The Stone Dragon Series – Book 2, Chapter 9
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Chapter 9. Tempers and Explosions.
Before the Lodge…
Finally in Darkshire Hills, and after greeting Sergeant John Benton, Aslinne Gradh and Jenny Hawkins, with the mage in tow, had arrived near the third town boundary at the forked road and took a moment to talk before they went on.
“We go left here, but if you want to carry on to the village you would take the right fork.” Jenny pointed the two paths out as she spoke, not really looking at the mage while she did.
“We might as well go to the Bent Bow Inn and stay the night. It’s still a distance to the Hunting and Fishing Lodge and the day is not fresh.” Aslinne spoke with authority. “The undead we encountered on the road on the way here may also still be near, too. Travelling in the dark isn’t wise.”
The mage looked down both paths for a moment before nodding his head and indicating he agreed with Aslinne’s decision.
Meanwhile, Jenny had been catching up with the sergeant stationed at the fork; he was a local too, someone she knew from childhood, apparently, from the whisps of the conversation that Aslinne overheard.
“OOO the TREES!!” Jenny excitedly exclaimed, as she had for the last hour or so of the journey, about the local fauna and flora. “John, I forgot how majestic they are, and how fragrant the forest. Do you remember that time that little Jimmy got stuck up in one and you helped me get him out before Ma and Pa found him up there? He still owes me for that one!”
The sergeant laughed a lout guffaw before remembering his respected position.
“We don’t want any trouble here.” Standing to attention, Sergeant John Benton sounded quite stern.
Jenny giggled and told him to stop being so hard-hearted. “I’ll meet you later at the Bent Bow for a cold one?”
He nodded and smiled before going back to his gruff guard at work attitude and waved them along, “Take my advice friend; don’t make me angry.”
Aslinne smiled behind her hand. The ease between Jenny and Sergeant Benton was obvious.
“Don’t be daft!” Jenny called out behind her as she walked away from him, “See you at the Bow after your shift.” Then she boldly winked at the sergeant who was now a scarlet shade and trying to hide his smile from someone who might have been his captain who was walking toward the sergeant from the guard tower that overlooked the sergeant’s position at the crossroads.
There were mushrooms of several varieties in the forest all around. Jenny begged until Aslinne relented and agreed that, early in the morning, they would go gather some before Aslinne continued on her journey. Jenny assured her that she hadn’t had anything like them.
“Look! FLOWERS!!! OOO I love those red ones!! They are what I remember most from home.” Jenny took a large sniff with her nose right in the flower.
“I think you may be right. I definitely haven’t seen one just like this one before.” Aslinne winked picking a random bright red flower and holding it out to the girl.
Jenny giggled, grabbed the flower, and went skipping on ahead, singing to herself as she went.
Aslinne followed with the mage walking companionably by her side. None of them this day had seen the snowy lynx that had followed them off the Sea Byrd, and which had trailed them for several days up until now. They all assumed she had finally gone on her way to wherever it was she was headed, but they missed the big cat’s silent presence none the less. By the time they passed Captain Mike Yates just inside the borders of Darkshire, Jenny was starting to recognize and point out places she had known while growing up and telling funny tales about her adventures in each one.
“And this is where I got that scar on my knee that you asked about, Aslinne.” Jenny pointed to a big rock along the path. “I tripped on it while trying to watch a shooting star instead of watching the path in the dark and didn’t see that rock.”
“OOO there are some of the mushrooms I was telling you about!! Look at the size of them!” Jenny’s excited voice rang out. “We have to go picking in the morning though. See how the colour is all dark? We want em before that happens.”
Aslinne was used enough to the energetic girl that she could completely tune out what she was blathering on about usually, but now the subject was local mushrooms. That had piqued her interest alright and she was paying close attention to this particular chatter. She was also scanning the nearby forest from the road as they strolled but had not yet on her own spotted these wonders of culinary arts that Jenny was so excited about. She did see a few poisons she would be interested in collecting and putting into her satchel to replenish her stock.
Aslinne hoped these mushrooms of Jenny’s were actually something different because the brown mushrooms that she found just about anywhere were tasteless and dull. She was always on the search for flavorful ingredients. Aslinne preferred a bit of zing to her food and after a particularly spicy dish the captain had responded well. Afterward she had been given far more leeway in the ordering of ship’s supplies.
Oh, my supplies! Aslinne remembered that she had left Old Salty John Sliver in charge against her better judgement; she did not trust him one bit, but he was the only sailor available who applied for the position when Captain Green had ordered Aslinne to accompany Jenny to her home. Aslinne hoped again that her kitchen would not be in shambles when she returned to her post. She still had a long journey ahead of her before then and it was best not to brood on it, as she could change nothing about the decisions already made. So, she kicked a rock in the road along in front of her and occasionally chatted with the mage at her side while scanning both sides of the road for mushrooms and herbs as she walked along. Jenny’s voice floated back to them in waves and didn’t seem to require any participation to encourage the flow of words…or as was the case now, song.
“Shrooms!” Jenny’s shriek could be heard far and wide as she dashed to the side of the road and scooped up a small batch of dainty purple mushrooms. “Ba, these are too old too, see?” She held them out for Aslinne to inspect. “They have gone too dark in colour.”
Just over the rise, Coralee Hawkins straightened up from her work and cocked her head to the side. “Jenny?” Then spotting her daughter in the distance, she jumped up and down several times, “Jim! Jim, Jenny’s back! Jim! Come quick!”
Down by the river and just barely in shouting distance, Jim Hawkins and his young twin sons looked up from where they had been inspecting the fishing nets already strung out on the tall poles to dry. “Jenny?” “Our Jenny?” Shielding his eyes with his stiff leathery lined hand, he could see Jenny start to run toward his wife. He didn’t recognize the other woman who slowed to a stroll behind Jenny, nor the figure in the flowing black robes who faded into the background and didn’t have time to look because after Jenny hugged her Ma she had turned, sprinted down the bank to the river and leaped into his outstretched arms.
