Elf-Boy and Friends

by George Gauthier

Chapter 3. New Friends

<I don't like it, Dahl. These woods are entirely too quiet. Something has spooked the denizens of the forest, and I am sure it was not merely our passage along this track. The local wildlife must be used to travelers.>

Dahl agreed. Like all elves he was attuned to the rhythms of nature. Something was clearly amiss. Was it the dark force the unicorn had spoken of, or some more prosaic danger like a jaguar on the prowl or maybe bandits. He cocked his ears, listening for signs of danger.

Just as the travelers stepped out of the woods into a sunny glade a net sailed through the air and settled over the boy. The men who had flung the net yanked hard, closing it around him and dragging him to the ground. Dahl kept his head and did not give in to panic. Nor did he struggle uselessly; that would only entangle him further. He waited till he got pulled over to two smelly villains who leered at their pretty nude captive.

One made the mistake of putting his face too close to the net. Quicker as a snake, the boy's right hand flicked out through an opening in the net, fingers formed into a blade, and struck at the man's left eye. A quick twist popped the eye right out of its socket. Howling, the man let go of the net, which let the boy work his way free of it. He got to his feet and give the second man a kick in the groin. The nimble elf-boy snatched a dagger from that man's belt and plunged it into his belly. Finally he turned back to the first man who was bent over moaning and holding his hands to his ravaged face. One quick stab to the kidneys put him out of his misery.

Meanwhile Merry was struggling against men who had thrown nooses around his neck. One of them was already dead having mistakenly supposed that a unicorn, like a horse, would instinctively pull back from a rope, pitting his muscles against the rope, but Merry was a member an intelligent species. He knew that ropes worked with a pull but not with a push. So instead of drawing away, he ran straight at the man, who stood there dumbfounded as the rope went slack in his hands. With only a loose rope in his hand, the man found himself defenseless facing the charge of an angry unicorn.

Now unicorns have a choice of weapons: horn, hoofs, and strong teeth. In this case Merry plunged his horn into the man's breast and threw him sideways into two other men who were coming up in support. He sensed yet another foe behind him trying to get ahold of the slack rope the first man had dropped and kicked out with his rear hoofs, crushing the man's ribs.

Just when it looked like he was in the clear another assailant got a grip on the rope around his neck and tied it to a deadfall. Then two more men threw lassoes at him from the side. Merry blocked one loop with his horn. A second noose settled about the noble creature's neck and the rope got pulled taut and anchored to a tree trunk. It looked bad for Merry, doubly roped and anchored as he was.

The man at the first rope had only a moment to enjoy his triumph before crying out in anguish and surprise as Dahl slipped the blade of the dagger through his ribs. The elf-boy then slashed the ropes holding the unicorn. Together they charged the remaining pair of assailants, who backed off allowing the two to pass them by. Merry told Dahl:

<Get on my back, boy and hold on.>

Dahl did just that, grabbing fistfuls of mane, as they galloped headlong away from the scene of the ambush. The unicorn slowed to a canter briefly. Dahl did not even wait for mind speech. He knew what his ally needed and got him free from what remained of the trailing ropes. Then they plunged into the woods, no longer worried about getting hung up. They ran for their freedom if not for their very lives. Their attackers were slavers who normally would not kill if they did not have to, but these men had four or five of their number to avenge.

"What would they have done with us, Merry?"

<If they captured us without losing anyone, they would take us to be sold in the slave market at Xamphool. You would bring a high price as a pleasure boy in a brothel. Human boys can serve for only a few brief years before their bloom fades. You could serve for centuries. Naturally they would rape you first, many many times.>

"And yourself?"

<The arena probably, pitted against a slash bear or tygre, with my horn sold afterwards to an apothecary as the basis of an aphrodisiac.>

"We were lucky, then. I won't pretend we got away because I am a great fighter. "

<Unlooked for wisdom in one so young. Yes, that is why you must learn to defend yourself as part of your training.>

"With what weapons?"

<You did all right with your natural weapons, your hands and feet, in that fight. Those will be your weapons, your whole body actually, and you will learn to use a quarterstaff too, though in time you will enlist the natural world to attack and to defend.>

"I used a knife back there too, though I did not like the feel of it in my hand."

