Elf Boy's Friends - III
The cute copper-topped youngster looked up from his desk at the Institute for Wizardry as his roommate and lover Drew Altair walked in and greeted him with a wave.
Drew was an impossibly cute twink with spiky auburn hair and narrow sideburns reaching below the ear lobe plus straight eyebrows with almost no curve to them. They framed a fine-boned face with a high forehead, chiseled jawline, and a perky nose turned up just a bit at the end. Drew was slight in build, standing only five foot zero and weighing but a hundred pounds, yet his tiny frame was easily twice as strong as it looked, enhanced by the same druidical healing magic that had lengthened his life and youth.
His lover Axel Wilde, still, only eighteen was nearly as short and fair of skin, with hair the color of copper. Axel was extremely boyish looking, his cute face dominated by large green eyes over heart-melting dimples.
"Congratulations again Drew on your third Writers' Prize."
Drew was still aglow from the awards dinner held the evening before.
"Thanks Axel, though my book about the troll war left the story hanging. This war is far from over. The creatures are still on the attack, scourging the coasts of the the Great Inland Freshwater Sea and the lands lying up the rivers flowing into it."
"With their shallow draft longships they can row up small tributaries, arriving before the news of their depredations downstream. Their mobility is their chief advantage even more than their physical prowess compared to humans."
Trolls were not particularly tall, generally standing about six feet, but they were heavy boned and hugely muscled, weighing three hundred pounds or so. They were wide and squat like dwarves only two feet taller. In a sense trolls were to Frost Giants what dwarves were to humans, except they were hideous whereas the dwarves were merely homely. The bodies of trolls were hairy, and their faces were misshapen featuring beast-like muzzles with jaws armed with two pairs of tusks. When grappling with a foe in close combat, they could rip out his throat.
"And we still don't know where they come from. Somewhere in the southern ocean is what the Admiralty thinks." Drew added.
"What lands lie out there anyway? I thought it was all endless swells on a boundless ocean all the way to the south pole."
"Who really knows? So much of Haven is unexplored, especially in the higher latitudes in both hemispheres. The ships that ply the outer oceans engage in coastwise commerce or across the narrow seas to the other two continents which straddle the equator. There is no reason for them to sail off toward who knows where. The coastal states have never seen fit to outfit expeditions to explore those regions. And it is not the job for the Commonwealth anyway to find out. Situated as we are in the heart of the continent, ours is not a salt water navy. The job of the Navy is the security of navigation and of the states on the coasts of the the Great Inland Freshwater Sea."
"Anyway let's ask our resident naval expert. What do you think Liam?"
Their fellow roommate and lover Liam served as a war wizard in the Navy with the rank of Warrant Officer and had fought the trolls at sea near the Scilly Isles and on land at the battle of Flensborg.
A well-set up lad with a fine healthy body, Liam was just under medium height and on the slender side but with a strong upper storey. He had wide shoulders and muscled arms from his former job as a teamster. Liam was blessed with good looks too, a real raven-haired beauty though you would have to describe him as pretty rather than handsome. His fine-boned features were accented by a light sprinkling of freckles. He had the mismatched eyes of a war wizard; his left eye was blue and the right brown. Thanks to his wizard's eyes, his sight was keener than normal and he could see in the dark or rather very dim light like a cat.
"From the southern coast of the continent come tales told in dockside taverns of a vast archipelago lying far out to sea in temperate latitudes. Sailors tell of a dark land of cruelty and endless conflict."
"That sounds like trolls all right." Axel commented. "Where did you get that from, Liam?"
"From Nathan's last letter. He has been Mentioned in Dispatches for his role in destroying another enemy flotilla at the Scilly Isles. The Admiralty is transforming the roadstead there into a forward base of operations for patrols in that sector of the the Great Inland Freshwater Sea. They also rescued a plucky young castaway whom the trolls never suspected was living on one of the islands."