“Oh Jenny, it’s good to see you, lass”. There were tears streaming down his face and Jim Hawkins could see his wife wiping her own face as Jenny turned to gather her brothers in the hug.
“Jenny, Jenny, is it really you?” Little Jimmy had grown a whole head taller and his leap into her arms nearly knocked the slight girl over.
“Hi, Jenny” Jeremy’s theatric whisper was lost in the hullabaloo, but Jenny heard him because she smiled right at him and gave him a big hug too. Then the boys raced up from the river’s edge where they’d been unloading fish from the boat to stand near the stone bridge and stare at the newcomers who had arrived with Jenny.
After they had all touched each other and reassured themselves that the moment was real, Ma Hawkins turned around and formally introduced herself to the shadowy mage and the pretty woman who patiently were looking out over the river and seemed to be oblivious to the family reunion and to the two small boys standing and staring at them. They weren’t of course, but it looked that way.
Smiling at the strangers Ma Hawkins nodded stiffly. “Thank you for bringing our Jenny home.”
“Oh, Ma, don’t be so formal,” Jenny pulled Aslinne into the family group and introduced her, “This is Aslinne Gradh. Best ship’s cook this side of Spindrift Bay and these are Ma and Pa Hawkins.”
Coralee shook the hand of Aslinne Gradh and welcomed her “We really are grateful for you bringing her home, miss.”
Jenny looked a little unsure then added, “This fella is… well I don’t actually know who he is, but he has walked with us from the ship and he’s a friend of Aslinne’s.” She nodded in the direction of the figure in black who stood woodenly to the side shrouded in shadow and said nothing but nodded his head formally.
“Pleased to meet you,” Coralee first greeted the mage cheerfully. “Welcome to our home. Call me Coralee. James and I are always glad to meet friends of Jenny’s.”
The mage nodded and turned to look at the river.
Jenny nodded toward the inn. “Ma, they are going to stay the night and go over to the Hunting and Fishing Lodge after some mushroom picking in the morning. Aslinne was kind enough to bring me all the way home so I’m gunna show her the little mushrooms that we like to eat.”
She gestured to her brothers, “And those are Jimmy and Jeremy,” she added introducing her young twin brothers, who were both shyly eying up the strangers. “Good luck telling them apart. They lie about it, too.”
One of the twins stuck out his tongue at Jenny and the other blew a raspberry. “Not everyone is as blind as you are,” they taunted in unison.
This was an old taunt. Aslinne grinned because she could see that Jenny was laughing and started chasing them toward the bridge.
“Don’t go far,” Coralee shouted. “We just got her back and it’s teatime.”
Turning back to the guests Coralee could see that both the mage and the slightly bashful Aslinne looked uncomfortable with this intro but they were eventually drawn into the obviously joyful family reunion that afternoon.
Aslinne won the twins over nearly immediately with her stone-skipping knowledge as they dawdled along the bank of the river behind Jenny and her parents. She led them a small distance away but stayed in sight of their family so Jenny could catch her parents up with the news of the world. The mage followed Aslinne. Jenny noticed the kindness as did her parents who nodded in approval at Jenny’s travel companion.
“Tis good to see your face, daughter,” Coralee began. “Do you think you’ll be staying for just one night too?” She asked anxiously.
“Ma! I’m home, I’m not going anywhere except my own bed, if it’s still there?” Jenny linked arms with her mother.
“It’s always going to be there,” Jim Hawkins gruffly broke in. “Welcome home, Jen.” And he put his arm around Jenny and patted Coralee on the shoulder for comfort.
The mage didn’t really speak to anyone, just followed Aslinne down the riverbank, but he looked longingly to the road south. The little family moved on up into the Bent Bow Inn to get the tea water boiling and the lowered tones of their voices could be heard murmuring in the distance as Little Jimmy and Jeremy had a thorough lesson on choosing the exact right round and flat shape and the proper grip for skipping stones and Aslinne had her hands full answering their many questions. Some of them were even about skipping stones.
By the time the lads had thrown their fill of stones, they had remembered that Jenny promised them gifts upon her return, so they abandoned their newfound friend and dashed in the front door of the inn. Having thrown one last stone into the stream, Aslinne brushed her hands off before she picked up her pack. She could hear the boys’ high-pitched voices begging for their gifts. Aslinne grinned over at the mage who sat on the bank muttering to himself and studying the small book he carried everywhere, then took one last look at the peacefully meandering stream.
She decided. “Let’s settle in for the night. Tomorrow I’ll go pick mushrooms with Jenny, and then we can head over to the fishing lodge.”
He nodded slowly in reply and took one more glance in the direction of the fishing lodge, not quite visible downstream.
Before long she turned to climb the incline to the Inn and see about a cup of tea. Aslinne had a good look downstream toward the bridge in the south. It was still a little way longer to find the Darkshire Hills Hunting and Fishing Lodge, farther south of Jenny’s family Inn that is. She planned on enjoying this furlough from the ship and had her favorite fishing pole carefully stowed in her bags.
“Coming?” Her question wasn’t answered but the mage turned and followed her.
Of course, they had a warm and plentiful supper with Jenny’s family and found themselves tucked up for the night in comfortable beds. It didn’t take long before they each were fast asleep.
After waking slowly in comfort, Aslinne quietly woke her friend Jenny and they both snuck out of the Bent Bow before dawn.
“See? They’re always far easier to spot in the dawn’s light, aren’t they?” Jenny twittered on about the mushrooms as she skipped through the wooded area. Aslinne collected as many as she could carry and several other plants too.
It didn’t take long before they were both laden. After packing up, a quick breakfast at the inn, settling the bill, and bidding Coralee a friendly good day, Aslinne picked up her pack and strode out ready to leave. The mage had been sitting by the river watching the Hawkins boys clean their fish, and James mend nets when Aslinne found him. Again, she repeated her goodbyes the rest of the Hawkins family. They watched the sun fully rise while organizing their packs along the riverbank outside of the inn.
