Firespinner Chapter Six – Thunderbird

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A lively stream cut through the ridge on the opposite side, ran down into the heart of the valley and turned, following the valley out of sight. It was a picturesque sight, except for the crackling amorphous creature flying back and forth over the stream occasionally shedding a lightning bolt from its wings. In truth only the core of the creature was protean, the rest of the body – head, beak, wings and talons – were well defined, if given to bending or distorting in odd ways when they moved as if the creature had no bones or joints. Which it didn’t.

“Ignis Fatuus, we’re lucky it didn’t see us,” Roy muttered, watching the thunderbird warily over the crest of the hill. “We might be able to get the drop on it.”

“Do we really have to fight that thing?” Nora asked, looking askance at the beast. “It looks like more trouble than it’s worth.”

“A fine question.” Roy looked to Grunt. “How long to go around?”

“If we want to keep going north east?” The big man thought about it for a moment. “‘At least six hours, maybe as long as a day. Depends on the route we take and if we run into anything there. Mountain lions are pretty common up here but they’re not as big a deal as a Sasquatch. Those’ll bury you with rock slides before you ever see ’em.”

“Are they hostile?” Roy asked.

“Just hungry,” Grunt replied. “Always hungry.”

“But also rare this far south,” Reeds added. “I don’t think we’ll see one until winter takes hold. Either way we don’t have time to go around. It’s about a day and a half from here to Mete’s Grave, we can’t afford a side trip.”

“Are we sure the thunderbird wants to fight us?” O’Hara asked. “It looks almost totally elemental. Those kinds of creatures rarely take note of humans.”

“Thunderbirds aren’t natural creatures,” Roy said. “They’re created via Tetzlanii blood rituals and given a purpose during their creation. Traditionally they’re used as guards. Add in the fact that blood rituals are almost always malevolent and yeah, I think it’s pretty likely the thing will fight us if it sees us.”

“It’s Tetzlanii?” O’Hara frowned. “What kind of wards did they use to contain them? I have most of the major ones with my tile board.”

“As I understand it the blood ties it back to the ritualist somehow, no wards, charms or geas needed to control it,” Roy said. “Besides, tile magic is earth and fire, thunderbirds are air and water. Magics without a common elemental factor tend to mix poorly.”

“And I’m afraid water can’t hold any kind of pattern for long so it’s not used in the Teutonic tradition at all,” Reeds said. “I don’t suppose any of you are hiding secret talents as a stone singer?”

Marshall puffed himself up, spread his arms theatrically and exhaled in dramatic fashion.

“That’s a no,” Grunt said. He glanced at Roy and took note of the way he was fingering his necklace. “Why don’t you just do your freezing trick to it, Roy?”

The wendingo bone beads were cool to the touch, free from the malice of their old owner but still so very, very hungry. “We’ll keep that as a court of last resort. But I do think focusing on the water half of a thunderbird is the best bet. It’s easier to disperse the vessel of a spell than counter its driving force anyways. Here’s what we’re going to do.”


Grunt and Roy scrambled down the side of the valley. In spite of Grunt’s extra hundred pounds of size and two handed weapon he made the descent far more gracefully than Roy did. He easily slid down patches of grass, leapt over stretches of loose stones and levered himself around small trees, where Roy seemed to get caught on every unseen root or hidden rock outcropping. But the army taught Roy years ago that he was a city slicker through and through so he was used to it. The goal was to make sure the thunderbird didn’t notice them and in that he succeeded.

Climbing up the other side of the gorge was more difficult.

For starters he’d removed the buckler from his belt and drawn his sword. Like many things in his life, Roy’s weapons were custom built to mesh with his powers. The buckler had a large eight stone crystal set in the center giving him a lot of raw firepower to draw from, a nice option to improve on the defensive qualities of the light shield or a midrange offense as needed. The sword was a falcata, a heavy chopping weapon for close combat and an effective platform for catapulting fireballs long distances. They gave him plenty of options for fighting at all ranges, the first concern of a firespinner at work. Terrible gear for a soldier in the bush, trying to move quietly and communicate via hand signals.

Worse, Grunt kept picking his way up using one hand to climb, the other all that he needed to balance his sword over his shoulder, blazing a path that Roy, with only half of one hand free, had a hard time following. Roy was pretty sure Grunt kept juggling his sword from one hand to the other just to rub it in. Still, for all the problems of climbing the gorge they made it almost all the way to the second ridge line without drawing the thunderbird’s attention.

Once there they settled in to watch. Roy did his best to contain his impatience. They’d already lost the better part of an hour crossing the valley and he was very aware of how little time they had overall. But as they said in the army, serenity was akin to alacrity. So they waited and watched.

After ten minutes it was clear the thunderbird was circling over the cleft in the ridge where the small river cut through on its way down the mountain. It never veered off into the valleys on either side of the ridge or went further along the rise in either direction. Reeds said they should follow the river to reach Mete’s Grave.

The thunderbird being there couldn’t be a coincidence. They needed to get rid of it.

Roy signaled Grunt to get ready then started to work his way along the ridge towards the river. After a minute or so the thunderbird took note and swept over him, circling in predatory fashion. Grunt leapt to his feet and his sword roared to life, bronze blade gleaming, flame pouring from its fuller.

The thunderbird shrieked. The earsplitting noise started higher than a train whistle and dropped down to a bone rattling boom. As the tone dropped the creature swooped down out of the air towards Grunt. He raised his sword point towards the elemental and the weapon spat a stream of fire at the thunderbird. The thunderbird jerked away from the assault but towards Roy, who was already pulling fire from the sulfurite in his shield, forming it into a wall to block the elemental from retreating. Caught between the two men’s attacks the body of the thunderbird began rippling with steam. It crackled in pain.

Roy and Grunt moved forward, pressing the creature between their fiery weapons. But the creature wasn’t stupid. It dodged and weaved with frightening speed, skirting the stream of flame from Grunt’s direction and swooping away across the valley in a flash of barely perceptible movement. It stopped in a crack of thunder right before colliding with the faint shimmer that marked O’Hara’s spell walls. Maybe it knew the wall was there, in spite of its near invisibility, maybe that was as far as it could go and maybe it just noticed the rest of the group waiting there, behind O’Hara’s wards.

Grunt turned and made to start down the slope, as if he had a chance of getting back to that side of the valley in time to do anything. “Wait here!” Roy yelled. Grunt shot him a questioning look. “Lighting falls and returns! Reeds can handle it, we’ll catch it on the return stroke!”

