Elf Boy's Friends - VIII

by George Gauthier

Chapter 25

Mud Volcano

At city hall Mayor Evan Thorn and the men and women of the town council greeted their celebrated visitors warmly. Everyone had read of the exploits of Finn Ragnarson, the famous twins Jemsen and Karel, the war correspondent, author, and soldier Drew Altair, and Sir Liam, the intrepid war wizard who had won the Commonwealth's two top medals for valor. Just recently they had read of the exploits of the cute copper topped war mage cum Jumper Axel Wilde in Corwin Klarendes' reports from the battlefields of Amazonia.

Madden Sexton and Dylan were unknown, but from what the others told them of their exploits particularly against the mosasaur were also worthy of admiration.

So they officials looked on the famous visitors with hope. Could these intrepid aviators offer some solution to their intractable problem?

"What is it you think you can do for us, Sir Finn?" the mayor asked, granting him the courtesy title as a measure of respect.

"Sir Jemsen is a powerful earth wizard. He already has an idea of how to proceed so I will let him explain it."

"It's Sir Liam's idea as much as my own. Now the tectonic forces that are forcing the hot water to the surface to create the mud volcano are too powerful to contain. We must provide an outlet, but one which no longer destroys farmland or threatens the town."

"Here is what we must do. With earth magic I can redirect the eruption to the north away from the built up area. Sir Liam and I will lay out a channel from which I will clear the recent overburden of mud plus the soil beneath. Then Sir Liam will blast a wide channel deep into the bed rock leading to the lip of the escarpment. Finally he will blast an exit at the base of the northern face of the volcano to direct all future eruptions into the drainage channel, if I may call it that. That will provide a permanent remedy to your problem."

"Sounds like a plan." Finn approved.

Mayor Thorn added:

"Then go ahead with it. Don't worry about the land at the foot of the the escarpment. It is very lightly populated. The town will compensate those who will have to pick up stakes, and we'll have them cleared out by tomorrow noon."

Liam and and the twins went to survey the mud volcano and surrounding mud pit while the others headed over to the inn Mayor Thorn had recommended. On the way they spotted Petr Shoskov who was engaged in a lively discussion with four other off-duty bicycle messengers two still sporting their crash helmets though pushed back jauntily on the crown of their heads. It seems Petr was being razzed for claiming to have met the great Finn Ragnarson and even gotten a kiss from him.

They all looked up in surprise as Finn boomed a friendly greeting to Petr.

"Hi there Petr! I am so glad we ran into you again. As you might guess we are heading over to our lodgings. We'd love to have you join us for dinner and to spend the evening together. Do you think you can make it?"

"And how! Where and when?"

Finn told him and added that Petr would want to put on something nice then ruffled his hair affectionately before heading over to their accommodations leaving Petr to bask in the admiration of his friends.

Petr did put on something nice: loose drawstring trews of green silk worn low at the hips, moccasins, and a buckskin vest nearly the color of his sun bronzed skin. Small and lacking buttons or ties, the vest was more a fashion accessory than a garment, barely covering his pectorals and leaving his midriff bare. Somehow the outfit managed to look both classy and sexy at the same time.

"Yum, yum." Liam remarked as the messenger boy arrived.

"Just remember Liam, that I saw him first." Finn reminded the young war wizard, then made the introductions. Young Petr was impressed. He never expected to find himself in such famous company. Mostly he listened as Finn and the others related their recent encounters with the raptors of the Stone Ring, the dragon of the Cave of the Mountain River, and the mosasaur of the Northern Ocean.

"Gosh, if only I could go on adventures like that." Petr finally said.

Sexton shrugged:

"You are only seventeen and with your admixture of elven blood can look forward to a two or three centuries of youth and health and beauty. Just be ready when opportunity knocks."

"Ready, yes, but how do I prepare? I am hoping for a major gift to manifest itself. Right now all I have is my gift of Unerring Direction. It's a job requirement for all of us messenger boys. The street grid here in town is laid out logically enough, but there is no logic to the web of farm-to-market roads, byways, and footpaths in the rural areas."