A little later, realizing she had fallen behind, Aslinne hurried her step to keep up. It was the first time since leaving the ship that the man she considered her friend, who now walked just ahead of her, had showed some sense of urgency and anticipation.
“Have you been to the lodge before?” A little breathless from walking too fast, Aslinne was curious to find out why all of a sudden, the mage had changed demeanor and speed of travel, but she also wasn’t willing to make a direct question of it.
He turned his head toward her and the gleam of his dark eyes showed his excitement, but he didn’t speak. She could see the grimace that was his smile though, and he nodded his head under the black hooded cloak that he wore everywhere. His pace didn’t slow down and although he was not much bigger than she was, she struggled to keep up.
Then Aslinne deliberately slowed her pace and stopped along the bank just before the bridge they would have to cross before finding themselves at the lodge.
“You go ahead; I’m going to stop here at this river crossing to test out my newly repaired rod; the morning is just too perfect to hurry through.” Shrugging out of her heavy backpack, she rummaged through to find her hooks. “I’ll catch you up at the lodge. Just let them know I’ll arrive later, okay?” She trailed off as she looked up then. He was already across the bridge and a couple hundred paces past.
“Well, that’s that then.”
She felt ruffled and grumpy that he didn’t even pause to see why she had stopped. It’s not as if we had an appointment that we couldn’t miss. What’s his problem? She thought to herself as she forcefully dug near the riverbank with her trusty travel trowel, muttering under her breath. At last, after collecting a little writhing ball of worms she chose a fat wriggling one. Popping it onto her hook and casting into the clear running water helped dispel her mood and she let the stream take her worries away with it.
Still on the path from the Bent Bow Inn, striding purposefully, the mage had not even heard what Aslinne had said when she stopped by the river’s edge. He could wait no longer to get to his destination and was obviously under some sort of emotional strain. When he finally did notice she was no longer walking with him, he looked back. She was still by the stone bridge and had begun to dig into the riverbank with a small shovel. He simply continued on his way, certain she would be at the Lodge before the day was finished. He had some private matters to attend before she arrived.
As he walked, he mused. The outcome to the magic he was practicing was not getting any easier, no matter how close he came to the shard fall. It should be getting easier the closer he got. This book was different. These spells didn’t fizzle when they should and fizzled when they should not. The runes were hard to understand. They were written in an old script that had all sorts of additional swirls and loops attached to it. The runes would not adapt to the present and they resisted any change that might lead to a less effective spell.
He found himself hearing Aslinne in his mind: “You know I’m not a witch. There isn’t a bit of me with any magical power that I can find, but I have ancestors with the sight, and what I know about magic is this: What you put in you get back, threefold. But only if done with virtuous intent. And: NEVER spell cast for oneself, only in the service of others.”
Maybe there was something to this theory of Aslinne’s that he could not get out of his head. What if virtues really did affect his ability to cast these old forms of magic? And the equally interesting thought: do some kinds of virtues and some kinds of vices affect the strength of different schools of magic? He had never considered that the very land might have its own magic; or that each caster’s intent and virtue had a consequence when combined with powerful spells, before his discussions with Aslinne.
She believed that not all the magic in the world needed a touch of that cold shard that burned at the very essence of his being every time he cast a spell. She believed that magic and virtue strengthened each other, not magic and shard essence. What if she is right? He shook his head again.
“This is crazy talk,” he mumbled aloud as he hurried along, trying to convince himself that he knew what he was doing.
No need to go looking for strange magic when the splinter of the shard he carried gave him a boost of magic already. What need did he have of other ways or another knowledge? That woman got under his skin.
He shrugged then gave a grimacing grin and spoke softly to himself a spell of clarity. Her logic was profound and her cooking worth the wait; she was an interesting travelling companion, and he had enjoyed their voyage and travels together. Regardless of how sick he was, she had made sure he had food. So, when she had crazy ideas about order and virtues, he felt some sense of responsibility to think about what she told him before he gave her his opinion.
If he could just get this spell to work, it would speed things up so much further along when it was time to prove to her that his magic worked, and that he didn’t need to believe in the laws of magic that she seemed to follow.
The sun was beginning to dip lower in the sky and Aslinne sighed, not wanting to break out of the peace she had found for herself on the riverbank that day. After she had caught a good string of five fat fish, all now gutted and gleaming on the fish-string, Aslinne buried the entrails, scattered the remaining worms, and packed up her kit. It was now early evening, and she was feeling the sharp pinch of hunger. Mrs. Hawkins’s sausage and biscuit breakfast at dawn had been too many hours ago. It was time to continue to the lodge. Her pack now seemed heavier after the respite, but she didn’t flinch, she just swung it up and onto her back with a flick of her arms. Her tiny stature no longer stopped her from doing the things she needed to do, and it brought her a sense of satisfaction. She may be compact, but after living in Novia for a number of years, she was now all sinew and muscle. There were no noodle arms left in her world. The old insult from when she first arrived in Novia as an Outlander, unprepared to care for herself, still stung. Her old life of empty leisure in the Outlands was not a temptation for Aslinne, for she remembered vividly how unhappy she had been with no purpose to guide her.
Well, now there was plenty of purpose, and at the moment that purpose was getting to the lodge, settling her accommodation, and finding out if the cook, Cordon Ramey, still remembered her recipe for pan fried fish. He was one of the cooks she had met as she travelled around the world selling her fish, and trading with other cooks of Novia for recipes and produce. Cordon was a good cook, smart and funny, but he had a sharp temper and though she enjoyed his cooking and visiting with him, she was always relieved when it was over.
