Trenton Ferry was a small town on a small tributary near the southern border of Columbian territory that existed almost entirely because sulfurite prospectors moving west needed a place to cross the river. The Hearthfire there was typical of buildings raised in tribute to the Lady in Burning Stone. There was a large, domed central chamber with a great stone hearth at the center where a fire was kept lit at all times. Smaller chambers dedicated to various other purposes surrounded the central fire. Most people never set foot in them.
The central chamber was what really mattered and that was where Roy went first when he got back. He left Brandon at the doorway in the care of his sister and a matronly Hearth Keeper. He’d come back from the battle with the gold drinkers lame in one leg and they hoped there was a healer among the Keepers who could help him recover. He’d most likely become one of those handful who saw a side chamber of a Hearthfire.
Cassandra left with another Keeper. The two women were going to look in on the ranch’s sole survivor, who would need looking after until he came of age. He was still at least five years from fifteen and adulthood. Cassie had sung him to sleep for most of the trip back and he was sleeping in the hotel for the moment. Most Hearth Fires had attached orphanages and those that didn’t knew of one only a train ride away.
Roy went straight into the main chamber. A dozen stone benches ringed the massive flame, far enough back that even normal people would be comfortable. He ignored them and walked straight up to the hearth. Heat rolled over him in waves, full of the power and potential of fire but without the constant whispers he usually heard from flames. For some reason he never heard them when among the Hearth Keepers.
“Can I help you, my son?”
Roy turned from the fire to find a middle aged Hearth Keeper watching him from just inside the ring of benches. The red scarf around her neck marked her as the Hearth Mother, the highest ranking Keeper and, just as importantly, a married woman. She was beautiful, with wavy brown hair and a motherly figure. But lines of age were beginning to crease her face and gray hair was showing around her temples.
Roy let down the bag he carried over his shoulder, nodding to the woman in greeting. “You can, mother. My name is Roy Harper and I’ve brought you an offering of gold tainted by vice and greed.”
The Hearth Mother took a deep breath, the pained expression that flitted across her face suggesting this was a common occurrence for her. “Of course, my son.” She gestured towards the fire. “Let the fire cleanse it of inequity and we will share it with those in need.”
Roy nodded and dug the small sack of coins out of his bag. The gold drinkers he’d brought down had been wealthier than many of the outlaws and strange creatures he’d hunted across the West. However the fact that he’d had to borrow a silver sword from Hezekiah Oldfathers and strain that wealth out of their blood had put him off the idea of keeping their gold for himself. It wasn’t like he needed the money. After more than a decade of wading through the worst sides of humanity Roy had made his peace with throwing away money for his own peace of mind. The Hearth Keepers never asked where tainted gold came from. When a man and wealth were parted by fire all crimes done in the name of greed were forgotten. If not forgiven.
So he watched the cloth bag burn away, leaving the misshapen lumps of gold slowly melting on the hearth, then he turned back to the Hearth Mother. “I trust you’ll put it to better use.”
“I hope we will.”
She watched him leave in silence, a contrast to most of the Hearth Mothers he’d met. In the years after he’d left the army he’d often gone to the Hearthfires, if only to blot out the voices of less sacred flames. Almost every Hearth Mother he’d met there had tried to, well, mother him. He’d been asked what troubled him or if he was traveling safely by Hearth Mothers more time than he could count. Perhaps that wasn’t surprising, this far to the West.
Most who came that way were in search of wealth and grew increasingly desperate if they couldn’t find it. And desperate men will do anything. Roy wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the Hearth Keepers received more tainted gold here in the West than anywhere else in Columbia. He’d stopped wondering about the source of criminal’s wealth after catching his first bounty. He suspected things were much the same for the Hearth Mother.
If healer’s examinations were the same from Hearth Keepers as army medics Roy figured Brandon would be tied up for at least the next hour so he went on to his next stop on his own. Besides, the Watch Post was almost a mile’s walk outside of town. Like most places this far south, the land around Trenton’s Ferry was dry as grave dirt. There was some greenery around the river but it disappeared from sight once Roy crossed the first rise, leaving him in a world of dull brown dirt and tan colored stone.
The general slope of the land was upwards and after a few ups and downs he came across a footpath leading up a hill that stood a good twenty feet above its surroundings. A narrow path snaked between scrub brush and stone outcroppings. Roy counted four switchbacks around looming rock spurs before he reached the summit and a part of him was glad he didn’t have to try and take the point by force. A dozen men could hold off an army for a few days here, longer depending on how much magic each side had.
At the top of the hill was a tower. Not wood, as was the usual custom, but stone. The base was large enough for a couple of bed chambers, a kitchen and a common room and the watch tower itself rose to a height of thirty feet overhead, commanding an excellent view of everything around. A man in blue denim pants and robes stood guard at the door, leaning on his spear as he watched Roy approach.
“Hello there,” he called, hitching his thumbs into his belt. “What brings you here? Fair weather or foul?”
