Elf Boy's Friends - Volume XIV

by George Gauthier

Chapter 5

Taking Stock

The audience in the garden of the Klarendes' town house listened entranced as the final notes of a haunting flute solo died away. On an evening dedicated to music and convivial companionship the Klarendes family: Count Taitos Klarendes, his spouse Aodh, Taitos' sons Artor and Eborn and his nephew Corwin were seated facing a temporary stage and acoustic shell erected in a corner of the grounds. The guests included friends who lived in the capital: the twins Jemsen and Karel, Drew Altair, Axel Wilde and his mentor Sir Willet Hanford, Finn Ragnarson, and Karl-Eike Thyssen plus a contingent which had arrived via a rift from Elysion: the druids Dahlderon, Meirionnydd, and Owain and the forest rangers Lord Madden Sexton and Dylan.

Sexton asked the two journalists if their articles in the Capital Intelligencer about the suppression of the thugs would be published in book form. Corwin and Drew thought not. Their series of articles in the Capital Intelligencer on the suppression of the thugs itself amounted to a report in full about the thugs. The pair had interviewed everyone involved and had walked the ground of the two ambushes and the battlefield at the Roost. As Drew explained to the twins:

"Although Corwin was not a participant or even a witness to the events we wrote about, and I took part only in the assault on the Roost, that is less of a handicap than you might think. A participant or a witness has only a single point of view, his own. He is so caught up in fast moving events that he sees only one aspect of a disaster, crime, battle or other event. To get the big picture a reporter needs to examine the scene from multiple points of view, which is what we did. Then we enlivened the telling in our own inimitable prose style supplemented by maps and sketches. So our series was very well received. So this year we likely will not be nominated for a Writer's Prize for a book but might win for journalism."

"As you have already won our respect for you both as authors and journalists," Madden Sexton told him warmly.

"You made Brandon and me sound like mighty heroes when we were merely two lawmen fighting desperately for our lives against criminals. It was a closer thing than you made it out to be. That said, the enemy made a basic mistake in fighting only on their animal form, which is something of an occupational hazard you might say with us shape shifters. Animal forms serve us well when on the offensive in close-combat, but that exposes us to injury without the protection of armor or stand-off distance. No shape shifter has the armored skin of an brontothere or a rhino. In animal form you cannot wear armor or carry a buckler or shield, nor can you use ranged weapons. When I fight as a man I wear armor, if only vambraces and vest of brontothere skin, and fling throwing stars with points coated with poison or a sleeping drug, or shoot a bow or air gun."

Count Klarendes nodded. "There speaks three centuries of tactical experience. Aodh, those are words to live by."

"I already do. It's just that I go around sky clad so much that I hardly ever have weapons on my person. Which is why I value my disabling screech so highly. It gives me a stand-off capability, and it works as well for defense as for offense. Still, sometimes I really hanker to get in close and fight it out with main strength and natural weapons, as I did at the end with those two jaguars. You understand, don't you Madden?"

"You said it, kitten. The wolverine in me could not agree more."

Raising his fist, the shapeshifter added: "… though words fail me in expressing how righteous it felt to hold that jaguar up by the throat and crush his windpipe with my bare fist."

The two shape shifters shared a predatory grin.

The elder Klarendes threw his spouse a wink then said.

"So Madden it seems that your job as forest ranger has not been the quiet period of semi-retirement you had hoped it would be."

"No, it hasn't, not even close, but I actually welcome occasional adventures as a change of pace from too much peace and quiet. The wolverine in my nature enjoys a good scrap now and then."

"And the soldier in your nature too," Klarendes noted.

"I too had hoped for a tranquil existence in the rangers." Dylan allowed.

"Unlike you guys I did not volunteer for combat in Amazonia. Instead I sought the peace and quiet of the New Forest. Druids aside, no one is drawn to the woods as much as we sylvan elves are. We are a forest folk at heart. Just my luck. I sought tranquility but since then I have fought in one battle after another against the Vanishing Bandits, brontothere poachers, armies of orcs and trolls, dacoits, and even a reptilian sea monster. Some kind of tranquil existence this has been!"

"Tell me about it!" Aodh declared vehemently. "I settled down to an idyllic existence in Elysion, garden spot of the Eastern Mountains, taking as spouse a handsome gentleman farmer cum local magistrate. Since then I've found myself battling eastern barbarians, genocidal trolls, despicable brontothere poachers, a murderous frost giant, and a pair of wir jaguars, to name only some of the foes I have tangled with."

