Elf Boy's Friends - V

by George Gauthier

Chapter 12

Expedition to the Hot Lands

"You want us to reconnoiter the Hot Lands. Why? We've been there and done that twice before and published maps of what we found." Jemsen challenged Baron Jarmond, Chief Hand of the Commonwealth, reminding him:

"Our first crossing was with Balandur's expedition. On our second we lead the Frost Giants from their redoubt north of the Eastern Plains all the way across the Hot Lands to the Western Plains then onto to New Varangia. What is there left to learn? And why return now?"

Jarmond answered with:

"This time we are not concerned about geography or cartography. We want you to scout an armed incursion. A expeditionary force of some size is making its way south towards our ill-defined northern borders. Now we have always counted on having no enemy to the north since an army would have to cross the Hot Lands which lie on the Equator."

"So we are sending a small force to intercept it and find out who they are and what they are doing there and to make sure they respect our territorial claims in that region. One task of our new expedition will be raise cairns to clearly mark our border there for the first time. The main job though is diplomacy. We don't need military or diplomatic problems in that quarter."

Jarmond went on to explain that the expedition would include a troop of cavalry, a flight of six tactical flyers for scouting and close air support plus their ground crews, as well as workmen, quartermaster, and logistical units amounting to another hundred. The three hundred or so men in the military units would be under their own officers, but as a Hand of the Commonwealth Artor would be in over all command of the expedition and serve as the Commonwealth's envoy. The twins' gifts both old and new and their experience in the region made them logical choices as expedition members reporting directly to Artor.

Sir Willet and his aide Axel Wilde would go along on the expedition as would Drew Altair in his capacity as a reserve ensign in the Army. Drew had finished his assignment as a war correspondent covering the seizure of the Ashokan Archipelago a group of islands in the southern reaches of the the Great Inland Freshwater Sea. The twins had thrown him a welcome back party. Unfortunately their friends Liam and Nathan Lathrop were already back with the Navy patrolling the seas between the isles and the coast of Amazonia.

"You should be all right, with a firecaster, a fetcher, a war wizard, an earth wizard, and an air wizard able to call on both offensive and defensive powers if anything untoward presents itself."

"That is all very easy for you to say," Jemsen objected. "but for us it has been one tough mission after another. Haven't Karel and I earned some down time? But no. Once again we are being asked to tear ourselves away from our comfortable existence and head out into the back of the beyond. Anyway why go to all this bother with an expedition? Why not send out long range aerial scouts on those rigid wings Nathan Lathrop invented?"

"I only wish we could, but we had to transfer our few flying wings and their pilots to the Navy so they could conduct surveillance of the seas around the newly seized islands and the coasts of Amazonia. Besides, you can only tell so much from the air. We need people on the ground to talk to and maybe negotiate with these interlopers as well as workmen to set up the border cairns."

"All right. " Jemsen conceded. "Let's hope the incursion is not another threat this time coming from an unaccustomed quarter. We have too many irons in the fire, too many commitments with armies in the Far West, New Varangia, the Western Plains, the Eastern Plains, and now our forces in the Commonwealth proper are mustering for the invasion of Amazonia."

"Jemsen is right." Karel seconded loyally. "The Commonwealth is overstretched and overcommitted."

"I can understand why it might look that way to you, but our situation is actually better than you think. From a military point of view we have avoided a long ruinous war in the West against the Despotate of Dzungaria. The conclusion several years ago of a general peace among the Commonwealth, the Confederation, and the Despotate kicked off a series of revolutions. First was the technological revolution when iron roads were built across the drylands of the Despotate to ship phosphates and other mineral fertilizers to river ports. Next came the agricultural revolution when the minerals shipped by barge sweetened the sour soils of the entire region tripling crop yields."

"With that came land reform and a social revolution which saw the abolition of serfdom and tenant farming, transforming the formerly downtrodden and unproductive rural workforce into prosperous yeomen farmers. The big landowners gave up most of the estates but held on to some of their better acres and their urban real estate and their investments in the new industries. In return they were relieved of the burden of local governance. And they don't have to worry about when the next insurrection or peasant rebellion will happen. You can't very well have a peasant rebellion without tension between peasants and landlords."

"All that was followed by a political revolution as the old aristocracies and oligarchies gave up power to the democratic revolutionaries inspired by the Despotate. The end of the threat of violent revolution and class warfare let the states out there dismiss their mercenary armies and disband their secret police. The threat from the trolls hastened all these changes."

"Everyone is a winner; there were no losers."

"I have it on good authority that, as their crowning achievement, Lord Zaldor and Marshall Urqaart will very soon conclude a pact whereby the Despotate itself will join the Commonwealth as an associated state. I don't see how things could have worked out any better for us and for everyone who lives out there. In the very near future, the Far West will be a source of strength, not a drain on our resources."

"Incidentally those newly unemployed mercenaries will soon be working for us. Now I realize that mercenaries are not very good as strike forces. They generally try to avoid pitched battles and the mass casualties that go with them. Unlike citizen armies, mercenaries are interested first and foremost in force protection, but that attitude is just what we need for the garrisons we will leave behind the advancing armies to hold strategic points and also as escorts for supply convoys."

Actually Jemsen and Karel had been following developments in the Far West, but the twins had to keep their role as two of the "young peacemakers four" a secret. The twins and Drew and Finn Ragnarson had been the catalysts for all these changes during their mission out west years earlier which lead Zaldor and Urqaart to conclude a secret alliance with the Despotate to bring about just the reforms Baron Jarmond had outlined.

When they discussed it later, Karel speculated that even Jarmond might not have been let in on the secret, so closely held as it was. But then maybe he did know and did not want to give that fact away. Not for nothing was Jarmond the Commonwealth's spymaster.

Drew thought so too and told the twins as much.