“Both,” Roy said. He hefted an oilskin bundle that he’d pulled from his bag during the walk up. “I’ve come to claim the price on these heads.”
The man by the door – more of a kid, Roy saw as he drew closer – wavered when he saw the bundle, turning green around the edges. He nodded and opened the door behind him. “I’ll go up the tower and let the Stormfather know you’re here.”
Roy nodded and walked into the common room. The Watch Post was a spartan environment, furnished with simple wooden furniture and a wooden board with a slew of wanted posters nailed to it. By force of habit Roy looked them over to see if any unfamiliar faces had shown up. He was still perusing the posters when the Stormfather came back with the other Watcher. The head of the Watch Post looked about forty, with a tan and wrinkled face that naturally settled into a half smile when he wasn’t grinning and shaking hands, which was the first thing he did when he saw Roy.
“Mr. Harper,” the Stormfather said, “welcome back. No new prices on heads, I’m afraid, although no new criminals showing up is good for the rest of us you’ll probably find the lack of work troublesome.”
“Unfortunately I’ve never had any trouble finding work,” Roy replied. Then he pointed to one part of the board that was suddenly empty. “Did someone really catch Stove Pipe Nick? The Packards have been trying to get him for years.”
“Sheriff up in Winchester County jailed him a couple of weeks ago. He escaped but the Sheriff found his body in the scrub just recently.” The Stormfather shrugged. “Desert’s a harsh mistress and even great skytrain robbers can run afoul of her.”
“True enough.” Roy set the oilcloth bundle on the table. “I’m afraid these four called for more aggressive measures than leaving them for the desert to claim.”
The Stormfather carefully untied the bundle and opened it. The heads of the four gold drinkers lolled out, their eyes staring into nothing. The younger Watchman stifled a gasp. “Is that a child?”
“Not for weeks, at least,” Roy said gently. “Once the Change takes hold there’s nothing left but the monster.”
The Stormfather gave him a skeptical look. “I thought you said your tome told of a way for them to return from their depravity.”
“No, there’s a way for them to undo the Change and remove their need for blood to survive.” Roy drummed his fingers absently on the Journal in his jacket pocket. “I read more after our meeting, as we were scouring the countryside. It seems that converting their bodies back doesn’t undo the change to their minds. If they wish to come back from their depravity they have to actively choose to do that and rebuild their humanity brick by brick, just like any other monster man can choose to be.”
“That doesn’t seem fair,” the young man said. He pointed at the small girl’s head. “You can’t tell me a seven year old girl chose to undergo the Change.”
“Not everyone in a war chooses to fight it,” Roy replied. “War still makes monsters of them, at times, and we judge them the same, don’t we?”
“Enough.” The Stormfather closed up the bundle and gently moved it to one side. “The time for judgment is long past. Any chances there were to avoid this outcome passed long ago and likely were not ours to take. This is a time for mourning. Go down to the homestead and tell your brother to let Ma know we’ll be down in the graveyard after we’re relieved.”
The young man nodded and hurried out of the room. Roy watched him running down the hill with the energy of a young man who had received a shock and didn’t know what to do with himself. Then he replayed his memories and compared the younger man to his father. “Adopted?”
“He takes more after his mother.” The Stormfather got up, his back suddenly bent as if he’d aged twenty years in the last five minutes. “I’ll get your payment. Two hundred marks for the lot, as agreed. I wasn’t expecting four of them, and I’d offer you more if we had it, but we don’t keep that much money on hand.”
“Two hundred is fine.”
The watchman paused in the process of unlocking a chest in the corner of the room. “Oh? Given your reputation I thought you’d take more issue with it.”
Roy tilted his head, curious. “I’m afraid I don’t pay that much attention to my reputation, so long as it isn’t likely to get me run out of town.”
The chest thumped behind the Stormfather as he crossed back to the table. “They say you’ve never once worked for free.”
“Ah. That.” Roy nodded his understanding. “The first honest to goodness firespinner I met when I came out West told me something I’ve never forgotten: Everyone in the world needs your help. There’s only one of you. If they’re not willing to give up something to get that help they don’t need it as badly as someone who will.”
The other man snorted as he thumped a bag of coin down between them. “Not everyone has something to trade.”
“As we’ve just established, the price is mine to choose.” Roy picked up the bag and tossed it once before slipping it into his pocket. “And people have more than just money to offer. The man who told me that took his payments in time, after all.”
The Stormfather studied him for a moment, then glanced at the oilcloth. “You make it sound as if firespinners are no different than gold drinkers.”
“We’re quite similar,” Roy said with a faint smile. “As similar as you are to them. I can’t speak for these gold drinkers in particular but I’ve seen my share of people descent into monsters. The change comes when they stop thinking about others and seek nothing but their own goals. They drink blood because they don’t care about what others value. I ask for a trade because I do. It’s a small difference but it makes all the difference in the world.”
The Stormfather sighed and gathered up the bundle of heads. “I hope you’re right. Thank you for your help, Mr. Harper.”
Roy nodded and walked out of the Watch Post, silently hoping he was right as well.