Night Train to Hardwick Chapter Seven – Samuel Jenkins

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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 Five – Echoes of Treason

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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

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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 Chapter Two – The Face of Death

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Roy was pounding on the door of the second compartment down when he realized the Fairchilds had followed him. He caught sight of them out of the corner of his eye as they approached and he shook his head. “What do you two think you’re doing?”

“If you’re a railway inspector I think you’d know,” Brandon said. “Nosiness is a part of life on a train.”

Any rejoinder Roy wanted to make was cut off when the compartment door popped open and a worried father peered out, his family in a worried huddle behind him on one of the compartment’s couches. “What’s going on?” The man asked. “Who are you?”

“Roy Harper, Packard Railway Detectives,” Roy said, pointing towards the medallion he was wearing. “Did you hear a scream just now?”

The father nodded as his wife pointed to the wall rearward and said, “It sounded like it came from there.”

“Thank you,” Roy said. “Please stay in your compartment for now. I’ll send the conductor by when we’ve determined everything’s all right.”

He turned and headed towards the next compartment, looking over his shoulder at his erstwhile compartment mates. “I don’t suppose you’ll remain in your compartment as well?”

“Is that an order, Inspector?” Brandon’s sister asked.

“No, Miss Fairchild-”

“Cassandra, please.”

That took Roy a bit aback, he’d heard the Avaloni were sticklers for propriety with names and stations. Maybe there was some nuance to it that Columbia had forgotten. “It’s not an order, Miss Cassandra,” he said, “just a strong suggestion. And the title is Detective. The Creighton Railway Inspectors don’t like us getting confused, although as I see it that would help their business.”

The siblings shared an unreadable look, the kind close knit families tended to use when they needed to communicate some simple thought quickly, without wasting time on things like words. “I’m aware this is your duty,” Brandon said gently, “but perhaps we could be of some assistance. We’re no strangers to trouble on the sky train.”

“I’m sure you’re capable of taking care of yourself,” Roy said, glancing at the saber in Brandon’s belt subconsciously, “but the Packards are trained and competent to protect others and the train itself when it’s airborn. So I’d appreciate it if you’d return to your compartment. The last thing I want is a druid knocking us out of the coalstoking sky.”

He cut off Brandon’s attempt at answering by banging on the next door down the corridor. To his annoyance the Fairchilds remained in the passage but he wasn’t willing to escalate the matter. Not only wouldn’t it help him discover the source of the scream they’d heard, he actively wanted to avoid dealing with druids as much as possible. Not just because it was a healthy lifestyle – he had little patience for such things in his day to day – but because he’d spent enough time in the last week doing just that and he was ready for a break.

The compartment door opened before his thoughts could run further down that rabbit hole, revealing an ashen faced boy of maybe thirteen years. His stringy brown hair hung nearly to his shoulders in disheveled locks. He was dressed in a rumpled brown shirt with no collar over ill fitting denim pants held up by worn red suspenders. Roy immediately recognized him, not personally but for what he was. The other two children in the compartment wore equally rough clothing and looked about the same age. The boy looked up at Roy, licked his lips and asked, “Can I help you, sir?”

Roy removed his hat and said, “Everything all right in there, son? The neighbors said they heard screaming.”

The boy gestured behind him where the other two, both girls in simple, faded dresses, clung to each other. One had short black hair and a tear stained face, the other a stringy redhead with an apologetic expression. “Sorry, sir,” the redhead said. “We think Olivia had a nightmare. She’s… she’s new.”

“What does that-” Roy put a hand in Brandon’s chest and pushed him another step back into the passage. Once both hand and man were out of sight of the girls, Roy pointed emphatically back up the passage towards their compartment.

“Where’s your Hearth Keeper, son?” Roy asked, trying his best to tune out the whispered conversation in the hall behind him.

“She’s in the second public car,” the boy said. “She was going to say the evening cant.”

“Couple of hours late for that,” Roy muttered. Then returned his attention to the children. “But you don’t see anything wrong with the young miss?”

