A Candle in the Wind – Prologue

Sometimes the best stuff you come up with is a surprise. The adventures of Roy Harper, Firespinner, is just one such example in my own body of work. Roy wasn’t intended as a major character he was just someone I thought up when plotting out an entirely different series. I spent a lot of time thinking about him as I organized that story and inevitably writing about Roy as well. Ideas for stories about a roving mercenary, armed with magic and the chip on his shoulder, just kept occurring to me, far outstripping the initial idea I had for a tin star sheriff with a magic sword.

I often pitch the basic concept of Roy Harper’s adventures as “Have Spell, Will Travel.” To me, his story has always been much more complicated than that, deeply tied to ideas I have developed about chivalry and its importance to understanding the modern age. Such philosophical concepts are interesting to discuss among friends but rarely get a lot of attention from strangers. Why is that? Well, mostly because a philosophy doesn’t count for squat until we begin to live it out.

Stories are about living things out. If you really want to explore ideas about philosophy, morality or politics you’ll get much further, and interest far more people, if you present those ideas through stories and not just through idealized stories about how your philosophy will play out under ideal circumstances but stories where those ideas are challenged in the most extreme fashion. Roy is a man who tried to live out a very important part of his philosophy – his patriotism. He went and he fought in a war and what he saw in that war challenged him greatly. He’s still struggling against those challenges.

If you’ve read Roy’s pervious stories you know that his past has played a big part in how he looks at situations and this one is no exception. There will be talk about the virtues of chivalry in Roy’s world. But for the most part this story is culmination. We’ve seen Roy in every aspect of his life – honoring his connections from the past, dealing with trouble as he finds it and actively hunting down evil throughout the West. In this story he’ll do all three and deal with them in ways only he could.

This story was a surprise to me. It occurred to me during a brainstorming session and quickly jumped ahead of several other Roy Harper stories I was developing. It’s the perfect capstone to introducing the character. It’s exciting, it’s fun and it lets Roy do what he does best – hit far above his weight class because he sees through to the truth of the matter. I’m very delighted to present it to you, starting today.

But before we get started I do have one thing to bring to your attention. While I always intend to put all my fiction published on the Internet on this blog this will no longer be the long term home for my fiction. All chapters of A Candle in the Wind will be available here while the story is being published and for six weeks after the story wraps up. Then all chapters of that story, as well as all Roy Harper stories previously published here, will be removed and only available through the archive of my newly established Substack. Reading the archive will require a paid subscription.

While I believe the Internet is a fantastic way to attract an audience the fact is if I want to make a living at this, and I do, then sooner or later I have to sweettalk someone into paying for the stories I write. It’s my hope that a Substack that allows me to paywall all my older work while still offering my current projects for free will be a good way to do this. Don’t worry, this blog won’t be going anywhere. All of the content that has appeared here in the past will continue to appear here. I don’t plan to move anything outside of the Roy Harper archives to Substack any time soon and before I move other fiction there in the future I plan to give at least two months notice. My generalized posts on writing, philosophy and the like will continue to appear here and will never be paywalled.

If you’re interested in supporting me on Substack you can find me there by following this link:


However if you chose not to join as a paid subscriber I fully understand. If you’re reading this here you’re some of my oldest and most faithful readers and I have always appreciated you for just reading. I hope you’ll stick with me through this latest installment. Now, after all that housekeeping, we bring you to the prologue of Roy’s latest outing. Thanks as always, and enjoy the show!

The sandstone statue of Jonathan Riker was quite new in monumental terms. The citizens of Riker’s Cove commissioned it the year after he was killed fighting Wendigoes during the Summer of Snow. They collected the money and hired a somewhat famous sculptor from the capitol in Hancock. The artisan was given a painting of the town’s founder that depicted him dressed in his sailor’s pea coat, carrying his ship’s log and sextant and then left to his work. Two years later it was unloaded from the skytrain and put in place overlooking the town graveyard after the rainy season.

Due to the problems of tide and storm surge the graveyard sat on top of a grassy bluff that shadowed the northern side of the cove. Now Riker’s likeness looked down from the highest point, keeping vigil over both the family crypt and the town that bore his name.

At the moment said crypt was visited by a lone man. He was a head shorter than the norm and dressed in a simple but well tailored brown suit with a red waistcoat. A crisp, new derby hat was currently held over his heart as he contemplated the grave. He wore a sword belt with a long, wickedly bladed falcata strapped to his side. The beginnings of crows feet wrinkled the corners of his eyes and light brown hair swept across his skull in short, neat lines.

The man came to town on the evening sky train. He hadn’t been impressed with the bare field where the weekly train landed. The absence of platform and station was something old Riker had always intended to remedy but never gotten to so the statue was not offended on the town’s behalf. It silently watched as the stranger made his way into town, stopped at the only inn for a few minutes and finally made his way back out of town and up the bluff to the graveyard. He’d stopped at Jonathan’s crypt for five minutes or so. Then, having lingered as long as was appropriate for an acquaintance rather than an old friend, he put his hat back on and was turning to leave when the second man entered the graveyard.

He wore a battered slouch hat over wavy blonde hair, a long leather duster and denim pants and shirt. A tin disk with a five pointed star engraved on it was pinned to his coat. An archaic straight bladed sword with a simple crossguard was strapped to his side and he carried a candle in a flat, silver holder by a ring shaped handle.

The graveyard wasn’t large and the stranger spotted the sheriff right away. He paused, hand still on the brim of his hat, looking a bit surprised. That was a fitting reaction. The statue had never seen the town’s current sheriff visit the graveyard before. Then again, he’d only moved to town some two years ago and it was possible he didn’t know any of the town’s deceased.

The stranger finally lowered his hand to his side and moved to meet the sheriff in front of the crypt. The sheriff looked him up and down then said, “Are you Roy Harper?”

“That’s me. You seem to have the advantage on me.”

“Avery Warwick,” the blond man said, “and I’m the sheriff of Riker’s Cove. Can I ask what brings a professional mercenary to my town?”

The candle in the sheriff’s hand suddenly popped, sputtered and coughed then burned normally again. Both men stared at it in surprise. Once it was clear the candle was back to normal Roy said, “My business is actually related to yours, sheriff. I’ve learned that a wanted man is laying low here in Riker’s Cove and I’ve come to take the matter in hand.”

“You’re here for a bounty, then?”

“I’m here because I made a promise to an old friend. Bringing in a wanted man just so happens to be a part of that.” Roy made an indifferent gesture. “I don’t have to collect the bounty myself, although I won’t complain if I do get it.”

“I see.” Avery gestured back to town. “Would you mind moving this discussion into someplace more private? If you’re after a fugitive then you don’t want to tip your hand.”

As the two men moved back through the graveyard their voices grew distant. “Can you tell me who this fugitive is?” Avery asked as they went.

“Heinrich,” Roy answered. “Heinrich von Nighburg.”

Then they were out of earshot and the statue was alone again, keeping silent vigil over the Cove once more.


A Eulogy for Morgan Hale

I was wrong! There is one last Roy Harper short left I’d forgotten about. This was inspired by another story I was reading that had what I felt was a very simplistic, naïve approach to the idea of justice. I wanted to see it interrogated a little bit so I wound up writing this story, which I now share with you. Hope you enjoy!

The Heathfire’s central flame burned bright and cheerful, tended by the careful ministrations of attentive Hearth Keepers. The young women alternated between keeping the hearth burning and helping the Storm’s Watch construct a bier for the late Morgan Hale. Hale’s funeral had been ongoing for the last hour, a rolling series of songs, stories and moments of quiet reflection.

Since his arrival in the town of Granite Valley six years ago, Morgan had become a local fixture. He was always on hand to raise a barn or birth a calf. When he’d first appeared in the company of the comely widow Jenny Templeton many had assumed some kind of attraction between them even though he was nearly twenty years her senior. These suspicions never proved true, although they persisted for years, until Jenny passed from consumption.

Morgan’s subsequent support of her son until the age of majority cemented the town’s good opinion of him. So it was no surprise that most of the bier was built by the townspeople, placing each stick of kindling after they shared their story of the deceased as tradition demanded. As of yet, no one had removed wood in a sign of disapproval. However, even now the stack of fuel was poor match to the task of cremating a body. Few, indeed, are the men of such noble character that such a task could be accomplished though the goodwill of their community alone.

So the servants of the Mated Pair labored to fill in the gaps as the service wound down. Dusk was falling and soon Morgan would need to burn his path into the night. However as the first long shadows of the sunset touched the Hearth’s building a stranger slipped into the building.

He went unnoticed by most of the mourners at first. In truth this was because he did not look very remarkable. He was on the short side, although his calloused hands and broad shoulders spoke of strength enough for most things. His dark blue suit was appropriate for the occasion. Only the embroidery on his bright yellow vest, hinting that he was a man of means, spoke of anything out of the ordinary.

When Samuel Templeton caught sight of the stranger his outburst shocked the crowd, finally drawing attention to the interloper among them. The new arrival ignored the young man. Instead he approached the bier, also ignoring the piece of kindling one of the Hearth Keepers offered him, and took a stick from the pile. Then he walked to the Hearth.

The crowd watched him in total silence. Doubtless they expected him to throw the kindling onto the main Hearth, a common sign of disapproval for the deceased at this kind of memorial. But the stranger didn’t do this either.

Instead he turned his back to the Hearth and sat down on its edge, the roaring light of the flames casting him in ominous shadow. If the heat of the Hearthfire bothered him he gave no sign. The stranger rested his stick of kindling across his knees and began to speak.

“My name is Roy Harper and my profession is violence.” He removed a sheaf of papers from the inner pocket of his jacket. “I first heard of Morgan Hale after the Carlyle Stage Coach robbery nearly seven years ago when he and the Carlyle brothers killed three guards, a man and his daughter, all in an attempt to steal a strongbox of silver marks on route to the Farnsworth bank in Rapids City.”

The end of Harper’s announcement was lost in an uproar from the townsfolk. Confusion and outrage warred with each other in the crowd’s emotions. Harper waited for them to quiet. While he did he unfolded his papers and pulled out a worn, tattered and dirty page.

It was a wanted poster for Morgan Hale, almost seven years old, issued in due course by the Mayor of Rapids City and witnessed by the Storm’s Watch.

Harper held it up and the last few professing how impossible or mistaken his accusations must be fell silent. He put the other papers away and laid the poster on top of the kindling in his lap. “Three men hit the Farnsworth stage coach, then they split up. The older Carlyle lit out for Sanna territory. It’d take a man with connections among their leaders and a reputation for fairness to catch up to him. Carlyle the Younger went south across the border to Tetzlan. The man to catch him couldn’t fear the magic in stone or blood. By the time I caught up with Hale, six months had passed since the robbery.”

“What?” Terry Schmidt the blacksmith was a large man with graying hair, a frequent partner of Morgan in booze and business. “Six months? Morgan would’ve been here in Granite Valley by then.”

If the question bothered Harper he didn’t show it. Call and response was a part of most rituals at the Hearth, after all, and memorials for the departed were no exception. “So he was,” Harper said, “so he was. In fact, he was mending a fence for the Templetons when I found him.”

“Was he now?” Terry glanced at Samuel but the youth didn’t meet his gaze. “I’ve been in more than one scrap with ol’ Morgan as both friend and foil. I can’t believe he survived a duel with one of the most famous firespinners in Columbia.”

“Do you know who Jack and Mercy Templeton were?” Harper asked.

Terry frowned, clearly confused by the sudden change in topic. “Sure. That was Sam’s old man and sister.”

“And did your friend Morgan ever mention that he killed them?” Harper held up his bit of kindling lengthwise between his fingertips. “Wood was Morgan’s trade and a wondrous trade it is. A large enough tree had a mind of its own but in the hands of a skilled worker even a few sticks will move on their own. Sometimes that’s all it takes to be deadly.”

For the first time since he’d started speaking the people of Granite Valley had nothing to say. “It’s a simple thing to break a wagon’s axle. Simpler still if one has mastered the ways of a hedge mage. You only need to see the stage coach you’ve targeted and you can work a magic to snap it like a matchstick.”

A voice in the back said, “No doubt Morgan was a master wood worker with magic and without.” The townsfolk turned on the speaker, aghast. It was Sheriff Delaney. The tall, gangly man stroked his graying mustache thoughtfully as he walked towards the front of the room. “I’m not saying he killed Sam’s family, folks, just that he could do what Mr. Harper’s saying.”

“The Carlyles were ruthless enough to kill the coachman and the guards but neither the brothers or Hale were expecting passengers on the Rapid City coach,” Harper said. “When the coach crashed the men on the outside were thrown free. The strongbox broke out of its moorings and crushed the two passengers inside – namely, Jack and Mercy Templeton.”

“He couldn’t have,” Terry snapped. “I’m telling you, Morgan Hale didn’t have a malicious bone in his body.”

“If I break open a dam and kill others with the floodwaters how malicious I was when I broke it isn’t important.”

“You’re not wrong, Mr. Harper,” Sheriff Delaney said, squaring off against the other man. “Perhaps Hale had a hand in their deaths. Why would he wind up with the rest of Templeton family when they came here to the Valley? Wouldn’t he have avoided them instead?”

“That’s not something I can answer,” Harper said. “I asked, but neither he nor Jenny would tell me how it was they crossed paths out there on the high plains. I have my suspicions.”

“Like what?” Terry demanded.

“I think he was looking for them, maybe even followed them from Rapid City.” Harper glanced at Samuel. “But I wasn’t there when they met, I don’t know what he said to Jenny to win her trust and frankly I don’t care, either. The moment is long past. If it matters to you, there’s one person who was there you can ask.”

Attention swung back to Jenny’s boy and he looked down, unwilling to meet the townsfolk’s eyes. After an awkward moment, the sheriff cleared his throat. “If you know so little about Mr. Hale, why bother coming here at all?”

“Oh, I know a fair bit about Morgan Hale.” Harper studied the sheriff with clear amusement. “Like I said, I found Hale about six months after the coach robbery. Took time to pick up the trail. Plenty of opportunities to learn about him while I was poking around Rapid City and talking to his old associates. In fact, when I found him here I’d say I knew more about him than anyone in Granite Valley at the time.”

“And then what?” Terry demanded. “You could’ve taken him in easy, so why didn’t you?”

“As I said, I found him working on a fence by a new house on the north end of your good town,” Harper said, making himself comfortable on the Hearth. “The Templeton house, although I didn’t know that then. Planned to get the drop o him and give him the option to come quiet. That fell through when a kid of about ten came out of the house with a jug of water and sat down to watch him work. Wasn’t the right time to step in, so I came back to the local hospitality for the night.”

“Nice of you to consider the innocent,” Sheriff Delaney said.

“Kids are a variable I like to avoid, if I’m honest,” Harper replied in deadly earnest. “Everyone goes a little odd when they’re around, law abiding or not.”

“Your compassion inspires.”

“Someone must’ve recognized me in town – not surprising since that old Tetzlani bounty was still on my head at the time. Whatever it was, word got back to Jenny and she found me at the saloon.” Harper folded his arms and leaned back until he was dangerously close to the roaring flames of the Hearth. “She had some nonsense ideas-”

“She told you the truth!” Samuel snapped, his patience finally stretched beyond bearing. “You just didn’t want to listen to it.”

Harper’s eyes narrowed and the Hearthfire behind him crackled and dimmed, the flames burning lower as if in response to his mood. “What would you know about it, son?”

“I’m more Morgan’s son than yours, Roy Harper,” Samuel snapped. “Ma couldn’t believe what an obstinate, hard headed man you were. I must’ve heard the story at least once a year. She asked you to leave Morgan alone and you refused.”

“I did,” Harper admitted. “The money on his head was more than just my room and board, Mr. Templeton. It was a sign of how heavy his crimes were and how strong the demand for justice. My job is to make sure people like Morgan Hale feel the weight of those demands.”

Samuel paced back and forth, gesturing wildly with his hands in a way that reminded the townfolk of his mother. “Justice? Justice from a firespinner? All people like you do is spread dath through the west. Violence only begets more violence.”

“Spoken like someone who knows little of the art.”

“It is your profession,” Terry muttered.

