Elf-Boy and Friends

by George Gauthier

Chapter 20. The Twins Again

"Sir, with the threat of a barbarian invasion from the northeast, why are we here on maneuvers all the way on the other side of the Eastern plains, to the northwest of the source of the threat, in the foothills of the dividing range that separates the plains from the Commonwealth proper?"

After four months, Wroclaw, the Chief of Scouts had become resigned to endless questions from his newest scouts, those twin chatterboxes Jemsen and Karel. Still Jemsen's was a good question, as indeed most were. Time then to explain the mission to the handful of scouts who were with him. The rest were back with the regiment in Dalnot.)

"Men, we are here for a particular purpose, namely so you can familiarize yourselves with the layout of the logging roads in these parts. It shouldn't be a difficult task. All the roads are clearly marked and posted, and their layout is logical. The roads all start at a wide shelf two-thirds of the way up the mountain. From that point five graded roads lead through the canopy down to the plains where we are now.

This is Top Secret, men. Don't put anything in writing, no maps and no entries in journals, and that goes double for a certain blond recruit, who shall remain nameless, but who keeps a journal and has trouble keeping his trews on."

The men all looked over at Karel, who was actually wearing silk trews that day for the long ride so he would not rub his thighs raw.

"The reason is simple but important. Despite all appearances, these are not logging roads at all. Oh I know the story, the rumor really, put out there by our Military Intelligence folks. Supposedly legal title to these timberlands is in dispute with the case tied up in the courts, as it has been for several years. The lawsuit is what brought logging operations to a halt before the timber barons could do more than build these access roads."

He paused and looked over at Karel expectantly. The "unnamed blond recruit" recognized his cue and asked:

"So sir, why then were these roads built? Where do they lead to, Chief Wroclaw?"

"It's not where they lead to, son. It's where they lead from." Wroclaw replied cryptically. "Not your fault Karel since you are not from the Commonwealth, but can anyone else tell me what lies on the other side of the mountains?"

Sergeant Borden saw no one else knew or would venture an answer so he piped up.

"I am not sure what you are getting at, Chief, but I do know this much. There is a silver mine on the other side of the mountains. Played out now, as I have heard. The miners dug a wide tunnel straight into the mountain nearly all the way through as they removed the ore. It is closed down now, though a few miners do a bit of exploratory digging. The mining company maintains their paved access road and the ventilation equipment, so they must hope to open a new vein or something."

"Good, very good. You are right of course, sergeant. And completely wrong at the same time. What you just recited is the second part of the cover story. You see, the vein of silver is not played out at all. There is still enough metal to make it worth while digging it out. But now the mine belongs to the military. Any guesses why?"

"A tunnel!" Jemsen and Karel blurted out in unison, inspired by their directional sense. "It's really a tunnel through the mountain for a secret road linking east and west."

"Smart boys!" Wroclaw said beaming at the perspicacity of his young proteges.

"When the enemy attacks the Commonwealth, their army will push westward then swing south, always keeping these mountains on their right to anchor their flank. Our Army of the Plains will feign a retreat south, pulling back three days' ride to where a fair sized river makes a plausible defensive line. The invaders will march south against our army, hoping to break through our hasty fortifications before we can bring up reinforcements from the Commonwealth proper. They will march past these timberlands with hardly a thought.

At the right moment, when the enemy is fully committed to an attack on our defensive line along the river, a Commonwealth war wizard will use something called 'white fire' to blast through the final plug of stone to open a hole in the flank of the mountain, one big enough for an entire army of infantry. Now a single unpaved road leading from the exit would turn into a quagmire trampled under so many feet. We are talking ten or twelve thousands. maybe more. That is why they built five distinct pathways down to the line of departure at the foot of the mountains. The Expeditionary Army will form up there then march south to close with the enemy from behind.

The invaders will be caught in a vice, north and south, crushed between two armies. And there is no escape for them by retreat to the east either. They are on foot and cannot move faster than the Southern army can cover ground on their horses. You see the high command doesn't want to just defeat or turn back the invaders. This will be a battle of annihilation. The best part from our own point of view is that the High Command won't throw us scouts into the battle line. We will watch the fracas from a vantage point up in the hills, rounding up any stragglers who come our way. We should have a good view of the slaughter."

Grim smiles greeted this prospect. Many of the scouts were Plains folk and had scores to settle with the barbarians, for family, friends, or neighbors kidnapped, enslaved, tortured, or slain outright. Still to reinforce the need for secrecy, that evening, Sergeant Borden dropped by to visit the twins.

