Elf Boy's Friends - Volume XII

by George Gauthier

Chapter 14


The expedition took off the next morning bound for the capital at Farnham's Ferry with the dwarf Count Krekor along as their guide. He had sent a heads up to the capital via infrasound messaging. A network operated by dwarven weather wizards linked all the county seats to the capital. Weather wizardry was of little use to dwarves living underground. It was one of the rarer gifts which manifested among dwarves though rather more common among the Sun Dwarves whose prosperity depended in part on reliable weather forecasts. Still their weather wizards were week, though reliable forecasts and infrasound massaging were well within their capabilities.

Eborn and his crew had been left behind at Aspen. The plan was for his refrigeration crew to spend two days training the locals at Aspen. Then Dahl would open a new portal so they could rejoin the main body of the expedition at the regional capital, Farnham's Ferry, for a repeat performance.

The capital was located in the middle of the plateau. It was quite a small town, perhaps half the size of Aspen which had a population of eight thousand. Independent of any county the capital really was a ferry crossing where two major tributaries joined to form the main river which drained the plateau to ultimately fall into the gorge they had seen.

With no foreign relations and no armed forces -- not even an organized militia -- there was little for the central government to do. Its assembly met briefly every two years to legislate. A high court heard appeals from the county courts. Specialized bureaus built and maintained the road network which linked the towns. It also minted coins, dredged shipping channels in the rivers, etc.

With the legislature not in session, executive authority was in the hands of an executive committee of three Councilors named Zebrek, Burk, and Rokar. With Krekor to vouch for their bona fides the central authorities readily agreed to meet the principals of the expedition who were ushered into the ceremonial offices of the standing committee, an impressive chamber decorated with statuary and framed lanscapes.

After introductions Finn explained the mission of the Corp of Discovery, one not only of discovery and exploration but also of diplomacy and the promotion of trade with other lands. Councillor Rokar was skeptical.

"That sounds very good, and your friendship tattoos count for much as diplomatic credentials, but you must realize that we have to be cautious when our first visitors in two centuries are a party of soldiers."

"It is true that some of our small party are professional soldiers, but they serve only as guards and scouts, which is in keeping with a mission of exploration and discovery into unknown lands. I myself am no soldier but a senior law enforcement officer -- one of a corps of troubleshooters for my government. This is the third time I have lead a Corps of Discovery into unknown lands. I can assure you that despite our tiny military escort this mission is a civilian operation."

Finn explained that the Commonwealth of the Long River had much to offer in the way of manufactures and in technologies emerging from its ongoing industrial revolution, many of them marrying magic and the mechanical arts. One such was refrigeration, as they themselves would soon see when Eborn Klarendes and his crew arrived in Farnham's Ferry.

Flight was another. Now the pilots of autogyros propelled their aerocraft with telekinesis or magnetism, but the rotors and stubby wings were what lifted them into the air. Still the Sun Dwarves could not soon produce autogyros for themselves. They had no industrial base capable of manufacturing precision parts like wire wheels, steel shafts, rotors with blades shaped like airfoils, or the steel bearings that left them rotate. But fetchers did not need autogyros to fly. They could do that on their own, despite the self-evident fact that their gift could not move their own bodies. Since Drew Altair was a fetcher, Finn called on him to explain how.

"I was the very first fetcher to take flight with two different techniques. The first was lifting myself by my sandals. It's tricky, you need good balance, and it takes practice, but it is a handy way to lift yourself out of danger or to cope with a fall from a height. Although I was the first to execute this maneuver the credit for inventing it up goes to the twins Jemsen and Karel, who like me are recognized as Pioneers of Flight."

"Axel Wilde was the one who realized that we fetchers could not just to levitate but could fly freely. All you have to do is strap yourself to a yolk like the ones stable grooms uses to carry buckets of water to horse troughs. More generally if you attach yourself to or grab onto anything which you can lift you can fly up, down, left, right, or sideways. Watch how easily I can fly around the room by lifting the chair I am sitting on."

Suiting his actions to his words, Drew reversed his chair for better balance and lifted off, sailing slowly overhead, as the councilors murmured in awe.

Zebrek smacked his fist into his hand.

"Damn if that don't beat all! I'm just itching to give it a try myself, strong fetcher that I am, but not with a chair. I'll use a yoke I can strap on rather than a chair which is too easy to slip off of and fall to the ground."

"Exactly right." Drew told him. "Now I myself have a short yoke built into my leather cuirass. When we take this outside I will show you how high and fast I can fly and how acrobatic I can be. Fetchers have dreamed of flight for centuries, but the key insights came from those three, Axel Wilde and Jemsen and Karel who were not themselves fetchers, which gave them an entirely different perception on the problem."

"And there is another technology you Sun Dwarves could adopt on your own: street lights in your towns. A system of street lights bestows the blessings of illumination at night on the whole populace of a town. Here is how it works."

