Elf Boy's Friends - Volume XII

by George Gauthier

Chapter 4

Departure

At the military airfield in Caerdydd a pair of airmen rolled the two autogyros belonging to the Corps of Discovery out of their hanger and onto the field. The airmen assured the six members of the Corps that all was in readiness for their departure. They could load up and take off as soon as they got authorization.

Finn thanked them and gave the others the go-ahead to load their gear into the cargo hold except for gear they might need during the flight: a far-viewer tube, a water bottle, a box lunch from the army dining hall, and their weapons. They chatted away as good friends will until Drew Altair caught everyone's attention with a provocative remark:

"The way things have gone on this trip has left me with a profound sense of deja vu."

"There is nothing strange about that, is there?" Karel asked.

"Aren't we retracing our own steps? Years ago we did travel from Flensborg to Caerdydd. So it is no wonder that every place we have been to on this trip looks and feels familiar. If it seems as though we have been there before, well we have."

"My brother is surely right about that, isn't he?" Jemsen asked then added:

"And things are not really the same anyway. Look at the differences. We flew this time instead of taking a coach. The stretch of New Varangia which we crossed is no longer a thinly settled frontier. These days the new homeland of the frost giants has a population of over half a million. Instead of a badly rutted coach road, a modern trunk highway and a double tracked iron road link east and west."

"Yes, yes I understand all that," Drew conceded, "but think about this incident where a sergeant mistook us for raw recruits. History repeated itself didn't it? Next, consider how we met up with Clyde and Daniel. Our actions and our dialog, weren't they uncannily like a repeat of the way we met Petr Kwill and Ian Dentzer all those years ago?"

"It's gotta be coincidental." Karel assured Drew, adding:

"Besides, from here on out we travel to the West, not to the North like before. So there is no way we are going to get anywhere near the former Despotate of Dzungaria or run into Colonel Ifans."

"Did someone mention my name?" asked a tall man of middle years who had just walked up to where they were loading. Though grizzled in appearance the man was obviously still at the height of his physical powers.

"Colonel Ifans!" Karel blurted out, utterly flabbergasted.

"Actually Karel it's General Ifans now. I have to say I am very glad to once again see my old friends, the Young Peacemakers Four. I haven't talked with you Drew since my last trip to the capital when you gave me an inscribed copy of your best selling book on the secret aspects of your mission all those years ago."

"Your revelations about our secret alliance surprised a lot of people though I later learned that some astute observers had suspected for years that we were in collusion, the Despotate and the Commonwealth, to put a squeeze play on the old regime in these parts and bring about reforms. It made for a compelling narrative, and your book made us look good, me and Twm Glyn Dwr."

[pronounced as if written Tom Glen Dower]

"It's what you two accomplished in the cause of peace that made you look good." Drew returned generously and with genuine warmth. "You started out as dedicated revolutionaries and turned into far sighted statesmen."

"Pardon me for interrupting your mutual admiration society," Finn began, "but what the hell are you doing here Colonel? I mean General."

"I am here to join your expedition. My credentials and new orders signed by General Urqaart himself are in this envelope. The orders leave you in command of the expedition but appoint me as a military observer to study the countries which occupy the mountains as well as glean from their inhabitants what they might know of the coastal lands beyond."

Finn nodded. "Now we know why they asked us to delay our departure by a few days."

"Exactly! You are also gaining a military escort of ten scouts and rangers -- all proven men or elves and hand picked for this job. Two have gone into the mountains but no farther than a few miles into the front range. The squad is under the immediate command of Master Chief Borden."

"Chief Borden!" the twins exclaimed. Karel shook his head in disbelief. "Talk about deja vu!"

His brother nodded. "I am feeling it too, keenly so."

"Chief Borden was our sergeant of scouts back when we first joined the army." Jemsen clarified for anyone who hadn't recognized the name.

"He trained us under the supervision of Chief Wroclaw, another good man even if he couldn't spell his own name right."

Jemsen smiled at the old quip. This time Karel did have a point about phonetic spelling. A name pronounced "Vrotswaf" had no business being spelled W-R-O-C-L-A-W.

Ifans also told them:

"The escort will be flying in those two transport aerocraft the squad is rolling out of the hanger just now. We are taking two aerocraft for the sake of redundancy. If one of our machines becomes too damaged to fly, we can squeeze everyone into a single aerocraft. Besides, with a second autogyro we can carry more supplies."

"And ammo?" Corwin asked sardonically. The wars had left their mark on him.

"That too," Ifans confirmed.

"We'll be taking ammo not just for our personal weapons but also for a pair of crew-served tripod mounted swivel guns. They are the magnetic type but can also be operated telekinetically by our fetcher pilots. Now those big guns are for just in case. We want to avoid trouble, but you never know. And before you ask, Corwin the answer is that there are no bombs aboard."

"That is good. It would be tough to convince the locals of our peaceful intentions if a party of armed men arrived in bomber aerocraft," he returned wryly.

