The rest of Chapter 2...
Morning found John untangling himself from an arm thrown over his chest. He had read dozens of the letters to her, by the time they had fallen into a lover’s embrace. She’d been right; he needed the company.
He liked to travel light, and so there wasn’t much to pack this morning. Turning to one of the blank pages of his journal, he pulled the quill from its ink bottle. He leaned over to place a kiss on her cheek before making the first mark. She murmured softly as her hand pulled the cover over the bare shoulder his fingers traced across.
Thank you for the company last night. This morning finds me headed over the pass into Huyroil. Once again the Towers have called me. I can’t complain, they pay me well enough to keep wandering. I don’t know where this will take me, though I do hope that the route passes this way again soon. When I do, not if, I’ll bring with me all of the stories that make your eyes twinkle. You listened patiently, not trying to veer my mind from her. I wish you as sweet of a memory of our night as I take with me. - John Heathrow
It may have been nothing more than wishful thinking, but he thought she whispered a good bye as the door was closing behind him. The journal, with its single missing page, was tucked safely back in his pack.
He could hear the bellowing Dwarves before he was even halfway down the stairs. They were raising a toast to Hasituur, the dealer of fate and fortune, for the good fortune that had found their missing coffer. Mixed into the loud cheering was a bit of chagrin for chasing away so many of the yestereve’s customers. They vowed to drink all the ale that should have been served had the crowd not run home.
“Yea, for Waverly and his chunk of lead where the thinker should be. He done forgot about tossin’ the coffer in his pack when the ruckus went on.”
So, the thief had listened after all. John didn’t bother stopping to hear the whole tale, but grabbed one of the sweetbuns on the counter as he headed out to the stables behind the inn. John knew full well that his traveling depended upon the care of his horses. They were more than just a means of getting from one place to another. Company at the fire, and an extra pair of ears to keep watch meant more than silver.
He found the lad busy tending to a tawny mare, talking to her as he poured oats in her trough. The boy looked to be all of about seventeen or so, just filling out as a man, though his wispy chin fuzz claimed that was years away. He caught some of the words, pass, and snows, and even something about a slide.
“I’ll trade you this for a telling of the road ahead. I’m sure you heard news from the traders coming in.”
“You’re heading West, aren’t you?”
“I have need to. The last time I traveled this way into Huyroil, there had been a slide in the pass. It cost me an extra few days heading through the other route.”
“Well you sure know how to pick the right bargaining tempt. Mom’s are the best you’ll find in these parts.”
“I know Charnus the fifth or seventh, or however many it is, was crowned after his father was killed.”
“Yeah, well things are a bit different now. These three are yours, right?”
“His name’s Marrow. The other two are Zyndel and Ryndel. Different how?”
The boy picked up the brush with his free hand as he savored the roll held in his other. Long strokes down the stallion’s neck seemed to do the trick as Marrow stretched to enjoy the attention. A pause in the brushing brought his head around to nose the lad, lest he forget what he was doing.
“Well Charnus, the new one, pulled men back from the fighting to deal with stuff along the roads. They even got the slide cleared a few weeks ago, but…”
“I wish. See them two scrawny horse gorging themselves on my oats? Those belong to, how did they put it, the meanest and most ugliest Dragon hunters on Keil. If ya ask me, I say they was farmers or maybe even a shop keeper nae a month ago.”
“A Dragon? On the pass to Huyroil?”
“I know, Dragons are supposed to be extinct, or myths or something. As they were clearing the last of the slide to make it big enough for horses to get through, a bunch of the men got killed. Those that came back told everybody about it. As big as three horses, and wings to block out the sun. The skin is kinda grey-green. One of them saw it carry off his horse.”
“And now every hunter wants to kill it.”
“I’m learnin’ the sword a bit, but no way could I go against a Dragon yet. The king sent a squad up the pass to deal with it; They lost four men in a week. The rest settled at the trail head to warn off travelers. Pebbleton’s a nice town, but nae risking life to get there. Huyroil gots other towns just as nice as Pebbleton.”
