“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.”
“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.”
“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.
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.”
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.