Neither Harper nor Samuel took notice, both men were seemingly lost in the recounting of a long standing dispute. Behind them the fire leapt and snapped, casting their shadows over the room. For a moment, as if by the magic of the Hearth, the son channeled the spirit of his mother to argue the fate of the departed man once more.

What does killing Morgan accomplish?” Samuel demanded on his mother’s behalf. “It won’t bring back what we lost. The dead will still be dead, you’ll just have created more of them.”

“The measure of justice isn’t life,” Harper said. “Nor is it restitution. Justice is measured by retribution so that those who take from others also lose what they gained unjustly.”

“Isn’t it enough that Morgan has created a widow and a grieving mother?” Samuel slumped, grief clear in the line of his shoulders. “How many more wives and mothers will suffer before your sense of justice is satisfied?”

“The absence of grief doesn’t create justice,” Harper replied. “And no one will mourn Hale. His mother threw him out of her home and he never married.”

“You know his family?”

“No better than you.” With each answer Harper’s intensity built and the fire stoked higher behind him. “If both are equally likely then our arguments are of equal weight wouldn’t you say?”

“I’d hardly say they’re equally likely. What mother could hate her children that much?”

Harper took a deep breath and let it out slowly, the fire behind him gradually returning to normal. “And yet it seemed to me that your mother hand little affection for her own daughter, given how little grief she showed.”

“It seemed that way to me, too,” Samuel admitted. With that, the spell was broken and they were back in the present, the crowd at the Hearth letting out a collective breath they hadn’t realized they’d been holding. “But mother had already spent what grief she allowed herself. Her concern was for me. I remember what she told me, over and over, when I cursed the people who killed my father. The same thing she said to you.”

Harper nodded. “She refused to raise her son in a world without Mercy.”

Terry put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “It must have been hard to learn who Morgan was. When did your mother tell you?”

“When Mr. Harper came back the next year.”

Sheriff Delaney gave Harper a hard look. “You came back?”

“Every year, even after Jenny was dead,” Harper said. He held up Hale’s wanted poster for them all to see. “Four hundred and fifty silver marks. That’s not a price put on a head for just one or two deaths, cold as that may sound. Hale helped the Carlyles kill three other souls beyond the Templetons. Farnsworth bank went bust after that robbery and half the town moved out for greener pastures. Bandits and the Sanna picked over the rest. Jenny wanted to buy out all that debt in the name of Mercy.”

“You don’t think a girl’s life and memory are worth more than a few hundred marks?” Terry asked.

Harper took his stick and pointed at the funerary pyre. “A person’s life cannot be simplified to a pile of sticks or a stack of silver. To pretend it is goes beyond foolish into the realm of true evil. Yet we have to try something so we name a price in coins or try to repay sins in virtue. But Mercy? To pay a debt in Mercy both the one who offers and the one who receives must accept it and live by it. Jenny Templeton offered. I never believed Morgan Hale could accept it.”

Harper set the piece of wood aside. As he spoke he carefully folded the wanted poster in half once, twice and a third time. “So I came back here every year. Every year, Jenny met me to send me away, at least until she died. Then her son met me instead. I grew familiar with the arguments they made to defend their decision. I never agreed with it.”

“Why not?” Sheriff Delaney asked.

“I believed sooner or later Hale would take off again after easy money and bloody chaos.” Harper took the poster and the piece of wood and put them back on the pyre with the stick holding the paper in place. “But I was wrong. He never did, not even when he was poor and dying. He knew he was the same as Jenny, he couldn’t live without Mercy. I suppose I owed it to him to acknowledge that.”

“You didn’t have to come here and do it in the middle of his funeral,” Terry snarled. “Have some respect.”

“I’m not the only one out there who knew Morgan Hale as a villain,” Harper replied. “You’d have heard the story sooner or later. The fact of the matter is, you heard it here, in a position to weight it against all the other things Hale did in his life. If you heard it later? After your memories faded and the importance of being fair to a dead man was no longer forefront in your mind? Perhaps you wouldn’t see the issue with such clarity.”

Harper dusted his hands off and started through the crowd, which reluctantly parted for him. “You can’t change Morgan Hale’s fate now,” he said, stopping by the building’s door and facing them one last time. “All you can do is take the measure of his life and decide if it ended rightly. If it did, then Jenny and Samuel Templeton made the right decisions.”

“And if not?” The sheriff asked.

“Well, in that case next time you see a wanted man just send to Oakheart Manor in Keegan’s Bluff. Let me know. I told you, didn’t I? My name is Roy Harper and my profession is violence. I’ll get it taken care of.” He tipped his hat to the people of Granite Valley and left them to consider his words and the life of Morgan Hale.

The Frozen Nest

This is the last Roy Harper short story currently ready for publication. One other exists but its currently under consideration for publication in a fiction collection so I can’t list it here. Next week we’ll introduce Roy’s latest novella length outing and perhaps post the introduction as well.

In the mean time, enjoy a short about lost ships and the horrors that lurk within. For those curious about timelines these events take place about two months before the beginning of Firespinner. Books is a longstanding background character in Roy’s life and getting him onstage for a bit was a treat. I hope you enjoy.

“The prow says it’s the Edmund Fitzgeral.” Roy handed the spy glass over to Books and pulled his gloves back on, fingers already stinging from cold. “Doesn’t look like one of yours. More of a passenger ship if you ask me.”

“That’s certain,” Books said, studying the ship from his superior vantage point. He was only a foot taller than Roy was but standing next to him it felt more like a mile. “The Fitz is a liner out of Avalon’s harbor. Usually plies the Avalon-Hampshire route over in the Atlantic.”

Roy frowned as their small launch drew closer, skimming just above the water on a sheet of heated flight metal. “What’s it doing out here in the Pacific then?”

“By the looks of it, it got stranded somewhere in the Arctic.” Books lowered the glass and gestured at the ice surrounding the ship. “That ice is too thick to have come from anywhere else.”

“So what’s it doing down by Port Redwood? You don’t get much summer here but its hardly the Arctic.” Roy dug his pack out from under a bench. “I don’t like it when the cold comes too far south in unseasonable fashion. It doesn’t bode well.”

“You’re the expert on that front,” Books said, unfastening a short hafted boarding ax from the side of the launch. “Either way, the Sanna don’t like it on their side of the border so we’ve got to move it somehow.”

Their skiff rounded the prow of the ship and they could see a hole two decks high running half the length of the vessel. Roy scowled. “Or sink it.”

“Don’t think the Sanna would appreciate us leaving that on their side of the border but yes, we may have to.”

“Trust me, Books. There’s nothing good on that ship and we’re better off not going aboard.” Roy pulled two half-gallon pints of oil out of his pack.

Books gestured at them in meaningful fashion. “Why do you think I waited for you to come up from Keegan’s Bluff before mounting this expedition? We’ll look around and if we don’t like what we see you can burn the place to the waterline.”

“That’s an bronze belly boat, Books. I can’t burn the hull.” Roy fastened the flasks to his belt then pulled out a leaf bladed short sword and slung it there as well. Finally he got his trump card out, a bronze caged lantern holding two fist sized sulfurite crystal gleaming with the power of the fires trapped within. “Might be able to put a hole in it with these.”

Books whistled softly. “That’s an awful lot of magic you’ve got there, Harp. What were you expecting to find out here?”

“With you? I never know what to expect. Have you forgotten what happened when you convinced me to rejoin the regular Army for ‘just a quick trip south’ way back when?”

He snorted. “You stumble on one little Tetzlani blood cult and suddenly everyone thinks your a jinx. Just try not to char us alive with those, alright? Just because we’ve passed through the fires of the Stone Circle doesn’t mean we’re invincible.”

Roy glanced around at the other two in the skiff with them. “So you’ve changed your mind? We’re not taking your boys in with you?”

“I hired them to navigate the ship if we can get it moving, not to help us scout the ship for danger. You know I don’t trust many people watching my back these days.” Books pulled his wool overcoat off and dragged on a heavily padded duelist’s jacket on in its place. The garment strained over his shoulders, probably sewn to his dimensions in warm weather and now suffering from some shrinkage. On many people that wouldn’t matter. But Books was a dolmen breaker, imbued with superhuman strength and durability after accidental exposure to druidic magic some ten years ago when they were both in the 43rd Infantry. His stature and muscles had grown to accommodate his new capabilities.

In contrast, that same incident had turned Roy into a dolmen burner – a firemind to the druids, although he learned that much later – which came with very few physical perks. Sometimes he felt like he’d actually gotten shorter. That was probably a result of being around so many people who got taller but for an already short man the disparity of the outcome stung.

They ignored the hole in the side of the Edmund Fitzgerald, choosing to instead board the ship at the launching deck at the rear of the ship, where small boats generally came and went from large passenger ships. As they finished their preliminary rounds Roy caught a glimpse of movement from inside the gap in the hull. A flash of white he may have imagined, then nothing when he looked closely. “Got something moving just above the waterline.”

Books pivoted to follow his line of sight but neither one of them could spot further signs of life. “Well,” Books finally said, “We’ll keep on our toes.”

The two of them did just that, taking great care in turning every corner and climbing every stairway along the top decks. After almost an hour of grinding tension and bitter cold they determined there was nothing out of doors on the Fitzgerald. Then they went below decks. Books took them down by the rearward crew access which led down into the kitchens where they found the first signs of something wrong. The decks had been totally empty, which was odd in retrospect, but the kitchen was a wreck. Pans, broken plates and scattered containers of spices littered the floor. It looked like the entire place had been working full tilt when a giant hand reached down and shook the ship like a baby rattle. There were a few old bloodstains, or perhaps old sauce stains but no signs of people.

Books crossed the kitchen carefully, making his way to the double doors that likely entered the dining room, but Roy grabbed his shoulder. “Wait. Look through the cupboards.”

“For what?” He asked, beginning to pull open doors.

“Food. What else?” Roy ignored the shelves and went through the kitchen until he found the ice chest, let himself in and held up his lantern to look around. With the exception of the racks full of chilled wine the shelves there were empty. Roy went back out and dug through cupboards until he met Books halfway. “Find anything?”

“Not a crumb.” Books folded his arms and shook his head. “Ships stock up on a generous amount of food when they put to sea, just in case there are complications. My freighters pack at least ten days of food per week of their trips. And I don’t have to worry about keeping passengers happy. They must’ve been missing a long time if they ate through all of their stores.”

“How long could they go missing without your hearing about it?”

Books cocked his head thoughtfully. “Well, rumors spread faster on the seas than you think. Word would be out on the docks she was late pretty much the day after she failed to show up. All sailors talk, you can’t stop them, so it’d spread pretty fast. Maybe two weeks?”

“And the Avalon-Hampshire route is how long?”

“Eight days for a ship like the Edmund Fitzgerald, so I’d be surprised if they had less than two weeks food on board…” Books shook his head. “And before you ask, no, I hadn’t heard that the Fitz was missing before today. You’re trying to narrow something down, Harp. What is it?”

“I think they stumbled across Hunger. Or at least something closely connected to it, like the Wendigoes like I saw during the Summer of Snow.”

Books heaved a sigh and nodded. “Like I said, you’re the expert on that one. What are we watching for?”

“It’s hard to say. If an avatar of the Antediluvian Deep is here we could get just about anything.” Roy laughed a hollow laugh. “If it’s just an elemental creature tied to it we could get anything, just less dangerous.”

“How helpful. Anything else we should look for here or can we move on?”

Roy drew his sword. “We move on.”

Books walked over to the double doors again and pushed them open.

A polar bear picked him up by the shoulders and threw him out into the dining room in a crash of breaking furniture. Roy froze for a second, trying to process that. He was pretty sure polar bears weren’t elementals, although bears in general bordered on the supernatural so there was a chance. The bear crashed back through the doors, Books’ shoulder buried in its stomach. He drove the creature straight into the back wall with an impact so hard the boat rocked under their feet.

The bear pushed off the wall and slammed Books into the ground. Even his superhuman strength was no match for the bear’s overpowering mass and reach. The bear’s jaws reached down to grab Books’ throat then Roy blasted it with a gout of flame from the sulfurite in his lantern. The bear reared up and roared in pain. Books scrambled to his feet, grabbed a serving cart and clobbered the animal with the cart, snapping the handle off of it and sending the cart careening off the wall. The bear dropped to the ground and rolled itself back and forth, quickly putting the fire on it out.

As the bear got up Books lunged forward, planted a boot in its back and kicked it back out into the dining room. Books sucked in a deep breath and the two of them charged out after the animal. As they ran Roy emptied the fire out of his lantern and held it in a single huge orb ready to throw. It might be overkill but when dealing with bears it was best to be absolutely sure. They burst into the dining room and skidded to a stop.

A woman holding a black orb and ice pick with a white bearskin draped over her shoulders was drawing herself to her feet. The skin was singed and the woman favored her side where Books had slammed her into the wall. Beyond that it was hard to pick out too many details under the layers of fur and thick clothing she wore. She carefully placed her implements on the ground and raised her hands. “Dust and ashes,” Books hissed, “who are you?”

The woman answered in a low, husky voice speaking words from some language Roy couldn’t place. Fortunately this wasn’t the first time for either of them to run into a language they couldn’t speak. He put his hand to his chest and said, “Roy.”

Books did the same. “Books.”

The woman caught on quickly. “Svuli.”

“Okay, Svuli,” Roy murmured. He pointed at her orb. “What’s that?”

She reached out and touched the stone. “Bjornrun.” The orb flashed with some kind of inner light and the bearskin began to meld with her body, blue stones in the eyes sparking with energy. She let go of the stone and the transformation stopped. Svuli returned to normal and pointed at Roy’s lantern. “Skaldrun.”

“Is it some kind of catalyst?” Books asked.

“Or a kind of fulminite power storage she uses to shape shift, I guess.” The fire he was holding was starting to slip out of his grasp, his ability to command flames no more able to grasp that much magic for long times than his hands were able to hold hundreds of pounds for any length. He looked at the broken dining tables that Books and Svuli had destroyed and threw the flames down on them so they would have something beside his own powers to feed them. As the wooden furniture burned there he began slowly feeding smaller amounts of it back into the sulfurite in his lantern. “I’ll tell you this. If she’s some kind of skin shifter like the selkies of Avalon or the Sanna skinwalkers she’s bad news but not nearly powerful enough to wreck this ship.”

“Avalon?” Svuli shook her head. “Ultima Thule.”

Roy glanced at Books. “Ever heard that one?”

“Yeah. It’s a long story but they’re supposedly people who live at the uttermost north, in places where it’s always winter. Sailors talk about ’em every so often.” Books knelt down and looked at her ice pick, turning it over in his hands. “They know a lot about the magic of water and using it to change forms, although the details in the stories I’ve heard are very spotty. Some of the tales say they can all change shapes. Others say only their most powerful mages can.”

Roy finished channeling the fire back into the crystals in his lantern. They were dimmer than when he’d boarded the ship, at a guess he estimated he’d lost about one fifth of the magic he’d brought onto the ship an hour ago. “Svuli.” He crouched down and looked her in the eyes, catching a glimpse of pale gray irises around pupils as dark as onyx. He patted the deck and said, “Ship?”

She pointed down through the deck. “Kraken.”

Roy looked up at his big friend. “And that one?”

“First time hearing it.”

He turned back to the woman and pointed two fingers at his eyes. “Show me.” For a moment she looked confused, staring at his eyes as if she expected to see something. He held up his lantern and repeated the gesture, then turned those fingers around to point at the lantern. “Show me skaldrun.” He repeated the process with her orb. “Show me bjornrun.” When she nodded her understanding he finished with, “Show me kraken.”

Svuli held out her hand for the bjornrun, which Roy returned after a quick, unspoken consultation with Books. Then she snatched up her pick and led them across the dining hall towards another entrance. Books stopped to retrieve his ax from among the wreckage of the tables then the two men hurried after her. Roy tried to ignore the haunting sight of ranks upon ranks of tables draped in white cloth. It was like he was in the Infantry again, walking through the morgues after a major battle, wondering if the dead soldiers would rise to reprimand him for surviving when they had died.

But there was nothing under those tables. Nothing but chairs and the deck of the ship.

