Elf Boy's Friends - Volume XIV

by George Gauthier

Chapter 3


It was too late for them to set out that day so the rangers began regular patrols on the morrow, heading in different directions and returning after four days which was followed by a day of down time. Nothing untoward happened for the next three weeks. Indeed the time passed pleasantly as they hiked under mostly sunny skies and in the cool air at altitude. Not that any of these experienced woodsmen ever dropped his guard.

Sexton and Brandon finally made contact one morning while crossing a sunny meadow. As the pair neared the tree line Sexton signaled for a halt then pulled out a canteen and feigned taking a drink. Speaking softly to his comrade he said:

"I'm pretending to halt for a breather here, but that's really an excuse to unsling my air gun for imminent use against the ambushers I've spotted lying in wait for us just ahead. Shift over to my right a bit. That will let my body mask your own actions as you string your bow. On my signal put an arrow into that live oak tree ahead and on your right, the one just beyond the deadfall at the tree line. Aim for a spot two feet to the right of the big black burl on its trunk. With any luck, your arrow will hit one of the big cats waiting to pounce on us as we file through that opening in the trees we were headed for before we stopped. Understand?"

"Sure, but what kind of big cats are we facing?"

"Jaguars. Or more likely shape shifters who have taken on that form."

Sexton made a production of sipping water and pointing our landmarks on the skyline as he studied the enemies who thought themselves hidden by dense foliage not realizing that the ranger could see into the infrared, which made their body heat stand out clearly against the cool of the forest. Fixing their locations in his mind, Sexton flick off the safety on his air gun told Brandon "Now!" then squeezed off two shots at a target of his own before the ambushers could react to the ranger's alert.

Brandon's recurved bow was shorter but had a heavier draw than the long bows his cousins favored. His arrow hit just where Sexton had told him to put it, two feet to the right of the black burl, fortuitously punching through the torso of a jaguar, a disabling shot even for a shape shifter with magical healing abilities. As the wounded jaguar fell heavily to the ground a second big cat dropped down next to him, transformed, then used his human hands to yank the arrow out of his comrade. He straightened up then flung the arrow back toward Brandon in a show of contempt.

"Dumb! Really dumb." Brandon muttered as he lined up his second shot at an enemy foolish enough to stand forth in plain sight and present himself as a stationary target. That tactical blunder made it possible for Brandon to put an arrow into his heart for an instant kill. Meanwhile the first jaguar morphed into human form to mend his wound, returned to his feline form, and roared at the archer, furious over the death of his comrade.

Meanwhile Sexton's first shots with his air gun hit another jaguar but only in the shoulder. It was not a kill shot, but it did make the wir-beast fall from his tree. Sexton's next two shots missed clean as the rest of the jaguars jumped lightly to the ground, a move which actually turned out to be to the ranger's advantage. The slight pause as the cats touched down made them a stationary target, if only very briefly, but long enough for Sexton to put a bullet through the head of one of them.

With two down that left five furious felines who rushed the rangers. Three focussed on Sexton as their more dangerous foe. The other two went for Brandon who put an arrow into the chest and lung of the nearer beast. That stopped its charge. It sank to its belly, coughing blood and struggling through its pain to concentrate enough to transform. Once fully in human form, the shape shifter yanked the arrow from his body though that temporarily made things worse by inflicting further internal damage until he cycled back to his jaguar form. Fully healed but spent from both wounds and the effort of two transformations, he had to pause for a moment to recoup his strength.

Shifting targets Brandon called light to englobe the head of his second foe. Brandon was very new at this tactic, and the menace of the fast approaching jungle cat unnerved him so that he missed his mark not just once but twice as the wily jaguar dodged back and forth to throw off his aim. On his third try, with the feline dangerously close, Brandon managed to englobe its head and scramble the electrical circuits of its brain. With that foe eliminated, the ranger turned and shot an arrow into the flank of one of the three cats targeting Sexton. A distraction rather than a kill shot, the wound did lower the odds Sexton faced temporarily as he loosed several aimed shots from his air gun at the other two big cats. Unfortunately his bullets missed their vitals inflicting only flesh wounds: a graze to the shoulder of the lead jaguar and the right rear haunch of the second. Neither wound slowed them down much. In seconds both closed with and leapt at the senior ranger.

