Firespinner Chapter Ten – A Benediction at Dawn

Previous Chapter

An hour before the dawn of the fall equinox Roy walked through the clearing the local Sanna called Mete’s Grave. The air was damp and cold, somehow hiding the thinness of the air without making it any easier to catch his breath. The opening in the trees was a little over a hundred feet below the peak of the mountain at the foot of a steep drop which Yose had supposedly thrown his brother down.

At the center of the grove a blackened set of broken and twisted rocks, Mete’s final resting place, sat in the middle of a barren patch of ground. Brambles coiled around the open dirt and nothing taller than grass grew within fifteen feet of the crater. But the churned earth and tightly packed pine trees by the cliffside told them some trees had moved through the area recently.

There were no signs of Thomas or Andrew Blythe in the area. About fifty feet below the crater ran a small spring that fed into one of the streams they’d followed most of the way up the mountain, a stream that supposedly flowed all the way down the side of the mountain and into the lake where Yose’s heart still beat thrice a day. That was their first concern. Reeds and Oldfathers both agreed that Yose and Mete needed their fleshly avatars to clash in some ritualistic fashion – not necessarily at the top of the mountain – to fulfill the demands of the legend. They had to stop that or Andrew Blythe was going to die.

So the Brothers had to be kept separate. But Mete had to get to the clearing and reveal the nawonota. He’d hidden it somewhere on the mountain and none could find it until his brother caught him with it. True to form, although Roy had the whole group search the clearing from cliff to river, they’d found no sign of the artifact which meant only Mete could get it to reveal itself.

Given that Mete was quite possessive of the thing they weren’t likely to get a hold of it easily.

But given that something in the nawonota could be growing in power every time the story played out it wasn’t something they could easily ignore, either.

The simplest way to handle all these problems was what the general had initially planned. Keep the Brothers separate. But with the added caveat that they get close enough for the legend to actually begin. To that end O’Hara had spent the last day setting up her board of spell tiles and building a bulwark along the streambed, a towering ten foot earthwork that moved through sympathetic ties to the stones laid out on her board and backed by the mystical power the ancient ziggurat builders had used to conquer Tetzlan in ages past. Roy had also placed Reeds there to prepare as many Teutonic charms and wards as he knew and could find room for between the stream and clearing.

Grunt and Marshall watched the other end of the equation, standing guard by the unnatural clump of pines by the cliffside. Something had moved them there and, based on what had happened in Yellowstone, that was likely Mete flexing some power he received as an avatar of the Bones of Enkidu. Some of those trees were clearly large enough to think and move on their own which made their silent, stationary vigil the surest sign that something mystical held them in place. Trees of that size rarely suffered large groups of humans to stay in their presence. They were the greatest danger in that direction but Grunt with his bearded axe could keep them at bay for a while. With Marshall’s war club and superhuman fighting instincts to back him up they might even hold indefinitely.

Roy and Oldfathers positioned themselves halfway between the stream and the clearing, ready to support either end of the formation if needed.

Which left Nora Blythe standing beside the crater. The unnamed mother in the Brothers legend was supposedly the creator and first owner of the nawonota, which led Roy to hope that Nora’s presence at the confrontation would reveal a new wrinkle in the story and potentially change the outcome. As dawn approached she was seated on one of the stones surrounding Mete’s Grave, staring into the crater. She started as Roy crouched down beside her and asked, “Are you alright?”

“Yes!” She shook herself back to the present. “I’m sorry, is it dangerous here? I thought it looked a little off, but-“

“It’s a little late to worry about danger,” Roy said with a chuckle. “This whole trip is dangerous, I don’t think sitting here will change things much one way or another. I was just… worried. How are you feeling.”

The deep, predawn shadows, lit only by a handful of lanterns O’Hara had brought, exaggerated the lines of grief on the widow’s face rather than hiding them. The strained twitch of the lips that might have been a smile did little to change the overall impression. “Thank you, Mr. Harper. I’ll feel better when I have my sons back.” A new shadow took root in her eyes. “Well, mostly.”

“I understand.” And he did. Roy saw similar shadows every time he spoke to someone who knew the Folger brothers or Fat Stu. Some days he even saw it in the mirror. That was one reason he avoided them. “Mrs. Blythe, I’d like to consecrate our little band, make us ready for the day ahead. O’Hara knows the cant, but…”

“But I was a Hearth Keeper. “The smile was less strained this time. “I understand, Mr. Harper. And who will answer the cant? I know it’s traditionally the highest ranked member of the expeditionary group but…”

But the leader of their little band was a retired Lieutenant and the specter of a Major General loomed far over that. Roy nodded his understanding. “A fair question. Under the circumstances, I will.”

“Then gather the men, please.”

He did, starting with Grunt and Marshall. They did a wide circle around the riverbank to avoid Nora coming back with O’Hara. While not strictly a demand of the benediction, most military men felt it was bad luck for men and women to cross paths until it was time to begin. So they took a detour to collect Reeds then added Oldfathers to the group on the way back.

“What are we doing?” Reeds asked as they approached the clearing again. “It’s almost dawn.”

“I know,” Roy said. “This is the only time we can perform the blessing.”

Nora had climbed up on one of the rocks by the crater so she could command a view of the whole area. Roy gestured the others on before him, it was traditional for the replying cantor to stand at the rear of the assembly.

“Do we have to join this as well?” Reeds asked.

“It’s a blessing for an expedition as a whole, not individuals,” Oldfathers said. “Every Columbian and Avaloni army the Sanna fought did this before they marched to battle.”

Reeds shrugged and turned his attention to Mrs. Blythe.

She raised her hands over her head, arms spread wide, palms up and said, “O Lord in Raging Skies, turn your eyes towards your people once more. As in the days of Arthur guide us safely through storm and trial, grant us clarity against the designs of the enemy and justice to prevail over passion and violence. Fight on our behalf with your spear of thunder and your shield of winter. May we prevail over all enemies until the work is done.”

Roy swallowed once, watching as Nora concluded with the Sign of the Storm. Though he’d been an officer he’d never held a formal command and so never actually performed this cant before. But he wasn’t about to leave something this important to Oldfathers.

He stretched out his hands palm down a little more than shoulder’s width apart. “O Lady in Burning Stone, watch over our homes and hearths. Stand guard over our families with the mountain, your sword, and warm them in sunlight, your robes. As in the days of Arthur shelter us from danger and death that we may return to rest and safety and not end our days under lonely skies.”

