Moise rubbed his arm where Tinnigan’s pseudodragon bit him hours before. Harman stood from his bunk finally prepared to apologize for the last night’s disturbance. Tinnigan’s door opened as he raised his hand to knock. The lilac-scaled pseudodragon bristled from her shoulder.
“Tinnigan –,” Harman began. Tinnigan lifted her hand, palm out.
“It’s not the first time,” she said. Harman’s brow furrowed slightly. “It’s not the first time, I’ve spoken in my sleep. I’m sorry for the scare. The two of you are part of my escort are you not? Then allow me to clear the air and introduce myself. My name is Lady Tinnigan Osgoth, last of the Osgoths. I’m travelling to Torundi to conduct research.”
The knot in Harman’s chest unravelled. Surprised by his Lady’s candor, the new guard standing beside her door raised an eyebrow at Harman.
“We apologize Lady Osgoth, as well. I heard whispering and wanted to make sure you were safe. My name is Harman Nailo. The tall one there is Moise Pim. The drunken one is Juke,” Harman emphasized Juke’s name in hopes of stirring him.
“Thank you. We’ll see you shortly then, Harman. And please, call me Tinnigan. Lady Osgoth is my mother,” Tinnigan bowed her head curtly and walked from the room with her guards.
Tinnigan’s mother, Quelara Osgoth, was a powerful woman in Oxten. The family name was synonymous with the agricultural and technological research without such, Oxten would be tilling fields with hand tools and harvesting yields a third of their standard volume. However, Quelara vanished fourteen years ago and has been declared deceased by Tinnigan, who since has resumed her mother’s studious work.
Upon gathering their clothes and packs, Yila strode through the door with her head bent to avoid a collision with the door frame. Clad in a pressed, brown, and red Four Corners Trading Company uniform and an illustrious cloak embroidered with arcane glyphs along the hem, she struck a monolithic figure.
“We’re ready. Wake Juke up,” she turned and left.
Unsteady, Juke wiped the sleep from his eyes and held his black pendant against his chest. Three carriages of rich walnut, two meters tall and three meters wide, were polished and waiting. A massive moose-like creature, one to each carriage, made a throaty grunt, scraping the ceiling of the warehouse with its antlers. Juke stood agape.
The manicured hand of Gilijoril found rest on Juke’s shoulder. “Incredible, aren’t they? Dire moose. Typical beasts of burden would not do for this journey.”
Garbed in a bright green robe held by a golden waist belt, Gilijoril went to Tinnigan and Yila who were discussing seating arrangements. Each wagon would hold five: the vanguard contained Yila, Harman, Juke, Moise, and one of Tinnigan’s guards. The second would be Tinnigan’s, filled with tomes, carefully packed glass alchemical vessels, and a lofty bed. At the rear were three guards and two of Tinnigan’s assistants.
“Wonderful news Yila. A messenger from our Pine Bluffs outpost arrived before dawn. Mithriletta awaits your arrival with fresh mounts and supplies,” Gilijoril said. He waved Harman, Juke, and Moise to join them. “There are roughly four hundred kilometres between Oxten and the outpost. Less than three hundred from there to the encampment. Expect twenty-one days should the weather be fair. Keep Lady Osgoth safe.” He smiled, nodding leave to Yila, and left.
Chest broad, and feathers puffed, Juke stood in front of the lead dire moose. The great beast blew hot air through its nostrils, blowing back a few stray feathers. It lowered its head to meet Juke’s gaze, and blinked. Juke placed his palm along the bridge of the moose’s nose and whispered amazement. He took the pendant from his neck and wrapped its cord around the lowest branch of antler.
“This will keep you safe, as it has kept me,” Juke stroked the moose’s face once more. It grunted happily and lifted its head toward the gate, creaking open along its tracks.
Sunlight streamed through the widening gap. Sweet pine sailed on a light breeze into the warehouse. The morning was cool and thick with petrichor. Tall, ancient trees bowed lithely over the southward road as it disappeared into the forest.
Acquainted with his new moose friend, Juke sat beside the van’s driver, sharing companionable silence. Murmurs of chatter from within the carriage turned to laughter occasionally as Harman, Moise, and Yila shared stories.
The pink sky peeked through the gaps of the forest canopy and turned to gold as Soli – the sun, approached full brightness. Soulfire, affectionately called Soli, marked day and night in Hiraeth. Ever fixed in its seat in the sky, Soli ‘rose’ from a spark to the brightness of a roaring forge at the peak of the day. As the fire ‘set’ and cooled, it grew white and cold through the night. Soli’s lifegiving light cast uniformly throughout the unbending land and water of Hiraeth, leading to navigational discoveries by its early inhabitants. Should a shadow be cast, one could not lose their way in Hiraeth.
