Elf Boy's Friends - VIII
The Corps of Discovery returned to the Assembly Hall that afternoon to meet with the elders of the Medkari, at least the dozen of them who lived close by. More than half were men but a good third were women. Farhad explained that in their regular quarterly sessions they numbered nearly eighty. Each town and each major island sent a representative to make their laws and to talk over common concerns like trade and foreign policy. Otherwise the local jurisdictions pretty much ran their own affairs.
"Ours is a loose form of government that suits our pattern of scattered and strung out settlements. It helps that we don't have enemies on our borders so we don't need an army just a militia plus a constabulary, courts, and registries for land and births, that sort of thing."
"How many people live around the the Lesser Inland Freshwater Sea?" Finn asked.
"Our folk number four-hundred thousand scattered in seventy settlements on the mainland plus a couple of dozen inhabited islands. That is actually quite a large population for the amount of arable land available in the river bottoms with their alluvial soil. Which is why we depend so much on orchards laid out on the high ground which furnish tree crops like nuts, fruits, and above all the olive whose oil is our greatest export."
The Medkari also mined the mineral chalcedony, which occurred in several varieties of semiprecious stones like onyx, agate, jasper, aventurine, carnelian, and heliotrope. Medkari artificers shaped, polished, and mounted the stones in broaches and rings and pendants for export to surrounding lands. The proceeds helped pay for manufactures from the Commonwealth like solar stoves, books and pencils.
"And then there is fishing. The reason we hold the druid Kyle in such high regard is that he helped us stock the lake with edible fish. You see fish cannot swim upstream, past the rocks and cataracts so the only fish native to the lake were three species of trash fish introduced accidentally by raptor birds. The druid fixed that so we would have a sustainable fishery."
"At Kyle's direction we built artificial reefs in sections making it easy for our fetchers to drop into place. You can see their locations marked in purple on the map on that wall. The reefs provide shelter for prey species while we fish for the predators higher up the food chain."
"More than in most nations, Medkari are likely to be fetchers like my nephew," Farhad continued, with a nod to the nearly nude boy standing unselfconsciously in a room where everyone else was fully clothed and mostly shod.
"The fisherman who are fetchers propel their boats telekinetically rather than with sails or oars. In emergencies their speed helps us muster our militia from the islands and around our shores. Not that we face serious threats, though fierce predators roam the surrounding forests."
Finn explained the mission of the Corps of Discovery then outlined their adventures so far. They had already read the letters from Dayyub and Raqqub that Farhad had passed around.
A lady councillor put a hand to Kyle's shoulder and asked:
"Since you plan to spend some time with us, I wonder whether your pilots would be willing to teach our young fetchers to fly an autogyro?"
"Ma, please! I was fixing to ask Drew Altair myself."
"Ask him when? In pillow talk? I saw the way you two were looking at each other."
Kyle colored, which brought a chuckle from the others while his mother ruffled his hair affectionately.
Finn said that both Drew and Liam would be happy to give flying lessons. He himself would do the same with their masters of magnetism. His offer brought nods from the gathering, pleased at the willingness of the visitors to help them.
Farhad expressed the hope that one day an airfield on the shores of the lake would become an aerial crossroads for the whole northlands. It was certainly well placed for it.
Afterwards they all went over to Headman Farhad's tavern which was actually a complex of buildings: a taproom, a dining hall, bed chambers for travelers, plus a detached residence for the owner and his immediate family. The stables were some little distance away on the edge of town where the odors would be less of a bother.
In back a narrow canal ran past a landing used by customers arriving by boat and also for taking on supplies and removing refuse. A dung boat stopped by after hours to transport night soil to a local disposal facility where it would be incinerated after daybreak in a solar furnace.
One section of rooms at the inn was reserved for assignations with the tavern's three wine boys. who included Kyle, the only wine boy who lived on the premises though in his uncle's residence in a room entirely separate from those reserved for trysts.
"My folks live all the way across town which is why I live here with my uncle and not with them."
"Do wine boys here work in the nude as in the Commonwealth?"