<You did well enough thanks to surprise, but without technique or training you would have lost a real knife fight. Anyway, blades are psychologically counter-indicated for druids. Indeed the time will come when if you grasp steel with intent to harm another the muscles of your hand will cramp up temporarily. That is part of the price you pay to become a druid.>

The next day they camped just beyond a talus slope near a meadow. The unicorn showed the boy the many kinds of foods a traveler may safely glean from the land: wild carrots and onions, starchy tubers, ducks' eggs, fruits and berries, the slow moving fish that live in slack-water pools, edible mushrooms and how to tell them from poisonous ones, etc. He also cautioned him against the many plants that produce toxins in leaves, fruits, stems. and roots to discourage herbivores.

The unicorn next showed the boy how to grill, bake or boil these foodstuffs without cooking utensils. As for lighting a fire, Merry instructed Dahl to build a teepee of dry sticks, setting it on clear ground inside a circle of rocks. The boy was skeptical as he laid the fire since he had been told not to bother with twigs or grass or fibrous kernels for kindling. To Dahl's surprise, when all was ready, the unicorn went to one knee and touched the wood with his horn. Flames sprang to life and burned cheerily, crackling and spitting sparks into the evening sky. It seemed fire starting was one of Merry's small magics.

Following the unicorn's instructions, the elf-boy grilled fish on a green stick propped over the flames. For the rest of the meal, Merry had him bake tubers buried in the sand under the fire. Some days he boiled their foodstuffs by heating rocks in the fire and rolling them into a pit filled with water.

Dahl was gratified to learn that they could feed themselves quite well without resort to inns along the way where he would have to bargain his charms to all and sundry Much as he enjoyed male sex, he would rather not whore himself out day after day to all and sundry. Sex for coin struck him as a sordid business. He would never have the respect of folks who knew him only for a pleasure boy, one who went around with his nether regions perpetually on display as if trolling for custom.

The next night, in their stall at an inn, the boy fell to his knees next to Merry's hindquarters, silently pleading for another chance to taste the unicorn's energizing gism. The unicorn was pleased with the elf-boy had accepted the fact that his existence would be transformed and that a unicorn's seed would be the catalyst for that change. Dahl mouthed the helmet of the equine cock while his fingers stroked it to life. It soon was hard and fully extended. Dahl nearly swooned at the size of it. He did his best to take it into his mouth and throat, almost choking and fainting from lack of air. The second time around, the aroma of aroused unicorn was even more intoxicating than the first time.

Abruptly, Merry ordered him to stand up and to bend over a nearby saddle stand. Nervously the boy complied, trembling as the equine straddled his small body, positioning his cock atop the boy's butt.

<No, I am not going to penetrate you tonight, but I want you to feel what will soon be probing your depths.>

The equine's member reached from the bottom of Dahl's butt cheeks to above his waist. Dahl both dreaded and yearned for it to be thrust into him, for Merry to take him like a filly and mount him. The unicorn knew that it was too soon for that. Instead he thrust his cock not into the boy's anus but between the boy's thighs, rubbing it back and forth, pressing it into his genitals and belly as well. When he was ready to come he mind spoke the order for the boy to spin around and present his mouth at the cock head to receive the seed, which they boy did, swallowing greedily.

The next day, they passed through pretty country, a woodland with copses of beeches and aspens alternating with grassy meadows and threaded by babbling brooks. Strange that no one had settled what seemed ideal country. As Dahl fell to his belly to take a drink from a stream, a strange voice called out:

"Stand up youngling that I might take thy measure."

Dahl jumped to his feet and spun around to confront a giant of a man. He loomed over the elf-boy standing well over seven foot and was massively built, with shoulders as wide as an ox yoke. The red-haired giant wore a sleeveless leather jerkin over a dark green blouse and and deerskin trews and stout sandals. The hilt of a two-handed sword protruded over his right shoulder. His left hand gripped a quarterstaff, one end planted planted on the ground next to him.

