Elf Boy's Friends - VI

by George Gauthier

Chapter 9

Taking Stock

Eike felt glum at being left out, the only one of the six friends in their circle to attend the council of war who would not be part of the diplomatic mission. Yes, he understood that he was a civilian and one who worked for the Navy while a war with the orcs would be a land campaign. And yes, he understood that without a powerful magical gift or military training or diplomatic experience he could really contribute nothing to a diplomatic mission.

Still it hurt to be the odd man out — odd boy out really, for Eike and Corwin were true teenagers, both chronologically and physically. His other friends certainly looked like teens, and their constitutions were the same as during their teenage years thanks to druidic life magic which had stopped the aging process. They all would stay young and vital for at least half a millennium, never aging but growing wiser from greater life experience. Eike would be the first to admit to a lack of life experience especially after spending five years alone as a castaway on Huckleberry Island.

Eike yearned to manifest a powerful gift of his own. Jemsen and Karel had suddenly become earth and air wizards. Why couldn't that happen to him too? Wasn't he worthy of a major gift? True he no longer thought he needed a gift to give him a direction in life. He had already found that thanks to a circle of friends, wealth beyond the dreams of avarice, a fascinating career, and his tinkering and inventing on the side, but what teenage boy does not dream of adventure and martial glory?

When Eike considered the four classical elements, earth, air, water, and fire, he favored water. Why water? Well what could be more appropriate for a naval person than water as his tutelary element? Besides, of their circle of friends the twins already had earth and air covered. Liam wielded white fire and Corwin ball lightning, both forms of energy. Energy was also the tutelary element for those like Nathan who could snap electrum sparks. Finn could call lightning from the heavens so their circle of friends had energy covered four different ways.

Their group needed a water wizard to round out their talents, didn't they?

Eike was aware that natural philosophers considered the four classical elements to be metaphors for the four states of matter — solids, liquids, gasses, and energy. Fire then represented heat energy not merely the alchemical process of combustion or the flames it produced. Air was all the gasses in the atmosphere or those that could be generated by alchemical experiments or by industrial processes. Solids meant earth, stone, metals, and even jewels, though by convention ice fell within the province of a water wizard.

Water and air wizards were engaged in an ongoing debate in learned journals about the status of water vapor. The former insisted vapor was merely evaporated water only temporarily in a gaseous phase until the next rainfall. The latter insisted on the primacy of the vapor phase of the hydrological. By their understanding, the familiar liquid phase was just condensed water vapor. No resolution of their debate was likely for centuries if ever.

Upon reflection Eike had to concede that their group already had the realm of water covered too. Liam was a water wizard strong enough to raise giant waves at sea to smash enemy ships. Not surprisingly he had not invoked that gift in a fight up in the mountains. Instead he had relied on some of his other gifts.

Liam was also a weather wizard and a fairly strong fetcher though less powerful than Drew who, as he often reminded folks, could lift a brontothere into the sky and had actually done so. Liam could manage a horse. Liam could also raise a Concealment or a Missile Shield and create space portals. Though he was not a true firecaster as fire wizards were called, he had acquired the skill to throw white fire [subatomic plasma] which was not combustive fire at all but something else entirely.

Liam's lesser powers included the ability to communicate long distance with infrasound and to see in very dim light, better than a cat, thanks to the so-called moon-glow in his eyes, which is characteristic of war wizards. Druidic life magic had also enhanced his physical powers.

In a sense fetchers were also energy wizards. Drew used the kinetic energy of his whirling steel spheres to splash the brains of his foes out of their skulls. As a fetcher in naval combat Liam had used the kinetic energy of boulders dropped from above to put holes in troll longships.

Eike just hoped that whatever gift finally manifested it would be something he could really use. A naval architect would have little use for a Green Thumb or empathy. It was rare though for a gift to reflect a person's hopes and dreams. Gifts just happened. Finn Ragnarson was one of the lucky few, coming into a gift that let him realize his boyhood dreams of his great hero Thor, thunder god of the Norse, the remote ancestors of the Frost Giants. It was also not coincidental that in his first career Finn was a blacksmith, working at the forge with hammer in hand.

Meanwhile Dahl and Sir Willet put their heads together to find a way to counter the orc reputed to be able to throw white fire. They had drawn Karel into their deliberations. Jemsen too, for where one twin went so did the other. The four devised a plan which struck them as so fiendishly clever that it would be a real shame if they never got to spring their trap on this wielder of white fire. But only time would tell, for none of them was saying anything to anyone about their tactic.