And, it turned out, the hole in the side of the hull. Svuli led them up a hallway and down a flight of stairs to the next deck down where the damaged hull lay gaping open on their left and the floor was strewn with ice, twisted pieces of metal and the occasional scrap of timber from furniture or fixtures from the walls of the ship. About twenty feet down from the stairway the damage to the ship cut through the hallway floor entirely. Svuli carefully picked her way down to that point and peeked around the torn remnant of the inner wall. After a quick trade of glances, Roy followed and leaned over her to follow her line of sight.

The hole in the ship went another fifteen feet deeper towards the center line, give or take. It had been torn through two decks of rooms vertically and was at least fifty feet wide along the length of the ship. The demolished rooms had been carefully filled with ice in what looked like a very systematic fashion. Buried in that ice were hundreds and hundreds of people. They looked like passengers and crew alike, based on the way they were dressed, and many of them looked like they’d been torn by giant claws or smashed by huge hands before they were frozen. A few gazed out of the ice with expressions of terror, as if they’d been frozen alive.

In the central, deepest part of the hole was the kraken.

It was a round orb of blubber as tall as a human body, suspended in a huge sack of fluid surrounded by ice in the center of the frozen abattoir. Long tendrils, half again longer than the lump of blubber was, drifted around the creature, twitching absently. Two black eyes stared sightless out of the fluid. It reminded Roy of a chicken egg he’d seen broken before the chick within finished growing. It was unsettling and ugly but it didn’t look particularly dangerous. He stepped past Svuli and was looking for a way down onto the ice when the creature snapped around, its eyes focused on him, and a blast of freezing wind and sleet nearly blew him out of the ship and into the ocean. Svuli grabbed him at the last second and dragged him back into the hallway.

Books was there a second later, dragging them both back to the stairway single handed. Once they were both safely out of danger he said, “What in stormwrack was that?”

“I think it’s the kraken chick’s defensive magic.” Roy got up and dusted himself off. “If I’m reading this right, it looks like the Edmund Fitzgerald was attacked by an adult kraken. It made that hole and killed everyone it could grab from the passengers and crew then froze their bodies there for its child to eat. Maybe it cleaned out the kitchen, too? I suspect magic was involved somehow. Then it layed an egg and left it here to hatch.”

“What kind of thing is a kraken?” Books asked.

“A wiggly thing?” Roy wriggled his arm like it was a snake. “Except it had a big round body and a bunch of worm heads? It could be like a hydra.”

“No, it sounds like a squid,” Books said, nodding, “I’ve seen those before. Always thought they were warm water creatures.”

Svuli hefted her pick and mimed striking something with it. “Svuli drapet kraken.”

She started to shape shift back into her bear form but Roy grabbed her hand holding the orb and pushed it down gently. “Roy show Svuli?”

“Show?” She gave him an inquisitive look.

Roy nodded. “Show drapet.” He turned to Books. “Do you know where the furnace room on this thing is kept?”

Turned out it was kept two more decks down and behind the room full of coal, which made sense if you thought about it. The engine room was not as impressive as what you found on a sky train. Those were a forest of pipes that routed the magic in the primary furnace out to the dozens of panels of aluminum that held the train aloft. However, according to Books, the Edmund Fitzgerald was built along a much simpler design.

The primary furnace was fed with coal and the resulting fire was channeled into a massive sulfurite array which held the magic in such a way as to release it in controlled fashion. The magic, in turn, was fed into the keel of the ship in a steady stream. Like most metal hulled ships, the Fitz was built along a core of tin swift to provide the propulsion that moved the ship forward so there was little need to distributed the magic from the furnace to the whole vessel when the keel would do that just fine on its own.

The furnace room was really little more than a place for someone to stand and shovel coal from the feeder, the furnace itself, a set of dials measuring the stability of the sulfurite array and a chimney to take away the smoke. Roy hadn’t anticipated that they’d need to pull apart the furnace to get at the sulfurite. But after half a sweaty, dusty hour of profanity laced work they managed to pull the huge pile of crystals out of the ashen interior of the furnace and drag it back to the coal room.

The furnace and array were entirely cold when they found it so Svuli seemed quite confused as to what they were planning to do at first. It was only once they had dragged the bronze and sulfurite array back to the coal bin and Roy opened a flask of oil that her eyes got wide. Pointing at the array she said, “Skaldrun surt?”

“Surt?” Books asked.

Svuli clenched her fists together then flung her fingers outward to mime an explosion.

“Yeah,” Roy confirmed. “Skaldrun surt.”

“Y’know, Harp,” Books said, balancing the array on the edge of the walkway that overlooked the bin, “I’m not sure this is gonna work.”

“Sure it will.” Roy liberally drizzled some oil onto the top of the coal a few feet below them. By his estimate the thirty foot by twenty foot bin was full of coal up to his shoulders and that ought to be more than enough for their purposes. “You’ve seen siege crystals at work during the war, right? You just have to overcharge them with heat and they’ll cook off. That engine isn’t using crystals as big as what we worked with in the Infantry but I think together they’ll give us more than enough oomf to blast a hole in the bottom of the ship and sink it.”

“That’s the part that bothers me.” He started pulling sulfurite out of the wire array and piling it on the deck beside them. Roy added the two crystals from his lantern for good measure. “Harp, squid are supposed to live in the water and I’m guessing a kraken isn’t any different. I don’t think sinking the Fitz is gonna be enough to kill it.”

Roy hesitated, seeing the point there. “Okay. So we can’t just sink the ship we need to kill the kraken in the process. Everything around it is frozen so perhaps we can just blast the creature with the heat?”

“How’re we gonna do that?” Books dropped the last of the sulfurite into the pile and discarded the bronze array. “We need fire to charge it. Once we overcharge it we’ve got maybe ten seconds to move the crystals to the kraken and get away before they explode. It’s at least forty seconds from here back to where we were if we sprint with our hands empty. It may be more if we have to set the crystals somewhere else so the thing’s ward doesn’t blow them out to see before they cook off.

“But there’s more. Based on the structural damage I saw around the hole and down along the keel as we were walking along it here that explosion is going to sink the Fitz one way or another so we’d be best off not being on the ship at all when they explode.” Books crossed his arms and gave Roy a skeptical look. “There’s no way we’re going to be able to set this all up and get away in time.”

“Maybe, maybe not.” Roy focused and pulled a bead of fire out of one of his lantern’s sulfurite crystals and let it hover in the air in front of him like a pearl from the sun. Svuli jumped slightly and backed away. Then, when it was clear the small flame wasn’t going anywhere she approached and studied it with something akin to wonder. “Listen, I’ve learned a lot about this parlor trick in the years since the end of the war. One thing about it is you can hold a flame in places it wouldn’t normally want to stay for longer than it would naturally burn. Usually that means out in the middle of the air, like this. But you can also use it to overcharge sulfurite crystals and keep them that way for longer than normal.”

“How much overcharge for how much longer than normal?” Books asked.

“With those two crystals from the lantern, twice the normal burn for about half an hour.” He gestured to the twenty crystals from the furnace array, each about three quarters the size of one of those from his lantern. “With all these together? I can’t say for sure, since it’s a bit like juggling. A juggler can keep two or three things in the air easily but adding a fourth makes it pretty difficult and the fifth is a whole new world of complexity.”

“But you can do it for all two dozen of them?” Books looked doubtful.

“Twenty two. And no, but I can manage it for a baker’s dozen of ’em, so long as you can find the right place to put ’em so as to kill that thing.”

Books nodded. “We can probably arrange that. Svuli. Come.”

After a moment of confusion Books beckoned her and she got the message, the two of them leaving Roy alone with the coal bin. It was just as well. Juggling was an apt analogy for what he was about to do but it wasn’t a perfect analogy. Concentration was going to be key.

Roy glanced at his small bead of flame and sent it down into the coal bin to light the oil he’d spread there. The massive reserve of fuel quickly lit up. Then he shifted his attention to the sulfurite crystals and began filling them one at a time, willing the magic rising from the coal in waves away from its normal paths and into the crystals one at a time. They were three quarters full when Books came back pushing a rattling serving cart with an enormous copper soup tureen on it.

“How’s it looking?” He asked.

“I have most of them full,” Roy replied. “I’m going to top them all off so you and Svuli have something you can use to fight off the kraken or at least break up its wind wards if you need it. Have you found a place to set them off?”

“Yeah. Weak joint in a bulkhead, Svuli smelled it out as a bear and she seems pretty sure the kraken is on the other side of it.” He pulled a huge ladle out of the tureen. “I brought a way to transport the crystals but I had a thought on my way back.”


“How long will we have after we put these in place before they go off?”

“As long as I can give you. Now let me focus.”

The fires danced before him and Roy reached down to pull them into his thrall. Flame kept secrets from most mortal men, but not him. He could hear its whispers. It spoke of worlds beyond flesh and blood, where the only elements were heat and fury, and all men need do to find that world was make a place for it in the present. Such was the promise of the Primeval Fire.

The promise held no lure for Roy. That ancient flame had nearly claimed his life once and he wouldn’t countenance it again. Instead he made demands of it. The sulfurite he’d chosen for his task lept into the air at his command. Flames shot up from crackling coal and crystal and flame joined in a dizzying whirl of passion and potential. One by one they filled to bursting. Nothing kept them from breaking apart other than the ceaseless pressure of Roy Harper’s will. Five there were, then six.

Once seven were full the easy part was over, the eighth and ninth took teeth grating focus. The tenth burned his mind like a lit match against the back of his eyes and the eleventh dried out the inside of his nose and mouth. When he reached a dozen full crystals his hands broke out in sweat. Then he reached down once more and pulled the last dregs of flame from the coal bin and crammed it into the thirteenth crystal.

Holding it there was like like grabbing the tail of a phoenix. Roy opened parched lips and whispered, “It’s ready, Books.”

He wasn’t really sure what happened after that. He was aware of vague motion. Books and Svuli yelling at each other. And all the while the burning, writhing, furious fire, straining to get free from the prison he’d trapped it in. After an eternity – or perhaps just a minute or two – the fire began to recede in the distance. Keeping it in place got harder and harder. Finally he lost his grip on it all at once and Roy collapsed onto the bottom of the skiff as it swept away from the Edmund Fitzgerald. A second later the side of the ship erupted with a sound like giant pot breaking, pieces of melted bronze flying high in the air.

As he lay on the bottom of the skiff, feeling dryer than an autumn leaf, Roy grinned and croaked, “Well. That wasn’t too hard.”

Books reached down and pulled off a piece of tentacle that somehow got stuck to his shoulder and threw it into the ocean. “Speak for yourself.”

“Books, Roy, bad come Ultima Thule,” Svuli snapped. Then she jumped off the side of the skiff into the water, melding with her bearskin in the process, and took off towards the north and, presumably, Ultima Thule.

“Bad come?” Roy asked Books, trying to figure that one out. “She telling us not to come?”

“Probably. Would you want us to come after seeing that?” Books shrugged and looked back at the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, slowly burning and sinking beneath the waves. “We’ll have to report her lost when we get back. Shame.”

“We did what we could. At least the kraken is dead and the Sanna will be happy. Let’s hope that’s enough for a good day’s work.”

“Let’s hope.”

A Tale for Wintertide

We’re getting close to the opening act of the next Roy Harper adventure and as we do it’s time to take another look at his world. I’ve written several short stories in the Columbian West since the end of Fire and Gold. While several of these are built around Roy himself one or two place the focus on other characters including today’s. For those curious about the chronology, A Tale for Wintertide takes place after Fire and Gold. It fills out a little world building and lets us take another look at a character I had no plans for after Firespinner but who really endeared himself to me over the course of that story.

Today we spend a little time with Hezekiah Oldfathers.

Hezekiah slammed the cabin door behind him, stomping the snow off his boot and shaking it off his tattered coat. “Dust and ashes,” he muttered, unwinding the scarf from his neck. “I will never get used to how cold it gets in the mountains.”

“It’s barely even cold yet, Mr. Oldfathers.” Thomas Blythe popped out of the kitchen and helped him balance on his peg leg as he pulled his boot off. He was a grinning, cherub faced boy who looked like he should still be missing teeth. The child was small for his age, barely four feet tall, and rather ashamed of it. Hezekiah tried to be understanding but he hadn’t been eleven for a very long time and often did a poor job of it.

His brother Andrew had been sitting by the hearth when Hezekiah arrived, whittling. He took a moment to tuck his knife in its sheath before coming over as well, although by that point Hezekiah was pretty much settled. He handed the second brother his wooden cane and the package he’d brought with him. Not for the first time he marveled at the similarities between the two children. Identical twins weren’t the most common thing, overall, and druids generally discouraged them from joining the order so Hezekiah had never really interacted with a pair of them before.

Now, he knew two.

“Are Reeds and Marshall here?” Even as he asked Hezekiah was looking around the small main room of the house, checking for the two Sanna men himself. But if they’d arrived there were no signs of them in the Blythe household.

“They’re coming back from the lake and said not to wait for them.” Nora Blythe bustled out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron. Her long black hair was pinned up in a braid but the kerchief she usually wore over it was missing today. Her simple cotton dress was a dull red. “Hello, General.”

“Hello, Nora. How are things here?”

“Oh, the same as always. Dinner will be ready in an hour, so we have a little time.” She gestured towards the fire crackling on the hearth. “Come in, have a seat by the fire.”

Hezekiah stepped onto the worn wooden boards of the cabin, raising his hand in the Sign of the Hearth, and said, “May our Lady watch over this house and all within.”

“And our Lord give us clear skies without,” the other three replied.

As he moved towards the fire Andrew tugged on his sleeve and Hezekiah leaned down to hear what he had to say. “You know,” the boy whispered with complete sincerity, “You don’t have to say the Blessing. She won’t mind.”

Nora stifled a chuckle at that. Hezekiah also smiled but whispered back, “Your mother may not and the Lady in Burning Stone certainly wouldn’t. But don’t you think it’s rude to the women who do so much not to bless them when there’s a chance?”

The twins rolled there eyes but didn’t respond. Hezekiah took his things back from Andrew then straightened to examine the hearth itself. He knew Nora had been a Hearth Keeper, one of the Lady’s clergywomen, during the long past years of her youth. That’s how she’d met her late husband and ultimately left the order. However she’d taken the lessons of the Keepers to heart and done a fine job building a welcoming and homely hearth. Moreover she’d learned the knack of decorating for Wintertide.

Patches of red drift roses covered the top and sides of the stone hearth, not quite the same as the traditional mistletoe but readily available in the region where mistletoe was not. Hezekiah settled into the wooden chair beside the window and smiled as the warmth washed over him. “Now that’s a pleasant fire. Well done, Nora.”

“Thank you,” she said, settling into the chair opposite his. Andrew returned to his whittling while Thomas flopped on his belly in front of the fire.

“I can’t believe he thinks it’s cold outside, ma!” Thomas said, resting his chin in his hands and staring at the flames.

“We can’t all be as hardy as you, Tom,” she replied.

“Do you enjoy the cold?” Hezekiah asked.

“Do I!” Thomas rolled over and threw his arms out wide to the ceiling. “Snow is the best!”

“Well you can’t go out in it,” Andrew retorted, “dinner is soon and we can’t miss it. The River brothers are going to be here!”

“But it’s so boring sitting here waiting.”

“Perhaps we could sing a few cants to pass the time,” Nora suggested, reaching for a worn book sitting on the sideboard behind her. She paused when both boys let out dramatic groans of disapproval. Hezekiah wasn’t sure if it was a dislike for music in general or the Hearth Keeper’s cants specifically.

“It’s Wintertide,” he said, thinking a change of subject might be warranted. “Traditionally in Palmyra we tell stories to pass the long nights.”

“It’s a bit early for Wintertide stories,” Nora said, doubtfully. “The solstice is still two weeks away and the Winter Cycle is meant to be told over ten days.”

“Well, there’s plenty of stories outside the Cycle to tell, isn’t there?”

The twins both sat up straight and turned to look at him intently. “That sounds good!” Andrew announced. “But what kind of stories do you tell? We really only know the Cycle itself.”

“Well the Cycle is about the tragedy of winter and the hope of spring so usually you tell something scary or sad,” Hezekiah mused. He saw Nora’s eyes get wide and suddenly realized this might not be the best idea after all. It had only been four months since their father died. He backpedaled quickly. “You don’t have to, though! My own grandmother had this hilarious yarn she spun every Wintertide about berry preserves and how you couldn’t always tell if they’d fermented…”

Nora cleared her throat. “Maybe we can think of something else to try.”

