Firespinner Afterwords: Roy Harper and The Gospel of Earth

We’ve reached the end of another tale, one I truly enjoyed writing and I hope you enjoyed reading! As always, here are a few closing thoughts. 

As of late I’ve been exploring points of view in my fiction. This wasn’t intentional, it largely came about accidentally as I worked on the Triad World novels, themselves a kind of flash of inspiration that turned into a much larger project than I had expected. However, as I worked on Schrodinger’s Book and Martian Scriptures I found that my desire to use points of view to comment on each other was growing. This theme kind of made it into my comic project, Hexwood: Dust and Ashes, in the way the modern and traditional takes on magic fought a war over different visions of the future. However that story proved to be a bad forum for that discussion – comics don’t handle nuanced philosophical differences very well – and most of that debate got cut out. 

Then I decided to write the novella Firespinner  to run concurrent to Hexwood’s crowd funding campaign. Several missteps took place in that process but one thing that did happen, without my really intending it to, was that many of the themes cut from Hexwood started to appear as hints and suggestions in Firespinner. As I worked on that story, several new ways to approach those points of view, in both plot elements and narrative techniques, occurred to me. At this point I have ideas for several more stories focused on Roy Harper that I want to work on in the near future. 

I also want to write a third, and probably final, Triad Worlds novel, The Gospel According to Earth, which will wrap up several of the major outstanding plot threads of the first two and put something of bow on the whole project. While I have some ideas what Gospel will be about, along with some ideas of what will drive the conflict and characters of the story, many, many of the particulars are foggy and I’m not confident I can execute on all of the characters correctly. I also have a short list of short stories I’d like to write at some point, but none of them tickle my fancy right now. 

So while I work to sort out The Gospel According to Earth I’ve decided to continue with Roy’s story. I’m currently working on Night Train to Hardwick, a direct sequel to Firespinner. Since a lot of the flavor of Roy’s world is already built Hardwick is a story that will let me move some of the time I would normally spend on world building and establishing a setting over to doing those things for Gospel. I’m sure long time readers and new readers alike are wondering if stories featuring Roy have an overarching arc or are designed to stand alone. The answer is a little bit of both. 

The Roy Harper Adventures (for lack of a better name) represent my making a foray into pulp formatting, creating a series of lighter, fast paced adventure stories with recurring themes and characters that one can pick up and put down in pretty much any order and still enjoy. Yes, there will be a chronological order to these tales, and sticklers can certainly go to the beginning and read them in order, but my hope is that the common threads will only serve to offer small payoffs and satisfaction for long time readers. They are not going to build in the same way the chapters of a book or the books in a tightly written series would. Hopefully that fits with your expectations, dear reader, because as I’ve written in this style I’ve found that I like it very much. 

As is my wont, I’ll be taking a week off now that Firespinner is done, then there will be a month of essays between installments of fiction. After that month is over we’ll move on to Night Train to Hardwick and the further adventures of everyone’s favorite pyrokinetic Westerner. See you in two weeks! 

Firespinner Chapter Twelve – Farewells at Last Light

Previous Chapter

Roy gently took Andrew Blythe from his seat on O’Hara’s bushwalker and set the boy on the ground, sleepy and unsteady but otherwise fine. He’d spent most of the trip asleep, like his brother. The ordeal the Blythe boys had gone through had taken a lot out of them but didn’t seem to have done any serious harm. There was one curious side effect, though.

Roy watched as Andrew and River Reeds walked into the Blythe house in perfect synchronization. “I’m pretty sure that will wear off in another few days,” he said to Nora. “But if it doesn’t Grunt can put the word out and we’ll see if we can find a true blue medicine man to look at it.”

“Thank you, Mr. Harper,” Nora said. “You’ve been very kind. This wasn’t part of what you were hired for.”

“Not a problem, ma’am.”

“But not necessary either,” Oldfathers put in. Roy couldn’t help but note that he’d linked arms with the widow. “I’ll be travelling for a few days to gather up some loose ends, but I plan to come back once I’m done. I’m thinking of settling down here. I’m getting too old to sleep in the open for weeks on end.”

Grunt and O’Hara looked surprised at that but Roy took it in stride. There were consequences to tampering with magic on the scale they had and Oldfathers had assumed duties that bore significant consequences, whether he’d realized it at the time or not. The old druid knew magic and its costs better than any of them and Roy had confidence Oldfathers would see them out.

“Sounds like you’ll be well looked after, Mrs. Blythe,” Roy said with a warm smile. “Hopefully you never need my services again.”

Nora laughed. “Getting involved with one legend of the west would be enough for a lifetime and I’ve already seen two. I got no appetite for a third.”

Roy chuckled. “Hopefully if you do it will be more benign than the Yose and Mete twins or General Oldfathers.”

She glanced at the general out of the corner of her eye. “Who, him? He belongs to the east.”

Roy’s brow furrowed. “Then what’s the second? Or are you counting the Brothers separately?”

Nora smiled and shook her head. “Take care of yourself out there, Mr. Harper. If you ever visit Mr. Grunwald here in town be sure to stop in, you hear?”

It sounded like a dodge but Roy couldn’t figure out why she would so he let it go. “Of course.”

Roy waited as a few more quiet words passed between her and the general then they set out for Grunt’s house. O’Hara parted ways when the passed the main street in order to take her bushwalker back outside the walls, leaving Grunt with a whispered promise to visit later. That left Roy with Grunt and the general. The three men walked in silence for a while, then Oldfathers said, “I appreciate your not taking me in.”

“I’m not an officer of the law,” Roy said. “I don’t have an obligation to bring in bounties.”

“Not even an old Lakeshire officer?”

Roy shrugged. “It’s been a long time, General. I’m not saying I would’ve done what you did in your situation but you’ve earned a little grace, at least. And…” His glance drifted up towards the mountain top. “I’m not sure how Yose and Mete would react if their new father left so soon.”

The general grunted something that might have been a laugh. “As you say. Well, I suppose I can take the pieces of that nawonota off your hands, if you want. I have a stash where I can bury them for a few decades at least.”

“It’s all right. The Packards have an Iron Room for dangerous magic items set up in Hardwick. It’s a day’s travel each way and that’s easy enough to work into my route back to Leondale. I’d rather the pieces of that thing sit on iron until all the magic’s leached out of them than just bury them out in the wilderness.”

Oldfathers chuckled. “And the Railway Detectives will just take an unknown artifact – or the pieces of one – off your hands because you say so?”

“And because I work for them from time to time.”

“And Allen Packard is his uncle,” Grunt added.

“And that.” Roy hefted the bundle holding the nawonota’s pieces. “Don’t worry, General. This will be well taken care of. And I’ll get that fulminite crystal out of the slag you made of my falcatta and send it back to you.”

“Keep it,” the General said. “I think you’ve earned it and you never know when it may come in handy out there. You’re going to have more chances to use it than me anyway.”

They rounded the corner to Grunt’s house and the big man ducked in the door to retrieve Roy’s travel bag. “Tell me something, General,” Roy said as they waited. “How are you going to pass on that journal of yours if you’re settling down here? Do you think someone will just come through and take it off your hands? It doesn’t seem like the best strategy, this being the end of the rail line and all.”

Oldfathers tapped his hexwood staff on the ground once which set it to unfolding in to its full sized tree form. “The journal will tell its owner when and where to find the next person in line. I’m not worried about passing it on. Never was.”

Grunt returned and handed Roy his bag. “Half an hour before the last train leaves,” he said. “Anyone up for a last drink?”

“No, thank you,” Oldfathers said.

“Gave it up, remember?” Roy tipped his hat in the general’s direction. “General Oldfathers, as much as it surprises me to say it, it’s been a pleasure.”

“Likewise. Take care of yourselves, Mr. Harper. Mr. Grunwald. Stay true to the Quest and it will bear fruit, in time.” The hexwood was unfolded to its full twelve foot height and its branches gathered Oldfathers up, allowing him to partially recline against its trunk.

“May Our Lady guide you to warm hearthfires,” Grunt said.

“Hearthfires, gentlemen. And Roy.” Oldfathers tapped his jacket’s left breast twice, winked and then whisked away on the frantic churning of the hexwood’s roots.

Confused, Roy patted his jacket in the place Oldfathers indicated.

Felt something solid there.

And pulled out Pellinore’s Journal.

“Dust and ashes,” Roy muttered.

Grunt burst out laughing.

“This isn’t funny.”

“Oh, I’m sure it’s serious as dead iron, Roy.” Grunt got control of himself. “But you have to admit it’s at least a little funny, too.”

Roy sighed and put the journal away. “Fine. Fine. Let’s go, the last train leaves in twenty five minutes and I need to stop by your local sundries supplier.”

“Sure.” Grunt locked his door and pocketed the keys. “What do you need?”

“Paper and ink. It seems there’s some writing in my future…”

Firespinner Chapter Eleven – The Day in Balance

Previous Chapter

As it turned out nothing happened for most of the day.

Roy was expecting Yose sometime between dawn and midmorning, the time when the sun was ascending, since he was supposedly tied to the Primeval Fire. But Thomas Blythe failed to appear. After midmorning they entered the time of balance, with the sun reaching apogee and slowly beginning its descent. Nothing happened then, either. As it turned out things began about an hour before full dusk when Thomas Blythe erupted out of the stream with no warning, flying over O’Hara’s rampart with a good three feet to spare. He landed with a sizzling thud, his features shrouded by a billowing cloud of steam and rippling waves of heat.

To his credit, in spite of the sudden arrival following a long wait, Reeds reacted instantly. A wall of shimmering red rectangles sprouted from a copper line on the ground, converging on a bronze talisman Reeds held aloft in his left hand. It was a crude ward and started crumbling almost as soon as Thomas collided with it. Reeds held a bronze wand in his other hand, quickly connecting a predrawn set of glyphs to finish a more effective ward that spat flames in a thicker, stronger barrier in front of the possessed boy.

O’Hara’s earthworks rumbled as the tiles on her board clacked, ensorcelled tiles and sulfurite crystals sliding across it as she reworked their formation and, in the same action, rearranged the land itself. The raised earth by the creek began to sink back into the ground as a new barrier of equal thickness but greater height formed behind Reeds.

But that wasn’t the loudest noise at hand. At the other end of the hill the massive trees at the foot of the cliff creaked to life and began to rip the cliffside apart. Rather than wait, Grunt and Marshall moved up to hack at the trees. The pines began to teeter and fall under their onslaught. But it ended almost as soon as it began when a surge of water burst from the opening in the cliff and swept both men back down towards the crater. A small figure appeared at the new entrance in the cliffside and started towards the crater, flanked by the trees.

Down in the center of the crater itself the stones began to shift. Overhead the clouds left from the previous day’s rain began to roil and churn.

“Nora!” Roy yelled. “Find the nawonota!”

That was their first gambit. If the Brothers had somehow co-opted Thomas and Andrew Blythe into playing out their old sibling rivalry perhaps the grudge could be undercut by introducing Nora into the role of peacekeeper, as Yose and Mete’s mother had been between them. Oldfathers considered it a long shot but it was simple and easy to try, so Roy lined it up first.

But it was anyone’s guess whether Yose and Mete would recognize Nora as their mother or not. So Grunt and Marshall moved to block Mete and Reeds started working on a third barrier, this one grounded in O’Hara’s earthwork itself. Or, at least, he started. Then he suddenly stopped and pivoted to look directly up the hill at the crater. Further up, Andrew Blythe did the same.

In unison both of them said, “Ket!”

The word echoed over the hillside with preternatural clarity. Roy spoke no Sanna but he knew the word “No” when he heard it. He wasn’t sure what circumstance made them say it but he did know who was saying it – they were both under the influence of Mete now. That was a lovely little wrinkle he hadn’t anticipated.

Roy tapped Oldfathers on the shoulder. “Stop those trees, General.”

He grunted noncomittally. “Easier said than done.”

But he raised his hexwood staff up, its branches unfolding into a complicated pattern, the sulfurite crystals twined in the ends of its branches pulsing with power. The general stretched his other hand towards the top of the hill in a clutching motion and the raging pines shuddered to a stop.

“Ket!” Andrew and Reeds screamed in unison once more, they reached towards the trees with their hands and made a dragging motion. The pines shuddered as if under great strain.

One shattered into splinters.

The others lurched back into motion.

“Dust and ashes,” Roy whispered. He hadn’t thought it possible Hezekiah Oldfathers could lose a contest of sheer power.

“Coalstoking Sanna ghosts!” Apparently the general hadn’t expected it either.

But he delayed the trees long enough for Marshall to get to his feet and charge back into the fray with surprising recklessness. His club whistled through the air and smashed into the trunk of one pine, which promptly shattered into flaming twigs. For a split second Roy panicked, thinking the debris would land on Nora. But as they arced through the air they were caught in the churning winds over the crater and went spinning away.

“That doesn’t look good, General,” Roy yelled over the noise. “Looks like Yose got to Marshall, too.”

“So the Brothers have all the brothers now,” Oldfathers replied, his gestures waking some of the smaller trees and sending them upslope as fast as the newly animated pines could go. Not that such little things posed much threat to the mature, sixty foot trees under Mete’s thumb. “Pull O’Hara out, she can’t be in there when Reeds and Thomas start fighting for the Brothers. I have something that will slow them down, you try and figure out what’s happening in the crater!”

“Ignis fatuus, man, I said tell me about all your tricks!” But Roy was doing as Oldfathers said, holding his fist aloft with thumb upwards then jerking it over his shoulder in the Columbian Army’s “fall back” signal.

O’Hara stepped away from the waist high board she’d set up by the river and kicked over a brazier she’d kept burning beside it all day. A cloud of viscous white smoke poured out of it and swept over the creek bed. Reeds and Thomas disappeared from view, though the fiery glow of Thomas’ presence was still clearly visible inching up the hillside.

Marshall just kept smashing trees with his club but couldn’t get anywhere near Andrew. For a moment Roy feared the boy would reach his mother before anyone else could. Then one of the huge rocks by the crater shifted.

Lifted into the air on Grunt’s shoulders.

And flew towards Andrew at speed.

Two of Andrew’s pines leaped into the path of the missile. One was smashed flat to the ground. Grunt was already hefting another one of the huge rocks, weighing it for another throw.

