Thick mist in the early dawn made the still water of the lake reflect only the muted grey of the world around; even the birds were silent. It was quiet and mesmerizing to watch the nothing. After a long while of watching birds hunt low over the water, and rippling rings of movement in the water where fish pecked at bugs on the surface of the smooth deep blue, I went back in the inn and woke the other two women.
We then all made our way downstairs from where we had fallen asleep on the second floor of the pavilion. After breaking our fast with leftover bread from our bags, we had a bit of a hike up the mountain to where the wagon collected us to start us on our journey to Ironhall.
The jaunt out of Jade Mountains and over to the island’s shore had revitalized our bodies and minds and even our spirits lifted when, by midmorning, the mist had burned off enough to see the light flicker through and warm the chill out of the day. There were massive thunderheads and the sky remained in a darkened battle with itself high above the sea as we journeyed that day.
I would have liked to have sung a song of joy and beauty, but I dared not. I was sure that sore vocal cords, the aches in my muscles, and the headache I still suffered were all worth the revelry around the firepit the night before, but this suffering wasn’t something I wanted to repeat anytime soon. From the looks of the other two, it appeared like Zyrina and Lucy would agree with me.
Zyrina became horribly sick after her first meal on the ship and we teased her a little about her travel stomach, thinking the motion of the ship had set her off but Lucy went snooping and found a problem in the filthy kitchen. The ship’s cook had died of some mysterious stomach ailment just before we had boarded.
Lucy first convinced whatever sailor had unfortunately pulled kitchen duty for this voyage that she was indeed a good cook and wanted to cook a meal, that she was bored as a passenger and would prefer to help in the kitchen. Lucy started by cleaning up the galley kitchen with hot water and soap, then she taught a few of the sailors a simple recipe for fish that they could do on their own. The captain humored her and then cheerfully let her cook the rest of the meals on the voyage after tasting his first helping of her fish stew and biscuits. He had three helpings. The rest of the crew were won over by the very same meal. Zyrina spent most of the voyage either sick or recovering from being sick. It looked like the sea did not agree with her, after all.
I spent the days practicing a new sea shanty that I heard some of the crew singing one day while they scrubbed the deck. Most of the time I could be found wandering around humming the tune.
When we arrived at Ironhall the sounds and sights near the docks kept our senses occupied while we searched for Violet’s ship and also for the young man called Finn Beanna. Although Fiona had been explicit about how to get to Ironhall, she was vague on the location of Finn’s working area or his schedule or pretty much anything other than he would know where all the ships that arrived at the local port were heading, or where they had been. Asking for him didn’t help. The locals stared at us as if we were asking why the sky wasn’t a lemon meringue pie and then they clammed up or wandered off. There was no help for it: we would have to search to find Laketown and then search Laketown from one end to the other.
We split up and started looking. Zyrina eventually found him and called us over. He was sitting behind the Broken Docks Inn and looking for all the world as if he were avoiding being found. He didn’t seem especially friendly, either. We decided on a friendly approach anyway, with a gift of rum from my backpack and bread from Lucy’s.
What man can withstand three beautiful women bearing rum and bread? I tell you that Finn almost did. We got so little information from him after several minutes of talk that we began to wonder at Fiona’s glowing endorsement.
Finally, Lucy had had enough of the vagueness. “Fiona said he would know where the ship had gone.” Lucy complained in a half-whisper to me. Finn suddenly perked up.
“Fiona, you say? You traveled from Jade Mountains. Is it Fiona Thatcher that you mention?”
I looked him in the eyes, which he had finally dragged off of the map and scrap paper that he had been pretending to read the entire time. “Fiona. Yes, she gave you an encouraging testimonial but I’m skeptical at this point. You don’t seem to know much of what is outside your map.” At this I nodded toward the paper that Finn was rolling back up.
Finn narrowed his eyes. “Can’t be too careful these days, ladies. There are far too many forces afoot to be glib about casually passing information.” Then he added casually, “How is Fiona? Her brother Oscar tells me nothing of her when he and I work at the docks, and he rarely works at the docks anymore.”
I smiled to myself as I recognized Finn’s feigned casual interest in Fiona’s wellbeing. “Fiona was healthy and full of vigor when she left us to go cook stew for Oscar.”
“What do you mean by ‘forces afoot’?” Zyrina interjected, curious.
Meanwhile I was sizing up the young man and his surroundings. There were no clues that he would know the whereabouts of any of the ships that came and went in the harbour, let alone anything else in Ironhall. Lucy and I gave each other quizzical looks and shrugged our shoulders. Maybe Fiona was wrong about Finn.
“Well, let’s see,” Finn narrowed his eyes and took a darting look around the area before speaking further. “Take that tattooed mage that waited nearly a week for the ship he arrived on to leave again. He had come from Spindleskog and arrived on a passenger ship that had scheduled to be here for a week. He was not pleased and tried to bribe the captain to leave again on his schedule, but the captain refused. The trouble-making mage asked probing questions about everything and everybody in the whole of Laketown and gave little away about himself.” Here Zyrina looked over at me.
I stuck my tongue out at her and grinned knowing how inquisitive I seemed.
“Why would some traveler button it?” Finn sounded truly perplexed even as he continued to look down while fiddling with the rolled parchment in his clenched hands.
“What mage is this?” It was Lucy’s turn to perk up.
“The quiet one?” Finn returned with a question.