But Roy had made one mistake. It was a natural one, but a mistake none the less. Grunt told him one of the brothers worked magic and later Roy learned that brother was Reeds. He was also the brother who could talk. And at some point Roy had just started thinking Reeds was the active one of the pair, that when push came to shove Reeds did what needed doing and his brother was some kind of moral or spiritual support. He realized how wrong that assumption was when Marshall leapt up on top of the spellwall, meeting the thunderbird as it started to cross over the barrier.

One of the elemental’s talons lashed out at him, raking crackling gashes into the spellwall. Marshall met the blow with the obsidian head of his warclub, the simple but brutally effective weapon of Sanna braves. Man and beast strained against each other for a split second, an ominous energy building between them, then erupted into an exchange of a dozen sizzling attacks, deflections, blocks and counters, all in the space of a single breath.

It was so fast Roy only caught glimpses of the exchange in afterimages. Looking away was unthinkable. But Roy forced himself to do it anyway, swapping his sword and shield hands with practiced efficiency. Then he tossed the shield to his partner saying, “Grunt, discus!”

Grunt shifted his greatsword to his offhand and caught the buckler then turned the motion into a spinning throw that send the shield arcing across the valley. It wouldn’t quite make it to the spellwall but got close before it started to drop. When it did Roy reached out to the sulfurite set in it and asked the fire there to come out.

The fire power within burst out in a massive wave of flame and heat that washed over the thunderbird with a violent hiss. The blast almost pulled the creature apart in a cloud of steam but its wings beat the air and it gained enough altitude to get far enough away from the dissipating fireball to pull itself back together.

Sensing weakness Marshall threw his club at the struggling elemental and it flashed away again. But as Roy had told Grunt, the creature was forced to return to where it had been a moment ago, just as a lightning bolt that falls from the sky must return to the clouds.

As soon as the thunderbird vanished Roy’s iron dagger left its sheath. Once it reappeared in the air just over his head he threw it before he heard the clap heralding the creature’s return. The point of the dagger buried itself into the creatures body just below the wing. The thunderbird let out an electrical shriek then burst with an incredible sound that Roy felt more than heard. He and Grunt were thrown to the ground as water driven by the creatures sudden death lashed against them like knives.

For the second time in as many days Roy found himself staring up at the sky and getting wet with no clear notion how he got there. Apparently the thunderbird’s death had prompted the clouds to start raining. Rather than sit there and get water in his eyes he got back to his feet again. The ringing in his ears pulsed for a moment or two, eventually settling into time with the throbbing in his ribs to remind him that working as a professional violent man had steep costs associated with it.

He was gratified to see that O’Hara’s group was making their way across the valley. The brothers were currently helping Nora and O’Hara get their mounts across the river. Roy tried to get Grunt’s attention but couldn’t hear himself over the ringing and assumed it was the same for his friend. So he started searching the top of the ridge on his own.

After about five minutes of looking he heard a distant voice saying, “What are you doing? We need to keep moving.”

It was O’Hara, getting down from her bushwalker with a jar of something in one hand. Roy shook his head, trying to clear the ringing a little, then said, “First we need to bury the heart. If we don’t there are complications.”

“Heart?” She gestured Grunt over and applied some kind of salve to his ears. “What heart? Elementals don’t have hearts, Mr. Harper. They’re just blobs of power and medium.”

“It’s a human heart, O’Hara.” He tapped his chest for emphasis. “Blood ritual, remember? The only way I’ve seen to make a thunderbird involves taking a beating heart from a living person. That kind of thing was why the Esperians burned all the blood ritual records they could find.”

“What happens if we don’t bury this heart?” Reeds asked.

“Hauntings. People drown in their sleep even if they’re nowhere near water. Eventually people get struck by lightning on clear days. Nasty stuff.” Roy pulled a small flame from one cufflink and used it to illuminate the ground beneath a thick clump of bushes. “You should be able to find it by smell, they’re not exactly fresh. Even if they are still beating.”

He glanced up in time to see Marshall holding his nose and shaking his head. “He says the creature did not smell when he was near it,” Reeds clarified. “Or at least he didn’t notice it. Neither did I.”

“I didn’t notice anything either,” Grunt added, scooping the gunk back out of his ears. “You gotta try this stuff, Harp.”

“Later.” Roy smelled his clothes in a few places, searching for the telltale stench of the bloodwater that made up the bodies of thunderbirds. To his surprise he found nothing. “Right, that is strange. It’s not a mild scent, it should still be obvious even with the thing dead.”

Roy pulled his light back and tucked it away in his cufflink again. “I don’t know what happened here but I want to find out.”

“You said these things aren’t natural,” Nora said. “Could the druid you mentioned have conjured the creature? Maybe he blended the Tetzlanii ritual with some kind of druidic magic?”

“That’s exactly what worries me,” he admitted.

“In that case maybe this was part of it?” O’Hara held up an odd crystalline sliver about as thick as one of her fingers. A gold band ran around the circumference about a third of the way up its length. “We found it on the way across the valley.

The crystal was a dark, smokey gray shot through with faint sky blue streaks. Roy took it and turned it over in his hands. The hair on the back of them stood out straight. “Well, well, well, someone found a chunk of fulminite.”

“What’s fulminite?” Nora asked.

“It’s like sulfurite,” O’Hara said, “except it holds the power of the air rather than fire. And no one knows an easy way to recharge it. Or any way short of standing in a storm and hoping you get struck by lightning. I’ve never heard of anyone pulling it off.”

“If it functions like sulfurite the crystal glows brighter the more power that’s in it,” Roy said, peering into the crystal’s depths. “So it must be pretty well spent.”

“Could this take the place of the heart in the blood ritual?” Reeds asked.

“I don’t know.” Roy tucked the crystal into the inside pocket of his jacket. “But it could.”

“Sounds like a very druidic thing to do,” Grunt said. “They like messing with power sources and plugging them into new mediums. That’s how they found so many different kinds of trees they could manipulate.”

“So you think this creature was created by General Oldfathers?” Reeds asked.

“It’s not simple or easy magic to do,” Roy said. “I’m sure there’s plenty of people in the frontier counties that could do it but he’s the only one we know of nearby.”

O’Hara studied Roy for a moment. “How do you know so much about these thunderbirds anyways? Could you make one?”

“I’ve been a lot of places and done a lot of work for a lot of different people,” he said. “But I couldn’t make a thunderbird. Even if I could predict a lightning strike and had an alter carved and ready to take the blood, I don’t think I could bring myself to rip someone’s heart out just to make one of the foul tempered things.”

“And on that reassuring note,” Ben said, “let’s get out of this coalstoking rain.”

Firespinner Chapter Five – Distant Rumblings

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“Why are we leaving town so coalstoking early?” Grunt demanded. “We should at least put together a search pattern, we’re not even sure what part of the mountain Oldfathers is on.”

