Elf Boy's Friends - VIII
The Corps of Discovery
The twins and Finn Ragnarson along with Drew and Axel and Eike were seated around a table in a conference room at the Institute of Wizardry and Magic talking over the plans for their expedition. A short while later they were joined by the two forest rangers, the shape shifter Madden Sexton and the elf-boy Dylan whom Drew and the twins had recruited for the expedition.
That left only one late arrival — Liam. When he finally strolled in he waved and said airily:
"Hi fellas. I just flew in by autogyro. Headwinds slowed me down, but no harm done. It seems that I am only fashionably late after all."
"Glad to have you with us Liam," Finn said for all of them. "Now I knew you could fly using a yoke to Lift yourself, but I hadn't heard that you had trained on an autogyro too."
"I have." Pointing to the wings on the chest of his uniform, he explained. "I took flight training both at the naval base at Alster and at sea, flying from one of the Navy's new aerocraft carriers, as they are now calling them. I've gotten to be a pretty fair pilot, if I do say so myself."
"Fine, we've needed a third pilot, and now you are it. Thanks to Eike, I'll be piloting my specially built autogyro with the twins in the passenger seat. It has a steel frame, and since the cockpit is sized for a frost giant, there is plenty of room for two slender human youths in back."
"It was actually Finn's idea to fly an autogyro with magnetic propulsion rather than the telekinetic powers of a fetcher. This opens up a whole new market for autogyros: masters of magnetism. And just like with fetchers, you don't have to be particularly powerful. All is takes is a push to get the air flowing over the wings and spinning the rotor. That is what provides the lift. Well, the wings also help there too."
"Now Drew I expect you'll write an article on Finn and magnetic propulsion. My company will soon advertise autogyros with steel frames to those whose gifts give them control of magnetism. There aren't so many of them as fetchers but that's still a good sized market."
"Sounds good." Karel said. "At the same time you should write an article in your journal Magic describing how Jemsen and I got the druids to come clean about how they levitated. I'll bet lots of earth wizards would like to levitate with gravitational repulsion."
"Maybe it is time for a whole book about the development of flight, from fetchers lifting their sandals to yokes and rigid wings, to autogyros with magnetic, telekinetic, and counter gravitational propulsion. A complete account can only burnish the credentials of all the Pioneers of Flight: you twins, Axel, Nathan, and Eike."
"Let's add Finn to that list. It was he who thought up magnetic propulsion." Axel proposed. Everyone nodded. Eike said he would mention it to Admiral Van Zant who would get the ball rolling to make it official.
"So our expedition will comprise three aerocraft: Finn's custom job with the twins in back, Drew in his speedster with Axel as his passenger, while Liam can take up one of the new cargo transports with the rangers in the passenger cabin. The transport will also carry our supplies and equipment plus tools and spare parts."
"What about a mechanic?" Liam asked.
"Ideally it would be me." Eike pointed out, but the spoilsports in the Navy won't let me out of their sight. They tell me that I am too valuable to risk in the wilds."
"And we're not?" Liam asked but only rhetorically. Liam understood perfectly how important Eike was to the future of the Commonwealth. What might the young tinkerer not invent over the next half millennium or more.
"Which is why I have personally trained Axel in the care and maintenance of my autogyros." Eike concluded.
Finn resumed his scrutiny of the forest rangers. He hadn't met them before but was impressed right off by their demeanor and what Drew had told him of their backgrounds.
Dylan was a dark- haired lad graced with the pretty-boy good looks and willowy physique typical of elves. He had left the sylvan vale where he had come of age to seek adventure, though not too so much he was ready to march off to war. So he had taken a job as a forest ranger. Elves made good rangers. Their woodcraft was unsurpassed. Many of those who left the vales worked as hunters or trackers or hired out as scouts for the military or as wilderness guides for hunters and tourists.
Dylan had the gift of Unerring Direction which helped not only with land navigation but also with his archery. Then there was his gift of empathy which was a big help in law enforcement and would let them better gauge the people they encountered on their travels. Dylan's empathic sense would detect covert hostility and treachery.
