Elf Boy's Friends - VIII

by George Gauthier

Chapter 7

Oases

After an extended geological survey of the northern end of the mountain range, the expedition turned north toward the Hot Lands. Beyond the mountains lay a region of grassy plains punctuated by gallery forest along the streams. It was just as well that they flew for this was the rainy season when surface 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 over 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 showers.

The twins called Finn's attention to the line of cairns along the low escarpment where the Eastern Plains ended and the Hot Lands began. The tetrahedral stone structures stood eight feet high and marked the northern boundary of the Commonwealth.

A cluster of buildings stood on either side of the trade road just south of the border. The installation included a customs house and constabulary post, a stagecoach terminus and a freight depot, an airfield, plus a sizable tavern. Just off the main road were farmhouses and the fields which supplied much of the food for the permanent party and travelers.

This was the transshipment point where cargo brought across the Hot Lands via pack or draft camels would be loaded onto horse drawn wagons while riders would transfer to stagecoaches.

A windmill driven pump lifted water from a slow moving underground river whose flow ultimately replenished the artesian basin under the Hot Lands.

The complex offered their last chance in the Commonwealth to find comfortable lodgings with real beds and under a solid roof. After landing Finn entrusted their autogyros to the staff at the airfield after which they walked the short distance to the rustic tavern which was built with stone and timbers which must have been hauled from the mountains.

Halting their group at the entrance, Liam began:

"Now Axel, I want you to fix this location in your mind so you can jump to it at any time from any place."

'But Liam, I can teleport myself only to places which I can see or have reached via a portal."

"Which is why you are going to pass through a portal and travel from where you are standing to where I am standing. That's a journey of only a few feet, but the principle is the same no matter what the distance."

"OK, if you say so."

Liam concentrated and opened a portal which looked much like an ordinary doorway except for the silvery frame and a shimmer in the air.

Axel stepped through. It wasn't like stepping through a doorway. Nothing happened till you got your entire body through the portal which left you with a sense of falling weightlessly for a half a second until you exited the far side. Evidently this was when the druids adjusted for the difference in the rotational speed at different latitudes for long distance travel.

"Now, do you have this precise location fixed in your mind so you won't forget it even months from now?" Liam asked.

"How could I forget?" Tapping his temple with his index finger, Axel reminded Liam:

"Eidetic memory. Remember?"

That drew a nod and a rueful grin from the young war wizard.

"Ask a dumb question…"

The innkeeper allowed that he had a few rooms available. They had few giants passing through, but two beds pushed together would accommodate even his dimensions. Only three rooms were vacant so some of them would have to double up.

"No problem, sir." Karel said cheerily. "We are all used to sharing beds, if you take my meaning. We'll do it like this: first me and my twin will bunk with the elf boy, which takes care of three. The little guys get the second room, meaning the two redheads plus that taller dark haired fellow with the wizard's eyes, and finally the big boys: the giant and the forest ranger."

Sexton frowned and told the proprietor to have a cot squeezed into the room for him. "No offense Finn, but you're not my type."

Finn nodded: "Likewise."

Supper was a tasty stew made of camel meat with beef fat added for flavor and cooked long and slow to tenderize the tough meat of the camel. Braised vegetables were added to the pot toward the end. Afterwards the company of adventurers sat in the common room drinking chilled soft cider and talked with their fellow travelers and the locals, two of whom were fellow pilots, members of the constabulary named Pohl and Vann.

"That's right, Vann and I patrol the border to catch caravans trying to avoid payment of custom dues."

"How can a single constable arrest a whole caravan from an autogyro?" Axel wondered.

"We can't and we don't. Actually our confrontations with smugglers are all very civilized, a game really. The smugglers pretend to be lost, and we pretend to believe them, then offer to escort them safely back to the trade road, an offer which they are hardly in a position to refuse, not with that story about getting lost."

Karel frowned.

"What do they say when you ask why a trade caravan would set out without guides who could read a map and or invoke the gift of Unerring Direction?"

"Why ask such an embarrassing question when we know perfectly well that their guides are excellent at what the Army grandly calls the Art of Land Navigation? Most of them have the gift as well. They need to be able to figure out where they are when they go off the beaten path into a trackless wilderness. One of their guides said as much one evening when he was in his cups. His friends shushed him up, and we pretended the guide's words were too slurred from overindulgence to make out."

