Elf Boy's Friends - X

by George Gauthier

Chapter 20

Birds

"I know it's a little early, but let's make camp over by those cottonwoods." Ryan suggested.

The others agreed so Ryan turned the wagon toward a brook almost wide enough to be called a river, its location signaled by the gallery forest of cottonwoods lining its banks. The brook would provide both shade and water for drinking and cooking. To everyone's delight, the stream even had a pool deep enough for swimming.

Josh and Ryan plucked a fine bustard which Axel had brought down with his carbine, dressed it, and set it to roasting on a spit. It would take quite a while to cook, so the travelers went over to the bank of the stream, stripped off, and plunged in. The cool water felt good on their overheated and tired bodies. They were too tired for the usual splashing and grab-ass games. Instead they just floated or sculled on their backs, chatting and relaxing.

Even more than wiry sorts like Corwin and Axel, dwarves like Gregor with their muscular and big boned physiques designed for high gravity planets needed a floatation device, which in his case was made from a pair of air bags salvaged from the bellows dwarves used for working iron.

Ryan did climb out for a moment to tip a hot rock from the fire into a pot to boil water for a vegetable soup made of tubers dug from the ground, local greens, flavored with herbs from their supplies. Ryan might not be a master chef, but he was a darn good field cook.

"My compliments to the chef!" Axel declared to nods from everyone.

"Definitely better than the field rations the Army issued us in Amazonia" Corwin agreed. I always wondered why they were so plain."

Ryan shrugged. "First there is the difference between fresh and preserved foods. Remember refrigeration is not practical except in garrison. So the quartermasters have to preserve meat by salting or drying or smoking. And forget fresh dairy or produce. Besides not everyone likes foods with strong flavors."

"Like the garlic my orc friends are so fond of." Axel pointed out.

"Exactly. Blandness is a necessary compromise that shows no favoritism to any one regional cuisine."

"At least we could wash our food down with cider and water chilled in their butts by our firecasters." Corwin allowed.

The next day they stopped several times to let the elves test the soil for fertility while Gregor delved for minerals and caves. He was standing on some flat rocks when something fell from the sky and hit the ground nearby with a loud crack.

"Are my eyes playing tricks on me, or was I just nearly brained by a turtle falling from the sky? He looked up only to have to duck as a huge bird swooped down at him screeching angrily at the interloper which looked to be cheating it of its prey.

"Whoa!" Gregor cried out in surprise, shying away.

The bird was a vulture with a wingspan of twelve feet. It grabbed the dead terrapin and carried it off, screeching the whole time.

"What happened just now?" Gregor asked. It was Elrond who had the answer.

"It's not surprising that a cavern dweller like you Gregor would be unfamiliar with wildlife. What you saw just now was a vulture which specializes in eating bone marrow. Other vultures can strip a carcass of its flesh but cannot get at the nutritious marrow locked inside the bones. That resource is usually consumed by scavengers with powerful jaws like hyenas who can crack the bones open, something impossible for any bird. A few species of vultures will carry bones up into the air then drop them on rocks to split or crack them open. Evidently this bird was using the same tactic on a turtle."

"It looks like Axel was right after all about his flying monsters." Corwin joked.

"It was monstrous enough, with wings spanning a dozen feet and able to lift a turtle that weighed close to twenty pounds." Axel pointed out.

"Aye." Gregor agreed. "Heavy enough to crack my skull if it had hit."

Nor was that their last strange encounter with birds. The next day as they picked raspberries the travelers were attacked by a clutch of magpies angry that interlopers were poaching their favorite food resource. Gregor got his scalp pecked so he forced his way into the thorny brambles for protection. Poor Eomer and Elrond, sky clad as they were, they had no protection from the thorns so could not take shelter like Gregor. Corwin resolved the situation by sending a lightning ball up to explode in mid air well away from the birds whom he did not want to hurt. The noise alone frightened them away.

"Some sentry you are, Ryan." Gregor complained. "You were posted atop the wagon to keep an eye out for trouble."

"Well sure, but I was to watch for painted dogs, lions, wolves, and bears, and even another sky monster like the one that almost got you, but not little birds." Ryan gave back defensively.

Gregor scowled.

"From now on I'll wear the leather helmet we dwarves use to keep from cracking our skulls on low ceilings." he grumbled. He wore it for a couple of days then took it off. It was just too hot to wear out in the open under the direct rays of the sun.

One particularly fine area they traversed had already been claimed by a mixed group of giants, elves, and humans: singles, couples, and whole families. The giants had plowed and sown fields to wheat and maize, the elves tended nut and fruit orchards and bush crops, while human immigrants from the Western Plains ran livestock on the open range. Theirs was a commercial operation which expected to supply the new towns springing up all over South Varangia.

These settlers weren't worried much about painted dogs. They were armed with air guns or repeating crossbows. More than a few had powerful magical gifts like throwing lightning bolts and fetching and firecasting. And precincts were guarded by whole packs of Molossian hounds. Painted dogs in particular were shot on sight or trailed to their dens where both dam and kits were killed. The tale of woe of the pilgrims just confirmed them in the wisdom of their policy and practices and who could blame them?

The eight travelers pushed on toward their destination, the town of Aarhus, which lay just beyond the edge of the sea of grass in a hilly area. Just short of their goal, while still in tall grass prairie they encounter a flock of flightless birds, descended from the ostriches of Old Urth only larger.