Sexton stepped toward his attackers, bracing on his rear leg, and thrust his bayonet into the breast of the closer one. Using the momentum of its charge, Sexton turned and shoved the impaled beast to one side, letting it slip off his blade, then whirled to face the second cat, a little too late as it turned out. That second jaguar locked his jaws around Sexton's left forearm, its powerful jaws driving its canines right through his vambraces, steel splints and all. Ignoring the intense pain Sexton let go of the stock of his air gun, clamped his right hand around the jaguar's throat, and lifted it bodily off the ground, holding it away from his body. The cat writhed and struggled for breath raking Sexton's chest and belly with its rear claws, which could only scrabble at and not penetrate the ranger's brontothere skin cuirass. Death grip locked on the jaguar's throat, Sexton held on till his attacker went limp, dying from a crushed windpipe rather than from strangulation. Only then did the beast's jaws relax and let go of the ranger's arm.

Meanwhile the first jaguar, the one Sexton had bayonetted, had recovered from its grievous wound and returned to the fight, just one more instance of how hard it could be to put down a shape shifter. Unless a wound was instantly fatal they could recover and come at you time and again. The ranger reached for his morning star and swung the spiked ball with all the strength of a Frost Giant. It caved in the beast's skull and splashed its brains around. Sexton struck a second time to make sure. Only then did the ranger realize that a swipe of the jaguar's paw had left bloody claw marks on his left thigh.

Meanwhile Brandon put two more arrows into the third jaguar who had targeted Sexton, the one Brandon himself had only wounded in the flank. His final arrow found its heart. Too late Brandon whirled at the approach of a final threat — the jaguar he had shot earlier which was back in the fight having transformed and healed the damage to its lung. Not giving the ranger a chance to loose another arrow at it, the jaguar pounced on him, pushing him onto his back and straddling his body.

Acting on instinct Brandon shoved the grip of the bow into the jaguar's mouth and locked his elbows striving to keep the jaws at arms' length, desperately pitting his willowy elven physique against a muscular feline nearly twice his mass. Impatient for a kill, the jaguar did not press forward but reversed his efforts and yanked the bow right out of the ranger's control. Not yielding to panic, the ranger concentrated and Called Light once again. This time it was at point blank range with a nearly stationary target. He could hardly miss, and he didn't.

Even as the beast died Sexton stepped forward and decapitated it with a powerful sweep of the kukri. Shape shifters took a lot of killing since any wound not instantly fatal merely slowed them down. Better to make sure.

"That was way too close a call!" Brandon said, trembling, shaken by his near death experience. "It was horrible coming face to face with that jaguar, trying to keep those fangs away from my throat and with him straddling my body, bad breath and all. I nearly fouled myself."

"It would have been no disgrace if you had, Brandon. There is nothing shameful about an involuntary reflex which prepares the body for flight. Now cowardice, that is something else, but you are no coward my friend, anything but. I'd have you fight by my side any day. In fact, you may well have saved my life today when you stopped that third jaguar. I am sure that I could take on three natural jaguars at once, but shape shifters are so hard to kill that I might have gone under against three wirs. At least that is what my human side is telling me. My wolverine side is bristling at the mere suggestion."

Sexton's weak joke drew a wan smile from the young ranger which helped him get over the shakes.

"Now sit yourself down and get out the medical kit and tend to those gouges the cat's hind claws inflicted on your lower legs when he was standing over you."

"Yikes! The bottoms of my trews are torn and soaked in blood. Hey, suddenly I'm in real pain, yet I didn't feel a thing till just now!"

Sexton shrugged:

"Fear, excitement, concentration on the threat, and an adrenalin rush will do that to you."

"I guess, but it hurts a whole lot now. Worth it, I guess. We got them all."

"Maybe." Sexton allowed. "A sentry may have been watching. He'll be gone by now on his way back to report."

"So you don't think that was all of them?"

"My tactical instincts say probably not."

Brandon's wounds did not need stitching. Instead he applied a disinfectant, analgesic, and healing salve supplied by their druid friends and bandaged his calves. Sexton disrobed and transformed into his wolverine form then back to human and put his clothes back on blood an all. Then he knelt down to check Brandon and wrapped his calves tightly in a second layer of bandages, explaining that the long walk to the cabin might reopen the wounds. Brandon asked him:

"You know at one point it looked like that jaguar was trying to climb right up your body…"

Sexton nodded.

"Exactly. It sought to bite my skull. The jaws of jaguars are so powerful that their canines can penetrate the skull and destroy the brain."

Brandon absorbed that and thought about those canines so close to his own head then said:

"This fight made me realize that a recurved bow is not much use in close combat. I'd better switch to an air gun with bayonet. It's good both for ranged attacks and for defense up close."

