Elf Boy's Friends - VIII

by George Gauthier

Chapter 13

The Cave of the Mountain River

"So where shall we go to next?" Axel asked his fellow travelers in the Corps of Discovery.

The twins looked at each other, struck by the same thought. Karel nodded for Jemsen to go ahead and speak for them.

"The League of Independent Towns lies to the west. That could be our next stop. We really didn't get to see much of it years ago when we passed through on the way to the Commonwealth."

"Or… " Dylan began, "we could go looking for these Snow Elves of whom Master Padraig spoke. I hadn't even know that elves could be shape shifters."

"Nor I." Madden Sexton allowed

"How about visiting your own people Dylan, the sylvan elves." Liam asked. "Medkari maps show the location of several elven vales in the Northlands."

Drew shook his head. "I have a better idea. Let's visit the dwarves. Their caverns are always pleasantly cool. It will be a welcome change from the tropical heat."

"I don't know…" Karel began. "The last time you persuaded us to go to someplace cool we wound up in the middle of a war with the orcs."

"That was hardly my fault. And you have to admit that until the orcs showed up things were really pleasant high up in the mountains with cool air, stunning scenery, good food, and pretty boys among the staff. What do you think Finn? Wouldn't you like to get out the heat for a change? It must bother you more than anyone."

Finn nodded. His people weren't called Frost Giants for nothing. Their original homeland lay in the temperate zone where it got cold enough in winter for snow and ice. Besides, a physique standing eight feet tall and packing six hundred pounds generated a lot of body heat and had trouble shedding it despite two auxiliary hearts which not only helped pump his blood but aided shedding body heat by vasodilation.

"That's true although I haven't felt the heat bad here on the shores of the Lesser Inland Freshwater Sea. There's usually a breeze, and we were out on the water so much or swimming. Still I am attracted to the coolth of the caverns."

After some further discussion a consensus developed to visit the dwarves. They were sure to be welcome. The twins after all wore the blue tattoos marking them as dwarf-friends. Finn too was a dwarf-friend though as a Hand of the Commonwealth, he could not accept the friendship tattoo the dwarves of New Varangia had offered him. Instead, when they forged his new war hammer Mjolnir, they had inscribed the friendship design on its face. So that made three dwarf-friends in their party.

"All right," Dylan conceded, "but afterwards we really should look up these Snow Elves. They are said to be beautiful beyond compare!"

That brought general agreement. So it was to be dwarves first and snow elves second.

Finn accepted the consensus: "Sounds like a plan."

Before they took off, Dylan took his leave of aged Beast Master Padraig who gifted him with a leather bracelet indicative of his new status. Then the whole Corps of Discovery said their good-byes to Farhad and Kyle. The young fetcher cum wine boy enthused that he had already written to Raqqub. Kyle and a friend were putting their heads together to devise a business plan for an aviation industry centered on the Vale of Asshur, the future aerial crossroads of the North, to hear him tell it.

Instead of wearing their usual uniforms or expeditionary outfits Drew, Liam, Axel, Dylan, and the twins chose their new square cut low-rise short shorts made of thin silk which were color-coded green and blue for Jemsen and Karel respectively but white for the other boys. After all, their plan was to kick start a fashion trend about what a sexy boy should wear on occasions when he wasn't going around skin-clad or sky-clad as many were calling it these days. No time like the present for getting that ball rolling.

Drew caught Karel admiring the sculpted musculature of his slender legs, almost entirely bared by the skimpy shorts which had only one inch of inseam. Admittedly the blond twins' shapely limbs were worth showing off. So too were their torsos which were bare down to their hip bones. Same thing for all of them really; the six pretty boys in the group all had tight taut bodies. The bigger fellows Finn Ragnarson and Madden Sexton wore more conventional outfits of trews and shirts over their powerfully muscled physiques.

North of the Vale of Asshur lay a region of dissected plateaux — a karst landscape underlain by beds of limestone honeycombed with caves and underground rivers and pockmarked by sinkholes. The surface was covered with dense forest thanks to a rainier climate than the lands to the south thanks to the prevailing winds which brought moisture from the outer ocean which lay only two hundred miles to the north.

With Axel and his gift of Unerring Direction for navigation Drew had no trouble leading the way to the Cave of the Mountain River, an enormous cavern system with a main passage over three miles long, one-hundred fifty yards wide, and up to two-hundred high.

Once the twins and Finn established their bona fides as dwarf-friends, the dwarves made much of them, ushering them into the huge cavern ahead of a latest group of visitors who were just getting off the sturdy ponies that had brought them up from the river town which served the area. The ponies would be stabled outside the caverns. The dwarves had no patience for the mess draft animals left behind. Better their droppings were used to fertilize the fields.

