Danica surged upwards, trying to scream but unable to find the breath for it. The spear gave the barest twitch but didn’t come free. Iron and gold collected around the intruding bronze point, trying to heal the wound but unable to do anything as long as the foreign mass remained impaled in her. Her deadened senses were not enough to protect her from the pain. She had to escape.
Forcing her weight of metal away from the spear point Danica built up mass in her right arm. Taking a moment to steel herself, she yanked her right arm, like a child on its belly trying to roll over. The wooden floorboards underneath her creaked. Then, with a snapping motion she felt in her sternum, the spear came free. Her elbow nudged the langets of the spear, partially dislodging it from her body, while the momentum of her yank rolled her over and finished the process. The weapon clattered on the floor and rolled off somewhere. Danica lay on her back and gasped for breath, loosing all track of time as her metal reserves knitted her tortured body back together.
She was dragged back to the moment by an ugly, wet chopping noise. The young gold drinker squinted, her vision swimming. She was staring at a blurry mass of brown and black which quickly resolved itself into a drifting cloud of smoke drifting through the rafters of a wooden roof. Right. She’d reached for a coin on the floor and the spear hit her in the back. That was a bad thing.
Something rolling across the floor bumped into her arm. With a groan Danica sat up and looked to see what it was.
Hernando’s face stared back at her.
His bloodless head had picked up smudges of ash and his mouth gaped open in a wordless scream. Danica couldn’t tell if he was furious or terrified. He was definitely dead.
Dazed, she pushed the head away with one hand and looked around, trying to make sense of what was around her. The floor was dirt and ashes. Hernando’s body lay on the floor about ten feet away; a strange man in blue knelt by it.
The man had spread a kerchief out under the stump of Hernando’s neck and now he held the flat of a sword there. As Danica stared at it a gold coin dripped from the point of the blade and fell onto the kerchief. The man ignored it as he rummaged through Hernando’s pockets. A surge of anger flooded through Danica, whether it was because he’d killed Hernando or because he was ignoring the gold she couldn’t tell. She scrambled to her feet and grabbed the spear just below its head.
Some noise she made while getting up attracted the stranger’s attention because he quickly spun about, remaining in his crouch but turning to look directly at her, the point of his curved sword aimed squarely between her eyes. The stranger scowled. “Pellinore didn’t think children could go through the Change. Sorry to see he was wrong.”
Danica took one step forward and swayed, leaning on the spear haft to keep herself upright. “I’m not a child. I’m a gold drinker.”
The stranger’s eyes narrowed. “Perhaps you’re a little of both, young lady. You sayin’ you won’t renounce your gold, then?”
“I won’t what?”
“You didn’t hear?”
She tilted her head to one side, thinking back, but she was pretty sure she’d never heard the stranger’s clipped, nasally voice before. “No.”
“Pellinore was wrong about the hearing, too,” he muttered under his breath. She resisted the urge to laugh at something she obviously wasn’t meant to hear. He continued, “You can pass back through the Change if you renounce your gold.”
Her eyes narrowed. On the one hand he seemed to know things Hernando had never told her on the other he clearly had it second hand and didn’t know how trustworthy it was. “How would I do that?”
“Its a complicated process but I have exhaustive instructions for how to go about it.” His off hand gathered up the kerchief and the gold coins in it then carefully stood. Behind him, Hernando’s body lay pale and bloodless.
Danica turned her attention from the body to the stranger’s sword point. His weapon was unsettling but she saw small ripples, probably invisible to the human eye, along the flat of its blade. “I suppose you got those instructions from the same place you got your fancy sword?”
He snapped the point in a tight circle that warned her he was very familiar with the weapon. “This? A loaner from an acquaintance familiar with the book I found them in. Now. Will you renounce your gold or not?”
Danica scowled. She’d never have survived her life until that point if she hadn’t had the resilience of gold in her veins. On the other hand, he had killed Hernando and two of his Converts. Danica herself was the smallest and weakest of the de la Feugoes. She needed to be clever. “Wh-what would I have to do?”
