Daniel paced back and forth as he, Iriel, Brashani, Tindolen, and Molin waited for James and Evan.
What’s taking them so long? Aure is in trouble and we need to get moving.
The teen realized he was being impatient and stopped pacing. He drew a deep breath and let his concern flow out of him as he exhaled. Daniel smiled. He felt better, but he also felt the need to meditate. It was the only way to stay in control of his feelings.
I don’t have time for that though. And besides, it would be another delay when we need action.
His impatience returned, and he realized that helping Aure and staying in control were at odds with each other.
Is this because I care about him? That seemed a reasonable answer. Then what am I going to do when I find members of my family and get to know them? Will I even be able to continue as a master of the Art?
A wave of concern sparked a cold sweat over Daniel’s body. He paced some more and then stopped.
Maybe I’m worried about nothing. I doubt anyone in my family is going to be abducted. Daniel smiled at that thought only to have his restlessness return.
But that doesn’t address my feelings for Aure. I need to master my impatience before it unravels all my accomplishments.
James and Evan emerged from the Inn, their backpacks strapped on. James carried a third pack in his hands, which he gave to Iriel. Her eyes were red, he noticed.
“Have you been crying?” he asked her.
“I was, but I’m fine now. Uncle still has faith in me.”
“Of course he does. So do I.”
She gave him a peck on the cheek and put on her pack.
Tindolen waited for her, and then asked, “Is everyone ready?”
Molin groaned and shook his head. “I’m too old to chase after this bauble.”
“That’s your choice, of course,” said Evan. “You can explain to Frank and anyone else who comes looking for the gem, or any of us, what has happened.”
“All right,” said Molin. “I’ll do that. Good luck,” he added a moment later.
“We’ll need more than luck,” Evan mumbled to himself.
Tindolen set out across town. Daniel walked beside the merchant. Evan and the others followed close behind. In the distance, the first light of dawn was beginning to show in the eastern sky, painting it orange along the horizon and light blue dissolving to dark blue higher up.
They reached the corner of Elm and Maple Streets. Tindolen turned the corner and said, “Here we are.” He gestured toward the first house on the left. Evan looked at the place appraisingly. It was a small light blue wooden cottage with white shutters and set back from the road. A thatched straw roof covered the top of the house; smoke curled out of the chimney. A large lawn of brown grass surrounded the dwelling, still showing evidence of the morning frost.
“What is that?” James asked and pointed. No one answered because no one knew what to say.
In the front yard stood four metal poles about twice the height of Evan. Gray metal struts ran between the poles for support. At the top was a platform parallel to the ground and made from the same material as the poles. A metal pinwheel capped the entire structure. The wheel spun in the faint breeze.
Daniel stared at the structure briefly when James spoke, then resumed walking beside Tindolen.
Iriel glanced at the metal poles but did not go near them. She did not even want to look at them. Nevertheless, the elf found herself casting wary glances at the metal poles. She seemed to cower as she walked by them.
“What’s wrong?” asked James.
“It gives me a bad feeling,” she replied.
Brashani gestured. “I don’t sense magic from it.”
She gave him a sidelong glance. “Call it intuition.”
Evan watched the wheel spin as he approached it. He tapped one of the metal poles and heard a hollow sound unlike anything he had experienced before. It wasn’t iron or steel. It wasn’t bronze or brass.
What’s the purpose of this thing and what is it made of? he wondered. How could a hollow tube support this frame?
A path of gray stone blocks ran from the road to the white front door of the cottage, dividing the lawn in two. The surface of the path wasn’t smooth but was not as rough as cut stone either.
Iriel eyed the slab cautiously too, tapped it with her foot once, and then walked beside it on the grass instead.
“Is the stone evil too?” teased James.
She shook her head. “Not evil, but not natural.”
Evan examined the stone blocks carefully. They appeared to have been poured into square sections like cake batter. But the inventor wasn’t a wizard and there were no mages for hire in Clearbrook.
“Brashani,” Evan said. “Do you detect any magic from the stone?”
The wizard paused and concentrated for a moment. “No,” he replied at last. “Why?”
“No reason,” said Evan. “Just wondering how this walkway was made.”
“Well, it wasn’t shaped by an earth mage, if that’s what you were thinking.”
Tindolen knocked on the front door of the cottage. It creaked open and a thin man with wrinkled skin appeared in the doorway with spectacles perched at the end of his nose. The hair on the man’s head was mostly gone; only a few strands of gray were visible across the top and sides of his skull. He wore clothes too big for him, as if he had shriveled up inside them. They hung loosely on his slender frame.
“Tindolen,” the man said with a smile. “Good to see you again. Has a week passed already?”
The merchant smiled back. “Cornelius, good to see you too. No, I’ve not come for tea.”