“We don’t need a search pattern,” Roy said, throwing his borrowed saddlebags over a rented mule. “If he wants to tap the Brothers legend he’s most likely going to the mountaintop where Mete fell. Reeds knows where that is and we know Oldfathers is going to be there in two days. So we need to get there in time to get ready for him.”

“Two days? Why do we know he’ll be there in two days?” Nora Blythe asked, working a bridle over the head of her riding lizard as the creature trilled in annoyance.

“Because the fall equinox is in three.” Roy slid his sheathed sword into place next to the saddlebags and gave it a tug to make sure it was secure. “Forces in balance or otherwise locked together are easiest to influence on the equinox, plus elemental forces ebb and surge at various times of the day so if you’ve the skill you can exploit those surges for a boost to your own magic. If Oldfathers is really here and trying to exploit Mete for some reason he’s going to do it on the equinox. We need to get to him before he does that because we’re not stopping him after. So we need to climb the mountain in two days.”

“Do you think Andrew is in any danger, Mr. Harper?” Nora asked.

“I have no idea, Mrs. Blythe, I don’t know what Orphanfree is planning or how your son or the Brothers’ legend plays into it. I don’t even know which one of Yose and Mete your son is a stand in for.”

“Mete, Mr. Harper.”

“Ignis fatuus!” Roy unclenched his shoulders and turned to find Reeds and Marshall had arrived with characteristic silence. “Will you two stop doing that?”

Marshall spread his hands helplessly, as if not having a tongue somehow prevented him from making any noise at all. Reeds ignored both his brother and Roy. “Andrew is clearly meant to act as Mete in this situation. He climbed the mountain first, then Yose followed. Thomas Blythe is still here in town, thus he must be filling Yose’s role.”

“I defer to your expertise,” Roy said. “Is Thomas somewhere safe, Mrs. Blythe?”

“Miss O’Hara arranged for him to stay with a trustworthy family she knows. The Guild will keep him safe.” The widow’s expression told Roy that, as a mother, she was having trouble trusting in that.

Roy couldn’t blame her. In the last month she’d lost her husband and potentially a child. He suspected he wouldn’t be functioning any better under similar circumstances. “So long as we’ve made allowances. Where’s O’Hara? She’s the only one we’re missing.”

“She’ll meet us at the north gate,” Grunt said, tugging on the straps that held his unwieldy pattern of ’61 greatsword in place by his saddle.

“Are you still using that?” Roy asked, incredulous.

“What’s wrong with it?” Grunt demanded. “We can’t all carry an officer’s toothpick or use the powers we got from the druid’s curse to throw fire. Some of us need help.”

“Well bring reliable help next time.”

“Hey, the pattern of ’61 is light-“

“Overly complex,” Roy interjected.

“-lively in the hand-“

“Terrible edge retention.”

“-and a classic design.”

“Classically ugly and doesn’t hold a flame right.” Roy jumped up into the saddle, rubbing his ribs absently.

“At least I have a weapon I know I can count on.” Grunt nodded at Roy’s falcatta, strapped in place on his saddle. “You’ve got another weird thing from your collection.”

“Hey, this is a genuine Alexopolous reproduction. Do you know how hard they are to find?”

Grunt ignored the question and changed the subject. “Speaking of ugly, did you ever get those bruises looked at?”

“I’ll get them looked at when you replace that coalstoking sword.” Roy took a deep breath and quickly blew it out. “See? I’m fine.”

“If you say so…”

Roy ignored him and glanced over the rest of the group. The twins brought their own mules loaded for a long stay in the mountains. Nora was traveling a bit lighter than those two but Roy was glad to see that she did have a straight bladed arming sword strapped to her saddle. “That lizard of yours going to be okay up in the mountains, Mrs. Blythe? I’m told it gets cold up there.”

“Old Slith has been out in snow before,” she said, patting the ugly creature on the neck. “We probably should have replaced him when we moved up here at the beginning of summer but he’s been with us so long…”

“Well there’s no snow up there yet,” Grunt put in. “It should be okay, Harp.”

“If you say so.” But Roy eyed the overcast skies with distrust.

Yellowstone was not a big town in the grand scheme of things, essentially just two roads running east to west crossing a single main street going north to south. The total footprint was barely half the space inside the town walls, which were two thousand feet from one side to the other at the widest point. Getting to the north gate was still a struggle as they dodged carts of lumber, boisterous groups of woodsmen heading out to start the day and hurrying townspeople running errands.

They finally reached the gate almost twenty minutes later.

Once they were through Roy understood why O’Hara hadn’t met them at the stables. She was seated high atop a bushwalker, the creature’s evergreen branches loaded with packages and bundles. Instinct born of long experience told him he was looking at a kind of walking arsenal of cantrips and prestidigitations, the kind of miscellaneous magic collection that made hedge mages so notoriously dangerous throughout Columbia and Avalon.

Eyeing the shambling creature with the wary caution normally reserved for grizzly bears or siege grade sulfurite crystals, Roy asked, “What have you got there, O’Hara?”

“Good morning to you, too, Mr. Harper,” she said. “Are we all assembled, then?”

So that’s how it was going to be. He affected a bright, hard tone. “Good morning, Ms. O’Hara. We are.” And discarded it. “Now I’d like to know what you intend to do with all that.”

“A little of this and a little of that.” Which was pretty much the worst answer Roy could think of. “Supplies for conjuring a living cloud, my personal specialty. A few Sanna charms for safely navigating the forest. A collection of Tetzlantii spell tiles that might prove useful.”

Roy grimaced. Druidic magic was heavily invested in plants as a medium for the energy of fire and many of the most powerful conjurings of that tradition created toxic smokes and residues as a byproduct. Only druids with carefully built resistances could use them safely. Worse, when their magics mixed the poisonous nature of the residues amplified one another so blending their magic was generally frowned upon. Hedge mages ignored that taboo to the detriment of themselves and others.

Some of that taboo had faded as Vulcanic and Teutonic magic, based on the far safer mediums of metals and patterns, spread. They had virtually no dangerous after effects but were not nearly as powerful as the druidic tradition either. That was a big part of why hedge mages like O’Hara could still find steady employment these days. Roy wasn’t familiar with a living cloud but if the Guild was comfortable with it he figured he’d tolerate it as well. He wasn’t familiar with Sanna totems, his own necklace notwithstanding, but he knew Tetzlanii spell tiles were a flavor of stone based magic. So long as O’Hara knew enough not to choke them with her cloud then it should be fine.

“That’s fine, then,” he said. “Just keep a handle on those tiles, I don’t want us raising a ziggurat on top of the mountain by accident.” Roy lightly spurred his mule and started down the path towards the mountain.

