Danica hurried out of the barn, her eyes scanning the field, not looking far ahead towards the gulch that funneled down into the valley but rather studying the grass just a few feet ahead. It was quite muddled with hoof prints and boot prints from the last day’s activities. But there was a clear set horse tracks on top of it all that hadn’t been there before. With a satisfied grunt she followed them.
It quickly became apparent the horses had riders, for they moved in a very straight line towards the boardinghouse. Nor did they cut into the center of the compound, which would allow them to reach the boardinghouse door fastest. Instead they stayed in the field, which made them less likely to be noticed from any of the buildings.
Not good. Danica picked up speed and followed the tracks to the point where they were moving past the back of the boardinghouse itself, clinging stealthily to the lee of the building. She was so focused on watching the footprints she almost didn’t hear the people coming the other way. Two horses rounded the corner, a tall, fair haired man on one and slightly shorter woman with similar features on the other. The woman had the son of the rancher family in the saddle in front of her wrapped in a blanket.
Danica froze. The man’s face split into a smile. “At last! Another survivor.” He got down from his horse and handed the reigns to the woman. “Hold these, Cassie.”
“Be careful, Brandon,” the woman murmured. “Something sounds off here.”
Danica’s eyes darted back and forth between the two of them. She wasn’t sure what the Cassie woman was hearing that sounded off but perhaps she was picking up on the noise of Janice looking for the boy. Either way, Brandon didn’t seem to take her that seriously either. He got down from his horse and carefully approached Danica. “What is your name, young lady?”
“Danica,” she said, doing her best to appear harmless and frightened as she answered. “Danica de la Feugo.”
Brandon looked down at her with a mix of concern and compassion, neither of which were as big a concern to her as his incredible height. Danica estimated he was more than twice as tall as she was. The extra weight of iron and gold in her veins was an equalizing factor but given the extreme size difference she wasn’t sure she could more than equal his weight.
As she finished sizing him up, Brandon also finished with her. “You look like you’ve been hiding,” he said, picking a bit of dust from the boardinghouse floor out of her hair. She flinched but he didn’t seem upset. “I don’t know how much you saw of what happened here but you’re safe now. Was there anyone else hiding with you?”
“No,” she said, guessing at what Brandon thought had happened to her. “I was alone.”
“Brandon!” Cassie’s voice had an odd strain in it. “Brandon, come here for a moment.”
“Just a minute, Cassie,” he hissed, half turning away from Danica to look at the woman. The shift in his bulk was enough for Danica to make eye contact with the rancher’s son and see the spark of recognition there. In that moment she knew she couldn’t lie to the pair anymore.
Danica gathered as much of her metal reserves in one foot as she could and lashed out at Brandon’s knee. After that things happened very fast.
Brandon rolled with the impact, flopping over onto his side with a grunt. The momentary contact between Danica’s foot and his knee was strange and spongy, almost as if she had kicked an old tree stump rather than a human body. She gathered herself to spring for the rancher’s son only to pull up short when Brandon grabbed her arm. The man had sprung up from the ground like he was a spring, his legs seeming to pull at the ground, with no sign that he felt any pain from Danica’s kick. Shocked, she yanked on her arm once but found it impossible to break his grip.
“What’s this?” He demanded. As she watched his chest and arms seemed to swell, the buttons on his shirt and vest straining to stay closed. His cuff links pulled loose and his shirt sleeves sprang open to reveal a strange, greenish brown color spreading down his body and over his hands.
“What are you?” She retorted, giving up on pulling away as the strange color closed over his hands. She was vaguely aware of a change in texture, but her sense of feel was too dull to tell her more. It was time to improvise. Pushing the metal in her veins back down into her feet she pushed away from Brandon and towards the wall of the boardinghouse she jumped up, braced her feet on the wall, and vaulted over Brandon’s head. This gave her enough torque to pull free of the man’s grasp, although she lost most of the skin on her left hand in the process.
