Night Train to Hardwick Chapter Eight – Shades of Cold

Previous Chapter

Technically, as a Railway Detective, Roy was able to enter other people’s compartments as needed. He’d only ever done it twice, both times to check on passengers who’d fallen asleep and overstayed their time on a train, so it still felt strange to just let himself into a compartment in use by others, even if they weren’t there. He did his best to ignore the luggage, discarded coats and other signs of habitation. Instead he focused on Jenkins’s ghost, who stood looking out the window and making the whole experience even more surreal.

“You’re sure you want to be here?” He asked. “The girl says you’re just an afterimage, like an echo. So I suppose you’re not really being hurt but still…”

“You’ve changed since we last met.” Roy gave Jenkins’s ghost a curious look. “I suppose it’s been a few years but still…”

The mirroring was uncanny. The shade matched his tone, cadence and even choice of final words. Roy wasn’t sure if it was some kind of ploy or just something intrinsic to the nature of ghosts but he was sure that it wasn’t the kind of behavior Sam Jenkins would have indulged in his life. Once again he wondered if the spirit was partially a projection of his own mind rather than an echo of a man he’d met years ago, during the Summer of Snow.

“Do you remember?” Jenkins asked, unprompted. “When the Browncoat told us he could only fight the cold if we paid him?”

Roy shifted on his feet, uncomfortable. “Yes, I remember.”

“I thought you would tear him apart yourself.” The ghost moved as if it was laughing but to Roy’s horror he just heard a distant wail. “When he refused to leave I started to hate him. I hated myself more when we finally agreed to his price.”

Roy shoved his hands awkwardly into his back pockets. “I felt much the same at the time.”

“There are worse deals to make,” Jenkins whispered. “Many times since I’ve wondered if he was trying to show us we should be careful when we strike a pact. Many times I’ve wondered what happened to him, to ask. Do they still talk about him?”

“From time to time, in the Treaty Lands,” Roy admitted. “I take it you haven’t seen him since Tyson’s Run?”

“Not me, or Tad Heller.”

“Heller’s still kicking?” Roy whistled. “That old man has spirit, I’ll give him that.”

“In the end I convinced him.”

Jenkins abrupt, unprompted subject changes left Roy off balance. “Of?”

“That the Browncoat was untrustworthy. That the price was too high to ask for help of the Strongest Man in the World a second time.” The train car shuddered under Roy’s feet and he found himself anxiously looking about, expecting the specter to give way before the arrival of the single most terrifying human being Roy had met in his life. But the moment passed, the name of power unanswered. If it noticed the momentary disruption Jenkins’ ghost gave no sign of it. “I made the choice to seek another deal. I paid a different price. And I never stopped paying that price until the day I died. Let me do one last thing, free of those shackles once more.”

Roy nodded, starting to see what the ghost was trying to say. “Then let’s see if we can figure out what’s going on here.” He raised his voice a shade. “Are you done over there, Fairchilds?”

After a moment’s pause Brandon appeared in the doorway. “Well?”

“I do have a few questions for the pair of you.” Cassandra joined her brother and they crowded into the compartment. “First of all, we need to assess the situation. Miss Cassandra, you can hear the ghosts even if you can’t see them?”

“A little,” she admitted. “But it’s hard to tell them apart. And I think they’ve started avoiding me since I led the children in the March of Joy.”

“There is something frightful about you,” Jenkins admitted. “As if staying near you will send us somewhere far away. If that makes sense.”

“It doesn’t,” Roy muttered.

“No surprise,” the specter said. “If it helps, I can see the other ghosts.”

“That was going to be my next question,” Roy said. “We need to figure out where the ghosts are concentrated and who, if anyone, on the train may be attracting them before we take any steps to clear up the situation.”

“Is it even necessary to clear it up?” Cassandra asked. “They’re unsettling but not dangerous, at least so far.”

“I’m afraid it is,” Roy said. “To protect the K&O Railway Company’s reputation if nothing else. No one wants to ride a haunted train.”

“Do you think this is some kind of sabotage?” Brandon asked. “An attempt to discredit the rail line by rivals?”

“It’s a possibility,” Roy said. “But I was thinking of the Gulf Locomotion Company that went bankrupt because people wouldn’t ride with them after a passenger died mid flight and haunted the train.”

“That’s a bit different don’t you think?” Cassandra asked.

“Doesn’t matter,” Roy said. “The way the West works, people will jump to conclusions regardless. But ultimately I suspect summoning this many ghosts here is not the easiest way to bankrupt K&O, there must be dozens of easier ways about it. So I find sabotage unlikely.”

Brandon folded his arms with a thoughtful air. “What is your working theory?”

“Someone is forming an army,” Jenkins’ ghost said.

A moment of silence filled the compartment. Roy gave Jenkins a hard look. “What makes you say that?”

“Well, I’m no soldier, that’s certain.” Jenkins leaned his body halfway out the wall and looked about outside the train, his voice still somehow echoing through the compartment. “But the ghosts out here certainly look like an army.”

Roy shifted uneasily. “They’re in a formation? Banners? Officers?”

“The first and last, though no banners,” Jenkins confirmed. “Although not all of ’em have uniforms the leaders definitely do. And there’s the numbers.”

