“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.”
“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…”