Elf Boy's Friends - VIII

by George Gauthier

Chapter 6

The Eastern Mountains

The next day the Corps of Discovery left Kaster and resumed their journey pointing their autogyros toward the Eastern Mountains. On an impulse all three aerocraft flew high to get a good look at the geography which spread before like a gigantic map. East and west lay the mountain ranges that defined and protected the Commonwealth proper, the valley of the Long River.

It was the rainfall of these highlands which gave birth to the river. Rivulets and creeks and streams and small rivers joined at Grayling the most northerly port on the river. From there it flowed south for hundreds of leagues through a valley eighty leagues wide to empty into the the Great Inland Freshwater Sea.

Ages ago geological forces had thrust vast blocks of bedrock up to create the parallel mountain ranges, forcing the land between them to sink into a rift or graben. The alluvial soil of that rift valley was the richest on the planet, and a major source of the Commonwealth's prosperity.

The mountains facing westward toward the depression were quite rugged, more so than their eastern or outward side. The mountains were managed for a mix of uses. First and foremost as a protected watershed, next for water power to overshot waterwheels at sawmills and hammer mills. Much of the tree cover was in managed forests, not tree plantations but where timbering was done on a sustainable basis.

Graveled roads provided access to mines, timber lands, hunting lodges, resorts, health spas, constabulary posts and the like though no true towns. Yet for all the development, the hand of man lay lightly on the region. The Commonwealth was a good steward of the land.

Still only in the foothills the travelers stopped for lunch at a meadow, setting up beside a deep pool in the stream which flowed through it. It was a fine day and the site so welcoming and the water so limpid and inviting that they decided to camp right there and not push on any further that day.

Setting up camp was easy enough. Cords with a loop immobilized the rotors of their autogyros. A large silk sheet thrown over the rotor created a shelter which served as both a sunshade and a rain hood if it came to that. The corners were tied to long stakes which Finn drove into the earth with Mjolnir. That left openings two feet high all around to admit cooling breezes. The campers dug shallow trenches to route rain water around their shelters though only as a precaution. The weather was fine and looked to stay so. Grass or boughs stuffed into silk covers served well enough for mattresses.

Madden Sexton had volunteered to cook, more out of self-preservation and reservations at the culinary skills of his young companions than anything else. In three centuries you do pick up a number of skills, and cooking in the field was one of his. The youngsters had centuries ahead of them, so plenty of time for them to learn more than the basics.

Meanwhile Sexton got to show off how much he could do with so little to hand. Tubers and mushrooms and greens gathered from the area added piquant flavors to the fish they caught from the stream, and the birds eggs the twins gathered and the last of the bacon they had brought. Too bad they didn't have a firecaster in their company to create ice for the small ice-box on the transport aerocraft, but already the block of ice they had got at Kaster was melting away.

Once camp was set up Madden Sexton and Finn settled into folding camp chairs while the others threw off their clothes and dived into the water for a swim and a session of water play and wrestling and the grab-ass horseplay which young males were so fond of.

At first there was a general melee with boys wrestling around or scooping water with their hands to splash anyone in range. Then the boys squared off in a three way match, with the twins and Dylan facing Axel and Drew, and Liam declaring himself to be a team of one since he was the only water wizard present. He bragged that they were, after all, chest deep in his tutelary element.

"Hey no powers!" Dylan complained but for his trouble he got a wave which pushed him over toward the twins.

Karel invoked his air magic to create a gentle waterspout and and sent it at Liam, but Liam's weather wizardry trumped Karel's air wizardry and sent Karel's waterspout back at him though Karel's air magic made it swerve. Dismissing the waterspout Liam sent a big wave to upend Axel and Drew.

Once he got his feet under him Drew pushed off the bottom, surfaced, and shook his fist at Liam then Lifted the water wizard about ten feet and dropped him head first into his own watery realm. Liam's telekinetic powers were fairly strong, but he was no match for Drew who could lift a brontothere into the sky or even two of them while the best Liam could manage was a draft horse with maybe a pony thrown in.

Once Liam was underwater he swam along the bottom and surfaced behind a Concealment figuring out of sight was out of mind. Unless Jemsen thought to delve him he would wait till the other boys faced off again then pounce.