“How many ghosts are out there?” Cassandra asked, a slight quaver entering her voice.

“At least a couple hundred of them and it looks like there’s more coming,” the specter said.

“Dust and ashes,” Roy muttered, ignoring the obvious discomfort of the Fairchilds. “Right, then the leader is either at the front or back of the train. Jenkins, search for a ghost who could command this army in those places. We’ll look for a human capable of it. Let’s get moving.”

“Why there?” Cassandra asked as she got to her feet.

“If it’s an army it has a front and back line. The quiet parts are ahead of the front line and in the back lines, everything else is busy and confusing. Generals are usually in the back line, where it’s quiet.” Roy hesitate, thoughts of Briarheart Ridge flicking through his mind. “Most of the time. There are no ghost sightings in the locomotive or the caboose, so the back line of this army is in one of those two places.”

He opened the door of the compartment and started to step out into the hall only to stop short when he nearly ran over the conductor, who was in the process of lifting his hand to knock on the door. “Oh! Mr. Harper, there you are. I’ve been looking for you.”

“What’s the matter?” Roy demanded. “Beyond the obvious.”

“Well…” He gestured helplessly towards the front of the train. “We can all see them now.”

Roy took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Of course. Well, you and I will head to the front, Fairchilds to the rear.”

“What are we doing?” The conductor asked, confused.

“I’ll explain along the way.”

Night Train to Hardwick Chapter Seven – Samuel Jenkins

Previous Chapter

After sharing seventeen years of life with his sister, including almost two of them traveling the Columbian West, Brandon had an intimate understanding of the signs that she was using her magic. He also knew the costs and she’d promised she would only sing the orphans one song with the force of her gift. So when the familiar prickle filled the air a second time annoyance surged through him. Quickly wrapping his sandwich in its napkin he pushed up from his table and hustled two and a half cars toward the rear of the train. As he traveled his annoyance changed to bafflement. The song felt different than any other he’d heard Cassie sing and it lasted less than a minute, barely enough for a verse.

And, by the time he’d gotten back to their compartment car, he realized she wasn’t back in the public cars anymore, the buzz of her magic was coming from their part of the train. As he got back to the door of that compartment he realized Roy Harper’s voice was coming from inside. Suspicious and annoyed, Brandon yanked the the compartment door open and stepped in, mouth open, prepared to yell.

He stopped short when he saw Harper talking to the ghost of a wiry old man in dirty denim clothes and blood covering his front. “Why?” Harper demanded, ignoring Brandon for the moment. “Why would you want to just roll over and die?”

“It was time,” the ghost said, its voice soft and echoing as if from a great distance. “You’ll understand when your time comes. I could ask the same – why did you summon me, Roy?”

“We were hoping you could help us understand the situation,” Cassandra said. She was seated beyond Harper, holding a strange bundle of sticks – bones – and leather in her lap. She gave Brandon a meaningful look and motioned him in the door before continuing. “I admit you were not who we were expecting but we’d hoped you could help us understand what is happening here.”

“No,” Harper cut in. “We’re not keeping Jenkins here. You were supposed to bring Colbert, so send the poor man on and try for the captain again.”

“I don’t mind, Roy,” Jenkins’ ghost said. “Now that I’m dead I find the living less taxing than before.”

“And I’d prefer you not press Cassandra’s talents, Mr. Harper,” Brandon said, his annoyance bubbling up again.

“I don’t mind Brandon,” Cassie said, her fingers worrying at the objects in her hand. “He’s right, there is something here we need to be involved in. I’m sure of it.”

Brandon’s jaw worked back and forth as he tried to resolve the conflicting impulses. Finally he glared at Roy and said, “May we have a moment alone, Mr. Harper?”

Harper glanced at the ghost then back at Brandon. “What about him? I can’t very well take a visible ghost into public right now, can I?”

“I’ll meet you in the next compartment,” Jenkins’ ghost said. “It’s empty at the moment.”

Harper gave it a frustrated look. “Sam.”

“It’s fine, Roy. I’d like to do one more worthwhile thing before I’m gone.” The ghost sank into the seat behind it and vanished.

Harper made a frustrated sound in the back of his throat. Cassie raised an eyebrow and asked, “What’s the difference between this man and your Captain? You were all soldiers, weren’t you?”

“No,” Harper turned the word into a sigh. “Sam Jenkins never took an oath or marched in the Regulars. He’s lived out West his whole life. Deserved better than he got.”

“Don’t we all?” Brandon muttered as Harper moved past him to the door.

Harper hesitated and glanced over his shoulder. “No. I, for one, already have far more than is just.”

Once Harper was gone Brandon sat down, pulled his red kerchief from a pocket and held it in his lap. “What can you see, Cassie?”

“You’re holding your red kerchief. Brandon, it wasn’t even-”

Where am I holding it?”

“In your lap!” She threw her hands up in frustration. “Brandon, I’m fine.”

“Cassie,” he said, drawing deeply on well developed patience. “You nearly sang yourself blind just two weeks ago.”

“And my sight came back in time, just like it always-”

“Our father’s doesn’t return anymore. Cassie, there is a price for your gift.”

