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.

One response to “Fire and Gold Chapter One – To Pay the Ferryman

  1. Pingback: Fire and Gold Chapter Two: Culling the Herd | Nate Chen Publications

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