Firespinner Chapter Three: The Widow’s Gambit

Previous Chapter

The Argentum Express departed the next morning at eight. But Roy was tempted to wait until mid-morning and catch the local Highland train so he could cut across Pyrenees County to Trapperhorn Station and check on things there. But the local was more of an investment – the H&O Rail Company wouldn’t let him on for free like Argentum would. He was looking over his rail schedules at a table in The Singing Jack and picking at a passable meatloaf sandwich when Reeds asked, “Is the food not to your taste?”

Roy brought his gaze up from the railway tables to find the Sanna man and his brother standing there. “Do you two ever make any coalstoking noise?”

“Silence is a habit that is difficult to cultivate and easy to discard.” Marshall laughed his silent laugh and slapped his brother on the arm. “Marshall, of course, is better at it than I am.”

“Of course. You both prefer to cultivate this habit rather than discard it, I take it.”

“It’s something we’re used to, at least.” The two brothers helped themselves to chairs and Roy began gathering up his papers.

“At least you get to talk for him.” Roy snorted. “My sisters never did me that courtesy.”

Marshall opened his mouth wide and stuck his tongue out. Or what was left of it. The Sanna’s tongue ended in a stump of angry scar tissue, the rest cut out long ago from the looks of things. “It is not a choice on his part, you see,” Reeds said. “But neither is it a burden on mine.”

“Very considerate of you.” Roy piled his plate and sandwich on top of the papers and folded his hands in front of him. “All right, gentlemen, I can tell this isn’t a simple courtesy call. What’s it all about?”

“There is someone we would like you to meet, Mr. Harper.”

The signal was clearly prearranged as the woman at the next table over, who sat down about five minutes before the brothers appeared, stood up and moved over to join them. She was tall, fair skinned, with coils of dark hair barely contained under the black kerchief on her head. That and the black dress she wore were a good clue to her identity. “You must be the Widow Blythe.”

She sat down beside Marshall in a single smooth motion that spoke of grace and self-control. A quick study of her face revealed bags under the eyes and lines around the mouth, small sings of recent grief. But there was resolve there as well. She studied him with equal intensity. “And you’re Roy Harper. The Giant Killer.”

“Only Giant Killer I know was the First King of Avalon. But yeah, I’m Roy Harper.” He studied the woman for a moment longer but he didn’t see anything beyond the ordinary there. She was a strong woman, to be sure, and ordinary strength was more than sufficient for most purposes. It’d won the war, after all.

But the war hadn’t killed Hezekiah Oldfathers.

“I hear you’re wanting to help Grunt with his job.”

Confusion replaced quiet exhaustion. “Who?”

“He means Mr. Grunwald,” Reeds interjected.

“Oh.” The widow’s face returned to normal, or at least tired. “That’s right. I was told I had to convince you in order to come along.”

“Me?” Roy’s eyes narrowed involuntarily. This was Grunt trying to make a point to him, he was sure of that. He wasn’t sure what the point was and didn’t like Grunt using a widow to do it. “Did he mention that I’ve decided not to take this job?”

“Yes, but Mr. Grunwald also said he intended to ask you to serve as leader. And since you were still here in town he’d like your input on whether I stay or go, which I take to mean you have to say I can go before he’ll allow it.”

Roy took a large bite out of his sandwich and chewed, mulling over the situation and trying to figure out what Grunt’s agenda was. Finally he swallowed and said, “You shouldn’t go.”

She scowled. “You didn’t even listen to my story.”

“Don’t have to. Try something for me. Drink every bottle in this saloon dry. You know what you’ll have accomplished?”

“Nothing.”

“Nonsense. You’ll have made every whiskey and beer brewer from here to Hancock City a little richer, and that’s more good than you’ll do traipsing into the mountains after Hezekiah Oldfathers.” He tore another bite out of the sandwich, intending to end the conversation.

But Marshall nudged his brother and Reeds shifted in discomfort. Marshall made pushing motions. Reeds sighed. “Mr. Harper, you should understand that there is more in play here than personal feelings. There are obligations of great import that Mrs. Blythe must fulfill.”

Roy washed his sandwich down with tangy, metallic well water and a disgusted grimace. “Did the trees kill your husband, Mrs. Blythe?”

