It was the same face, but different.
The lines matched the drawing from the war, but their course over his face ran deeper and broader than in the picture. The eyes reflecting the firelight were dulled with clouds, not cold as the winter sky. Whiskers overran their proper places on lip and chin, clawing up cheeks and over ears enough to hide most of his face from casual view.
But Roy knew.
He remembered that day on Briarheart Ridge. When a single officer in the uniform of the Lakeshire militia crested the breastworks at the top of the ridge, the branches of countless maple trees waving behind him. Roy had seen the man’s face through the blood spattered telescope lens he’d take from Captain Colbert’s body. He’d watched the general start down the ridge, walking as one with the forest. And ordered his men to run like death itself chased them.
“Hezekiah Oldfathers,” Roy whispered.
The camp exploded into motion, Reeds bringing his hands together in a charm as his brother put his body and mace between Oldfathers and the rest. Grunt loomed up behind the brothers, fumbling a fresh sulfurite crystal into his sword. O’Hara pulled Nora down partway behind a large rock for cover.
Roy opened himself to the fire.
The branches and logs flash burned, leaving nothing but ash in the space of a breath, and the flames leapt upwards. Roy shaped them into a burning T shape that towered nearly to the top of the overhang, arms spread wide to react to any threat the old druid might offer.
But Oldfathers did nothing.
He just stood there, half shadowed in the night, and watched them with something between amusement and resignation. For a moment the tableau held. Finally he said, “I’m old, son, but if you think a Columbian regular can kill me with one of those shoddy swords that won’t even lock in sulfurite anymore, you’ve another thing coming. Which would be a pity, I’m not here to fight you.”
That might even be true. He didn’t stand before a massive tree line that had crept up on them in the dark. A glance up confirmed no ivy or tree roots dug through the stone overhang to strangle them, no bushes waited to topple over the edge on their heads. The druid had caught them unawares but brought none of his traditional weapons.
It would be reassuring if they weren’t camped in the middle of a forest.
Roy reminded himself that this was more than a chance encounter with a wanted man. This was a master of the craft standing on the cusp of a legend made manifest. Nothing was as it seemed. But whatever goals the general brought to the table they didn’t seem to involve fighting with Roy or his group. At least not at the moment. The fire lapsed back down to its original shape, Roy pushing the extra energy he’d forcibly extracted from the kindling into the small pile of sulfurite crystals half buried in the ash of the firepit. But he never took his eyes from the man just outside the circle of firelight.
“What brings you here, General Oldfathers?” Roy asked.
“Courtesy and compassion,” the druid answered without hesitation. “I’ve just come from Yellowstone and I heard things there you’ll want to know.”
Grunt gave Roy a look, lowered his sword when the other nodded and moved to push a few new logs into the fire with his foot. Roy let the flames take hold on the new fuel source and let them go from his mind, ignoring their lonely whispers. With the magic no longer weighing on him Roy found himself exhausted. But he refused to let Oldfathers see it. “Why should I believe anything you say?”
“Why doubt me?” Oldfathers stepped into the circle of firelight. Something shifted as he did so, as if a watchful presence had relaxed. “Are we enemies?”
Marshall stepped forward, touching the head of his club to the General’s chest. Both men paused, studying one another, and Oldfathers held his hands out, palms up, a cane dangling from the thumb of his left hand.
Roy stepped forward and moved Marshall gently to one side. Oldfathers raised one eyebrow but didn’t say anything as Roy started looking him over. The cane was a solid piece of living silver. At first Roy had thought it was just tin swift with a single sulfurite setting, handy for a little extra oomph when walking about. But on closer inspection it had the sheen of silver and the crystal set in the handle was big enough that the druid could easily reshape it into anything he wanted. There was nothing in the brim or band of his plain, brown cap. He wore a neckerchief in a hunter’s knot. His worn, green jacket was damp from the rain but, as it had slowed to a drizzle, wasn’t soaking and was otherwise unremarkable. There was a pocket watch in his vest pocket but no weapons in his belt unless you counted the three glowing fulminite crystals in the loops over his right hip.
