Elf Boy's Friends - VIII
At the celebratory dinner that evening the locals heard from the Corps of Discovery about their recent adventures with Snow Elves and raptors, and that so-called Dragon they had slain. Drew said that when he got back to the Commonwealth he would compile the reports he had already sent to the Capital Intelligencer plus new material into a book. The names of the mayor and councillors would be featured in the chapter on this visit to Nordstrand.
Drew was pleased that copies of most of his books had reached even this far corner of Valentia. Herjulf admitted that he had skipped Drew's book on the peacemaking process in the Far West. From what his father told him, it was all about politics, intrigue, and economics with little action or adventure, unlike Drew's war books. Drew promised that there would be plenty of action in the new book.
Meanwhile readers should look to the forthcoming book by his colleague, Corwin Klarendes about the recently concluded campaign in Amazonia and a planned follow-up volume on the Western or final campaign in the war against the trolls.
Erik Sevenson expressed a hope that one day someone would start a news-paper that covered the Northlands, not just their own towns but happenings in the whole region including the Stone Ring, the Cave of the Mountain River, the Medkari lands, and other places. Drew was all for that, but thought that starting a news-paper would require an initiative from local investors. His family's firm would be happy to sell the makings: moveable type, presses, and technical experts on both printing and journalism to get the new venture set up. In all likelihood the paper would eventually subscribe to the Altair's news service once a heliograph line reached Nordstrand.
Dessert was boysenberry iced-cream. Rich and creamy and sweet, the confection was a welcome surprise to Finn. Boysenberries were his favorite berry. He couldn't have been more pleased.
"We copied the Commonwealth's refrigeration technology exactly" Erik Svenson said proudly "by reverse engineering those snap together ice-boxes your friend Count Klarendes manufactures back in the Commonwealth. I built a manufactory next to my shipyard to turn them out, you see."
"As to how we get ice, it's the same process used in the Commonwealth. At the foot of the cataract we divert some of the water into holding ponds. After firecasters freeze the top layer, workers cut the ice into blocks and store them in ice houses. Over time blocks of ice are withdrawn from storage and delivered by the push carts to subscribers. The beauty of the arrangement is that delivery routes are downhill all the way. Only empty carts have to be pushed uphill."
Finn asked for only four guest rooms for the Corps of Discovery. A bed large enough for a frost giant could easily accommodate three slender youths like the twins and Dylan in one with another for Liam, Axel, and Drew. In fact they were much like those in their quarters back in the capital. Needless to say, the six did more than simply sleep in those beds.
Axel had become lovers with both Liam and Drew long before he took up with any of the others. Now eight of his closest friends shared an expanded suite of rooms in their residential hotel in the capital. The other members of their household were twins, Nathan Lathrop, and Eike Thyssen. So they were intimately acquainted with each other's bodies and how best to arouse them and have fun.
Finn now had a roving commission which took him away from his original post as a Hand of the Commonwealth in Flensborg, the capital of New Varangia. When in the capital he always shared a room and bed with one or more of the eight.
The forest rangers Dylan and Madden Sexton both operated out Elysion where the twins were frequent visitors who shared their room with Dylan if he was not out on patrol. For their stay in Nordstrand though Finn Ragnarson and Madden Sexton slept alone.
Over the next ten days Jemsen sounded the depths of the fjord and updated the local charts accordingly. Karel had learned to sail small boats on sheltered waters both for fun and for transportation. Sailing was a fine way to capitalize on his air wizardry which ensured that no matter which way the wind was blowing or even in a dead calm, he could call up a jet of air to fill his sail and push him where he wanted to go.
He loved the feel of the wind in his hair and the kiss of the sun on his skin especially on his bare bum for he always sailed sky clad. From time to time they boys heaved to and dove into the water. Saltwater provided more buoyancy than did fresh water making it easier for hard bodied types like them to float. Their bodies were too dense to simply float in fresh water. That was especially true about the legs, all bones and sculpted musculature. That was why slender pretty boys like the twins, Dylan, Drew, and Axel, among others, always had to scull with the arms and legs while floating on their backs.
The twins had been assured that it was safe to swim in the fjord. The predatory sea monsters of the outer ocean shunned the confines and brackish waters of the inlet. In any case the mouth of the fjord was jealously guarded by dolphins who hunted for fish in and around the coral reef just offshore. The inlet was their courtship and breeding ground and where females gave birth to their young.
The soundings confirmed the presumed U shape of a valley once sculpted by a river of ice and now occupied by an inlet of the ocean. Natural philosophers argued over whether the ancient ice age which created such land forms was the result of fluctuations in the output of the sun or of continental drift which at one time must have brought Valentia into the polar regions.