Roy raised his hand in the Sign of the Hearth and touched it to his forehead. The others, save for the two Sanna, do the same. There was a moment of silence then Roy said, “Sunrise is in forty minutes. Get to your positions.”

They broke up and made their way to their previous places, except for O’Hara who lingered to talk to Grunt. There was long standing precedent for those kinds of meetings after the benediction and Roy allowed it to go unremarked on. That left him walking down towards the river with the General and Reeds.

The Sanna man seemed a touch amused at the proceedings. After going a dozen steps or so Reeds looked over at Roy and asked, “Will you answer something? Truthfully?”

Roy raised an eyebrow. “Have you found me dishonest so far? If so I’m doing my job poorly.”

“This is a question of a very different nature to anything we’ve discussed so far,” Reeds said. “And one man might easily lie to himself about it.”

“You’ve got my interest, Reeds. And a truthful answer, no matter the question.”

“The Lord and Lady – they’re the guardians of Avalon, correct? Sworn to that nation through their servant, Arthur, who walks as one with the Storm. Columbia’s connection to Avalon is only through the first wave of settlers who came here from there and – until Dolmenfall – the Stone Circle at Morainehenge.” Reeds spread his hands. “Are you certain the Lord and Lady extend their protection to you as well?”

A dozen scenes of carnage and violence rushed through Roy’s mind, half-forgotten moments from the battles and skirmishes of the Lakeshire and Palmyra Campaigns where Columbians had killed one another over blind emotion and sheer stubbornness. He remembered the druids who mourned more when Roy’s men broke down the dolmen than when they buried their dead.

He remembered his own contempt for the people of Palmyra who’d walked their streets from one burnt building to the next like they’d lost all purpose. “No, Reeds,” he said, his voice a whisper. “I’m not sure they do.”

Reeds considered that answer for a moment, then nodded thoughtfully. “Thank you. At least that answer has the ring of truth to it.”

Reeds continued towards the stream leaving Roy and Oldfathers by the rock outcropping they’d picked as the midpoint to anchor the two halves of their formation. Roy clambered up on the rock, giving him an extra two feet of height and helping him see uphill with greater clarity. Oldfathers settled on a small stone nearby, looking downhill. They sat there in silence as the sky grew brighter.

“They came here for humanity, you know,” Oldfathers said, watching the sunrise. “Arthur was just the only one who listened.”

“Who?” Roy asked, his wandering thoughts pulled out of the past and back to the present. “The Lord and Lady?”

“That’s what the writings passed down from Stonehenge say,” the general replied. “That’s why the Watchers and the Keepers crossed the ocean with the first settlers. Their gifts that protect us from the chaos of the elemental world were intended for everyone.”

“They haven’t spread very far if that was the point.” The old memories faded back into the corners of his mind. “And the human world has plenty of chaos on its own.”

“At least we only have that to deal with.” Oldfathers laughed. “You’ve been to Tetzlan. Do you think Dolmenfall would have been better or worse with things like blood rituals in play?”

That was uncomfortable enough to call for a subject change. “What about now? How do they take a hand against this fine mess the Sanna left for us?”

Oldfathers laughed and leaned back against the rock, hands behind his head. “It’s not about who or how, Mr. Harper. I’m sure if we had the Mated Pair here to explain the whole thing to us all they’d do is remind us of the Quest.”

There were a lot of quests in the stories of the Stone Circle. Roy couldn’t think of any that were relevant to this particular situation. “Which is?”

“Cultivate a moral spirit in yourself. Oppose destruction. Build up the nation. Preserve the legacy. Above all else, defend the life well lived. For in that life is a balance of the elements and finding that balance is the duty of all druids.”

“I thought the ways of the druids were passing away.”

“Oh, that’s likely true. But the Quest is as eternal as the Lord and Lady and just because the druids are gone doesn’t mean we haven’t sown the seeds for the next generation to continue it.” He mimed casting seeds along the path before them. “That’s why I spent the last decade of my life ensure the relics of Morainehenge got out to people who would use them rather than rotting in the armories of Columbia.”

“Which reminds me,” Roy muttered, pattering his breast pocket. “I forgot to return this yesterday. I was seeing how far I could push you by hanging on to it but handing it back must have slipped my mind.”

“Did it?” Oldfathers reached a hand up to take it without bothering to look. Roy placed it in his hand and he shoved it into a jacket pocket. A tinge of humor entered his voice. “How careless. Must keep better track of it in the future.”

“Of course.” He wasn’t actually sure what the old druid meant by that but he didn’t have time to mull it over. There were more important things at hand. Yose was coming.

Firespinner Chapter Nine – Prelude to Myth

Previous Chapter

“It’s because they’re druids,” Oldfathers said, helping O’Hara load up her bushwalker the next morning. “Not in the formal sense, but Mr. Harper and Mr. Grunwald both show some of the most basic and recognizable signs of druidic initiation and that makes binding oaths possible.”

“But they’re not knights!” O’Hara protested. “They’re not even proper soldiers, they were drummed out of the Regulars years ago!”

Oldfathers raised an eyebrow. “Really? They strike me as excellent soldiers.”

Roy recognized that the general was giving him an opportunity to step in and explain but he ignored it. He hadn’t survived red caps, thunderbirds and wendigoes by constantly talking. In fact it was often more important to listen.

Once Oldfathers realized Roy didn’t intend to satisfy his curiosity he went on. “The dolmen that make up stone circles aren’t single rocks, they’re made of a mixture of sulfurite dust and regular stone sludge. Druids sit under the dolmen long enough for the sulfurite dust to work into their bodies and then-“

“Wait,” O’Hara held up a hand. “Sulfurite is dangerous if it comes in direct contact with the body. Either it sucks the heat out of the flesh or it burns it, depending on how much magic it contains.”

“Very true. But all living things have a touch of all the elements of magic in them. Fire isn’t very strong in humans but we have to have some of it to live. If sulfurite is balanced against the normal flow of flame in the body it can be handled safely.” The general plucked the sulfurite from his silver cane and cradled it in his bare hand. “Now a select few, like your Mr. Harper or Mr. Grunwald, can achieve this equilibrium entirely naturally when infused with sulfurite dust, displaying the magics of the strengthened body or firemind once they achieve balance. But that’s at most one in eight people, one in twelve if no one knows the right treatments to help them survive. The rest die.”

