Elf Boy's Friends - Volume XIII

by George Gauthier

Chapter 15

Maelstrom

Some days later the flotilla sighted a sandy headland crowned with pines gnarled and stunted and sand blasted by the constant onshore wind. The cape turned out to be an inflection point where the northerly trending coast bent eastward. This Northwest Cape, as they dubbed it, extended far out to sea as an underwater reef with no more than a fathom of water above the sea bottom.

It did not help that even on calm days surf churned the water into beach foam or spume, which itself was a hazard, as the druid warned.

"That sea foam is a fathom thick, so it can conceal physical hazards like rocks and reefs and storm debris. Also the smell tells me that the remnants of a toxic algal bloom are mixed in with the sea foam. Don't let it get on your skin or into your lungs."

Beyond the cape lay a jumble of rocky islets which channeled and squeezed the currents and the constant onshore winds between them. What looked like a wide passage between two widely separated islets was blocked by a maelstrom, a series of whirlpools with currents running twenty knots, faster than their ships could sail.

"You're looking awfully anxious Aodh," Nathan Lathrop observed.

"Maybe it is just the landlubber in me, but I've heard that a giant whirlpool can suck an entire ship down into the depths taking all hands with her."

"We have heard that tale too," Professor Scolari noted, speaking for himself and his colleagues.

"Tales told by sailors in their cups," Nathan assured them dismissively.

"That's what you said about the Kraken," Aodh pointed out, "and look what happened."

Nathan nodded to concede the point, then explained:

"The difference is that whirlpools are a known marine hazard but are dangerous mostly to small craft which can be swamped by the turbulent waters. A stout ship like the Arctic Tern would likely suffer little damage, though I would worry about her rudder and the strain on her standing rigging. Our long range aerial scouts give us plenty of warning. We would never be caught by surprise when the vortex reforms as it does after each slack period. Ships like ours, built for ocean navigation, can simply steer well clear of such dangers."

Nathan Lathrop used his gift to sound the roiled waters. He discovered that the vortexes were formed by the combination of powerful semi-diurnal tides, sea currents, strong local winds, and the unusual shape of the seabed. A shallow ridge forced the flows upward forming eddies and vortexes. The result was an uncrossable maelstrom.

On top of everything else, the iron-bearing rocks of the islands made compass needles point erratically. Only their navigators' gift of Unerring Direction kept them sailing a true course.

The upshot was that navigation in the violent seas off the cape was so hazardous as to be impossible without magical assistance. Even with the aid of sounders and weather, water, or air wizards it would be dangerous.

In the end the flotilla did not try to round the cape but, from caution, swung wide and headed north, out to sea, well away from land, before angling back toward the coastline once again.

The folks they later met along the coast told them that Northwest Cape was known as the graveyard of lost ships. They had long since given up efforts to round the cape with ships capable only of short range coastwise travel. So no wonder there was no seaborne commerce between the Benign Coast and this northern stretch of the continent of Sarmantia.

Late that afternoon the flotilla dropped anchor in a sheltered cove with white sandy beaches beyond which lay uninhabited forest lands. Commodore Dekker intended to wait there all the next day while sending our long range scouts on flying wings. With the Arctic Tern not under sail at the moment, her passengers gathered on the quarterdeck and studied the coast through far-viewer tubes.

The twins remarked on a species of trees which did not stand vertically like the other trees growing around them but had trunks which slanted toward the North.

The druid smiled at this latest of the endless questions with which the insatiably curious twins plied their sometimes exasperated interlocutors. But then, the keen minds of the twins were one of their most attractive qualities.

"Unlike all other trees, these pines grow toward the noonday sun rather than straight up toward the sky. Also at these higher southern latitudes the slant is more pronounced than closer to the equator. On the equator itself, they stand as straight at any other species while in northern latitudes, their trunks slant toward the South. Now being made of solid wood, trees cannot turn like sunflowers, but they do orient their growth toward the sun. It is just one more of Nature's wonders."

"And useful too for scouting your surroundings!" Karel enthused.

"How so?"

It was Jemsen who answered.

"What my brother is getting at is that it is far easier for a scout who needs to see the lay of the land to ascend a slanting trunk than to scramble up the vertical trunk of a normal tree. The former is almost a walk, the latter a hard climb which sometimes requires a rope, spikes, and/or a grapnel. Scouts will readily take advantage of an easy way to the top, and these slanted trunks certainly are that."

"Remember," Karel added. "we twins started out as hunters, explorers, and Army scouts, so scouting is second nature to us. Our original modest magical gift of Unerring Direction was perfectly suited those professions, far more so than our later major gifts of air and earth wizardry. "

"I mean powerful gifts like those can be useful only episodically as in combat or when you get in a jam or you want to help, protect or rescue others. Look at Corwin's ability to wield ball-lightning, something that is useful only in combat. You cannot make a living with it unless like Liam, Axel or Sir Willet you are a full-time member of the military."

"Right. Despite being heavy hitters in combat Drew and Corwin support themselves with their pens, just as Jemsen and I do with your field guides and other publications."

"That is true as far as it goes," Drew allowed, "but though my gift of telekinesis does not pay the bills for me it is very much woven into my daily life whether as pilot of my autogyro or just fetching a book from the upper shelf of our library or an apple from a bowl of fruit. Also I never have the annoyance of having to bend over to pick up something I have dropped on the floor. Instead it just flies back into my hand."

"Not to mention the romantic possibilities with telekinesis," Liam reminded him, which brought a smile to everyone's face.

"And let's not forget," Liam added, "how many fetchers make a good living these days with telekineses, moving freight and passenger trains on the iron roads, street cars, aerocraft, and tricycle cabs."

"As a naval officer," Nathan began, "my gift of sounding is well suited to my profession. Not only can I sense what lies below the surface I can see in pitch dark on a night when a normal person cannot see the hand in front of his face."

"It's different with us shape shifters." Aodh pointed out. "Our dual magical nature is who we are. That is why we are forever switching forms to our animal shape and going on walk about."

"And for us druids," Dahl added, "ours is not just a profession, it is a calling that comes with the powers which let us carry our mission as the guardians of the planet's biosphere."

"We druids live comfortably but simply and have no use for luxury, ostentation, or display, as Aodh can tell you himself since we live with the Klarendes clan in their manor house at Elysion. Mostly the wealth of our order goes to worthy causes like afforestation and reforestation or helping the victims of ecological disasters like crop blights, an invasion of army ants, and the like."

"In any event unlike a government we don't levy taxes nor do we solicit or accept donations. And we do not charge for our services either. We are entirely self-supporting. For instance, some of the most costly spices are grown on our crop lands. Even elves don't have Green Thumbs like ours. And with space portals, we can deliver to our wholesalers across the continent with no time lost in transit, no spoilage, and with minimal expenses for transportation."

"So, portals do have a commercial application after all, but only for our own use. We druids have no desire to compete with iron roads or river or seaborne commerce."

"Direct magic aside," Aodh noted, "let's not overlook how magic has doubled or tripled our physical powers giving us great strength, speed, reflexes, stamina, and keen senses which are very much a part of our daily lives."

"Including in bed," Liam pointed out. "Our love lives are supercharged athletically and acrobatically in ways which ordinary mortals can only envy."

"Tell us about it!" chorused Ulliel and Gaspard Nottmeyer.

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