“Oh?” Cornelius’s brow furrowed. “Then what?”
“I’ve come again because my friends can help you …” He gestured toward Evan and the others. “… and you can help them.”
“Help me?” Cornelius squinted, knitted his eyebrows, and frowned. “I don’t need help.”
“Not even to test your latest invention?” Tindolen asked suggestively.
“My …” Cornelius trailed off in thought. His face brightened, his eyes widened, and he smiled. “The flying basket!”
Evan cast a wary eye at Tindolen and Cornelius. “What’s a flying basket?”
“Come, come,” Cornelius said and waved them inside. “Let me show you.”
Tindolen stepped into the house, followed by Daniel, Evan, James, Iriel, and Brashani in single file. The hallway was dark and cluttered with boxes and barrels. Some of the containers had narrow slits along the top and cloth of different kinds had been pulled through the openings. The fabric stood up like wilted, wrinkled pyramids with odd pleats. Cornelius’s visitors squeezed between the containers that nearly blocked the front hallway and followed the inventor to the back of the house.
Cornelius led his guests straight through the cottage to the back door. He opened it and stepped out onto the back lawn, which was a large plot of brown grass and weeds cropped short. In the middle of the yard was a wicker basket, just large enough for five people to stand in and about four feet high. Thick, sturdy ropes were tied to the basket at one end and to a large, inflated canvas bag on the other. The bag was the length of ten people lying down head-to-foot and at least that many going around. It lay on its side and rolled about in the breeze.
Evan’s eyes narrowed at the sight of the basket. “What is that?”
“The flying basket,” said Cornelius with glee.
“That thing flies?” asked James, incredulously. “Is it magical?”
“Certainly not!” replied Cornelius with indignation. “Magic has no place in my inventions.”
“Then how can it fly?” asked Evan.
“Well, when you heat the air in the canvas bag, it lifts up into the sky, taking the basket with it. The only problem is, there’s no way to keep the air in the bag hot long enough to go anywhere.”
“You mean without magic,” said Brashani, confidently. “As a fire mage, I can heat anything without too much effort and prolong the effect without getting tired.”
“Which is why,” noted Tindolen, “I thought they could help you test your invention, Cornelius. In exchange, they get to use your flying vehicle, which they need.”
“And the sooner the better,” said Daniel.
“Well … I don’t know,” replied Cornelius, doubtfully. “Using magic with one of my inventions …”
Evan ground his teeth in frustration. At last he understood why Tindolen had brought them all here. It wasn’t the best plan for pursuing the thief, but it was a plan and it just might work. Any delay, such as Cornelius equivocating, just widened the distance between Evan and the thief. What was needed was immediate action. Evan was about to open his mouth and say something to Cornelius when the inventor said, “All right. Let’s try it.”
“Everyone into the basket,” commanded Evan.
“Must I?” asked Iriel.
“No, you don’t have to come. You can return to the Inn and help Molin.”
She looked at Tindolen. “Is this the only way, Uncle?”
“Yes, I’m afraid so, Iriel. But you needn’t worry. It won’t harm you.”
She considered her uncle’s words and then saw that Daniel had already strode out across the lawn and climbed into the basket. He was waiting to go. Gathering her resolve, she stood tall and followed the lad.
“Do you think it is safe?” James asked Evan warily.
“It looks sturdy enough,” replied the priest.
James looked at the basket and ropes again and then, after a deep breath, he walked across the lawn behind Iriel.
Evan looked at the wizard. “Brashani, prepare your Heat magic.”
Brashani inclined his head and trailed after James.
Evan turned to Tindolen and shook his hand. “Thanks for your help with this.”
“My pleasure, Evan. Like you, I don’t want my gem to fall into the wrong hands.”
“We’ll get it back.”
“I’m sure you will.”
Turning to Cornelius, Evan said, “Assuming we can get it into the air, how do you steer the basket?”
The old man shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ve not been able to get it into the air.”
Tindolen smiled. “I anticipated this issue and brought you a wind maker.” He drew a small stick out of his vest coat pocket. A piece of wood with a single twist in it was attached to the stick by a small peg. Evan saw that the twisted wood spun freely like the arms of a windmill.
“A what?” asked Evan, as he examined the stick.
“A wind maker.” He handed it to Evan. “Some elven seamen use these to put wind in the sails of their boats when a weather mage or air mage is not available. You can use it to push you in the direction you need to fly.”
“How does it work?”
“Squeeze the handle.”
Evan tightened his hand around the stick and the twisted wood spun around, creating a breeze.
“The harder you squeeze, the stronger the wind.”
“Excellent.” Evan smiled. “Thanks.” He approached the basket. Daniel, Iriel, and James were standing in it. Brashani was standing next to it examining the wicker.
