Elf Boy's Friends - III
"So why has the Chief Hand Baron Jarmond invited us all in to this meeting?" Drew Altair asked his huge lover Finn Ragnarson one morning as he stretched in bed.
"Why ask me, Drew? You really think the brass tells me anything? Even after two years of training and independent assignments, I am still just a journeyman Hand of the Commonwealth."
Rolling to the other side of their bed and poking his other lover Axel Wilde, Drew asked:
"Axel, surely Sir Willet has confided in you."
"Sorry fellas, but anything my boss tells me in confidence has to stay that way. Anyway we will all find out in just a few hours. Let's wash up, put on our uniforms and go down to breakfast."
"Right now?" Drew asked. "Can't we fool around a little first? Finn's prodigious morning wood is inspirational."
Just then Finn's stomach grumbled. The ever pragmatic Frost Giant shook his head and announced. "Too bad I can satisfy only one appetite at a time. Since I have to choose, this time I'll pick my stomach. I am starving."
"Does Finn ever stop eating, Drew?" Axel asked rhetorically and not for the first time. Their Frost Giant lover had a well-deserved reputation as a trencherman
"About as often as the twins stop talking." the diminutive red-head replied.
The participants met in a conference room just down the corridor from the chamber where the ruling council met in plenary session. Baron Jarmond, Chief of the Dread Hands of the Commonwealth introduced them to stranger dressed in flowing robes and a headdress which left only his face and hands visible. By his features he looked to be a man of middle years with a not inconsiderable admixture of elven blood.
"Tahsildar Mewalal, let me introduce our conferees. First in precedence is the druid Lord Dahlderon, obviously of elven heritage. Next is the war wizard Sir Willet Hanford and his aide Axel Wilde. The Frost Giant is Finn Ragnarson, reportedly an avatar of Thor, the Thunder God of the Norse. That little red-head on the right is the journalist Drew Altair who holds a reserve commission with the rank of ensign in the army of the the Commonwealth of the Long River. And finally, the two blond youths are Sirs Jemsen and Karel Holders of the Military Cross for Valor and famous for being the only humans alive honored as Elf-Friends, Dwarf-Friends, and Giant-Friends. They are also the deadliest archers on the planet."
"Gentlemen you are no doubt wondering why I asked you here today. The reason stands before you, an envoy who has brought us vital intelligence about the trolls. He has already met with the Ruling Council and revealed much that will help us fight this war. We now know where the trolls come from, what they want, and why they seem so intent on occupying New Varangia and the uninhabited area to the south all the way to the Barren Coast, which are called the Barren Lands though we really know nothing about them."
"Our visitor is Islon Mewalal, the Tahsildar of Nancowry which is one of the islands in the Southern Ocean. He is still learning our language so at this meeting he will communicate with us via Mind Speech, which is one of his magical gifts."
<I should explain that Nancowry is a large island in the little known archipelago lying in the south temperate zone far beyond the normal oceanic shipping routes which skirt the shores of your continent of Valentia. My title of Tahsildar is roughly equivalent to that of a regional governor, though Nancowry is now lost. I and all my people have had to abandon our homeland thanks to relentless attacks by the trolls.>
<For millennia humans and elves shared the archipelago with the race you call trolls. We settled in the east and they in the west. For a long while we had little contact. Eventually our frontiers of settlement met somewhere in the middle. At first the races accepted that initial division of the archipelago. There was plenty of room to expand on the many vacant islands bypassed during the initial wave of expansion to the frontiers.>
<The trolls were never good neighbors. They traded with us only grudgingly and never thought to learn our language. Very few of us ever learned theirs. Instead we relied on those like myself gifted with Mind Speech for communication. Still we mostly left each other along; hostilities were rare and on a very small scale.
