:
"This more like it! I am so glad that I now ride a mount which ambles along like your unicorn rather than trots as most horses do."
The trot was the working gait for a horse, the gait by which horses traveled any real distance. Horses could canter or gallop only for only a short time before they had to rest, whereas a horse could maintain a trot for hours.
But the trot could be uncomfortable and tiring for the rider. Either the saddle slapped his butt with every beat, or he had to post up and down. In the trot the diagonal pairs of legs moved forward at the same time. That left a moment during each beat when all four feet are off the ground hence the characteristic jarring motion of the trot. Now a skilled equestrian could ride without bouncing, but that took well-conditioned leg, back, and abdominal muscles which Axel lacked, despite his athleticism. Which was why he finally traded his mare in for a gelding trained to amble.
The amble was a four-beat gait at least as fast as the trot or the pace but far smoother to ride, and the mount could keep it up for a very long time too. For a unicorn it was the natural gait for long-distance travel. Unicorns never trotted. With Derry moving at an amble and with Corwin's legs locked around the barrel of his magical mount the blond boy had as secure seat a seat as Axel had in his saddle atop Blaze.
By mid afternoon the two riders were proceeding on foot to give their mounts a breather, though only Blaze really needed one. He was carrying most of their kit as well as Axel. That included Axel's and Corwin's and Derry's saddlebags all three. In his unicorn form Derry carried only his own kit plus Corwin's carbine in a scabbard attached to his own pack, which he never referred to as saddlebags even though they really were. Unicorns have nothing to do with saddles, ever.
Now Derry was no beast master but he had enough psychic influence on Blaze to make him break the trail for the runners coming behind him. Axel had taken off his riding togs and ran in the nude like the other two boys. It felt so good to stretch his legs and get his blood circulating. The metronomic scissoring of his legs, the pumping of his arms, and the bellowing of his lungs soon generated the euphoric feeling known as a runner's high.
The boys ran at an easy pace, slow enough for conversation if they were in the mood though mostly they kept to themselves, enjoying the warm sun on their backs and bums and fresh air, full bellies, and the companionship of friends. Life was good.
As they approached a low area flooded by a blockage downstream, Axel jumped all of them including Blaze past the new-formed swamp to firm ground on the other side. Then they followed the flow downstream to where the current had undercut a bank of earth to create a temporary dam which was already overtopped and had starting to disintegrate. It would not be long before the stream returned to its banks. Picking up their chosen azimuth they head out once again.
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