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?”
“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 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?”
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