Finn found himself facing three pair of iron-tinged inquiring eyes. He decided that more information-sharing might be in his best interest. After finally putting down the now-wrinkled scroll and scrap of paper, he accepted the bread, then the rum.
Then he added, “Did Fiona say if she was coming here to meet you?” He looked over their shoulders hopefully.
“No. She is staying in Jade Mountains and not travelling with us. She did say she expected you for dinner on your return to Jade Mountain.” Smiling, I let him down gently and though he appeared to lose interest in us, he did perk up again when I repeated, “She did say she expected you for dinner.” He looked engrossed again following the promise of a meal in the future with Fiona, so I prompted, “Tattooed mage?”
“Tattooed. mage. Tattooed mage,” he mimicked. Zyrina went completely still except her left hand which gripped her bow and her right hand which went automatically to the fletching on her arrows. Finn looked up in the silence after his sarcastic comment. The glaring didn’t cease, and those arrows in the sullen one’s hands looked sharp and deadly; so, he continued with a false bravado and an indifferent shrug to start telling what he knew of the mage.
“Small, blue and green tattoos on his face, walked nonstop during the day. Didn’t sit much. Dressed in obsidian robes, I think. He carried a big blue bag and a little leather-bound book that he seemed particularly fond of. He spent far too much time reading to himself under his breath from the book while he waited for the ship’s repair.”
Lucy shifted her weight and her armor squeaked loudly. “Do you know where he was going?” she asked quietly.
He looked up for a flicker of a moment, “Nope, but he came here to go to the Caverns of Skrekk. Nope, I don’t know what he was doing there either,” he forestalled after seeing the question rising in my eyes. Then he added as an afterthought, “He wasn’t an especially skilled mage. He often got sidetracked during spellcasting if even something as harmless as a stray cat walked by. Every now and then he would try some magic, but it never seemed to go the way he wanted it to go. As well, the ship he arrived on needed repair from his onboard failures. There were several fires and one small explosion here in Laketown that I helped put out.” He puffed out proudly. “Not one building burnt down.”
We stood motionless listening to him. He seemed to warm up to his story. He continued after a pause for a nip of rum straight from the bottle and a chunk of bread, which he tucked back into his robes without sharing. “That mage stomped around the village every single day rain or shine; walking, walking, always walking and muttering to himself, too. I tried to get him to go to the pub to share a pint and a story or two, but he’d just stare through me until I had to give up. It was that unnerving.” He shuddered a little. “We was all relieved to see him get back on the ship when she was ready to sail again.”
At this, we all reacted with raised eyebrows. He took in our reactions and went on, “None thought we’d see the end of him, he was that picky about everything. As if there were something to pick from. The Sea Byrd remained the only ship that anchored in port at Ironhall for the entire week so in the end he went back on board but only after he offered the captain 3 times the normal passenger fee to take him back.”
“The SEA BYRD? That’s my sister’s ship!”
“When did it leave?”
“Where did it go?”
“Did you see a snowy lynx on the ship?”
Finn laughed heartily at the successive questions and answered openly, “Yes. She left this morning, just as your ship arrived. Jade Valley is their next destination.”
Here I gasped, “That’s my home.”
Finn ignored me and continued, “The crew was muttering about the captain sending their best cook on an errand and having to drop her off along the way, but I didn’t hear where to. Something about a cook, a fish stew, and an escort mission.” He forestalled the next question shaking his head and wringing his hands in front of him, “No, I don’t know where after Jade Valley, but I know they are going to end up in Jade Island at Green’s Inch where Captain Violet likes to spend the winters.” He didn’t nearly look as ready to bolt in any direction at any minute anymore and I could see Rina had released the tension on her bow so she must be having the same thoughts as me.
Zyrina gave me a curt nod after moving slowly around behind Finn again.
I was relieved and thanked him by going on, “I really didn’t think it would be that easy to get this information we needed from you Finn, and here you just blurted some out.”
Then Zyrina narrowed her eyes, jutted out her chin and asked him very directly, “What is it you want in return for this information?”
Finn looked at her and shrugged. He had warmed up to us when he finally realized we were not searching for HIM particularly, and he was not the real target of our very pointy-looking arrows and blades. “Nothing,” he shrugged again. “You are friends of Fiona’s. If you had told me that at the beginning, we might have had an easier start.” He stared hard right back at Zyrina. “If you are looking for the Sea Byrd, the shipping schedules are usually posted on the public bulletin board near the arrival area, if it’s a town the Sea Byrd regularly docks in, that is. It’s the same for all the places that she travels.” Zyrina again strode behind Finn to take a leisurely look at the lake beyond.
She gave me a quick wink and I nodded once, knowing.
He looked at me, “Do you know where else your sister is sailing to?”
I shook my head, frowning slightly. And to keep his attention on me I asked, “How long till she comes back?”
“Could be weeks or months. Some of the locals have a betting pool on for odds of their returning date. Wanna place a bet?” At this, his eyes darted from side to side and he looked at Lucy and I, furtively.
I shook my head no, as did Lucy. He turned to Zyrina who also declined to place a bet.
“Good day, we will take our leave. Thank you for your assistance.” Lucy nodded her head to him. And with that curt farewell, we picked up our bags and walked out of town.
The minute we were out of sight and earshot I asked Zyrina, “Did you get it?”
