Chapter Four. The story.
Read by Alleine Dragonfyre
The winding dirt path up to the windmill and the community garden was indeed just behind Elnoth’s home and the companions soon found themselves climbing a steep slope, past Frojenta Lane.
“So how long has it been since you’ve seen Phle?” Lucy asked Zyrina as they fell in step on the climb. Phlebus and Torgin forged ahead and continued their argument about whether covered wagons or air balloons were faster travel. “Where’d you meet?”
Zyrina took a moment to answer. She half wanted to join the conversation on balloons or wagons and not talk about her friendship with Phle. Her opinion was firmly on the wagon as the most efficient form of land travel. Yet, reminiscing didn’t feel dangerous today, as they strolled in the afternoon sun. She had to really think about how long it had been since the last time she saw him in person.
“Let me think.” She stalled.
Lucy’s question had brought up long forgotten memories of herself as a young woman barely in her twenties who had been through an unexpected portal and transported to Novia from the Outlands. She was reminded of the intense fear she felt when she landed near Solace Bridge so many years ago. By Novian reckoning it had been almost a century ago.
Trust had been hard for her, especially here in a completely different world than the one she came from. She didn’t take to strangers very well and spent most of the time alone in Novia. When she first arrived, someone called Edvard needed help for the survivors at the battle of Solace Bridge, and then he had sent her to on to Soltown and from there she made her way to Ardoris. She had never been able to protect herself but along the way she began to learn.
“Let’s see, I met him in Ardoris. At that time the city of love had been reeling because of the continued separation between Priestess Khasi and Shogun Suranto. There is still much unrest even in its once serene streets.”
“Love,” Zyrina snorted and though to herself. She had spent a long period trying to sort out the cause of the friction between the Shogun and the Priestess and had concluded that love was more complicated than she could imagine.
After a pause to catch her breath Zyrina went on, “I was down at the Traveller’s Docks to meet someone and while I waited, I had been gossiping with one of the barmaids, Emma, just outside The Tavern of the Wind.
In all the bustle of the dock a call of “Thief, Thief!” rang out and then someone came careening out of one of the alleys chased closely by a displeased merchant who caught up with them at the dock. Shouting at the young man all the while about respect and honour, I gathered that food had been stolen from the merchant. Eventually the merchant finished yelling and shaking the thief and tossed him into the canal just outside the tavern. Turning and continuing his loud tirade against thieves he left huffing and shouting at everyone he met.
It was obvious the thief couldn’t swim, and I couldn’t leave him to die so I fished the miscreant out of the canal. It was Phlebus. That was about fifteen years ago.”
“Phlebus stealing?” Lucy looked shocked then slapped her thigh and laughed. “That explains so much.”
“Hmm, well that day we sat together in a small park while he dried. Then he was kind enough to offer to share his food and shelter. He had stolen a bun earlier and then some cheese just before I found him drowning. The cheese survived the dunking in the water. We ate that in a cozy spot under a bush just outside of Ardoris. Then we slept there. It wasn’t much. But it was enough.”
Phlebus and Zyrina had become inseparable from that moment on. He taught her how to pickpocket on the streets of Ardoris and she taught him how to read and how to swim. Over the six years they spent together in Novia before Phlebus went to school, they escaped many close calls with various city guards and various dubious encounters on the roads between cities. He had been her greatest and dearest friend through it all.
Zyrina continued, “It helps to have a travelling companion.” Nodding toward Torgin ahead on the path, Zyrina noted, “you know how it is. You’ve always had one. This world constantly surprises me. It is similar but not like the Outlands at all.”
“A companion? Torgin?” Lucy snorted, “my brother can be accused of many things, but he is not a man of much conversation and his value as a companion is limited.” Lucy may have understated the value she placed on her brother’s companionship, but she understood Zyrina’s point.
“Still, he was someone you shared your time with and who watched your back for you.” Zyrina argued her point.
