Elf Boy's Friends - XI
The next morning, just as the cousins were taking leave of the Franklin family a signal horn at the next ranch over sounded an alarm. Not knowing what was going on, the cousins decided not to go off by themselves across country, but to wait to find out what was what. Jeb Franklin's two older sons and wife stayed at their ranch to watch over things while he and the twins armed themselves, mounted up, and trotted the short distance to their neighbor's ranch buildings. Leon and Brand had no trouble keeping up on foot.
A distraught man of middle years told the neighbors what was the matter. A eight year old boy had been taken by a huge snake and dragged into the reeds. His five year old sister had seen it happen and run back home for help.
"A snake?" Jeb Franklin asked in disbelief. "Snakes don't prey of human beings, and there aren't any really big snakes in these parts."
"There are now." another neighbor told him. "I've heard tell that some veterans of the Troll War brought back pet snakes from Amazonia. The anacondas as they are called were supposed to be good for keeping varmints down. Well some slithered off on their own and now live in our rivers and marshes."
"If that is the case we will need to contact the druids and let them deal with the problem of this invasive species. For now we need a plan for going after that killer snake and recover the boy's body."
That brought a sob from his mother, suddenly forced to face the fact that this would not be a rescue but a recovery of a corpse. Just then the father showed up and told them all that he had followed the track of the snake to the edge of the marsh but could go no further. It seemed that the back of his ranch faced a low lying area, the ground all soft and spongy from the river that ran through it.
"It isn't a proper river at all, just one of those braided rivers with many channels that twist and turn, separate and rejoin. And its waters feed a large marsh all reeds and rushes. The water is just deep enough for a big snake to swim in but not deep enough to float a boat, even if we had any to hand."
"There is no solid ground in there. Quicksand pits aside, the ground everywhere is mostly too soft to walk on. A man just sinks in past his ankles. Sure you can pull a foot out, but the moment you set it down you're stuck again. And you're likely to lose your boots in the process. No you cannot go any distance on foot in that marsh."
One excitable neighbor quavered at the thought of stepping into quicksand and getting sucked under. The rancher corrected him and told him that you couldn't get sucked under by quicksand. That was just a myth. You could extract yourself from quicksand, though it was effortful and you had to keep your head lest you exhaust yourself fruitlessly flailing around. And the rescuers could forget horses too. Even with four legs horses are too heavy to spread their weight. Indeed their hooves would press even harder into the soft ground.
Franklin nodded. "Am I right that the grass is too green to set on fire?" His interlocutor nodded.
"Isn't anyone going to do something to save my son?" the mother wailed. "Or at least bring him back for a proper funeral and burial. Don't we owe him that much?"
Leon looked over at Brand who nodded his agreement that they should lend a hand.
"Maybe we can help…" Brand started to tell the group. The father snapped at them:
"What can a couple of unarmed and nearly naked pretty boys do that I and my friends and neighbors cannot?
Leon shook his head.
"Brand and I have a set of physical and magical abilities uniquely suited to this problem. You see we are Snow Elves, that is shape shifting elves. In our alternate form as spotted leopards we can penetrate this marshy area, locate the snake, kill it, and recover the body."
"It's like this. We can distribute our hundred forty pounds on four large paws so we won't sink in. With our keen senses, powerful builds, and claws and fangs we are a match for any snake plus, thanks to our magical nature, we are easily twice as strong as our size might suggest. During our stalk we won't give our position away since we can communicate silently by signaling with the white spots on our ears and tails. Moreover Brand and I have hunted together for years so we know what to expect from each other."
"Snakes are more muscular than other animals. More of their bodies are devoted to muscle instead of to a skeleton as with four-legged animals of the same weight. So a constrictor might overwhelm a single leopard if it got his coils around him, but not two leopards. A pair of leopards can double team a snake, grab his tail and unwind it from his partner if it comes to that, or maybe bite its head off or claw its eyes out."