Birds flitted alongside the convoy, singing happy songs after gorging themselves fat with the worms. Occasionally, a dire moose would let out a bull’s roar, warding off a predator unseen to the convoy’s occupants.
Shortly after midday, when the forest was cast in dazzling light after all the rain had dried and animals were napping off their morning tarry, the company paused for a meal.
Moise sipped water from a skin as he studied Yila’s map. Like the large mural in her office, Yila’s map showed the four prefects arranged as corners of a square. Torundi was drawn in the centre. In addition to the four outer roads connecting each prefect, four smaller roads intersected with Torundi diagonally. These lines wandered around features too small to be illustrated on the map. From Oxten, the road the company was on, blazed a direct path through the highland forests south of the prefect before making a severe switchback at the Pine Bluffs. South east of the outpost, the forest turned to plains. The thin line marking the road ended shortly above Torundi with a thin red circle.
Harman, who delved dungeons and sought ruins with his former master Jarratra, asked to review the map for noted locations that he may have not seen before. He traced his finger over a featureless section of forest east of the Pine Bluffs and wrote CAT’S EYE FALLS.
“If we have time on our way back, I’d like to stop there. I’ve heard stories about an aquifer travelling south from the mountains which breaks through the cliffs here. A small mining town used to be there but was lost during the war,” Harman said. He smiled at the possibility of uncovering prewar artifacts.
The rest of the day went without issue. Soli set over the trees and the carriages were kept to the side of the road. All but Tinnigan set hammocks between trees or unrolled bedrolls around a roaring fire.
Tonight, Soli set dimly and cast the forest into a thick darkness. Amongst the rest of the company, Tinnigan stared through a large gap between the treetops. Dim enough to look upon without endangering her eyes, Tinnigan stared at Soli – the tiny, singular point of light in a vast ocean of nothingness. Over the following hours, the company shared tales and meals before setting up the night’s watch.
Howling wind broke the three consecutive days of fair weather. An uneasy static in the air kept the company on alert. The dire moose charged onwards, keen to escape the dreadful storm that seemed to taunt them from far beyond the forest.
Hours before the end of day, Yila called a halt. Tinnigan’s carriage – the lightest, had been seen listing on two wheels as strong gusts broke through the dense forest. Rumbles of thunder announced their march outward from Torundi, where most presumed the storms began.
The drivers hurriedly moved the carriages to face into the wind and hitched their moose to the largest trees nearby. Harman deftly climbed a tree nearby and looked about him. Yila started a modest fire set into a deep hole to shield the flame from the wind. Others milled about securing loose ropes and equipment.
A barrage of thunder shook the tree. A torrent of rain could be heard about the company. Harman looked for storm clouds and saw none. He held his hand out, palm up, and felt no rain. The storms were getting stranger.
He closed his eyes and muttered an incantation. The wind grew in ferocity. Harman traced arcane glyphs in the air; a faint trace of his motion blurred and hung in the air for a moment. When he opened his eyes, the world around him was pearlescent. All manner of colours swam around him. Where auras would glow around objects imbued with magic, the air itself shone brightly with power.
“Moise!” Harman called to the goliath who added more wood to the fire. “We’ve got trouble coming our way. This storm is fuelled by powerful magic, but I can’t pinpoint it.” The bough Harman crouched on shuddered and cracked from the fierce gale. He gracefully tumbled to his feet.
Tinnigan’s carriage let out a creak as the same gale began to tip it. Moise yelled for help and grabbed its frame. He struggled to pull it back to the earth and felt it slip from his fingers. The carriage thudded against the ground. Glass shattered and wood splintered within, followed by a cry.
Harman, Juke, and Moise met at the carriage’s door which now lay on its side. Debris of broken equipment lay strewn about the wall of the carriage. A large table pressed on one of Tinnigan’s young assistants. Avoiding glass and other breakables, the three lifted the table and looked over the girl’s wounds.
“Where is Tinnigan?” Juke shouted over the storm. The girl pointed to a shadow huddled in the corner of the carriage. The pseudodragon stood in front with wings unfurled, hissing aimlessly at the threatening air. “Tinnigan, if you know anything about these storms, now’s the time!”
The white of Tinnigan’s eyes caught light from the corner. She shook her head and drew her knees closer.
Juke sighed. “Okay,” he turned to the girl, “you stay here. We’ll bring your other friend too. The carriage has already tipped so it’s probably the safest place here.”
The three found the other research assistant, who, judging by her age, was the girl’s mother, and led her to the carriage. Yila tied down a carriage with stakes. Three of Tinnigan’s guard who were not cowering in fear, took thick cord from Yila and lashed the third to a tree.
