Elf Boy's Friends - XI

by George Gauthier

Chapter 14

Idyll

To accommodate so many guests the count's staff had to open and freshen up long disused bed chambers and guest rooms. Their work was made a little easier in that their guests were perfectly happy to share chambers and beds. Gulo and Roland paired up, resuming their interrupted summer romance. Much as Taitos Klarendes was attracted to pretty little Gulo he would have to wait his turn with him. He understood that Gulo's pairing with Roland was only temporary. Roland would leave for the capital as soon as he was accepted for training at the Institute for Natural Philosophy.

The triplets were happy to share a bed, while Aodh joined his fellow felines the cousins Leon and Brand for the duration of their sojourn. Scolari's cook and his manservant Goren shared a room. The natural philosophers each had a room of his own: Scolari himself, the zoologist Evander Blok, and the geologist Johan Klutz.

Derrionydd that is Derry took up with Meirionnydd, that is Merry, the former unicorn now a druid. The difference in coloration between snow elf and sylvan elf made for a fine looking couple. Merry explained that his own snow white hair was a holdover from those days.

"You're halfway to looking like a Snow Elf anyway, so why don't you invoke your druidic powers and go all the way."

Merry snorted.

"I am much less likely to do than than to make the hair on my head grow out with the dark color nature intended for us Sylvan Elves. And I like an overall tan on my torso and limbs. It makes me look healthy and vigorous. Pasty white skin suggest that you are either a shut-in or in poor health. That may be satisfactory to you shape shifters, but I not one one of your kind."

"Please, not pasty white. We prefer our skin color to be likened to alabaster. That is much more classy, don't you think?"

"All right, yes, yours is a classy combination: alabaster skin, shoulder-length ash-blond hair, and icy grey eyes. But only a shape shifter would put up with long hair in this tropical climate. Shoulder-length hair is too hard to manage and keep clean. So I keep mine short."

"Ha! We snow elves never have a bad hair day. All we have to do is transform and leave the dirt and sweat and tangles behind. I can understand though why you keep yours cut short."

"Cut? Who said anything about needing the services of a barber? I am a druid. My hair grows out exactly as long as I want it to and then stops growing."

"Now with so many snow elves about these days, I've been thinking of making it come in dark to show that I am a sylvan elf and happy to be one. On the other had, keeping it white is a reminder of the old days. Besides I have retained some of my unicorn powers though not my killer neigh."

"That leaves you without a stand off capability." Derry pointed out.

"Hardly. We druids are all about stand off capabilities, that and force multiplication. We seldom fight hand to hand and even then only with a quarterstaff, never with steel. Like you we have four times normal strength so when we crack a foe's skull with a staff, he goes down and stays down. We do use throwing knives, but they are made of ironwood, so they are entirely organic. Dahl once killed an evil man by flinging an ironwood blade into his skull."

"As for force multiplication, ask Dahl about the time during his journeyman trials when he, as a naked teenage druid, lead the charge of a herd of brontotheres against an army of amazons. Ask Owain about the time he flash grew a stand of bamboo to kill a squad of frost giants which tried to breach the shield wall of a town militia, which would have let a force of barbarians roll up their battle line. Their big skeletons are still hanging where they died."

"Druids can flash grow vines and runners and creepers to seize the legs of an enemy force and hold them in place, easy targets for the bows or air guns of their allies. Alternatively the motile plant parts can strangle a druid's enemies. And how about the trick of sending snakes into the enemy camp at night to sow terror?"

"With our control of life magic we druids can kill a foe with a thought and from some distance. You would not believe how easy it is to induce a heart attack or to turn a foe's stomach contents into poison or an allergen. If I were really mad at a foe, I might do what Dahl once did to thwart a war wizard who was trying to kill him with white fire. He made the man's skeleton crumble into powder, causing his boneless body to collapse into a bloody and gooey mess. The sight gave witnesses nightmares for years."

Holding his hands up in surrender, Derry said:

"Remind me not to get you mad at me."

Things got even more crowded when the twins showed up, but they were more than happy to share a room with the elf-boy Dylan, as they had done so often before.

