Elf Boy's Friends - III

by George Gauthier

Chapter 25

The Petrel

"Good morning, Sailing Master Crawley. I see we are making good time with a fresh wind to fill our sails."

"So we are, Ensign Lathrop. The rigging on a schooner like our Petrel lets our sails optimize airflow and maximize the impetus imparted by the wind. Our heading is 180, due south, with only a slight swell on our starboard beam. This is the farthest south we have ever reached, six days out from our base at the Scilly Isles, well beyond the waters claimed by the the Commonwealth of the Long River. And so far, we have not sighted a single troll longship. It makes you wonder what they are up to."

"I imagine we will find out in due course and sooner than we wish."

"Aye to that," the sailing master affirmed.

The two naval officers spoke with the easy camaraderie of combat veterans who fought side by side against a deadly foe. The carnivorous trolls were the common enemy of all the races on Haven who could wield magic: humans, elves, dwarves, and frost giants. In their first battle together Nathan had been grievously wounded when a troll axe cleaved his lower left leg, yet he now walked with only a slight limp thanks to an excellent prosthetic fitted at the naval hospital.

The sailing master was a grizzled man of middle years though hale and hearty. He could still scramble into the rigging with the best of them. The ensign was much younger, still short of his nineteenth birthday and a stood a little under medium height. He had the willowy build and smooth musculature of an elf though he was of fully human stock.

Nathan Lathrop was boyishly cute, a freckle-faced carrot-topped youngster who looked much too young to be an officer in the Navy of the Commonwealth. A walking wet dream, that was the only way to described the scrumptious sailor.

"Land ho!" came the cry from the lookout in the crow's perch. "Three points off the port bow."

[A point is an angle of 11.25 degrees or one eighth of a right angle. There are 32 points in a compass rose.]

Ages ago the island the lookout had spotted had been the top of a hill in a landscape long since flooded by the constriction of the southern outlet of the Long River, which had gradually flooded a huge portion of the continent of Valentia creating the Great Inland Freshwater Sea.

As the ship made its way cautiously into a shallow cove, Nathan called out a warning.

"Rocks dead ahead. Not far beneath the surface."

Crawley was skeptical but at Captain-Lieutenant Dahlgren's nod ordered the crew to heave to anyway just in case. With the ship stationary, he turned to the young officer and asked: "What's this Nathan about rocks? How can you tell?"

Nathan shook his head. "I don't really know how. I just do. At first I wasn't sure what was going on, but then I realized that I could somehow sense what lies below. And not just underwater but on land too. It's weird but true."

Dahlgren spoke up then.

"Sounds like you might be a delver, Nathan. It is a rare gift and very much in demand for that reason. At sea a delver can gauge the depth of water under the keel and the type of bottom: rock, sand, coral, whatever. On land a delver can magically sense what lies beneath the surface of the earth: sand, gravel, bedrock, minerals, ores and aquifers. Some delvers work with engineers and architects building foundations for bridges, piers, and large buildings. And of course delving works even better in the air."

"The air?"

"The Captain means that you will be able to see in total darkness: in caverns underground, in windowless rooms, under the forest canopy on a moonless night with an overcast sky. A sighted man pitted against a blind man has an incredible advantage until his foe has a torch or can Call Light."

"So this delving is my second magical gift?"

"Exactly. Many people these days manifest two or even three. Your electrum sparks have already proved useful in a fight. Your new gift will prove invaluable for inshore operations where we don't have good charts. To get the most out of it you will need training at the annex of the Institute of Wizardry and Magic in Alster, where the fleet's war wizards and other magic wielders operate from."

Dahlgren explained.

"Delvers can sense the difference between types of rocks but cannot identify them without training. An apprentice delver takes lessons in geology and mineralogy then goes on field trips over known ground to get a feel for the different types of rocks and structures under the surface such as caverns or mines shafts or salt domes."

"Similarly a naval delver, or a sounder as he is sometimes called, has to be able to gauge depth accurately. The gift doesn't make the number of fathoms pop into your head. That takes training to learn what five fathoms feels like. It's all straightforward enough. We'll sign you up for training when we return to port. And congratulations on your new gift."

Crawley nodded adding: "It's quite a valuable gift for a naval officer. You should take it as a sign that you really were cut out for the Navy after all, regardless of those six generations of Army officers in your family."

For a while Nathan had been the black sheep of the Lathrop family for joining the navy, though he had returned to their good graces thanks to his heroism in combat and the award of the Navy Cross for Valor. More recently he had been Mentioned in Dispatches, him and Crawley both.

