Elf Boy's Friends - II
Back in Caerdydd the generals took Major Ter Horst's report on developments back in New Varangia.
"We turned the fort in Flensborg over to the Frost Giants. It will serve as the headquarters of both their Fyrd and the mounted constabulary which was stood up recently to patrol the roads. The Town Watches use small station houses in the districts."
"The militia of the Frost Giants is as well drilled as any in the Commonwealth proper. Through joint maneuvers, they have become familiar with our signals, battle drill, and tactical doctrine. Unlike our mixed forces, they are all heavy infantry armed with twelve foot spears and broad swords and they carry full body shields."
"Their only missile weapon is the sling. While our own slingers fling small lead bullets, the giants prefer large pebbles and now the flame globes we supply them with. And just recently they have added caltrops to protect their rear and flanks from cavalry attack. Each giant can sow the ground with a pair of the spikes and retrieve them with a cord when it is time to march on."
"Beyond military developments, in the last four years the Frost Giants have built new towns, farms, businesses, and industries, but that is only the beginning. Within twenty years they foresee a population of half a million of their own folk plus considerable immigration from other races. I've heard that the dwarves have petitioned for the right to settle the limestone caverns of the hilly regions whence the rivers flow. And a band of elves has its eye on a secluded vale. Its soil and situation makes it ideal for mulberry trees, whose leaves feed their silk worms."
"Excellent." Urqaart said. "As for yourself, don't think your work in New Varangia has gone unnoticed. You have earned a promotion and command of a newly formed regiment which will include your old battalion. How does that sound, Colonel Ter Horst?"
"Sounds good to me, sir. And now I'll finally get to see the Far West. I don't mind admitting that four years ago, after the Second Centaur War, I was disappointed at being left behind when the main body of the army rode west."
"Understandably, but keep in mind that in Flensborg you laid the foundation for our backup plan. If our efforts in the Far West fail and we have to pull our army back to our own borders, then New Varangia will become the breastwork of the Commonwealth's defenses."
"During the decades it would take for the Despotate to conquer the Far West we would build a line of fortresses along the escarpment manned by border troops. From the heights, they would keep watch on all approaches from the west. Once the watchers sounded the alarm, we could raise the Fyrd, the militia of the Frost Giants. All infantry yes, but it will have the support of their mounted constabulary, the Fyrd's human auxiliaries, as scouts. Also the Commonwealth will deploy a large field army comprised of both cavalry and infantry supported by our growing corps of magic wielders. I am confident we could defeat any attack."
"Could all these countries really fall to the Despotate."
"Yes. The Allied Army is the sword of the Alliance. We will fight the Despotate's armies as long as we can. We cannot and will not suppress rebellions and uprisings among the oppressed peoples of the Far West. If an internal revolution overthrows a member government of the alliance, we will have no choice but to abandon that state and pull back. Our campaign here might turn into a long fighting withdrawal lasting years or even decades."
"Unless the states of the Far West change root and branch. in time they would collapse one by one, undermined from within. Eventually all would fall save the maritime republics which are not vulnerable to revolutionary uprisings. Also their locations at the head of lobes of the Great Inland Freshwater Sea means we could protect them from military attack with our navy. We would then use their ports as naval bases and jumping off points for spoiling attacks up the great rivers or along the coast by amphibious forces, forcing the Despotate to fight on two fronts, while its army would be bogged down maintaining garrisons in their newly conquered lands."
"We would likely be able to hold on to Cyrmu too." Marshal Urqaart noted. "It accessible by river from both of the maritime republics, and its borders on two sides are impassable marshlands with only a few crossings via causeways or fords. Its social and political underpinnings are more modern and more solid than any other of the larger states. This was why we planted ourselves in Cymru in the first place."
Urqaart went on to explain:
"You must have noticed that we have not extended the highways across New Varangia into the Flatlands, only the line of heliograph stations. Most of our logistical support out here comes by sea and river. Only replacements and reinforcements take the direct route over the bad roads west from our own border."
"I understand, sir. That makes it hard to march on the Commonwealth from the west whereas we can easily reinforce and resupply our forces in New Varangia by good roads from the Commonwealth proper. And as the country of the Frost Giants develops we can draw supplies locally."
"Exactly. Our venture in the Far West was always a gamble whereas our conquest of the former land of the centaurs was sure to succeed once we got the Frost Giants interested in settling it as a second homeland. Frost Giants make bad enemies but very good friends. We can count on them to fight by our side."
"Let's hope it does not come to that." Zaldor said. "A political solution is much better than having a powerful hostile state permanently camped on our southwestern border."
The Army of the Far West occupied three cantonments situated within mutual supporting distance about two day's ride apart on major roads. About half the troops were stationed in Caerdydd in Cymru with the other half split equally between two towns just over the borders of two neighboring states. That gave the Commonwealth a presence in three contiguous states in the southern half of the Flatlands. All the states of the Alliance contributed to defraying the cost of the deployment save only the salaries of its soldiers which was covered by the Commonwealth's own exchequer.