"Of course. That is why I usually don't bother with shorts or a sarong. After all I am naked at work, in bed, at the table, and for fun and exercise. I mean who would think to wear clothes to run or swim or wrestle or throw around the Zinger."
"So the Gemini Zinger has reached even this out of the way corner of the world."
"It has, though I am not sure what the Gemini part of its name is all about."
"Gemini is an obscure reference to twins. And yes, I do mean those twins."
"Really? The famous twins Jemsen and Karel. Who knew?"
Kyle explained that he planned to work as a wine boy for the next few years, long enough to acquire the capital to start a passenger and air freight business.
"I've been able to set aside most of what I earn what with not having any living expenses to speak of. I have quite a decent income, I dare say since I am very much in demand, thank you, in part because a fetcher can make love in ways that defy gravity, so my dance card fills up fast every evening I am on duty."
"Do you really have so many travelers coming by the inn?"
"No. Most of the trade is locals. Even after marriage guys occasionally hanker for an romp with a cute boy, as a change of pace and as a memory of the joys of their youth. Fortunately their wives do not see a tryst with a rent boy as a threat to their marriages, not like taking up with another woman would be. Anyway, I hope you don't think any of the less of me for my less than manly occupation."
"Of course not. In my not so humble opinion manliness is an overrated virtue. Some people have sneered at me for being a boy toy as if there were something wrong with that. I love being a boy toy, and I don't have the least bit of interest in manning up."
"Besides, we are all of us good friends with the wine boys back home at the Sign of the Whale. And would you believe that early in their careers the twins themselves worked as rent boys?"
"Did they really? The famous twins Jemsen and Karel? Wow!"
Meanwhile Dylan and the Beast Master talked about the elf-boy's new gift. Dylan told Padraig that his perceptions were growing more acute though as yet he had no control over animals.
"Control will come soon enough. The gift starts with a psychic awareness of the presence of animate creatures: mammals, birds, reptiles, and even the hive mind of the social insects. In time you will read their thoughts and emotions and later perceive through their senses. Actual control is the last phase in the manifestation of your gift. And before you ask, the process takes about four or five weeks. Since you started a couple of weeks ago, you should come into your full powers within two or three weeks."
"That all happens naturally. Where my training can help is to sharpen your perceptions, to help you understand what they tell you, and to increase your strength and control. We'll get started tomorrow and train every morning, leaving you the afternoons and evenings free to explore and socialize. All work and no play and all that…"
"Thank you Master Padraig."
"It is I who should be thanking you son for this opportunity. I am very old, and my powers are on the wane, so I thought I had long since trained my last apprentice. Now you show up and give me yet another chance to pass on my knowledge. It is a good feeling for an old man: to have another chance to be useful."
Indeed, even among the long-lived Medkari who lived to a proverbial seven score and ten, Padraig was ancient. Though his eyes were clear and his mind sharp, his hair was white and he moved slowly and carefully though from stiffness and caution rather than pain. Dylan would find him in the morning just after he had finished a set of slow rhythmic exercises designed to maintain flexibility and balance rather than strength.
"One thing more. Your gift will let you sense shape shifters, even clever ones like that wir wolverine in your company who disguises himself with a tanned skin even though the skin of shape shifters is always a white which neither tans nor burns. He strikes me as a formidable foe in either form, someone you don't want to get on the wrong side of."
"That is true Master Padraig, Madden Sexton is incredibly formidable in combat, as I have seen at close hand, but he is a good friend. He has taken me under his wing and given me wise counsel, and he is the only one in our company who likes me but doesn't fancy me for a tumble. As he always puts it, he consorts exclusively with the female half of the species. With my empathic sense I can vouch for his good heart, despite the fierceness that lurks within."
"Such friendship is priceless, Dylan."
"Now as you travel northward you may encounter wir elves who call themselves snow elves after their coloration. They have alabaster skin and ash blond hair that reaches past their shoulders. They are said to be breathtakingly beautiful and reclusive though not hostile. They prize their independence and peripatetic ways unlike the more sedentary sylvan elves."
"Snow elves with alabaster skin and ash blond hair, eh? I'll certainly keep my eyes peeled for beauties like that, believe me." Dylan assured his mentor.
