Elf Boy's Friends - II

by George Gauthier

Chapter 14

The Mission

Two days later, the generals briefed the young soldiers four on their mission. Attending the meeting were several members of their staffs, including Captain Petr Kwill and Lieutenant Ian Dentzer. The first order of business was a brief promotion ceremony for Ian Dentzer, now officially Captain Dentzer.

"Gentlemen," Urqaart began, "as with our newly minted captain here, your mission is about cartography and geographic intelligence. We need you to make us a set of maps of the northern half of the Far West. The ones we have just now won't do, for reasons young Dentzer will explain."

Dentzer took it from there:

"The governments in lands close to the Despotate of Dzungaria refuse to let our military map makers into their realms for fear of provoking that potentially hostile power. Such maps as we have are from travelogues or itineraries of trade routes rather than proper topographic maps. Most have only the barest indication of topography much less measured elevations and distances. Few are properly scaled and maps of adjacent regions do not articulate with each other, having no common base line or even overlapping features to tie them together."

"That is where you come in, Captains Jemsen and Karel, with your gift of unerring direction. We want you to carry out a clandestine geographic survey starting at the most northerly point our Army mapmakers have reached. Only you two could triangulate between high points of ground without the use of chains and instruments. You should also triangulate to

other points of interest like towns, bridges or river fords, crests of watersheds, that sort of thing. And make terrain sketches from each vantage point showing landforms, vegetation, and so forth. I don't have to tell you your business."

"Karel and I are equipped with one of the new far-viewing tubes which makes distant objects look eight times closer. That will help immensely."

"Excellent! I know how useful these tubes can be. We got our own just recently. They are being sent to all military and naval units and to every heliograph station. You don't need a magical gift to use them. They are another amazing invention from the artificers. What will they think of next?"

He went on to say:

"Our own maps of of the southern regions will provide you with a base line of forty miles for that first triangle. You will take it from there all the way to the border of the Despotate. Do you think you could finish the job in four months?"

"That's a pretty tall order with a tight time frame." Jemsen objected. "Still, I can see in my brother's face that Karel thinks we can do it. All right then.

"Excellent!" Zaldor said then continued:

"Ensign Altair, as a journalist and writer you have shown yourself to be a keen observer and an engaging interviewer, able to draw people out and get them to talk to you. What we need from you is an appreciation of the cultural, social, and political characteristics of the various states in that region."

"Does this mean we are going undercover as secret agents?" Drew asked excitedly.

Lord Zaldor smiled indulgently at the boyish enthusiasm of the auburn-haired youth. Where men in their middle years saw peril, the young saw only adventure. Perhaps it was better that way.

"Yes and no. You will proceed openly and as yourselves without using secret identities or false papers. If anyone asks, yours is a purely commercial project, to extend the coverage of the travelers' maps published by Gemini Enterprises, the firm owned by Captains Jemsen and Karel. At worst, a government might ban you from its territory, but a Commonwealth letter of safe conduct should protect you from any unpleasant official action."

"You, Ensign Altar, will travel as the journalist you really are, ostensibly gathering material for descriptive articles for the Capital Intelligencer and for an eventual book. As for you, Finn Ragnarson, I am glad that you volunteered to serve with your friends. In fact, I rather hoped you would. Your job will be security and dealings with locals. As capable as the other three are in a fight, only you, with your size, strength, and weaponry, can dissuade potential troublemakers before they start in."

Finn nodded. It was just the role he had assigned himself from the beginning. Persons of ill intent might look on a trio of pretty boys as potential victims, a category to which no one would ever assign a brawny and well-armed Frost Giant like Finn Ragnarson. If his size and muscles didn't dissuade them, then maybe his twelve foot spear, broadsword, kukri, and war hammer would.

"Well, now we know why we were picked for this assignment." Jemsen observed to his brother and the others.

"After this meeting Captain Dentzer will show you what he has in the way of maps. First though let me lay out our grand strategy for the Far West, so you will know what the Commonwealth is working towards. Understand, what I am telling you is not for everyone's ears."

"The Commonwealth is playing a deep game here in the Far West, a double game really. The member states of the alliance called us in to be their protectors from military conquest, hoping that the power of the Commonwealth will either deter the Despotate from military adventures or beat their armies if it came to war. That would allow their elites to stay in power, protected not only from the Despotate and their own predatory neighbors but also from internal threats of insurrection and revolution by their mercenaries."

