Elf Boy's Friends - Volume XIII

by George Gauthier

Chapter 4


The naval base at Southport was the jumping off place for the Commonwealth's first naval expedition to explore the Southern Ocean which circled the globe in the temperate latitudes south of the three tropical continents. Theretofore ocean voyages had been limited to inshore waters as the crews trained on the new style ships which were based on the designs of the frost giants of Nordstrom all the way across the continent on the Northern Ocean.

The flotilla carrying this latest Corps of Discovery consisted of five ships, three frigates, a sloop, and an aerocraft carrier with a reduced complement of pilots, autogyros, flying wings, and incendiary bombs. The space thus freed up was devoted to extra supplies. Admiral Van Zant, Chief of the Bureau of Ships, had brushed aside objections to turning one of the Navy's capital ships halfway into a cargo vessel. The fact was that the Navy was not on a war footing and the flotilla would not be sailing into battle. Its smaller complement of aerocraft were adequate for reconnaissance, scouting, and exploration, and support of naval landing forces.

The heavy frigates as they were called were stout vessels three hundred feet from bowsprit to spanker, built to survive the tempestuous outer oceans, using techniques learned from the Frost Giants who sailed the Northern Ocean. Their ribs were not set perpendicular to the keel but as pairs of ribs criss-crossing at the keel, their ends braced against the adjoining pairs fore and aft. All ships's bottoms were sheathed in copper to prevent fouling. Otherwise shipworms would bore into the hull and weaken it, and weeds would foul the bottom, appreciably slowing the vessel.

Another feature was that wood from the live oak was used for key components. So called because it was an evergreen species of oak, its lumber was used for curved structural members of the hull such as knee braces which supported the upper or gun deck. The lumber was cut so that the line of the grain was perpendicular to the lines of stress, creating a structure of exceptional strength.

Live oak was never used for planking. The curved and convoluted shapes of the trunks of live oaks did not lend themselves to being sawed into planking. Red oak or white oak were used fro planking instead. Those trees grew straight and tall and yielded trunks straight enough and long enough for sawing into planks.

Named The Sovereign of the Seas, the flush-decked aerocraft carrier was five hundred feet long and junk-rigged, its battened sails raised on short solid unstayed masts, meaning they stood without shrouds or stays, a design which made it much easier to launch and retrieve aerocraft. It helped that the take-off run of an autogyro or flying wing was so very short and its landing run was hardly more than the aerocraft's own length.

The junk rig was simple and required few hands to sail the ship. Indeed her sails could be reefed from the deck by pulling on hawsers. A junk rigged ship could not sail into the wind very well and would hardly move in a light wind, but that was not a problem, not with weather wizards and air wizards aboard. The weather wizards could call a wind to fill her sails, light wind or no while the air wizards could create air currents to supplement a light wind and to make her more nimble and maneuverable.

All vessels were fully modern warships; there were no old fashioned ballistas or catapults on these ships. Instead they were armed with magnetic cannon with barrels sixteen feet long made of non-magnetic bronze, a metal which fortuitously did not corrode in the salt water of the southern ocean.

The gunners were masters of magnetism who propelled steel jacketed incendiary shells and canister shot down the long barrel. Shells were long-range anti-ship weapons. Canister was a short-range anti-personnel weapon designed to sweep an enemy's deck when it approached for boarding.

The cannon were mounted in pairs; their twin barrels extended over a circular ring of armor made of steel plate backed by oak. (The flimsy overhead cover was merely protection from the elements.)

The twin mounts were installed atop four rotating barbettes one fore and aft and one on each beam. The placement of the barbettes gave the guns wide fields of fire and allowed six guns to bear in every direction: to starboard and port and fore and aft.

Unlike the frigates with their quarterdecks and forecastles, the sloop was flush-decked from bow to stern. It mounted just two single cannon, fore and aft. The aerocraft carrier relied on its air wing and its escorts for defense. To repel boarders it had ranks of swivel guns in sponsons along the sides, and the sailors could be issued air guns from the armory.

The captain of the frigate Arctic Tern was none other than Lieutenant Sir Nathan Lathrop who was gratified that, while still only ranked as a lieutenant, as the commanding officer of a warship, his crew addressed him as "Captain."

Nathan stood easy on the quarterdeck, his weight distributed evenly on booted feet with non-slip soles, knees slightly bent to take the roll and pitch of the ship as it sailed along in a stiff breeze. Dressed in blue naval silks with a billed cap atop his head, Nathan was the calm center of a whirl of activity as the crew brought the vessel onto a new tack.

Like all Commonwealth frigates the Arctic Tern was schooner-rigged with fore-and-aft sails on two masts. That meant the hands could set the sails from the deck rather than having to scramble up the rigging as with a square-rigged vessel. More sturdily built than vessels plying the Great Inland Freshwater Sea, her relatively narrow hull and schooner rig made the Arctic Tern fast and maneuverable and very good at sailing close to the wind.

