Steam issued from the vents around the longskiff, pouring along the snow-covered grass and turning to a fog as white as a cloud. As the small vessel descended amid this cover, the cloud billowed up and around the occupants, then rose above the gas bag to spread on the wind. Tonks gently pulled the lever to vent some of the air from the gas bag and bring the propellers to a full stop before he let the small airboat come to rest on the cold, damp clearing. Across the level ground, one hundred yards to their right, another airship hovered several yards in the air anchored to a large post. Only a few feet longer than the Brass Griffin, she had the similar lines of a schooner, but with a second set of trim sails the Griffin did not have as well as a few more feet of cargo space, given the deeper draft of her keel. Beyond the schooner, an ancient walled town lay partially buried in the thick forests. The entire site sat nestled among the mountains, nine days’ travel by airship from the reclusive Yeti village.
The crew of the other airship ship had been busy unloading boxes of cargo and supplies for the modest-sized tent village located outside the ruin. It was the campsite of an archeological expedition that had arrived some months prior. Rumors persisted that the ruins were the remains of a Roman colony formed from the remnants of a lost expedition that had gone in search of the legendary land of Thule. So far, based on the recovered artifacts that sat neatly arranged among the tents, the rumors were likely true. Unloaded boxes from the airship that stood waiting to be opened were all stamped ‘Property of the British Museum’ and ‘Delivery to Von Patterson expedition’ in bold, black painted letters. With the arrival of the Griffin, and the landing of the longskiff a few minutes later, most of the energy had turned from unloading to curiosity at the newcomers.
Hunter rose from one of the wooden seats and stretched. He winced at the pain from several wounds, now bandaged under a clean shirt and re-stitched long coat. Beside him, his travelling companions stirred as well. Angela and Miles, both scrubbed and dressed in cleaner clothes, looked around, eager to take in all the new sights and sounds. Moira joined them after a moment, as in awe of the surroundings as the two children. Behind her, the Griffin‘s doctor, Thorias, eyed the view skeptically.
Tonks tugged off his pair of worn leather pilots’ gauntlets and pulled off his goggles. “Groundside, Cap’n. Looks like we’ll be the center attraction for a bit.”
The captain glanced over to Tonks. “Good piloting, Mr. Wilkerson. Although, I dare say they were just not expecting us.”
Hunter leaned forward on his cane carefully to look around at the ruins and forest greenery. Curious for a closer view, he walked slowly over to the edge of the boat, stepping onto the now exposed brownish-tan carpet of grass that surrounded them. When Moira and Tonks moved to assist him, Captain Hunter frowned.
“I daresay that a retinue is not required for this. There are repairs to the Griffin that are still waiting attention.” The captain said sternly.
As Thorias stood and stretched, Arcady – present on the doctor’s shoulder as always – took flight to circle slowly about the crew. The doctor rubbed one of his gracefully pointed elven ears in hopes to clear the ringing he suffered from sitting too close to the small boat’s steam turbine. He wore his long woolen peacoat as proof against the mountain chill and icy winds, however at times the cold still managed to seep in. He sighed faintly as the ringing in his ears was intent to stop in its own good time.
“It was doctor’s orders you rest and leave this to Mr. Whitehorse. Naturally, though I don’t know why I expected otherwise, you ignored that and came anyway. So, it’s doctors orders you have a retinue. Perhaps – this time – you won’t have anyone trying to shoot, stab or electrocute you to death.” Thorias commented wryly and walked over to the side of the longskiff.
Hunter started to open his mouth to say something, but then thought better of it. He closed his mouth and sighed. Thorias had a point. He was supposed to be in his cabin, resting. Although, he had been confined to quarters and rest for the past nine days in their flight to the ruin. Deep down, though he refused to admit it openly, he was stark-raving bored.
Hunter leaned on his cane for momentary support. “That may very well be, however I gave my word to get these two to their parents.”
Thorias waved a hand in dismissal at the intent behind Hunter’s words. “And that honor of yours is why I always stock up on extra bandages and antiseptic when we sojourn off on an expedition.”