The cantonments were more centers of military training than garrisons. The states of the Alliance rotated designated units to the three cantonments so that all soldiers in the Allied Army would be trained to the same standards and use the same signals and tactical dispositions. By treaty all these contingents were professional native military rather than mercenaries or militia levies.
The scouts were different. Under the command of Captain Kwill and Chief Borden, they were all permanent party and technically civilians hired on contract. About half had been recruited in the Flatlands and chosen for their familiarity with the geography of their native regions. They served as the eyes of the Allied Army and had taken an oath of allegiance to the Alliance as a whole.
After the latest round of maneuvers, the weary soldiers marched back to barracks in Caerdydd the scouts in the lead. Chief Boren commented to Kwill:
"From what I have seen in the short time I have been out here, these Westies aren't such bad soldiers."
"The ones we trained with have shaped up pretty good, that's true, but they are picked contingents. For the most part the armies of these states are mercenaries, augmented by peasant levies which are made up of ill-equipped, poorly trained, and undisciplined conscripts.
"The mercenaries do provide a degree of offensive striking power, but their primary motivators are money and self-preservation. Mercenary companies have been known to switch sides for higher pay in the petty wars that periodically broke out here in the Far West. Sometimes a company will withdraw entirely from battle to preserve its own existence rather than share the fate or at least the defeat of their employers. Mercenaries are unreliable that way."
"Then why do these states rely so heavily on mercenaries?"
"The loyalty of mercenaries to their paymasters might waver, but mercenaries are not locals and so have no loyalty to the populace. Ruling elites rely on mercenaries and men-at-arms on the landed estates to keep the lower orders in check, to put down uprisings of the downtrodden, and basically to keep the ruling elites in power. Mercenaries are basically a hired army of occupation."
"I sometimes wonder why the Commonwealth supports such oppressive regimes."
"That, Chief, is an issue well above our pay grades, but I like the way you think."
After a moment, he said:
"Change of subject. Now that you have had a chance to work with them, are our new men ready for training in kite flying? I only wish I could go aloft myself, but I am too heavy for the kites to lift."
"You have my sympathies for missing out on a great experience. I can tell you from my own flying days that it's a lot of fun once you get past your fear of heights. And flying will be easier now that we have a Fetcher to lift our box kites into the stronger winds at altitude. No more dangerous bouncing in a wagon behind a team of horses to catch the wind in a guide kite which lifts the main kite which lifts the flyer. That was the way I taught the twins Jemsen and Karel."
"Yes, you did say that you were old friends of theirs. So let me ask: How did they become elf-friends, dwarf-friends, and giant-friends all three? They must have put themselves at risk to save other people, and not just their fellow humans but those of all the races. To win such honors you would have to be adventurous, brave, and great fighters. "
"Right you are, sir. The twins are all those things and more besides. Jemsen and Karel are plucky, lucky, brave, smart, personable, inquisitive, and caring. I have never known finer young men."
"So what is the story behind their tattoos? They must have done something brave or reckless to win each one. And I gotta ask: if you first met them ten years ago, why do they still look like teenagers?"
"That is a long story, sir, several stories really, the telling of which would surely parch a man's throat..."
"Ha! I can take a hint. Now Chief it so happens we are only a short walk from a favorite watering hole of mine. The drinks are on me."
"Lead on, sir."
A short while later, affably quaffing mugs of the local brew accompanied by finger food, Kwill listened as Chief Borden related the Tale of the Twins, as he labelled it, explaining that this was far from the first time he had been called upon for the story of Jemsen and Karel.
"Now some folks have charged that over the years I have embellished the tale. Not true. Yes, I have improved the telling of it with better words and pacing. And I have honed the jokes, but everything I will tell you is the truth as far as I know it. Much is from personal observation, some I heard from the twins themselves or from their friends, and some is drawn from Ensign Altair's books and articles."
Captain Petr Kwill listened to Borden's tale of how, when they were only fifteen, the twins rescued a party of elves from slavers and became elf-friends. That was when they mostly gave up on clothing and went around like the elves themselves, skin clad.
"Even as scouts the twins often went around bare-ass naked though Chief Wroclaw and I did get them to wear riding silks while mounted or a camouflage cloak when scouting on foot."
Borden then related how the twins supported the Stone Mountain Dwarves in a war forced on the underground dwellers by the maritime republic of Brax and thereby became dwarf-friends. Also how they served as guides for the Long March of the Frost Giants, skin clad the whole time, and incidentally saved Finn Ragnarson, later famed as Young Finn for his heroism, from a slash bear. For those deeds the twins became the first humans in living memory to bear all three tattoos. Borden also explained how their good friend the elf-boy Dahlderon later used his druidic healing magic to enhance their vitality and keep them perpetually youthful, looking eighteen or nineteen for the next half a millennium.
Borden sat back and sighed saying "Two's my limit," waving away the serving maid and her pitcher, then adding:
"Understand, sir, I have left out a whole lot about their other adventures, such as their stand against the Black Riders of the Western Plains and their exploration and mapping of the Hot Lands, which was just one of the twins' adventures with their mentor the late Sir Balandur of Leinster, the martyred Dread Hand of the Commonwealth. Not to mention how Karel took that quarrel in his rump."