In spite of mustering out of the army nearly a decade ago the old marching habits came back quickly and Roy found himself tracking positions of his group without even thinking about it. The steady clopping of the Reeds brothers’ mounts were side by side behind him. The steady creaking of O’Hara’s mobile bush came next, mixed with the quiet whispers of some conversation she was having with Nora Blythe. Grunt was far enough back that Roy couldn’t hear him but, outside of the warm air of town, his body heat was enough to buzz quietly in the back of his mind despite Grunt’s place thirty or forty feet back, watching the rear. Roy considered it a good formation.

The terrain was poor and kept them from packing in close, plus there was always the chance that this far out they’d run into a tree old enough to take notice of them and spreading out meant it wouldn’t be able to grab them all at once. Hopefully their group was few enough in number that O’Hara’s wards would keep them from notice. Beyond the trees he wasn’t too sure what to expect. Outside of several months in Tetzlan he’d never spent much time in the mountains and, this far north, the plants and wildlife were very different.

About an hour out of town, as the trail approached the top of the first major ridge line, Reeds came up and rode beside him. “We will need to leave the trail and follow the river in the bottom of the next valley.”

Roy nodded. “How many times have you visited Mete’s grave, Reeds?”

“We go yearly.”

The Sanna man didn’t seem to think that was strange but Roy did. He also knew better than to approach it directly. “You’re a diviner, right? I saw you had one of those omen sticks the Sanna medicine men use.”

“A kennet stick, yes. The meaning is closer to future than omen.” Roy didn’t know much about the Sanna but he had heard they were picky about the meanings of their words. “For a short time I was in training as a medicine man, but I fear I only learned the very basics of casting the kennet. For the most part I can only take the read of the land. If we are separated I can also find my brother with it but that’s never been necessary.”

“Why’s that?”

“We have a sense for each other. He can find me with no kennet as easily as a trained diviner could find a man he’d known his whole life.” Reeds shrugged. “As for me, I’m afraid my training did not take me much further than learning a few of the protections against the leaf brothers.”

Roy shot him a sideways look. “So you can kind of cast divinations and ward off trees. Are you sure you’re going to be okay on this trip?”

“Oh, I’m a fully initiated student of Herr Magister von Stossel as well. There are actually a great number of similarities between the basic medicines of the Sanna people and the core principles of Teutonic magic.”

So Reeds was a wizard, not a medicine man. Add that to the list of things he hadn’t been expecting on this trip. “So why didn’t you just finish your studies as a medicine man? Is it because you got sent to Yellowstone?”

Reeds returned the sideways look. “What do you mean?”

“Yose and Mete were identical twin brothers. So are you and the Blythe boys. I’m not any kind of formal practitioner, or even a hedge mage like O’Hara, but I’m not so dim as to miss the pattern. Plus, Grunt told me you came to him and asked to be involved.” Roy looked back at the group spread out behind them. The only one close enough to overhear them was Marshall, who wasn’t going to share it with anyone anytime soon. “I presume this is because you came here because of the Brothers legend. Did that cut short your training?”

“I lost my place as an apprentice before we were sent here,” Reeds said, voice flat and expressionless. “But we did come here because of the legend.”

“So why send you? Wouldn’t a fully trained medicine man be more appropriate?”

“You question is fair, Mr. Harper.” Reeds turned far enough in his saddle to look directly at Roy. “Before I answer, will you answer one question of mine?”

“So far as I can, sure.”

“How certain are you that your Orphanfree is taking a hand in this?”

It was a good question and one he didn’t have a solid answer for. His instincts told him General Oldfathers was tied to things somehow but he couldn’t put that certainty into words. Finally Roy asked, “Have you ever been to war?”

“I have. My brother and I fought against the neighboring tribes many times, and the Columbians once.”

“Well, I don’t know how it was for you. I don’t know how it was or is for anyone outside the 43rd.” Roy found himself absently drumming his fingers on his saddle and forced himself to stop. “But in my experience people who haven’t been to war celebrate what is done. People who have been celebrate surviving what was done to them.”

Reeds nodded once. “There is truth to that among the Sanna as well.”

“And when I was on campaign we looked forward to things being over.”

“That was also true for us.”

“But it’s not true for Oldfathers,” Roy said. “He vanished before the Final Truce with half a company of loyalists and he was never caught. He took a reliquary’s worth of powerful relics and weapons with him.” The overcast sky flickered once, then moments later a dim rumble reached their ears as if the skies themselves disapproved.

“So you believe your general still seeks to fight a war you wish was over,” Reeds mused.

“And the power of a legend, especially a legend about warring brothers? That is a weapon that he would not ignore. Nor is it one I can leave in his hands.” Roy checked positions once more. Nothing had changed. “So tell me. Can you and Marshall take the Blythe’s places and deny Oldfathers the chance to manipulate Yose and Mete? It’s the easiest solution I can think of.”

“I’m afraid you’ve gravely misunderstood what is unfolding here, Mr. Harper,” Reeds said. “The legend of Yose and Mete offers little power to use. Rather, it is a thing that must be fed. Once a generation the legend must play out again, for the souls of Yose and Mete live on in these rivers and hills. You heard Yose’s heartbeat when you arrived, did you not?”

“You mean…” Roy studied the Sanna man in growing horror, “your people sent you here so you two could fight and kill each other? To pacify the legend?”

“More or less. There was no need for me to finish learning the medicines. I only needed enough to safely climb the mountain. Everything else I know I learned in the years since we came here, as a way to pass the time while we waited for the Brothers to show themselves.” Another flash of light and rumble of thunder punctuated Reeds’ matter of fact reply.

While most of his mind was still thinking about Reeds, Roy’s eyes wandered up to the ridge-line. Something struck him as odd and he couldn’t put his finger on it. Even as he spoke Roy’s eyes were straining to catch the next flash of lightning. “Why do the Sanna care if the legend is pacified? What happens if you ignore it?”

“We don’t know. Some believe it will grow and eventually plague the whole world if it isn’t fed, others offer different but equally dire predictions. We don’t want to find out so we do what must be done.”

Roy was trying to think of a response to that when the next flash of lightning came. The rumble of thunder followed it immediately. That thrust the conversation out of Roy’s mind as he scrambled off his mule.

“Mr. Harper?” Reeds asked. “Is something wrong?”

“Stay here and hold my reins. I need to check on something.” The Sanna man took the offered lead from Roy, who then scrambled up to peak over the ridge some twenty feet further ahead.

“Dust and ashes,” he whispered. “A thunderbird.”