But Oldfathers was focused on the growing cyclone overhead. “Roy,” he yelled. “I was right, there’s something in that nawonota. I don’t know what part of the legend that is but I don’t think it’s going to let the story end that easy. You have to keep Nora away from it.”

Roy’s attention snapped back to the crater, where the widow Blythe was tugging at a larger rock near the bottom of the pit. Her hair and dress whipped in the air and her figure was half obscured by dirt and pine needles flying through the air. Roy gripped his buckler harder. “Agreed. Keep the brothers away from the crater but let them fight each other. I don’t think that’s the main show anymore.”

A brief flash of pale blue light caught Roy’s attention. Oldfathers had drawn one of his fulminite crystals, leaned against the rock and removed his peg leg. The top had a hollow just big enough for him to slip the crystal into. The general did so and held the peg back in place, vinelike tendrils around the top wrapping about the stump of his leg before he let his pants fall back into place. “I’ll take care of it.”

“What are you doing?” Roy asked.

“Cover your ears,” Oldfathers replied. “By the Breath of Mercury, I am carried upon the Primordial Whirlwind!”

Roy understood what was happening a half second before Oldfathers finished, barely getting his hands over his ears before a lightning bolt crashed down on the general. The world turned bright as day and Roy felt the sound in his sternum. The sound repeated in a frightening staccato that nearly brought him to his knees, flashes of lightning and blackened footprints tracking Oldfathers’ path uphill to Mete and his trees. The walking grove strobed with light and the trees were thrown in all directions, born on waves of crackling lightning. Within their trunks Roy saw after images of the general, his legs transformed into pillars of lightning, lashing out against the trees, the ground and the air itself.

No wonder Oldfathers had kept that trick to himself. Many Columbians thought avatars of the First Elements were blasphemous, after all, and this was a particularly terrifying blasphemy at that.

There was no time to watch the carnage. Oldfathers fought a delaying action only as the real battle took shape in the crater.

A true whirlwind was forming over it and Roy watched the sky with distrust as he approached Nora, unsure of what he was looking for. At this point they were past gambit two, where Nora tried to calm the boys once she had the nawonota in hand, and on to the part where he should just stick iron in the thing and see if that cancelled the magic at work. But Oldfathers was right – there was something in the nawonota and it didn’t seem to be either of the Brothers. That made everything less certain.

As Roy got up to the crater a towering pine tree loomed out of the chaos but before it could do more than send a few roots stretching towards him Grunt’s ax crashed into its trunk, drawing the tree’s attention. Roy scrambled down the crater, more than used to trusting Grunt to watch his back in these situations.

The widow was saying something to him as he approached but, after the lightning strike, Roy couldn’t hear much of anything. Once she realized he was partly deaf Nora motioned like she was lifting the stone at her feet, a block of stone easily two feet tall and twice as long.

Roy shook his head. “Never mind that,” he said. Or thought he said, he couldn’t even hear himself. “Something’s off, leave the coalstoking thing and we’ll move on to the next stage.”

Another series of flashes and rumbles, felt more than heard, drew Roy’s attention long enough for him to note Oldfathers descending the slope again. O’Hara’s fog had cleared and Thomas Blythe was coming up the hill again, only to stop short when he caught a crackling kick from the general.

Roy winced but focused on the task at hand. He grabbed Nora by the shoulder and tried to pull her out of the crater. The wind caught her hair and tangled it around his arm leaving it sopping wet. The day was overcast but not rainy. Roy looked up, then down, then finally back at Nora and realized that water was streaming from her hair in sheets.

He looked back up into the sky, a sinking feeling in his stomach. The clouds were spinning in angry circles. It could have been Roy’s imagination but he thought he saw a face forming there.

Nora – was it Nora? – was saying something but Roy still couldn’t hear her. But when he squatted down, put his shoulder into the rock and pushed Nora quickly joined him. A moment later the rock shifted and rolled halfway over.

Underneath was a simple octagonal frame of ivory and leather straps. Roy had never seen one but it was obviously the nawonota. He didn’t hesitate for a moment when it came into view, just pulled all the fire he could from his buckler’s sulfirite and blasted the old Sanna artifact with it. A screaming blast of wind, loud enough that even Roy’s ringing ears could hear it, tore down from the sky and plastered him flat. The blow left his head spinning and his ribs, which had been well behaved for the last day or so, throbbing once again.

For a moment Roy thought he saw something, superimposed over the chaos of the real world. A woman in the garb of a Sanna matron cowered, the nawonota held up in both hands like a shield. A Sanna man with cruel eyes loomed over her, hand raised to strike but a bewildered look on his face. A stone ax was buried in his side and a boy of no more than twelve, who’s face resembled the father he had just killed, held the weapon’s handle. His identical twin watched from the entrance of the tent, horrified. The father’s spirit was captured. As it strained against the nawonota the second brother went from horrified inaction to stealing the artifact and running away into the hills.

Not all legends were true. If they were true they were rarely the whole truth.

And the legend of Yose and Mete was apparently not one of the few that were the entire truth. No wonder Reeds and Marshall had never triggered the legend on their own, their father was already dead and it was clearly the death of the father of the family that started the story.

The vision passed almost as soon as it came, leaving Roy to get to his feet in spite of his pain, old and new. Pain he could ignore. The nawonota was another story.

And the Sanna artifact was on the move. The whirlwind that dispersed his fireblast also lifted the nawonota into the air, dirt and dust swirling around it in an ominous cloud. Roy’s buckler was mostly empty and adding the small reserves of his cufflinks and sword wasn’t going to give him more firepower than a full buckler so he changed tactics and drew his knife.

Stepped in to slash at the relic.

And got shocked in the leg before he got close.

Electricity crackled through the dust cloud now and, while dead iron would kill any magic it touched, it wasn’t a defense for his entire body. Every time he tried to get closer to the artifact the lightning snapped at him, leaving his limbs twitching and the distance the same. Roy backed away a step, growling in frustration. That was when he realized his hearing was coming back.

Not that it hand much to tell him. Nora was babbling in Sanna now, another surprise victim of the legend. He hadn’t expected it to be so all-encompassing but if the vision he’d seen was true, and not just a fever dream, then her susceptibility to the legend’s power wasn’t surprising.

A glance up and down the hill told him no one else was doing much better. Andrew Blythe was locked in battle with Marshall, much as their twin brothers fought down the slope. Nothing Grunt or O’Hara did fazed them and only the fact that the mismatched twins were fighting each other with Oldfathers poking them as a spoiler slowed their advance on the crater.

The power of the legend seemed to crackle all up and down the hillside like a living thing.

And that was when Roy had it.

All living things were a balance of four elements and, of course, as a living thing the legend was no exception. Mete was the element of earth, Yose fire, their mother water and their father air. Roy didn’t have to kill the whole legend to win. He just had to rewrite it. “Oldfathers!” His voice was barely audible over the din of battle. “New plan, get front and center!”

Hopefully the general could hear better than Roy could. All he could do now was try and pave the way for Oldfathers. Roy pulled in every last drop of firepower from the sulfurite on his body and blasted it into the crackling dust storm, burning much of the dust away and decreasing the static in the air considerably. With a sharp click Roy ejected the sulfurite from his falcatta and crammed Oldfathers’ fulminite crystal into the empty slot. It was a poor fit for the setting, not remotely the right size or shape, but with a little fumbling he got it to stay in place.

Roy gave the weapon an experimental snap, saw that the fulminite stayed in place and heaved the weapon at the nawonota. It spun through the dust storm, the bright bronze blade crackling with electricity and channeling it down into the fulminite, draining even more power away from the gathering whirlwind. Leaving a void in the legend. Roy looked around frantically. “General Oldfathers, get to the coalstok-“

The world went white and sound flew away once again. For a moment Roy saw the same family as before, now gathered around the fire. Save for the father, who was just entering the tent carrying a brace of rabbits over one shoulder. On closer inspection he wasn’t the same man as before. He was older, a little more world weary, but his eyes were kind. Kinder than the father from before. Kinder than the man who led the trees up Briarheart. But unmistakeable none the less.

Then the vision faded and the real world crept back in at the edges. Grunt was helping Marshall to his feet. Nora was struggling against the buffeting wind, which seemed to be fading but was still pretty strong. And Oldfathers was picking up the pieces of –

Of Roy’s sword. He was holding the nawonota in his other hand, still very much intact. Roy staggered over to him and held his hand out for the artifact. The general passed it to him, saying, “It looks inert, though I’m not sure that means it’s safe. What did you do?”

“That was all you, General.” He took the nawonota and carefully cut the leather that bound it together with his iron dagger. “I agree with you on the safety issue, though. I know a safe place to keep the pieces for a while. In the meantime, let’s get off this coalstoking mountain.”

Firespinner Chapter Ten – A Benediction at Dawn

Previous Chapter

An hour before the dawn of the fall equinox Roy walked through the clearing the local Sanna called Mete’s Grave. The air was damp and cold, somehow hiding the thinness of the air without making it any easier to catch his breath. The opening in the trees was a little over a hundred feet below the peak of the mountain at the foot of a steep drop which Yose had supposedly thrown his brother down.

At the center of the grove a blackened set of broken and twisted rocks, Mete’s final resting place, sat in the middle of a barren patch of ground. Brambles coiled around the open dirt and nothing taller than grass grew within fifteen feet of the crater. But the churned earth and tightly packed pine trees by the cliffside told them some trees had moved through the area recently.

There were no signs of Thomas or Andrew Blythe in the area. About fifty feet below the crater ran a small spring that fed into one of the streams they’d followed most of the way up the mountain, a stream that supposedly flowed all the way down the side of the mountain and into the lake where Yose’s heart still beat thrice a day. That was their first concern. Reeds and Oldfathers both agreed that Yose and Mete needed their fleshly avatars to clash in some ritualistic fashion – not necessarily at the top of the mountain – to fulfill the demands of the legend. They had to stop that or Andrew Blythe was going to die.

So the Brothers had to be kept separate. But Mete had to get to the clearing and reveal the nawonota. He’d hidden it somewhere on the mountain and none could find it until his brother caught him with it. True to form, although Roy had the whole group search the clearing from cliff to river, they’d found no sign of the artifact which meant only Mete could get it to reveal itself.

Given that Mete was quite possessive of the thing they weren’t likely to get a hold of it easily.

But given that something in the nawonota could be growing in power every time the story played out it wasn’t something they could easily ignore, either.

The simplest way to handle all these problems was what the general had initially planned. Keep the Brothers separate. But with the added caveat that they get close enough for the legend to actually begin. To that end O’Hara had spent the last day setting up her board of spell tiles and building a bulwark along the streambed, a towering ten foot earthwork that moved through sympathetic ties to the stones laid out on her board and backed by the mystical power the ancient ziggurat builders had used to conquer Tetzlan in ages past. Roy had also placed Reeds there to prepare as many Teutonic charms and wards as he knew and could find room for between the stream and clearing.

Grunt and Marshall watched the other end of the equation, standing guard by the unnatural clump of pines by the cliffside. Something had moved them there and, based on what had happened in Yellowstone, that was likely Mete flexing some power he received as an avatar of the Bones of Enkidu. Some of those trees were clearly large enough to think and move on their own which made their silent, stationary vigil the surest sign that something mystical held them in place. Trees of that size rarely suffered large groups of humans to stay in their presence. They were the greatest danger in that direction but Grunt with his bearded axe could keep them at bay for a while. With Marshall’s war club and superhuman fighting instincts to back him up they might even hold indefinitely.

Roy and Oldfathers positioned themselves halfway between the stream and the clearing, ready to support either end of the formation if needed.

Which left Nora Blythe standing beside the crater. The unnamed mother in the Brothers legend was supposedly the creator and first owner of the nawonota, which led Roy to hope that Nora’s presence at the confrontation would reveal a new wrinkle in the story and potentially change the outcome. As dawn approached she was seated on one of the stones surrounding Mete’s Grave, staring into the crater. She started as Roy crouched down beside her and asked, “Are you alright?”

“Yes!” She shook herself back to the present. “I’m sorry, is it dangerous here? I thought it looked a little off, but-“

“It’s a little late to worry about danger,” Roy said with a chuckle. “This whole trip is dangerous, I don’t think sitting here will change things much one way or another. I was just… worried. How are you feeling.”

The deep, predawn shadows, lit only by a handful of lanterns O’Hara had brought, exaggerated the lines of grief on the widow’s face rather than hiding them. The strained twitch of the lips that might have been a smile did little to change the overall impression. “Thank you, Mr. Harper. I’ll feel better when I have my sons back.” A new shadow took root in her eyes. “Well, mostly.”

“I understand.” And he did. Roy saw similar shadows every time he spoke to someone who knew the Folger brothers or Fat Stu. Some days he even saw it in the mirror. That was one reason he avoided them. “Mrs. Blythe, I’d like to consecrate our little band, make us ready for the day ahead. O’Hara knows the cant, but…”

“But I was a Hearth Keeper. “The smile was less strained this time. “I understand, Mr. Harper. And who will answer the cant? I know it’s traditionally the highest ranked member of the expeditionary group but…”

But the leader of their little band was a retired Lieutenant and the specter of a Major General loomed far over that. Roy nodded his understanding. “A fair question. Under the circumstances, I will.”

“Then gather the men, please.”

He did, starting with Grunt and Marshall. They did a wide circle around the riverbank to avoid Nora coming back with O’Hara. While not strictly a demand of the benediction, most military men felt it was bad luck for men and women to cross paths until it was time to begin. So they took a detour to collect Reeds then added Oldfathers to the group on the way back.

“What are we doing?” Reeds asked as they approached the clearing again. “It’s almost dawn.”

“I know,” Roy said. “This is the only time we can perform the blessing.”

Nora had climbed up on one of the rocks by the crater so she could command a view of the whole area. Roy gestured the others on before him, it was traditional for the replying cantor to stand at the rear of the assembly.

“Do we have to join this as well?” Reeds asked.

“It’s a blessing for an expedition as a whole, not individuals,” Oldfathers said. “Every Columbian and Avaloni army the Sanna fought did this before they marched to battle.”