Moira and Tonks exchanged barely hidden grins. They had witnessed this exchange before. Thorias took his Hippocratic oath as a doctor very seriously. It was as serious as Captain Hunter took his sense of honor.
“Now, Doctor,” Hunter began with a sigh.
Interrupting any further conversation aboard the boat, Miles shouted, scrambling over the side of the longskiff to the grass. “Mother!”
Angela, farther back in the boat, cheered for joy and jumped out after him once she saw the pair of adults.
Moira stepped out of the boat and paused next to Hunter, curious to see if her captain needed any help. He noticed her look and shook his head.
“I’ll be fine Moira.” Hunter explained. “However, I really do appreciate everyone’s concern.”
Moira shrugged, then turned back to watch the homecoming between Angela, Miles and their parents. It was too far for her to make our (out) what they were saying, but to her, the children were retelling their adventure. The parents looked simply relieved to see their family back together and safe.
“It be good ta see ’em with their ma’ and da’.” Moira said while she put her hands on her hips. “Good ta have ’em outta harm’s way, too.”
Captain Hunter steadied himself with his cane and looked over at the scene as Moira watched. “Agreed.”
“What of RiBeld?” Tonks asked, joining them. “Ya said he’d vanished before the ship was turned.”
Hunter nodded. “That he did.”
Thorias snorted in disgust. “Hrmph. Some ‘Flower of nobility’ RiBeld is. More like ‘Rat of the Sewers’. These days, most of the older noble families have squandered anything of value be it money, morality or a sense of honor.”
Hunter chuckled, then winced when one of the bullet wounds reminded him he was not fully healed. “He’ll return. He may have found a hole to crawl away to, but he’ll venture forth when he thinks the storm has passed. The crimes he’s committed will not quickly be forgotten. I doubt the Royal Navy will take the charges of murder and piracy against him lightly.” The captain sighed. “Either way, he’s little more than a nightmare Angela and Miles would do well to forget.”
The crew slowly crossed the distance to the campsite. The tent village lay clustered in a wide ring beneath the shelter of birch, pine and popular trees that gave some shelter from the ever-present snow. The tents were canvas with rope bindings that held the tent down at wooden tent pegs driven in through the icy ground. A wide fire pit with a makeshift metal spit dominated the space in the middle of the tents.
At the edge of the tents, a man – in appearance an older version of Miles – tried to wipe soot and dirt from his hands on his brown canvas work trousers. Satisfied most of the grime was gone, he stepped forward and shook hands with each of the crew vigorously. He was easily six feet tall with a thin frame that looked even lankier in his slightly too-large overcoat, white shirt and worn leather shoes.
“It is capital to meet each and all of you. I’m Doctor James Von Patterson. Angela and Miles were just telling us some of what transpired! It’s quite the relief they are unharmed! We’d no idea. Not a single page of correspondance mentioned their flight.” The doctor brushed a few stray brown hairs from in front of his eyes.
As Hunter shifted his. The wounds in his side throbbed, leaving him uncomfortable. “Any of your correspondance from an Ian Von Patterson?”
Von Patterson nodded. “Why yes, my brother. He’s been looking in upon the family’s affairs while I’ve been away.”
Tonks and Moira exchanged a knowing glance. Tonks folded his arms over his chest. “Well then, he’s been overseein’ things? Your family holds much in the way of property?”
“Just a shipping and trade business. Airship commerce, mind you. Some waterborne travel also.” Von Patterson explained. “But what has that got to do with this RiBeld chap?”
The crew exchanged a second glance for a moment. Thorias looked around and sighed. “If none of you speak up, I will. The man has a right to know. It’s his own family, after all.”
Dr. Von Patterson looked from one crew member to the other. “Would someone please enlighten me. If this involves my family, I daresay it’s my right to know.”
Hunter cleared his throat. “I’m sorry to say Dr. Von Patterson, that we all have come to believe that your brother, Ian, means your children nothing but harm.”
