Continuing on with describing characters, I have john Heathrow. He was born the son of a wood cutter, and a mother that passed away from illness before he knew her. The life of a wood cutter had him roaming the hills, and it didn't take long before the tediousness of felling trees dimmed with the allure of hunting the game that also roamed those hills. His father was never the adventurous sort, and never understood those desires. He still instilled a sense of fairness and hard work. I've already told the story of his meeting Velimina, and her death. Her loss took much of his spirit with her. He had the skills of a very good hunter, and those expanded to encompass fighting men as well, when the situation arose. Living a life of fighting is hard, and to survive to the age of 42 means gaining a great deal of skill. It didn't take him long in the service to Twillingspir to realize that Mages can be quite powerful, and at the same time extremely vulnerable. Most of them had a mouth to match their power, and his job was to deliver them alive. He learned to read people from a first meeting, and often extract the mages from whatever trouble their mouths got them into. One of Aeriona's first excursions in the service to Twilingspire had been in the company of John. They worked together so well, that she refused to go with any other escort. The easily fell into a father-daughter role, with John looking over her like the daughter that Velimina would have given him had she lived. He had seen a Dragon once, though his report was dismissed as a drunken tale. He had chanced upon a ruby Dragon with a wingspan well over a hundred feet. It had landed on the next hillside, and ripped a bear apart in a single bite. It had glanced at him as though noticing his presence for the first time, and flew off. In that brief moment that it had locked eyes on him, he knew it had debated slaughtering him and then dismissed him as insignificant. You couldn't ask for a more loyal friend, or worse enemy than John. His list of friends is short.
Nedder’s gap straddled the Loorma’gnish’ka’ki River; often shortened to simply Loorma, at a point where the plains dropped down to the river cut for the first spot in a score of leagues up and down the river. The original Ferryman’s house and trading post had blossomed into a thriving town connected by a bridge.
The grand stonework arch of the king’s road, cleared the river with enough room for the trading barges to make it as far North as Twin Falls, and wide enough to pass two wagons without cramping either. Of course their destination was on the near side.
The guard standing watch beside the road barely looked up from his game of dice to note their passing as they entered the town. The muted cheer told of another ale his rival owed him. Their path took them past a few taverns still ringing with the sound of evening festivities, and on into the quieter part of the port district.
Row after row of storerooms sat dark and quiet. Even the port master’s office was long since closed. About the only thing stirring in this section was the night patrol man walking his rounds. Aeriona pulled a little flux to muffle the clopping of the hooves on the dirt streets. Unwanted attention would only slow them down.
John led them along the wharf to the last barge in line, a medium sized one with only a few crates tied to the deck. “This one.”
“Are you sure?”
“You want to get there in time, don’t you?”
The gangway silently bounced a bit under the tread of the horses. Within moments they were tied to the single mast amid-ship. Aeriona could only watch as John set about freeing the lines that held them tight against the wharf. The slow bobbing as it rode the swells became the gentle rocking as the boat merged into the rhythm of the river.
Almost to the dot of when the runner had knocked on his door the night before, John was shaking the barge captain awake. The bleary-eyed man woke with a dagger already slicing the spot John had stood. The back swing was caught in John’s grasp, drawing a curse from the captain.
“You’ll nae get much for your efforts, sort of a month in the stocks. Even if you run, it’s a boat. The night guard’s at the end of the pier.”
“Yell if you like; his ears aren’t that good. Can’t you feel the boat? The lines are cut, and we’re drifting with the current.”
“Are ye daft? You’ll kill us all! There’s one o’ you and eight of us, less you cut their throats. I’ll have you tossed over the side.”
“Two, but she’s a mage, and that makes her count for more than a dozen of your rivermen. I’m not stealing your boat; I’m merely hiring it to take us down the river.”
Aeriona twisted the top seal on a small orb, bringing a pale blue glow throughout the barge cabin. Light from the fist-sized ball glinted off the air rune on her cheek, as though it burned with blue fire. The sight was enough to draw the captain’s attention, as his mind sorted through the details of what he was waking to.
His mood shifted from anger to irritation. His reply had lost the harsh edge. “You could’ve waited till morning.”
John held out a small pouch to the captain as he gained his feet. “I figure twenty gold ought to about cover our trip down the river. We’re in a hurry, and I couldn’t take the chance of someone stopping us before we could escape.”
“Escape huh? Make it twenty-five and you got a deal.”
John dug a few more coins from another pouch at his belt. “This will make it twenty-three of the gold duckies, and ten silver florens. That just leaves me ten to get us food when we stop.”
“Alright, deal, but two silvers each for meals you eat on the way. It’s still five days floating down the river. Now move so I can get the crew awake before we hit a rock.”
The Captain rushed through the door calling for the men to wake. In seconds the sound of cursing and shouting filled the air. John and Aeriona followed behind as the crew scrambled to dress and run at the same time. Ten minutes later the boat smoothed out under the steady hand of the steersman, and pole pushers.
