Elf Boy's Friends - I
"Gentlemen, How many times do I have to remind you not to act on the preparatory command but to wait for the command to execute. If I tell you Left... Face!, don't turn till you hear the command to 'Face'. Here comes another: Dress Left... Dress!"
On the command to execute the recruits looked left, extended their arms to the side and touched the shoulder of the man on their left, forming a more or less straight line, though of course not straight enough to meet the exacting standards of Sergeant Holden, a grizzled veteran of the Plains Wars. Still he conceded that their latest efforts were an improvement.
Not the first time, young Drew Altair halfway regretted accepting a commission in the military reserves. Halfway. But his commission was the price which the druids of Haven and the Commonwealth had exacted for the newly developed healing magic that would extend his life to five or six centuries and keep him perpetually young. The druidical gift of extended youth and longevity was intended to increase the magical firepower of the Commonwealth of the Long River by slowing natural attrition among magically talented but short-lived humans. Not a bad bargain then, all in all.
It was just that four whole days of orientation on military courtesies and customs was a bit much for his civilian soul. Did they really need all this practice in recognition of rank insignia, forms of address, saluting, dismounted drill, and all the rest of their martial folderol?
Not to mention that his uniform fit poorly, hanging too loose on his slight frame, one which barely reached five feet. Appropriately for the tropical climate Drew's uniform was made of lightweight green silk and consisted of full length trews hung low on his hip bones. On top was a sleeveless shirt, split at the sides for ventilation. Whenever he could get away with it, he unfastened the ties in front to bare his pectorals and midriff, displaying his corrugated chest and abs.
Silk was the fabric of choice for the military since silk minimizes the damage from arrow wounds. Arrows actually do more harm when drawn out than when they go in. The fibers of wool, linen, and cotton fragment and contaminate wounds, which leads to blood poisoning for those who survive the wound itself and cannot reach a magical Healer in time. Silk retains its structural integrity, wrapping around the arrowhead. That allows it to be withdrawn while doing little further damage.
Drew was looking forward to the main part of the course where he would learn military organization and tactics, signals and ciphers, use of weapons, and better ways to employ his magical gift of Fetching, (telekinesis in modern parlance). Drew already had some pretty good ideas of his own on the effective use of his Fetching power but hoped to learn much more from his fellows reservists.
Drew was no stranger to the military having served six months earlier as a war correspondent for the Capital Intelligencer in the joint conquest by the Commonwealth and the Frost Giants of the former land of the centaurs now called New Varangia.
As a civilian volunteer Drew had fought in two pitched battles against the centaurs, alien six-limbed carnivores who treated the other sentient races of Haven as prey. In his first battle he used his magical gift of Fetching to fling glass globes filled with an inflammable oil at the charge of a wedge of centaurs which his friend Artor, a Firecaster, ignited turning their attack into a shambles. In his second battle Drew wielded a pair of steel balls the size of peaches, controlling their flight with his 'shadow boxing' technique, to make them zip left and right, up and down, back and forth and, most pertinently, through the heads and bodies of centaurs attacking the shield wall of the Frost Giants.
The small blue tattoo on his left shoulder showed that the Frost Giants had made him a giant-friend, one to whom all giants would automatically extend their hospitality and protection.
Drew reflected that at least the army hadn't sent its newest recruits to some dusty military camp in the hinterlands. The thirty recruits had comfortable rooms in the bachelor officers' quarters (BOQ) at a military caserne in the capital district. The campus was neatly laid out as a series of courtyards lined with trees for shade. The newly minted ensigns had access to the officers' club and a lending library. The food was pretty good too.
The builders had taken advantage of the flat terrain of the region and the prevailing south wind to cool the building. Wind catchers directed the airflow downward and through the city's underground aqueducts where the warm air gave up its heat to the cool earth and subterranean water. Natural air pressure then forced the air back up into and through the domed buildings. No machinery required. Awnings blocked direct sunlight from window openings which were not glassed in but set with wood lattices that afforded privacy without blocking ventilation.
Drew's platoon was an unusual cohort of newcomers to the military. First they were not rankers but men who had been directly commissioned as ensigns, the lowest of the officer ranks. Few were young. Almost all were in the prime of life, men who not only had strong gifts of Firecasting or Fetching but had shown imagination, courage, and public spirit in the use of their powers over the years.
For instance, two of the new ensigns were professional fire-fighters. In a career of more than twenty years the first man, a Fetcher like Drew, had saved untold victims trapped by flames in the upper stories of their dwellings or bureaux by Lifting them from rooftop or window and setting them safely and gently to earth. Sometimes he raised fellow firefighters and their hoses to otherwise inaccessible spots where they could better attack the flames.
The second fire-fighter was a Fire-caster. His technique was simple. He just told the fire go out, though that was far from the end of it. To make sure the fire stayed out, his crew used their pike poles to tear the smoking structure apart, uncovering hot spots and smoldering embers. They then directed their hoses to play water on the debris and cool the formerly burning materials below their kindling point, lest the fire spring up again when their backs were turned.