Dylan's modest magical powers of Unerring Direction and Empathy should not have allowed Dylan to locate Liam's position, but somehow the elf-boy sensed the young wizard's location. He told Karel who threw up a flat sun mirror behind Liam which let everyone see just where he stood.

"We can see you Liam. That magical Concealment of yours isn't doing you any good." Dylan shouted pointing straight at him.

Liam figured that for a lucky guess and a bluff and kept silent relying on Concealment and stealth.

Dylan tried again.

"If you don't believe me Liam, then turn around and see for yourself."

They all laughed when the young water wizard turned and gaped open mouthed at his reflection in the mirror.

"Okay, okay. Ya got me. Truce!"

That brought an end to their water combat though Dylan grumbled that Liam really should have surrendered not just called for a truce. Whatever, they were all tired so they climbed out of the pool to stretch out on the grass to lie in the sun and dry off.

"I've gotten pretty good at Concealment, so how did you suss me out, Dylan?"

Dylan shrugged.

"I'm not sure myself. If it was my empathic sense at work, this was the first time it was directional. And I sensed just your presence rather than your emotions. Who knows, maybe your field of Concealment filtered those out."

The twins lay side by side the beads of waters on their tawny skins sparkling like diamonds. Lithe, boyishly handsome, and with close cropped blond hair the color of corn silk, they were utterly alluring with slender physiques and youthful features. Lying next to the twins and propped up on one elbow the better to ogle their boy flesh was the elf-boy Dylan. A bit taller than the twins and darkly handsome he had the glabrous skin, lissome build, and smooth musculature of his kind. Dark eyes twinkled over the killer cheekbones characteristic of his race.

Unlike the others who were on their backs, Drew lay prone the better to display his pert rump to advantage. Drew never lost a chance to show off the the trim and taut teenage body he had grown into and still retained thanks to druidical healing magic. As for his features Drew had spiky auburn hair and narrow sideburns which reached below the ear lobes plus straight eyebrows with almost no curve to them. They framed a cute face with a high forehead, chiseled jawline, and a perky nose slightly turned up at the end.

Liam was a raven haired beauty blessed with chiseled features and a fine body. Maybe he was on the lean side but he had a strong upper storey with wide shoulders and muscled arms originally from handling teams of four for a living when he was a teamster. He had the so-called wizards' eyes, one blue and one brown which shone in the dark with what wizards called their moon-glow.

"What we have laid out on the grass before us is nothing less than a vision of youthful male concupiscence." Finn commented grandiloquently.

Maddon Sexton shrugged.

"If you say so Finn. Oh I can appreciate the physical beauty of boys in an aesthetic way, as a sculptor or artist might look at his model. I just don't fancy boys as you and so many males do. In bed I lie exclusively with the female half of the species."

"Which species is that, Madden? Human or wolverine? I shudder to think what a coupling of two wolverines must be like. All snarls and growls and howls and roars I expect." Finn joked.

"Very funny. Wirs mate only in their human forms. We are magical beings — humans who take the form of beasts not beasts who mimic humans."

"Not just humans. Giants can be wirs too as can dwarves and elves."

"What about orcs?" Sexton wondered.

"I don't really know, but I don't see why orcs can't be shape shifters too."

"Almost any form would be an improvement over their natural shapes, the gangly bastards." Sexton grumbled.

"I heard that" Axel said, giving him a disappointed look.

Axel took his role as an orc-friend seriously. He had even learned enough of their language to laugh at their jokes. Once you got to know them, orcs weren't such bad folks really. It helped that Axel liked a touch of garlic in his food though he agreed that the orcs used entirely too much of it in their cuisine. Besides as an Army medic he always kept cloves of garlic in his kit as an herbal medicine.

Sexton held his hands up placatingly.

"Peace, Axel. I fully accept that the orcs are now our allies and no longer our enemies, but that doesn't mean I gotta like 'em, and I don't."

Axel nodded to concede Sexton's point.

The last thing Sexton wanted was an argument with a boy he thought so highly of. They were good friends and comrades in arms, even if Sexton himself was the only member of the expedition who didn't fancy the cute copper-topped youth for a tumble. Maybe Axel was on to something. He had a gift for making friends with the right sort of people. So perhaps orcs were worth a second look.