"Yet a guided political revolution is exactly what the Commonwealth wants. The Far West is long overdue for a political and social upheaval. As these states are now constituted, we would not allow them into the Commonwealth. As you know, the Despotate fosters revolution from below via bloody and destructive insurrections of peasants against landlords, the urban poor against the upper class, commoners against aristocrats, and merchants and burghers against the oligarchs. They say that they have to tear down the old social and political structure before building a new one in its place."

"Our mission here is to foster a revolution from above, much like what happened in the early days of our republic, when our nobles brought an end to class warfare by shrewdly emancipating their serfs. They also gave up more than half their arable lands to the tillers who worked them. The peasants became yeomen farmers."

"With the incentive of ownership they worked their lands more diligently than they had before. Many of the freed peasants did not care for the drudgery of farm life, and since they were no longer tied to the land, they flocked to the growing towns, selling or leasing their acres to their fellow yeoman. These larger farms fostered the development of commercial agriculture to supply the towns taking advantage of the new farm-to-market all-weather roads. The druids helped too by supplying us with new crops and improved plant varieties. Agricultural productivity soared.

"The former peasants found jobs in the towns in occupations more in keeping with their talents and interests. New businesses and industries developed. Monetary exchange replaced barter. The supply of precious metals for the coinage expanded as the dwarves dug new mines or opened new shafts in old ones, to supply government mints."

The nobles also surrendered their judicial powers to the state and its magistrates and judges. For its sacrifices, the aristocracy got social stability and an even larger fortunes than before. Without the threat of rebellion, the rich no longer had to maintain, at considerable expense, armed retainers to overawe their peasants. Also village and town councils took over the administration of public services lifting that burden and expense from the shoulders of the aristocracy."

"Our new style armies consistently defeated old-fashioned armies comprised of mercenary companies, bands of feudal retainers, and hordes of raw levies drawn from the peasantry and urban poor. Also a single professional army was a lot cheaper than the former welter of contending armies totaling many times the size of ours, and its job was made easier by having only a single set of external borders to defend."

"The creation of a professional Army backed by a well-trained militia freed the nobles from their obligation of military service. Their old ethic of romantic militarism fell by the wayside, increasingly seen as a relic of a bygone age."

Everyone thereby gained a stake in the Commonwealth. There were no real losers. The nobility got to pursue careers in other fields or to concentrate on improving the lands they retained and worked directly with paid labor. Most had financial assets which they invested in mines, manufactures and new businesses and industries or in real estate development in the burgeoning towns. That created jobs for artisans and business opportunities for burghers. Wealth grew as commerce, manufacturing, and technical innovation flourished."

"As the Commonwealth expanded, tax revenues rose but the level of taxation fell thanks to economies of scale. It helped that taxes were no longer wasted on the courts, palaces, hunting preserves, and other extravagances of the former monarchs. Their worst extravagance was the endless round of predatory wars to seize the lands and natural resources of their neighbors."

All that laid the foundation for the long term success of our Commonwealth. It is why our state is called a commonwealth instead of a republic, despite having a republican form of government."

"How can you make the elites in the Far West accept such changes here?" Jemsen asked.

"Make them see that change guided from above is better than losing power to a conquerer or facing a revolution from below." Zaldor answered. "We can cite the example of the Commonwealth itself. Their own maritime republics are already decent societies, when all is said and done, including the southernmost one, the Republic of Brax. You twins helped the druids stop a race war when the usually level-headed citizens of Brax allowed themselves to be stampeded into a pointless war with the Stone Mountain Dwarves."

Zaldor's explanation gave everyone a lot to think about and to talk about where they were sure no one would overhear them. As head of scouts and a master of field craft, Petr Kwill would have loved to join the expedition, but the recent retirement of his chief of scouts tied him to his post. His replacement was on the way but would be totally unfamiliar with the region and the men.

A couple of days later, Captain Kwill's new head of scouts did arrive. It was none other than Chief Borden. Jemsen and Karel had served under then Sergeant Borden and his boss Chief Wroclaw as scouts in the Army of the Plains, both fine men. Needless to say, the twins were delighted to encounter their old comrade in arms.

"It's going on two years since we saw you last Serg... er, Chief Borden." Jemsen said.

"That would have been when we passed through Dalnot, the headquarters of the Army of the Plains." Karel explained to the others. "How is Chief

Wroclaw anyway?"

"Still going strong. The man is indestructible, bless him. He always speaks fondly of you two. His best pair of recruits ever, he calls you."

"Still misspelling his own name, is he?" Karel asked with a mischievous twinkle in his eye.