Reeds shrugged and turned his attention to Mrs. Blythe.

She raised her hands over her head, arms spread wide, palms up and said, “O Lord in Raging Skies, turn your eyes towards your people once more. As in the days of Arthur guide us safely through storm and trial, grant us clarity against the designs of the enemy and justice to prevail over passion and violence. Fight on our behalf with your spear of thunder and your shield of winter. May we prevail over all enemies until the work is done.”

Roy swallowed once, watching as Nora concluded with the Sign of the Storm. Though he’d been an officer he’d never held a formal command and so never actually performed this cant before. But he wasn’t about to leave something this important to Oldfathers.

He stretched out his hands palm down a little more than shoulder’s width apart. “O Lady in Burning Stone, watch over our homes and hearths. Stand guard over our families with the mountain, your sword, and warm them in sunlight, your robes. As in the days of Arthur shelter us from danger and death that we may return to rest and safety and not end our days under lonely skies.”

Roy raised his hand in the Sign of the Hearth and touched it to his forehead. The others, save for the two Sanna, do the same. There was a moment of silence then Roy said, “Sunrise is in forty minutes. Get to your positions.”

They broke up and made their way to their previous places, except for O’Hara who lingered to talk to Grunt. There was long standing precedent for those kinds of meetings after the benediction and Roy allowed it to go unremarked on. That left him walking down towards the river with the General and Reeds.

The Sanna man seemed a touch amused at the proceedings. After going a dozen steps or so Reeds looked over at Roy and asked, “Will you answer something? Truthfully?”

Roy raised an eyebrow. “Have you found me dishonest so far? If so I’m doing my job poorly.”

“This is a question of a very different nature to anything we’ve discussed so far,” Reeds said. “And one man might easily lie to himself about it.”

“You’ve got my interest, Reeds. And a truthful answer, no matter the question.”

“The Lord and Lady – they’re the guardians of Avalon, correct? Sworn to that nation through their servant, Arthur, who walks as one with the Storm. Columbia’s connection to Avalon is only through the first wave of settlers who came here from there and – until Dolmenfall – the Stone Circle at Morainehenge.” Reeds spread his hands. “Are you certain the Lord and Lady extend their protection to you as well?”

A dozen scenes of carnage and violence rushed through Roy’s mind, half-forgotten moments from the battles and skirmishes of the Lakeshire and Palmyra Campaigns where Columbians had killed one another over blind emotion and sheer stubbornness. He remembered the druids who mourned more when Roy’s men broke down the dolmen than when they buried their dead.

He remembered his own contempt for the people of Palmyra who’d walked their streets from one burnt building to the next like they’d lost all purpose. “No, Reeds,” he said, his voice a whisper. “I’m not sure they do.”

Reeds considered that answer for a moment, then nodded thoughtfully. “Thank you. At least that answer has the ring of truth to it.”

Reeds continued towards the stream leaving Roy and Oldfathers by the rock outcropping they’d picked as the midpoint to anchor the two halves of their formation. Roy clambered up on the rock, giving him an extra two feet of height and helping him see uphill with greater clarity. Oldfathers settled on a small stone nearby, looking downhill. They sat there in silence as the sky grew brighter.

“They came here for humanity, you know,” Oldfathers said, watching the sunrise. “Arthur was just the only one who listened.”

“Who?” Roy asked, his wandering thoughts pulled out of the past and back to the present. “The Lord and Lady?”

“That’s what the writings passed down from Stonehenge say,” the general replied. “That’s why the Watchers and the Keepers crossed the ocean with the first settlers. Their gifts that protect us from the chaos of the elemental world were intended for everyone.”

“They haven’t spread very far if that was the point.” The old memories faded back into the corners of his mind. “And the human world has plenty of chaos on its own.”

“At least we only have that to deal with.” Oldfathers laughed. “You’ve been to Tetzlan. Do you think Dolmenfall would have been better or worse with things like blood rituals in play?”

That was uncomfortable enough to call for a subject change. “What about now? How do they take a hand against this fine mess the Sanna left for us?”

Oldfathers laughed and leaned back against the rock, hands behind his head. “It’s not about who or how, Mr. Harper. I’m sure if we had the Mated Pair here to explain the whole thing to us all they’d do is remind us of the Quest.”

There were a lot of quests in the stories of the Stone Circle. Roy couldn’t think of any that were relevant to this particular situation. “Which is?”

“Cultivate a moral spirit in yourself. Oppose destruction. Build up the nation. Preserve the legacy. Above all else, defend the life well lived. For in that life is a balance of the elements and finding that balance is the duty of all druids.”

“I thought the ways of the druids were passing away.”

“Oh, that’s likely true. But the Quest is as eternal as the Lord and Lady and just because the druids are gone doesn’t mean we haven’t sown the seeds for the next generation to continue it.” He mimed casting seeds along the path before them. “That’s why I spent the last decade of my life ensure the relics of Morainehenge got out to people who would use them rather than rotting in the armories of Columbia.”

“Which reminds me,” Roy muttered, pattering his breast pocket. “I forgot to return this yesterday. I was seeing how far I could push you by hanging on to it but handing it back must have slipped my mind.”

“Did it?” Oldfathers reached a hand up to take it without bothering to look. Roy placed it in his hand and he shoved it into a jacket pocket. A tinge of humor entered his voice. “How careless. Must keep better track of it in the future.”

“Of course.” He wasn’t actually sure what the old druid meant by that but he didn’t have time to mull it over. There were more important things at hand. Yose was coming.

Firespinner Chapter Nine – Prelude to Myth

Previous Chapter

“It’s because they’re druids,” Oldfathers said, helping O’Hara load up her bushwalker the next morning. “Not in the formal sense, but Mr. Harper and Mr. Grunwald both show some of the most basic and recognizable signs of druidic initiation and that makes binding oaths possible.”

“But they’re not knights!” O’Hara protested. “They’re not even proper soldiers, they were drummed out of the Regulars years ago!”

Oldfathers raised an eyebrow. “Really? They strike me as excellent soldiers.”

Roy recognized that the general was giving him an opportunity to step in and explain but he ignored it. He hadn’t survived red caps, thunderbirds and wendigoes by constantly talking. In fact it was often more important to listen.

Once Oldfathers realized Roy didn’t intend to satisfy his curiosity he went on. “The dolmen that make up stone circles aren’t single rocks, they’re made of a mixture of sulfurite dust and regular stone sludge. Druids sit under the dolmen long enough for the sulfurite dust to work into their bodies and then-“

“Wait,” O’Hara held up a hand. “Sulfurite is dangerous if it comes in direct contact with the body. Either it sucks the heat out of the flesh or it burns it, depending on how much magic it contains.”

“Very true. But all living things have a touch of all the elements of magic in them. Fire isn’t very strong in humans but we have to have some of it to live. If sulfurite is balanced against the normal flow of flame in the body it can be handled safely.” The general plucked the sulfurite from his silver cane and cradled it in his bare hand. “Now a select few, like your Mr. Harper or Mr. Grunwald, can achieve this equilibrium entirely naturally when infused with sulfurite dust, displaying the magics of the strengthened body or firemind once they achieve balance. But that’s at most one in eight people, one in twelve if no one knows the right treatments to help them survive. The rest die.”

O’Hara looked shocked. “How did the druids find initiates if the process is so dangerous?”

“Before Arthur I suppose the promise of power was enough. And as you yourself prove it is possible to wield many of the druidic arts without the extra oomph that comes with the infusion.” Oldfathers returned the gemstone to his cane. “But Arthur discovered ways to test initiates, formulated ways to ease the process and increased the scope of the magics druids had on hand. The rites are secret, of course, so I can’t say more than that, other than that fewer than one in a hundred initiates die from sulfurite exposure these days.” His expression clouded over. “Or at least, that’s how it was.”

“So Roy and Ben went through a ‘natural’ bonding with sulfurite,” O’Hara mused. “I suppose that happened when they were in Morainehenge after the war. That made them druids, at least to the point that you can make binding oaths? Is that it? I don’t understand how something so simple can allow for such powerful magics to function. Magic based on vows is the most complicated part of every magic theory I’ve studied.”

The general sighed. “That I can’t answer. There were some things only the Masters of the Henges understood. If Master Southwick were still alive maybe he’d have told me by now. But I’m afraid I’ll never know now.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure,” O’Hara said. “Perhaps some enterprising young circle of druids will raise a new Henge and ask you to lead them in its ways.”

Oldfathers laughed as he loaded her last bundle of supplies onto the bushwalker. “I doubt it. The vulcanic way of magic is so much safer, easier and faster. I doubt anyone would take the time to build up a single dolmen from scratch these days, much less a circle of them. And it’s an expensive thing to do. Most of the Henges were built over two or three generations, remember.” A rueful shake of the head. “I think the age of druids has passed out of Columbia. The few of us who remain will need to find new ways to pass on our callings.”

Roy frowned, surprised to hear that admission. Most of the druids that he’d met in the days after the Palmyra Campaign had been supremely confident that their order would bounce back. And in those days, when the men of his company were freshly buried and the blood was still in his eyes, Roy had been happy to cut down as many of those boasts as he could. Looking back he wasn’t so sure. The Knights of the Stone Circle were old, powerful and knowledgeable and time was their ally, not their enemy. And he’d always expected Oldfathers or a similar figure to return to take the reins.

Perhaps that wasn’t the case.

And perhaps a leader with the skill and guile of Hezekiah Oldfathers was playing a long game, obfuscating his goals and counting on the way rumors spread through the West to spread the impression that he’d given up. But as the thought crossed his mind he immediately dismissed it. Oldfathers was off base in thinking the Stone Circles weren’t coming back but he was right about the oaths. Whatever had happened to Roy when he broke down Morainehenge, it had changed him, connected him to the general somehow. And that connection gave him unshakable certainty in the oath Oldfather swore.

But after seeing that oath, which was a simple guarantee of sincerity, Roy found something bothering him. How could Oldfathers have abandoned the oath he took to the Stone Circle simply because the circle was overrun?

As the group started up the next stage of the ascent Roy lengthened his stride and caught up to where Oldfathers was blazing a trail, using simple looks and the occasional gesture to send brush twisting up and out of their path. It was impressive and Roy took a moment to admire from a purely professional point of view. As he finished coaxing a small evergreen push to move a half foot to the left Oldfathers asked, “Is something bothering you, Mr. Harper?”

“Just wanted to set a few ground rules, General.”

“Hezekiah is fine,” he answered. “I’m not a general anymore and I certainly never commanded anyone in the Columbian Regulars.”

“What makes you think I wasn’t in the Vulcanus militia?”

“None of them made it to Palmyra,” the general answered with a laugh. “Some small justice there.”

The first half was true, even if he didn’t agree with the second. “Fine. The ground rules are simple, Oldfathers. First, I’m in command of this expedition.”

“That much is clear. I’m happy to leave it in your capable hands, even if you have asked me to work in the front of the formation.” He gave a wry smile. “The better to keep an eye on me.”

Roy ignored what the druid was implying. “Second, I need to know what everyone in the group is capable of. Now you don’t have to swear to anything like last night, but I need to know what kind of magic you have to offer. If you disagree with that, you’re welcome to leave.”

“No, no, the mother of those boys has some part to play in all this and if I want one as well I’ll have to stay with you.” Oldfathers paused for a moment, his eyes wandering up the next ridge. “I suppose I can share with you. The only thing I had on hand that you haven’t seen during the war was the thunderbird. And it turns out you could handle that, too.”

Roy watched as a barren hexwood tree suddenly pulled up its roots and started towards them. Bindle sized sacks dangled from two of its three main branches. “If you didn’t bring anything I haven’t seen I take it you didn’t bring any of the relics from Morainehenge’s armory? No Sword of St. Elmo?”

The tree walked up to Oldfathers and began pacing them as they climbed, holding the bags out for inspection. “I wouldn’t have room for it, would I?”

“What about the Roots of the First Yew? The Bedrock Shackles?”

“All passed on.”

“How can relics pass on. It’s not like they have a spirit.”

“They certainly do, and a purpose as well. When they no longer fulfill those purposes they depart from the people who hold them just as we depart this world when our purpose is done.” The general rummaged through one of the sacks the hexwood held for him. “I had my own part to play in that process, much like harbingers have in our own passing, and for the things you’ve mentioned that part is already long ended. I’m afraid the only relic I have left is this.”

He pulled something out of the sack and held it out for Roy’s inspection. It was a black, leather bound book. Roy reached out and took it, skeptical. “What is it?”

“Pellinore’s Journal. A record of all the hunts of those who have undertaken the Quest in his name. When a new owner takes it he copies everything within. When he finishes the journal begins to transcribe every note he makes about the hunts he undertakes.” Oldfathers smiled, though his expression looked more pained than happy. “Of all the relics I took with me, it’s the only one that actually belonged to me.”

Roy frowned, thumbing through the pages. It was taking longer than he expected. “How long is this thing?”

“As long as it needs to be. It’s also indestructible, always weighs the same no matter how long it grows and always returns to its owner.” The general shrugged. “But it’s not what people think of as a great relic, I know. I was underwhelmed at first, too.”

“Maybe the Brothers will calm down if we fold them some paper hats.” Roy tapped the journal against his palm, annoyed that he’d spent so much time wondering what arcane engines of destruction Oldfathers would bring against them only to discover they were all gone. Which might actually be more worrying than the druid still having all of them. A concern for another day. “What about the more esoteric druidic arts? What are your gifts outside of waking the trees?”

“Unfortunately waking and commanding trees is my specialty. I’ve surpassed every teacher I ever had in that arena, but the more ‘esoteric’ arts have always escaped me. I don’t deal with incense very well and I’m a terribly average diviner.” The general reached out and grabbed the hexwood tree, shook it once and it shrunk in on itself, rolling its branches and braiding its roots until it looked for all the world like an eight foot walking stick. He slung it over one shoulder, saying, “Mete seems to have some connection to the trees, and I might be able to counter it, but if you want me to duplicate myself or give us all the strength of ten men for an hour or any of the other tricks you might have seen druids do I’m afraid I can’t help you.”

“I appreciate your candor.” Roy gave him a sideways look. “How were you planning to deal with Mete if that’s all you have on hand? More thunderbirds? How do you plan to summon them?”

