Elf Boy's Friends - II

by George Gauthier

Chapter 22

The First Despot

After five days Colonel Ifans showed up at their rooms.

"I trust you have been enjoying yourselves these last few days."

"More than you know, sir." Drew assured him. "Personally I've been having a lot of fun with Dewi, the young gardener who works here. We enlisted him as our guide to show us the city. I can tell you that we liked what we saw."

"I was very much surprised by the total absence of propaganda, public meetings, and political agitation. I thought that sort of thing was second nature to you revolutionaries."

"It is second nature to us, but we have already won our revolution in these parts. We recognized that after so much upheaval, people just wanted peace and quiet and to be left alone to get on with their lives. Even I find continual political harangues tiresome. Changing gears was hard for many of us. Before we won, we defined ourselves by what we were against, afterwards

by what we were for. And not just talk about it. We were in charge now and had to deliver good governance."

"There is so much else to relate," Drew continued, "I hardly know where to begin."

"No need. I've read the reports from the men I had shadowing you so I know exactly where you went, what you saw, and to whom you talked."

"You had us followed?"

The Colonel nodded. "Everywhere you went. It was for your protection too, you understand."

"And none of us ever suspected." Drew grumbled.

"Actually I did suspect," Finn said. "It was the logical thing for him to do."

"Karel and I did more than suspect. We knew for sure. Your men are good, colonel, but no one can shadow my brother and me and remain unnoticed. We have the instincts and awareness of the hunters and army scouts we once were."

"Nobody ever tells me anything!" Drew complained, flashing a not wholly mock glare at Finn and the twins.

"It looks like the joke is on us, young Altair." the colonel conceded.

"Just tell me that Dewi wasn't one of your informants." Drew pleaded.

"Don't worry. Your friend Dewi is exactly what he seems to be: a fine lad, an honest hardworking assistant gardener though with a sideline as a rent boy. He is a loyal son of the revolution, but we did not ask him to spy on you. His liking for you, young Altair, is genuine."

"Thanks. You know he showed us around the city. From Dewi we learned what the revolution has meant to humble folks like him and are favorably inclined to what you are trying to accomplish."

"Which is why I will task the local revolutionary committee to look in on him from time to time and, if necessary, assist him in achieving his ambitions."

"Thank you."

"Drew speaks for all of us in this." Finn affirmed.

"Now, as you must realize, I am here to take you to your meeting with the First Despot. His name is Twm Glyn Dwr."

"Could you spell that sir?" Karel asked.

The colonel did so. For once Karel did not complain that the local spelling was not phonetic. He transcribed the pronunciation as Tom Glen Dower.

"You won't write anything down about the meeting until you are safely back in Caerdydd?" the colonel cautioned.

"Of course not."

"Since this is a formal meeting with the highest authority in the land you will want to look your best."

Finn nodded and they all put on their most formal garments. For Drew that meant one of his trademark white silk tunics, those he wore in his professional capacity as a journalist plus hobnailed sandals. Finn wore green silk trews and shirt and sandals. The twins contented themselves with sarongs, green for Jemsen and blue for Karel, but went barefoot.

Twm Glyn Dwr was a man of middle years soberly dressed with plain features and a touch of gray at the temples. Glyn Dwr thanked them for traveling to Junction to hear him out.

"Gentlemen, your reputations precede you. I haven't read your second book yet, young Altair, but your first was a real page-turner. The Long March of the Frost Giants and their two wars against the centaurs was an epic and you were its incisive chronicler. Yet you could also narrow your focus to portray individual figures who displayed extraordinary courage in episodes like the stand of Old Arn and Young Finn in the Breach. You yourself stood there with them, and the twins too. I admire courage, even in a foe, but I have called you here in the hope that we might become friends."

"I know that you four have the ear of Lord Zaldor and General Urqaart and through them the Council of the Commonwealth. And it is fortuitous, for our purpose, that you Finn Ragnarson are an experienced envoy. No disrespect to the rest of you, it is just that your strengths lie elsewhere."