Zyrina smiled, Phlebus had had her back in every fight they’d been in. She recalled one especially close call with an extremely obnoxious mountain troll. They had been tasked with taking one of his toenails to someone who would pay dearly for it. Phlebus and Zyrina found out why they were being paid so much when they discovered the mound of human skeleton bones the troll had piled beside his cave. They fought back-to-back in that one. It had taken all their skills combined to survive. She smiled wryly remembering the exhilaration of jumping off that high bridge into a waterfall during the dramatic escape and Phle right beside her on the way down. ‘I got it!’ he had shouted, holding up a filthy gnarled toenail when they both found themselves alive on the bank of the river far downstream from the trolls and their bridge.
“So, why’d you part ways?” Lucy probed partly stirring Zyrina out of her memories.
The sale of that toenail paid for Phlebus to attend the academy in Central Brittany. And he excelled. Once he got into the school there were scholarships and awards, too. Through the years, Zyrina proudly kept his messages to her describing the goings on at the castle library. There were not many letters, but she cherished each one, they were now tucked in a waxed cloth in the safety of her pack. She had missed his company and his inquisitive mind.
“Becoming a scholar was what Phlebus was meant for, certainly he needed to be near books in a way that I don’t.” Zyrina confessed after careful thought.
While Phlebus attended school, Zyrina found steady work with her bow. It kept her fed, and it kept her employed. There were many people in this land who needed help and would pay a bit of gold for the service she provided. Zyrina became a tracker, a guide, and in the end a bodyguard. It was a life she found satisfying. The last four months in the mines of Elysium was as settled as she had ever been in Novia.
“Hmmm. I think it’s about nine years.”
Lucy stopped walking suddenly, “The entire time he’s been in school?” Lucy was incredulous.
“Mmhmm. I didn’t realize so much time had passed until he wrote to me about this mission. All he said was that he needed my bow, and that the pay was going to be low. He didn’t tell me the nature of this mystery.”
Lucy snorted. After a few more steps she asked, “Why now? I mean after all this time, why did you decide now was the time to join him? He has asked for your company before this, I know he has.”
Zyrina looked over at Lucy’s kind face. She appeared to be extraordinarily protective of her friend Phlebus.
Zyrina admired the quality of loyalty and said gently, “Time passes differently for me and more time passed than I was aware of, and then it just became easier not to go visit because I’d been away for so long. He was the first Novian I became friends with, and I believe he knew I would come if he actually needed me, not Oh this is too hard, and I need you to come rescue me from here. I can’t live on my own.” Here she paused before adding as an afterthought, “I thought all Novians would be like him, but it turns out he is special. When he wrote asking for my support, I came as soon as I could.” She shrugged.
Lucy nodded enthusiastically. “He’s not as helpless as he appears though, is he?”
Zyrina laughed, “No. He’s very rarely helpless, but he wouldn’t survive on his own outside of a city anymore. He’s out of practise.”
“Phlebus talked about you occasionally in the first year. He admired you greatly, but less after you didn’t rescue him from himself. I half expected you to turn up in the city and claim him when he nearly bombed his first year at the academy, you know?”
Shrugging Zyrina confided, “I almost did but somebody wiser than me stopped me from going. They told me a tale just before I started out to collect him that made me see that Phlebus and I didn’t have the same path in life. If I had claimed him then, he would never have become who he is now.”
“It nearly broke him, you know?”
“Yeah, it nearly broke me too.”
Lucy stared with compassion. “It was awful. He was sure you would come.”
Zyrina walked in silence for a little while.
“So, I hear you are a healer. Do you use magic, too?” Zyrina changed the subject.
“Yes, sometimes, but I like to rely most often on the potions and lotions that support life. I find each of us reacts a little differently to magic and to potions, but with proper life supports we all heal at a greater rate. So, unless the injuries are acute, I use herbal skills and cooking to mend.”