"All part of the game. Now the Commonwealth is not greedy with its tariffs. The rates are high enough to generate a lucrative revenue but not so high as to discourage trade. You will always have smugglers of course. We levy fines on those we catch but the surcharges for bypassing the border post are't so heavy that the smugglers would be tempted to resort to violence."

"Still enough caravans do sneak through to make the game worthwhile for smugglers who might succeed perhaps one time in four or five. Anyway we get lots of flying time, which is why we like the job so much. Gotta love the guy who invented the autogyro.

"We do, literally." Karel told him with a grin.

"Oh ho! It's like that, is it? No offense kid to a real looker like you, but Vann and me we consort exclusively with the female half of the species, of whom there are precious few in these parts. Alas!"

Madden Sexton saluted him with his cup of cider. "You are men after my own heart. Don't get me wrong, my companions are among the finest people I have met in a very long life, but I just don't get all the romantic fuss some males make over pretty boys."

Drew countered airily with: "Fortunately there are many others who do get it."

On that note, Finn ordered a round of the potent peach schnapps for which Frost Giants were justifiably famous.

The southernmost settlement of the Medkari, the oasis named Amity lay nearly a hundred miles north of the border, a three day trek by horse or camel. In autogyros, they covered the distance in less than two hours.

Last time the twins and Drew and Axel had passed this way, the country had been a trackless wilderness. These days a hard packed trade road lead from Eastern Plains across the short grass prairie of the Hot Land. Every thirty-odd miles — a day's travel — stood a caravanserai built of fired mud bricks. It drew water from an artesian well to supply travelers and to irrigate a vegetable garden and even a copse of shade trees to soften the arid landscape of short-grass prairie and sandy soil overlying soft bed rock. These were just stopping places. The first real settlement was the man-man oasis named Amity.

When the expedition arrived at the Amity Oasis the four members who had been there before found a landscape transformed with fields and trees and a small town built around a set of ponds, the largest of which was both an amenity and an emergency reserve. Two more were for recreation, and the smallest was where their firecasters made ice.

To deal with the high temperatures of the Hot Lands the Medkari lived underground. The soft rock of the hillsides was easy to dig out to create apartments which remained at a constant temperature no matter how hot it got outside. Air shafts provided cross ventilation and the dwellings were illuminated by skylights made of glass brick which faced north away from the direct rays of the sun. The rooms were small but felt larger since they were sparsely furnished: tables, stools for seating, chests and cupboards for storage. Shaded porches, verandas, patios, and pergolas provided extra living space.

Water flowed by gravity from two artesian wells into impoundments, spillways, and watering troughs for livestock. Crops were watered by drip irrigation through a network of bamboo pipes. The pack and draft animals of the Medkari were bizarre shaggy beasts with two humps, relatives of the one humped camel or dromedary.

The autogyros set down in the short grass prairie between the irrigated fields and the stands of prickly pear cactus which could grow without irrigation. The Medkari farmed the cochineal insect on the plant, brushing them off every three months, drying and grinding their bodies into a powder they made a valuable dyestuff. Plus the fruits of the prickly pear were themselves edible.

A curious crowd quickly gathered though they opened up as a delegation of three young men in long robes and sandals stepped forward to greet and assess the visitors. No one was armed.

"Greetings strangers. Yours are the first flying machines any of us has ever seen, so you can understand our curiosity. My name is Raqqub. I am the headman of Amity and these are my colleagues, councillors Zabai and Morabbi. Not that a settlement of less than two thousand really needs much governance. Mostly we allocate resources, oversee community endeavors, settle disputes or…"

Breaking off the young headman cocked his head, looked at the visitors quizzically, and asked. "Your faces — under those hoods they look familiar."

"Raqqub! Surely you remember us." the twins said throwing back the cowls of their cloaks.

"Jemsen and Karel!" Raqqub exclaimed excitedly. "How could I ever forget the two of you?"

"So you would be the famous twins Jemsen and Karel." Zabbai said while Morabbi nodded.

"Raqqub has spoken fondly of you. He said you were far and away the most beautiful boys he ever took to bed or even laid eyes on. And now here you are."

"In the flesh." Jemsen confirmed.