"Listen fellas. Watch your talk off while off-duty. If you let this secret slip out, you'll be for the chop. No one can help you then, not me, not the Chief, hell not even the Regimental Commander. It is that important."

"We understand Sergeant. Everyone thinks that because we are such chatterboxes we cannot keep our mouths shut when we need to. Or that, at eighteen, we are so young we must be just bursting to hint to everyone what a tremendous secret we have. Dumb kids would reveal it out too, if only to prove they really did have a secret."

"Sure it's a story with a strong appeal for any boy: a secret tunnel through the mountains, military roads hidden in plain sight, war wizards wielding white fire, whatever that is, and a plan for a battle of annihilation. Heady stuff, but despite appearances Jemsen and I are not a pair of dumb blonds. We have been around, seen blood being shed, even shed some ourselves. Don't worry, we won't let you down nor Chief Wroclaw or the Commonwealth."

"Just what I wanted to hear. Chief Wroclaw too. Not that he would ever admit it, but he is really partial to you guys and I don't mean he is hankering for a shag. You are good scouts, good comrades, good soldiers, much like he hoped his own boys would grow up to be if they hadn't died as children."

"Now listen, the Chief told me that I would be in charge of the five scouts who will guide the army columns down the trails. We will be deployed on foot, just like the infantry and wait in a cold camp wrapped in our camouflage cloaks while the barbarians march past us heading south. When the war wizards blow a hole in the mountain, we simply pop up and show the army the way down."

After training maneuvers the regiment returned to the garrison town of Dalnot where the six scouts joined them. The twins kept their mouths shut about what they had been told, not even talking with each other, nor with the other scouts, lest they be overheard. They had to assume that the enemy had spies in every army town, especially in places of public recreation and refreshment like the bars, brothels, eating places, and dance halls.

The last thing the boys would ever do was betray a trust. They genuinely liked and respected both their sergeant and the Chief of Scouts. They were the kind of leaders you hoped to serve under. Both boys had vivid memories of the first time they went up in a kite. Scared spitless, as they say, the boys awaited their first flight with mounting trepidation. Then Wroclaw had taken them aside and spoken to them more like a favorite uncle than their commanding officer.

"Listen kids. I know we put the fright into you when we first met, exaggerating how high we send our kite flyers up. The truth is, on these first training flights, you won't go up much more than thirty man heights. And it is a lot less scary than you'd think. Up there, flying free, you feel cut off from the earth. That is quite different from looking down from a height, say a tall tree or a crag. Soon you stop being scared and realize what a great thrill it is. Be honest, what is it about high places that really frightens you?"

"Well," Jemsen ventured. "In high places, like up a cliff, I become afraid that I might suddenly be seized by a crazy desire to jump, to just push off and fall to the ground and kill myself, though I certainly don't want to die."

"Me, too." Karel admitted. "I know it's insane, but the fear of what I might do despite myself makes me hang on for dear life. And shake like a leaf."

"Your honesty does you credit, boys. All of that is true. The thing is, when you go up in a kite, it's nothing like being atop a tree or a crag. Flying in a kite, you no longer have a solid connection with the bottom of that drop, whether from a tree or a cliff. You have nothing to hang onto. There is just a slender rope attached to the kite, which is more about keeping you from drifting away than connecting you to the earth. In no time the thrill of it all gets to you as you work your flaps to turn yourself left and ride or to guide the kite up, down, or sideways. You are free as a bird. It is the greatest feeling in the world!"

"And you know this, how?" Karel asked.

"Son, hard as this might be to believe, I have been up there myself, back in the day. I wasn't always old and grizzled and bulked out, like I am now. At your age, I was quite the svelte youngster, if you can believe it. Don't let that get about, of course. What I am saying is, I know what you feel, and I know you boys have grit. You will do just fine aloft. Trust me and trust yourselves."

And they did. That first flight was one of many that followed. Soon the boys were begging for flying time. As Sergeant Borden had said:.

"Remember your first day with us? I told you that you could learn a lot from the old Chief. I was right, wasn't I. Now you know why all of us scouts think the world of our Chief."

"You can count on us, sergeant." Karel replied. "Why we'd do anything for the chief, even if he can't spell his own name right. And right now, what we have to do for him is to keep our mouths shut about the secret plan."

"Plan? What plan?" the sergeant asked pointedly.

"Oh, right. Of course. There is no plan, none at all. How foolish of me to think otherwise."

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