Axel explained that the lamplighters who worked for his company in the capital of the Commonwealth were mostly dwarves. More than any other race dwarves had the gift of calling persistent globes of light. Lamp lighting was a part-time job. In the evening, after finishing up at their day jobs, each lamplighter walked a precise route, calling light at each lamp post, which was only a pole with a net made of non-conductive fabric which kept the globe of light from drifting away on the wind. Those hired as lamplighters could create globes that shone for at least ten hours, from dusk to dawn before fizzling out. As much as possible lamplighters were assigned routes running from near where they worked to close to where they lived.

Axel's proprietorship of the lamplighter company had made him comfortably well-off. Later investments in modern industries like bicycles and pencils had made him rich.

"Marvelous!" Burk exclaimed, drawing nods from the others. "We shall get right to work organizing a squad of lamplighters for our town. The majority won't have to blunder their way down the streets after dark. I commend you easterners for sharing your knowledge of these magical techniques."

"Since you already have the floor, Axel," Finn remarked, "why don't you explain about pencils."

Axel nodded and held a pencil upright in his hand.

"What looks like a stick of wood is really a writing implement which requires no messy ink. Inside the wood is a thin cylinder of graphite which is rather like carbon black only in stick form. It leaves a dark mark on the paper and works equally well for drawing or writing text. To make corrections just rub away with a bit of bread. Unlike with a stick of charcoal it doesn't get your hands dirty when you write or draw with it. Also pencils are dirt cheap since they are mass produced by machines in a manufactory, a system which lowers unit cost far below that for goods produced with artisanal methods."

"I got in on the ground floor when I took a chance on a new invention and invested in a manufactory which now turns out a million and a half of these things a year. That will give you some idea of the scale of manufacturing in the Commonwealth."

Summing up, Burk remarked:

"I am sure there is much we could learn from the Commonwealth. However, I am not sure our folk are ready for contact with the outer world. After two centuries isolation has become our way of life. Here on the plateau we Sun Dwarves live in safety and prosperity. Regionally we are self-sufficient in all things. We trade only among ourselves."

"For instance, the clay for the bricks we use for building is found only in certain locales. From there fired bricks are shipped by barge to every town and by cart to every village. Ranches in our grasslands raise cattle which are driven to market along our road network to slaughterhouses in the towns. Their hides are then shipped up to a central tannery located on a stream which is not a tributary of our main river. Hence the effluent from the central tannery is carried away and over the escarpment and never pollutes the waters of the rivers from which we draw water."

"We shall talk more of these things at dinner tonight when you will be our guests of honor. Meanwhile let's get you settled in guest quarters."

As in Aspen the accommodations were plain and simple but airy and comfortable. Dinner was really about getting acquainted more than learning about the wonders the Commonwealth had to offer. They all sat around a round table which was also the one the fourteen councillors from each county sat around during their biennial legislative sessions.

The menu was tasty and satisfying starting with an antipasto of cured meats and cheeses. Next came grilled rack of elk served with garlic mashed potatoes and asparagus followed by a fruit compote for desert. The dwarves quaffed mugs of beer, but the visitors chose red wine.

"I take it you don't much care for beer," Rokar ventured.

Finn shook his head.

"On the contrary, we do like beer, very much so, but we prefer it chilled. As we Frost giants always say: 'cold beer is surely proof that the gods love us and want us to be happy'".

"Cold beer?"

"It flows through a hose from the keg through a box with metal tubing around the inside which is filled with ice and meltwater, to impart a delightful chill to the brew. Once you sun dwarves start using refrigeration, you should try it. You won't go back to beer at room temperature after that. Trust me."

"I am game." Burk said, then added:

"Now before we go any further, I have something of a confession to make. You might have asked yourselves why a people isolated for so long would offer hospitality to the first visitors in centuries rather than reject them or even drive them off. Of course we had obligations towards you from your friendship tattoos, but there was something more to it than that. You see, we knew for sure that what you told us was the truth, as you knew it, and that you were sincere about your peaceful intentions. As to how, well the fact is that I am an empath and have been monitoring your feelings the whole time."

Finn nodded. "Thank you for your candor, which I must now return in kind. Your admission comes as no surprise. You did not tell us anything just now that we did not already know."

"You knew?"

"We knew; we all knew; everyone knew. General Ifans is himself an empath and sensed it when you employed your gift. You did not sense his since he observed only passively; he did not scan you dwarves as you did us. The druid's gift of Mind Speech allowed him to both detect your gentle probes as well as to silently communicate this news to the rest of us."

"Then the joke is on us." Burk said genially.

"See, I told you they were good folks." Count Krekor noted.

"I cannot help wondering Sir Finn" Rokar began, "but General Ifans and Chief Borden aside you all seem so very young, a gaggle of pretty youths: an elfin druid and an auburn haired fetcher who look to be sweet sixteen, blond twins who look to be no more than nineteen while the short blond boy looks a couple of years younger. That red-headed youth with the pencil looks to be the same."

"Moreover, yourself aside, none of you are physically imposing, far from the rough tough sort I would look for on an expedition of exploration and discovery into the unknown. None of them looks like he could outfight an angry tom cat."

"No offense intended."