A leadsman in the ship's gig sounded the bottom and confirmed that a rocky reef barred the entrance to the cove, but that there was a safe passage farther east. The ship dropped anchor there and sent a landing party to explore for sign of trolls.

Later Nathan had himself rowed around in the gig, a leadsman calling out the depth which Nathan tried to relate to what his gift told him. He quickly realized that, gift or not, accurate perception of depth would take some time to develop. It was a learned skill, one he would have to master with practice.

The scouts found signs that trolls had stopped at the isle briefly but had moved on. The island really has little to offer anyone, not even a good anchorage.

Two days later a cry from the crow's perch warned of the approach of a vast fleet. Their far-viewer tubes showed the Petrel's officers that this was a gigantic convoy. A screen of longships formed the close escort for hundreds of vessels of all sorts, mostly transports and supply ships. Standing off from the convoy was a covering force of two hundred warships, mostly longships but some captured sailing vessels as well.

Four of the longships peeled off and headed for the Petrel, its rowers clearly intent on catching up to the Navy ship and keep her from reporting the presence of the convoy. Their oars just might make them faster in the short term than the Petrel, which would have to sail against the wind, tacking back and forth toward the Scilly Isles.

Dahlgren summoned their weather wizard Warrant Office Varney and told him to send a dispatch via infrasound. Pitched below the range of human hearing, the vibrations could carry a hundred miles or more.

"Make to Admiralty from CS Petrel, Captain-Lieutenant Dahlgren commanding. 'Vast troll armada heading for the Barren Coast. Position such and such. Will shadow.' The sailing master will give you our exact position. If you will Mr. Crawley."

"Aye aye sir."

Nautical navigation combined the techniques of dead reckoning with astronomical observations and even triangulation from landmarks when close to shore. A sailor dropped a chip log (really a weighted wooden triangle) overboard and timed the speed by which the line unreeled. The bearing was read from a magnetic compass. Speed and bearing were recorded every half hour on a simple peg board. From that record Crawley could estimate their position by dead reckoning. Crawley could also sight the sun or navigational stars as a check on latitude. Longitude was always iffy, since the chronometer was unknown on Haven.

The gift of unerring direction helped less than it did on land. It took training in the calculations necessary to translate the straight line distance to a known point on the planetary sphere into a rhumb line, the constant bearing to a destination or way point.

Once Crawley provided the ship's position, Varney added it to the message on his slate which he had coded for transmission as bursts of low frequency sound, a mix of long and short ones in groups of three that spelled out the 42 letters of the alphabet, the ten numerals, and punctuation as well. Invoking his gift, he thumped the air around him to create the infrasound vibrations that a fellow weather wizard could detect from afar. Barney sent the message twice trusting it would be relayed by the next ship on picket duty till it reached first the Scilly Isles then fleet HQ at Alster.

"Now let's see about our pursuers. Mister Varney, I am open to suggestions."

"By your leave sir. I'll call up a waterspout and send it against all four longships."

"Eminently appropriate, Mister Varney. Make it so."

When the weather wizard invoked his powers, what had been puffy white fair weather clouds turned dark gray and reformed as a squall line between the Petrel and the trolls. Its gust front made the waters choppy while lightning flashed in the clouds accompanied by the rumble of thunder.

The trolls in the longships looked fearfully up at the threatening sky. Soon a whirling funnel of wind descended from the clouds, touched the sea, and formed a waterspout. On land the funnel cloud of a tornado is dark but over water the cone of a waterspout is white. It came at them, a spinning whirling shroud of doom.

Still not at full strength, the waterspout intercepted the longship in the lead, throwing many of its crew off their rowing benches into the sea or sucking them up into the sky, only to release them and let them to fall into the water where they drowned dragged down by the weight of their armor.

That was just for starters, a tactic to terrify the rest of the fleet and make all in it realized how vulnerable they were to attack by the Commonwealth's magic wielders. With the waterspout now at full strength the weather wizard finished off his first victim then attacked two more longships in quick succession. The waterspout lifted them partway out of the water twisting and shattering the strakes of their hulls. Soon all that remained was floating debris.

Lighting flashed down from the clouds and set the last longship aflame, turning it into a funeral pyre for its crew. The weather wizard nodded, satisfied with his work and careful to husband his strength for future encounters.

"With your permission sir, I'll just let that last one burn rather than put her under."

Dahlgren nodded. He knew that to sailors nothing was more terrifying than a fire aboard ship.

The Petrel heeled over and put some room between her and the troll armada. She shadowed the enemy for several days, long enough to confirm their initial observation that the course of the armada lead to the Barren Coast.