Von Patterson looked stunned, as surely as if physically struck. “What? My brother? I know he can be rather … harsh … in his personal affairs but to take action against my children, his own niece and nephew … it’s unthinkable!”
Tonks stepped forward a bit to get Dr. Von Patterson’s attention. “Doctor, if ya’ll let us, we can explain.”
“Please do! I’ll have my wife find someone to start tea for us. The conference tent should hold us all.” Still shaken by the news, James turned away to speak quietly with his wife, who took the news just as poorly. While she went to locate one of the porters for the expedition, Dr. Von Patterson led the group towards what he considered the ‘conference tent’. Near the fire, Hunter paused to catch his breath. Dr. Von Patterson looked back in concern, as did Thorias.
“He’s lost a touch of his wind,” Thorias explained. “I, too, am a doctor, though more a physician than archeologist. We’ll be along in a moment. Tonks, our pilot, knows most of what you need to be told. We’ll come to fill in the gaps presently.”
“I understand.” Dr. Von Patterson replied. “Well then, your tea will be waiting for you.”
There by the fire pit, Hunter looked over the ruins and then the mountains beyond. Clouds drifted across the sky, touching the white mountain tops and drawing lazy gray shadows along the snow-covered ground at their feet.
“You appear as a man who wrestles with a quandary,” Thorias said idly, pulling his pipe from a coat pocket. Arcady returned from his exploratory flight to land on the doctor’s shoulder.
Hunter looked over at the doctor and smiled thinly. He retrieved a worn, soot-stained yellow swatch of cloth from his coat pocket. One side of the cloth was littered with tiny characters in a foreign language and faded ink drawings. “I was reflecting.”
“I see.” Thorias commented before he withdrew a small pouch of chicory root from another pocket. Deftly, he filled his pipe then put the pouch away. Using a small twig, he knelt and caught it ablaze using what few hot coals remained in the fire pit. He lit his pipe and tossed the twig onto the coals to be consumed.
“A ‘prayer flag’ is what I’m told this is. It was a gift from the Yeti chieftain, Utawah. It was one of the ones that had hung in his home before we arrived. He said that this one represented long life and good fortune.” Captain Hunter explained and showed the cloth to the doctor.
Thorias took a slow puff of his pipe, then exhaled, allowing the smoke to drift upwards in a lazy ring. “Since the chieftain survived, I’d wager they might work.”
“I wonder. There were so many that did not. All from one man. Just one single soul.” Hunter sighed heavily, as if the weight of the world had suddenly settled on his shoulders.
“RiBeld?” Thorias asked casually.
Hunter shook his head slightly. “No, RiBeld is at best a footnote or epilogue to any tale. A war dog off his leash. I mean Ian Von Patterson.”
The doctor nodded, then took another pull on his pipe. The embers in the bowl glowed a gentle orange, casting a warm reflection against Thorias’ face. “Anthony, evil … real evil – not those tawdry tales from the dime novels – doesn’t know a number. Some call it a ‘bitter fruit’ and weed. I daresay ‘constrictor vine’ or ‘inferno’ is more spot-on. If left unchecked, it will take hold and consume anything in its path. Often for the most useless or selfish of goals. Against that, good men and women can only do one thing: stand against it no matter the cost to protect the innocent. Even if it is only one woman, or man.”
The sound of laughter rose from off to their right. Twenty feet away Angela and Miles, bundled in warm coats, had tumbled outside in the snow to play and chase each other. Hunter looked at the flag again and smiled. “For the children … ever vigilant then?”
Thorias smiled slightly. “Unless we wish to be under the heel of the Ian Von Patterson’s of the world, I say indeed yes.”
Captain Hunter slipped the flag back into his coat pocket and took another deep breath. “We should catch up to the others. Dr. Von Patterson likely might wish to speak to the Royal Navy with us about his brother.”
The doctor smiled, and emptied his pipe on the dying coals of the fire pit. “So the hunt is on?”
A shadow of a smile caressed the captain’s face. “That is the business of the Royal Navy. However, I’d not be against any consultation they might need.”