The blunt question took her aback. “Yes,” she said with a hitch in her voice. “But their real purpose at the time was kidnapping my son.”

His resolve wavered. “The trees are taking children?”

“Just Andrew,” the widow replied. “Harvey tried to stop them when they tried to leave with our boy and that was when they… they…”

“I understand, ma’am.” Soothing widows in these situations was something Roy was more than familiar with and his tone turned gentle without conscious thought. “I’m very sorry for your loss.”

A silence settled over their group for a moment. Then Reeds broke it. “This brings us to the Brothers.”

Roy kept his attention on the widow and did his best to hide his exasperation. “Mrs. Blythe, the more of your family that is involved in this situation, the less I think you should go.”

“You don’t understand,” she said, a tinge of desperation working into her voice. “Thomas is fine, he’s still here at home. The problem is that they’re twins.”

“Of course.” Roy pinched the bridge of his nose. “Why does it matter that they’re twins?”

Marshall held up a fist. Then raised one finger, a second, and a third. Reeds nodded. “If you would allow me to start at the beginning and go in order?”

A groan set the worst of his frustration free of his stomach so Roy could sit more comfortably in his seat. “Fine. Go ahead.”

“In the high past there were two Sanna Wahnumpun brothers, twins that shared a face. As we do.” Reeds gestured to his brother. “And as Thomas and Andrew Blythe do. The names of these brothers were Yose and Mete.”

“Yose?” Roy frowned. “Like the geyser in the lake outside of town?”

“We will get there,” Reeds said. “Now Yose and Mete were loving brothers, more so than normal. But one day they hunted a stag and could not decide which of them would take the antlers. So they gave them to their mother, who fashioned them into a nawonota-“

“A what?”

“A ceremonial defense against ill spirits.” As his brother answered Marshall’s hands were sketching a complicated octagonal pattern on the table top. “Alone it has no remarkable properties but as part of a household’s mystic defenses it has considerable power. And because of the beauty of the stag’s antlers, both boys desired it.”

“Sibling rivalry can appear over anything, I suppose.”

“As you say. The brothers vied for their mother’s favor but she knew that giving either brother the nawonota would poison the affections of the other.”

Roy grunted. “A wise woman.”

“And yet even wisdom has its limits.” Reeds sighed. “Mete stole the treasure. His brother became furious and hunted Mete to this very mountain. They climbed to the top and struggled there. Finally Mete seized the nawonota from his brother and, in the process, fell from the mountain top to his death. Struck by grief but still burning with rage, Yose was transformed. We would say he became Vulna.”

Roy sucked in a deep breath. “An avatar. I’ve never heard of the Primordial Fire offering its blessings in circumstances like that.”

“Perhaps Yose was already one. There are other stories of the Brothers that tell of their great hunts. In some of the tales they already bore the blessings of the Vulna.” Reeds shrugged. “It is not a thing I know much about. Regardless, after his brother’s death Yose lost some part of himself. In despair he threw himself into the lake in an attempt to quench the flames but to this day he has not succeeded.”

That explained the geyser. Unlike blessings from the Lord in Raging Skies and Lady in Burning Stone, which were tools in the hands of the faithful and functioned only when called for, the powers given to avatars of the First Elements were wild and barely under human control, often actively working towards their own ends when not carrying out the duties the avatars set for them. And where the guardian deities of Avalon were creatures dedicated to building civilization the First Elements didn’t have any understanding of the concept, which was why so many in Avalon and Columbia viewed their avatars as quasi blasphemous. Roy knew the Sanna didn’t see things quite that way so he kept that thought to himself. “So you believe that Andrew Blythe’s kidnapping and this legend are tied in some way?”

“I don’t think it, I know it,” the widow said. “I’ve been to the Hearthfire and petitioned the Lady to cast Shadows. The result was clear and the Hearth Mother agreed with me. My boys have been tied to something ancient and powerful.”

Roy massaged his temples, dreading where this was going. He’d been around too long and seen too much to discount old legends out of hand. It was rare they were the way people remembered them, it was rarer still for them to contain no truth at all. And true or false, they were always powerful. “Far be it from me to doubt the Hearth Keepers,” Roy said. “I take it you’ve confirmed this outcome by your own means, Reeds?”

He held up the divining tool he’d shown in Grunt’s office. “I have.”