O’Hara looked shocked. “How did the druids find initiates if the process is so dangerous?”

“Before Arthur I suppose the promise of power was enough. And as you yourself prove it is possible to wield many of the druidic arts without the extra oomph that comes with the infusion.” Oldfathers returned the gemstone to his cane. “But Arthur discovered ways to test initiates, formulated ways to ease the process and increased the scope of the magics druids had on hand. The rites are secret, of course, so I can’t say more than that, other than that fewer than one in a hundred initiates die from sulfurite exposure these days.” His expression clouded over. “Or at least, that’s how it was.”

“So Roy and Ben went through a ‘natural’ bonding with sulfurite,” O’Hara mused. “I suppose that happened when they were in Morainehenge after the war. That made them druids, at least to the point that you can make binding oaths? Is that it? I don’t understand how something so simple can allow for such powerful magics to function. Magic based on vows is the most complicated part of every magic theory I’ve studied.”

The general sighed. “That I can’t answer. There were some things only the Masters of the Henges understood. If Master Southwick were still alive maybe he’d have told me by now. But I’m afraid I’ll never know now.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure,” O’Hara said. “Perhaps some enterprising young circle of druids will raise a new Henge and ask you to lead them in its ways.”

Oldfathers laughed as he loaded her last bundle of supplies onto the bushwalker. “I doubt it. The vulcanic way of magic is so much safer, easier and faster. I doubt anyone would take the time to build up a single dolmen from scratch these days, much less a circle of them. And it’s an expensive thing to do. Most of the Henges were built over two or three generations, remember.” A rueful shake of the head. “I think the age of druids has passed out of Columbia. The few of us who remain will need to find new ways to pass on our callings.”

Roy frowned, surprised to hear that admission. Most of the druids that he’d met in the days after the Palmyra Campaign had been supremely confident that their order would bounce back. And in those days, when the men of his company were freshly buried and the blood was still in his eyes, Roy had been happy to cut down as many of those boasts as he could. Looking back he wasn’t so sure. The Knights of the Stone Circle were old, powerful and knowledgeable and time was their ally, not their enemy. And he’d always expected Oldfathers or a similar figure to return to take the reins.

Perhaps that wasn’t the case.

And perhaps a leader with the skill and guile of Hezekiah Oldfathers was playing a long game, obfuscating his goals and counting on the way rumors spread through the West to spread the impression that he’d given up. But as the thought crossed his mind he immediately dismissed it. Oldfathers was off base in thinking the Stone Circles weren’t coming back but he was right about the oaths. Whatever had happened to Roy when he broke down Morainehenge, it had changed him, connected him to the general somehow. And that connection gave him unshakable certainty in the oath Oldfather swore.

But after seeing that oath, which was a simple guarantee of sincerity, Roy found something bothering him. How could Oldfathers have abandoned the oath he took to the Stone Circle simply because the circle was overrun?

As the group started up the next stage of the ascent Roy lengthened his stride and caught up to where Oldfathers was blazing a trail, using simple looks and the occasional gesture to send brush twisting up and out of their path. It was impressive and Roy took a moment to admire from a purely professional point of view. As he finished coaxing a small evergreen push to move a half foot to the left Oldfathers asked, “Is something bothering you, Mr. Harper?”

“Just wanted to set a few ground rules, General.”

“Hezekiah is fine,” he answered. “I’m not a general anymore and I certainly never commanded anyone in the Columbian Regulars.”

“What makes you think I wasn’t in the Vulcanus militia?”

“None of them made it to Palmyra,” the general answered with a laugh. “Some small justice there.”

The first half was true, even if he didn’t agree with the second. “Fine. The ground rules are simple, Oldfathers. First, I’m in command of this expedition.”

“That much is clear. I’m happy to leave it in your capable hands, even if you have asked me to work in the front of the formation.” He gave a wry smile. “The better to keep an eye on me.”

Roy ignored what the druid was implying. “Second, I need to know what everyone in the group is capable of. Now you don’t have to swear to anything like last night, but I need to know what kind of magic you have to offer. If you disagree with that, you’re welcome to leave.”

“No, no, the mother of those boys has some part to play in all this and if I want one as well I’ll have to stay with you.” Oldfathers paused for a moment, his eyes wandering up the next ridge. “I suppose I can share with you. The only thing I had on hand that you haven’t seen during the war was the thunderbird. And it turns out you could handle that, too.”

Roy watched as a barren hexwood tree suddenly pulled up its roots and started towards them. Bindle sized sacks dangled from two of its three main branches. “If you didn’t bring anything I haven’t seen I take it you didn’t bring any of the relics from Morainehenge’s armory? No Sword of St. Elmo?”

The tree walked up to Oldfathers and began pacing them as they climbed, holding the bags out for inspection. “I wouldn’t have room for it, would I?”

“What about the Roots of the First Yew? The Bedrock Shackles?”

“All passed on.”

“How can relics pass on. It’s not like they have a spirit.”

“They certainly do, and a purpose as well. When they no longer fulfill those purposes they depart from the people who hold them just as we depart this world when our purpose is done.” The general rummaged through one of the sacks the hexwood held for him. “I had my own part to play in that process, much like harbingers have in our own passing, and for the things you’ve mentioned that part is already long ended. I’m afraid the only relic I have left is this.”

He pulled something out of the sack and held it out for Roy’s inspection. It was a black, leather bound book. Roy reached out and took it, skeptical. “What is it?”

“Pellinore’s Journal. A record of all the hunts of those who have undertaken the Quest in his name. When a new owner takes it he copies everything within. When he finishes the journal begins to transcribe every note he makes about the hunts he undertakes.” Oldfathers smiled, though his expression looked more pained than happy. “Of all the relics I took with me, it’s the only one that actually belonged to me.”

Roy frowned, thumbing through the pages. It was taking longer than he expected. “How long is this thing?”

“As long as it needs to be. It’s also indestructible, always weighs the same no matter how long it grows and always returns to its owner.” The general shrugged. “But it’s not what people think of as a great relic, I know. I was underwhelmed at first, too.”

“Maybe the Brothers will calm down if we fold them some paper hats.” Roy tapped the journal against his palm, annoyed that he’d spent so much time wondering what arcane engines of destruction Oldfathers would bring against them only to discover they were all gone. Which might actually be more worrying than the druid still having all of them. A concern for another day. “What about the more esoteric druidic arts? What are your gifts outside of waking the trees?”