During the diplomatic expedition which established good relations with the Commonwealth's new neighbors the Medkari, Drew and the twins and even the normally more reserved Axel acted as personal ambassadors of good will, as it were, carrying on brief but torrid affairs with some of the younger males among the Medkari including Raqqub then just a teenager.

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.

"I wish Dayyub himself could be here to greet you but he is off dealing with an infestation of locusts at an oasis many miles west of here.

"Dayyub was the leader of their exploratory expedition back in the day." Drew explained to Finn and the others.

"Nowadays he is our designated troubleshooter. As resourceful as he is wise and just, Dayyub has the respect of all Medkari. Anyway, what brings you all the way to Amity?"

Karel asked how guys as young as Raqqub wound up as headman. Raqqub joked that he had impressed the voters with his ability to fly. Raqqub was a fetcher and had equipped himself with a flying yoke like those used in the Commonwealth.

More seriously young people were in charge because the population in these new settlements was almost entirely made up people in their teens and twenties. The males among them were second and third sons who had no prospects in the older settlements. They had to make their own way in life and find a wife for themselves rather than have it arranged by elders. That was what had brought the young ladies to Amity. Together young couples would establish households and families and prosper together.

Jemsen told them that their mission combined geographical exploration with a geological survey and geopolitical soundings in the Far North as the Commonwealth thought of those lands. To the Medkari they were the Near North.

The Medkari pledged to do all they could to help. First came hospitality. In the next few days the well-traveled among the Medkari would talk with the team and tell them what they could expect to find in the areas known to the oasis dwellers.

At mid-afternoon the next day Raqqub shared news of a disturbing development.

"The locust infestation is much worse than at first believed. After what he saw just this morning Dayyub sent a warning to prepare for the worst. We are to mobilize all our resources, magical as well as physical to battle a full blown plague of locusts."

"Isn't Dayyub many miles away?" Drew asked. "How did he get word here so fast?"

"Years ago Dayyub organized a messaging service which reaches across the miles between our oases. It relies on long range infrasound communication. He got the idea from Sir Willet during your first visit."

"Now we Medkari don't have true war wizards and our weather wizards are few and not up to those standards, but between them, our wind talkers, and our air wizards we manage to keep in touch. That way we can muster to confront bandits attacking caravans or raiders trying to loot our settlements or respond to natural disasters like a great grass fire last year in the north. Anyway here are the details."

From Dayyub's report it seemed the locusts were not yet in their swarming phase but were still migrating by hopping along the ground in bands of wingless nymphs. Still even nymphs were a threat, a ravenous army marching in a formation half a mile wide and four miles long.

In two or three days those nymphs would become a huge swarm of winged adults which could travel great distances consuming the vegetation wherever the swarm settled. A swarm might number four hundred million insects spread over several square miles.

The lush oases of the Medkari would be prime targets.

"In that case, in my official capacity as a Dread Hand of the Commonwealth and in the spirit of the treaty of alliance and amity between our peoples, I would like to offer you our every assistance. Now before we get to devising a strategy, I'd like to clear up something. Just what is a wind talker?" Finn asked.

"Let me answer that," Karel said.

"Several magical gifts can control the atmosphere. Weather wizards which includes war wizards like Liam have the most versatile of the three gifts. Weather wizards control the elements such as wind and rain and hail and fog or even frost and can summon a thunderstorm and use its torrential rains and lightning against a foe. A strong weather wizard can launch a tornado against a shield wall. All weather wizards can sense impending changes in the weather so the weaker ones work for news-papers or the military as forecasters."

"An air wizard like me controls the atmosphere but not the weather. We cannot sense changes in the weather nor can we call up storms, but we can sense the winds and summon dust devils and land spouts which are atmospheric rather than meteorological phenomena. And we can do a lot of other things besides like jets of air or shields of hardened air and sun mirrors."

"A wind talker senses the winds which is why so many work for the Navy or the shipping lines and increasingly at airfields. Now the abilities of stronger talkers shade into those of air wizards proper, being able to turn or deflect natural winds but not create jets of air."

"You know Finn. You got me thinking. Maybe we can use this corps which operates the infrasound network against the locusts. I don't just mean just to keep tabs on where they are but join their powers to ours, mine and Liam's to create sun mirrors which would be our best tactic against both terrestrial nymphs and the flying swarms of adults."