"Do you like your job then? Karel asked"

It's fine as far as it goes. I like being outdoors and riding all over rather than being stuck inside one place like clerking in a shop or working in a manufactory. And all that exercise hones my physique so I am in really good shape."

"So we noticed." Drew said dryly.

"You're supposed too. We messenger boys are hired for good looks and hard bodies as much as other qualifications like a sense of unerring direction. Our looks draw attention not only to ourselves but to the heliograph service itself."

"Now sometimes customers are too attentive, if you take my meaning. So we have to politely decline invitations and offers to dally. Actually some boys do make arrangements to come by later, but not me. Sure I like the attention I get from young guys, and I enjoy an active social life, but I don't work as a rent boy on the side."

"Oh and twice I week I work half days as a messenger and spend the afternoons fixing bicycles. I am handy with tools, and I do a bit of tinkering too. Like the squirter I attached to my down tube. When dogs chase me I pull on a cord and spray a solution of hot pepper toward the road. The smell irritates the noses and eyes of dogs but doesn't harm them. Some of the other guys can snap electrum sparks to keep rambunctious dogs at bay, but not me. I'd love to get a close look at your autogyros, if that is OK."

"As the expedition's mechanic," Axel began, "I'll be happy to show you how they are built. I have to pull preventive maintenance on the machines anyway before we set out on the final leg of our journey. Besides, one of the rotor bearings is running hot. Would you like to help me fix it?"

"Definitely. Where and when shall we meet?"

"Well, I could just knock on Finn's door in the morning, to make sure you guys are up and about…"

"Is it that obvious?"

The grins Petr saw all around answered that question.

The next morning Petr and Finn might well have slept in late to recover from their exertions, but Axel's knock got the pair up in time for morning ablutions. Then they joined everyone for a big breakfast, which in Petr's case consisted of a sausage and cheese omelet with bacon strips and hash brown potatoes plus three big red strawberries as a color accent. And kaffay of course.

Jemsen mentioned that that he had flagged down another messenger boy and told him that Petr would not be coming in to work. He was spending the day with them.

"With me mostly," Axel pointed out as they finished up and headed over to where the autogyros were parked. Petr slipped out of his garments so they wouldn't get dirty and wore just a shop apron Axel lent him. That left his rump bare displaying the tattle-tale finger marks Finn had left as he held on while pronging the boy.

"Finn didn't hurt me, you understand. For all his tremendous strength Finn is a careful, gentle, and caring lover. I was never afraid he might hurt me unintentionally, though he did grip my rump pretty firmly, hence the bruises."

"Proof positive for any skeptics among your friends."

"My thought exactly."

Petr and Axel worked side by side, checking for cracks, lubricating, and adjusting the three machines. They tightened bolts and patched a small hole in the fuselage. The reason the main rotor bearing of Liam's machine was running hot was grit that had got into the housing for the ball bearings. These had to be removed, cleaned with a solvent, greased, and packed back in.

"You have a good feel for things mechanical, Petr. No wonder people bring their bicycles for you to fix. Where do you get your spare parts?"

"I order them from the manufactory two towns over which assembles the vehicles from a locally sourced frame, seat, handle bars and so forth married up with wire wheels and drive train imported from the Commonwealth."

"They build them in three sizes: regular frame for humans and elves, small frame for children and dwarves, and big framed tricycles for giants. Three wheels all the same size are a better way to carry the the heavy weight of a giant. The wheels are in the delta configuration with one wheel up front and two in back just behind and under the saddle."

"Makes sense." Axel nodded then went on to say:

"One of the goals of our expedition was to set up aviation routes across North Valentia. The northern terminus is to be on the ocean at Nordstrand. If Finn can persuade the League government, your town of Waypoint will be the western terminus and later a jumping off point for further expeditions to extend the air routes. What I am saying is that you might have a future in aviation, in the maintenance end of the business. Are you interested?"

"So it would like working on bicycles only autogyros?" Petr asked.

"Yes, except it is much more fun taking an autogyro up for a test spin than taking a bicycle out on the road for a test run. As a prospective crew chief, you would travel to the Commonwealth capital for training then fly back with the first consignment of aerocraft which will be dedicated to carrying air mail and light parcels."

