The ranch house was quickly becoming Hernando’s least favorite part of the homestead. Janice was spending most of her time there. Something about the ramshackle pile of sticks created a powerful attraction that kept her there. He found her standing naked in the kitchen when he returned. A bucket of well water sat on the counter beside her as she carefully adjusted the coils of hair on top of her head. Soft whimpers came from the master bedroom. Hernando scowled.
“What are you doing?” He demanded, striding through the great room to the tall cabinet by the root cellar door.
She hesitated, a long pin closer to a weapon than an ornament half impaled into her hair. “You said to clean up after-”
“Why haven’t you eaten yet?” Hernando demanded, irritation lacing his voice. “You’re as bad as Larry. It will take time for the gold to bond to new blood and give you command of it yet here you are playing with your food instead of eating it.”
Janice turned to face him, arms folded under her breasts. “Hernando, what’s got you so wound up? It ain’t like you to rush through things so much, you ought to be lookin’ at your diary and plannin’ out our next trip but instead you’re all fired up to move on tomorrow.”
“Today, if possible,” he snapped. “The people of Columbia take their holy orders so abominably seriously that we can’t hope they won’t look into the loss of a Watchpost. I thought a day here would let us lay in some iron and gold for emergencies. We’re hours past that and we’ve barely started on the process.”
“They had ranch hands up on the ridge,” Janice said with a helpless shrug. “Did you really want more people escapin’ to rat us out?”
“No,” Hernando snapped. “It’s not anyone’s fault that things didn’t work out perfectly. It is your fault that you won’t do as you’re told. Now go and finish your meal so we can put him with his sister and go about turning them.”
Janice perked up. “So you will give him the change?”
“Only if you have him ready for it before sunset.” With a disgusted shake of his head Hernando rummaged through the cabinet until he found the box he’d spotted there on his initial pass through the building the day before. He took it out and moved it over to the dining table in the great room and emptied the contents there.
“What is that?” Janice asked, still ignoring his instructions to gawk at the pile of paper and tools that spilled out.
“Maps,” Hernando said. “We’re on the edge of territory I know well, I’ll need to look over the counties north of here before I can decide where to go next.”
“Why not go west to Winchester county?” She asked. “There’s a bunch of skytrain stations there. We could fly anywhere in Columbia in four days time.”
“Because the Storm’s Watch is likely to bring in a team of their own to investigate what we did to their Post. Any team they send is far more likely to know a gold drinker than regular men are. And the Storm’s Watch can move their team a lot faster by sky train than by foot or wagon, so we’re going to stay as far from them as we can for the next few weeks.”
Janice sighed. “When you put it that way, I guess we’re gonna have to avoid the skies. To bad. I never been flyin’ before.”
Hernando didn’t mention the other problem with flying – as gold drinkers collected blood iron under the sway of the gold in their veins they quickly got heavy enough to fall right through the floor of most skytrains. To say nothing of what that weight did to throw them off balance. Although he’d taken most of the blood iron Janice drank she was still far heavier than she looked, and probably wouldn’t ever be able to fly without giving her nature away.
Not that her weight was a topic he was eager to broach.
This same difficulty made horses or stage coaches impractical, so they were going to have to walk wherever they wanted to go. “We need some place that is sparsely settled but close enough we can reach it in two or three days. Any ideas?”
“Honey, we been farther north than I’ve ever been since you changed me. But I know ranches, and they’ll have a map with their routes for cattle drivin’ somewhere. There’s usually some kind of way station along them routes we could lay low in for a few days. No one’d miss ’em for weeks.”
Hernando grunted, unhappy with her familiar language but willing to let it pass. Her plan was sound, if he could find those maps. “These don’t look right.”
“Nope. Those’re claims and deeds. The route maps are proably in the boardin’ -”
“Hernando!” Danica charged into the house, eyes wild. “Hernando, they got Larry!”
He set aside the paper and sighed. “Do you mean Larry is missing? Has a group shown up and captured him?”