Clean shaven and with a handsome leonine profile he regarded the boy steadily, a half-smile on his friendly face. A broad leather belt carried a dagger a hatchet, a cudgel, and a canteen. For all his size and weaponry, the stranger seemed benign rather than threatening, and the wink he gave Dahl left no doubt that he would not mind sampling the boy's charms.

"Well, sir, as you can see by my diminutive stature, my measure really doesn't amount to much, though, in my defense, I should say that I have always thought that my slight physique was more about quality than about quantity."

"Which would be my department, of course", the giant answered genially. "Small you are but well-knit together, but then the elves were ever a fine looking people, and you are among the very best of the best. What are you doing in these parts so far from any of your people or anyone else for that matter?"

"Just passing through. I hope we haven't trespassed on your lands or somehow given offense, Sir Giant."

"We?" he asked looking around.

<That would be my cue to show myself,> Merry mind-spoke to them, stepping out of the woods.

"Unusual company too, a unicorn no less. Wait, is that you Merry? Forgive me, you one-horns really do all look alike."

<I suppose I should take offense at that Balandur, but I am just glad to have run into you. This is my protege Dahlderon, or Dahl for short.>

"Short he is for sure, so Dahl I shall call him. But only your protege, is he, Merry? Such an exquisite boy with that impossibly pretty face, slight build and and clean limbs, running around without a stitch on. Humph. That pert rump of his constitutes a perpetual courtship display. Everyone knows how keen unicorns are on elf-boys, from having been elves themselves in a previous life. It's a wonder if you haven't mounted him yet."

<Sounds like you fancy the boy yourself Balan.>

"Why wouldn't I? Only a blind man would not be stirred by his beauty. He is a walking wet dream."

Dahl flushed. They might make a game of their banter and sexual innuendo, but it made him squirm the way they talked about him liked that. It seemed that every male he met wanted to take him carnally, either by blandishment, by payment, or by force. He suddenly realized that physical beauty like his had a down side to it. Combined with his slight build and perpetual nudity, it made others look at him hungrily seeing him not as a person in his own right, but as a sex toy for them to play with, to possess, to mount, and to fuck. Still he could not deny his own attraction to the giant, standing there the very embodiment of strength and manliness.

Thunderstruck by the giant's overwhelming masculinity, the elf-boy stood transfixed, mind awhirl as he wondered what it would be like to be hugged by those huge arms and nearly engulfed in that huge body. What would it be like to be covered by such a giant, taken like a stallion takes a filly. Or would he want Dahl on his back, heels in the air, legs in a wishbone? Were the giant's manhood were in proportion, he might literally tear Dahl apart.

Dahl's eyes widened as his gaze traveled down to the bulge in the giant's trews. The elf-boy's face reflected his conflicting emotions, lust and anticipation warring with trepidation for his bodily integrity, as he visualized himself impaled on the giant's prong.

The giant grinned, having followed the lad's gaze and guessed his thoughts.

"I don't need mind powers to know what you are thinking boy." he chuckled amiably. He then stepped close enough to reach out and to take the elf-boy in hand, as it were, cupping his chin and turn his face side to side, putting his huge hands to the boy's shoulders then running his fingers lightly down the chevron of his ribs, even weighing and gauging his shapely genitals, skinning back the foreskin with his thumb and rolling the spheres in the palm of one giant hand. His ministrations had the expected effect as the boy's already half way tumescent cock plumped up further and lifted toward the sky. The giant nodded approvingly.

Dahl wanted to protest, to say that he could control himself. He wasn't wanton by nature. His half-erection from the giant's roaming hands was involuntary -- just a hormonal reaction to tactile stimulation. As to standing there so meekly while the giant felt him up, surely it was not Dahl's fault that elf-boys were sexually submissive. And everyone knows that the dicks of teenage boys often have minds of their own especially after manipulation by super masculine strangers. Besides, it would only be polite, age-old custom among elves being what it was, that he not only let older males pet his body and toy with his manhood but actually to offer to satisfy their carnal desires. Between the dictates of custom and his own cravings, Dahl knew that before the end of the day the giant would likely have him on his knees or on all fours, letting the giant take his pleasure of him, as so many had done in his short life already.