Dylan and the twins were good friends and lovers. The ranger had immediately bonded with his fellow hunters and woodsmen Jemsen and Karel. Dylan after all was an elf and the twins were elf-friends with all that implies: going around skin clad as often as possible, same gender sexual orientation, and a physical beauty beyond the norm.
It wasn't just a case of sexual attraction though that was a big part of it. Dylan and the twins were just the same sort of people. And since they could looked forward to centuries of youth, they hoped theirs would be a lasting friendship.
The three youths certainly looked good together. Dylan was taller than the twins and darkly handsome with the glabrous skin, lithe build, and smooth musculature of his kind. Dark eyes twinkled over the killer cheekbones characteristic of his race. For their part the twins were a pair of palomino colts who exuded good health and sex appeal.
His partner was something else. A ruggedly handsome human looking to be no more than thirty with brown hair and a physique like Finn Ragnarson's only scaled down to six feet, Madden Sexton was powerfully built and massed two hundred fifty pounds of muscle and bone and sinew. Definitely a tough customer, he was a man who could clearly hold his own in a fight whether in his human form or when he morphed into his animal shape.
Sexton was a wir or shapeshifter much like Aodh except he transformed into a wolverine, a predator with an outsized reputation for toughness and ferocity. Thanks to his psychic connection to the New Forest Sexton had reconstituted his physique, giving him stronger bones and tendons and denser muscles as well as the ability to see body heat. With three times the natural strength for one his size, Sexton was as strong as a normal Frost Giant.
During a career of three centuries mostly spent on the eastern continent of Karelia he had been variously a soldier of fortune, a successful general, a courtier, and a gentleman farmer with estates and noble titles.
At that point Liam spoke up and asked:
"So when do we leave and where are we headed?"
"That's just what we were talking about. One thing is settled, the jumping off point. Axel will teleport the whole expedition to Grayling. From there we will take to the air."
After considerable discussion the group concluded that the first stage of their expedition proper would be a survey of the northernmost range of the Eastern Mountains. That region was not part of the New Forest. The northern edge of the hawthorn hedge which marked its border ran along a high cliff, the southern wall of a deep but narrow gorge on the far side of the mountains.
Next they would cross the Hot Lands and visit the Medkari and see how they are doing. At some point the adventurers would visit the League of Independent Towns whether outbound or on their return and stop at elven vales and the labyrinths of dwarves.
The boys put the rangers up in the guest quarters of the enlarged suite of rooms they all shared at a residential hotel in the capital. Their three leased suites had been altered and combined into a single suite for the eight of them: the twins Jemsen and Karel, Drew Altair, Axel Wilde, Corwin Klarendes, Liam, Karl-Eike Thyssen, and Nathan Lathrop. Finn stayed there too when in town though not in the guest quarters. He usually shared a bed with the twins or Drew and occasionally with Liam though not yet Axel, Nathan, Eike, or Corwin.
At supper at the restaurant on the ground floor, the eight members of the expedition plus Eike chatted, which helped Finn get better acquainted with the rangers.
"Of course I know of you both by reputation." Finn said. "You forest rangers have made quite a name for yourselves, taking down the murderous robber gang called the Vanishing Bandits and then the ring of poachers which trafficked in brontothere horns, not to mention your valiant defense of that mountain resort against rampaging orcs."
"The Sign of the Bow it was called. That was mostly Madden's doing." Dylan said diffidently. "He was both in command and a a powerful close-quarters fighter as well, especially when wielding that fearsome Morningstar of his or the mighty bow for which the resort was named. I was just one archer among many."
"Ah but you are an uncannily accurate archer according to the twins, thanks to the gift you all share of Unerring Direction. Don't sell yourself short, Dylan, just because you cannot match the raw power of a major magical gift, you will still be pulling your weight.