“And you,” he looked back to the widow, “think you have to go on this expedition because the mother was the peacekeeper between Yose and Mete.”

She made the Sign of the Hearth, saying, “The shadows ended with a vision of the creche. Clearly Our Lady in Burning Stone has appointed a mother to end this.”

That kind of clarity was precious rare in Roy’s experience, dangerous to those who had it and those who thought they had it in equal measure. “Have you ever gone to war, Mrs. Blythe?”

“I met my husband on the Palmyra Campaign, Mr. Harper.” She had the gall to look proud of that fact. “I was a Hearth Keeper traveling with the Columbian Regular Infantry’s Third Division.”

Which explained some of it. Most of the Third Division stopped on the Mukwonago river, holding the bridges open. They hadn’t seen the Five Ridges.

“You don’t wear the Keeper’s Veil. Why is that?”

To his surprise she blushed at the question. “Well, Harvey Blythe was an army captain, not from the Storm’s Watch.”

“Ah…” Roy understood the problem at once but he could see from the confused looks on Reeds and Marshall’s faces that they did not. “The Lord and Lady each have their own clergy, or spirit talkers as I think you would call them. The Storm’s Watch takes only men and they serve the Lord in Raging Skies, the Hearth Keepers are all women and serve the Lady in Burning Stone.”

Reeds leaned forward, looking skeptical. “And they are not allowed to take a husband or a wife?”

“Only if it’s from the opposite order,” Mrs. Blythe said with a tinge of regret. “Otherwise it’s a breach of the vows and we – they – can no longer serve.”

“There are many aspects to any sacred vow,” Roy murmured. “And at times you must choose which you will keep and which you will break. That’s a given when any creature as profane as a human being touches on anything as sacred as an oath.”

“You speak from experience?” Reeds asked.

Roy thought back to his oaths of enlistment. To his election as officer. To the many promises made to friends during dark days on the battlefield. To a fearsome covenant, sworn on a frigid morning in Leondale, during the Summer of Snow. “Yes. Very much so.”

The table was quiet as each of the four turned to their own thoughts. All of Roy’s instincts told him not to take a woman on what amounted to a suicide mission, particularly a woman with little arcane prowess and a deep seated grief on top of all of it. He wasn’t much of a learned man but he could tell that the circumstances on the other side of things balanced out that reluctance. Which left him with only his own judgment to rely on.

And with magic, particularly magic on the scale of a legend, it was better to be prepared than not. “Very well, Mrs. Blythe. If all you’ve told me is true I suppose we have no choice but to take you with us.” Marshall laughed his disconcerting, silent laugh and slapped Roy on the arm, then pointed at him emphatically. “Yes, Marshall, us. All things considered I suppose I’ll have to come along, too. So long as your son remains here in town and out of danger I’ll have to do my part to make sure Oldfathers keeps living up to his reputation as Orphanfree. Your sons won’t be orphans as long as I have a say.”

“We’re glad to have you, Mr. Harper,” Mrs. Blythe said.

“Don’t be.” Roy stood up gingerly, still favoring his right side, and straightened his jacket. “If Grunt’s serious about letting me run this show you’ll find I don’t play favorites and I don’t plan on making allowances for you just because you’re a woman.”

“I was under the impression Columbians were supposed to defer to ladies,” Reeds said.

“And we do. Lady is a behavior, not a state of being, and hunting wanted men through the mountains is not ladylike.” Roy started for the saloon door, then hesitated. “Which reminds me. Do any of you know where I can find Agent O’Hara?”

Firespinner Chapter Two – Orphanfree

Previous Chapter

Roy expected to wind up in the Woodsmen’s Guildhall, or maybe the back room of a local saloon. He hadn’t expected the offices of Nolan and Grunwald, Solicitors General. “I could see you with a bearded ax,” Roy said. “But Corporal Grunwald as an officer of the Court? Now that is truly shocking.”

“Anyone can slice trees,” Grunt said. “But there’s more to the business than that. And there’s more of a future to clerking, even in a place like this, than just cutting lumber day in and day out.”

The chair in front of Ben’s desk was plush and comfortable, cradling Roy’s abused back and sides in velvety softness. “This is mighty nice, Grunt. You done good for yourself.”

