Christmas Break 2021

Thanks to all my faithful readers for sticking through another year! If you’re new, thank you for joining up. I’ll be taking this week an next week off for the Holidays and we’ll return to things next year! If you’ve been following the story I’m-sorry-not-sorry for leaving you on a cliff hanger but the twisted tale of the de la Feugos will continue on January 6th.

Have a merry Christmas and a happy New Year!

Fire and Gold Chapter Two: Culling the Herd

Previous Chapter

“I like that one,” Larry said, patting Danica’s head eagerly.

She grabbed his hand and forcefully pushed it back to his side. “Stop it, Larry. No one cares what you do or don’t like, we just need you to stop making these messes.”

Larry sighed and picked up the bound and gagged man and carried him out to the dining room with the others. It was strange and unsettling to see the overweight ranch hand being carried like a sack of potatoes over Larry’s skeletal shoulders but she had to keep an eye on him or he would eat another one of the dwindling ranch staff before Hernando could make decisions about them. She was fairly certain de la Feugo wouldn’t want to keep any of the ranch hands. They were all muscular men, most on the larger side. Changing them would require a lot of gold that they simply didn’t have on hand at the moment, especially since he’d already chosen the rancher’s daughter as one of his converts.

Also, she’d noticed he liked to change women far more than men. The only other man she’d seen him consider changing was the scrawny cleaning boy at the Watcher’s Post who had about as much wit and sense as Larry, which was to say none at all. However outside of the daughter, women were in short supply in these parts. So if Larry partook before Hernando got around to inventorying their latest catch it probably wouldn’t effect the ultimate outcome.

But Hernando would be angry.

As Danica looked at the three dead humans Larry left in the bunk room she wondered if it was even worth trying to deflect that anger. Larry was a mindless idiot. Let him take the brunt of Hernando’s anger, that was what he was best for. If the de la Feugo patriarch didn’t kill Larry himself the wiry creature would undoubtedly be used to slow down some hostile pursuer, like he’d spent Danica’s sister to distract the druidic mayor down south in Ferry’s Landing. Much like Katharine, Larry was too poor in mind for anything else.

On the other hand, if Danica didn’t do something to make herself look useful she was likely to share her sister’s fate as well. So she started looking over the bodies to make sure he’d at least gotten all the blood out. Once it was clear he had – perhaps not surprising given Larry was the hungriest of them all – she started carrying them out to the dining area as well.

Larry was looming over the three surviving ranch hands and muttering to himself.

“What’s your problem, Larry?” She asked, watching him warily. “You tied them up real good, didn’t you?”

“Sure did,” Larry yelled back. “But he’s looking at me wrong, Danica. He’s gonna hit me.”

“They’re tied up Larry,” she replied, setting the first body down. The eyes of the living ranch hands widened. “How’s they gonna hit you when they’re trussed up like they’re goin’ to market?”

“He always hits me!” Larry shrieked, suddenly rearing back and kicking at one of the ranch hands with his heel.

Cursing the cretin’s lack of wits, Danica ran across the dining room, bowling the massive wooden table out of her way easily, wrapped her hands around his waist and leaned back. “Stop it, Larry!”

Larry did not stop. But, despite their appearances, she was the older of the two of them and had more iron in her veins. Even Larry’s gluttonous nature couldn’t balance the scales. Hernando always took everything but what Larry needed to keep going when the wiry man overindulged himself, where as he’d only drained Danica once, a few weeks after she was changed. Her superior weight dragged Larry away from the living ranchers one step at a time.

“Make ’em stop lookin’ at me!” Larry screamed once he was out of reach of his victims. “Make ’em stop, Danica!”

“Give it a rest,” she muttered into his back. “Only one way I can make ’em stop and we gotta let Hernando look at ’em before we can do it. He hits a lot worse than they do.”

“I certainly do.”

The room’s sudden chill was all in her mind but the knowledge of that fact didn’t stop Danica’s shudder. She carefully loosened her grip on Larry and turned the two of them to face Hernando. He stood in the boarding house’s entrance, silhouetted by the afternoon sun. The light washed out the aristocratic features of his face and reduced his luxurious suit, silver trimmed sword belt and leather duster to overlapping shadows. The baleful glare from his eyes outshone that from outside.