Dahl wondered whether Merry would watch their lovemaking. Would he enjoy the spectacle vicariously? Would he insist on a turn for himself and cover the elf-boy too?

Giddily, Dahl thought maybe the way to thwart the dark force was for him to seduce the physical incarnation of evil before the coming battle and turn him from his foul purpose. It wasn't vanity for Dahl to acknowledge that even for an elf, he was extraordinarily beautiful and sexy. He suggested as much to the unicorn who responded with a head butt that put him down on his ass.

<Don't even think that! The avatar would use your sexuality to turn you from the light, to turn you to his own dark purposes. I am not the only being who can transform the right kind of elf-boy by sexual impregnation.>

Dahl was appalled at this bit of news. Gods, was there no end to the use that magic could make of his small elvish body. Now he had to worry that an incarnation of evil might seduce him, literally fucking him into joining the wrong side.

The giant warrior explained what had brought him to these woods.

"I had reports of Trackers in the hills to the southeast, heading this way, so I came to check things out."

<Do you think they are coming for us?>

"You could probably answer that better than I could. What are you doing here anyway, Merry, and why with this callow youth in tow?"."

The unicorn explained his mission and asked the giant to join them at least till they got clear of the Trackers.

"What are these Trackers?" Dahl asked.

"Demon spawn, boy, dire-wolves crossed with demons, so they are half-demon themselves and very hard to kill. They never give up once they take the scent.

"What can we do then?"

"We shall camp here for the night. This vale is warded by elven magics from the old days which is why no one lives hereabouts. We shall be safe till the morrow. Then we shall see. Meanwhile we still have two hours of light. Let us put it to good use with some weapons practice. Have you ever used a staff before boy?

Dahl admitted that he had used his brother's shepherd's crook against wild dogs the previous spring when a pack came over the mountains to the north and ranged over the land seeking the spring lambs and kids. In the crisis, he had been pressed into service though he did not normally tend livestock. Balan nodded then chose a sapling and cut it down with a sweep of his long blade, then trimmed it clean. Brandishing his blade he remarked.

"Forged with magic by the Stone Mountain dwarves, so it never needs sharpening." he told Dahl.

He then took up his staff and sparred with Dahl. They made quite a sight, the giant clad in just his trews, massive chest and arms bared, facing off against a diminutive nude lad. The boy's pretty features screwed up in concentration as he pitted himself against the experienced warrior. The older male had the advantage of strength and reach and training, not to mention centuries of experience. Though the boy did not have the hardened muscles of the warrior, he was healthy and fit, and his size made him quick and nimble. Even so his every strike was easily countered by the smooth moves of his opponent.

The boy came off much the worse with bruises, rapped knuckles and a sore elbow that left his left arm numb for a brief while. Still the giant pronounced himself satisfied with the boy's skills. He had shown he was no expert, but he wouldn't trip over the staff either.

That night the giant invited the boy to his bed but contented himself with mere bodily contact as they lay spooned together with only the thin fabric of his trews between his groin and the elf-boy's rump. He did not ask the boy to give himself to him but merely threw an arm around him protectively rather than possessively, stroking his chest lazily with his fingers and nuzzling the nape of his neck before they both fell asleep.

Dahl was grateful that the man was treating him as a friend and an ally and a traveling companion rather than just a pretty boy toy, though he would be within his rights to do just that. Instead, the giant had sparred with him, warned them of danger from the Trackers, and helped prepare their simple supper. Now he was lying there with him companionably that they might gather their strength to face the perils that lay beyond the elven wards. Dahl had to admit that he felt quite comfortable in the giant's arms though he hoped for a proper shag on the morrow. A giant mounting an elf-boy. He grew hard just thinking about it.

The next morning, as they left the warded area, the giant handed the boy his own quarter staff saying he would rely on his sword in any confrontation.

"I use the quarterstaff mostly as a hiking pole rather than as a combat weapon. It makes a good prop going uphill and a brake on downhill slopes and lets you test streams and swamps for depth, mud pits and quicksand. You will find it handy clearing spider webs too. It makes sense to carry a stick since no one travels brandishing blades. You keep them in a scabbard or sheath or hung from your belt, but a staff is always in your hands while you are on the move, so it is your first defense against sudden attack by wild animals or anything else."