Also aboard was the Arctic Tern's war wizard and Nathan's boyfriend Sir Liam who shared Nathan's cabin and berth plus others from their old ship the Petrel including Sailing Master Crawley, Surgeon cum Healer Durban, and Mr. Wyckham the purser. With few remaining naval threats on the Great Inland Freshwater Sea, half of the vessels in the High Seas Fleet had been withdrawn from sea service and been laid up in ordinary in the reserve fleet. Most of their crews had been offered berths in the growing salt-water navy.

A combination of warship and scientific explorer, the Arctic Tern came equipped with extra accommodations for passengers such as the Corps of Discovery, which for the first time included the trio of natural philosophers who were old friends of the Klarendes clan, plus Count Klarendes' spouse, the shapeshifter Aodh.

Professor Scolari was a botanist cum mycologist, that is an expert on the fungi; next was the geologist Johan Klutz, and finally a zoologist and herpetologist Evander Blok. Not that anyone expected trouble on this voyage but Klutz and Blok had served as war mages with the allied forces in Amazonia. Klutz was a strong fetcher while Blok could throw deadly levin bolts.

They had set aside a planned expedition to the Western Dividing Range to join this third Corps of Discovery, an expedition which was well beyond the resources of their own Institute of Life and Earth Sciences. The mountains were not going anywhere; neither were the terror birds which the twins had urged Blok to study.

Three of Nathan's and Liam's roommates were also aboard the Arctic Tern: the twins Jemsen and Karel and the journalist Drew Altair. Their reserve commissions in the Armed Forces had been activated for the occasion, hence their green army silks and new style sandals which featured a unique strap system with six anchoring points for independent heel and arch straps for a perfectly secure fit. Their footgear too had non-slip soles.

Now all three held the rank of captain in the Army, but there could be only one captain aboard a naval vessel. So whenever these three worthies were addressed by rank, they got an informal and very temporary promotion, getting bumped up to Major.

(The commanding officer of the company of naval infantry traveling on the junk-rigged carrier was a lieutenant commander, the naval equivalent of an army major, though in his case, the rank was permanent.)

Representing the Ancient Order of the Druids of Haven was the elf-boy Dahlderon. The druids hoped by this voyage to extend the reach of their order which, even after centuries, operated on only two of the three equatorial continents and nowhere on the wider oceans. It was not out of the question that Dahl might return with a recruit or two to their order.

Dahl at least had his sea legs under him having years earlier escorted a small herd of brontotheres from the hidden land of the shape-shifters down the eastern coast of the continent of Valentia and along the southern coast to a landing point which gave access via a portage to the Great Inland Freshwater Sea and the Long River. Ironically the trolls had later used the very same landing for their invasion. Dahl had also voyaged to the oceanic archipelago of the trolls to lay the druidical curse on that race, really a plague which killed no one but reduced the fecundity of troll males to below replacement levels.

Only about half of the Corps of Discovery had ever ventured on the open ocean. The others: the natural philosophers, the twins, Drew Altair, and Aodh were not prepared for tides, mountainous swells, cyclonic storms, and boundless watery vistas, not to mention seasickness.

Dahl's shape-shifter friend and sometime lover Sir Aodh of LLangollen did have his sea legs under him if only thanks to an enhanced sense of balance due to his feline nature.

Aodh had volunteered for another adventure with his friends. Although something of a stay-at-home since taking up residence in Elysion with his spouse Count Taitos Klarendes, like all shape-shifters Aodh felt a periodic need to go on walkabout, a need not entirely satisfied by his job as a forest ranger. Over the years the young shape-shifter had fought side by side with his spouse at the secret tunnel through the Eastern Mountains in what came to be called the Lightning War and later in Amazonia against the trolls. On a smaller scale he had help track down poachers who hunted and killed brontotheres merely for their horns, which supposedly could restore flagging male libidos.

However good sea legs or no, seasickness arises from the mismatched sensations of motion from the eyes and the vestibular system of the inner ear. Motion sickness can be caused by motion that is felt but not seen, by motion that is seen but not felt, or when both systems detect motion in discordant ways.

Aodh had expected the acute sea sickness which came upon him right away, just as the ship reached the open sea. Too late he remembered his old mentor Balandur's warning that adventures were dangerous and uncomfortable, and they didn't always serve meals on time.

It was only after four days of true misery with all the deplorable symptoms of dizziness, fatigue, and a form of nausea which vomiting did nothing to relieve that Aodh's body and brain adapted to the constant motion of a vessel at sea at least enough to keep his food down.