“What have you two done?” The calm question belied his wrathful expression.

“Hernando…” Larry shrunk away from him. “Just did what you told me.”

The Tetzlani man stalked into the room, towering over even the man who’s nickname was “Long,” and grabbed his face in a vicelike grip. “Is that a fact?” He pried Larry’s mouth open and sniffed. “I don’t recall telling you to eat whatever you want. Did I?”

Unable to speak or shake his head, Larry just whimpered.

Hernando just snorted and threw him to the ground in disgust. The wiry man scrabbled back and tried to get up but Hernando stamped on one of his hands as he scuttled about. Larry groaned but kept his mouth shut. “At least you know you must close your mouth some times,” Hernando said, voice low and soft. “Learn to control it better, else I will close it for good. Do you understand me?”

Larry nodded once. Hernando lifted his foot up and Larry started to get up again when Hernando’s boot came back and smashed him across the face, sending him sprawling across the floor. Danica watched the whole thing without speaking, hoping Hernando would forget she was there. But no such luck was with her. He let the backswing of his kick spin him around and crossed over to her immediately. Murderous black eyes stared down at her from beneath the brim of his narrow brimmed hat.

“I…” Her voice failed her for a moment. “I rounded up the horses like you wanted, sir. The iron is all there still.”

“I saw them in the barn when I passed through.” His immaculate fingertips pressed together in front of his stomach. “I believe I instructed you to remain there with Larry until I came to get you, did I not?”

“There was a horse that wandered into the north field and I went to retrieve it,” she said. “I left Larry in the barn with the other horses but he was gone when I got back.”

The world spun around Danica in a flash of light. She had crashed into the floor before Hernando’s hand striking her with the weight of all the iron and gold he’d taken behind it registered. The floor swam in front of her eyes for a moment. One of the greatest upsides of her changing was that she no longer felt pain and damage lingered briefly. But she knew better than to get up quickly. It was a lesson she’d learned right away, where Larry hadn’t figured it out yet.

“Idiot.” Hernando stalked back over to the bodies, living and dead, that they’d piled there for him. “Do you think horse blood is one tenth as important to me as the freshness of human iron? You should have left the gelding and kept ahold of Larry.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, carefully getting up to a sitting position. “If I’d known I had to wrangle both the horses and Larry I wouldn’t have let him go off on his own. But you gave him different tasks than me, so I didn’t think it mattered.”

For a moment, as their eyes met over Hernando’s shoulder, Danica wondered if she had gotten up too soon. Then he toed one of the living farm hands and snorted. “I suppose these will have to do. You will collect the blood and bring it to me, Danica, just as you will for the horses. Collect the excess from Larry as well.”

Danica suppressed a grimace. The change took away most touch and smell but enhanced the other senses beyond the human norm. Horse blood tasted terrible and old blood filtered through Larry’s innards would be worse. Turning it all over to Hernando wasn’t any fun either. “As you say.”

Hernando stalked out of the boarding house and Danica set about carrying out her tasks. First she sent Larry out to round up the horses, or else he would try and finish the ranch hands on his own and she was tired of trying to keep a handle on him. If he collected some iron from the horses for her she wasn’t about to complain.

Then she had to drain the living ranchers. Even with them tied up it wasn’t easy given the enormous size difference between them. The only one of his changed that Hernando let keep any major portion of the gold or iron they collected was Janice, so Danica didn’t weigh much more than she did before her change. A far cry from Hernando, who was easily seven or eight hundred pounds of densely packed metal.

After a little experimentation she settled for dragging the hands one at a time over to the table, looping their bonds under a table leg to hold them in place, then draining them dry. As an added benefit, the table leg kept their worst spasms from throwing them around too much. However, with Larry out of the building the last ranch hand nearly crawled his way out of the boarding house before Danica caught up to him and dragged him back inside.

With all the thumping, hauling, bleeding and screaming that went on, it took her almost an hour to finish that simple task. For a moment she considered finding Hernando and asking if he wanted to change any of them. But she’d spent a lot of time watching him over the last five months and knew if he’d wished to change any of them he would have said so already.