Oldfathers frowned. “What do you know about thunderbirds, Mr. Harper?”

“They were summoned by blood ritual and used as guards, typically in ziggurats. They’re not truly alive, in the human sense, just an embodiment of the power of air in a vessel of water. They’re summoned with an alter and the heart of a living sacrifice.”

“You know more than I’d expect,” the general said, giving Roy a shrewd look. “You can name some of the more obscure relics from our vaults and you’ve studied ancient Tetzlan enough to know the lore of the thunderbird.”

“Hardly,” he snapped back. “I just like to know my enemies. Druids and Tetzlanii masons are the most dangerous I’ve ever seen.”

“I’m not sure I like the comparison.” Oldfathers spat to one side. “The masons were a bad lot, no doubt. To answer your question, no I can’t summon another thunderbird. A conjuror can use their own blood in the ritual although he must substitute something for the heart to keep the power and vessel united if he wants to live through the process.”

“Something like this?” Roy reached into the inside pocket of his jacket, swapping the journal in his hand for the fulminite crystal he’d put there the day before. He held it out for the general’s inspection.

“Exactly like that,” he said tapping it once. “I wondered if you found it. The Tetzlanii had other substitutes they used but fulminite was the easiest work around I had when I summoned my thunderbird.”

The general made no move to take the fulminite crystal back, which annoyed Roy. Not because he wanted to give it back but because some irrational part of him wanted the general to stop cooperating. Roy quashed that voice, it wasn’t helping. He turned the crystal over in his fingers as he thought. “Can you conjure another one?”

“Not if you want me at full strength by the equinox. It requires a lot of blood.”

After a moment of deliberation Roy tucked the crystal into his belt next to his dagger. “So if they could summon them without killing anyone why didn’t the Tetzlanii just produce the things on a massive scale?”

“The thunderbird is tied to the conjuror but it’s also tied to the person who gave the blood to summon it,” Oldfathers said. “And loyalty by blood is stronger than loyalty by rite. The masons killed their victims to ensure they had control over the elemental when the rite was done.”

“And you only bothered to summon one before you came here?”

“You didn’t study Tetzlanii magic enough if you don’t know the answer to that one.” Oldfathers smirked in an annoying, superior way. “Blood can only be tied to one rite at a time. It’s got something to do with the way blood bonds magic to the ritualist.”

“Well.” Roy huffed. “I’ll keep that in mind for the future. You said you had other countermeasures to slow Yose with on other parts of the mountain. What were they?”

“I had some of my trees waiting to trigger landslides. There was one place where I dammed a river to set on him.” He shrugged. “There wasn’t anything we could easily move to Mete’s Grave if that’s what you were wondering.”

Roy pinched the bridge of his nose. “Fine. If we slow down Yose for you how do you plan on dealing with Mete?”

“Well, I was actually hoping to have the time to examine the nawonota before working on it.”

“Why so?”

“The legends of Yose and Mete conflict on some details. The most material difference is on what their mother built the nawonota for. Some say it was a general ward against evil spirits, others say it was specifically designed to ward against their father’s ghost, which had been haunting the family for some time.”

Roy’s brow furrowed. “Their mother was a widow?”

“And a recent one. Again, the legends aren’t consistent about why.” The general glanced behind them, towards where Nora rode on her lizard some thirty feet back. “That part isn’t important. But I’d say there’s a lot of evidence suggesting their father’s ghost is. So I want to know who’s inside that nawonota before I try to cleanse it – Mete or his father. It will change my approach.”

“That’s sensible.” Roy sighed and looked over the party until he spotted who he wanted. “I’ll talk to Reeds about it, see if he has any insight.”

“Of course.” The general turned his full attention back to trailblazing.

Roy was certain he’d say something at any moment. But he remained stubbornly focused on the task before them until Roy finally gave up, dug the journal out of his pocket and balanced it in the branches of Oldfathers’ hexwood before turning and working his way back to Reeds.

“Is your father alive?” Roy asked without preamble.

“He died four years ago,” Reeds said. “In fact his death is what eventually led my brother and I to come here. Why?”

“Never mind. Help me think of some ways to cleanse or destroy a nawonota…”

Firespinner Chapter Eight – The Oath

Previous Chapter

It was the same face, but different.

The lines matched the drawing from the war, but their course over his face ran deeper and broader than in the picture. The eyes reflecting the firelight were dulled with clouds, not cold as the winter sky. Whiskers overran their proper places on lip and chin, clawing up cheeks and over ears enough to hide most of his face from casual view.

But Roy knew.

He remembered that day on Briarheart Ridge. When a single officer in the uniform of the Lakeshire militia crested the breastworks at the top of the ridge, the branches of countless maple trees waving behind him. Roy had seen the man’s face through the blood spattered telescope lens he’d take from Captain Colbert’s body. He’d watched the general start down the ridge, walking as one with the forest. And ordered his men to run like death itself chased them.

“Hezekiah Oldfathers,” Roy whispered.

The camp exploded into motion, Reeds bringing his hands together in a charm as his brother put his body and mace between Oldfathers and the rest. Grunt loomed up behind the brothers, fumbling a fresh sulfurite crystal into his sword. O’Hara pulled Nora down partway behind a large rock for cover.

Roy opened himself to the fire.

The branches and logs flash burned, leaving nothing but ash in the space of a breath, and the flames leapt upwards. Roy shaped them into a burning T shape that towered nearly to the top of the overhang, arms spread wide to react to any threat the old druid might offer.

But Oldfathers did nothing.

He just stood there, half shadowed in the night, and watched them with something between amusement and resignation. For a moment the tableau held. Finally he said, “I’m old, son, but if you think a Columbian regular can kill me with one of those shoddy swords that won’t even lock in sulfurite anymore, you’ve another thing coming. Which would be a pity, I’m not here to fight you.”

That might even be true. He didn’t stand before a massive tree line that had crept up on them in the dark. A glance up confirmed no ivy or tree roots dug through the stone overhang to strangle them, no bushes waited to topple over the edge on their heads. The druid had caught them unawares but brought none of his traditional weapons.

It would be reassuring if they weren’t camped in the middle of a forest.

Roy reminded himself that this was more than a chance encounter with a wanted man. This was a master of the craft standing on the cusp of a legend made manifest. Nothing was as it seemed. But whatever goals the general brought to the table they didn’t seem to involve fighting with Roy or his group. At least not at the moment. The fire lapsed back down to its original shape, Roy pushing the extra energy he’d forcibly extracted from the kindling into the small pile of sulfurite crystals half buried in the ash of the firepit. But he never took his eyes from the man just outside the circle of firelight.

“What brings you here, General Oldfathers?” Roy asked.

“Courtesy and compassion,” the druid answered without hesitation. “I’ve just come from Yellowstone and I heard things there you’ll want to know.”

Grunt gave Roy a look, lowered his sword when the other nodded and moved to push a few new logs into the fire with his foot. Roy let the flames take hold on the new fuel source and let them go from his mind, ignoring their lonely whispers. With the magic no longer weighing on him Roy found himself exhausted. But he refused to let Oldfathers see it. “Why should I believe anything you say?”

“Why doubt me?” Oldfathers stepped into the circle of firelight. Something shifted as he did so, as if a watchful presence had relaxed. “Are we enemies?”

Marshall stepped forward, touching the head of his club to the General’s chest. Both men paused, studying one another, and Oldfathers held his hands out, palms up, a cane dangling from the thumb of his left hand.

Roy stepped forward and moved Marshall gently to one side. Oldfathers raised one eyebrow but didn’t say anything as Roy started looking him over. The cane was a solid piece of living silver. At first Roy had thought it was just tin swift with a single sulfurite setting, handy for a little extra oomph when walking about. But on closer inspection it had the sheen of silver and the crystal set in the handle was big enough that the druid could easily reshape it into anything he wanted. There was nothing in the brim or band of his plain, brown cap. He wore a neckerchief in a hunter’s knot. His worn, green jacket was damp from the rain but, as it had slowed to a drizzle, wasn’t soaking and was otherwise unremarkable. There was a pocket watch in his vest pocket but no weapons in his belt unless you counted the three glowing fulminite crystals in the loops over his right hip.

There were four loops in the belt, Roy noticed. One was empty.

He grunted and filed that away then turned out the general’s pockets. Just a few coins there. Last he checked the boots – or, rather, boot as Oldfathers had lost his right leg at the knee at some point and now it was just a hickory peg. The boot contained a lot of leg and nothing else. There was nothing at all untoward on his person, which was almost more suspicious than the druid showing up with his pockets full of incense and a belt full of weapons.

Unsatisfied but curious, Roy moved out of the way and gestured to the fire. “Take a seat, General?”

“A man after my own heart,” Oldfathers said with a rueful grin as he straightened his clothes. “I applaud your sense of caution.”

Roy just glared at him. O’Hara cleared her throat and asked, “Why do you make it sound as if you came looking for us?”

“Because I did. Or, at least, I did if you’re the group I think you are.” Nora had returned to her previous seat and Oldfathers sat by her, saying, “You are Mrs. Blythe, aren’t you?”

“Yes.” The widow studied him with surprising innocence. “I can’t imagine what business you have with me, General.”

“Well, I’m afraid your older son has slipped out of town this afternoon.” Oldfathers took one of her hands gently in both of his. “Now I want you to stay calm. The situation is probably not what you think it is.”

If the general was trying to get Nora’s anger to override her fear then he was succeeding. She jerked her hands away from him, saying, “Calm? My sons are entrapped by ancient Sanna bedtime stories and I’m just supposed to stay calm?”

Oldfathers blinked once. “Perhaps the situation is what you think it is.” He glanced at Marshall and Reeds. “Perhaps that’s not surprising.”

Roy settled on a nearby rock that gave him a direct line to the druid. “Why is this any concern of yours?”

“Why?” His eyebrows shot up. “A child goes missing and I’m not supposed to be concerned? You clearly know about Yose and Mete and you think the stirring of such an ancient power wouldn’t worry any practitioner of the craft worth his implements?”

Roy scowled at Oldfathers over the fire, looking downright hostile in the shadows. “Why should it matter? These legends often stir the local elementals a bit and they can cause problems. But why would a druid – trained by and in line to inherit a stone circle – come all this way because of one local legend?”

Oldfathers’ gaze sild over to Reeds for a moment, then back again. “They haven’t told you, have they?”

Roy also glanced at Reeds, who was looking uncomfortable. But he also looked past Reeds to Marshall, who nodded. “What haven’t they told me? That Yose’s spirit sleeps in the lake by Yellowstone? That his brother sleeps here on the mountain, by the nawonota-“

He froze, mind jumping forward a dozen steps then backtracking to examine each step in the logic. A nawonota was a talisman that defended against evil spirits. None of the Noble Metals could effect a spirit so those kinds of defenses weren’t part of Vulcanic magic, the tradition he knew the most about, but Tetzlanii magic worried about spirits a great deal and they didn’t repel spirits, like a druid might use incense to repel trees. Instead the Tetzlanii trapped them for use in other rituals. If the Sanna used the same method the nawonota might be some kind of spiritual pit trap.

And Reeds said Yose and Mete were equals. The older brother was vulna, an avatar of the First Elements, and no longer strictly human. That implied the younger was vulna as well. That was a powerful thing to trap, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t happen. And an avatar was already part spirit so the journey all the way there was easier than normal, as Yose’s fate proved. “Mete’s spirit is trapped in the nawonota, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Reeds said. “I thought you understood.”

He really should have. All the pieces were there but he hadn’t put them together because he’d focused on Oldfathers instead. “Okay, he’s in the nawonota. I don’t know anything about how those work, so what does it mean that he’s trapped there?”

“Nawonota are not designed to destroy or cleanse,” Reeds said. “They contain until a medicine man can prepare the rites to cleanse the spirits and send them to rest.”

“Based on stories the Stone Circle collected in the early days of the Columbian settlement I have reason to believe Mete is the avatar for the Bones of Enkidu,” Oldfathers said. “That alone is enough to make him dangerous even in death. But there’s also evidence to suggest the legend of his battle with his brother has played out at least twice a century since they fought.”

“How long ago was that?” O’Hara asked.

“The Sanna don’t keep time quite like we do,” the druid said.

But Reeds interrupted him before he could continue. “The Brothers cycle has played out at least a dozen times, perhaps as many as twenty. The tribes in this part of the land have kept the stories and agree on that.”

Oldfathers nodded. “That roughly matches the Stone Circle’s count, which is either fifteen or sixteen iterations. And each time a pair of powerful brothers fights, the younger dies and his spirit is taken into the nawonota.”

“So there’s more than one iteration of the story trapped there?” Grunt asked. “Or have they all fused into one super spirit?”

“We can’t know until we see it,” Reeds said, “but whatever the outcome I doubt we will find a rational, human spirit left. The Bones of Enkidu will be all that is there.”

“Sorry,” Nora put it, “but what’s the significance of these bones?”

“Enkidu was the first wild man,” Oldfathers said. “He rejected civilization and destroyed cities wherever he found them. As an avatar of the Unshakeable Foundation he represents the earth in general and humanity’s origins in the wild state of nature in particular. My understanding was that, in the original legends, Mete was balanced by his brother who was avatar for the Spark of Creation, though it’s unclear which. But Yose hasn’t had any way to fuse with his successive iterations like Mete has. If they meet again they’re not going to be in any way equal. Yose will face generations of powerful warriors alone.”

“That is not an issue so long as the nawonota contains Mete,” Reeds said. “But nawonota are not meant to stand alone. They’re meant as part of a household’s defenses, and a household is intended as part of a tribe. Without the support of these greater patterns of power any nawonota, no matter how well made, will fail and release its prisoners on the world. Mete must be cleansed and sent on before that happens.”

Roy’s attention flicked to Marshall, who looked uncharacteristically grave, and decided it was best they leave that line of discussion for the time being. “So let me see if I follow your plan, General Oldfathers. You learned the Brothers legend was waking and came here to do something about it before Mete got out of his prison.”

“Protecting Arthur’s legacy is one of my duties, yes,” he confirmed. “Can’t do that if a wild man tears the civilization he founded apart, can I?”

