Elf-Boy and Friends
Chapter 27. Stone Mountain Country
After a long and pleasant but uneventful voyage their ship put in at Brax, the port and maritime republic that served as the outlet for exports from the Stone Mountain country, though the port, the city of Brax, and its prosperous hinterland were in the hands of humans. The country seemed pleasant enough though the same could not be said for its inhabitants. Cool and inhospitable at best, the folk thereabouts were abrupt and even rude. Certainly no one made them feel welcome, not even the staff at their inn. The clientele was worse, most treated them coldly or with hostility. Dahl couldn't understand it. Surely things had not gotten so bad. Was it just that a dwarf was one of their party?
That was exactly the problem. The group had no sooner sat down at a table in the common room of their inn and ordered ale when a surly local with a scraggly beard called over to them, sneering:
"Hey dwarf-lovers! You lose your pants or something?"
Dahl looked around and noticed that only the four of them, the two elves and the twins were entirely naked. The humans were all in loincloths or trews or tunics. Only the wine boys ran around in the rude nude, as an inducement for randy customers to call them over for a refill while they stroked the lissome boy's rump or belly. The surly fellow pressed on:
"So why did you take your clothes off in the first place, pretty one. Are you a rent boy trolling for custom?"
That brought nasty laughs from a half-dozen thugs seated around his table in back.
"You are confused, sir," Dahl replied. "What comes in the first place is bare skin, for that is how we are born. Logically it follows that putting on clothes comes second, so taking them off is a distant third. Which, in this oppressive tropical heat, only makes sense."
"Oh, a smart ass, is it?" The lout got up from his table and stepped forward, fists clenched, spoiling for a fight.
Ran rose from his chair motioning for the others to stay put. He turned toward the big bruiser who was giving them a hard time.
"As you can see, I am the smallest one of us all and looking even more a bum boy than my friend here. Truth to tell, in our day, all of us pretty boys have bent over for coin. But we can fight too, when we have to, as I am prepared to prove to you. Here is the deal. If I can take you, just me, a tiny nude rent boy, will you and the rest of your friends leave us alone?"
"And what is your forfeit if you lose?"
"You and your friends get to mount me as you will."
"Har! You are on, bum boy. Beating a bitty thing like you will be no trouble at all."
The fight, if you could really call it that, was over almost before it began. The man threw a punch then found himself inexplicably laid out, head throbbing from where it had clunked into the floor, arm twisted behind in a painful joint lock. The little bum boy who had defeated him was not even breathing hard. With a final wrench of the man's wrist to discourage any thoughts of a re-match, Ran released him and walked back to his friends. Unreconciled to his friend's disgrace, one of the thugs at the table bellowed:
"No fair using underhanded tricks from martial arts. Come on fellas, let's teach these kids a lesson. We'll beat them up then fuck the shit out of all of them. I get first dibs on the feisty little blond elf."
Same bold challenge. Same ignominious results.
Just then patrolmen of the city watch walked through the doors, their leader shooting the tavern keeper an interrogatory look. To his credit, the man pointed his thumb to the locals and said that they had started the fight, which matched the sergeant's own appraisal of the situation. Pointing to the thugs, their sergeant warned:
"Come peaceably and we will release you in the morning, after you have sobered up. Resist arrest, and you will face a serious charge. And you're paying for the damages too. As for you, strangers, you can go on your way, and I advise you to do so. Don't think I care much for dwarf-lovers, but my job is to keep the peace. Better if you do not linger here in town."
"We won't and thanks." His prejudices aside, Dahl did respect the way the sergeant had defused the situation, making the ruffians a fair offer they could hardly refuse. It spoke well of the administration of justice in those parts.
It took four days at a steady pace to reach Stone Mountain, really a triangle of mountains set around a central vale. From the surface the only way in was through a gate guarded by dwarves. There were other entrances, but those were underground, connecting with the natural caverns where the dwarves lived. By long-standing treaty, here the dwarves ruled the land on the surface as well as their stony lairs.
The dwarves welcomed the team the druids had sent housing them in one of the upper galleries along the mountain wall where windows had been cut to admit light and air. Horsehair mattresses made for comfortable sleeping and thanks to the thick stone walls the sounds of their enthusiastic lovemaking could not disturb the natives. In the cool and even chill air of the caverns the visitors donned tunics provided by the dwarves but shucked those whenever they went up to the surface, such as to swim in the central lake or lope around the track that circled it.