Firespinner Chapter Four – The Guild Agenda

Pervious Chapter

“I’ll be honest, Mr. Harper, the Woodsmen’s Guild isn’t happy with how Mr. Grunwald has handled this.” Hanna O’Hara had a face well suited to showing that displeasure. In spite of being slightly shorter than Roy she still contrived to look down her nose at him. And an impressive nose it was. Sharp and patrician, it blended well with the rest of her features. Not even her two long braids and quite feminine blouse softened her overall stern impression.

“I take it you expected to be in charge of this little expedition?” Roy asked.

O’Hara laughed an unconvincing little laugh. “No. We expected Mr. Grunwald to take the lead, as he is both an expert on the local woods and a representative of the Guild. You are neither.”

“Very true.”

“However Mr. Grunwald has flatly refused our request that he take charge of the situation.” The purse of her lips spoke volumes about O’Hara’s opinions on that. “I understand you didn’t originally want to take part in this business at all.”

“Correct.”

“In which case, whether it was my original goal or not, I think it best if I took the leadership role in-“

“No.” Her indignation at being interrupted was priceless, satisfying and not at all helpful. Roy waved a hand around at the luxurious, hickory paneled room they were seated in on the second floor of the Guildhouse. “I understand why the Woodsmen’s Guild would need to protect its reputation and investments in Yellowstone. But the fact is, I am your best bet to do both of those things.”

If Roy thought O’Hara was displeased before, she moved to a whole new level after hearing that. “You think you know the Guild’s interests better than Mr. Grunwald? Or myself?”

“Not at all.”

“And you certainly do not know the land better than someone who’s worked it for two years, as Mr. Grunwald has.”

“Correct. Are you familiar with his service?”

The rapid change in topic was supposed to unsettle her but to Roy’s surprise she answered without missing a beat. “Enlisted in ’60 as a Private, assigned to D Company, 43rd Columbian Infantry Regiment. Fought in every action that unit took part in from Mishawaka to Palmyra. Discharged as a Corporal after the Battle of Five Ridges and the Final Truce in ’64.”

Not the most thorough summary but still more than Roy had expected. “Grunt’s role in the 43rd was on the skirmishing line. Scouting and reporting back was what he did.” Roy rested his hands over his stomach and leaned back in his chair. “And he made those reports to me.”

“Are you suggesting the only possible relationship that can exist between the two of you is officer and soldier?”

“Don’t presume to know anything about how old soldiers relate to each other Ms. O’Hara. But no, we could find any number of other command dynamics for field work, with time.” Roy let an edge into his voice. “Which we don’t have.”

“You’re saying the Guild’ first choice for leader is going to look to you for orders by dint of old habits you don’t have time to undo. So you might as well just lead the whole thing anyway.” She steepled her fingers and glared at him. “So why shouldn’t their second choice take over?”

Roy gently pulled his bone necklace off and set it down on the desk between them, just beside the small, potted willow tree. “Because I killed a wendigo during the Summer of Snow.”

O’Hara tentatively reached out for the long, finger bone beads of the necklace. “This could be anyth-“

She stopped as her fingers rested on the necklace. Roy raised an eyebrow in challenge. After a moment’s silence O’Hara swallowed hard and drew her hand back. He took the beads back and wound them back around his neck in their customary double loop. “Ms. O’Hara, I don’t know this mountain, but I know how to get the most out of people who do. I don’t know the legend of the Brothers, but I’ve fought legends before. I know how terrifying their power is, I know that they can still be killed, and better yet, I know why they can die. I know how often legends are untrue and I know that sometimes the truth of a legend is less important than its power. I’ve lived all of it before, and more than once. You have a druid, an expert in magic, trying to wield a legend against you. You need me.”

“Not a bad bit of boasting. But can you back it up?” It was a good bluff, made with a clear expression and steady voice. But O’Hara’s eyes were fixed on the necklace.

“Why don’t we make a little demonstration.” Roy leaned back in his chair, rested one ankle on the other knee and folded his hands in front of him. “Make me leave the room.”

She blinked. “I’m sorry?”

“I’m no druid or warlock,” Roy said, “But I can see that you’ve set a number of wards in this office for your own protection. Surely they’re enough to get me to leave, if you really think you’re fit to-“

He gave O’Hara credit for taking the initiative. The legs of his chair spasmed in an attempt to pitch him backwards towards the door, a simple, harmless magical trap. A logical opening to a game with someone you hoped to keep around to work for you. Logical enough to be predictable.

As soon as he felt the chair flex Roy tapped his necklace, activating the charm he’d laid down while putting the beads back on, freezing the chair to the ground in blocks of ice. Every battle of spells was founded on preparation and Roy knew he was a step or three behind on that score, so he was willing to play a few tricks to catch up. He snapped his fingers and small jets of flame flew from his cufflinks into the wards hidden in the rosettes engrave on the corner of the desk. The fire power hidden there burst free in a flash of light and smoke.

O’Hara clapped her hands and the willow on her desk stretched its branches up and out, roots cracking through the pot and grasping greedily. He hadn’t expected her to play such a valuable card so easily but he’d picked a counter already. He slammed his iron dagger into the desk by its roots, between himself and the tree, and the willow recoiled in fear.

A panel on the front of the desk popped open, revealing a three crystal sulfurite array that belched fire at him. Roy glanced at the flames.

Demanded they stop.

And smiled.

He held his hands to the sheet of fire that hung like a hungry curtain, as if he was just warming them by a campfire. “That’s very pleasant, Ms. O’Hara. Anything else?”

Her eyes boggled. “What kind of ward is that?”

“It’s not.” Roy took a moment to study the vulcanic spells inside the desk. It looked like the central crystals fueled the wards he’d destroyed on the desk corners, the lamp on one corner of the writing surface and probably fed magic to the willow somehow, too. When it popped open the magic channels shifted course and discharged everything forward instead. He pushed the panel half closed with one toe then fed the flames through the crack and back into the sulfurite within. “I’m a dolmen burner. When I ask, fire answers.”

O’Hara watched the process, wary. “I’m not familiar with that term.”

“We’re the scrawny, bad tempered cousins to dolmen breakers like Grunt.” Roy closed up the panel the rest of the way and removed his necklace again. A quick rap of the beads to the side of the chair broke the charm and the ice vanished as fast as it appeared. “We’re not strong or tough like they are but we can sense the magic of fire and manipulate it. To an extent.”

O’Hara dug around under her desk for a moment then came up with a new pot for her willow. It wriggled in discomfort as she coaxed it into the container. “I’ll admit I’m impressed, even if it is just an extent.”

Roy allowed a small smile. “Then I hope you’ll-“

“But that demonstration, while impressive, doesn’t answer any of the questions I have.”