So she wiped her mouth off with one of the rancher’s bandannas and walked out towards the barn calling, “Larry? Larry, where you at?”

The gangly menace was nowhere to be seen in the dirt circle that surrounded the well at the heart of the homestead. Her eyes slipped over the buildings to the field behind the barn. The barn door was still open so he should have heard her calling if he was in there, but if he’d gone to the back fence to find a horse he might be out of earshot. Huffing and grumbling, Danica made her way around the barn to the back field.

But Larry wasn’t in the field. He wasn’t beyond the fence, there were no footprints in the dirt path leading down into the gully that passed through the ridge beyond and there were no signs of horses that might have tempted him in that direction anyway. It was like Larry had vanished.

Danica knew he always sulked a bit whenever Hernando got angry at him. Frankly she didn’t blame Larry on that count, Hernando was quick to anger and rarely raged with good reason. But even Larry wasn’t so stupid as to ignore Hernando’s orders just because their creator was angry with them. That way lay starvation and eventually a second death.

So Larry had to be doing something. Maybe he had just buried his head in horse innards and hadn’t heard her calling him. So Danica went back around to the front of the barn and looked in. The first thing she noticed was the lack of horses there. Which was odd. She’d left all the horses she’d rounded up in stalls not two hours ago. They weren’t in the barn and they weren’t in the field, so where could they have gotten to?

The second thing she noticed was a faint smell. Although the change had left her with almost no sense of smell even she noticed the scents of smoke and charred meat lingering in the air.

The third thing she noticed was Larry himself, propped in a half seated position by the water barrel. His legs were folded in the Sanna style, his hands resting in his lap. His severed head cradled in his hands.

Fire and Gold Chapter One – To Pay the Ferryman

“The highest magic we know is gold.” Hernando de la Feugo rolled an obol through his fingers, the yellow cast of the coin catching the afternoon sunlight and reflecting it to the darkest corners of the room. “Even iron, which wars with all other magics, submits to the power of gold. It’s still a proud and stubborn metal but it recognizes the power of gold as king. Yet the nature of gold is to bind with other metals. It does not enhance magic, as copper might, or take on a false life of its own, as silver does. A conundrum but a beautiful one, almost as lovely as you.”

He ran his fingers through golden waves of the girl’s hair, released from their braids like a river released from it’s banks. “You know, the druids your ancestors served in Avalon held life as the highest magic. For centuries they considered iron the magic of death, since it leeches even the magic of life. But in time, what did we discover?” Hernando ran his fingers down the side of her cheek, along the bottom of her chin and finally over the graceful curves of her neck. Then he licked the blood off of them with relish. “Iron is the very foundation of the life’s blood, a part of our own existence we cannot escape. And if iron bows to gold, so too must life.”

He placed a single obol over one of the girl’s unseeing eyes. “Beauty.”

Another coin over the other. “Wisdom.”

A third in her mouth. “Joy.”

He wrapped her right hand around a fourth coin. “Skill.”

And a fifth in her left. “Strength.”

A coin on her heart. “The past.”

Another on her womb. “The future.”

He lifted his golden knife, still red with her iron. “All these submit to the power of Charon, the-”

“I found the books, Hernando!”

Hernando carefully set down his bag of coins and placed his knife beside it. “Thank you, Janice.” He pressed his palms together gently they held them there with all his strength. “This couldn’t have waited until I was done here?”

“They have the symbols, Hernando.” Janice bent forward a bit as she looked up at him, her eyes wide in a sickening imitation of childish innocence. “You said I should let you know if I saw the symbols right away, no matter what you were doing.”

Her shoulder length red hair was held in a loose ponytail, swept over her left shoulder. Hernando grabbed it and used it to pull her into an upright position so she would stop her noxious simpering. “I did say that, Janice. Thank you. Still, it’s surprising that you saw them here.” He looked around at the rough wooden walls of the slaughterhouse, where the previous owners of the cattle ranch had prepared their food much as he was doing now. “I wouldn’t think ranch hands or cattle barons would have much use for those kinds of books. Show me.”

Janice’s eyes wandered to the girl, laid out in full ritual fashion, and licked her lips. “You promised that I would have one this time.”