Then some three centuries ago an intolerant proselytizing religion arose among the trolls, the main tenet of which is an implacable hostility to magic of any kind. Trolls have no magic of their own and had always been envious of ours. The new religion preached that only the gods should have such powers. Their aversion to magic cut off all communication with them. Mind Speech was considered a mental invasion.>
<The trolls universally consider it their sacred duty to destroy all who use magic, not only those individuals with actual gifts but the entire races from which magic users spring: humans, elves, Frost Giants, and dwarves. They have little use for other non-magical races like orcs but don't go out of their way to attack them.>
"Sounds like both the trolls and their gods are simply jealous of magic among mortals. That is a hell of a reason to destroy so many lives and throw away so many of their own in perpetual warfare."
<Trolls dedicate their lives to the worship and the service of their gods. Nothing else really matters.>
"Nonsense! Life is what matters, not gods who are probably just personifications of natural forces. Anyway why would the gods value the worship of mere mortals? Are their deities really that vainglorious and self-centered that they demand constant praise and sycophancy? And what, other than their supposed existence, makes them worthy of worship?" Jensen asked shaking his head.
<Such considerations are why we ourselves have largely abandoned our own historic gods. They haven't helped us much as far as anyone can see. So what good are they?>
"Where have your people fled to?" Drew asked.
"To the eastern continent of Karelia which is out of the path of the trolls' advance. Now that they control the entire archipelago they are looking for new worlds to conquer."
"So why is the advance of the trolls directed at Valentia?" Drew persisted.
<That is a very good question, young man. It is a matter of geography. The archipelago is a collection of islands joined by shallow connecting seas. Your Great Inland Freshwater Sea is the inverse or mirror image of that geography, a collection of coastal states, islands, and peninsulas scattered across a third of a continent on the various shores, lobes and embayments of a gigantic lake. They feel at home there, much more than they would along the forbidding coastlands on the tempestuous outer ocean.>
<The trolls hold a couple of coastal enclaves on the ocean, having easily repulsed the efforts of the small coastal states to throw them back. They also control corridors leading inland which provide them access to the interior via rivers and easy portages across low watersheds. Their longships have a very shallow draft. In one spot they actually dug a canal to connect a stream flowing toward the ocean to a tributary of a river flowing into the Great Inland Freshwater Sea.>
<The attraction of New Varangia is that it is still a largely empty land, mostly virgin land never put to the plow, and isolated from the main centers of power in the middle of the continent: the Commonwealth of the Long River and the Flatlands to the West. That is where they want to forge a new center of power by bringing in soldiers and settlers from the archipelago.>
"They had better look elsewhere!" Finn declared. "New Varangia belongs to us Frost Giants and the other races we have invited to settle among us: humans, elves, and dwarves. The troll invasion nearly two years ago has only inspired a greater commitment from us giants to migrate to and hold onto our second homeland. Our population is now seventy-five thousand and likely to reach one-hundred thousand within two years. In less than twenty years we will have half a million giants in New Varangia. No power on Haven will take it from us then. We giants are many, we are strong, we have magic, and we have allies."
"As we proved at Flensborg, New Varangia does not stand alone. It is part of the Commonwealth with everything that implies." Jarmond noted.
"So how did the trolls defeat your people in the archipelago when you had magic and they did not?" Dahl asked the visitor.
<Magic does not win wars by itself. That takes numbers, weapons, military prowess, and political organization. Sadly we humans and elves never go our act together. From lack of unity our various states fell one by one till even a confederation of the rest was not enough to stop the trolls.>
"I can understand that easily enough," Sir Willet said. "We war wizards always say that our magic is a force multiplier for the military not a war winner by itself."
"In that connection I should tell you that the Commonwealth has been building up its magical defenses against the threat of the eastern barbarians. We persuaded the druids to use their newly developed healing magic to extend the lives of our war wizards who were mostly of human stock with short lifespans typically described as five score and ten. It will take several centuries, but in time that should quadruple our cohort of war wizards."
"Then the longevity program was expanded to include those with a single strong magical gift like Fetching and Firecasting. Drew was one of the first chosen. In recent combat against the trolls the Navy proved the value of long range infrasound communications by weather wizards. They and fetchers and those with control over magnetism or fire were being actively recruited for service on the Navy's warships."
