Elf Boy's Friends - X

by George Gauthier

Chapter 18

Painted Dogs

<Trouble up ahead.> Derry sent telepathically.

"What kind?" Corwin asked.

"Hard to say. I distinctly heard a horn sound the alarm, but the other noises are indistinct and confused. Let's press on to the top of that low ridge and take a peek.>

"All right, but we should not silhouette ourselves against the skyline. No sense announcing our presence till we know what is going on. Let's just peer over the ridge line. Derry, you fight better as a unicorn. Transform and stay with Blaze and keep him out of sight. Axel, let's put on some clothes and grab our air guns and blades plus our field packs and water gourds. Don't forget your far-viewer tube."

At the top of the ridge the two boys went on their bellies and peered through the grass. A pack of at least forty wild dogs was tearing apart the carcasses a couple of frost giants and the four horses which had drawn a pair of wagons until taken down by these painted dogs, so-named for their coloring.

Packs of painted dogs normally preyed upon antelopes which they chased to exhaustion or, in the case of larger prey, by repeatedly biting it on the legs, belly and tail, bleeding it until it stopped running. Smaller prey was simply pulled down and torn apart.

Smaller than wolves but larger than coyotes painted dogs stood about two and a half feet and weighed forty to fifty pounds. Unlike coyotes which might work in pairs or in small bands painted dogs hunted in large packs. It was their numbers that made them such formidable predators. They avoided forests preferring savannas which did not obstruct vision or impede pursuit. Painted dogs had few natural enemies, though lions would attack them to reduce the competition for prey.

"The main pack is still feeding, so why are a dozen dogs stationed around that clump of trees? It's not for the shade. Most of them are in full sunlight."

<The people who were in the wagons must have taken to the trees.> Derry offered.

Sure enough. Now that he was looking for it he could see half a dozen humans or maybe elves up in the trees.

"They must be hoping that the dogs will go away once they consume the flesh on the horses.

<Only the dogs won't leave. Not all of them. Oh some will trot off to a water hole for a drink but then return to relieve their sentries so that they too might drink. No, these dogs are going to wait out the folks they have treed. Sooner or later thirst will force them out of the trees. The poor devils won't have a chance, whether fighting or running.>

<We must help them. You two are combat veterans so I will follow your lead.>

"All right." Axel began. "Here is what I think we should do.

"Blaze should be safe enough where he is. I'll jump the three of us to a position about four hundred yards from the pack, within easy range for our air guns. Once we start picking them off they will charge us no matter how full their bellies. Corwin, use your ball lightning against them. We will let them get no closer than a hundred yards before jumping well away to give us a chance to reload or recharge our air reservoirs. Then I will teleport us once again to a firing position four hundred yards from the pack. We'll whittle them down in no time."

"That sounds like a good plan. Let's do it just the way you laid it out Axel."

"One thing more." Axel added:

"Derry, your task is to provide close in defense with both your killer neigh and your natural weapons. In the confusion of a running battle some of them might actually get in close.

<Close enough for me to kill them, you mean. Guys, keep in mind that we have to exterminate this pack entirely. Predators who have once feasted on human flesh may develop a taste for it, something they must not be allowed to pass on to their offspring by regurgitating the contents of their stomachs to feed their young as painted dogs do.>

The fight went as Axel had planned. Even the dozen dogs guarding the folks in the trees joined in their mass attack, yipping from excitement at what they took to be easy prey. The two marksmen aimed at those on the left while Corwin also sent his balls of lightning at those on the right. Without the need for close in defense, he formed four balls into a phalanx and swept them through the oncoming pack, not trying to target any specifically, not with his attention divided between his marksmanship and his magical attack. At one point he bombarded a knot of dogs who had bunched up, making them a target of opportunity for an explosive lightning ball.

After expending all the shots in his magazine Axel announced that he was dry. It was time to jump into the clear. He touched Corwin's shoulder while Corwin touched Derry to link him up. Axel teleported them a thousand yards out. The painted dogs did not know what to make of this development and milled around in confusion, giving the boys the time to reload their air guns from their ammo pouches and pump their air reservoirs back to full pressure. Once they were ready Axel jumped them back to a firing position.

The excited yips and growls of the dogs had quickly changed to whines of fear as the fire from the interlopers had devastated their numbers. Lead bullets brought down half the pack while ball lightning accounted for the rest — all but the final three.

Those three managed to circle around, hidden by the high grass, to set up an attack from the rear. The tall grass may have masked them from view, but its unnatural movement alerted Derry who whirled to face the threat. His hoofs smashed the skull of the lead dog. The second one went for his throat, but the unicorn just lowered his head and impaled the beast on his horn then tossed the body away. The third dog tried to hamstring the unicorn's left rear leg but got kicked in the chest for his trouble and then trampled into the earth. Derry's own injuries were not serious. Besides, his transformation back to his bipedal form healed him completely.

By the time the trio of rescuers reached them the trapped folks had climbed down from the trees. The five survivors looked to be seriously dehydrated from two days with little water so the boys shared what water they had in their personal gourds while Derry summoned Blaze telepathically and passed around the water skin the gelding carried. It was still not enough so Axel asked if anyone knew of a water hole around there.

In a barely understandable croak an elf told them about a spring to the southeast two miles along their back trail. Axel teleported upwards high enough to spot it then jumped directly to the pool and refilled not only their personal gourds and water skin but also the two water skins the travelers had taken with them into the trees, hoping to wait the dogs out.