“Unfortunately waking and commanding trees is my specialty. I’ve surpassed every teacher I ever had in that arena, but the more ‘esoteric’ arts have always escaped me. I don’t deal with incense very well and I’m a terribly average diviner.” The general reached out and grabbed the hexwood tree, shook it once and it shrunk in on itself, rolling its branches and braiding its roots until it looked for all the world like an eight foot walking stick. He slung it over one shoulder, saying, “Mete seems to have some connection to the trees, and I might be able to counter it, but if you want me to duplicate myself or give us all the strength of ten men for an hour or any of the other tricks you might have seen druids do I’m afraid I can’t help you.”

“I appreciate your candor.” Roy gave him a sideways look. “How were you planning to deal with Mete if that’s all you have on hand? More thunderbirds? How do you plan to summon them?”

Oldfathers frowned. “What do you know about thunderbirds, Mr. Harper?”

“They were summoned by blood ritual and used as guards, typically in ziggurats. They’re not truly alive, in the human sense, just an embodiment of the power of air in a vessel of water. They’re summoned with an alter and the heart of a living sacrifice.”

“You know more than I’d expect,” the general said, giving Roy a shrewd look. “You can name some of the more obscure relics from our vaults and you’ve studied ancient Tetzlan enough to know the lore of the thunderbird.”

“Hardly,” he snapped back. “I just like to know my enemies. Druids and Tetzlanii masons are the most dangerous I’ve ever seen.”

“I’m not sure I like the comparison.” Oldfathers spat to one side. “The masons were a bad lot, no doubt. To answer your question, no I can’t summon another thunderbird. A conjuror can use their own blood in the ritual although he must substitute something for the heart to keep the power and vessel united if he wants to live through the process.”

“Something like this?” Roy reached into the inside pocket of his jacket, swapping the journal in his hand for the fulminite crystal he’d put there the day before. He held it out for the general’s inspection.

“Exactly like that,” he said tapping it once. “I wondered if you found it. The Tetzlanii had other substitutes they used but fulminite was the easiest work around I had when I summoned my thunderbird.”

The general made no move to take the fulminite crystal back, which annoyed Roy. Not because he wanted to give it back but because some irrational part of him wanted the general to stop cooperating. Roy quashed that voice, it wasn’t helping. He turned the crystal over in his fingers as he thought. “Can you conjure another one?”

“Not if you want me at full strength by the equinox. It requires a lot of blood.”

After a moment of deliberation Roy tucked the crystal into his belt next to his dagger. “So if they could summon them without killing anyone why didn’t the Tetzlanii just produce the things on a massive scale?”

“The thunderbird is tied to the conjuror but it’s also tied to the person who gave the blood to summon it,” Oldfathers said. “And loyalty by blood is stronger than loyalty by rite. The masons killed their victims to ensure they had control over the elemental when the rite was done.”

“And you only bothered to summon one before you came here?”

“You didn’t study Tetzlanii magic enough if you don’t know the answer to that one.” Oldfathers smirked in an annoying, superior way. “Blood can only be tied to one rite at a time. It’s got something to do with the way blood bonds magic to the ritualist.”

“Well.” Roy huffed. “I’ll keep that in mind for the future. You said you had other countermeasures to slow Yose with on other parts of the mountain. What were they?”

“I had some of my trees waiting to trigger landslides. There was one place where I dammed a river to set on him.” He shrugged. “There wasn’t anything we could easily move to Mete’s Grave if that’s what you were wondering.”

Roy pinched the bridge of his nose. “Fine. If we slow down Yose for you how do you plan on dealing with Mete?”

“Well, I was actually hoping to have the time to examine the nawonota before working on it.”

“Why so?”

“The legends of Yose and Mete conflict on some details. The most material difference is on what their mother built the nawonota for. Some say it was a general ward against evil spirits, others say it was specifically designed to ward against their father’s ghost, which had been haunting the family for some time.”

Roy’s brow furrowed. “Their mother was a widow?”

“And a recent one. Again, the legends aren’t consistent about why.” The general glanced behind them, towards where Nora rode on her lizard some thirty feet back. “That part isn’t important. But I’d say there’s a lot of evidence suggesting their father’s ghost is. So I want to know who’s inside that nawonota before I try to cleanse it – Mete or his father. It will change my approach.”

“That’s sensible.” Roy sighed and looked over the party until he spotted who he wanted. “I’ll talk to Reeds about it, see if he has any insight.”

“Of course.” The general turned his full attention back to trailblazing.

Roy was certain he’d say something at any moment. But he remained stubbornly focused on the task before them until Roy finally gave up, dug the journal out of his pocket and balanced it in the branches of Oldfathers’ hexwood before turning and working his way back to Reeds.

“Is your father alive?” Roy asked without preamble.

“He died four years ago,” Reeds said. “In fact his death is what eventually led my brother and I to come here. Why?”

“Never mind. Help me think of some ways to cleanse or destroy a nawonota…”

Firespinner Chapter Eight – The Oath

Previous Chapter

It was the same face, but different.

The lines matched the drawing from the war, but their course over his face ran deeper and broader than in the picture. The eyes reflecting the firelight were dulled with clouds, not cold as the winter sky. Whiskers overran their proper places on lip and chin, clawing up cheeks and over ears enough to hide most of his face from casual view.

But Roy knew.

He remembered that day on Briarheart Ridge. When a single officer in the uniform of the Lakeshire militia crested the breastworks at the top of the ridge, the branches of countless maple trees waving behind him. Roy had seen the man’s face through the blood spattered telescope lens he’d take from Captain Colbert’s body. He’d watched the general start down the ridge, walking as one with the forest. And ordered his men to run like death itself chased them.

“Hezekiah Oldfathers,” Roy whispered.

The camp exploded into motion, Reeds bringing his hands together in a charm as his brother put his body and mace between Oldfathers and the rest. Grunt loomed up behind the brothers, fumbling a fresh sulfurite crystal into his sword. O’Hara pulled Nora down partway behind a large rock for cover.

Roy opened himself to the fire.

The branches and logs flash burned, leaving nothing but ash in the space of a breath, and the flames leapt upwards. Roy shaped them into a burning T shape that towered nearly to the top of the overhang, arms spread wide to react to any threat the old druid might offer.