Indeed, with its long reach the giant's quarterstaff was a formidable weapon in its own right. Made of hickory, the iron bands at the ends were inlaid with rings of silver. The staff would not kill a Tracker, but it could stun it and the silver burn it, keeping it at bay long enough for the steel of Balan's sword or the horns or hoofs of the unicorn to end its unholy existence.

Unfortunately for the trio their forward progress that day was dogged by bad luck. Streams swollen by heavy rains upstream forced them to detour to fords far above the normal crossing, lengthening their route. Then mucky ground slowed all of them especially the unicorn with his hooves and the giant with all that weight on only two feet. So they did not make it safely to the next town. Twilight found them in a piney woods, dimly lit and eerily quiet from the way the trees and the carpet of needles absorbed the sounds of their passing.

With nothing for it, the trio looked for a defensible spot to make camp. Now a pine forest has very little understory in it, letting them spot a clearing a ways ahead. There a defile split the rocks, steep sides rising all around to twice the height of a man. At the end of the defile was a flat space large enough to make camp. Indeed they found a camp there already set up, but no one was around.

Suddenly a nervous young voice shouted down at them.

"Drop your weapons and hold out your hands where we can see them!"

They looked up into the anxious faces and drawn bows of two young humans, who looked so much alike they must be twins. Both were as nude as the elf-boy. Though of no more than medium height, they carried themselves so well they might be princes of the forest, lithe and boyishly handsome and very blond. With the hair on their heads cropped short (though a blond elf was hard to imagine), their slight builds and slender physiques, and their youthful features, the twins might be taken for elves themselves. Both were as naked as any youth of the elven race. The teenagers' comeliness would normally have piqued Dahl's interest, but the arrows pointed at him were all business. Dahl recognized the shafts as genuine war arrows with wicked barbs, not the usual broad-head hunting arrows.

"Merry, beware of archers!" He called back.

His shout was just in time, before the unicorn joined them in the kill zone of the ambush. There was little the unicorn might do just then against bowmen perched on the rocks, but as long Merry remained at liberty, he might effect a rescue later. Catching a glimpse of the retreating unicorn, the boys lowered their bows though they kept their arrows strung.

"Welcome strangers. Your friend the unicorn is an earnest of your good intentions. I am Jemsen and this is Karel, my twin brother. Now who are you? and what were you doing sneaking up on our camp just now."

"We are honest travelers seeking a refuge for the night." the giant assured them. "We come in peace."

"Then in peace we greet you."

The boys scrambled down the face of the rocks, landing lightly on their feet at the bottom, their slender but strong legs easily absorbing the impact. As they stood before the two elves Merry joined them, having heard the blond boys' words of amity.

The two lads could not have been over eighteen though clearly at the end of their growth spurt as evidenced by their well-defined wiry musculature. Jemsen and Karel were so much alike it was hard to tell one from the other. Likely the boys had played on that growing up, the sort of harmless mischief that twins so often get up too. Still, it seemed that to Balan and Merry that Jemsen was the one in charge. They explained their own presence in those woods. The brothers were local hunters who had gone far into the woods that day following the trail of a wounded elk they had shot.

"I hope that by now it has bled out and is at peace. I just hate for a wounded creature to suffer. We hunt the forest creatures for their meat and their hides to cure for leather, but we always try for a clean kill."

"Nothing dishonors a hunter more than the lingering death of an animal. We are ashamed that our quarry has suffered hours of pain and fear." added Karel. "If only that twig had not deflected my kill shot, my arrow would have found its heart, sparing the poor beast this agony."

"Well, spoken, lads." Balan remarked, "But why are you running around bare ass like young Dahl? And I could not help noticing your glabrous skin -- not a feather on either of you anywhere, not even at the fork of your legs?"

