Elf Boy's Friends - III
Clear the Decks for Action
Dinners in the wardroom improved for a while with the fresh supplies they had taken on. The captain presided over the evening meal with all the officers and warrants at the table save those on duty above. He looked over to the young war wizard and said:
"Midshipman Lathrop mentioned that you were an eyewitness to the magical duel at the conclave of wizards. I read about it in articles by that young journalist Drew Altair, the one who has made such a name for himself."
"Yes, Drew interviewed Lord Dahlderon, my mentor Sir Willet Hanford, his aide Axel Wilde, the Healers, the representative of the Commonwealth and myself. Axel and I even helped him write his account. Axel transcribed the interviews flawlessly thanks to his gift of eidetic memory. We both read Drew's handwritten draft and suggested a few changes and additions, not as critics or editors but as witnesses to the events."
So you know young Altair."
"We are boyfriends. He shares rooms with me and Axel. We are a threesome, but we have an open arrangement." he added, clearly for the benefit of the young midshipman seated across the table from him.
"Well if we see action on this cruise, as I expect we shall, maybe you can ask your friend to write it up. It's about time the Navy got some good press."
"I'd be happy to. Of course he is busy writing another book just now. I don't even know what it is about. He won't tell anyone. He says its a secret and not just a military secret but a state secret. He says he needs to write everything down while it is still fresh in his mind then lock the draft away till it can be made public. That is what he said. I gather it has something to do with their mission to the Far West, his and the famous twins Jemsen and Karel. They went out there as proteges of Lord Zaldor and Marshall-General Urqaart."
"I should mention that our suite is just down the hall from our good friends the twins."
"You seem remarkably well-connected, Mister Liam. Oh, and thank you for transcribing today's infrasound dispatch about the sacking of the Ashokan Archipelago. You should know gentlemen that those peaceful islands were attacked by trolls, tens of thousands of them, not just a naval force but a folk migration. Where they came from is anyone's guess. Where they are headed is what we are supposed to find out."
"Sir, can our squadron really defeat such a large force?"
"No, Liam but we can shadow them, maybe delay them, and send word ahead to the Admiralty as to where to dispatch the fleet."
"What if they get past us, sir," Nathan asked, "and show up at the mouth of the Long River?"
"I only wish they would. Our forts at the mouth and our war wizards would make short work of them. Before they even got that far they would have to slip past our High Seas Fleet for they could never prevail in a confrontation with so powerful a naval force. And beyond the forts are the ships of our southern river flotilla whose vessels are highly maneuverable and exceedingly well-armed. The ships in the river flotillas don't have to carry supplies you see. Only fighters, weapons, and ammunition."
"No, the trolls are not going to run that triple gantlet and force a passage up the Long River. Not by a long shot."
"So why don't we just wait for them there, sir?" Liam asked.
"You are new to the Navy, so I will explain. First, about four hundred miles of the northern coast are within the boundaries of the Commonwealth. We cannot just let them scourge our shores. More important, we have treaty obligations to the other powers on the Great Inland Freshwater Sea."
"Don't they have navies too?"
"Yes, but with not terribly significant exceptions their navies are really coastal guards, deploying revenue cutters against smugglers and rescue ships and boats. Their warships will defend their littorals, but they do not have the striking power of a deep water navy like ours."
"That is by design. A couple of centuries ago, after we cleared the Great Inland Freshwater Sea of the corsair scourge, we determined never to let another naval challenger arise on its shores. Pirates these days are just crews who have mutinied, taken over their ships, and gone hunting. Back then the five predatory city states along the Corsair Coast had built their entire economies on piracy, slave raids, plunder, and extortion."
"The other coastal states paid protection money to the Corsair League for them not to molest their ships. Admittedly the corsairs did discourage predation by third parties, if only to protect their racket."
"That is why the other navies are so modest. The bargain we made was this: no naval buildup on their part in exchange for our pledge to protect them. Admittedly our policy is as much self-serving as it is altruistic. Nevertheless, we can fairly claim that the Commonwealth of the Long River is the benign hegemon of the continent of Valentia."
Their patrol took them south and west on the track of the raiders. A group of islets caught their attention. Could the raiders be using the Scilly Isles as a forward base to scout the approaches to the Commonwealth or nearby lands? Though virtually uninhabited, they were the southernmost extension of the territory claimed by the Commonwealth of the Long River.
The Petrel threaded its way through the channel between the outer islets to the lagoon at the center. Though wide enough for a fleet, its roadstead was empty. The captain decided to drop anchor and give his crew a day's rest. They had earned it.
Crawley waved Liam down from the crow's perch. The nude boy had spent little more than an hour on watch and wondered what was up. He nodded to Nathan who was standing by.
"Captain Dekker wants a party of two to scout the island on our starboard bow. You and Midshipman Lathrop are to check it out."
"Shall I call out the gig to take us ashore, Chief?" Nathan asked.