But Oldfathers did nothing.

He just stood there, half shadowed in the night, and watched them with something between amusement and resignation. For a moment the tableau held. Finally he said, “I’m old, son, but if you think a Columbian regular can kill me with one of those shoddy swords that won’t even lock in sulfurite anymore, you’ve another thing coming. Which would be a pity, I’m not here to fight you.”

That might even be true. He didn’t stand before a massive tree line that had crept up on them in the dark. A glance up confirmed no ivy or tree roots dug through the stone overhang to strangle them, no bushes waited to topple over the edge on their heads. The druid had caught them unawares but brought none of his traditional weapons.

It would be reassuring if they weren’t camped in the middle of a forest.

Roy reminded himself that this was more than a chance encounter with a wanted man. This was a master of the craft standing on the cusp of a legend made manifest. Nothing was as it seemed. But whatever goals the general brought to the table they didn’t seem to involve fighting with Roy or his group. At least not at the moment. The fire lapsed back down to its original shape, Roy pushing the extra energy he’d forcibly extracted from the kindling into the small pile of sulfurite crystals half buried in the ash of the firepit. But he never took his eyes from the man just outside the circle of firelight.

“What brings you here, General Oldfathers?” Roy asked.

“Courtesy and compassion,” the druid answered without hesitation. “I’ve just come from Yellowstone and I heard things there you’ll want to know.”

Grunt gave Roy a look, lowered his sword when the other nodded and moved to push a few new logs into the fire with his foot. Roy let the flames take hold on the new fuel source and let them go from his mind, ignoring their lonely whispers. With the magic no longer weighing on him Roy found himself exhausted. But he refused to let Oldfathers see it. “Why should I believe anything you say?”

“Why doubt me?” Oldfathers stepped into the circle of firelight. Something shifted as he did so, as if a watchful presence had relaxed. “Are we enemies?”

Marshall stepped forward, touching the head of his club to the General’s chest. Both men paused, studying one another, and Oldfathers held his hands out, palms up, a cane dangling from the thumb of his left hand.

Roy stepped forward and moved Marshall gently to one side. Oldfathers raised one eyebrow but didn’t say anything as Roy started looking him over. The cane was a solid piece of living silver. At first Roy had thought it was just tin swift with a single sulfurite setting, handy for a little extra oomph when walking about. But on closer inspection it had the sheen of silver and the crystal set in the handle was big enough that the druid could easily reshape it into anything he wanted. There was nothing in the brim or band of his plain, brown cap. He wore a neckerchief in a hunter’s knot. His worn, green jacket was damp from the rain but, as it had slowed to a drizzle, wasn’t soaking and was otherwise unremarkable. There was a pocket watch in his vest pocket but no weapons in his belt unless you counted the three glowing fulminite crystals in the loops over his right hip.

There were four loops in the belt, Roy noticed. One was empty.

He grunted and filed that away then turned out the general’s pockets. Just a few coins there. Last he checked the boots – or, rather, boot as Oldfathers had lost his right leg at the knee at some point and now it was just a hickory peg. The boot contained a lot of leg and nothing else. There was nothing at all untoward on his person, which was almost more suspicious than the druid showing up with his pockets full of incense and a belt full of weapons.

Unsatisfied but curious, Roy moved out of the way and gestured to the fire. “Take a seat, General?”

“A man after my own heart,” Oldfathers said with a rueful grin as he straightened his clothes. “I applaud your sense of caution.”

Roy just glared at him. O’Hara cleared her throat and asked, “Why do you make it sound as if you came looking for us?”

“Because I did. Or, at least, I did if you’re the group I think you are.” Nora had returned to her previous seat and Oldfathers sat by her, saying, “You are Mrs. Blythe, aren’t you?”

“Yes.” The widow studied him with surprising innocence. “I can’t imagine what business you have with me, General.”

“Well, I’m afraid your older son has slipped out of town this afternoon.” Oldfathers took one of her hands gently in both of his. “Now I want you to stay calm. The situation is probably not what you think it is.”

If the general was trying to get Nora’s anger to override her fear then he was succeeding. She jerked her hands away from him, saying, “Calm? My sons are entrapped by ancient Sanna bedtime stories and I’m just supposed to stay calm?”

Oldfathers blinked once. “Perhaps the situation is what you think it is.” He glanced at Marshall and Reeds. “Perhaps that’s not surprising.”

Roy settled on a nearby rock that gave him a direct line to the druid. “Why is this any concern of yours?”

“Why?” His eyebrows shot up. “A child goes missing and I’m not supposed to be concerned? You clearly know about Yose and Mete and you think the stirring of such an ancient power wouldn’t worry any practitioner of the craft worth his implements?”

Roy scowled at Oldfathers over the fire, looking downright hostile in the shadows. “Why should it matter? These legends often stir the local elementals a bit and they can cause problems. But why would a druid – trained by and in line to inherit a stone circle – come all this way because of one local legend?”

Oldfathers’ gaze sild over to Reeds for a moment, then back again. “They haven’t told you, have they?”

Roy also glanced at Reeds, who was looking uncomfortable. But he also looked past Reeds to Marshall, who nodded. “What haven’t they told me? That Yose’s spirit sleeps in the lake by Yellowstone? That his brother sleeps here on the mountain, by the nawonota-“

He froze, mind jumping forward a dozen steps then backtracking to examine each step in the logic. A nawonota was a talisman that defended against evil spirits. None of the Noble Metals could effect a spirit so those kinds of defenses weren’t part of Vulcanic magic, the tradition he knew the most about, but Tetzlanii magic worried about spirits a great deal and they didn’t repel spirits, like a druid might use incense to repel trees. Instead the Tetzlanii trapped them for use in other rituals. If the Sanna used the same method the nawonota might be some kind of spiritual pit trap.

And Reeds said Yose and Mete were equals. The older brother was vulna, an avatar of the First Elements, and no longer strictly human. That implied the younger was vulna as well. That was a powerful thing to trap, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t happen. And an avatar was already part spirit so the journey all the way there was easier than normal, as Yose’s fate proved. “Mete’s spirit is trapped in the nawonota, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Reeds said. “I thought you understood.”

He really should have. All the pieces were there but he hadn’t put them together because he’d focused on Oldfathers instead. “Okay, he’s in the nawonota. I don’t know anything about how those work, so what does it mean that he’s trapped there?”