"Ah, our transports are now being lined up right behind yours for takeoff." Ifans waved Chief of Scouts Borden forward. The twins embraced him warmly. Drew and Finn had met the chief years earlier, during their first mission to Caerdydd, when he had just arrived to take his new posting.

Finn addressed the escort of scouts and pilots:

"Since this is now a military operation we will address you by rank and last names as is the normal practice the Army. Now your surnames are embroidered on those cloth name badges on your breasts. That is not true for rest of us, but I expect that you have heard of or read about those I brought with me: the red head and the short blond are the journalists and war correspondents Drew Altair and Corwin Klarendes, next to them are the famous twins Jemsen and Karel — Jemsen is the one in green — plus the Druid Lord Dahlderon."

All of them except the druid have been knighted, but they use their titles very seldom, mostly to get a better table at a restaurant. Simply address them by their surnames. In my case simply say 'Sir Finn' to get my attention and just 'Sir' after that.

"All those I brought with me are combat veterans. The twins and the druid have unmatched fieldcraft. The others are pretty good too, for all that Drew Altair is a city boy at heart. Corwin Klarendes grew up on the Eastern Plains and learned to ride a horse almost as soon as learned to walk. Altair alas rides even worse than I do. At least I have never fallen off a horse."

"Only because you've never gotten on one." Drew objected.

Everyone knew the reason without Drew having to say it, that frost giants were simply too big and heavy for horses to bear. Finn's rejoinder raised eyebrows:

"No, no horses, but I have ridden a brontothere and never fell off even once."

Having made the introductions and told the obligatory lame joke as an icebreaker Finn then told them what to expect, namely the unexpected, and what he expected from them, namely their best efforts. Finn emphasized that he would respect the chain of command. Their orders would come through the Master Chief save in an emergency requiring immediate action.

The first task of the Corps of Discovery was small scale mapping of the central massif of the Great Dividing Range, the area due west of here. That would give them a general idea of the bearing, height, and width of the front range and then the ranges beyond it. They were to chart mountain passes through which not only roads might be built but also aerocraft might fly without having to reach extreme altitudes where the air was cold and thin.

"Now I am a frost giant so I don't mind cold weather as much as you hot weather types do. Believe me it gets cold at altitude. How cold you might ask? Well, really high mountains are permanently capped with snow along with icefields and glaciers."

Chief Borden nodded and told his squad. "Now you know why you were issued woolen coveralls and jackets and caps and gloves."

One young elven scout had a question and raised his hand tentatively.

"Scout Evan, is it? Your name badge is hard to read, faded as it is."

"Yes, sir, the name is Evan, but that is my first and only name. Where I come from we go by only one name."

"Fair enough, Scout Evan; Jemsen and Karel are in the same boat as you. So what is your question?"

"Exactly what is a glacier?"

Finn was please that none of the other men snickered at Evan's ignorance, which was perfectly understandable for men from the tropics. Ifans caught his eye and smiled with satisfaction.

"I told you these were hand picked scouts, all serious no nonsense soldiers." Finn nodded and answered the young scout saying:

"A glacier is a river of ice. At high elevation the snow never melts even in high summer. It just piles up snowfall after snowfall. In time its own weight packs it into ice. Then that weight and the force of gravity send the front of the glacier sliding and flowing downhill. Yes, I know, ice is solid, but it can and does deform under pressure and will flow very slowly, its movement lubricated by water melted at the very bottom of glacier by its great weight. The snout or mouth of a glacier in the lower and warmer regions is always melting away, but new ice keeps flowing down from higher up to replace it. Got it?"

Evan smiled. "Got it, sir."

"One more thing; to coordinate our four aerocraft during flight we won't be relying on the usual signal flags and megaphones. Lord Dahlderon can link us via Mind Speech. Mostly it will be just us four pilots talking. I'd like General Ifans linked in too as a matter of course, in case he has a suggestion or wants to offer a comment. Anyone else who needs to link in should tap his pilot on the shoulder."

Corwin turned to the twins and teased:

"Finn's introduction was probably the last time for a long while when referring to you as 'the famous twins' won't help strangers recognize you but will only draw blank looks, just as it happened in Amazonia."

"What an appalling notion!" the twins chorused.

"The people who live in the mountains might not even realize what friendship tattoos mean and take them to be merely decorative."

"Perish the thought!"

"They may also be ignorant of druids." Dahl said, "None of us has ever operated so far west."

"That kind of mutual ignorance works both ways. They are as much strangers to us and our ways as we are to them. They may not even know what a parley flag is," Drew noted, then added mischievously:

"Poor Finn! He'll need a whole new battle cry if he hopes to impress or intimidate those folks."

Finn frowned. "How so?"

"Because the next time you raise Mjolnir to the sky and shout 'By the power of Thor!' the locals will just look puzzled and ask themselves 'Who the hell is Thor?'"

"Impudent scamp!"

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