His sister took a deep breath, clearly straining her own patience. “Brandon. My eyes are fine now. Mr. Harper lent me an -” she glanced down at the fistful of detritus in her hand “- admittedly somewhat distasteful relic of the local people that assisted the song. The world is a little blurry, like it always is after a short song. That’s all.”

Brandon frowned, reached out and took the bones – horns? – and rolled them in his hand. They seemed unremarkable. “What is it?”

“Pieces of some kind of spirit trap.” She held up a handful of leather strings. “This used to hold it all together. You can’t hear it, but when the antlers and strings are near each other they… wail? But there is a tune to it. I was able to draw a song from it to call a ghost known to Mr. Harper.”

Brandon handed the pieces of debris back. “That’s fascinating. Why does he have such a thing?”

“Apparently he’s safeguarding it until it can be stored somewhere more secure.” She wrapped them in her handkerchief and slipped them into a pocket. “We were expecting the ghost Mr. Harper first saw in the orphan car.”

“And instead you got this Samuel Jenkins?”

“That’s correct.”

“Who is he?”

She tied the bundle closed with a helpless shrug. “I haven’t the faintest idea.”

Night Train to Hardwick Chapter Six – Brazen Joy

Previous Chapter

It turned out people were seeing ghosts all over the train. Once he retrieved his amulet from Oliver, who returned it with only a touch of reluctance, Roy went up and down the length of the train and found at least one person who had seen ghost in all six passenger cars, though not in the locomotive or caboose. The crew seemed to be exempt from the hauntings so far, recent deaths among them or no. However both the conductor and the porters admitted they were seeing people talking to empty air with growing frequency.

Roy himself didn’t see Colbert again, or any ghosts at all.

As he worked his way forward through the trained after ninety minutes of fruitless talking he found himself no closer to understanding what was going on than he had when he started. There weren’t any through lines among the people who admitted to seeing ghosts in terms of age, place of origin or kind of ghost haunting them. But the mood in the train was shifting from the bored acceptance of most travelers to quietly repressed panic and that worried him. Panicked passengers were a danger to themselves and others.

He was expecting to find the orphan car to be in the worst mood of them all, given their circumstances and likelihood of being haunted. Instead he walked into a wall of noise.

The children were singing and clapping along with some kind of high spirited marching song with a steady cadence and simple tune, well suited to the untrained voices of the young or soldiers on the march. As Roy passed between the rows of orphans the sound took up residence in his breastbone, ringing through his body with a joyous, coppery tone. At the far end of the car he finally spotted the source of the sound. Cassandra Fairchild sat on a bench there with a young girl on her lap, leading the song as the child laughed and clapped wildly.

For a moment irrational excitement surged through Roy, carried on a wave of light, airy magic. Then his own fiery reserves roared forth in response. The rush of joy and anger warred for a moment before Roy’s iron hand of discipline, built over years, clamped down on both and returned them to their places. With joy and anger both quietly bubbling in the back of his mind Roy had a moment to just appreciate the music and its results. Fear was swept out of the car, driven by the bronze blade of rhythm and song. Thirty children, theoretically the most fearful and vulnerable people on the train, had become a bastion against the ghosts. He waited for a moment, listening but not joining with the song.

Once it was finished and the children had dissolved into laughing and excited discussion Roy approached and put a hand on Cassandra’s shoulder. “A moment of your time, Ms. Cassandra?”

She looked up in momentary surprise, her eyes wide, deep blue pools filled with the sparkling power of the storm. Then they focused on him and she frowned. “Will it take long? The children are restless.”

Roy gestured around the cabin, rapidly shifting from a gleeful energy to a sleepy contentment. “You seem to have worn them out.”

The Hearth Keeper, who was seated in the row in front, turned hallway around and said, “Go on, Cassie, he’s right. I think I can manage them like this, I already have for the last two weeks!”

The young woman deliberated for a moment then sighed and carefully shifted the girl out of her lap and got her settled on the bench. Even this child was quickly drifting off to dreamland. A moment later they were quickly moving towards the front of the train. An odd air settled around Cassandra, a distance that Roy couldn’t quite parse. He realized that Brandon wasn’t there as a buffer between them and he wasn’t entirely sure what direction to take with the conversation. Brandon had made an agreement and Cassandra had theoretically overheard it, but she hadn’t shared in it directly.

“Allow me to congratulate you, Ms. Cassandra,” he said as a way to make conversation.

“On?” There was a surprising edge to the question.

“Well… on setting up a stronghold in the center of the train,” Roy said, a bit taken aback. “I’m sure the children appreciate it if nothing else.”

“Oh… yes, I see.” She deflated a bit, whatever nerve Roy had touched apparently salved and the crackling energy leftover from her song quickly dissipating into the atmosphere. Her presence in the room diminished as well. “So why did you ask me to leave them?”

“Because I hope you can help me ensure their safety – at least to the extent we can at two hundred feet.” His gaze swept over their current car as they passed through it. It was a normal car, not set aside for orphans, and the passengers were the usual mix of middle class individuals with the occasional family mixed in, all moving to parts unknown. But even here there was an undercurrent of tension he could pick up on.