“Something wrong?” inquired Evan.
Brashani looked up at him. “No, no. I was just thinking about James’s comment about how sturdy the basket is.”
“A wicker basket this size can hold all of us.”
“Sure, but what if something crashes into us or we’re attacked with a flaming arrow? Wicker burns like wood.”
“We’ll have to take that chance. There’s no time to look for anything flame resistant.”
“I know there isn’t,” replied Brashani. “But I can harden the wicker.”
Evan gazed suspiciously at the wizard. “What would that do?”
“It will strengthen the wicker and make it act like stone without making it any heavier.”
“Will it take long to complete?”
“A minute or so.”
“All right. Do it.”
Brashani placed both hands on one side of the basket and chanted.
“Wicker, wicker, thicker, thicker
Stone and earth, since the world’s birth
Merge and make; cook and bake
A stronger basket; a better casket”
The wicker changed color from varying shades of beige to a uniform gray, as if it had been transformed into stone.
Iriel sighed and smiled. “That feels much better.”
“How so?” asked James.
Evan smiled in approval. “Good work.”
Brashani tapped the basket a few times, listening to the sound it made. “That should do.”
Evan climbed in and noticed the wicker didn’t squeak. He also noticed that space was tight. Unless he moved in concert with the others, Evan was going to bump into someone or step on someone’s foot.
Hopefully, we will only have to be in this contraption for a few hours, Evan thought. Turning to face Brashani, he said, “Whenever you are ready.”
The fire mage rubbed his hands together and stared at the canvas bag. The bag began to roll faster from side to side. After a few minutes, it started to bob up and down like a boat on the ocean. A few more minutes went by and the canvas bag rose in the air. The ropes around the basket, which had been slack, became taut.
The basket gave a jolt and everyone fell on top of each other.
“What was that?” asked Iriel.
“I think the basket lifted off the ground,” replied Brashani. He scrambled to his feet and looked over the side. The basket was indeed a few inches off the ground. He resumed heating the canvas bag and the basket climbed higher.
On the ground, Cornelius jumped for joy. “It works! It works! My God, it works.”
Tindolen smiled at the inventor and waved good-bye to Evan and the others.
The basket rose high in the air, frightening several pigeons in the vicinity. Fortunately for all, the birds flew off leaving the basket unscathed. Once the basket was above the trees, Evan turned to Daniel.
“Which way do we go, Daniel?”
The lad pointed toward the sun, which was just clearing the treetops too. “East.”
Evan squeezed the wind maker hard and propelled the vehicle forward.
Brashani stood in the middle of the basket and reduced the heat to keep them at a consistent altitude. The wizard wondered how heat-resistant the canvas and ropes were. He did not want them to catch fire because it would be a long way down to the ground. Once or twice, as they ascended into the sky, Brashani made sniffing noises; the odor of something burning had caught his attention. Carefully, he examined the canvas overhead and the ropes but saw no flames.
All the while, Daniel, standing on the east side of the basket, did his best to concentrate on the signal being sent by Aure. It was faint and intermittent but it was there. Daniel tried to guess how far away it was but without a reference, was unable to tell.
Evan’s right hand started to hurt after he had been squeezing the wind maker for a few minutes. He switched hands and flexed his fingers to relieve the pain.
Iriel looked out over the southern edge of the basket and clapped her hands in delight. She jumped up once with excitement but when she landed the entire basket shook.
“Don’t do that,” said James. His eyes darted around to make sure the ropes still held. His hands gripped the edges of the basket tightly and all his muscles tensed.
Iriel blushed and lowered her head, a little embarrassed. “Sorry, I have not been flying before. It’s so exciting. And the view from up here is marvelous.” She looked over the edge again. Farmland and brown tilled soil, now barren after the autumn harvest, stretched out in all directions like a patchwork quilt. Occasionally a barn or a farmhouse dotted the landscape and, on the horizon, Iriel saw a small copse of trees and a small town.
She waved to James to join her. “Come and look.”
The bard relaxed a little and went over to her. He looked over the edge and felt his hands go clammy. Sweat beaded along his forehead and cheeks. The back of his neck became wet and a small army of butterflies hammered at his stomach. The world started spinning and he fell back, landing in the bottom of the basket with a hard thud. As he landed, the flying contraption shook again.
Evan eyed him with concern. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah,” replied James, putting his hand to his head. “Just dizzy. Guess it’s vertigo. I’ve never been up this high before.” He tried to stand but his legs kept buckling and would not support him. Then he felt queasiness in his stomach and he decided to stay down. Iriel knelt beside him. She felt his forehead; it was cool to the touch and wet.
“Keep still. These feelings will pass.”
James hoped so, but up to this point it seemed to him that coming along had been a bad idea.