Grunt sat down in his chair and fished through the drawers of the desk. “That calls for a celebration. Still a whiskey man?”

“Gave it up years ago.”

He froze, looking like a child stealing sweets. “Oh?”

“Long story. I’d rather hear about why ensorcelled trees are attacking town on the regular. Based on how fast the guild responded this isn’t an isolated incident, is it?”

“It’s not.” Ben switched drawers but kept rummaging. “Give it five minutes? The Sanna boys are supposed to join us and I figured I could fill all of you in at once.”

Roy pondered that for a moment. He’d heard feelings about the Sanna were pretty strong up north, almost as strong as people felt about the Tetzlani down by the southern border. But Grunt didn’t seem concerned about two of them butting into Guild business. Either they were well known in town… or the situation was just that bad.

Maybe both.

“You know these two?”

“Not personally but the Guild Captain seems to think they’re trustworthy.” Ben shrugged. “He’s a good judge of people and I’ve never had any problems with the Sanna personally so I’m not that worried. Plus they live in town, not across the border in the Treaty Lands, so they can’t be that close to the local tribes.”

Roy’s brow furrowed. “Really? We’re a good day’s horse ride from the border, aren’t we?”

“Closer to two,” said a voice behind him.

Roy jerked up and out of the chair, yanking a bead of fire out of his cufflink and rolling it ready between finger and thumb of his right hand. Two tall, thin Sanna men stood in the doorway of the office, dressed in the tanned leather pants common to their people but wearing the collared denim shirts favored by most frontier Columbians. Neither one carried weapons. Roy blew a breath out, waited for his side to stop spasming and slipped the fire back into its home. “Hearthfires, you two give a man the frights.”

The Sanna in the lead inclined his head to one side, studying Roy with open curiosity. “You must be the man Mr. Grunwald was expecting today. Our counterpart in this task. Allow me to introduce my brother, Marsh Reeds, and myself, River Reeds.” Marsh held his hand palm out with all fingers pointed upwards in the traditional Sanna gesture of greeting. “He prefers to be called Marshall.”

“Does he now?” Roy studied the brothers a little closer and noted that, at a glance, the beaded belts they wore were the only way to tell them apart, for otherwise they were as alike as a man and his doppelganger. Although Marshall was most likely not a magical duplicate of his brother. “Does he speak for himself?”

“No.” Marshall laughed silently and his brother continued. “Please call me Reeds.”

“Roy Harper.” Roy folded his thumb over his first and last fingers, holding the middle two up to form a chimney and making the Sign of the Hearth. “Warm hearthfires, Mr. Reeds.”

Grunt cleared this throat. “Reeds is part of his given name, Roy, not a family name. Sanna names don’t work that way.”

“My mistake.” Roy lowered himself back into the chair, barely hiding a wince in the process. “We’re all here now, Grunt. Unless you want your Guild fixer here for the speech, too.”

“Not necessary. This is just so you three know what you’re up against.” Ben drew a wrinkled, tattered sheet of paper out of his desk and handed it to Reeds. “This man came through town five weeks ago. We think he’s been binding trees and sending them against the walls for the last month or so.”

Reeds handed the paper to his brother. “The land here is disturbed. The trees may be moving on their own, in response to it. Such is the way of the forest.”

“The Guild hedge mages haven’t noted any changes in the land in the past two months but the trees are far more aggressive than in the past. Something specific is riling them up and he’s the most likely person to do it.” Grunt pulled another sheaf of papers out. “I have the surveyor’s records if you want to look.”

“Unnecessary.” Reeds pulled out an odd, heavily carved stick from a pouch on his belt. “The land has changed in the last two moons but not in the lay of rivers or stones. In the lines of the spirit, which your hedge mages do not trace.”

The carvings on the stick seemed to move and shift of their own volition. Reeds held it up for them to study. “We can cast the kennet, if you wish.”