The dark haired girl – Olivia – made an effort to pull herself together. Her lips quivered a bit but she managed to point to the seat across from her and say, “I saw it. There was a dead man in that seat.”

The redhead put a hand on her head, ducking it down a bit. “I’m sorry, sir. Her parents… were in a fire, two months ago. She’s had nightmares for-”

“But he was stabbed!” Olivia wailed. “I don’t know who he was, but it wasn’t Ma or Pa or…” the girl’s voice slipped from coherence into meaningless grief.

“I’m sorry, sir,” the boy said. “She’s not-”

“I understand, son.” Roy donned his hat and stepped out of the doorway. “Do you want me to fetch the Hearth Keeper for you?”

“Excuse me, Mr. Harper?”

Roy took a deep breath and marshaled his patience. At moments like this the whisper of fire running through the body of the train seemed to grow to a shout, telling him the simplest way to solve his problems was to burn them all away. But the role of magic was to listen to him, not the other way around. “What is it, Miss Cassandra?”

“Could I speak to Miss Olivia? There’s a chance she didn’t dream what she saw.”

“I didn’t!” The girl exclaimed, the vote of confidence restoring enough self control to make her coherent again.

There was definitely something out of true in that compartment, whether the young girl was having nightmares about her parents or seeing visions of stranger things, and it was technically Roy’s responsibility to sort it out, at least to the point where he could determine if it was a danger to the train or its passengers. It wasn’t his favorite thing to do but he kept his Packard license for a reason and until he was ready to give it up there wasn’t much choice in the matter. “We’ll go and speak to the Hearth Keeper, then. What’s your name, son?”

The boy started a bit, apparently not expecting to be called on. “Clark, sir.”

“All right, Clark.” He pulled the aluminum medallion off his neck and dropped it into the boy’s hand. “I want you to hold on to that. If anyone comes to your door and checks on you, show them that and tell them I gave it to you while I went to get your Hearth Keeper. All right?”

Clark’s eyes practically bulged out of his head. “Don’t you need this to fly, sir?”

“You can’t fly just by holding a chunk of aluminum, son,” Roy said with a laugh. “You need a lot more of it than that, plus a furnace of fire to empower it. So don’t go getting ideas. Just hang on to that, and know the Packards are looking out for you. We’ll be right back.”

The door swung closed behind him as he started towards the back of the train. The footsteps of the Fairchild siblings fell in behind him. “That was kind of you,” Cassandra said. “They’re all quite lonely and the gift helped. Who are they?”

“Orphans.” Roy waved a hand to encompass the train. “It’s not uncommon for rail lines to offer open space on trains to orphanages, who can send their older children along the route in an attempt to find them living situations. Unfortunately out here there’s always a disaster or plague or Sanna raid or rogue elemental to generate a new crop of kids like them, and we can’t do much but try and place the more independent ones quickly.”

Roy opened the door to the railcar, suspending the conversation as the three of them crossed the wooden boards between the cars. The wind of their thirty mile an hour passage, whistling through the enchanted tin safety mesh, combined with the creaking of the bronze links holding the boards in place and the cars together, made any attempt to talk futile. Only once they were safely inside the first public car, picking their way through the benches, did Brandon speak again.

“I’m surprised I never noticed one of these groups before.”

“We don’t advertise they’re here,” Roy said, giving a meaningful look around the car. Most people ignored them, which was the polite thing to do, but he still didn’t want to bring attention to the large group of children with only two supervisors onboard. “Although the Packards don’t really have a hand in these groups.”

“You’re a Packard, can’t you at least interview one of them?” Brandon asked, sounding skeptical.

“On the strength of Miss Cassandra’s request? No. Besides, I’d prefer not to step on the toes of their caretakers.” He glanced around the train car but didn’t see anyone under the age of fifteen that wasn’t with a family. He still dropped his tone a couple of degrees. “Besides, those kids have been through enough, they don’t need strangers inserting themselves into their lives willy nilly.”

“Willy nilly?” Cassandra asked.

“Yes. Lacksidaisical.”