By the time she landed on the ground again she’d shifted her weight of metal back up into her hands and, balling them together, she slammed them into his knee again. The impact had the same strange feel to it and this time he didn’t even respond to it. Then he pivoted to face her. In the process he lifted one foot and Danica saw the sole of his boot fall away, strange, rootlike tendrils pulling up out of the ground and into his foot. His other boot remained rooted and twisted unnaturally as he pivoted. Finally he slammed his foot down and spread his arms wide and lowered his center of gravity and sneered at her.
His face was unrecognizable. It had transformed into the same brownish green color as his hands and his eyes and mouth had shrunk and twisted down to small, strange orifices like knotholes on a tree. Shocked, Danica scrambled back from the strange creature. “What’s this?” His voice creaked with wooden overtones. “Did they change you as a child?”
Talking wasn’t really going anywhere so Danica ignored the question. She did know that Hernando wouldn’t be happy if the boy escaped. She wasn’t sure he wanted to fight with the incredible tree man or whatever Cassandra was, he’d made it a habit of avoiding people he assessed as dangerous magicians, but they’d already collected all the ranchers once and letting someone he’d captured slip his grasp was not something Hernando believed in.
So she turned away from Brandon and jumped up onto his horse. Pausing for just a moment on its saddle, she aimed herself towards the boy and jumped again before the animal began to prance in distress. A sharp, piercing sound, unbelievably loud, pierced her head and for a moment her vision disappeared entirely.
Vague impacts told her she’d hit something solid, like a horse, then something even more unforgiving, like the ground. A series of hard impacts on her back told her she’d gotten trampled afterward. In spite of her best efforts, Danica couldn’t get her arms and legs to do as she told them for a good four or five seconds, by which time her vision had come back and Brandon, the Walking Tree had scooped her off the ground and wrapped her into a constricting bear hug.
She looked over to see Cassie’s horse cantering up the canyon away from the ranch. Her hearing was returning slowly and she caught the last few words the woman was saying. “…both know you’re not going to do anything to hurt her. Put her down and come away, Brandon.”
“Harper said there was a way for them to change back. We can-” Danica pulled her iron up into her head and snapped it backwards, cracking him between the eyes. He sputtered and his grip loosened but didn’t let go entirely. She braced her feet on top of Brandon’s knees and snapped her head forwards and back again. This time Brandon managed to move his head so the blow landed on his cheek rather than between the eyes but his grip loosened again as the two of them twisted in the grapple. Finally Danica pushed her blood metal back to one foot and stamped on his knee.
The third time was the charm. She felt something pop as her foot came down and Brandon let go, falling flat on his back. Danica scrambled away from him and after Cassie, staggering back and forth as she tried to find something like balance again. At first it seemed that her difficulty staying upright was just a result of the damage to her ears. But then she realized a deep, baritone rumble was building in the ground beneath her feet and she could see fist sized stones rolling down the canyon as it shook.
The rocks parted around Cassie as she moved up the pass.
They didn’t do the same for Danica. In fact, as they came rolling along she realized they were actually funneling towards her. Putting her hands over her head she packed her arms full of iron and gold and did her best to ignore the impacts that pelted against her arms, legs and torso. The rumbling suddenly stopped and Cassie called, “Come on, Brandon! He told us to bring away the survivors and not worry about the gold drinkers! Leave the man to his work!”
Danica lowered her hands enough to peek over top of them just in time to see Brandon canter past on his horse. She wasn’t sure how he’d gotten up and into the saddle but his strange, treeish abilities certainly made it possible. For a moment she considered chasing them further. Then Cassie stood up in her stirrups with hands clasped under her diaphragm, new harmonics layering into the rumble, and the canyon walls began falling apart, filling the canyon with rubble from gravel to man sized rocks. Cassie’s horse whinnied and shied backwards, Brandon’s increased its speed to a mad gallop.
The rocks avoided both of them, their horses misgivings aside.
A bitter taste filled Danica’s mouth and she knew she wasn’t going to catch either of them now. With a final, baleful look at Cassie she turned away from the canyon and ran back towards the ranch house with the rocks and rubble nipping at her heels. Hernando wasn’t going to be happy. But she knew that his wrath was momentary and mostly harmless. Getting buried alive was much, much worse.
However, she wasn’t going to forget what happened. One day these interlopers were going to pay for meddling in the affairs of the de la Feugos.