“I don’t doubt your divinations, Reeds. It’s true there are things in these hills the Sanna understand better than us.” Marshall passed the paper to Roy. “But our guest could easily be why-“

“Dust and ashes!” Roy recognized the paper immediately. He probably still had his own copy of it, somewhere in a trunk left from his army days. The Vulcanus Militia had printed thousands of them at the start of the Lakeshire War and many Columbian Regulars like himself had gotten copies when they took a hand in the conflict. A glance at the face in the center of the page was all it took for him to remember who it was. Major General, Sir Hezekiah Oldfathers, First in Line to Lordship of the Stone Circle, Knight of the Phoenixborn, Druid Emeritus of Lakeshire County, Columbia. Commanding officer, First Lakeshire Druidic Division. Once the second most powerful druid in the nation. Wanted traitor. 2,000 silver mark reward, dead or alive.

Roy threw the paper back on Grunt’s desk. “Orphanfree is here? Really, Grunt? Any other surprises I should know about? You don’t need two or three of us, you need the whole company back if you plan to take him on. Then at least they can bury us all in one place.”

“Orphanfree?” Reeds asked.

“He’s guaranteed to bury you before your parents, so you never have to worry about being an orphan,” Grunt explained. “Old fathers, young sons. That’s the joke.”

“It’s a joke?”

“No.” Roy snorted. “What next? You got a fourth Brother Walking hidden up here, too?”

“No giants, just the druid.” Grunt’s lips formed a humorless smile. “But we have the right person here for that, too.”

Roy leveled a finger at him. “Don’t you start.”

“The two of you know this man?”

“Not personally, Reeds,” Grunt said. “Just by reputation. He made a nasty one for himself during the war.”

“And before. And after.” Roy scowled. “This isn’t some druidic initiate, Grunt. Oldfathers came up during the golden era of Columbian druidry. If Morainehenge still stood today he’d be running it. He’s probably the most powerful and skilled druid left on this continent. You think he’s trying to level this town so you propose we go after him with five men?”

“Four, actually. Guild Agent O’Hara is a woman,” Reeds pointed out. Marshall nudged his brother. “Yes, fine. My brother would also like to include Widow Blythe.”

“I’m not sure-“

“No.” Roy cut Grunt off definitively. “We are not feeding a sixth person into the carnage, it is simply not going to help.”

“Harp.” Grunt gave his old friend a patient look. “It’s been ten years. General Oldfathers doesn’t have an army anymore and he’s not getting any younger.”

“Age and magic don’t tie together like age and strength, Grunt.”

“Plus we’ve got you and O’Hara so it’s not like we’re helpless on that score.”

Reeds cleared his throat. “I have some skill in the arcane as well. And the Widow was once in the service of your Lady in Burning Stone.”

“Outside of the cants and rituals I don’t think Hearthkeepers practice a whole lot of magic.”

“We’re talking about Orphanfree, Grunt,” Roy snapped. “It doesn’t matter if we’re all master vulcanists on a mountain covered in pine trees!”

“Fine. We’ll even the odds,” Grunt said, refusing to match Roy’s intensity. “You know plenty of other firespinners for hire. Go to the semaphore tower and sent a message to a few. Call up the Strongest Man-“

Roy got out of his seat even faster the second time, the pain in his side an echo to the thud of his fist on the desk. “Don’t say it. Ignis fatuus, Grunt, I know magic isn’t your thing but you should know creatures like that hear when you name them. And they’re likely to answer. Going to one, hat in hand, never solves problems.”

“Not even a problem like Orphanfree?”

“Oldfathers is just a man, Grunt. That isn’t, no matter what it’s called.”

“I’ll take your word for it, Harp.” Grunt sighed. “Listen, I asked for your help but there’s no hard feelings if you don’t want to. We’re not soldiers anymore. No one’s going to hold it against you if you decide to sit this one out.”

Roy pushed away from the desk with a grunt and smoothed the front of his jacket. “Fine. If that’s how it is, then that’s how it is. It was good to see you, Grunt, circumstances notwithstanding.”

Ben nodded once then turned his attention to Reeds. “Tell me about these divinations of yours, and what they suggest is going on up on the mountains.”

It was a dismissal and Roy knew it. He collected his hat from the rack and showed himself out of Grunt’s office. Marshall stared at him the entire way.

Firespinner Chapter One – Malice in the Pines

The afternoon sun struck Roy’s eyes the moment he stepped off the Argentum Express.

“Dust and ashes,” he muttered, jamming his derby hat onto his head to block the light. “Mountain air will be the death of me.”