"You are looking so much better this morning, Aodh," the druid told his friend as he emerged from their cabin onto the well of the ship.

"No thanks to you and your vaunted druidical healing abilities," the young shape-shifter grumbled more than half-seriously.

"And what of your own vaunted healing abilities as a shape-shifter which can regrow a severed limb? Too bad your sort of magical healing is entirely inward focussed so you cannot heal another person."

"I'll leave that task to you and to Surgeon Durban."

The truth was that seasickness could not be healed by magic or natural medicine because it was not a true illness in the sense of a malfunction of the body. Brain and body were working fine, just not in harness.

As a shape-shifter Aodh was even less body shy than the twins and like them often went about sky-clad when not on duty. Strictly speaking only Liam and Nathan had shipboard duties as opposed to roles in shore parties when Aodh wore his forest ranger uniform. Aodh had taken a leave of absence from his post on the strength of Lord Madden Sexton's assurances that the other rangers could cover his patrol area now that young Dylan the beast master was back from the campaign in the Western Dividing Range against a holdout infestation of trolls.

The flotilla was under the overall command of Nathan's first captain Commodore Sir Jan Dekker, the illustrious hero of the naval war against the trolls. Dekker had been knighted, promoted, and decorated with the nation's highest award for valor for the Petrel's unprecedented single ship action against a flotilla of fifteen troll longships carrying a thousand armed trolls. Dekker now flew his broad pennant, the ensign of a commodore, on the Cormorant a frigate helmed by Captain Dahlgren, Dekker's former executive officer and then successor as captain of the Petrel.

The extra accommodations used on the Arctic Tern for the twins, Drew, Aodh, Dahl, and the natural philosophers were devoted on the Cormorant to the commodore and his staff. Captain Dahlren commanded and fought the flagship. Dekker was in over all command of the squadron and of the expedition.

"Stand by to come about!" came a shout.

"Come about? What the hell does that mean, anyway?" Aodh grumbled then added:

"All this nautical lingo is like a foreign language: 'Come about' not to be confused with 'come to,' and a rope isn't a rope but a line, and a sheet is not a rectangular piece of fabric. Instead it's a rope attached to a 'clew' which the corner of a sail, not evidence of a crime. And why in the hell does the call go out to 'heave to' when they bring the ship to a halt at sea? The sailors don't heave anything, either to or fro, as far as I can tell."

[Heaving to meant stopping a sailing vessel by lashing the helm in opposition to the sails, letting the vessel gradually drift to leeward, the speed of the drift depending on the vessel's design.]

Liam chuckled at his friend's grousing.

"You're not saying anything I didn't say myself back in the day when I first sailed aboard the Petrel. There is a lot of nautical lingo, but you will soon get used to it. In time it will become second nature."

The shouted warning about heaving to had come from Sailing Master Crawley the highest ranking warrant officer aboard, a professional seaman and specialist in navigation rather than a military commander. The master's main duty was navigation. He calculated the ship's position at least daily and set the sails as appropriate for the designated course and wind and sea conditions. It was the master rather than the captain who made the entries in the official log about position and weather. During combat, he stood on the quarterdeck next to the captain.

"Good Morning Captain," Crawley said as Nathan joined him on the quarterdeck. "We've a fair wind at our backs and clear skies ahead. Our bearing is 220 degrees on a starboard tack on a base course heading due south."

"Very good, Mr. Crawley. Let's hope we make a landfall before we reach the polar seas."

Actually the plan was for the flotilla to turn once they reached the fiftieth parallel then to sail a zig-zag course quartering the Southern Ocean.

Three days later the flotilla made landfall at an uninhabited coral atoll composed of some two dozen flat and low-lying islands and islets lying in a broken circle some five miles in diameter (8 km) and open to the North. The atoll had a total land area of only seven square miles. The waters of the lagoon were mostly shallow, barely up to a tall man's chest with a bottom of sand and mud dotted here and there with coral heads. A good swatch of the southern half of the lagoon was dry sand at low tide or muddy flats studded with shallow pools.

The sloop had a try at finding a safe passage into the lagoon, but despite its shallow draft had to turn back after first nearly colliding with a coral head and then briefly stranding herself on the mud flat. Commodore Dekker indicated that the Arctic Tern should try next, despite its greater draft. Dekker knew that Nathan's magical gift of delving (or sounding in naval terms) would let him find a safe passage through the coral reef and find a suitable anchorage. And so Nathan did, finding a channel through the mud flats which led to a satisfactory embayment and landing point on the inner side of the main island.

"We've never seen a circle of islands like these." Jemsen remarked to the geologist Johan Klutz as the ship dropped anchor.

