Elf Boy's Friends - III

by George Gauthier

Chapter 26

The Expedition

The corps of discovery to the Barren Lands headed out from Flensborg on a line of march toward the south and west moving at an easy but deliberate pace. At first they passed hamlets and villages laid out in the expansive hexagonal grid that the Frost Giants favored. Hamlets were comprised of six farmsteads grouped around a shared hexagon in the center called the commons, mostly used by for grazing by their milch cows. A small barn housed a pair of giant aurochs shared among the villagers and used as draft animals for plowing and hauling timber. The commons was also the site of the wells, the threshing floor, the meeting hall cum schoolhouse, the playground and athletic fields.

Each farmstead housed and provided a living for an extended family that might number more than a score who lived in one or more houses which faced onto the ring road surrounding the commons. Behind the houses lay the barns, chicken coops, rabbit hutches, stables, granaries, and other outbuildings and then the fields, orchards, and woodlots. Farmers grew grain for their own needs rather than for market. The woodlots yielded firewood or charcoal. The orchards provided the makings for apple cider and the potent peach brandy for which the Frost Giants were justifiably famous.

A village was simply a hexagonal cluster of such hamlets with perhaps a tavern, a blacksmith's forge or a general store or even an infirmary though often with practitioners of natural medicine like midwives, herbalists, chirurgeons, or bonesetters rather than a magical healer.

Even the outlying settlements had read the news of the expedition in the latest issue of the news-paper out of Flensborg. Folks waved and wished them well. Farmers let them water their stock and set up camp in fallow fields where the droppings of the horses would help their crops grow.

A week's march beyond the frontier of settlement took them into lands not considered part of New Varangia. That was where the twins started mapping and drawing terrain sketches in earnest. Drew helped by lifting Jemsen or Karel up into the sky for an unparalleled perspective. Even Axel got to go up for a look around. With a fetcher around, there was no need for the clumsy and hazardous box kites the twins had used years earlier as army scouts.

The country thereabouts was a rugged plateau with old growth forests which alternated with open glades and meadows which they usually skirted around the edges rather than push straight across. The ground of the meadows was frequently soft and even soggy. Meadows in woodlands often originate as ponds which eventually fill in with sediment. Over time first grass then shrubs and finally trees take root and the meadow disappears.

The whole area teemed with game, never having been hunted over by the centaurs who apparently had set it aside as a nature preserve, a breeding range where their preferred game species could reproduce unhindered by the cull of the hunt. Population pressure would induce the surplus animals to migrate to the centaurs' hunting grounds, replenishing the population of game animals there.

Looking through the eyes of a osprey circling overhead, Dahl spotted a herd of elk grazing in a meadow not far from their line of march. Via mind speech he directed Karel who was scouting ahead of the main column to the elk. It wasn't hard for a hunter of his experience to bring down two of them. The twins' gift of Unerring Direction made for uncannily accurate archery, and their enhanced vitality gave them doubled strength to draw a more powerful bow.

Karel waited patiently by his kills till the column came up to his position then helped the cook and his helper dress the carcasses. There was enough meat for even the bottomless appetites of Frost Giants.

"Don't get me wrong, Karel," Axel began, "but the way you killed those elk wasn't very sporting on your part or Lord Dahlderon's either."

Karel smiled indulgently, marking his friend's remarks down to his youth and naivety.

"There speaks the city boy in you, my young friend. Of course it wasn't sporting of me to shoot elk like that, but then Jemsen and I never claimed to be sportsmen. We started as market hunters for meat and hides. We kill game at need and never for sport."

Axel nodded, saying. "I stand corrected. I guess my city ways have not prepared me to be an explorer."

"Don't worry about that, Axel. You are a plucky sort with a good head on your shoulders. You'll do just fine."

The next day as the explorers rode past a pond Sir Willet spotted something strange.

"Is that really a beaver with a green coat? Dahl, would you do me the favor of holding that creature still so I might examine it?"

Dahl nodded and took control of the animal, projecting a reassurance that the strange two-legged creature approaching it meant it no harm. The wizard and his aide dismounted for a closer look. As they approached the beaver a movement in the trees caught Axel's eye. It was a tawny panther which had been stalking the beaver but had now turned its attention on the interloper who threatened to snatch his rightful prey from him.

The panther gathered itself to spring upon the wizard whose attention was focussed on the beaver with the green coat. Axel shouted a warning though he knew it was too late. The panther would be upon the wizard before anyone could react, anyone except Axel himself. The boy invoked his gift and Called Light englobing the head of the predator with a sphere of cool blue-white light, thereby scrambling its brains. It fell heavily to the ground its limbs flailing and twitching uncontrollably as it wailed piteously. One of the giants stepped forward and speared it, putting an end to its misery.

