Five days later they were still on the road to Sharlok’s Hold. Their pace had dropped considerably and as best as he could tell they were still four or five days from the hold’s border tower. This was partially due to the road, three early morning rainfalls had softened the hard packed earth considerably. The main issue though was the more sporadic distribution of the company’s stations along this stretch of the East Road. They had long ago passed the point where they could swap out the team of horses every half day. Over the past six days there had only been two stations.
The sparsely populated stretch of plains was comfortably familiar to Adwin. The coming mid-spring rains would soon bring the land into a brief blooming glory, more beautiful than any of the art Adwin had seen in GreensBridge. Increasingly he had been riding on the back of the coach with Tipper. The morning sky was striped with long clouds, likely no rain today, maybe tomorrow though.
“There’s a rider coming.” Tipper pointed.
Adwin did not see what she had been talking about, but he waited a few moments and then he saw two horses with one rider rise up from the plains, over a yat away. They were moving along the road at a good pace, it was the first person they had seen since leaving the homestead where they had last sheltered.
“You’ve really good eyes Tipper.”
“Keen, you mean.”
“Do you miss the city?”
“Ah, not really, no.”
“Did you enjoy GreensBridge?”
“Yeah, I mean none of it was like I had imagined and I don’t think I’d ever settle in such a place. I liked it though, truly a marvellous place.”
“Have you decided what you’re doing after Kaymere?”
“I thought I might go to Willik’s Hold on the way to help you kill a dragon or whatever it is you’re doing.”
“Still a dragon.”
The wagon rolled over an eroded trench across the road, jostling them. Adwin grabbed at the edge of the seat and Tipper adjusted her position while hundreds of birds took flight from the grass all at once and rose into the sky in a great swirling mass.
He watched the birds for a while, it always surprised him that none of them ever flew into one another, “You don’t get to see that in GreensBridge.”
“So are you going to tell me what you’re really looking for in Kaymere?”
“Maybe, though I’d planned on waiting until we were there.”
“You had said magic and weapons, Mokha and I have been trying to guess what it’ll be.”
“Well, Mokha thinks you’re looking for something to bind the creature and I figure you’re after a magic sword, maybe something good against drakes.”
“Yup. You’re right.”
“Ha! Knew it.”
“I think it’s a woman.”
“Oh.” He found the rider again, she had closed the distance considerably.
“It’s a courier.”
“Should we let the others know?”
“Can if you want.”
Adwin clamoured over the top of the large coach, moving along the edge so he did not have the climb across their considerable pile of luggage. Hidge and Pridden glanced back at him at the same time.
“There’s a Roburns courier coming up behind us.”
“Alright. Hang onto something.” Pridden shouted over his shoulder.
Adwin followed his advice as the coach slowed and came to a stop. The rider came up alongside them, glanced up at Adwin and smiled. She seemed close to his age, slight of build with a perky little nose and cute dimples. He returned the smile. She moved past and circled around to come up along the other side where Pridden sat.
“Courier Whyse, out of GreensBridge.”
“Teamster Pridden, from the same.”
“You’ve made good time. I was told you’d left only an eight-day ahead of me. I expected to catch up to you days ago.”
“Not been much rain. If we’re lucky we’ll make Sharlok’s Hold before the worst of it.”
Adwin lowered himself to the front wheel and hopped off the coach as the courier continued her business.
“You must be Hidge?”
“I’ve a package for you.”
“Directly from Eulla. Your eyes only.”
“Senior clerk in the main office.”
“Ah, she must be Addath’s replacement.”
“Don’t know, I just came up from Maldorn with the seasons first airship, I’m about as new as it gets.”
“Welcome to the company.”
“We should take the mid-day break early. We can resupply you before you head back.”
“Well, I’ve other messages going further down the line. Though, I’d welcome a hot meal and a few supplies if you’ve enough to spare.”
“No problem, though usually you’d pass your satchel off to us, as we are headed in the right direction.”
“Sure, but I was told to not do that this time. I gather there is some urgency.”
Tipper came up to Adwin, obviously curious about the delay, the others stepped out from the interior, Mokha asked, “What’s going on?”
“Early lunch, company courier.”
“Ah, alright then.”
It did not take long to pull some supplies and the mess box from the coach, Calathy was quick to take charge of the food preparation. The company folks saw to the horses. Adwin was curious about the messenger so declined Tippers suggestion of archery practice. Sefla and Mokha took a hand drum and lute then found a spot off to the side to play.
Adwin wandered over to where the courier was brushing down one of her horses. She was short. She glanced at him when he approached but stayed focused on what she was doing. He asked, “Need a hand?”