"Sounds good, but don't forget white fire." Axel suggested.

Liam frowned. "What do you mean, Axel?"

"It's a tactic for raising a missile shield which Sir Willet and Artor discussed during our exploratory expedition to New Varangia. They said that white fire can be shaped into a flat rectangular screen dozens of yards on a side to block and disintegrate incoming arrows. Or, if the screen were pushed all the way to the enemy lines, turned to the horizontal, and pancaked to the ground, the white fire would disintegrate the force of archers not just their missiles. To my mind, that's too grisly to use against sentients but against bugs, no problem."

"I see. So I could do the same against locusts: the pancake technique against the nymphs and the screen technique against the flyers. I have become much stronger with white fire from over-extending myself in Amazonia. Sheets of white fire is a great idea. Thanks, Axel."

Finn nodded. "I think I can help too with my lightning bolts — not the electrical discharge itself but their heat. The passage of a bolt through the air generates a form of white fire. That superheats the air which expands and rushes away so fast that it makes a noise like the crack of a whip only very much louder and we call it thunder. So what I will do is call super bolts of lightning to discharge from cloud to cloud rather than to the ground and destroy a hell of a lot of locusts."

"I sit here amazed," Raqqub said. "Amazed and thankful that the gods have brought you to us Medkari in our hour of need. Oh and Zabbai. Afterwards we must organize the women to sweep up as many as the fried locusts as they can."

"What for?" Drew asked.

"To eat. What else? Locusts fried in olive oil are a real treat among us Medkari. We pop them into the mouth and eat them as a crunchy snack. I like to dribble honey on them or use them to scoop up a dip such as our tasty avocado paste. Finally cooks can use them as the main ingredient in a casserole."

"I am not sure I am really ready to augment my diet with fried bugs." Drew said dubiously.

"Ha! That is the city boy in you talking, Drew. It's just too bad we didn't have a supply of locusts on hand the last time you were here, but they are a seasonal dish. Otherwise we would have made an aficionado of you."

"I find that hard to believe."

"You shall see my friend. You shall see." Raqqub said confidently.

"Actually, when you think about it, Drew, you wouldn't be eating fried bugs at all but bugs boiled by the moisture in the clouds" Jemsen corrected.

"Wrong!" Karel objected. "Boiling requires immersion. No, these would be merely steamed bugs."

"Steamed?" Don't you really mean scalded?" Axel asked provocatively, throwing a wink to the others.

Joining in the banter Dylan shook his head. "Sorry guys, but you all got it wrong. Steam is a white mist of hot water droplets suspended in hot moist air unlike water vapor which is wholly gaseous. Without liquid water boiling, steaming, or scalding is impossible. And since you need oil to fry with, you can't fry them either. No, the dry heat born of lightning won't fry the locusts or boil them or steam them or scald them. Instead it will BAKE them."

Sexton laughed. "You should listen to the elf-boy. Who knows food better than elves?"

Karel started to ask if elves were so knowledgeable about food, then why was Dylan such a terrible cook, but he thought better of it and kept silent. His reticence drew an approving nod from his brother who had sensed his twin's intent through their psychic link.

The Medkari chuckled at their visitors' banter. Finn had let it go on as long as he had simply to ease the tension.

Drew was still dubious and not just about the cuisine.

"Maybe. I just wish I could think up a way to use my powers to destroy locusts. You don't suppose I could sweep the sky with a giant fly swatter, could I?"

Madden Sexton shrugged. "One might work against the hoppers on the ground but not against the flyers. For those you would need two swatters not one for hammer and anvil tactics. Mash the one against the other held stationary. You'd kill hundreds with each sweep. Even so the toll you took probably wouldn't amount to much given their huge numbers."

"So says our master tactician. OK, I guess it's still worth a try unless someone has a better idea. Let me think on a design for these mighty engines of destruction." Drew said with heavy irony.

"I'd better use my swatters where Finn isn't frying locusts by the million. No use mixing his flash fried variety — I mean flash baked — with the mashed raw locusts my technique will produce."

"Now you are thinking, Drew." Raqqub said grinning. "We'll gather the ones you kill for fertilizer and plow them under the soil of the fallow fields. Waste not, want not."

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