“Yep.” She pulled the stolen papers out of her boot that Finn had been so intent upon when we first arrived. They had suffered quite a few wrinkles in the process but were completely readable still. “The Southern Red Branch” was scrawled across the top of a detailed map of Elysium Island with several towns circled in red. Jade Valley was one of those.
And another scrap paper tucked inside the map simply said:
“Now what the Titans does that mean?” Lucy was as perplexed as I was.
“Same writing as that other paper with numbers, from Riverside, and from Scroda’s too,” she pulled them from her pack. “See?”
Zyrina was right. Although the papers’ torn edges didn’t match, we could see that the numbers were drawn by the same hand. Still without understanding, Zyrina added the new set of numbers to the pile and tucked them all away in her backpack.
“Have any of you heard of the Southern Red Branch before? Do you think they are part of the Red Sashes?” I asked the others as I ran my fingers over the raised embossed heading on the map. The only answers were head shakes or shrugs. No one spoke up.
Still early in the day, before Lucy Featherbright opened the front door of her cozy farmhouse, even before she had folded back her cozy goose-down quilt, she just plain smiled for the joy of being alive. The beginnings of a glimmer of light across the serene mountain lake peeped in her open window. After finding and dressing in her not–quite-fresh garments and then stuffing a piece of cheese and a not-quite-fresh roll into her pants pocket, she turned to leave the small hut. Her amber eyes twinkled as she swung the heavy door open and leaped down the two steps.
Novian dawn was usually a spectacular showy event in the cool autumn mornings here in the backwoods forests of Jade Mountains. When the first rays popped over the peaks behind the little cabin nestled above the hamlet, Lucy watched the morning tree shadows shorten and gnawed on her dried-out roll and crumbly cheese. Warmth finally started soaking into her chilled skin as she watched the day open before her. The light brought some thin autumn coziness with it. She turned her face to the light, soaking up all the sunshine she could. Already the light was not as strong as it had been in the summer and Lucy was aware that the cold would be upon them soon enough. Sighing, she finished the last bite, then turned to focus on the covered wagon in front of her cottage that she had abandoned half-unloaded in an exhaustion-fueled arrival.
Last night she had let Torgin’s furry companion off its leash after she had finished maneuvering the little wagon up the steep mountain path. The cat quickly and silently disappeared into the nearby forest. Lucy was used to this; Kitty had done so every time she arrived at the farm. Now upon waking, she realized her twin brother’s large snowy lynx had not yet returned from its nightly stalking in the woods.
“Huh,” she snorted to herself. “Go figure.” A pry bar leaned nearby, and she soon started prying at the closest barrel and scooped a couple salted fish out when it opened, their red and blue colours sparkling in the early morning light.
Hoping to entice the beloved pet out of the nearby trees, she sang out, “Here Kitty Kitty,” shaking the wet and iridescent fish she had picked out for the large snowy white lynx. Early autumn had not completely changed Kitty’s coat to the more subtle colours of winter and some of the dark streaks were still visible in her sleek coat. It made Kitty nearly invisible in the wild.
In the past, when Torgin had left Kitty with Lucy, the suspicious feline often liked to watch the lake below from just past the edge of the tree line near the cliff. But this morning, Kitty was not there nor at her doorstep like Lucy expected. Not at the edge of the forest in the tree line. Kitty was not in the corral annoying the new colt, nor the orchard, nor the garden.
When Oscar arrived she made him help her search instead of working with the animals. Not even her hired hand had seen the wildcat. Kitty was not at the little farm at all.
There were many places that Kitty could be found, but she could also disappear at will, it seemed. So, Lucy shrugged and set the fishes near the front door where Kitty would find them when she came back from whatever she was doing, then she kept unpacking from her recent trip to Jade Valley. The Cabalists had caused quite a stir there and Lucy was still disappointed that the artifact she hunted had disappeared again with barely a whisper. Well, at least Phlebus was working his way through all the tomes on the subject back in Central Brittany. Lucy was certain Phlebus would find the trail eventually. He was thorough. And motivated. The little-known magic artifact book appeared to fascinate him, too.
She didn’t much notice the passage of time until the sun dipped behind the mountain. The air suddenly chilled and Lucy, chopping wood, shivered. She decided she would finish her task upon the morrow. Those abandoned, uneaten fish were rather bloated and slimy now and quite vile smelling as well. With a shovel and holding her breath, Lucy scooped them up and carried them over to the fire she liked to keep going nearby. In she tossed some sage and a little rosemary to keep the biting insects away and disguise the smell of the rotting fish burning. She took a seat on one of the massive wooden chairs near the fire and poked at the coals to stir them to action. The fish burnt with stunning flashes of red and blue. Eventually they crumbled to ash as she sat smoking her long pipe while staring into the flames long into the evening.
By morning, Kitty had still not reappeared, and Lucy was starting to think about what Torgin would do if Kitty were still missing when he returned. Shrugging and going back to her task, she at first assumed Kitty was nearby, and she gave the topic very little thought. In the end, the next day Lucy gathered up a few hides to trade in town; she would take a quick look around in case Kitty had wandered down to the merchants or to check out the fishing vessels. Lucy assumed that Kitty would reappear after whatever curious thing that had caught the large feline’s attention was devoured or became boring. Other than the merchant, Richard, who stayed late and haggled with her over the hides but took them in the end for a fair price, she didn’t see anyone else out and about in town. She also didn’t see her lynx anywhere and so she climbed steadily back up the mountain to her home before the sun fell. Her days were filled with emptying the overstuffed wagon, chopping wood, and baking. Kitty still didn’t come back. Now Lucy was worried. This was not like Kitty. It was time for action.