"And your psychic sense too, young Dylan, but remember this: never try to exert psychic control over a shape shifter even in his animal form. First the attempt itself would be a grave infraction against the ban on compulsion of sentient creatures. Second, it wouldn't work, and the shape shifter would sense the invasion and resent the attempt."
The next morning, right after a breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, smoked salmon, blueberry muffins, and kaffay, Dylan presented himself to his new teacher for his first formal lesson.
"One question Master before we start. Is beast master two words or only one, and should it be capitalized?"
"Either spelling is correct, though I prefer it as two words. I don't see any gain in writing it as a single word. Capitalize the title when addressing a beast master in writing. Otherwise lower case is fine."
With beast master Padraig training meant individual tutoring, self-study, field trips, and practical exercises more than classroom studies. He often hinted or spoke elliptically, expecting or at least encouraging his student to fill in the rest with a burst of insight or intuition. It was the most indirect sort of schooling Dylan had ever known.
"Reach out with your psychic senses, Dylan especially your empathy. Don't perceive only with your eyes, but don't neglect the natural senses that extend beyond your body: sight, sound, and smell. Feel for the minds of the life forms all around and watch them for cues to what they are thinking and feeling."
"As a hunter and forest ranger you already recognize many animal sounds and know whether it is a mating call, an alarm, a hunting cry, or hungry offspring wailing for parents to return to the nest. You can tell whether the animals are disturbed or placid, on the prowl or fearful of a predator. Take a deep breath and identify the various scents in the air. Is that the spoor of an antelope or the stink of a striper. If so, what could have alarmed it?"
Dylan initially thought that was little more than an elaborate way of telling him to keep his eyes and ears and nose open. He had learned that lesson long ago. Still Padraig's techniques of visualization and concentration did help him sharpen both his psychic perception which was already strong from his empathic gift and his natural senses. Within a week he could not only sense animals within his range but even look through their eyes for remote scouting.
What a thrill it was to look through the eyes of a hawk at the ground two hundred feet below then follow the raptor as it dived to snatch up an incautious ferret in its talons and snapped its spine with its cruel beak. Dylan felt a pang at the poor creature's death. Yes he understood that nature was red in tooth and claw, but he was so very fond of ferrets. They were soft and furry and cute and made good pets for country folk despite being even more fond of mischief than house cats.
That got Dylan wondering.
"Can a beast master look through the eyes of another person whether human or elf or giant?" he asked.
"Sometimes, but only if the other person has a considerable degree psychic ability of his own and is willing to share his skull with a visitor. You know that some people cannot see colors at all. To them everything is a monochromatic black, white, and grey. Some special humans and elves can see an extra range of colors no one else can. And if you look through through their eyes, your brain could perceive this marvel as well. The downside is that after you drop the connection and for several days afterwards the everyday world looks rather washed out to you."
"Always respect the animals and be mindful that though you might command them they were not put on the planet merely to be your servants. They have lives and destinies of their own. If necessary the animals will fight for you to the limit of their strength even unto death. Don't waste their lives. In particular don't throw their lives away in a pitched battle against trained troops."
"Don't worry. I'm not likely to fight in pitched battles. I am not a soldier but rather a forest ranger, a civil officer of the state. My foes are fugitives and bandits and outlaws and raiders not soldiers. And many of those we rangers track aren't criminals at all but simple folks who got lost in the woods or maybe sick and injured. We bring them back and reunite them with their families."
"Animals will be the perfect auxiliaries for me in my career both on my regular job as a ranger and for these special missions I go out on these days like against the brontothere poachers and now this expedition. My new gift could not be a better match for who and what I am. I couldn't be happier."
"Remember Dylan that a Beast Master can control mammals and birds and all but the smallest reptiles. Your control over fish will always be weak though you can readily command marine mammals and crocodilians. Forget amphibians like frogs and salamanders and such. As for insects, alas their minds are too dim to really engage with your powers except for the hive mind of the social insects. One more thing. Druids also control plants but your powers are restricted to the animal kingdom."
Dylan's training in controlling animals really got started when Padraig found Dylan gesturing at his calico cat, trying to make her roll over or give him a paw.