“He’s dead.” She skidded to a stop and pointed frantically towards the barn. “They cut his head off and all his blood is gone!”
Hernando pursed his lips, stymied. “His blood is gone? How is that possible?”
“I don’t know,” Danica said, “but I couldn’t smell any in his head or his body. He’s pale, Hernando. So pale…”
He didn’t understand how it was possible to exert control over a gold drinker’s blood. The tome he’d discovered that laid out the gold drinker ritual was long on process but very short on details of how that magic worked. It basically laid out the need to feed and how acquiring blood iron would allow them to concentrate their power. It was possible to restore a badly injured, or even decapitated gold drinker, with enough time and blood iron.
However if Larry had lost his blood somehow Hernando was certain he couldn’t restore him with the resources he had on hand. He glanced at Danica. “Did you collect his excess blood before he died?”
“No,” she whispered.
“It can’t be helped.” He loosened his sword in its scabbard. “Did you see any signs of who killed him?”
“No…” Danica seemed to be coming back to herself now. “But I did notice something smelled charred. The barn was smokey.”
Hernando grunted. “I’m surprised we didn’t hear anything. Most sulfurite weapons are on the loud side. Perhaps a spear? Some of those are on the quiet side.”
“Does it matter?” Janice asked.
“I’m wondering how many men are out there. If they were a large group I don’t think they’d be so sneaky about this, they’d already be beating down the door.” He gave Janice a look. “Get dressed, Janice. We’re going hunting.”
Once she was given sufficient motivation Janice could move very quickly. She got dressed and retrieved her machete. It was more tool than weapon, without even a mounting spot for a sulfurite crystal, but it was deadly enough at close range. Hernando had tried to train her in the use of a sulfurite blade but so far she was more a danger to herself and her allies than their enemies. So for now the machete would have to do.
They found Larry right where Danica left him. Hernando glanced at her. “Has anything changed?”
“No, he was like this when I found him. I – I just got scared and ran to find you so I didn’t look at him that closely but he looked like this as near as I remember.” She knelt down and studied the floor. “I think he was in a puddle before but it may have drained away or dried out?”
Hernando squinted his eyes and looked around the barn. “Where are the horses?”
“I don’t know. They weren’t here when I found him.”
Janice walked to the back and looked through the rear door. “They’re not in the fields, either. Do you think it was horse thieves?”
“Simple horse thieves wouldn’t know how to do this. I’m not even sure how this was accomplished.” Hernando knelt down and studied the stump of Larry’s neck. The cut was not particularly clean. In fact it looked more like the last bit had been torn off more than cut through, suggesting the blade that made the cut was on the dull side. Larry didn’t have enough blood iron to be unusually durable, so decapitating him wouldn’t have been any harder than cutting the head of a normal man. But that was still a difficult task.
Hernando picked up Larry’s head and set it aside to reveal a second wound in the stomach, not a cut but a deep stabbing wound. “That would be the spear,” he murmured. “They moved the body for some reason.”
“Maybe as part of how they removed his blood?” Danica said. “And they used the water to wash away the evidence.”
“I don’t understand why they would be so secretive,” Hernando said. “It’s a lot of time wasted for negligible return. Still the kill itself was quite masterful.”
He studied the two women with him skeptically. For all his erratic nature he was a dependable fighter when the need arose, where as the womenfolk were very early in their training. He definitely didn’t have the resources to revive Larry so he was going to have to be left behind. “I don’t think this is a fight we want to have. Janice?”
She turned away from the doorway. “Yes?”
“Go collect the boy, eat your damn meal and take him to his sister. Danica, look for the horses. If you can’t find them in a quarter hour, meet me at the slaughterhouse and we’ll perform the change on our new members.”
“Where will you be?” Janice asked.
“I’m going to find those maps.” Hernando grimaced. “It’s time to move on.”
“Yes. I’m not tangling with the unknown when we’re this far in the red. One day there will be a reckoning for this, but it’s not today.”