Lucy sent her farm hand Oscar to the village with a scribbled note addressed to her friend Zyrina in Jade Gardens asking for help to find Kitty. Zyrina was the best tracker that Lucy knew. There was no telling how far the lynx had travelled, and Lucy was sure that Torgin would not accept that Lucy didn’t do anything to find his companion. Lucy was getting a little more anxious about the missing pet and knew how wide the area was that Kitty could travel in a short time. Maybe Kitty went looking for Torgin. Oh, this was bad. Very very bad, and Lucy wanted to avoid seeing Torgin lose his temper if she could. Reinforcements were on the way because Lucy trusted Zyrina would come help. That calmed her down a little.
A few days later, just outside Jade Mountains on the top of the cliff overlooking the seaport below that connected the west island with the center island of the Mistrendur, she stood with her spyglass out. Lucy could see that the Sea Byrd’s flag was still flapping in the wind down at the pier at the ocean shoreline. The ship had stayed in anchorage for the entire time Lucy had laboriously climbed up from the dock to her small home in the backwoods of Jade Mountains and settled in. It must have been waiting on a passenger, or maybe it had repairs to do. Lucy was sure it would not be there for much longer though. She wondered if Kitty had gone back to the ship for some reason.
This morning was shaping up to be another clear and warm day and she had much to accomplish before Zyrina arrived. Lucy had hardly seen anyone except her farmhand since her return and a good cup of tea with the locals sounded like a perfect way to catch up with the news while she waited for Zyrina, including asking if anyone had seen Kitty wandering around. Maybe someone in the hamlet below had seen Kitty, and she could resupply the farm after her long absence, too. Gossip was the grease of every small holding, and this one was no different. Surely someone would have noticed Kitty’s presence.
Later in the day when her chores were done, after she had planned for Oscar to stay on while she was away again, she flipped her hair out of the way after changing to town clothes and hitched up her backpack. Climbing down the mountainside was by far Lucy’s favorite walk no matter the season. Though coming back up left her breathless, letting her body flow down the mountain felt like skiing down on snow even though it was early autumn, and she wore boots today instead of skis. Lucy didn’t know how far Torgin’s pet had wandered in the last week, so this might take a few days of looking. The fire was out, and the colt had several days of feed and a good supply of fresh water. Oscar would check in every day and keep the place going for her. He was a reliable farm help who she enjoyed bossing around. He didn’t say much except ‘’As you wish” and that was comforting in a way Lucy didn’t quite understand. Lucy left one final message with Oscar in case Zyrina came straight to the farm.
This morning in the hamlet:
At the outdoor seating area with the lakeside open to view in front of her, Fiona Thatcher looked across the water and saw an air balloon circling to land up on Central Mountain. There would be custom today as explorers came to the lake to hear the stories from the locals about the goings-on in the lake that night years ago. She did nothing to dissuade the rumors but also had no stories to tell. She had not been in the small hamlet when the event took place and always suggested they ask the old wagon drover as he was the one involved. No, he didn’t work anymore, he was far older than that. No, he wasn’t in town today that she knew of. The answers were automatic. Giving the long countertop an extra hard rub, Fiona gathered up the rag she was swabbing with and tossed it into the nearby bucket of hot soapy water. She didn’t like to clean up after the sloppy sailors who frequented the lakeshore crafting pavilion from the docks nearby, but it was honest work, and she was intent on honoring her parent’s memory by continuing to support herself and her little brother Oscar. Upon becoming adults and being released from the orphanage that raised them, Oscar and Fiona chose the farthest point from Old Riverside in Jade Gardens that they could afford to travel, and one where they knew one person.
Lucy Featherbright. The Avatar, who had rescued them from certain death when they were far too small to protect themselves, lived here. The hamlet of Jade Mountains suited them just fine and even the balloon ride here was an exhilarating and stunning experience for the young people who had never been outside the orphanage. There wasn’t much of the constant danger from inexperience on the open road in a balloon journey either. Though they still learned a valuable lesson about trusting strangers after one of the many stops when someone they thought was a new friend disembarked with some of their few valuables before they noticed they’d gone missing.
When they first arrived at Jade Mountains, there wasn’t much work available for the young brother and sister but both Oscar and Fiona were sturdy, healthy, and had a clear understanding that they needed to earn their keep. With their motivation and their even tempers they soon both found employment and lodgings. Oscar got work at her farm right away and Lucy made sure Fiona had employment close to their home for a fair wage, enough that with her tips and his earnings they managed to keep themselves without any handouts. She could see the small charcoal drawing their parents (before the orphanage when everything changed) commissioned of the two of them hanging behind the counter. Since she spent most of her day here, she kept it with her. It was the only thing she had from the time before. Old Riverside no longer existed, and their parents were gone too.
She shook her head and spoke sternly to herself, “No musing, Miss. It’s looking forward only, remember?” And with that she started whistling as she ran up the few steps to the open-air cooking area.
Upstairs in the pavilion was far more sedate and comfortable seating but the farmers and dockworkers around these parts preferred a seat around the campfire overlooking the water, or maybe at the long countertop if they were feeling especially spruced up. She gave the fish stew another stir with her big wooden spoon before starting on the pile of dirty dishes.