“Fair enough. You clearly had some plan in place to do that. Want to share it with us?”

He hesitated for a moment but Nora leaned forward, hands clasped, and said, “Please, General.”

“Very well. I deployed various methods to slow your son’s progress up the mountain along the most likely routes Thomas could take, although with the aid of Yose there’s little chance they will endanger him. With the time that buys me I intend to confront and purify Mete and end the cycle before your sons meet in battle.” Oldfathers gestured vaguely down the ridges. “I tracked Thomas a little ways out of Yellowstone and it’s likely that he’s following the same route you did, so he’s going to run into a powerful elemental I conjured a couple of ridges down. You probably saw it overhead this morning.”

There was a moment of uncomfortable silence around the campfire. “About that,” Roy said. “We certainly saw it.”

Oldfathers studied him for a second. “And after seeing it?”

“Thunderbirds are not exactly benevolent creatures, General. We dispersed it.”

The general huffed in annoyance. “Well. I can’t blame you for that, I suppose, they are typically hostile and dangerous.”

“How did you not notice?” O’Hara demanded.

“I spent most of this afternoon collecting the measures I placed on other parts of the mountain, so they wouldn’t pose a danger to anyone else later.” Oldfathers crossed his arms and stared into the fire in a fit of pique. “I’ll have to set up something else tomorrow.”

“I think not, General,” Roy said.

When he didn’t continue, O’Hara leaned in to say something but Grunt put a hand on her arm and gently moved her back. Roy got to his feet and moved to the edge of the overhang, turning his back to the fire, and looked out at the rain, which had come back for a second showing. But he wasn’t really paying attention to it.

When he’d gotten on the Express a few days ago he’d been expecting to help an old friend take care of something simple, like chasing off squatters, rounding up some bandits or maybe hunting a griffon or two. Running down a bounty, even a big one like Hezekiah Oldfathers, was a step up from that but not a drastic one. Until that moment he’d kept hold of the hope that they could catch or kill Oldfathers and be done with the matter. Ever since he’d had his first brush with the raw power of the First Elements back in Tetzlan he’d been trying to avoid them and their avatars, with only middling success. Clearly this trip was going to go into the failure column of that reckoning.

On the one hand he could walk off the mountain the next morning and let the general try whatever he wanted, regardless of the consequences. On the other hand, Grunt and Mrs. Blythe would be right there on ground zero and Roy couldn’t see anything good coming of that regardless of whether Oldfathers succeeded or failed. No matter how he sliced it, ignoring the presence of a wanted man about to acquire a legendary spirit that equaled or surpassed him in malevolence wasn’t an option. Which left only one good alternative that Roy could think of.

He turned and moved back to his seat. Grunt handed him a cup of coffee as he got settled, which Roy took with an appreciative nod. “So,” Grunt said. “How bad is it? Clay Creek? The Wilderness? Five Ridges?”

Roy blew on the coffee for a moment, contemplating. “I’d say somewhere between Five Ridges and the Summer of Snow.”

That got a low whistle. “Not good, Harp.”

“No, it ain’t.” Roy took a gulp of coffee and turned his attention to Oldfathers. “You’ve been very upfront with me, General. I’ll do you the same courtesy. I don’t believe you.”

“On what front?” The druid didn’t seem upset, only curious.

“Oh, I trust your assessment of the magical implications of the situation on the mountain,” Roy said. “You’re easily the most accomplished arcanist on this mountain, possibly in Pyrenes County. I just don’t believe that the man who should stand within Morainhenge, who has more reason to hate Columbia than any person living, who refused to appear at the peace signing, who actually ran from Columbian law with some of the most powerful relics in the nation in hand, will just cleanse an ancient and malevolent legend because he happened to take a passing interest in it. So why should I believe that’s really why you came here, and not to add that legend to the long list of powerful magics at your disposal?”

Oldfathers studied Roy for a long moment, the dancing flames setting shadows flickering across his face and giving the momentary impression he was smiling. Then the general’s cane began to twist and writhe, the crystal in its grip glowing softly, and the silver changed from a walking tool to a long, narrow bladed sword. His left hand rested on the quillons of the crosspiece. He raised his right hand, palm out, and spoke in a deep, sonorous voice. “My name is Hezekiah Oldfathers, commander of the Knights of the Stone Circle.”

Roy felt as if the world around him was falling away as the general continued. “I serve at the pleasure of Arthur, First and Forever King of Avalon.”

In the far distance something ancient and awesome turned to regard that small and insignificant campfire. Roy felt its attention fall on him, as heavy and oppressive as the air before rain. “In storm and sunshine I walk among the stone circle and steward its legacy for the coming generations.”

The fire leapt and danced at Oldfather’s words, the wind and rain whispered wordless replies and the stone wall behind them echoed it all back for the world to hear. “And I swear on the grave of Pellinore, the Hunter, that all I have said concerning my goals and intentions are true.”

The general lowered his hand and in that moment it seemed as though some new, foundational law of the universe slammed into place. Everything returned to normal a second later, Grunt’s sharp intake of breath telling Roy he’d felt it, too.

Unphased by what had just transpired, O’Hara laughed and said, “You don’t expect any of us to believe you because of that, do you?”

“He does,” Roy whispered. “And we do.”

Firespinner Chapter Seven – Rain After Storm

Previous Chapter

“So how much further, Reeds?” Roy asked, accepting a tin mug full of hot soup from Mrs. Blythe. “We covered a fair stretch of ground today. We getting close?”

“We’re about two ridges from Mete’s Grave, Mr. Harper.” Reeds passed his brother a mug before keeping O’Hara’s second offering for himself. “We should be there by midday tomorrow.”

Roy grunted in acknowledgment. Grunt and Nora settled in on a log nearby, Grunt taking a moment to swing his end of the log further under the overhang they were using for shelter. Marshall emptied the cook pot and set it out in the rain to start soaking. For a moment the six of them just shared in companionable silence.

When he finished his soup Roy unclipped his buckler, removed its sulfurite from the setting and tossed it into the campfire to recharge. The heat from the flames dimmed just a bit as the stone started absorbing some of the power into itself. Grunt pulled his greatsword over and worked the lever in the blade to release the weapon’s sulfurite, which he also added to the fire. The rest of the group followed suit, except for Nora who hadn’t used her weapon that day.

She just watched them as they went through their maintenance rituals then glanced at Reeds and asked, “Why say Mete’s Grave, Reeds? The Sanna name is Mete Wahaka, isn’t it?”

Marshal and Reeds both smiled broadly. “That is correct,” Reeds said. “But the Sanna believe a thing only exists when it is heard and understood. If I selfishly speak in a language you do not understand I become less real. So I say Mete’s Grave, that you may understand and I may exist in truth.”

“So you speak our language to be more real to us?” Nora looked very pleased with that answer. “That’s a lovely thought.”

Grunt chuckled. “Your brother must be in a difficult place, then.”

Reeds turned stone faced in a single breath. “I speak for my brother. I assure you he is quite real.”

“Of course,” Roy murmured. “Marshall is quite fortunate to have such a considerate older brother.”

Reeds frowned. “I am the younger of us, Mr. Harper.”

“Ah. My mistake.” Roy brushed his pants off and got to his feet, pulled flame from the campfire into his cufflinks and grabbed the pot. “All right, people, drop your silverware here. Marshall, could you bring the cups?”

This time he was watching closely and he saw the byplay. Reeds glanced at Marshall, who raised a finger and tilted his head towards the campfire. Then he got up, gathered the cups and followed.

It was a short walk back to the stream, barely two minutes, and they walked in silence. The light drizzle still fell but neither man felt put out. When they reached the water Roy filled the pot and set it boiling with the power in his cufflinks. Marshall produced a rag from a pocket and began scrubbing the cups, dipping them in the boiling water to rinse.

Roy fished the silverware out of the pot with his free hand, the heat little more than an irritant. “So tell me something, Marshall.”

He laughed, a belly laugh that set his clothes flapping around his rail thin body, then pointed at his mouth.

“Oh, I heard what your brother said back there. But you can make yourself known, words or not, no matter what the Sanna think.” He leveled a spoon at Marshall, an accusation. “I’ve been thinking about you two and this Sanna legend since we talked at the saloon a couple of days ago. And I was wrong. You’re not here to play out the legend of Yose and Mete, you’re here to kill it.”

Marshall raised his eyebrows and pointed at himself.

“Yes, you. Yose is the older brother, that’s why he’s named first. I know about the ways Sanna speak, you see, although I’m not nearly as proficient as your brother is with Avalon’s tongue.” Roy let the pot stop boiling. “If you two played out the legend you would kill Reeds and then you’d be alone with no one to understand you. Meaning that in the eyes of the Sanna you no longer exist and the legend would disappear with you.”

Marshall furrowed his brow and pointed at Roy.

“I know I said you can make yourself understood. The point is how other Sanna would perceive you, that usually has more import in these kinds of mystic events. So is it true? You were sent to kill the legend?”

For a long moment Marshall stared at Roy, the animation draining out of him. Or, at least, the overly exaggerated mannerisms he affected when dealing with people other than Reeds. Finally Marhsall nodded.

“They cut your tongue out just for this or did it happen earlier?”

He didn’t respond to that question.

“Fine then. I’m not sure why the Sanna chose to try killing a legend or why the two of you agreed to the idea, much less your family. But I got a warning for the two of you now.”

Marshall tilted his head, curious.

Roy dumped the cooling water back into the river and got to his feet. “Don’t try to play that stunt out with the Blythe boys or we are going to have a falling out. Do you understand me?”

The two men stared at each other. Then Marshall nodded, stacked his cups and started back towards camp. Roy snorted, not sure what to make of that, and followed after.

As they walked Roy said, “I saw what you did on the wall. I presume you’re some sort of hero? Or whatever the Sanna would call it?”

Marshall shrugged, an elegant gesture of casual indifference.

“Right. Neither of you are medicine men.” Roy sighed. Reeds would probably know but he was much cagier than his brother. Which made sense if Marshall was a genuine hero. Not much was known about them, beyond the fact that they were probably some kind of Earth magic made manifest, and their nature was entirely instinctual. So long as the hero had conviction in their cause they were almost unbeatable in combat.

That bit about conviction was really the key, the surest way to overcome a hero was to break their conviction. The best way to avoid people breaking your hero’s conviction was to keep the fact they were a hero secret. So it was something they rarely shared, even with allies. The worst bit about heroes was how little control they had over their own power; it was hard for anyone to control their own convictions and heroes were no exception. Maybe it was better if he didn’t bother asking Reeds anything and just proceeded on the notion that Marshall was one. It didn’t make a big difference in his plans going forward.

Roy was jolted out of his reverie when they came up on the campfire again. He quickly offered the Sign of the Hearth before taking his seat. He’d meant to face Mrs. Blythe as he did so, it was customary to present the sign to a Hearthkeeper when they were present, but at some point she’d offered her seat next to Grunt to O’Hara. To his greater surprise O’Hara offered the traditional response, making a zigzag with two fingers that she then held up in a V shape, creating the funnel cloud shaped Sign of the Storm.

Grunt laughed. “You’ve become a devout man in the last few years, Harp.”

“People change all the time, Grunt,” he said with a smile. “Or did you forget, Mr. Solicitor?”

“Fair enough.”

“Is devotion why you dislike people calling you Giant Killer?” Nora asked.

Roy scowled. “I don’t like it because it’s not true. There’s a grand total of three giants in the history of Avalon and only one of them was ever slain by mortal man. Assuming you accept Arthur started out human. A wendigo is a terrible creature, to be sure, but it ain’t got anything on Everest Walking.”

Reeds leaned forward, interested. “Indeed? I understand that wendigos grow in size equal to the amount they eat, and thus are never satisfied. During the Summer of Snow a group of them supposedly wiped out Tin Gulch, a town with over two hundred people. The creatures that did it must have been enormous afterwards.”

“Not as big as you’d think.” Roy held up the beads of his necklace, each about five inches long. “These are made from the finger bones of the wendigo I killed. It was about four times the size of a man. Big, but not a giant.”

Marshall laughed and Reed asked, “What would you call a giant then?”

“The smallest of the Brothers Walking was Shenandoah. You can still see his bones to the east.”

Reeds laughed this time. “The Shenandoah Mountains have existed for generations. We did not name them because of some Avalon tale.”

“Yeah, well, we didn’t know the they existed nine hundred years ago either,” Roy said, smiling as well. These were mysteries he loved pondering in free moments himself. “Legends aren’t always true, and when they are they’re rarely the whole truth. But in this case… well, the tale said Our Lord in Raging Skies chased Shenandoah Walking in the direction of the Middle Kingdom and slew him somewhere there. It’s more likely Shenandoah only made it this far before he was killed, as it isn’t like we knew this place existed at the time.”

“And how were we to know the name of this dead giant?”

“A good question I can’t answer,” Roy admitted. “But Our Lord also pursued and slew Shenandoah’s brother, Kilimanjaro Walking, in a land to the south of Avalon. He smote Kilimanjaro so hard he was buried up to his neck in the dirt. And you know what we find, down there in Nubia?”

Reeds frowned. “A mountain named Kilimanjaro?”

“I’m surprised a Teutonic wizard wasn’t aware of that,” O’Hara said. “It was Johan von Heilman who mapped Kilimanjaro and noted the connection.”

“Most Teutonic wizards don’t think much about Avalon’s history,” Roy said. “I wouldn’t really expect them to.”

Reeds nodded. “The tradition is mostly theoretical, what history their books do teach are more interested in connecting things to the Forever Wars. Regardless, if a creature that leaves mountain sized bones is your standard for giants I can see why you wouldn’t think of a wendigo as one.”

Marshall nudged his brother’s arm and held up three fingers.

“The third giant was named Everest Walking,” Roy said. “He was killed by an alliance of Arthur, the Last Man of Wyrms, his mentor, Meryl of Linds and Our Lady in Burning Stone. His death was such a cataclysm that it carved the Everest Channel between Avalon and the Francs. That’s also how Arthur earned the favor of the Lord and Lady and became the Phoenixborn.”

“Sounds complicated,” Reeds said.