"No need for that, you can just swim to shore. Take your time and do a thorough job. We won't expect you back for three or four hours."
The two youngsters looked at each other puzzled.
"Get on with it, the both of you. And Mister Lathrop, you can just leave your things on deck till you get back."
"Your uniform, boy, and your weapons. Since you are swimming ashore, you will have to strip first. Well?"
The kids finally got the message. Their mission was really liberty or shore leave, a chance for an extended assignation under the open sky, but with no one else around. Nathan shed his clothes, a goofy grin on his face.
"Thank you Mister Crawley and please thank the captain for both of us, Liam said.
"For what?" Crawley asked. "For giving you another job of work that happens to take you ashore? Be off with you now, the both of you."
The happy youngsters plunged from the rail into the azure waters of the lagoon. The water felt wonderful. Warm and clean it touched their bodies everywhere at once like a lover with a hundred hands. Strong strokes took them to the strand where they splashed ashore, Nathan in the lead. With a wave to the quarterdeck, the duo set off together on their "mission" but careful not to actually hold hands till they were out of sight.
"It's a fine thing you are doing Captain." Crawley remarked.
"I am sure I don't know what you are talking about, Chief." the captain gave back blandly.
"If you say so sir." Crawley replied. the sailing master knew that appearances must be preserved. The captain could hardly admit to acting as matchmaker for two of his officers much less for arranging a tryst.
"Isn't this just wonderful, Nathan, just the two of us with no one else about? Let's stretch our legs and explore the island a bit."
"Fine by me. Though this is the first time I've gone on a scouting mission stark naked and unarmed to boot."
"Not to worry Nathan. Remember, you are in the company of, ahem, a powerful war wizard, virtually a living weapon. I'll bring you back alive all right."
"Admittedly I haven't come fully into my powers. That won't happen for as much as five years. And I need much practice to perfect the skills my mentor taught me. That is why I cannot Levitate for a quick look around. You need Fetching to be as much second nature to you as walking before you try to Lift yourself into the sky."
"Once you do, you can invoke other powers at the same time like Concealment or a Missile Shield. Either you see when you cannot be seen, or you laugh as you send arrows right back at the archers who loosed them at you. Now that is when you have really come into your own as a war wizard."
"I always thought you Fetchers could not Lift yourselves up at all."
"We can't, but we can Lift the sandals we are standing in. My friend Drew discovered that trick last year."
"Your friend Drew, you mean one of the fellows I should be jealous of."
But Nathan said it with a smile.
After a walk of quarter hour or so they found a grassy spot to lie down in and disport themselves. It was great fun making love out in the open instead of in a cramped and stuffy cabin. And they could be as loud as they wanted to be. The lovers engaged in some of their wildest most energetic and acrobatic lovemaking ever, leaving them sweaty, tired, and satiated.
"Now that was fun. Let's rest a bit before we push on. We have to be able to say that we did patrol all the way to the other side of the island."
"Fine by me, Nathan. We'll do this again on the way back."
They had not gone far from their trysting spot when they came upon a cluster of huckleberry bushes. Were they lucky or what! The boys started picking and eating the sweet berries, greedily stuffing them into their mouths till the juice ran down their chins.
Once their first appetite was satisfied they made a game of chucking berries at each other. At one point Nathan launched a handful at Liam's face but they did not fly true swerving suddenly to one side.
"Hey, no powers!" Nathan complained. Liam just laughed it off till Nathan snapped one of his sparks at him and hit his hand.
"Hey! That smarts."
"Let that be a lesson to you. As you can see, I have magical defenses of my own."
"You know, it's too bad we don't have a basket to carry a mess of berries back with us for the men."
"No problem Liam. We'll just tell Cookie. He won't have any trouble finding volunteers to come back here with baskets to pick enough berries for the whole crew."
Just then the bushes parted as five trolls pushed their way into the clearing. They were lightly armed with only long knives as this was just a foraging trip, not a patrol. Still their numbers, weapons, and powerful bodies made them dangerous, especially to two unarmed and nude human youths.
Trolls were not particularly tall, generally standing about six feet, but they were heavy boned and hugely muscled, weighing three hundred pounds or more. They were wide and squat like dwarves only two feet taller. In a sense trolls were to Frost Giants as dwarves were to humans, except they were ugly whereas the dwarves were merely homely. The bodies of trolls were hairy, and their faces had beast-like muzzles, their jaws armed with two pairs of tusks, upper and lower. When grappling with a foe in close combat, they tried to rip out his throat.
The youths could not understand the words the trolls exchanged in their guttural tongue, but they had no trouble understanding their intent. One troll grabbed himself down there and thrust his hips at them lewdly. Another drew a finger across his throat. Clearly what they had in mind for the young humans was first rape then murder.
Seizing the initiative, Liam Fetched one of their long knives right out of its scabbard and into Nathan's hand. He gestured at the troll he had disarmed and yanked the eyes out of his head.