“And what could I do toward that end?” Cassandra asked.

Roy held up a finger, forestalling the conversation, unsure if anyone in the cabin was related to the ghost plague. But there was no indication that anyone gave them a second thought. Nevertheless, only once they cleared the passageway between cars and he confirmed the corridor was empty did he answer her question.

“I had a thought, just now,” he said, “and I hoped you could give me your thoughts on it.”

“Go on.” She seemed a bit more open to the discussion now. Perhaps she was just nervous in front of the crowd.

“Your brother tells me ghosts are tied to people via some emotional bond.”

“Simplistic but accurate,” she said with a smile. “Brandon’s forte.”

“Where is he, by the way?”

“He turned peckish ten minutes or so ago and went to the dining car for a sandwich. The yew shares its power with him but he is also the soil it draws nourishment from. If he is hungry his power wanes.” Another trip between cars halted the conversation for a moment. She resumed as he held the door to their car open for her. “But to your question, yes, some part of a person’s dying thoughts can shape a spell that becomes what’s called a ghost. The feelings and direction of a person’s thoughts molds a ghost in that sense, forming a sort of magical echo of those moments that lives on after them.”

Roy opened the door to their compartment as he mulled that over. “Does the feelings of the person on the other end have any impact on it?”

Cassandra swept into the compartment, a contemplative look on her face. “Perhaps. But not much of one, I would think. Places and objects can be haunted just as easily as people and clearly they do not have feelings as you and I do, yet those ghosts are as fully formed as those that haunt people. But perhaps a haunted person tints the ghost, like a colored film over a lantern would tint the light? I don’t know as anyone has ever studied it, or how you would do it without becoming a monster.”

Roy frowned, watching as the young woman’s hair drifted slowly behind her, his mind absently mulling over other approaches to the problem. “So feelings direct the ghost?”

“The feelings of a long dead person, certainly,” she mused, turning to regard him with a skeptical look. “Why?”

“You just turned thirty or forty frightened orphans into the happiest people on the train.” A deep blush spread over cheeks and up to her bangs, which were just now settling into place. Roy’s frown deepened. “Couldn’t you change the mood of the ghosts just as easily? Redirect them elsewhere?”

“It’s not clear if ghosts have feelings of their own or if they’re just an echo of the dead.” She looked more and more flustered for some reason. “As I said, they’re defined by the people who died when they were created and they’re quite static. You can overwhelm them and break them, but it’s incredibly difficult. Or…”

She trailed off, her gaze unfocusing and her attention drifting. After a moment Roy decided to prompt her. “Did you hear something, Miss Cassandra?”

“No. I was just thinking of whether you could swamp their feelings…”

He cocked his head, trying to parse that. “I don’t understand.”

“Certain sounds naturally cancel each other. Our feelings aren’t quite the same, but you can drown them in other emotions…” She shook her head, her loose hair drifting in a nimbus around her. “But as far as I know its never been tried. I have no notion whether it would work or not.”

As he watched her hair settle into place inspiration struck. “What if you channeled your magic through something we know does effect ghosts?”

“Again, it’s never been tried so…”

“Let’s try an experiment.” Her eyes widened as he crossed over to her and flinched away as he reached up over her shoulder to collect his saddlebags. She darted over to the other side of the compartment, looking a bit indignant for some reason. But it probably wasn’t important so he just retrieved the bundle from the pouches and unwrapped it. “This is an old Sana artifact called a nawonota.”

The indignation drained from her face when he fully unwrapped the old bits of leather and ivory for her inspection and ghostly air whipped her hair about her face. “What is that sound?”

“I’m afraid I don’t hear anything,” Roy admitted.

“Nothing good was in there.”

“Don’t I know it. But the ghost that was here had most of its power dispersed.” He held the pieces out to Cassandra. “Perhaps you can repurpose the magic that’s left to influence the ghosts in some way?”

She looked at the fragments of the relic doubtfully. “That’s one very unsavory artifact, Mr. Harper. I don’t know if I can help you with it or not.”

Roy sighed. “It was only a thought. I’d hoped the old ghosts atunement to the power of the air might make it easier to use, your being a stone singer. But-”

He actually saw the inspiration strike. “An interesting thought, Mr. Harper. There is a sort of melody to it.” She took the pieces from him, her fingers brushing his with an electric snap. “I might have something at that. But I think I’d need your help with the experiment…”

Roy smiled and gestured for her to continue. “By all means.”

Night Train to Hardwick Chapter Five – Echoes of Treason

Previous Chapter

From Brandon’s vantage point Roy Harper was more and more of a chimera. He was remarkably graceless, rough around the edges and brusk. Yet he knew a remarkable amount about druids and their power, organization and rituals. But his attitude and the obvious gaps in his knowledge suggested he, himself, had never studied at any of the Great Henges.

“Oaths upon the graves of the Founding Knights are only for druids ourselves,” Brandon said, watching Harper carefully to gauge his reaction. “I could bind myself with one but only to another druid and Cassandra will be totally exempt from any such oath. I wouldn’t mind swearing such an oath but I don’t know as it would do much unless you yourself are sworn to the Stone Circle. I suppose I could swear on the dolmen themselves, if you like. It’s the pledge we generally use with the people of Avalon.”