“Well, let’s have a look the specifics.” The point of the man’s sword lowered as he reached into his jacket with his other hand. The coins in the kerchief he was holding clanked, focusing all of Danica’s attention on for a second before she could shake herself free. Her grip tightened on the spear. The stranger snorted and shook his head, stopping his off hand halfway, changing the movement to shove the kerchief and gold into his outside pocket. He poked the cloth and metal into place securely with two fingers. He had something else curled into his hand, which he started to put in his pocket on top of the kerchief. Danica squinted, wondering what it was.
When his fingers uncurled to bring it forward she realized it was Hernando’s money bag.
The stranger shoved the bag away. The moment his wrist reached the hem of his pocket Danica hefted the spear and threw it at him with her full weight behind it. The weapon was excellent as it practically flew itself out of her hand. The timing of her attack was as good as she could make it but it wasn’t enough to overcome the man’s reflexes.
He got out of the way but the projecting langets on the spear’s head caught the man’s sword and pulled it out of line. She lept forward, covering the ten feet between them in two flying steps. The stranger tried to ward her off with his free hand but it got tangled in his coat pocket. She slapped his sword arm with the full weight of metal behind the hit. The stranger dropped his weapon.
It slid across the floor a short distance. One step took her over to it and another crashed her heel down on the rippling imperfection on the sword blade. It snapped in half, the point spinning away in one direction, the hilt in the other. The hilt came to a stop by the stranger’s boots. He scooped it up with a casual movement and pointed it her as if the blade was still intact. The brilliant yellow gleam of gold in the center of the jagged, snapped end of the blade drew Danica’s eyes until she forced them away.
“What are you planning to do with that?” She asked.
He grimaced. “I suppose I’ll have to kill you and drain the iron and gold from your blood until there’s nothing but water left.”
“With six inches of sword left?”
He pulled his off hand from his pocket, still holding Hernando’s bag. He slit the side of it open with what remained of his sword then gave it a slight shake, letting the contents spill out onto the ground. To her horror, Danica found it impossible to draw her gaze away from the shining silver coins as the tumbled onto the floor. A strange compulsion overcame her. She dropped onto her hands and knees, trying to find and count how many of them there were. Five- no six- no ten- no –
She reached fifteen when her feet were kicked out from under her, dropping her onto her face once more. This time, instead of a spear, a heavy weight settled on her back and a hand gripped her hair and held her head down. Even in that position she found her eyes still drawn to the coins she could see in the corner of her eyes. “This is your last chance,” the stranger said. “Renounce your gold.”
Terror gripped Danica. Deep within she knew that she was still alive only because the stranger had offered her one last chance to undo the Change. But as frightened as she was of death she was even more terrified of the idea of living in a world where monsters like Hernando de la Feugo existed without the power of gold in her veins. “I’ll do whatever you want. I’ll live without taking blood. I can be your friend, your daughter, even grow into your lover if you want. But don’t ask me to give up the gold. I can’t. I can’t live like that again.”
The stranger sighed. His weight shifted slightly and the broken tip of his sword came into view. Danica tensed but to her surprise the sword just touched one of the coins lying in her field of vision. Then, to her greater shock, the silver in the coin began to flow up into the sword blade, adding it’s own small weight of metal to that of the stranger’s weapon. He repeated this process over and over as he spoke. “Your sire must not have told you much after he Changed you. In fact, you’re so young I imagine you can’t have been a drinker long.”
“What do you mean?”
“Gold drinkers must spend blood to rebuild their body. The stories say most believe they only spend it to heal themselves quickly but the truth is more complicated.” For the cost of only ten silver marks the stranger had rebuilt his sword to its previous size. The weapon moved out of sight. “In truth, the body dies a little every day, and must heal itself to repair the damage for we are mortal. Not even Gold drinkers are immune to this. But one thing you lose in the Change is the ability to heal without a cost of gold and iron. If you forsake blood you will die in a matter of days. It’s more merciful to end it quickly. Your sire didn’t tell you this?”
“No.” Danica whispered.
“And your gold?”
She gritted her teeth. “It is mine. My key to life, to freedom to veng-”
But Danica de la Feugo’s claims to all three ended at the edge of a silvered sword.