“Where did your interest in plants start?”
“Where did your interest in tracking and archery start?” Lucy countered.
“Who says I’m interested in tracking and archery?” Zyrina tried to look innocent and pretended to trip over a root on the path.
They both laughed then.
Going first Lucy began, “I suppose it was my grandmother who got me interested in plants. We used to go picking herbs in the forest together and she would talk about how she would preserve each herb and what kinds of things the plants would help us with if we let them. She had a real affinity with life. I spent much of my youth helping her to care for the plants in her garden and spent a lot of time learning how to find rare ones in the other areas of the world from her. Then I learned to preserve her medicines. When I got a little older, I used to go with her to help people who needed her. She spent her life restoring her neighbours and community with her plants and healing touch until her death. I still miss her, especially when I’m sick. I went to Central Brittany to learn more about plants and on the way learned some healing magic spells as well. It was quite a surprise to find out I could heal people with magic as well as and sometimes better than with the plants alone.”
Lucy had not meant to be quite so personal with her response to the question but Zyrina made it easy to trust her and just be honest about what she thought and believed. It was refreshing. She didn’t demand answers but waited until Lucy was ready to open up a little.
“Your grandmother must have been very proud of you.”
“Now you.” Lucy said looking over at Zyrina who was still mulling over what Lucy had said about having a grandmother healer.
“Well, I didn’t learn how to track or how to shoot a bow until I arrived in Novia.”
“That was what, a hundred years ago?” Lucy teased.
Zyrina snorted, “By Novian calendars, more or less.”
“Sure. Well, Phlebus and I had been living on the streets of Ardoris until the guards made us move along. I think we might have been in a community up around Desolis, by the time that I shot my first short bow. Up till then I had been learning to use a pair of knives that Phlebus and I took off a Red Sash Bandit. Anyway, I picked up an elven bow off one of the creeps that Phle and I had to fight off one night when the creep tried to steal my blanket, and more if he could’ve gotten it.” Zyrina stopped talking for a moment.
She looked over at Lucy, “When I first arrived, I did pick up a bow, and I used it at close range on a few undead and skeletons but hadn’t really stuck with it and my aim was really bad. I sold it for food. I didn’t need it in the city, and I needed food to live. But in Desolis, it felt good to have another one in my hands.”
The deserts had been a fine learning arena, lots of space and few citizens to get in the way. The cacti and the small rabbits and birds of the desert became the first moving targets.
“Too much time on your hands?” Lucy wanted to know.
Zyrina shook her head to clear it a bit from the memory, “Yeah, absolutely. After picking up that bow, I spent my free time shooting at targets and then small desert animals that I could aim for. I lost most of my arrows back then.”
In their early days together, she and Phlebus spent much of their time searching for spent arrows in the sand near Desolace. After all this time she was still very frugal with arrows and didn’t waste an arrow if she could recover it.
Grinning she went on, “We ate much better after I learned to hit them. Squirrel and rabbits, birds, and then later fish. Yes, even fish. I didn’t like to miss because it usually meant we didn’t eat if I missed.” She looked somber as she recalled those hungry days.
“Tracking was something I learned as a child.” Then she suddenly stopped talking and started walking a little faster.
It was fast enough that speech was no longer possible for either of them.
“Where are you living these days?” Zyrina changed the subject again, after catching her breath again at the top, knowing only that after her first assignment that Lucy had left the city, same as Torgin.
“Do you know the Mistrendur at all?” Lucy inquired.
“A little, enough to know of the three main islands, and the serpent shape but I don’t know the history of the Mistrendur.”
Nodding Lucy declared, “not many do.” She went on, “I live on the West Island, Slangeholle, where the tail of the serpent would be, up in the Grenfol mountain range in a cabin in the woods near a hamlet called Jade Mountain.”