"No, no, no, Dylan. Those are tricks a dog might learn but never a cat, not unless he or especially she thinks it is her own idea. More generally do not try to force animals to behaviors that are not in their repertoire. Don't command them to do things they would never dream of doing on their own."
"For instance, you know how druids can take control of elephants which are sometimes called oliphants. One thing such a beast cannot do is jump, not even the least little distance. An elephant, like a brontothere, is too massive to ever get all four feet off the ground at once. So it cannot jump a ditch or a trench that is too wide for the animal to step across or to step into and climb out of. It just won't do it. Similarly don't tell and animal that cannot swim to go jump in the lake."
"OK, but suppose I really need to stop the charge of a rogue elephant who has killed innocents and destroyed half a village and looks likely to continue? How can I drive it over a cliff or into a mire?"
"An enraged animal is difficult to control and subdue. Not impossible but difficult. A group of predators like a pack of wolves or a pride of lines cannot be controlled while they are in a killing frenzy. Either get into their minds early when they are merely stalking their prey or wait till the killing is over. There is no other way, for beast masters anyway. Druids are so strong in magic that none of this matters."
"So just getting the attention of you elephant on a rampage might not be possible. In any event as long as it perceives the cliff or mire for what it is the beast just won't go there. Instead project a reassuring scene into its mind. Make the animal perceive the ground before as firm and level. Then it will charge toward that cliff or mire when you command it."
Padraig's calico cat quickly became Dylan's favorite test subject. She climbed a tree or trotted right over to him when summoned psychically, eager for the tasty treats she knew the elf-boy would give her for the trouble he put her to. She was a friendly feline who often stropped his legs as a signal that she wanted to be petted, chuckled under the chin, and generally made a fuss over.
Back at the landing field the first lessons for the budding aviators among the Medkari came from Axel who used a chalk board to diagram the structure and mechanical workings of the autogyro. He stressed the need for daily inspections and regular maintenance to keep the aerocraft flying safely.
Liam explained the theory and physics of flight including the principle of the airfoil as exemplified not only by the wings but by the rotors as well. An aerocraft could move around any of three axes in motions called pitch, roll, and yaw. In flight it was subject to the forces of gravity, lift, wind resistance, and load. Flight by autogyro was safe because autorotation kept the aerocraft from falling even when no longer under power.
Then came the fun part when the three pilots took their students up for their first flight as passengers. Out of their fifteen students two got airsick and upchucked their breakfast. Soon enough everyone got his "sea legs" under him, as Liam put it, and things went well.
As a fetcher Kyle was one of Drew's students. Since he was strong enough to fly with a yoke, pushing an autogyro was easy as far as magical effort went. Kyle soon learned to develop new habits of flight. A pilot works with his machine, using its aerodynamic properties to rise and turn, not just the brute force of his telekinetic powers. In a sense, the pilot and his autogyro were equal partners in machine mediated flying.
Finn's own students were masters of magnetism who flew by pushing his steel framed autogyro through the sky. One day a mischievous youngster named Willem asked Finn how he would battle a fetcher or a master of magnetism wielding steel spheres like Drew's. Finn told him that he would use his control of the planetary magnetic field to bury them in the earth. Fortunately the youth did not ask how Finn would cope with an attack by something non-magnetic, say a flock of billiard balls which were made of ivory.
The impertinent lad later ask what Finn would do if a powerful master of magnetism took control of his war hammer Mjolnir while it was in flying to a target or returning to his hand. Finn replied that he would simply overpower any miscreant bold enough to try such a tactic.
Finn's eyes narrowed, and without warming he flung his hammer at a mountain ebony tree which the boy was standing next to, snapping it in twain. The boy had been caught by surprise but recovered quickly and exerted his magnetic powers to the utmost to keep Mjolnir from flying back into Finn's grasp. He might as well have told the wind to stop blowing.