“It’s a famous story in Avalon,” O’Hara said. “And it’s particularly important to druids and hedge mages as Arthur learned a lot of the craft he used to form the Stone Circle and organize modern druidry from the Lady as part of his reward from her for aiding in the battle.”

“And, of course, that’s why the Mated Pair are the patron gods of Avalon,” Grunt added. O’Hara offered a vigorous nod of assent.

“In a manner of speaking,” Roy murmured.

“How so?” O’Hara demanded.

“Our Lord and Lady are guardian deities to the nation and they did offer special powers to Arthur because he aided them in special ways. Becoming the Phoenixborn. Walking as One With the Storm.” Roy shook his head, wondering of those titles of Arthur’s had any significance, or if they referred to aspects of his power and rule that were now long forgotten. “But much of the rest of what they offered him they offer to everyone. The Lord and Lady are intercessors between people and the raw elemental forces of magic. The First Elements are incredibly dangerous and don’t have any concept of humanity and what is good or bad for them and that makes any kind of understanding with them difficult, if not impossible. The Lord and Lady place less risky, more human magic in the reach of those who follow their teachings.”

“This is what you call druidry?” Reeds asked.

“No, druidry existed before Arthur. But he took it and organized it, made it safer and easier for people to get a handle on. It wasn’t exactly safe – still isn’t – but it’s better than what was. That’s why all the people we consider real druids now come out of the great Henges – Stonehenge, Ayershenge, the Dream Henge, Rajhenge and, until ten years ago, Morainehenge.”

“You’re very knowledgeable, Mr. Harper,” Nora said.

“After the Battle of Five Ridges I had a lot of time and motivation to learn. And I happened to be in the right place to get a start on it, too.” Roy shrugged. “I managed to learn a little from the Morainehenge druids but they weren’t exactly fond of people in Columbian uniforms at the time. The broad strokes of the story is all I know. I’m not sure what Arthur changed that made the Stone Circle a better way to produce druids or how he improved on their magic. If we find him and he doesn’t kill us all General Oldfathers could probably explain those things much better than I.”

“Yes. I believe I could.”

Firespinner Chapter Six – Thunderbird

Previous Chapter

A lively stream cut through the ridge on the opposite side, ran down into the heart of the valley and turned, following the valley out of sight. It was a picturesque sight, except for the crackling amorphous creature flying back and forth over the stream occasionally shedding a lightning bolt from its wings. In truth only the core of the creature was protean, the rest of the body – head, beak, wings and talons – were well defined, if given to bending or distorting in odd ways when they moved as if the creature had no bones or joints. Which it didn’t.

“Ignis Fatuus, we’re lucky it didn’t see us,” Roy muttered, watching the thunderbird warily over the crest of the hill. “We might be able to get the drop on it.”

“Do we really have to fight that thing?” Nora asked, looking askance at the beast. “It looks like more trouble than it’s worth.”

“A fine question.” Roy looked to Grunt. “How long to go around?”

“If we want to keep going north east?” The big man thought about it for a moment. “‘At least six hours, maybe as long as a day. Depends on the route we take and if we run into anything there. Mountain lions are pretty common up here but they’re not as big a deal as a Sasquatch. Those’ll bury you with rock slides before you ever see ’em.”

“Are they hostile?” Roy asked.

“Just hungry,” Grunt replied. “Always hungry.”

“But also rare this far south,” Reeds added. “I don’t think we’ll see one until winter takes hold. Either way we don’t have time to go around. It’s about a day and a half from here to Mete’s Grave, we can’t afford a side trip.”

“Are we sure the thunderbird wants to fight us?” O’Hara asked. “It looks almost totally elemental. Those kinds of creatures rarely take note of humans.”

“Thunderbirds aren’t natural creatures,” Roy said. “They’re created via Tetzlanii blood rituals and given a purpose during their creation. Traditionally they’re used as guards. Add in the fact that blood rituals are almost always malevolent and yeah, I think it’s pretty likely the thing will fight us if it sees us.”

“It’s Tetzlanii?” O’Hara frowned. “What kind of wards did they use to contain them? I have most of the major ones with my tile board.”

“As I understand it the blood ties it back to the ritualist somehow, no wards, charms or geas needed to control it,” Roy said. “Besides, tile magic is earth and fire, thunderbirds are air and water. Magics without a common elemental factor tend to mix poorly.”

“And I’m afraid water can’t hold any kind of pattern for long so it’s not used in the Teutonic tradition at all,” Reeds said. “I don’t suppose any of you are hiding secret talents as a stone singer?”

Marshall puffed himself up, spread his arms theatrically and exhaled in dramatic fashion.

“That’s a no,” Grunt said. He glanced at Roy and took note of the way he was fingering his necklace. “Why don’t you just do your freezing trick to it, Roy?”

The wendingo bone beads were cool to the touch, free from the malice of their old owner but still so very, very hungry. “We’ll keep that as a court of last resort. But I do think focusing on the water half of a thunderbird is the best bet. It’s easier to disperse the vessel of a spell than counter its driving force anyways. Here’s what we’re going to do.”


Grunt and Roy scrambled down the side of the valley. In spite of Grunt’s extra hundred pounds of size and two handed weapon he made the descent far more gracefully than Roy did. He easily slid down patches of grass, leapt over stretches of loose stones and levered himself around small trees, where Roy seemed to get caught on every unseen root or hidden rock outcropping. But the army taught Roy years ago that he was a city slicker through and through so he was used to it. The goal was to make sure the thunderbird didn’t notice them and in that he succeeded.

Climbing up the other side of the gorge was more difficult.

For starters he’d removed the buckler from his belt and drawn his sword. Like many things in his life, Roy’s weapons were custom built to mesh with his powers. The buckler had a large eight stone crystal set in the center giving him a lot of raw firepower to draw from, a nice option to improve on the defensive qualities of the light shield or a midrange offense as needed. The sword was a falcata, a heavy chopping weapon for close combat and an effective platform for catapulting fireballs long distances. They gave him plenty of options for fighting at all ranges, the first concern of a firespinner at work. Terrible gear for a soldier in the bush, trying to move quietly and communicate via hand signals.

Worse, Grunt kept picking his way up using one hand to climb, the other all that he needed to balance his sword over his shoulder, blazing a path that Roy, with only half of one hand free, had a hard time following. Roy was pretty sure Grunt kept juggling his sword from one hand to the other just to rub it in. Still, for all the problems of climbing the gorge they made it almost all the way to the second ridge line without drawing the thunderbird’s attention.

Once there they settled in to watch. Roy did his best to contain his impatience. They’d already lost the better part of an hour crossing the valley and he was very aware of how little time they had overall. But as they said in the army, serenity was akin to alacrity. So they waited and watched.

After ten minutes it was clear the thunderbird was circling over the cleft in the ridge where the small river cut through on its way down the mountain. It never veered off into the valleys on either side of the ridge or went further along the rise in either direction. Reeds said they should follow the river to reach Mete’s Grave.

The thunderbird being there couldn’t be a coincidence. They needed to get rid of it.

Roy signaled Grunt to get ready then started to work his way along the ridge towards the river. After a minute or so the thunderbird took note and swept over him, circling in predatory fashion. Grunt leapt to his feet and his sword roared to life, bronze blade gleaming, flame pouring from its fuller.

The thunderbird shrieked. The earsplitting noise started higher than a train whistle and dropped down to a bone rattling boom. As the tone dropped the creature swooped down out of the air towards Grunt. He raised his sword point towards the elemental and the weapon spat a stream of fire at the thunderbird. The thunderbird jerked away from the assault but towards Roy, who was already pulling fire from the sulfurite in his shield, forming it into a wall to block the elemental from retreating. Caught between the two men’s attacks the body of the thunderbird began rippling with steam. It crackled in pain.

Roy and Grunt moved forward, pressing the creature between their fiery weapons. But the creature wasn’t stupid. It dodged and weaved with frightening speed, skirting the stream of flame from Grunt’s direction and swooping away across the valley in a flash of barely perceptible movement. It stopped in a crack of thunder right before colliding with the faint shimmer that marked O’Hara’s spell walls. Maybe it knew the wall was there, in spite of its near invisibility, maybe that was as far as it could go and maybe it just noticed the rest of the group waiting there, behind O’Hara’s wards.

Grunt turned and made to start down the slope, as if he had a chance of getting back to that side of the valley in time to do anything. “Wait here!” Roy yelled. Grunt shot him a questioning look. “Lighting falls and returns! Reeds can handle it, we’ll catch it on the return stroke!”

But Roy had made one mistake. It was a natural one, but a mistake none the less. Grunt told him one of the brothers worked magic and later Roy learned that brother was Reeds. He was also the brother who could talk. And at some point Roy had just started thinking Reeds was the active one of the pair, that when push came to shove Reeds did what needed doing and his brother was some kind of moral or spiritual support. He realized how wrong that assumption was when Marshall leapt up on top of the spellwall, meeting the thunderbird as it started to cross over the barrier.

One of the elemental’s talons lashed out at him, raking crackling gashes into the spellwall. Marshall met the blow with the obsidian head of his warclub, the simple but brutally effective weapon of Sanna braves. Man and beast strained against each other for a split second, an ominous energy building between them, then erupted into an exchange of a dozen sizzling attacks, deflections, blocks and counters, all in the space of a single breath.

It was so fast Roy only caught glimpses of the exchange in afterimages. Looking away was unthinkable. But Roy forced himself to do it anyway, swapping his sword and shield hands with practiced efficiency. Then he tossed the shield to his partner saying, “Grunt, discus!”

Grunt shifted his greatsword to his offhand and caught the buckler then turned the motion into a spinning throw that send the shield arcing across the valley. It wouldn’t quite make it to the spellwall but got close before it started to drop. When it did Roy reached out to the sulfurite set in it and asked the fire there to come out.

The fire power within burst out in a massive wave of flame and heat that washed over the thunderbird with a violent hiss. The blast almost pulled the creature apart in a cloud of steam but its wings beat the air and it gained enough altitude to get far enough away from the dissipating fireball to pull itself back together.

Sensing weakness Marshall threw his club at the struggling elemental and it flashed away again. But as Roy had told Grunt, the creature was forced to return to where it had been a moment ago, just as a lightning bolt that falls from the sky must return to the clouds.

As soon as the thunderbird vanished Roy’s iron dagger left its sheath. Once it reappeared in the air just over his head he threw it before he heard the clap heralding the creature’s return. The point of the dagger buried itself into the creatures body just below the wing. The thunderbird let out an electrical shriek then burst with an incredible sound that Roy felt more than heard. He and Grunt were thrown to the ground as water driven by the creatures sudden death lashed against them like knives.

For the second time in as many days Roy found himself staring up at the sky and getting wet with no clear notion how he got there. Apparently the thunderbird’s death had prompted the clouds to start raining. Rather than sit there and get water in his eyes he got back to his feet again. The ringing in his ears pulsed for a moment or two, eventually settling into time with the throbbing in his ribs to remind him that working as a professional violent man had steep costs associated with it.

He was gratified to see that O’Hara’s group was making their way across the valley. The brothers were currently helping Nora and O’Hara get their mounts across the river. Roy tried to get Grunt’s attention but couldn’t hear himself over the ringing and assumed it was the same for his friend. So he started searching the top of the ridge on his own.

After about five minutes of looking he heard a distant voice saying, “What are you doing? We need to keep moving.”

It was O’Hara, getting down from her bushwalker with a jar of something in one hand. Roy shook his head, trying to clear the ringing a little, then said, “First we need to bury the heart. If we don’t there are complications.”

“Heart?” She gestured Grunt over and applied some kind of salve to his ears. “What heart? Elementals don’t have hearts, Mr. Harper. They’re just blobs of power and medium.”

“It’s a human heart, O’Hara.” He tapped his chest for emphasis. “Blood ritual, remember? The only way I’ve seen to make a thunderbird involves taking a beating heart from a living person. That kind of thing was why the Esperians burned all the blood ritual records they could find.”

“What happens if we don’t bury this heart?” Reeds asked.

“Hauntings. People drown in their sleep even if they’re nowhere near water. Eventually people get struck by lightning on clear days. Nasty stuff.” Roy pulled a small flame from one cufflink and used it to illuminate the ground beneath a thick clump of bushes. “You should be able to find it by smell, they’re not exactly fresh. Even if they are still beating.”

He glanced up in time to see Marshall holding his nose and shaking his head. “He says the creature did not smell when he was near it,” Reeds clarified. “Or at least he didn’t notice it. Neither did I.”

“I didn’t notice anything either,” Grunt added, scooping the gunk back out of his ears. “You gotta try this stuff, Harp.”

“Later.” Roy smelled his clothes in a few places, searching for the telltale stench of the bloodwater that made up the bodies of thunderbirds. To his surprise he found nothing. “Right, that is strange. It’s not a mild scent, it should still be obvious even with the thing dead.”

Roy pulled his light back and tucked it away in his cufflink again. “I don’t know what happened here but I want to find out.”

“You said these things aren’t natural,” Nora said. “Could the druid you mentioned have conjured the creature? Maybe he blended the Tetzlanii ritual with some kind of druidic magic?”

“That’s exactly what worries me,” he admitted.

“In that case maybe this was part of it?” O’Hara held up an odd crystalline sliver about as thick as one of her fingers. A gold band ran around the circumference about a third of the way up its length. “We found it on the way across the valley.

The crystal was a dark, smokey gray shot through with faint sky blue streaks. Roy took it and turned it over in his hands. The hair on the back of them stood out straight. “Well, well, well, someone found a chunk of fulminite.”

“What’s fulminite?” Nora asked.

“It’s like sulfurite,” O’Hara said, “except it holds the power of the air rather than fire. And no one knows an easy way to recharge it. Or any way short of standing in a storm and hoping you get struck by lightning. I’ve never heard of anyone pulling it off.”

“If it functions like sulfurite the crystal glows brighter the more power that’s in it,” Roy said, peering into the crystal’s depths. “So it must be pretty well spent.”

“Could this take the place of the heart in the blood ritual?” Reeds asked.

“I don’t know.” Roy tucked the crystal into the inside pocket of his jacket. “But it could.”

“Sounds like a very druidic thing to do,” Grunt said. “They like messing with power sources and plugging them into new mediums. That’s how they found so many different kinds of trees they could manipulate.”