“That’s acceptable,” Harper said, his expression twitching slightly but not in a way Brandon could interpret.

Brandon raised his right hand and said, “I am Brandon Fairchild, and I swear upon the dolmen of Stonehenge to follow your direction for this train flight and answer all your questions truthfully, to the extent my other oaths allow.” He let his hand fall and waited for Harper to nod in acknowledgment. “Now what would you like to know, Mr. Harper?”

“Let’s get out of this corridor if you don’t mind.” He gestured forward. “The dining car is just forward, and I could use some coffee to keep me on my feet if this goes on any longer. Will you need to let your sister know?”

“I’m sure she heard.”

It was a relatively short walk to reach the dining car, which was much like the public cars in that it had a corridor running between rows of benches except walls divided them into pairs of two in narrow booths, with an equally narrow table between them. Eating in an airborne dining car was an adventure in and of itself, but at least most trains served reasonably neat food. Soup, for example, never made the menu. An attendant took their orders – coffee for Harper and tea for Brandon – then left them to their relative privacy.

“Now then,” Roy said, leaning back on his side of the table, folding his arms over his chest. “Tell me, what is your druidic specialty? I should warn you now, if it involves burning incense in any way I don’t want you using it. Even if you use one of the handful of incenses that aren’t toxic I don’t want rumors that that kind of thing is allowed on sky trains circulating. Most people can’t tell the difference.”

“Fortunately, smoke is not the root of my power. I cultivate the yew.” Brandon held up his hand and flexed. The symbiotic plant living within him surged through his body, standing out in visible ropes under his skin. A moment later layers of bark broke through on the back of his hand. Brandon relaxed and the traces of yew influence vanished. “As you’ve already guessed, it makes me much stronger than the average man. It also makes me very difficult to hurt and I can manipulate yew wood, living or dead, with much greater ease than my peers. I know a few protective charms as well, but we’re not likely to need protection from wild trees up here.”

“Unlikely,” Harper conceded. “What about ghosts? Any defenses against them?”

“I’m afraid I don’t know much beyond the general theories of ghosts,” Brandon admitted. “We don’t engage much with the specifics, we simply study a few active countermeasures that allow us to ward them off using incense. Of course, even if you were willing to allow the use of it in this case, I’m afraid I don’t have any on hand right now.”

“Not much call for it, I presume?”

“No. If it comes down to it Cassie can deal with a ghost or two, although it’s something I’d prefer to avoid.” Brandon drummed his fingers for a moment. “Ghosts always haunt something they had a strong emotional connection to in life, be it person, place or thing. From what you’ve said in passing I take it the ghost people are seeing is someone you knew during Columbia’s civil war?”

“My company captain, in fact.”

“You must have been close.”

“We weren’t on good terms at all,” Harper admitted with a moment’s hesitation. “I was surprised to learn he was haunting me. If you know the theory of ghosts, do you know why a large number of them would gather in one place?”

Brandon considered that for a moment. “It’s difficult to say. Traumatic death is more likely to create a ghost than a peaceful death, so orphanages tend to see more of them than most. Especially since the children can see them where most people outside the haunting victim cannot.”

“But what if a large number of them arrive from another place?”

The sharp expression Brandon had noticed on first meeting Harper had made a return. “Are you referring to anything specific, Mr. Harper?”

“Colbert’s ghost visited me and claims there are other ghosts haunting this train, including some from a village we flew over.” Harper stopped to take a fortifying gulp of coffee. “Tell me, is that even remotely possible?”

“I… can’t be sure, one way or another.” Brandon considered what he knew. “It certainly wouldn’t be accidental. But if someone deliberately manipulated an emotional thread? Perhaps. Cassie might know more.”

Harper looked like he was about to say something else when he spotted something coming from the other direction. Brandon swiveled to see the conductor moving through the dining car, pausing to greet the smattering of other passengers still occupying it in the late evening. When he reached them he nodded to both men. “Everything to your satisfaction, gentlemen? I understand there was some trouble earlier.”

“Some,” Harper said. “Nothing terribly out of order, some of the orphans were jumping at ghosts. There’s something amiss on the train but it may just be a matter of flying over an old Sanna graveyard. I’m looking into it but I don’t think there’s a danger to the train just yet.”

The conductor absently scratched at his beard, his jaw working in contemplation. “Well, that is as it may be,” he finally said. “Let me know if you need my assistance with anything specific, or if there’s something the crew should be aware of.”

“Certainly.” The conductor turned to go when Harper added, “Do you know the crew well?”

The other man paused, looking a bit startled. “Well enough?”

“Have any of them lost family recently?”

He put a finger to his nose in an almost comical display of deliberate thought. “I think the day shift’s engineering captain recently lost his wife to consumption. Do you want me to check?”

“No, that’s fine. Thank you.”

Harper watched him leave long enough to confirm he was out of ear shot before he leaned back against the back of the booth and stared into his coffee. “Not good.”

“You’ve learned something important, I take it.”

“The Captain’s ghost mentioned that death specifically,” Harper said. “I was hoping he was making things up to unsettle me.”