“Such as?”

She stood to scoop the soil off of her desk and dumped it into the pot, then started packing the willow’s roots down. “Such as why you’re here.” A quick look cut off Roy’s objection. “I know it’s a job and an old friend asked you to come. But Roy Harper is one of the best known mercenary firespinners in Winchester County. You could go anywhere in Winchester, Pyrenees or Death Valley Counties and not find another person with a reputation like yours, whether you deserve it or not. So why are you charging the Guild a pittance of a fee?”

“A hundred silver marks is not exactly cheap, Miss O’Hara.”

“But any average firespinner could charge twice that. The Reeds brothers are taking two hundred and fifty apiece. You could take a fee equal to both of theirs and no one would question it.” She shook her hands off and sat back down. “So what do you get out of this? And don’t say it’s for an old friend. I know what you charged your pal Van Der Klien during the Summer of Snow.”

Roy scowled, he hadn’t expected the Woodsmen’s Guild to know that much about his activities. “What do I get out of this? Well, if by some black curse it turns out we are dealing with Hezekiah Oldfathers, and by some unsought miracle we beat him, I expect to walk away with all his instruments of the craft.”

O’Hara huffed a short laugh. “You just said you weren’t a druid.”

“You’ve clearly learned the craft to an extent,” Roy said, gesturing to the willow. “But did you train under a true initiate of the Stone Circle?”

“No, by the time I was old enough to start my studies the Lakeshire War was already well underway and Morainhenge wasn’t taking new students. Not from outside of Lakeshire County, anyways.” She shrugged. “Even if it was, the Stone Circle was always a gentlemen’s club.”

Roy smiled a wistful little smile. “Yes, I used to be like that.”

“Oh? How’s that?”

“Bitter. The whole war was because of the druids, you know,” Roy said, his mind drifting back through the years. “Because we hated them. Because we thought they horded the purest magic for themselves in those dolmens of theirs. Do you remember the things the papers said, back when Columbia took sides with Vulcanus?”

“I was born here in Pyrenees County,” she said. “It was just a territory at the time, hadn’t gotten its charter as a county yet, so they didn’t hold recruiting drives in these parts. I don’t remember much of what was said in the papers, I was too young to take an interest.”

“No drives? That’s surprising, I met at least two people from Winchester when I was in the Regulars and it wasn’t chartered yet, either.” Roy stretched his mind back. “Fat Stu was from Leondale, died at Strickland Marsh, and old Drake was from Allentown. Lost him at Briarheart Ridge.”

O’Hara shrugged. “You could cross from Winchester or Pyrenees to Bancroft County and enlist there. But the recruiters didn’t come to us.”

“Well. We all hated those smug, sanctimonious, condescending druids. Funny, that, considering we’d never met one. Fat Stu died years before he’d get the chance.” Roy laughed a humorless laugh. “I first saw a druid in action at Coal Creek, right after we crossed the border into Lakeshire County. Fifty men with the same face, all happy to kill you stone dead but they just turned to smoke if you cut them back. A literal one man army.”

“I’ve heard of that trick,” O’Hara said, looking confused. “But I thought it was impractical for things like fighting.”

“Not for a druid,” Roy said. “They truly are a different breed, those Knights of the Stone Circle. The Smoke Company was just the start. Every unit we faced in Lakeshire had at least one druid in it, raising trees and spying on us through bushes. But the worst of it was the Battle of Five Ridges.”

“That was the end, wasn’t it?”

“Probably looked that way from the outside and it was close enough as to make no difference.” He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “It was the end for the 43rd, at least. I never saw anything that horrible in my life, before or since. Not even in the charnel houses of Allentown. One minute we were working up the ridge line. The next minute the Folger brothers were gone.”

“What happened to them?”

“Closest brothers I ever met. Marched halfway up the country together, side by side in the line of battle, watching each other’s backs all the way.” Roy shook his head. “We were rounding the second switchback and watching the top of the ridge for hostiles when they just drew swords and killed each other. Never found out the why or how of that one but every couple of minutes it would happen again, somewhere up or down the line.”

“You were killing each other?” O’Hara put a hand over her mouth. “That’s horrible.”

“That was a distraction, a minor hex meant to break morale and sow dissent in the ranks, make it impossible to work together.” Roy passed a hand over his eyes, working to keep his mind in the here and now. Those days were long since passed. “Terrifying at the time but nothing compared to what some of the other units faced on other Ridges. The vines on Ivybrook Ridge strangled the Eighth Cavalry, horses and all. On Pinecrest Ridge the 28th Infantry ran into an honest to goodness hero who killed most of their A and C companies single handed. And all that was before the main body of druids awoke the forest and sent the trees at us, hundreds strong. They wiped the 43rd off Briarcrest like it was nothing. Took the 28th, the 17th and about a dozen others along for the ride. It took a week for the Regulars to effect the breach at Slatetop Ridge, flank the Lakeshire boys and push them back to Palmyra proper and by the time they did it we’d lost three divisions.”

“And General Oldfathers led the rites to awaken the trees?”

“I don’t know, they didn’t invite us to watch. But he was the one who commanded them in battle. A whole division of trees answering to one man. Could you do that?”

O’Hara blanched. “No one can. You must have missed the other druids handling the trees in all the chaos. Not even a true master of the craft can command more than three, perhaps four trees at a time.”

“There was a man in the 43rd who would have agreed with you.” He laughed. “Roy Harper was his name. He didn’t believe any of that foolishness about how the Knights of the Stone Circle stretched back in an unbroken line to Arthur Phoenixborn and his retainers. Didn’t think there were truly any magics so powerful they mustn’t pass into the hands of the unworthy. Didn’t believe magic had a living will and that it would test you, sift you like flour and destroy even the least of impurities. But that man died on Briarheart Ridge.”

Roy leaned forward over the desk between himself and O’Hara. “Michelangelo Vulcanii taught that magic was simple. Build a form out of one of the five Noble Metals, fill it with the power of fire and you have a construct. Stack those forms and add more power and you can construct a magical solution to almost any problem you face. Easy, right? But like many legends it’s true but it isn’t the whole truth. Vulcan magic is simple and straightforward because humans are simple, straightforward people. But magic at its heart is neither of those things. It is a trial and a test, it takes the measure of a man and amplifies it, and if that old Roy Harper had ever found any of the secrets the druids showed him at the Five Ridges he would have failed that test and turned himself and everything he touched into ruin.”

Roy reached out and plucked his dagger out of the desk, then settled back into his chair. “So if Hezekiah Oldfathers is here, and the Lord in Raging Skies favors us enough to let us beat him, then his secrets must pass back to the druids when things are done. I won’t risk them falling into the hands of the unworthy. That is the price of my cooperation.”

