Elf Boy's Friends - II
The night before their departure for the Far West of the continent of Valentia, the 'Young Soldiers Four', as the four youths had dubbed themselves, packed their kit, starting with their clothing. Drew packed the outfits he would wear during the mission. First came two of his official uniforms as an ensign in the Army of the Commonwealth. They were made of a lightweight green silk and consisted of full length trews and a sleeveless shirt, split halfway up the sides for ventilation and fastened with ties in front which might be loosed to bare chest and abs.
Silk was the fabric of choice for the military since it minimizes damage from arrow wounds. Arrows actually do more harm when drawn out than when they go in. That is partly from the barbs on arrowheads but also from the fabric of one's clothing. The fibers of wool, linen, and cotton will fragment and contaminate wounds, which fester and leads to blood poisoning for those who survive the wound itself and cannot reach a magical Healer in time. Silk retains it structural integrity and also wraps around the barbs of the arrowhead. That allows it to be withdrawn while doing little further damage.
Next came two sets of his expeditionary outfit, the clothes he had worn as a war correspondent during the Second Centaur War: short trews which reached to mid-thigh and a sleeveless shirt slashed all the way at the sides, both made of dark green silk plus a pair of the same hobnailed sandals that the infantry wore. City boy that he was Drew would need them in the rough country they would be exploring. Drew's feet had toughened up from all his running, but he had covered the distance from the capital on modern roads built to be easy on the feet of barefoot bipeds and unshod quadrupeds.
Though he was likely to need them for the mission Drew could hardly forgo his trademark sleeveless tunics of white silk which he wore in his role as a a journalist. Styled for that professional look, they still flattered the trim and taut body he has so recently grown into and was so proud of. He laid two tunics on top of the rest.
Finally Drew folded two silk sarongs, one dark blue, the other burgundy and added them to his kit. The close fitting sheath of the sarong clung to his slender physique, not so much concealing as accentuating the trim lines of the body, especially the rump.
Moreover, the sarong was versatile since it was light in weight, flexible, folded into a tiny packet, felt smooth next to the skin, came in a variety of colors, and had a dozen other uses besides. A sarong can serve as a wrap for the body, a groundsheet, a canopy, a signal flag, a towel, a privacy curtain, an improvised back pack or stretcher, and even as a weapon, used to create a distraction. Whip it off your hips and snap it at your opponent's head. Then move in for the kill while he is distracted or run away, if that is the better move.
The twins packed their color-coded green and blue sarongs and their old riding silks, plus short trews like Drew's. Also the camouflage cloaks they had worn as military scouts. They had also brought military uniforms with the insignia of captains in the army reserve. As the very first humans to benefit from the healing magic of the druids, the twins had voluntarily accepted a commission in the army reserve. In recognition of their wartime service, the army waived the training program Drew had gone through. Counting their years of prior service, the army made them captains. They added note and sketch pads for their mapping work plus a table of logarithms printed on thin high quality paper and bound in leather for protection from the elements.
Finn brought two spare sets of his regular outfit of green silk shirt and trews plus small clothes. The young giant was the only one of the four who bothered with undergarments. Giants also don't like to go barefoot, what with the press of their huge bodies on the comparatively small soles of their feet, so Finn wore padded sandals. He also threw in the pair of brassards whose three pips identified him as a under-sergeant in the militia of New Varangia called the Fyrd. (His over-sergeant was Old Arn.)
In addition to their individual kits, the twins added the climbing equipment procured by Arn: ropes, pitons, hammer, coupling links, gloves, and lightweight pulleys.
Finally came their weaponry. Who knew what foes they might face? No point being caught empty-handed.
The twins were uncannily accurate archers thanks to their magical gift of Unerring Direction plus constant practice. Though only of middling height and slender, they drew a heavy bow, their vitality enhanced by druidical healing magic, which not only kept them perpetually young and healthy, it doubled their strength and stamina and sharpened their senses. Quarterstaffs were also part of their armament, gifts from their mentor, the giant Balandur. Made of ash, the staffs featured steel caps and a flat hook near one end for the strap of their kit bag. Attached to their quivers were scabbards to hold kukris. The bent-bladed knives were so large they were almost short swords.