Their frequent nudity got them looks. Sure everyone knew intellectually that young elves never wore clothing but it was different seeing an pretty young elf run around nude on their home ground, rump and manly parts totally on display. Even more with two human youths in the same state of undress. As Karel put it:
"It's the first time in years when I wasn't just naked but conspicuously undressed. Yet strangely, for the first time in years the people around me aren't looking at me with lust in their hearts. There is simply no sexual spark between dwarves and humans.
"Your Stone Mountain country is beautiful, Xebrek. "A miniature green paradise within a circle of grey mountains rearing up dramatically to the sky. Look, in the center is a lake that collects the runoff from the mountains. Its outlet is a rocky river which plunges beneath the suffice and runs underground for a ways."
"That's right Dahl." Jemsen remarked. "The underground river resurfaces at a lower elevation and flows on like any other river."
"So what is the problem?"
Xebrek took it from there.
"During the rainy season, the flow is much greater, sometimes threatening to submerge our homes below. We have a solution, but it puts us in conflict with the humans."
It seemed that timber was one of the main exports out of Brax. Many of its citizens worked as seasonal lumberjacks, in the sawmills, or on the ships that carried lumber to markets across the sea. Their timber industry relied on the annual flood to float huge rafts of logs down from their timberlands, rafts with too much draft to pass over the rapids at low water without snagging. Coincidentally, a clan of dwarves also relied on the flood to float their barges laden with stone from their quarry down the river to the seaport at Brax.
The main settlement of dwarves wanted to build an overflow channel to divert the floodwaters. They planned to chisel and hammer a tunnel under the mountain at the only point where it was practicable, directing the waters to a new river bed on the surface that would rejoin the main stream above the quarries but below the river port for the timber interests. The tunnel and stream would leave the human operation high and dry come next rainy season.
This conflict of rational interests had been blown all out of proportion by troublemakers, outside agitators mostly, working for their adversary, carrying on a whispering campaign in the taverns and markets. The bully boys in their hire were constantly stirring up trouble, picking fights, blaming the dwarves for everything that went wrong. A landslide here or a sink hole there was put down to the dwarves undermining the ground above, even when no dwarves operated anywhere near there. A rise in the price of grain was also laid to their door, though it was really caused by market conditions across the Inland Sea. Ease of transport on its waters and on its many tributaries had created a grain market covering half the continent. And those weren't the only grievances erroneously blamed on the dwarves.
Both sides were arming, though only reluctantly on the part of the dwarves. They were a stubborn folk but not belligerent and traditionally reluctant to go to war. Besides, they were outnumbered by the prolific humans, and they knew it.
"You would think that with the entire surface world in their hands, humans would not begrudge us our little corner of the globe." Xebrek complained, heedless of his mixed metaphor and bad geometry. "I give it three months before civil war breaks out."
<Not just a civil war, my friend, a race war. The very worst kind.> Merry put in.
One morning, Dahl asked the twins to show him their maps of the region around Stone Mountain that they had been updating all the while.
"Hmmm. These planimetric maps show the elevations only by shading; there is no numerical data on actual altitude."
"That's right Dahl. This mapping technique is called hachures. The shading, that is these close-drawn short lines, shows the orientation of the slopes. By their thickness and density they give a sense of steepness. It's actually a step forward from the old fashioned hill profiles on oblique maps, though those are simpler for a layman to understand. You understand, actual elevations, even spot elevations, would require a survey."
"Too bad. If only we had better maps and better ways of showing elevation.
Which set Jemsen and Karel to thinking. A year or so later they devised contour lines as a better way to indicate elevation on maps. In recognition of their signal accomplishment, they would have a knighthood conferred on them. The Honorable Guild of Cartographers would induct them as Master Cartographers. Meanwhile the job of measuring spot elevations would keep the Commonwealth's surveyors gainfully employed for a generation.
Dahl thought it over for a couple of days, talking things out with Merry and the twins. Neither could offer a solution, but they were a good sounding board for the elf-boy, helping him to clarify his own understanding of the problem.
That night, as Merry was thrusting deep into him, the unicorn made some offhand reference to his tunnel of love. Perhaps inspired by his words, Dahl suddenly yelled out loud.