“Of course.”

The Fairchilds finally stopped asking questions, for which Roy was grateful. They crossed the rest of the car and into the next in silence.

The occupants of the next car all stared at them as they entered, which was odd but not as odd as the way everyone was packed into the back of the seating benches, with four or even five young children crammed into benches meant for two. A middle aged woman in the red and brown robes of the Hearth Keepers was on the left hand side, the youngest children clinging to her. On the right, near the middle of the compartment, was a man about the same age in the gray and blue of the Storm Watch. He was frantically waving them away, eyes roaming through an area halfway between him and the front of the car.

A semitransparent man sat on a bench in that area, his ghostly innards piled around his feet, a bitter expression on his face. When Roy met his eyes the specter’s face morphed into a chilling smile. “Lieutenant Harper.” The ghost’s whisper seemed to reach every corner of the car. “We meet again.”

Night Train to Hardwick Chapter One – Private Compartment

Brandon woke to the sound of a polite, forceful knock at the door of his compartment. The sound of muffled voices in the passage of the train car were too indistinct to make out in its entirety but he picked up the voice of the conductor saying, “very full,” “no vacancies” and “very personable.” A second voice replied but the only thing Brandon caught was “sleep.”

Brandon gently moved his sister’s head off of his shoulder, taking care not to interrupt her rest, and propped her in the corner of the compartment’s north couch then he got to his feet with equal care. After years traveling the Columbian West he was as used to standing on a flying train as stable ground. The train felt momentarily odd under his feet, not bucking and swaying, which meant they must have come to a station while he was sleeping.

The conductor greeted him with his customary attempt at a cheerful smile, the round man’s salt and pepper beard splitting into an unpleasant display of teeth and gums. “Mr. Fairchild, I hope you’re having a pleasant evening.”

“Pleasant enough, sir. May I ask where we’re grounded?”

“Sanford’s Run,” the conductor replied. “I was hoping to talk to you about your compartment.”

“You’d like us to share.” Brandon didn’t phrase it as a question. In fact it was something they’d been asked to do several times while crossing the West.

The conductor stepped to one side, revealing a shortish man in a well tailored but weathered brown suit and a battered derby hat with a set of heavy leather saddlebags slung over one shoulder. “This gentleman transferred to this line on his way to Hardwick station and asked for a private compartment, but I’m afraid they’re all occupied.”

“And we’re two in a compartment that seats four,” Brandon said.

“If you don’t want to share I can easily close my eyes in a public car,” the newcomer said. “It’s barely eight hours to Hardwick, I can find a hotel there to catch up on my sleep.”

“Not at all necessary,” Brandon said, reaching back to open the door to the compartment. “Happy to share. I’m Brandon Fairchild.”

“Roy Harper.” He followed just behind Brandon, setting his battered saddlebags on the compartment’s southern couch across from Cassandra. Harper’s glance fell on her and a glint of sharp interest appeared in his eyes. He swiveled to study Brandon, then back to Cassie. “Your sister?”

It wasn’t hard to make that connection, to be honest. They had the same round face, though she wore it better than he did, and the same straight, dirty blonde hair, and they were only three years apart in age. But Brandon let that fact pass, only saying, “So she is.”

The sharp look vanished and Harper grunted. “You don’t sound like any Columbian I’ve met,” he said as he settled onto the other couch. “You two from Avalon? Maybe somewhere on the Continent?”

“We’re Avaloni.” Brandon sat as well. “We’ve been taking the sights of your lovely country for some time now.”

Harper nodded lazily. “Then you don’t need me to tell you to watch your back. The West isn’t very hospitable to anyone, I’m afraid.”

With that Harper leaned back on the couch, pulled his hat down over his face and was asleep before the sky train lifted off ten minutes later. Brandon marveled at the accomplishment. Even after a year and a half of regular travel by sky train, falling asleep on one was a challenge for him. Harper didn’t even stir during the rough takeoff procedures.