The only hint they gave about their plan was when they asked the battalion commander to have the fifty giants assigned as their guards drilled in switching their personal weapons from their right side to their left. In other words, to hang their swords at their right hip, bear their shields with their right arm, and hold their spear to their left. They weren't expected to fight like that, just stand in formation till given the order to switch back. What this all was for neither druid nor wizard would say.

Drew and Corwin and Axel were excited at the prospect of the expedition to the enclave of the orcs. The two journalists amicably agreed to share a byline on any reporting about the expedition, as they called the peace mission. General Keene thought of it as a reconnaissance in force, which it might turn out to be if the orcs would not agree to terms.

Axel knew that if it came to a fight he had only a weak magical gift that could be used offensively in that he could Call Light to englobe the head of a foe, which would kill him by scrambling the electrical circuits of his brain. Axel also had a magically enhanced physique which gave him twice the strength, stamina, speed, and reflexes of a normal human. Those physical abilities would count for much in close combat.

Axel also had a unique advantage in that his ensorcelled amulet rendered him immune to direct attack by magic. Even this orc's white fire would fizzle out or simply fail if it were directed against him.

He had mentioned that to Sir Willet and volunteered to act as a shield for the negotiators, but his boss pointed out that the orc mage might not even target him or if he did, he would just shift his aim to Axel's companions. Besides, they already had a plan to deal with that kind of attack. Axel should hold himself ready for other contingencies to counter enemy magic. Axel just might be their secret weapon.

It only made sense then to test Axel and his amulet and see what its capabilities and limitations were. They had several days before the expedition set out, so the wizard and his aide agreed to start the next day. That would give Sir Willet time to recruit aggressors for Axel to defend against. Drew would do for a fetcher but with Nathan away they needed someone who could throw electrum sparks. Sir Willet knew that one of the other aides could fling lightning bolts and the war wizard himself would pit water magic against the amulet.

The next day at a testing ground Sir Willet explained to the first aggressor what he expected of them. Young Jonas was a messenger who delivered heliograms to homes and bureaux. His ability to snap electrum sparks had saved him numerous times from bites from overly territorial canines.

"Most folks don't realize that even a minor gift like sparks has a lot of uses; self-defense was only one of them. Sparks are a handy way to get a camp fire going, much easier than flint and steel or bow and drill. At night you can signal with sparks using the same code as the heliograph."

"Muleskinners find sparks handy to control their notoriously stubborn charges. Usually it takes just once to acquaint a beast with the unpleasant effects of an electrum spark shot at its rump. The recalcitrant ones occasionally need a reminder, a spark that comes close without quite touching them. Some sparklers, as we who can snap electrum sparks call ourselves, work as entertainers, and throw rainbows of colored sparks into the sky along with alchemical pyrotechnics. You can catch their shows at fairs and festivals."

"OK, I am ready." Axel assured Jonas.

Axel wore just a sarong leaving him bare to the hips. The silk sheath flattered his slender physique and would offer some protection to his dangly bits if Jonas's aim was off.

"Shouldn't you really be naked so the wizard and I can gauge the effects if my sparks get through?"

"Is that really why you want to see me naked, Jonas, this test? Or do you have an ulterior motive?"

"I am sure I don't know what you are talking about, Axel" Jonas assured him blandly.

"Then you wouldn't want to get together afterwards, to let us get better acquainted, I mean."

"Of course I would Axel. You are so damn cute, who wouldn't want to spend some time with you?"

"Now boys," Sir Willet admonished. "Save the fun and games for later. Let's get started with the tests."

The two youths winked at each other then Axel braced himself for a possible burn and electric jolt, but Jonas' strongest sparks just fizzled out about an arm's length from Axel's body. It didn't matter if the sparks came one at a time or in double handfuls. It also did not matter if Axel's back was turned and his eyes closed proving that the amulet was not using Axel's senses to detect magical threats but had its own field of awareness.

Much the same thing happened with lightning bolts thrown by Sir Ahndray's aide Lemuel and aimed at Axel's legs. The bolts grounded themselves harmlessly just short of their target. When Sir Willet raised a wave from the nearby swimming hole the waters parted around the shielded aide who never got his feet wet. Yet when Sir Willet raised a slug of water and held it above his test subject then let go, it fell and drenched him. The difference seemed to be that the wave was under magical control but gravity was in control when the slug of water fell on Axel from above.

Drew first used his gift to Throw dried corn cobs at Axel. They all slipped from the young fetcher's control and fell to the ground.

"One minute the cobs were in my mental sphere of awareness and the next they just weren't." Drew explained. "And they somehow lost momentum too, which is very strange."