Brandon took a sip of his tea, watching Harper and trying to parse what was bothering him. “The two of you clearly had a very interesting relationship. Care to elaborate on it?”

With a long gulp Harper emptied his coffee mug. “How much do you know about the Lakeshire War in Avalon, Mr. Fairchild?”

“We heard some news from the druids in Morainhenge, of course, but the Henges themselves are not entirely trusting of each other so it was given due skepticism.” Brandon shrugged. “Of course there are tools built into the Stone Circles to mitigate dishonesty, as you clearly know, but they really only work well in person. Binding oaths don’t do much in letters. However even if we took everything they said at face value we still wouldn’t know much.”

“Do you have any notion of how things were on the Columbian side?”

“Very little,” Brandon admitted. “Just what we read in the papers, which I have no doubt was entirely accurate and not distorted to favor or demonize any person or side of the conflict.”

Harper shared a sardonic grin with him. “No doubt, although I never saw a newspaperman within a dozen miles of a battlefield myself.”

“This relates to your captain somehow?”

Haper refilled his coffee before answering. “The Columbian regulars have a professional officer corps, you understand,” he said. “The problem was the Lakeshire War forced the Regulars to add tens of thousands of troops a year. There weren’t enough officers to go around. So when we formed new units recruits would elect their sergeants. Sergeants would elect a captain and lieutenant. And there you had it. Instant officers.”

“Elect?” Brandon kept the incredulity from his voice. “That’s an interesting approach.”

“And overall, probably an unwise one.” Harper’s gaze wandering over the dining car and into the past; a thing he’d seen veteran knights do time and again when recounting unfortunate memories. “For the most part companies were led by affable men with little potential as soldiers. Sometimes you got great captains like Trevor Rogers and sometimes you got captains who fooled everyone long enough to get elected but everyone came to hate. Then there were the people who were total incompetents.”

“I take it you got the latter.”

“We got the last two in one package.”

Brandon nodded slowly. “That must have been… difficult.”

“Too often it was fatal.” Harper turned morose. “We were nearly wiped out at Willow Falls because we got flanked and Captain Colbert refused to fall back and merge with the rest of the line. We lost five men we shouldn’t have.”

There was a ring in his voice that, though quiet, unsettled Brandon to the point his stomach churned and his muscles twitched. He’d heard it before, from veteran knights speaking of long ago quests, a sense of emptiness that provoked both fear and contempt. With practiced ease he put both sensations down. “Do you think your hatred of him is what ties you together?”

“In a way.” Harper had started the long trip back to the present. “We went up against a druid, dug in on Briarheart Ridge, and he raised the forest against us.”

Brandon nodded. “And your captain refused to give up the ground.”

“We didn’t have the numbers or the equipment to stop them but he insisted we stay there.” Harper’s smile was deeply unsettling, regretful but resigned. “I was second in command of the company so I was there, at the forward observation post when we saw the trees coming. Nothing I said to him could change his mind. So I removed him from command. I have no proof but given the situation I’m certain that’s when we were tied together.”

“I see.” Brandon was suddenly uncomfortable and turned to look out the window. But the sky was cloudy and the moon and stars hidden, so there was nothing to see. “Put in that light, I suppose I’d be more surprised if the man wasn’t haunting you.”

“I can’t be haunted by every man I’ve ever killed,” Harper said with a snort. “Half this train car would be full.”

“Even so,” Brandon said, “you can’t have betrayed the trust of all of them. With your captain you did and in a very stark fashion.”

Harper heaved a sigh. “I suppose you’re right. It doesn’t help with the problem at hand though.”

“The matter of your captain? Or the question of what is attracting the ghosts?”

“Oh. The latter, of course.” Harper shook his head to clear it. “I do find it unlikely Olivia’s parents betrayed and murdered one another nor does she seem capable of doing it to them. So I don’t think your shared emotional tie theory works in their case.”

“Perhaps its something else, then. Did she think they were idiots, as you did your captain?”

“She seemed to think they were quite normal, respectable parents,” Harper said dryly.

“Was there anything about your captain you liked?”

“Not that I can think of,” Harper confessed.

“Then perhaps some other tie binds her parents here and your ghost has simply grabbed hold of that connection and used it to make itself visible to you,” Brandon mused. “The connection between the two of you is very unique.”

“I suppose that’s as likely as anything.” Harper got to his feet. “Let’s see if anyone else is seeing ghosts. Perhaps we can find a common thread.”

“Mr. Harper.” He paused, an eyebrow raised. “Do you regret it?”

The older man didn’t hesitate. “Not at all.”

For a moment Brandon wondered at that. It was entirely possible he’d bound himself and his sister to a deeply disturbed man. But there wasn’t much he could do about it now besides stay vigilant so he finished his tea and followed Harper out of the dining car.

Night Train to Hardwick Chapter Four – Leaders and Followers

Previous Chapter

A nawonota was built for one purpose: To trap ghosts. The pieces of nawonota Roy had in his bag came from one of the most powerful examples ever created. Roy hadn’t considered the possibility that the thing had the power to attract ghosts as well as trap them – the Sanna used them to defend their communities, not as some kind of hunting tool – but at the same time he didn’t know enough about Sanna magic to rule the possibility out, either. So as an experiment he unwrapped the pieces, added his iron dagger to the mix and rewrapped the lot of it.