Two days after peeling off from the armada, the Petrel rendezvoused with the rest of the squadron at their base at the Scilly Isles. Their former captain and now squadron commander Commodore Dekker confirmed that the entire High Seas Fleet had put to sea and was sailing to intercept the troll armada. The job of the squadron would be to reconnoiter the best vector for the fleet's approach.

Nathan had his own rendezvous — with his lover Liam, who came in on a supply ship. Once again Liam was posted to the Petrel to serve as her war wizard for the duration of the emergency. They traded salutes and gripped forearms, which was about as demonstrative as they could be on deck and on duty. Public displays of affection between naval personnel and especially officers was deemed prejudicial to good order and discipline. Still the big grins on their faces evidenced their true feelings for each other.

"Lots of changes since I was last aboard," Liam observed looking around.

"You better believe it! Thanks to Admiral Van Zant the Bureau of Ships has refitted us with the compact armaments long standard on the river flotillas. That gives us three catapults port and starboard for a total of six. With their recurved bows our new ballistas are so much smaller that we can fit three of them on the foredeck and two on the quarterdeck. Yet they shoot the same giant arrows as the bigger weapons they replaced."

"So I see. And the new ballistas are fitted with wooden shields to protect their crews. The Petrel is now quite a powerful naval combatant for a schooner with a crew of only seventy. And that is not counting her magic wielders."

"Which includes me these day, now that I have manifested two magical gifts."

Natan explained his new gift for delving or sounding unseen depths whether on land or on the water.

"That's great news, Sparky! Both your gifts are a perfect match for a naval career."

"The bad news Liam is that your old berth with the warrant officers has been taken by our weather wizard, Mister Varney."

On his first cruise with the Petrel Liam has shared a cabin with Sailing Master Crawley, Surgeon Durban, and Warrant Officer Wyckham, the purser, and had grown close to the first two.

"The good news is that you will be sharing a cabin with me and the other junior officers."

Liam grinned. He knew that the other ensign and the two midshipmen would be pulling regular watches making it easy enough to arrange for privacy in their shared cabin.

A physical relationship between officers as close in rank as they were was not against the rule about fraternization. Besides everyone already knew that they were lovers. They also respected how Liam has proved his loyalty by standing by Nathan after he was crippled. Though to look at Nathan with his prosthetic fitting so neatly into his boot, you would hardly think he had lost part of his lower left leg to a troll axe.

As during their first cruise a green cord on the latch to their cabin told others that the pair did not care to be disturbed. Nathan and Liam celebrated their reunion with a lively bout of lovemaking. For Liam it had been far too long since he had been with the cute ensign. For Nathan, it had been just as long since he had been with anyone at all, not just Liam. But then Liam shared rooms and beds with Drew and Axel. As far as his love life went Nathan was effectively alone aboard a ship with a complement of seventy.

At dinner in the wardroom Captain Dahlgren toasted Liam's return to the Petrel. For Liam it was like old times with the grizzled sailing master to his left and the kindly but often grumpy surgeon to his right.

Both were fine shipmates and very good at their jobs. It was the surgeon who had saved Nathan's life, rushing forward under fire to tend to his grievous wound, tying off the blood vessels so he would not bleed out. Sailing Master Crawley had been the very first of the Petrel's crew he had met while the ship was undergoing repairs at the naval base at Alster.

The squadron arrived at the Barren Coast three days before the fleet. Through their far-viewer tubes they got a pretty good look at what the trolls were up to.

It turned out that the vast armada was a follow up to an advance force sent some weeks earlier to secure a foothold on Barren Coast. Sailor and engineers had anchored floating piers that had been towed across the sea while workers had dug a dozen stairways up the face of the chalk cliffs which rose no more than sixty feet. Cranes lifted supplies from the shore to the top of the cliffs. On land engineers were building a palisade for a fort while surveyors laid out a town and fields.

This was not just a military operation. The trolls were planting a colony in the Barren Lands.

Commodore Dekker suspected that the trolls had deliberately allowed his squadron's scout ships to get as close as they did. The trolls knew that the Commonwealth Navy would have to attack their armada, but this time it would be at a time and place of the trolls' own choosing when they would deploy many more longships than the High Seas Fleet plus captured sailing ships modified for boarding operations.

They had also improved their technique for grappling and boarding enemy vessels from longships. The last section of the lines to their grapnels hooks were chain rather than rope. Unlike hemp, it would take more to cut through the iron links than a single swipe with a naval cutlass. It would take several good whacks with an ship's axe, but there were only a few of those aboard naval vessels. They weren't weapons but tools used to cut tangled or downed rigging.

The coming battle was shaping up as the climactic showdown between the trolls and the Commonwealth of the Long River.

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