"The poor creature!" Sir Willet said with genuine regret. "If only I had spotted it sooner, I could have invoked my fetching power and chucked it into the pond. A dunking would have done it no lasting harm, and it would have lived to hunt another day."

"Anyway, thank you Axel. You likely saved my life just now or the very least prevented a serious injury. That was quick thinking on your part. Fast reactions too."

"I have been practicing on moving targets, namely those pestiferous pigeons which perch on window ledges everywhere around the institute. Their droppings are a menace to public health, and when they dry out they crumble into dust which gets blown about so you can take it into your lungs. Yuk!"

"Indeed. If only we could get rid ourselves of the pigeons. You would think it would be easy with all our magical gifts, but we can only chase them away, not keep them away for any length of time."

"That, my friends, is just your problem." Jemsen told him. "Your magical gifts."

"What do you mean by that?" Sir Willet asked.

"It takes an outsider to see it, but too often you wizards rely on magic to solve to your problems, when a perfectly natural solution is at hand. As the saying goes: 'When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."

"So how would you get rid of the pigeons?" Axel asked.

Jemsen shrugged.

"Simple. String fine wire an inch above the windowsills. The wire will cut into their feet which will discourage them from perching where you don't want them to," Jemsen said.

His facile assurance was met with raised eyebrows.

"Hey, if you ask a lot of questions, you can learn all sorts of things, about pigeons for instance. When we were in the Far West I noticed such wires on public buildings and asked about them."

"Let this be a lesson to all of us with powerful gifts, a lesson in humility and practicality." Sir Willet said, summing up.

It turned out that the beaver had a normal brown coat after all. The green color was just a coating of pond scum that had settled on its back as it clambered onto the land. Which was fine with Sir Willet. He was still cross about the Army's stubborn and wrongheaded stance against his recommendation for brown as the basic color for camouflage.

At day or so later, the explorers came upon a great wall that barred further progress. An earthquake long ago had split the earth for many miles, lifting the bedrock to the south by more than three hundred feet [100 m], creating a nearly vertical escarpment. The stone wall extended east and west as far as the eye could see.

"How far do you think this escarpment runs Finn?" the twins asked.

"That is what I want one of you to find out. Drew, can you Lift one of the twins to twice the height of the escarpment so he can gauge the lay of the land?"

Since it was Karel's turn to go aloft, Drew lifted him straight up for six hundred feet [200 m] and held him there, turning him left and right according to the hand signals they had used for mountain climbing. When Karel returned to the ground he reported that the escarpment extended as far as he could see with vertiginous cliffs along its entire length.

"So what now?" Axel asked. I suppose Drew could just lift all of us and our wagons and mounts over the escarpment though it would take a while what with six wagons and nearly twenty horses."

"Bad idea. That would create a single point of failure." Dahl pointed out. "If anything happened to Drew, the expedition would be stuck. Fetching is not one of my strengths. I can lift myself by my sandals but not much more."

Sir Willet cleared his throat

"You forget Dahl, that if anything happened to young Altair I could handle things just as well with my strong fetching powers, but your larger point is valid. We need a better way to get up and over the escarpment, one that does not depend on magic. Clearly what we need is a road, and I am just the man to provide it. I'll use white fire to blast a ledge slantwise to the top. Now that bulge in the wall over there looks like a good spot. Drew, can you Lift me up so I can get a better look at it?"

Sir Willet could have lifted himself by his sandals, but having Drew do it was safer. Sir Willet would not have to split his attention between maintaining his balance and the surveying the terrain. When Sir Willet got back down he went over by the wall of rock and took a stance. Pointing upward he called out: "One road coming up!"

The wizard shot a stream of white fire along the face of the wall, blasting a ledge slanting all the way to the top. Nothing was left of the stone removed by the blast save dust rising into the sky with the superheated air. Invoking his powers as a fire caster, Sir Willet then cooled the surface of the roadway, dispersing the heat into the the air. The road was plenty wide enough for their mounts and wagons. It surface was smooth, but the natural grain of the rock afforded decent traction.

"When we return I'll create a second road further along the wall. You always want a back door." Sir Willet explained.

The members of the expedition variously marched or rode or drove up the road and set up camp atop the escarpment. Now they were really heading into the unknown. Still, so far, so good.

Early the next morning, not three hours after they had set out, the scouts returned to the main body with a report of a huge metal box filled with rubble just sitting on the ground with nothing to show how it got there. When the explorers reached the location of the artifact Sir Willet provided the explanation.

This is not a box but a vehicle, an ore carrier used by the ancients. There must be a mine nearby.

"Where are its wheels?" Karel asked.

Sir Willet shook his head.