At the Lodge…
The Lodge’s manager, Goldie, had spent the morning fussing over every detail in the gathering room; it had been months since she had had news from anyone in the syndicate but two weeks ago everything changed. She now had had her fill of “contact” and just now only wished it all to be over and done. She was uneasy finding items for people she didn’t know personally. There was such a risk to herself and her team that she was very picky about who she would procure things for. But. Nestor sent word that he expected her to comply with this odd request from this unknown mage, and report back to him as soon as the mage arrived. Nestor did not allow refusals to his requests. She had been in a state of waiting for days now. Impatiently waiting and fingering the letter she had received; she didn’t need to reread it as she had already memorized its contents.
To: The Hunting and Fishing Lodge, Darkshire Hills
Good day to you. Nestor recommends you highly as the best procurement officer he knows. He insists you will find me what I need. I have been scribing for the Southern Red Branch Syndicate of Elysium Island. We are now exposed but had been working in secret in Jade Valley for a generation or more. Nestor is my contact.
I am now one of the only survivors left from the disaster that befell our syndicate at River’s Cross near Jade Valley when our reckless dragon reshaping wasn’t contained, nor the dragon controlled. I am certain you are aware of our failure and the loss of the majority of the Southern Red Branch Syndicate.
Seeing the disaster unfold and by luck alone, I escaped notice and capture by using an invisibility spell I had learned, and I fled.
The Southern Red Branch Syndicate has nearly been wiped out. Since I am now without a cabal, I will soon meet with Nestor. He wants to know about the research we had been undertaking into reanimating dragons, before reassigning me.
After my short stay at the Hunting and Fishing Lodge I go to meet with him in Ordanis Mortis at Los Gardeñias Restaurant to discuss my future.
I need your help to find a dragon egg. My syndicate were close to a breakthrough. We had found and translated more spells that will increase our casting strength if we can intone the spells correctly. This proves to be far more delicate of a task then we originally thought. When we succeed, we will be able to reshape creatures once again to our use, as the Obsidian Cabalists were capable of doing hundreds of years ago. Alone, I am the only one left who is trained in the words of the spells of the Southern Red Branch Syndicate.
Nestor has given me permission to ask for your assistance in a test of my ability here before I meet with him. I beseech you; heed my words. What I need for this test is a dragon egg. I have seen an egg myself. I know it’s there but could not take it on my own.
It is on a small trading ship named the Sea Byrd. She flies a pirate flag, but I have seen no piracy among that crew. I did find a hidden room with a treasure in it. As well as the trove of gold, there are a few dragon eggs. I need two of those eggs. Just two. The live ones; the others are petrified and worthless to me. You need to send a small group there to discretely gather them without being detected. Then keep them secreted at Darkshire Hills until my arrival.
The ship is a small full sail galleon that travels the Novian Oceans trading and carrying passengers. She has only a few stops before reaching her destination. It is vital that you send someone to collect the eggs before it leaves the port at Ardoris, without being detected. It’s the last port they stop at before I must visit with Nestor, and before my arrival at your lodge. The eggs are hidden in a secret room in the crew quarters. I have included the ship’s schedule. Take the eggs to your lodge; I will meet you there within three weeks’ time. I trust you will have managed this task before my arrival. I have been practicing a spell I found that will speed up the hatching. Do not fail, Goldie. Nestor is counting on this success. I need those eggs. Keep this secret.
PS: I travel with a human woman, Aslinne Gradh, who gives me the perfect reason for visiting Darkshire Hills and collecting the eggs. She is not of the Syndicate. Do not involve her.
Upon arriving the mage strode into the Darkshire Hunting and Fishing Lodge. There was no time to waste.
“You there!” he pointed at the first person he saw. “Find me the manager at once!”
The trembling youngster working at the front desk had never seen a ranked Obsidian mage before and was obviously shaken by the blue and green tattooed face. After delivering the message to Sister Golden Hair, who had been hanging about all morning with the new guest from Central Britanny that had arrived the day before, he scampered off and didn’t report back to work again until the next day, when he was whipped for his lackadaisical attitude.
Sister Golden Hair introduced herself as Goldie and calmly led the mage she had been expecting up a set of stairs inside the building. There, another man in black looked up from the fire he had been staring into while sunk into a comfortable chair by the lit fireplace. She then introduced Mister S who pointed at the wooden box he was resting his feet on.
And then Goldie looked squarely back at the mage. It was obvious H. N. was not here to fish; he stuck out like a lighted lantern in a dark room. He was obviously a mage of rank and should be introduced with all the rites, but all Goldie knew him by was the H. N. that he signed at the bottom of the letter; she could not introduce him to S because she did not know his name, either. After staring for a short intense period, the mage went straight to the topic.
“You received my letter?” The mage enquired of Goldie as he settled himself into a seat by the window.
She nodded and patted the pocket she kept it in.
His eyes flicked to Mister S. “My Eggs?” the mage inquired.
S nodded too. It was he who had successfully spirited the requested eggs from the belly of the ship. The mage looked them both over with his unnerving stare.
“Send one to this address” The mage held out a slip of a paper. “The other I need here.”
S again nodded assent, but tersely replied, “It was not accomplished without considerable difficulty. That ship was well guarded.”
Before he said any more, he asked, “Do you have my payment?”
“Yes. All in good time. First, I need to set up an area to cast this spell. Is there a gathering spot?” The mage looked out the window and saw Aslinne dawdling along the path. “Quickly, my companion approaches.”
“Well, not a temple. But we do have a casting place, at one of the local potions shops,” Goldie wrote the address down for the mage in front of her. She knew enough about Nestor to realize she would do whatever this mage needed in order to stay in Nestor’s favor. She continued as she handed him the address, “Where we can set you up to cast this spell.”
“No.” The mage shook his head.
He looked at her with a sneer, “Because it is a DRAGON egg. Perhaps the out of doors? Or away from public view would be more suitable to the subject?”
She looked a little sheepish. “Oh, right. I didn’t think of that.” Joining him at the window and watching Aslinne’s compact wiry form approach she added, “How about out back of the Lodge in the forest away from the other guests? Is that private enough?”
“It will take a few days to set up.” Goldie decided. “The day after tomorrow.”