“So you think this creature was created by General Oldfathers?” Reeds asked.

“It’s not simple or easy magic to do,” Roy said. “I’m sure there’s plenty of people in the frontier counties that could do it but he’s the only one we know of nearby.”

O’Hara studied Roy for a moment. “How do you know so much about these thunderbirds anyways? Could you make one?”

“I’ve been a lot of places and done a lot of work for a lot of different people,” he said. “But I couldn’t make a thunderbird. Even if I could predict a lightning strike and had an alter carved and ready to take the blood, I don’t think I could bring myself to rip someone’s heart out just to make one of the foul tempered things.”

“And on that reassuring note,” Ben said, “let’s get out of this coalstoking rain.”

Firespinner Chapter Five – Distant Rumblings

Previous Chapter

“Why are we leaving town so coalstoking early?” Grunt demanded. “We should at least put together a search pattern, we’re not even sure what part of the mountain Oldfathers is on.”

“We don’t need a search pattern,” Roy said, throwing his borrowed saddlebags over a rented mule. “If he wants to tap the Brothers legend he’s most likely going to the mountaintop where Mete fell. Reeds knows where that is and we know Oldfathers is going to be there in two days. So we need to get there in time to get ready for him.”

“Two days? Why do we know he’ll be there in two days?” Nora Blythe asked, working a bridle over the head of her riding lizard as the creature trilled in annoyance.

“Because the fall equinox is in three.” Roy slid his sheathed sword into place next to the saddlebags and gave it a tug to make sure it was secure. “Forces in balance or otherwise locked together are easiest to influence on the equinox, plus elemental forces ebb and surge at various times of the day so if you’ve the skill you can exploit those surges for a boost to your own magic. If Oldfathers is really here and trying to exploit Mete for some reason he’s going to do it on the equinox. We need to get to him before he does that because we’re not stopping him after. So we need to climb the mountain in two days.”

“Do you think Andrew is in any danger, Mr. Harper?” Nora asked.

“I have no idea, Mrs. Blythe, I don’t know what Orphanfree is planning or how your son or the Brothers’ legend plays into it. I don’t even know which one of Yose and Mete your son is a stand in for.”

“Mete, Mr. Harper.”

“Ignis fatuus!” Roy unclenched his shoulders and turned to find Reeds and Marshall had arrived with characteristic silence. “Will you two stop doing that?”

Marshall spread his hands helplessly, as if not having a tongue somehow prevented him from making any noise at all. Reeds ignored both his brother and Roy. “Andrew is clearly meant to act as Mete in this situation. He climbed the mountain first, then Yose followed. Thomas Blythe is still here in town, thus he must be filling Yose’s role.”

“I defer to your expertise,” Roy said. “Is Thomas somewhere safe, Mrs. Blythe?”

“Miss O’Hara arranged for him to stay with a trustworthy family she knows. The Guild will keep him safe.” The widow’s expression told Roy that, as a mother, she was having trouble trusting in that.

Roy couldn’t blame her. In the last month she’d lost her husband and potentially a child. He suspected he wouldn’t be functioning any better under similar circumstances. “So long as we’ve made allowances. Where’s O’Hara? She’s the only one we’re missing.”

“She’ll meet us at the north gate,” Grunt said, tugging on the straps that held his unwieldy pattern of ’61 greatsword in place by his saddle.

“Are you still using that?” Roy asked, incredulous.

“What’s wrong with it?” Grunt demanded. “We can’t all carry an officer’s toothpick or use the powers we got from the druid’s curse to throw fire. Some of us need help.”

“Well bring reliable help next time.”

“Hey, the pattern of ’61 is light-“

“Overly complex,” Roy interjected.

“-lively in the hand-“

“Terrible edge retention.”

“-and a classic design.”

“Classically ugly and doesn’t hold a flame right.” Roy jumped up into the saddle, rubbing his ribs absently.

“At least I have a weapon I know I can count on.” Grunt nodded at Roy’s falcatta, strapped in place on his saddle. “You’ve got another weird thing from your collection.”

“Hey, this is a genuine Alexopolous reproduction. Do you know how hard they are to find?”

Grunt ignored the question and changed the subject. “Speaking of ugly, did you ever get those bruises looked at?”

“I’ll get them looked at when you replace that coalstoking sword.” Roy took a deep breath and quickly blew it out. “See? I’m fine.”

“If you say so…”

Roy ignored him and glanced over the rest of the group. The twins brought their own mules loaded for a long stay in the mountains. Nora was traveling a bit lighter than those two but Roy was glad to see that she did have a straight bladed arming sword strapped to her saddle. “That lizard of yours going to be okay up in the mountains, Mrs. Blythe? I’m told it gets cold up there.”

“Old Slith has been out in snow before,” she said, patting the ugly creature on the neck. “We probably should have replaced him when we moved up here at the beginning of summer but he’s been with us so long…”

“Well there’s no snow up there yet,” Grunt put in. “It should be okay, Harp.”

“If you say so.” But Roy eyed the overcast skies with distrust.

Yellowstone was not a big town in the grand scheme of things, essentially just two roads running east to west crossing a single main street going north to south. The total footprint was barely half the space inside the town walls, which were two thousand feet from one side to the other at the widest point. Getting to the north gate was still a struggle as they dodged carts of lumber, boisterous groups of woodsmen heading out to start the day and hurrying townspeople running errands.

They finally reached the gate almost twenty minutes later.

Once they were through Roy understood why O’Hara hadn’t met them at the stables. She was seated high atop a bushwalker, the creature’s evergreen branches loaded with packages and bundles. Instinct born of long experience told him he was looking at a kind of walking arsenal of cantrips and prestidigitations, the kind of miscellaneous magic collection that made hedge mages so notoriously dangerous throughout Columbia and Avalon.

Eyeing the shambling creature with the wary caution normally reserved for grizzly bears or siege grade sulfurite crystals, Roy asked, “What have you got there, O’Hara?”

“Good morning to you, too, Mr. Harper,” she said. “Are we all assembled, then?”

So that’s how it was going to be. He affected a bright, hard tone. “Good morning, Ms. O’Hara. We are.” And discarded it. “Now I’d like to know what you intend to do with all that.”

“A little of this and a little of that.” Which was pretty much the worst answer Roy could think of. “Supplies for conjuring a living cloud, my personal specialty. A few Sanna charms for safely navigating the forest. A collection of Tetzlantii spell tiles that might prove useful.”

Roy grimaced. Druidic magic was heavily invested in plants as a medium for the energy of fire and many of the most powerful conjurings of that tradition created toxic smokes and residues as a byproduct. Only druids with carefully built resistances could use them safely. Worse, when their magics mixed the poisonous nature of the residues amplified one another so blending their magic was generally frowned upon. Hedge mages ignored that taboo to the detriment of themselves and others.

Some of that taboo had faded as Vulcanic and Teutonic magic, based on the far safer mediums of metals and patterns, spread. They had virtually no dangerous after effects but were not nearly as powerful as the druidic tradition either. That was a big part of why hedge mages like O’Hara could still find steady employment these days. Roy wasn’t familiar with a living cloud but if the Guild was comfortable with it he figured he’d tolerate it as well. He wasn’t familiar with Sanna totems, his own necklace notwithstanding, but he knew Tetzlanii spell tiles were a flavor of stone based magic. So long as O’Hara knew enough not to choke them with her cloud then it should be fine.

“That’s fine, then,” he said. “Just keep a handle on those tiles, I don’t want us raising a ziggurat on top of the mountain by accident.” Roy lightly spurred his mule and started down the path towards the mountain.

In spite of mustering out of the army nearly a decade ago the old marching habits came back quickly and Roy found himself tracking positions of his group without even thinking about it. The steady clopping of the Reeds brothers’ mounts were side by side behind him. The steady creaking of O’Hara’s mobile bush came next, mixed with the quiet whispers of some conversation she was having with Nora Blythe. Grunt was far enough back that Roy couldn’t hear him but, outside of the warm air of town, his body heat was enough to buzz quietly in the back of his mind despite Grunt’s place thirty or forty feet back, watching the rear. Roy considered it a good formation.

The terrain was poor and kept them from packing in close, plus there was always the chance that this far out they’d run into a tree old enough to take notice of them and spreading out meant it wouldn’t be able to grab them all at once. Hopefully their group was few enough in number that O’Hara’s wards would keep them from notice. Beyond the trees he wasn’t too sure what to expect. Outside of several months in Tetzlan he’d never spent much time in the mountains and, this far north, the plants and wildlife were very different.

About an hour out of town, as the trail approached the top of the first major ridge line, Reeds came up and rode beside him. “We will need to leave the trail and follow the river in the bottom of the next valley.”

Roy nodded. “How many times have you visited Mete’s grave, Reeds?”

“We go yearly.”

The Sanna man didn’t seem to think that was strange but Roy did. He also knew better than to approach it directly. “You’re a diviner, right? I saw you had one of those omen sticks the Sanna medicine men use.”

“A kennet stick, yes. The meaning is closer to future than omen.” Roy didn’t know much about the Sanna but he had heard they were picky about the meanings of their words. “For a short time I was in training as a medicine man, but I fear I only learned the very basics of casting the kennet. For the most part I can only take the read of the land. If we are separated I can also find my brother with it but that’s never been necessary.”

“Why’s that?”

“We have a sense for each other. He can find me with no kennet as easily as a trained diviner could find a man he’d known his whole life.” Reeds shrugged. “As for me, I’m afraid my training did not take me much further than learning a few of the protections against the leaf brothers.”

Roy shot him a sideways look. “So you can kind of cast divinations and ward off trees. Are you sure you’re going to be okay on this trip?”

“Oh, I’m a fully initiated student of Herr Magister von Stossel as well. There are actually a great number of similarities between the basic medicines of the Sanna people and the core principles of Teutonic magic.”

So Reeds was a wizard, not a medicine man. Add that to the list of things he hadn’t been expecting on this trip. “So why didn’t you just finish your studies as a medicine man? Is it because you got sent to Yellowstone?”

Reeds returned the sideways look. “What do you mean?”

“Yose and Mete were identical twin brothers. So are you and the Blythe boys. I’m not any kind of formal practitioner, or even a hedge mage like O’Hara, but I’m not so dim as to miss the pattern. Plus, Grunt told me you came to him and asked to be involved.” Roy looked back at the group spread out behind them. The only one close enough to overhear them was Marshall, who wasn’t going to share it with anyone anytime soon. “I presume this is because you came here because of the Brothers legend. Did that cut short your training?”

“I lost my place as an apprentice before we were sent here,” Reeds said, voice flat and expressionless. “But we did come here because of the legend.”

“So why send you? Wouldn’t a fully trained medicine man be more appropriate?”

“You question is fair, Mr. Harper.” Reeds turned far enough in his saddle to look directly at Roy. “Before I answer, will you answer one question of mine?”

“So far as I can, sure.”

“How certain are you that your Orphanfree is taking a hand in this?”

It was a good question and one he didn’t have a solid answer for. His instincts told him General Oldfathers was tied to things somehow but he couldn’t put that certainty into words. Finally Roy asked, “Have you ever been to war?”

“I have. My brother and I fought against the neighboring tribes many times, and the Columbians once.”

“Well, I don’t know how it was for you. I don’t know how it was or is for anyone outside the 43rd.” Roy found himself absently drumming his fingers on his saddle and forced himself to stop. “But in my experience people who haven’t been to war celebrate what is done. People who have been celebrate surviving what was done to them.”

Reeds nodded once. “There is truth to that among the Sanna as well.”

“And when I was on campaign we looked forward to things being over.”

“That was also true for us.”

“But it’s not true for Oldfathers,” Roy said. “He vanished before the Final Truce with half a company of loyalists and he was never caught. He took a reliquary’s worth of powerful relics and weapons with him.” The overcast sky flickered once, then moments later a dim rumble reached their ears as if the skies themselves disapproved.

“So you believe your general still seeks to fight a war you wish was over,” Reeds mused.

“And the power of a legend, especially a legend about warring brothers? That is a weapon that he would not ignore. Nor is it one I can leave in his hands.” Roy checked positions once more. Nothing had changed. “So tell me. Can you and Marshall take the Blythe’s places and deny Oldfathers the chance to manipulate Yose and Mete? It’s the easiest solution I can think of.”

“I’m afraid you’ve gravely misunderstood what is unfolding here, Mr. Harper,” Reeds said. “The legend of Yose and Mete offers little power to use. Rather, it is a thing that must be fed. Once a generation the legend must play out again, for the souls of Yose and Mete live on in these rivers and hills. You heard Yose’s heartbeat when you arrived, did you not?”

“You mean…” Roy studied the Sanna man in growing horror, “your people sent you here so you two could fight and kill each other? To pacify the legend?”

“More or less. There was no need for me to finish learning the medicines. I only needed enough to safely climb the mountain. Everything else I know I learned in the years since we came here, as a way to pass the time while we waited for the Brothers to show themselves.” Another flash of light and rumble of thunder punctuated Reeds’ matter of fact reply.

While most of his mind was still thinking about Reeds, Roy’s eyes wandered up to the ridge-line. Something struck him as odd and he couldn’t put his finger on it. Even as he spoke Roy’s eyes were straining to catch the next flash of lightning. “Why do the Sanna care if the legend is pacified? What happens if you ignore it?”

“We don’t know. Some believe it will grow and eventually plague the whole world if it isn’t fed, others offer different but equally dire predictions. We don’t want to find out so we do what must be done.”

Roy was trying to think of a response to that when the next flash of lightning came. The rumble of thunder followed it immediately. That thrust the conversation out of Roy’s mind as he scrambled off his mule.

“Mr. Harper?” Reeds asked. “Is something wrong?”

“Stay here and hold my reins. I need to check on something.” The Sanna man took the offered lead from Roy, who then scrambled up to peak over the ridge some twenty feet further ahead.

“Dust and ashes,” he whispered. “A thunderbird.”

Firespinner Chapter Four – The Guild Agenda

Pervious Chapter

“I’ll be honest, Mr. Harper, the Woodsmen’s Guild isn’t happy with how Mr. Grunwald has handled this.” Hanna O’Hara had a face well suited to showing that displeasure. In spite of being slightly shorter than Roy she still contrived to look down her nose at him. And an impressive nose it was. Sharp and patrician, it blended well with the rest of her features. Not even her two long braids and quite feminine blouse softened her overall stern impression.

