Elf Boy's Friends - V

by George Gauthier

Chapter 13

Oases

The expedition first passed through a region of grassy plains punctuated by gallery forest along the streams. Fortunately it was the dry season. During the rainy season travel was difficult because the ground became water-logged and spongy. Low-lying areas might even be covered by shallow flood waters.

The transition to the Hot Lands was gradual but soon they were traveling through a region much hotter and dryer than the Eastern Plains. Little rain fell on this short grass prairie. The sky was perpetually sunny except for occasional thunderstorms.

The maps that the twins had made during their earlier crossings helped the expedition locate sources of water. Most of the marked watercourses were intermittent streams or seasonal ponds which dried up completely in the dry season with only a few permanent water features: ponds and sweet water springs fed by runoff from nearby hills. Once the expedition left the mapped regions, they had to find water for themselves own.

One day flyers scouting ahead reported that they had found the interlopers encamped a few miles ahead, near enough that the expedition would reach their location the following day. The strangers had circled their wagons as a defensive fortification called a laager. Their draft animals were bizarre shaggy beasts with two humps.

"Some kind of camel," Sir Willet observed "though with a steady level gait unlike the rolling gait of the one-humped camel called a dromedary. I might not get seasick riding one of them."

The strangers wore loose fitting robes and straw hats for protection from the sun. Most were unarmed though they were accompanied by a small force of mounted men, mercenary guards by the look of them.

When they reached the laager Artor sent a herald forward seeking a parley. The herald arranged for the leader of these unknowns to confer with Artor and his mages plus the three military officers in charge of the various army units.

Artor introduced himself, his mages, and officers to their leader, a man of middle years with an aquiline mien his face and arms burned dark by the sun. He met with them alone.

"Greetings Lord Artor, my name is Dayub. I am the leader of an expedition surveying the Hot Lands looking for places to settle. We call ourselves the Medkari. Our homeland is overcrowded so many of us went looking for new lands — unoccupied lands you understand. Our intentions are peaceful. We do not seek to dispossess anyone. Our small force of guards is purely for protection from bandits."

After a moment to gauge how his words had been received he continued:

"Actually we were surprised to encounter anyone at all in the Hot Lands much less an armed force large enough to challenge our own modest expedition. Is the Commonwealth of the Long River contesting our right to settle this vacant region?"

"No, not at all. We have never claimed the Hot Lands. One of the tasks of our own expedition, beside finding out about you, is to mark the northern boundary of the Commonwealth of the Long River. Indeed I have already set men to building cairns along the border which lies about four days' march south of here along the low escarpment where the mountains and the Eastern Plains end and the Hot Lands begin."

"So you are welcome to settle the Hot Lands though I find it hard to believe anyone would really try to live here. The temperatures aside, surely there is not enough water for any sizable population." Artor said.

"Not from the occasional rainfall, no. The Hot Lands lie under and in a sense themselves create a permanent area of high pressure which can be measured with a box barometer though I am told weather wizards can sense it directly.

"Indeed we can." Sir Willet confirmed. "The permanent atmospheric high overhead blocks winds carrying moisture from the outer oceans and the Great Inland Freshwater Sea. That is why the Hot Lands are not only hot from their equatorial location but also dry, getting only enough rain to support the short-grass prairie we see all around us."

"You have the right of it, Sir Willet, but the Hot Lands occupy a vast depression under which lies a vast aquifer charged by the rains which fall on surrounding regions. Our plan is to drill artesian wells to tap that aquifer and create a patchwork of oases across the Hot Lands. We have enough drilling equipment with us for one final well having drilled four others already in as many locales, but it's a start. Given a reliable supply of water crops will grow well here and we could raise livestock too for dairy and leather."

"In that case, Dayub," Artor summed up. "I see no reason why peace cannot reign between our peoples. Our row of cairns will simply mark an undefended boundary between friendly neighbors."

"Indeed Lord Artor. In time we expect a trade route will develop across the Hot Lands with caravans stopping at our oases as they go, which would provide yet another source of livelihood for my folk."

"And of import tariffs for us." Artor admitted. "We would place a customs station at the border as we do on all trade routes leading to the Commonwealth. Tariffs are one of our chief sources of revenue, better than most taxes since only a few actually pay them."

