Elf Boy's Friends - II

by George Gauthier

Chapter 9

The Flatlands

The landscape immediately below the escarpment was scrub forest, desolate and uninhabitable in the old days for fear of marauding centaurs. The creatures could not stay long in the hotter climate of the lowlands, but they could stage nighttime raids out to a distance of a day's march. Or should it be called a ride for the six-limbed creatures?

Beyond that uncultivated belt lay an agricultural countryside, green, well-watered, and dotted with villages. Those closest to the band of desolation were defended by palisades, but the rest were normal villages, though none showed sign of any real prosperity. Their inhabitants looked like they were just getting by. The manor houses of the landowners were comfortable rather than palatial. They were the rambling country homes of hands-on gentry who managed some of their lands directly, while drawing quitrents from tenants on their remaining acres.

The institution of quitrents had freed the cultivators from feudal labor obligations. To attract settlers to work these lands close to the escarpment, landholders had found it necessary to give their tenants a better deal than serfdom and to work the rest of their acres with hired help paid decent wages.

Despite its name the region called the Flatlands did have its ups and downs. Relief features included the ranges of low hills which separated drainage basins and the occasional isolated granite peak or tor, a place no doubt featured in local legend as the dark lair of trolls or scaly monsters. The tops of several of these prominences hosted Army heliograph stations, part of a line leading back to the New Varangia and Commonwealth.

One geological feature sparked Drew's interest: a swarm of magmatic dikes two hundred paces wide, a hundred paces high, and nine miles long. Created by an ancient intrusion of lava into continental crust and since exposed by erosion, it left behind parallel walls of basalt rising vertically. The road ran through a passage blasted a century earlier by a wizard using white fire.

Drew persuaded the others to lay over for a few days in the village which lay just beyond the narrow passage the coach had negotiated. They took rooms at an inn and used the layover to perfect their climbing techniques. All had had some experience, but not all of the same kind, and the four of them had never climbed while roped with others.

From construction crews in the capital Drew had picked up a set of simple hand signals. Some were obvious, left, right, up, and down. Patting the air meant go easy, and a clenched fist meant stop or hold. Their climbing equipment was top of the line with ropes of elven manufacture. Made of spider silk, the ropes were light and strong and kind to bare hands. Drew and Finn climbed in their normal footwear of stout sandals, while the twins wore moccasins. All four wore short trews and belts for hooking up their climbing ropes and hanging their gear.

At first they climbed using only physical strength. Sure Drew could Lift them all, but better they practice doing without his magic in case he were incapacitated or elsewhere at the time. Drew showed the twins and Finn how to drive pitons into the rock so they would hold even Finn's four hundred pounds. Climbing a peak with just muscles was hard work, but the climbers got a lot of satisfaction proving they could do it the hard way. The thrill of reaching the top made them feel like kings of the mountain.

Then Drew invoked his powers. Their standard technique became for Drew to Lift one of the others, say Finn, follow his hand signals, and set him onto a handy ledge or shelf. Once in place, Finn tapped a piton home and strung a rope through the eye. Then Finn could take a strain on the rope and let the others swarm up it. If one of the twins went up first, his technique was to belay the rope around a rock or through another piton so as to take even Finn's weight. Alternatively they could rig a pair of pulleys to ease Finn upwards.

"If only I could just Lift myself!" Drew exclaimed in frustration after a long hot day of climbing. "I can Lift a brontothere into the sky but not my own small body. Arrh!"

Karel's face brightened with inspiration.

"I've got it!"

"Got what?"

"A way for you to Lift yourself. Well, maybe. It's worth a try anyway."

"Hmm, I think I know what Karel is getting at," Jemsen said, "and yes, it is definitely worth a try," endorsing his brother's as yet unstated idea.

"You guys aren't setting me up to make a fool of myself are you? Maybe as payback for the way I strung you along about that sex manual?"

With an air of offended innocence, Karel sniffed: "How can you even suggest such a thing?"

"OK, let's hear it." Drew said warily.

"Lift yourself by your sandals." Karel said, pointing at Drew's feet, while Jemsen nodded.

"That's it? Your brainstorm is that I Lift my own sandals?"

"Your gift cannot move your own body, right? So, move something else, like your sandals, and since you are standing in them, your body will go along for the ride."

Drew was stunned.

"Actually, it's so simple it just might work. Better try it over there in that grassy meadow in case I come down hard."

"Just low power, Drew. Remember you're not lifting a brontothere. You weigh only a hundred pounds."

"Nodding at Jemsen's reminder, Drew took a comfortable stance, feet shoulder width apart, and invoked his gift. At first nothing happened. Like all Fetchers down the ages Drew had a mental block against levitation. Everyone knew it was impossible. No one could Lift himself.

Drew focussed his attention on his sandals and on maintaining his balance. Slowly, ever so slowly, he rose a few feet into the air.

It was tricky. You had to keep your weight on the balls of your feet by bending the knees slightly and holding your arms out to the side.

"Yes!" Drew yelled, thrusting his arms up triumphantly. Unfortunately that upset his balance. He tipped backwards, lost control of his gift, fell four feet, and landed on his rump.

"Ai! Nothing like a kick in the ass to impress on you the need to pay attention to what you are doing."

After a moment he added:

"You know, I have to wonder, if this is how the druids Levitate?"

"Could be. What you did just now looks like how Owain Levitated at Stone Mountain. He said it was mostly just going up and down, with only a little bit of forward motion if you tipped your weight a bit. You cannot swoop across the sky like a bird."

"Thanks guys, especially you Karel. You have a knack for original thinking."

"You gave me the germ of the idea yourself, Drew, writing about those iron roads where fetchers push or draw freight wagons along iron rails. They move themselves too since they are riding atop one of the wagons in the train. You did much the same thing with that skiff during rescue work."

"Pushing a freight wagon or a skiff or lifting sandals, it's all the same thing really." Jemsen added.

"I guess only guys who were not Fetchers would have that kind of unconventional insight."

The twins preened.

"I'll practice this technique every day till I get it right. Once it becomes second nature to me, I will be able to invoke my gift in other ways while I am aloft. I could whirl my steel spheres or fend off arrows or lift allies to commanding heights. I'll definitely write this up for my newsletter, the Transactions of the Confraternities of the Gifted. With the power of levitation we Fetchers will have bragging rights in the whole gifted community."

"Great, but may I make another suggestion?"

"Sure. What is it Karel?"

"You need a catchier name for your newsletter. 'Transactions of the Confraternities of the Gifted' is so lame."

"Point taken."

From atop the highest of the parallel volcanic dikes the boys could see for a hundred miles. To the south lay the northernmost lobe of the Great Inland Freshwater Sea. A broad river emptied into it, flowing past a port city sited on a peninsula at the mouth of the river. From his map Jemsen identified it as one of the maritime republics that had long traded with the Commonwealth. Its seaport and river port served the countries upstream.

Unlike many of the states in the Flatlands which relied on agriculture alone, the city state thrived on trade and industry. Its inhabitants were free citizens and its popular assembly even had a role in the republic's governance. The fields and orchards in its hinterland provided sufficient crops for most of its own needs though nothing was produced for export.

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