Sexton smiled indulgently at both his protege and his fellow shape shifter.

"I hear you boys. I also know that you would never stand idly by when there were wrongs to be set right and innocents to be saved. That too is part of your nature and very much to your credit. And let's face it, when you set your mind to it, you are both formidable fighters. Aodh, you had little trouble taking on two wir jaguars while you Dylan beat a force of two dozen who outnumbered you and the brothers ten to one."

Spurred by a mischievous impulse Jemsen gave his twin a broad wink, their signal for an impending joke, with the straight line coming from Jemsen. It was Karel's task to chime in on cue with an appropriate punch line. They might not have true Mind Speech, but their psychic link often gave one twin an inkling of what the other was driving at. Jemsen kicked things off, opining skeptically:

"Oh, I don't know… The odds were nowhere near as bad as ten to one — more like two to one if you count the pack of dire wolves Dylan called up to fight for him."

That was Karel's cue to gush:

"That is so true, Jemsen, and when you throw in those squirrels of Dylan's, why, taken together, the rangers, wolves, and squirrels easily outnumbered the bad guys!"

Dylan rolled his eyes heavenward in a silent appeal for spiritual strength.

Finn's reaction to the twins' banter was an admonitory frown which was totally lost on the irrepressible duo who, utterly unabashed, beamed right back at him.

"Anyway," Dylan continued, "I was lucky that that dagger just scrapped my ribs rather than slid between, or we might not be having this conversation. Which is why I've taken to wearing a vest of brontothere skin. I have also been practicing with my new air gun not only marksmanship but also close-in defense with both bayonet and butt spike."

"Always train the way you fight and fight the way you train," Sexton observed, adding, "Brandon is not only training with his new air gun but also practicing calling light to englobe moving targets since it took him three tries to get that first jaguar."

Axel nodded. "It does take a moment to call a light globe where you need it, so you gotta lead your target. Early on I got lots of practice killing the pestiferous pigeons which hung around the Institute. So I was ready one day when a panther readied itself to pounce on Sir Willet whose attention was distracted by the odd camouflage of one of the creatures of the forest."

"Brandon was smart to cast tradition aside and switch to an air gun," the twins said in unison. "We switched a while back though we do still miss the longbow." He went on to explain:

"A bullet makes such a tiny hole in or through your foe you can hardly see it. Sometimes you're not even sure you hit your target. Now a clothyard shaft stuck in someone's chest, that makes an unmistakeable statement."

The twins then asked why an accomplished sniper like Axel had not used an air gun in the assault on the Roost. His answer was that in a melee blades were often a better choice; there is less chance of friendly fire from misses or thru and thru bullets. In close combat his new double-ended spear could deliver death at both ends and was lighter and faster and better balanced than a bayonet attached to an air gun. And unlike his fist knives it gave him greater reach than the short blades of his fist knives.

"I don't suppose you made more than one of those spears," Madden Sexton asked Eike.

"Of course I did! Axel was sure that once you saw his, you would want one of your own. You can take it back with you to Elysion when you leave. If anyone else wants one, just ask."

"All right, I'm asking," Finn interjected.

"As if you need another weapon!" the twins exclaimed, "Aren't a quarterstaff, hunting knife, hatchet, cudgel, sling, kukri, longsword, lightning bolts, and a boomeranging war hammer enough?"

In his best professorial manner Finn raised a finger and imparted the lesson of the day.

"Each weapon has its purpose. A fighter must choose the one appropriate to the task at hand. For instance a cudgel lets a law enforcement officer put an unruly person out of commission without inflicting a permanent injury. With its bent blade the kukri can be used to stab, slash, or chop, as the situation demands. Now the hunting knife and hatchet are more tools than weapons, but for close combat they make a deadly combination; their slight weight does not tire you out the way heavier weapons will. Eike's double-ended poison spear can only add to my options. The weight is negligible, and it won't get in my way carried in its own scabbard on my back."

"Er, Finn it would be no trouble for the fabricators to make a longer version to suit your dimensions," Eike offered.

"Hmm, thank you Eike, but no. The standard length will stand me in good stead. I'll be able to wield it one-handed all the better for its short length, leaving my right free for sword or hammer."