"None taken. Don't be fooled by their pretty boy looks nor their slender frames or slight stature. Their ages are about twice what you might guess from their looks thanks to perpetual youth conferred on them by druidical healing or other magic. Besides the druid is an elf and Corwin is nearly as much of elven heritage as he is human.

"These boys are also two to three times stronger than normal thanks to magically enhanced constitutions. The druid himself is actually four times stronger. Their speed, reflexes, and senses are similarly enhanced. So yes, physically they are more than up to the challenge. And they all have strong magical gifts, the kind that are useful in combat."

"All of them have prove to be tough fighters on prior expeditions and in the crucible of war."

"War, eh? Against what sort of foes, if I might ask?"

"In recent decades the Commonwealth has fought several defensive wars, none of which were wars of choice. These boys' first war was against hordes of barbarians under the sway of an evil prophet with a false religion and later a life leech who sought world domination. In their second war their foes were centaurs, members of a six-limbed race who lived by the hunt and did not balk at hunting, killing, and eating sapients."

"Our hardest fought war was against a genocidal race called trolls. Impelled by a crusading religion which taught that their gods hated magic and wanted it extirpated from the planet, the trolls sought to exterminate all the races on the planet which practiced magic: humans, elves, giants, orcs, and dwarves."

"Didn't they use magic themselves?"

"No, trolls have no magic. Natural philosophers speculate about their origins in the galactic empire of yore. Perhaps trolls were created as shock troops or mercenaries against alien races which lacked magic themselves. Trolls breed fast and are the shortest lived of all the races, which makes sense if they were bred to be disposable. As for their lack of magic either their creators thought that trolls did not need magic against foes without magic themselves or that without magic the trolls could never revolt against magically gifted masters."

"Without magic and with little technology, their lives must be miserable. Imagine having only fires or candles to chase away the darkness or only muscles to lift things. Just think how laborious building houses or ships would be without telekinesis to lift heavy beams and members into place."

"So this religion of theirs is basically a rationalization for their own lack of magic or perhaps born out of an envy they cannot acknowledge in their hearts."

"That is a very shrewd observation, Rokar."

"Anyway in the end the Commonwealth and its allies stopped them and drove their remnants back to their original homeland, an oceanic archipelago in the southern ocean."

"What was your role in the great war Sir Finn?"

"I too fought against the centaurs and the trolls while serving in the Fyrd, the Frost Giant militia, but I am not a regular soldier."

"And do you also have warlike magic?"

"I do, but in these years of peace the main use for my gift is to propel my autogyro magnetically using my control over the planetary magnetic field. Years ago I manifested quite an unusual gift which confers upon me the powers of an avatar of Thor, thunder god of the ancient Norse, the remote ancestors of the Frost Giants."

Rokar shook his head. "We Sun Dwarves fight no wars. We have no army nor even an organized militia, though some of the oldest of us can remember what wars and armies and militias were like in the old days before we found refuge here."

"Then you are fortunate to live in a land completely untouched by war."

"Well said, Sir Finn. Uh, I have to ask how long will your visit last? We hope it is long enough to work out the means by which we will join the wider world which has so much to offer but which we have held ourselves apart from for two centuries now. "

"Well, we certainly don't want to overstay our welcome. Shall we say ten days?"

"Fine. And where shall you go after you finish here?" Burk asked.

"We shall head South to where the Western Dividing Range meets the ocean, then directly home. In a couple of years another expedition will likely survey the northern half of the range looking for a land route through it.

Rokar grew alarmed as Finn mentioned a search for a route through the mountains.

"No, no, no! The very last thing you need or want is a route through the mountains. You should be glad that there is no way through them, none that we know of anyway. Thank the gods for that impenetrable barrier."

"In the coast lands beyond there reigns an old fashioned and evil system of international relations with all that that implies: contending states, territorial disputes, dynastic ambitions, diplomats, armies, forced levies, mercenaries, with all the attendant bloodletting, destruction, rapine, and pillage of endless wars."

"The political, economic, and social systems there combined the worst features of monarchy, feudalism, and land ownership vested in an aristocracy of the blood. Most of those who worked the land were serfs, but even sharecroppers and tenant farmers, though nominally free persons, were trapped in debt peonage. We here on the plateau are refugees from the social inequality and political and military madness in the Blood Lands, which is our name for the coastlands."

"The tyrants who must still rule those lands must never learn of our existence or of the secret way under the mountains. Two centuries ago we discovered a route under the mountain range through a network of natural caverns joined to tunnels and mines we ourselves dug. One day miners broke through the last wall separating our caverns and mines from the plateau. We moved out of the chthonian depths into the sunlight and settled this land, calling ourselves the Sun Dwarves."

"Since our deliverance from the Blood Lands we have not had formal relations with governments in the outer world on either side of the Western Dividing Range."

"You must not give away the secret of our existence."

"We won't. You have our word on that. And I can promise that we will not travel openly to the coastlands. At most we would send spies to see how things are now in that region. Perhaps there have been changes for the better."

The dwarves shook their heads. "Almost certainly things are even worse. That was the trend when we left. It was why we left, the final straw, as it were. Anyway thank you for your promise not to openly reveal yourselves in the Blood Lands."

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