Finn also carried a kukri in a scabbard on his belt but his main weapons were his twelve foot spear and broadsword. On this mission, he would not bear his usual heavy wooden shield but only a buckler. Made of metal, circular, and only about two foot across, it was small and and light and carried hung from his belt. Not of much use against missiles, it was employed in hand-to-hand combat with either sword or kukri. Unless taken unawares, Drew could protect the party from a shower of arrows, taking control of them in mid-air and Throwing them point first back at any hostile archers. Finn also packed the hammer and tongs from his forge, just in case, he told his friends. They nodded indulgently, understanding the tools as a comforting link to a home and a trade he had left behind.
Drew carried a kukri for close-in defense but only for circumstances where he cared not to reveal his powers. In actuality, his magical gift of Fetching was powerful and flexible and deadly. He had employed it to good effect in two pitched battles during the Second Centaur War. In the first he flung oil filled globes at the wedge of centaurs, which his friend Artor, a firecaster, ignited on impact, utterly disrupting their charge.
At the Battle of the Ravine, from just behind the shield wall of the Frost Giants Drew wielded a pair of steel spheres about the size of a peach, flinging them at high speed left and right, up and down, back and forth. Their fearsome momentum blasted right through the bodies and the heads of the carnivorous centaurs.
When not in use the two spheres and a smaller pair of "birdshot" rode in a pouch hung on his belt along with a second pouch, this one holding darts dipped in a soporific drug for putting adversaries to sleep. A single dart could take down a man. Three or four darts might be needed for something as large as aurochs or a slash bear or a Frost Giant, perish the thought. The drug did not work on centaurs because of their alien constitutions.
The three runners left town after all four had loaded the mail coach with their gear waving to the coach driver who was hitching the horses. The teamster was a lithe youth of seventeen who wore only a breechclout, a panel of deerskin passed between the legs and flipped over a thong tied around his hips. Short boots and a straw hat completed his ensemble.
All the coachmen, hostlers, and grooms were human. Frost Giants did not work with horses. They had no use for them. The animals were too small to bear a rider eight or nine feet tall and weighing six or seven hundred pounds. For draft animals, the Giants employed the aurochs, which they had shipped in at considerable expense from the forests of their original homeland.
Finn took breakfast with the driver and his brother Holgar at an eatery conveniently located on the outskirts of town close to the stables, paddocks, and corrals. Finn was in no hurry to leave and dawdled over his kaffay till the young teamster reminded him that he had a schedule to keep. Yes the coach was theirs exclusively this trip, but his firm was under contract to carry the mail. Taking his leave of his brother, Finn climbed into the coach.
"We'll catch up to your friends, soon enough." the driver confidently assured Finn, a grin on his freckled face, then swung his lithe frame up into the driver's seat.
"Don't be so sure, Liam. Horsemen like yourself have no appreciation for how much ground a human can cover during a long distance run. Those three boys are fleet of foot and have lots of stamina. You'll see. They will be waiting for us at the mid-point to the first way station."
"Ha! That is so not happening, sir, not with these four bay mares in the traces." Liam asserted with complete confidence. "It's twenty-five miles to the mid-point, since the stations are a day's travel or fifty miles apart."
"We shall see, and it's Finn, Liam, not sir. There cannot be more than four years between us."
The coach set off at a walk, swung round the town, crossed the bridge over the river, then picked up the pace as it rolled onto the long road west. Like all the main highways built by the Commonwealth the right of way was really two roadways in one, both wide enough for two way traffic. The southerly roadway traffic was paved with flat stones. It served horses shod in iron, both mounts and draft animals. The heavy infantry of the regular army also marched on the pavement in their sturdy hob-nailed sandals.
Travelers who went barefoot or in soft foot gear took the other walkway, its firm but resilient surface was designed for them and for the unshod feet of oxen, aurochs, and camels. The top level of that roadway was a composite made of sawdust and bitumen. compressed and heated, then laid in squares over the same substrate as the stone paved roadway alongside.
Only a narrow shoulder, a drainage channel really but one filled with crushed stone to prevent erosion, separated the two roadways. Traffic kept to the right on both roadways, the universal rule in the Commonwealth.