The metal monstrosity of the sky train shifted and creaked as its frame cooled. Roy did his best to ignore it. In the recesses of his mind he knew exactly how much magic had lifted the Express off the ground in Leondale, how many sulfurite crystals had exhausted their fire to push it over the mountains to the head of the Mi-Tzi river. He also knew exactly how much power now bled from the bottom of the train’s cars behind him in smoke and embers, wasted. The fire whispered in the back of his mind. Told him it would gather if he willed it, begged him for purpose, for form, swore if he only gave in to his desire, the fire would burn it into reality.

But Roy Harper’s thoughts were his own. The fire was welcome in them only when invited and he hadn’t travelled here to burn. He’d come to work.

Roy straightened his jacket and crossed the platform towards town. The station was a few hundred feet outside of Yellowstone, connected to the town by a gravel path winding alongside the shores a of wide lake that took up the northern half of the valley. From the air the water had looked like an alien eye, a ring of reddish brown oxide deposits around a bright cyan pool with unfathomable depths at the center. But from the path the lake itself was little more than a strip of bright, rippling liquid below a picturesque landscape with the town walls giving way to the rising ridges of the Yellowstone mountains. In spite of the clear day down below gathering clouds hid the upper peaks from view. For a moment Roy enjoyed the simple pleasures of the natural world.

“Hungry tree! Hungry tree!”

Roy’s head snapped around, scanning for danger. Deep in his gut he felt something was wrong, something beyond the obvious, which was a twenty foot pine tree that had lurched out of the tree line and was rapidly closing on the stream of passengers making their way to Yellowstone. The tree’s roots thumped and slithered over the ground like dozens of crazed snakes. Loose stones and uprooted grass flew behind it, kicked up by the fast moving appendages.

The crowd of passengers panicked.

Most of the crowd saw the tree and bolted for town. Yellowstone’s ten foot tall earthworks were enough to stop most trees and Leroy could see the guard patrols atop it to fend off anything the walls alone wouldn’t deter so heading for town was a sensible move. More foolhardy souls drew weapons and formed a ragged line between the tree and the rest of the crowd.

Roy saw the telltale flares of light as two spadroons and one sword cane ignited. The weapons were deadly enough, even in untrained hands, but only against human targets. Trees were another matter. They were too hard to cut or stab effectively, had no vitals to target and sap prevented their burning easily. If you really wanted to threaten them a heavy ax was the surest bet.

That, or a fire bordering on an inferno.

Roy glanced back at the train, a few dozen feet back, opened his mind and made the invitation. Every sulfurite crystal in the cars thrummed in response. Streams of fire burst from under the train, forming into a spiraling funnel until they merged into a single, serpentine torrent. Roy turned and dashed towards the tree, the fire trailing behind, eagerly responding to his thoughts of the winding river he’d flown over for the past several hours.

Ahead, the situation had gotten much worse. An arm in a gray sleeve stuck out from under a tangle of roots, a still burning cane sword lying on the ground a few feet away. One of the men with spadroons was trying to work his way around to the trapped man while the other was swinging frantically at the tree’s waving branches in an attempt to get its attention. Roy slowed and reevaluated his strategy. Flashburning the tree wasn’t an option now, in fact he’d pulled too much fire from the train to attack without hurting the trapped man.

A wave of the hand split the flames in half and Roy scattered what he didn’t need into the grass along the path. That would keep it going for a minute or two if he needed to come back for it. The man working around the side of the tree jumped away from the unexpected spray of flames. Seeing that, Roy tweaked the placement of the fires just enough to keep him separate from the tree. That gave him enough room to work. The rest of the fire got crushed down into a bead as small as Roy’s pinky joint that he wove through the flailing branches.

Touched against the trunk of the tree.

And let go.

The resulting explosion blew two of the lower branches off of the pine and sent it slowly toppling over. Through sheer force of will Roy shaped the explosion up and away from the trapped man and the effort left him winded. It wasn’t a simple matter for a downed tree to get upright again but it was possible and the pine immediately set about it, branches waving in erratic spasms that set the trunk undulating like a snake. Roy grabbed the grass fires back up, still advancing, and dumped the flame on the tree’s upper branches, spreading the pain out. Then one of the men still on their feet joined the effort, his spadroon tossing out angry gouts of fire in short, fat bursts.