Dylan suddenly had a feeling that someone or something in the tree line was watching them. Sure enough on the other side of the meadow the elf-boy saw a tawny panther and her two cubs poked their heads out of the shadows of the trees. Putting as much distance as possible between her family and the humans, the mother cat led her charges to a flat rock on the far bank of the stream where the felines crouched, lowered their heads, and lapped at the water.

"They must be really thirsty to show themselves so openly." Dylan told his friends in a low voice. "So hold still and keep quiet. And please, don't anyone try to hurt them." this last was directed with a questioning look at Sexton who had reached for his bow.

"Just a precaution. And just because I am a wir wolverine doesn't mean that I'm not as fond of cats as anyone. As you know very well, one of our good friends is a black panther. So sure, we'll all just give that family of felines their space."

Dylan invoked his gift of empathy to project reassuring thoughts at the panther family. When she was done drinking the mama cat look Dylan full in the face, dipped her head as if in thanks, then turned away with her cubs.

Dylan didn't know what to make of it. He wondered whether he was starting to manifest a new magical gift and if so, which one might it be.

The next morning they flew into the mountains proper. The area had been surveyed by natural philosophers and was being exploited for iron and tin mines so Jemsen didn't have to delve it.

Later that morning, drawn by the wail of a siren at a mining operation they landed to see whether they could help.

A tough looking dwarf scowled at them and barked.

"We don't need gawkers. Clear off."

"What happened?" Finn asked equably.

"A mineshaft collapsed killing half a dozen miners outright and trapping a dozen more in a deep tunnel. What business is it of yours, anyway?"

"Maybe we can help." Finn offered.

"How? A guy as big as you wouldn't even fit in a tunnel sized for us dwarves."

Just then another dwarf who was clearly the one in charge told him:

"Easy there Danko. I'll take it from here." To the visitors he said:

"My name is Lombok. I run this mine. Danko is right though. Maybe you folks want to help, but you would only get in the way. This is a job for miners."

"How about for an earth wizard?" Jemsen asked.

"Huh!" the miner named Danko snorted. "A human pretty boy, an earth wizard? Not likely."

Jemsen shook his head. "Oh ye of little faith."

"Are you really an earth wizard, youngling?" Lombok asked

"He is and it's not "youngling". Finn told him evenly. "The proper form of address for either an Army captain or a knight is Sir, and this young human is both. So is his twin who is an air wizard. In our company we also have a war wizard, a Jumper, and a pair of powerful fetchers."

"Which one of those would you be?"

"Something else entirely."

"Finn is the avatar of a thunder god." Axel supplied helpfully.

"Really?" Lombok asked skeptically. He didn't know what to make of this strange bunch that had showed up at his door.

"Finn, why don't you show him?" Axel suggested pointing upward.

Grinning Finn raised Mjolnir and cried "By the power of Thor!"

A second later a great crash of thunder answered him out of the cloudless sky followed by a jagged bolt of lightning which struck the hammer. As electricity crackled all over Finn's armor he pointed Mjolnir at a nearby boulder and threw a bolt which shattered it to shards.

"Impressive. Maybe you fellows can help after all," he conceded, "but remember this is my mine. I am the superintendent. So I am in charge."

Finn shook his head. "You know mining, and I don't. So I'll let you run things, but in any emergency situation command ultimately falls to a Hand of the Commonwealth."

Finn triggered the small magic which made his hand glow, display his credentials as a Dread Hand of the Commonwealth.

"Sorry, Sir. We seem to have got off on the wrong foot. Come over to the office and I can show you what we are up against. And Danko. Tell that miner to stop cranking the siren. The noise is getting on everyone's nerves. By now everyone knows that we have a disaster on our hands."

Danko went off on his errand. As Lombok lead the way to his office Axel touched Finn's arm to indicate that he wanted to speak privately.

"By the power of Thor?" Axel asked

Finn shrugged. "It's my new battle cry. And before you ask, no, I am not taking this avatar business too seriously. It's really a tactic to inspire shock and awe in the enemy or, as you saw today, to establish my bona fides as the avatar of Thor. Just like with the small magic I can trigger to prove that I am a Hand of the Commonwealth."