"Let's save all that for another time, Chief. You certainly tell their story well.
"I have had a lot of practice. Many is the evening I sat over a pint with my old boss Chief Wroclaw, much as we two are doing now, and reminisced about the twins. Those lads are easy to like."
"I saw that for myself. I found them intelligent and personable, and though I do not lean that way myself, I could see they are exemplars of youthful male pulchritude. And I am sure Ian Dentzer did too. If he hadn't been so smitten with Ensign Altair, he might have set his sights on the twins."
"You know Chief, all three have the same magical gift, that of Unerring Direction, but the twins have done much more with it than my friend Ian."
"Well they got started a lot sooner, didn't they? And Captain Dentzer's terrain visualization technique leverages the twins' contour lines. There are honors enough to go around."
"Thanks Chief. My guess is that Ian was inspired by how much the twins have done with a single magical gift."
"Only one gift Captain Kwill? I really have to disagree. The twins have many gifts, both magical and natural. Just as important, they are uncannily clever about exploiting or leveraging those gifts."
"Take their innate magical gift of unerring direction, which they exploited in the fields of archery, pathfinding, and cartography during their adventures as hunters, explorers, Army scouts, warriors, and cartographers. Next, their druid friend Dahlderon conferred their second magical gift, rebuilding their constitutions for longevity, perpetual youth, resistance to disease, heightened senses, and greater strength and speed. Even with double their old strength, there are many who are stronger but the twins leveraged that strength for speed, surprise, and for drawing bows with a heavier pull."
"You've listed a good half-dozen magical gifts there, Chief."
"I wouldn't disagree with your count, sir. Then there are the twins' natural gifts which include intelligence combined with an insatiable curiosity, beauty, and sex appeal. They make friends easily and show good judgment in whom they befriend."
"You got that right, Chief Borden. But you left out one gift they have in abundance: the gift of gab!"
"Only too true, sir," Borden said shaking his head ruefully. "Incessant chatterboxes the pair of them. I wouldn't be surprised if they talked in their sleep!"
"You mean you don't know?"
"Actually, I have never taken the twins to bed. Understand, I am basically a ladies man, but I have made an occasional exception for a pretty youth, as I would have in their case, lovely as they are, had they only been willing. Alas, the rule against fraternization meant I could not. More's the pity."
Borden continued. "It took me quite a while before I could tell one twin from the other. It didn't help that they were fond of the game that twins down the ages have indulged in of answering to each other's name. To them it is a harmless joke on the world."
"One time I chided them for it. In their defense Karel countered that they actually do help folks tell which twin was which by wearing sarongs of different colors.
"Jemsen always wears green and I wear blue." Karel said, but then he turned it into a joke, asking: "Or is it the other way around?"
That brought a smile to both of their faces.
"Yet you sir, seemed to know which was which almost from the start. How did you do it, if I may ask?"
"It's simple enough. I have a gift though it is an entirely natural one. You see, Chief, I have perfect pitch. I may not be able to tell the twins apart to look at, but as soon as one of them opens his mouth, I know him for sure."
"More power to you, sir."
"Funny you should put it that way. You see Chief, I also have a magical gift. I can throw a bolt of lightning to a considerable distance, farther than a bow shot actually. Now mine is not a particularly powerful manifestation of that rare gift. My bolts won't take down a shield wall or stop a cavalry charge, but I have found my gift useful enough in combat."
"Flinging lightning bolts kept me alive during our early campaign against the river pirates. As you can imagine a steel blade in an enemy's hand makes an ideal conductor for lightning. So even a modest bolt can numb the sword arm and the leg on that side too as the charge runs to ground. Or I it can knock an enemy senseless. Given a choice, I'd rather incapacitate and capture rather than kill, but sometimes, I had to stop the heart of my foe and even several at once. During the campaign along the rivers, I stuck my neck out too far and found myself surrounded. I dropped the closer
pirates then fought my way into the clear with my blades."
"As Captain Dentzer could tell you from our practice sessions, I am very good with sword and parrying knife. I usually fight left-handed, which flummoxes right-handers. If I go up against a lefty, I switch hands. I am ambidextrous."
"You don't say!"
"I have to admit to a certain degree of envy for the twins and Drew. With their vitality enhanced by the druids, they will stay young for centuries. Sure elves like my friend Ian and giants like Finn live that long as well, but they were born to it. We humans can count on only our proverbial five score and ten."
"I suppose I am feeling a little sorry for myself. I can throw lightning bolts, but my gift is not powerful enough to qualify me for that druidical upgrade. My gift is one of the rarest and of obvious use to the Army. If only I were stronger. "
"Maybe there is a chance, sir. Drew Altair wrote about a man he called the King of the Iron Roads. This Angus McFarden devised a training program to strengthen the magical gift of the fetchers who work for him. Maybe it could work with your gift too."
"It's worth a try." he added.
"It sure is. I will look into it when they get back."
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