Yet when Drew raised the cobs above Axel and let go, they fell and hit him. On an impulse, Drew picked a cob up in his hand an threw it overhand at his target bouncing it off Axel's chest, confirming that physical attack did not trigger the protective magic of the amulet.

"Hmmm," Drew mused. "Demonic beasts like Trackers or Slashers are magical creatures aren't they? I wonder whether they would ignore Axel or take a bite out of him. Next time we capture one, we'll have Axel stick his hand in its cage and find out."

"Oh very funny, Drew. If it is all the same to you, we'll try that experiment with a friendly unicorn and see if he can nip me."

"That is actually a good idea," Sir Willet opined, "even if it started out as a joke. Now be off with you. We'll pick this up tomorrow."

"Guys how about we all head over to Twinkle Town for food, drinks, and dancing. That includes you Lemuel. Everything is on me, and spare me your polite demurs. Remember I'm loaded."

"Ah, but isn't it really Eike who is rich beyond the dreams of avarice?" Drew asked.

"I am not so far behind him, as if it mattered." Axel gave back.

Everyone knew how little he cared for money beyond a sufficiency of means for a comfortable existence. In reality Axel was quite wealthy. His street lighting business provided a reliable income and he had significant passive investments in other industries like the manufacture of bicycles and in the family porcelain business whose expansion he had helped finance. Mostly he lived on his salary from the Institute of Wizardry and Magic.

Across town the three druids had put up at Count Klarendes' town house even though their hosts were still in Elysion protecting it from orcs. The staff were familiar with the three frequent visitors and made them feel right at home. Or as much as any druid can feel in the middle of a big city. Fortunately the garden out back was a refuge from the hustle and bustle of the capital.

Stretched out in the shade on lounge chairs with chilled juice drinks close to hand, the three druids chatted or read the news-paper or paged through a book. They hardly looked liked three of the most powerful wielders of magic on the planet of Haven. Short and slightly built pretty boys with the sculpted musculature of athletes, dancers, or acrobats, they could easily pass for a pack of rent boys taking a day off.

Only they weren't really boys, not chronologically. Dahlderon was the youngest; the raven hair elf-boy was in his twenties though he looked to be more than a decade younger, say sweet sixteen going on seventeen. Next came Owain; the diminutive strawberry blond human might look no more than eighteen, but he was only three years short of the two century mark. Merry was the most senior by far, over a thousand years old most of it passed in the form of a unicorn till his transformation a decade ago into an elf-boy. It was hard to say which one was the most beautiful.

Lithe, preternaturally lovely, gracile, or comely were words that hardly did justice to the raven-haired elven beauty of Dahlderon. With his delicate features, chiseled jawline, and killer cheekbones shielding green eyes the color of growing things, his was the sort of youthful male beauty that would take your breath away, or would make even the most dedicated cenobite reconsider his commitment to celibacy. Though he stood only an inch over five feet and weighed five pounds over a hundred-weight he was he was nearly four times as strong as he looked thanks to druidical magic.

The strawberry blond human with the sky blue eyes topped Dahl by an inch and carried a half dozen more pounds on his wiry frame. His physical strength was four times normal for his size, which was the maximum enhancement that magic could achieve without radical outward changes in size, constitution and form.

As a unicorn Meirionnydd's coat had been snow white. As an elf-boy Merry's hair was the same color only the growth of hair was restricted to the top of his head. Like all elves his skin was smooth and glabrous and entirely free of body hair. Though Merry was an inch taller than Owain, he was more slender so only about three pounds heavier but a match for Owain in strength.

After a companionable silence of a half hour, Owain laid the book he was reading in his lap and turned to Merry and asked.

"Merry, you have been around for centuries, from before the Formation Wars. Can you tell me why the capital of the Commonwealth of the Long River does not have a proper name? Everyone just calls it the capital."

"And thereby hangs a tale. The four founder races, humans, elves, giants, and dwarves, agreed on where their new capital city should be laid out. They just could not agree on what to call it."

"They could not use the old name. There wasn't even a hamlet here originally, just a tavern by a river crossing called McKonkey's Ferry. Can you see that as the name of a world capital?"

"I suppose not."

"Each race wanted a name meaningful in their own language. So they looked for an auspicious word spelled the same in all three languages though with different meanings. All the matches had unfortunate connotations in one tongue or another. You understand this was before the formal adoption of our common tongue, which was merely a lingua franca at the time."

"Rather than wrangle further over the issue, the founders left it up to future generations to sort it out. In time folks grew comfortable with just calling it the capital and writing the name or rather the word in lower case."

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