For answer they turned to display small tattoos on their left shoulders marking them as elf-friends. Two years earlier, when they were only fifteen, the twins had chanced upon a pair of elves under attack from slavers. Taking the evil doers completely by surprise, they skewered four with their arrows before the miscreants realized the threat from their rear. Together, the impromptu alliance of elves and humans had finished off the slavers including a fearsome troll, an ugly brute with four inch tusks jutting up out of his lower jaw.

After binding their wounds, the young humans had tended the two elves until they recovered enough to travel to their home village where the twins were welcomed as heroes. Inducted into the tribe as elf-friends, the boys had spent the rest of that spring and summer with the elves, living as any elf-boy would, going about entirely naked.

For the twins it was a magical time. Their village was a sylvan wonderland, a community of tree houses supported by the trunks and main branches of a forest of oak and ask. Each house consisted of separate but connected platforms, providing space and privacy. The community was linked by walkways and swaying rope bridges.

Their aerial location was not so much for defense as to raise the elves' living quarters above the largely still air at ground level. Cooling breezes easily penetrated the open architecture of their aeries. Stairs and ladders provided reasonable access though counter-weighted platforms were available for heavy lifting. Going down was easy, just slide down a rope, either vertically or slantwise. Flowers grew everywhere: in the ground, on climbing vines, or in tubs, pots, and hanging planters in the trees.

In the midst of a society based on same gender sexuality, it was inevitable for the hormone driven human teenagers to turn to their fellow males for sex, something the boys had only experimented with beforehand. With so many willing teachers, the eager students quickly became accomplished in the amatory arts.

The presence of so many elves had awakened the boy's inherent magical gift which was an unerring sense of direction. That meant that they always knew the azimuth to any place they had been to before or seen, as from atop a height. They were never at a loss for orienting themselves to the points of the compass, and their archery, already good, became uncannily accurate.

The twins eventually returned to their own village where they lived at the home of their uncle. The villagers were happy to see them return safely. They had feared the boys lost, being gone so long. Still what was with their insistence on nudity? The villagers were not prudes and had no problem with brief nudity at the baths or swimming holes. Their young men habitually went about bare chested, clad only in a loin cloth, a strip of hide passed between the legs and hung over a leather cord. Even that garment might be laid aside for sweaty or dirty work like digging drainage ditches, terracing fields, haying or harvesting nuts. Males also went nude for athletic training and competition. And they slept nude as well.

The twins explained that having been inducted into the tribe as elf-friends they intended to live as much as possible like the elves did including giving up clothing and taking up with other pretty boys. The twins freely acknowledged to their fellow villagers they had disported themselves with elven males and intended to do so with human ones as well, including each other.

Their uncle tried to reason with them.

"Boys, boy. No one minds you taking your clothes off as the other lads do for hard work, exercise, or during the annual nut harvest but not all the time."

Their uncle was right about the nut harvest, the prime time during the year when public nudity by young males both expected and approved. During the nut harvest village boys stripped entirely before clambering into the trees to knock nuts off with a cane or stick. Without clothing, they could not snag their garments or get hung up. Though a whole lot of hard work, the nut harvest was fun too, a challenge and a chance for the boys to show off. From the topmost branches that could bear their weight boys would yell out in sheer youthful exuberance. What boy does not love to climb trees?

And if a boy also got a socially acceptable chance to posture and display himself in the nude before a potential mate, why so much the better. That was a traditional way for local girls to size up the village lads without causing scandal by going off alone with them. As for the girls, they ever so innocently bustled about on the ground, policing up the harvest of nuts into baskets and not so innocently checking out a likely boy perched in the branches above.

The village swimming holes were segregated by gender after puberty, as was only proper, but the dense shrubbery along the banks held a number of vantage spots for naughty on-lookers. Still for all that, boys usually did not run around starkers, especially with impressionable young ladies looking on.

Shaking a finger at his nephews the uncle added:

"I have a good mind to take a switch to those bare hides of yours, only I don't think it would do any good, would it?"

The boys shook their heads, a stubborn look on their pretty young faces. Their grit and determination soon got through to the uncle who, after all, really did love his wayward nephews, so he accepted them for what they were.

As for the rest, the boys were already generally well liked and respected, and the whole village benefited from their hunting which provided meat for the pot plus hides and pelts. Besides, ancient custom was that those named elf friends were traditionally welcome in any village.