There were four loops in the belt, Roy noticed. One was empty.
He grunted and filed that away then turned out the general’s pockets. Just a few coins there. Last he checked the boots – or, rather, boot as Oldfathers had lost his right leg at the knee at some point and now it was just a hickory peg. The boot contained a lot of leg and nothing else. There was nothing at all untoward on his person, which was almost more suspicious than the druid showing up with his pockets full of incense and a belt full of weapons.
Unsatisfied but curious, Roy moved out of the way and gestured to the fire. “Take a seat, General?”
“A man after my own heart,” Oldfathers said with a rueful grin as he straightened his clothes. “I applaud your sense of caution.”
Roy just glared at him. O’Hara cleared her throat and asked, “Why do you make it sound as if you came looking for us?”
“Because I did. Or, at least, I did if you’re the group I think you are.” Nora had returned to her previous seat and Oldfathers sat by her, saying, “You are Mrs. Blythe, aren’t you?”
“Yes.” The widow studied him with surprising innocence. “I can’t imagine what business you have with me, General.”
“Well, I’m afraid your older son has slipped out of town this afternoon.” Oldfathers took one of her hands gently in both of his. “Now I want you to stay calm. The situation is probably not what you think it is.”
If the general was trying to get Nora’s anger to override her fear then he was succeeding. She jerked her hands away from him, saying, “Calm? My sons are entrapped by ancient Sanna bedtime stories and I’m just supposed to stay calm?”
Oldfathers blinked once. “Perhaps the situation is what you think it is.” He glanced at Marshall and Reeds. “Perhaps that’s not surprising.”
Roy settled on a nearby rock that gave him a direct line to the druid. “Why is this any concern of yours?”
“Why?” His eyebrows shot up. “A child goes missing and I’m not supposed to be concerned? You clearly know about Yose and Mete and you think the stirring of such an ancient power wouldn’t worry any practitioner of the craft worth his implements?”
Roy scowled at Oldfathers over the fire, looking downright hostile in the shadows. “Why should it matter? These legends often stir the local elementals a bit and they can cause problems. But why would a druid – trained by and in line to inherit a stone circle – come all this way because of one local legend?”
Oldfathers’ gaze sild over to Reeds for a moment, then back again. “They haven’t told you, have they?”
Roy also glanced at Reeds, who was looking uncomfortable. But he also looked past Reeds to Marshall, who nodded. “What haven’t they told me? That Yose’s spirit sleeps in the lake by Yellowstone? That his brother sleeps here on the mountain, by the nawonota-“
He froze, mind jumping forward a dozen steps then backtracking to examine each step in the logic. A nawonota was a talisman that defended against evil spirits. None of the Noble Metals could effect a spirit so those kinds of defenses weren’t part of Vulcanic magic, the tradition he knew the most about, but Tetzlanii magic worried about spirits a great deal and they didn’t repel spirits, like a druid might use incense to repel trees. Instead the Tetzlanii trapped them for use in other rituals. If the Sanna used the same method the nawonota might be some kind of spiritual pit trap.
And Reeds said Yose and Mete were equals. The older brother was vulna, an avatar of the First Elements, and no longer strictly human. That implied the younger was vulna as well. That was a powerful thing to trap, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t happen. And an avatar was already part spirit so the journey all the way there was easier than normal, as Yose’s fate proved. “Mete’s spirit is trapped in the nawonota, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Reeds said. “I thought you understood.”
He really should have. All the pieces were there but he hadn’t put them together because he’d focused on Oldfathers instead. “Okay, he’s in the nawonota. I don’t know anything about how those work, so what does it mean that he’s trapped there?”