"As you know, Nathan resumed his old posting on the Petrel, now under the command of Captain-Lieutenant Dahlgren. Commodore Dekker wanted Nathan to have room to grow, so he did not take him to the flagship when Dekker took over Commodore Van Zant's squadron. He brought over only his cabin boy.
"Even Dekker's old sailing master Warrant Officer Crawley stayed with the Petrel since as commodore of a squadron, Dekker would have to leave it to his flag-captain to sail and fight his own flagship while he commanded the squadron as a whole."
"Ah yes, Crawley.the Master of Magnetism," Drew recalled. "as I dubbed him in my book, a neat turn of phrase, if I say so myself."
During the first battle against the trolls, Sailing Master Crawley had invoked his magical gift and ripped the nails out of two of the enemy's longships sending them and their crews to the bottom.
"Commodore, or should I say Admiral Van Zant, was right on with his prediction that, once the Admiralty promoted him, he would never get another chance to lead a landing party the way he did so valiantly at Flensborg. He is pulling duty ashore these days, sailing a desk at the Bureau of Ships."
"Not merely any desk; he is chief of the bureau, which is a plum job in the Navy. The Navy likes to put a fighting admiral in charge of shipbuilding, one backed up by a professional naval architect as his deputy."
"That's right. You have been cultivating the man, haven't you Drew?" Axel asked.
"Of course. Van Zant is quite a character. Thoroughly competent, he is an interesting conversationalist and can draw on a seemingly endless collection of war stories and tall tales. And as a reporter for the Capital Intelligencer it is my job to develop contacts and sources in the Navy as good as those I already have in the Army. There's you, Nathan, Van Zant, Dekker, and some of the officers in the main body of the High Seas Fleet."
"Anyway, you must have noticed that he bears more than a passing physical resemblance to a troll, standing about six feet and weighing two hundred fifty pounds — all of it bone and muscle. No wonder he swings a mean cutlass, as he likes to say."
"He is a lot nicer looking, though. No muzzle or fangs."
"You mean tusks. Trolls have tusks not fangs. Fangs are front teeth like canines. Tusks are back teeth which protrude from a closed mouth. Now while I wouldn't call the admiral handsome, he has a strong face, one that inspires confidence. His men call him 'The Mean Cutlass' which is meant both ironically and as a compliment to his prowess with the cutlass. As the man showed during the battle of Flensborg, he does swing a mean cutlass."
"It's a naval tradition for the men to bestow a nickname on their commanders, who in turn must pretend they are unaware of the moniker conferred on them. Van Zant told me that back in the day, when he was just starting out, two unpopular senior officers were called Old Fussbudget and Old Pomp and Circumstance."
"Exactly" Drew affirmed.
"So when are you going to sea again, Liam?" Axel asked anxiously.
"I hope that quaver in your voice is because you will miss me and not from any concern about my closeness with Nathan. It is not true that a sailor has a lover in every port. I am a whole lot more selective than that. I prize quality over quantity. And that is definitely you, Axel Wilde: quality."
The copper-headed lad smiled, clearly relieved by this assurance. Liam went on to say.
"In fact I can count my lovers on the fingers of one hand, unlike some persons I could name who would run out of fingers and toes long before the ticked them all off."
"Hey!" Drew exclaimed. "I may be a social butterfly, but I do know the difference between recreational sex and love. Setting aside my casual romantic conquests, which I admit are many, I can tick off my real lovers on just a few more fingers than you Liam."
He went on to reassure the young wizard's aide.
"Don't worry Axel. You not only saw Liam before Nathan did, you live with him and share his bed and he yours. Don't begrudge Nathan the time he spends with Liam on the Petrel. You would expect them to have bonded from physical attraction, friendship, isolation aboard a ship at sea, and shared dangers. Anyway, as the resident expert in these matters I can tell you that love does not diminish just because it is shared with another."
"Anyway hasn't Liam encouraged you to widen your own circle of acquaintance. After all, the way the two of us are always sticking our necks out, we might someday get them chopped off, leaving you with no one."