Soon enough, a number of young males in the village realized that these attractive youngsters were a convenient sexual outlet, an alternative to village girls who, however much they flirted and courted with their young swains, insisted on saving their virginity for their wedding night. The twins were discreet in arranging trysts with them. So the twins were tolerated to run around bare ass naked and as glabrous as any elf and to consort discreetly with their fellow village youths. All in all things had worked out.

"Anyway we spend most of our time these days in the forest, hunting and scouting, pushing farther into the wild than we really need to, just to see what is on the other side of the next hill." Karel explained.

"Entirely unclad as you are you might be denizens of the forest yourselves, younglings." the giant remarked. "Not that I am complaining, mind you. As sexy as you are I wouldn't mind sampling your charms myself, if that is not being too forward."

"No, not at all. And yes, perpetual nudity does make us feel like creatures of the forest who go about as nature has provided for them." Jemsen explained.

With a mischievous smile on his face, his brother Karel added:

"And we fully realize that going around in the nude in public all the time is terribly naughty, but it makes us feel so sexy and wanton. Gosh does that make us bad boys?" he asked with a facetious smile on his lovely face.

"Anyway, after two years, total nudity feels entirely natural." Jemsen said simply.

"Tell me about it." Dahl remarked dryly. He had never worn a stitch in his life.

Balan smiled indulgently and winked at Merry. Throw Dahl into the mix and his three bipedal comrades were marvelous examples of youthful male pulchritude, with Dahl rather more delicate looking than the two humans. For the time being though, he would bide his time. He was in no hurry. Let acquaintance ripen into comradeship before taking any of them to bed. Meanwhile they had each other and more power to them. He didn't wonder that morning would find little Dahlderon sandwiched between the blond youths when it wasn't their turn to stand guard against the Trackers.

"But tell us of yourself Balan, "Jemsen asked. "Are you an overgrown human or a true giant?"

"Something of both though I am as much human as giant by blood. According to our genealogical records, counting both sides of the family, my blood is virtually half giant and half human. Which explains why I am rather short compared to a true giant most of whom stand eight to nine feet tall. More specifically, my red hair comes from my mother and my blue eyes from my father. In my land we are basically human but with a significant admixture from the Frost Giants who live north of the mountains and trade with us in spring and summer when they can negotiate the passes."

"Frost Giants? Are they called that because they are cold-blooded or what?" Dahl blurted out.

"Nay, lad. All humanoid races are warm-blooded. It is just that Frost Giants live in a land of severe winters north of the mountains on a peninsula that projects into the Northern Ocean. My people live in the warmer climate on the southern side of the dividing range and at a lower elevation. Also many Frost giants have hair so blonde it is almost white, not the grey white of an old man mind you, but bright and glistening like frost or ice."

"So much for introductions. Now to work. We must make this camp defensible, lads. Let's set a barrier fire burning across the path to block and back light any intruders. The flames will at least slow them down. Down here in this defile, its light won't give away our position."

The giant asked the archers to lend him four of their war arrows. Balan coated their points with a sticky substance from a small vial he carried in his pack. It held a lacquer holding particles of silver in suspension. Many of the creatures of the dark could not stand the touch of silver. The coated arrows might not kill a Tracker but would inflict burns they would find hard to ignore.

Balan then donned his only metal armor, a pair of metal vambraces to protect his forearms and leather gauntlets, their backs covered with overlapping scales. He explained:

"The work of Stone Mountain dwarves, like my sword, and much stronger than you would guess from the thickness of the metal. Even Trackers cannot bite through steel forged by magic. And it never rusts either."

Unfortunately, although the barrier fire was hidden from observers on the ground, there was an aerial observer in the sky, a raven with a strange red gleam in his eyes, a sign of the evil power temporarily possessing the dark bird of omen and using it as a scout.

The raven dove down toward the three Trackers spread out in a line at edge of the forest, cawing to attract their attention, then arrowing in the direction of the rocky outcrop. The Trackers converged, joining forces for an assault on one of the hated unicorns. They arrived at the clearing after midnight but waited till just before dawn, always the best time for an attack. The alertness of sentries drops off with the first glimpse of morning twilight, both from simple fatigue and from complacency.

