Elf Boy's Friends - Volume XII

by George Gauthier

Chapter 5


The expedition flew west for three days and made camp at the base of the front range of mountains which rose for ten thousand feet directly from the flatlands without any intervening foothills. Invisible beyond that first wall of mountains surely lay higher ranges with snow and ice on their peaks.

The stony ground in that area had never been farmed. It was overgrown with stunted trees and thick brush save for natural clearings such as the one they had chosen for their camp.

After supper the principals sat around a campfire under a starry sky undimmed by magical globes of light to discuss tactics for approaching the strange peoples they would soon encounter. The flames danced and crackled illuminating their faces with a ruddy light as they savored the aroma of freshly brewed kaffay.

Finn started out by observing:

"Our expedition is different from the one made by the original Corps of Discovery. That was a completely civilian endeavor flown in three privately owned aerocraft. Its object was more than just exploration and discovery. We had a larger purpose, to open lines of communication with peoples of whom we had a least some slight knowledge of. Nor did we show up empty handed. We brought the gift of aviation, and introduced them to the wonder of flight. And we did it without military aerocraft, soldiers, or swivel guns."

"No one saw us as a threat but only as friend and even saviors. Everywhere we went we helped folks: we fought reptilian raptors, a dragon, a mosasaur, and even a plague of locusts. We rescued trapped miners and tamed a mud volcano."

"I know what you did in the Northlands," Ifans told him, "thanks to Altair's best selling book which chronicled your adventures. It was a real page turner. I could hardly put it down when it was time for bed."

"It was a page turner to me too, General, and I already knew what had happened. My point is this. We know that our intentions are benign. Our purpose is exploration and discovery but to the mountain folk and later to the coastal peoples we will look mightily like an armed reconnaissance as a prelude to an invasion by an aggressive and expansionary power. By what right, they well may ask, do we bring armed soldiers among them, cross their borders uninvited, making maps and terrain sketches as we go, and with a military officer, a general no less, engaged in what they could only regard as reconnaissance at best or espionage at worst."

"Your points are well taken, Ragnarson. I made much the same points myself when I argued against sending me and the scouts and the transports and swivel guns, but I was overruled. We are both under orders, so we will have to do our best to defuse suspicions. For instance, if we see folks in trouble we will lend a hand, slay their dragons so to speak, and so gain their trust. We will pass off our scouts as an honor guard, intended to do no more than safeguard and uphold the dignity of our envoys."

"How likely are they to believe that? Having caught us in a lie, how can they then trust us?"

"Don't worry too much about the honor guard, a claim which they will regard not so much as a lie as a polite fiction such as are necessary in diplomacy and negotiations of every kind. And no I don't think that is a particularly cynical point of view."

"All right." Finn conceded. "I yield on that point to your wholly uncynical mind."

Ifans' lips twitched in a hint of a smile then he continued:

"We may face hostility and even treachery, but at least we will not be taken unawares. The druid is telepathic and can read his interlocutor's surface thoughts and immediate intentions, regardless of the words that come out of his mouth. However, many people have enough psychic ability to detect telepathic eavesdropping. I am thinking of healers, beast masters, shape shifters, and especially wizards. Some people can even raise psychic shields to conceal their thoughts, for instance a wizard like Sir Willet Hanford, master of Concealment. After all Concealment works by clouding the minds of others."

"Speaking of which," Dahl interjected, "Sir Willet recently taught me that skill. Now I am nowhere near as good at it as he, but Concealment may well come in handy. Please go on with what you were saying General."

"Now mine is the gift of empathy. I cannot hear a man's thoughts, but I can see into a man's heart and do it undetected. My empathic ability made me an unbeatable interrogator in the service of the Despotate, one who never needed torture to get the truth from a man. Torture is overrated. It is needlessly cruel and mostly ineffective. It just gets a man to tell you what he thinks you want him to say. With my gift, I can extract the truth from a man who refuses to talk. Answer or not, his mind and body still react to my probing questions, and I can sense that."

"Now that is a trick few know about, one I'd like to keep up my sleeve. So don't bruit it about."

Finn nodded, having made up his mind.

"All right. From now on we will be on the alert physically and psychically. Chief Borden, post two sentries at night whether in camp or in lodgings. Leave at least two scouts with our aerocraft when the rest of us are out and about."

"We'll keep our air guns slung over our shoulders, bayonets fixed but still in their scabbards. Don't carry them at the ready. The locals would take it as a threat. They won't ever have seen airguns, but they would recognize them as weapons."

"If trouble looms we will try to talk our way out or to withdraw. If trouble breaks out, we first try non-lethal force. That includes everything from fists to clubbing with the butt of the air gun or poking with a blunted bayonet to martial arts. Altair will yank the weapons out of their hands or use those soporific darts of his instead of whirling his deadly spheres and discus or hurling a cloud of twin pointed dowel nails at our foes."