"It's a coral atoll, a ring of islands which originates as a normal fringing reef around a volcanic island. Over the ages, as the magma below cools or recedes, or the loosely consolidated ash and lava slump into the sea, the islands themselves slowly sink. Meanwhile the growth of the coral reefs upward towards the light at the surface keeps pace with the subsidence though all the while the reef is getting farther and farther from the sinking and receding shoreline of the island. In time the summit of the sunken island forms the bottom of a shallow lagoon surrounded by a nearly circular string of reefs and low islands created by the deposition of volcanic sand which is then anchored by vegetation."

"We've seen coral reefs in the Northern Ocean and even dove underwater to explore them, but those reefs were never arrayed in a circle."

"No reason you couldn't go diving here too, if we lay over for a few days, as I suspect the Commodore intends. You should have plenty of time for some fun. The sailors will be occupied in taking soundings and making charts for the navigators who follow after us. The atoll could offer a haven to ships caught in the mighty cyclonic storms that ravaged the open ocean."

So the friends all went diving, all except Nathan whose duties kept him aboard the Arctic Tern. And what a gaggle of boyish beauties they were all sky-clad, tanned, toned, and glabrous. You could be forgiven for taking them for a string of high class rent boys out for some fun.

Drew was the only red-head, an auburn haired twink who stood only five foot zero and weighed but a hundred pounds. The twins and Corwin were blond beauties bronzed all over from the kiss of the sun. Liam, Dahl, and Aodh were the brunettes. While Liam was of middle height, the elf-boy was just an inch taller than Drew.

The third brunette was not tanned bronze like the other boys. The skin of shape-shifters never tanned nor burned in the sun, hence the Snow Elves of the New Forest. Of a height with Drew, Aodh was a boy so beautiful he took your breath away. Small, skinny, and smooth muscled, comely as an angel, with a skin like porcelain, and looking utterly fragile and vulnerable Aodh was a melding of the innocent and the wanton, the epitome of a boy in the full bloom of his youth.

Goggles let the boys see clearly underwater. They were also equipped with shin fins made of flexible sheet metal which strapped to the ankle and reached from just back of the toes almost to the knees, folding around the lower leg yet flaring out to the sides.

The downstroke of the scissor or flutter kick delivered the full power of a kick from the hips instead of just from the knees as with old fashioned swim fins which fit over the feet and with much less back kick and splashing. On the surface the shin fins helped keep the legs horizontal, something the slender boys appreciated since their hard bodies were too dense to float motionless.

Swimming in that aqueous world was like taking to the skies except that they were flying through liquid space. Like a bird, you could move at will in all three dimensions or hover effortlessly, much like a hawk circling in an updraft. Flutter kicking at the surface while looking down at the reef was a lot like flying over a landscape. When they spotted something interesting, they jackknifed and dove for a closer look, holding their breath for up to three minutes, letting the boys explore forests and meadows of seaweed, undersea caves, and holes and crannies in reefs.

The underwater world was full of natural wonders. There were corals shaped like the human brain and others like the antlers of a stag. Some resembled large leaves and were flexible enough to bend back and forth with the ocean swell. All manner of brilliantly marked fish swam in these waters. Some were fat and round and slow; others long and lean and quick. Some nibbled on the coral itself, others grazed on seaweed, while various toothy denizens preyed on the rest. Then there were the strangely shaped octopi and sea stars and spiny urchins plus the colorful creatures called sea anemones after the common flower but these were sessile animals armed with stinging tentacles.

From near the bottom they watched smaller fish as they darted into nooks and crannies in the reef at the approach of a predator. Schools of shiny fish swam through the water in a synchronized ballet.

By partnering with a fetcher like Drew or Liam, anyone could enjoy the sensation of flying underwater by holding on to a swim board while his partner moved the board in three dimensions, diving, turning, even rolling it and them as they traveled underwater for as long as they could hold their breath. The twins especially loved the way the flow of water caressed every part of their bodies at once.

Everyone agreed that underwater exploration was a hell of a lot of fun. It was the highlight of their four day stay at the atoll which Dekker named the Coconut Islands for the trees which grew everywhere.

There was no running water on the atoll, not even a pond or a spring. Nevertheless the geologist Johan Klutz surmised that there would be freshwater lenses under the larger islands. Water lenses were underground accumulations of rainwater which percolated down into the soil then floated above denser seawater but did not mix with it due to its lower density.

Delving was one of Jemsen's abilities as an earth wizard. So once Klutz explained what to look for, he had no trouble finding a source of potable water. From that point it was simple enough to bore a shallow well to the lens and refill their water casks. Not that they were in any danger of running out, but it only made sense to keep the water butts topped off.

The workmen marked the well for future navigators. Water lenses could never support a settled agricultural population. If anyone did settle the Coconut Islands they would have to build catchment basins and cisterns for security of supply.

Then it came time to shove off and sail on to who knew where.

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