Next Jemsen and Karel, with Axel's help, jumped to the local peaks, not only those enclosing the fjord but those on the coast east and west and most importantly the peaks and the saddles of the coastal range which aviators would have to fly over once commercial aviation got started in those parts. The took readings both with a box barometer to establish approximate altitude plus azimuthal sightings for the twins to calculate relative position and height above mean sea level using trigonometric tables and logarithms.
"Are there any security threats in the region?" Madden Sexton asked at a follow-up meeting.
The mayor shook his head. "No, not any more. Not for almost sixty years. That was when the coastal states formed an alliance against a nest of pirates who operated out of an island fortress built atop one of the larger skerries. Their racket was extortion rather than pillage of towns or seizing ships. Pay them and they would not fall upon your town or molest the shipping on which your prosperity and theirs depended. To be fair they did fend off raids by outsiders, not out of any regard for the towns they milked but just to protect their territory."
"Exasperated by their rapacious and escalating demands, the Alliance put their stronghold under siege. The pirates thought they were invulnerable, perched atop a crag, and the only landing place on the skerry was at their fortified harbor. What they did not realize was that the Alliance had hired a powerful earth wizard from abroad. He delved the foundations of their fort and discovered it rested on a shell of rock above a great sea cave. When the wizard sent an earthquake to shake the skerry the roof collapsed dropping most of the fort into a hole in the ground while the rest slid into the harbor blocking it and making it unusable. Problem solved."
"Did you capture or kill the survivors?"
"Neither. We just waited them out, rather than risk the lives of our men. We knew that sooner or later they would run out of food or water. Two guard boats took turns watching the island. After a month we put a landing party ashore and found no one alive. It turns out that they had plenty of water in a cistern, but the collapse allowed sea water to ruin their food supply. They had resorted to cannibalism at the end. No one visits the island any more and not just from difficulty of access. It is seen as a place of ill omen."
Finn saw that it was all coming together, what the Commonwealth Council dubbed the Greater North Valentia Co-prosperity Sphere. The Sphere was ultimately about more than communications and commerce and cultural interchange. In time friendly and profitable relations among the peoples of the north would make armed conflict among them or with the Commonwealth virtually unthinkable.
It was not an ignoble ambition for a hegemonic state, Finn reflected. If a single country was destined to dominate the continent, then who better than the Commonwealth of the Long River? Hadn't the Commonwealth earned the gratitude of all peoples for battling the trolls in and on their behalf? The payoff for it efforts was that all its peoples could develop in freedom, peace, and domestic tranquility.
As arranged the pilots Finn and Drew and Liam met with the elders to outline the links they hoped to establish for air mail, transport of passenger and freight, an aerocraft industry, collaboration with natural philosophers from the Commonwealth, and for journalism and printing.
In aviation Finn had asked them to suggest routes for the new air services and in what order those locations should be brought into the network. Finn planned to meld these proposals with those of Raqqub and Kyle and the others in the Medkari lands who were hard at work on their business plan. Then they went over the capital requirements for investment in the new industries and the mix of trades and skills the manufactories would require.
With those three looking to be locked in meetings for several days the twins, Axel, Madden Sexton and Dylan accepted an invitation from Erik Svenson for a coastal voyage lasting a week. They would sail aboard his mail packet, a fast ship which carried letters and small parcels and a very few passengers between the settlements strung out along the north coast. Swenson encouraged them to bring along their diving goggles so they could explore the reefs at the mouth of each fjord.
Axel did ask about the predatory sea monsters of the outer ocean. All right, the dolphins kept them away from the reefs and the inlets but what about the waters where they they would be sailing? The line of skerries sheltered the coast from swell and storms but surely the monsters could swim through the many gaps. And what did these monsters look like anyway.
Swenson showed them an exhibit hall where the the skeletons of sea monsters were mounted. The smaller ones ran about twelve feet long. The largest skeleton was forty four feet long though the biggest on record was ten feet longer. A painting showed the appearance of the largest monster when alive. It was a creature out of a nightmare.
With a streamlined body something like a whale or a seal it had large flippers for steering and very long tail for propulsion. The head was huge with large eye sockets and jaws as long as a man's arms. They were lined with jagged teeth suited to snagging swimming prey and holding it while the animal engulfed it.
"Why so big a torso, and where are the arches for the gills?" Jemsen asked.
"No gills. The sea monsters breathe air hence the barrel torso to house the lungs. They are not fish at all but reptiles." Sveneson told him.
"I'd hate to meet up with one if I were swimming or diving." Axel said dubiously.
"Well if you do, Axel, you can always just Jump into the clear." Karel told him airily.
"That's not what I meant Karel, and you know it. What do you call these sea beasts anyway."
"They have several names but mosasaur is the most common. Mostly they keep out to sea where the bigger fish like tuna run. They patrol near the surface so they can breathe then dive to attack from below. Anyway close encounters with the larger mosasaurs are rare for the same reason that big fierce predators are rare in the jungle."