Finn settled into a comfortably padded bench in the coach and watched the miles pass. Although familiar with the environs of Flensborg he had never seen this part of his new homeland, New Varangia as it was called after his and Old Arn's home district back in the old country.
The original homeland of his folk lay in the northernmost part of the continent of Valentia. Like the other two continents on the planet of Haven, it straddled the equator. From its northern coast a peninsula jutted into temperate latitudes making the original homeland of the Frost Giants cold in winter. The temperature got low enough for ice to form on the still waters of ponds and lakes though not on the moving waters of rivers and stream. Snow was not unknown either, nor was frost. Hence the name of his people.
New Varangia lay well south of the equator and nearly out of the torrid zone entirely so its climate was sub-tropical. The summers were still hot but not oppressively so.
Its relatively tolerable climate was the reason the centaurs had lived there. For physiological reasons, the creatures had needed a cooler climate than the tropical climate which prevailed in the Commonwealth proper. The centaurs were carnivores and lived exclusively by the hunt. Their land had been a giant hunting preserve, and the centaurs lived dispersed in camps, shifting location several times a year as its hunters depleted the game in an area. The centaurs had never built a true civilization and had no farms or towns or manufactories, nor any roads other than trails.
Hence the countryside the coach passed through was pristine, save for those marks of civilization introduced by the Frost Giants themselves such as the belt of farms around the town. Their capital of Flensborg was located on a considerable river just below the fall line. The waterfalls provided power for saw mills, grist mills, and hammer mills. The tranquil stream below the falls gave access ultimately to the Great Inland Freshwater Sea. The giants were shipbuilders from way back. In the far north, their stout vessels plied the stormy outer ocean. The shipyards of Flensborg built river boats, ferries, and cargo ships. Flensborg's own ships carried its exports, chiefly timber and iron ore to market.
The road ran generally west but followed the contours of the land detouring through open ground rather than plowing through stands of timber. That had saved its builders the toil of felling trees, pulling stumps, and filling in the holes. The builders had planted trees along the northern edge of the right of way to provide shade, once the trees reached their full growth. They were just saplings at this stage.
Unable to read his copy of the local news-paper as the coach jounced along, Finn thought to talk with the driver. He stood and flipped open the hatch in the roof, holding onto the rails along the roof for balance as he asked the teamster.
"So where are you from, Liam? And why did you settle in New Varangia?"
"I am from the Western Plains. My people are nomads always on the move to fresh pastures. Twice a year we round up yearlings to sell to the army for mounts, and we drive cattle to corrals on the border of the Commonwealth proper and sell them to purchasing agents. With the golds we earn from all that, we buy grain, manufactures, tools, and civilized luxuries. The wild bison provide us with meat, hides, leather. Their sinews and bones are shaped into all sorts of tools and implements."
"Horses are in our blood. My dad put me up on a horse before I could even walk by myself. Some boys work cattle, but I got to take care of our mounts. Mostly they graze, but we also feed them grain when we have it. I'd water them twice a day, check the frogs of their feet, and brush and curry them too."
"The fun part was when a bunch of us boys took the remuda for a bath. We'd ride them right into a pond up to their bellies, then slip off their backs and scrub their hides with soap and brush. Our own bodies too, since we boys rode bare back and bare-ass naked and got their sweat and scent on ourselves."
"All the while we joked and laughed and indulged in all manner of grab ass rambunctiousness, as boys will do. Some of us paired off and found quiet spots in the tall grass or bushes to explore our burgeoning sexuality."
"It was a good life for a youngster, but as I got a little older I wanted something more than to be a herder all my life. Also, I knew I didn't like girls, but among us nomads young males engage in sex with each other only until they marry and settle down. Our way of life works only for family units. It takes the labor and skills of a husband and wife team, and the kids help too to get everything done. That was not for me.
"I knew that in town you can specialize in a line of work then buy what you need from others. Forget about self-sufficiency. Like I do not cook, but I can buy hot meals at take-out counters or eat in restaurants and cafes.
"I heard about opportunities for horsemen in New Varangia. You big folks need humans like me for anything to do with horses. None of you has the skills or the interest in driving a team. Anyway, you're all too heavy. You giants weigh six or seven hundred pounds. That adds five hundred pounds or more of dead weight to the load and subtracts the same from what the team can haul, whether in freight or paying passengers."
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