"In competition with the heliograph and infrasound lines, you mean."

"A slower alternative, but at a reduced price yet faster than a mail coach. The postal service in the Commonwealth moves mail three different ways: surface mail by coach is the slowest but the cheapest. Heliograph and infrasound are the fastest and most expensive. Air mail is in between for both cost and speed. The three mode are complementary. Don't worry that you might be putting your friends out of business. That won't happen."

"Then count me in."

With the maintenance work done Axel and Petr cleaned up then walked over to see what was happening at the mud volcano.

Jemsen had delved the entire muddy area and located the best place to breach the volcano and to construct the drainage channel. Given the all clear signal from the area below the escarpment, Jemsen invoked earth magic. Fists clenched and raised and muscles tensed he heaved the slurry of earth and water aside all the way down to bed rock raising his fists to the sky.

Strictly speaking such gestures were unnecessary. The exercise of magical powers was an act of will, but all magic users gestured either for dramatic effect or as an aid to concentration. Drew's trademark shadow boxing technique when whirling his steel spheres around was a prime example of the latter.

Liam stepped forward then pointed to aim blasts of white fire slanting downward which gouged a deep channel into the rock. When Jemsen released the slurry along the sides, it dropped into the channel and flowed over the edge. Then Jemsen blasted the vent in the side of the volcano, almost getting scalded by the sudden release of pent up hot gasses, but Karel was ready for that and pushed the hot gasses aside with a jet of air.

In minutes the mud volcano that had threatened the town was rendered harmless. In time it would become an amenity as enterprising townsfolk touted the therapeutic effects of the mud and went into business offering lodgings, mud baths, massage, beauty treatments, and so on.

Having dealt with the town's problem the Corps of Discovery then sought out the League officials who turned out to be receptive to the proposal for air services with the Commonwealth. The extension of aviation services to the Northlands was a project that practically sold itself. The officials recognized the value of air mail both in the towns strung along the Trade Road, with the other lands in Northern Valentia, and with the Commonwealth. The proprietor of the local news-paper was particularly enthusiastic.

"Thanks to movable type technology licensed from the Altair family firm we have the most modern printing plant in the North. The weekly print run for our news-paper is only part of it. We also publish a varied line of books including reprints of those field guides which you twins write. And yes, as a condition of the license we do pay royalties. The League is the only jurisdiction outside the Commonwealth to do so, I might point out."

"Unfortunately the foreign news is stale by the time it reaches us. Much of our international reporting is three weeks out of date. That is how long it takes horse-drawn freight wagons to cross the Western Plains carrying news-papers from the Commonwealth which print news gathered by the Press Association of Valentia. I look forward to the day when autogyros will bring us the latest news within a day."

"And then who knows what might develop in the decades to come. What I would like most of all is a link to that projected heliograph line running north from the Commonwealth to Nordstrand."

The League was especially proud of its line of communications towers erected on heights twenty-five or thirty miles apart. It was the first dual line anywhere to employ both heliograph and infrasound messaging for when clouds obscured the sun.

The newspaper man enthused:

"Our traders look forward to the the day a road or even an iron-road is built across the Western Plains to link our own Great Trade Road to the Commonwealth's network of trunk highways. A new age is dawning, the modern age, and we in the League will be part of it!"

From the League officials they learned that every town specialized in some product or commodity taking advantage of local resources like soils, mineral deposits, microclimate, or clusters of skills and trades. That generated much of the exchange of goods along the trade road. Spices from one town, tea from another, raisins and figs, dried fruit, wheat flour, light manufactures like shoes, pottery, brass fittings. All were traded along the road.

The next few days were a whirlwind of activity. First came a celebratory dinner with officials of both town and league. Next the twins obtained a complete set of road and town maps from the League's cartographic office for eventual incorporation in their line of guides for commercial travelers.

Finn and Petr carried on their summer romance which included joy rides in Finn's autogyro to several towns farther west and to scenic spots in between for picnic lunches, long talks, and al fresco love making. Finn was glad that Petr was not just a pretty face set atop a fabulous body. He was just as gifted in the brains department. Who knew where that natural gift might take him? Look how far Eike's natural talents carried him before his magical gift manifested.