Around the breakfast table Derry asked whether the druids or the New Forest itself was not worried about the security of its three semi-crystalline living matrices. Anyone might walk up to the sites whether by accident, from curiosity, from ill-intent — maybe a wizard who wanted to appropriate its magic.

"That cannot happen." Dahlderon assured him.

"The forest has strong defenses, and I don't just mean all the animals it can call to its aid to attack invaders. No one is going to stumble upon the matrices by accident. The forest is aware of everything that moves within its boundaries. Persons getting too close will be directed away from the locales, their own minds suddenly coming up with plausible reasons for why heading toward a matrix is not a good idea. Same thing for the merely curious."

"As for ill-intent, only a druid can work with a matrix since both use forms of life magic. The magic of wizards focusses on the inanimate world. So a wizard cannot draw on the magic of the matrix. Anyone, wizard or not, aiming to tamper with or to destroy a matrix would be struck blind and deaf or likely have his heart stopped, and if the forest were in a angry mood might swarm him with thousands of fire ants."

Left unsaid was that the forest had laid physical traps in case a malefactor was able to counter its magic with one of the rare ensorcelled amulets. The New Forest was still young. Given a century to grown stronger, the forest's magic could overwhelm and destroy the defensive magic of an amulet. The only chink in its armor was an aerial approach via flying yoke or autogyro.

The natural philosophers and their helpers took advantage of the count's hospitality to relax from the rigors of their strenuous expedition. It felt good to sleep in a soft bed between clean sheets, to wear freshly laundered clothes, to have a water closet just steps away, and to bathe or shower in solar-heated hot water. (During those rare cloudy spells where solar heating was inadequate, the fire magic of the Klarendes clan heated the water in the tanks fed by their solar array.)

Then there was the excellent food and drink. What was served at meals was not overly fussy or fancy. Haute cuisine was not one of the count's hobbies. Solid country cooking with fresh ingredients better suited the tastes of the gentleman farmer, hunter, and sometime soldier that he was. He was particular about a few things. Just as he had a special blend for his pipe, he had long settled on a particular varieties of kaffay, whether a mild brew with breakfast in the morning or a more robust variety for dinner.

In keeping with the custom in the country the midday meal was called dinner. Among country folk it was always the most substantial meal of the day. Supper was typically a light meal of cold meats, cheese, sliced bread, and dried fruits for dessert. For city folk the most substantial meal was that taken in the evening, and confusingly it too was called dinner. The lighter meal taken at midday was dubbed lunch.

Just to add to the confusion the honeymoon resort across the valley had adopted the city lingo since it drew newly married couples from far and wide, especially from the big cities. The draw was the scenic wonder of the region, a spectacular cataract. The cascade shot from a slot atop a cliff then descended in a stepped cataract to fill a deep pool at the bottom. The spray and mist of the falling waters formed what was called the Bridal Veil.

But it was its rainbows which made the site a meteorological wonderland. On sunny days the mist formed a double spray rainbow arching over the pool plus a third rainbow reflected from the lake surface. At night the spray formed a single white moon-bow. And under the right conditions, large fogbows would appear, a ghostly backdrop for the nearby henge of standing stones left by some vanished civilization.

This was the first visit of the natural philosophers so they got the grand tour from their gracious host.

Elysion was a secluded valley, a lovely green bowl about eight miles across, ringed by mountains and closed off by vertiginous cliffs on the east. The dark green of the forested slopes was broken here and there by lighter clear cuts. Sheep meadows and vineyards on the lower slopes gave way to flatlands with pastures, orchards, grain fields, kitchen gardens, and other works of man.

The valley held a single settlement in the center, a sizable village, one large enough to call a town, with a manor house hard by. The village was situated atop a knoll where a stream split in twain and flowed entirely around, then rejoined below. That was intentional harking back to the old days of invasions by the eastern barbarians. In effect the topography made the village into a fortress atop a hill on an island behind a moat.

Though the village was not built as a fortress, the houses are sturdy enough, all stone or timber and stone construction with tile roofs, hence very hard to set on fire. Behind barred doors and shuttered windows, both men and women would be armed with repeating crossbows or air guns and shoot through loopholes and embrasures. Or the militia could march out to give battle. In the old days the grown men were armed with war axes and shields. These days they bore air guns, bought cheap by Klarendes as war surplus. Klarendes was captain of the militia and of the volunteer fire brigade so was usually called "Captain" by the villagers.