The big birds stood ten or eleven feet tall and massed 400 pounds (181 kg). They were faster almost anything on two legs, could change direction instantly, and had a powerful kick that can seriously injure or even kill a man. Moreover the beaks at the end of their long muscular necks could deliver a nasty knock too.

The mischief was upon Corwin that day for he decided that he wanted to ride the ostrich.

Axel shook his head.

"What makes you think you can ride an ostrich? It's one thing to ride bareback atop a complaisant unicorn or a horse that doesn't mind the burden, but it is another to mount a wild animal that wasn't even built for riding in the first place."

"Ah, but you forget that I grew up on the Eastern Plains. I started riding soon after I could walk. There is nothing I cannot ride."

"Famous last words."

"Axel's right." Derry urged. "You might easily get hurt."

"So? I am a healer. I'll just fix myself up."

"And if you were knocked senseless?" Axel challenged.

"Then you my friend can teleport us to the hospital for magical healing. Look I am going to do this. Wish me luck."

"You are going to need it" Axel told him. "How do you plan to mount it anyhow?"

"Oh I am quite sure that I can get aboard. These birds cannot kick backwards so that is how I will approach, from the rear."

"Go for it Corwin!" Ryan and Josh encouraged him. They were natural equestrians themselves, both boys having been raised among the horse nomads of the Western Plains.

Corwin stalked toward his chosen mount, a big male which had sunk to the ground to rest, his long legs tucked under him. Dressed in green silks for camouflage including a cap to conceal his blond thatch Corwin used all his hard-won fieldcraft to sneak up on the careless bird. He jumped astride its back, grabbing it by the neck and hung on as the bird sprang up hissing and squawking. It ran hither and yon, changing direction sharply, trying to throw his uninvited rider off his back. But Corwin's constitution had been enhanced by druidical healing magic and more recently his own gift. He had no trouble hanging on thanks to his more than doubled strength and faster reflexes.

At first Corwin had a grand time, laughing and waving to his friends, enjoying the sensation of speed and mastery of his steed even if he could not direct it. Among the pilgrims all except the dwarf cheered him on, but not Axel and Derry. They had already figured out that Corwin was now in the predicament of the rider of the proverbial tiger. How could he safely dismount?"

Corwin finally realized that too. What he if he slid off its back and it attacked him? He certainly did not want to have to kill the poor beast with ball lightning or his kukri. Sensing his distress Derry sent a thought:

<Do you want Axel to teleport you off its back?>.

<Maybe, but only if what I am about to try doesn't work.>

Invoking his healing magic, Corwin put the animal to sleep. It slowed then stopped and slumped to the ground allowing Corwin to slip off its back. Axel Jumped to his location and brought them both back to the others. Corwin was chortling.

"That was great! In fact I think I will add Ostrich Rider to my titles. How does this sound: Corwin Lord Klarendes of Dalnot, Holder of the Military Cross for Valor, Mentioned in Dispatches, Giant Friend, Unicorn Rider, and Ostrich Rider."

"I can top that list of impressive titles." Axel assured the others. In as orotund voice as a boy his stature could manage Axel declaimed: "Know gentlemen that you stand in the presence of no less than War Mage Sir Axel Wilde, Holder of the Military Cross for Valor, Pioneer of Flight, Peacemaker, Orc-Friend, and Brontothere Rider."

In Corwin's and Axel's circle of friends, occasional duels of impressive titles were halfway between a tradition and a running joke, updated as the boys acquired yet more titles during their many adventures.

"Fine Axel, but you didn't ride a brontothere just for fun. You had a serious purpose." Gregor countered. "What Corwin did with that bird was just damn foolishness. High spirits are one thing, but he should know better than to take unnecessary risks."

"I am sure that you are right, Gregor," Corwin admitted, "but sometimes, a guy just has to cut loose."

Axel nodded his understanding. There was still a bit of the reckless youth Corwin had once been, for all that his wartime experiences had matured him.

Two days later Axel had a close call when a large hawk swooped down at his head. At the last second Ryan warned him to duck so that the raptor's talons tore at this scalp rather than his eyes. As a combat veteran Axel was not in a mood to be merciful, not like with the magpies. As the hawk turned to dive for a second attack Called Light and englobed the bird with a cool blue white sphere of illumination which scrambled its brain circuits.

"Nice shooting, if I can call it that." Ryan congratulated him.

"I had a lot of practice against the pestiferous pigeons which used to perch on the ledges of the Institute. We finally strung thin wires an inch or so high. That kept them from settling there entirely."

"What was so bad about pigeons?" Gregor asked Axel.

"Have you ever seen a cave inhabited by swallows or bats? The floor is deep in dung which is politely called guano. Now inside a cave is one thing, on a windowsill is another. Their dung dries out and turns to powder which breezes carry indoors and even into the lungs of those inside, which is positively unsanitary and unhealthful not to mention utterly disgusting."

Scalp wounds bled easily, and closing the wounds with stitching was impractical. So Corwin helped Axel wash his scalp clean then closed his cuts with his healing magic.

The group finally reached the town of Aarhus where the pilgrims took their leave of Axel, Corwin, and Derry at a celebratory dinner at tavern owned by one of their co-religionists. Two days later, having exhausted the limited points of local interest, the three pushed on, taking the road to new adventures.

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