O’Hara thought for a minute, then nodded once and said, “I understand. Or, I think I do. And nothing you’ve said sounds like it would go against Guild interests so I suppose we can agree to the terms Mr. Grunwald has offered you along with the addendum you’ve proposed.”

“Good.” Roy ran his handkerchief along the edge of the dagger, checking for imperfections. “And one other thing.”

O’Hara tensed. “Yes?”

“I fought four years of war because Columbia and Vulcanus lied to us about the druids. They never had mountains of sulfurite hidden in their dolmen, they were never planning to sweep into Hancock and crown a new king once Columbian supplies of sulfurite ran low. They never needed any of that when they had the secrets of the Stone Circle at their disposal. If they wanted to destroy us at any moment before we raised an army against them they could have. In exchange we believed the slander, smashed their order and scattered the ashes to the winds.” He looked up from the dagger’s edge. “If those four years taught me one thing it’s that I hate being lied to. I hate fighting for liars even more. And while I hate the idea of fighting Hezekiah Oldfathers if it turns out he’s not here, and you’ve lied to me…”

Roy got up, ignored the twinge in his ribs, and sheathed his dagger. “There will be consequences.”

“I understand.” O’Hara’s tense silence followed him out of the Guild.

Firespinner Chapter Three: The Widow’s Gambit

Previous Chapter

The Argentum Express departed the next morning at eight. But Roy was tempted to wait until mid-morning and catch the local Highland train so he could cut across Pyrenees County to Trapperhorn Station and check on things there. But the local was more of an investment – the H&O Rail Company wouldn’t let him on for free like Argentum would. He was looking over his rail schedules at a table in The Singing Jack and picking at a passable meatloaf sandwich when Reeds asked, “Is the food not to your taste?”

Roy brought his gaze up from the railway tables to find the Sanna man and his brother standing there. “Do you two ever make any coalstoking noise?”

“Silence is a habit that is difficult to cultivate and easy to discard.” Marshall laughed his silent laugh and slapped his brother on the arm. “Marshall, of course, is better at it than I am.”

“Of course. You both prefer to cultivate this habit rather than discard it, I take it.”

“It’s something we’re used to, at least.” The two brothers helped themselves to chairs and Roy began gathering up his papers.

“At least you get to talk for him.” Roy snorted. “My sisters never did me that courtesy.”

Marshall opened his mouth wide and stuck his tongue out. Or what was left of it. The Sanna’s tongue ended in a stump of angry scar tissue, the rest cut out long ago from the looks of things. “It is not a choice on his part, you see,” Reeds said. “But neither is it a burden on mine.”

“Very considerate of you.” Roy piled his plate and sandwich on top of the papers and folded his hands in front of him. “All right, gentlemen, I can tell this isn’t a simple courtesy call. What’s it all about?”

“There is someone we would like you to meet, Mr. Harper.”

The signal was clearly prearranged as the woman at the next table over, who sat down about five minutes before the brothers appeared, stood up and moved over to join them. She was tall, fair skinned, with coils of dark hair barely contained under the black kerchief on her head. That and the black dress she wore were a good clue to her identity. “You must be the Widow Blythe.”

She sat down beside Marshall in a single smooth motion that spoke of grace and self-control. A quick study of her face revealed bags under the eyes and lines around the mouth, small sings of recent grief. But there was resolve there as well. She studied him with equal intensity. “And you’re Roy Harper. The Giant Killer.”

“Only Giant Killer I know was the First King of Avalon. But yeah, I’m Roy Harper.” He studied the woman for a moment longer but he didn’t see anything beyond the ordinary there. She was a strong woman, to be sure, and ordinary strength was more than sufficient for most purposes. It’d won the war, after all.

But the war hadn’t killed Hezekiah Oldfathers.

“I hear you’re wanting to help Grunt with his job.”

Confusion replaced quiet exhaustion. “Who?”

“He means Mr. Grunwald,” Reeds interjected.

“Oh.” The widow’s face returned to normal, or at least tired. “That’s right. I was told I had to convince you in order to come along.”

“Me?” Roy’s eyes narrowed involuntarily. This was Grunt trying to make a point to him, he was sure of that. He wasn’t sure what the point was and didn’t like Grunt using a widow to do it. “Did he mention that I’ve decided not to take this job?”

“Yes, but Mr. Grunwald also said he intended to ask you to serve as leader. And since you were still here in town he’d like your input on whether I stay or go, which I take to mean you have to say I can go before he’ll allow it.”

Roy took a large bite out of his sandwich and chewed, mulling over the situation and trying to figure out what Grunt’s agenda was. Finally he swallowed and said, “You shouldn’t go.”

She scowled. “You didn’t even listen to my story.”

“Don’t have to. Try something for me. Drink every bottle in this saloon dry. You know what you’ll have accomplished?”

“Nothing.”

“Nonsense. You’ll have made every whiskey and beer brewer from here to Hancock City a little richer, and that’s more good than you’ll do traipsing into the mountains after Hezekiah Oldfathers.” He tore another bite out of the sandwich, intending to end the conversation.

But Marshall nudged his brother and Reeds shifted in discomfort. Marshall made pushing motions. Reeds sighed. “Mr. Harper, you should understand that there is more in play here than personal feelings. There are obligations of great import that Mrs. Blythe must fulfill.”

Roy washed his sandwich down with tangy, metallic well water and a disgusted grimace. “Did the trees kill your husband, Mrs. Blythe?”

The blunt question took her aback. “Yes,” she said with a hitch in her voice. “But their real purpose at the time was kidnapping my son.”

His resolve wavered. “The trees are taking children?”

“Just Andrew,” the widow replied. “Harvey tried to stop them when they tried to leave with our boy and that was when they… they…”

“I understand, ma’am.” Soothing widows in these situations was something Roy was more than familiar with and his tone turned gentle without conscious thought. “I’m very sorry for your loss.”

A silence settled over their group for a moment. Then Reeds broke it. “This brings us to the Brothers.”

Roy kept his attention on the widow and did his best to hide his exasperation. “Mrs. Blythe, the more of your family that is involved in this situation, the less I think you should go.”

“You don’t understand,” she said, a tinge of desperation working into her voice. “Thomas is fine, he’s still here at home. The problem is that they’re twins.”

“Of course.” Roy pinched the bridge of his nose. “Why does it matter that they’re twins?”

Marshall held up a fist. Then raised one finger, a second, and a third. Reeds nodded. “If you would allow me to start at the beginning and go in order?”