“Ah. I heard you say you were new to GreensBridge.”
She looked at him but kept brushing the horse.
He noted that she had some fancy looking leather armour on under her long coat. There was a Maldorn style sabre resting on the nearby saddle and she also had an alchemical shooters. “Must be dangerous riding alone across the plains.”
“I have not had any problems as of yet, sir.”
“You don’t have to call me sir. My name is Adwin.”
Hidge came up beside him, “Whyse, this is Master Adwin. A company man.”
“Well, not so much so these days.”
Whyse looked at him, gave a tentative smile, “They fire you?”
Hidge laughed, “Master Adwin and his companions were largely responsible for much of the company’s gains over the winter.”
That seemed to impress her, “I had caught wind that there had been some unusual circumstances over the winter, though I’d only been in the city a few days before they sent me off on this job.”
“Speaking of the job, you said you had a package for me?”
“Yes, I do. Give me a moment.”
Hidge gave Adwin a pointed look. He left them to their business. He went over to where Tipper was and said, “I guess we should do some practice.”
“Sensible. Though I’m a bit surprised to see your usual charm doesn’t always work.”
“What? No, I wasn’t.”
“Maybe not, but from here it looked like you were just spurned.”
“I’ll get the bows.”
She chuckled, “Sure.”
They had been doing less archery practice than melee training. Tipper had offered a few suggestions and was confident his strength would grow to accommodate the bow she had given him. He had been a decent shot with a normal short bow and was okay with the new one. Though the heavier pull and longer range was an adjustment. Today, for the first time, the bow felt more natural and his grouping at fifty paces was pretty good.
“You’re definitely getting better.”
“Yeah, I think so.”
They meandered back and forth between two targets, each shooting half a dozen arrows in turn. On the fourth round of this Adwin’s grouping began to suffer and he could feel the strain of the heavier pull. He could hear Mokha starting his FreeHolds Ramble tune, the drum accompaniment was a nice addition. The smells of their meal cooking was making his stomach grumble. The company people were now settling around the fire, he was curious about what they were talking about.
“Stay focused.” Tipper encouraged him.
He let his last arrow fly and it thumped into the earthy, grass tufted target. Just then Calathy gave the call that the food was ready. He and Tipper collected their arrows then went to the fire. They sat on the ground with the others who were mostly enthralled with Mokha and Sefla’s music. Adwin noted Whyse was particularly intent on the musicians.
Calathy passed him a bowl of food, smiled and gave a wink.
When the music stopped Whyse clapped her hands together a few times, “Very nice. I’ve never really heard Tannican music before.”
Sefla thanked her for the compliment and Mokha smiled at the small woman, “That’s not actually Tannican, or not much. I’d say the influence is more central or northern freeholds. It’s a piece I’ve been working on for a while now. I think it will be the foundation of my song about Adwin.”
Adwin felt himself blush, caught Whyse giving him an appraising look, “You must be something special Master Adwin. I mean, not everyone gets their own song and the regard of Master Merchant Roburns. And you look like you might only be a year or two older than me.”
Adwin tried a dismissive shrug, “Mokha hasn’t even made any words for the song yet.”
Mokha chimed in with his mischievous grin, “That you know of.”
Calathy finished passing out bowls of food and the group of them fell quiet as they ate. After a while Whyse proclaimed, “This is great, you’ve a gift, willow.”
“Calathy. Thank you.”
“Thank you, Calathy.”
Adwin finished his food and started cleaning up, wiped the bowls with a fistful of grass as people finished eating. Whyse had a second serving. Pridden informed the others he intended to head out shortly.
By the time everything was repacked and back on the coach Whyse had saddled one of her horses and put the saddlebags on the other. She mounted and circled around as Pridden climbed up onto the bench behind the team.
Adwin was about to climb into the coach when Whyse called out, “Master Adwin.”
He paused, turning to regard her, “Yes?”
“If our paths cross again I’d hope you’d do me the honour of letting me buy you a drink.”
He blushed, “Of course.”
Whyse smiled at him, gave a nod and put her heals to the horses flanks.
Tipper from near the back of the coach smirked at him, “Nice.”
“I didn’t.” He said in a flabbergasted tone.
When he climbed in, the rest of his companions were grinning or giving him knowing looks. Calathy beamed at him and patted the bench next to her.
Blushing he sat down and she cuddled up close, clutching at his arm.
The coach rolled forward, Sharlok’s Hold was only a few days away and all manner of dangers loomed on the road ahead.