"I got it!"
<You sure do!> Merry assured him, by now very much aroused.
<No, no, no. I've got the solution. I am sorry Merry, but we gotta stop now. Please pull out and listen up. We gotta keep this just between us. That is why I am on our private channel.>
<This had better be good, Dahl, all things considered. So what is your big idea?>
<It is in two parts. You know how the twins have an unerring sense of direction, which works for elevation as much as azimuth or compass direction. We can use that to find the two ends points for a new water tunnel higher in elevation than the ones the dwarves had planned. The first point would be in the vale of the dwarves, high up, on the surface where a pool feeds the underground stream. The second point is lower down but still above both the quarry and the loggers. The twins can give us an absolute azimuth and elevation to link the two points. That is the blueprint for a gravity fed overflow tunnel.>
<But Dahl, just from what I saw of the map, it would take a tunnel a thousand paces long to connect those points. The dwarves could never dig that far.>
<Who said anything about digging? Count Klarendes could blast a tunnel through the mountain with white fire! That's the second part of my idea.>
<That is a terrific idea, Dahl. I am sure Klarendes is up to the task. He is a powerful firecaster indeed. Still, with tensions so high, promises won't be enough. We need the firecaster here at Stone Mountain to prove to the humans that we will do it. No way to avoid it, but we'll have to bring Owain in on this, not to take over, mind you, but to transport Klarendes here as quickly as possible.>
<How can even a druid get the Count of the Eastern March here in time? On a galloping brontothere, maybe?>
<Ha ha ha. You and your brontotheres, Dahl. You are strangely fascinated by animals you have seen only in drawings. Awesome creatures, to be sure, but they cannot swim the Inland Sea. Strictly speaking they cannot gallop either. The gallop is a gait where all four feet leave the ground at once, if only briefly, and brontotheres are much too heavy for that.>
<All right then, maybe Owain enlists a giant bird to carry the good count through the skies.>
<Sorry, Dahl. Rocs are just a legend. The largest of the condors can lift a newborn lamb, but that is about the limit. Still, there is a way. The Commonwealth keeps a fleet of fast courier boats, sleek twin hulled beauties, much faster than any cargo ship or warship for that matter. A druid aboard her can call steady winds to propel and by taking a direct course can get here three or four times faster than we managed during our slow voyage.>
<Sounds like a plan.>
Merry put in a call to Owain who agreed that he could get away just then and make the trip. One of the unicorns had volunteered to carry him to Elysion to pick up Klarendes and very likely Aodh. He said he would be at Stone Mountain in three weeks. Owain also had important news of his own.
The druids had just turned back an invasion of the Great Forest by a vast army of humans and orcs. The druids had created a living barrier in the lowlands and marshes flanking the forest to its north. There the druids created new forms of life, hordes of stinging and biting insects, loosed on this world for the first time, plus numberless poisonous snakes, toads, and frogs. Next, the inner belt of marshes was camouflaged to look like firm ground, but much of it was quicksand below a thin crust of sand and tufts of greenery. The quicksand swallowed thousands every day as they surged forward. After laboriously building a causeway across the marshes, all the while enduring plagues of insects and poisonous reptiles, the enemy army had to endure millions of mice and biting rodents run amok. Many thousands died from infection compounded by poor hygiene.
By the time they penetrated the forest itself, the enemy was essentially defeated, though they would not recognize it. Then it was the turn of the Great Forest itself. A million square miles of green sentience turned with malevolent intent upon the invaders, muddling their sense of direction and setting both plants and forest denizens on the invaders. The Dark Prophet sent his army forward into the trees to its doom. Almost none of it returned.
It cost our enemy three hundred thousand men, with negligible losses for the Green forces. The victory was even more lopsided than the Great Entrapment and with fewer survivors. Those who escaped the trees or turned back at the last minute had to re-run the gantlet of rodents, serpents, and bugs. A cavalry squadron from an allied army swept up the remnants.
<Another lesson in the awesome power of the druids. It is great news, of course, but I don't like the idea of biting and stinging insects, Merry. Not when I always run around stark naked. I mean, just think about it. Oh my poor bum!>
<I would share your feelings except that I am reliably informed that there is nothing to worry about. All the adult forms of the insects were born sterile, unable to reproduce their kind. The new species have died out since or soon will.>
<More good news.>
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