The Trackers had not allowed for the keen senses of a unicorn. As they crept up the defile, Merry caught their scent and aroused everyone with mind speech. The unicorn and giant both called light, creating blue white spheres that hovered overhead and illuminated the area.

Dahl ran over to his post and stoked the fire, using his staff as a lever to slide bundles of pine boughs into the flames. The sap-filled boughs went up with a whoosh, turning it into a veritable conflagration. Then came bundles of harder wood to keep the blaze burning steadily. For a short time anyway, the flames rose nearly as tall as Balandur.

Fierce as it was, the blaze did not stop the Trackers who, after a moment of irresolution, jumped right through the fire, though one by one rather than in a group. Despite singed fur, the killer canines forced their way into the camp, their slavering jaws opened wide, ready to tear at their enemies.

By that time the defenders were in position: the elf-boy on the right, the giant swordsman on the left the unicorn in the center as backup for the two fighters on the side, ready to lend a horn or his hooves if either got into trouble. Meanwhile their two archers climbed up the rocks. Theirs was no scramble to safety. No they took up firing positions ten feet above the level of the camp which let them shoot downward at their foes, making it less likely they would hit an ally by accident. As the most experienced fighter, Balan had made these dispositions to take advantage of the skills and capabilities of each of the five of them and to minimize their disadvantages. Bowmen for instance have no business mixing it up close with their enemies. They are all offense and no defense.

On the left Balan took out the first Tracker, swinging his sword two-handed to split its skull. On the right Dahl started off well with a righteous smash to the beast's tender nose, causing it to yelp in real pain. It pulled back for a moment but then bounded forward, intent on revenge. Alas Dahl was just too small and too inexperienced with the quarter staff to hold off his Tracker for long. The devil beast was much larger than an ordinary wolf much less the wild dogs of his experience.

The hapless elf-boy was pushed back as the Tracker's weight slammed him. Slavering jaws closed over both the boy's arm and the shaft of his staff. He shook the boy like a terrier does a rat. Dahl wailed in terror, but Merry's counterattack impaled the beast on his horn, a weapon at least as deadly as Balan's blade.

Arrows from the twins slammed into the third Tracker, which was trying to hamstring Merry who was turned away, helping Dahl. The Tracker howled as the silver on the arrowheads burned it from the inside. Silver would not kill such a creature by itself, but it did give the arrows as much efficacy against them as if they had not been magical beasts. The arrows occupied the beast's attention long enough for Balan to cut through its spine near the tail. With only its front legs working, Merry had little difficulty crushing its skull with his hooves. Dahl dragged himself from under his Tracker's carcass, holding his lacerated arm and wailing with agony. Quick thinking Balan scooped up some of the ashes from the fire and spread them on the wound explaining that the Tracker's oral digestive juices were akin to an acid which the ashes would neutralize.

The elf-boy's wound was ugly, a mess of torn flesh and blood though the hard wood of the staff had protected the major blood vessels. Balan bandaged the wound then wrapped the arm tightly to the boy's chest to immobilize it. He gave the boy a powerful drug against the pain then addressed Merry aloud rather that in mind speech so all would understand.

<The elf-boy needs a healer right away, or he will lose that arm. Will you carry him to the nearest town?> Balan asked.

<Of course.>

Thanks to their unerring magical sense, the twins knew the way to the nearest town with a healer. With a nod to his companions, Merry took off with Dahl on his back. Dahl clung to his perch on the back of the unicorn, one hand wrapped in his mane, hanging on grimly. His eyes were squeezed shut with pain for even Balan's drug could do only so much. The elf-boy wished only that his ordeal would end.

The unicorn traveled in an amble, a ground eating gait that was quicker than a walk though slower than a canter. It made for a much smoother ride for the injured boy than a trot or a pace and it was less tiring than other gaits since it allowed the equine to keep three feet on the ground at all times. For covering distance, it was ideal.

With his long legs Balan kept up easily enough, though the twins had to run.

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