Firing up the phraxchamber of the Wind Zephyr and setting the flight levers to full steam, we soon left the dread canyons of the Midwoods far behind. What followed was a week of hard voyaging, as Captain Ironshank, Kultuft and I made our way across the cloud-filled expanse of the sky, heading ever eastwards towards our goal.
Finally, as our carefully rationed provisions began to run out, the horizon ahead was lit up by the unmistakeable glow of the Twilight Woods. I felt my pulse quicken as Captain Ironshank brought the Wind Zephyr down low over the treetops and, reducing speed, cast down the tree-anchor.
‘We’ll rest up here for the night,’ he announced, ‘then set off for the phraxmine at daybreak. We’ll go on foot as quietly as possible,’ he added, giving Kultuft a steely glance.
‘Don’t worry, Captain,’ I assured him. ‘Kultuft can be as stealthy as a lemkin when he needs to be.’ I patted my hulking companion on the head, and he gurgled happily.
‘I hope so,’ said Captain Ironshank, allowing himself a smile, ‘because we’ll need Kultuft here to carry the money chest.’
After a fitful night’s sleep beneath a honeyed full moon that bathed the Eastern Woods in a soft, golden light, I awoke just before dawn. We breakfasted on the last of our provisions – acorn-meal biscuits and woodgrog. But with plentiful game in the Deepwoods, and time on our side, we could stock up on our return journey, I knew. But first we had an appointment with a mine-sergeant, one Demdro Dax, an old friend of the captain’s.
Dax had agreed to supply us with five rods of phraxcrystal in return for the fortune in gold we carried in the large copperwood chest. With these crystals, Hedgethorn and my dream of building a stilt-factory in Farrow Lake would be realized. But the stakes were high. Demdro was taking a risk. Selling phraxcrystals at the minehead was highly illegal and the phraxguard of Great Glade patrolled these woods in search of smugglers like us.
But we had no choice. To buy crystals on the phraxmarket of Great Glade would have taken years and our gold would have been used up with bribes and backhanders long before we’d have a chance to bid for a phraxcrystal. This way, Great Glade ensured that industry remained in the city and the new settlements could not compete with it. I and Hedgethorn aimed to change that, but we knew the dangers we faced.
We set off after our meagre breakfast and crept through the woods until we came to the minehead itself, a dark tunnel mouth propped up by timber struts and disappearing down beneath the Twilight Woods which lay in the distance.
Demdro Dax was waiting for us. A tall fourthling with a shock of red hair and a vivid scar down one side of his face, he cut a distinctive figure standing in the tunnel’s mouth, with several heavily-armed cloddertrog guards by his side. Captain Ironshank greeted him warmly and, for several minutes, they swapped stories of the old days, when they’d served together on the sky-taverns of Great Glade.
But time was of the essence and a few nervous coughs from the cloddertrog guards brought their conversation to an end. Captain Ironshank gestured for Kultuft to step forward, and my faithful companion obeyed, placing the heavy copperwood chest of gold in front of the mine sergeant. In return, he reached into his jacket and drew out a slim lightbox and opened it. There, nestling on white velvet and illuminated by a small bark-oil lamp, were five perfectly-formed shards of phraxcrystal.
‘Hurry,’ Demdro Dax urged. ‘The phraxmarine’s dawn patrol could appear at any moment…’
As if in answer to his words, a heavily-armed phraxlighter appeared on the horizon, its twin phraxcannon blazing. The minehead echoed to the deafening roar of exploding phraxshells, and Dax and his guards fled back into the safety of the tunnel. Ironshank, Kultuft and I turned and ran back the way we’d come. We arrived back at the Wind Zephyr footsore and gasping for breath, the forest behind us alive with the sound of phrax explosions and musket fire.
Setting the flight levers for full steam, we left the Eastern Woods behind and embarked on an arduous three-month journey back to our beloved Farrow Lake.
One day, when my beard is grey and my back is crooked, I’ll sit by the fire and entertain the young’uns with accounts of that voyage – of the white goblins of the ravines, the singing of the giant tree-fromps and the mighty prowlgrin migration…
But these tales are for another time. Suffice it to say, when our little phraxlighter finally crested the ironwood pies and Farrow Lake came into view, I expected a warm welcome from my old friend, Hedgethorn. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Nothing could have prepared me for the sight that greeted me outside his hive-house beside the lake…