This geological wonder drew visitors from afar. At first even their well-off clientele might grumble at paying two silvers just to get in, but no one ended his visit thinking it had not been worth the price of admission. The entrance was by a natural fissure in the rock which the dwarves had widened and improved by chopping stairs and installing bannisters and gravel walkways. Visitors walked down a dim passage illuminated only by balls of cold light into a gigantic chamber bathed in sunlight where a section of the roof had fallen to create a skylight.

It was the largest enclosed space any of them had ever seen. Sunbeams slanted into the cavern falling on a rocky river threading its way the length of the green floor. Shade-tolerant plants of all sorts ranging in size from mosses to sizable trees flourished in soil that had been deposited by the winds on the floor of the cave over the centuries and added to by dwarf gardeners. Even the boulders were covered with lichens.

Axel looked about in awe and wonder and exclaimed:

"By the gods!"

"You called?" Finn asked, eyebrows raised interrogatively.

Axel chuckled and shook his head.

The two friends had a running gag about whether Finn wasn't starting to identify too closely with his persona as an avatar of Thor, thunder god of the ancient Norse, the remote ancestors of the Frost Giants.

The dwarves made a good living from their geological wonder, not only from charging admission but also by offering upscale lodgings, meals, entertainment, and guided tours. The exhibits in the museum included maps, cutaway scale models of the three largest caverns with skylights, and woodcut illustrations of the more notable rock formations. A series of drawings and text explained how the cavern had been formed over the ages by the dissolution of the limestone of the karst landscape by slightly acidic water.

There was even a menagerie with live and preserved specimens of the odd animals that inhabited the cave system like species of blind fish and colorless prawns of quite an extraordinary size, which natural philosophers attributed to the alchemical properties of the river water though these supposed properties did not seem to affect mammals the same way. Neither the dwarves themselves nor their domestic cats were any larger than normal.

The enterprising dwarves also sold souvenirs and trinkets of their own manufacture in a gift shop though the best seller was really a product of nature itself rather than of dwarven industry: geodes halved and polished to display the beautiful crystals inside. The twins bought a couple to add to the collection they had started at Stone Mountain years earlier.

Seven levels of windows cut into one wall of the cavern provided light and air to the apartments of the dwarves who dwelled therein.

"We live in more comfort than most dwarves do." Anton Kantor, the mayor of the local dwarves told them. "Between the coolth of stone and the warmth of the sun and the air, our homes aren't chilly like most cave dwellings, so you will be no more than comfortable cool in even those extremely abbreviated shorts of yours. "

"Comfortably cool!" Drew sighed. "Exactly what we came for."

"Not only you. The coolth is a large part of the attraction of a health resort operated by an enterprising human couple. He is an herbalist and apothecary and she a Healer and nutritionist. Their advertisements and flyers acclaim the restorative effects of a sojourn away from the unremittingly tropical climate of most of Valentia. And indeed, some of their clientele are regulars, well-off folk who stay here every year during high summer for a month or so.

"Their system of integrated health, as they call it, also claims healthful properties for the river waters. Drinking and bathing in them will supposedly detoxify the body, purge it of the ill-effects of sloth, unhealthful diets, and over-indulgence. Moderate exercise such as walking and swimming are also part of the program as is a system of graceful rhythmic movements said to promote a state of mental calm and clarity as well as being good for both the musculature and the joints."

"We dwarves make no such claims ourselves for the waters, though we certain take advantage of the employment opportunities the resort provides. And who knows? There may actually be something to it. About three centuries ago a young journeyman druid named Kyle visited the caverns. This Kyle pronounced the waters not only wholesome and safe but opined that they might very well contribute to longevity. In any event, it can do no harm and likely some good for city folk to take up a healthful diet heavy on fruits and vegetables and fish but light on red meat, sweets, and spiritous liquors."

"I cannot offer you a tour of our domestic galleries. Their low ceilings make that impractical. We dwarves get by fine with five-foot ceilings, which not only saves on the labor of excavation but also acts as a security measure, facilitating our defense and hindering attack by taller foes. I am afraid Sir Finn you would have to crawl and most of the rest of you stoop to get through our galleries."

"Not that we have any real threats to worry about. We live here quietly, enjoying peace and the modesty prosperity which our tourist business provides. Oh and we also produce intricate clockwork mechanisms for a firm in a nearby city."

Dwarves were noted as metalworkers, something which endeared them to Finn's heart. He had started as a blacksmith.

"How many of you live here in these caves?" Jemsen asked.

"Just over six thousand, more than half in the first great cavern, so we have plenty of room for expansion. We grow no crops inside the caverns. Our farms are all outside and open to the sky. Our main crops are breadfruit trees intercropped with earth apples [i.e. potatoes].

Oh, just like the orcs!" Axel remarked.

"Er… if you say so, son. We also grow nuts, fruits, and vegetables. Grain or rather flour is something that has to be shipped in, otherwise no pastries. What a shame that would be!"