"Oh, you mean because they are at the top of the food chain?" Dylan asked.
"Actually it's more useful to think of them as apex predators perched atop a stepped pyramid which mimics the populations of prey and predatory species. Predatory species require much larger populations of prey to support them. At the bottom, the tiniest of predators feed on plankton which is ubiquitous in these warm seas."
At their first port the reef was spectacular with fish of all shapes and colors sharing the bounty of the reef amid coral shaped like the horns of a stag, a fan, or the human brain. Sponges and sea anemones and brittle stars added to the variety of bizarre life forms.
All five of the members of the Corps of Discovery aboard the packet disrobed and dove into the warm waters at the mouth of the fjord, wearing the goggles they had acquired from the Medkari plus a local innovation, shin fins made of flexible sheet metal. It strapped to the ankle and reached from just back of the toes halfway to the knees, folding around the lower leg yet flaring out to the sides.
For entirely practically reasons the shin fin was painted the same tone as legs bronzed by the sun. Anything colorful would look like a fluttering fish and so would invite attack by a hungry predator, and bright metal would act like a fishing lure.
The downstroke of the scissor or flutter kick delivered the full power of a kick from the hips instead of just from the knees as with swim fins that fit over the feet and with much less back kick and splashing. On the surface the shin fins helped keep the legs horizontal, something the slender boys appreciated since their hard bodies were too dense to float properly. Sexton too appreciated their virtues. He might not be slender, but he was all bone and muscle and sinew so he had much the same problem. They all agreed that in the future shin fins would be a permanent part of their kit.
Swimming at the surface looking down at the reef was a lot like flying over a landscape. When they spotted something interesting, they dove for a closer look. holding their breath for up to three minutes. You could not bring back souvenirs. Visitors would soon pick the reef clean if that were allowed, and the boatmen who took tourists out to dive were zealous protectors of the reef which furnished their livelihoods.
Boatmen in the second town rowed tourists out to view the colorful reef from glass bottomed boats. They assured patrons that watertight floatation compartments would keep the boat afloat even in the unlikely event that the glass panels set into the bottom broke.
Halfway to their fourth port the ship's wind talker listened to an emergency call via infrasound. As an air wizard Karel heard it too. A large passenger ferry had hit a reef and capsized, leaving its passengers floating in the water or stranded atop reefs and low skerries. Already the swells brought the water up to their shins, which meant that the reefs would be fully underwater at high tide. Two fishing boats nearby had taken aboard as many of the castaways as they could then sounded the alarm.
The mail packet was only a few miles away, the closest of any sizable vessel that might effect a rescue. The captain put on full sail and made her fly with the wind. Karel helped out by calling a jet of air to push her along though not too hard. He coordinated with the wind talker to keep from damaging the rigging. It was not long before they arrived and started collecting stranded passengers in their gig. Some active fellows and ladies swam out to the packet and clambered aboard via ropes thrown over the side. '
It looked like all was going well till a sailor spotted an ominous shape which had swum from the open ocean attracted by the commotion and slipped through the channel between two skerries. It could only be a mosasaur and a record size on at that. Sixty feet if it was an inch. And terribly close by. What to do?
Some of the stranded sailors and passengers drew knives, but hand held blades even those of frost giants were of little use in a confrontation with a sea monster. Oh a fifteen inch blade might wound it and cause it pain but it was too short to reach its vitals.
The captain and Svenson knew that sea monsters were hard to kill. The best non-magical method involved harpoon and lance which could penetrate to its heart or lungs, but such implements were never carried aboard a mail packet. He asked if the five expedition members could help.
Karel shook his head:
"I can't do much. A sun mirror is an area weapon and hard to focus on a point target, especially a moving one. As for an air blade, the monster will be upon them before I can firm one up. Besides a mosasaur's location in the depths is hard to judge because of refraction. Now I may not be able to kill it, but I can shield some of the stranded passengers."
Karel then formed a shield of hardened air fifty yards long and five high which he sank into the sea to keep the mosasaur from getting at the largest cluster of its intended victims. That still left plenty more potential victims swimming singly or in small groups or stranded on scattered skerries and rocks.
"Don't look at me." Jemsen said. I am an earth wizard. At best I can delve or rather sound the mosasaur's position in the depths to guide Karel's air blade if only he had time to firm one up."
Axel realized that time was too short to Jump more than a fraction of the stranded passengers. Anyway the packet ship was too small. Two hundred people, many of them giants, would never fit aboard a mail packet. He looked around for a better place to land what passengers he might save and gave vent to his frustration.
"If only Finn or Liam or Drew were around. Finn could blast it with lightning, Liam with white fire, and Drew could cut it to pieces with his steel discus or lift it high out of the water and let it fall from on high and smash itself on a skerry. But no, they had to go to a meeting. First the Dragon and now this. Is there some rule that says we have to keep running into monsters without our heavy hitters on hand?"