"The old tales agree that the ancients employed vehicles that floated a few feet above the ground to transport heavy loads, much like we do today with our iron roads. These ore barges were not true flying machines. they could rise less than the height of a man, but that was enough to pass over almost any kind of terrain: soft ground, a marsh, a river, a grassy plain, a sandy desert, it was all the same to such vehicles. The ancients didn't even need roads just a trackway cleared of boulders and trees. Even after so long you can trace its route."

"What made it float?" Drew asked. "Even a powerful fetcher could not hold up such a weight long enough to transport it any great distance."

"The ancients had made great advances in natural philosophy [i.e. science] and the mechanical arts [i.e. technology] and had harnessed lightning to do all manner of wondrous things the way we use wind and water to propel ships, run pumps, grind wheat, hammer iron, or saw logs into boards."

"So how did these vehicles move? There is no fixtures to hitch draft animals to the thing, no seat for a teamster, or any way to steer the thing." Jensen noted.

"These vehicles were self-propelled and actually guided themselves to their destinations. They were said to draw power broadcast through the air, as hard as that is to believe. The power must have stopped suddenly, stranding the ore carrier here."

"It is sad to think how far we have fallen since the days of the galactic empire of old. This ore carrier must be one of the machines they could bring through their space portals to Haven. What they could not transport was the industrial civilization that created their machines. When their power sources failed, they could not be replaced. The ancients knew that would happen which is why they devised a way for their descendants to use magic to make life safer and easier."

"I like to think that with our advances in natural philosophy and the mechanical arts civilization on Haven has already made a good start on the long road back to the stars."

"That is all very well and good, Sir Willet," Finn said, "but getting down to practicalities can you tell us what the ore in the carrier is? Is it something we ourselves could use with our current techniques and abilities?"

"Good question. Now I am not much of a natural philosopher. Axel, you have a keen interest in such things. What can you tell us about that bit of ore you were handling just now?"

Axel was acutely aware that all eyes were on him.

"Er, I cannot tell much by its look, feel, smell, and taste, but it is likely an ore of an alloy used to strengthen iron and or aluminum. The hull of vehicle itself is shiny yet mere aluminum could never bear such a heavy load."

Hammer in hand Finn gave the hull a tentative tap which produced nothing more than a dull clunk. Frowning, the giant hit it again, a good deal harder. The metal rang like a gong, loud though not unpleasantly so.

"If I had to guess," Axel continued, "I would say the barge came along this trace from the east and was headed toward the pass between those hills. Let me take a few mineral samples for later analysis in an alchemical laboratory in the capital. Meanwhile why don't we send out the scouts to look for the mine?"

"Excellent suggestion, Axel." Sir Willet said while Finn nodded to the scouts to take off in the direction the young aide had indicated. The rest of the company settled down to an early lunch to await developments. It was sunny and warm but not hot with a refreshing breeze blowing from the west.

The scouts returned within the hour. They had found an open-pit mine with a digging machine of the ancients sitting idle at the bottom, where it had ground to a halt long ago, deprived of the broadcast power it needed to operate. The pit was shaped like an oval about two hundred yards on its long axis and about eighty feet deep.

When the corps of discovery arrived at the pit they saw that a herd of brontotheres forty strong was gathered around the rim. The great beasts had long used the deep pool of water at the bottom for bathing. Unfortunately one stretch of the spiral ramp around the sides of the pit had slumped under the weight of a pair of young bulls. The beasts had slipped all the way down to a muddy area at one end. Three other brontotheres at the farther end of the pit had been left stranded at the bottom. For all their great strength, there was nothing that the herd could do to help the five stranded in the mine.

"We must help those poor creatures!" Axel said to Sir Willet, distressed at their plight.

"I agree, Axel, but how?" Sir Willet replied to his aide. "I suppose Drew and I could lift the three at the bottom, but those two stuck in the mud up to their bellies are another thing. We might break their legs if we just yanked them up."

Jensen should his head. "No. We must be the first humans and giants they have ever encountered. First impressions are everything. So we should all pitch in as a way to make friends with the brontotheres just as Aodh's people have always been friends with them in the East. Here is what I have in mind…"

In a few sentences, Jemsen outlined his plan, which the others adopted and put into action at once. First Dahl projected mental imagery to communicate their good intentions to the brontotheres. Brontotheres were intelligent and used mental imagery as well as vocalizations and body language to communicate with each other. Dahl told them that they should not be alarmed at what the strange two-legged creatures were up to. The druid also reassured their own mounts and draft horses that the huge beasts were no threat to them.

Finn and a party of six giants and two human teamsters climbed to the bottom of the pit carrying ropes to rescue the pair stuck in the mud.