Two carriages were secure and Tinnigan’s lay toppled. Disturbed the storm, the moose shifted on their feet but did not flee. All night, the carriages rumbled against the wind. The company tried sleep, but few could find it. After the hours stretched thin, there was silence. The storm with its phantom thunder and rain passed.
A bird sang its song, perched atop Tinnigan’s carriage, waking Yila. She stretched and began unfastening the lines held taught between the trees and the carriages. A moose snorted. Yila walked over and mumbled a silent prayer to her old gods – the ones she thought she left in the mountains – and noticed the black pendant wrapped around the beast’s antler. “Maybe the old gods aren’t lost,” she said and thought of her own token of superstition upon her neck.
Before long, the company was fed and sorted. Tinnigan’s carriage was upright but the floor was awash with debris of glass, splinters, and clothes; many of her research instruments lay in pieces.
“Tonnebrau,” she called to a tall guard dressed in the same uniform as the others but with a black laurel on his epilate. “I need you to take this carriage along with three of your men back to the manor and restock it. Meet us at the Four Corners encampment.” Tinnigan gave Captain Tonnebrau her map and a copy of her carriage’s manifest.
The guard looked grim and began to object but she held her palm up to stay him. He nodded curtly and organised his guards. Tinnigan moved her pack – the only intact piece of equipment, into the vanguard carriage with the Four Corners escorts. She preferred being on her own but appreciated the company.
“My Lady, my sincerest apologies but I do not know what these items on your list are,” Captain Tonnebrau looked forlorn, unable to safeguard his liege and unable to follow an order usually reserved for errand boys.
“That’s alright Captain. They’re of my own invention. Leisa,” Tinnigan said to her older research assistant. “Take Filda and go with the captain back to the manor.” Like the captain, Leisa began to interject.
“You’ll see us at Torundi, Leisa! I know how much this means to you and your daughter, but we need that equipment,” Tinnigan said with a smile.
Less one carriage, the caravan moved quickly towards the Pine Bluffs. Juke explained that with less mouths to feed and one less carriage to batten down before another storm, they should be able to move much faster. Yila beamed at the prospect of arriving to the outpost ahead of schedule.
As predicted, they arrived at the precipice of the Pine Bluffs by noon the following day, gaining at least one full day of travel.
Apart from one of Tinnigan’s guard’s Burkley, who claimed he had a fear of heights, the entire company stood near the edge of the cliff. They gazed onto the expanse before them, descrying the mesa Torundi, Cindar beyond it, and the endless sea to the south.
Five hundred feet below, the forest continued for another fifty kilometres before ending abruptly before the plain of Torundi. Grasslands rolled towards the ruined mesa. A thousand-metre-tall rock, one hundred kilometres broad, stood with a black fissure splitting its northwesterly face. A dim violet fog poured from the top like a waterfall. Distant ruins of a town speckled the top of a section of the mesa which broke free and sunk into the earth. The lower section split the dark fissure in twain as a rock parts a river around it. A jagged tooth before a hungry maw.
On this clear day, the land continued past Torundi. To the southwest, soli gleamed off peaks of golden sand dunes. The Ember Wastes twisted between mountainous dunes and deep canyons. Its sands obscuring ancient ruins, ravenous beasts, and further to the southwest, the camouflaged bastions of Cindarr. Ere one thousand kilometres, Cindarr marred the crisp, blue sky. A dark stone erupting from the earth, hidden by one’s thumb at this distance. Still, forge smoke churned endlessly from its top, bellowing violently into Ember Spine mountains to its south. Cindarrans were called to war decades ago against Torundi. Its king held that it should stand ready ever since.
The company returned to the caravan and began their descent down the steep switchbacks carved into the cliff. Pine trees grew at odd angles along its precipice as well as rocky overhangs upon its face. The rear wheel of the van carriage pitched over the road’s edge after turning too quickly. But the driver’s skill and the moose’s strength kept the carriage from plummeting to its quick end.
Tinnigan’s pseudodragon bristled against the thump of the near fall and snuggled its face into its master’s cloak. “What’s its name?” Moise asked. He sat in the carriage with Harman and Yila. Juke wanted to ride along the driver again.
“Blossom,” Tinnigan said, stroking the spines along Blossom’s neck. The pseudodragon hesitantly lifted her head from Tinnigan’s cloak before pressing into her hand like an affectionate cat.
“May I?” Moise held out his hang to pet Blossom as well. His trembling betrayed his broad smile, yet the tremor was from excitement, not fear. Tinnigan leaned toward Moise, closing the gap between them. Moise gently ran his large finger along Blossom’s neck, feeling her warm, dry scales. The pseudodragon chirped loudly and closed its eyes with enjoyment.
“Looks like she made a new friend!” Tinnigan laughed.