"It doesn't matter how powerful you are as a fetcher or earth wizard like Jemsen or an air wizard like Karel who can incinerate a cavalry regiment with sun mirrors. That kind of power doesn't protect you against treachery or deceit. We all can be poisoned or knocked out by drugs in food or drink. Or persons of ill intent might lie to us or misdirect or lead us into a trap."
"The clues I get from my own ability to see changes in body heat are ambiguous. As a trained interrogator yourself you know that subtle clues like a rush of blood to a man's face might be from anger just at being questioned or suspected. When a man blanches and his face cools he might only be recalling an embarrassing incident or has suddenly realized that someone he cares about might be the guilty party. Only empathy is reliable and only then with the kind of training you have had from your shire reeve dad plus that keenness of mind for which you are well-regarded."
"That is why we are counting on you and your empathic gift to protect us."
"Thanks, Madden." Dylan said brightening. "I hadn't thought of it that way. So OK, you can rely on me."
"I know I can. We all can."
"Er, Liam," Sexton ventured. "I don't know a lot about the military establishment of the Commonwealth of the Long River but am I right that those two badges on your uniform indicate that you have won its two highest awards for valor?"
"That's right, Lord Sexton. This green one indicates the Shield of the Commonwealth which I got for my actions during the frigate Petrel's unprecedented single ship action against a flotilla of troll longships. More recently they gave me the top award, the Sword of the Commonwealth, indicated by the blue badge. I won that for destroying a troll relief force which was about to fall upon two regiments of Frost Giants from behind."
"Liam took three arrows doing it, hence the trio of Wound Stripes on his sleeve," Axel explained. Axel wore a wound stripe himself, while Jemsen and Karel wore four each.
"Don't forget his new tattoo." Drew said pointing to the small blue tattoo on Liam's left shoulder. "That marks him as a giant-friend, a person to whom all giants will automatically extend their hospitality and protection."
"I see a lot of friendship tattoos in this company. You yourself Drew are a giant-friend and the twins are famous for being not only giant-friends but also elf-friends and dwarf-friends, all three, the only living humans to bear that distinction."
"When you think about it, you really have to be alive to earn all three, don't you? Tattoos are never given to the dead unlike military decorations which can be awarded posthumously." Karel told him.
"As the Sword nearly was for Liam." Axel declared fervently.
"It was a close thing then, Liam?" Sexton asked.
Liam nodded and conceded:
"It doesn't get much closer…"
"Since I had thrown white fire no less than four times, I was too spent magically to hold a missile shield or to open a portal for my getaway. I flew into the air but got picked off by archers. I would have fallen to the ground at their feet, but Sir Rikkard was watching through a far-viewer tube. He caught me telekinetically and dropped me right onto the operating table in the hospital tent. Now that is what I call ambulance service!"
Everyone could see that Liam was trying to underplay his own conspicuous heroism. Liam was one of those who simply believed that sometimes a guy just did what a guy had to do or he wouldn't be able to live with himself. So his friends indulged Liam and did not insist on calling him a great hero. But he was.
"Axel, your blue tattoo is different. What does it indicate?"
"That I am an orc-friend, the first and only one in living memory. During the peace conference the orcs learned that I was the catalyst for the peace which ended their war with us and brought them over to our side as allies against the trolls. You must have read how hard they have been fighting in Amazonia. They have been fired by prospect of liberating a new and larger homeland for their people. Emigrant orcs from the lands of the eastern barbarians have augmented their numbers."
"Orcs eh? And you earned it as a peacemaker, as so many of you are as well as being great fighters. Your deeds speak for themselves. I feel honored to be in your company."
"I don't doubt that you have deeds of your own to relate like the story of how you conquered Sogdiana." Drew began
"And we all saw your leadership and fighting progress at the Sign of the Bow. So since we are speaking of mighty deeds, when will you tell me more about your own? I am sure they would fill a book."
"Not just a single book, my young friend." Madden corrected, one finger raised. "Volumes!"
That brought a chuckle all around.
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