"I hardly think that's fair." Karel protested. "Jemsen and I are pretty heavy hitters in our own right. The problem is that here at sea we are out of our element, literally. My tutelary element is air and Jemsen's is earth. Liam is the water wizard in our group."
They had to watch helpless as the mosasaur snagged one of the swimmers and dragged it down. Blood darkened the waters. Soon the monster was back snatching one of a cluster of Frost Giants from atop a tiny reef. It did not get away entirely unscathed. The other giants stabbed and slashed at it as best they could.
Then Dylan spoke up.
"I sent out a telepathic call for dolphins to fight the sea monster. A pod of six answered my call. They are willing to battle their hereditary foe, but their echolocation has shown them that it is far larger than any monster they have ever tackled. Still they are willing to help if we could somehow wound it or disable it or slow it down, making their ramming tactics more likely to succeed."
"Ramming tactics?" Axel asked.
"Dolphins catch fish with their teeth, but those are small and would be useless against a mosasaur. Instead dolphins swim at top speed and ram their hard beaks into the sides of their foes and their gill arches if that is how they breathe. The impact from their momentum can tear up the insides of even the largest of sea creatures, even a monster like this one, and kill it by internal bleeding if nothing else.
"If only we had our bows." the twins cried. "We could shoot it with poisoned arrows."
"Fortunately, I did bring along my throwing stars." Sexton told them. "I never leave home without them. And these three with the red markings are coated with Aodh's potent venom. Now Dylan, can you have the dolphins drive or maybe lure the mosasaur so it swims along the side of the ship away from the stranded passengers?"
Two dolphins feinted at the mosasaur then darted away escorted by the others and led the sea monster on a chase at the surface which lead right by the side of the packet ship. Blessed with the strength of a Frost Giant and with enhanced speed and reflexes Sexton flung the throwing stars with such force as to bury them completely in the flesh of the monster. The poison dissolved in its blood and acted quickly. It wasn't nowhere near enough to kill the mosasaur but the pain was intense. The monster writhed and thrashed in agony.
That was the signal for the dolphins to close in and ram it repeatedly. The six members of the pod each hit it at least three times. One dolphin got a bit of his fluke bitten off but not enough to slow him down by much.
Within the hour fishing boats and other vessels arrived to take off the stranded travelers. The new arrivals all marveled at the gigantic mosasaur and wondered how it had been slain. One fishing boat threw part of its catch to the dolphins as a reward and to help them renew their strength after their prodigious exertions against the monster.
Dylan conveyed their thanks to the fishermen. Dolphins were intelligent creatures, air breathing mammals, not fish, and had always had friendly relations with the strange two-legged creatures with whom they shared their home waters. It was an infraction of the law punishable by a stiff fine to kill one even by accident and a serious crime to kill a dolphin deliberately. Their intelligence was why Dylan felt he had to ask the dolphins for help not compel it. Besides, beast master though he might be, he could never have coordinated the efforts of half a dozen unwilling conscripts. Nor did he have their fighting instincts and knowledge of how to battle sea monsters.
Captain Swenson paid two fishing boats to tow the monster to land where the flesh might rot and free up the skeleton for eventual display at the exhibit hall. He detailed two of his own sailors to stay with the carcass to maintain his claim then headed into port to deliver the passengers he had rescued. The twins made sketches of the monster knowing Drew would want them for his forthcoming book.
The grateful port captain readily accepted his claim on the mosasaur carcass and agreed to post a watch till Svenson got a crew there to flense the dead mosasaur and retrieve the skeleton. In time it was put up in center of the hall. Portraits of Dylan and Sexton sketched by the twins were prominently displayed. A second exhibit about the visit of the Corps of Discovery displayed portraits of all its members
All told, only eight passengers died by drowning and one sailor got crushed where the hull was stove in plus the two victims taken by the monster. Of the two hundred, almost two thirds were Frost Giants. On Svenson's nomination and to universal acclaim, Dylan and Madden Sexton were proclaimed Giant-Friends and given their blue tattoos.
Looking warmly at his protege, Sexton told him that he had made a fine start on a collection of capital letters all his own: Dylan of Reeling, Forest Ranger, Beast Master, and Giant-Friend. Dylan's eyes glistened. Sexton's respect and friendship had come to mean a whole lot to him.
"Lesson learned." Finn declared. "We all gotta stay in touch. When we separate by any distance, let's have Karel in one group and Liam in the other so they can send infrasound messages back and forth. And OK, maybe it did not matter this time the way things happened so fast, but Liam, forgot to hop Axel through a portal so he could Jump right to that spot from anywhere. Understand I am not try to single anyone out for fault. After action reports and briefings are not about blame but about lessons learned, Are you guys with me?"
Of course, when Finn put it that way how could they not be?
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