“And you will. After you show me what you found.”

“I have one picked out.”

This time he just stared at the woman until she withered a bit and took him where he wanted to go. The ranch compound was four buildings in total, the slaughterhouse, the barn, the boarding house and the ranch house. It was this last building where Janice led him. The house was relatively luxurious, with a wooden floor, lovingly sanded, a loft for storage and sleeping children, a great room with a brick hearth, a generous kitchen and not one but two bedrooms. In size it wouldn’t have been out of place on a wealthier street in Tetzlan City. The furnishings were rough, mostly handmade wooden furniture with no padding or upholstery, but that was to be expected. Such finery wouldn’t have lasted long in the Columbian wilds.

But, to Hernando’s surprise, there was a floor to ceiling bookshelf in the master bedroom, stuffed to bursting with books. Perhaps that made sense. So far from civilization any sensible person would have to stock up on whatever knowledge they could, since no libraries or monasteries of learned men were on hand to consult with. And sure enough, the Mark of Eternity was there.

Two of the books had a simple rectangle flanked by twin triangles on its spine. Below that was the feathered triangle of the Avaloni coat of arms. With a sinking feeling Hernando reached out and took one of the books, flipping quickly through the first few pages. Then he slammed it closed and held it under Janice’s nose. “Do you know what this is?”

Her aura of satisfaction quickly wilted under his stare. “I… it looked like a book with the symbols on it?”

“It is a History of the Forever Wars.” He cuffed her on the ear. “The worthless lies you Avaloni tell about your so-called First King. That’s all. I know Avalon is full of pathetic minds and empty lies, and Columbia can’t hope to be any better than its founders, but I would think you could at least recognize your own childish fairy tales.”

“Ain’t like I learned reading, Hernando,” she muttered, cradling the side of her face. “I heard about Arthur fighting Eternity from the Hearth Keepers but I didn’t know that symbol had anything to do with it.”

He ignored her excuses and threw the book over on the bed, skimming over the other titles on the bookshelf. Nothing really stood out to him. Most of it was simple Hearth Keeper texts, like the History, basic veterinary texts or penny dreadfuls. Exactly the subjects he’d expect from books on a cattle ranch, just more of them than he’d expected. “Pay more attention in the future, Janice. The popular conception of the Mark is different from what I showed you. The triangles lay flat against the center, they don’t stand apart from it like fangs.” He’d explained that the firs time but to his complete lack of surprise she’d forgotten. “I shouldn’t be surprised. Why would a place like this have anything bearing the symbols of the Army of Eternity?”

“Well if you didn’t think it would be here, why did you tell me to look?”

Hernando gritted his teeth. “Because it’s important to be open to possibilities.”

“Well, if you’ll be taking in someone who can learn me my letters, I can tell the difference in the future.” She straightened up and pulled her hand away from her ear. “Speaking of which-”

“No, Janice, you may not take one for yourself.” He jangled the bag of loose coins they’d found in the ranch thoughtfully. “Unfortunately the paymaster didn’t keep many large coins in the paybox. The problem of working for a tightfisted owner. We have enough gold to change one or perhaps two more, the rest is silver.”

Janice’s hands slipped up to massage his shoulders as she whispered in his ear. “If we do things my way we can get two for certain.”

Hernando sighed, knowing the best way to get her to be quiet about her idea was to hear it out. “Who do you have in mind?”

“The boy. He’s small, he’ll cost you a lot less than an adult. Add him to the woman you’re working on and there you go – you’ll have two! He can grow the investment easily, like Danica. And just think, then we’ll have a boy and a girl!”

That was the kind of reasoning he’d come to expect from Janice but he didn’t see any value in it. He was already coming to regret letting himself get talked into changing Danica, who was proving a lot less useful than he’d originally hoped. “I will consider it. In the mean time, you may take him for your meal. Do as you like with him, just remember to clean yourself out when you’re done. We’ll need to gather in the remaining ranch hands and add them to my reserves before the day is out.”

“What’s the rush, darling?” She wrapped her arms around his chest. “This place is nice and we could take our time with the meat. It’s so much better when we take it fresh.”

