“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.”
“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.”