Sir Willet and Drew levitated via their sandals and sailed through the air circling around to demonstrate their ability to the herd. Their flight produced grunts of amazement from the brontotheres who had never seen anything like it.

Dahl told the first of the stranded beasts that the little red-headed human would lift her up a couple of feet to let her get used to the idea of levitation. Though nervous at first the creature calmed down as Drew raised her several feet into the air, moved here back and forth, then set her down again. The tricky part was persuading the creature to walk up to the break in the ramp and let Drew mount it as he levitated both of them across the gap. A collective gasp rose from the herd as Drew sailed across the gap and set the first of the rescued brontotheres safely on the ramp beyond the gap. Calling out happily, she rejoined her comrades at the top.

Sir Willet and Drew took turns with the next two brontotheres who gave them no trouble having seen how well things had gone with the first. Soon all three stranded beasts were reunited with the herd.

"Didn't I tell you Axel, you and Liam, that I could lift brontothere into the sky. Now you've had a chance to see it for yourself."

"So I have, and I'll be sure to tell Liam next time I see him."

Drew nodded, his pretty face taking on in insufferably smug look though for only a moment; his wink brought a grin to Axel's face.

At the muddy area the human teamsters took advantage of their light weight to crawl and wriggle across the mud to the mired beasts where they tied ropes around the barrels of their bodies and limbs. Finn and the giants alternately pulled and eased on the ropes to rock the brontothere back and forth to free it from the grip of the mud.

The trapped animal caught on to what the giants were trying to do and shifted its weight in time with their tugs. Once its legs were only loosely gripped by the mud, it lay on its side and let Finn and his giants haul it across the slick muddy section to dry ground. The young bull got to its feet, tired but none the worse for wear. Then it was the turn of the second brontothere.

By that time, Dahl had joined them at the bottom and invoked his earth magic to create a ramp by which the brontotheres could climb out of the pit, their rescuers walking up behind them.

The herd of brontotheres then did a strange thing. One by one they walked by each of the two-legged strangers, looking at them closely and registering their scents.

"It's so they will recognize us if our paths cross again." Dahl explained. "Brontotheres have keen eyesight, an excellent sense of smell, and long memories."

Finished with their memory exercise, the brontotheres raised their heads and trumpeted a call loud enough to be felt physically.

"Gentlemen, it seems we have just been made Brontothere-Friends."

They all shook their heads bemused.

'Does this mean we can added Brontothere-Friend to our titles?" Karel asked more than half-facetiously."

"And what about a distinctive tattoo?" Jemsen added, helping the joke along.

"Not hardly." Dahl replied, "A tattoo would mean nothing to other brontotheres or even our huge new friends here. Still, if you twins really are hankering for an unprecedented fourth tattoo, you'll might try making friends with say goblins or orcs."

"Oh, very funny."

"Er, Lord Dahlderon," Axel began tentatively, "why not tell the brontotheres about the road down from the escarpment? I'll bet they would like to extend their range to virgin lands."

"Good idea. It does you credit, Axel, that it was you who thought of their welfare. As a druid and defender of the planet's biosphere, I should have thought of that myself."

With Finn's assent, the explorers backtracked to their campsite and pointed the brontotheres to the road down from the escarpment. Dahl projected an image of the war wizard creating the road. The brontotheres dipped their heads to thank him.

The animals went into a huddle then split into two groups. Most of the younger brontotheres took the road down from the escarpment to explore the new lands. The older ones elected to stay in their old range which would be so much less crowded now that the herd had split in two.

Or was it into three parts? The two young bulls rescued from the pit stationed themselves close to their new friends with two legs. From their mental imagery Dahl realized that these two intended to travel with the giants and humans and the four-legged creatures the smaller bipeds rode. The same age and lifelong friends, the young bulls were up for an adventure. And they would serve as ambassadors to other herds of brontotheres, vouching for their bona fides.

"They really want to travel with us?" Finn asked, incredulous.

"Yes they do," Dahl replied, "and with you Finn in particular. They recognize you as the leader of our herd of two-legs, our matriarch as it were."

"Oh, very funny. Well if these two are bound and determined to come along with us, I don't see how we can refuse. Brontotheres pretty much go where they want to anyway, don't they."

"A lot like Frost Giants!" Karel joked.

"At least we can tell one from the other without green and blue sarongs." Finn noted. "That one's hide is a darker grey. I don't suppose they have names."

"No, not exactly but there is no reason we shouldn't give them names. Let's think on what we should call them and talk it over around the campfire this evening."

"Sounds like a plan." Finn agreed.

"Now all we have to do is get Finn mounted atop a brontothere." Axel assured Drew in an aside, "just like we talked about that day with Liam."

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