“Huh? The Jade Empire stretches from Jade Valley all the way to the Mistrendur?” Zyrina seemed surprised. “I knew of an island in the Hidden Vale controlled by the Jade Empire, but I didn’t know about the Mistrendur. There are Jade Dragons everywhere it would seem.”
“There are two Jade communities up in the Mistrendur. Jade Garden is the other, on the middle island, the belly, Slangemagge. If you like Jade Valley, you would LOVE it there. Seriously, after this inquiry why don’t you come with me and I’ll show you around both Jade Empire towns. There is a balloon that takes us all the way there from Jade Valley.”
“I’ll think about that. I sure would like to see what could be prettier than this town right here right now.” Zyrina’s gaze swept back down to the crescent shaped harbour and busy markets below.
“Yes, this harbour is stunning. The Jade Dragons seem to have a fair share of talented gardeners in their midst. I think the leader of that guild is even a Royal Gardener. We met him at the meeting, Governor Hari. They have four towns in their empire. I haven’t been to the one up in the Hidden Vale, Jade Island, but I still think Jade Valley is the prettiest.’
“Why live in Jade Mountain if you think Jade Valley is the prettiest?”
“I live in Jade Mountain because it feels like home to me.” Lucy added, “There are a few young people there that I like to keep an eye on, as well. Years ago, I promised another of the Outlanders that I would care for the orphans, they were children then. I am fond of them both.”
Nodding while looking down at the seaside valley below, Zyrina spoke “This is stunning and quaint. I don’t think I’ll forget this town.”
“There it is,” Torgin called out from the road ahead, pointing toward a large sky balloon.
“That’s not a windmill, brother.” Lucy shouted back.
“The windmill is near that balloon, remember?” Phlebus soothed with his map and papers pulled out and open before the twins started fighting about this, too.
“It sure is windy enough up here for one.” Lucy found her breath stolen from the force of the gusts but managed to squeak out her comment regardless.
And it was indeed windy where the windmill was found, among the barns, the gardens, and the sky ship moored above all. Ivan was outside of the windmill fiddling with a piece of machinery when we arrived.
“Hello.” Zyrina called out. As she got closer she could still smell alcohol on him and now as well, the black greasy mess that he was currently spreading all over the bit of metal he held.
“Are you drunk, Ivan?” She asked him straight out.
“There youse all are!” He didn’t even look shocked at the question as he shook his head, “Not so much as I can’t fix this here gear here.” Ivan started laughing at his own joke.
“Will you tell us the story, then?” Phlebus wanted to know without so much as a how do you do. “I can give you a hand with that,” he added rolling up his sleeves and picking up a wrench.
“No, I’ve got it, thank’ee mightily.” Sighing and setting down the gear, Ivan picked up an old rag and began to clean his hands. “Well, surely I’ll tell it to you’se. Since you’ve come all this way n’ all.”
He took a swig from a brown jug, he then offered it to the companions. They declined. Even Torgin.
Without another pause Ivan began as he continued to grease the metal piece he had picked up again, “When I was a youngun’ an’ my granny was still the gravedigger and keeper of the dragon bones here in the valley, a Bard from far away came to the village. It was worth granny’s wrath to stay up late tha’ night, hidden o’ course, to hear the stories and songs. When that old Bard…can’t recall his name anymore, Ningo? Jingo? Oh! Mingo, that’s it. He’s a Outlander, like you.”
He turned to look directly at Zyrina for the first time.
“What’s a keeper of the Dragon Bones?” Lucy wanted to know as Phlebus shushed her.
Ivan just stared at her for a moment, and then went on with his story without answering her question.
“Well anyways, tha’ Bard stopped in for a bowl o’ granny’s pumpkin soup just after the leaves fell that autumn.”
“Just soz ya know, Bards were and still are the best source of news for young’uns and growups about gossip and battle and wars for a wide swath of the neighborin’ towns and villages on the island. Anyways, tha’ night after that there bard tol’ tha’ story bout the glory’us Calan Caitin fighting all alone against two massive trolls and a bunch o’ mages at the Battle of Upper Tears. Afterward when the growups had all settled down agin an’ granny had her whistle whetted, I heard the scariest tale you ever did hear.”