But while he was tucking everything back into his saddlebags a familiar voice whispered to him, “That’s not why we’re here, Lieutenant Harper. You’ll have to do better than that.”

“Can’t blame a man for trying,” Roy muttered, shoving the bundle into his bag. “I can’t imagine you’ve been brought here because of me, I’d have noticed you haunting me for the last decade. So who did attract you if it wasn’t me or this thing?”

“You know that I’m here because of you, Lieutenant. All of us are, to one extent or another.” The ghost affected a pose as if it was leaning back on the padded couch across from him.

“Us?” Roy gave the ghost a hard look. “There’s more than you?”

Colbert’s face transformed into a noxious smile. “I misspoke”

“Of course.” Less than two minutes speaking to his old Captain and he was already gritting his teeth. “If you’re here because of me why is it I can only see you now?”

“That’s something I can’t tell you. Against the rules.” The ghost looped his innards over an arm and hopped up to his feet. “But if I’m a ghost that is suddenly strong enough for you to see, how many more suddenly reaching this level of strength are there on this train full of orphaned children? And how many normal passengers have ghosts of their own? How many are like your chief engineer, who was widowed recently? How many times will you pass over a village that was nearly wiped out by a mudslide, like you did half an hour ago?”

“A town we passed over? What could possibly reach that far?”

“Rules, Harper.”

Roy rubbed the bridge of his nose, frustrated. In his army days Colbert had been incredibly opaque when asked questions about the unit’s orders and his strategy. Apparently nothing had changed in a decade of death. “Why are you here, Captain? Shouldn’t you be out on Briarheart Ridge?”

“Wouldn’t that be nice?” The ghost drifted over to the window and gazed out. “Looking out on a beautiful green hillside, staring down at the abandoned walls of Palmyra-”

“People still live in that city, Colbert.”

“-but no, whatever power makes ghosts decided I had to seek out my killer, instead.”

Roy snorted. “You’ve been doing a terrible job of it, these last ten years or so.”

“Ten years, six months, two weeks and three days.” A hint of madness seeped into the specter’s eyes. “I counted every coalstoking one of them, unlike you. Ungrateful bastard.”

Roy eyed his saddlebags, weighing them in his hands for just a moment. The iron dagger was his only weapon on hand due to his mistreatment of the sword he’d brought on the trip. He couldn’t get his hands on a new one until Hardwick. But he was pretty sure a dagger, even an iron one, wasn’t a weapon that could do much against a ghost that could pass through walls. He could try reassembling the nawonota but the relic was so powerful and unpredictable, and until very recently tied to magic so malevolent, he thought that it would be more trouble than it was worth. Instead Roy put the bags back on the shelf with a resigned grunt. “Maybe I can make my own ghost catcher.”

“I told you, Harper-”

“I haven’t trusted anything you’ve said in a long time, Colbert. Dust and ashes, you’d have fed all of us to the trees if you’d had your way.” Roy turned and walked out of the compartment with a dismissive motion. “Now are you just here to bother me or was there something specific-”

The compartment behind him was empty, as was the hallway outside it. For a brief moment he felt as if he’d woken from a dream, although he was certain what he’d seen was real. Brandon Fairchild burst out of the compartment where Roy’d left him, his face clouded with worry. “Harper,” he called. “There you are. Olivia says she just saw her parents.”

Roy grimaced. “I think there’s going to be a lot of that going on soon. It sounds like half the people on this train might be haunted. I don’t suppose your parents are dead? Or one of your siblings died at a young age?”

Brandon pulled the door to the compartment closed behind him. “So far as I know there’s no one who would haunt either of us. What’s going on here, Harper?”

“How should I know?”

The Avaloni man offered a helpless shrug. “You knew the name of the first ghost that appeared. You picked a druid and a stone singer out of a crowded train with no hints. You seem like a man who knows quite a bit.”

“The druid part was easy.” Roy grabbed his sleeve near the shoulder. “All you super strong types have those gussets in your shirtsleeves so they don’t rip when you really go to town. And your ‘belt’ is clearly made of some kind of wood. Pretty safe bet that someone like that is a druid. You and your sister talk like you’re experts on stone song, which is pretty much the only craft in Avalon more secretive than the druids, and that means one of you is a singer. The old customs forbid a singer from taking the Oath of the Stone Circle, therefore it’s not you. I just noticed a few things and drew inferences. You seem to know an awful lot about ghosts. How is that, just because of your sister’s talents?”

Brandon shrugged. “It’s something the Stone Circle has dealt with, from time to time, so we’re all trained on the rudiments of the subject. Cassie undoubtedly knows more but she doesn’t share a lot of the details. As you say, the singers are secretive and only share most of their secrets with their students. Although you should know she has very good hearing, on top of the voice. She’s probably listening in on this conversation as well, just so you’re aware.”

“Good ears,” Roy said with a grimace “Yes, I didn’t know that.”

“So.”

Roy spread his hands. “So what?”