The survivors nodded their thanks for the water, their throats too parched to say more. The five survivors were all healthy young males so before long they were ready to take food though only a bit of jerky and way bread from their wagons. After a couple of hours, they were recovered enough to tell their story.

These five — two elves, two humans, and a dwarf — plus the dead giants were a team of scouts sent out by a faith-based communal society made up of all four main races seeking virgin lands to settle on and mineral wealth they might exploit, which is why one of their party, the dwarf, was a delver. The frost giants among them would take formal title to the acreage, but all would share the fruits of the earth, as long as they worked diligently whether in the fields or at other jobs. Their society had no place for slackers.

Corwin and Axel were in agreement with that sentiment. A communal society that tolerated freeloaders wouldn't last long. Not that the boys favored communal ownership of property as an organizing principle for society. They much preferred the Commonwealth's way of private property rights, free markets and competition, limited liability companies, commercial courts to enforce contracts, workers brotherhoods, patents to foster innovation, etc.

Suddenly Derry who had remained in his unicorn form morphed into his Snow Elf form.

"Whoa!" the five cried in surprise. "What is this?"

Axel explained about Derry's dual nature as shape shifter who was both a Snow Elf and a unicorn and endowed with the powers of both.

"That is some trick." the dwarf Gregor allowed. "My own gift of delving is modest enough as are the gifts of my companions: the elves have Green Thumbs, and the human youths have Unerring Direction which is why they are our navigators as well as teamsters."

As the survivors talked, the boys warmed up to them. They were young and personable fellows and seemed like regular folks, practical and down to earth rather than utopian dreamers. It didn't hurt that except for the dwarf Gregor they were all easy on the eyes. The two raven-haired elves named Elrond and Eomer went sky-clad putting their entire bodies on display. The humans were cousins named Ryan and Josh, pretty blond teenagers who wore only skimpy buckskin breechclouts and matching moccasins. The lads were nicely bronzed from much exposure in both senses of the word.

They had thought themselves safe crossing the wilderness as a company of seven. The smaller five rode in two wagons, the elves Elrond and Eomer armed with long bows and the dwarf Gregor and the humans Ryan and Josh wielding crossbows. The two frost giants followed on foot armed with big air guns supported by a trio of Molossian hounds.

Alas in the high grass the vigilance of the hounds came to naught. The painted dogs had caught the little convoy by surprise. It was unfortunate that the five riders in the wagons were mostly unpracticed with their weapons and not primed to bring them instantly into play. It took a moment to string a long bow, throw the strap of the quiver over the shoulder and select an arrow. Besides, it was hard to hit a moving target from a wagon rocking across the landscape, so pitifully few of the arrows and crossbow quarrels they had shot at the painted dogs had hit their targets.

The giants Hrolf and Jarl and their hounds nevertheless gave a good account of themselves. Their heroic stand had held the dogs off long enough for their friends to climb into the trees. By then they had shot off almost all their missiles so their weapons were not much use. Their only hope was that travelers would hear the horn which they sounded every hour, which is just what happened.

Corwin pointed out that persons without strong magical gifts should travel in large parties and be better armed to survive the dangerous predators which roamed the savannas. Besides diurnal predators like lions and painted dogs, they or their livestock would have to contend with nocturnal hunters like hyenas. Predators were particularly dangerous in these virgin lands since they had not yet learned to fear those who went of two legs.

The boys offered to escort the pilgrims, as they called themselves, across the savanna to the town they had been heading for. There they might obtain reinforcements and provide themselves with modern arms like airguns or even repeating crossbows. The three boys were themselves headed in the same general direction, and now they had a specific destination on the other side of the sea of grass.

The first order of business was to take care of the dead. They recovered the mangled bodies of the Frost Giants and their faithful hounds. Now giants cremated their dead rather than buried them. So instead of gathering wood for a pyre Corwin did the honors with his ball lightning. After a simple ceremony with the dwarf leading the five pilgrims in prayer he unleashed his ball lightning which consumed the corpses utterly.

Blaze was pressed into service to draw one of the wagons using harness salvaged from the dead horses. The wagon transported only their gear. Strong as he was Blaze could not do the work of a team of two — so no passengers. Everyone except the driver would have to walk. Driving alternated between Ryan and Josh, but even Ryan weighed only a hundred twenty pounds or so, hence not much of a burden. Blaze's load was well within his capabilities.

Even Corwin would walk in solidarity with the rest. So did Derry but mostly in his four legged form.

They also policed up the arrows and quarrels they had shot at the dogs plus the air guns of the giants. The elves stuck with their long bows, so the air guns went to Gregor and Ryan.

Sized for Frost Giants, the two weapons would be unwieldy but manageable. The dwarf may have been the shortest of them all, only four feet tall, but he was sturdily built and immensely strong. His race had been created during the galactic empire of yore to explore and settle high-gravity planets. Ryan was slender but had a stronger upper storey than Josh or the willowy elves. The problem with the big gun was not just its weight and length of barrel but that it was harder to charge the air reservoir whose pressure was higher than in the infantry and carbine versions like those Corwin and Axel carried. It took greater effort and more time for Ryan to work the charging lever.

After rigging packs the conjoined party of eight set out. Scavengers were already feeding on the the carcasses of the horses and the painted dogs. It was past time to push on.

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