The Stone Dragon Series – Book 2, Chapter 4
Read by Chatull Aventari
Chapter Four. How Much for That Information?
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.
“Come on, let’s go home.” I decided.