Sexton nodded.

"I hate to say I told you so, Brandon, but I did," the senior ranger told him with a wink to take the sting out of the reminder.

"You also told me to replace my leather cuirass with a vest made of brontothere skin which protects your back as well as your front. Is that offer to pay for them still open?"

"You know it is, Brandon. For you and the others. A vest of brontothere skin is not as flexible as segmented leather armor, and it is heavier and hotter to wear, but it offers far better protection."

The two rangers later found where the shape shifters had left behind their clothes and weapons and gear but none of gave clues about who they were or where they came from. Their dead foes were still a complete mystery.

Dylan's patrol likewise started out uneventfully. The young beast master and his fellow rangers Garret and Lorn set an easy pace, not being in any hurry to get where they were going. When on patrol one's destination was almost beside the point. It was the journey and what the rangers might observe along the way which counted.

Psychically connected to the wildlife, able to reconnoiter open areas through the eyes of eagles and hawks, and with successive bands of squirrels serving as arboreal scouts in dense woods, Dylan was confident of sufficient warning in case of a threat from the mysterious killers. As for the ordinary perils which might lurk in the virgin wilderness, Dylan could deter attacks by ferocious carnivores like slash bears or lions with a simple order to stand down, back off, and go elsewhere in search of prey, and that he and his fellow forest rangers should be left unmolested.

At one point the patrol used their exemplary fieldcraft to slip past a slash bear and her two cubs who were busy taking apart a bee hive to get at its treasure of honey. The rangers paused an hour later to enjoy the antics of a group of otters sliding, swimming, and splashing in a babbling brook. The rangers were not hunting game so the small herd of elk they encountered had nothing to fear from either Dylan's bow or the air guns of the brothers Garret and Lorn.

A little later Dylan's arboreal scouts warned him about an ambush set for them a third of mile ahead. Unlike with Madden Sexton's patrol the bushwhackers were not jaguars but a considerable force of humans and elves lying in wait behind trees and shrubbery only lightly armed with singlestick and dagger rather than military grade weaponry.

Forewarned, the ranger patrol immediately reversed course and made for a highland meadow about a quarter mile on their back trail where open ground offered fields of fire for their stand-off weapons, a considerably advantage when the enemy was armed only for close combat. As the patrol got set to receive the attack Dylan reached out psychically and broadcast a call for help from animal allies.

His summons was answered by a pack of dire wolves. Justly named for the fear they inspired, dire wolves ran much larger than timber wolves, dire wolves being to canids what saber—toothed cats were to felines. These near apex predators were massively muscled and equipped with jaws and teeth strong enough to shear through the bones of large prey such as horses, bison, camels, and ground sloths. As pack hunters dire wolves were bad news in fur coats.

When the ambushers realized that the rangers had retreated toward the meadow they raced after them, hoping to catch them still in the woods where the ambushers would have the advantage. The trio of rangers won that race and formed up well clear of the tree line. At that point the best tactic for the ambushers would have been to refuse combat and wait for another opportunity, reasoning that sooner or later the rangers must advance or more likely retreat into the forest, where they would again be vulnerable to ambush. Unfortunately the wir jaguar in charge was impatient and adamant that the ambushers attack immediately. They might have lost the element of surprise, but they still had the advantage of numbers, more than two dozen combatants against only three rangers. The odds were heavily on their side.

Dylan and the brothers waited patiently as would-be the ambushers emerged from the woods. Most brandished a singlestick in one hand and a dagger in the other though a few leveled crossbows. The shape shifter in command stayed back in the tree line, not caring to expose himself to a stand-off weapon which might kill him with a bullet through the brain or an arrow through the heart.

Confident in their numbers the brigands paused to taunt their intended victims with what was in store for them: gang rape and torture.

Dylan snorted. "What idiots! You'd think that a pack of professional killers would know that in mortal combat you engage your foes with weapons and with the utmost violence, not with conversation! While they boast, let's shoot."

The brothers directed the rapid fire from their two lever action air guns against the crossbowmen. Their deaths left the rangers still facing twenty-four men and elves armed, bad odds still though their foes were armed only for close combat.

Too confident in their superior numbers the brigands launched their charge without posting a rear guard which would have warned them about the pack of dire wolves closing on their rear. The wolf pack fell on the brigands from behind first hamstringing five brigands then tearing their throats out. Four wolves mixed it up with the wir jaguar though they came off the worse for it, leaving one wolf dead and two injured as the jaguar climbed into the trees.