“Aw…” Thomas flopped flat on the floor again. “I wanted to hear something scary!”

“Yeah!” Andrew piped in.

Their mother sighed. “Well, perhaps. But don’t blame me if you have difficulty sleeping tonight, understand?”

“Okay!” The twins swing their full attention back to Hezekiah. “What kind of scary stories do you know, Mr. Oldfathers?”

“Uh…” Now that he was thinking about it, he didn’t actually know that many he could tell. When he was not that much older than the two of them he’d joined the Knights of the Stone Circle and been initiated into the secrets of the druidic order as established by Arthur the Phoenixborne. A lot of the things he’d learned since then were terrifying but bound by his oath of secrecy. All the supposedly frightening things he’d heard outside of that context hadn’t really bothered him so, while he knew he had heard such stories, he couldn’t remember them. “Actually, I can’t think of a good one.”

The twins sagged in disappointment. Nora glanced at her boys then over at the old general. “Do you know any tragedies?”

“You lived through the Lakeshire war, Nora,” Hezekiah said softly. “What do you think?”

The boys snapped upright again. “Oooh,” they said in perfect unison, “tell a story about the War, Mr. Oldfathers!”

He shifted uncomfortably in his chair. The late Harvey Blythe had fought in Columbian blue during the war. Hezekiah Oldfathers was the seniormost druid from the Stone Circle to don Lakeshire green. As far as he knew he’d never fought in an action against the Blythes directly but he wasn’t sure Nora would appreciate being reminded of their old animosity either. Then a thought occurred to him.

Hezekiah took his package and pulled the twine holding the paper around it together. Inside was a block of silver about the size and thickness of the palm of his hand. A single sulfurite crystal sat in the middle of it, glowing with the dull red light of the fires trapped within. Once it was a silver sword his father gave him on joining the Stone Circle. Now… well, sometimes it was still a sword. Sometimes it was a cane. With the properties of silver it could be whatever he wished with a little time and magic.

He put a thumb on the crystal, holding the block in the palm of his other hand. Closing his eyes, Hezekiah pictured a long gone collection of standing stones and willed the magic out of the crystal and into the silver. The metal came to life and shaped itself into a replica of Morainehenge, one of the five Great Henges built by Arthur and his followers over the last thousand years.

And the only one destroyed in all that time.

“All right, boys, I suppose I can tell you about the Siege of Trenton Southwick.” Hezekiah nudged a footstool out from under the sideboard and put the small replica of his home Henge down on it. “Have you ever heard his name?”

Both of the twins shook their head in mute silence.

“I’m not surprised, few people outside the Order pay attention to the leaders of the druids. Master Southwick lead our fellowship, when the Henge still stood.” Hezekiah sat back, his gaze drifting up to the roof and back through the mists of time. “In the last days of the Palmyra campaign, after the city proper was in Columbian hands, the last stop on the long march North was Morainehenge itself. Once it was clear the troops remaining in Palmyra could not hold the city with the Five Ridges in enemy hands, Master Southwick called together those druids who still remained. There were a surprising number of us.”

“Did a lot of druids die in the war?” Thomas asked it with the guileless innocence of the young and naïve.

“Some,” Hezekiah admitted. “Of the five knights promoted to a seat on the Founder’s Council, the Knight of Retribution was replaced most frequently during the war. Our vengeance burned hot in those days, but rarely lasted long. That chair was empty when the Master called us in. Jesse Jackson, the Knight of Justice, was out on campaign at the time, so he was also missing. However the other three in the Founder’s seats were present.”

“Which one were you?” Andrew asked.

“I was the assistant master, not a member of the Council. Along with Master Southwick, we seven were charged with the safekeeping of every druid in Columbia along with maintaining the principles of Avaloni Chivalry as laid out by Arthur Phoenixborne. Two of us were missing, and that’s about the proportion of druids overall absent from our ranks. Most were away from the Circle, some were dead.” Hezekiah sighed and passed his hand over his eyes, wiping away memories of faces long gone. “But most of us were there. Nearly three thousand of the best and brightest druids the nation of Columbia ever produced, ready to fulfill our oaths to defend the Circle against all dangers until our very last breath. Master Southwick had emptied the reliquary and brought every weapon, every piece of armor, every charm and talisman and ring we possessed with him in a trunk.”

“What kinds of weapons were there?” Thomas demanded, eyes aglow with wonder.

“I cannot say.” He smiled sadly. “It’s a secret I promised to take to the grave. Though some would say the oath means little now, it’s not a pledge I will quickly break. If the Lord and Lady favor you, perhaps you’ll see some part of it, one day.”

“So he called you there to make a stand?” Nora asked. “That’s impossible. A battle like that would have ripped the Moraines asunder and wiped out dozens of army divisions. Everyone knows Five Ridges was the end of the war!”

“You’re right twice, but wrong at the end. There was one battle after the Ridges. The Siege of Trenton Southwick, as I said, but it wasn’t the thing you’re picturing. You see, once we were all together, Master Southwick addressed us one last time. He stripped us all of rank-”

Nora gasped quietly.

“-and expelled us from the Circle. Every last druid was relieved of his duties and oaths and sent away, from the rawest initiates all the way up to the seated Knights of the Founder’s Council. Then he put that trunk full of relics in my hands.” Hezekiah held out his hands, remembering the size and weight of the terrible thing. “And he said, ‘Hezekiah, there’s not a knight here worthy of carrying these but somewhere out there, men who will be worthy of that responsibility are waiting to be discovered. You must go and find them.’ Then he expelled me too.”

“Even you!” Andrew threw his hands in the air in a comical display of fury. “Even you! I don’t believe it! Why?”

“He knew, boy.” Hezekiah took a deep breath and shook his head. “We all knew that the Circle was doomed. Most of us would have happily fought and died there, since it was our duty, and the rest were bound by oath. Things sworn on those Stones are not so easy to escape, after all. But Master Southwick wasn’t willing to let the legacy of the Circle die out and he expelled us so we wouldn’t have to go that far. Maybe that was good of him. And maybe not.”

“So you all left?” Andrew asked.

“He had the right to be there and we didn’t. The Stone Circle wasn’t exactly what the Columbians thought it was but there was a lot of power there and Master Southwick had access to it in ways we didn’t after that. He could move us out by force if he wanted and we didn’t have the heart to fight him. But I stayed in the hills just outside it to watch. I thought I owed him that much.”

“What happened?” Nora asked.

“Master Southwick cultivated the yew – the plant was grafted to his body when he was just a boy, as it is for all those with that gift. But, with enough magic, the process can be done in reverse exactly once. The Master grafted himself into a yew tree he’d planted near the Circle when he was promoted to the Founder’s Council and grew it to towering size.” Hezekiah pointed a finger at the model of the Stone Circle and a small tree grew there, its branches stretching upwards until they towered over the dolmen and waving threateningly at anyone who might invade. “Not a single Columbian soldier made it within the stones while he still lived in that tree.

“They sent companies of soldiers with fire and ax and he broke them. They brought powerful magics and trained hedge mages of their own but none of them could hold a candle to the Master’s skill. In the end, they dug in around the Circle and waited, because once the man cleaves to the tree, sooner or later, the wood claims the man. For Master Southwick it took forty days and forty nights, longer than any other druid I have heard of, but in the end it still claimed him. On the morning of the forty first day the leaves of the Master’s yew turned yellow and I knew he was gone. That was his last breath – and the end of the Stone Circle.”

For a long moment there was silence in the cabin then Nora said, “I’m sorry.”

Hezekiah grunted and waved the words away. He’d long since made his peace with those days and to his surprise sharing them had been much easier than he’d expected. “The Master of the Stone Circle stands in place of Arthur Phoenixborne himself. He had the right to spare his subordinates the full cost of their oaths. But who can take the load from the Master? Only Arthur stands above him and the King of Avalon has not been seen since he began to Walk with the Storm.”

He leaned forward and picked up the model of the Henge, staring at it for a long moment. “They say Arthur still defends his people to this day, watching over them from every drop of rain and every bolt of lightning that falls on the earth. Some say he shows himself to the worthy, saving them at their moment of greatest need. Yet over the course of forty days not one cloud darkened the skies above Morainehenge. Perhaps we were not meant to keep the Circle.” He pressed the model between his hands and shaped it back into its normal form as a walking cane then rested it against the wall beside him. “Wintertide comes after the leaves turn yellow and fall from the branches. In time, they will bud once again. All mourning is followed by joy. I have seen it myself, time and again, in the years since I left the Stone Circle. Master Southwick didn’t just take my old duties from me, he gave me new ones. I’ve done my best to carry them out.”

He gave Nora a meaningful glance. “After all, we cannot dress in mourning forever. That’s the lesson of Wintertide.”

Nora smoothed her hands over her red dress and smiled. “True enough. Now, boys, I think its time to set the table before the River brothers get here.” She clapped her hands twice and the boys scrambled into motion. As she got up to head back to the kitchen she paused to say, “General, I haven’t forgotten the part I’ve played in your own days of mourning. But I am glad they’ve passed now.”

Hezekiah leaned back in his chair and listened to the sounds of a healthy home and he smiled, too. “So am I,” he murmured under his breath. “So am I.”

Woman on Fire

Pewter and Iron was a story that kind of came out of nowhere but I left a hook for a sequel in the middle of it subconsciously. While I have a lot of other Nerona stories I’d like to share at some point I actually got to that sequel before any of them so here it is. Once again we change viewpoints. Caesar’s Company is an idea I had from the inception of Nerona but my original purpose was to tell stories about it from Caesar’s point of view. It turns out several of his subordinates were very interesting on their own. The one outside of Caesar himself that really grabbed my imagination was Tiberius Twice and it turns out he’s the one you get to hear about first.

Among the many mercenary companies of Nerona’s condottieri there were many strange tales and legendary names. The Carrion Drunkard, a manlike thing they said appeared on battlefields offering drink to wounded soldiers, only to reveal its wineskin was full of blood rather than the fruit of the vine. The Conte Vemici, who held Paloma Bridge against an army of a thousands. For Tiberius Twice the one that loomed largest in his mind was his own captain, Caesar Shieldbreaker, who had led his condottieri to victory in dozens of conflicts for nearly fifteen years.

The one most spoken of as a frustration and a trial was Benicio Gale. With his green right arm and gift to command the winds as his own breath, Benicio cut a gallant figure wherever he turned up, which was almost always some small village or out of the way estate. Over the last four years he’d come from nowhere and built himself an ever growing reputation as the frustration of regular soldiers and mercenaries alike, blowing whole companies of men off of mountainsides or into rivers whenever they happened to threaten his current employer. He tended to work alone or with one or two other bravos.

Worst of all, he was cheap. A man with his talents could command a prince’s fortune for his services but Benicio avoided the castles and city squares of Nerona in favor of selling his services to provincial mayors and town councils at a fraction of their worth. All of which made it a surreal experience to clamber through the ruins of Troas with him. Tiberius found himself watching Benicio as they picked their way through an alley between two ruined houses that had long since collapsed in on themselves, leaving chest high walls looking over small piles of rubble and dust that might have once been furniture or people.

The bravo was surprisingly normal, strange arm aside. About five foot eight inches tall, dark, curly hair, hard brown eyes like a rock that had been kicked back and forth across cobbled streets for its whole life, Benicio looked much like the average Neronan peasant. However, to Tiberius’ trained eye, the way he moved through the ruins told a different story. Romanticists talked about bravos as stalkers, predators, creatures on the prowl for profit and fame, but Benicio was none of those things. He was a lookout. Measured movements, designed to give him a solid view of his surroundings, interspersed with small but precise advancements that brought him to the limit of his vigilance before he stopped to reconnoiter things again.

“There.” Benicio paused and pointed towards a sinkhole fifty or sixty feet ahead of them, in the middle of a small square. Tiberius was no expert but he guessed the sinkhole was originally a well back when Troas was an inhabited city. Before the Gulf of Lum drowned half of it.

It was very early in the morning, shortly after daybreak, and the hard shadows left in the wake of the King of Dawn made it so Tiberius had to squint to figure out what Benicio was pointing at. Finally he determined that several scorch marks ringed the sinkhole. “You think your compatriot left those?” He asked. “I suppose his gift was a Flame Hand or Flame Heart?”

“She is a Flame Heart,” Benicio said, loosening his rapier in its sheath.

“Well, in either case you can go down after her first so she doesn’t just incinerate us when we look over the edge,” Tiberius said mildly. “Unless you plan to just stab her?”

Benicio gave him a disturbed look. “Why would I do that?”

“I don’t know, you’re the one with your hand on your sword.”

“Because the only reason for that kind of scorching is because she was fighting with something when she went down that hole.”

Tiberius laughed. “Are you sure about that? I heard you blew her off the battlefield back there yourself and she went laughing. Maybe she just likes burning things.”

“If you’re not here to help you didn’t have to come.”

He turned serious immediately. “No. The Prince of Torrence pays our captain and you are on the Prince’s land under arms without permission. We’re being kind enough to let you find your friend. But Caesar isn’t going to let you or the Blacklegs with you run around on your own. We’d loose our commission.”

“Can’t have you not getting your blood money,” Benicio muttered.

“Spoken like a true bravo.” Tiberius grinned. “If you were ever a condottieri you would know the best commissions are those where the fighting never starts. Although given your reputation I’m surprised you’d object. I’d wager you’ve killed more people in the last year than I have and you’ve done it for far less pay than us. You do realize that cheap murder is going to be more common that the expensive variety?”

Benicio gave him a sly look. “Of course. Why do you think I’ve spent so much of my time making it so expensive for you to fight wars in the countryside?”

“Touche.” Honestly, Tiberius had never thought of the matter that way. Most condottieri believed bravos did what they did because they weren’t able to get along with others and so had to make their way by using their powers of annoyance for their employers. Apparently one, at least, had deeper reasons for what he did. “So who is your friend?”

“Belladonna is not exactly a friend,” Benicio said as they approached the sinkhole. “She’s just someone my employer assigned me to help with this job. I think she was a failsafe, since she can’t be burned to death or torn to pieces she’s guaranteed to be able to report our failure and the ultimate fate of our objective.”

“Did either of you know it was a dragon’s egg?”

“I didn’t. She might have.” Benicio offered an eloquent shrug. “With her, I never know for sure. All women are an exquisitely crafted puzzle but she is exceptional in both appearance and bafflement. I’ll be glad to send her back with news of our failure and be done with it. This whole job has been more trouble than its worth.”

Tiberius sensed he wasn’t entirely sincere although he wasn’t sure whether it was the job or the parting of ways Benicio was hedging on. “I suppose you won’t tell us who is paying your fee? The Prince will probably pay us a bonus if we can tell him. I’m sure Captain Caesar would split it with you if you were willing.”

“No. Bravos do not change sides as easily as your lot, for one, and for another I don’t know how long I would live after I betrayed this particular patron.” Benicio casually waved his hand in a dismissive way. “It is what it is.”

The two of them crouched down and looked over the sinkhole. It was pretty much what you would expect. About a quarter of the opening was still lined with worked stone, just like you would expect to see around a well. The rest was a rough edged tunnel that vanished into the dark about eight or nine feet down. Benicio dug into a pack he had brought with him and pulled out a rag and a small clay bottle with a cork stopper. He doused the rag in a strong smelling oil, wrapped it around a branch and lit it, then tossed it down the hole.

The makeshift torch landed about twelve feet down on a rough stone surface. From their viewpoint at the top it was difficult to see more than twenty or thirty square feet around where the torch landed but it all looked the same. Fairly dry stones piled randomly after the sinkhole collapsed in. The two men exchanged a quick glance then Tiberius offered the other a sweeping gesture, as if to say after you. Benicio took a deep breath and jumped straight down.

As his feet passed through the sinkhole he breathed out with the force of a hurricane, the tempestuous blast from his mouth slowing his fall to the speed of a downy feather dropping from a passing bird. It would’ve been impressive to see if the wind hadn’t blown the torch out and left the chamber below in darkness. Or at least that’s what it looked like at first. After a few seconds Tiberius’ eyes adjusted to the change of lighting and he realized he could see a dim glow coming from off to the left of the sinkhole. Peering over the ledge he called, “What do you see, Gale?”