“Nawonota are not designed to destroy or cleanse,” Reeds said. “They contain until a medicine man can prepare the rites to cleanse the spirits and send them to rest.”
“Based on stories the Stone Circle collected in the early days of the Columbian settlement I have reason to believe Mete is the avatar for the Bones of Enkidu,” Oldfathers said. “That alone is enough to make him dangerous even in death. But there’s also evidence to suggest the legend of his battle with his brother has played out at least twice a century since they fought.”
“How long ago was that?” O’Hara asked.
“The Sanna don’t keep time quite like we do,” the druid said.
But Reeds interrupted him before he could continue. “The Brothers cycle has played out at least a dozen times, perhaps as many as twenty. The tribes in this part of the land have kept the stories and agree on that.”
Oldfathers nodded. “That roughly matches the Stone Circle’s count, which is either fifteen or sixteen iterations. And each time a pair of powerful brothers fights, the younger dies and his spirit is taken into the nawonota.”
“So there’s more than one iteration of the story trapped there?” Grunt asked. “Or have they all fused into one super spirit?”
“We can’t know until we see it,” Reeds said, “but whatever the outcome I doubt we will find a rational, human spirit left. The Bones of Enkidu will be all that is there.”
“Sorry,” Nora put it, “but what’s the significance of these bones?”
“Enkidu was the first wild man,” Oldfathers said. “He rejected civilization and destroyed cities wherever he found them. As an avatar of the Unshakeable Foundation he represents the earth in general and humanity’s origins in the wild state of nature in particular. My understanding was that, in the original legends, Mete was balanced by his brother who was avatar for the Spark of Creation, though it’s unclear which. But Yose hasn’t had any way to fuse with his successive iterations like Mete has. If they meet again they’re not going to be in any way equal. Yose will face generations of powerful warriors alone.”
“That is not an issue so long as the nawonota contains Mete,” Reeds said. “But nawonota are not meant to stand alone. They’re meant as part of a household’s defenses, and a household is intended as part of a tribe. Without the support of these greater patterns of power any nawonota, no matter how well made, will fail and release its prisoners on the world. Mete must be cleansed and sent on before that happens.”
Roy’s attention flicked to Marshall, who looked uncharacteristically grave, and decided it was best they leave that line of discussion for the time being. “So let me see if I follow your plan, General Oldfathers. You learned the Brothers legend was waking and came here to do something about it before Mete got out of his prison.”
“Protecting Arthur’s legacy is one of my duties, yes,” he confirmed. “Can’t do that if a wild man tears the civilization he founded apart, can I?”
“Fair enough. You clearly had some plan in place to do that. Want to share it with us?”
He hesitated for a moment but Nora leaned forward, hands clasped, and said, “Please, General.”
“Very well. I deployed various methods to slow your son’s progress up the mountain along the most likely routes Thomas could take, although with the aid of Yose there’s little chance they will endanger him. With the time that buys me I intend to confront and purify Mete and end the cycle before your sons meet in battle.” Oldfathers gestured vaguely down the ridges. “I tracked Thomas a little ways out of Yellowstone and it’s likely that he’s following the same route you did, so he’s going to run into a powerful elemental I conjured a couple of ridges down. You probably saw it overhead this morning.”
There was a moment of uncomfortable silence around the campfire. “About that,” Roy said. “We certainly saw it.”
Oldfathers studied him for a second. “And after seeing it?”
“Thunderbirds are not exactly benevolent creatures, General. We dispersed it.”
The general huffed in annoyance. “Well. I can’t blame you for that, I suppose, they are typically hostile and dangerous.”
“How did you not notice?” O’Hara demanded.
“I spent most of this afternoon collecting the measures I placed on other parts of the mountain, so they wouldn’t pose a danger to anyone else later.” Oldfathers crossed his arms and stared into the fire in a fit of pique. “I’ll have to set up something else tomorrow.”
“I think not, General,” Roy said.