At Finn's puzzled look Jemsen shook his head saying: "Don't ask!"

Karel persisted.

"Does he still lay that old story on his new recruits about how silk keeps arrow wounds from festering?"

"Of course. It's practically his trademark. You twins were only ones who ever caught him out when you asked whether the silk fabric of his trews actually saved the life of the man they pulled the arrow out of so cleanly. How ironic then that it was only months later that you proved him right when he drew that crossbow quarrel out of your rump nice and slick."

"Ouch! Don't remind me. I was lucky that crossbow quarrels are tipped with simple points rather than barbed and flattened arrowheads. Still, even if it was just a flesh wound, I couldn't sit a saddle comfortably for weeks and forget about trotting."

Karel's listeners clucked sympathetically as he continued:

"Whoever invented that gait anyway? Either the saddle slaps you in the ass all the time or you have to post up and down, which is a lot of work. Isn't the whole idea about riding that the horse does the work?"

"But Karel, the trot is the working gait for a horse. Horses can canter or gallop only for only a short time before they have to rest, whereas a horse can maintain a trot for hours. The trot is the gait by which horses travel any real distance."

"Then they should all learn the amble. Now there's a gait which is reasonably fast and easy on the rider, and the horse can keep it up for a very long time too." Karel countered.

"That is true, but few breeds of horses have that gait and very few of those which don't can be trained to it. Trust me. I am a horseman from way back."

"If you say so, Chief." Karel conceded.

"You might not know this," Chief Borden told the twins, "but we no longer use a fast wagon ride to catch the wind for our kites. These days we simply have a Fetcher lift the kite and rider high up into the sky to catch the stronger winds aloft. Much safer that way. The most dangerous part of scouting by box kite was always the bumpy takeoff when the winds at ground level were weak."

"So you have a Fetcher working with you now?" Drew inquired.

"We were the ones to try it out. It seems every field army is being assigned a team of magic wielders: a war wizard, a fetcher, and a firecaster. The first cadre of these teams is undergoing training in the capital. These teams will be organic to each field army, that is permanently assigned to it, rather than attached temporarily as war wizards traditionally have been. In time the teams could be increased to five members, with two fetchers and two firecasters. The Commonwealth is really serious about increasing the magical strength of its military, Navy as well as Army. The campaign against the centaurs showed how effective a fetcher and firecaster could be when working together."

Drew knew Borden was referring to his own and Artor's exploits but allowed himself only a modest clearing of the throat.

"Ahem!"

"There is no shortage of recruits." Borden added. "Human magic wielders are eager to sign up for long terms of enlistment in the regular Army or Navy in exchange for enhanced vitality. After all who wouldn't like to be young for five or six centuries with secure and well-compensated employment thrown in? The druids now do the transformation with teams comprised of two lady Healers and one Druid, instead of three druids as in the past. That triples the number of people they can enhance."

"Anyway I am glad I got this posting in the Far West. I've always had a hankering for new lands and new vistas."

"That's probably why you became an Army scout in the first place." Jemsen observed.

"Captain Kwill introduced me to the Army's cartographer, Captain Dentzer, a young elf who is just your type, being elf-friends and all. Maybe you boys should check him out."

"Alas, Ian Dentzer is already taken. His new boyfriend is none other than our auburn-haired comrade in arms here, Ensign Drew Altair."

"I know your name, young sir, from your exploits in the Second Centaur War and from your books and occasional articles reprinted in our local paper in Dalnot. You are a terrific writer, no doubt about it." Borden said to Drew.

"Thanks. I have plans for another volume on the wars against the eastern barbarians. The first covered the role of the Commonwealth, based on research in the archives in the capital plus interviews with prominent figures. For this second volume I hope to do research in the archives of the druids in the Great Southern Forest. The druids Dahlderon, Owain, and Meirionnydd were away on a mission of several years to the eastern continent. Now that they are back, I will ask them for access and also interview them."

"You too, Chief Borden since I did not get to interview you for my firstbook. Let's do it when we get back from our own mission. I'd like to hear what you have to say about the role of the twins in particular."

"Fine, sir. I'll give you the lowdown on these young whippersnappers, all right!" Chief Borden assured Drew.

That evening, the soldiers four and Captains Kwill and Dentzer shared a convivial meal of welcome for the new chief of scouts. Good food, good wine, good company. Who could ask for anything more?

Actually Ian and Drew did get a whole lot more afterwards and without asking, but that is another story.

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