She was glad to have a job at all, so she stirred the soup and sighed, enjoying the view of the lake in front of her while she listened to the gossip of the nearby residents sipping their beverages.
Catching a flicker of light reflect up the mountain beside the lake she turned. Shading her eyes with one hand, she set the wooden spoon down near the pot and used her other hand to add to the shade. She could see Lucy Featherbright running down the mountain at full tilt. Even from this distance Fiona could see that it was her friend. This was a welcome sight. She had heard from Oscar that Lucy disembarked from the Sea Byrd last week when it arrived at the docks at the seashore below this mountain town. He had been working for one of the taverns near the docks at the seashore off and on, too. Even if she wasn’t very happy with his choice to spend more time around sailors and pirates, the money he got in tips more than soothed her qualms (and fixed the pail and bought the cotton to make a warmer blanket). Then, a couple days ago, he had come down from Lucy’s farm with that letter that Richard the merchant saw him send with the post. Fiona knew Lucy would be brimming with fresh gossip from far away. She smiled and gave a wave. Lucy waved back and continued toward the local merchants as Fiona knew she would. Jessica and Richard would be glad for the business. Lucy would stop by and visit with Fiona later; she always came for tea after securing supplies with the merchants. The heavy kettle Fiona swung over the fire would boil before Lucy arrived and the tea would be piping hot, just like the gossip.
A few of the locals wandered into the hamlet’s crafting spot after their workday to do repairs and Fiona served their food and drink and gossiped among them while she waited to catch up with her friend. The big bonfire by the lake was a natural place to visit, especially for those who liked being outdoors instead of in an enclosed area. Fiona’s attention was diverted by the needs of her scattered patrons, so it didn’t seem as if much time had passed at all until Lucy strode over to the firepit where Fiona stood, handing out ales and stews to a couple of travelers. Thankfully, Lucy waited until the food and drink were in the hands of the customers before Fiona got one of those big bear hugs Lucy was famous for. Plopping down on an empty nearby bench, Fiona pulled Lucy down to sit beside her.
“Have you seen my Kitty?” Lucy urgently blurted.
“How’s Oscar?” Fiona asked anxiously at the same time, hoping his cough had subsided.
“Staying up at my farm while I’m gone.”
“No. There’ve been no strays here.”
“You never ask about Oscar, what’s up?”
“Where are you going?”
They both burst out laughing and had just taken a breath in anticipation of enjoying a good catch-up session, when the one of the sailors got up to leave and made some loud noise or other. Lucy had been looking down at the fire but when she raised her eyes to see what the noise was that startled her, past the noisemakers on the pier, she saw Zyrina securing a small boat along the wooden plank walkway stretching across the water.
With a bellowed, “Yes!” she jumped up and ran to greet her friend who had rowed up to the shore in a small vessel with neither her nor Fiona noticing.
“You made it!” Lucy grinned.
“Yes, and Lily Byrd will be joining us, I think. If she got my messages, that is.” Zyrina answered after the bear hug that Lucy bestowed upon her.
After a quick introduction, Fiona left to fetch a bowl of warm stew and an ale for the newcomer, as she looked worn out and parched. Then, with a nod to Lucy, Fiona went back to her job serving the next wave of those who were starting to come in for a bowl and a brew, both from the balloon which had finally landed (generally she directed these folks upstairs to the comfortable seating there) and the locals after a day of fishing and logging (who liked to drink and eat in the open near the water and away from the building itself). She threw a promise to sit down when she could take another break over her shoulder as she turned to serve the newcomers.
Lucy was talking a mile a minute and Zyrina was blowing on her still too hot meal when I arrived, striding across the wooden pier. Long before one of them looked over toward the boardwalk I watched them as I got closer. This time, it was Zyrina’s turn to yelp in greeting and run to meet me. Then, after the infamous Lucy bear hug, we three old friends gathered together by the fire.
After Lucy finished her story of gathering supplies for her farm, and since Zyrina was still eating and obviously not going to stop, I sat between them and began chatting about my journey here on one of the newfangled air balloons which landed at a higher mountainous area near the lake. Flying through the air was exhilarating and I only frightened the balloonist a couple of times when my screams got away from me. I felt justified because on most occasions I was able to stifle them and just clenched my hands far too tightly instead. The other passengers appreciated my control; it appeared as if they were both experienced balloon travelers.
“After my first fright-filled flight, to Rina’s,” I nodded toward her, “on this one I was beginning to believe the fear was fading a little. Air travel truly is the wave of the future and these balloonists are brilliant. Or maybe my uncle’s medicinal rum, which I had had a few large nips from, kicked in.” I winked and watched Lucy nearly fall off the bench from laughing. Zyrina even chuckled.
Regardless, this last trip was far more interesting because I could open my eyes every now and then and look around, and far easier on our eardrums. I went on to say that Land and Air’s arrival and departure point was not near the hamlet of Jade Mountains, but also found out that’s the closest to the lake that most of the wagons or air balloons would venture. My friends could understand my complaints about how far the walk to the settlement was from the top of the departure point, though.
“At least the balloon crowd knew about a shortcut which was the wooden plank dock across the lake that cut journey’s length considerably. I simply followed the crowd for a while until I spotted you both here by the fire.”
“The pilots wouldn’t talk about it either. They just gave nervous little laughs, but that just made me more determined to find out why so many won’t come closer.” My frustration was obvious. “There’s a story in there somewhere and I’m going to find out what it is. I’m not called sticky-beak for nothing!”