The only response was a barely audible, “Shh!”

That probably wasn’t a good sign. Looking around he spotted an old stone trough sitting on stout stone legs and quickly passed a rope around it as an anchor. Then he went back to the sink hole, laid a cloth over the edge for the rope to run across so it wouldn’t get damaged and let himself down. Benicio made his descent easier by slowing it down. Tiberius planned to get down by doing just the opposite.

He wasn’t sure where the Gift called Twice at Once got it’s name but it – both Gift and name – had proven very difficult for him when he was young. He was never sure why playing games with other kids left him so tired. He also didn’t understand why catching things, running footraces and winning stick fights was so difficult for the others. The fact that simple tasks like these were so simple for him but he had no apparent Gift made him a target of both loathing and envy in his home town.

It wasn’t until he met Caesar Shieldbreaker a decade ago that he met someone who understood it. That was how he started his time as a condottieri. He’s learned fencing, campaigning and the mastery of his Gift, seen Caesar go from a well known captain to the foremost captain in the nation. But most of all he’d learned to live two seconds in one.

As Tiberius gently let himself down the rope he breathed deep and focused, watching the small pebbles that slid off the lip of the sinkhole with him slow their descent. By the time he reached the bottom they had only fallen half the distance. He quickly slid off to one side of the hole, his head swiveling about as his eyes adjusted to the darkness. He caught sight of Benicio a few steps ahead but there wasn’t much else around them. The rocky ground around them gave way to a pool of water off to the west and a tunnel that led and inland roughly north northeast.

Tiberius let his focus slip and caught his breath. Barely ten seconds had passed for the rest of the world and he had lived twenty but it exhausted him like he had spent a full minute running. Benicio glanced over his shoulder. “Are you alright?”

“For now. Did you find any more signs of your friend?”

“Scorch marks leading off that way,” Benicio said, pointing off to the northeast, “but more than that, listen.”

Tiberius cocked his head, wondering what he was on about, but as his heartbeat slowed he understood. The faint strains of lute and violin were drifting through the cavern. His heart sank into his boots as Tiberius realized he’d stumbled on yet another tall tale from the darkest parts of Nerona. “The Fair Folk.”

“Either that or pirates are using the ruins as a shelter, they’re equally likely options.”

“How many pirate crews do you know that could contain a Flame Heart?”

“Okay. Probably the Fair Folk.” Benicio pinched the bridge of his nose between his fingers. “Zalt. She had to go and find the only nest of Fair Folk in a hundred miles of the Gulf.”

“They’re playing music.” Tiberius shook his head. “Have you heard what they do to people who interrupt their music? They’ll find our skeletons here a hundred years from now!”

“I have to bring her back.”

“I don’t know who your patron is, Benicio Gale, but he or she is not as likely to leave you dead as the Fair Folk when you intrude on their revelry.”

Benicio started grimly towards the sound of music. “There’s more to it than the job. Her mind isn’t well, Tiberius Twice, and I promised I would help it heal. You won’t understand it but I swore it on my arm and that’s something I can’t take back. Besides, I don’t care how ‘fair’ they think they are I can’t leave her to the tender mercies of those people. You don’t have to come.”

For a long moment Tiberius hesitated, looking back to the rope and then towards Benicio over and over again. Ultimately, the condottieri was wrong. His captain had given him an order and, for Tiberius, that meant he did have to come. So he steeled himself and followed reluctantly after Benicio.

Halfway down the tunnel Tiberius’ ears popped and the rough tunnel under his feet transformed into a paved brick hall with torches in sconces along the walls. They’d crossed a portal to the lands of the Folk. No turning back now. The brick opened up into a huge hall full of the strange, near-human creatures that the people of Nerona called Fair.

Not because they were beautiful, however. The doorway they passed through was flanked by two eight foot tall creatures who’s legs were longer than Tiberius was tall, who’s bodies were barely present and who’s hands barely came down past their hips but had fingers that hung to their knees. A small bump on top of their round torsos sported huge, bushy eyebrows nearly covering small, beady eyes. The music was coming from creatures with round bodies wearing ladybug cloaks. Black, clattering claws plucked at lute strings and pulled bows across odd, misshapen violins.

All up and down the hall waltzed equally strange creatures. They were a riot of misproportioned limbs, insect wings, bushy fur, extra eyes and any number of other wild and outrageous elements. Only one of them was human. It was hard for Tiberius to tell much about her since she was made entirely of living fire and throwing off waves of heat as she danced and writhed to the tune of the music. The Fair Folk clustered around her, approaching her one at a time to try and dance. However Belladonna showed no concern for any of them, her own bizarre dance leading her across the floor in unpredictable patterns that forced most of them to pull away or get burned.

One of the towering guard Folk peered down at Benicio and Tiberius, speaking in a surprisingly booming voice. “Ho, there, mortal men and welcome to the celebration.”

Tiberius froze, unsure of what to do in response. The Fair Folk supposedly had their own inviolable rules of culture and propriety but no one was quite sure what they were or when they applied. The few mortal men who had cracked one of the Folk’s rules rarely shared it. Benicio reached up and removed his feathered hat and straightened his doublet. “Forgive our intrusion, Fair one. We meant no offense, only to come and retrieve our friend there. May we?”

“No, no, mortal man.” The guard creature swung its body back and forth in a motion Tiberius chose to interpret as shaking its head in denial. “It is not fair for one to leave the floor before their dance is done! You must let her dance.”

“And how long must she dance?” Benicio asked. Tiberius was sure that the same stories running through his mind was running through the other man’s. Stories about endless dances, enchanted shoes and any other number of bizarre things that had befallen people who stumbled across the revels of the Fair Folk.

“Until the steps are done!” The strange creature laughed. “But alas she is mortal woman and the tunes of the Fair are not known to her, they drive her to strange steps we do not know! Who can dance the whole dance with her? Not I! Perhaps not anyone! Will you?”

Benicio scowled and folded his arms, green over normal, saying, “Dance with her like that? I’d get burned to a crisp. How long will the dance go if no one can match her?”

“How long?” The creatures voice turned confused and one of its spidery, misshapen hands reached up to scratch between its eyebrows. “As I said, until it is done, one way or the other! Nothing else would be fair to her.”

“Zalt!” Benicio spat the word, drawing disapproving looks from the surrounding Folk. “Well, I’ll have to try, I suppose. I can get a little singed if it means-”

“No, mortal man!” The guard creature shook its body once again. “For her own amusement does she dance and we dance to share in it! If you are burned in such a thing how could it be fair? If you are harmed you are not fit to dance with her and must stand aside for a suitable partner.”

Benicio turned incredulous. “What do you mean I can’t get burned? Have you seen her? She’s a Flame Heart in full burn, there’s no way I can keep up with her drunken dancing-”

Tiberius put a hand on his shoulder. “Peace, Benicio. If it will get us out of this hall alive I’ll take care of it.”

With that Tiberius began to shoulder his way through the assembled throng of Fair Folk, doing his best to ignore the strange skins and shells he brushed against, the insectile eyes that turned to him and the strange, unsettling voices that called to him. Finally he reached the dance floor and watched, trying to guess how he took his turn. The Fair Folk seemed to have some kind of method of choosing who would go next but Tiberius watched three dancers go out, get burned and return to the crowd without figuring out what it was. Then one of the Folk next to him nudged him with an fur covered hand. “Go, mortal man,” the creature chirped. “It is time you danced your turn!”

Well, it didn’t make sense but nothing else did so there was nothing to do but give it his best. As he stepped out, Tiberius realized he probably should have watched Belladonna rather than the Folk that danced with her. There was a strange grace to the movements of the woman on fire. When the flickering of the flame mixed with the sensuous movements of a woman’s body and the enchanting strains of the music it was hard to focus. But Tiberius’ whole life was built on focus.

So focus he did, pushing aside the strange creatures, the threat of fire and the potential consequences of failure. He focused and lived twice at once. The flicker of flames slowed, the strains of music turned to mud and the erotic promise of womankind was blunted as its natural sway distorted. Tiberius slid close to the woman called Belladonna and allowed himself to slip into something like a dance. He matched her step for step. He leaned back when she thrust forward, he swayed to counter her dip and he never let himself touch her flame.

Blood rushed through his veins and his heart pounded. But all he had to do was focus. His arms and legs began to burn as the strain of moving them through all that extra time took its toll. Focus kept them moving. The muddy sound of the music swelled then was swallowed by some deeper avalanche of sound. Focus rode above it.

Focus could only last so long. Tiberius sharpened his mind to its utmost and his focus lasted for a count of forty-five. Then fifty. He knew the exact count of the time because he always did. His Gift made it so. The dance continued on. A seventy count, then a hundred went past and still the dance dragged on. Belladonna continued to swing and sway. His arms grew heavier and heavier, his feet refused to move quite like he wanted. Around the edges of his vision the world went out of focus.

Tiberius was not going to last much longer.

Then, just as he stepped forward to match her step back Tiberius felt his focus snap. The swelling music, the cheering crowd, Belladonna’s wild dancing all snapped back to full speed and Tiberius felt his knees shaking as he struggled to control his momentum. Belladonna swung around, shifting her weight forward unexpectedly. With a panicked flailing Tiberius jerked back and tried to keep his balance. Just when he though the woman was going to swipe an arm across his chest and set his doublet alight Belladonna faltered, her body returning to that of a normal woman, and she slumped down.

Tiberius tried to grab her but he didn’t have the strength for it and they both collapsed on the ground. The music hit its last crescendo and the crowd exploded in cheers. Bewildered, Tiberius sat there and cradled his dance partner wondering how he was going to get out of the Folk’s realm if he couldn’t even get his breath and stand. Then the cheering, the music, the dance hall and all it’s Folk vanished. Tiberius and Belladonna were left seated on rough stone with Benicio watching from some fifteen feet away, the echoes of the revel still ringing in their ears.

Tiberius let out a sigh. “We made it.”

The other man approached, his eyebrows raised in recognition of the accomplishment. “That you did. Congratulations, Tiberius Twice, I think you’ve made a name for yourself with that. Not many can say they danced with the Folk and lived to tell about it.”

Tiberius let himself slump down flat on his back. “If this is all it takes to make a name I don’t understand how anyone ever managed it. I feel like a fool. Never let me try a stunt like that again.”

“Oh, I won’t. As I said, Belladonna is my responsibility and I’m in your debt for your help here. I will repay it but I’d rather not owe you anything more.”

“Agreed. I have enough of a name to last a lifetime.”

Pewter and Iron

(Pewter and Iron is my second foray into the world of Nerona. I wanted to make the world bigger than a single character or plot thread and so I deliberately pivoted to a new character rather than try to stick with either of the protagonists from The Lady of Marble. Lenneth and Ghiarelli aren’t gone but for the moment we’re looking elsewhere. Hopefully you enjoy Fabian as much as those two!)

“Zalt – it’s the Blacklegs all right. The whole company of them, by the looks of it.” I slid back down below the stone wall and handed my partner the spyglass. Sergio and I had spent the last hour picking our way through the ruins of Troas towards the Dragon’s Orb that floated just above it only to discover signs of other encampments as we went. Now we knew who’d left them. It wasn’t all that surprising.

Most of the old cities around the Gulf of Lum were abandoned after Hannibal Fulminate fought Old Lum around a hundred and fifty years ago. However fishermen still plied the waters of the Gulf and doubtless they’d brought the word back to more settled regions. I’m sure that’s how the Prince of Torrence heard about the pewter and sapphire colored Orb in the ruins. Whoever had sent the Blacklegs probably followed a similar route.

“I don’t see any banners. Are you sure it’s the Blacklegs?” Sergio asked.

“Let’s see. They’re all carrying swordstaves, wearing thigh high black boots and at least half a dozen of them are hopping around like crickets. If they’re not the Blacklegs they’re doing a pretty good job of pretending they are.” I leaned back against the wall, pulled off my left glove and took my rondel dagger in my right. Then I closed my eyes and reached for my Gift.

You feel an incredible number of sensations every second of every day but you’ve learned to ignore them so you can actually live your life. I have learned to feel them again, so that I can share them with others and feel what they feel in turn. In many circumstances this isn’t very fun. It can be very useful. Back on the outskirts of Troas a man sat on a particularly uncomfortable wooden stool. I could feel it digging into his thighs from half a mile away. Then I focused on my left thumb and very deliberately pricked that thumb with the point of my dagger, sending that sensation back to that man on the stool until the feeling of sitting vanished. Then I opened my eyes again. “They’re on their way.”

“We need to hurry,” Sergio hissed. “They’re going to get away with the Orb!”

“Get away?” I peeked back over the wall just to make sure we were both looking at the same thing. “It’s floating fifteen feet in the air, Sergio.”

“Have you forgotten what the defining trait of a Blackleg is, Fabian?”

Not for the first time I cursed the Prince for pairing me with this child who thought everyone and everything in the world found it as new as he did. “Yes, Sergio, anyone without the Gift of Leaping is automatically disqualified from joining. Just because they can get up on top of the Orb doesn’t mean they can move it. Have you ever seen the one the Conte Compani gifted to the Prince when he came of age eight years ago? It’s enormous, and made of solid granite. I don’t see a team of oxen or a cart to haul it with so how do they intend to move it?”

“Could be what the extras are for.” I followed Sergio’s finger to the two people not wearing the Blackleg’s distinctive boots or carrying their trademark weapon. One was a man with a strange, blue-green arm and the other a woman in an obscenely tight corset and men’s stockings and hose. There wasn’t a scrap of armor on her. Neither did she carry a weapon or even bother with anything on her arms or a cloak to keep off the night’s dew. In contrast, the man kept his strange arm free of clothing but otherwise was swathed in the usual cloak, surcoat and pantaloons you’d expect of a bravo at work. An interesting addition to a company of condottieri like the Blacklegs.

Large companies of mercenaries rarely worked with outside individuals or teams like Sergio and I. The point of condottieri is to fight battles. Outside of campaigns they drill, maintain equipment and move about looking for work. We bravos rarely take to battlefields. Instead we focus on smaller problems and generally work to be more discreet, working on behalf of a handful of reliable patrons. Our remit is the slaying of monsters, checking on wayward caravans, retrieving stole property or kidnapped nobles. In our off time I usually just try to get Sergio drunk enough that he’ll leave me alone then go to Torrence Grande Square to listen to the troubadours.

My point is, it’s rare to see the two breeds of hirelings work together. On anything. “The woman is either a thunderheart or flameheart,” I said. “She wouldn’t be dressed like that in a crowd of men if she couldn’t do something to keep them at arm’s length.”

Sergio spent a moment studying her. I had to admit that her high cheekbones, flawless skin, pronounced curves and long, wild black hair were well worth the time to look at. “I don’t know,” Sergio finally muttered. “It might be worth making a grab for her even if you wind up getting burned.”

“Worth sacrificing a hand for? Maybe. But worth loosing your manhood to living flame or lightning? No thank you.”

My partner grimaced. “Right, I forgot you pick up some sensations whether you want them or not so I guess you’d know, wouldn’t you?”

Actually I wouldn’t. I’ve vicariously lived through some truly horrible things but getting the figs burnt off isn’t one of them. Telling Sergio that just seemed like a way to get further off the topic. “I’ve never met him in person but I’d bet anything the man with the strange arm is Benicio Gale, from the eastern peninsula. He’s supposed to be the most powerful Blowhard alive.”

Sergio frowned. “Okay, that’s a useful Gift to have but if Dragon Orbs are as heavy as they say-”

“They are.”

“-then he’s not going to be able to blow it all the way back to wherever they’re planning to take it.” He gave me a skeptical look. “Or do you think they’re not here to claim it like we are? Could they be after something else here and just happened on the Orb by accident?”

“Not a chance.” I took the glass back from Sergio and looked at the Orb again. “Look at that. That’s not just any Dragon Orb that’s the first intact one I’ve ever heard of.”

“You mean they’re all smashed open like the Prince’s?”