"Of course Jarmond knows. The Ruling Council wouldn't keep something like that from him. They couldn't if they tried. He would find out anyway. As they say, the walls have ears, though in Jarmond's case those ears belong to the air wizards in his employ."

Karel nodded and confirmed that eavesdropping by air magic was one more trick he had read about in the library, adding:

"Eyes too. Jarmond's spies sometimes read lips through far-viewer tubes when people think they are safely out of earshot in a courtyard or garden. I got that one from Balan."

"You don't think Jarmond spies on us too, do you?" Karel asked.

"Why not?" Drew snorted. "He probably sets spies on his own mother."

Of course Baron Jarmond did no such thing. His spy network was directed at foreign threats and agents and operated internally only for that purpose. The Commonwealth had no secret police for the very good reason that it had had no subversive elements or internal threats save high level corruption, and organized crime which were handled by the regular police.

A few days later the principal members of the expedition set off, traveling upriver from the capital. Their riverboat took advantage of the prevailing wind from the southwest to make good time against the southward flowing current. They debarked at the port closest to the tunnel through the mountains. Passing through to the other side they rendezvoused with the military contingent dispatched from the northernmost fort on the Eastern Plains. It was just as Jarmond had said it would be, a full troop of cavalry, flyers, and support troops.

The supply train included several tanker wagons. Water was scarce in the Hot Lands and a mounted force consumed a lot of it in a day. Like humans horses sweat to cool off. That caused Axel to wonder why they weren't mounted on camels. His mentor Sir Willet shook his head and explained.

"Give thanks for small mercies, Axel. You have never been up on one of those beasts. They have bad tempers, they bite and spit, and they smell bad. The worst part is their gait which makes their rider lurch and sway in the saddle in a way that can easily make you seasick."

Sir Willet's first assignment with the Navy was also his last for just that reason: chronic seasickness. This was an affliction healers could not fix since it was just the body working normally with the inner ear and the eyes sending conflicting signals to the brain.

All the principals were dressed in army greens except Artor who wore the buff uniform of a Hand of the Commonwealth including the white kepi adopted a few years earlier. Since they would travel mounted, the twins left their quarterstaffs behind, bringing only their bows and quivers. They also carried kukris for close work as did Drew and Axel.

Drew wore pouches on his belt with his steel spheres and soporific darts which could put a foe to sleep. For this trip he hung a circular wooden holster from his belt. Borrowed from the Navy it held one of their steel discs. The size and shape of a discus only with a keen edge all the way around, in naval combat it was used by fetchers to cut apart the rigging of enemy vessels. Both services had adopted it as for use against enemy flyers.

In addition to his kukri Axel had a pouch for his sling and lead bullets, and also two boxes of nails that Sir Willet might fling at a foe with his fetching powers. Sir Willet carried a straight saber in a scabbard hung from a his belt, as did Artor though they were more badges of office than weapons. War wizards and firecasters were weapons in themselves.

"Ours is only a small force but one that is powerful in both offensive and defensive magic." Sir Willet pointed out. "For example, just think of all the ways our magic can defend against arrows or lead bullets."

"We fetchers have our missile shield, a sphere of awareness of fast moving objects within a certain range. A powerful fetcher can not only stop a volley of arrows, he can send it back to where it came from. Mages gifted with direct control of magnetism and even Finn Ragnarson with his lesser control of the planet's magnetic field can deflect arrows away from them. And air and earth wizards like the twins can create shields of their titular elements. Have I left anyone out?"

"Us." Jemsen said referring to himself and his brother. "You mentioned our elemental shields, but you overlooked the simplest defense against arrows which is sheer distance. You are perfectly safe even in full view of the enemy if you outrange their archers and can engage them while they cannot engage you. Long bows outrange crossbows, and with our doubled strength we twins can pull heavier bows than most other humans, while our Gift of Unerring Direction helps us hit our target at greater distances, so we don't have to trade accuracy for range."

"Druids also have unique ways of dealing with arrows. Their reflexes are fast enough to let them snatch an arrow out of the air and use it to bat away a second, though their speed and reflexes provide no defense against a volley even for oneself much less for a large party." Axel pointed out.

"In that case our friends the druids transform the shafts of arrows into puffs of dandelion seeds."

"Dandelion seeds? Why dandelion seeds?" Axel asked.

"They are very light and their feathery bristles catch the wind and bring their flight to an abrupt halt, then the seeds disperse as loose airy puffs. The loss of the shafts deprives the arrowheads of both momentum and guidance so they fall harmlessly to the ground."

"Sir Willet, you also overlooked those with white fire, like yourself and me." Artor Klarendes pointed out. "We can raise a rectangular screen of white fire maybe a dozen yards in width to block and disintegrate arrows shot at us. And if we push the screen all the way to the enemy lines, turn it to the horizontal, and pancake it to the ground, the white fire disintegrates a squad of archers as well."

"How awful!" Axel shuddered.

"True, Axel," Sir Willet affirmed, " but death by white fire is so quick that it is painless."

"Except for the anguish and terror in the hearts of those watching their doom approach!"

"Only too true, though it is a doom they could have avoided by not trying to kill us in the first place."

"Maybe so, but wouldn't it be better if you could emulate that air wizard Karel told us about who used his powers in a way that spared lives while winning the battle nevertheless."

"It would indeed. Axel I charge you that from now on in our councils of war you raise just that point and put us to the test to see if we can be as clever and as humane as that air wizard of old. Your feelings are proof Axel, that despite your worries, you are not at all callous. You have a good heart, never doubt that."

Sir Willet had strong feelings for his aide, the boy who worked at his side daily and had made himself an integral part of Willet's life. If he had had a son, he would have wanted him to be just like Axel except inclined to give him grandchildren someday.

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