<Your magical resources far exceed those we could muster. And you have a huge population too. We were far fewer in number, partly because we did not reproduce fast enough. You see among us a same gendered sexual orientation is very common whereas it is quite rare among trolls. Put simply, they made more babies who grew up to be soldiers.>
"Then your folk would find our ways congenial, for we are much the same in that respect" Baron Jarmond observed.
<So I have learned, and I can see it at first hand around this conference table,> he said nodding toward Finn, Drew, and Axel and the twins too.
"Are we that obvious?" Axel asked.
Mewalal smiled. <The cues are subtle but unmistakeable, and I can pick up something of your feelings via our mind link. You are a threesome and the twins a couple.>
"Actually there is a fourth, Sir Willet's protege Liam, a journeyman war wizard, but he is on assignment with the Navy. " Axel pointed out.
"So why are we here, us in particular, at this meeting?" Finn asked.
"I was just getting to that, Finn." Jarmond answered.
"The Council of the Commonwealth is sending an expedition to explore or better yet to reconnoiter the vacant lands that lie between New Varangia proper and the Barren Coast. It might become terrain we have to fight over."
"You Finn are a natural choice to lead the expedition, especially after your success in the Far West. Also you represent both the Frost Giants who will soon absorb those lands into New Varangia and the Commonwealth as a whole. As a Hand of the Commonwealth, you will take formal possession of those lands, establishing our claim by right of exploration. You will also command the military escort, a detachment from the Fyrd. There is nothing like a contingent of Frost Giants to put the fear of death into trolls, isn't there?"
"Finn grinned and added: "Especially if one of those Frost Giants is an avatar of a thunder god!"
"You twins will navigate, make maps, and draw terrain sketches. And your uncannily accurate archery will come in handy in case of a fight."
Jemsen and Karel nodded. Their gifts and skills lent themselves to those roles.
"Lord Dahlderon represents the druids and will survey the flora and fauna of the region. Who knows what manner of creatures live there, perhaps even another alien species like the late centaurs of unlamented memory. And this is a chance for the druids to lend a hand in what has mostly been a naval war till now."
Sir Willet and his aide Axel Wilde will represent the wizards and the Army. Axel's training as an army medic would come in handy in case of conflict.
Drew, as a journalist and historian you will keep the journal of the expedition. I shouldn't wonder if you also get some good articles out of it too for publication in the Capital Intelligencer. And we all know how effective your powers can be in battle."
"You may be few in number but able to call upon formidable magical powers to protect yourselves: a druid, a war wizard, a thunder god, and a powerful fetcher supported by archers and heavy infantry should have little to fear even if you do run into trouble."
"We'll all have to set aside our various business interests," Jemsen noted, "but we can do so in good conscience. Our business agent Lennart has matters well in hand not only with our mapping and Zinger companies but also Axel's street lighting operation. McFarden can manage the ventures in which we have made passive investments."
"And Finn had already made his major contribution to the infant refrigeration industry with his technical expertise in ice house and ice boxes. Count Klarendes and Artor are already supplying ice to their initial subscribers with plans for a big expansion in a few months to meet the burgeoning demand. It seems like everyone in the capital suddenly wants an ice box and a steady supply of ice. And all the taverns are eager to serve cold beer, preferably with a Frost Giant behind the bar to lend atmosphere. As you would expect, with his head for figures, Aodh is handling the accounts."
"Good. That means that none of you will have any trouble getting away," Jarmond concluded.
"I should also mention that the Navy has established a small base, really just a watchtower with lookouts, at the mouth of the River Calyx which skirts the Barren Lands and leads upstream to Flensborg. The base is not so much to block that invasion route as to alert the Frost Giants and the Admiralty if troll longships show up again."
"How would they send word, by heliograph or infrasound?" Drew asked.
"Nothing so fancy. The Navy recently inventoried those in the ranks with magical gifts. Several fetchers strong enough to propel a skiff are assigned to the lookout post. Their job is to take word upriver sounding the alarm all the way to Flensborg. From there the Army heliograph will pass the word. The rest of the tiny garrison will disperse, escape and evade riding north across country.
"Which reminds me," Karel ventured hand raised. "This time we get to ride horses, don't we?"
Jarmond nodded. "Everyone except the Frost Giants."
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