Meanwhile Nathan had engaged a second troll. Ducking a powerful swing, he rolled to one side then popped back to his feet snapping an electrum spark at the troll's face. Startled, the troll did not react in time as Nathan lunged with the borrowed blade and slid it between his ribs.
Two down, three to go.
Nathan snatched up the downed troll's knife with his left hand and faced his next foe. This troll tried an overhand cut which Nathan deflected with crossed blades and a deft half-turn, using the momentum of the troll's swing against him. That let Nathan hold the block ever so briefly with the blade in his left long enough he drove the one in his right hand into the the troll's neck. The edge of the blade severed the jugular arteries, and the troll fell where he stood.
When Nathan turned back to the fight, he saw it was all over.
Liam had upended the last pair of trolls two at a time and smashed their heads on a rock. That left a mess with brains and bone chips and blood splashed everywhere especially after Liam cut the throat of the troll he had blinded.
"You got three to my two, Liam, so you are one up on me."
"Still you did pretty good there, Sparky."
"Yep. Sparky. That's my pet name for you from now on. Not in front of the crew, of course, which would be prejudicial to good order and discipline."
Leaving the bodies, the youths followed the track of the trolls to the other side of the island. Liam hid them from view with Concealment as they worked their way close and observed the enemy encampment. Eight long ships were drawn up on the beach. It seems the commander of the enemy squadron was giving his men a chance to rest much like Captain Dekker had or maybe they were waiting for reinforcements.
After noting important details of their numbers, arms, and ships, the two fled back the way they came, careful not to give themselves away to other foraging parties, if any were about. They made it back to the beach shouting a warning to the men who were relaxing on the sands. The boys plunged into the water, swam back to the Petrel, and swarmed up a rope to the quarterdeck to make their report.
"Trolls, Captain. Hundreds of trolls!" Liam said in an excited voice, still breathing hard from his run.
"Catch your breath and calm down Mister Liam. Trolls you said?"
"Yes sir, in a camp on the other side of the island. We ran into a small party of five. Nathan stabbed two of them himself even though they each were nearly three times his mass. Cut them down with their own blades."
"I don't have Nathan's finesse with a blade," Liam admitted, "so I took out the other three with my powers. It was a foraging party so they won't be missed for a while yet."
Dekker turned to Nathan who drew himself to attention even though he was stark naked and made his report in the best Naval Academy style.
"Yes sir. It's trolls all right, a whole squadron of them, eight longships maybe eighty men to a ship. The vessels are open decked and clinker-built, a hundred feet in length but no more than twelve in the beam, with a shallow draft. They are propelled by both oars and a single square sail and have a steering oar to starboard."
"The trolls wear steel helmets and cuirasses [breastplate and backplate fastened together at the shoulder] and are armed with axes, long knives, bows, and round wooden shields. I didn't see any ship to ship armaments."
"A solid professional report. Excellent work, Ensign Lathrop."
Turning to his executive officer he ordered.
"Sound recall and general quarters and clear the decks for action."
The executive officer Lieutenant Dahlgren repeated the orders in a shout. The crew scurried to obey in what looked like chaos but was actually a well-rehearsed naval ballet. The longboat and gig were lowered over the side to float free till they could be recovered after the battle. Sailors brought up fire globes and slings and bow and arrows from stores. Buckets of sand were set out ready to use against fires. Weapons and bucklers were passed out to everyone, even Cookie. The Navy preferred the cutlass to the Army's cavalry saber though both weapons were about the same length and had slightly curved blades.
The sailors also readied their two crew served weapons. Four man teams set up ballistas on the fore deck (the roof of the forecastle) and on the quarterdeck (the roof of the cabins at the rear) behind the wheel. Giant crossbows powered by torsion, ballistas fired six-foot arrows made from ash wood with iron tips. Ballistas shot along a flat trajectory and were noted for their accuracy. Typical targets were men at the wheel and officers.
In less time than he would have believed even though he had watched rehearsals before, Liam saw that the ship was ready for battle. All men were at their battle stations, the anchor had been drawn up and lashed in place. Two men stood at the wheel in case one got killed or wounded during the fight.
As the ship nosed out of its anchorage trying for sea room Liam pointed to a jumble of small boulders at the foot of a cliff.
"Sir, I'd like to bring half a dozen of those aboard to use against their longships. Dropped from a hundred feet, they would plunge right through their hulls, opening them fatally to the sea."
"Make it so, Mister Liam."
Liam piled the small boulders, really only rocks no more than two feet across in a spot out of the way but to which he had a clear line of sight.
Meanwhile, one of the hands brought Liam and Nathan their clothes.
"You are out of uniform, gentlemen," the captain said. "Remedy that, if you will."
"Aye, aye sir," they answered, impressed by their captain's sangfroid.
"Er, Sir, did I hear you address me as 'Ensign'?"
"You did, Ensign Lathrop. It is within my authority to advance your promotion for meritorious service. I will enter it in the log shortly to make it official."
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