For Petr this interlude with Finn was the happiest episode in his hum drum existence. That was why he looked forward to becoming an autogyro mechanic not only in Waypoint but possibly on a future expedition with his new friends. Like all teenage youths he liked to imagine himself the hero of grand adventures. Who better to share them with than Finn and his companions, good people one and all?

Drew went by the offices of the news-paper to talk with fellow journalists. They were glad to welcome a scion of the Altair family who supplied the technology of printing by moveable type. Though the technology itself was in the public domain, the Altairs held a commanding position in the business of supplying the wherewithal to set up a printing business.

Later Drew and Liam rode along with their fellow fetchers on one of the tandem lines of freight wagons called wagon trains. Even without teams of horses to drive the fetchers who propelled the trains were still called teamsters. That pleased Liam who had started out as a teamster driving a stage coach in New Varangia which carried both passengers and mail.

The wagon trains had been inspired by the iron roads in the Commonwealth though its foreign wagons were much smaller than those on the iron roads. The trade road did not transport bulk cargoes like iron ore, coal, or phosphate rock for fertilizer. Its wagons had the same overall dimensions of a horse drawn wagon but with a lower bed to facilitate loading of shipping crates of uniform size.

Wagon trains were twice as fast and more efficient than hauling with animal drayage, requiring but a pair of fetchers instead of four of five teamsters plus as many teams of horses plus replacements. Horses could be temperamental or get sick from colic, and the feed bill for thirty horses added up fast, not to mention that wagon trains propelled by fetchers left no mess on the roads. Wagon trains were the future of freight transportation along the Great Trade Road.

Drew wondered how maneuverable the wagon trains were, thinking it must be hard to back up a wagon train, but his interlocutor pointed out that all he had to do to reverse direction for the return journey was to jump off the lead wagon, walk to the back, hop on, then push the other way.

Wagon trains ran between freight depots located right off the trade road and never had to thread their way through narrow town streets. At the depot they would unhook the wagons and roll them to the loading dock one at a time. Loads were never loose cargo. Goods were always packed in standard crates which made for fast loading and unloading, whether with winches or the telekinetic gift of fetchers.

The real problem with the big wagon trains was braking to a halt. Getting the train rolling required both fetchers to overcome inertia but only one at a time to keep in moving against rolling resistance and air resistance, but stopping meant countering the frightful momentum of four or five heavily laden wagons rolling down a road at twenty-five miles per hour. It took a combination of hydraulic and telekinetic braking to bring the train to a gradual halt.

With the others engaged elsewhere Axel, Dylan, and Sexton were free to stroll around town, to sample local cuisine, to visit the barber for a long overdue cut, to attend a couple of brass band concerts in a local park, and to browse the book stores and shops.

On the morning of their departure, the Corps took leave of Petr assuring him that when the time came Axel would Jump him to the capital for training as an autogyro mechanic. Then they took off heading for the Hot Lands to rendezvous with Raqqub and Kyle and their friends who by now would have prepared their business plan for aviation services in the Northlands.

The districts the travelers passed over were increasingly drier than those near Waypoint. In those more easterly regions the rains were less frequent and fitful, often tapering off disappointingly soon after a brief shower. Bustling towns, lush farms and fields, vineyards and woodlots gave way to ranches and pastures dotted with patches of scrub and gallery forest along the streams. Finally the paved trade road came to its terminus in the turning circle at Zeebring.

Flying over the Hot Lands they could still see signs of the devastation inflicted by the locust plague months earlier though Nature was quickly healing those wounds. At the oasis of Amity all went well. Raqqub and Kyle and devised a sound business plan. All that remained then was to fly them to the capital and to order the machines, tools, and spare parts the budding aviation entrepreneurs would need to start aviation services all the way to Nordstrand on the ocean and to Waypoint in the League.

The members of the Corps of Discovery were eager to find out what had happened while they were away. At the capital they learned from Corwin Klarendes of the climactic battles in the Troll War which had ended not merely in total victory but in an apocalypse.

But that is another story.

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