“What did the ghost tell you, back in the public car?”

“Nothing relevant.”

Brandon gave Roy a skeptical look. “Nothing? Forgive my saying so, but you don’t seem like a great expert on the subject of ghosts. Would you know what’s relevant?”

That was an awkward question, because it was true that Roy knew very little on the subject of spirits and their capabilities. “Shouldn’t your sister have heard that conversation already?”

The younger man covered his embarrassment pretty well, but not well enough that Roy couldn’t pick up on it. “She could hear the tone, but not the words.”

Roy took a moment to weigh the possibilities. The Fairchilds seemed like a deep potential resource. A fully trained druid would, by default, know more about basic magic theory than he would. The full nature of stone singers was a closely guarded secret but legends surrounding the first know singer – Meryl of Linds, First Advisor to the King – suggested they had some power of spirits in general. Ghosts and spirits were not exactly the same thing, but they were similar enough. While three years of army life and another eight as a mercenary firespinner and railway detective had taught him a lot of practical, day to day magic tricks, dirty fighting techniques and esoteric trivia his knowledge of the grand theories of magic were rudimentary at best and few of them concerned the immaterial.

On the other hand, a druid was a sworn Knight of the Stone Circle. They could be inflexible.

But there were layers to the Stone Circle that Roy was only beginning to understand. Perhaps that was to his advantage. “Alright, Mr. Fairchild,” Roy said. “If you’re really determined to take a hand in this matter we can go over all that. But first, there are some ground rules. If you don’t like them, then you’ll have to step back.”

“Perfectly reasonable.”

“First, whenever possible I make the decisions. I’m the one who answers to the Railway for the lives and property on this train.”

Brandon nodded immediately. “That is a given, no matter what.”

“Glad to hear it. Second, you have to explain whatever druidic magic you have at your disposal up front.” Roy watched Brandon closely as he spoke, gauging his reactions. “Your sister has to explain any part of her abilities that might be relevant. I know that stone singers are rare and secretive, with good reason, but I have to be able to make informed decisions or I can’t agree to allow you to operate on this train.”

This time Brandon was more hesitant. “I suppose that’s reasonable, if I can have your agreement not to disclose anything you learn.”

Roy nodded. The real test came next. “And third, we’ll swear to the these requirements. On Pelinore’s Grave.”

Night Train to Hardwick – Forward

One of my favorite novels of recent memory was Night Train to Rigel, the first of Timothy Zahn’s Quadrail series. The part that appealed to me the most was the sense of claustrophobic danger, trapped on a train full of strangers, working with a person who could stab you in the back at any moment. Most of Zahn’s novels are fast paced adventures with a tinge of mystery and layers of intriguing strategy and Rigel is no exception, but this particular tale has a layer of suspense that few other scifi adventures I’ve read have even approached. 

Ever since I read it I wanted to try my own hand at a story in this kind of contained, tense atmosphere. When I first though of the idea that became Hexwood my idea was to tell the story of a sky train crew and the many mishaps they had crossing the country. My first idea was for the crew to face train robbers. My second idea was… there was no second idea. I had a hard time generating any ideas beyond that. However the idea of some kind of event on a sky train stuck in my mind. 

Fastforward to the end of Firespinner. I casually added a line suggesting Roy was a member of the Packard Railway Detectives, for no other reason than to suggest the existence of an equivalent to the Pinkerton Detective Agencey in Columbia’s world. This wasn’t really meant as a serious story hook, just a random worldbuilding element and an excuse for Roy to easily move around the West on the way from one job to another. 

But almost as soon as I finished the end of that story, the beginning of this one sprang into my mind. I knew I had several new characters I wanted to add to Roy’s life, and a meeting on a train seemed fateful. Destiny isn’t a huge theme in Roy’s life but for this one a touch of providence seemed appropriate. And, with my long standing love for Final Fantasy VI‘s ghost train sequence added to the mix, a fairly simple, self-contained premise built itself in the course of about two days. Fleshing out the details was a lengthy but straightforward process, then it was a matter of writing everything down and refining it. 

I’d always intended to look at Roy through the eyes of other people. But one of the things that made Night Train to Hardwick so appealing to me was the opportunity to look at Roy through the eyes of a druid, the order of magic users he’s accidentally stumbled into membership with. Another, of course, was a chance to try my hand at some of those atmospheric dynamics that made Night Train to Rigel so interesting. But another part was that it gave me a direct, very immediate sequel to Firespinner rather than a followup story that alludes to previous events. 

Now you don’t have to read Firespinner to understand Night Train to Hardwick. But since I am trying to unpack Roy’s character a little more by looking at him through other eyes, it might help you to hear the entire first story, which is told entirely from his perspective and get a firmer sense of his character from that. There’s also a bunch of allusions in here that you’ll appreciate more if you have the greater context of that story. Most of all, you’ll get a broader sense of the world, its history and how it functions from that story. This tale is very much about a single sky train, its passengers, and what happens to them one night as they make the trip from Sanford’s Run to Hardwick. 

So all aboard, dear audience, and present your tickets. The train will be lifting off in seven days! We hope you’ll enjoy your trip. 

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 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.”