Klarendes sketched the history of Elysion by way of explanation for the obvious harmony and prosperity his guests saw all around in the happy faces of children off to school, the cleanliness, vigor and robust good health of the yeoman, and the respect the locals had for the nobleman. No one shot the man a resentful look behind his back. They genuinely liked and respected him.

They learned that Klarendes ranked as a count, the latest scion in a second of two dynasties ruling these lands going back eight centuries. The first count in his own line had succeeded to the title after the last of the former dynasty were killed during the Formation Wars. His ancestors had managed to sire enough sons or daughters to keep it going, despite low fertility from the large admixture of elf-blood in their ancestry. Happily, Klarendes himself had two sons in their twenties though neither of them was in a hurry to marry and settle down.

Everything within the mountain ring was his property save the village itself and the arable lands immediately around it: fields, orchards, pastures, and hay meadow. Every farmer was a yeoman freeholder with his own acres. The other villagers were free men working in shop or smithy or tavern or were in the direct employ of the domain itself at fair wages.

It had been that way for generations. The counts no longer exacted feudal dues. Their income came from exploiting the lands they personally owned which lay beyond the farms and included the timberlands and sheepfolds in the mountains, the well-tended vineyards on the hilly slopes, a small silver mine, and the scenic waterfall, site of the popular and lucrative resort. The count also drew an income from his considerable real estate interests in nearby towns plus extremely lucrative early investments in nascent industries across the Commonwealth like iron roads, street car lines, and refrigeration.

Like everyone else the counts paid local taxes levied by a council of elders for the upkeep of roads and bridges, for the provision of public services, and the maintenance of the fortifications at the head of the gorge that lead to the outside world. The village could boast a grammar school cum lending library, an infirmary with a diplomate healer, an herbalist, and two midwives on staff, and a chapel which served those who desired to worship their gods in public or collectively rather than at household shrines. Klarendes second steward managed their day to day affairs. (His chief steward managed the count's personal domain.)

"Not that we are self-sufficient here, though we do raise practically all our own food. We still must import manufactures of all sorts, spices, exotic woods, and books, though we pay for all that not from the proceeds of the sale of crops but from ventures like the honeymoon resort at our scenic waterfall, a lucrative trade in amber, aromatic gums, and medicinal plants collected from the forests, and especially the silver work we turn out in the shape of buckles, buttons, broaches, bracelets, rings, and the like. High value, low weight, so much easier to ship than bulk cargoes like grain or fruit or ore."

That afternoon their peregrinations took them along the convoluted shore of the small lake downstream from the resort. Fed by the waterfall, the lake emptied into the white water creek that flowed down the gorge past the fortified checkpoint grandly called the "Stone Castle" and so out to the wider world.

At first sight the Stone Castle was a disappointment, a stone-built barrier twenty feet high with an archway through it barred by three gates. Actually it was far stronger than it looked at first glance. An attacker would have to force the three gates one after the other, his men bunched up under murder holes the whole time.

Even as they tried to force the gates, their follow-on forces would be subject to merciless missile fire from in front and from both sides. The fortification extended over the river. Downstream the road was flanked by galleries cut into the living rock from which slingers, shooters, and crossbowmen could rain down lead bullets and quarrels, turning the last stretch before the gate into a killing ground. The small garrison would hold long enough for the village militia to form up and dispatch reinforcements.

These days only a token force guarded the gates. Even the overwatch at the entrance to the canyon had been withdrawn. Given the outcome of the last wars for the plains and the tremendous military potential the Commonwealth had demonstrated in the Troll War, there was zero chance of another invasion or raid by the eastern barbarians. They knew better than to get on the Commonwealth's bad side.

The natural philosophers also asked questions in line with their professional interests. Johan Klutz asked about the visually striking geology while Scolari himself was interested in the unusual cultivars of domestic plants and crops growing in the fields and gardens. The zoologist Evander Blok got little from the count about his own special interest herpetology. The count knew little and cared less about snakes and reptiles.

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