"I myself will call lightning but only to impress or intimidate. I will restrain the small electric discharges which play over my body so that they sting or stun rather than kill. Same approach for you Klarendes. Use your ball lightning as a shield not as a sword."

"Klarendes will also use his healing magic and maybe put people to sleep rather than give them a heart attack."

"We probably don't want to have our foes fall asleep and drop at our feet," Corwin objected, "not in our own camp or on ground we want to hold. For then we would have to disarm them and perhaps take them prisoner. That is too much bother. No, better I use my healing magic to inflict blinding headaches and ear aches, terrible itching, vertigo, incontinence, etc."

"If I really want to give an object lesson in what happens to those who threaten us, I can inflict kidney stones on our foes, than which there is no greater pain. Remember though that my powers are limited and can affect only a few persons at a time. Our druid friend has fewer such limitations."

Finn agreed. "I will leave it up to you. Same thing goes for you, druid; don't turn the contents of their stomachs into spiny sea urchins."

"Spiny sea urchins? What a wicked idea that is, Ragnarson," the druid said dryly. "I only wish I had thought that one up years ago to use on the trolls."

That got a quick nod from Finn who went on to say:

"Jemsen should do no more than create a quagmire under their feet to hold them fast rather than make the earth yawn and swallow them up. Karel should harden air into a shield rather than a monomolecular blade to chop them apart, while Dahlderon and I throw up our missile shields."

"So start thinking about your best non-lethal tricks. Be ready with them when the time comes. If we have to get serious and start killing, I will give the order or maybe just signal with my actions. If I take off a man's head with Mjolnir or blast away with lightning bolts, then throw down and hit them with everything you've got, but do it smart. Don't get in each other's way. For instance, Karel has to let Altair get his spheres or discus out there and into play before he throws up a shield. I know that my lightning bolts will pass right through such a shield."

"Talk it over among yourselves, devise signals or code words to help coordinate your actions. Practice and drill but only where you cannot be observed. The druid can help there by throwing up a Concealment, which will be good practice for him."

Ifans shook his head in admiration.

"And here I'd thought I was the master tactician."

"If I am that, you, sir, are the master strategist. I must say that you are being a good sport about not being in charge of the mission."

"No, Ragnarson, I am not a good sport but a good soldier. My job is to observe and to advise, nothing more. It is better that you take charge. Ours is essentially a diplomatic mission, one for which you are experienced in ways I am not. Besides you are one of the Dread Hands of the Commonwealth, so you authority is plenipotentiary when you care to exercise it. Moreover, command of a reinforced squad is no job for a general officer."

"Beneath your dignity, eh?"

Ifans shrugged.

"It's a job for a junior officer who deals with his men one on one. As a general officer I work through a staff and a chain of command."

Finn acknowledged with a nod.

That night was their last before plunging into the unknown. To cope with the dangers ahead of the they would have to keep their guard up at all times. There would be little opportunity for romance. To the scouts of their escort, persons they met along the way were off limits. From here on out liaisons with locals were security risks and potentially a flashpoint for discord and conflict. Some scouts were of Evan's persuasion and fancied boys. Evan and his mates had been strangers before being picked for their assignment, so they were still sorting things out romantically.

As to the principals it would not be proper for them to consort with anyone in their escort even if both parties had been so inclined. That would violate the rule against fraternization between officers and enlisted which would be prejudicial to good order and discipline. There were no restrictions on what one did with one's equals, but superiors never took up with subordinates. In any event most were like Chief Borden and General Ifans who consorted exclusively with the female half of the species.

Among the principals other than Borden and Ifans there was no shortage of partners. Their relationships went back years. Dahlderon and the twins had been lovers off and on since Balandur and Dahl had encountered Jemsen and Karel during their first trek across Valentia when the late Dread Hand was escorting the teenage elf-boy to the Great Southern Forest to be trained as a druid. Finn and Drew and Corwin and the twins had been room mates and lovers for going on two decades.

It helped to keep their romances going that their magically enhanced constitutions and/or healing magic kept them perpetually youthful. In all ways except chronologically they remained teenagers.

The only one who had changed physically since his teen years was Finn Ragnarson. He too had not aged but was now much larger and stronger than before. His gift had manifested gradually at first as a growth spurt but had come upon him in full on the eve of the battle of Flensborg. For it was in their darkest hour that a great hero had arisen among the frost giants. Magic had transformed one of their own into an avatar of Thor, a mythic figure from the days before the galactic empire of yore. Thor was the thunder god of the ancient Norse, the remote ancestors of the frost giants.

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