The group of three exchanged additional terse remarks as they made their way out the back door of the Lodge with the large box between them. It didn’t look heavy as much as it looked awkward to carry. Five acolytes trained by Goldie followed them solemnly, pleased they had been invited to participate and trying not to trip on their brand-new robes.
Coming around the final bend in the path, Aslinne smiled. The lodge laid out in front of her was welcoming and rustic. Settling in was simple. There were only a few rooms, not many guests, and it was a fairly private location. By the end of the day, it was easy to forget the speed of the world while fishing off the small dock in front of the lodge, or watching her friend Cordon cook the just-caught fish with fine herbs and beautiful vegetables. It was a true pleasure to be pampered and fussed over and a rare treat. That night she tucked into her meal with gusto.
Aslinne didn’t see the mage around the lodge that day or the next, as she rose early to fish and he was gone from his room by the time she returned, but she knew he was still there from the gossip of the staff. He did stand out from the others. A little different is the way most put it. She smiled. He was different. And his heart and mind were far different from any she had met in this land thus far. He was far more innocent than his demeanor would suggest. It was a challenge to be friends with him alright because he seemed to have no regard for anyone but his own self. Ignoring her like this really wasn’t something she liked very much but there was little she could do unless he decided to be social. So. Resting. Fishing. Eating. Resting. Fishing. Eating. Though she wanted to find out what his flurry of activity was all about, it could wait until she had had her fill of fishing for, and eating, pan-fried wonders.
On her second full day at the lodge, as she was enjoying a late lunch and sopping up the leftover butter on her empty plate with crusty bread, a loud explosion rocked the foundations of The Hunting and Fishing Lodge of Darkshire Hills. Smoke and fire billowed from the area just to the west, somewhere out in the woods. Aslinne and Cordon raced to see what had happened. Aslinne had her knives out and she felt ready for whatever they might find. They found smoke and fire and a large hole in the ground. Cordon went immediately to the slightly blackened figure of Goldie who was trying to get up from the smouldering turf. The mage lay several paces from the crater. And there were charred figures of the five acolytes who didn’t escape the explosion. The mage coughed and moaned when Aslinne knelt down to see if he lived. He lived.
“What the Titans are you doing?” She did not shy from her anger and concern. “Do you want to be killed?” She helped him sit up slowly. He did not speak, he just breathed deeply several times and then took a look around, blinking in the smoke and dust. He still had his little book clutched tightly in his hands and he stroked it then tucked it into the pocket of his vestment before doing anything else.
“Nothing,” he whispered hoarsely. “No, not at all.”
He didn’t say anything else in reply; he just simply stared into the blast center with what looked like dismay. Running his eyes over the dead bodies he looked around frantically. “Where is he?” he muttered to himself. When it became obvious to him that S was gone, he pounded his fist on the ground in frustration. Not only was S gone, but the dragon egg was also gone. The grim expression he could not hide pulled his face into what looked very much like a bare skeleton.
“Again?” The red in Aslinne’s hair seemed to ignite with her flash of anger. “This is IT. I’ve had it. I have been putting up with your complete disregard for life for long enough. You are going to blow yourself to smithereens. Not to mention that there are five dead people here right now.”
“You think I don’t see what you are doing? You think I don’t know you have secrets?” Aslinne was still warming up in her angry tirade. “All these weeks and you still don’t understand what the virtues of courage, truth, and compassion have to do with success? You still think that you can force whatever you are trying to do? What in Novia are you trying to do?” She nearly shook him until she remembered he was recovering from the blast.
“You know nothing.” He said it dispassionately, but she could see that her words had rattled him. She didn’t think he had experience with many of the virtues.
“Nothing? Don’t be daft,” she returned bitterly, turning her back on him. “I’ve brought you back from the brink of death. I know all I need to know about who you are.”
“If something doesn’t go your way then you simply walk away, don’t you?”
His cutting words rang true but Aslinne was far too angry to admit her own shortcomings. He said nothing but muttered under his breath in a language Aslinne did not recognize as he rose unsteadily from the ground and brushed off some of the leaves and dirt clinging to him.
“You know nothing about me. Nothing.” She didn’t shout but spoke with disdain. “And you are the one who walks away. Like the other day, leaving me behind without a word. If you want to have a friendship with me, this isn’t the way to go about it.”
“I don’t need you.”
His words hit Aslinne like a rock.
“No, I suppose you don’t,” she shouted. “But that’s not what friendship is built upon. It’s not just about your own needs; it’s also having compassion for another person that sustains friendships. You don’t seem to care one whit about anyone but your own self.” Then gesturing to the dead bodies of the acolytes laying discarded nearby she sneered, “You think the lives of these people who have died here have no worth other than for misuse by you?”
Aslinne shook her head sadly. “I’m not going to chase after you anymore. If you want to be friends with me, then be brave enough to learn to live truthfully, and with compassion. I don’t want to see you again until you learn what that means.” Then she hung her head in painful resignation. “I’m going to my room. You can clean up your own mess.”
And with that she got to her feet and spun away from the stunned mage. She strode away with tears in her eyes, but she was not willing to show him her hurt. He had taken up enough of her time with his complete lack of common decency. She knew she loved him but she also had her limits and he crashed into those today.
The mage followed her movements with his eyes, but he didn’t stir from his resting spot. Considering her angry words was a slow process. He didn’t know what he had done to deserve her wrath, but she certainly seemed to think he deserved a good lashing. However, the thought didn’t linger.
He was still looking around for the egg but it was blown to smithereens. The spell to hurry the hatching did not go as planned, obviously. His grim expression still hadn’t changed when Cordon returned with the needed cleanup crew and they began gathering the dead and carrying them away in a wheelbarrow. He watched the bodies as they were loaded. Goldie was not among them; neither was S. Aslinne’s words rolled around in his head but he could not make sense out of them. No one approached the mage. No one dared.