"Then there is our gift. Both of us can fling electrum sparks. Now that may be a minor gift, but no snake is going continue its attack once it gets hit by double handfuls of sparks which deliver intense burns and sharp jolts of electricity. Also, though usually employed as short range standoff weapon sparks can be delivered by direct contact. No snake could contract its coils around a sparkler discharging sparks directly into its body."
The father nodded. "I see now that I was wrong. You boys do know what you're doing. I'm sorry for what I said just now. Please get our son back for us."
Leon and Brand loosened the thong that held their breechclouts in place then walked naked to the edge of the swamp. Leon turned and told the others that the cousins would signal their success with a shower of sparks directed upward. After a brief discussion about tactics they transformed into their four-legged forms and entered the marsh.
One of the points Leon and Brand had talked about was that, with their bellies pressed to the ground, snakes can feel the vibrations made by footsteps. They should watch where they put their paws, preferably on grassy tussocks or sand bars as opposed to quicksand or mud from which they could extract themselves only noisily and effortfully.
Brand reminded Leon of what their protectors had taught them about snakes. Snakes like the anaconda moved by means of lateral undulation both on land and in the water. That meant their bodies flexed and bent in waves that moved from head to tail pushing against rocks, twigs or any irregularities in the soil. The speed of the wave was exactly the same as the snake's forward speed with the result that every section of the snake's body followed the path of the section ahead of it. That allowed snakes to thread their way through very dense vegetation and small openings. When swimming the waves got larger toward the tail as the snakes pushed against the water. An aquatic snake like the anaconda swam much faster than it slithered.
Finally Brand reminded Leon that the snake would be half asleep slowly digesting the prey it had swallowed. Their best tactic was to kill it quick before it could bestir itself.
The snake had not left much of a trail in the grass at the edge the marsh and almost none in the water save where its belly scraped bottom and left a mark. It took all of the cousin's tracking skills to locate. Time and again they had to cast about for a moment till they picked up the lost spoor.
Then there it was coiled up dozing though its tongue flickered in and out. The leopards crept close putting each paw down softly then with more weight on it, trying to get close without disturbing the sand of the bar the snake was sleeping on. Brand went for the head. Leon's job was to wait for the snake to uncoil and expose its tail then bite down and hold on backing away to stretch it out so it could not throw its coils around Leon. If it somehow managed to do that, Brand should attack its spine somewhere in the middle and cripple it while Leon flung sparks at it.
Leon and Brand did not really need to point with their hands (or paws) to generate sparks. Gestures were simply aids to concentration and aim, but the exercise of magic was an act of will. If they wanted to, sparklers, as those with their gift were called, could generate sparks anywhere on their bodes. Let's see any snake try to squeeze a body that sizzled everywhere with heat and electric jolts. True they themselves would take some hurt, but shape shifters could heal themselves by transforming.
Something must have alerted the snake to their approach, probably a trace it had tasted in the air with its flickering tongue. As it raised its head off its coils Brand pounced and clamped his jaws on the narrow neck just behind its head, straddled its body and dug in with his claws to hang on. The snake roused and tried to throw its coils around its tormentor, but by then Leon had his jaws around its tail and pulled back with all his might.
The cousins quickly realized that they might have bitten off more than they could chew. Their prey was a huge snake, later measured at twenty-five feet, and weighing more than either of them.
It managed to get its tail away from Leon and threw a coil around Brand, but he clawed at it, bit down on its neck, and discharged sparks from everywhere he felt the snake pressing against his body, forcing it to ease up.
Meanwhile, Leon abandoned the tail and bit hard at the top of the bulge which marked the position of the child the snake had swallowed, a spot where he thought the spine might be pressed closer to its skin. Brand bit down hard. His fangs tore again and again at the bleeding flesh. In short order he had exposed the spine, touched his paw to it, and sent a dozen sparks into it. That severed the spinal cord and crippled the snake which now had no way to resist Brand's attack on his neck. He too targeted the spine where the neck was was small enough just back of the head for him to bite clean through and decapitate the creature.