A groan set the worst of his frustration free of his stomach so Roy could sit more comfortably in his seat. “Fine. Go ahead.”

“In the high past there were two Sanna Wahnumpun brothers, twins that shared a face. As we do.” Reeds gestured to his brother. “And as Thomas and Andrew Blythe do. The names of these brothers were Yose and Mete.”

“Yose?” Roy frowned. “Like the geyser in the lake outside of town?”

“We will get there,” Reeds said. “Now Yose and Mete were loving brothers, more so than normal. But one day they hunted a stag and could not decide which of them would take the antlers. So they gave them to their mother, who fashioned them into a nawonota-“

“A what?”

“A ceremonial defense against ill spirits.” As his brother answered Marshall’s hands were sketching a complicated octagonal pattern on the table top. “Alone it has no remarkable properties but as part of a household’s mystic defenses it has considerable power. And because of the beauty of the stag’s antlers, both boys desired it.”

“Sibling rivalry can appear over anything, I suppose.”

“As you say. The brothers vied for their mother’s favor but she knew that giving either brother the nawonota would poison the affections of the other.”

Roy grunted. “A wise woman.”

“And yet even wisdom has its limits.” Reeds sighed. “Mete stole the treasure. His brother became furious and hunted Mete to this very mountain. They climbed to the top and struggled there. Finally Mete seized the nawonota from his brother and, in the process, fell from the mountain top to his death. Struck by grief but still burning with rage, Yose was transformed. We would say he became Vulna.”

Roy sucked in a deep breath. “An avatar. I’ve never heard of the Primordial Fire offering its blessings in circumstances like that.”

“Perhaps Yose was already one. There are other stories of the Brothers that tell of their great hunts. In some of the tales they already bore the blessings of the Vulna.” Reeds shrugged. “It is not a thing I know much about. Regardless, after his brother’s death Yose lost some part of himself. In despair he threw himself into the lake in an attempt to quench the flames but to this day he has not succeeded.”

That explained the geyser. Unlike blessings from the Lord in Raging Skies and Lady in Burning Stone, which were tools in the hands of the faithful and functioned only when called for, the powers given to avatars of the First Elements were wild and barely under human control, often actively working towards their own ends when not carrying out the duties the avatars set for them. And where the guardian deities of Avalon were creatures dedicated to building civilization the First Elements didn’t have any understanding of the concept, which was why so many in Avalon and Columbia viewed their avatars as quasi blasphemous. Roy knew the Sanna didn’t see things quite that way so he kept that thought to himself. “So you believe that Andrew Blythe’s kidnapping and this legend are tied in some way?”

“I don’t think it, I know it,” the widow said. “I’ve been to the Hearthfire and petitioned the Lady to cast Shadows. The result was clear and the Hearth Mother agreed with me. My boys have been tied to something ancient and powerful.”

Roy massaged his temples, dreading where this was going. He’d been around too long and seen too much to discount old legends out of hand. It was rare they were the way people remembered them, it was rarer still for them to contain no truth at all. And true or false, they were always powerful. “Far be it from me to doubt the Hearth Keepers,” Roy said. “I take it you’ve confirmed this outcome by your own means, Reeds?”

He held up the divining tool he’d shown in Grunt’s office. “I have.”

“And you,” he looked back to the widow, “think you have to go on this expedition because the mother was the peacekeeper between Yose and Mete.”

She made the Sign of the Hearth, saying, “The shadows ended with a vision of the creche. Clearly Our Lady in Burning Stone has appointed a mother to end this.”

That kind of clarity was precious rare in Roy’s experience, dangerous to those who had it and those who thought they had it in equal measure. “Have you ever gone to war, Mrs. Blythe?”

“I met my husband on the Palmyra Campaign, Mr. Harper.” She had the gall to look proud of that fact. “I was a Hearth Keeper traveling with the Columbian Regular Infantry’s Third Division.”

Which explained some of it. Most of the Third Division stopped on the Mukwonago river, holding the bridges open. They hadn’t seen the Five Ridges.

“You don’t wear the Keeper’s Veil. Why is that?”

To his surprise she blushed at the question. “Well, Harvey Blythe was an army captain, not from the Storm’s Watch.”

“Ah…” Roy understood the problem at once but he could see from the confused looks on Reeds and Marshall’s faces that they did not. “The Lord and Lady each have their own clergy, or spirit talkers as I think you would call them. The Storm’s Watch takes only men and they serve the Lord in Raging Skies, the Hearth Keepers are all women and serve the Lady in Burning Stone.”

Reeds leaned forward, looking skeptical. “And they are not allowed to take a husband or a wife?”

“Only if it’s from the opposite order,” Mrs. Blythe said with a tinge of regret. “Otherwise it’s a breach of the vows and we – they – can no longer serve.”

“There are many aspects to any sacred vow,” Roy murmured. “And at times you must choose which you will keep and which you will break. That’s a given when any creature as profane as a human being touches on anything as sacred as an oath.”

“You speak from experience?” Reeds asked.

Roy thought back to his oaths of enlistment. To his election as officer. To the many promises made to friends during dark days on the battlefield. To a fearsome covenant, sworn on a frigid morning in Leondale, during the Summer of Snow. “Yes. Very much so.”

The table was quiet as each of the four turned to their own thoughts. All of Roy’s instincts told him not to take a woman on what amounted to a suicide mission, particularly a woman with little arcane prowess and a deep seated grief on top of all of it. He wasn’t much of a learned man but he could tell that the circumstances on the other side of things balanced out that reluctance. Which left him with only his own judgment to rely on.

And with magic, particularly magic on the scale of a legend, it was better to be prepared than not. “Very well, Mrs. Blythe. If all you’ve told me is true I suppose we have no choice but to take you with us.” Marshall laughed his disconcerting, silent laugh and slapped Roy on the arm, then pointed at him emphatically. “Yes, Marshall, us. All things considered I suppose I’ll have to come along, too. So long as your son remains here in town and out of danger I’ll have to do my part to make sure Oldfathers keeps living up to his reputation as Orphanfree. Your sons won’t be orphans as long as I have a say.”

“We’re glad to have you, Mr. Harper,” Mrs. Blythe said.

“Don’t be.” Roy stood up gingerly, still favoring his right side, and straightened his jacket. “If Grunt’s serious about letting me run this show you’ll find I don’t play favorites and I don’t plan on making allowances for you just because you’re a woman.”

“I was under the impression Columbians were supposed to defer to ladies,” Reeds said.

“And we do. Lady is a behavior, not a state of being, and hunting wanted men through the mountains is not ladylike.” Roy started for the saloon door, then hesitated. “Which reminds me. Do any of you know where I can find Agent O’Hara?”