The following morning, the sky was sapphire blue with only the occasional tall mountain of clouds dotting the air. Airships broke the clouds while they sailed to and from Brussels, the capital of Belgium and main airship port. Some were merchant vessels fully loaded with cargo, others without, and still more were Belgian military airships on their usual patrol routes.
With the wind at her back, the Brass Griffin rocked slightly in the gentle wind. A soft hum played among the rigging while the ship handled easily along the bright blue day. On the quarterdeck, Tonks Wilkerson hummed a tune with the one that played through the rigging. They had delivered several crates of cloth, tea and other general goods at Brussels and had just left dock, bound for Edinburgh. Before they had left port, Tonks had heard the calm weather in Belgium would stay with them the entire way to Scotland. He enjoyed piloting in weather such as this. It made for an enjoyable task overall.
Off to his right and slightly ahead on their path, Tonks noticed a small shape. Nothing so obvious as a longskiff, but neither was it an airship. The unusual shape drew more of his attention as it grew closer. It was too small to be any steam-powered air-vessel. The motion was all wrong, as well. Most air-based vessels did not bob rhythmically up and down against the wind. That was motion more akin to a horse or some other riding animal.
Eventually it came clearly into view. As long as a Clydesdale draft horse, the animal had the golden-furred body of a lion down to the black claws. Above that were white-gray feathers along the neck and eagle-shaped head. The griffin beat its wings in a smooth, steady manner unconcerned over the breeze that stirred its feathers and blew at its fur. On its back a lone rider sat with an easy hand on the reins. A pair of saddlebags were slung over the griffin’s backside. They bulged slightly with the suggestion of packages. Tucked beside the saddlebags, a Springfield Trapdoor rifle sat neatly in a rifle scabbard within easy reach.
Tonks turned to look out over the ship’s main deck for either his captain, Anthony Hunter or the first mate Krumer Whitehorse. Neither seemed to be out on deck. The pilot took a deep breath.
“Griffin-rider inbound!” Tonks bellowed.
“Aye ta that!” Came the reply from one the crew. He raced off towards the rear of the ship.
A moment later below decks, the tawny-haired young crewman burst through the door to the officers’ cabins. Neither Captain Hunter or Krumer noticed him at the door right away. They both leaned over a set of maps, pouring over them while deep in the middle of a conversation. Hunter was dressed in his usual white linen shirt and brown trousers, his long coat tossed over a nearby chair. Krumer was in a loose-fitting faded blue shirt and brown trousers, as well. Presently, both looked up at the sailor. The young man hesitated, unsure if he should ease back out and knock. Hunter raised an eyebrow while Krumer stood up to his full, broad-shouldered orcish height. His black dreadlocks fell loose about his shoulders.
“Well, Henry?” Krumer asked.
The first mate’s deep rumble of a voice shook Henry from his indecision. He smiled nervously. “Ah, beggin’ yer pardon Sirrahs, but there be a courier inbound.”
The captain and first mate exchanged a glance. Most messages transmitted to an airship were done through an opti-telegraphic system which sent its electronic message through a network of relay stations scattered across much of Europe, held high aloft by reinforced gas bags. To send a courier meant the message was sent from a place where there was no relay nearby, or the message was of such important or sensitive nature it was felt a courier was more reliable and secure. Especially since most relay dirigibles still fell victim to the more powerful storms.
Hunter stood and reached for his worn longcoat. “Well then, it’s either a package or something of greater import than a message. Best to see what brought.”
The trio walked out of the cabins and onto the main deck just as the griffin started to approach the airship. With its wings stretched wide to catch the winds about the Brass Griffin, the animal circled the ship and, at the riders’ gentle tug on the reins, turned and came in for a landing on the ship’s main deck. The beast shook its feathered mane and wings as it settled into place. The rider tugged his goggles down from his smiling face and pulled off his fur-trimmed leather cap to reveal a shock of unkempt red hair and scattering of freckles.