"In that case, you won't be able to wield a buckler to fend off blades,"

"True, but these days I have an alternative in the form of a magnetic shield which deflects weapons of iron or steel directed at me but does not hinder my own steel weapons. Now I can deploy the buckler faster than I can form and shift a magnetic shield, so I still hang one on my weapons belt."

"Your magnetic shield won't work against a singlestick or quarterstaff which are made of wood," the twins pointed out provocatively.

Finn snorted. "Only a fool takes a mere stick to a frost giant, much less to an avatar of a thunder god. Main strength aside I could direct a levin bolt through his stick or quarterstaff, grounding the charge through his body or rather his corpse, turning my foe into a crispy critter."

[Crispy critter was gruesome soldier slang for a burnt corpse.]

"Oh? But isn't wood an insulator rather than a conductor?" Karel challenged.

"The heat of a levin bolt carbonizes wood which turns it into a fine conductor indeed." Finn explained patiently.

"Nor is a stick of much use against a powerful shape shifter such as myself," Sexton said. "Now beside poison spears for Finn, and Axel, I recommend them for you twins as well as for Drew, Nathan, and Dylan."

"OK, but why not for the others?"

"The druids already bear quarterstaffs. When wielded with their quadrupled strength the bronze caps at both ends can break bones or skulls. Corwin has healing magic which can kill as readily as a poison spear and without getting too close. Eike is a non-combatant. Though a tremendous force multiplier at one remove by virtue of his inventions, he seldom faces danger.

Eike shook his head.

"Seldom is not never. Look at what happened in Nordstrom that time when Nathan and I were beset by a gang of murderous burglars. In that encounter I was armed only with a utility knife which is really a tool rather than a weapon. The possibility of encountering persons of ill intent is why I have adapted one of the spears for use as a walking stick. It has a grip at the top, attached to my wrist by a sword strap, and a rubber tip at the bottom with a slot for the lower blade to emerge, though its poison is diluted to disable rather than to kill. For lethal results I can always call on my gift of Shaping."

"Aren't canes strictly for the halt and the lame?" Corwin wondered.

Eike shook his head.

"Surely the distinction between a mere cane and an elegant walking stick such as mine is obvious. A cane is akin to a crutch, that is a prosthetic aid for the crippled which helps take his weight. The lighter walking stick merely aids balance and is often largely a fashion accessory for a bon vivant and man about town."

"No offense Eike, but I don't see you as a man about town, not in your usual outfit of skimpy breechclout and moccasins, if that much."

"You wound me, my friend," Eike countered, shaking his head in mock regret. Then, with a supercilious look on his face to match his arch tone of voice, he added:

"Allow me to recall to your regrettably failing faculty of memory that I do step out more than occasionally in trendy garb as when I head over to Twinkle Town, where I have been known to turn heads, yours included."

Corwin shook his head with chagrin. That was twice now he had been neatly skewered with a supercilious retort. Well, turn about was fair play. His chance would come. Count on it.

"Besides," Eike continued, "I have been trained in cane fighting techniques which let me disarm or disable street thugs, bullies, and importunate suitors — fellows who won't take no for an answer and think a little guy like me has no choice but to put up with whatever some big bruiser wants to dish out."

As for myself " Sir Willet began, "Our powers make war wizards living weapons even empty-handed, so I won't be adding a poison spear to my kit."

"Fine by me, since, as his aide, I'm the little guy who has to carry his kit as well as my own," Axel remarked dryly.

"A word of caution," Eike warned, "When you hone the blades, first wipe them carefully to remove any poison. A nick won't kill you, but it will hurt plenty."

"Anyway, to change the subject, how did your recent training go with Sir Willet?" Eike asked Corwin.

"It went really well. My access to the source of magical energy is much greater now."

Sir Willet Hanford had trained Corwin in a mental discipline which used visualization, meditation, and contemplative introspection to strengthen a gifted person's ability to draw on the background or zero-point energy of the universe, which is what powered the magical gifts of the inhabitants of the planet of Haven.

Sir Angus McFarden, known as the King of the Iron Roads, had originally devised it to help fetchers propel his freight trains. Trainmen often managed to triple their telekinetic strength, but the system would work with any gift so it had been widely adopted across half the continent, earning McFarden the title of Stalwart of the Commonwealth, its highest civilian honor.