"I have a proposal which I would like you to convey to them, a proposal that could prevent armed conflict and foster peaceful change in the region. Understand I am speaking not just for myself but with the backing of all nine despots."

"Make no mistake, radical change is coming. It must come, whether by war and revolution or by peaceful means with all the parties concerting their efforts toward mutually acceptable goals. What I am proposing is a tacit alliance between the Despotate and the Commonwealth to promote fundamental social and political change in the Allied States of the Alliance. With both of us exerting pressure we can drag the old regimes into the modern world."

"The ruling elites in the south know that the old ways cannot last very much longer. The Despotate destabilizes them by its very existence and the hope we give to the oppressed. From within we undermine the old regimes by subversion and political agitation. From without we threaten with our Army. That was how the five states that make up the Despotate were liberated one by one."

"But it was a long, bloody, and destructive process. And now they have called in the Commonwealth to save them, as they see it, but that won't work, not in the long run. The rot runs too deep. Their elites cannot fight us and their own people at the same time. Their military Alliance with the Commonwealth can only delay what must happen. But the last thing we want is decades of uprisings and warfare with all the death and destruction they bring."

Finn nodded thoughtfully and said:

"The Commonwealth shares much of your thinking about your ends but not your means. We want the needed political and social changes achieved through peaceful means. We would not support a violent takeover by the Despotate of all those lands. The Commonwealth simply will not tolerate the rise of a military peer on this continent. That is our chief strategic goal. We see reforms as the way to achieve that goal by preparing the Far West for eventual annexation to the Commonwealth."

"The Commonwealth is already using the threat of the Despotate to force the pace of reform. The allied army is not just a fighting force. It is a political influence as well. During their training in Caerdydd the personnel in an allied contingent learn the the Commonwealth's ways of doing things and absorb our ways of thinking on political and social issues as well. They learn that the purpose of the Army of the Commonwealth is to protect the people from external threats. It is not an instrument of oppression to keep an unworthy elite in power. Indeed our militia system with its millions of reservists makes that impossible for a professional army of only a few hundred thousand."

"The allied contingents bring all that home when that unit rotates back to its native land. In a sense, we and the Despotate already have a tacit alliance. What we are doing here today is acknowledging it, making it explicit. Consciously concerting our efforts will make it that much more effective."

"I am glad to hear you say that Finn. It gives me hope that this alliance will work."

Finn nodded then added:

"Naturally we will have to operate in secret with a secure line of communication."

"No problem. Our spy network reaches all the way to Caerdydd." Glyn Dwr assured him. "Colonel Ifans can put you in touch with our agents there."

"And here he told us he wasn't a spy."

Glyn Dwr shook his head:

"Ifans is not a spy. The colonel is in charge of counter-espionage. It is his job to check on things like nosy travelers from the Commonwealth."

"Ouch!"

Glyn Dwr and Ifans shared a predatory smile.

Soon though Glyn Dwr's mien darkened.

"Why the frown, sir?" Finn asked.

"The fundamental problem in the region has always been the low fertility of soils. Low productivity and low yields makes the competition for resources more intense. Our situation has class warfare built into it."

"You must ask the Commonwealth to enlist the druids in finding some solution to our problem, by drawing gold from the ground as they and earth wizards did during the rise of the Commonwealth or finding ways to improve agricultural productivity, perhaps with new plant varieties or new crops entirely."

Gly Dwr broke off and asked:

"Why are you twins shaking your heads?"

"You cannot eat gold or silver. Monetary wealth merely changes the ownership of resources, not increase them. A bonanza in precious metals would just raise prices generally but leave the real wealth of the region unchanged in any meaningful way."

"It is true that during its rise, the Commonwealth mined more gold. That was to allow people to replace barter with monetary exchange, to switch from subsistence agriculture to market farms. Great manufactories replaced cottage industry. Commerce in luxuries gave way to commerce in raw materials and manufactures. Innovations in the mechanical arts and new crops added to our wealth. It helped that soils in the Commonwealth were unusually fertile, producing plenty of food for the inhabitants of the

growing cities."

"None of that applies here. In short, forget gold as a solution to your problems."