Caught between two fires, wolves behind and rangers in front, the brigands veered to get past where the rangers were making their stand and reach open ground themselves where they might turn and face attack from only one direction. Arrows from Dylan's long bow and bullets from the brothers' air guns took out some of them during this redeployment while the pursuing wolves dragged down a couple of others.

The rest of the brigands got in close just as the rangers' air guns ran out of bullets. With no time to reload, it became a battle of singlestick and dagger against bayonet and butt spike, in effect pitting speed against reach. Dylan was at a distinct disadvantage. A long bow was of little use in close combat. He abandoned it and made do with kukri and long knife.

The brigands had little use for ranged weapons, preferring to get in close to their victims. For that style of fighting the single stick was better suited than many would suppose. A stick could be swung as a cudgel or thrust hard at vulnerable points like solar plexus, kidneys, or throat. A blow to the kidneys rendered a victim helpless from the pain while a crushed windpipe made death inevitable. For an instant kill, the trick was to jab upward just under the rib cage to shock the heart into uncoordinated beating [i.e. fibrillation].

Surprisingly cold blooded murderers though they might be, their foes were not particularly effective fighters even with their chosen weapons, singlestick, dagger, and strangling cord. They had always relied on stealth, cunning, and surprise rather than honed battle skills contending face to face with trained fighters. Typically the bandits would sneak up on their victim and stun them with the stick, stab the the kidneys with the dagger, or tighten a garrote around the neck. In the fight with the rangers the brigands had lost the element of surprise and were facing professional fighters armed with both stand-off and close combat weapons plus magical gifts useful in combat.

This fight was like none other in the brigands' experience. Garret snapped electrum sparks at a pair of elven brigands. While his foes were distracted by the electric jolt and intense burn which the sparks delivered, the ranger thrust his bayonet into the throat of one and then the chest of the other. When another brigand of human stock came at him from the side, the ranger yanked the bayonet out of the elf, half-turned, slashed the human's dagger arm then clubbed his skull with the butt spike of his air gun.

Fighting at Garret's side Lorn too alternated magic and weapons, first slashing the throat of one man, then dancing aside and using the staggering body of his first foe as cover while he flung handfuls of electrum sparks right and left then thrust his bayonet into the chest or belly of other foes. And so it went.

Strangely none of the attackers had even a minor gift useful in combat: no sparks, no globes of light, not even kindling fire. Seeing how few of them were left, those who had survived the charge and the wolves broke through and ran for their lives. Garret and Lorn reloaded, raised their weapons, and aimed at their fleeing foes, but Dylan told them to let the wolves finish them off, the better to distance the bloodthirsty predators from their own location.

At the end Dylan told the brothers to let him face their final foe alone in a fight which pitted his kukri and long knife against his enemy's singlestick and dagger. Dylan did not do very well trying to block the singlestick with his long knife. The brigand wielded his chosen weapon skillfully, first swinging the club it to numb Dylan's wrist then thrusting the dagger at the elf's belly, aiming for the solar plexus. Dylan twisted aside so that it hit his ribs instead leaving a shallow wound which nevertheless bled freely. Dylan countered by thrusting his kukri into the man's belly then cutting downward to spill his guts.

Angry at the defeat of his forces, the jaguar took to the aerial highway in the trees and made his escape.

The beast master enjoined the wolves not to attack anyone still alive then released the wolves from his service. The animals worried at their kills for a while then ran off. Meanwhile Lorn cleaned the cut in Dylan's side with water and an astringent against infection then stitched and bandaged the wound.

"No more bow for me." Dylan declared. "From now on I'll carry an air gun as a stand-off weapon and a bayonet for close combat just like you two. I only wish I could throw electrum sparks as well."

"Don't sell yourself short, beast master," Lorn told him. "You more than pulled your weight just now. First, thanks to the warning from your arboreal scouts, the squirrels, we avoided ambush in the woods. Then that pack of wolves thinned their ranks; otherwise they would have rolled right over us by sheer weight of numbers. I wonder though what we might have done if that pack hadn't been nearby."

"Not to worry." Dylan replied. "I could always have called upon those elk we passed by to serve us as mounts to let us ride away from the ambush. As mounts elks don't have the stamina of horses and their bony spines make them a bitch to ride bareback, but they would have gotten us clean away from our foes. In the event the wolves were close enough to pitch in, and we won that fight handily."

"And maybe best of all we took a prisoner!" Garret enthused. "Now we will get some answers."

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