Here Lucy and Fiona exchanged a private look between them, and both had huge grins that they tried to hide. Fiona finished gathering our empties and took my order of another round and a stew.
“The air balloon had touched down just barely long enough to toss the baggage out and lift me and the others over the edge of the railing. Then they were airborne again, the pilot looking around nervously the whole while.”
Shrugging, Zyrina threw in, “Seems like something spooked them in the past?”
Lucy nodded in agreement, with a neutral expression.
“Whatever the fear of the young balloon pilot, I harbour no such qualms. The mountains shone after the rains and the smells were vivid. It was a longish walk down here, but it has refreshed me. Most of the local traffic was not by wagon but by foot, sometimes with small wheelbarrows that people pushed or pulled, so I had lots of company as I walked down the path. None of them would talk about why the arrival point was so far from the hamlet and gave me a wide berth if I pressed them. But here I am, arrived. Finally,” I reported satisfied.
The pretty server, who Lucy introduced as Fiona Thatcher, placed a steaming bowl of stew in front of me with a thick chunk of dark bread and handed me a mug of ale. With a grateful smile, I took the meal from Fiona and set gold coins on her tray for her kindness, before she rushed off to clean up some mess near the counter. The foul mood I had nursed all the way down the mountain and across the lake could not withstand the joyful reunion of my adventurous companions nor the scent of Fiona’s stew. Then, as I became distracted from describing the joys and woes of balloon travel, I gave a sigh, picked up my bowl, and stuck my legs out in front of me with a weary look.
“Okay, What’s this about Kitty? Where is Torgin? What’s Phlebus doing these days? I’m ready for the adventure to begin but I have no idea what is going on. Spill!”
As Zyrina and I tucked into our stew, in her indirect and wandering way, Lucy began again telling the story of the missing snowy lynx. She was anxious that we understood this was not typical behavior from the cat. Kitty didn’t DO this; she didn’t run away. Something was up. Lucy could feel it in her bones.
“We need to find Kitty,” she stuttered shyly after her long speech. Zyrina and I exchanged a meaningful look. Lucy’s bones were ALWAYS right.
“Well, Lucy. I guess we need to find that lynx,” I agreed. Turning to my somber tracking friend I asked, “Rina, do you have any idea where to start? What direction Kitty might have gone?”
Zyrina gave me a patient look and decided to shrug.
Lucy kept hoping that she would see Kitty sauntering up with a large fish grasped in her powerful jaws and was still searching the area thoughtfully; even as we sat and talked, she twisted and turned to see all directions. So, as she nodded in agreement with my words, she also turned hopefully toward Zyrina. Behind Zyrina I could see Fiona, walking by with a full tray in her arms, pause midstride after hearing our chatter and turn to face us.
“Um. I nearly forgot” Fiona interrupted sheepishly, “I think I know where your lynx has gone, Lucy.” She started handing out the mugs.
We all turned as one to stare at Fiona who now was extremely uncomfortable under the intense gaze of so many faces.
“I didn’t realize the kitty you asked about earlier was a snowy lynx.” She shifted the tray and began the tale, “As you know Lucy, Oscar was working down at the sea docks last week when your ship arrived, and he says after you disembarked with your wagon and headed up here to your farm that the Sea Byrd made arrangements for repairs and planned to stay on and gathering supplies and trading with the locals down at the sea docks for a week or so.
When they were finally ready to depart this morning, and just before she sailed, one of the locals who was down at the dock working said he saw a large snowy lynx that walked up the gangplank and jump onto the Sea Byrd after the purser had an altercation with a mage dressed in black obsidian robes, who was finally allowed onboard. He heard Captain Violet order her crew to ignore the lynx. Then, she sent a note over here, in case anyone asked about a large snowy lynx. I didn’t know that that is the Kitty you were talking about before. It’s on the bar over there.” She gestured with a nod of her head to the countertop behind her. Zyrina got up and headed over to pick up the paper.
“That’s my sister’s ship!” I exclaimed, “Captain Violet Green.”
“And? And?” Lucy could not wait any more and blurted out, “Do you know where the Sea Byrd’s next port of call might be?” while tugging on my sleeve.
I shook my head, but Fiona nodded quickly, “Indeed, she is heading for Ironhall.” After a pause she added, “You could ask Finn Beanna in Ironhall, he’d know where she docks, I bet. He’s someone Oscar met while working at the docks before he got farm work. Finn will either be at the dock, or perhaps at one of the Inns called The Broken Dock, I think at a small community called Laketown nearby Ironhall.
Go up to Central area here in Jade Mountain and you will find a wagon up by the town crier that will take you to the ship that goes to Ironhall. When you get to Ironhall then find Laketown…” She nodded her head in the direction that I had arrived, “…up where your balloon landed. Invite Finn for supper with Oscar and me next time he comes this way. Likely he will like that. Like me, he watches who comes and goes in his village and he will want to hear why you came by. Gossip is his trade.”
Glancing at the note left on the bar, Zyrina nodded in agreement. “Yup,” she added, “it says Captain Violet recognized Kitty from your trip here and expects you to collect her from the ship the next time she is back near Jade Mountains.”
Wailing, “I’m not waiting that long; I don’t know when they will be back. We need to go find them.” Lucy lurched over to Fiona, and she gave her friend a big hug. “You’ve just saved us a lot of trouble Fiona. I think that calls for another round, don’t you?”