“I take it you expected to be in charge of this little expedition?” Roy asked.

O’Hara laughed an unconvincing little laugh. “No. We expected Mr. Grunwald to take the lead, as he is both an expert on the local woods and a representative of the Guild. You are neither.”

“Very true.”

“However Mr. Grunwald has flatly refused our request that he take charge of the situation.” The purse of her lips spoke volumes about O’Hara’s opinions on that. “I understand you didn’t originally want to take part in this business at all.”

“Correct.”

“In which case, whether it was my original goal or not, I think it best if I took the leadership role in-“

“No.” Her indignation at being interrupted was priceless, satisfying and not at all helpful. Roy waved a hand around at the luxurious, hickory paneled room they were seated in on the second floor of the Guildhouse. “I understand why the Woodsmen’s Guild would need to protect its reputation and investments in Yellowstone. But the fact is, I am your best bet to do both of those things.”

If Roy thought O’Hara was displeased before, she moved to a whole new level after hearing that. “You think you know the Guild’s interests better than Mr. Grunwald? Or myself?”

“Not at all.”

“And you certainly do not know the land better than someone who’s worked it for two years, as Mr. Grunwald has.”

“Correct. Are you familiar with his service?”

The rapid change in topic was supposed to unsettle her but to Roy’s surprise she answered without missing a beat. “Enlisted in ’60 as a Private, assigned to D Company, 43rd Columbian Infantry Regiment. Fought in every action that unit took part in from Mishawaka to Palmyra. Discharged as a Corporal after the Battle of Five Ridges and the Final Truce in ’64.”

Not the most thorough summary but still more than Roy had expected. “Grunt’s role in the 43rd was on the skirmishing line. Scouting and reporting back was what he did.” Roy rested his hands over his stomach and leaned back in his chair. “And he made those reports to me.”

“Are you suggesting the only possible relationship that can exist between the two of you is officer and soldier?”

“Don’t presume to know anything about how old soldiers relate to each other Ms. O’Hara. But no, we could find any number of other command dynamics for field work, with time.” Roy let an edge into his voice. “Which we don’t have.”

“You’re saying the Guild’ first choice for leader is going to look to you for orders by dint of old habits you don’t have time to undo. So you might as well just lead the whole thing anyway.” She steepled her fingers and glared at him. “So why shouldn’t their second choice take over?”

Roy gently pulled his bone necklace off and set it down on the desk between them, just beside the small, potted willow tree. “Because I killed a wendigo during the Summer of Snow.”

O’Hara tentatively reached out for the long, finger bone beads of the necklace. “This could be anyth-“

She stopped as her fingers rested on the necklace. Roy raised an eyebrow in challenge. After a moment’s silence O’Hara swallowed hard and drew her hand back. He took the beads back and wound them back around his neck in their customary double loop. “Ms. O’Hara, I don’t know this mountain, but I know how to get the most out of people who do. I don’t know the legend of the Brothers, but I’ve fought legends before. I know how terrifying their power is, I know that they can still be killed, and better yet, I know why they can die. I know how often legends are untrue and I know that sometimes the truth of a legend is less important than its power. I’ve lived all of it before, and more than once. You have a druid, an expert in magic, trying to wield a legend against you. You need me.”

“Not a bad bit of boasting. But can you back it up?” It was a good bluff, made with a clear expression and steady voice. But O’Hara’s eyes were fixed on the necklace.

“Why don’t we make a little demonstration.” Roy leaned back in his chair, rested one ankle on the other knee and folded his hands in front of him. “Make me leave the room.”

She blinked. “I’m sorry?”

“I’m no druid or warlock,” Roy said, “But I can see that you’ve set a number of wards in this office for your own protection. Surely they’re enough to get me to leave, if you really think you’re fit to-“

He gave O’Hara credit for taking the initiative. The legs of his chair spasmed in an attempt to pitch him backwards towards the door, a simple, harmless magical trap. A logical opening to a game with someone you hoped to keep around to work for you. Logical enough to be predictable.

As soon as he felt the chair flex Roy tapped his necklace, activating the charm he’d laid down while putting the beads back on, freezing the chair to the ground in blocks of ice. Every battle of spells was founded on preparation and Roy knew he was a step or three behind on that score, so he was willing to play a few tricks to catch up. He snapped his fingers and small jets of flame flew from his cufflinks into the wards hidden in the rosettes engrave on the corner of the desk. The fire power hidden there burst free in a flash of light and smoke.

O’Hara clapped her hands and the willow on her desk stretched its branches up and out, roots cracking through the pot and grasping greedily. He hadn’t expected her to play such a valuable card so easily but he’d picked a counter already. He slammed his iron dagger into the desk by its roots, between himself and the tree, and the willow recoiled in fear.

A panel on the front of the desk popped open, revealing a three crystal sulfurite array that belched fire at him. Roy glanced at the flames.

Demanded they stop.

And smiled.

He held his hands to the sheet of fire that hung like a hungry curtain, as if he was just warming them by a campfire. “That’s very pleasant, Ms. O’Hara. Anything else?”

Her eyes boggled. “What kind of ward is that?”

“It’s not.” Roy took a moment to study the vulcanic spells inside the desk. It looked like the central crystals fueled the wards he’d destroyed on the desk corners, the lamp on one corner of the writing surface and probably fed magic to the willow somehow, too. When it popped open the magic channels shifted course and discharged everything forward instead. He pushed the panel half closed with one toe then fed the flames through the crack and back into the sulfurite within. “I’m a dolmen burner. When I ask, fire answers.”

O’Hara watched the process, wary. “I’m not familiar with that term.”

“We’re the scrawny, bad tempered cousins to dolmen breakers like Grunt.” Roy closed up the panel the rest of the way and removed his necklace again. A quick rap of the beads to the side of the chair broke the charm and the ice vanished as fast as it appeared. “We’re not strong or tough like they are but we can sense the magic of fire and manipulate it. To an extent.”

O’Hara dug around under her desk for a moment then came up with a new pot for her willow. It wriggled in discomfort as she coaxed it into the container. “I’ll admit I’m impressed, even if it is just an extent.”

Roy allowed a small smile. “Then I hope you’ll-“

“But that demonstration, while impressive, doesn’t answer any of the questions I have.”

“Such as?”

She stood to scoop the soil off of her desk and dumped it into the pot, then started packing the willow’s roots down. “Such as why you’re here.” A quick look cut off Roy’s objection. “I know it’s a job and an old friend asked you to come. But Roy Harper is one of the best known mercenary firespinners in Winchester County. You could go anywhere in Winchester, Pyrenees or Death Valley Counties and not find another person with a reputation like yours, whether you deserve it or not. So why are you charging the Guild a pittance of a fee?”

“A hundred silver marks is not exactly cheap, Miss O’Hara.”

“But any average firespinner could charge twice that. The Reeds brothers are taking two hundred and fifty apiece. You could take a fee equal to both of theirs and no one would question it.” She shook her hands off and sat back down. “So what do you get out of this? And don’t say it’s for an old friend. I know what you charged your pal Van Der Klien during the Summer of Snow.”

Roy scowled, he hadn’t expected the Woodsmen’s Guild to know that much about his activities. “What do I get out of this? Well, if by some black curse it turns out we are dealing with Hezekiah Oldfathers, and by some unsought miracle we beat him, I expect to walk away with all his instruments of the craft.”

O’Hara huffed a short laugh. “You just said you weren’t a druid.”

“You’ve clearly learned the craft to an extent,” Roy said, gesturing to the willow. “But did you train under a true initiate of the Stone Circle?”

“No, by the time I was old enough to start my studies the Lakeshire War was already well underway and Morainhenge wasn’t taking new students. Not from outside of Lakeshire County, anyways.” She shrugged. “Even if it was, the Stone Circle was always a gentlemen’s club.”

Roy smiled a wistful little smile. “Yes, I used to be like that.”

“Oh? How’s that?”

“Bitter. The whole war was because of the druids, you know,” Roy said, his mind drifting back through the years. “Because we hated them. Because we thought they horded the purest magic for themselves in those dolmens of theirs. Do you remember the things the papers said, back when Columbia took sides with Vulcanus?”

“I was born here in Pyrenees County,” she said. “It was just a territory at the time, hadn’t gotten its charter as a county yet, so they didn’t hold recruiting drives in these parts. I don’t remember much of what was said in the papers, I was too young to take an interest.”

“No drives? That’s surprising, I met at least two people from Winchester when I was in the Regulars and it wasn’t chartered yet, either.” Roy stretched his mind back. “Fat Stu was from Leondale, died at Strickland Marsh, and old Drake was from Allentown. Lost him at Briarheart Ridge.”

O’Hara shrugged. “You could cross from Winchester or Pyrenees to Bancroft County and enlist there. But the recruiters didn’t come to us.”

“Well. We all hated those smug, sanctimonious, condescending druids. Funny, that, considering we’d never met one. Fat Stu died years before he’d get the chance.” Roy laughed a humorless laugh. “I first saw a druid in action at Coal Creek, right after we crossed the border into Lakeshire County. Fifty men with the same face, all happy to kill you stone dead but they just turned to smoke if you cut them back. A literal one man army.”

“I’ve heard of that trick,” O’Hara said, looking confused. “But I thought it was impractical for things like fighting.”

“Not for a druid,” Roy said. “They truly are a different breed, those Knights of the Stone Circle. The Smoke Company was just the start. Every unit we faced in Lakeshire had at least one druid in it, raising trees and spying on us through bushes. But the worst of it was the Battle of Five Ridges.”

“That was the end, wasn’t it?”

“Probably looked that way from the outside and it was close enough as to make no difference.” He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “It was the end for the 43rd, at least. I never saw anything that horrible in my life, before or since. Not even in the charnel houses of Allentown. One minute we were working up the ridge line. The next minute the Folger brothers were gone.”

“What happened to them?”

“Closest brothers I ever met. Marched halfway up the country together, side by side in the line of battle, watching each other’s backs all the way.” Roy shook his head. “We were rounding the second switchback and watching the top of the ridge for hostiles when they just drew swords and killed each other. Never found out the why or how of that one but every couple of minutes it would happen again, somewhere up or down the line.”

“You were killing each other?” O’Hara put a hand over her mouth. “That’s horrible.”

“That was a distraction, a minor hex meant to break morale and sow dissent in the ranks, make it impossible to work together.” Roy passed a hand over his eyes, working to keep his mind in the here and now. Those days were long since passed. “Terrifying at the time but nothing compared to what some of the other units faced on other Ridges. The vines on Ivybrook Ridge strangled the Eighth Cavalry, horses and all. On Pinecrest Ridge the 28th Infantry ran into an honest to goodness hero who killed most of their A and C companies single handed. And all that was before the main body of druids awoke the forest and sent the trees at us, hundreds strong. They wiped the 43rd off Briarcrest like it was nothing. Took the 28th, the 17th and about a dozen others along for the ride. It took a week for the Regulars to effect the breach at Slatetop Ridge, flank the Lakeshire boys and push them back to Palmyra proper and by the time they did it we’d lost three divisions.”

“And General Oldfathers led the rites to awaken the trees?”

“I don’t know, they didn’t invite us to watch. But he was the one who commanded them in battle. A whole division of trees answering to one man. Could you do that?”

O’Hara blanched. “No one can. You must have missed the other druids handling the trees in all the chaos. Not even a true master of the craft can command more than three, perhaps four trees at a time.”

“There was a man in the 43rd who would have agreed with you.” He laughed. “Roy Harper was his name. He didn’t believe any of that foolishness about how the Knights of the Stone Circle stretched back in an unbroken line to Arthur Phoenixborn and his retainers. Didn’t think there were truly any magics so powerful they mustn’t pass into the hands of the unworthy. Didn’t believe magic had a living will and that it would test you, sift you like flour and destroy even the least of impurities. But that man died on Briarheart Ridge.”

Roy leaned forward over the desk between himself and O’Hara. “Michelangelo Vulcanii taught that magic was simple. Build a form out of one of the five Noble Metals, fill it with the power of fire and you have a construct. Stack those forms and add more power and you can construct a magical solution to almost any problem you face. Easy, right? But like many legends it’s true but it isn’t the whole truth. Vulcan magic is simple and straightforward because humans are simple, straightforward people. But magic at its heart is neither of those things. It is a trial and a test, it takes the measure of a man and amplifies it, and if that old Roy Harper had ever found any of the secrets the druids showed him at the Five Ridges he would have failed that test and turned himself and everything he touched into ruin.”

Roy reached out and plucked his dagger out of the desk, then settled back into his chair. “So if Hezekiah Oldfathers is here, and the Lord in Raging Skies favors us enough to let us beat him, then his secrets must pass back to the druids when things are done. I won’t risk them falling into the hands of the unworthy. That is the price of my cooperation.”

O’Hara thought for a minute, then nodded once and said, “I understand. Or, I think I do. And nothing you’ve said sounds like it would go against Guild interests so I suppose we can agree to the terms Mr. Grunwald has offered you along with the addendum you’ve proposed.”

“Good.” Roy ran his handkerchief along the edge of the dagger, checking for imperfections. “And one other thing.”

O’Hara tensed. “Yes?”

“I fought four years of war because Columbia and Vulcanus lied to us about the druids. They never had mountains of sulfurite hidden in their dolmen, they were never planning to sweep into Hancock and crown a new king once Columbian supplies of sulfurite ran low. They never needed any of that when they had the secrets of the Stone Circle at their disposal. If they wanted to destroy us at any moment before we raised an army against them they could have. In exchange we believed the slander, smashed their order and scattered the ashes to the winds.” He looked up from the dagger’s edge. “If those four years taught me one thing it’s that I hate being lied to. I hate fighting for liars even more. And while I hate the idea of fighting Hezekiah Oldfathers if it turns out he’s not here, and you’ve lied to me…”

Roy got up, ignored the twinge in his ribs, and sheathed his dagger. “There will be consequences.”

“I understand.” O’Hara’s tense silence followed him out of the Guild.