Axel nodded. Finn had a point. You got only one chance to make a first impression.

Lombok's office was stark and functional. It reflected the no-nonsense mindset of the superintendent. Pointing to a diagram of the mine he told them that the sides of the northern access shaft had fallen in, trapping miners in tunnels on two levels, one hundred forty feet and two hundred thirty feet down.

"We'll need more than a schematic of the tunnels." Jemsen said. "Let's look at the topographic map for a planimetric view of the area."

Lombok took the map down from the wall and started to explain how to read it.

"We know all about contour lines, Superintendent Lombok." Jemsen said waving him off. "We invented them, me and Karel."

"Of course. You would be Jemsen and Karel. The famous twins."

"In the flesh."

After Danko returned with the other two foremen Finn introduced his team and told the miners something of their capabilities. After some discussion the group settled on a rescue plan. Finn concluded the conference with his standard verbal formula which indicated affirmation, agreement, and authorization to proceed.

"Sounds like plan."

There was no point in trying to clear the collapsed mine shaft. Better to create new means of access. Relying on his delving and on his gift of Unerring Direction Jemsen indicated to Liam where he should use white fire to blast two new shafts down to the trapped miners. The larger one would be for access, the smaller for ventilation. Once both shafts were open, Karel pushed air down the ventilation shaft and up and out the wider access shaft. It was just in time too. The air in the mines was turning foul.

Axel rode down the access shaft with his feet in the stirrups attached to Drew's armor. On the way down Axel called light, setting a blue white ball of cold light at each level. That gave the trapped men light to see by and boosted their morale bringing them hope of rescue. As a matter of course the miners would always have at least one man or rather one dwarf in a crew who could call light though rarely would his globe persist for hours without him even thinking about it as Axel's globes could. Unfortunately the light bringers in both crews had been crushed by falling rock during the collapse of the access shaft. The miners still had a few oil lamps with them but kept them unlit to conserve the small amount of fuel in their reservoirs.

Finn would never fit in those tunnels, but both rescuers stood only five feet, so they could walk upright. While Axel splinted broken limbs and bandaged lacerations to control the bleeding, Drew led the ambulatory miners to the shaft and took them up and out one at a time in the stirrups. Then it was the turn of the wounded whom Drew gently floated to the surface with his telekinetic powers.

It took a couple of hours to get everyone out. By then Liam had brought a magical healer and a bonesetter through a portal from an infirmary at Grayling. There were other infirmaries closer, but Liam had not been to any of them so could not open a portal to those locations.

The magical healer was also assisted by a surgeon, a doctor of natural medicine staying at a hunting lodge nearby who came over to help. Their professional skills ensured that all of the rescued miners survived though that still left the five killed at the outset.

Axel was the last one to evacuate the mine. He didn't wait for Drew to float back down for him. He simply Jumped straight up and out of the shaft then made a final short Jump to the ground.

"That's a right handy way to get around, Sir Axel." Lombok told him. Axel grinned. A bit of showing off surely did no harm.

No celebration this time, but the miners were deeply grateful for the help the Corps of Discovery had given. Superintendent Lombok was especially gratified that Liam had blasted the shafts to the proper size for mining operations. Once the miners installed air pumps and an elevator, they could resume mining with less than a week's production lost. The firm would cover the lost wages regardless per the labor contract with the Brotherhood of Miners.

The travelers put up at the local hunting lodge for a couple of days while everything got settled. Then the expedition set off again heading northeast across the mountain range.

Drew was happy to see that Axel's air of despondency had lifted. This was what the boy had needed: a chance to make a positive contribution. And here he had done it three times in quick succession, first to get the expedition to its jumping off point, second at the landslide, and just now at the mine.

That lifted Drew's spirits too. He and Axel were close as roommates, friends, lovers, comrades in arms, and fellow adventurers, not to mention their bond as redheads. Axel's hair was the color of copper which complemented Drew's own rich auburn locks so well. They made quite a fetching couple actually — no pun intended. Or rather a matched trio with Nathan Lathrop's carrot-top.

Redheads rule!

Not that Drew was't fond of blonds and brunettes too.

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