"Perish the thought, but I take your point. And possessiveness is just not healthy psychologically. Maybe I will set my cap for another fellow. Thanks Drew for putting things in perspective."
"Anyway as for me going back to sea," Liam continued," the Admiralty is reserving me for special duty rather than sending me on ordinary patrols. Especially since we don't have that many war wizards in the Navy these days, not with three of them on loan to smaller navies."
"Yes, I remember now. As Chief of the Bureau of Ships, Admiral Van Zant bought the trio of nearly finished hulls used at Flensborg to block the river, repaired and fitted them out with ballistas and catapults for flame globes, and donated them to three of the small navies on the the Great Inland Freshwater Sea. With one of our war wizards aboard plus their own naval infantry, they make powerful naval combatants, certainly better than revenue cutters and rescue boats, which was all those navies had before."
"The donated ships have become the nuclei of small squadrons of warships. Van Zant had the longships captured from the trolls at Flensborg rigged with fore and aft sails. The improved rigging make them better sailors on open water, while their shallow draft lets their crews row them up rivers and tributaries in pursuit of troll raiders. Weather wizards and fetchers and firecasters have been recruited to provide magical firepower once our war wizards returned home."
"So why has Sir Willet asked us all to meet with him today and why has he invited the noted industrialist Angus McFarden as well?"
Liam and Drew looked interrogatively at Axel.
"Hey, just because I am Sir Willet's aide doesn't mean he tells me everything."
Which was true as far as it went, but in fact Sir Willet had told his aide what was up but had asked Axel to keep it to himself.
Just then Sir Willet entered his office. With him was the industrialist Angus McFarden, the one-man industrial revolution whom Drew had dubbed King of the Iron Roads.
McFarden had got things rolling, so to speak, in Grayling a city at the head of navigation on the Long River. He had scaled up the trains of barrows running on wooden rails in the iron mines to six-wheeled ore wagons which were the height of a man and twice as long. These wagons ran on iron rails a fathom wide fixed to ties resting on a bed of gravel.
His iron roads moved iron ore and coal the ten or twenty miles from the mines to loading docks on rivers and canals where the cargo was dropped onto barges. The roundabout rights of way followed the contours of the land to ensure gentle slopes and an easy climb of the empty trains of wagons back to the mines.
Pairs of Fetcher propelled the wagons with an assist from gravity going downhill. The Fetchers did not have to lift the heavy loads, merely use their gift to overcome inertia to get the wagons moving and to counter rolling resistance and friction. Going uphill they were working against gravity, but the track bed itself conferred the mechanical advantage of an inclined plane.
The iron roads carried heavier loads faster and cheaper than animals ever could. Two fetchers could move four times as much freight as the twenty mule teams they replaced. And they ate a whole loss less too. A team of twenty mules consumed hundred of pounds of oats and even larger quantities of fodder every month. And you had to pay teamsters and grooms and veterinarians and all the rest. And fetchers didn't leave a smelly mess behind as draft animals did.
McFarden had been knighted for fostering an whole new industry which drastically lowered the cost of moving heavy freight on land. He had recently been named by a major business association as its entrepreneur of the decade.
McFarden's latest project was a streetcar system for the cities of the Commonwealth starting with the capital itself. The flat terrain of the alluvial plain was ideal for the purpose. A single Fetcher propelled a car down tracks laid flush to the paving stones. The street cars traveled at about twice walking speed and stopped at marked locations every three blocks. Riders either chucked two coppers into the fare box or flashed a monthly ticket.
The streetcars were popular: fast, convenient, quiet, inexpensive, and safe. They had an unblemished safety record — no collisions with pedestrians or vehicles in the first four months. Running into a pedestrian or vehicle was almost impossible with an operator who could simply Lift anyone or anything on the tracks to safety. There had been just a couple accidents when wagons or horses had collided with a halted streetcar.
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