He had the book, but the egg was gone. Now he recalled, during the casting of the spell S had sidled up to him and tried to touch the book in his hands. It made him lose his focus and he misspoke during the casting. The resulting explosion was obvious. His eyes narrowed and his lips thinned out as he pursed his lips in annoyance. Goldie had been one of his few syndicate contacts, and he now realized that someone had gotten to her. Probably Nestor. Well blast, if S knew enough to try and take the book then he was no longer safe here, either. And he wanted the rest of his spider’s eggs back, too. They were in storage with the other dragon egg.
He took Elnoth’s Cartage and Storage Central Brittany calling card out of one of his many pockets and stared at it for a few minutes. He didn’t even go back into the Lodge. He pulled a travel scroll from a different robe pocket and muttered the incantation quickly before he changed his mind. Aslinne was not going to like this. He didn’t need her anyway, right? Right. There was a twinge of pain when he thought about her and her kind green eyes and bright red hair floated into his mind. With these images swirling in his head, he could feel himself start to fade; it would not be long until he arrived at his location.
Just as he vanished, the calling card fluttered to the forest floor.
After several hours, Aslinne’s temper subsided and she felt the need to go and check up on the mage, as she had left him sitting in the forest surrounded by destruction. She felt sheepish now that she had lost her temper. Perhaps he was still there, injured. She left her room and walked back to the site of the explosion. There was no mage there. There were no longer other dead bodies there either, but there was a large snowy lynx sitting patiently in the forest right where she had left the mage.
“Kitty!” she exclaimed, “what are you doing here?” Walking over to the feline, Aslinne gave Kitty a scratch under the chin. “You are a good girl, aren’t you? Did you follow us all the way here from the ship?” As she petted the cat, Aslinne glanced down and saw a small calling card stuck on one of Kitty’s claws. Kitty seemed to be offering the card to Aslinne. “Is that where he went?” She looked into Kitty’s eyes. Kitty simply rubbed up against Aslinne’s leg and purred.
And with that answer, Aslinne pocketed the card. “Well, we’ll see if I feel like looking him up again,” she sniffed. With this decision made, her heart a little sore, and her spirit slightly bruised, she decided to return to the lodge. And good riddance to the mage! Who needed a stupid old mage for a friend anyway? She asked herself that many times as she and Kitty picked their way through the rubble and headed back through the forest to the Lodge.
The Day Before the Explosion…
Lucy Featherbright, Zyrina, and I finally arrived at Darkshire Hills after our hectic journey from Ordanis Mortis. Just inside Darkshire Hills, at the base of the peaks, we came upon a local bulletin board. Zyrina and I scanned it for information while Lucy looked at some interesting mushrooms that were nearby. We were in luck: The Bent Bow Inn had a poster up on the board and gave clear directions for travelers. There was a signpost just ahead and we knew from the posted flier that we needed to take the road to Town Boundary Three, and then fork left to get to the Bent bow Inn. This should be easy…but of course, somehow, we managed to arrive at the wrong location, and by the time we found our way back and took the correct fork, it was late at night again. Instead of setting up camp, Zyrina wanted to press on to the Inn and the rest of us agreed. We had slept rough for enough nights since leaving Stinging Tree Hollow that the thought of hot water, hot meals, and a warm bed were all very enticing. We picked up our bags for one last push and arrive we did; in a thick fog, late at night, and raining to boot. It was a wonder the Innkeeper opened his door at all. He did.
“Mr. Hawkins? My name is Lily Byrd and I’m the sister of the Captain that your daughter Jenny worked for on the Sea Byrd. Hello.” Here I stuck out my arm in a salute of truth. “We are searching for the woman who travelled with your daughter. Is Aslinne Gradh still here?”
He returned my salute with the salute of compassion, “First, come in and warm up. My name is James. This is my wife Coralee. Welcome to the Bent Bow.” The innkeeper stepped out of the way and let us sopping wet travelers into the inn before barring the door once more.
“Can never been too safe,” he mumbled while he patted the thick wooden door.
“Now what can I do for you? Looking for Jenny’s friends you say?” He paused looking them over again before nodding and answering in his slow measured way, “They aren’t far off. We can sort all that out in the morning.” Our looks of relief must have been palatable.
He pointed us drenched travelers to a room and sent up warm water to wash with and a hot stew with bread and ale. It was luxurious. I decided we all needed a little pampering, so I gave a little extra gold and arranged baths for myself and each of my companions. It was not entirely altruistic as the combined scent of me and my friends was beginning to make even my eyes water. We took turns in the large bathtub and afterward fell into our still-warm meal with relish. There was no time for anything more, as we were worn to the bone. Sleep took us swiftly.
Zyrina was the first awake in the late morning. She dressed silently and tiptoed out of the room while Lucy and I snored gently under our comforters. Downstairs she found the Innkeepers sweeping up and doing dishes as they quietly talked to each other and occasionally laughed. It made her smile to see an old couple still enjoying each other’s company after many years together.
“Mornin’ sleepy head!” Mrs. Hawkins put away her broom and came over to Zyrina with a steaming pot of dark black tea, thickly steeped. She poured the steaming hot beverage as she spoke, “How’d you sleep?” Giving Zyrina a once-over, she clearly took in the stains on her well-worn garments as well as the bags under her eyes.
Zyrina grimaced, “Better than I have for days, thank you Ma’am.”
“Call me Coralee, dear. Is there anything else I can get you?”
Shaking her head once, she hesitated a little before going on, “We are trying to catch up with a traveler who we have been following for almost a month. I believe she escorted your daughter Jenny home from the Sea Byrd where they both worked. Do you know where Aslinne Gradh is staying? Or her traveling companion? And I believe there was a snowy lynx with them as well, but you may not have seen the cat.” Here Zyrina paused to take a breath and blow on her cooling tea.