"Your ball lightning was already pretty formidable. You can take out half a shield wall with a swipe, and your explosive lightning can take out a squad at a time. Isn't that enough firepower?"

"Oh I am not trying for more destructive power, not at all. Rather my aim is improved psychic perception. As you know when I wield lightning balls I can sense their location without looking at them just as Drew knows where the objects he is moving telekinetically are at all times. It is the basis of his missile shield. I want to extend that psychic ability into a new method of perception, something like Jemsen's or Nathan's gift of delving or sounding, as they call it in the Navy."

"How does it work?" Eike asked.

"It is analogous to the sense of echo location in bats and dolphins. Ball lightning generates a diffuse electrical field which lets me detect nearby beings and objects from the way they distort that field. Call it electro-location or perhaps electro-perception."

"Now the range is just a few hundred yards, and the resolution is not that great. I cannot make out faces much less read a book, but I can detect size, shape, distance, and movement. I can navigate in the dark and even recognize people I know by their size, outline, stance, and characteristic walk. So when I need to be stealthy, I can perceive what is around me with electro-perception. Otherwise I can simply light up my surroundings with a small ball of lightning."

"Once Corwin gets some practical experience with this new sense, he and I will write up a report for my journal Magic," Drew added.

Axel then mentioned that recently he had used McFarden's techniques to allow him to teleport not only to places he could see or to which he had once traveled via a rift or space portal but also to places well known to him, making his gift that much more flexible and useful.

After a pause to digest all that Drew asked: "So what's next for everybody? Is another Corps of Discovery in the works?"

Finn Ragnarson shook his head. "No, not for some time I expect. The High Council wants the Commonwealth to focus its attention on the areas opened up in recent years: New Varangia, the Flatlands, the Western Dividing Range, the archipelagos in the Great Inland Freshwater Sea, Amazonia, and now the continent of Sarmantia in the South Seas. And we continue to extend our involvement with the Greater North Valentia Co-prosperity Sphere."

"As for pushing into new areas, the Navy is charting the littoral of the southern and eastern coast of our continent beyond the point reached by our recent expedition to the South Seas. That's where Nathan and Liam are now. We won't see them back with us for maybe three months."

"I suppose that rules out possible expeditions to the other continents. Too bad!" Jemsen concluded disappointed. "Looks like a visit to my brother's namesake continent won't be happening for some time yet."

"Maybe not in the immediate future, but perhaps sooner than you think. Lately I have been toying with the idea of a return visit to Karelia," Madden Sexton began, "although the journey would be a private venture. The eastern continent of Karelia was where I earned my spurs as a soldier. I'd like to walk the ground of my old battlefields and then make an extended visit my extensive estates, my abode for decades during my happy marriage to the incomparable Andromeda, the great love of my life."

"Now I don't care to travel alone, and I know you twins aren't tied down to a job, so why not got together?"

"Count us in!" the twins chorused enthusiastically.

"You too of course, Dylan. I particularly want to show my old stomping grounds to my honorary kid brother." Sexton added warmly."

Dylan smiled and nodded, too choked with emotion to give voice to the strong emotions he felt toward his mentor.

"How about it, Dahl. Do you have any travel plans."

"Actually I do, all three of us druids do. Starting a few weeks from now w will be traveling widely to address the problem of invasive species on the continent of Valentia. In the past we addressed such problems as they came up, such as with the Emerald Ash Borer in the Ashokan Archipelago years ago which threatened the forest cover and watershed of those islands. Another example is the giant snakes which our own soldiers introduced to the Eastern Plains from Amazonia. We caught that problem early though it took the death of an eight year old boy to bring that to our attention. Nowadays, what with armies having marched all over Valentia and with modern means of travel like iron roads and ocean going ships, opportunistic species from one region can and have suddenly show up on the other side of an ocean or a continent, where there were few if any few natural enemies to control their numbers. In the land of their origins, their impact was benign or at least limited. Not so as an opportunistic invasive species."

"At least you have already dealt with the very worst invasive species of all," Sexton observed, "though rather more gently than their kind really deserved."

"Meaning?" Jemsen asked, uncharacteristically a little slow on the uptake, just this once.

"Trolls." Sexton growled.

Dahl nodded, understanding that Sexton would have preferred the plague which the druids had inflicted on the trolls to wipe out that entire invasive species rather than simply reduce their numbers from lessened fertility among its males.

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