Finn engaged the planetary magnetic field to overpower the impertinent youth's own magnetic gift. The boy had to watch helpless as the hammer ignored his attempt to control it and flew straight back to its master. Triumphant, Finn raised Mjolnir and called a clap of thunder and a lightning bolt out of a clear sky to strike his hammer. Shouting his war cry:
"By the power of Thor!" he then flung the bolt he had called and blasted a rock a safe distance away from everyone shattering it to shards. The youth paled.
After which Finn shook his head.
"Foolish mortal! Know then that only he who is truly worthy may wield the hammer of Thor!"
To Axel who had witnessed these goings on with eyebrows raised, Finn explained with wink:
"Just staying in character, Axel," he assured the young wizard's aide.
Finn soon realized that young Willem was the most talented pilot among the masters of magnetism. He had an instinctive feel for seat-of-the-pants flying and was willing to let the control surfaces maneuver the autogyro while he just supplied the propulsive power. Much to Willem's surprise, Finn complimented him on his flying in front of the others.
"You really should consider a career in aviation Willem. You have what it takes."
Young Willem wasn't certain how to take that. He thought he had alienated the Frost Giant
"Then you are no longer mad at me?"
"I never really was. I have learned to be indulgent of impertinent youngsters such as yourself having found that character trait is often a hallmark of enthusiasm and spirit. As with a certain auburn-haired imp who travels in my company."
"Hey, I heard that!" Drew called over.
None of Liam's students was an impertinent scamp like Willem. They listened soberly to what he told them and dutifully carried out the exercises he set them to.
Though they were not permitted to solo, for their last few flights they did take the pilot's seat in the cockpit with their instructor in the passenger seat. After which, Finn presented them with sets of wings to pin to their breasts. Patterned after those awarded to flyers in the Commonwealth though without its distinctive emblem, they had been made up by a local artificer to Finn's specifications.
At the end of their training Liam got with Axel and worked out a proposal to put to the newly minted flyers. If they really wanted to get into aviation, now was the time. Liam and Axel would finance the venture for a share of the enterprise. The young war wizard told them:
"You boys will have to devise a business plan, hire or go partners with a business manager, and maybe hire some guys who are mechanically inclined to maintain and repair the autogyros. That is if enough of you are not up to that job yourselves."
"Yes and you should write to Raqqub and his friends back in the Hot Lands and ask them to throw in with you." Axel added. Work things out with people whose judgment you trust and be ready with that business plan when we stop by the Vale of Asshur on our way back."
"If we like what you have come up with, Axel and I will return to the capital, consult with our business agent and buy a small fleet of aerocraft, most with bamboo frames and others with steel frames like Finn's. Then Axel will jump them and a shipment of spare parts to Amity and Asshur and you boys will be in business."
"You would really do all that for us?" Kyle asked.
"Understand we are not doing it simply as a personal favor but as a sound business investment" Liam insisted — not entirely convincingly. His generosity was only too apparent even as Liam insisted:
"Axel and I will be getting in on the ground floor of commercial aviation in a part of the world where only aviation can link the dispersed centers of population."
Liam really was confident that the possibilities were enormous: a fast postal service linking the Commonwealth to all the northern countries, passenger service initially for businessmen but later for tourists, air freight of lightweight cargo like chalcedony jewelry or cochineal dyes, the timely communication of news, and so forth.
With his three centuries of life experience Madden Sexton took the long view of things.
"Small countries like yours need a comparative advantage to be able to engage in commerce to the betterment of all parties. What to export and what to import, and what to make for themselves depends on their resources, talents, and location. Exports don't have to be physical goods. They can be an intangible service like flights to places people want to go. And who better to develop aviation than the Medkari both of Asshur and the Hot Lands. You are in ideal locations and many of your populace are fetchers. With earnings from aviation the Medkari will be able to import manufactures from the Commonwealth and elsewhere."
Finn nodded approvingly. Aviation could only strengthen the ties among the Medkari colonies or enclaves and between the Medkari and the Commonwealth.
One final point remained to be settled.
"And how much of an interest in this new venture would you and Axel take?"
"No. Fifteen percent all told, half for him and half for me."
The flyers were ecstatic at the prospect of the realization of their dream much earlier than they had ever hoped. Kyle, of course, showed his appreciation in his own inimitable way. So did Willem and another boy.
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