The slow pace of the river had posed little hazard as yet. Aeriona snuffed the small orb, to cast her own luminous spell to float a stone’s throw in front of the prow. The light from hers was far more akin to silvery moonlight, than the orb crafted on island named for them. Thankfully, the draw on her power from this was negligible enough to keep it up with little concentration.
As dawn brought with it light enough to see the river, she released her hold on the flux feeding the moon ball spell. Slowly it broke apart like a thousand fireflies drifting away on the breeze. It had been the last bit of work keeping her awake, and momentarily her head tilted over with the first snore.
She let out a half-articulated grumbled as John lifted her into one of the crew bunks, grabbing the cover as he pulled it up to her shoulder. John lingered over her a moment after settling her, letting his thoughts linger over how she’d grown in the years he’s known her. After their first meeting, some nine years ago, she had refused to go with anyone else.
As he exited the crew cabin, three of them stood to block his path. Two of them held the cargo poles as though ready to try their luck against his sword. He held off drawing his own weapon, hoping to avoid the bloodshed that would follow.
“Now ya nae gots yer pet witch. Ya gonna answer us.”
The one on the left found his own voice to add. “Yeah, what gives? Why for ya go and steals the boat? Ya know Tir’kei were still in town.”
“I paid your captain for fair passage. Now if you don’t mind, I need to see to the horses.”
“That be ‘nother thing. We got no call for dragging your horses with us.”
“Take your gripes to the captain if you don’t like it. My deal’s with him, not you.”
John shoved between the two, forcing them to take a step back as he made his way back onto the deck. Marrow and the mares seemed very grateful to be relieved of the saddles and packs. After the day and night of steady moving, they were even more grateful for the touch of the brush, while they munched a bucket of the summer oats.
Aeriona roused herself before noon, stifling a lingering yawn as she came back into the sunlight of the deck. Before she could talk to anyone, she walked over to pull a couple of the journey breads from Ryndel’s pack. She was munching the second one when John came up behind her.
“Why didn’t you say you were tired? You’ve gone two days without sleep before, what happened?”
“Because you would have wanted to stop, and we don’t have time.”
“But still, you’ve ridden through the night before.”
“I spent he night before answering questions. I didn’t get a chance to rest after riding in from Manoga.”
“Who were you answering to? I thought you were the council.”
“There’s twelve other council members. Well, seven of them at the towers anyway.”
“Seven? Isn’t there normally only two or three?”
“That’s part of what’s got me on edge. You took Hashima with you to Edinbarrow when you left. It was hinted that I might find out if he said anything to on the way. When I asked why, they brushed it aside as though it were trivial. I didn’t get the feel of it being trivial though.”
“He was an odd fish; kept making jokes about how mages ought to be in charge of everything. Thought the church wasn’t doing enough to help restore the old magic. What old magic could he mean?”
“You want the official version Uiyah priests tell the world, or some of the stuff I’ve dug out of the dusty scrolls?”
“I hadn’t heard either, but you know my love for those worthless… I should just shut up before my mouth gets us in trouble.”
“The church puts out about how they provide a bridge between the mages and the rest of the world. There is no other magic than what mages know. But Twillingspire once had six towers. The central one being the common ground for the other five. I haven’t found any records that talk of the black tower, and what element it held. Every time I asked, the subject got changed.”
“What element could it be? Fire, water, earth, and air, covers about everything.”
“There’s more too. Up in Manoga I was chasing after a relic that got stolen. A jade tablet that showed Dragons teaching magic to Humans. I’ve found a handful of other such notes among the tomes and scrolls under Twillingspire. Think about it; Uiyah, the goddess of magic is said to be a Dragon as old as the world, yet her church doesn’t recognize Dragons as being more than dumb beasts.”
“And here I thought it was my mouth that was going to start criticizing the pompous teachings of Uiyah.”
“Ok, I’m a hypocrite for keeping close to the church and delving into ancient ruins in search of magical relics for them. If it wasn’t for that trip to Issen Gint, I never would have met Scirririn. That’s another example too. Issen Gint was an ancient Elven place to worship the magic of the moons and wind… and I sealed off the bottom levels when I found signs of Dragons.”
John chuckled softly. “One of these days you’re going to have to decide Whether you’re working with them, or against them.”
“You better get some rest too. There’s a long trip ahead of us.”
He flicked his eyes upward. “I’m sure you can find a way to shorten it. I’ll rest, but watch your back.”
John left Aeriona leaning on the railing as he found a bunk to rest in. Four days of sitting idly in the inn, and then a full day of non-stop riding had left him tired. It didn’t take long before his eyes were drifting closed with the gentle rocking of the boat. Prompted by the turn of the conversation, his dreams took him back to the deep tunnels under Issen Gint. This time it was Velimina who brought the stairs crashing down behind their escape.