Cassie wasn’t so lucky, starting awake as the train lurched off the ground with a deep, haunting whistle blast. She looked around, eyes bleary, but took Harper’s sudden appearance in the compartment in stride. In a soft tone she murmured, “We have a guest.”

“He came on at the last station,” Brandon said. “Seems harmless enough and he’s planning on getting off at the next station. Speaking of plans, any new insights?”

She shook her head, turning glum. “Nothing. I know we were supposed to take this train but still no idea of when we should get off.” Cassandra took a deep breath and slowly let it out, then wiped her face with her handkerchief. “Sometimes I wonder if this trip is a waste of time.”

“Well it’s only three days back to Stillwater and the Coastal Express, if we turn around at the next station,” Brandon said in a comforting tone. “Maybe you’ll catch wind of a new tune to run down.”

But his sister wasn’t having it. “Not this train. The entire trip. In two weeks I’ll be seventeen and still chasing half heard echoes through the middle of nowhere.”

Brandon shifted uncomfortably and eyed Harper on the opposite couch. The newcomer looked like he was still asleep but Brandon pitched his voice even softer still. “No one questioned your calling at the time, Cassie. Not you, not even Father. What’s changed between now and then?”

“We left home nearly two years ago. We’ve been running around Columbia for more than a year and a half and we’re still empty handed. What have we accomplished, besides nearly getting killed half a dozen times?” Under normal circumstances Cassie could have laughed that off. Under stress her shortcomings would anger her and motivate her to set them right. But today for some reason she sounded outright despondent and it worried him.

So Brandon put his arm over her shoulder and pulled her in tight. “Cassie. You know this whole thing is just a lark for me. Almost no one gets sent out a questing these days, but you got a genuine revelation and I got a chance to get out of sleepy old Avalon and see the world. Sure, I have to see it with my least favorite sister-”

“Only sister.”

“-but everything requires some sacrifice.” He could see his teasing wasn’t having the desired effect. He adjusted to a more serious tone. “You have a chance to really accomplish something here, Cassie. The search hasn’t been easy so far but I’m sure, if you stick it out, you’ll finish quite well.”

“Making myself a spinster in the process.” It was a line of thought they’d covered often in the last six months.

Unfortunately Brandon didn’t have a single sensible reply to it. So he tucked his sister in a little closer and rubbed her back in a comforting fashion. At this point there was little left to be said on the topic for either of them.

So they sat in silence and lost themselves in the rocking of the train, tuning out questions, doubts and the presence of a total stranger as they slowly drifted off to sleep.

Only to jolt awake as a scream cut through the train car. Brandon reached up and grasped the hilt of his saber, resting on the baggage shelf overhead, and looked to the door of the compartment. To his surprise he saw Roy Harper already standing there, pulling on a pair of dueling gloves. Brandon struggled to his feet and pulled his sword from under his carpet bag still sheathed. “Hear anything, Mr. Harper?”

“Nothing,” Harper replied. “Stay in here, I’ll go and take a look.”

Brandon pulled his hip satchel off the shelf and selected an eighteen inch stick of yew from inside it and tucked it into his belt of woven roots. “Stay? Why’s that?”

“What are you planning to do if you come?” Harper asked.

“Render aid. If necessary, break up a fight or do a little of it myself.” Brandon glanced at Roy’s left side meaningfully. “What exactly are you planning to do if it comes to that?”

Harper snorted, checked the fit of his gloves and twitched his suit jacket aside just long enough to draw a black dagger from a hip sheath concealed beneath. It had the look of iron, although it was hard to be sure and with the metal’s magic killing properties Brandon was in no hurry to find out. “I can take care of myself. And more importantly, I can take care of this. It’s kind of my job.”

And he pulled a circular medallion with a star made of crisscrossing railway tracks from one pocket and dropped it around his neck before stepping out into the passage way. Brandon glanced at Cassie. “A railway inspector. I was not expecting that.”

“I admit, he doesn’t exactly fit with the others we’ve met,” she said. “Are we going to wait here?”

“Have we ever?”

But Cassie was already getting to her feet and the two of them followed Harper out into the hall.