But, while needles blackened and bark charred, the pine refused to burn.

Roy dashed past the downed man as the other spadroon wielder vented and sheathed his weapon, dragging the injured man out of the way. The pine’s roots dug into the ground and the massive tree nearly spasmed fully upright again. Fire wasn’t going to keep it down. For a moment Roy considered trying his bone bead necklace but decided that, given the circumstances, adding snow to the equation was counterproductive. So he finished pulling on his dueling gloves, the heavy leather supple and familiar in his hands, then drew his last card to play.

The dagger over his left hip came free with a soft rasp. Dead iron, cold wrought in the old style, forced into the shape of a weapon by naught but a hammer and human will.

Forged to kill magic in all it’s forms.

And life was the highest form of all.

Branches flailed wildly but Roy slipped past them and plunged the tip of the dagger down into the trunk of the tree with all his weight behind it. The tree bent almost double with a tortured groan, folding until up around the dagger like a book, then snapped straight, fast as a jumping spider. Its trunk smashed into Roy and sent him flying through the air. He didn’t remember landing.

As he lay staring up at the sky, feeling the waves of the lake lapping in his hair, he felt it again. Something about the tree was off. Or maybe it was just his ribs, which he felt throbbing with every heartbeat. Whatever the matter was, it would have to wait. He bolted back to his feet, viciously pushing his complaining ribs to the back of his mind, expecting to find the last two passengers at the mercy of the tree.

Instead he found the tree struggling to do anything with half its roots cut away. Two woodsmen were cleaving through its branches, their heavy bearded axes propelled in complex, lethal cutting patterns by gouts of fire blasting from the back of the ax heads. The gleaming bronze blades never stopped moving and, in the time it took Roy to stagger out of the lake and across the gravel path, the tree toppled to the ground a final time.

Twitched once.

And didn’t move again.

After a moment’s pause the woodsmen moved in and began hacking the tree to pieces, stripping the branches from the trunk with shocking speed. Roy swayed on his feet, caught his breath and wiped water out of his eyes. Turned out his hair was soaked. He took the handkerchief out of the breast pocket in his vest and ran it through his sopping locks then looked around for his hat. Found it in the grass beside the gravel pathway, dusted it off and put it back on. And went to talk to his employer.

“That you, Grunt?” He rasped out as he got close to the woodsmen.

The bigger of the two paused in hacking the tree to pieces just long enough to glance at Roy. “Up already, Harp? You need to learn to take it easy.”

Roy took a deep breath; quashed a wince as his ribs twinged extra hard. “Easy is for old men.”

A final swing of the ax cut the top third of the tree away. Ben Grunwald slung his weapon over his shoulder and grinned. “That’s what I’m trying to say, Harp.”

“Bite your tongue, kid.”

Grunt laughed and shouldered his ax. “You’re only a year older than me, Harp.”

Roy looked along the trunk and found his knife. One attempt was all it took to realize he couldn’t bend down and retrieve it.

Grunt’s companion reached down to grab it for him. “Gloves!” Grunt snapped. “That’s an iron dagger, Will. Put on gloves! Dust and ashes, man, look at the way it’s burned into the bark.”

Will hesitated, embarrassed. Roy resisted the urge to join in with Grunt. Yes, the the dagger had sapped the magic out of a two foot section of the trunk leaving it gray and lifeless but it was hard to pick the damage out of all the burns they’d left on the runaway plant.

The kid fished a pair of thick work gloves out of a pocket, yanked the implement free and handed it back to Roy with a sheepish look. He couldn’t have been more than half Roy’s age, probably somewhere around fourteen or fifteen, but even so he was big and strong, standing a full hand taller than Roy was. Most men were taller than Roy, of course, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t annoyed by it.

He snatched the dagger back from Will and put it back into its sheath then looked around for any further complications. Patches of fire still burned in the grass. A quick thought rounded all of them up into a small, angry red orb. Since it was a long walk back to the train and he couldn’t keep control of the flames over that long a distance Roy settled for channeling the remaining firepower into the sulfurite crystals in his cufflinks. They’d needed topping off after the long train ride anyways.