“Oh, them.” Mrs. Hawkins gave a toss of her head toward the south, “They moved on down to The Hunting and Fishing Lodge of Darkshire Hills the day after they arrived. It’s south of here following the river and a little further south of the next crossing. Our Jenny is not yet home either. She’s gone out mushroom hunting early this morning, again. She has planned on being out in the woods all day picking. Aslinne taught Jenny a new recipe. Some kind of soup.” Here Mrs. Hawkins licked her lips. “I think she’s making some for our supper tonight too.” Then she added, “Are you going to be staying another night?”
Zyrina shook her head again and sipped her tea.
James Hawkins finished up the sink of dishes, leaving them to airdry on the sideboard. “That Aslinne is a wonder. I never ‘spected to see our Jenny back home after she left so determined to go to sea like I had when I was young, and yet here she is glad to be home and willing to help. Aslinne taught Jenny some patience that I didn’t see in her before she left. I’m glad Jenny took to that cook.” He shook his head with a puzzled grin on his face. “But that other fella. He’s different, alright. Mumbles to himself and doesn’t talk much. Don’t make much sense either talking about eggs and books and secret meetings.”
Zyrina took another long sip of tea. “Oh?” She didn’t bat an eye.
He went on, “Not much more I can say. Before they moved on to the lodge, he came up the river and watched the lads and I pull in the day’s catch but didn’t offer so much as a finger to help. Isn’t that right, lads?” Here he nodded to his sons who were knitting socks by the fireplace. “Just sat there listening to us work and him reading out of that little book and muttering to himself.” He seemed quite grumpy about that. “Spent a lot of time watchin’ people but not actually having anything to do with people, y’know what I mean?” Mr. Hawkins seemed disturbed by this. “It isn’t just that, neither. It’s the way he stares. It’s as if he knows nothing about anything and is taking it all in, good and bad, only…well, only it almost feels like he doesn’t know which part’s virtues, and which part’s vice, and he don’t care to know, neither.”
“Oh, James, you do prattle on! You don’t want to be bothering the little miss with your insights about strangers,” Coralee admonished her husband with a light touch on his arm. “She’ll meet him soon enough I suppose, if she’s going down to the Lodge.” She looked over at Zyrina again, “Are you wanting to wait for the others before you go?”
Zyrina nodded and took another gulp of coffee. “Yes, Ma’am. And thank you for the information.” Here she nodded toward James Hawkins, “Do you know how long they are staying at the Hunting Lodge?” The Hawkins looked at each other in that way that old married couples do, talking without words.
“I don’t reckon we do know that. Neither of ‘em said much when they were here,” Jim Hawkins told Zyrina.
Mrs. Hawkins added, “Well, at least I think Aslinne is still there. Are you going over today?”
“Yes, ma’am we are.” My voice carried over to them and Zyrina turned to see both Lucy and me clomping down the stairs refreshed, dressed, and ready for the day. Even if that day was nearly half finished.
“Suit yourselves. I’ve got something prepared to break your fast.” Coralee Hawkins spoke even as she moved to serve the rest of us morning tea and then serve a meal. Lucy especially seemed interested in the big eggs she spied in a bowl on the counter. Mrs. Hawkins stirred up massive cheese omelets, took warm pancakes out of a steamer, and fruit salad from the cold room in a blink of an eye. Then she wrapped banana bread and cheese in some soft cloth and left it for us to take on our travels while we ate our morning meal. And ate. And ATE. Waddling out of the Bent Bow Inn an hour or so later, we three looking rested and satiated. Waving to the innkeepers as we took to the road just in front of the inn, past Mr. Hawkins’s fishing boat and nets, and after spending a few minutes admiring the brand-new masterful rock skipping skills of Jenny’s little brothers, it felt good to be walking again. The rest and the meal had worked their wonders. It was not long before we spied the stone bridge that Coralee and James had described to us. We knew the Lodge was just on the other side and down the bank of the river around a bend by a small dock. Each of us unconsciously squared our shoulders and hurried our paces in unison as we stepped onto the bridge. We were closer to our goal than we had been in a month. I looked around carefully, hoping to see Kitty sitting in the shade watching us. I didn’t, but I saw Lucy making the same sweeping search through all the bushes as I had done.
Aslinne had been sitting on the soft turf of the forest floor with Kitty, who was watching Aslinne carefully. They both stared into the forest for a long while. Aslinne found herself stiff when she rose. Stretching, she looked over at Kitty, “Well Kitty, let’s go get some tea and figure out what to do next, okay?”
The feline gave her a quizzical look, stretched, and started down the path to the hunting lodge. Coming closer to the building Aslinne could hear several voices and laughter. There must be new guests staying at the lodge. She was not sure she was in the mood to visit with other guests, but she had to go past them to get up to her room. However, upon opening the back door, Aslinne found familiar well-armed and well-provisioned women playing a joyful version of checkers that included three people. They were currently laughing their heads off at something and turned as one to see who had come in. Only one of them was unfamiliar to her.
Lucy was the first to speak, “Aslinne?”
“Who’s asking?” she winked at Lucy. Then she spied me and Aslinne continued, “it’s me, Aslinne. Lily, don’t you recognize me?”
I took note of her tear-stained cheeks and sooty clothing and nodded. “Of course, I do.” I could see she was in a state of anguish. “What’s happened?”
That’s when she broke down and started talking too fast, crying, and wringing her hands. We heard the whole story. How she’d met someone on the ship who completely intrigued her while they were travelling in the far north and how after several adventurous months at sea, travelling on wagons, and finally walking, they had arrived here at the lodge to have a short fishing trip and time to enjoy some peace and quiet. Then she told us about the explosion. And the argument. Zyrina swore. Lucy whistled, and I just sat stunned.
Lucy asked anxiously, “have you seen Kitty? She’s been following you.”
“Yes, she’s just outside finishing off the fish I couldn’t eat for lunch.”
“YES!” Lucy’s booming voice reverberated through the whole lodge and she leaped to her feet and ran out the back door in search of her brother’s cat.