I lowered the spyglass and gently thumped my forehead against the cool stone. “King of Stars, save us from ignorant children. Yes, every Orb ever found has a hole smashed in one side of it regardless of what it is made out of and how powerful the Dragon that keeps it.”

“That’s the other thing,” Sergio said, slipping a bolt into his crankbow. “Dragon Orbs are supposed to belong to dragons. So where is it?”

“Maybe none of them have shown up to claim it yet,” I said.

Sergio grinned. “Maybe this is our chance to break one open and find out why dragons care so much about the zalted things.”

“I don’t think the Blacklegs will take kindly to us just walking up and tampering with their prize.”

He didn’t reply, just picked up his bow and stood in a low crouch, hustling through the ruins with the stock of the bow clamped to his shoulder. I sighed, cursed the impetuosity of youth and hurried after him. As we moved closer I felt the telltale prickling sensation of Sergio’s Gift crawl over my scalp like spider feet. “Really, Fabian? Annoyance? Couldn’t you appreciate my initiative?”

“No. What’s their status?”

“They’re a little tired but alert and confident.” He came to a stop and turned to peek over the wall again, looking confused. “Weird. There’s something else out there. Something big.”

Sergio’s ability to sense and share emotions was useful in a lot of situations but when stretched further than thirty or forty feet it became quite vague. The Blacklegs were about sixty feet away, the Orb just beyond them. “Big how? Lots of feelings or strong emotion? Or both?”

“Watchful. Just one set of emotions I think, but very pronounced and very watchful. It knows we’re here…” His eyes widened. “Zalt. I think I know what that Orb is.”


“An egg.”

The side of the Orb shattered, sending gray and blue shards raining down on the surprised Blacklegs. They scattered, shouting in alarm, as a newborn dragon emerged and dropped to the ground. It had six legs and a thin, serpentine body. The belly and eyes gleamed sapphire while the heavy scales that armored most of its body were a silvery pewter color, just like the orb. The snakelike head and four toed claws flashed sapphire teeth and claws at us. It was perhaps eight feet from snout to tail.

There were fifty four men looking at it and we all stared in disbelief for just a moment. That was our first mistake.

The dragon snatched up one of the Blacklegs, faster than thought, and tore its head off between its jaws, crushing the skull and gulping it down in a single gruesome movement. It’s claws dug into the body beneath the armor and it darted away from the condottieri dragging the body with it. Pieces of armor were torn away and the body within devoured in great, bloody gulps.

The Blacklegs didn’t take kindly to this. They jumped forward, their Gift turning a small jump of two or three feet into a dizzying leap that covered nearly fifty. Their captain sent them into the air in groups of ten. It was a sight to see them leave the ground in waves, flying through the air like stones from a catapult, then smashing into the ground unhurt in clouds of dust at the end of their brief flight. Two groups cut off the dragon’s retreat, leveling the points of their weapons at their quarry. A third wave of Blacklegs targeted the creature itself.

The maneuver took less than ten seconds, in which time the dragon devoured the last of their friend’s corpse. It had already grown two feet longer. Perhaps the only thing more frightening than the rage of a grown dragon is the hunger and growth of an newborn one. The only consolation I found in the whole scene was that the man died without feeling pain.

The same was not true of the Blacklegs who lept to kill the dragon. The first had his arm ripped off and bled to death in agony. The creature grabbed the second’s swordstave by the blade and swung him around into the third before either one landed. Apparently the dragon didn’t know the Leaping Gift made all landings painless for those who had it since it ignored those two even though they felt almost no pain when they tumbled to the ground.

The moment they collided in the air probably broke some ribs, though.

I staggered to my feet, fighting off the waves of outside pain, and dragged Sergio up after me. “We need to get out of here.”

He balanced his crankbow on the wall in front of us and waited for a shot. “Are you crazy? We have a chance to be dragon slayers! It’s a child, sure, but-”

“But it’s making mincemeat of some of the best mercenaries in Nerona, Sergio. And we’re not fighters, we’re scouts. Leave this to the professionals.”

Already the Blacklegs were switching tactics. They’d brought a huge net, probably to wrangle the floating Orb with, and now four of them lept over the dragon’s head carrying one edge of it while four more anchored the other side. While the net was just rope it was woven densely enough that the dragon couldn’t easily tear through with its claws and they brought it down for the moment. A gout of flame sprang up within the net but the dragon was young and the net was damp with dew. It didn’t burn quickly.

Sergio gave me a hard look. “What, it’s bad to give up a Dragon Orb to whoever they’re working for but giving them a dragon or it’s corpse is fine?”

“Do you really think they’re going to kill it?”

In response a wave of confidence and resolve washed over me, channeled to me through Sergio from the minds of the men in front of us. Sergio crouched down and started forward again, leaving the most important thing unspoken. Even if it didn’t prey on men a newborn dragon could cause famines across counties and provinces as its absurd growth and insatiable appetite brought it to adulthood.

The lands around Torrence just couldn’t support their human populace and a growing dragon. The lizard had to die.

I loosed my dagger in its sheath and unslung my shield, although from what I’d seen those weapons weren’t worth much against a dragon, and followed after Sergio. He kept broadcasting the confidence and purpose of the Blacklegs as we approached. It didn’t do much for me but I could tell that the mercenaries were less tentative with Sergio bolstering their courage – even if he was using their own feelings to do it.

The Blackleg captain was no fool, although most of his attention was on the dragon clawing its way out of the net he did cast a quick glance around the area as Sergio’s wave of encouragement washed over him. I sighed and stood up straight, waving for his attention.

“What are you doing?” Sergio hissed.

“The smart thing, unlike you.” The captain waved me over and we closed the thirty feet between us in a few seconds. “Fabian Sensate, captain, and my partner Sergio Empath.”

“Bartolomaeus Leaper,” he snapped, “commanding the Blacklegs under contract to retrieve the Dragon Orb. Same for you?”

“Originally. I think we have a bigger problem on hand right now, captain, and I’ll be happy to just kill the beast and live to tell it.”

“Between you, me and the Four Kings I’d settle for that, too. My employer wouldn’t be so understanding.” He glanced up at the sky but it was overcast and the twilight hidden from us. “The King of Stars keeps his own counsel tonight so we’re on our own, I’m afraid. Say we kill the dragon and argue over the Orb later?”

“Fine.” I gave Sergio a sharp look and he closed his mouth, objection unvoiced. I took the crankbow from his hands. “Sergio will help you keep your men together. What should I do?”

Bartolomaeus glanced at the dragon, which had burned its way out of the net and killed another Blackleg but now bled from a dozen shallow stab wounds. The woman in the corset waded through the burning rope, her own body practically one with the flames. A fire heart indeed. She threw her arms around the dragon’s neck and climbed for its head only to burst into a pillar of flame as the dragon swatted her with a claw. Her body reassembled itself from the fire a moment later and she made another grab for the lizard.

“Can you hurt that thing without endangering my men?”

“No. I can feel what others feel and share the sensations but I can only target an individual if I know them well, otherwise the sensations effect anyone near me.” I patted a few potions at my waist. “I can make them feel some terrible things that will lay them flat but I can’t guarantee it will work on the dragon.”

“Then hold your peace while we try something. Benicio!” The captain waved his hand in some kind of signal to the green armed man. Then he yelled to the men around the dragon. “Ola! Ohle-ohlay-ohlay-la-la!”

Benicio Gale came by his name honestly. He took a breath so deep I thought he would swell up and burst then pursed his lips and blew a hurricane through the middle of the ruins. The Blacklegs around the dragon lept up and over the wall of wind, landing near their captain in near perfect formation no doubt indicated by the ridiculous cry Bartolomaeus had just given. The dragon and woman were picked up and slammed into a set of stone pillars that once held up a long vanished roof. The woman dissolved into fire then was swept away by the wind. I think I saw her laughing as she vanished and bid her good riddance. A dangerous one, that, whoever she was.

The dragon was left pinned in place by Benicio’s titanic breath, clawing at the stone but unable to find purchase with its emerald talons. It had grown more in the few minutes that passed. Now its length was twenty feet if it was an inch and it had begun to sprout wings like a bee. I felt a sudden, grinding pain between my shoulder blades and realized I could feel the dragon’s discomfort. It braced itself against the foundation of the ruined building and I felt it draw in a deep breath.

“Your ears! Captain, have your men plug their ears!”

It was too late. The dragon’s roar shattered old stone and cracked the earth, even overpowering the sound of Benicio’s howling wind. The waves of courage Sergio sent out faltered. I saw most of the men behind Bartolomaeus turn white as death but a few stood strong, not the least of them the captain himself. Sergio’s brow furrowed as he grasped the few remaining strands of resolve and wove them into a blanket to keep the Blacklegs from panicking.

It was an incredible feat. The terror of a dragon’s roar is supposed to break the will of all but the most hardened veterans. This dragon was young, true. But Sergio turned the remaining scraps of courage into an ironclad bulwark against its terrifying rage. I can honestly say I have never seen an Empath achieve anything remotely comparable before or since. For just a moment, Sergio stood on the level of Hannibal’s Paladins.

Then Benicio ran out of breath.

I should have seen it coming. He could only exhale for so long and the force of the dragon’s roar had to have taken some toll on him. Even I felt a chill from it and I have felt what it’s like to die countless times in my life. So it shouldn’t have surprised anyone when Benicio coughed once then doubled over, gasping, and the wind vanished.

The dragon was the only one who was ready for it.

It flung itself off one of the pillars behind it, covering most of the twenty feet between us between Benicio’s first and second gasps. I loosed my crankbow, hitting it on the shoulder of its second left leg. The arrowhead bounced off with only a twinge of pain. Bartolomaeus raised his swordstave and held it in a cross guard, opening space between the dragon and his men. He stepped forward to ward the dragon back. Behind him, half a dozen of his men scrambled to form a skirmish line. Their discipline was remarkable.

Sergio scrambled to one side, fumbling his rapier out of its sheath as he tried to give them space to work. For just a moment he stepped too far away from the Blackleg formation.

Like a whip, the dragon’s head swept out and around Bartolomaeus, its teeth latched on to Sergio’s shoulder and then he was yanked forward into the monster’s waiting claws. A splash of blood and the unnatural courage that flooded us vanished. Sergio was dead. The dragon tore its mouthful away, taking shoulder and arm off of Sergio’s body and swallowed it down. Already I could see panic spreading through the Blacklegs. Even Bartolomaeus’ eyes were wide with shock.

Another roar and they would break.

I threw aside the crankbow and drank the first potion on my belt. For a moment the foul brew stuck my eyes and the back of my nose, then it hit my stomach and the world spun for a moment. I gathered myself and put the full force of my Gift behind the sensation. Then I vomited.

The Blacklegs followed suit to the man, most of them collapsing as the nausea overpowered their sense of balance as well. The dragon spat out Sergio’s arm and flopped flat, writhing on the ground, leaking bile and blood from its lips. Only Benicio kept his stomach although not his feet.

For just a moment I was the only one standing. It takes more than a little puke for me to take a seat. With the last of Sergio’s borrowed feelings purged with the remains of my dinner I felt something quite unexpected filling its place. Anger burned in me. I stalked towards the dragon, taking my dagger in one hand and the next potion in the other. I pried the cork out and let the eye watering smell of spices sting my nose. The dragon looked up at me as approached.

“What is this?” The creature gathered its wits about it and pulled upright.

“Oh? You can talk now, can you?” I sucked in a deep breath through my nose, the burning spices in the potion clawing through my skull at my brain and eyes. The dragon reared backwards. “You couldn’t have tried that first?”

“Humans are not the only ones who can peer through minds, Fabian Sensate,” the dragon snapped, shaking its head clear of the pain. “I know you came to steal my cradle from me. Why speak to thieves who will take the one treasure granted to a child such as I?”

“I’m no richer than you, little lizard. I don’t have many people I’d call friends and you just ate one of them, so you may be willing to call it even.” I took a sip of the potion and its spice scalded my tongue. “Turns out I am not.”

The dragon pulled itself up until its head was even with mine, spitting bile and coughing flame as I shared the torture in my mouth with it. But the creature’s attention wasn’t on its mouth. It was staring intently at me, its head weaving back and forth as if it was one of those charmed snakes charlatans from the East mesmerized with a flute. Then the dragon changed.

It didn’t get bigger, not this time, nor did it stretch is nascent wings to their full extent. Rather, it shrank until it was barely taller than I am. Its proportions changed, too, head pulling in to its torso, tail and middle set of legs disappearing inward as well, its extra shoulders melting away like snow in sunlight. Faster than it took to describe, the dragon changed from a lizard to a human woman. She stood there, six feet of pewter skin, her nudity robbed of eroticism by its sheer alien nature, still armed with wicked sapphire claws and teeth, her hair a bundle of waving, jewel like fibers. Then she leaned in close to me.

Her breath smelled like a burning cook pot.

“How lovely,” she whispered.


She stretched a deadly, taloned finger towards my eyes. “The most lovely jewels I have ever seen lie just here, more brilliant than any sapphire, quartz, diamond or topaz my parents placed in my cradle.”

I looked down at my potions, wondering if I had one that would do more to her than the fire pepper brew. She grabbed my hand and tilted my face back up towards her. “They’re gone. Why?”

“There are worse questions for your last words, I suppose.” Switching tactics, I jammed my dagger into the sapphire scales over her belly. To my amazement, it broke.

The dragon scowled at me. “That was rude. Almost as rude as trying to steal my cradle while I was still in it. I’ll forgive you if-”

I took the shards of the dagger and stabbed them into my thigh. It was a risky move, but there was a Mender among the men I’d signaled with the thumb prick and I was confident I could survive. However as I worked the metal slivers into my flesh even my own tolerance for pain failed and I crumbled to the ground. I landed almost on top of the dragon, who’s tolerance wasn’t any better than mine. In fact, I could tell that these sensations were quite new to her, rapidly spreading through her body and triggering sympathetic pains elsewhere.

She rallied and pushed up, causing me to roll off her. I deliberately landed on my wounded leg, causing her to howl in agony. Using a contortionist trick I’d picked up from a tiny man from the East I yanked my thumb out of socket then popped it back it. Black spots swam before my eyes.

The dragon pulled herself up and roared, the sound doubly terrifying coming from a creature that looked so uncannily human. In response, a horn sounded nearby. A gust of wind nearly took the dragon off its feet as Benicio began to get his breath back. I picked up the fire pepper potion I had dropped. It was still half full. I dumped it all over my face and mouth, triggering horrible burning on my skin and tears from my eyes.

A Blackleg – I couldn’t tell who – crashed into her with the point of his weapon and she howled. Her body melted back into her full draconic form, now almost twenty five feet long with wings fully grown, and she clawed for the sky. A few bolts of lighting from a thunder hand sparked off her pewter skin but the creature kept climbing and climbing until I could no longer pick it out from the night sky. All I could see through the tears and pain was the glimmering curve of the Orb, slowly settling to the ground as the magic within it faded, its mistress gone.

I, too, collapsed onto the ground. The tension left my body as it became clear the danger was past and all that was left was arguing over who would ultimately lay claim to the treasure the dragon left. I closed my eyes, trying to sooth the burning there, content to let others bicker over such things. Then I heard a voice speaking to me with the faraway tone of a Telepath. “Keep my cradle with you, my lovely,” the dragon sent. “One day I will come back for it as surely as I will find you again. Although it may be ages before fate brights us together once more I will always count your eyes as the first treasure of my hoard…”

“Think that if you like,” I muttered, opening my eyes to look up into the cloudy night. “But I swear this by the King of Stars, lizard. One day I will kill you.”

The Lady of Marble

Nerona began as a bizarre jumble of different ideas. A fantasy world based on Renaissance Italy. An attempt to coopt the class abilities of the Final Fantasy series into a coherent world with somewhat predictable laws. A story about a character who is a hardcore antiauthoritarian. I have a story that drove much of the worldbuilding for Nerona but as I began to work on understanding that world many, many other ideas for what could happen in that lively little nation came to me. Here I share some of them with you, beginning with one of the first ideas that came to me and the first that I committed to paper.

The birds brought her tidings, as always. At first it was just a few songbirds rising above the treetops in twos and threes in panic. Then they came in waves. They became birds of all kinds, songbirds, raptors and even a handful of waterfowl rising from the mountainside.