"As for the fertility of your soils... "

Jemsen explained that while doing research for a biography of Balandur the twins had come upon a copy of a report by the druids, a report commissioned by the government of Cymru more than a century ago. Balandur had been their go-between, which was how a copy of the report wound up in the library of the Honorable Guild of Cartographers. (The twins were members.) The report was never made public. The results were so discouraging it was thought best to keep it secret.

Jemsen went on to explain that the druids had found a solution to the problem of low yields, but one that was totally impractical. The soils of the region were too sour [acidic]. The application of certain minerals [phosphates and lime] could sweeten sour soils and virtually triple yields. But huge quantities of minerals would be needed for a territory as vast as the Far West. There was simply no way to get these minerals from the mines to the farms. Which was ironic given the large deposits of those minerals in the dry northwest of the Despotate, which lay in the rain shadow of the Great Western Dividing Range.

"So there is no hope for us."

"Actually there is, now." Jemsen countered. "The druids were right back then but no longer. Technical progress has made it possible to transport huge loads great distances by land, in this case from the mines to distant river ports for eventual distribution by barge wherever needed."

"Technical progress?"

"Iron roads. Drew, you are our expert on the subject. Why don't you describe just what they are and how they work?"

"Gladly."

Drew had written about a colorful figure he had dubbed the King of the Iron Roads, a certain Angus McFarden from Grayling, a town at the head of navigation on the Long River.

McFarden had kicked off an industrial revolution by harnessing the magical resources of the Commonwealth to provide motive power on a scale beyond anything possible with draft animals. His iron roads also offered rewarding careers for those like Drew with a strong gift for Fetching.

McFadern's got his inspiration from the trackways miners had always built inside their tunnels to transport ore in single barrows or short trains running atop narrow gauge wooden rails which were in turn supported on timber ties spaced a foot or so apart.

McFarden scaled the system up. The barrows in the mines were only breast high and rolled on four small wheels. The bodies of McFarden's six-wheeled ore wagons were the height of a tall man and twice that in length. They ran on iron rails set a fathom apart and fixed to ties resting on a bed of gravel.

His iron road transported ore to barges on riverbanks miles away. The barges carried the ore to smelters also sited on waterways to facilitate barge transport of coal from mines as well as the use of copious quantities of water to cool the red hot metal.

The rights of way of these iron roads followed carefully surveyed routes to ensure gentle downslopes to the rivers and an easy climb of empty wagon-trains back to the mines. Pairs of Fetchers used their magical gift in tandem to propel the loads along the tracks with an assist from gravity going downhill.

The Fetchers pushed the heavy wagons along the rails almost always on a downslope. Getting the load moving was the hard part since they had to overcome its inertia. Once it started rolling, they had an easier task, merely countering rolling resistance from friction. The effort it took to return the empty wagons uphill to the mines was lessened by the track bed itself which conferred the mechanical advantage of an inclined plane.

A pair of Fetchers might move as much ore as a team of eight and not require prodigious amounts of fodder and grain or frequents changes to replace played out teams. And they left no mess. McFarden had devised training techniques to strengthen his prime movers, proving that a Fetcher's power level was not fixed but could be raised through mental exercises and visualization techniques.

"And you believe these iron roads would work here as well?" Glyn Dwr asked.

"No reason why they shouldn't. The obstacles are political and financial, not technical. It won't happen without a general peace in the region. No one is going to make massive long term investments in iron roads without peace. Companies set up to build or operate the iron roads could raise capital by sales of bonds or shares to local governments, your own commercial classes, and also the elites in the old regimes, which would give them a real stake in the new economy and a peaceful political settlement. The farmers and merchants would benefit too. Iron roads and a trade in fertilizing minerals is the key to universal prosperity."

"Everyone wins." Drew finished.

Glyn Dwr and Ifans were stunned by the enormity of the opportunity which Finn, the twins, and Drew had place in their hands.

"For the first time, I feel in my bones that progress is possible without violence and destruction. I thank all four of you from the bottom of my heart." the First Despot said fervently.

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