Hernando suppressed a shudder at the notion that anyone could find the place nice. “I don’t disagree. But the escapee from the Watcher’s outpost must have reached a settlement by now and sooner or later a posse is going to come looking for us. This is the natural place to start. We need to be gone before they arrive.”

“You don’t think we can deal with them?”

“I’m not willing to risk it, not yet.” Hernando fingered the gold in his bag, turning an obol over in his fingers as considered. “If we add another four to our numbers perhaps we’ll be ready to fight off a few dozen armed men. Even then, such actions will only draw greater and greater wrath. We must move with care.”

Janice sighed. “Of course. And the boy?”

Annoyed, he pulled her arms off of him and shoved her away. “Don’t get attached to your food. I’ll decide if I change him later.”

“Fine.” She crossed her arms and sulked. “Do whatever you want.”

Hernando straightened his clothes and marched out of the house towards the barn. Only once he was across the threshold, looking through the stalls to find Long Larry, did he remember he still had to ask Charon to bring back his own meal and change her into one of them. Then there was still a half a dozen ranch hands to work their way through and the livestock itself to deal with. When the old texts he’d found in the Tetzlani archives promised him the Rite of Golden Thirst would ensure he never went hungry again he never expected the business of it to become so tedious.

He’d been careful when they ate the Storm’s Watch on the northern ridge. But at least there had been something interesting in breaking up their powerful wards and clever use of plant magics. He didn’t want to spend his life running from posses but he wouldn’t mind another challenge like that to break up the monotony.

Not that there was likely to be another man equal to the head of the Watchers in three counties. Perhaps someone could afford to hire The Strongest Man in the World to hunt him down. That was another legend that had the ring of a fairy tale to it. Over the last two decades the mercenaries of the West had grown in reputation until they overshadowed even the soldiers and gentry of the surrounding nations and Columbian firespinners were supposedly the toughest of the lot. None of them could hold a candle to the pride of Tetzlan. He looked forward to the chance to prove it.

Fire and Gold – Forward

Not everything about life is exciting, fun or happy. In fact many of the most evil things in the world are mundane and boring. That said, they don’t always make for the most interesting storytelling. When telling stories about a struggle between good and evil it is difficult to encompass evil without showing some of the more extreme, clearly despicable things it does. The mundane evil of keeping time on the train to Auschwitz isn’t as stark as we’d like to think. 

All of this is prelude to something I find myself saying more and more often these days – Fire and Gold isn’t always the most uplifting thing I’ve written. Perhaps my mind is dwelling in darker places than it did in my more optimistic days. But these details are a part of a bigger picture and before you decide whether Fire and Gold is something you want to read let me make my case. 

Action Comics #775 is an iconic issue of the series. Titled “What’s so Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way” it features a fascinating story about Superman literally and figuratively answering criticisms of the way the character is traditionally written. While that story is undoubtedly worth its own standalone analysis that’s not my purpose here. A lot of great storytelling was done there but one thing that really stood out to me came in the third act of the story, as a band of self-righteous supervillains suddenly found themselves on the run from Superman as he implacably hunted them down, one by one. It was a bizarre subversion of a horror story. 

In the classical horror story grossly disproportionate retribution is brought on a person or group of people for a simple moral failing. They’re morality tales, but the creature at the heart of the story is just as evil or twisted as those it punishes. (Incidentally, this is why the most pure and innocent member of the cast, usually a young woman, is the final survivor in most horror stories – morality is a defense against the horror.) But in “Truth, Justice and the American Way” Superman becomes the monster in The Elite’s own personal horror story. 

I have always wanted to explore that idea as the core of a full story. I never really had the right characters or setting for that story until I came up with Roy Harper. Once I had him clearly in mind and realized I wanted to tell his story from multiple viewpoints I knew I had the core elements for this kind of horror story in hand. In time Fire and Gold was the story that grew out of that. 

The premise is simple. A truly evil man will find the notion of justice terrifying, and the notion that justice is interested in him personally doubly so. I hope that walking through that shadowed valley to the final dispensation of justice will be satisfying. But, like C.S. Lewis before us, we’ll have to spend some time with the Uncle Screwtapes of Roy’s world before we can get there. 

Hopefully you’ll be willing to come along with us.