“Nawonota are not designed to destroy or cleanse,” Reeds said. “They contain until a medicine man can prepare the rites to cleanse the spirits and send them to rest.”

“Based on stories the Stone Circle collected in the early days of the Columbian settlement I have reason to believe Mete is the avatar for the Bones of Enkidu,” Oldfathers said. “That alone is enough to make him dangerous even in death. But there’s also evidence to suggest the legend of his battle with his brother has played out at least twice a century since they fought.”

“How long ago was that?” O’Hara asked.

“The Sanna don’t keep time quite like we do,” the druid said.

But Reeds interrupted him before he could continue. “The Brothers cycle has played out at least a dozen times, perhaps as many as twenty. The tribes in this part of the land have kept the stories and agree on that.”

Oldfathers nodded. “That roughly matches the Stone Circle’s count, which is either fifteen or sixteen iterations. And each time a pair of powerful brothers fights, the younger dies and his spirit is taken into the nawonota.”

“So there’s more than one iteration of the story trapped there?” Grunt asked. “Or have they all fused into one super spirit?”

“We can’t know until we see it,” Reeds said, “but whatever the outcome I doubt we will find a rational, human spirit left. The Bones of Enkidu will be all that is there.”

“Sorry,” Nora put it, “but what’s the significance of these bones?”

“Enkidu was the first wild man,” Oldfathers said. “He rejected civilization and destroyed cities wherever he found them. As an avatar of the Unshakeable Foundation he represents the earth in general and humanity’s origins in the wild state of nature in particular. My understanding was that, in the original legends, Mete was balanced by his brother who was avatar for the Spark of Creation, though it’s unclear which. But Yose hasn’t had any way to fuse with his successive iterations like Mete has. If they meet again they’re not going to be in any way equal. Yose will face generations of powerful warriors alone.”

“That is not an issue so long as the nawonota contains Mete,” Reeds said. “But nawonota are not meant to stand alone. They’re meant as part of a household’s defenses, and a household is intended as part of a tribe. Without the support of these greater patterns of power any nawonota, no matter how well made, will fail and release its prisoners on the world. Mete must be cleansed and sent on before that happens.”

Roy’s attention flicked to Marshall, who looked uncharacteristically grave, and decided it was best they leave that line of discussion for the time being. “So let me see if I follow your plan, General Oldfathers. You learned the Brothers legend was waking and came here to do something about it before Mete got out of his prison.”

“Protecting Arthur’s legacy is one of my duties, yes,” he confirmed. “Can’t do that if a wild man tears the civilization he founded apart, can I?”

“Fair enough. You clearly had some plan in place to do that. Want to share it with us?”

He hesitated for a moment but Nora leaned forward, hands clasped, and said, “Please, General.”

“Very well. I deployed various methods to slow your son’s progress up the mountain along the most likely routes Thomas could take, although with the aid of Yose there’s little chance they will endanger him. With the time that buys me I intend to confront and purify Mete and end the cycle before your sons meet in battle.” Oldfathers gestured vaguely down the ridges. “I tracked Thomas a little ways out of Yellowstone and it’s likely that he’s following the same route you did, so he’s going to run into a powerful elemental I conjured a couple of ridges down. You probably saw it overhead this morning.”

There was a moment of uncomfortable silence around the campfire. “About that,” Roy said. “We certainly saw it.”

Oldfathers studied him for a second. “And after seeing it?”

“Thunderbirds are not exactly benevolent creatures, General. We dispersed it.”

The general huffed in annoyance. “Well. I can’t blame you for that, I suppose, they are typically hostile and dangerous.”

“How did you not notice?” O’Hara demanded.

“I spent most of this afternoon collecting the measures I placed on other parts of the mountain, so they wouldn’t pose a danger to anyone else later.” Oldfathers crossed his arms and stared into the fire in a fit of pique. “I’ll have to set up something else tomorrow.”

“I think not, General,” Roy said.

When he didn’t continue, O’Hara leaned in to say something but Grunt put a hand on her arm and gently moved her back. Roy got to his feet and moved to the edge of the overhang, turning his back to the fire, and looked out at the rain, which had come back for a second showing. But he wasn’t really paying attention to it.

When he’d gotten on the Express a few days ago he’d been expecting to help an old friend take care of something simple, like chasing off squatters, rounding up some bandits or maybe hunting a griffon or two. Running down a bounty, even a big one like Hezekiah Oldfathers, was a step up from that but not a drastic one. Until that moment he’d kept hold of the hope that they could catch or kill Oldfathers and be done with the matter. Ever since he’d had his first brush with the raw power of the First Elements back in Tetzlan he’d been trying to avoid them and their avatars, with only middling success. Clearly this trip was going to go into the failure column of that reckoning.

On the one hand he could walk off the mountain the next morning and let the general try whatever he wanted, regardless of the consequences. On the other hand, Grunt and Mrs. Blythe would be right there on ground zero and Roy couldn’t see anything good coming of that regardless of whether Oldfathers succeeded or failed. No matter how he sliced it, ignoring the presence of a wanted man about to acquire a legendary spirit that equaled or surpassed him in malevolence wasn’t an option. Which left only one good alternative that Roy could think of.

He turned and moved back to his seat. Grunt handed him a cup of coffee as he got settled, which Roy took with an appreciative nod. “So,” Grunt said. “How bad is it? Clay Creek? The Wilderness? Five Ridges?”

Roy blew on the coffee for a moment, contemplating. “I’d say somewhere between Five Ridges and the Summer of Snow.”

That got a low whistle. “Not good, Harp.”

“No, it ain’t.” Roy took a gulp of coffee and turned his attention to Oldfathers. “You’ve been very upfront with me, General. I’ll do you the same courtesy. I don’t believe you.”

“On what front?” The druid didn’t seem upset, only curious.

“Oh, I trust your assessment of the magical implications of the situation on the mountain,” Roy said. “You’re easily the most accomplished arcanist on this mountain, possibly in Pyrenes County. I just don’t believe that the man who should stand within Morainhenge, who has more reason to hate Columbia than any person living, who refused to appear at the peace signing, who actually ran from Columbian law with some of the most powerful relics in the nation in hand, will just cleanse an ancient and malevolent legend because he happened to take a passing interest in it. So why should I believe that’s really why you came here, and not to add that legend to the long list of powerful magics at your disposal?”