That did it. The snake was dead. Or mostly. Its tail still twitched back and forth. Snakes took a long time to die.
Both boys transformed to heal their hurts then lay back on the sand.
"That was some fight, Brand. A close one too. Without our sparks we might have lost or at least had to break off and let the snake get away."
"You're telling me! Still our chosen tactics were successful. We are alive, and the snake is dead. Let's rest up before we drag its carcass back to firm ground."
"You know Leon, our sparks were effective, but how much easier this fight would have been if we were equipped with poison claws like our friend, sometime lover, and fellow shape shifter Aodh of Elysion. Next time we go by there let's ask the druids if they and the New Forest can upgrade our powers the way they did with him. I'd also like to see in the dark like Madden Sexton who can actually perceive body heat on the darkest night."
"That's a great idea. Both of them also got strengthened constitutions so they now have tripled rather than doubled strength. We should ask for that too. Let's hope all parties go for it."
"Agreed. Oops! We mustn't forget to signal our success."
Both cousins sent up five double handfuls of electrum sparks to signal the success of their hunt to the boy's family, friends, and neighbors. Their acute hearing caught the sound of cheers, which would normally have been heartening except that the sound was so faint it told them they would have to drag the heavy carcass really far.
If the boys were tired from the fight, after dragging the dead weight of the carcass all the way across the marsh they ended up trembling with fatigue. No threading its dead body though the underbrush. They had to drag it through the shrubbery and tough and tall grass by main force. It later weighed in at one-hundred eighty pounds.
The boy's father cut its belly open to free the corpse of his son then took it to his wife and family to prepare for a funeral to be held immediately. The corpse cleaned up pretty well all things considered. So the casket did not have to be closed for the ceremony. His mother got to look at her son one last time and say her farewells.
The father gave the eulogy for his son. He had died bravely, a hero really, protecting his sister, sending her running for home and turning back to face the snake as it caught up with them to strike it on the head with a stout stick and so delay it.
The officiant was a priest of one of the more popular pantheons whose chief deity was a sky god. He kept the ceremony short, simple, and dignified and delivered a heartfelt sermon which went as far as any mere words could to reconcile the parents to their tragic loss.
He made a good impression on everyone though the cousins found some of his homilies irksome. They were skeptics and rationalists from way back, a leaning reinforced under the tutelage of their protectors the White Kodiaks.
As Leon later grumbled to Brand.
"I couldn't agree with that priest that our presence on the scene was literally providential. If some celestial power really was benignly disposed towards mortals on this planet then why did he, she, it, or they not save that boy? How hard would it have been for a god to distract a hungry snake and keep it away from the kids? To my way of thinking drawing the two us 'providentially' to the scene afterwards was a case of too little too late. All we could do for the family was recover a body not save a young life."
"That priest also assured the mother that she would someday be reunited with her son in the by and by. He spoke glibly and blithely of the 'sure and certain hope of the life to come'. Well, which is it? If it is only a hope then it cannot be sure and certain. And if it really is sure and certain, then it cannot be a mere hope. That's just one of those orotund phrases which sound profound but are really nonsensical."
"Hope in some life to come is surely the ultimate in wishful thinking especially a next life which will supposedly last forever and ever."
Brand shook his head:
"So many people are in denial about life and death. They cannot or perhaps choose not to face the stark truth which is this: we are born; we live; we die. Afterwards we are no more, and the fabric of our bodies is corrupted, broken down, and recycled."
"Amen. Or is that too orotund?"
"Coming from you, I'll let it pass."
A report about the incident with the anaconda was printed in the news weekly in Three Forks. On the strength of the new story's connection with two of the heroes of the fight against the bank robbers the second story also got syndicated by the Altair News Service over the postal heliograph.
The cousins were as yet unaware of their minor degree of fame. If asked they would have been pleased less for themselves than for the favorable impact reports of their exploits might have on public attitudes toward snow elves. Lots of folks didn't quite know what to make of such exotic personages.
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