When he didn’t continue, O’Hara leaned in to say something but Grunt put a hand on her arm and gently moved her back. Roy got to his feet and moved to the edge of the overhang, turning his back to the fire, and looked out at the rain, which had come back for a second showing. But he wasn’t really paying attention to it.
When he’d gotten on the Express a few days ago he’d been expecting to help an old friend take care of something simple, like chasing off squatters, rounding up some bandits or maybe hunting a griffon or two. Running down a bounty, even a big one like Hezekiah Oldfathers, was a step up from that but not a drastic one. Until that moment he’d kept hold of the hope that they could catch or kill Oldfathers and be done with the matter. Ever since he’d had his first brush with the raw power of the First Elements back in Tetzlan he’d been trying to avoid them and their avatars, with only middling success. Clearly this trip was going to go into the failure column of that reckoning.
On the one hand he could walk off the mountain the next morning and let the general try whatever he wanted, regardless of the consequences. On the other hand, Grunt and Mrs. Blythe would be right there on ground zero and Roy couldn’t see anything good coming of that regardless of whether Oldfathers succeeded or failed. No matter how he sliced it, ignoring the presence of a wanted man about to acquire a legendary spirit that equaled or surpassed him in malevolence wasn’t an option. Which left only one good alternative that Roy could think of.
He turned and moved back to his seat. Grunt handed him a cup of coffee as he got settled, which Roy took with an appreciative nod. “So,” Grunt said. “How bad is it? Clay Creek? The Wilderness? Five Ridges?”
Roy blew on the coffee for a moment, contemplating. “I’d say somewhere between Five Ridges and the Summer of Snow.”
That got a low whistle. “Not good, Harp.”
“No, it ain’t.” Roy took a gulp of coffee and turned his attention to Oldfathers. “You’ve been very upfront with me, General. I’ll do you the same courtesy. I don’t believe you.”
“On what front?” The druid didn’t seem upset, only curious.
“Oh, I trust your assessment of the magical implications of the situation on the mountain,” Roy said. “You’re easily the most accomplished arcanist on this mountain, possibly in Pyrenes County. I just don’t believe that the man who should stand within Morainhenge, who has more reason to hate Columbia than any person living, who refused to appear at the peace signing, who actually ran from Columbian law with some of the most powerful relics in the nation in hand, will just cleanse an ancient and malevolent legend because he happened to take a passing interest in it. So why should I believe that’s really why you came here, and not to add that legend to the long list of powerful magics at your disposal?”
Oldfathers studied Roy for a long moment, the dancing flames setting shadows flickering across his face and giving the momentary impression he was smiling. Then the general’s cane began to twist and writhe, the crystal in its grip glowing softly, and the silver changed from a walking tool to a long, narrow bladed sword. His left hand rested on the quillons of the crosspiece. He raised his right hand, palm out, and spoke in a deep, sonorous voice. “My name is Hezekiah Oldfathers, commander of the Knights of the Stone Circle.”
Roy felt as if the world around him was falling away as the general continued. “I serve at the pleasure of Arthur, First and Forever King of Avalon.”
In the far distance something ancient and awesome turned to regard that small and insignificant campfire. Roy felt its attention fall on him, as heavy and oppressive as the air before rain. “In storm and sunshine I walk among the stone circle and steward its legacy for the coming generations.”
The fire leapt and danced at Oldfather’s words, the wind and rain whispered wordless replies and the stone wall behind them echoed it all back for the world to hear. “And I swear on the grave of Pellinore, the Hunter, that all I have said concerning my goals and intentions are true.”
The general lowered his hand and in that moment it seemed as though some new, foundational law of the universe slammed into place. Everything returned to normal a second later, Grunt’s sharp intake of breath telling Roy he’d felt it, too.
Unphased by what had just transpired, O’Hara laughed and said, “You don’t expect any of us to believe you because of that, do you?”
“He does,” Roy whispered. “And we do.”