He paused here to take another drink from his jug and this time Torgin joined him.
“Mingo spoke up then, after accepting a large frothing mug and letting the crowd quiet down. ‘I’d like a moment to think of another, does anyone else have a tale to share to warm this dark night whilst I quench my thirst? Surely, Jenny will tell one? How bout that ol’ graveyard story, Jen?’
Granny grunted as she sat back down by the fire after addin’ another log and took a long pull from her pint of ale before beginnin’. Tha’ Bard nodded and smiled a little, to encourage her, like. He strummed his harp low and quiet so’s we could hear granny talk. It looked to me like he was settlin’ to listen. Or maybe he was anticipatin’ the fresh ale my Da’ was pouring for him.”
Ivan paused for another swig before going on. This time each of the companions had a swig from the jug in turn while Ivan continued.
“…well anyway…so Granny she starts talkin’ low and quiet and tells o’ the black fog. The dark dank fog that rolled in the afternoon of her sixteenth birthday. After the cake and the singin’, an’ during a game o’ truth or dare. The one friend o’ hers, Elaine Dougan, had it in her to try an’ catch a big ol’ graveyard spider for a pet and so she dragged the 3 of ‘em along on the dare ta go ta the graveyard after dark with their school friend Tristan, Granny Jenny’s younger brother, my Uncle Jon and Granny Jenny. There were four of em, just like you four, huh. Interestin’. Anyway. Even if they looked scared, they were also mostly curious to see the graveyard after dark, too. Or maybe they just wanted to do something slightly dangerous to show off to their friends later. Anyhoo’, Granny and her pals went sneaking into the old ruins. Hmmm.” He giggled gleefully, “I gots an idee in my noggin’: Heya know what? Let’s go on down to the ruins and I’ll finish tellin’ yoz’ all the tale in the very spot my Granny said she…well…let’s not get tellin’ the tale out of order.”
He directed, “Meet me in the Skull Gate Graveyard yonder to th’ clock tower. Yeah, you prob’ly passed it on the way here. An’ meet me at my granny’s grave in the back corner when you is done yer restin’.”
Ivan took a last swig off his pint and tucked it back under his arm then pointed west, toward the old graveyards. They turned as one to follow the line of his pointed finger.
By the time they turned back he was gone. This time he disappeared quicker than any of the companions would have dreamed he could. They looked at each other and grinned.
“My my, what has granny gotten herself into?” Torgin mocked. He was now intrigued to find out what Ivan’s ol’ Granny Jenny had done but didn’t want to be the only one, so he ridiculed. “Graveyard? Bring it on!”
Lucy chortled and joined in, “What big ears you have grandmother.”
Torgin joined Lucy and the pair of them became incoherent with laughter. Recognizing the sarcasm and the nervousness of the unknown, Zyrina found herself grinning a little. She could see a little more of what drove Torgin, bravado and brains. In her experience those often were a lethal combination especially in group settings. Her eyes narrowed as she judged whether Torgin would be a liability during this adventure or an asset. She decided in the end that his quiet demeanor and skill with his axe offset any false bravado he might possess.
Ivan could not be more annoying, disappearing all the time just to tease them with more information. Zyrina wanted to know why Ivan was leading them to a graveyard instead of just meeting them there in the first place.
She was ready to go after Ivan until she realized that Lucy had wandered off and was petting one of the sheep in the nearby pens. While Torgin and Zyrina gathered Lucy back to the group, Phlebus had vanished into the windmill to have a look at the system of gears that turned the wind turbine. He was found halfway up the inside, sketching the design of cogs for further study. Finally, the companions were all ready to backtrack to the graveyard, and to find Ivan for a third time.