He looked about at the crew, eyes settling on Captain Hunter and Mr. Whitehorse upon their approach. “Brass Griffin, right Guv’?”
Krumer folded his arms over his chest and nodded. “Indeed we are.” The orc noticed the horse and rider patch on the young man’s jacket. “You are a courier, yes?”
The griffin rider stepped down from his saddle onto the deck. “S’right on that. Jim Reed, Pony Express rider, at your service.” He turned to his saddlebags to rummage through them. “Got a package or four here for you.”
Krumer, who stood closest to the courier, accepted the packages and unwrapped the first one. “Ah, the new mainsprings. Henry, take this to Moira and William.”
“Aye.” Henry raced off across the deck.
Krumer unwrapped the others. The vials of ink and blank paper were delivered to Thorias, and the rest were spices which were taken to the cook.
Hunter looked over the griffin as it shook its feathered mane again. “Pardon my manners, but the Pony Express? An American service, yes? I thought it had closed down during that American Civil War.”
Reed chuckled. “Right ya are. Main office still is ‘cross the water. We had some hard times durin’ that, no doubt! Once we started usin’ griffins, we could really cover the land. So, we just opened stations over here workin’ with the Royal Mail.” The rider patted the side of the large animal he arrived with. “Been with Percy here since.”
Footsteps hammered across the deck. “Cap’n!”
The group turned while Henry raced up with a worn piece of parchment and held it out to anyone that would take it. “Message Cap’n. It popped out once Moira put the mainspring in. She said it woulda’ come in last evenin’.”
Hunter took the message and scanned over it. In moments, his eyes narrowed and took on an icy glare.
“What is it?” Krumer asked.
“Adonia.” With one word, said so flatly, the air seemed to chill about the group.
The courier diplomatically turned away at that to check on his mount and wisely keep from the conversation.
“Ah, well. The spirits do move in their own way.”
Hunter sighed heavily to cool his anger. “And Dr. Von Patterson is with her. I don’t like smell of this. But … no matter either way, it is a distress call and one where Dr. Von Patterson is needing help. We’d be remiss if we ignored it. The location, however, escapes me. I don’t recognize the coordinates.”
Krumer looked over the captain’s shoulder at the dispatch. “I think those should be here in Belgium. The moors aren’t they?”
The Pony Express courier turned back around. “The moors? Cor blimey, that’s the Hohes Venn. Been some odd goin’s on out that way. Last I was on station, some of the riders are tellin’ tall tales of a black ship tryin’ to run anyone bloody daft to get nearby to ground. Way I hear it told, they come for ya, no one’s gonna hear from ya again. Not many are buggered enough to ride out towards Hohes Venn or the Hohes Venn relay.”
“Tall tales.” Hunter commented.
“True enough for me.” Reed answered quickly. “I been out there, but bugger me, I won’t ride that way again.”
Hunter handed the dispatch to his first mate. “Mr. Whitehorse, get a map and with Sirrah Reeds’ advice, find us a course to the Hohes Venn relay. Henry, run below and forewarn Dr. Thorias he may be having visitors.”
“Aye Cap’n.” Henry raced off for belowdecks.
Hunter turned on his heel and strode back toward his quarters, his face as dark as a thundercloud.
Reed checked the harness on Percy once more. Convinced the cinch was still secure enough to keep the saddle on Percy, he turned to watch Captain Hunter walk away.
“Right knotted captain ya got there.” The Pony Express rider commented with a low whistle.
Krumer glanced over the distress message then back in Hunter’s direction as the captain disappeared through a door. “Captain Hunter and Adonia share some of a past.”
“Now that sounds right morbid, if I do say so.”
Krumer chuckled and folded the message. “A relationship, however short, can occasionally be so. If you would before you leave, we’ll need those coordinates of the relay.”
“Sure enough then. Just s’long as I’m not havin’ to go.”