Lenneth moved from the round seat at the center of the lookout tower towards the eastern windows. Something unusual was on the mountainside. Her father and brothers were down in the Round Lake Valley, beyond the Hall, taking in a few ducks for the guest they were expecting tomorrow. Lenneth was tempted to ignore the birds, since there were no other signs of something amiss. Only large predators or humans spooked the birds that way and neither was uniquely remarkable.

But it was possible their guest had arrived early. Leaving him to wander the mountainside for the night wouldn’t be hospitable. She reached out and took up the tower’s padded, metal striker and rang the eastern bell twice. The bell’s clear, silvery tone echoed over the mountainside. Then Lenneth collected her short spears and spear sling and hurried over to the spiral stairway that led down from the overlook’s platform. The rough wooden steps that wound around the outlook’s central support beam had no interest for her. Instead she lept up on the railing and allowed her Gift to carry her down in a single sweeping movement.

She kept her legs tucked up under her body as she shifted back and forth to maintain her balance, her boots barely touching the wooden bar as they slid along without resistance. Her Gift of Grace turned the bar into a thoroughfare and propelled her along without resistance. Her sense of balanced, honed from a lifetime of similar stunts, kept her on course. She lept off the railing at the end of the bar and landed lightly on the dirt path below.

The mountain was as familiar to her as her family Hall. The Wingbreaker Clan had kept the paths on the Griffon’s Mounts for two hundred years with each path, tree and clearing very deliberately maintained. The Gift of Grace wasn’t integral to the way they kept the mountains. But many of the Clan had been blessed in that way over the years and they had found all the small shortcuts – rock outcroppings, convenient trees and dried creek beds – where their Gift would allow them to effortlessly slide down the side of the mountain.

From the appearance of waterfowl she’d spotted earlier Lenneth concluded their guest was crossing Hildur’s Creek at the upper ford. At a normal march it was perhaps twenty minutes from the outlook. However an avalanche on the eastern ridges had left a wide channel open and smooth enough for gliding so Lenneth was able to sweep down two hundred feet of mountainside in less than a minute and finish the overall trip in less than five.

She walked out of the brush along the river to find their guest seated on a rock beside the ford, pulling his boots back on. His appearance was immediately striking. He was tall but wiry in the way of a man who was used to an active life but not a laborious one. His skin was the olive tone of the Neronan people. The boots he was pulling on were shod with nails in the same way her own were, giving them more grip on the mountainous terrain. However that was the only concession he’d made to the wild. Unlike many visitors who came from that southern nation he had not adopted the dress of the Isenkinder but instead wore a wine red doublet and pantaloons in the Neronan style. He’d tied down the extra fabric around his arms with leather straps, presumably to keep them out of the way in the brush.

Lenneth found herself frowning at that. Many who came from Nerona bound themselves in tightly and shrank away from others. It was a very unnatural, city-like idea. The visitor’s back was to her when she arrived so she made her way around to his front, grabbing the edge of her cloak and giving it a gentle tug. It rippled gently around her body, the roc feathers stitched to it it rustling with the motion. Some of her disapproval faded as the stranger immediately took note of the sound.

He stood, bracing himself on the stock of a crankbow he’d leaned against the rock he sat on. Lenneth tensed for a moment but he made no move to raise the bow once he was standing. Instead he turned around and removed his cloth cap, a gesture of greeting and respect in Nerona.

Lenneth also turned, straightening her robe and cloak so they fell correctly about her, and presented her bare right shoulder, arm and side to their guest in openness and greeting. “Welcome to the Griffon’s Mounts, honored guest,” she said, raising her right hand in greeting. “I am Lenneth Wingbreaker, of the Wingbreaker Clan. You are earlier than we expected but you are still most welcome here.”

“My thanks.” The stranger bowed from his waist then straightened, putting his cap back on his head. In the same motion he adjusted a strange piece of wire holding two disks of glass in front of his eyes. Then he took a solid look at her. For a moment he locked in place as his eyes focused on her bare arm and the narrow strip of exposed skin running down the side of her body to the top of her boots. Only the straps of her robe broke up the skin there.

Neronans dressed as if they feared any other person glimpsing their flesh. Their paranoid sometimes bordered on the obscene. Still, in many cases it was easier to close oneself off some to help others open up. She tightened the straps until the opening on her right side was little more than a finger wide. “May I know your name, honored guest?”

The man cleared his throat and pulled his eyes up to her face. “Of course. I am Ghiarelli Glasseye, of Verdemonde Province in Nerona. I came at the behest of the Marquis Verdemonde and bear letters of introduction but, alas, time was precious and no message proceeded me. I fear I am not the guest you were expecting.”

“You are welcome regardless.” Lenneth studied him a little closer, wondering what kind of man travelled to far foreign lands with nothing to warn of his coming. Such behavior spoke of extreme need. Yet if Ghiarelli was a desperate man, little about him bore testimony to it. His eyes were a bright, clear brown like the bottom of a clear river with no signs of exhaustion beyond what was normal for a traveler far from home. Likewise his clothes were worn but not tattered or uncared for.

Most of all, a bemused smile kept playing at his lips. Ghiarelli snatched up a pack by his feet, a rough, brown sack with straps for the arms and a buckler and long, thin sword strapped down within easy reach. “Thank you for your hospitality, lady of marble,” he said. “My hope is to trespass on your kindness for only two or three days.”

Lenneth arched an eyebrow. “Lady of marble?”

“Am I not allowed to address you by title, as you have me?”

“There is a difference between calling you an honored guest and me a lady of marble, Sir Ghiarelli. Whether you are the one we expected or not you are our guest but I am not a creature of stone.” Lenneth turned and gestured towards the mountaintop. “Regardless of whether we expected you or not I ask you to come back to Wingbreaker Hall with me to enjoy our hospitality.”

He lifted his crankbow and slung it over one shoulder. “My thanks, lady Wingbreaker. Lead on.”

The worst part of heading back up the mountain was having to restrain her Gift so that her guest could keep pace. The Neronan man was content to walk in silence for a time. But as they turned away from the river he said, “Tell me, lady Wingbreaker, do you have many visitors from Nerona?”

“A few,” she said, casting her mind through the long line of faces that had come to the ancestral Hall over the years. “Perhaps half a dozen a year. Usually in pairs or families although some come alone like you. Why? Do you miss your contrymen’s company already?”

“Not at all. I saw plenty of them in the journey north. Verdemonde is at the furthest southern limits of the western peninsula so I’m afraid I’ve seen half the country in the last three weeks. I was just surprised that no one has ever commented on your skin before.”

Lenneth laughed. “On the contrary, many of them do so. In fact, few if any Neronans fail to remark on the amount of skin they see; almost as if none of you have seen skin before.”

“We have, but never skin as beautiful as polished marble.”

A flush worked its way up her cheeks. It was no lie to say every visitor from the south had commented on the pallor of the Isenkinder’s skin. This was the first to embarrass her over it. “Perhaps that’s because they don’t come from cities full of nothing but dust and stone.”

Ghiarelli chuckled. “Perhaps so. I didn’t realize it was that obvious where I came from. What gave me away?”

“There are no leaves or brambles in your clothes,” Lenneth said. “You’ve bound yourself up to avoid all contact. When something does brush against you, you take note and clean away the detritus. Only someone unused to the wilds would bother with such a futile endeavor.”

“I see! That’s very astute of you,” he said, shielding his eyes as they stepped out into the clearing left by last winter’s avalanche. “What other insights-”

He stopped short, grabbed her by the right arm and dragged her back into the tree line less than a second before a roc swept by. Wind from the great raptor’s wings buffeted the branches of the trees. The tips of its claws scraped furrows through the dirt and stones where they had just stood. Then the mighty bird climbed up and away, banking away from the treeline and climbed upwards, screeching its frustration at the sky.

As the wagon sized bird dwindled into the distance Lenneth fitted one of her spears into the pocket of her sling. “The roc has seen us. It won’t leave now until the sun sets and there is no path we can take back to the Hall that won’t expose us to another attack. I’ll try to lure it down and dispatch it, you head up the-”

Ghiarreli lightly grasped her sling hand and she looked over, startled. He was looking up into the air with one eye squinted and the other stretched open wide. Glimmers of light shot through his pupils. A chill ran down Lenneth’s spine. “Wait,” he whispered. “Let it go a bit further…”

She looked back at the roc, now quickly shrinking into the sky. Then a spear shot out of the trees. It was little more than a sliver of black wood at that distance but even then Lenneth recognized the way it flew. It arced out of the trees at a brisk clip, destined to fall far short of the roc. Then her father’s Gift added an extra push to it and the spear jumped forward again. The great bird banked to avoid it but a second and final push corrected for the roc’s maneuver and drove the weapon home. The roc dropped from the sky and disappeared among the trees.

Ghiarelli grunted and stood up, dusting himself off. “Impressive throw. Even with the Gift of Impulse to drive the weapon it’s difficult to guide it at that distance in a way that will hit an evading target.” He started as four high pitched notes sounded from the distant, unseen overlook. “What was that? I heard something similar earlier.”

“A signal bell. Probably my brother, sounding the all clear so we know there aren’t any other rocs in the area.”

“Ah. That’s a useful system.”

“You’re a clairvoyant,” Lenneth said. She immediately wanted to kick herself for saying something so obvious when you stopped to think about it.

“Is that a problem?”

“No, I suppose not.” She studied his gleaming glasses. “I’ve just never met one. Clairvoyants are supposed to stay cloistered in safe places, lost in the future and dead to the present, not wander around mountainsides.”

“Only the most powerful of us have that problem,” Ghiarelli said. “Most of us can only see a few seconds forward without great effort – or in our dreams.” He touched the wire and glass over his eyes. “With the help of a skilled Artificer we can see further or limit ourselves to the present and in general exercise more control over our Gift. Well, except for the dreams.”

Lenneth absently brushed her hand across the chain link belt she wore, an Artifact her grandfather had made to give more control and force to her own gift. “I see. That must be a great help to you. I know the Gift of Artifice is common in Nerona, such things must be plentiful there.”

“Is it rare among the Isenkinder?” The stranger asked as they resumed the climb to the summit.

“In comparison to the Talisman Gift, yes. I’m not sure why it should be so much easier for our people to amplify the residual magic of other creatures to make talismans, rather than channeling the magic of men into artifacts but so it is. If it were not the case the Wingbreaker Clan would not exist.” She ran her fingers over the feathers of her cloak. “If we were not here to mind the mountains all the rocs and griffons would be dead and their bodies turned to wards and trinkets. What brings you to our mountain, Ghiarelli Glasseye? Do you think the creatures we tend can serve to create you a talisman to help control your dreams?”

“I doubt the King of Dreams would allow me control of them,” he said with a wry smile. “The Kings at the Corners are so possessive of their omens, after all. Perhaps a talisman could add some clarity but even that’s a stretch. No, I’ve never heard of any talisman or artifact that can affect a clairvoyant’s dreams so your griffons are safe from me.”

“Not the rocs?”

“There is an appeal to a cloak that keeps me from ever getting cold.” He glanced at her roc feathers. “If I had such a thing I might be as bold as others are.”

Lenneth started pinking up again. “I thought clairvoyants saw things as they are about to happen. What clarity could you need? Are your dreams different from other visions?”

“They are much further in the future so what is likely to happen is less certain and the images become more symbollic.”

She gave him a questioning look. “What do you mean?”

“Well, let me give you an example. Just now I watched that roc tear your arm off and wiped your blood off my glass eyes.” He mimed a wiping motion with one hand. Lenneth shuddered. “It looked as real as if it actually happened. On the other hand, three days ago I dreamed that a block of marble tumbled to the ground blocking my path and transformed into the statues of two lords and a lady. Clearly a meeting that was important to my task but no idea of when or where we would meet. Until today, of course.”

Her father and brother flitted through her mind. “I see. And your dream got some of the details wrong, since I was alone when we first met.”

“Perhaps. And perhaps the moment that dream symbolized hasn’t come to pass yet. Not everything we see ever does.” He flashed a charming smile. “I certainly hope I will never see you maimed before my eyes.”

“How kind of you. I’m sure my father will be impressed by your chivalry.”

“You may not remain on Wingbreaker land, Ghiarelli Glasseye,” Ulfar intoned, his face set in stone. “You must depart our land before the sun sets.”

Lenneth struggled but failed to keep her mouth from dropping open in astonishment. She hadn’t actually expected overflowing gratitude from her father but she hadn’t expected him to immediately send a guest away without even listening to him or the daughter who had brought him to their threshold.

“Lord Wingbreaker,” Ghiarelli said, producing a sheaf of paper folded in thirds and sealed with wax from his pack. “I assure you I come with no ill will to you or yours. I have here letters from the Marquis de Verdemonde stating his good will and offering -”

“On this I cannot be persuaded, no matter what inducement your Lord offers or how inconsequential you believe your presence to be.” Ulfar folded his arms over his chest and settled in place. “I am sorry but it must be so.”

For a moment Ghiarelli stared at her father, eyes narrow then slowly growing wider. Then he sighed and tucked away his papers. “Very well.”

“Father!” The word exploded out of her before she realized she was going to speak.

Ulfar’s light brown eyebrows knitted together as he cut her off with a raised hand. “I will not be moved on this, Daughter. What binds the Isenkinder to Nerona? Or why should the Wingbreakers bow to the Verdemonde?”

“It is a question of honor, Father.”

“You question my honor, Daughter?”

Lenneth raised her chin a fraction. “No, Father, you threaten mine.”

Her father studied her face for a moment then gestured back towards the overlook behind him. “Tyroc,” he said to her brother who waited patiently at the head of the path to the Hall, “stay with our guest. I will speak with your sister in private.”

Lenneth followed her father up the stairs. Climbing was slower than she was used to but she knew her father wouldn’t want her sweeping past him on the railing. Not in front of a stranger, certainly. They emerged looking out over the valley that held the family Hall. The highest peak rose behind it. The slate eaves and fitted stone walls of the Wingbreaker’s ancestral seat almost seemed a part of the landscape from that distance.

Her father stared at the building for a long moment before he spoke. “Tell me, Lenneth, what mark would stain your honor if we sent this man away?”

She joined him on the northern window. “Father, I have already offered him our shelter and hospitality.”

Ulfar relaxed imperceptibly. “Is that all? Then I hold you blameless for a promise that was not yours to make. I have already made pledges to the guest we expect tomorrow. He will have our assistance in tracking down and securing a valuable quarry and we will do all in our power to prevent others from stealing it from him. He warned us of several who might rob him by name. Ghiarelli was one of those. So you see, my Daughter, you have made a promise I cannot honor lest I break my own word.”

Lenneth cast her eyes down. “Forgive me, Father. I did not know.”

“And I am not angry with you for it,” he said kindly, “but my own honor demands the boy be sent away. I can see from his eyes he understands our situation. Sometimes this is the way things must be. Do not trouble yourself over this.”

“I see.” Lenneth worried a feather between her fingers. “Still, wouldn’t it be better to keep him here for the night, at least?”

Ulfar’s gaze became sharp again. “How so?”

“If he’s a rival to the guest we are expecting we must watch him to make sure he makes no trouble. It’s growing late and we will need to escort him to the edge of our territory and return. It would be best to wait tomorrow to do it.” She met her father’s gaze. “And I do owe him some consideration since he prevented the roc you killed this afternoon from snatching my arm off.”

“Did he.” Ulfar snorted in surprise. “He doesn’t look like he would have better woodcraft than you, Daughter, how did he achieve such a thing?”

“He is clairvoyant, Father.”

This time her father was quiet for a long time. Then he said, “That explains a great deal. Very well, Daughter, I will extend him the hospitality of the Hall for tonight and send him out of our territory with my cousin Geirmund. He deserves that much for sparing you harm.”

With that Ulfar turned and strode back down out of the overlook. Ghiarelli waited patiently for them at the base with her brother and faced her father for a long moment as they stared at each other. “You have kept blood from being spilled on our mountains, Ghiarelli Glasseye, and not just any blood but my Daughter’s. The Wingbreakers offer you hospitality for the night, and the night only.”

The Neronan man nodded. “Thank you, Lord Wingbreaker, that is generous of you.”