"I'm rather fond of fruit tarts myself." Axel admitted.

The mayor nodded and smiled. "Then you have come to the right place. We dwarves are known for our sweet tooth."

"I know that several of you have the gift of Unerring Direction and at least one of you can Call Light, but I caution you not to explore any of the dark tunnels beyond the inhabited zone. In the early days we lost several teams of scouts who set out to map the lower regions beyond the cascade at the lower end of the cave where the river dives deeper into the earth. Since then we have stayed within our bounds. You should do likewise."

"We shall." Finn affirmed seeing the the dwarf really was afraid of what might lurk in the unexplored chthonic depths of the limestone caverns. Dylan's empathic gift confirmed that the mayor was totally sincere and genuinely frightened of whatever menace might lurk in those unexplored chthonic depths.

"Mayor Kantor" Drew asked. "would anyone object if I flew my speedster through the skylight in the roof? It would make me the first flyer in the history of the planet to fly underground!"

"Aren't you afraid of a crash?"

"My little aerocraft is quite agile and will easily clear the opening. Besides, I am strong enough to take complete control of its flight and maneuver my autogyro by main force if it comes to that."

"Drew is a mighty fetcher, able to lift a pair of brontotheres into the sky." Axel supplied helpfully.

The mayor told Drew to go right ahead. He would alert everyone that a surprise was at hand, and also to watch out, just in case.

Drew went out the cavern entrance to his speedster and ran through a pre-flight check. Then he got into the cockpit and lifted off. In a moment he was over the skylight and the next he had dropped safely through with plenty of clearance for the whirling rotor.

"There he is" Dylan cried. "It takes guts to fly an autogyro underground." he said and assured the others that Drew would get a good story out of this exploit.

Indeed. To the delight of the resident dwarves and visitors, Drew flew the length of the cavern, circled back, zoomed close to the ground and back up to the roof. At one point he made his aerocraft loop the loop. Drew wasn't really going fast enough for the risky maneuver so he fudged things at bit. Once he reached the top of the arc he had invoked his telekinetic force to make his speedster complete its loop rather than stall and drop. He did it so smoothly that none of the onlookers suspected the adjustment he had had to make. No matter. It was the result that counted.

Drew finally touched down to a hero's welcome. Meanwhile Karel and Jemsen finished their sketches of Drew's notable flight and gave them to him for keepsakes.

Mayor Kantor expressed his hope that one day autogyros would ferry visitors to the caverns from the river port making the demanding pony ride unnecessary. Drew told him that commercial aviation in the Northlands might begin within a year though he could not predict when anyone might operate an aerial shuttle to the Cave of the Mountain River.

It happened that Finn, Madden Sexton, and the mayor were standing next to each other. Struck by the similarity in the muscular builds of the dwarf, human, and giant, Karel nudged his twin with an elbow, pointed at the group with his chin, and sliced the air palm down three times successively higher each time. Karel's gestures expressed the notion of small, medium, and large as effectively as any words. Jemsen got the message and grinned.

A while later Madden Sexton got the twins alone and told Karel.

"Don't for a moment think that I didn't see you just now."

"Oh?" the blond boy asked innocently.

"I saw you out of the corner of my eye. These days my peripheral vision is wider than before both horizontally and vertically."

"How come?"

"It's a side effect from when the New Forest helped me augment my sight to let me see heat. My eyes had to be larger so my skull was reshaped with larger orbits which also gave me a wider visual field."

"Anyway, for the record, dwarves really are proportionally wider and thicker of limb and trunk than any human or giant. They were designed that way to deal with heavy gravity planets out there in the cosmos."

"OK." Karel conceded. "Since you seem knowledgeable about such things, can you tell me what kind of worlds Frost Giants were built for?"

"New worlds. It was the mission of the Frost Giants to explore and open up newly discovered planets."

"In the days of the galactic empire space portals were unknown until the very end and the ships that sailed among the stars were slow often taking weeks between landfalls. It needed a special breed to open up new planets for settlement, and the settlers could not take all their technology with them nor maintain it in their new environs. Another way of putting it is that they could not transplant their civilization wholesale to a raw far-off world."

"Humans had to get back to basics, relying on draft traction and muscle-powered tools and weapons to survive for generations, long enough to develop the resources to pay for the automatic factories and the machines that made machines that made machines upon which their civilization on the older worlds depended."

"So their natural philosophers — or scientists and they called them — created the Frost Giants from a promising human stock, the Norse of old. Tough and resourceful, Frost Giants could rely on size and physical strength plus their skill at forging metals to survive and ultimately thrive with only basic technology. In later waves of settlement, settlers were endowed with magical gifts to make life easier and safer and open the galaxy to other races like the elves and orcs."

Anyway, Dylan and I are up for a swim. Are you guys game?"

They were.

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