Oldfathers studied Roy for a long moment, the dancing flames setting shadows flickering across his face and giving the momentary impression he was smiling. Then the general’s cane began to twist and writhe, the crystal in its grip glowing softly, and the silver changed from a walking tool to a long, narrow bladed sword. His left hand rested on the quillons of the crosspiece. He raised his right hand, palm out, and spoke in a deep, sonorous voice. “My name is Hezekiah Oldfathers, commander of the Knights of the Stone Circle.”

Roy felt as if the world around him was falling away as the general continued. “I serve at the pleasure of Arthur, First and Forever King of Avalon.”

In the far distance something ancient and awesome turned to regard that small and insignificant campfire. Roy felt its attention fall on him, as heavy and oppressive as the air before rain. “In storm and sunshine I walk among the stone circle and steward its legacy for the coming generations.”

The fire leapt and danced at Oldfather’s words, the wind and rain whispered wordless replies and the stone wall behind them echoed it all back for the world to hear. “And I swear on the grave of Pellinore, the Hunter, that all I have said concerning my goals and intentions are true.”

The general lowered his hand and in that moment it seemed as though some new, foundational law of the universe slammed into place. Everything returned to normal a second later, Grunt’s sharp intake of breath telling Roy he’d felt it, too.

Unphased by what had just transpired, O’Hara laughed and said, “You don’t expect any of us to believe you because of that, do you?”

“He does,” Roy whispered. “And we do.”

Firespinner Chapter Seven – Rain After Storm

Previous Chapter

“So how much further, Reeds?” Roy asked, accepting a tin mug full of hot soup from Mrs. Blythe. “We covered a fair stretch of ground today. We getting close?”

“We’re about two ridges from Mete’s Grave, Mr. Harper.” Reeds passed his brother a mug before keeping O’Hara’s second offering for himself. “We should be there by midday tomorrow.”

Roy grunted in acknowledgment. Grunt and Nora settled in on a log nearby, Grunt taking a moment to swing his end of the log further under the overhang they were using for shelter. Marshall emptied the cook pot and set it out in the rain to start soaking. For a moment the six of them just shared in companionable silence.

When he finished his soup Roy unclipped his buckler, removed its sulfurite from the setting and tossed it into the campfire to recharge. The heat from the flames dimmed just a bit as the stone started absorbing some of the power into itself. Grunt pulled his greatsword over and worked the lever in the blade to release the weapon’s sulfurite, which he also added to the fire. The rest of the group followed suit, except for Nora who hadn’t used her weapon that day.

She just watched them as they went through their maintenance rituals then glanced at Reeds and asked, “Why say Mete’s Grave, Reeds? The Sanna name is Mete Wahaka, isn’t it?”

Marshal and Reeds both smiled broadly. “That is correct,” Reeds said. “But the Sanna believe a thing only exists when it is heard and understood. If I selfishly speak in a language you do not understand I become less real. So I say Mete’s Grave, that you may understand and I may exist in truth.”

“So you speak our language to be more real to us?” Nora looked very pleased with that answer. “That’s a lovely thought.”

Grunt chuckled. “Your brother must be in a difficult place, then.”

Reeds turned stone faced in a single breath. “I speak for my brother. I assure you he is quite real.”

“Of course,” Roy murmured. “Marshall is quite fortunate to have such a considerate older brother.”

Reeds frowned. “I am the younger of us, Mr. Harper.”

“Ah. My mistake.” Roy brushed his pants off and got to his feet, pulled flame from the campfire into his cufflinks and grabbed the pot. “All right, people, drop your silverware here. Marshall, could you bring the cups?”

This time he was watching closely and he saw the byplay. Reeds glanced at Marshall, who raised a finger and tilted his head towards the campfire. Then he got up, gathered the cups and followed.

It was a short walk back to the stream, barely two minutes, and they walked in silence. The light drizzle still fell but neither man felt put out. When they reached the water Roy filled the pot and set it boiling with the power in his cufflinks. Marshall produced a rag from a pocket and began scrubbing the cups, dipping them in the boiling water to rinse.

Roy fished the silverware out of the pot with his free hand, the heat little more than an irritant. “So tell me something, Marshall.”

He laughed, a belly laugh that set his clothes flapping around his rail thin body, then pointed at his mouth.

“Oh, I heard what your brother said back there. But you can make yourself known, words or not, no matter what the Sanna think.” He leveled a spoon at Marshall, an accusation. “I’ve been thinking about you two and this Sanna legend since we talked at the saloon a couple of days ago. And I was wrong. You’re not here to play out the legend of Yose and Mete, you’re here to kill it.”

Marshall raised his eyebrows and pointed at himself.

“Yes, you. Yose is the older brother, that’s why he’s named first. I know about the ways Sanna speak, you see, although I’m not nearly as proficient as your brother is with Avalon’s tongue.” Roy let the pot stop boiling. “If you two played out the legend you would kill Reeds and then you’d be alone with no one to understand you. Meaning that in the eyes of the Sanna you no longer exist and the legend would disappear with you.”

Marshall furrowed his brow and pointed at Roy.

“I know I said you can make yourself understood. The point is how other Sanna would perceive you, that usually has more import in these kinds of mystic events. So is it true? You were sent to kill the legend?”

For a long moment Marshall stared at Roy, the animation draining out of him. Or, at least, the overly exaggerated mannerisms he affected when dealing with people other than Reeds. Finally Marhsall nodded.

“They cut your tongue out just for this or did it happen earlier?”

He didn’t respond to that question.

“Fine then. I’m not sure why the Sanna chose to try killing a legend or why the two of you agreed to the idea, much less your family. But I got a warning for the two of you now.”

Marshall tilted his head, curious.

Roy dumped the cooling water back into the river and got to his feet. “Don’t try to play that stunt out with the Blythe boys or we are going to have a falling out. Do you understand me?”

The two men stared at each other. Then Marshall nodded, stacked his cups and started back towards camp. Roy snorted, not sure what to make of that, and followed after.

As they walked Roy said, “I saw what you did on the wall. I presume you’re some sort of hero? Or whatever the Sanna would call it?”

Marshall shrugged, an elegant gesture of casual indifference.