"Though everyone eventually pays for them in the price of imported goods." Dayub pointed out.

"True," Artor shrugged, "but as a wise man once put it, taxes are the price we all pay for civilization."

"He must have been a tax assessor." Dayub observed wryly.

Although Dayub was not empowered to conclude a formal treaty, he assured Artor that their leaders would respect the border. The Hot Lands were vast, though not every location was suitable for an oasis. That was the purpose of the survey to find shallow basins with rich soil that could be turned into oases scattered across the short grass prairie in that region. Those who had never been there assumed that a region called the Hot Lands must be a bleak expanse of sand or gravel as in a true desert, but such was not the case.

"This very spot where we have camped will make a fine oasis. We can drill wells near the rim of the basin so water from the artesian wells will flow by gravity into impoundments, spillways, irrigation channels, and watering troughs, with the excess collecting in the center as a pond and a reserve of water for contingencies."

"We Medkari love water and green things so the shores of the pond will become a pleasure garden, planted all around with shade trees and ornamental shrubs. We will also plant trees on the periphery of the fields as windbreaks. Then it will be a matter of laying out a town and fields. This can become a fine land for our people. This oasis alone could support several thousand of us."

Jemsen pointed out that the top of the aquifer lay four hundred feet below the surface.

"Our delver has told us as much, but how is it you know this, Sir Jemsen?"

"Simple. I am an earth wizard. Like a delver I can sense what lies below the surface though unlike a delver I can actually do something about what I find."

"In fact, why don't I help you with some of the heavy work here especially the well and the dikes for the water impoundments. Just set up your rig up as normal but instead of laborious drilling I will open the shaft for you. All your men need do is connect successive sections of pipe together and feed it down as I extend the shaft deeper into the earth till you hit the aquifer. And since it is an artesian well, you won't even need a wind driven pump. I can also raise berms or dikes for those impoundments and even dig a deep basin for that pond you are planning so it will hold more water as a reserve for emergencies."

"And as an air wizard I can get rid of the dust and grit from construction by blowing it downwind." Karel offered.

"I don't know what to say except thank you. As a sign of the new friendship between our peoples I think we should name this new oasis Amity."

That sentiment brought nods and smiles from the Medkari who knew that they had now found not only a new homeland but neighbors, friends, and potential allies.

That evening, the Medkari and their guests celebrated with a feast featuring chunks of roast goat and beef in a tasty stew of mixed vegetables and beans over a bed of curried rice. At the conclusion the Medkari offered toasts, raising cups of sparkling date juice, their non-alcoholic version of champagne. Surprisingly dry to the taste, its bubbles tickled the nose when you drank it, though the beverage did not produce the pleasant buzz that sparkling wine did.

Drew and the twins and even the normally more reserved Axel also got the chance to act as personal ambassadors of good will, as it were, during brief but torrid affairs with some of the younger males among the Medkari. Under those loose robes of theirs they were endowed with fine hard bodies. They wore robes as protection from the equatorial sun, not because they were body shy.

Young males among the Medkari were indulged while young, their youthful affairs with those of their own gender regarded simply part of growing up and a way of keeping their attentions off young females before they were able to support a family. Soon enough most of them would settle down to a traditional domestic existence.

Drew got another story for his news-paper, the Capital Intelligencer, and glad he was for the chance to write about good news for a change. The trouble with being a war correspondent was that even in victory you were writing about terrible things that shouldn't happen at all in a well-ordered world. War was sometimes necessary but it always involved pain, slaughter, and destruction.

The twins were glad for the chance to apply their new powers constructively rather than for war. By winning the gratitude of the Medkari, the twins had help to forge a friendship between the newcomers and the Commonwealth, one that secured their own northern border and helped a friendly power fill the power vacuum that the Hot Lands constituted.

In time the new trade route would allow commerce with the northlands of the continent of Valentia, something which could only benefit all parties. Artor's generous diplomacy was in keeping with the traditions of the Commonwealth as the benign hegemon of the continent of Valentia. The contrast could hardly be starker than between the Commonwealth and the predatory eastern barbarians or the genocidal trolls.

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