The three other passengers that fought with the tree looked like they were going to be okay, though the man in gray who got trapped under the pine’s roots had some nasty bruises and limped a bit. Then again, Roy was feeling much the same and he expected to make a full recovery. The rest of the passengers who’d run for it were out of sight, presumably safe inside Yellowstone’s earthworks.

“You some kind of wizard?” Will asked, watching Roy from the corner of his eyes.

Roy snorted. “Do I look like I’m coalstoking Dutch?”

Grunt laughed. “It’s the way you dress, Harp. The only people this far north who bother with those fancy suits of yours are the pompous types. ‘Course he thought you’re a wizard.” Grunt threw an arm over Roy’s shoulders and thumped him on the chest, which hurt but Roy ignored. It wasn’t as bad as the flannel of his bright red shirt scratching against Roy’s face. “But Harp’s just been touched by some druid nonsense, just like I was. Except it made me bigger and taller and it made him angry.”

“If I was as angry as all that you wouldn’t have that arm.” Roy shrugged Grunt’s arm off and straightened his suit. It was tailored but made of cotton and he didn’t think it was all that fancy.

“But what about…” Will waved his hands theatrically towards the scorch marks on the ground.

“Don’t worry about it,” Roy grumbled. “Grunt, you got some kind of druid or medicine man in town? That tree didn’t seem like it was running wild.”

Grunt glanced back towards town, where a larger party of woodsmen were coming out through the main gate to come meet them. Then he turned to his companion and gestured to the loose pile of wood that had once been a tree, still twitching but too small to move or think on its own anymore. “Will, lash up that lumber and help the boys get it back to town.”

The unspoken message came through loud and clear. Roy should ask again in private. “Am I the only one you invited to this little party?”

“The only one who said he was coming. We might see Van Der Klein or Cain, but they never said one way or another.”

“Klein ain’t coming. He just got married two months ago.”

Ben’s jaw dropped. “What?”

“Books tried to get ahold of you but you weren’t at your last three addresses.” Roy looked out at the scenic mountain peaks and the menacing forest line. “He didn’t know you put on the flannel and came up here to cut trees.”

“Ignis fatuus.” Grunt looked dejected. “Can’t believe I missed that.”

“Speaking of-” Roy began to reach into his jacket then gasped as pain shot through his side.

“Let’s get you back to town,” Grunt said. “The Woodsman’s Guild has someone to look at that for you.”

They started down the path to Yellowstone again. Roy managed to get the package out of his pocket after a moment. Thankfully it didn’t look damaged from the fight. “Books sent me your mail and asked me to bring it to you.”

Grunt took it with a grin. “He can’t stop with the sending things, can he? Natural born quartermaster. Seen him recently?”

“At the wedding.”

“Is he doing well?”

“He’s fatter than ever and still making money hand over fist.” Roy shook his head in disgust. “Who knew there was so much wealth in selling beans to the old continent.”

“Chocolate ain’t just any beans, Harp.”

“I suppose.” There was a gurgling, coughing noise then an enormous pillar of water shot up out of the lake. “Dust and ashes, what is that?”

“Yose’s Heartbeat,” Grunt said. “As the locals call it. It’s a geyser in the lake that erupts every morning, afternoon and witching hour.”

“Lovely.”

“Anyway, even if Cain doesn’t come-“

“Cain’s not coming.”

Grunt gave him an odd look. “Was he getting hitched, too?”

“There’s a price on his head. He’d be stupid to show his face around anyone from the unit.”

“A price…” Grunt sighed. “What’s he wanted for?”

“Killed a woman down in Winchester County.”

“So it finally came to that.” Grunt shook his head. “Well, you’re right, we probably won’t see him then.”

“We’d better not. If I see his worthless face I’ll cremate him myself.”

They walked in uncomfortable silence for a long moment. Then Grunt gathered himself and said, “Well, you were the only one who came but that’s all right. The Guild brought in a fixer and two of the local Sanna are pitching in. Five should be enough.”

“Let’s hope so.”

Grunt laughed. “You make it sound like you already know what the job is.”

Roy looked over his shoulder at the woodsmen gathering up the downed tree. He wasn’t an expert but he was fairly certain it was too small to be thinking and moving on its own in the first place. And even if it was big enough to move itself trees knew better than to stray too close to human habitation. There was no reason for it to get that close to Yellowstone unless it was ensorcelled. “I might have a guess or two at that…”