“Right. Neither of you are medicine men.” Roy sighed. Reeds would probably know but he was much cagier than his brother. Which made sense if Marshall was a genuine hero. Not much was known about them, beyond the fact that they were probably some kind of Earth magic made manifest, and their nature was entirely instinctual. So long as the hero had conviction in their cause they were almost unbeatable in combat.

That bit about conviction was really the key, the surest way to overcome a hero was to break their conviction. The best way to avoid people breaking your hero’s conviction was to keep the fact they were a hero secret. So it was something they rarely shared, even with allies. The worst bit about heroes was how little control they had over their own power; it was hard for anyone to control their own convictions and heroes were no exception. Maybe it was better if he didn’t bother asking Reeds anything and just proceeded on the notion that Marshall was one. It didn’t make a big difference in his plans going forward.

Roy was jolted out of his reverie when they came up on the campfire again. He quickly offered the Sign of the Hearth before taking his seat. He’d meant to face Mrs. Blythe as he did so, it was customary to present the sign to a Hearthkeeper when they were present, but at some point she’d offered her seat next to Grunt to O’Hara. To his greater surprise O’Hara offered the traditional response, making a zigzag with two fingers that she then held up in a V shape, creating the funnel cloud shaped Sign of the Storm.

Grunt laughed. “You’ve become a devout man in the last few years, Harp.”

“People change all the time, Grunt,” he said with a smile. “Or did you forget, Mr. Solicitor?”

“Fair enough.”

“Is devotion why you dislike people calling you Giant Killer?” Nora asked.

Roy scowled. “I don’t like it because it’s not true. There’s a grand total of three giants in the history of Avalon and only one of them was ever slain by mortal man. Assuming you accept Arthur started out human. A wendigo is a terrible creature, to be sure, but it ain’t got anything on Everest Walking.”

Reeds leaned forward, interested. “Indeed? I understand that wendigos grow in size equal to the amount they eat, and thus are never satisfied. During the Summer of Snow a group of them supposedly wiped out Tin Gulch, a town with over two hundred people. The creatures that did it must have been enormous afterwards.”

“Not as big as you’d think.” Roy held up the beads of his necklace, each about five inches long. “These are made from the finger bones of the wendigo I killed. It was about four times the size of a man. Big, but not a giant.”

Marshall laughed and Reed asked, “What would you call a giant then?”

“The smallest of the Brothers Walking was Shenandoah. You can still see his bones to the east.”

Reeds laughed this time. “The Shenandoah Mountains have existed for generations. We did not name them because of some Avalon tale.”

“Yeah, well, we didn’t know the they existed nine hundred years ago either,” Roy said, smiling as well. These were mysteries he loved pondering in free moments himself. “Legends aren’t always true, and when they are they’re rarely the whole truth. But in this case… well, the tale said Our Lord in Raging Skies chased Shenandoah Walking in the direction of the Middle Kingdom and slew him somewhere there. It’s more likely Shenandoah only made it this far before he was killed, as it isn’t like we knew this place existed at the time.”

“And how were we to know the name of this dead giant?”

“A good question I can’t answer,” Roy admitted. “But Our Lord also pursued and slew Shenandoah’s brother, Kilimanjaro Walking, in a land to the south of Avalon. He smote Kilimanjaro so hard he was buried up to his neck in the dirt. And you know what we find, down there in Nubia?”

Reeds frowned. “A mountain named Kilimanjaro?”

“I’m surprised a Teutonic wizard wasn’t aware of that,” O’Hara said. “It was Johan von Heilman who mapped Kilimanjaro and noted the connection.”

“Most Teutonic wizards don’t think much about Avalon’s history,” Roy said. “I wouldn’t really expect them to.”

Reeds nodded. “The tradition is mostly theoretical, what history their books do teach are more interested in connecting things to the Forever Wars. Regardless, if a creature that leaves mountain sized bones is your standard for giants I can see why you wouldn’t think of a wendigo as one.”

Marshall nudged his brother’s arm and held up three fingers.

“The third giant was named Everest Walking,” Roy said. “He was killed by an alliance of Arthur, the Last Man of Wyrms, his mentor, Meryl of Linds and Our Lady in Burning Stone. His death was such a cataclysm that it carved the Everest Channel between Avalon and the Francs. That’s also how Arthur earned the favor of the Lord and Lady and became the Phoenixborn.”

“Sounds complicated,” Reeds said.

“It’s a famous story in Avalon,” O’Hara said. “And it’s particularly important to druids and hedge mages as Arthur learned a lot of the craft he used to form the Stone Circle and organize modern druidry from the Lady as part of his reward from her for aiding in the battle.”

“And, of course, that’s why the Mated Pair are the patron gods of Avalon,” Grunt added. O’Hara offered a vigorous nod of assent.

“In a manner of speaking,” Roy murmured.

“How so?” O’Hara demanded.

“Our Lord and Lady are guardian deities to the nation and they did offer special powers to Arthur because he aided them in special ways. Becoming the Phoenixborn. Walking as One With the Storm.” Roy shook his head, wondering of those titles of Arthur’s had any significance, or if they referred to aspects of his power and rule that were now long forgotten. “But much of the rest of what they offered him they offer to everyone. The Lord and Lady are intercessors between people and the raw elemental forces of magic. The First Elements are incredibly dangerous and don’t have any concept of humanity and what is good or bad for them and that makes any kind of understanding with them difficult, if not impossible. The Lord and Lady place less risky, more human magic in the reach of those who follow their teachings.”

“This is what you call druidry?” Reeds asked.

“No, druidry existed before Arthur. But he took it and organized it, made it safer and easier for people to get a handle on. It wasn’t exactly safe – still isn’t – but it’s better than what was. That’s why all the people we consider real druids now come out of the great Henges – Stonehenge, Ayershenge, the Dream Henge, Rajhenge and, until ten years ago, Morainehenge.”

“You’re very knowledgeable, Mr. Harper,” Nora said.

“After the Battle of Five Ridges I had a lot of time and motivation to learn. And I happened to be in the right place to get a start on it, too.” Roy shrugged. “I managed to learn a little from the Morainehenge druids but they weren’t exactly fond of people in Columbian uniforms at the time. The broad strokes of the story is all I know. I’m not sure what Arthur changed that made the Stone Circle a better way to produce druids or how he improved on their magic. If we find him and he doesn’t kill us all General Oldfathers could probably explain those things much better than I.”

“Yes. I believe I could.”