“I ask only that you refrain from spilling blood yourself. If you make me this pledge of peace then Wingbreaker hall is open to you.”

“Of course.” Ghiarelli removed his cap and bowed.

It wasn’t quite the outcome Lenneth had hoped for but it was something, at least.

Lenneth stepped out of the Hall in the early morning light, unsure of what roused her from bed before the sun was even risen. She pulled her roc’s cloak more firmly around her body against the early spring chill. It was a minute’s walk from the Hall to the overlook where she was sure she could find some hint of what was amiss. The Wingbreakers weren’t clairvoyant but they knew the mountains like no other and Lenneth had always been taught to trust her instincts.

They were right on the money, although not in the way she expected. When she got up to the top of the outlook she found Ghiarelli there at the north window, his back to her, looking out towards the summit of the mountains with his arms wrapped around himself. “Is something wrong, Glasseye?”

He turned and she saw that today he wasn’t wearing the artifact he took his name from. His cap was also missing. While not notable in and of itself, these changes in accessories made it easy to notice his sunken eyes and the way sweat plastered his hair to his skull. It was a stark contrast to his controlled, confident appearance the day before.

“Forgive me,” he said, his voice barely a whisper. “The King of Dreams visited me again last night.”

“I take it this one wasn’t pleasant?”

He turned back to the valley and let out a deep breath. “I saw a man of iron, burning like a furnace, scattering leaves in a shower of sparks and ash as he tears through ranks of trees.”

“That doesn’t sound particularly nightmarish.”

“It is when you’re one of the trees.”

“Oh.” Lenneth sat down on the bench behind Ghiarelli. “Are all your dreams that disturbing?”

“Does it matter?”

“I’d hate to think that I was a part of something that upset someone so badly, even unintentionally.”

He gave her a thin smile and joined her on the bench. From that lower vantage little of the mountains were visible for it was placed in a way to draw the eye to the skies; watching for the great flying beasts the Wingbreakers governed. However this morning only the clear, honey streaked skies of dawn were visible. One single grayish green speck wobbled unsteadily through the skies to the north.

“Look,” he said, voice gaining strength, “even if Dreams do not favor me the King of Dawn sends me favorable portents.”

“How so?” Lenneth asked in amusement.

“Do the Isenkinder not believe the thing you see just before the sun rises will be yours before the next daybreak?”

Lenneth scoffed. “What a strang thing to say. What would you do with a bird from Isenlund anyway?”

His voice pitched down. “Who said I was looking at the bird?”

Risking a quick glance from the corner of her eye Lenneth caught him grinning at her and forced down her embarrassment. “The question stands.”

Ghiarelli chuckled. “I see why your father was so prickly towards me last night. He must find you to be a mighty trial.”

“What do you mean?”

“What I don’t understand was what he meant by not spilling blood,” Ghiarreli continued, acting as if she hadn’t spoken. “Surely the Wingbreakers sometimes fail when hunting the dangerous game you keep. How can blood not be spilt?”

Lenneth glared at him for a moment then said, “It does happen. But it is our disgrace when it does, for we were entrusted these mountains because we could best learn, track and husband the strength of the creatures here. It falls to us to keep the peace between roc and Griffon, between beast and man and between fellow men. Der Isenkoenig granted us authority over it all.”

“But don’t you hunt rocs and griffons?”

“It’s a delicate balance but in the past their numbers have grown to the point where they became a menace to the flatlands and river country. All Isenkinder are in danger if the menace of the skies is not kept in check. Yet we also find great benefit in hunting them and if we were to simply wipe them out our talisman makers would soon follow and Isenlund would quickly pass to others. When one of us dies in the hunt it is a sign that the balance we maintain is in peril.” She pointed at him then back at herself. “It is different for you or I. The Wingbreaker’s mandate is not served by duels or grudges, so they are forbidden here.”

“Oh?” Without the glass over his eyes the way his eyes widened in surprise was more subdued but still quite pronounced. “I heard that your people are famous for your grudges.”

“Not here.” Lenneth gestured out at the mountains below them. “The dangers of the mountain are enough and fighting in the ranks here not only weakens or position against them it attracts the attention of the most powerful of the creatures on the mountain. Thus no man may shed another’s blood here save on my father’s orders or that man will face the Wingbreaker’s justice.”

“I see.” Ghiarelli’s expression returned to normal as he watched the sun peek over the horizon. “Well. If that is how it is there’s little I can do about it. Thank you for ensuring I received your family’s hospitality, Lenneth Wingbreaker. I will not forget your kindness.”

She nodded gravely. “I hope you will not hold this outcome against our clan or people.”

“No, and certainly not against you. But now I think it’s time I departed. I think I heard the doors to your Hall open again and no doubt your Uncle is looking for me…”

The man who came the day Ghiarelli left was named Remigio Bladebearer and he was hunting a rare creature called the emerald heron. He brought a rough sketch and a description of the bird’s migratory path. According to Remigio the bird followed a two decade long circuit across unknown continents and it’s eyes were a powerful talisman for seeing across incredible distances. The Neronan had pledge to share one eye with the Wingbreakers if they would help him capture the bird.

Unfortunately the map of the creatures migration pattern wasn’t very precise and covered most of the Wingbreaker peaks. Remigio arrived near mid morning and insisted they immediately begin the hunt for the heron. The birds would only be passing over the mountain for a week, he said, perhaps ten days and he was anxious to begin the hunt.

Lenneth found the whole affair odd. She’d never heard of an emerald heron, nor had her brother, father or uncles and aunts. She wasn’t sure how a Neronan had learned of it, especially since Remigio looked as much a city dweller as Ghiarelli did. Still, the best way to answer those questions was to stick with Remigio. So they set out hunting.

The creature was just as much a waterfowl as any other heron so at least they didn’t have to search every inch of the mountain. However the sun rose to full height and sank towards the western horizon and they found no sign of the creature. After a long, humid day slinking along river banks, Ulfar proposed that they head back to the Hall via Round Lake Valley. Reluctantly, their guest agreed.

It was there, among the drooping pine branches and clear waves of Round Lake that they finally spotted their quarry. The emerald heron was not as striking as its name implied. The creature’s plumage was a dull green, well suited to blending in with the pine trees. It stood on the bank of the lake not in the water so its gangly legs and were on full display and it’s head constantly swiveled about on its snaking neck as if the creature was nervous. The bird’s long, predatory beak clacked constantly, as if it was talking to itself.

Remigio instantly became excited, working the lever of his crankbow as he prepared for a shot. Ulfar put a hand on the weapon’s stock. “Patience,” he whispered. “Let us take precautions. Lenneth, cross the water and sweep around it’s opposite side. You will flush it to us. Tyroc, stand ready with your Gift to strike it if all else fails. But gently! Try not to destroy its eyes in the process.”

“Easier said than done,” her brother grumbled.

Her father ignored him. “Honored guest, you and I will proceed forward once Lenneth rings her bell,” he touched the bell at his own waist for reference, “and loose our darts at the bird together.”

“How will she ring the bell?” Remigio looked puzzled. “There are not strikers in your bells.”

“Of course not,” Tyroc said, “else we would constantly ring them by accident as we moved about. We strike them with our spear hafts.”

“Oh. That’s sensible.” The Neronan finished loading his bow and hefted the weapon. “Then let’s not waste time, shall we?”

“Indeed. With this luck and another week to search we might even take two or three more of these creatures.” Ulfar gestured to Lenneth and she took of at a slow jog.

In many cases the Gift of Grace only allowed one to drift atop a surface almost as if one was skating across ice. However, on lakes and rivers a special element of the Gift came to light. Lenneth was almost weightless while gliding, at least in regards to the surface she glided along for she herself still felt her own weight and that of what she carried. Still, it made slipping over top of the water of the lake to the far shore a simple task.

What she hadn’t expected was for the heron to look at her as she crossed from its place hundreds of feet away, squawk in panic and clumsily take to the sky. Before she could process it the bird swept by perhaps six feet over her head and kept climbing. She threw her whole weight backwards, slipping down ankle deep into the water before she could reestablish her glide, and tried to reverse course. In the process she heard a confused shout from her brother, a grunt and the snap of Remigio’s crankbow.

Then there was a crack of wood and another surprised shout. Lenneth got entirely turned around and scrambled back onto shore. Remigio was working to reload his crankbow, her father was stomping towards something by the treeline and the heron had landed behind them. Tyroc was holding two sticks in one hand and his other crackled with the thunder of his Gift.

Not sticks, she realized. Two darts from a crankbow. One dart had actually pierced the other through the shaft. At first that was unbelievable but once she took in the full scene it actually made a kind of sense. Standing beside the heron at the treeline was Ghiarelli Glasseye, his own crankbow leaning against his pack at his side. She wondered if all he needed to do to achieve such a feat was look to the future as he aimed and release the arrow when he saw the future he wanted.

Ghiarelli drew his sword and buckler and stood between them and the heron. “Remigio Bladebearer. I should have known Father Borgia’s right hand would be here, kidnapping and Fair magic have Gregorio’s fingerprints all over it.”

“Glasseye.” Remigio tossed his crankbow aside. “They said they sent you down the mountain.”

“They did. And I left the mountains in truth!” Ghiarelli pulled a vial of liquid off his belt with his buckler hand, uncorked it with his teeth and dumped it over his forehead and face. The whole time he never blinked. Lenneth realized he was staring wide eyed and, even at a distance of twenty feet behind glass, she could see his eyes were bloodshot. From the damp, stained front of his doublet she assumed this was not the first such potion he’d used, another thing to help his Gift along like the glass eyes. “But you know there’s always a back way wherever you want to go, Remigio. You just have to look for it.”

The other Neronan drew his own sword, a sturdy montante with an elaborate guard and a sizable, two handed grip. As he flourished the weapon its edge glowed with a pale gold light. “All you’ve found is a way to your grave site, Glasseye.”

“Not today.” Ghiarelli glanced at Ulfar and smirked. “Not anymore.”

Ulfar came to a stop just outside the circle of the two men’s weapons. “Ghiarelli Glasseye. Do not think you can still rely on my hospitality to keep you safe. As you say, you left the mountain. By returning you trespassed on my lands and my goodwill. If your blood spills it will be as if by your own hand.”

Remigio lept forward at those words, his weapon’s blade held high and parallel to the ground. Ghiarelli casually lifted his buckler to catch the blade, keeping his weapon hand just behind the shield with the point of his sword pointed down to try and prick his opponent’s weapon hand as he lunged under Remigio’s cut. The montante twisted with a flourish and deflected the thrust then extended in a cross cut which Ghiarelli pushed down and away with the buckler. High thrust to the face and Remigio withdrew a step. Both men relaxed into a normal stance, the status quo restored.

The entire exchange took less than two seconds.

“It’s not my blood that concerns me,” Ghiarelli said, not even winded. Then he glanced at his buckler. Remigio’s glowing sword had left two deep groves in the center of the metal and taken about an inch off the right side of the shield. “Well, it concerns me a little.”

“Only a little?” Remigio demanded.

“You may be Father Borgia’s favorite bravo, with the blood of a hundred duelists on your sword, but you can’t kill me today, my dear Blade Bearer.” Ghiarelli’s grin turned toothy. “You had a chance, but today I dreamed of death by fire and you, Remigio, cannot bring me low that way. No one here can.”

“What does he mean?” Tyroc demanded. Her brother’s Gift of the Thunder Hand didn’t truly burn things but it made a close approximation and Lenneth could see he was willing to try to kill Ghiarelli that way if no one else wanted a shot at it.

“He’s a clairvoyant,” Remigio growled. “When they dream they see the way they are going to die. Unless they somehow prevent it.”

Lenneth’s mind jumped back to their conversation that morning. Then it went back even further, to their meeting the day before and his casual mention of seeing her and her family in a dream. Her jaw dropped open. “You were going to die today.”

“And now I’m not.” Ghiarelli produced a small leather bag from his belt. On second thought, perhaps not a bag, it looked more like a wineskin. “You see, I know something that you of the Wingbreaker clan do not.”

“That does not make you terribly special,” Ulfar growled. So far her father had watched the scene unfold with dispassion but now he reached up and pulled Remigio’s sword down to a neutral position. “We are simple people of the mountains, after all. But if you think I do not know that this man serves Gregorio Borgia, Nerona’s famed Merchant of Plunder, then I must disappoint you.”

“Not at all. Father Borgia believes he is a cunning man of intrigue and perhaps he is but he has reached the point where anonymity is not something even he can expect. That is something you lose when you become the most wicked man in Nerona. Still, he is every bit as cunning as he thinks he is. And he is more than unscrupulous enough barter with the Fair Folk for a curse to be placed on the children of those he seeks to bend to his will.” Ghiarelli glanced at the heron behind him. “Tell me, Ulfar Wingbreaker. Is it truly your judgment that Remigio may spill the blood of an innocent child simply because inhuman magic has changed his form to that of a bird?”

Her father’s face turned stormy but otherwise he remained calm. “You can prove this accusation?”

“The child was cursed through poisoned food. As with all their magic, curses of the Fair Folk must be fair, although I have always thought that whoever determines fair must be quite the lunatic. In the case of magic that revolves around food, the counterspell is almost always the first food a person ate in their lives, save for their mother’s milk.” Ghiarelli hefted the bag in one hand. “In this case, goat’s milk.”

“You brought that all the way here from Verdemonde?” Remigio wrinkled his nose in disgust. “It’s more likely cheese at this point.”

“The Marquis knows a few Folk of his own, they’ve ensured it will keep quite well.” Ghiarelli offered the bag to Ulfar. “If you want to know the truth of my words, offer this to the bird.”

Ulfar took the bag, then glanced at Remigio. Thinking better of taking his hand off the Neronan’s sword arm he sought out Lenneth’s eyes and nodded to her. Then, with a flick of his fingers he tossed her the bag and said, “Do as he says, Daughter.”

If nothing else the way the heron looked at her as she approached and docilely allowed her to guide its beak into the bag would have convinced her of the truth in what Ghiarelli said. When the heron’s feathers melted together into a tunic and trousers and the tall, awkward bird shrunk down into a boy perhaps seven years old it was just a confirmation of what her heart already told her was true. The child looked up at her, astonishment and gratitude written on his face, then he sat down on the grass and burst in to tears.

The storm on Ulfar’s face broke out in full force and he shook Remigio violently by his arm. “You have lied to me, servant of Borgia. No treasure or talisman your master can offer is worth the stain on my honor you have nearly tricked me into perpetrating. If you were not the messenger of a foreign lord, who’s good will is valued by Der Isenkoenig, I would set your head upon the eaves of my roof in warning. Be gone from my lands at once.”

Remigio nodded once, not resisting but not terribly put out by her father’s rage either. If anything, it seemed like something the man was used to. The idea that someone could face the full censure of the Wingbreaker clan and act like it was normal, even trivial, disturbed her as much as anything else she had seen that day. Ultimately, Borgia’s bravo was taken off the mountain by her brother and two uncles before the sun was set.

Ghiarelli kept near the child but refused to tell his name, only saying that he was the son of someone important in the province of Verdemonde and he couldn’t reveal more. Ulfar was suspicious but Lenneth thought it was because he’d just been duped once and not because he had good grounding for his suspicions. The boy seemed to know Ghiarelli a little, and that ultimately calmed Ulfar somewhat.

“But why did the child come here?” Lenneth asked as she and her mother helped Ghiarelli make up a bed for the child in the Hall. “He could have flown home to his family.”

“That’s part of the curse,” he said. “If everyone cursed that way went straight home to family the curse would be too likely to come undone. So it forces the victim to wander for some period of time along a predetermined path. Father Borgia knew the path and sent someone to kill the child when his parents refused to submit to his demands. Certain connections the Marquis has learned where the child was as well and he ordered me to come and rescue him.”

“Connections? You mean you didn’t foresee his death in a dream?”

Ghiarelli turned very serious. “Sadly, I can only see my own death that way.”

“That must be a very hard thing to see, night after night.”

“Perhaps, although at least I do not dream every night.” Then the wry smile was back and he leaned in close to whisper in her ear. “But I haven’t seen a death I couldn’t beat so far. If you doubt it you’re welcome to turn up in my dreams again, lady of marble.”

Then he trotted off to find the child, leaving her there, blushing.