Fiona’s eyes smiled. “Coming right up!” After delivering her tray of drinks to a table upstairs, she moved smoothly behind the bar and started pulling a fresh jug of ale for the group.
Turning back to the fire and speaking quietly, Lily leaned toward her friend, “So. ‘Rina. Spill. I can see something is bothering you, and Lucy can see it too. Where’s Torgin? Why is Kitty not with him?”
Zyrina leaned in closer to the group on the bench and took a deep breath. “Okay, don’t get mad Lucy but Torgin has gone off after another rumor.”
Lucy blanched, “Wha… alone?”
“No. With Phlebus.” Zyrina shook her head quickly then took a deep breath, “After we arrived in Central Brittany, Torgin left me at Byrd’s Boardinghouse and continued on over to Phlebus’ favorite library at the castle. All this time Phlebus has been looking for information about that little book you all found, Lily. During his search he asked the older librarians in Central Britanny if they had heard about such a book of magic in the past. Only one old librarian knew of it and after getting to know Phlebus a little he shared that he had spoken last year with a stranger who appeared to have had some very intimate knowledge about the contents of the book. Phlebus said it was rumored to have an unknown spell of great significance involving the essence of life itself. It had gone missing during the Fall as far as he had been aware. The old librarian himself had not seen it and even so he hoped it was never found. He explained that there was always more danger in such magic if used with the wrong intent. Phlebus didn’t get much more information than that about the book, and he didn’t pass along his own discoveries because the old bibliosoph didn’t seem like he wanted to know much about the present but he did ask after the stranger who had been enquiring the year before and had been told by the librarian that the scholar had stayed with a bard in Central Brittany; he remembered because they had a long chat about a lute and strings and music scores that had been purchased at Scroda’s shop. That’s where Torgin and I went next.”
We were spellbound.
Zyrina swallowed a gulp of ale then continued in the same low voice, “There was little at Scroda’s that had anything to do with the book but a scrap of paper with the words ‘stolen from us’ and then some unreadable smudges and then ‘The Dragon’s Breath near Jade Valley’ scribbled on it and this…”
I took the scrap of paper from her and studied it. I couldn’t think what the numbers meant, only that it might be a combination for a lock or chest or something. I handed it to Lucy to look over.
Zyrina took a breath and continued. “Of course, we had to go and try to find River’s Cross near Jade Valley and see what we could learn there. After finding our way through the fog (which is the only time River’s Cross appears – out of the mists – if it appears at all) we found a town burned to the ground, and only one building still standing. The Dragon’s Breath Inn. We did find a lone bartender and sat for a pint and an earful. We talked for a whole evening and eventually learned the tale. River’s Cross is the last known location of the book.” She paused before warning, “It’s gruesome.”
She looked over at Lucy, whose tender heart was well-known and who appeared to shudder a little. “You remember there was a group of mages who stole that artifact from Emrys while he was trying to deliver it to Lord British after the adventure Lily Byrd told us about while she was trying to rescue her friend Arabella during the Treasure of Mystery Island?”
Lucy looked confused and shocked but shook her head slowly looking apprehensive.
With a look of surprise Zyrina went on, “You don’t? Well, Lily can tell you that part later; I heard the whole story from Emrys when we were asking him more about what you found in that treasure chest. It was a small leather-bound book of magic. An artifact from before the Fall. Someone ambushed Emrys and took the book from him before he could return it to the library in Central Britanny. At least he survived the beating he was given. We lost the trail there.”
She nodded at Lucy then over at me, “Then remember we found out a group of mages in that hidden temple under Jade Valley had been using a book of magic to build their temple out of people they had turned to stone in The Stone Dragon? And we interrupted their attempt to turn a human into a dragon?”
I nodded, rapt.
She went on, “We each know that ending. At least one of those mages escaped with the book just minutes before we could capture the survivors. It turns out that one was not alone, and the escaped mages fled to a sleepy little hamlet called River’s Cross that used to be across a covered bridge near Jade Valley. That’s where the Dragon’s Breath is located. They convinced the locals that they were a peace-loving group of magic workers just waiting to make their mark in Novia and meanwhile would treat the locals when they were sick. The mages were welcomed into the community just as many of them started to fall sick and need attention from the mages.
At first, the mages healed the small scrapes and cuts they were presented with and that’s all they did, but then folks slowly started disappearing one by one until the hamlet was nearly empty.”
Lucy squeaked and covered her eyes as if that could stop her from hearing Rina’s story.
Zyrina paused but then went on, “At that point, one night all the mages rose up out of their temple underground and into the Dragon’s Breath Inn for a celebration. The bartender at the Dragon’s Breath heard things then that both shocked and frightened him that night, but he stoically continued to serve the drunken bunch of mages without giving away his dismay. Their COTOS were just as valuable as the next person’s gold, in his view. That view changed.
During all that drinking, those mages did a lot of bragging. The bartender took his time telling of all the things they bragged about, but I’ll summarize for now and tell you the whole tale later: the group of mages had been killing villagers one by one and used their human essence and a spell to brew an ale that they thought would extend their lifespans. That night they started tasting their own mix of kegs they had brewed from the villagers.