“Do you know what the mage was trying to do out in the forest?” I asked thoughtfully.
“Nope. It’s not the first time he’s started a fire when casting, but this time there was an actual hole in the ground afterward.”
She was going to elaborate but Zyrina cut her off. “Is he still here?” she urgently asked as she started for the backdoor.
With her eyebrows raised and just about ready to give the strange woman a blast, Aslinne was restrained by my touch on her shoulder.
“That’s Zyrina, my friend. She is rather blunt but one of the best people I know.”
Aslinne shook her head no to answer the question then nodded to me and relaxed a little but she still didn’t look pleased with Zyrina’s brusque tone.
We had wandered out the side of the lodge while I explained what we knew so far, and why we were so interested in her boyfriend. At a long table under a lovely, shaded canopy while we watched Lucy check Kitty over for injury, Aslinne asked a few questions herself. Cordon overheard our conversation, said nothing, and with a flourish placed some lavish plates of fantastic smelling fish in front of us. He joined in the conversation about Aslinne’s mage after Aslinne introduced him around as the most talented chef she knew.
“That mage was nothing but trouble,” he said with tightly pursed lips. “First there was all that business about getting a dragon egg, and then all he managed to do with it was to blow everyone up.” Cordon was obviously still disturbed from having just finished digging graves and burying the charred bodies. “That’s no way to run a restaurant, or a fishing lodge, or anything, anyhow, anywhere.”
“Dragon egg?” I looked up at Cordon standing near the rotating spit while he enthusiastically basted the meat there with a brush full of fat and flavor. “Did you say dragon egg?” I repeated this a little louder.
He ducked his head, “S returned with them.”
“S, yes, we’ve seen that name before.” Zyrina nodded.
“I don’t know where they got the egg, but they seemed pleased when it got here. Then that mage showed up and BOOM. Now the egg is gone too.” Cordon had finished the basting and set the pan of sauce down near the roast before wandering back into the lodge muttering under his breath about the kitchen staff and salt.
“Is he trying to hatch or control another dragon?” Lucy spoke sharply, having leaned in to hear the conversation.
“Maybe,” Zyrina noted as she strode back into the room. “He’s gone. I checked his room.”
“Gone?” Aslinne looked stunned. “What do you mean gone? We just had a fight. Where did he go?” She got up and looked frantically all around her, as if she would see the mage pop out of the woods. “I’m not done arguing with him.”
“Oh, for pity sakes! We have found Kitty and you, Aslinne.” Zyrina looked frustrated. “Now we intend to find the mage. I think he’s got an artifact that we have been looking for and I think he doesn’t know what to do with it.”
“What artifact?” Aslinne asked.
First there was silence. Then I launched into a long-winded explanation, and by the time we were done eating our supper, Aslinne knew most of the story. She sat quietly just staring into the forest.
Lucy wailed, “How does he keep getting away? Does he know we are following him?”
“Let’s go find him.” Aslinne said with quiet firmness. She looked both sad and determined. “There’s hope yet.”
Lucy, Zyrina, Aslinne, and I all stared at each other thinking that Aslinne was delusional then slowly one by one we nodded. Kitty yawned loudly and arched her back. Our company had grown by one human and one feline.
I sighed. “Fine. But how are we going to find him if he’s disappeared?”
Aslinne’s eyes twinkled brightly, which I was beginning to understand meant that she had an idea. She pulled Elnoth’s card from her pocket and handed it over.
“I think he’s going there.”
I looked at the address, “Elnoth? The Viking elf? How in the world does your mage know Elnoth?”
The receipt attached to the back of the card was for new storage at Elnoth’s Cartage and Storage in Central Britanny. For one large box marked fragile.
“OH!” I exclaimed, “I know Elnoth! He lives in Jade Valley, too. His cartage is only down a bit from my family’s boardinghouse in the South West of the city.” I looked somber for a moment, “Elnoth isn’t the kind of man who would be an Obsidian sympathizer.”
“Whatever is going on at the storage place, I’m almost certain Elnoth isn’t involved; but we might find out something if we can find this storage item.” Zyrina looked thoughtful, too.
“There are far more cabalist activities in New Britannia, and they are far closer than I had imagined. I wonder if Lord British is aware of how close it is to home, or Lady Arabella for that matter; it is her city.” Lucy also had thought about this very subject most of the way from Darkshire Hills.
Zyrina didn’t add a comment but apparently could make out what I was thinking, “You think the egg is at this storage facility?”
“We just passed through Central Britanny…” Lucy trailed off. She was already repacking her bag. She knew we would be leaving soon to find the mage. “We should get that book from him before he blows up something even bigger.”
Zyrina nodded grimly. “We leave in the morning. Are you coming Aslinne?”
Aslinne thought for a few moments. “Yes, I believe I will. I’m travelling north regardless. We parted in anger, and I’d like to have a chance to apologize to him for my outburst.”
I stared at her. She could not be more obviously in love, but I don’t think she herself knew that she was in the throes. That mage had been responsible for much destruction wherever he traveled and I for one was not convinced of his good intentions, nor his virtue. I could not see how he was lovable but apparently Aslinne saw something that no one else seemed to. It gave me pause to think, because Aslinne had a good sensible approach to life. She was not easily taken advantage of, and her steadfast attitude toward the mage made me reconsider. Maybe there was something I wasn’t seeing.
“We need to get that book from him before he does any more damage,” I stated.
The others nodded. Well, Aslinne didn’t, but she looked very thoughtful.
Then we got to work, planning our trip to Central Britanny, catching Aslinne up with the whole story, and listening to Cordon who had overheard many of the conversations around the lodge. No one usually noticed a waiter in a dining room unless they want something for the table, but now we were all ears. As he repeated some of the gossips, he moved around efficiently and eventually started serving the meal he had spent the day preparing.
We listened to his stories, stuffed ourselves on the fabulous second supper, talked and planned late into the evening, and when it seemed that there was nothing left to add, we each found a bed.
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