Elf Boy's Friends - XI
"Hello the camp!" Roland called as they got close enough to smell the smoke of the campfire and the enticing aroma of kaffay.
"Here you go, Cookie. Meat on the hoof."
"Back already? You weren't out for very long."
"I had help bagging this deer. Meet my new boyfriend Gulo."
In a few sentences Roland related how they had met, hunted the deer, and fought the slash bear.
The grizzled cook smiled as he set the carcass on a stump he used as a chopping block and went to work on it with a meat cleaver. Roland introduced Gulo to the others who included Willem, the second guide, the cook who never went by his given name, and the three natural philosophers: a geologist, a zoologist, and the expedition leader, a botanist named Scolari, plus their manservant Goren.
After the introductions Roland excused himself to wash the blood off his hunting shirt and hang it up to air dry overnight, leaving himself bare to the waist, displaying his hard body and strong upper storey to advantage, none of which was lost on the young wir who threw an appreciative wink to his new friend. Willem caught their byplay and rolled his eyes.
"I don't know how you do it, Roland: finding a new boyfriend way out here in the middle of nowhere. What would that red-head of yours think, the bicycle messenger?" he asked.
"Oh, he'll keep till I get back. And little Gulo here will be my first ever shape shifter. Can't pass up this chance. Just look at him. Isn't he the most exotic youth you've ever seen: alabaster skin, totally glabrous of course like all elves. And look at that lustrous shoulder length ash blond hair, not to mention icy grey eyes and those killer cheekbones. I find him incredibly sexy. Besides, I owe him. He probably saved my life this afternoon."
Though they were friends, Willem was one of those males who consorted exclusively with the female half of the species and simply could not comprehend or appreciate a male's attraction to his own gender.
The expedition leader Professor Scolari was an older man with a kindly look about him who handed Gulo a steaming cup of kaffay.
"I should clarify that I am both a botanist and a mycologist, that is an authority on fungi."
"Oh, I always thought that mushrooms and such were plants too even if they were not green."
"That is an all-too common misapprehension, youngling, though entirely understandable and pardonable. To the layman fungi seem like plants because they don't move around; they just grow in place."
"They also don't have senses like sight and hearing." Gulo pointed out.
"They may not have sense organs like eyes and ears, but plants do have senses. I am sure you know that they can sense light and grow toward it. The sunflower actually turns its face to the sun during its daily passage across the sky. Plants also have chemical senses which are not so very dissimilar to our our chemical senses of taste, smell, hunger, and thirst. Plants may not feel pain but they can detect damage and send chemical signals to warn their neighbors about an infestation, leaf blight, or predation. Trees can share nutrients, helping neighboring trees distressed by disease, insects, fire, or storm damage."
"Anyway just like the plants and the animals the fungi are a kingdom unto themselves. Fungi are particularly important in these woods since it is mostly through their network of fungal filaments in the soil along with their intertwined roots that the fully sapient mind of the New Forest communicates with its constituent trees. Together you could consider the dual network to be the nervous system of the sentient forest. The forest also has immaterial psychic links to animals from the very largest down to the tiny critters and creepy crawlies of the forest floor."
"I hadn't realized all that, though as a wir I myself have a weak link with the mind of the forest. I am told it will get stronger with time. You really should talk with the resident druids in Elysion."
"We plan to do just that. Thanks to mutual friends, namely the famous twins Jemsen and Karel, Count Klarendes has invited us all to unwind there after we finish up and before heading back to the comforts of civilization. I am already acquainted with his spouse the shape shifter Aodh whom I met some years ago when he was on patrol as a forest ranger."
"Glad to hear that. I know both him and his spouse the count quite well and indeed they have known me, if you take my meaning. I myself am an auxiliary forest ranger as are my brothers. Hence the small green tattoo of an oak leaf on my left shoulder. It designates me as a forest-friend."
"We auxiliary rangers do not carry out regular patrols nor do we usually concern ourselves with purely criminal matters unrelated to the care of the forest. We don't chase bank robbers like Aodh once did. We pitch in to help sick, injured, or lost travelers, and report anything strange that we come across in our travels like infestations of pests or blight, or prohibited activities like mining, trapping, or charcoal production, that sort of thing. In this way we are paying the New Forest back for its hospitality."
"Your camp looks comfortable enough with easy access to a stream, a well-tended fire in a stone ring, double roofed silk tents ringed by drainage trenches for shelter from the rain, folding camp stools."
Scolari nodded then noted:
"No real beds though, just ground sheets stuffed with boughs or grass, but comfortable enough, all things considered. Armchair scholars we are not, my colleagues and I. We are willing to put up with some discomfort and to get our hands dirty since we realize that field work is where you can make the greatest contribution to the advancement of knowledge."
"Roland mentioned that you traveled without any equipment: no tools, weapons, or clothing. Now that is really roughing it."
"Not as much as you might think, sir. In this tropical climate, I certainly don't need clothing, whether for modesty, warmth, or to protect my skin from nettles or sword grass or the sting of wind-blown sand. In my four-legged form I have a full-length fur coat which is comfortable here at altitude where it is cooler than the tropical lowlands. It's why wolverines mostly live in the alpine environs of the Great Dividing Ranges, East and West."
"I do set a fire at night, if only to make predators wary of approaching my camp. With my gift I can kindle a fire with a thought."
"Most predators won't tackle a wolverine anyway, especially one more than twice normal size. A tawny panther wouldn't even consider it. Too much chance of injury even if it won. No, the only threats I might face are from a pack of dire wolves or a slash bear like just now."
"Yes. From what Roland said about your fight with the slash bear, you certainly upheld the reputation of the wolverine for ferocity all out of proportion to its size."
The compliment put a predatory grin on Gulo's pretty face.
"The intelligence from my elven side devised the strategy of setting the fur of its hindquarters on fire and attacking its eyes and then its throat. My wolverine nature handled the rest. That side of me thoroughly enjoyed the fight — relished it in fact. Funny isn't it. When I go on two legs I am a quiet inoffensive pretty boy and something of a bookworm when I can get books. On four legs I am a killer and a carnivore, though I hasten to add that I have never killed anything that walked on two legs which didn't have feathers."
"A very good way of putting it. I should mention that we will be moving on in a couple of days. We usually camp in one spot for a while, up to ten days though usually less before moving on to a new area. Wranglers bring in supplies by pack train. The next one is due the day after tomorrow."
Meanwhile the cook had cut enough chops for the evening meal and set them to cooking while he wrapped and hung the rest of the meat high up in a tree some distance away lest their food cache attract hungry bears to their camp. Just in case, someone was always on watch at night. It helped that three of their number could create long-lasting globes of light which stayed bright for hours without further attention, much as with the street lights in the cities of the Commonwealth. The party was reasonably well-armed. All carried airguns except for Roland who preferred to hunt with the bow.
For self-defense, the company could also call on formidable magical gifts. The geologist was a fetcher strong enough to fly with a yoke, and the zoologist could throw levin bolts. Both had served with the forces in Amazonia. Roland's electrum sparks too were useful in that regard. Scolari's own gift was of no use in a fight, but it was perfect for a botanist: a Green Thumb.
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