It made them feel euphoric; they believed they had succeeded and were proud of it, too. However, most of the villagers were now missing and the remaining few had started whispering among themselves about the mages. The mages were making plans to go to another hamlet and start making another batch of the vile drink. It seemed they believed they had extended their lives and were arguing whether they could expand them even further, and eventually they started to dare each other to do other spells from a little leather-bound book they left on the table while they were playing their drinking games. That night, they got excessively drunk. Too drunk to spell-cast responsibly, let alone spell-casting from that book.”
Fiona had silently moved closer with a tray of drinks and she handed another ale to Zyrina. She took a sip from the fresh ale before resuming, “Blind drunk, while arguing and bragging about their prowess, some of them foolishly conjured one of those spirit dragons from a dragon bone they had dragged up out of their lair and a spell they tried to interpret from that little book. This time they were far too successful. As soon as the spell was cast, the bone burst into flame and then grew before their very eyes into a flaming shape of a full-sized flying dragon. Before anyone could properly end the spell, or even before they realized what they had achieved, the shadow dragon razed nearly the entire village.”
Lucy seemed to be properly horrified. “Like the one we saw nearly materialize in the graveyard at Jade Valley?”
Zyrina nodded and saw me start to squirm a little from trying to sit still during her long speech as she continued, “The important part is this, the bartender saw one mage who hung back and didn’t join the others: a quiet one who kept himself to himself and didn’t drink. During the ruckus after the spell was cast, he picked up the book when the other mages were concentrating on the newly-appeared dragon before the bartender escaped to his hiding hole. The quiet mage grabbed the book and hid it in one of his cloak pockets then quickly faded into the background after putting some kind of protection spell on the Dragon’s Breath. But before he disappeared, a piece of paper dropped out of the little book that the mage didn’t notice, and the bartender picked it up before he fled into his basement to hide.
The bartender missed seeing the brave farmers who came to help fight off the attack and the avatars from as far away as Jade Valley that came to help because he hid in his basement as anyone would do. In the end, the dragon was overcome, but not until the mages who had cast the spell were dead and the hamlet destroyed. The bartender gave the paper to Torgin who brought it to me.”
Zyrina went silent for a moment before looked directly at Lucy, “Torgin has gone after that mage. He returned to the libraries of Central Brittany to find Phlebus and together they were looking all over Novia to hear of whispers and rumors of strange magic. Then, after last winter, he left me a message saying he found something and that they both were heading out to Spindleskog to track that mage who they are now positive had the book when he left River’s Cross.”
In the quiet while we all took a minute to grasp what she was saying, she added “Here is a copy of the paper the mage had dropped.” She handed it to me. It had the same series of numbers on it that was left at Scroda’s but a different letter.
“ALONE?” Lucy’s voice was shaky as she took the paper from me after I glanced at it. “To Spindleskog?”
Zyrina nodded. “I couldn’t stop him, Lucy. So, I wrote Lily Byrd and asked her to come meet me. I knew we would need help to catch up to him and I knew you would want to know what Torgin was getting into, as well. I’m glad Lily caught up before we left again. I don’t know if Torgin can manage on his own with just Phlebus against a group of rogue mages with a magic book. I know we will have to find him, but let’s find Kitty first, OK? I have a feeling Kitty knows exactly where she is going and maybe that’s where Torgin will be.”
Lucy sighed and nodded. She was left looking at the scrap of paper and comparing it with the other one. It was the same script, and the numbers matched but what was the R and the C? What were the numbers for? A combination? An address in Novia? We were all stumped.
Just then Fiona arrived back at the firepit with another full tray of frothy ales and wine in large mugs and some crunchy salty bits of fried potato as the talk changed back to things of local interest: gossip and tidbits of news from the world outside the small mountain hamlet that didn’t include shadowy mages with magic artifact books.
During the merriment, we came to an agreement: tomorrow we would journey. We made our plan to take a covered wagon from up at the central transportation area to find a ship to Ironhall. Fiona gave us a detailed description of how to find Ironhall that included catching a covered wagon from here to the West Island docks, taking the ferry to the Middle Island dock and from there finding passage to Noreach, Mud, Estgard, and finally Ironhall in the far northwest of Norgard. It would only be a few days travel if we were lucky.
Lucy tried saying West Island and Middle Island fast five times and that started us giggling. I fell over laughing. Tonight, we would laugh and dance around the fire and sing with Fiona until the dark forced Fiona to abandon us and go start her own home fire so that her little brother Oscar would have a warm meal when he finally arrived home from up the mountains.
Fiona thought Oscar would have his work cut out for him taking care of their own garden and caring for Lucy’s place since Lucy was obviously leaving again. Lucy always made sure that Oscar was well-paid for his efforts and Oscar preferred to work at Lucy’s farm above all others. Fiona appreciated Oscar being away from the docks and especially the lessons Oscar was learning from Lucy when she had time to teach him about the plants around the mountainside and their medicinal uses.
The extra effort to take care of both places would be a strain on Oscar. Maybe she would advise him to stay up the mountain and she would handle their garden herself. Smiling, Fiona gave a wave and wished Lucy and her new friends the luck of the Titans, not knowing why they travelled, only that under the gaiety, concern from some unnamed danger was giving each of them a grim look in the corners of their eyes and a thoughtful quietness underneath the frantic merriment.
She hoped Lucy would return soon and tell her the whole tale, but she could see that none of them were willing to talk about it tonight. She could hear them still singing around the campfire by the lakeside as she waltzed all the way to her little home just down the lane.