John paid the boy a good handful of copper crowns, and retrieved his packs from the lockdown. Marrow’s saddle was the biggest, with mounting straps for his bow and sword. Both of the mares had riding saddles, though for now their load was merely the large packs that draped over them. That would change when he reached the Crystal Towers, and gained the company of a mage.
His sword lacked much in the way of ornamentation; but then again, he didn't feel the need to impress anyone with appearances. John knew that functionality was far more important in something that your life depended upon.
His ebony bow received the same care as the sword. He wiped the oil off the small sapphire embedded in the center of the bow, almost as though the wood had grown around it. Most people never got close enough to it to wonder where a piece of ebony had been found that was straight enough for a bow.
John had no answer to that riddle himself. He’d won the bow in a competition many years in the past. At first nobody had cared to join for such a simple prize; that is until the bow was demonstrated with its simple looking arrows. There were seventeen arrows to accompany the bow, and one of them had been fired at a small tree some four hundred feet distant. The arrow had struck the tree passing through the five inch thickness far enough that the head was sticking out the opposite side.
They had called it the Dragon Bow, with claims that it had been crafted more than six centuries in the past by a craftsman who had died without revealing his secrets. John for his part doubted that any bow could last for as long as the claims said it had. Still, there was no denying that it had proved its value many times.
The sun was still touching the distant peak when he rode out of the stable. He chanced a glance upward at the window, but she was probably still asleep; the window dark and empty. Most of the town was still getting ready for their morning as he rode through the market. A few lights shone in the rooms above, but the stores were still locked tight. The deserted streets echoed with the horses' hooves. He met only one other rider going through the gates.
It was a long day's ride to the base of the base of the pass, and he wanted to arrive while there was still light to set up his camp. Tomorrow would find him climbing the mountain trail, and he wanted full daylight for that. If there was a Dragon it'd be best to find that out earlier in the day.
This close to harvest time the farmers had also gotten an early start on the day. He waved to a few working in the fields as he rode by. The grain was the right color now, and would likely be cut within the week. The fields of vegetables and grain stretched on for several leagues before giving way to the grassy hills.
He found the cutoff for the mountain pass trail without a problem. The arrow pointed along a small trail and marked it as the Pebbleton Pass. A small board had been nailed below the arrows with a crudely painted outline depicting a Dragon, along with an arrow pointing to the trail as well. John chuckled as he rode past. Such a sign was just as likely to draw the curious and foolish, as it was to frighten away the timid traveler.
A few leagues later his predictions were confirmed when he met a pair of would-be Dragon hunters. Theirs was a quest to slay the Dragon, and thus claim the two-hundred gold bounty placed upon the beast's head. Both of them were skilled hunters with many prizes to their names. Among the victories had been a rather large bear that had required them to track it for a week before meeting it with swords. One of the men claimed that he could pluck a duck from the sky with a single arrow.
Their secret, that would guarantee success in this hunt, was a fist-sized satchel hung around each of their necks. The herb vendor a few towns back had sold them this wonderful satchel that contained the rare Dragon Nip leaves. They had been assured that as soon as the Dragon caught a whiff of that satchel, it would come right to them.
“I’ve no interest in your quarry. I have need of passing through Pebbleton, and the sooner I can d o that the better. My journey takes me on through Huyroil with a need for speed, else I’d just as soon find another route.”
“It’s just as well. With that cheap sword ya got, there ain’t no way you’d last a minute in a hunt. And a bow? Dragons got skin like rock.”
John rode on, keeping a little bit ahead of the would be hunters. The overloaded pack strapped behind the saddles told more than all of the boasting. Barely mid-day and the horses under them were nearing exhaustion from the load. Years of experience, that he hoped they lived long enough to learn, had taught him to keep the packs light. An extra horse was better than a heavy pack.