By contrast to these mature veterans, Drew was only eighteen and looked a year or two younger due to his small stature. Drew was a little guy, call it five foot zero (152 cm) and one hundred pounds even (45 kg) though he had a wiry physique with a well-defined musculature and a strong upper storey for one so slight of build. The young journalist was a vision of youthful male pulchritude with spiky auburn hair and narrow sideburns reaching below the ear lobe plus straight eyebrows with almost no curve to them. They framed a cute face with a high forehead chiseled jawline, and a perky nose slightly turned up at the end.
When the group first met, many of the older males in his cohort were incredulous of Drew's place in their midst. How could someone so young have earned a place among them? Who was this youngster anyway, so slight of stature, so impossibly comely, and utterly androgynous in appearance? Why to look at him, a boy who fell far short of normal male standards in height, muscular development, and manly characteristics, you would think him to be a rich man's boy-toy or even a professional bum boy.
A champion spoke up for Drew.
"Daft ye are, the lot of you" growled a graying Fetcher originally from the League of Independent Towns by the name of Angus McFarden.
"Ken ye not who this laddie be? How do ye think he earned that blue tattoo on his shoulder that marks him as a giant-friend, a very rare honor indeed. Why 'tis none other than the brave Fetcher who turned the tide in two pitched battles against the centaurs not six months ago. And shame on anyone who has not read his eyewitness account of the war in the Capital Intelligencer."
"Oh, you mean that war correspondent" a firecaster in his thirties answered. "Sure I guess we all read his stuff, but everyone took him for a man grown, not some snot-nos… er... that is, ah... someone so very young," he finished lamely. "Sorry about the misunderstanding. No offense, kid. Er,son. No, dammit, that sounds bad too. What do I call you anyway, Red?"
"How about just using my name, Drew, Drew Altair?"
"Fair enough, Drew Altair. Fyrd Kalmen here. Thanks Angus for straightening us out. How do you know young Altair anyway?"
"He interviewed me and wrote a series of articles about my new business. 'King of the Iron-Roads' he dubbed me. I rather liked the sound of that."
McFarden's enterprise was the start of an transportation revolution. In the far north of the Commonwealth, near the river town of Grayling, the man had developed a whole new transportation system inspired by the small ore-trolleys used in the local iron mines. McFarden scaled the system up to transport iron ore to smelters on riverbanks miles away. Pairs of Fetchers used their magical gift in tandem to propel the loads along the tracks. A third went along to spell one of the pair in rotation.
The Fetchers did not have to lift the heavy loads, merely using their gift to overcome inertia to get the wagons moving, then to counter rolling resistance. The effort of going uphill with an empty wagon was lessened by the track bed itself which conferred the mechanical advantage of an inclined plane. Hence a pair of Fetchers might move as much ore as a team of six. McFarden foresaw the day when a network of iron-roads would criss-cross the Commonwealth. The flat terrain of its central valley lent itself to his system.
McFarden had harnessed the magical resources of the Commonwealth to provide motive power, and to provide new and rewarding careers for those with a strong Fetching gift which might otherwise be wasted. No wonder the man was among the first chosen to receive the treatment.
"As to the boy's place among us," McFarden continued, "I don't doubt that endorsements from Lord Zaldor and General Urqaart helped with his selection."
"Yes, plus those from Artor Klarendes, son of the Count of the Eastern March and now a full Hand of the Commonwealth in his own right, and the famous twins Sirs Jemsen and Karel. All of them are good friends of mine."
"More than just friends, I don't wonder." Angus observed with an eyebrow lifted interrogatively.
"Well definitely not Artor, who 'consorts exclusively with the female half of the species' as he always puts it. More's the pity. But sure, the twins and I are boyfriends. Not to mention the Frost Giant Finn Ragnarson I also wrote about."
"Aye, that would be the Young Finn who stood with Old Arn in the Breach. They held the line long enough for others to rally to them. Your account downplayed your own part, but it was clear that you must have been standing right behind the pair at the maximum point of danger."
"You are making me sound like a hero when actually I just had to get close so I could see to wield my steel spheres without hurting anyone on our side. And if the centaurs had broken through, I think I could have held them off me, for a short time anyway, with my shield technique where I whip my spheres back and forth in an arc, one high, one low."
"Anyway, what's really great about my job as a journalist is that I get to meet so many interesting, exciting, and intriguing people. You Angus and Finn are just two of them. I am so glad Count Klarendes mentioned your name to me in that letter he sent."
"Yes, well the count is one of my investors. Smart man he is, getting in early. If he thought he was rich before, wait till my iron roads really get rolling. Anyway the good count thought I would make a good story for you."
"Oh, you did. Please, if you know anyone else I should interview, let me know. I should mention that I will be writing a series of articles about this program we are all a part of."
"Sounds good, Drew Altair," Fyrd Kalmen remarked.
"I ask only that you get my name right. You have no idea how many people call be 'Fred'." he added shaking his head sadly.
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